Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Immigrant (2013)

The Immigrant (2013)
Directed by James Gray
Written by James Gray and Richard Manello

Set in the same time, this is not Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant in his great short subject which was more or less a contemporary story then.

In this there are two young women sisters who have come to Ellis Island from Poland. One sister is obviously ill so they are not going to let her in. The story centers around the other sister Ewa (Marion Cotillard). They are not going to let her in either, but I guy pays off the powers that be in the island and she is allowed in.

She goes into NYC with this man Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix). He is a sort of showman/pimp and puts Ewa, against her will into a tawdry burlesque show in a seedy little theater.

The movie in interesting enough with decent performances and well staged and art directed atmospheric scenes. It also shows the USA to be a lot less welcoming, even back then, contrary to what we are sometimes lead to believe.

Ultimately I’m not really sold on the pimp with a heart of gold theme of the movie which was written by two men.

I watched it on Netflix. There is the thumb up or down rating system on Netflix now. I preferred the old 5 star system because with movies like this that are OK, at least not terrible, I don’t react in such a binary way.  
So I didn’t rate this movie at all up or down in the Netflix software. It’s not really good or really terrible but somewhere floating in between.
There is a lot of stuff like that.

Children of the Streets By Harlan Ellison

Children of the Streets
By Harlan Ellison

This is a collection of juvenile delinquency stories from the 1950s.They are all set in NYC where Ellison grew up.

High school didn’t work then for many teens and still doesn’t work, 60 years later. That’s my opinion because I’m generally anti-school. It’s just basically a place to put people, to condition them to be productive and obedient workers in a complicated society that separates people into categories of age when they might be better off intermixing more organically. I don’t think children should be separated from adults all the time as schools do. Some of us, even when very young, can feel that it is not right, and certainly not nurturing. Most find ways to more or less cope. The ways some find to get through it are not helpful to the community at large. In school the education comes primarily from one's peers.

There is a lot of gang stuff in the stories. Much of it rather extreme with deaths occurring at “rumbles”, even a principal assassinated with a zip gun. That stuff gives the book a feeling of melodramatic unbelievability, but who knows maybe things like that actually happened. After all Tony did get killed in a rumble in West Side Story.

Anyway, the book provides a view of a system that doesn’t work.
I don’t think high school is much better now. Since there was no legal abortion when the kids in these stories were born, many of them were likely unwanted which is not a good position to start life from.
The book has stories of bullying of a gang type and the feeling that high school is almost like prison.

But that’s OK. If school doesn’t work, just bring in more cops, or, as I have been hearing in the news, just arm teachers and other school workers.
Great, good luck, but I’m telling you that isn’t going to work either.

This is the first Ellison I have read. It’s a good read with action and conflict filled pulp fiction type stories. The 1950s gang jargon is fun to decode.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Don’t Think Twice (2016)

Don’t Think Twice (2016)
Written and directed by Mike Birbiglia

This is a sad movie about people who live in a dystopia where they cannot connect and respect one another because they are all seeking the attention of the big time with its fame, riches, and relatively mediocre but flashy electronic products. And it’s not a documentary.
There are a solid reliable number of showbiz products that are self referential.  Naturally, that is the world the people who make them have to succeed in to qualify for the production we are viewing. After laboring in showbiz for 10 years I suppose it kind of becomes what life is all about, especially when much of mass media is focused of fame and celebrity in showbiz. So Mike Birbiglia, having labored in showbiz for some years gets to write direct and act in a movie, he’s a winner in the game.

