Portnoy’s Complaint

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on June 14, 2013 by reverenddavidbloco

Portnoy’s Complaint
By Phillip Roth
Read June 15, 2010-June 22, 2010

Portnoy’s Complaint is basically one long diatribe by Alex Portnoy, a 30-something, Jewish man in the late 1960s. More specifically, he is a misogynistic, self-hating Jew who also hates gentiles and hates himself in a non-Jewish sort of way.

While reading this book, I thought of many other things not the least of which were Woody Allen’s entire oeuvre, and the following two quotes of Jean Paul Sartre:

The Jew, he says, is completely bad, completely a Jew. His virtues, if he has any, turn to vices by reason of the fact that they are his; work coming from his hands necessarily bears his stigma. If he builds a bridge, that bridge, being Jewish, is bad from the first to the last span. The same action carried out by a Jew and by a Christian does not have the same meaning in the two cases, for the Jew contaminates all that he touches with an I-know-not-what execrable quality.

An American is either a Jew or an anti-Semite or both at the same time.

I was also reminded many times of my own (Jewish) family and their Jewish-ness. I am two full generations removed from Portnoy’s/Roth’s era, but despite some degree of cultural watering down, there are/were still some elements of Portnoy’s youth/family that sounded reminiscent of my own. Primarily, the milquetoast, yet responsible and dependable-to-a-fault father, the nitpicky, faultfinding mother, and the general captiousness that is the essence of my parents. Furthermore, there were little things—his father was a soup slurper no matter how hot said soup was, and he had memories of picking up acorns with his father such that, 25 years later he still can’t look at an acorn without thinking of that. In my case, my father is also a severe slurper and when I was young he took me to the beach when the tide was out and we would pick up the snails and blow in their shells. To this day, I can’t look at a snail without thinking of that.

At first I had a good deal of sympathy for Alex despite his constant whining. I was most empathetic towards his revulsion and revolution towards being a “nice, Jewish boy.” As he said, “a regular domestic messiah.” For many Jewish boys, there is a good deal of expectation that that is exactly what they become, and this has always been bothersome. Not that it was pushed upon me in the same strong handed way it was pushed upon Alex, but there was always some degree of subtle suggestion in that regard. I am now 37 years old, and I am childless and living out of wedlock with a shiske. Moreover, I have spent most of my working years as a dog groomer and a trucker—perhaps my own form of personal revolt against the “nice [and professional] Jewish boy” stereotype, and even though my parents have always maintained and expressed their pride in me (which, again, is a distinctly Jewish thing to do to the point that I have always had to tell my mother to stop talking about me and my shit to all her friends and relatives) I still can’t help thinking that in the deepest recesses of their hearts and minds, they are disappointed in me. Whether they are or aren’t is irrelevant. What matters is that it occurs to me to think such a thing.

Unlike me, Alex’s revolution generally took the form of sexual conquest and sexually deviant acts. It began with a specific attraction toward gentile women—the more gentile the better—and it ended up with his doing everything in his power to make the gentile woman in question feel stupid and humiliated. This goes back to Sartre and the Jewish self-hatred and constant guilt and feelings of incompetency and inadequacy. This is a quality present in a lot of Jewish men who, again, unconsciously push back against the stigma of being a “nice, Jewish boy.” No, they don’t take it to the same degree that Alex does, but the self-hatred is there.

It goes to show how deeply ingrained a culture is in a person. A person doesn’t have to practice Judaism or Catholicism or a person can be two generations removed from her Irish immigrant parents. Still, the culture and the odd little eccentricities of the culture are still in one’s blood and in one’s head. In my case (in Alex’s case), I haven’t been inside a temple in years. I consider myself to be culturally a Jew though religiously I am agnostic, yet I feel platefuls of Jewish guilt and inadequacy. I view every stranger with acute distrust, I am naturally disapproving and judgmental, and I am constantly (though not actively) fearful that I will be found out (as what? A Jew, I suppose, but at the very least, not like everybody else). Finally, the cruelest joke of all is that for the most part, I don’t like most of the Jewish people I’ve known, yet that is the only group of people I’m 100% comfortable around. The time I’ve spent moving through the blue-collar crowds with which I’ve been associated has often been Kafkaesque—another Jew—in its surreal paranoia.

