Tuesday, March 31, 2020

All the rage

Getting close to two years ago now, I exchanged "I love you"s with someone. Sometimes in literature that is called reaching an understanding, but we did not. I misunderstood the next thing he said, and we parted very quickly -- not on bad terms, but not having resolved anything.

When I realized how badly I had misunderstood what I thought was him saying he needed to go, I blamed myself a lot. Over time I have come to believe that it was necessary, and a protection for both of us. Based on our needs and abilities at the time, if we had tried to have a relationship then I think we could only have caused each other hurt and disappointment, causing a bad rupture. There has still been plenty of pain and disappointment, but not from each other. I believe that because of the delay, what happens next can be good.

You may be skeptical of my interpretation of events. That is fitting, because this post is about my anger at the skepticism of my friends.

I did write a little about this on the blog when it happened, but there weren't details, including identifying information. I did share details with some people closer to me, and I am only starting to feel recently how angry I am with them.

I acknowledge that there are a lot of things to feel angry about now, so my seething rage is probably not exclusively theirs, but these are friends and people I love so it feels worse.

Two were quietly skeptical. The one reaction feels really condescending now, but at the time it was just disappointing. One friend was supportive, and I am grateful for her.

(There are people whom I could have conceivably talked to if the opportunity had come up when I needed to talk about it, but if you aren't included, don't feel left out.)

Otherwise, it was disbelief. "Are you sure he didn't mean platonically? You must have misunderstood."

Thank you for reinforcing my deepest belief that there is something inherently unlovable about me.

Forget the fact that at other times you have tried to set me up with people, or told me that the things that I worried made me ineligible for love didn't really matter. Forget that you have seen people hitting on me, and sometimes I picked up on it and sometimes I didn't, but it has happened. When push came to shove, you had to tell me that this thing that was really positive and affirming and meaningful for me was not real.

I have never done that to you.

And the reason I haven't done that to you is not that you are so much smarter or insightful or spiritual or self-aware that nothing you said could reasonably warrant putting some brakes on, but because of kindness and respect.

You could have been happy for me. When I was kicking myself for not understanding, you could have reassured me that one mistake doesn't have to ruin your life, and that things can still work out. You could have reminded me that this phase of my life won't last forever. That might have been wrong because I am still broke and stuck and now we might all die of Coronavirus before any of that resolves, but it still would have been better.

You could have had some faith in me that I can understand a direct statement, and that it was not an unreasonable statement. You could have asked more questions about what led up to it if you had concerns.

You absolutely could have done better than telling me you didn't want to hear it, then gossiping about it to other people, then periodically taunting me with ways to prove it. That should be obviously crappy enough that you would never do that to anyone, or feel anything but shame over it.

So I have a lot of anger, and it is close to home.

But also, I know that I have kept hopes and dreams to myself enough that no one really had any practice in how to handle that.

I mentioned yesterday that I hate writing feedback groups. That is the criticism thing but it is also too much sharing. Yes, I don't do that much, but also I have my reasons. Every now and then when I go outside of that, I am reminded why I don't share.

Add to that the saying that you teach people how to treat you. It's kind of a cruel victim-blaming, really, but also, what do I need to do differently?

For all of the anger I have, these have been some pretty good friends, who have come through in other ways and we have shared good times. To some extent, I think they are so used to seeing me in one way that they have a hard time imagining anything else. Lately the only times I have really felt seen have been with strangers, another things that makes self-isolation difficult. I don't know how long it will be before I can see anyone new again.

I don't have a solution for that. Tomorrow I will start out with another startling true confession, and see if I can get anywhere from there.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Flawed perfectionist

I have one more new book and two re-reads and some exercises pending, so I didn't think I was going to write about mental and emotional health yet. The last book stirred something up, though, and now I can't stop thinking about it.

Remember when it used to be a job interview question to ask "What is your greatest weakness as an employee?" It fell out of favor because people always answered that they were perfectionists or workaholics, but I had realized what my accurate answer was: I don't take criticism well.

