Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

I would have to characterize this as one of the most truly bizarre spectacles ever to grace an entertainment venue. Especially one as grand as the Royal Albert Hall. It was inspired by Monty Python’s Life of Brian, the story of “the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

I like the song about the Romans, and the singer with the gap between his teeth. And the bagpipe procession. And the part about the sheep. And the love scene is particularly enticing. And the soaring “Find Your Dreams.” And of course, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” And the bonus lumberjack and Mounties.

There must be 400 musicians and vocalists, giving the silliness full-scale operatic treatment. Among the cast: Mrs. Betty Palin, who alludes briefly to her time in Alaska giving birth to a governor, and Biggus Dickus makes a cameo appearance.

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Good Hair (2009)

“Weave sex is a little awkward,” an actress named Nia Long says. “Keep your hands on the titties,” is the advice given by the barbershop men.

If I were a sociology teacher I’d show this movie in my class and we would have plenty enough to talk about for a whole semester. Definitely more to it than meets the eye.

Chris Rock has delightful spontaneous wit.
Al Sharpton is cool.
Ice-T is cool.
Maya Angelou is cool.

The dancers and models we see here are of course in excellent shape, but the ordinary citizens, the folks interviewed by in barbershops and beauty parlors, are so overweight. I’ve been studying up on obesity in America, and it really does seem like we’re being secretly poisoned by something inescapable.

It’s wrong to be judgmental or discriminatory against anybody because of their size, but I’m pretty sure that people who are 100 pounds overweight, don’t want to be, any more than I want to be however many pounds overweight I am. And medical care for the various conditions that occur alongside obesity, well, who can afford any kind of medical care any more? And how beautiful can a person feel, even with a $3,500 hair weave, when carrying around an extra 100 pounds?

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A Staggering Work of Smart Humor, Yet Serious as a Heart Attack

Rev. Billy is an activist preacher whose road show choir sings out in protest against the commercialization of Christmas. They do performance art, infiltrating Times Square or the Mall of America, where they prophesy the Shopocalypse. Finally the holy flash-mob winds up at Disneyland, home of the Antichrist, aka Mickey Mouse.

The average American spends 5 hours a week shopping, so some poor bastard is out there shopping 9 hours a week to make up for me. Some people are clinically addicted to shopping. (One such addict calls herself a shopping bulimic, always buying a mountain of stuff she can’t afford and then returning it.)

The action is interspersed with interviews with real people, and Python-esque animations, one with a sound effect that is somewhere between a Latin liturgical chant and an auctioneer’s spiel. Sometimes Rev. Billy gets arrested. And when the Stop Shopping Choir goes caroling, look out!

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The Business of Fancydancing

You want to know what chanting and ceremony are all about? Here it is. Plenty of fusion-style music too. The sound track is great. The screenplay is by poet Sherman Alexie, whose fictional stand-in is a gay Indian poet called Seymour Polatkin. The film opens with the poet reading from his work to, apparently, no audience. He’s behind a store window, so there is a glass wall between him and the people, who blithely walk by. Which is how any artist feels, at least part of the time. We see some of the reviews he has received, e.g. “Seymour Polatkin is full of shit.”

An eternal problem for the screenwriter is how to cram in all that exposition, the necessary minimum of information the viewer of this fiction really needs to know about the characters and how they got there, and where they are, and what year it is, and so on. I like how the back-story is presented here. The poet is looking at himself in a mirror, dressing for an event. Another man is in the room, standing behind Polatkin, and what he says reveals part of the back-story.

His name is Steven, and his life has been deeply affected by the poet’s work. “You wrote the poems that keep me awake,” he says. Steven recites one of the poems. What a nice, personal, loving tribute for a friend to offer. This is a father poem, and Steven confesses that he had not talked to his father for many years. “When I read your poem I picked up the phone and I called him.”

We can tell these two guys are friends, and before long it’s evident they are lovers and partners. We also learn more about the poet and his past through his public appearances. He tells a bookstore audience how he emerged from the closet and told his grandmother he was a two-spirited gay man.

Polatkin also frequents another venue, a disco where the dancers are all different kinds of people who probably wouldn’t be found together. I’m reading this as Seymour Polatkin’s subconscious, inhabited by all the people he knows from his different worlds.

That is the essence of the poet’s problem. He belongs to many cultures, and some people tell him that is the equivalent of belonging to no culture. But Polatkin isn’t buying it. Which is what makes him a poet. He talks it all out with a TV journalist, on an eerily empty stage where the two of them regard each other intensely and engage in verbal fencing matches. The Interviewer is his anima, his conscience, his guardian angel who practices tough love, an alternate personality, or some amalgam of those entities and more. It’s a very effective cinematic device to handle introspection.

On the rez, a man called Mouse has committed suicide. He was a genius violinist and a general hell-raiser. In a flashback, Mouse bitches about how Seymour Polatkin stole pieces of his life and used them in poems as if they were his own. Even though Mouse is a gifted musician, he doesn’t understand how art functions, probably not even his own. The person Mouse complains to is Aristotle. They all grew up together, and were partners in petty crime, and so on. Another flashback shows their degenerate drug habits. These rez kids huff gasoline and gases from spray cans. This film is just wonderful for finding ways to visually and aurally express thoughts and emotions. For instance, we know that Mouse understood Aristotle, whose spirit inspired some of his finest music. We aren’t told this, we see and hear it.

At a poetry reading, Seymour reads a piece about selling his blood for money to travel to Mouse’s memorial. He sees the apparition of Mouse sitting in the audience, looking real as anybody, judging the poem.

Seymour Polatkin makes it to the memorial. The 13th Step is the rez community center, its interior walls painted in vibrant colors, not bland Caucasian eggshell. Agnes is there. She’s half Jewish and half Indian. They met in college and had an affair, then Seymour told her he was gay, and switched over to men. He didn’t plan to ever go back to the reservation, but Agnes decided to move there, and teach music. She more or less accuses him of being a race traitor, but their relationship still appears to be about 90% good. They love each other in a highly individual way, and she always stoutly defends him to the others who say he’s sold out, etc.

Seymour and Aristotle started college at the same time, but Aristotle just couldn’t take it. There is a very affectionate scene between the two of them, which may be a fantasy. If nothing like this ever happened, the poet certainly wanted it to happen. Anyway, for Aristotle, the price to live in the white man’s world was just too high, and he dropped out. Even though he was, as a school official condescendingly said, “one of the bright ones.”

And Seymour, despite being both Indian and gay, preferred to take his chances in the larger world. He never did understand Aristotle going back to the stifling prison of the rez. The Interviewer also asks Aristotle many questions – which I read as Seymour’s efforts to understand his friend – but Aristotle stoically refuses to say a word. He just sits there, and finally gives a warrior yell.

At the memorial, Seymour stands up in front of the people as if to say something. He stoically remains silent, just like Aristotle did with the Interviewer. But inside he’s screaming, just like Aristotle did with the Interviewer and the bureaucrat. He walks out of the communal hall and leaves the reservation.

In the last song, the music teacher expresses her sadness for the sadness of the poet.

Extra bonus: Two “Northern Exposure” actors are in The Business of Fancydancing.

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First line written in my notebook: “Must get soundtrack.” I’m discovering musicians I never heard of before. Martha Wainwright sings “The Traitor” with exquisite textures and shapes of sound. Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen do a transcendent “Anthem” together, and I love Batalla’s old-fashioned-looking brown dress with pink sleeves. And Antony, how did I miss this guy so far? “If It Be Your Will” – is there a more perfect song? Even if he does mess up the lyrics? The guy who sings “Can’t Forget” is Jarvis Cocker, but he looks enough like Cohen to be his long-lost son.

There are songs here that I, a self-identified Cohen aficionado, don’t remember hearing before. The thing about his compositions is, they lend themselves to a wide spectrum of styles and interpretations. In 2005 a whole slew of great performers got together for a concert honoring the songwriter/poet/novelist. This is the beauty part: they’re getting seen and heard by people they never reached before, because of their purpose to express their admiration for one man. There’s something karmically satisfying about that.

The director of I’m Your Man is Lian Lunson, and the executive producer credit goes to someone I’d never have guessed in a million years – Mel Gibson.

An interview is interspersed. I’ve seen some sexy old dudes recently – Frank Langella in Starting Out in the Evening comes to mind – and now Leonard Cohen. There are short bits where he says some very illuminating things. He grew up on a diet of superhero comics. As a young man in Montreal, he hung out with a group of poets who mutually savaged each other’s work, as a learning experience. He quotes the immortal Shelley, who said poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” One thing he talks about is how he’s always been more comfortable wearing suits. (But probably didn’t when living at Big Bear, or in the Zen monastery on Mt. Baldy).

Even more illuminating are the tributes offered by other musicians. Nick Cave’s first hearing of the Songs of Love and Hate album was, he says, a life-altering experience. “It just changed things.” Rufus Wainwright says he grew up in environment where “the name Leonard Cohen was spoken frequently, with reverence.” He does a real good job here, with “Hallelujah.” Edge from U2 makes his worship evident, and then there’s Bono, who I never paid much attention to before, but now that I hear how he feels about Cohen, I like him a lot. Bono compares Leonard Cohen to Shelley or Byron, and that’s just fine

Leonard Cohen Quotations

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My top ten reasons why Boxcar Bertha immediately was a favorite the minute it came out, and stayed in the “I Heart This” category:

  • Memorable love scene
  • Horrible death scene
  • Released in what was for me the thick of the “Sixties”
  • Symbolizes the “Sixties” very adequately
  • Grandpa was a union organizer
  • Great-grandpa was an abolitionist
  • I love David Carradine because of “Kung-fu” on TV
  • In this role, Barbara Hershey reminds me of a girl I knew in Venice, CA
  • I adore Barbara Hershey
  • “Life made her an outcast. Love made her an outlaw.”

Bertha Thompson’s daddy is a crop duster, and a rich guy makes him fly even though the plane is in bad repair. Now she’s a homeless orphan, a real survivor with both guts and luck, caught in the Great Depression. She keeps running into union organizer Bill Shelly, who is characterized as a “nigger lover,” among other things. Bill is always getting the shit beat out of him by people who disagree with his politics.

They both ride the rails. Using her feminine wiles, she helps Bill and his friends escape from a chain gang. The set a car on fire on the railroad tracks so the train has to stop. They take all the money and steal the train. There are plenty of fights, car chases, crashes, fires, robberies. A newspaper story about their criminality offends Bill. To show that he’s a revolutionary, not a common crook, he decides to take his share of the loot to the union hall. Bertha amuses herself by holding two well-dressed men at gunpoint, ordering them to stand up, sit down, etc. This may have been Hershey’s finest cinematic moment, and I mean that in all sincerity.

Hershey and Carradine have both said that the sex was unsimulated, as in, they were really doing it. The movie was made at the peak of their real-life love affair, and it shows.

Bill’s sore spot is poked when people keep reminding him he’s no longer a union man, but now a common criminal. They get caught trying to kidnap a raiload tycoon. Bertha escapes, Bill is sentenced. He’s back on a chain gang again, still getting shit beat out of him.

Bertha is picked up by a woman who turns out to be a madam. An anthropologist rents her time and asks a bunch of questions. She’s reunited with Bill. They kiss, the G-men break in and capture him and nail him to side of boxcar. They put writing over his head, obvious Christ symbolism, you know, like the scroll at the top of some crucifixes. A black guy surprises them and shoots all of Bill’s enemies. The train starts to move, and he’s still nailed to the boxcar. Bertha runs alongside, “Don’t take him, don’t take him.” It’s an unforgettable image, like in Rabbit Proof Fence where the mothers run after the government goons who take their kids away.

Given the Jesus analogy, it’s kind of weird that Barbara Hershey later portrayed Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ, which, come to think of it, was also directed by Martin Scorsese. Boxcar Bertha has been called “Scorsese’s exploitation flick” and he played a small part it in, as a john in a brothel. It was produced by Roger Corman, who taught Scorsese what a $600,000 budget can do. The script was loosely based on a book, Sister of the Road, which was loosely based on the life of a real person, but apparently didn’t have much in common with her at all.

Related: Celebrities I Have Known

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How does it happen that a person who first read the Alexandria Quartet in the Sixties, and many more times since then, never saw the film Justine until now? Good question. Some people like the movie, others don’t. One critic calls it a “muddled mess.” I wouldn’t go that far, but for someone viewing it simply as a film, without the background of the books, it probably would be confusing. The Quartet itself is a Rashomon-like work, inspecting the same events from many different angles, and no movie could encompass everything that was in the novels. Still, it’s an intriguing story set in a beautiful place and peopled with extraordinary characters.

The film, directed by George Cukor, starts with a voiceover, and right away I’m thinking uh-oh, because I was taught that a voiceover is a sign of weakness, and indicates a failure of imagination on the part of the screenwriter and/or director. Fortunately, narration is used very sparingly, delivered by the character Darley (Michael York, who is a stone fox).

Melissa (Anna Karina) is part-time hooker, part-time belly dancer in one of the sleazy clubs that make up the notoriously decadent Alexandria nightlife. She wants to cut loose from the old furrier Cohen, whose mistress she used to be. A sailor puts Spanish fly in Melissa’s drink and she staggers through the streets and collapses, tormented by urchins, in front of where Darley lives, which apparently is upstairs from yet another club. He takes her in and sends for the doctor, who knows Melissa already and recites the list of her physical problems from malnutrition to alcohol to hashish, etc. Melissa is carried to the hospital, but she promises to come back and see Darley when she’s well – which she does, looking so respectable, normal and beautiful he doesn’t even recognize her at first. They start an affair and Melissa falls in love, but when Darley meets a dark, mysterious stranger, his every thought turns to the alluring Justine (Anouk Aimée).

Pursewarden is a poet and minor government flunkey. His cultural sophistication is demonstrated by, for instance, the cool Cubist art in his place. He takes Darley to the worst part of Alexandria, to a house of child prostitutes where the walls are adorned with the children’s blue handprints, to chase away evil spirits. This is very odd, but I know a Methodist church were there are handprints on the walls, blue and other colors. Many of the fine arts practiced by the Sunday School kids involve handprint-based formats. Every time I see those handprints, I think of the Alexandria Quartet.

It’s pretty creepy, how those little prepubescent hookers climb all over the two men, trying to turn them into customers. Well, if they aren’t customers, what are they doing here, anyway? Looking for Justine, who hangs out in this neighborhood a lot, searching for her lost daughter, a child whose very existence is doubted by Pursewarden. He thinks Justine is a drama queen, trying to create an intriguingly tragic aura about herself. Justine doesn’t just look for her daughter, she attacks johns in the very midst of their carnal transactions, and then gathers all the little child prostitutes around her and tells them a story. Law enforcement arrives, and Darley gets roughed up for his part in disrupting the brothel’s routine.

Old Cohen the furrier is in the hospital, and Darley runs into Justine there. In a touching gesture he returns to the old man the bottle of Melissa’s perfume he had confiscated (along with a gun) in an earlier scene. Despite Melissa’s warning that Justine is dangerous, Darley goes to the country estate to meet her husband, the wealthy Nessim Hosnani. He’s the kind of guy who, you ask him for advice, he says, “When in doubt, buy diamonds.” Justine goes around in the most opulent fur coat you’ve ever seen. Isn’t Eqypt supposed to be hot? In that time and place, were women such slaves to fashion and one-upwomanship that they wore furs to show off, despite what must have been massive discomfort? Maybe Egypt has a cold season. But nobody else seems bundled up. Still, one can’t doubt the fur, because novelist Lawrence Durrell really did live in and closely observe Alexandria.

In the novels, Nessim’s brother Narouz is disfigured by a facial birth defect, and lacks social skills, living by choice more like a serf than a rich man. In the movie, Narouz does not have a harelip and is indeed very handsome, but still savage. The religio-political reality is explained to Darley. The Coptic Christians, including the Hosnanis, are a greatly outnumbered minority whose situation grows ever more perilous, and it’s all the fault of the Brits. Darley doesn’t have time to reflect on any of this information, because Justine comes on to him in a big way. She romps naked in the waves, and soon there is romance on the beach. But Justine suddenly balks, and pushes Darley away. He is very confused until, back at the house, he finds a telescope aimed at the blanket they’d been reclining on, watched by Nessim. Then he’s even more confused, because Nessim, as always, is the perfect blandly courteous host.

Before too long, Darley and Justine do get around to making love, but the minute it’s over Justine insists on listening to Nessim make a speech on the radio, and Darley gets dressed because that kind of thing creeps him out.

Darley is with Nessim and Justine in the club where Melissa dances. Her boss makes her go out among the patrons, collecting tips. Darley gets out some bills – a whole week’s pay, as we later learn – but Justine takes his money and tucks it in Melissa’s glittery panties herself. What a bitch.

All Alexandria is at a glittering masquerade ball. Many people wear a domino, a massive hooded cloak of black, red, or white, with matching face mask. Justine gives one of the minor characters, an assertive homosexual, her very recognizable ring to wear. This fellow makes a gross pass at Narouz, who thinks it’s his own sister-in-law Justine, because of the ring. Narouz violently attacks the molester.

Pursewarden is at the ball, with his blind sister Liza. All the décor and costumes are in shades of black, white, and red, while Liza wears innocent spring green. Mountolive, the British ambassador, announces that Liza is going to marry him, which upsets Pursewarden. Then he is even more upset by Justine coming on to him. Disgusted by her whorish ways, he lashes out at her. Darley witnesses this argument, which only adds his desolation over Justine’s coldness to him.

The costumed reveler wearing Justine’s ring is soon found dead, stabbed through the brain. At first, Justine’s husband thinks it’s her, but only for a few minutes. Narouz has run away, thinking he killed Justine. He’s in a church, beseeching at the altar. Nessim asks himself what kind of a man he is, to use his wife like a whore so she can spy for him. But then again, she did volunteer.

