Stories From the Civil War

Bad blogger. I took a break from writing this month to treat myself to a li’l novel called Moby Dick. I’m an imaginative but embarrassingly slow reader, and have to put time aside for substantial novels. Then I even got distracted from that, since I had plans last weekend to visit a festival of new theater in Shepardstown, West Virginia, where my friend the actor Alex Podulke was winning fans with his performance in Jane Martin’s new play.

Not that you can’t put your feet in a creek and read Melville in West Virginia, but I saw on a map that Shepardstown is just minutes from both Harpers Ferry and the battlefield of Antietam. Since I’m the only person among my friends who enjoys reading a history book, I feel like I’m letting them down if we ever pass an historical marker and I can’t extemporaneously break it down for them. So I couldn’t go without first reading up on John Brown’s raid and the military history of the Civil War.

The junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac River valleys is where America found its soul.

When John Brown seized Harpers Ferry in October, 1859 he was already infamous – and wanted for murder –  for fighting in the anti-slavery militia in Kansas. He proved so adept at defending himself rhetorically during his trial that Northern sympathy started swinging behind military action, if necessary, to destroy slavery in the South.

The short book I found about him told a few extra delicious anecdotes, one of them about Brown’s meeting with his friend Frederick Douglass in 1859. Someone should write a three-person play about this encounter, in which Douglass traveled from his home in Rochester to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania for a secret meeting in a quarry with Brown. Brown was already renting a farm in nearby Maryland, drilling his small force for the the raid at the end of the summer. He made a case to Douglass for why he should join him and start the slave revolt. Douglass thought it was suicidal, but Brown was so charismatic that Douglass’ traveling companion, the abolitionist and former slave Shields Green, chose to go with Brown instead of back home with Douglass, and ended up on the gallows with Brown by the end of the year.

The Harpers Ferry National Historic Park does a superb job of telling the story via video and artifacts.

Also nearby is Antietam Creek, and the battle named after it is often called the single deadliest day in U.S. military history. As someone who grew up going to Washington’s Crossing and Pennsbury Manor for family picnics, I have a soft spot for historic parks, but these Civil War battlefields are altogether different. They’re all about death, and second-guessing the tactics of military commanders, and honoring the sacrifices of soldiers who held or tried to take specific chunks of terrain under horrifying conditions. And since the story of the Civil War is our unpreparedness for the scale of industrial era war, it’s no surprise that the national parks where the major battles happened are so vast, you can’t just show up and make any sense of it. They’re too big to walk across without taking hiking precautions. They’re just fields where you find a statue every once in a while.

Antietam - a small part of it.

Antietam – a small part of it.

One of my traveling companions in Shepardstown told me she wouldn’t go to Antietam since she still lived by the lyrics she used to sing in the ’60s, “I ain’t gonna study war no more,” and I had no stomach to argue with her. Having been to several, I find that all kinds of people go to Civil War battlefields, but they’re predominantly a destination for fathers and sons to see together, to witness the dreadful things men do to one another and to try making sense of it in their own way.

Still, Antietam was the military victory that Lincoln needed to provide political cover for the Emancipation Proclamation, so that freeing the slaves in the Confederacy would be perceived as a logical next step and not a desperate maneuver of a losing cause. If you asked me in 1861 to join the Union cause, to invade the South since it didn’t want to be in the Union any longer, I’m not sure how I’d react. If you asked in 1863, to join the battle to end slavery, I like to think I’d join, at least in the way that Whitman joined.

I’ve written before about why every screenplay needs a good “Holy shit!” moment, and the Civil War was certainly full of them. It has the makings of a good story since the journey was so much harder than the hero figured it would be when it started. And most importantly – and this feeling is hanging in the air in the Shepardstown region –  as the hero is finding out how much nastier he has to be in order to survive – a killer, in fact – he is simultaneously discovering a new moral core inside of himself.

Action and Anti-Action

As a screenwriter you  spend so much time devising beginnings, middles, and ends, you begin to feel like a structure nag. In collaboration, or in the post mortem following the screening of a “just okay” film, you’re the one pointing out that the dramatic problem wasn’t clear enough, or the stakes never got higher as Act Two ground on, or the dangling subplot hurt things. Always, you feel, some visual or stylistic imperative got between the viewer and the story the writer wanted to tell.

