Thursday, October 25, 2012

Days of Future Past: The Perils of Do-It-Yourself Part 1

All the men in my father’s family were avid believers in DIY. Whether it was due to fierce independence, egoism or, most likely, cheapness, the Anderson boys stubbornly believed that consulting “experts” was a silly waste of money. Who needed experience and book learnin’? They were convinced they could accomplish any given task to a degree of basic acceptableness. The result might not be fancy or perfect, but look how much money they’d saved!

My Uncle Larry often took this idea to the extreme, even going so far as to deliver his first two children himself. Well that’s not entirely true --he did have the help of a local woman with midwife experience-- but still, Audrey and Jerry Anderson were brought into this world without any need of one of those newfangled maternity wards.

But Uncle Larry changed his tune in the summer of 1958 when young Audrey came down with a severe stomach ache. At first, Uncle Larry dismissed the problem as “female trouble” even though Audrey was only 7 years old. He prescribed a treatment of baking soda, hot water and bed rest, claiming she’d soon be “fit as a fiddle”. What followed were two hellish days in which Audrey threw up an estimated fifty times. Aunt Sally gave up on changing Audrey’s fouled bed clothes and moved the suffering child out onto the front porch where she quivered on the floorboards with a tin bucket at the ready. Eventually the sleepless Aunt Sally confronted her skinflint husband saying --and I paraphrase-- “Look you stupid fool, I’m taking Audrey to the hospital, and if anything happens to her I'm never coming back. You can fix your own damn bacon for breakfast.”

They were too late to the hospital. Little Audrey’s appendix had burst. She remained hospitalized for three weeks while all manner of toxic detritus was pumped from her body. Meanwhile Audrey, barely conscious, desperately clung to life. As thunder clouds approached one dark afternoon, Dr. Harris, who had attended elementary school with Uncle Larry, took my relative out into the hall and gave him a thorough ass-chewing. He told Uncle Larry that Audrey’s chances were 50/50 at best and that if she died it would be due to Uncle Larry’s negligence. Dr. Harris also informed my uncle that if he heard of any more “kitchen table births” at the Anderson household he would have the deputies come and arrest my uncle for manslaughter.

It seems unlikely that Dr. Harris could have made such charges stick, but he was a tall, imposing man who had graduated from Duke so he was rarely contradicted. His words had the desired chastening effect on Uncle Larry, who spent the next three days at his daughter's beside, silently praying and wallowing in guilt. Slowly, Audrey began to strengthen and a few days later she was able to sit up in bed. Later, with help of a nurse, Audrey took a short, gingerly walk down the hall as a smiling Dr. Harris monitored her progress. The color returned to Uncle Larry’s face as well, and he flopped down on a bench in the hallway and succumbed to that sort of garish, abject weeping that often afflicts grown men.

Audrey’s convalescence caused her to miss the first few weeks of school that fall, but eventually she had a full and complete recovery. She would go on to thirty-five years of employment  as an office manager at the Spruance plant in Richmond. She was offered early retirement two years ago and happily jumped at the chance. Today, she lives a quiet life with her husband Kenneth and always seems to have a houseful of visiting grandchildren.

On this occasion, Audrey and Uncle Larry both dodged their respective bullets. You would think this close call would have taught Uncle Larry a valuable lesson. He did give up his amateur medical practice, but centuries of inbred Scot-Irish frugality do not evaporate overnight. He could still, as my father would say, “squeeze a nickel until the buffalo hollered.” And a few years later Uncle Larry dreamed up a new risky gambit to save a few shekels...

Part Two HERE

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Happy Birthday Cathy

Catherine Deneuve celebrates her 69th birthday this week.

As if we needed a reason to post pics of her!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

In Memory of Sylvia Kristel

Repost from May 2009

For several years, I lived within walking distance of an old Dobie Gillis style neighborhood grocery store that some eccentric but enterprising soul had transformed into a movie theater. They tended to show second run Hollywood hits on weekends, but Monday through Thursday was devoted to a steady diet of Art House fare. This was before the days of Netflix, before the days of cable TV even, so if one wanted to see a movie one actually had to trim one’s ear hair, become somewhat presentable and go out in public.

It was in the friendly confines of that theatre that I saw my first foreign films, and therefore my first indication that not everywhere in the world was exactly like southern Virginia. People in foreign films didn’t care much about washing their cars, whether the Redskins would make the playoffs or understanding the book of Ephesians in minute detail. They didn’t go deer hunting, listen to car races on the radio (seriously, lots of folks did this) or worry about whether their yards needed mowing.

