Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The elusive green light

That blinking green light. He was that close. So close he could see it when he stood outside his mansion in the fading twilight and looked out toward East Egg.

He is Jay Gatsby. The story is "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald. And that green light is a symbol for the one thing in all of us that we long for. The one thing we never can quite grasp.

The 1974 film adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel was on TV the other night. I hadn't seen it since high school. I decided to skip the rest of the Illinois/North Carolina basketball game and spend some time with it.

The film holds up well. Particularly impressive is Robert Redford's understated performance. He is usually such a presence in most of his films. But here he backs off, content to stay well within Gatsby's shadow, bringing to the performance a sense of myth that fits the character.

Sam Waterston is the perfect fit as our narrator, Nick Carraway. Lois Chiles is her usual chilly self as golf star Jordan Baker. (I knew a guy in high school who was obsessed with her voice.)

Best of all is Bruce Dern as the utterly unlikeable fascist Tom Buchanan. Dern learned early in his career how to play a rat. By 1974 he was a master without equal.

It is obvious now that Mia Farrow was miscast. Her performance reminds one of the girl in elementary school who would run her fingers down the chalkboard.

Her shrill, uningratiating Daisy Buchanan makes one wonder why on earth Gatsby spent his life obsessing about her. This is what the fuss is all about?

To be fair, the part should have gone to Ali McGraw. But by the time the film was released, she was having an affair with Steve McQueen. Her ex-husband, producer Robert Evans, went with Farrow.

I don't know how much better the film would be with McGraw. Maybe Farrow's persona is such that it fits Daisy's ultimate destiny. But it's painful to watch.

I always wondered why I felt such an attraction to this story. I don't particularly have much of an attachment to the Roaring Twenties. A friend suggested I enjoy "Gatsby" because I admire a man who throws parties and then stays shut away upstairs.

Perhaps. Or maybe it's because of Redford. He's always been a favorite.

But maybe it is the story's theme that is so appealing. The notion of never attaining one's great desire, of never quite reaching that elusive blinking green light that is so close, yet so far. Gatsby gazed at the light blinking at the dock at Daisy's house. She was right there. She was his.

And yet she never would be his.

I don't really know what it means, but I always loved the last line of the novel.

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past," Fitzgerald wrote.

So it is. There's something universal in the idea that within us all is a longing that has never been fulfilled. Maybe it's a lost love. Or a broken dream.

Gatsby devoted his life to his quest. It ended in tragedy.

Maybe it's best we don't bother. Maybe, as Carraway suggests, we can't relive the past. But the nostalgic in me loves Gatsby's response.

Of course you can, old sport. Of course you can.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Walking the line to redemption

Few films meet expectations. Even fewer exceed them.

But the wonderful thing about "Walk The Line," James Mangold's new biopic of country/rock singer Johnny Cash, is that the film soars high and far, up to that special place that a precious few films reach.

Not that this movie is a modern day "Citizen Kane." But it glows with a fire that burns as brightly as Cash's talent.

The film focuses on the rise and fall of the legendary country/rockabilly singer Cash, played to perfection by Joaquin Phoenix. Raised dirt poor, Cash overcomes the cotton field and makes it to Memphis. It is here that he catches the ear of legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips. And it is here that a star is born.

Cash is haunted by both unseen and tangible demons. The tragic death of his brother. The distant father who blames him for the death. The religious mother. The overbearing wife.

Cash hits the big time with Phillips. He begins touring with all of the rockabilly Memphis legends --- Jerry Lee "Killer" Lewis and Elvis included. But his wife Vivian (Ginnifer Goodwin) wants him home.

Meanwhile Cash becomes infatuated with another singer on the tour, June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). His love for June burns, well, like a ring of fire. It builds until it flames out of control.

They make beautiful music together onstage. But June doesn't want anything else. Cash can't take it. He starts boozing. He pops amphetamines.

He loses his wife. He loses his money. He loses control.

One Thanksgiving he hits rock bottom. But June is there. She nurses him back to health. Johnny finds Jesus. He dries out. He goes back to work.

Of all places, he finds redemption at Folsom Prison. And, inevitably, in June's arms.

The remarkable thing about "Walk the Line" is that the movie presents a familiar story so well that it seems fresh. As if Cash's life were a blank canvas and Mangold and the actors provide the brush strokes and the colors.

Phoenix and Witherspoon do their own singing, which adds a healthy dose of realism to the mix. One only wishes there was a little more of it to go along with the finely crafted story.

Go see this movie. Savor every moment.

It is as if somewhere in Cash's redemption lies the possibility that dreams can come true. A corny thought, yes. But a comforting one, too.

"Walk The Line" is rated PG-13.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Giving thanks

What am I thankful for? Gee, let me think.

I'm thankful for the 6-4-3 double play. For the fastball. The curveball. For the triple. The steal sign. And the fact that baseball begins in five months.

