Saving The Trip For TV

As enticing as The Trip To Italy looks, as I’m looking at the movie pages contemplating what’s worth leaving the house to go see, I relegate it to the “Wait For TV” list, and I say this as a recent and zealous convert.

I have little patience for foodies, and have already had more conversations about vinegar than I think a person should have in one lifetime. So when I heard the first one, The Trip (written by Michael Winterbottom), was about a food writer, I refused to let it hook me, no matter how many people told me it was funny. How funny could it be?

Well, a British guy stayed with us for a few days, and I let him loose on our Neflix account, and found myself watching a film called Alan Partridge. Steve Coogan! Now I had to see The Trip, and as soon as possible.

...but is it cinema?

…but is it cinema?

Coogan and Rob Brydon are like two Robin Williamses, but with a touch of British restraint, that make their routines smart but easy fun. Watching them is like sitting down for a beer with the two smartest members of a Shakespeare company after they’ve just finished an emotional rehearsal, and now they’re eager put that vocal dexterity to work for something more playful than impersonating an Elizabethan impersonating a Roman. And after an hour and forty-five minutes, they go away.

Michael Winterbottom has one of the finest film careers out there. It’s conceivable that one day his oeuvre (“Did I spell that right?”) will be compared to Woody Allen’s and Eric Rohmer’s in its scope and its focus, and his merits will be discussed alongside theirs. The problem is, all of his movies seem like they were shot in a garage. You get the uneasy feeling that you don’t have a permit to be there. The building blocks of his stories are the situations, not the images, and he is merely recording them and choosing selects for you.

The Trip was actually heavier on the scenery-whoring than on the food porn. Whenever I see gorgeous scenery for its own sake in a film, I suspect that the producers are doing the regional tourist board a favor in return for Brownie points with some film commission. Then again, why not? Why not thumb through a magazine article that records the wittiest repartee of two masters, and get lost in the photos in the Special Advertising Section called Veneto: Land of Dreams? Answer: No reason! I love it. It just might not be cinema. I can’t imagine ever watching it on TV and thinking how happy I would be if the screen were a hundred feet wide.

Sometime this fall I’ll sit down with The Trip To Italy, and laugh out loud. Not today, not with so much cinema calling me.

Bromantic Poets

Halfway through The Replacements concert in Queens last weekend, I was marveling at the number of great pop songs Paul Westerberg has written – how deep his catalogue is. “Oh yeah, this one too,” we all kept thinking, one after another. And then what did they play next? “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out.”

Now, it’s not exactly out of character for the Replacements to play a comic, throw-away song, but the choice was deeper to the heart of the experience than just that.

Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, September 19, 2014

Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, September 19, 2014

Tommy Stinson, the bass player and only original member left besides Westerberg, was younger than the rest, the band’s teenage mascot of sorts when it started. He’ll be 48 years old in a few weeks, but he still regaled the audience with a story about an emergency room visit. “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” evokes the world of having a little brother, knowing his intimate secrets, and callously, if lovingly razzing him for it – all the while opening one’s own eyes to the vast hypocrisy of the world of adults.

The youngest of four brothers myself, one of the most precious memories from my childhood (no one said “tween” yet) is the Saturday mornings I spent sitting around the stereo with my brother, listening to The Who’s Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy. The flaccid-phallic double entendre from then-closet case Pete Townsend was lost on us (on me, anyway, but I was the runt of this litter ), but I was captivated by the cover art, showing The Who checking themselves out as boys – on the back cover they were boys spying on themselves as adults. It inexplicably suited the songs about the sexual awakening of social outliers: “I’m a Boy.” “Happy Jack.” “Pictures of Lily.”

Around this time I watched Help! on TV on a Saturday afternoon: Missing it would have been unthinkable, but there were fewer TV stations back then! The scene that blew me away was when The Beatles say good-bye to each other outside their London row-homes, up and down the same block, only to walk inside their respective front doors and into a gigantic interior in which “the boys” all still live together.

