Drowning. Avatar: The Way of Water

Quick hot take: meh.

Positives: So much effort was made to get the visuals right, and they are crisp and awe-inspiring. However, I wondered more about the volume of computing power that made such a spectacle possible than I did about the story. Unlike the first film, in which Jake’s amazement stood in for the audience—we watched him watching this world (the scene in which he tapped all the plants—How cool!—until a vicious creature was revealed—Scary, but still cool!). There is no similar character with whom I bonded, no one whose awe provided a point of entry for mine. So yes, the movie was a visual feast, but it remained at a distance.

The addition of children and watching them as they learned how to be an adult, or warrior, or mystic (or human being because even though Cameron populates the story with Na’vi, his project is deeply humanist) provided a welcome entry point for me. It added a coming of age angle that felt more natural than Jake Sully’s man-child evolution in the first film. Perhaps Cameron believes that all men are essentially immature—it’s a common enough trope, so not a surprise, but really? Round characters, please.

Not so positives: Avatar: The Way of Water is not a complete story. It is packed with loose ends of theme and plot that do not resolve at the film’s end. A three hour movie that ends with a battle that clearly is only the opening event in a war, with an father-son conflict stretched across species and moral codes, and with such gross power imbalances between the Na’vi and humans (seriously, you watched the return of the Sky People to Pandora and didn’t think, “Well, that’s horrible, but unbeatable”?) stretches this viewer’s patience. Wrap something up, for goodness’ sake.

Who’s your daddy/mommy? Grace’s avatar was pregnant when Grace died? And so she was an immaculately conceived girl? What? And Quaritch (the bad guy) had a son? And Grace’s daughter and Quaritch’s son are in love? Is this fan fiction? Are we supposed to tune in next week—or sometime in the next three or four years to discover the answer? This is a corollary to the Chekov’s gun axiom: if you put a gun on the mantel in Act One, it better go off by Act Three; big questions asked in Act One better be answered by Act Three. Cameron may expect the audience to wait a decade, but please do something with all those loose threads.

An assortment of complaints: 1) When did Neytiri become shrill? Did motherhood change her from Jake’s patient and wise tutor to a hissing ball of rage? Or is this just a lazy “tiger mom” cliche? Maybe since Kiri seems a more complex female character, the writers did not feel compelled to make Neytiri more than a plot device (she might drown!). 2) Does Kiri have epilepsy, or a profound (and important) connection to Eywa, the pantheistic force that unites all life on Pandora? Will circumstance force her to risk her life for the greater good? Then sharpen that possibility. 3) Did we really need a Quaritch avatar/clone? While the juxtaposition of Sully and Quaritch as fathers has potential, the deus ex machina was a little too handy. I suppose if the Avengers can invent time travel to save Endgame, a memory download is not too far afield. Nonetheless, no thank you.

There’s more, and I have already spent more time on this than I originally thought I would. After over three hours in a movie theater, nearly as long as Lawrence of Arabia, at minimum I expect something more than boggling my mind about how many terabytes of computing power went into the special effects. Three hours requires story, and Avatar: The Way of Water seemed incomplete in too many ways to satisfy. Ooh ah! And not meh. Feh.

Into the Dark: What I watched about evil

Two years ago, I rekindled this blog with reflections about what I learned about love from movies I watched in my youth. Love—in all its tangled brilliant forms—is the flame for this moth. Contemplating that light allows me to see through the darkness. Over 40 years ago, my cinema professor, Kaori Kitao, asked us what cinema was—the big question—to which she supplied the final answer after we had all tried our hands. “Cinema,” she said, “is light.”

Of course. What we saw on the screen was light obscured at 24 frames per second—light shaded and shaped into colors (or not) and accompanied by sound (or not). In our Wednesday afternoon classes, we sat and watched—over and over, for 3-6 hours—film projected onto a small white screen. Professor Kitao would speedily rewind reels of film so she could point out—over and over—the traces of light on the screen. There were secrets to be found.

I found love—or at very least, desire. The opening scenes of Bergman’s Persona spelled out what the light could do. I was too shy at 20 to comment on the erect penis that flashed oh so briefly (not that briefly!) on the screen in the opening montage. Love and sex. Desire and death. The devil that dances in that opening sequence reminded me of a childhood dream I had of a green-skinned devil who hopped about in our living room. Cinema is a dream—all dreams—distilled by light. And dreams take place in the dark.

