Pauline Kael on Fear of Movies (1978)

“Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art – of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theatre. So we’ve been getting a new cultural puritanism – people go to the innocuous hoping for the charming, or they settle for imported sobriety, and the press is full of snide references to Coppola’s huge film in progress, and a new film by Peckinpah is greeted with derision, as if it went without saying that Bloody Sam couldn’t do anything but blow up bodies in slow motion, and with the most squalid commercial intentions.

This is, of course, a rejection of the particular greatness of movies: their power to effect us on so many sensory levels that we become emotionally accessible, in spite of our thinking selves. Movies get around our cleverness and our wariness; that’s what used to draw us to the picture show. Movies – and they don’t even have to be first-rate, much less great – can invade our sensibilities in the way that Dickens did when we were children, and later, perhaps, George Eliot and Dostoevski, and later still, perhaps, Dickens again. They can go down even deeper – to the primitive levels on which we experience fairy tales. And if people resist this invasion by going only to movies that they’ve been assured have nothing upsetting in them, they’re not showing higher, more refined taste; they’re just acting out of fear, masked as taste. If you’re afraid of movies that excite your senses, you’re afraid of movies.”

(Excerpted from The Age of Movies)

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Why ‘Boardwalk Empire’ Has Always Been Extremely Good, But Never Great

boardwalk-empireThere is a rumor, rather prevalent, that David Chase forbid the use of tight shots centered around the back of any actor’s head throughout production on The Sopranos. Too clichéd, Chase believed (with the exception of a minor dream sequence during Season Four). Yet, if one watches the opening credits of either Mad Men or Boardwalk Empireanchored by Chase protégés Matthew Weiner and Terence Winter, respectively – it’s difficult to ignore the prominent use of that shot.

David Chase was correct about so many things, in retrospect, his shadow must prove staggering, especially for Winter, whose follow-up to The Sopranos exists inside a similar universe. Because both Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire are period pieces, Weiner and Winter find themselves saddled with the responsibility of remaining true to bygone eras. Weiner has proven exceptional at this, building sets and storylines that are more true to 1960s America than 1960s America originally might have been to itself. Terence Winter, on the other hand, has struggled, in large part because he has taken shortcuts in the service of drama. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” Nucky Thompson explains during Boardwalk Empire‘s pilot episode (an adage originally adapted from Mark Twain).

While Matthew Weiner uses exteriors, Terence Winter opts for CGI, suggesting lush, almost-impossible backdrops along a pixelized horizon. Mad Men inserts well-known figures into minor, incidental scenarios (e.g., Don Draper taking meetings with Conrad Hilton during Season Three). Boardwalk Empire, on the other hand, runs fast and loose with historical record (e.g., Al Capone engaging in a non-existent mob war alongside Nucky Thompson toward the end of Season Three).

And this … well, this is small potatoes, really.

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Moving On: The End

29_C-Estate-Brassa--RMN-GP_jpg_780x1243_q85I was in the living room at my parents’ house when the call came, watching television as I picked up the phone.

“Do you have a minute?” Meghan wondered. A harbinger of ill results.

I had just returned from a weekend at the shore, the final working weekend of September. We were free of it, the two of us, with Meghan settling back inside her dorm room and me eating some Cheez-Its on the floor. I had spoken with Meghan face-to-face three hours prior, had seen her walking with her father on the boards. I had asked if Meghan wanted me to follow her back to Immaculata. No need, Meghan assured me, and she said it in the way that gives old lovers pause.

“I’ve been thinking about the way that things are going,” Meghan told me over the phone. “I’ve been thinking about this whole new world that I’ve just entered, about how I’m doing everything I can to gain control. And I keep on thinking about this horrible guilt that I’ve been feeling, this overwhelming sense I might be stringing you along.”

I attempted to bargain, for a moment, but soon resigned myself to the notion this had all gone on too long. I could hear my own words spinning back to me, and – within a matter of seconds – our two-and-a-half years together had come to a close.

“Are you there?” Meghan asked me.

“Yeah, I’m here,” I quietly replied.

“I think we need to spend some time apart. Are you there?” Meghan asked me.

“Yeah, I’m here,” I quietly replied.

