I just read a great new book: “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America,” by Clint Smith.
Smith’s main point is that people, northerners and southerners, are now learning things about slavery they were not told in school -- the depths of depravity by which a female slave could be labelled a “good breeder” by her owners, and other aspects of good old-fashioned American enterprise.
Many people in this country still see slavery through a sentimental haze: slaves were better off here than they would have been in Africa; they were handled benevolently at the plantations.
You know, good people on all sides.
Nowadays mayors and school boards and governors are trying to forbid controversial or academic critiques of America.
(Some of these moronic governors are aiding Covid by not mandating vaccinations and masks at work and school.)
Smith’s book about slavery lies is a companion to the so-called “Big Lie” about alleged election fraud and the merry tourists who flocked to the Capitol last Jan. 6.
For all the chicanery and cowardice in high places, the worst parts of slavery are impossible to hide as Smith makes his rounds. As a one-time news reporter, I respect his shoe-leather approach -- visiting hot spots of the slave trade. A staff writer for the Atlantic – and a poet – Smith interviewed tour guides and museum directors as well as tourists, plus participants in Confederate commemorations.
The new cadre of historians and guides make it clear that that people, white people, mostly male, not only performed violent deeds but also knew what was being done, mostly in rural and southern states.
Smith begins where, in a sense, the country began – Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, where he "owned" slaves while preparing to write the Declaration of Independence. While he put pen to paper, his white staff put whips to the backs of Black slaves. Background music for Jefferson.
At Monticello, Smith chats with two visitors -- white, Fox-watching, Republican-leaning women, who hear a guide talk about Jefferson’s long association with a female slave.
Speaking to Smith, who is Black, the two women seem aghast. Smith quotes one of them:
“’Here he uses all of these people and then he marries a lady and then they have children,’ she said, letting out a heavy sigh. (A reference to Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman, who bore at least six of Jefferson’s children. The two were never married.) ‘Jefferson is not the man I thought he was.’”
That is the theme of the book – many Americans in position of responsibility and knowledge deliberately deflected what was known about slavery. And not just in the South. I know somebody who did college research on commerce in New England, and never came across the mention of slaves in Yankee states.
Then again, in a 2020 farewell to the great John Thompson, I praised a recent book about Frederick Douglass and noted that in all my school years in New York (with many history electives in college), I never heard the name "Frederick Douglass." (To be clear, I did know his name, just not from school. Our parents were part of a Black/white discussion group, and they extolled heroes like Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, and all of the children have learned from our parents.)
Smith points out that the Dutch and English, who pushed out the Lenape natives, welcomed slaves on the oyster-laden shores of lower Manhattan, and used them for labor, and shipped thousands to farms and other towns. New York was the second largest entry port, distributing slaves culled from Africa. Those who died were tossed, unmarked, into a pit near Wall Street.
One chapter in this book about slavery jarred me because I did not see it coming – a visit to the dreaded Angola Prison in Louisiana.
Smith explains his visit to Angola by pointing out that Black prisoners worked for free or for pennies, at the penal equivalent of plantations. In fact, Angola had a big house, where the warden and his family were served by trusted Black prisoners.
Prisons as plantations: As it happens, I have heard the metallic clank of the heavy door slammed behind me in three different prisons – and all three stories involved Black men. (See the links below.)
Smith’s itinerary includes: Monticello Plantation, Va.; the Whitney Plantation, La.; Angola Prison, La..
Blandford Cemetery, Va., Galveston Island, Tex, where emancipation was belatedly revealed to Blacks, leading to the recent proclamation of a new national holiday -- Juneteenth; New York City; and Gorée Island, Senegal, the legendary focus for the African slave trade.
In a moving Epilogue, Smith interviews his own elders for stories of prejudice, slavery and downright brutality they experienced or heard from their own elders.
Clint Smith’s book makes it clear that white America knew more about slavery than it discussed -- just as many of our "public servants" like to talk about sight-seers who had a fun day in the Capitol last Jan. 6, brandishing flagpoles, gouging eyeballs and shouting racial epithets.
It never went away.
It’s who we are.
* * *
Two book reviews in the NYT:
Three of my stories from prisons, when I was a news reporter:
* After writing this piece, and reading the thoughtful comments, I discovered a new book: “Land,” by Simon Winchester, a writer with great and varied interests. (We met in 1973 when he was posted to Washington by The Guardian.) Now living in the U.S., Winchester is writing about the creation and development of land.
An early paragraph about the original inhabitants of this continent fits right in with the tone of this discussion: (Page 17)
“The serenity of the Mohicans suffered, terminally. The villagers first began to fall fatally ill – victims of smallpox, measles, influenza, all outsider-borne ailments to which they had no natural immunity. And those who survived began to be ordered to abandon their lands and their possessions, and leave. To leave countryside that they had occupied and farmed for thousands of years – and ordered to do so by white-skinned visitors who had no knowledge of the land and its needs, and who regarded it only for its potential for reward. The area was ideal for colonization, said the European arrivistes: the natives, now seen more as wildlife than as brothers, more kine than kin, could go elsewhere.”
Winchester’s newest book then goes in many directions. I look forward to reading the rest.
(I was gearing up to write something about my despicable ex-neighbor from Queens, who is trying to take the country down with him. Then I read the obits of two people who enriched my life, in several senses of the word, and realized I need to pay homage to Michael Apted and Tommy Lasorda.)
* * *
I was afraid of what Hollywood would do with Loretta Lynn’s book, and her life, and her roots in Eastern Kentucky. Having been the Times’ Appalachian correspondent, I was blessed to get to know her and be asked to write her autobiography, and have her tell me great stories that made the book “Coal Miner’s Daughter” so easy to put together.
Then the book was marketed to Hollywood. From a vast distance, I heard rumors that this producer or that director wanted to put out a steamy version, a Beverly Hillbillies knockiff, of her colorful life. But then, way out of the loop, I heard that the Hollywood gods had lined up producer Bernard Schwartz….and screenwriter Tom Rickman….and British director Michael Apted.
I exaggerate sometimes that when I say that I was invited to an early private screening in Manhattan and brought a fake mustache and a wig and a raincoat I could put over my head like gangsters do when they are arraigned. I did fear the worst.
Then the movie began in the little screening room and I saw Levon Helm, as Loretta’s daddy, coal dust all over his face and hands, coming home from the mine and being met by his daughter, played by Sissy Spacek, and instead of goofus cartoon figures they were tender father and daughter, giving thanks that he had survived another shift underground.
I could breathe. No disguises necessary.
“The good guys won,” Rickman told me later.
Michael Apted, best known for his “Up” documentaries, was a principal good guy. He has died at 79.
I got to meet Apted a few months later at the “grand opening” in Nashville, where my wife and I were treated like one of the gang. Levon, Sissy and Loretta (if I may call them by their first names) gave an impromptu concert at the hotel, and the next day “we” took a chartered bus up to Louisville.
I chatted with Apted for a few minutes and told him how much I loved the movie, how fair it was to the region and how it lived up to what we had tried to do with her book.
I still remember one sentence: “I am no stranger to the coalfields.” Later, I looked it up and saw he was born in posh Aylesbury and grew up in London, but the point was, Michael Apted was a serious film-maker who traveled and learned and listened. For a more distinct Appalachian feel, he incorporated some locals into the movie, just as Robert Altman did in the movie “Nashville.”
I never met Apted again, but I am eternally gratefully to him and Schwartz and Rickman and the talented performers.
* * *
I knew Tom Lasorda better. I met him in the early 80s when he was already a celebrity manager with his monologues about “bleeding Dodger-blue blood.” He made it his point to know the New York sports columnists and including us as bit actors in his own personal production..
One time he told me that “Frank” had been at the game the night before. I guess I looked blank and he sneered at me and shouted, “Frank! Frank! Frank Sinatra!”
Wherever he was, Lasorda’s clubhouse office might be home to show-biz or restaurant types, plus Mike Piazza’s father, Vince, Lasorda’s childhood pal.
One time, in a big game in LA, the Dodgers had a lead in the late innings and there was a commotion in the dugout as Jay Johnstone ran out to right field and waved off some directive. Later we asked Lasorda what happened, and he said he tried to send Rick Monday out to play defense – a normal tactic -- but Johnstone had run past him, saying, “F--- you, Tommy, I’m not coming out!” Lasorda told it -- laughing, proud of Johnstone’s stand – particularly since it had not cost the Dodgers.
I was working on a book with Bob Welch, the pitcher and my late friend, about his being one of the first athletes to go through a rehab center for alcoholism. I knew Lasorda had made a brief visit to the center during Bob's family week, and I wanted his recollections, but Lasorda was evasive. Finally, on the road, he agreed to talk to me in his hotel suite, blustering, raising his voice, as if somebody were listening in the next room.