They did seem to enjoy themselves a lot. They sat down to sumptuous meals that consisted of something other than fried chicken and Pepsi. People ate slowly and talked and laughed and had witty conversations. They went on relaxing and enjoyable vacations. Most families I knew just went to Virginia Beach and ate bologna sandwiches and squabbled.

Characters in foreign films also knew how to be charming, romantic and elegant. Consequently, they had sex more often and with much less effort than my good ol’ boy friends who went out “bird-doggin” women every night. I wasn't sure what "bird-doggin" was, but I did know the women in our neighborhood, and they didn't seem the type that would be easy to bird-dog. Whatever that was.

The romantic aspect alone was enough to peak my interest in learning about European lifestyles, and I became something of a regular at that modest cinema palace. I saw such films as Amarcord, Clair’s Knee, Belle Du Jour, Weekend and, of course, everyone’s naughty fave, the original Emmanuelle.

The zeitgeist on display in Emmanuelle was so alien to me that the film may as well have taken place on the planet Saturn. Here you had a group of white people living in a foreign country, Thailand in this case, who weren’t even missionaries! I had been taught that spreading the gospel and military service were the only acceptable reasons for overseas travel.

The women in this film spent their days lazing in the sun, playing tennis, skinny-dipping and having copious sex with strange men and each other. I was dumbfounded. When did they iron? Who shelled their peas? Did they forget about Wednesday night choir practice?

In my mind, this movie defied rational explanation, and it shockingly laid to waste every preconception I had about how adult men and women should conduct themselves. I loved every frame of it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Recipe: Slow Cooker Green Chile Chilaquiles

Chilaquiles is sort of like Mexican lasagna, but with tortillas instead of noodles. Here’s my very simple version, which uses mainly pantry ingredients:

2 cups cooked chicken, shredded (leftover rotisserie chicken works great)

1 medium onion, chopped fine

8 oz sour cream

4 oz can chopped green chile peppers

1 tsp Mexican or Southwest seasoning

1 tbs ground cumin

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

10 oz can green enchilada sauce

2 cups shredded mozzarella or jack cheese, divided

6 oz (approx.) tortilla chips, partially crumbled.

Combine chicken and next 6 ingredients in a large bowl. Add 1/2 can enchilada sauce and about 3/4 of the cheese. Stir until well blended.

Spray a 4 quart slow cooker with cooking spray and make a thin layer of tortilla chips at the bottom. Layer half of chicken mixture on top. Make another layer of crumbled chips and layer rest of chicken mixture. Top with another layer of chips and cover with remaining enchilada sauce and cheese. Cook on low for 4 hours. Serve with a salad.

I can honestly say this dish never’s always delicious. It’s a scoop and serve, so it’s perfect for family movie night or a relaxed get together. And like this chef, it ain’t pretty but it’s good.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Falafel and Circuses: Where Do We Go Now? (2011) ✭✭✭✭

Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? is a moving, charming, at times simplistic allegory on religious strife in her home nation of Lebanon. Set in a small town little changed from biblical times - a sort of Middle Eastern Lake Woebegone - Labaki reduces centuries of gnarled problems into bare essentials, and applies a refreshing feminist twist to the solutions.

With a population split roughly 50/50 between Islamist and Christian, Labaki humorously weaves the village's eccentric fabric of life. A television placed in the public square offers an amusing source of communal entertainment, but also a source of tension when news reports of nearby sectarian violence are broadcast. The town’s other landmark is a dusty and overflowing cemetery; filled with the remains of those killed in Lebanon’s bloody and pointless civil war. From the multitude of gravestones adorned with smiling portraits of the dead, it’s clear the village has lost an entire generation of young men.

When a series of misunderstandings reopens old wounds, the peaceful village threatens to erupt in another religious war. Labaki, who plays widowed cafe owner Amale, concocts an unusual and hilarious strategy to distract the men from their violent impulses. But ancient hatreds can only be held at bay for so long, and soon the region’s ingrained bloodlust will claim another innocent victim.

Labaki walks a fine line in her approach, balancing her desire for sunny entertainment with the need for a frank appraisal of brutality. It’s a path as treacherous as the narrow mountain pass that connects the village with the outside world, and Labaki occasionally stumbles. Her periodic insertion of fanciful song and dance routines presumably serves some symbolic purpose, but in context the effect is jarring and distracting. The storytelling gets a tad sloppy in the final act, with frequent mood shifts working at cross purposes.

