Friday, May 31, 2013

Catching up on the best of 1934 - a review of Erle Stanley Gardner's "The Case of the Howling Dog"

I've watched much of the Raymond Burr serious, but this is the first Perry Mason book I've read. The book was on par with the series for sexism (secretary Della Street is a "girl"), but the racism quotient is higher (the Chinese cook is a "chink".) Perry in the book, as opposed to the TV series, is even more willing to skate near or cross over the line of the law for his client. And surprisingly, the murderer does not stand up and confess in the final dramatic courthouse scene ("And I'd got away with it, if it wasn't for those meddling kids and there crazy dog." Sorry, wrong series. But there is, as one can see by the title, a dog. Maybe more than one.) Paul Drake, in any incarnation of these tales, remains the essence of cool.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Review of "The Friedkin Connection" from Harpercollins

Do Two Great Films Make a Life?

One hand, holding a pair of glasses, covers the bottom half of his face. William Friedkin lets us know with the photo that he won’t be revealing his whole self in this memoir. That’s okay. He can keep all the gossip on his failed marriages and his other non-cinematic to himself. The important thing is that he shares great stories about his filmmaking career.

The cover also blurbs, “Legendary Director of The French Connection and The Exorcist”. Really, those are the two films that people will always associate with the director, his hugely commercial and critically acclaimed hits. And there are great stories about those. Friedkin admits he wasn’t thrilled with the selection of Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle for “The French Connection” and that even through production he wasn’t sure if the performance that eventually won an Oscar would be adequate. He cops to breaking laws and endangering lives to film the famous car/train chase in the day before CGI. He recounts his battles and feuds with “Exorcist” William Blatty over the horror film’s content and with voice actress Mercedes McCambridge over the film’s credits. (There are also wonderful anecdotes about what the actress went through to achieve her demonic tone; after years in AA, and with council from clergy, she glutted on cigarettes, Jack Daniels and raw eggs.)

But Friedkin’s less successful films provide good stories as well; his encounters with basketball legends in the making of “Blue Chips”, the production shut down over Al Pacino’s too short haircut for “Cruising”, Friedkin’s passing of counterfeit bills that were props for “To Live and Die in L.A.”, and many other fun tales from even lesser films. I also enjoyed his stories about his second career directing opera.

Friedkin admits to his arrogance, temper and other personal failings. He gives some details about his struggles with health and even faith. He never gives his whole self, but refreshingly doesn’t claim to.

Discussing near death experiences, he wonders whether he his life had meaning. In my mind, he isn’t one of the great directors. Film makers such as Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and contemporaries like Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg and the Coen Brothers have made a number of masterpieces over decades of work. Friedkin has two masterpieces made over a couple of years in the early seventies. But that ain’t too shabby. (Though he is also responsible for the awful travesty entitled “Deal of the Century” with Chevy Chase and Gregory Hines, one of the films I most regretted paying to see. He does not discuss the making of this film.)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Place for Fathers and Sons

If you’re a mechanic and someone’s car is towed to your shop, and you get it to run, you’ve done your job.

If you’re a carpenter and you make a cabinet that is pleasing to the eye and holds what it’s supposed to hold, you’ve done your job.

A salesman meets his quota, a general wins his war, a runner wins his race. Clear goals…clear accomplishments.

But how does a father know he’s done his job right? I hope I’m exaggerating, but I think most fathers aren’t sure what their job is, let alone if they’ve done it well.

A Place Beyond the Pines is a film about a couple of fathers that seem to fail miserably. Kind of like a lot of other fathers. And yet somehow, perhaps, things come out right.

Ryan Gosling plays a motorcycle riding carnie, Luke, who returns to a town to find he fathered a child the last time his stopped. He quits the carnival so he can be with his son, but soon realizes his has no real skills to support him. At least not legally.

Bradley Cooper plays a police officer, Avery, whose pursuit of Luke will result in a case that can lead to either professional glory or disgrace, but his pursuit of his profession is time consuming and leads to neglect of his son. Still, he puts everything into his job, perhaps for his son’s sake and perhaps to please his own father.

Writer/director Derek Cianfrance weaves together the story of fathers and sons over a number of years and shows how a father’s best intentions can at time have the worst of results. And yet somehow love and grace work their way into the tragic stories of patriarchs.

Looking through Scripture, it’s hard to find shining examples of fatherhood. Isaac set up a bitter rivalry between his sons that led to Esau’s deadly pursuit of Jacob. Noah got drunk and passed out naked in the company of his sons. Sure, Abraham was obeying God, but did Isaac ever forget his father holding a knife over his bound body?

Fathers want to provide for their children without spoiling them. They want to do things for their children and yet teach self-sufficiency. They want to set high standards for their children and yet not discourage them. And somehow, the balance never seems quite right.

One of the most terrifying psychological truths a man can consider is that most people’s initial image of God comes from the image they have of their fathers.

But Jesus at least gave fathers the benefit of the doubt for good intentions. In Luke 11: 11 & 12 (NIV), He said, “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish will give him a snake? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”

Sure, that’s setting the bar pretty low. But Jesus assumes that fathers want to do what is best for their children. But if fathers can provide one other thing, it can make up for many flaws. If they can provide the Bread of Life along with the bread for sandwiches, it will make up for many mistakes. If they can introduce their children to their Heavenly Father, it can make up for many earthly mistakes.

So this Father’s Day, if you can, let your dad know that you know his job is impossible. But that’s okay. Because we share a Father whose specialty is the impossible.

(A Place Beyond the Pines is rated R for language, violence and substance abuse.)