Isabelle Eberhardt’s Worthwhile Life

Isabelle EberhardtOn this day in the early part of the 20th century, we saw three fine actors born. The first is Kathleen Freeman who was born in 1919. She was a character actor over five decades known for her acerbic roles. I’m sure you’ve seen her countless times. She was, for example, in 11 Jerry Lewis films where she was his foil. She was also in Support Your Local Sheriff. And, most of all, she played General Burkhalter’s sister in Hogan’s Heroes. She was always great, spicing up anything she was in.

Our second actor is Hal Holbrook who is 89 today. About a decade ago, I dragged my wife to see him in Mark Twain Tonight. I knew it from my childhood. Then as now, I think there is little that can compare to a great actor on stage all alone. But she had no idea what to expect and was high skeptical. Of course, she loved it. How can anyone not? He’s done much else of note. But I don’t think this part of his career gets enough attention. So here is seven minutes of him doing Twain:

And the third actor is Alan Bates who was born in 1934. He had a long and varied career. But I most remember him for two of his later films. First there is Claudius in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet. And then there is his fantastic performance as Jennings, the alcoholic butler, in Gosford Park. I wish Bates had lived longer.

Other birthdays: astronomer Tobias Mayer (1723); stethoscope inventor Rene Laennec (1781); the man they named the line after, Andre Maginot (1877); evolutionary biologist Ronald Fisher (1890); mathematician Abraham Fraenkel (1891); activist Huey Newton (1942); actor Rene Russo (60); if I were a southerner, a comedian who would embarrass me, Larry the Cable Guy (51); basketball player Michael Jordan (51); hack film director Michael Bay (49); and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt (33).

The day, however, belongs to the writer and activist Isabelle Eberhardt who was born on this day in 1877. She lived much of her adult like in Algeria during the French occupation. And she was often in conflict with it as she worked to help the native people. I wrote about her last year with regard to a biopic about her, Isabelle Eberhardt. My initial assessment of her has only grown stronger the more I’ve learned. As I wrote then:

The film ends with Eberhardt’s death due to a flash flood that destroys her home. Right before the walls crumble, she says, “I want to live!” It is a movie cliche, of course. But in the context of her life, it is a fitting epithet of her. Because there is little doubt that in her 27 years, she lived a great deal more than those of us pushing twice that age.

Happy birthday Isabelle Eberhardt!

Glengarry Glen Ross Signifies Nothing

Glengarry Glen RossThe guys at the The Q Filmcast do a podcast every week where they pick a film on Netflix to discuss. It is a surprisingly good show. There are five of them and they never seem to agree. Thus far, I have agreed the most with their producer Adam Rodgers, who the rest of the gang seem to think is a cinematic philistine. I don’t consider myself a philistine, but I do constantly rebel against what I think of as the professionalization of mediocrity. If you have the money to hire professionals, it is trivial to tell a standard story in a standard way. In general, I’m more into psychotronics and more generally personal art that is thrilling but often inconsistent or worse.

So when I heard that the Q boys were going to watch Glengarry Glen Ross, I was excited. I’ve been meaning to watch it for years, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. So I curved up with it Friday night and watched. It is everything that you expect from a David Mamet film. And if you like him, I don’t see how you can go wrong. Unfortunately, I don’t like Mamet. That’s not to say that I always hate his work. For one thing, when I read American Buffalo when I was a kid, I thought it was fantastic. But that was my introduction to him. Since then, I think everything that Mamet has to offer is on display in that play.

I remember reading that in his original script for The Verdict, Mamet ended without the jury coming back. I admire this. The story is about the personal redemption of Frank Galvin. It doesn’t matter that he wins the case in practice; we’ve seen that he has won in the eyes of Galvin. But it does have a resolution because Mamet is constrained by Barry Reed’s novel. When Mamet is not constrained by someone else’s story, he doesn’t bother to even come up with a story. Generally, he writes stories that are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

This is entirely true of Glengarry Glen Ross. It tells the story of four salesmen and an office manager. The owners of the company have decided to have a sales contest where the top two win prizes and the bottom two are fired. We only get two days into the month before the entire office is destroyed. As is typical of Mamet, he seems not at all interested in the absurdity of the situation. Nor does he seem to be aware that ultimately the owners are to blame—you make people too desperate and they will turn on each other. Of course, they already have, just in smaller ways. We learn, for example, that the office manager has been giving out good leads to agents he likes and bad leads to agents he doesn’t. In fact, my reading of the script is that the agents’ sales are totally determined by the leads given to them, just as they allege throughout the film.

