Monday, February 29, 2016

45 YEARS...

45 Years Movie Review

Suspicion and jealousy are rarely shown effectively in movies.  There’s usually a lot of gnashing of teeth, and actors who aren’t particularly skilled at their job end up looking like the people in those drab daytime dramas, what we used to call “soap operas.” Love is difficult to show, too, that’s why movie soundtracks are so important. The actors can’t show it, so popular songs do it for them. 

45 Years is a jewel of a movie because it shows suspicion, jealousy, and love in realistic portions, and far more successfully than most movies of the past few decades.  I believed its characters and their relationship, and the way their partnership had evolved and crystalized over the years, and there were moments when the movie was witness to that most fragile thing – love – being pricked and slowly losing its life force. All done, miraculously, without a lot of overblown acting. Most movies these days are so overdone that the art of acting seems to be moving backwards, into the silent era. This one is an exception.

The story of 45 Years centers on a long-married couple (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) just a few days away from their 45th wedding anniversary. They’ve developed a relaxed, comfortable routine, befitting the Norfolk, England countryside where much of the movie was made. A letter arrives – the body of an old girlfriend of Courtenay’s has been found in Switzerland, perfectly preserved in ice. He relates the story: they’d been on a hiking trip through Europe, and she fell into a fissure. He’d heard her scream, and that was all. Now, more than 45 years later, the body has been found. This letter sets up an intense, almost Pinteresque few days of give and take, with Courtenay going through a myriad of strained emotions, and Rampling learning more than she’d wanted to know about her husband’s past.  It also provides a ramp from where a pair of fine actors can take off from. 

Though Rampling has been praised for her work here – and deservedly – Courtenay is every bit as compelling. Unshaven, cryptic, sneaking out for cigarettes,  all the while showing how this revelation from his past has unnerved him. That his old lover has been preserved in ice is  nice enough as a symbol, but his concern that global warming might’ve melted the glacier and washed the body up somewhere is a brilliant way of showing the fear we have that events from our past might still come back to haunt us. His spluttering diatribe about an old buddy who has taken up the ukulele is a mini masterpiece. 

Director Andrew Haigh, who adapted the screenplay from a short story by David Constantine, manages to give each performer plenty of room to work, but never lets them overindulge. We’re shown many scenes of Rampling alone in the countryside, or walking by herself downtown, and we get that there’s lots of distance between her and Courtenay.  There’s a beautifully wrought scene where Courtenay reminisces about the woman who died, how the two of them were rebelling against society by hiking through Europe. Rampling, who has endured enough about this unknown woman, finally cracks. “You were just chasing a girl who liked to be chased,” she says. She’s been the center of Courtenay’s life for so long that the mere idea of this other woman pounds against her.

The teaming of Rampling and Courtenay is flawless. She was the epitome of the swinging sixties British chick –her first acting jobs included an uncredited turn as a nightclub dancer in A Hard Day’s Night, and as Lynn Redgrave’s glamorous roommate in Georgy Girl.  Courtenay  was perhaps the angriest of the angry young men of British cinema. It’s fascinating to see the characters they play here, roles we wouldn’t have imagined for them back in their 1960s heyday. Courtenay plays a bit of a dodderer, puttering around the house, attempting to fix the toilet in between efforts to finish reading that tattered volume of Kierkegaard. She, meanwhile, still looks vibrant, though she gets just as winded as he does when they dance in their living room to an old Lloyd Price number.  The scenes where they’re happy together have an incredible, low-key warmth;  when it appears this incident from his past may ruin them, one dreads the likelihood that they won’t get through it.  The jealousy that has bubbled up in Rampling, so new and eager to dominate her every thought, is too much for her to beat down. 

As most people know, Rampling’s performance was nominated for an Oscar, but she lost to Brie Larson. I liked Brie Larson in Room, but her performance, as difficult and draining as it may have been, came nowhere near the depth and subtlety of what Rampling did in 45 Years.  Some wags have said that Rampling hurt her own chances with her recent comments about racial diversity. Granted, she sounded uninformed, and could've used a good spin doctor, but if anyone didn’t vote for her because of something she said, I can only say shame on them for letting politics get in the way of art. Then again, maybe the votes had already been tallied. Courtenay, too, deserved a nomination. His turn here as Geoff Mercer was impeccable. Watching him realize his marriage is in jeopardy and then working to win his wife back  was far more moving than watching Leo DiCaprio wrestle a fake bear. 

If nothing else, it was nice to come out of a theater not thinking about special effects, but about how love is a difficult thing, and how something damning is out there for all of us, just waiting, preserved in ice. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016


                                      How, oh how, will we ever replace Robert Hughes?
                                                                    By Don Stradley


Robert Hughes approached his work like a three headed dragon. First, he was a historian fitted with a galloping knowledge; then, he was a powerful, sophisticated writer, unspooling his essays like a storyteller, an enchanter; and third, he had just enough brass in him to keep from being awed by the trendy topics of the day. The recent collection of his writings, a mammoth  offering from Alfred A. Knopf called The Spectacle of Skill, spans the gamut of Hughes' career, from his years as the art critic for Time, to an unfinished memoir he was working on at the time of his death in 2012. It could’ve been called A Skeptic Looks at Genius, for no one, not Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, or Julian Schnabel, gets a free pass from Hughes. Some get a polite nod, though, as if Hughes appreciated, if nothing else, their longevity and their ability to “market their own shit.” 

