Sunday, November 22, 2020

NOTES ON RECENT VIEWING: FRANCESCO ROSI'S CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI (1979), plus BALLS OF FURY, DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI

 


I’m 60 years old, and though I still have an alarming collection of blind spots in my experience, I have seen a lot of movies in those almost-22,000 spent days. But last weekend I was able to erase one of those blind spots and replace it with a vision of clarity that was, to me, quite unexpected.


Around 8:45 p.m. I started looking at the new Criterion Blu-ray of the uncut, original four-part, four-hour presentation of Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979), based on Carlo Levi’s memoir of his political exile in a remote village in pre-WWII Southern Italy, a time defined and scarred by Mussolini and that fascist regime’s attempt to impose a new colonial presence in Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia. It had been a long day the day before, and by the evening I was plenty tired— I figured I’d just dip into the disc and take a gander at how it looked, with no expectation of actually watching it, and if I did certainly not getting any further than an hour or so before drifting into unconsciousness.

But the alchemy of the movies is a mysterious thing. From the opening images of Gian Maria Volontè as Levi, bearded, solemn, in repose and surrounded by a multitude of paintings of his own creation, to the title card “1935” imposed over a shot of a train which bears Levi to the town of Galiano, in the province of Lucania on Italy’s southern bootheel, to the slow revealing of a culture in the impoverished Galiano, people, traditions, customs and superstitions left behind in the wake of the rest of the country’s economic development and relentless political oppression, the movie’s patient gaze, its nonjudgmental approach to its characters and their environment is established immediately, and I was transfixed, hooked.


As Levi is introduced to the various people who will expand and enrich his own dissent from the fascist establishment that has made him (and a few others in the town with whom he is not allowed to speak) a political prisoner, I found myself succumbing to its rhythms and knew after 10 or 15 minutes that I was in for the long haul. But it was hardly a chore. It is a rare thing, but when I began truly absorbing Christ Stopped at Eboli I felt myself succumbing to what Rosi wanted to show me, and the way he wanted to show it, in a particular fashion that I can’t recall experiencing often in other films. There was a distinct sensation of my mind and body sinking into the imagery which, on this spectacular new Blu-ray, has a clarity and richness that promises the sort of seduction few movies are capable of fulfilling.

 

I spent four hours seeing the world of these Italian peasants, who for Mussolini and his enforcers existed simply as subjects and fodder for war, through Levi’s (and Rosi’s) eyes, feeling my way toward an understanding that would, like it would for Levi, I suspect, remain just out of reach while also changing his life forever. And there are sequences in the film that are capable of inspiring tears that are themselves as mysterious as the imagery that inspires them. Levi’s travel by bus to the town occurs during a modest rainstorm, and the sublime reminder of those raindrops on every surface, often imposed over Levi’s face behind the windows of the bus, are subtle reminders of emotions untapped, unrecognized, that will eventually make their way out from the crevices of the world the film so sensitively observes. Later, Levi attempts to teach some of the children of the town how to paint, and I found myself, without any cynical provocations of sentiment projected by the director or the actors, in submission to torrents of emotion that I couldn’t readily explain to myself. Such is the totality of the experience of seeing Christ Stopped at Eboli, which has for me amounted to what feels like a life-changing experience, one that has contained within it the possibility of a genuine expansion of perspective, of yielding to a way of seeing the world that days later feels like it’s in there tinkering with my synapses, becoming an essential part of the blood flowing through my veins. The movie, a giant vision of humanity, feels like it has only begun to expand inside my head. 

I’m 60 years old, and I certainly didn’t expect, sitting by myself on a quiet Saturday night, to discover a relatively less-well-known film that deserves consideration as one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. But that’s what happened. Christ Stopped at Eboli is surely a landmark in this old man’s continuing experience of education about life and the movies, and I cannot wait to see it again.



During our current age of unparalleled worry and despair, which has only been slightly ameliorated by the ongoing exorcism of Donald Trump, a demon who has proven himself as persistent, problematic and pestilent as Pazuzu himself, and whose influence will linger beyond his inevitable expulsion from the White House, sometimes it feels like the thing we (or at least I) need most is a good laugh. And if you are like me, that laugh might feel and sound a little weird when comes along, especially if it comes unexpectedly, simply because the physical sensation of a good guffaw has become a relatively rare thing. So, when I feel like there’s one coming on, I’m a whole lot less picky about where it comes from, especially it comes from a movie. Case in point, Balls of Fury (2007), a post-Will Ferrell-esque sports comedy about a disgraced Ping-Pong champion played by Dan Fogler (an actor clearly having been groomed up to this point to become his generation’s Curtis “Booger” Armstrong), whose life falls into disarray after a humiliating defeat as a young athlete at the Olympics and who ends up on the path to redemption after being conscripted by the FBI to investigate the arms dealer who killed his father. Said arms dealer also happens to be a deranged Ping-Pong fanatic with a fetish for “Oriental” trappings whose annual island-based tournament Fogler will infiltrate in pursuit or justice and revenge.

