Monday, January 28, 2013

We Own the Night

A striking film made from highly a unpromising storyline.

It's the old wheeze about a family of cops with one black sheep who takes the left-hand path and winds up with bad, nay very bad, friends. It's 1988 and Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) is the non-copper who runs a slick Brooklyn nightclub; his brother Joseph (Mark Wahlberg) is an NYPD detective; their father (Robert Duvall) is the deputy police chief.

Pretty unlikely to begin with; predictable that Bobby will get involved with criminals, in this case the Russian mafia, and that will lead to serious problems for everybody.

For all that, the movie is saved from banality by the assured direction of James Gray, along with consistently eye-catching cinematography by the improbably named Joaquin Baca-Asay. They and the cast put new wine into this old bottle. There's even a car chase scene that you would expect to be pure routine, but Gray shoots it, stylishly, in pouring rain and doesn't let it go on too long.

The texture and atmosphere are superb; I recognize the New York I was raised in, not glamourous Manhattan but the "bridge and tunnel" boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. If the movie didn't make much money, and I don't remember hearing anything about it in the year of its release (2007), this authenticity may be one reason nationwide audiences couldn't connect with it. The characters' accents and their ultra-ethnic-mix might have been hard for many people to comprehend even in our proud new Former United States of forced multi-culturalism.

I don't need to tell you that Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg play their roles vividly. Gray got Robert Duvall to act from the inside for a change and he has some nicely shaded, touching moments. I don't understand the appeal of duck-lipped Eva Mendes, but as Bobby's girlfriend, she's competent enough here. In fact all the actors, some of whom I suspect were non- or semi-professional, make an impression.

The Blu-ray transfer captures colors both strident and subtle. We Own the Night isn't for all tastes, but if you like its genre the movie is recommended.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Abbey

It wasn't actually a religious establishment, but rather a house built in 1879 at the height of Gothic Revival architecture's popularity. The home of William Abbott, a stockbroker whom we can safely assume was successful in his profession, it stood just off Kensington High Street, London. Naming it The Abbey was probably a play on his name.

(The pictures and information are from a fascinating site called The Library Time Machine, hosted by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.)

In the entrance hall, you might have imagined you had been swept into a historical novel by Sir Walter Scott:

Subsequent owners -- Mr. Abbott died in 1888 -- seem to have been less enthusiastic about carrying on the Gothic style, or maybe it was simply out of fashion. The photo below was taken in 1924; the new inhabitants obviously went in for the mix-'n'-match approach to decor.

The Gothic arched window frames and detailing on the fireplace are still just visible in another 1924 photo, showing the "boudoir" (a term that has long since died and gone to architecture heaven), but the furnishings have left Queen Victoria's era far behind. "The interior looks more suitable for a P G Wodehouse comedy," the library's annotator, Dave Walker, writes. "Or if you had to have something supernatural a ghost story written by Noel Coward."

The Abbey met its end in April 1941 during an air raid. Walker says, "A German bomber was brought down and crashed into a roof. The crew bailed out and were captured. The next day troops were guarding the pieces of the aircraft."

The house remained a ruin for some years before being demolished. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Today the blah-modern Campden Hill Public Library occupies the site. In one of its meeting rooms the Society for Psychical Research holds lectures, a couple of which I've attended with no idea of the gloriously eccentric house that once stood there.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Unsocial Network

Yes, that Network, the 1976 film directed by the late Sidney Lumet. Still widely remembered, mainly for the scene when the crackpot/Jesus figure, newscaster Howard Beale, goes into on-air meltdown:

"I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' [Usually misquoted as, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"]

Your blogger actually reviewed the movie for a weekly arts paper on its theatrical release. I must have been among the 1 or 2 percent of reviewers who panned Network. The only part of the review I can summon to mind was a line to the effect that the movie represented a new genre: a cartoon with live actors.

Since the picture has had such a long shelf life, I thought to give it another chance. So I borrowed the DVD from Netflix; not a Blu-ray disc, but an excellent digital transfer that was probably sharper than what I'd seen in the boxy little theater in '76.

Since then I've had more experience, seen many more movies, and like to believe I've acquired better judgment and a better grasp of what constitutes cinematic quality. 

After this recent viewing, Network seems to me the first, or one of the first, examples of a once-new genre: a cartoon with live actors. There have of course been many more since -- in fact, it's arguably the default style of modern film making.

By cartoon, I mean it doesn't even try to resemble real life. Dialogue, acting, themes -- everything italicized.

The social and literary critic Paul Fussell wrote a book titled BAD, in which he made the distinction between plain old bad (having no merit, worthless, etc.) and BAD (which might be defined as actively negative or tasteless). Network was, is, and always shall be BAD.

