Hamilton

Hamilton

Thomas Kail (2020)

If you were never able to get to New York and cough up the $500 or so it would have cost you to see the live Broadway production of the phenomenal hit Hamilton in 2016, you can now see it on the small screen for just the price of a month’s subscription to Disney+. And while it might not be quite the same as being in the room where it happened, the new filmed-live stage production that began streaming over the July 4th holiday weekend is the next best thing, allowing viewers to feel the energy and intensity of the live Broadway show while also using nine different cameras deftly to bring us closeups and aerial shots we could never actually see from an orchestra seat in the Richard Rodgers theater on West 46th Street.

Unless you’ve been living in a hole in the ground for the past month (which I admit is a real possibility in the current pandemic), you know that the live-performance film of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s mega-hit, originally scheduled to be released in theaters in the fall of 2021, was put on the front burner by Disney+ as a fitting offering for the Independence Day weekend, a canny and apt choice considering it a) tells the story of one of the most important but least well-known of the framers of our nation; b) is already a hugely popular production, not only among those who have seen it on the stage but of the millions more who have made its soundtrack the best-selling original cast recording of any musical in history; and c) takes the bold step of casting Black, Asian and Latinx actors in the lead roles of America’s founding fathers and mothers—the story of America then told by America now, as Miranda has put it—at a moment when America, on her birthday, is seriously questioning her past and her systemic racism. The moment, in other words, is ripe. As Hamilton might say, how lucky we are to be alive right now.

Sure, Disney had its eye on challenging Netflix as the most influential streaming provider and social media presence, and paid $75 million for the exclusive privilege of airing Hamilton.  It remains to be seen just how well their gamble paid off. But I know they got my money. Of course, I am a big fan of the Broadway musical, and an avid student of history, so I may actually be what my wife would call the intended audience. But truth to tell, this is hardly a typical musical, using a variety of styles but mostly rap and hip-hop. How many rap musicals can you name? Well, of course, there is Miranda’s own In the Heights—the movie version of which had been scheduled to appear in theaters this summer—but other than that not many have been Broadway hits. Clearly though, there seems to be a market, and this may be the wave of the future. And Miranda is no dilettante in this musical genre: He credits artists like Tupac, Mobb Deep, Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes, Jay Z, Pharoahe Monch, and others, as the inspirations for particular numbers or even specific lines, rhymes, or words. Now admittedly, I can’t tell one of these artists from another, so you might think that someone my age (in the category of “ancient”) would be less than enamored with the music here.

But it is impossible not to appreciate the electric energy of the musical’s songs. And the fact is Miranda is quite a student of the classic Broadway musical: There are deliberate allusions to several of them, going all the way back to Gilbert and Sullivan, to whom he gives a nod when he has Washington state “Now I’m the model of a modern major general,” and including Rodgers and Hammerstein, when Aaron Burr insists “You’ve got to be carefully taught,” alluding to South Pacific’s antiracist anthem. But it’s not only specific lines. Miranda has made no secret that many scenes in Hamilton reflect or echo classic musical scenes. The concept of Hamilton’s opening number Miranda has credited to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, where the chief characters of the musical set the stage for the entrance of the protagonist, adding that the idea of making Hamilton’s chief antagonist, Burr (“the damn fool that shot him”) act as the story’s narrator was inspired by Judas’s narration of Jesus Christ Superstar. The idea of another early scene, in which Hamilton and his posse (Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan and John Laurens) raise their glasses to freedom and discuss the coming revolution, Miranda has attributed to Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, though many viewers will see an echo of Les Miserables’ “Red and Black” scene. Miranda notes a debt to Les Mis as well in the song “Satisfied,” in which Angelica Schuyler laments having lost Hamilton to her sister Eliza, wherein he has said he was “tryin’ to out-Eponine Eponine.” As for Hamilton’s first meeting with Eliza (at a dance), Miranda says he was thinking about Tony’s first meeting with Maria in West Side Story. And “The Schuyler Sisters” introductory song in New York (“the greatest city in the world”) Miranda has called it his “One Short Day in the Emerald City” (from Wicked). I guess what I’m trying to say here is that fans of traditional musical theater will feel right at home with this production.

Historically, Miranda’s show has the blessing of historian and biographer Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton was Miranda’s inspiration. Miranda also used Chernow’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 2010 biography of George Washington in researching his script, and asked Chernow to be the show’s historical consultant. While Chernow was quick to point out some of the poetic license Miranda took with the historical facts—putting Mulligan, Laurens, and Lafayette together with Hamilton in 1776, for example, when Hamilton had not met them all yet at that point—he saw the reason for Miranda’s compressing certain events for the sake of the story. And it was certainly with Chernow’s blessing that Miranda used various primary sources in composing scenes of the play: letters between Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler, polemics Hamilton and Jefferson had written attacking each other’s positions in print, Washington’s farewell address, and Hamilton’s Reynolds Pamphlet (admitting and delineating his extramarital affair), among others.

Miranda sparkles and sizzles as the show’s main focus, Alexander Hamilton, the “bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman,” an immigrant from a Caribbean island who rose to power and influence in his new country, the fledgling U.S.A., purely through his own drive, hard work, and self-promotion. Just like his country, he says, he’s “young, scrappy and hungry/And I’m not throwing away my shot.” (There are three duels in the play, during the last of which Hamilton ironically literally does throw away his shot—so there’s a lot going on in that number). As Hamilton’s antagonist Aaron Burr, Leslie Odom Jr. (who won the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical) is cold, ambitious, opportunistic and careful—“”talk less, smile more” he advises Hamilton early on—and a pleasure to watch as his emotions range from the tender love of a father in “Dear Theodosia” to envy and frustration in “The Room Where It Happens.” As Angelica, the sister-in-law Hamilton can’t get out of his mind, Renée Elise Goldsberry (another Tony winner as Best Featured Actress in a Musical) dominates every scene she is in with a stunning stage presence and a magnificent voice. As George Washington, Christopher Jackson brings a dignity and gravitas to the role of the Revolutionary War hero and first president. One of the few white actors onstage is Jonathan Groff, who plays the extremely white King George III in a hilarious serenade to his colonies, to whom he promises “I’ll kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.” Groff’s songs are in a Brit-pop style that contrasts sharply with the rest of the score, and sounds so much like a Beatles’ song that Miranda and musical director Alex Lacamoire deliberately added instrumental allusions to “Getting Better” (guitar riff), “Penny Lane” (vibraphone) and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (synth). If you know Jesus Christ, Superstar, you might say that this number out-Herods Herod.

The most memorable performance for me came from Daveed Diggs, Tony winner for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, who pays Lafayette in Act I and Thomas Jefferson in Act II. Diggs prances around the stage, engaging Hamilton in Rap Battles at cabinet meetings and rejoicing over Hamilton’s public fall with the gleeful “Never gonna be president now!”

There has been some serious backlash over Hamilton since its nationwide premier this week, mainly from people saying it strikes the wrong note in the current moment, when the nation is dealing with very public examinations of its history of systemic racism. Indeed, the slavery question was swept under the rug by the very constitution that Hamilton defended in 51 essays of the Federalist Papers. The role of the Founding Fathers in the institution of slavery is glossed over in the play, according to critics. A close look at the play suggests that this is not entirely fair: Hamilton’s best friend, John Laurens, is an ardent abolitionist who plans to organize a regiment of 3,000 Black soldiers who would be fighting for their own freedom in the Revolution. Hamilton chides Jefferson for Virginia’s use of slaves as their unpaid labor force. But it’s true that slavery is not the central issue of the play. At least not overtly. The casting of Black actors to play the Virginia slaveholders Jefferson, Washington, and Madison is an ironic reversal that celebrates the fact that in today’s world, the human worth of these descendants of slaves is at least equivalent in value to those figures they portray onstage. But there is no getting around the fact that Miranda’s play, first performed in 2015 during the optimism of the Obama administration, when putting a Black man in the role of president seemed natural, was intended for a very different America than the current one, in which long-held divisions and prejudices are exacerbated daily from powerful sources, and where only one unequivocal response will do. Miranda has responded to such criticisms, tweeting that they were valid: “The sheer tonnage of complexities & failings of these people I couldn’t get,” he tweeted. “Or wrestled with but cut. I took 6 years and fit as much as I could in a 2.5 hour musical. Did my best. It’s all fair game.”