It also probably didn't matter, because of how that is true for me. I incorporate the correction into my work, and I don't complain or give attitude about it. I do feel mortified inside and hate myself for being so stupid for a while. Since it doesn't get in the way of job performance or inconvenience anyone but me - and since correction is necessary sometimes, that is probably for the best - I am just not sure it is something a boss needs to care about.

While I was reading Pete Walker's Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving I made the connection that this is related to some issues I have stemming from my father and his inability to ever admit he was wrong or accept blame.

In terms of blaming myself, it feels a little stupid to have to deal with this now. I recognized a related issue decades ago (key incidents in 1992 and 1994), where I didn't like showing weakness or admitting error or even acting impressed with anything. I realized then that this fear of people seeing you as less than perfect is unnecessary, and holds you back. It is more likely to irritate other people than impress them.

I thought I had learned and incorporated that. I guess I did with peers, but in a work situation it was still thriving. And, I guess in a way it was a perfectionism issue.

It may be easier to see now because I have been out of the regular work force for a while, and looking back on my experiences while there, well, it is clear that a lot of people I have worked for not only would not care about my feelings but also did not care that much about honesty or integrity or various other traits that would have been nice.

I have really learned that my best efforts cannot make me "good" enough to make things go right, at least not solely by virtue of me being good. I suspect that could eventually be a relief, but right now it is just disappointing.

In the meantime, there are a few issues that really get me with this, because I need to go somewhere with them or change something, and I am not sure yet. That is why I can't stop thinking about it.

The more minor one is that I have always hated writing groups, where you solicit feedback on your work. In retrospect, that is perfectly logical. I have also never been impressed with them, but is that the groups I have seen, or my own issues getting in the way? Both could be true.

That seems more minor because I am not writing much now, and I don't know how things are going to go, and maybe it doesn't matter. I have always been pretty good at the self-criticism, but other viewpoints could have value.

For the record, I can see many flaws in my published books, but those were more from writing them so quickly, in the hopes that I could make some money that way, when in reality I was never going to make much money doing anything. (That is a different issue.)

However, since I am really bad at making money, and I saw a post yesterday about self-isolating people needing things to read, I have put all of my Kindle novels on a 5-day promotion where they are free.


Help yourself! If you like them, great. If not, it did not cost you anything.

The other issue is more frustrating, but I will save that for tomorrow. It's not about money, though. It may not sound like it, but I have kind of made peace with that.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Concert Review: A Bowie Celebration: The David Bowie Alumni Tour

On March 11th my friend Karen took me to see the Bowie Alumni Tour at McMenamin's Crystal Ballroom. I had not known such a thing existed before her invitation.

Other than vocalists, all of the musicians have played with Bowie previously. That includes a long-time collaborator like Mike Garson, who played on twenty Bowie albums and played well over a thousand concerts with him, and Alan Childs, the drummer from the Glass Spider tour.

With the singer gone, multiple vocalists are used. This performance included Corey Glover, Joe Sumner, and Sass Jordan.

It was the first time I had seen chairs set up on the dance floor at the Crystal, perhaps an acknowledgment that this was an older audience, but also perhaps a nod to the band's commitment. With no opener, they played a solid two hours, then came back for an encore. They started by playing all of Diamond Dogs.

I think A Bowie Celebration is the best title. No singer was imitating David Bowie; each brought their own thing. Glover was dapper and dressed to kill, Sumner was kind of a goofy but still hot dad, and Jordan was kind if airy-fairy in a way that made me think Stevie Nicks but was really probably more Janis Joplin. I believe Bowie could have appreciated and enjoyed all of them.

Perhaps more important, I believe Bowie would have appreciated the camaraderie and joy. There were so many older, weirder people there (I am not using that pejoratively) and they were having such a good time.

We were not a particularly large audience, we found out, but we were a good one. Maybe they played more because of that.