“Please don’t hate me.”

“I don’t hate you. Should the two of us even continue to talk?”

“I suppose it’d best if we didn’t for a while … Please don’t hate me,” Meghan added.

“No, I promise you, I don’t.”

“I love you.”

“Yeah, I love you, too.”

“Please take care.”

Then all was lost.

Day 1,000

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill

Ranking The Women In Don Draper’s Sex Life (1960-1969)

S6_Don_Draper_(01)Don Draper is a philanderer. He philanders. And though the reasons for his philandering are varied, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner may have put his finger on it when he said, “I think Don likes longing more than he likes people who love him … His lack of loyalty runs deep because he doesn’t like the people who know him.” That is to say, we hurt the ones we love the most, but Don Draper seems intent upon punishing them. His weapon of choice: an ongoing cycle of adultery. His line of defense: implausible deniability.

As a character, Don is smart, arrogant, incredibly assured. He is wealthy, handsome … the consummate lover. Don is enough of the things that women want and men want to be that, as an audience, we tend to excuse all of his inequities. This, of course, carries over into everyday life – a capitalist culture in which rich, attractive, button-up types tend to walk all over hoi polloi.

Throughout Mad Men‘s six-and-a-half seasons, we’ve gotten to know Don, in large part, as a result of his affairs. We see Don reflected in shattered pieces of the lovers he has left behind. In ranking them, there was no consideration given to platonic relationships (no Joan or Peggy), no exceptions made for one-night stands or supernumeraries. What remains are eight eclectic women, each of them listed below based on intrigue, as well as what level of drama their interaction with Don has provided during the show:

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Floyd Patterson on Losing (1962)

“It’s not a bad feeling when you’re knocked out. It’s a good feeling, actually. It’s not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don’t see angels or stars: you’re on a pleasant cloud. But then this good feeling leaves you. You realize where you are, and what you’re doing there, and what has just happened to you. And what follows is a hurt, a confused hurt – not a physical hurt – it’s a hurt combined with anger; it’s a what-will-people-think hurt; it’s an ashamed-of-my-own-ability hurt. And all you want then is a hatch door in the middle of the ring – a hatch door that will open and let you fall through and land in your dressing room instead of having to get out of the ring and face those people. The worst thing about losing is having to walk out of the ring and face those people.”

(Excerpted from King of the World by David Remnick)

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Six Roles That Transformed Ryan Gosling Into One of The Gutsiest A-Listers in Hollywood

ryan-gosling-in-the-place-beyond-the-pinesTwo-thousand-thirteen was a polarizing year for Ryan Gosling, appearing – as he did – in both the best and worst motion pictures of his career. While Gangster Squad represented the shittiest A-List romp of that winter, it also represented the only piss-poor film choice Gosling had made in over a decade. The 33-year old’s success is the result of several factors, not the least of which is a quality Drive co-star Carey Mulligan once referred to as his “stillness”. A lifelong actor, Gosling made the transition from child star into leading man while avoiding all of the usual tabloid blunders. He’s got the look, the instincts, the mindset, and the following, and – despite only being nominated for one Academy Award - Gosling’s amassed an entire steam trunk full of accolades, the majority of which were awarded in recognition for these six essential roles:

1. The Believer (2001). As a 19-year old, Ryan Gosling was beginning to rebel against his early Mickey Mouse Club image. He broke out by portraying a self-hating Jew who violently aligns himself with the neo-Nazi movement. The Believer effectively freed Gosling, establishing him as a significant screen presence, one with the willingness to accept roles the majority of vested actors would avoid. The movie also showcased Ryan Gosling’s budding physique, accented by the martial arts training he received throughout Young Hercules.

