Category Archives: Film, TV & Theater

one rat short – better with cheetos

i want cheetosdear frankly curious reader,

wendy here again. you could probably tell from the lack of capital letters. it’s not that i cannot type capital letters. I CAN. I CAN PRESS THE ‘CAPS LOCK’ KEY AND TYPE ALL THE CAPITAL LETTERS I WANT.

but if i am to use capital letters properly, i have to do a lot more work. and this is hard enough. as you humans like to say[colon] anyway…

it’s kind of like the french phrase je ne sais quoi. but that literally means, ‘i don’t know what.’ so once again, we see that the french are more honest than the americans. anyway… why don’t you just say, ‘i don’t know.’ it would be a good start — for the whole country. but i’m getting sidetracked. and i have another sidetrack i need to get to before i get to what i came here for.

where is frank?

it’s daytime. so where is frank? well, he got himself sucked into his toastmaster thing. so he’s off at a ‘leadership’ training all day.

now frankly [opening parenthesis]ha ha[closing parenthesis], i don’t see that he needs any more outlets for talking. all he does all day long is talk to himself. it’s quite annoying, really. but i’m a forgiving rat. we all have our little foibles. and this toastmaster thing does get him out of the room more.

it’s wendy if you please

as you should know, my name is wendy fink. that’s wendy with an ‘e.’ let me emphasize that[colon] wEndy.

geez, i have to catch my breath.

so because any article published here is immediately posted on the frankly curious facebook page, some wag wrote, ‘It’s no mystery who authored this creative piece. Everyone knows its Wendy.’

[opening parenthesis]that’s right, i can copy and paste. oh isn’t it amazing[exclemation mark] the rat can copy and paste[exclemation mark]. you people disgust me.[closing parenthesis]

so okay, the guy — who has an icon that looks like a puppet’s vagina — is referencing perhaps the most anemic band ever, the association, doing their 1967 number 1 hit — with a bullet — ‘windy.’ note that’s windy with an i. i’ll emphasize again[colon] wIndy.

you know[colon] the word you would use to describe the weather when there is a lot of wind. what is wrong with you americans and your name spelling[question mark] and the song was written by a woman whose first name is misspelled as far as i’m concerned[colon] ruthann friedman. but what do i know, i’m just a rat that learned english and how to use a computer.

so frank posts the song. like that’s going to make it better because everyone will see immediately that the song obviously refers to some human because no rat would be so silly as to name a child after bad weather.

but here it is, since i know you’ll want to listen to it now[colon]

okay, brian cole looks pretty cool, but how can you not playing that bass. he died of a heroin overdose just five years later. he was just 29 with three kids. i hope the royalties kept coming in. je ne sais quoi.

one rat short

now i’ll make a guess, not being there in 1972, but i assume cole was injecting that heroin. he’d have to be — heroin was at an all-time low in terms of purity — just 3 percent by some estimates. maybe someone just smothered him and they blamed it on the heroin. it wouldn’t be the first time someone snapped over that low-e string.

but the injection got me thinking about the rat romeo and juliet[colon] one rat short by the animator alex weil.

now i’m not saying i don’t have my problems with this film. i don’t know what all that rat fighting at the beginning is all about. rats really aren’t like that. and there’s a little bit of furism going on where the black rats are vicious and the brown rat is good but from the wrong side of the roof and the female is virginal white.

but you could say the same thing of any of shakespeare’s works, so i guess it’s okay.

this is a very sweet and sad film. and trust me, humans do much worse to us than that. then again, you do much worse to each other. humans really have a lot to learn from rats.

so take a look at it. i did go to the trouble of finding it and copying and pasting the embed code. that is no easy feat for my feet. i tell ya, i should find an open mic somewhere. what hilarity[exclemation mark]

are you still here[question mark] watch the film[colon]

keep those letters coming

the email has been piling up since my last post. i’m just kidding. no one has written. but i am serious that you can write to me at rat at franklycurious.com and i will answer your questions, assuming you don’t annoy me too much.

my next post will be an advice column, whether any of you write to me or not. i’ve got loads of questions saved up like, ‘how long before humans go extinct[question mark]’ not soon enough for the planet[exclemation mark]

that’s not that to say that i don’t have a certain fondness for you hairless apes. my opinion would go up if frank would start eating cheetos. and if you don’t get that then you didn’t watch the film and i am so not in the mood for it.

cheers,
sally fink signature
wendy

Pablo Casals on How to Appreciate Art

Pablo CasalsMy great wish was to hear Pablo Casals. One day my desire was almost fulfilled and I met him. But ironically, it was I who had to play. It was in the home of the Von Mendelssohns, a house filled with El Grecos, Rembrandts, and Stradivaris. Francesco von Mendelssohn, the son of the banker, who was a talented cellist, telephoned and asked if he could call for me; they had a guest in the house who would like to hear me play.

“Mr. Casals,” I was introduced to a little bald man with a pipe. He said that he was pleased to meet young musicians such as Serkin and me. Rudolf Serkin, who stood stiffly next to me, seemed, like myself, to be fighting his diffidence. Rudi had played before my arrival, and Casals now wanted to hear us together. Beethoven’s D-Major Sonata was on the piano. “Why don’t you play it?” asked Casals. Both nervous and barely knowing each other, we gave a poor performance that terminated somewhere in the middle.

