All posts by Dennis Hartley

Bang bang, shoot shoot

By Dennis Hartley

(In light of the tragedy in Las Vegas, I am re-posting this piece from February 16th of this year).

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Oh, boy.  From  The Washington Times:

Congress on Wednesday approved the first gun rights bill of the new Republican-controlled Washington, voting to erase an Obama administration regulation that would have forced Social Security to scour its lists and report some of its beneficiaries to the firearms no-buy list.

The Senate approved the bill on a 57-43 vote. The House cleared the legislation earlier this month.

If President Trump signs the bill into law as expected, it will expunge a last-minute change by the Obama administration designed to add more mental health records to the national background check system that is meant to keep criminals and unstable people from obtaining weapons.

 The previous administration had proposed requiring Social Security to search its records and report people receiving disability benefits or supplemental income payments and who had someone else managing their finances, deeming them “mental defectives” who shouldn’t be able to buy firearms. Republicans said that trampled on Second Amendment rights by casting too wide a net.
                                 

“It results in reporting people to the gun ban list that should not be on that list at all,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and chief sponsor of the effort to repeal the Obama rule. “It deprives those people [of] their constitutional rights and, in a very important way, violates their constitutional rights without even due process.”

Oh, I see…it’s just those “compassionate conservatives” selflessly looking out for the interests of Americans with disabilities; standing up for their rights. At least when the Second Amendment is in peril. Because, as you know, they’ve always been there for those folks:

Good times!

This development strikes me as particularly odious, coming  as it does hot on the heels of PBS’ February 14 broadcast premiere of Tower, a harrowing documentary recounting the 1966 mass shooting  at the University of Texas.  Over an agonizing hour and a half period, a deranged sniper who had stationed himself on the observation deck of the UT Tower, methodically picked off nearly 50 people-killing 16 and wounding 3 dozen. He still had plenty of ammo left when two Austin policeman and a hastily deputized civilian were able to make their way to the top and take him out.

Last June, in a piece I wrote about the Orlando nightclub mass shooting, I pointed to the 1966 incident as a sad marker for America:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman  perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims  (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness.  And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting  meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding  homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

(sigh) I have to ask again. WTF will it take? BTW, here is what it “took” for President Obama to lobby for the regulation that has just been overturned:

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But thank God the 2nd Amendment got through all this unscathed!

The diva and the gypsy: Dalida ** & Django ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 30, 2017)

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This has been keeping me up for several nights. How could I, a self-proclaimed musicologist, have been hitherto completely and blissfully unaware of the Egyptian-Italian “international superstar” Dalida, who sold a record-breaking 170 million records during her lifetime? Her 30-year career began in 1956…my birth year. So apparently, her music was part of the soundtrack of my life (although…you wouldn’t know it to ask me). In my own (weak) defense, I have heard of Zamfir (master of the pan flute!), and I’m aware of international superstar Nana Mouskouri, but Dalida? A complete flyover for me.

Unfortunately, after watching Dalida, Lisa Azuelo’s slickly produced yet superficial 124-minute biopic, I still don’t know that much about her, except that her personal life was a tragedian’s dream. While she did have natural talent, statuesque beauty, and massive success going for her, an inordinate number of men in her life committed suicide…as did she (it’s probably not the best “date movie” if you or your date lean toward melancholia).

In fact, the film kicks off with Dalida’s first suicide attempt in 1967 (talk about foreshadowing) and then proceeds from there with flashbacks and flash-forwards. We do see Dalida (born Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti) as a young girl in Cairo, getting taunted and bullied by her fellow students at Catholic school; they call her “ugly” and “four-eyes”…but there is no elaboration offered as to whether this sowed the seeds of her lifelong self-esteem issues (manifesting in adult life as we see her struggle with bulimia).

Of course, our ugly duckling does turn into a swan; after winning the Miss Egypt pageant, Dalida (Sveva Alviti) relocates to Paris in the early 1950s to pursue a show biz career. While she aspires to act, her singing talent and charismatic stage presence gains her entre into the music business. She meets Radio Europe 1 producer (and future hubby) Lucien Morisse (Jean-Paul Rouve), who helps guide her into international superstardom.

After a promising start, the film falls into a predictable pattern: Dalida starts a passionate new relationship. Her lover kills himself (either while the relationship is still in progress, or a delayed reaction sometime after it fizzes). She sings a really sad song. She meets someone else. Her new lover kills himself. She sings an ever sadder song. She meets another guy. Her latest lover kills himself. She sings a song so sad…I want to kill myself.

If that was her life story, that was her life story; I understand that, and it’s very sad. But there is little else in the film that gives us a sense of who she really was. On the plus side, Dalida’s original recordings provide the soundtrack (revealing a unique juxtaposition of melancholia and pop sensibility that recalls Scott Walker). The film sports earnest performances, catchy tunes, and it has a good beat; but as a biopic…you can’t dance to it.

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If you were a free-thinking musician, artist, writer, poet, filmmaker, scientist, or scholar living in or around Germany circa 1933-1945, there was a shared occupational hazard: fleeing the Nazis. Whether you were Albert Einstein or the von Trapp family, there was just something about the Third Reich that made you feel, oh, I don’t know…unwelcome?

The crushing of free thought and creative expression under fascism’s thumb has provided dramatic fodder for a number of WW2 films; some fictional (e.g. Cabaret, Mephisto, and The Last Metro), and others that are based on true stories (The Sound of Music and Julia).

