Sunday, December 31, 2017

MovieMonday: Phantom Thread

Perhaps the thing that moves me most about this film is that I keep thinking about it.

Its star, Daniel Day-Lewis, completely inhabits his role as Reynolds Woodcock (interesting name, that) a 1950s British fashion designer whose life is his work and who has arranged with the support of his sister, Cyril (the excellent Leslie Manville,) to order his firm entirely to suit his creative and obsessive schedule.

As the film opens, Woodcock has tired of a muse/love interest who upsets his breakfast by making too much mundane, breakfast-type  noise.  "I cannot begin the day with an interruption," he declares.  Cyril, the enforcer, exiles the woman from the Woodcock townhouse and atelier.

Afterwards Reynolds flees to his country home and -- surprise surprise -- is enchanted by the waitress who comes to his table at the next morning's breakfast.  The camera and the excellent film score enhance Reynolds' interest in Alma (Vicky Krieps,) a quiet but quietly direct young woman.

Reynolds courts Alma by fitting her for a beautiful dress (all credit to American costume designer Mark Bridges) and brings her to London as his new muse.  

What follows is an increasing battle of wills between the inflexible designer and the woman who inspires his creations but wants to be recognized and loved as her own self.  The film functions both as an arid love story and a power struggle.

We've seen this before in drama.  Yes, "Phantom Thread" is more subtle than Aristophanes' "Lysistrata." No, it is not as subtle as Golding's "She Stoops to Conquer" or George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion."   And no, Alma is nothing like Eliza Doolittle of "My Fair Lady."

What is operating here is a 21st century version of a 20th century male-female conundrum and a filmic version at that.  Reynolds' sister and Alma -- and the female team who assemble Reynolds' creations -- do not dictate the design aesthetic at the House of Woodcock, but they demonstrate that, without them, it would disintegrate.

The method in which this potential disintegration is demonstrated is extreme and, given the restrained nature of its environment, barking strange.  The result is a Gothic resolution of the Reynolds/Alma relationship.

That said, the film is beautiful. Its period-appropriate cinematography is much enhanced by Jonny Greenwood's musical score.  Danial Day-Lewis has said it is his last movie, and yet it shows his talent to such effect that we should hope it is not so.  I'd also like to see much more of actress Leslie Manville, whose work as "old so-and-so," the designer's sister, is lovely to behold.  

Vasily Fedoshenko

On December 26, The Atlantic ran a set of photographs of Christmas celebrations worldwide.  The range of locations and people were  interesting, but I was taken particularly by a picture that also appeared on the front page of that day's Wall St. Journal.  The photographer is Reuters' Vasily Fedoshenko. 

To me, the composition suggests a Renaissance painting.  The whites of the very high ceiling are echoed in the gowns of the kneeling children, of the Mary figure and of the infant.  So are the blues of the altars and Mary's cape, and so are the browns of the church floor and the columns and the robes of Joseph and the three kings.  

No, the photographer did not design the scene.  But he went to the church, saw what was there and knew how to make use of it.    A nice piece of work. 

For an organization that does not produce its own print publications, Reuters seems to take its photography seriously.  It has photographers as well as reporters stationed all over the world.  In addition to licensing images to news organizations, it shares online portfolios on specific subjects.  

One of these was assembled after Fedoshenko's 2016 visit to the restricted area around the Chernobyl nuclear zone 30 years after the disaster.  The photographs and narrative focus are on the changes in wildlife over the period, and they also record, by their absence, the abandonment of all humans from the contaminated area. 

Here are a few other Fedorenko images.

Crimea, 2014


Body builder,  2015


 Boys playing in a fountain, 2017


A Man Chopping Ice for a Swimming Competition, 2009

This may be Fedoshenko's most circulated photograph.  It makes me think of the report last week that one of those polar bear swims was canceled in New Jersey because, darn it, the water was too cold.  Tough people, those Belarusians.