If love is my light, there is also darkness. I struggle with darkness—with seeing it too much. In Peter Chelsom’s underrated Funny Bones, one of the characters remarks that Jack Parker—the comic genius of the film—sees the dark side of comedy too clearly. I saw that movie on my 35th birthday, and it crystallized my thoughts about comedy and tragedy. There are things that some of us see too clearly, that most of us just laugh or cry away. We turn our faces to what suits us best and call what does not please us “the other” in one of its many names.

However, the dark is not merely the absence of light or its easily demonized opposite. It is a vital source of energy. How long did it take me to accept that? I’m still working on it.

I saw the movies that taught me those first lessons about love when I was a teenager—or younger. With a few exceptions, the films that helped me grapple with the dark were part of my twenties—the lost years after I graduated from college and before I began graduate school. With few exceptions, I saw all these in movie theaters (or I have seen them all in theaters). I was fortunate that there was a revival house in Philadelphia (the TLA) that showed old movies. And, while Philadelphia had no cable TV, one of the UHF stations played classic films late at night. I watched. And dreamed.

Unlike the movies that taught me love lessons, these are uniformly great films. There are no April Fools or Hotel here. Maybe that’s because after taking Kaori’s class, I had learned to turn my eyes to more serious work, or maybe that’s because darkness instigates a different kind of art—more obviously profound, more apparent attempts at art. The distinction matters and does not matter. What we see in the dark is a dream. Great or not, these are no more real—or just as real—than the films I wrote about two years ago, the same way that my dreams are neither better nor worse than when I was a boy. Out of the light and into the dark.

Evil. What is evil in these films? Inhumanity. Failure. Fatal inevitability. Some incredible compunction on the part of the characters to launch headfirst into harm, and to take large swaths of their world with them. I saw these at a time when I became more starkly aware of the evil that was at once accepted and codified in the world around me. Sure, I had warnings along the way, and sure, these films are not life—any more than the movies that taught me about love ever substituted for the harder lessons that life delivered. Still, they offer up the contradiction: darkness painted with light. And each one provided a lesson that stuck, even if I disagreed with its premise.

I’ve been wrong before. I will be wrong again.

The Films

Out of the Past

The Draughtsman’s Contract



House of Games

Lawrence of Arabia

Dr. Strangelove

Little Women and the Writing Life

Watching Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women for the second time (I suspect that I will see it again), I cannot help but see it as a writer’s movie—a movie about a writer and her craft. Jo March wants to write a good story (or novel). She succeeds by writing commercially viable stories the contain murder, betrayal, and scandal; they are “short and spicy.” However, when she faces the impending tragedy of Beth’s death, she begins something new: a story about domestic struggles and joys.

All romance aside, writing is a domestic struggle and joy.

Jo’s life as a writer defines how she lives her domestic life. At first, her writing helps support her family. It gives her independence from the economic reality that women face, and the film paints a clear picture of those economics. Amy’s assertion of what she would give up—property, children—if she married is bracing, as it should be. There is an economic reality to writing as well, and one of the joys of the film is watching Jo negotiate with her publisher. In a triumph, she decides to hold on to the copyright of her novel, instead of taking an upfront payment in exchange for those rights.

Here is one of the significant places that the film takes liberties with the source material. Gerwig knows the story of the novel’s author, Louisa May Alcott—a woman who never married. Gerwig turns Jo into a version of Alcott and allows Jo to understand the bargain Alcott will make—forgoing married life for a writing life. Jo relents only when she feels the pangs of loneliness and allows her family to goad her into chasing her Professor. When Jo chooses Professor Bhaer, the film cuts between Jo’s discussion with her publisher (who insists, “If you decide to end your delightful book with your heroine a spinster, no one will buy it. It won’t be worth printing.”), and Jo’s consummation with Bhaer.

Gerwig has things both ways when this occurs. The film flows out in two directions afterward—one with Jo and her family opening the Plumfield School, and the other with editions of Little Women coming off the press with Jo’s name, not Alcott’s on the cover. It gives us two happy endings, one in which Jo is married and living an honorable and acceptable purpose, and another where she is a successful author.

Do I believe that the endings are exclusive of each other? They were exclusive of each other in Alcott’s life—for whatever reason. For the rest of us, I am not so sure.

I am sure that it takes a crisis to force the writer to come to compel the writer to mine—and compulsively mine—the deep sources of the story they will tell. John Gardner recommends, “[a] psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven.” Jo’s grappling with Beth’s death, and the outpouring of work that follows seems true enough. She props up her notebook, open to one story, “For Beth,” and it opens her up to her novel. It pours out across her attic floor.

