Winter Writing

A movie about exceptionalism overcoming racism at an agency of the government, an effort to restore a building and a forthcoming book about accounting for an entire arts genre give me fuel this winter.

Top U.S. film

America’s top movie at the box office is Hidden Figures, which centers upon three individuals of ability in the Jim Crow-era South, when racist laws infected even an aeronautics U.S. agency charged with launching an American into outer space. It’s a wonderful film, really, which doesn’t surprise me because it’s written and directed by the same individual who wrote and directed 2014’s St. Vincent, which is also very good. His name is Theodore Melfi and he recently talked with me about writing and directing the talented cast, which includes Empire‘s Cookie, Taraji P. Henson, his thoughts on racism, storytelling and what he’d do differently and having his movie screened at the White House. Read my exclusive interview with Melfi about the nation’s number one motion picture here.

Eagle Rock Clubhouse by Neutra

Speaking of exclusive interviews, I’ve recently had the pleasure of interviewing architect Dion Neutra at his home and office designed by his father, the late modern architect Richard Neutra, whose legacy I explore in an article about a campaign to restore one of Neutra’s signature buildings (read the story on LATimes.com here). I’ve been covering this effort by an architect and a realtor who say they want to restore the Los Angeles clubhouse to its original splendor, and finally met and interviewed them at Neutra’s building for a detailed restoration tour. The building, a parks and recreational center in northeast Los Angeles, opened in the 1950s with a stage that plays to both interior and exterior audiences, a kitchen with a window for selling concessions, an athletic court, reflecting pool and sloping landscapes—all in glass, brick and Neutra’s favored metal, steel—with a director’s office overlooking gymnastics, trails, pine trees, playgrounds, tennis courts and with retractable walls to let the air and spectators or audiences inside. The two gents are in talks with Dion Neutra as I write this.

New book this March

A forthcoming book features new and interesting data about the words and works by William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Ayn Rand among other literary greats. It’s titled Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve (Simon & Schuster, March 14, 2017) and the author covers detailed statistical analyses of these and other writers in a solid narrative. Among the newly mined data are authors’ ‘favorite’ words, how sexes write differently—Rand rates as “masculine”—and use of adverbs, exclamation points and novels’ opening lines. Mine is the book’s first non-trade review. Read my article here.

The newest Writing Boot Camp starts up next month (seats are still left in the 10-week course, so register here), moving to Tuesday nights, the day after my all-new course on social media (register here). These courses evolved from career camp workshops I was asked to teach several years ago. I subsequently taught a series of nine media and production workshops for Mood U, online, economic development, expo and public library presentations and developed the writing and media classes into full courses a few years ago for adult education in LA. They’re works in progress yet past students give positive and constructive feedback, so I’ve created Facebook groups for past students. Stand by for details and more on the upcoming courses.

Meanwhile, thank you for your readership, support and trade. I read every piece of correspondence, though I’m sometimes slow to respond, sent through the site and social media. This year, I plan to remake my website and I am working on other projects, from stories in manuscripts and screenplays to my cultural fellowship, new partnerships and a new media enterprise. For now, I want you to read, share and gain value from these articles about inspecting works of art and making, or mining, something good.

The Year 2016

As 2016 ends, some say it’s been a terrible year. I think it’s too soon to judge. On one hand, Donald Trump was elected president and, as I first wrote here 15 months ago, and here after Trump became president-elect, I think Trump’s a new low in U.S. government and I have every reason to believe that his election is extremely bad for the country based on individual rights. I agree with Objectivist scholar Onkar Ghate that Trump’s victory is a step toward dictatorship (though Ghate would have made a better case had he also addressed why his center for advancing Objectivism failed to stop it).

On the other hand, as Dr. Ghate writes, this is an age of industry, progress and opportunity. Despite the dismal regression of rights under Obama’s presidency, the individual remains essentially free to use technology to create, express, trade, distribute and profit. There are serious and severe restrictions on this freedom and they are getting worse, with the prospect of all-out assault on rights looming, but I think it’s likely that there could be partial rollbacks on these restrictions, too. The freedom of speech is under attack, but the individual remains free to think and speak for himself.

