Category Archives: film and book reviews

My Mother Made Me a Commie

My mother and I watched lots of old movies in the 1950s on a tiny TV screen in our tiny winterized screened in breezeway.  My mother knew all the supporting players by name.  Her own sisters had been MGM contract players.  She was never political and always voted Republican except for George McGovern.  But without her knowing it, the movies we watched left a deep impression on me.  They reinforced the idea of “getting in other people’s shoes whether they were worn out with holes in the bottom or velvet ones studded with pearls. I could feel for the “down and out” while coveting the lacy ball gowns, crystal goblets, and fox furs. It nurtured my love of contradiction that persists to this day.

The economist, Milton Friedman, was right in one respect. He once said, “When a crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas lying around.” This statement became the basis for Naomi Klein’s frightening book “The Shock Doctrine.” In it, she chronicles the ways his followers jammed his free market ideas down the throats of citizens in various countries when a crisis, man made or natural, occurred. Some of the ideas lying around during the 1930s and 1940s that produced movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) were often anti-capitalist, labor friendly and surprisingly saturated with feminism.  I watched “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” (1947) this past Christmas. It’s about a hobo who occupies (YES, Occupies!) a rich man’s mansion every winter when the rich guy goes to his winter home in Virginia.   The hobo wears his clothes, smokes his cigars, and drinks his wine. Year after year nobody noticed anything awry.

One day on his daily stroll through Central Park. The hobo happens upon a homeless WWII vet (YES, veterans are always treated like crap even after [1]“the good war”.) Against his better judgment the hobo takes in the veteran. The daughter of the rich man runs away from her snooty college and decides to hide in her father’s mansion. She overhears the hobo confessing that he’s a hobo to the vet. She decides to pretend to be poor so she can stay there too and cuz the Vet is cute. Turns out that the vet has a bunch of ex GI buddies and their wives and kids who also need housing, so, somewhat reluctantly, the hobo takes in all of them. The vet and his buddies then hatch a plan to purchase an army barracks and turn it into communal housing. Well there are many more complications when the rich man (who started out poor) comes back to New York to look for his missing daughter. When they finally meet, the spunky girl confronts her father. She tells him that she doesn’t understand why they should have big empty houses when there are people who need them. Then she convinces him to disguise himself as a bum and join the merry band of people inhabiting his mansion. And soon her divorced socialite mother joins up disguised as a poor cook.

Other movies of that era also have spunky females like Barbara Stanwyck in “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945) who writes a Martha Stewart-like column in a NY newspaper about her Connecticut stately farm. Truth is she’s a poorly paid journalist who lives in a one bedroom flat in NYC.  “Holiday Affair” (1949) is about a war widow raising her son and trying to find a good father while trying to maintain her dignity and independence. “My Man Godfrey” (1936) is my favorite film. Filmed at the height of the Depression, it opens with a bunch of rich people going on a scavenger hunt. One of the “items” they must find is a “forgotten man”. So they go to where all the homeless are shacked up tin order to find one. And audiences loved these stories of people struggling together in an often dog eat dog world. They still do if given the chance. “The Devil Wears Prada” is in this tradition, but not quite as subversive as the old movies.

Besides giving people work on sewer systems and dams in the 1930s, the WPA funded writers, artists and photographers. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have another WPA type deal in order to have writers and artists come up with other ideas.  Margaret Thatcher once famously said about financial capitalism  aka Milton Friedman’s“free market” that “there is no alternative,” referred to as TINA.  But there must be.  There were other ideas not so very long ago.  Time to dig them up and repot them.  We need to  “imagine” a better world that we can actually Occupy rather than watch on the TV.  I was lucky to watch old movies with my mother.  No, she didn’t make me a Commie, but she did help make me a Contrarian.

[1] “The Good War” was the name of the 1985 book by Studs Terkel. It is composed of first hand accounts of veterans of World War II.

Cabins

A cabin is not the same as a house.  “It is not a shelter” but often a place of “delicious peril” and “a jumping off place” for a child.  A cabin on a lake is a place to be alone with oneself and from that will come strength to deal with “the more serious winter perils later on.”   Diane Johnson makes these observations in her new book “Flyover Lives: A Memoir”.  Diane Johnson has numerous books published as well as having written the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”  She grew up near Moline, Illinois; part of the vast in between of the United States called flyover country.  It’s not far from where I grew up and I share some of her memories of going to a cabin for the summer time.  For as she reminded me, the Illinois summers are mercilessly hot and humid and escaping north was an old tradition.  But there are as many dissimilarities too.

Her family has been in America for more than two hundred years and her stories of them are not of timber barons or inventors.  They are quite ordinary lives of farmers, teachers, country doctors and a lot of housewives, but she writes with such detail and feeling that their lives are as intriguing as any biographies of presidents or generals. And they bring back memories. And sometimes that is a good thing.

One of her relatives, a great uncle, built a cabin on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near the Mackinaw Straits    She spent summers there in  the 1930s and 1940s.  And she writes of the difference between a cabin and a house.