How long a wound can fester before it scars over and prevents the writing is another question entirely. How many wounds, how many crises can the nascent writer face before the fountain cracks, and the story dribbles away in dust?  But that is not the story of Gerwig’s Little Women; it is gloriously hopeful and shows the way ahead.


At first sight

Country Living posted a video of Jeff Bridges’s romance with his wife Susan. He first saw her while she worked as a waitress when he was on the shoot for Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. “I knew I was madly in love with my wife the minute I saw her,” he claims. They married, and remain married after forty-some years. How did he know? How does anyone know at first sight?

What the hell. I say, “I love you” easily. It gets me into trouble.

Call it a predisposition—an attitude toward the world. I can walk into a museum and be delighted by things made four thousand years ago, four hundred years ago, and four hours ago. There isn’t one kind of music that is my “favorite”—so long as it avoids cliches, I like it. The same holds true for art. For movies. For most everything. So long as that thing provides some spark of surprise—the world is larger than you thought, old man!—I am, once again, in love with the world.

Cliches interrupt that feeling because there is no surprise. It is the pure unadulterated expression of the absolutely familiar. We’ve seen this show before. I thought about this when revisiting Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” last week in school, and his rail against schools for studying “monuments of [old men’s] magnificence.” How many times have I heard praise for souls that would (or should) “clap [their] hands and sing”? A hundred? A thousand times? More? Surely so. And yet, Yeats’s poem doesn’t feel like a cliche at all, even after all these years. I am surprised again. And in love.

But this is not about poetry or art. This is about falling in love, and saying “I love you”—and for doing it fast—at first sight, before the number of days and months proscribed by articles in Men’s Health or Psychology Today have passed.

Maybe men are more likely to go all in at first sight. Think of Romeo’s quickly fickle heart as he falls from Rosaline to Juliet. But Juliet, young and inexperienced as she is, follows quickly enough. And Susan Geston may have said, “No” to Bridges’s first request for a date, but she traveled home with him after filming in North Dakota wrapped up. I don’t know.

And a quick nerd note here. There is something I protect against: the reifying power of the male gaze. I suspect my gaze—and that of other men and women. It’s a way we have been, what? taught to see the world. This idea took shape when I studied film theory and encountered the work of Laura Mulvey. It’s worth serious consideration.

I do know that finding or creating a bond, and accepting that bond as something deeper than a mutual appreciation for art or wine or politics (I’ve been in those relationships, and what they lack in depth, they can more than make up for in breadth; there is much to appreciate in the world with a sympathetic soul) can help weather the inevitable differences that will occur. Most of my enduring friendships or relationships began nearly from the moment we met. Love provides the substrate for all that follows. And so much does follow.

But, how does one know? How does one ignite a deep and abiding passion based on a look, or a conversation? Experience, and more, has taught me that looks can be deceiving, but words, especially spoken words with all their attendant gestures, rise and fall of voice, and the play of expressions can unmask a heart—mine, hers.

What unmasks me, makes me open to the possibility again, is the blend of surprise and recognition. When someone adds some new aspect to the world, breaks some old pattern (like him, like her, but—somehow—not the same), and also reprises some aspect of the world that I value above all others, then I am laid bare, and I fall. I am less on guard against another person, than I am to my own repeated patterns—Am I doing that again? I am doing that again. Oy.

If I was a cynic, I would wait, and say, why love, when you know what will follow? Why not let the uglier side of each person—either her or me—assert itself, and avoid the disappointment? Go ahead and replace “cynic” with “practical.” And replace “ugly” with whatever euphemism for “real” that suits you. Either way, I am neither cynical nor practical. I am open to surprise.

What I Watched About Love—Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick


Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove

George C. Scott as General “Buck” Turgidson

Slim Pickens as Major “King” Kong

Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper

I did not see this as a Sunday night ABC Movie of the Week. This had to be a Friday night movie, starting at 11:30 or 12:00. I watched it by myself. It is a black and white movie, but I was well used to that. Almost all the horror movies of my youth were the black and white movies of Universal, or American… Besides, the first television I remember was a black and white set, which made the Wizard of Oz only a little less magical.

