Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Stage, Screen, and Page

Pocket reviews of recent recreational views and reads:

Paramour (in previews)

The high-flying acrobatics of the Canadian troupe Cirque du Soleil have been wowing international audiences for decades, but on two previous occasions failed to secure a lasting purchase on Broadway. Things look more promising this time around with the musical play Paramour at the Lyric Theatre. As a present (thanks Michelle) I attended a preview on April 18. (One doesn’t normally comment on a play before its formal opening, but I’m not a professional critic so I will anyway.)

Just as movies with Fred and Ginger had plots only as excuses for them to dance, Paramour’s script exists to provide an excuse for the Cirque performers to astonish the audience. That said, it’s a fully adequate excuse with a storyline set in the Golden Age of Hollywood; it is a classic love triangle involving a movie director, the young woman he wants to make a star, and her song-writing boyfriend. Despite a final modest twist to the plot, don’t expect anything deep or original from the script, but do expect Broadway-class song and dance, extraordinary sets, and spectacular feats (mostly as metaphors for events in the play) by the Cirque performers. In short, go for the stagecraft.

Judging by ticket sales so far, Paramour should be around for quite some time.

Thumbs Up

**** ****

Irrational Man (2015)

If you’ve seen any of the more thoughtful Woody Allen movies you already know what themes you will encounter here. Following atheistic Nietzsche and the French existentialists, he views the world as random and devoid of any inherent meaning or purpose. The prescription of those philosophers is to imbue life with your own purposes. Not everyone who shares this worldview is successful at that, and they can find life to be somewhat blank. This is the state of renowned philosopher Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) who takes a job at a Rhode Island university. His conviction that nothing really matters has led him to abandon his earlier activism and to sink into clinical depression. The attentions of student Jill (Emma Stone) and colleague Rita (Parker Posey), both of whom find him interesting, don’t help.

(Partial *spoiler* follows.) By pure chance Abe and Jill overhear a desperate woman in a neighboring booth at a diner say she is about to lose her children in family court because of a corrupt judge. Abe decides that, while he can’t make a difference in the world at large, he at least can make a difference in this woman’s life by killing the judge. Since there is nothing to connect him with the judge he believes he can commit the perfect murder. Suddenly, his life has renewed meaning. He commits the act. In a reversal of Crime and Punishment, the crime revitalizes him. Problems arise when Jill suspects he is the killer. Will he kill again to protect himself? After all, ethics in his view are subjective.

Thumbs Up: in part for Woody not talking down to his audience.

**** ****

The Air I Breathe (2007)

Jieho Lee’s film consists of four interlaced vignettes based on the four basic emotions of a Chinese proverb: Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, and Love. The connecting thread is provided by the gangster nicknamed “Fingers” (Garcia) who is key to the plot of each.

There is a superb cast including Forest Whitaker, Brendan Fraser, Andy Garcia, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Emile Hirsch, Kevin Bacon, and Julie Delpy. There are some clever counterintuitive evocations of the four emotions. One man (Whitaker) finds happiness when he has no more options. Another (Fraser) finds pleasure when he is brutally beaten – it would be a spoiler to explain why. The sorrow of a rising pop star (Gellar) is not counterintuitive, but the love of Kevin Bacon is directed toward the happily married wife of his best friend. Fraser gets to play against type as a hitman/enforcer and there is an especially strong performance by Gellar.

Nonetheless, the whole thing comes across as contrived, melodramatic, and depressing. Sad films can be enjoyable, but this doesn’t have the heart to be sad. It’s just dispiriting. Audiences generally agreed: the film did a miserable box office.

Thumbs Down, despite some worthy elements.

**** ****

Carthage Must Be Destroyed (2011) by Richard Miles
Viking Press

The title, of course, is the relentless exhortation of Roman senator Marcus Portius Cato (“Carthago delenda est”) who felt that two desperate wars with Carthage (aka Punic Wars) were enough and that Rome should attack while it still had the upper hand. He eventually got his way and the Romans captured and razed the city in 146 BC. They re-founded it a century later, but very much as a Roman city.

