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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

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

Tagged with

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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