Monthly Archives: January 2018

Japanese Noir

I watch some fairly awful movies with great regularity and glee. Nothing could promise less and truly deliver accurately on the promise than movies like The Giant Gila Monster or I Was a Teenage Werewolf. I maintain to this day that Gila Monster could have been nominated for an Oscar for best song in a movie. Hey, sure the song (chant?) is cheesy as hell, but it was a slow year for movie music. Gigi was better? I’m not so sure.

And Teenage Werewolf has points of interest.

  • Teenage boys are known to fret over their complexion and when they might start needing to shave. This flick posits a bizarre take on both anxieties.
  • Plus, watching Michael Landon struggle to bring life to this title character by grunting his lines (human and lycanthropic) makes the viewer ponder if this early acting challenge aided or impeded his mature dramatic efforts (Little Joe in Bonanza and the dad in Little House on the Prairie). It’s a head-scratcher for 30-40 seconds.
  • If this story were remade today, it would probably include a scene in which Nick Saban would pay a recruiting visit to our high-school werewolf promising to change Alabama’s football schedule to all night games.

What delights.

I also watch Japanese movies with regularity. They usually fall into one of two categories;

  • Happy foolishness featuring Godzilla or his runnin’ (actually flyin’) buddies Mothra, Rodan, Ghidra, et al.
  • Seriously serious films directed by Akira Kurasawa (the man is a god to me).

But tonight’s 1961 Japanese film is a new experience for me. None of the actors are wearing rubber suits, Tokyo is not destroyed, Toshiro Mifune is not in the cast, and thousands of mounted warriors with helpful identifying flags are not raising the dust.

Zero Focus (I haven’t a clue as to the meaning of the title) is beautifully directed by Yoshitaro Nomura. I prowl the overnight offerings of Turner Classic Movies just in hope of finding flicks like this.

If you are a fan of film noir and Hitchcock, this is your meat.

  • It’s in black and white.
  • There are trains.
  • The characters speak Japanese, but the language of the film is “bleak”. I happen to be fluent in bleak – I suppose it’s from doing too many Sam Shepard plays and walking out on too many productions of Waiting for Godot (patience is not my forté).
  • There are trains.
  • The plot twists and then twists again.
  • The characters play for keeps. Those who die stay dead, though occasionally we wonder.
  • Did I mention the trains?
  • Segments of Japanese post-war society of which I was totally ignorant are explored (dredged?).
  • I cared about every one of the characters in this story.

This is fine storytelling.

The acting is also fine. Excuse me for throwing some names at you, but these ladies are new to me and I was so very impressed.

  • Yoshiko Kuga is plain, pathetic, smart, and determined.
  • Hizuru Takachino is polished and desperate.
  • Ineko Arima is heartbreaking……………….just heartbreaking.

These women drive the film. How unusual is that for 1961?

Behind these performances, the music is gripping.

I was so taken by this film by Yoshitaro Nomura, I proceeded to watch reputedly his best film; The Castle of Sand. Lucky me.

The Castle of Sand contains another satisfying quota of “noir” elements.

  • It pairs an older/wiser investigator with a younger/more energetic partner (I’m hearing the theme music from The Streets of San Francisco now). They work on the case in question separately and come back together to compare their discoveries. Those discoveries are meager, but spark progress in each other through this cross-pollination. Yes, there are some “Eureka!” moments, but not the usual Hollywood kind. Mind you, I’m not knockin’ Hollywood “Eureka!” moments. They’re usually pretty exciting storytelling. But it’s intriguing to see these two hard-working, sweating, high-integrity guys tease just enough new information to keep their investigation flickering.
  • The film has bar scenes, dining car scenes, and police headquarters interview scenes. Check, check, and check.
  • Again, it has trains. I know that sounds strange but this is always good for me. It makes me a passenger with no control. I am caught in a powerful, loud machine hurling me towards the next chapter in the adventure at hand. Gulp.

The film does not have Ginzu knives.

But wait! There’s more!!

Unlike Zero Focus, this film is in color. Mr. Nomura uses that color to exploit the beauty of rural Japan. Imagine if the Ingmar Bergman of Smiles of a Summer Night had shot a film in rural Kentucky in early summer. The vistas are impossibly green and people stand small in them. The roads/trails are generally straight and so are the people. Integrity is high – tolerance is low. Hospitality is ubiquitous – charity is rare.

The acting in this film is perhaps not as uniformly fine as in Zero Focus, but the portrayal of the older detective by Tetsuro Tanba (fellow James Bond aficionados will remember Mr. Tanba as Tiger Tanaka in You Only Live Twice) is very nice.

