Kumiko

I guess the reason it took me so long to see Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014) was the fantasy genre implied by the title and poster. I figured it was animation. As a film reviewer back in the 90s I had to sit through preview screenings of Princess Mononoke and other Japanese animation films, and that’s one genre I’ve had my fill of.

Kumiko is so much better! It’s about a Japanese woman obsessed with the film Fargo. Having a mental breakdown, she steals her boss’ credit card and flies to the U.S. to find the suitcase of cash Steve Buscemi buried by the side of a highway in northern Minnesota in the Coen brothers’ film. Kumiko (my Spellcheck thinks her name is Cumin!) is completely blurring fiction and reality, thinking Fargo is a documentary.

Many reviewers saw it as a comment on the nature of cinematic reality, but I find it telling that co-writers David and Nathan Zellner start the story with Kumiko finding the VHS of Fargo on a beach in Japan. It’s not about a woman coming unhinged; it starts in a mythic hyper-reality, and only steps into our reality for sad interludes that get sadder as the film goes on. The more poetic and beautiful her journey gets, the harder you can see she is going to crash.

Director David Zellner and Rinko Kikuchi in

Director David Zellner and Rinko Kikuchi in “Kumiko.”

Inspiring in its simplicity, it’s moving partly because of the phase of Kumiko’s life the brothers place the story in. She’s being replaced at work by a younger woman, and her boss shames her for not being married. Once in Minnesota, she gets a kind offer of help from a small town mother whose grown up son, she says, never comes to visit. Finally a sympathetic cop tries talking some sense into Kumiko when he finds her on a blustery road in winter. He takes her to a thrift store for proper winter shoes and a coat, and she kisses him, mistaking his kindness for romance.

Is that what it was all about? Does spinsterhood cause madness? The fact that David Zellner both directed it and plays the cop makes me read it differently. Kumiko is the muse. The irrational creative inspiration that flies in from across the Pacific to your freezing cold town and interrupts your daily rounds.

But that’s over-thinking it. I loved every second of it, up to its finale, which just doesn’t live up to the promise, but I never begrudge a story-teller his or her ending: If they had me up to then, that’s good enough.

Take It From Jackson, Not Hamilton!

The power of symbols is all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds this morning. Mostly it’s liberals petitioning South Carolina to stop using the Confederate flag in light of the racist murder of nine people in a historic Black church there. Oddly, it happened the same day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicle was allowed to say No to a request by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to issue official license plates with the stars and bars on them.

Alexander Hamilton: George Washington's consigliere, and an abolitionist far ahead of his time.

Alexander Hamilton: George Washington’s consigliere, and an abolitionist far ahead of his time.

And double oddly, on the very same day, the Treasury Department announced it was going to put a woman on the ten dollar bill, and I for one am not happy. Not that I’m against putting a woman on currency. I am, however, against giving the Ten, which is Alexander Hamilton’s spot, to her. Half the point of the petitions from the past year, to replace Andrew Jackson with a woman, was to take Jackson down a peg by taking him off the Twenty.

Alexander Hamilton was George Washington’s Karl Rove: the consigliere, the operative who could turn principles into action. He was also a president of the (love the names from back then!) New-York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and Protecting Such of Them as Have Been, or May be Liberated, a.k.a. the New York Manumission Society, an organization that called for the abolition of slavery as early as the Revolution, in the 1770s. He also proposed arming freed slaves in military units, ninety years before Lincoln. Hamilton: The Musical is coming to Broadway this summer, and it’s sold out for the first month.

To honor Hamilton is to honor the can-do, behind the scenes person in every regime or organization, the person you could hand a dirty job to and know that it is done. Vito Corleone had Tom, Sterling Cooper had Joanie, and George Washington had Hamilton.

Mozart's on the Austrian euro. Why not  Ella on the Twenty?

Mozart’s on the Austrian euro. Why not Ella on the Twenty?

Andrew Jackson waged genocidal and unauthorized proxy wars against sovereign nations such as the Cherokees. Following the victory that made him a national hero – the Battle of New Orleans, which, sadly, was fought after the peace treaty had been signed – he marched into the cathedral at New Orleans and had the bishop crown him. He is the granddaddy of the fraud populist tradition in American politics, which is alive and well – which explains why it’s politically more possible to replace Hamilton than Jackson:

Like so much else in American politics, the crazies are more attached to their symbols than the sane are to theirs. Not me. I call bullshit. Take it from Jackson.

If we’re going to make a concession to the rednecks, let’s not put an activist on the money. Let’s face it, people don’t like activists. Let’s recognize America’s great contribution to global culture. Lots of European countries put composers on their currency. We should put Ella Fitzgerald on ours. A black woman, yes, and a great American, who won more hearts and minds than Jackson ever did, without firing a gun.

Locally-Sourced Cheese

“Last time I sang in Brooklyn was at my Bar Mitzvah!” Barry Manilow said early in his set last night.

