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A Dignified President and Movie: Brief Review

The best review of Lincoln–meaning the one I’m most in agreement with–is at the Chicago Trib. I know, that’s a real copout; but since I feel unable to do Lincoln justice, I’d just as soon direct readers to a review that does, and only mention the few insights/opinions of my own that aren’t covered in it. There are surprisingly few.

First I have to say, I have a newfound respect for Tony Kushner, who wrote the script and seems to garner praise from critics any time he produces half a page of anything. I’m probably the only person in America who did not enjoy Angels in America. Even more important, I saw Kushner share a stage with Susan Sontag at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and if she hadn’t been there I swear I would’ve walked out after the first few minutes. Kushner was tongue-tied, stammering and sputtering in response to every question directed at him until Sontag broke in and took over brilliantly. Afterwards I heard audience members complain that she’d dominated him, but I didn’t see a bully, I saw a merciful rescue mission. He came off as so moronic he reinforced and solidified my opinion of him, as well as of the public who never seemed to notice the emperor had no brains. Now, having written a brilliant script for a nearly flawless movie, Kushner’s redeemed himself in my eyes, at least partly.

The best thing about the movie is, beyond a doubt, Daniel Day Lewis‘s performance–or rather, his channeling of the 16th President. This is no artifice or act, it’s a grok of Abraham Lincoln, as if he’s taken hold of Day-Lewis’s body, and perhaps his soul as well, for a period of time. Day-Lewis has proven himself a superb actor time and again–in My Left Foot and In The Name of the Father, for starters–but as Lincoln he’s outdone himself.

Sally Field is also wonderful; she complements her screen husband and completes the First Couple as totally believable. I kind of wish Field would stop running around radio and television shows repeating the same story over and over of how she had to fight for the part. I found it distracted me from seeing her as Mary Todd, since I kept looking for the weight gain and the age-transforming makeup. Come to think of it, she’s probably telling the story hoping that nobody will think she’s quite that old and fat! Ah, vanity, thy name is Sally! Another star turn worth mentioning is the always captivating Tommy Lee Jones as Senator Thaddeus Stevens, his voice instantly recognizable even when his face isn’t.

Historical dramas always make me hungry for more information. How is it that they teach us American History in every single grade of elementary school, yet we still never get the whole story? (They should just show movies in school!) Time for me to hit the Google research button–or better yet, crack open a book. Lincoln was largely based on Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s Team of Rivals; that’s probably a good place to start.


WSS Singalong Report

Bernardo, played by George Chakiris, and Anita, played by Rita Moreno: The Dance at the Gym

I can encapsulate my feelings about yesterday’s West Side Story Singalong in one concise sentence: It was not my favorite way of viewing West Side Story. Since I’m prone to much more verbiage than that, however, I will elaborate.

The singing itself was kinda fun—it was nice to be able to sing as loudly as I wanted without anyone shushing me. I probably should have expected the words to be captioned on screen, and really, what’s the big deal that they were? But I couldn’t help feeling this was cheating. I’d gotten grumpy even before the movie started, when the two women who organized the program got up on stage to give us our instructions. Seriously—they told us how to wave our hands, when to shake the little lights they handed out, and which characters to sympathize with out loud (Baby John and Anybodys). As if the PC audience wouldn’t have known! They demonstrated their impeccable principles by hissing, laughing and making noise at appropriate moments.

Silly me, I thought Singalong meant simply that we would sing along, and I even wondered if I’d be allowed to say some of the dialog as well. Hah! There was so much extracurricular participation it was annoying, especially the hissing. At every Puerto Rican slur—and if nothing else WSS is a portrayal of ethnic hatred—they hissed. Okay, I wanted to shout, we get it, you don’t approve, you’re a good person!  I may even have muttered something like this at some point, but if anyone heard they ignored me. Almost as annoying as the hissing was the laughter—they laughed at some of the outdated dancing and the corny love dialog.