I'm thankful for the DVD player. For the fact I can watch movies in my house without getting out of the recliner. For Netflix. For

I'm thankful for good writers. For Pat Conroy and Ernest Hemingway. For Larry McMurtry and Thomas Boswell. For George F. Will and Thomas Sowell. For Frank DeFord and W.P. Kinsella and Leigh Montvale. For David Hunter and Marvin West.

I'm thankful for the newspaper for which I work. For Sandra Clark and for the staff and co-workers and readers. For getting to do what I always dreamed of doing.

I'm thankful for UT men's basketball. For the fact they've gotten my mind off of football and that terrible loss to Vanderbilt. (It still doesn't seem real.) For ESPN and around-the-clock coverage.

I'm thankful for my DVR and the fact I can watch anything when I want to. For the fact I can pause live TV.

I'm thankful for Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine. For the fact I can read most anything online. Even the Washington newspapers.

I'm thankful for Ted Hatfield at Regal Cinema. He gives me movie passes. And for Danny Wallace, who brought movies to Halls when I was a kid.

I'm thankful for the joy that children bring. For good friends who are there in the good and bad. For the fact there's been a hell of a lot of good and only a little bad.

I'm thankful for the perfume a favorite female wears. For the fact I can catch a scent of it every now and then when the wind is just right.

I'm thankful for music. For the fact that Thomas Edison invented a machine that allows me to listen to it. For Frank Sinatra, who taught me how to swing. And for George Jones, who taught me how a country song should sound.

I'm thankful for the sun. For the moon and the stars. For the fact that's still the best sight money can't buy.

I'm thankful for the turkey I'll eat tomorrow. And for the fact I have something to eat and a place to sleep at night.

Most of all I'm thankful for my family. For the love they've given me. For the fact they have put up with a crazy wordsmith for a few years now.

And I'm thankful for God, for Apple Pie, for the good ol' USA and for all of our troops overseas. For the fact we live in freedom.

And for those who made that possible.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Just be who you are

I try to keep the Black Dog at bay a lot of the time by getting lost in movies. Either at the cinema or on DVD. It doesn't matter. Forgetting about your own life for a few hours is usually a good thing.

I'm kind of strange. I actually like being the only person in the theater. I see a lot of matinees.

Such was the case yesterday when I took in Gore Verbinski's "The Weather Man." It was a strange film. Makes you laugh out loud. Also makes you feel depressed.

David Spritz (Nicholas Cage) is a Chicago TV weatherman. He's successful at his job, but nobody seems to like him. He frequently gets hit with a lot of fast food on the street.

David's life is in shambles. His father (Michael Caine) is dying of cancer. His wife (Hope Davis) is marrying somebody else. His kids don't have much to do with him. His novel sucks. He doesn't even have a meteorology degree.

Still, he gets offered a job with one of the network TV morning shows. He starts hanging out with his kids. He tries to get back together with his wife.

"The Weather Man" is a bizarre movie. You can't decide whether you should laugh or cry at some of Spritz's adventures. But it is an engrossing story.

And, in the end, it leaves you with a good lesson. Sometimes things may go wrong in your life. They may not go the way you expect. Or the way you hope. Or the way you want.

Such is life. It's tough out there.

But if you are true to yourself, if you finally become comfortable with who you are instead of who you want to be, that's at least a start. That's something to build on. That's something to take comfort in. It may just lead to better things.

Not a bad thought on a rainy fall afternoon.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Never forget

I spent the latter part of last week in our nation's capital. It was just the place to be on Veterans Day.

The district always gets to me. Maybe it's the memorials. Maybe it's seeing the Capitol and the White House so up close and personal. I don't know.

There is much to be cynical about in the Beltway these days. But for this trip I didn't think about politics. I thought about history. I thought about the sacrifices that were made so I could live in freedom. I thought about those who gave, as Lincoln put it, the last full measure of devotion for this country.

I couldn't help but feel patriotic. It's a nice feeling. There is much about this country to love.

I met with a band of brothers --- former Marines who served together in Vietnam. Much has been written about that war. Some of it good, some not so good.

Regardless of what you might think about that war, those veterans are heroes. All veterans are. We paused at The Wall to remember their sacrifice.

Halls guy Brian Blakely found his brother's name etched on The Wall. A Red Cross volunteer made him a rubbing. Bruce was killed June 8, 1970, a victim of friendly fire.

His fellow Marines from Kilo Company were there. Some gave Brian hugs. Others took photos of the names of other fallen buddies. It was an emotional moment.

I thought about what it must have been like to be a teenager in a foreign land shooting at an enemy that was sometimes hard to determine. Kilo Company spent the war stuck between Charlie Ridge and Arizona Territory --- in a place one of them called a shit sandwich.

Their job was to cut the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong supply lines, to make sure supplies didn't reach DaNang. They did their job. They did it well.

Sometimes I think most people my age and younger (and maybe some older folks, too) tend to have an egocentric view of history --- anything that happened before they were born just doesn't mean much.

But we should never forget Vietnam. Or the Gulf War. Or Korea. World War II. World War I. The Spanish-American War. The Civil War. The War of 1812. The Revolution.