“Bravo! Bravo! Wonderful!” Casals applauded. Francesco brought the Schumann Cello Concerto, which Casals wanted to hear. I never played worse. Casals asked for Bach. Exasperated, I obliged with a performance matching the Beethoven and Schumann.

“Splendid! Magnifique!” said Casals embracing me.

Bewildered, I left the house. I knew how badly I had played, but why did he, the master, have to praise and embrace me? This apparent insincerity pained me more than anything else.

The greater was my shame and delight when, a few years later, I met Casals in Paris. We had dinner together and played duets for two cellos, and I palyed for him until late at night. Spurred by his great warmth, and happy, I confessed what I had thought of his praising me in Berlin. He reacted with sudden anger. He rushed to the cello. “Listen!” He played a phrase from the Beethoven sonata. “Didn’t you play this fingering? Ah, you did! It was novel to me…it was good… and here, didn’t you attack that passage with up-bow, like this?” He demonstrated. He went through Schumann and Bach, always emphasizing all he liked that I had done. “And for the rest,” he said passionately, “leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge by counting only the faults. I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one note, one wonderful phrase.”

–Gregor Piatigorsky
Cellist, Chapter 17

What Did Shakespeare Mean by “Purple Testament”?

What Did Shakespeare Mean by Purple Testament?
The royal family still likes purple — a lot — they are just more subtle.

If you’ve read me at all, you know of my love-hate relationship with “That Bard” — the broccoli of theater (something you don’t like but think is good for you) — William Shakespeare, or as I like to refer to him, “My Willy.” So I was very interested in a Twilight Zone episode I was watching, which I’ve always liked, called “The Purple Testament.” It’s from Richard II one of That Bard’s better plays, “‘He is come to open the purple testament of bleeding war.” But for the first time I thought, what does that phrase mean?

So I went looking to see if it was a common phrase at the time. Indeed it was not. I guess Willy just thought it sounded good and fit into his blank verse. As with all of Shakespeare, there is so much talking. A lot of people think people spoke that way at the time. No. I’m sure an actual king would have simply said, “He’s come to start a bloody war!”

But the phrase still requires some explanation. He wrote “purple testament” and not something else. The whole line is “the purple testament of bleeding war.” I will give myself at most five minutes to come up with a more understandable line (although truly, I’d rework the line before, which is 12-syllables not 10):

“The bleeding war of his selfish hubris.”

And don’t tell me that isn’t a great line, because his line wasn’t great either. And mine has the advantage of saying what Richard actually means!

What Do The Shake-Scholars Think?

Still, there have been 400 years of Shakespearean scholars (if you include people like Jonson). So some of them must have come up with some good ideas, right? Not so much, no.

In his mid-19th century edition of The Works of William Shakespeare, Howard Staunton wrote:

Stevens believed that testament is here used in its legal sense, but Mr Whiter, in his ingenious Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare, quotes a parallel passage from the first part of the old play Jeronimo,

“There I unclasp the purple leaves of war”

and remarks, “Whatever be the direct meaning of the words in question, I am persuaded that the idea of a book with a purple covering suggested this combination to the mind of our poet.”

What Does “Purple Testament” Mean

Well, sure, Shakespeare stole from everyone — all writers did at that time. But it only provides some indication of Shakespeare’s process. It could be reaching but Jeronimo was performed in 1592 at The Rose, when Shakespeare was there.

But all this tells us is a little about the writing process. Why did the Jeronimo writer use “purple leaves”? I don’t know the play. I assume by “purple,” he is referring to autumn. Thus it indicates the lead into war — and thus death. That’s not bad.

A purple testament has no such association. Based on the context, testament doesn’t just refer to a book, it refers to the Bible. Richard is ranting on about how no one likes him but God.

So is Shakespeare implying that Richard will soon lose the favor of God? I think that’s a reasonable reading of the text.

Why Do We Always Have to Help Out Poor Willy Shakespeare?

But here’s the problem: for hundreds of years, people like me — but generally with a far higher opinion of That Bard — have been doing this: assuming that he wasn’t just pulling lines out of his ass that fit. It’s very likely that “purple testament” meant nothing to him or the actors or the theater-goers.

He probably just liked the sound of it. Also, of course, purple is a “royal” color. Queen Elizabeth I (you know, the woman who was queen when Richard III was written) forbade anyone outside the royal family from wearing it. So that was doubtless on Willy’s mind, given what a suck-up he was to royalty.

It’s a good phrase though. It sounds important. But mostly, I think it was meaningless — just five syllables when Shakespeare needed them.

Historical and Other Errors in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

O Brother, Where Art Thou?As the title should suggest, this will be a silly article. But the truth is, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is probably my favorite Coen Brothers film. I’ve watched it a lot. But it is historical fiction. The Coens have called it a cross between Homer and Ma and Pa Kettle. That’s certainly true, but it is a film that is firmly grounded in the Great Depression. And it has two clear historical figures in Baby Face Nelson and Tommy Johnson. Plus, the character of Governor Menelaus “Pappy” O’Daniel is clearly based on the Texas governor Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel. So I figured we’d look into these things.

Timing Problem

One part of the film that has really come to bother me has nothing to do with history. Instead, it has to do with timing. After the young Hogwallop saves the trio from the police and Satan, Pete says that it is the 17th and that the location of the buried treasure will be turned into lake on the 21st. So let’s go through the film, although I know this is not going to be interesting to anyone who doesn’t know the film fairly well.