The latest film to mix biopic with WW2 intrigue is Etienne Comar’s Django, which dramatizes guitarist-composer-European jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt’s escape attempt to Switzerland while living in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1943. While his talent and reputation kept him relatively “safe”, Reinhardt had a couple strikes against him. He was a free-spirited musician, and he was Sinti (the Nazis were less than kind to the Gypsies).

As the film opens Django (portrayed with verisimilitude by Reda Kateb) is in the midst of one of his legendary Paris engagements with the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Django has a patron in jazz-loving Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Koehn, aka “Doktor Jazz” (Jan Henrik Stahlberg). While on the one hand Django is well aware of the atrocities being committed against Gypsies, he is somehow able to appease the occupying Germans enough to keep his immediate family fed and out of danger while still actively engaging in his favorite extracurricular activities of drinking, gambling, and womanizing.

However, he has a sobering moment when Dr. Jazz informs him that he has arranged a tour for Django and his group, with an itinerary that includes dates in Germany. While things are still relatively loose in Paris, the closer you get to the fatherland, the more stringent the “rules”. Django is outwardly amused but obviously concerned about his possible future when he is presented with a rider for the tour that includes directives like:

“As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones (so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation […]

 …so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs).”

Oy. Tough room.

So it is not surprising that when Django sees an opportunity at one of the road gigs for his family (who have accompanied him on the tour) and himself to make a break for the Swiss border in the dark of night, they go for it, providing some suspense and intrigue in the third act. Possible spoiler here, but quite curiously, there seems to be a bit of disparity between how the filmmakers portray the outcome of this escapade with the actual historical accounts (and that’s all I am prepared to say about that at this juncture…ahem).

The recreation of Reinhardt’s music (by The Rosenberg Trio) is beautifully done; if Kateb isn’t actually playing, I have to say he’s doing a wholly convincing job of miming the right notes (although “hands only” cutaways for the more intricate soloing passages suggests supplementation from a ringer). A nitpick or two aside, Comar has fashioned an absorbing (although far from complete) portrait of a fascinating musical talent whose work and innovation is ripe for rediscovery and appreciation by a new generation of fans.

[Both playing at SIFF’s “French Cinema Now” festival, running through October 5th in Seattle. For tickets and further information, click here].

I don’t feel tardy: A back-to-school mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 23, 2017)

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Pfft. Wow. That was a quick friggin’ summer.

As great poets have said…autumn is over the long leaves that love us, yesterday is dead (but not in my memory), and it’s late September and I really should be back at school.

Well, not literally (I’m a little old for home room)…but my school days of yesteryear are not necessarily dead in my memory. Some habits die hard. As I prefaced in a 2010 post:

It’s a funny thing. I know that this is supremely silly (I’m over 50, fergawdsake)-but as soon as September rolls around and retailers start touting their “back to school” sales, I still get that familiar twinge of dread. How do I best describe it? It’s a vague sensation of social anxiety, coupled with a melancholy resignation to the fact that from now until next June, I have to go to bed early. BTW, now that I’m allowed to stay up with the grownups, why do I drift off in my chair at 8pm every night? It’s another one of life’s cruel ironies.

So here’s a back-to-school playlist that doesn’t include “The Wall” or “School’s Out” (don’t worry, you’ll get over it). Pencils down, pass your papers forward, and listen up…

 

“Alma Mater” – Alice Cooper

“At 17” – Janis Ian

“Cinnamon Street” – Roxette

“ELO Kiddies” – Cheap Trick

“Me & Julio Down by the Schoolyard” – Paul Simon

“My Old School” – Steely Dan

“Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” – The Ramones

“School” – Roger Hodgson

“School Days” – Chuck Berry

“Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room” – Brownsville Station

“Status Back Baby” – Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention

“Teacher Teacher” – Rockpile

“Thirteen” – Big Star

“To Sir, With Love” – Lulu

“Wind-up” – Jethro Tull

The art of being: R.I.P. Harry Dean Stanton

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2017)

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Harry Dean Stanton died on November 15. Who? You know…the guy who was in the thing. He was 91 years old, but that’s a moot point. He fell out of his crib careworn and world-weary. That is not intended to be a flip observation. He was timeless, and will remain so. Most people couldn’t pick him out of a lineup; but as soon as you put him in front of a camera, you could not miss the story in his eyes. It was the story of humanity.

He was born in Kentucky in 1926; his mother was a cook and his father a barber and tobacco farmer. He served in WW 2 as a Navy cook (he was on a tank landing ship in the Battle of Okinawa), and after the war cut his teeth as an actor working with the Pasadena Playhouse.

He made his screen debut in 1957 in a forgettable western, which nonetheless led to a fairly steady stream of small movie parts and television work. Still, he obviously stood out to casting directors, who started to get him progressively meatier parts from the mid-60s onward. He never stopped working; you may have seen him in David Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks revamp on Showtime, and was quite memorable in HBO’s Big Love.

It didn’t matter whether he played a convict on a chain gang, a 1940s L.A. homicide detective, street corner preacher, repo man, crew member on a space merchant vessel, ranch hand, mysterious drifter, or Molly Ringwald’s dad in a teen comedy…from the moment his character popped on screen, there was something all at once familiar about him.