“He’s not an alcoholic!” Lasorda shouted. “He can take a drink or two! He just has to control it!” – totally against what recovering addicts know to be true.
I will give Lasorda credit for giving me the time…and his point of view. Whenever we met, he always said hello. Whatever his personal life was like, he loved wearing Dodger Blue. In his bombastic showboat way, he incorporated peripheral types, like a New York sports columnist, into his world, and he made us enjoy our little part of it.
* * *
Richard Goldstein and Tyler Kepner have told many great tales of Lasorda’s life:
Omigosh, you never know what will pop up. I picked up “the paper” in the driveway on Monday and there in the sports pages was a column I wrote 33 years ago, and it seems like yesterday.
Actually, it did involve two yesterdays – a seventh game of a Stanley Cup series that began Saturday night outside Washington, finished Sunday morning on Long Island (I was columnizing from home) and appeared in the Monday paper.
In those days, there was no Web, no 24-hour urgency to the newspaper business. I watched the Islanders (descendants of the mythic champs I had loved covering from 1980-83) battle the upstart Capitals for the right to move on to the next round.
Sports columnists were caught up in the interminable pedaling on the hamster wheel, the typing, the travel, the creating - - a mission, an honor. Only six months before, also on a Saturday night, Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner had gotten caught up in another epic game.
In the long madness of that night, I declared that the Red Sox’ misery was somehow linked to their disposal of Babe Ruth nearly half a century earlier. One gets very wise very late at night.
(And speaking of momentous marathons in the middle of the night, one of my favorite books about sports, and suffering, is “Bottom of the 33rd,” about baseball’s longest game between Pawtucket and Rochester, by Dan Barry, now one of my favorite bylines at the NYT. By the quirks of the calendar, that April 19 was both Holy Saturday for Christians and Passover for Jews, spiritual overtones galore.)
The Islanders-Capitals marathon also began on Holy Saturday and led into Easter Sunday while the lads kept playing, and playing, and playing.
I was living the life of the sports columnist, circa 1987 – when you knelt before the editor-in-chief and he tapped you on the shoulder with a mythical sword and dubbed you a knight of the keyboard, giving a modest raise for the honor of working your fingertips and frazzled brain around the clock, around the calendar-- three or four columns and week, often on deadline, deputized to explain sports to Times readers (and editors.)
I took my mission seriously and went out to slay dragons around the clock, around the week, around the cycle of sports as we knew it then. Fact was, I loved it, the freedom to think, and type, and see it in the paper, regularly.
(How trivial it all seems now, when most of the “news” of sports is about whether to resume competition, while in the Real World people are merely hoping they and their loved ones can continue breathing and eating. It is just possible that the longing for sports only leads to more Foxed-up yahoos picketing state governments to get people “back to work,” no matter what those scientists say about the killer virus. Personally, I don’t miss sports at the moment, well, except for the Mets.)
As my column from April 1987, materialized in the NYT, I was proud to read the way a columnist could converse regularly and familiarly with readers.
After the Islanders outlasted the Caps, I seem to have slept for a few hours, and gotten up early on Sunday and written about our Saturday evening – walking the dog often, my wife prepping Easter dinner (we had two friends coming for dinner), our youngest-the-busboy coming home from Louie’s smelling like fried shrimps, and how I switched channels so often that I also watched chunks of my all-time favorite movie, “The Third Man.”
But I wrote the column – keeping the faith with the holy mission of the sports columnist. Thirty-three years later, how much fun it was – and still is.
* * *
Here is the 1987 column:
Here’s a review of Dan Barry’s lovely book about the longest baseball game:
Doing what we were told to do – get the heck out of the way if you have no skills – some of us are hunkering, blessed to be healthy at the moment, with a roof over our heads, and food.
It sounds trivial, but while many people suffer and some serve (and suffer), others are at least able to catch up on one thing or another for diversion. People are cooking at home, putting things in order, just in case, reading, exercising, getting in touch.
Some are watching the gift of plays (from the National Theatre!!!) movies, operas, ballet, concerts, literally streaming before our eyes and our minds.
Sometimes the themes are universal: louts and bullies, fools and despots, always with us.
On Saturday evening, the PBS station in my town played the classic film “A Man for All Seasons,” from 1966. It holds up magnificently, including lush scenes on the River Thames.
Viewers never can get away from the multi-menaces of our time. In this version of history, a young and lean satyr of King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) menaces Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) to approve the king’s desire for a divorce, and a son and heir.
Henry romps through the mud of low tide to visit the More family, where he notices the educated and comely daughter Margaret (Susannah York), and drops a phrase of Latin on her. She replies. He is impressed. He drops another phrase of Latin on her. Then, with the skilled grace of Martina Navratilova rushing to the net, she responds with a stream of Latin.
King Henry VIII goes blank as the ball/phrase whizzes past him. He is exposed.
We have seen that look before – often, recently – as the talk, the concepts, the facts – get too much for another satyr in our midst. Henry backs away, over his head in much more than mere river muck.
You know how that movie ends.
On Sunday evening, NBC played the 2018 version of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the 1970 rock opera, filmed live in an armory in Brooklyn. Jesus (John Legend) wanders through the hippie dancers, far more befuddled than the committed Jewish mystic of the Bible, but look, it’s a rock opera.
Christ is passed up the chain of command, all the way to King Herod of Judea – none other than Alice Cooper in the role he was born to play. Mincing and menacing, Herod takes the measure of the feared preacher, offers him a way out, and is infuriated by his mute resignation.
“Get – out --- of – my – life!” Herod spits.
You know how that rock opera ends, too.
There is no ducking the contemporary menace here – the addled bully who cannot comprehend what the committed know and do. Furious sacrifice is never out of style – Melville’s “Billy Budd,” a prime example. (Actually, I think Trump's obsession with Barack Obama is like the rage of Claggart toward Billy Budd.)
I am sure Dr. Anthony Fauci, from Regis High and Holy Cross University, knows all the themes here. He does not seem afraid as he stands near our Dolt for All Seasons, our orange-hued Alice-Cooper-Without the 60’s Leather Outfit.
Dr. Fauci was still here, as of Tuesday morning.
* * *
In addition to being menaced by the virus and our freebooter president, Americans in the South and East were menaced on Monday by a brutal storm. On Long Island, we double-hunkered, moving to safe parts of our homes, away from windows, on lower floors, if possible.
It could have been worse. At 6 PM, the sky lightened in the west, the sun appeared. People who have been staying the heck out of the way emerged for exercise, for air, for the illusion of normalcy. I went on a walk, encountered dozens and dozens of liberated strollers, some with their dogs.
I did not see one mask in the quiet streets but people swerved on wide paths. I heard a couple of guys talking about a rainbow, but I had not seen one. Then I ran into John and Reina Teeger, long-time friends, out for their stroll. John showed me his smartphone capture of the rainbow, arched across the western sky. We talked about our families.
For a few moments, life was normal. Then we headed to our homes, later to catch up on the spreading menace of the virus in Third World countries, the cupidity of Mitch McConnell and his mute White Citizens Council, the mounting evidence that our Herod, our Henry VIII, was deep over his head in this crisis.
May the rainbow protect us.
I fell in love with Annabella Sciorra back when we had HBO, which meant whenever the Mets’ bullpen was blowing a lead I could channel-surf movies.
One night I happened upon an essentially corny tale about two people who have divorced but remain involved in each other’s lives. That’s all you need to know. Somehow or other, she and her new beau are at a charity fund-raiser and are called up to sing, while her ex sits with his new lady friend.
The former wife is Annabella Sciorra, previously unknown to me, and heartbreakingly adorable. She shakes her gorgeous ringlets and modestly hits the right notes for the popular “I Say a Little Prayer,” recorded by Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, both great.
Somehow, two women materialize from behind a curtain, in nurses’ outfits, singing backup, like two-thirds of the Supremes. In a front row, the ex-husband, Matt Dillon, is sitting with his new lady, Mary-Louise Parker, and Dillon suddenly realizes he has made a terrible mistake in divorcing this girl, and he glowers (apparently his only facial expression in any movie) and his lady friend glances sideways and susses the situation: Poor glowering Matt is in love. By that time, so are many other persons of the XY chromosome persuasion, including me.
I don’t know how that movie turned out because I invariably tuned back to see how the Mets blew another game, but Annabella Sciorra is now permanently in my memory.
Let us fast-forward to this Thursday when Ms. Sciorra testified in court that Harvey Weinstein raped her back in 1993 or '94 and terrorized her for months or years afterward. She is a witness in the trial of this monster, who is accused of raping and haunting dozens of other women.
