Bill Murray Bill Murray Bill Murray. One of the funniest and emotionally appealing films of the year. Bill Murray turns in an Oscar worthy performance as the curmudgeonly neighbor and Naomi Watts knocks it out of the park as the pregnant Russian hooker.
Genius Loves Company
Photo: Benn Bell Sculpture: Picasso Model: Ginger Bell
All Photos by Benn Bell
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that reminds you of why you love movies so much. Sometimes you forget because there is so much crap out there in commercial fare. First Reformed is just such a movie. Written and directed by Paul Schrader, it is a movie not to be missed.
First a little about Paul Schrader. He is now 71. When he was 24 and a film student he wrote a book, which proved to be very influential in the coming years, entitled, Transcendental Style in Film. He fell under the sway of esteemed film critic Pauline Kael and became a film critic himself. Two years later he was writing and directing films. He is best known for Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). He has 24 screen writing credits and 23 director credits. Even though he is known for a particular style he has never employed the transcendental style in any of his movies. Until now.
First Reformed is shot in transcendental style which Schrader first defined as a 24-year-old film student. What is transcendental style anyway? A style of filmmaking employed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, and Yasujiro Ozu. Transcendental style is an attempt to withhold certain cinematic elements the viewer might expect to see. Sometimes a static camera is employed, sometimes a kinetic camera. Slower cuts and fewer cuts. The camera might linger on a doorway a little while longer after a character leaves a scene, A static camera lingers on an empty room as characters enter then exit. The camera holds a little longer than expected. These devices are intended to make the viewer “lean’ in to the movie and to engage the viewer. It is a style that is intended to bring the viewer closer to the “other”, to the mystery.
It is called transcendental because there is a spiritual dimension that is sought after. This is achieved through style not content. Schrader later revealed in interviews that he realized what he was witnessing in some of the films he studied was an outgrowth of post WWII neorealism.
Schrader breaks from that style twice in First Reformed. The first time is a tender scene in which Toller and Mary lie on top of each other while they try to match their breathing patterns. Schrader asks himself, what would Tarkovsky do? Levitate! So, he has the couple mysteriously begin to levitate. The other time is the film’s final scene, which is I won’t describe here.
Schrader freely admits who his influencers were: “There is a little Tarkovsky in there. The credits are from Rossellini. The barbed wire is from Flannery O’Connor (I knew it!). That’s the secret of creativity. You have to steal around.” Also, it is pretty evident that Winter Light (1963), directed by Ingmar Bergman, was the blueprint for this film.
Ethan Hawke, in probably the best performance of his career, plays Reverend Ernest Toller, a character in spiritual crisis. He is pastor at the First Reformed Church which is a spin off of a mega-church called Abundant Life Ministries run by Reverend Joel Jeffers, played very effectively by Cedrick the Entertainer (Cedric Kyles) in an unusual casting choice.
Toller’s church is small and has few parishioners. The source of his pain is that as a military chaplain he encouraged his son to enlist in the army who was later killed in action in Iraq. His marriage did not survive his son’s death. His ministry at First Reformed is sort of a penance.
One morning after service a young woman approaches Toller and asks him to counsel her husband. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is with child. Her husband Michael is going through a spiritual crisis of his own. He is an environmental activist and is very depressed at the thought of bringing a child into the world that is undergoing the throes of devestating climate change. He wants Mary to have an abortion. During their counseling session Michael asks the question, “Will God Forgive us for destroying his creation?”
Toller is a drinking man and keeps a journal in his spare study. He continues to drink and slips further into despair. After his dealings with Michael he slowly starts to become radicalized. He moves closer to Mary but cannot overcome his despair. The movie progresses to a startling conclusion which leaves the viewer a little bit perplexed. It is an ambiguous ending and we don’t know for sure if what we are witnessing is reality. In any case this is a powerful film that one is not likely soon to forget.
Is There Free Will?
There is in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find Free Will in Central Park, home of the country’s longest running Free Shakespeare in the Park.
