Saturday, April 24, 2021

EXTREME BARBITUDE


 But all seriousness aside, at my house, the only thing that really matters at this time of year is the (dreaded) Oscar Barbies!

 

I managed to do four out of the five Best Actress nominees this year — not bad since I've only seen two of the movies.

 

Hopefully, you don't actually need a program to tell who the players are, but just in case:

 

Frances McDormand, Nomadland

 

Andra Day, The United States vs. Billie Holliday

 

Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

 

Viola Davis, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

 

As usual, it's all about the props!

CHAOS(CAR) THEORY


 This used to be the time of year when I would post my fearless Oscar predictions — even as recently as (the dreaded) 2020, when the little gold guys were handed out in mid-February, about a month before the pandemic shut everything down.

Everything has changed since then, of course, including the alarming fact that I have not personally set foot inside a movie theater in almost 14 months. Movies that debut on home screens via Netflix, Prime, Hulu, etc., don't seem as real, somehow.  Norma Desmond's classic line in Sunset Boulevard has become literally true (and prophetic): the pictures HAVE gotten small.

Nevertheless, filmmakers, actors and craftspersons have continued to churn out quality work, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has persisted in its nominations for this year's Academy Awards. The drawback for this would-be prognosticator is that, without benefit of a smart TV (mine still has a picture tube; look it up, kids), and after a year in lockdown, I haven't seen most of the nominees.

But do you think that's going to stop me? Hah! Thanks to indulgent (and similarly double-vaxxed) friends who subscribe to streaming platforms, I've managed to see seven movies nominated in some category or other. Not exactly a comprehensive overview of this year's contenders, but just (barely) enough to indulge in some random observations, as if I knew what I was talking about!
Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari.
 

How chaotic has this year been for the movies? Just look at the mashup of colors, graphics and patterns on this year's Oscars logo. Or maybe it's an artistic expression of diversity as the Academy struggles to refute the charge of #oscarsowhite — a diversity that is (for once) reflected in this year's nominees. (Here's the complete list.) Meanwhile, here's what I expect on the big night:

Supporting Actress: Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari. Full disclosure: I haven't seen Minari, but it looks like the veteran Korean actress' indomitable matriarch is the glue that holds this much-lauded immigration drama together.

Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah. Okay, I haven't seen this one either, but Kaluuya has already racked up the Golden Globe, Screen Actors' Guild, and British Academy of Film and Televison Arts (BAFTA) awards in this category, playing martyred Black Panthers deputy chairman Fred Hampton.

Oscars not quite so white: Boseman and Davis
Actress: Viola Davis,  Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. This category is full of wild cards this year. Frances McDormand and Davis are frequent nominees, but McDormand won three years ago for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Davis won the year before for Fences, but that was in the Supporting Actress category.

Davis is an extraordinary actress who deserves every accolade, and her tough, imperious and curmudgeony blues legend, Ma Rainey is an audacious stretch from anything she has done before. (And, yes, I did see this one!). However, Andra Day walked off with the Golden Globe playing another immortal vocalist in The United States vs. Billie Holliday. And while she hasn't won any of the seasonal awards, here's a shout-out to Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Mulligan's psychological complexity is mesmerizing in the role, her seamless gear-shifting from perceived victim to avenger absolutely bone-chilling.

Mulligan: Would-be victim-turned-avenger
Actor: Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. This rather stagebound adaptation of the August Wilson play is not his best vehicle, by far, although the late and sorely missed Boseman, as always, delivers every ounce of nuance and bravado required of him. But no power on Earth or the Cosmos can stop his momentum — and why would they? Who doesn't want to see T'Challa claim his final victory?

Director: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland. Chinese-born Zhao, who has lived and worked in the States since high school, caused a stir with her acclaimed modern cowboy drama, The Rider, in 2017. And now that we're all feeling a little rootless and dispossessed, her tale of nomadic wanderers living out of their vans in heartland America has really struck a chord. The first woman of color ever nominated in this category (and one of two women nominated this year — another first — along with Emerald Fennel of Promising Young Woman), Zhao is the right face, with the right movie and the right story at exactly the right time.

Director Zhao: The right story for the right time.

Movie: Nomadland. It has powered through the awards season, collecting Globe and BAFTA recognition. True, Aaron Sorkin's entertaining The Trial Of The Chicago 7, won Best Ensemble at the SAGs, often the most reliable predictor of Academy favor. But Nomadland, with its largely non-professional cast, didn't fit  the nomination criteria for the pro screen actors' organization. It's a perfect fit, however, for this year's Oscar gold.