Her agony is on the public record, she and friends talking about how her career suffered, her personality changed, after the alleged assaults by Weinstein. She was never the same, some friends have said.
This makes me feel guilty for following her in her time with “The Sopranos,” when she was the femme-fatale luxury-car saleswoman who takes up with Tony Soprano, who beats her up, just before her tragic end. Given what we know now, how awful to play that role.
The best role Annabella Sciorra plays now is that of witness. This is what that man did. Her testimony will perhaps make every man question something he said, or did, without ever getting anywhere near Weinstein levels.
Reading what she went through brings out the vigilante impulse, but there’s enough of that floating around. Brava to Ms. Sciorra for going public, after decades of terror.
No quick justice for Harvey Weinstein, now a lumbering old man, allegedly with back troubles. May he push his walker into jail, for a very long sentence surrounded by inmates who, in the pecking order of prisons, don’t like his kind.
From this Annabella Sciorra fan, my toast to Harvey Weinstein: “Cent’Anni.” One hundred years. In the slammer.
* * *
Sciorra talks about Weinstein, interview by Ronan Farrow:
Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the Chicago White Sox’ winning the seventh game of the 1919 World Series.
Ordinarily, winning the seventh game of the Series is the epic triumph, but for a couple of reasons that victory is not being celebrated, anywhere.
1 – In 1919, baseball saw fit to demand five victories rather than the standard four to win the Series, so the owners could make more money out of the underpaid players. In fact, the Sox were trailing, 4 games to 3 at that point.
2 -- Some of the White Sox were doing their level best to lose the Series, for paltry bribes from gamblers. They promptly lost the eighth and final game.
When uncovered, this became the great scandal of baseball – at least until players began using body-building drugs a generation ago, and top officials studiously overlooked the bulging biceps and massive necks of many players.
The 1919 White Sox were soon known as the Black Sox, after eight of them, with varying degrees of guilt, were banned for life by a hangin’ judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The Black Sox mostly vanished, only to be studied in 1963 in a fine book by Eliot Asinof called “Eight Men Out.” The book was the source for one of my favorite sports movies, also “Eight Men Out,” written and produced by John Sayles in 1988.
Every spring, just before opening day, I watch the movie – not so much for the venality of most participants but also for the humanity of a few players in the scandal. John Sayles knows how to make the spectator feel.
He depicts Buck Weaver, the third baseman, as knowing about the scandal but refusing to take money or limit his efforts. Weaver’s silence would be punished as much as if he were fumbling grounders and striking out on purpose.
(If a director wants to create a sympathetic character, there is no better way than to cast John Cusack, which Sayles did. Weaver/Cusack is kind to a newsboy in his neighborhood who worships him, and then has to confront his idol’s banishment. Tears all around.)
Another sympathetic figure is Ed Cicotte, the aging right-hander who has been promised a bonus if he wins 30 – get this, 30 – games by the penurious owner, Charles Comiskey. When Cicotte, with a sore arm, wins only 29, the owner welshes on the promises.
(Again, Sayles stacks the emotional deck by casting his college pal, David Strathairn, whose aching arm is rubbed by his loving wife. Tears for everyone.)
The movie – more than the book – is an age-old treatment of the callous rich cheating the workers, gamblers exploiting the proletariat.
It’s hard to think along class lines these days, when players make millions of dollars per season, and instead of overlooking the alteration of the body by drugs, the leaders of baseball juice up the ball itself.
My favorite part of the movie comes when the eight players realize the gamblers are cheating them, and even the hard-core dumpers decide to take a little October frolic by…why, yes….playing baseball.
The sunlight brightens and the Dixieland band accelerates and the players pitch and hit and field like the great team Charles Comiskey assembled.
I love watching this cinematic tribute to the game itself – players making the double play, smacking home runs, striking out the opposing Reds, like little kids, not plotters.
Perhaps the most innocent of all is the pitcher, Dickey Kerr, 26 and unapproachable, who won the third and sixth game. In later years, this very same Dickey Kerr would manage the Cardinals’ farm team in Florida, and would convert a sore-armed left-hander named Stan Musial into an outfielder because the lad could hit a bit.
(The movie doesn’t say so, but the Kerrs would be godparents to the Musials’ first child, who would be named Richard, and the Musials would help the Kerrs buy a house in their old age.)
One hundred years ago Tuesday, Ed Cicotte, sore arm and all, pitched a complete game and won.
The gamblers apparently reminded lefty Claude Williams to make nice, and he obediently lost the eighth and final game. A year or so later, all eight were out of baseball.
In the centennial season, the scandal seems to have received minimal attention – a SABR research conference in Chicago in late September, some articles in Chicago, often about whether justice was done for the great Shoeless Joe Jackson, who played quite well in the series but was banished anyway.
Baseball soon had a tighter-wound ball and Babe Ruth “saved” the game with his home runs well into the 30’s.
The moral to the story: when in trouble, tighten up the ball.
* * *
2019; symposium from that great asset, SABR:
“Bertolucci died,” my wife said, checking the pinging on her smartphone.
Immediately, we were transformed to the Baths of Caracalla, where the grand director was making “La Luna” in the Roman summer of 1978 – with two broken arms.
There was a lot going on in a month when Romans normally head for the countryside during the annual shutdown known as “Ferragosto” – taking one major Roman Catholic holy day and turning it into a one-month holiday.
Pope Paul VI had died on Aug. 6 in the summer retreat of Castel Gandolfo and the Vatican took an ungodly time getting the Pope to St. Peter’s for the funeral.
I was sent there by the Times, as a learn-on-the-spot religion reporter. Pretending I knew something, I speculated on who would be the next Pope. (All wrong, of course.)
Then the Times went on strike, leaving me in Rome with a borrowed friend’s apartment near the Piazza Navona. How sad. I sent for my wife, and we wandered the city.
A friend of ours had a connection to another major event in Rome that summer – the making of a movie by Bernardo Bertolucci, in the Baths of Caracalla – a film called “La Luna” with a theme of incest, starring Jill Clayburgh.
Our friend sent a limo to take us to Caracalla for the day, where Bertolucci was directing with casts on his arms. He had been carrying a camera, peering down into it, and had fallen off a step or a platform, and had broken both arms, but he persevered admirably.
Now he bravely balanced the camera on the two casts, still framing scenes as they would appear through the lens, as directors do. A cadre of assistants hovered around him as he tottered on the steps to the stage, lest he fall again. The whole project was in his broken arms.
My wife and I hung at the edge of the proceedings with our friend, whispering, perhaps even giggling a bit. Nobody seemed to mind except for Jill Clayburgh, who was gearing up for the tangled emotions of the film, wearing elegant high heels on the uneven ancient stones of Caracalla.
She shot us a look or two, and we piped down.
That’s all I remember, except for lurid jokes and set gossip we culled here and there. It was, of course, Rome. Matthew Barry, the young New Yorker who was playing Clayburgh’s son, had to preserve his pasty-white coloration for uniformity during the shooting, so they enticed him indoors, day after day -- no beach, no outdoor trattorias. I wondered how they kept him indoors.
* * *
Our friend called for the limo and a stalwart Roman driver took us toward Centro Storico.
I forgot to say, it was also a dangerous time in Italy, threatened by the Red Brigade.
The former Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, had been kidnapped and murdered in May and more violence was feared.
“Aren’t you afraid of the Red Brigade?” I asked the driver in my minimal Italian.
He tapped the solid dashboard of his limo, to signify protection of some sort, and he said, “The Red Brigade should be afraid of us.”
I took his word for it.
* * *
Several years later, my wife was walking on Madison Ave., looking in shop windows, and she spotted the reflection of an elegant woman a few feet away, looking at her, as if to say, “Who is that?”
Jill Clayburgh could not place her, and kept walking.
I never saw “La Luna,” which did not get great reviews, apparently.
That’s my only memory of Bertolucci – carrying on, with all the force of a great Italian director, in the August heat, in Caracalla.
The thought just came to me: did Channel 13 in New York show “Casablanca” as a prelude to Valentine’s Day?
For all the looming terror and professed cynicism, it is a film for romantics who believe in something, including always having Paris.
My valentine, the girl I loved probably the first time I met her, and I decided to watch “Casablanca” last Saturday night on that sporadic but wonderful movie series, which for no good reason rotates with geezer entertainers from the past singing to geezer audiences.
Who wants to watch geezers when one can watch young Bogart and young Bergman and young Henreid and a younger Peter Lorre in “Casablanca?”
The movie has been around for 75 years.
