The Lobster

The Lobster is a disturbing, disconcerting, and disarmingly alarming movie. It tells a romantic story in a dystopic setting, crackling with the blackest of dark humor.

The movie takes place in some not-so-distant future where being paired up is mandatory. After his wife of twelve years leaves him, the protagonist, David — the only character in the movie given a name; everyone else is defined by some incidental detail such as a limp, a lisp, a great smile, a tendency to nosebleeds, or being another person’s best friend — checks into a rigidly managed resort hotel where he has forty-five days to find a mate. Failing that, he will be turned into an animal of his choice: a lobster, he has decided, since they are long-lived, have blue blood like aristocrats, and are fertile till death. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that a lot of lobsters just get eaten.

The world of The Lobster is highly circumscribed and characterized by a flaccid passivity — remarkably so, given the high-stakes, short-duration task the inhabitants must accomplish. The unpaired guests are given identical clothes and shoes; they are to presumably find each other in this sea of uniformity on the basis of their individuality. But what passes for individuality is only outward quirks and tics: failing to find a limping girl, the limping man fakes nosebleeds. There is no desperation, just resignation and lethargy. There is certainly no passion.

Nightly, the residents are reminded, through dances, presentations, and lectures, of the importance of being mated. One telling demonstration — ineptly, woodenly, and ludicrously performed by the hotel staff — showed a single woman walking on her own being sexually assaulted. The same woman walking in the company of a man (albeit one some forty years older than she) was not. The lesson is clear: it’s safer not to be alone.

And that’s when I started to see a larger message in the movie. It could very well be that it is only meant as a dark comedy about the difficulties of being in and out of relationships, but we saw it as an exegesis on conformity and freedom, and the price that people are willing to pay for security.

In this mannered and restricted world — somewhat reminiscent of Metropolis, I thought — the people have surrendered their judgment and individuality. I was reminded too of Sartre’s No Exit; it seemed to me resistance was not futile, just not undertaken.

In the second act, David does resist and escapes to an equally oppressive mirror world in the woods just outside the hotel. Here, a tribe of loners are led by a dictatorial young woman who has every bit as many rules and regulations for living as exist in the hotel. The objective in the woods is not to pair up and to fiercely reject anything that smacks of empathy. And of course it is here that David falls in love.

A word that kept running through my head during the movie was “affinity” — as in Goethe’s Elective Affinities, a book I hadn’t thought of in lo these many years since college and which I don’t even own anymore. But a quick wiki confirmed the connection: Elective Affinities posits that human relationships are all just, as Guys and Dolls‘ Sky Masterson would aver, chemistry. Which is to say, outside the bounds of higher order rationality, respect, or reflection: like finds like and connects and bonds. The superficiality of the affinities displayed in The Lobster are almost farcical. And this leads to the film’s punchline, for David’s affinity is based in his being literally shortsighted.

I found The Lobster unsettling yet appealing, repellent but compelling. Julie thinks it was responsible for giving her a migraine, and no animal lover will sit easy. Its several acts of brutality can be seen as a series of escalating wake-up calls, gradually shaking the protagonist — and us — out of passivity and into action, however misdirected, misguided, and — yes, here is the punchline — shortsighted.

A postscript upon sleeping on the movie and its affects: Director Yorgos Lanthimos’s vision is sufficiently fluid, and the movie’s ending sufficiently ambiguous, as to permit a quite converse conclusion. Inaction could rule the day, making the brutality, and the shortsighted hero, tragically meaningless.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

S. Ramanujan.

And again, a fascinating story, a fascinating life, is twisted and contorted into a Hollywood-ized biopic. I vaguely knew of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, an imaginative genius of humble origins who came to Cambridge around World War I and then died at a tragically young age, his promise barely realized. His real life, and the contributions he made to experimental mathematics, are recounted in some detail here; I highly recommend this blog post by Stephen Wolfram, as it gives a very measured and insightful description of the characters and concepts tackled by the movie — and the movie pales dreadfully in comparison.

What The Man Who Knew Infinity does is set up a simplistic redemption on two levels: (1) the unfeeling professor (that’s Jeremy Irons as Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy) who doesn’t know how to be a friend is ennobled and enlightened through his contact with the pure and idealistic savant, and (2) the narrow-minded, xenophobic academic institution as a whole is uplifted and enlarged by recognizing the genius who has quietly dwelt among them, patiently enduring their abuse and scorn. And then, of course, his task of enlightenment completed, the martyr dies. This variant on the “magic Negro” trope makes Ramanujan’s story an Occidental one.

Jeremy Irons as G. H. Hardy and Dev Patel as Ramanujan.

 

The truth was apparently much more interesting — and actually much more inspiring. The collegiality of science trumped petty racism (and I have been racking my brain: I know I read last year of a situation where German U-boat incursions near Britain were temporarily suspended during World War I in deference to a scientific mission — another example of a shared recognition of the boundarylessness of scientific truth). Further, Ramanujan’s genius was recognized by his peers in England, and the issue was less about breaking his spirit, as Bertrand Russell accuses Hardy of in the film, than it was of filling in gaps in his knowledge and providing discipline and structure for his creative leaps. And, as Wolfram points out, Hardy and Ramanujan came to math from two very different viewpoints: Hardy built up to conclusions from proofs, and Ramanujan boldly inferred/extrapolated from mathematical phenomena. I have probably not expressed that properly, but the point is that one is a bottom-up, incremental approach, and the other a sweeping, experimental attitude. Very different, and yet complementary.

So the conflicts the movie establishes didn’t really exist. Neither did the heightened romantic longing for his left-behind wife, or the cruel purloinment of her letters by his jealous mother (who in actuality forbade the daughter-in-law to write Ramanujan lest it distract him), or his TB (thought now to be hepatic amoebiasis; see Wikipedia), or the imperialist bigotry of his boss in India (in reality, Sir Francis Spring was a mentor to Ramanujan).

The gaps between the fictionalized and actual versions of Ramanujan’s life could be overlooked — or at least forgiven — if they were in service of pursuing a larger truth. But The Man Who Knew Infinity failed to move me with its portrait of a Christ-like outsider (even though I heard our fellow attendees in the Showroom’s little upstairs theater sobbing as the credits rolled). Overall, I found the film blatantly manipulative and simplistic, despite fine performances, in particular by Jeremy Irons. Even so, three quite impressive cinematic moments stood out for me, salvaging much of the movie for me by stimulating my imagination and introspection:

  • When, on Ramanujan’s arrival at Trinity College, his companion, mathematician John Littlewood, points out a tree, laconically explaining that it’s the one under which Isaac Newton discovered gravity.
  • When, during the narrative wrap-ups scrawled on the screen before the end credits, we see Ramanujan’s “lost notebook,” with the note that his formulae are being used in understanding black holes.
  • When a huge, motionless zeppelin blotted out the Cambridge sky and rained sudden death on those below.

The first two of these speak to the prosaic origins of profound scientific discoveries: how so much is rooted in so little, and how the trivial should not be overlooked. In this context, note the lovely quote, included in the movie, by Littlewood about Ramanujan: “Every positive integer is one of his personal friends.” The last speaks to the tremendous waste of war with its indiscriminate destruction of youth, promise, and intellect. Both concepts can be further distilled to a message of mindfulness: wonder at the awesome magnificence of this world and attempt to, if not understand, at least appreciate it, as it can all end all too quickly.

Not a bad place to end up in, even if via a rather mundane film.

 

Hail, Caesar!

Smarter people than I have written lots of very smart reviews and analyses of this latest Coen brothers movie, so I will not presume to contribute to the larger conversation. But what struck me most about the picture, which is an affectionate tribute to old Hollywood, is its deep and abiding — and utterly unironic — appreciation for craft and craftsmen.

There is a scene where the singing cowboy star has gone to pick up his date for the evening, a sizzling Carmen Miranda type he has been fixed up with by the studio in an attempt to forge a reputation as a sophisticate. And while he waits for her, he gets out his rope and starts doing Will Rogers style tricks with it. Effortlessly. And the girl appears and is duly impressed, and he asks her if it’s hard to dance with bananas on her head. And she explains that no, it isn’t, just a little hip and neck action (but it’s a much better written line), and the point is made. This incongruous pairing is not so incongruous. These are craftsmen, and they have practiced and mastered their craft.

The movie is filled with hard-working, talented people, each contributing their best efforts to something larger — and they hope better — than themselves. What that something is, and whether it is worth it, I leave to the wiser heads to battle out. For my part, I was content to be taken to a world where strange, perhaps useless, but enchanting talents are appreciated and given full attention and encouragement. And where gung-ho all-American ingenuity triumphs, as it does in every one of protagonist studio fixer Eddie Mannix’s solutions to the wildly diverse and seemingly intractable problems he is thrown during the course of his day.

Hail, Caesar! is a Coen brothers picture, and there is much to think on and contemplate — and much to feel uneasy about. But the movie’s satire, and any post-viewing reflective cynicism, does not extend to the celebration of the individual doing what he or she does best, doing it well and with pride and — yes — integrity.

2016 Animated and Live Action Shorts

Dystopic. Dour. Despairing. Dark dark dark. And, to break from the alliteration, grim. Taken collectively, this year’s ten Oscar-nominated live action and animated shorts — save for a few that focus on individual loss and love and one extremely quirky and unsettling futuristic vision — revolve around culture clash. The “other” features prominently, and we don’t like them. Few of the messages offered are uplifting, hopeful, or ennobling; most agree that war is our natural state, negating any chance of lasting reconciliation on the basis of shared humanity.

Clockwise from upper left: Bear Story, We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, World of Tomorrow, Prologue, and Sanjay’s Super Team.

 

Clockwise from upper left: Shok, Ave Maria, Stutterer, Everything Will Be OK, and Day One

As has become a much-anticipated annual ritual, we headed to the Asbury Showroom, our cozy walking-distance indie art house, for two chilly evenings of shorts. This year, the chill was not just due to a New Jersey February. Even though there are sparks of warmth generated by the unabashedly romantic Stutterer, the beyond-the-grave devotion of the boyhood friends in both Shok and We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, and the love of family that heartbreakingly permeates Bear Story and drives the action of Sanjay’s Super Team, most of the others point out man’s inability to live at peace with himself, his family, his neighbors, and the larger world. A sad message indeed, and all too evident in our present reality.

Two of the animation pieces particularly thrilled and stirred me. Bear Story, a dialogue-free Chilean CG masterpiece with undertones of political repression, moved me to tears with its story of tragic and senseless loss.

And World of Tomorrow, by the distinctive stylist Don Hertzfeldt (who did the brilliant and similarly discomfiting It’s Such a Beautiful Day) is staggering in its tone, style, and implications. It, like It’s Such a Beautiful Day, is available for streaming on Netflix and Videomeme, and I recommend it enthusiastically. What World of Tomorrow does is set a sterile, lonely, solipsistic future (its only characters are the child Emily and her strange visitor from the future, her third-generation self-reproduced clone) against the wide-eyed innocent wonder of a child; it cannot be a coincidence that the character is named after Thornton Wilder’s Our Town heroine.

Also worth noting of the animation pieces is Prologue.This was done by Richard Williams (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and is apparently the beginning of a longer work. Its power too lies in juxtaposition: achingly beautiful hand-drawn illustrations of a glorious natural world against which four Greek warriors battle graphically and brutally to the death.

This is not to disparage the artistry or messages of the other two animated works. They just did not speak to me with the same passion as these three.

Of the live action pieces, two dealt explicitly, and one implicitly, with long-established conflicts between peoples: Albanians/Serbs, Afghanis/Americans, Israelis/Palestinians. A fourth dealt with another longstanding conflict: that between (ex-)spouses. Only the fifth, and our favorite, was an internal conflict. Stutterer dealt movingly and imaginatively with the inability to push out words from head and heart through the mouth. We heard his pain. And of course, I loved that he was a typographer. The filmmakers carefully showed how the protagonist could communicate through and with a broad range of media and methods — just not the one that comes so easily from most lips.

The one I think will win, however, is one of the war stories. Shok tells a tale of a boyhood friendship tested by cowardice, reinforced by self-sacrifice and bravery, and ended by an adult brutality that is as unreasoning and senseless as the children’s actions are thoughtful and sensitive. It’s a heartbreaker, and based on truth — which makes it even more heartbreaking.

Of the live action pieces, my least favorite was Ave Maria. Since viewing, I have gathered that this is a comedy, and may in fact be favored to win. The first-ever Palestinian movie nominated for an Oscar, it juxtaposes the inflexible religious traditions of Orthodox Jews with a sect of silence-bound Arab nuns, as they try jointly to resolve a problem. I found the depiction of the Jews difficult to get past: the characters came off as needlessly nasty, demanding, whiny, and nettlesome. I found no particular effort on the filmmakers’ part to bridge the divide between cultures they were apparently asking their subjects to do. Instead, and this is of course my perception, they laid stereotype in the way of understanding. And unfortunately, that reinforces the message of damned, doomed, and eternal strife these shorts collectively convey.

 

Short Stories I Have Loved

In my life, I have read hundreds upon hundreds of short stories; the bookcase has more than two full shelves of anthologies, and that doesn’t count all those volumes that have been lost to downsizing or generosity over the years. Nor do I count with those the myriad collections I have edited — another full bookshelf or two — because that’s a different kind of reading.

In general, my taste runs to fantasy, horror, and science fiction — although I take pleasure as well in the clean and elegant short stories of Maugham and de Maupassant and the cool visions of Updike and Cheever, among others.

I am currently reading a collection of (mostly) fantasy/horror stories by Michael Marshall Smith. I have read his work for numerous years in various anthologies an51c2bjbl0uol-_sx323_bo1204203200_d have found it haunting. Which made me think about all the stories, my favorite short stories, that have haunted me over the years. These have been culled from books running the gamut from thoughtful and high-toned anthologies, the best of which is 1143Alberto Manguel’s intelligently compiled and beautifully curated Black Water, to lurid-covered trade paperbacks. But these are the stories that have stuck with me.

In the beginning, there was Bradbury. I remember reading him in junior high — maybe even late elementary school — so it is not surprising that three Ray Bradbury stories make the list. And frankly, I didn’t even dare read through the tables of contents in the source books: I knew I’d find dozens more that I had enjoyed. But the rule here is stories I can call up in memory and still be moved by decades later. And that criterion yields “The Last Night of the World” from The Illustrated Man, “I Sing the Body Electric” from the anthology of the same name, and 7345225174_d14127f038_o“Homecoming” in The October Country. These three are quintessential Bradbury — juxtaposing the most aching tenderness against a joltingly weird background. Two people hold hands and dry the dishes, wallpaper is peeled away in an old nursery as siblings reunite, and a mother hushes a misfit child’s unhappiness by promising to tend a grave.

Then comes Harlan Ellison; I have written before of my deep fondness for Ellison’s style and work. And my favorite of all is “The Deathbird.” How can you not love a story that contains a quiz, a series of essay prompts, a short story, and at least two converging time and plot lines? All urging free will and  proclaiming the power of the individual. Heady stuff; but that’s Harlan.

Shirley Jackson’s “The Witch” contains the most breath-taking tonal shift I have ever read, switching from light to blackest dark in the space of six words. Amazing.

Some literary short stories next: Heinrich Böll’s hysterical (in the sense of hysteria, not laughter) “Christmas Every Day” and the cool metafiction “Title” by John Barth. A brief sample from the latter:

In this dehuman, exhausted, ultimate adjective hour, when every humane value has become untenable, and not only love, decency, and beauty but even compassion and intelligibility are no more than one or two subjective complements to complete the sentence…

And through the master anthologist Alberto Manguel, I was introduced to I.A. Ireland’s “Climax for a Ghost Story,” one of the shortest and most effective chillers ever, reprinted here in its entirety (it’s in the public domain):

“How eerie!” said the girl, advancing cautiously. “—And what a heavy door!” She touched it as she spoke and it suddenly swung to with a click.

“Good Lord!” said the man. “I don’t believe there’s a handle inside. Why, you’ve locked us both in!”

“Not both of us. Only one of us,” said the girl, and before his eyes she passed straight through the door, and vanished.

Classic horror. To be joined by Bram Stoker’s “The Squaw,” Stanley Ell138760524in’s “The Specialty of the House,” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In all of these stories, a sense of increasing unease, disease, grows, as the protagonist crosses a line between normal and abnormal. The skill of the authors lies in their ability to, like Jackson, shift tone. However, where she turned 180 degrees in a clause, these stories turn slowly around, subtly ratcheting up the horror quotient as the reader moves imperceptibly from the familiar to the unthinkable. In a similar vein, Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” moves from the familiar to the unthinkable and back again — and then back yet again. All in just over a thousand words.

Next up, a trio of disquieting stories haunted by madness by Kelly Link, Ted Sturgeon, and Frederic Brown: “Stone Animals” (reprinted with permission here), “The Professor’s Teddy Bear,” and “Come and Go Mad,” respectively. In these three, sympathetic protagonists go very awry under the influence of highly unexpected sources. A couple of sentences from Link illustrate the point: “He had an idea that the phone was haunted now. That’s why Catherine wasn’t answering.”

For a great conceit, few stories can top Robert Olen Butler’s “JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction.” The story is excellent and smart, but I do suspect a great deal of its staying power for me lies in that terrific title.

I end the list with some I have come across more recently: “Collect Call,” by Sarah Pinborough, and “Always,” by the above-mentioned Michael Marshall Smith. Interestingly, both of these recall the tender tone of Ray Bradbury. I seem very drawn to stories of dramatic mood shift, but equally so to those whose pervading mood is of loss and love and how you bridge that. The Pinborough and Smith stories, like “Homecoming,” are about undying love and the humble devices they use to convey this love — a pay phone, a package — subvert the eternal enormity of death, much like Emily’s ribbons and bacon in Our Town.

2015 Round-Up

Books (me)

  • The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743–1933, Amos Elon
  • The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, Franz Xaver von Schonwerth
  • Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand
  • Tudors, Peter Ackroyd
  • When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
  • Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable, Steve Volk
  • Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, David K. Randall
  • Drunk Tank Pink and Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave, Adam Alter
  • Nothing So Strange, James Hilton
  • The Science of Monsters: The Origins of the Creatures We Love to Fear, Matt Kaplan
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
  • House Party, Patrick Dennis
  • The Third Man, Graham Greene
  • The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
  • The Great Silence, Juliet Nicolson
  • Out of the Ordinary, Jon Ronson
  • The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, Sam Kean

The most important book I read all year was Fringe-ology; all my other reading and a great bit of my thinking since has been colored by this book. It is essentially about keeping your mind open to possibilities, even the unexplainable, seemingly illogical, ones. A fascinating book. And many of my reading choices since were influenced by it. In line with this, Drunk Tank Pink, which explains why we do what we do when we don’t know why we do it (the title refers to the anti-aggressive influence a particular shade of pink has, effectively subduing drunks and criminals, hence its use as the wall color of choice in drunk tanks), was revelatory. Coupled with the information in The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, I came to realize how little of what we do we do consciously, how little we consequently can really say we KNOW. Which of course leads back to Fringe-ology

In fiction, aside from the James Hilton which I wrote about elsewhere (see link above), the Philip Roth was the standout. I did not realize he was such a careful writer. Impressive.

The weakest book was Ackroyd’s Tudors. Apparently constructed from memory, it had no notes, no sources. Very disappointing.

Books (Steve)

  • The Gangs of New York, Herbert Ashby
  • Timbuktu, Paul Auster
  • The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
  • The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien
  • East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, James Cain
  • Time and Time Again, James Hilton
  • Showboat, Edna Ferber
  • New York Trilogy, Paul Auster
  • They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Horace McCoy
  • Lives of Poets, E.L. Doctorow
  • Angelica’s Smile, Andrea Camillea
  • Candide, Voltaire
  • The Third Man, Graham Greene
  • Best and Brightest, David Halberstram
  • Being Invisible, Thomas Berger
  • The Gun Seller, Hugh Laurie
  • Out of the Ordinary, Jon Ronson
  • Short Stories, O. Henry
  • The Big Clock, Kenneth Fearing

Favorite was East of Eden and Things They Carried. Short stories and the noirs were also great. Also liked The New York Trilogy. Was reading Doctorow when he died… Found Best and Brightest a little disappointing; dragged on a bit.

Concerts

  • Ellis Paul and Peter Mulvey, Rubin Museum
  • Alan Parsons Live, Paramount, Peekskill
  • Loudon Wainwright, Paramount, Asbury Park
  • Road of Promise (Kurt Weill), Carnegie Hall

Alan Parsons was truly an excellent show — unexpectedly so — and that’s Steve’s judgment and he is not a real fan. Crisp and taut and excellent sound and musician- and showmanship — a treat. Very impressive, and quite a departure from many “old time” rock shows we’ve seen, where half the words are unintelligible, and the audience is constantly on the move for more beer. Beautiful theater too (Paramount Hudson Valley).

We had never been to Carnegie Hall, and felt privileged to attend a rare performance of Kurt Weill’s Road of Promise; I include above a link to my review. Not my favorite Weill music, but oh so lovely to be at Carnegie Hall. Just drinking it in was a joyful experience.

Ellis Paul and Peter Mulvey at the Rubin Museum were a treat and unexpected delight. We did not know either musician, and we did not know the museum. The Rubin features art and culture of the Himalayas; their music series asks the artists to pick an item in the collection for which they feel an affinity. This is then projected as a backdrop during their set. And it did make a difference, infusing and informing the music, adding a layer of meaning and tone. Both musicians were kind of folk-acoustic-blues, difficult to categorize, but lots of meaning and texture in their work, which ranged from solemn to silly, with all shades in between. I was particularly impressed by Mulvey’s first number, which repeated only a few words to tell a moving story of love and loss (a recent live set from Mulvey can be seen here; he also has a lot of videos on Youtube). Paul had a couple of songs that resonated as well, especially “Home.”

Steve saw Loudoun Wainwright here on the Boardwalk, at a very intimate session. It was part of a summer concert series, and the audience got to sit on the stage with the musician, about 200 seats in all. Wainwright is a great storyteller, and it was a delight.

Dance and Theater

The most exhilarating performances, the ones that I think really took you out of yourself and brought you to a place of beauty and awe, were — for me — American in Paris, Bill T. Jones’s Analogy/Dora: Tramontane, and the puppet piece Shank’s Mare at La Mama. These were the most artistically profound and satisfying, soaring and dreamy and delicate and containing moments of glory. (I reviewed American in Paris; link provided above.) Hamilton, while impressive and energized and endlessly entertaining, never touched me emotionally — which saddened me (and I think that was why I never turned in a review, which is unforgivable); I had hoped to be moved as I had with 1776! and Rent. I was moved, as was Steve, by Curious Incident of the Dog; I had thought it was going to be a more impenetrable piece, but it was very accessible and very affirming. The way it which the stage, sound, and lighting design approximated the sensory overload experienced by the autistic hero of the piece was breathtakingly powerful. And its message of tolerance, acceptance, and accommodation was most satisfying and always timely.

Our NY Fringe shows (see my reviews at links indicated above) made for a couple of delightful days in the city. We had no mad rushes or long lag times between shows, which was extremely pleasurable. We also made a nice detour over to the Tenement Museum for nice air conditioning and good book browsing. The shows themselves were a nice mix of serious and silly. The best was Bullet for Unaccompanied Heart, a very beautiful and powerful play.

Of course, best of all was Sarah’s The Death Play, or What Is Brad Doing in the Supply Closet? (Which is available for purchase at Martin’s website, here.)

Steve’s standouts were American in Paris and Hamilton; he really enjoyed  Curious Incident of the Dog as well. (At Hamilton, we both especially enjoyed having attended with John Turturro, who sat a few rows behind us.)

Movies

  • Carol
  • Spotlight
  • Trumbo
  • Bridge of Spies
  • Grandma
  • Crimson Peak
  • Goodnight Mommy
  • Maps to the Stars
  • The Imitation Game
  • Welcome to Me
  • What We Do in the Shadows
  • Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
  • Clouds of Sils Maria
  • I’ll See You in My Dreams
  • Mr. Holmes
  • Phoenix

These are the movies we saw in theaters, which still for us count as the “official” movies. Of these, Bridge of Spies and Spotlight were the Academy Award–type best of the year. Good, serious, well acted, and moral; I lean more toward Bridge of Spies as my favorite, because it took the part of the little people in the face of big events. But Michael Keaton’s performance in Spotlight was amazing. As was Lilly Tomlin’s in Grandma. I didn’t like all the gratuitous aggressiveness in the movie, but I sure liked her and Marcia Gay Harden — and, above all, the movie’s tacit respect for a woman’s right to choose. Crimson Peak, much anticipated by Sarah and me since we love Guillermo del Toro’s work, was lush, lush, lush, redolent with Gothic effects and colors; so rich and delicious, we mightily enjoyed it. Another light pleasure was the quirky What We Do in the Shadows, a very funny vampire mockumentary (trailer here, if you are not familiar). More cerebral and disturbing was Clouds of Sils Maria, a discomfiting movie about aging and acclaim — how implacable is the one and how fickle the other. Truly, I think there were more white knuckles associated with this picture than Crimson Peak.

We consumed many many more movies courtesy of Netflix. Among our rental/streaming highlights for the year were the following. Their tones are wildly divergent. What most share is that they turned out to be unexpected delights, particularly Populaire, Dean Spanley, The Card, and Hector and the Search for Happiness. A few were richly textured, disturbing, and thought provoking, notably It’s Such a Beautiful DayThis Must Be the Place, and Mood Indigo.

  • It’s Such a Beautiful Day
  • Force Majeure
  • 3 Women
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • 360
  • The Card
  • Nightcrawler
  • The Trial
  • Living Is Easy with Eyes Closed
  • Night Train to Lisbon
  • Blancanieves
  • The Babadook
  • Septimo
  • This Must Be the Place
  • Populaire
  • Dean Spanley
  • Hector and the Search for Happiness
  • Coast to Coast
  • Mood Indigo
  • Cinema Paradiso
  • The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears

We found ourselves watching a lot of documentaries; following are some of our favorites from the year, all of which are exceedingly well done and fostered a real appreciation for their subject matter. Standouts for me were the highly intriguing Genius on Hold and The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden. I think I like these best because unlike many of the others, there are mysteries still unplumbed. Many other documentaries “solve” their topic through exhaustive research and analysis; these two left me still intrigued and puzzled. Steve’s favorites were Keith Richards: Under the Influence and Reel Injun.

  • Out of the Clear Blue Sky
  • Salinger
  • Hava Nagila: The Movie
  • History of the Eagles
  • Gasland
  • Radio Unnameable
  • Winnebago Man
  • Casting By
  • The Search for General Tso
  • The Search for Michael Rockefeller
  • Keith Richards: Under the Influence
  • Genius on Hold
  • Reel Injun
  • There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane
  • Iris
  • Listen to Me Marlon
  • The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden

Streaming also brought us some wonderful TV series this year. We fell in love with Foyle’s War and are still under the spell of the glorious Mad Men. HBO’s documentary on Robert Durst was more fascinating and unbelievable than a fiction piece, but we were unsettled by its manipulations, particularly its final twist, which left a sour feeling of being had. Also noteworthy and unmissable was HBO’s Show Me a Hero.

Food

This year’s restaurant find was a new nearby Greek restaurant:  Apella Greek Taverna. A late year discovery for pizza, found purely on a whim — as so many of our best food finds are — was Pacini’s in Red Bank. And a revelation: the Shore doesn’t do romantic. So we are still in search of a special occasion restaurant. But the quest is lots of fun! Farther afield, we discovered Han Dynasty in Union Square; so nice to have exotic, spicy Chinese (nonexistent in our part of Jersey).

Our new cooking discovery was butternut squash soup. So easy and so good; Steve roasts the squash with herbs before pureeing it. Also some apple salad combinations: spinach and apple and beet and apple. And a wonderful chopped scallop and breadcrumb concoction served in a ramekin.

We also perfected two recipes that have eluded us for years: first successfully recreating Zeffirelli’s  veal chop (the key is a bold, but simple, overnight marinade of lemon, wine, olive oil, and paprika). And just last week recreating the old Flagship rum buns. This recipe is lost to time — and apparently to most people’s memories; they seem to think that the D.C. Flagship rum buns were like Hogate’s cinnamon rolls. They were not! They were popover shaped and not rolled at all. So we baked brioche studded with raisins in flower pots and poured rum glaze on top. Pretty damn close, pretty damn close. And fun to do after years of research and reminisces.

Field Trips

Three successful day trips stand out. For Julie’s birthday, we went to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. It’s fascinating and chock full of wonders, like an old Edison film of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and exhibits of movie makeup, scripts, prosthetics, costumes — plus there was a glorious exhibit of Mad Men memorabilia and artifacts. We lingered longly: it was wonderful.

Our most distant field trip was to Peekskill when we went to the Alan Parsons concert in June. A nice little town, a lovely day, TWO used bookstores to browse, a farmers market, a whiff (but no opportunity to taste) of an enticing pizza, beautiful weather… a very very nice day. And beautiful scenery on the drive up and back.