This movie is set in the world of an improv theater company. Having never been in such a troupe I cannot verify the authenticity of detail. I partly saw it as a workplace story.
There is this improv group called The Commune. They are all around 30-40 years old. The Commune is apparently successful because they are putting on shows regularly in a theater somewhere in NYC and people are showing up and laughing even though their stuff is not so, laugh out loud, funny.  But people always laugh at stuff too enthusiastically in movies. Anyway, they all seem clothed and housed adequately, but there is a lure from above, or below, that disrupts their solidarity. There is big media out there hovering above and threatening to elevate or crush depending on its wim and presumed stockholder profit needs. There is a TV network with a show like SNL. Weekend Live is not so great but it is there, an institution and the big time path to stardom, movies, talk show hosting, whatever jewels The Bigtime has to offer.
At the outset of the movie there is a buzz in the theater because a producer or some such from Weekend Live, the SNL- like show is coming to a performance.  A guy from The Commune ends up getting cast on Weekend Live. His old comrades are happy for him sort of but sad for themselves.
There is some indication that the actual work of The Commune is better than that of the TV show.  

There are a few possible lessons from the movie. Don't leave The Commune. The communards will hate and envy you for your exalted betrayal. There is the reward money, but that might not be worth much when you can do nothing for your former friends, useless in getting them even a writing job on the show or anything.  

I don't know if it was the intention of the filmmaker but the thing clearly shows a sad economic set up where no one wins. Certainly not the winners. But since this comes from the pov of a winner it might suggest that the little people, happy to work away in obscurity, are the only ones who come close to winning because at least they have one another. The do- gooder powerful are always blessing us meek. Easy for the winners to say, like the Beetles, “But oh that magic feeling nowhere to go.” But maybe it's true, maybe it is easier to be spiritual and connected to people without all that money to worry about and possessions to tend to. Not to mention defending oneself from the needy, even needy friends who unfortunately need to be left behind because the situation becomes too involved and painful for rich and poor alike that they are better done with one another altogether. The winner is useless and impotent. The woman in the troupe who he loves shuns him and the big time show.  She is happy to labor on with The Commune and work that she finds meaningful. He’s like, “What!?! You had an audition for Weekend Tonight and didn't show up!?!?’”
All this is wrapped up in an acceptable level of dramatic interest, given its existential absurdity. It moves along ok.  Not boring.   
None of the cast was particularly interesting to me. The writer director gives himself a looking for love role in a side story that is not that compelling. Kate Micucci is in the movie. She is funny in other stuff, but hardly used here for much of anything at all. But the movie does bring up the issue of the lure of The Bigtime which is worth some exploration.

I wonder what the world of entertainment was really like 150 years ago before radio, movies, etc.
I have a notion it might have been able to support more entertainers in some way. Certainly there must have been more, out of the home amusements of one sort or another. Now everything is so centralized and in control of powerful media conglomerates. This is a strange and new development in human history.
The lure of The Bigtime is fascinating and seems to never give up in some people. One can be in their mid 60s and still fantasize that somehow the call up to The Bigtime is just around the corner, someone is bound to notice that The Bigtime needs me and wants me to be there to hang out with all the “stars” I identify with.
The power, and staying power, of this lure is impressive given that very few are actually called up into The Bigtime. But you too can be The American Idol.
On the other hand one could react to this by questioning putting any effort into the performing arts at all. It is kind of insane to try to compete with the most skilled and well connected performers in the country or world.
Those lost to The Bigtime lure might just give up altogether.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Cake and The Rain A Memoir By Jimmy Webb

The Cake and The Rain
A Memoir By Jimmy Webb

I was more interested in the subject and the exciting career he must have had before I read this book. I guess I was hoping for more in-depth, human interest stories, or just a more personal feeling. He doesn't really come through with that.