The unleashed teenage sexuality of girls screaming is remembered as the essence of Beatlemania, but I only know a few adult women who have ever told me any trivia about the Beatles, their egotistical feuds and what their songs are about, that I hadn’t already heard more than once from adult men. The guys are just more into it. In the mind of the male fan, the female ecstasy only has to happen once in a while to validate the rock star as Alpha Male. Really, rock group fandom is about the Alpha Male Bromance, the band itself the nucleus of that fraternal magic, the rest of us sitting around our parents’ stereos (“Turn that down!”) or passing a pot pipe around a dorm room.

Once in a while a singular pop genius such as Dylan or Hendricks or Mitchell or Beck can come along and be the lone voice and surrogate friend to the listener, but what the British invasion got right, as a marketing stunt, was packaging the songwriters as bands, and most of rock music has copied it ever since. If Donovan had called himself and his band The Chartists, or The Miners, or anything vaguely Welsh, and released a few colorful stories about the misdeeds of his bass player, he’d have made a few million more devotees, and “Hurdy Gurdy Man” would turn up on the radio as often as “Let It Be.”

The Who's compilation from 1971.

The Who’s compilation from 1971.

John Lennon had only been dead a few months when The Replacements recorded their debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out the Trash, their noisiest record in which, the conventional wisdom goes, Westerberg was barely peeking his head out as a songwriter. I was happy to hear that three of the first four songs in Forest Hills last Friday were off Sorry Ma, as in, “Let’s get one thing straight: This is a rock show.” Judging by the mass of guys (about 75%), many with gray hair and black tee shirts, slapping each other on the back, I wasn’t the only one who was glad they rocked it. Now that the punks and the “alternative scene” of the 1980s are well into their 50s, or older, a guy like Westerberg can play the City Winery circuit any time he wants – “An Evening With David Johansen” with a pinot noir flight to go with it can only be so far away.

Westerberg brought Tommy along, and The Replacements were still The Replacements.



Rome, Open City

The story behind Rome, Open City is about as heroic as screenwriting gets, but it’s so much more than a historical curiosity. I saw the restored version of it at Film Forum this week, familiar with its lore: Rossellini used extras who sometimes simply re-enacted what they experienced during the war, while it was still going on, north of the Alps anyway. The story goes that Sergio Amidei and Fellini wrote the script in Fellini’s apartment, because he was the only one who had heat. (A writer named Alberto Consiglio also got a “story by” credit.)

It’s astonishing how selective memory is, and revisiting old classics often gives me fresh surprises. I’d already seen it on video when I brought a friend to see it in a theater ten or so years ago, and left embarrassed that I hadn’t warned her how jarring the torture scenes near the climax were. With my memory fixated on that, I’d forgotten how shockingly early in the story one of its main characters gets killed, while another is being arrested – and the brilliant reversal when he escapes. I’d also completely forgotten the subplot about the network of escorts who double as informants in exchange for opiates.

The best film ever? No arguments here.

The best film ever? No arguments here.

Maybe because Pope Francis was making headlines that very morning by marrying twenty previously cohabitating couples – seventy years later, but who’s counting? – what struck me most this time around were the characters chosen to articulate the theme. Sure, they had a purity about them, but they were a pregnant couple planning their own shotgun wedding the following day, and this was in 1944.

They were good-looking and salt of the earth all at once, but Fellini, Amidei and Rossellini weren’t content with a mere anti-fascist message from a Jack London-esque proletarian hero. They went big, and chose an unmarried couple to express the highest ideals of Christianity itself: endurance, rebirth, and redemption at the end of suffering. Knowing that Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman became notorious a few years later for their extramarital relationship, it’s remarkable that this was already the kind of character he found most expressive. In a future century, when World War II is just “some war” and the secular-religious deck gets shuffled and dealt all over again, Rome, Open City will be remembered as a great Christian work as much as a political one.



Bad Review! BAD Review!