These are the artists who worked on West Side Story: Music—Leonard Bernstein; Lyrics—Stephen Sondheim; Choreography—Jerome Robbins; Director—Robert Wise. Listen up, morons: You don’t laugh at these giants of the theater. You just don’t. Yes, some of the dancing is outdated—but in 1962 it was new and revolutionary. Yes, when the Jets glide down the street in the opening number they look kind of silly: after all, they’re supposed to be gangsters. But WSS began as a Broadway musical, and in this scene the Jets are claiming their turf. That’s the way it was done, and it’s the kind of thing that’s still done on Broadway.

Ironically, when I saw WSS at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, a bunch of African-American teenage boys laughed their asses off during that scene—but by the time we got to “The Jets Song” they were speechless, and remained so for the rest of the picture. Not so the sophisticated audience at the Castro: they kept laughing. (By the way, I was surprised that the Castro wasn’t filled with gay men, but hetero couples and groups of young women. I’d expectedgay men to come out in droves since they love musicals—or has this changed?. Also, most of West Side Story’s male dancers were probably gay.)

During one love scene, with everyone cracking up, I asked a young woman sitting next to me what was so funny, was it the corny dialog, and she said yes, that was it. But I suspect the laughter comes from the same place as the hissing—as proof of sophistication.

I’ve never been to any Singalong, other than a piano bar, before this. I can see how certain movies—like The Sound of Music, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show—lend themselves to the format. In the case of WSS, however, it seemed like a trivialization.  Maybe I’m being over sensitive because of how precious WSS is to me. Then again, it is a remake of Romeo and Juliet, one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies. Shouldn’t we show some respect?

On Friendship: Sex and the City (Film)

 This was written a few years ago and posted on my memoir blog, which I took down about a year ago. I thought I’d moved it onto this blog, but apparently I didn’t. I’m putting it up now, and if it seems out of date, that’s why.

I just saw SEX AND THE CITY, and it was the best two-and-a-half hours I’ve spent since I rented the TV show’s DVDs. Fashion, beauty, love, sex, laughter, The Big Apple…plus, it’s a very secure feeling to know, when everything falls apart, it’ll all be made right at the end. The movie was panned, mercilessly and unfairly, in the NY Times. Hey, nobody’s saying this is high art. For what SATC  is, it was well done. A lot of scenes had me tearing up, especially at the tender way Carrie’s friends take care of her, and I realized that a big appeal of the show lies in its romantic view of friendship. In an age when we’re not supposed to romanticize romance, the romantic impulse in SATC is superimposed onto friendship instead. Maybe that’s what I always liked about the series.

Friendship is a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot this century, almost as much as I think about aging. In the last century I had dozens of friendships, ranging in longevity from three to forty-five years. I’m talking close friends, not mere acquaintances, mostly women, some in California, some in New York. Today I have almost none. I lost a few people to the Grim Reaper, but the others either drifted away, intentionally dumped me, or I dumped them. Some of the dumpings were as dramatic and painful as the deaths. I’ve spent much of this century trying to figure out what happened.

Before I could figure out the breakups I had to look clearly at the relationships as they were. One reason I’m so moved by the friendships in SATC is that I’ve never in my life had friends who treated me the way these women treat one another. Charlotte sat on the bed and spoon-fed Carrie during her meltdown. Miranda the attorney saved her apartment, and Samantha arranged to move all her belongings back into it—all accomplished while sitting on a veranda in Mexico, where they’d gone to nurse Carrie back into a reasonable semblance of human. Who has friends like these, much less three of them? I wish!

I used to say that the women in SATC were like no women I’ve ever known, that the show was a gay man’s fairy tale…but I suspended disbelief because I love fairy tales. What I was talking about then was the clothing, the clubbing, the fabulous life they led, the money. Let’s be real: no New York columnist at Carrie Bradshaw’s level, writing three times a week, makes enough bucks to pay New York City rent, much less buy Manolo Blahnik shoes with regularity. Now I realize it’s the actual friendship, the heart of SATC, that’s the real fairy tale. Contemporary women are beyond the myth of Happily Ever After with the Prince—but we still believe it can happen with girlfriends.

I used to consciously and seriously believe in friendship. It was one of my core values. Back in the 70s, when I got into consciousness-raising and the women’s movement, one of the first illusions that got tossed, along with the bras and leg-shaving gear, was romantic love. We actually held seminars and workshops on the subject. You’d be ridiculed if you believed that coupledom, as we sneeringly called it, could save you. It wasn’t just theoretical, either—I’d been married, I’d done the whole husband-kids-picket fence routine, and found it wanting.

We believed in forms of group living as a Solution, an antidote to the nuclear family, a phrase as loathsome to us as coupledom. Maybe a variation of the Israeli kibbutz would save us, maybe Chinese Socialism. We read up on these things, studied them. The hippie commune is now an old joke, but many of them were serious efforts to forge a better way of life, to raise happier kids. I lived in two or three group situations, all disastrous in one way or another. Still, though I came to the conclusion that communal living was my own worst nightmare, I didn’t stop believing in friendship as the key to a good life. I put a lot of time and energy into my friendships, as much as I put into my kids and each of my serially monogamous relationships—maybe even more, to my everlasting regret. As an investment in the future…better stick to blood, it really is thicker than water—though I haven’t had much luck in that department either.

You’d think by now I’d be done idealizing freindship, but, while I may be disillusioned, I’m not completely cynical. If I were, I wouldn’t  be so enamored of Carrie Bradshaw and Company. Somewhere deep inside, I still believe that do-or-die freindships exist. I imagine that a lot of other people, or at least women, have them; in fact I know that some women do. I’m always reading stories by older women who say it’s their friends who pull them through. Just this year I read a memoir by Isabel Allende and another by Lilian Rubin, both praising their glorious friendships. I know a San Francisco woman whose birthday parties I used to go to—the last one I attended was her 70th—where dozens of devoted women come to honor her with gifts of poetry and love. These aren’t casual acquaintances, either, but intimate friends, nurtured during four decades of living, working, and political activism in SF.

I don’t want dozens of close friends. One or two would suffice. At a relatively late age, in my forties, I began a new friendship that turned out to be far healthier and more positive than previous relationships. Andrea’s primary life work was collecting people, and when we met, through a mutual friend’s death, she signed on for life. (People in New York tend to be that way—whomever you stumble into can end up a lifetime connection from which you can’t opt out without major drama. Californians, I’ve found, are more transient, drifting in and out of each other’s lives with little fanfare). During the eighteen years I knew Andrea, I learned what had been missing in previous friendships. I also faced up to my own failings as a friend, and learned how to do better. When she told me she had lung cancer, I confess that my first selfish reaction was self-pity: I’d finally found a real friend, so of course she was going to die. And she did.

Until 2003 my longest lasting friendship was one that began in high school. We gave lip service to the depth of our love and loyalty, but the truth is, our friendship came nowhere near SATC quality. In addition, vast gulfs of differences existed between us: she was the stable housewife and mother, and, like so many Americans, assumed hers was the normal life, mine aberrent. Once, after our kids were grown, she said it was a miracle that mine turned out so well despite my lifestyle. I wanted to say, maybe it’s because of our lifestyle, but my inability to defend myself was by then ingrained in our relationship.

Despite our differences, we had an intense emotional bond, a gut-level connection that was, at certain times and under certain circumstances, deeply satisfying. Our conversations could be profound, often spiritual. The odd thing was, while in some ways I was invisible to her, on another level she knew me better than anyone else. I loved her, and I love her still—but sometimes love is not enough.

The friendship ended during a health crisis that put me into the hospital seven times in one year. For the next two years I was sick, poor, and profoundly dissatisfied with my life, and she got tired, she said, of my “negativity.” At this time other friendships also fell by the wayside. Not only didn’t people help me when I was sick, they couldn’t even tolerate me. Yes, I was whiny; yes, I cried and complained a lot—but I don’t care how negative or insufferable I might have been at that time…what the fuck are friends for?

One friend in New York who I held onto happened to call a few minutes after I arrived home after four days in hospital. I was all alone, frightened about taking care of myself, and was trying to figure out the medication instructions the nurse had given me. Unable to make head or tail of them, feeling utterly lost, I answered the phone crying. From 3000 miles away, Joani called the hospital and got the information, then called me back to deliver it. At that time I had friends in San Francisco who told me, “Gee, I wish I could help you, but I’m all the way on the other side of the bridge.” So, yes, Joani is a keeper.

Unlike four or five other alleged friends.

For almost 30 years I’d been helping S. with her health crises—taking her to doctors, writing bureaucratic letters for her, giving her a television when hers broke, always making her musical compilations. I never expected much from her because of her own health problems, but she did manage to go out to a play or movie from time to time…so why couldn’t she visit me just once? Another friend stuck it out for a few months, even drove me home from the hospital once, but then she decided we were “going in different directions.” She was trying to be spiritual and kind, she explained, while I was becoming bitter and negative. After fifteen years of friendship, she walked out the door because I wasn’t being spiritual enough for her.

I’m aware that in reciting this litany of complaints against others, I’m opening myself to judgment and disbelief: when we hear stories like these, we automatically wonder what we’re not hearing—the other side. We read between the lines, imagining the awful deeds this person must have done to deserve so much bad treatment. It’s true my ex-friends have their own points of view, and for sure I’m no angel. But from my point of view, this is what happened. At the age of 63 I’ve become someone I never in a million years thought I would be: a lonely, isolated senior with few resources and no support system.

It’s a cliché, isn’t it—the notion of fair weather friends,  the old saw that in times of need you find out who your real friends are. The only thing is, I should have found it out long ago. I’d led a life full of crises as the single mother of a son who had seizures and surgical procedures. I felt quite alone with all that—and it wasn’t just a feeling. I see now that I just couldn’t bear to face the truth: I’d already given up on romantic love and the nuclear family; if I gave up on friendship, what would be left?

My mother used to tell me, “You can never count on anyone but yourself.” I scoffed at her cynicism. My generation was different. We’d care for one another. All you need is love and so forth. But as it turns out, to employ another cliché, Mother was right. My life has shown me that all I can count on is myself. I loved watching Sex and the City because it offered a momentary escape from that harsh reality, a few minutes or hours to pretend that life can be the way I used to think it should be.

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Kissing Jessica Stein

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I just adored this movie. I don’t know, maybe I’d notice problems on a second viewing, but it seemed perfect in every way on the first. Jennifer Westfeldt as Jessica is exactly right as a somewhat conservative young woman who’s nervously bi-curious; she sets out to scratch her itch, kicking and screaming all the way. Her family, especially her loving mama (Tovah Feldshuh, a regular guest lawyer on Law & Order who deserves more acting exposure), gives great Jewish attitude. Girlfriend Helen (Heather Juregensen) is gorgeous and thoroughly believable as a bi woman who’s as comfortable blending her sexuality as she is blending 3 lipsticks. (Westfeldt and Juregensen wrote the script as well.)

Jessica’s jumpy jitters about coming out—a phrase that’s never uttered but runs silently through every scene—and her fear of admitting she’s involved in a – gasp! – lesbian relationship is entirely believable: within minutes I was reeling back to my first serious relationship with a woman, in which I felt natural and altogether right when we were indoors alone or with other women, but was secretly and silently freaked out the minute we stepped outside. Unlike Jessica’s long period of foreplay, which lasted something like 3 months, I acted as if I was rarin’ to go, but deep inside I was as terrified as she was. That fear vanished in afterglow–but fear of coming out to old friends, co-workers, and family never went away. I wonder if that means the movie’s dated, considering that my “coming out” occurred in the mid-70’s, and in Jessica Stein we’re talking about last year. I don’t think so, though: human emotions are eternal, and besides, though attitudes have certainly changed , families and co-workers of those who step over the line, no matter how liberal they want to be, just aren’t universally sanguine about it.