One of Hughes' favorite targets was Schnabel, who gained notoriety in the 1980s by gluing bits of broken pottery to his canvases. The more Hughes doubted an artist's worth, the better he wrote, as if hate acted as a kind of clean fuel that made his engine hum. When Schnabel once lamented that there were few great artists at work in the 1980s, Hughes commented, “Indeed; and one less than he thinks.” Why Hughes derided Schnabel, and other flavors of the minute, was that they’d pranced like ponies over the most fundamental aspect of art: they couldn’t draw. Hughes blamed this on a shift in American art schools, which began an irreparable skid in the ‘70s when teachers encouraged students not to master drawing skills, but to “do their own thing,” which “freed up the teachers do their own thing, and none of them could draw, either.” For Hughes, most of the old masters were worthy of adoration. But if he sensed an artist was overrated, or a product of  hype, or not in command of his materials, he’d clear the room quicker than John Wayne slinging haymakers in an old Republic western.

Hughes had a particular disdain for those on the periphery of the art world, like the “zonked out hermaphrodites” surrounding Warhol. To hear Hughes tell it, Warhol’s apple-polishing followers weren’t far removed from the trash-eating misfits who sought wisdom and meaning at the feet of Charles Manson, and were also, like Peking Man is to the Cro-Magnon, forerunners of the art dealers who’d foist some new "talent" onto the art-buying public, whether he’d learned to draw or not, because gimmick and calculating backstory count for everything in the market history of postmodernism. “It is the story of van Gogh’s Ear,” Hughes wrote, “without van Gogh himself.” 

Art collectors, too, were ridiculous. “Most of them buy what other people buy," Hughes wrote. "They move in great schools, like bluefish, all identical.” Pitiful, they were, dumber than new money, easily duped into believing the “propaganda” about “their increasingly vital role…not noticing the extent to which it (buying art) is a public-relations project – an imaginary garden with a few real toads in it.”

The book also collects chapters from Hughes’ non-critical writings, including his volume on fishing, and The Fatal Shore, his excellent recounting of Australia’s colonization. There are convincing chapters on the fall of New York as an art center; understated jabs at America for not having produced her own Pablo Picasso; and a merciless lancing of Italy for becoming a country of “artistic illiterates.” There are meaty profiles of James Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, and short riffs on various other figures, such as novelist Francoise Sagan, who moved “like a sick starling dragging its black wings,” and Jerzy Kosinski, possessor of “bad teeth and a raptor’s nose – like an ill-preserved but dangerous hawk.” And in his exceptional piece on Goya, we’re treated by Hughes, who not only reveled in his knowledge but rejoiced in sharing it, to an explanation of aquatint. 

As a little boy in Sydney, Hughes amused himself by reading about the air battles of The Great War, but his knowledge of art was limited to a few famous pieces by Australian illustrators, items that hung in pubs or were tucked away in his dad’s desk, the Aussie equivalent, I may wrongly imagine, of C.M. Coolidge’s poker dogs. Then came an interest in Kipling, and G.K. Chesterton, and then his older sister’s 78s of New Orleans jazz. Finally, on a Catholic schoolboys’ trip to New South Wales, he discovered art. There, in an exhibit of abstract painting, was a piece by Joan Miró that sent the 15-year-old Hughes on a journey of no return, dampened only slightly when the priests busted him that same year for reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. 

Knopf intended this collection to be all inclusive, so it closes with Hughes' account of his son’s suicide. Though the chapter is poignant, the effect is stroppy, as if we’d just watched an acrobat finish his high-wire act by breaking out in sobs. A better choice to end the book would’ve been Hughes’ humorous look at the most overhyped moment in modern art history, Andrew Wyeth’s "Helga" paintings, a story Hughes wouldn’t touch for Time because it made his bullshit detector wail like a police siren. But the book’s size, more than 640 pages, makes the choice to end on a sad note irrelevant. The Spectacle of Skill shouldn’t be read from beginning to end, but rather, taken in small doses, like sipping whiskey. That way you can  open to random chapters and find something of interest, like the “catalog of trauma” Hughes experienced in a terrible car crash, or the time Australia's notorious tabloids  unfairly smeared him as a racist, groundless accusations dismissed by Hughes as “my turn in the barrel.” Still, it’s Hughes’ writing on art that sticks to you, like his take on a painting of Edward Hopper’s wife, whose “shadow seems printed on the floor by a blinding shaft of revelation.” 

Hughes had a rare talent for praising someone without making them seem more interesting than they really were. For all of his skill as a writer and critic, and his unapologetic stance as an elitist, his dominant view of the world was, for lack of a better term, a heartfelt thing. Australian homes didn’t feature television during his childhood – Hughes didn’t see a TV program until he was 21 - and this may be why he commented on what he felt, rather than what he saw. Now that I’ve read him, I can no longer see art on my own. I’m now looking at depictions of pain and beauty from inside the skull of a roaring classicist.

