Ok, Sunday

I’m a kid walking to the store for my grandmother. She lived on 16th, and usually had me or my sister – or both of us if she thought we’d have more than one person could carry – take the corner to an old Safeway. Later, it would close and we’d cross Truman and go to the Thriftway across the street from a cemetery where a kid would try to mug me in front of a few years later.

At this point in the story, though, Safeway was still around; getting there meant passing the Pyle In.

The Pyle In was a decrepit looking brick two-story with dark wood planking on the bottom level, a sign of someone’s idea of remodeling back in the ‘70s.

Every time my sister or I went to the Safeway, we cut through the parking lot behind the Pyle In. Occasionally, we’d hear a hub of laughter and country music, but no fights. We never saw any of the people inside.

Not until one early morning in mid-spring when I went down Oakley with another of my grandmother’s carefully scrawled lists with estimated prices of each item. Lying in a parking alleyway between two houses was a man who had Pyle In piled all over his prostate form.

I felt bad for the man splayed out on the gravel, his curly black hair graying at the temple.

Being a 13-year old, I didn’t know what to do but pass him and run my grandmother’s errand. On my return trip, the same way, there he was. Only now he was awake.

“Are you ok?” I asked him.

“What’s ok?” he returned.

I was startled by the response, and by the fact that I’d even spoken to him.

It was my first encounter with drunk logic. I’m here on the ground. What’s ok about it?

I thought of that question on Father’s Day Sunday. Scanning down my newsfeed page on Facebook, I saw a photograph posted on the Hunter S. Thompson page. It was Johnny Cash. Not the stoic man in black, but a burnout in ‘late 60s polyester clothing, his face smeared with cake icing and his hands plunged into the cake with a caption, courtesy whoever is hosting the HST page.

Cash and HST had been taking SID, and (the) “fucker took a whole cake and started eating it.”

I looked hard at the photo, disbelieving even as I looked at Cash’s face and could tell this was no photoshopped magic. This was Cash in his hard days when he was on the edge and couldn’t have gone any further on the cocaine line.

It wasn’t how I wanted to see or remember Cash, who made it past that time and went on to create indelible music that would reference and forgive that hard-living life. Not hold it up as a sight gag.

Or, recycle it as a meme.

Which, as it happens, is what happened with the image.

Accuse me of being a humorless hag with no joy in her life, but I can’t look at that image of Cash with his caked-up face and lusterless eyes and find joy. That was probably the most miserable period of his life. If the cameraman had been holding a gun and pointing that at him, I doubt his expression would have been any different.

What’s ok?


Valentine Limpic and Arther Neet were my maternal and paternal grandfathers, who I’m remembering today in this slightly revised version of a piece I’d written for Father’s Day. Though there’s a Grandparents Day, I choose to remember mine either on this day or on their respective birthdays. Without grandparents, after all, we wouldn’t have had our parents to then bring us into this world.

Let me introduce Red, as he was known in his youth for his red hair. Red was tall with a gruff voice and bullish demeanor. He and my grandmother, Elsie, shared a small but comfortable home in an older neighborhood, one where all the lawns were overseen by 60-ish men who all had served in WWII, as had my grandfather. Despite seeming so intimidating to me when I was a kid, he was enthralling, too. Especially when he told stories. During family gatherings, the menfolk – my grandfather, my dad, his brother Joe and my other uncle – would convene to the kitchen after dinner to drink from Old Granddad Whiskey.

I would try to hang close to my dad, but he’d eventually shoo me back to the aunts and other kids where the conversation was not nearly as interesting.

Not until I was 13, did I even learn about Valley. He and my maternal grandmother had separated, though never divorced, when my mom was a kid. Someone somewhere found where he was living and that he had cancer. From listening to my mom’s conversation with her sister, I tried to glean details of the grandfather I’d not even known still lived. It was almost Thanksgiving; my mom, after making a call to Valley, got him to accept an invitation to meet the granddaughters he hadn’t met.

