Friday, April 28, 2006

Ebertfest Report: Spartan

I like many of David Mamet's plays. The staccato repetitive rhythm of the dialogue, the repetitive rhythm, the staccato repetition in many of his plays and movies have become somewhat of a signature. I loved his play, later movie, Glengary Glen Ross. As Roger Ebert pointed out Thursday night in introducing the move, Spartan, which was written and directed by Mamet, the playwright loves technical talk and jargon. His dialogue often consists of an abbreviated way of speaking, that is not realistic, although it appears to be realistic, but is actually an abbreviated, stylized way of speaking.

Spartan offers a typical Mamet format, although perhaps not as heavily-handed as some of his earlier works. The movie is a suspense/mystery movie with a gradually unfolding plot that keeps going off in new directions. The daughter of an important person, probably the president of the United States, although the movie does not spell it out, is kidnapped and sold into a sex slave ring. Some agency, maybe the Secret Service, maybe the CIA, maybe some black agency we haven't heard of is trying to save her, or maybe to kill her. Val Kilmer is a shadowy figure who works with and then against the agency that was supposed to protect the daughter.

The ending is improbable, but not any more improbable than the beginning and the middle of the movie. My wife hated the movie because of its violence, which, although stylized, was nevertheless pervasive. My male genes have programmed me not to be as repelled by violence, so I didn't hate it; I just didn't like the movie very much. That conclusion apparently puts me in line with the rest of middle America, which just did not show up for this movie, despite Ebert's four-star endorsement.

No one connected with the movie was there for the post-screening discussion. Instead, Ebert interviewed David Bordwell, a professor emeritus in film studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Bordwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the movie stating that it is a genre picture, with much of the typical expository material pulled out, leaving it to the audience to fill in the blanks with its imagination.

In thinking about my reactions to the movies shown on Thursday, I noticed that I am much more negative than usual about movies shown at the Ebert Festival. I don't know if it's because of the bad influence of The Decider, or whether there is a difference in what kinds of movies are being shown this year. I am fairly independent minded, so I think it is not the influence of The Decider but a different kind of movie being screened. I noticed that besides the senior citizens here with an Elder Hostel program, many of the viewers, at least the ones asking questions at the end of the screenings, are "movie nerds," students of film who obsessively study every film ever made and are interested in spotting the influence of Fellini, or who can quote some movie scholar in their long questions.

I have always trusted Ebert's judgment on movies because he seems like the everyman middle America type of reviewer who generally reflects the slightly literate, but not scholarly consumer of movies. I am afraid the festival is turning into a forum for obsessives. I guess I should propose a study for some University sociology class. They could compare the pallor of the Ebertfest goers with the tans of a cross sample of middle America to see if the audience is composed of people who spend all their time indoors watching obscure movies.

Maybe I am just getting old and less willing to be challenged in my viewing habits. If I am, I will be too rigid to notice.

Ebertfest Report: Man Push Cart

Man Push Cart was the first of two movies that I saw on Thursday that I didn't much like when I was watching it but liked better after hearing the discussion afterwards.

The writer and director is Ramin Bahrani, a young man actually born in North Carolina, but with Iranian-American parents, and who spent a significant amount of time living in Iran. Bahrani was jailed in Iran for a week after participating in a candle light vigil following the 9/11 attacks on suspicion of being a spy for the United States. The star is Ahmad Razvi, who was born in the part of Kashmir claimed by Pakistan, but came to the United States as a baby, and actually worked as a pushcart vendor in New York City about 10 years before the film was made.

The film has a slight plot line, which does not bother me; sometimes the best films are more about situations and human nature than plot. Ebert described it as a movie about human nature placed in a difficult position. I agree with Ebert that some of the best movies are not plot or genre driven but about how people make it through the day. But I didn't think this movie was a particularly good example of the situational movie, although I certainly wouldn't call it a "bad" movie.

Ahmad the push cart vendor gets up at 2:30 every morning to pull his push cart to his spot on a New York City street where he sells coffee, tea, donuts and bagels. His in-laws have his 7-year-old son whom they rarely allow Ahmad to visit because they blame him for the death of their daughter, although the movie never tells us how or why she died. Ahmad does everything he can to earn money, including selling bootleg porn movies and carpentry and painting for a rich Pakistani expatriate whom he meets. He finally gets his push cart paid off, only to have it stolen a few days later.

The name of the movie comes not only from the obvious fact that Ahmad and the cart spend a great deal of time pushing each other around, but also the old myth of Sisyphus having been condemned to pushing the rock up the mountain, only to have it fall back down.

I did not like how dark the movie was. Some scenes were just plain hard to see. Sometimes it was hard to track what was happening because not only were the scenes hard to see, the transitions were hard to follow, so that the time and place of a particular scene was not easy to figure out.

My view of the movie softened, however, during the panel discussion that Ebert had with Bahrani and Razvi. Bahrani was so passionate about movies in general and this one in particular, that it was easy to get caught up in his enthusiasm. He thought of making the movie after Bush bombed Afghanistan and he remembered that most of the push cart vendors he knew in New York City were from Afghanistan. He wanted to make a movie that was not hyper-political or an issues movie because those kinds of movies have a short shelf life, but he wanted to make the audience care about people who are part of the background of urban life. He had met Razvi, who, at the time, was running a Pakistani restaurant and had never acted before this movie was made.

Some of the things I did not like about the movie, Bahrani told us were done deliberately to achieve the effect he wanted. Much of the movie, which was shot in 30 days on hardly any budget at all, was shot in the darkness because that is when Ahmad worked. Much of the filming was done with a long camera lens from across the street to compress the traffic and to put Ahmad in a tight frame. The director deliberately had Ahmad behind objects with only a portion of his face or body showing to give the feeling that he is trapped by his circumstances. Bahrani tried to take everything out of the story that he could so that the audience would use its own imagination to fill in the blanks. He said that he would be flattered to find out that audience members thought about the movie three days afterwards.