Friday, February 26, 2021

RETURN of the BEAST


Behold: the new Beast on the block!

Almost three years after the initial release of Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge in hardcover, the long-awaited paperback edition is finally here! 

Well, almost. Official release date is March 9, but it's available for pre-order as we speak!

In a perfect world, it would have come out in the middle of last year, but COVID-19 had other ideas; the wheels of publishing slowed to a crawl during the pandemic, just like everything else.

One big change you may notice is the cover of the paperback edition is completely different from the original fabulous cover. (Check it out, over there in the right-hand menu.) It surprised me to learn that this is a thing in publishing at the moment, completely reimagined artwork between original hardcover and subsequent paperback editions.

(As a point of historical reference, Alias Hook came out in paperback almost exactly one year after the hardcover edition — with the same gorgeous cover!)

But as different as they are stylistically, in mood and even color palette, my two Beast covers share the same essential thematic elements— a ferocious-looking Beastly shadow in silhouette, and a candlestick. What I like about the new paperback artwork is the wraparound effect: turn it over and there's an equally shadowy and mysterious silhouette of a young woman.

A woman, a Beast, and a candlestick with secrets of her own. Let the games begin!

You can pre-order right this minute from Bookshop Santa Cruz, and other discerning booksellers everywhere!


 

Monday, February 22, 2021

THE GOODBYE GIRL


45 years and 4 months.

No, that's not how long we've all been sheltering in place. It's the length of time I've been writing for Good Times. To put it in perspective, my very first movie review (Monty Python and the Holy Grail) was published in GT in October, 1975. Which was a year and a half before I even met my Art Boy, in the spring of 1977.

We moved in together in February, 1978, and got married 7 1/2 months later. We were together for 40 years, 'til death us did part.

That was almost three years ago. And before, during, and after all that time together, I've been writing weekly film reviews for Good Times.

Until the Attack Of COVID-19, in March of 2020, when my career came to a screeching halt. I haven't set foot inside a movie theater since March 13 of last year, about four days before they all shut down.

Talk about an identity crisis!
 

I was a fresh-faced 23-year-old just out of UCSC, in my embroidered hippie overalls, when I started my stint at GT. I figured going to the movies would be a fun way to make my rent until I had to go get an actual job. (Historical note: Rents were a lot cheaper in those days.)

On the face of it, I had zero qualifications for this job. I wasn't a film scholar, had never even taken a journalism class. But I'd spent my entire childhood watching old movies on TV with my mom. In those days, you couldn't just dial up something on demand; you had to be prepared to stay up to 1 AM on a Saturday night, for instance, for the weekly movie classics on The Fabulous 52, in L. A., which began at 11:15 PM, right after the news. My mom popped the corn, and my night-owl brothers and I would settle in.

For a couple of years, the series MGM Classics played every Sunday afternoon in syndication, and another station (possibly an early PBS channel) played classic foreign movies with subtitles. Musicals, monster movies, Errol Flynn swashbucklers, even cheesy Italian gladiator movies, my mom's appetite was inexhaustible, and we watched them all!

The rest was on-the-job training. Fortunately, I was inspired by how amazingly diverse the Santa Cruz movie scene was in those days. Besides mainstream movies at the chain theaters, there was the original single-screen Nickelodeon, and the repertory-style Sash Mill Cinema for art house fare, the plucky, independently-owned Capitola Theater (which persisted in showing double-features with cartoons, and 15-cent M&Ms, well into the '80s), a thriving drive-in, even a venue for X-rated "adult" movies at the old Cinema Soquel.

So, ten years after my first byline at GT, I was still at it. Back then, I used to joke that I'd been with the paper so long, people meeting me for the first time expected me to be 80 years old.


Once, in the mid-'90s, a young writer who had recently joined our editorial pool asked around to find out how he could get some film review assignments. Somebody told him, "Lisa Jensen would have to die." (He told me this story later, and we both laughed. I never did find out which colleague made that pronouncement.)

When Siskel and Ebert were all the rage, I appeared on a similar movie review program with fellow critic, Rick Chatenever, then at the Sentinel, on local TV station KRUZ. One early evening, as I emerged from a screening at a downtown theater and started walking past the folks lined up for the next show, an older woman I didn't personally know broke into a merry grin as I went by. "It's our movie girl!" she cried.

During a few flush years, I wrote two reviews a week, and sometimes three, if this or that indulgent editor could figure out how to lay them all out on the same page. For a couple of years, early in the Millennium, when Greg Archer was our fearless leader, I also wrote a bi-weekly opinion column about any damn thing I wanted, which I loved.