In a Reuters profile, the photographer said this about his work:

"I would like as many people as possible around the world to see my photos, or the accompanying story. Something usual in my country can be very unusual somewhere else. So when I shoot I keep that in mind."

Sunday, December 24, 2017

MovieMonday: Wonder Wheel

You probably missed your chance to see this movie in a theater.  In my town, it lasted a week or so and, in the manner of movies today, was replaced by a similarly titled film called "Wonder."  Perhaps that is just as well.

"Wonder Wheel" is this year's Woody Allen film.  Like 2013's well-received "Blue Jasmine," it is about a woman whose life is falling apart, but with a lot more noise and action around the edges.  

The setting is Coney Island in the 1950s, where Ginny (Kate Winslet) lives with her husband (Jim Belushi.)  He operates the merry-go-round while Ginny waits tables at a tourist restaurant.  The family ensemble is rounded out by Ginny's son from her first marriage; all we learn about him is that he is 10 years old and a serial arsonist.

As usual, Woody Allen wrote the script here, and he gave Ginny's husband an unusual name:  Humpty.  Given Allen's history, the name suggests not Humpty Dumpty but Humbert Humbert, he of Nabokov's "Lolita."  A little surprising. 

Ginny busted up her first marriage by having an affair, and Humpty is loud but loyal.  Still, she resents the loss of her early acting career and her family's straitened circumstances. Now she is having an affair with a lifeguard/graduate student named Mickey (Justin Timberlake) who sees himself as a "future dramatist."  

Mickey also narrates the film, rather as Alvy Singer used to narrate earlier Woody Allen movies.  Like Allen, Mickey's a Manhattanite who seems to view working-class people with tumultuous lives as material for future playwriting efforts. 

Into the family home comes Humpty's beautiful 25-year-old daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple,) who has left her husband.

"Frank's gonna kill me," Carolina says tells her father.

"That's what you get when you marry a gangster!" he remonstrates, but then he welcomes her home.  Because, of course, no gangster would think to look for his estranged wife (and a person of interest to the FBI) at her father's house.

Then Carolina meets Mickey, and they are attracted to each other.

Ginny figures this out, becomes jealous and reveals how much she has been counting on Mickey to rescue her from her disappointing life.

Eventually a couple bad guys wander into the picture.  We can tell they're mobsters because the same actors played lieutenants in Tony Soprano's crew. This stirs the plot and leads to the conclusion.  

Woody Allen has written and directed some fine movies, but this is not one of them.  Maybe next year.


Some of the dialogue in this movie is pretty blah.  Here are a few nuggets I jotted down.

-- "More stuff is out of our control than we'd like to admit."

-- "I ruined my life by being unfaithful once, and now I'm doing it again."

-- "You have so much to give and no one to give it to."

-- "I have book knowledge, but you've really tasted life."

-- "I've become consumed with jealousy."

-- "Maybe you misread my body language."

Thursday, December 21, 2017


This is as much as I am willing to say about American politics this year.

It's tempting to conclude that our politicians are incapable of learning.

The Republicans could have seen this coming with the Affordable Care Act, the Democratic legislation that rearranged 18 percent of the American economy but did nothing to arrest the rising cost of healthcare.  Yes, it was a "win" for the Democrats, but it cost them their Congressional majority for the next three election cycles.  

But the Republicans are politicians, just like the Democrats, and they wanted a "win" of their own. They have passed something that leaves the hated US tax code just as Byzantine as it ever was and has handed the Democrats their usual talking points about hating poor people, which may or may not be true, but again, "truth" and "learning" and "politicians" aren't words often found in the same sentence.  

If these buffoons could do things in increments -- requiring family insurance policies to cover kids up to the age of 26, fixing the corporate tax rates to match those in other developed countries -- they could pick off support from the other side.  

This technique, known as "working together," could give way to shifting coalitions and responsiveness to popular concerns.  Could get more done with less noise.  

