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I’m not blogging these days, because nearly all my time and writing energy is being given to completing the revision of my mystery novel, The Last Question. Meanwhile, for those of you checking in, here’s a wonderful photo from Wanderlustpic.
“We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all our citizens, whatever their background. We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt
There is an undeniable aura about Carol, an elegance and mystery that wafts around her like the perfume she wears. Sitting in a darkened movie house, watching Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird, I was never able to inhale the fragrance she applies so lightly to her wrists. But she evoked the memory of a lovely woman who passed by me years ago—she was wearing a rare perfume, and I wanted to follow her, just to breathe in her scent once more.
It is easy to see why the shop girl Therese, played by Rooney Mara, is so immediately intrigued by the well-dressed woman who walks into the toy department of the store where Therese works. Therese is transfixed, and the woman returns her look. In that moment, for both of them, there is no one else in the room. But then Therese must turn her attention to another shopper, and when she looks again for the woman in the luxurious fur, she is gone. Alone once more with the dolls on display for Christmas, Therese turns back to the ordinary tasks that fill all the week days of her life. At first she doesn’t see that the woman has reappeared—Carol is there, deliberately placing her suede gloves on the counter as she waits for Therese to notice her.
Upon finding that the doll she wanted for her daughter isn’t available, Carol asks Therese what she wanted for Christmas when she was a little girl. “A train set,” Therese answers. In their first encounter, the gap that separates these two women is obliterated. Their age difference, their social status, the counter between them, none of that matters. And as the scene plays out, we understand that the moment she saw Therese was decisive for Carol—she has recognized in this young woman someone she wants in her life. She orders a train set to be delivered to her home, writes out her address and pays for her purchase. Then, with one last smile and the adroit remark of a woman who knows how to flirt, Carol walks away without her gloves, leaving a trail for Therese to follow. There is a subtle trace of suspense throughout this film, and the first one we experience is in Therese’s hesitation upon discovering Carol’s gloves. Will she accept the invitation implied in those gloves?
The love story that unfolds between Carol and Therese is poignant, tender, and layered with all the complexities of a time characterized by constraint. The constraint bore down on both men and women, but that weighted leash certainly placed greater restraints on women. It was a man’s world, and women were expected to accept without question their secondary, supportive roles. Director Todd Haynes uses muted tones to create the mood of his movie. Set in New York in the 1950s, brightness is suppressed in the same way so many emotions were repressed in that ultra-conservative decade. But Carol’s defiance is the point of light in this beautiful film. She glows.
The counterpoint to the ease and self-assurance of Cate Blanchett’s Carol is Rooney Mara’s Therese. She is awkward, unformed, searching. When they first meet for lunch, Therese tells Carol that her boyfriend Richard wants to marry her. “Is that what you want?” Carol asks.
“I barely even know what to order for lunch,” Therese says. She doesn’t know what she wants, or what else life may have to offer, but she catches a glimpse of the possibilities in Carol. What is tenuous with others can take on substance in this relationship, one that is unlike any other Therese has known. And though there is something dangerous about her, Carol’s warmth and strength are irresistible.
I saw Carol with Donna, my love and life-mate for the past 37 years. As we left the movie and stepped out into the small lobby of the Darkside Cinema, a woman seated on the comfortable old couch there asked, “Did you like it?”
“Yes,” I said. “Very much.” I could also have said, “It’s gorgeous, beautiful, exquisite.” All true, but I didn’t know this woman, and some of the fifties-era reserve that was once ingrained in me had reasserted itself.
The woman told us she had read The Price of Salt, the novel by Patricia Highsmith that Carol is based on. “Did you know Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train?” she asked. She spoke about seeing The Talented Mister Ripley, also written by Highsmith, and when she said “we,” she indicated the woman resting across the way on another sofa, to let us know she was there to see Carol with her partner.
On the street, lingering near the doorway to watch the sunset sky, two young women walked by us and we glanced at one another. I thought they were probably on their way to the next showing of Carol, just as they may have assumed (rightly) that we had just seen, or were about to see, the same movie.
These brief exchanges drove home the feeling that I am still part of a secret society. Gay marriage is now legal in all fifty states, and Donna and I live in a liberal town where our marriage is accepted. We have both been out of the closet for several decades. And yet, with all that, the sense that we are part of a closed circle lingers. It lingers because we know there are some countries where we could be stoned for loving someone of our own gender. It is stamped into our consciousness because it is a fact there are places in these United States where we are regularly vilified, demeaned, and ostracized.