He gave directions to his little house via all the area liquor stores and bars. It was a hovel. No place for a man to die. My dad argued with my mom that we had no room to house Valley. Having me and my sister share a room to free up a bedroom, my mom’s suggestion, was vetoed by my dad, as well. An authoritarian figure just like his dad, he argued that a dying man needed to around-the-clock care, something not available if Valley were under our roof.

Valley ended up spending his last months with my aunt. We would visit. He had a huge bottle of pennies, so he always seemed to be rolling pennies, which he would give us. I don’t remember anything else except that he said I was a pretty girl.

After Valley died, my mom told us stories about when she was a kid. Of sitting in bars with him and watching him and her mom get gussied up to go honky-tonking. That was hard to believe of my born-again grandmother, who refused to see Valley. It seems, now in my adult view, a particularly unchristian behavior toward a dying man. She must have had her reasons. But looking at her now, so frail, I would never ask her.

Red died a few years after my parents had divorced and things were unsettled. I didn’t get to visit him at the hospital where he was sent after his heart attack and where he pinched the asses of the nurses who came to give him his medication. It pains me that I didn’t attend his funeral, or that of my grandmother, Elsie, with whom I’d failed to stay close. It was difficult to stay in touch with them, mainly because my father became a complete stranger after he and my mother’s marriage was over.

I hate to remember them with regret, but that’s how things end sometimes. Their lives had fullness, though, and they gave their children and grandchildren life and memories.

12 Angry Men: Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll at the Living Room

Promo for Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll at the Living Room.

If Eric Bogosian’s Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll documented yuppies replacing ‘60s ideals with microwave ovens, bar codes and the “Greed is Good” of the ‘80s, it also not so surreptitiously ushered in recognition of people living outside those new norms. Though not topical, its themes – greed, excess, poverty, urban isolation to name a few – are notable, considering the play was performed on the heels of the Reagan Administration.

The Living Room, who produced Bogosian’s cult favorite Talk Radio in their first season, chooses Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll to open their third season. In it, actor Forrest Attaway attacks the twelve character monologues, each directed by a different director. The collaborative approach works, illuminating the influence of each director on Attaway’s performance of characters ranging from a Mephistophelean businessman (the Jerry Genochio-directed Rock Law) to the mouselike man of Bottleman (directed by Living Room co-founder Shawnna Journagan).

Indeed, among the show’s most compelling moments are Attaway as the play’s more vulnerable characters. Dirt (directed by Tim Ahlenius) is, both, brutally absurd and disturbingly touching. The monologue, an urban rant in free verse, builds to a crescendo of environmental degradation, making the character sound not unlike one of Barry Champlain’s callers from Bogosian’s Talk Radio. Attaway is heartbreaking here, repeating his question of people who would be passing him, from a safe distance, on the street. Likewise heartbreaking is the dumbshow of Attaway in black dress (the Mackenzie Goodwin-directed Candy) as a recording of an 800 number plays.

Each of the twelve characters are memorable, if also off-putting, and intentionally so. That’s because each character is essentially an outsider to or virulent observer of his world, the late ‘80s. That world – of insider trading, consumerism, environmental anxiety (hold onto that word, anxiety, because it surfaces in these characters, each of whom either succeed or don’t in taming what makes them anxious)  – is one Bogosian clearly stratified into them and we. And, tellingly, the we is really me.

Unsurprisingly, Bogosian’s most powerless characters are the angriest. In the Warren Deckert-directed Dog Chameleon, Attaway delivers the most direct and frankly sociopath performance ever written or performed. After listing the totems of respectability and normalcy, the character, using a microphone, says, “Normalcy is expensive.” He then delivers a scathing indictment of those totems and of people that frightens for Attaway’s quiet insistence.

Though the first act veers from clowns (the Cody Wyoming-directed Benefit) to hotheads (the aforementioned Rock Law), or variants between these two extremes, Act 2 seems comprised entirely of Type A personalities. This would include the drop-out (the Johnny Wolfe-directed Artist), whose isolation, softened by a toke, is marginally less threatening than Dog Chameleon, if only for the kinds of things you can only say when you’re high: “It’s not English; it’s computer.”

