Friday, February 23, 2018

Fantastic Planet

What was that song by Porno For Pyros? The line "we'll make great pets"?  Did Perry Ferrell get inspired by 1973's FANTASTIC PLANET, an animated curiosity from France that has long courted a decent sized cult? A film Criterion recently added to its coveted ranks?  Its story of giant humanoids ("Draags") who keep humans, or "Om"s as playthings has as a starting point the idea that enslaving smaller creatures is cruel and demoralizing.  I remember Madonna speaking out against the practice of having domesticated pets, how unnatural it is.  Could you also consider that pets have a good life, with shelter and food they would otherwise have to forage?

A Draag might think that way.  It is far in the future on a planet called Ygam, where Draags keep the Oms in check with magnetic collars that keep them from wandering too far and enjoy a highly technologically advanced society.  They also are very into meditation.  A suddenly orphaned Om named Terr lives with Draag child Tiva, who foolishly allows her pet to listen in on her education sessions over a period of years.  The device is a headphone that transmits the info directly into the mind, a tool I'm sure many humans in the real world would appreciate. When Tiva becomes a teen and loses interest in Terr it becomes a perfect opportunity for the now older and savvy Om to break free and join the other wild Oms.  To perhaps plot a revolution.

In a running time that isn't much over an hour FANTASTIC PLANET thoughtfully explores tribalism, genocide, spirtuality, population control, and of course political structures. The Om societies easily lose control as they massively reproduce, later forming castes.  Meditation is shown for the Draags not only as a method for inner peace but also a way to propagate a species.  The Draags most certainly want to keep their underclass ignorant, lest they become dangerous.  Co-existence with them is not considered, at least, well...see the movie.

Narrative and characterization do suffer for the film's more omniscient point of view, especially in the later scenes.  We lose track of Terr and Tiva, as well as the latter's concerned parents.  We only get cursory knowledge of the many Oms we meet.  But I guess there just wasn't enough time.  Director Rene Laloux has created a visually astonishing motion picture whose utter coldness makes it all the more intriguing.  He is interested in themes, far moreso than individual character development.

Those who dig '70s cinema will also groove to Alain Goraguer's chicka pow score as they ponder their role in the universe.  Wondering if we really already are great pets for something else.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Mr. Graham

Billy Graham was the one of the few public evangelists I admired.  A godly man who truly adorned the armor of Christ and lived what he preached.  Before millions.  His crusades are still shown on television, and you would do well to watch and listen if you've been soured on the word of God as dispensed through a long parade of televangelist buffoons.  I don't need to name them.  I've always been amused by them, but the older I get, the laughter increasingly turns to nausea.

I was aware of Graham as early as the mid '70s, when I attended a private Baptist day school.  His photo was in the hall, and my teachers and church elders spoke of him often. Camp counselors at Lake Swan in Melrose, FL, where my church's summer camp was held for several years, explained that he preached his first sermon there.  My grandmother played cassette tapes of his sermons.  His style was direct and free of fire and brimstone posturing.  He preached the Bible.  Even those who did and do not agree with the message could respect the man's convictions.  There were meetings with Nixon, Clinton, and all the other Presidents but Graham never seemed to be in anyone's pocket.

Was he perfect? Of course not.  There are those troubling anti-Semetic charges, but whether or not they are substantiated seems beside the point now.  Who knows the hearts of men, especially those who call upon His name?

Graham made the cover of Time in the early '90s under the banner "A Christian in Winter".  I always liked that.  It can have multiple meanings.  Graham held fast to his calling, his message, the decision to lead a life that followed Christ and proclaimed it to others, right to the end.  Many atheists respect him.  Perhaps they will do some soul searching as we mourn Billy Graham's death at the age of ninety-nine.

If anyone earned the privilege of hearing "Well done, my good and faithful servant"........

Monday, February 19, 2018

Kedi

The man describes that before he began feeding and caring for hordes of stray cats, he didn't know how to laugh, to enjoy life.  Salvation for him.  He lives in Turkey, but for animal lovers, that observation is entirely universal.  Most pet owners will attest to the immeasurable quality of life resulting from our non human friends' presence.  Stress melts as a furry one lands in our lap or rushes our leg in greeting.  I could be speaking of dogs or other animals of course, but 2016's KEDI focuses on the perhaps most intriguing four legged creatures of all.