If all this sounds familiar, it should, for Enter the Dragon is definitely the template point of entry here. The island compound, a feast of Asian design and ambience despite actually being located in the jungles of Central America (a joke the movie doesn’t do a lot with), has its funniest echo in the master of the house, a madman decked in elaborate cheongsam and equally ornate pompadour and pigtails, played by Christopher Walken. Before you can say James Hong or Jason Scott Lee or Cary Hiroyuki Tanaga or Maggie Q, all of whom appear here in largely successful efforts to get laughs and to dash any appearance of pandering to or exploitation of Asian stereotypes, it must be said that Walken’s character is not supposed to be Asian—he’s a transplanted Brooklyn mook who fetishizes the mantle of the sinister Asian kingpin because, well, he’s deranged, but also because Shih Kien did it so memorably as Han in the 1973 Bruce Lee classic, so of course this guy would want to as well. In a career filled with sublime weirdos, this Walken turn is among his sublimiest.

Balls of Fury doesn’t have aspirations to greatness. It is content to shamble along, generating silliness and giggles and, yes, even an occasional belly laugh, and then after about 75 minutes it gets tired and less interested in the jokes than just embracing the formulaic wrap-up one might expect in the forms it parodies an sending its audience on its way. But it’s a fundamentally good-natured picture with a lot of unexpected inserts and asides (my favorite—stock footage of Ron and Nancy Reagan apparently rapt with suspense over the outcome of Fogler’s Olympic debacle) and beautifully timed slapstick—the CGI- enhanced table tennis is a consistent hoot, but nothing is funnier than the outcome of Fogler’s smug attempt to defeat the paper walls of his faux-Chinese palace prison, only to discover some old-fashioned reinforcement on the other side. (That’s all you’re getting from me—see the movie.) And in addition to the cast mentioned above, it features humorous turns from Thomas Lennon (the film’s cowriter) as Fogler’s obscenely arrogant German Olympic rival, who of course finds his way to the tournament; Terry Crews as another overly enthusiastic, pec-tacular tourney competitor; Aisha Tyler as Mahogany, Walken’s sultry, dart-blowing second; and Diedrich Bader, in an amusing flip of one of Dragon’s central plot elements, as the leader of Walken’s harem of kept male concubines, wheeled out for the confused delectation of Walken’s largely male hetero guests. (Only Hong, who is blind, enjoys the gift without either judgment or, apparently, awareness.)

As I implied, the movie peters out around the three-quarter mark, but by then you will likely have laughed (or at least smiled) enough to not much care. Ultimately, it is very simply just good, undemanding company, a welcome distraction from matters far more serious. We have sometimes asked more from our comedies, and sometimes we have gotten it, but right now cheap jokes might just have value well beyond their sell-date or their release date, and the 13-year-old Balls of Fury, whose temperament suits its age perfectly, will paddle your balls with them.

 


The Anna May Wong vehicle Daughter of Shanghai (1937), directed by Robert Florey (Cocoanuts, The Beast with Five Fingers) is a snappy little thriller that has little filigrees of pre-Code insouciance and transgression—Wong is decked out for maximum sex appeal throughout, even though her character feels somewhat neutered, by and large, by the boundaries of the script and by what Hollywood, despite casting her in the lead and providing the stalwart and talented Philip Ahn as her ostensible romantic counterpart, was willing to let her do. But the movie, written by Gladys Unger (Madam Satan, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) and Garrett Weston, who had a hand in the scripts  for White Zombie and It’s a Gift, starts with a shocker—a plane smuggling illegal immigrants from China (copiloted by a very young Anthony Quinn) is spotted by federal agents, and before the plane has a chance to be grounded, the pilots literally dump their unfortunate cargo, via a floor that unexpectedly opens beneath them, from 10,000 feet into an ocean tomb below. That’s the sort of opening that, in a movie from any era, seals an audience’s attention, and for the first two-thirds of his brisk 62-minute running time, Florey stages the action with sharp detail and flourishes of German Expressionist style that keep the plot humming pleasurably along.

