Sterling Hayden: An Appreciation

One of the most influential books in my youth was Sterling Hayden’s autobiography: Wanderer.  For a young writer restless to get out of the confines of college and into the “real” world, his life’s story was an inspiration of boot-strapped pluck, luck, and determination to find some meaning on the deep blue sea. That he was a leading man during Hollywood’s Golden Era, married to starlets, called before the Communist witch-hunts of the House Un-American Committee, then revived in  the 60s and 70s as an actor’s actor in Dr. Strangelove and the Godfather was mere trim and icing on a life spent before the mast on a Gloucester fishing schooner and tall ships. Sterling Hayden was the real deal, a manly man who deserves a revival.

Hayden wrote two books: Wanderer is still in print and a very worthwhile read. His one and only novel, Voyage: A Novel of 1896 is out of print, but worth tracking down from a used bookstore. It is one of the better maritime novels on my bookshelf. As for his films, other than Strangelove and Godfather, his other big contemporary film was The Long Goodbye. His early stuff — beginning in 1941 after he was discovered by Hollywood on the deck of a Gloucester schooner because of some newsreel footage shot at the annual schooner races in Boston — is pretty obscure, B-movie stuff. He hated the studio system which cast him as a pretty boy/beefcake but he put up with it to finance his expensive tastes in wives and boats. Hayden was a self-admitted bad actor.

He spent World War II in the OSS, working behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia with Marshal Tito’s band of resistance guerrillas fighting Nazis. That built some admiration for the Communists which got him into hot water after the war during the Hollywood witch hunts, a period in his life he long regretted after he uncharacteristically named names.

I met him once, in Sausalito, California in the early 80s, shortly before his death in 1986, when I was tending bar in San Francisco and writing as the Bay Area stringer for Soundings, a weekly boating newspaper. I read a profile of his first mate, Spike Africa, in the San Francisco Chronicle, learned Hayden was in Sausalito and tracked him down. I was 22 and the two interviews I had with him were my first experience with true hero worship. I never wrote the profile, the editors at Sounding weren’t interested and I was too flaky to freelance the piece elsewhere, a mistake I kick myself for.

There is a great appreciation of Hayden, the sailor and writer, by Captain Paul Watson at Sea Shepherd International’s blog. I’ll borrow his quote of Hayden’s because it was the kind of sentiment that fired me up as a confused and rudderless young sophmore:

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”

– Sterling Hayden

Bluefin: interesting media analytics

Show me the word “analytics” in an ad and I instantly grow cynical for word feels like the refuge of the desperate trying to sell the great white whale of ROI to the tight-fisted.

Dan Lyons calls out a very very interesting technology coming out of the MIT Media Lab for correlating social chatter and user utterances with television programming. This company, Bluefin Labs, strikes a strong chord given my past interest into the role of the “back channel” among fans during televised real-time events: Red Sox games, State of the Union Addresses, the Academy Awards.

This TedTalk from 2011, by Bluefin’s founder Deb Roy, is interesting on several levels. First, it exhibits an amazing demo of data collection and analysis — in this case video footage and audio clips shot throughout his home and then processed to track the progress of his baby learning how to speak the word “water,” mapped against the context of where and when the word was learned (bathroom, near the kitchen sink, etc.). This capture model has amazing implications in terms of building an amazing “life record” and brought to mind the efforts of people like Gordon Bell’s MyLifeBits project at Microsoft and Stephen Wolfram’s personal analytics analysis of his email history. I freak out when I see an old Super 8 movie of myself waddling around in sagging diaper circa 1959 at Cotuit Rope’s Beach. Imagine being able to see myself take my first steps, say “water”, etc.?

The interesting kicker to Roy’s personal experiment is the commercial application and the ability to map the Twitterverse and Social Graph to mass media events. If I was a media planner or TV stats wonk, I’d be freaking over this stuff from Bluefin.


Movie of the week: Malina

It’s been a while since I’ve stood up and walked out of a movie, but last night I simply had to.

The New York Museum of Modern Art film society has generally been a can’t-miss-proposition for feeding my art film habits, but last night’s showing of Werner Schroeter‘s Malina was a big disappointment.

I’m a fan of German cinema, but Schroeter, who passed away in 2010, was a new auteur for me and one I looked forward to exploring. Malina, however, was not the best introduction.