Of course he was a trained actor; but I’ll be damned if I ever saw him “act”. He simply “was”…and it worked. I don’t think he sweated the small stuff, and that was his secret. Like all the great actors, he just let it happen. That is not to say that he didn’t focus on the work. From accounts I have read, he could be “difficult” with directors; but not to appease his own ego, rather always in service of the character he was playing. He wanted to get it “right”. From my observation, he never failed to. Here are my top 10 film picks:

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Cool Hand Luke– “Still shakin’ the bush, boss!” Paul Newman shines (and sweats buckets) in his iconic role as the eponymous character in this 1967 drama, a ne’er do well from a southern burg who ends up on a chain gang. He gets busted for cutting the heads off of parking meters while on a drunken spree, but by the end of this sly allegory, astute viewers will glean that his real crime is being a non-conformist. Stuart Rosenberg directs; sharp script by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. Highlights include Strother Martin’s “failure to communicate” speech, Harry Dean Stanton singing “The Midnight Special”, that (ahem) car wash scene and George Kennedy’s Best Supporting Actor performance.

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Rancho Deluxe– This criminally underappreciated 1975 Frank Perry comedy-drama sports a marvelously droll original screenplay by novelist Thomas McGuane. Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston star as a pair of modern-day cattle rustlers in Montana. Great ensemble work from the entire cast, which includes Elizabeth Ashley (her best role), Slim Pickens, Clifton James, and Harry Dean Stanton as a bumbling cow hand. Stanton’s part is relatively minor, but it showcases the fact that he had a talent for understated comedy.

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Farewell, My Lovely– This 1975 entry, one of a relative handful of films directed by renowned 1960s photographer/TV ad creator Dick Richards, is an atmospheric remake of the 1944 film noir Murder My Sweet (both films were adapted from the same Raymond Chandler novel). Robert Mitchum is at his world-weary best as detective Philip Marlowe, who is hired by a paroled convict (Jack O’Halloran) to track down his girlfriend, who has made herself scarce since he went to the joint. Per usual, Marlowe finds himself in a tangled web of corruption and deceit. Also featuring Charlotte Rampling, John Ireland, and Sylvia Miles. Stanton is memorable as a perpetually pissed off homicide detective.

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Straight Time– Ulu Grosbard (The Subject Was Roses, True Confessions) delivers one of the finest character studies of the late 70s with this gritty 1978 portrait of a paroled burglar (Dustin Hoffman) trying to keep his nose clean. Unfortunately, his goading parole officer (M. Emmett Walsh) is bent on tripping him up. One thing leads to another, and it’s back to a life of crime. Excellent performances abound, from the likes of Theresa Russell, Gary Busey, Kathy Bates, and Stanton (as one of Hoffman’s partners-in-crime).

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Wise Blood– One of director John Huston’s finer latter-career films, this 1979 comedy-drama was adapted by Benedict Fitzgerald from a Flannery O’Connor novel. Brad Dourif stars as a young dirt-poor Southerner who is desperate to make his mark on the world. He decides that the quickest shortcut to grab the public’s attention is to become a crusading, fire-and-brimstone preacher. Stanton is simply wonderful here as a veteran street corner proselytizer (and con man) who mentors the young man in the ways of spiritual hustling.

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Alien– Ridley Scott’s first (and best) entry in what has become a never-ending (albeit lucrative) franchise is the least bombastic and most character-driven of the series. This 1979 sci-fi thriller concerns the workaday crew of a space merchant vessel who are forced to deal with the, erm, complications that ensue after the discovery of an otherworldly stowaway on board. It’s a taut, nail-biting affair from start to finish, with outstanding production design. A great cast helps: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright, and of course, Harry Dean Stanton!

Escape from New York– John Carpenter directed this 1981 action-thriller set in the dystopian near-future of 1997 (ah, those were the days). N.Y.C. has been converted into a penal colony. Air Force One has been downed by terrorists, but not before the POTUS (Donald Pleasence) bails in his escape pod, which lands in Manhattan, where he is kidnapped by “inmates”. The police commissioner (ever squinty-eyed Lee van Cleef) enlists the help of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a fellow war vet who is now one of America’s most notorious criminals.

Imaginative, darkly funny and entertaining, despite an obviously limited budget. Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle even slip in a little subtext of Nixonian paranoia. Also with Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes (the Duke of N.Y.!), and Stanton, who steals all his scenes as “Brain”. Carpenter also composed the theme.

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Repo Man– This 1984 punk-rock/sci-fi black comedy version of Rebel without a Cause is actually one of the more coherent efforts from mercurial U.K. filmmaker Alex Cox. Emilio Estevez is suitably sullen as disenfranchised L.A. punk Otto, who stumbles into a gig as a “repo man” after losing his job, getting dumped by his girlfriend and deciding to disown his parents. As he is indoctrinated into the samurai-like “code” of the repo man by sage veteran Bud (Harry Dean Stanton, in another masterful deadpan performance) Otto begins to realize that he’s found his true calling.

A subplot involving a mentally fried government scientist on the run, driving around with a mysterious, glowing “whatsit” in the trunk is an obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir, Kiss Me Deadly. Cox tosses a UFO conspiracy into the mix, and makes good use of L.A. locations. The fabulous soundtrack includes Iggy Pop, Black Flag, and The Circle Jerks.

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Paris, Texas– What is it with European filmmakers and their obsession with the American West? Perhaps it’s all that wide open space, interpreted by the creative eye as a blank, limitless canvas. At any rate, director Wim Wenders and DP Robby Muller paint themselves a lovely desert Southwest landscape for this enigmatic, languidly paced 1984 melodrama (written by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson). With Shepard on board, you know that the protagonist is going to be a troubled, troubled man-and nothing says “rode hard and put up wet” like the careworn tributaries of Harry Dean Stanton’s weather-beaten face.