Wong is the daughter of a businessman who has made good in America, but who is under pressure from these same smugglers to channel a new shipment of ready-made slaves into the country. He refuses, and when he takes Wong along to a meeting with some FBI agents (Ahn included) at the mansion of a concerned socialite (Cecil Cunningham), along the way he’s brutally murdered. By sheer luck, Wong escapes the same fate and makes her way to the socialite’s home, where she explains the situation to the woman and the agents, before deciding that she must take action on her own to track down a sleazy associate of her father’s (Charles Bickford) who operates a nightclub which doubles as a hub for the exchange of money for illegal aliens. She’s also keen to seek out the identity of the criminal mastermind behind the whole operation, information that is revealed somewhat sooner than a viewer weaned on mysteries of this sort might reasonably expect.

It’s never a bad thing to see Wong in action, but if Daughter of Shanghai is a reasonably solid showcase for her talents, and itself a more than reasonably well mounted drama of its type, then it is also, perhaps too predictably, also a showcase for the limits of vision ‘30s-era Hollywood had for actors who belonged to different races than the white majority who made films at the time and who went to see them. After a set-up, and a poster, which leads a viewer to expect Wong will tear through the picture, undermining the underworld machinations behind her father’s death in relentless search of truth and justice (or is that simply an expectation imposed by the perspective of a viewer 80 years removed from the time of this film’s release?), it’s more than a little deflating to watch Wong subjugated to the sidelines in the film’s climax, cowering in fear from the shadows as the rest of the cast gets their punches in on the way to “THE END” while she is inexplicably reduced to the damsel in distress. Ahn, however definitely involved in the physical action, is in the end himself rescued by the deus-ex-machina appearance of the villain’s never-less-than-likable Irish chauffeur, whose well-timed crack shot saves his Chinese friends from a fate they apparently were incapable of escaping from themselves.

It may have to be enough that Wong and Ahn and the other Chinese cast members are treated with obvious respect, by the above-board characters in the film and the filmmakers, in Daughter of Shanghai, and that the movie itself is a nifty piece of action filmmaking which gets to its often surprisingly brutal business in the efficient, no-nonsense fashion of its day. The real history of the experience of Asian-American actors in film history is, of course, a sobering counter to the simple joys of a picture like this, but so too is Wong’s luminescent star power its own corrective to the narrowminded dictums of the studios, who couldn’t see actors like Wong and Ahn for who and what they were, even as they showcased them in unpretentious little jewels like Daughters of Shanghai.   

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Saturday, October 31, 2020

DENNIS SUBMITS TO DR. SAVAARD'S FIELD OF SCREAMS MOVIE QUIZ



1) Ricky Vaughan or Nuke LaLoosh? (question courtesy of our main Maine monster, Patrick Robbins)

Both movies, Major League and  Bull Durham, played a big role in my burgeoning interest in baseball when I saw them back in 1988, and I got a big kick out of the idea of a pitcher, Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn,  who had such poor eyesight he had to wear huge horn-rimmed specs to get the ball anywhere near the plate. (“Juuuuuuust a bit outside!”) But despite the fact that to my eyes Tim Robbins still doesn’t look like he’s even seen a pitcher do his thing when he’s on the plate, he’s in the middle of an essential ode to the game. Nuke gets my vote.

2) Best moment in the Friday the 13th film series.

I might previously have said the sleeping bag kill in Friday the 13th VII: The New Blood, but having just seen the movie again last weekend that moment was revealed to be as turgidly matter-of-fact and bereft of humor as the rest of the movie. And I’ve always loved the moment in Part 3, the 3D one, when Jason cleaves the guy doing the handstand in two. But the best? The decapitated killer in the original “classic” (1980) reaching up to check if his/her head is actually missing.

3) Henry Hull or Oliver Reed?

Peter Nellhaus said it best in his answer to this question: It's Reed, because he’s the closest we’ll ever get to Marlon Brando taking that logical next step into lycanthropy.

4) What is the last movie you saw in a theater?

We took our Emma to see Emma. just a day or two before the initial lockdown. I couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff.

5) Best movie casting for a real-life baseball player, or best casting of a real-life baseball player in a movie.

Well, it ain’t John Goodman as the Babe. There seems to be no other correct answer to this question: Jim Bouton as Terry Lennox in The Long Goodbye.

6) D.B. Sweeney or Ray Liotta?

I like Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe, but man, he is stuck in one terrible movie. As an actor I’d pick him over Sweeney every time, but Sweeney does Shoeless Joe appropriately haunted in John Sayles’ pantheon baseball history Eight Men Out, so he gets my vote.

7) Given that the fear factor in 2020 is already alarmingly high, is there a film or a genre which you would hesitate to revisit right now?

I was sick to death of it before it moved a step closer from grim fantasy to grim reality, but I care even less now for the post-apocalyptic horror-sci-fi genre, especially entries that have been made in the last couple of years. I don’t even think I’d care to see a Mad Max movie right now.

8) The Natural (1984)-- yes or no?

HELLS no.