The book has a disjointed, hop back and forth through time, jauntiness about it. Chapters have dated subsections of a couple pages or so each. “1966” “1970”, etc. I think he would have been better off just going linear. The result is the impression of not following through whatever emotions the Jimmy Webb character is going through during any episode. It is hard to get involved with the feeling of empathy for Jimmy Webb as he presents himself here.
The man gets a lot, quite soon. He is wealthy just after his teen years. There is a lot of money in having written and orchestrated big hit pop recordings in the mid to late 1960s.
But given that he is a songwriter I expected to get more from the book than rather surface stories of the people he hung out with and the fancy cars and cool glider soar planes he got. He never really tells us how he feels about things. I guess he is just not the philosophical type.
There are stories, information, but not a lot by any stretch, of the business of being a major hit songwriter in the 60s-70s. He is contracted to Johnny Rivers for 7 years but his work was taking off and wanted to be on his own. So a business guy working for Rivers, the man whose job it was to tell him that it was time to sign the option for the next few months or the whole thing would be over and Jimmy free, conspired with Jimmy Webb to get him out of the contract. This is what happened and apparently they have not spoken since. It does seems quite underhanded. Johnny Rivers was a big star in the mid-1960s although one would hardly know that now. Then he got more into the business end of things with a record company that put out Up, Up, and Away, the 5Th Dimension mega hit written by his contract songwriter Webb.
So Webb split and was successful. He got really rich and bought a high powered REAL sports car a Shelby Cobra. There are some mishaps and stories with the car. I'm like, “OK, rich First World People's Problems.”
He takes a lot of cocaine. There is a lot of cocaine in the book, and cocaine with other stars. Harry Nilsson is in more of the cocaine stories than anyone else. He was an excessive coke partner. Rock star cocaine stories are not very interesting. They usually involve spending a lot of money, trying to get more cocaine and being nasty to someone along the way.
There is a scene at the end of the book, it is 1973. Jimmy and Harry  are at a party. Harry has this stuff. Does a bunch of it, Jimmy thinks it looks funny but does a bunch which ended up being PCP and really messing him up for awhile because it was a large overdose. He can’t play the piano. Then he finally remembers he can play Amazing Grace on the piano. The end. This is not a particularly compelling drug story. Does Amazing Grace mean he is returning to the faith of his father? His dad was a Baptist preacher for a time. To me that is not exactly revealing of anything very deeply discovered in his drug adventures. More a frightened retreat, but maybe that is all that is available in the Rock Star Excessive Cocaine cliche experience.   
He doesn't tell us what happened to Harry that night, but we know that Nilsson didn’t live to be old and his career went downhill before that around the time of all this cocaine and partying with John Lennon who had separated from Yoko for a spell and had this notorious LA binge with Harry.
Jimmy Webb doesn’t tell us if he stopped taking drugs or if he only took them while singing Amazing Grace after the PCP thing. And the whole book stops in 1973. That's a really long time ago.
Anyway, it is a rather disappointing book, but it has large print and one can zip through it rapidly if curious.

There are a couple or three women who come and go in his life here up until 1973, but they are never really fleshed out as characters, we don’t get to know them at all.

There is a character called The Devil, who was a powerful radio DJ on the mid-60s and then became a pal, or hanger on, or business associate with Webb. He is the guy who suggests that Webb writer a song about a hot air balloon. They have a falling out over a woman. We never are told who The Devil is or why we are not being told. Why not just tell us? Did The Devil threaten to sue? It’s not like the betrayal over the woman story is that bad and it was many decades ago.

I think he is frustrated that he never got to be a revered singer/songwriter recording artist like Carol King of Joni Mitchell. He keep trying to make these grandly produced LPs but the sales are poor, so that type of stardom doesn’t really happen.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Middle of the Night (1959) and The "May-December" relationship.

Middle of the Night (1959)Directed by Delbert Mann
Written by Paddy Chayefsky

It might be the norm, the usual, but it is also a cliché.
In the May - December male - female relationship the man is powerful and he uses his power to gain sexual access to the young woman. He is her boss at work. He is at least 55 or 60 years old and has spent his life in a productive career so he has top notch housing and has a lot of disposable income to spend on the easily impressed young woman. He has a wife, or has recently abandoned a woman closer to his own age. He has a daughter who is around the age of the younger woman.

The younger woman is either a gold digger, out for his money or at least impressed by it and naturally enjoying the perks of hanging with someone rich and powerful rather than the relatively silly boys of her own age. She has daddy issues. She is inexperienced and naive, maybe not that bright. But she has her youth, her beauty, a nice body, which are her primary assets in the relationship marketplace.