I was mentally prepared to give the movie two stars while I was watching it, but the discussion won me over and my final score is four stars.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ebertfest Report: Duane Hopwood

While watching Duane Hopwood on Thursday, I thought again, "Thank God, this one was overlooked." But as in Man Push Cart, I revised my initial impressions somewhat more favorably after I heard the discussion about the movie afterwards.

David Schwimmer, who apparently is a popular television actor but of whom I had never heard because I have never watched the television series, Friends, plays Duane Hopwood, a young father who loses his family because of his alcoholism, loses his job because of bad luck and yet remains a likable loser whom you assume is going to rebound.

The movie opened in five markets, not including Los Angeles and New York,but then in a series of what Roger Ebert called "bad decisions," but which I call "smart decisions," was never given a full theatrical release. Although the projection at the Ebertfest is usually impeccable,this showing was marred by a series of unbearably loud buzzings, which I assume was the fault of the equipment but was never explained.

Matt Mulhern, the writer and director, was interviewed by Ebert afterwards and said the movie was inspired by many Duanes with whom he grew up in New Jersey. They are likable losers who get up in the middle of the night, go to work in the casinos, get off work in the middle of the day and then start drinking. The jobs are well paying and Mulhern does not intend the movie to be anti-casino, or even anti-alcoholic, as much as a slice of life.

A slice of life is fine if it has a little spice but this was too bland for my taste. Mulhern said that he tried to make a low-keyed movie, unlike most modern movies in which one gets the feeling that the writer thinks of the most outrageous thing his character could do in the situation. Mulhern said he wants to find the beauty and poetry of life in ordinariness. I admire the sentiment; I just don't think he carried it off.

I was particularly put off by the happy ending, with both Duane and his ex-wife suddenly being shown at Thanksgiving dinners reflecting a hopeful future which is not a logical progression of what we have seen before. I take it from Mulhern's comments that he wrote the script with honesty and that this was not a case of a studio suit telling him the movie was too depressing and to tack a happy ending onto the end of it. But the ending felt like that had happened.

I was going to give the movie two stars out of five, but the after-viewing discussion swayed me to raise my rating to three for the good effort.

Ebertfest Report: My Fair Lady

I drove past the Virginia Theater on my way home from work about 5:00 p.m., and the line to get in for My Fair Lady already had a hundred or so people in it. The doors to the theater were not scheduled to open until 6:30 and the movie didn't start until 7:30, but people intent on snagging good seats were being prepared. This is overkill in my opinion because there are very few bad seats in the 1500-seat theater. You want to avoid the corner seats in the front because of the angle, but even the balcony seats have good sightlines, although the bottom of the screen might be cut off depending on where you're sitting.

When we got there at about 6:30 p.m., the line was more than a block long. Walking down the line to get to the end was like going down a receiving line, as every fifth person seemed to be a friend or acquaintance. That's one of the advantages of living in a small town (and of having lots of friends who like to go to movies.)

At 6:30, the line starts moving and goes very quickly as almost everyone had already exchanged their tickets for the festival passes that will allow one to walk in for the future showings. Our seats are fine, in the seventh row from the front, on the right side. After marking their seats, people are walking around chatting, it is like a big family reunion (at least if you're in an Amish family with hundreds of cousins.)

At 6:55, the organ console starts coming up out of the orchestra pit with Warren York wearing his trademark bright red socks vigorously pounding out tunes from My Fair Lady and other musicals.

At 7:25, it looks to me like there are about 50 seats left in the right corner, and people have stopped coming in, so although the festival is officially sold out, everyone who wanted to see the movie could do so.

At 7:27, the organ console and York start their recession back into the pit and a podium is rolled out.

At precisely 7:30, Roger Ebert comes out to hearty applause, but not the standing ovation he received several years ago when he came out after having survived a bout with cancer. He gives several golden Thumbs Up awards to people who have been helpful to the festival and then makes a few remarks about the movie.

Ebert says that My Fair Lady is his favorite musical, and it's no wonder because it is based on the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, the lyrics and music are by the famous team of Lerner and Lowe and it was directed by George Cukor, and, of course, stars two great actors, Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.

At 7:40, the movie is ready to roll, which is about 20 minutes quicker than I had predicted. Ebert does love to talk, and although his anecdotes are interesting, there have been years when he has gone on and on instead of getting the movie started, which makes for a late night.

I am not a fan of musicals (I'm sure that will convict me of being homophobic in the eyes of p.g.) I can understand the logic of opera where everything is sung, but I don't get having a play, stopping the action, or at least the dialogue and then one or more people bursting into song and dance and then returning to the action. I know I have lived a sheltered life, but I have never encountered or heard of real people who act like that. I am a big fan of versimilitude, or at least a semblance of it.

But if one must have musicals, then My Fair Lady is the one to see. The music is gorgeous. The film is filled with so many familiar songs that have snappy tunes and intelligent lyrics. The lushness of the film, with its colors and costumes and sets is astounding. Of course seeing the movie in its 70 mmm format made it all the more amazing. People don't understand what they're missing seeing movies on small screens and in 35 mm or digital format until they go back and see a movie like this in the way it was originally intended. Ebert said at the beginning that although many people have seen My Fair Lady many times, most have never seen it in the 70 mmm format, and few of us will ever see it again in the same way, and I agree completely.

Ebert said in his comments in the program booklet that only the culturally illiterate need to be told what the movie is about, so I will refrain from spelling it out again. Shaw is known for his intelligent writing and much of his work is retained in the musical; in fact, his family had a contractual clause when they sold the rights to the play that a certain percentage of his dialogue had to be retained. I made note of a few of the memorable lines, but it was hard to do in the dark, so I ddidn't write down as many as I would have under more favorable conditions.

