June 26, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Reviewers are upset with Martin Scorsese for violating documentary integrity in his just-released film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, which is streaming on Netflix and on view in “select theaters.” Some notices even bill themselves as guides to “all the fake stuff Scorsese put in his new Bob Dylan movie.”

Figuring out “what’s true and what’s staged” seems beside the point when the main reason to see the film is the music, the ambiance, and above all the chance to witness Dylan unleashed. You’re right there in the line of fire, recoiling from the force of the words violinist Scarlet Rivera sees as “staccato bullets” even as she’s creating a conflagration of her own, never taking her eyes off him, zoning in on every line he shoots, every move, fiddling while Dylan burns. He’s too close for comfort, daubed in reverse-Minstrel-show white-face; you feel shaken, thrilled, chilled, with code words for American aggression coming crazily to mind, “Shock and Awe” for the bombing of Baghdad, and, yes, “Rolling Thunder” for the bombing of Vietnam.

Seeing the rapport between the violinist and the singer, the way Rivera reads Dylan as she plays, you understand why she’d say “I was with a living genius, on the level of a Shakespeare of our time” in an earlier film (Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years, 2006). That was a decade before Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. more

June 5, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Tell me a story of deep delight.
— Robert Penn Warren

On the heels of the controversially rushed, truncated final season of Game of Thrones, HBO has released Deadwood: The Movie, the final chapter of David Milch’s “story of deep delight,” the series brought to an equally untimely and even more unfortunate end in 2006.

While the distinguished novelist/poet/critic Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989) may seem an unlikely godfather for such a work, the depth of his influence is made clear in Mark Singer’s recent New Yorker article, “David Milch’s Third Act.” Anyone who has kept faith with Deadwood during the long wait for this moment should read Singer’s piece, as well as Alan Sepinwall’s outstanding appreciation in Rolling Stone. Far more significant than the revelation that Milch has Alzheimer’s is what Singer’s profile shows about how the lessons Milch learned from his mentor at Yale have given Deadwood the literary magnitude that sets it apart from other HBO masterworks like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Game of Thrones.

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May 22, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,”  said Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in Sunday’s finale of Game of Thrones. You could say the same thing about a good song. Consider how media coverage of last week’s passing of singer Doris Day (1922-2009) coincided with the online frenzy provoked by the ending of the popular HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. The answer to all the arguments about what should and should not have happened in episode six can be found in Day’s biggest hit, “Qué Será, Sera” (“Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” the song that drives the fate of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller about an assassination plot and a kidnapping. Meanwhile, a hit song from the 1970s, 10cc’s “The Things We Do for Love,” shadows the fate of Game of Thrones, both in the pilot episode and the controversial denouement. 

The title of another Doris Day hit, “Secret Love,” describes what’s revealed to Bran Stark after he climbs the castle tower at King’s Landing and sees Jaime Lannister and his twin sister Cersei having sex. Caught in the act, Jaime pushes the boy off the ledge, treating the move lightly, even giving it a punchline, “The things I do for love.” For viewers who remember the 10cc song, it’s as good as a wink and a nudge across the centuries, like Hamlet quoting “A Hard Day’s Night” on the walls of Elsinore, or Milton’s Satan singing a line from “Satisfaction.” Besides crippling Bran and paving the way for the three-eyed raven who alone knows “what will be, will be” in Westeros, Jaime has pronounced his own fate, the sentence he hears again as he stands before the prophet in the final season. “The things I do for love” sends him back to his sister and his doom. As for everyone fighting over the ending of Game of Thrones, remember Bran warned you, “it is written,” a foregone conclusion, so let’s listen to the song and “Agree to disagree but disagree to part/When after all it’s just a compromise of/The things we do for love.” more

April 17, 2019

…the consensus today is that the universe is speckled with black holes furiously consuming everything around them.
—Dennis Overbye, New York Times, April 11, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The black hole has become Dennis Overbye’s muse. He holds it to the light like a diamond flashing metaphors and analogies. Thanks to Overbye, the grim morning ritual of the New York Times became a joyous reading experience last Thursday. For a glorious half hour, his word-drunk response to the phenomenon consumed the gloom of the Trump-driven news cycle and put the universe back in balance.