McCabe & Mrs Miller

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on January 4, 2011 by reverenddavidbloco

Directed by Robert Altman

Released June 1971

Viewed (for the second time with undivided attention) December 31, 2010

It is the turn of the 20th century and McCabe (Warren Beatty) is a gambler with a reputation. He goes to the town of Presbyterian Church in the American northwest with ideas of opening a bar, gambling hal,l and brothel. After opening, Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) comes along. She is something of a professional madam. She partners up with McCabe and together, their business venture thrives.

In my review for Nashville, I wrote, “…Plots almost seem secondary in Robert Altman movies, because there is no grand plot around which the multitude of characters swirl.  The movie always has a center whether it is the Korean War or Nashville Tennessee or insecticide planes but the center is just that—almost a random and accidental place or event that sets events in motion and draws the characters into its maelstrom.  Basically, it is a catalyst rather than a beginning, middle or end.”

I also wrote, “As for the movie, it was OK.  I’ve come to the conclusion that Robert Altman will always keep me interested but will only rarely knock me on my ass (and I say that with full realization that he is considered one of the great directors of all time [and Nashville is considered one of his greatest movies]).”

Well, I suppose McCabe was one of those “rare” Robert Altman movies that “knocked me on my ass.” So much so that after the first viewing, during which my/our attention was diverted to knitting and darning socks, we felt that we needed to watch it again, during which time we would dedicate our full attention. Moreover, I am left to wonder if I should watch Nashville again. I wonder if I missed something the first go around. Maybe I didn’t pay close attention that time. Maybe the real secret of Robert Altman movies is that you have to pay close attention.

I won’t know the answer until I watch another Robert Altman movie. However, what I wrote about Robert Altman plots seems to be true. It is not a typical story. It is more of a random glimpse into the history of a particular place. It does have a beginning, middle, and end, but that beginning, middle, and end are part of a bigger whole. And in the end, isn’t that what life is? Of course, there was a reason that Robert Altman was known as a naturalistic director.

It would seem Altman was an unlikely director of a western, but in truth, westerns seem to be a perfect fit for him. The west was made up of people and characters. Those people and characters have since become the stuff of myth, but that has nothing to do with the original people. McCabe was not a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood larger-than-life character. He was a regular person trying to make his way. Regular people break rules in order to find their way, just as Altman broke all the rules of a Western in making this.

Finally, I am left to ask what happened to all the lions of the 60s and 70s? Specifically, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. Everything they touched in that time period was golden. Certainly they were involved with plenty of  tripe, but it is mind blowing when one considers how many quality projects they were involved with. Things change. There aren’t as many good scripts around these days. However, the shit those same “lions” make these days—without exception—is laughable. They generally just play parodies of themselves. They can’t be wanting for money. Do they need attention that badly?

On the other hand, the character actors of that time—Seymour Cassel and M. Emmett Walsh come to mind—appear in their fair share of tripe (again, there is a lot of tripe out there), but they also appear in good movies and have never embarrassed themselves.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller was one of the sadder movies I’ve seen. It was reminiscent of the melancholy undercurrents of disco—a music that seemed jovial and lighthearted, but in truth, it was heavy and desperate. With every pulsating beat, it knew it had to die and die ugly and unappreciated. McCabe is a likable character who knew he had to die (ugly and unappreciated). And the only person who could have made him and his life worthwhile—Mrs. Miller—had long since put emotional attachments behind her. Which further reminds me of the Eagles song, “Desperado”: “You’re losing all your highs and lows/ Ain’t it funny how the feeling goes away.”