2. The United States of Leland (2003). Once, when I was in high school, a classmate hired me to write a short story for her. I based that story – at least in part – on The Who’s Quadrophenia. Toward the end of my piece, the teenage hero, who lived in a tiny shore town, wandered out beyond the breakers, at which point he drowned himself inside the sea. The girl who I wrote the story for received a “D,” with her teacher providing a red-line note that read: “People don’t just kill themselves for no reason.” I mention this by way of explaining how critics responded to Matthew Ryan Hoge’s The United States of Leland. Roger Ebert declared the film a “moral muddle,” Moira MacDonald of the Seattle Times referred to it as both “ponderous and endless” (and not in a good way). The film maintains a 34% rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregate all-critics meter, rather astounding when one considers the ensemble cast: Don Cheadle, Sherilyn Fenn, Ryan Gosling, Chris Klein, Jena Malone, Michael Pena, Kevin Spacey, Kerry Washington and Michelle Williams (among others). As the lead, Gosling plays a detached suburban teen who inexplicably murders the mentally-handicapped brother of his girlfriend. Combined with The Believer and Murder By Numbers, Leland made it appear Gosling would be pursuing an alternate trajectory, until …

3. The Notebook (2004). The Notebook is crucial within the framework of this list for the simple reason it proved Ryan Gosling was capable of playing out the next 25 years of his career as a multi-million-dollar heartthrob. Imagine, if you will, every person who’s ever said, “Oh, my God, I LOVED The Notebook.” Now imagine Ryan Gosling having placated that audience. The fact that he has not says more about his M.O. than it ever could about a thousand other actors who’ve made their millions following that path.

4. Half Nelson (2006). A return to form, as Gosling slumps his shoulders, inhabiting the shell of crackhead teacher Daniel Dunne. Gosling is exceptional, if not understated, intentionally dialing it down to feign exhaustion. Half Nelson is notable not only because it garnered Gosling his first and only Oscar nom, but also because it ushered in an ongoing string of signature roles - FractureLars and The Real GirlBlue Valentine, All Good Things – each of them paving the way toward …

5. Drive (2011). By the time Drive entered pre-production, Gosling’s swagger had become such he was afforded the luxury of choosing his director. Nicolas Winding Refn, a Danish auteur, helped transform what was originally a mainline vehicle (starring Hugh Jackman, no less) into a brilliant piece of noir – part 80s glam, part video game, part ass-kicking amalgam. Drive was a combination of so many clashing genres (i.e., Crime, Car, Heist, Drama, Western, Romance, Grindhouse, Thriller) that a handful of critics simply dismissed it, citing cruelty. Regardless, Ryan Gosling emerged a hero, entering a period during which he would partner with certain directors again, developing what he has since referred to as a specific form of shorthand.

6. The Place Beyond The Pines (2013). During a 2011 Hollywood Reporter Roundtable, Ryan Gosling explained that almost every scene he filmed for Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine had to be shot in just one take. No table reads, no rehearsals … just years, literally, spent learning how to slip inside the skin of both those characters. While The Place Beyond The Pines represented a more conventional affair, it stands to reason Cianfrance maintained a similar approach. Between the bleached hair, the tattoos, and that brilliant, seething anger, Gosling appears nothing short of transcendent throughout this movie. His most staggering feat? Getting the audience to care. For here Gosling is charged with portraying a robber/bully/deadbeat/carney, one whose charisma holds the key to making all the other pieces matter. Schenectady, as you know, means “place beyond the pines.”

Moving On: Red Valiant

Andrew Wyeth - Sea Boots 1976When the last long week of August bled its way into September and green flies along the beach outnumbered all the worthwhile prey, when hotel balconies ran checkered and weekend vendors closed their kiosks, when short sleeves gave way to lozenges and northern trade winds curled the ocean, when the meters blinked at zero and all the street lights flashed bright yellow, when the sand began to snake its way from coastline back to inlet, that was when my girlfriend finally left North Wildwood for good.

Meghan was gone now, living in a dorm room at Immaculata, where she was campaigning for class president. We had spent the summer working apart, Meghan managing an ice cream parlor on Magnolia while I did my thing on Surfside Pier. Most evenings, Meghan would close up short of midnight, waving arms as she passed by along the strand. On a good night, she might wait for me along a bench, enabling the two of us to walk and talk toward 19th Street. We rarely spent days off together, and we never spent full nights. Come September, the entire thing had worn me down to an extent I scarcely ate or changed my clothes.

