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Rewind: Magnolia

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I’m going to say a couple of nice things about Magnolia right up front.

First, I will be forever indebted to this film because it reintroduced me to singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, my profound adoration of whom endures to this very day. Within weeks of seeing Magnolia, I had purchased her entire extant catalog, including the ’Til Tuesday stuff of my college days, and her songs were pretty much the soundtrack of my wayward soul during the eight years I lived in Los Angeles. She understood me in a way no other woman in that godforsaken town could be bothered to.

Second, I will reiterate my admiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s outsize ambition at this early stage of his film career1, if for no other reason than that during those same Los Angeles years, I too had a propensity for throwing myself at my passions fully expecting to crash and burn spectacularly. Magnolia is trying to do so many things. It’s the work of a young man who wasn’t trying to project a film onto the screen so much as leave a Paul Thomas Anderson–shaped hole right in the middle of it and straight out the back wall of the theater.

Because holy fuck, this is some straight-up Wile E. Coyote shit right here.

Magnolia is louder and faster than a film with a three-hour-plus running time has any reason to be, particularly during its first half.2 After a leisurely cold open in which the invaluable Ricky Jay regales us with lurid tales of cosmic coincidence, the movie takes off like it’s gunning for a land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

In addition to its occasionally off-putting sound mix, the opening and much of what follows are drunk on the kind of visual acrobatics that were used more sparingly and effectively in Boogie Nights — tracking shots, whip pans, Scorsesean push zooms — as if it’s trying to generate not just unnecessary momentum but all the momentum there is. Robert Elswit and Dylan Tichenor, whose thrilling and nuanced shooting and cutting were the best things about Boogie Nights, seem to be working with a gun pointed at their heads. [Insert here the shot of Dennis Hopper in Speed cackling, “The whim of a madman.”]

Simply stated, Magnolia comprises the interlocking stories of a dozen Angelenos on the worst day of their respective lives. Once you understand that, it should be easy to empathize and sympathize with these characters — and on this second viewing, 18 years older and wiser, I actually could and did — but the film moves so rapidly from the moment we’re introduced to them that it almost deliberately distances us from them.

The one character I have always championed is nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in part because even amid the chaos and cacophony of these opening sequences, his love of and care for his patient Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) are immediately apparent. Phil is pure and without agenda and more in control of his own sad circumstances than anyone else in the film. He is, after all, merely a salaried employee called upon to bear the intense grief of an entire fucked-up family.

On the flipside, I am least sympathetic toward male-empowerment motivational guru Frank T.J. Mackey (née Jack Partridge), whom Anderson writes and Tom Cruise portrays as a mutated spiritual descendant of the developmentally arrested caricatures of Boogie Nights. The difference being that Frank’s ambitions peaked later, after he audited a few business courses in college, which emboldened him to revel in his own juvenile douchebaggery to the point of manifesto and monetization.

But while the strutting, oversexed bravado of his public persona is a clear counterpoint to the emotional scars and disavowed past it’s meant to obscure — and to the inevitable crash to come — what’s less clear is the why of it all. If it’s his father, Earl, whom he hates so much — for abandoning his wife and son, leaving young Jack at 14 to care for his mother as she herself was eaten by cancer — why has he made degrading women not just a career but a raison d’être? It’s practically an acknowledgement of the film’s excesses that not only would Anderson make Frank the totemic god of aspiring assholes everywhere but that Frank would evolve to that station for all the wrong reasons.

In between, you have a cast of wayward souls who range from dying to deeply broken to merely dull-witted, and Anderson does connect these lives rather seamlessly, somewhat achieving his stated goal of telling one large story instead of six small ones. It’s just that the choices he makes in the telling often make the story blur in one’s vision.

More so than any other connection, the awkward meet-cute of lovelorn Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) and self-loathing Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters) has about it the air of improvisation, of which I am not a fan, even when practiced by my favorite filmmakers. (I’m looking at you, Marty.) And yet, maybe an air is all it is. Given the participants — shout-out to the earnest, good-natured goofiness that is Reilly’s most prominent trait as an actor (and, one presumes, as a person) — it could be either improvisation or merely writing that gives these scenes, all of which seem to last a beat too long, the impression of improv.

