Mad Max: Fury Road

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Crazy nonsense with little redeeming value. Made for eighth grade boys and girls who don’t see there is a weak plot, weak subplot, weak dialogue, and ludicrous circus characters. Vestal virgins (breeders) wearing white scarves that hardly get dirty. White chalked natives banging drums following some voodoo leader. I was never so happy to see Max knock off the guitar player.

Okay, I’ll stop.

I went to the cinema because it seemed like EVERYONE loved this movie, and I felt I was missing out on a cultural phenomenon. What was bizarre was the audience who watched alongside me. I thought I entered the wrong theater. Why on earth were 50s, 60s, and 70-year-olds watching this? No evidence they were taking their grands to see it–again. And then I realized. Once, we sat together mesmerized by Star Wars IV, all those years ago.

I was in eighth grade when Star Wars IV came out. I sat the entire summer, it seemed, raving and re-watching the film. I was bamboozled with the technology and the music and the fast paced action scenes. Even though the plot was simple and the dialogue weak, I was transported to another world that seemed foreign yet recognizable. Princess Leia could fight like a man. It was her story, yet she still needed protecting and she begrudgingly fell in love with a brute who grunted and could hardly form a sentence. “I love you.” “I know.”  Wait, that’s coming in the next film. And rest assured there will be more Mad Max films to follow. Probably eight of them.

So what did I like about the film?

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It’s a welcome sight to see kick-ass older women. Hell, I wanted to be one of them, riding my motorcycle in the Outback, camping under the stars. Let me plant some seeds. Who needs men, anyway?

I liked the impending sand storm. The mucky crow world. The salt flats especially at night, glowing under a star-popping, satellite-dropping sky.

Tom Hardy has nice lips.

Charlize Theron has beautiful bone structure. She reminded me of the unfortunate result when a middle school bully gets a hold of his little sister’s Barbie doll and goes to town. If it weren’t for her presence in the film, I might have walked out and caught the last half of Far From the Madding Crowd. I loved Charlize in the film.

There was very little CGI. Thank you. The gritty, revved up camera action was effective and connected it to the original Mad Max.

I liked Max’s haunting daughter who slaps him into action.

The pole swinging warriors. The car on top of the tank.

Like my simple sentences and fragmented thoughts, that’s what I experienced. The energy rush. The assault on the senses. The stunts were cool. Nothing deep.

Sometimes what you need is perfect escapism. I know I felt that way when I watched Star Wars IV. 

All that was missing in Fury Road was a John Williams score.

Memorial Day Weekend

Did you know that Memorial Day in the United States was originally called Decoration Day and originated for Civil War soldiers? For many decades after the Civil War, northern and southern states honored their fallen soldiers separately. The service changed after World War I to Memorial Day and included all fallen soldiers who served in the U.S. military.  In 1971, Congress designated the service as a national, 3 day holiday weekend. Since then, it has expanded to signify the beginning of summer fun. On American television this weekend, you can re-watch countless war movies. While spending time with family and friends is valuable, it is crucial to remember what the holiday is truly about.

Like Mother Like Daughter

Navy boot camp graduation–like mother like daughter

As a history teacher, I spend a lot of time discussing the cause and effects of war and its ramifications to individuals, families, communities, and nations. Today, I would like to share that I am part of a long military tradition. I am a member of the DAR whose ancient relative was a drummer boy in the Revolutionary War. Another relative was a Colonel and Civil War doctor. My step-father served in the Korean War as a UDT for the Navy. My father served in Vietnam. My ex and I served in the Navy. My niece, nephew, and daughter served in the Navy. Fortunately, we all came out of our tours of duty relatively unscathed until my son. For the Army, he served two tours in Iraq and was involved in a hummer crash. As a parent, seeing him and other wounded warriors at the Walter Reed Hospital in Maryland and the Richmond, VA brain trauma facility was humbling and excruciating.

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In a coma for a week, his left side was battered.

This weekend I am not listening to controversy and the trend of the media to swim in the gray waters of governmental condemnation. This weekend, I thank my son, and all the wounded warriors. I thank those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. While it is nice we sit comfortably in our recliners watching war movies on television or throwing our Frisbee at the picnic or attending ball games and celebrating the beginning of summer, it is most important we pay homage to our fallen soldiers.