Bill Salerno arranged for me to rent a car throughout the final weeks of summer, a red sedan I used to hustle back and forth to school. I’d attend classes in Delaware County every morning before driving east to Wildwood at night – two hours, both ways, with a six-hour work shift starting the moment I arrived. Before long a lack of sleep took hold, causing me to drift away one night behind the wheel. I came to on a front lawn in Cape May Courthouse, the rental car still idling, a bulldozed post across the yard.

The weekend after Labor Day, I withdrew my summer savings – $1,300 set aside to buy or lease a nice used car. I put that money in an envelope, which I carried by my side. At some point while I was at work, that envelope disappeared. It was discovered the following morning by a 31-year old named Brian Polhamus. Polhamus, a Surfside Pier employee, noticed the envelope sticking up between two planks next to the Tilt-a-Whirl. He turned it in and I rewarded him …with a $16 bird from Bill’s Concessions.

Whenever possible, I’d drive past Meghan’s father’s house on East 19th, slowing down as I ran even with the porch. That porch reminded me of simpler times, February afternoons when Meghan and I would drive out west toward the inlet, watching waves crash on the jetty after we made out in the car. It was gone now, almost all of it, with Meghan barreling head-first into a world that I abhorred. Penn State, Delaware County, moving back into my parents’ house – day after day, I told myself new stories in order to live. I wanted to be here, I equivocated. It had always been my plan to re-enroll.

Meghan, meanwhile, remained headstrong, entering a period during which she’d be encountering new people at an astronomical clip. Assuming our relationship fell through, it was my belief I’d never meet someone like her again. Throughout our two-plus years together, I had marketed myself as a monogamous boyfriend – a loyal sword who’d never hurt Meghan or take advantage of her feelings. And yet, the majority of my behavior found its roots in insecurity. I would put down Meghan’s friends incessantly, going out of my way to reassess their minor flaws. Come the Fall of 1995, my negativity had become such it began to feel more like a tourniquet, constricting Meghan’s ability to mold and blend into a new environment.

The third week in September, I purchased a rust-red 1987 Escort for $800 at auction. I called Meghan’s dorm room the following morning, insisting she let me take her for a ride. No chance, Meghan protested. She had just been elected class president and she had too much on her mind. I was persistent, and, eventually, Meghan relented, agreeing to let me come out “for a minute.”

“After that,” Meghan was adamant, “you really need to go.”

Come one o’clock my tiny Escort made the turn onto Immaculata Drive, a busted brake light overshadowed by the screech of grinding belts. Meghan wandered over outside Villa Maria Hall. She came flanked on either side by classmates, one of whom kept staring at my temporary tags. I remained inside the vehicle, both hands at 10 and two. My body began to hyperventilate, responding to some urge to cut the conversation short.

Minutes later, I sat driving south toward the exit, a series of oak trees scrolling back across my car. Jagged shadows threw dark weight upon a sticker on my windshield, the word “REJECTED” printed on it in big, black, Antique font. I’ve gotta get this thing inspected, I thought unto myself. Meghan’s classmates must’ve thought that goddamn sticker looked absurd.

Day 985

(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)

©Copyright Bob Hill

Running: How I Went From 0 to 70 In Six Weeks (& Medaled In a 5K One Week Later)

DSC03546SNAP! That is how it sounded, much more like the snapping of a car belt than the friction between fingers. I was sprinting, in mid-stride, and the jolt, it sent me tumbling, a spasm so intense I barely noticed fractured ribs. I’d pulled a hamstring, the only major running injury I’d sustained in more than 14 years. It occurred on the morning of December 8th, 2013, a month and one week after my 40th birthday.

The first week in January I was able to put significant weight on both legs. The first week in February I was able to manage a slight jog. The first week in March I pulled a muscle in my left calf; the first week in April, I pulled a muscle in my quad. The first week in May, I felt completely uninspired. I had yet to stitch together one continuous month of training. To compensate, I began reading. I read Agee and Hemingway; George Plimpton, Jesmyn Ward. At some point I even got around to reading Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, a best-seller that introduced me to ultra-marathoner Jenn Shelton. Shelton, who has since disputed the way she is portrayed in the book, holds the women’s world record for 100-mile trail running. At 31, her tiny frame seems custom-made for uncooperative terrain. Shelton celebrates the inherent lightness in her sport, providing no sign whatsoever of the pain that she’s enduring.

