Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens – An Appreciation

Sunday, November 25th, 2012


A few days ago I saw Lincoln, the new Steven Spielberg film. I will see it again. When I do I want to pay close attention to a brief scene that, in my memory, shows the quiet side of the booming brilliance of Tommy Lee Jones’ depiction of Thaddeus Stevens.



Jones portrays Stevens, long-term Representative from Pennsylvania and abolitionist leader of the Radical Republicans, as a man in motion. Born with a club foot, Stevens relies on a walking cane. The handle of that cane — made of brass or, more likely, carved ivory — appeared to me to be in the shape of a dog’s head. The dog quite possibly is a greyhound, similar to this one:



Greyhounds are known for their prey-drive. They are bred for coursing: the pursuit of game, which they catch by virtue of their speed, running by sight not by scent.

The quiet scene that so struck my fancy is the one in which we find Stevens sitting in a chair on the floor of the House of Representatives. He is there to participate in the debate over the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that will abolish slavery. The proposed Amendment is a political test and for Stevens, above all, a moral necessity. The prize of the Amendment’s passage in the House is uncertain.

As captured in Spielberg’s lens, Stevens sits alone with his thoughts while other Congressmen mill about. In one hand he clutches his cane, as if for added support. His blocky head turns and scans the chamber left and right. We follow his eyes which, the director wants us to understand, are the eyes of a wily politician surveying friend and foe, hungrily sizing up prospects.

And then comes a playful, comic detail, a gesture I strongly suspect was Tommy Lee Jones’ idea. It is simply this: Stevens slowly rotates his cane. What we see moving, of course, is the cane handle, the greyhound. Jones, the ventriloquist, covertly moves his dummy. Follow it now — an alert animal head, eyeing one side of the room and then the other. Is the run for the prize about to begin?


It usually takes me a second look to discover all that a great actor delivers. Today I was able to revisit a bit of Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, as found in one of the official video clips from Lincoln. It is the only one that focuses on Jones. It lasts only 32 seconds and is available on YouTube, here.



In this scene Stevens, in the very center of the floor debate, is in high dudgeon mode. Notice how the actor seizes the opportunity to marry oratory with physicality. In a subtle move (at the 0:22 mark), just as the stream of invective he directs at his opponent (George H. Pendleton) reaches a climax, Jones attempts to move forward, first glancing downward to guide his wayward foot. This seems an inconsequential gesture, the precaution of a 72-year-old man who’s unsteady on his feet. But it is more than that. It sets up the next beat. Only seconds later, Jones re-creates his awkward gait in service to his speech. This time he stamps his foot audibly on the wooden floor (“the foot of man,” he dubs this action) — pounding his words with a final exclamation point.


Update (11/25/2012 at 5:30 pm): Folks at the greyhound forum believe the cane Stevens carries is a greyhound cane, as does the blogger Shannon.


“The Break” by Pietro Grossi

Friday, January 20th, 2012



THE BREAK, a novel originally published in Italian (“L’Acchito,” 2007), is the second book by Pietro Grossi to be translated into English and made available in the United States. It follows the release of a collection of three novellas, FISTS (“Pugni,” 2006), from the same publisher, Pushkin Press, in an equally handsome paperback edition.

FISTS impressed me mightily (see review here). Its high point is the opening story which traces the coming of age of a young amateur fighter. The arc of that simple tale is reenacted on a larger canvas in THE BREAK. A stone-layer named Dino, still in his twenties and leading an uneventful life in the rural town of his forebears, suddenly must deal with two unsettling developments: his wife is pregnant and his old job disappears. He seizes on the idea of perfecting his talents at billiards (the form of the sport featured here is known as Italian billiards or Italian five-pins). He embarks on contests that will lead to a further maturity.

This is a beautifully realized novel in which Grossi fulfills the promise of his initial work.

Laying down a single word — craftsmanship — is the best way I can think of to describe the source of strength found in THE BREAK. It’s not a coincidence that Grossi spent two years of his apprenticeship period studying at the Holden School (La Scuola Holden) in Torino, Italy. The curriculum at that institution emphasizes mastery of narrative — storytelling in all of its guises, not just in the short story and novel, but also in the realms of radio, theater, film and web-based content.

