Enduring Friendship: A Review of Stan & Ollie

stan and ollie 2Laurel and Hardy belong together, like peanut butter and jelly, or a suit and tie, or a shave and a haircut, or cats and dogs.  Especially like cats and dogs.  To see either of them in a film without the other is disconcerting, unwholesome, as I’m sure it had been for audiences who saw Zenobia, referred to in the new Laurel and Hardy biopic Stan & Ollie as “the elephant picture,” a comedy that Oliver Hardy made for Hal Roach Studios while Laurel was in a contract dispute with Roach at the height of the duo’s popularity.

It is also the elephant in the room, the dramatic crux at the heart of Stan & Ollie.  As the title suggests, Stan & Ollie is a behind-the-scenes drama about the legendary comedy team, a glimpse behind the names on the marquee.  Set in England in 1953, almost ten years after Laurel and Hardy made their last film together, Stan & Ollie focuses on their final tour of live performances.  The tour begins rather wanly, their booking agent Bernard Delfont either inept or a tad unscrupulous—Rufus Jones’ portrayal suggesting a little from column A and a little from column B—who seems more concerned about promoting “the next big thing,” Norman Wisdom, than drumming up audiences for a couple of has-beens.

However, after Laurel and Hardy begrudgingly agree to participate in a seemingly never-ending series of unpaid promotional events, the crowds begin to grow and soon the masters are playing to sold out houses.  And it is then, right at the beginning of their successful run, that the elephant rears its enormous head.  Except, the problem for Stan & Ollie is—it isn’t that enormous, sufficiently punctuated by a muffin thrown at the other’s head, at which a gathering of adoring fans applaud, assuming it to be another of the duo’s routines.  The storm clouds soon depart without more than a drop or two of rain.

Stan & Ollie is clearly a love letter to the genius of Laurel and Hardy, which is both a strength and liability.  Out of reverence, it seems, the drama never really heats up above the level of a tepid bath.  But leads Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly, as Laurel and Hardy respectively, are amazing.  Both are excellent mimics and comic performers in their own right, and even though I’m usually leery of these kinds of assessments regarding film performances, Reilly’s makeup is truly transformative.  It’s hard to believe you’re not looking at Oliver Hardy.  The movie shines when Coogan and Reilly perform Laurel and Hardy routines.  That’s not to say the dramatic scenes aren’t well played—they are imbued with real warmth and gravitas, so the movie doesn’t prove to be a complete wash—but they don’t sustain the film.

laurel and hardyIf Stan & Ollie is a celebration of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy, it’s also a tribute to friendship.  Yet as such, it isn’t wholly convincing, in spite of the touching scene late in the film of Stan and Ollie aboard an ocean liner, simply sitting with one another, Hardy having learned he has congestive heart failure, Laurel keeping his friend and partner company.  To really honor friendship, though, is to acknowledge how it survives, perhaps even transcends, the thousand cuts we inflict on one another, the very stuff of Laurel and Hardy’s comedies.  To honor enduring friendship, one could do no better than watch their films and enter into the laughter they evoke.

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The Emperor’s New Clothes: Aesthetic Shenanigans and Avengers: Infinity War

emperor's new clothesThose who think that art needs to follow well-worn conventions of legibility and accessibility to be worthwhile—those, for example, who believe paintings need to be representative and resemble what they purport to represent (and the more they do so, the greater they are) or who feel that films should be narrative and relatively easy to follow with clearly delineated characters—too frequently fall back on the clichéd charge that what doesn’t adhere to these conventions but is celebrated by critics and aesthetes is an example of “the emperor’s new clothes.”  The accusation seems to suggest that critics are declaring garbage as art to hold power over art snobs who will drool over it because they trust what others tell them—or worse, what “experts” tell them—more than what they can see for themselves.

To my knowledge, this cliché is never applied to something like Avengers: Infinity War, perhaps because there’s a much larger and more respected juggernaut promoting it.  Let’s face it, at least in America all that is selling, say, a two-and-a-half-hour non-narrative black and white Hungarian film that keeps returning to a scene of a half-paralyzed farmer and his daughter eating a potato is a critic.  And you know how lowly they are.  Lest we forget, it is the ultimate insult in an exchange of epithets between Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, more stinging than “punctilious pig,” “morpion,” or “cretin,” when Gogo sneers at Didi: “Crritic!”  To which Didi “wilts, vanquished, and turns away.”  But what did Beckett know?  For many, he was and probably remains one of the blackguards selling the emperor a dubious bill of goods.

avengers infinity warAvengers: Infinity War, on the other hand, doesn’t have to rely on some pale-skinned, myopic snob, whose spine is curled into a question mark from being hunched in front of his computer all day (because we know they’re usually males and paunchy ones at that).  No, A:IW, and the entirety of the Marvel Universe for that matter, has money behind it.  Lots of money.  In investment and box office return.  And those who usually haul out the “emperor’s new clothes” argument also insist that box office is the true determinant of artistic worth.  If people don’t want to see it, then how could it possibly be worthwhile?  What is the value of a film unseen?  What is the sound of one hand clapping?  With that logic in mind, A:IW is an astounding masterpiece, having hauled in $2.05 billion dollars last year, the largest grossing film of 2018.

But make no mistake: though the emperor is strutting before the public in the freshly tailored attire he calls A:IW, I see his royal wang as clear as day.  I can’t imagine a more tedious way to have spent two-and-a-half hours, and I saw that Hungarian film I described.  At least that had some potatoes in it!  A:IW is mostly CGI effects.  The few humans who occupy the movie aren’t even given the opportunity to compete with them.  The story was so stupid as to inspire no effort on my part to try to understand it.  I knew the details didn’t matter—I still have no idea what Thor was doing when he seemed to be holding open some aperture so light from a nearby sun could shoot a ray through it, nor do I care.  I understood what I needed to: Thanos is evil.  Worse, the story is apparently only half over.  Or perhaps I should restate that: for everyone’s sake I hope it’s half over.  More of this nonsense should not be perpetrated against humanity.

thanosStill, that the story didn’t end after 149 minutes reveals how little the movie and the money behind it care about telling a story.  They just want people to come see the next movie and all the movies associated with it.  Because just like the Marvel comics that inspired these movies, for which no crossover would go unexploited, A: IW is just a product that brings together characters who have been part a “story” running over a slew of films for roughly three years now.  So if you’re a completist, which A:IW baddie Thanos reveals to be the key to ultimate power since it is only by collecting all six Infinity Stones that he can essentially control the universe,  then you’ve got a lot of movies to get to.

Me?  I would rather see something whose worth I wasn’t sure about.  At least it gets me thinking.  Something like A: IW makes no bones about whether or not it’s worthwhile and ends up doing not much more than inching me a few hours closer to the grave.

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Favorite Movies of 2018

Like 2017, this past year proved to be a rich one for film.  Truth be told, there were only four films that I knew for sure were going to make my list, but vying for those other six slots were at least twice as many films.

Looking over my favorite films of the year, I was reminded of the fact that I live in a city in the Midwest that is not Chicago: the first three films on my list—movies that I found quite engaging—were technically released last year in larger markets.  Still, they opened in the Twin Cities in 2018, with the third not opening until February, so they go on my list despite their having made many top ten lists for 2017.

mrs fang

Bing Wang’s Mrs. Fang

I saw a number of excellent non-fiction films in 2018, so I feel I should mention two of my favorites that didn’t make my list—Dawson City: Frozen Time and Mrs. Fang.  The former is a dense, poetic essay about capitalism, colonialism, and the early years of cinema that suffers only from having so much to say that it’s hard to take it all in at times.  It’s not a difficult film, per se, it’s just that the subtitled narration and the visuals prove to be too much to take in at the same time.  Mrs. Fang is about dying and family and poverty.  Director Bing Wang focuses his camera for long stretches on the blank face of Mrs. Fang as she dies.  The film is unsettlingly intimate while somehow remaining distant, which underscores the everydayness of death and how poverty can drain it of the fullness of feeling that goes along with and surrounds it.

Along very different lines, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Mission: Impossible—Fallout.  Granted, I’ll never need to see it again, but I was thrilled watching Ethan Hunt and his crew do the impossible in one exciting set piece after another.  And while no fan of Tom Cruise am I, I would be lying if I didn’t admit how impressed I was by the stunts he was clearly doing himself. Since seeing the film, I learned that he flew his own helicopter in those hair-raising helicopter chases.  That’s dedication.

you were never really hereI was also impressed with director Steve McQueen’s first foray into genre filmmaking, Widows.  That the way McQueen filmed some of the movie’s sequences enriched the movie’s politics gives the film a gravitas and currency that makes it more compelling than I’d anticipated (which is to say nothing of the fact that there even were politics in what is essentially a caper film).  It’s definitely worth seeing.  Another film that was dazzlingly filmed was Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.  I was smitten with how Ramsay used purely filmic means to convey the protagonist Joe’s mental state, abetted as she is by Joaquin Phoenix’s seething performance.  Still, the rather sordid story to which all of that artistry was applied frustrated me.  I’ll need to see the movie again to get a better sense of my take on it.

One oddball film I saw that received a very short run in the Cities was Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, starring the always wonderful John C. Reilly (who almost single-handedly made Kong: Skull Island actually entertaining) and Joaquin Phoenix.  It’s probably the most traditional of the westerns I saw this year, and yet the relatively familiar story unfolds in pleasantly unpredictable ways.  It’s a weird movie, and it stuck with me far longer than I’d have thought.  (Rutger Hauer, alone, is a mystery beyond my fathoming.)

