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To Daniel: A Long Goodbye

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Saturday morning I opened Facebook to the devastating news that my friend Daniel Joseph has died of a heart attack at age 41. 

Daniel was one of the most genuinely warm, engaging and creative people I’ve ever known, and I’m so lucky our paths crossed during that most adventurous and creative time in my own life and that we continued to keep in touch over the years though separated by half a world. He had commented on a post of mine just a few days ago, and even such brief, infrequent hellos and exchanges have always made my day.

Though we weren’t by any means the closest of friends — there is so much about his life that I still don’t know — I’m awash today both in tears and in little flashes of memory that I will always cherish.

Daniel was an artist and aspiring filmmaker who had come to Los Angeles from Beirut and had just started working as a barista at my hangout The Bourgeois Pig when I met him. I regularly sat at the counter, so many were the shifts during which Daniel and I carried on long conversations between customers. We soon discovered a common love of certain films and filmmakers and authors and artists and fell into friendship so easily it was as though it had just been waiting there all along for us to arrive and assume our roles.

One of my earliest memories of Daniel is that he had recently broken up with a girlfriend and was trying to get back a bunch of his stuff that he had left at her place. “There’s a portrait I painted of Billy Wilder” — my favorite filmmaker, as Daniel would have discovered probably within our first half hour together. “It actually ended up looking a little more like” — and here he referred to another filmmaker or actor of a certain age who escapes me to this day — “but if I manage to get my stuff back I want you to have it.” He didn’t know what would possess his ex to keep it — “She doesn’t even know who Billy Wilder is,” he said. As he described it, it sounded like an enormous canvas, or at least an unwieldy one — it would have dominated my small apartment. I would have found a place for it, though. I don’t know how acrimonious the split was, but I don’t think Daniel ever got his belongings or the painting back. In any event, it still hangs in my imagination, this portrait I never even saw, its indistinct colors and details shifting like lava but Mr. Wilder’s lively eyes and wry smile never losing their clarity. The thought — Daniel’s impulse of bestowing such a gift to someone he had only just met — has always been the thing that meant the most to me.

There was another night at the Pig when Daniel and I veered off onto the subject of actor Ray Liotta, then spent the better part of an hour attempting to impersonate Liotta’s distinctively unhinged laugh — Daniel reached for his through Goodfellas (the “I amuse you?” scene), while I tried to get there by way of Field of Dreams: “Ty Cobb wanted to play, but none of us could stand the son of a bitch when we were alive, so we told him to stick it!”

One time Daniel and his housemates threw a huge party at which I imbibed of a hookah for the first time. (This was back in the days when you could share a pipe among friends new and old without much concern for public-health consequences.) The hookah didn’t contain anything potent — it was more of an hors d’oeuvre — but it led to the revelation that I had never smoked pot before, and Daniel and our friend Karina decided this oversight required correction. So later that night, after the party had wound down to a few sleepy stragglers too intoxicated to drive themselves home, we decamped to Karina’s apartment in Hollywood — not far from the Pig, not much farther from my own. 

The three of us shared hits off a small pipe — it took a few attempts for me to work out the mechanics; I was primarily a smoker of cigars in those days and not accustomed to actually drawing smoke into my lungs — and Daniel eventually dozed off in an armchair. I left Karina’s around 5 a.m., disappointed that the pot had no effect on me stronger than my own tiredness at that hour — I had hoped for an overwhelming craving for French toast but instead made the short drive to my place for a shower and a change of clothes and actually made it to work on time that day.

In 2011 Karina appeared in a film Daniel wrote and shot in Beirut called Taxi Ballad. It was a few years before I was able to locate and watch the film myself on YouTube, and it’s absolutely lovely — quiet, thoughtful, understated, romantic, this collaboration between my two good friends.

Then in 2013 — this is seven years after I left L.A., and perhaps a little longer since I last saw him in person — Daniel paid me a great compliment as a friend and fellow artist. At that time he was developing with another writer an adaptation of my favorite novel, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, reimagining Marlowe as a destitute Egyptian private eye plying his trade in present-day Beirut. Daniel knew that, unlike most of my friends in Hollywood circles, I absolutely fucking loathe Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation, so he knew that I would be faithful to Chandler’s original text in the notes I passed along.

Over the course of a few weeks we exchanged a flurry of emails as I pored over his treatment, and Daniel was gracious and appreciative of all the suggestions I offered. Then a year later he forwarded me the seventh draft of the screenplay and a colorful and detailed overview and business plan for the movie that had been created for prospective investors, including cast biographies and a story synopsis. Sadly, the film never made it much closer to production, but I still have Daniel and Ed’s marvelous screenplay — recognizable to me in almost every regard but distinctly modern and specifically its own take on a story I love (and still more respectful than the Altman evisceration) — and the images of these attractive and charismatic Middle Eastern actors to project it onto the big screen of my imagination. Again, it’s Daniel’s thoughtfulness to seek out our brief collaboration and my meager contribution that will always matter more to me than the outcome.

And now comes this sad, shocking, sudden ending to a life I have valued and a career I have championed and a story I have so looked forward to watching unfold over the years, one of the most decent people I met and dearest friends I made during my time in Los Angeles.

Thank you for your friendship, Daniel, and for these little gifts you left behind: a portrait of Wilder, a portrait of Madison. I’m sad we won’t meet again in this world, and I will miss you always. May your soul know everlasting peace.

Written by Shepcat

October 3, 2020 at 1:33 pm

Chadwick Boseman 1976-2020

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“Storytelling is what we do instead of dying.”

— unattributed

Since the blindsiding news of actor Chadwick Boseman’s death Saturday, followed by the breathtaking revelation that he had kept his cancer a secret since its diagnosis four years ago, I, like the rest of the world he touched, have been turning that astonishing act of will over and over in my mind.

Because it wasn’t just that Boseman chose privacy over publicity. He didn’t step out of the public eye, into the care and love of his family, to quietly battle his disease and go gently into that good night. He hid it in plain sight. He continued in spite of it to share his passion, his art and his craft with the world. And not just any craft — craft largely of a demanding physical nature, including four appearances as King T’Challa, Marvel’s Black Panther, in three years.

Boseman also starred as the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall during that time, from which performance — in addition to his earlier performances as Jackie Robinson and James Brown — one can easily surmise that he was driven also by a commitment to honor everyday Black heroes and to celebrate the Black experience in America. He would not let his personal pain stand in the way of that commitment. Nor would he lay down the mantle of Black representation in that most commercial of filmmaking enterprises — the superhero franchise — because he understood how important it was for Black children to see themselves in their heroes.

The only comparison I can make at the moment — perhaps there are others, and this is only a personal touchstone or one of simple recency bias — is to David Bowie, whose unexpected passing came a mere two days after he gave us his beautiful, haunting swan song, Blackstar. The two events, a collision of awe and grief, occurred so close to each other as to blur time as we know it, as though Bowie were sending us a love letter from a realm into which he had already ascended. It is a final act of creation that he had toiled over in secret during the last year of his life, a gift he wanted to leave behind, a reassurance that he was prepared to pass from this world into the next but remain with us in spirit.

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre then stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

And that is art. Art is immortality. The best, most important, most lasting art is an act of love, but even the most frivolous, most trivial, most ephemeral art is still an act of creation, an attempt to experience in our own small, hopelessly limited way both the power and the loneliness of God, even for a moment, an exercise in world building to help us understand the world we live in and to share that understanding with others, or at least to invite them into the conversation.

Some artists can’t define why they do it, can’t put their finger on their precise motivation to create, only that they must, that they can’t stop themselves. And that’s fine. That’s as pure and real as any motivation there is.