Is there any real value to harsh criticism? Crooked Eclipses (my friend Steve Matuszak) looks at a vicious critical attack he once suffered, and digs into Mencken to find an answer.
I would only add that I think critics are becoming more valuable the less relevant they are. With such a flat world, and so much competition for the art consumer dollar, most art comes with a phalanx of hyperbole around it. And as art consumers , we’ve grown so accustomed to it, we are suspicious of anything that doesn’t have hype. In film, there is a small, small audience that’s willing to go see the latest “pretty good” film, anything that’s less-than-overwhelming but interesting in its own way. Most of us save our dollar for the must-see.
Even if we know that that hype is partly self-generated, it affects us, and there’s a complex of not just compromised critics but social media and search engine-optimizing consultants who know how to inflate the value of a piece of art. The critic is the only person who is allowed to call Bullshit.
As someone who wrote a few hundred film reviews back in the late 90s, I can say that the times I was too harsh were times I was either just plain careless (which happens), or I was reacting to what I felt was a faction of the critical establishment going soft on some principle or other, which isn’t always fair to the actual artist.
I agree that criticism can be revelatory, but I can also say with certainty that readers are more interested in the Consumer Reports-type of coverage: Thumbs Up or Down, or the “Tomatometer.” Good criticism, like good art, walks a line between engaging the reader and having the integrity to not give a rat’s ass about him.

Crooked Eclipses

siskel and ebertWhy are bad reviews supposed to be so good? Toward the end of Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert, when it was revealed that late in his career Ebert often developed friendships with the people whose work he was reviewing, it was implied that his criticism went soft. A. O. Scott, as I recall, concedes that Ebert’s bad reviews weren’t as cutting as they’d once been, as if that somehow meant that Ebert’s standards had slipped or his criticism was corrupted in some way.

I’m not sure where this idea comes from. It could have been H. L. Mencken, who, bristling against the audacity of “constructive criticism,” which usually involved some idiot telling him how he might have improved his writing, declared, “All the benefits I have ever got from the critics of my work have come from the destructive variety. A hearty slating always does me good…

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L’Avventura: Finding the Main Character

Ending the summer watching Italian films one after another, I find it thrilling in L’Avventura (1960, screenplay by Michelangelo by Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, and Tonino Guerra), to hit the reset button more than once, and quite late in the story, about the writer’s first question: Who is the main character?

The only contemporary film I can think of that achieves anything like this is Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (script by Ebru Ceylan, Ercan Kesal, and director Nuri Bilge Ceylan), which takes a good 35 minutes to meet the main character. I suppose you could also say The Place Beyond the Pines (written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, and Darius Marder) with its stunning turn at the end of the motorcycle chase, does this too, but both of these films become cop and crime dramas.

If stories are defined by their lead characters and what they want, then the adventure in L’Avventura is the journey from what one character wants to another. First it’s Anna, who wants more than she’s getting from her boyfriend Sandro. Then when her disappearance puts the onus of finding her on her Sandro, he’s the one. Then by the time he’s started sleeping with Anna’s best friend Claudia, and she becomes the first and only character to open her heart, she carries the film. I confess I was still thinking of it as Sandro’s story, but in the final sequence she is the one who wants Sandro’s love, and makes the heart-breaking discovery.

Sandro and Claudia's big adventure.

Sandro and Claudia’s big adventure.

Co-writer Tonino Guerra, an anti-fascist who did time in a Nazi prison camp and wrote his first screenplay at 36, also co-wrote several films for not just Antonioni, but Fellini and Tarkovsky. I knew from Amarcord that he has a knack for making a yarn seem effortless, or possibly out of control, but also for everything to feel like it’s in the right place, so I watched it closely. My beatsheet is below. Antonioni’s name evokes slow, gorgeous shots of architecture and modern landscapes, with the characters just tiny parts of the composition.  That his films are about the alienation or soullessness of 20th Century life is a catchphrase that sounds a lot better than “Who the hell knows what he’s thinking?”  L’Avventura begins with natural landscapes and then, after the illicit lovers have hooked up, places them in the eerily empty architecture. It’s as if Antonioni himself is finding out what he has to say as the story unfolds.

What’s it about? How we only truly touch each other after we have tried to transcend what is possible and failed at it. Or maybe it’s about a skirt-chasing Italian guy surrounded by gorgeous women.



Anna talks to her father, an industrialist and retired diplomat. She’s going away for a weekend at sea, and he warns her that her boyfriend will never marry her. He strikes a nerve.

Anna takes her friend Claudia to go meet her boyfriend Sandro. They have an icy hello: Sandro striking mock poses trying to be funny. Anna is ready for some hurry-up sex. Sandro objects that Claudia is waiting outside, but Anna says “Let her wait,” and they make love while Claudia waits outside and wanders into an art show.

The next morning, they’re on a yacht at sea with Sandro’s friends, all couples who are on one another’s nerves. (Sandro is an architect who gets contracts from these people.) There’s wealthy Corrado & young Giulia, Raimondo & Patrizia. Patrizia says she doesn’t “get” islands and stays indoors. Anna pretends she saw a shark, causing Sandro to come save her, then confesses to Claudia that it was a lie.

They all go ashore on a volcanic island. Alone with Sandro, Anna complains that she’s not happy with things, Sandro tries to reassure her that they will get married, but that doesn’t make her happy either: she wants time alone.

Sandro takes a snooze. The weather turns windy, and the others all decide to leave, but they can’t find Anna anywhere. (27 minutes)

They search all over, including the treacherous tidal crevasses of the island. No Anna. They find a locked shepherd’s house at the top.

Storm clouds come. Giulia complains to Claudia that Corrado has been belittling her all day.

Sandro comes up with a sensible plan: You all go to the next island to report her missing, and I’ll stay here. Corrado also stays, and Claudia insists on staying too.

Rain comes, and they force their way into the shepherd’s hut. Alone just the three of them, Claudia comes clean, that she has reason to think Anna is bluffing since she knows Anna faked the shark attack. Sandro adds that she said she wanted to be alone.

The shepherd returns, and they tell him they’re looking for a friend who disappeared. Sandro and Claudia trade accusations. They spend the night.

In the morning, Claudia watches the sun come up. She and Sandro make peace and talk about how frustrating Anna can be. They’ve begun figuring that enough boats come and go that Anna could easily have escaped the island. Sandro and Claudia look at each other anew.

The Coast Guard comes and helps do a thorough search. Claudia nominates Sandro to join the Coast Guard in searching the next island, but they all stay.

Anna’s father arrives via a speedyacht. He’s taking over the search.

Back on the boat, Sandro kisses Claudia, but she’s not ready to get romantic with him just yet. She does agree to go to the police with him while the rest of the party sails on to Montaldo, Corrado’s villa in western Sicily.

On the mainland (Sicily) the police are interrogating some smugglers they saw off the island that day, and Sandro interrupts the inquiry. It turns out fruitless.

Afterward he catches up to Claudia at the train station. She acknowledges some feelings but begs Sandro not to follow her on the train – she’s taking it to Montaldo to join the rest. She gets on the train alone; he appears to wait behind then runs after it and gets on.

He finds her, and she points out she just met him three days before, begs him not to pursue her. She overhears a Sicilian boy trying to pick up a girl with lots of lies, and finds it amusing, but distasteful when Sandro persists with her.

He gets off the train at a small town stop, and this time he lets her get away. He looks for a journalist who wrote about Anna’s disappearance to see if there were any tips; he finds him covering a press stunt for a young starlet named Gloria Perkins.

Meanwhile, in Montaldo, Claudia has caught up to the others. No news about Anna, but she learns that Patrizia and Raimondo are not married – Patrizia is there with her husband – and young Giulia is smitten by a young nobleman right under Corrado’s nose.

Claudia gets dressed for dinner, eagerly watching to see if anyone new arrives at the villa – hoping for Sandro. She tries on a wig with Patrizia, looking a bit like Anna in her disguise, and gets roped into chaperoning for Giulia and her young nobleman until she gets shown the door.

