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Monday, November 23, 2015

Spotlight: Best Film of 2015

"Spotlight" is the best film of 2015 and I will be disappointed if it does not receive the Academy Award for Best Picture. As good as it is, it is just one step short of greatness.

"Spotlight" depicts Boston Globe reporters investigating priest sex abuse of children. "Spotlight" focuses like a laser on what it is to be a journalist, to consider whether or not to cover a story, to select it, to research it, to uncover piece-by-piece, a full narrative, to publish it and to live with the consequences of publication.

You don't learn about the reporter's personal lives except for what you see incidentally as they work at home. There is no romantic subplot; there are no trumped-up action scenes where a reporter punches a priest. There's actually one of those scenes, no doubt a self-conscious salute to classic newspaper films, where you see newspapers being run through one of those giant machines that rapidly prints, folds, and stacks hard copies.  

I've never seen a film in which I liked these actors more: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Len Cariou. Lesser known actors in minor roles are every bit as good. There is no Hollywood in these performances. There's no sexy costumes or makeup, no grandstanding for the Academy. The actors are dressed in the workaday attire of newspapermen and women. Much of the film takes place in a grubby shared office full of sloppy manila file folders or in cafes and working class neighborhoods where informants are interviewed. Each performer plays a cog in a giant wheel working to uncover evil. None of them knows about world-shaking scandal still to come, or Pulitzer Prizes. They are just, with a pair of tweezers, turning over one leaf and seeing what lies beneath and adding that to the information already gathered. Even though viewers already know how this story played out in real life, the audience gasps when a discovery is made; the audience fears that a rock will be thrown through a window; the audience fears that judicial complicity will keep the story hidden. I began crying half an hour into the film. I was crying at the end. I made audible "Huh!" noises at especially and outrageously ironic moments, as did others in the audience. We applauded at the film's conclusion.  

The film opens with a child in a police station, accompanied by his parents and a priest. A lawyer enters. Everyone speaks in hushed tones. "I promise this will never happen again." The police are cynical. The lawyer is smooth. The child is crushed. The parents are heartbroken. The priest appears slickly demonic. The scene is anonymous. Events like this were repeated at least a thousand times.

July, 2001. The Boston Globe acquires its first Jewish editor, Martin Baron. The Spotlight team is considering following up a case of priestly sex abuse. Slowly but surely, they discover that there are far more incidences than suspected. They discover not just one bad apple here and there. Rather, Cardinal Law has reassigned abusive priests to new parishes. Baron meets with Law. Law presents Baron with a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

"Spotlight" mentions "Good Germans" – people who kept their eyes closed to the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors, and the sudden appearance of ash falling from the sky. Just so, there were many "Good Bostonians." It's sickening to confront the many who had awareness of priestly sex abuse and did nothing. Targeted kids were powerless and without allies. One had a schizophrenic mother. Some had absentee fathers. Some were gay. Many were from the wrong side of the tracks. After they were abused, some became alcoholics, drug addicts, or suicides. When SNAP activist Phil Saviano is invited to the Boston Globe's office, and he talks about a conspiracy to protect abusive priests that stretches all the way to the Vatican, he comes across as a twitchy, obnoxious, conspiracy theorist raving about Area 51 – someone easy to write off.

The most nauseating reason of all given for ignoring clergy sex abuse: money. The Globe could have covered clergy sex abuse earlier, but it didn't. Over fifty percent of the paper's subscribers are Catholics. Boston is a small town, with a lot of insular Irish Catholics who don't want anyone rocking the boat, or risking various money streams, including the church's significant charity work.

Especially poignant are the scenes where abuse survivors are encouraged to detail what happened to them. "It's not enough to say he molested you. You must give me the clinical details of exactly what happened," reporters insist, to sobbing survivors, who must then re-inhabit their worst memories.

The plot churns forward with the single line of a freight train running on schedule. I was never bored.