The history of Carthage was fully intertwined with the history of the ancient Mediterranean and beyond. Also, the Punic Wars made Rome into the dominant imperial power it became. Since the heritage of Rome is central to modern Western civilization, Carthage still indirectly impacts us all. History is written by victors, however, and accordingly nearly all our ancient literary sources are Greek and Roman – and they discuss Carthage from adversarial perspectives. Little survives from Carthage itself beyond what is dug up by archaeologists.

Nonetheless, Richard Miles does what he can to use the available literary and archeological sources to give us an account of Carthaginian civilization from its foundation (traditionally in 814 BC as a colony of the Phoenician city of Tyre) to its destruction. In doing so he provides a perspective we too seldom get.

Thumbs Up: informative and readable.

Trailer Irrational Man

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The HARD Way

It will be no surprise to readers of this blog that the author was trackside at last night’s local derby bout in Morristown between the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) and the Harrisburg Area Roller Derby (HARD).

The bout began promisingly for the home JDB. Jams put the #3846 CaliforniKate and #8 Lil MO Peep put the JDB into an early lead. JDB countered HARD’s exceptionally effective blocking with “hit and quit it” jams that favored locking in gains over gambling for larger ones. HARD soon was on the board, however, and for a time in the first quarter the score seesawed, tying at 17-17. The game-changing moment was a power jam by #12 Trixie 12 Gauge who added 23 points for HARD bringing the score to 17-40. JDB would struggle for the rest of the bout to overcome that lead. Whenever the gap would close, HARD would reopen it. In the last minutes of the first half, effective jams by #24 Rainbow’s Revenge and #12 Trixie 12 Gauge brought the score to 84-110 in favor of HARD.

This is not an insurmountable lead in derby, so the second half began with both sides upping their game, especially on blocking. HARD’s defensive wall tactics were crucial to preserving its lead. Despite spirited skating and power jams by both sides, the gap persisted as the minutes ticked away. Trixie put the last points on the board in the final jam.

Final Score: JDB-149/HARD-196.

MVPs: Lil MO Peep (jammer) and LL Kill J (blocker) for JDB; Trixie 12 Gauge (jammer) and Anida Blade (blocker) for HARD.

Monday, April 18, 2016


When you live in a locality where your family has roots, there are reminders all around of those who are gone. I live five miles from where my mother grew up on Talmadge Road, five miles from where I grew up on Main Street, four miles from the chapel where my parents were married, three miles from my old prep school (quite a few classmates have departed), and eight miles from the property on Schoolhouse Lane where for several years I lived next door to my sister Sharon. I have a 1941 photo of my mom standing in front of the drug store I still frequent – still named Robinson’s. I regularly pass Hilltop Cemetery where my parents and Sharon are buried – not out of sentimentality: it’s just on the way to town. I live in a house my parents built on a street my dad developed.

Precisely because the traces are everywhere, one becomes accustomed to them to the point of generally not seeing them – except when something else prickles one’s synapses. On this occasion it was a glance at the calendar. (Yes, I still have a paper calendar on the wall above my computer monitor.) My dad, the senior Richard Bellush, would have been 90 today.

The remaining members of the GI Generation are few and dwindling, but the mark they have left is outsized. Tom Brokaw’s sobriquet “the Greatest Generation” might be a little gushy, but the generation certainly was a fateful one. As a matter of definition, it comprises those old enough to have served in WW2 (even if in fact they didn’t) but too young also to have served in WW1 or to have had their youths shaped by it. This makes 1928 the last birth year that would qualify and 1908 about the earliest. They followed the so-called Lost Generation. The GI Generation grew up in the Depression or lived through it as youths, and then experienced the calamity of World War 2. By 1946 most had had more excitement, uncertainty, and terror than they ever wanted to see again. When the war was over, most wanted normality: a secure job, a cozy marriage, and a modest house in the suburbs. It was called the American Dream. In many ways the drive to normality accompanied a reversion to traditional gender roles and social standards – standards that had been upended between the wars. GIs' kids (Boomers, including myself) gave them a very hard time about this in the ‘60s, but Boomers also benefited hugely from the solid economic foundations laid by their hard-working parents. They finally acknowledged this in the 1990s when the GIs started to die off in large numbers and Boomers wrote sappy books like The Greatest Generation.