Middle of the Night is a very fine movie. From the leading players on down it is filled with the best actors available. It is shot in B&W on location in New York City. It has some of the best, most real feeling, New York scenes in any movie. It is shot in the winter and the New York winter is allowed to be itself in a way unusual in movies. Principal players do an important  scene in Central Park on a snowing dark cloudy day. Fredric March walks across the street on one of those days when it is sort of raining or snowing, and the street has water puddles and snow and slush. I don’t think I have ever seen a shot like that in a movie. The apartments are real NYC apartments not the enormous apartment sets often in movies that any New Yorker can see as unreal.
The movie is unusual and special because it takes on this topic to begin with. It is a justifiable criticism of movies through the decades that older leading men movie stars are often put in romantic situations with the new young starlet. Like a 25 year age gap between a Cary Grant and and Audrey Hepburn, etc.
In this movie Fredric March plays 56 but he is really 62 and at that age is no longer that handsome leading man of 30 years before. His eyes look saggy, he in not fit, has a belly, he is just not a sex symbol. The woman is played by beautiful blond Kim Novak. She is supposed to be 24 in the movie and is in fact still in her 20s when the movie was made.
He is the boss, she the receptionist, their relationship is not equal, she is a confused divorcee who lives in a very modest apartment with her mother.
He is a widower, has a nice apartment, falls in love with her, is physically forceful at one point, and she is more or less going along with his expressed needs and adoration. But it is not coming from her. He is driving it.
The script is very well crafted. Paddy Chayefsky put his skill as a dramatist to use in this very fine well directed and acted movie. Chayefsky was only in his mid 30s when he wrote this. I don’t know what attracted him about the situation. It has a satisfying yet opened end finale. It is a very good movie.

But what if the man is not particularly powerful? What if he has been more or less a slacker? What if in opposition to having this attractive wealth, he has literally nothing, lives on a tiny fixed income? What if they, once together, have to move in with her parents because he doesn’t have that fancy apartment to share?  There is another side of everything. There is an enormous variety of human experience so this type of May - December relationship happens too.
What if they are same sex or trans people? And a 30 year difference is not the same if the woman is 34 rather than 24, or 44 to his 74.

But what is the drama if there is no disapproving daughter the same age as the young lover? What if she really loves him for the sad lost human he is, who is open about his humanity and capable of a warmth and connection that she finds rare? Well, there might not be a lot of movie type drama in that. These might be the kind of issues that cannot be easily seen in the voyeuristic manner of looking on at lives via a play or movie and judging the characters by their movement and actions rather than what might be going on constantly within them. In this situation she might really adore him but wonder how she will support him and herself, especially as he gets older. She might feel frustrated that she can’t fill out his dreams.
He might worry that he is using up her youth. That he can’t provide for her and liberate her from the drudgery of work or get her a nice place to live like, as he imagines, many other men his age could. (The ones in the movies who have worked hard and accumulated wealth over the years and still have some after the settlement with the ex.) He might be concerned with his health as he ages. He might be OK for the time being and virile enough, but how long can these things last? After all 50 doesn’t seem so long ago, so 80 is right around the corner, it’s it? He might worry that he is not fun enough, and been-there-done-that on too many things she still needs to do. But day to day there might not be a lot of visible drama and it is not easy to show in the movies. But that’s why novels can be so superior to movie fiction, that real internal stuff.

Middle of the Night, written and directed by men, is from the male point of view. It might be somehow progressive for it’s time, but it is still written from the mindset on the 1950s patriarchy. If the culture is to move forward we need to hear from a much wider variety of voices sharing their relationship experiences. Stories like this can often feel terribly stale, along with the male point of view dominant in corporate media, there is also the competitive factor so supported by corporate media with it's endless jealousy stories. Like I said before there is a wide variety of age variant relationships. Same sex, trans, polyamorous, on and on.

In the story of Middle of the Night, why couldn’t she have her retuning young male former husband and well as the older man? Why are they viewed as redundant and competitive when clearly they were suited to and helped full entirely different areas of her emotional need?

