Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Big Picture

A little perspective is an aid to understanding. I got on the Schwinn and pedaled out to Prosper, Texas, to see how my neighbor Deion Sanders was holding up after his public, messy, and very noisy divorce from Pilar. 

Okay, house looks as magnificent as ever, that's good. 

I'll just pull back a bit and -- oh, dear. 

Well, it's so: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt and the wife's legal team can force you to share stuff. Besides, women don't care about the size of your house, but only the size of your heart and the gold of your personality. 

Maybe the size of the house a little bit sometimes.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Today's Ride: A Gratifying Encounter for the Gentleman Cyclist of Mature Years

I tend to be weary on Saturday afternoons.   I stay up late watching crime documentaries on You Tube, and I'm usually up early for a bike ride or errands or work or other things that weekends require.  But today, I happened to view the famous Bob Newhart "Stop It" video --

-- and it energized me to deny my nap and get on the Schwinn Moab 3 armed with my Canon S80.

With some dramatic results.

(1)  Darwin's Darlings 1:  a juvenile bullsnake who failed to heed snakemama's warnings about suspicious concrete expanses.

 (2) Darwin's Darlings 2:  A baby tarantula, or maybe a baby wolf spider, whose many legs did not carry him through the Perils of Preston.

(3)  Who doesn't love a classic mud puddle?   I imagine that life on earth formed in a pool very much like this one, except that this one is full of dirty water instead of a stew of complex proteins and hydrocarbons just itching to hook up and reproduce themselves, sits beneath a nitrogen-argon-oxygen atmosphere instead of one dominated by carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide, and ammonia, and also seems to have tire tracks heading into it, suggesting the presence of wheeled vehicles and knuckleheaded adolescents for which there is no evidence from four billion years ago.  

Ho hum, dead little animals and a mud puddle.  Same stuff that always catches my eye.  Then I heard the thrum-bum-bumma-thrum of a bass-heavy music system up ahead around a bend or two on the gravel backroad.  Mm, I'm thinking, I hope no one brought any gifties of methamphetamine to that party.  So I'll pedal slowly up to the bend and --


I stopped; they noticed me. the young woman, long-leggedy and impossibly callipygous (look it up), who was mostly turned away from me, modestly put her forearm over her backside, which sort of seemed to defeat the purpose of a thong bikini.  I waited, thinking he was taking some sequence of shots he wanted to complete, but he stood up and they both smiled.  I pedaled past, they said something about being sorry for blocking the road, I said pleasure's mine, and we all had a good laugh.  When I'd traveled a decent distance, I turned and took a snap to prove my account -- the photographer is not visible, but you can see the young woman preparing to toss her hair back for the next pose.

This tends to direct the mind away from the vagaries of evolution and the origins of life on earth.

(5)  There's nothing in this picture, but I'm telling you, I heard something back there.

(6)  Every guy loves a train.  Hey, it's almost here!  I swear, when I was preparing to snap this, the engineer flashed his brights at me.  A man never outgrows his childhood fascination with choo-choos.

(7)  After nearly a decade of start-and-stop construction, the massive home constructed at the corner of Fisher and Rogers appears to be completed, save for some landscaping details.   Its owners may be the nicest folks in the world, and I have heard that they have worked with Rogers Elementary across the street.  But it's cartoonishly out of place in its neighborhood and has been an eyesore for years.   My eye is always drawn to the home's many lightning rods, none of which seem to point quite straight up, and, if anything, would seem to invite a strong electrical rebuke from the heavens.

I'm glad it's done and I'm not offended by its architectural inconsistency with its surroundings.  Gives the neighborhood a spot of interest.  But what caught my eye today was its Halloween decorations.  In front of this opulent, massive structure, bespeaking unimaginable affluence to your casual cyclist, sat two lonely, uncarved pumpkins.

Imagine going up to ring that doorbell.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: "Freedom" and the Revival of (My Interest in) Modern American Fiction


I've had an interesting history with this book.