In what is arguably his career-best performance, he plays a man who has been missing for 4 years after abandoning his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and their young son. One day he reappears, with a tight-lipped countenance and a 1000-yard stare that tells you this guy is on a return trip from out where Jesus lost his shoes. Now it’s up to his brother (Dean Stockwell) to help him assemble the jigsaw. Stanton delivers an astonishing monologue in the film’s denouement that reminds us what a good actor does.

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Pretty in Pink– This may be damning with faint praise, but I have always found this 1986 film to be the most enjoyable and eminently watchable of the otherwise interchangeable slew of John Hughes teen dramedies that inundated theaters in the 1980s. Actually, Hughes did not direct this one (he handed that chore over to Howard Deutch)…but it remains very much a “John Hughes film”.

Molly Ringwald stars as a young woman from the poor side of the tracks who gets wooed by a “preppie” from a well-to-do family (Andrew McCarthy). Their respective peers are very disapproving. Much romantic angst ensues; but lots of laughs as well. At its heart, it’s a sweet story, helped  by excellent performances. Stanton (out of place as he may seem) lends realism to the proceedings as Ringwald’s father; the scenes they share exude genuine warmth.

 

…And here he is, doing what a good actor does. One for the ages.

Game theory: Trophy (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 16, 2017)

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I did not mind killing anything, any animal, if I killed it cleanly they all had to die and my interference with the nightly and the seasonal killing that went on all the time was very minute and I had no guilty feeling at all. We ate the meat and kept the hides and horns.

-from Green Hills of Africa, by Ernest Hemingway

He went out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun                                         In case of accidents, he always took his mom                                                     He’s the all-American, bullet-headed, Saxon mother’s son                              All the children sing  

 -From “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” by Lennon & McCartney

I can count the number of times in my life that I’ve fired a gun on less than ten fingers. I have never had a fascination for them, in any shape or form. And as far as hunting goes, I have taken the life of approximately one animal; albeit reluctantly. I think I was 14 or 15, on a trip with my family to visit some friends of my parents, who had a farm in upstate New York. I somehow got roped into joining a hunting party comprised of my dad, my uncle, and the man who owned the farm. The mission was to rid the property of varmints.

Actually, they were woodchucks, which apparently are considered pests in some quarters. Long story short, I ended up bagging one of the critters with a .22 rifle. I’m sorry to report that I did not eat the meat, nor did I keep the hide and horns. What’s that? Oh, right, woodchucks don’t have horns (although I understand that they chuck wood like nobody’s business). That was enough for me. I felt awful. I suppose on one level, it was a classic rite of passage for an all-American boy (you know…killing something with dad).

In a 2015 TIME Ideas op-ed, author Bartle Bull opens with this observation:

The murder of Cecil, the magnificent Zimbabwean lion, is a vivid but shabby illustration of the dilemma posed by the hunter-conservationist. President Theodore Roosevelt epitomized this dilemma. No other American President has ever been as close to nature, or loved it more. No other president has killed, or saved, as many animals.

The cognitive dissonance is not lost on co-directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, who kick off their provocative documentary Trophy by similarly naming Roosevelt as the poster child for this dichotomy. The fact that Bull uses his T.R. reference as a foundation for what essentially becomes a partisan defense of the “hunter-conservationist” concept, while Schwarz and Clusiau use theirs to nudge viewers to ponder whether there ever was such a thing as a “hunter-conservationist”…demonstrates why this issue is so polarizing.

Now I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about Trophy, which is not all about the tragedy of Cecil the lion, or the confounding legacy of Teddy Roosevelt (although they are both mentioned). Nor is the film necessarily designed to make you despise smug trophy hunters, or for that matter to roll your eyes at sign-carrying, self-righteous vegans (although you will witness the worst of both “sides”…all straight out of Central Casting).

What you do get is a fairly evenhanded look at the interactive “industries” of big-game hunting, breeding, and wildlife conservation in the U.S. and in Africa, and the complications that ensue (legal and existential). Despite what you may expect going in, this is not a cut-and dry, black and white, good vs. evil, morality vs. commerce scenario.

Not that it makes the film an easy watch (although it is visually stunning and beautifully constructed). One particular scene has haunted me for days. An elephant is brought down by a trophy hunter. The camera tracks behind the hunters for what seems to be an eternity as they cautiously approach the dying animal. As it lies on its side, struggling to raise its head while taking its final breaths, it begins to emit what can only be described as the most plaintive, primal, bone-chilling wail of surrender to the void that I have ever heard from any creature great or small. If there is ever a demand for unimpeachable proof of sentience in such creatures, this heartbreaking, funereal sequence should be Exhibit “A”.

No matter where you stand on the issue of big game hunting (or “harvesting”, if you prefer), the sad fact remains many magnificent species are on the brink of extinction; and if it takes an occasional deal with the devil (or the all-American, bullet-headed, Saxon mother’s son) to facilitate their survival, does the end justify the means? The film makers may not offer a pat answer, but provide enough deep background to let you be the judge.

No words

By Dennis Hartley

(I am re-posting this piece from 2016, in commemoration of 9/11)

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I don’t get out much. In 60 years, I’ve yet to travel anywhere more exotic than Canada. That’s me…born to be mild. Oddly enough, however, I  was “out of the country”  on September 11, 2001.