Peter Bogdanovich, John Huston in Orson Wells' "The Other Side Of The Wind"Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Other Side of the Wind, the closest we’ll get to Orson Welles’s long-lost unfinished movie that Welles filmed between 1970 and 1976.  It borders on chaotic at times, and its restless editing and roving camera, picking up snatches of dialogue before moving onto something else, occasionally wore me out.  Overall, though, I found it engaging.  There’s something there in if not its critique of the artist as macho savant then its confrontation with the notion as well as in what appeared to me to be its skepticism of the new cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s as a hopeful alternative to such a figure, at least based on the almost softcore porn footage of the film within the Welles’s film that is, in part, its subject as well as the content of much of Welles’s film itself.  Still, my first viewing of the film was troubled enough that I’ll need to see it several more times to really be able to assess it.

So, onto my list.  They’re presented in the order that I saw them.  They’re not ranked, nor do I intend them to reflect the best movies of the year.  I don’t see enough new films to be able to make that claim.

faces places

Faces Places

A celebration of workers, small communities, art, and friendship, co-directed by French film legend Agnes Varda and JR, the self-described photograffeur (a photographer/graffiti artist) known for his over-sized outdoor photography installations in which he pastes paper reproductions of pictures on the various surfaces he finds.  Throughout Faces Places, Varda and JR travel to small communities across France and get to know the people there, photograph them in what is essentially a traveling photobooth, and paste enormous prints of the photos on the sides of buildings, train cars, and essentially any surface they can.  The results are both visually stunning and touching tributes to their subjects—such as the picture of a goat, full-horned, that they paste on the side of a barn when they discover that modern farming techniques tend to remove goats’ horns or Varda’s now half-blind eyes blown up to an enormous size and pasted onto a tanker car.  Every time I think of this film, I can’t shake its warmth and generosity of spirit. My favorite scenes include Varda focusing on the wives of the dock workers at Le Havre, culminating in the multi-storied images of the women on the empty shipping containers from their husbands’ jobs, each woman sitting in an opened container right where, in the pictures, their hearts would be; and, with great anticipation of visiting Jean-Luc Godard, when JR half-dances, half-runs as he speeds the elderly Varda in her wheelchair through the Louvre, an homage to the  scene from A Band of Outsiders when the “band” jubilantly runs through the museum.  And then, Godard proves to be such a pissant.  Still, see this wonderful movie.

call me by your name

Call Me by Your Name

Set “somewhere in Northern Italy,” as the opening title declares, Call Me by Your Name is a visually rapturous film—the vibrant Italian light practically another character—about teenage Elio experiencing what seems to be his first serious romantic relationship with his father’s gorgeous graduate assistant, Oliver.  The film does an excellent job evoking the swooning heights of young love—Elio can’t arrange to meet and see Oliver often enough, before and after their affair has begun, both men relishing in the joy of discovering each other—and the agonized depths it can go to as when Oliver vanishes at one point, seemingly in the company of a young woman, and Elio tortures himself every moment that Oliver is gone, writing him one anguished letter after another, which would be comic were it not coming from such an emotionally difficult place.  Director Luca Guadagnino expertly captures the awkwardness of young love that was, in the past at least, exacerbated when the object of one’s attraction was of the same sex, not least in a halting scene played out around a fountain in which Elio reveals to Oliver his love for him, his declaration so oblique that it’s practically unclear at what point he actually makes it.  One of the final scenes of the film, in which Elio’s father delivers a poignant monologue, is pitch perfect and emotionally devastating.

phantom-thread

Phantom Thread

Set in the world of haute couture in 1950s London, Phantom Thread is writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s unflinching look at the self-fashioning of love—both of ourselves and how we fashion others, or at least attempt to.  Daniel Day Lewis, in a screen performance that he has declared will be his last, plays renowned fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, who falls for waitress Alma Elson, played by Belgian actress Vicky Krieps.  Woodcock makes Alma his muse before—in a move that surprises his wary and wily controlling sister Cyril, portrayed by Lesley Manville in a fantastic performance—marrying her.  A large pleasure of the film, aside from sheer sensory pleasures of a story taking place in the world of high fashion, is watching the gamesmanship of the three characters as they jockey for control, each keenly aware of when their power is waning, though not so certain about what to do about it.  Alma’s final gambit for keeping Reynolds under her sway is as novel as it is kind of crazy.  Most of the film’s action is subtly written and played, requiring vigilant watching from the viewer, but that vigilance is rewarded in a film that ranks among the best of Anderson’s already impressive body of work.