Why does this movie make it onto a list of movies about love? There is only one woman in the cast, Tracy Reed as General Turgidon’s “secretary,” and her part reveals more about the men than it does her. And at the end of the film, Vera Lynn sings “We’ll Meet Again” over a montage of hydrogen bomb explosions. What I didn’t know when I first saw this movie was that “We’ll Meet Again” was a soldier’s anthem in World War II; it marked the hope for those (don’t know where, don’t know when) sunny days. To me it was just dark irony.

I grew up in the company of boys. I had two younger brothers. I was in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Almost all my playmates were boys. We played “tank” on the school playground, draping our arms over each other’s shoulders and marching pointedly across the field. I went to an all boys private boarding school from 9th-12th grade. Boys playing at being men was what I knew.

Already, by my teenage years, I could see the pitfalls. I was aware of the passionate intensity that could overwhelm sensibility—just as Buck Turgidson demonstrates the the guile of a B-52 pilot screaming over the countryside to deliver his payload. I had experienced the misbegotten “fairness” doctrine—just as President Muffley tries to be fair with his Russian counterpart over the hotline. I had witnessed the driven madness of conspiracy that illuminates General Ripper, and the dedication to duty that Colonel Guano defends. Dr. Strangelove’s and Major Kong’s maniacal genius and drive was often held out as a, more sanely but only just barely, goal. Only Mandrake’s befuddled competence stands out as a lone vision of something like sanity—and he is a stranger in a strange land.

Where is the place for love—strange or otherwise—in a world that totters toward Armageddon? Romantic love is the counterpoint to the well-meaning incompetence, or belligerent dedication of the world of men. Without it: self-destruction.

Thoreau wrote in Walden that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In the late sixties and through the seventies, I didn’t know Thoreau at all, but I was naggingly aware of another desperation: one borne of the recent history of perpetual war and nuclear weapons. Those bombs waited like an exclamation point at the end of every thought about war, from World War Two, through Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then the Vietnam War. I often wondered who the men who bore responsibility for the weapons were, and if they were anything like the all too human men in my life. There came a point—it had passed to my way of thinking—when our weapons outstripped our ability to know how to use them. Desperation—existential anxiety—was a low thrum beneath all the humor, all the politics, and all the intensity of my teen age years.

And love? Could love stand against destruction? Imagine that. Only some equally powerful, equally misbegotten, equally passionate, dedicated, driven, and genius form of love, which is to say a love that was truly strange. How long would I try to fly that banner? Years.

What I Watched about Love—Petulia

What Resignation Means

Petulia (1968)

Directed by Richard Lester


George C. Scott as Archie Bollen

Julie Christie as Petulia Banner

There’s a reason why Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” resonated with me as a senior in high school, and part of that reason is Petulia, which I had seen some late Friday night before then. George C. Scott, who I had seen in a number of movies (Patton, Day of the Dolphin, a television movie called Rage, and, of course, Dr. Strangelove) is an unlikely leading man. Because he is not handsome, he is genuine. Julie Christie is a vision, and now, should remind us how much more difficult a job a beautiful actress has, because her authenticity must shine through her dense surface beauty. It’s hard to tell who plays Prufrock and who plays the mermaid in this film, because no one hears the singing, and if they do, they hear the song while bound to the mast of a sinking ship.

This is at once a fanciful and a grim movie. The pace is jaunty, and the editing jumps the viewer forward, back, and side to side. Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead perform in the film. Lester creates momentary tableaux that are discordant and arresting. A happy person, well ensconced in a healthy relationship would dismiss it as an over-intellectualized and cynical film. Since, at 17, I was neither particularly happy, and never had a relationship, it struck me as a warning about what waited in adulthood, and what a horrible warning it was.

Archie, a successful surgeon is in the process of divorce. When asked by his best friend, “What was it Archie? The sex bit?” Archie answers, “Barney, what would you say if I told you that one day I got very tired of being married… I know what I want. To feel something.” How is it that marriage and success did not give Archie a place to feel?

In Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf writes how the men of her class are fed into society as boys and emerge as cabinet ministers, or generals, or heads of colleges, and that they don’t have any real say in what they become; they are simply shot out. They do not have the opportunity to feel, and feelings are antithetical to their professional lives. Archie faces a similar challenge. He has been trained to rise above feelings, to perform medicine dispassionately. When he tells Barney that he wants to feel, Barney answers, “Grow up,” then asks, sadly, what he is going to do about his wife.