The modern world, the world of them and we, of money vs. no money, is what gives these twelve men their anger, their anxiety, or, their easy acknowledgement that they’re going along for the ride (the Chris Roady-directed Live, in which Attaway pats his belly and assures his friend that whatever the next thing is, he’ll buy it).

Attaway gives an impressive performance as each of the twelve characters, some with more nuance than others. Though his English accent seemed to fade In Benefit, he makes a gesture with his arm that I’m certain I’ve seen Keith Richard do in an interview. Is it a gesture made by men who have shot drugs at one time make, a reminder that their arm is still part of them? I’m not sure, but it invested the character with a reality more moving than his rock star egotism.

Throughout the play, Attaway is helped, as it were, by the “Sexy Stagehands,” – Mandy Morris, Amy Kelly, Kenna Hall – who, besides moving set pieces, of boxes and chairs and glasses or bottles, also provide Attaway a chance to switch into his next character. The transitions, choreographed by Morris, work most provocatively with the darker characters here, the jailcell rapper of X-Blow or the unabashedly sociopath Dog Chameleon.

Kudos, too, to John Kimbball’s lighting, which mimicked that of a concert, at moments. His use of red light to suffuse Attaway’s face in a moment from Rock Law was a visually strong choice that left no doubt that the director and actor were going for the jugular with this character. Megan Turek’s costumes were effective, as was the rock soundtrack by Cody Wyoming. The only detail that rattled the eye was a pesky cord in the above scene. I wasn’t sure if it was an intentional obstacle or a cumbersome prop placement.

Though clearly a timepiece, the anxiety of the characters Bogosian penned in the late ‘80s still works today. It’s poetic coincidence that anxiety disorder was first coined in 1980 and that, throughout his first term, President Reagan made cuts to mental health services, leading to many people flooding the streets who were previously in institutions.

It’s easy to imagine Bogosian passing them on the streets – it’s a given that Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll’s geographical world is New York – and knowing they were characters. In the Living Room’s production, Attaway gives them voice again. It’s the only power they have.

Happy Birthday, Bob Roberts

Twenty years, and, Tim Robbins’ political satire Bob Roberts, though not a classic film, hasn’t aged too badly. Even a classic ages, but it leaves an indelible mark by showing how, despite time and styles of dress, etc, some things never change.

It’s harder to find a political film that could be a classic because the majority of them don’t focus on our commonalities as voters, as people, but on what makes candidates different from us all. Typically, the filmmaker will make a broad stroke to attempt to connect the candidate to a humanity he’s sacrificed.

I’ve watched Bob Roberts no less than a dozen times and have  always been left with the same ambivalence about the film. There’s a nostalgia factor about the film to me now. Maybe it’s because Internet had yet to drastically infuse and radically redirect political discourse to the extent that it has now. For that matter, too, neither was there a FOX News or a Rush Limbaugh; the two were around  but had yet to become the extremist voices that they are recognized as being today.

Except for the character of John “Bugs” Raplin (played by Giancarlo Esposito), the film has no hero. Raplin is the lone moral voice, if you will, the 99 percenter up against the One Percenter Roberts, a wealthy man running for the Pennsylvania State Sentate, using subversive folk music in which greed becomes the heroic quality.

If Woodie Guthrie’s guitar said, “This machine kills fascists,” then Candidate Roberts’ would have said, “This machine guts retirement savings.” “Or communities.” “Or local economies.”

While it has its charms and the satire is at times very broad, particularly the SNL-inspired Cutting Edge scenes, the  news anchor characters – played by Susan Sarandon, Fred Ward and James Spader – have more resemblance to to FOX than to MSNBC. I doubt this was  prescience on Robbins’ part, but he was indicting the press as not being as diligent as a Raplin.

The remaining characters of the film don’t all have direct corelation, obviously, to the current round of candidates and politicos, but there are some similarities.

