Rich Gary Philip Jane Tip Top

Rich, me and Philip with our friend Jane in front of Tip Top Cafe in Brockton — mid-1980s

The COVID-19 crisis has turned much of America, but especially New York City, into a scared, furtive, grim place, and that conjures up memories of that other virus-fueled trauma — AIDS.  Unlike COVID-19, which has mostly (but not exclusively) targeted the elderly, AIDS was particularly ruthless with people in the prime of their lives.  Over 700,000 Americans have died of AIDS, including my childhood friend Rich Martel, who died 30 years ago this month on June 12, 1990.

We had grown up together in the working class city of Brockton, MA, best friends since first grade in the Ellis Brett elementary school, where he was known as “Richie.”  We were both skinny kids with buzz cuts who shared an interest in politics, history, and geography.  During our various sleepovers, he had introduced me to Superman, Batman, and the “Man From Uncle,” and we spent many hours on our bikes exploring our city’s distant neighborhoods.

He was remarkably creative, with a natural talent for drawing.  When the visiting art teacher came to our elementary school she would smile benignly at our crayon and fingerpaint efforts until she came to Rich’s desk, at which point she’d go “Whoa, what’s this?” and spirit his work away to a city-wide art competition that he’d inevitably win. He kept at it too, producing artwork in high school and college.  All his friends ended up with silkscreens, drawings, and paintings on their walls.  My own most treasured works of art are a series of three photographs of Hollywood actresses, taken with a Polaroid camera, blown up and framed. They hang in my dining room and every day I think how lucky I am to have these beautiful pieces in my house. (And thanks to his friends Amy and Eileen Morgenweck, who gave me the two portraits they inherited, so I could bring them together again.)

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Rich was smart too, which came out both in his academics and also in a thirst to launch imaginative projects, such as “Rich Richie’s Almanac,” a neighborhood newspaper he created in the sixth grade.  In junior high school he was placed in the advanced program for gifted students and in high school he was elected President of the National Honor Society. He was even accepted at Harvard but chose to go to Bowdoin instead because at Harvard they’d only admitted him as a commuting student.  His intelligence also manifested itself in humor.  He was one of the funniest people I knew, not only as a great story-teller but also as a trenchant observer of other people’s foilbles.

I was also struck by his kindness and sympathy for underdogs.  In high school he’d be the one to dance with the fat girl that the rest of us averted our eyes to, and when he snuck our friend Carol into his bedroom one night, it was because she had been kicked out of the house by her father and had no place else to stay.

Rich and I shared another best friend from Ellis Brett — Philip Tasho — and we all remained friends until he died.  We ate lunch together every day in the West Junior High School cafeteria and when we graduated from Brockton High, the three of us spent a week at my grandmother’s cottage on Nantucket, exploring the island, trying to cook our own meals, and playing Risk.  After this we all went off to different colleges and then moved to different cities, managing to keep the friendship alive in those pre-Internet days with the occasional long distance phone call, holiday trips back to Brockton, and overnight visits.  And we’d both deliver eulogies at his memorial service back in Massachusetts (which was not allowed to occur in his home parish in Brockton because he’d died of AIDS).

Rich on Nantucket after graduation

Rich and Philip on Nantucket senior year, the day our friends Jane, Pat and Merri came over for the day

In the 1980s, Philip and I were both working in Washington and Rich was in Manhattan.  Sometimes he’d come down to see us and sometimes we’d drive up to stay with him.  He took us to New York nightclubs, trendy restaurants, and arty movies, but my fondest memory is of the time the time we were riding the downtown subway and somehow we all ended up singing The Fifth Dimension’s cheesy song “The Worst Thing That Could Happen to Me.” We were oblivious to the other passengers and drunk on irony, nostalgia, and shared memories.  And when we got back to his apartment we just tumbled into Rich’s king-size bed — with a history of childhood sleepovers, we had no hang-ups about who slept where.

A few years before this, he had told me he was gay.  The surprise from this conversation wasn’t the orientation but the fact that he was actually interested in sex, because this was a subject that had never come up in any conversation over the previous 20 years.  He’d had a few chaste girlfriends in high school — relationships that lacked any sexual spark — and because he didn’t mention girls at all in college, I had just assumed he was asexual.  I have since learned not to make assumptions about other’s people’s sex lives.

Rich Gary Philip Ellis Brett

Rich, Philip and me outside Ellis Brett, our elementary school about 20 years after we graduated

But his sexuality wasn’t the most interesting thing about his life in New York.  He was working at BBDO, which was one of the big advertising agencies.  The “Mad Men” days were over, but it was still a glamorous and exciting career, filled with celebrities, location shoots, high-pressured pitches, and internal politics.  He and his partner Al managed the Diet Pepsi and G.E. accounts, and if you were watching television in the 1980s you’d recognize his stylish, funny, and sophisticated work.  (When he died the agency compiled his work into a highlight reel, which appears below).

In would be inaccurate to say that Rich made a life for himself in New York.  In truth, he made a life for himself in Brockton, expanded it when he went to Bowdoin, and expanded it even further when he moved to New York. He suffered no angst, lived no drama.  Life was good and always had been.  He had a huge appetite for friends and his day-to-day existence was one extended stream of people who had been meaningful to him over the years. In the fifth grade we once made a series of lists, ranking our favorite TV shows, movies, and comic books.  One of our lists was “best friends.”  I had put him and Philip as tied for number one, but his list had TEN kids tied as his best friend. The same was true as an adult; there were probably a dozen of us who considered Rich as one of our best friends.  And he was generous to us all.  He wouldn’t just lend you a book or record album that had piqued his enthusiasm — he’d BUY it for you.  His apartment was a veritable hostel for friends, cousins, college acquaintances, and others who wanted a free place to crash in New York.  And he’d be sure to take them on a tour of his favorite haunts.

In 1988, I moved to New York City myself.  By then Rich had a handsome committed boyfriend named Chris Hill, a great apartment on the Upper West Side, a thriving career and a solid group group of fun and loyal friends (like something out of, well, “Friends”) who had survived New York City together.  He found my first apartment and when I moved in discovered a big “Welcome to New York” basket that was filled with New York City tour guides, street and subway maps, local food delicacies from Zabars, hand towels and other Upper West Side treats.

He was immediately enamored with my girlfriend Meg, who fit the mold of his other female friends in New York — smart, unpretentious, opinionated, low-maintenance, and most important of all, “normal.”  She was taken with him too, noting how handsome he was.  What?  Rich Martel handsome?  But when I looked at him with fresh eyes, I noticed that he’d been working out, had a nice haircut, had grown into his face and was no longer the gawky kid I’d grown up with.  Since he got along so well with Meg, he was the only one I confided to when I was thinking about proposing — not because I needed his advice but because I needed his enthusiasm to give me the courage.

If you lived in Manhattan in the 1980s you thought about AIDS all the time.  Even if you were monogamous and weren’t worried about catching it yourself, the death toll among the most creative people in the city was staggering and there was almost certainly someone who you DID worry about.  So of course I was concerned about Rich, but didn’t have the nerve to ask him directly how much danger he was in.  He and Chris seemed to be in great health, so maybe they were the lucky ones who wouldn’t catch it.

But all of a sudden he began to lose weight.  I also started to notice the occasional purple blotch on his arms, which I feared might be Kaposi Sarcoma, the tell-tale sign of a severely compromised immune system.  But since he didn’t say anything I assumed things were still OK.  Then one Sunday night in late August, three weeks before my wedding, he cancelled our plans to go to the movies and asked me to bring him some soup because he was too sick to make dinner. When he opened the door he looked so terrible that I finally asked what the problem was.  In a way he seemed relieved to finally be telling me the truth.  Yes, he did have AIDS and had had it for three-and-a-half years.  He’d been taking AZT, but the benefits were wearing off.  The disease was pretty advanced and Chris, who actually looked healthier, was even sicker than he was.  In fact, Chris was so sick that he wouldn’t be able to come to the wedding.  But he made me promise not to tell anyone, especially Meg, because he didn’t want to spoil our celebration.

The night before I got married, Rich, Philip and my college friend Jim came over to the parents’ house for dinner with my parents, sister and grandmother.  That was my bachelor party.  He looked scarily gaunt and in a little pain but he held his own in the conversation.  And he played his part the next day, reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians during the ceremony.  When it was over, he even drove us to the Boston so we could catch a plane for our honeymoon.