For example, the character Howard Beale's obsession is screamingly ambiguous. Other than a trite  rant against worldwide corporations, he has no apparent motive except to whip up resentment -- what David Denby called (in reviewing a different movie) rebellion without content.

It's breathtakingly cynical on the part of the writer, Paddy Chayefsky. Who isn't mad about something? So anybody on any side of our political, social, religious, or cultural divisions can imagine that Beale is speaking for them, for their poor shriveled souls destroyed by an uncongenial world. Right on, baby!

When everyone in a New York apartment building actually does lean out the window to bellow, "I'm mad ... etc." in the movie, what if the next door neighbor is mad for totally opposite reasons? Is that supposed to be the cure for our collective ills?

Or maybe Network is about how television corrupts the audience with its ratings game. Hardly a new idea, even in 1976. But it's especially distasteful when dished out by a movie -- a movie, for heaven's sake, driven as much by box office and distribution revenue as TV is by ratings and advertising. The movie industry's flaming sword is directed at TV, its chief competitor (at the time) for capturing dulled eyeballs.

Sidney Lumet has a deservedly high reputation for directing actors, but it doesn't rest on this thing. Given the script's ludicrously overheated plot points and dialogue, maybe he figured there was nothing for it but to go along with its spirit.

Chayefsky's screenplay orders the leading players to make fools of themselves, and they obey. The talented Faye Dunaway, as producer or manager or whatever Diana Christensen, wallows in caricature, as does Peter Finch as Beale. I have a grudge against him anyway for seducing Vivien Leigh when she was having a mental breakdown and was still married to a far greater man of the theater and screen than Finch, namely Laurence Olivier.

William Holden (news director or whatever Max Schumacher) -- not much of an actor but what camera presence! -- retains a tenuous hold on dignity. The only acting worthy of the name is by Cindy Grover in a tiny role as Schumacher's wife upstaged by her husband's affair with Diana.

In 1976, at least you could still lampoon blacks and whites equally. Through plot manipulation  (don't ask me what -- I gave up trying to make sense of the twists), Diana recruits a black radical with an Afro hairdo and an African-patterned dress, obviously modeled on the '60s Commie celebrity Angela Davis, to induce her and the male leader of the Something-or-Other Liberation Army to cooperate in creating a network series that was, apparently, an early version of a "reality" show.

We then see the black radicals eagerly corrupted, in a meeting with lawyers working out their percentage of the profits from the program.

Can you credit the idea of any producer today agreeing to such a portrayal? If Paddy Chayefsky were around and bone-headed enough to write it, he'd hear:

"Paddy, Paddy ... what are you doing? Twenty-eight point seven percent of our projected audience is African American. You're tearing the heart out of my body! You want to call the Cossacks down on us? You want the NAA PC declaring a pogrom? And that Southern Political Law Center adding us to page 4,000 of their list of racists? Paddy, you've got to listen! Send that part of the script to the floor. I know I can count on you."

It's odd watching a film for the first time in, what, 36 years? I recognized about 15 minutes from the two hours. The rest might as well have been seen for the first time. At least the bits I recalled more or less coincided with my impressions from way back, not always the case in watching an old movie after a long interval. Supposedly everything we have ever experienced is preserved in mental formaldehyde, capable of being exactly recalled with the proper electrical stimulation; or it is archived in what occultists call the Akashic Records. Whatever. Most of my life is gone to someplace where the telegraph lines are down. Strange thing, this memory business.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The deep waters of prayer

If you happen to be reading this on Sunday, January 13, I'll remind you that this evening between 5 and 6 p.m. (in whatever time zone where you're claiming space) there will be a prayer vigil for Lawrence Auster, who is suffering from cancer, side effects of chemotherapy, and other unknown afflictions. 

Kristor, a frequent contributor to the dialogue at Auster's View From the Right, has organized the event.

The subject of prayer has been on my mind often this week. Not only because of the massed prayer for Auster, but because being in that strange borderland between middle aged and old, I feel less and less inclined to take this world as the complete reality -- instead, only one level (or "grade of significance," in G.N.M. Tyrrell's phrase) in a pattern of creation leading from lower to higher degrees of reality, truth, spirituality, however you want to think of it.

We humans are in a frustrating predicament. Most of us, most of the time, are "stuck" on the flypaper of physical reality. All the knowledge we obtain through our senses (more precisely, our brain's interpretation of sense data) is about the material plane. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that for some people, on some occasions, there is a semi-permeable membrane between the ordinary world of consensual reality and higher, or deeper, worlds.