9) Peter Cushing or Colin Clive?

Clive will, for me and most others, be the OG mad doctor, but Cushing really fleshed the role out, culminating with his great performance as an irredeemably sinister Baron Frankenstein in one of my favorite movies of all time, any genre, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.  

10) What’s the lamest water-cooler hit you can think of? Of course, define “lamest” however you will, but for “water-cooler hit” Dr. Savaard is thinking about something zeitgeist-y, something everyone was talking about the weekend it opened and beyond, something everyone seemingly had to see—The Other Side of Midnight residing at #1 in 1977 for two weeks is not what the professor has in mind.

I’ve avoided it since seeing it on the ABC Sunday Night Movie back in high school, but having recently seen it again all the way through, for me the answer has to be Love Story (1970). This thing only occasionally rises to the level of mediocrity, content instead to just wallow around in the muck and the mire of the worst kind of sentimentality for about 100 minutes. The dialogue is terrible—Segal writes profanity for these characters that would be stones in the mouths of anyone, but Ali MacGraw makes her swears sound like she’s a grown woman who has just discovered the delight of cursing and can’t figure out how to convincingly wedge “goddamn” into a sentence. And though it’s MacGraw who initially plants the seed in his poor, soft head, Ryan O’Neal is the one who has to repeat “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” to a befuddled Ray Milland at the end of the picture. That Milland managed to not crack up on screen repeatedly is a cornerstone in the case for him being a greater actor than anyone might previously have suspected. And speaking of Erich Segal, have you glanced at the book lately? Jesus Christ, you goddamn preppie. How did anyone ever fall for this junk?

11) Greatest single performance in horror movie history.

Going with the first one that loomed into my head when I first considered this question: Lon Chaney as Erik, better known as The Phantom of the Opera (1925).

12) Ingrid Pitt or the Collinson Twins?

As delightful as the Collinsons are in Twins of Evil (1971), I would never pit myself against Ingrid Pitt.

13) Name one lesser-known horror film that you think everyone should see. State your reason.

You can see it this month on the Criterion Channel as Death Line, but I know it as Raw Meat.

14) Do the same for an underseen or underappreciated baseball movie.

The nature of heroism is the real subject of Ron Shelton’s bruising, unforgiving biopic Cobb, in some significant ways the anti-Field of Dreams.

15) William Bendix or Leslie Nielsen?

Leslie Nielsen’s calls behind the plate will live unto eternity, but I’m going with Bendix for strength under adversity in Kill the Umpire.

16) Would you go back to a theater this weekend if one reopened near you?

No. Way too soon.

17) Your favorite horror movie TV show/host, either running currently or one from the past.

I saw Bob Wilkins and John Stanley on KTVU’s Creature Features  out of San Francisco occasionally, but they were always a bit too smarmy for me, and their interstitial bits usually went on well past their sell date. For me, growing up as a teen in remote Southern Oregon, I lived for 11:30 pm on Saturday nights when the transmission from KATU-TV Channel 2 in Portland brought Victor Ives and Sinister Cinema, with supporting players like Head and Ravenscroft, to horror-thirsty outliers like me. Always a double feature that ran close to 3:00 a.m., if you could stay awake that long, and always fun. It was on this program that I saw Night of the Living Dead  for the first time.

18) The Sentinel (1977)—yes or no?

I have a lot of fond memories of seeing it multiple times with Bruce back in our scholastic days—it was always paired with some other horror picture as a second fear-ture—but as much fun as the first two-thirds of it can be (Sylvia Miles is properly unleashed here), the last third, when director Michael Winner goes off the rails into pure carnival exploitation, is truly sickening. So a qualified “no” from me.

19) Second-favorite Ron Shelton movie.

Cobb would be number one, so it’s the Durham Bulls for me. "This son of a bitch is throwing a two-hit shutout. He's shaking me off. You believe that shit? Charlie, here comes the deuce. And when you speak of me, speak well.

20) Disclaimer warnings attached to  broadcasts of films like Gone with the Wind and Blazing Saddles-- yes or no?

No, thanks. I’m fully capable of placing films in their context without Ben Mankiewicz’s guidance.

21) In the World Series of baseball movies, who are your NL and AL champs?


For the NL, The Bad News Bears-- this time "GOAT" stands for "Greatest of All Time," Charlie Brown. For the AL, I'll take Bull Durham. Playoff contenders include Eight Men Out, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, Mr. 3000, Everybody Wants Some! and Ken Burns' massive documentary Baseball.

22) What was the last horror film you saw?

I showed Re-Animator to Emma just last night. Before that, Fred C. Sears’s The Werewolf (1956), which was a hell of a lot better than I ever thought it would be.