I felt for this house the special love that almost everyone, I’ve since discovered, feels for a summer house—a love quite different from the feelings you have for the house you grow up in.  Perhaps a summer house is where,  forced into your own company, you discover that you are yourself, and maybe that’s something that can’t happen in an ordinary life, when you belong to your parents and school. The organized city child is deprived of these hours of messing around alone, though they must be the crucial ones in which we discover things, develop a point of view, learn to rely on ourselves as reliable observers, establish in our own minds that we are we. Continue reading

Do Overs – An Evie Taloney Movie Review

There are quite a few lines in the incredibly visually rich movie “Nebraska” that resonated with me.  Though the characters speak few words, when they do, you listen.  It’s funny how most of us don’t think too much about our parents’ inner lives until we are much older and when it’s almost too late as they “can’t remember” when you ask questions.   But David “Davey” Grant gets to have a few exchanges with his father, Woody, that move this story along emotionally.  One such exchange is when they are looking out on to  Nebraska farm land with the round bales of hay lying across the horizon and the pasture dotted with black Angus cows.

David asks his father:

“Did you ever want to farm like your dad?”

Woody replies:

“I don’t remember.  It doesn’t matter.”

In the script David asks again if his dad had it to do all over would he have stayed here and farmed.  Woody replies that you can’t “do it all over”.

But people try to “do it all over” in many different ways.  When I was an actor and director in New York City in the 1980s, I directed plays by a wonderful playwright Jack Heifner.  Jack’s play “Vanities” held the record for longest Off Broadway run for quite a few years.  It is what made Kathy Bates a star.  I directed a one act play of his called “Twister”.  It was about a small plain town in Texas that is wiped away by a tornado. It looked a lot like the desolate town of Hawthorn in “Nebraska”.   There are only two people left, Betty and Roy.  When they find each other after the storm, Roy says he wants to  find their stuff  like her stuffed animals and a mattress and then bring them to where their house used to be.  He wants to rebuild it exactly like it was.  Betty doesn’t want any of the “stuff” because it’s just junk.  She wants to go away and have a brand new  prettier life.  She wants to be born again.  At the end she leaves and Roy is left alone with the rubble.

Jack returns to this born again theme in several of his plays.  There are many times that people want to reinvent themselves and be “born again”.  Sometimes it’s as simple as going off to college or moving to another town or state.  Sometimes it’s getting a divorce and starting a supposedly new life.

More often than not no one can do a complete do over of themselves unless they are actually making it all up like a grifter or con artist or someone mentally ill like Cate Blanchett’s character in “Blue Jasmine” who announces “People reinvent themselves….I met someone. I’m a new person.”   But for most people, you don’t really reinvent yourself, but you can come to terms with who you really are.  Carl Jung called this process “individuation”.  It’s “getting to know you, getting to know all about you.”  It’s accepting the quirks that make you an individual while at the same time seeing what makes you part of the whole of humanity.  In the Bible, Paul says that we are “all of one body, with gifts differing.”  We each have different gifts but together we make a whole.  Good marriages and partnerships work that way.

In “Nebraska” “Davey” Grant  finds out a whole lot about gifts and giving on this road trip with his dad.  He has inherited his Dad’s kindness and sense of humor and that’s the payoff.  Is it better than a million bucks?  Doesn’t matter. It’s a great story.

“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”

Watched “Les Miserables” last night.  Hugo described his novel as “a progress between good and evil, from injustice to justice….  Even after  bad reviews when it first opened, the musical went on to become the   4th longest running Broadway musical.  I’ve never been much of a musical  buff and when I was a NY talent agent had to go to “Les Mis” several times to see clients.  So I grudgingly sat down to watch it.  But like every time, half way through I get sucked into the revolutionary fervor.  The whole idea at the start of the musical of Valjean being imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family is unjust.  Stealing  by the nasty innkeeper is juxtaposed against stealing for someone else’s good.  The film resonates also because of this fantasy of revolution and how the young and gorgeous take to the barricades to fight for justice.

But this particular revolution was largely forgotten until Hugo used it for his novel.  When people talk on the blogs of “taking to the streets”, they have a vision of Liberty carrying the red flag amongst beautiful blondes.  But in reality most revolutions are much more mundane.    But an image is important and I now have a image of a brave young man, Aaron Swartz taking on the Bourbons and their Javerts of today. Right now there is an empty chair in the cafe where Aaron should be.  But with people like Ian Welsh still at the table in the corner of that  cafe talking about ways to right the wrongs, the mundane and ordinary work of revolution goes on.

The Fixer

I keep coming back to Steven Van Zandt’s character, Frankie Tagliano in the Netflix TV series “Lilyhammer.”  His nickname is “The Fixer”.  J.J. Abrams  TV series “Person of Interest” (CBS Thursdays)  also has “a fixer”; an armed and dangerous guardian angel played by Jim Caviezel.  These guys are the opposites of  what we call managers.  Both of them encounter huge public bureaucracies with rules and regulations and they choose to help somebody in trouble by breaking those rules; going around authority.  They don’t seek to control or manipulate the situation or keep it calm.  They fix it.  Okay, and I should add they are very good at cracking heads and are crack shots to boot.