My wife thought she had seen it, and would enjoy seeing it again. I had seen many familiar scenes from the movie – “hill of beans” and “play it, Sam” and “shocked, shocked,” staples of any vocabulary – but I was not sure I had ever watched it straight through.
So, yes, we both knew “Casablanca” but quickly discovered parts we had never seen -- the back story, beautiful and endangered Paris, plus the developing shaky rapport between Bogart and the opportunistic French officer, the many signs of Nazi intrusion into North Africa.
I realized I had never seen the moment when Ingrid Bergman’s beautiful face returns to Bogart’s world. He says later: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
Of course, we knew the line, knew it was coming, but I never understood the depth of his bitterness. The man who didn’t care had once cared, immensely.
The writers insisted they had created the lines as part of the Hollywood mill, to make money, to entertain themselves, despite the horrors spreading around the world. The Nazis were merely stock film villains; in the first months of the ‘40s, when the film was being written and made, few people really understood what was coming down in Europe.
Here is a side issue to my watching “Casablanca:” More than a few times, I found myself thinking about making a call the next day to my friend, the writer Ray Robinson, who once had a stormy date of sorts with young Lauren Bacall and knew some Hollywood people and always talked about the 40’s and Bogart and Bacall. But my conversations would have to remain mental, inasmuch as Ray passed on Nov. 1, just shy of turning 97.
It was fun to sit back last Saturday night to watch “Casablanca” unfold -- the jangled emotions and motives of the three main characters, the violence, the plot far more complicated than the snippets we all know -- toward the conclusion my wife and I knew was coming.
Wait, that wily German officer makes a crucial mistake? How convenient for the plot. I hope I am not giving away what seems like a flaw in the script, but the movie has been out for 75 years, and the writers themselves did not think they were making an epic film, but they were.
The movie is about caring – for some cause, for some person.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
There's nothing like a good old movie. My wife and I were reminded of that Saturday night when we kept warm together and watched the local PBS station in New York present “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which came out in 1961.
The movie is still wonderful – at least for those of us who came of age in that city, in that time.
Then again, there is nothing like a good old actress, or actor. We reaffirmed that Sunday night as we watched eternal favorites Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey (delivering a righteous sermon on fairness for women in the arts; if America ever elected a television celebrity as President, at least it could choose one with brains and conscience), Shirley Maclaine, Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett and many others warming up the night at the Golden Globes. (Some older guys, and younger people, were there, too.)
Audrey Hepburn was not there, sadly, because she passed in 1993, way too young at 63, but lit up the night on Saturday, in the role of her life, lovely in her little black outfit.
The second star of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" is New York itself – the city that existed one way in Truman Capote’s book and another way in the movie-makers’ minds.
That New York remains implanted in the memories of people who dared to dream that a one-bedroom walkup near midtown could be affordable for somebody who has not necessarily scored a gigantic deal.
My wife and I, a couple of kids, had a one-night honeymoon at the Plaza – Castro and Khrushchev were also in town -- before getting back to work on Monday. There was magic in Rockefeller Center and Fifth Avenue and Central Park and the side streets with their surprises and secrets.
In that apparently genteel playground, out-of-towners like Holly Golightly, a party girl, and Paul Varjak, a writer of fading potential, could meet on a fire escape -- kindred souls, both living in that playground courtesy of wealthier patrons.
New York seemed to offer glamour, stability, hope. When “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was issued in 1961:
--Penn Station had not yet been demolished, replaced by that contemptuous dungeon of a terminal, and soon afterward the neighborhood-strangling “new” Madison Square Garden.
--The Pan-Am Building (now called the MetLife Building) had not yet been plopped down, ruining the esthetic of Park Ave.
--John F. Kennedy was the new President.
--Rupert Murdoch was making stuff up, but in Australia.
--George Steinbrenner was still bullying his lackeys in Cleveland.
--And Donald Trump was still living out in Queens and fidgeting his way through classes in college.
In other words, the good old days.
The movie endures despite blind spots and gaffes:
--Mickey Rooney, as a put-upon Japanese photographer upstairs, is a total embarrassment with stereotypical accent and offensive false teeth. They should have known better, even then.
-- There is no trace of social issues, of Vietnam, of race. The only glimpse of African-Americans is on visitors’ day at Sing Sing, and some extras at the library and a five-and-dime store. The four other boroughs do not exist.
--A sub-plot involving a planned caper in Brazil contains many confusions of language and custom. I bet my friend Altenir Jose Silva of Rio, who has written movies himself, notices his middle name mispronounced the Spanish way rather than the soft, throaty Portuguese-Brazilian way.
Still, the movie crackles when Holly Golightly sings "Moon River" to herself on the fire escape or lowers her sunglasses to inspect Patricia Neal, a domineering designer who is supporting the younger writer, played by George Peppard.
Martin Balsam is fine as a Hollywood agent, and a familiar New York character actor of the time, Jim McGiver, is superb in a cameo as an officious salesman at Tiffany’s, who bends to Hepburn’s smile.
I have been under the impression that Buddy Ebsen is cornball as a rustic face from the past but the re-viewing convinced me that Ebsen is dignified and touching.
By the way, Capote’s book is much darker than the movie, including a graphic hint that Holly did indeed have adventures in deepest Brazil.
That’s all I’m saying, in case somehow you have not seen the movie about a beautiful and tormented drifter, “off to see the world.”
* * *
(Unfortunately, on some Saturday evenings, Channel 13 switches to stale oldie pop concerts; go figure. I cannot fathom why a high-level public station cannot find a landmark movie every freaking Saturday night, for those of us who have not figured out what “streaming” or “Netflix” are. I’m sure the hardy band of regulars on this site – including screen writer Silva – could suggest 52 classic films a year to help Channel 13 present a consistent series.)
One of the best things on television in the past decade was The Brain Series by Charlie Rose.
The body of work exists – on line, easily accessible, and etched in the memories of viewers like my wife, who listened and learned.
The leader of the discussions was Dr. Eric R. Kandel of Columbia University, whose knowledge and manner commanded the screen. The other guests were also brilliant, and Rose raised his game considerably, moving things along and actually listening to the experts.
Now we are left with the image of a powerful man parading around his apartment in an open bathrobe, terrorizing young female colleagues.
How do we process this?
The series remains. I suspect the science and the humanity will remain pertinent, at least until future discoveries add to the knowledge.
Can people live with a focused Charlie Rose moderating a landmark series?
Can people live with their vinyl and CDs and downloads of James Levine conducting opera?
Everybody has to live with their memories. I won’t miss Matt Lauer because I never, ever, watch morning TV. I don’t know how to gauge the widely variant charges or suspicions about John Hockenberry and Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz (and Charlie Rose), all of whom have interviewed me respectfully, let me hustle my books. What was it like for the capable women in those studios who made a visit so successful?
Harvey Weinstein is easy. He is a monster who produced some great movies but he is a monster just for what he did to that beautiful and spirited and talented Annabella Sciorra, whom I have loved since she sang in "Mister Wonderful."
(Go ahead, look at the video, watch her ex eat his heart out.) I want to be on the Weinstein jury. That’s all I’m saying.
Then there is Garrison Keillor. There were years when we built our Saturday afternoons and evenings around his radio show – times when my wife and I sat in a parking lot outside a restaurant until he finished his weekly visit to Lake Wobegon (the one about a man driving his young family back to Minnesota for the holidays, the one about the pioneer who dies in the badlands, never getting to see the Pacific.)
Keillor never presented himself as anything more than flawed. (His radio alter ego was reminded of this by his own mother, who couldn’t remember his name.) He added his human complexities to his voice, his words, his image.
Now he is accused of – he says – sliding his hand into the back of an open blouse. A mistake, he says, which happened while consoling a woman. Keillor says he is not a tactile person, and I believe it. In past decades, I interviewed him maybe half a dozen times on the phone but never quite got to have a conversation even at rehearsals at Town Hall in New York. He nodded in recognition -- and kept moving. A shy guy. Who knows about him?
Keillor played himself in a movie about his last radio show, art predicting life. The Robert Altman movie, “A Prairie Home Companion,” has an amazing cast, not the least of whom is Virginia Madsen as a redhead in a white raincoat who, he realizes, just may be an angel of death, with her eye on him. (She died in a car wreck while laughing at his radio joke, she tells him, as he edges away.)
The movie (Altman’s last) is classic Altman, in that you have to listen to overlapping conversations – a stretch for younger audiences. One of the subplots involves Meryl Streep as a country singer on the show, who was once Keillor’s girlfriend, and every so often she reminds him of exactly that.
He knows she is in pain that he caused. The ringleader figure in the movie is a creep, but a talented, sensitive, guilty creep. How human, art imitating life.