death of stalin

The Death of Stalin

Portraying the power struggle among the Soviet elite immediately following Joseph Stalin’s death as a mordant farce is a brilliant conceit, and I can think of no one more up to the task than Veep creator Armando Iannucci, whose 2009 movie In the Loop is one of the funniest political satires that many have never heard of, let alone seen, to say nothing of the more widely acclaimed brilliance of Veep.  Iannucci has packed The Death of Stalin with talented comic actors, including Michael Palin as party stalwart Vyacheslav Molotov, who repeatedly readies himself for the execution he expects and even, perhaps, thinks he deserves; Steve Buscemi as a wily, though irascible, Nikita Krushchev; Jeffrey Tambor as the hilariously wishy-washy Georgy Malenkov, who it is assumed by most, as least to his face, will be the one to assume control of the Soviet Union; and in a bracingly funny performance, Simon Russell Beale, as the savage and calculating Lavrentiy Beria.  As with any great farce, the stakes in The Death of Stalin are life and death, something missing from most comedies these days, especially those that supposedly risk darkness.  Iannucci’s movie is a poisoned delight.

zama

Zama

Don Diego de Zama is tired of living in his backwater colonial post in late eighteenth century South America, longing instead to be transferred to Buenos Aires or, barring that, anywhere rather than where he is.  But he soon discovers that the Spanish government is indifferent to his desires, prolonging the agony of his stay with vague refusals that to Zama’s ears sound like promises, though his fear that they’re not, driving him to potentially rash persistence, eventually proves true.  He can’t even bed the woman he has been assiduously courting, discovering that her protestations that she is not that kind of woman doesn’t extend to the affair she has been having with another gentleman.  In one last desperate attempt to escape, Zama volunteers to join a group of men who set out to capture an outlaw who has been terrorizing the region, in what is essentially a do or die assignment that leads to some of the film’s most memorable sequences.  The result is something that is a cross between Waiting for Godot and a fever dream, a surreal satire of colonialism that dramatizes desire endlessly thwarted.  Under Lucrecia Martel’s expert direction, the film is an experience that no plot synopsis could ever hope to convey.  This is my favorite movie of the year.

western

Western

A German construction crew is relocated to a river in remote Bulgaria to build a hydroelectric plant that will divert water necessary for the many communities downstream.  Crew outcast and dreamer Meinhard, who claims to be a veteran of the French Foreign Legion earning him at least temporary respect from the others, begins visiting a local village, befriending some of the residents there in spite of the fact that he doesn’t speak their language.  Meinhard soon discovers that the plant is not something the Bulgarians know about or, unsurprisingly, even want.  Director Valeska Griesbach assembles a cast of non-actors who turn in relaxed, natural performances in her low-key appropriation of the Western genre—complete with horse rustling and a nervous evening at the campfire, imagined enemies lurking in the shadows just outside of the fire’s illumination.  Western, with its depiction of people warmly reaching across national identities, is a perfect antidote to the brute nationalism that is sweeping Europe and now too the U.S.

the rider

The Rider

Brady Blackburn was a young hopeful of the rodeo circuit in South Dakota—handsome, fearless, talented.  But then his career got cut short when he suffered brain damage from a nasty accident riding an unruly bronco.  The Rider focuses on Brady’s struggles coping with the new limits placed on him as he tries to figure out his place in a world that for him had once consisted only of the rodeo.  Blackburn is ably portrayed by Brady Jandreau, whom director Chloé Zhao met while filming Songs My Brother Taught Me on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and who was at the time a rising star in the rodeo circuit.  She decided at the time to make a film centering on Jandreau.  Unfortunately, a brain injury sustained while riding a bronco cut his career short, and the story of The Rider changed drastically.  The whole film is portrayed by people in Jandreau’s life, including his sister Lilly, who has autism; his father Tim (as Wayne Blackburn); and his friend Lane Scott, another young rodeo star whose career was cut short by a brain injury.  Zhao’s beautiful and touching film is an(other) update of the western genre that gains depth in its interplay of what’s real and what’s fictional.  This is a close second for my favorite movie of the year.

sorry-to-bother-you

Sorry to Bother You

At first, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You looks likes its going to be a funny satire about how African Americans have to “be white” to succeed in America, as it tells the story of Cash Green, who, hard up for gainful employment, finds himself working at a telemarketing firm where he discovers that the only way for him to succeed at the company is to adopt a “white voice”—in his case the dubbed voice of David Cross, creating an odd, funny effect as we see actor Lakeith Stanfield’s mouth moving and hear Cross’s voice.  Though Sorry to Bother You is certainly what it appears to be, it becomes so much more as Cash continues moving up the corporate ladder and it is revealed to him what his company’s master plan really is.  To be honest, the movie kind of flies off the rails in this last plot twist, but it is also in it that the movie finds some of its most memorable imagery and cutting satire.