The priestly sex abuse crisis is not a tragedy because the Catholic Church is corrupt. The priestly sex abuse crisis is a tragedy because the Catholic Church is great. The film could have become better than it is had it included this theme. Show Catholics feeding the homeless. Show Catholics recovering from grief with the support of their faith. Show Cardinal Law for what he once was – a courageous hero in the Civil Rights movement, when that meant receiving death threats and alienating the powerful. That something so beautiful is so sullied, along with individual victims' pain, is the heart of this tragedy.

I am a lifelong, church-going Catholic. I present my reasons for being Catholic, in spite of everything, in my book "Save Send Delete." I salute, not boycott, the Globe's reporting, and films like this. Confession and redemption are gifts we shared with the world.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Starbucks Cups, Christmas, and Christians

Hey, Facebook friend.

Starbucks. Christians. Christmas. It's annoying you.

Why are those Christians so thin-skinned and frivolous? Why are they all upset about Starbucks Christmas cups? You posted about this. You.

I'm a Christian. I didn't post about Starbucks cups. You didn't notice.

Here's what I did post about.

I posted about how ISIS has captured Christian women and girls and sold them as sex slaves.

You ignored that post.

I posted about how ISIS lined up 21 Egyptian Coptic Christian men on a beach in Libya and decapitated them on camera. Part of an ongoing war against Christians in Muslim countries.

You ignored that post.

I posted about an American professor named Dr. Mike Adams. He, like many American professors, was an atheist. He was praised and promoted. He converted to Christianity. After that, his career was sabotaged by his Christophobic colleagues and superiors. The anti Christian bigotry he faced was so bad he sued, and won.

You ignored that post.

Let's recap. You are claiming that Christians are frivolous asses because they are paying attention to a coffee cup. The only reason I, a Christian, know about that is because I read about it in your Facebook feed. YOU are the one obsessing about a coffee cup. Frivolous hypocrite much?

And you ignore posts about grotesque and local human rights abuses because they happen to be against Christians, and you don't give a fig about Christians. Bigot, much?

I wish I knew a nicer way to phrase this. But maybe I don't have to worry about that because you probably don't read my posts. Interacting with a real, live Christian would probably feel really icky to you.

Have a nice day.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Oatmeal and the Meaning of Life

I've been at war with oatmeal all my life.

I eat oatmeal because I'm a good little girl. It is cheaper than packaged cereal, it is whole grain, and it contains no added sugar or salt or fat. It is also diverse, multicultural, and tolerant.

But it always boils over. Makes the pot hard to clean. Makes the cheapo Chinese stove top a mess.

After all the events of the previous years, which got me thinking a lot about my own death, I contemplated how much time and energy I devoted to cleaning boiled-over oatmeal from pots, stovetop, and the underside of the stove. it was my own existential crisis.

I think questions like this are part of the reason that people don't take women's writing seriously. Alexander the Great, a man, wept when he realized that he had no more worlds to conquer. Me, a woman, I wept, metaphorically, over spilled oatmeal.

So today I'm trying something new. I'm using a pot that is so huge I'm hoping the oatmeal won't make it up the sides of the pot.

Working so far.

I found this quote on the web. No idea if it is accurate:

"Adding a starchy substance such as rice or noodles [or oatmeal] to boiling water increases the surface tension of the water. When it's just plain water boiling the surface tension of the water can't hold back the force of the steam rising and the bubbles burst. Starches increase this surface tension making the bubbles more elastic/pliable (essentially creating a foam), thus requiring more force for them to burst. This makes the bubbles last longer which allows them to build up and eventually boil over."

Friday, November 6, 2015

Bliss (Mutluluk) 2007 Turkish Film

"Bliss" (Mutluluk) 2007 is the very best new movie I've seen in years, an enthralling, exquisite, moving, important film. Given current trends, I can't imagine a mainstream American film being this brave, this engaging, and this pertinent. If you are a thinking, feeling movie fan, see "Bliss." You won't regret it.