An aside: profiles of Grossi often mention, misleadingly I believe, that he is a follower of the American writer J.D. Salinger. I find little or no evidence of Grossi imitating the American. The linking of the two writers may be nothing more than a misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the fact that the founders of the Holden School named it (yes) after Holden Caulfield, the unforgettable narrator of “The Catcher in the Rye”.

No one can deny the meticulous quality of Grossi’s writing. From the very first page of THE BREAK, the reader will notice the clean, fine construction of sentences and paragraphs, quickly-limned characters, and deft scene-setting, all of this well captured in Howard Curtis’ translation. Here is Dino, out on the street, sensing winter’s approach:

“The days were already drawing in. It was the beginning of that time of year when, as evening fell, people seemed to be wandering through a darkened theater.”

Grossi conveys the uncertainties Dino experiences via subtle phrases (usually disguised as ordinary descriptions) carefully positioned, piece by piece: “Dino couldn’t quite explain it”; “what the questions were he didn’t even know himself”; “maybe people had lost the habit”; “for some reason . . .”. There is a reiterated motif of how two persons’ physical closeness to each other discloses emotional information. One instance is the description of Dino as he and his wife Sofia occupy two corners of their tiny kitchen: “It had always made him feel good, being close to each other like this but slightly distant, and not talking.”

Grossi seems to know instinctively where to guide the reader and how best to do it. For example, only a few pages into the book Sofia reveals she is pregnant. The homey atmosphere Grossi creates for this initial scene is so old-fashioned your memory may naturally summon up the phrase, a woman “with child.” This thought is not unprompted, for just a few lines before the revelation Grossi had described for you the child-like nature of the parents-to-be: “They ate in silence, both sucking the soup from their spoons as softly as they could and playing their old game of trying to see shapes in the vegetables.” You have been smoothly guided to the emotional surprise: Characters, not yet fully formed adults, are about to become parents.

Less successful, because its obviousness is at odds with the subtlety of Grossi’s hand elsewhere, is the dominant metaphor of the novel — that of the billiards table and the psychological play enacted upon it. Still, this stand-in for life, fate and destiny is a seductive draw:

“Dino was here [at the billiards parlour] because he needed things to be clear and precise, to know where they were going to end, to know that there was still a piece of the world where lines and forces and movements followed exact trajectories, without frills, without flights of fancy.”

It occurs to me this description could serve equally well as Grossi’s personal credo as a writer.

The heart of the book is a love song to the pool hall and the passions unleashed there. On this ground alone, fans of the sport and fans of fictional depictions of its world (such as The Hustler) are likely to enjoy THE BREAK.

The novel’s 28 chapters average just seven pages each. This framework sets up a fade-in/fade-out rhythm that, along with other scenario-like elements, may remind you of expert film writing. However, it also points to what some readers may find to be a weakness in Grossi: his comforting conventionality. Seekers of the unconventional should steer clear. The characters and themes Grossi explores have reminded some critics of post-WWII neorealism in Italian cinema, with its emphasis on real lives and quiet tiny moments. I would add there are affinities to the kitchen-sink dramas of British and American playwrights of the 1950s (“Look Back in Anger”; “Marty”) that explored what Paddy Chayefsky called “the marvelous world of the ordinary.”


A version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.

“Spring and All” by William Carlos Williams

Friday, November 25th, 2011



Spring and All was first published in France in 1923 in an edition of 300 copies. Years later Wallace reflected on the book’s nonchalant, playful debut:”‘Nobody ever saw it — it had no circulation at all — but I had a bit of fun with it … Chapter headings are printed upside down on purpose, the chapters are numbered all out of order, sometimes with Roman numerals, sometimes with Arabic, anything that came in handy” (I Wanted to Write a Poem, pp. 36-37).

If you covet a one of those first edition copies, in fine condition, be prepared to shell out a thousand dollars or more.

The book’s contents have reappeared in subsequent Williams compendiums, but for those of you with a book collector’s sensibility, and for poetry readers who seek transport back to an earlier cultural era via the objects of that era (test: were you wide-eyed drinking in the set designs in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”?), this facsimile edition is the next best thing to holding the original.

In the decades since its original publication there’s been no shortage of sophisticated critical analysis of the meaning and significance of SPRING AND ALL. My amateur thoughts include a belief that the book’s once unorthodox mixture of prose and poetry sections has less power to bother readers of today. In the prose sections I grew to appreciate the gaps, the churn, the elisions, the introduction and abandonment of thoughts: we are witnessing a mind doing its work. When Williams delivers fully formed thoughts his breathing is apparent: I heard not the nervous, arhythmic and shallow breaths of today but the inhalations and exhalations of an earlier America, deep and full and sufficient to the ideas whose communication they carry.