True, the opportunities for triumphalism would be fewer, but the genuine accomplishments over time might cause people not to hate politicians quite so much as they currently do. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

MovieMonday: Home Alone

Since I knew I would be traveling over the weekend and I wasn't interested in the new Star Wars film anyway, I went to a children's showing of this now-classic holiday movie at the local art house last weekend.

The plot is this:  Eight-year-old Kevin McCallister, the youngest child in a large family, can't seem to do anything right.  His older brother calls him a "phlegm wad."   "You're what the French call les incompetent," says his sister.  A cousin says, "Kevin, you're such a disease." The adults treat him like a nuisance.  Kevin resents every bit of it.  

The movie opens on an evening when Kevin's family has been joined by his uncle's family, and the house is full to bursting.  All  are preparing for an 8 a.m. flight to France for the Christmas holiday. Because he doesn't want to sleep with his cousin Fuller, a notorious bed-wetter, Kevin is sent to sleep alone in the attic.

In the hustle and bustle the next morning, his relatives leave without him.  This sounds improbable, but it's carried off reasonably well.

When Kevin wakes to an empty house, he's surprised and then delighted.  "I made my family disappear!"  he exults.  He binges on junk food, watches whatever he likes on television, pokes around in his brother's room and basks in his solitude.

Meanwhile his family is flying over the Atlantic.  About the time his parents realize they have left their baby behind, Kevin notices that a pair of bungling burglars are casing the family home.

While his mother struggles mightily to get back to take care of her son, Kevin demonstrates that he's a very resourceful young person, and he also learns that he really does miss his family.  Hilarity ensues, and of course things work out nicely in the end.

Except for the over-upholstered appointments in the McAllister family home, everything about this movie has aged nicely.  Children always enjoy watching comedies in which kids outwit grownups.  So do adults, who have childhood memories of their own.

The movie showing was well-received by the theater audience.  The only exception I noticed was a toddler who was too young to see much humor in the idea of parents abandoning a child.  The next time she sees the movie, she'll have a wonderful time.


I spoke the other day about Nashville's music culture.  What I realized only later was that the film I attended must have been scheduled to precede a symphony event.  This week, the Nashville Symphony and Chorus will present an HD broadcast of "Home Alone" while performing a specially adapted musical score.

The project was initiated in Nashville and gained the cooperation of film's director and producers.   John Williams, the five-time Oscar winner who composed the "Home Alone" score, proclaimed himself "delighted" with project.

Think of it.  If you had a child who was a music student, you could take him or her to see the movie and, several days later, to see it again with all the oomph that an orchestral accompaniment would add.  Seems like a great idea to me.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Music City

If you've only spent a day or two in Nashville, your impression of its music scene probably was formed by the loud bands that play in honky tonks on lower Broadway. 

But if you spend even a little more time in the city, you realize how embedded music is in the local culture.  In a sense, music is a language unto itself, and in Nashville, everyone is fluent in that language.

--You go to a doctor and finding yourself discussing the relative challenges of playing syncopated Scott Joplin rags and Beethoven's moody Moonlight Sonata.

--You go to the gym and one of your swimming friends invites you to come watch her play bassoon at her community orchestra's performance of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto.

--Another gym friend shares pictures of his new grandson and then gives you his indie CD in which he is the solo singer backed up by a Nashville band.  Then he has to say goodby because a well-known local artist wants to tell your friend how much HE enjoyed the music.

--As you leave the gym, you notice a young man improvising dramatic chords and arpeggios on the grand piano in the lobbby.  (Yes, the YMCA gym has a grand piano in the lobby.)

--You go to the airport, and there's a platform for group performances.  You go to a hockey game, and a live band plays classic rock between the periods.  

In short, the place is shot through with music.


A couple weeks ago, I was in the downtown library and heard music coming from the courtyard.  When I went to investigate, I found this.

This group was practicing for the library's entry in the annual Christmas parade.  There were marchers in Santa hats, big puppet images of Mark Twain and Maya Angelou (Beatrix Potter and a Cat in the Hat were on the sides), and a large African American man was carrying a big soft Elvis Presley figurine.  The music, of course, was "Blue Christmas."

