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A stylized rendering of an anonymous villain from Dan Schneider's novel, "The Vincetti Brothers".

Against Literary Lollipops: On Dan Schneider’s “The Vincetti Brothers”

Here is the letter I wrote to Dan Schneider after reading his manuscript. I’ve known Dan since 1992 when we used to read poetry at open mics, and later when Dan formed the poetry group, Uptown Poetry:

I just completed your manuscript. In view of all the time you’ve spent helping me with my work, I’m sure I owe you a response to yours.

The Vincetti brothers are lower than snakes. You took me to a world that is more repugnant than vomit. I thought I had met some lowlifes, and I have, but the character of Gino takes them all.

And that’s what you did – take me all the way in. Never I have read a book with such visceral depictions of human beings, and it was not just a section, but the whole book. I was reading it with one eye on the page and the other one shut.

However, it was fresh like blood. You didn’t use tired old descriptions in your portrayal of these thugs. No, every page brought me to a new level of revolt. […]

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A shot of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" (1995)

Wistful Dissolve: Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” (1995)

Within one of my short story collections, I have a tale that begins, ‘Only the summers counted as time.’ The story, while having a very different setting than that of Richard Linklater’s 1995 classic Before Sunrise, captures somewhat similar ideas. ‘That was 30 years ago, and so that means 30 summers,’ a summer camp counselor said. This quote stuck with me, so much so, that my childhood summers felt like they stood outside as a sort of time.

I recall my first moment watching this film. It would have been summer, 1995 after renting the cassette from Blockbuster. I worked my job, and late into the night I watched the film on VHS and felt myself brought to Vienna, wandering the streets with these two characters. Oh, and how I wished I could find a guy as cute and as deep as Ethan Hawke who, within this film, embodies the young, artistic girl’s fantasy. ‘I didn’t just go to Europe to read Hemingway,’ he tells Celine (Julie Delpy). ‘I came to be anonymous.’ […]

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A still of the two leads in Ryusuke Hamaguchi's "Drive My Car"

Vacuum of the Taciturn: On Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” (2021)

One of the oddest things I’ve seen repeated throughout the many (usually effusive) reviews for the 2021 Japanese drama Drive My Car is the modifier “epic.” Yes, it’s a long film, but however doggedly such a running time tries the patience of the flighty-minded average viewer, it’s about as far from “epic” as films go. A work as pointedly interior and repetitive belies the great scope and range that the word suggests. 2001: A Space Odyssey is an epic. Lawrence of Arabia is an epic. In contrast, Drive My Car has greater truck with the Chekhov play it feeds off of in its narrative – a contained, moody chamber piece rather than, say, the Tolstoy tome everybody knows.

This sort of carelessness with language is indicative of the many critical misunderstandings regarding the film, chief among them being the modifier that crops up even more than the one above: “masterpiece.” Writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car has already won several prestigious awards, including Best Screenplay at Cannes; and a bevy of critics prizes on the international stage. Most notably, it took home Best International Feature for this past year’s Academy Awards. Hamaguchi was the third Japanese director to win the prize, after Hiroshi Teshigahara and Akira Kurosawa – a small and distinguished crowd, to be sure. […]

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A wistful shot of Judy Garland looking outside of a car window at night, from the film "Judy" (2019) by Rupert Goold.

A Star Is Worn: On Rupert Goold’s “Judy” (2019)

There is no business like show business, as the saying goes. In it, life for the performing artist is a continual stage—birthed from competition and endless rehearsals. With such a schedule, when can one be given a chance for pause? And where does the performer end and the person begin? Just days before watching Rupert Goold’s Judy, I watched Richard Attenborough’s A Chorus Line (1985). I remembered that film from my youth and it is, if nothing else, one long rehearsal. The same could be said for Judy Garland’s life.

Garland, born Frances Ethel Gumm, began performing at the age of two, along with her sisters. The trio were known as the Gumm Sisters, but they eventually changed their name to the Garland Sisters, when reviewers’ kept misspelling Gumm. Judy, the youngest, was also the most talented of the three. And as anyone familiar with the early MGM film industry, she was one of many who had drugs forced upon her by age 13—uppers and downers, not to mention forced dieting and studio insults, all which contributed to her depression. It is without any doubt that her early years contributed to the chronic low self-esteem she’d suffer throughout her life.

Renee Zellweger portrays Judy, and she does so with just the right amount of accent and vulnerability. The film, which focuses on Judy’s final year while performing in London, skips over many of the events that make her life interesting. Zellweger, however, gives a convincing rendering of the troubled singer, all the while acknowledging that many who know and knew her only admired the performer but did not care to know the person. […]

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Gustave Courbet's "The Painter's Studio", featuring the artist and his canvas in the center.

Gustave Courbet & The Allegory Of The Studio

In 1855, three of Gustave Courbet’s paintings were rejected by the Exposition Universelle, something which Courbet took as a personal affront. It was, after all, the single largest exhibition in the history of the salon with a projected attendance numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In retaliation Courbet erected and promoted an exhibition all of his own, situated just across the road from the Exposition itself. It was called the Pavillion of The Real and inside the public were treated to over forty paintings by Courbet. Among them was a painting was called ‘L Atelier’ or ‘The Painter’s Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life’ (1855).