23) Geena Davis or Tatum O’Neal?

I saw Geena Davis several times in the late ‘80s, always on Jeff Goldblum’s arm at some movie in Westwood, and I can testify that she was a real-life stunner who inspired a decade-long crush. But on the mound, I’ll take the fire and accuracy of Tatum O’Neal every time.

24) AMC is now renting theaters for $100 - $350, promising a more “private,” catered party-movie experience. What do you like or dislike about this idea?

It’s an interesting notion, but again, I think its just way too soon, even for monitored and distanced get-togethers like this. Besides, the corporation has been, not too surprisingly, I guess, somewhat unimaginative in the films they’ve chosen to make available for their parties—Jurassic Park, anyone? I suppose I should be grateful that they avoided the temptation of Grease or  Back to the Future, but would it have been that difficult to expand the roster of older films just a bit?

25) Name the scariest performance in a baseball movie.

I think it’s gotta be Tommy Lee Jones’s fearless portrayal of Ty Cobb in Ron Shelton’s equally fearless movie. One day I think this movie, and this performance, will be better appreciated, but it’s been 26 years already and it’s still pretty low on most folks’ radar.

26) Second-favorite Jack Arnold movie.

Creature from the Black Lagoon. Top honors go to The Incredible Shrinking Man. That makes two unassailable classics in Arnold’s book, and that’s to say nothing of No Name on the Bullet, It Came from Outer Space, The Mouse That Roared, and one I’ve loved since the Sinister Cinema days, Tarantula.

27) What would be the top five films of 2020 you’ve seen so far?

Just speaking of the top of my head, in alphabetical order, American  Utopia, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy Blache, Da Five Bloods, Emma., First Cow, The Trial of the Chicago Seven and You Should Have Left. What, that’s seven, you say? Oh, well… I know Dr. Savaard personally, so I get a little leeway…

28) What are your top three pandemic-restricted movie viewing experiences so far in this... unusual year?

1) Fellini Roma  watch party with my dear friend Katie, who lives in Indianapolis.

2) Seeing Gremlins with the three ladies at the drive-in.

3) Watching the 1988 cheapo Necromancer with best friend Bruce-- Bruce can be seen for about .5 seconds in a party scene we were both on hand for, at the invite of the movie’s lead, Elizabeth Kaitan (Cayton).

4) Watching the 4K Blu-ray of Flash Gordon (1980).

5) Ushering out my 50s late at night on August 17 with Ken Russell’s Lisztomania. When the movie was over, I was 60 years old.

Okay, again, that was five, not three, but Dr. Savaard said I could, so…

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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

DR. HENRYK SAVAARD’S HAIR-RAISING HOME RUN, BLOODCURDLING AT-VAMPIRE-BAT, FIELD OF SCREAMS BASEBALL-HORROR MOVIE QUIZ (with a dugout assist from Savaard’s sinister sidekick, Doc Roberts)



“You got your horror movie in my baseball movie!” “Well, you got baseball movie in my horror movie!”

No guarantees that this latest SLIFR University quiz will be as sweet and tasty as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, but at least the calorie count is a lot more agreeable. The newest quiz, coming midway through the fall semester, is online learning at its very best, as every SLIFR quiz has been since the first one back in 2005—we were socially distanced before social distancing was… well, not cool exactly, but certainly government mandated.

And to celebrate both the onset of Halloween next weekend and the ongoing drama that is the Los Angeles Dodgers-Tampa Bay Rays 2020 World Series, we’ve enlisted one of SLIFR’s most distinguished and perhaps most demented senior staff professors, the estimable and pretty goddamn angry Dr. Henryk Savaard, the most honored and unstable head of our not-exactly-world-renowned Metaphysics department, to administer this new quiz, a mix of baseball movie inquiries, horror movie inquiries and a jigger or two of real-life horror as well.

And since Dr. Savaard, as esteemed an intelligence as there is (at least that’s what you tell him to his face, if you know what’s good for ya), doesn’t know a foul tip from a fungo bat, we’ve enlisted Savaard’s top teaching assistant, the up-and-coming Doc Dave Roberts, to help administer the sporting section of this latest educational endeavor.

So onward and hopefully upward with our congenially edifying distraction.

There are only two suggestions, as always: 

Be as verbose as you like, remembering that the staff always favors the lengthier response.

If you choose to answer the questions in the comments section below, please copy and paste the questions as well as the answers do readers can more easily reference what insipid query you are responding to. Try to do the same if you choose to answer on the FB page or, if you still have one, your own blog.

And that’s it. Without further hesitation, trepidation or aggravation, let us pick up our #2 Eberhard Fabers and get started!