One show can only do so much. And this one does a lot, and does it magnificently. Four Shakespeares for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

The Night Watchman

The Night Watchman

Louise Erdrich (2020)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

I’m beginning this review on June 25, the 144th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, commonly known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” That battle was the culmination of the career of the cavalry commander responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of Native Americans, and his defeat became the excuse for the slaughter of hundreds more. That string of battles was sparked by the U.S. government’s seizure, in violation of their own treaty, of the Native Americans’ sacred Black Hills, and part of a larger series of wars whose undisguised intent was to eliminate any competition for the westward advancement of white Americans and the annihilation of anyone standing in the way of that expansion. Yet those pesky Indians kept preserving their traditions and ways of life after agreeing to treaties and retiring to their reservations. But it turns out that some of those reservations were on land that American corporations could profit from. And treaties? Well, they were made to be abrogated, weren’t they? Still, Indian wars looked bad, so new methods had to be developed. Thus the period from 1953 to 1968 is known, in the history of American Indian relations with the U.S. government, as the “Termination” period.

It began with a U.S. senator from Utah named Arthur V. Watkins, who was appointed chair of the Senate Interior Committee Subcommittee on Indian Affairs in 1947. A Mormon who associated Native Americans with the evil Lamanite tribe in the Book of Mormon, Watkins conceived of and pursued a policy aimed at terminating the special status of Indian tribes under U.S. law. In 1953, Watkins’ allies introduced a bill concurrently in the House and the Senate that was passed as House Concurrent Resolution 108. This law aimed to eliminate any laws that treated Native Americans differently from any other U.S. citizens; to eliminate the BIA; to end all federal supervision over individual Indians, Indian tribes, and their resources. Of course, it was those resources that were the chief target. Watkins compared his bill to the Emancipation Proclamation, saying it would “free” Indians and entitle them to “the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States.” In other words, it would force them to assimilate, and would wipe out their tribal identity, their identity as Indians. The bill became known as the “termination bill,” and it specified the first thirteen tribes to be terminated. Among these tribes were the Turtle Mountain Chippewa.

The Turtle Mountain band is Louise Erdrich’s mother’s tribe, and the writer’s maternal grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, was tribal chairman in the early 1950s, a period when he also worked as night watchman at a factory on the reservation. In 1953, in the wake of the passage of House Concurrent Resolution 108, Gourneau in his role as chairman traveled to Washington with other members of the band to testify before Congress in an attempt to stave off termination. That is the seed from which has grown Erdrich’s most recent novel, The Night Watchman. Erdrich has changed the name of the protagonist to Thomas Wazhashk, but has made no secret that Thomas is based very closely upon her grandfather.

The novel follows two separate but connected story arcs. The first, of course, is Thomas’s story, from the moment he learns of the infamous “termination bill,” through his working out what it really means for the tribe, to a meeting with BIA bureaucrats in Fargo, where one of his fellow tribesmen, a minor character named Eddy Mink, responds to the cessation of Federal monetary support for Indian people by saying, “The services that the government provides to Indians might be likened to rent. The rent for use of the entire country of the United States.” Thomas’s story culminates in the Turtle Mountain representatives’ testimony before Senator Watkins’ committee in the nation’s capital. Erdrich’s presentation of these events is carefully researched and presented in a restrained, straightforward manner, like bureaucratic Nazi memos about the Holocaust.

The other story arc in the novel concerns Thomas’s completely fictional niece Patrice Paranteau, whose friends often call her “Pixie,” a nickname she detests. Patrice has an alcoholic father who comes home occasionally and brings chaos to the peaceful home where Patrice lives with her mother, sister, and brother Pokey, and it is Patrice who supports the family, working in the jewel-bearing plant at which Thomas is night watchman. She takes a good deal of pride in being the best at the intricate work of laying jewels into keyboards to be used in watches. In a recent interview in Time magazine, Erdrich said, “The jewel-bearing plant is real and it still stands. It hired mostly women, and what an extraordinary thing. I was excited to write a book that had indigenous people doing factory work because you don’t read that.”

Patrice’s story arc has two strands. First, her sister Vera has left the reservation and gone to Minneapolis, where she has had a baby. But since then, her family has lost touch with her. Determined to discover what’s happened to Vera, Patrice borrows vacation days from her factory friends and takes time off to go to the Twin Cities to find her sister. Like most quests, her first venture off the reservation turns into a learning experience, in which her most memorable adventure is taking a job in a nightclub as an underwater dancer dressed in a rubber cow suit and billed as Babe, Paul Bunyan’s Blue Ox. But although in the cities Patrice is able to find a noir world of drugs and prostitution that her sister may have been involved in, she never is able to find Vera.

Her adventure does give her the confidence to accompany Thomas to Washington and be part of the group that testifies before Congress. Back home, though, Patrice is being wooed by two men: One is Wood Mountain, a Chippewa boxer her own age, and the other the older non-Indian math teacher and coach of Wood Mountain’s boxing team, Lloyd Barnes. Wood Mountain also becomes involved in Thomas’s story as the tribal chairman organizes a huge boxing match pitting Wood Mountain against his nemesis, the Anglo-champion Joe Wobleszynski, in order to raise money to send the Turtle Mountain delegation to Washington.

The two strands of the plot complement one another in more than overlapping events. Patrice’s odyssey demonstrates what Thomas and his delegation are bent on showing the politicians: These people are unique and valuable as Indians, and their reservation is a part of that character. To terminate them would be to terminate a way of being human that would not otherwise exist. I certainly don’t want to spoil the plot of the book, so I won’t say more about it. I will say that this is a novel into which Erdrich has poured all the narrative skills she’s shown in previous novels from Love Medicine through Plague of Doves and The Round House, creating a world in which readers can become absorbed and in which we meet characters we know well enough to think of as real. From the factory to the boxing ring to the underwater dancing, we believe we are in this world, and when magical realist aspects occur, like Thomas’s conversations with his long-dead boyhood friend Roderick, or even the mystical vision he experiences when he thinks he is freezing to death—a vision of angelic spirits “filmy and brightly indistinct” in the sky, Jesus Christ among them, who “looked just like the others”—they seem events as acceptable as anything else.

In her Afterword to the book, Erdrich notes that “In all, 113 tribal nations suffered the disaster of termination; 1.4 million acres of tribal land was lost. Wealth flowed to private corporations, while many people in terminated tribes died early, in poverty. Not one tribe profited.”As I get ready to post this review just before a Fourth of July weekend when a U.S. president plans, amid nationwide clamoring over this society’s systemic racism, to celebrate the holiday at a giant monument to four white guys carved by a member of the KKK on a sacred mountain stolen from Indian people in the Black Hills, it’s hard to imagine how this book could be more timely or significant. Four Shakespeares for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods

(Spike Lee 2020)

Ruud Rating

4 Shakespeares

During the Vietnam War, African Americans comprised about 11% of the total U.S. population, but at one point made up 32% of the soldiers serving in combat. During the period from 1966 and 1969, when the defense department increased the draft in order to build up troops in Vietnam, some 41% of those drafted were Black. After this situation was decried by protesters, adjustments were made. The abolishment of college student deferments in favor of a draft lottery changed the character of the draftees and evened out the biases, but ultimately the total number of black combat deaths remained disproportionate to the population, at least in the bloodiest years.

Despite this history, none of the most significant Vietnam war movies—The Deerhunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, et al.—have focused on the black experience in Vietnam. Until now: Spike Lee’s latest effort, Da 5 Bloods, now available streaming on Netflix, closes that gap, and does so in a memorable way. This is the first great film of this bizarre year of 2020, and it comes, not accidentally, against a backdrop of cultural revolution in response to systemic racism embedded in American society and whitewashed in American history, including the way that history has been memorialized on film.

Spike Lee has certainly been doing his best to adjust that particular lens with films like Malcolm or 2018’s BlacKkKlansman.In his latest film, Lee has four black septuagenarian Vietnam veterans meeting in a kind of bucket-list reunion in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), from where they plan to trek into the jungle in order to recover the remains of their revered squad leader “Stormin’ Norman” (Chadwick Boseman), killed in action on their last mission and buried in the jungle, after they had vowed to bring him home. But it turns out they also left something else in that jungle: a case of gold bars from Fort Knox, worth something in the neighborhood of seventeen million dollars, earmarked as payment to a jungle tribe for their help against the Viet Cong. But the plane carrying the gold was shot down in the jungle, and only the four remaining “bloods” know of its existence. And they have come to retrieve it after fifty years. With Norman’s encouragement, the foursome had agreed upon the laudable goal of using the money to enhance the lives of victims of oppression in their own neighborhoods back home. Think of it as a kind of “reparation.”