roma

Roma

Alphonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film gets its title from the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City that, once a place for the well-heeled, by the early 1970s, when this film is set, has seen better days, not unlike the family around whom the film is centered who lives there.  Roma tells the episodic story of Cleo, a young maid who soon finds herself pregnant after a fling with the handsome, though immature and threatening, Fermín, and the family for whom she works, which comes undone after the father abandons them.  Filmed in beautiful black and white, Roma is shot through with cinematic poetry that reminded me of the best of Fellini—from the wonderfully exciting scene of two of the sons racing down the streets of Mexico City to see Marooned (the seed for Cuarón’s Gravity?) to the beautiful glow emanating behind the hills near a family ranch that turns out to be fire to the violent chaos of the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre that sweeps through Cleo’s life to the breathless scene in which Cleo struggles with the undertow of a surging surf as she tries to rescue her charges from drowning.  Roma continues and expands upon the narrative strategy Cuarón employed in Y Tu Mama Tambien—tellling a personal story that in its unfolding reveals larger political concerns.  I’ve heard from some that this is a slow movie in which not much happens, but I disagree.  For the patient viewer, there is much here.

if_beale_street_could_talk

If Beale Street Could Talk

For his follow-up to 2016’s Oscar winning Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins has adapted James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk.  Surprisingly, it is the first of Baldwin’s novels to have been turned into a film.  As with last year’s I Am Not Your Negro, If Beale Street … reveals Baldwin’s lasting significance.  Though writing about conditions against which African Americans struggled in the 1970s, especially when caught up in the legal system, which was skewed to catch them up, this story could, unfortunately, be speaking about today.   Still, for all its sobering insights—some of its best scenes have a raw honesty and vulnerability—the heart of the movie celebrates the love between Tish and Fonny and among those family members who rally around the young couple when Tish reveals she is pregnant shortly after Fonny has been arrested on trumped up rape charges.  In fact, in an interview when his novel was released, Baldwin said of his work in general, “Every poet is an optimist,” but on the way to that optimism “you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all,” an excellent description of Jenkins’ film which has great beauty and celebrates the love of the young couple without downplaying the difficult conditions of their life that almost seem designed to keep them apart.

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Do Not Go Gentle: A Tribute to Harlan Ellison

ellison pipe

I had given the book to my older brother as a gift.  Strange Wine.  It was a collection of stories by Harlan Ellison, whom I mainly knew as the author of “City on the Edge of Forever,” one of my favorite Star Trek episodes, and as the irascible subject of a funny, smart, and acerbic interview in Starlog magazine.  I figured my brother would probably dig Ellison’s stuff.  He did.

After he had finished reading it, I borrowed it from him.  I wasn’t prepared for its impact on me.  I didn’t know which I liked better, the stories or the introductions that Ellison wrote for each of them.  To be honest, I almost preferred the intros.  Theirs was the unmistakable voice from that Starlog interview.  But the stories sucked me in too: they were alternately gritty, poetic, intense, funny …  Just read “Croatoan,” one of the best stories from Strange Wine, which ends with a creepy sequence in the sewers of New York City.  Whew!  To my mind, as I was being driven from Little Chute, Wisconsin to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota, Ellison was my new Ray Bradbury.  A hipper science fiction poet of the short story with attitude to burn.

I’m sure I drove many friends and acquaintances nuts with my endless encomiums to Ellison.  I talked about him with practically everyone who had the misfortune of having a conversation with me.  Even so, I’ll admit that I was a bit startled when my freshman comp teacher told me she thought Ellison was sexy—it was the first time I’d considered that someone might find a person sexy because they had a big brain, ahem—and I’m embarrassed to say that in return I shared with her my anxiety that Harlan, who would have only been 48 at the time, was getting pretty old, and I feared I was only going to be able to enjoy a few more new books by him before he left us.  She laughed and assured me he would probably be around for a while longer.

I can’t overestimate the impact that Ellison had on me at the time.  With cutting humor, he confirmed my pugilistic approach to discussing the arts: what I liked was superior, everything else should stand guard.  I could go on the attack at any moment.  More importantly, already inspired by the poetic prose of Ray Bradbury, Ellison encouraged me, when I attempted to write fiction, to write the hell out of a story and not fear bloodying a few noses in the process.  The results were overwrought and underbaked, as in the hopefully long lost short story I wrote about a space traveler addicted to a drug made of condensed time that I titled, for reasons still unknown to me to this day, “Time is the Purple-Backed Purveyor.”  What?

kerouac radioOverwriting remained my modus operandi for years, even after I’d essentially stopped reading Ellison, and I fear it still clings to my prose like a chill mist—though my propensity for long sentences that might leave the reader gasping at the end from sheer effort (my friend Virginia Kuhn once pointed out to me that a monumental paragraph in a paper I was writing in grad school was actually one long, run-on sentence) has different origins: Jack Kerouac, who, among other things, wrote that gorgeous three-page sentence in The Subterraneans; Thomas Pynchon, whose best long sentences leave me gasping for reasons other than effort; and Herbert Blau, whose sentences unfold in undulations of thought as he tried to capture “it all, it all.”