A week later, I stopped at the library and found a string group playing Christmas carols in the balcony over the entry hall.  I counted 12 dulcimers, a violin, a guitar and a double bass.

In the fall months, the library's courtyard hosted noontime concerts of jazz, rockabilly, folk and soul music, as well as a program by a tribute band called the WannaBeatles.

Music Shops

A cell biologist we know took us around one day when he was visiting family in Nashville, his home town.  

He's a guitarist, so we went to the two high-end vintage guitar stores, where he talked with his longtime friends, the owners.  

At Gruhn Guitars, we were invited up to the second floor, where famous musicians are invited for coffee or to jam and where a half dozen guitar repair experts were working on instruments from a large vintage collection that had been bequeathed to a local university.  (Every college and university, and there are a bunch here, has a music department and/or a business division devoted to performance art.)

While we were there, we talked with George Gruhn, a genuine polymath who wrote the definitive book about vintage guitars.  After a while, he pulled out an acoustic guitar and taught me a few chords; he urged me strongly to take up the instrument.   He wasn't trying to sell lessons or a guitar -- his point was, why wouldn't you want to play another instrument?

At Carter Vintage Guitars we found folk guitars, bass guitars, electric guitars, double-necked guitars, steel guitars, banjos, mandolins and amps.  Co-owner Walter Carter writes extensively about music, and so I picked up a copy of his most recent book, "The Mandolin in America."  A nice read.

There are at least six other guitar stores in Nashville, also a violin store and a drum store.  I don't know where to find the keyboard and horn stores yet.

Plus, on 7th Street downtown, is the world headquarters of the Barbershop Harmony Society; its website has a 35-page list of affiliates, mostly in the US, but also around the world.  A cappella has been surging in recent years, and apparently so has barbershop.


Obviously, Nashville has more places than country-western bars to hear music.  Two of the main ones are the Ryman, an old church repurposed for audiences of 2,000 or so and busy just about every night of every week; and the Bridgestone Arena, where big, big stars -- lately Jay-Z and Garth Brooks -- entertain many thousands.

One remarkable spot is the Schermerhorn, home to the Nashville Symphony and Chorus.  We've been there four times this fall to hear everything from Shostakovich to a bang-up performance of the little-heard "Creation" oratorio by Joseph Haydn.  (See below.)

What I find remarkable about the Schermerhorn is that it draws a much broader audience than the senior-citizen demographic that dominates just about every other classical venue in the country.  There are families with children, millennials on dates (if that's what they're called now), groups of friends and people of all ethnic backgrounds.

The symphony courts these groups with $15 children's concerts, free chamber concerts, pops events, programs like November's "Music of Prince" performance and regular post-concert discussions with musicians in the back of the hall.  Other cities' orchestras could take a lesson here.


These things build on each other.   An area with a big music industry attracts others -- a guitar player from Germany, a drummer from Maine, a songwriter from California, students to local colleges.  They form a large pool of teachers for young students.  They organize young people's recitals and choirs.  They marry each other and share music with their children.  After several generations, the effect is remarkable.  

If you meet someone who was raised in Nashville and you want to start a conversation, say this:  What musical instrument did you play when you were in school?  This always gets an interesting answer.


Handel's "Creation" is a musical version of the Genesis story, flavored a bit with Enlightenment themes from the composer's era.  I had never heard it before, but it seems to be having a revival in recent years -- and deservedly so.  The music is beautiful throughout.  Here, from a 2015 London performance, is part of the Adam and Eve duet from the third act.  

Sunday, December 10, 2017

MovieMonday: Novitiate

"Novitiate" is a deeply flawed movie.  It is well-written and nicely filmed, and its actors are convincing.  I went to see it because it is about Catholicism and because it was filmed in Nashville, where I spend several months each year.  