True, there have been times when I flirted with the possibility of retiring from the fray. The closest I came was after my first novel was published, back in 2001. The dangling carrot of writing fiction full-time, without having to stop and expend brain cells on a movie review every week, was tempting. After all, Art Boy had given up the comic book store to pursue art full-time, and, boy was he loving it! Still, it's just as well that I didn't follow that carrot off a cliff, since it took another 13 years to get my next novel published!
Marquee de Sad: Not coming soon
 
But now that I actually am 80 years old, I find myself at a crossroads. COVID-19 has wrought havoc in all facets of the movie business: productions have been halted, release dates postponed, and movie theaters closed. New movies are being released directly into the privacy of viewers' homes, as they shelter in place. It was almost a scandal when last spring's big-ticket releases, like Disney's live-action Mulan and Christopher Nolan's mind-bending Tenet, finally went direct to streaming platforms after postponing their release dates for months. (Tenet actually played in cautiously-reopened downtown theaters for about 15 minutes until they had to shut down again.) By the time Wonder Woman 1984 came out at Christmas, direct-to-streaming had become (yet another) new normal.

And this week comes the news that the Cinema 9 in downtown Santa Cruz, smack in the middle of Pacific Avenue, is now closed for good. It has not yet been officially confirmed, but word is that Regal Cinemas, the parent chain that operates it, is pulling out; employees have been given notice, while the company reportedly is offering to transfer them to other Regal theaters. Of course, most other Regal theaters nationwide have also been shut down since October, but that the company may be abandoning the Santa Cruz venue entirely has an extra ominous ring of finality to it.

The venerable Nick and Del Mar downtown, as well as the Cinelux theaters at 41st Avenue and in Scotts Valley, also remain dark, although their websites maintain that their closures are only temporary. So far.

But after a year-plus on hiatus, what will the future of movie theaters even look like? Millennials are leery of anything that takes them out of their comfort zones, like driving (hence Google buses and Uber). They may have not yet developed the habit of congregating with their fellow humans in a public space with a big screen; they’d just as soon watch movies on their phones. 

Meanwhile, I know plenty of people in my age group (the Stone Age) who have long since given up movies in public for Netflix, et al, in the privacy of their own living rooms. Especially now that what used to be called "first-run" movies are instantly available on the home screen.

I volunteered to review movies going straight to streaming, although it seems a little superfluous to review a movie that's already beaming directly into your home. Who needs my opinion? If you don't like it, switch the channel!

But Good Times is more concerned with supporting and promoting local businesses that are still open to some degree, and available to our local readership, like restaurants, bookstores, and farmers' markets.

So is this my cue to exit, stage left?

After all these years, I had hoped to be able to leave Good Times on my own terms. But now it seems that decision is mostly out of my hands.

We can't know what the future will bring. Once we're all vaccinated, maybe movie theaters will stage a miraculous comeback. Maybe I'll still dabble in the occasional review, if there's something I really don't want you to miss. Maybe I'll finally have new stuff to post on my Rotten Tomatoes page!

But in the meantime, treasured readers, know this: It has been my very great pleasure to be your movie girl for all these years. This community of dedicated, opinionated, and unrepentant movie fans means the world to me.

Thanks for all your support, your encouragement, and your letters, even when you disagreed with me. My favorite, in the very early days, was the reader who objected to "the jejune jottings of Ms. Jensen." Fair enough — you can't get much more jejune than age 23! (I got better — I hope.)

But mostly, as always, thanks for reading. 


 (Top: Good Times promo, ca 1977)

(Cinema 9 photo by Shmuel Thaler, Santa Cruz Sentinel)
 



Sunday, February 14, 2021

LOVE IS IN THE AIR

Love is in the Air

This year I'm celebrating Valentine's Day by sharing some of my happiest memories of my Sweetie, James Aschbacher. There are so many more to choose from over 40 years, but (right now) these are my Top Ten:
 

MARCH OR DIE  It wasn't even a date. I had only recently met James at the comic book store, and I asked if he wanted to come to a movie I had to review. It was March Or Die, a French Foreign Legion movie (a throwback genre if ever there was one, in the 1970s) starring Gene Hackman as an American soldier-of-fortune off fooling around in the desert. It was largely preposterous, but I was "at work," so we were slogging through. At one point, as the camera panned across the vast, golden desert landscape, three figures in shimmering electric-blue satin, sheiks or Bedouins, or something, appeared on the distant crest of a dune. James and I leaned our heads together and whispered, in unison, "Look, it's the Andrews Sisters!"