All of this conflict is in the service only of the conflict itself. The thematic core of the film comes when a once great salesman (Jack Lemmon) asks the office manager (Kevin Spacey) why he is trying to destroy him. The office manager says, “Because I don’t like you.” That’s the tautological message of the film: people are cruel because people are cruel. I don’t doubt that Mamet sees the world like that. But that isn’t the way the world seems to me. People are cruel to each other mostly because they get an advantage from it. Mamet’s take on the world is the simplistic mentality of pubescent boys who haven’t learned how to manage their hormones.

Along with the unrealism of the plot, we have the highly stylized Mamet dialog. In small doses, it’s fine. But I’ve been inundated with it for decades. It hasn’t grown. It’s the same thing we always get from him. And sadly, it is the same thing we get from a lot of writers who have followed after him. If it weren’t for how foul it all is, I’m sure critical opinion on it would have changed and more people would admit to how annoying it is. But okay, it is what it is. What is is not is realistic.

I know that Glengarry Glen Ross would work much better as a play. That was especially true of the scenes between Moss (Ed Harris) and Aaronow (Alan Arkin). These are very funny, fast paced dialogs. But the director James Foley decided not to do them in a two shot or similar. So we cut back and forth between the characters very fast. It not only makes one’s head spin, it distracts from the dialog. There is no continuity. I have no idea why it was done that way. I am rarely even tempted to say something I don’t like is wrong, but here it is hard to escape that conclusion.

The film does not expand itself very much from the play. At times, I think that works rather well. The opening in payphones worked really well, for example. It reminded me of the art direction in the 1996 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But the vast majority of the film takes place in the office. And other than it looking totally like something built on a sound stage, it had nothing of the otherworldly feel of the other locations.

There are things to admire in the film, however: mostly the acting. It is great. Kevin Spacey as the small minded and hateful office manager was wonderful. Al Pacino gave a slightly muted performance, which was perfect for the flamboyant “closer” of the office. (Am I saying that Pacino usually over-acts? Yes!) Lemmon, Harris, and Arkin were all excellent. Alec Baldwin tried very hard but was not properly supported by the direction. The standout performance was Jonathan Pryce in a small role with almost no dialog. Throughout the film, I felt he was the human ombudsman, looking on in horror, “What kind of creatures are you anyway?”

I know that a lot of people will like Glengarry Glen Ross. And there is no doubt that Mamet is probably more in tune with American attitudes toward drama than he ever has been. But I think a close viewing of the film shows its problems. It is ultimately empty socially and spiritually. It has nothing to say and it says it in the most offensive way it can. And as much as that is modern America, I don’t want to be reminded. So in the end, my feelings about the film are the same as Adam’s: I just don’t like it; it makes me feel bad without any enrichment. Regardless of how we dress up our feelings about a film post facto, that’s what it all comes down to. It would seem that Adam is just being more honest than the rest of us.

Julianna Forlano Does Comcast

Julianna ForlanoAbsurdity Today is a periodic comedic take on the news produced and performed by Julianna Forlano. She has a wry wit with moments of extreme silliness. And she definitely looks at the world through liberal eyes.

I’ve been following her videos since almost the beginning. I first wrote about her almost two years ago. In that article, I expressed my surprise that she hadn’t broken out of the 5,000 viewer ghetto on YouTube. She is, after all, funny and insightful. And the videos are short. What’s not to like?

I wish I could report to you that Forlano has gone big, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It is now the second day after I received an email notice that a new Absurdity Today was up. Yet there are only a bit over 6,000 views as I write this. Now, that isn’t bad. But more people really ought to know about her video channel.

That’s especially true given that her videos, which were always good, have only gotten better. And this newest episode is really great. So take two minutes out of your day and check it out. And if you like it, subscribe. Otherwise, some day we will pine for the days when everyone’s videos didn’t look like they were produced by John Green.