Timeline

  1. The trio pick up Tommy and make a recording.[1] They sleep near a barn that night, and again the police and Satan show up. Since they weren’t in the barn, they got away — Tommy separating from them.
  2. The trio are picked up by George (Baby Face) Nelson. They spend the evening with him until he wanders away, leaving them with all the money.
  3. With all the money left to them by Nelson, the trio seem to forget all about the treasure. We see them take a pie that was cooling in a window (they leave payment for it, however). Then, that night, we see them eating the pie.
  4. We see them walking more and a brief scene of them at night with Ulysses telling them a story. One could take days 19 and 20 as just a montage and really only one day. But as you will see, this doesn’t help.
  5. The next day, the trio run into the Sirens, who turn Pete over to the authorities. We see that night that Pete is about to be hanged, but then roles over on his comrades.
  6. Ulysses and Delmar discover that Pete is alive and back in prison. That night, they break him out. Then they save Tommy from being lynched. And finally, Ulysses reunites with his wife who insists he go back to their old home and get her original wedding ring.
  7. When the quartet reach the house, Satan is waiting for them, because Pete told them they were going there. (They think they are safe because they’ve been pardoned, but at this point it is completely established that the “sheriff” is Satan, “The law?! The law is a human institution.”)

History

I’m going to deal with three characters here, even though the governor isn’t supposed to be exactly the same character. There are some interesting aspects of his story.

George Nelson

George Nelson was quite an interesting guy — especially for a gangster and a psychopath. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is quite correct that he hated the moniker of “Baby Face.” In 1926, Harry Akst and Benny Davis wrote it. It was an immediate Number 1 song by Jan Garber and His Orchestra. George Nelson was just 18 at that time, and already an established gangster. But some other gangster with more power started calling him “baby face” because of his youth and small stature. (I can’t find the details, but I read a book about Nelson years ago.)

What’s most amazing about George Nelson is that he had, all things considered, a pretty normal family life. At the age of 20, he met and married Helen Wawzynak. The two of them had two children: first a boy and then a girl. As Nelson wandered the nation robbing banks, he brought his wife and son with him. His wife taught his son on the road. I don’t remember anything about the daughter; it’s possible she wasn’t born until after George Nelson’s death.

By all accounts, George Nelson was very sweet to Helen and the children. This is remarkable, because as a gangster, he was ruthless and shows every sign of being a psychopath. Helen lived until 1987. I’ve always thought should would have been a fascinating person to know.

George Nelson never went to the electric chair. He was killed in a shoot-out with federal agents. Nelson still holds the record for the number of federal agents killed by a man: three.

Tommy Johnson

There is a story told about Tommy Johnson (but more often about Robert Johnson). Tommy Johnson’s brother told a story some years after Tommy had died, that he had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his extraordinary guitar playing skills. You can see why the the story is so often attributed to Robert Johnson, who was truly an innovator, whereas Tommy Johnson was a great blues musician, he didn’t stand out that much from other blues players of his time.

The problem with his portrayal in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that it has Tommy Johnson meeting with the Devil in 1937. He had been a professional musician since 1914, when he was still in his teens. His career lasted until his death in 1956, when he died of a heart attack. He is still a very enjoyable performer. You can see that he’s actually more of an interesting singer than guitar player.

Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel

The real Pappy O’Danniel was the governor in the wrong state and the wrong time (in the 1940s). But there is no doubt that the Coen Brothers were thinking about him. For one thing, he worked most of his early life in the flour industry. What’s more, he went on to be a radio celebrity with a show that was supported by a flour company. In fact, it was the fame he gained from radio that made him governor — much like our current president. Nothing ever changes. We’ve always been stupid.

The other thing that is wrong about O Brother, Where Art Thou? is that there was no gubernatorial race in Mississippi in 1937. The races were in 1935 and 1939. It’s interesting though. It had been 70 years since the Civil War, yet no Republican ran in either of those races. The South only turned Republican, when the Republican Party became the party of segregation. It’s not nice to say, but there really is something wrong with southern whites.

Summary

Like I said, this was a silly article. But why not? O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a silly movie. I hope you enjoyed my providing some context.


[1] The trick that Ulysses plays on the blind producer, saying that there are six of them rather than just the four would never work. He could clearly hear that there are two background singers, a lead singer, and a guitarist. One person could sing and play guitar, and the lead singer could also do background vocals on the song. So Man of Constant Sorrow could be performed by two people — four at the most. Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you are an idiot. But it is a clever con on first brush.

Marlon Brando Was Not a Method™ Actor

Marlon Brando Was Not a Method ActorAlmost everyone I know thinks that Marlon Brando was a Method™ actor. Throughout his career people referred to him as a Method™ actor, regardless of how many times he contradicted them. And so this morning, I went over to Vox and read, Why the Oscars Love Method Actors. The subtitle was, “From Marlon Brando to Daniel Day-Lewis, Hollywood’s infatuation continues.” Other than the part about Brando, that’s quite true.

The thesis of the article is that the Oscars love method actors because the Academy’s members are a bunch of pretentious idiots. But how do you know that an actor is using The Method™?! By going on talk shows and telling the world. There’s no doubt that Robert De Niro one the Oscar because of all the publicity generated by his putting on 60 pounds for Raging Bull. Personally, I think John Hurt as Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man is one of the greatest acting achievements on film. But Hurt wasn’t even a trained actor, much less one trained in The Method™. So he lost.[1]

The Method™ Is Not Just Bad But Dangerous

I’m well on record as being very much against The Method™. Every actor has a method. The Method™ is trite. The idea is to act by not acting. Well, that’s just nonsense. And so now we hear stories of all the horrible things that Leonardo DiCaprio did to prepare for his role in The Revenant. It’s these things and not the performance on screen that got him the Oscar.

