Sunday, June 7, 2015

Darwin's Darlings

Yesterday's ride:

There are only so many places to go within biking distance of the house.  When I start out on a ride, small camera in the behind-the-seat pouch, I think I'll likely not see anything I haven't seen before.

But the roadway and its margins always seem to have something astonishing in store.

A favorite segment is the unnamed road between Peaceful Lane, home to the old, neglected Bethel Cemetery.  Not neglected by everybody.  A plot or two will sport a spot of color where someone has laid some flowers.  And the rain hasn't forgotten it, either, as it has washed away the names on so many of the old markers.

It reminded me of "Spring and Fall:  To a Young Child" (Hopkins, 1918, but written in 1880); all mourning does:

Margaret, are you grieving
 Over Goldengrove unleaving?
 Leaves, like the things of man, you
 With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
 Ah! as the heart grows older
 It will come to such sights colder
 By and by, nor spare a sigh
 Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
 And yet you will weep and know why.
 Now no matter, child, the name:
 Sorrow's springs are the same.
 Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
 What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
 It is the blight man was born for,
 It is Margaret you mourn for.

 *     *     *
Back to the ride's surprises:

(1)  I have never seen a salamander or newt in Texas, and can't remember the last time I saw one in the wild anywhere.  At first, I mistook this guy for a dying or dead centipede in the middle of the roasting gravel road.  I got off the bike and still thought it was centipede until I gave it a nudge and four little legs popped out.  I haven't been able to identify him or her -- probably a juvenile, no markings.  But plenty slimy despite the dry roadway on which it found itself.  What was it doing there?  Heaven knows there's plenty of wetland hereabouts after our recordsetting rains in May.  It made no move to escape and I easily picked it up and put it on the seatbike for its portrait.  But when I picked it up thinking I'd find a better place for it than the sure-to-be-fatal roadway, he squirmed out of my hand and into the roadside weeds.

(Photo is somewhat misleading -- bike seat and 'mander both black.)

(2) I pulled up to a stop light on Panther Creek on the way to Little Elm.  I happened to glance down and saw what appeared to be a rolled-up t-shirt or other garment.  And on it, a green moth caterpillar of some type.

And I thought:  miles and miles of greenery and this moth larva finds the one item of clothing on which to feast.  The world, I guess, is really just one big closet.

(3) Most of the time, roadkill isn't flat.  But sometimes  .  .  .  .

(4)  I'm fascinated by the funnel web spider, which appears sometimes to be called the grass spider.  This one let me get close enough for a spectacular shot as it decided to stand its ground rather than scuttle off to safety.

(5)   Why do bad things happen to good birds?  If you saw a sheet with a picture of every American bird, your eye would be drawn instantly to the painted bunting.  I've never seen one before.  And I guess I've still never seen one, as this unfortunate specimen was lying in the road on County Road 23, another of my frequent stops.

I felt very bad about this bird, which made me wonder why I feel any worse about this bird than I would about any old grackle that improvidently crossed a hot gravel road one fine day.  There's a lesson there somewhere but I don't know what it is.  My head started to hurt so determined that was quite enough for one ride. 

Keep looking down!

Saturday, February 7, 2015


So for over twenty years -- almost as long as he's been well-known -- I've been told I look JUST LIKE this guy.

I remember the first time: After I'd moved to San Diego a acquaintance called me from Chicago and said "I'm looking at you right now on television."  I had no idea who she was talking about.

Starting about then, his newsmedia star began to rise.  It was back when people actually watched MS-NBC.

And people I knew and people I did not would come up to me and say man, you look just like  .  .  .  and usually they would have trouble coming up with the name.  After awhile I knew who they were talking about and I would help them out.  Yeah!  Yeah!  That's the guy.  You look JUST LIKE him!

I was once accosted by a woman in a saloon who refused to believe I was not this person and demanded that I show her my driver's license.

Even after all these years and all these pounds and all these square inches of visible scalp strangers still remark at the resemblance at least a dozen times a year. I can't see it, but then, I have a natural prejudice favoring my own uniqueness.