The film is set in San Francisco, and is populated by characters who act out and on their feelings. Archie is surrounded by a perpetual theater of feelings and opinions (and by the gruesome broadcasts of news from Vietnam). Lester’s film frames these performances as shallow, even callous. When asking for help speaking with a Spanish speaking man, one cool answers, “I only know Polish.” That’s how it is: the joke’s on you.

When Archie meets Petulia, she too speaks in cool shorthand, “I’ve been married six months and I’ve never had an affair.” The thing is, Archie is already cool—ice cold—and answers, “It’s been known to happen.” Petulia persists, and Archie resists. Finally she says, “Archie, why do you play this dumb game, this crappy pretense of resisting the beautiful lady? You should be jolly lucky I’m even talking to you.” She’s right, of course, but Archie doesn’t budge, until of course, he does, sharing a personal detail from his life. They make an abortive trip to a hotel. He sends her away. But they are far from done. “I’m trying to save you, Archie,” she implores later, “I’m fighting for your life.”

Petulia has a secret. She is fighting for her life. She witnessed Archie perform surgery on a small boy she and her husband became tangled up with—fixing the mess she and her husband made. Her husband abuses her. Archie is the solid, generous, and cool alternative to the privileged, abusive, and secretly volatile world she inhabits. She shows up at Archie’s bachelor apartment, bearing a tuba. Romance of a sort follows. And ends. Archie is perplexed, and then angry that Petulia stays with a man who beats her. And then knows there is nothing he can do.

I’m not sure how to manage the feelings of hope and resignation, but at 17, the balance was on hope. Mostly. 17 year olds can harbor a bent idealism that finds its respite in sarcasm and cynicism, but it’s an act. Real resignation must be earned and waits at the end of a long driveway. I fought against it. I still do. Petulia was a message from adults who were not pleased with any of the alternatives for adulthood being put forth at the time. I’m not sure if it appealed to me, as much as it haunted me. How could one lead an authentic life? And what was the place of love and marriage in such a life? I thought about that often at 16 and 17.

What I Watched About Love–Two For the Road

What Marriage Means

Two for the Road (1967)

Directed by Stanley Donen

Starring Audrey Hepburn as Joanna Wallace and Albert Finney as Mark Wallace

I remember seeing Two for the Road before I was 12, and that cannot be right. I was probably 15. I was delighted by the editing—how it jumped back and forth between the five different time periods, from scene to scene and back again. It was like nothing I had seen before, and it made perfect sense to me. And the dialogue was witty to the point of casual cruelty. It was familiar to me because there was a premium on sharp elbows at dinner table conversation in my family. As the boys became old enough to be no longer seen and not heard, we entered conversations by jousting our way in. Later on in life, a woman I was dating asked how we could be so mean to each other. We had learned it early, and it stuck.

More than anything else this one struck deep because of Audrey Hepburn’s performance. She was 37 when this movie came out, an she played a character who ages from about 20 to 30. Finney is meant to be older than her and was 7 years her junior. Besides the simple matter of years, her transformation is the more amazing of the two. She is both more hopeful and more sad over the course of her character’s aging. Finney remains more static, which is one facet of his masculine character.

A note here: I had crushes on a number of actresses when I was younger. I was unable to distinguish between the characters and the people playing the characters. And I only knew the actresses from a limited number of roles. I had no idea that Catherine Deneuve starred in a number of French films, many of which were far from chaste. I had seen none of Audrey Hepburn’s early work (Roman Holiday, Sabrina). There was simply no way to track down the movies. And besides small notices in Time Magazine, I knew nothing of their lives. I watched according to what was on television, and developed infatuations at the whims of unseen programmers.

At the beginning of Two for the Road the Wallaces, now ten years into their marriage, drive past a bride and groom in a car after their wedding ceremony. “They don’t look very happy,” Joanna remarks. “Why should they? They just got married,” Mark answers. The movie dances through their relationship, specifically tracing a series of five car trips through the French countryside as they travel from the north to the south of France. Their banter is breezy, charming, sarcastic, and bitter, building to crescendos of “I love you” before tumbling back into doubt and resentment. Marriage seems like an unresolvable puzzle, especially to Mark, and toward the end of the movie he asks Joanna, “What can’t I accept?” She answers, “That we’re a fixture. That we’re married.”

Hepburn glows when she looks lovingly at Finney. This must be the look every man wishes to receive from the woman he loves. She captures the look at several stages of the development of Joanna’s feelings toward Mark: from naive hopefulness through the first trembling of doubt, to disdainful resignation, and finally to generous acceptance. Did I understand the complexity of her feelings? Not at all, but I recognized the continuity, and as much as the look, how could a man not want to be loved through all his difficulty.