Marlon Brando Was Not a Method™ Actor

Marlon Brando was not not not a method actor. This is the man who, remember, was supposed to show up on the set of Apocalypse Now skinny, but showed up way overweight, such that the script had to be changed. That’s hardly the behavior of an actor who is “becoming the character.”

Another thing about Brando was that he was very good at accents. This is something that is almost never mentioned about him. Followers of The Method™ are generally useless with accents because they aren’t trained to the way, say, British actors are. I’ve heard people talk about how De Niro is great with accents. This is from Zimbo, Masters of Accents:

The most overlooked part of Robert De Niro’s incredible performance in Raging Bull is his meat and potatoes Bronx accent. The actor is from New York but Manhattan, which might as well be Connecticut if you ask someone from the Bronx.

Um, no. Not that different. Also: not that hard to pick up. Rent an apartment in the Bronx for a month and you’ll probably come out with the accent, especially if you study with a vocal coach. After 17 years as a professional actor, worth millions of dollars, doing a working class Bronx accent is not even worthy of a party trick. No master of accents he.

Great Actors Don’t Need The Method™

Don’t get me wrong, Brando was a great actor. But he did not use The Method™. Of course, the video that goes with the article hedges. It says that since 1951, there have been 132 Best Actor and Actress Oscars. But it says that “59 have gone to actors with Method™ acting training.” Well, it’s actually pretty hard to be a professional actor and not get at least some Method™ acting training. Certainly Brando had some. But that doesn’t make him a Method™ actor.

The Academy Members Are Pretentious Idiots

Let’s just lay it bare. The members of the Academy are pretentious idiots. In general, they don’t give out Oscars for great acting; they give it out for great characters. They’ve given Dustin Hoffman Academy Awards for two of his least memorable performances: Kramer vs Kramer (Ha!) and Rain Man. Hollywood gives out awards for what happens behind the scenes because the truth is, they don’t know what a great performance is. The truth is that no one knows. What you can do is look at an actor’s career and say, “Yes, that was good.” If we were honest, we would admit that any given performance has more than enough room to make the case that it was good or bad.

The article and video want to have it both ways. They want to say that The Method™ is just a marketing gimmick and that it makes for better performances. It’s not. I don’t like Leonardo DiCaprio, regardless. But I don’t see him being substantially better now than he was in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Yes, he is better, just as anyone gets better in the performance of their jobs as time goes on. The Method™ hasn’t done anything for his acting, but it’s done loads for his reputation.

We’d Be Better Off Without The Method™

You can be a great actor who uses The Method™ (although I’ve never thought much of Lee Strasberg’s acting). But it isn’t necessary at all. And I think it hurts actors because it draws them away from learning basic acting skills — like accents.

Afterword: Tom Cruise

The video also takes a potshot at Tom Cruise. It said he was always Tom Cruise up there on the screen. Well, maybe in the 4 movies they mentioned. But Cruise is a decent actor. There are a number of roles I could mention, but I’ll just mention Interview With a Vampire where he puts Brad Pitt to shame.


[1] I’ve never understood what is supposed to be so great about De Niro’s performance. He was up against Robert Duvall in The Great Santini too! Was there anything incredibly subtle about De Niro’s performance? Not that I’ve ever noticed. And when people bring up the performance, they always mention the same two things. First, he gained 60 pounds for the role. I do think that’s amazing, but I don’t think it has anything to do with acting. Second, they bring up his ad libbing with Joe Pesci.

People who know nothing of filmmaking tend to idolize ad libbing. The director Alan Parker once spoke about a scene between De Niro and Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart. These two Method™ actors didn’t think a particular scene was going very well. Parker is an excellent director and writer. Like most writers, he’s not too keen on ad libbing. He spent a lot of time coming up with just the right words. The idea that actors just messing around will improve on it is absurd. But The Method™ makes actors think that they can come up with better action and dialog because they are the characters.

But Parker had two stars, so he went along with it. And they shot hundreds of feet of film of these two ad libbing. They went in many directions, and ended up back to almost exactly what was written in the script. And don’t even get me started with Robin Williams. I recently re-viewed Good Morning, Vietnam. I was amazed that the film had aged pretty well, but not William’s ad libbing. In fact, his ad libbing was never very funny. It was based most often on very offensive stereotypes. And it was funny simply in its absurdity. It went by too quickly to really appreciate. I wish people would get over this. At best, ad libbing is simply writing fast. And there is rarely a time where writing fast is an important skill to have.

How to Understand the Ending of Learning to Drive

Learning to DriveLearning to Drive is a film for adults and that is why you have probably never heard of it. The primary character is Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), a noted book reviewer who has been left by her husband just minutes before the film starts. She gets into the taxi of Darwan (Ben Kingsley), an Indian Sikh who also teaches driving. And through a series of cinematic cliches, she becomes his student and friend.

In India, Darwan was a teacher and still is an intellectual. This is why when you are on vacation, you should take taxis because the drives are very often interesting people. On my last trip to San Francisco, I met a driver who had a PhD in Social Linguistics, and we had a nice conversation about the subject that extended several minutes after I had exited the vehicle. Looking back, the most amazing thing was that there was not a hint of bitterness in him. He was just happy to talk about his love to another who was interested in it. If the roles had been reversed, I doubt the interaction would have been so pleasant.