Monday, February 22, 2016

THE WITCH, A New England Folktale

The Witch, a film that earned a great deal of publicity and kudos during its opening weekend, is supposed to mark the return of the serious horror movie, the type of feature that is both artful and traumatic, the sort that is so well-made and stylish that it can’t be dismissed as a cheapie, and disturbing enough to send first-time moviegoers home in a daze. Critics have gone gaga over it, comparing it to everything from the paintings of Goya and Wyeth, to the films of Roeg and Malick. Director/writer Robert Eggers must be pleased with the film’s reception, but despite a few chilling moments and a game cast, I’m not sure The Witch is 100-percent successful. It wants so badly to be thought of as a “smart” movie, when it might’ve been better served if it dropped a few IQ points.

The story concerns a family of early American settlers who’ve been exiled from their village. The father’s relentless Jesus talk, you see, has made the puritans uncomfortable. The banished clan sets up a little home on the edge of a dark and forbidding forest, an area sinister enough to remind one of Grimm's fairy tales, and by that I mean the original ones where bad children had their thumbs bitten off.  Tragedy comes when the baby of the family is stolen by a strange woman who lives in the woods. Later, in the darkness of her cabin, we see her knobby old hand holding a knife to the infant’s belly, and then we’re shown some peculiar, blurry activity, all to suggest the crone is washing herself in baby’s blood. 

The father maintains a stoical, God-fearing attitude, but he’s not much of a farmer, and is even worse at hunting for food. The disappearance of the baby is just one more strike against him. He’s a dud at this whole “head of the family” deal, so he spends a lot of nights aimlessly chopping wood, muttering to himself about Jesus. Thomasin, the oldest daughter who was supposed to be watching the baby when it was taken, is complex. She’s like many older sisters, nurturing and caring, obediently combing out her father’s woolens, but she also teases her younger siblings that she’s in league with the devil and plans to eat them someday. Then there’s Caleb, the oldest son, who feels guilty about the impure thoughts he has about Thomasin.  It’s hard to blame Caleb for eyeballing his sister while living in such isolation. It’s either her, or his mother, and the mother (well played by Kate Dickie)  is a coiled ball of grief over the missing child.

There are animals, too, including a large hare that seems impervious to gunfire (and cameramen), and Black Phillip, a menacing goat who, with nothing but his massive horns and his almond shaped eyes, can dominate any scene. The problem with the animals is that Eggers relies too heavily on them to create an atmosphere of dread. By the third time the rabbit stares into the camera twitching his nose, you've had enough.

In short, Eggers seems so pleased with subtleties, like an imp playing tricks, that the film never quite rears back and attacks us. Though Eggers went through great pains to recreate 1600s New England,  especially the old English style of speaking (“Hold thy tongue, daughter mine!”), there’s little done to show what such isolation would do to a person’s mind, or how the idea of witchcraft might actually appeal to people down to their last ear of corn. 

Eggers is saved, more or less, by a brilliant group of actors. As the father, Ralph Ineson is excellent, all scornful glances and bible talk to mask the frustration of watching his family come apart. Meanwhile, Anya Taylor-Joy is very fine as Thomasin, walking the thin line walked by all adolescent girls, in that she’s loyal to the family but angry at the restrictions placed upon her, and  dismayed at how no one appears to trust her. Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson are exceptional as the youngest members of the family, bobbling about like little trolls, while Harvey Scrimshaw as Caleb might be the best of the bunch. Caleb's fever dream while under a spell is almost worth the price of admission.

It’s difficult to comment on Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, for his task was to recreate the bleak New England winter. The effect he achieves is probably accurate, with grey skies and ominous trees, but it quickly becomes dreary and monotonous. Did the sun never come out in the 1600s? Or was the sky still grey from the volcanic ash that supposedly killed the dinosaurs? What we get in several scenes is a movie so dimly lit that we can barely see what’s going on, while actors speak a language we can barely understand. It’s like sitting through Shakespeare, sort of grasping it, but hoping no one asks you to explain anything. To make things worse, there’s really nothing here that will raise half a goose bump. Eggers is content to creep us out a little, so we get a lot of “What just happened?” moments, such as a sudden scene of a raven pecking at a woman’s bleeding tit.

The images, though dreamily shot, don’t amount to much. I can’t imagine anyone, save those with a fear of goats, being frightened by anything in The Witch. In fact, for anyone who has watched a lot of horror movies, or read some scary literature, or better yet, had a nightmare that made your heart race, the movie will probably be a big snore.

Friday, February 19, 2016

HARRY BROWN (2010)...ANGEL OF DEATH (2009)...


Though Michael Caine is his usual watchable self as the title character in Harry Brown, a 2009 revenge drama about a 77-year-old pensioner who lives in a London housing estate overrun by teenage brutes, what you might take away from the film is its abject filth.  The drug dealing villains of the piece appear to have been dipped in feces prior to their scenes, and though the message wants to be that drugs have turned our cities into shooting galleries, the deeper theme appears to be that good people are clean-cut and presentable, while the baddies are ugly and covered in scum. When his best friend is killed trying to defend himself from some of the locals thugs, Harry swings into action, visiting an underground drug den to buy some weaponry, sort of like good ol’ Travis Bickle meeting with his gun dealer in Taxi Driver. Harry encounters a pair of scary misfits who have plied their trade in the shadows for so long that they’ve turned into Golem-like creatures with nearly undecipherable cockney accents, a neat trick since nearly everyone in the movie sounds like they’re talking with their mouths full of mashed potatoes. It’s in this fetid criminal lair that Harry finds, to his glee, that the killing instinct honed during his time as a marine in Northern Ireland is still sound, and that he still has the poise to stand over a bleeding victim and mock him for not keeping his gun clean. 