All of this (and more that I haven’t mentioned), however, is merely prelude to Act 3’s rain of frogs, both a literal deus ex machina and yet one that, outside the mere what-the-fuckness of it all, doesn’t affect these lives any more than, say, a major hailstorm would. (After all, it was raining a lot that day to begin with.) Now that Ricky Jay–narrated cold open — composed of anecdotes that, while curious, are each easily explained — seems to be less a comment on the intersection of lives we’re about to witness and more an excuse for the frogs, which cannot be explained at all. They are at once hysterically funny and genuinely terrifying, but what do they have to do with anything other than Anderson’s outsize ambition?

And yet, it’s fair to ask: Would I still admire Anderson as much as I do if he had stripped away all that excess and chaos and cacophony and just told the story straight? On its own, it’s still a marvelous work of narrative structure and human drama, but would I then feel that he wasn’t risking enough? Would anyone care about Magnolia if it weren’t flawed and erratic and polarizing and overreaching but merely the competent work of an emerging talent?

Now that I’ve met it, would I object to never seeing it again?
Random observations:

  • In Magnolia, Anderson’s repertory company shares some nice crossover with the Mighty Mamet Players: William H. Macy, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman, Clark Gregg, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
  • One year after the film’s release, Jason Robards would die of metastasizing lung cancer, pretty much the same thing killing Earl Partridge in the film. Robards had in fact recently emerged from an extended hospital stay following a nine-week coma before being offered the film, and the idea that we’re watching him die onscreen — almost literally dying for his art — is enormously affecting.
  • I have to believe that the amount of cocaine Claudia snorts in this one 24-hour period would have killed anyone else on Earth.
  • Luis Guzmán is listed in the end credits as portraying “Luis Guzmán,” which cracks me up more than it probably should.

1 Anderson becomes particularly lovable in this regard when one views the video diary of the making of the film, which contains a scene of him playfully but convincingly berating then-girlfriend Fiona Apple, who appears in the role of “Magnolia Trying Too Hard to Do Too Much.” Ultimately you can’t hate a guy who was that self-aware the entire time.

2 This first half–second half dichotomy in both visual and narrative pacing is a quality Magnolia shares with Boogie Nights, though it is much more pronounced here. Whereas Boogie Nights seems to chase its characters as they spiral out of control in the second half, Magnolia seems to finally apply the brakes to a heedless pace that it was imposing upon characters who were never really moving that fast to begin with.


Written by Shepcat

March 14, 2018 at 1:29 pm

Posted in Los Angeles, Movies

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Rewind: Boogie Nights

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In the wake of my incredibly positive encounter with Phantom Thread (and with Inherent Vice before it), I’ve been circling back to the earlier works of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson toward either reassessing or confirming my long-held opinions about them.

My second encounter with Punch-Drunk Love, for example, reaffirmed my opinion that Emily Watson was the film’s only redeemable quality and cemented my resolve never to waste another minute of my life on Adam Sandler.

On the other hand, while I didn’t love The Master (my first viewing) — it suffers from Anderson’s tendency to create unlikable, rather than merely flawed, protagonists; in this case, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell — my wistful affection for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman buoyed my interest in and overall impression of the film.

I can’t believe I’ve been shit-talking Boogie Nights for over 20 years now — when Netflix told me it was released in 1997, I literally went to IMDb for corroboration — but there you have it. Where does the time go?

Friday night marked the first time I’ve screened it since its theatrical release, and while it’s pretty much the film I’ve been remembering in snapshots over those two decades, I’d like to delineate some of those thoughts here.