But in the decades that have passed, each of these veterans has had his own traumas to bear, and the quest for the gold and for Norman’s remains becomes, as all quests do, a quest into the psyches of the questers. Setting out on the search are Otis (Clarke Peters of TV’s The Wire), who is the de facto leader of the mission, and is dealing behind the scenes with a Vietnamese woman (his former lover) and a French businessman in order to fence the gold; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr., who worked with Lee in BlacKkKlansman), who more than any of the others is trying to make sure everyone gets along; Eddie (Norm Lewis of TV’s Scandal), a businessman who likes everyone to think he’s the most successful of the group, and also (in what becomes an important detail later on) their former medic; and Paul (Delroy Lindo from Lee’s Malcolm X), the most disturbed and dangerous of the group, who is also its emotional center. It was Paul who held Norman as he died. It’s Paul who is still most afflicted by PTSD. It is Paul who wears a MAGA cap, for which he is berated by his fellows but which is merely a symptom of his profound sense of disenfranchisement. We soon find that Paul cannot relate to or reconcile with the Vietnamese people just as he is alienated from his own society, and from his family. The first surprise of the film happens when Paul’s son David shows up, hoping to take the trip into the jungle with his estranged father. David (Jonathan Majors from The Last Black Man in San Francisco), who is Otis’s godson and an African American Studies teacher, just wants to form a bond with his old man, though Paul isn’t really interested. But David becomes, for the audience, a kind of chorus figure, and it is largely along with him that we learn about the past.

The film makes generous use of flashbacks, which are signaled by the switch from widescreen to the traditional TV aspect ratio (a trick that takes those of us who remember those days back to the time when we watched the war on our TV news every night). In the flashbacks, the four veterans play themselves without any technology tricks to make them look younger. It has the effect of underscoring how vividly present those memories still are to the former soldiers. It is in these flashbacks that we get to know the beloved Norman, whom Otis, telling David the story, calls “our Malcolm and our Martin.” Chadwick, who has made a film reputation by playing mythic black heroes like Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, and James Brown—and the truly mythic Black Panther—is the perfect choice to play the revered Norman, who brought these men together, taught them how to stay alive in the jungle, taught them their own history (from Crispus Attucks to Martin Luther King) and gave them a social consciousness—“War is money. Money is war,” he tells them, and compares their white officers’ use of black troops as cannon fodder to their treatment at the hands of police back home. This is all stuff that David is well aware of, but that Paul and his bloods needed to be woke to in 1969.

There are so many twists and turns in this film that anything more I tell you about the plot takes us into spoiler territory. But unlike the blatant political message of the movie (which you’ve probably already got), one of the most interesting aspects of the film is Lee’s more subtle means of placing the film in context. Actually, into several different contexts.

The film begins with carefully chosen vintage news stills and clips that put us in the milieu of 1969, beginning with one of Muhammed Ali explaining why he refused induction into the U.S. armed forces as a conscientious objector, repeating his declaration that “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. They never called me nigger.” The series of clips also shows members of the Black Panthers in an eerily déjà vu moment decrying police brutality, as well as Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis voicing opposition to the war. Other iconic images, like the South Vietnam National Police chief executing a handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner with a shot to the head during the Tet Offensive of 1968—an image broadcast into every home across the U.S. on the six o’clock news—and the famous photograph of the screaming, naked nine-year-old girl running in tears from an American napalm attack.

Lee also pays tribute to the films that inspired this one, including a scene that recalls another film about a treasure hunt, John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (“Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”), one that recalls the chaotic ending of another movie about a quest through a southeast Asian jungle, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (“Madness! Madness!), and most particularly and most often that classic Vietnam War movie, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, from the beginning of the quest in Saigon, through the boat trip down the river into the interior where they have a nearly disastrous encounter with native boats (and the score blares Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyrie”).

So much goes on in this film that it’s impossible to do it justice in a short review. But I do want to mention the Terrence Blanchard soundtrack, which alternates classically orchestrated music that swells almost ironically to give a heroic sense to the action with popular music from the time of the war, including six songs from Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Goin’ On, including the title track, stripped of its instrumentation, sung in a single pleading voice of protest and pain.

And I want to mention one more thing: In a film filled with memorable performances (especially from Clarke, who is always worth watching), Delroy Lindo’s tortured, mad, bigger-than-life Paul must be singled out as the first Oscar-worthy performance of the year. In a climax inspired in part by Bogart’s maddened Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and in part by no less epic a figure than King Lear, Paul rejects his former comrades, finds it sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a thankless child, and storms off alone into the jungle, raging in soliloquy face-to-face with the camera as he moves. It’s a sequence worth the price of admission.

Trust me, you won’t want to miss this film. Four Shakespeares for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

Native Son

Native Son

(Richard Wright 1940)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

You’re not going to like Bigger Thomas. Even from the beginning of the novel, the protagonist of Native Son is surly to his family, irascible and even violent with his friends, and resentful to his new white employer and his daughter and her boyfriend who try to relate to him on a human level. But Richard Wright never wanted you to like him. Quite the opposite. In his earliest published work, the collection of stories called Uncle Tom’s Children, Wright had produced a text about Black experiences in racist America that garnered him a plethora of sentimental admirers. “I found that I had written a book which even bankers’ daughters could read and weep over and feel good about,” Wright wrote about his first book’s reception, and in his essay “How Bigger Was Born,” he said that in Native Son he set out to tell a story “no one would weep over.” And once Bigger has accidentally suffocated his white employer’s daughter Mary Dalton, and burned her body after decapitating her so he could fit her head in the furnace, and followed this up with the rape and murder of his Black girlfriend Bessie Means, no one is likely to.

But like him or not, there is no question that his story is a significant turning point in American literature. Until 1940, when Native Son made Wright the first African American to have a “Book of the Month Club” selection and also made him rich, selling 250,000 hardcover copies in its first three weeks, no Black novelist had approached the subject of race in American society so directly and so damningly. Wright’s literary models were all white: naturalist novelists attacking social ills, like Upton Sinclair, Frank Norris or Sinclair Lewis, or Russians like Dostoevsky, or century-old abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose title he had borrowed for Uncle Tom’s Children. But as the literary and social critic Irving Howe wrote in an oft-quoted assessment: “The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever.” Native Son spawned the likes of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin on the one hand, and made it clear on the other that racial oppression in American society was not going to be overcome without struggle and, almost certainly, violence.

Native Son was ranked No. 20 in the Modern Library’s much discussed list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. Time Magazine also included the novel in its “100 Best English-language Novels since 1923” (the year Time debuted). The reason for these accolades is different, it seems to me, from the reasons that other books appear on these lists. The characters in Wright’s narrative are not especially noteworthy—the white characters tend to be stereotyped, either outright unapologetic racists for the most part, or politicians happy to use racist sentiments for their own political gains (like Buckley, the state prosecutor in an election year), or skin-deep liberals like the wealthy Henry Dalton, a philanthropist who provides a job for Bigger, gives money to the NAACP, and donates ping-pong tables to an outreach program for African American youths, while renting rat-infested apartments to Black families only in designated areas of the city. Bigger himself is a flat character, intended to be so by Wright so that he could be what he called a “meaningful and prophetic symbol” of Black people in general. For that, Wright has come under criticism from some of the African American writers who followed him, notably James Baldwin, who acknowledged that, to some extent, “No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.” But Baldwin, and others, have gone on to fault Bigger’s character for being completely out of touch with his own people, with Black culture. To a large extent, Baldwin notes, Wright’s book is written mainly for a white audience.

Nor is the plot of the novel especially noteworthy or clever. Some of the events are a bit far-fetched (he ends up killing the young woman the very same day he takes the job from her father) or contrived (the furnace starts smoking at the precise time that the room is full of newspaper reporters, leading to the discovery of the bones in the ashes), and worst of all, rather than letting the narrative speak for itself, Wright includes a courtroom scene in which Bigger’s lawyer, Max, gives a lengthy speech detailing everything that is wrong with American society that has ultimately resulted in the production of a Bigger Thomas. Mark Twain once advised writers “Don’t say ‘the lady screamed.’ Bring her on, and let her scream.” In his last act, Wright not only tells us that the lady screamed, he explains ad infinitum how, why, and how much she screamed. The book at that point becomes as didactic as any medieval morality play, and less entertaining. But it’s also another flaw in the plot: Bigger’s lawyer never calls a single witness, barely cross-examines witnesses brought by the prosecution, never tries to find flaws (and there definitely are some) in the state’s case against his client. His entire defense strategy is based on having Bigger plead guilty and putting society on trial. Would any real lawyer try a case this way?

