Dennis-FearCurtain

A SEASON FOR THANKSGIVING


Thanksgiving. After the past year of tumult, anger and divisiveness we’ve experienced in this country and around the world, to say nothing of the past couple of weeks, the concepts of thankfulness and appreciation may seem somewhat more distant and difficult to access than they might otherwise normally be. At any rate, Thanksgiving Day itself seems of late to be more about gorging on gigantic meals and, more distressingly, rampant consumerism, as Black Friday ever threatens to overtake the spirit of the day, and even the day itself—how many more seasons before it officially becomes Black Thursday? Yet here we are, a few days before that very American occasion inspired by the desire to show our gratitude for our many blessings. So in the hope of reclaiming some of the original intent of our national holiday, I’d like to send out some brief thoughts on a few of the things I’m most grateful for as Thanksgiving Day draws near. Some of them may seem obvious, or even trivial or silly, but they’re all on my mind and my heart right now, the things that have made my life richer, more interesting, happier. I don’t need an official day to acknowledge them, but since I have one, here’s a list of a few of the things I’m thankful for as the trying and terrible year of 2016 comes to a close, in no particular order of significance.

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I’m grateful for the fact that Vin Scully, the Hall of Fame announcer who retired this year after calling 67 seasons of Dodgers baseball, will receive the  Presidential Medal of Freedom, and while that honor still retains any meaning. Just last week Scully won the MLB Call of the Year award for his description of the walk-off home run, hit by Dodger journeyman Charlie Culbertson, which sealed the team’s fourth-straight National League division win. I’m grateful not only for the memories conjured by Scully over the years, but also for the privilege of being able to be at some of the games he called, even listening to him on the radio I brought with me into the stadium, and for being able to be there on his last weekend at Dodger Stadium for Vin Scully Appreciation Night, to see him get the love and honor he so richly deserved.

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I’m grateful for Rio Bravo, a movie film critic Charles Taylor recently described as a movie “in which people who have been undervalued come together to defeat a murderous thug who believes his power gives him the right to ignore the law.” He wrote that early on Election Day, imagining, as many of us did, the result of the voting would be somewhat different than it ended up.

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I’m grateful for Filmstruck, the brand-new streaming channel for film lovers created through a collaboration between Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection. Criterion’s entire streaming library will be available, as well as new titles premiering every week and a rotating schedule of programs curated by the likes of the eminent and surpassingly intelligent film critic Michael Sragow. And speaking of TCM, I’m grateful that, after three or so years in the wilderness, I’m finally able to afford to have that essential channel back on my big screen at home. The DVR is already feeling the strain.

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I’m grateful for the continuing opportunities for movie fans in cities like New York, Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, and anywhere it might be happening, to see revival, repertory, alternative cinema on the big screen. May we here in Los Angeles never take for granted the American Cinematheque (at the Egyptian and Aero Theaters), the New Beverly Cinema, the Cinefamily and the Art Theater in Long Beach, as well as the multiple chances we have to attend and support rich and broadly scaled festivals year round. Just one treat coming next month: the 40th anniversary screening of the 1976 King Kong is coming to the Aero on December 10, with a discussion featuring legendary makeup artist Rick Baker, the movie’s cinematographer Richard Kline and others, moderated by the creator of Chucky the Killer Doll, writer-director Don Mancini.

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I’m grateful for Johnny Cash and June Carter’s recording of “If I Were a Carpenter.”

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I’m grateful for Martin Scorsese’s My Voyage to Italy, probably the most encyclopedic and insightful documentary we’re ever going to get on the vast influence and history of Italian film. I’m currently trying to learn Italian (my daughter and I are taking a class together), and I can’t wait to dig into this director’s very personal enthusiasms once again, as a way of enriching my own experience with the language.

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I’m grateful for Shelley Duvall, God bless her, for Suzanne, for Ida Coyle, for Keechie and L.A. Joan and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, for Pam (Alvy Singer’s Dylan-obsessed date), for Millie Lamoreaux and Wendy Torrance and, most especially, for Olive Oyl. May she get the medical treatment she needs, and the respectful treatment at the hands of the media she deserves.

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I’m grateful for the impulse to turn away from the usual outlets of alarm and cynicism on talk radio, and the incessant “analysis” of 24-hour TV news, and spend some time with Ernestine Anderson and Charlie Parker and Count Basie and the like on Kjazz 88.1 FM while I’m in my car. I turned it on a few days ago as was treated to John Williams’ “Swing, Swing, Swing,” from his soaring and brilliant 1941 score—this is the tune played during the movie’s justly celebrated USO dance sequence. Any radio station which plays that without being asked gets my tune-in.

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I’m grateful for the Hammer, perhaps my favorite pizza ever, at Track Town Pizza in Eugene, Oregon. It’s not the reason I come to visit my old University of Oregon hometown, but when I’m there a stop at this joint has become absolutely required.

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I’m grateful for The Vista Theater in East Hollywood. It’s been at the intersection of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards for around for 80 years or so, on or near the sites where some of the first and greatest silent films in Hollywood history (Intolerance, anyone?) were made. These days just about every big-ass blockbuster on the schedule gets at least a week’s play here, which means my daughters and I end up here a lot, in our favorite seats– center, a third of the auditorium back from the screen. Some of the best sound and picture in the city, a beautifully maintained art deco interior (Egyptian themed), with a curtain that gets pulled back and everything, all for about six to ten dollars cheaper (depending on when you attend) than what you’d pay at one of the reserved seat, luxury showcases in town, like the Arclight or the Landmark in West Los Angeles. And your ticket is likely to be torn by the theater’s manager, Victor Martinez, who dresses up like the main character of the film he’s showing and always poses for pictures for before sending you inside. (“Enjoy my movie!”) We’ve been welcomed by the likes of Rorschach (Watchmen), Harry Potter, Matt Damon’s astronaut-suited character from The Martian and, most recently, Doctor Strange. Now, that’s entertainment!

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I’m grateful that it seems as though “autumn” is finally settling on Southern California, if only in drips and drops. The clouds are out in force this morning as I write, always a solid source for inspiration, and the last few nights I’ve actually been cold when I’ve gone to bed, all the better for utilizing every bit of cover.

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I’m grateful for moments like missing the company of my eldest daughter, then stepping out into the morning after a movie, as I did yesterday, to hear music from Nino Rota’s score for The Godfather, music she loved which has only caused it to gain in significance for me, wafting over the open courtyard of the theater entrance.

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I’m grateful after the free-floating disillusionment caused by the election last week that strangers can and will still talk to each other on the street. A short conversation I had yesterday with a woman, who did not look or dress like me or the women in my family, while she played with her six-month-old baby outside a bookstore in Pasadena, did wonders to restore my faith in such simple pleasures, and that such simple pleasures were still possible.

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I’m grateful for the return of film critic Jim Emerson as an online presence, if only right now on Facebook. Jim has had health issues related to his heart and had recently been hospitalized. He’s home now, convalescing under the care of doctors and his beloved German shepherd Lolita, and though he’s not had the energy or ability to see many movies, his political voice has found fire again and his postings on Facebook have been full of the usual Emersonian clarity, stimulating logic and, as appropriate, righteous anger and disbelief. Jim has been instrumental in the development of my own writing and my adventures in critical thinking, and I’m so glad to be able to read his impressions of the world once again. It may sound odd, but Jim is probably the best friend I’ve never actually met, and I hope someday very soon we’ll get to shake hands in 3D.

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I’m grateful for the eloquent understatement of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, one of the three movies I saw yesterday which feel so much like absolutely vital movies of the moment that the cumulative effect of seeing them all together left me shaken and overwhelmed. It’s a movie which illustrates, among many other things, how the gaining of freedoms taken for granted by many these days was hard-fought, freedoms which might now, despite recent progress, again be in jeopardy for another long-marginalized community. (More on those other two in a second.) Nichols dares to tell the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple in Virginia who married in 1958 and spent the next nine years as the subject of persecution and exile before becoming the nexus of Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 federal ruling that abolished anti-miscegenation laws nationwide, with spellbinding, hushed confidence. And naturally the movie is being dinged by some for not being dramatic enough. But there’s enough drama for two or three movies in the way Ruth Negga, as Mildred, draws a hesitant breath while reticently considering the family she’ll have to leave to maintain her new one, or the way Joel Edgerton’s Richard preserves his dignity while furrowing his brow and deflecting his gaze from figures of authority, stealing a microsecond’s glance before resuming a position of deference. Loving never sacrifices the integrity of character for the momentary juice of effect, and despite the seductive call of the typical Hollywood take on true-life drama, it never becomes about big moments, or self-righteous expressions, or even the resolution of the courtroom decision as it is been delivered. I kept thinking how often important stories like these have been butchered and falsified, their focus and weight shifted from the real (usually non-white) protagonists to peripheral figures of (white) authority like savior cops, lawyers and government agents at the hands of directors like Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning), and I was made even more grateful for Jeff Nichols’ approach, which exudes gentleness and a basic honor he recognizes in the characters and transfers to his film.

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I’m also grateful for the quiet purposefulness of Arrival, which managed to keep me riveted with a suspenseful tale built not around a laser-blazin’ alien invasion, but instead a visitation in which the interpretation of language, in this case one that has never been heard, seen or used by humans before, is the source of the drama. As one of the characters in the film observes, learning a foreign language requires your brain to become rewired; it causes you to rethink the way you see the world and the way you communicate within it. This has certainly been my experience as I go through the earliest stages of learning Italian. When you suddenly “understand” the words and the way they function together in a sentence to suddenly expand meaning and create context, the experience can be similar to what happens in Arrival; “seeing”/feeling the Italian (or whatever language) transmogrify into something fluid, like alien text suspended in a smoky atmosphere, something that can, in a rudimentary way, be understood. Director Denis Villeneuve structures his movie as a series of puzzle pieces which build on each other until we see not what we think we’re seeing, but what actually is—a mode of experience we weren’t privy to before which, in its own way, resembles decoding language. This is old-school science fiction based on ideas rather than sensation, and it’s a visual and philosophical beauty. The movie insists that words are important, that they do matter, and articulates how the context in which they are spoken can manipulate, alter and even hinder understanding. As we go through the looking glass into Trumplandia,

Arrival caused me to exult in the possibilities of language and simultaneously despair over how often those possibilities, through misuse and ignorance, can be overwhelmed by fear or stagnation, or be discarded altogether.

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And I’m grateful for the fearless narrative thrust of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, the Dutch director’s first movie in over four years and the first to see an American release since 2006’s Black Book. The movie begins with a horrifying sexual assault (heard, but not seen), followed by the inexplicably matter-of-fact response of the victim, Michele (Isabelle Huppert in perhaps a career-best performance). Why does she silently sweep up the broken glass from the floor where the assault took place, and then take a bath, rather than report the crime? It’s behavior like this that has driven some viewers to distraction, but even the most inexplicable responses in Elle begin to resonate with psychological acuity as the details of Michele’s world, and more specifically her relationships with the men in her life, begin to accumulate. The movie is the last thing from a position paper—it’s an incredibly tense character thriller that had me on edge for the entirety of its running time—but once again, with almost providential timing it serves notice on the squirmy misogynistic contempt currently moving from a subterranean position to overt expression in our culture, and how one female response to it might be more complicated than could easily fit as a slogan on a bumper sticker. Elle certainly means to provoke, but that provocation isn’t perverse, it’s subtly, artfully pointed, and as such it’s definitely of a piece within the work of the man who made Starship Troopers and Showgirls.

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Finally, I am of course grateful for the apparently bottomless love of my wife, the happiness of my two daughters, the (sometimes) quiet company of our three cats, and all the cherished people with whom I have the privilege of interacting every day on social media and in my non-virtual life. And I am of course grateful to Joe Dante and Charlie Largent for allowing me free rein in this space each and every week. I do not take any of this for granted, and I want you all of the above to know how much your continued presence in my life means to me, my state of mind and my everyday survival. Happy Thanksgiving.

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