I happen to like his use of commas.

There are stretches that have a dated feel (remember, the freshest cataclysm infecting Williams’ world view was The Great War) and some of his affections are now obscure (how many know who Dora Marsden was; or Alfred Kreymborg, whose writing Williams declares “still has value and will tomorrow have more”?). But hail the author’s ready audacity, as when he draws a broad conclusion about modern art trends by looking at a reproduction of a single painting by Juan Gris — and that reproduction not in color but in black and white! Especially in its epigrammatic statements on art and life, there is an affinity between Spring and All and Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit.

You reach page 74, Chapter XXII. You pause. It’s as if you’ve been meandering down a museum’s long corridor of displays of things interesting and things not so interesting and then you’re directed into an intimate side-room and brought face to face with a solitary object that hits you, your eye, your mind, with unexpected force: a sixteen-word poem about a red wheel barrow whose haiku economy proceeds to gestate in your presence.

To speak of the book itself, as physical object: it is sure to please. More meaty than the proverbial slim volume of poetry (it’s over 100 pages), this facsimile is finely constructed with clearly printed text on cream paper, wrapped in powder blue-gray covers that have a mysterious, sensuous, suede-like feel.

Williams writes: “The better work men do is always done under stress and at great personal cost.”

Let this better work be your pleasure.


A version of this review appears on Amazon, here.

“Noir” by Robert Coover

Sunday, March 14th, 2010



To borrow the second person voice (“you”) that controls the narrative of Robert Coover’s new novel, “Noir”, let it be noted at the outset that you fall within one of three groups.

1 –   You are a Coover aficionado and have read most or all of his output to date. You will buy or borrow the newly released “Noir” and read its slim 192 pages in a feverish swoon, critics be damned. If, at some point, you find yourself reading reviews of “Noir”, it’s because you’ve finished the book and want to relive the experience or compare your reaction to others.  For you, there are comments further below.


2 –   You have read one or two Coover books (maybe as part of a post-modern lit course) and want to catch up with what the 78-year-old author is doing nowadays. Is he still in the game, you wonder?  The news is positive. You will find the pages of “Noir” spellbound by Coover’s signature mordant wit and claustrophobic worldview. Elsewhere you may have come across the much repeated statement by NY Times book critic Michiko Kakutani: “Of all the post-modernist writers, Robert Coover is probably the funniest and most malicious.” So, yes, you’ll find “Noir” fitfully laugh-inducing — especially if you’re in the mood for a relentless, demented, hallucinogenic parody of crime fiction. If at its end you are still ambivalent about the book, well, that it not uncommon with Coover. At its close you may place a hand on your belly and think to yourself, that was not so much a satisfying meal as a bitter entrée. Or, you may be so delighted by its denouement, incorporating street philosophy, word play, puns, double entendres and all-around cleverness, that you will forgive being dragged through some slow sections.


3 –   Coover is entirely new to you. If so, you are wondering how do you get a good sense of what “Noir” will mean to you as a reading experience? You’re finding most reviews of the book are frustratingly un-useful to a novice reader.  (There seems to be a jargon-loving Coover clique that luxuriates in the cryptic.) Well, you might consider first checking out a short interview in which Coover himself explains the style and themes of “Noir”. This is available online (use these three words in Google search: Coover bookslut interview). Consider also spending a few minutes watching Coover in action, as he reads an early scene (and arguably the best pages) from “Noir”.  The video is available using four terms in Google search: Coover Penn Reading Video.  (His reading from “Noir” occupies the final minutes of the QuickTime video).  If the interview and video generally pique your interest, and if you would not be put off by what is essentially a light entertainment somewhat burdened with down and dirty stretches of bleak pessimism and erotic haunting, then by all means read “Noir”. Or, consider one of the following alternatives to “Noir” as a better first experience of Coover: “Pricksongs and Descants”, his ground-breaking short story collection; or “The Origin of the Brunists”, a conventionally generous and very American tale of the spawning of a religious cult in a mining community; or, if you can find a used or library copy of  “A Political Fable: The Cat in the Hat for President” (unfairly, it is currently out-of-print).  “A Political Fable” may very well become your favorite piece of zaniness by any author ever.  It is mine.