Okay, maybe not screamingly funny, but the fact that we made the exact same joke in the exact same instant suddenly felt — momentous.

MY FORMER/FUTURE GIRLFRIEND We were at a comics convention, one of the many we attended in the spring and summer before we got married. We would haul dozens of boxes of comics from Atlantis Fantasyworld to the con in James' gutted Econoline van (two front seats, and absolutely nothing in the back) to sell at our table in the Dealers' Room. During a slow period one day, probably when some popular interview or panel was going on in some other room, James covertly drew my attention to a pretty young woman with long hair strolling past the tables. What he meant to say (I think), was "She looks like my former girlfriend." What came out of his mouth, however, was, "She looks like my future girlfriend." Did I mention we weren't married yet? I suppose there were many snarky, irate, and/or cutting remarks I might have made in response, but I was too busy laughing.

MY WIFE We were prowling through an antique store one day during our 4-day honeymoon in Carmel at the Casa Munras Hotel. We were murmuring together about something, and the friendly clerk over at the desk asked if she could help us with anything. "No thanks," said James, "I was just talking to my wife." My wife. We looked at each other and tried not to giggle.

Into the Night

REDDING We had been at a weekend comic convention in Portland, Oregon. The event closed at 5pm Sunday evening, and since we were packed up by 6, we decided to head out immediately to begin the long drive home. That first night, we stopped in Eugene. The next day we got as far south as Redding before the ferocious midsummer heat (the van didn't have AC) forced us to stop at a motel. Our room was upstairs, with an exterior staircase right outside that led down to the parking lot, with a Denny's or HoJo's, or something, on the other side of the lot.

Our plan was to cool off in the blissfully air-conditioned room, then go down and eat so we could get an early start in the morning. But first, there was that bottle of champagne that we'd lugged upstairs in our cooler. (Don't leave home without it, that was James' motto.) We were watching an old Star Trek rerun on TV and I remember a long discussion about comic artist Steve Leialoha's slender, long-fingered hands; he'd been sitting adjacent to us at the con, sketching for the fans. Between the heat and the bubbly, we found we no longer had the enthusiasm, much less the ability, to navigate those stairs, so we went to bed instead, hoping it wouldn't be too hot to sleep.

In the middle of the night we woke up freezing! The sun was down, the earth had cooled, and our AC unit was still roaring away. James got up to adjust it, but none of the controls worked; either it was busted, or the knobs were merely decorative and the machine was permanently set to 'Arctic.' James even tried beating on it with his shoe. We had to bundle up in the one pair of pajamas we had between us: I wore the shirt, he put on the pants; we felt like Rock Hudson and Doris Day. We ransacked the closet for the one extra blanket we could find and piled all the rest of our summer travel clothes on top of that. Next morning we could not get out of there fast enough!

FAVORITE MOMENT A friend is a music producer with a recording studio in his garage. One night, over dinner, he mentioned that his favorite moment of the morning was when he took his second cup of tea into the studio to go to work. Without missing a beat, James said, "My favorite time of the morning is when my wife comes out of the shower naked and gives me a big kiss."


FUR FOR BREAKFAST
  One night in bed, we were discussing upcoming travel plans. (Well, I was; James, a notorious homebody, was expressing dismay.) At one point I said, "You know, some people actually like to travel." To which he retorted, "Well, some people eat fur for breakfast!" There was a beat of stunned silence as our brains digested his words, then we both exploded like Vesuvius — breathless, shrieking, helpless. We laughed until we cried.
 
SO(HO) FUN For awhile, James belonged to a loose collective of local artists calling themselves SoHo Beach who once put together a weekend pop-up art gallery in a Watsonville parking garage. He was off somewhere schmoozing and I was sitting in the booth one day when a beloved local matron of the arts stopped in; she had never seen James' work before, and she couldn't stop smiling and raving about it. Finally she turned to me and said, "Oh, I bet he's so much fun!" "Well, I think so," I agreed. "I married him!"

STARS OVER SWANTON We had lazed poolside all afternoon up Swanton Road with our friends Bruce and Marcia, and Mort and Donna. (Donna and I actually got wet; everybody else kept to the shade, sipping margaritas!) As dusk fell, we all drifted upstairs to the wrap-around patio just outside the kitchen, claimed patio chairs, and gazed out over the green hills and treetops of Swanton to a glimpse of horizon beyond, watching the stars wink to life, one by one, in the vast, darkening sky. No conversation, no one-liners, nobody said anything. Just enjoying a magical moment with people we loved.