At one point, Professor Higgins is asked, "Are you a man of good character where women are concerned?" and he replies with a devilish grin, "Are there any men of good character where women are concerned?" At another point Eliza says, "The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not in how she behaves, but how she is treated."

This movie, made in 1964, is different from modern movies in the intelligence with which it treats its audience. It lets the audience fill in the blanks rather than assuming that the audience has to be told everything. For example, as Ebert pointed out, although this is a romantic comedy, there is not one kiss, not even a hug between the principles. The last line of the movie is "Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?" letting the audience imagine what happens next.

After the showing, Ebert interviewed Marnie Nixon, the voice behind Hepburn, and James Katz, one of the restorers of the 70 mm version, which had to be assembled from pieces of old deteroriated film stock. Hepburn actually had a voice coach and thought she was going to be doing the singing of Eliza in the movie until late in the production process when the director and producers decided to dub in Nixon's voice. This was supposed to be a secret; Nixon was given no credits in the movie, nor in the other musicals in which she was the voice behind the star, including West Side Story, The King and I and others.

Nixon was classically trained, singing with the Roger Wagner Chorale when she was 14; soloing in the Mozart Requiem when she was 17; singing the works of and working with modern composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg. She grew up in Los Angeles and started doing commercials and dubbing work in movies as a sideline to make enough money to keep taking violin and voice lessons. She was paid very little (she got $420 for the album for The King and I, which is still a top selling musical album.)

Nixon's age isn't given but she looks to be in her 50s, although she must be in her 70s, and she is still singing, on Broadway, with orchestras and soloing. She was a delightful guest. Katz wanted to give more detail about the restoration work than anyone really cared about, and Ebert hadn't spent much time with him when we left at about the midnight bewitching hour.

Ebertfest got off to a rousing start for anyone who has even a minimal appreciation for movies, and I'm looking forward to the next several days.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Ebertfest: The Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival

One of the highlights of living in this small Midwestern college town is the Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival, which kicks off Wednesday night and concludes Sunday. Ebert grew up in Urbana, graduated from high school and college here, first fell in love with film here and got his first job writing for newspapers here, going from a grade school newsletter to high school, college and then the daily newspapers.

This is the 8th annual festival, held at the historic Virginia Theater, one of the grand old movie palaces built 75 years ago. The theater has been undergoing restoration, and in some ways (it has more rest rooms) is in better shape now than when it was built. It still has a working pipe organ, with the console on a hydraulic lift coming up out of the floor between shows with Warren York at the keyboard.

After the first couple of years, I started blocking off Thursday and Friday as vacation days to try to get in as many movies as I can. As usual, there are a few things that have crept onto my calendar, so I won't be able to take in every event, but I plan to go to most of the movies and panel discussions and hang around for the after-show discussions, which are sometimes more interesting than the movies.

I will never forget one of the great experiences of my life two years ago when the director, Werner Herzog, was here for the showing of his movie, Invincible. American television audiences became familiar with Herzog a few months ago when his documentary, Grizzly Man, was shown on the Discovery Channel, but he has been well known to movie afficionados for years. He was in the middle of the jungle in South America, filming, and took two days to get to our little town, traveling by boat, helicopter and plane to make it. There was a late showing of his movie, which didn't end until after 11:00 p.m. and then he stayed around until after 1:30 a.m. answering questions from the audience and talking with Ebert. Although the hour was late, hardly anyone left because they were so engrossed in the conversation.

My friend, p.g., who is a professional movie critic, and I plan to blog extensively about Ebertfest. He has started a new blog,Ebertfest, to which I also have a link under the "Blogs I Read" section to the right, and to which I, and others will contribute. He and I usually disagree on everything, and even when we agree, we find some way to argue about it. So take a look at his blog, too, if you have any interest in movies. Or in watching two adults argue like little kids. The problem with blogging will be that there really is hardly any time between the movies and after movie discussions to do anything, including getting a bite to eat. So, I'm not sure exactly when I will get the time to write a blog entry.

The movies this year are as follows:

Wednesday 7:30 p.m. My Fair Lady. What's overlooked about My Fair Lady you may legitimately ask. "Overlooked" has come to mean whatever Roger Ebert wants it to mean; after all it's his festival. It has become customary to lead off the festival with a restored 70 mm spectacle on Wednesday evenings. The Virginia still has its original projector capable of showing 70 mm films, and seeing movies like Lawrence of Arabia two years ago or Patton four years ago the way they were meant to be seen on a wide screen gave me a new appreciation of what we are missing in the digital generation, watching movies in multiplexes with tiny screens or at home on televisions. The guests for this screening will include Marni Nixon, the voice behind not only Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, but also Natalie Wood in West Side Story and many others.

Thursday 1:00 p.m. Man Push Cart
Thursday 4:00 p.m. Duane Hopwood
Thursday 8:30 p.m. Spartan

Friday 1:00 p.m. Somebodies This movie is produced by Nate Kohn, another Urbana boy made good, who is director of the Festival.
Friday 4:00 p.m. The Eagle, starring Rudolph Valentino, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra
Friday 8:00 p.m. Ripley's Game, starring John Malkovich, who is supposed to be here. Malkovich is a semi-local-boy-made-good, having been born in Illinois and attended Eastern Illinois University and Illinois State University, two colleges about 50 miles from here, and, of course, first having come to prominence as an actor with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater.

Saturday Noon Millions
Saturday 3:00 p.m. Claire Dolan
Saturday 7:30 p.m. Junebug
Saturday 10:30 p.m. Bad Santa

Sunday Noon U-Carmen eKhayelitsha

It's going to be a fun few days. I can hardly wait.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Ask Aunt Tillie: Who Does God Love?