The location shots, unrecognizable to me, were still fine.  There were lots of women in black-and-white habits, which ratified my personal theme that there are more Catholic sisters and nuns (there's a difference, BTW) in film than in real life.  

The only problem here is that the film pretends to be a Catholic story.

The premise is this: Cathleen, a young woman, decides to join a cloistered nunnery, apparently in search of meaning in her life.  Her reasoning:  "I want an ideal love that I have to give everything to."

You can see why.  The 17-year-old's mother is a divorced, angry smoker with a randy sex life.  "I don't believe in religion," says the mother.  "Actually I think it's kind of a waste of time."

On the other hand, the girl has attended a Catholic school and been treated kindly by a teaching sister who seems to have been an inspiration. 

So Cathleen goes to the Sisters of Blessed Rose monastery for postulancy and her novitiate, the steps that will prepare her ("train" her in the film's lingo) for a life of prayer secluded entirely from secular society.

During the same period, Roman Catholic bishops are meeting at the Second Vatican Council in Rome; its purpose is to open the church to greater participation by lay persons and to greater respect for and cooperation with people of other religions.  

The monastery's Mother Superior hates the idea of church reform.  She has ruled her institution with an iron fist for many years, and she has no plan to change.  

"When you hear me speak," she says, "I am the voice of God speaking on behalf of his wishes."  (This is not Catholic, by the way.  Catholics are admonished to practice humility.)

There is a lot of talk -- too much of it -- about each nun being a bride of Christ.  Instead of perfecting their souls, the nuns-in-training wonder constantly about whether they are worthy of His love.  (In Catholicism, the religious think less about themselves and their fears; they focus instead on the works and prayer that earn God's love.)

There is a weekly Chapter of Force session in which the Mother Superior orders the new crop of postulants to kneel in a circle, then singles one out and directs her to "List every single fault that you're aware of in yourself."  Then the other postulants are told to pile on, naming other faults of the woman under attack.  After the abuse, the victim is ordered to reform by saying prayers.

Also at the monastery, uppity postulants are assigned to pray silently while crawling around the convent on hands and knees.  

Ultimately, the nasty atmosphere of the place causes an older nun to act out in an extremely strange and vulgar way.  And a kind and generous young nun flees entirely. 

Cathleen obeys but is stressed.  She withdraws into a tension that is manifested in fasting and then serious weight loss.  When her mother visits, she notices this and confronts the Mother Superior, who of course asserts her authority.  

"Lady, I am not calling you Mother!" Cathleen's mom shoots back, a line that drew the expected laughs and applause from the movie audience.

On and on it goes.  

The movie is absorbed with the emotional and sensual needs of the young women; these are not the focus of any monastic experience, in any religion.  The film also categorizes the personal depredations young women suffered at the hands of a rigid, unfeeling, authoritarian and fictional Catholic institution.  

Unfortunately, the film was made by non-religious people who know nothing about Catholicism -- not its history, its teachings, its values, its sacraments, its gospels or its rituals.  

I'm Catholic, born and raised.  I know nothing about cloistered nunneries, but I call foul. 

A few points:

-- In Catholicism, an unbaptized person would not have been admitted to a convent.  Postulants in 1962 would arrive knowing that the Mass was said in Latin and that the altar faced the crucifix and not the congregants.  The movie is unaware of these basic facts.

-- In the days of large Catholic families, it was common for parents to hope that one child would have a "vocation," effectively a calling to become a sister or brother or nun or priest.  The movie says families regarded this as a "sacrifice" when in fact it was a point of pride.

-- Catholics did not and do not sponsor brutal group discussions of individuals'  "flaws."  They confess their "sins" privately with priests in the sacrament now known as reconciliation.  Nuns, including mother superiors (mothers superior?), did not assign penances or offer forgiveness.  The practices in the movie have more in common with those of the nastier late-20th century New Age cults, which themselves were adapted from tactics employed by totalitarian regimes to break down egos and enforce submission.