Others feel a responsibility to their art, because it is their contribution to the world, and they feel accountable both for their contribution and to their community. And probably that is why Chadwick Boseman couldn’t just walk away, couldn’t just surrender, couldn’t just submit to his pain as so many of us would. No one would have blamed him. But no one knew.

And so Chadwick left us this gift. This impossibly handsome, charismatic, dedicated craftsman who burned so magnificently for so short a time and is gone too soon, left us his passion, his commitment, his humanity, his astonishing will, the inextinguishable brilliance of his presence. He has passed into another realm, but he’ll shine for us still for years to come — this blackstar.

Written by Shepcat

August 30, 2020 at 1:24 pm

Posted in Life, Movies

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The Insignificant Detail #11

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There are a couple of very minor script-to-screen changes that have bothered me for a long time and which, it occurred to me only recently, are excellent fodder for an installment of The Insignificant Detail.

In particular, these details are so insignificant that you — the royal you — would never notice them at all, because they aren’t really details. They’re absences. You can’t really look for them on subsequent viewing. They don’t exist in the movies as you know them, and unless you are specifically as well read as I am, this is the first you’re hearing about them.

They also happen to involve two of my screenwriting idols, William Goldman and John Patrick Shanley.
In The Princess Bride we are informed early and often that Inigo Montoya is in the revenge business, hellbent on finding and killing the six-fingered man who orphaned him. “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” is conceivably the most quoted line in a movie jam-packed with quotable lines.

So Inigo’s mission — indeed, his very raison d’être — is well established by the time he finally encounters Count Tyrone Rugen in the film’s climax and repeats the line again and again to the audience of one for whom it was always intended.

But then there’s the matter of the rest of us, the audience at large.

I am pragmatic (and personally experienced) enough to understand that it is often important for a screenwriter — in this case, Goldman, who knew this long before I did — to convey an idea in the simplest language possible but also cynical (and personally experienced) enough to know that often studio execs intervene to dumb something down, because if they with their Ivy League educations didn’t understand it, how could someone of less expensive matriculation — the common man, the simple but goodhearted American moviegoer — be expected to understand it?

And so it is that when Rugen, begging for his life at swordpoint, offers Inigo money, power, anything he wants and more, Inigo replies, “I want my father back, you son of a bitch!” before plunging his sword into Rugen.

And this has always disappointed me. Because from a character whose mantra throughout the story has been “my father, my father, my father,” surely we, the audience in the dark, would understand exactly who Inigo meant if he responded as he did in Goldman’s book.

“I want Domingo Montoya, you son of a bitch!”

Say his name. Let it be the last name Rugen hears before dying.
Another lesson internalized during my education as a screenwriter is that often cuts must be made to move the story forward more efficiently, especially if a particular scene or character or line of dialogue doesn’t serve the narrative.

This is the case with a sequence in Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano that hearkens back to another lesson I learned, this from an examination of “the hero’s journey” as explicated by Joseph Campbell: namely, that before the hero embarks on his quest, he must gather the tools he will require to complete that quest.

For Joe Banks this takes the form of a Manhattan shopping spree bankrolled by the ruthless magnate Samuel Harvey Graynamore but shepherded by the elegant chauffeur Marshall.

Ossie Davis was wonderful, both in life and as Marshall, and despite Shanley’s having given him his share of fantastic dialogue during this sequence, the exigencies of moving the story forward robbed from him one of my favorite lines from Shanley’s screenplay.

The sequence, which in the movie becomes a largely visual montage set to bossa nova music, excises a lot of dialogue that made it more a string of short individual scenes in the script. After Joe buys himself and Marshall tailored Armani tuxedos, Marshall delicately suggests that Joe should get a haircut.

“Why? What’s the matter with my hair?” Joe asks.

“I can’t describe it,” Marshall replies. “It’s like freedom without choice.”

Even as I rue its absence from the finished film, I never fail to laugh when I think of that line, hearing it as I do in the same bemused, world-weary voice with which Davis delivers a favorite line that did make it into the movie: “I don’t know who you are. I don’t want to know. It’s taken me my whole life to find out who I am, and I am tired now, you hear what I’m sayin’?”
These movies are both cult classics, beloved by their legions of admirers, including those of you who occupy along with me the intersection of that particular Venn diagram. Their greatness cannot be diminished, especially by the absence of these meager insignificant details. But now that you know about them, I hope you’ll miss them at least a little bit, as I do.

Written by Shepcat

June 20, 2020 at 8:28 pm

A Short Story About Perceptions

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The store where I work has a particular customer who, every few months, will order something like eight or 10 medium-size refrigerators and maybe a half-dozen microwave ovens and have them shipped to our store for pickup or delivery. Because we imagined him to own or manage apartment buildings or other rental properties, we’ve taken to jokingly referring to him as “Slumlord.”

Whenever this happens, there’s an inevitable lag between the arrival of the merchandise and the arrangement of its handoff, which means that, until the transaction can be completed, my receiving department has to accommodate the storage of said items, rearranging their placement within our limited space every other day or so to better facilitate other incoming merchandise. We manage this intake and outflow with various other large, ungainly items, often for at least as long a time — the job is basically a continuous game of Tetris or Jenga writ large — but Slumlord’s kitchen appliances seem like the kinds of things that could be delivered directly to his properties, eliminating our role of middle man.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago Slumlord struck again: another order of 10 fridges and six microwaves, which, for the time being have formed an outcropping on one side of our dock, a peninsula of appliances that we have been working around as we await their removal or retrieval.

As a business still operating daily during the pandemic and deemed essential because we’re part of the supply chain, as it were, we’re in the weird (and, I feel, slightly irresponsible) position of still receiving daily a metric shit-ton of merchandise (not all of which I believe falls under the heading of “goods essential to daily survival”) that has nowhere to go until room opens up on our shelves or in our aisles. Which means that back in receiving, our space on any given day is tighter and tighter as we work around, among other things, Slumlord’s appliances.

So yesterday my department head looked up the contact information attached to the order and called to ask whether the customer could estimate when he might take this latest obstruction off our hands, at which point she discovered the truth about him.

He’s not a landlord or property manager at all, but rather the buyer for a senior assisted-living facility, which has had to suspend most incoming deliveries during the COVID-19 crisis and is awaiting the lifting of restrictions before the merchandise can be delivered.

And now we all feel like assholes.

This has been a short story about perceptions.

Written by Shepcat

April 11, 2020 at 6:21 pm

Posted in Life, Work

Idea Free for the Taking

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On my walk this evening I passed a couch some homeowner set out at the curb.

Now it’s one thing if one’s municipal solid-waste department has scheduled a large-item pickup day, but most of the time people are hoping someone will drive by, think, “Hey, free couch,” and carry the eyesore away. One man’s trash, another man’s treasure, as it were.

Problem is, the instant that couch leaves the house, the clock is running on exposure to the elements, wind, rain, mold, mildew, infestation by assorted insects and varmints, and vandalism by area youths lacking an acceptable outlet for their teen angst. The longer the couch sits outside, the less desirable it becomes to anyone who might have made a place for it in their own domicile.

So first, stipulate, if you will, that a couch ending up on the curb is almost never a spontaneous act of passion.

In the history of threadbare home furnishings, I doubt anyone ever suddenly exclaimed, “I’ve had it with this raggedy-ass couch!” jumped up and immediately dragged it outside.

No, it is invariably a premeditated act.

It’s, “I need to think about getting rid of this ratty old couch one of these days” or “The furniture store is delivering my new sofa next weekend. I need to make space for it.”