In the film, Roberts’ campaign manager, Lucas Hart III (Alan Rickman) is depicted as a mercenery who uses his anti-drugs charity Broken Dove as a front for arms shipments to Central America. At the time, this was a nod to Ollie North and the Iran-Contra Affair. Later, we got Vice President Cheney, who, even after he left Halliburton, made sure to throw major contracts to his former company. They succeeded in bilking the Pentagon, as well as putting in danger the civilians sent to Iraq on those contracts.

Then, let’s not overlook Mitt Romney’s Bain, which, as has been reported, have tentacles to the death squads of El Salvador in the ’80s.

Probaby the strongest comparison of Romney and Roberts is that the latter’s campaign bus serves as a rolling stock exchange. His campaign staff are making calls to Asian and European markets around the clock while en route to the next campaign pitstop for Roberts to pull out his guitar and sing songs like “Drugs Stink” while, ostensibly using the anti-drug charity as a front for the arms running.

Besides Raplin, there two other African American characters in the film, one of whom, Franklin (Harry Linnix) is on Roberts’ campaign staff. After leaving a Miss Pennsylvania contest, in which an African American woman won, the others on the bus make a racial joke; the camera catches the flash of pain, then resignation on Franklin’s face.

In an earlier scene, the late Lynn Thigpen, playing the host of a morning show, sits back aghast while Roberts broadly maligns the Civil Rights movement and then smears her character with a patriotic feint.

I think Bob Roberts spoke very specifically for its moment, but I don’t think Robbins made a film that will haunt today’s political watchers. If anything, Roberts might be considered a lightweight next to a candidate like Mitt Romney, who refuses to share his tax returns and about whom more unsavory stories surface to explain that refusal.

If only there were a Bugs Raplin to chase after him.

Be Drunk (for Tom Ryan)

Today was the funeral for my friend, Tom Ryan, who died unexpectedly earlier this week. After a week of being on auto-pilot,  my heart feels ripped open tonight. The noises of nightlife down below just add to the sense of loss. How can others be happy and enjoy a cool September evening when others only feel imprisoned by the night’s suggestion that we celebrate?

That’s a question Tom would appreciate. And, as a writer, he’d answer.  He was a gifted and eloquent writer, and a man whose presence I won’t be alone in missing.

For Tom, then, a poem by Charles Baudelaire, a poet he mentioned he was reading a few days before he died.



Be Drunk

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it–it’s the
only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks
your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually
But on what?Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of
a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again,

drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave,
the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything
that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is
singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and
wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you:”It is time to be
drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be
continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

– Charles Baudelaire



Margaret: A World of Inconveniences

Production poster from the Fox Searchlight film, MARGARET.

A young woman goes from looking for a hat to cradling a dying woman in her arms, all in one afternoon.

Mortality is an inconvenience that reminds us of its presence as quickly as a bus runs a red light.

In Margaret, Anna Paquin, who could have walked out of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest,  is quicksilver cynicism and flinty defenses. Looking for the hat, one to wear on a horseback riding vacation which she’s to take with her piano prodigy brother and their screenwriter dad, will make her happy.

No one’s really happy. It takes too much time. It’s something you plan on being later.

Even if later never materializes. You know it’s a possibility, like so many things in the big city. This one being New York City, a metropolis of busy people planning to be happy.

But, first trying to prove the bus fatality was caused by a driver (Mark Ruffalo) not paying attention, that takes precedence. It doesn’t bring anyone closer together, if that’s a definition of happiness.

It would if this were standard Hollywood film. Director Kenneth Lonergan didn’t have that intent. This wasn’t a film in which a key to a smallbox solves a mystery. If there’s a key in Margaret, it’s to missed opportunities, misplaced phone calls, bad decisions, flat dinner conversations, divorced dad guilt, school teachers trying to seed healthy debates but unwilling to let students open the political Pandora’s box when discussing 9/11.

And, let’s not forget high school teachers incapable of hiding their attraction to their teen charges. Though not in any way a conventional beauty, Paquin’s Lisa is unmistakably the most untimid mind in the room. Even when she’s chirping with teen awkwardness, it’s still while trying to make a connection that no one else seems to want to make.