After the show, Karen ran into Kevin Armstrong and we talked for a little bit about the show and Iggy Pop and Bowie. She later lamented to me that she was talking with Bowie's Live Aid director and they just talked about Coronavirus. Well, that's what was on everyone's mind. They were supposed to head up next to Seattle, but the rest of the tour has been postponed now. How could we not think of it?

But I will always remember something he did say about David Bowie: "We won't see another like him." I will remember that because it is true, and I will remember the emotion with which he said it, because that was the feeling we shared that night.

At their best, concerts are places where we share connections and are united, even if for just a short while.

It may be a while to the next one, but each one matters.


Related posts:

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Self-distancing update

I haven't been very regular in my posting lately. I know.

The virus has made things considerably worse for my situation. It doesn't disrupt my ability to work, because I continue caring for my mother at home. It does take away some of the options that we used to help placate her, and it has really hampered my ability to get out of here and away from her for respite.

To be fair, the extent to which the virus has made life worse for other people is much bigger, but then I also had enough debits already that my impact might be felt more. It's hard to say; this is one reason not to compare suffering. 

As an additional snag, Twitter keeps having lags and down times, I assume because of the increased internet use, and that has been an important source of connection for me. On the other hand, I expressed some of my feelings on Facebook, and now at least four friends have me on suicide watch.

I should probably not express myself on Facebook.

As it is, I am not suicidal. I am down a lot, and a lot more tired and stressed now, when I was always pretty tired and stressed before. I was trying to think of helpful, productive things I could do, and it's just not going to happen. There are many needs in this world, but anything that doesn't go into my mother is going to need to go into me right now. I hope that doesn't last too long.

One sad loss is time for music listening. For now, I am not able to give bands the amount of time it would take to do a fair review. There are still three that should go up. One is an album review that I had already listened to a few times, and then I just wasn't able to write on the intended day.

Another is a concert that I went to, the night before it would have been canceled in fact. I have to document that; who knows when I will get to go to another? I had thought this would be a great year to do some reviews of Blues Fest, and maybe see if I could talk to some people there. Nope, not this year.

(That is not arguing with any of the policies. It is just disappointing.)

Then my favorite musician released three previously recorded but not released tracks for one album, and I think I can do that. Otherwise, it will be a while.

There are still seven director spotlights to cover, and I could write a lot about mental health and Nazis. I mean those as two distinct subjects, but there could be room for overlap too. I mean, a lot of the reading on psychopathy I have done relates to Nazis. And Bertrand Russell.

I really do want to do more interviews. I had thought of interviewing former classmates who are doing interesting things as we get closer to my reunion, though now I wonder if there will be a reunion. We'll see.

For the record, you may have seen that I have done three interviews, all with musicians whom I have also reviewed. There have also been five interview requests that did not get responses: three musicians, one politician, and one activist. Most of those were through Twitter, and I don't know if they even saw the requests, so I am not holding grudges. Also, there was one musician whom I reviewed but did not want to interview. I could tell I was not going to like it that much. I already have enough guilt about bad reviews; I do not need to add to that.

I do have some thoughts on people and politics and how they are responding to Coronavirus. I don't know if I will have it in me to write about those things, but I might.

In summary, I cannot offer any guarantees of prompt, quality content, but that's been going on for a while anyway.

Hang in there everyone. I will too.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Control yourself

I guess I have sort of a trilogy here.

Wednesday I wrote about people being horrible (and dumb) to each other - especially in stressful times - and yesterday I wrote about looking out for each other now.



I believe there is a common thread, and that is what I want to get at today.

Let me start by saying that one of the absolute most fun things about this election cycle is how everybody feels free to tell Democrats how to vote and what to do.

It doesn't matter if they have never been Democrats, and scorn the values that might make someone stick with that party. It doesn't matter whether their justification for being able to tell us what to do is Trump, and they were specifically helpful in getting him elected. It doesn't matter if they have made very specific and clear predictions that turned out to be wrong, legitimately calling their acumen into question. It certainly doesn't matter if you have years of experience with activism and fighting for rights, as opposed to being an actress who likes the guy who briefly took part. There is no reason that my own decision-making process can be valid if it results in a different conclusion than yours.