Almost two years ago, I got up a post that was a review of Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer.   (Read it here.) In it, I discussed my gradual loss of interest in contemporary American fiction, giving up on it some short way into Susan Minot's Evening.  At the end, I mentioned that someone whose taste I respected had given me Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, his award-winning novel, universally praised as one of the greatest novels of the last fifty years.  I promised the gifter to read it and intended to.  Franzen's prior novel, The Corrections,  won the National Book Award and was famously selected by Oprah as one her Book Club selections (an honor in which Franzen refused to participate).  In a cover story, TIME mag called him "The Great American Novelist."  At the end of the prior post, I wrote:  "It's next on my list.  I'll give you a report."

 Two years later, this is it.

All I knew about the book is that it was about a modern family.  Frankly, I didn't think I was going to like it.  I thought it was going to be a long sneer at middle-class values, a tiresome attack on the hypocrisy of the life of affluent Americans.  Sure, those values can sometimes use some work and there's a streak of hypocrisy in the life of the best of us.  Even the title, Freedom.  Yeah, yeah, it's how the freedoms our American society affords us ultimately entrap us with our prosperity and make us miserable, etc. etc. etc., yawn.  Let's flip to the back  .  .  .  562 pages.  I was weary of it before I cracked to page 1.

But I wanted to give this shining example of modern fiction a shot.  I started it earlier this year.

On rare occasions I'll start a book, tire of it or otherwise fail to become engaged, put it aside, pick it up again, and love the darned thing.  A recent example is Saul Bellow's masterpiece, The Adventures of Augie March, which confused me in its first few dozen pages, and there were several hundred more to go.  I picked it up again months later, started over, worked a little harder at keeping the characters straight and kept on going.  I ended up finishing it quickly and was astounded by the extravagant beauty of the thing.

I started Freedom this spring.  Indeed, at first I did find it irritating, but not so much for its story or content.  It was the writing that was giving me some trouble.  (More on that next.)  But it did interest me; and I did realize that my prediction of its theme was, if not entirely wrong, pretty wrong.  Eventually, though, I put it aside about a hundred pages into it.  But I didn't put it back on the shelf.   I put the dust cover back onto it and put it on a table where it rebuked me daily.  I hoped I would remember the characters and what had happened so far if and when I picked it up again.

Eventually, I did, and I did.  And I started liking it better, despite its flaws, and blasted on through to the end.  When I was done, I was sold:  Freedom is a fine novel that repaid my hours of reading.  Maybe better than fine, maybe great, but the technical issues I'll get to in a moment are holding me back on the g-word. 
The novel takes Walter and Patty Berglund from their college years and courtship, through their years in St. Paul, and eventual relocation to Washington, D.C.  Central to the book is the relationship of each of them to indie musician Richard Katz.  They have two children, the precocious and obnoxious Joey, who gets a lot of ink, and better-girl Jessica, who is almost invisible in the story.   Neighbors, colleagues, friends.   Over the course of the book, the emphasis shifts from Patty's unhappiness to Walter's as they age, change, deceive themselves and one another, and reach for meaning.  I read it closely, without skipping (except for the final two-thirds of some of the dialoguey encounters), and ended up loving it.

But first  .  .  .  some misgivings:

I have to depart from the majority of critics who liked the book, and some who didn't, who praised the writing.  (See the Wikipedia entry for Freedom.)   The question I continued to ask myself as I read was:  What has happened to the Great American Editor?  Did Franzen's celebrity intimidate whoever got assigned to redline this behemoth?   It is true that Franzen can put together marvelous-sounding sentences.   But there was a lot, and by that I mean a lot, of writerly showing-off in this book, prose that said look at me more than it illuminated the thoughts and feelings and actions of the characters.   There were also passages that were much to jokey, Franzen giving the reader a nudge in the ribs as if to say that was a good one, wasn't it?  A good editor would have gotten some of this under control.   

And some of that self-conscious scribbling was just plain clumsy.  One need not look far for an example.   It is one of those myths of writing that happens to be true is that first sentences are important.  Books have been written about the art of the first sentence.  The first sentence of Freedom, however, was very bad:
"The news about Walter Berglund wasn't picked up locally – he and Patty had moved away to Washington two years earlier and meant nothing to St. Paul now – but the urban gentry of Ramsey Hill were not so loyal to their city as not to read the New York Times."