Wendy Decides It Is Time for Learning to Drive

Wendy, being a New Yorker, has managed to never learn to drive. And now she needs to in order to visit her daughter who is living and working on a farm in upstate New York. Her first effort results in failing her test, so Wendy gives up. But one day, her daughter, Tasha (Grace Gummer) visits her and tells her that she has decided not to return to the farm. (It is some part of her college education.) She admits that she had been in love with a young man there, and he was going back to college. So Tasha wants to come and live with her mother. But Wendy says no. She would love to have her daughter around, but she must finish her farming experience. At this point, Wendy is determined to learn to drive so she can visit and support her daughter.

Wendy Tries Again

So Wendy calls Darwan and tells him that she would like to try again. At this point, Wendy and Darwan become true friends. Darwan is having problems of his own. His arranged marriage to Jasleen (Sarita Choudhury) is not going well. The biggest problem is that Darwan is an intellectual and Jasleen is not. They don’t connect. Clearly, Darwan and Wendy are better suited, although it is clear they could never have a romantic relationship because of their social differences. But clearly, they can be and are excellent friends.

Darwan’s Marital Problems

Darwan confides in Wendy that their relationship is not going well. Wendy asks him if he would ever cheat on Jasleen if she disappointed him. He says no in a way that implies that the very idea has not occurred to him. She says, “You are a good man.”

Eventually, Wendy passes her driving test and Darwan goes with her to help her buy a car. As they are saying their goodbyes, Darwan asks Wendy if they can have dinner or coffee sometime. He does not want their friendship to end. But she says no. She adds, “The trouble is, you’re a good man.”

This is a subtle film.

The Ending of Learning to Drive

It took me several viewings to understand what Wendy was saying. It’s clear that Darwan is not asking for a romantic relationship. He simply wants their friendship to continue. But finally, I got it. The problem was not him; it was her. If they continued their friendship, she would fall in love. She would want more and he could never give it to her because he is a good man.

Also, she respects his wife Jasleen, even though she has never met her. And she knows that if she provides the intellectual stimulation that Darwan needs, he will never form the bond that he must with Jasleen.

Thus the literal end of the film is unnecessary. Wendy is driving to her daughter’s farm. But we know this will happen. It is the entire point of her learning to drive. The true ending of the film is for Darwan. And it is a beautiful scene.

The Real Ending

Jasleen comes home from shopping to find Darwan sitting on their bed. She says, “Darwan, I didn’t expect you.” He moves on the bed to provide a place for her. She sits next to him, having no idea what to expect. Is he going to divorce her and send her back to India? It’s a reasonable assumption. He says, “Jasleen, maybe I will not work at night anymore. Would you like that?” Jasleen smiles slightly, turning her head away from him. Her smile widens — almost to a laugh. She says, with the relief of all months of loneliness, “Yes!” He puts his hand on her face. She takes it. He gently rests his head on her shoulder. They are happy for the first time in the film.

Then we see Wendy driving out of New York on her way to visit her daughter. But this is de rigueur — simply for completeness. The film was complete with the joy on Jasleen’s face. Wendy’s story arc is about finding her own power. It is the primary plot, but we know it. We’ve experienced it too many times. What matters — what affects us — is the story of a traditional Sikh man who sacrifices his idea of how the world should be for the happiness of his wife. It is beautiful.

See this film!

Check Out My Elvira Page on Psychotronic Review

This is just a temporary page. I’ve been watching a lot of Elvira recently. So I created a page for her. Check it out: Elvira Movies.

See you tomorrow!

Update

I’ve added more to the article. I added a section on the television pilot she created. The video of it is there. It isn’t great, but well worth checking out.

It was 109°F today. And even as I write this at 8:00 pm, it is still 95°F. It’s hard to get any work done when it is like this. That’s especially true in my work/bed room that has two large south-facing windows. It is now exactly the same temperature as it is outside. I’m hoping that things get better by 10:00 pm.

Breaker Morant and Systemic Evil

Breaker MorantBreaker Morant is an incredibly compelling Australian film from 1980. It was the breakout film of Bruce Beresford, who would go on to direct many successful films such as Tender Mercies, Crimes of the Heart, and Driving Miss Daisy. It is basically a courtroom drama, which tells the true story of the court martial of Harry “Breaker” Morant, Peter Handcock, and George Witton.

They were Australians who fought for the British during the Second Boer War. The way the film tells it, the men were tried and punished as a way to end the war. As a result, the men come off as martyrs. And you can well imagine how the film played in Australia in 1980, given that there is a distinct nationalistic feel to it.

Guilty Martyrs

As a result of this reading of the film, Beresford has said, “The film never pretended for a moment that they weren’t guilty.” And that’s true. The film is quite clear about the men’s guilt. But I think people watching it pick up on something deeper. It doesn’t much matter that Morant and Handcock were guilty. (Witton appears not to have been guilty at all; it isn’t clear why he was ever put on trial.) The men were martyrs.

Now this isn’t to say that they were great guys. But I’ve never really understood how it is we apply ethics to war. If a superior officer gives you an order in the battlefield that you think is wrong, you have two choices. You can face being put to death right then. And you can face being court-martialed afterward. That’s not much of a choice.