To which my first, instinctual response is "Screw you!", but that would go to some people I really like, along with several I don't.

The good part of that is that I was worried that by not spending a lot of time listening to outright  Trump supporters I might be creating my own bubble and echo chamber, which is a concern. Instead, I find that there are a lot of people whom I disagree with that I still listen to, with diverse levels of intelligence and education and opinions. That's probably healthy, even when it's frustrating.

I also find that I have not written as much about politics this election cycle as I did during the last one. I often think about different things, but it feels like currently things are so much more about the problems with the voters than with the candidates. I mean, the candidates have real issues and I could spend a lot of time on that, but it doesn't feel like it would matter unless we got to the root of what is happening with the voters and the talking heads and the people who feel perfectly comfortable calling experienced committed voters low information because they see through your brand of progressivism.

I don't have a post for that yet. It would probably take a series of twenty or thirty sequential posts building the history of civilization and especially United States history and how we became such a bunch of nasty, twisted creatures. 

I do have a concept, though: Dominator Culture

I found the phrase recently while reading bell hooks. It seemed to describe something that I had been sensing. That is a great thing to happen in reading: you find out it is not just you. Other people have noticed, they have worked on it, and maybe there is hope.

For people who have worked on it more, the opposite of the dominator model is the partnership model.

If we are constantly in a fight to prove our superiority hierarchically, it's not just that it creates a full bigot tree of abuse flowing down; it's also that we are always in a fight. What if we just decided we were all equal?

So for someone who hoards supplies and hopes to price gouge, or who behaves recklessly to prove they aren't scared (increasing the risks for the medically fragile people in the vicinity), or the people who keep focusing on "bending the knee" (whether they anticipate the knees being bent toward them, or them being forced to bend), what model do you think that is?

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Don't be like that

The obvious follow-up to yesterday's post would be to focus the director spotlight on John Singleton, but after two failed attempts to record Poetic Justice it has become personal, and I am going to watch that movie.

Also, I really need to write about Corona virus. That is partly because of things I am seeing in the media now, and also because of a book I just read: Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern Eating in the Early Twentieth Century by Helen Zoe Veit.

During World War I the United States government was sending food to Europe as part of relief efforts. Certain foods were prioritized based partly on nutritional value but largely on how well they shipped. Those foods included beef, pork, and white flour. To keep supplies available, the government requested that citizens used less of those foods. They encouraged more eating of fish and poultry, and more use of cornmeal and potatoes, for example. A lot of what we think of as traditional foods, like meat-and-potatoes in the heartland and casseroles and name brand canned foods really took off here.

That information could be interesting on its own. A lot of the dietary advice was given through extension services, and that resonated for me because I have taught community classes on food safety and how to prepare different foods through extension programs, eighty years later. Cool! However, where I found the book really relevant is how stupidly awful some people were, and how.

For example, there was a recommendation from one non-government source to go through dishwater and salvage left behind morsels. How disgusting that sounds should be reason enough against it, but also, logically, if there is anyone who is leaving that much food on their plates, the real need is instruction on washing dishes. Scrape your dishes first. It will keep the water clean longer so you wash better. The other idea doesn't even make sense.

That is an extreme example of individuals going overboard. There were women who made uniforms, and women who requested stronger guidelines from the agency, because they just didn't feel secure enough, and maybe the voluntary elements weren't good enough, which may be why some people felt the need to police their neighbors, because other people cannot be trusted.

So, when healthcare workers and medically fragile people can't find masks because people who don't need them have snapped them all up, that sounds kind of familiar. The main recommendation has been hand washing all along. It kind of makes sense that people also want to stock up on hand sanitizer, because you aren't always at a sink, but I suspect that the bare supermarket shelves are not reflecting an informed or reasonable response.

It's that urge to police other people that worries me most. I have heard -- but cannot verify -- that some public officials are encouraging the public to pressure anyone coughing into leaving public spaces. (A good thread on that is linked below.)


