Thursday, April 30, 2020

A very slender and very odd movie

At a mere 117 minutes in length, no one will accuse Deerskin, of trying to overstay its welcome. A darkly hued comic offering from France, Deerskin stars Jean Dujardin (The Artist) as a sour middle-aged man whom we meet while he's driving. Georges's wife evidently gave him the boot and he's on the road. Early on, Dujardin's Georges lets us know he's on a wacky quest: He pulls up at the home of a guy who's trying to sell a heavily fringed deerskin jacket that looks as if it has been gathering dust since the 1960s. Although the jacket is a couple of sizes too small, a delighted Georges buys it. He then checks into a small hotel, where he admires the jacket for its "killer style" and often talks to it. As it happens, the guy who sold Georges the jacket also threw in a video camera, which enables Georges to present himself as a filmmaker. Conveniently, he meets Denise (Adele Haenel), a local bartender who aspires to be a film editor. He persuades her to finance his film. But that's not all. Driven by an absurd and entirely senseless ambition, Georges dreams of eliminating every other jacket in the world. It may take some time, but he wants his deerskin beauty to become the only surviving jacket. Georges begins filming his bizarre attempts to rid the world of jackets -- which eventually turns bloody as Georges's mania blossoms. But, hey, a film still must be made. Denise decides that even without a script, Georges's footage might make a movie. Director Quentin Depieux's drab palette doesn't do much to up the ante of a movie that's as slender as one of the fringes on Georges's beloved jacket. Georges's ignorance about filmmaking can be amusing but Deerskin is too closeted in its oddball conceit to find much by way of meaning.

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 2, No. 6 "Rest assured, dearie. We'll all bowl again"

Staying on an even keel during a pandemic has been challenging. The already steep pile of bad news continues to grow on both the economic and health fronts -- even as occasional glimmers of hope pierce the darkness.

Who could help but be buoyed by the announcement that the drug, Remdesivir may have a beneficial effect in treating Covid19? Even the ever-cautious Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and possibly the most trusted man in America, seemed cheered by the news that those who contract the virus may now have a drug-mediated pathway to recovery.

The biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences makes Remdesivir. No one seemed to be bothered by the fact that Gilead was the name novelist Margaret Atwood assigned to the oppressive society that took over the US in The Handmaid's Tale. Never mind the biblical references that may have inspired Atwood. If Gilead produces the cure, bring it on. I'm not about to quibble over the name.

So I approached Thursday’s newspapers with a bit of optimism. It didn't last.

My mood soured when I read a quote in a Denver Post story about a briefing given by Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who was discussing the state's plan to ramp up testing. Good. A plan, I thought. But Polis also emphasized that his limited approach to opening the state’s economy did not yet apply to Colorado's older population or those at high risk.

"We can't wait until our senior friends can go back to bowling leagues and movie nights," said Polis. "But that's not in May."

Please, governor. Not in May? How about not ever?

If you've paid any attention to Polis's pronouncements during the pandemic, you may (like me) be tempted to say that the governor has a tin ear or, if you want to take it a step further, that he has no idea how to talk about the aging part of the population.

Look, I have nothing against bowling, bowling leagues, or any other organized activity for seniors. Obviously, I've had my share of movie nights -- although I still manage to drive myself to the theater. I bristle at the suggestion that all seniors group together to attend movies. Most people over 65 still can hold their own popcorn.

When a politician talks about being eager to see "our senior friends" go back to anything, he's indulging in a stereotypical description that doesn't fit anyone I know.

As a person on the cusp of 77, I know lots of people in their 70s and some in their 80s. These include practicing attorneys, physicians, architects, artists, writers, journalists, members of various non-profit boards, therapists, educators, and filmmakers. They frequent restaurants, museums, art galleries, theaters, movies, and concerts. They maintain their homes and pay taxes.

I can't vouch for the hair color of all of them, but none of them have blue hair.

As far as I know, all of them are staying home because they have no desire to contract the virus or make anyone else sick.

That isn't easy for people who don't try to segregate themselves from the more youthful parts of society.

Many of the people I know can tell you stories about being slighted because of age. Most of them shrug such things off in good-humored fashion. Sometimes they'll offer a corrective to the offending party, a waitperson who might thoughtlessly use words such as "hon” -- an abbreviation for the equally offensive "honey'' -- when addressing an older customer.

Oops. "Hon" isn't a word, is it?

Look, I'm talking about active folks who contribute to society even while keeping one eye peeled for the approaching Reaper.

And, oh yeah, they also vote. As one of his "senior friends," I suggest that the 44-year-old governor of Colorado give that some thought next time he’s tempted to characterize those who only see 65 when looking into life's rearview mirror.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 2, No. 5 Thoughts on another day at home

I live in Colorado, a state that has taken a patchwork opening to its economy — all based, we’re told, on careful scrutiny of data. The governor wants one kind of opening. Counties in the metro-Denver area (wisely, I think) have pumped the breaks on Polis’s plan.