Other than that tiny possibility, there’s not a false note in this film. It’s funny and occasionally poignant, without the saccharine sentimentality usually injected into the topic. Oh and by the way, it’s also sexy—very. Not as in X-Rated, more as in real life. Maybe as lesbian movies improve they’ll erase the memory of Lianna, a feeble attempt by John Sayles to normalize lesbianism that included the most distasteful portrayals of human sexuality, of any kind or gender, I have ever seen.

I don’t want to give away the ending to KJS, so I won’t say anymore about the plot. Rent it today, girlfriend, and see it with a girl. Or boy.  Afterwards play Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl .

Sophie’s Alleged Choice

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The meaning of the original choice Sophie was forced to make in the movie (and novel)  Sophie’s Choice is becoming more and more diluted as people inappropriately use it for wacky or trivial metaphors. I wonder if those who throw the phrase around in reference to breakfast choices, or where to go on vacation, have any idea of what it is they’re referring to. Having seen Sophie’s Choice when it came out in 1982, I still haven’t lost the mental image of that awful movie moment. To refresh my memory before writing about it, I visited YouTube and watched the scene again.

(SPOILER ALERT: This is a closing scene to a film that, until this moment, had avoided revealing the “choice” alluded to in the film’s title. I am also telling it below.)

To recap: Sophie, a young mother of two played by Meryl Streep, has been taken to a Nazi camp. She stands on a long line holding her daughter in her arms, her son standing beside her, waiting to be….killed? processed? sent to work? The people on line don’t know where they’re going, they’ve only heard whispers of rumors in the ghetto. A Nazi soldier comes walking slowly down the line, and stops in front of Sophie to admire her beauty. He asks her if she’s one of those “dirty Commies” or if she’s Jewish. The terror on her face intensifies with his every word, but finally he walks away without doing anything.

But then Sophie calls desperately after him, obviously thinking to save herself and her kids: “I’m not a Jew, I am Catholic, I believe in Christ.” Apparently she’s unaware that the Nazis also hated Catholics, and that she’s blundered. The Nazi comes back and tells her that, since she’s not a Jew, she can keep ONE of her children; she must choose which one. Of course, she can’t, and just as the Nazi is about to take both kids away from her, Sophie puts the girl down on the ground, gives her a little push, and says, “Take my daughter.” She is instantly sorry, as the Nazi walks off carrying the screaming little girl over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

Streep’s facial expressions here are incredible, and the whole scene is just devastating. Watching it yesterday for only the second time ever, I saw more in it than I had the first time around. For one thing, had Sophie just kept quiet, the Nazi would’ve kept on walking; it is her insistence that she deserves saving for not being Jewish that brings about that terrible “choice.” (Of course, something horrendous, maybe even worse, though worse is unimaginable, might have happened ten minutes later anyway.) On this viewing I also realized that in this moment Sophie turns insane, that it explains everything we’ve seen of her up until now.

Now, 30 years later, someone says, “It’s the Sophie’s Choice of the fashion industry.” People! Get a grip! There can be no such thing as a Sophie’s Choice of the fashion industry! On the sitcom Happily Divorced, Fran must choose who to take with her on her free trip to Mexico – her best friend or her ex-husband. She throws up her hands and cries, “This is like Sophie’s choice!” Ex-hubby replies, “Sophie chose the male.” Is anyone else offended? Actually, I’m not offended: I’m stunned.

Thinking about all this got me to pondering the perks of growing old: I’ve been around long enough to have seen Sophie’s Choice, and to know that the way people are using it is bizarre. Similar realizations occur these days about a lot of things, not just movies: as we age we get to observe behavioral patterns, historical events, societal changes, and people’s reactions to all of the above. We’ve accumulated tons of data in our memory banks (even if some of it is frequently inaccessible!) This must be what they mean by wisdom. If we pay attention, we don’t just grow older, but wiser.

I’m paying attention.

A pocketbook named The Sophie’s Choice