There is a lot to be said for using common sense and not going out in public if you are feeling ill. There are also many issues about feasibility, and people being able to afford to do so, but let's leave that aside for now. There are many other reasons you might cough. Allergies trigger asthma for a lot of people, and coughing can be a symptom. Someone might have swallowed something wrong and need to clear it out. Maybe courteously checking on people can be okay, but I worry more about things like this happening:


Did I mention that there were many examples of appalling racism in the Modern Food book? There were.

Because of all of this, I have some real concerns about our ability to manage this using logic and intelligence in a manner that actually promotes the common welfare. I mean, I guess now I understand better that people were also terrible jerks during World War I, and the accompanying Great Influenza did not cause society to collapse, but while Woodrow Wilson was still pretty racist he was in many ways more competent than the current president, and things like that can matter.

So that's a concern. I want to write one related thing on the preparedness blog Sunday, and a different related thing here Monday.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Still not seeing Harriet

Given what I have posted previously, going to see Harriet should be a no-brainer for me; I like Kasi Lemmons and I like Harriet Tubman.

I can't do it, for a few different reasons.

One reason is the casting of London-born Cynthia Erivo. I am not automatically against giving US roles to British actors, though I think it happens more often than it needs to. (There was a Key & Peele sketch about that.) I mean, after the "Minty" episode of Underground, it's going to be hard seeing anyone other than (Brooklyn-born) Aisha Hinds as Tubman, but other people get to play roles that different people did well. I get that.

(Lemmons has addressed that by pointing out that there was a lot of African-American representation, both in front of and behind the camera, and I respect that.)

However, Erivo has a bit of a reputation of saying messed up things about US Black people. Anti-Blackness is a thing, and it has been a successful export of the US in very disappointing ways, but the way some Black people consume that is by looking down on the descendants of enslaved people and that is not cool. As far as I can tell, the closest Erivo has come to an apology is saying things were taken out of context.


That in itself might not be enough to keep me from watching the movie, but it also doesn't seem to be enough about Harriet. It introduces a non-historical character who can be killed to up the stakes. It has a white man save Harriet's life by killing a Black man. It adds drama in stupid ways. Harriet Tubman's life was interesting enough without needing to do that. You want action? Include the Combahee River Raid.

I don't doubt that many people have found the movie good and inspiring, and I hope so, I guess, but I also know it could be better.

Here's the thing: writer Gregory Allen Howard started working on the script in 1994, a time when it was suggested that Julia Roberts could play Tubman.


That is more interesting to me after having watched Rosewood (1997), directed by John Singleton. It was a mess.

It was based on a true story, had a director I like, and tells an important story, in this case about a massacre similar to Black Wall Street though smaller in scale. With all of that material to use, it focused way too much on the white people, like shopkeeper Jon Voight, who harries two guys with a train to rescue people, then makes them go faster than they can - breaking the train - and then helps them fix it. Hero! It did not look at all like the kind of stupid masculinity that gets people killed in the name of macho. (Also, when other refugees were coming and it was a concern that the train would get too full, they shot at them. I thought that sent a poor message.)

I would complain that none of the Black characters are given meaningful  character development, but the white ones don't really get that either. Maybe Jon Voight's wife does. She earns the approval of her stepchildren by defending them with a shotgun. (Yes, normally a job for a white guy, but he was busy breaking the train.) But that Black girl Jon Voight was sleeping with? She had to die, and she had to die because she was too ashamed to take shelter in his house.

Otherwise, a triumphant ending to so many Black people dead or displaced is that Loren Dean goes home and beats his cheating wife whose lying set off the killings, and the gross old racist's son rejects his teaching and leaves home.

It may not be a coincidence that one of the running themes in Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) is that Samuel L. Jackson keeps assuming Bruce Willis is racist, and he is wrong every time. That's just Black people having a chip on their shoulder. Apparently the 90s were about being over racism but not everyone getting the memo.

Don't get me wrong; I don't think a single one of those movies had bad intentions. Intent just isn't enough. It is also important to be able to de-center, and to be able to remove pet ideas when they would be inappropriate to the greater work.