If I were the kind of Coloradan who found the distant view of the Rockies beckoning like a siren call, I’d be itching to visit Eagle County (open). Maybe I’d do it. But what if I were asymptomatic and my visit re-igniteed a virus hotspot that seems to have cooled?

Don’t worry, Eagleistas. I’m not going anywhere, which pretty much describes my approach to life prior to the beginning of these seeming endless Corona days.
It’s not that I love being home, it’s more that I have no particular desire to be anywhere else.

I keep thinking about a flight to Seattle and then a train trip to Vancouver. Someone once told me that in Vancouver, you can restaurants devoted entirely to congee, a rice porridge often sprinkled with various ingredients. Denver has some superior Chinese restaurants, but few people I know like congee as much as I do. It’s almost always served in large orders. Most often, I pass.

As tempting as I find Vancouver, thinking and doing remain cousins once removed in my world.

I’ve visited Italy nine times, mostly because my wife is an artist and has conducted workshops there. I happily would return, except ... well ... you know why a visit to Italy has become ill-advised, at least for a while.

Then there’s the trip east to see children and grandchildren. Yes, I miss being able to do that, but I don’t miss airports, airplane seating so tight I have trouble even looking at an iPad while flying. The proximity to other passengers on the average flight shatters all notions of personal space even when you’re not looking at others as possible sources of contagion.

When the virus began its relentless march across the globe, many well-meaning souls told us that we should be kind to one another — or perhaps especially kind. I think we’d have been better off with a different motto: Borrowing from physicians, we should remind ourselves to “do no harm.”

That means wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and not pretending that life continues as normal.

I watch kids race through my neighborhood on skateboards and wonder if their parents have explained to them what six-feet apart means and why it matters. I’ve seen mask-wearing bikers (good) and more non-mask wearing bikers (not good). The same goes for joggers.

The virus should remind us of something that we too often forget. Unless you're privy to Howard Hughes-like seclusion, we all breathe the same air.

I’m writing this on Sunday. I know it’s Sunday because the newspapers I read are larger than they are on weekdays. Reading them has become an occasion to experiencing alternating bouts of depression and outrage — with a very occasional flash of humor, some of it even intended.

I’ve gained a new appreciation for what it means to be politically engaged. I’ve sent more emails to politicians than I have in my entire pre-corona virus, where the number never broke two or three. I learned that my local representatives — city council members, county officials, state representatives, etc. — actually answer emails.

I mean they really answer them as opposed to automatically sending a boilerplate response that may or may not address the concerns I’ve raised.

The rest? Well, they’re all very busy I suppose.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned. If you want a voice in decisions that impact your life, you must be persistent. You can’t throw up your hands in resignation even when your pleading seems pointless. You have to stay the course.

Activists already know this but, by nature, I’m not an activist. I didn’t become a journalist because I value active participation over observation.

And while we’re on the subject of journalism. Of course, I worry about the future of journalism. The best journalism isn’t done on the phone or over Zoom calls or at press conferences and briefings. It’s done by men and women who value being there, there being wherever the story is breaking. Next time you read an article in a newspaper keep track of the number of telling details you find.

When I was a young reporter, I remember a story a friend wrote about a hotel fire in Syracuse, New York. He pointed out that the conflagration was so hot it melted the clock in the lobby. A Rocky Mountain News reporter once went to the home of then-Mayor Bill McNichols looking for a reaction to something or other. After looking through a window, the reporter noted that the mayor’s living room boasted a badly-tuned color TV. (Remember the days when adjusting the color on a television set was a thing?)

For me, those are the delights of journalism and they aren’t always easy to find — being present with eyes wide open, sensitive to the minute as a possible window into the heart of any matter.

I often wonder whether I didn’t make a mistake by shifting my journalistic life into movie reviewing and I’m sure many readers often wondered the same thing when they found one review or another to be particularly off base.

These days, the virus practically has eliminated our ability to experience the world, something already encouraged by the virtual virus that has consumed us all. A Zoom call from your home office isn’t the same as being in the same room with someone. On Zoom, we take in more a face, a voice, and a little bit of background, making judgments based on the narrowest of frames. It’s the difference, say, between squinting and seeing.

Yesterday, I read a story about R0 and what it means. R0 is the average number of people who will contract a disease after contact with a single person. Obviously, the lower the R0 number the better.

As I read the story, I realized how much talk we’ve lately heard about models, curves, possible rebounds, contact tracing, and more. All important — and none capturing lived reality, none explaining why I suddenly find myself overwhelmed by an unexpected wave of sadness, none of them capturing the feeling of the crucial gulf between inside and outside.

Based on all that I’ve read, I think the interests of the economy (no small matter) are best served by putting health considerations first, that that’s the best way to reclaim experience, move back into the larger world, and ensure that people can make a living.

And, yes, I also think those who suffering economically should be helped — immediately and generously. And the only vehicle for doing that is a well-run government that knows how to put money into people’s hands — and get it to those who need it most.

On a common-sense level, I look at it this way: When I’m sick, I don’t ask a politician for a cure. I do what every sensible person does, I see a doctor.