Solution: a poster board, some colorful markers, a wooden stake. Make a sign and post it at the curb:


Feel free to add as much descriptive detail as space allows. Hell, tape a picture of the couch to the sign.

As many people will drive past the sign as would have driven past the gradually decomposing couch. Perhaps they make a mental note. Perhaps they add an alert to the calendar app on their phone.

Then, at the appointed hour on the appointed day, any interested party or parties arrives outside your house to take a virtually uninfested used couch off your hands. Maybe it’s just one guy in a pickup truck. Maybe multiple interested parties show up and a bidding war erupts right there on your sidewalk, an opportunity to pick up a few extra bucks depending on who wants it bad enough.

Anyway, idea free for the taking.

You’re welcome, fellow citizens.

Written by Shepcat

March 29, 2020 at 7:10 pm

Posted in Life

A Tale of Heroism on an Invisible Scale

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It’s probably fortuitous that, in a quirk of supply, demand and circumstance, I had to buy 2% milk instead of my usual 1%. If this had to happen at all, I mean.

I brought home the gallon of 2% a week ago Thursday, and into the refrigerator it went behind the gallon of 1% milk that I was perhaps one cup of coffee and one bowl of cereal away from finishing. The new gallon was in there not quite four days before I opened it.

Then Tuesday morning at 4:30 I was having a bowl of cereal before work, and some milk splashed on the counter. This happens a lot on the first pour of a new gallon of milk or orange juice — too fast, too flat an angle, and you get a big splash as the liquid rushes out; ease into the pour too slowly and it dribbles down the side of the jug until you tip it to that optimum middle angle — so I didn’t think much of it, except that it was quite a lot more milk than is typical. Then as I lifted it away from the bowl, it continued to drip.

I wiped off the jug with a paper towel and put it back in the fridge, wiped the spill off the counter, ate my cereal.

A few minutes later I went back to the fridge for something and found a puddle of milk on a package of tortillas on the shelf below.

Quick. I remove the milk, set it on the counter, airlift the tortilla package from the fridge to the sink, pour off the milk, rinse off the package, wipe it dry, return it to the fridge. At which point I turn to see the milk forming a new puddle on the counter. I wipe down the counter, lift the jug over the sink.

And here I discover the leak: smaller than a pinhole, on the side of the jug, in the outer edge of that inexplicable circular impression, maybe one-eighth of an inch deep, that plastics manufacturers incorporate into the design of some gallon jugs.¹ Some, it is important to note, as if it’s an option available to them should they desire to execute it. Because it happens that the jug of orange juice presently cohabiting with that milk in my fridge has a flat circle etched on its side but not extruded into a crater like the one on the milk jug.

Now I tilt the jug back almost 90 degrees to point the hole, infinitesimal though it is, toward the ceiling and stop the stream — and yeah, tilt too far in the other direction and milk more or less streams from the jug now — while I look for some container to pour the milk into.

At this point, I’m acting solely on adrenaline and not focused on the fact of my not ever having purchased a lidded gallon container to have on hand for just such an occasion. It is now 4:40-something a.m. I’m still only barely awake, barely lucid. I’m not showered, not dressed, I have to leave for work in less than an hour, and suddenly I’m starring in the most low-stakes action movie any writer could ever pitch to a studio exec.

At one point a voice in my head literally says, “God, Shepherd, just eat the $3 and pour the milk down the sink so you can get out the door in time.”

“No!” shouts another voice.

And then a solution presents itself.

Reader, if you’re new to these chronicles, you may not yet know that I drink bourbon. And I just happened to be at the bottom of a 1.75-liter bottle — what my partner-in-cirrhosis, Pearson, dubbed “the joke bottle,” in a shout-out to oversize novelty items — of Jim Beam. And thus did fate bring my bourbon consumption and me to this precarious crossroads, perhaps for this very reason. We may never know for sure.

I need both hands free, so I lay the milk on its side, tempting fate even as fate bails me out. I pour the last remaining finger of Beam into a glass, seal the glass into a used Ziploc bag on the counter — because I’m not so drowsy and overwhelmed that I’m not considering the freshness of the bourbon when at last I get around to drinking it — then pull out the pour-stopper with my Leatherman tool, rinse out the bottle, and carefully pour milk from the compromised jug into the solid glass bottle.

But, Shepcat, the volumes-and-measurements aficionados among you are no doubt thinking, 1.75 liters is less than a gallon.

I didn’t have the time or the presence of mind to consider this fact until the milk neared the neck of the bottle. But in this instance, 1.75 liters bought me just enough grace to put the level of the milk in the jug below the not-even-a-pinhole that is the antagonist in this story.

Which brings us to the hero promised in the title of this post.

Which is most definitely not me. I am at best the comic relief. I am the Simon Pegg, if you will, to this story’s Tom Cruise. (Smaller than Tom Cruise, actually, if such a thing can be imagined.)

Sometime later, when the passage of time had slowed down to 1:1 again and I could think more clearly — as I was showering or dressing or driving to work; I don’t recall exactly when — I reverse-engineered the situation and came to the following conclusions.

Because some plastics manufacturers insist on including this extruded impression in the sides of gallon containers, the sharp top edge of that impression is particularly vulnerable to incidental contact with other sharp edges. A soft enough impact maybe just dents the edge, and it can be popped back into shape; a harder impact with a sharper edge, however, might crease that edge far enough inward to create a tiny hole like this one.

I don’t recall bumping into anything as I carried my purchases home, but the impact could have happened at any time, at any point along the supply chain — somewhere between dairy and delivery truck and grocery-store stockroom and dairy case and cashier and, yes, me, transporting it the last two miles of its journey. It may have happened in a single impact or by an attrition of multiple impacts.

Remarkably, the jug did not leak at any point along that chain, so far as I know, nor did it leak for nearly four days in my refrigerator. Only after I removed the cap, lowering the internal pressure, and tilted the jug, shifting the level of the milk and redistributing its volume, was the hero of the story removed from the equation.

Because in my mind, the hero of this story is almost certainly a microscopic volume of milkfat that in the smallest opening imaginable collided with a microscopic volume of outside air and almost instantly coagulated to stopper that opening and preserve the integrity of the container until such time as a different collision of forces removed it from its post. Had I bought the slightly thinner 1% milk in a similarly compromised jug, maybe the fat molecules don’t coalesce quickly enough to coagulate and seal that dam, and the spill happens much sooner. Again, we may never know for sure.

To the casual observer, this is a pointless anecdote about a half-awake idiot scurrying about his kitchen first thing in the morning. On a cellular level, it’s something altogether more thrilling.
¹ Why? Why is it there? Why is it necessary? I could write an entire other rant about plastic food containers with indentations that serve no apparent purpose other than making it impossible to finish off the dregs of hummus or salsa or yogurt at the bottom. But this footnote will suffice, because I’m pretty sure you feel me, reader.

Written by Shepcat

March 28, 2020 at 11:14 am

Posted in Life

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When Ignorance Is Bliss: Sam Mendes’ 1917

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If you’ve read me here with any regularity at all — or perhaps worse for you, if you know me personally and are routinely subjected to quotes and line readings in various mundane contexts — you know that one of my most frequent, most adamant assertions is that Sir David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is the single greatest motion picture ever produced. Full stop.

With that point in mind, and stipulating up front the matters of its obvious competence and artistry, Sam Mendes’ World War I epic 1917 is exactly the sort of movie I’m predisposed to love. That it racked up a slew of Best Picture wins — the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, the AFI, and a whole bouquet of critics’ honors — en route to this year’s Academy Awards comes as no surprise at all, and in another year, when it might not have come up against Bong Joon-Ho’s equally masterful, differently excellent, thoroughly deserving Parasite, it would almost certainly have won the Oscar too.