To be fair, there are many movies that I don't see, but this is one I would have liked to have been able to root for. I don't know that I blame anyone involved - it's a tough industry, and they may have done things to make it better - but I can go see other things.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Living a moment

I could have easily fit some brief praise for Talk to Me into the post on Kasi Lemmons, but there was one specific thing that stuck out, especially in light of something else I saw recently. That is why there is a separate post.

Talk to Me was invigorating. It starts with the words "Wake up Goddammit!" and those are repeated a few times, and felt needed. Featuring Don Cheadle as DC deejay and former convict Petey Greene, he is well-matched with Taraji P Henson as his love interest, Vernell, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Dewey Hughes, his manager at one time, but an important part of Greene's career before and after.

I have no idea how closely it follows the actual life events of Petey Greene; the movie never shows children but Petey had four, and his wife's name was Judy, not Vernell. I suspect some things were simplified. What you do get is an idea of how much you can love and need someone and still be frustrated by them, personally and professionally. Ideally, you learn not to throw people away because of the things that make them difficult.

But that's not why it needed its own post.

Some of the personality clashes and difficulties come to a head at the radio station where you are expecting a knock-down-drag-out fight, and then a message comes in, and everything stops. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated.

The movie does cover how it affected the city, and that is history, but what struck most was those individual reactions, as they were caught so completely off guard and devastated.

The assassination was also treated in a play I saw recently, Who I Am by Shalanda Sims:


In the play, you hear part of King's speech from the March on Washington. It does not get to "I have a dream" - perhaps that would be too cliche - but the words are still familiar. Then shots ring out and the other actors scatter and King falls.

Obviously, that is not how it happened, but it brings home the tragedy in a way that a regular depiction could not. It would have been so easy to mess up that moment, and they handled it really well.

Seeing those two depictions close together made it more obvious how visceral my response was.

Dr. King has been dead for longer than I have been alive. I have never known him not dead. I remember starting to feel a heaviness coming over me when I was reading Ralph David Abernathy's biography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, as we were getting closer. I still felt emotion about the death, and it mattered, but there could not be any shock.

And then there was. That is the magic of film and theater, that something so familiar can become new and feel different.

With Eve's Bayou, Lemmons reminded me how beautiful film could be, in conjunction with Julie Dash and Daughters of the Dust. With Talk To Me - in conjunction with Sims and Who I Am, I have been reminded how transforming film can be.

That is pretty cool.

Related posts:




Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Director Spotlight: KASI LEMMONS

Had already seen: none
Watched for this: Eve's Bayou (1997), The Caveman's Valentine (2001), Talk to Me (2007), Black Nativity (2013)
Have not seen:Dr. Hugo (short, 1996), two episodes of television, and Harriet (2019)

I really liked Lemmons' work for the most part. Even when I had more mixed feelings about it, I had empathy.

I have exclaimed about Eve's Bayou already: https://sporkful.blogspot.com/2019/08/watching-movies.html

Since writing that, I realized that one reason it is easy to miss how beautifully everything is set up visually before the end is that you are following a story with a pretty clear plot. The other film in that post, Daughters of the Dust, had images were set up to be striking more than it had moments to clarify what was going in. In that way, it may make more sense to compare Julie Dash to Barry Jenkins, at least for that film. (We will get there.)

There were still some unusual touches in Eve's Bayou, used as ways of treating visions, curses, and fate. Those may have made Lemmons a good choice for The Caveman's Valentine, where it was necessary to give a way of understanding and sympathizing with paranoid schizophrenia.

I am still not sure if that was a good portrayal, at least in terms of portraying schizophrenia realistically. For almost twenty years ago it was probably pretty reasonable. It was inventive and gripping and sometimes very off-putting, but it would have to be. There were touches that reminded me so much of people I have seen on the street. I think it was mostly effective, and it does make me curious about the book.

Black Nativity was the messiest, but it was trying to do a lot. Maybe it was too much.