But here's my question:

Why, out of all the notable people in the world that I could look like, even out of all of the fibbing quasi-intellectual media/showbiz hypocritical elitists I could look like, do I end up looking like a guy WHO LIES ABOUT GETTING EXPLOSIVE BLOODY DIARRHEA WHILE CURLED UP IN THE FETAL POSITION DURING HIS COVERAGE OF THE GREATEST NATURAL DISASTER IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICA?


Monday, January 12, 2015

MOVIE REVIEW: How to Get More Enjoyment Out of Viewing "Inherent Vice," if Not Actual Enjoyment

NO SPOILERS.  You can't spoil a plot no one can understand.

I can't recommend "Inherent Vice," but neither can I say that, on balance, I did not enjoy it.  I did; not a lot, but it passed the looking-at-my-watch test.  (That is, I didn't.)  Only a couple of the .few viewers at an early showing walked out.

The movie directed by Paul Thomas Anderson is based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon.   I suppose I could stop the review right there, because any film attempting to capture Pynchon's, shall we say, oblique approach to plot is going to face some challenges.  Interestingly, however, the novel is reputedly one of the writer's more conventional efforts.  Strange then that the movie is so baffling.

Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private investigator in 1970 Los Angeles.  He smokes a tremendous amount of dope, and there is scarcely a character in it that is not stoned or worse a fair amount of the time.  His former girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) visits him to request his assistance in extracting her from a plot involving her current lover, a real estate magnate (Mickey Wolfmann, played by Eric Roberts, seen only too briefly) and his wife (Serena Scott Thomas) and her lover.  What that plot actually was, we never learn, to my ability to discern, and eventually we discover that the plot dissolved without any intervention by Doc.   Along the way, we encounter a murder, the murdered guy's widow (Belladonna), a maritime lawyer who helps Doc out (Benicio Del Toro), drug importation, a shady new-age anti-communist drug-rehab center, a mystery ship, an ex-con who seeks Doc's help in collecting some ill-gotten gains (Michael Kenneth Williams), a saxophone player who faked his death and is involved either in either communist or anti-communist activity or maybe first one and then the other (Owen Wilson), a gorgeous and buttoned-up district attorney who in real life would have nothing to do with a lowlife like Doc but who dates and drugs with him when she's not dismissing him in public (Reese Witherspoon), a beautiful Asian woman who runs a cunnilingus operation (Hong Chau [no pun intended]),  some nose-picking FBI agents, a crooked lawyer (Martin Donovan) and his wayward daughter (Sasha Pieterse) who Doc once tracked down for him, some other really bad guys (Keith Jardine and Jack Kelly), Maya Rudolph as a receptionist at the office suite where Doc has a cubicle (and which, indeed, seems to have some medical connection, which may or may not have something to do with his nickname and access to nitrous oxide), and, most prominently, an LA police detective known as Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) who either loathes Doc or loves him.  All of it narrated, unreliably, by a young woman friend of Doc and Shasta named Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), who appears in a few scenes -- or does she?

Sound like a lot of fun?  Maybe funny?  Well, try to imagine all of those items connected to a single plot in very unclear ways -- in fact, as becomes clear (the only clear thing in the show), in intentionally unclear ways.  That are not funny.

But I must say the movie did have some intrigue and enjoyable moments.  Here's a guide to having a better time at this film:

First:  Do not try to understand the plot.  Do not feel bad about yourself if you are quickly lost in the film's cannabis haze.  I got most of the connections for the first half hour, then started not getting them, and eventually realized they were irrelevant.  Plot lines are not resolved; the information conveyed in certain scenes turns out to be completely unnecessary, or at least unnecessary to the plot.  So don't even worry about what actually happens in the movie.

Second:  Fight the urge to look at the characters' eyes, as you would if you were listening to a normal human being speak.  There is a lot, I mean a lot, of mumbling in this show.  I thought I was watching a Robert Altman movie for a minute there, with this movie having the advantage of people not talking over one another too much.  (After I wrote this, I noticed that the reviewer for "The New Yorker" mensions Altman in the first paragraph of his review.)  But a lot of mumbling, and a lot of drug-addled mumbling that you will never understand if you view faces as your instinct tells you to.  Instead, look at the characters' mouths.  That will help.