Where, then, does the strength of this novel lie? Like its forerunner Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Native Son is most moving when it depicts the society in which this crime was incubated. The story begins in Bigger’s home—a one-room apartment he shares with his mother, brother, and sister, in which he has to chase down and kill a rat as soon as he wakes up. It is a room rented to them by the company owned by Henry Dalton, father of the girl he will kill later that night. It is rented to them for twice the rent a white person would be asked to pay because, Dalton explains later in court, there is a shortage of housing in the designated Black area of the city (and Blacks cannot rent anywhere outside of that ghetto). So the law of supply and demand drives the cost of rent up. And no, Mr. Dalton could not charge less for his rentals, because he would be undercutting the other property renters in the district, and that would be unethical. That is what he says would be unethical.

Bigger’s schooling was substandard, and he had considered going to a flight school and learning to fly planes but he was the wrong color to be admitted to the school. He considered joining the army, but in the Jim Crow army of the late 1930s his only opportunities would be of the ditch digging variety. So economic opportunities were pretty slim. Nor does the legal system treat him at all fairly: He is questioned by the state’s attorney without having a lawyer present; has no money, of course, to retain a lawyer and is never offered a public defender; he is charged with crimes for which there was no evidence he had committed, including the universal assumption that he must have raped Mary Dalton before killing her; and he goes to court without any hint of the presumption of innocence.

Much of this last circumstance is fed by the local media, in the form chiefly of newspapers, which Bigger keeps looking at, liking the publicity of being on the front page. But he is guilty in the papers long before his trial, as the stories refer to him as a murderer and rapist. In one story he reads:

“Though the Negro killer’s body does not seem compactly built, he gives the impression of possessing abnormal physical strength. He is about five feet, nine inches tall and his skin is exceedingly black. His lower jaw protrudes obnoxiously, reminding one of a jungle beast.

His arms are long, hanging in a dangling fashion to his knees. . . . His shoulders are huge and muscular, and he keeps them hunched, as if about to spring upon you at any moment. He looks at the world with a strange, sullen, fixed-from-under stare, as though defying all efforts of compassion.

“All in all, he seems a beast utterly untouched by the softening influences of modern civilization. In speech and manner he lacks the charm of the average, harmless, genial, grinning southern darky so beloved by the American people.”

The passage is so egregiously racist that it stretches the limits of our credulity, but the fact is Wright was basing the language on actual articles that had appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1939 concerning Robert Nixon, an African American executed for killing a white woman that year.

In the midst of all this can Bigger find solace in religion? His mother is a true believer, and tells him consistently to pray. She sends a Black preacher to comfort him in his cell: Reverend Hammond, who tries to give Bigger the comfort of religion, but only succeeds in angering him, and when Bigger sees the burning cross of the KKK on top of a building, he tears off his cross. Religion in the book is simply an opiate to keep the Black masses in their place, dreaming of pie in the sky by and by while they put up with the indignities of this world.

Bigger’s lawyer Max believes that communism might provide the answer, and Wright, secretary of the Chicago chapter of the John Reed Club in 1940, may have agreed, though he renounced communism two years later. But Bigger does not agree. His last exchange with Max reveals no faith in an ultimate classless society where Blacks will have true equality. Like religion, Bigger sees Max’s view as finally just another pipe-dream.

In the end, what Wright portrays in the novel is what some see in the current wave of police violence against people of color: The truth is that is that the system is perfectly calibrated to produce the ends that it produces. Bigger is the product of systemic racism. Look how far we’ve come in 80 years.

Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

How to Build a Girl

How to Build a Girl

Coky Giedroyc (2020)

There will never be a shortage of coming of age movies as long as people keep coming of age. Every generation gets its own set of them, and some are better than others. For every Ferris Bueller or The Graduate there are a dozen also-rans. But essentially, all such stories fall into the archetypal pattern called the “initiation story” (or “Bildungsroman”), in which the protagonist  with whom we identify has a significant experience that forces him or her to change, to mature, to become a different person—essentially to grow and mature into a more complex human being with a broader and less naïve view of the world. How to Build a Girl, a new film by director Coky Giedroyc (known chiefly for directing TV shows like Harlots and Penny Dreadful) based on the semi-autobiographical 2014 novel by Caitlin Moran (who also wrote the screenplay) is one of those better ones.

The film, now available through streaming on Amazon Prime and other sources, follows the up-and-down adventures of sixteen-year-old Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein of Book Smart and Lady Bird), a creative and imaginative girl living in the decidedly un-inspiring Wolverhampton, a city in England’s West Midlands 17 miles west of Birmingham. It’s a town known for its quirky local accent, a working class accent that Los Angeles-raised Feldstein does a reasonable imitation of throughout the film. She lives in a flat with her parents and four brothers, two of whom are twin infants that seem to have come as an unpleasant shock to her 38-year-old mother Angie (Sarah Solemani from Bridget Jones’ Baby and TV’s Him & Her), who seems to stagger through the film in a post-partem depression trance. Her father Pat (Paddy Considine from The Death of Stalin and TV’s Peaky Blinders) is a middle-aged wannabe rock star who illegally breeds border collies as he tries to find a way in to the music industry while the family seems to struggle in their tiny flat.

Dreaming of better things (“I want to burn! I want to explode! I want to have sexual intercourse with someone who has a car!”), Johanna has to share a room with her brother Kris (Laurie Kynaston of TV’s Cradle to Grave and The Trouble with Maggie Cole), who has his own creative streak—he self-publishes a music fanzine—but the two have a partition separating their individual sections of the room. The wall of Johanna’s side is covered with pictures of her idols, from Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud to Julie Andrews and Elizabeth Taylor to Sylvia Plath and the Bronte sisters, and when she is having one of her frequent personal traumas, the pictures speak to her, with sometimes questionable insights. Johanna is an overachiever at school, particularly in her English class, where she writes thirty-page papers to the chagrin of her long-suffering teacher. She gets her big chance to read one of her poems on TV in a Midlands teen-poet competition in Birmingham, but is too nervous to get through her “my pet collie is my best friend” poem and winds up talking about herself and her pet as Shaggy and Scoobie-Do. The upshot of her big TV appearance is that the popular kids, to whom up to now she’s been invisible, greet her with Scoobie references.

It’s brother Kris who gets her out of her rut. He draws to her attention an ad from a London magazine called Disc & Music EchoD&ME), asking for potential reviewers to send in samples of their writing, and Johanna submits a rave review of the soundtrack to the musical Annie. (This is the point at which we realize the movie is not set in contemporary Britain, not only because she listens to the music on a cassette tape, but also because she writes the review on a manual typewriter, without a computer in sight.). Much to our surprise, Johanna actually gets an interview. But it’s only because the smug, self-important (all male) snobs who run the magazine want to settle a bet as to whether the person who wrote the Annie review is actually real. But with a show of gumption we haven’t seen in Johanna before, she convinces the hipsters to give her a chance, and gets a freelance gig covering a local band. It all seems pretty far-fetched, but it actually did apparently happen much this way in Caitlin Moran’s career—this is the “semi-autobiographical” stuff.

Johanna decides she needs to become someone completely different in order to be the rock critic she intends to be, and, looking in her closet, finds that she has “Nothing to wear for who I need to be.” So she dyes her hair a bright orange-red, dons a new top hat and fishnet stockings, and gives herself a new name—“Dolly Wilde.” And she immerses herself in the Midlands music scene, joyously embracing rock ‘n’ roll. When she has begun to establish herself as a stringer for D&ME, she convinces the powers that be to let her write a feature: Her first interview is with an unusually sensitive and generous singer-songwriter named John Kite (Alfie Allen, best known as Theon Greyjoy in TV’s Game of Thrones). But when her interview comes in as an adolescent fangirl piece, the pretentious D&ME snobs write her off.

But before abandoning her burgeoning career just yet, “Dolly” gets a bit of advice from one of the D&ME wankers: There are only about twenty popular music acts at any one time that can have any real impact, and the magazine’s job, he says, is to thin the herd by driving out mediocrity. “Everyone my whole life has lied to me,” she says at that point. “A nice girl gets nowhere,” and Johanna decides she must change again, to become the acid-penned, impossible-to-please music critic bitch that the magazine wants her to be. She embarks on a career that brings her fame and fortune while she trashes artists like Joni Mitchell and Eddie Vedder to the applause of her peers, while alienating herself from her parents, her siblings, her teachers, and anybody else who gets in her way (or who actually cares anything about her).

As you can probably guess, things don’t continue this way, and Dolly/Johanna comes to another fork in the road, which she takes, but I won’t reveal the ending to you with any spoilers. Though I do want to note that Emma Thompson makes an appearance toward the end of the movie in a cameo role as an influential editor. Ultimately, the film does follow the typical initiation-story arc, from endearingly naïve Johanna through a series of experiences that make her older and wiser Johanna.