My son at Walter Reed with his daughter after one of many surgeries

My son at Walter Reed with his daughter after one of many surgeries

While it is worrisome and depressing to focus upon the tragedies and futility of engaging war, it is also a fact our freedom for which we enjoy today comes to us with a precious price tag. I am grateful to the wounded warriors and those soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for my behalf. I highly recommend watching the annual Memorial Day commemoration on national television set in Washington D.C. It’s hosted every year by Gary Sinese and is a moving experience.

1975: Barry Lyndon

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Thanks to TOM  Tom and  MARK  who are hosting a mid-decade blogathon and allowing me to contribute. I selected the bewildering Stanley Kubrick film epic, Barry Lyndon, not because it was the easiest film to watch in 1975–One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won Best Film at the Oscars–but rather Barry Lyndon has had many a movie viewer scratching their heads and wondering what to say about it. When I think of Barry Lyndon, I think of wine lovingly created from Pinot noir grapes. To appreciate the film is an acquired taste that takes time and patience. In other words, when I watched it in my teens, I was bored. I still couldn’t appreciate it in my twenties or thirties. Now, I see the beauty, feel the sophistication, and marvel at the mastery of Stanley Kubrick.

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Won: Best Set Design, Costumes, Score, Cinematography; Nominated: Best Director, Film, Adapted Screenplay

Why It is Great 

If you are fond of period pieces, Kubrick showcases the European, eighteenth century class structure. For the protagonist Barry Lyndon, all that mattered was improving his station to the rank of gentleman by any means possible. It was this ambition to circulate among the gentry that propelled his actions and the plot. Barry Lyndon rises as an Irish nobody to rubbing elbows with the aristocracy. His time in the British and Prussian armies show the servitude of its soldiers. Scoundrels rob coaches and horsemen. Widows and single mothers wonder how best to feed their children. The poor are hunched over and exhausted. The rich with powdered wigs and beauty marks sit in opulent galleries bored or playing cards and gossiping. Kubrick’s subtlety for demonstrating class divisions by painting a cinematographic portrait is perfect. The costumes, their props, chandeliers, fountains, and manicured grounds are breathtaking.

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The film is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Kubrick stages and frames each shot with meticulous care. The beauty of the rolling hills of Ireland and England, the manorial estates, the duels, the military formations, the positioning of periphery people from each class is orchestrated. Now add the period music which is selected to enhance a transition or the mood of the scene. The viewer is privy to a ballet of poise and symmetry. I would not be surprised to learn Wes Anderson, who employs similar staging in his films, is heavily influenced by Stanley Kubrick. It is why I love Wes Anderson films.

The Narrator 

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Michael Hordern. He had the warm, buttery voice of the quintessential British gentleman. He was a character actor you might remember in Where Eagles Dare (1968) or as the Admiral in Gandhi (1982). His voice represented all things having to do with the British canon. I remember him in the 80s animated series of The Wind and the Willows as the Badger and the voice of The Wise Man in The Labyrinth. In Barry Lyndon, his voice had an interesting role in the film.

Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray's novel into the screenplay.

Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray’s novel into the screenplay.

The adapted screenplay neatly divides the story with the narrator telling us how to interpret events and how to feel about Barry Lyndon. This approach reduces Barry to a puppet of fate and the audience is distanced from his internal thoughts. The narration also conveys key information which feels invasive. Notice how the narrator’s relationship with Barry Lyndon changes from Act I to Act II. He introduces our protagonist like an uncle who knows too much and gives away too much. By the end of the second act, he refers to him as Barry, and the formality is gone. We have traveled along with Lyndon during his escapades and are exhausted as though we parented a juvenile delinquent and don’t know how much of the blame resides with us. The narrator mimics the stuffy verbiage of British literature from the 1800s while discussing events which occurred in the 1700s. It’s a Victorian tale in love with the Romantic period. In 1975, mainstream audiences passed it by for more modern tales like Shampoo and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 

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Act II is more interesting than Act I because of the parallel construction of Barry and his stepson, Lord Bullington. Jealousy, betrayal, and revenge spark up dramatic tension. The saintly younger son, Bryan, brings out the best in Barry Lyndon while Bullington brings out the worst. There is moral ambiguity running through the story echoed by the narrator. Do you like Barry? Does Barry’s corrupted soul bring about his demise? Is a he a pawn of fate?

