February, 2017

Varieties of Canine Eccentricity

February 28th, 2017 21 Comments

 

We have three dogs now. Bear and Daisy Mae are Australian Shepherds, which is clearly a fine and sensible name for a dog that was conceived of, bred, and perfected entirely on working ranches in the American West, a stock dog as archetypically American as the cowboy, the quarter horse, and the Colt single-action.
The American Kennel Club claims the breed goes back, genetically, to the Basque region of the Pyrenean Mountains, and that it owes its name to the Basque shepherds who came to America from Australia in the 1800’s. I suppose that’s possible—anything is possible—but I prefer to think it was a bunch of good-natured but mischievous cowboys sitting around a campfire with a bottle of Jack Daniels and talking about how ignorant city slickers are. “Hell, those New York City folks can’t tell a horse from a cow from an elk. Why, I bet we could even tell them Ol’ Blue here is an Australian dog and they’d by golly buy that.” Think Billy Crystal, Bruno Kirby, and Daniel Stern, amiable, gullible, out of their element and out of their league, but having a fine old time with some fine old cowboys spreading misinformation.
However it happened, the Australian shepherd couldn’t be more American. He is a firm and unwavering believer in the Constitution, and in the equal and separate balance of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. He believes in baseball and apple pie or any other foodstuff, whether in his food bowl or fallen to the floor, and he especially believes in the rights of all American citizens to do or be or say or go where they choose, so long as he can herd them in the right direction.
Their most obvious attribute—their great beauty—is the attribute most dangerous to them. People take one look at Aussies and fall in love, and this is emphatically not a breed for everyone. They were bred to move stock over long distances in rough country all day long, and sitting around on the sofa watching Animal Planet is not going to satisfy their physical energy demands. Nor will it satisfy their intellectual demands, because this is a highly intelligent breed that needs and wants and demands a job, preferably a challenging job. If you don’t interact with your Aussie both intellectually and physically, you and the dog will both end up very, very unhappy.
That beautiful coat also sheds constantly. If you share your home with an Aussie, dog hair will become an ever changing but constant feature in every corner, on every piece of furniture, under every piece of furniture, on all your clothes, and as a condiment on the dining table competing for space with the salt and the pepper and the mustard.
Temperamentally, Aussies are pretty easy-going as long as you work them and stimulate their brains. They are very sensitive dogs who need a light touch and, in the first two years, a lot—a lot—of patience. Their formidable brain power simply does not kick in until they reach about two years of age, and until then they can be what is politely referred to as a challenging handful. I imagine my parents thought very much the same about me, if you add about twenty years or so to that two years of age. Darleen claims my pre-frontal cortex still hasn’t fully developed, but then she’s a wife, and what wife doesn’t consider her husband a challenging handful?
Another Aussie trait is that they crave, desire, demand, and need close, very close contact with their people. If your idea of a dog is as a piece of yard art, do me a favor and don’t get any living, sentient thing; just buy a pet rock. But above all, do not get an Aussie, because that will truly ruin the dog and will ruin him in a slow, sadistic way. In fact, don’t even think about getting an Australian shepherd unless you really like having a dog underfoot. Correction: make that on top of foot. Both our Aussies, but Bear especially, will lie on top of your feet the instant said feet stop moving. I have learned to gather everything I might possibly need before I sit down to eat, work, read, watch television, or anything else, because both feet will instantly be glued in place by Australian Shepherd Superglue, and getting them out from under him can be painful to my toes and to his feelings. I’ve also learned that if my feet are under the toe-kick of the kitchen sink, or under the bathroom sink where I shave, I have to look behind me and move cautiously if I don’t want to trip and go ass over teakettle, because he’ll be right there. When I do sit in the easy chair to watch television, he puts his front half in my lap—he knows he’s too big to get all of him up there—and he will stay indefinitely.
His chief eccentricity, however, is very endearing. He likes to walk up to me and thrust his head firmly between my legs, leaving only his ears visible and touchable. That’s because he loves having his ears rubbed and as long as I continue to rub, he will continue to stand. Or until he hears dinner being prepared.
Bear’s raison d’être is to keep this world safe from birds. If I turn him loose in any pasture, or take him to the dog park, he will spend his time chasing every bird he can find. It’s his calling, and he takes his duties very seriously.
On one memorable occasion, at the local dog park, a raven decided to play with him. Bear got the raven airborne, no troubles there, but the raven simply settled on a nearby fence post. Bear would duly charge said fence post and the raven would fly to the second one down, or the third one back the other way, or sometimes just far enough away to give Bear a false sense of security. Then the raven would call or flap its wings to get Bear’s attention and off they would go again. For a while, both of them were clearly having a fine old time, but I finally had to call Bear off; he was starting to trip on his tongue, and you don’t want to discourage a dog with a good and useful habit of chasing birds. Useful? Yes, because for my retirement, I’m considering renting him out as one of those dogs that keep birds off airport runways.
I’m not as knowledgeable about canine anatomy as I should be, so I’m not sure how the mouth is connected to the legs, but Daisy Mae is one of those dogs incapable of forward movement without something in her mouth. In Daisy Mae’s case, it’s almost always a Nylabone, held at a jaunty angle in one corner so that she looks for all the world as if she were smoking a stogie. She is much more frivolous and light-hearted than Bear and she smiles constantly, so between that and the stogie, she reminds me of a much prettier version of George Burns.
She likes to have her tummy rubbed, so she runs at you and at the last moment leaps into the air, turns sideways onto her back, and falls with a crash onto the floor where she will gaze up at you in a manner that no man of woman born can possibly refuse. She has one brown eye and one blue eye, and either one of them could melt the heart of a brass statue of the devil himself. In short, she has charm and she knows how to work it.