Finally, here are a few stray perceptions of my own to share with Coover fans who have finished the book.

Coover is nothing if not quotable. Wherever you are in “Noir” you are not far from coming upon yet another comment on humankind’s bleak condition. Coover spins endless variations on an astringent melody whose lyrics tell of “your incorrigible weakness in a meaningless universe” (page 103), a ballad “meant to provoke reflections upon life’s brevity, and its thin sad beauty” (page 108). Other examples: “It’s not the story you’re trapped in but how you play it out … your style … steppin’ round the beat … How long does that matter? As long as you live, meaning, no time at all.” (page 52).  “What’s the connection? No idea. Connections [are] probably an illusion in such a fucked-up world as this. Why you’re down here. Illusory connections” (page 113). “The city was as bounded as a gameboard, no place to hide in it, no way but one to leave it, you alone defenseless in it, your moves not even your own” (page 175). Most Hobbesian of all is this: “The body has to eat and drink so it can stay healthy long enough to enjoy an agonizing death, and the mind, to help out, has to know where the provisions are and how to get them and who else is after them and how to kill them” (page 159). The novel’s close brings a softer tone: “You can’t escape the melody but you can make it your own.”

Especially at the novel’s climax, borrowings from films are abundant: the shifting cityscape of “Dark City” (page 163), the mirror room scene in “The Lady from Shanghai” (page 181), and the false-identity caper “Catch Me If You Can” (page 186).

At one point Philip Noir tries to recall who once likened an odd juxtaposition to “a pearl onion on a banana split.” This is a line used by Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. When another character advises, “Plant you now, dig you later, man” (page 111) , this is a twofer or maybe a three-way: its source is the jazz world of the 1920’s/30’s, but the phrase also was used as a title of song in “Pal Joey” and later as the title of a “Gilligan’s Island” episode — facts surely not lost on pop culture maven Coover. Other more careful readers (with or without benefit of Google search) will best me in this endless game of spot-the-allusion, but final mention should be made of one “high culture” reference I spotted, a reference that informs the musical ambiance of the book. Philip Noir notices a few words carved into the wooden tabletop at a jazz joint: “You are the music while the music lasts.” This is a line from “The Dry Salvages”, the third section of “Four Quartets” by T.S. Eliot.

I wonder whether the sympathetic character of Michiko (“she’s a work of art”) is Coover’s homage to the sympathetic critic of his work, Michiko Kakutani. But, given the fate Coover confers on the fictitious Michiko, I’m thinking maybe this is best left unexplored. As the author himself cautions:

“It’s all quite simple. But sometimes not knowing is better. It’s more interesting.”



One final observation (to be filed under “Annoyances, Petty”):  The covers of both the American and French editions of the novel sport photos that are at odds with the story. Both photos are of daytime scenes of a walker in a city. But the perambulations of Philip Noir take place entirely at night. Does the discrepancy matter? Probably not, but wouldn’t it be nice if the photographer, or the editors who selected the final images, had actually read the book?

(A version of this review appears on, here.)


December 19, 2009 Snow Storm

Sunday, December 20th, 2009

It snowed in Washington, DC, on Saturday, December 19, 2009. About 16 inches blanketed my neighborhood. For kids and dogs it was time for play and tail-wagging:



My First Movie produced on iMac using iMovie

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009
This is also available on YouTube at

Better Thought Next Time, No.4 (Richard Corliss)

Saturday, August 1st, 2009

You begin with a few simple thoughts.  Maybe you’re sad over the closing of a nearby video rental store.  Perhaps you’re finding your Netflix subscription wonderful but not perfect.  Maybe it’s beginning to strike you that, my God, people sure are growing fatter.  Then comes your editor asking, Where the hell’s your piece for this week’s Time magazine?  You approach the keyboard where your three thoughts congeal into embarrassingly silly prose — a rant you (or more likely, that exaggerating editor of yours) decide to title, “Why Netflix Stinks.” 

What I’m describing is a throw-away piece by Time movie critic Richard Corliss in the magazine’s August 10, 2009, edition.  The article is online, here.  It’s not worthy of a critic whose elegant and well-argued film reviews I’ve been enjoying for a long time.