Of course we're going to meet Walter and Patty in a bit.  But right off the bat, the reader is confused rather than intrigued.  The dash-bracketed insertion then both over- and underexplains about these characters we don't know.  If people who were gone only two years "meant nothing to St. Paul now," they probably never did, which thus does not explain why "the news about Walter" was not "picked up locally" (it takes a moment to figure out that "local" means "St. Paul").  And what does it mean for people to "mean something" to a city?  Finally, the two negatives in the last phrase are very hard to figure out ("not so loyal to their city as not to read" – very clumsy) and, when finally parsed, expresses the rather silly thought that loyalty to a city discourages one from reading The New York Times.   

Editors exist to fix writing like this.

They also exist to cut.  This book needed it.  The leading candidate for reduction were the dialogues, which repeated themselves from encounter to encounter, and each of which went on and on with the characters continuing to say the same things to one another over and over.  Good skipping territory.

Large sections of the book are taken up with an "autobiography" written by Patty Berglund.  Problem:  She writes just like Jonathan Franzen.

Finally, these very unappealing characters are given some very deep, detailed, complex, and rather florid thoughts to think.  An unappealing person can have deep and florid thoughts, but Franzen's description of them (in frequently very striking prose) contrasts jarringly with the very pedestrian lives and intellects he has crafted for them.

 *    *     *

So far, I've barely said a nice thing about this book.  So why did I end up liking it so much and why did it leave me with a good feeling about the future of fiction?

The foregoing stylistic accusations aside, I did enjoy the music of Franzen's prose.  It was such a pleasure after decades of minimalism and Iowa Writer's Workshop crap to feel the evocative and almost physical power of the English language, wielded by a master.

Franzen also makes a real effort to wrestle with the issues that upper-middle-class Americans have faced since the Appalling Sixties:   Ennui; balancing commitment with family; wrestling with the contradictions of the sexual revolution; negotiating the DMZ between principle and compromise. 

The characters, while unanimously unappealing, were vividly and consistently sketched.  I could see each one of them.  It would be both a cliché and untrue to say that I "cared" about them, but I was interested in seeing what was going to happen to them.  Which, I suppose, is a way of saying that once I got past some of the Franzian flash, I got immersed in the darned story of the thing.

The book is fair-minded.   I had expected it to be strongly political, and strongly leftist, but I found it pretty agnostic on political matters.  So I was surprised when I read in the book's Wikipedia entry that "[m]ost lukewarm reviews praised the novel's prose [see?], but believed the author's left-wing political stance was too obvious."  I don't think so.  All the main characters, to the extent they could be tagged at all, were pretty obviously liberal (one, and only one, moves unattractively rightward later in the book) but even more obviously deeply flawed human beings.  I certainly didn't peg Franzen as a conservative.  I pegged him as an artist.  He was seeking to tell the truth about the private life of people with certain identifiable public beliefs that I, at least, associated with taking today's liberal arts education too seriously.   The same book could have been written about a Tea Party family.  A charge of political bias diminishing the book is factually wrong.

Although I complained about the prose sometimes overwhelming the slightness of the characters' moral architecture, in the end I admired the acuity of Franzen's insights into human nature, and their incorporation into a grand family story.  The novel cannot be called inspirational -- the most positive thing about the fate of the characters is that they've more or less resigned -- lifted my spirits and made me think maybe I've been missing something in recent fiction. 

I'm looking forward to getting back to exploring what modern writers have to say.

But that Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace has been sitting on my shelf for quite awhile  .  .  .  . 
*     *     *



Friday, September 26, 2014

Blessings On -- and In -- This House

According to enough Internet sites that I am confident that I am not deceived by a renegade Internet editor, in Hawaii the residents believe that the "household gecko" brings good luck to the home.  If that is correct, The Memsahib and I are blessed several times over. 