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on December 28, 2010 by reverenddavidbloco

Directed by Michel Gondry

Written by Charlie Kaufman

Released March 2004

Viewed December 26, 2010

Joel (Jim Carrey) meets Clementine (Kate Winslet). They fall in love. Then it goes sour. Kate goes to a joint that erases specific parts of people’s memories and has Joel erased from hers. Hurt by this, Joel goes to have the same thing done to him. However, as his memory is being erased, he realizes how valuable his memories and relationship with Clementine were, and he tries to fight back against the procedure.

We watched this because we have been developing a substantial appreciation for Charlie Kaufman. We had previously avoided watching it due to Jim Carrey playing the starring role. It’s hard to say what is bothersome about Jim Carrey. It has nothing to do with his acting. Rather, it has to do with him as a celebrity. He is loud and annoying and makes strange faces that somehow are supposed to mean something to an audience. Moreover, it didn’t seem possible for him to go an entire movie without making any stupid faces. However, he did, and all things considered, he did an admirable job in Eternal Sunshine.

Nevertheless, this movie wasn’t as good as I’d hoped. The premise for the movie was inspired, as was the way the story was laid out. It just didn’t follow through particularly well, or at least as well as it might have. This was very much a character-based movie. In order to get into the movie, one had to be into the characters. From the beginning, Joel was presented as tight, closed off and shy. Meanwhile, Clementine was impulsive, loose, and open. This was a  one-dimensional picture, which, at the beginning, was acceptable. The problem was these characterizations were never developed. The story kept hammering home—in a ham-handed and obvious way—that Joel was closed off and Clementine was impulsive. There was never anything more than that to either of the protagonists. It was almost TV-ish in its one-dimensional portrayal. The romance aspect of it was nice, but a romance of two cardboard characters can only take one so far.

Complicating that was a general dislike of all the peripheral characters. Charlie Kaufman tends to have characters of whom he makes sure to put a spotlight on their negative characteristics yet normally, those characters still don’t come off as completely unsympathetic. In this case, the minor characters of Mary (Kirsten Dunst), and Patrick (Elijah Wood)—who were employees at the memory erasure joint—were only annoying and simplistic. Along those same lines, it seemed their only purpose in the story was to—again hamhandedly—push along the central story of Joel and Clementine.

More than anything else, the director wasn’t up to the project, as Kaufman scripts tend to be a bit complex. I have seen another movie directed by Michael Gondry—Be Kind Rewind. Like Eternal Sunshine, that movie had a spark of brilliance, but it was shrouded in a cloak of mediocrity. I know nothing of Gondry, other than that he is French, but perhaps he is a Blockbuster director who tries to go beyond his inherent limitations. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

It also brings into question who would want entire parts of their memory erased? While this didn’t color the quality of the movie any which way, it seems silly to regret things you do or relationships you’ve had. The experience and knowledge one gains from those things makes one who he is. Unless one would rather have never lived in the first place, there is no reason for it.

In conclusion, I didn’t dislike Eternal Sunshine. My problem was that A) it could have been better than it was, B) some of the characters were mildly (and unintentionally) annoying and C) A lot of people thought it was heavy stuff; what I call depth for the shallow, which I ascribe to Tim Burton movies. Not bad, but hardly mind-blowers.

I’m Not There

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on December 4, 2010 by reverenddavidbloco

Directed by Todd Haynes

Released November 2007

Viewed November 28, 2010

There are many facets to Bob Dylan. Many incarnations to the man. He has been a folk singer, a rebel, a poet, a preacher. However, to me, more than anything else he is no laughs, the Hippie Jesus, and generally speaking, full of shit.