And people don’t just die in Harry Brown. They wallow in their own gore for a while, emitting strange, bubbling sounds, their final words usually being a four-letter curse word favored among the ignorant everywhere. And give the Brits credit – they can curse better than anybody, including Italian-Americans, African-Americans, and Southern rednecks. True, Americans put plenty of steam into their vulgarities, but the Brits make it all sound so damned musical, even when it emits from the lowest depths of poverty and anguish. But not even the joys of hearing British profanities can lift this movie above its station, for at heart it’s merely another gun-wielding melodrama where a respectable citizen is mad as hell and can’t take it anymore, and viewers will find themselves quietly cheering, like Pavlovian dogs conditioned to wet themselves over violence, when the old geezer puts those young hoods in their place. 

The movie received some nice press when it first came out in 2010, with many critics comparing it to Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. We are all so desperately weary of CGI that replaces drama,” wrote Roger Ebert. “With movies like this, humans creep back into crime stories.” Manohla Dargis at The NY Times was less enthused, but claimed that Caine matched Charles Bronson’s old vigilante roles “move for move in the annals of big, bad, bloody, disreputable entertainment.” For the most part, reviews were positive because Caine is the true definition of a movie star, and can even perk up an arthouse potboiler like Harry Brown. That he played Harry as a wheezing old man, suffering from emphysema and occasionally collapsing in the middle of a shootout, gave the rather exploitative and sensationalistic material its touch of reality. It wasn't the snarling villains who made the film seem earthy, it was Caine alone in his apartment, buttering his toast.

“This strata of society exists in my country,” Caine said upon the release of Harry Brown, describing the movie as “a wakeup call.” Caine also tried to sell the film as one that didn’t celebrate violence, which is a bit like saying Clockwork Orange doesn’t celebrate rape. From the opening scene of Harry Brown,  where a mother is randomly killed in front of her child, we’re hit with a sort of full-frontal viciousness,  and while it’s not the computer game mayhem of a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, it’s every bit as numbing. And the fact that a female investigator played by Emily Mortimer suspects Harry has killed several drug dealers but doesn’t blow his cover tells us all we need to know about the movie’s politics.

First time director Daniel Barber likes to splash around in the muck of depravity, and with help from cinematographer Martin Ruhe (shooting in Dolby Digital), he makes Harry Brown’s section of London  - most of the film was shot in Walworth - look bleak and grey, like an old metal railing that has been rained on for decades. There’s a stiff, cell-like feel to most of the scenes, as if the characters are all living in shoeboxes and have never seen daylight. The climactic battle between the neighborhood punks and the police feels aptly apocalyptic, with homemade petrol bombs flying through the air, while sick old Harry tries to outlast the madness drizzling down all around him. 

All ends well for Harry,  but he’s such a fragile bloke  that I almost wished he had someone like Zoe Bell in his corner to provide some backup. Bell’s first claim to fame was that she served as Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the Kill Bill movies, as well as Lucy Lawless’ double in television’s Xena: Warrior Princess. She has since tried to carve her own niche as an action star. The same year Harry Brown was made, she appeared as the assassin Eve in Paul Etheredge’s Angel of Death.  The movie isn’t much more than a Tarantino-flavored knock off with lots of fighting and shooting, and buckets of unimaginative dialog by screenwriter Ed Brubaker. With a background writing comics for DC and Marvel, Brubaker’s idea of how characters talk goes something like this: “Fuck you.” “No, fuck you!” and so on. If the Brits of Harry Brown make cursing into a vile symphony, the cast of Angel of Death sound like summer stock actors from Bridgeport doing a futile imitation of Goodfellas. But Bell makes the movie palatable. Like Caine, she has a movie star quality. I just wish she could find better projects.

Angel of Death was originally a 10-part episodic series on Crackle, where it’s playing now in its entirety. Bell plays an assassin who works for a crime family. After being stabbed in the skull during a fight, she suffers some after-effects, such as falling to the ground and frothing at the mouth, and worst of all, she’s grown shy about killing, haunted by visions of past victims. That’s bad news for someone in her business. The comic book storyline is silly and adolescent, just an excuse to string together a dozen or so scenes where Bell shows off her fighting skills. What makes Bell compelling is that she never plays Eve as a superwoman, and takes as many punches as she gives out.  

