2017 Round-Up

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Books (me)

  • The Woman in the Fifth, Douglas Kennedy
  • Get in Trouble, Kelly Link
  • The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
  • The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, Mary S. Lovell
  • The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, Erik Larson
  • TransAtlantic, Colum McCann
  • Brothers, William Goldman
  • The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel J. Levitin
  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Ruth Franklin
  • Classics of the Macabre, Daphne du Maurier
  • Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier, Mark Frost

A depressingly short list, again, but a couple or three that exceeded 500 pages, so maybe not too depressing. The standout in terms of influence was The Organized Mind, which provides clear explanations of how the mind works—and how to work better within these confines. The big takeaway is that no one, no way, no how, can multitask. Another revelation: the importance and joy of being “in the zone”—engaged in a task that perfectly suits your level of competence. The two biographies are exceedingly well written, well researched, and exhaustive; respectful and knowledgeable of their subjects (the Mitford sisters and Shirley Jackson). Of the fiction, the best and most lingering was TransAtlantic. The most annoying, to me, was Erik Larson’s book: this was history written as fiction, and it grated on me. Just not to my taste. And one quick shout-out re. the du Maurier: this was a hardback book, and just the perfect size and weight for holding and reading in bed, making it a joy to engage with.

Books (Steve)

  • Mash, Richard Hooker
  • My Sunshine Away, M.O.Walsh
  • Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
  • I Fought the Law: The Life and Strange Death of Bobby Fuller, Miriam Linna and Randell Fuller
  • Boardwalk Empire, Nelson Johnson
  • The Double, George Pelecanos
  • Loss of Innocence, Richard North Patterson
  • Moriarty, Anthony Horowitz
  • The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk
  • Lost Horizon, James Hilton
  • Me and Orson Welles, Robert Kaplow
  • The Fortunate Pilgrim, Mario Puzo
  • Railway Viaduct, Edward Marston
  • Pretty Boy Floyd, Larry McMurtry
  • A Passage to India, E.M. Forster
  • Martin Dressler, Steven Millhauser
  • Armageddon, Kurt Vonnegut
  • A Simple Habana Melody, Oscar Hijuelo

A variety. Steve reports that the book that really stands out is The Plot Against America. He greatly enjoyed reading Lost Horizon; he’d never read Hilton before and found the story and idea of it very pleasurable. He always likes Vonnegut, calling him a great storyteller; this collection is stories from throughout his life. The book Danny gave him, by his professor in New Orleans, My Sunshine Away, Steve says would make a perfect movie. Pretty Boy Floyd is a fun, light read from McMurtry.

Concerts

  • Chris Smither, Town Crier, Beacon
  • Robert Klein, Paramount Theater, Peekskill
  • Ian Anderson, Count Basie, Red Bank

We are getting very very fussy about concert experiences. Consequently, we have, I think, sworn off the Count Basie from here on. We like, as I have written many times before, concerts where the people are respectful of the performers and possess strong bladders and low voices. The Hudson Valley venues both featured this kind of audience, making the concerts warm and inviting and friendly. Chris Smither is no longer in good voice, but his lyrics and music remain thought provoking and stirring. Robert Klein was an evening of good fun: it was very nice to laugh. Even aside from a set of downright rude audience members, who were more interested in talking to each other and hollering for their favorites, the Ian Anderson concert was very disappointing. His voice also is gone, and he seemed to be quite definitely pacing himself. While a good show, it lacked heart and soul. We missed a show at Peekskill, John Lodge of the Moody Blues, due to bad weather. There was a lot of that this year.

Dance, Theater, and Performance

  • The Band’s Visit (Atlantic Theater)
  • The Woolgatherers (Yael; Frigid Festival)
  • Louis and Ella (Manasquan)
  • Sunday in the Park with George (Broadway)
  • The Room Sings (Talking Band, La MaMa)
  • Not Knowing Where We’re Rowing (Sarah reading; Inwood Park)
  • Ring Twice for Miranda (Broadway)
  • Martin Denton, Martin Denton (Kraine Theater)
  • Friends Call Me Albert (Julie; Access Theater)
  • Hamlet (Public Theater)
  • A Christmas Carol (Julie; No. 11)

The price of Broadway tickets have kept us largely off Broadway, where, as always, there is much magic and delight to be found. And as usual, our favorites were the art created by our girls: now adding Julie’s fiancee, Yael, to our roster of favorite creatives. Locally, we saw a very light piece, a joint musical biography of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. I have to confess to walking out midway through Ring Twice for Miranda; Sarah had free tickets which gave me leave to—well, leave. We missed the controversial Julius Caesar in the Park due to deadlines; we also missed a Twyla Tharp show at the Joyce (and she herself danced at the performance we were to have attended); we did get to see Oscar Isaac and Keegan-Michael Key in Hamlet, which was exciting, but I can’t say that I loved it. I found many of the director’s choices bewildering and, frankly, distracting. The acting was wonderful, and we were glad to attend. I think my favorite, though, was Sunday in the Park with George. I love this play, to the extent that I cannot listen to the OCR as it makes me cry too much. While this staging was, in many ways, only a faint echo of the original, the principals were both very very good. Again, the director’s choices were disappointing, particularly with regard to the stripped-down and unimaginative set.

Movies

The following are movies we either saw in theaters or streamed shortly thereafter.

  • The Brand New Testament
  • 2017 Animated Shorts and Live Action Shorts
  • Hidden Figures
  • Paterson
  • La La Land
  • Frantz
  • Landline
  • High-Rise
  • Demolition
  • Hell or High Water
  • Max Rose
  • The Ones Below
  • A Woman, A Part
  • Tale of Tales
  • Krisha
  • Bridge of Spies
  • Obit
  • Their Finest
  • The Clan
  • Deconstructing The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper
  • Deconstructing The Beatles’ Rubber Soul
  • Deconstructing The Beatles’ Revolver
  • Personal Shopper
  • Norman
  • Split
  • Colossal
  • Get Out
  • My Cousin Rachel
  • Beatriz at Dinner
  • Things to Come
  • The Big Sick
  • Brad’s Status
  • Marjorie Prime
  • Lady Bird
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • The Meyerwitz Stories
  • The People vs. Fritz Bauer
  • Loving Vincent
  • Endless Poetry
  • Lucky
  • The Florida Project
  • Three Billboards
  • The Square
  • The Shape of Water

A wonderful year for movies, and hard pressed to say which was the best, although high on our lists are Lucky, Paterson, Frantz, Loving Vincent, The Square, and Endless Poetry. These were extraordinary: moving, thought provoking, and innovative, each in their own special way. Frantz was devastating; I do not want to give any of it away. Paterson I still intend to write about. And the trippy frenetic Endless Poetry is in its own class.

Ranking in a second tier as highly satisfying and smart are The Brand New Testament (so mordantly funny), Hidden Figures and Bridge of Spies (much-needed quiet heroism), Get Out (a great horror film and a wonderful social experiment), The Big Sick (delightful in its sweet sincerity), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (surprisingly satisfying),The Shape of Water (another dark fairy tale from del Toro), My Cousin Rachel (probably the best suspense film we saw this year), and Marjorie Prime, Krisha, and The Florida Project  (intriguing perspectives from each).

Downright disappointing were La La Land and Three Billboards. I don’t get the hype around either. A musical should have, I don’t know, singers and dancers? As to Three Billboards, I am coming to the conclusion that I simply don’t get black comedy or Martin McDonagh; this had no soul, no heart, and we could not get past its improbable cruelties to see any humor. (But we love Frances McDormand.) All the Beatles movies were great fun: highly informative and scholarly—and nostalgic. As always, we are so grateful to our local arthouse theater, the Showroom. It continues to be a great joy and privilege to be able to walk to wonderful films. We are also grateful to the great art theaters in NYC: the Sunshine Cinema and the IFC, especially.

A hidden gem we chanced upon on TCM: The Young in Heart, an absolutely delightful 1938 movie with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Paulette Goddard, and Billie Burke—great fun and deliciously wicked.

On TV, and dwarfing almost everything else seen in the movies this year—or ever—was David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return. Every Sunday night all summer was a wild, weird, wonderful ride: the expectation, putting it off to the latest possible time slot to heighten the anticipation; the actuality, during which I spent more time standing next to the TV, drinking in the images, than literally perched on the edge of my seat; and the post-show reaction, feverishly reading Reddit and various Peak-y sites to prolong the experience. There will never be anything like Episode 8. Beautiful, damned, tragic, sorrowful, profound, laugh-out-loud funny, breathtakingly shocking, gorgeous, terrifying, glorious. A unique experience whose like I doubt will ever be undertaken or seen again.

We are consoling ourselves over the end of Twin Peaks with the second season of Stranger Things (charming and well done) and old episodes of The Wire (intense and brilliant; we just finished season 3 and are stretching it out now that Mad Men has finished for us—although we intend to revisit it and The Sopranos; these two, along with Upstairs, Downstairs, rank in my mind as the best TV dramas of all time).

Food

The hands-down restaurant find of the year was Christine’s in the Atlantic Highlands. Not only is the food delicious and plentiful, but the owner and atmosphere are warm and inviting. A lovely unpretentious place. Marandola’s in Bradley Beach was another serendipitous find, particularly for patio dining; another new favorite, albeit out of the way, the Blue Danube in Trenton.

Speaking of Trenton, we were disappointed that the farmers’ market there has gone so downhill: a shadow of the bustling market we first knew.

In cooking adventures, Steve has created a new blistered spicy string beans recipe. We made an herb orzo and rice side dish to replace mashed potatoes at this year’s Thanksgiving; quite tasty.

Field Trips and Museums

The big field trip was our five days, just ended, in New Orleans. I will write about this in a later post. Overall, it was a good experience, but I don’t think we are anywhere near as in sync with this city as other places we have been. But it was wonderful to see Danny, and it was a genuine pleasure to travel with Sarah.

We took two trips to the Hudson Valley and greatly enjoyed both. We did learn to try to avoid the humid seasons there, however. But the scenery is gorgeous, particularly going up the east side via Route 9. We want to go back, this time to see Hyde Park and maybe Woodstock. Tarrytown was fun, as was Beacon, filled with charming shops and art.

A couple of days in DC for work meant a full day for Steve with Danny, and a visit with a circle of loving and lovely friends at two favorite restaurants. But my God, the DC traffic and heat.

Our one museum trip this year was an excursion with Julie and Yael to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, which had a terrific Scorsese exhibit. The highlight of the exhibit, for me, was this nine-minute short:

After the museum, we hit Penn Station right after an accident and tasering incident had left all Jersey-bound trains halted on the tracks, leading us to two discoveries: (1) Uber and (2) the Seastreak ferry. We have since had many exhilarating ferry rides to and from Manhattan and are extremely happy with this new transit option.

Miscellany

I attended the Asbury Women’s March, which was affirming and positive and friendly and inclusive: a bright note in an almost cheerless civic landscape. We heard our representative speak later in the year, and it was good to hear a reasonable voice of pragmatic and unembittered compromise.

In July, we had a party, inviting about 20 or 30 neighbors. It was the first time we’ve had a casual party since leaving Virginia, and it was really nice. We intend to make it an annual tradition.

***

All in all, in a year when we put our heads down and immersed ourselves in work, clocking far too many 15- and 18-hour days in a deliberate effort to ignore the drumbeat of bad news and upsetting developments, it was soothing and gratifying to have such distinctive and meritorious diversions of sight, sound, and sensibility.

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“The Square”

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The Square is an intriguing, thought-provoking, and thoroughly engrossing look at a panoply of timely concerns: white male power, entitlement, class divides, the disconnect between the haves and have-nots, poverty, prejudice. It is also about a host of timeless considerations: compassion (and the lack thereof), communication (and the lack thereof), conformity, cowardice.

From the trailer, I thought it would be a skewering of a sleek, impossibly handsome cad set against a sleek, impossibly ludicrous contemporary art world.

But it isn’t. The film, this year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, is far more subtle, far more nuanced. The man at its center, Christian, is not a cad. He can in fact be conscientious and kind, but he — like pretty much everyone else in the movie — makes bad choices of action and worse ones of inaction. Set against a backdrop where art is embodied by a clattering mound of stacked golden chairs and precisely aligned heaps of gravel, the inability of Christian — and his colleagues and the larger society as well — to see, hear, and connect with what is real and important is made devastatingly clear.

The choice to set the film in this milieu leads to rich satire. Years ago, we went to a museum, I think in Baltimore, which was showing, among many other items from the ’60s, a Yoko Ono installation. It was a hammer and nails, a participatory piece, inviting the viewer to hammer a nail in the painting block. But there was a big sign that the museum had put up next to it that said “Do Not Touch.” I thought it was the funniest, most clueless subversion of artistic — albeit flaky — intent I had ever seen.

And right on a par with the misguided artistic statements populating The Square. A crisis ensues when an overzealous cleaning crew inadvertently vacuums around one of the gravel heaps: an exhibit visited, may it be pointed out, only fitfully and never enthusiastically. And the eponymous, relatively tiny square — earnestly described by its creator as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” — is part of the larger square fronting the museum, where ranks of homeless daily petition heedless passersby.

There is a cool, clean look to the film, informed in large part by this art world background. But it is also the look of our contemporary modernity: crisp, sterile demarcations of white, black, and color tidily masking the muddy gray ambiguities of real life. This is where we all are, not just the art world cognoscenti: pretending that truth and reality can be cleanly, clearly, and completely divided into this and not that, right and wrong, good and bad, light and dark, us and them.

The movie is about far more than sending up contemporary art and its patrons and promoters. It’s about the whole of contemporary society, with its inability to see the authentic in a world of posturing and performance, of conformity and excessive and (in the movie, literally) explosive feints professing to shake up the status quo.

The Square may take on more than it can manage, introducing myriad plot threads, characters, and complexities. But when it connects, it does so with shattering effect. The performance art cum gala dinner at which a man portraying an ape threatens the complacency of the donor set is incredibly powerful — and highly unnerving. All told, an extremely smart and — yes — touching film.

Lucky

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This small picture — with its ordinary characters, remote location, no plot to speak of, limited palette of colors, no love interest, no politics, no antihero or superhero — moved me utterly: I did not just tear up; I sobbed.

What is Lucky about? It’s about everything and nothing. It’s about mortality and aging and the void: and the ways we face that void, and how — or if — we can face it down. It’s about loneliness. It’s about community. It’s about nihilism and neighborhood. It’s about the limits of individuality and the limitations of connection. It’s The Iceman Cometh. It’s Stoppard’s Arcadia.

And at the beating heart of it is Harry Dean Stanton: stalwart, taciturn, alone. The opening title credits in fact read: Harry Dean Stanton Is Lucky. And who is Lucky? A man of around ninety, childless, wifeless, uneventfully cycling through a daily round of activities — morning cigarette, yoga, crossword at the diner, trip to the bodega, tv game shows, evening drinks at the bar — on the outskirts of a tiny Arizona community, a peripheral man in a peripheral world. But his routine is agitated and his mindset unmoored when he falls down in front of the coffee machine’s red blinking 12:00 one morning.

What does it mean? Ed Begley Jr., as the humane, pragmatic, straight-talking doctor we all should have, sums it up early in the movie: You’re getting old and you won’t last forever.

The remainder of the film is about Lucky’s coming to grips with that implacable truth.

I know a woman who had breast cancer; after she was cured, she came out as a lesbian, left her husband and kids, and started a new life. I know a man whose wife left him and their kids with just a suitcase and barely a word after having survived the Pentagon on 9/11. And I have always believed that Dick Cheney’s dispassionate ruthlessness was grounded in having successfully faced down death after multiple heart attacks.

Such dramatic reinventions and recalibrations are beyond Lucky — certainly now and possibly ever. So he continues his routine, makes his rounds, all the way weaving this new piece of information into the fabric of his daily existence. The humble process is riveting and deeply affecting.

Freshman director but veteran working actor James Carroll Lynch has selected the crème de la crème of character actors to populate Lucky’s world. These familiar faces largely without names — more peripheral people — each get an opportunity to contribute to the texture of the film as they interact with Lucky; their ubiquity makes us feel we know them too, making these various small business owners and denizens at once familiar and individual. An exception is the sui generis auteur David Lynch, who plays Lucky’s friend Howard. Howard is working through his own existential trauma that has called into question everything he’s believed in: his hundred-year-old pet tortoise, President Roosevelt, has escaped. Only David Lynch could carry off this combination of absurdity and anguish and make us care — deeply.

George Bailey-like, Lucky doesn’t realize he is a fixture in this town. But this is no sentimental tale of misplaced values: being of a community doesn’t forestall the inevitable. As Lucky retorts to a man lauding the benefits of afterlife planning, you’re still dead. And it’s in this attitude that the mournful Iceman Cometh dirges sound, particularly in the barroom scenes where digs, drinks, and despair, reminiscences and reflections, are nightly exchanged.

The unnamed location contains a gratifying cross-section of white, black, Latino, male, female, young, and old: all of whom are treated respectfully by each other and the filmmakers — no, scratch that, not respectfully, normally. There is a refreshing lack of patronage or political correctness: there are just individuals tolerated as individuals, not as exemplars of a particular creed or breed. Watching an old clip of Liberace with the diner waitress, Lucky ruefully remarks that he spent so many years caring about who the pianist was screwing that he couldn’t appreciate his virtuosity. The film is richly studded with similarly insightful gems.

There is much, much more I could touch on that occurs or occurred to me during the course of this eighty-eight-minute film: the sparing use of the color red (Lucky’s phone connecting him to an unseen friend to literally exchange words, or rather, a word — “realism” is one day’s —, an exit sign, the flashing time indicator on the coffee machine); encounters with and remembrances of youth (Lucky’s own, a child’s birthday party, and an unseen and long-dead girl); a metaphoric casting out of Eden; a pervasive sense of lives being lived — rightly and normally — without reference to a larger context, symbolized by a bald, worn mountain that backdrops the town; and an evocation of Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece that also features a tortoise and struggles with issues of end time and end of lives:

Septimus: When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on an empty shore.

Thomasina: Then we will dance.

But I will end by simply noting the indefatigable tortoise, the cacti that forlornly yet resolutely thrust toward the pale blue sky — and Harry Dean Stanton.

Loving Vincent

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Vincent Van Gogh, I was taught in art history classes, signed his paintings as if they were letters to friends. To me, that perhaps more than anything makes a Van Gogh work so naked, so vulnerable, so trusting: a tug on the coat sleeve plea for us to just look, just try to see what the artist sees. And to like it and, by extension, to like him.

Loving Vincent, a jaw-droppingly awesome piece of art, essentially takes up this theme, exploring the artist and his lonely life. It does so through the visual equivalent of telling Van Gogh’s story in his own words: it tells his life literally in his own paintings.

The film unfolds as a mystery story, as the protagonist — Armand Roulin, son of the postman Joseph Roulin, familiar to us from his painting — grudgingly attempts to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother. As he meets the characters in Van Gogh’s life (except for the most important, Theo, who died six months after Vincent — of tertiary syphilis, something I did not know) and the sketchy details surrounding his life and death are filled in and elaborated on, Armand comes to admire and champion the artist.

That’s basically the whole story: there are some surprising details, drawing on a theory expounded in a 2011 biography of Van Gogh that he was not a suicide but was instead accidentally shot by a pistol-waving, Buffalo Bill–emulating teenager. And like a good whodunit, our suspicions regarding friend or foe are alternately aroused and doused as conflicting perspectives are presented by the people who interacted with Van Gogh during his last months.

But the movie isn’t really about plot or narrative or motivation. It’s about the way you feel when you look at a Van Gogh. That sensation is prolonged and magnified as the screen shimmers and quivers with the places and people we know so well from the paintings. Billed as the first-ever feature-length hand-painted animation, it is comprised of 62,450 oil paintings. The work and skill and imagination that have gone into this film are breathtaking. The magical sense of living in scenes we know, seeing a starry night become the starry night, thrilling to a casually held iris. And there is an extended sequence with a basin of water that I cannot begin to describe, but which made me have to remind myself that I was watching animation.

What is most wondrous about Loving Vincent is that it packs a genuine emotional wallop. Ironically, this filmic painting about paintings delivers up living, breathing characters. Van Gogh has done the preliminary work in this regard: we know the postman, and Père Tanguy, and Dr. Gachet, and all the rest. We really know them: as Marie says in Sunday in the Park with George, “Isn’t it lovely how artists can capture us?” So there is an element of reconnecting with old friends, a nostalgia, a kinship.

But the deeper emotion lies in realizing the desperate loneliness of the man even as we glory in the transcendence of his art.

Beatriz at Dinner

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c9plqpjxcaej29uI am getting thoroughly sick of defeatist, dystopic, dyspeptic, despairing movies, TV shows, and news. I grant you, we live in the era of Trump, and this tone is not surprising or altogether unwarranted. But it’s getting old, this idea that we need to fear and fight some terrible irrational enemy. So I rather welcomed the cool rationality — and heated passion — proffered by  Beatriz at Dinner.

And was dreadfully let down.

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Beatriz at Dinner is about a sensing, feeling, caring healer who loves children and animals, the earth and humanity, who confronts a callous, big game–hunting developer who loves money, power, position, and more money. I thought — as the reviews and preview had promised — that this duel/duet between Salma Hayak and John Lithgow would be a smart, savage airing of differences à la Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But it wasn’t. It wasn’t even a fair fight, and when I tell you who was unfair, you will be surprised.

The movie’s premise is flimsy to an extreme: Beatriz can’t get her car to start after giving her long-time client a relaxing massage in advance of an Important Business Dinner Party. The client, sufficiently grateful for Beatriz’s healing ministrations to her daughter during a bout of cancer that she considers her a friend, impulsively suggests Beatriz join the party.

A really really bad idea, and one that could have been so easily averted through an Uber offer or a brisk refusal — particularly when Cathy’s husband makes it clear to both Cathy and inadvertent eavesdropper Beatriz that she is not wanted.

But here she is, and when the first invited guests arrive, Beatriz gamely jumps in, immediately winning confessions from them of their most private and personal problems (he suffers from kidney stones), and I felt hopeful the movie would build on this: that outsider Beatriz would subtly bring out the best and expose the ignoble.

And ignoble Lithgow’s character is: smug, arrogant, avaricious, and amoral. After he initially mistakes her for the help, he then cuts her off, patronizes her, and proceeds to ignore her. Which is of course crummy of him, but her insistence on interjecting herself and her self-righteousness into the party’s complex dynamic is equally inappropriate. For heavens’ sake, she throws his cell phone, tells Cathy to shut up, and dresses down the guest of honor. I found my sympathies lodged firmly with the mortified hostess.

As Beatriz’s indignation mounts, the rest of the dinner guests — their generally repugnant values and sense of entitlement nothwithstanding — remain relatively polite and well bred. Her anger seems out of proportion, out of place. I am sure this was an intentional choice on the filmmakers’ part: to have the humanist’s hysteria countered by the calm of the cruel. But it really didn’t work for me: she had no business being there, and no real reason to rail.

At the end, Beatriz slits Doug Strutt’s throat, bringing down her own big game. Except not really; it was a fantasy and instead she drops the letter opener and moves toward Strutt. And here is what I think should have happened: she should have embraced him. Not to forgive him or condone him, but to love and acknowledge his humanity. But instead she leaves with the tow truck driver, only to stop him part way through the trip so that she can climb down to and walk into the Pacific Ocean to her death. And here too I had an alternative: when she died, so too should Doug. Showing a kind of cosmic, karmic balance in keeping with Beatriz’s worldview.

The movie is being proclaimed as a tale of the Trump era. And I know that I should not deplore it for not being the film I wanted it to be, but should accept it on its own terms. But I long for meaningful engagement, even more so in our fictions since the stalemate in our government and national dialogue denies it. I had hoped the dinner party would feature the confident parry and thrust of scintillating verbal swordplay. But there was no meaningful debate, no exchange, no enlightenment, just a calcification and validation of each person’s own beliefs. I realize this was a deliberate choice by the writer and director. But what hope can we have if even our fantasies are defeatist? We can build on acceptance; we cannot move forward in polarization.

Their Finest

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Their Finest Hour and A Half
Directed by Lone SherfigThis isn’t the best movie we’ve seen in the last quarter (that would be Franz), nor the most thought provoking (which would probably be Paterson). But it is one that we saw between deadlines, allowing me time to write and ponder.

Their Finest tells the story of a young woman who discovers her calling, her confidence, and her soulmate when she takes a job as a screenwriter with a team of Baker Street Irregulars trying to make an inspiring and authentic film that will boost morale and resonate with audiences increasingly finding standard-issue war pictures laughably out of touch. It is funny and well acted, and the resulting movie-within-a-movie is surprisingly touching.

What I liked most about Their Finest I gleaned in its first few minutes, reading the credits. A woman director — Dogme 95’s Lone Scherfig, whose work we first discovered in the charming Italian for Beginners — a woman writer, women doing the music, the design, the editing. This is very good, and very important. Because if women — as well as minorities — don’t get a chance to work on things, how can they get better at their craft? And how can we, the audience, come to accept and appreciate their vantage point and their visions? So this is very good. Just as it was very good to see Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a well-made classic horror movie with a black protagonist, skillfully allowing us to see the world — and experience a correspondingly nuanced dread — through his eyes.

We have been rather steeped of late in World War II, watching a lot of documentaries on Hitler and the Reich, and just beginning a Netflix series, Five Came Back, on noted Hollywood directors, film, and the war. Plus my longest book thus far this year was on the Mitford sisters. Not to mention my growing conviction that the root of all our present ills lies in the dying-off of the last of the Great Generation taking with it its conception of self-sacrifice, commitment, and shared humanity. So we were primed for a respectful and respectable treatment of the war in Britain.

But it didn’t quite click, and the war didn’t register as it should. “Their finest” is a truncation of Churchill’s exhortation to the British people on the brink of battle. Even though it’s made a pun in the title of the novel on which the film is based (Their Finest Hour and a Half), the distillation to two words in the film’s title is a direct harkening to Churchill, and should be a sign that this is about the ordinary British in an extraordinary time. And it is about ordinary people rising to challenges they did not foresee, but these are all to do with personal struggles, not epic strivings — about overcoming disappointment and deficiency, not steadfastly facing down existential menace. Telling the story of a woman’s awakening against the backdrop of World War II is not wrong (in the way, for example, that I find placing the cynical Kelly’s Heroes in this war is), but to me Their Finest did not take good advantage of the opportunities this setting provided to better highlight the tale and clarify the conflicts. And mostly, to make us feel the desperate stakes involved.

Which is really too bad, because the movie had a lot going for it, and just perhaps needed another couple of drafts of the screenplay.

Here is what was especially good: Bill Nighy, who because he is so compelling, rather stole the picture away from the central characters. His portrayal of a preening, pompous actor past his prime, resentfully participating in the film but gradually coming to a new awareness of the talents and contributions of others, was superb, and his character arc is very much in keeping with the promise of the title. Plus it is a line of his that encapsulates what I took to be the theme of the piece, as he encourages the heroine to take up the challenge offered her since the reason old men like him and women like her are being given the opportunities they are is because all the young men are off at the war, dying.

Unfortunately, the main story line is not as interesting. The nascent screenwriter takes the job to support her artist mate and finds herself increasingly attracted to her brilliant, prickly mentor/writing partner Buckley. The promising setup quickly becomes a rather predictable love story, and I’m not sure why it had to be. There are so many interesting real-life platonic male-female writing partnerships: Comden and Green come to mind, and the writer/office mates Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley (if their office had been any smaller, Parker noted, it would have been adultery). These couples found something inspiring and affirming in each other — and then went home to lovers and spouses. That would have been a very interesting tack for this story to take, particularly in light of what ends the relationship.

But the main problem I think is that none of these people have a direct link to the war; the men aren’t in battle, and the danger presented is of a random nature — like terrorism? — as they dodge the London blitz. So there’s less sense of a stalwart commitment to a larger cause, less noble stoicism, less finest hour, than a feeling of living through a daily round of Russian roulette. The real war becomes a haphazard hazard, as the characters attempt to fashion meaning in their film out of hoax and hokum. That they succeed makes this very interesting, justifying Buckley’s separation of authenticity from truth, but this is not where Their Finest focuses.

Where to?

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Edvard Munch, The Day After

Edvard Munch, The Day After

 

It feels like a century since the election and an eon since the inauguration. In between, my technology, husband, and self — all normally quite healthy — have been subjected to an array of ills ranging from the mundane to the exotic, but — rather fittingly — all quite unforeseen and unprepared for. None especially major, and all mostly patched up now.

The world is off kilter. Yesterday’s marches — and I participated in our little Asbury march, not so little at 6,000 people — go some way toward restoring equilibrium, giving people a sense of community, comradeship, hope. That is not to discount those holding other convictions: I fear their betrayal by this administration is yet to come.

At the marches, we were both individuals and a united force. Now that the marches are over, we must continue to be both. As individuals, we must be ourselves, think for ourselves, analyze and abstract meaning from bewilderingly biased news sources and echo chambers and bubbles and amidst blatant lies.

As a force united, we must understand rather than merely anticipate the challenge, specify concrete goals, focus our energies, seek and harness our commonalities across the political spectrum — and try to do our best.

Henri Matisse, La danse

Henri Matisse, La danse

 

So now it is time to get back up to work, to push through the miasma of fear and uncertainty, and to try to find meaning through action.

I don’t exactly know the answer to the title of this post, but I think the way forward will become clearer each day.

I hope so. In the meantime, I will tackle the tasks near at hand, give guidance and comfort where I can, and watch and wait till the path ahead becomes clear.

Gustave Caillebotte, Les raboteurs de parquet

Gustave Caillebotte, Les raboteurs de parquet