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.

The day the clowns cried: R.I.P. Jerry Lewis

By Dennis Hartley

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“Jerry Lewis is never just OK or adequate; he’s either very funny or he’s awful.”  – Jerry Lewis, commenting on his film oeuvre.

Yes, I used “Jerry Lewis” and “oeuvre” in the same sentence. “Ouevre” is a fancy French word that means “Hey, LAAY-DEE!”

I’m kidding. Mirriam-Webster defines  it as “…a substantial body of work constituting the life work of a writer, an artist, or a composer.”

Jerry Lewis, who died this morning in Las Vegas, certainly left behind a substantial body of work.  From 1949 to 2016, he acted in over 50 films; out of those he directed 23, and wrote 20 of them. And, as Lewis himself observed, some were very funny, others not so much.

Some of Lewis’ early, funnier movies include 1952’s The Stooge, 1955’s Artists and Models, 1959’s Don’t Give Up the Ship (those three co-starring his decade-long stage and screen comedy partner Dean Martin),  The Bellboy (1960), Cinderfella (1960), The Ladies Man (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963),  and The Disorderly Orderly (1964).

Martin Scorsese gave Lewis a second wind when he offered him a juicy part in his brilliant 1982 show biz satire The King of Comedy (highly recommended). It not only introduced Lewis to a new generation of fans, but allowed him to demonstrate that he had chops as a dramatic actor (when he wasn’t pulling faces, that is). Two more post-Scorsese Lewis performances worth a rental are Emir Kusturica’s 1993 off-the-wall sleeper Arizona Dream, and Peter Chelsom’s 1995 dramedy Funny Bones.

While he had continued writing, directing and starring in films through the early 70s, Lewis floundered at the box office as his particular brand of shtick went out of vogue in Hollywood. “Hollywood” is the key word here; as everyone and their grandmother knows, it was the undying admiration by the French that ultimately kept Lewis’ rep as a film maker afloat during his wilderness years (they gave him the Legion of Honor award in 1983).

Despite all the joking and ridicule spawned by France’s love affair with Jerry Lewis, they were on to something. He was, by definition, an auteur,  having written, directed and starred in so many films. A lot of people are not aware that he was also an innovator. He essentially invented the “video tap”, a signal-splitting device that attaches to a movie camera and allows the director to share the  camera operator’s view in real time, via a separate video monitor.

I am aware that Lewis’ self-appraisal as being either “very funny or awful” as an artist could apply on occasion to his off-stage life. He didn’t always think before he spoke. That noted, stepping back to look at the big picture, this was a human being who devoted well over 70 years of his long and productive life to making people laugh.

And that’s a good thing. Going up?

Celestial seasonings: A total eclipse mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 19, 2017)

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Depending on your worldview, Monday’s super-hyped solar eclipse may be interpreted as: a). A sign of the impending apocalypse, b). A sign that once in a blue moon, the moon blows in and obscures the sun, giving humanity the impression (for a few heart stopping moments) that the apocalypse has, in fact, arrived, or c). A dollar sign for event promoters, hoteliers, tow truck drivers, and people who sell cheap cardboard sunglasses.

I know. I’m a cynical bastard.

If the “Eclipse of the Century” forces people to tear themselves away from their 5 inch iPhone screen to gaze up at The Big Sky, and ponder the awesomeness and vastness of the cosmos (and most importantly, humankind’s relative insignificance in the grand scheme of things)…then I’m for it (I Googled “can you view the eclipse with a…” and right after “mirror”, “sunglasses” and “welding mask”, there it was- goddamn “iPhone”).

Do me a favor. If you’re lucky enough to make it through the horrendous traffic and wriggle through the madding crowd to snag a perfect observation point in one of the areas that will experience totality…don’t view it through a 5-inch screen…LOOK at it! Wear eye protection, of course, but experience the ACTUAL PHENOMENON! Thanks.

After all, as Carl Sagan observed:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

BTW, here’s evolutionary perspective on why we sophisticated, technically-advanced humanoids still get the tiniest little lizard brain-fueled twitch when Big Light Go Away:

With that in mind, please enjoy this special mixtape that I have assembled to accompany the solar system’s ultimate laserium show (don’t worry-I didn’t forget the Floyd, man!).

 

The Rolling Stones- “2000 Light Years from Home”

Paul Weller- “Andromeda”

The Orb- “Backside of the Moon”

Kate Bush- “The Big Sky”

Soundgarden- “Black Hole Sun”

Husker Du- “Books about UFOs”

Pink Floyd- “Brain Damage/Eclipse”

Crosby, Stills, & Nash- “Dark Star”

The Ian Gillian Band- “Five Moons”

Moxy- “Moon Rider”

King Crimson- “Moonchild”

Nick Drake- “Pink Moon”

Elton John- “Rocket Man”

David Bowie- “Space Oddity”

Liz Phair- “Stars and Planets”

Yes- “Starship Trooper”

Bonnie Hayes- “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

The Church- “Under the Milky Way”

Paul McCartney & Wings- “Venus + Mars”

Gamma- “Voyager”

In the Seattle mist with Confederate Dead

By Dennis Hartley

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A friend and I were commiserating the other day about how demoralizing the events in Charlottesville were. Being a couple of old lefty Seattle hippies, we were of course feeling the need to “do” something; how to make a counter-statement to this brazen display of racism and hate? I joked, “It’s not like we can go out and pull down a Confederate statue…good luck finding one in this town, amirite?”

In Seattle, you’re more likely to bump into a public statue of Lenin:

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Or Jimi:

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Or a troll under a bridge, crushing a VW bug in his huge maw:

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Seattle is funky. Whimsical. Confederate memorials? Nah! Well, shit:

[via The Seattle Times]

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray expressed “concerns” about a monument to Confederate soldiers in Capitol Hill’s Lake View Cemetery, which closed Wednesday afternoon for security reasons.

A statement issued by Murray’s office said he called a cemetery representative Wednesday regarding the monument, which was erected in 1926. The cemetery is privately owned.

Lake View Cemetery closed Wednesday afternoon after receiving threats related to the monument, said Craig Lohr of the Lake View Cemetery Association. Seattle news media recently reported on the existence of the monument.

The cemetery — best known as the final resting place for martial-arts star Bruce Lee and his son Brandon, as well as Seattle’s founders — will likely reopen Thursday morning.

The mayor’s statement said:

“We must remove statues and flags that represent this country’s abhorrent history of slavery and oppression based on the color of people’s skin. It is the right thing to do. During this troubling time when neo-Nazis and white power groups are escalating their racist activity, Seattle needs to join with cities and towns across the country who are sending a strong message by taking these archaic symbols down.”

The mayor’s office couldn’t be reached to clarify Murray’s statement.  A petition on Change.org calling for the removal of the memorial had more than 3,200 supporters late Wednesday afternoon.
Also on Wednesday, a small group of protesters gathered around the Vladimir Lenin statue in Fremont to demand its removal. The statue, located on private property, has been for sale for years and has been vandalized with red paint on one of its hands.

What our mayor said. And I’m sure Bruce Lee would concur.

And OK, I “get” what the handful of protesters calling for removal of  the Lenin statue are trying to say…in theory. And if it was any other week, I’d give ’em a fair hearing. But you know what? In the context of the events of this past weekend, that’s a false equivalency. I don’t believe I spotted any overt Leninist marchers carrying (and beating people with) tiki torches in Charlottesville. I believe some of those fine people were self-avowed, oh, what are they called again…Nazis?

In this case, what the mayor (and most of the other people of the world who aren’t Donald Trump) are saying is, that if the first step in purging this legacy of violence, bigotry, and (oh yes) sedition against the United States of America is to take these archaic symbols down…then by all means, take all these fucking archaic symbols down.

The president stated that history and culture are being “ripped apart” by tearing these statues down. That is just an extension of the tired old argument that’s been used in the past by individuals and organizations who concern troll about “historical preservation” when attempting to legally block Confederate flags from being removed from government property. The Jim Crow laws are also part of the south’s history and culture…is anyone clamoring to have those resurrected and preserved as well? (I’m sure there’s some.)

It is possible to purge such symbols of hatred while keeping your democracy intact. Just ask any German.  From The Washington Post:

Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Monday that the violence that unfolded in Charlottesville was “sickening.” He described the symbols and slogans employed in “the right-wing extremist march” — including swastikas and chants of “Blood and soil,” a Nazi-era motto — as “diametrically opposed to the political goals of the chancellor and the entire German government.”

[…]

“Most people in Germany have difficulty understanding that gatherings like in Charlottesville are possible in the U.S., because we have drawn a different lesson from history,” said Matthias Jahn, chairman of criminal law at Goethe University in Frankfurt. “Our German law centers on the strong belief that you should hinder this kind of speech in a society committed to principles of democratic coexistence and peace.”

Those Germans sound like a bunch of old lefty Seattle hippies.