OK, it was Canada. I was enjoying a 3-day getaway at Harrison Hot Springs, a beautiful Alpine setting in British Columbia. I was booked to check out of the hotel on Tuesday, September 11th.

I woke up around 9am that morning, figuring I had enough time to grab breakfast and one more refreshing soak in one of the resort’s natural springs-fed outdoor pools before hitting the road for the 3-hour drive back to Seattle. I was feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.

Then I switched on CNN.

Holy fuck. Was this really happening? I actually did not understand what I was watching for several minutes. It was surreal. It was especially discombobulating to be out-of-country at the very moment the United States of America appeared to be under attack.

My first impulse was just to get back to the U.S.A. I was overcome with a sense of urgency that  I had to “do” something (realistically, of course…what could I do to help those poor souls in the towers?).

I went to the front desk to check out, and was advised by the clerk that there were reports that the U.S./Canada border checkpoints were closed (to this day, I’m not sure if that was just a rumor-I can’t track down any historical annotations). I was also hearing from fellow guests that lines of vehicles were miles long at the checkpoints. At any rate, they were offering   American guests with a September 11 checkout a reduced rate if they preferred to try their luck on Wednesday.

With all the uncertainty and fear in the air, I decided to take them up on the offer and leave Wednesday morning instead (for all I knew, I could be returning to some kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape anyway). I was less than 200 miles from home geographically, but spiritually I might as well have been Matt Damon’s character in The Martian.

As I didn’t own a cell phone or a laptop (yes, I know they existed in 2001…but I was a latecomer to  personal devices), CNN became my lifeline for the remainder of that horrible day. One thing I’ll never forget is Aaron Brown’s marathon reportage. As awful as the situation was, he maintained the perfect tone. This may sound corny, but he was not only a level-headed source of information, but also my friend that day.  And apparently, I’m not alone in that assessment:

That, my friends, is what a good journalist does. Remember them?

Forgotten crimes: Memoir of a Murderer **½ & The Sinner ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 9, 2107)

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You know what they say: watch out for the quiet ones. Consider Byung-su (Kyung-gu Sul), a taciturn, 50-something veterinarian who enjoys a quiet, retiring life with his adult daughter Eun-hee (Seol-Hyun Kim). He is the central character of South Korean director Shin-yeon Won’s psychological crime thriller, Memoir of a Murderer (in theaters now).

The single, 20-something Eun-hee is concerned about dad, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As inevitably occurs in the early stages, Byung-su is becoming forgetful, to the point where he keeps a mini-voice recorder with him so he can dictate reminders to himself. However, Alzheimer’s may be a blessing. There are certain things about his past he would just as soon forget all about-like the “career” he has “retired” from: serial killer.

Eun-hee is blissfully oblivious to her father’s macabre double life, which abruptly ceased 17 years previous, after Byung-su was involved in a serious car wreck. Whether or not the accident literally knocked him back to his senses is not made clear, but he decided then and there to end the killing spree and concentrate on being a loving father to his daughter, who he is raising as a single parent.

First-person flashbacks reveal that Byung-su’s murderous impulses may have been seeded in his childhood; he was frequently beaten senseless by his violently abusive father. Subsequently, when he becomes a serial murderer as a young adult, he targets those who are (to his determination as judge, jury, and executioner) abusers of all stripes. This is his self-justification; like television’s “Dexter” he feels he’s doing society a favor.

At any rate, that was the “old” Byung-su. Now, he wouldn’t harm a fly. Or would he? After several random murders with eerie similarities make local authorities suspect a new serial killer is on the prowl, Byung-su begins to fear that he himself could be the perpetrator (especially when he factors in his constant fuzziness from the Alzheimer’s). As if all of this weren’t enough to send him over the edge, he’s getting a disconcertingly “familiar” vibe from Eun-hee’s mysterious new boyfriend (Kim Nam-gil), a young cop.

Won’s film (adapted by Hwang Jo-yun and Won Shin-yun from Kim Young-ha’s novel A Murderer’s Guide to Memorization) recalls three other crime thrillers: Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), Shohei Imamura’s Vengeance is Mine (1979), and Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder (2003); the former for its amnesiac, morally ambiguous protagonist, and the latter two for finding the humanity in otherwise repugnant characters.

That is not to say that this film is necessarily in the same class as the aforementioned. The premise is clever, leading man Sul has a brooding presence, and Choi Young-hwan’s atmospheric cinematography sustains a suitably nightmarish mood…but it gets bogged down by jarring tonal shifts; attempts at injecting humor become distracting, and you get a feeling Won wasn’t quite sure how to end his film. Still, it’s perfectly serviceable for dedicated fans of twisty crime thrillers…among whose company I can usually be found.

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Speaking of twisty crime thrillers, if you don’t feel up to schlepping to the multiplex this weekend to overspend on a bucket of popcorn, you might have a summer TV sleeper  in your on-demand queue, begging for a “catch-up” binge-watch. It’s USA Network’s limited series The Sinner, currently 6 installments into its 8-episode run.

Starring Jessica Biel (who also serves as an executive producer), it’s a deliriously lurid Zalman King-meets-Stephen King psychological mystery thriller (with a dash of Hitchcock tossed in for giggles). Here, Biel is the “quiet one” you need to watch out for.

They certainly know how to grab your attention in the series opener. Hot young mom Cora (Biel), her handsome hubby (Christopher Abbott, who you may recognize from HBO’s Girls) and their toddler son are enjoying a lovely sunny day at a crowded beach, when Cora espies a nearby group of young singles who are cranking the tunes and having a grand old time. When Cora suddenly leaps up without a word, purposely strides into their midst, and proceeds to brutally stab one of the young men to death, no one is more surprised than she. Turns out this ain’t exactly a typical day at the beach after all.