Well, yesterday I saw two films, both by writer-directors, both bending the rules enough to make screenwriter-scold inside me shut up for a day.

Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours has a great premise for why two strangers would meet and start to care about one another and effortlessly talk about art. By the time you’re five minutes in, you have already been treated to a voiceover by its lead character describing his life as a museum guard and his appreciation of Brueghel in particular, so you’re not surprised when the structure turns out to be just faintly present enough to give you that familiar feeling of being in a movie once in a while, when all along you’ve been watching a discovery about art unfolding.

Cohen credits conversations with Patti Smith for the film, and although it’s largely about Vienna, it feels like a “downtown” New York philosophical position is being staked out here, one once hinted at by Wallace Shawn in My Dinner With André: “Isn’t there just as much reality to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest?”

Nicolas Winding Refn (foreground), Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, and Yayaying Rhatha Phongam.

Nicolas Winding Refn (foreground), Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm, and Yayaying Rhatha Phongam.

A train ride home to Brooklyn, and a sweaty jog, and I’m back in a theater, in the balcony of the BAM Harvey, which has a new, enormous screen. The new film by Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling called Only God Forgives, was having its New York premiere. It was like their previous film, Drive, but with the misogyny and a few unbearable scenes of violence jacked up to a cartoonish level. Unlike, say, Tarantino, Refn’s devotion to genre includes no devotion to story points, which he dispenses with carelessly in favor of surprises. This is no doubt what his fans like about him. I just find myself wishing there was more stuff to go with the style. Whereas Jem Cohen is all stuff, there’s no center of gravity in Refn besides “Wow, dude” clichés.

At the Q and A, between oddly impolite, pervy comments, Refn spoke very touchingly about Alejandro Jodorowsky, whom he credits with “inventing pop cinema.” I’m not sure quite what that means, and I was so high in the balcony, it’d have been futile to raise my hand and ask, “What the hell are you talking about?” I’m sure we’ll hear and read a lot about this film in the coming weeks.

Restaurant Review: La Familia Restaurant in South Brooklyn

 “More has To Happen” has conquered film criticism, dramatic theory, and national security, and dabbled in poetry. And now I have to take on that most urgent of contemporary art forms: food criticism. I will start with the restaurant I frequent most often.

La Familia

Everything about La Familia was perfect this morning as usual. I was charmed from the moment the waitress took a third time to clarify that I didn’t want any meat with my eggs, just potatoes, as in “What kind of lunatic turns down bacon when it’s only a dollar extra?” The coffee, just a few hours old, was tannic and earthy like a hearty Cahors that had been left uncorked for a weekend. The wheat toast came with a plastic ramekin of margarine that was pre-softened and ready to spread. The over-medium eggs with home fries arrived on a square plate that looked like a Thai restaurant had had a going-out-of business sale, a charming touch only topped by the curly-cue of straw wrapper at the top of the plastic straw in my water.

The music, as always, was 106.7 Lite FM. Adele, I realized, has taken her place in the pantheon of soft rock: Perry, Sting, Fogelberg, Raitt, ADELE. As the caffeine and starch caressed my blood stream, everything about the world was suddenly enchanting. The truck horns outside. The electrical tape holding the back of the “Open” sign together. The photo of the owner in a starched chef’s jacket on the wall. And the fan blowing sultry air from the grape arbor in back – a leftover from the previous, Greek proprietors, I’m guessing – through the restaurant and onto 4th Avenue, defiant in the face of the juggernaut of air-conditioning.

Before I moved to New York, I imagined a place full of esoteric arguments about art. Ascetics with tiny apartments spending their spare dollars on partially-obstructed tickets to the Philharmonic, reading reviews of Bulgarian cinema while they wait in line. In reality, it’s more of a place where the cognoscenti chintz on cultural purchases so they can splurge on food, wine and cocktails. And read and write about it. Stuffing their faces and getting drunk, and becoming experts at it.

I love to cook and entertain and eat, but, sorry foodies, it’s not the same as art. I’m delighted  to see a critical backlash coalescing, but fear that it’s too little too late. When I see the volume of brain power expended on keeping informed about the latest trends in food and wine, I can’t help but wonder how much better cinema would be if it were taken so seriously by so broad a public.