The movie opens on two soldiers, lance corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean Charles-Chapman and George MacKay, respectively), napping in a meadow on a seemingly idyllic spring day. It is the only rest they or we will be afforded, for they are awakened, summoned to their general’s tent, given their orders, and sent immediately on their do-or-die mission to carry a message to the front. The entire opening sequence lasts maybe 4 minutes, and with ruthless storytelling efficiency we are thrust along with them into their harrowing journey.

While the film is cast predominantly with unknowns, this sequence also sets the tone for its effective deployment throughout of the precious little star power it goes to war with. As Gen. Erinmore, Colin Firth gives the corporals their orders in a perfectly clipped, tightly contained 3 minutes of screen time and measured urgency, then we never see him again. Farther along the line, as Lieutenant Leslie, Andrew Scott delivers my favorite among these cameo performances, with weariness, resignation and great gallows humor. So too along the way are we given a few minutes with Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden, each of whom are gone just as quickly as they appeared, returning us to the odyssey of our young corporals and the anonymous foot soldiers, both friend and foe, whom they encounter along the way.

1917 is thrilling, relentless, nerve-wracking entertainment of the highest order, with an apparent, proverbial cast of thousands and likable heroes confronting seemingly insurmountable odds, given miles to travel on foot across treacherous terrain and against a ticking clock, battling fatigue, hunger and thirst, beset at every turn by danger and uncertainty, met with obstacles and sudden reversals of fortune and ultimately with moments of profound emotional resonance. At times, whether consciously or not, it quotes the visual language of other films and filmmakers I admire — here Lean, there Hitchcock, a bit of Spielberg, a touch of Kubrick. As a specimen of stripped-down, visceral, nonstop storytelling, it takes its rightful place in conversation with such other great war (and antiwar) films as Grand Illusion, Paths of Glory, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan.

And yet …

I know more about films and how they’re made than the layperson does. Even before I went west to Hollywood, I’ve always been more interested in the process, read more avidly about the business, and dived more deeply into the minutiae than the average moviegoer. I used to be in pictures, as they say, and continued my education through employment and friendships alike. I’ve written screenplays. I’ve talked shop with writers and editors and animators and producers and directors both aspiring and established, and geeked out with friends and co-workers over our favorite movies and filmmakers.

So I’m always likely to return to a film I like and to begin to deconstruct it from various angles, be it story structure or sequence building or editing or cinematography. But on first viewing, I’m a fan like everybody else — absorbed by the story, drawn to the characters, caught up in the action, living in the moment, accepting the movie at face value as pure escapism, unless and until it commits some glaringly obvious error that pulls me out of my suspended disbelief.

Unfortunately, 1917 did that for me before I ever set foot in the theater, not as a matter of artistry but of publicity.

I have long been an admirer of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has shot some of my favorite movies of the last 40 years, largely in collaboration with the Coen brothers but also with Mendes, Villeneuve, Howard, Shanley, Darabont, Sayles. So I was as eager to see 1917 because he was behind the camera as for anyone or anything in front of it.

I only wish the marketing and publicity apparatuses behind 1917 had remained mum about the film’s principal technical conceit: that it was filmed to appear as one continuous two-hour tracking shot.

In a film that already has so much else going for it, it was this gimmick — or rather the knowledge that it was being perpetrated — that took me out of the moment, that robbed me of that pure, first-time experience, one on one with the story itself. Because from the opening frame, I was constantly aware of what Mendes and his collaborators were attempting, what sleight of hand, what misdirection, like close-up magic or three-card monte. I was paying more attention than usual to the technique, at the expense of the story.

Where did they bury the cuts? Was that one right there? Did Deakins do it in camera? How about that spot there? Did editor Lee Smith splice a cut into the middle of a split-diopter shot? Oh, great, one of the Yorks has a small dog in the trench — now I have to worry about the damn dog for the next two hours. How is that Steadicam operator backpedaling without tripping over his own feet or the actors? How are they choreographed to open and immediately close a path around him? Was there a cut buried in that whip pan? How did they scout this location, this terrain? How much of it did they map out, how many miles of trenches dug and wire strung, how many acres bombed and flooded, how many structures and buildings constructed and set dressed in one continuous line, miles long, to further the illusion of that singular odyssey across the battle-ravaged countryside? Did we just go from Steadicam to a crane shot there? And where was the cut buried? Are those real biplanes flying overhead or are those composited in computer? How many of those charging soldiers are CGI?

Again, all of this is stuff I love to puzzle over during subsequent viewings of a film. And absent advance warning, I likely would have noticed of my own accord at some point, “Hey, that sequence is done in a single tracking shot … and that’s definitely one there … and holy shit, it’s all one tracking shot!” But I might at least have made it to the midpoint before my internal filmmaker started elbowing my internal moviegoer to point out this or that trick of the trade.

In the grand scheme of things, maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s a great movie by any measure, and perhaps the second or fifth or ninth time I watch it, I’ll be able to shut my brain off enough to just be with Blake and Schofield on their mission. I mean, as details by which to be distracted for two hours go, at least it wasn’t, “Hey … was that soldier wearing an Apple watch?”

Written by Shepcat

February 23, 2020 at 5:52 pm

My Year in Film 2019

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Happy new year, fellow moviegoers. Whether you’re a cineaste like me or a casual or circumstantial consumer of motion pictures, I hope you at least occasionally experienced the sublime in 2019.

The following accounting of my year in movies is merely an exhibition, not a competition (please, no wagering), though I imagine more than a few of you matched or bettered my numbers this year. (I’d still like to meet and compare notes with anyone who outviewed me in 2018.)

As before, presented here are only the feature films that I viewed in their entirety in theaters, on DVD or Blu-ray, or on subscription streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Fandor, and the public-library affiliate Kanopy); any film I watched on broadcast or cable television (edited, reformatted, with commercial interruptions, etc.) is excluded from this listing.

*  theatrical exhibition
+  repeat viewing this calendar year
¹  first time ever

January (32)

4 True Grit (Coen, 2010)
4 Support the Girls (Bujalski, 2018) ¹
7 Faraway, So Close! (Wenders, 1993) ¹
7 True Grit (Hathaway, 1969)
8 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Perischetti/Ramsey/Rothman, 2018) * ¹
8 Next Stop Wonderland (Anderson, 1998)
9 Miss Firecracker (Schlamme, 1989) ¹
9 The Girl from Monday (Hartley, 2005) ¹
11 If Beale Street Could Talk (Jenkins, 2018) * ¹
11 Mimic (Del Toro, 1997) ¹
12 City on Fire (Lam, 1987) ¹
12 Elles (Szumowska, 2011) ¹
13 Bird Box (Bier, 2018) ¹
13 A Night in Casablanca (Mayo, 1946) ¹
15 On the Basis of Sex (Leder, 2018) * ¹
16 Transsiberian (Anderson, 2008) ¹
16 Baby Driver (Wright, 2017)
18 Life of Crime (Schechter, 2013) ¹
19 Love, Gilda (D’Apolito, 2018) ¹
20 The Adjustment Bureau (Nolfi, 2011)
21 The Adjustment Bureau commentary (Nolfi)
23 Short Term 12 (Cretton, 2013) ¹
23 Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010)
24 Ocean’s 8 (Ross, 2018)
25 Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn, 2013)
26 Friday (Gray, 1995) ¹
26 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn, 2017)
27 L.A. Confidential (Hanson, 1997)
28 Apollo 13 (Howard, 1995)
29 Limbo (Sayles, 1999)
30 Chan Is Missing (Wang, 1982) ¹
30 Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017)