  • If nothing else stands out in this folly of his youth, I greatly admire Anderson’s visual ambition here — particularly in the first half of the film. For me, the real stars of Boogie Nights are cinematographer Robert Elswit and editor Dylan Tichenor, who execute that vision with a lot of style and invention that I wish the film’s other elements could live up to. There are marvelous, swirling tracking shots, both at the Hot Traxx nightclub and at Jack’s pool party, as well as a shot in the latter sequence in which a character dives into the pool and the camera dives in after him and follows as he swims to the other side.
    As the characters become more manic and unhinged in the second half, though, the visual style seems to follow suit, and — personal preference here — I wish it had maintained its consistency while allowing the narrative to speak for itself.
  • With rare exception, everyone in the movie is a caricature of sorts, lacking emotional intelligence, real intelligence, or both. This might be fine if the film were a straight-up satire of the porn industry (I’m imagining just now what Armando Iannucci might do in that milieu), but it’s foremost a period piece with some dark, dramatic storylines at play, and I’d like to see some actual adults in the room. Even the veterans, the titans of the industry — Burt Reynolds’ Jack Horner, Robert Ridgely’s Colonel James, and Philip Baker Hall’s Floyd Gondolli — speak in the stunted, juvenile language of titillated schoolboys instead of the more clinical language of people who’ve been at the party awhile.
    The film’s protagonist, Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk, meanwhile, is a developmentally arrested naïf, and his best friend and co-star, John C. Reilly’s Reed, is just a straight-up imbecile. Their ambitions seem to have peaked at age 13 and carried over into adulthood. I don’t expect these guys to discuss Hegelian dialectics and weigh in on the economic policies of the Carter administration, but I nearly cheered out loud when Heather Graham’s Rollergirl announces that she’s thinking about going back to earn her G.E.D.
  • My memory of Don Cheadle’s cowboy-outfitted Buck Swope1 being the only character for whom I feel a rooting interest holds firm. When he and Melora Walters’ Jessie St. Vincent fall for each other, it’s the first time the film gives its audience a hopeful outlook for anyone’s future. There is such sweetness between the two of them that I care for them instantly in ways I feel for no one else on the screen.
    The scene of them together applying for a bank loan to back Buck’s dream of owning a stereo store is particularly marvelous in that he is being discriminated against not because he is black or because they are presenting themselves as a biracial couple — it’s about 1982 at this point in the film — but because the loan officer sees Buck as a pornographer while he sees himself merely as a working actor.
  • That said, I found myself this time feeling a great deal more sympathy and affection for Julianne Moore’s Amber. She’s the film’s true emotional center, and I feel I wrote her off a little unjustly and callously on my first viewing. More so than the authority figures onscreen, she’s the one who holds the filmmaking family together, mothering them even as she is denied the right to be a mother to her own child.
    And a special shout-out to Moore for doing a voice here that seems to be a tribute to Nancy Allen in De Palma’s Blow Out.
  • I can’t completely hate a film that finds a place on its soundtrack for Walter Egan’s “Magnet and Steel.” Ditto the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Oddly enough, though, there were no licensing dollars left over for the actual song “Boogie Nights” by Heatwave.

Onward to 1999’s Magnolia.
1 I have long had a particular affinity for Cheadle as a fellow Kansas Citian, and only as I was typing this just now did I make the connection that there is a Swope Park in our hometown. It’s merely a remarkable coincidence, though, as the character’s name is a reference to the film Putney Swope by Robert Downey Sr., who also appears in a cameo.

Written by Shepcat

March 10, 2018 at 3:05 pm

Posted in Movies

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A Maow Story — #4 in a Series

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The hardest part is letting go. Still.

As of this writing, it’s been over four months, but I still find myself forced to let go of Maow in moments that no one else would notice, in ways you’d need a microscope to observe. Which on its face is a ridiculous notion, because she’ll never be gone from my memory or my heart. There’ll always be something to remind me of her.

I have a couple thousand pictures of her on my phone and my computer. I have a little wooden keepsake box that contains her ashes. I have a tiny stoppered bottle that contains the little gifts of dropped whiskers and shed claws that she used to leave around our house, for God’s sake.1 I have one of her squeaky-mouse toys that I withheld from the cache that I gifted to Nani in Hawaii; an ornament bearing her likeness, one of two that a dear friend made and sent to Adriane and me last November; the “It’s All About Maow” sign that my niece gave us one Christmas.

Maow’s carpeted tower still stands in a corner of my apartment as a monument to her absence, atop it her blue harness and leash, and the litter scoop that hasn’t made it into the storage closet with the litter box. There’s even one-third of a bag of litter in the office closet that I haven’t figured out how to dispose of yet. To the casual observer, the existence of these durable capital resources might appear to be evidence that I’m thinking of getting another cat, but I have no such plans for the immediate or even distant-ish future. There is no particular imperative for my holding on to them.

But again, there is the occasional instance or moment that drops on me like an emotional anvil.