Moran’s screenplay does at times push the limits of credulity with its sudden outrageous reversals of Johanna’s character, though since it is after all about “building a girl” it seems meant to reflect adolescents’ “trying on” different personae in their quest for selfhood. Besides, in a film where wall pictures come to life and talk to characters, we’re not really in the world of everyday reality, are we? And the script does crackle throughout with quick and sometimes outrageous wit. This movie is hilarious, and director Coky Giedroyc displays a real feel for the emotional upheavals of teenaged existence. Beanie Feldstein, who has already turned in impressive performances in her previous films, is watchable and believable as 16-year old Johanna (even though she is a decade older than the girl she is playing). It probably is about time Feldstein graduated from playing the uncool, unpopular bookish high school girl who proves to be superior to those bullies who keep her down. At least, before she hits 30.

I do hope this film finds an audience in these streaming days of film viewing. Set in the early ’90s—about the time its star was actually born—does it have the appeal to current teenagers that a more contemporary setting might encourage (as in something like the current Banana Split, where the main character has a similar character arc)?  I have a feeling that How to Build a Girl has a universal enough theme, and a funny enough script, that it will find that audience. Three Tennysons for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

Shakespeare for Squirrels

Shakespeare for Squirrels

Christopher Moore (2020)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

If you are a casual Christopher Moore fan, you probably know him best as the author of Lamb, the boldly comic but oddly reverent Gospel according to Biff,  Jesus’s childhood friend. Or perhaps you are a new initiate to the Moore absurdist comic canon, and found him first in his recent parody of the hard-boiled detective genre, Noir, which debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list in 2018. After 17 successful novels, Moore has enough eager readers to make expectations of such debuts typical.

The other novel that you might know of, even if you’re not a Moore aficionado, is Fool, his wildly irreverent 2009 parody of Shakespeare’s King Lear, told from the point of view of the most famous fool in all of Elizabethan drama. Moore’s fool, whose full name is Pocket of Dog Snogging upon Ouze, reappears in a darkly comic 2014 sequel, The Serpent of Venice, which parodies Shakespeare again in a mashup of Poe’s “A Cask of Amontillado” and The Merchant of Venice. And now, just when we need another hardy laugh in the face of dark absurdity, Pocket is back in a third Shakespearean sendup, this time of the Bard’s most performed play, A MidsummerNight’s Dream.

In an extravagant comedy even more manic than Shakespeare’s own, and with a body count higher than Lear and Hamlet combined, Moore’s new novel, Shakespeare for Squirrels, begins with a situation more reminiscent of Twelfth Night than MND: Pocket, having spent the time between the Shakespearean-imagined Venice and Athens on a pirate ship, has been cast adrift, along with his brawny but decidedly un-brainy apprentice Drool, and his clever but unreliable pet monkey Jeff, and just as the trio are about to perish from hunger and thirst and exposure, they wash ashore at Athens. Not the classical Athens of the historical Theseus (if there ever was one), but the imagined never-neverland of Shakespeare’s comedy.

It’s not long before local guards, employed by Duke Theseus, stop these illegal aliens because they have no papers, and arrest Drool while Jeff runs off into the trees, not to be seen again until near the end of the book, except for occasionally snatching people’s hats in order to perform lewd acts upon them. Pocket needs to find a way to free Drool. In the meantime he meets the fairy Cobweb, one of the minions of the fairy queen Titania. Cobweb more or less adopts Pocket and becomes his guide, adviser, and sometime lover as he weaves his crooked way across Athens. He also meets Robin Goodfellow, a.k.a. the Puck, who is himself the fool or jester to the court of Oberon—in Moore’s version, the king of the goblins rather than the fairies. Puck is a truly magical being, whom it turns out everybody just finds annoying. Things get more complicated for Pocket when he discovers the Puck has been murdered, pierced through by the dart of a crossbow that could have been fired by one of Theseus’s guards or, he realizes, by one of Oberon’s goblins. At this point some of Moore’s previous novel, Noir, bleeds through, and Pocket becomes the hard-boiled detective trying to solve the case of “Who killed Robin Goodfellow?”

Along the way Pocket comes across a group of “rude mechanicals” in the forest, including Peter Quince and Snug the Joiner and all the rest, rehearsing their version of “Pyramus and Thisbe” to be presented to the court of Theseus on the occasion of his wedding to the captured Amazon queen Hyppolita (who, by the way, has no desire to be married to the guy who “won” her by beating her people on a battlefield). Pocket, with his own long experience as a performer, gives the group a number of acting pointers, so that they begin to see him as their dramatic coach and guru. Pocket also runs into the young lady Helena, who complains of her treatment at the hands of Demetrius, who with the encouragement of Theseus’s counselor Egeus has left her for Egeus’s daughter Hermia, who wants to marry Lysander instead. So those crazy kids form a complicated background to the plot.

That plot thickens when Pocket is arrested by the guards and brought to Hyppolita, who (acting behind Theseus’s back) demands that he find out who killed Puck or risk the execution of the imprisoned Drool. And then of course Pocket is arrested again and brought to Theseus, who (acting behind Hyppolita’s back) demands that he find out who killed Puck or risk the execution of the imprisoned Drool.

I don’t want to give away the ending with any spoilers, but I do want to add that Bottom, in his transformed ass-headed state, plays a large role in the story, and that the little Indian boy over whom Titania and Oberon are fighting turns out to have a pretty interesting history himself. In addition, Moore brings in, to hilarious effect, the bizarre Prologue character from Shakespeare’s Henry I, part 2, introduced with the stage direction “Enter Rumour, painted full of tongues.” One more thing, and I hate to reveal this but the title doesn’t make sense without it: You know all those fairies that attend on their queen Titania all through the night? Turns out that the reason nobody sees them during the day is that they turn into squirrels in daylight hours. Hence the title of the book. It does come as something of a shock to Pocket to realize that his relationship with Cobweb has involved a good deal of squirrel shagging. But what the heck. Titania’s been sleeping with an ass.

Everybody remembers with affection the hysterical ending of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, wherein the rude mechanicals’ play-within-the-play caps off the restorative comic catharsis through which all true lovers are united. But Moore’s version, though absurdly comic in a black-humor sense, functions more like a tragedy, and the players’ performance at the end resembles more closely Shakespeare’s other play-within-the-play, the one in Hamlet, staged by the melancholy Dane himself to “catch the conscience of the king.” Here, Pocket rewrites the play as a version of the events he’s just lived through, hoping to get to the bottom of things, and ultimately directs the play with not only the original tradesmen but fairies, goblins, and Jeff. Both he, and we, wonder how it’s going to turn out:

“I confess, a wall of worry rises for even the most confident fool when he realizes his plot for saving the day lies with three squirrels, a troupe of earnest nitwits, a donkey-headed weaver, a silver-thirsty goblin, a notoriously unreliable narrator, and a hat-shagging monkey. And the narrator and goblins hadn’t even arrived yet!”

Pocket’s play has a more lethal denouement than Hamlet’s did, and demonstrates that Moore has a broader knowledge of Elizabethan drama than just Shakespeare. The motif of the “play within the play” utilized in Hamlet has its origin in the first popular revenge tragedy in Elizabethan theater, Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, in which the avenger, Hieronimo, stages a court masque in which guilty members of the court are killed during the performance of the play. The device became an expected motif in English revenge tragedies, and is repeated with similar deadly results in plays like Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women.That’s the kind of play we’ve got here.

Shakespeare for Squirrels is a wild ride, but one that fans of Moore will definitely want to take. Fans of Shakespeare will probably find it a loving if cheeky salute to the bard’s most popular play. And if you’re a fan of absurdist fiction like  Slaughterhouse-Five,The Sot-Weed Factor, or Catch-22, you might find a kindred sensibility here as well. Three Shakespeares and half a Tennyson for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

The Half of It

The Half of It

Alice Wu (2020)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

In Plato’s famous dialogue The Symposium, in which a number of guests at a dinner party are asked to discourse upon the nature of love, the character of Aristophanes (the famous comic playwright) relates an old fantastic myth that human beings were originally created as doubled beings, formed back to back, with two heads, four arms, and four legs. Because these proto-humans were very powerful, cartwheeling all over the place, they seemed to present a threat to the gods, and so Zeus decided to split all of them in half. Now some of these double-beings were made up of two males, some of two females, and some of a man and a woman. Thus it is the longing for our lost other half that explains human beings’ searching for love, for that one other person that completes them. It also explains, in anticipation of Alice Wu’s new Netflix movie, why some people look for heterosexual partners, and others for partners of the same sex.