Rich at Gary's Wedding

Philip, Rich and me at my wedding, with our high school friend Pat and her future wife Kathi

After this things spiraled down fast. The Martels were a close and amazingly supportive family so Rich’s sister Lisa quit her job and moved into Rich and Chris’s apartment to take care of them, make sure they got fed and went to the doctor. Chris died the next February. Despite his grief and illness Rich soldiered on at work, even flying to Budapest to film one last GE commercial.  That Easter, Lisa and Rich came to our apartment for the holiday dinner and Lisa told one hilarious story after another to distract us from our gloom.  On the end of May he took Lisa and his brother Billy to Paris so they could see France for the first time.  On the night he returned he called and asked me to bring over some grape juice and when Meg and I arrived we found him curled up in a ball on his bed, shivering from a fever.  A week later he went into the hospital, and a week after that he died.  These were the days when visitors were required to leave at a prescribed time but Lisa had fiercely insisted on staying with him the night before he died, and she was there in his final moments.

Through it all Rich was stoic, blaming no one and refusing to rail aganst the universe.  At his densely packed funeral even the priest marveled at his courage and wondered whether he, himself, despite being a man of God, could also be so calm in the face of death.  Rich had asked me to be one of his eulogists and I emphasized his humor, telling the story of how, when he asked me to speak at his funeral I had said he couldn’t die yet because he needed to live long enough to find out who killed Laura Palmer.  His response — “I’m pretty sure they have ‘Twin Peaks’ in heaven … and maybe even in Hell,” brought down the house, which was only appropriate because telling a funny story was one of his greatest pleasures.

It was also in that eulogy (which you can read, along with a second remembrance for he memorial service, here: Martel eulogies) that I uttered the immortal line “He especially loved politics and history — I’m so glad he lived to see the fall of both the Berlin Wall and Donald Trump.”  So there’s that.

When Rich died at age 36 I consoled myself that he’d had a good life.  He’d had a fulfilling career, had found mature love with Chris, and had died in the embrace of a loving family.  It was only with the passage of time that I realized how much he’d been cheated of.  He never met his nephews and nieces, whom he would have adored, or had the chance to reach his full professional potential.  He missed decades of love, the entire “Seinfeld” series, the reboot of “Twin Peaks,” Barack Obama, the second half of the career of Martin Scorsese, and the rebirth of New York City.

Rich wsn’t the last AIDS victim.  Not by a long shot.  His former boyfriend Rick Wiley died.  My dentist, another of his ex-boyfriends, died.  Each death was a separate and unique tragedy but for his friends and especially for his family, Rich’s death was a loss that created an unfillable hole in our lives.  Three decades later he still appears in my dreams and every glance at the art on my walls recalls the loss.  At least once a month something happens in the world that causes Meg and me to say to each other — out loud — Rich would have loved (or hated) this.  We are particuarly grieved that he never met our son and his talented, artistic friends, who remind us so much of him.

If there’s the tiniest sliver of a silver lining from Rich’s death it’s the solace of knowing that death itself is not completely the end.  Thirty years later his memory is as vividly alive to everyone who knew him now as it was then.  Would that the same could be said for all of us after we’re gone.

 

TV lineup

This has to be one of our most unusual national crises.  We are basically being told that it is our patriotic duty to stay at home and not be depressed.  Fortunately we are living in a Golden Age of streaming video so at least we have television to keep our spirits up.  I hope everyone will give me suggestions on what to watch, but if I’m going to make that request it only seems fair to offer my own recommendations.

Comedies

The sitcom has never been more necessary than now. And in one devestating week in April we experienced the end of “Modern Family,” “Schitt’s Creek” and possibly “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” (all of which are worth rewatching from the beginning.) Fear not, there are so many other commedies still worth streaming. Here are a few recommendations.

The Office

I wouldn’t both mentioning “The Office,”  which is an obvious go-to and still massively popular, except that Jenna Fisher and Angela Kinsey have launched a new podcast — The Office Ladies” in which they break down each episode from a behind-the-scenes perspective, in sequence and from the beginning.  This gives you a reason to rewatch a show that is, if anything, funnier than the first time around.  Listen to The Office Ladies” here.  “The Office” itself, now one of the most valuable properties is still available on Netflix, but not for long.

I’m Sorry

This is essentially a female version of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” featuring a comedy writer without a filter who is constantly trying to extricate herself from embarrassing situations of her own making.  It’s also a pretty good satire of the upper middle class, politically correct society. (On Amazon Prime)

Derry Girls

An unlikely comedy premise: a teenage comedy set in the Catholic section of Belfast during “The Troubles” of the 1990s.  To say this is irreverent is putting it mildly. Teens will be teens, even in a low-grade civil war.  Subtitles are a necessity as is an abondonment of dogma.  Available on Netflix.

Lovesick

I have been trying like crazy to get people to watch “Lovesick,” which is about three thirty-something British flatmates who are friends and possible lovers, but can’t get anyone to stick with it.  It’s remarkable storytelling, unfolding through a series of flashbacks.  The ostensible premise is that our confused hero is diagnosed with clamydia and needs to get in touch with his previous sexual partners to let them know. The show is an updated and more realistic version of “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” On Netflix.

BlackAF

If “I’m Sorry” is a Yuppie “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” this is a black “Curb.” The show is ostensibly about whether it’s possible for a wealthy (and I mean quite wealthy) black Hollywood success story to retain his black authenticity, but its really about a still-insecure guy who keeps trying to prove to the world and to himself that he deserves all his wealth and success.  And like many insecure people he’s got an all-purpose excuse — it’s all the fault of slavery, although no one else on the show seems to suffer from slavery-related insecurity. Despte the formula, it’s still very funny, and with each episode gifted a happy ending or moral, it’s not a stringent as “Curb.” (On Netflix)

Documentaries

The Internet seems obsessed with the freak show that is “Tiger King,” a show I watched in the same way I might eat salty buttered popcorn until I want to throw up.  There are much better documentaries to watch:

McMillions

Almost 20 years ago someone cheated on the McDonalds “Monopoly” game and stole most of the million dollar pieces.  The documentary explores how the FBI unravelled the sprawling scheme.  Like all good documentaries, this is really about human nature — in this case how we balance our dark and light sides, our greed and our morality.  The cast of characters is as wide and diverse as in “Tiger King,” but closer to the mainstream.  You can’t imagine yourself being caught up in the “Tger King” scandal but it’s not hard to see how, with a little moral compromise, you could end up in a fast food game fraud.  (On HBO Go)

Circus of Books

A nice Jewish middle class couple ran West Hollywood’s most important gay porn shop for 30 years and this is their story.  It’s a living!  On Netflix

Last Dance

When The Chicago Bulls attempted to win their sixth national championship in 1998, a film crew was given behind-the-scenes access but that footage has sat dormant and locked away for decades. Finally Michael Jordan agreed to let ESPN to make a documentary out of this buried treasure.  The result is a portrait of a very unhappy team and a grumpy G.O.A.T.  The docu-series is still unfurling on ESPN but if you need a sports fix, this is a good place to start.

Amazon Music Documentaries

Back in the old days, boys and girls, when you sat down to watch TV with nothing in mind you would do something called “channel surfing,” flipping TV channel after TV channel until something good enough popped up.  My streaming version of channel surfing when I am looking for something to watch that’s not too challenging is to go to Amazon and search for documentaries on musical acts and genres.  These are not the best documentaries in the world but they are definitely good enough to watch in a time of stress.  The documentary subjects range from the Beatles, Neil Young, The Beach Boys and the Blood Sweat and Tears to whole genres like jazz, country and hip hop.  Just start searching the let the algorithm take over from there.

Dramas

For some reason, most of the dramas I’m recommending are set outside the U.S., possibly because I find it more interesting to experience a different culture.  In any event, here are my recommendations:

Shtisel

As Israeli soap opera, in Hebrew, about the trials of an Orthodox family in Jeruselum.  It’s fascinating to see human nature at work in another culture.  Much is the same as in American culture, since humans are findamentally alike, but different traditions do have their own impact.

The Young Pope/The New Pope

Easily the most flipped out recommendation on the list, and definitely not for everybody, “The Young Pope” and “The New Pope” are seasons one and two of a hallucinatory series about a young, sexy-but-doctrinaire priest (Jude Law) who becomes Pontiff and tries to remake the church.  This is like “The Crown” for Catholics, with gorgeous sets and cinematography, full of mysticism, eroticism, and cynicism. This is the craziest thing I’ve seen on TV since the reboot of “Twin Peaks.”  Christianity is full of mystery and that’s on full display here.  On HBO Go.

The Bodyguard

“The Bodyguard” This has been out for a while but if you haven’t watched it yet, this is the perfect time to catch up. Richard Madden (aka, Robb Stark) is put in charge of protecting a British anti-terrorism minister and it’s one heart-pounding scene after another. On Netflix.