The film stars French actress Isabel Huppert. It consists of an interminable number of non sequitur scenes about the nature of madness with Huppert, a writer-academic, smoking cigarettes and behaving irritably at a typewriter and in a bed with one of two men. One of those men, Malina, lurks around the edges and in the hallways of a big Vienna apartment. The other, Ivan, cuddles with her in bed and issues proclamations about hands, fire, and letters. This user review on IMDB says it best:

“Malina is incredibly complex drama on the nature of insanity and to watch it, especially in the beginning, is quite a labour. A woman believes that she is a writer and all her men are fruits of her ill consciousness or personages of her unwritten book or alter egos of her split imagination. And episode after episode her consciousness keeps deteriorating more and more but the end breaks everything once again so all that was happening comes up in absolutely different light and changes its meaning. Malina is an anagram of ‘animal’ and it isn’t accidental but symbolic to the entire surrealistic content of the film. Malina is unique and utterly fabulous movie having many layers of narration and visualization.”

I made it two-thirds of the way, but lack of dinner had me squirming, and when about a dozen other film goers got up and strolled out, I too made my way to the door. This is from me, the guy who can sit through six hours of Satantango.

I can’t call it the worst movie ever, but if I wanted to torment someone, Malina would make the list. I composed a review in my mind during some of the weirder disconnected scenes and marvelled that a medium that gave the world Porky’s 3: Revenge can also give us Schroeter.


Artsy Movie of the Week: Tatsumi

The Museum of Modern Art’s film society presented the US premier of Tatsumi last night as part of its ContemporAsian film series. This is an animated biography/animation of the life and word of Japanese “cartoonist” and manga pioneer, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, who led the movement in the late 1950s to move Japanese manga out of the realm of children’s comics to the art form now recognized as long form graphic novels.

I was into comics about as much as the next kid, but never really geeked out over them and have never been drawn to Japanese manga or anime. Speed Racer was about as much as I could take.

The film, directed by Singapore director Eric Khoo, intersperses a animated biography of Tasumi (based on Tatsumi’s autobiography, A Drifting Life) from his childhood during World War II through his life in the post-war 50s and the economic explosion of the 70s with animated versions of his “novels”, a form he invented and dubbed gekiga,  or “dramatic pictures.” There were five stories retold in the film. The first was a very heavy story about a young photographer who snaps a picture of a shadow of a son comforting his mother at the instant the bomb went off over Hiroshima, baking their silhouette into a wrecked wall. There was a terrible tale of a factory worker who lives alone with a pet monkey, loses his arm in a machine accident, and decides to free the monkey by dropping it into the monkey cage at the zoo, only to watch in horror as the zoo monkeys tear it to shreds. A story of a post-war whore who takes up with a GI and performs drunken incest with her father. A failed manga artist who decides to move from children’s stories to porn and is caught drawing lewd grafitti on the wall of a public toilet (lots of vomit and poo in that one). A retiree who hates his wife and wants to go out with a bang by having one last love affair but winds up being impotent when he gets his chance …..

This was heavy stuff. Some of the audience would get up and walk out towards the end when things got particularly heavy. But most of the audience was composed of Japanese ex-pats, and my sense was Tatsumi is a very good story teller with a penchant for getting into the complex post-war Japanese zeitgeist in a way an American can never really understand. Good film. Glad I went. Made me uncomfortable, choked me up, and I loved the blend of biography and fiction.

Having been to Japan a grand total of two times, I can barely claim to understand the culture, but Tatsumi seemed to confirm, in a bleak way, my darkest projections of what life must have been in that fascinating society in the days following the nuclear explosions through the astonishing rebirth as a world power; all told across the span of one man’s life.


Ben Gazzara 1930-2012: Killing of a Chinese Bookie

While walking in midtown last week my partner and I started talking about my addiction to art and independent film. “Like Cassavetes?” he remarked. Well, sort of, I mean I know I’m supposed to honor John Cassavetes as the godfather of independent film in America, but I have tended to put him in the box he built for himself with his acting roles in The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby. Last night I rented his 1976 film, Killing of a Chinese Bookie and settled down to watch his one and only gangster movie, one destined to live on in the Criterion Collection.

When I was finished I ran the star’s name through Wikipedia — Ben Gazzara — one of those iconic character actors of the 60s and 70s that I thought I knew so well but ultimately didn’t until I watched Bookie.

I was also surprised and sad to learn Gazzara died last month, February 2012.

from the Criterion Collection

I’m not one to judge if Gazzara’s crowning achievement was Killing of a Chinese Bookie, nor am I familiar enough with Cassavetes to declare it his masterpiece. But the film came relatively late in their careers (Cassavetes died in the 80s at 59 from cirrhosis of the liver) and was a commercial flop thanks to the beating it took at the hands of the critics.

Forty years later and I was riveted. It is the simple story of a preening strip club owner, Cosmo Vitelli,  who finally gets out of debt, pays off the shylocks, then celebrates with his trio of loyal strippers by blowing $23,000 at a mob owned gambling club only to slide back into the hell of indebtedness. The gangsters (beautifully and quirkily played long before Scorcese borrowed them for Good Fellas and Casino and Jim Jarmusch in Ghost Dog) give Gazzara an option to erase his debt. Kill a Chinese bookie in Chinatown.