February (28)

4 Limbo commentary (Sayles)
6 Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Hall, 1941) ¹
7 Fair Game (Director’s Cut) (Liman, 2010) ¹
8 Anita: Speaking Truth to Power (Mock, 2013) ¹
8 High Flying Bird (Soderbergh, 2019) ¹
8 First Man (Chazelle, 2018)
9 Logan’s Run (Anderson, 1976) ¹
9 The Founder (Hancock, 2016) ¹
9 The Last Castle (Lurie, 2001)
10 The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008)
11 First Man commentary (Chazelle/Singer/Cross)
13 Murder on the Orient Express (Lumet, 1974)
13 Malice (Becker, 1993)
14 The Long Dumb Road (Fidell, 2018) ¹
17 The Informant! (Soderbergh, 2009)
18 The Stranger (Welles, 1946) ¹
20 Port of Shadows (Carné, 1939) ¹
21 Casino Royale (Campbell, 2006)
22 Lady in the Lake (Montgomery, 1946)
22 The Spanish Prisoner (Mamet, 1997)
23 Funny Face (Donen, 1957) ¹
23 Indiscreet (Donen, 1958)
23 Charade (Donen, 1963)
25 Stranger Than Fiction (Forster, 2006)
26 The English Patient (Minghella, 1996)
27 Moontide (Mayo, 1942) ¹
27 Interstellar (Nolan, 2014)
28 Gone Baby Gone (Affleck, 2007)

At the beginning of March I obtained gainful-ish employment, and it ruined everything. My new work schedule was unforgiving, as regards both movie viewing and March Madness, two of the things about which my sedentary self is most passionate.

March also signals the approach of the Major League Baseball season, which again found me watching all but a handful of my Kansas City Royals’ 162 regular-season games, at least 100 of which they would lose for the second season in a row. You should all be so lucky to experience my devotion in your lives, especially the lost causes among you.

March (9)

1 Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005)
1 Annie Hall (Allen, 1977)
2 The Old Man & the Gun (Lowery, 2018) ¹
6 Angel on My Shoulder (Mayo, 1946) ¹
7 Apollo 11 (Miller, 2019) * ¹
17 The Favourite (Lanthimos, 2018) ¹
24 The Thomas Crown Affair (McTiernan, 1999)
27 Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Stoppard, 1990) ¹
27 The Sisters Brothers (Audiard, 2018) ¹

April (6)

1 Rashomon (Kurosawa, 1950) ¹
9 Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Heller, 2018) ¹
19 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra, 1939)
24 The Lower Depths (Kurosawa, 1957) ¹
30 Avengers: Endgame (Russo/Russo, 2019) * ¹
30 Saboteur (Hitchcock, 1942)

May (10)

9 Steve Jobs (Boyle, 2015) ¹
13 The Browning Version (Figgis, 1994) ¹
17 John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Stahelski, 2019) * ¹
20 Puzzle (Turtletaub, 2018) ¹
21 Baby, It’s You (Sayles, 1983) ¹
24 Booksmart (Wilde, 2019) * ¹
24 The Matrix (Wachowski/Wachowski, 1999)
24 The Matrix Reloaded (Wachowski/Wachowski, 2003)
28 The Matrix Revolutions (Wachowski/Wachowski, 2003)
31 Insomnia (Nolan, 2002)

June (7)

5 Being John Malkovich (Jonze, 1999)
10 Synecdoche, New York (Kaufman, 2008)
18 The Dead Don’t Die (Jarmusch, 2019) * ¹
18 Honeydripper (Sayles, 2007) ¹
22 Some Like It Hot (Wilder, 1959)
27 The Apartment (Wilder, 1960)
28 For Love of the Game (Raimi, 1999)

At the beginning of July, I transitioned from a physically punishing, frankly unsustainable work situation to a much more pleasant, more intellectually engaging one. However, my new position entails a 4 a.m. wake-up call every weekday, which made me The Guy Who Falls Asleep During Movies in the Evening. I don’t doze off during all of them, but from this point forward there are an unspecified number of movies that required a rewind for me to see in full.

July (6)

1 North by Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959)
5 Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
7 Heat (Mann, 1995)
7 Heat commentary (Mann)
13 The Untouchables (De Palma, 1987)
20 Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Herek, 1989)

August (10)

4 Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Tarantino, 2019) * ¹
5 Three Days of the Condor (Pollack, 1975)
6 Klute (Pakula, 1971)
9 The Limey (Soderbergh, 1999)
10 High Life (Denis, 2018) ¹
13 Rollover (Pakula, 1981)
14 The Searchers (Ford, 1956)
15 The Limey commentary (Soderbergh/Dobbs)
22 Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Becker, 1954) ¹
28 Vanishing Point (Sarafian, 1971) ¹

September (3)

21 A New Leaf (May, 1971) ¹
21 Presumed Innocent (Pakula, 1990)
28 Lawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962 – 70mm ) *

October (7)

5 It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (Kramer, 1963)
7 Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Lee, 2016) ¹
11 El Camino ¹ (Gilligan, 2019)
16 My Favorite Year (Benjamin, 1982)
18 The Pelican Brief (Pakula, 1993)
26 Passengers (Tyldum, 2016) ¹
31 Frenzy (Hitchcock, 1972) ¹

November (14)

1 Matewan (Sayles, 1987)
2 Motherless Brooklyn (Norton, 2019) * ¹
9 Parasite (Bong, 2019) * ¹
10 Family Plot (Hitchcock, 1976) ¹
16 Hitchcock (Gervasi, 2012) ¹
16 Winter Kills (Richert, 1979) ¹
17 The Cincinnati Kid (Jewison, 1965) ¹
19 Okja (Bong, 2017) ¹
23 Ford v Ferrari (Mangold, 2019) * ¹
23 The Paradine Case (Hitchcock, 1947)
25 Booksmart (Wilde, 2019) +
26 Veronica Mars (Thomas, 2014) ¹
29 Dolemite Is My Name (Brewer, 2019) ¹
29 The Irishman (Scorsese, 2019) ¹

December (7)

1 The Report (Burns, 2019) ¹
5 Knives Out (Johnson, 2019) * ¹
7 Grand Prix (Frankenheimer, 1966) ¹
14 Nights in Rodanthe (Wolfe, 2008) ¹
15 Under the Silver Lake (Mitchell, 2019) ¹
28 Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (Abrams, 2019) * ¹
31 The Shape of Water (Del Toro, 2017)

2019 by the Numbers

  • 139 movies
  • 73 first-time viewings
  • 15 films in theaters
  • 5 filmmaker commentaries
  • 1 repeat viewing

Today’s the day we’re supposed to resolve to do better and be better in the coming year, and after a year that saw me down a stupefying 65% from 2018’s (albeit herculean) total of 390 movies, I know I can do better. In my defense, in addition to employment eating up at least half the available time I might previously have committed to media consumption, I entered the new year without the assistance of the streaming service FilmStruck (may you rest in peace) and the ticketing service MoviePass (good riddance to you and your terrible business acumen).

On a personal level, I know it was an off year because I watched my holy trinity of Lawrence of Arabia, North by Northwest and Some Like It Hot only once each, and only three Juliette Binoche films all year. Again, I can do better.

The slate is now clean. A new year of great movies (and a statistically significant number of not-so-great ones) awaits us all in 2020.

Written by Shepcat

January 1, 2020 at 9:35 am

Posted in Movies

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One Last Regret: A Maow Story #8

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Two years ago tonight.

Two years since we spent our last day together. Two years since Adriane and I said our goodbyes through the long afternoon and evening before releasing Maow to a place beyond suffering. Two years since our final car trip and the quiet hour we spent alone in a private room, just me and Maow.

