Saturday, July 30, 2011

El Orfanato

The Orphanage has been on my radar since its 2007 release, but the R rating, which when it comes to modern horror films usually means that the movie is weltering in blood, gore and depravity, scared me away. Only when I'd read some reviews and talked to some people who'd seen it (who assured me that this wasn't the case) did I dare to attempt it -- and then only when it turned up in the $5 movie bin at Wallyworld.

Now I wish that I hadn't waited. This Spanish/Mexican film is as striking and startling as Clouzot's original Diabolique, and even more haunting for being more substantive.

I can't detail the plot, other than to say that, yes, it's set in an old Orphanage, and yes, it is a ghost story. To say more than that would risk revealing details that could ruin the effect. Let's just say that for ninety minutes it is one of the most frightening, suspenseful movies I've ever seen: and then in the last ten minutes as everything starts to come together and the viewer realizes what it's really about, what really happened, it turns so sad, so terribly sad, that I burst into tears.

For ninety minutes, it plays on our fear of the supernatural: only to come down to earth to reveal that Reality can be so much worse.

It accomplishes this without any of the usual modern horror tropes of gore, torture and, with the exception of just one real shock that comes at the exact center of the movie, sudden, graphically explicit death.

This is yet another case of the MPAA acting irresponsibly. This is a much graphically milder movie than say, Jaws, which went out with a PG rating in its original release. If you can take Jaws, you can take The Orphanage. It warrants a PG-13 rating more for its general atmosphere than any specific scene. Instead, the MPAA slapped an R on it, lumping it with depraved torture porn like the Saw and Hostel franchises -- movies that arguably don't even belong in our neighborhood multiplexes, and which, it can certainly be argued, should carry at least a rating of NC-17 or X.

(As an aside, here's a statistic: do you know the demographic that largely drives the torture porn genre? It's women. Go figure.)

Speaking of women, The Orphanage is built on the backs of two remarkable performances from two remarkable women. Belen Rueda gives such a finely-tuned characterization that we, the viewers, become as unstuck and adrift as the woman she plays: it's a thunderstorm of acting, encompassing grief, determination, despair, nightmares of fear, disbelief, belief and loss. She has a great look: a little worn-out, a little tired, a little sad even before the bad things start to happen. She holds the connections to both the past and the present of the orphanage, but she cannot get them to tie up; and although she may or may not become increasingly unstable as the movie rolls along, it is through her eyes that we must watch the events unfold.

The other pivotal role is taken by Geraldine Chaplin -- yes, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie's daughter, a skilled actress in her own right, here speaking Spanish like a native and looking so fragile that it seems like she might waste away at any time. She plays a medium who puts the Rueda character on the path to . . . I don't know if it's success or failure. Call it Destiny. With her hands and her eyes and the brittleness of her demeanor, Chaplin seeks and compels, and in one of the most hair-raiing scenes in the film, seems to make a horrifying connection to the past, and allows us to listen in.

This is an impressive effort from a first-time director, one that relies on suspense, not gross-outs, and which in the end proves itself to be deeply humane -- exactly the opposite of most modern horror films. It's a movie that will stay with you long after the credits roll -- a ghost story that literally haunts.

New Line has bought the rights to re-make it in English, and this just sickens and disgusts me. Our American movie industry is incapable of doing anything original -- instead they buy the rights to other country's original works of art, re-make them, and drain all the goodness and life out of them in the process. I won't support the American version and you shouldn't, either. Instead, truck on down to your local Wallyworld and root about in their five-dollar movie bin. It would cost you more to see something in a theater. Take a flyer on The Orphanage in the original Spanish. It's well worth your time.

-- Freder.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Sayonara, My Malibu

Probably the biggest thing I did last weekend was solve my car problem. It feels good to be legal again, but it feels better to know that the car isn't going to fall to pieces one day with me in it.

I did it myself, all by myself. When I bought the Malibu, my father was there to help me with the talking and negotiating, the Dealing with Sales People part. He would have been glad to help me this time as well, but somewhere in the last few weeks I had come to a determination. Here I am, a man in his early fifties -- I should be able to do this myself. I hate it, I'm physically afraid of it; as I wrote in a previous installment of this blog, I'm easily intimidated, especially by people in authority and Sales People. But perhaps that was all the more reason to get out there and face it, to try and put the anxiety aside and not rely on holding someone else's hand to get through it.

Then, too, my father has a habit of pulling me off on tangents and showing me options that I'm not necessarily interested in. He loves the process of shopping for a car. It was entirely possible that if I involved him, it might take the whole weekend, or longer. I wanted to get this done, if possible, in one afternoon. With my Malibu more than five months past its due date for inspection, and making more and more alarming sounds by the day, this had become a problem that I needed to put behind me for good.

My old Malibu served me not exactly faithfully for fourteen years. Although I tend to form attachments to things. the twinge I felt at leaving it behind on the lot had much of the sting taken out of it by a couple of factors. First, that Malibu was a nuisance to me almost from day one. During the time I owned it, I must have paid for it two or three times over. The wheel bearings kept going out, the brakes kept going out; in latter years I couldn't get the darn thing inspected without forking over anywhere between $500 to $1000. Gad, my poor credit card -- I never had a hope in hell of paying it down so long as I owned the Malibu!

When I bought it, I wanted to do the right thing by Buying American, little knowing at the time that American cars are shite. After my experience with the Malibu, I determined never again to buy another Chevrolet.

Second, just contrasting my battered old Malibu with what I was driving off the lot -- a 2011 VW Jetta SE -- was pretty much enough to erase any regrets all by itself. Hell fire, just having air-conditioning again on the hottest day of the year was enough.

The new vehicle handles nicely, and is much quieter than the Malibu ever was. It's comfortable and feels reassuringly solid around me. It's smaller than the Malibu, but doesn't feel cramped at all. I have positive thoughts about German engineering and am hopeful that this will not give me so much trouble.

I'm hoping that it will last much longer than fourteen years. After all, my commute is now five minutes door to door, versus the twenty-plus minutes that it was throughout most of the Malibu's lifetime.

It's true that my old Malibu looked forlorn sitting at the edge of the lot, with its cracked front bumper and cardboard covering the smashed back-seat mirror. I couldn't help but think about everything we'd been through together, especially the last few years with Mom and her wheelchair, and the move. But in the end, that's good enough reason all by itself to get rid of the thing, even if I didn't have to. The Malibu had reached the point where it held too many associations, apart from its mechanical failings. It didn't take long, driving the new car, to realize that driving the old one in its dilapidated state had been causing me a fair amount of anxiety and depression. That's all gone now.

At least, for the time being. Entropy happens. But for right now, this was a good, even vital, step to take.

-- Freder.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Let's Nap With Cap!

As a tie-in to the current release of Captain America: The First Avenger, Syfy recently ran a marathon of all the previous Captain America movies, barring only Republic's 1944 serial (which never had much to do with Captain America anyhow).

In the comics, Cap actually had three lives, one of which most people prefer to forget. In the 'fifties, he was a Commie-bashing crusading district attorney -- an incarnation deftly explained away by writer Stephen Englehart during a brilliant run in the '70s. The Captain America that concerns us here is the one that links the two halves of the twentieth century: Steve Rogers, the Living Legend of World War Two, and the 'sixties icon lost out of time, struggling to find himself once again.

The two '70s made-for-TV movies starring a nonentity named Reb Brown have little to do with this figure. The producers seemed determined to turn the character into a bland, generic '70s TV action hero, and seemed embarrassed by the costume. These two pilots were bad even in their day, about as close to the bottom of the barrel as comic book movies can get, and their stench has actually ripened with age.

In an era of fast talking and quick cuts, this Captain America plods, plods, plods, populated by a bevy of second-rate TV talent and directed with all the zip of double-strength oatmeal. Christopher Lee guest stars as the villain in the second one, though he's given comparatively little screen time, and let's just say that he doesn't even try to bring his considerable skills to bear on the lame script material. Much of the "action" consists of endless farting shots of Captain America driving around on his motorcycle; and the "character" stuff is strictly out of '70s TV Standard 101. Let's just pretend that this Captain America doesn't exist.

It's all  the more surprising to me, therefore, that the 1990 Captain America, intended for but destined never to make the big screen, is so vilified and demonized by most comics fans. Compared to the TV versions, this is Raiders of the Lost Ark, and although its low budget shows in a variety of ways (more and more so as the picture goes on), I've always rather liked it. It's a straightfaced, honest attempt to present Cap in both of his worlds, the past and the present day, well thought-out and entertaining in an easy way throughout its runtime.

Is it because the Red Skull is changed from a German to an Italian? That never bothered me; his story is much the same. Is it because the picture basically shoots its budget on the 'forties scenes early in the picture and the action is notably less exciting from then on? Is it because the Red Skull's "henchmen" are big-haired wenches on motorbikes? Is it because the padding on Matt Saliger's shoulders is oftentimes pretty obvious? These are all valid criticisms, but they never brought the picture down for me. Why? Because it's a lot like Linus Van Pelt of Peanuts: the mistakes you make don't matter as long as you're sincere.

Salinger (yes, the son of that other Salinger) plays Steve Rogers with honesty and conviction. He makes the uniform work because there's nothing campy about his performance. His sincerity has a remarkably calming effect on the rest of the movie. The picture's biggest scene comes early on, as Cap is strapped to a missile targeted at the White House. This could be the stuff of Camp City, and the actor playing the Red Skull certainly tries to go there, but Salinger pulls him back from the brink.

My only real kick against the movie is that Cap goes on ice right in the middle of his very first adventure, which literally means that he never gets to become The Living Legend of World War Two, and that no one in the present-day story has ever heard of him, barring the two or three people who happen to be involved in the plot.

I think it unjust that the picture never got to see theatrical release. But I'm told that it's available online, for free.

Which brings us to Captain America: The First Avenger, which actually bears a lot of similarities to the Salinger version, although with its much larger budget the challenge of keeping things moving is not a problem. One of the similarities is the sincerity, and it strikes me that no movie about Captain America would ever work, no matter what the budget, if the element of sincerity wasn't there. When the 98-pound weakling Steve Rogers is asked, early in the show, "So, you want to kill Germans?" his reply is exactly right: "I don't want to kill anyone. I hate bullies. No matter where they come from."

Indeed, the first two-thirds of the movie are its best game. There's a lot of care taken to establish character, mood, and motivation. Once the picture moves into its final act, it descends into sound and fury, all very well done, but nothing that we haven't seen before. The resolution of the conflict between Cap and the Red Skull is particularly unsatisfying, as Cap isn't allowed to defeat the Skull; the Skull defeats himself.

Hugo Weaving plays the Red Skull marvelously well, by the way; no drapery-chewing here. Although "masked" with human features through the early scenes, once the mask comes off it never goes on again, and were treated to a villain that evokes the work of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee perfectly.

In a bid to lay our doubts about the costume changes to rest, director Joe Johnston launches a terrific musical sequence with Cap in his authentic comic-book duds selling War Bonds on tour. The sequence is canny and great fun, satisfying our desire to see the Golden Age Cap onscreen, while justifying the more practical, muted costume that's introduced later in the film. He even carries his original shield! I was grinning like a kid through the whole thing.

There are quirky, funky retro-modern gadgets and ships throughout the whole picture that lend a nice Republic Serials feel to the action; and in a move that's calculated to leave true Marvelites of a Certain Generation sweeking with glee, Cap gets to lead the original Howling Commandos into action, complete with Dum Dum Dugan in his bowler hat and 'stache, and all the rest of the gang.

Chris Evens does his job, but in the end I like Matt Salinger better as Steve Rogers, even with the padding, and wish that Salinger had had the opportunity to play the part in a movie that's as well-mounted as this one is. Though imperfect, this Captain America gets it largely right, and finally gives us a film version of the character that doesn't come with some degree of embarrassment attached.

-- Freder.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Please, No Secrets -- Especially Depressing Ones

I wanted to write of the strides and accomplishments from the past four-day weekend, but something has come up that's sucked all the joy right out of it -- and I can't even blog about it, because I am sworn to secrecy.

Why do people do that? Why do they tell you the secret first, and then say "Oh, but you can't tell anyone or talk about it until I tell everyone else myself at the next big get-together!"

Wouldn't it be the polite thing to first ask: "Can you keep a secret?"

So that I could answer "NO!" and then the person could either keep their secret to themselves or go ahead and tell me knowing full well that I intend to blab about it at the first opportunity.

I want to blab about it, not because I want to spoil the surprise, but because I'm upset by what I was told and want to get my feelings out there, out in the air, out of my system.

First, although I am very happy for the person, that's where it ends -- and it's irritating that I'm being made to feel that I should empathically share the same level of happiness that they are experiencing -- as if their happiness and my own are one and the same. 

Actually, my reaction is the opposite. Their happiness is just a reminder that I haven't been able to achieve what they have done, and probably never will. Furthermore, I am feeling that their happiness will have a significant negative impact on my life. And now I can't even explain that statement without blowing the "Big Secret."

They explained that they only told me to "give me incentive to get my health back," in other words, to cheer me up.

... and I shot back, "You've known me for How Fucking Long? Since when have Empathy for Other People's Happiness and Keeping Other People's Secrets ever been qualities that I cheerfully possessed?"

Fact is, I hate Happy People. Everywhere they go, they're all "La, La, La! La, La, La! I'm So Happy -- and You're Not! La, La, La!" It's disgusting. Happiness is not something that can be shared, and therefore it should be enjoyed in solitude.

It's not the first time that this person has done this to me. Alone among my friends, this one flaunts every success and every milestone at every opportunity. I am the first to say that this is my problem, not theirs, but every new success cuts me, makes me realize that I am not accomplishing anything in the creative sphere, makes me feel that my life is diminishing by the day. Again, I am happy for this person, but I wish that they would show a little sensitivity once in a while. "Glad for your success, but will you please stop rubbing it in my face?"

If anything, my reaction just reinforces the certainty that I have Asperger's Syndrome, that I'm not like other people and don't react to news like this the way most people would. 

Which brings up another point of contention. I referenced Asperger's in one of my emails, and this person didn't know what I was talking about. They haven't been reading my blog. Thanks a lot, friend. I read all your stuff.

There is to be a gathering of the clan soon, and all of this has made me not want to attend. At best, because it's an Asperger's Thing, I tend to sit back, watch and listen to the others, and usually only interject when a quote comes to mind. This time, I cannot promise that I wouldn't appear morose, especially when the Big Announcement comes and I have to pretend to be happy about it.

-- Freder.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Plumbing and Backsliding

I was dismayed when the plumber got out of his truck. He was tall and lanky and he looked like he was about sixteen years old. Service and Repair people are supposed to be older than me and come with an air of reassuring authority. When did that change? When did they start sending out babies?

But he got the job done all right. He was only here for about half an hour. He snapped my leaky valve off in nothing flat and slapped a new one on. Done! Now I can water my garden without having to fill the watering can indoors.

So that appointment went well. The same can not be said for my doctor's appointment this afternoon.

My blood pressure is through the roof, and he didn't even want to take a blood test to see how my liver was doing.

The fact is, and I was perfectly honest with him, for the past couple of months, ever since my disastrous attempt to cut my dosage of the Prozac, my alcohol intake has quietly and insidiously been on the rise. It has reached the point where I look at the bottle in the morning and think to myself, "How in god's name did that happen?"

And as my doctor pointed out, this is probably why I've felt like the Prozac never really worked as well once I got back up on my dosage, probably why I'm having frequent and extended anxiety attacks, probably why my emotions have been so out of whack lately. You drink too much and it cancels out the Prozac.

I was doing well enough for so long, and then a couple of months ago everything seemed to fall apart. Now I'm at the point where I have to back away from the edge yet again and at least be more mindful of what I'm doing and how much I'm doing it.

And, damn and blast it all, I have to back over there in three week's time. If my blood pressure isn't down to a reasonable level, he's going to put me on medication.

Bloody hell. I came out of the doctor's office even more depressed than when I went in, and wanting nothing more than a quick slug of bottled courage.

Instead, the wall of hot air that I walked into when I got home convinced me that it was time  to install the air conditioner. 87 degrees inside, and humid -- my quats are all flopped on their sides on the floor, making themselves as flat as they possibly can. Me, I'm staying in front of the fan.

-- Freder.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mixed Media

Does BBC America have the worst programming directors in the history of television?

I mean that rhetorically, of course.

Why do they even call it BBC? Most of the programming is recycled American crap. Star Trek: The Next Generation every damn night! I think once a month they buy the rights to about two movies, and then run them over and over again. For the past month every single Friday night it's been two hours of Top Gear (a show I simply don't "get," and one which BBC America runs incessantly) followed by the original Clash of the Titans. Every single Friday night! How freakin' often can you watch Clash of the Titans? I had a tough time getting through it once. (Hello, Larry? Did you phone in your performance, or what?)

At least Clash and The Next Regurgitation have British people in them. Now, The Crow -- I'm sure the BBC programmers chose that because it represents the essence of the British Empire, yes?

I actually tried to watch The Crow. I thought that I might like it. Alas, it stinks in the way a movie can only when it is made by people who are so bereft of talent or skill that they have to murder their lead actor in order to get PR for the thing.

It is one of the more nonsensical movies I've ever seen. Nothing adds up. The city burns every night, apparently just for effect. Nobody fights the fires. After a few nights of this, there wouldn't be anything left to burn. The reason The Crow paints his face white is because he once playfully spooked his wife with a theatrical mask. Say what? (Plus, it's an ugly theatrical mask that no one in their right mind would own in the first place!)

How is it that the Brandan Lee character comes to rise from the dead, anyhow? People don't un-die just because they're pissed off. I know this is a comic book movie but even comic book movies need to have a certain internal logic. The Fantastic Four got their powers from being bombarded with Cosmic Radiation. Superman gets his from a yellow sun. We know what motivates The Crow (ugliness), but what animates him?

In no time at all he's mopping up the street of those vile Bad Guys that did in him and the missus, and although the ugly tone is consistent, there's no suspense in how it all plays out. I switched it off after the first one. I knew where it was going, and I didn't care. Life's too short. If that's The Moral of The Crow, then at least its producers did something right.

The other night, the Beeb ran Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior. Well, at least that's Australian. They're getting warm.

I hadn't seen The Road Warrior since it's original release, and now I think it's almost the opposite of The Crow. Oh, it's every bit as ugly and mean, and its premise is every bit as stupid, but it's so quirky and well-made that I couldn't take my eyes off it. The ugliness plays out in desert sunshine instead of darkness, and the mean-spiritedness at its core has the weight of a Philosophy. The villains aren't just generic Depraved Killers. They have an inspired lunacy and are almost Grand Opera in their appearance and actions. The final act, and especially the ending, has real bite.

I was dismayed, however, that the Beeb gave it a rating of "TV-14." This was an R picture when it came out, and deservedly so. It is not okay, in my house, for a fourteen-year-old to watch The Road Warrior.

If it wasn't for Doctor Who, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares and the endless farting marathons of Top Gear, there wouldn't be anything British on BBC America. And now Doctor Who's gone on hiatus. D'you know what they replaced it with? Battlestar Galactica!

It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic.

-- Freder.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Restoring the Past

As I plow through the processing of approximately 175 pictures that I scanned yesterday, I'm faced with inevitable memories and emotions, and occasionally tears, although that's rare. I have the work to focus on, and these things are far enough away in the distant past to have lost some of their sting. The moments of hard sadness come when I'm at work, sneaking up on me suddenly when my mind is on other things.

The photos have yellowed with time, and restoring them to their original vibrance has an eerie effect: Some of them look like they could have been taken yesterday. Except for the cars and clothes.

I'm amazed at how much of the basic family furniture is now set up in my house. I see paintings that my mother did that are still with me, and others that are not. I wonder where they went.

I particularly like seeing the jailhouse standing beside the pool at the Edina, Minnesota house, sporting a different coat of paint, and knowing that it came all the way through all those years and four moves to where it now stands.

The picture above is an interesting one. I can't think of any better illustration of how different my sister and I have always been. Note that she has no problem encroaching on my personal space, and that her duck is agitated and scared. I would be, too, in his position.

Typically of my sister, she did not even allow me to name my own duck. She named them both, and that was that, and my parents just stood by and let her do it, they way they always let her have her way and allowed her to boss me around.

The ducks really landed my Dad in the doghouse. He just brought them home one night, without even consulting Mom. They grew up to be perfectly white. One day, they got out of their pen and disappeared into the neighborhood. We drove around and spent the whole day looking for them, but never found them. At the end of the day, they came striding back into our yard, side by side, quacking enthusiastically as if nothing had happened.

I think it was my Grandmother Mel who finally got rid of the ducks. She could not abide animals, even dogs and cats, the ducks were over the top for her. I was so sad when the car drove away with them in a cage on the roof rack.

When my mother was a little girl, my grandmother Mel just "got rid" of my mother's pet dachshund, Schnitzel, one day. I don't think Mom ever really got over that. I think that's why, at the first opportunity, Mom decided that she was going to have just as many pets as she wanted.

Oh, dear, I'm afraid this has all been a bit of a ramble. That's what old pictures do.

-- Freder.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Movie Mogul

Perfect casting: My sister is a vampire and I'm the clown.

Some things are coming together. Among them, the video project I had in mind involving the family Home Movies.

As you may recall, my first attempts to to get the raw files from DVD onto my computer in a working format ended in frustration. But this past week my boss tasked me with getting footage from a DVD into a PowerPoint presentation, and in the process of learning how to do that, the answer to my own problem came along. Last night I had a really productive evening ripping the Home Movie files from DVD and then converting them to QuickTime and importing them into IMovie, Apple's video editing software. Today I slept in late, had a few slices of white pizza for "brunch," then went straight to the computer where I've been working in IMovie all day.

I won't say that it's the most intuitive program to learn, but the help files are OK and I was sometimes able to figure things out for myself. While not a professional video editing tool, it's darn good. It's a breeze to add titles (using any font in your system) and background music and sound effects, and you can incorporate still images as well. I haven't begun to learn all the features; instead I spent a lot of time breaking the master film down into editable scenes, and inserting soft transitions in place of many of the hard cuts. The home movies are already a million times better, and I've only just begun. As an example, instead of the original hard cut from shots made in our back yard to footage of the family vacation on Ludlow's Island in Lake Vermillion, I was able to insert a map of the island, zoom in on our cabin there, and fade in to the action. Tomorrow I may actually go into work just to scan some more family photos for this project. I should just bring a box with me and scan the whole thing. Any photos I don't use in the video can be included separately as a slideshow on the finished DVD.

I'm excited to be learning new things and I love the results I'm getting. Dad will be impressed.

And it especially feels good to have a project again, one with immediate rewards. This project won't last forever, but for as long as it does I've got Direction and Momentum again.

Heck, it even justifies all the time I wasted downloading music. I've got a lot of good stuff to choose from. "Stardust" by Nat King Cole, anyone?

Tonight I get to watch a brand-new (to me) episode of the new Doctor Who. For today, anyway, Life is Good.

-- Freder

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Joy and Anger

I was overjoyed tonight that TCM would be running a completely new-to-me movie by one of my favorite vintage stars, Eddie Cantor; but, especially now that the movie is over, I'm incensed at the manner in which it was presented. This could have been a great opportunity to introduce Cantor to a populace that largely doesn't remember him. But not once, not even in passing, were his many talents discussed. Not once was it mentioned that he was one of the greatest performers of his age.

Instead, TCM played the Race card, and shit all over the movie (actually taking scenes out of context and ignoring the whole underlying structure of the picture) as being a demeaning portrayal of Arabs by Hollywood.

Say what? I didn't see any Arabs in this movie.

Yet Robert Osborne kowtowed to his guest, Dr. Jack Shaheen (an Arab man who really should be finding better things to do with his time) and took seriously comments that didn't even deserve to see airtime.

For instance: Shaheen described a scene where Cantor witnesses a crowd of Arabs kneeling to pray. Quoth Shaheen: "And Eddie Cantor rolls his eyes!"

Well, I watched the whole movie and I watched that particular scene closely, and guess what? That's not what happens.

We'll talk about that later.

Y'know what? If you want to rail against racism in the movies, find yourself a movie that's really racist -- like D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, which some of you may recall I hated on big time when TCM ran it a while back: this is a movie that is absolutely vile, yet TCM treated it with reverence. Why? Because it's D.W. Griffith -- Griffith the God of the Movies, Griffith the bigoted little sod. But show a movie by Eddie Cantor -- who I truly believe was not a bigot -- and because no one remembers him, that makes it okay to shit all over his work.

It's true that Cantor makes it easy for the soft-headed to take offense. In every single one of his movies, Cantor puts on blackface and does a contemporized version of a Minstrel number. His movies need big dance scenes and big, exotic locales, so they went from Mexico to Spain to Egypt and, yes, Arabia: but always in a highly stylized, Holloywoodized context, and often in the context of a dream.

Yes, a dream. Dr. Jack Shaheen kept his tone mellow and a relaxed, a pleasant look on his features, but it was clear that he was getting upset about a movie that does not even purport to represent Arabs in any way.

Here's the plot: Eddie is riding the rails to Hollywood because he's a big movie fan. After an opening song that presents the only real message that any Eddie Cantor movie ever aspired to present ("Laugh Your Cares Away"), he falls out of the train and must take Shank's Mare through the desert. He stumbles upon a movie set (that's right, a movie set) and at first thinks he is in Arabia. But it's just Hollywood, making a live-action version of Ali Baba and his Forty Thieves.

Lucky guy, he snags a bit part in the movie. But just when it's his big chance, he takes an overdoes of a sedative (he was run over by actors on horses in the middle of a scene), and falls into a deep slumber.

You read me right. The whole movie is a dream. A drug-induced dream of an impressionable boy-man who's captivated by a fantasy.

Furthermore, as should be obvious to the plainest idiot, the picture's sense of humor isn't aimed at Arabia -- it's aimed at American politics. Casting it into the context of a foreign land is just a way of providing a launching ground for jokes about the New Deal and the American political system.

At one key point, Eddie convinces the Sultan to resign as Sultan and run for President. A very funny American-style campaign ensues in Arabic drag -- this is just exactly the same sort of thing that Gilligan's Island used to do all the time. Eddie gets out there and stumps hard for the Sultan -- only to find that his songs are so popular that the people want to elect him President instead.

Remember, it's a dream.

Well, the Sultan threatens to have Eddie boiled in oil if he wins the election. So, naturally, Eddie goes out and stumps against himself. But even that backfires. "He's got a sense of humor, let's make him President!"

And here's where the scene comes in that Dr. Jack Shaheen found so awfully offensive. It doesn't go like what he says at all.

Eddie's trying so hard to get people not to vote for him. . . when suddenly (in what I thought was a really lovely and respectful shot) the call to prayer is made. The people fall to their knees and begin to pray. There's nothing disrespectful about the shot.

Suddenly, no one is listening to Eddie. He rolls his eyes. It's not the eye-roll of somebody mocking a people at their prayer. It is the eye-roll of somebody saying to himself, "I can't win!" And it's a beautiful joke, really, because it has two meanings: I can't win because they are going to boil me in oil if I do, and I can't win because the call to prayer was made when I needed to make them hate me.

Anyone who takes offense to this can not be a friend of mine.

Ali Baba Goes to Town is a great example of Eddie Cantor's work; I enjoyed it immensely. I think it's almost as good as Kid Millions, my personal favorite of the Cantor Hoover (that's, I say that's a joke, son!) and one that presented another dream-trip to a foreign land. There's even a cameo from Raymond Scott and his Orchestra, playing one of his signature tunes. I was thoroughly entertained from beginning to end and delighted to check off one more movie on my bucket list.

But TCM had to go and play the race card.

It got worse. The next item on TCM's menu was Popeye Meets Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves -- by any standard one of the greatest cartoons ever made. Dr. Jack Shaheen went to particular lengths to drain every last ounce of joy out of it, calling it "deeply offensive."

I'm going to say this only once:

You cannot change the past to suit the political needs of the present, and you cannot corrupt something from the past that is completely innocent and wholly delightful to make racial hay in the here and now.

Dear Dr. Jack Shaheen: You do not need Eddie Cantor and Popeye to make Arabs (and especially Arab men) distasteful to me. You're doing a real good job all by yourself. Jerk.

-- Freder.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Way Some People Die

. . . is the title of a book by Ross MacDonald. I'm reading a collection of short autobiographical pieces by MacDonald (real name Kenneth Millar). Millar describes emotional and practical difficulties at various stages of his life, "seismic upheavals" such that I think anyone could appreciate or identify with. The real difference is that Millar never seems to have suffered from a creative block.

He could always write it out within his fiction. That's what I had learned to do as well. But it's not there anymore.

These days off, or at least the unoccupied hours, are deadly to me. Not being able to write is like not having a mouth. Beating myself up over it doesn't help at all.

If I were to hire MacDonald's detective, Lew Archer, to help me solve the case, he would find several causes (as I have done), but perhaps he could find solutions that are evading me.

First, and possibly foremost, I used to drink while I wrote. Not "get drunk," mind you -- if that happened, the work came to a screeching halt. But a drink or two or three, taken over a few hours, would lubricate the gears, get them turning again, unlock my imagination and free my hands from restraints.

I don't have that tool anymore. My gears are frozen and rusted badly in place, and my imagination seems to be bolted shut, barring only the random images of horror that sometimes burst out when I'm trying to lie at rest.

The other thing I've come up with is the feeling that, with all my grandparents gone and now my mother gone, too, there's nobody left that I need to prove myself to. My friend BC would likely say to this, "Prove it to yourself!"

Myself. That's the person I least care for. The only person I hate more is my sister, who helped make me this way.

I honestly believed that a few days off, some down time to gather myself, would be all that I needed to get going again. Instead, it's having the opposite effect. It's almost as if the outrageous craziness of the last nine months kept me from experiencing a level of the grief and despair (which hardly seems possible), and now that things have calmed down a lot, the silence and the vacancy has allowed a fresh tsunami of emotion to hit me. Not being able to work at any creative pursuit (not even my scrapbook of the old house, which is filled with associations that I can't bear to reflect upon anymore) -- and beating myself up about it -- is having real emotional consequences for me. It means that I have no outlet.

Blogging about it all seems to be the only thing I can manage. But it makes me feel that I should change the title of this blog to "The Broken Record."


I came to the Millar book yesterday when Annie Proulx's Bird Cloud fell through for me. Proulx is an alum of the college that employs me, making Bird Cloud the no-brainer choice for Book of the Month when it comes out in paperback this October. So, I thought for once it would be nice to have actually read the book of the month.

The book is a memoir of Proulx's experiences building her Dream House in what used to be a protected reserve, which is now privately owned by her. Right away it got off to a rocky start for me with a long stretch of present-tense writing. As a young man, the present tense never bothered me much, and I even used it myself on occasion when immediacy seemed an important element of my story. But now that I'm a crotchety Olde Farte, present tense just really deeply annoys me, especially when the writer seems to be using it for no good reason. That was the case here.

Then Proulx launches into a far-ranging history of her family, and although there were small points of interest I largely didn't give a damn. Something is wrong in the "Reading and Dozing" process when the dozing starts to take up much more time than the reading. Proulx was still in the middle of this preliminary ancestral ramble when the chapter abruptly ended. I realized that I'd plowed through the whole first chapter, and Proulx had yet to begin the story that I showed up to read.

Fortunately, it was an advance reader's copy (the home shelves of most booksellers are full of these, I imagine), so I had no money in it and could take it back to the store. It went straight into my bag. Life is too short for books that can't come to the point.


On Friday afternoon I drove all the way out to South China in my Highly Illegal car. My lawyer had said that she wanted to see me. I was then as I am today keeping the fact of being emotionally overwrought just under the surface. It turned out that she wanted to make a distribution from my mother's estate.

As a result of this meeting, my father and his wife are now completely paid off in what they loaned me to buy this house, and this house is now 1/3rd mine, free and clear. I was given an additional amount. I won't type the number, but it's enough for me to pay off all my credit card debt and buy a car outright, without having to go into additional debt. This amount still leaves a considerably larger amount left in the estate, that will come to me later.

So -- things should be looking up, right? I should be feeling better about life.

I am not. It's actually deeply upsetting to me. Tears are running down my face as I type this. I cannot escape the fact that in order for all of this good to come about, Mom had to die. I'd give it all back, and more, to have never had that happen.

-- Freder.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Secret Life of Grover

Until well into my adulthood I could do a pretty mean impersonation of Grover and Cookie Monster. So good that in High School, I had friends who would call me up so that I could do Grover over the telephone to their young siblings. I still own the record pictured above, and don't need to play it 'cuz I know it by heart.

I am blooo-oooo-oooo!
Oh so blooo-oooo-oooo!
I am Blue because I don't know enough about yoooo-ooo-oooo!

*Sigh* Frank Oz was a hero of mine before he started directing movies.

I still own all of my Muppet hand puppets. Some of them are better than others. The Cookie Monster is too small, as is the Kermit, but Miss Piggy is pretty good and Animal, Rowlf the Dog and Grover are absolutely great. The day I got my Grover puppet he hugged me and I felt complete.

At Christmastime I tied a big patch of cotton under his chin and swiped a Santa hat off of one of my mother's dolls, and when my mother walked in the door Santa Grover went "Ho Ho Ho!" at her and she completely lost it. That year Santa Grover had to hand out the Christmas presents.

It got so that I spoke as Grover an awful lot. This is because I knew what Grover would say in any given situation, but I certainly didn't know what I would say in most every situation.

Asperger's. We do the darndest things.

I can't tell you exactly how long this went on. But one day I just stopped and it's been so long that I'm not sure I could do the voice if my life depended on it. Grover just left me one day, never to return. 

-- Freder.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Smiling Faces

Yesterday, my boss spent some time straightening some books rather flamboyantly within eyeshot of my computer screen.

Hint: She wasn't straightening books. Fact is, she was trying to catch me in the act of "goofing off."

Fact is, I was on the straight up-and-up at that moment, and felt rather triumphant that she was trying to catch me at something that I wasn't doing.

Fact also is -- I never leave my station, except to work in other parts of the store. Fact also is, I eat my lunch while I'm working. Fact also is, I'm entitled to an hour for lunch, and two fifteen minute breaks that I don't take.

So if I want to Fuck Off and type some shit on my blog or Facebook for five or fifteen minutes, that's my right and she can kiss my ass.

The other day she saw me slumped in my chair, gazing in a penetrating fashion at my computer screen, and she accused me of "reading."

Reading what? I don't read books on a computer screen. Fact is, I was perusing the forthcoming books on Above the Treeline, which is not only a part of my job, but a part of my job that she insisted on my signing on to.

All this "policing" . . . all this "trying to catch me in the act" . . . in the act of what? In the act of exercising my rights? There are several bookstore employees who disappear for an hour every day -- as is their right. I don't. I take my time in other ways.

I'm not saying that I have the worst boss in the world, 'cuz I don't. But, for fuck's sake, don't try to make me feel like a criminal because I take my time in unconventional ways.

I'm just saying: GRR!

-- Freder.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I Wish. . .

I have never lived this close to neighbors before. For the past thirty-five years my nearest neighbor was nearly a half-mile away (and sometimes even they managed to annoy me!). So it's particularly ranklesome that of all the neighbors I could get, the nearest one is, by trade, a builder.

Apparently "being a builder" means that if you don't have any jobs to go to, you keep yourself and your man busy by performing Random Acts of Violence on your own house, otherwise known as "projects," projects such as "Strip the (Perfectly Good) Siding Off the Back of Your House and then Have Your Man Pound on Something Metal at Eight o' Clock in the Bloody Morning."






Repeat as necessary until you've deprived your neighbor of a solid hour's sleep, and driven him to distraction once he's awake.

Another interesting project that unemployed builders do with their time off is, "Drive Around Your House on a Mini-Tractor Without a Shirt On, Sweating Like a Pig All Over Your Ugly Fat Belly."

I shall have to come up with an Interesting Project or two of my own. Right now, the front runner under consideration is, "Build a Molotov Cocktail and Heave it Through Your Neighbor's Window."

-- Freder.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

I'm a Lumberjack and I'm OK --

Today has seen yet more gloomy and dismal skies, and I guess everyone knows what that does to me by now. I won't go on about it. Other than to say that it's too chilly to run the fans and too moist and humid not to. Today I was going to attempt work on a ghastly short story that I started, oh, a couple of years ago now, but so far have not felt up to it. Just now I discovered that I hadn't even moved it onto this computer.

Yesterday was also humid, but sunny and hot. So for me, it would have been better to have swapped the planned activities around. Yesterday I played lumberjack.

I'm normally against cutting anything back, I am a pro-growth sort of person. I like it when foliage takes over the property a bit. But the tree growing beside my house -- I don't know what flavor of tree it is, but I like to think of it as my monkey-puzzle tree for the ways that its branches have writhed so confusingly amongst each other, even though I just looked at pictures of a real monkey-puzzle tree on the interwebs and mine looks nothing like it -- was causing problems. It's branches were pressing on the side of the house and actually laying on the roof, which made it impossible to rake snow off in the winter, which caused an ice dam to form (damn) which caused a nasty leak inside my porch where all my unread books are kept.

We kill trees to make books (although in the case of Nicholas Sparks I think it would be better to kill him), and what I was proposing stopped far short of killing the tree. Just sacrificing some limbs in the service of preserving literature (and home!).

So it had to get a trim. Just two branches would do the job. They were wild and crazy branches. I don't own a chain saw (and wouldn't -- they scare the crap out of me!) and I quickly discovered that my rusty handsaw wasn't up to the job, so I got my axe out of the garage and started whaling away at it. I'm actually pretty good with an axe, knowing how to use it and having a good swing, but my axe is dull and it was a hot day, and there were frequent pauses for huffing and puffing. The first branch came down reluctantly, and the second one was worse: it was high enough that I had to stand at the top of my stepladder on uneven ground and strike with the axe well over my head. Even then I was afraid it was going to drop right into my face. So for once in my life (usually these sorts of projects really bring out the Dumb in me) I did the smart thing: when it started to crack ominously I climbed down, gripped the lowest branch and pulled it the rest of the way.

Then of course I had to break these crazy branches down so that I could dispose of them. The thin ends I dragged to the wild ground at the edge of my property and threw them in. The heftier stuff I chopped up to use as firewood in my fire pit out back. I could have knocked off at some point and finished it up another day. But I was determined to get it done, although I was so exhausted by then that I could only get about four or five whacks in before I had to stop and catch my breath.

I hadn't planned for this to be the only thing I got done yesterday, but that's the way it worked out. I guess that's why chainsaws were invented. I'd have been done in nothing flat. Instead it took a big chunk of the day and I was so shagged out afterwards that all I could do was grab a shower and drag myself to the porch sofa, where even looking at the White Flower Farm catalog proved to require more effort than I could bring to it.

My neighbor has a chain saw, sitting enticingly out in the open. Perhaps he left it in plain sight to frustrate me when he heard me chopping myself silly. But they don't attempt to talk to me any more, which I guess is a pleasant side-effect of the "Midnight Mowing" I did a couple of weeks back. Oh, yes I did! Just after midnight on the day that I was woken at seven AM by Millie the Morning Mower, the Evil Bugs Bunny in my soul got the better of me. I opened the window of my playroom and blasted loud music in the general direction of their house. After about fifteen minutes of that I went out and fired up the lawnmower. I did that whole side of my house (poorly, because after all it was past midnight!) and occasionally growled at their house, out loud, "You get the message, Doc?"

Apparently they did. Just yesterday I went out and found their lawn miraculously mowed. They must have done it the day before while I was at work, because I never heard a sound!

Revenge is a dish best served with a freshly-mowed lawn.

-- Freder.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Statement of Principles

The thing that sometimes troubles me about sometimes typing some of the things that I sometimes type on this blog, is that I sometimes worry that some people will think: "So what makes your feelings so special?! So what's so unusual about you?!"

Because that's not why I type it. I type it because I think a lot of people must feel this way, because I can't possibly be alone, and maybe by typing it I can do some good for myself, and maybe sometimes someone else will see it and think, "That's just how I feel."

So -- if I have a mission for this blog, it's to reassure me that I am not alone, and to reassure others that they are not alone.

I've just been watching a heckova lot of British television tonight, and so the Asperger's part of me that wants to mimic everything I see wants to refer to my father as "me da'".


Me da' wrote back to me tonight, based on two previous posts: "I worry that you are still so far from healed"

Yah, so do I. But that just puts me in the same boat as millions of other people. 

I've heard it said, here or there, "We're put here to suffer." 

There's a lot to think about in those five words, especially when, dating back to Biblical times, there's always a class of people who emphatically are Not Suffering while the rest of us writhe.

Answers? I don't have any.

Apropos to nothing, last night I spent nearly $90 on 100 daffodil bulbs. I will make good use of them. In the garden? No! They will go all over my lawn. I will have daffodils next spring. Can't afford it, but, damn it, it's a Quality of Life issue.

Tamam Shud!

-- Freder.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Chance of Showers

I honestly thought that with the move behind me, things would soon be hunky-dory. All I needed was some downtime to gather myself, and I would be off again, working on personal projects, moving right along, right as rain.

But things are so not hunky-dory and the rain is a depressive one that, some days, is stronger than the drugs. I seem to be stuck. Still can't seem to get through a day without tears. Whenever Pandy Bear hears me crying he comes over to me and looks up with an expression that seems to say, "I understand. Don't be sad. We love you." and that makes it worse.

I think that the activity of the move and the focus it provided was the thing keeping sadness, relatively speaking, at bay. At least it was a distraction. There was little time to think about anything other than what needed to be done, and little to do other than forge ahead.

It shouldn't be like this. I have a nice new home filled with memories and I'm grateful for that. I'm trying to do all the right things. I talk a walk around the neighborhood every night. I'm keeping my brain fed with books and telly. I'm eating well, although lately I have begun to lose my appetite again. Can't give in to that, it had disastrous consequences for me last year.

But I feel like I'm hiding all the while, from things that are only growing stronger while I pretend they don't exist.

Then again, maybe I'm over-thinking it. I shouldn't blog when I'm in this kind of a mood. I don't know whether it releases those feelings or makes them worse.

Here's something funny: The book I've chosen for our Book of the Month here at the store has this in its description: "[Funeral for a Dog] tells the parallel stories of two writers struggling with the burden of the past and the uncertainties of the future." Hmm. Wonder why I chose it. Maybe I should read this one.

-- Freder.

A Letter to Dad

In receipt of your snail mail letter the other day. Stop beating up on yourself. What's the point? Mom's gone; nothing can be done, it can't be helped now. I'm not beating up on you and you shouldn't be beating up on you. Past is past.

The little girl's name is Jackie Evancho. I witnessed her discovery a year ago on the NBC show AMERICA'S GOT TALENT. Mom and I watched this show obsessively and I have continued to watch it obsessively since. It was one of the things that got me through last summer. The show is full of surprises: people who come on virtually swaggering about how great they are, only to completely flame out in front of millions of people -- and then this little girl comes on, completely humble,  and you don't know what to expect, but then that voice comes out. 

Just another one of the surprises that life hands out -- and you have to be thankful for the GOOD surprises when they come along, because the bad ones are so very bad.

I must confess that I'm so far along in my thinking of that bitch who calls herself my sister that it takes me somewhat aback to see a letter that's addressed to me -- and to someone who no longer exists. If she ever did. The past is becoming a fantasy world, and she is nothing more to me than a ghost. Thank god for that.

Maybe lunch next week at your convenience?

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