That, sometimes, people say and do dishonest things because it’s inconvenient to be honest. And to ask the dishonest to atone is just asking to be told you’re a child.

There are moments that will make you cry and there are moments that will piss you off and there are moments you beg the characters to really pay attention to what the other character is saying.

They won’t, because this isn’t a movie to make all the pieces of a puzzle fit conveniently together at the end of 90 minutes.


Review: We Need to Talk about Kevin


Tilda Swinton wears red only once in We Need to Talk About Kevin. At an office holiday party, Swinton as Eva, in a red dress, haltingly allows herself to smile as she watches the coworkers who normally ignore her drunkenly mashing each other in embraces they’ll have allowed each other to forget by Monday. One male coworker, donning a pair of Rudolph ears, saunters to her and offers her a dance. The still smiling Swinton demurs, then flinches when the man calls her a “stuck up bitch” who should take his offer because no one else will have her.

It’s a vicious take-down, quietly played as is every scene in this film, which opens with nothing but red. Tomato red. And a stew of people in a country’s celebration where the tomato is given its own pagan ritual. The event might not exist in real life, but the rapture on Swinton’s face in context with the reality to which she awakens makes a compelling and strangely comforting visual contrast for the washed-out environment in which we follow her character.

“I don’t care what you did,” says the crass woman who hires her to work in a small travel agency, “as long as you can type and file. The relief on Swinton’s face is heartbreaking, especially when we learn she once owned her own travel agency.

She also had a husband and family and lived in a McMansion. All she seems to have left, as the nonlinear script pieces together her life, are her memories and the clothes for a career that was important to her.

It’s arguable if the career was more important than her first-born, the Kevin of the title.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, cowritten by  Lynn Ramsay and Rory Kinnear  and directed by Lynn Ramsay, doesn’t solve a mystery, like why Swinton remains in a town where the people hate her and, on occasion, slap her; it does prove Swinton to be an actor of toughness whose facial expressions accomplish what dialogue can’t. Such as when she wordlessly takes in the sight of her house and car vandalized with red paint. Or, walks in on her teenage son masturbating and watching her watch him masturbating.

Eva  is never brought to the level of the cruelty, much of it incomprehensible, of those around her. The film consciously refuses to justify or to explain and doesn’t allow its characters to do so, either. Even when Swinton asks her son, “why” he admits he doesn’t know. Instead, we get one woman’s attempts to find stability even when she’s coping with loss so great it’s easy to believe she’s in a PTSD fugue. We’re almost grateful for her having windshield washer fluid to wash off all that red paint.

Hovering in the vacant expression of the actors who play Kevin at various ages is the suggestion some people are born evil. It’s not, though, a conversation one has with one’s husband –  the stalwart John C. Reilly as Franklin – about one’s son. The signs are there as we watch young Kevin turn on a sunny disposition at his father’s key in the door after having treated Swinton to antisocial behaviors that progress frighteningly as he reaches his teens.

For every transgression Kevin commits, it’s Franklin who defends Kevin. The script allows his ongoing – and tragic – ignorance of what Kevin really is. There’s no scene between Franklin and Kevin; I suspect  the filmmakers realized the impossibility of Franklin not recognizing a glint that might prove his wife’s gnawing and quiet insistence that something is wrong with their son.

Stylistically, too, the film makes precise choices, particularly in the songs that contradict the emotions of a scene. The aforementioned script flaw aside, the dialogue between mother and son and the acceleration toward the terrible acts Kevin commits is articulate, almost theatrical. It’s the dialogue of two intelligent people at war with each other. Albeit, a war that no one else ever sees.

Not a mother, I admit I found myself giving a guarded recommendation to a woman who was. That was, I believe, wrong. In a scene in which a young Kevin, sick, clings to his mother and excludes his father, the two parents exchange a look as though a long-awaited denouement has finally taken place. The film’s final hug between mother and son indicate that, whatever faults she had as a mother, Eva deserves that denouement.