Skylight Inn's Pete Jones dies

Here's one that hits me where I live:

Pete Jones

You know a barbecue place is something special when you drive up to the place and it looks like absolutely nothing special (other than the 'Capitol' dome built on the rooftop, and the huge flag waving atop that, and a large sign--added only recently--saying "Skylight Inn"), but the cars in the parking lot are from all over the state, and some of them even outside it--New York, Florida, even as far away as Michigan. The exit to Ayden is over an hour from the border between North Carolina and Virginia, at least an hour's drive from the interstate, then another fifteen minutes from the nearest community of any size (Greenville). People from out of town don't come to Ayden naturally; they're drawn to it, like lemmings.

Inside, you have tables and chairs and a counter, and that's pretty much it; to the left is an extension with more tables, and behind is the door you came in. To the left of the counter is the softdrink dispenser--yep, this may be the only barbecue place in all of the South that does not serve sweet tea (strange but true)! To one side of the dispenser is a rack of generic store-bought desserts--moon pies and such.

It's what's behind the counter that sets the place apart from any other barbecue joint in North Carolina--or the world, far as I'm concerned: a heat lamp pointed straight down at a huge block of wood, a deep depression worn away in the middle of it; behind that is a second block of wood with an identical depression, in which lay pounds and pounds of steaming hot pork, glistening with fat and gleaming bits of skin. A black man with a wicked pair of cleavers steps up and proceeds to chop the pork--whackwhackwhackwhackwhack, like helicopter blades--into bite-sized chunks, then transfers the chopped meat from the second block to the first, where the lamp keeps it warm.

You make your order, and the boy at the counter gives you change from a pile of money behind him (they don't have a cash register); you're given a cardboard tray of chopped meat, topped with a slab of baked cornbread the size of a thick hardbound book, topped with another cardboard tray filled with fluffy white slaw. You take the little tower of food over to one of the nondescript tables, pick up your plastic fork, and dig in.

And it was--well, it was a religous experience, like finding God. Chunk after chunk of the tenderest, sweetest pork you've ever tasted, smoked eight or so hours over oak coals, chopped together so you get every bit of the pig, from snout to tail; every once in a while, you bit into crisp skin, and the crackle between your teeth was like an electric pleasure jolt that shot from a point between your eyes to the base of your spine. The cue was flavored with little else except salt and Texas Pete (a Tar Heel sauce, despite the name)--the people here are so confident of their cue they didn't even bother to invent a sauce to go with it, and damned if they weren't right.

Jones got mentioned by everyone from Southern Living to GQ to People Magazine, featured in both the Travel and the Food Channel, but now that he's dead, I can't find more than two newspapers that will actually bother to print his obituary (it's why this impromptu eulogy is so late)--nope, nothing from the New York Times either, the supposed "newspaper of record."

For the record then: Jones made some of the best barbecue on Earth, the best if you don't count the Honeymonk's at Lexington (and there are days I can't decide between the two--well, Jones did more with so very much less).

I've been to the Skylight twice, and the first time in the winter of 2004 I managed a glimpse of Jones puttering around in the back kitchen with the cole slaw; on my second visit in fall of 2005 I talked to his son, Bruce Jones, who said his father had suffered a stroke some months before, and didn't get out much anymore. Wish I had obeyed the impulse to bully my way into the kitchen to try shake his hand; I just wasn't sure I could get past the man with the cleavers. Now I never will.


Coup fears: arrests in Manila

This sounds very familiar

This too

From Randy David--

Marx was indeed right: “Events and personages occur at least twice in history -- the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."


Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee,2005)

Brokeback Mountain




It's the most Oscar-nominated film this year, won major awards in the Golden Globes, been praised by most critics (the mainstream ones), earned over fifty million dollars in the US alone (costing only $14 million to make); you can arguably say it's the single most successful gay film ever made. Ladies and gents, I give you Hollywood Discovers Homosexuals--better known as Brokeback Mountain.