Other than being charming, Daisy’s only other accomplishment of any note is herding the cats. Since “herding cats” is a metaphor for an impossible act, this is not an accomplishment to be sneered at. Unfortunately, the people Daisy shares her life with aren’t quite smart enough to figure out how to make cat-herding into a productive source of revenue, so Daisy retains strictly amateur status. Just as well, since she is only a year old and still in the prolonged impossible stage of all Australian shepherd puppies, but we have high hopes for her as she matures into professional cat herding.
Daisy’s has a serious bark like a Black & Decker masonry drill going into your skull, but she has an endearing way of greeting strangers by woofing at them. This is not barking, but—quite literally—well, woofing, a sort of quiet series of little grunts intended to indicate openness to friendly overtures, but no intention of tolerating unwanted liberties. Aussies are generally good-natured and people-loving, but they can be protective if not properly socialized.
Aussies hold it as a basic tenet of faith that they are, in fact, human beings with fur, and in this they are not far off the mark. It’s an endearing trait, but it means that they have a pronounced tendency to stand up on their hind legs. Think about every YouTube video you’ve ever seen featuring circus dogs, or dogs competing in dance competitions; there is a reason why so many of those dogs are Aussies. It also means that while you might be able to teach them not to jump up on you (be gentle and patient; you’re trying to break a normal—from the Aussie’s point of view—behavioral pattern) they will still be prone to stand up on everybody else, to lean against the kitchen counter to see what’s cooking or to request a nibble, to put their paws on the bathroom sink to supervise your shaving, and in general, act like an amiable and sociable old friend next to you at the bar. “Hey, it’s great to see you again! Let’s have a beer. How do you think Green Bay’s going to do this year?”
Basically, both our Australian shepherds are perfectly normal dogs. Not so the third member of our family.
Lola is a Cardigan Welsh corgi. In case you are unfamiliar with that breed, the Cardigan is the other corgi, the one with the tail. The Queen of England’s corgis, the ones seen on television clustering around the queen in her garden at Buckingham palace, are the smaller, tail-less variety known as Pembroke Welsh corgis. We rescued one of those once, long ago, and I can testify that Her Royal Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, is well-protected. I got into a fistfight with a pit-bull who objected to us taking up space on his planet, and our other dogs, including a German shepherd from imported police and Schutzhund lines, all ran for their lives, while that little corgi managed to pull her head out of her collar, escaping from Darleen, and hit the pit-bull amidships like an express train. Of course, given her size, it had about as much effect as I would if I hit Deontay Wilder, but it distracted the pit-bull long enough for me to get back on my feet and grab him by his hind legs, incapacitating him until his owners could take him.
Cardigan Welsh corgis are supposed to be much tougher than Pembrokes. Having been owned by some of both, I can state empirically that the answer is an absolutely clear-cut yes and no. We had one very sweet and loving, but hopelessly fearful and neurotic Cardigan who used to fall apart at the slightest provocation, anything from turning on the shower to turning on the vacuum cleaner, from the faint and distant sound of far off neighbors quail hunting in a canyon a mile away from our house, to the unexpected sound of voices at our other neighbor’s house. She was a semi-rescue, but fearfulness, like aggression, is usually a sign of bad breeding.