Appearing in slight contrast is U.S. distance runner Shalane Flanagan. Flanagan finished second among women at the 2010 New York City Marathon (the first time she had competed at that distance). I happened to be on-hand that morning, applauding as Flanagan entered the final turn – head narrowed, legs pumping, concrete abs mirroring her form. She was wearing a midriff shirt over knee socks, every limb covered in fabric to keep the rest of her warm. Flanagan discussed her approach to running on 60 Minutes this past April – a native daughter of Massachusetts, she had come home to aid the Boston Marathon’s return.

Shelton and Flanagan commanded my attention, yet they paled in comparison to 17-year old Alana Hadley – a high school marathon runner who I’d originally become aware of as a result of The New York Times. Hadley was – and is – training for a shot at the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, cataloging her workouts by way of a personal blog. I gravitated toward Hadley, particularly because her adolescent willingness to accept both triumphs and setbacks with equanimity seemed antithetical to mine.

As a child, my father was my coach, and – for a time – this proved to be an advantage. Day after day, he harnessed my ability, eventually leading me to a 32nd-place finish at the AAU cross country championships – the fourth man on a state team that took home the national title. I was 13 when that happened, and while I would continue to enjoy a certain modicum of success, it would never be like that again. By the time I entered high school, competitive running began to consume me, almost none of it occurring by choice. I was a pint-sized freshman making inroads with the varsity, but I was increasingly despondent, unmotivated to do what I’d been told. I spent summers lost in training, I slipped from cross country into indoor. I was forbidden from other physical activities, a cycle of running without pause.

By sophomore year, my father was more invested than I. Every night, he’d encourage me to talk about practice, mining for some touchstone via the only source he owned. The further I withdrew, the more my father assumed his goals should be my own. The combination of anxiety and depression became such I would wake up every morning with a churning in my stomach, one that grew as I moved closer to that day’s practice after school.

There were incidents, a lot of them. On one occasion my father flew into a rage after I asked him if we could talk about something other than running. On another, he turned petrifyingly cold when I approached him to ask if it’d be OK for me to quit. He was sitting in the living room, on a couch next to the end table where he liked to stack his Chips Ahoy. Upon hearing my question, his eyes narrowed and he told me: “You go ahead. You go ahead and you quit, and you ruin every dream I ever had for you.”

One year later, I finally did, setting off an in-house struggle that eventually forced me out of his home.

I mention all of this by way of explaining why Alana Hadley had such an impact. After weeks spent scrolling through her posts – weeks during which I also learned more about Jenn Shelton and Shalane Flanagan – I decided it might be time for me to exorcise old demons; to set focus on new goals.

I laid out a six-week training program, the thrust of which would be a slow and steady ramp toward 60 miles in one week. There would be speed, and hills, and intervals with slight periods of adjustment. There would be changes in diet and curbing of habits. There would be monastic devotion to an agenda all my own.

What follows is my training log, written in real-time, with reflections on the highs and lows, as well as everything that happened in between.

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Joyce Carol Oates on Boxing & Pornography (1987)

“The spectacle of human beings fighting each other for whatever reason, including, at certain well-publicized times, staggering sums of money, is enormously disturbing because it violates a taboo of our civilization. Many men and women, however they steel themselves, cannot watch a boxing match because they cannot allow themselves to see what it is they are seeing. One thinks helplessly, This can’t be happening, even as, and usually quite routinely, it is happening. In this way boxing as a public spectacle is akin to pornography: in each case the spectator is made a voyeur, distanced, yet presumably intimately involved, in an event that is not supposed to be happening as it is happening. The pornographic ‘drama,’ though as fraudulent as professional wrestling, makes a claim for being about something absolutely serious, if not humanly profound: it is not so much about itself as about the violation of a taboo. That the taboo is spiritual rather than physical, or sexual – that our most valuable human experience, love, is being is being desecrated, parodied, mocked – is surely at the core of our culture’s fascination with pornography. In another culture, undefined by spiritual-emotional values, pornography could not exist, for who would pay to see it?”

(Excerpted from On Boxing)

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