When darkness falls, one, two, or three geckos – interestingly, never more than three – crawl out onto the underside of the eave that extends over our patio.  When I turn on the patio light, they're exposed and usually will hang around for awhile before they scurry – actually, more of a serpentine waddle – into the cracks where the eave meets the brick.  I read that they're looking for insects.  I've never seen one other insect within gobbling distance of one of these guys on the barren ceiling, but there they were, night after night.

Last night, for the first time, there were four:

They appear to be Mediterranean House Geckos, one of two species found in Texas that tend to make their homes in, well, homes.  I was delighted at first, but that fourth gecko  .  .  .  obviously, I was dealing here with more than a happy household of mama, papa, and baby gecko. 

In fact, they're prolific little reptiles.

Which inspired a vision of a growing, then teeming, colony of concupiscent little geckos with nothing better to do during the day than make lots more geckos.

When I was a lad, I was deeply influenced by the growing menace represented by the increasing number of "The Birds" in Hitchcock's classic.  Then, suddenly, I saw it.  I would be out on the patio, chewing on a stogie and reading a cheap mystery on my Nook.  A creak – a crack.  And the eave would open up and an avalanche of geckos, accompanied by untold tons of gecko poop would rain down on me.

But they are cute little fellas.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "Noah," or You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

That's what Roy Scheider said to Robert Shaw when he stumbled back into the cabin, frightened by his first look at the gigantic Great White.  It came instantly to mind in the scene where Noah (Russell Crowe) looks out from the ark, before the rains came, and sees a tsunami of a different sort, all the creatures of the world approaching two by two.

[No significant spoilers.]

"Noah" is big, dumb, fun.  I enjoyed it.

It is visually arresting.  The world of Noah and his family is a barren, forbidding place even before God destroys it.  It is mostly desert.  One wonders where all these animals lived, as there is almost no vegetation to eat or hide in.  I thought it was beautiful.

Where are all these animal couples going to come from?  Doesn't look like God needs a flood to wipe wickedness from the face of the earth.

Of course, it bears only the most distant relationship to the Bible story.  Since I did not come to it with an understanding that I was going to see that story, and since that story is not foundational to what I believe, whatever that is, I didn't mind it a bit.  It was still a yarn that kept me watching for its running length of two hours and eighteen minutes.

The movie is, in fact, too long.  Things move along nicely until the rain comes and the ark is underway, at which point the narrative comes to a standstill while an subplot or two are played out.  I suppose those subplots were necessary to flesh out a movie, the basic plot of which will already be known to viewers.  But they were kind of dumb, with some obvious holes I won't disclose.  (The Biblical story itself has at least one of the same holes.)

Which leads to my biggest problem with the movie, which is that it was dumb.  Its "green" message is repeatedly delivered with sonorous speechifying by Noah.  (Does the director, Darren Aronofsky, intend to convey that the relative handful of humans on earth in those days – the exact era in which the film is to have taken place is unclear, despite the presence of Biblical characters – completely denuded the landscape?  And it didn't seem to hurt biodiversity any, as that ark was pretty full.)  It doesn't matter whether you agree with the message or not; its repeated and clumsy expression insults the moviegoer's ability to figure out for himself that the presence of humans will result in a world that is very different than a world lacking men and women.

It's odd in other ways.  The return of the ark to dry land – the entire reason for its existence – was completely omitted.  The people in the ark, who are having a spat at the time, feel a clunk.  The next thing you see is a few animals walking around on some barren ground, and Noah is having a conniption for some reason some distance off.  (Again, what on earth are these animals supposed to eat?)  No dramatic landing, no disembarkation of the animals. 

The acting?  Russell Crowe suffered appropriately, although, as noted, he was given some pretty preposterous things to say.  Anthony Hopkins had himself a ball playing Methuselah.  Jennifer Connelly had almost no lines at all, it seemed, until about two-thirds of the way through the film, but if you have to look at someone not talking, I'll take Jennifer Connelly.  Emma Watson gets knocked up, much to Noah's discomfiture, maybe thought God would change His mind that he was a suitable specimen to escort the two-by-two animals through the flood and himself be the sole patriarch to survive.  And keep an eye out for Nick Nolte. 