With hundreds of witnesses to this shocking and grisly crime (committed in broad daylight), it seems an open-and-shut case. But that would be too easy (and besides, 7 episodes still remain). Cora isn’t helping her own case by essentially shrugging and saying “dunno” every time someone asks her the obvious question. While the D.A., police, and the public are already chanting “Lock her up! Lock her up!”…there is one soul intrigued enough by the fact that Cora has no previous criminal record to dive into her psyche and discover the trigger for this seemingly inexplicable act of violence.

He is detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman, in an oddly mannered performance that grows on you). Socially-challenged Harry is a hot mess; he is on the outs with his wife, pursuing a passionless affair with a dominatrix,and  fancies himself as a world-class arborist (he seems to doing a bit of a reprise of the eccentric detective character he played in Jake Kasdan’s 1998 mystery dramedy, The Zero Effect).

Not unlike the protagonist in Memoir of a Murderer, Cora gives us a glimpse, via first-person flashbacks, of a twisted family upbringing; including a perennially moribund, voyeuristic young sister (obsessed with pushing Cora to lose her virginity) and a creepy, bible-thumping mother (straight out of Carrie) who goes out of her way to make Cora feel that any of her misbehavior (real or imagined) is somehow responsible for fueling her sister’s chronic illness.

There are also elements of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie; particularly in the dynamics that develop between Cora and Harry as they team up to unlock the repressed memories that are feeding her P.T.S.D. symptoms. Toss in some Red Shoe Diaries-worthy soft-core titillation, and you’ve got yourself some must-see TV. Pass the popcorn.

Lord I am so tired: Top 10 Labor Day films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 2, 2017)

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Raise your glass to the hard working people
Lets drink to the uncounted heads
Lets think of the wavering millions
who need leaders but get gamblers instead 

 –from “Salt of the Earth”, by Mick Jagger & Keith Richard

Full disclosure (I am so ashamed). It had been so long since I actually stopped to contemplate the true meaning of Labor Day, I had to refresh myself with a web search. Like many of my fellow wage slaves, I usually anticipate it as just another one of the 7 annual paid holidays offered by my employer (table scraps, really…relative to the other 254 weekdays I’m required to spend chained to a desk, slipping ever closer to the Abyss).

I’m not getting you down, am I?

Anyway, back to the true meaning of Labor Day. According to the U.S.D.O.L. website:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

Fair enough. OK, the nation as a whole has sort of fallen behind in the “strength, prosperity and well-being” part of that equation; but we’re working on that. Oh, and Labor Day isn’t the only “creation of the labor movement”. There’s also all that F.L.S.A. stuff about workplace rights and minimum wage and such on those posters in the break room that most of us don’t bother to read (even if we do all benefit from it).

So I guess I shouldn’t be so flippant about my “table scraps”, eh? At any rate, I thought I would cobble together my Top 10 list of films that inspire, enlighten, or give food for thought in honor of this holiest of days for those who make an honest living (I know-we’re a dying breed). So put your feet up, pop in a DVD, and raise a glass to yourself.

You’ve earned it.

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Blue Collar– Director Paul Schrader co-wrote this 1978 drama with his brother Leonard. Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto play a trio of Motor City auto worker buddies who are tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they pull an ill-advised caper that gets them in trouble with both parties, ultimately putting friendship and loyalty to the test.  Akin to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Schrader subverts the standard black-and-white “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Great score by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder, with a memorable theme song featuring Captain Beefheart growling “I’m jest a hard-woikin’, fucked-over man…

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El Norte– Gregory Nava’s highly effective portrait of two Guatemalan siblings who make their way to the U.S. after their father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you long after credits roll. The two leads deliver naturalistic performances as a brother and sister who maintain unfaltering optimism, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Claustrophobic viewers should be warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a rat colony during an underground border crossing will give you nightmares. Don’t expect a Hollywood ending; this is an uncompromising look at the plight of undocumented workers and how they are exploited.

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The Grapes of Wrath– I’m stymied for any hitherto unspoken superlatives to ladle onto John Ford’s powerfully affecting 1940 film (adapted from John Steinbeck’s novel), so I won’t pretend to have any. Suffice it to say, this comes closest to nabbing the title as the quintessential film about the struggle of America’s “salt of the earth” during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get, Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “be there…all around, in the dark.” Ford was on a roll; the very next year, he followed up with How Green Was My Valley, another classic about a working class family (this time set in a Welsh mining town) which snagged a Best Picture Oscar.

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Harlan County, USA-Barbara Kopple’s award-winning film is not only an extraordinary document about an acrimonious coal miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky back in 1973, but remains one of the best American documentaries ever made. Kopple’s film has everything that you look for in any great work of cinema: drama, conflict, suspense, and redemption. Kopple and crew are so deeply embedded that you may find yourself ducking during an infamous, harrowing scene where a company-hired thug fires off a round directly toward the camera operator (it’s a wonder the filmmakers lived to tell this tale).

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Made in Dagenham– Based on a true story, this 2011 film stars the delightful Sally Hawkins as Rita O’Grady, a working mum employed at the Dagenham, England Ford plant in 1968. She worked in a run-down, segregated section of the plant where 187 female machinists toiled away for a fraction of what male employees were paid; the company justified the inequity by classifying female workers as “unskilled labor”.