For me, the weakness of the film is the arm’s-length distance the viewer has with Barry Lyndon.  This distance is exemplified by the reversal of shots in the cinematography. Frequently, the shot begins as a close up and withdraws to the wide angle long shot and stays there. The upside would be to show Barry is lost in the big picture and unable to control his destiny. Clever. But the downside is that the distance keeps me disengaged. Perhaps it is the fault of Ryan O’Neill whose acting is wooden and his passive wife, Lady Lyndon, played by Marisa Berenson, is numb throughout? Maybe it’s because the film is 3 hours and 7 minutes long that has one looking for the ending before it happens? Epics are hard to watch. However, notice how the emotional peaks are connected around physical expressions varying from kissing, duels, whippings, fights, and bodily mutilations.

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Stanley Kubrick’s wish to film using natural light to create a pre-electric world had him searching for lenses that were fast enough to capture the candlelit interior shots. He found his solution at NASA and was able to authenticate the natural world of the 1700s. I respect him for that. You can read more about his lenses HERE.

Do you think Barry Lyndon is Kubrick’s under appreciated masterpiece?

Fritz Lang and Weimar Berlin

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A large part of time spent writing about the past is researching with hopes of authenticating the historical climate. I get lost in the learning and have to nudge myself to get on with the writing.  “Inside the Gold Plated Pistol” begins with George Hero who finds himself in Berlin, 1922, succumbing to the corruptible effects of opium and the cabaret nightlife. There are three strands from the Weimar era I’m stressing in the first third of the manuscript. First, Berlin was a mechanized, stimulating, indecorous urban center. Second, director Fritz Lang was a key pioneer of German Expressionism in the film industry. Be my guest and read last summer’s post about German Expressionism HERE.  Finally, some veterans epitomized by Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” resorted to the corrupting effects of opium, reckless behavior, and Lustmord  as a reaction to the horrors of World War I.

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Last summer I visited Berlin, and that helps me today, but several neighborhoods and sections of 1922 Berlin were obliterated during the bombing of WWII. For accurately creating the historical climate, I turned to the 1927 silent film, Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, an impressive composition about urban life during the Weimar Republic. Before the catastrophe of Nazism, Berlin was a mechanized, modern center of Europe. With subways, canals, taxis, factories, and elevators, Walther Ruttmann began his film with the sunrise, and clocks chronicled the day of Berliners. How did they labor? How did they play? What did they eat, and what did they wear? While watching a day in the life of 1927, I am reminded of ordinary occurrences that are extinct today. Toddlers and children played outside with very little supervision. Milk was delivered to your home in bottles. On the corner of intersections, newsies sold newspapers for five cents, and policemen directed traffic.  Horses still competed with cars and trolleys for the use of the street. Men pushed brooms while women beat the dust out of their rugs. Water was pitched on front steps for a daily scrubbing. Reports were typed and letters were written. People shared rotary phones and were restricted to booths and cords. These details seem meaningless, but they are vital when recreating the time period.

If you get a chance to watch the silent film below, notice how the score by Edmund Meisel aligns with the hustle and downtime of the city. The effect–Berlin was a living, breathing entity. If you missed my post about last summer’s trip to Germany, you can read about Munich and BERLIN HERE.

 Fritz Lang 

My character George will stumble into Fritz Lang’s world and become involved with the making of Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922). What’s happening to George’s psyche mirrors the country’s neuroses displayed visually in Lang’s film and substantiated by Otto Friedrich’s account of Berlin during the Weimar Republic, Before the Deluge. So, how wild were those cabarets? For descriptions of the venue, the clientele, and street addresses, Mel Gordon’s Voluptuous Panic was an eye-popper.

From all of this, George Hero emerges from my imagination, and here’s how the manuscript opens:

 “He reached for the hand that was not there with an ache to grab his thumb, trace the outline of his fingers, or scrape off a lengthy fingernail. In his mind he made a fist and punched the face of the skittish private who had misfired. Other times he gouged the brown eyes with long lashes staring vacant at him. Out of the shadows the sun poured into the cabin car and George squinted out the window as the train arrived at the Berlin station. The information board read: January 16, 1921. 13:00. The steam escaped from the train with a whoosh, and the iron wheels groaned to a halt. George stepped onto the platform. Dimly, he realized since his discharge, he had roamed without forethought. At first, he was reluctant to return to Chicago to his parents after the war, because he discovered many women in France were widows and attracted to him. With his pitiful command of French and their few words of English, it was easier to communicate with smiles and sympathetic fingers. Especially if she had children by her side. They looked up at the stump at his right wrist, and their eyes filled with curiosity and disgust. He wrapped the wound with clean bandages during the day and at night massaged the stretched, shiny skin.” 

Hier endet meine Update.  Okay, back to the writing.