Last night Kentucky Shakespeare, spearheaded by managing producer Matt Wallace, mounted another successful production of one of the bard’s history plays: Henry IV.
Directed by Amy Attaway and acted by a fine ensemble cast it was sight to behold and a treat to listen to. Only a few minor quibbles. Couple of times the mics seemed to fall into a dead zone causing the actor’s voices to drop, a missed light cue or two, and a couple of slow entrances, but these are minor flaws in an otherwise outstanding performance.
Henry IV is one of my favorites among many of Shakespeare’s plays. It has some of his best lines and it introduces one of the greatest characters of all time, Falstaff. Some have said that Falstaff is a stand in for Shakespeare himself and have cited the similarity in their names: Fall/staff, Shake/speare.
Harold Bloom writing in his, Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human, quotes Hegel: “Shakespeare made his best characters free artists of themselves.” The freest of them all are Hamlet and Falstaff because they are they are the most intelligent of Shakespeare’s persons. Falstaff certainly shows his proclivity for eating, drinking, and fornicating and basically being a social deviant.
Anthony Burgess suggests that the Falstaffian spirit is a great sustainer of civilization. It disappears when the state is too powerful. There is little of Falstaff’s spirit in the world today. As the power of the state expands, what is left will be liquidated.
But wait…don’t banish Falstaff, not sweet, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Fallstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, old Falstaff, banish plump Jack and banish all the world.
Keep Will Free!
My step daughter Kim visited me recently. As is our wont to do we had a literary discussion about books and what books influenced us and why. Of course we talked about Hemingway and Camus. But then we landed on Kafka. What, she wanted to know, made me like Kafka so much?
Well, that gave me pause. I allude to Kafka a lot in my writing and in my conversations with people but is has been awhile since I last read his works. The best I could come up with was that I identified with his sense of alienation and absurdity and the bureaucratic nightmare that modern man seems to live under as depicted in his works. I got to thinking. Why else? Well, it had been about 40 years since I last read Metamorphosis, so I decided I would reread it.
I had it in my library. It was the original copy that I had read in the 1970’s. But the book wasn’t in very good condition. The pages had yellowed, there was mold or something growing on the frontispiece, and the spine was cracked and coming apart in the middle. I decided I needed another copy. So, I did what any respectable book buyer might do, I went on line. I found a book and ordered it. Not wanting to wait the two days for its arrival I decide to download a copy to my Kindle so that I could start reading right away.
Now, I remember the first time I read The Metamorphosis, as I say, some 40 odd years ago. I had taken the book along with me on a visit to the emergency room. I had just crashed my motorcycle and broken my leg. The attending physician looked at the book I was reading as I was waiting to be examined. He looked at the book, then looked at me, and then looked at the book again. “Pretty heavy reading isn’t it?” He asked.
Well that may give you an example of the absurdity of my existence up to that point right there.
As I remembered in the book, Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to discover he had been transformed into a gigantic bug. As I remembered it was a cockroach. I had already been disabused of that notion long ago and realized it was a beetle. Now when I stated reading my kindle edition it said “vermin.” Well that wasn’t good enough for me. I needed to see “beetle.” So, I decided I’d wait for the actual book to arrive. It came and I started in to reading it. I came to the fateful passage and it read “verminous bug.” Still not good enough! But I read on. This could go on forever, I thought. I guess there was something lost in translation or in my memory. Speak memory! Later on in the book there was a passage that referred to Gregor as a “dung beetle.” Now, feeling gloriously vindicated, I read the rest of the story in a condition of sublime justification.
Now that I have reread the story I feel that I can speak definitively as to what the book says to me. The story reflects thematically on feelings of alienation, anxiety, and guilt, which pretty well sums up man’s absurd relationship to the world in which he lives and one I have very much identified with ever since I can remember. The story operates in a random, chaotic, and absurd universe, as do we all. Do things happen for a reason or do they befall us purely by chance? That is the question Kafka seems to be exploring in this surrealistic story of transformation.