Growing up, I had no idea how relationships worked. My parents’ marriage was simply a fact and a mystery to me. I learned little about love and romance watching them. Nor were we close to my aunts and uncles and their families or the families in our neighborhood. I could not gauge how families were happy or unhappy. And this was never discussed at home. The only thing I knew was me, and I knew, and was told, that I was difficult. I may not have possessed Mark’s arrogance, but I understood early on that men in particular acted one way and felt another, and that to display doubt was nearly unforgivable. Or so I felt taught, and so I acted. I knew I harbored secret flaws—or not such secret flaws—and there was only one person who was going to love me in spite of them, and maybe even because of them.

At the end of the movie, Joanna tells Mark, “But at least you’re not a bad tempered, disorganized, conceited failure any more. You’re a bad tempered, disorganized, conceited success.” He isn’t angry or upset by her comment. He knows it, and ten years into their relationship, he is happy not to keep his secret from her. She is willing, even happy, to keep it with him.

I wonder now how the movie would play if the roles were reversed, if Joanna had been the arrogant architect, and Mark had been the more steady presence. I wonder what less traditional role I may have played had I seen that possibility earlier in life. But as Joanna tells Mark as he asks her his “What if” questions, she answers “I don’t know.” She has learned to live with the uncertainty. I know I have to accept what I am, which is something I struggled with as a teenager, then as an adult. I have begun to accept the uncertainty. And some of the flaws. And I have stopped expecting one person, even one person like Audrey Hepburn, to keep that secret.

What I Watched About Love—The April Fools

What a Kiss Means

The April Fools (1969)

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg

Starring Catherine Deneuve and Jack Lemmon

I first saw this movie on a weeknight—I recall it as either a Monday or Tuesday night—in the “family” room, the room where the boys watched television. I have no idea where my brothers were. I was probably 14 when I saw this. I was interested in girls, but they flummoxed me. I knew from reading Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape what strange magic our bodies made for sex, and the idea of sexuality absolutely intrigued me. However, my shyness made the possibility of kissing a girl as unlikely as walking on the surface of the moon. Someone would do it, probably never me.

The April Fools is the story of the Frog and the Princess, with Lemmon playing the frog and Deneuve the princess. Lemmon’s character, Howard Brubaker, has just received a promotion, and with it an invitation to the upper class social scene, represented by a party thrown by his employer Ted Gunther, played by Peter Lawford (a member of the extended Rat Pack). Brubaker does not fit in, though he tries. He wears the wrong tie and cannot talk to anyone, especially not the women. He plays with the art. And Lemmon’s performance is pure nebbish—that’s his charm. Lemmon was entirely relatable to this shy 14 year old boy.

Deneuve’s character, named Catherine Gunther (the boss’s wife), is sad and no longer fits in a society built on attraction and platitude. Brubaker catches her eye because he is unpolished. Even though he can be inept, he is genuine. She is convinced to give him a try when they spend a night in the company of a quirky couple, the Greenlaws, played by Myrna Loy and Charles Boyer, who live in a castle located somewhere in New York City. She tells fortunes. He practices fencing. They inspire Catherine to seek out a more enduring love. She chooses Brubaker.

What a fairy tale. Deneuve is icily beautiful—as perfect as Lemmon is imperfect. She kisses Brubaker, and says it is the first time that she initiated a kiss. And she kisses him. The kissing in The April Fools is chaste—no open mouth osculation. I did no know that when I first saw it. I had stars in my eyes. If she would kiss him, maybe there is a chance for me. Not only does she kiss him, but in the span of 24 hours they forge something like a relationship—they run out of the party, have an adventure in the city, and after some brief contretemps, fly to Paris together.

It should be noted that both Brubaker and Catherine are married. They leave their spouses, and the rest of their world’s behind. Ted Gunther is a smoothie who hits on other women and depends on his wife’s willingness to ignore his behavior. Sally Kellerman (an early heartthrob because of her part in a Star Trek episode) plays Brubaker’s wife Phyllis as distant and focused on her own projects. She talks at, not with, her husband and rushes off the phone to whatever actually holds her interest.