We also visited, at long last, the Philadelphia Zoo in November. It was a beautiful day and a quite nice zoo. Standouts were the roast pork and cheese steak from John’s — another long-promised destination at last achieved — and the tigers pacing above our heads in a unique and unnerving environmental design. Sarah’s favorite, the red panda, was on vacation, which was a disappointment; we’ll try to catch up with the new babies at the Bronx Zoo next year.

Not technically a field trip, but highly satisfying and thrilling, were our several late-night jaunts to the beach to see various meteorological events including the lunar eclipse, the Perseids, and the Orionids. The best was a night in summer on the pier in Ocean Grove, lazily counting some dozen meteors with Danny over the course of a very special hour.

Carol

Long lingering glances. Silences. Closeups. Muted colors. Muted emotions. Exquisite plains and pains. Despite its elegance, beautiful acting, female-centric plot and world, Carol did absolutely nothing for me.

Carol is ostensibly about shameful, forbidden love, and (I apologize for spoilers, but I will spoil) — I think — about daring to be free of shame and live authentically. Thus, in the movie’s best scene (for me), Carol challenges her weak ex-husband to move beyond vengeance and to remember his better self in order to do what’s best for their child. Whom she is now renouncing full or even shared custody of in order to live with Rooney Mara’s character. Which to me spells disaster for her young lover: Carol seems prone to leaving people.

Because the movie is so stately slow and detail oriented — normally a great tonal choice for me, with my penchant for picking up on small points (often to the point of missing the big theme), I had lots and lots of time to think. And I kept asking myself, what do we know about Carol? What kind of person is she?

We don’t really know. The director, screenwriter — and indeed Blanchett, aside from lots of restrained, semi-predatory looks  — give us very little of Carol’s character (or of Therese’s, the young lover, for that matter). We know she is rich, but it is unclear whether she married into money or has some of her own. Chances are, given the times and relative lack of social mobility for women, Carol comes from money. So ok, she’s rich. When Therese, Rooney’s character, gives her a record (and gee it was nice to see Colony Records again) as a Christmas gift, Carol leaves it to balance precariously on a napkin — not something you would do if you treasured the gift. On the other hand, she takes extreme care with her outfits, hair, makeup, and accessories. She leaves her gloves behind, but that was likely a flirtatious move to initiate further contact with Therese. She seems to love her daughter, but is easily talked into buying her a train set rather than the cherished doll she had requested. And she has broken off with a previous lover (as well as with her husband). Although Abby attributes the finished relationship to their both changing, Abby seemed to do a lot more for, give a lot more to, Carol than vice versa. I sensed unrequited love. What this all added up to for me was not someone who is bravely moving out of the closet, but instead someone for whom carelessly breaking hearts and leaving the shards behind was a pattern of behavior. I did not believe for a moment that this love of hers and Therese’s will last.

And then why should it? Therese is herself young and unformed (in her best line, she says “I don’t know what I want. How could I know what I want if I say yes to everything?”). When she sees Carol again after their breakup and Carol commends her on how well she is looking (actually, just like an ethereal Audrey Hepburn after having looked like a plainer, more grounded Susan Strasberg or Julie Harris in act one), a great deal of this improvement is due to her having taken her life into her own hands professionally (as opposed to romantically): getting a career-track job and pursing her photography. So why does Therese even need Carol? I tried to figure out what made her change her mind (other than having a few hours to think things over). Best I could come up with was that she felt lonely seeing everybody else — including her ex-boyfriend — paired up at the party she attended.

So I really could not buy into the romance at the heart of the picture, and I suspect that’s cynical of me. But who were these women and what, other than a predilection for same-sex coupling, did they share? The movie makers gave us no clues in this regard.

Plus I was continually being taken out of the movie’s magic by reminders of its falsity. New York was apparently played by Cincinnati. But more distressingly, winter was played by fall. There is no way in deep December that there would be green grass in Iowa. And there was no interstate highway system, as alluded to by a minor character, in 1952. These inaccuracies kept me distanced from the picture, immune to its romance. It also might be that the whole love-that-dare-not-say-its-name trope doesn’t play for me; that I am wholeheartedly accepting of love of any stripe — provided I perceive it as sincere.

And too, where I had admired Paul Gauguin in my teens for following his artistic spirit to Tahiti, I have since worried more about Mrs. Gauguin and all the little Gauguins. One can and should live authentically, but perhaps delayed gratification is not wrong where children are concerned.