I wasn’t even aware I was overwriting until, before graduate school, I took a short story course at a local writing center and in the margins of my story, alongside what I thought was a perfect evocation of the overly sweet, fermented odor of elm trees cut down after succumbing to Dutch Elm Disease, the instructor warned me to “rein it in.”  It forever changed how I saw my writing.

Despite his importance to me, in the years after graduating from college, I lost interest in Ellison, even though I still remembered how incredulous I had been at a college friend’s indifference to Ellison Wonderland, which he had purchased because of my tireless, effusive praise of Ellison’s writing.  A few years later, I finally read the book myself and understood what he was talking about.  It was a feeling I was to experience as often as not after finishing each Ellison collection that I read.  It seemed that with all but his non-fictions books—my favorite being Sleepless Nights on the Procrustean Bed, a small press collection of essays I’d borrowed from a friend who seemed to be as equally hot and cold on Ellison as I—there were a few hard, glittering diamonds in each collection, amid heaps of coal, stories that could have been gems too had they been given more time.

star wars explosionI also tired of Ellison’s film and television criticism, as good as some of it was.  The world stopped seeming so black and white to me.  I no longer viewed something as either a masterpiece or absolute trash, a problem of extremes that I feel traps too many who care about the arts, even close friends of mine.  Worse, though, Ellison’s criteria for praise or damnation seemed rather arbitrary.  For example, considering all that could be leveled against it, I recall that Ellison’s biggest complaint about Star Wars was how it ignored physics, especially in the space battles that were filled with noise and fiery explosions and people flying small spacecrafts that seemed to push and strain against gravity.  It’s the flipside to the response of one of my friend’s undergraduate students who praised Star Wars for its realistic fight scenes.  Regardless of which side of the issue you’re on—and Ellison is right here if you’re talking about space travel, the students if you’re talking about the WWII dogfight footage that inspired George Lucas—I don’t understand why it’s worth talking about, unless the whole point of cinema, and by extension art, is to ape reality in the most painstakingly, mindnumbingly literal way possible.  If so, then much of the greatest art of all time is worthless rubbish.

I still cared enough about him in the end that I was moved by an anecdote shared by John Scalzi in his memorial to Ellison in the Los Angeles Times.  Scalzi recalls when he had phoned Ellison in 2011 to inform him that his story “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” was nominated for a Nebula Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).  And Ellison, that alter cocker who used to call Scalzi when Scalzi had been the SFWA president and yell at him about whatever Ellison had on his mind, wept at the news.  The nomination, official recognition by his peers that his work was still vital, had deeply touched him.  And that, almost in itself, makes his work once again flare to life in my memory with vivid color.

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Age of Anxiety: Watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

crazy-ex-girlfriend

Darryl Whitefeather (Pete Gardner), Greg Serrano (Santino Fontana), Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), and Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Recently, I’ve been watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  Several friends of mine have been big fans over the years, and one was finally emphatic in his recommendation.  I didn’t want to disappoint him.

What I saw surprised me.  First, I didn’t know the show was a musical.  I’ll admit, had I known this in advance, it probably would have been a deal breaker.  What’s weird about that kneejerk reaction is that I enjoy most of the musical numbers in the show.  They’re catchy, they’re witty, they’re delightfully vulgar when they need to be.

And I like The Music Man.  God help me, it’s as corny as the horizon in a road trip through Iowa.  I should hate it.  But I don’t.  I can’t.  Hell, even Thomas Pynchon, the greatest novelist alive—what was that punk?  Jonathan Franzen?? Do you want a piece of me, you worthless mother…—seemingly can’t write a novel without envisioning his characters randomly breaking into song.

And yet, had I known Crazy Ex-Girlfriend prominently featured musical numbers, I would have put it in the Netflix queue along with a thousand other things—until Netflix’s monthly purge begins and reduces my queue by half—fully intending to watch it after re-watching Deadwood, the best television show ever aired—What???  Breaking Bad?  Come over here and say that!—which, by the looks of it, I won’t be doing for years to come.

Even worse for me, the show’s premise seems to follow the blueprint of a rom-com: the lead, in this case the multi-talented Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch (is she a closet Aline Kominsky-Crumb fan?) desires heartthrob Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), who is definitely cute and sweet but is a bit of a lunkhead, while Rebecca herself is adored by the, at least in season one, saner, smarter, and, in his way, sexier Greg Serrano (Santino Fontana).  We know who the plot wants us to root for but also who we secretly hope wins the day.

To be honest, the rom-com formula isn’t the end of the world for me.  I saw The Goodbye Girl when I was in high school and adored it.  My worship of Richard Dreyfus, who was in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made—Star Wars?  Never heard of it!—and my sense that Neil Simon was among the pantheon of great playwrights were confirmed.  (Yes, I have significantly revised the latter opinion over the ensuing years.)  But it is definitely not a plus for me, either.  I thought that what was exciting about Amy Schumer’s and Judd Apatow’s film Trainwreck was seriously undermined by its adherence to the rom-com formula.  (If you’re interested, you can read my review of Trainwreck here.)