These characters are flat, as are all of the secondary characters male and female.Phyllis is bulletproof, but she would have to be—there is no place for women in this world other than as objects of desire. Brubaker’s male compatriots are unhappy as well, leading lives of quiet and resigned desperation. The Gunther crowd is rich and chic; they make easy targets. They have high art pretensions and echo Tom Wolfe’s social critique of just this crowd. I know that now, at 14 they all just seemed like phonies: mean empty vessels masquerading as people.

All except for the magical Loy and Boyer, whose wealth does not stigmatize them so much as separate them from the herd. They spend the days asleep, because of all the bad things that happen in the sun. There is no explanation given for their presence, the same way that fairy godmothers have no explanation in fairy tales. I longed for quirky friends, even as a youth. My classmates talked about Happy Days and the Pittsburgh Pirates. I had other, more shadowy interests, and no one to share them with.

The April Fools implies that happiness derived from love is so rare that it will require a rule-breaking intercession to achieve it. What a strange foundation on which to build an idea of love, and at 14, that is what I was doing. And to think that a kiss ought to lead to a trip to Paris and a new life. How many kisses would come that did not bear that freight, that betrayed that wish?

What I Watched About Love

I started watching movies on television. Whether Saturday afternoon monster movies, short films on the CBS Children’s Film Festival with Kukla Fran and Ollie, Sunday afternoon matinees, movies of the week on Tuesday nights, Sunday night movies, or Friday night late shows, I watched movies. The movies of my early life ranged from img_0274-1The Red Balloon to The Great Race, from The House of Frankenstein to The Trouble with Angels. I first saw Lawrence of Arabia on a 36-inch screen. I first watched the Wizard of Oz on a black and white television.

My high school, a boarding school, had movies boys could love (James Bond, Juggernaut, and Sky Riders) on Saturday nights. What I most remember are Sundays after church, when I watched the Flash Gordon serials in the tv room of the dorm. My college had a “popular” film series on Friday and Saturday nights—I was recruited to join the selection team because I had seen Enter the Dragon, and members could only nominate films they had seen to add to the series—and an art series on a weeknight. I can admit that I rarely went to the art films, but can remember classmates going on about Renoir’s Beauty and the Beast. I took a cinema class in the spring of my sophomore year, and remember listing Star Wars and Airport among my favorite movies. And then I saw Persona, Masculine/Feminin, Providence, Meshes of an Afternoon, Breathless, img_0275Un Chien Andalou, and Birth of a Nation. Kaori Kitao used a projector to screen the films, and we watched and re-watched scenes for hours on Wednesday afternoons. Our three hour class often ran six hours.

In my twenties, my girlfriend bought me a vcr, and between rentals, late-night movies on Philadelphia’s Channel 29, the Ritz Theater, and movies at the TLA, I filled in what I had missed. I saw Bringing Up Baby, The Searchers, Some Like It Hot, Red River, It Happened One Night, Flying Down to Rio, Koyaanisqatsi, Duck Soup, Ran, The Thin Man, Vagabond, Snow White, Freaks, and Claire’s Knee. I watched two or three movies a day. Some movies I watched as many as a dozen times, and there are some, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas come to mind, that I still have not seen and, still, want to see. I watched nearly all of the Marx Brothers, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Howard Hawks, and Jacques Tourneur. I liked Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Robert img_0276Mitchum, Rosalind Russell, Humphrey Bogart, Irene Dunne, Toshiro Mifune, Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire,  and Charlie Chaplin.

During this time I started writing a novel that I would abandon later. In that process, I went to graduate school, and then started reading books the same way I had watched movies. My walls are lined with bookcases full of the books I read while I found my way as a writer: Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Lorrie Moore. Hundreds more. Nonetheless, given two hours and a good movie, I still get lost in film.

Movies shaped me. My parents did not dispense life lessons, short of “don’t bug the grown ups.” My brothers and I lived fairly privileged and independent lives. My parents expected us to self-entertain, and we lived where we could do exactly that. Our play ranged over many square miles of field and forest. When we got bicycles, we rode as far as our will and muscle would take us. At home we ate dinner together then went to separate rooms to watch television (when we did watch television). Only event movies drew us into a single room. There were times when I was a teenager that my father and I would watch the same movie in different rooms, and at the end, my father would say, “That was good, wasn’t it.”

godzilla and mothraMy father loved movies. He shared his love of old horror movies with us, and we did watch Frankenstein and Godzilla together. Back then, Frankenstein was not played often on television, and one UHF channel featured a week of Toho giant monster films. These, along with the Wizard of Oz or Lawrence of Arabia, were event movies. I learned from watching movies that my father also had a soft spot, enjoying The Trouble with Angels and Agnes of God, but enjoying them alone and sharing his enjoyment after the fact. If I did not learn to watch movies alone from him, I certainly continued doing so, never feeling the need for company either when watching at home or in the theater.