A good look at the picture will give you an idea of what it takes for a film--gay, independent, ethnic of any kind--to break into the American market and win the awards horse race. The film's got to be safe--or if it has a controversial subject matter, got to present its subject in as unthreatening a manner as possible (you can pat yourself in the back for being courageous without really rocking the boat). The film's got to be free of any in-your-face sex, especially between men (women-on-women are a different matter--can't have enough of those). The film must not hint at any anger, just a sense of the general futility of it all, and if a gay man dies, the death should be mourned in an elegiac manner--no defiance, no hate directed at anything except maybe at The Way Things Are. Good taste, above all, must prevail.


Boeuf Bourguignon

Some months ago, I was able to buy a 2-liter bottle of Burgundy--Californian, not French, unfortunately, which was why it was only around ten bucks--and put it away. Few weeks ago I shopped in earnest for all the ingredients: I was determined to make Beef Burger--uh, Boeuf Bourguignon.

It wasn't too hard to round up; only the beef shoulder wasn't available, so the butcher recommended chuck roast, of which I bought over four pounds. And the bacon wasn't supposed to be smoked, which was problematic, until I found sliced pork belly that was salted, not smoked. The butcher recommended I soak it in water before frying, but when I said I was going to make a stew, he agreed that I should just toss it in.

So I chopped two celeries, a small turnip, six carrots, two onions, and sliced the beef chuck into large cubes; then in a big, heavy pot, melted two ounces of butter with four tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil in high heat, and browned the chuck in batches until browned, sometimes crispy brown. Set aside the meat, threw in the onions, cooked till translucent; threw in the bacon, cooked a little longer, added the rest of the vegetables plus a sprig each of rosemary, oregano, thyme; a bunch of parsley; a mess of chopped garlic; a paste made from an ounce of melted butter and an ounce of flour, and stirred it all up, scraping the bottom for burnt bits. Added the beef back (which made a rich crackling sound), and tipped the bottle of Burgundy (crackle turning into sizzle), making it gurgle (sizzle fading away into blessed silence) till the bottle ran out (drip, drip). Stirred. Waited till it boiled, added kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper, a tablespoon of Black Currant-flavored Creme de Cassis, then turned the heat down to a simmer and sat down for four hours.

Yeah, right. Actually, I cut up a loaf of Italian bread into inch cubes (roughly) and put them in a 350 degree oven for five minutes to dry, mashed up half a mortar's worth of extra-virgin olive oil, three cloves of garlic and a large pinch of salt until paste, sieved the oil into a medium hot pan, then threw in the bread cubes and stirred until they browned. Do this again, as a loaf of Italian bread has to be done in two batches.

I'd been stirring the stew every now and then and tasting. At first it tasted harsh, all thin, sour wine; when the meat relaxed and gave up its fat and the wine's alcohol cooked away, the sourness mellowed and the soup thickened into stew. By the time the carrots were soft, the beef chuck falling-apart tender, the herbs an unrecognizable mess (tried to fish as much of them out as possible), the stew has become a rich, aromatic brew, thick enough to be sauce, with interesting bits of blackened meat and pale turnips and bright orange carrots floating up and sinking down in a kind of restless cycle.

Chopped some fresh parsley, threw it in; ladled the stew into bowls, topped each bowl with a handful of croutons, and served.

We were very, very quiet that night, almost as if someone had died. Well, not totally quiet; the slurping was almost indecent.

Couldn't finish all of it, no matter how hungry we were, so I put it away in the fridge, and ate it for a period of a week. Every day I spooned it out, reheated it, and topped it with garlic croutons; the stew just got mellower and mellower, the texture thickened, the flavor got all the richer. By the time I got to the bottom of the pot it was all crunchy bits in a flavorful sludge that made the top of your head explode every time you took a sip (a slurp, rather). Which goes to show--sometimes you can cook something better than you can spell it.