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1) Ricky Vaughan or Nuke LaLoosh? (question courtesy of our main Maine monster, Patrick Robbins)

2) Best moment in the Friday the 13th film series.

3) Henry Hull or Oliver Reed?

4) What is the last movie you saw in a theater?

5) Best movie casting for a real-life baseball player, or best casting of a real-life baseball player in a movie.

6) D.B. Sweeney or Ray Liotta?

7) Given that the fear factor in 2020 is already alarmingly high, is there a film or a genre which you would hesitate to revisit right now?

8) The Natural (1984)-- yes or no?

9) Peter Cushing or Colin Clive?

10) What’s the lamest water-cooler hit you can think of? Of course, define “lamest” however you will, but for “water-cooler hit” Dr. Savaard is thinking about something zeitgeist-y, something everyone was talking about the weekend it opened and beyond, something everyone seemingly had to see—The Other Side of Midnight residing at #1 in 1977 for two weeks is not what the professor has in mind.

11) Greatest single performance in horror movie history.

12) Ingrid Pitt or the Collinson Twins?

13) Name one lesser-known horror film that you think everyone should see. State your reason.

14) Do the same for an underseen or underappreciated baseball movie.

15) William Bendix or Leslie Nielsen?

16) Would you go back to a theater this weekend if one reopened near you?

17) Your favorite horror movie TV show/host, either running currently or one from the past.

18) The Sentinel (1977)—yes or no?

19) Second-favorite Ron Shelton movie.

20) Disclaimer warnings attached to  broadcasts of films like Gone With the Wind and Blazing Saddles-- yes or no?

21) In the World Series of baseball movies, who are your NL and AL champs?

22) What was the last horror film you saw?

23) Geena Davis or Tatum O’Neal?

24) AMC is now renting theaters for $100 - $350, promising a more “private,” catered party-movie experience. What do you like or dislike about this idea? 

25) Name the scariest performance in a baseball movie.

26) Second-favorite Jack Arnold movie.

27) What would be the top five films of 2020 you’ve seen so far?

28) What are your top three pandemic-restricted movie viewing experiences so far in this... unusual year?

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Sunday, August 09, 2020

FOR CHARLIE'S 23rd ANNIVERSARY


The sadness arrived right on schedule this weekend. Twenty-three years has made sure that the intensity and the relentlessness of that sadness has abated somewhat, but over that time the sadness itself, whatever degree of suffocating it turns to be, has been as reliable as British Rail. Sometimes I can see it coming, and then sometimes, like this year, I wonder why I’m suddenly feeling so bad, or why the inescapable Trump-and-COVID-19-inspired low tide suddenly seems even lower. Then I look at the calendar and it all comes clear.
 

On August 11, 1997, my wife Patty and I lost our first child, a little boy named Charlie who was taken from us through a confluence of unfortunate circumstances a week before he was to be born. His birthday, through Caesarean section, was to be on my birthday. Instead, that turned out to be the day we laid him to rest. 


And ever since, I’ve tried to deal, through my writing, with Charlie’s loss, his memory, the reverberations of anticipations snuffed out, futures changed, a life never lived. And though that has not always been an effective way of processing the pain, it has helped me sort things out in a way, a little order to a progression of responses that sometimes add up to little more than a groan in the dark, and sometimes maybe a little more than that. 


This year, as a way of honoring Charlie, who would have been 23 years old this coming Tuesday, I’ve decided to repost the two pieces, over all those years of writing about him on his sad anniversary, that I feel best encapsulate my ever-shifting perspective on being Charlie’s dad. Of course, me being me, those pieces are tied to movies—two of them are among my favorite films of all time, ones I would have shared with Charlie (as I eventually did with my daughter Emma), and one I saw for the first time only three years ago, a film which had the cumulative illuminating effect of a lightning bolt targeted directly to the most hidden recesses of my soul. These are the moments of writing that I feel brought me nearest to the son I once held in my arms but who never, outside of the womb, heard my voice. I hope you like them. I hope he does too.  


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FOR CHARLIE, WHO WOULD BE 14 TODAY (August 11, 2011; written at Bruce’s house in Springfield, Oregon, just after completing my first Oregon Coast bike ride with Katie) 



It’s 14 years later now. Fourteen years separated from the day I held you, my son, for what seemed like a moment of genuinely suspended animation. That moment, comprised almost entirely of sorrow the likes of which I could never, in my most empathetic moment, have ever imagined, was tempered by fear that any movement, any shift of focus, would cause the river of time to start flowing again, its unforgiving waters to come pushing through the doors of the little room just off the nurses station in which we sat together, rising to overwhelm us forever. Sometimes I wish that we could have drowned in that river, you and me. If we had, I wouldn’t need to write this now. More often, though, I just wish for the tens or maybe hundreds of things that went wrong that summer to have magically gone right. I wish that we were here, above water, together. 

