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A stylized shot of coal miners from John Sayles's "Matewan"

Gathering Storm: On John Sayles’s “Matewan” (1987)

In the wake of the recent unionization victories within/against corporate titan Amazon in New York, I got to thinking of the great John Sayles film Matewan, about a community of West Virginian coal miners and their families who unionize to protect themselves from Stone Mountain Coal Company and their hired guns, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. It is a dramatized re-imagining of actual historical events, complete with a gallery of fictional and non-fictional characters, that brought a certain level of class-consciousness to the big screen, despite years in development purgatory and a tight budget with only seven weeks of shooting. It was positively reviewed by critics for its quality writing and performances, but flopped at the box office (what else is new?), and is only now resurging into public attention – generously assisted by a Criterion Collection DVD/Blu-Ray edition in 2019.

Smart writing, good acting, low budget, poor-to-modest box office performance: these are sine qua non to a John Sayles picture. In his invaluable book Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan, Sayles makes the distinction between the sort of characters a good number of moviegoers satisfy themselves with and the sort he wants to write. […]

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A stylized photo of John Cassavetes talking to Peter Falk from Elaine May's "Mikey and Nicky"

Morning’s Consequence: Elaine May’s “Mikey and Nicky” (1976)

What is time to a decaying friendship? And what do we make of that friend who hangs around a little too long? That person that we should have cut from our lives eons ago? Here is a film that takes place within a single night, when the dark evening begins, only to then have time slowly creep towards sunrise. Elaine May’s neglected 1976 filmic gem reveals someone behind the screen with not only a sharp eye, but also a sharp wit. May is most known for her comedies (her two earlier films were such) but Mikey and Nicky will certainly impress drama upon the audience—friendship, masculinity and a lowlife involvement in crime. (And perhaps the consequences of keeping that one friend around for too long.) The film succeeds most notably due to the excellent acting but also due to May’s keen screenwriting skills.

Nicky (John Cassavetes) is a low-level gangster who has stolen money from his mob boss. As result, he is now held up in a grimy hotel room on the edge of town, in an attempt to evade capture or even death. Mikey (Peter Falk) is Nicky’s childhood friend. In a moment of need, Nicky calls Mikey up in the hopes that maybe his friend might be able to offer a hand, or even get him out of trouble. Mikey thinks that Nicky should leave town, but events and distractions unfold and that doesn’t happen. Nicky is suffering from a stomach ulcer and so Mikey goes to retrieve some creamer from a diner, but not before erupting into a rage at the cashier. Rage is a recurring theme throughout the film, as it often manifests as one’s temper. But it goes further than this. Neither man knows how to function in life. They wander and they exist. They blow up when things don’t go their way, and then there are the women who sit at home. Not necessarily waiting for them, but more so telling them to leave when the men shove their way in. Both Mikey and Nicky have wives and they both cheat. They are mooches who come and go. Mikey seems to be better off, but not by much. […]

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A stylized picture of brain chips, as designed by Elon Musk and Neuralink

Brain Chips & Elon Musk

It’s either a fringe fad for the very wealthy, just a fancier, but inevitable, next stage of the tech revolution, a boon for the betterment of humankind, or a dangerous first step into a nightmare: the neurochip.

Basically, a neurochip is an integrated circuit chip (such as a microprocessor) that is designed for interaction with neuronal cells. And there is no going back. We all can thank Pakastani-born Canadian scientist Naweed Sayed, of the University of Calgary, and his team for proving it was possible to cultivate a network of brain cells that reconnect on a silicon chip—or the brain on a microchip. We know what Elon Musk thinks, what he wants to do, but a microchip, by itself, is not horrific science fiction. Microchips are part of everyone’s daily life and—so far, at least—no noticeable deleterious effects have materialized. Well, not many.

NBC had predicted that by 2017, all Americans would start to be tagged with microchips, but as Big Brother-ish as that might sound, we are already surrounded and inundated by them. These baby-step chips are embedded under the skin in a cheap and simple procedure and it carries all your ID: credit card info, license, bus pass, library card—all the info normally carried in a purse or wallet, all stored in an RFID chip under one’s skin. Of course, there are benefits to this technology. For instance, no more baby mix-ups. Every year, 28,000 babies end up going home with the wrong parents. A chip implant at birth would forestall this tragic kind of event—not to mention (at the other end of the life’s line) it would prevent that occasional funeral home misidentification and perhaps accidental burial or cremation of the wrong body. Chipping your child is obvious. From abduction to runaways to kids just getting lost, having the ability to track and find them is priceless. RFID chips are everywhere—in clothes, shoes, pets, livestock, passports, and of course, your trusty cell phone. But these are merely a few chips off the ol’ block. Skin-deep is just a foretaste of The Next Step. […]

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A stylized photo of Chicago, as immortalized by Carl Sandburg.

Carl Sandburg: The Love of Chicago

When Carl Sandburg’s Chicago was written in 1914, labor unions were growing at a fast pace, and it’s not too surprising to find a poem with such a labor feel. We can safely say the poem would not have been written today. It is a trip back to WWI days when things were, well, different. Chicago was always the biggest city in the Midwest, but the economics were industry and not finance as today.