A thing about Maow is, while she was delightful company and endlessly entertaining when awake, she was mesmerizing when she slept. Whether she napped on my lap on a Sunday afternoon or just drifted asleep near me on the couch or on her tower, I could get caught up in staring at her, this perfect, drowsy little loaf, emitting whistling snores through her nose, or spasming intermittently in the throes of a dream I could only hope to imagine. I know for a fact I’ll never sleep that comfortably, that peacefully.

I often said that if I were offered decades with Maow, with the tradeoff being that her longer life meant she would spend all of it asleep, I’d have taken that deal. As much as I’d miss her little declarations and complaints and protests — just as I do now — I’d be comforted by the certainty of her presence when I came home at the end of days like this one, meditating on her soft, almost silent breathing, watching as she curled her paws into perfect little boxing gloves, waiting for the little twitches of her ears.

And so, as advertised, one last regret.

When at last we came to the end, I lifted Maow onto my lap to face the vet as she administered the injections into the line inserted in her front leg. I stroked Maow, perhaps more to soothe myself than her, and the first injection put her to sleep in a few seconds, her little head slumping over the side of my leg. The second injection worked quickly, painlessly, and just like that, Maow’s tiny, magnificent heart stopped forever.

When the vet confirmed that she was gone, I reached for my phone.

“Would you like a picture?” she asked. There was no judgment in her tone. It hadn’t even occurred to me, but I’m certain there are some who want that one final image of their beloved pet.

“No, I just …” and I let my voice trail off, but the end of that sentence would have been, “wanted to know the time.” I didn’t want to explain that I needed to know Maow left this world — left us, who loved her — at 9:44 p.m., because, among other reasons, I knew I would be writing about her (and probably, on some level, knew I’d be writing about her still). It’s what I’ve always done. If I hadn’t stopped wearing a watch sometime around 2005, the whole matter would have been settled with a furtive glance and no questions asked, but now I felt a little self-conscious and awkward, as though I appeared to have important business elsewhere.

So I sat and stroked Maow’s fur one last time, and when at last I surrendered her, the vet lifted her off my lap and carried her out of the room. And I didn’t think of it until she was already gone, but Maow had still been facing away from me, so I was denied one last look at her perfect little face in peaceful slumber.

Over time I’ve made my peace with the terrible necessity of letting Maow go, but that’s the moment I’ll always wish I had back.

Written by Shepcat

November 14, 2019 at 6:40 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Love

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Requiem for a Chair: A Maow Story #7

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“We’ve made a decision,” my mother announced one evening in late July as I FaceTimed with her and Dad during a Royals game, as is our routine.

“We’re sick of looking at you in that beat-up chair. We want to buy you a nice new chair for your birthday. We’re sending you some money now so maybe you can celebrate your birthday in your new chair.”

Their check arrived in my birthday card a few days later and was more than generous. My birthday came and went, because I wasn’t going to replace my battered old friend with just any chair. I visited numerous furniture stores and searched many websites. I conducted a serious online flirtation with a deep red chair with diamond stitching, broad sloping arms and matching ottoman, similar to my old chair in its construction. But for all its grandiloquent potential as a focal point of my living room, it was upholstered in vinyl, and though I sampled some vinyl seating in my travels, I was never able to test-drive that specific chair in person to determine whether I’d want to spend hours and years lounging in it.

In the end, I settled on a wide, inviting, languorous elephant-gray chair (without matching ottoman), upholstered in real leather, in which I had actually sat during my investigations and which presented itself at a price that accommodated my parents’ largesse.

But this isn’t about my new chair.

Tipped off by a friend from work who had recently bought the same chair at a discount furniture outlet, I purchased my broad-shouldered, coffee-brown, bonded-leather command post in late May 2004. I remember the date because one of our first breaking-in engagements was Bravo’s Memorial Day airing of a West Wing marathon. I watched for 13 straight hours and left the chair maybe twice.

It hasn’t exactly encouraged better posture over the years, and while it’s not by any measure built for sleep, no number of muscle spasms or neck cricks have dissuaded me from slumping, snaking and wedging my frame into the meager space provided to do so. I have sought comfort there in ways that it denied being designed for, whether implicitly or expressly, too lazy or exhausted or obstinate to get up and move three steps to stretch out on the couch.

Since January 2006 the chair has weathered moves from Los Angeles to Kansas City to Sacramento to Seattle (and moves within those cities), with only minor wear and tear. Its slow-motion deterioration began in earnest sometime after we moved into the house we called The Silent J. Eventually the leather became unbonded, so to speak, and began to crack and flake off a little at a time, first along the arms, then the seat back, then the seat itself. Much vacuuming of the carpet would follow, but the chair and ottoman remained.

(Since the move to the apartment two years ago, small tears became larger — note the obliterated left arm in particular — and while I did shop for covers, I found none that would stretch to fit the chair’s especially wide, rounded arms, nor any small enough to conform to the ottoman. Meanwhile, every time I rose from the chair, little flakes of brown polyurethane would be stuck to my arms and calves like prosthetically applied birthmarks.)

A rearrangement of the living room furniture put the chair in a more desirable location from which to view the TV, and despite its ongoing dishevelment, I found myself spending more time in it, my shoulders thrown back against its own, the curvature of my spine tempting fate, my legs stretched out before me on the ottoman.

It is in this disposition of my semisupine form that Maow found her own preferred resting place, and the chair, she and I became one. As I have said before, one of the greatest capacities in which I shall ever serve is that of soft stationary object.

Among my favorite memories are our Sundays spent in the chair, my coffee close at hand, my computer and tablet situated for the week’s proofreading, and Maow insinuating herself atop me against the front edge of my lap desk, rendering the wrist pad moot and finding comfort where none seemed evident (or willing it through her sheer stubbornness, not unlike my own aforementioned attempts to sleep in the chair). Once my work was complete, her patience would be rewarded by the unobstructed expanse of my lap, and hours of intoxicating torpor would ensue. Baseball or football games, movies, immobility. Bliss.

Before our final car trip, en route to our last terrible appointment, we spent most of that long last day together in the chair, in the dim, cool, quiet apartment. She was smaller and weaker than she had been only a month before, and I made a cushion out of a folded bath towel to make her as comfortable as possible before lifting her onto my lap. Had I not determined that morning that letting her go was the most loving, humane thing I could do for her, I could have sat there with her forever.

So I will confess to a brief pang of defiance in the moments following my parents’ generous offer (how dare they?), precisely because this was Maow’s and my chair. The suggestion that I part with it after all we had been through together was a momentary affront, like being slapped with a gauntlet or having a glass of water thrown in my face. Had Mom and Dad not announced their gift when they did, there’s no telling how long I would have continued whiling away my downtime in the dilapidated, slowly eroding wreckage of the chair.

On delivery day I sank into its embrace for one last, lingering cup of coffee as I began writing this chronicle, before upending it and pushing it toward the exit to make room for its successor, before dragging it downstairs, pushing it across the parking lot and behind my building’s dumpster, where oversize items go to await their final journeys to the landfill. I will no doubt see it there several times in the intervening days or weeks and feel sadness and longing for the past. If you’ve read these chronicles at all, you know by now that this is who I am.

I carry Maow everywhere in my heart and still have physical reminders of her close at hand, but that chair was an island that we alone inhabited (I Crusoe, she Friday), and even though a fairly magnificent piece of furniture now occupies the space where it once stood, where we spent that last day together, it may be a while before it stops feeling like an absence, a hole in the room where something is missing.