Without much direct advice about how to live life, I learned from what teachers I could find. Mr. O’Connor, my eighth grade history teacher, taught me not to swear, and that police work was valuable; he was a former police officer. Mrs. Vandergrift, my fifth grade homeroom teacher, taught me about kindness and to value my academic achievements. But as far as the calculus of adult life, I learned from literature and from movies. Literature, like The Catcher in the Rye or Billy Budd, taught me about the pitfalls of adult life. Perhaps it is not so strange there there is very little in literature that reassuringly implies, “Everything is going to be all right.” There was even less in the literature I read for school about love. For love, I turned to film, or rather, film found me. I was a willing student.

The movies I will write about are not my favorite movies, with one exception. They are movies that stayed with me, like shadowy guides, for years. I feel their influence even now, in some cases I fight against them, the way one might struggle with a parent long after he or she has died. We are never truly done with the past. And so, I will revisit these films, neither to praise them nor to bury them, but to think about them and what I learned from them about love.

Are these the best depictions of love in the movies? Hardly. Nor are they the truest depictions. They simply stood out to me. Beyond that I had only two simple rules for their selection. First, I had to see each one first on television. All but one of these I watched alone the first time I saw it, with the exception being My Fair Lady, an event movie to be sure. Second I had to see each before I was 17, before I became an adult, and before I said the words “I love you” to a woman. Whether I like it or not, every time I have said those words, from the time I was 17 until now, when I am 57, “I love you” is an echo of something I saw in these films. For better and for worse.

The Films

The April Fools

Two for the Road



What’s Up Doc

My Fair Lady

Dr. Strangelove

Critical Thinking

I’m taking the older daughter to the movies tomorrow night for a little daughter-daddy time away from the rest of the family (read new little sister). We are choosing between X-Men: Days of Future Passed, and The Amazing Spiderman 2.   K wants to see both of them, which provides an immediate quandary: how do we choose?

I tried to explain to K the law of super-villains in super-hero films (fewer is better), to which she responded, “I like more bad guys.  It (sic) makes it more interesting.” Then I pointed out the Rotten Tomato scores of each movie (AS2: 53%; XMDFP: 91%), to which she rejoindered the  “Lone Ranger Exemption”–a movie universally panned that we all enjoyed (except for the heart eating). In the end it will come down between a “J Law”/”A Gar” choice (pop heroine/hot guy), and Daddy’s vote (3 Villains vs Peter Dinklage).

And so the question: what makes it good?

I went to see Godzilla last week.  How could I not?  I have a familial obligation to watch these sorts of movies, and fondly remember watching many of the original “Showa” series on Channel 17 with my father and brother.  Was the new one any good.  Well, no.  It was fairly awful.  Anthony Lane in The New Yorker summed it up when he wrote: “[Here’s] what the perfect “Godzilla” should be: no character development, no backstory, no winsome kids, just hints and glimpses of immeasurable power—enough to make you jump and twitch and leave you sweating for more. ” This Godzilla was ponderous and full of kids (and even a dog) who were threatened by the “immeasurable power.”  Nonetheless, the critics graced it with more positive reviews than negative (RT 73%). Let the Kaiju roar and destroy and thrill; we can apply the allegory ourselves, thank you.

I went to see Celtic Woman last night, and by all accounts this is a profitable franchise, right up there with various “Tenors” traveling shows.  It is, in the main, schmaltz and ersatz Irish-ness.  That said, the majority of popular performance rarely rises above the level of schmaltz and ersatz authenticity.  I mean, go ahead, pitch “Amazing Grace,” “Danny Boy,” and “You Raise Me Up” in one show and the crowd will moisten appropriately and come back in two years for more of the same. I get it, and I’m a little glad that the rousing barroom ballads of my middle youth (Carnsie’s, Binghamton) were exempt from the CW  treatment. No Tim Finnegan (which is just as schmaltzy and ersatz in its own bawdy, jaundiced way as well–and this may be the heart of true Irish-ness). Nonetheless there was enough bare-footed fiddling and dancing to satisfy the family.

Still I can’t help but wonder how we decide what is good.  A former colleague bowed to vox populi, and can understand that in theory.  In practice I get a bit more insistent.  But that is for another day.