What has been most surprising to me, though, is how personally affecting I have found Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  After all, the show is often silly.  I love silly, it’s one of the things I love about The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the underrated Green Acres, for example, and it’s also one of the things I love about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  But it’s not a quality one associates with deeply personal feelings.  Nor does the rom-com plotting of the show.  Yes, I’ve had crushes on people, and of course they were devastating—that’s why it’s called a “crush,” right?  But I’ve never done anything like what Rebecca does, not even remotely, so it doesn’t strike me on a level much deeper than any other structural device.

Rather, it is in those moments when Rebecca paints herself into a corner—when she’s left with nothing to do, nowhere to turn, except face the uncomfortable truth—that my heart hums at an uncomfortably electric and familiar high pitch.  I have never felt a show evoke anxiety in me so well, at least the species of anxiety that has been my close companion these past five-plus decades.  When, for example, on the party bus, Rachel’s boss Darryl—a piece of work himself—contradicts Rebecca’s narrative about what brought her to West Covina, essentially undermining her identity, and Rebecca freezes, her face blank with terror, or when she walks into Josh’s apartment and finds Josh, Valencia, and Greg gathered for what appears to be a confrontation with Rebecca, Trent Maddock, Rachel’s virtual “beard,” a stranger to all four of them, standing among them, her cover once again blown, her feelings in danger of being exposed, and she again freezes in terror, I relived my own anxiety, the dread of knowing that I will be found out, discovered a fraud.

Harvey Pekar

Harvey Pekar, poet laureate of the discontented

These spells are immediately broken when Rebecca stammers like the lead in a farce, knitting preposterous explanations until people are confused enough that she can weave a new lie and hide again.  But it’s those brief moments when the jig is up and there’s nothing to be done that I can hardly bear.  What makes them so intense for me is that Rebecca’s lies are designed to make others like her, but what gets revealed is her fear that there is really no reason for anyone to do so, a line of thinking already abject in an “adult” that is rendered even more so by the sheer knowledge that such a fear is revolting to look at.  It’s like staring into a deep, dark, truthful mirror.

While those moments thrill me with a threatening charge of vulnerability, I love the show because of how funny it is, the laughs it elicits all the richer because their peals echo on the lip of an active volcano.

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The Impossibility of It All: JoAnne Akalaitis’s BAD NEWS! i was there …

Akalaitis

JoAnne Akalaitis

I unfolded the piece of paper, uncertain about what would be written on it, but certain that whatever it would be, it was going to be bad news.  I had been told it would be.  I was attending the premiere of JoAnne Akalaitis’s Bad News! i was there …, a theater piece created by bringing together speeches from classical drama in which messengers describe often horrific scenes they have just witnessed, a violent pastiche including works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Seneca, Racine, and Brecht.

At the end of the show, as we were processing what we’d just heard—to the best of our abilities; what we had heard encompassed what was, in its extremes, incomprehensible—we were asked to share our own bad news, whatever it might be, to write it down on a piece of paper and put it in a collection box to be anonymously shared in a discussion after the finale of Akalaitis’s show.

So there I was, unfolding a sheet of paper containing what was sure to be bad news.  What I found was a list, numbered one through five.  That in itself made my heart sink a bit.  How much sorrow can one endure, either in the telling or the hearing of it?  I skimmed the list and was further stymied.  Based on what I saw listed there, I couldn’t share the news with others.  I didn’t know how.

To be honest, the first three points were banal—heartfelt, perhaps, but written in a way that would have meant nothing to anybody but the writer.  The next two points, however, resisted communication in a different way.  The words, what words were there, were also not up to the task, but they echoed the vastness of what it seemed they were attempting to express, what they were so clearly failing to express that they couldn’t help but give us a glimpse of it.

Point four simply said: “We can’t be here.”  When I first read it, I had to re-read it.  It was so different in character from the other three, I didn’t know what to make of it.  Who was “we”?  Where was “here”?  That those questions resisted resolution, that they themselves were the answers, was brought into sharp focus for me by the word “can’t.”  At first rub, of course, “we” referred the audience and “here” to the Guthrie.  In that context, “can’t” suggests a prohibition—we can’t be here bearing witness to this litany of horror, some of which, we imagine, is beyond imagination.  In other words, the crimes witnessed and described to us by those who were there go too far, they trespass into the inhuman while remaining all too human.

bad news

Bad News! i was there … rehearsal

We intuitively know, even if we want to deny it, that what is human is too often defined by what is not.  Worse, like all paradoxes, that insight seems to undo itself.  If what it means to be human includes what is inhuman, then what exactly do we mean when we refer to “human”?  One is reminded of the great Austrian critic Karl Kraus’s aphorism, “That we all are only human, is no excuse but a presumption.”  Once we’ve gotten to this point in our thinking, we can begin to see, if we allow it, the extent to which this line of questioning can be extended.  It’s not just the category “human” that depends on what it is not to appear.  Every single thing we can point to, literally or rhetorically, does.  So just what do we mean when we say, “we,” or “I” for that matter?  It is a question that helps us to see the “can’t” less as a prohibition than as an impossibility.  If I am what I am not, then I can’t possibly be here.  I don’t think this is quite right, to be honest, but I think it’s righter than most would concede.  And the anguish in what it gets wrong must be immense.  Nobody likes to believe they’re nothing.