Third:  Sit way back in the theater.  Anderson likes close-ups of faces, and those famous pusses fill the screen.  Makes the lip-reading easier, though.

Fourth:  Ignore publicity describing this as a comedy, or a comedy-drama.  It has almost no laughs and doesn't seem to be asking for them.  The theater was almost completely silent in the showing I attended.  More on this below.

It's long, too long, but I will concede that I was mostly engaged during its 2.5-hour running time. There were several scenes that added nothing to the plot, such as it was, and the camera lingered far too long on large faces that were not saying anything or otherwise conveying information pertinent to the proceedings.  If Clint Eastwood had directed this, it would clock in at about 17 minutes.  I will say that one of the longer unnecessary substories does give us the opportunity to enjoy Martin Short as a coke-fiend dentist who runs an organization that -- hell, I have no idea what it has to do with the plot.

The film is oddly lit, and kind of fuzzy in places.  Claustrophobic -- even the scenes in open spaces gave off a kind of suffocating vibe.

Director Anderson ("The Master," "Boogie Nights," "There Will Be Blood") also wrote the screenplay.  What is he getting at?  I've seen it written that it is an effort to portray the paranoia of that period of time.  Or its uncertainty.   Maybe -- several of the characters seem to have dual personalities, dual loyalties, dual interests.   Here's a quote from the Wikipedia page on the movie:  "Anderson has said he tried to cram as many jokes onto the screen as Pynchon squeezed onto the page and that the visual gags and gimmicks were inspired by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker-style slapstick spoofs like Police Squad!, Top Secret!, and Airplane!  Anderson also used the underground comic strip Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers as what he described as an invaluable 'research bible' for the writing process."

Boy, did he fail.  As noted, there is scarcely a laugh in the show.  There are some ridiculous moments that stick out, that have little to do with what surrounds them.  But when you don't know if you're watching absurdist subversive dadaesque comedy or a movie made by someone who doesn't actually have a sense of humor who believes he is making a really funny movie, you're in for a struggle.

Here's what I imagine:  A director popular with actors got a bunch of those actors together, they all smoked a lot of dope in front of and behind the cameras, and let those cameras roll.  When he'd yell "cut," they'd all laugh uproariously at the hilarity they'd committed to film, and when it all got printed and edited and spliced together and they ran the whole thing, they smoked some more dope and watched it and almost passed out with laughter.   Can you believe what he just did?  Oh, man, I remember that little improv thing they did there, we just about died laughing.  This thing is going to absolutely kill! 

Then they released it to sober audiences.

But the movie does have its charms.  It's full of people we recognize and like to look at.  One of them is really cute and naked (next).  But the show is really Doc's.  I believe he is in every scene.  Joachin Phoenix is surely one of our finest actors, and he is quite good in this.  If you're going to have a quirky movie that goes on too long, I can hardly think of a gigantic face I would rather spend it with than the one belonging to Joachin Phoenix.  And the other performances are mostly very good.  I had my misgivings about Brolin's Bigfoot, but the part is overwritten and one-note and cartoonish (and not in a ha-ha cartoon way, but in a not-so-amusing cartoon way), so I don't hold him responsible.  

As Shasta, Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam) isn't asked to do much and while she's cute in a Renee-Zellweger's-former-face-lemon-sucking kind of way, I didn't think much of her performance. She is getting notice for a spectacular nude scene which devolves into a most peculiar and topologically unconvincing voluntary deviant sexual encounter.  But we've all seen beautiful young naked women before.  If you haven't -- you're reading this on the Internet and are mere seconds away from some. That scene, the first part watchable as it may be for the male half of the audience, does not justify the fare for entering the theater.  Doubt Sam enjoyed it.

Quibbles:  The movie does not get 1970 quite right.  The cars are too old.  The National Geographic someone is reading in an office is not in the format those mags were displaying in those years -- again, too old.  The Neil Young songs played on the soundtrack, notably "Harvest," were released a couple of years later.  Quibbles.

I can't tell you to go see it, because if you go and hate it, you'll blame me.  But I do have a sneaking hunch that there are pieces of this movie that will stay with me, and I can't even say that about movies that I liked at the time.  So it's a thumb's-up, but only in the privacy of this blog.