Some reviews make "Bliss" sound like a National Geographic documentary about exotic foreigners, or an essay about honor killing, or a stab at Muslim-Western clashes, or a slide show of exotic Turkish locales. "Bliss" is none of those things. It is a movie-movie, a film that sucked me into its world and made me forget my surroundings; "Bliss" made me love and care about the characters onscreen from its opening shots. I was, at times, on the edge of my seat; I cried; I shouted at the screen; my palms sweat. After the film was over, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I wanted to grab all my movie fan friends and demand that they see it and that we sit up all night talking about it.

That I loved the characters is testimony to how powerful this film is. Cemal (Murat Han), the main character, is a returning Turkish solider who's been off fighting terrorists. (The terrorists in question may be Kurds pressing for an independent Kurdish state, but the film never names them.) Cemal broods much, smiles little, carries a gun, suffers from PTSD, and is plagued by nightmares. He slavishly accepts, from his father, the all-powerful headman of his village, the job of honor killing his distant cousin, Meryem (Ozgu Namal), a naïve village girl who has been raped. Cemal is a genuinely scary guy. He curses at Meryem, denouncing her as a "whore" and a "bitch." He slaps her. In some very tense scenes, he reveals himself quite ready to, and capable of, killing several people. And yet "Bliss" made me love Cemal, care about his fate, and see the world through his eyes. In fact, when Cemal fails at his first attempt to kill Meryem, and squats in shame, I felt sorry for him. That is powerful filmmaking. Murat Han is completely natural in the role. You never catch him acting. He just is Cemal.

Ozgu Namal, as Meryem, gives an equally miraculous performance. Again, I felt, when watching this, as if I were watching real people. I've lived in pre-modern, traditional villages, and Namal and the other actors expertly capture the cringing, downtrodden posture that subservient people assume in the presence of their superiors in the village hierarchy. Men like Cemal cast their eyes down and say "Yes, sir," when ordered around by the village headman; girls like Meryem, with no status whatsoever, cringe at all times, scuttling through life, struggling to assure their continued existence by continuously pleasing those above them – and those above them include everyone. Meryem cringes and looks away and plasters herself to a train seat when handing Cemal a pita bread sandwich she has made for him; he must eat and be satisfied before she can eat. Even when she gets a fish bone stuck in her throat her hands flutter and her eyes grow wide with anxiety as Cemal tries to keep her from choking – ironic given that his job is to kill her. She doesn't want to demand too much. Her body language says, "Don't worry; I'll just choke to death. I don't want to be a bother." Namal conveys the complex inner life of a girl who has been denied any identity or individuality by her crushing, loveless surroundings. In one scene, she talks about her relationship with her grandmother, and it is so poignant only a stonehearted filmgoer could avoid crying.

But Turkey is not just traditional villages; it also has a coast where Western tourists and modernized Turks lounge in bikinis. Cemal and Meryem encounter Irfan (Talat Bulut), a renegade professor cruising the coast in his yacht. Irfan smiles and enjoys life; his hair is snowy white. He is bright opposite to brooding, dark, Cemal. But Irfan's life isn't perfect, either. He doesn't quite know how to fit his modern, sunny mentality into traditional Turkish culture.

All scenes, even lighthearted ones, are shadowed by menace. The law is ironclad: Meryem must be killed by a member of her family. She has been raped; she is "tainted," as Cemal puts it. There is a knife, a gun, a pair of strangling hands, hiding around every corner of every shot, even those on the professor's yacht. You know that no matter how far Meryem gets from her village, she is not going to find safety within the confines of this world, or this movie.

Because this film caused me to care so much about Cemal, Meryem, and Irfan, I struggled with the questions they faced. How can a raped girl survive in a traditional Muslim village? If she escapes her village, where can she make a life for herself? Can she, ever? Can a girl who has been trained to cringe and serve and hide behind her veil ever fit in with Westernized Turkish girls, who, clad only in bikinis, visit Prof. Irfan's yacht? And what about Cemal? Will he always only be a man who responds with frightening rage when asked to set a table because that is "women's work," who feels duty-bound to beat down any woman who questions his absolute, masculine authority? And who is to say which world is better, the village, with its tradition, or the professor's world, where he does seem truly without anchors?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Jean Shepherd Radio Raconteur. Why Listening to His Show Was a Religious Experience For Me

The ear is a terribly intimate organ.