Raimondo returns, and Claudia decides she doesn’t want to stay for dinner with these people. Sandro is following up on a lead from the newspaper, with a pharmacist who is fighting with his wife. Claudia, with her suitcase in tow, finds him there.

The pharmacist says he thinks Anna went to a village called Noto, so Claudia and Giulia drive there. On the way, they stop at a big, empty religious complex. They can’t find anyone. They start making out and dry-humping in the grass, and a train goes right past them.

They finally get around to looking for Anna at the only hotel in Noto. Claudia sends him in alone, waiting outside on purpose this time, and while she’s waiting outside dozens of Sicilian men stare her down. She imagines Sandro and Anna coming out of the hotel, feels filthy and hides in a paint store. Sandro finds her – really there was no sign of Anna – and she admits that she’d believe him if he said he loved her.

A nun shows them to the bell tower of a church. Sandro tells Claudia how disappointing his work is, since he’s just doing dull architecture jobs instead of the creative work he imagined it would be. They start messing with the bells, and a bell tower across town responds. He even suggests that maybe they should get married.

They horse around in a hotel room – they seem like they’ve slept together, Claudia singing along to the radio in her pajamas. She starts coercing overtures of love out of him. SHE poses for him now, the way he did for Anna in their first scene, but in a more spectacular way. He has to leave without her though…

To look for Anna, ostensibly, but all he does is absent-mindedly waste time, looking for an open museum and knocking an illustrator’s ink well over.

Back at the hotel, the maids have heard that they’re looking for someone so they advise Claudia to go check the youth hostel at Pergusa for her friend. Now when Sandro returns and tries to get fresh with her, she’s not in the mood.

They go to Montaldo, and Patrizia spots Claudia. They check into their room, but Claudia wants to stay alone. She advises Sandro not to overcommit himself to the men’s new projects, reminding him of his creative ambitions. Now they’re already mismatched.

Without Claudia, he goes looking for the others at the hotel bar. He leaves the guys with the impression that he’s on board with the new project and strolls around, trading glances a few times with Gloria – the starlet he saw in Noto.

Back in their room, Claudia misses him and wakes up alone at sunrise. She has the gorgeous sea vistas, but Sandro is nowhere to be seen. She wakes Patrizia and tells her she’s afraid that Sandro is with Anna, disgusted with herself since she now dreads that Anna may be alive.

Claudia searches the villa and finds Sandro in the parlor, making out with Gloria. She walks away, and he leaves a few bills with Gloria and follows her.

Now Sandro follows Claudia outside and finds her at a scenic overlook. They cry, and she hesitates a long while, but finally reaches out to stroke his head, and comforts him.

This Labor Day, 2014…

…I salute the old Chinese lady who started digging through my recycling a half hour after I put it out. All kinds of work goes on all around us all the time, and this is the day we set aside to bless it.

Last week I went to the Slate Valley Museum in Granville, New York, a museum dedicated to the slate mining industry that once dominated upper Washington County, near the Vermont border. This giant, three-panel painting from the WPA days once hung in the high school there.


After decades in the high school, it was moved to the town hall, and then to the museum. Of course, I love the WPA for the respect it paid to the workforce – and my friends in Philly have an archive of WPA art.

A detail from Men Working in Slate Quarry, oil on canvas, Martha Levy, 1939, Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project, Slate Valley Museum Collection.

A detail from Men Working in Slate Quarry, oil on canvas, Martha Levy, 1939, Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project, Slate Valley Museum Collection.

As much as I enjoyed spending a few minutes with this gorgeous example of WPA art, though, I got the dreadful feeling that we memorialize labor as if it started around 1850 and ended sometime last century. That’s why we’re in the crapper, politically and environmentally, we’ve lost track of the scorecard of who actually does stuff and what that work results in.

It’s kind of a consumers’ paradise, a surreal junk shop, and an environmental calamity all at once, this economy we’ve created together. Whatever the way forward, work and respect for work must be deep in our hearts when we try to make it better. We writers need to tell stories of work, with credible working class characters, that make some sense of the magic they/we perform.