But there’s no denying the wisdom of Labaki’s political analysis. In the film’s best scene, she clears a group of brawling men from her cafe with an impassioned plea shared by grieving wives and mothers the world over. Her implication that poorly educated men egged on by breathless TV news reports are responsible for the region’s problems may seem unsophisticated, but her case is compelling.

Nadine Labaki’s previous film as writer/director was the enjoyable 2007 production Caramel, a witty comedy set in a Beirut beauty shop that was rather surprising in its conventionality. Nary a mention is made of the city’s tortured past and the film’s gentle tale of romantic catharsis could have taken place in Tokyo or Cleveland. Here Labaki’s canvas is much larger, confronting Lebanon’s pain while offering a healing prescription from the pharmacy of common sense. Where Do We Go Now? is an uneven step forward for the talented Labaki, but a step forward none the less.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Wreck of the Hesperus: Hide Away (2011) ✭✭✭✭1/2

Morose and meditative, Hide Away is a film that’s executed to near perfection. Its scant narrative involves a nameless man (Josh Lucas) who purchases a run down, barely floating sailboat moored at a remote marina in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Lucas makes the crumbling vessel his home, and spends lonely, quiet days in frustrating attempts at repair, occasionally relieved by periods of deep remorse and binge drinking. Lucas is clearly a man on the run from some emotional trauma, but the depth and cause of his misery remain an enigma. And if his attempts at self therapy are unsuccessful, a final plunge into Lake Michigan’s icy water may be the only cure.

But Lucas’ seclusion is incomplete. His mysterious labors do not escape the watchful eyes of the marina’s manager (Ayelet Zurer) and an old salty dog (James Cromwell) who observe with detached curiosity. In addition, Lucas periodically receives unwanted visits from a dapper businessman (Taylor Nichols); visits that prompt Lucas to go into hiding within the bowels of his decrepit schooner. As the golden light of autumn gives way to winter’s freezing fog, Lucas’ psyche is challenged by severe bouts of cabin fever. Slow trudges through deep snow to the local grocery store for flirty exchanges with a young cashier (Casey LeBow) serve as his only recreation.

Perhaps due to his Native American heritage, director Chris Eyre has always excelled at creating eccentric characters and introspective atmospheres. The mystical, reflective textures of Hide Away are custom-made for his sensibilities, and Eyre builds memorable sequences within the film’s austere framework. During a regatta, Lucas watches a parade of sailboats decked out with Christmas lights and drinks himself to near oblivion, creating an intense portrait of holiday loneliness and depression. As January snow mounts on his boat’s rotting hull, Lucas can only hunker down below deck where haunted memories await in a cramped, waterlogged purgatory.

While every filmmaker manipulates time, Eyre works in ways that make the concept seem quaint and irrelevant. His short, largely wordless scenes draw a unique perspective of man’s small place in the natural world. Yet, that world has an abundance of metaphysical resources capable of healing even the most painful wounds. Despite his isolation, Lucas is never truly alone. As the leaves of spring begin to bud, the human and spiritual spheres patiently watch from a distance, waiting for his summons.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

October Quickies

My Piece of the Pie (2011) ✭✭✭

Cédric Klapisch has made some excellent movies, but here he can’t decide on a theme. My Piece of the Pie vacillates between rom-com and working class revenge flick; imagine Norma Rae falling in love with the owner of that oppressive factory. Karin Viard and Gilles Lellouche make it watchable, at times even enjoyable, but the story flounders into silliness in the final act. At any rate it’s nice to see Lellouche play something other than a cop for a change.

Chico & Rita (2010) ✭✭✭✭ 1/2

Wonderful animated film for adults from Spain; all about star-crossed lovers who find musical success and romance incompatible. The movie is a sensory fest, with superb visual design by Javier Mariscal and Fernando Trueba along with some great Jazz tunes. Queue this one up right away, you won’t regret it.

Procol Harum: In Concert with the Danish National Concert Orchestra and Choir (2006) ✭✭✭✭✭

This performance comes pretty close to recreating the magic of Procol’s classic Live with the Edmonton Symphony album from 1972. “Salty Dog” and “Whaling Stories” will cause an outbreak of goosebumps, while “Whiter Shade of Pale”, missing from the Edmonton album, finally gets its due. Also included is a bonus 1974 TV performance of songs chiefly from Grand Hotel. My goodness, did we really dress like that?