 
I’ve spent the last few days beside the waves on the most beautiful of coasts, and tomorrow I’ll be on the water again, in great company, floating, casting for fish, soaking up a world for which I am longing, but from which I am separated for now. And I often dream of how different my world would be if I could have only shared experiences like these with you. This is every father’s dream, of course, and there’s a very specific reason for mine. The dream is a way of keeping you near, of remembering you, of imagining who you might have been, of thinking about all the ways in which you’ve changed me, and the ways in which I might be different still if you had lived. 
 
This is your day. It’s a day of sorrow, certainly, but as the years pass an increment of joy remains in it as well, because there is pleasure as well as pain in thinking about the beautiful young man you would have been on your 14th birthday. It is this way. It must be this way. That pain is the price to be paid for keeping you alive in my heart, in all of our hearts. 
 
On this day I also often think of my own hopes and imperfections, two inseparable considerations, it seems, and contemplate the degree of love that even the most imperfect of men is capable of offering to his son. Two moments in two of the great movies of all time, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, for me perfectly sum up that love, that desire for the welfare and company of one’s children, and the regret for a life that took one too many wrong turns on a path choked with multiple forks in the road. In the second film, we see a young Vito Corleone assassinate a local don practiced in a parasitical “protection” of the neighborhood in New York’s Little Italy which they share. Vito’s escape from the scene, over the rooftops of that neighborhood during a parade commemorating the Feast of San Gennaro, ends when he arrives home to his wife and the three sons, all sitting outside on the steps of their modest apartment. He joins them silently, attending to the youngest, a newborn whose path in life he cannot yet know, though we in the audience do. “Michael, your father loves you very much,” he says to the infant, and there is no denying the exquisitely expressed truth of that simple statement. 
 
The other scene plays out in the story’s timeline some 30 years later. Vito, now old and infirm, expresses to a grown Michael the political reality of the family business he is about to inherit, as well as one of its possible immediate outcomes, and the interaction of the actors, the tenderness of the screenplay, and its aliveness to the way fathers and sons silently express their affection and respect for each other in the way the men take up physical space together and inside the frame, perfectly crystallize the movie’s understanding, without moral judgment, of a flawed man’s dashed hopes and undying love for his boy. It is one scene inside a film full of similar empathy and power, a film that I so wish we could have one day seen together. I can only offer my thoughts of it to you in the hope that somewhere you’ll understand and know, Charlie, that your father loves you very much. 


**************** 


FOR CHARLIE’S 20th ANNIVERSARY: THOUGHTS ON SÉANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON AND OTHER CLOSE ENCOUNTERS (August 11, 2017) 


It was only recently that I saw, for the very first time, Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964), and as it was designed to do, it chilled me to the bone. The movie descends like a shroud upon the lives of Myra (Kim Stanley), a would-be psychic who seems at the beginning of the film to be what one might describe as dotty and demanding, and her cowed husband Bill (Richard Attenborough), a milquetoast of a man who seems far too acquiescent to her insistent personality. But Myra is more than just a bit dotty, she’s borderline demented, and she has emotionally pummeled her husband into participating in a bizarre kidnapping plan— they’ll "borrow" the daughter of a wealthy businessman and then achieve fame and riches by helping police to discover her whereabouts. As the crime progresses, Séance reveals itself to be a disturbing, suspenseful movie, built not on whether the young victim will survive, but instead on just how deeply Myra will devolve into her own fantasies of parenthood, and it’s this aspect that made me begin to get a little nervous when I was watching it at home. 


We’ve been told that the room in which the young girl is being held was once that of Myra and Bill’s son Arthur, who apparently died while still a young boy, and whose psychic contact with Myra is the basis of her claim to conversancy with the dead. But the real nightmare of the film is sparked when the line between Myra’s self-defensive delusions and a much purer madness dissolves completely. It’s soon revealed that Myra, who still believes she can speak with Arthur, never actually knew the boy—he was, in fact, stillborn, the room upstairs lying for years in a perfect state of waiting for a child who would never play or sleep in it. And under the pressure of keeping the kidnapping scheme from being discovered, she’s begun to believe that the best thing for Arthur is to send the little girl to the other side—to murder her—so that her precious baby would be lonely no more, and perhaps leave her tortured mind alone in the process. 