I’d like to give a specific story line, but the movie took a haphazard approach to plot. Basically, it took Bob Dylan songs, and Bob Dylan’s mythical life and strung them together, using different actors to play the Bob Dylan character at different points in his life. The idea of different actors, while not novel, is interesting and advisable. It is just too bad that the director took such a literal approach to the undertaking. That is, instead of presenting Bob Dylan as an 11-year-old black boy, and Bob Dylan as a 27-year-old androgynous woman, the director took pains to explain (in his way) what they all were. Moreover, the director and the actors missed the point. In our different seasons, we grow and change. The person we are at 38 is not the same person we were at 5. Moreover, there is a black boy and a white woman and an absurd former sex symbol in all of us at some point or another. Furthermore, it is not necessary for the woman in all of us to try to be a man, unless of course, that is what that particular element of us is about. I say this because IMDB notes that Cate Blanchet, in order to “walk like a man,” kept a sock in her pants when in character. What’s the point of that? Was that element of Bob Dylan a man or a woman? With anecdotes such as this in mind, one is left to assume the particular actors and particular roles and particular seasons of Bob Dylan were chosen haphazardly. In other words, Haynes just wanted to be different. Perhaps he didn’t understand the purpose behind different actors playing the same role.

It’s important to note that I don’t like Bob Dylan or his music. Maybe that is not entirely his fault. Generally speaking, he is one of the Hippie Jesus figures (perhaps the quintessential Hippie Jesus figure), and I’m not much of a fan of hippies. Like the generation that spawned them, they are full of shit. By extension, Bob Dylan is full of shit. I don’t get him, and I never did. Maybe he is a poet, which is fine, but he—or at least his fans—are obnoxious about it, and worse, he’s a poet who is no laughs. Unfortunately, as time marches on and Bob Dylan becomes older and his music less current, his myth becomes more fixed and more overwhelming. Bob Dylan the man no longer exists in most people’s minds. Bob Dylan the myth is all and that is all that this movie deals with. Again, maybe that is fine, and maybe the problem is that I have no use for the particular myth.

As for the movie it was a lot like Dylan—it was no laughs, it didn’t go anywhere, and it borrowed heavily from those before it. Also, Cate Blanchet’s particular depiction of Dylan (the most regular one in the movie) was particularly clumsy, obvious, full of shit and annoying.

Over the Top

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on November 27, 2010 by reverenddavidbloco

Directed by Menahem Golan

Released February 1987

Viewed (this time) November 26, 2010

Sylvester Stallone stars as Lincoln Hawk, a trucker who is also a champion arm wrestler. His son is Mike. Mike has not seen his father for something like 12 years. Mike is cared for by his mother and his uber-rich grandfather (played by the ever-tanned Robert Loggia). His grandfather hates Hawk and tries to keep he and Mike at a distance from each other. Meanwhile, Mike’s mother/Hawk’s wife is terminally ill. That’s pretty much all the background there is. This is very much a story of the present, and the present is this: Mike, who is in his early teens, has just graduated from a military school. Hawk, at his wife’s request, comes to pick him up and reestablish a relationship. Mike is hesitant at first, but as they drive across—from what I can tell across Arizona and Nevada repeatedly—they form a bond—a bond that Loggia tries to break. Meanwhile, Hawk is building towards the national arm wrestling championships in Vegas. If he wins, he will win a brand new truck that can help to put him in a position to fully care for Mike.

The movie lacks any background whatsoever. Why did Hawk leave his wife—who he still seems to be married to—and son? How has Loggia played a part in keeping them apart? If Hawk realized it was a mistake to leave his wife and son, why did it take 12 years and apparently the insistence of his wife in order to come back? Has his wife been sitting in a hospital bed for the last 12 years, thus allowing Loggia to have all the power in every conceivable relationship? Why is Hawk bobtailing all over the country, treating his tractor like it’s a sedan? And does his tractor miraculously reach highway speeds in only two gears, because that’s what it seems like? Finally, is there some rule that says all truckers are also arm wrestlers, and all arm wrestlers are also truckers? Because I missed that memorandum while I was trucking.

When watching this movie, as when watching almost any Sylvester Stallone movie, as when watching a substantial number of 80s movies, one has to take certain things with a grain of salt. Specifically, watch the movie for the kitsch appeal. Watch the movie because it is so awful, it is enjoyable.  Watch the movie for the killer soundtrack. Watch the movie because Sylvester Stallone is an unintentional genius and tons of fun. Don’t watch the movie because you really want a good movie.