Another thing I like about Kafka is his take on the kinds of books to read and by extension the kinds of books to write. I also believe this can be applied to other types of art as well.
In a letter to a friend he says: “I think you should only read books that bite and sting you. If the book we read does not wake us with a blow to the skull, why do we read the book? To make us happy as you write? My God, we would be happy if we had no books, and such books that make us happy, we could write to the emergency. But we need the books that affect us like a misfortune that hurts us a lot, like the death of one we loved rather than us, as if we were going into forests, away from all people, like a suicide, a book must be the ax for the frozen sea in us.”
2018 is turning out to be a pretty good year for films. Although the ones I most recently really liked were actually released in 2017 and are just now getting here: Let the Sunshine In and First Reformed (reviews to follow). After all, Louisville is just a lonely outpost at the edge of civilization. The British have a saying about being posted to such a station: Never drink before dark, but never go to bed quite sober either. Good advice.
One of my many guilty pleasures as a film buff is watching the films of Woody Allen. I know he is a controversial artist but I love his films anyway. Thus, the source of my guilt. Can we separate the art from the artist? I don’t know. But I do love his films.
His latest foray into the cinematic realm is the nostalgia laden Wonder Wheel, which takes place at Coney Island in the 1950’s.
The critics have been harsh on this film but unjustly so in my opinion. They have slammed the writing concluding there was not much point to the film. Au Contraire. This is a wonderful piece of entertainment, if a bit melodramatic, but melodrama was indeed the point.
I think the critics just don’t like Woody Allen, for obvious reasons, and continually judge him by his best work of the past. In Hollywood you are only as good as your last time at bat.
Now here’s the bad part. Sometimes Kate Winslet’s character seems to be channeling Blanche du Bois and sometimes she seems to be channeling Mia Farrow. Definitely heard some Woody Allen coming from Mickey the Lifeguard and what about that red headed step child who was a pyromaniac? Could that be Ronan Farrow burning down the house? And let us not forget the plot twist of Mickey overthrowing the older Ginny for her stepdaughter Carolina. And you thought your had drama in your life.
There is dark humor in this film as well a pathos. Kate Winslet is a wonder in Wonder Wheel giving one of her most emotionally resonant performance in years as an aging would be actress (I coulda been a contenda) stuck in a dead end life as a waitress in a clam house on the boardwalk at Coney Island and living in an apartment in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel. Jim Belucshi is Stanley Kowalski to her Blanche. Yes, I see echoes of Tennessee Williams here.
The real star of the show is Coney Island as depicted by the wonderful cinematography of famed cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The the amazing color in Wonder Wheel perfectly captures the time of the period and is achingly beautiful.
Two thumbs way up for this Woody Allen cinematic classic.
One of my best friends from back in the day was the renowned football player Reggie Garret. Reggie once played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and had two Super Bowl Games under his belt.
Naturally he had two Super Bowl rings. One with one diamond and one with two. Sometimes when we went out together barhopping and catting around he would wear both massive rings, one on each hand. Needless to say, he was a chick magnet. The women would just gravitate to him and surround him. I always felt lucky to get his overflow.
One night while at the Brass Rail we were chatting up a very pretty black chick. After a while it became pretty obvious she was more into me than she was into him. Since we were a salt-and-pepper team he just couldn’t understand how a black chick could be more into me than into him. Oh well! Anyway, he never got over it and whenever the subject came up later on he referred to it as the, “baby, baby, baby…” incident. Even years later. We always had a big laugh over it whenever it came up. Sometimes we would even answer the phone, “Baby, baby, baby,”
On another occasion we were out having drinks at the Frontier Club across the street from the factory where we both worked. It was happy hour. We were drinking with our boss, Jim Smith. Now Jim liked to take his subordinates out to drink and have them pay for it and then put it on our expense accounts. That way we all got to drink for free.