I’ve been a bit obsessed lately with the idea of a “manager” and “management”.  I don’t get it.   Why manage something?  You either fix it or you don’t.  Okay, when somebody is feeling blue or just wants to vent, you can listen to them.  But that’s called “being present”.  You aren’t fixing it; or controlling or manipulating anything as per the dictionary definition of “managing”.  You listen and you let them breathe. Continue reading

Evie Taloney’s “Flics Worth Ropin” – “Lilyhammer”

Run, don’t walk, to view “Lilyhammer” the original series on Netflix.  Well, in the spirit of the thing, you should shush not snowshoe since it takes place in the little town of Lillehammer, Norway site of the 1994 Winter Olympics.  And there is a whole lot of snow there, you betcha. And every conceivable kind of character from tree huggers to ice skating Muslim immigrants.

Steven Van Zandt (of the E Street Band and “The Sopranos”)  stars in this dramedy about a mob guy, Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, who goes into witness protection and asks to be relocated to Norway.  Figures no one will find him there.  But as the series continues, a series of flukes and flukey characters like a cop who moonlights as an Elvis impersonator may test that theory.  His theory that this is a peaceful idyllic place is also tested from the get go as he has to “fix” a situation on the train ride from Oslo to Lillehammer. Continue reading

Et Tu, Zuckerberg?

I’m in the movie business and I don’t go to the movies much anymore.  It’s only partially because I live 70 frickin’ miles from a multiplex, but more because the movies have been really sucky of late.  Sometimes a “Michael Clayton” studio movie comes along.  You know, a movie with dialogue and some sort of social conscience like “Network”.  Yes, we fortunately have the Cohen brothers for creepy yet thrilling character portrayals and Pixar for joy.  But mostly we get a lot of hurling; large pieces of car flying at us or guys throwing up a lot.

So I’m happy to report that even though this is a movie about a bunch of narcissistic guys who invent a way to avoid social contact, “Social Network” about the origins of Facebook  had me laughing one minute and on the edge of my seat in another.  Yes, it was worth the 2 hours of driving, (although driving on Interstate 90 in Montana is sheer bliss with little traffic and kick ass scenery.  You know the whole eagles soaring deal above the Yellowstone River and against the backdrop of the buttes.) I could kick myself for not asking the young Montanans there what they thought of the excess of Harvard life.  I mean those Harvard dorms rooms are mighty swanky.  Their refrigerators are filled with Heineken.  Loads of it.   And the women’s underwear in the first party scene?   Oh boy, did I feel like I needed to go shopping.

The movie was a kind of me generation “Othello”  with the Othello character (nice Brazilian roommate Eduardo Severin played by Andrew Garfield)  becoming the supporting player and Iago (Mark Zuckerberg) becoming the dark maladjusted leading man.  The movie starts out with the Desdemona character Erica (played by Rooney Mara) being condescended to in a Boston bar by  Zuckerberg (played to dark perfection by Jesse Eisenberg) and finally dumping his sorry ass, thus ending that Othello comparison.  (The movie theater I was in had a sound problem and the first couple minutes we couldn’t hear the dialogue which made us a bit rebellious. So they started the whole movie over and I’m glad they did because the movie starts off with such a bang that to have missed it would have been a sin.)

Every performance is dead on.  Eisenberg provides the strange hypnotic but sad center.  While Garfield provides its only beating heart.  The Winklevoss twins played by Armie Hammer with body double Josh Pence are the epitome of privilege who are impossibly handsome, smart and , oh yes, are on the Olympic crew team.  You start off hating them, but end up loving every minute they are on the screen. And just when you thought you were having all the fun you could stand, in walks Lucifer minion Sean Parker, played with astonishing dash and complexity by Justin Timberlake.  A seducer of the first order, he lures Zuckerberg away from this best friend Eduardo into the Silicon Valley version of decadent paradise.

The direction of David Fincher couldn’t be better making even the scenes in the law office fraught with danger.  The Aaron Sorkin script is fast, almost dizzying, but still luscious and spare at the same time.  The first scenes are actually flashbacks.  We then are shown the present which is a law office where the depositions are being taken of the people suing Zuckerberg over whose idea Facebook was.  Who would have thought you could get that much drama in deposing people?  And who is telling the truth? I’m probably not the first person to remark that Sorkin used the “Rashomon” structure to brilliant effect.  Who is telling the whole truth?

The women’s roles are not so much.  This is a movie about young masters of the universe in the making and their whirling neon drug and alcohol filled world of whoopee. If we let them, they will continue to infect our innate sense of community with a crapolistic sociopathy that will be the end of us.    But somehow, thank goodness I saw another possibility.   I ended up hoping that  Erica was happily talking philosophy with her good friends at a Boston University hangout. She was not  sitting with a bunch of assholes basking in their perceived glory or alone collecting friends on her Facebook page. Who will be the winners in this battle for a real social network?  Tune in.