Killing Eve

Another British psychological thriller/spy series about a murderous psychopath and the MI16 agent who’s trying to track her down.  AMC is airing Season 3 now but to start at the beginning you need to catch up on Hulu or rent the two seasons on Amazon Prime

Other great dramas

If you haven’t watched “The Americans,” “Better Call Saul,” “Deadwood,” “Justified,” “Mad Men,” or “Six Feet Under,” well, you better get on that right away.

The Good Place - Season 4

Over the past year my wife and I have watched only two TV series live (the old-fashioned way in real time): “Game of Thrones” and “The Good Place,” which had its season finale last night.

In some respects these shows could not be more different; the big budget, violent hugely popular mega-show vs. the sweet, small sitcom that hardly anyone’s watching.  But they have a surprising number of things in common.  They are both highly serialized, densely plotted shows that wrestle with deep questions on how to conduct yourself in a sinful world, especially when your own impulses sometimes lean toward the baser side of life.

Stretching the analogy too far would be ridiculous because they land on different answers.  In the dynastic power struggles of “Game of Thrones,” we learn early that being good itself is not enough.  The fate of the guileless Ned Stark is proof of that, and from then on the more moral characters are constantly debating among themselves what ends justify what means.  When we’re done with it, The “Game of Thrones” existential conclusion is that life is inherently tragic and that you need to do a lot of bad things to save the people you love — and then you’re punished for it!

There is no physical violence in “The Good Place,” but there is a similar struggle over how to live a good life.  The premise of the show is that Eleanor, an attractive but selfish white trash dirtbag played by Kirstin Bell, wakes up one day in the Good Place, a secular version of heaven, despite having lived a decidedly unvirtuous life.  She assumes she was sent there by mistake, a conclusion she tries to keep hidden from Michael, the architect of the village, played by Ted Danson.  From then on it’s a wild ride, with the show rebooting at least once a season and with at least one shocking twist to rival “The Red Wedding.”

Ostensibly the show is not religious.  The word “God” is not mentioned, never mind Jesus, Allah or Muhammed.  The Good Place and its counterpart the Bad Place are obviously based on popular conceptions of heaven and hell and those words are rarely used either; same with “sin,” “devils,” “Satan” or “angels.”

And yet, with its assumption that there’s an afterlife in which your earthy behaviors are rewarded and punished, the show doesn’t cater to atheists either.  If anything, “The Good Place” has a humanist approach to morality, assuming that humans can solve their own problems.  And this might be offensive to many conservative Christians, who believe that only God can save souls.

Despite explicitly rejecting religious themes, the show is definitely religious-adjacent.  Eleanor’s Good Place roommate and ostensible soulmate is a philosopher and over four seasons, the show spends a good deal of time explicitly teaching Eleanor (and by extension, the viewers) some of the basic tenets of philosophy.  This can’t help but overlap with a lot of Christian thinking.

I need to emphasize that even with the overt philosophizing, “The Good Place” is still a very funny stitcom.  In order to keep viewers from tuning out during the heavy thinking, the jokes come fast and furiously and they range from fart humor to wisecracks about modern life.  It’s this combination of the sacred and the profane that makes the show unique.

As the series wore on, it became hard not to cry at least once an episode.  The show eventually came to understand that love and forgiveness are the path to the Good Place.  Love and forgiveness for each other and love and forgiveness for yourself.  In a pivotal episode the main characters come upon a man who’s trying to live a blameless, sin-free life (by not harming the environment, not eating meat, living alone in a shack, etc.).  He’s  eking out a joyless existence, miserable because, as a human, he cannot be sin-free.  This is exactly the problem that tortured Martin Luther, who, as hard as he tried, could not stop sinning.  Luther’s answer, straight out of St. Paul, was the concept of unwarranted grace — the idea that if we ask for forgiveness and truly repent we will be forgiven.  Similarly, in “The Good Place,” you can achieve a form of grace-by-another-name by living in community with those you love; you don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be doing your best.

Coincidentally, just as the final episode of “The Good Place” came on, I was reading “Love Wins,” a book of pop theology written by the preacher Rob Bell.  The subtitle is “A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”  I doubt the creators of “The Good Place” ever read the book but this is also EXACTLY what the show is about.  Bell rejects the premise that most of humanity is going to a place where they will be tortured for all eternity, arguing instead that over time, even in the afterlife, every soul will reject its sinfulness and find a way to God.  This is more or less where the show lands.  In the final scenes we see that people who acted hurtfully and selfishly in their earthy lives transformed after they died and made it to the Good Place after all.  Indeed, according to “The Good Place,” the best thing about the Good Place is being able to spend as much time as you want with the people you love.  And let’s face it, you can’t do that if the people you love are in Hell.

Some additional thoughts:

—  This is not a series to binge.  The best way to watch it is to go to Netflix, watch the first episode, listen to the show’s podcast (The Good Place: The Podcast), and then watch the show again, looking for all the jokes and nuances you missed the first time.  This podcast is brilliant.  It’s hosted by Marc Evan Jackson, who plays Shawn on the show, and in addition to recapping the show, he interviews the writers, producers, actors and other craftspeople who put the show together.  Not only do they analyze and explain the main themes but they provide the best behind-the-scenes commentary on how a network TV show is actually put together.

— I have a whole new appreciation for the acting of Ted Danson.  I probably took him for granted on “Cheers,” but now that he’s aged and mellowed his comedic abilities are even more obvious.

—  As great as Ted Danson is, the true acting genius on the show is Darcy Carden, an improv star playing Janet, a robot-like assistant who gradually becomes more human-like over the course of the show.  Famously “not a girl,” Janet manages to convey intense emotion while still maintaining the flat affect of a non-human.  And in a tour-de-force episode that should be taught in acting classes everywhere (“Janets”), the four main characters are hidden in her “void,” which means they take on her physical appearance.  Consequently, Darcy has to play all four characters throughout that episode, each with their recognizable tics and characteristics.

—  The “Good Place’s” concept of time is very similar to the eternal time that C.S. Lewis posits in “Mere Christianity.”  Time in the afterlife is not linear and leading from one place to the next. Instead it doubles back and loops around until it looks like the name Jeremy Bearimy in cursive English.  This is a good example of using silliness (the name “Jeremy Bearimy”) to sweeten a convoluted, mind-bending concept.

—  The show liberally name drops the names of philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, and Kant and dramatically illustrates some philosophical concepts like the Trolley Problem (i.e., would you be the pull the lever to divert a trolley that was headed toward a group of children if it meant sending it onto another track where it would kill just one innocent person?”)  In the final episode a couple of real-life philosophers played themselves — the kind of in-joke, or “Easter Egg” that the show has become known for.

—  The final line of the show is “Take it sleazy,” a joking homage to Eleanor, who managed to rise above her disadvantaged childhood but never forgot that she was the kind of dum dum who would only-semi-ironically say something like that.

One last comparison to “Game of Thrones.”  When the GoT series ended so atrociously there were many apologists who said that it’s impossible for a series to “stick the landing” because the fans want too much.  The end of “The Good Place,” which has been enthusiastically embraced by the fans, shows that it absolutely is possible to produce a satisfactory series finale as long as you have the vision and courage to see it through to the end.

I never thought I’d say this three months ago, but when I look back at what I saw this year,  I realize there are more good movies now than ever before — certainly more than ten years ago.  Of course there are more bad ones too and it’s a worrisome sign that so much of the box office goes to comic book adaptations that seem to tell the same story over and over.

The big news this year is the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, which is increasingly blurring the lines between cinema and television.  This creates a bit of a quandary when it comes to ranking: what to include?  For this year at least, I am including any movie that was released on a big screen even if I saw it at home on a streaming service.  Mostly, though, I do try to get out to see movies as they were meant to be seen — outside the house — and I feel that the effort for the good ones (“The Irishman” this year, “Roma” last year) is worth it.

Another ongoing trend is the many movies that are supposedly based on real events.  I saw nine of them this year (and that doesn’t include the documentaries) and in every single case I came home and fired up Google to see what was true and what wasn’t. Come on Hollywood.  Make up your own stories, instead of stealing someone else’s life and changing it around to make it more interesting.

1. One Upon a Time in Hollywood

I was so bowled over by this fairy tale about late Sixties Hollywood that I saw it twice.  It’s visually arresting, better at capturing what it was like to be alive in 1969 than anything made since 1969.  I usually stay away from Tarantino movies because of the violence, but for once the mayhem was cathartic and justified.

2.  1917

The level of tension goes up to the maximum in about five minutes and stays there the entire movie.  War is hell, particularly World War I, yet there are so many thrilling scenes here that you quickly lose track.  And speaking of tracking, the one long tracking shot is, on the whole, a little too distracting.  Still, what an achievement.  I’m glad it’s a hit.

3. Jo Jo Rabbit

An extremely dark comedy about Nazi Germany, which also has a lot to say about the way that people who feel powerless can sometimes fall under the spell of a charismatic leader who’ll make them feel part of a broader movement.  This movie is not realistic in any way so don’t cavil that “this couldn’t happen.”  The question is whether it is emotionally real.

4. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

When I went into the theater I never expected to come out ranking the last of the Skywalker movies this high.  And yes, the the first half of the film was kid of dull and it has plot problems so extreme that I cannot now recount 95 percent of what happened, but I do remember that I was emotionally drained at the end.  We were so wiped out we stayed through every last credit, until the blank screen came up.  I do recognize, that this movie undoes much of what was established in “The Last Jedi,”  and to that I say: good.

5. The Irishman

Slow and long but absorbing when seen on the big screen.  I imagine viewers might be easily distracted while watching on Netflix, which is why the traditional movie experience is better than one in the living room.  (In other words, don’t tell me it’s “too long” if you watched it at home.  Of course it is.)  Another remarkable recreation of the Sixties, almost of par with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”  It’s also very male.  I don’t have a problem with that, but some do.

6. Parasite

“Parasite” is the most original, genre-bending movie of the last five years, and not just because it’s Korean, a culture about which most of Western viewers know little. Going to see this is an experience that you won’t want to have “spoiled,” so I hope it’s not going to far to say that the first half is an amusing domestic comedy and the second half is a thriller, kind of.  And what, or who, is the parasite, you may ask?  The answer is: every character in this movie.

7. The Farewell

This movie is based on a story from “This American Life,” which I listened to when it aired.  In a way this is a good antidote to “Crazy Rich Asians.”  Both concern themselves with what members of extended Chinese families, some of whom have emigrated and some of whom stayed behind, owe each other.  But one is a fantasy and one is reality-based.  The family dynamics at work here seem true to life regardless of your ethnicity, though.

8. Where’d You Go Bernadette?

Bernadette is depressed, by what we don’t know until the end, although being a strikingly original person doesn’t help.  Fortunately she’s married to a Google big shot, who’s sensitive and supportive as well as rich. Cate Blanchette is great, as usual, as a famous architect who’s dropped out of her career and needs to recover her passion.  A surprisingly thrilling ending.

9. The Two Popes

You wouldn’t think a movie that boils down to a long conversation between two celibate septuagenarians would be so fascinating, but there you have it. Popes Benedict and Francis debate theology, guilt, humanity, and leadership in some of the most beautiful Roman locations I’ve ever seen.  Alas, most of it is made up but it’s still really thought-provoking. (Although I have to be honest, when I saw this in the movie theatre, there was only one other person that my wife and I and she left half-way through.)

10. Bombshell

Who ever thought that in this ideological landscape there’d be a movie in which Megyn Fox was the hero?  An acerbic look at what it it must have been like to work at Fox News.  It’s funny but also smart about the compromises that people (not just women) will make to get ahead.

11. Richard Jewell

This is Clint Eastwood’s taut, well-told story about the attempted framing by the FBI of the security guard who discovered and warned authorities to the bomb that would eventually explode at the 1996 Olympics, thereby saving numerous lives.  It’s funny that out of all the true-life stories depicted in the movies this year, many of which depart significantly from the facts, this is the one that the media are claiming foul over because they don’t like the way the portrayal of the reporter who first smeared Richard Jewell.

12. Little Women

Great adaptation by Greta Gerwig of the Louisa May Alcott novel.  I’d be more than happy if Saoirse Ronan won best actress Oscar this year.  My only hesitation with this film is that the timeframe flips back and forth so much that it’s hard to tell what period we’re in. I pity any husband or boyfriend dragged to this who hasn’t read the book and can’t figure out what the heck is going on.

13. American Factory

Fascinating documentary about a Chinese glass-making company trying to re-open a plant in Ohio.  This is told from the perspective of both the Chinese management and American workers and the film-makers don;t really take sides on who is right.  You learn a lot about the difference between the U.S. and China but also about manufacturing itself.

14. Knives Out

A fun whodunnit that would make Agatha Christie proud.   This is something that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would LOVE if they actually had a sense of humor.  The One Percent are HORRIBLE.

15. Ad Astra

Brad Pitt is an astronaut with daddy issues — a space cowboy who bends or outright breaks the rules in order to save earth.  Good action sequences.

16. Ford v Ferrari

Now that Daniel-Day Lewis has retired Christian Bale is the most actorly Hollywood movie star, really inhabiting each new role.  Here he’s a wild man auto racer hire by semi-wild man Matt Damon to win the LeMans car race for Henry Ford II.  The car races are fine but the moral dilemma posed by the need to compromise within bureaucratic institutions is the most interesting part of the movie.

17. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Someone else has daddy issues — the Esquire reporter hired to interview Mr. Rogers.  Tom Hanks is perfect as the man in the red cardigan sweater.  The movie tried to pull at the heart strings but doesn’t succeed as completely as the Mr. Rogers documentary that came out last year, but still, this is very sweet and worth seeing.

18. The Downton Abbey Movie

Not really a movie — more two episodes of the TV series smooshed together and inflated for the big screen.  As usual, the plots are preposterous, although not as lame as the story in the TV show about Mr. Bates being a murder suspect.  The production values are taken up a notch, though, with all that Hollywood funding, so it’s visually luscious.  Just go and turn your brain off.

19. Rocketman

This is a more ambitious and thoughtful bio-pic than “Bohemian Rhapsody” but not as much fun.  (They’re both about closeted British rock superstars who burn the candle at both ends.)  Maybe it’s just that Elton John songs don’t translate as well to the Big Screen at Queen’s?

20. Booksmart

This was supposed to be the girl’s version of “Superbad,” but it lacks the courage of its tasteless and hilarious precursor.  The premise is that two nose-to-the-grindstone high school seniors try to have a blast on their last night of high school.  It’s funny but not a riot and the plot elements are a little absurd.

21. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

A great documentary about Linda Ronstadt.  I was never a big fan, although I don’t know why not, now having seen how remarkable her career was and finally appreciating her voice.

22. Late Night

Mindy Kaling, who also wrote this somewhat acerbic depiction of late night television, plays the first female staff writer for a talk show starring a burned out Emma Thompson, who shows little solidarity with her own gender.  Very witty and knowing about TV writers’ rooms, but it never quite takes off.  And like “Booksmart” (see above) it’s burdened with a convoluted and pretty implausible plot.

23. Yesterday

Perhaps my expectations for this were too high but this was a bit of a letdown.  It’s perfectly enjoyable — what movie about Beatles songs wouldn’t be? — but even within the internal logic of the film, it doesn’t quite add up.  “Yesterday” posits an alternative universe in which there are no Beatles, aside from one man who remembers them from his original world.  And yet in the new world everything is the same, which doesn’t make sense because the Beatles literally changed modern culture.  Definitely worth seeing but keep your expectations in check.

24. Toy Story 4

After the highly emotional and tear-jerking conclusion of Toy Story 3, no one needed another sequel.  This is fine as a standalone movie but somehow the antic thrills and near escapes don’t have the same emotional resonance as they once did.

25. My Name is Dolemite

Saw it on Netflix instead of the theater and maybe I would have been more captivated if I had seen it on the big screen.  It’s a remarkable story about a dreamer and self-believer who somehow makes a hit comedy record and then a series of cheesy movies that appeal to Black audiences.  A classic American story, in fact.  It’s nice to see Eddie Murphy back too.,

26. El Camino

A sequel to “Breaking Bad” that picks up five minutes after the end of the TV series.  Although released as a movie, this is a lot like “Downton Abbey” in that it’s really a two-hour TV episode masquerading as a feature film.  It’s very well-done but if you are not extremely well-versed in the “Breaking Bad” universe or don’t have a photographic memory of a show that ended six years ago, it can be tough to pick up the nuances.

27. Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love

A documentary about Leonard Cohen and the beautiful woman who was his “muse” and girlfriend when he transformed from a impecunious novelist living on a romantic Greek island to a world famous rock star.  He moved on, she didn’t really.  Leonard comes across as the classic self-absorbed jerk artist that everyone forgives because he’s so darned sexy and talented.  This movie did make me want to move to a Greek island, though.

28. Hustlers

My expectations were a bit too high for this and I ended up being bored.  I was amazed at what great shape Jennifer Lopez is in and I appreciated that the film doesn’t try to make gender or class heroes of these women, who first drug, then steal from guys they pick up at a strip club.  Still, it’s hard to sympathize with anyone in the movie, which implies that everyone is always hustling everyone else.

29. Shazam

Cute. I always enjoy a boy-trapped-in-a-man’s-body movie.  But I forgot almost everything about it an hour after I left the theater.  The only comic book movie I saw this year.

