My Calvary

The Village Voice gave its review of Calvary the ludicrous title “Brendan Gleeson Forces Us to Care About His Catholic Priest in Calvary,” which reads like a loosely translated American movie title in China. But it says volumes about the film’s appeal.

Beloved or at least forgiven by most critics, five minutes into Calvary, I felt like I was seven weeks late for the movie of the year. Written by John Michael McDonagh, it’s about an Irish priest, Father James, who hears a man come into a confessional. He announces that he was sexually abused as a child and hurt beyond repair, and that he plans to take his revenge by killing this particular priest in a week, on a specific day, not because he’s a bad priest, because he’s one of the good ones, and presumably that will make his gesture grander.

It’s all downhill from there. If not for its framing device naming the days of the week as they pass, we’d forget that there’s a date with a murderer pending, and the movie would lose all forward motion completely. Clumsy dialogue that leaves nothing to the subtext. Lack of complications: his attempts at problem-solving don’t beget more problems, they just quietly fail. Then there’s the daughter.

The fact that Father James had a daughter, and a wife who died before he took his vow of celibacy, seems like a lousy attempt to graft a subplot out of The Sweet Hereafter onto a story about a priest. If you’re going to make a film about a statistical outlier, then a part of me wants the film to be about that. Sure, give your hero a unique past, even a checkered past, but if he has a Grammy on his mantle for Best New Artist, then you’d better account for that with a little more than a scene of dialogue.

I Confess!

I Confess!

Such is the power of a great premise, and by “great” I mean, yes, full of intrigue – the confessional, a place where he’s obligated to listen and keep it to himself – but also speaking to a giant moral question of our time. What exactly have “good Catholics” done for the most vulnerable people in their very own communities? When are we going to start comparing them to a “banality of evil” checklist? A premise that viewers are hungry for will make those viewers lose their minds with appreciation. We all turn into screaming teenagers at a Beatles TV appearance. We lose our critical faculties.

Kenneth Turan put it nicely in a column he wrote recently about Boyhood, a film that, as a critic, he found himself in the lonely position of not liking enough to write about at first, because he didn’t want to spoil the party when everyone around him was gushing about it. “For me it was, at best, OK, a film whose animating idea is more interesting than its actual satisfactions.” I disagree, but I’m thrilled that that critic is still out there. It’s a particular kind of cross we carry, as artists or critics, when we don’t believe the hype about an artistic happening. Sometimes you carry the weight of speaking up, and sometimes you just drop it.

My One Robin Williams Story

Depression, manic depression, and alcoholism run in the same families, some of which are also graced with literary genius.

The relationship between that last one and the other three is hard to understand and probably easy to misinterpret, and Robin Williams’ death yesterday is going to add to the long discourse about that. Genius doesn’t make all that suffering worth it. Nor does it make someone “a good person.” I’ve always suspected that there’s a lot more randomness than causality in the relationship between “goodness” and “genius,” and the random interaction with notable people you get from living in a place like New York verifies that.


All I got is one Robin Williams story. My friend is a bike nut – one of these guys who shows up to a party in November in a wet suit, having biked there from Queens. He used to work at a bike shop on the Upper West Side. Robin Williams, who was a cyclist and bike collector, used to come in the store. I find that lots of cyclists are people with extra cha-cha-cha in the central nervous system, and Williams  fits that profile.

One day, a young bike messenger came in, upset because he’d had his bike stolen while on a delivery. His company had an account, and a policy of subtracting repairs from their messengers’ weekly paychecks, so this kid was naturally upset that his paycheck was going to vanish that week. On top of that, policy or no policy, the store still needs a $100 deposit for a whole new bike, and the kid has to front that out of his own pocket.

Robin Williams overhears the whole transaction. After the kid leaves he pays for the bike, explicitly forbidding the store from telling the messenger who paid for it. Mmm.




Good Plants, Bad Plants, and “Bad Plants”

Seeing that it’s futile to grow grass in my tiny back yard in Brooklyn, I’ve decided to break it up into autonomous zones for various weeds. I slowly made the decision over the summer, and finalized it yesterday by printing labels for the most common ones, giving the tactical retreat an “I meant to do that” patina.

Labels say, "I meant to do that."

Labels say, “I meant to do that.”


If God intended to endow all humans with “certain inalienable Rights,” as the saying goes, then He certainly intended for every patch of dirt on the western tip of Long Island to be covered in dandelions, broadleaf plantain, clover, and lady’s thumbs, and who am I to resist His holy intentions?

It started in the neglected, odd places that aren’t quite “garden” and aren’t quite “lawn” in the American use of those words. The “taint” in a brand new sense. When I saw how hardy and goofily pretty the lady’s thumbs growing by the compost pile were, I privileged these “weeds” with a few patches, and within weeks they became a border around most of our garden. Meanwhile I was waging war against the plantain, which killed any grass I tried planting in the dirt patches. Back-to-nature sorts kept telling me the plantains were edible, but if you saw how many batteries and shards of glass I find in this soil you wouldn’t eat anything that grows in it either.

My inspiration was Stephen Dunn’s poem “Bad Plants,” one of a handful I’ve been memorizing while gardening this year. “Bad Plants” questions the absoluteness of the distinction gardeners make between good plants and invasive species, comparing them to human relationships, with “the beautiful and the dangerous/ in one package.” After talking knowledgably about a few of them, Dunn lays out his case:

“All of them are inclined

to choke out what’s native.

Bad plants? Nature of course would say, Careful now,

watch your language, let’s just see

what survives.”