The ills of the economy are a whole other matter and are best addressed when we’re not all in a panic — low or high level — about who among us will be here when our beloved malls finally reopen and we can again do what we Americans seem to do best: consume.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

This gang battles long odds

The True History of the Kelly Gang is a bit of a jumble, but it's not easy to shake off.

A man-child sprung from an abusive boyhood, Ned Kelly became an outlaw legend in Australia. Kelly also became the subject of author Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The True History of the Kelly Gang, source of a wild-ass movie of the same name.

Working in an appropriately feverish style, director Justin Kurzel has made a movie that’s difficult to digest — and maybe that’s its greatest virtue. Kurzel's "true history" brims with stylistic embellishment, unvarnished brutality, and unfocused passion.

As the adult Kelly, George Mackay (1917) gives a scowling, fiery performance. Mackay's Kelly is pushed into violence through a mixture of what might be psychopathy, conviction, and horrible circumstances. Like many of the Irish in British-ruled Australia of the mid-19th century, Kelly was born into an oppressive, impoverished world.

Among his many peculiarities, Kelly wore a bulletproof helmet — inspired by pictures he’d seen of the USS Monitor. His gang sometimes dressed in … well … dresses. Like the western outlaws he resembled, Kelly thrilled and terrorized.

All of this can seem strange to American audiences who either haven’t read Kelly’s novel or are otherwise unfamiliar with Kelly whose life was a study in brutality — both of the rough terrain on which he lived and the violent behavior to which he was driven.

Kurzel doesn’t so much plumb psychological depths as he carries on a flirtation with the motivations of his characters. Kelly loved his mother (Essie Davis), but she had strange ways of returning his love. While still a boy (played by Orlando Schwerdt), Kelly was sold by his mother to an outlaw, Russell Crowe’s Harry Power. Power became a kind of surrogate father to Kelly, whose real father died after serving a prison sentence. Kelly was 12 at the time.

Power alternately introduces the boy to the high life (steak dinners) while encouraging his brutality. Power accepted no one who couldn’t, as he put it, “pull the trigger.”

Looking bearded, thick and unkempt, Crowe appears in an early chapter of the story. When Power vanishes from the screen, Crowe's absence is felt, but not before he reminds us of how good he can be.

The duplicities of the British are deeply ingrained in a British constable (Nicholas Hoult). Kelly's romantic life, such as it was, focuses on a prostitute portrayed by Thomasin McKenzie. Another British officer (Charlie Hunnam) sexually harasses Kelly’s mother in the movie’s early going, part of the movie's attempts to show the strange intimacies between oppressors and the oppressed.

To his credit, Kurzel likes to blur lines. We don’t always know whether to feel sorry for Kelly or be revolted by him. Crowe’s character is down-to-earth but homicidal, and Kelly’s mother proves a mass of contradictory impulses: Love and cruelty among them.

I wasn’t tempted to spend much time researching the real Kelly and the film begins with a wink that subverts any need for pinpoint accuracy. Nothing you’re about to see is true,” we’re informed by a title card.

Kurzel’s feverish approach often left me bleary-eyed, but the director and his cast have hold of something weird, raw, and gripping, a subject they either couldn’t or didn’t want to contain. But even when we don’t quite know what to make of The True History, it's difficult to turn away.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 2:, No. 4 -- I'm now invisible — and it ain’t no movie

In a long-ago conversation, Patti Thorn — then the book editor of The Rocky Mountain News — told me that she once asked her father to tell her what he considered the worst thing about aging. A lawyer by trade, her father told her that as one becomes older, one becomes increasingly invisible.

If you haven’t had your 70th birthday yet, you may want to stop reading here or you can consider this a preview of coming attractions.

The argument goes something like this: Once you are no longer a certifiably productive member of the economy, your status as a human being begins to diminish. If you don’t believe me, I can assure you that it’s true: Even doctors, who should know better, don’t talk to me in quite the same way they did when I was 50 — and I’m in relatively good health on the eve of my 77th birthday.

The average lifespan for an American male in 2017 was 78.5 years. On average, women get another three-plus-years?

Should I allow that number to determine whether I get my next colonoscopy? Do I really want discounted multiple-year subscriptions to any of the magazines I read? How soon will it be before I'm reluctant to start a 500-page book?

One of the signs that you’ve gotten old arrives when you’re in a room full of your grown children and their children and they all begin talking about you in the third person. They might say things such as, “He didn’t hear you,” which might or might not be true, but which they yell at one another as if they’re the ones who are having difficulty hearing.

And, yes, my hearing isn’t what it used to be.

My personal march toward invisibility took another big step Monday, when Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado, debuted his “Safer at Home” plan as part of his phased (I’d say jumbled and possibly unworkable) plan to reopen Colorado’s economy.

As a person who by age has taken up residence in a high-risk group, I’m not ashamed to say I'm rattled. But wait: If I get seriously ill, there may be a hospital bed for me. Capacity levels are strong in Colorado. I’ll have a fighting chance at recovery. What more could I want?

My governor tells me that the solution for me is to remain in self-isolation. So unless we grocery shop at the same stores, you won’t be seeing me for at least a month. And even, then, you may not recognize me because I’ll be wearing a mask.