Arbitrage (2012) ✭✭✭ 1/2

Tidy business thriller with a mature RIchard Gere somehow looking --and acting-- better than ever. The twisty plot is fun and makes sense for the most part, which is quite an accomplishment in this day and age. Tim Roth’s mumbly 99%er cop makes a nice contrast to Gere’s nimblness, and Susan Sarandon proves still can still bring it. Not a bad choice if you looking for an entertainment that won’t make you feel too embarrassed.

Melancholia (2011) ✭✭✭✭

Whether it’s saying stupid, hateful things at Cannes or defiling his best work with preening self indulgence, Lars von Trier is often his own worst enemy. In recent years, I’ve basically lost interest in his films, but the excellent Melancholia has me giving ol’ Lars another chance. The film is about Earth’s last days, and the effects of the approaching apocalypse on a wealthy New York family. The acting from the mains (Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland) is uniformly superb; not surprising since von Trier’s saving grace has always been his extraordinary way with actors. This metaphorical film is open to a number of interpretations; the most obvious being the crushing effects of clinical depression on sufferers and their loved ones. Melancholia generally avoids the director’s typical awkward lurches and leaves us with a film that haunts and mystifies, without beating its artistry into our heads.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

My Guest Post at European Film Star Postcards

European Film Star Postcards is a wonderful website with a gigantic library of images and biographies. The site is a labor of love for creator Bob of Holland, and it will soon make you an expert on European cinema.

Bob graciously allowed me to comment on some of my favorite actors.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Days of Future Passed: In Living Color

Contrary to my appearance, I’m not old enough to remember a time when there was no television. I can, however, clearly recall the days before color TV, when as a kid I huddled in front of our tiny black & white display to watch a variety of monochrome entertainment. In football I saw the Cleveland Grays grapple with the Washington Silverskins, admired that platinum bombshell Ellie Mae Clampett, and guffawed at the antics of that great comedian Slate Skelton. Fifty shades of gray had a radically different meaning in those days, and generally summed up the state of the art in broadcast technology.

In the 1960s, many programs began to be produced in color, as the television networks and electronics manufacturers colluded to build demand for the spanking new chroma sets that were popping up in department stores. These early color TVs were tremendously expensive, costing as much as twelve hundred dollars. And that’s in 1960s currency, mind you. Adjusted for inflation, that figure today would be, well, a ton.

It took awhile for this new technology to be embraced by the market. Not only was it costly, there was public suspicion that color TV might be just another passing fad; a ruinously expensive hula-hoop. And television in general was receiving significant backlash, with everyone from preachers to psychologists warning that TV viewing would ultimately render the nation’s populace lazy and stupid. A warning that, of course, has proven correct. But eventually these fears were overcome by the one thing America has always done best: relentless advertising. A fierce demand for color TV was constructed brick by brick, and soon consumers were overcome by lust for a product that, just a few months ago, they didn’t even want. The folks in my hometown were some of the last holdouts, stubbornly clinging to their B&W sets while the world around us reveled in full spectrum video.

The wait was difficult for me and my friends. My classmate Sid became so frustrated that he ordered a gadget from a comic book called “The Colorizer.” This gizmo promised to convert any B&W TV to color for a mere twenty-five cents, shipping included. A few weeks later, Sid received in the mail a cardboard tube with a transparent plastic sheet rolled up inside. The sheet was imprinted with three colored bands that ran horizontally: green on the bottom, a sort of yellowy pink in the middle and blue on top. The enclosed instructions were simple and explicit: “Hang the sheet with masking tape in front of your TV screen. Turn on your TV and enjoy.”

What the Colorizer created was not exactly color TV, but a simulation with varying degrees of effectiveness. It sort of worked on wide, panoramic shots of natural vistas -- ok for “Wild Kingdom” for instance-- but, since TV scenes were mostly close-ups, the illusion required significant suspension of disbelief. Captain Kangaroo didn’t fare well at all, and the normally robust Bob Keeshan appeared to be suffering from liver failure and blue hair. Sid’s dad tolerated the Colorizer for a few days until one night, while watching a baseball game his beloved Orioles were losing, he ripped the plastic sheet from its masking tape moorings and proceeded to slice it to shreds with his pocket knife, claiming the damn thing was giving him headaches.