THE BUBBLE TEST
One day, we set out to buy ourselves the perfect champagne glasses — flutes, of course, narrow enough at the base to keep the bubbles bubbling, and not so wide at the top that the bubbles would dissipate too quickly. But there isn't any way to gauge how bubbles will behave in a glass without taking it on a test drive. And since nothing else bubbles quite like champagne, we brought a well-stoppered bottle along with us to try them out, visiting kitchen stores and housewares departments, pouring little tots of bubbly into prospective glasses to see how they performed. We asked permission first, of course, but not a single sales person objected; they got a lesson in the aerodynamics of sparkling wine, and half an hour of entertainment!
 
LA VIE EN LA MOULIN James and I spent five days alone together at the Moulin, our friends' centuries-old mill house on the Yonne River in the Burgundy region of France. It was an excessively hot June, and we were pretty torporous during the day. But one evening we found an Edith Piaf CD and played it through the open door as we sat out on the back porch overlooking the river. Dark was just beginning to fall around 9 pm, we were sipping champagne (of course!) and I was fooling around with a set of Tarot cards in French we'd found, with Piaf's throaty vibrato carrying splendidly over the water. We noticed an older gentleman had pulled a deck chair out onto his little dock down the river, as the bedazzling stars emerged in the sliver of black night visible between the tree tops. When Piaf concluded her last song, with a rousing flourish, and all was again silent along the river, the man downstream quietly folded up his chair and took himself and his memories back inside.

"Everybody needs his memories," says author Saul Bellow. "They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door."

Wishing you many happy and significant memories in this season of love.

(Paintings by James Aschbacher, of course!)




Monday, January 4, 2021

GREAT PLATES!

 

New Year's shout-out to the Great Plates Program, which obtains grants for local restaurants and catering services to keep their cooking staffs employed creating weekly meals to be delivered to area seniors who may need a break from cooking. 

 Lucky me, they hooked me up with Colectivo Felix, a catering kitchen run by chef Diego Felix, who delivers substantial dinners with a fun, inventive Latin American accent. (He hails from Argentina.)

Goodie bags typically contain a small bag of salad, dressing, and fresh fruit, alongside the meals. One of my recent faves was the Argentine Christmas Dinner (roast loin of veal with creamy tuna sauce). There have also been some holiday surprises: a little cup of Christmas cookies; a split of sparkling Sauvignon Blanc for New Year's Eve.

Each delivery comes with a menu and a delivery schedule for the next week. (They will also deliver breakfast and lunch, although I like to do those for myself.) 

 Calling themselves Culinary Troubadours, the folks at Colectivo Felix cater all sorts of private gatherings (when such things were still possible, and hopefully will be again), and offer various goodies to go four days a week, through their website, among many other activities. They also participate in the Empanadas For Farmworkers campaign, cooking and delivering empanadas to farmworkers in the field, courtesy of local sponsors.

Since I actually do like to cook (when I'm up to it), I've been meaning to see if I can arrange to get a few less meals a week. No point in being greedy! But the food is so good, I haven't done it yet — I don't want to miss anything!

Sunday, September 13, 2020

DICKENSIAN RHAPSODY


Diverse cast, soaring spirit, fuel joyous
'Personal History of David Copperfield'

 

Anglo-Indian actor Dev Patel may not be the most obvious choice to play David Copperfield, one of Charles Dickens' most beloved and most autobiographical heroes. But casting the popular Patel is but one of many inspired and audacious choices made by Armando Iannucci in his smart and highly entertaining adaptation, The Personal History of David Copperfield.

 

Director Iannucci and his co-scenarist and frequent writing partner, Simon Blackwell, are best known for sly political satires The Death of Stalin, and TV's Veep, created by Iannucci. In their hands, Dickens' classic coming-of-age tale gets and energizing makeover that is absolutely true to this spirit of the novel. While unapologetically diverse in its casting, it never feels unduly PC, and is often brilliant in the originality of its storytelling.

 

Patel as Copperfield: Noteworthy
 The movie is framed as a theatrical recitation by acclaimed author Copperfield. (A nod to the kinds of public readings Dickens himself staged for his rapt admirers throughout his career.) As he narrates his life story, beginning with his birth, it unfolds onscreen, with the adult David popping up in the shot with commentary— one of the movie's many charmingly surreal touches.