Now the question is, what do we do with the education, the art, the culture, from people (men, in this context) who seem to be varying scales of creep?
We have a major creep running for the Senate in Alabama.
We have a serial creep as President.
We have creeps of all major parties.
Meantime, I can watch Keillor in that movie over and over again. Some day when I grow up and develop a brain, I plan to watch the Brain Series, but for the moment we are left with the major creep in the bathrobe who caused such pain.
I stopped watching the Mets a month ago, when they reverted to 1962 ineptitude. I normally don’t watch the Yankees or network broadcasts, but I probably will check out the post-season.
Meantime, baseball remains the best writing/reading sport of all. Here are four new books I recommend, in season or out:
The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper, and the Making of a Classic. Richard Sandomir. Hachette Books.
As a young Brooklyn fan and later as a young reporter, I could hear the melancholy echoes of Lou Gehrig’s farewell, echoing under the eaves of the old (the real) Yankee Stadium.
Gehrig remains a phenomenon for his 15 steals of home (all on the back end of a delayed steal but, with his thick legs, quite an accomplishment) and his 2,130 consecutive-game streak as well as the terrible way he died, from a disease that would bear his name.
The latest talented observer to write about Gehrig is Richard Sandomir, a friend and colleague from the New York Times, in his compelling new book, “The Pride of the Yankees,” which Sandomir calls “the first great sports film.”
Sandomir covered sports media for decades and now uses his talents in the prestigious obituary section of the Times. He conveys the man and the movie as a story for the ages, noting that producer Sam Goldwyn wanted to make a love story about a doomed man.
“Goldwyn didn’t see the value in a baseball story – a game he thought was played with twelve bases on a field,” Sandomir notes.
Goldwyn did not care that Gary Cooper looked like a 1962 Met when he tried to swing or throw or run. I learned in this book that Cooper, from Montana, had never played baseball, not once. But Sandomir quotes the noted director, Howard Hawks, as saying, “The grand thing about Cooper is that you believe everything that he says or does.”
Getting people to believe. How courant.
Sandomir brilliantly describes how myth-making is enhanced by bending reality.
Eleanor Gehrig was not the demure lass depicted by Teresa Wright; she was a daughter of privilege from Chicago who had done a bit of roaring in the Roaring Twenties before she met the shy mother’s-boy from a German section of Manhattan.
In real life, Gehrig, after months of stumbling on the field, told the manager in a hotel that it was time for him to stop playing. In the movie, Gehrig is replaced at first base in the middle of a game – because it is more dramatic.
Sandomir is the perfect writer to depict the murky border between reality and art.
Electric October: Seven World Series Games, Six Lives, Five Minutes of Fame That Lasted Forever. Kevin Cook. Henry Holt and Company.
Just as in a Shakespearean play, in a World Series involving Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson, the minor characters are fascinating, too.
Cook depicts six characters in epic World Series – managers Bucky Harris and Burt Shotton, Brooklyn’s Cookie Lavagetto who broke up a no-hit attempt and beat Bill Bevens in the ninth; Bevens, who would never be the same; George Stirnweiss of the Yankees, a war-time regular who managed one good World Series when the stars came back; and Al Gionfriddo of the Dodgers, who made a great catch on DiMaggio in left field, the last play Gionfriddo would make in the majors. (I once stood next to Gionfriddo at a reunion in the early 80’s; he was tiny, 5-6 at the most.)
Cook’s best work is researching the rest of their lives, after that antic World Series – faith, failures, early death, and a few ripe old ages.
The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age. Sridhar Pappu. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Wait, 1968 was the end of the Golden Age? Didn’t the Mets win the World Series in 1969? Sorry.
Pappu ably describes year of the pitcher, which forced baseball to lower the mounds from 15 inches to 10. Gibson was driven; McLain was corrupt; both were sensational. (Mickey Lolich became Detroit’s star in the Series.)
Pappu interviewed me at length about Gibson, whom I admire, beyond his testiness (or maybe because of it.)
Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey. Ila Jane Borders with Jean Hastings Ardell. University of Nebraska Press.
Borders managed to play in male leagues into high school, college and an independent league on a team owned by Mike Veeck in the late 90s. She had her moments as a pro and won the respect of most teammates and fans. Borders touchingly describes her personal and family life. I did not know much about her until this book and I have great admiration for her.
Enjoy the rest of the season.
The other day I found myself musing how much fun Shakespeare would have with the assorted knaves, brigands, fools, strumpets, cutpurses and buffoons in our sight today.
Then I noticed “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is on Broadway, and I flicked on the Web and saw a familiar facial expression – a sullen youth who can never get enough, of anything.
These are all stock characters for the ages, from the open-air theaters of London in the 16th and 17th Century to the films and plays today.
Roald Dahl captured it in his book that inspired the movie with Gene Wilder, leading to the Broadway musical of today. Dahl created a character described on the school-prep web site, gradesaver.com
Gloop is incredibly greedy and the first child to find a Golden Ticket. He is also the first child to fail Wonka’s tests. Gloop eats an extraordinary amount of chocolate, so much that his mother says it would have been impossible for him not to have eventually found a Golden Ticket. While his origin is unknown in the book, he tends to be thought of as German, since he is from Germany in both movies. His mother seems to delight in her son’s gluttonous habits and encourages them. Augustus leaves the factory when he drinks from the chocolate river, and falls in, getting sucked up a pipe and sent to the Fudge Room.
These days we have a public figure, indulged by his family but, when he was discovered hiding knives, was banished to a military school, hence the unsated appetite for attention, for love, for respect.
The irony is that in the original movie, the Gloop family hails from Bavaria. Today the leader of Germany is a dignified woman who has put up with two boy-men presidents from America.
And by the way, the comparison of Dahl’s Gloop and our current Gloop is not about excess weight – it’s the neediness, the meanness, the emptiness.
Our Gloop is capable of generosity, but only to himself and his associates for the moment, as witnessed by his proposed plan that would cut taxes for the gunnysack guys he has assembled -- people like him.
Going on 100 days, I am waiting for a Willy Wonka figure to emerge from Congress and inspect the new Augustus Gloop with a gimlet eye.
Savvy Europeans have figured out Ivanka the Brand; one of these days maybe some law agency will take a look at Jared Kushner and his dodgy investors.
As for our contemporary Gloop, where, when we really need it, is the pipe to the Fudge Room?
(check out the antlers over the newscaster's head)
When Melania Trump “borrowed” chunks of Michelle Obama’s words last summer, she was found out in the flick of an iPhone.
She didn’t seem to know the difference.
Public figures are often caught using stuff from other people. Remember Joe Biden "borrowing" some material back in law school? And Tony Blair apparently re-channeling stuff from the movie “The Queen,” about him and Queen Elizabeth?
The Web makes that harder and harder.
Now it turns out that Monica Crowley, a former Murdochite on-air personality, scheduled to explain the complexities of national security for the Trumpites -- has used as many as 50 segments for a book under her name.
In this day and age, wouldn’t you think she would know caution, if not shame?
I say this, because just about everything is out there on the Web, easily checked.
Research no longer is limited to dusty books or files from the back corners of a library.
I know this, because in preparation for a talk I was thumbing through the 522 pages of “Look Homeward, Angel,” by my favorite author, Thomas Wolfe.
I wanted to refresh my impressions of a few sweet passages but after an hour of enjoyable searching, I came up empty.
Go to the laptop, dude.
---I knew there was a passage about a scholarly nun, examining a book at the bedside of a sleeping girl in a boarding school. I typed in “nun” and “book” and “sleep.” Found it. Still sweet and respectful.
---I knew Wolfe’s father liked to tell about being a 13-year-old, sassing Confederate soldiers in his village near Gettysburg. The Web reminded me that this epic section had been exorcised by Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s renowned editor, only to be revived decades later in an expanded version called “O, Lost.” I’ve requested it from our wonderful town library.
---I knew Wolfe often wrote about the lavish meals his father craved in his wife’s parsimonious boarding house in Asheville, N.C. – loving references to butter slathered on fat lima beans. I typed in a few words. Bingo.
One would think that somebody writing today – even a Foxite news person – would have a little fear about lifting bunches of stuff from other sources.
But anything flies these days. Just ask Kellyanne Conway, designated explainer and lookalike of the aforementioned Monica Crowley. Conway. says stuff with a straight face.
I certainly would not expect Trump to understand these subtleties.
* * *
Meantime, has anybody else noticed that Crowley and Conway appear to have been separated at birth?
And the seething Gen. Mike Flynn, who used to spew patently untrue “Flynn Facts” to subordinates, resembles the paranoid Col. Bat Guano, who shoots his way into the office in “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” – now coming true, in a universe near you.