La La Land, my choice for 2016’s best movie.

This shows in today’s culture. Movies such as La La Land, Hidden Figures, Sully, Snowden, Sing Street and Loving, among others—browse through my reviews for thoughts on this year’s movies, many of which excel—are bold, provocative and outstanding. This year, however, the culture’s burrowing celebrity worship entered the realm of government, which is extremely dangerous. I think this is getting worse and insidiously, too, as people follow what’s trending at the expense of what matters.

Social media amplifies and, as it does, people tend to seek approval (“likes”) through under and overreactions. Unfortunately, this means they may overestimate someone pegged to a hugely popular trend, such as the dry and likable Carrie Fisher of the Star Wars series, who recently died, and underappreciate the individual of outstanding ability—exhibiting singularly exceptional, enduring and wide-ranging achievements—who has no link to a popular trend, such as Bowie, Ali or Wilder (Prince, Patty Duke, Dr. Heimlich, Ron Glass and George Michael also come to mind).

Social media may also invite emotionalism in moral judgment, by my observation. I see evidence of this in condemnation conferred upon the individual for the smallest action, i.e., removing a post, or the most simple statement, as when I pointed out to actress Jessica Chastain on Twitter that convicted sex criminal Brock Turner had, in fact, been convicted under state law of sexual assault, not rape, as she had implied in a Tweet. I was vilified by Chastain’s followers for naming her false assertion while she refused to respond. I had been made aware of this crucial distinction by an informative article in the Washington Post. Judging by the “Twitter storm”, Chastain and followers were not interested in knowing facts.

Tim Cook, my pick for 2016’s Individual of the Year

So, as I’ve written on this blog and elsewhere, I think it’s getting to be harder to stand alone, express a viewpoint that dissents from the herd, even if the herd is confined in a certain type of corral, and become informed, knowledgeable and able to exercise free speech.

That said, I have no hesitation to choose as 2016’s best individual one who, in terms of my philosophy, does all of the above exceptionally well: Apple CEO Tim Cook. He’s a native Southerner, white, male and gay and he’s famous in 2016 for making money, being a wealthy businessman and defeating the government over surveillance statism. He was opposed, condemned and denounced on those grounds by 2016’s dominant politicians—Trump, Sanders and Obama—so he’s all in against the status quo.

It’s easy to underestimate what Tim Cook did this year. Many (if not most) did. He not only runs a multi-billion dollar company that serves the world with exemplary innovation which liberates millions of people. Cook also responded to an Islamic terrorist attack in Southern California by formulating an intelligent response when his company’s products were implicated in the assault, assembling a team to deal with the crisis and standing alone—under intense media scrutiny—to oppose the Obama administration’s unprecedented assault on Apple’s rights.

That Cook won, defeating government control—the United States later dropped the case against Apple and contradicted its own argument, claiming that the government had hacked into Apple’s machine—is both proud accomplishment and inspiring example (like Edward Snowden a few years ago) and evidence in defense of 2016. Whatever history’s verdict, and keeping its lessons and what looms in mind, Tim Cook is a heroic counterpoint to today’s mindlessness. Cook’s principled stand against the state is cause enough to be grateful for this individual of the year and another reason to greet midnight with a cheerful “Happy New Year!”

Movie Review: Collateral Beauty

For a thoughtful and embracing new Christmastime movie, see Collateral Beauty with Will Smith. This is probably the best new Christmas-themed movie since 2005’s The Family Stone and for many reasons—some the same, mostly for different reasons, though. What’s the same is that both movies have a major twist. Both pictures have an excellent ensemble cast. Both films deal with Christmas as a marker in time which, like life, is hard to move and change and yet it can light up the darkest corners.

Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness, Concussion) is capable of making bold choices in movie roles and this is one of them. Playing a man whose child has died is bold enough for one of Hollywood’s top movie stars, especially after portraying a doctor who challenged the football cartel and its millions of followers in Concussion, an outstanding motion picture which deserves more attention and credit than it gets. Playing a man who expresses emotions, too, is a risk, especially at Christmastime and undoubtedly in a season when you’re competing with another Star Wars movie and audiences seem to want more of the same mediocre sludge or are eager to be satisfied with an expensive thriller experience. Today’s mass audiences don’t want movies that make them think. They want movies that come pre-approved by others; movies that feel safe and have an aggregated review score, which merely attempts to quantify what others think. I suppose it makes them feel connected.

Collateral Beauty makes one feel connected by provoking the individual to think. It does this by setting up Smith’s character, Howard, with an enticing scene in which he plays a successful businessman with a specific philosophy that’s original, proprietary and utterly functional if not widely practiced and then threading that philosophy throughout the rest of a movie in which the hero stumbles three years later. The ad agency chief is despondent after the death of his child. That his spiral culminates during Christmas in New York City makes sense to anyone who’s had to face life after death—death of a loved one, death of a marriage, death of a child—and allows the filmmakers to lather the dreamlike Collateral Beauty with the holiday lights and city bustle that can, on blue and lonely days, become soft and soothing rhythms of life.

Written by Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire, 21, Fox’s brief but interesting collaboration in 2008 with Lasse Hallstrom, New Amsterdam) and directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Hope Springs), Collateral Beauty quickly nests Howard with a few sets of subsidiary characters. One set stems from a grief support group led by Naomie Harris (Moonlight). Another batch originates with three of Howard’s deeply concerned partners, friends and colleagues at the agency, played by Michael Pena (The Martian, Ant-Man), Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs, Finding Neverland) and Edward Norton (The Painted Veil, The Grand Budapest Hotel). They, in turn, hire three actors to portray the three abstractions—in an elaborate bit of theater—to whom depressed Howard has written a letter: Death (Helen Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey), Love (Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina) and Time (Jacob Latimore, Black Nativity).

As Howard bicycles and all but sleepwalks through his multi-million dollar company’s deteriorating market viability, with his friends and co-workers on the verge of being fired due in part to his self-negligence, he slowly settles his inner sadness, calls out Time, Love and Death (helped by Ann Dowd as an accomplice and private detective) and deepens his appreciation for friendship, family and work. Of course, it’s not that easy and there are at least a few twists, which, unlike a Shyamalan movie, are not shortcuts, cheats or tricks. Lessons in chasing love, facing death and living in time abound. The magic here is earned and, though it takes a while to let it in, this light yet somber fable is compatible with the rational audience and very rewarding for anyone with a whole sense of life.

What Collateral Beauty is not is overly sentimental. To the credit of New Line Cinema, cast, crew and filmmakers, including Warner Bros.’ new president Toby Emmerich (and, incidentally, President-elect Trump’s new secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin), who executive produced Collateral Beauty, and with uplifting and elegant performances from the cast, notably Will Smith, Helen Mirren, Jacob Latimore, Naomie Harris, Michael Pena, Edward Norton and Kate Winslet, what debuted in movie theaters this weekend is a movie to be proud of for everyone involved and much better than dark and bleak movies lacking spirit, soul or life. Life isn’t fair. Neither is what wins the box office. But I’m confident that enlightened audiences will discover Collateral Beauty in the future. Here’s wishing for such an audience—especially for the audience of one—a Christmas that comes neither too late nor too soon.

Movie Analysis: High Noon (1952)

United Artists’ High Noon (1952) is a lightning rod of controversy. This compelling movie was made with the best talents and its taut, purpose-driven plot gains and keeps attention. Any honest appraisal must account for its flaws, too. I recently saw it again at the Autry Museum of the American West, where the movie will be discussed in a program next year comparing the classic Western to what’s become known as the Hollywood blacklist.

The picture’s timely connection to a congressional campaign against Communism pertains to its downside. High Noon has a stagy, stiff quality that feels pedantic, forced and overproduced. In that sense, like Gary Cooper’s film for Warner Bros., The Fountainhead (1949), it’s too obviously delivering a message. Part of the problem is the age difference between Cooper as Hadleyville’s marshal Will Kane and Grace Kelly (Rear Window) as his deeply religious bride. And this problem feeds off the plot’s need to make the marshal more like a prop than a fully developed character.

On its own terms, however, High Noon engages to a degree. Marshal and Mrs. Kane flee from an evildoer on their wedding day—as the married couple does in Oklahoma!, also directed by Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity, A Man for All Seasons, The Nun’s Story)—though they are not forced to do so and this, in particular, is a crucial distinction. To his credit, the marshal has retired his badge and job by the time he turns tail and gallops with his blonde young bride and, though he changes his mind, he later changes it again after putting the badge back on and decides to flee from harm. This is important because it shows that the lawman is conflicted.

So, infamously, is the town of Hadleyville. But the audience is supposed to morally judge them, and not him, for being conflicted. This while the marshal eventually, strictly and stubbornly out of a sense of duty carries out his mission to confront the evildoer coming in on the noontime train. Add a constant tick-tock clock and a song sung by Tex Ritter, with Dimitri Tiomkin’s Oscar-winning score, complex and interesting supporting roles and High Noon holds interest. As allegory for what the writer apparently considers an unjust anti-Communist hunt, High Noon does not hold up.

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See the movie and judge for yourself. What works as moral dilemma is what drains and undercuts the allegorical warning. This explains why High Noon, first offered to John Wayne (who rejected the leading role) and held up by leftists and those who condemn anyone (such as director Elia Kazan, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Viva Zapata!, On the Waterfront) who named Communists (such as High Noon‘s credited screenwriter, Carl Foreman) in the HUAC hearings, gets praised and claimed across the political spectrum. The movie is mixed.

No one scene explicitly captures this more than the speech in church by the morally gray, rotten character played by Thomas Mitchell, who basically endorses pragmatism (speaking of timely political references) as the reason for denying a defense of the town, on the grounds that protecting Hadleyville from thugs jeopardizes government handouts. This from a character who says he admires Will Kane and rightly demands that Will Kane be heard in his plea for help, that the hearing be civil and that the townspeople do, in fact, contrary to some claims, constitute the whole town.

“This is our town,” pleads Mitchell’s character and then he proceeds to make the case for abandoning its defense and appeasing its enemies (speaking of timely political references again). It’s not surprising that the mixed, pragmatic philosophy of this movie, chosen by the Autry’s members as the audience favorite in 2016’s Western film series, dominates today’s culture, politics and foreign policy; anyone on the left, right or in the middle can justifiably project himself onto the Will Kane character. High Noon was apparently one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite movies yet Bill Clinton showed it in the White House numerous times.

What decent person wouldn’t want to see himself as the crusading hero seeking to render justice in a “dirty little village in the middle of nowhere” (starting with a lonely train station as in 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock) as Katy Jurado’s Mexican character puts it? With producer and director Stanley Kramer (Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Inherit the Wind) producing and said to be heavily involved with the filmmaking, how could High Noon not end up being serious, topical and absorbing? The cast of characters, though there are too many and they say too much, are a fascinating assortment of profiles in cowardice.

As evil men gather over the movie’s signature song at the start, church bells ring and religion comes off as the antidote selected by the townspeople to deal with whatever’s wrong with the world. They dread facing the truth, and, while the voice of reason is also a voice for pragmatism, he gathers and rallies the town in a church, where the parson, all but ceding that sermonizing offers no real, practical value here on earth, fully abdicates religion as a philosophy. Hadleyville’s lone intellectual, the judge who marries Will and Amy Kane, cites 5th century BC history and the fact that he’d previously fled a similarly challenged town called Indian Falls as he packs up and folds an American flag to get out of town. Lloyd Bridges’ deputy marshal sees himself as a victim who knows on some level that he lives through others. An innkeeper (who today would be a vocal proponent of Donald Trump) is more explicit in stating that the ends justify the means.

In this sense, Hadleyville’s a stand-in for America and its religion is pragmatism and High Noon certainly rings true in this regard, down to the fact that the whole place’s days are numbered. To this point, the Battle Hymn of the Republic plays in the climax as the clock ticks, emphasizing that the town’s doom comes closer while the town prays away precious seconds. While Gary Cooper’s Will Kane runs around town pleading for help against the four monsters about to strike, a character played by Harry Morgan hides, making the town’s cowardice more explicit, in case the audience misses the point. Someone asks: “How do we know that [the villain] is on the train?” Someone asserts that “it’s not our jobs” to protect the town. Even Will Kane’s mentor, an arthritic, old man, opposes confronting the thugs, telling him: “It’s all for nothing.”

But why would a hero go to enlist an old man in the first place? This is the problem with High Noon, which contradicts Kane’s heroism at every turn.

Whether he’s riding out of town after retiring his badge—and he was uncertain and unsteady in both decisions from the start—Will Kane can’t seem to stand on his own and decide what’s right. On one hand, with a town so undeserving—and you learn how thugs came to rule as the town’s lousy characters come along—it’s easy to see why the former marshal doesn’t want to go it alone. It’s hardly worth the effort as the town’s already half-dead. As the Tex Ritter song, “Do Not Forsake Me, My Darling” plays as a taunt in the saloon, it’s as though Will Kane goes door to door taunting himself, doubting whether he does have a moral duty to save a town that won’t defend itself (he doesn’t), casting himself adrift wherever he goes. When his ex-deputy (Bridges) asks Kane “Why?” Kane answers: “I don’t know.”

Yet when Katy Jurado’s morally ambiguous character—depicted as decent but remember she’s been the hero’s and the villain’s leading lady—proclaims that “when [Kane] dies, this town dies, too,” what’s the evidence that the town’s worth saving, or that the man who’d risk dying for a town that isn’t worth saving is any kind of hero? Will Kane takes his final steps past the offices of Julius Weber, the watchmaker, reasserting the theme that civilization is running out of time, closeups come in a cluster when the clock strikes noon and, as the camera pulls back making Cooper’s Kane smaller and smaller, it’s clear that he’s puny. And he’s alone.

Or is he? This is High Noon‘s final deceit, and, in its resolution, High Noon sort of justifies every pragmatic argument anyone in town’s ever made. You can have your cake and eat it, too, this classic movie aims to say, with Howard Hawks and John Wayne teaming for 1959’s underrated and emotionally superior counter-argument, Rio Bravo, several years later. The evidence that this picture won the audience is strong. Look around, down to who rules the day, and mark High Noon as an artful example of anti-heroism that dominates and influences in fiction and in fact.

Movie Review: From Here to Eternity (1953)

From Here to Eternity (1953) taps America’s pre-World War 2 anxiety and mixes it with fatalism to produce a seminal movie about war, death and dying. The film, based on James Jones’ 1951 novel, depicts a nation mired in self-doubt.

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Embedding anti-heroism underneath anti-social and anti-war themes begins with a character named after a Confederate war general. Director Fred Zinnemann (Oklahoma!, High Noon) introduces Prewitt, indelibly played by Montgomery Clift (Red River), as he plays pool. Prewitt plays alone, however, and, lest the audience mistake his insolent individualism for a heroic trait, as it was in The Fountainhead, it becomes clear that here, in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1941, being a man of principles out for himself leads to nothing but trouble and worse.

“A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothing,” Prew, as he’s called by friends, says early in the black and white movie. Unlike Roark in The Fountainhead, Prew’s path to his own way seems doomed from the start. This is Pearl Harbor in 1941, after all. Army soldier Prew is the movie’s moral center.

On orders of his new captain (Philip Ober), who’s caught wind of Prew’s renowned boxing ability and wants him back in the boxing ring, Prew’s singled out for hazing. He still refuses to box, and with good reason. It’s Prew’s principled stand which contrasts civilized individualist with barbaric conformist and From Here to Eternity—which I recently saw through Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies’ Big Screen Classics series—makes this point over and over.

Watch what happens to Prew and his scrawny Army buddy, Maggio (Frank Sinatra, The Manchurian Candidate), who spend most of their time getting drunk and getting punished or cavorting with Honolulu’s quasi-prostitutes (Donna Reed, It’s a Wonderful Life). In an unforgettable role as a thug nicknamed Fatso, Ernest Borgnine makes a strong screen presence two years before he played a similar part in Bad Day at Black Rock and the rest of the cast, from supporting soldier types played by Jack Warden and Claude Akins to leading cast members such as Deborah Kerr (The King and I) and Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry, Separate Tables, Seven Days in May) as illicit lovers, also shine. All of them, except for Sinatra’s character, the weakest link, form a cohesive company.

In fast cuts, sharp lines and subtle hints, twists and clues, From Here to Eternity lazily leads up to the Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and, briefly, its bleak and harrowing aftermath. As it does, with Lancaster and Kerr famously falling on the sands of Kuhio Beach, director Zinnemann plants the dark, cynical marks of postwar American insecurity in Donna Reed’s line about putting herself up for grabs: “I don’t like it, but I don’t mind it.” With drunken, violent outbursts and messy displays of repressed desire, From Here to Eternity manages to dramatize its theme that the good is not possible.

America is not exceptional; it’s as panicked, fake and afraid as everywhere else in the world, From Here to Eternity insists. The sound of bugles is always on guard in this compelling and watchable classic movie with its cast of movie stars—including Clift as the Fifties’ brooding, sensitive and tortured male, which made way for other mumbling, unsettled anti-heroes such as Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford—but, seriously, what good does being American do? Even Burt Lancaster’s imposing physical superiority is useless to protect anyone from Fatso, though his scene confronting Borgnine’s meaty beast in the bar is among the most intense showdowns in cinema.

“I play the bugle well,” mutters the principled individualist whose rogue, solo pool game—Prew takes one more shot after being told to stop—begins From Here to Eternity. That he adds that he’d played taps at Arlington Cemetery for the president on Armistice Day only underscores the fact that, now, he’s powerless. By the end of this bleak exercise in striking down the strong and defiant, he, too, will be reduced to playing another round of soulful taps. As Kerr’s bitter wife tussles with Lancaster’s diminished if determined sergeant, Army, company and paradise get lost.

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This is the real, moral theme of From Here to Eternity; that, no matter what you do—especially if you stand alone, in particular if you do so on principle—there exists something more powerful than yourself, to invoke a common bromide, and it controls you and could easily shoot you down. In 1953, From Here to Eternity, which won Oscar’s Best Picture, might have seemed new, bold and different with its realism and frank sexuality. But it plays like a prelude to America’s predominant self-doubt and its byproduct: hard and begrudging pragmatism pushing everyone to go AWOL, get drunk or get in line to get snuffed out.


TCM Big Screen Classics: From Here to Eternity showed on Sunday, December 11 and Wednesday, December 14 with pre-recorded commentary from Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.

I saw the screening at Hollywood & Highland’s Chinese Theater complex. Sound, projection, theater and audience were perfect. The winner of eight Academy Awards® in 1953, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sinatra) and Best Supporting Actress (Reed), was written by Daniel Taradash (Hawaii, Golden Boy, Picnic). The movie’s title, From Here to Eternity, is taken from a line from an 1892 Rudyard Kipling poem in which soldiers are damned “from here to eternity”.

TCM just announced its 2017 schedule to screen a slew of classic movies, so the wonderful and encouraging series, which is a unique opportunity to see the best movies as they were intended to be seen in movie theaters, will happily continue.