I finally got around one day to clearing some things off the dining table that had been sitting there since November — detritus, really, was all it was. Plastic bags that had contained items the emergency veterinary clinic had sent home with me. Medication that she had never been administered that I needed to dispose of. Paperwork of absolutely no importance.

The thing that broke me was the small, flimsy cardboard box which had protected the tiny wooden box for her ashes. I was about to break it down for recycling when I saw the label on one end that read “Maow Shepherd” — printed entirely for logistical purposes by the crematory, to clarify to whom her cremains were to be returned — which was all it took to unglue me. The idea that she didn’t merely belong to me (though in fact it was the other way around) but that she was a part of me, that she was family, left me flailing in a pool of tears for the rest of the afternoon. I ended up cutting out the labeled panel of the box before recycling the rest.

Later I found in the office a makeshift toy Adriane had made for Maow — a small ring of twine at the end of a string, attached to a long stick, literally a small, straight, sturdy branch snapped off a tree. There seemed no point in keeping the toy, so I dismantled it and decided to toss the stick outside, back into the wild, as it were. Instead of just heaving it off in any random direction, though, I placed it in the grass directly in front of my assigned parking space. I suppose I thought it might be appropriated for fetch by some dog walker who happened to spot it or transformed by the imagination of a child in need of a wand. In any event, I checked for it every time I parked my car or vacated the space, and there in the grass it remained for a month or so, until one day recently it was gone. Not merely relocated, as was revealed by a scan of the immediate area, but gone. And while I’m not emotionally distraught about its sudden absence, I am nonetheless wistful. About a stick.

Finally, I was taking the train into the city last weekend to meet the guys for drinks, and for the first time in a long time I had worn my herringbone topcoat, sort of dressing myself up a bit even though I was wearing jeans and boots. Anyway, I was sitting there with nothing else to distract me when I happened to spy a hair standing out along the hem of the coat. So I plucked it, and even though it could have come from anywhere, it seemed irrefutable to me that it was a cat hair — a Maow hair — that had somehow clung to the wool of the coat for God knows how many months and survived the move and clung there still as the coat hung in the closet in my apartment until this very evening on which I decided to wear it. I held the hair between my thumb and forefinger for the longest time, holding it up to the light, thinking of Maow but marveling at the resilience of the hair itself, that it had somehow arrived at that moment with me.

I knew I couldn’t hold onto it forever. It was too small and the moment too fleeting. I could put it in a pocket or rub it back onto the hem of my coat where I had found it, but the odds of it holding on were even slimmer than my ability to hold onto it in that moment. Even as I held it, I could lose sight of it in the light just by turning my hand a certain way. I knew that my train ride was brief and that I couldn’t will my fingers to remain pinched, and I wasn’t thinking of all the pictures and all the keepsakes and all the evidence of Maow back in my apartment, but only of that moment and that single hair, until I relaxed my hand and suddenly it wasn’t there anymore.

The hardest part is letting go. Of anything.
1 I’ve always joked with Adriane that I was holding on to Maow’s DNA on the off chance that she could one day be cloned. And wouldn’t you know it — a recent story alleges that Barbra Streisand did just that with one of her dogs that passed away. So maybe now I’m just waiting on the big break that results in an influx of crazy, ultradisposable Streisand dollars.

Written by Shepcat

March 9, 2018 at 12:45 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Life, Love

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Salsa: A Love Story

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Brief backstory: I’m very particular about salsa. I hate chunky salsa. Chunks of tomatoes. Chunks of peppers. No matter how spicy or flavorful it might be, I can’t deal with the mouthfeel. I just can’t.

Enter a small, Kansas City–based, family-owned company that produces a variety of Mexican spice blends, including a salsa mix (in mild, medium or hot) that one adds to a 28-oz. can of tomatoes and blends to one’s desired consistency. In addition to being satisfyingly smooth and spicy, it ends up being a much better value than buying a jar of prepared salsa off the shelf.

I have been addicted to this company’s hot salsa mix for going on a couple of decades now. (Seriously, there are times when I literally have to force myself to stop eating it, lest I morph into Mr. Creosote in the confines of my own home.) When he was still in the grocery business, my dad from time to time would stick packets of the hot salsa mix in a manila envelope and mail me spicy little care packages from his store. Since he retired, I’ve just been ordering directly from the company and have continued to enjoy my favorite salsa while supporting a locally owned hometown business.