Altenir Silva, my friend from Brazil, had a one-minute play produced at the New Workshop Theatre, Brooklyn College, in June.
It is called “She Loves Pepsi and He Drinks Coca-Cola.”
Needless to say, it is about relationships.
I told him it sounds like “Waiting for Godot,” only with a redhead with a Russian accent.
Altenir has written for Brazilian television and has also written several movies, including the touching “Curitiba Zero Degree,” about four men whose lives intersect in gritty corners of a large southern city.
The film has a hopeful message, rare anywhere.
The trailer for the film:
We don’t go to the movies much. My main reason for watching the Academy Awards every year is not to root for films I have not seen but rather to watch glamorous women in bright outfits in late February – just as restorative as baseball spring training, if you ask me.
However, my wife and I did pro-actively go to the movies the other day, and were touched by “The Lady in the Van” with Maggie Smith.
The movie works out the question, “Am I my mother’s keeper?” And how far outward that responsibility goes.
The movie is a “mostly true” telling of the woman who parked herself and her foul painted van in the driveway of Alan Bennett in Camden Town, London – for nearly 15 years.
Maggie Smith plays the mysterious homeless woman with a phobia against music. Dame Maggie was not nominated for the Academy Awards on Feb. 28 – a pity, because she commands the screen, without ever camping it up. No winks at the audience as if to say, “Just slumming from Downton Abbey.” Her every facial gesture captures the rage and mystery of the unbalanced.
In the movie, two Alan Bennetts fuss and fidget about her from inside an old town house. The Bennett who goes out in the world occasionally does kind deeds for his pungent guest, against his innate squeamishness.
He has already ducked his mum, now ensconced in a quite nice nursing home – private room! view of the sea! – and his guilt is as evident as the forelock that flops over his fertile brow.
As it happens, Bennett and Smith are twinned in our London experience:
-- My friend Sam rides his bike from Islington toward central London and sometimes sees Bennett pedaling along the same route.
-- My wife and I once had tickets for two Bennett one-act plays, one starring Maggie Smith, in a tiny theatre near Haymarket. Just before curtain, it was announced that Miss Smith was ill, and we could have a refund, but that Bennett himself would discuss the play, on stage. Of course, we stayed. Forelock flopping, he sat in a straight-back chair and charmed the audience for nearly an hour.
So we felt we already knew Bennett before we saw the film, which cuts deep for anybody who has faced the reality of somebody who needed care. Let me add: some of us are less good than others.
The neighbors generally recoil and patronize. Frances de la Tour, with her marvelous plummy contralto, does a turn as Ursula Vaughn Williams, the widow of the composer, who lives up the block.
When one neighbor delivers a Christmas-morning gift – crème brulée –the resident of the van silently snatches the dish.
Near the end, Bennett (Alex Jennings) observes as social workers and ambulance and hospital workers get up close and personal with this difficult person. (The unspoken message for a couple of Yanks is: oh, yes, observe that awful socialism at work.)
The mysteries unravel near the end as Bennett acknowledges his guilt. (The movie also serves as a coming out of sorts by the film character and the real Bennett.) Two aged hands play the piano, quite skillfully.
Not giving anything away, but there is a cathartic scene, inducing cheers and applause, right near the end.
While reviews were respectful, particularly toward Smith, my wife and I both felt the movie cut deeper than we had expected. When I watch the Blanchetts and Maras and Lawrences on Feb. 28, I will miss Dame Maggie. She should be there.
Oh, there's nothing halfway
About the Iowa way to treat you,
When we treat you
Which we may not do at all.
-- “Iowa Stubborn,” Meredith Willson.
Thank you, Iowa (as the politicians say.)
One of the best movies ever made about America -- right up there with Brooklyn movies and LA Noir movies and Deep South movies - - is the musical "The Music Man," written by the great Meredith Willson (two Ls, cantankerously), originally from Mason City, called River City.
The movie is about another time and place and a flimflam man carrying a cheap suitcase, alighting from a smoky passenger train.
Somebody asks where he is going and he says, "Wherever the people are as green as the money."
Now they come on chartered jets, but they still want something, in this case votes,
from clusters of Iowan in gyms and halls, earnest and dressed for winter (with the occasional Bernie t-shirt.)
I recalled covering a few stories in Iowa (including Pope John Paul II’s visit to a heritage farm, charming Lutherans) and for one of the rare times since I retired I actually wanted to be working, talking to people in those clusters.
I kept thinking of wily Robert Preston, calling himself Prof. Harold Hill, and heartbreakingly lovely Shirley Jones as the librarian, and Buddy Hackett, for goodness’ sakes, settled down in Iowa, and all the characters, the puffed-up men and hormonal teenagers and cackling wives who were smarter than their husbands, of course.
And there was Trump, roaring in on his own jet, selling hot air out of an empty suitcase and empty mind. The Iowans asserted themselves in a few directions, going for Sr. Canada first and El Joven third and leaving Trump in a very loser-like second. (And what about his bluster that he can get things done?) He got on his plane and went east, unlike The Music Man, who…but heck, rent the movie.
The Iowans also went 50-50 for Clinton and Sanders, now joined at the hip like the couple in the Grant Wood painting, “American Gothic.”
All those people, coming out on a wintry night, did not settle much, but they did firmly establish that Trump did not get the girl in River City.
For a different metaphor of Trump, the pro-wrestling bozo, I urge you to read David Brooks’ brilliant column in the NYT.
I loved watching Iowans in their clusters – the Iowa-stubborn female vet who cursed the VA live on MSNBC, the Iowa-stubborn young man who held out for Martin O’Malley in his final hours as a candidate, the Iowa-stubborn voters who cheered Cruz and Rubio and Trump and Clinton and Sanders as they vanished into the night, leaving Iowa to Iowans.
And we're so by God stubborn
We could stand touchin' noses
For a week at a time
And never see eye-to-eye.
-- "Iowa Stubborn," Meredith Willson.
I see the latest Star Wars movie is out. I didn’t understand the first one in 1977 so I doubt I would understand the latest.
I remember taking our son, who was nearly 8, and sitting in the dark and wondering what was happening.
“Why is the human allied with that furry guy?” I asked, and he shushed me.
Was some of it symbolic or allegorical? Did it refer to our own foolish wars, past or present or future? What were their motivations? I didn’t know. Still don’t.
I could figure out some kind of oedipal tension between the old human and the kid, but the only person I could relate to was the Harrison Ford character, named Han Solo. In this huge universe, aren’t we all Han Solo?
I also liked Ford in “The Frisco Kid” (1979) about a Polish rabbi and an outlaw and some even worse outlaws in the west. The hairy creatures were real. The rabbi (Gene Wilder) asked the Han-Solo outlaw (Ford) what he was going to do next, and Ford replied in lascivious and bigoted language.
This was before Ford’s features became frozen permanently between fear and anger. He was young then.
Star Wars did have some sex appeal. We got a report about The Empire Strikes Back (1980) after our younger daughter went with friends from high school.
Apparently, one of the human characters was about to be killed in some outer-space way, and one girl shouted at the screen, “You can’t kill Billy Dee Williams! He be the sexiest man in the galaxy!”
I love some supernatural touches: Emma Thompson as the merciful angel, Meryl Streep as the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg, in “Angels in America.”
Generally I favor movies with reference to some moral code -- Orson Welles lurking in the shadows, Tony and Maria seeing each other across the gym, Clint avenging his buddy’s death in a “shit-hole” bar.
Movies have gotten away from me. Zombie films and Harry Potter films and extra-terrestial films.
Who needs new monsters? Trump and Cruz scare me enough.
Trump is slipping, exposed as the buffoon he is. As I watched him fall apart in front of our eyes, I kept trying to remember who he reminded me of.
Then it came to me -- right after Trump went along with the bigot at the rally who proclaimed President Obama is a Muslim. Whereas John McCain summoned up his dignified side in 2008 when the woman in red pulled that stuff, Trump chortled with glee.
My thoughts turned to young Alvy Singer in the movie "Annie Hall." The little boy puts up with a bumptious friend of his father's, just long enough, and then he turns away, muttering the famous phrase.
Enjoy the video.
THIS JUST IN
My friend Ron Swoboda has some thoughts on the steroid-era players. Now a broadcaster in his long-time home in New Orleans, Swoboda admits that he and other players from the 60’s have no idea what decisions they would have made if the stuff had been available back then.
If I was the new commish coming in the front door I'd try to figure out how to bring all of God's wayward children into the Hall. Even if it meant admitting that baseball was lax on steroids when Sosa and McGwire were bringing fans back to the game after the stupidity of 1994. Of course, the players would all have to own up to their transgressions as well. Then after the truth has set us all free, we have the players in the Hall who belong there and a good set of rules and blood checks to go forward with.
