Selma and American Sniping

The matinée of Selma at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Martin Luther King Day yesterday was sold out, but a friend had gone early and saved a seat for me. It’s the best movie about an American political organizer we’ll probably see in a long time, and a gripping story unto itself.

I have a special place in my heart for complex, tragic figures in general, and President LBJ in particular, so I hesitated to see Selma till the controversy about the director and cast getting snubbed by the Academy Awards got the best of me. The indignant posturing on Twitter and Facebook made me wonder, just how good could it be? Answer: Damn good. It’s refreshing to see King as a leader who frustrates his supporters, second-guesses himself, and makes mistakes, but also as a complicated, sometimes difficult person, the first to start stuffing his face when the bacon’s on the table.

Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham, AL.

Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham, AL.

What I didn’t appreciate about Selma was the thematic clumsiness. For all its unnecessary thoroughness in covering tactical disagreements, its thematic through-line is still too elusive: Aside from his skill and his beyond-his-years wisdom, King was the one who brought…what, exactly? “Cool” is the best answer I can come up with. Compared to Lincoln, in which the progress of the plot can be counted in “Yes” votes for the amendment – we’ve got 12, now we’ve got 15, etc. – progress in Selma can only be counted in how close LBJ comes to supporting the Voting Rights Act. Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb have been called out for this historical inaccuracy, which does matter, but I find it especially disappointing since the intention of the leadership gets telegraphed so sharply. If they’re going to take such license, couldn’t they come up with a better mechanism to measure their progress than just LBJ personally relenting. So cool he out-foxed LBJ? How about, managed to get LBJ’s attention for a full day, or managed to overrule a cabinet member who thought something else was more urgent than voting rights?

With hundreds of extras in the marching scenes, the Whitehouse feels cheap! You get one shot of LBJ surrounded by staff, then the rest of his scenes feel like they were shot over a weekend. I know the consensus is that everything Tom Wilkinson touches turns to gold, but I didn’t feel his LBJ was nearly formidable enough. He’s the mighty and powerful Oz. Let’s see some smoke and mirrors.

But that’s talking about the film that could have been. The film they made brought me to tears. And I especially liked how deftly it ended. Spielberg blew the ending of Lincoln. DuVernay nailed it in Selma. Judging by both a survey of the other MLK projects in development and the apparent difficulty of King’s heirs, this is the best film we’re going to see about MLK, and it gets him right.

I try to stay numb to the Academy Awards. It’s not a national film institute with a public mandate, it’s a professional association that parcels out its brand bit by bit. It’s old, white and male, yes, and risk-averse and prone to shooting itself in the foot. But we also have to remember that Selma grossed $11 Million this weekend, while American Sniper did over $100 Million. The world looks very different to semi-retired producers in Beverly Hills.

Selma did get a Best Picture award nomination. Did DuVernay deserve a nomination too? And David Oyelowo for playing King? Both probably yes. I was personally more  appalled – I suppose on behalf of louche, over-educated caucasians everywhere – that Ralph Fiennes didn’t get one for Grand Budapest Hotel. The film got nine nominations, but would have been a mess without his brilliantly three-dimensional performance, comic but with lovely, touching moments.

Films and The Memory Gap

Years ago I sat down in a cinema to watch Mean Streets. I brought a woman who said she’d never seen it before, and I had that anxious feeling you get when you’ve told someone you have a particular fondness for a film, and they’ve agreed to jump in. Will it be too violent? Too macho? Too sad sack? Too melodramatic? In a sense, you are staking your character on its quality.

Minutes into the titles she leaned over and said, “Wait, this is the one about the woman with epilepsy, right?” Right! I’d never have described it that way, but that’s how Mean Streets resonated for her.

Watching some “new classics” all over again this month, it strikes me how different stories can be in our memories. In mine they’re apparently much more spare and concise than the actual films were.

Co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri (right) kills it as the nouveau riche just starting to develop a sense of taste.

Co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri (right) kills it as the nouveau riche just starting to develop a sense of taste.

For one, I saw the 2000 French drama The Taste of Others (script by Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri) again. To me, it’s about a wealthy industrialist who gets a crush on his English tutor, an actress, which inspires an aesthetic awakening in him. It starts with the deliciously crass company owner Castella knowing nothing about art, and the actress’ artsy friends making fun of him. Then Castella goes on a spending spree, which causes a rift between the actress and her friends.

Well, what a surprise to see so much screen time devoted to Castella’s bodyguards. They discuss love and ethics and, of course, soccer. One of them, a former cop, falls for the hash-dealing barmaid at the restaurant the artists frequent. Meanwhile, Castella’s also trying to bankroll his wife’s floundering, and very tacky, interior design career. Someone else might have told you this is that sad film about the bodyguard-amateur flute player.