Well this one night at the Frontier Club we were having drinks up at the bar and a friend of Reggie’s comes over and says, “Is that fat faced motherfucker your boss?”
Well Jim’s jaw dropped opened, his face got red, and his eyes popped.
Reggie started in to stuttering and I excused myself to the gents. When I got back Reggie’s friend was long gone, Reggie was hanging his head in shame, and Jim was getting up to leave.
We got a big laugh out of this one too later on but we never brought it up around Jim.
We made bottles for the beer industry. Budweiser was just down the road. Whenever we went out we were expected to drink Budweiser which I couldn’t stand. I preferred Heineken. We don’t make bottle for Heineken, Jim would say, but Budweiser. This Bud’s for you!
Well I ran across this passage from The Road to Wiagn Pier by George Orwell, which pretty much sums up how I feel about Budweiser beer: “Look at the filthy chemical by-product people pour down their throats under the name of beer.”
That was it. It was beer in name only.
Baby, baby, baby….
Oh, the black chick? We got married.
The Story of a Victorian Mansion
On one fine day in May I was strolling through one of old Louisville’s beautiful “walking courts” with my good friend and trusted side-kick Victoria Mansion. When much to our surprise we came upon a phenomenon down toward the end of the block for which neither of us was fully prepared. A Pink House! Now this wasn’t any ordinary sort of pink house it was an extra fancy with raisins sort of pink house. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t a house at all but a palace.
What caught our interest was a small gathering on the porch. Everyone had a drink in their hand and seemed to be having a good time. Come on in, they beckoned. Well it was just too hard to resist. Turns out it was an open house put on by a local real estate agency. The old Pink House was for sale!
Now let me tell you what they had to offer for refreshments: beer, whiskey, two kids of wine, cheese and crackers, and sushi. Well, we came right on in and helped ourselves. We were invited to explore the house which we did.
A little of the history of the place. The “Pink Palace”, circa 1896, features beautiful period architectural details and a massive turret. The entry foyer and elaborate and ornate staircase are impressive to see as you enter the front door. You will see quarter-sawn “Tiger Oak” floors and woodwork throughout and magnificent stained and leaded glass windows. The “turret” rooms are located on each level of the house are as you might imagine round and filled with light. Great for sitting or reading.
This glorious mansion began its history as a Gentleman’s Club and Casino for the male residents of St. James Court and Belgravia Court to relax and unwind. They enjoyed a good cigar, brandy, stimulating conversation and cards, as well as other past times including the services of ladies of the evening.
The Gentleman’s Club was in existence for only a few years before it was sold to the local chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union who bought the mansion for their headquarters and promptly painted the red brick structure pink. Hence the “Pink Palace.”
It is said the Pink House is haunted by a friendly ghost named Aviary.
He only appears at times of danger to warn the residents…
You can see Aviary in the mirror above the fireplace.
It was on a very merry day in May…..
Comedy of Errors
Saw a production of Kentucky Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors in Central Park last night in Old Louisville. Matt Wallace’s merry band of players brought this hilarious play of mistaken identity to vivid life on the outdoor stage. Even if you don’t understand every single word of the Elizabethan tongue you will have no problem following the action.
Kudos to Matt Wallace for his fine directing and stage blocking. Many scenes were staged to look like paintings or tableaus. And the costumes! Divine. Colorful, flowing, rich, sensuous materials; candy to the eye and music to the ear. All against a color coordinated set dominated by brown with white furniture, windows, doors, and lattice works. Baskets of brightly colored fruits and vegetable accented the tables.
At no time did the action drag. As one character leaves the stage another enters, usually talking.
Really liked the Greek dance at the end. A nice grace note to end upon.
All in all, it was a Comedy Tonight!
With the passing of Philip Roth the world has lost a lion of literature.
All my favorite writers are dying off. John Updike, Saul Bellow, Edward Albee, and now Philip Roth. Who will take their place? No one. There is literally no one who can fill the shoes of theses giants. With the passing of Philip Roth follows the death of the Great American Novel.