The images in the poem speak to this somewhat slowed down state of hard-working men. The poem introduces Chicago as the “Hog Butcher of the World” which at once captures a rough and almost severe city. We get to know Chicago as a “Stormy, husky, brawling,/ City of Big Shoulders”. Clearly the writer characterizes Chicago as masculine. This is probably indicative of the times. The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920 was yet to pass when Carl Sandburg was writing. The city was run, at least in business, by the men giving Chicago a very macho kind of feel. The women who are mentioned are painted and standing on corners to lure men. Testosterone oozes.

The element of crime is also prevalent. “And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.” There is a sense of lawlessness and lack of order or justice. That is what Sandburg focuses on. The poem precedes Al Capone but we can see him coming. […]

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A screenshot of the diegetic Jonathan Larson in Lin Manuel Miranda's "tick, tick...BOOM!"

Jonathan Larson & Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “tick, tick…BOOM!” (2021)

I’m certain that Jonathan Larson was an outstanding waiter. With his engaging, outgoing personality, he must have certainly earned a copious amount of tips in order to manage within his small, New York City flat. Working Friday through Sunday, he would then spend the rest of his week composing. A personal hero of mine, Larson is the mind and composer behind the rock musical Rent, which ran on Broadway for 12 years. It also won the Pulitzer Prize. It ran so long, in fact, that its success makes it easy to take for granted. But it wasn’t always this way. Larson, a musical theatre major, worked as a waiter and never deviated from his life mission (albeit not without his personal frustration). His goal was to write music and eventually break into the industry and this he did inevitably. Unfortunately, he did not live to see it.

tick…tick…BOOM! (directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda) is a Netflix Original musical, which renders the story of Jonathan Larson’s adult life, as well as his creative struggle. Set in 1990, just days before his 30th birthday, Larson is attempting to complete the final song within Supurbia, his first musical. He has been working on this musical for eight years, apparently. He lives in near poverty, wherein he can’t even manage his electric bill. At times, he feels like a failure for not having achieved the success he so covets, like that of his peers. Constantly comparing himself to earlier, younger musicians, the film recreates Larson’s One Man Show, wherein he details these frustrations—his creativity, his friendships, and his ‘career’ as a waiter while using them as creative fodder. ‘Hi, I’m Jon. I’m a musical-theatre writer. One of the last of my species.’ […]

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A stylized screenshot of the Stalker from Andrei Tarkovsky's "Stalker"

Awakening & Escaping Happiness: Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” (1979)

In watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, I found myself missing a man I’ve never met, who died when I was only 10. He is one of those directors who, amid the visual, transcends film as a medium and moves it into something other, something ethereal, and something understandable. Yet, as for what that understanding is—it will vary upon audience. Upon rewatch (as I’ve seen the film a number of times), Russia invaded Ukraine only a day earlier. The sad news of events only adds to the film’s relevance. I also recently reviewed Antonioni’s Red Desert, wherein I refer to the human intrusion that has desecrated nature. By contrast, Stalker is almost a rebellion to all of that—nature’s uprise perhaps? After all, where do humans fit amid all this? Where exactly are we supposed to fall?

The story, shot in long, dreamlike sequences, is meant to immerse one into a sort of dream. (I often thought that watching a Tarkovsky film is the closest to observing dream.) The film, set in an unknown country in an unknown time, begins with a journey involving unnamed citizens. Stalker, Writer and Professor are the titles distinguishing these three figures who, in their search through the Zone (a site supposedly loaded with traps) contains a Room where one can wish for their secret desires to come true. The anonymity of the characters serves a purpose—that this could be any one of us. And what of the Zone? How do we interpret this place that is ever so difficult to navigate? Here, weeds are overgrown (according to human standards, anyway) and the flowers hold no scent. When the Writer is asked what he writes about, ‘My readers,’ he replies. […]

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A stylized screenshot of the protagonist in Jane Campion's "An Angel at My Table"

All Sweet Things: On Jane Campion’s “An Angel at My Table” (1990)

One of the key exchanges in Betty Smith’s great novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn involves the young protagonist, Francie Nolan, and her schoolteacher. Francie, a budding writer, is being upbraided by the older woman for reasons the girl cannot yet make perfect sense of.

Something similar occurs more than once in Jane Campion’s 1990 film An Angel at My Table, an adaptation of a three-set memoir by New Zealand author Janet Frame. Like the Smith novel, it also follows the childhood and maturation of a young girl who is a budding, and then famous, writer. The first scene is when Janet is a child, and, after first acquiring a taste for poetry due to a kind teacher’s instruction, she is trying her hand at it at home. One of her older sisters peeks at her paper and asks: […]

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A stylized photo of Arseny Tarkovsky smoking a cigarette.

An Initiation: On “I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky”

As someone with an affection for the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, I was eager to finally meet his father. I met him momentarily within Andrei’s 1975 film Mirror, but we barely got acquainted. Arseny Tarkovsky (1907-1989) held a huge place in his son’s life. And like with Jean Pierre Renoir, here we have another father-son dynamic wherein both are artists. Andrei admitted that his father’s work had a huge influence upon him, and how fortunate is that? To have a father who not only encourages the arts but also is an artist himself? In watching many interviews with Andrei, it is clear that he was a very sensitive soul. He loved his father and because his father’s work held such impact in his life, and he chose to honor him by using his work within his films. As example, take this poem from I Burned at the Feast: Selected Poems of Arseny Tarkovsky (translated by Philip Metres and Dimitri Psurtsev), which is set against one of the more famous scenes within Mirror. […]