The Evil Is War

In Breaker Morant, the regiment — the Bushveldt Carbineers — was tasked with fighting the Boer guerrilla fighters. The Bushveldt Carbineers thus used tactics that were irregular. As a result, they were more successful than traditional forces had been. Of course, when you start monkeying with exactly what is and is not allowed in fighting the enemy, it isn’t surprising that there will be some disagreement.

I always find myself siding with people like the men in Breaker Morant. When the awful photographs came out of Abu Ghraib (Baghdad Central Prison), I was unhappy about the prosecution of the service members. That’s not to say that I think much of them as human beings. But there is something about it that strikes me as an effort to cleanse an evil system.

There is some evidence that the British were only prosecuting Morant and the others because they were trying to get testimony against Captain Simon Hunt. Assuming that’s true, the wrong is even worse. It means that the authorities were willing to kill men they didn’t even think deserving. And they were asking men who fought together to turn on each other. It’s adding insult to the ultimate injury.

In the end, what we see in Breaker Morant is what we always see in war — and more generally in the society at large. It’s a way for society to try to justify its evil behavior. It’s like they are saying, “Sure, we did all these evil things, but we aren’t as bad as these guys! And to prove it, we’re going to murder them!”

The Meaning of Breaker Morant

According to Bruce Beresford, he wanted to show in Breaker Morant what war does to otherwise decent men. I think we can pass this off as another case of artists being the worst people to analyze their work. Because it doesn’t show this at all.

What it shows instead is how war soils everyone. The only difference between those who live and those who die is power. If there were any justice, Lord Kitchener and those of his rank should be killed for the sin of their wars and how they were fought.

Barring that, the least we could ask for is that we didn’t have these token court martials. Because they don’t clean away the sin of war; they just extend it; at least when the punishment is death.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No TalesThis weekend, I decided to take my father out to the movies. It is part of my effort to have some kind of life outside of work (an issue I’ve struggled with throughout my life). And at the cheap theater they were showing Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. I mistook it, however — thinking they were just showing an old film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. I was pleased to find that I was wrong. This pleasure did not last long.

Dead Men Tell No Tales is certainly the worst of the Pirates of the Caribbean series. But before you listen to me, you should consider that I believe On Stranger Tides was the strongest of the films. The reason for this is simply that the Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) character is the heart and soul of the franchise. On Stranger Tides is the only film that is focused on him. What’s more, the film is wonderfully absent Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). Dead Men Tell No Tales is not.

A Romance We Didn’t Want

As much as I didn’t care for the Turner-Swann romance, it was fine compared to a romance involving their son. Here we have Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) meeting his love interest Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario). Henry has no real personality to speak of, whereas Carina is a stock character: the science woman. But given that they are in the Pirates of the Caribbean universe where ghosts (and anything else the screenwriters find helpful) are very real, Carina’s commitment to Galileo Galilei and the scientific method are of little use and, ultimately, interest.

This romance is the heart of the film. So we are back to The Curse of the Black Pearl, but without characters that are even vaguely as interesting. What’s more, Carina turns out to be Barbossa’s daughter, turning a wonderfully complex and unpredictable character into a fawning “good father” who sacrifices his life to save her.

Fake Barbossa

Is it just me, or does Barbossa seem utterly fake when he smiles? Geoffrey Rush is a great actor, but all his skills don’t seem to be able to overcome such an uncharacteristic change in the character. It was hard to watch. This reached a peak with his sacrifice. I suppose since Barbossa had already gotten a good death in the first film, this second one didn’t need to be good. But it was cringe-inducing — probably the hardest scene to watch in the whole series.

Jack Sparrow

The plot that directly involves Jack Sparrow is only marginally better. He seems to be in the film only to push the plot forward. This is especially true when he trades his compass for a drink. Given how important the compass is throughout the other films, this strikes me as outrageous, even for Jack. But apparently the writers couldn’t come up with any other way to get the primary villain involved in the action.

The villain is Captain Salazar, who gets surprisingly little to do throughout the film. When he does become a major element of the film, it is in the form of Henry Turner (a waste of actor Javier Bardem). And then, he acts like a typical stupid film bad guy. Once the curse is lifted and he gets his life back, he doesn’t try to save himself. Instead, he continues with his vendetta against Sparrow. And this leads to exactly what we expect.

More and Worse Ahead

At the end of the credits of each Pirates of the Caribbean film, there is a short scene — a postscript. In general, it is meaningless. For example, in the first film, the monkey goes back to the chest and takes a coin out of it — becoming undead again. Yet the monkey showed up normally in this film without having ever returned the coin (at least according to the films).

But in Dead Men Tell No Tales, the post-credit scene seems to point toward a sixth film in the series. In it, Davy Jones is about to attack Will and Elizabeth as they sleep. But then Will wakes up, showing that it was all a dream, except that there are barnacles on the floor. Not exactly inspiring material for another go at this.

The whole franchise has really overstayed its welcome. Almost everything we saw in this latest offering had been in previous films. The thought of Will and Elizabeth on the run against Davy Jones sounds quite a lot like At World’s End. But I guess as long as these things continue to make money, Disney will continue to grind them out.

Afterword: Post-Credits Scenes

Overall, I like post-credits scenes. They are a nice kind of Easter egg for the film geeks around. But I think that Dead Men Tell No Tales broke a convention in its post-credits scene. Since there were no credits at the beginning of the film, the opening credits were put right after the end of the film. After they were done, the normal end credits scrolled up the screen.