Secondly, getting excited for Leviathan,* I watched The Return (script by Andrey Zvyagintsev) again. The 2003 Russian film about the father who takes his two sons on a camping trip by boat, with some sketchy intentions, was quite different in my memory. I thought it was a super-tight thriller about a boy endangered by his father. I was surprised it took so long for the father to arrive, and the three of them to get to the boat at all. In fact, it’s a lot more about character: The younger son who scarcely remembers his father resists his authority from the get-go, while the older son identifies with dad more. It is about a stubborn child, whose intuition about his dad turns out to be absolutely prophetic.

As a rule we should mind this memory gap! It says lots about each of our own peculiar tastes. If a film moves us, we hold onto its memory, sure, but often as not we start ascribing qualities to it that we think great films ought to have: Because we like it, it therefore must have these things, because we like films that have these things. And reality doesn’t always cooperate, so we learn by going back and re-watching.

I’d previously thought I was a “plot smith,” or something like that. I cared about the mechanics and harmony of plot, about everything feeling like it’s in the right place, but character was of secondary importance. I could learn to like anyone for an hour and forty-five minutes, I figured. Well, maybe so, but the things that make plots stick to my heart are the characters, not to mention the secondary characters who provided the contrast I may have needed to fully appreciate that main character.

People fall for films with “just okay” scripts all the time – me probably less than most – but I may not be as impervious as I like to believe.

*And speaking of Leviathan, it’s been written about a lot. Suffice it to say, any time someone starts billing a film as a definitive comment on a nation’s situation, he’s probably doing that film a disservice. Its trailer made it seem more like the thriller I mis-remembered The Return as, and in reality it was even further away.

Two Days, One Night, Two Films, Three and a Half Billion Women

Two days, two films about gorgeous women mentally falling apart, so completely different.

First, in theaters everywhere – well, in two theaters here in New York anyway – the Dardenne Brothers are showing that they still got it. The duo that brought La Promesse, Le Fils, and The Kid With the Bike, among others, has teamed up with Marion Cotillard to make another deeply simple drama set in the Belgian working class.

The power of Two Days, One Night (written by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne) is in the simplicity of its premise. Sandra, suffering from a yet-unnamed illness, gets rousted from bed one afternoon to make an appearance at her job, so she has a chance to keep it. The boss already put her job to a vote, and she lost: Her sixteen coworkers, given a choice between keeping their expected €1,000 bonus and keeping their ill coworker on the team, voted overwhelmingly for their bonuses. But not so fast. It’s Friday afternoon, and Sandra’s best friend/coworker persuaded the boss to let them vote again, if Sandra can show up by 5:00 to ask in person. She gets there in the nick of time, and a vote is scheduled for Monday morning. Now she has the weekend to locate her coworkers, and lobby them to keep her on board.

The depth in the film comes from its portrayal of depression, which is damn hard to write a good script about. It’s so open-ended, the challenge is finding the finite premise, and make conflict out of the character’s penchant for giving up – their hit-and-miss willingness to even engage in the plot – while also tending to the bigger plot. It was probably a simple matter of the French language, but somehow I kept thinking of Gerard Depardieu as Robespierre in Danton, waging a legislative battle from his sick bed, The Terror consuming his body. How much better this was. How much more viscerally I could feel it.

Marion Cotillard

The times I was a tourist in Europe, and, say, took a train from the aeroport to the historic center of town, I couldn’t help but think that “real Europeans” live in the housing developments and bus routes of the suburbs I was zipping past. The Queens Counties and Yonkerses of Europe, without cathedrals. And I love the Dardennes for taking me there again and again.

Not that it’s a strictly personal story. They indulge in one moment that contextualizes the whole thing. As he’s driving away from Sandra that Friday afternoon, the boss points out that he has no choice but to give the crew this either-or decision because the company must compete with the Chinese! It’s a heavy-handed moment that arguably doesn’t belong, but there it is, so all the ads can say things like, “a profoundly political snapshot of an age of economic insecurity.”

Coincidentally, I’m still slowly traipsing, unplanned, through a year of Italian cinema, and I was honestly so bored by L’Eclisse that I was giving up on Antonioni, but since there’s a chapter devoted to Red Desert in a book I’m reading called Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism, I thought I’d give him another try. Whoa! Am I glad I did!

Deserto Rosso was written by Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, and I’d love to see a major retrospective of films made from Guerra’s scripts. It would include L’Avventura, Blow Up, and Zabriskie Point, but also Amarcord and Nostalghia. In 1964, the same year as Red Desert, was Marriage Italian Style, of all films, which Guerra also got a co-writing credit on.