Lola is the other extreme. Not only is she not afraid of the devil himself, but she has the kind of foolhardy courage that makes her a danger to herself. She is very prone to swaggering up to dogs that outweigh her by a factor of five, rolling up her sleeves as she goes, smacking her rolling pin against her open palm, snarling threats of violence and unwarranted comments about the other dog’s mother. She never actually does anything once she gets to the other dog, in fact she’s usually happy to play, but the menacing march up to them is someday going to inspire some dog to get his retaliation in first.
That’s with strange dogs. With strange people she responds as if each individual were her one true long-lost love, the single person she has pined to see all her life, the person she should always have lived with in any right-thinking world. “Who’s who? Oh, you mean that guy on the other end of the leash? He’s nobody, don’t worry about him. I just let him tag along with me because I feel sorry for the poor schmoo. Kiss me again.”
Her real eccentricity, however, is that she curses like a drunken sailor trying to find the red-light district. Constantly, almost nonstop. She wanders around the house, cursing under her breath and threatening anyone and everyone who comes anywhere near her even when she wants them to come near her. It’s a little hard to take this coprolalia (compulsive swearing) seriously because she does it so incessantly. When Daisy Mae helps Lola with her morning toilette, licking her eyes and ears for her, Lola issues a steady stream of hair-raising threats and obscenities that make you think she is about to pull a razor out of her garter belt. And when Lola returns the favor and grooms Daisy Mae’s eyes and ears, which she does daily because, like everyone else, she adores Daisy, the same bloody and vicious torrent of curses and threats pours out. If I pick Lola up to put her on the bed (her body is not designed for jumping up onto or down from anything higher than a bathmat) I am rewarded with promises to tear me limb from limb. If Darleen leans down to give her a kiss, Lola threatens to rip her lips off. When Darleen starts to prepare the dogs’ dinner, the threats and curses reach such a crescendo we’re always afraid the neighbors will call the police. Of course, Lola would greet the police with ecstasies of wriggling, jumping up on their uniforms, kissing them, and generally acting like her namesake in Damn Yankees: “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets, and little man, Lola wants you!” Of course, Gwen Verdun’s dance as she sang that song was somewhat more enticing than the gyrations of a dog built upon the lines of an overstuffed kielbasa, but at least she stops swearing when greeting strangers.
The funny thing about the swearing is that it is accompanied by steady, cheerful wagging of her tail, a sort of split personality division of canine, as if the front end were full of psychopathic danger and the back end full of Christian charity and goodwill. It can also be a little sad to see, because no one, not even the cats, takes her threats seriously. To watch the cats rub up against her as she mutters imprecations is to see the definition of hollow and meaningless posturing. She really is quite the most eccentric dog I have ever known.
She also has the most acute hearing of any dog I have ever known.