Bell has the kind of lazy sexiness that reminds me of vintage Ellen Barkin, but since she’s one of the few actresses who looks comfortable fighting, she’s stuck in these rough and tumble parts. Of course, Bell looks convincing in everything she does – she even dials a phone with nothing less than absolute authority – while the rest of the Angel of Death cast can’t even fake smoking a cigarette. Steve McQueen biographers have often noted that one of the keys to McQueen’s success was his ability to look comfortable at anything from handling a rifle to jumping a motorcycle. Zoe Bell has this same kind of comfort level and authority. For instance, she looks undeniably confident when handling a pistol, whereas most actresses hold guns as if they’re fresh off the firearms safety course.

The problem is that Bell's action roles are one dimensional. I’ve seen her in other films and in interviews where she shows cleverness and humor. The director who can meld Bell’s funny side with her ability to choke a guy will have a winner.  

Both films are now playing on Crackle...


Friday, February 12, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Tennessee Williams' Hard Candy

Even if, as Tennessee Williams tells us, they're only looking for love
By Don Stradley

He wrote about horny old men in the pitch dark balconies of movie theaters, ogling the rough trade that wandered in; he wrote about the oversexed ladies who ran boarding houses and slept with any tenant who wouldn’t recoil from their gnarled hands; he wrote about the spiritually spent wives  who catered to their sickly  husbands, as loyal and bored as any longtime employee; and always, there was sickness, blooming in the bodies of his characters like demon weeds. These illnesses, which could take a person out quickly, torture them for years, or just settle in like a quietly sinister guest, were spoken of in quiet tones, kept as guarded as, say, the kindly clockmaker’s penchant for young men, for Tennessee Williams’ world was held together by secrets. They’d only spill out, as a character says in one of the stories collected in Hard Candy, when “the soul becomes intolerably burdened with lies,” to the point where it “will finally collapse beneath the weight of its falsity.” With the sort of baggage these characters are carrying, it’s a wonder they haven’t all exploded, their contaminated guts splashing against the walls of their furnished rooms.

When the Hard Candy collection was published in 1954, Williams was spending much of his time in Hollywood where his plays were being adapted for the movies. Generally, the transitions went smoothly, though both The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire were subjected to studio tampering and the scissor cut of the censors. Williams told Hollywood columnist Bob Thomas that the movie business was still a few steps behind contemporary tastes and sensibilities. “The screen,” Williams said, “should be allowed to deal in all human problems, as long as they are done in good taste.” That’s why the nine stories in Hard Candy feel so ahead of the times, and possibly why Williams’ fiction was never given the attention of his plays and films. He’s mining areas in these stories that weren’t spoken of in post war America, namely, the all-encompassing sexual urges that turn us all into blithering idiots, but doing so in a poetic prose style that, for my money, surpasses what he wrote for actors, as if the freedom to enter the darkest galleries of his mind loosened up and then crystalized his writing. 

Which isn’t to say the characters from Hard Candy don’t resemble characters from his plays. Starting with the tempestuous married couple in ‘Three Players of a Summer Game’ who would be further developed in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the lonely widow waiting patiently at the door for the handsome drunk she hopes will love her and her fat, whining child, and the low-brow neighbors who barely understand the deviant behavior going on all around them, Williams shoves himself away from the melodrama that burdens his plays and grabs something closer to neorealism. In his fiction he focuses on details that would be lost on a stage, like the sounds of a kid munching candy as a pathetic chicken hawk closes in (very much like a lonely man trying to befriend a stray dog), or when Kamrowski, the out of work screenwriter whose prostitute girlfriend has died in ‘Rubio Y Marena’, can only express his grief by stealing a child’s doll and running until he “was able to get alone somewhere and cry.” As with Williams' plays, the psychic turmoil of couples torn apart is as palpable as fog, and loneliness is to be despised. A character in ‘The Vine’, for instance, a self-absorbed failure who is terrified that his wife has left him, considers a life alone as “less conceivable, somehow, than life on the moon.” Kroger the obese pervert  in ‘The Mysteries of the Joy Rio’ warns that it’s wrong to be “so afraid of being lonely that you forget to be careful,” but none of Williams’ characters ever take that advice.

People covet each other to such a demented degree in Williams’ stories that their reunions are often grotesque, such as the end of ‘Summer Game’, when the wife is seen driving a car with her derelict husband propped up in the backseat, “exactly the way that some ancient conqueror such as Caesar or Alexander the Great or Hannibal, might have led in chains through a capital city the prince of a state newly conquered.” It’s ominous that so many of Williams’ objects of desire end up dead, or in a sort of zombified condition, as if people can’t survive being so badly wanted. Perhaps incapacitation is what the desirers secretly wish, so the poor victims can only lay prone like mannequins to be adored. How can it be otherwise, when the delights of love at first sight are so exhilarating, such as in ‘The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin,’ when a boy first meets the unsuspecting object of his yearning, and an awareness enters his mind “like the sudden streak of flame that follows a comet.” 

Yet, in the midst of this love madness that sweeps over his characters and drives them to run “farther and farther up the forbidden staircase into regions of deepening shadow,”  there’s a sort of twisted stoicism on display, where people endure the worst indignities while waiting for their loved one to come around. The female barfly in ‘Two On A Party’ is so smitten with her gay male friend that she’s willing to go cruising with him. In the story’s melancholy climax, she saves him from getting gay-bashed by allowing  their brutish pick-up to bed her down, where she suffers “the most undesired embrace that she can remember in all her long history of desired and undesired  and sometimes only patiently born embraces…” What is Williams telling us about love in the tales collected here? I imagine he’s saying that love is not only blind, but can’t even feel its way toward something resembling sanity.