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Tangerine (2015)

Tangerine (2015)
Directed by Sean Baker
Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch

This is a kinetic drama shot in the streets of Los Angeles. It has a color saturated look of gritty lowlife glamor which feels appropriate to the subject matter.

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez is in the leading role as Sin-Dee a trans street sex worker. Sin-Dee is back on the street after a brief stint incarcerated.  She hears that her lover Chester has cheated on her with a woman named Dinah.  Along with friend Alexandra, played by Mya Taylor, Sin-Dee, in a jealous rage, hunts down Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan) eventually finding her in a very unappealing cheapo motel bordello. This is staged in a very well shot moving camera room to room scene.

There is also a married Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) with a taste for trans trade who figures into the story. At one point there is a nice little scene with veteran actor Clu Gulager, who I have watched for over 50 years, as a cab passenger.

The fascinatingly exotic, to this NYCer anyway, LA street locations and the convincing performances of the committed trans and non-trans actors give the movie a feel of almost cinéma vérité documentary realism.

The movie is also famous for being shot on an iPhone 5s. It looks great. With camera work by director Baker and Radium Cheung.

Personally I feel that sexual jealousy, which is the core conflict of the story, is rather silly. Why can’t we all just get along?
But I know people feel it and that it is not as rare as I might think it ought to be.

Tangerine is an engaging fast moving indie drama. Well done.
It is currently available in Netflix.

There is some very positive buzz about Sean Baker’s newest movie, not yet released. I look forward to that one.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Death Ship

The Death Ship
a novel by B Traven

Traven writes about work. Most of his novels involve people at work. This is not the usual work, but work at its most difficult, at its most exploitive of the worker. Work that takes full advantage of a difficult human situation, using it to enslave for the profit of a few. This is not kicking a person when they are down, although that is also a feature of this work environment, but first making a slave of them.  
These extreme conditions represent a broader situation that allows Traven to comment indirectly on all work.

In The Death Ship, we have a USA sailor on a nice ship with decent work, food and housing. He polishes brass, he paints, and paints again. This is a first person novel. This man is telling us his story. He goes to shore in Antwerp and for one reason or another the good ship leaves without him. He left his papers on the boat. He is suddenly a man without a country, a poor sailor who cannot prove his US citizenship, who is unwanted and deported from every European country he is forced into by the previous one.
Here the narrator points out that things were not always like this. Before the Great War, meaning WWI, there was less of this bureaucratic, passport necessary, control. He tells us that all this came in after the war. This novel was written in the 1920s less that 10 years after the war. What we know of the mysterious Traven is that he was a man in exile like in the novel, adrift across the globe and later to settle in Mexico.
Back to the story of the novel. Without papers, due the regulations, he cannot sign onto another ship. He is an unfortunate with no options ripe for the virtual slavery and the exploitation he eventually falls into on The Death Ship.

The work on the ship, the conditions, are the worst. He is a coal hauler. He brings the coal in the steam powered machine from where it is stored to the fireman who feeds the six coal fired furnaces that boil the water which creates the steam which powers the ship. It is extremely hot There is no electric light on the ship. It is an old piece of junk that has not been retrofitted with such modern luxuries. The coal hauler is at the bottom of the pecking order. He has to deliver the meals to another worker who doesn’t work as hard. The coal job also has frustrating details that make it worse. The heavy steel bar grates on which the coal fire lives often fall off the old rotted away ledge on which they rest and fall into the lower part of the furnace. He has to work with the fireman to reposition the hot heavy bars which takes him away and behind in the hauling as the steam drops due to lack of fire in the furnace in which they work. Traven goes into detail of this operation in which often other of the grate bars fall while they are attempting to reposition the first.
The ship gives him a wooden bunk in which to sleep, but no bedding, no pillows, sheets, blankets, no soap to wash up with. He is continuously black with coal dust.