The day began with a cat, a sixteen-year-old black and white female who expects me to sit on the chaise by the window with her every morning and read to her from whatever book is handy, W.S. Merwin’s poetry, Green Eggs and Ham, King Lear, she doesn’t care, she’s not picky as long as I read quietly and her stomach gets rubbed, gently, gently, at the same time. On the morning in question, the book was Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and as fate would have it, I was reading the first paragraph under the heading “On the Afterworldly.” Which is how I went from Nietzsche’s view of the world as “the work of a suffering and tortured god” to the Times’ front page photograph of “a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it”; from the Overman’s “colored smoke before the eyes of a dissatisfied deity” to the  Overbye’s “smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.” Says Zarathustra: “Good and evil and joy and pain and I and you —  colored smoke this seemed to me before creative eyes …. Drunken joy it is for the sufferer to look away from his suffering and to lose himself.”

A few minutes later it’s drunken joy for the sufferer of the news of the day to read of “Monster runaway stars,” “the behemoth of nothingness,” “the doughnut of doom,” and “the unknown forces that reign at the center, where theoretically, the density approaches infinity and smoke pours from nature’s computer.”

Thus spoke Overbye, and on the facing page of the Times a feast of subheads: “A black hole is a hungry beast,” “Black holes can sing,” “Black holes are stellar tombstones,” “‘A black hole has no hair,’” “A black hole is not forever.” more

April 3, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

With Town Topics set to print on Marlon Brando’s 95th birthday, I’ve been riding the wild west of cyberspace to Odessa, the birthplace of Charles Neider, who wrote the novel that inspired One-Eyed Jacks, possibly the most quotable western ever made and the only film Brando ever directed.

You might think the writer of such a book would hail from the Odessa in Texas where there’s an eight-foot-tall statue of a jackrabbit downtown. In fact, Charles Neider was born in January 1915 in the Russian city where Pushkin wrote part of Eugene Onegin and Eisenstein shot the cinematic landmark of the slaughter on the Odessa Steps for his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.

When Neider died in Princeton in July 2001, the New York Times remembered him as a prolific essayist, novelist, nature writer and a devoted Twain scholar who edited, arranged, and introduced The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1959). The first time Neider read The Innocents Abroad, which is included in his edition of The Complete Travel Books, he must have smiled to find that Twain had “not felt so much at home for a long time” as he had when he visited Odessa, which “looked just like an American city …. Look up the street or down the street, this way or that way, we saw only America!”

Mentioned in passing in the Times obit was Neider’s book The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (1956), which novelist Wirt Williams suggests “may be the greatest ‘western’ ever written” in his introduction to the 1972 paperback edition. Almost 40 years later, a July 2010 article in The Independent claims that Hendry Jones is “better than any other book on the subject of men, horses, and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.”  more

February 13, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

I was the first so-called black hippie.

Love’s Arthur Lee

On Valentine’s Day 1969, 50 years ago tomorrow, John and Yoko and Paul and Linda were heading for March marriages and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was still on the Billboard album chart, where it remained until March 1 after 88 consecutive weeks.

Forever Changes (1967), the third album by the L.A. group Love dropped off the Top 200 after 10 weeks, having peaked at No. 154. It did better in the UK at No. 24 and returned to the chart in 2001, a year before admirers in the British Parliament passed a “light-hearted” motion declaring it “the greatest album of all time.” In 2008 Forever Changes was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The title comes from a break-up story recalled by Arthur Lee in which the girl says, “You said you would love me forever,” and is told, “Well, forever changes.” Lee figured that since his band’s name was Love, the album’s title was actually Love Forever Changes. more

January 9, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Thanks to an anonymous troll among the twittering wallflowers of the far-right who posted a video meant to shame the youngest member of the House, the first surge of joy and hope I felt in 2019 came from a four-minute video made by some frisky Boston University students doing Breakfast Club dance moves on a city rooftop. It’s hard to imagine a more gloriously apt expression for what happened in Washington on January 3 than the sight of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez edging into view around the corner of that transformative moment with a big soundless shout of a smile, arms raised, black hair flying, as she uncoils, twirling, whirling, spiraling, the irrepressible embodiment of force and freedom. She and her fellow students were dancing to the music of the French band Phoenix, a number from 2009 called “Lisztomania,” with lyrics that have a ring ten years later, “This is show time, this is show time, this show time/Time, time is your love, time is your love, yes time is your love.”