Encouraged by her empathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins), the initially reticent Rita finds her “voice” and surprises family, co-workers and herself with a formidable ability to rally the troops and affect real change. An engaging ensemble piece (directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory) with a standout supporting performance by Miranda Richardson as a government minister. More substantive, inspirational, progressive rabble-rousers like this at the multiplex, please.

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Matewan– It’s easy to forget much blood was spilled in order to lay the foundation for those labor laws we take for granted in the modern workplace. John Sayles remind us about that in this well-acted and handsomely mounted drama. Based on a true story, it is set during the 1920s, in West Virginia coal country. Chris Cooper is excellent portraying an outsider labor organizer who becomes embroiled in a violent local conflict between coal company thugs and fed-up miners who are desperately trying to unionize.

Like all of the historical dramas he has tackled, Sayles delivers a compelling narrative, rich in characterizations and steeped in verisimilitude (beautifully shot by Haskell Wexler). In addition to Cooper, you’ll recognize many Sayles regulars in this fine ensemble cast (like David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell). The film also features a well-curated folk/blues/traditional bluegrass soundtrack.

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Modern Times-Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece about man vs. automation (among other things) has aged quite well. This probably has everything to do with his  timeless embodiment of the Everyman (our technology may be evolving, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are). Although referred to as his “last silent film”, it’s not 100% “silent”. There’s no dialogue, per se, but Chaplin does find ingenious ways to work a few lines in (via technological devices). His expert use of sound effects in this film is unparalleled, particularly in a classic sequence where Chaplin, a hapless assembly line worker, literally ends up “part of the machine”. Paulette Goddard (then Mrs. Chaplin) is on board for the pathos. Brilliant, hilarious and prescient.

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Norma Rae-Martin Ritt’s 1979 film about a minimum-wage textile worker (Sally Field) turned union activist launched what I call the “Whistle-blowin’ Workin’ Mom” genre (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, etc). Field gives an outstanding performance (and deservedly picked up a ‘Best Actress’ Oscar) as the title character, who gets fired up by a passionate labor organizer from NYC (Ron Leibman, in his best role). An inspirational film, bolstered by a fine screenplay (Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.) and supporting cast (including Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley).

On the Waterfront– “It wuz you, Chahlee.” The betrayal! And the pain. It’s all  there on Marlon Brando’s face as he delivers one of the most oft-quoted monologues in cinema. Brando leads an exemplary cast that includes Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in this absorbing portrait of a New York dock worker who takes a virtual one-man stand against a powerful and corrupt union official. The trifecta of Brando’s iconic performance, Elia Kazan’s direction, and Budd Schulberg’s well-constructed screenplay adds up to one of the best American dramas of the 1950s.

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Roger and Me-While our favorite lib’rul agitprop director has made a number of films addressing the travails of wage slaves and ever-appalling indifference of the corporate masters who grow fat off their labors, Michael Moore’s low-budget 1989 debut film remains his best (and is on the list of the top 25 highest-grossing docs of all time).

Moore may have not been the only resident of Flint, Michigan scratching his head over GM’s local plant shutdown in the midst of record profits for the company, but he was the one with the chutzpah (and a camera crew) to make a beeline straight to the top to demand an explanation. His target? GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Does he bag him? Watch it and find out. An insightful portrait of working class America that, like most of his subsequent films, can be at once harrowing and hilarious, yet hopeful and humanistic.

Life during wartime: This Corner of the World ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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Is everybody safe?

Has everybody got a place to hide?

Is everybody warm inside?

 

Hear them singing

All the women of Bombay

Standing with the Nagasaki housewives in doorways

In eruptions and destructions on Doomsday

 

– from “The Yard Went on Forever” (lyrics by Jimmy Webb)

 

This past August 11, just several days after two sobering anniversaries-the nuclear destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945, respectively, a contemplative anime drama called In This Corner of the World made its U.S. debut; easy to overlook amid the Emoji, Spider-Man and Atomic Blonde mayhem.

Co-written and directed by Sunao Katabuchi, the film (adapted from writer-illustrator Fumiyo Kono’s eponymous manga) is a snapshot of everyday Japanese life from the 1930s through the 1940s, through the eyes of a young woman named Suzu (voiced by Rena Nonen). Katabuchi uses flashback and flash-forward to tell Suzu’s story. A dreamer with a flair for art, Suzu was raised in the seaside village of Eba (a sector of Hiroshima City). We first meet her at age 18 (a year before the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima).

Suzu learns from her parents that a young man named Shusaku (voiced by Yoshimasa Hosoya) is on his way from Kure (a nearby port city with a large naval base) to ask for her hand in marriage. The respectful and low-key Shusaku, who has a civilian job with the navy, once had a chance encounter with Suzu when they were both children (although she doesn’t remember). Obviously, she made more of an impression on him than the other way around; still, Suzu is intrigued and longs for a change of scenery. She accepts his proposal and accompanies her husband to Kure, where she moves in with his family.

Over the next year of her life, the harsh realities of the war begin to creep ever closer to home for Suzu and her family; especially once Allied bombers begin to target the nearby naval base. Suzu is still living in Kure when nearby Hiroshima befalls its inevitable fate on August 6, 1945. Separated by a mountain, Kure is out of the blast zone, but residents are witness to the blinding flash, the horrifying mushroom cloud, and fleeing victims.