In this and others of his fine and unique novels Traven presents his point of view on this phase of the globalized work situation on the ground and on the seas. Unquestionably in sympathy with the worker and presenting us with stories and situations where we can feel the worker’s pain, frustration, entrapment, and utter hopelessness, he comments about it all being at service of profit for some unseen remote wealthy businessman or business conglomeration, he doesn’t present a simple solution. He is not telling us that if the “Worker of the World Unite” all will be well, because he sees that picture clearly in an unblinking way. He knows that the workers of the world are not going to unite and if they do some among them will exploit that situation so that it will still not be set right with universal justice. While he tells us that the organized IWW ships are far better and more justly run he doesn't see much hope in the regionalism of the workers themselves to really get together to make a better world for all.
Yet these novels do not give one a feeling of demoralize cynical hopelessness. They are so solid with humanity that keeps going no matter what, that they override the horror of the situation with the human spirit to go on. I think that is the reason I love his novels. He doesn’t give me some pipe dream hope, pie in the sky, that I might be inspired by for a moment but ultimately not believe in, but presents me with humanity that adapts and will not give up on life as it is as hard as it is without the devices of melodrama.
This also shows me how relatively easy my own situation is and helps defeat the devolution into self-pity. This is the greatness of B Traven.

I still suggest The Bridge in the Jungle for a Traven beginner. It is not about work but is a very human story set among indigenous people in Mexico who are oddly affected by modernity.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Get Me Roger Stone (2017)

Get Me Roger Stone (2017)
Written and Directed by Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, Morgan Pehme

“Get Me”? The thing is, Roger Stone doesn’t need to be call on, he is one of these people, like his mentor Roy Cohn, that hang around on the sidelines of mainstream politics for decades, he can’t be got rid of.

This Netflix documentary film does a fine job at illustrating is troubling side of political influence which arose in the mass media age. Roger Stone is shown to have connections to one of the progenitors of the Dirty Tricks, Cohn, and the win at all costs, type of lying manipulation of the public mind that is plugged into the lowest common denominator electronic media outlets.

When I say he and his type won’t go away, I mean that he is simply a feature of the individualism that has arisen to the controlling position of the national and global dialog. I believe this is a feature of 100 years of multi-generational conditioning by commercial mass media culture. Stone knows how to manipulate electronic media.  This type of media manipulation is why reality TV host Donald Trump managed to become president. Sorry to say, these trends will continue and we will see more of this in perhaps even more bizarre manifestations than the election of Trump, if you can imagine that.

Is this a change from the past even the recent past of 100 years ago? It might very well be. The social structure as far as I know was quite a bit different back then. Religious institutions, for what they are worth, had more influence on people’s behaviour. Now is seems, the bottom line is the bottom line. Money is power. The control of it by individuals, the family, and the gang-like corporate syndicates are what is influencing the day with accompanying philosophical underpinnings which are an odd reaction to any other form of collectivism as generated by the likes of emotionally damaged Ayn Rand and the divide and sell influence of Madison Avenue advertising psychology.

Stone is shown to have no particular ax to grind personally other than a strange attraction to Republican power. He calms libertarianism while pimping himself out to any thug dictator willing the drop cash on his lobbying company Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly. (Will we hear move about this from the investigations of Trump campaign manager Manafort getting pay-off of Russian money? Stay tuned folks.)

The documentary is a “give him enough enough rope” sort of thing. Stone has never met an camera or a mic that he doesn’t like. Although he might be hanging himself in the eyes of some, he is wise enough to know that others will be attracted to his self-aggrandized bravado and see him as a type of trickster superhero. He is a flashy old dude, with his lovely hats and his clownish pin stripped suits. There is a fascinating array of hairpieces on display over the years in the archival clips shown.

While Get Me Roger Stone is instructive in showing what he is and why he and his type have the influence that they do. The power of his media distortion manipulation, will likely attracted a certain type to him. The type who are wannabe wiseguys. A comic book powerful villain  will be attractive to some at the same time that others will be repulsed.

A Star is Born (1976)

I saw this movie in a theater 40 years ago when it was new. I didn’t remember much about it. I saw the original March - Gaynor more recentl...