Writer/director Wu, whose only previous film was Saving Face fifteen years ago, opens her new movie with an animated sequence retelling Aristophanes’ myth. It is a suitable introduction to a romantic comedy, especially one involving a same-sex crush at a small town American high school. And it explains right away, in case there was a danger you might miss it, the film’s title: “The half of it” alludes, a viewer is quick to infer, to that other half that true love will direct you to—the missing half of yourself. But as the film progresses, it becomes more and more clear that if that’s where you think this movie is going to take you, well, you just don’t know the half of it.

Wu’s story is set in a fictional small town in the Pacific Northwest called Squahamish, an apparently virtually all-white American town where everybody seems to belong to the same Catholic parish. The screenplay focuses on a seventeen-year-old Chinese-American high school senior named Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis from TV’s Nancy Drew). She lives with her father (Collin Chou of the Matrix movies), who emigrated from China to the U.S. with her mother and toddler Ellie. But her mother has died, and her father, with an engineering Ph.D. from China, has not been able to find suitable work in the United States, handicapped by poor English skills and an inability to move forward after his wife’s death. Ellie is the smartest kid in her class and hence, as we might expect, a kind of pariah. Her intelligence, her poverty and her ethnicity all serve to exclude her from the popular crowd, and her introverted nature doesn’t help. Few of her classmates even know her name (“Hey,” somebody shouts at a party near the end of the film, “the Chinese girl came!”). To make some extra money, though, Ellie writes essays for her more affluent classmates—a fact that her beaten-down English teacher Mrs. Geselschap (Becky Ann Baker of TV’s Girls) is well aware of but ignores because she doesn’t want to have to grade those other students’ awful prose.

It’s that side business that involves Elle with Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer of TV’s The Man in the High Castle), second-string tight end on Squahamish High School’s football team, which hasn’t scored a touchdown in fifteen years. Paul wants Ellie’s help, not to write an essay for him, but to write a love letter to a girl he is infatuated with, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire of TV’s Lab Rats: Elite Force). Ellie knows Aster: she plays piano at the church in which Aster’s father serves as deacon, and since Ellie doesn’t belong to the church, Aster refers to her jokingly as a “heathen.” But there is a hint that the introverted Ellie may feel more than a passing interest in Aster herself, so for this and other reasons Ellie is reluctant to take on the letter-writing task. But she needs $50 to pay her father’s electric bill, and so she swallows her reservations and agrees to write the letter. But just one. Like that’s gonna happen.

If this plot sounds familiar, it’s because Edmond Rostand used it in a little thing he called Cyrano de Bergerac back in 1897. This is not, of course, the first feature film to borrow from Cyrano. Devoted RomCom fans may remember in just the past two years the rather forgettable Sierra Burgess Is a Loser or the clever French film Cyrano, My Love. Two decades ago we were given Whatever It Takes, which was another flop. Perhaps the most successful film in this vein was the 1987 Steve Martin vehicle Roxanne, which gave us the unforgettable line “Earn more sessions by sleeving!” But The Half of It is far and away the most memorable modern adaptation of the Cyrano theme.

If you know Cyrano you know that what’s most likely to happen here is that Aster is bound to be won over by Ellie’s words and mistakenly fall for Paul no matter how obviously he is not the person writing the letters. The original Cyrano only reveals that he is Roxanne’s letter-writing soul mate as he is dying. Here, Aster’s letters back to Ellie reveal that she is not the beautiful airhead one might expect, but a serious literary-minded artist who sparks Ellie’s interest on an intellectual level. For that matter, Paul is not the simple dumb jock that he at first promises to be, but an inventive food entrepreneur who comes up with a brilliant “sausage taco” that, apparently, you have to taste to appreciate, and who also comes to see Ellie as a true friend worth protecting and defending and even, perhaps, loving.

Lemire, Diermer and especially Lewis play their roles with an authenticity worthy of the complex characters they portray. Far from being a typical high school RomCom with characters falling into clichéd categories (jocks, nerds, stoners, mean girls, etc.), Wu’s script explores real issues of identity, including race, class, gender and sexuality, and religion as well. This last is an area that I thought a weakness in the film: The church to which Aster and Paul belong is given a Catholic façade, but its theology seems far more in line with evangelical Protestantism than anything Pope Francis would approve. And a climactic scene that takes place during a church service seems to stretch the willing suspension of disbelief way out of shape. Still, Aster’s (and Paul’s) faith is contrasted with Ellie’ atheism in a way that does not privilege one or the other, but presents both as viable options for the high school-aged explorer of her own identity.

Focusing as it does upon the power of language, this is a surprisingly literary movie, referencing not only Plato and Cyrano but Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, and German filmmaker Wim Wenders, whom Aster catches Ellie plagiarizing in her first love letter. We also see clips from classic films like Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story, and His Girl Friday, which Ellie’s father watches to improve his English skills—though this excuse doesn’t work when we see him watching Chaplain’s silent classic City Lights. The film is a feast for audiences who respect the emotive and intellectual power of words and images.

If you do read Plato’s Symposium, you’ll find that Socrates, who has the last word, is not a fan of Aristophanes’ myth of the divided self looking for wholeness. Love, according to Socrates (and, we may infer, Plato), may take many forms, both physical (as in Aristophanes’ depiction of love) and intellectual or spiritual (hence the phrase, Platonic love). In The Half of It, we are presented with Paul’s physical attraction to Aster, Ellie’s friendship for Paul, Paul’s friendship as well as romantic feelings for Ellie, Ellie’s intellectual as well as physical attraction to Aster, Aster’s intellectual attraction to Ellie and their friendship, Ellie’s close familial love of her father, and all other permutations you can think of. In other words, the film takes you beyond the simple mythic opening to Plato’s more complex exploration. There is no simple solution to the question “what is love?”

The Half of It won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, and premiered on Netflix on May 1. It’s definitely worth your screen time. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one. I’d give it four if it weren’t for that screwy scene in the church.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

Machines Like Me

Machines Like Me

Ian McEwan (2019)

Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

Ian McEwan’s most recent novel is a departure from his usually realistic, historically-based narratives. Of course, his last novel, Nutshell (2016), was also a departure, being as it was a new twist on the Hamlet story told from the perspective of a fetus. But in Machines Like Me, McEwan enters the realm of alternative history, a genre more commonly associated with science fiction writers, like Philip K. Dick in his 1962 novel The Man in the High Tower (in which it is imagined that the Axis powers won World War II), but which more recently has been used in more mainstream novels like Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada (in which North America was partially settled by Tsarist Russia), Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration (in which the Protestant Reformation never took place), Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America (in which pro-fascist Charles Lindbergh won the 1940 U.S. election), or Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (in which there is no State of Israel, but many Jews live in an area of Alaska set aside for them by the U.S government).

In this novel, McEwan puts his own spin on the genre with a novel set in a London of 1982, the London of Margaret Thatcher, in which the British navy sets off to fight a war in the Falkland Islands which, in the first jarring clue that the novel is alternative history, turns into a devastating defeat for Britain, crushed by Argentina, which annexes the islands and changes their name to Las Malvinas. The defeat drives Mrs. Thatcher from office, resulting in the rise of a populist Labour candidate and a movement to separate from the European Union—nearly forty years in advance of Brexit.

But these events play a relatively minor role in the novel’s alternative history. For McEwan’s chief question in the book is, what would have happened if the brilliant computer scientist Alan Turing hadn’t committed suicide in 1954?

Turing, best known to the general public as Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2014 film The Imitation Game, was, as that film makes clear, instrumental in developing a prototypical computer during World War II that could discover the settings of the Germans’ Enigma machine, thereby cracking intercepted coded Nazi messages that made it possible for the allies to win the war. The acknowledged father of theoretical computer science, a mathematical genius who was a pioneer in the development of artificial intelligence, Turing ultimately developed what has become known as the “Turing test”: for a machine to be deemed “intelligent,” that is, capable of actual “thought,” Turing suggested, it would have to be impossible for a human interrogator to tell the difference between the machine and another human through conversation.

Just how far the development of computer science and artificial intelligence might have come, or what direction it might have taken, if Turing had lived, is impossible to determine. But he did not live. In 1952, Turing was convicted of what the British law called “gross indecency” because of his sexual orientation, and he was given the choice of going to prison or submitting to a year of what was called “chemical castration.” He was given the drug diethylstilbestrol, which rendered him impotent and caused breast tissue to form. A year later he died by his own hand through cyanide poisoning. He was 41.