I used the term "pet", suggesting domesticity, but the cats in this documentary are street roamers.  Free spirits who crawl the mysterious and beautiful alleyways of Instanbul, a city that gets as much of a showcase in director Ceyda Torun's as the felines, some of whom are identified and given descriptors.  They do their own thing as most cats do, but will return to the restaurants or studios of the humans who feed them and show them affection.  Chefs, artists, fish market vendors, and others give loving assessments of their visitors who became residents.  Anyone who has been around cats will recognize the described behaviors, many of which, it is pointed out, mirror that of humans.  Some viewers of KEDI might accuse the interviewees of anthropomorhism.  It's not unfounded, and usually accurate.

Charlie Wuppermann and Alp Korfali do some impressive cat level camera work, and their subjects don't always look at the lens! I'm sure the eighty minutes we have here were edited from hundreds or more hours.  Action shots include tree to awning jumps and a vivid hissing match during a turf war.  Periodically we get soaring drone shots above the city, which are gorgeous even if we get one or two too many.

KEDI, nicely scored by Kira Fontana, is expectedly adorable, and does address the terrible inevitability of the loss of life.  This is discussed realistically by a few folks we meet who have more or less devoted themselves to caring for the armies of feral kitties who daily wait for food and sometimes medicine.  Gentle souls who recognize that these thousands of creatures add to the landscape, and are an inseparable part of it.  Who worry about the continuous development that threatens it all.  With KEDI it won't take too much effort to discern that Torun's film is about far more than just the little furballs.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Post

2017's THE POST has lasting value if but for one sentiment, made late in the picture:

In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy.  The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.

Director Steven Spielberg had the opportunity to tell a story and knew that now was the time, with history repeating itself almost hourly.   He delivered a finished film in six months.  There was what I'm sure was a certain guerrilla aspect to such filmmaking, at least compared to a usual Spielberg production (including the upcoming READY PLAYER ONE).  This method seems appropriate, as during the story a group of Washington Post reporters find themselves with barely eight hours to sift through piles of documents that implicate several Presidential administrations in their assessment of the situation in Vietnam.  Highly damning stuff that dates back to the Harry Truman days.

THE POST recalls those tense times in the early 1970s, when Post editor in chief Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and publisher/owner Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) had to decide whether to run headlines based on those documents, originally leaked to the New York Times but gutted by court injunctions.  The timing was less than optimal.  The Post was about to go public in the stock market to assure solvency.  Everyone at the paper could've gone to jail if White House retaliation had proven that the source for the Times was the same as that for the endless piles of documents those reporters were rifling for a story.  Houston, we have a problem.

Liz Hannah and Josh Singer's script does play like a thriller, in a similar vein to 1976's ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, which of course dealt with another Post controversy.  And like the earlier film it is heavy with dialogue and concerned faces in offices and private homes hashing out options.  There is some time given to Graham's personal life: her daughter and granddaughter, her friendship with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood).  Bradlee's daughter too, who makes a killing at her lemonade stand during the reporters' marathon paper shuffling.  Most of the film is so, quiet (aside from a few manipulative bits of scoring cues by John Williams).  I imagine some viewers will be bored, especially younger ones who don't give a flip about history.

Too bad for them.  Spielberg has created an admirable, somewhat austere (or would "no frills" be a better description?), and even rousing movie that should matter to every American.  Nothing less than the First Amendment was at stake.  Bradlee even joined his Times rivals at the Supreme Court to plead the cause.  Former Times vice president and general counsel James Goodale may be disgruntled over how THE POST allegedly glosses over his paper's involvement in this story (which he calls "a good movie but bad history"), but what remains is an important cinematic rendering of a critical time in journalistic history.  Parts of the screenplay may somewhat heavy handedly drive home points that accentuate the follies of our current Administration, but they are actually quite salient.  Perhaps moreso than ever.

P.S. - THE POST would make a perfect double feature with ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, and even concludes with a nice set-up for the earlier film.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Philadelphia

1993's PHILADELPHIA may seem incredulous to contemporary viewers for a myriad of reasons.  Mainly for the attitudes of several characters toward Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), an attorney who is dismissed from his large firm for alleged incompetence.  Andrew is a homosexual who has recently learned he has the HIV virus.  Lesions become visible, one noticed by a partner in his firm.  The firing is rightly believed to be related to Andrew's condition, coinciding with suspiciously missing paperwork for a case he was completing.