The artist’s studio is today considered a genre in its own right. It is a genre which lends itself well to allegory in that it offers a means of representation of the practice of art and offers up the artist as a personification of that practice. Variations of this genre can be informative illustrations of arts changing social history, the artist’s professional character and his production in relation to a market economy. Common features include introspective self-portraits such as Gericault’s ‘Portrait of an Artist in his Studio’, or the gallery of a dealer/connoisseur such as we find in ‘The Artist’s Studio’ by Amelie Legrand de Saint-Aubin. Images of poverty, power, fame, success and failure occur alongside images of the artist’s technical and iconographical resources. Sometimes we see the artist as he wishes to be seen; other times he sees us seeing him. In the paintings of Vermeer and Velasquez the studio is a site of encounter, between the artist and his model as well as other value systems. In the work of Braque, Matisse and Picasso, the studio is a metaphor for the psyche, a private world of individual creative passions. […]

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A photo of Andy (Chevy Chase) eating sheep testicles in George Roy Hill's "Funny Farm" (1988).

Good Farce: George Roy Hill’s “Funny Farm” (1988)

‘Being a fake is what I do best,’ Andy Farmer tells his wife Elizabeth when the couple has bribed their local townspeople in recreating a Norman Rockwell universe within their small Vermont town. George Roy Hill, who is known for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Sting, and Slaughterhouse Five, has tackled this delightful comedy that pokes fun of pretension and image with just the right farce. In Funny Farm, Andy (Chevy Chase) has traded his New York sports writing job for a quiet, small-town life where he plans to write his Great American Novel. Likewise, the publishers have already issued him a 10K advance in the hopes that his talent will deliver. Andy’s wife, Elizabeth (Madolyn Smith Osborne), is a schoolteacher who reluctantly welcomes the change as the two plan to uproot and start a family.

If this concept already sounds cheesy, it has succeeded. While the script is of course going to have everything go wrong (including snakes and bugs), George Roy Hill utilizes the appropriate light-hearted humor with a splash of the sardonic. In his review, Roger Ebert cleverly refers to the townsfolk as those one might expect to see out of a Stephen King novel. They’re not so much dumb (even though some are) or evil as they are dispassionate and unfriendly. Odd would be too nice a word. When the Farmers’ movers are lost and ask for directions to Redbud, they address an old man by the name of Mac. ‘How did you know my name was Mac?’ the man asks. ‘I just guessed,’ the mover replies, to which the man remarks, ‘So why don’t you guess your way to Redbud?’ […]

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A shot of characters walking through a garbage heap in Adolfo Alix Jr's "Fable of the Fish"

The Refuse of Desire: On “Isda”, or “Fable of the Fish” (2011)

We were constant borrowers. What we wanted, we only had for an allotment of time, and most of what we thought was ours eventually found its way in the garbage heap, in the donation bin, or abandoned in a storage unit we’d never return to. Our real possessions were the practical things: kitchenware, furniture, clothes, tools, school supplies. Like any good nomadic clan, our subsistence was largely makeshift, and when we moved, we took only what we needed, and whatever else we could carry on our backs. Leaving a trail of cramped apartments, occasional houses, and, once, a single-room office space in San Bernardino county, home was, out of necessity, a state of mind, for it was only in the realm of thought that something like permanence could be established.

Even our toys (a huge box of action figures and the like, collected over years, and more than enough to go around for five siblings – oh, the miniature wars I staged with that miscellany!) were eventually discarded, left in a shed in a stranger’s backyard, for either some random kid’s enjoyment or the rot of wear. Many people still own sentimental items from their childhood: adored playthings, little gifts from a beloved friend, and other such keepsakes that those not very given to nostalgia learn to forsake when maturity hits. I’m a sentimental person, by nature, but I have nothing from my childhood still with me, apart from what I can remember. […]

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A stylized shot of Tomas, the protagonist in Ingmar Bergman's "Winter Light"

Silent and Sunday: Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light” (1962)

There are some who embrace suffering—who endure it, and they do so with sanctimony. Hence, they believe others should not only endure it, but should also welcome it. To suffer is to attain salvation, and to reject it is nothing short of selfishness. I once had an employer who, upon hearing my unhappiness vis-à-vis my career, would reply, ‘Well, what can you do to change your attitude?’ My admission of misery was, in her mind, ‘bringing down the team’ (even though the team was already down). Overworked, just because one group was able to scrape by on limited resources doesn’t mean that another should be forced to undergo the same: i.e., ‘Well, they were able to suffer through it and so should you.’

Alas, I digress. Rather, this is Ingmar Bergman’s film, and what a great film Winter Light is. In 80 minutes, he manages to encapsulate an existential crisis, the rejection of love, the rejection of faith, and the rejection of self. Those who believe in God are still bound by their bodies, by their emotions. This limits the amount of suffering they are able to undertake. Within this filmic world, it is always Sunday and it is always cold. […]