Since I'm not in any danger of becoming commish, these musings come cheap.
Your thoughts? (Comments Below)
I couldn’t wait for a baseball game so I popped in a DVD for one of my favorite baseball movies.
I love “Eight Men Out” for the Dixieland music and vintage suits and funky hotel lobbies and ball parks – also for the loving look at the game even in a dirty time, the Black Sox scandal of 1919.
Well, I guess all times are dirty. Baseball currently has two separate scandals hanging over it. One involves Pete Rose, who bet on games while managing, and then lied about it. I am conflicted about Rose, a total knucklehead who gave me a great amount of enjoyment as writer and fan.
I think Pete played honest, although we all knew he had a major gambling jones and ultimately broke the major rule of baseball – No Gambling. I wish Rose the player were eligible for the Hall of Fame – but I don’t know I would make that decision if I were commissioner.
Then there is the whole steroid generation, when the union fought testing, for reasons I am sure the union leaders understood. No player identified or suspected as a steroid user has later been voted into the Hall by the writers. Some come back as coaches and guests at old-timers’ games and some just vanish with bloated home-run and strikeout totals.
Now Alex Rodriguez, the ghost of scandals past, is haunting Yankee camp, yawning his way through first-base practice. What a chump. But the Yankees and baseball are legally stuck with him, no doubt hoping he breaks a leg taking grounders, and the insurance kicks in.
What are we going to do with all those specters? A friend of mine says baseball writers of the past generation will never vote for suspected users because of guilty consciences for not breaking the story. Fair enough. I do not vote because the Times does not want its writers making news; I also never had proof of anything, except what my eyes told me about body sizes, and what common sense said about union stonewalling.
Apparently, some writers did suspect some White Sox players were throwing the 1919 World Series. I love “Eight Men Out” because I am a huge John Sayles fan but also because I was there when they were filming it – in Indianapolis, an old ballpark – and also because I wrote about how D.B. Sweeney learned to hit left-handed to portray Shoeless Joe Jackson.
I love the movie for the portrayal of a cheapskate owner and a hanging judge turned commissioner who channeled eight players of varying guilt into a lifetime ban. I love the image of the great David Strathairn as a pitcher, Ed Cicotte, who is cheated out of a bonus, and John Cusack as a tormented infielder, Buck Weaver, who plays it straight, but will not squeal. The gamblers and thugs and cynical sportswriters and innocent wives are all part of a beautiful American period piece.
Today, would Shoeless Joe Jackson (.375 in that Series) and Buck Weaver (.324) be included along with the core fixers? I do not feel any sympathy for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and A-Rod, great players who got in deep, as far as I can see.
But the game goes on. I helped myself to a seasonal preview in “Eight Men Out” – dirt, grass, finger signals, wood on ball, clunk of ball on an outfield fence, and a Dixieland band. Hang in there.
The two of us, whacked by a cold, missed a nice party on New Year’s Eve.
Younger people staying home would line up DVDs or Netflix or something streaming. We played clicker roulette, with my only resolution to avoid the rancid pairing of Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper. (He is out; the joke never did work, people.)
There was a rather classy concert by the New York Philharmonic on PBS – jazz and an orchestra.
Then I started clicking. Four slender lads were running around a field, hair flopping in the breeze, coping with a grumpy old man with an overbite who kept insisting he was, at least, clean. Grandfather McCartney.
Suddenly it was 1964 all over again. I did not pay much attention to the Beatles at first but one morning I was listening to one of my favorite disk jockeys, William B. Williams, on “W-N-E-W, 11-three-oh on your dial,” as the jingle went.
William B, was normally cool – a champion of Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee – but that morning he was denouncing a quartet of moppy-maned Brits for desecrating the air waves. He was so angry that he broke the Beatles’ new vinyl record, right on the air. I could hear shards clattering into the waste-paper basket. Geez, what was threatening William B?
One night that fall we lined up a baby-sitter and caught Hard Day’s Night. There they were, cheeky lads, goofing on people, minding Paul’s cantankerous grandpa, being pursued by girls, always in motion. We were smitten in 1964, and we were smitten again on New Year’s Eve, mostly by the music, but also by the understated irony.
Who will ever forget the glum lament by Ringo in Yellow Submarine, stuck at the bottom of the ocean, speaking in flat Liverpool dialect: “I want me mum.”
Or the agitator that was my favorite Beatle, John Lennon, putting Paul’s grandfather in his place in Hard Day’s Night:
John: You know your trouble, you should have gone west to America. You would have been a senior citizen of Boston. But you took a wrong turn, and what happened? You're a lonely old man from Liverpool.
Grandfather: [Sour] But I'm clean.
John: [Cheerful cynicism] Are you?
The lads ace their television appearance but their reward is not the birds of London but an update from management: “They think it'd be better if we pushed straight to Wolverhampton.” And that’s where the movie ends.
Two people home with a cold clickered around and found Jennifer Lopez and Taylor Swift conducting contemporary pop concerts with the charmless intensity of a new year’s resolution workout.
My wife delivered her critique: “The last 50 years, eat your heart out.”
Happy New Year.
When I was in grade school, whenever I had spare time, I would take out “Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels,” about his adventures around the world.
Halliburton was a daredevil writer who once swam the Panama Canal – took him 10 days – and paid the toll -- 36 cents. He jumped 70 feet from the Sacrificial Altar for brides in Chichen Itza, Yucatán. He rode an elephant, just like Hannibal, across St. Bernard’s Pass in Switzerland.
His writing was more than about his stunts. He loved cities, expressing awe at the bridge spanning the Golden Gate, raving about the skyscrapers of New York City, describing the border between Europe and Asia -- Istanbul.
He gave me wanderlust. I sat in the classroom in leafy Queens and dreamed about all those places, hardly as an adventurer but maybe a grade up from tourist – a journalist who could drop the surging tide at Mount St. Michel or the graffiti at Pompeii into his work.
Halliburton’s life was hectic, and short. In March of 1939, he and his companion, Paul Mooney, tried to sail a Chinese junk from Singapore to the Golden Gate, and were never heard from again. (I have always thought it bizarre that two of the writers who touched me the most, Halliburton and Thomas Wolfe from Asheville, N.C., died months before I was born.)
The other day I discovered that Halliburton also made a movie in 1933, called “India Speaks,” a cross between a documentary and a drama. (The drama part was filmed in Griffith Park, Los Angeles.) It sounds a little hokey in the New York Times review of 1933, but because my wife has been to India more than a dozen times and we love the culture, I was eager to find a copy, somewhere. I toggled around on the Web and discovered on the IMDb site these saddest of words:
“This film is believed lost. Please check your attic.”
Got a lot of National Geographics in the attic, but no old movies. I do have a faded copy of “Book of Marvels: The Occident” on my shelf of honor with James Joyce and Wolfe. The final chapter is about Istanbul, the water and the minarets. We finally got there a few years ago, one of the great cities in the world, and I thought about Richard Halliburton. Wish I had his movie.
Ray Robinson isn’t sure if Lauren Bacall called him a cheap bastard or cheap SOB. In fact, she may have called him both.
That was in 1941, when they were thrown together for a few hours in Sardi’s, with Robinson unaware that he and his pal had become the de facto hosts of an impromptu party.
Robinson, now 93, has survived the vilification by the gorgeous and opinionated young woman to become a magazine editor and author of many books, including celebrated biographies of Lou Gehrig and Christy Mathewson, as well as a charming little book entitled Famous Last Words, which is just what the title says.
Bacall’s words became famous to Ray Robinson. She was 17, an aspiring actress and model from the West Side then known as Betty Perske; he was just graduating from Columbia. His pal Ed Gottlieb knew the young woman, and the three of them were out together, and she suggested they drop into Sardi’s.
Some of her friends came over, and drinks were ordered, with Ms. Perske assuming her two gallant squires were good for it.
Robinson and Gottlieb did what any two broke young men would do. They simultaneously headed for the men’s room to discuss how they were going to pay the tab.
“Ten bucks or so,” Robinson recalls. “That was a lot of money in those days.”
To avoid washing dishes, their stratagem was to ask Ms. Perske to sign an IOU to Sardi’s since (a) she was gorgeous, and (b) she knew somebody in the Sardi family.
When they apprised her of the situation, she let loose some vocabulary that presumably Humphrey Bogart and Hollywood directors and critics would later hear. But she did sign something and they were free to go.
“We got outside and she said, ‘All right, who’s going to call me a cab so I can get home?’ We said, well, if we couldn’t afford the bill at Sardi’s, how could we afford a taxi?”