Quatermass and the Pit

Quatermass and the Pit--finally, the real Quatermass steps forward to claim the big screen. Andrew Keir fits Kneale's description of Quatermass  the 'troubled scientist,' a far cry from the bullying, bellowing Brian Donlevy (you feel he badly needs a big dose of fiber in his diet).

It's easily Kneale's best work, if only because he finds a science-fictional explanation for magic, mythology and most of Christian theology (with the locust replacing the serpent, and genetic manipulation replacing original sin) and even human evolution (in effect pre-dating Kubrick's 2001 by about a decade (the original TV serial was done in 1958)); this adaptation is remarkably concise, being able to boil down the three hour original to half its length (a few gaps--we never learn why the policeman is so scared, we barely get a glimpse of the little all-night coffee stall before Duncan Lamont's drill operator Sladden (Lamont played the doomed astronaut in the original Quatermass Experiment) rushes by, flinging all the plates around telekinetically.

And one of the most famous moments in the original serial--the first uncovering of the aliens in their chamber, one of them suddenly slipping--is reproduced here, of course, but where in the original it was an accident (one that, happily for the series, had millions of Londoners jumping out of their seats), here it's just a re-staging of said accident, without the same impact.

But there's still plenty here to enjoy: Roy Ward Baker's sinuous camera moving up and down the London Underground tunnels (the tiled walls and echo-chamber sound giving the place the ambiance of a vast men's room, or a huge abbatoir); Keir as the definitive big-screen Quatermass (he's civilized and compassionate, the same time he's unafraid to speak his mind); Julian Glover as an effectively charming Breen; Barbara Shelley as a lovely and intense Barbara Judd, and the aformentioned Lamont as a tremendous Sladden (he does that half-stumble, half-hop of a Martian perfectly, and his howl when explaining what happened is an unsettling mix of terror and exuberance).

My favorite, though would be James Donald as Rooney, the man who has evolved beyond the Martians' influence. He's a wonderfully off-the-cuff, casual man, and if the antagonism between him and Breen isn't as satisfactorily developed (though Breen's with Quatermass is), Donald does get to stare at Hob in the face, and his expression is eloquent: a touch of defiance, flavored with not a little disdain, as if saying "you don't scare me, you old devil, let's see how you like this!"

Magnificent, magnificent film. May not have the kind of scares we're used to nowadays, and may not have the scares of the original, where they actually had the time to develop the texture of everyday life in London before they scared the bejesus out of people (not to mention the strange recording of a Martian purge--'virtual reality' decades before anyone thought to coin the term--is more legible in the serial version), but Kneale's themes and conclusion do come through and they do stay with you. "We are the Martians now," says Barbara in despair--the immediate danger may have been dealt with, but the basic horror remains. No last-minute rescues, no super-secret weapons, no derring-do or even Wells' germs to deliver us; we're all that's left to deal with ourselves the best we can.


Environmental compliance, and why it killed 1,800 people in Leyte, Philippines

Mudslide casualties now at 1,800

The irony of illegal logging is that it's illegal, yet it's still happening. If you look at our laws, the Philippines has one of the most progressive environmental laws in the area, if not in Asia or the world, but trees continue to be cut, our rivers continue to be polluted, and our air--well, lung diseases are a top killer, and you definitely don't want to drive in Manila without air-conditioning.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (the DENR) is supposed to be the czar of environmentalism; it's also considered one of the most corrupt agencies in the government. One of my banking functions was to help clients get specially funded loans, and one of their requirements is an Environmental Compliance Certificate (an ECC) from the DENR. Among us banks, that ECC is a joke; it's a paper companies apply for as one of the loan requirements and almost never follow-up on, or comply with (except for the rare ones where environmental awareness is actually part of corporate philosophy). If anyone deserved to die in those mudslides, it was the loggers who made the slides possible.

Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)

Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)


If "Schindler's List" was Spielberg's serious take on the Holocaust, "Amistad" his take on slavery, "The Color Purple" his take on black feminism, so on and so forth, and if you (like me) are a touch tired of his take on this or that weighty issue, you may want to be wary--his latest, "Munich," is his take on the Middle East, and it's provoked the loudest reactions yet, both positive and negative, of all his so-called 'serious' films.