I've banged on a fair amount in this blog about the findings of psychical research, but not much that I recall about prayer. If anything, prayer is harder to understand than paranormal phenomena like clairvoyance and mediumship. Clairvoyance relates -- in however unusual a fashion -- to events in the everyday world. Mediumship ostensibly is about mental contact with the spirits of those who have departed this life for another, obviously a tough idea for many to accept, but not conceptually hard to grasp.

With prayer, we are in still deeper waters. What is prayer? Who, or what, are we praying to? What can we expect as a result?

As to what prayer is, theologians and philosophers have had a go at that question for centuries: no general agreement. Who -- if anyone -- receives prayers? No general agreement. What result can we look for? No general agreement.

I mentioned earlier Larry Dossey's Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine. I haven't finished reading it, but have gone far enough to recognize it as a remarkably sane and thoughtful study of a subject prone to almost endless confusion, controversy, and in some quarters outright scorn.

Part of what is impressive is that Dossey doesn't try to avoid aspects of intercessionary prayer that make no logical sense. His outlook is as far as can be from New Age sentimental babble or philosophies that mind inevitably is stronger than matter, or that mind alone creates whatever we want. There is a paradox we have to face squarely: scientific studies have shown that prayer can benefit people (or experimental animals, presumably not susceptible to placebo effect) who are ill, even at any distance. The person or persons don't have to be in the presence of the recipient, or even acquainted with him or her.

But as surely as prayer works sometimes, it doesn't always work ... even when conditions appear similar to those when it does. Why are some prayers "answered" and not others? None of us want to believe in a God or higher power that chooses whom to deliver favors to. 

Certain questions seem to have no satisfactory intellectual answer. There was a story the other day about a man in England who nurtured a mouse and decided to release it into the fields that were its natural habitat. Hardly had he done so than a hawk swooped down and grabbed it.

That doesn't mean the hawk was "bad," of course -- he has to eat just like any other animal. The way of nature was simply playing itself out. But why was nature designed so that life must feed on other life?

The answer to that, to the nature of prayer's action, and other such mysteries are not to be found in our present state of being. But if we are open minded, we can accept that prayer for others' healing is beneficial. Sometimes. Let's hope that, for Lawrence Auster, this is one of those times.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Covering the rough terrain of academic pseudo-poetic license

I seem to be on the marketing director's e-mail list at the University of Nebraska Press. He, she, he/she, he becoming she, she becoming he, or it is determined to keep your blogger au courant with the latest in academic literary disease.

The university press's latest contribution to the "American Lives Series" is Body Geographic. Its description is similar to what used to be called by the publishing world schoolgirl style, except that this is the kind of writing you might get if a schoolgirl were to age bodily while returning to the birth canal mentally.

Fasten your seat belt, it's going to be a bumpy read.
A memoir from the award-winning author of My Lesbian Husband, Barrie Jean Borich’s Body Geographic turns personal history into an inspired reflection on the points where place and person intersect, where running away meets running toward, and where dislocation means finding oneself. ...

Between Chicago and Minneapolis Borich maps her own Midwest, a true heartland in which she measures the distance between the dreams and realities of her own life, her family’s, and her fellow travelers’ in the endless American migration. Covering rough terrain—from the hardships of her immigrant ancestors to the travails of her often-drunk young self, longing to be madly awake in the world, from the changing demographics of midwestern cities to the personal transformations of coming out and living as a lesbian—Body Geographic is cartography of high literary order, plotting routes, real and imagined, and putting an alternate landscape on the map. 
Block that metaphor!
Body Geographic is dizzying in its inward sweep, daring in its outflung absorption. Barrie Jean Borich tunnels through time, space, sex, and language to give us a new map projection of the North American continent, a distortion that not only clarifies and illuminates but dissolves for good the boundary between personal and public history.”—Alison Bechdel, author of Fun Home and Are You My Mother?
My own personal tunnel through the shards of flex time has taken me through grasping and gasping wheels within wheels of alternative epistemology. I have sounded my barbaric tin whistle over the E-Z Pass gates of rigorous tumult. Yet though I reach for handholds in the spin cycle of flashy dreams, all I can say is, "No, Alison, I am not your mother."


Sunday, January 06, 2013

A massed prayer for Lawrence Auster

As many of you know, Lawrence Auster has been ill for some time and has taken an apparent turn for the worse. One of his regular commentators, Kristor at The Orthosphere, is organizing a coordinated hour of prayer for his well-being.

I will participate and I urge you to.

Perhaps some of Lawrence's followers are skeptical about the power of prayer to affect medical disorders. Even people drawn to spirituality may think that prayer operates in a different realm from the physical. As it happens, I have been reading Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, by Larry Dossey, M.D. It includes information about fully scientific studies as well as anecdotal evidence suggesting the efficacy on the physical plane of prayer.