Blogger's Note: On April 16, I featured a question to Aunt Tillie about Easter brunch from a fan in New York. A reader, identifying himself as "Uncle Menno," in a comment to the post, asked Aunt Tille a question, which I thought was mean-spirited but which I forwarded to her anyway. I got a card back several days ago with her answer. First the question, then the answer:

Dear Aunt Tillie: There is an Amish market not far from here, and I see that some of the Amish now have braces on their teeth. When did the Lord stop loving crooked teeth? Signed Uncle Menno

Dear Uncle Menno,
I feel sorry for you if you think that needing braces on your teeth means that God doesn't love you. I think sometimes God loves people with some physical defect more than he loves so-called normal people. (I know there is that verse in the Old Testament about people with handicaps not being allowed in the tabernacle of the Lord, but that was then. Times change.) I think I know what you're getting at with your question, Uncle Menno. You think the only reason for wearing braces on your teeth is vanity, but you're just wrong. Occluded teeth can cause jaws to be misaligned and cause people to have headaches. It's hard to work when you have a headache. Do you think it's wrong to take an aspirin when you have a headache? Doesn't God love people who have headaches? You sound like a philosopher with your mean question. Now get back to work and stop worry about little children wearing braces. Next you'll be wondering whether going to see a chiropractor isn't just an excuse for a vacation from work. Well, don't ask. I'm afraid I'll have to get stern with you the next time you ask one of your stupid questions.
Aunt Tillie

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Movie Report: Thank You For Smoking

The premise of Thank You For Smoking is great; the result is flawed. Aaron Eckhardt plays Nick Naylor, a slimey public relations shill for the tobacco industry, whose job it is to get more people smoking. The idea he comes up with is to use product placement by paying to have the actors in a new space movie smoke, like actors use to do in the good old days of movies.

The previews that I had seen of this movie showed some funny scenes, so that I passed on seeing Friends With Money,American Dreamz and Joyeux Noel, three movies I still really want to see. Unfortunately, the trailers contain all the best parts and the rest put me to sleep in the middle of the movie.

The movie is so earnestly politically correct that no character actually smokes any cigarettes. How can you have a movie satirizing smoking and not have anyone smoke? I figure it's because the distributors of the movie figure the audience for the movie is non-smokers and they were afraid of offending them.

I know this movie got good reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, but I am not impressed. The movie is certainly better than three-fourths of the other movies playing at the multiplexes, but I should have seen one of the others on my list. I gave it three stars.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Book Report: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Regular readers of my book reports will have noticed that I often complain about the endings of books. An otherwise fine book can lose a star or two in my rating system with a bad ending. I am happy to be reminded that not all books are like that. The ending of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh converted me from being mildly negative about the book to being an enthusiastic supporter.

About a fourth of the books I "read," are actually Books-on-Tape, to which I listen as I drive around and out of town. Commercial radio has become unlistenable with long blocs of time taken up by back-to-back commercials and public radio, with the exception of "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross is so earnestly boring. Not all Book-on-Tape readers are created equally, but a really-good reader can free one's imagination to create a unique literary experience better than either visually reading a book or watching a movie of the story. Brideshead was read by Jeremy Irons, the British actor who played the narrator, Charles Ryder, in the Masterpiece Theater version of the story. Irons is the perfect reader for this book (as he was for another of my favorite Books on Tape, , by Vladimir Nabokov. (This is interesting. Blogspot will not allow me to print the name of that book, which is a classic, but the name of which has become associated with ia. I can type the name, but when I try to save or publish the post, it removes the name, leaving a space. Aren't you glad that the internet can be programmed to save your virtue like that? With all the real ography on the internet, to have to spell Nabokov's masterpiece, L*lita, seems a bit much. Oh, it removed the word p*d*philia from my post as well, leaving only ia. Oh, and p*rn*graphy is now gone as well. Sigh. With all the hardc*re (that's a f*rbidden word too, as is f*rbidden)stuff on the internet and I can't tell you about Jeremy Irons's Books on Tape. I thought I'd never say this, but "Thank God for spam. It has taught me how to evade the electronic censors.)

To revisit Brideshead Revisited, after I had read the first quarter of the book, I was telling myself, "Waugh sure knows his way around words, but who cares about the sighings of the British upper class?" I have an aversion to the fictional depictions of a class of people whose biggest decision of the day is how to dress for dinner, and this book seemed like a nostalgic longing for a day when the sun never set on the British Empire and the natives never had it so good.

But people change in this book, and not only people, but the whole tone of the book changes as its characters change. Charles has an intense relationship, probably homosexual, although Waugh is not explicit about it, as a young man, with Sebastian, a scion of an aristocratic family. Sebastian gradually lets alcohol take over his life and drops from view, but in the meantime Charles takes up with one of the daughters of the family, Julia, while both Charles and Julia are married to other people. Neither Charles nor Julia are religious, but towards the end of the book, Julia becomes a believer and feels she has to break off her relationship with Charles, who after witnessing a d*ath bed (now d*ath has become a f*rbidden word. What is wrong with this program?) miracle when the head of the family, Lord Marchmain dies, also becomes religious.

Commenters who know about more literary things than me, such as this Wikkipedia entry, say that the book reflects Waugh's own conversion to Catholicism. Wikkipedia quotes Waugh as stating, that the novel, "deals with what is theologically termed, 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself." I think that obervation of what the book is about is true, (I guess Waugh ought to know) although I don't think I would have come up with it on my own because the religion in the book is handled very subtly. This is not a book that your Sunday School teacher will ask you to read; not to say she shouldn't.