The following video addresses the news that Comcast is trying to gobble up Time Warner Cable. The Comcast automated phone system bit is brilliant. And the video ends with an appeal to go to Free Press and sign the petition to stop the merger. I recommend doing that too.

“Your estimated wait time is… irrelevant!”

Happy Oney Judge Day!

George WashingtonWell, it’s President’s Day. But according to the federal government, it isn’t; it is instead Washington’s Birthday. I don’t especially like that. The best thing you can say about our first president is that he wasn’t ambitious. Many people (most notably John Adams) wanted to form a native aristocracy. Luckily, we didn’t get that explicitly in our politics, but we certainly got it implicitly in our society generally. So maybe the country should celebrate Washington, but you will forgive me if I don’t.

Washington is generally considered our richest president (but wait a few years and I’m sure that this will change as income inequality gets ever worse). Like almost all rich people everywhere, he was not rich through work but through owning. And in his case, what he owned were human beings. For 200 years, people have been trying to make out that Washington was against slavery. This is almost entirely by cherry picking statements he made. Any non-psychopath who is doing something evil will occasionally have bouts of moralizing.

What’s more, Washington never seemed to have any problems with slavery as long as his slave population was young and profitable. As they got older, they were less profitable. So as Washington started have economic problems with his slave population, his moral reasoning kicked in. “These slaves are costing me money… And you know, slavery is wrong!” And just look at his slave holding. He started at the age of 11 with ten slaves. And he actively acquired them as he got older, ending with 317.

According to a review of Joseph J Ellis’ His Excellency: George Washington, “He concluded that slavery was economically inefficient and that people who were compelled to work would never work hard.” You can just imagine the scene. Washington is looking out the window of his mansion sipping tea. He sees the slaves working in the tobacco fields and thinks, “If only those slaves worked harder, slavery would be a whole lot more morally defensible!”

Oney JudgeWhen Washington was president, he wanted to bring some slaves to work from him at the President’s House in Philadelphia. The problem was that if a slave was in the state for more than six months, he was automatically freed. So Washington just cycled the slaves so they never spent six month continuously at the President’s House. What a great guy, huh?!

One slave working at the President’s House, Oney Judge, escaped. That didn’t please the Washingtons. They spent years trying to steal her back. In The Pennsylvania Gazette advertisement of reward for her capture, they mentioned that they didn’t know what she was wearing. This was true, “As there was no suspicion of her going off, nor no provocation to do so, it is not easy to conjecture whither she has gone, or fully, what her design is…” Yeah, what could have caused her to escape?!

The Washingtons never got Judge back. She died in New Hampshire at the age of 75—older than either of the Washingtons. George Washington did free his slaves in his will. So that’s something. But it is interesting that Judge was one of the Washingtons’ dower slaves who ultimately belonged to the Custis Estate. So she would never have been freed.

Afterword

If Washington had wanted to free the dower slaves (there were 154 at the time of his death), he could have brought them to Pennsylvania for six months. Of course, that would have required him to lose some of his wealth while he was alive. Anyway, they were all getting such a great deal being one of his slaves. All that “hardly working” and free room and board! When you look at it properly, George Washington was doing a great service to his slaves. And I’m sure he thought that most of the time.

Maximilian Schell Suddenly Gone

Maximilian SchellI was shocked to see that Maximilian Schell died at the age of 83 back on 1 February. He seemed healthy, but apparently he got a bad case of pneumonia and quickly died. The next thing you know Max von Sydow will be dead and I won’t know what to do. These people I don’t personally know are so much part of me, it is hard to carry on. It is one thing to have the movies, even when they don’t make anymore themselves. (Although that isn’t true of either of those men.) But seeing them from long ago on screen and knowing that they are alive is something special. The odd things is, I’m a lot more okay with my own death than I am theirs.

Now I’m going through my films to see if I have any of Schell’s films to watch. In terms of his acting, I’m afraid I’m left with relative dreck: The Freshman and The Brothers Bloom. Although I have to admit, he’s great in both of those, especially the first. But I wish I had Judgment at Nuremberg or The Man in the Glass Booth. I will probably watch Marlene, his documentary about Marlene Dietrich. At least she gave us another seven years! I will miss the old man.

Here is a great scene from Judgment at Nuremberg, although I have to say that Montgomery Clift steals it: