Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dream Diary: Only I would have a dream about Scarlett Johansson where she's unconscious half the time*

Long involved dream last night about Scarlett Johansson playing a character named Alice, who is being chased by a contract killer in the pay of a foreign government because Alice has information she doesn’t know she has, and the only way to make sure she doesn’t spill the beans is to shoot her. She’s being protected by me and a petite CIA brunette named Emory Snow. The contract killer tries to feed Alice/Scarlett a poisoned drink, but I knock it out of his hand and there’s a big bar-room brawl, a classic knock-down drag-out that wrecks furniture, mirrors, and whiskey bottles. And when I finally hit the killer over the head with a bar stool and he stays down, I look up to see Emory Snow putting a chloroformed cloth around Scarlett’s mouth from behind. Of course--she’s the real villain; she’ll sell Alice/Scarlett to the highest bidder and they can torture the info out of her. I chase them to the garage, and manage to grab onto the side of Emory’s Stingray as she drives off. She guns the motor to 90. The wind hits my face like a fist. There’s no sign of Alice in the car; she must be in the trunk. I climb over the roof to the back, hoping Emory doesn’t weave or anything because if she does, I’m dead. There’s a wide piece of leather flapping from the rear window down to the license plate, with snaps like a briefcase. I unhook the first snap, and the leather whips into my face, stinging my eye. I unhook the second flap, which opens the trunk door, and look inside. Alice isn’t there. I climb back to the passenger side of the car and prepare to swing in through the window. The plan is to kick Emory away from the wheel and take control of the car. “I wouldn’t do that, we’ll crash,” Emory says. The speedometer reads 120 and we’re going over a curving two-lane bridge. So I sit down next to her and let her drive us back to her hideout.

Which is the last thing I remember until I come to in a bathroom bigger than a two-bedroom apartment. Alice is lying on the tile floor beside me. Her head is wrapped in a plastic bag. “It’s very simple,” says Emory’s voice from somewhere nearby. “Alice is going to wake up in a few minutes, and when she does, I want you to make her laugh. It’s a great talent, making people laugh. All it will take is two or three breaths in that plastic bag and it’ll be all over.” She laughs. I shake my head like Indiana Jones at the guy with two swords and take the plastic bag off Alice's head. Then I look around the bathroom, open a couple of drawers, and see a gun in one of them, a small automatic. I pull it out. There’s a noise coming from the shower, so I slowly walk in and part the curtains, and there’s Emory in a soaking wet pantsuit holding a large antique Colt 45. “Get out,” I say. “What are you going to do, shoot me?” she says. I fire, and my gun squirts water. I burst out laughing. “Ah damn,” I say, “I guess it just doesn’t pay to hold anything but a 45, huh?” “Damn right,” she says, brandishing her gun, and that’s when I go for it, grabbing her hand and breaking one of her fingers as I wrench it away from her. She starts to fight me and I whack her a couple of times over the head with the gun, but she’s still conscious. Our fight leads us into the main bathroom, where Alice is still out like a light. I push myself hard against Emory’s back, forcing her against the floor, and start calling Alice's name. “Alice. Alice. Wake up. Wake up, Alice.” She groans. “I need you to do something. Alice wake up, I need you to do something. I need you to go to the garage and start the car. Can you do that, Alice? Alice. Wake up, Alice. Wake up. Wake up.” And I wake up.

*Wait--that describes most of her movie roles.

The Oscars: The Great White Hopes

The State of the Union Hollywood was this morning, and it's pretty clear how Hollywood wants to think of itself this year, based on total nods alone: The King's Speech got 12 nominations, True Grit got 10, and The Social Network got 8. And yeah, nominations don't always translate into statues, but it's not the potential winners that I'm pondering here, it's the marketing. Neither movie with the most nominations is based on current events, unlike The Social Network, which, compared those two, is more like an HBO movie that got released to theatres than a "film." The British Movie has two things going for it: it takes place 75 years ago, which is about the average age of the Academy voter, and it's intelligent without actually being smart, which is how Hollywood defines clever. The Remake Western has two things going for it as well: it's a remake, which means it strokes Hollywood's business-based ego as a supplier of product rather than a creator of originality, and it has that Independent Outsider Vibe, aka it's a Coen Brothers Film, something which actually used to be outside the mainstream once but can now be found in that insider room down the hall. So, based on nomination totals, these two are the pre-emptive heavy-hitters which Hollywood is angling to see square off against each other in the ring, for exactly the same reason as NBA officials always try to make sure that LA and Boston get into the Finals: it's a better story.

So what does the entire Best Movie field say about the state of Hollywood? Well, to my mind, the 10 Best Picture nominees are clearly divisible into two separate groups:

1. Best Picture For Reals: Black Swan, The Fighter, The King's Speech, The Social Network and True Grit. It's no accident that these five represent the five Best Director nominations. These are the heavy-hitters, the ones to beat. And what are they? A soft-core torture-porn version of The Red Shoes, this year's Holiday Sports Movie, this year's must-see Snob Hit, The Movie The Kids All Watched, and a xeroxed Western. Which are my admittedly snarky descriptions. So how will Oscar describe them? In the same order, A Young Girl's Struggle With Her Inner Demons, An Aging Young Man's Struggle To Compete, A Duke's Struggle To String Two Words Together Without Choking, A Young Asshole's Struggle To Change The World, and A Young Girl's Struggle To Catch Her Father's Killer Without Ever Once Speaking A Contraction.

MY FRIEND AMANDA: Still snarky there, pal.
ME: Sorry, can't help it.

2. Best Picture Nominees Who Are The Filmic Equivalent Of A Plus One: Inception, The Kids Are All Right, 127 Hours, Toy Story 3, and Winter's Bone. And I use the plus-one comparison deliberately. These movies are the arm candy that make you look good, but none of them have a chance in hell of winning anything. Toy Story 3, for instance, which is one of the two actual best movies this year, is also nominated as Best Animated Feature, so cross that one off the list. Winter's Bone, this year's live-action best movie, was directed by a woman, and since Kathryn Bigelow's victory last year means there'll be a good five years of women directors being happy just to be nominated, that takes care of both Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right,which was also directed by a woman. Inception is on the list because it made a ton of money, but it was actually very smart, not just Hollywood smart, so Christopher Nolan will be punished for not talking down to those 75-year-olds by having to settle for making a ton of awardless money. And 127 Hours? Really? Come on--we all know Hollywood would cut off its arm rather than give this movie an Oscar.

As for the acting awards, in each category but one there is at least one actor who's won a previous award. (The exception is Best Supporting Actress, which means that somebody in that group is going to win an Oscar for the first time. My guess? We'll get to predictions later.) The award-winning thesps include Kidman, Bridges, and Rush, and to continue that fighter image, the ringside match-ups are Bridges vs Firth, Rush vs Bale, and (yes folks, I'm going there) a three-way in the Best Actress category, with Kidman vs Bening vs Portman.

Overall impressions?

1. God, what a lean year for good movies.
2. I see white people.
3. 127 Hours? Really?

Scarlet Woman: Wait--there are dead bodies in Hamlet?!?!?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Mortality Sonnet 7: Here There Be Dragons

Belief’s the map we draw to show the places
We know will comfort us, as we trudge through
This empty desert--we mark each oasis
And then, to get there, what we have to do.
Each step we take fills in the emptiness
With signs and legends, dangers high and low;
Each stop we make, we log how we progress:
How far we’ve come, how far we have to go.
This map is only finished when we fall
Over its edge; then it will be erased
By travelers some new belief will call,
And on its void their own steps will be traced.
So does each life chart Life from age to age,
Plotting its course across an empty page.

Copyright 2011 Matthew J Wells

Scarlet Woman: New mistakes are progress, honey

Saturday, January 22, 2011

In re yours of the 19th . . .

You e-mailed “I think if you all the time.”
I know that you typed “if” instead of “of.”
But in that typo lies the truth, for I’m
Thinking “if you” unendingly, my love.
I think, if you were here, how we would live;
If you were parched, how I would be your rain;
If you let me, what gifts I would not give;
If you were hurting, how I’d ease your pain--
And how, if I could have my way, we two
Would treasure all the time we spend together
From years to moments as a sharing, through
Experience--not “if” or “may” or “whether.”
If you share that dream, wake, and make it be.
Think how the world will come alive, if we.