What separates this film from previous anime dramas that beg comparison (e.g. Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies) is painstaking attention to historical detail regarding not only daily lives of Japanese civilians before, during and after the war (the aforementioned films focused almost solely on the immediate horrors of destruction and suffering), but in recreating the look and feel of the principal locations where the story takes place (the production staff did exhaustive research on pre-war Hiroshima’s architecture and layout, using archival photos and eyewitness recollections from surviving residents).

The animation is outstanding; there are several set pieces that are truly inspired, particularly a sequence that finds Suzu caught out in the open on the verdant hills overlooking the ocean during a U.S. aircraft strafing attack. Frozen in a strange state between fear and wonder, Suzu becomes oddly entranced by the exploding puffballs of flak in the clear blue sky around her. As the perspective subtly switches to Suzu’s POV, you realize that you are suddenly watching the frightful mayhem though an artist’s eye; the sky becomes a vast canvas, and the flak akin to Jackson Pollack shooting paintballs.

The only bone I have to pick is a bit of narrative confusion here and there, caused not so much by the vacillation between flashback and flash-forward sequences, but the occasional flights of fancy (or perchance, dreaming?) that Suzu has (a little pilfering from The Wizard of Oz, if you catch my drift). But then again, that could be a personal problem; choosing to watch a subtitled version can distract you from crucial visual cues (at the theater where I saw the film, they offered both subtitled and dubbed showings).

Those minor quibbles aside, this is an involving humanistic study (reminiscent of the quietly observant dramas of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu), with just the right balance of drama and humor. Like Hayao Miyazaki’s 2014 anime The Wind Rises, Katabuchi’s film may delicately side-step any avenues that potentially lead to addressing thornier issues like collective guilt or complicity by fealty to the emperor; but considering that most of the characters are non-combatants, In This Corner of the World is closer in spirit to those great films that remind us that as long as we wage wars, there will always be innocents who get caught in the crossfire.

And it is the duty of survivors, as well as subsequent generations, to dedicate themselves to build a world where the need to wreak such horrors upon one another becomes, once and for all, unequivocally abhorrent to all.

Accept the obvious: R.I.P. Dick Gregory

By Dennis Hartley

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“The most difficult thing to get people to do is to accept the obvious.”

-Dick Gregory

Man, did Dick Gregory pick a bad weekend to go. With the passing of Jerry Lewis and eclipse mania building to a fever pitch, his death in Washington D.C. this past Saturday earned him but a few perfunctory thirty second obits on network and cable newscasts.

Truth be told, Gregory was not so much a “comedian” who went out of his way to make you laugh as he was a righteous, erudite truth teller, who also happened to be very funny.  He was a trickster of a sort;  he would lower your guard with a perfect zinger, then seconds later he would raise your consciousness with a sharp social insight.

“Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve colored people here.’  I said: ‘that’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.’ “

-Dick Gregory

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When it came to his political activism, he didn’t just talk the talk:

[From The Los Angeles Times]

An invitation from civil rights leader Medgar Evers to speak at voter registration rallies in Jackson, Miss., in 1962 launched Gregory into what he called “the civil rights fight.”

He was frequently arrested for his activities in the ’60s, and once spent five days in jail in Birmingham, Ala. after joining demonstrators in 1963 at the request of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Gregory, who was shot in the leg while trying to help defuse the Watts riots in 1965, made a failed run for mayor of Chicago as a write-in candidate in 1967. A year later, he ran for president as a write-in candidate for the Freedom and Peace Party, a splinter group of the Peace and Freedom Party. Hunter S. Thompson was one of his most vocal supporters.

In the late ’60s, he began going on 40-day fasts to protest the Vietnam War.

In 1980, impatient with President Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis, he flew to Iran and began a fast, had a “ceremonial visit” with revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and met with the revolutionary students inside the embassy. After four and a half months in Iran, his weight down to 106 pounds, he returned home.

Not exactly your everday “ha-ha funny” type of clown, was he?

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His activism never stopped. From today’s Democracy Now tribute (I’d recommend watching the entire tribute-its quite moving)…

Gregory became one of the most popular comedians in the country, paving the way for generations of African-American comedians. On Sunday Chris Rock wrote on Instagram, “We lost a king. They’ll never be another. Read his books. Look him up you won’t be disappointed. Unfortunately the America that produced Dick Gregory still exists.” Dick Gregory was the first African-American comedian to sit on the couch of The Tonight Show, then hosted by Jack Parr. As his popularity grew, so did his activism.

[…]

More recently, his face appeared in newspapers across the country for his community action to — approach to investigate allegations behind the CIA’s connection with drugs in the African American community. He camped out in dealer-ridden public parks and rallied community leaders to shut down head shops. He protested at CIA headquarters and was arrested. Throughout his life, Dick Gregory has been a target of FBI and police surveillance. And he was virtually banned from the entertainment arena for his political activism.

The last sentence above  explains in part (sadly) why, despite his long career, you’ll find virtually no Dick Gregory performance clips on YouTube. That’s because he has essentially been blacklisted for years; there are very few archived TV or club appearances that exist.

Here’s a little taste of his early standup days:

Here’s a rare latter-day television appearance, on Arsenio in 2014:

There’s a lot of truth-telling going on in that interview. Interesting to note that Arsenio Hall’s “revival” run (that started in 2013)  was cancelled soon after (file under “Things That Make You Go: ‘Hmm.'”)

“To me, seeing a great comedian is a bit like watching a musician or a poet.”

-Dick Gregory

Accept the obvious:  America’s conscience has lost its Poet Laureate. R.I.P.