In McEwan’s alternate history, Turing chose prison rather than sterilization, and went on to continue the advances in computer science and artificial intelligence he was making. He appears in the novel himself, as a kind of chorus figure. As a result of his continued work, the world achieves an information revolution decades before it reached that stage in actual history. There are electric cars that drive themselves. There is a surprisingly advanced version of the Internet that allows day trading online. And, most important for this novel, there are artificial human beings, androids, who can be ordered, delivered to your house, and programmed with personality traits that you choose for them.

At this stage, admittedly, they are only prototypes. There are twenty-five of them: thirteen males or “Adams,” and twelve females or “Eves.” The novel’s protagonist, Charlie Friend, is a thirty-two-year-old man-child who ironically seems to have no “friends” of his own. He’s a one-time computer whiz who studied physics and anthropology in school but seems never to have held down a steady job, but rather invested in a number of failed get-rich-quick schemes and seems to have barely escaped prison for tax fraud. Now he spends his days in his two-room flat in south London, playing the stock market on his home computer with just enough success to scrape by. But when the new artificial humans come on the market, computer nerd Charlie spends his whole inheritance from his mother, £86,000, on a brand new Adam. He had really wanted an Eve, but they’d all been snapped up already.

But Charlie doesn’t just love robots; he’s also enamored of his upstairs neighbor Miranda. Ten years his junior, she is a graduate student of history, and is the daughter of a famous but reclusive writer. Part of his courting of Miranda consists of Charlie’s allowing her to choose half of Adam’s traits that can be programed into him. In a way, Adam becomes a kind of surrogate child for the two of them as they form a pseudo-family. This becomes complicated when the now totally functional Adam, conversant with computerized data from all over the 1980s Internet, warns Charlie that Miranda is not completely truthful and is hiding a dark secret; more complicated when, after an argument with Charlie, Miranda takes the anatomically correct Adam to bed and the artificial man develops “feelings” for his mistress; and even more complicated still when Miranda, no longer content with her artificial offspring with Charlie, becomes intent on adopting an abused young “real” boy named Mark.

I don’t want to go further since I don’t want to spoil any of the later plot developments for you. And indeed, some reviewers have seen the plot as less unified than they would like. Some have also criticized the world McEwan creates here as not fundamentally different enough from our own to be acceptable as alternate history. Frankly, it seems to me these complaints fall into the trap of criticizing the book for not being the book those critics would have written if they had written the book. Thematically, the novel seems to me perfectly unified. It is, first of all, a representation of a being who passes “Turing’s test” brilliantly: there is a tour de force demonstration of that in a scene when Charlie and Adam visit Miranda’s father, and after their conversation he concludes that Charlie is the robot.

But beyond that the book also explores to a great extent the differences between human and artificial intelligence. One disturbing aspect of the story is that a rash of suicides begins among the artificial humans, as if for some reason they can no longer face a world governed by human beings. Adam, for good or ill, makes his decisions based on assembling all the facts and coming to the most logical conclusions from them. Truth is to him of foremost importance. When it comes to Miranda’s “dark secret,” which involves a moral decision she made which she believes to be justified and ethical even though it involves lying, Adam cannot see it.  And far from being a servant, he ultimately takes matters into his own hands, first by overriding his off switch (an act McEwan refers to, in an allusion to Paradise Lost, as his “first disobedience”), and later by making independent moral decisions without consulting his “masters.”

These questions of moral relativity are set against a backdrop of a world full of fairly arbitrary differences from our own—a world where Jimmy Carter was elected to a second term and Ronald Reagan never became president, where the Beatles were reunited in 1982, and in which it turns out JFK was not assassinated after all—but one in which human nature has not changed at all, and everyday life, despite the technological advances, is much the same as it is in our world. Brexit, after all, still occurs. It’s the contrast between that indelible human nature and the artificial intelligence of an Adam that this book is about. Three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

Kopp Sisters on the March

Kopp Sisters on the March

Amy Stewart (2019)

Amy Stewart’s “Kopp sisters” novels are feminist literature in the classic sense. That is, they explore, define, and analyze the historic situation of women in the early years of the last century; by demonstrating the unequal and often appalling gap in the political, economic and social rights and status of men vs. women at that time; they indirectly advocate for the permanent elimination of those inequalities; and by presenting as protagonists women who, ahead of their time but not anachronistically so, applaud the heroism and sacrifice of such women, presenting them as figures to admire and to emulate.

Stewart was already a successful non-fiction author of books on gardening, like her 2013 New York Times bestseller The Drunken Botanist, before embarking on her series of novels about three sisters living on a New Jersey farm more than a hundred years ago. The spark was a collection of newspaper articles she came across while researching her botanical books concerning one of the first female deputy sheriffs in American history, Constance Amelie Kopp. If you go to Ms. Stewart’s author website, you can read short descriptions of the historical Constance and her sisters, as well as other characters from the books. Constance herself, according to the website, was born in 1878 and so was 35 years old in Stewart’s first novel, Girl Waits with Gun. She is 39 in the current (fifth) novel in the series, Kopp Sisters on the March. Constance was, according to newspaper descriptions, six feet tall and weighed 180 pounds, though as the Kopp sisters books will teach you, you really can’t believe much of what you read about women in the papers, at least in 1913. A clear image of Constance’s character is revealed, however, in a statement she once gave a reporter, quoted on Stewart’s website: After indicating that she had no interest whatsoever in marriage, she went on to say “Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”

Stewart fictionalizes Constance’s adventures, but does base them on facts as revealed in what sources are available. Constance has two sisters: Norma, five years her junior, is a curmudgeon who runs the no-nonsense household of the farm without a lot of sympathy for any weaknesses the others show; and Fleurette, the much younger and much spoiled teenager who, it is revealed in the first novel, is actually Constance’s daughter born when she herself was 19 and raised as a daughter by Constance and Norma’s mother.

The first four novels of the series focused on Constance’s career as a deputy sheriff under the progressive and humane Sheriff Heath in Bergen County, N.J. They concern the obstacles she faces in the male-dominated politics of the 1910s, and her struggle for recognition as an officer capable of doing the same job as the other (male) deputies, as well as acting as matron for the women prisoners in the county jail. These novels introduce us to eye-opening social injustices of the time, which allowed parents to have daughters arrested as “incorrigible” if they left home to get jobs and live by themselves, or allowed husbands to have wives committed as mentally incompetent without a judge ever having to examine the woman herself. But by the end of the fourth novel, Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit, Constance has been downsized when the newly elected sheriff decides there is no reason to employ a woman deputy when a man can obviously do the job better. The voters (all men, remember, at the time) agree.

Kopp Sisters on the March begins six months after Constance’s dismissal from the Benton County Sheriff’s office, in the spring of 1917. With Europe in the throes of brutal war, Americans are preparing for what they anticipate will be their own inevitable participation, and Norma has coerced Constance and Fleurette to join her in enrolling at a six-week National Service camp for women, based in Chevy Chase, Maryland, whose avowed goals were to train women for the tasks that will be required of them to support the war effort—both on the home front and, in some cases, with the army in France. Constance is simply hoping to get out of the funk she’s been in since losing her deputy job, while Norma is hoping to pique the army’s interest in using the homing pigeons she breeds and trains for carrying messages on the battlefield. Fleurette is mainly just along for the ride, though she does hope to get vaudeville star May Ward to come to the camp to entertain the women, and hopes to take the stage as one of Miss Ward’s backup singers.

Constance suffers a major letdown when she discovers that “preparing women for war service” means, to the men in Washington, teaching them to roll bandages and make beds in a military style. U.S. military leaders had made it clear to the public that the intent of these camps was decidedly not to “produc[e] a modern Amazonian corps.” So the women are given wooden toy guns to march with, but camp officials have no intention of teaching women to shoot real weapons , or to do anything that would actually benefit any of the women who might end up in France and find themselves in a war zone. Constance does find classes in signal corps codes intriguing, through which she is introduced to the story of the new U.S. Bureau of Investigation, designed to ferret out and combat German spies. But other than that, the camp is something of a bust. That is, until an accident to the camp’s matron winds up putting Constance herself in charge of the camp, and allows her to train a small group of the women, those fully intent on joining the war effort in France, in shooting and in martial arts. Secretly, of course.

A further wrinkle in the story comes from one of the Kopp sisters’ tent mates, Beulah Binford. Based on a real-life Richmond woman who had been caught up in a scandalous murder story in which a man she had been in involved with had killed his wife. Beulah, in real life as in the novel, had been made notorious by newspapers all over the country, which had printed her picture and presented her as a notoriously scarlet woman, though she was never implicated, never called to testify in the trial, and never asked by any journalist to give her own side of the story. Much of the novel proceeds in flashbacks from Beulah’s life, and she has come to this camp under an assumed name in the hope of getting a second chance, going to France and starting a new life. How her story ends, and how it becomes entwined with that of the Kopp sisters, I won’t reveal since I don’t want to spoil the book for you, but just so you know, the bang-up conclusion of the novel does offer a lot of satisfaction.