Look, when some geological formations exhibit a more impressive emotive range than do the cast, you know you're not dealing with Oscar material here.

As I said, lots of holes.  But it was an outsized cartoon, and I like cartoons.  Some cool effects, I wasn't bored, my faith wasn't shaken or even offended.  Couldn't hurt to stream it if you've got a couple of movie hours banked up.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wherein I Derive an Important Truth About Our Mortal Existence from a Child's Car Seat

As you read this, I want you to know that I love and adore and want to see all the time my little step-grandsons, three of the six of which presently require car seats, by both law and good sense.

And I also want you to know that I know that car seats for children have saved countless young lives and avoided terrible injuries to their occupants.

This weekend, the Memsahib and I were visited by one of our darling grandsons while his parents spent an enjoyable weekend downtown Dallas, attending a wedding and to their own toddler-free fun.

This car seat  .  .  .

It is enormous.

It weighs more than some roadworthy vehicles.

It is so big that I could barely get it in the back door of one of the largest, roomiest sedans manufactured in the modern age.

It is incredibly plush, robustly bolstered from thigh to shoulder with upholstery that securely cushions his tiny buns from any horizontal movement.  It is so luxurious that Donald Trump could nap in the thing.

And this was not even the entire car seat.  This was only the part of the car seat that was designed to click into a docking device that is presently secured to the back seat of the automobile in which the delightful tyke takes most of his rides.

It has buttons on it.  The kind you push and things happen.  Or are supposed to.

And, of course, it has the usual belts and snaps and things that are supposed to click into place to keep the child secure, if not almost completely motionless.

Not the car seat in question.  But it did have a cupholder.

In preparing the child for his ride, I found the use of these appliances  .  .  .  challenging.

Since it was lacking the base to which it would customarily be attached, there were no passageways in its back through which the backseat belting could be threaded to secure it.  The only alternative being to strap the entire piece of furniture into the back seat by treating it as person and bringing the seatbelt mechanism across its front and securing the tongue to one of the female pieces buried in the seat which had to be dug out.

In itself not such a challenge, in theory.  But this particular carseat was so wide that it covered that female element, and it was only with the greatest exertion and topological problem-solving that I was able to get the tongue of the seatbelt to click into the receptacle.  All of this performed, mind you, whilst twisting this my body, now in its seventh decade, into configurations the local boot camp would not countenance.

Fortunately, we were not on a schedule, and we proceeded to our destination, your driver somewhat exhausted but only slightly injured, and the lad had a marvelous time riding a pony and swinging on a swing and petting some very cute goat-kids, which made it all worthwhile.

But as I was wrestling with this Shetland Barcalounger, and, for the longest time, losing, I did have a thought.  Not a charitable thought, not one of which I am proud, but one that did cross my mind, and more than once:

Human life is not that precious.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sects, Lies, and Photographs; or, He's No Saint!

[NOTE:  This book review appeared in slightly different form in the comments section for the book on Amazon.]

BOOK REVIEW:  Why Did the Vatican Honor the Swastika:  A Catholic Couple's Five-Year Search for Understanding by Stephen and Diane Galebach

[For more details on this subject, see my previous articles: ]

Declaration of interest: Steve and Diane Galebach are friends of mine. Steve was a roommate at Yale, and I was honored to attend their Full Wedding Mass. (The most intriguing aspect of which was that, moving as it was, as a non-Catholic I was unable to determine the exact moment of matrimony. Had an earthquake sent everyone scrambling three-quarters of the way through it, I'm not sure the happy couple would have known exactly where matters stood, wedded-bliss wise.) I also read and commented on Steve's earliest drafts recounting his work. The present book bears almost no resemblance to the manuscripts I reviewed.

No matter. This is an extraordinary book that earns five stars on its merits. It is a book of serious, deep – and, most important, original -- research into the relationship between pre-World War II antisemitism in Germany, Argentina, and elsewhere, and the Roman Catholic Church, personified in its Vatican leaders and local cardinals and archbishops. Its structure is unconventional, and the title doesn't hide the ball. Scholarly as it is, it is not presented as a scholarly history. Instead, it discloses its evidence chronologically as the Galebachs and their extraordinary brood uncovered it. University historians may roll their eyes, but shame on them. This book is dense with meaty new discoveries and astonishing connections. And the prose is pellucid.