I guess I’d never tried it before because I was scared of the bombast: “A drama about alienation in the modern world…” the Netflix blurb begins. Well, maybe. I also see, at its core, what could be an independent film plot about a woman who has an affair with her husband’s colleague. I was surprised to read that Antonioni felt his films were direct descendants of neorealism: “I began as one of the first exponents of neorealism, and now by concentrating on the internals of character and psychology I do not think I have deserted the movement, but rather have pointed a path toward extending its boundaries….I am not trying to show reality, I am attempting to recreate realism.”*

Monica Vitti as Giuliana in "Red Desert."

Monica Vitti as Giuliana in “Red Desert.”

I guess this was on his and Guerra’s mind when they wrote the scene in which the heroine Giuliana asks her lover Zeller what he plans to take with him on his long trip to South America:

Zeller: Two or three bags.
Giuliana: If I were to go away, I’d take everything, everything I see, all the things I use every day, even the ashtrays.
Zeller: Then you might as well just stay put. You’d end up missing everything. The street where you live, your city.
Giuliana: You see in classified ads:”For sale, owner must relocate,” as if it were an excuse to abandon everything…or almost. Why? It shouldn’t be like that.**

It’s as if their characters are expressing the thesis and antithesis of their new spin on neorealism. She wants to record reality as it is. He wants to keep two or three suitcases of it and construct something closer to a whole picture of reality than just turning on a camera and letting it roll. Genius, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface. I can tell that, like Amarcord, I’m going to have to watch this film again and again.

Not that it’s completely invulnerable to criticism! Giuliana’s insanity is hard to swallow. Monica Vitti is one of those Italian women with faces so beautiful, and noses so imposing, that you turn into a stuttering idiot while you talk to them. If she appeared at your door in a toga and pouted, you’d ask if you could please go to ancient Rome with her. She stands still and the film revolves around her.

"Through a Glass, Darkly": woman as a timeless vessel.

“Through a Glass, Darkly”: woman as a timeless vessel.

So why is she writhing on the floor every time she gets stressed out? “Alienation in the modern world” got you down, Giuliana? It’s as if Antonioni and Guerra lost their nerve and couldn’t merely make a film about a couple in crisis, who shine a light on their era and all its splendid, polluted alienation. They even include a dreamy story-within-a-story that Giuliana tells her young son, about a pubescent girl on a red sand beach who follows an empty ship and discovers sexual desire in a metaphorical sense, and it cures the boy of his own “ailment.” They place the motive in every male in a voice this girl hears in that eponymous red desert, where “from an inlet among the rocks, the numerous rocks that she never realized were like flesh, and the voice in that spot sounded so sweet. Everything was singing. Everything.”

That’s plenty for me, but they had to make Giuliana freak out too. Make her embody and be her own alienated time. I guess they took the ship metaphor from Through a Glass Darkly – decrepit ship as crazy place where women dwell and men come of age by following them there – which was only two years old when they shot this, and went deeper with it.

I suppose this will happen as long as men write scripts in which women are a psychic element and not characters in the complete sense. Every woman is all women, all three and a half billion of them. And her insanity is a metaphor for what ails reality in general.

Two Days, One Night, which would be a great-niece of neorealism, or something like that, is a step in the right direction, since Sandra’s insanity is just what it is, a big pain in her ass, that makes everything harder and shines a light on nothing.

*From Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism.
**Apologies to Guerra and all Italian speakers: I jotted the dialogue off the Criterion Collection subtitles.

Music to Remember My Father By

You could call my father a lot of things, but a country music enthusiast he was not.

He died four weeks ago today, from complications from Alzheimers. He’d been diagnosed almost eight years ago, and made a slow descent until the last few days, when he suddenly began letting go in a hurry. One of the cruel things about Alzheimers is that you have to hurry to get your “good-bye” in. Otherwise, you get a sad feeling one day that you wanted to say something but didn’t get your point across, followed by the realization that the best conversation you’ll ever have with your parent is already in the past.

My father Hugh Bowe and me.

My father Hugh Bowe and me.

I had the honor of delivering my father’s eulogy at the Saint Gregory the Great Church, across the parking lot (“the macadam,” the nuns used to call it) from the Catholic grammar school I attended through 4th grade. I felt I’d been handed an opportunity to shape my family’s memory of him. I also knew enough about writing to know that you have to pick one theme, and that’s about all you get.

My father was a laboratory glass salesman who learned to golf on “caddies day.” He was a big fan of Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. He had a legendary sense of humor that, like Groucho Marx’s, was both charismatic and occasionally cruel at the same time. A working class kid from a broken home makes good, raises a family and becomes a professional, but stays true to his roots, peppered by a few of his funnier anecdotes: That’s a slam dunk of a eulogy, but what was the theme? The spin? The bit of license the eulogist can exercise?

I chose to remind everyone what an intensely private person he could be: how, like many apparent extroverts, Hugh needed a lot of time to himself. A lot of miles in his Buick between sales calls across New Jersey. A lot of hours on the driving range. And Friday nights he was always sacked out on the living room rug, listening to The Sounds of Sinatra, with Sid Mark.

Saint Francis, in my back yard, this morning.

Saint Francis, in my back yard, this morning.

I wasn’t around the morning the funeral got planned. I left that to my mother and one of my brothers. I had to come back to the city, ostensibly to pick up my suit, but I managed to turn it into a full day of wandering around by myself. Like father, like son. I didn’t know what hymns they’d chosen, but took it as a matter of course that we’d sing the “Prayer of Saint Francis,” and we did.

My father’s taste in music is a topic my family never gets tired of. Sinatra, Mel Tormé, Ella, Sarah, Tony Bennett. He thought Broadway was the epitome of good songwriting, and that Broadway ended in 1960 or so. He loved hearing live jazz, and gave no-name musicians in faraway cities his rapt attention. Any time the topic of poetry came up, he would say that good songs were poetic, and would offer “Lush Life” as the prime example. We played it many times at his viewing.

Knowing someone with Alzheimers, you fully appreciate the depths to which music affects the brain. Hugh could sing entire verses long after his ability to hold a conversation had gone. The last few times I saw him, when he wasn’t speaking and didn’t appear to recognize me, you could put on the Mills Brothers, and he’d exhale a low hiss of a laugh.

My mother, since age 70, has developed a taste for Led Zeppelin and The Who like never before, but my father never came around regarding his kids’ rock LPs. He was once in stitches listening to “Ziggy Stardust” in the car: “’So where were the spiiiiders?’ What the hell?” Good question, dad.

But worse than rock, an aesthetic affront to everything he stood for, was country music. “Shitkicker music,” he called it. He couldn’t fathom why the British invasion bands loved Americana so much. To Hugh, music was aspirational. It must try to be as fine as it possibly can at all times. Country music was crude, maudlin, and politically suspect.

As a kid, I figured jazz and jazz singers were the Establishment, the kind of people who got medals at Kennedy Center. To my father, they were the sounds of his ascendant generation, and he was as attached to them as we were to rock. To hell with the stuffy WASPs and their classical music. Ahmad Jamal was as good as any concert pianist. A new kind of refinement was possible, and among its charms it was on the right side of the defining social issue of its day, racial integration, and it was simply excellent music on the face of it. Why on earth would anyone resist it?

I had to move to Minneapolis in my 20s to discover country. Saturday afternoons on KFAI radio there was an honest-to-goodness blind, steel guitar-playing deejay named Johnny Field. Trying recipe after recipe from The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking while smoking Midwestern ditch weed, I was seized by the beauty of George Jones, Ferlin Husky, Kitty Wells, Buck Owens, Hank, Merle, Tammy and many others.

The songs were simple and nostalgic, often rough around the edges in execution, with intentionally clunky rhymes, but had a less-is-more elegance about them. They had more in common with the Beatles and the Kinks than Gershwin did. And, they had this habit of mixing gospel songs into their sets, and that blew my mind. Faith, to a mid-20th Century person, even a practicing Catholic, is a little bit corny. It isn’t something you’d tap your foot to while on a date, but Johnny Field could play “If You Got the Money, I Got the Time” followed by “The Cup of Loneliness” or “Old Brush Arbors.”

Yet more birds!  Roy Clark's 1971 gospel concept album, "The Magnificent Sanctuary Band."

Yet more birds! Roy Clark’s 1971 gospel concept album, “The Magnificent Sanctuary Band.”

These American hymns have gone into standard rotation on my “by myself” playlist – music having become, in Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase, “the aural wallpaper” of life. I confess to a morbid fondness for Catholic dirges, but I’d never listen to “Faith of Our Fathers” while prepping a dinner party. “Wait a Little Longer, Please Jesus,” I could listen to every day, and have been.

A few days before my father died, a friend treated me to a Bob Dylan show at the Beacon for my birthday. Dylan’s currently playing a mostly blues set that’s almost entirely his music since 1997. People who’d come for his greatest hits seemed bored, but my friend and I were 100% in. His band is the closest we have to an American La Scala, and he’s Bob Freakin’ Dylan: If he thinks you should listen to blues versions of his new songs for two hours, then that’s what you should do. Like a good Catholic boy, I took his communion and crossed myself.

Maybe that cemented my attachment to Americana for the month. Maybe I also just needed to mourn my father, and contemplate mortality, and do so in private. In any case, even for us agnostics, gospel music is waiting to put its arms around us when we need it.

One day around Christmas, when the city was blissfully empty, I found myself alone at a bar. Friends had been checking in on me, and I was drinking and crying, and texted one back, “I’m good!” That got me laughing and drinking and crying, and I thought I’d better cut it short. I got on a 2 Train and sat next to a young West Indian guy who, honest to God, was reading How To Win Friends and Influence People.

I’ll play “Lush Life” when I’m with the family.