In fact, I may be wearing a mask well into the indefinite future whenever I’m in public. My face will stay hidden until there's a vaccine, a fact that many may regard as one of the few blessings of this otherwise cruel moment.

“Now it (social distancing) enters the time of individual responsibility and choices,” said the governor at a Monday briefing. “And I trust the people of Colorado to make good choices.”

Individual responsibility is good, but it's no substitute for vigorous government action during a life-threatening pandemic -- at least that's my view.

For the record, I’m going to remain self-isolated, invisible to most, and, if I’m lucky, alive.

For some seniors, it’s also a time of Russian roulette should they choose not to stay home.

“Your May will look like your April if you are 75 or 80, and this is important because this is Russian roulette if you are that age,” he said.

Russian roulette? He couldn’t find a less ominous metaphor? I and many of the people with whom I socialize during normal times are now playing Russian roulette with our lives? Maybe we should all re-watch The Deer Hunter (1978), the movie that dealt with Russian roulette as a form of war-induced madness. We can imagine the virus screaming as it leers over us, enjoying our fear.

But back to the more general subject of invisibility. Let me say it plainly: The fewer predictable life years that lie ahead of you, the less valuable your life may become — economically and socially.

Albert Einstein was 76 when he died. Einstein or an unemployed member of Generation Z who’s living in his parents’ basement? I don't mean to be crass, but bye-bye, Albert.

Feel reassured by the steady, data-driven intelligence of Dr. Anthony Fauci. He’s 79. See ya, doc.

Just turned 80? Prepare for society to say bon voyage. Oh, and by the way, no one’s going to be popping any champagne corks at your farewell.

You may be gone old-timer, but — at least in Colorado — the nail salons will be open and those who wish to do so will be able to get a tattoo.

Hey, no one ever said life isn’t about trade-offs.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 2, No. 3 -- Finding new meaning in an old song

So here's a final word of warning:
You're gonna wake up dead some morning
Then you'll cry: 'How 'bout that guy?
I don't believe he was telling a lie'
So take it from me, as hard as you try
As long as you live, you'll be dead if you die

I’ve been thinking about this 1938 song by the great Louis Armstrong, particularly during the Covid-19 crisis.

A mixture of sarcasm and rue about a lover’s s betrayal, the song can live in an entirely different coronavirus context. These days, I hear it as a message to those who insist that no day is complete without the huff and puff of jogging, the intense churn of bicycle pedals or the near-religious commitment to a brisk 10,000 steps.

I see you all when I’m walking my dog, wearing my mask and wondering about those who somehow fail to understand that at this moment, health means staying home, not using city streets to raise your heart rate.

And speaking of staying home, I’m a great supporter of sheltering in place and I'm surprised that everyone doesn't take to it. Aren't we supposed to be a culture obsessed with “family values?" Isn't being at home with those you love the greatest of privileges?

I’ve never quite understood what family values are, but they come across as a saccharine version of the notion that we derive comfort and strength from the relationships that accrue to us through a mixture of choice and genetics, so sweet they might drive even Pollyanna to the nearest bar stool.

I mean we choose our spouses but we don’t decide who are grandparents should be or whether they should expose tender young souls to glasses in which a full set of false teeth rest quietly overnight, as my grandmother, who I loved immensely, did.

So, in this time of necessary togetherness, I ask, how do you like that family now? Getting on each other’s nerves yet?

Art never has been entirely kind to families, mostly because it’s based on real experience, not fantasy. Ask Eugene O’Neill — regarded by some as America’s greatest playwright — what he thought about families.

But then you don’t have to ask him, you can read Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

The Godfather, a great American movie, deals perceptively with the intimacies and treacheries of family life.

Look what happened to the Corleones. What do you think Fredo might have to say about brotherly love?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not making a case for lifting shelter-in-place orders just because that teenager of yours screams in your face, "Mask? I don't have to wear no stinkin' mask."

I don’t get the folks who feel as if they’re losing their liberties by helping to protect the health of others.

I thought that the governor of my state, Jared Polis of Colorado, made a hyperbolic mistake by referring to stay-at-home orders as “draconian.”

To me, “draconian” would involve mandatory viewings of The Sound of Music or maybe being ordered to spend the rest of your life using only restrooms at gas stations.

Because of a shortage of testing, we can’t know who has the Covid-19 virus. If you’re asymptomatic, you can infect others. In part, that’s what “stay-at-home” is about.
I’m sure during the course of more than 40 years of reviewing, I’ve made some readers sick But I’ve never written a review with that as a goal.

Enough for a Saturday, except to say this is no time to contract a case of the warm, fuzzies.

A late friend, gone before coronavirus, once mordantly observed that all American movies are, at heart, about the true meaning of Christmas. You can see some of that spirit in the advertisements flooding TV about the virus. We’re all in this together. You may be isolated in that one-room apartment with only a trip to the grocery store to relieve your loneliness, but you’re not alone. Stuff like that.

To which I say, “Be wary, my friends.” And remember, we may all be in this together, but “As long as you live, you’ll be dead if you die.”