A Hijacking: Real Life Piracy

Years ago, as a location assistant for a New York producer with some legit independent credits, I arrived on set, and was handed a manilla envelope. My mission: drive to Brooklyn to deliver a check for the previous day’s location. We’d gone a day over, and I knew that negotiations on a fair price had been tough.

While crossing the Manhattan Bridge, my cell phone rang. “Here’s the deal,” my boss said. “There is no check in that envelope. You have to tell him that we’re not paying him. He didn’t get it in writing, so fuck him.” Traffic was nasty, so I had plenty of time to muse about what might go wrong. Was the landlord a wannabe mafioso who might break my thumb? Smash the windows of my rented Taurus? But I also had time to psych myself up: He was a developer evicting second-generation tenants of Park Slope brownstones to polish them and sell them to Yuppies. That’s why he had empty units to rent to us. The extra day meant zero to him. So yeah. Fuck him.

I arrived at a supermarket parking lot to make the “delivery” and found, not the face of evil, but Isaac the nineteen-year-old nephew. A young Hasid with no beard yet, I thought he was going to hyperventilate in my passenger seat. “A deal is a deal!” “My uncle’s going to be so mad at me.” I did what any caring person would do. I said, “Isaac, you’re right. My boss is an asshole. I wish I could help you.”

That’s piracy! When negotiations about money devolve from “Here’s what’s fair” straight through “Here’s what I can get elsewhere on the open market” to “Here’s your only choice, and I’ve got force to back that up.” “Tell your uncle he was insufficiently cutthroat yesterday,” I might as well have told Isaac. “If he’s so dumb that he didn’t stand at the fusebox demanding payment in advance, then he’s a pathetic louse whose trust we don’t need.” And that’s why I’m a writer, not a producer.

Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) in Tobias Lindholm’s "A Hijacking."

Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) in Tobias Lindholm’s “A Hijacking.”

Writer-director Tobias Lindholm’s film A Hijacking, like most thrillers, is all about men behaving badly. In this case the context – a Danish ship seized by pirates on the Indian Ocean – automatically makes it a political comment about the inhumanity of world capitalism. Fifteen minutes in, you realize that you won’t get to see the obvious bit of action: the Somali pirates storming the ship. In its place you saw Peter (Søren Malling), the CEO of the shipping company back in Copenhagen, deploy some macho business tactics of his own (“macho” in a Kierkegaardian way, perhaps), both toward his business adversaries and his own employees, who rely on his bad-ass negotiating skills.

It’s a delight to see a screenwriter hitting his narrative marks without belaboring the obvious grander point. The nuanced characters, the psychopathic misplacement of responsibility – “I’m not a pirate, I’m trying to help you” – and the utter senselessness of violence, it’s all there, but you never feel like you’re being preached to. You just keep wondering what will happen next, with a sick feeling that it’s about to go very wrong.

Not much to say that the critics, especially Andrew O’Hehir at Salon, haven’t already said, except that this film is a study in trimming the fat from a narrative. Only once did it feel like Lindholm was pumping up the tension artificially – when the CEO’s board of directors gave him a deadline to finalize a deal with the pirates – and I didn’t even mind that. Every action that you assume is merely there for a bit of characterization eventually pays off a second time, whether it’s the CEO’s habit of dismissing people around him when he wants privacy, or the other lead’s affection for his wife back home.

I say “the other lead,” because, among its subtleties, A Hijacking forces you to spend a lot more time away from the protagonist than most thrillers. Its hero is the likable cook on the ship, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), about as likely a face of the evils of global capitalism as Isaac’s back in Brooklyn. He looks like someone you’d meet in the beer line at a folk festival. His objective is to get through the ordeal, while his affection for his wife gets exploited by the pirates to turn the screws on the CEO.

Deep inside both men’s resolve to get through the hijacking is their respective ways of dealing with their spouses’ demands to spend some time with them. Capitalism, the film suggests, is this machinery all around us that we engage in to bring some bread home for the family. We do it for them, and some of us are so skilled at it that it sours even our dealings with our families, while others, the sweeter ones among us, get beaten by it and go home to that family as a refuge.

It’s easily the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.