This novel boasts much of the same historical feminist insight as the previous four, helping us experience what the lives of real women in 1917 must have been like. You may find, if you have read the previous four books, that his one may contain less humor than those, and that it may reduce focus on the Kopp sisters (especially Norma and Fleurette) at the expense of its concentration on Beulah. It may also be a bit less focused than previous books—it has a kind of transitional feel, as Constance is moving from her career as “lady deputy” to what I can only assume will be a career with the Bureau of Investigation, the goal on which she has set her sights by the end of the novel. We’ll have to wait until January 2021 to see how that works out, in the sixth installment of the series, Dear Miss Kopp. But you should definitely give this book a read. Three Tennysons for this one.

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.

 

Old-Timers

Old-Timers (Staříci)

Martin Dušek and Ondřej Provazník (2019)

Foreign language films have never been hugely successful in the United States. For every Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there are a hundred less popular films that make a tiny ripple at some small festival or get a few screenings in some art house in New York but go unrecognized through the rest of the country. After all, Americans don’t want to read a film. They see no need to learn any foreign language when all they need to do is shout louder in English. But I digress. Perhaps that attitude is beginning to change. The recent Netflix success of Roma and, more spectacularly, of Parasite may signal a new more widespread appreciation of foreign-language films, especially when delivered in convenient, streaming form.

And so it may be that the current housebound status of most Americans, while cutting deep into the profits of blockbuster Hollywood films aimed at huge summer audiences, may be a boon to smaller films taking advantage of this new kind of film marketing. And so it may not be a disaster that Little Rock’s Czech That Film Festival, in its ninth year in 2020, has decided to screen its films online because of the Covid-19 pandemic. These films are available, one each week for the next several weeks here. The first film of the festival, which was available from April 27 through May 3, was the film Staříci, that is, “Old-Timers” in English. This film won the Czech Film Critics’ Award for best film of 2019, and also came away with the award for Best Actor for its star, the well-known and highly acclaimed Czech actor Jiří Schmitzer. Schmitzer also won the Best Actor award at the 27th Czech Lion Awards (his fourth such award), and his co-star Ladislav Mrkvička won the Czech Lion for Best Supporting Actor. The directing team of Martin Dušek and Ondřej Provazník, who were previously known for directing well-received documentaries like A Town Called Hermitage (2007) and Coal in the Soul (2010), also won the Czech Film Critics’ Award for Best Director. For Dušek and Provazník, who also wrote the screenplay, this was their first narrative feature film.

The kernel of the story was planted in 2008, when Dušek saw a story about two elderly former Czech political prisoners, interned under the communist government of the 1950s, who had sought in 2000 to assassinate the former communist prosecutor who had sent them to prison. Their revenge had been thwarted when one of the octogenarians had succumbed to old age during the quest. Dušek was fascinated by the story and approached Provazník about making a documentary about the incident, but Provazník thought it would work much better as a feature film, and so Old-Timers was conceived.

It’s amusing to take a look at the Czech That Film festival’s online Q and A session with the directors here. Apparently Dušek and Provazník thought that one thing that would make directing a feature film easier than a documentary was that they didn’t have to work with “real” people, and could simply tell the actors what they wanted them to do and they would do it. Veteran actors Schmitzer and Mrkvička disabused the directors of that notion fairly quickly, apparently, and at least to hear the directors tell it, the actors spent a lot of time on the set so angry at their directors that they were afraid the actors would come after them with their guns rather than the former communist prosecutor. In the end, though, that anger seems to have been channeled into their performances, and made them even more convincing.

The film begins as the elderly Colonel Vlastimil (“Vlasta”) Reiner (played by Schmitzer, who was only 69 at the time of filming but looks at least 15 years older in the film) returns to the Czech Republic from the United States, where he has been living for some years. In his luggage he has brought a shotgun from America, which airport officials seize and will not allow him to bring into the country, despite his irascible complaints. Vlasta is picked up at the airport by his old friend Antonín (“Tonda,” played by Mrkvička, who looks every bit of his 84 years).  We soon learn that this is not just a meeting of a couple of old friends getting together for one last bash. Vlasta and Tonda are World War II veterans who were imprisoned by the Czech communist regime in the 1950s; the old communist prosecutor who had sentenced them to brutal confinement, and had finally come to trial for his crimes against his fellow countrymen during that period, had been released by the court rather than sentenced for his offenses. This last injustice they cannot bear, and the two old men, both in declining health themselves (Vlasta is in a wheelchair and Tonda is hard of hearing and seems befuddled at times) set out to exact their own kind of justice on the old villain. Tonda is less gung-ho than his friend, and needs some convincing to track down this man who oppressed his own fellow citizens, but Vlasta convinces him. “I went through the Gulag,” Vlasta says at one point, “but the worst butcher was here.”

And so begins a highly unconventional road movie, with two superannuated buddies on a quest to exact revenge for something the rest of their society seems to want to ignore—it all happened so long ago, why does it matter anymore? It’s not exactly Hope and Crosby, but there is a good deal of dark comedy in this road trip: Tonda, prevented by his son and grandson from taking his ancient camper van out on the road, ends up stealing the van at night by hotwiring it. He also refuses to go on the trip without his pair of faithful dogs, Max and Beti, who end up causing some problems later. The funniest scene in the film occurs when the two vigilantes, in need of weapons since Vlasta’s gun has been confiscated, visit the farmstead of a former communist collaborator where Vlasta had hidden a stash of weapons in a crumbling wall more than 50 years earlier. The old collaborator’s family, taking Vlasta to be an old friend of their aged relative, invite him to lunch, at which the petulant Vlasta pulls no punches in telling them what an awful person that old man was. Meanwhile Tonda is smashing through a colorful new façade the family has placed over the old crumbling wall, and has retrieved the guns.

Since I want to recommend that you see the film yourself, I don’t want to spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that there are other obstacles that need to be overcome (including—one small spoiler—the wheelchair-bound octogenarian Vlasta disarming a policeman one quarter his age). This is a quirky film that I suspect most viewers will enjoy. Schmitzer and Mrkvička make a crusty but watchable pair of “grumpy old men” and the story of the film is fascinating in itself. The image of Tonda smashing through the colorful new façade to reveal the crumbling decay within is as striking a metaphor as could be imagined for a modern Czech society trying to ignore a past it would rather not be reminded of.

Some viewers might wish for a little more backstory about the two men’s relationship and their imprisonment, but at a brisk 90 minutes the film has been stripped of much of that exposition. Directors Dušek and Provazník have said they wanted to make the film more universal than simply being about long-smoldering resentments against the old regime. In a sense the story is a universal statement of the burning passions that may still lie in the hearts of elders whom we may tend to underestimate. Nobody in the film, or in the film’s audience, thinks that old van is going to start. But it does.

Three Tennysons for this one. It’s no longer available on the Czech That Film Festival site; I hope you can find it elsewhere. This week, the film being screened on the site is Karel, Me and You, which the website describes as a “dramedy” that “portrays relationship ups and downs of thirty-somethings living in Prague.”

 

NOW AVAILABLE:

KnightOfTheCart

The Knight of the Cart, fifth novel in my Merlin Mysteries series, is now available from the publisher, Encircle Publishing, at https://encirclepub.com/product/theknightofthecart/
You can also order from Amazon at
https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Cart-MERLIN-MYS…/…/ref=sr_1_1…
OR an electronic version from Barnes and Noble at
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-knight-of-…/1133349679…

Here’s what the book is about:
The embittered Sir Meliagaunt is overlooked by King Arthur when a group of new knights, including Gildas of Cornwall, are appointed to the Round Table. In an ill-conceived attempt to catch Arthur’s notice, Meliagaunt kidnaps Queen Guinevere and much of her household from a spring picnic and carries them off to his fortified castle of Gorre, hoping to force one of Arthur’s greatest knights to fight him in order to rescue the queen. Sir Lancelot follows the kidnappers, and when his horse is shot from under him, he risks his reputation when he pursues them in a cart used for transporting prisoners. But after Meliagaunt accuses the queen of adultery and demands a trial by combat to prove his charge, Lancelot, too, disappears, and Merlin and the newly-knighted Sir Gildas are called into action to find Lancelot and bring him back to Camelot in time to save the queen from the stake. Now Gildas finds himself locked in a life-and-death battle to save Lancelot and the young girl Guinevere has chosen for his bride.