Friday, February 5, 2016


All about the best dressed undressed woman in the world
By Don Stradley

About their sister burlesque performer, most of the ladies in the biz remembered Lili St. Cyr as aloof, maybe shy, stand-offish, but also as a one-of-a-kind entertainer, someone who conquered Montreal and made that city her own, and then brought stripping to Las Vegas, back when it was still a wild west town. She should’ve been a movie star, if she hadn’t been so hell bent on controlling her own destiny, and though she claimed it was because she couldn’t remember lines, it was really because she felt no director in Hollywood understood her quite like she understood herself. Yet, the very self-absorption that made St. Cyr the highest paid peeler in the world also landed her in a dreadful old age, living as a destitute drug addict in a houseful of cats, watching The Flintstones while she was nodding out on heroin, while the last of her hairy chested Romeos shuffled around the house, bent in half by his own pain and addiction.

       She probably didn’t have the energy to fight her way out of her misery, exhausted from decades of being the most famous disrober of ‘em all, not to mention her six marriages, each of them tumultuous and draining, and her endless affairs, for if ever there was a woman who exemplified the old Rogers and Hart song “Falling in Love with Love,” it was this towering girl from Minnesota. As depicted in Leslie Zemeckis’ Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stripteuse Lili St.Cyr, a well-researched but slow moving trudge through St. Cyr’s 80 years on the planet, St. Cyr was a groundbreaker as a performer, a nondescript showgirl who reinvented herself and turned the business of strip teasing on its ear, but wasn’t quite as interesting as the men around her. The names of her beaus include Jack Dempsey, Orson Welles, and Victor Mature, plus hockey goons, second tier gangsters, and fringe Hollywood players. St. Cyr provided a kind of empty vortex around which any number of brilliantined mugs could flutter.

       Like the great ones in all professions, from Hulk Hogan to Bette Davis, she went on long after she should've quit. The stage gave her something she couldn't get anywhere else - whether it was a sense of identity or, more likely, a bankroll - so she kept her aging face in the dark while her still flexible body did the journeyman's work. Like her childhood hero, Greta Garbo, Lili maintained a mysterious demeanor, not even sitting poolside in a swimsuit. If you wanted to see her flesh, you had to pay. It wasn’t a bad gig, really, taking bubble baths onstage for leering men, even though death and violence was all around. The book is loaded with suicides and murders, gobs of mental illness, desperate dancers hurling themselves from high windows, and enough family secrets to keep a reader slightly confused throughout. And the bits, where St. Cyr would dress like Salomé or the “Chinese Virgin,” must’ve been scandalous in the 1950s, enough to get her busted several times for indecency, and to incite one of her critics to declare "the theater is made to stink with the foul odor of sexual frenzy." Still, there’s nothing in Zemeckis’ descriptions to make one want to track them down on an old Irving Klaw reel, or sit through RKO's Son of Sinbad, where Lili irritated the censors with her belly-dancing. One is more intrigued by Lili the toothless smack addict, her once beautiful feet crippled by arthritis, checking her fan mail for "gifts," nettling her admirers for stamp money.

       When Al Capp saw Lili in her prime, he immediately created a new character for his Lil’ Abner comic strip: Wolf Gal. Based on some of the photos in Zemeckis’ book, there was something faintly lupine about Lili in her arched brow and pointy nose; Capp was onto something. But wolves travel in packs, and Lili was a loner. This is usually the case for people who make a living through fantasy. As Zemeckis makes clear, St. Cyr created a balloon of make-believe for herself to float in. When it burst, she plummeted to earth. Zemeckis finds this tragic, but I'm not sure. Though she was certainly an innovator,  there’s very little about St. Cyr to make anyone not bewitched by the legends of burlesque to think she was anything more than just another stripper.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