1943: age 15 and 17
Richard, Sr., albeit a younger member of the group, otherwise could have been a poster child for it. Born in 1926 he was the youngest of three brothers (all born on Sunday to Mary and Joseph, he sometimes would note), all of whom acquired a fierce work ethic in the Depression working for my grandfather who got through the Depression mostly by doing renovations on homes of the wealthy. My dad was swinging framing-hammers on roof rafters at age 12. (Yes, there were child labor laws then, but they weren’t much applied to a workman's’s own offspring.) He joined the Merchant Marine in 1943 at age 17, served in every theater, was present at the D-Day invasion, and dated Robina whenever the ship was in a nearby port; the two had met in high school. He was discharged in 1946 though he remained part of the Naval Reserve. He married Robina in 1947, worked the next decade with my grandfather and uncles as part of a homebuilding enterprise, and then went off on his own in 1957. Sharon arrived in 1950 the day before North Korea invaded the South, thereby providing my dad a deferment – he otherwise would have been subject to call-up from the Reserves. I arrived a couple years later.

Kids tend simply to accept the environment in which they find themselves, and I certainly did. It was only later that I fully appreciated just how protected my upbringing had been and how hard my parents worked to make it that way. They also were more open-minded than for which I gave them credit in in the 60s. If they weren’t ahead of their time in the way they looked at life and the world, they at least were able to evolve with it. They balanced each other well. My dad affected a hard-nosed persona but he was really a soft touch. My mom was the reverse: bubbly and overtly friendly, but steely and much less forgiving underneath.
c.1990: not quite a successful smile despite the playful coach

My dad died in 2000 and my mom the following year. I miss both of them of course. But we all should sorely miss the pragmatic competence of the generation to which they belonged.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Devil is in the Details

Writers always are advised to “write what you know.” That advice is not as restrictive as it sounds. It doesn’t mean that someone with a day job as a realtor should write only about real estate or that an office worker at Mutual of Omaha should write only about life insurance. For example, in 1959 in order to save money while he pursued his literary ambitions, science fiction author Harry Harrison moved his family to a small town in Mexico; he later commented that the characters in his novel Wheel World (part 2 of his To the Stars trilogy) were based on the inhabitants of that town. The setting of the story was another planet but nonetheless Harry wrote what he knew – and it worked. If what you know is unconventional, it’s a good bet your writing will be too: not necessarily better or worse, but different.

Diablo Cody
Among this century’s crop of screenwriters, one of the more unlikely success stories is Diablo Cody (Brook Busey on her birth certificate) whose career path is very unconventional. So are her scripts. By and large, her films have been critical successes, as is The United States of Tara, the TV show she created. To my mind, even the film that critics panned (Paradise) has something to offer. So, I needed little prompting last week to pick up Cody’s Candy Girl, a 2005 memoir written in lively and literate prose of her year as a stripper. In it Cody tells how she grew up in a conservative religious family outside of Chicago. A failed relationship landed her in Minneapolis where her job at an advertising company bored and frazzled her. Tempted by amateur night at a local strip club, she started working the pole part-time and soon quit her day job altogether. With the full support of her boyfriend (currently her husband) she became a fulltime exotic dancer. The reasons were the money, the thrill, and the series of oddball characters (customers and coworkers) whom she met.

There always has been a minority but vocal feminist wing (e.g. Camille Paglia, Angela Carter, Wendy McElroy) that embraces pornography and the sex industry as not objectifying but human. Cody adds her voice: “I always believed in the potency of women. I’d supported and participated in the sex industry even as it was buffeted with criticism from people who felt it objectified us… There was a reason men paid ridiculous sums of money for the company of an exaggeratedly feminine creature. Because strippers are spectacular. They rule.”