Copyright 2011 Matthew J Wells

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Cold Icy Hand of the Well-Made Play


There’s a reason why you don’t see Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman performed that often. It’s because the way the play is constructed--it all takes place on a single night--makes it look like a parody of the well-made play. Here’s a guy who embezzled money, went to jail for five years, and has lived upstairs from his wife for eight years and never once laid eyes on her--except for tonight, when he finally comes downstairs. And why does it happen tonight? Because that’s what happens in a well-made play, it all has to happen tonight. Which is ridiculous. Eight years pacing back and forth upstairs? Really? Why not ten? Why not twelve?

The thematic answer--because Ibsen is rather obviously showing how people get frozen into repetitive or self-destructive behavior--is the one answer which is totally undermined by the play’s construction. It’s like Ibsen had a twentieth-century idea which he could only express using nineteenth-century tools. It'd make a great movie, especially given the Madoff-relevance of the title character's crime. But as a play, it feels like a Dickens novel with its head and legs cut off to fit a theatrical bed; and because it’s compressed into three hours, it looks about as silly as Bleak House would look if you staged it as a series of cross-examinations in Chancery.

There’s an entire romantic subplot too. Because Borkman’s wife Gunhild has a twin sister Ella whom Borkman really loved but he gave her up to a colleague who was crazy about her so that the colleague would give him the bank job which Borkman used to embezzle money from his clients, and then when the twin sister rejected the colleague, the colleague dropped a dime on Borkman’s embezzling, which was the real reason he went to jail--and the reason why Borkman has been spending the last eight years waiting to be vindicated and restored to his former position of power. Got all that? (Good--now explain it to me, could ya?)

And wait--there’s more! Not only does everyone in the play wallow in the past like hogs in a temporal pigsty, they all look to Borkman Junior to save themselves, even as Young Borkman is keeping company with a cradle-robbing neighbor of dubious marital history. Gunhild wants Junior to redeem the Borkman name, and never leave her side (cough) Freud (cough), Borkman wants him to be his companion in his climb from the bottom to the heights (cough) redemption (cough), and Ella wants him to be her surrogate son in her final years, which are actually her final couple of months (cough) cough (cough).

All of which requires acrobatics at a Cirque de Soleil level from a troupe of actors, said acrobatics (just like in Cirque de Soleil) being the prime reason to go see this show. Fiona Shaw proves yet again that she is so talented that she can build an entirely believable character out of one adjective (peevish). Lindsay Duncan plays weary so well that when she finally erupts, it’s both shocking and embarrassing. And Alan Rickman slaloms through his long speeches, swallowing some words and pausing over others, like a man who has been down this mountain so many times he knows exactly where the slippery spots are. True, they bounce off the script more than they bounce off each other, but if you ever want to see how talented actors can carry the weight of a heavy play on their shoulders and make it look like dancing, you’ve got three prime examples here.

I just wish their performances were warmer. But it’s not a warm play. And you get that the second you walk into the Harvey--the set looks like an unplowed side-street in Brooklyn, which becomes a wind-blown unplowed main street in Staten Island by the final act. There’s no warmth between the characters either; just the cold ashes of dead fires. In which, if you sift through them, you will find the remains of a particular species of well-made play as a delivery system for a story that spans 15 to 20 years. Other types will live on (All My Sons, anybody?) but watching this production, you get the sense that it’s not just Borkman who succumbs to a cold hand of iron at the end, like a dinosaur killed by climate change--it’s this style of drama.

Let the viral marketing begin . . .

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Ideal Woman

I was lucky enough (or cursed enough) to lay eyes on my ideal woman at the impressionable age of 11. Since then I have been doomed to seek out her qualities in those who, sadly, cannot match her either in the beauty of her features, the music of her voice, or the diversity of her appeal.

Who is my ideal woman?

Simply put, she is a woman with beautiful eyes

who loves to dance,

loves the outdoors,

feeds pigeons,

likes champagne in bed,

is alittle bit kooky,

but very smart

(did I mention the beautiful eyes?)