In short, Over the Top is to movies what Ding Dongs are to food. And Sylvester Stallone is one big Ding Dong, plastic wrapping and all.

The Tempest

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on September 25, 2010 by reverenddavidbloco

By William Shakespeare

Believed written in 1610-11

Read September 8, 2010-September 23, 2010

Prospero is the former and rightful Duke of Milan. He has been displaced by his brother Antonio and the complicit King of Naples, Alonso. Prospero and his daughter Miranda live on a remote island where Prospero has apparently learned the art of magic. One day, he conjures up a storm—the tempest—that pulls Antonio and Alonso, among others, to his island.

In high school, I read—I was forced to read—A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Hamlet. I can’t say I was ever taken in by the Bard. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t fill me with a desire to read more Shakespeare. On the other hand, high school in general did not inspire me to read more by anybody. Quite the opposite, my high school years probably saw me read less than I have at any time in my life. That wasn’t a coincidence.

Moving forward, I recently read The Magus, which left me feeling ambivalent. However, much of the book seemed to be based on The Tempest, and I was curious to see what the parallels were. Moreover, as I am attempting to go into a career as an English teacher, Shakespeare is a ubiquitous presence, for better or worse, in any high school English classroom. Finally, with high school 20 years past, I thought it was time to give Shakespeare another try.

I can appreciate Shakespeare’s presence in the high school classroom. On the other hand, it’s taught incorrectly by almost everybody that I’ve come in contact with. The key issue is that it’s put in the wrong frame. Students have to understand that Shakespeare was not the distant, untouchable superstar that motherfuckers make him out to be today. What I find most notable about Shakespeare are not the stories he created or even his poetry when taken as a whole. It is his ability—almost chemistry—with words and phrases. I recently listened to a podcast in which a guy equated Shakespeare’s abilities less with a poet or writer and more with a chemist. He tended to put words together in such a way that, like a chemist, he often came up with catastrophic, messy results. On the other hand, he also he invented new words and phrases. In fact, it’s astounding how many words and phrases he either can be said to have invented or have been the first to write down. That is the element of him that makes him human, and thus, makes him more relatable to young students. In Shakespeare’s day, in Jefferson’s and Washington’s day, in Lincoln’s day, people played around with language and even celebrated its growth. Now, especially in schools, it seems like people are attempting to stifle the evolution of language, as well as a human being’s own creative abilities as regards language. I am all for a motherfucker having grammatical skills and awareness, but I am also all for a motherfucker being able to find his or her own way to express himself/herself. In short, if a person is painting and only has red, blue, and yellow, then that person is going to have to do some paint mixing in order to get green, orange, and purple. Shakespeare was willing to mix paints. Why shouldn’t an average 16-year-old in 2010 have that same freedom? Why shouldn’t an average 16-year-old in 2010 be encouraged to do the same?

As for my personal feelings on the Bard, he still didn’t speak to me. I admit that for a person in 2010 to fully appreciate Shakespeare—or any English writer pre-1860 or so—said person has to put some work in. First of all, a person would have to carefully read the play in question, going over every word, and stopping to analyze and look up what he doesn’t understand. Once a person has gained that understanding, it would probably be best to reread it with that full understanding in tow. After that, a person should see it in the form that Shakespeare meant for it to be seen—in the theater. Finally, if one really wants to go to the limit, said person should probably read it again, or at least see a different performance, as a different performance would offer different nuances. That is a lot to ask of a twenty-first century person with the short attention span of a twenty-first century person. It’s certainly more than I’m willing to offer in most cases. Still, as I said, while the play itself didn’t speak to me, Shakespeare’s way with words, as always, left me in amazement (Shakespeare, by the way, was the first known person to use the term “amazement.” That is some amazing shit). I expect I will try a few more of his plays in the future. Will I love them? I doubt it, but I will continue to appreciate his particular talent, and hopefully, it will be something I will be able to bring into the classroom.