Although I don't put much stock in such lists, Brideshead is on Time Magazine's list last year of the top 100 English language novels from 1923 to the present. Sometime, I will make my own list, and I think Brideshead will make my list as well, which is Exhibit A for my argument on why all books should be finished, even if one doesn't like the beginning. I gave the book four stars.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Sequel: The Shunning at the Rocky Top Salvage Store

Those readers who have been following the blog for several months may remember the posts on November 6 and 11 about the battle at the Rocky Top Salvage Store in Kentucky.

To recap: Ruth Irene Garrett, a former Amish woman from Iowa, and Erma Yoder, a member of the Swartzendruber Amish, who runs the Rocky Top Salvage Store in the Glasgow, Kentucky area, are in a dispute about Yoder's refusal to sell groceries to Garrett. Garrett has become semi-famous with books about her life as an Amish woman and the way she was treated when she left the Amish to marry a divorced man who made his living chauffering Amish people. The Swartzendruber Amish, who will shun almost anyone, including themselves, put Garrett in the "ban" even though Garrett had never been a member of the Swartzendruber Amish, one of the most conservative of the various Old Order Amish groups. Being in the "ban" meant that Garrett could have no commercial or social interaction with members of the Swartzendruber Amish. When Garrett tried to buy goods at the Rocky Top Salvage Store, Yoder refused to sell to her. Although it would not have been forbidden for Yoder's children to sell to Garrett since they were not yet church members, or for Garrett's husband to buy the goods, since he had never been Amish, both women were too stubborn to compromise.

Garrett filed a complaint with the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights. Kentucky, like most states, has a statute forbidding discrimination on the basis of religion in commercial transactions.

Now the latest: Garrett has sent me an email stating that the Commission on Human Rights has ruled in her favor. She said that since she did not ask for money damages, she was awarded $100, with a suggestion that she use the money to buy groceries at the Rocky Top Salvage Store. I asked her for a copy of the decision, but haven't gotten it yet.

As I've stated before, this case raises interesting questions to which there are no easy answers. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to practice our religion freely without interference from the government. If our religion requires us to discriminate, should the government interfere? On the other hand, if a store open to the public can refuse to sell to an ex-Amish person, what's to prevent a rabid right wing Southern Baptist from refusing to sell to a Muslim? Or a Muslim from refusing to sell to a Jew? Does society's interest in having a religiously pluralistic society mean that the constitutional right to freely practice our religion should be limited?

I have no easy answers, but like several of my readers previously, I lean towards requiring anyone with a store open to the public to do business without discriminating on the basis of religion. If Erma thinks selling to sinners will cause her to go to hell, then maybe she should go back to subsistence farming instead of running a commercial enterprise.

I never cease to be amazed at the battles people will fight in the name of religion, which is supposed to help people get along in this life and the next.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Book Report: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I have been procrastinating writing a report about John Steinbeck's classic novel, East of Eden, because the task seems so overwhelming. I finished reading the book two months ago, then decided to wait to write my report until our reading group had discussed it, which happened two weeks ago. The book is 600 pages long. It took Steinbeck 11 years of gestation and another year of uninterrupted writing to produce the book, according to this Steinback website. The book was a best seller in 1952 when it was published. What little insight I have to offer is like two grains of sand in the Sahara.

This is another one of those classics that I should have read 40 years ago, but probably appreciate more now than I would have in high school. I did read The Grapes of Wrath somewhere around 40 years ago, and found it depressing. I should have known not to reject all of Steinbeck's work as depressing since I had also read Travels With Charley many years ago and found it delightful.

I found East of Eden to be delightful as well, although a different kind of delight from Travels With Charley. East of Eden abounds with biblical allegories. Although there are religious themes, I would not call it a "Christian" book. The book, in a nutshell, is the saga of two American families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The Trasks are a small New England family, whose two sons, Adam and Charles, re-enact the Cain and Abel story of the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Charles has two sons (raised by Adam, but we won't go into why that is,) Aron and Caleb, who also re-enact elements of the Cain and Abel story, with a somewhat different outcome than the original story. The Hamiltons are a large Irish family, the maternal lineage of Steinbeck's family, and he even introduces himself into their story. The Hamiltons are a poor family living in the Salinas Valley of California, where Adam Trask eventually moves and raises the two boys.

Although the Cain and Abel references are obvious, maybe even a bit heavy-handed with the names, Charles and Adam and Caleb and Aron, there are many other biblical references. Cathy, with whom Adam falls in love, is as evil a person as I have ever encountered in fiction. I suggested to our reading group that she represents Satan, and no one told me I was crazy, although others had not made that connection. But, the group wanted to know, if there is a Satan character, who is the God character? There are two wise men, Samuel Hamilton, and Lee, a Chinese handyman and cook, who, while perhaps not having the attributes of God might be likened to Jesus, as they are both self-sacrificing teachers. The title, East of Eden, comes from a passage in Genesis, which refers to Adam and Eve, who, after their fateful eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, are expelled from the east gate of Eden.

The book is a page turner, as Steinbeck keeps you wondering what is going to happen next. Steinbeck knows the craft of writing as well as any writer I have ever read. There is a reason his books are classics; he is a good writer. Nevertheless, I thought some of the concepts of the book seemed to be dated. Lee, the Chinese character, speaks in pidgin English when people he does not know are around, but with people he trusts, like Samuel, he speaks like the educated philosopher that he is. But Steinbeck does not seem similarly enlightened when referring to black characters. He also seems to emphasize facial and body features as reflecting character more than we are comfortable with these days. Evil people do not all look as evil, nor do good people necessarily look as wholesome as painted by Steinbeck.