On one level, this film served as a reminder that I am outside the norm, and that there are regions where gay people are still an endangered species. At the same time, the wondrous actress who plays the title role conveyed a gift as rare and mysterious as the imagined perfume Carol wears. As we walked along the street back to our car, I felt a difference in the way I carried myself, the way I stood at the corner waiting for the light to change. I realized that Cate Blanchett had left her imprint, caused a shift in my perspective and sense of self. For a while, I was Carol—beautiful, strong, decent, flawed, brave. And even after that sense of myself as someone else faded, a deeper affinity remained: Like Carol, I have chosen to be myself. With all its struggles and sorrows, no matter the cost, claiming your own identity is worth the price.
Just so you know, I’m the only one voting, and my totally diverse self came up with these ten flicks:
Best Comedy: Trainwreck
This is comedy with a heart. Amy Schumer plays a woman committed to booze, pills, and one-night stands. When her editor assigns her to do a story about sports doctor Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), Amy’s totally out-of-control life veers toward a kind of normalcy she’s been steadfastly avoiding her entire adult life. Bill Hader is charming and completely believable as a man baffled by relationships in general, and his relationship with Amy in particular. Apart from the leads, my favorite people in this movie are LeBron James playing himself as a tight-wad millionaire, Tilda Swinton as an ultra-cool and beyond-cynical magazine editor, and John Cena as Amy’s muscle-bound and clueless boyfriend Steven. Written by Amy Schumer, this movie is ballsy in the way only Schumer can be, and downright loving.
Best Popcorn Movie: Mission Impossible Rogue Nation
If you like action thrillers, you can’t go wrong with this Mission Impossible. There are superb action sequences, plenty of underplayed comedy, and great locales. Nobody runs or rides a motorcycle the way Cruise does, and he is still in top form as our hero Ethan Hunt. There’s a nice rhythm to this movie—slowing down just enough to let you enjoy the character interaction and dry humor before you’re swept up into the next thrill-a-minute situation. Maybe best of all is the beautiful Rebecca Ferguson. Is she with the good guys or the bad guys? Whoever she’s with, she’s wonderful to watch. Whether she’s rescuing our hero, pulling off a great escape with him, or doing in an evil villain, this woman really knows how to wrap her legs around a man.
Best Sci-Fi Horror Film: Ex Machina
Best Sci-Fi Solve This Problem Movie: The Martian
Leave a man for dead on Mars and see what happens when he wakes up still alive. Matt Daemon is the astronaut who has to figure out how to survive on a planet where nothing grows. How can you not like a guy who has zilch chance of surviving and decides not to die? It’s one problem after another, and great fun to watch Daemon—and eventually the people who help him—tackle each one.
Best Small Town Track Team True Story: McFarland, USA
Kevin Costner plays coach Jim White, who loses his job as a football coach and ends up at a predominantly Latino high school in California’s Central Valley. While he and his family slowly adjust to a completely unfamiliar rural way of life, he realizes that the boys in his charge have exceptional running abilities. When he sets out to form a track team, he is met with skepticism from his boss and gets little cooperation from the boys’ families. The movie led me to reflect again on the people who pick our crops and the hard labor they put in, day after day. It’s inspiring to watch the McFarland kids train and become a team, and to see them competing with boys whose lives are so much easier in so many ways. It’s especially moving to know that this is about real people and a teacher who believed in them.
Best Quirky Film About Quirky People: Infinitely Polar Bear
Written and directed by Maya Forbes, the sister of China Forbes (yes, Pink Martini fans, that China Forbes), this is the story of a bipolar father (Mark Ruffalo) taking sole charge of his two little girls while his wife (Zoe Saldana) attends graduate school in New York. It is based on Maya’s own life experience, and I can only agree with Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, who called this movie “hilarious and heartbreaking.” Mark Ruffalo turns in a stellar performance, and Zoe Saldana captures the struggle and sadness of a mother who has to tear herself away from her daughters in order to provide a better life for them. The two young actresses portraying the Forbes girls, Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide, are superb.
Worst Two Movies: Spy (Melissa McCarthy) and Welcome to Me (Kristin Wiig)
Ladies, get a script.
Best Film About Art, Humanity, and Heritage: Woman in Gold
“Woman in Gold is the story of one woman, one family, one painting. It is also about all of us: our families, our art, all our heritage and humanity.” You can read more of my review here.
Best and Favorite of All: Pride
“If I had only two words to describe the rough beauty of this wonderful film, compassion and comedy would serve perfectly. Pride made me laugh and cry. As the last scene unfolded, I wept, while at the same time I was filled with joy.” You can read my whole review here.
Also well worth seeing: The Imitation Game, Mr. Holmes, and Spotlight. Wishing you all good and great movies in 2016.
These images are a winter memory, captured during the Orion snowstorm in 2014. I remember at the time feeling grateful to have health and strength enough to trek through the snow, and a warm home to return to after my walk.
Can you imagine remaking David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia? Could there be a better Lawrence than Peter O’Toole? Could anyone match Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, or Anthony Quinn, who played alongside O’Toole? Here are my answers to those three questions: No, no, and no. Lawrence of Arabia is a great film. It is a masterpiece. When perfection has been achieved, you revel in it, applaud it, and let it be.
I bring this up because of Secret in Their Eyes with Julia Roberts. Each time I see a preview of this remake, I just shake my head: No, no, no. The original 2009 Argentine film may not have the scope of Lawrence of Arabia, but The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos) stands beside Lawrence in that it is a perfect realization of the story it set out to tell. I saw it when it was first released, and left the theater feeling I had just seen one of the best films ever made, with an ending that is indescribably haunting. In 2010, my “best” vote was corroborated by both Hollywood and Spain. At the 82nd Academy Awards, The Secret in Their Eyes won Best Foreign Language Film and, three weeks earlier, it had won Spain’s equivalent to the Oscar, the Goya Award for Best Spanish Language Foreign Film.
I am bewildered that Hollywood has chosen to change the characters and essential qualities of a superbly told story to suit its own mysterious ends. I wonder, did Roberts need a vehicle to show off her acting skills? Don’t we have proof enough in Erin Brockovich and, more recently, her portrayal of Dr. Emma Brookner in The Normal Heart?
Here’s another question: How can Hollywood screw up a really good script? Let me count the ways. Make the hero of the story a heroine. Make the woman who is murdered Julia Robert’s daughter, instead of the lovely bride of a young bank clerk. Let the victim be found in a trash bin, instead of her own modest home. I could go on, but I’d have to see the remake to give you the full count, and I refuse to give this movie my hard-earned dollars.
The original Secret, directed by Juan José Campanella, is based on the novel La pregunta de sus ojos (The Question in Their Eyes) by Eduardo Sacheri, who co-wrote the film with Campanella. Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darin), a retired criminal investigator, is at the center of the story. He is attempting to write his first novel, about the unsolved case of Lilliana Coloto, a young woman who was raped and murdered in Buenos Aires a quarter-century before. He decides to show his novel to Judge Irene Menéndez-Hastings (Soledad Víllamil), who worked with him on the Coloto case. She reads his slender manuscript and challenges him on several points that seem unbelievable to her. She suggests that Benjamin go back to the beginning. The story then unfolds from a fine June day in 1974, tracing interwoven threads of love and friendship, corruption and brutality, and the search for justice. And by the time the film comes to its startling end, we have delved deep into the meaning of justice.
Though this is a dark story, there is a good deal of wry humor throughout, mainly due to Guillermo Francella’s subtle portrayal of Pablo Sandoval, Benjamin’s alcoholic assistant. As ruined as he is, it is hard not to love Pablo’s underhanded ridicule of the bureaucracy of the courts, his persistence and ultimate insight into the Coloto case, and his heart-wrenching loyalty to his friend Benjamin. There is also a fine contrast between two love stories: the sorrowful, open love of Ricardo Morales (Pablo Rago) for his wife Lilliana, forever lost to him, and the suppressed love of Benjamin for Irene, who has moved on with her life but seems still, in her heart, to be waiting for Benjamin to declare himself.
There is also a cold, ice-in-your-veins terror at the twisted personality of the murderer Isidoro Gómez (Javier Godino). We share in the shock that reverberates in the widower Ricardo when he sees that the corrupt Perón government has pulled Gómez from prison and assigned him to a security detail that empowers him to gun down whoever he chooses to identify as an enemy of the state. Like a fine painting done with a few deft strokes, Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1974-1983) is captured in a handful of scenes that convey this period when criminals and their crimes often went unpunished.
Everybody’s gotta do what they gotta do. You may need to see Julia Roberts in Secret in Their Eyes. I have to not see it. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the remake isn’t a botched Hollywood endeavor. It doesn’t matter. I don’t want to taint my experience of Juan José Campanella’s masterful adaptation of Eduardo Sacheri’s story. If you want the real story, I urge you to see the 2009 The Secret in Their Eyes. Without seeing the remake, I’m willing to state, categorically, that the original is the best.
On a mild October evening, I’m at the Newmark, a beautiful theatre that is part of a vibrant performing arts center in downtown Portland, Oregon. I’m sitting in the first row, second balcony, on the aisle. This was the “best seat available” and for me, it’s perfect. I have an unimpeded view of the stage below.
The Newmark seats 800, and the place is packed to the rafters. We’re all here to see Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame. To my left is a young couple, handsome and pleasant. We talk about being fans of Gilbert. “Are you a writer?” I ask the young man. “No,” he answers. “Are you?”
“Yes,” I tell him. Definitely yes.
All three of us, like everyone else in the audience, has a copy of Big Magic, Gilbert’s new book. It was handed to us as we walked in—a signed copy of the book was part of the deal when we bought our tickets. The book comes with a large postcard, provided by Powell’s Bookstore, which is producing this author event. Many of us have questions for Gilbert and we write them down, then hand the postcards over to Powell’s staff and volunteers.
We give Elizabeth Gilbert a big round of applause as she enters. She is casual, at ease. She likes Portland, she loves Powell’s. “There are independent bookstores and there are independent bookstores, and then there’s Powell’s.” The crowd roars in agreement. I’m struck again by the warmth and tone of Gilbert’s voice. There are a few writers whose work I admire but who I devoutly wish would hire a voice coach. Because of tension or high pitch or nasality, some of them are hard to listen to. Not so with Gilbert. She’s easy listening without the sweetness or banality. Her intelligence and wry humor are there in what she says and the way she says it, and in the sound and quality of her voice.
She reads a section from Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It’s a wonderful book, and I only wish her wisdom and wit had been on the bookshelf when I was a very young writer, just starting out. But it’s here now, and it is worth a read at any age. When she’s finished reading, Gilbert is handed a big stack of postcards. She flips through them and answers those questions that appeal to her. What’s on her bucket list, someone wants to know. It isn’t what, but who, she tells us: certain people she wants more time with. First on the list is her parents. She has found, and is finding, ways to have extended periods of time with her mother and father (separately—that’s important, she says). I find out that, like me, she hates the term “bucket list.” I listen to her talk about life and creativity and what she cares about and believes. I think: This is my favorite part of the evening. It turns out that will happen later, at the end, but I’m coming to that.
A young woman ask Gilbert her advice for someone in their twenties with no clear direction. She answers: “Don’t give yourself away.” I know, she says—it’s hard because you’ve got those hormones pumping—but there’s plenty of time for relationships, for all that “being with someone.” Pursue your interests, whatever you’re curious about, read, travel, explore, find out who you are apart from the person or persons you’re sleeping with. She finishes this with: “Sleep alone.”
“Take care of your animal,” she tells us. Especially as writers, readers, and artists, we spend so much time in our heads, we forget that we are animals. This reminds me of my mother Louise, telling me, “You only have one body. Take good care of it.”
Then the evening is coming to a close, and Gilbert talks about all the people who tell her they want to write but don’t, or can’t. Why not? she asks. “They tell me they don’t have the time. They don’t have the energy.” And then she asks those of us in the audience: “What do you have to say no to?” In order to have the time and the energy to live a creative life, what will you have to refuse? When and where do you say no? Because you will have to say no to some things and some people, in order to be able to say yes to your creativity.And this leads to Gilbert telling us that she’s forty-seven. This book tour started in New York in September and will end in Germany in December. As much as she loves talking to people when she’s signing books—she can’t do it anymore. This is something she’s had to say no to. All our books were signed by her in a marathon session before the book tour began.
But because she isn’t meeting us after the reading, there’s something else she’d like to do with us. She talks about “whole-hearted people.” She’s found that all whole-hearted people sing and dance. She’s recently discovered the power and magic of singing, especially singing with others. “Are you up for trying something?” she asks. A resounding YES! from the audience. “Would you like to sing?” YES! Okay, she says, we’re going to sing “Country Roads.” (It’s her event, she gets to choose.) “Get out your devices and find the lyrics,” she tells us. “If you don’t have a device, look at your neighbor’s…”
All of a sudden there are hundreds of little rectangles of light all over the theatre. All those lights, all at once–wow. Gilbert invites the first row to join her, and men and women of all ages crowd around her on the stage. Someone on the theatre staff puts John Denver’s “Country Roads” on the speaker system, and now there’s music and we are singing, singing, singing. I don’t have a device and I don’t have to lean toward my neighbor, because my wonderful friend Stephanie taught me this song, a song she loved, one she sang and played beautifully. My tears flow as I sing, because Stephanie is gone now, but she’s with me in this big magic moment—800 people singing “Take me home, country roads, to the place I belong…” And for the length of this song, we are home. We are one big family gathered on a joyous island in time. We are the human family.
This is the best part of the evening, and Elizabeth Gilbert has given us this—her gift, for a few sweet minutes, is to give us to each other.