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary 4/17/20 -- The Booksellers and Endings, Beginnings

The Booksellers

The documentary Booksellers takes us into the world of antiquarian book dealing, a diminishing trade populated by people devoted to the hunt for books, as well as to the care and nurturing of their many collections of volumes. Although the movie eventually veers into the world of ephemera (paper collectibles such as obscure, at least to me, HipHop magazines) it's best when it sticks to the world of book collecting. D.W. Young directs a loosely focused introduction to a vanishing world that benefits mightily from the presence of Fran Lebowitz, a collector who tells a story about a now-vanished "used" bookstore where the owners were entirely indifferent to anything as mundane as a customer. We also hear from Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief), an author who talks about cataloging her own collection of notebooks and research material. As readers increasingly turn to digital books, it's refreshing, nostalgic and a little sad to contemplate the day when the printed book becomes a high-priced curiosity. Maybe the best thing about The Booksellers involves the way it makes us feel. You may not want to shell out a fortune for a first edition of Melville's Moby Dick but you may find yourself looking for an easy chair where you can take a hardback off your shelf and spend the afternoon turning its pages.


The always watchable Shailene Woodley appears in nearly every frame of director Drake Doremus' Endings/Beginnings, a movie of increasingly diminishing rewards. Woodley portrays Daphne, a 30-something woman facing a dilemma. Daphne simultaneously falls for two men who happen to be friends: Jamie Dornan's Jack and Sebastian Stan's Frank. The movie begins when Daphne, who recently separated from her boyfriend, moves in with her sister (Lindsay Sloane). Daphne's mom (Wendie Malick), we soon learn, has had her own trouble with men. Unable to find employment in the non-profit art world, Daphne seems to float through life, finding herself attracted to both Jack, a novelist, and Frank, a free spirit who gets by on charm. An underexplored incident in the past helped create Daphne's lack of direction but doesn't add much by way of interest. Loose and relaxed in its approach, the movie creates the expectation that something memorable eventually will happen: It doesn't, not really. Woodley holds the screen but her character doesn't seem particularly deep. Don't blame Woodley or any of the other actors. Doremus and co-screenwriter Jardine Libaire's haven't created characters intriguing enough to keep the movie humming for all of its 110 minutes. Oh, and like just about everyone else in the movie, Woodley is asked to smoke a lot. Hope they all got hazardous duty pay.

Power struggles at a boarding school

Selah and the Spades is a teen movie with a difference: Forget sex, these kids are into cruelty and power.
I’m always hesitant about making generalizations. No sooner do I proclaim something to be true than someone will point out the deficiencies of the observation. Having said that, I’ll take a chance and say that I haven’t seen a teen movie quite like Selah and the Spades, the adventurous directorial debut of writer/director Tayarisha Poe.

Set in an elite private boarding school, the idiosyncratic Selah and the Spades avoids the usual teen cliches as it explores the power relationships within the school’s numerous cliques, most notably the Spades, a group dominated by Selah (a terrific Lovie Simone). A senior, Selah not only presides over her cohorts in the Spades but runs an operation that sells drugs throughout the school. Selah may be running a small-time drug operation, but she's also a model student, a cheerleader who tries to excel and is pushed by her mother to do so.

Always calculating, Selah decides that it’s time to train an heir to her throne, selecting a newbie student played by an equally good Celeste O’Connor. A budding photographer, O'Connor's Paloma gradually absorbs the often-cruel lessons that Selah patiently provides as Poe advances the story toward a critical test of loyalty that requires a demonstration of ruthlessness on Paloma’s part.

The Pennsylvania boarding school that provides the story with a setting is racially integrated, but without underlining her point of view, Poe allows us to infer racial distinctions and leaves us to wonder whether Selah hasn’t picked the name of her group (a word sometimes used as a racial slur) as an act of sardonic defiance.

Selah’s second in command, a young man named Maxxie (Jharrel Jerome) does Selah's bidding but learns that it’s not always possible to please such a demanding autocrat.

Few adults populate the movie, although Jesse Williams appears as the new headmaster of the Haldwell School. Among the Haldwell students, Ana Mulvoy Ten has a nice turn as Bobby, the white girl who heads a faction of mean-spirited theater nerds. They're called The Bobbies.

Poe catches us up in this twisted teen world. By the movie’s end, which doesn’t go quite as far as it probably should have, you may find yourself fretting about the future of a generation of young people who seem all-too-adept at trying to annihilate one another. Scary stuff.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol 2, No. 3 What will life be like when theaters reopen?

Even before the spread of Covid-19, there had been no shortage of speculation about the future of movie theaters. But the coronavirus raises a host of threatening new questions about theatrical viewing, which (duh) often requires sitting next to someone, in front of someone and behind someone.

I write about movies. I do not cover the film industry. Even a haphazard perusal of Google entries will get you up to speed on current thinking among those who write about the commercial prospects of movies and theaters.

No, I’m thinking about the actual experience of attending a theater, of buying a ticket and sitting in an auditorium when movies renew their roll, especially if theaters must follow strenuous "guidelines" in order to open their doors.