 

David's idyllic childhood with his loving young widowed mother ends abruptly when she marries grim Murdstone, who arrives with his equally sour sister (an unrecognizable Gwendoline Christie). The spirited child David (Jairaj Varsani) is banished to London to work in a grimy factory. He's a teenager (now played by Patel) when he learns his mother has died, and walks all the way to Dover to throw himself on the mercy of his only relative, the formidable Aunt Betsey Trotwood (a delightful Tilda Swinton.)

 

Swinton, Patel, Laurie, Eleazar: al fresco
 Peter Capaldi is droll and wistfully philosophical as the impecunious Micawber, and Hugh Laurie is wonderful as the mostly befuddled but sometimes gently insightful Mr. Dick, Aunt Betsey's distant relation. He and David share a love of writing things down (David obsessively records his life in notes and sketches), giving the filmmakers ample opportunity to weave Dickens' delicious prose into the fabric of the movie. Ben Whishaw is unctuously oozy as conniving Uriah Heep, although there's not enough time to convey the full menace of his crimes. Aneurin Barnard is impressively grand as Steerforth, David's elitist schoolfellow, but he seems more of a poseur than genuinely charismatic; David's attachment to him never quite feels earned.

 

Meanwhile, the narrative strides boldly forward through Dickens' busy plot, hitting most of its emotional  high notes, yet boisterously funny throughout. Quick and clever editing keeps the pictures moving with smooth dissolves and ingenious expositions. When David falls instantly in love with porcelain, childlike Dora (Morfydd Clark), daughter of the lawyer who employs him, he sees her face painted on a pub sign in the street, and her blonde curls adorning a passing cart driver. To keep the narrative moving, the filmmakers even have the nerve to write out a key character, at her request. ("I really don't fit in.") I doubt if Dickens would approve, but it's a smart way to keep the movie's tone consistent and focused.

 

The movie looks terrific, from teeming London streets to the fresh, open countryside to the seaside. Motherly Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper), David's former nurse, lives with her family under the upturned hull of a boat on the beach at Yarmouth. (A magical place vividly realized by production designer Cristina Casali.) In addition to the Micawbers, Aunt Betsey and Mr. Dick, David's surrogate family includes his aunt's tippling but well-meaning solicitor, Whitfield (Benedict Wong), and his daughter, Agnes (played with good-humored warmth by Rosalind Eleazar). 

 

Patel plays David with the right balance of open-hearted exuberance and dawning maturity. The non-traditional casting also highlights the story's core question of identity. David earns many nicknames on his journey through life — Davy, Trot, Daisy, Doady — which are more expressions of who others need him to be than who he actually is. It's a nifty little victory when this David finally discards his nicknames to proclaim himself simply David Copperfield— the hero (at last) of his own life.

 


Thursday, July 2, 2020

AUTO-IMMUNE

I was glad to leave the driving to him.
My name is Lisa, and I don't drive.

There's no 12-step program for it, but I might as well confess myself an alcoholic or a junkie.

It's especially weird for someone born in Southern California, and raised in outer Los Angeles, Freeway Capitol of the Known World. Remember the movie L.A. Story, with Steve Martin? Off to visit a neighbor, Martin's character jumps in his car at the curb in front of his house, and drives 12 feet to park in front of the house next door.

That's what it was like. Angelino babies are born with a silver set of car keys clutched in their tiny fists.

Except for me. Even in the throbbing heart of America's most turbo-charged car culture, I was resolutely auto-immune.

To be absolutely clear, it's not that I can't drive. I am in possession of a valid driver's license. I've aced every written driving exam I've ever taken, and passed my first (and only) test behind the wheel on the first try. (Okay, I only scored a 73, but it was a pass!)

It's just that, like Bartleby the Scrivener, I prefer not to.

Delhi: With and Without cars (Getty Images)
(Random English Lit Alert: Is Literature still taught in schools? Let alone Melville. Google it, kids.)

Well, that was true for most of the last 40 years, anyway, when Art Boy took over the household driving chores in his Art Boymobile. He was not a car guy. (He killed his very first car, a Camaro he bought from his older brother, because he didn't know he had to put oil in it.) He didn't love driving any more than I did, but it was one of the things he did more competently than me, so I was glad to let him.

I got to ride shotgun, and say "Home, James!"

In recent years, however, I've developed a much more compelling, even insurmountable excuse that has nothing to do with preference. One of the many disadvantages to MS, at least in my case, is the declining ability to lift my right foot. Whenever I'm extra tired and have to use a walker to get around, I drag my right foot like Quasimodo.

When people don't understand the connection between MS and driving ability, I say, "Have you seen me walk?"