It is probably an insult to the great Steinbeck for someone on my level to even think of rating him, but I will jump in where angels fear to tread and give this book five stars.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Movie Report: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

If nothing else, the name is a dead giveaway that The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is not your typical Hollywood flick. I can't imagine how Tommy Lee Jones, who directed and stars in the film, kept the suits from changing the name to something catchier like; The Interment of Pedro Gomez.

The Three Burials
is hardly to be compared with that other Western movie for 2005, Brokeback Mountain. While Brokeback gives you a romanticized, Eastern view of the cowboy life, with beautiful mountain vistas, crystal clear streams, lush meadows and cowboys who never break the creases in their pre-washed jeans, The Three Burials gives you grit -- lots of grit.

Although graduating from Harvard (he was a roommate of Al Gore, peace be upon him) with a degree in literature, Jones is intimately familiar with the world he depicts in The Three Burials. Jones grew up on a ranch in Southwest Texas, speaks fluent Spanish and still owns a 3,000-acre spread near San Antonio, where he raises horses. The movie has an air of versimilitude. It shows a dusty, down-at-the-heels kind of place where the sun and the boredom drive everyone a little bit crazy.

Jones plays a ranch foreman who hires the illegal Estrada as a cowboy. The two become good friends, as Estrada spins tales about the family he is supporting back in Mexico and Jones introduces Estrada to the only entertainment in town, spending a couple of hours with bored housewives turning tricks at the down-at-the-heels motel. Estrada is shot while herding livestock by a border patrolman whose wife Estrada had been bedding. It is not clear whether the patrolman knew about the connection. Although the shooting appears to be an accident, the border patrol tries to hush it up and buries Estrada in an unmarked grave. But Jones has his sources, finds out who was the shooter, kidnaps him, makes him dig up the corpse and then sets off cross country on horseback with the shooter and the corpse to take Estrada back to his village and his family.

This wouldn't be a movie unless there were lots of adventures along the way. There are chase scenes, but they're intelligent; not a bunch of cars careening and colliding on busy city streets. When Jones finally gets to his destination there have been changes in all three -- the character played by Jones, the border patrolman and the corpse. And they're met by a surprise that I did not anticipate and won't give away.

My main criticism of the movie is the confusing flashback sequences, particularly towards the beginning and middle of the movie. I don't know why flashbacks are such a favorite device of movie makers, particularly without the swirly out of focus transitions to let you know you're now seeing a different time. I try not to be overly literal, but I really prefer my movies going forward chronologically, unless there is a unique reason not to do so, as in, for example, Momento. The flashback problem is all that kept me from giving this movie five stars, but since I gave four stars to Brokeback, and I liked Three Burials better, I gave it four and one-half stars.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Ask Aunt Tillie: How About Easter Brunch?

Blogger's Note: Since this blog is somewhat Amishcentric, I get questions from time to time from readers about Amish life and culture, which I refer to my Aunt Tillie, an opinionated, but humble Amish woman. Here is a recent question and answer. Please leave a comment or email me if you have questions you want me to refer to her in the future.

Dear Aunt Tillie,
Women's Wear Daily had an article about Amish fashions (I just love all those stark blacks and whites and the "barndoor pants" on the men are tres chic) and I was enchanted. I'm thinking about doing an Amish-themed Easter brunch, and I was wondering what suggestions you might have for cute invitations and menu ideas. I was pretty sure Mimosas would be out since Amish don't drink, but what do you think about serving virgin Mary's? I thought the celery sticks with just a few curlicules of leaves sticking out over the tops of the glasses would be a nice back-to-nature touch. Do Amish eat salmon? I love blackened salmon and I thought a nice dill or hollandaise sauce would give a lovely black and white touch to the fish course. I know crudites can get a little colorful, but veggies are so in these days. Would it be okay to serve red, green, and yellow peppers julliene-style, or should I just stick with carrots and celery cut up in chunks? Finally, on the invitations, since this is an Easter brunch after all, they should say something about the true meaning of Easter. Don't you think it would be just darling to have the Easter bunny dressed up like an Amish man, with his ears sticking up through a broad-brimmed straw hat, saying something like, "Y'all hitch yourself up and come on over?"
Signed: A Fan in Manhattan

Dear Fan in Manhattan,
(sigh) Where to start? First of all, those "barndoor pants" lose their "enchantment" pretty fast after 13 kids and no end in sight. You know the old saying about the futility of closing the barndoor after the bull is out. If we women had our way, we'd be sewing zippers in those pants and jimmying up the zippers with the sewing machine screw drivers. As far as your Amish-themed Easter brunch, I don't know, I've never been to a brunch. Usually we're pretty busy working between breakfast and dinner (which is what we call the meal after breakfast) and wouldn't have time to sit down to sip Mimosas and/or virgin Mary's (by the way, I really don't appreciate the dirty talk about Mary. Between us women, I don't think she's a virgin anyway.) As far as the blackened salmon, I'd say you must be frying it too long. I haven't cooked salmon, but it can't be that much different from catfish, and you really need to get it out of the skillet when it turns a golden brown. I know how it is once you've burned the fish and you've got 25 people sitting around waiting to get fed, but I don't think it's going to do any good to try to disguise it by pouring a white sauce over it. If you have a hard time cooking fish, you might try making meat loaf. That's good anytime, but a nice Easter meatloaf is always welcome. (I kind of got a conscience against making ham for Easter when I found out Jesus was Jewish. It just doesn't seem right somehow.) As far as vegetables, I don't know what's wrong with green beans and corn, even if they are a little colorful. I boil the green beans until there's not that much green left anyway, so I don't really think I'm going to go to hell for having fancy vegetables, but if I started getting all julienne about it, I'd be getting a little worried. Finally, I don't know what you're talking about with invitations. I know you New York City folks are a little odd, but you have to be pulling my leg when you say you're going to send out invitations to this "brunch" with a picture of the Easter bunny dressed up like an Amish man with his ears sticking through the broad-rimmed straw hat. See, the way it works is you decide where you're going to go for Easter dinner. Then, if you're super-polite or something, you send them a card a week beforehand telling them you're planning on coming so they're expecting you and don't go someplace else for dinner. If you're not super polite, you just show up an hour or so before noon, but then you take the risk they've gone to your house. I just (hate) it when that happens.
Humbly yours,

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Why Do You Read This Blog?

