January 28, 2019


In case you're thinking--as I was--that you pretty much know what the film "The Wife" is all about? You kind of do and kind of don't. If you think it's about a woman who has devoted her whole life to her husband while she stays in the background and then has regrets, you're half right. Glenn Close is absolute perfection in the role of an older woman whose husband has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Jonathan Pryce is sterling in all his irresponsible despicableness. The opening scene is the white-haired couple canoodling in bed, so you know their relationship is strong and sweet. So why the strange look on the wife's face when she listens in on the phone call announcing the prestigious award?

The second wrinkle in the blissful afterglow of the jubilant news is the adult son, himself an aspiring writer, being patronized and rebuffed by the father he idolizes. In fact, it doesn't take long for us to realize that this Nobel awardee is a bit self-involved, rude and self-indulgent. His wife strives--sometimes in vain--to keep him cordial, healthy and on time.

But hubby seems to truly adore wifey. He introduces her to all the bigwigs, credits her constantly and sincerely with being the love of his life, his muse. He evens says he is nothing without her. So what's the problem? What is the discontent between them?

This lean, tight drama that unfolds like a Harold Pinter play, could easily have been a play, but fits smoothly on screen. There are untold amounts of foreshadowing everywhere, and the acting is so believable that we are almost convinced we're watching a documentary of the pair in Stockholm--getting ready for the biggest day of a deserving, brilliant writer's life.

Flashbacks tell us how the relationship began: he the writing professor, she the enthralled student. What secrets they have built up together over the years gradually emerge. The exposition is incremental and masterful. The relationship is steady as a stone and as volatile as a volcano. Who will win? Who will lose? Whose love is real, whose is not? In some ways "The Wife" reminded me of "Phantom Thread," where the logic of unspoken husband-wife agreements from another era seems inscrutable to us. But as my mother once told me in no uncertain terms when I was dishing out advice on her marriage (to my Dad): "You can judge us as parents, but not as a couple. You have no idea and no understanding about what has gone on between us."


--The young wife is played by Glenn Close's real-life daughter!

January 24, 2019


Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, "Green Book" is a feel-good, road-trip, buddy movie. Or is it? Someone recently commented: "'Green Book' isn't saying as much as it thinks it is"--or maybe what it's saying is even worse than vapid. But first, my first impressions watching the film. The premise is delicious, of course. An uncouth, Italian-American New York bouncer becomes a chauffeur for a highly-cultured, fastidious African-American genius pianist in the 1960's. But that's not all. They're going on tour in the Deep South. It's the mismatched Odd Couple among wolves--a spin on the "fish out of water" story.

Oh, and the title "Green Book" is apt. There was actually a book for "Negro motorists" telling them what they could and couldn't do, where they could and couldn't eat and sleep in the South. I think this title, this chilling and pathetic "little" piece of history is a bigger part of the film than we might first realize. Lest we forget. 


Although the premise had promise, I was skeptical about the execution. Was the film going to be full of facile, writ large SET UPS for trouble with a capital T? Was it going to be brimming with polarizing white vs. black stereotypes and truisms? Would it really "go there" to the roots and heart of racism and make us uncomfortable and convicted (I speak as a white person, of course)? Although remaining rather surface (GB is a light comedy), I was pleasantly surprised by the nuance (for the most part) and humanity and mirth (meaning it made me laugh a lot).


GB is billed as "based on a true friendship," but the main character is squarely Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen in the role of his life, not for the depth of the part, but for his "inhabiting" the character).  Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is almost an under-developed, one-dimensional prop in the back seat. Ali does a fine acting job (far better than "Moonlight," where I didn't "buy" his tough guy acting at all). In fact, Dr. Shirley's character is so under-developed, isolated, conflicted, reticent and one-dimensional that it seems impossible that this portrayal could have been the real Dr. Shirley (a man who left his cushy digs and gigs in NYC to put himself in harm's way on purpose). We're not even sure why he's so interiorly conflicted (beyond the constant challenges that prejudice presented).
It seems my suspicions may be correct. (If this was a work of pure fiction, go ahead and develop a Hollywood-type, interesting persona for the man, but it is not--much like the movie "Silence" falsified the life/history of a Jesuit missionary in Japan, using his real name, when the facts were known to be otherwise: http://hellburns.blogspot.com/2017/01/movies-silence.html#.XEnpMlxKiM8 .) I understand the "BASED on a true story" poetic license, but I believe that has limits when you're talking about real, historical people. Toward the end of the film I thought: this really isn't an "equal" film about friends (no matter what "color" they are). Shirley is fading into the background and we barely know him at all.


Not only is "Green Book" being castigated by many in the Black community for being a "white savior" film (although there is some tit for tat with Shirley challenging and teaching Vallelonga to "do better," helping him write love letters to his wife, appreciate the finer things in life and not always immediately resort to his fists), it seems that not only is Dr. Shirley's life, work and personality misrepresented and mischaracterized, he never gave "life rights" for this film to be produced.* Vallelonga's son, Nick, along with director, Peter Farrelly, claim some kind of verbal permission, but this has been roundly denied by Shirley's family (Dr. Shirley died in 2013). In fact, the only person Dr. Shirley allowed to tell his story was a neighbor living in the artist's colony above Carnegie Hall, Josef Astor https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DY69eoacdLg  "Let It Shine--Donald Shirley In His Own Words." (Enjoy this delightful eight-minute snapshot!)


Like fellow musical prodigy Nina Simone, who was trained to be a classical pianist but was denied the right to perform and pursue this genre professionally simply because she was Black, the same happened to Dr. Shirley, and that's why he had to create an amalgam of classical and jazz in order to have a career of any kind. (This fact alone in Shirley's story is incredibly outrageous and infuriating.) However, Shirley was able to put his foot down on many other (albeit lesser) issues in his life and demanded to be accepted on his own terms (e.g., wearing tuxedos).

Why the short, truly humiliating homosexual bath house scene (where Tony is, once again, the hero)? Is this just a political statement that, like the prejudice of racism, the prejudice against homosexuals needs to be done away with? It seems the real Dr. Shirley wouldn't even exactly declare himself on the "question" of his "sexuality." I found it very off-putting that the filmmakers chose to include this scene, in the sense of anyone--especially such a distinguished figure as Dr. Shirley--being exposed, naked, in flagrante (although the visuals are discreet) in the context of a light comedy. It really didn't match the tone.


As far as GB being labeled "racist," it's not so much for the racial epithets hurled around on all sides in the film--which is absolutely true to life--(much like TV's "All in the Family" which did the same in order to highlight the wrongness and ridiculousness of it), but for the perspective. The white entertainment perspective. I get that. I'm white and I admit I thoroughly enjoyed the film with few misgivings at first. I'm sure that there are Black people who don't take offense at GB and appreciate "the effort" to make Dr. Shirley and his music known once again to the world (even while glorifying Vallelonga over Shirley), and to deride bigotry by skewering it.

However this film got made and however it was executed may have been at least partially unjust, but think about this: "imitation is the sincerest form of admiration."** Tony Vallelongo and his son Nick literally hitched their wagon to a star.


More "Green Book" fallout. A Canadian cellist (who had Tony Lip's job for 8 months--he doubled as a musician & driver) weighs in:

Great story of music and a  Black family from the South driving in the South: https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2019/02/18/how-gospel-music-helped-me-find-my-catholic-identity

Please read this ENTIRE article (finder's fee = @belovedbless):
but also note this one comment at the end:

johnatdell . / Jan 14, 2019 11:20:29 AM
I don't blame the Shirley family for being hurt by not being consulted by the film makers prior or during the making of the film, but the truth of the matter is that Tony Vallelonga and Dr. Shirley had long relationship as friends that the family were obviously unaware of (i.e. decades of letters, visits and interviews). The family claimed that the two men only had an 'employee/employer relationship'. But, there is a on camera footage of Dr. Shirley saying these words regarding their actual relationship. “I trusted [Vallelonga] implicitly. See, Tony got to be, not only was he my driver, we never had an employer-employee relationship. We didn’t have time for that. My life was in this man’s hands. Do you understand me? So we got to be friendly with one another." I don't think it would have benefited the film to have had the family standing over the shoulders of the Director and Editors making content decisions that would only serve their own interests. Why would they want his closeted homosexuality to be included in the story, in light of the fact they came from very conservative/religious roots? If the Shirley family's relationship was so close with their brother, why were they ALL left out of Dr. Shirley's Will when he died in 2013? That fact should tell you quite a bit about their 'close' relationship.
*My understanding of "life rights" is that if they had made a biopic directly about Dr. Shirley, that would not be allowed without some kind of express permission (from the person themselves, their estate, etc.). But since the main character is Tony Vallelonga, one can include--even in a major way--acquaintances, employers, family members in the telling of one's own story.

**This, incidentally, is why I have a problem with much of the outcry against "cultural appropriation" (coming from any culture). Um, cultural appropriation is an incredible compliment (if done sincerely and not to shortchange, rook, distort or mock). Cultures have ALWAYS appropriated all kinds of good stuff from other cultures. It's what human beings do. It creates a beautiful mixing and harmonizing of cultural aspects and produces something new. If we want to trademark/patent every last aspect of our culture (and is it purely ours?) then we won't matter any more and we won't have influence and we are ghetto-izing ourselves. I think it's almost important not to veer off into Marxist class struggle or a kind of toxic critical theory.

On the other hand, "Imitation" may be the "highest form of admiration," but there's also the question of "cultural appropriation" as described online by Nicole G. Cowie as: "Imitation without giving respect to the originators of a said [culture]/art form and at times a poor imitation at that. Also the fact that those who appropriate a [culture]/art form can get more accolades and financial rewards for their watered down version than the originators." Agreed! But I guess my question is this. How does one always and exactly determine this bad kind of cultural appropriation--in cases that aren't blatant, obvious and/or malicious? Perhaps it's up to the culture being appropriated to make that call? But who speaks for the entire culture? Perhaps it would be determined by a kind of majority sensibility? (I'm serious.) 

Here are some questions of cultural appropriation. Is it cultural appropriation when:

--K-pop uses whiteface
--Non-Korean Asian K-pop fans get plastic surgery to look like K-pop
--Wu-Tang Clan uses an Asian name
--A Chinese teacher and his Chinese students dance to hip-hop and make a video that goes viral
--NHL Blackhawks logo is a dignified looking Native American face (and tomahawks) on jerseys
--My mother got a 'fro back in the 1970's (she's white)
--Black people use skin whiteners
--White people use bronzers
--Jazz or hip-hop musicians "sample" other forms of music
--Asian women have surgery to make their eyes look more like white women's eyes

Is it religious appropriation when:

--Nuns are constantly "walk-ons" in the background of films
--The "Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence" dress like ridiculous-looking nuns

Is it gender appropriation when:

--"Woman of the Year" is Kaitlyn/Bruce Jenner

January 20, 2019

January 12, 2019


...from a Caps fan. (I'm a Blackhawks fan.)

Ooops! TWEEEEET! Ovi is high-sticking again! (See what I did there?)

January 8, 2019


I will be in this Thursday, January 10, at the "Gigs, Geeks & Gods" Conference (Church & Media Literacy, basically). Come on down!

January 7, 2019


I will be speaking on "The Feminine Genius" at St. Benedict Church on Kipling Tues night, January 8! Mass at 7:30, Rosary at 8pm followed by talk. A small display of books on the topic as well! Join us! ♀️