I’m sure you’ve already pondered questions of your own but here are some of mine.

Can theaters handle limited seating — not just financially, but with real customers, not all of whom will be cooperative.

Let’s say two couples meet for dinner and a movie. They eat in a restaurant where socially distanced dining has become part of a limited economic trial run. Our diners are at least one table away from anyone else.

Having sat through a strange and possibly tense dining experience, our happy foursome is off to see a movie. Will they want to sit three seats apart from each other and everyone else — both on the sides and also in the rows immediately in front and behind them? Will they be required to wear masks? Will someone take their temperatures prior to entry? Will the people working concessions be wearing masks? Will you want to buy popcorn from them if they aren’t?

You’ll still have to pay for concessions with cash or a credit card. Money will change hands. Will you be able to enjoy yourself without thinking about every possible point of “contamination?

Need a trip to the bathroom? I’m not sure how social distancing can be enforced at a row of urinals. Will someone be stationed outside the restrooms to ensure that only two or three people enter at a time, depending on the size of the bathroom?

Will there be fewer shows so that every auditorium can be deep cleaned before the next show?

If there’s an elevator in the theater’s parking garage will people self-regulate so that they ride one passenger at a time, even after the movie lets out and everyone’s eager to hit the road?

Is any of this even possible?

I have no idea what life will be like when — as many seem to argue — things return to something we may view as “semi-normal” or as one writer called it “the new abnormal.”

I began to think about these questions as I read articles about the staged reopening of the economy, a managed process most experts seem to think will be necessary.

I’m sure you can think of a zillion more questions. Will we able to feel reasonably sure that those who test positive going forward will be quarantined, so none of them are in theaters?

Beats me.

Some of the ways people respond to the reopening of theaters may depend on the group to which they belong. The young and those who feel invincible or simply are willing to gamble with their health will return to theaters. Older people likely will be more cautious. If you’re 65 or older, do you really want to risk your life to see the new James Bond movie?

The answers to these questions depend, in large part, on when people across all groups truly feel safe — or at least enough of them do to make things work, even if only in halting fashion.

Of course, there’s another and even more disturbing question. Will people really be safe or will they be betting on an illusion? Only the virus knows for sure and it does its talking in ways that will remain potentially lethal until there are medicines that work to squelch it or a vaccine that keeps us from getting it in the first place, preferably both.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 4/9/20 -- 'The Hottest August' and 'What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael'

The Hottest August
Oh great, I thought. Just what I want to watch at this particularly anxious moment, a documentary set in New York City during a sweltering August. Doesn't New York City have enough trouble as the coronavirus scourges its residents? My apprehensions proved unnecessary: Director Brett Story’s The Hottest August might be the perfect documentary for this time of lockdowns and upheavals. Using the writings of Zadie Smith, Annie Dillard and Karl Marx to provide intermittent narration, Story travels around New York City. She interviews ordinary people, sometimes with an eye on their awareness about the devastating effects of climate change. But even if you set aside the movie’s ecological frame — which is easy enough to do — The Hottest August survives as a snapshot of what’s on the minds of Story’s interviewees: immigration, endangered wildlife, a threatened planet, government failures after Hurricane Sandy and more. The film was shot in August of 2017. One person comments that people have tended to regard the US as far more stable than it truly is, an observation that carries particular weight at the moment. Then there’s Afronaut, a performance artist whose costume qualifies as a bona fide head-turner. Whatever you make of The Hottest August, you’ll find images that convey the jigsaw of city life in ways that feel both familiar and distant — and make you hope that Story is employing her camera somewhere that will capture the tipsy instability and fright of this strangest of Aprils. I can't think of anyone better suited to capture the poetry of our despair.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

It’s odd to think that there now are filmgoers who’ve grown to maturity without Pauline Kael, The New Yorker film critic who died in 2001. Not only is Kael gone, but the primacy of film critics and film criticism has vanished amid the endless parade of internet babble and DYI publishing. (Yes, I include myself.) It’s difficult for younger people to realize that there was a time when movie-literate viewers divided into camps that revered Kael or genuflected at the altar of her enemy-in-print, Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris. Kael’s influence went beyond New York and The New Yorker, and for many, she was the last (and often definitive word) on any film. If you want to recall Kael's times or be introduced to them, you’d do well to watch director Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael. To read a Kael review was to see the movie through her eyes, so much so that you felt the thoughts she expressed were popping up in your own mind. She was giving voice not only to her responses to movies but to yours. Or maybe she was articulating what you hadn't. Yes, you’d think, that’s precisely right when she was -- as often was the case -- precisely right. Of course, not everyone agreed. You’ll learn about Renata Adler’s searing 1980 criticism of Kael in the New York Review of Books and other matters concerning Kael's approach to reviewing. I felt a touch of sadness watching the film as I considered the fleeting life of the critic's work. Every now and again, I open one of Kael’s books and randomly select one of her reviews for re-reading. I’m sure others occasionally do the same. Do you? You should.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 2, No. 2. ... A request that we all mask up

The CDC now recommends that we all wear cloth masks in public. Jared Polis, the governor of Colorado, also says we should wear cloth masks when we leave the house. He even went so far as to say that we could make “cool” masks and have fun making masks out of stuff like old T-shirts, sort of a Romper Room approach to the coronavirus.