Back to the Future

As the old year ended and the new one began, my wife and I were binge-watching a show that was too outrageous and irreverent for the networks in the mid 1970s. While revellers partied the night away in rainy Times Square, we were time-traveling to a daymare of small-town midwestern America, the home of Mary Hartman, mass murder, and the Fernwood Flasher.

The brainchild of All in the Family creator Norman Lear, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman ran every weekday night between January 1976 and May 1977. Being first-time parents with an infant son at the time, we slipped comfortably into the chaos swirling around Mary (Louise Lasser) and her dysfunctional household. I doubt that we saw every episode, but we were definitely there when the Fernwood High basketball coach drowned, face down in a bowl of Mary’s chicken soup, an event that holds 97th place on TV Guide’s list of the 100 Greatest TV Moments.  more

January 2, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Movies and Times Square is the combination I usually go for when I toss the dice for a New Year’s subject. Right now I’m thinking of the January 4, 2012 column, “A Times Square Fantasia With Harpo Marx, Charlie Parker, and the 1911 Club,” which features an image of Harpo swinging on the neon pendulum of the animated Gruen watch sign, a still from the 1950 film Love Happy. I still hold with my unprovable claim that the majority of first-run movies made between 1920 and 1950 are set in New York City, and that more than half of them open with a shot of Times Square at night.

The 1911 club refers to some 26 centenary celebrities who were all packed into a Times Square night spot called the Royal Roost on December 31, 1948 watching Charlie Parker and his All Stars. The challenge for me was to do cameos of everyone, all age 37 that night, from Big Joe Turner and Hank Greenberg to Roy Rogers and Gypsy Rose Lee. The column ends at the stroke of midnight with Charlie Parker shouting “If music be the food of love, play on!” while Mahalia Jackson leads everyone singing “Auld Lang Syne.” more

November 7, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

After three seasons of Amazon Prime’s The Man In the High Castle, I have parallel worlds on the brain. Walking in the city last week, I was acutely aware of the dual realities of the Manhattan of memory and Manhattan 2018. While most people in the midtown crowds were seeing what was there, I was seeing what was no longer there.  more

October 31, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

Too bad Rory Kinnear can’t join the other Frankenreaders at Chancellor Green for tonight’s bicentenary Halloween celebration of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For me the finest hour of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful was Kinnear’s portrayal of the Creature, who finds his soul in poetry and names himself after the “outcast” English poet John Clare. As the show’s executive producer John Logan put it in the Sunday New York Times, “I wanted to bring the Creature back to Mary Shelley because it has been so badly used over the years in movies.”  more

September 12, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

We are stardust

We are golden

And we have to get ourselves

Back to the garden

I’m not a big Joni Mitchell fan. She never moved me the way Kate Bush does when she becomes the spirit of Cathy singing outside Heathcliff’s window in “Wuthering Heights” or the spirit of Emily Brontë herself in all her untapped wildness when she makes albums like The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. But those lines from Mitchell’s “Woodstock” not only capture the best spirit of the Sixties, they speak to the here and now of Princeton in September 2018, where we have a Garden to get back to, and on Hollywood Nights it’s not just a refuge from the breaking-news madness of our time, it’s an escape route to the days when a B-movie gangster became Humphrey Bogart. My wife and I took our time getting to the Garden to see Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950), one of the lesser known Bogarts. But Bogart is Bogart, the house was packed, and we were lucky to find seats together. more

August 8, 2018

How fearful/And dizzy ‘tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!