My next encounter with Color TV, the real thing this time, occurred a few months later when my mother and I accompanied my father to Roanoke for a statewide meeting of the Farm Bureau Cooperative. We stayed at the Ambassador Motor Inn, a motel so low rent and ticky-tack that in the 1980s it was demolished and replaced with a public landfill, and most locals considered it an improvement. But the decrepit Ambassador did have one, rather incongruous, saving grace: a brand new color TV console adorned its threadbare lobby. One evening, while my father attended a presentation breathlessly entitled “Cucumbers: Worth the Risk?,” my mother and I hunkered down to watch an episode of the wildly popular Batman TV show in living color. While I certainly enjoyed the program’s vibrant, swirling hues, I also experienced a vague sense of disappointment. The Caped Crusader’s mysterious and brooding midnight blue costume from the comics had been replaced by an eggplant and lilac scheme that was decidedly non-butch. As for Robin, suffice to say he was a sartorial disaster regardless of medium; his weird Christmas elf attire appearing equally hinky in print or video. Adding to my disappointment was frequent distraction due to the nearby traipsing of various drug addicts, prostitutes and inbred rednecks who called the Ambassador home.

The first person I knew to take the plunge and actually buy a color TV was my Uncle Duke. A few years earlier, he had quit farming and taken a position with the Sheriff’s office. Despite having four kids, one of whom attended private and expensive Lynchburg College, Uncle Duke and Aunt Elizabeth always seemed to have extra cash to blow on luxuries. She had the first washer/dryer of anyone in our family while Duke regularly indulged his passion for new Chevrolets. Duke’s largess was a bit puzzling, considering sheriff’s deputies, especially newly minted ones, weren’t paid very much. Despite rumors of corruption in local law enforcement, no one ever questioned Duke about his finances, And once Duke started inviting folks over to watch Bonanza on Sunday nights, no one really cared.

One of the first shows to be broadcast in color, the weekly adventures of the Cartwright clan had a spellbinding effect on audiences in the 1960s. Bonanza’s bittersweet scripts struck a near perfect balance of two fisted masculinity and sentimental bleeding heart liberalism, and the show made viewers feel like better people simply for watching it. In fact, to better appreciate show’s moral virtues was often used as a rationale for purchasing a color TV. At first, Duke invited just a few close friends and relatives over to behold Bonanza’s splendors. But as word got out, people began dropping over during the week --often with freshly baked pies-- angling for an invitation. Sometimes the new invitees brought friends and relatives of their own, swelling the attendance. Sunday visitation at Duke’s house began to get out of hand, prompting him to move the TV onto the front porch on nice evenings to accommodate the growing crowd. Duke, who was quite gregarious, loved mingling with his new found friends and looked forward to Sunday evenings with great anticipation. Aunt Elizabeth, on the other hand, was less sanguine and began to refer to the new TV as “devil-spawn.”

Things reached critical mass one chilly October Sunday when another standing-room-only crowd began to assemble. A battered pick up truck, desperately searching for a parking space, accidentally backed up and over the prized boxwoods Aunt Elizabeth had been trying for years to coax into a hedge.

The driver, realizing his error, immediately got out of the truck and offered his sincere apologies. Aunt Elizabeth did not recognize the man, which only added to her rage, and she quickly summoned her husband over to join the conversation. Beaming, Uncle Duke shook hands with the man and told him not to worry about the boxwoods, everybody makes mistakes.

As the man turned away to repark his vehicle, the fuming Aunt Elizabeth asked her husband, “And who, pray tell, is that?”

“Oh uh. Roger something. I stopped him last week for a busted taillight. Seems like a really nice guy.”

Aunt Elizabeth had heard enough. “Now you’re inviting criminals you find on side the road???”

“He’s not a criminal. Just a busted taillight. He promised to get it fixed”

With that, something inside Aunt Elizabeth snapped. She pushed her way through the milling crowd and bounded the front porch steps in one leap, planting herself in front of the TV screen just as Bonanza’s opening credits began to roll.

“Now listen to me. All showings of Bonanza, present and future, have been cancelled. Y’all need to go! Buy your own TVs and leave us alone! If my husband invites you here, ignore him, I repeat, ignore him. He is hereby unauthorized!”

After a few moments of embarrassed silence, the crowd began to gather their lawn chairs and chicken bones and file out of Duke’s front yard. He remained behind, wishing the attendees well and apologizing for his wife’s outburst, explaining that she hadn’t been feeling well lately. My father took Uncle Duke’s arm and whispered, “Does this mean the World Series is off for tomorrow?”

Uncle Duke winked at his younger brother and said, “I’ll talk to her....”