I have a program that tells me what google searches lead readers to this blog. It's always interesting to see where they come from. In the last five days, people got here by searching the following terms:

* the edge of reason bookreport
* oberlin organ major
* history on the first plays
* zadie smith white teeth satire
* wikkipedia elderly learners
* schtick cards
* rantoul and die
* michel foucault discipline + punish the birth of the prison
* brokeback mountain graphic description
* silas marner report
* mt. pilatus alpine slide
* boy wearing a dress
* book report - silas marner
* a tramp abroad student life, Germany, Switzerland
* rantoul and die
* king charles ii - movie
* rantoul and die
* mark roberts + two and a half men
* limat river map
* silas marner community effects

It would be very interesting to know the stories behind some of these queries. Why in the world would anyone be looking up "schtick cards?" And it would be interesting to know whether the searchers found what they were looking for on these pages.

This blog has taken a little different direction since I first started it in September, 2005, as mainly a travelogue about our trip to Lucern, Switzerland. There is more about books and movies and politics than I had anticipated. It is also way more fun than I had anticipated. One of my dreams had been that when I get to this age, I would retire and move to the Southwest, buy a small weekly newspaper and write outrageous editorials that would piss everyone off. I'm not going to be able to realize that dream, but blogging offers everything but the low humidity.

So, whoever you are, I hope you keep coming back, and please leave comments or send me an email telling me who you are. (You can find my email address by clicking on my profile.)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Movie Report: Why We Fight

Why We Fight, a documentary by Eugene Jarecki, is a very well done polemic questioning the United States use of force in the world since the Second World War. It won the Documentary Grand Prize in January, 2005 at the Sundance Film Festival and only now is being shown in theaters by Sony Classics, after having been shown on HBO and the BBC.

The film has several focii, the first being Dwight D. Eisenhower's famous parting speech in 1961 when he warned the nation of the dangers of the military-industrial complex (actually, according to Eisenhower's son, John, the phrase was originally "military-industrial-congressional complex".) The film documents how the Defense Department adopted a policy of "privatizing" some aspects of the military under Dick Cheney as defense secretary under Bush I, how Cheney then left the Defense Department to become the CEO of Haliburton, raising his net worth from somewhere around $1 million to $365 million over the course of six years, and how Cheney then stepped back into government as Vice President in charge of everything under Bush, all the while adamantly asserting that the no-bid contracts being awarded to Haliburton were not connected to his ties with Haliburton and that he personally did not benefit from them.

Another focus of the film, and the most dramatically compelling for me is the story of Eugene Sekzer, a retired New York City policeman, whose son, Jason, was a victim of the Al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade towers on September 11, 2001. A Vietnam veteran, Sezer was enraged and eager for revenge. He wanted someone to be punished for what had happened to his son and was a fervent supporter of the invasion of Iraq, even making and having granted a special request to have his son's name painted on one of the first bombs to be dropped on Baghdad. Then it shows Sekzer's disillusionment and anger when Bush finally confesses that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks, and the mastermind behind them, Osama bin Laden, continues to roam freely, making video and audio tapes taunting and threatening the United States. Sekzer is not a hand-wringing liberal afraid to be tough with global outlaws. He is a tough-talking ex-cop who feels betrayed by a president who deliberately deceived him into supporting an invasion that was ill-advised in its rationale and misplanned in its execution.

Another compelling storyline is that of a young New York City man lured into joining the Army, assured by the recruiter that everything he was telling the young man was in "black and white policy regulations so I'm not giving you smoke and mirrors or anything."

This movie is better balanced and cinematically a better film than Michael Moore's 2004 effort, Farenheit 9/11. Jarecki gives time to opposing viewspoints, most notably the two young pilots who dropped the bunker busting bombs that were supposed to land on Hussein's palace at the beginning of the war, but who wound up missing their mark and killing many women and children.

But this is not a television network artificial balance with the on-the-one-hand-he-says; on-the-other-hand-she-says routine where fact is "balanced" with bullshit. It is more like an Op-Ed opinion piece. The director has an agenda and he puts together the film to further his agenda. I don't find this objectionable because it is so well done and I agree so much with his agenda. A conservative supporter of The Lying Turd probably wouldn't like the movie.

As we left the movie, my wife said she enjoyed it, but that she was afraid it was preaching to the converted. By and large, that is a valid criticism, but even the converted need a pep talk to keep from getting disheartened from time to time. One of our friends who accompanied us to the movie said that although there was nothing in the movie that he didn't already know, the way it was put together made it a good movie to see. I agree and gave it five stars out of five.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Theater Report: Rantoul and Die

I went to the final performance of Rantoul and Die at The Station Theater on Saturday night predisposed to like the play. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

The playwright, Mark Roberts, is a local boy made good. After getting started in theater at The Station as a youngster, he became a local standup comic; moved to Chicago where he was successful as a comic, and then moved to Los Angeles where he was a successful comic and is now a writer and co-producer of the television series, Two and One-Half Men, which is apparently a hit. Last season, The Station presented Roberts's first play, Welcome to Tolono, which I loved. I thought Welcome was a sensitive and exceptionally funny portrayal of a 12-step program in a small town. It was one of the best plays I have seen at The Station.