Cassavetes was not one for action scenes and bang-bang sequences, but he nails it during the assassination of the bookie and the resulting mess as the original gangsters try to rub out Vitelli. The art of the film is inside of the Crazy Horse West club, a Fellinesque (the most cliche adjective in film writing) setting of grotesque nudity and humor delivered by the awesome Mister Sophistication, a louche, sad, emcee that some critics say is Cassavetes himself, in all his artistic despair. Remember, Cassavetes acted in B-movies to make the money to make his art films: shooting them over several years when he could afford to, casting his friends and wife (Gena Rowlands) with no promise of payment, and paying for them out of his own pocket rather than take on an investor who might demand changes.

John Cassavetes from Wikipedia

Phillip Lopate wrote a great appreciation of the movie in the Criterion Collection’s online film blog, Current.


Film o’ the week: Niki and Flo

Once more I exercised my Museum of  Modern Art Film Society membership and caught a more-or-less free flick in the basement theater last night. It was a worthwhile two hours spent in the dark and was followed by a 15 minute video interview with the director.

The film was Niki and Flo (Niki Ardelean, colonel în rezerva), directed  by Romanian director Lucian Pintilie and released in 2003. Without straying into spoiler territory, I will say this has one of the more stunning endings I’ve seen in a long while, a surprise that had me and the rest of the audience a bit dumbstruck when the closing credits started rolling. I heard a few “whoa’s” as the shock sank in.

[The review of Niki and Flo]

Surprises aside, the film is the story of a retired Romanian Army Colonel, Niki Ardelean, his wife, their daughter, son-in-law and in-laws. The film opens on April 1, 2011 and concludes six months later. It opens with the funeral of the Colonel’s son, a clarinet player who died senselessly while changing a blown fuse with wet hands.

Flo is Florian, the father-in-law, a hyper bohemian who darts around in contrast to the Colonel’s exhausted state of post-Communist retirement, videotaping weddings and funerals and loudly delivering his opinions. Flo’s slapstick, physical comedy had the audience nervously laughing during the funeral scene when he had the pall bearers open and close the coffin of the Colonel’s dead son several times so he could tape the perfect shot. But those comedy teases were erased by the mounting sadness of the Colonel and his wife, first grieving over the loss of one child, and then again as their newly married daughter made plans to leave for America and more opportunity.

The film is about the Colonel’s dispossession at the hands of Flo. He loses control over every detail of his life. From organizing the flowers at the funeral, to Flo’s “confiscation” of the newlyweds belongings as they move to America, to senseless political arguments about the role of the military … Flo eats away at every aspect of the Colonel’s dignity.

Filmed mostly in cramped Romanian apartment interiors, Pintilie’s background as a theatrical director gives the film the feeling of a play, and indeed, in the interview that followed, Pintilie explained his theory of film in light of Milan Kundera’s (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) theories from The Art of the Novel, that the purpose of story in art is to expose the possibilities that surround the story, to condense and expose through ellipsis.

Whenever I find myself exposed to Eastern European film, I can’t help but try to impose a layer of post-communism to the experience. Santatango is about a loss of structure and identity after the Communist failure. Ulysses Gaze is heavy handed in its unforgettable shot of an immense toppled statue of Lenin being barged down the Danube with Harvey Keitel along for the ride.

Niki and Flo is only tangentially about post-Communist Romania. Pintilie says that critical interpretations of Flo’s tyranny as a metaphor for the country’s Communist dictator,  Nicolae Ceau?escu are off the mark.

Here’s the film in its entirety on YouTube:

Film in the City: The Return

As I work and live (three days a week) in one of the better art movie cities in the world — NYC — and because my apartment and office are literally behind the Museum of Modern Art and a 15 minute walk from Lincoln Center, I paid my money and joined the MoMA and Lincoln Center Film Societies (2 separate memberships) with the intention of taking full advantage of their incredible independent and art movie offerings in the evenings. Two weeks ago the Lincoln ran a retrospective of Bela Tarr’s work, including a Superbowl Sunday viewing of the seven-hour wonder, Satantango. I hoped to see his latest, and allegedly final film, The Turin Horse, but it is only being shown at 2:50 pm these days and I can’t break away from work.

Keep in mind that nearly all of the art film I’ve seen over the years has been on monitors and televisions and not the big screens they were shot for by their directors. The opportunity to see some of this work in a theater is too good to pass up.