My MS buddies in yoga class have the same right-side affliction, but they've been driving consistently all their lives, so they've learned to compensate for it behind the wheel. But after my late-inning diagnosis (I was 62), if I tried to drive the way I used to — with the right foot shifting between gas and brake —it was my foot, not the gears, that got stuck in neutral.

In an emergency, I don't want to be that dodderer who can't get her foot on the appropriate pedal in that crucial nanosecond, and ends up rear-ending someone, or plowing through a bunch of pedestrians on the sidewalk. Talk about a weapon of mass destruction.

So, instead, I've been leeching shamelessly off my friends for rides to the movies, or the market. (I'm surprisingly fine grocery shopping, as long as I have a cart to hold on to.) But now that movie theaters are closed and we're sheltering in place, like, forever, I have to depend on my village to do my shopping for me, and deliver the goods to my porch. I pay for my own stuff, of course, and I usually try to bribe, er, I mean tip my designated drivers/shoppers with home-baked cookies and cinnamon apple crumb cake.

Meanwhile, I try to delude myself that my not driving is good for the environment. We've all seen those photos of places like Delhi, before and after the coronavirus lockdown removed a majority of cars from the road. Not only is the sky suddenly visible at all, it's blue! In my old SoCal stomping grounds, you can see the San Gabriel Mountains rising above the L. A. basin from the beach!

That's my contribution to the fight against climate change, I think smugly: one less vehicle on the road. You're welcome.

But then, reality, that old killjoy, reminds me that somebody is burning fossil fuels to get me my groceries, even if it's not me. Until they start shipping my stuff via transporter beam, I can't pretend that my aberrant car-free lifestyle is in any way a virtue.

In the meantime, just call me the Leech Woman.

Friday, May 29, 2020

BETA BOY

"We could've written this!"

This refrain was often heard in our kitchen (usually over a glass of bubbly) when James and I came home after a movie and started analyzing where it had gone wrong.

Maybe there was a specific turning point in the narrative that shifted the whole story in the wrong direction. Maybe a character did something so inexplicably out-of-character that the whole thing lost its credibility.

But sometimes, as we went over plot points, themes and epiphanies, it seemed like the scriptwriter simply had not made the best use of all the elements that had already been set up and established in the storyline.

If this character had done this or that in the first quarter of the movie, we reasoned, then this exposition in the third quarter would make a lot more sense. Or this action that feels completely arbitrary might have been salvaged if it was done by a different character or from a different motivation. We often found everything needed to make the story work right there in its narrative bones, but it just hadn't been put together correctly.

After we'd figured out where it had gone wrong, and worked out the fix that could have saved it, it was time to clink those glasses. "Hey, we could've written this!"

I miss those critical download sessions, especially now that I'm grappling with my own busy fictional narrative that needs to be shaped into a coherent story. After my 187 years in journalism, I can still pretty much figure out what does or doesn't work in a movie. But I'm all at sea confronted with the unwieldy text of my own next book.

Among so many other metaphorical hats that my Art Boy wore around here, he was also my most trusted beta reader. If he didn't understand a plot point, even after the long-winded explanation in Chapter 21, or he questioned why a character said or did something peculiar, and my only defense was "because the author said so," I knew it was time to go back to the keyboard.

It was also at his urging that I started reading early drafts of my manuscripts out loud to him. Okay, he just didn't want to have to slog through all those pages in a box, himself, but it turned out to be great for me. If a word or sentence or passage felt clumsy in the mouth, or sounded tinny out loud, even to me, then out it went. Or, at least, it had to be finessed.

We were partners in my literary adventures, just like we were partners in everything else. Flying solo into new terrain still feels weird to me, but I just have to start viewing my own work through the lens of James' logical common sense and healthy skepticism.

Think of all those movies we saved, I tell myself.

We can write this!


(Top: A Book Is a Wondrous Thing, by James Aschbacher)

Thursday, May 7, 2020

MAIN STREAM MOVIES


Regular readers will note that I prefer watching movies on a gigantic screen, the way God intended. In the future, no doubt, movies will be digitally implanted directly into our lobes, but at this historical moment, we are somewhere in-between. Move theaters are closed thanks to COVID-19, so we're stuck watching movies on our home screens. With a zillion options, some are more worthy than others, but here are a few titles I've notice popping up on streaming platforms that might be worth your time!