Be Back Soon

J.W. Waterhouse  Miranda, The Tempest, 1916

J.W. Waterhouse
Miranda, The Tempest, 1916

Pardon me for several weeks. I’m finalizing the first draft of my second novel, “Inside the Gold Plated Pistol”.

Take care, Cindy

Masochism

Georgia O'Keefe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV, 1930

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-the-Pulpit IV, 1930

There’s a secret spot in the brain, an endorphin-rich place many humans try to enter. It is a dangerous location dividing two sides of psychological states: drive and fortitude on the sunny side and the murky, ruinous side of masochism and martyrdom. Whether you are a writer or reader or observer of films, these characters who are on a quest for the ultimate mental escape, catch us, and pull us along for the ride. They have something to share about the human condition. Will they triumph or will they fall? The pleasure/pain principle is human nature’s most fascinating oxymoron. Some live it; almost all of us are entertained by it.

The Artist  
Natalie Portman, The Black Swan, 2010

Natalie Portman in The Black Swan, 2010

I admire the performing arts. The symmetry, the composition, and the spectacular lengths artists make it look and sound effortless garners awe. What’s the price an artist will pay to be the best? The rigors of practice and the dedicated focus to be perfect requires an atypical lifestyle where time and schedule are aligned for one purpose–to exist only for art. The Black Swan is one of my favorite psychological thrillers. The stress Nina Sayers struggles with as she strives to be perfect is an example of masochism. How does she achieve perfection? She has to let go of her bodily self and transcend to that secret spot where she becomes the black swan, Odile, and is no longer Nina, the good white swan, Odette.  Darren Aronofsky told a similar story–opposite societal arena–starring Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (2008). Both films depict the extent to which an artist will transcend to the art form they worship.

Damien Chazelle's Whiplash (2014)

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash (2014) is a tale about the sadomasochistic relationship of character Miles Teller and his mentor, Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons who won the Oscar as his manipulative old-school instructor. Miles needed the task-master to push him to greatness. He couldn’t be the next Buddy Rich without the abuse. By the end of the story, the boy transcends into a man and the power struggle shifts to an exciting conclusion. The dynamic duo and the gorgeous jazz easily made Whiplash one of my favorite films of the year.

Transcendence via Sex
Lars Von Trier, 1996,  Breaking the Waves

Lars von Trier, 1996, Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves (1996) is an odd film set in Scotland starring Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård. Bess is Calvinist and pure of heart while Jan is an atheist oil-rigger. Her love for her husband extends to great limits most of us wouldn’t venture, for he becomes incapacitated and wants her to have sex with others and describe the details to keep their union whole. Her devout relationship with God affects her rationale, and she concedes, convinced it is God’s will to cure Jan. Bess eventually overcomes her repulsion with lovers and transcends to the special spot via sex to a symbolic state of purity by martyrdom. Visionary director Lars von Trier incorporated ten rules in his Dogme 95. The remote Scottish landscape is ancient and stimulating and perfect extension to the film. You can learn more about Lars von Trier’s technique HERE.

Dangerous Jobs 
The Hurt Locker directed by Kathy Bigelow, 2008.

The Hurt Locker directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 2008.

The threat of imminent death causes an adrenaline surge to create the complete escape. This altered state is foreign to normalcy. War puts you in that heightened state seen in films like The Hurt Locker and American Sniper.  How ironic that only when faced with death, do some people feel alive.  

LEOs and FF/EMTs
Ron Howard 1991 film starring Kurt Russell

Ron Howard 1991 film starring Kurt Russell

The ER nurse or doctor. The ambulance driver. The firefighter, and the police officer. Surrounded by the threat of death to others and themselves requires control and steady hands. The exposure releases the chemical surge and the instinct for survival kicks in; they are in the zone. They commit to a lifestyle that few of us could stomach. These heroes are in a voluntary, dangerous career, and they take the abuse. It’s their identity.

The Athlete 

Similar to the skater, the dancer, and the musician, the focus to excel and perfect their sport requires one visit the sweet spot in the brain. Extreme sports, extreme results.

The Actor 

What about the craft of the actor? How far will an actor go to alter their state of being? There are few actors who come to mind who are willing to transform their bodies for the sake of their art, but Christian Bale probably does it better than anyone.

Extreme sleep deprivation is as close to the sweet spot as I’ve ever been. This altered state of torpidness is fascinating and dangerous. In the sweet spot, pain is not felt, the world does not hurt. Nothing can touch you. Does pain brings pleasure?