If you had told me, as the Barclays Center basketball arena was being built, controversially, that the first thing I was to see there would be a Barry Manilow concert, I would have said, “No way.” In fact, if you had said ten years ago that I’d ever buy two tickets to see Manilow  anywhere, and spend a good part of the night with my arms in the air, cheering, I’d not have understood.

Brooklyn meets Vegas.

Brooklyn meets Vegas.

If any one thing opened my palate to Las Vegas style cheese since then, it was a nosy neighbor at my old apartment in Sunset Park, who saw me walking home with an LP under my arm one day, and offered me a stack of records from his basement. Most of them I had to politely smuggle off the block and donate to the Salvation Army, but five or so of them were the great, early records of Engelbert Humperdinck. Engelbert deserves a separate post, but the summer I kept spinning his versions of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Words,” it sunk in that a whole other Sixties had happened, that didn’t make it  on the Woodstock movie.

The “squares” were making some fascinating, and high quality, music too, and I was never again going to summarily draw a line in the vinyl sand and say, “I like this, but not this music.” I was willing to bet on my adventurous taste, $1.99 at a time. Not that I always won! Engelbert before ’75, can’t go wrong; after ’75, can’t go right. 101 Strings, Morton Gould, Hugo Montenegro, brilliant. Barbra Streisand, I just don’t get. I’d rather hear Barry’s worst album than Barbra’s best.

Reading who wrote the songs he recorded, you realize Barry was of a generation of mostly Jewish, mostly New York-born songwriters who were weaned on the golden period of Broadway by way of the Brill Building. There were lots of these songwriters around, but Barry was the one among them who could sing. They never bought into the Dylan revolution, the re-imagining of the rock star as visionary poet. When you heard a new song of theirs, you knew this was the newest release from the mill, not some new revelation from a poet’s vision quest.

Barry didn’t even write “I Write the Songs”! Nor did he write one of my favorites, “Ready To Take a Chance Again”: That was by Norman Gimbel, the lyricist who wrote, among others, the English version of “Girl From Ipanema,” and Charles Fox, whose masterful oeuvre includes the 1970s theme music to ABC’s Wide World of Sports:

Barry is the spawn of a Jewish mother and Irish truck driver father during Word War II in Williamsburg. He often says his grandparents, whom he talked about last night, exposed him to the music of the 1930s and 40s. He covered “Moonlight Serenade,” and showed great taste when it came to his own catalogue. Toward the end of the show, he said he would do the rest of his hits in a medley, adding, “So if you got dragged to the show then this next medley is going to be agony.”

Cheesy? Whatever. The years his hits were all over FM radio, I was a kid arguing about the merits of Geddie Lee versus Bad Company. I saw an American classic last night and had a blast the whole time.

Speaking of William Inge

Poor William Inge, Hollywood got a hold of him and chewed up both him and his legacy. A year ago I saw an excellent production of his under-rated play A Loss of Roses by the Peccadillo Theater Company here in New York, then either read the rest of his major plays, or watched the films based on them.

Come Back Little Sheba, Picnic, Bus Stop, and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs: I admit that each of his stories gets blurred in my memory. All have a small town setting, a forbidden romance between a down-and-out drifter and a kid from one of the best families in town, a conniving matriarch, and the threat of ostracism. It’s a disservice to read Inge’s sexuality into all of his conflicts, but sixty years later they certainly feel like the work of an extremely ashamed gay guy. I get that some premarital unions were taboo in the 1950s, fraught with guilt and kept in secret, but in William Inge’s world sex can literally make a girl go insane.

William Holden and Kim Novak in "Picnic."

William Holden and Kim Novak in “Picnic.”

He might always be remembered as the Midwestern Tennessee Williams, the gay writer who understood the social codes of his region. Williams got lucky, I suppose, because Elia Kazan championed him. Kazan had the clout to take the Broadway lead of his breakthrough play, Streetcar, and cast him in the film version. You never tire of watching Brando in Streetcar. You do tire of watching William Holden mugging in Picnic.

I love Holden in lots of other roles, but he and Kim Novak make Picnic boring. I wanted Holden to get it on with Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard – the allegedly more deviant union – much more than I wanted him and Novak to “know” each another.

Holden died from a drinking accident in his own home in 1981, eight years after Inge committed suicide. Picnic and Bus Stop still get produced a lot, so there’s no reason to pity Inge. It is, however, conceivable that, had the stars (in more than one sense of the word) lined up differently, we would remember Tennessee Williams as the South’s answer to William Inge.

Summer Writing, and Gardening

I love when summer gets its heat inside the bricks of the house, and the butter in the dish on the counter gets so soft round the clock you have to hold the blade of your butter knife horizontal during the brief airlift to the slice of toast.

I keep a short list of priorities tacked to my wall, and this summer the top of the list reads, “The computer is for writing, outdoors for thinking.” It’s a dual reminder. One, don’t waste time watching cat and goat videos – not too much anyway. Two, if you’re spacing out instead of getting words on a page, don’t waste time staring at an idle screen, go outside and think about it. I have always gotten more accomplished during summer than winter, even though it’s filled with so many more distractions, the sun being number one. It could just be a matter of the sense that you need less sleep. In summer, give me six hours, and I’m a tiger. Come October, I crave the full eight.

The mazus reptans (center) and the ajuga (right) were by design, the clover (left) a concession.

The mazus reptans (center) and the ajuga (right) were by design, the clover (left) a concession.

I wrote last summer about my affection for common garden weeds, which is only getting deeper now that they’ve turned me. There’s so much shade in our tiny urban plot, it’s hard to grow grass. Other plants want to grow there, and I’ve started letting them have their respective preserves.

Clover has three generous patches, one over the grave of a dear, departed wild cat named Merv, whom I buried back in April. Anything else that tries to get inside the clover patch, I pull. Moss gets the shadiest region along the back fence – though I’m finding it hard to pull other weeds out without pulling up a divot of moss, even when it’s soaking wet. Ladies thumbs have their autonomous regions. Even the ugly wild plantain gets a patch, where no dandelion is allowed.

My wife is a master gardener, at planting things. I am the master of taking things away – removing what I don’t want there – and the results are shaping up. It occurred to me while pulling weeds that summer gardening is like summer writing.

Most writers I know, good and bad, are full of ideas. Fecund with them. Lousy with them. Brimming with them. “Wouldn’t it be great if…” “Imagine if…” They just come up with lots of stories or metaphors. It’s magic, giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. The hard part is making any sense of it. Knowing when to take away.

I’ve read most of the major books about screenwriting, and most of them pay some lip service to the Rosetta Stone of all writing guides, The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. Egri was a playwright who taught that a play must be about a thesis, and that thesis gets proven by a dichotomous pair of characters. It’s tough love from a Hungarian grandpa to all dreamy-eyed writers: Don’t just throw ideas on a page, start with a premise. You can see, when you watch a play from when Egri’s teaching was most widely accepted – a Tennessee Williams or a William Inge, for example – just how powerful this kind of writing can be.

If only it came so naturally. Writing, I find, is more like weeding. Your brain is a fertile patch of dirt. Stuff is going to sprout out of it. If it doesn’t, maybe you shouldn’t be a writer. The trick is to collect it on a page and then try to make sense of it. If I’ve learned anything from my garden, it’s that to make anything beautiful, you have to keep pulling – and don’t hesitate to yank out giant handfuls, because this stuff will indeed keep growing back.

Letting Friends Do Their Thing: Writers Versus Bloggers

I’ve been neglecting you, dear readers. I feel it every day. Like a friend who isn’t returning calls or emails – and I have played that part with some dear old friends of late too.

“You were always on my mind,” as Willie Nelson sings, but I’ve been cherishing the inward time. Not that blogging and “inward time” are opposites. I read others’ sometimes, and it feels like a diary, and I get that somewhat used feeling you get when someone you hardly know has just told you all about their hard luck love life and never once asked how you are.

And yet – and yet, that’s why we read blogs, for the personality, that faithful recording of the subjective experience. Without it, it’s just amateur criticism.

Like friends, you’ve got to let your correspondents do their thing. Even so public a writer as Martin Luther King had his cabin in the woods he could disappear to for a while – though he certainly made a grander entrance than most when he emerged.

The Gantt Cottage at Penn Center, South Carolina.

The Gantt Cottage at Penn Center, South Carolina.

Sometimes young adults – to me that’s under 30 – relate their romantic or friendship dramas to me, and tell me about their friends who: a., got insulted by something they said; b., demanded an explanation for their absences; c., asked them point blank whether they valued their friendship; or, d., wanted to discuss the future of the friendship.

When a young person suffers a romantic breakup, they think they’re going to die, and they fight as if their life depends on it. “Why is youth so terribly unmerciful? And who has given it permission to be that way?” the opera singer’s old mother asks in Smiles of a Summer Night. When a mature person suffers a breakup, they know they’re not going to die. They just get tired. “This shit again,” he or she thinks.

Rest assured, though, I’m not breaking up with anybody. I’m talking about you and me, dear reader. Let’s leave romantic relationships aside.

I often tell younger friends that one of the pleasures of getting older is that the dramatic rifts get fewer and further between. Not that they never happen, but as you mature the dramas, and dramatic people, self-select out of your life. Whenever a friend or associate of a recent vintage is forthcoming with a list of people who have done them wrong, people they no longer have time for, I take notice. I figure there’s a fair chance I will be on that list some day.

Luckily, maturity also brings a capacity for graceful forgiveness. So forgive me, for losing track of the spirit of blogging for a spell. Writers by nature try to craft the perfect document: the definitive statement, the can’t-be-ignored op-ed piece, the perfectly written screenplay. Bloggers keep that perfectionist impulse in check, and just keep posting.

To get reacquainted, I promise to get up and post every morning this week. I like what we have, and I want to keep it going. Now let’s speak of it no more.