It begins with Steve's discovery of the cover photograph of Argentine Cardinal Copello blessing a Nazi flag at the Eucharistic Congress in Buenos Aires in 1934. He discovered it in an issue of the Nazis' chief organ of race hatred, Der Stűrmer. Stunned by this discovery, the Galebachs set out to determine whether this was a one-off, a rogue or addled cardinal straying off the reservation. Although they don't come right out and say it, the result of their extraordinary journey of discovery points powerfully to a conclusion that the Vatican rejects: At the very least, the role of the Church and, in particular, one Eugenio Pacelli, cardinal, nuncio to Bavaria/Munich, Vatican secretary of state, and soon Pius XII, in not just the rise, but the establishment of state antisemitism in Germany and elsewhere must be much more thoroughly examined before the elevation of Pius XII to sainthood is given any further consideration.

There is too much here to summarize. Catholic or not, Jewish or not, Third Reich buff or not, you will see things here that will astound you yet are absolutely rock-solid established by the source documentation. Pius supporters worried about some of the evidence of his dealings with the Nazis in previous histories claim that these apparent circumstances lack "context." No longer. I got your context right here.

Minor cavils:

I fear that the personal-journey and self-referential tone of this book will harm its acceptance by historians. It shouldn't; the research is massive and sound. But its topical Q&A-style of proceeding leads to repetition and some confusion ("is this the same article they wrote about a few chapters back?"). Following its somewhat topical, Q&A style of proceeding, there is a lengthy chronological presentation of the evidence. I might have urged them to flip this: present a history of the subject focusing on their new evidence, in which Pacelli's and Copello's actions were placed in this-follows-that context (or, if you will, the Nazis' actions placed in the context of the Church's position on the Jews), followed by a bibliographic essay where the travelogue and interview anecdotes could have been parked.

I would also have liked to see the book structured as evidence in support of a thesis, rather than as a historical whodunit. Indeed, the Galebachs lose interest in the photograph as they go along, and the book somewhat peters out right at the end without explicitly drawing all the threads together. The title asks a question – what is the Galebachs' answer? Perhaps the rather obvious conclusion, my conclusion from the book, anyway – that the Roman Catholic Church was deeply complicit in the rise of state antisemitism around the world in the pre-war years, and Pacelli was smack in the middle of it, rendering him, as Pius, unfit for sainthood – was too stark even for them. They write with great eloquence about holding Church leadership to account, but don't explicitly state to what that account sums. I think this choice bespeaks their admirable modesty -- but their work and perspicacity has earned them the right to speak their minds on what they have found.

These are minor points. It's their book, deeply and personally felt and astonishingly original, shot through with new documents, new actors, and new insights. Five years of their time and resources. I suspect new evidence will begin coming into their hands as historians of the Church and the pre-war years finally take notice, and I would expect some fascinating emendations in the near future.

The book is beautifully written, not strident, not crazy-devout, not flavored with special pleading. It is an important contribution to the understanding of the Holocaust. It deserves a mainstream publisher or university press – and a wide readership.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "Amour," or, A Lot Not to Love

This review contains partial spoilers, but who cares?

This site tends to be rather behind the times when it comes to movie reviews.  Heck, I still have on my list to write about the results of the presidential election.  Still, if I can warn anyone away from this movie on DVD, Netflix, Redbox (doesn't seem a likely RedBox candidate, but I'll be damned if it isn't listed on the website), cable download, or even Blockbuster on Demand, I will have performed a public service.

You have probably already read something about this movie.  It was widely praised on release.  It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and was nominated for Best Picture, Direction (Michael Haneke), Screenplay (Haneke), and Actress in a Leading Role (Emmanuelle Riva).  I don't know why it didn't get a Best Actor nod as well, except that I have never heard anyone, anywhere, try to pronounce "Trintignant." (It's something like tron teen YONT.)  It got a stratospheric 93% rating on the notoriously harsh Rotten Tomatoes.  It won many international competitions in many categories.