We should never forget the sacrifices that were made in the name of freedom. We should never forget the service of brave soliders. We should never forget both those who made it home and those who didn't.

We should never, ever forget.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

A relationship that doesn't quite fit

I'm not much into romantic-type comedy/dramas. There are a few exceptions. "Groundhog Day" comes to mind. But film critic Roger Ebert's review of "Shopgirl" was so positive (see the link above) that I put it on my screening list.

When I saw University of Tennessee film studies professor Chuck Maland and his wife, Nancy, going to see the film at Downtown West on Friday night, that convinced me. What the heck. I caught a matinee.

The tagline for this movie is "Not all relationships fit like a glove." That turns out to be an understatement.

The film focuses on Mirabelle (Claire Danes), a depressed young woman who can't seem to make a connection with the opposite sex. She stares at the loving couples who pass by her counter at Saks Fifth Avenue wishing she had such romance in her own life.

But it just hasn't happened. She talks to her cat. She draws. She pops pills to stay happy.

One night at the laundry mat she meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman). He's goofy. Isn't too experienced on the nuances of dating. He's throwing things from the front seat of the car when he picks her up. They try to hook up, but it just doesn't work. (The scene is funny, but also a bit sad.)

Then up to her counter walks Ray Porter (Steve Martin). He dresses well. Yeah, he's quite a bit older. But he looks rich.

He sends her a pair of black gloves she recommends he buy. He attaches a note, asking for a dinner date. She accepts.

What follows is an engaging story about the difficulty of relationships --- and what happens when you try to put too many demands on them.

Mirabelle eventually falls in love with Ray. It's obvious he cares for her, too. But he won't commit. He won't let her see that final part of himself, the part he keeps hidden from her. From anyone.

Meanwhile Jeremy hits the road with a rock singer. He starts to find himself. He cleans up his act. He listens to audiobooks on dating.

Mirabelle has to choose between them. As she says at one point, "Do I hurt now or do I hurt later?" She makes a choice.

I'll leave it to you to decide whether she makes the right one. All I can say is I left the theater feeling both satisfied and depressed.

The film is based on a novella by Martin, which he adapted into a screenplay. "Shopgirl" is aptly directed by Anand Tucker and features a nice pace, fairly developed characters and some good cinematography.

Martin's story is an interesting commentary on the ocean of feelings that often exists between men and women. The film's untidy ending feels a lot like real life.

This is a perfect date movie. Put it on your list and see it with your significant other on your next night at the movies. Here's hoping your relationship was forged easier than this one.

"Shopgirl" is rated R for brief language and adult situations. It is playing at Regal CinemaArt Downtown West.

Where is Ed Murrow when we need him?

Those who care about real news reporting – surely there are three or four of you left – should send a ticket to “Good Night, and Good Luck,” George Clooney’s superb new film about Edward R. Murrow, to the news directors and corporate heads of every newspaper and television station in the country. Hopefully it might remind them all of what journalism actually is. And serve as a rebuke against what it is not.

The film focuses on the production of Murrow’s early television news program, “See It Now,” on CBS, and specifically on Murrow’s reporting on Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s “fight” against Communism during the early 1950s. Younger viewers may be unfamiliar with the story. In a nutshell, McCarthy developed a political base for himself by smearing supposed Communists and Communist sympathizers during the backdrop of the Red Scare. Mess with him and you are un-American or, worse, a Red agent.

Murrow stood up to McCarthy. Sponsors balked. His news program got canceled. Television has failed ever since to rise above its reputation as a cultural wasteland whose purpose is to entertain rather than inform.

The movie does a better job than any other of its kind in recent memory of putting the viewer in the middle of the action. This film could almost be a documentary. The acting is that good.

The use of black-and-white photography was a no-brainer. You are there at the CBS studio as Murrow (perfectly portrayed by David Strathairn) and his producer, Fred Friendly (Clooney), go after McCarthy over the objections of CBS head William S. Paley (Frank Langella).

The most effective technique is the decision to use actual footage of McCarthy, rather than have an actor play him in the film. It both adds to the realism and allows the viewer to judge McCarthy on his own words.

One is reminded of how relevant this film is today. Not only against the backdrop of the Patriot Act and the current political climate, but also in an era when network TV news programs spend entire hours devoted to the adventures of Hollywood actors and celebrities.

“Good Night, and Good Luck” is also in many ways an ode to a long-gone era. One in which all the men wore ties and hats and everybody and their grandmother smoked cigarettes.

And, sadly gone too, one in which journalists examined and reported on the difficult issues of the day. Yes, Murrow had to interview Liberace and his ilk on his “Person to Person” program. But he gritted his teeth when he did it. These days such fluff pieces are often disguised as hard news stories.

Don’t go see this movie expecting to be entertained. It does something better than that. It makes you think.

And it makes you wonder where the heck guys like Ed Murrow are today.

Good Night, and Good Luck” is rated PG. It is now playing at Regal CinemaArt Downtown West.