The treasure in this film is the remarkable way the resolution is revealed and, as in Zero Focus, the intriguing use of music. Our detectives apply for a warrant to arrest their suspect. To do so, they must present their case to an assembly of police officials. As they tell their story we see their story in painful and lush flashback. As they speak and we watch, everything is underscored by a piano concerto written and played in concert by our prime suspect. The camera smoothly and logically and relentlessly moves from police conference to rural saga to concert performance. I could not look away. The plot twists as the story is unveiled are effective and startling………and plausible.

This is a gem.

What’s a Junesboy?

thoreau-01What’s a Junesboy?

I hear the question. It’s not a terribly important question, nor terribly interesting, but if ya wanna know…

Three answers leap to my mind. A Junesboy could be;

  1. Beaver Cleaver, the son of June and Ward Cleaver on television in LEAVE IT TO BEAVER.
  2. Timmy in the LASSIE television show (his mom was played by June Lockhart).
  3. Any young man whose father was named after his father and whose relatives couldn’t be bothered to pronounce more than one syllable.

Here’s a hint; answer #3 is the largest group.

I was ten or eleven years old and attending the visitation of a funeral of one of my dad’s relatives in Anothertown, Kentucky. I didn’t know who.

In Kentucky then, visitations could be as long as a flight to South Africa and feel as long as a flight to the moon to a pre-teen…with better food, though. I spent the eternity of the day wandering from room to room of the funeral home, simultaneously seeking stimulation and invisibility. Neither seemed available in this venue. Keep in mind these were horse-and-buggy days before the internet and smart phones. Instead, we had conversation.


As Socrates might query; “How’s that working for you?”

In those “good ol’ days” adults could lie, exaggerate, or just be wrong loudly with a pretty fair amount of impunity, and if caught, be politely ignored in their factual transgressions, especially if aimed at someone younger…or female…or from more than 30 miles away (20, if north)……and you could say any damn thing you wanted to a minority – what the hell were they doin’ there anyway?

This is how I remember visitations in the 60’s. Unlike much of today’s world, civility in today’s visitations seem to have improved. It occurs to me; talk radio, social media, and Russian bots have subsequently siphoned away some of this need to vent mendaciously, face-to-face. Just a thought…

Needless to say, “conversation” was not working for me on that particular day.

I spent the day having adults squint at me and say; “Yer June’s boy aren’cha?” I gaped in response. It was the only tool I had in the box at that age.

It was a long, long day.

I glazed over so much and so often I recall thinking if they made Glazing Over an Olympic event, I might have a shot at a medal.

On the drive home I related my experience to my dad. He explained that his father (my Papaw) was named “William” and that he had been named William, Jr., but growing up in Western Kentucky, everyone just called him “Junior” or “June”. Somehow that made me feel like I was part of some sort of a secret society of “June’s boys” who might rise up someday and force adults to tell the truth and get on with life a little quicker.

I confess to some disappointment with how that turned out.

A Prequel to CASABLANCA?

Are you a fan of the film Casablanca?

Do you have a pulse?

Are you worth knowing at all?

Depending on what day I’m asked, my reply to “What’s your favorite film?” is any one of about a half a dozen films, one of which is Casablanca. I could go on and on about the flick, but I’ll spare you the gush except on one point. Every time I see the ending of Casablanca, I wish there was more.


Well, it’s Movie Night and tonight’s entrée is the 1937 French offering; Pepe le Moko. This is well worth a look. There is much about this flick that is reminiscent of Casablanca, though Casablanca was actually made five years later.

Lucas Gridoux

Claude Rains played Captain Renaud in Casablanca as a man despicable in action but sympathetic in heart…and as smart as Rick (Humphrey Bogart). In Pepe le Moko, we have an outsider policeman named Slimane. He is played wonderfully by an actor I know nothing about; Lucas Gridoux. He also is despicable in action, but despicable as well in heart…and as smart as Pepe Le Moko (Jean Gabin). Gridoux slithers. He insinuates. He invades people’s space. He smokes their cigarettes…and needs a light. I felt the need for a shower after each of his scenes. It’s a fine performance.

Mireille Balin

Pepe, a thief and all-around rascal, is perfectly free to live as he pleases in the Casbah. The police are incapable of touching him there. He is also imprisoned in the Casbah. His power and immunity evaporate should he leave his safe haven. He pines for freedom. He pines for a Paris he remembers with a street-by-street affection. Sound like someone else you know? Maybe someone named Rick?

His memories of Paris are re-ignited by Gaby, played luminously by Mireille Balin. I watched their scenes with the phrase “We’ll always have Paris” running in my heart.

Marcel Dalio

The connection between these two films is further emphasized by the inclusion of Marcel Dalio in the casts. He plays an ill-fated messenger in Pepe, but is better remembered as the unfortunate croupier requesting additional funds in Rick’s Café Americaine in Casablanca. Mr. Dalio in real life was also married to the beautiful Madeleine Lebeau, who played Yvonne, Rick’s jilted local lover in Casablanca. Their real life desperate escape and winding journey from France to Portugal to Canada to the United States mirrors that of the refugees pictured in Casablanca. Marcel Dalio also appeared to good effect in La Grande Illusion, To Have and Have Not, The Rules of the Game, and Catch-22. Interestingly enough, he also played Captain Renaud in the TV series of Casablanca (1955-56).

Jean Gabin

Finally, there’s Jean Gabin.

I really like watching Mr. Gabin work. I have seen him referred to as a French Humphrey Bogart and I can see why though I see him more as a French Jean Gabin. His work in Port of Shadows and La Bete Humaine (both 1938) is compelling. Later in his career, in Four Bags Full (1956) he gives a performance full of surprise and relatively free of cliché. I’m a fan.

If you cherish Casablanca as I do, you will find much to delight you in Pepe le Moko.

A Letter to Hannah

Hannah goin back to LA brunch-group outside

I had a fine omelet today. Debbie Long’s staff at Dudley’s cooked and served it. The room was suffused with sunlight, making you almost forget there was snow on the ground and it was 19 degrees in Lexington (which, if not flat out illegal, is certainly unethical in my opinion).

The room was also suffused with 400+ years of garnered wisdom in my life; my brunch mates.

This “tribe” is bound together in life by the theatre.

Instead of queries of “How’s the wife and kids?” and “How’s business?” and “Where ya goin’ on vacation?”, the questions run to “How’re rehearsals goin’?” and “Did you see So-and-so at Studio?” and “What’re ya readin’?”

This tribe has held each other’s hands through line-learning, missed cues, rain and lightning on outdoor stages, stage mothers, and glimpses of the glory humanity can achieve in the works of Shakespeare, Sondheim, Mamet, Hellman, and Tennessee Williams.

Glimpses of glory…it’s enough to bind you…it has to be.

Yes, this tribe is bound together by the theatre……but today, it’s also bound together by the love and hope they feel for a young woman they’ve known since before she was even born.

She’s been home for the holidays from her inchoate adult life in Los Angeles. She will return to LA tonight, leaving behind her Lexington tribe (temporarily) and four not-so-wise wisdom teeth (permanently).

She will assemble her Los Angeles tribe going forward.

It will not come instantly and it will not mirror her Lexington tribe exactly, but it will be her tribe — informed by her Lexington tribe, but her tribe. It will take decades……so what? The assembling is the journey and the journey is all……all.

My letter to Hannah is simply to say; when it seems at times the tribe you’re assembling is failing you, don’t quit on it. It takes time.

When there are low moments, come home.

Your Lexington tribe is here to celebrate and renew you.

Oh, and by the way, thanks for today.

You renew these geezers in Lexington as well.

Sign of the Wolf – 67 Year Old Spoiler Alert

Once upon a movie night!

Janie and I have been binge-watching GAME OF THRONES and our raggedy dog Chloe has been joining us. Chloe is quite taken with the wolves in the series and is now demanding to be referred to as our “dire” pup.


She’s good company though, so I’m trying to nurture her new-found cinematic interest. I allowed her to choose our film one night.

Unsurprisingly, she chose a 1941 Rin Tin Tin/Lassie wannabe; Sign of the Wolf.
The title is totally misleading. There are no wolves in the film – not one – zilch – nada.

There are however, not one but two big athletic Alsatian Shepherds named Smokey and Shadow. And if you think about it, that makes a kind of sense. You can’t reasonably expect any one dog to replace Rin Tin Tin or Lassie and to be perfectly honest about it, Smokey and Shadow combined are not really up to the mark either. Oh sure, they can climb walls and fences. They can jump hurdles. They can survive plane crashes. They’re faster than a speeding bullet. For real! They actually seem to outrun the dozens of rifle shots taken at them in this flick – it’s uncanny…and un-canine. The dogs do all these things in the film. To quote that great philosopher, Groucho Marx; “It’s a hell of an act!” But in the personality department, they are sadly lacking. It doesn’t help that they spend most of the film running around in dirty snow. How charming would you be? In my world, the only thing worse than snow is dirty snow. It’s a black and white flick – I can’t tell if the snow is yellow…but it’s dirty.

This is a Canadian production which is okay by me, but it means Smokey and Shadow bark in Canadian accents. It changes things in subtle, but disconcerting ways. Using the identical barks that Lassie employed to say; “Come quick! Timmy’s fallen in the well!” Shadow’s rescue-seeking bark is interpreted as; “Come quick! Mantan Moreland is trapped in a plane crash!” Frankly, I was baffled.

The film also features Dobie Gillis’ brother, Darrell Hickman as the “Timmy” character. I find most child actors to be quite moving and effective…and awful. Hickman simplified things by going straight to awful.

Dire Puppy

The film is based on the story by Jack London but that’s alright, Mr. London had died by the time this film was made so he didn’t get to see what happened to his story.

Then of course the snow fell for real at our house the next day and Chloe spent the next morning running around in the new, clean snow, barking in Canadian, and looking for plane crashes.

The neighbors fear she’s gone mad.

Camille Claudel and “Me Too”

A few days ago, I watched the film Camille Claudel again.

I think in these days of “ME TOO” and the obscene disparity in gauging the value of male and female work, this film has powerful things to say. Bullies and tyrants and narcissists do what they do “because they can” and “you can’t stop me”.

Resist them.

Shine the brightest of lights upon them and their actions.

Keep their path uneasy.

Point them out.

Stop them.

I’d also like to take a moment to reflect on the remarkable Isabel Adjani. Her performance in

this movie rips my heart out. The last shot of this ferociously talented character being carried away in a cage is devastating.

I am a big fan of Ms. Adjani.

Yes of course, she’s beautiful.


AND she’s given us other captivating performances in The History of Adele H., Nosferatu, Diabolique, and The Tenant.

Don’cha think it’s time we forgave her for Ishtar?

Monday Night Football at the Saratoga

Pro football seems to me to be a fading proposition.

– We’re scrambling the players’ brains. Their brains! That can’t go on.
– Every third play is either a penalty or a game-stopping injury…or both.
– Replay review is running amok. Can you run amok in super-slo-mo?
– I will never again understand what constitutes a completed pass. “Surviving the ground” sounds like an ecological problem to me.

I have not watched a complete Sunday game in two years. And Thursday Night Football? Please. Isn’t that a fantasy like unicorns and the Easter Bunny……and massive voter fraud in Alabama?

But I have to confess to a persistent fondness for Monday Night Football. I attribute it to happy Monday nights of yore.

My Monday Night Football memories go all the way back to Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, Dandy Don…and Strat-O-Matic Football.

Before Dungeons & Dragons, and Atari, and Playstation, before Pac-Man and Frogger, and Pokemon, there was Strat-O-Matic football and baseball.

One season in my 20’s, most Monday nights would find me in my friend Davey Koenig’s apartment at his kitchen table recreating the reality of professional football with dice and cards and wits and luck all in the glow of the Monday Night Football broadcast on his TV (I didn’t have my first TV for another five years or so). I lost the tabletop games with disturbing regularity, but I won big with the company I was keeping.

A few years later, Monday evenings meant a wedge of lettuce (with 4.2 gallons of blue cheese dressing) and a T-bone steak at the Saratoga in Chevy Chase, usually followed by a small financial speculation at the restaurant’s bar and watching the Monday Night Football kickoff and most of the first quarter on the single 10-inch screen over the bar. The screen wasn’t HD – it was ND – No Density. Then, home by ten o’clock since the “Toga” closed at 9:30.

Ah…Lexington night life…it ain’t no good life…but it was my life.

My First and Last Job Interview

It was spring, 1972, and suddenly I needed a job. Make that both of us needed a job.

Ersatz Harbach and Youmans

My friend Chuck Pogue and I had written a musical. It was a surefire boffo smash. It had everything, gangsters, gals, bumpkins (besides us), 20-30 songs (all stunners), and repartée (snappy, very snappy).

We had just spent an afternoon recreating the script and songs in Professor Charles Dickens’ (yes that was his real name) backyard. Charles seemed amused and amazed at the rampant hubris of two college actors whose musical education consisted of several years singing in a rock band for one and a teen years’ immersion in the films of Fred and Ginger for the other.

But the 100-page script and the sheer number of songs were undeniably real – maybe not real good, but real. How could Charles break the news to these aspiring Harbach & Youman’s without also breaking their hearts?

Professor Dickens on the left

He punted.

He promised he would mount a “backers’ audition”-style production of the show next fall if we would rewrite over the summer.



Chuck was from Northern Kentucky and my folks were living in Michigan. If we were to stay in Lexington that summer, we’d have to find a way to pay the bills.

That meant getting a job.

Chuck got the bright idea of calling an acquaintance of ours who acted in local stage productions and owned a small chain of women’s sportswear shops. Our acquaintance gently pointed out our deficiencies for selling women’s sportswear, but mentioned his partner was just beginning to open a string of liquor stores and seemed to always need help.

Contact information followed and was followed up. There were two openings at two different stores. I got one interview, Chuck got the other. Off we went.

Don’t call us…
Hire that man – NOW!

Chuck went to his interview impeccably groomed, coat and tie…and cape……and cane.
I went to my interview with shoulder-length hair, wearing jeans, moccasins, and my floppy leather Clint Eastwood hat (I did eschew the poncho, it being after Derby Day and all).

I’m not sure which of us was more proud.

The store manager who conducted my interview was desperate. He had no other employees and was expecting a houseful of dinner guests in about 27 hours.

The interview consisted of four questions, verbal — nothing in writing;

1. Do you know anything about liquor? Answer; nope, don’t drink.
2. Do you know how to run a cash register? Answer; never have, but I’m a pretty quick study.
3. Are you 21? Answer; yeah, my birthday was last week.
4. Can you start tomorrow? Answer; what time?

Chuck’s interview wasn’t quite as sanguine (I suspect the cane was a mite intimidating), but he soon got a job for the summer at Shillito’s department store.

My four-question grilling led to a job for the next 44 years.

It was a different time.

What THE POST is Not – Spoiler Alert

My friends continue their assault. They are determined I should watch some films from this millennium. But you’ll notice the films are set in the 1960’s. They’re trying to ease me into it.

Tonight it’s THE POST. It’s real good. I liked it!

BUT, it’s not ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN…and that’s OK.

It certainly looks like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN…happily so. Ben Bradlee was there, in his same office, with his feet up on the same desk…happily so. The news room looked and sounded the same…yes, happily so. Nixon is foiled…so very happily so.

But the stakes are different in the events depicted.

In THE POST, the object of intrepid journalism is “The Ellsberg Papers”, a collection of reports about the history and motivations of a war in Southeast Asia assembled by a team in the Secretary of State’s office mostly by simply asking the Pentagon for the information. It was devastating information confirming the worst fears of a movement of young people opposed to a conflict that killed one to three-and-a-half million people (depending on whether you consider Cambodia, Laos, and political assassinations as part of the casualties – I tend to do so).

In THE POST, this devastating information was not that hard to obtain. The drama…the courage…the journalism was deciding to publish in the face of threats of court action by the White House.

The lesson to be learned was in the question of why it took so long to assemble the information that had been gathering since the early fifties. The answer was in the cozy relationship that had developed (festered?) between the press and the people in government. Hard questions, awkward questions got delayed and forgotten in the warmth of golf with Ike and touch football on the White House lawn with Jack and Bobby.

THE POST makes this point. My hippie sensitivities might wish the point had hammered longer and harder but that’s not fair. It’s a movie, a work of art, and a damn fine one, and the point was made within that reality.

The events depicted in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN are about the clumsy burglary of the political office of an already defeated candidate. What’s the big deal?

– Only that the burglary was authorized in the office of the Attorney General of the United States.
– Only that the money paid to the burglars to buy their silence was raised by fundraisers of the President of the United States at his behest.
– Only that the President’s suggestion to the newly appointed head of the FBI was to drop his evidence in the Potomac.

I repeat; what’s the big deal?

I mean…no one died.

But two young nobody reporters sifted through files, pounded on doors, waited on recalcitrant elected witnesses, cornered reluctant participants, lingered in parking garages, and endured the public berating of the most powerful office on Earth to deliver a truthful report.

A report that a few years before might not have been published had not the Washington Post had the guts to publish “The Ellsberg Papers”.

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN is the better film.

How could it not be?

I might be the world’s biggest Meryl Streep fan and I can’t be far behind on Tom Hanks. But ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN has complete performances by Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jack Warden, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Penny Fuller, Hal Holbrook, Ned Beatty, and Martin Balsam.


I have confessed to being both an old hippie and a true geezer. I have lived through these events.

If you are interested in moving towards a relevant-to-today understanding of these happenings, may I offer a triptych?

– See THE POST, it’s real good.
– Read ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (Woodward/Bernstein).
– See ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN it’s even better.
– Read THE FINAL DAYS (Woodward/Bernstein).
– Read BLIND AMBITION (John Dean).

I have a writer friend who talks about the mystic power of three.

It seems much of my art-consuming life, I have encountered trilogies regularly (…and happily so); THE LORD OF THE RINGS, STAR WARS, Kieslowski’s THREE COLOURS, Clint Eastwood’s DOLLARS westerns, THE GODFATHER, and INDIANA JONES.

Might this be another?