I was sitting on the sofa with Lola, one cold winter’s day, procrastinating after lunch instead of going out to do chores. I was procrastinating so successfully that I was just beginning to doze off when suddenly her ears flipped up from sleep mode (think Yoda in Star Wars) to alert mode. Then her head came up and she stared intently out the sliding glass door. She has learned to alert me when there are ground squirrels on the back hill. Ground squirrels are a very destructive pest and they harbor the flea that carries bubonic plague, so when they move in near the house, Lola tells me and I go shoot them. It’s a division of labor satisfactory to all except the ground squirrels, and their needs and wants are antithetical to mine. But Lola always runs to the sliding door when the ground squirrels are there, and this time she stayed where she was, her whole body tense with anticipation, muttering softly to herself.
Thinking we might be under attack by North Korea, I got up and peered out the door, cupping my hands against the glass. Nothing. There are a lot of trees and a lot of brush on the slope behind the house, so I took my time methodically scanning the hill. Nothing. Finally, I noticed Lola staring to the southwest and I looked over that way. Still nothing, but just as I started to turn away, on the far edge where the hill folds down into a culvert, a little buck’s head appeared, then his body, as he walked up into view. That deer was easily a hundred feet or more from the house, the house itself was buttoned up tight against the cold, and yet somehow, she had either heard or smelled or sensed that little guy. How? I have no explanation.
In theory, if you need a watch dog—and who doesn’t need a watch dog in these troubled times—a Cardigan would seem to be an ideal choice, but… But be prepared. Lola frequently alerts us to dangers that exist entirely in her own mind, as well as to actual things that don’t qualify as dangers to anyone but her. Getting our propane tank filled, for example, is something I like, I want, I need, I encourage, but Lola regards the propane guy as right up there with a Mexican drug cartel. The first time we spent the night in a hotel with her, we did not sleep, at all, because Lola evidently regarded the hotel as our new house and alerted us to every single person who walked down the hall or opened a door or closed a door or… We finally had to lock her in the bathroom with the exhaust fan on to deaden her ability to hear, but by then the sandman had gotten bored with waiting for us and had moved on to more receptive climes. In short, if you want a watchdog, be careful what you wish for.
Her other great skill (other, I mean, than barking at dangers real or imagined) is agility. Oh, stop laughing. I know she doesn’t look like an agility dog, but she has a real genius for it. She learned the obstacles with lightning speed, and can go through a course with something pretty darned close to lightning speed, or at least what passes for lightning speed from a kielbasa. The only real drawback she has is that she adores our local professional agility trainer and will frequently take time out in the middle of a run to go jump up and bestow kisses, and then go right back to where she left off as if nothing untoward had ever happened. This usually causes Darleen, who runs her, to get absolutely hysterical, and it’s hard to run while you’re laughing.
She really is the most eccentric animal I have ever known.

Hollywood Nobody

February 22nd, 2017 4 Comments

 

“I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.”

Well, that is perhaps a slight exaggeration. Think rather of the tag line in any one of a dozen films (Lord of the Rings, Kindergarten Cop, Independence Day, The Color of Money…): “I’m baaaaack!”

Only in this case, it’s, “Dan’s baaaaaaack!” Possibly to be preceded by a warning shout of, “Look out! Duck! Run for cover!”

Dan being, of course, my friend Dan Bronson of Confessions of a Hollywood Nobody, and the website Hollywood Nobody, in my links. After a hiatus of two years, a hiatus devoted to refining the high art of procrastination and coming up with more inventive ways to avoid work than any dozen normal men could devise, Dan is back blogging again and—knowing Dan—almost certainly using blogging as an excuse not to do any other writing. Dan is, as he himself admits—admits? hell, boasts—an all-time-card-carrying-world-champion procrastinator, a man who has raised procrastination to new and dizzying heights of excellence. When the universe conspires to force him into sitting at his desk and putting words down, those words are inspired. Save for when he disagrees with me, of course, as he does on the directing of Fences, but with the exception of those lapses in taste and judgement, he is a brilliant, insightful (I almost wrote “inciteful,” which would have been pretty accurate also) observer of all things Hollywood and literary.

Check out his link on my website.

The Annals of Country Life: Mississippi kites

February 20th, 2017 17 Comments

Still in my pajamas (flannel, Black Watch pattern, from LL Bean) this morning, I glanced out the bedroom window and saw two raptors of a kind I had never seen before, sitting together in a cottonwood tree not thirty feet from the house. I am not a bird watcher in the sense of going out with binoculars and book specifically for that purpose, but I do like to identify the birds I see.