Here's a hint for the next filmmaker who wants to make a movie like this:  Invest in a copy of "Catholicism for Dummies."  Or, better still, talk to some Catholics.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Art + Fashion + Commerce = Kitsch

Here are some famous European paintings.

Mona Lisa, 1503, Leonardo Da Vinci

The Tiger Hunt, Peter Paul Rubens, 1616

Wheatfield with Cypresses, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

And here is an advertisement that ran on at least one billboard in Paris this spring.  Do you see some similarities?  

These handbags are not subtle:  In addition to gold plates naming the original artists of the featured designs, they have LV logos for the fashion house and cute little bunny-shaped bag charms, the emblem of Jeff Koons, the artist who collaborated with Vuitton on the collection.

The new bags were dreamed up by LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault and his daughter, who know the artist and have bought some of his work.  They discussed the idea, called the Masters Collection, with Koons during a lunch meeting. 

What are we to make of this?

Jeff Koons

If you have heard of this artist, it is probably because of his balloon dogs.  

Above is Balloon Dog (Orange), one of several great big stainless steel likenesses of the sorts of prizes children used to get at carnivals or birthday parties.  This one holds the record for the highest price ever paid for an artwork by a living artist -- $54.8 million.

A few years ago, I saw a Koons retrospective at the Whitney in New York.  The show featured many works made over many years, but the one that got the most attention by far was the balloon dog.  

I attended the exhibit with a young friend who is a serious artist in the Cy Twombly mode.  When I asked his reaction, he said, diplomatically, "I think the artist is having a little bit of fun with his investors."

And what's not to like?  You see a balloon dog, and you know what it is.  It is shiny and perfectly made.  It may remind you of a happy moment in your childhood.

Since then, Koons has moved on.  In recent years, he has been creating his Gazing Ball series, which consists of large large copies of classical paintings and statues that have blue reflective balls attached. Here is one.  

Not everyone is enchanted with the concept.  Koons has had a good long career, but among art cognoscenti, skepticism has been growing over time.  Here is a reaction to a Los Angeles showing of the recent stuff:

  "Koons appropriated famous artworks, had them repainted in oil on canvas, and affixed a gazing ball — a blue glass globe with a highly reflective finish — on each. 'This experience is about you,' Koons has said, 'your desires, your interests, your participation, your relationship with this image.' Similarly, if there is lasting interest in ... Koons’s new projects, it will derive from the moment they reflect rather than any quality inherent in the art itself."

Natasha Degan and Kibum Kim
"The Kitsch Gazes Back"
LA Review of Books
July 2, 2017

I don't know what to make of that, but you definitely can see how the Gazing Ball series led to the Louis Vuitton Masters collection.

More Handbags

In October, a new set of art-themed bags was released.  

I'm not the first person to observe that these bags look like the sort of thing you'd find in a museum shop.  They're pretentious and derivative.   If I were the sort of person who spent $3,000 or more on handbags, I wouldn't buy one.

In fact, this isn't the first Koons handbag.  Back in the peak balloon dog years, the artist partnered with the fast-fashion H&M chain, which put balloon dog replicas in its shop windows and sold balloon dog handbags priced at $50.  Here is one.

If I had a personal wayback machine, I'd take one of these and a new LV Mona Lisa bag and pay a call on Leonardo.  I'd ask what he thought of the use -- call it cultural appropriation -- of his work for a commercial venture.  

I'm guessing the painter would be amused to hear that Koons once threatened to sue a company for making balloon dog bookends -- as if Koons himself had copyrighted the idea of balloon animals.  My bet is the conversation would be full of mirth.

Other Reactions

"The issue here is not exactly a mystery. On one hand, Vuitton is exploiting art for its own gain. On the other, an artist is selling out. In the middle, consumers are being introduced to great art as if it is disposable.

"In part to counter this, Vuitton and Mr. Koons have added a subnarrative to the project that spins it as an effort to address the falling profile of classical art — a civic service, if you will. Inside each bag, for example, is a little description of the artist, like a hidden history lesson for the Twitter generation."