—Shakespeare, from King Lear

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s primal stuff, the fear of falling, the horror of being suspended in space, left hanging, the vicarious sensation of feeling the fall the way the Duke of Gloucester does as he falls without falling from the “dread summit … the crown ‘o the cliff” in Act 4, scene 6 of King Lear.

Edgar simulates the experience for his blind father, combining force of will with Shakespeare’s language the way a film director manipulates a submissive viewer, taking advantage of that age-old perceptual Open Sesame “the willing suspension of disbelief.”

Flash forward four and a half centuries and vast audiences are willingly giving themselves up to the cliffhanger dynamic of series television bequeathed by Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), who crafted classic manifestations of that primal fear, most famously in Vertigo (1958), which opens with Princeton alum Jimmy Stewart ‘32 hanging from a San Francisco rooftop and ends as the mystery woman played by Kim Novak falls to her death from the San Juan Bautista bell tower.  more

June 6, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

As soon as news of the Normandy invasion reached the office of baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the games scheduled for June 6, 1944 were cancelled. According to mlb.com, such a thing had happened only once before, on the day President Warren G. Harding died on August 2, 1923. Go figure: this is the man who until recently was considered by many to be the worst American president. And did you know that future Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra was a Seaman Second class in a rocket boat stationed off the coast of Normandy on D-Day providing fire support for the invasion? Interviewed by Keith Olbermann on June 6, 2004, Yogi recalled, “Well, being a young guy [he had just turned 19], I thought it was like the Fourth of July, to tell you the truth. I said, ‘Boy, it looks pretty, all the planes coming over.’ And I was looking out and my officer said, ‘you better get your head down in here, if you want it on.’” more

May 16, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s too soon to write at length about A Village in France (Un village français) a television series available on Hulu that at this writing, after five outstanding seasons, belongs in the company of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones.

When a series is this unique and engaging, powerful and true, it renews your interest in the nation that for two intense weeks has been at the center of your viewing life. You want to know more about the German occupation and the Resistance. You want to go back to films like Grand Illusion and Army of Shadows, directors such as Jean Renoir and Jean-Pierre Melville, writers like Albert Camus and composers like Claude Debussy, who died 100 years ago, March 25, 1918, the last year of the Great War.  more

April 4, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

If the seismic impact of the deaths of film stars could be measured, Jeanne Moreau’s might have scored a 7 or 8 on the Richter scale last August. Not so the death last week of Stéphane Audran, at least not in this country, where she is best known as the title character in Babette’s Feast (1987). Her stature in France was such that her passing was announced by the culture minister. Moreau’s was announced by President Macron.  more

March 7, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

In one film the lovers are a mute cleaning woman and an aquatic creature in a top-secret government research facility in Baltimore; in the other, they’re a young, socially retarded quality control inspector and an aging financial director at a slaughterhouse in Budapest. In the first, the lovers communicate by sign language; in the second they dream the same dreams. Which plot is the more improbable? Put another way, which requires a more willing suspension of disbelief? That a lonely mute cleaning woman finds love with a humanoid amphibian god who glows in the dark or that an autistic meat inspector finds it with a man who has a withered arm?  more

January 17, 2018

By Stuart Mitchner

In his 1915-1936 prime, Charlie Chaplin, who died 40 years ago this past Christmas, wasn’t just the most celebrated film personality of his time, he was an international icon. With his derby, his mustache, his baggy pants, and his cane, the Tramp became a secular deity; the sainted spirit of laughter; comedy and humanity incarnate. He was also exposed to a tabloid-driven version of the Hollywood dynamic of sex and power that surfaced last fall with the Harvey Weinstein revelations.  more

January 10, 2018

What shocks the virtuous Philosopher delights the chameleon poet. — John Keats

By Stuart Mitchner

Richard Starkey and Paul Muldoon have a rendezvous with the Queen. Some time in the new year, the Beatles’ drummer Ringo Starr will be knighted by Elizabeth II and the Princeton professor will receive the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect Her Majesty to dub the Beatle “Sir Ringo,” a pairing of extremes that would surely delight the chameleon poet being honored for his “restless, playful brilliance.”  more

