Peripatetic Postcards

Cool Hand Paul


By now you have all heard that Paul Newman has passed. And, me being too busy or stupified to log a comment am just getting around to paying homage. Since, most of what has already been said -- about Newman's philanthropy, his beauty, his grace, his humility, his political ethos, his sly, understated acting craft -- has been said well enough, I don't need to dwell on that. For those of you looking for more about any of this, The New York Times obit well summarizes his life, and a capsule recap of his key films was posted a day or so ago on the PM site. Those are fine starts if you thirst to know more about the man that was.

But now Mr. Newman is gone and that means, like all passings in our peripatetic world, we experience a dual loss: deprived of one less human voice, while being reminded once more of our inexorable evanescence.

These are proximately insoluble outcomes; yet, they serve to remind us, as well, of ultimate things: one of which is just why art exists; precisely why do humans produce things of intelligence, wit, courage, inspiration, hope, meaning -- tangible entities that they might leave behind. If much of it is the vanity of being remembered, some of the rest of it is to move people, and whatever remainder there might be is aimed at conveying something of value to generations to come.

Now, I know that it is "only" film, but among Mr. Newman's contributions in this regard, was one that I often use in the classroom: his 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke. It is the perfect film for courses where talk centers on the tension between society and humans, where our goal is to get at the clash between the forces that Marxists have labeled "structure" and "action". Luke -- along with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Ikiru are still the best on the subject that one can find in any film library or video rental shop. In earlier eras, perhaps professors would have called on Mister Smith Goes to Washington, Born Yesterday, or Mister Roberts. But, by Newman's day, times had changed. Appreciation for the depredations visited on compliant, everyday folk by "the system" had already begun creeping into American consciousness, and the just loner who wouldn't swallow one more spoonful from a corrupt and/or overbearing "moral order" had already taken root as a laudable role-model. As Roger Ebert notes in his original review,

With this film, Newman completes a cycle of five films over six years, and together they have something to say about the current status of heroism.

For the record, those other films were "The Hustler", "Hud", "Harper", and "Hombre". Whether they all painted an identical, or at least fully consistent, portrait of the hero is doubtful, but certainly in Luke America found an icon. Recalcitrant, obdurate, warm, shrewd, quiet, a bit self-absorbed, but oddly, communally-conscious. You can't call Luke jaded -- not like Sam Spade -- but Luke knows the score. He understands that whatever setting he enters, it is a structured environment, an iron vise, a throttling machine; it certainly won't be a fair fight. Every new context is another box, controlled by "bosses" who exert their petty agendas over whoever they can bully in order to achieve their picayune victories that might stroke their base egos.

That self-justificatory blather is bullshit. Luke knows that. And doesn't care. It is because he knows all that -- because he understands that every scene that he is forced to take a role in is a pre-written script: contrived to enable the boss to wield his blackjack -- that will spur him to rebel. Not because he doesn't care, but rather because it is the nature of the game. The inherent asymmetry of every game: there are always bosses pitching their shovels at your skull and cracking their canes across your spine. The only certainty is that the blows will come, so why even trouble pretending that that bell won't toll, that judgment can be forestalled? Judgment will come, and you will be broken.

At some point you will be broken.

Because that is the nature of bosses, it is the nature of the script that has already been written; a script which ensures that those in charge will enforce the asymmetry of the psychodrama.

The key is what happens after. Not in the afterlife; but in the aftermath of enforcement. The time after they break you. Or try . . .

And the answer is: your reaction will be no different than the time that the boss of the prisoners challenged you to go toe to toe. Did you say: "oh, I'm not big enough to take on Dragline"? No, you still gave him a match. And when you didn't have any cards to win that round of poker? Didn't you still say: "kick a buck" with each new card until you were all in? And when no one believed that anyone could eat 50 eggs? Wasn't it you who said: "I can eat 50 eggs"? And in how long? Why, didn't you brazenly declare: "in one hour!"?

Does the audience truly believe that all of this rebelliousness is simply, as Luke says, because it "would be something to do"? Not hardly. It is because of where we are and who we are. It is because the bosses think it is necessary to lock us in the box the weekend of our mother's funeral -- that is precisely why, after the funeral, after they release us from the box -- we will go rabbit on them. Because the bosses saw fit to play the role that they, in their myopic, self-centered aggrandizement, were only too happy to play.

Our bosses.

This explains why we entered the military as a buck private, became decorated war heros, and exited the military as . . . buck privates; it explains why we cut those heads off the parking meters that landed us on the prison farm; and it explains why, after they hunt us down and deliver their final solution, that light in the intersection finally stops flashing red and turns green.

And, most of all, it explains why, in the final frames Dragline wears those double chains with pride and makes damn sure that no one in captivity forgets our exploits . . . or our engaging, ever-hopeful smile.

As Dragline intones in the final frame:

"Cool Hand Luke -- hell! He was a natural born world-shaker!"

For a society to return to where it once was is as impossible as it is fool-hearty. That certainly was one lesson of Afghanistan under the Taliban. However, it is also the case that societies reach a moment when it is clear that their present models of nobility and achievement are less satisfactory than those lodged in the past. There is something of that in the current moment. It might be Hollywood's fault, who knows? But we are in a stage of the heroic cycle where the solution to problems is a physical gesture rather than words -- action rather than cogitation -- and more often than not that gesture is an invasion of a sovereign territory -- if not a swift kick in the groin.

How did that become heroic? Actually (and ironically) it may have been Paul Newman who helped usher in that era, as this scene from Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid makes clear:

A regrettable development. For, although that scene is a delight in isolation, its greater role in the evolution of American heroism may have helped steer us off course. For what our societies require today is more of Luke and a lot less of The Dark Knight or Iron Man. Or even -- for that matter -- (and for all his maverick bluster), politicians like John McCain.

One thing I know for certain, we could use a lot more Paul Newmans . . .

An actor for the ages; whose Luke was a model for the ensnared individual, struggling to survive in the smothering organizational order enveloping us.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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