I own several radios. I don't own a TV.

Scary movies aren't scary with the sound turned down.

Novelist Ernest Hemingway wrote of the German movie star Marlene Dietrich, "If she had nothing more than her voice she could break your heart with it."

Nicolson Baker's Vox is a waste-of-time novella about phone sex. But it contains a beautiful paragraph about a kid tuning a radio dial at night.

"I'd spin the knob and the yellow indicator would glide up and down the radio cityscape like a cab up and down some big central boulevard, and each station was an intersection in a neighborhood with a different ethnic mix and if the red sign came on saying 'stereo' I might linger there for a while. Or the cabbie might run the light, passing the whole thing by as it exploded and disappeared behind me. And sometimes I'd thumb the dial very slowly, sort of like I was palming a steering wheel, and move up in the silence of the muted stretches and then suddenly I'd pierce the rind of a station and there would be this crackling, hopped-up, luridly colored version of a song that sounded much better for a second than I knew the song really was."

I prefer hearing books on tape to reading them, especially when the author does the reading. I'm listening to Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods right now and I find his voice sexually attractive. I'm sorry I've seen a photo of him since starting; it will be a while before I can expunge the memory of that photo and get back to focusing on his slightly whiney, childishly delighted voice.

There are books that worked for me when read – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one example – that seemed horribly pretentious and self-indulgent when listened to on tape.

Words were spoken eons before they were written. People heard and memorized the Bible and the Iliad and Serbia's epic poems before anyone took them down in writing. Calling a truly oral culture "illiterate" or "pre-literate" is misleading. The word is "oral." And oral is a whole nother way of receiving reality, as scholars like Walter J Ong and Eric Havelock have shown.


I used to listen to storyteller Jean Shepherd at night when I was a little kid, in bed, lights out, house quiet, over New York's WOR AM. Jean Shepherd's WOR show went off the air in 1977.

I'm working class and Shep was working class. Other than that, I have little in common with Jean Shephard. I'm a woman; he was a man. He talked about being in the army; I was in Peace Corps. His parents were Americans; mine were immigrants. He was from Indiana; I'm from Jersey.

And yet I can't say that I've *ever* experienced a greater sensation of ... what I can't help but call *intimacy* while listening to him.

Just, me, in bed, the night, the radio, his voice, and the story unreeling into my ear, dramatized inside the stage set of my mind.

After he died in 1999, testimonials came from famous people, none of whom I had anything in common with, who described the same sensation, while listening to the "voice in the night." How does that work? How did all of us really different people have the same experience? I really don't know.

I had no idea that anyone else in the universe was listening to Shepherd. I had no idea that he published. I felt like it was just me and him. It's a different kind of memory than the memory of reading a book or watching a movie. I internalized those radio programs into my corporeal body. Remembering listening to Ol' Shep is like remembering an intimate clubhouse experience shared by me and my own secret genie.

Shepherd's bright, sometimes bitter, bursting-at-the-seams enthusiasm was channeled solely through his voice, and his sound effects. I remember his theme song: "The Bahn Frei Polka" by Eduard Strauss; I can hear the galloping horses.

That theme song, like all liminal experiences, marked the demarcation between worlds. Before you heard it, you were lying on the cheapest of mattresses on a trundle bed shared with an older sibling who worked different shifts and slept different hours than you. The cheapness of the mattress didn't really matter because you had no idea what a good mattress feels like. The diurnal disappearance of the trundle bed was a parental message: "You take up too much space. Can't you just disappear?"

You were working a minimum wage job. Your parents, in the US for most of their adult lives, were working minimum wage jobs. You shared bath water with older siblings. You shared the one towel with a family of eight. You had never eaten in a restaurant. People beat you up, and you beat people up. The latter felt better.

Then, in the darkness: The sound of a bugler signaling the beginning of a horse race. The sound of galloping hooves, created by percussion instruments. Your body, supine in bed, swung into the ¾ time of the waltz. The waltz went on for a long time. You waited. You thought maybe this will be the night when his voice does not break in.