30. Amazing Grace

This is ranked last but it’s not a bad movie.  Back in 1972, Sydney Pollock filmed Aretha Franklin performing at a Baptist church in Los Angeles, but for various technical and legal reasons it wasn’t released until after she died.  Aretha’s great, of course, but I did feel like I was watching somebody’s home movie.

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Princess Margaret and a corn pone LBJ 

“The Crown” is almost a perfect Netflix show.  It’s beautiful to watch, eminently streamable, smart enough not to insult your intelligence, but not so smart that you can’t figure out what’s going on.

It’s sometimes compared to “Downtown Abbey,” and while they do both come out of the same genre of aristo-porn and purport to dramatize a transitional era in British history, they are quite different shows.  “The Crown” is a serious show that takes its viewers seriously and “Downton Abbey” thinks its audiences are too stupid to figure anything out on their own, spelling out every theme and plot point at least three times.

As much as I like “The Crown,” though, I am uneasy by how the show depicts America and Americans.  This is the one area where “Downton Abbey” (and I can’t believe I’m making this concession) has a more nuanced view of the New World.  In “Downton,” Cora Crawley’s mother and uncle, played by Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti, are vulgar, but they are also full of energy, forward-looking and optimistic.  The show is also frank about the possibility of upward mobility in the States.

Considering the huge audience that “The Crown” has in America, it’s surprising then that the show seems to go out of its way to take shots at our country.

The most egregious example is in the eighth episode of season 2 (“Dear Mr. President”), when President Kennedy is depicted as being physically and emotionally abusive to Jackie as well as an overall jerk.  The moral of the episode is that old admonition not to be jealous of other people because you don’t know what their lives are really like.  The show posits that Queen Elizabeth is so envious of the hugely popular American First Lady that she goes on a world tour to show off her own monarchical charisma, only to find out that Jackie is downright miserable and hopped up on pills because her husband is a miserable cheating dog.  I’m sure JFK was a serial cheater but abusive?  Only in an anti-American fever dream.

“The Crown” gets a little closer to the truth with JFK’s successor President Johnson, who this season is depicted as a coarse, corn pone, vain Foghorn Leghorn type with a grudge against Great Britain because of Vietnam.  All true, but it’s highly improbable that Princess Margaret was able to change his mind about financially bailing out the British by reciting a few dirty limericks.  It’s even less likely that LBJ would publicly trash JFK at a state dinner regardless of how he felt about him privately.  But it suits British vanity to think that a princess with no diplomatic training can twist an American president around her finger with a few compliments and lewd jokes.

The incident that made me really bristle, though, occurs in episode seven of season three (“Moondust”), when Prince Philip is smitten the heroic Apollo 11 astronauts who landed on the moon and wants to meet privately with them to learn what insights they gained from standing foot on a celestial body.  He’s dismayed to learn that they think like engineers, not poets, and are not prepared to dole out any profundities. He later complains to the Queen that they were “banal.”  Neil Armstrong banal?  Buzz Aldrin acting like a hayseed tourist in Buckingham Palace?  I think not.  I seriously doubt that the astronauts, products of a seriously religious society, were unaware of the spiritual aspects of their journey.  After all it was Frank Borman and the other crew members of Apollo 8 who delivered one of the most profound messages ever seen on TV when on Christmas Day, 1968, they read the opening verses of Genesis as they orbited the moon.

To be fair, not every American on “The Crown” is a yokel.  Prince Charles approvingly quotes Saul Bellow, and the Queen is so taken with the preaching of Billy Graham that she invites him over for a chat.  But on the whole, Americans act very déclassé and not quite worthy to wipe their feet on the palace rug.

“The Crown” is not the first British cultural product to look down its nose at America.  Particularly egregious is “Love Actually,” which regrettably raises its preposterous head every Christmas.  This movie, which purports to depict the various permutations of love, features an outlandish U.S. president played by a reptilian Billy Bob Thornton, who makes a pass at Prime Minister Hugh Grant’s assistant and is a hegemonic bully to boot.  To make matters worse, one “Love Actually” character, who’s essentially a British incel, goes to a college town in Wisconsin, where the American women are silly, beautiful and loose.

It is perhaps natural that the British, who once ruled over a quarter of the globe, would resent their diminishment as a world power and the ascension of the United States as a superpower.  And the show can’t help but project a Rule Britannia vibe in the early seasons even though UK has disposed of most of its colonies by the time Elizabeth ascended to the throne.  Not until the very end of Season Three, when a coal miners strike periodically shuts off the nation’s electricity, does it become apparent that the British economy is on the rocks.  The very sumptuousness of the production — the gorgeous palaces, estates, and dinners — make it seem like the Queen still governs over an empire instead of a small bankrupt island.

What’s strangely missing from “The Crown” is an understanding that even as England lost its economic and political power, it started really punching above its weight culturally, especially in the area of popular music, design, film, and fashion.  The British Invasion influenced generations of Americans and yet you never hear the Queen gratefully utter the words “John, Paul, Ringo George.”

The real problem with these potshots at America is that when an American sees how wrongly depicted our presidents and astronauts are, he begins to wonder about the accuracy of the British characters too.  Did Lord Mountbatten really act like a slightly more benign Tywyn Lannister?  And was Princess Margaret really an alcoholicly sexed up Bellatrix Lestrange?  I completely buy Olivia Coleman’s uncanny portrayal of the Queen but I wonder if she was really so cold to her oldest son.

Not that any of this would keep me away from the next three seasons.  Like most other viewers, I watch with one eye on the screen and one on Wikipedia to see if that seemingly astonishing plot twist really did occur.  Did Prince Charles’ sister sleep with his second wife’s first husband?  Apparently so.  Who needs to make things up when the truth is so weird.  That should go for “The Crown” depicts America too.

 

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America loves its anniversaries, even literary America.  And yet there has been no discussion about the upcoming 70th anniversary of what is arguably the most important lost weekend in post-War American literature. 

I’m speaking of the “The Catcher in the Rye,” the novel by J.D. Salinger that has enthralled generations of disaffected young men since the 1950s and inspired at least two assassination attempts (on Ronald Reagan and John Lennon).

The story depicts 72 hours in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown after being expelled from his boarding school. Not wanting to face the music with his parents, Holden spends a long weekend wandering around New York City while musing on the “phoniness” of society.  

Although Salinger’s theme of teen alienation is nearly universal, the novel is unusually particular and specific about its time and setting.  In this respect it is similar to the peripatetic adventures of another lost soul: Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Like Bloom’s Dublin, Holden’s Manhattan is a very real place and his journey is easy to retrace even seventy years later.  And just as the action in Ulysses can be identified as a specific date (June 16, 1904, otherwise known as “Bloomsday,”) so too can Holden’s weekend be traced to a precise moment in time: December 17-19, 1949.

All it takes to establish that date is a quick Google search. According to the novel, Holden and his erstwhile girlfriend Sally Hayes go to see a Broadway show featuring “the Lunts,” (i.e., the actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne).  This must have been the now-forgotten “I Know My Love,” which ran on Broadway from November 2, 1949 to June 3, 1950. This narrows Holden’s weekend to December, 1949. A quick look at the calendar for that year shows that Friday, December 17 is almost certainly the night Holden leaves his prep school, Pencey, given that the previous Friday (the 9th) would have been too soon for the semester to be over.

“A Catcher In the Rye” is hardly the universal touchstone today that it was for knowing teenagers in the decades following its publication, but it still sells a quarter-million copies a year and every time I read it, my heart bleeds again for Holden and the sensitive boy that I, too, once was.  

The first time I opened those pages I was in the eighth grade and younger than Holden. Now I’m older even than Holden’s father, for God’s sakes, so my perspective has changed considerably.  I see now, for example, that no book, TV show, or movie did more to convince me that New York City was the most thrilling and exciting place in the world.  But I also realize that as a young teen I didn’t fully appreciate the sadness behind Holden’s weekend of night clubs, highballs, cab rides and cultural touchstones.  Instead, the novel made me yearn for the sophistication of a metropolis that was at the height of its power just a handful of years after World War II. And not only was Salinger’s New York glamorous, it was safe; Holden walks the empty streets and roams Central Park in the middle of the night without worrying about getting robbed, stabbed, or worse.

To a 21st Century consumer, what’s most striking about the New York of 1949 was how affordable it was.  Consider what Holden does with the birthday money from his grandmother. He stays at a midtown hotel, visits and buys drinks at three different nightclubs, buys two tickets to a Broadway show, sees the Rockettes perform at Radio City Music Hall, skates at Rockefeller Center, pays for a prostitute (granted, it’s only a “throw,” but still), makes a nostalgic return to the Museum of Natural History, and takes five or six cabs.  Today a weekend like that at Christmas would cost well over a thousand bucks.   

But if the New York City of “Catcher in the Rye” is a distant memory, its portrait of teen angst is more relevant than ever.   A common theme of 21st Century pop psychology is the loneliness of our youth in a social media-dominated world. And yet, even before Instagram and TikTok, Holden was deeply alone, an outsider longingly peering in at a society where everyone else seemed to be enjoying himself, no matter how superficially.  Out for drinks with his former dorm adviser, he admits “I’m lonesome as hell.” He invites his various cab drivers out for drinks, tries to get some little kids to socialize over hot chocolate, donates money to two nuns he meets at a coffee shop, and pays for the drinks of the three female tourists from Seattle. None of this addresses his alienation.

“Bloomsday” is celebrated each June 16, with marathon readings, pub crawls and other festivities.  We could do the same with Holden’s Weekend. For one thing, “Catcher” is a lot more accessible than “Ulysses” and would lend itself better to public readings.  And many of the locations mentioned in the novel are still standing, which would make for authentic Holden walks. But most important, now, more than ever, we need someone like Holden to take down the “phonies” and advance a discussion on how to make deeper human connections.

Downton King and queen

The thing to know about the new “Downton Abbey” movie is that if you liked the TV show you’ll like the movie twice as much because it’s twice as long as a regular episode.  Because make no mistake, this is a TV show that just happens to be projected on the screen.  Film purists would gag if they ever saw something like this referred to as “cinema.”

Not that it isn’t fun to see the thing in a movie theater full of fans.  The Dowager Countess’ quips go over so well with an audience predisposed to love them that the laughter persists so long you can’t hear the follow-up dialogue.  Overall, it’s a delightful experience.  It’s like drinking a fine white zinfandel on a warm summer afternoon.  On ice.  And with a couple of squirts of seltzer water.  It just takes the edge off reality without diving too deep.

The first clue that this is not what cinema snobs would call a real movie comes at the very beginning.  Instead of opening credits, we have a ten-minute “previously on” catch up reel, in which the actors playing Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, appearing as their thespian selves (Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan) provide a brief recap of the six seasons of the show, complete with clips. Can you imagine Mark Hamill and Carrie Fischer doing that at the beginning of “The Return of the Jedi”?  Inconceivable!  This intro is clearly aimed at spouses and others being dragged to the movie, who need to be introduced to the twenty main characters; “Downton” auteur Julian Fellowes don’t want to strain the mental capacity of any viewer who might not immediately grasp who Tom Branson or Isabelle Crawley are.

All credit to Lord Fellowes for recognizing that the series evolved into a high-end, but silly soap opera over the years. This opening recap makes many wry nods to some of the most preposterous plot twists over the years, making it clear we’re all in on the joke.  But nothing in this recap is as funny as the moment when a glimpse of reckless driver and one-time heir Matthew Crawley first appears on screen and there’s an audible sigh of appreciation from the ladies in the audience.

As for the movie itself, the plot revolves around the upcoming visit of the King and Queen, who are taking a tour of the north country and want to use Downton as an AirBnB for one night.  This would be King George V and Queen Mary (the grandparents of the current monarch).  Now, if you’ve ever seen any movies or TV shows about British royalty, you’ll know that these two (especially her) are usually portrayed as formidable, scary, and humorless, but in the “Downtown” film they are basically good sorts who happen to be stuck in a tough but necessary job.

To the extent there’s a theme in the movie, it’s that the rich and titled have a rough life too so we should get off their backs.  Poor Lady Edith, now a marchioness, has to serve on a lot of committees that bore her, and Lady Mary is stressed about keeping the roof repaired.  But that’s nothing next to burden of the king’s daughter, Princess Mary, who is stuck in a loveless marriage that she cannot escape because of the call of duty.  But in case anyone is too dim to understand the benefits of a landed aristocracy,  it’s a servant (!!), Lady Mary’s maid, the sainted Anna, who explains it to her:  Downton is the glue that holds the county together by providing jobs, continuity and a way of life that might otherwise disappear without the Crawleys.  So Mary agrees to suck it up and continue to live her privileged existence.  (Phew, that was close.)

Like many Downton episodes, the movie seesaws between the immensely consequential (i.e., will an assassination attempt be thwarted?) and utterly inconsequential, such as who will cook for and serve Their Majesties, which is barely one level above the Denker-Spratt feud.  And both are treated with the same amount of gravitas.

Part of the problem is that “Downton Abbey” is positioned as an Upstairs/Downstairs-type drama, where the lives of both the staff and the toffs are given equal weight.  But Lord Fellowes’ heart is not really with the downstairs staff.  Their lives could not seem less interesting or important.  Many downstairs characters, like Mr. Bates and Mrs. Baxter, have nothing to do except serve as wallpaper. And the actual plots: Andy the footman is jealous because his fiancee is ogling a handsome boiler repair man; someone is pilfering nick nacks; Barrow gets his nose out of joint because Carson comes back to manage the Royal Visit; the royal staff is overbearing.  Wow, whose fertile imagination dreamed up all these fascinating stories?

Another sign that the deck is stacked in favor of the aristocracy is the character of the anti-Monarchists.  One’s an assassin, another is a thieving servant, and then there’s the nitwit Daisy, whose class consciousness is so jumbled that says she will cook for the aristocrats but declares she won’t cook for their servants.  Way to show solidarity!  In fact, the bitterest battles are between the Downton and Royal servants, who squabble among themselves over who gets the honor of changing the royal bed linen. (And as the New York Times noted in its review, the Downton servants are so committed to their betters that they fight bitterly to deny themselves a well-earned day off when the royal staff arrive.

And returning  to the King and Queen for a moment, they have a remarkable common touch that is completely a-historical.  He worries about his son, the Prince of Wales (as well he should, given that said prince will eventually marry Mrs. Simpson and abdicate).  She worries about her daughter in her loveless marriage.  They show remarkable sensitivity to the needs of Edith and her husband. They seem to know all the personal gossip about the peers of the realm. And at the ball, the King even walks up to Tom Branson to thank him for his services to the crown, which seems highly irregular.  I’m pretty sure that when His Majesty wants to talk to a commoner at a public event he gets a flunky to fetch him and doesn’t just go striding over to chat him up.

Anyway, there’s a lot more of this nonsense during the two-hour run time.  If you like nostalgia, the British nobility, soap operas, and beautiful clothes, this movie is for you.  And to make an industry-wide observation, what’s interesting about this situation is that turning a TV show into a movie is the antithesis of the Netflixication of entertainment, in which everything except blockbusters is aimed at home entertainment.  This is a film event to get fans off their couches to congregate in front of a big screen like they’ve been doing for over a hundred years.  Whether this will start a trend is unclear.  There’s a subtle hint, though, that this might be the beginning of a “Downton” series.  I assume all that will depend on the box office.  So if you want to see more “Downton” movies, be sure to turn out.

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Stray Thoughts:

To be fair, there is one personally significant story thread involving a servant — Thomas’ first experience at a gay hang-out — but even that has an air of unbelievability.  On the very night the King and Queen visit, Thomas takes off with a member of the King’s staff (who has remarkable gaydar — he recognizes Thomas as a kindred spirit with one glance).  Thomas is surprised to learn that there is not only a gay bar in Downton (or was it York?  Not clear) but an underground gay nightclub too. Not that anyone ever uses the words “gay,” “homosexual,” or “queer.” Thomas’ euphemism is “men like me.”  I think we’re supposed to assume that Thomas and the staffer have sex but it’s only gently implied with the decorum of 1940’s Hollywood censor.  As is the case in many “Downton” plots, Lord Fellowes wants to have his cake and eat it too:  he introduces a contemporary theme to get the credit for being woke but hides it under layers of gauze to avoid offending the older, sensitive members of the audience who didn’t sign up for, you know, actual man-on-man action beyond one chaste kiss, which seems to be the sole reason for the film’s PG rating.

I have a feeling that Julian Fellowes believes that if they showed what life was really like back then, modern audiences would be repelled.  For example, I find it very hard to believe that the dinner with the King and Queen would be as informal as presented here.  There are only three footmen serving the dinner and everyone looks pretty relaxed and convivial.  Compare that to a regular family dinner from the original “Brideshead Revisited,” which was made only 40 years after the period in question and is much more likely to be historically accurate (see video below, starting at 0:50). For half as many guests the “brideshead” family has twice as many footmen and the whole atmosphere is stiff and formal.  No sane person would want to live like that today, yet that’s how the upper classes conducted themselves less than a century ago.

I know we’re supposed to be sympathetic to Tom Branson, but boy, is he a guy who keeps failing upward.  He’s a crypto-socialist who enjoys the fruits of his in-law’s largesse, despite having no apparent occupation (and whatever happened to his auto partnership with Henry Talbot?)  He abandoned his wife in Ireland when the Irish police were after him; he allowed himself to get seduced by an avaricious maid, creating a blackmail scheme that Mrs. Hughes had to extract him from.  And yet somehow he manages to sniff out an heiress before anyone else does and it looks like he’ll soon have his own unearned fortune to complain about if the final scenes are any indication.

Why is Matthew Goode even in this movie?  His Henry Talbot shows up for the very last scenes, having raced back from the USA to attend the King’s visit.  I can only assume that Goode was filming another movie and could only be spared for a day’s worth of shooting.

There was one nice subtle touch about the relationship between the peers and the monarchy: Lord Grantham is unimpressed by the news that the King is coming for a visit.  “Oh him?” his shrug implies.  The villagers are losing they minds but Robert Crawley probably remembers when George V was just one of Queen Victoria’s prat grandsons.

“Downtown” usually likes to spoon feed the plotlines but I was completely confused about Lady Maud Bagshaw, who is apparently both the Queen’s BFF and the Dowager Countess’s cousin.  I think I figured it out in the end but it was only after piecing together several elliptical and muffled lines of dialogue.

Speaking of Lady Bagshaw, she is played by Imelda Staunton, who is the wife of the actor who plays Mr. Carson — the aforementioned Jim Carter (see below).  She’s also better known as Delores Umbridge in the “Harry Potter” movies.

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Julian Fellowes, who likes to sprinkle some historical references into his stories, is a little stingy with the broader historical context.  Except for the presence of cars, you get the impression that the movie could be set anytime between 1870 and 1930.   But there is one line to date it: the King asks the Dowager Countess about the region’s reaction to the recent general strike.    This happened in 1926, when the coal miners went on strike and much of the rest of the country also refused to work in sympathy with them.  The Dowager Countess’s response is classic — all she knows is that her maid was “curt” for few days — demonstrating once again how out of it she is.

— Completely preposterous?  The idea that Tom Branson could stumble across the King’s daughter, the Princess Mary, on a bench and not recognize her.  Then, as now, and even without social media, the Royal Family were the biggest celebrities in the realm.

And don’t forget — Machiavelli is frequently underrated!

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Yesterday,” the fantasy movie that imagines a world in which only one person remembers the Beatles music, goes into wide release today and I can’t wait.  No matter how lame the film itself turns out to be, any movie with a lot of Beatles songs can’t be half-bad.  The Beatles themselves only made four or five movies (depending on how you count “Yellow Submarine”) and two of them — “Help” and “Magical Mystery Tour” are just not good.  Still the boys from Liverpool have inspired a whole sub-genre of films, of which the following ten are my favorites:

1.  A Hard Day’s Night

The first and still the best.  I saw it when it first came out in 1964 thought it was a romp but as I’ve rewatched it over the years I’ve come to believe it’s the best rock and roll movie ever made; which is remarkable because this was just supposed to be a cheap exploitation movie.  The Beatles themselves are witty and exuberant, still enjoying their monstrous fame.  But you begin to see how closed-in and claustrophobic their lives have become, crammed onto trains, cars, dressing rooms, and narrow halls.  Then suddenly, when they’ve had enough, they burst out, race down a fire escape, and run wild to “Can’t Buy Me Love.”  An exhilarating scene.

2,  Concert for George

It’s a mystery that George, the third-ranking Beatle, should have been the one with the best post-Beatle career and turned out by far to have been the “deepest” one of the whole group.  He explored the harder questions of life with eyes wide open and had a remarkable capacity for friendship.  When he died too early at age 58, his friends (and what a group of friends: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar, and Monty Python) celebrated his life with a concert that still moves me every time I watch it, especially any number in which his look-alike son Dhani participates.

3.  Across the Universe

This is a movie that shouldn’t work, but somehow does solely through the power of the Beatles music.  The film purports to depict the culture’s transformation of the Sixties, including the flower power movement, the Vietnam War, urban riots, elite campus privilege, Weathermen-style violence.  The main characters all take their names from Beatles songs — Jude, Prudence, Jo-Jo, Max, Sadie and Lucy — and the full Beatles catalog gets a good work-out.  It’s all a little mind-blowing.

4. How the Beatles Changed the World

The world broke in two in 1964 — there were people who came to maturity before the Beatles and those who came after them, and their sensibilities could not have been more different.  This is a fairly recent documentary about how the Beatles influenced youth culture and created the way we look, talk, dress, think, and act today.

5.  George Harrison: Living in the Material World

A Martin Scorcese documentary that is a good companion piece to “The Concert for George.”   Given George’s wide range of artistic and spiritual interests it’s not surprising that he inspires the most thoughtful commentary.

6.  Backbeat

The teenage Beatles transformed themselves into an electrifying rock and roll band when they went off to play the seedy clubs in Hamburg.  This is that story, framed through the lens of a love triage among John Lennon, the fifth Beatle Stu Sutcliffe, and Stu’s German girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr. No classic Beatles songs, just the rock and roll covers they performed during this time.

7.  Yellow Submarine

A trippy cartoon feature once experienced most fully by stoned teens is now marketed as a multi-generational family movie.  This is best seen in the theaters or on a big-screen TV because the animation is dazzling.

8.  Nowhere Boy

A dramatization of John Lennon’s teen years, particularly his fraught relationship with the mother who abandoned him and the aunt who raised him.  The sub-plot is the creation of the Beatles themselves, including the famous meeting with Paul and the recruiting of George.

9.  John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky

When John and Yoko sat down to record the “Imagine” album they brought along a camera crew to document their every move.  This narcissistic strategy resulted in a surprisingly compelling window into early Seventies life.  There they are, smoking constantly, lying around their pig-sty bedroom, or eating greasy food at the communal breakfast table.  But it’s undeniably fascinating to watch the songs on this album evolve over the course of the recording session.

10.  Let It Be

This documentary about the making of the “Let It Be” album is a little hard to follow given the lack of a narrator.  It’s also painful to watch how far apart these four former mates have grown.  They barely speak to each other except when they can’t avoid it.  And the constant presence of Yoko in the recording study casts a giant pall over the whole enterprise. But the movie is redeemed by the great ending, when they play together live for one last time on the roof of their recording studio in the middle of London.

 

 

Little League

In Small Town USA, Little League opening day is always a major celebration with parades, ceremonies and speeches.  When my son was growing up a highlight was always the benediction by the minister of my church — Rev. Ron Evans.  I recently had the chance to ask Ron for a copy of the prayer and because it’s one of the loveliest things I’ve read about baseball, and even though Little League season is over, I thought I would share it now.

The Little League Prayer:

Almighty God, who made the earth in the shape of a ball so any and all might take joy in the playing of games, with great joy do we give thee praise and cheers for all this and for the reason we gather on this sacred space today.

We ask Thy blessing on this sweet season of Spring and Summer sport.

Grateful are we for this grand celebration day, and all the days of games ahead on these fair fields and everywhere.

Thankful are we not only for these splendid facilities and special fields of dreams made into realities by the All Star efforts of so many to make this season possible for us; and we thank thee too for all who have worked to make our play not merely possible, but such a joy:

  •  Committees, Town Officers, Sponsors, Keepers of the grounds,
  • Parents and Grandparents, Coaches, Refreshment Stand helpers,
  • Loyal spectators and supporters, and, ye Lord, all Clear-Visioned Umpires too!

We ask Thy blessing on all of these, that what we do for fun may aid the wholesome growth of all, and that it contribute only in the highest aims of sport, that will make only good sports of us all too.

So, may every game this season be well played; every pitch a strike; every swing a solid hit; every catch and tag an out.

Just as every player here is always an All-Star in Thy loving and sleepless sight.

And after this, and every inning, round at bat, and rounding of the bases, O God, see each of us safely home to our friends and families now, and eventually in thee.

So to this let us all gratefully add, AMEN and PLAY BALL…

 

The Reverend Doctor Ronald T. Evans, Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Darien, UCC

End of thre line

It’s been more than a week since the end of Game of Thrones, Part I, and I’m still a little adrift at the departure of characters I’d come to think of as family.   It’s a testament to George R.R. Martin and HBO, who created such a vivid world that a hole opened in our lives when it was all done.

Game of Thrones has been such a rich all-encompassing experience that I couldn’t say everything that was on my mind in my weekly recaps, which were written in a frenzy the morning after each viewing.  And even with a week’s perspective, I’m not going to attempt the definitive, thumb-sucking, what-did-it-all-mean piece, many of which are available by more talented critics than I at your favorite cultural websites.

I have a more limited ambition with this final wrap-up: to make a few extraneous observations that I never managed to squeeze into my recaps:

The End of the Monoculture?

There’s been quite a bit of commentary that Sunday, May 20 might have been the last time that our nation came together to watch and comment in real time on a television show (more on that in the next point).  In other words, R.I.P. to the video monoculture that began when Lucy Ricardo gave birth to Little Ricky on the old “I Love Lucy Show,”  which was the first time television demonstrated its ability to command the attention of the entire population through a mere entertainment program.  I can’t say it will never happen again, but I do thank HBO for holding the line against binging, which has done so much to fracture any hope of cultural unity.  No Netflix show will every be able to accomplish what Game of Thrones has done because the week-to-week roll-out of a series builds a national conversation by giving podcasters, recappers, Reditters, and regular viewers a chance to spend seven days thinking about, analyzing, and arguing over what they’ve just seen.   If this is the end of that 65-year run of television-driven water cooler camaraderie, I’ll miss it.

“The Big Bang Theory” Fans Just Got Screwed

Having just made a point about a monoculture moment, I’m going to contradict myself, though, and note that the idea that “Game of Thrones” generated a national conversation that classic series like “Dallas,” “Cheers,” or “Seinfeld” did is a conceit of the elite media.  Over the past week I have been in many meetings or eaten many meals with people who have never watched a single episode.  In fact, Game of Thrones didn’t even dominate the television set this very week!  The series finale of “The Big Bang Theory” and GoT both drew about 19 million viewers.  By the time all the streaming and DVR viewing is recorded, GoT might pull ahead, but “Big Bang Theory” fans are entitled to ask, “What about us is the national discourse?  Don’t we count?”

The relative invisibility of the “Big Bang Theory” in the national discourse is a good example of why our culture is so at war with itself.  Based on absolutely no data at all, I would wager that the audience for GoT voted overwhelmingly for Clinton while “Big Band Theory” fans voted for Trump.    The blindness or even outright hostility of East Coast media companies, (i.e, the late nigh talk shows and the major opinion journals like The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, etc.) to the tastes of Middle America has never been more apparent than in the disproportionate attention given to a show that, at best, is viewed by ten percent of the population.  No wonder the press keeps getting surprised whenever there’s an election.

Also Screwed?  Book Readers.

Thank God I never read any of these books because I’d be the kind of fan who is constantly complaining about the inconsistency between the written work and the TV show.  But if the plot deviations are bad enough, what’s even worse for a book reader is that deep knowledge of GoT lore did not help in figuring out what was going on.  This was particularly true of the prophecies.  In the end, was there actually a prince who was promised?  What about the Valanqar prophecy predicting Cersei’s demise? And what about all the effort that book readers put into explaining the Golden Company for the rest of us?  Useless. In the end, the showrunners didn’t try to reconcile the prophesies or reward the story’s most loyal fans because they were too busy throwing unearned plot twists at the screen.

There’s Something Rotten About the Bran Betting

bran.2

Why anyone would ever bet on the outcome of a television show is beyond me.  Before the season started I remember looking at the odds for who would become ruler of Westerous and seeing that Bran was the favorite.  Of course my attitude to that was “Huh, that’s crazy,” and yet as the season progressed, even as the idea of Bran becoming King became even MORE preposterous, the odds rose.  Obviously the outcome leaked somewhere, and why not?  There must have been hundreds of people who knew the outcome and all the NDAs in the world couldn’t have prevented some cheating among the gamblers.

The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings Precedent

I think we can all agree that the ending of the series landed with a thud and the overwhelming excuse given by the show’s apologists has been, well, it’s really hard to bring a TV show to a satisfying end.  Need we remind you that the very tagline for HBO is “It’s not television.  Its HBO” or that plenty of TV shows had satisfying endings.

And while it might not be fair to compare Game of Thrones to Breaking Bad, I think it is fair to compare it to Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, two other fantasy masterpieces based on beloved books.  To say, “Hold on, HP and LOTR were adapted into movies while GOT became a TV show,” is not valid ; if anything it’s damning that the showrunners had so much more time to tell the story and still ran out of time.  The obvious difference is that they were adapting a book series that wasn’t completed, while the producers of the Happy Potter and LOTR movies had the authors’ complete story to work from. Part of the problem is undoubtedly a lack of storytelling skills.  Part is also a lack of nerve on their part — by rights, Brienne and Jaime should have died at the battle of Winterfell but the showrunners either didn’t want to disappoint their fans by killing them or wanted to provide fan service by giving them an unneeded romance, which chewed up precious time.  And also, frankly, I think the showrunners just misjudged what the fans wanted — no one really asked for “the most epic battle of all time” if that meant giving up a coherent ending.

Sansa’s the Big Winner of Game of Thrones

To be honest, I turned a little anti-Sansa this season, but I have to admit she played the game better than anyone.  Way back in season one she was a callow star-struck teeny bopper who wanted nothing more than to be a great lady.  And now she’s more than that — she’s actually Queen of the North.  Credit to her for surviving rape, manipulation and emotional torture at the hands of the four most malign people in Westeros (Cersei, Joffrey, Ramsay Bolton and Littlefinger) and coming out on top.

Nevertheless, I still hold her partially responsible for driving Dany insane.  First she gave her the cold shoulder at Winterfell even though Dany, her armies and her dragons were only there to defend Winterfell against the army of the dead.  This increased Dany’s feeling of being unloved, but that was nothing compared to breaking her promise to Jon not to tell anyone about his parentage.  That led directly to Varys committing treason, which was just about the final straw making her insane.  So yes, Sansa was right to be skeptical about Dany, but it’s not really fair to say, “see I told you I was right,” when she was the one who pushed her over the edge.

Meanwhile her monomaniacal insistence on independence for the North is a dagger to the heart of Bran’s kingdom.  Instead of being a stabilizing force, the North has set a precedent for succession and a future of rebellion.  What’s to keep Dorne or the Iron Islands from insisting on their own independence?  Thanks a lot Sansa.

Closed Captioning is Your Friend

By the end of the season my wife and I were watching the show on HBO Go, so we could use the closed captioning. The accents weren’t the easiest to follow and the sound editing was frequently muddied (which is kind of crazy for a show of this quality).  I was worried this would make me seem old (to myself at least) but in the end, I was like, screw it – it’s more important to understand what’s happening.

Small Council Absurdity

small council

The most ridiculous scene in the whole Game of Thrones series was the Big Council meeting at which Bran was elected King.  Almost every line of dialogue could be torn apart for its absurdity within the logic of the show.

Given that it would take way too much time to dissect the Big Council meeting let’s take a look at the Small Council meeting as an example of how fan service warped the showrunners’ judgement at the end.  Regrettably, this is the final time that any characters interact with each other and it leaves a sour taste to go out on (fortunately it’s followed by a six minute wordless montage of the Stark children — Jon, Arya and Sansa — walking into their new futures, which is a lot more satisfying.)

The first clue that this is fan service is the composition of the Council itself.  By rights, given their experience, none of them besides Davos should even be there, but the showrunners apparently feel they must give us one more attempt at semi-humorous banter among our favorite characters — and make no mistake, everyone at the table has a devoted fan base.  Otherwise how to explain Bronn as Master of Coin?  If this guy can even do simple arithmetic I’d be surprised, and now he’s going to negotiating with the Iron Bank over Cersei’s debt?  The absurdity is further magnified by the fact that Bronn, as Lord of Highgarden, was not even at the Big Council meeting. No, his appearance was withheld as a final gift to the viewers at the last minute.

Almost as confounding was Sam’s appointment as Grand Maester.  When he left Winterfell he wasn’t even close to being a Maester but suddenly he has vaulted over all the other Maesters to be Numero Uno?  And unless they’ve changed the rules, Maesters are celibate, so where does that leave Gilly and the kids?

Brienne is probably qualified to be Lord Commander of the King’s Guard but isn’t she pledged to protect Sansa?  And then, of course, why does Bran make a point of noting the absence of the Master of Whisperers when he has the power to see everything that is going on in the realm?

Where’s the Human Progress?

I am not interested in watching the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel, which is purportedly set five thousand years before the events of this series.  For one thing, I am too emotionally wrought up by the fates of these particular characters to get interested in a whole new set of characters with the same surnames and preoccupations.

But my real objection to the new series is that there was apparently no progress in the lives of Westerosi between the time of the new series and the one that just concluded.  Are these people humans or what, because a major characteristic of the human spirit is to move forward.  How can this world be stuck in the 13th Century for five millennia?  Maybe it’s because there are no Protestants so no Protestant work eithic.   In any event, I actually find it depressing that in the GoT universe no one except Qyburn ever invents anything and that life is one long cycle of people making the same mistakes for generations after generations after generations.  I’ll eat my words if people tell me it’s good, but I will still find George R.R. Martin’s conception of the human race confounding.