     Poor Dawn Wiener. I knew girls just like her. They sit alone on the school bus, nursing some vague sadness, waiting for the day when life becomes fair. As Welcome to the Dollhouse unfurls, there’s little reason to think Dawn will emerge a happy, well-adjusted woman.
     The movie begins with that horrid moment familiar to many, with Dawn making the long walk through the junior high cafeteria, trying to find a seat. The other girls tease her and call her a lesbian. Her locker is covered with obscene graffiti. Even when Dawn tries to rescue a smaller boy from some bullies, the boy shouts, “Get away from me, Wiener Dog!”  It’s the sort of cruelty that seems exaggerated for the movies, but is actually spot on. Kids are monsters.
Welcome To The Dollhouse Movie Poster     Director Todd Solondz has made only a handful of movies since Welcome to the Dollhouse premiered 20 years ago, but he’s fascinating. To say he’s a challenging filmmaker is like saying Timbuktu gets a little warm in the summertime. I remember sitting in the audience of Happiness (1998) and hearing a man in the crowd shriek when one of Solondz’ characters made a rather nasty confession. It was as if the character has reached from the screen and jabbed the man in the heart. Solondz’ canon includes tales of pedophiles, perverts, shattered families, people living in crippling isolation, murderers, and the way sexuality creeps into our life and changes everything. His characters are downbeat, but on edge; at one point Dawn stands over her sleeping younger sister with a hammer, poised to kill. Yet, there’s humor to be found in what Solondz calls his “sad comedies.”
     Dawn is played by Heather Matarazzo, an actress who has worked regularly but  has never owned the screen the way she does here. In Welcome to the Dollhouse she’s at the awkward stage where her teeth seem too big for her head. Dawn still wears pajamas with clowns on them, but her small dark eyes are filled with hate and pain. There’s something boiling in her, and we don’t know if it will be good or bad.
     School life is miserable, and her home life is not much better. Her older brother is the sort of nerdy kid who is the star of the family just because he was the first born. He plays clarinet and is starting a band, not because he loves music, but so he’ll have something for his college resume. Dawn’s little sister is the adorable one, permanently wearing her pink leotard and leaping around the front yard like a deer. Dawn is hopelessly stuck in the middle. When the kids at school call her a “lesbo,” she comes home and calls her little sister a lesbo. That’s how hate it works. It’s passed on like a germ.
     Dawn’s life changes when her brother hires a hunky high school senior named Steve (Eric Mabius) to sing in his band. Steve is the sort of boy who seems to exist in all high schools. Compared to the rest of us, still squeezing our zits and wearing the clothes our mom bought for us at Sears, he’s already an adult,  looking and dressing like Jim Morrison. Dawn loves him at first sight.
     I’ve probably seen this movie six or seven times. It never fails. Dawn is always riveting. We never quite feel sorry for her, because Solondz makes her as dim and vicious as the people who abuse her. At one point she asks a female classmate, “Why do you hate me?” The simple response: “Because you’re ugly.” This is the world of seventh graders. What else can Dawn do but hunker down and prepare for a long battle in the trenches of childhood?
     Solondz’ films are loaded with misfits like Dawn, and if my description of the movie has left you cold, then I’m failing. Though I’ve found things to praise in his other films, none have had the lasting impact on me of Welcome to the Dollhouse. Solondz’ camera work is simple, almost flat, which allows the dialogue to hit even harder. “Is high school better than junior high?” Dawn asks her brother. Not really, he says. People are still hateful, but not to your face. Mark, as played by Matthew Faber, has paid his dues. With his clarinet and his college plans, he has come out the other side of junior high school, slightly battered, but wise.  
     I suspect Dawn is special to Solondz. He’s brought her back in his other movies, played by different actresses, and in one film she supposedly died. Yet, it’s been announced that he has a new film coming out soon, Wiener- Dog, with Greta Gerwig in the role of “Dawn Wiener.” Is it the same Dawn from this movie? Or just the same name? Solondz is perverse that way.
     I’m sure Wiener-Dog will feature the same elements that Solondz has been mining since Welcome to the Dollhouse, with his misfits and loners elbowing for position in a cruel, unforgiving landscape, but I fear it may also continue in the vein of his recent films, which have grown increasingly odd in presentation. It’s not enough that he challenge us with his characters; he also has to challenge us with his storytelling techniques, which don’t always work. I prefer Welcome to the Dollhouse because it shows us these outsider characters and, rather than ask us to sympathize with them, simply shows them enduring.
     One of Dawn’s enemies is a punkish kid named Brandon (Brendon Sexton Jr) who challenges her, as if to a fight, to meet him after school to be raped. She agrees, not sure what to expect, but determined to not be called a coward. Nothing happens, but Dawn and Brandon develop an unexpected  friendship. He’s a loner, too, perhaps even more reviled in school than Dawn. He’d like Dawn to be his girlfriend, but her heart belongs to Steve.
     The scenes between Dawn and Steve are exquisite. She fawns over him, feeds him fish sticks and Hawaiian Punch, and even builds a shrine to him in her bedroom. “You will love me,” she chants. He’s accustomed to women liking him, so he tolerates her, which fuels her fire. Even when one of Steve’s ex-girlfriends tells her she doesn’t stand a chance, Dawn plows ahead, fish sticks at the ready.
     Dawn is eventually abandoned by both Brandon and Steve – Steve quits school to become a rock star, while Brandon runs away to avoid reform school - and finds herself in an unforeseen family drama when her sister is kidnapped. She tries to make herself useful by going to New York where the little girl’s discarded tutu is found, but before Dawn can become a hero she learns that her sister has returned home safely. Now it’s Dawn is who is far away from home, but no one appears worried about her.
     “Some people will of course accuse me of misanthropy and cynicism,” Solondz once said. “I can't celebrate humanity but I'm not out to indict it either. I just want to expose certain truths.”
     I’m not sure what truths are exposed in Welcome to the Dollhouse. But after watching it recently, the message seems to be that cruelty is out there, in the air, and it’s to be suffered, like a head cold. Some people are more likely to attract it than others. What makes Dawn so intriguing is that she’ll stand up against it, not so much to win, but simply to live. She’ll cope, even if it entails her being mean to others, just to get some ground back. She’s not smart, nor particularly sensitive. She’s simply blessed with a crude survival instinct. By the end, Dawn has found a niche as a member of her school’s singing club. We see her on a bus, singing along with other kids. Solondz isolates her voice so we hear it above the others; it is dissonant, but it’s hers, fighting to be heard. 