A lot of people really, really liked this movie.

The Memsahib liked it.

I do not question the sincerity of the viewers who admired this show or the critics and judges who showered it with praise and prizes.

I just think they're wrong.

Pretty simple plot:  Elderly couple, Ann (Riva) and Georges (Trintignant).  Retired piano teachers, living in a quite large apartment (piano teaching apparently a lucrative profession in France).  She suffers a stroke, then another.  He takes care of her as best he can, but it is difficult.  She is not able to communicate, at least not well or often.  Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert, nice to see her again) comes to visit.  She wants to institutionalize Anne, but Georges wants to honor Anne's wishes to the contrary.  One day, while speaking to her at her bedside, reminiscing in a monologue, he suddenly grabs a pillow and suffocates her.  He then prepares her body to be found in an appealing setting, with flowers and a nice dress, and then commits suicide.

This is only a partial spoiler.  The movie begins with the arrival of firemen and paramedics to break in and find the two of them.  In fact, when I heard the title, and that it was about two elderly people, I assumed that this was going to be a murder-suicide thing because the murder was the "loving" thing to do, and his own suicide was emblematic of his feeling that he could not live with this "love."

My dislike of this movie has nothing to do with any judgment about whether Georges's actions were right or wrong.  My objections focus entirely on the movie.

And I do not object that it was gloomy and tragic.  The plot I describe above is an entirely legitimate frame upon which to hang scenes of interest and discovery.

But this movie was an endless, dreary mess.   The Mem caught me checking my watch a couple of times.

Let me give you the most annoying example.  There is a scene in the movie of a maid vacuuming the carpet.  Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum.  No one else is in the room.  No speaking.  Just vacuuming.  I don't know how long it lasted.  Not long.  But I ask anyone:  What was the point of that scene?  Was it to show the dull, mundane lives that this afflicted couple was leading?  Was it something meant to show the passage of time?  Was there symbolism in the vacuuming?  I absolutely guarantee you that the dull passage of time is something that this movie expresses in spades in almost every scene, and that it is not a show that asks you to guess at what things might mean.

Another:  Georges's preparation for the scene to be found by the police -- selecting her clothes, cutting the flowers, taping up the doors, all in complete silence -- goes on forever.

And Ann and Georges -- even when Ann was entirely possessed of her faculties, and when she wasn't entirely incapacitated -- are not very interesting people.  They don't say anything interesting.  In fact, they're not really a very appealing couple.  They show no pleasure in the company of one another or their daughter.  They are gracious to the only appealing character in the movie, an up-and-coming young pianist whose performance they had admired and who they had invited for a visit.  He disappears, and one wonders how that scene advanced anything, either.  The pianist might as well have been vacuuming.

Things heat up in "Amour"

I don't doubt that this may be an extremely realistic portrait of a couple who find themselves in the circumstances the plot sets for them.   But would you find 127 minutes -- yes, this goes on for over two hours -- of watching apartment occupants sitting, sometimes talking, vacuuming, cutting flowers, walking around, looking out the window, preparing the death scene, a good use of your time?  Much of which is shot, by the way, in frigid high-contrast low-res cinematography, adding to the distance we feel from these characters and their plight.

It manages to be claustrophobic and detached, everything held at arm's-length, at the same time.

Ultimately, my reaction to this movie arises from how I feel about storytelling.  You don't have to have explosions or CGI -- Malle's My Dinner with Andre is two guys talking over dinner, but they're interesting guys talking about interesting things.    "Amour" has a plot -- pretty  much given away in its first few minutes -- but nothing about that plot illuminates these characters, and nothing about these characters touch anything in the viewer.  I keep thinking of that quote from "Patton," where the general is told about the rumor of German "wonder weapons":  "Wonder weapons?  My God, I don't see the wonder in them.  Killing without heroics.  Nothing is glorified, nothing is reaffirmed.  No heroes, no cowards, no troops.  No generals.  Only those that are left alive and those that are left  .  .  .  dead."  This isn't a war movie, of course, but you get the point.  This is a movie without wonder, without catharsis, with nothing affirmed or even denied.