A Native Species Preserve, or a tactical retreat?

A Native Species Preserve, or a tactical retreat?


Dunn ultimately concludes that, despite his soft spot for them, you can’t really afford to give them a foothold in your garden. “Never make a deal,/
 I’d say, with kudzu,/ or become purple loosestrife’s Neville Chamberlain.”

So I guess it’s against the master’s greater judgment, but I’m giving broadleaf plantain its autonomous zone, common moss its homeland, and clover its nation-state. Let’s just see what survives. I can always soak them and rip them out in the spring.

“As Nixon left the Whitehouse…”

On the 40 year anniversary of his resignation, I have no nostalgia or hard feelings about Nixon, except for some pride in my father, who voted for McGovern in ’72 when many Democrats his age and demographic jumped the ship. I do, however, fondly remember this lyric from the concert film Storefront Hitchcock.

“As Nixon left the Whitehouse, you could hear people say,/ ‘They’ll never rehabilitate that mother, no way.’/ Yup.”

A friend insisted that I go see this in a cavernous auditorium at a film society in Minneapolis one night in 1998 or ’99, knowing zero about Robyn Hitchcock. Between his songs and signature trippy monologues, I became a fan right away, but the song I keep coming back to is “1974.”

Talk about good writing! His entry point is two friends who knew each other back in London in the waning days of the hippies meeting for coffee twenty-some years later. Then a cascade of pathetic details. There’s a solo line of nostalgia for the McGovern-esque optimism of the Labour Party of the ’70s, but it’s otherwise all “ghastly mellow saxophones.” I’ve hardly spent any time in London, but feel like I know it, just from listening to this song, oh, a few hundred times.

Watching it now, I feel an odd nostalgia for New York and life in general before the juggernaut of smart phones. Jonathan Demme’s concept, setting up an intimate concert Let It Be-style, but in a storefront, so that passersby could peak in, was still a novelty, and the “guy on the street” was still a presumed proletarian. At the same location today, neighbors would probably drop by and ask, “Who’s producing?” “Is it union?” “Do you have distribution yet?”

I’m not quite as old as Hitchcock’s characters reminiscing about the summer it all ended, but one day I’ll meet my old friends and say “They used to show films in that auditorium, remember?” and the epicycles of nostalgia will keep spinning.

Planet of the Apes

I loved the original Planet of the Apes and all its sequels so much as a kid that I balked at seeing any of the new ones until this week, when I caught a matinée of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I admit, I was checking my texts during some of the fights, but I was otherwise thoroughly entertained. What nostalgia I felt wasn’t for my boyhood icons Cornelius and Taylor: The tiny theater had a 3-D projector, which made the film look like a moving image inside a View-Master.®


I don’t know which writer to thank, and which to curse, for this installment, which was co-written by Mark Bomback and the husband-wife team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Silver is the granddaughter of Sidney Buchman, the screenwriter of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and victim of the McCarthyist blacklist, who made an ill-fated return to the business on the Cleopatra debacle in 1963, the same year the Frenchman Pierre Boulle published his sci-fi novel La Planete des Singes (Planet o’ Simians). Boulle had previously won an Academy Award for the screenplay version of his novel Bridge on the River Kwai, even though he quite obviously didn’t write the script – he got the credit for two blacklisted ghostwriters – because, in fact, he couldn’t speak English. He is credited with the shortest ever acceptance speech, “Merci.” But I digress.

I like the thought that Amanda Silver is responsible for the bleak political message of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, because her success at straddling the line between commerce and politics would vindicate the crappy deal her grandfather got – although, if we were adapting that story, we’d have to make her grandpa one of the ghostwriters on Kwai, and not just a victim of the same common enemy, wouldn’t we? Family stories are often about vindication. That’s why Hollywood sticks the family front and center, even in stories about the apocalypse.

I don’t mind seeing Caesar the ape leader toppled in a coup d’etat, and for his son to lead the charge of vengeance. I DO mind a human engineer who ventures with a convoy into ape territory to see if a hydroelectric dam can be salvaged not only bringing his epidemiologist wife along, but – oh, why not? – his teenage son too. With all the sometimes clumsy, often brilliant plot turns that make the conflict escalate, we pause for this damn family. In one maddening scene, the good humans bring Caesar to the abandoned home he grew up in – See, before the simian virus wiped out most humans and your father became the Lord and Master of all the apes in Muir Woods, he was the beloved pet of a kind primatologist in San Francisco, presumably with rent control. – and there, on the table, is a Canon DV camera with just enough battery power left for Caesar to watch a few seconds of his idyllic childhood.

"Get your subplots about the nuclear family off me, you damn, dirty screenwriters!"

“Get your subplots about the nuclear family off me, you damn, dirty screenwriters!”

The original Apes movies from the ‘70s were always awkwardly political, with metaphors for the time that were appropriate yet unspeakable, since it’d be plain tasteless to equate apes with African-Americans. And yet they undeniably addressed Civil Rights and national liberation movements, sometimes fearing them but often sympathizing. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes re-imagines the setup for the era of the oil wars and global warming. When the dust settles, there is the lousy fact that the interspecies breakthrough can’t stop the bigger conflict, and that makes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes a bold and bleak statement for a Hollywood film. As the plot winds on, Caesar finally learns to resort to, shall we say, extra-Parliamentary means, and that speaks to our political frustration. The American Right would accuse President Obama of being the American Cromwell, if they knew who Cromwell was, and this film argues that maybe that’s what the times call for: an enlightened despot.