But seriously... make a mask, even though the former host of The Apprentice says he won’t be wearing one. Maybe he's worried a mask might mess up his hair.

Of course, we don’t know exactly what wearing a cloth mask will do to protect us or anyone else. Maybe it’s a bit like relying on a straw hat as protection against a falling boulder.

Still, if the CDC thinks I should wear a mask, I will. If it provides even a marginal shot at remaining healthy, it’s worth it. No matter that it’s not of the heavy-duty N95 variety that medical professionals wear, assuming they can find any. Save the heavy artillery for those on the front lines. For us, cloth masks will do.

Early adapter that I am, I wore a cloth mask today while taking my dog for a walk. No one else I saw was wearing a mask, which made me feel a little foolish, but I wanted to do my part.

According to the governor of Colorado, wearing “cool” masks may encourage others to follow suit and mask up. So, let your creative self go. Don’t hold back. Pandemic or no, you gotta be you.

I wonder, though, if there’s a danger that people will think that masks will make them safe. It’s possible that all they will do is make them look weird and deplete their supply of old T-shirts.

Governor Polis's T-shirt suggestion told me that he’s definitely more wealthy entrepreneur than a man of the people.

In my world, there’s no such thing as an old T-shirt. T-shirts aren’t broken in until they’re worn thin, have as many holes as a bad screenplay and boast collars as frayed as our nerve endings after several weeks of isolation. T-shirts aren't broken in until your wife threatens to throw them away if you dare to wear them around the house.

Look, the best advice about dealing with the pandemic boils down to two words: “Stay home.” And when you have to leave the house, be sure to stay six feet away from others.

But wear the mask. It may help and you never know when you’ll be seized by the impulse to rob the afternoon stage. Best of luck.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Bob's Cinema Diary: 4/3/20 -- 'The Perfect Nanny' and 'And Then We Dance'

The Perfect Nanny
The situation couldn't be more familiar to most moviegoers. A successful couple -- she's a lawyer; he's in the music biz -- need to hire a nanny so that their lives aren't entirely consumed with child care. As played by Leila Bekhti and Antoine Reinartz, Myriam and Paul are straining to "have it all." They have two children, a young daughter and a toddler of a son. After a couple of unsuccessful interviews for nannies, the couple discovers Louise (Karin Viard). Louise relates beautifully to the children. Everything goes smoothly, but director Lucie Borleteau gradually introduces cracks in the newly established facade. As the movie unfolds, Louise's peculiarities become more and more pronounced. When a hallucinating Louise sees an octopus in her kitchen sink, we're pretty sure that she's gone round the bend and won't be coming back. Borleteau deserves credit for making Louise a complex figure, soothingly maternal, yet eerily possessive. Viard gives an unnerving performance, but the movie doesn't always show the parents behaving credibly. Worse yet, you can't call a movie The Perfect Nanny without tipping your hand. We know that perfection eventually will produce a bloody, horrific outcome in an attempt, I think, to shock and possibly to evoke criticism of middle-class parents trying to navigate multiple worlds.

And Then We Danced

If the bourgeois trappings of The Perfect Nanny seem overly familiar, the milieu of And Then We Danced feels refreshingly novel. Director Levan Akin takes us to the Republic of Georgia, where we meet Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), a young man who's trying to make it in the world of traditional Georgian dance. In And Then We Danced, the dance sequences take place mostly during rehearsals that emphasize a style based on rigor, precision, and arrestingly stark movements. Georgian dance, we quickly learn, is more than an art form; it's regarded as a near-sacred expression of national character. On its surface, And Then We Dance is a gay coming of age story. When a new dancer (Bachi Valishvili) turns up, Merab turns his attentions from his longtime dance partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili Initially, rivals the two men eventually consummate a sexual relationship in scenes that sparked waves of protest in Georgia. Set mostly in the city of Tbilisi, And Then We Danced benefits from its setting, from mesmerizing moments in which groups of characters sing and from the avidity of Gelbakhiani's performance which culminates with a dance in which Merab triumphantly combines traditional moves with his own improvisations. The story may not be earth-shaking, but dropped into a Georgian context, the movie compels.

She's growing tired of life in the cult

Say this: Polish director Malgorzata Suzumowska knows how to create a mood. In The Other Lamb, Suzumowska tells the story of a small cult in which a group of women follow the lead of a figure known as Shepherd (Michiel Huisman). It doesn't take long to realize that Huisman's character -- despite a physical resemblance to a stereotypical western Jesus -- is anything but a "good" shepherd. He tyrannizes the women, emphasizes their "impurity" and violates them sexually. The cult consists of two groups of women: Wives and daughters. When daughters begin to menstruate, Shepherd initiates them into the world of childbearing -- with him as the incestuous father. In this world, only females are allowed to survive. A movie such as The Other Lamb needs at least one character to undergo a change of consciousness. In this case, the job falls to Selah (Raffey Cassidy), a teenager who gradually awakens to the reality of her oppressive situation with help from a wife (Denise Gough) who has been shunned and tormented. Ousted from their first home by the police, the group wanders in search of a new dwelling. You know where all of this is headed. Suzumowska scores high on atmospherics and imagery but the story takes us nowhere we haven't been before. The film, by the way, marks the director's English-language debut. It might have seemed deeper and more mysterious had it been made in Polish with subtitles and not set in North America.