Vanessa Friedman
Jeff Koons's New Line
New York Times
April 11, 2017

"They're bad. They're, like, disaster-level bad. They're bad in a way that feels pointedly contemptuous of Louis Vuitton's customers."

Amanda Mull
April 13, 2017 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

MovieMonday: The Man Who Invented Christmas

Here's a story about Charles Dickens during the the last couple of months of 1843, the period when he wrote "A Christmas Carol," his most loved book.

The source material is a history that has the same title, but the film includes some imaginative bits -- it has been compared to "Shakespeare in Love" -- that reward those  who are familiar with the story.  

The plot is this:  Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens), the superstar author of his day, is strapped for cash after his most recent novel, "Martin Chuzzlewit," has not earned out.  He's overextended financially, and he needs money soon. 

Dickens hears the name Marley, observes his family's Irish maid telling his children a Christmas fantasy story, thinks a little and decides to write a book about a Christmas ghost.  He tells his publishers it will be a comedy.  For this he is all but laughed out of the room.  

Even his boon friend, John Forster (Justin Edwards), is skeptical.  "Why throw everything away over a minor holiday?"  he asks.  (The thesis of the source book is that "A Christmas Carol" changed the way the holiday was viewed, imbuing it with themes of generosity and kindness.) 

With a six-week deadline, Dickens sets to work, drawing inspiration from everything around him.  He meets or imagines his lead character, later named Scrooge (Christopher Plummer), at a dismal funeral and asks the dour man a few questions.

"What do you think of children?" 





A pause ensues, and then comes the answer:  "Humbug."

From then on, Dickens' imagined Scrooge walks with him.  Other characters emerge, drawn from and played by the same actors as Dickens' relatives and friends.  (Think of the buddies Dorothy meets on the yellow brick road.)  They join the troupe in Dickens' head and, in the movie's telling, in his office.

As his deadline nears, Dickens is frustrated by family interruptions, consumed by unpleasant childhood memories and puzzled as to how to end his book.  This is not suspenseful because we know how the story ends, but its resolution is enlarged by the suggestion that every one of us may have a bit of an inner Scrooge who could use reforming.

I liked the movie.  Go see it with children over the age of eight who know the the story.  Take your parents too.  You'll all have a good time.  


Audiences generally like this movie, but there are Ebenezers out there too.  The main critical complaints are that the story is saccharine and too much like a TV movie.  I didn't find the film cloying, and I did like the energy Stevens brought to the Dickens role. (Plummer also does an excellent Scrooge, and the script and directing are crisp.)  To be fair, though, we are  bombarded with months of Christmas promotions every year, and there may be fatigue with the Dickens story and lines like, "God bless us, every one."   

One trailer before the film, about a cartoon or CGI piece called, "Sherlock Gnomes," looked pretty bad. The Sherlock is Sherlock Holmes, and the gnomes are those kitschy garden figures.  The target demo seems to be young viewers, and the result may be a mashup of saccharine and pop-culture cynicism.  Two moments from the preview:  A gnome saying, "No ship, Sherlock," and a gnome twerking in a mankini.  Kids deserve better.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

MovieMonday: Coco

There is much to admire in this latest children's movie from Pixar. 

Its young hero, Miguel, wants to be a musician.  In the style of all heroic stories, he must prevail against one barrier after another to achieve this goal.  

One big hurdle is Miguel's family.  His older relatives love him dearly, but they hate -- really hate -- music, and they expect him to join the family shoemaking business.  His tough-minded abuelita (grandmother) even smashes Miguel's home-made guitar, which causes him to search for a replacement.  

By some magical sleight of hand, this search transports Miguel to the land of the dead just before the Día de los Muertos, the day when Mexicans celebrate symbolic reunions with friends and family members who have died.  

It takes a brave children's movie to tackle the topic of death, a matter of great concern to the very young.  Here the dread is ameliorated by an afterworld where the dead live a parallel existence for as long as their relatives remember them.  

In the land of the dead, Miguel meets lost relatives and spirit animals, and he faces a deadline to get back to his home and family. New, disturbing information is revealed, and battles are fought.  It's a children's movie, however, and so things work out in the end. 

Personally, I thought the "Coco" plot was too complicated and pulled too many figurative rabbits out of hats.  Still, the family love theme connected the story, and the children in the theater audience seemed untroubled by its awkwardness.  So what do I know?  

On the plus side, it's nice to have a children's movie with a Mexican setting, Mexican characters and Mexican cultural references.  There's a big world out there, and kids deserve more than stories about suburban families, Lego superheroes and cute animals.  

As we have come to expect from Pixar, "Coco" is sincere, rich with creative detail and not stuffed with silly pop references to appeal to the cheap seats.  The colorful CGI imagery is particularly well done.  There also is nice Mexican music and a particular song, "Remember Me," that is sweet, but not cloyingly so, and is central to the plot resolution.


If you go to a theater to see "Coco," consider arriving a half hour late.  In addition to previews of other films, the movie is preceded by a lame 20-minute Disney cartoon, "Olaf's Frozen Adventure," which apparently aims to keep interest alive for a sequel to "Frozen."  

Together, these make the "Coco" experience a longer one than fidgety children will appreciate. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

Philip Larkin and 20th Century Alienation

This poem, from 1971, is probably the most famous ever written by Englishman Philip Larkin, who was born in 1922 and died in 1985.

This Be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,

And don't have any kids yourself.

Scholars suggest, seriously, that Larkin wrote this after spending several weeks with his mother, who outlived his Nazi-sympathizing father by many years and who was a difficult and needy person herself.  The poem's sentiment is harrowing, but he is said to have treated her kindly. She died the next year.

Larkin understood himself as a damaged individual.  As might be surmised, he never married and never procreated, frustrating the women who over the years were partners of some sort to him.  He was mostly asexual but keen for pornography, a lover of the natural beauty of the countryside but disinterested in the outer world of civilization.  He worked as a librarian and wrote poetry of steadily growing acclaim.  

Larkin's title comes from the first line in the second stanza of a less downcast poem by another Englishman, Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived a century earlier. 


Under the wide and starry sky  
  Dig the grave and let me lie:  
Glad did I live and gladly die,  
  And I laid me down with a will.  
This be the verse you 'grave for me:
  Here he lies where he long'd to be;  
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,  
  And the hunter home from the hill.

The contrast between the two works could hardly be greater.  In essence, Larkin offered his personal correction to the more romantically inclined Stevenson, who was "glad" in his life and wanted his gravestone to say that he had been buried "where he long'd to be."

There is no reconciling these two poets' outlooks, but each is true to its moment.  Larkin denied sometimes that his work could be defined as modern, but the moderns admired his bleak and unsparing honesty.   The 20th century and its two world wars took their huge toll on Western sensibilities and confidence.  The period also gave us film noirabstract impressionist art, atonal music and Brutalist architecture -- all reactions against traditional norms.  

We don't know yet what conclusions the 21st century generation, millennials, will draw of the world as they found it.  There are good signs and bad signs.

One of the bad ones is the disconnection of so many people in the wealthiest country in world history.  Coming soon:  The Kids Are Not All Right.  Other posts may follow.

More Larkin

Below is a morning song, the 1977 Larkin poem most admired by literary critics.  It is beautifully written, but its attitude is consistent with the cold eye cast in the work above. 


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.   

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.   
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.   
Till then I see what’s really always there:   
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,   
Making all thought impossible but how   
And where and when I shall myself die.   
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse   

—The good not done, the love not given, time   
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because   
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;   
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,   
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid

No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being 
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,   
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,   
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,   

A small unfocused blur, a standing chill   
That slows each impulse down to indecision.   
Most things may never happen: this one will,   
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without   
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave   
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.   

It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,   
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,   
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring   
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.