Sometimes when I entertain thoughts of an afterlife, I imagine that a suitably perfect one might be spent in that old chair, restored to its former glory — whether situated in a meticulously re-created living room or suspended in an endless void; it doesn’t really matter — stroking Maow’s fur as she naps and purrs on my lap for eternity, like one perfect never-ending Sunday.

Written by Shepcat

August 25, 2019 at 10:21 am

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Love

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A Madeleine 2.5

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As long as I’m on the subject of The Untouchables

My sophomore year at KU I was a desk assistant at Oliver Hall, where I lived, and in addition to working a few three-hour desk shifts each week, I worked one or two half-shifts a week sorting the morning mail, working alongside whoever was manning the front desk.

There was one girl — let’s call her Angie — whom I found especially grating to work with, particularly in the morning when I’m more people-averse to begin with. She was flighty and chatty and prone to insipid conversation, and I usually tried to power through the mail as quickly as possible so I could be done with her and get on with my day.

One spring morning the hall’s daily mail arrived — two or three big canvas drawstring bags that we’d dive into and separate before filing it in the residents’ mail slots. I happened to first open a bag full of magazines and catalogs, near the top of which was the May issue of Gentleman’s Quarterly, as it was still commonly referred to back then.

costner gq

“Hey, Kevin’s on the cover of GQ!” I exclaimed.

I have always been an avid follower of the movies, even when I didn’t yet live in an industry town, but Angie didn’t know that. And while it was certainly not unlike me to say such things, I was immediately struck by how overly familiar I must have sounded to her, so I just ran with it.

“I know him!”

Kevin Costner had appeared in a dozen movies in five years — and had semi-famously not appeared in one — but to date the only role in which he had made a strong impression was as the high-spirited gunslinger Jake in Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado. If that had been his breakout role, then The Untouchables, coming in June of that year, would be the film that made him a star.

Angie was into hair bands and would ramble ad nauseam about Jon Bon Jovi and David Coverdale and David Lee Roth and whose ass looked best in spandex, so I was sure she wouldn’t know any of this, and I decided to have some fun with her ignorance and gullibility.

On the fly I spun a magnificent tale about a friend in L.A. whose father was an entertainment lawyer. I had visited a few summers back, and while I was there we had hung around a party his parents had thrown at their house in the Hollywood Hills. Mingling among assorted industry types, I had met Kevin — really nice, engaging, down-to-earth guy — and in the course of our conversation he mentioned that he’d found out the day before that his entire role in a movie he had wrapped was going to end up on the cutting-room floor. This was Kasdan’s The Big Chill — Costner would have appeared in flashbacks as Alex, whose funeral had brought his college friends back together — which surely Angie was familiar with, if only for the popularity of its soundtrack album.

“Worked out OK for him, though. Kasdan felt bad and cast him in Silverado. Now look at him,” I said, referring back to the magazine cover.

I marveled at my own audacity but knew that I’d soon run out of plausible details to keep the lie going. I was trying to think ahead and wondering about cutting bait and confessing, when Angie interjected.

“Hey, wait a minute,” she drawled, her suspicion evident in the way her words hung there in the air. “You’ve never been to L.A.”

Of all the details for her to get hung up on …

But then: “No, wait, that’s right — you told me one other time about a trip to California. Was it this one?”

At which point any compunction I had about lying to Angie evaporated. “Possibly. I mean, I’ve been out there to visit more than once.”

I have no idea what became of Angie after KU, but maybe once or twice over the last 32 years the subject of Kevin Costner has come up among friends, at which point she may have said, “Hey, did I ever tell you? I went to school with a guy who met him before he was famous.”

Written by Shepcat

July 14, 2019 at 2:29 pm

A Madeleine — #2 in a Series

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My friend Colleen traveled to Chicago this week, and Thursday she posted a picture of the façade of Union Station on Facebook. Which took me back in time.

In the summer of 1987 or ’88, my best friend, Andre, and I made our second weekend trip to Chicago together (our first having occurred in the summer of ’86, after our freshman year at KU). This time we crashed on the floor of a friend’s family home in Wilmette or Winnetka — one of the W’s, very confusing, as they’re both northern suburbs, right next to each other along the same rail line — and took the commuter train into the city each day.

Our first day, after we hopped off the train, we made the short walk to Union Station, which recently had figured prominently in The Untouchables — most notably in the shootout in which director Brian De Palma shamelessly but masterfully cribs from Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.

I am virtually certain Andre and I entered on the Canal Street side, at the entrance nearest Jackson Boulevard, and once inside we might have walked around a bit surveying the other entrances as we tried to single out the actual staircase on which the shootout took place.

We found it. Or thought we did, anyway. Certainly the layout looked correct, even if all the contemporary touches like advertising and modern signage clashed with spare, elegant period setting of the movie playing back in our heads.

U Master

So I went into director mode, and began blocking the scene.

“Costner’s standing here …” after he clunkily drags the baby stroller up the steps one-handed, refusing to relinquish his hold on the shotgun under his trench coat, spotting the bookkeeper and several Capone henchmen as they enter the station.

U Three-shot

“He recognizes the henchman at the entrance, pushes the mother out of the way as he raises his shotgun to fire. He lets go of the stroller …”

U Costner

I went down the steps, tracing the stroller’s downward trajectory as bystanders fall amid the crossfire. Costner follows it down, having first thrown down his shotgun and drawn his sidearm, which he quickly empties.

U Mid-Stairs

I’m at the foot of the staircase now. “Enter Garcia. He crosses into frame, tosses Costner his spare pistol, and slides in right here to catch the stroller before it pitches off the bottom step …” (For the record, I did not slide, notwithstanding my enthusiasm. … Enthusiasm. … Enthusiasm.) “… and he trains his gun on the henchman holding the bookkeeper …”

U Garcia

I aim my finger gun upward and to the right before crossing back up the steps to the third point of the triangle.

Here. … Garcia shoots.”

U Accountant

And this is the point in the story when I cross my heart and hope to die. Because as I looked at the wall there under the balustrade, that’s when it caught my eye.

Blood spatter.

Not much. Nothing like what you see in the photo above. So little, in fact, that you’d miss it altogether if you weren’t on that staircase at that time for that very purpose. But spots of pinkish red, many no bigger than the head of a pin, that could plausibly — in my mind, could only — be squib blood that didn’t get completely cleaned off the wall after filming. Filming that the Internet Movie Database informs me took place in August 1986 — not long after our first Chicago trip, as it happens — meaning that spatter had persisted a year, maybe two (again, my memory) waiting for us to discover it there.

Coincidence, you say. Some kid could have knocked his cherry Slurpee off the top of the balustrade the day before, you say.

Suspension of disbelief, I say. The magic of motion pictures.

You could never convince me otherwise.

Here endeth the lesson.

Written by Shepcat

July 13, 2019 at 9:59 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Movies

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Pay It Forward: A Maow Story #6

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A little after 10 a.m. Friday I received the sad news that Burns had passed away that morning, and right there in the breakroom at work, with a dozen or so co-workers milling about nearby, I became teary-eyed. Not crying exactly but just lachrymose enough that if someone glanced my way, they might have asked whether I was OK.

I pushed a tear away with my thumb and a moment later another arrived in its place. It persisted, and on my way back to work I had to will myself not to think of Burns so I could hold it together in front of customers and co-workers and get on with my day.

Burns was a 15-year-old orange tabby I followed on Twitter.

One of four, to be exact, whose human is a political writer I follow. A world-class journalist whose fine work is somehow overshadowed by the four (now three) orange tabbies with whom he and his wife share their lives. The Garfields, he calls them.