A teen's fight for an abortion

Never Rarely Sometimes Always brims with present-tense urgency.
Sometimes a movie succeeds because it doesn’t do the expected things. One such is Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a spare, no-nonsense look at a pregnant teenager who wants an abortion.

Director Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats) pushes us into the lives of her characters, only hinting at their backstories. As a result, Never Rarely has the kind of ragged, present-tense urgency we associate with the best of independent cinema.

The situation is tense. Seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) lives in a small Pennsylvania town where she attends school and works check-out at a local market. Too young to obtain an abortion without parental consent in her home state of Pennsylvania, Autumn takes matters into her own hands.

Thanks to a cousin (Talia Ryder) who pilfers some money, Autumn travels by bus to New York City, where she'll be able to pursue her goal without parental approval. Ryder's Skylar accompanies Autumn on her journey.

On the bus ride to New York, the young women meet a guy (Theodore Pellerin) who's interested in hooking up with them. Pellerin's Jasper has his eye on Skylar, the younger of the two girls.

When Autumn arrives in New York, she’s told that she’s 18 months pregnant, not the 10 months that the Pennsylvania clinic Autumn first visited claimed. Why might the first clinic have lied? The longer Autumn waits, the more difficult obtaining an abortion may become. Maybe that's what the religious-leaning Pennsylvania clinic wanted.

The social workers that Autumn meets as she tries to arrange for her abortion are understanding and helpful, but because Autumn is in her 18th month, she must wait an extra day to obtain the procedure. Without money, the girls are forced to play a waiting game, improvising in a city that doesn’t lend itself to killing time without funds.

This portion of the movie suffers from hang-out syndrome. The young women are killing time and, in a way, the movie must do the same.

The wrinkle that pushes Never Rarely beyond another foray into lower-class misery centers on Autumn's attitude. She never questions her decision. She knows that she’s not ready for motherhood and she wants to make sure that whatever chances she has in life aren’t compromised.

As played by Flanigan, Autumn can be distant, off-putting and difficult to read. She’s not asking for sympathy from anyone, including the audience.

And that's the point: The film makes no discernible pro-choice argument, but you can't help thinking that it's telling us that Autumn deserves to make an autonomous choice. Why not? She's already on her own. Her family (briefly seen early on) is incapable of giving her support. She must confront a series of red tape hurdles. The boys we see in Autumn's hometown are crass and cruel.

The title, by the way, derives from multiple-choice questions that a New York City in-take worker asks Autumn about her personal life. As the scene unfolds, we begin to learn more about Autumn. No details. Just simple one-word answers that open a door to Autumn's teenage life.

Autumn answers the questions. Our imaginations do the rest. We get the picture.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Journal of the Plague Months: Vol. 2, No. 1 -- "X" marks the spot and the spot is us

The “X” appeared in the sky above Colorado’s Front Range on a bright Wednesday morning, April 1.

An omen? A pilot’s April Fools prank? Warning from an extraterrestrial advance force that our days are numbered?

Because we now live in a sci-fi world, the meaning of the “X” — shown above in a photo that’s not (I swear) Photoshopped — seems both cautionary and clear. The moment reeks of gloom and doom.

-- All but “essential” businesses are closed. The number of coronavirus cases is rising. The number of deaths, also rising. The supply of groceries, shrinking.

-- Many are experiencing fear and panic. Physicians worry about shortages of vital medical equipment.

-- Some ignore social distancing recommendations. Some don't take the shelter-in-place mandate seriously. Enforcement seems limited, lax or non-existent.

-- The late-night hosts return, broadcasting from basements and living rooms and having Zoom chats with guests.

-- A CNN anchor tests positive for the virus. Looking wan and sick, he, too, broadcasts from his basement.

-- A medical panel meets in Colorado to discuss how to decide who among the severely ill will receive care.

And, in case, you find yourself in a surprisingly good mood, some headlines from a few of the nation's great news sources to remind you that, for many, the situation is dire:

-- "A quarter of those who contract the coronavirus may not show it -- meaning it may be closer than you think." -- The Washington Post.

-- The list of who won't get the $1,200 stimulus checks is growing." -- The Washington Post

-- "Need a thermometer to check for coronavirus? Good luck finding one." -- The Chicago Sun Times

-- "Rural residents' access to hospitals is already a problem. Coronavirus could make it worse." -- The Arizona Republic

-- "California classrooms will not reopen this year due to coronavirus." -- San Francisco Chronicle

I'm sure you get the idea.

By noon, the ominous "X" in the sky had faded. The unsettled feelings it inspired? They linker.