-- the perfect companion

who can also be motherly

because she's more than a little crazy

and a lesbian.

And you people wonder why I'm still single.

The Tom and Sophy Montage from Tom Jones

RIP Susannah York, 1939-2011

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Songs For A Tuesday Morning: It's All I Want To Do So Won't You Dance

Of all the Australiennes I adore, I've been in love with this little lady the longest:

(And I use the word "little" literally--Kylie is what, five-feet-nothing in her bare feet, and probably four-eleven in a bathing cap.)

She came out with a new album this year (Aphrodite; another tiny lass--four-feet-nine in her bare clam shell, according to Hesiod) and lately I've been listening a lot to the first track, "All The Lovers." But not the actual track on the album, which is below.

All The Lovers (Original)

It's okay, but not great. I mean, it's a serviceable dance number with a breathy vocal that floats above a lot of synth that completely overpowers a barely-heard piano that is actually playing something interesting, musically. (The piano in this song is the dance version of the lute in PDQ Bach's Sinfonia Concertante, where he says: "It's a very nice lute. We hope you enjoy it. Think of it while you're listening to the bagpipes.") But this version of the song doesn't lift you up, and it certainly doesn't take you higher (higher) (higher) (higher). It's too polite, almost. What it needs, frankly, is a touch of Phil Spector melodrama. Which is gets in spades in this remix:

All The Lovers (Matty Boy Remix)

Now this is a version that can get your tired ass up off a 3AM bar stool and back onto the dance floor. It has weight, and it does what a good remix should always do: deliver the pleasure of the original in a booty-shaking package. This is the version I listen to when I want to spin around the living room and try not to knock over the lamps. But it's still not the version I listen to most. That, oddly enough, would be this one:

All The Lovers (Acoustic)

This version, because it's simple and quiet, puts the vocals up front and lets Kylie do something you don't see pop singers do that much--quietly and deliberately seduce the living hell out of you. In this version, if you don't want to dance when she asks you to dance, or find yourself breathing when she tells you to breathe, then you should check your pulse. It's sexier than the other two because it's intimate, and it's better than the other two because it's treated like a song, and not an excuse to twirl around the living room knocking over lamps.

Plus: you get to hear the piano. (And the cello!)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mortality Sonnet 1-09-11

When I say “always” to the one I love,
It means with luck right now 35 years --
A teardrop in Time’s bucket, a mote of
Dust in God’s eye too small to summon tears.
I say “forever” and it means until
The stars die, which will come long after my
Life teeters and falls from Death’s windowsill
Like a brief smothered taper from the sky.
“Forever” and “always” are magic words
We use to make ourselves blind to this truth:
Time is the wolf who savages all herds
And every hour we breathe we feel his tooth.
Of this one dead-sure thing we never talk:
Our lives are instants in forever’s clock.

Copyright 2011 Matthew J Wells

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

False Grit

If you want to see a textbook example of the difference between a faithfully-filmed novel and a good movie, go see the Coen Brothers True Grit and then rent the Henry Hathaway original from (OMFG, really?) 1969. The latter, for all its softening and mythologizing of the source material, is a much better movie, by which I mean it works as a film. The current version? Not so much. As I said to my online friend Molly Matera, when the death of a horse is the only time I get emotionally involved, then the movie has big problems.

What problems? Generally, a feeling of weightlessness, like there are story beats to be hit, as opposed to a story being told. It’s like the movie was made with the book as a reference or the original film as a reference, instead of as a film in its own right, which means two things: (1) everything feels like a comment instead of a statement; and (2) everyone acting in it is self-aware, as opposed to natural. In this version, Rooster Cogburn is smaller than life, and instead of feeling natural, it feels like a conscious choice NOT to be John Wayne. In this version, the cocky Texas Ranger LeBoeuf is less than comical, and as a result less of a foil for Cogburn, and less of an education to Mattie Ross, who is in turn more studied and less spunky than Kim Darby. And say what you want about Kim Darby as an actress, but in the original, you liked her and wanted her to succeed. In this version, Hailee Steinfield proves she can wrap her tongue around the dialogue, but never wraps her arms around your heart.