But, no matter how far along he let the waltz get, eventually his voice, or perhaps merely an escaped laugh or sigh, broke into the spaces between the Old World beats. "Ahh," he would say, a rich sound of relaxation and assurance, and you'd really settle in then. Or perhaps he would sing along to the waltz. "I'm Popeye the sailor man … oh, do I know some really bad lyrics to that one."

He'd root around in words, in the dust and candies and coins and unexpected errata of his pockets: a man on the subway laughing over a crossword puzzle. A strip club in New Jersey with a sacrilegious name. And you'd think, okay, tonight he is just going to ramble disconnected bits.

But then before you realized what was happening, you were listening to a real story, with a real structure, beginning, middle, and end. And you swung into his words, as if they were a hammock, supporting you, relaxing you, lulling you, delighting you, and then you'd feel that tinge of sadness, because you heard the bugle again, the theme song, and you knew the story, and the show, was reaching its evening's climax and conclusion, and you would be plunked back into the cold, hard world of minimum wage jobs and random fistfights and an unnamed bleakness.

He could take me, with his voice and his sound effects, anywhere he wanted to go – into the Pine Barrens for a visit to the Jersey Devil – I would scrunch up under the blanket and become truly scared – to Indiana, a state I wasn't sure even existed, outside of his stories. To the infernal open hearth where my own people, Polaks, toiled in fireproof, wooden-heeled shoes that smoldered down as the Bohunks labored in dystopian and yet epic landscapes of smokestacks and soot and rivers of industrial, manmade lava, shoes that needed to be replaced after eight hours of wear. To a cold winter day and a flagpole and a kid tempted to stick out his tongue ...

Over the years I've grown really allergic to Garrison Keillor, the star of National Public Radio's "Prairie Home Companion." He's relentlessly white bread, middle class, ethnically correct. Not at all his fault. But he doesn't speak for me, and as he's grown in stature, and hailed as some voice of America, or even worse, Americana, I've grown uncomfortable with his apparent obliviousness to the America I live in.

I'm also weary to a terminal level with Keillor's James Thurber-esque misogyny and his insistence of being both victor and victim. All the women in the sketches on "Prairie Home Companion" are nagging man-hating harpies; all the Keillor characters are to be pitied – but they always get the upper hand over the evil females.

I just can't listen to Keillor any more.

Jean Shepherd was another flavor entirely. He was the voice of a truly marginalized and reviled group. He was a working class WASP male from a miserable mill town in Indiana. He was a World War II veteran. His humor, his ethos, thrill me so much, I realize in retrospect, because we were likely to laugh at the same things, see the same things, be touched by the same things. Not all the time, but often enough for it to count. We laughed in the same places.

He made everything hyperreal, and yet I never knew whether anything he was saying was true or not.

He once told a story about taking a chic woman out and her ordering a bizarre layered drink called "pousse cafe." All these years, I've been wondering if that was a real thing. Thanks to Google, I know now that it is. Pousse cafe is a real thing. Like Hammond, Indiana, I guess.

I had forgotten – it was Jean Shepherd who turned me on to Robert Service. I swear to God, all these years, I've been going around reciting,

"There are strange things done 'neath the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold.
The arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold.
The northern lights have seen queer sights
But the queerest they ever did see,
Was that night on the marge of Lake LeBarge
When I cremated Sam McGee."

without consciously remembering that I was first turned on to Robert Service by Jean Shepherd.

I've been thinking that Shepherd hit me at a time in my life when I was sick beyond enduring of the Dead White Males *and* the pseudo-multicultural stuff I was being force fed in school.

It was certainly in reading Shepherd that I first realized that a person with a Polish name could appear in a story, and that something like – even an affectionate parody of – a Polish-American working class life could appear in print. Shepherd talked about Lithuanian picnic customs. Who else?

Jean Shepherd, Bruce Springsteen, Jack Kerouac, and Anzia Yezierska, each in his / her own way, kept me reading and invested in language in spite of various elites' best efforts to kill that investment.

A concerned acquaintance chided me for liking Shepard. Shepherd had problems with women, this scold pointed out. Why else would Shephard focus so relentlessly on his Indiana childhood, his buddies, and the army? Why did he publish in Playboy? All-male worlds.

After Shepherd died in 1999, I read obituaries. I had never before read anything about him. I didn't want to know about him. I wanted to experience what I experienced when listening to him on the radio.

Randall Shepherd published an essay, "One More Hat on a Man," about his father's flawed parenting, that breaks my heart to read. It's here.

And yet as much as my heart breaks for Randall, Shep's bad parenting and potential problems with women do not break the spell. Here's why.

Realist editor Paul Krassner was a Shephard fan. Shepard used to ask listeners to put their radios near an open window. At that moment, he would shout out something like, "Curses on you, you filthy pragmatist!"

Krassner, a young Jewish-American violin prodigy and future cofounder of the Yippies, said that one night, doing that, he discovered that the other person in his apartment house who listened to Shepard was a 17-year-old Nazi who liked to hear Shep talk about Nietzsche. You have to love how a good storyteller can conjure diverse listeners into his net. Even if he is a bad father. Even if he does have a problem with women. He knows how to tell a story. That transcends. I wonder what kind of a father Homer was.

Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer was a fan. Shepherd's Indiana childhood stories were foreign to New York City Feiffer, "and yet it seemed to be everything that I knew and recognized. He was the book you picked up in the middle of the night when you felt so lonely, and suddenly you found the page that relates directly to you. Shepherd was that page."

Another unexpected Shepherd fan: Bobby Fischer, who managed to be both Jewish and an antisemite. Fischer is often named as the greatest chess player of all time. He was also a demon-haunted man-child who circled the globe and never quite found peace till he was dying in Iceland and he muttered his ironic, heartbreaking final words, "Nothing is as healing as the human touch."

"Bobby preferred listening to the radio rather than watching television. One advantage of the former was that while he was listening he could also be glancing at the board. He'd also heard that television emitted possibly harmful electronic rays and he was skittish about spending too much time in front of the ubiquitous tube. He loved the intimacy of radio. When Shepherd was on the air, Bobby would darken his room and have a one-way conversation that eased his loneliness. There, beside the glowing yellow night-light of his radio dial, chessboard at this side, chess books and magazines spread around the room, he'd let his thoughts drift." *

*From Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall

I wish I could make a movie about Shepard – and here's the thing – he would never appear in it. It would all take place at night. It would be scene after scene of kids across the east coast listening and then growing up to apply whatever spark was struck for them during those radio broadcasts.


I scribbled the above thoughts years ago. I return to them today because pre-Halloween talk of the Jersey Devil brought Ol Shep to mind.

I wonder, again, why listening to his show was a religious experience for me. Please understand that I mean "religious experience" quite literally. Not as a metaphor. His show was a lifeline, a sacrament. Literally.

There's this. I was away from my home state for many years. I returned. Traveling through my very small hometown taught me some things. My home town is very, very pretty. I had never realized that. Not consciously.

It is, of course, smaller than I remember it. Walks I remember as treks past monuments are mere strolls past landscape features that I might miss, were I not aware of the impact that they had had on my childhood eyes.

And there's this. I feel, in this, my hometown, an utterly terrifying, depthless sadness. I had no value to anyone here.

Through Facebook I am able to connect with people I knew in childhood. I am delighted. Almost none of those people has any interest in me whatsoever (a few do, and God bless them.)

Yes, I had friends. Yes, I played. But I was nothing to nobody.

I was obsessed with, I am still obsessed with, words. A certain approach to words.

My parents spoke words in three languages: Polish, Slovak, and English. Neighbors told stories. I can still tell you their stories. I can tell you how Dave's grandparents met and married. I haven't seen Dave in about fifty years. But I remember that story, told once around my kitchen table.

But there was a fence. Huge. Electrified. To touch it was to throw yourself against death. The fence separated how we use language, and how language must never be used by us.

School? In school, language belonged to the elite. Words, sentences, punctuation. I was educated at the end of the canon and the beginning of Political Correctness. Words belonged to Dead White Males like Shakespeare, and to Politically Correct darlings like Ntozake Shange. Words did not belong to us. Words did not belong to white, working class, Bohunks.

I wrote. I claimed words. And people threatened to beat me up for that – really. And teachers failed me. And boyfriends mocked me (you know who you are). And my parents worried about me. And I was told I was "retarded" and that if I wanted to survive, I had to change, and not be what I was. I really thought this was a matter of life and death.

All of that was true. I have found out, as an adult, that all of that was true. I am indeed retarded, in very important and real ways. Words did not belong to us. And they still don't. And this is a matter of life and death.

I can hear the bugle. I can hear the horses' hooves. I'm waiting for a story that will treat the March on Washington and the Jersey Devil and pousse café and Lithuanian picnics as all equal, as all worthy of observant, witty, words. For the next hour, words will belong to me. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

"Bridge of Spies" Richly Produced, for Thinking Adults

"Bridge of Spies" is a big-budget, beautifully produced movie that is unabashedly geared toward thinking adults. There are no nods to fanboys who need to see "part four" after a title or a comic book superhero in tights to commit to a film. If you go to movies for fast-paced fight scenes, explosions or strippers, stay home.

"Bridge of Spies" is an historical drama about the Cold War. It's based on real events. Insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is pressured by colleagues to defend Russian spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), who has been caught in 1957 Brooklyn. It's his patriotic duty, they tell him, to provide the accused with counsel, even though the accused is a Russian spy at the height of the Cold War. Donovan does such a good job defending an unappealing client that he is later selected to help negotiate the release of downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. No, this isn't the most scintillating of plots. Most scenes consist of men over fifty wearing suits conversing in cagey language and subdued voices about big, big issues.

Lavish spending by gifted costumers, set directors and cinematographers is all over the screen. The interior of a middle-class American home in the 1950s-1960s era is beautifully recreated, right down to the divided aluminum foil trays for TV dinners. It would be hard for a male to watch this film and not feel serious fedora envy. Women may yearn for the day when a woman could single-handedly prepare a five course meal for an intact family that eats together in a formal dining room, and yet appear at that dining table looking like a Vogue cover model with cinched waist, pointy assets, firm hair and bright lipstick. And then mom, dad, and the kids hold hands and say grace, and no one looks at their cell phone, or even the TV. They all pay attention to each other.

As soon as the camera moves from the United States to East Berlin, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski drains almost all color from his images, the way Dracula drained blood from his victims. The sky is dead white, without clouds or sun, and almost everything you see is the lifeless gray concrete of the Berlin Wall or the charred gray of remaining bombed out buildings. People dress in gray wool; their grim faces are the only vague smudge of color. East Berliners attempting to escape are shot by snipers in watchtowers. It's a totalitarian nightmare.

When Donovan enters East Berlin to negotiate Powers' release, he enters an absurd maze of petty manipulations and espionage that would be laughable were it not so deadly. These scenes are reminiscent of the depiction of the state apparatus of petty terror in real Eastern European films like Andrzej Wajda's "Man of Marble." Russian actor Mikhail Gorevoy as Ivan Schischkin, a Russian negotiator, is simply a weird and scary looking and sounding man. He wonderfully channels Peter Lorre.

We all know, love and trust Hanks so much that there is not as much tension in the film as there ought to be. We know he's going to do the right thing, in spite of every obstacle, temptation, threat or sneer from a stranger on a train who recognizes him from a newspaper photograph. Somehow "A Man for All Seasons," as many times as I've seen it, gives me the sense that maybe, just maybe, this time Paul Scofield's Thomas More will figure out a way to compromise with Henry VIII's demands and not be decapitated. That tension that maybe Donovan will weaken or sell out or be even slightly less than utterly heroic is missing from "Bridge of Spies." Spielberg wanted an uncomplicated hero, and he has created one.