This company regularly returns the favor by throwing in a packet or two of their other seasonings — a veggie-dip mix, a guacamole mix, their taco seasoning, what-have-you — as a thank-you for my business, which I’m delighted to throw their way as long as they keep producing this salsa mix.

So recently I was putting together another order — including some packets of their equally excellent chili seasoning — when I noticed that they offer free shipping for orders over $45. They quote a Priority Mail shipping cost of $11.80, so by my thinking: Why pay shipping when that translates roughly to six more packets of this stuff I love and consume?

So I placed a larger-than-usual order, and now I am stocked with enough salsa mix and chili seasoning to last until the zombie apocalypse. But this particular detail of my order stood out to me.


It turns out that the fine people who create and distribute this thing I love — this delicious godsend without which I would wander a desolate purgatory of inferior salsa options — suck at math.

And now I wrestle with a dilemma of Chidi Anagonye proportions: Should I say something? Or should I merely adjust my future orders to account for their terrible postal math? On the one hand, it’s not my place to tell them how to run their business. On the other, if they ever went bankrupt because they couldn’t keep up with rising postal costs — particularly the costs of their own mathematical shortcomings — my life would become, well, chunky. And that would be totally unacceptable.

What’s a finicky salsa addict to do?

Written by Shepcat

February 27, 2018 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Kansas City, Life

Hell Is Other People #11

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Here’s the thing about coffeehouses. I’m not alone in the practice of, well, frequenting them alone. And if you’re there to do a little reading, a little journaling, or to get some work done, the best you can hope for is one of two conditions: either complete, monastic silence or a wall of sound.

The former condition is typically the result of either a mostly empty coffeehouse or one occupied by multiple solo patrons who aren’t looking to be bothered or to bother anyone else. It’s its own kind of bliss.

The latter condition can exist at any decibel level, amid any degree of activity, so long as every brick in that wall — every patron, every barista, every appliance, every ambient noise, the music being played overhead, the traffic noise outside — is constantly equalizing its contribution toward some semblance of balance. In other words, every sound cancels out every other sound. Particularly conversation.

Because if you’re alone in your thoughts or, as I was today, attempting to concentrate on a David Foster Wallace novel containing some fairly acrobatic sentence structure, the last thing you want is other people’s words and thoughts invading that space.

Today, after I ordered my drink, I claimed the remaining table, and now each table in the coffeehouse had a lone occupant, as did the seating area with a couch and chairs at the front. These would be ideal conditions for monastic silence, though the music coming from the back was a little louder than usual or necessary today, and for some reason the TV in front, which is typically muted and closed-captioned, had its volume up. I was sitting nearer the TV, so I was kind of making an effort to project my focus toward the music, if that makes any sense, to better cancel the two in my head.

Now to my left — I hesitate to call it a conversation, because one participant was seated and mostly silent while the other was standing in front of him and doing all the talking. It was effectively a monologue, performed for a guy sitting two feet away but projected back to the cheap seats.

The monologist is another regular. I mean, inasmuch as I’m a regular, I see this guy maybe every third or fourth time I’m there. He’s an older Hispanic gentleman with a bushy mustache and pretentions, at least, toward being a musician. He almost always has a guitar case with him when I see him. Today he’s speaking to this other man in what I’d call Reverse Ugly American. You know the stereotype of the tourist who speaks only English thinking he can make the foreigner understand him if he just says the same thing louder and slower? That’s this guy in his heavily accented broken English trying to make sure the other guy understands the words that are coming out of his mouth.

During the 15 minutes or more that the monologist is performing for his captive audience — which, in a way, is, you know, all of us — a woman and her young daughter enter and join the guy at the rearmost table, a double that can accommodate as many as six people.

Both mother and daughter are so quiet as to be unnoticeable, but shortly thereafter another man and another woman arrive and join the table, and the woman, who begins by calling out her order from the table instead of going up to the register, launches into a story and continues talking animatedly and loudly enough to be heard throughout the coffeehouse when her friends are right there at the table.

Meanwhile, the monologist has returned to his table, where a small notebook computer is open alongside a comical tangle of more cables and cords than should be required for the operation at hand. He is wearing earbuds, and at some point during the ongoing chatter from the rear table, he takes out a harmonica and begins playing half-assedly, as though he’s attempting to accompany whatever music he’s listening to in his earbuds.

This isn’t the first time he’s done something like this. The last time, about a month or so ago, he was singing.

So, not content merely to be a loud, obnoxious pain in the ass who lacks self-awareness, he has now retreated into his own private auditory world and found yet another way to be an obnoxious pain in the ass, altogether oblivious to how it might sound to the others occupying this space.

So now we have Steve Harvey yammering away on the TV, one of the baristas running a smoothie blender or grinding beans (which was almost loud enough to be a kind of salvation), music playing over the coffeehouse’s stereo, this jackass playing harmonica completely devoid of any musical context to which the rest of us can attach it, and this woman at the back who is talking nonstop as though she just got off an airplane and her ears haven’t popped yet.

I am a largely nonconfrontational person. You wouldn’t suspect it, what with the bourbon and all the profanity, but it’s true. And yet I find myself wanting to get up, make an announcement as though I’m getting ready to rob the place, and begin to orchestrate the sound design in the space and reshape the chaos that has sprung up around me, seizing control of the onsite media and imposing martial law on loud talkers and generally inconsiderate asshats as I see fit.

Sometimes it’s the establishment’s fault. You’re out for dinner or drinks and everybody seems to be yelling and you can’t hear your own conversation, and you want to beseech the hostess or the manager that if they’d just cut the volume of their music by half, their customers wouldn’t have to yell over it to be heard at their own table, their servers would get fewer orders wrong, you could still probably hear the music, and the restaurant wouldn’t sound like the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

It occurs to me now that if I’d had more cash on me, I could’ve Sonny Corleoned the monologist — ripping the harmonica out of his hands, throwing it on the ground, stomping on it a few times, then peeling off a few bills and throwing them at the guy before returning to my table.

Maybe next time. Because I’m pretty sure there’ll be one.

Written by Shepcat

February 22, 2018 at 11:32 pm

The Dollar Bill of Rights

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Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment II
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The First Amendment derives its power from its first five words: “Congress shall make no law …”

The Second Amendment makes no such claim. It derives its power from money.

Never mind the right’s specious argument that the left wants to abolish the Second Amendment. It can’t be abolished. It won’t be revised. Ever. Nobody’s coming to take away your guns. Even if substantial political will to do so existed, it would require a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states, and there is no foreseeable political climate in this nation that would make that a reality.

But it’s money — accepted predominantly by Republican lawmakers — that keeps breathing life into that specious argument, even as the breath of life is stolen from innocent citizens.

Money is the reason the words “Congress shall make no law” are superimposed onto the Second Amendment.

Money is the thing that makes Congress blind to the words well regulated. Or militia, whose 2018 definition differs wildly from its 1787 definition.

Money is the thing preventing Congress from making any law — however minor, however limited — that would make it harder for the wrong guns to get into the wrong hands.

Money is the thing preventing Congress from even having a conversation about various common-sense measures to protect Americans from guns.

Money is the thing prohibiting the imagination and vision of lawmakers to conjure real-world solutions that would improve the safety and security of innocent Americans where guns are concerned.

Money is the thing preventing the Centers for Disease Control from studying the effects of gun violence.

Money is the thing that held up the confirmation of a Surgeon General nominee who dared to believe that gun violence is a public health issue. Money is the reason the new administration asked him to resign before the end of his term.

Money is the reason our votes and our voices barely matter.

Money is the reason some voices in this country are silenced permanently.

Want your life to matter to Congress? Better get yourself some money.

Written by Shepcat

February 17, 2018 at 1:56 pm

Posted in Politics, The Nation

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Behind Every Great Man: Phantom Thread

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Phantom Thread is a tale told by a craftsman with technical precision and keen artistry about a craftsman who approaches his own work — indeed his whole life — with the same technical precision and keen artistry. It is in many ways the film that Paul Thomas Anderson has been working toward his entire career — perfectly contained, carefully observed, not an ounce of fat on it — anchored by a Daniel Day-Lewis performance that makes Thread a worthy swan song, if indeed this is the last we are to see of Day-Lewis. (If he retreats to the artisanal life of a cobbler, we needn’t worry that Thread will be regarded as his Welcome to Mooseport.)

Despite their having garnered wider acclaim, I have found past PTA efforts such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia to be ungainly affairs in need of tighter editorial control, populated by characters for whom I feel little affinity or sympathy. It’s not that I couldn’t see a great artist in the making; it’s that, with all that talent evident on the screen, I couldn’t fathom how he hadn’t already arrived at that place. It’s not that I have to like every character in a story; it’s that I shouldn’t have to work so hard to find even one to cheer for. (Don Cheadle in Boogie Nights, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Magnolia, if you’re scoring at home.)

And it’s not that I held a grudge against Anderson — on the contrary, once I heard him talk about his influences and his own work in interviews, I was smitten — but that I wanted to like his films as much as I like him. I have been cheering for him all this time, even as I have hated his films, until Inherent Vice.1 I can’t think of any other filmmaker on whom I’ve waited so patiently.

And by rights, I shouldn’t like fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock as much as I do. But Anderson allows such subtle glimpses of his humanity to emerge that one is won over to him by both empathy and sympathy. We are allowed to see him as much the captive prisoner of his own genius as he is the warden who supervises its execution, as it were.

Not all men demand as much or hold themselves and others to such exacting standards in all aspects as Reynolds does — and his specificity and hypersensitivity are at times played to great comic effect — but we are all set in our ways, particularly after a certain age or a certain length of time spent alone or apart. In which case the great central conflict of a burgeoning relationship may not be that a significant other wants to change us so much as that they want to change anything at all.

But Reynolds is nothing if not defined by the women in his life — his late mother, who inspired him; his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who has never married and has made facilitating Reynolds’ genius and furthering his reputation her life’s work; and his new muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who is sweetly submissive and a fast learner — but to crack his veneer they must control him in small ways and be useful to him in big ways in order to fuel his ego and keep his delicate genius from pushing him over the edge. It is a balancing act that Reynolds believes he is performing when in fact it is Cyril and Alma manning the levers all along.

Reynolds cares more about his dresses than he does about the women for whom he designs them — hilariously so — and because Alma understands this and genuinely, unbelievably loves him, she finds her opening to be seen by him as more than just his ideal mannequin. Alma aims to be useful in the ways Reynolds needs her to be but also in the ways she wants to be useful to him, in order to be loved by him. The latter she must impose upon him (first by small degrees, then more insistently), just as he imposes the former on her.

More critical perhaps than the campaign she wages for Reynolds’ heart is Alma’s impressing upon Cyril that she is not the shrinking violet or disposable paper doll that serial monogamist Reynolds is accustomed to having in his life. Cyril is at first every bit as dismissive of Alma as she was of Alma’s predecessor (whom she literally dismissed) … until she isn’t. And that moment of recognition — when Cyril realizes that the admirably duplicitous Alma is an ally in her mission to protect Reynolds and preserve the House of Woodcock instead of a distraction and an enemy within — is rather marvelous.

At work behind all of this, though, is Anderson’s remarkable attention to detail. He depicts this world in all its simple elegance, distilling these characters to their essence, and trims away all the excess to create a perfectly tailored, exquisitely bespoke film that presents him at the peak of his prowess. Others may argue that There Will Be Blood is his and Day-Lewis’ showy, sprawling masterpiece, but Phantom Thread, with its quiet grace, its unnerving tension, its spareness and its splendor, is as close to a perfect creation as he has yet produced. And at last Anderson takes his place among the ranks of filmmakers whose upcoming projects I eagerly anticipate instead of await with trepidation.
1 This may be in part because of PTA’s de facto christening as “the Altman of his generation” and his own stated admiration for Altman’s oeuvre. I, on the other hand, fucking loathe Robert Altman.
It’s noteworthy, though, that
Phantom Thread shares a certain period aesthetic and thematic spirit with Gosford Park, one of the few Altman films I like. The scenes of the seamstresses climbing the stairs of the Woodcock manse to begin their work day in service of Reynolds’ vision are evocative of the upstairs/downstairs world of Gosford Park.

Written by Shepcat

January 25, 2018 at 5:28 pm

Posted in Movies

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