But it cannot be gainsaid that people absolutely loved this movie.  Me, it seemed to me to be the kind of self-consciously arty, cold, faux-sophisticated filmmaking that I thought had gone out of style in the Sixties.  I said above that I don't doubt the sincerity of people who like it.  I wonder, though, what percentage of those who do like it do so because they think they should.  Because it's about old people.  Because it's tough to be so excruciatingly bored struggling with a disabled person.  Because it's French.  It's OK with me to like a movie for these reasons.  They just don't add up to a story, and when I go to the flicks, I want a story.

When I see stuff like "Amour," though, I'm thinking that maybe I'm the one who went out of style in the Sixties.  So maybe I learned something after all.


Sunday, March 9, 2014

Things Are Right Again in Frisco, Texas

Not so long ago – right up to the present, in fact – there was a decrepit Shell station at the corner of Lebanon and Preston Roads in Frisco, Texas.  It wanted to be a Quik Trip or a Race Trac, or some early version of them, but, after what was doubtless a consultant-heavy process in the inner sanctum of Royal Dutch Shell, they decided to subname it Food Mart.  You can see that brand proudly displayed in the photograph.

In the back of that shabby Shell, barely visible from the front door, there was a sad little counter that served as the portal for service of the only Popeye's Chicken for miles around.  It was very cramped and because the service area was only a yard or so from the food preparation area, customers could observe what Popeye's International would probably judge questionable quality assurance procedures.  From that counter, a rapidly-rotating service staff would serve up ambrosial Popeye's Cajun Chicken, and, of course, the powerfully addictive Red Bean and Rice. 

I have been partial to Popeye's Chicken since my Chicago days.  I would even travel into sketchy neighborhoods to secure its tasty offerings.  A friend and I thought about bringing Popeye's to San Diego when I lived out there.

But, alas, Popeye's Chicken is not favored by the Memsahib, who controls most dining decisions at 7640 Red Clover Drive in Frisco.  Sometimes, however, she is out of town or dining with friends, and on those occasions I was able to procure those wonderful, grease-infused chicken parts fried up with that peppery, crispy shell protecting the doubtless contented flesh of their donors.  I would usually get an eight-piece all-dark special, which I would eat over the course of several days.  And Red Beans and Rice.

But one day, Popeye's Chicken went dark.  There was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth at 7640 Red Clover Drive and, I imagine, for miles around, for, as I said, there were no other Popeye's Chickens near about.

A sign went up at the poor Shell station.  It promised that a Golden Chick would be appearing.  Eventually, it did.

I like Golden Chick chicken.  But it is not Popeye's.  And it does not have Red Beans and Rice.

And lo, it came to pass that I was driving down Preston Road, home to an increasing number of delightful fast-food establishments.  I saw a new building, unlabeled, that looked like all of the others on that blessed strip.  There was construction equipment on the premises and the usual piles of dirt and rebar and packing materials.  It was located next to Randy White's BBQ.   In the window was a large sign that said NOW HIRING. 

Well, I thought, that's good. One can never have too many fast-food choices in Frisco.  Hey, maybe Mexican!  Someday I'm going to write an article on the incremental differences in the fare offered by Taco Bell, Taco Cabana, Del Taco, Cristina's, La Hacienda, Casa Rita, Posado's, Gloria's, Cantina Laredo, Blue Goose Cantina, Manny's Tex-Mex, Rosa's Café, Taco Bueno, and, in all likelihood, whatever was going into this new building.

I looked a little closer.  There, almost hidden, difficult to read through the reflections in the front glass, were some additional markings:

And there followed great rejoicing at 7640, and in the hearts of all Frisco bachelors, former bachelors, and male children with elevated tastes in fried poultry. 

"NOW HIRING."  You know, the Memsahib has been asking me what I'm going to do when I retire.

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For other articles on my adventures with fried chicken, see: