Monday, January 22, 2018

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool: A Farewell to Gloria

Jamie Bell and Annette Bening in Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool.

The stunning blonde character actress Gloria Grahame brought more than just her trademark pout to movies like Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (where Lee Marvin throws hot coffee in her face), Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (for which she won the 1952 Supporting Actress Oscar), Crossfire and In a Lonely Place. She made her characters’ vulnerability touching and sexy at the same time. But her Hollywood heyday lasted only about a decade, though she continued to work, on screen and on stage, until she died at fifty-seven of stomach cancer and peritonitis in 1981. Annette Bening, who plays Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, is inspired casting, just as Michelle Williams was as Marilyn Monroe in My Week with Marilyn, and like Williams she gives a magnificent performance, on par with her best work (Bugsy, The Grifters, In Dreams). The movie is about the last two years of Grahame’s life and her relationship with an aspiring young English actor named Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), whom she meets when he’s only twenty-eight. (Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay is based on Turner’s memoir.) It begins when she collapses in her dressing room during rehearsals for a production of The Glass Menagerie in the English provinces and Peter, no longer involved with her, shows up to bring her home to Liverpool, where his adoring parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) take her in and care for her. It’s clear from Peter and Gloria’s reunion that their romance ended badly; we see it in a series of flashbacks to London in 1979, where they met while staying in the same boarding house, and Los Angeles and New York, where he visited her. Her reappearance in his life reactivates his feelings for her, just as he learns what she carefully concealed from him when they were lovers: that she’s dying.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Art of the Roast

Checking the color of the coffee beans during the roasting process.

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Ellen Perry, to our group.

On June 18, 2007, David Fullerton taught his last high school English class and went into the coffee business. He had purchased a café on Main Street in Worcester, Massachusetts – put it on his credit card, in fact – and launched a new roasting operation. He decided that he liked the name the previous owners had given to the café, Acoustic Java, so he kept that – though any connection to music is, at this point, largely metaphorical. But Fullerton likes literature and appreciates a good metaphor: Acoustic Java’s motto is now “As music tames the savage beast, coffee civilizes man unkind”; and its coupons look like concert tickets.

On a January morning, I’m sitting with Fullerton at his second Worcester location, a building that used to be part of the Whittall Mills, a 19th-century carpet company. It’s a typical New England mill, so the roasting area is enormous, and the ceilings are high and supported by sturdy beams. By contrast, the adjacent tasting room is cozy, its brick wall lined with bookshelves and original art; but it also has a capacious view through plate glass windows into the roasting operations. Fullerton wants to offer his customers “a spectacle… an authentic one.” He wants them to see something of what happens to their coffee before Patrick, the barista, pours it into their cup.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Going in Circles: Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel

Justin Timberlake and Kate Winslet in Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel 

It's been decades since Woody Allen was the comic voice of the shaggy and diminutive outsider. In those first seventies films (Bananas, Love and Death, Sleeper), Allen not only cleverly tweaked the WASP stereotypes that came to define masculinity and femininity; he also satirized them as role models. The eager audiences who strongly welcomed Allen's verbal and physical slapstick – a whirling affront to cultural and sexual repression – also came to relax around their own neurosis and self-doubt. Describing him as "the first post-Freudian movie comedian," critic Pauline Kael said that Allen was "the first to use his awareness of his own sexual insecurities as the basis for his humor, and when he turned psychodrama into comedy he seemed to speak – to joke – for all of us." But all of that changed once he won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director with Annie Hall in 1978. The massive success of that seminal comedy about neurosis found Woody Allen no longer perched on the outside of mainstream culture. Once accepted by the insiders of Hollywood (for a film that was partly a poison-pen letter to L.A.), he seemed to feel that he had to earn his keep in the Insider's Club. Now viewing making comedy as something akin to embracing the Golden Calf, Allen began to strive for seriousness and started emulating those dramatic artists he worshiped as his betters.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Fakery: Lady Bird

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird.

Written and directed by the actress Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is the coming-of-age story of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a Sacramento teenager whose quirks include her insistence on renaming herself Lady Bird. At the Catholic school she attends, she’s an underachiever, though she’s smart and creative; her social circle is pretty much restricted to her best pal Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who’s overweight and as much an outsider as she is. At home she’s constantly at odds with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), whose anxiety over money since Lady Bird’s dad, Larry (Tracy Letts), lost his job has turned her into a sour, one-note nag. The movie covers Lady Bird’s senior year, when she falls for two boys (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet), one after another, both of whom disappoint her in different ways, flirts with social acceptance by fibbing her way into a friendship with a cool kid (Odeya Rush), and, behind her mother’s back (but with the collusion of her sympathetic father), applies to NYU, a college beyond the family’s financial means. It is, like most coming-of-age narratives that focus on the high school experience, about the protagonist’s figuring out who she is (and who she isn’t).

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Inventory Management, Vol VI: Gotta Go Fast!

Awesome Games Done Quick took places in the Washington, D.C. area, January 7 through 14.

It’s late January, which means another Games Done Quick event has come and gone. This year, the speedrunning community beat 2017’s total by raising almost $2.3 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation over the course of the week-long event. As a colleague of mine so aptly put it, this is one of the few times of the year that we can collectively be proud to be part of gaming society, canceling out the toxicity and pettiness of normal gaming culture with an event fueled by togetherness, commiseration, and hope. I want to celebrate that spirit with this look at some of my favourite moments from this year’s Awesome Games Done Quick.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Poker Face: Molly's Game

Jessica Chastain (left) in Molly's Game. (Photo: Michael Gibson)

As Molly Bloom in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's directing debut, Molly's Game, Jessica Chastain is something of an enigma. Playing a real-life high-stakes entrepreneur who ran exclusive poker games in New York and Los Angeles for over a decade until she was arrested by the FBI, Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year) turns opaqueness into an acting style. Her glamourous deadpan tells us little about the restless hunger that propelled Bloom into hosting a motley collection of players – including Hollywood celebrities (like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire), business tycoons, gambling addicts and Russian mobsters (which would lead to federal charges against her). Chastain dons a poker face like her clients, but it reveals even less about what's going on with her than the faces of the card sharps at her table bluffing their way to a kill. In Molly's Game, the motivating force – what is hidden behind all her risky moves – is missing in the performance. It's missing in the movie, too, because Sorkin can't identify with the low cunning it takes to pull off what Bloom accomplished. He has higher ideals in his head and they've clouded his thinking.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Arcade of the Aura: In Case of Future Break Glass

“The dream has grown gray. The gray coating of dust on things is its best part. Dreams are now a shortcut to banality. Technology consigns the outer image of things to a long farewell, like banknotes that are bound to lose their value. It is then that the hand retrieves the outer cast in dreams and, even as they are slipping away, makes contact with familiar contours. . . . [W]hich side does an object turn toward dreams? What point is its most decrepit? It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims. The side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.”  Walter Benjamin, 1936
Part One: Encountering the Aura

The great German culture critic Walter Benjamin warned us early on, perhaps too early for him to be fully believed, that our relentlessly elegant procession into the machine age was also leading us into a zone where representation replaces reality. His awkward prescience may also have been compounded by the fact that few people understood fully what he was talking about, since television was in its early stages and the computer, and of course the internet, had yet to be invented.

Photography and its nervous cousin the movies were the only talismanic augers he could have used to declare that the ritual aura associated with the historical transmission of our embodied meanings in varied art formats was in danger of eroding, decaying and disappearing entirely as a result of the eventual existence of copies without an original. Like most time-ghosts (the literal meaning of the word zeitgeist) he had his finger on the pulse of a throbbing wrist that he alone could witness and interview.

He warned us that we were plunging headlong into the long farewell of a kitsch conglomerate in which meaning was incorporated into automatic systems while its former embodiments were dis-incorporated phantoms shimmering under showers of imaginary gold. Nonetheless, he invented a future conceptually, which we currently occupy physically, psychically and psychologically and which I identify as cyber-kitsch: the perpetual present.