Easier said than done. Yes, physically the birds were clearly Mississippi kites. After that, the consensus is that Jameson must have been nipping at the whisky far too early in the day. As the name implies, this is not a bird one might expect to see in the southern Sierras at any time of the year, let alone in February.

I went to many sources, looking for solid, calcified, irrefutable information, but apparently bird-watching is like just about everything else in the world these days: the answer varies depending on who you ask.

Most of the sources I checked claim the farthest West the Mississippi kite is ever seen is in isolated colonies in New Mexico and Arizona, but even this does not include either their winter range (outside the U.S.) or their migratory range (late March to early April), both of which would seem to kind of rule out California in February.

I found a site that said the Mississippi kite was expanding its range, but then went on to clarify that by specifically narrowing the expansion northward in eastern states only. One site that allowed me to put in the identifying characteristics of the birds I saw, along with where, geographically, I had seen them, and the time year I had seen them, was unambiguous about the species, and expressed no doubt that I had seen them in California. Another site with the same format was equally unambiguous about the fact that I must have been nipping at the whisky. Yet another site caught my attention because it stated that the size was “larger than a rock pigeon” and rock pigeons is what I first thought I was looking at.

So, there you have it. If anyone has any concrete evidence of Mississippi kites breeding, migrating, wintering, or making permanent homes in California, I would love to hear from you. Are they casual visitors, tourists who come to see the sights, take the rides at Disneyland, look at the stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, gaze in awe at the giant Sequoias, shake their heads over urban sprawl or this year’s flooding? Or is this a brand new, hitherto unrecorded phenomenon related to global warming or manifest destiny or something else entirely?

Any bird experts out there?

The Artisans: Horsewright Clothing and Tack

February 18th, 2017 6 Comments

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The Industrial Revolution and its handmaiden, mass production, transformed the lives and raised the standard of living of most of the world. That’s a good thing. But every form of progress has its price, and more products for more people for less money was paid for by the loss of something indefinable, something that cannot be measured or quantified or even easily expressed. The best I can do is compare two gun companies.

Remington and Boss were both founded in the early eighteen-hundreds (1816 and 1812, respectively). Remington’s Model 870 shotgun, which wasn’t even offered by the company until 1951, has been manufactured in numbers well north of eleven million. Boss has painstakingly hand-built fewer than eleven thousand shotguns, total, since it was founded. The 870 will break a clay or bring down a bird just as effectively as a Boss and it costs less than a thousand dollars. A Boss is no more efficient than an 870, yet even the well-heeled King George VI considered it too expensive for his budget, and a new one today would start around $75,000, more if you want a 28-gauge or a .410, and far more if you want customized engraving. One is a perfectly useful and inexpensive tool, while the other is a work of functional art that has that indefinable something that can only be described as soul.

It’s the difference between a Buick and a Bugatti. A Buick will move you down the road with comfort, safety, and efficiency. A classic Bugatti will move you just by looking at it.

What follows is a series of blogs about the men and women in America who still devote their lives to making useful things by hand. Nothing will be described in this series that couldn’t be made by machine in China, and bought cheaper at (fill in the name of your favorite mega-store), but all the products written about here will offer a link to a human mind, a human hand, a human heart, and a very human passion for perfection.

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I will start with Dave and Nichole Ferry, proprietors of Horsewright Clothing and Tack, because they are beloved and longtime friends.

Dave is a retired California Highway Patrol officer who started training horses and conducting horsemanship and vaquero-style roping clinics many decades ago while he was still on active duty and his hair was still jet black. He discovered he didn’t like many of the tools of the cowboy trade that were mass produced, and about the same time he discovered he had an innate skill for making things. Today, he and his wife Nichole hand make, one item at a time, a wide range of products: exquisite knives (which include the finest sheaths anywhere in the world, and many famous and gifted knife makers couldn’t make a decent sheath if you held them at gun point), wool vests, belts, purses, wildrags, chinks, chaps, charmitas, and a wide range of holsters.