There’s a well-known science-fiction writer I follow primarily because of his four cats, the youngest of whom was a stray tuxedo kitten his family took in a year ago, who has blossomed into as charismatic a troublemaker as you would hope to find on social media.

Yet another cat I follow, on both Twitter and Instagram, this one a tortoiseshell — one of two rescue floofs who belong to a writer and criminologist in New England — is about to have surgery next week, and I have nervously awaited news of her health as her sad saga has unfolded. The surgery will cost her humans about $3,500, and they are rallying to raise the money however they can. And I feel that, because we’ve been there.

When Adriane’s Big Cat (aka B.C., whom I referred to affectionately as Suitcase) was ailing during our year in Sacramento, I was in no position to tell Adriane not to spend $1,200 or so on the surgery we hoped would save this creature who had been her companion for a decade or more. Sadly, the surgery revealed a larger underlying issue that would have required another surgery to correct, but ultimately we couldn’t justify the additional trauma that second surgery would cause him, with no promise that it would improve his quality of life. That second decision wasn’t about the money at all — though again, I couldn’t have said no — which is how you want it to be, if only for your own peace of mind.

When Maow became weaker and began to fail in the fall of 2017, I was fortunately in a position to throw money at the crisis — about $1,700 all told, after I took her to the emergency veterinary hospital. All it bought me was a few more days with her and the peace of mind that her regular vet had denied me, but it was worth it. And I would do it again. I can’t imagine not doing it.

That Friday night, when Maow was taken from me to have her vital stats collected and to be assigned her kennel, I stood at reception as other humans checked in their pets — I remember a bulldog and a golden retriever, though I can’t recall their names or illnesses now, but in particular I remember an older gray tabby who experienced so much pain when he pooped that he would leap straight up into the air. Which is hilarious for about three seconds, until you look into that poor cat’s eyes and see the concern etched into its human’s face, which was exactly as troubled as my own. And though my entire weekend was a sad, slow march toward letting go of Maow, I worried about all three of those pets and wondered about their care and progress all weekend.

That’s one of many final gifts Maow gave me: affection and concern for the pets of people I don’t even know.

Rest assured, then, that if I do know you — even if I’m unable to express it adequately at the time — I am standing beside you in spirit as you care for a sick or dying pet, and I’m very likely an emotional wreck about it. Because I’ve been there, and every minute of that harrowing last weekend still plays inside me on a loop.

Written by Shepcat

July 12, 2019 at 4:57 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Love

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Things I Won’t Miss About My Old Job Now That I’ve Transitioned to a New Position

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People who say, “Wow, you’re really getting a workout today, huh?” when they’re part of the reason I’m getting a workout today.

People who tell me they’re sorry they can’t help me load their vehicle because they’ve got a bad back/recently had back surgery when they’re the reason I have a bad back/will someday require back surgery.

People who unbox/unpackage their purchase in the parking lot and leave the box/packaging behind for me to deal with.

People with no sense of spatial relations who buy items too large to fit in their cars.

People who buy large items or large quantities without first having removed all the shit they’ve been carting around in their trunk.

People whose cars would accommodate the large item or large quantities they purchased if they hadn’t brought every member of their family with them.

People who forget where they parked.

People who point out from a distance, “That’s me over there, the white Toyota van,” as though I can do anything for them until we both reach the vehicle and they open it for me.

People with no sense of their vehicle’s dimensions beyond the driver’s seat and steering column, as regards their inability to navigate it into/out of a parking space.

People too lazy to walk the 10 additional steps to the corral who just leave their shopping cart in an adjacent parking space or propped up on a landscaped median.

People too lazy to walk the three or fewer additional steps required to couple their shopping cart to the train of carts already in the corral.

People who just shove the second cart in the general direction of the corral, which encourages everyone who follows to do the same until there are 10 uncoupled carts in the corral pointing every which way.

People who peel the sticker off something they’ve purchased and wrap it around the handle of their shopping cart like they’re 5 or something.

People who dickishly wrap the child restraint around the handle of the shopping cart and click it in place.

People who use shopping carts as trash receptacles.

People who use the parking lot as a trash receptacle.

People who use the parking lot as an ashtray.

People who use shopping carts and/or the parking lot as diaper hampers.

People who bring their trash from home or feed their family of five then throw all their fast-food trash in our receptacles.

People who apparently drink a 12-pack of beer on our lot and leave behind their empties.

People who throw excessively heavy and/or sharp, jagged or otherwise pointy objects into the trash receptacles, threatening the integrity of the already-thin plastic can liners.

People who buy beverages too big for their bladders and throw the remainder in the trash so it can spill all over the place when their straw inevitably punctures the can liner.

People who are strangling our planet by drinking bottled water but can’t even finish off 16.9 ounces of water from the plastic bottles that are strangling our planet.


Written by Shepcat

June 30, 2019 at 12:11 pm

Posted in Life, Work

A Madeleine — #1 in a Series

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Friday afternoon as I waited in the chair for my oral surgeon to arrive for my follow-up, U2 played over the sound system of the dental practice.

In that moment I was transported back nearly 31 years to the Uptown Theater in Kansas City, where I celebrated my 21st birthday with my brother, Dustan, and my friends Andre and Michele. The evening’s main attraction: Bobcat Goldthwait.

Bobcat was in his prime in 1988, at the height of his popularity and the peak of his distinctive and singular comedic prowess. On this night he is characteristically manic, his screeching, howling, wailing voice playing to the back of the house. (We’re at a table somewhere in the middle, on the main floor.) Bobcat is rabid and hilarious, and you can barely catch your breath from laughter before he ricochets off in another direction. Then more laughter, more struggling to breathe, glancing at your friends to confirm that they’re experiencing the same giddy disbelief.

After a wild hourlong set, Bobcat, sweat-soaked and seemingly exhausted, bellows a thank-you to the crowd and exits the stage. The lights dim.

Long, sustained applause, catcalls and whistles from the audience. As an encore some comics will come out and do a little crowd work or have another tight, self-contained 3 to 5 minutes of material to reel off before they say a final goodnight. But you can’t imagine a comic of Bobcat’s vocal intensity and erratic physicality having anything left in the tank after the set we’ve just witnessed. Still, the crowd roars.

A minute passes, maybe more. The crowd won’t relent. Then suddenly a blue spotlight faintly illuminates the mic stand at center stage.

The crowd roars louder.

The familiar strains of a song begin to play over the sound system.

Enter Bobcat, first in silhouette, then bathed in the blue glow. He has removed the shirt that he sweated through during his set, and above the waist he is wearing only a tight black leather vest, his bare arms exposed. His stringy shoulder-length hair is now slicked back into a tight, precise ponytail. The stage lights come up a bit. He begins to sing.

See the stone set in your eyes / See the thorn twist in your side / I’ll wait for you …

The crowd goes insane.

Sleight of hand and twist of fate / On a bed of nails she makes me wait / And I wait, without you …

He is no longer pudgy, sweaty, frenetic Bobcat, the guy from One Crazy Summer and Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol. Right there in front of our eyes, he has become Bono — brooding, magnetic, self-assured — performing a dead solid perfect “With or Without You.”

And you give / And you give / And you give yourself away …

And he’s not lip-synching, either. He is fucking nailing it, every note, his voice crying out, hitting every crescendo. It’s beautiful, heart-wrenching, an absolutely mesmerizing 4 minutes of performance art.

I can’t live / With or without you / With or without you …

And then the music fades out. And he’s gone. And just like that, the house lights come up, and a thousand or so people are left to disperse toward the exits, puzzling over the transcendence of what we just witnessed together.

Written by Shepcat

June 7, 2019 at 7:07 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Kansas City, Life

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