One goal was to honor the tradition of the play by Langston Hughes. Play might not even be the right word for his Black Nativity; it might work better to call it an African-themed Christmas pageant. The film could have simply filmed that, but the music and the energy is important, and doesn't always transmit. In many areas it is a community tradition, where the wise men might be prominent community members, and the audience might recognize other members of the cast from being local.

To get more of that feeling, the movie creates characters with their own plot lines and problems, and includes a dream sequence to bring home that point more. In addition, for all of those characters, there are downright Dickensian (so still very Christmas appropriate) connections and coincidences, that also represent problems and schisms within the Black community.

That is a lot to fit in, so that is how it gets a little messy and sometimes loses cohesion, which is noticeable. I can't criticize that too much, because I want the mega-happy ending, for those individuals and for the community. I want everyone who choose paternalism and respectability and those who choose materialism and gangster rap and especially everyone who doesn't get much of a choice to be reconciled and healed.

That is why I say I have empathy for the times when I have mixed feelings. The heart is in the right place, and when there are things that are distracting, that is a choice that was made for good reasons. I'm not going to be cynical about that.

So, you may notice issues with The Caveman's Valentine and Black Nativity, and that is fair but does not negate the good in those movies. Black Nativity is the weakest, but it still has value. It could be a reasonable Christmas tradition, though if the Langston Hughes version happened more, that could be even better.

Eve's Bayou and Talk to Me are really gripping films. That is a combination of story, cast, and directing, where everything works together well.

I am going to write some more about Talk to Me in another post, and compare part of it to a completely different thing. Let me just say now, though, that it was a really good movie.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Director spotlight: BARRY JENKINS

Had already seen: none
Watched for this: Moonlight (2016), If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Tall Enough (Short, 2009)
Have not seen: several shorts and television episodes, as well as one film I did not know about, Medicine for Melancholy

There is a way in which it feels right to pair Jenkins with Coogler. Their career timelines are roughly parallel, even though they come from opposite coasts.

Their styles are quite different. Coogler was consistently entertaining; Jenkins requires more work.

His films move slowly, perhaps a better fit for the art house than the cineplex. I would almost say the right comparison is Terrence Malick, but when I watched a Malick film, I just kept waiting for things to happen, and later when I remembered it, still wondered why you would intentionally make a film that slow and irritating. It is not like that watching Jenkins.

First of all, things do happen, sometimes shockingly. More than that, though, there are always layers of meaning that come back to you later. Oh, that was because of this. Of course it would have meant that.

The situations that the characters have to deal with involve great wrongs and heartbreak; that can't be avoided. Signs of hope still appear, and when they do they are because of love and human kindness.

Moonlight was the most interesting for that. Structured in three acts, each act has the main character (Chiron) at a different age, played by a different actor, and is titled with a different name that the character is going or has gone by (so not always Chiron but I will refer to him as that for consistency). Early on, Juan (Mahershala Ali in an Oscar-winning performance) tells Chiron that you can't let other people decide who you are. Chiron is called "Little" at the time, and picked on for that, and called another slur that you don't even hear him say, even though you know what it is.

That leads to one of the most frustrating things about the film. Spoilers follow, but they aren't major spoilers for a little while longer, so I will put another notice there.

It feels like all I had heard before seeing the film was about gay sex, and that is what I was asked about after I saw it. That should not have been that big of a deal.

The scene was short, and less graphic than the sex scene in Say Anything, a classic teen film from 1989. It was less graphic than a scene in a PG-13 film I saw last week.

It's not that I can't believe that people got hung up on that; I am familiar with people. I am disturbed at how much was missed by focusing on that.

It is a huge thing that the brief act there was the only intimacy that Chiron had ever experienced. It is a big deal to see how Chiron chooses to embrace masculinity and what he thinks that means, and what life that leads him too. It is tragic.

That tragedy is not separate from a world where people see a nuanced portrayal of how childhood conditions influence adulthood and come away thinking "gay sex".