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Each of Dave’s knives, working, sporting, or cooking, is specially designed for a specific purpose, but almost all good knifemakers do that. What sets Dave apart is the time he spends painstakingly testing different steels for different purposes. New steels are constantly being developed, new forging techniques are being refined, and in some extreme cases, entirely new ways of thinking about steel have changed the knife-making process. The molecular structure of the steel, the Rockwell hardness, the profile of the blade, the ricasso, the curve, the bevels, the taper, the balance, how the blade is sharpened, the size and shape of the handle, even the choice of handle material, all these influence a knife’s suitability for specific task.

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To give you an idea of the pride Dave and Nichole take in their craftsmanship, they offer a lifetime guarantee on everything they build, no questions asked. And to give you an idea of how seriously they take this, they built a brand-new knife for a gentleman who managed to run over his original Horsewright blade with a mower-deck. That’s customer service.

Contact them here: http://www.horsewrightclothing.com/

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Go Bill Maher!

February 17th, 2017 11 Comments

Bill Maher

I am not a fan of Bill Maher. I watched his show once about ten or twelve years ago, found him snide, snarky, holier-than-thou, and not very funny. He had the shallow cleverness that too often passes for intelligence among the liberal left, the kind of cleverness that relies on specious and shallow reasoning and follows the flawed syllogistic argument, ‘I am a good person, so if you disagree with me you must, ipso facto, be a bad person.’ I never watched him again. But in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I would like to give him a quick pat on the back. (This is something that I am sure will make all the difference to his life and trajectory of success, something he must have been pinning and weeping for until this happy moment.)

A headline caught my eye, and following the path to various news sources, the bottom line is that Bill Maher is standing by his guns in having a gentleman named Milo Yiannopoulos on his show, even though doing so has caused another gentleman named Jeremy Scahill to cancel his appearance on the same show.

The astute reader, scanning the above paragraph, will doubtless be able to tell I haven’t clue who either of these gentlemen are, nor do I care. I had heard of Yiannopoulos and was vaguely aware that he has something to do with Breitbart News, but since I am only vaguely aware of Breitbart News’ existence, and not inclined to know it any better, I can honestly say I knew nothing about either of them. I have since looked them up on the internet and found that one appears to be a sort of obnoxious far-right gadfly who delights in tweaking the public’s outrage and (presumably) profiting by it. The other appears to be a painfully progressive journalist with an underdeveloped sense of humor who takes himself much too seriously.

So far, there is nothing about this incident that doesn’t bore me to tears, but I was intrigued by Bill Maher’s standing by his choice of a far-right rabble-rouser and particularly by his statement, which reads, in part: “Liberals will continue to lose elections as long as they follow the example of people like Mr. Scahill, whose views veer into fantasy and away from bedrock liberal principles like [sic] equality of women, respect for minorities, separation of religion and state, and free speech.”

Kudos, Mr. Maher! I couldn’t agree with you more! Those are, I might add, the bedrock principles of conservatives too.

I haven’t the foggiest idea what Mr. Scahill’s views are on any of those issues, or what his views on Mr. Yiannopoulos’ views might be, nor do I wish to know. But if Mr. Scahill is such a delicate cupcake that he can’t even abide the thought of appearing on a show with someone who holds different views and different beliefs, I can’t help wondering what his life will be like when radical Muslims move in next door and begin imposing sharia law in his neighborhood. Or—just to prove I’m an equal opportunity offender, happy to be rude to one and all—when extremist Christians such as Evangelicals or Catholics with dangerous views and agendas move in on the other side and start imposing canon law. (I am a Catholic, so I get to poke all the fun I want at them and besides, Catholics were briefly listed by the Army as a dangerous terrorist group a few years ago. Go figure.) Poor Mr. Scahill will have to find a Safe Place. I would suggest he try Canada, but many wild-eyed liberals who swore to emigrate to Canada if the Trumpster were elected have found Canada somewhat harder to get into than less enlightened countries. Such as America, for example.

At the Movies: Fences

February 8th, 2017 6 Comments

Fences

A better title might have been “Barriers.” The fences referred to in the play/movie are, on the surface, those we put up intentionally to (as one of the characters says) keep some things in and other things out. But it also refers to the fences we put up unintentionally, unconsciously, the self-limiting fences that keep us from doing and being what we wish to do and be. And perhaps most importantly, it refers to the fences society puts up, all those barriers of the Jim Crow era that were meant to keep black folks in certain jobs and certain neighborhoods and within the confines of certain limited dreams and ambitions. Fences is the sixth play in the ten-play cycle written by August Wilson as a portrait of black America from 1900 to 1990. If Wilson had not died much too young (at only sixty) he might have continued the cycle, and it would have been fascinating to see how he perceived the repetition of unfulfilled promises and squandered opportunities (primarily by politicians) that have circumscribed the lives of black Americans over the past quarter century. In any event, the movie stays remarkably true to the play, which is hardly surprising, since August Wilson wrote both scripts.

I saw the play back in the late 1980’s, starring James Earl Jones. Jones created the lead role on Broadway and won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award as best actor, and the play itself also won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award, but it was Jones’ towering performance that overshadows any other memory I have of the play itself.

In the interim, in fact just a year or so ago, I wrote a short story about Sonny Liston (Teaching the Bear to Read, on my website under “Other Writings”) for which I had to do a lot of research into Sonny Liston’s life, and what struck me about watching the movie Fences was that Sonny Liston’s appalling childhood, his brushes with the law, his eventual success, and his final fall from grace, seem to have been a relatively common experience for a specific kind of black man in America at a specific time in which a few specific doors had been opened and a few others were just beginning to open (small, suspicious cracks, a white foot cautiously braced at the bottom) even as the bulk of the doors remained shut, doors that were and are ultimately much more important and more universal than the few that were opened. It is this kind of black man who must have been so prevalent in the 1950’s era playwright August Wilson wrote about, the kind of black man who represented the failure (a more cynical person might say the sick joke) of emancipation and the gap between the promise and the reality.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson (if that name resonates with memories of high school American history classes about the Mason-Dixon Line, it is not an accident), a sharecropper’s son who had the skills to be a Major-League baseball player, but who missed the chance due to timing, due to the fact of being black in white America, due to the realities of the black experience of that particular time. Yes, I know those realities still exist, but the causes have changed.

If all you want is to know what it was to be a black man in America in the 1950’s, you will learn that from Fences. But you will also learn something about the human condition—forget black or white—and what it means to be a man fighting and raging against the fate of one’s time and place in history, and—in a conscious or unconscious tip of the hat to King Lear—the futility of that fight. You will learn all that and more, and those are good reasons to go see Fences. But if nothing else, you should go see it because it is acting at its best.

It’s hard for me not to compare Denzel Washington with James Earl Jones, and because I am such an ardent admirer Jones’ work, no one could possibly live up to my memory of his performance. And yet, and yet… Washington has taken a very different approach to the character, one which makes him both less likeable and more understandable and—it is this that convinces me of Mr. Washington’s brilliance—equally unforgettable. Washington is always memorable even in his most mediocre movies. Training Day leaps to mind (yes, yes, I know it was ballyhooed and that it earned—quite rightly—Washington an Academy Award, but go back and pay attention to the script), a film I actively disliked and that had holes you could drive an eighteen-wheeler through, but Denzel Washington’s performance lingers. In Fences, his performance lingers in ways that make me keep going back to it in my memory, just as I do with James Earl Jones. I can give no higher praise than that.

Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, none of whom I had never heard of, even the little girl at the end, Saniyya Sidney, all of them turn in the kinds of performances that make me wonder why I ever thought I could act. They’re that good.

And then there’s Viola Davis. Lord have mercy! A diamond will always shine to best advantage in a turnip patch, but this ain’t no turnip patch; these are some of the finest, most memorable performances I’ve seen, and even surrounded by all this coruscating talent Viola Davis walks away with the movie. She is, without exaggeration, one of the finest actresses of our time, and she deserves all the accolades, all the roles, all the rewards and awards. She alone would make this a movie eminently worth seeing.

I have one minor quibble with some of August Wilson’s psychology at the end, when the family tries to apotheosize the deceased Troy, and I have a minor quibble with Denzel Washington’s direction at the same point, making too much of the sun bursting through the clouds, a clichéd device, but these are picayune in the final sum of a brilliant movie.

At the Movies: La La Land

February 1st, 2017 12 Comments

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When I first started this blog, I made a conscious decision not to write negative reviews of books or movies. It’s far too difficult to create any kind of work of art, and far too easy for any fool to criticize and belittle what he can’t do himself.

But last night I saw something that angered me.

La La Land has been nominated for fourteen Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, best original screenplay, best original score, best original song, and more. It received seven Golden Globe Award nominations, and Emma Stone won best the actress award from the Screen Actor’s Guild.

I was suspicious about all those nominations when I saw the trailers on television, but, hey, a lapse in someone’s judgement can result in a dreadful trailer for a great film or a great trailer for a dreadful film, so I went to see La La Land, not with high expectations so much as with an open mind. If I had gone with high expectations, I would have really become enraged.

La La Land is the kind of inoffensive movie to which you can safely take your grandmother and your movie-infatuated ten-year-old daughter, and after I’ve said that, I have exhausted my repertoire of a compliments.

Embarrassingly mediocre, one incoherent cliché after another, it’s “best original screenplay” consists of an impoverished storyline watered down and rebottled from half a dozen real musicals written by real writers and real composers. Has no one ever seen, or does no one remember such trifles as An American in Paris or Singin’ in the Rain, to name the two that La La Land steals from most egregiously? Can anyone with a room temperature IQ and over the age of ten honestly pretend to compare the musical genius of the Gershwin brothers to the mild and modest work of Justin Hurwitz? I won’t insult Alan Jay Lerner’s memory by even bothering to compare his script to Damian Chazelle’s lame, incoherent, and uninspired platitudes.

Unfortunately, this pedestrian version is performed by actors who can’t sing and can’t dance, neither of whom had enough charm or charisma to keep me from wandering out of the theater to get a drink of water I didn’t desperately need. Both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are good young actors, but neither one of them has singing chops that should ever be heard outside of the privacy of their respective showers, and neither one of them would ever make it through the audition phase of Dancing with the Stars or the first round of So You Think You Can Dance?  Contrast that to Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Hell, contrast it to Fred and Ginger in any one of their magical confections.

Darleen tells me Emma Stone won her SAG Award for best actress over Meryl Streep’s bravura portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins. SAG must have awarded it for best monotonous walking sequence, because I’ve never seen so much unnecessary walking from nowhere to nowhere for no purpose. This in a film set in a city where Steve Martin famously drove next door to talk to his neighbor in LA Story. (I think that was the movie.) Motion pictures are called that because they use visual images to tell a story. That, by definition, means the images you see on the screen must cause the storyline to advance. Random wandering from one spot to another does not advance the story. If Emma Stone had taken her award and walked over to Meryl Streep and presented it to her, it would have left me with a more charitable opinion of Ms. Stone. Her performance in La La Land no more deserves an award than it deserves to be remembered.

It’s not that La La Land is so unspeakably bad that angers me, because it isn’t unspeakably bad. It’s that the Academy and the Screen Actors’ Guild and the Golden Globes committee are so unaware of their own history and the history of magic real Hollywood musicals once offered that they would have the temerity to praise such mediocrity. It’s either ignorance, or they allowed themselves to be bought or bullied.

John Legend was the best thing in it (Legend and a quick glimpse of a beautifully restored blue and white ’66 Corvette in the background of one sequence) and there wasn’t enough of him or his music to keep me or Legend-groupie Darleen in our seats. I’m angry at myself for having wasted two hours desperately clinging to the hope that the damned film might improve and that something, ANYTHING, noteworthy would happen. Where the hell is Kim Jong-Un when you need a little diversion?!

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