Speaking of which, one of my dream classes would be a class that combines modern teenage-type films and Shakespeare. I would show teenage films that are based upon Shakespeare’s plays, and then we would read the play. For example, 10 Things I Hate About You is based on Taming of the Shrew. Just One of the Guys and She’s the Man have a good deal to do with The Twelfth Night and As You Like it. Valley Girl and any number of other movies are based directly off of Romeo and Juliet. I could further extend it to have teenage films and all literature, as there are plenty of other teen comedies that draw their inspiration directly from Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw, among others. However, even if that never happens, one thing I would like to do while teaching Shakespeare (which, I expect is inevitable at some point in the future) would be to have the students invent 10 words or phrases of their own. Over the years, I could compile a dictionary of the terms students come up with.

“I endow’d thy purposes/ With words that made them known.”

“…a born devil, on whose nature/ Nurture can never stick.”

Groundhog Day

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on September 22, 2010 by reverenddavidbloco

Directed by Harold Ramis

Released February 12, 1993

Viewed about 648 times (most recently, September 14, 2010)

Bill Murray plays Phil Connor, a weatherman for Channel Nine in Pittsburgh. He is an obnoxious, arrogant, snide dickhead who has to cover the Punxsatawney Groundhog Day festival every year. He looks down upon Punxsatawney and finds the entire holiday and festival to be beneath him. However, he goes to the festival, does his show, and then tries to leave town immediately. Unfortunately, there is a giant blizzard that winds up shutting down the highway, thus causing Phil and his crew—producer Rita, played by Andie MacDowell, and cameraman Larry, played by Chris Elliot—to have to stay in Punxsatawney for the night. As it turns out, he somehow gets trapped into a warp where he lives the same day over and over and over again. He knows he is living it repeatedly, and he maintains his memories. However, for everybody else in his 24-hour world, there is no history for everybody else in his 24-hour world

Saint John of the Cross wrote of “the dark night of the soul.” In fact, many writers, philosophers, and teachers have spoken of the dark night of the soul, but Saint John of the Cross gets credit for naming it. He, and all the others, were and are referring to a phase in one’s life journey and spiritual journey. It is a period of loneliness and desolation during which people experience growing pains as they go through their own spiritual development. It is the “lonesome valley” of gospel songs. It is Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night. It is Apocalypse Now. It is Jonah’s imprisonment in the belly of the whale. It is the Buddha’s great departure. And it is Phil Connor’s constantly repeating Groundhog Day.

Amusingly enough, I have probably seen this movie over 100 times, sometimes in part and sometimes in whole. I don’t know if I’ve actually seen it 648 times, but three figures is a safe estimate. Part of the reason I’ve seen it so many times has to do with my obsessive personality. Nevertheless, the theme of the dark night of the soul also plays its part. At the time I first saw it—1994—I was going through my own dark night. I had just graduated college, had no idea what to do with myself or my seemingly useless degree. Eventually, I went to work as a dog groomer, but I was miserable. It wasn’t the grooming that made me miserable. In fact, under different circumstances, I suspect I would have been happy to have spent my life as a dog groomer (occupationally speaking). I was unhappy because I was lonely, confused, and didn’t feel that I had any purpose. And so, I entered into my own dark night of the soul that lasted for about 6-7 years.

As such, I understood and empathized with Phil Connor, even if I wasn’t aware of it. Murray’s character goes through what all of us should go through, except that he is forced into it and does it via a supernatural occurrence.  And like all of us, at the end of his dark night, he finds that it was a blessing, as he is a better, stronger, happier person for it.

I don’t intend to turn Groundhog Day into some religious parable. However, the truth is that all good stories are usually mythological in their foundation, and in this, Groundhog Day is no exception.

By the way, if pressed, I could probably recite the entire script, word-for-word.