A decade ago Cody was contacted by film producer Mason Novick who read the memoir and wanted her to write a screenplay based on it, but he first wanted to see a sample of her scriptwriting. Over several weeks at a table in Starbuck’s, she came up with the script to Juno. The Candy Girl movie was never made but in 2007 Juno was. Cody’s offbeat sensibility and irony won over critics and audiences. Writing for the big screen and for television, Diablo has been a Hollywood power player ever since. Currently among her credits:

Juno (2007) – Juno (Ellen Page) is a 16-y.o. Minnesota high school student whose sexual exploration with her boyfriend (Michael Cera) results in pregnancy. Rather to the dismay of her parents, she decides not to go through with an abortion but seeks out adoptive parents instead. She finds a well-to-do couple with whom she signs a contract, but her relationship with them – especially the would-be rocker adoptive dad – follows an eccentric path. Diablo says she based much of the script on what she witnessed or did herself in her own high school. She even had a hamburger phone like Juno’s. It’s not your typical high school movie.

Jennifer’s Body (2009) – Directed by Karyn Kusama, it’s about a cheerleader who undergoes a supernatural transformation and becomes a cannibal. Uh, yeah. One can imagine the pitch for this film as way to exploit the popularity of comely Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried by unabashedly pandering to teen horror junkies. Unfortunately (for commercial purposes), Diablo doesn’t quite write down to that level. All the necessary gruesomeness and voyeurism are there, but the situations and dialogue are quirky, ironic, and occasionally clever. The result was that critics liked it better than the intended audience. Roger Ebert gave it 3 out of 4 stars but theaters had a lot of empty seats, and to this day its audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes is dismal. Nonetheless, though teen horror is not my preferred genre, the film is better than its public reputation, and the female writing/direction gives it a somewhat different perspective than most films of its type.

Young Adult (2011) – Mavis (Charlize Theron) is a hard-drinking single thirty-something writer of young adult fiction living in Minneapolis. She is working on the last book of a series and is having trouble meeting the publisher’s demand to finish it. Once the high school prom queen in the small town of Mercury, she is feeling life and time slipping away – not an unusual reaction when folks notice that age 40 is not far ahead. She receives an e-mail announcing that her old high school boyfriend Buddy Slade and his wife have had their first child. She decides that she and Buddy were meant to be together. She returns to Mercury to do something about it. What she really wants, of course, is to relive the moment when she was queen and the future was bright. Mavis has real problems – diagnosable problems – and behaves abominably, yet it’s hard not to empathize with her. This is my favorite Diablo Cody film, hands down.

Paradise (2013) – This film was Cody’s directorial debut and generally is considered a misstep. Lamb Mannerhelm (Julianne Hough) survives a plane crash albeit with injuries. The experience shakes her severe Christian beliefs. She heads to Las Vegas to experience a side of life she has denied herself, and William (Russell Brand) is there to help. The title comes from Paradise, NV; much of the Vegas Strip is actually not within the city limits but over the border in Paradise. Critics and audiences alike hated this one – so much so that Cody says she has given up directing and will stick with writing. The LA Times printed the consensus opinion: “Though it's built around a kernel of tender feeling, the comedy never transcends its basic contrivance.”

Ricki and the Flash (2015) – Cody proved she could recover by returning to fine form with Ricki and the Flash, which I reviewed a couple blogs ago. An aging rocker (Meryl Streep) with family issues is forced to face them when her daughter has a crisis. The movie has great characters and dark humor that on this occasion hits its mark.

Barbie (2017) – Yes, the Mattel doll Barbie. This is Cody’s current work-in-progress for Sony Pictures. I only can imagine what she will do with it, but when the time comes I might be brave enough to buy a ticket in public to find out -- or then again maybe not.

Trailer for Young Adult (2011)

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Wind at One's Back

My cat Maxi doesn’t actually try to kill me, so far as I know. At 17 (the median lifespan of a domestic cat with a home is 16), he most often doesn’t try much of anything beyond what he is doing in the photo. That’s not to say he hasn’t come close to succeeding a few times regardless. Usually this happens when he is underfoot at inconvenient moments such as when I am at mid-step while carrying a heavy box with both hands up or down the stairs; at such moments I have to decide between stepping on him or placing my foot down in a dangerously unbalanced way.

Yesterday Maxi did not bring down my final curtain, but he did lower it for intermission. My back porch for most of its length is about one foot (30cm) higher than a concrete rain pad, which is level with the grass. While moving a chair with my back to the edge, I took a step rearwards and felt Maxi underneath my descending right foot. I stepped further back to avoid him, missed the edge of the porch, and flailed as I sailed backward and slammed my back against the grass.

I remember the very first time I knocked the wind out of myself. I was five years old. As I did almost every day, I had been clambering on the Climbing Tree, an oak in the front yard with branches perfectly spaced for the monkeyshines of children. In a moment of overconfidence I missed a handhold. Due to some trick of memory, I recall the scene not from my own eyes but from some disembodied perspective from which I watch myself fall to the ground. My perspective returns to myself immediately after impact. For the first time I experienced that strange sensation of being unable to breathe. The moment passed, as it will, and I sat up. I didn’t mention it to anyone out of fear that my mother would forbid me to climb the tree again.

The last time (before yesterday) was about 20 years ago when with overconfidence (there’s that word again) I jumped over a three rail fence – or rather failed to jump it. My toe caught on the top rail and I unintentionally somersaulted. I landed on my back obscured by tall hay. My breath didn’t return rapidly this time, and I remember thinking, “It will be days before anyone finds my body here.” But, return it did and my fence crossings since then have been less frolicsome. After that event, I also looked up the phenomenon of being winded on that newfangled thing called the internet.

A person is most commonly winded either from a hard fall on the back or from a hard blow to the solar plexus. The impact knocks the air out of the lungs and causes the diaphragm to spasm. Until your diaphragm relaxes there is not much you can do but gasp uselessly and expect to die. You won’t die, of course – not from that anyway. Your diaphragm will relax in a minute or so and you will breathe again. You can speed the process by assuming a crouch, though often any movement feels all but impossible.

After a score of years I hadn’t expected to revisit the experience. My response was not homey nostalgia. Oh, I’ve had plenty of other accidents, such as the time that I opened the gate to a paddock and didn’t notice in the twilight that the electrified line that topped the fence was still connected across the gate span at forehead level. I walked into 5000 volts: dropped me to my knees. But I had thought the old breath-knock was a thing of the past. It probably now is – unless Maxi has other ideas.

Jerry Lee Lewis (1958) Breathless

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Of the Second Kind

I circled the house this morning in order to assess the post-winter clean-up challenges: branches, leaves, fallen trees, wall and fence repairs, etc. In so doing I passed a small anomaly that I tend to ignore. In my side yard close to where the grass ends and brush begins begins is a modest depression about 4 inches (10cm) deep with a peculiar triangular shape. It is barely noticeable until one is almost atop it. It has been there unchanged since the late 1970s when this was still my parents’ property. It’s neither deep nor commonly underfoot, so none of us ever bothered to fill it. The underlying geology is firm and granitic in these parts, so the reason for the subsidence (if that’s what it is) is certainly shallow. My suspicion is that a tree stump was buried there during the construction of the house and the overlying soil dropped a little as it filled the hollow spots. It was a common happenstance in that era. The triangle shape is just a happy accident. On the other hand, the spot might not have subsided at all; it could be just a small artifact of imperfect initial landscaping in what was then (and is now) an out-of-the-way corner of the property.

Only once did anyone ever comment on it. This was some years ago when I was showing an antiques-hound friend my grandparents’ old winemaking equipment in my garden shed.

“What is that?” he asked pointing at the lawn dimple.

“Oh, that’s where the flying saucer landed back in the ‘70s,” I answered. “It balanced itself on a single triangular landing pod and left that imprint. It was the strangest thing.” I saw him glancing toward the garden shed only a few feet (1 meter) away. “The garden shed wasn’t built yet,” I added. This part was true; it was built in the 90s. “There was plenty of room then for the spacecraft to land.”

“Did any aliens come out of the saucer?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“What did they want?”

“A restroom.”


While my friend (I presume) was aware that I was joking, flimsier evidence regularly is offered up in all seriousness to substantiate claims of alien encounters of the second and third kinds. It is an all too human failing that when we want to believe something we accept the feeblest evidence as credible while when we don’t we’ll reject not just a mountain of evidence but the entire Himalayas. Many of us very much want to believe that UFOs are piloted by extraterrestrials. The Huffington Post recently conducted a HuffPost/YouGov survey of 1000 Americans that was unusual in allowing for gradations of belief (e.g. “strongly agree,” “agree,” and “slightly agree”); it revealed that 48% at least “slightly agree” that some UFOs are extraterrestrial – 25% are pretty sure about it. Only 35% disagree, and many of them only “slightly.” A National Geographic survey didn’t allow for gradations of belief – just yes or no – and came up with 36% believers, 17% disbelievers, and the remainder undecided. The same survey showed that 80% of Americans believe the government is covering up information on the UFOs, which, being larger than the percentage that believes they exist, is an odd result.

Skepticism about extraterrestrial visitations is not the same as skepticism about alien life. That life evolved here, after all, is evidence enough it could do so elsewhere, if perhaps far less commonly than some might hope. I personally suspect that life (much less technical civilization) is so rare that SETI’s radio telescopes will never definitively hear anything interesting even if the search lasts centuries or millennia. But in principle they could. Physical spaceships with biological pilots are another matter, especially since vast fleets would be required just to account for the 1 in 50 adult Americans who claim to have been abducted by aliens.

Why do we want so much to believe in extraterrestrial visitation? To be sure, the notion is a fun one to entertain, but to say we want fun is a tautological explanation at best. I can offer only speculation, but I think it’s no coincidence that H.G. Wells’ hit novel War of the Worlds (1897) dated to a time when the scientific revolution of the late 19th century was reinforcing an ever more secular popular culture. Most of us aren’t happy with a random accidental universe in which there is no meaning other than what we ourselves impart to it. We like to think we are not so much on our own as all that. In our secular age (in much of the world anyway) we don’t place much stock in angels and demons any more, but at least we can imagine that there are aliens who might care. We can imagine them lecturing us on our warmongering ways as in the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or on our environmental carelessness as in the 2008 remake. The iconic Roswell incident of 1947 according to believers involved a saucer buzzing the 509th nuclear bomber force based at the time in Roswell. As for the LGM (Little Green Men) planning to zap us with death rays, even evil aliens, like demons of yore, are at least taking an interest.

This is far from an original interpretation. Already familiar with the idea, I was persuaded it had real merit back in 1969 – no connection to that being the year Nixon suspended Project Blue Book. Despite being at the time a teenage scifi fan who avidly enjoyed reading tabloid reports of UFOs, I didn’t take them seriously any more than I took seriously tales about werewolves, which I also enjoyed. I knew some people did, of course, but didn’t fully realize just how many people were deeply committed to belief in visiting extraterrestrials until one day in high school English class. I no longer remember the precise literary context of the discussion, but members of my class were expressing disdain for the gullibility of earlier generations in matters of superstition and religious manifestations. The teacher Mr. Drew countered by saying that every generation has its own mythology and superstitions, and that he easily could provoke an emotional reaction from us by questioning one of our own. He took a deep breath and said simply, “UFOs.” My initial assumption was that he had made a bad gamble and that the class would respond with a collective shrug. I was wrong. Instead, a disparate cacophony of challenging voices arose citing evidence of aliens-among-us. Mr. Drew had been right.

I’m still a scifi fan in my dotage and still enjoy a good alien invasion tale. But I’m afraid that no more now than then can I bring myself to believe earthlings are beneficiaries of some Visiting Aliens Association. As a practical matter, we are on our own. On the other hand, maybe the joke is on me. Maybe LGM visited my property in 1979 and I’m willfully ignoring their ship’s footprint. As that may be, I think perhaps it is a few decades past time to take my shovel and wheelbarrow out of the garage and fill it in.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)