And I’m not saying you have to love these people, but you should care about them. I guess. Except that, if you take this version on its own terms, you’re not even asked to do that. You’re only asked to watch, and in return, you’re given, well, satire that doesn't get laughs, a quest plot that seems over before it begins, campfire scenes in the cold night air where you never see anybody's breath, violence without wounds (like shouting without an echo, if you know what I mean), scenes which feel like out-takes from Dead Man (like the guy in the bearskin, complete with bear head), and sequences which are presumably supposed to be funny, like the drunken marksmanship contest, but are just embarrassing. The odd thing is, everybody is obviously in the same movie, and playing on the same level. It’s just not a movie you’d want to see more than once, and the level is below, well, North To Alaska, for instance, or The Sons of Katie Elder, two other Henry Hathaway westerns with John Wayne in ‘em. (Go rent those too.)

Also: pretty much every gunshot in the movie is in the trailer (except for that marksmanship contest), so don’t go into this expecting a two-hour shoot-em-up.

Also part 2: echoing "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms," the song that Robert Mitchum sings throughout Night Of The Hunter? That’s not film, Coens; that’s film school.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Complete Eulogy for Gary Wells

I’d like you all to do something for me in the next five minutes.
I’d like you to be honest about a couple of things. Completely honest. This is church, okay? No lying. Ready? Here we go.

[RAISING RIGHT HAND] Raise your hand if you ever poked fun at Gary.

Come on, people. It’s like believing a politician; we’ve all done it at least once.

The only person who should not be raising a hand right now is my Aunt Charlotte. Never once have I heard her make fun of Gary. And she always took his phone calls, which makes her some kind of saint in my book, because, y’know? [RAISING RIGHT HAND] Raise your hand if you always let Gary’s phone calls go through to voicemail.

And Gary, as we all know, was not a hard person to poke fun at. He wore his hair long and his moustache thick, like he was trying to impersonate David Crosby from Crosby Stills and Nash. If he had been born in the 1800’s, Br’er Rabbit wouldn’t have said “Don’t throw me in the briar patch!” –- he would have said “Don’t throw me in Gary’s moustache!” And look –- I’m still poking fun at the guy.

That was Gary’s look. It was a look he cultivated; literally. But it wasn’t just his look; it was his armor. Even as a kid, Gary was incredibly sensitive. He was born with one skin too few, and we all knew it. He got teased a lot, because kids don’t tease the ones who could care less, they tease the ones who can feel it. So Gary grew armor. The kind of armor that wouldn’t make you notice that he had the gentlest face and softest eyes you’ve ever seen in your life. The kind of armor that would protect that huge, passionate heart of his. Because he did everything heart first. His heart was what he listened to. His heart was what he followed. And in the end, his heart was the last thing to go.

The obituary in the paper says that Gary’s passions were music, baseball and cooking. They weren’t just his passions. They were his life. When you feel everything a little more than anyone else, your passions are always your life. Always.

Some people poke fun at that, too. But other people, especially Gary’s friends in Cleveland? They not only respected those passions, they shared them. Envied them. Treasured them, the way they treasured Gary. They didn’t care how he lived his life, as long as he shared it with them.

And that brings me to the second thing. Totally honest now, people. [RAISING RIGHT HAND] Raise your hand if you ever felt sorry for Gary.

You’ll notice that, once again, my Aunt Charlotte has her hand down. This is because, of all the family, she’s been the only one who has never once said “Poor Gary,” or “I feel so sorry for him,” or “He’s had such a hard life.” To which I can only say, “What hard life?” It was HIS life. He chose it. And we judged him for it. We said, “It’s not my life,” and we set ourselves up as the standard, and then judged him. Like he failed a test he didn’t even know he was taking. And I’m the worst offender. Why? Because I made the same kind of choice. And I did it for pretty much the same reason, because I was passionate about something.

And I should have felt respect for someone who was out there, plugging away, just like I was. But I didn’t. And now all I can think of is, isn’t it sad? Isn’t it sad that, even when we know we’re all in this together, somehow we always find a way to drive ourselves apart from each other.