Strangely, it's not easy to dismiss this as yet another attempt by one of the world's most financially successful directors to finally grow up (something he's been trying to do for twenty-one years): it's based on the book "Vengeance" by George Jonas (about the Israeli assassination squads formed in response to the killing of Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics), turned into a screenplay by Eric Roth (he wrote the terminally clueless "Forrest Gump"), then revised (probably for the better) by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner (he wrote the six-hour gay epic "Angels in America"). Spielberg pours much of his passion and considerable filmmaking technique into this, as much as in any of his best works, and the effort shows: some sequences--the first assassination, the killing of the woman assassin, the flashbacks to the Munich kidnapping and massacre--are tautly directed, the violence casually yet vividly presented so that you flinch when, say, a man suddenly drives a knife into someone's skull (the casualness suggests a 'you are there' realism; the vividness--well, you practically feel the crunch of steel into bone).


Alexis Tioseco on "Critic After Dark"

Alexis Tioseco writes on Critic After Dark for online film magazine Criticine

An excerpt:

Film critiquing is a curious profession. We all know that it, just as is the case with most activities that writers engage themselves in, is rarely a lucrative undertaking. Far less so for one from a country such as the Philippines, that values honest criticism as much as it does honest politicians (for the most part it doesn’t). This lack of sustainability means that critics in the Philippines are often forced to occupy themselves with a separate endeavor, one that “earns” so as to circumvent the income lost during time wasted in this thankless profession*. For film critic Noel Vera, this profession was banking.

The title of this collection, Critic After Dark, takes off from this idea, painting a picture of Vera as a nocturnal creature, one that retreats from work, finding comfort in the recesses of a dim theater, watching in solitude and documenting his experiences at unholy hours.

(* unless you are a powerful pundit who controls the entertainment section of the most popular newspaper in the country and earn enough on the side from publishing HBO and Cinemax schedules at the end of your column.)


Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Twenty Thousand Leagues is great fun, easily the best live-action Disney ever made.

Kirk Douglas made for an enjoyable Ned Lands, where he plays himself--athletic straight shooter, no pretensions; Peter Lorre has the Sancho Panza role, and he makes of it what he can, giving us beleagured common sense caught between Lands' lowbrow slapstick and the professor's fine ideals. He even persuades us that there's a real friendship growing between his character and Lands--that bit of business where Lands sweeps his hair back with one hand and Lorre has to slick it back down, I wonder who came up with it, was it in the script or did either Douglas or Lorre improvise?

James Mason gives the film what tragic depth it has, of course; his brooding Nemo is both idealist and cynic, and he deftly suggests either one or the other with every other line of dialogue, and you don't blink, you buy the contradiction. I think it helps that Mason gives every line the same weight and emphasis, the same measured, immaculate delivery, suggesting he believes in the potential of man exploring and understanding nature the same time he believes in his insiduous nature (what's really needed is someone equally compelling to point out to Nemo that man is part of nature, and as such he should make the effort to pull himself together).

Wonderful performances, but really the star of the show is the production design. Fleischer has a rearview window that at times acts like a film screen, showing us, say, the drama of Lands and his friends being towed into the sea to drown; even better is the giant iris that opens up like a movie camera's to present the wonders of the ocean--it's Disney's fascination with nature speaking, showing us what we could see if we only open our eyes, and I think an emblematic image of the magical possibilities the ocean holds for us.

If the design is the real star, then the Nautilus is its greatest triumph, part giant iron-scaled fish, part steampunk techonology (not from Verne's point of view, of course, but definitely from the filmmakers') come to humming life, and all cinema magic; what makes the vessel so memorable is that eerie green glow it gives off; it reminds you of the luminescence you see when huge creatures stir the ocean depths.

That huge squid was impressive, even if it did move backwards (couldn't they tell just from the way the creature was designed?).



From Late Show with David Letterman:

"Good news, ladies and gentlemen, we have finally located weapons of mass destruction: it's Dick Cheney."

"But here is the sad part--before the trip Donald Rumsfeld had denied the guy's request for body armor."

"We can't get Bin Laden, but we nailed a 78-year-old attorney!"

"The guy who got gunned down, he is a Republican lawyer and a big Republican donor and fortunately the buck shot was deflected by wads of laundered cash. So he's fine. He took a little in the wallet."

From The Tonight Show with Jay Leno:

"Although it is beautiful here in California, the weather back East has been atrocious. There was so much snow in Washington, D.C., Dick Cheney accidentally shot a fat guy thinking it was a polar bear."

"That's the big story over the weekend. ... Dick Cheney accidentally shot a fellow hunter, a 78-year-old lawyer. In fact, when people found out he shot a lawyer, his popularity shot up to 92 percent."

"I think Cheney is starting to lose it. After he shot the guy he screamed, 'Anyone else want to call domestic wire tapping illegal?"'

"Dick Cheney is capitalizing on this for Valentine's Day. It's the new Dick Cheney cologne. It's called Duck!"

From The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:

"Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a man during a quail hunt ... making 78-year-old Harry Whittington the first person shot by a sitting veep since Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton, of course, (was) shot in a duel with Aaron Burr over issues of honor, integrity and political maneuvering. Whittington? Mistaken for a bird."

"Now, this story certainly has its humorous aspects...but it also raises a serious issue, one which I feel very strongly about...moms, dads, if you're watching right now, I can't emphasize this enough: Do not let your kids go on hunting trips with the vice president. I don't care what kind of lucrative contracts they're trying to land, or energy regulations they're trying to get lifted -- it's just not worth it."

From Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson:

"He is a lawyer and he got shot in the face. But he's a lawyer, he can use his other face. He'll be all right."

"You can understand why this lawyer fellow let his guard down, because if you're out hunting with a politician, you think, 'If I'm going to get it, it's going to be in the back.' "

"The big scandal apparently is that they didn't release the news for 18 hours. I don't think that's a scandal at all. I'm quite pleased about that. Finally there's a secret the vice president's office can keep."

"Apparently the reason they didn't release the information right away is they said we had to get the facts right. That's never stopped them in the past."

The Quatermass Experiment

Finally saw Hammer's The Quatermass Experiment (1955), and wow, what a hatchet job they did on Quatermass. From the voice of reason of the original BBC serials, he's become a loud, bullying American, who gets to boss everyone around just because he can raise the biggest volume. There's an interesting subtext, in that he's both the guy who creates the whole mess and the man who deals with it later (and, even later, tries to do it all over again), but that seems more confused than anything (why, after all this, would anyone allow him near a scientific facility again?) and an accidental side-effect rather than something thought up to help explain Brian Donlevy.

It does have its moments--that scene behind glass, of the patient getting up to molest a bunch of flowers, or the girl playing dolly while the monster walks up behind her, or the scene at the zoo the morning after...those moments retain considerable power.

But that ending (SPOILER), lifted from Hawks' 1951 The Thing--I guess they figured if electricity was good enough to cook an aggessive carrot, it was good enough to fry an oversized cactus. The film in turn went on, I suspect, to influence the 1958 The Blob, where yet another alien went about absorbing other life forms.


Cinema Regained: Classic Filipino Films in Rotterdam

Some audience reactions and personal thoughts on the Filipino films screened in Rotterdam's Critic After Dark programme (as published in the online film magazine Criticine):

Cinema Regained: Classic Filipino Films in Rotterdam

An excerpt:

My idea was to provide a sample of the '70s and '80s brand of socially committed neorealism (Insiang, Kisapmata--in my opinion, the respective filmmakers' finest works--and Boatman), then go on to show how others took that commitment in various different directions: docudrama (Bagong Bayani), dystopic science fiction (Hesus Rebolusyunaryo, which is set several years in the future), and magic realism (Anino, Pangarap ng Puso). A viewer following the screenings would in effect see the neorealist classics, then move on to the newer, more experimental films…


Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)

From Forum With No Name:

Part of what makes Herzog's films so fascinating (and I do love some of them) is that I (and some other people, including apparently Kinski) think he's an asshole, and part of the fascination of Grizzly Man was that (as someone put it, I can't remember who) Herzog found an asshole as big as if not bigger than himself.