December 27, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Some years before Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) became as cherished a Christmas tradition as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, film-buff friends of mine smirked when I dared to suggest that it was a great movie. Admittedly, it beggared belief that anyone could be as noble as James Stewart’s good banker George Bailey or as evil as Lionel Barrymore’s bad banker Mr. Potter. What really made the cynics sneer was that the whole enterprise depended on a tipsy angel named Clarence (Henry Travers), who offers homilies like “Each man’s life touches so many other lives” as he gives a suicidal George Bailey a tour of Pottersville, the mean-spirited, lawless nightmare his town Bedford Falls would have become had he never existed. more

December 20, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

When Doug Jones beat Roy Moore in Alabama’s special election last week, viewers who had lived and died, thrilled and chilled, yawned and dreamed through all 18 episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return felt a transcendental connection to the happy outcome. If we were smiling it was not only because a principled man defeated a scoundrel, it was knowing that a miracle was in the stars even before the allegations against Moore saturated the news. Given the power of the narratives and counter narratives circulating on television and the internet, we knew the impossible was possible.  more

October 25, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Writing about Twin Peaks in May of 2014, I made special mention of Angelo Badalamenti’s score, how from the first note, the mood created by his music is warm, mellow, musing, inviting, dreamily beautiful, with a subtle undercurrent of menace and dread that comes into play whenever the scene shifts to the interior of Laura Palmer’s home. Above all the music is about Laura Palmer, whose murder is what sets the machinery of the Twin Peaks project in motion with the simplistic but effective tag-line Who killed Laura Palmer? and the answer delivered toward the end of the series’ second season: her father.  more

October 11, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Movie actors are not always the most quotable beings. The value of their words depends not on substance or style so much as gossip potential, career-advancement, otherwise known as the publicity quotient. Then you have one-of-a-kind people like Robert Mitchum, who was born 100 years ago, August 6, 1917. Unless Mitchum has a ghostwriter named Hemingway slipping him gems, what he says fits perfectly with the big man dwarfing the screen at the Garden two summers ago in Out of the Past. Anyone who has seen Mitchum in that film or in other RKO noirs like Where Danger Lives will recognize him in these words — “Listen. I got three expressions: looking left, looking right, and looking straight ahead.” I hope Hemingway read that line before he died.  more

September 27, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

Fifty years ago this week at EMI’s Abbey Road studios, the Beatles were recording John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus,” a rock and roll tour de force unlike anything in popular music before it, including other Beatles pinnacles like “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon has claimed on numerous occasions that the bizarre, unabashedly nonsensical lyrics were written to baffle listeners looking for hidden meanings, including in particular the English teacher at Lennon’s old school whose class was studying Beatles lyrics.  more

September 20, 2017

By Stuart Mitchner

When my wife and I checked into the Library Hotel in New York eight years ago, we were installed in the Paranormal Room. We didn’t ask for the Paranormal Room. If we’d known about the hotel’s subject area concept, we might have requested a room on the 7th floor (the Arts) or the 8th (Literature). Even so, we were okay with being in room 11.05 on the 9th floor (Philosophy), though neither of us has ever been seriously into fantasy, science fiction, or the occult unless you count teenage readings of Ray Bradbury, a few seasons of Star Trek, and a brief fling with Carlos Castaneda (a copy of The Art of Dreaming was on the bedside table, along with volumes on ghosts, ESP, and UFOs).  more

August 23, 2017

The first time my wife and I saw Bonnie and Clyde, the gunfire-driven dance of death at the end left us limp, wiped out, we couldn’t move. We’d been married less than a year. For a couple destined to see thousands of films together over the next 50 years, it was a defining moment. If one of us had started to get right up and leave as if it had been “just another movie” or if one of us had raved about it only to be greeted by a blank look, it wouldn’t have augured well for the future of the marriage. more