THE ASSISTANT Her new job as office assistant to a famous movie mogul ought to be a dream come true for a bright young college graduate with ambitions to produce her own movies. But it's a nightmare for the conflicted protagonist who discovers enabling her boss's sexual conquests is the unspoken part of her job description in this taut, claustrophobic and entirely effective drama from filmmaker Kitty Green. The focus of her story is not on predators or their victims, but on the system of silence and complicity that allows such misconduct to happen. Julia Garner has the pale, porcelain face of a Renaissance angel, darkening with visceral anxiety over the course of her workday. (R) 87 minutes. (***) (2020) (Amazon Prime)

THE HANDMAIDEN It may seem like an odd collaboration: bad-boy Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park, famed for the violent male revenge melodrama Oldboy, and British author Sarah Waters, whose femme-centric erotic thrillers are set in the Dickensian underworld of Victorian London. But it turns out to be a surprisingly happy match-up in Park's Asian riff on Waters' novel Fingersmith. Filmmaker and source material are both edgy in complementary ways. Gorgeously shot and composed, audacious, and full of witty visual asides, it's a sly entertainment of sex, larceny, deception, double-crosses, and female liberation. (R) 144 minutes. In Korean and Japanese with English subtitles. (***1/2) (2016) (Amazon Prime)

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO This first feature from director Joe Talbot is remarkably assured and absorbing meditation on the mythology of the city's fabled past while its characters — two young black men born and raised in the city — reckon with the uncertainty of its present. As a semi-autobiographical version of himself, Jimmie Fails' character is obsessed with a stately Victorian-style house built by his grandfather that his family no longer possesses. Jonathan Majors offers poignant support as his best friend in this dreamy, splendidly composed mood piece about the search for home and identity in the rapidly evolving city they love. (R) 120 minutes. (***1/2) (2019) (Amazon Prime)

MILLIONS Money doesn't grow on trees, but it does fall out of the sky in this wonderful film from the ever-surprising Danny Boyle, about the comic misadventures of two young brothers in the working-class north of England when they find a mysterious suitcase stuffed with cold cash. Little Alex Eitel is terrific as the boy whose superheroes are the Catholic saints; he's up on all their biographical stats (birth, death, martyrdom), and they keep popping up in the story to help him figure out how to use the money to do good. Boyle's fresh, kinetic filmmaking style complements a touching story that's acute, funny, sophisticated, and full of imagination. Not a kids' film per se, this is a story told from a child's perspective that beguiles viewers of all ages (****) (PG) 97 minutes. (2005) (Disney Plus)

St. Peter (Alun Armstrong) (note keys and halo) instructs Alex Eitel in Millions
SONG OF THE SEA Anyone who loves seals, ancient Celtic folklore, fairy tales or mythology will be utterly charmed by this magical Irish animated feature. Directed by Tomm Moore, whose previous film was the lovely Secret of the Kells, inspired by the famed illuminated manuscript, this Oscar-nominated fable combines traditional tales of the selkies (seals who transform into humans on land) with a stunning visual palette, and an endearing tale of a young girl and her destiny. Every hand-drawn frame of this movie is ravishing — even on a small screen! (PG) 93 minutes. (****) (2014) (Netflix)

Sunday, April 26, 2020

FREE BOOK!


Hey, if the Rolling Stones can jam with each other online from their rec rooms, what am I waiting for?

Here's my response to the global coronavirus shutdown; my "lost" second novel available in its entirety online — for free!

Now that we're all sheltering in place with time to spare, it's the perfect opportunity to revisit Tory Lightfoot and Jack Dance, protagonists of my first published novel The Witch From The Sea.

(Pirates! History! Romance! No Zombies!)

I always envisioned their story as a trilogy, and although the next two novels were never published in book form, they do exist.

So I've decided to bring Tory and Jack and their further post-pirate adventures in the tropical West Indies back into the public eye.

Borrowing a leaf from the Charles Dickens playbook, I posted the entire second novel in the trilogy, Runaways: A Tale of Jonkanoo, in serial chapters online.

Jonkanoo parade, Jamaica, 1838
In the coming weeks, I'll be posting links to each successive chapter on my Goodreads and Facebook pages for anyone who wants to follow along.

Just doing my bit to provide a little escapism in these anxious times.

Nothing to join, nothing to buy, no passwords required. Just follow the links and enjoy!

Here's the Introduction to the story. (Find out just what the heck "Jonkanoo" means, anyway!)

PS: The entire novel is already up, as regular readers of this blog probably know (if you've ever scrolled all the way down to the murkiest depths of the right-hand menu). So feel free to binge away if you don't want to wait for my prompts!



(Above L: Runaways Frontispiece by moi.)

(Above R: Belisario 08, as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library)