I joined the museum’s film society online, paid an extra fee for the film membership, and received a spiffy membership card with a picture of Dave the Astronaut from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I check the film society schedule and book a free ticket online and then collect it at the film desk on 53rd St. for nothing more than a $1 handling fee. I haven’t paid $1 for a flick since college when the competing film societies on the Yale campus engaged in a shooting war for audiences.

Last night I saw Liza Johnson‘s first feature length film, The Return, at MoMA:

The heroine, Kelli, played with quiet, stunned anger  by Linda Cardenelli (Freaks and Geeks), returns to her husband and two children after a deployment with the National Guard to some unnamed warzone.  Hair tied into a severe military knot, she stands bewildered in an American airport looking for a familiar face until she’s startled by a sudden hug from her daughter. Her husband, a plumber played by Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Boardwalk Empire) has been minding the children and holding things together while she was overseas. Awkward hugs, smiles, laughs, homecoming parties and sex all follow in predictable course, but throughout Kelli is alienated, a stranger trying to ease back into familiar surroundings.

The film is set in some nondescript upstate mill town, all patched potholes and plywood windowed carpet stores, brake shops and abandoned factories. Around it all is a gorgeous fall season of changing leaves tossed by sussurating winds, distant purple hills and placid lakes. The radio and television is always blaring something banal — callers who ate 15 cupcakes, blooper videos of old ladies slipping and falling — and Kelli’s job stapling together heating ducts is waiting for her, the same job she’s held for 12 years.

She goes on a bender, quits the job, discovers the husband cheating, and gets arrested for drunk driving.  Husband moves out, takes the kids, and she ends up in a court ordered rehab where she meets silver-haired Mad Man John Slattery, a salty substance abusing fellow vet who empathizes with her and takes her to his Waldenesque cabin in the woods for lovemaking on the couch and the offer of a line of ground up hillbilly heroin.

The Return is a grim, careful film with a few flashes of thin lipped humor. There were a lot of parallels to my favorite French-Belgium realists, the Dardenne Brothers, specialists in the tedium-and-quiet-despair-in-a-northern-town genre. The cinematography by Anne Etheridge is remarkable and adores the autumn color contrast with the dingy town.

A thoughtful film about the American decline, the loss of uphill traction by the middle class, and the lonely fight of one soldier against opponents she can’t see.



Rowing and the Social Network

I thought The Social Network was a great movie. I loved it and thought the casting, acting, writing and directing were superb. I especially thought the movie nailed the sport of rowing — as personified by the Winklevoss brothers, the 2008 Beijing Olympic oarsmen who thought they had hired Mark Zuckerberg to code their concept for a social network, only to sue him for going off on his own with their idea to launch Facebook.

I’d seen the Winklevoss’ row under assumed names at the C.R.A.S.H.-B sprints, the world indoor rowing championship, when they were still undergraduates at Harvard — probably 20o3-2005.  College rowers entered the competition under bogus names and club affiliations I think because of some NCAA/Ivy League rules against formal team competition. Whatever. They are big names in contemporary rowing, mainly because of their Olympic participation and Harvard’s position in the rowing world.

Row2K is running a great series by Dan Boyne, author and director of recreational sculling at Harvard’s Weld Boathouse. He staged the rowing scenes for the film and has a good insiders account of how he tried to make the point that the average elite rower cannot deliver a witty line penned by Aaron Sorkin while rowing full power in a race, let alone a word as they struggle to get their next gasp of oxygen.  The initial scene depicting a race in pairs (two-man shells which the Winklevii competed in at Shunyi, during the 2008 Olympic Games) is well rowed, but again, you can’t talk in a boat. Not while racing.

The Henley scene where the twins row in the Harvard eight and lose to the Dutch is very well done.

Rowing has a long history of appearing and being massacred in the movies. From the title sequence of the old George Peppard detective series Banachek, to some bizarre depictions such as Rob Lowe proving that you can perform boat repairs in the middle of a race and still win or various green screen weirdness that shows some hapless actor trying to ape a motion that takes years to perfect.

Two good lists of rowing and film are Rabbit’s Rowing in Film and Row2K’s feature.

My favorite rowing/film story was told to me by people who will go unnamed who rowed at the University of Washington in the late 197os. A director arrived seeking to film an after-school special about a rower who falls in love with his handicapped coxswain.  The director wanted to capture “the true essence” of the sport, and hired my two friends to help stage the rowing scenes, including any post-race festivities they might traditionally indulge in. My friend suggested that a local Seattle tavern be rented — a total dive — and convinced the director to film the “EMFBO” cheer — Every Man For Better Oarsmanship — when indeed the acronym stood for two utterly obscene phrases which I will not repeat here.

The director liked the noble sound of EMFBO and had big banners made to hang around the tavern. I cannot find the title of the film, but take it on good faith that it exists, somewhere.

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