Mark Rylance gives an amazing performance as Russian spy Rudolph Abel. Rylance is apparently a highly celebrated British stage actor but I'd never heard of him. Rylance does virtually nothing noticeable except tuck his chin into his neck and elevate his eyebrows, yet he is riveting, moving, and memorable. Now that's acting!

Abel was just one of the spy's many aliases. His real name was Vilyam "Willie" Genrikhovich Fisher. He was of German-Jewish ancestry. Did that play any role in his dedication to Communism? He had lived during the Holocaust. Did Communism offer the only brighter tomorrow in which he could believe? It would have made his life so much better if he had defected to the West, rather than go to prison. Why did he not? The film offers no clue.

"Bridge of Spies" recreates for the viewer the undercurrent of daily fear during the Cold War. Schoolchildren cry during a school "duck and cover" presentation. A boy fills his bathtub with water so as to be prepared for nuclear attack. What was missing for me was what each side offered: an articulation of capitalism v communism. Perhaps the film could have included scenes where Donovan and Abel present their respective systems, their promises and flaws. There are reasons the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, and came down in 1989, reasons that seem to elude the supporters of US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

As it is, there is a marvelous scene where Donovan tells Hoffman, a CIA agent who looks a bit like Bobby Fischer (another pawn in the Cold War) what makes an American an American – the Constitution. 

"The Intern" 2015 Warm and Cuddly, Sweet and Funny

I fell in love with Ben Whittaker, Robert DeNiro's character, in the first five minutes of "The Intern." Ben is a seventy-year-old retired telephone book executive. He's super competent, humble, kind, caring, and hard-working. His eyes twinkle and his cheeks are pinchable. He would make the perfect father, boss, or Santa. Ben Whittaker is writer-director Nancy Meyers' best creation yet. I didn't just like Ben, I found him believable, thanks to DeNiro's superb performance. I have to guess it's not easy playing such a nice person in a believable way.

Ben is unsatisfied by retirement so he takes a position as an intern at About-the-Fit, a fashion start-up, the brainchild of Jules (Anne Hathaway). Jules is impersonal and demanding, again, in a very believable way. Ben, worldly-wise and humble man that he is, makes positive changes in the company. He is a kindly mentor to younger male employees who rarely shave and don't tuck in their shirts. Ben explains to them why a man should always carry a clean handkerchief.

Anne Hathaway is so beautiful it's hard for me to assess her acting. I keep focusing on her face. I found her very believable as a driven businesswoman lacking in people skills. The movie softens her. There are scenes where she is revealed to have a toasty warm marshmallow heart. I was disappointed by those scenes and didn't find them believable or interesting. I wish the script had been as interesting and believable in its development of Jules as it was with Ben.

There are two relationships in the movie that didn't work for me at all. Jules is married to Matt (Anders Holm). I could see a really beautiful, driven woman married to a charisma-free, vaguely creepy schlub like Matt, so, yes, Holm was believable. I just didn't want Jules, this brilliant, talented, interesting woman, to be married to Matt.

Ben dates Renee Russo, and that relationship didn't work for me, either, although, again, it was believable. Ben has the wrinkled face and thinning, gray hair of a man in his seventies. Russo looks like a Hollywood actress fighting time, rather than like most real women her age. Also I saw no onscreen chemistry between these two. Linda Lavin does look like a real, older woman, and she is in the movie as a predatory, mean and obscene old lady. There are cheap jokes at her expense. It's sad but not surprising that Nancy Meyers, a woman herself, depicted an older woman as an old witch, and set her up for coarse humor, and rewarded a much younger, and more Botoxed woman with romance.

 "The Intern" is one of those rare, recent movies for adults where nothing horrible happens. Nobody dies or behaves in a deeply despicable way or loses his cool and screams obscenities or knocks the movie off the rails. There are no body fluids on display. "The Intern" really is a feel good movie. If you are ever having a lousy day and you want to watch something that will give you a smile and make you feel good about humanity, please consider "The Intern."