Kim Stanley touches plenty of raw nerves depicting Myra’s desperation to connect with the way she envisions the world is supposed to be, but Richard Attenborough is in his own way just as effective, pinpointing the futility of Bill’s balancing act between empathy and comfort and a desire to force his wife (and, of course, himself) to deal with their grief rationally, expressively. But as I descended deeper into the movie, I had to question the wisdom, especially around this time of year, of seeing a movie about a muted, near defeated couple who have been haunted by devastating loss into making the worst decision possible as a means of reintroducing themselves to the world. In many ways I feel like I’ve been hiding out for the past 20 years, trying in my own way, like Bill, to help myself and my wife ride the wake of an event that just can’t be rationalized or explained away with homilies or assurances that everything happens for a reason-- What reason could possibly suffice? For 20 years I’ve been trying to find a place where the grief over my own lost son, Charlie, who was stillborn on this day in 1997, can somehow be grappled with, made sense of, instead of just routinely crushing me like a bug under a boulder. 


And frankly, the rather more agnostic turn my life has taken in the shadow of Charlie’s death—a direction it was already headed in, by the way—has been for me more of a comfort than the ostensibly reassuring thought that Charlie is somewhere hanging out in spiritual limbo somewhere, waiting to be reunited with the loved ones God saw fit to deprive him of at literally the last minute before he was to be born. In my mind, it is more strangely comforting to believe that what happened to Charlie was not the design of some sadistic deity who does things for his own self-absorbed reasons without the apparent need to let us poor earthbound bastards in on them. I’d rather just accept that the uterine abruption which resulted in his death occurred simply because it was within the realm of the physically possible for it to have occurred. It was not a proactive referendum on my or my wife’s abilities as parents, and we were not being punished for some presumed, speculative offense, like insufficient fealty and praise to a codependent Creator. So, despite the temptation (and, oh, how we have been tempted), guilt has never been a satisfactory option-- at least not for me-- in thinking about all the ways in which things might have turned out differently during that summer 20 years ago. 

 

But despite all my attempts at setting things at ease rationally, there is still the grief to be understood, and it’s here that I found myself empathizing not with Myra’s actions, but instead her disorientation and panic at not knowing what to do with that grief. If her dogged insistence that on some level it should all make sense is something to which I cannot subscribe, I can at least understand her inability to deal with the power of that grief and its repercussions. At times I wish I did believe, like Myra with her Arthur, that Charlie was constantly by my side, or somehow accessible in his incorporeal state, because it might—might—make life a little easier to live when I start thinking about him a little too deeply, a little too sadly. That comfort is, after all, what memories are for. But there are no memories of a baby boy lost at birth that are not utterly, overwhelmingly sad—even those revolving around the happiness of anticipation are necessarily, unavoidably colored by the pain of what was to come. 


And it is no comfort either to think of him separated from us by a mere dimension or two, our reunion to come at a time still to be determined. Yet in the immediate smothering of that grief, oh, how I wanted, just like the shattered, flailing Myra, to believe. A couple of weeks after my wife had returned from the hospital we were, of course, still reeling and trying to find a way to put our hopes and dreams back together. We had gone out to a local mall, and as I sat waiting for my wife to complete some piece of business, a little girl, probably no more than two years old, waddled up to me, looked me right in the eye, said, "Hi, Daddy," and then just as matter-of-factly waddled away. 


It took every bit of energy I could muster to keep my composure in this public place and not explode in a thunderstorm of rage and tears, and for years I held on to that strange encounter as evidence of perhaps an actual contact between Charlie’s spirit and my own. I don’t believe that anymore—I can’t believe that anymore, because too many things have accrued in my relatively meager experience, Charlie’s death being but one, to make me call into question beliefs my Catholic/Christian upbringing have insisted I take for granted, on unquestioning faith. But I remembered that experience anew when I saw Séance on a Wet Afternoon and it made me realize that confronting my own experience through this movie wasn’t a thing to be feared after all. My own loss made connecting with the dark insistence on spiritual redemption that fuels Myra’s clearly unacceptable, psychotic actions a little bit easier, a little bit more artistically rewarding, the recognition of a strange bit of empathy directed toward a woman who might seem too far gone for simple understanding. 


I still love my boy, and I know I will grieve for him in my own way until my own candle goes out—I can’t, as so many were quick to advise us in the earliest moments when our wounds were still so fresh, just move on. I also know that I don’t need to hang on to hopes of ghostly encounters and heavenly reunions to keep that love alive. But while I never want to wallow in past agonies I don’t want to forget the pain either—it is now and forever a part of what binds our lost child to us. I do believe Charlie knows the peace we’ll all know someday, and that, to me, is a thought which is happy enough. It’s the only one, in fact, that could possibly compete, after being separated from him for 20 years now, with actually knowing that 20-year-old young man, being his dad in this world, experiencing the love I’ve always felt for him reflected back on me like sunlight. That is a thought I’ll allow myself to dream on occasionally, and I will not feel ashamed for my tears.