Not Gary. Gary always found a way to bring people together. The guy never had two nickels to rub together, but he was a river to his people. And he was always out there plugging away. For every one plan that fell through, he had ten more in the works. Always. He was an engine of “what next.” You know what the Japanese definition of success is? “Fall down six times, get up seven.” That was Gary. He always got up for one more try. I wish I had that kind of strength. I look at all the things he did because he tried to do it all, and I think, y’know? If everybody in this room had one-tenth of Gary’s persistence and self-confidence, we would all be famous right now.

So why wasn’t Gary famous? Well, he was, actually. Not world famous. Local famous. My brother David is going to come up here in a minute and read you some of the e-mails he’s received from people in Cleveland who knew a Gary we never saw. A Gary we don’t even recognize. If we told them stories about the Gary we knew, they would look at us as if we were crazy, because the letters “G W” aren’t just a pair of initials in Cleveland. They’re shorthand for a king, a jester, a go-to guy, a fixer, a booking agent, a story-teller, the life of the party, and Flannery O’Connor of Brant Rock Productions, a walking network of connections in the Cleveland music scene. And if that isn’t famous, I don’t know what is. I hear that and I don’t feel sorry for Gary. I feel sorry for me, because I never really knew that side of my brother. But I am so glad someone did.

There are a ton of Gary stories. But if I was going to tell them -- if I was going to talk about Gary the way he really was -- then I’d have to use a lot of words you can’t say in church.
So I’ll just say this. You know what was great about Gary? He made a virtue out of what other people thought were his faults. He never stopped being nineteen, and he never stopped being a bartender. He always wanted to make sure your glass was full. In Gary’s life, there was no such thing as empty. The way there is in our lives, now that he’s gone.

I’ve been thinking all week of two things. One is a line from Dickens’ “Christmas Carol:” “I see an empty chair by the fireplace.” For us, it’s the first empty chair at the kid’s table. Just like Gary never got over the fact that our mother died on his birthday, we will never be able to celebrate Christmas now without thinking of him. It’s almost like he planned it. Like it was his way of making sure we would never forget him. As if that could ever happen.

The other thing is this. I would give ten years of my life to have Gary call me just one more time and leave three identical word-for-word voicemails, and then when I answer his call, repeat the exact same message word-for-word again, like a verbal typing test. But I’ll never get those messages any more; and I’ll never get over it.

You never DO get over it. Death is a hole in the floor. It never goes away; you just learn to maneuver around it. You take it in stride. And now and then, you get down on your hands and knees beside it, and you stick your head out over the emptiness, and you whisper a name. I’ve been whispering my mother’s name for almost half my life now; I’ll be whispering Gary’s for the rest of it. But not today. Here’s what I’m whispering today:

God above who sees our pain
Send us love like pouring rain
Send us strength to face the blow
Now we let our brother go

Death’s a drink we all must taste
Life the meal that goes to waste
Sound the music, soft and low
Now we let our brother go

God who loves the holy fool
Seat him at your corner stool
Let the taps of heaven flow
Now we let our brother go

Gary’s song on earth is done
All his races have been won
All his ducks are in a row
Now we let our brother go

Repeat after me:

Time may push us all apart
(Time may push us all apart)
But we’ll keep him in our heart
(But we'll keep him in our heart)
And, through happiness and woe,
(And, through happiness and woe,)
Never let our brother go
(Never let our brother go)

[RAISING RIGHT HAND] Raise your hand if you love Gary.

2010 Annual Report

Movies - 37
Music - 29
Readings - 18
Theatre - 31
Dance - 3
Opera - 2
Bowling - 3

Plays Written - 1
Plays Revised - 2
Stories Written - 3
Poems Written - 45

Funerals - 2
Births - 2

Fell In Love - 2
Fell Out Of Love - 3 (don't ask)

First Base - 6
Second Base - 4
Third Base - 2
Thrown Out At Home - 1

Times People Asked Me For Directions - 27
Times People Asked Me For Change - 44
Times People Asked Me For Change While I Was Whistling - 365