Tuesday, February 2, 2016


In a harrowing example of ego run amok, Fred Leuchter Jr., aka “Mr. Death,” goes from not understanding how he, an uncertified engineer from the bland, working class town of Malden, Massachusetts, would be hired to create new electric chairs and lethal injection machines for state prisons all over America,  to hailing himself as the only man qualified to prove whether or not gas chambers were used in the extermination of Jews during World War II.  But throughout his strange life, certainly as depicted in Errol Morris’ eerie, bittersweet  Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., (a 1999 documentary now on TubiTV), Leuchter seemed to bumble into things, whether it was his marriage to a donut shop waitress (who must have been impressed with Leuchter’s 40-cups of coffee daily) to a lucrative gig as a maker of execution equipment, to his time as a spokesman for an anti-holocaust group, as if he were a sort of bizarro-world Forrest Gump.

We learn about Leuchter (pronounced “Looshter”, I think) from his own brief narrative, home movies, dreamy reenactments, and some period photographs, but his early years seemed to go by without much drama. His father worked in a prison, and young Leuchter would sometimes accompany his dad to work, where he spent time with the cons and learned how to pick locks and safes, things that amused and intrigued a youngster. It may have been this interacting with the prisoners that lead to his concern over finding humane ways of execution. Leuchter is at his most compelling – dare I say charming – when railing against the horrors of faulty electric chairs, which could result in anything from a condemned man’s scalp catching fire, to having his eyeballs blown across the room. Though not especially morbid, Leuchter is shown several times playfully strapping himself into one of his killing devices. He also plays along with Morris, who shows him early in the movie as a kind of grinning weirdo, presiding over his inventions with a ghoulish smile as lightning crackles all around.

A large part of the film is dedicated to Leuchter being asked in 1988 to help defend Ernst Zundel, a neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier on trial in Canada for spreading hate literature. Leuchter packed his bags and brought his new wife to Auschwitz on what he laughingly deemed their “honeymoon.” She stayed in the car, reading mysteries  and doing crossword puzzles, while he wore a heavy sweater and scraped the walls of an abandoned gas chamber. As one of his critics describes him, Leuchter was a “fool” who believed in the “Sherlock Holmes style” of discovery, hoping to find a clue of a thread or an old shoelace. Leuchter’s flimsy findings lead him to stand up in court and declare the gas chambers were not likely to have exterminated the millions of Jews on record. That his findings were scientifically unsound is covered in the movie, but what is more intriguing is the way he soaks up the adulation of neo-Nazi groups and Holocaust revisionists. When he speaks in public, defending himself and his research, he seems to grow taller, bolder. No longer the mousey geek of the early part of the film, he’s found an audience, hence, he’s found his voice. His ensuing pamphlet published by Zundel’s group, The Leuchter Report: An Engineering Report on the Alleged Execution Chambers at Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Majdanek Poland, has been quoted endlessly by neo-Nazi groups. Unfortunately for Leuchter, his alliance with the Nazi groups resulted in him losing his gig as a maker of electric chairs. His wife dumped him, too. Not, I’m assuming, because she objected to his new friends’ beliefs, but because he was spending so much time with them. 

Had Leuchter not aligned himself with anti-Holocaust groups, he might’ve been a good subject for Morris’ previous documentary, Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,  a sweeping, tangled narrative about a robot inventor, an expert on naked mole rats, a lion tamer, and a topiary gardener, each talking about their views on life. But once you’ve joined a fringe set whose raison d’etre is to deny perhaps the most heinous act in mankind’s history, you’ve crossed the line from lovable eccentric to something more sinister. Leuchter’s story, though, works almost like a fable. Here’s the little schnook  who has lived his life far under the radar. Suddenly, he has an audience. So what if there’s an even larger audience that will dismiss him as a flake? He doesn’t care, because there’s a group out there in the margins of society that needs him, wants him, hangs onto his every word. Adulation is as  intoxicating as any drug, especially when you’ve gone through life unnoticed, a horse-toothed little man with no clout. I looked at Leuchter not as an evil character, but as a bit of a boob, and an attention addict, someone so clueless that he once tried to sell an electric chair through the local want-ads. I'm not even certain he's an anti-Semite. I think he merely wants applause. I also think of him as being out on a ledge, afraid to come back inside, determined to defend his findings rather than admit he might have screwed up. If he admits defeat, he loses his Nazi audience. And they are all he has left, his blanket against anonymity, his fix.

Roger Ebert said in his original review in 1999 that Errol Morris’ movies provide  us “with no comfortable place to stand.” True, but what Mr Death left me wondering was this:  Here’s a guy who dreams of an execution where the condemned person can hear music or watch television as he or she is injected or shocked to death. He wishes the condemned could sit back comfortably, as if in a reclining chair. Morris, one of the best documentary makers ever, missed a beautiful opportunity by not asking Leuchter how he’d design Hitler’s gas chambers. Would there be rows of TVs? Piped in music? Because you can safely bet that at some point since 1988, this very thought has passed through Leuchter’s mind.