A convention has been developed over the years that if you do such a thing, any post-credits scene will go after the first credits and before the scrolled credits. Dead Men Tell No Tales did not do this. As a result, everyone but my father and me exited the theater after the first set of credits. Badly played on the filmmakers’ part.

None of this would be a problem if it weren’t from the ridiculous 5 or more minutes of credits we are now forced to sit through. Although film is a collaborative art form, I don’t think this use of credits helps to make this clear. Instead, it tends to relegate someone who does make an artistic contribution to the final product (eg, an assistant editor) to the same position as one who doesn’t (eg, a caterer).

The Out-of-Towners: Review and Analysis

The Out-of-TownersLast night, I watched Neil Simon’s 1970 hit The Out-of-Towners, starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis. I had only the vaguest memory of seeing it when I was 6 years old. Strangely, I have a fairly clear memory of finding it very funny at that time. So it seemed like a good choice.

The Out-of-Towners Summary

The film is funny. It tells the story of George Kellerman and his wife Gwen. They are going to New York, where George is going to be interviewed for his dream job, which will move them from their quiet lives in Ohio with two young children to an exciting life in the big city. But things go wrong almost from the start.

Their flight is forced to land in Boston. Then, with some effort, they manage to get a train into New York. But once there, they can’t get a taxi, because there is a strike going on. So they walk to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where they find that their room has been given away. And so on. Somehow, George manages to make it to his interview and lands the job. But he decides not to take it; both he and Gwen have decided that they are happy with their lives in Ohio.

Writing and Rendering

I’ve never been a big Neil Simon fan. That’s not to say that I disliked his work. As I said, I liked this film when I was a kid. And I loved the film Murder by Death when I was younger. Today, I enjoy its companion film The Cheap Detective. But overall, Simon is just a dialog writer. And he’s pretty stylized. I really have to be in the mood.

Sexism

A bigger issue is that most of his stuff is dated. And The Out-of-Towners certainly suffers from this. It’s kind of hard to imagine that people like this really existed. The sexism of George is really amazing. On the plane, both at the beginning and end of the film, we find Gwen pleading to be allowed a cup of coffee.

But on a deeper level, Gwen is a very strong character. How it is she puts up with George’s behavior is anyone’s guess — especially at the end of the film. But both of the characters are pretty typical of the insular world of Neil Simon.

Class

Throughout The Out-of-Towners, George collects a list of everyone who he believes has harmed him. He is going to launch a major lawsuit if he manages to survive the night. But the truth is that almost everyone in the film is actually nice to the couple. For example, the guy managing lost luggage does everything he can, but their luggage is in Ohio. There’s nothing more he can do than he already has.

This is a recurring theme throughout the film. And the truth is that the film would only be about a half hour long if George weren’t so difficult. They could have just stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria lobby until 7:00 am, when it would have had a room for the couple (and the luggage would have been delivered at 8:00 am). But George insists upon acting like a child.

There is a nice moment in the film when George arrives at his interview on time and the person he’s meeting with says he’s amazed — that with the strike and the weather, he didn’t figure George would have been there. So all of George’s anxiety and histrionics was for nothing.

Acting

The performances by Lemmon and Dennis are outstanding. And it really made me wonder about the script for this. Obviously, by 1970, Neil Simon was a star. Otherwise, I doubt the script would have been shot. I can only imagine that the dialog lays there on the page. There is very little that is really funny all by itself, but the stars and the impressive supporting cast make it shine.

Directing

The Out-of-Towners was directed by Arthur Hiller, who just so happened to direct probably my favorite comedy ever, The In-Laws. He shot this film in a cinéma vérité style. This adds enormously the feeling of anxiety in the film, and ultimately to its comedic impact.

Music

The score for the film, by Quincy Jones, is unusual. Its only real flaw is in being too good — too interesting. It is rare that the music in a film becomes so compelling that it takes me out of the film. But that happened once here. Just the same, Jones’ use of extreme dissonance also adds to the whole feeling of dread in The Out-of-Towners, which is so import to it.

Summary

Overall, The Out-of-Towners is one of the best things that Neil Simon ever wrote. I may be under-appreciating what he created on the page. Regardless, Arther Hiller and the rest of the gang that worked on it clearly understood what he was going for. At the time of its release, it stood as an excellent example of cutting edge comedy. Today, the edge is worn. But it still works remarkably well.

Daryl Is Dead

Daryl: The Magician's MagicianWhen I was a kid, I was very interested in magic. In fact, it is that interest that I credit for getting me interested in reading. But I remember when I was 13 years old, I went to my first magicians convention and one of the stars of the event was Daryl Martinez[1] — in his early 20s, he was a rising star in the field. I just found out that he killed himself on 24 February of this year — right before he was supposed to appear at the Magic Castle. He was just 61 years old.

(Before I go on, you should know that there has been some misreporting that his death was an accident. There was also a lot of reporting that he was only in his underwear — a assume implying that it was a matter of autoerotic asphyxiation. But no. He was fully clothed and intentionally killed himself by hanging.)

I saw Daryl a couple of more times. I attended a lecture he did for his first book Secrets of a Puerto Rican Gambler. I remember that he was signing the books “To a TNT man.” When I had him sign my book, he asked if I was a TNT man. I told him I didn’t know, so he wrote in mine, “To a future TNT man.”