Here are the things that really stayed with me, and thus the real spoilers.

One really powerful thing for me happened after a confrontation between Chiron's mother and Juan. Juan berates her for her neglect and drug use and she counters that his drug dealing enables her. After that you do not see Juan again. It is not that Chiron never saw Juan again, but the audience does not see it, and that stark cutoff that is felt. Despite all the encouragement and the food and the safe bed when needed, Juan is a part of the bad conditions that hurt Chiron. That limits how much of a positive influence he can be.

It is easy to believe that Juan would never tell Chiron to attack his bully (that was a shocking moment), or want him to become a really pumped drug dealer, but those things happen and by his own life choices Juan has no ability to prevent it.

I also keep coming back to two scenes between Chiron and his mother Paula. In one, she is happy to see him when he arrives home from school and speaks affectionately. He is so shocked, and vulnerably hopeful, but she is really hoping for some cash off of him in pursuit of her next high. (Also, I think she had locked herself out.) I hurt for him, to want that love so badly, and to not be able to get it. That is why the other scene keeps coming back, when she apologizes for not loving him when he needed it.

If I say it was a powerful scene, that sounds like it was a moment of great reconciliation and catharsis. It was more sad. She apologizes, she would like to do better, and he does not reject the apology, but can it be enough? What does enough look like, after all that has happened?

I don't even know, but I want that child to be loved and to feel loved. I want that teenager to be loved and feel loved. Does that mean I want that drug dealer to be loved and to feel it? He needed it more then, or at least maybe he deserved it more, but if he had gotten the love then... and that's what lingers. Sadness, and compassion, and still some hope.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Director spotlight: RYAN COOGLER

Had already seen: Black Panther (2018)
Watched for this: Fruitvale Station (2013), Creed (2015), Locks (short, 2009)
Have not seen: Shorts Fig (2010) and The Sculptor (2011)

Coogler has become one of my favorite directors.

Of course I had already seen Black Panther and written about it in terms of its success as a comic book adaptation, celebration of African culture, and political commentary. I also had some interest in watching Fruitvale Station and would have probably gotten there eventually. But without this, there was no way I was ever going to see Creed.

I have never seen any of the other films in the Rocky franchise, nor have I wanted to. I don't like boxing. A lot of people praise Rocky itself, but indicate that the films go downhill after that. I felt no need.

I really liked Creed.

I may not have seen any of the previous films, but they play enough of a role in pop culture that everyone knows things about them. I appreciated the way the callbacks to the film managed to be original.

It is pretty well known that Rocky's eye got all swollen in the first film, and they had to cut it with a razor. Cringe! Creed started having eye problems in his big fight... uh oh, where is this going? Not there, but they still did have a vision problem and had a creative way of solving it. Creed's training montage reminds you of Rocky's, but it has its own twists.

It is impressive that he has done so well - twice - building on an existing property, as well as adapting something from life. It is more impressive how different each film feels, as well as the different scales. Fruitvale Station is a fairly intimate film and set in Oakland, Coogler's home turf; you would not necessarily guess that he could do so well at creating Wakanda.

He also maintained a good balance of interest and dread with Fruitvale Station, despite knowing the conclusion. When that fatal shot is fired, it is still a shock.

Creed feels sporty; the introductions for the individual boxers helps with that. There is also a deeper theme of motivation and compulsion. All three main characters have things that they need to do and good reasons not to do them, but they still have to. It doesn't overshadow the main arc, but it is emotionally compelling.

In retrospect, seeing the previous films makes Black Panther more impressive, because it is such an increase in scale, but Coogler demonstrated a sure hand. He gets storytelling. That he also has writing credits on each film may give an indication of how he makes things come out right, but it is no guarantee. Having watched his earliest short now, yes, film school has made him better at running things smoothly and making them look good, but his sense of story and empathy for the characters has been there.

There are lots of different ways to make movies and I can appreciate a lot of them. Coming from this, though, I will tend to trust Coogler to take good material and then do good things with it.

I look forward to seeing what he does next.