Corliss, whose voice is assured and accurate in his film reviews, opens his argument with a strained predicate:

“It’s Friday night, and you want to watch a movie at home with that special someone.  You could go to a video store and rent a film, and instantly it’s yours; popcorn extra.  Or you could go to Netflix, and the movie will arrive, earliest, on Tuesday.  Here’s hoping you had a Plan B for your big date.”

Unless the “special someone” is a stranger picked up in a bar earlier Friday evening, I’m not buying into this scenario.  A “special someone” is someone you’ve had conversations with before, maybe even talked about films with, more than once.  Why, it could even be a spouse or partner with whom you’ve been sharing a home — and a DVD player.  A relationship in which the couple plans things in advance.  One or the other makes plans so that beer and toilet paper don’t run out; pays bills in advance of the electricity being shut off; has necessities on hand in advance of the blessed arrival of a quiet weekend.  What a concept!  Plus, planning in advance turns out to be a widely applicable tool.  I bet with practice it wouldn’t be long before the Average Joe is managing a 4-DVD Netflix subscription in a way that places one or more must-see films in the house every Friday evening.  Yes: Plan A, all the way.

(Not to shill for Netflix, but you have to wonder why Corliss conveniently forgets that Netflix provides a “Watch Instantly” feature.  It streams movies instantly to your computer monitor or TV.  Is he looking for an excuse not to watch a movie on his “big date”?  [I’m seeing Groucho’s eyebrows flutter at the mention of “Plan B.”]  Only in the article’s next to last paragraph does Corliss suddenly remember, Oh yes, you can get thousands of Netflix titles instantly, even on a Friday night.  Did he think readers would forget the premise of the piece after reading for two minutes?)

Like some anti-romantic comedy, Corliss’ article goes downhill after that opening “date night” scene, passing over moguls of illogic on its way to a morose finale.  He says he has “misgivings” about Netflix’s usefulness compared to that of a well-stocked bricks-and-mortar video store.   He warns ominously (cue the theme from Jaws) about “the possibly harmful effect that Netflix may have on American society.”

Well, even Corliss has to concede there is no video store within walking distance of his home, or anyone else’s home in America, that is as well-stocked as Netflix.  Yet Corliss waxes nostalgic for video stores that once had movies “you could see right away” — conveniently forgetting those fun times when a cassette, previously rented by an irresponsible viewer, would require you to spend precious time rewinding to its playable start; not to mention those countless instances when the tapes and DVD’s were defective and unwatchable. 

In a segment of the article captioned, “Wait Time: Eternity” (you hope that was the editor’s dumb idea, not the author’s), Corliss complains Netflix sometimes has a “wait” time for unexpectedly popular titles (he cites the scarcity of the 1974 Taking of Pelham One Two Three in the wake of the remake this summer).  Yet he fails to acknowledge a video store’s shelves would in those circumstances similarly disappoint the instant-gratification crowd.  He says the Netflix folks “sometimes” don’t put the correct movie in your envelope, and later in the piece he ratchets up the irate rhetoric by referring to “botched orders.”  I don’t know: that’s never happened to me under my Netflix subscription. 

Corliss yearns for happy days of yore spent visiting his local video store, befriended by a “budding Quentin Tarantino, eager to point renters toward some arcane masterpiece from Italy or Hong Kong.”  Earth to Corliss:  There’s a reason the lapel-grabbing Quentin Tarantino and obsessive video-store clerks of his ilk are objects of derision and the butt of jokes.  If Tarantino is the face, the voice, and the personality Corliss sees when ruminating on halcyon days, what can you say — other than chacun à son goût.   

At the finale, Corliss’ thoughts enter the mishagoss zone, where he goes for broke — pushing the nuclear option, as it were.  He takes a page from the inimitable Craig Ferguson, shouting: “I’ve figured it all out: why everything sucks!”  For Corliss, Netflix is why.  It’s Netflix that’s making us passive, inert, fat and flabby. 

Time for Congress and the President to act?

So Which is the Asylum?

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

There is an affinity between the interiors of the mental asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, as painted by Van Gogh in 1889 (first photo), and an old office building housing a government bureaucracy in Washington, DC (second photo). 







Most will agree the first building is more attractive.  At least Van Gogh could make something of it.  What artist would choose as a subject  the second cold corridor?   The only person I can think of is Stanley Kubrick.   A still from The Shining