Rantoul, like Tolono, where Roberts grew up and the setting of his first play, is a small town near Champaign-Urbana. It is the setting of Roberts's second play for no apparent reason other than the wordplay with "tool and die," which becomes significant in the second act of the play.

Roberts, in an author's note, states that while Welcome was a "memory piece" containing events and stories that took place in Roberts's early teens, Rantoul is not a memory play, but that "It was written in airplanes and in hotel rooms, during one of the most insane, self-destructive periods of my adult life. Hopefully, my last gasp of true stupidity although I make no promises. Except to my wife." Elsewhere he writes that the first draft (and except for one word, the final draft) was finished in October. It appears, then, that the "most insane self-destructive periods" of Roberts's life is rather recent history. I don't want to add to his problems by trashing his play, particularly not, since my friend and occasional reader, p.g., reviewed the play and trashed, not only it but also the author, in a review he put on what he thought was a private blogspot. Roberts happened to find the review and, understandably, was hurt and called p.g. about it, after which p.g. rewrote the review to be more neutral. I wanted to love the play so that i could tell p.g. how wrong he was with his review.

The director of the play, Gary Ambler, has been associated with The Station since its beginning and is an acting genius. If he is acting in a play, I know it will be good. The cast, Jim Dobbs, Mike Trippiedi, Anne Kearns and Joi Hoffsommer, are all veteran performers, some of The Station's best.

With all the play had going for it, and my predisposition to like it, why did I dislike it so much? Well, it was the set, the direction, the dialogue, and the acting. The costumes were okay.

I don't mind minimalist sets. The best play I have ever seen at The Station, The Laramie Project, had a set that consisted of a bunch of chairs and not much else -- maybe a desk. I don't mind using my imagination. But this was not a minimalist set. There were lots of things on the stage. It had not only a couch, chairs, coffee table, kitchen with a well-stocked refrigerator, coffee-maker, but also trinkets and magazines strewn around. But the back wall of what was supposed to be a small living room and kitchen was a chain-link fence. I suppose the fence was there for some symbolic purpose, maybe because the characters of the play felt trapped by marriages and situations. But if that is what the fence was there for, it was too heavy-handed and incongruous. The suspension of disbelief is still an essential part for the enjoyment of a play by me, and my suspension works fine if my imagination is doing the work or if my eyes are doing the work, but it breaks down when my imagination and eyes have conflicting images.

Then there is the directing. I really don't like criticizing someone who has forgotten more about acting than I will ever know, but I can't believe that if Gary Ambler had been one of the actors he would have just stood in one spot and declaimed lengthy monologues without moving, as happened a number of times in this play. The play opens with the character, Gary, played by Jim Dobbs, having Rallis, played by Mike Trippiedi in a chokehold while Gary talks on and on and on. Particularly in the first act before the arrival of Debbie, played by Anne Kearns, Gary and Rallis repeatedly go for long stretches of time without changing position.

The dialogue sounded stilted and wooden to me. All of the characters are Rantoul rednecks, the women are a manager and worker in a Dairy Queen; the men are factory workers. The language they use often sounds like a screen writer talking, not like a real factory worker or Dairy Queen queen.

It seemed to me that with the exception of Hoffsommer, who always added energy to the production when she was on stage, the actors relied on volume to convey emotions rather than the rest of their faces and bodies. There was a lot of shouting. There was way too much shouting. I would have liked to have seen the volume of the whole piece dialed down several numbers in order to save the shouting for the truly horrific.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not point out that the rest of the audience seemed to disagree with my assessment. This performance was sold out, as have been most, if not all, of the performances. The audience laughed uproariously at lines at which I could barely evoke a weak grin. Most of the audience stood for a standing ovation at the end. I and several others did not. I am not usually hard to entertain, but I could not find the entertainment in this play. I gave it two stars out of five.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Book Report: Joe Jones by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott's two books of essays/memoirs, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith are two of my favorite books. She has a quirky, honest way of writing that is very endearing. Plus she is laugh-out-loud funny. I recently read one of her novels, Joe Jones which is less successful. Lamott again demonstrates that she has a way with words; but her plot leaves a lot to be desired.

Joe Jones is Lamott's third novel, first coming out in 1985 and recently being republished. Lamott concedes in an interview with Powell' the Portland book seller that "it was just a mess in a lot of ways." It was written in the last few years of her drinking (she became sober in 1986)and she expected a natural progression in quality from her first two novels, but it was critically trashed, and people pretended that it didn't exist.

Joe Jones is set in a run down diner in the San Francisco Bay area, populated by a weird group of people, including Jessica, the 80-year-old owner; Willie, her gay grandson who is the waiter, dish washer and pastry cook; Louise, a waitress who appears to be the Anne Lamott character, and Joe Jones, Louise's faithless ex-boyfriend about whom she cannot stop obsessing. Louise, like Lamott, is a foul-mouthed fervent Christian, who doesn't let her Christianity get in the way of her compassion for life's losers. People die and leave in the novel, but it is not a depressing novel; Lamott uses her humor to keep the tone hopeful and light.

When I started reading the book, I was so taken with some of the writing that I started taking down quotes before I finally realized that I'm just going to wind up copying down the whole book. Some of my favorites, before I gave up jotting them down follow: (In reflecting on her relationship with Joe Jones, whom she has thrown out after yet another infidelity,) Louise says,
Really, she thinks to herself, you ought to be in love with someone you wouldn't mind being.

On Willie's grandmother's reaction upon learning that Willie is gay:
After a moment with deeply concerned indignation, she said, "I thought he just had good posture."

Christians who are easily offended should not read this book. Christians and non-Christians who need a strong plot to enjoy fiction should not read this book. People with and without faith who enjoy reading good writing just for the sake of how the words are put together will love this book. I gave it three stars.