Now there’s a little more voice-over, with Darley reflecting on how naïve he was, not to have known the Hosnanis were only using him to find out how much old Cohen had told Melissa about the armaments smuggling. Meanwhile, Justine brings a common whore over to Pursewarden’s. First he tries to kick her out. Then he decides to call Justine’s bluff, and starts making use of the prostitute, so Justine kicks her out. Then Pursewarden and Justine are very cozy and she says, “Oh, I love you, you wretched man.”

Thus subverted by Justine, Pursewarden defends the Hosnanis to the British authorities, telling his superiors that these people would never do such a thing as smuggle guns. Then he goes to the Hosnanis and tells them everything the British government knows about their clandestine financial and political activities. He ridicules Darley for continuing to moon around after Justine. But Darley is genuinely concerned about her, afraid that Nessim will kill her for her multiple infidelities. Then, he sees Justine and Nessim kiss passionately.

Confused, he tries to get Melissa back. He gives her that hot look that Omar Sharif gives Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago. But Melissa is partying with her tranny friends, and besides, she’s going away to some kind of spa to try and get over tuberculosis.

Meanwhile, Narouz is a loose cannon, venting his anxiety in hostile political rants that put the whole Coptic community in danger. Nessim tells him he’ll be sent out of the country for a while to take care of business, but Narouz gets all confrontational and calls Nessim’s wife a whore. Justine advises having him assassinated, and Nessim slaps her face.

Justine goes to the school where Darley teaches, and finds the manuscript he’s working on, which is about her. It’s a pretty strong indictment, and but still he regrets that he was not able to touch her soul. Aha, now Justine knows what he really wants, so she tells him another version of her story, something appropriately soulful that’s even worse than he thought. Yes, he’s right in suspecting that there was no accidentally lost child. There was a daughter she had at age 17 and knowingly gave away, and she’s tortured by guilt.

With the political climate heating up, the Hosnanis need protection like never before. The Muslim ruler is Memlik Pasha, whose legendary corruption is carried out in a charmingly original way. When you want to bribe such a dignitary, you don’t just wave money in his face, oh no. What you do is, locate a fine old collectible copy of the Koran, and stuff a whole lot of currency between the pages. In the privacy of his office, the Pasha counts up the money and, if it’s enough, he comes out and thanks you very much for the lovely book, which will add to the luster of his collection. Only in this case, the Koran full of cash isn’t enough. Memlik Pasha tells Nessim to send his wife over to get acquainted.

Despite Nessim’s reluctance to admit that his brother is a dangerous liability, Narouz soon ends up shot, supposedly by accident. Dying, he spits blood in Nessim’s face. In a great scene, the professional mourners set up a big lament and destroy all the deceased’s possessions, according to local custom.

Meanwhile, what’s going on with ambassador Mountolive and Liza? Well, Mountolive reproaches Pursewarden for being unkind to his sister. And then word comes that Liza has called off the engagement, and Mountolive asks Pursewarden if he knows the reason. He does, as we soon find out when Pursewarden hires Melissa in her professional capacity, but is unable to do anything. He confesses to her that he and his blind sister Liza are incestuously involved. “We can’t love anybody else,” he says. They have tried to rid themselves of each other, but can’t. Unfazed, Melissa tells him that in her life as a prostitute, she’s seen plenty of people even more twisted, so he shouldn’t feel so bad. She also tells Pursewarden that Cohen was sending guns to Palestine to kill the English. Pursewarden calls Justine to tell her he’s ratted out the Hosnanis, and she and Nessim have about an hour to get away, then he bites a cyanide capsule and dies.

But Nessim and Justine don’t flee. They stay, under house arrest and also under the protection of Memlik Pasha, who lets Nessim leave for a while every day so he can come over and have his way with Justine. Darley finds out all this on a last visit to the Hosnanis, in which Nessim also admits to him that he has been sending guns to Palestine, in return for the promise of sanctuary when things get really bad for the Copts in Egypt. Poor Darley is still nuts about Justine and asks pathetically, “Didn’t you care for me at all?”

Which reminds me of the only question I still have about the plot. Since Justine willingly used her body in the service of the political cause, seducing whoever her husband decided would be useful for information, protection, or whatever, why did she freak out and call off the tryst when she realized (from the reflection on the glass) that Nessim was watching them through the telescope? In fact, why did she pick that spot, knowing it was visible from the house? That’s what I’d like to know.

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