As the others who had picked up sheets scattered in the center of the room were sharing their bad news, I felt in that little sentence, “We can’t be here,” all of the negation it implied while being sure that I wouldn’t have been able to put what I sensed into words, at least not yet.  So I just kept looking at the sentence, wanting to read it aloud, but refraining from doing so, afraid that the words coming out of my mouth wouldn’t have had the same impact as they had on the page.  The sentence was so brief, I would have finished reading it before the audience had even begun to hear it.  Rather than diminish its anguish, I decided, I would remain silent.

And point five?

Point five was blank.

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Meatball Doesn’t Work That Way: Netflix’s Wild Wild Country and the Struggle for Enlightenment

rajneeshI wasn’t far into Netflix’s documentary series Wild Wild Country about the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram in Oregon during the early 1980s before I witnessed the unseemly spectacle of religious zealots contorting with spiritual ecstasy, some with their heads thrown back as if in narcotic dream as their guru pressed his fingers to their foreheads, ostensibly to awaken a deep consciousness within them.  Such acts are so intimate, they’re practically like watching someone have an orgasm.  And I like to choose who I see doing that, thank you very much.  When you get down to it, I suppose, the two acts aren’t that dissimilar.  Both involve a letting go of one’s self, releasing that self into something greater, two communions.

What makes such a sight truly disturbing, though, clear to anyone watching who isn’t already taken in by it, is that this stuff is dangerous.  Whether conscious of it or not, most people are willing to give themselves up for something greater.  That willingness is already a misunderstanding of a subtle desire we have that is even more familiar and less articulable, a primordial stirring that whispers to us that things aren’t exactly as we think they are, which we translate into a sense that there is something greater than “I”—whatever “I” is—that we actually belong to, there must be.  But then we muck it up further by confusing that vague “something greater” with a belief that we hold, some of which seem so reasonable to us that we don’t even recognize them as beliefs.  And at that point people are especially susceptible to manipulation, from others and themselves, often leading to dubious if not outright cataclysmic ends.

antelopeanThe confusion I’m describing is so common, most aren’t aware they’re doing it. After all, the sannyasins, followers of the Indian mystic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the ones I watched succumbing to ecstasy, aren’t the only ones identifying themselves with their beliefs and in turn losing themselves.  So are the “normal” folks in Oregon who live in the small town of Antelope that the sannyasins overtake and rename Rajneeshpuram, and so are the dedicated, occasionally smug, law officials instrumental in bringing down Rajneesh and ultimately Rajneeshpuram.  It’s just that, because the sannyasins look and act differently from what we’re used to, what they’re doing seems more conspicuous.

fbiThe documentary is fair to all three sides, allowing each to tell the story as they had experienced it, but it is also clear that none are without blame in the darker turn that events took.  I found myself disgusted and angry when people from all three sides gloated at their moral superiority.  It is this kind of entrenched, blind, self-regard that is among humanity’s worst traits.  Even worse, I thought a spiritual teacher worth his salt would know this, especially one whom several of his followers called the most enlightened being on the planet.  Yet Rajneesh denied culpability in the heinous acts his most trusted followers engaged in—which included plotting to kill U.S. Attorney Charles Turner and using salmonella to render hundreds of Oregon citizens ill before an election.  While Rajneesh might not have known of the plans to commit these acts (but then again, he might have), he had to have understood that his teachings, only glimpses of which surface in Wild Wild Country, were of a kind to have provided conditions for his followers’ behavior to flourish.

That he vehemently denounced those who had been involved in these plots, decrying the woman to whom he had handed over power of leading the sannyasins as a “bitch” and a “traitor” who had acted unilaterally, shows no wisdom at all.  Nor does one of his teachings, which he attributes (though it sounds to me like he misattributes) to Zen.  The teaching is about a Zen master who clubs a student to death, but just before the master’s staff comes down, just before death is meted out, the student is enlightened.  The woman who relates this teaching had tried to kill two people in Rajneesh’s name, and the teaching had tortured her for years, as she wondered if she had missed her opportunity for enlightenment.  Alas, for the sannyasins, the others in the documentary, and for the rest of us, to paraphrase the narrator of cartoonist R. Crumb’s satirical gem “Meatball,” “Enlightenment doesn’t work that way.”  Thank goodness it doesn’t, but pity us just the same, because we will do all of this, or a version of it, again and again and again until we realize it.

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