The attitudes of his former colleagues may not be so surprising; wagon circling is common in corporate culture. Long held prejudices and a lack of education about AIDS were to be expected in the years following the proliferating epidemic that ravaged many far beyond the gay community.  These attitudes are still very much in evidence today, perhaps brought to light even more given the outcome of the 2016 election.  Director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner seemed to be groundbreakers with their movie, one even many of my so-called progressive friends avoided back in '93.  They felt uncomfortable with the subject, and even with the PG-13 rating were worried about scenes of gay intimacy.

Interesting that Denzel Washington, who was quoted as telling Will Smith "don't be kissing on no man" when the latter was cast in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, plays personal injury attorney Joe Miller, who eventually represents Andrew despite a burden of homophobia. It should be no mystery to any viewer that Joe will eventually become more accepting (if not entirely tolerant) of Andrew and his lifestyle.

There were plenty of independent films that fearlessly and accurately examined gay culture and *gasp* treated these characters like normal people (1985's PARTING GLANCES).  Folks who, just like the rest of us, had concerns about paying bills and the infrastructures of their cities.  But Hollywood had always previously treated homosexuals as freaks, caricatures, mentally disturbed, psychotic, or walking jokes to be ridiculed (1982's PARTNERS) or even feared (1980's CRUISING).

PHILADELPHIA was nonetheless criticized by some in the gay community for playing it safe when it came to depictions of Andrew's social life, especially moments with boyfriend Miguel (Antonio Banderas).  I think the movie, while not perfect, is very tasteful and gives us just enough to understand Andrew Beckett and his struggle to assimilate into an old boys' club firm.   Forced to smile along with crude jokes.  Those who grew up watching shows like Will & Grace, where a gay character could be a professional without suffering slings and arrows, will find Andrew's pariah status a bit foreign, but it's accurate.  Demme handles every moment with sensitivity and respect.

That imperfect script has its implausibilities, mainly how every single member of Andrew's extended family is entirely accepting of him.  I just didn't believe it, if for no other reason than that old law of averages.  I also originally found the lengthy scene in which Andrew reacts to the beauty of Maria Callas' "La mamma morta" opera while Joe watches to be out of place, too precious.   It seemed liked it belonged in a different movie, but upon revisiting,  further exemplifies Andrew's character, and points the way for later movies and television shows to assume a more abstract yet direct, daring examination of a culture that still baffles, angers, and frightens many people.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Taco Viva

Periodically on the "Palm Beaches Remembered" page on Facebook are recollections of the long gone fast food chain Taco Viva.   The memories shared are quite fond.  They lament that no one serves a "wet burrito" these days.  They also rightly proclaim that Taco Bell has nothing on the place.   I have my own (mostly) favorable memories, having worked there part time in the mid 1980s.  I was in high school, looking for some extra spending cash.   I started during my junior year, working through the summer and a bit into my senior year.

I closed on weekends, which meant I wasn't done until about 2 A.M. Thank God we didn't have a drive thru.  We scrubbed that restaurant to a gleam, lemme tell ya.  It was sorta fun to mop and wipe while listening to Ozzy Osbourne, Steely Dan (who I was just getting into), and Rush.   I did not have a car so my father dutifully picked me up at that ungodly hour.  As most of my co-workers smoked marijuana right in the kitchen (and it was usually clouded heavily with the smoke), my tacky Southwestern designed uniform reeked of it by the end of my shift and I was always mildly concerned my father thought I might've partaken.  I never did, at least in those days.  He never inquired about that smell I brought into his vehicle.

My co-workers, in addition to being potheads, were generally good people.  They seemed very worldly to me, someone who grew up in an hermetic church bubble.  Yes, I had gone to public school since the third grade but had never been around those who spent Sunday mornings nursing hangovers rather than opening hymnals. They told me of their hedonistic lives, blowing their paychecks on intoxicants.  But a few others were supporting their families.  The mix of ages was significant.  One of the older ladies seemed to have problems with cognition.  She did not ring the cash register; she did things like "stock the line" - replacing supplies and food along the areas where tacos, burritos, tostadas, etc. were built.

Larry was the guy I worked with the most. Cool dude.  He drove a loud muscle car (maybe a Chevelle?) and smoked a lot of cigarettes. Always wore a white T-shirt.  He and I lit (and flung) illegal fireworks in the parking lot on the 4th of July.  He also tried to fix me up with another co-worker, whose name escapes me.  I wasn't interested; there were too many girls at my high school and at church who were more appealing and seemingly compatible. Larry and I had a few arguments, nothing serious.  I remember brooding in the large walk in cooler after one of them, a place I liked hanging out in anyway.  When my wife and I go to Costco, I always volunteer to get the kale from a similar fridge room there.

So many memories.  I was forever called in to cover for someone on my days off.  I used to turn the outside bucket washer (a vertical spray of water) full blast and watch it push upwards of twenty feet.   I rang up some of my high school classmates who mocked me for working there.  Eventually, we were told to put fewer strands of cheddar cheese on the tacos to save money (everyone ignored this).  I, a minor, served beer to customers.  I did not consume as much of it as you're probably guessing.  Honestly.  I did eat countless corn chips.  My manager and assistant manager, who were homosexual lovers, sent me across the street to Publix to buy their cigarettes. No one carded you in those days.  I also chatted with some of the prostitutes who would come in for an iced tea and a break from South Dixie Highway.  Some rough tales were told.

I usually made the guacamole.  Even though the avocado pulp came in a bag the resulting dip concoction was pretty damned good.  The combination of the pulp, sour cream, pico de gallo,  onions, and lemon juice was just right, thank you very much.  Was it as good as the freshly morter and pestled guac you get tableside at places like Rocco's Tacos these days? Maybe not, but I liked it.  So did many others, a loyal following that savored all the specialties, like El Scorcho hot sauce and those delectable bunuelos (crispy cinnamon strips).  The food was good.  The commercials were amusing.  When you said taco, you said "viva".
Note: My location is seen in the bottom left picture.  It closed not even a decade after I left.  It is now a Dunkin Donuts.

Monday, February 5, 2018

An Unmarried Woman

1978's AN UNMARRIED WOMAN is one of the best documents of the post women's liberation era I've seen.  It joins other cinema such as GIRLFRIENDS and LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR as an example of allowing women to take the lead role, perhaps appearing in every scene, and be examined as human beings who dare to challenge the roles society expects of them.  A society designed by men, of course.

Jill Clayburgh portrays Erica Benton, an upper East side wife and mother who is envied by her circle of friends for her seemingly perfect life. She and Martin (Michael Murphy), a wealthy stockbroker, do all the usual things marrieds do. They try to relate to their precocious teenage daughter Patti (Lisa Lucas).  They have a lot of sex but also fight about when they don't.    But one day her husband Martin (Michael Murphy) tearfully announces that he has fallen in love with a younger woman, someone he met while looking at shirts at a department store.  I know affairs can be ignited anywhere but if someone remade this film with these characters the whole thing would probably have begun while waiting in line at Starbucks.  Erica looks back at her perfect husband with disbelief and disgust.  Sixteen years of marriage. Everything gone in a matter of seconds.

The tears come later.  Martin moves out and Erica begins to examine herself, what went wrong in a life that was so meticulously mapped out.  She begins to see a psychiatrist named Tanya (played by real life therapist Penelope Russianoff), each session more painful but perhaps closer to self-actualization, self-awareness, what have you.  Erica feels guilty.  Tanya explains that guilt is unnatural, a man made emotion. Hmmm.  As Erica shows no signs of being religious, we can't blame the guilt on a deity, at least.

Erica will slowly begin to date again.  Unfortunately, her first stab is with Charlie, her arrogant and chauvanistic co-worker.  She allows herself to go back to his apartment.  When they begin to get intimate, she can't help but laugh.  She had never been with anyone else.  How is she supposed to feel?

Later, she meets an amiable English artist called Saul (Alan Bates) who has great potential to be her next mate, a serious relationship.  He's talented, funny, a good lover.  But has Erica reached a new level, found that life can thrive without a romantic appendage?

Clayburgh is just so fine as Erica.  Take that in every imaginable way.  Her litany of emotions never once rang false for me. Her role in witer/director Paul Mazursky's film is showy but never over (or under) played. She is indeed in every single scene.  This is late '70s life through her confused eyes, though we may react differently to Martin, Patti, and her friends (one is of whom is played by Kelly Bishop, in a part that will be quite amusing for fans of Gilmore Girls) than she does.  Mazursky realizes them all clearly.  When Patti is sarcastic during a dinner with her mother and Saul we understand that she is masking pain and confusion.

Does Erica do that? At times.  She can be abrupt, horribly bitchy (even to strangers), then tender.  AN UNMARRIED WOMAN always allows her to be herself, a complex "hot mess" (in the modern vernacular).  In 1978, it must have seemed revolutionary.  Less so now, though unlike many contemporary female characters she is not reduced to a pop culture spouting caustic.  She is a grown up, back in a time when grown ups made films for grown ups.