It was then that Ms. Perske uttered sneering last words to Robinson: “I should have known better than to go out with a couple of blankety-blank college students.”
“She just walked away into the night,” Robinson recalled.
He did see her again in 1945 when she was the bombshell star of her first movie, “To Have and Have Not.” He and Gottlieb were back home from the military and put on their uniforms and talked their way into a press party at the Gotham Hotel. (Robinson remembers stuff like that.) She greeted Gottlieb, whom she had dated, and moved on, politely.
Robinson has been telling the story ever since, as one of my very favorite lunch companions, discussing baseball or books or politics. He and his lovely wife Phyllis, a longtime editor at the Book-of-the-Month Club, have been living near Gracie Mansion while Bacall nested in the Dakota, until her passing last week at 89. Given the twin nationhood of East Side and West Side, he and Bacall never met again.
He performed one of my favorite movie lines, but it did not apply to him. Peter O’Toole, who died the other day, got to play a dissolute guest on an early television program in the 1982 film “My Favorite Year.” Through the haze, Alan Swann divines that he is about to appear live, a prospect that thoroughly terrifies him. As he is nudged onto the set, he protests: “I’m not an actor – I’m a movie star!”
The line speaks to the inner truth most of us know about ourselves: sometimes we are in over our heads.
O’Toole recently was seen in the 1987 Bertolucci film, “The Last Emperor,” in that wonderful series that New York’s Channel 13 runs all too infrequently on Saturday nights. As an English tutor brought into the Forbidden City, O’Toole proved my point. He was an actor.
Among my other favorites:
In the 1963 film “The Balcony,” Shelley Winters plays a madame whose office assistant, Lee Grant, is lobbying to change positions within the establishment. Winters keeps trying to put her off, and the writer, Genet, plants the madame’s line in our heads before it is actually uttered:
“The world is full of whores; what it really needs is a good bookkeeper.”
How many times have I used that line to advise people to stick with their chosen profession?
Then there is the Clint Eastwood film, “The Unforgiven.” (I love Clint, even though he now speaks to empty chairs.)
The movie has many good lines, including when the young man kills somebody for the first time and starts babbling.
Will Munny (Clint): It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.
The Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvet): Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.
Will Munny: We all got it coming, kid.
That’s pretty much the point of the movie. I love it when Clint calls somebody “kid.”
Then there’s the scene we all know is coming, when Clint doubles back to town to avenge the killing of his pal, Ned, played by Morgan Freeman.
Inside the bar, Clint asks: “Who’s the fellow owns this shithole?”
The poor dope named Skinny admits he does, and Clint commences to do what Clint does. I often revive that line when fate takes me to some miserable football stadium or over-priced restaurant where I emphatically do not want to be. Don’t we all have our inner Clint?
At the end, Clint rides off into the rainy night, his voice cutting through the empty street:
“You better bury Ned right!... Better not cut up, nor otherwise harm no whores... or I'll come back and kill every one of you sons of bitches.” (I think he also mentions their children, even their dogs, but it’s just an echo by then.)
I know there’s a whole universe of favorite-movie-lines out there. What’s yours?
I have not seen any of the movies nominated for Academy Awards this year.
When I read that Steven Spielberg – Steven Spielberg! – does not think it important whether Connecticut legislators voted for or against slavery, I’m not putting my money down to watch his movie. (My wife is from Connecticut; you should hear her.)
However, we did see a movie Saturday night that won an Academy Award in 2008. The public television station in our region, WNET, Channel 13, has a Saturday night series of indies that keeps us close to the tube. Many of these movies are true and accurate in the best sense – emotionally.
The indies follow another series of so-called classics featuring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper that we find hopelessly brittle and out-dated., But the indies touch us almost every week.
Saturday night we caught up with Once, the John Carney film, about an Irish busker and a Czech immigrant who meet on the streets of Dublin and within a week make music and change each other’s lives. How did we miss it when it came out?
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won the Oscar for best original song, Falling Slowly. On Saturday I realized the movie has been turned into a Broadway musical (I’m a little slow.)
The caliber of the indies series is consistently high -- an American Indian man going home to die (Barking Water), a young Spanish woman working for an aging intellectual (Amador), and two young teachers in New York, one Muslim, one Orthodox Jewish, whose lives and values are so similar (Arranged.) The films take us places both exotic and as real as the inside of our own hearts.
How did we not know of all these films? I guess because of the money-making machine that produces blockbusters that get hyped for mass audiences -- and the awards.
But I am resistant – this year, more than ever, when I hear that Spielberg shrugs off an historic vote in Congress, or Ben Affleck invents a phony chase in Iran, or Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal hype torture because it heightens the plot, .
Goodness knows we have enough birthers and climate-change deniers out there. Can we afford a disdain of facts in pop movies? Facts matter. So do insights into the human heart. We stay home Saturdays for the indies on WNET.
Because he’s an artist.
In his relative old age, Clint has made films that forced me to think and feel; given the male-slacker crap I see advertised as fall films, I would say that is quite an accomplishment.
It’s true, Clint made a fool of himself in public, on cue, during the Republican convention. Apparently, he was put in that slot because Mitt Romney likes his make-my-day message. We should not be surprised after watching Romney sneer at half the country in front of his own people, the entitled rich. So Clint was no accident.
However, if Chris Christie can pine for respect from Bruce Springsteen, (ignoring the messages in the man’s songs), then I reserve the right to respect Clint the film-maker, Clint the actor.
I never had any interest in Clint’s first decades, the inarticulate avenger riding across the west or the urban landscape. But he got interesting in his old age.
Somehow I sought out The Unforgiven in 1992, knowing I would like it. It’s about an aging gunslinger who expects he will not be forgiven for the murders and robberies he has committed. Raising two children in poverty, his wife dead, he has acquired a sense of mortality along with morality -- an emergence of conscience, rarely encountered in American films,
When he is pulled back in through his need to care for his children, Clint now lives by a code. Killing makes him sick. He can no longer sleep with a woman, even when that offer is made from tender appreciation of his protection. His gravel Clint voice says, I aint like that no more. It’s not a bad code to tuck in our wallets.
Ultimately, he shoots up the bad guys. It is, after all, a Clint movie. He walks into the saloon and asks: Who’s the fellow owns this shithole? (How many times have I muttered this line in some crummy restaurant or motel? Without ensuing damage, of course.)
After the carnage, Clint rides out of town, warning people to bury his murdered pal (Morgan Freeman) and addressing the entire citizenry: “Better not cut up nor otherwise harm no whores or I’ll come back and kill every one of you sons of bitches….” He is still threatening what he will do as he vanishes into the rainy night. We understand the gunslinger is a parable; it’s only a movie; but still.
In 2008, Clint issued Gran Torino, about an aging autoworker in fading Detroit, now being populated by Hmong refugees from the hill country of Laos. The film could have been called Unforgiven II because it is about a man who knows he can never escape what he did during the Korean war.
My favorite part is where Clint advises his young Hmong protégé how to carry himself like an American, including ethnic insults to friends. I also like when Clint is charmed by the young man’s college-going sister, who slyly persists in calling him Wally, causing him to grunt that his name is Walt. It would not be a Clint movie if he didn’t menace a few punks and bring about justice through a hail of bullets.
Of course, Clint could have used some of that tolerance when he addressed an empty chair that represented the President of the United States. We have known all along, watching the resentful ‘50’s redneck pusses on McConnell, Boehner and Cantor, that these last four years have really been about race. Now we watch Mitt Romney address his own kind. For the first time in this campaign, expressing scorn for collective modern society, the man comes alive; he’s the guy who brought in Clint, undoubtedly knowing of the contempt within.
Still, Clint has grown to make movies about conscience, about the potential for growth.He’s an artist. I hold him to a different standard.
"The day after my 80th birthday, which overflowed with good wishes, surprises and Covid-safe celebrations, I awoke feeling fulfilled and thinking that whatever happens going forward, I’m OK with it. My life has been rewarding, my bucket list is empty, my family is thriving, and if everything ends tomorrow, so be it.
"Not that I expect to do anything to hasten my demise. I will continue to exercise regularly, eat healthfully and strive to minimize stress. But I’m also now taking stock of the many common hallmarks of aging and deciding what I need to reconsider."
--Jane E. Brody, my pal in the NYT newsroom, oh, a few years back, in the Personal Health column, Sept. 13, 2021.
"People have said to me, ‘You’re fully vaccinated. Why are you being so careful?’” said Dr. Robert M. Wachter, professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “I’m still in the camp of I don’t want to get Covid. I don’t want to get a breakthrough infection.”
---Tara Parker-Pope, The New York Times, Aug. 16, 2021.