Over the years, I corresponded a bit with him and his wife (who is a magician too). They were both very nice. And that’s saying something, because my experience in the world of magic is that most people are not very nice. See what I’ve written about Harry Lorayne and Ed Marlo as well as Michael Close.

Why Did Daryl Kill Himself?

So Daryl’s death means something to me. And from what I read, there was no indication of it. He had no health problems. He really was the happy guy that he played on stage. He hadn’t fallen into a depression. His suicide seems to have come out of nowhere.

Was Daryl Having Financial Problems?

I have a few thoughts regarding this. One is that Daryl might have been suffering from financial problems. People think of performers as rich. But that’s not true. Performance art has the same kind of income inequality that our society does. Robert Downey Jr might get paid $20 million for a film, but other actors who are in the film as much as he might make $100,000. An important character who isn’t on screen much might make as little as $3,000.

In magic, it’s the same — especially for a guy like Daryl. He didn’t perform a big show in Las Vegas. I believe most of his money came from the books he wrote and the videos he created. The lecture that I attended was $3.00 as I recall. There were maybe 15 people at the lecture and he sold 10 books at $8.00 each.

Selling DVDs

The last time I remember writing to him was about seeing volume 7 of his 8-volume DVD collect Daryl’s Encyclopedia of Card Sleights was on YouTube. I noted that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing because I was so impressed that I bought the whole collection. He said he had given up chasing after people doing that kind of thing. But in passing, he said he regretted that I hadn’t purchased it from him. (Any writer will tell you that they make a whole lot more selling their own books than they do from the royalties. I’m sure the same is true of the videos.)

I looked on his site, but the truth is that his website was badly organized and I didn’t find the whole thing as a set. I felt really bad about it, although that clearly wasn’t Daryl’s intent. But more than feeling bad that I had screwed him out of a hundred bucks, I felt bad that it was even an issue for him. Here was one of the top sleight of hand artists in the world and he was counting pennies.

I don’t think that Daryl was poor, but he a lot closer to it than rich. And that’s sad. I’d noticed over the last couple of years him being involved in some money making ventures. They weren’t sleazy. But they also weren’t what a man of his brilliance and experience should have been doing.

Getting What You Want

For some time, I was playing around with writing a book about people who more or less come out of the womb knowing what they want to do with their lives. I’ve always been fascinated by these people because I’m the opposite. I’m interested in everything and I haven’t changed despite many decades. But Daryl was one of the people I wanted to interview for the book, because magic had been his passion since he was 7 years old.

And now I wonder about that. Daryl was 61 years old. He’d certainly accomplished everything he ever could have wanted in a professional sense. What more was there for him to do? I wonder if having one great passion isn’t something of a curse. I’ve always envied people like Daryl. But maybe I had it all wrong.

Think about it. He didn’t kill himself at home. He killed himself right before a performance. He was dressed for the show. Could there be a clearer indication that his chosen profession was not fulfilling him?

Everyone’s Secret Pain

There is also the possibility that Daryl was depressed. No one knows the secret pain of others. I am the last person to blame him for taking his life because life is hard. And I don’t know what anyone is going through — other than myself. But I know that that is hard. There are days when I really don’t know why I go on. And maybe on that day, Daryl came to the conclusion that there really was no reason.

Missing Daryl

What meaning there is to life is how we make life better for others. That can take the form of helping people to die like Mother Teresa or teaching magic geeks how to do a cutting display in the middle of a triumph routine. It’s sad that Daryl is gone now, but his life was not in vain.

It is interesting that the last few months, I’ve been thinking of buying his Daryl’s Expert Rope Magic Made Easy DVD series. Although I do love card magic, my very small hands have always gotten in my way. And I’ve never really done much with rope, even though I’m very aware of how extensive and fascinating a field it is.

Here is Daryl doing one of his versions of a classic:


[1] Just as I was born Frank Morris and later found out that my real last name was Moraes, Daryl later learned that his real family name was Eastman. When I first contacted him as an adult, I referred to him as “Mr Martinez. He responded asking that I call him Daryl and certainly never to call him “mister.” Like I said, he was a nice guy.

As a performer, he went simply by “Daryl” — and often “Daryl: The Magician’s Magician.” That second moniker is not wrong. Daryl was loved by magicians because he was a great innovator — I think the greatest of his generation.

Nobody Knows A Big Bang Theory Fan They Actually Like

The Big Bang TheoryThey say “fricking” instead of actually swearing. They probably have ketchup with every meal. Two Big Bang Theory fans I know genuinely own shoes which fasten with velcro. The word “basic” is a bit of a cruel insult to throw around willy-nilly — we can’t all listen to Mac DeMarco while munching gourmet scotch eggs — but they do tend to be united by a complete lack of imagination and cultural adventurousness.

It’s not just the fact that liking Big Bang Theory indicates a total lack of taste, it’s the vague sense that they feel that liking it is a big shiny gold badge of honor which indicates that they’re intellectually superior to fans of other sitcoms. As we’ve already established, The Big Bang Theory is not a clever program. It’s that middle of the road that if you swapped their references to Star Wars and astrophysics for references to forests and body hair you could be watching Harry & the Hendersons.

If you want intellectual jokes, go and watch Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead or something. You’ll not find them on Big Bang Theory, so drop the cleverer-than-thou attitude guys.

–Tom Nicholson
11 Reasons The Big Bang Theory Is the Worst Thing on TV