Treadwell knows his bears, definitely, and loves them to death, but he seems to be the classic case of someone who loved not wisely but all too well--I've been around dogs, cats, chickens, geese and what have you all my life (my mom's a vet), and the one thing you definitely do not do to an animal, any animal, is stick out your finger and try poke him in the nose. I flinched when he did that. If he has all ten fingers when he died, he was very lucky to keep 'em.

Two scenes with Herzog really bugged me (in an interesting way): that scene where he's so solicitious of Treadwell's friend Jewel when you know exactly what he thinks of the man (he advises Jewel not listen to the audio recording of Treadwell's death, to not play it to anyone, to destroy the tape--I almost wanted to laugh my head off he's such a huge hypocrite here). That, and the scene where he listens to the tape, pointedly pressing the headphones to his ears, as if saying "I have the privilege, and you just have to watch me enjoy that privilege." He mentions the tapes, has a good and explicit description of what the tapes hold, and doesn't play them--it's the ultimate tease, maybe matched in audacity only by the interview from the 30 minute doc that follows, where he declares "I'm not making a snuff film, over my dead body is that tape going to be played on my film."

It's a blackly funny, jaw-dropping, appalling film, and yes it's brilliant, and yes I do love it. Doesn't make anyone who appears in it or even the filmmaker himself look good, but that's about par for a Herzog film...

TonyaJ: It could have been the way the film was edited but I didn't read it that way at all (and possibly haven't been exposed to Herzog enough). I thought he respected Treadwell as much for his diligence to filmmaking (sometimes doing 15 takes of a particular scene to try and get it just right) as his devotion to the yes, odd work he did, and many scenes of nature that were caught off the cuff (the feet of the little foxes playing on top of the tent, or wandering into a shot right in front of a grizzly). Ah well.

ChrisJ: I think he saw part of himself in Treadwell. Part of it he liked very much and the other part horrified him and made it importrant for him to make the film.

I also believe the headphones scene was probably a reshoot, a bit of a fake of something that happened. It seems a bit too clean and pre-edited and smooth in how it goes down. And Herzog is known to do such fudges. He has stated there's very little different between the fiction and non-fiction films and he enjoys blurring the lines.

That's not a very flattering portrait of Treadwell he shows onscreen. That whole diatribe against the park service, the pointing out of 'warnings' is embarrassing to Treadwell, and his friends thought so too; they complained about those scenes in that mini doc that followed the film, and wished that Herzog had done otherwise.

I do think Herzog has affection for the man, but as a fellow crackpot and obsessive visionary.

My favorite scene is Treadwell in the tent, demanding that god send rain to start the salmon run and feed the bears. It was, oh, I don't know, but I was on the floor, and I could barely move.

ted fontenot: To say that Grizzly Man the movie seems to be ambivalent about its protagonist would be an enormous understatement. If ever someone was monomaniacally intent on winning a Darwin Award it was Treadwell. He is so extreme, so fucking out of it, that it is impossible to emotionally identify with him. There was a man completely incapable of knowing and accepting reality. And I do not mean this in a good way, either. He's no hero--he's too insane. Herzog seems to sense this, but seems confounded by it. He can't believe the guy. It's like Herzog didn't trust his instinctive response--he wanted to despise Treadwell, to be revolted by him, but Treadwell brought out such a confused response in him that Herzog couldn't summon the courage to let him have it with both barrels, like Treadwell deserved. So Herzog just continually circles around it, continually hedging his bets. Very powerful movie, very powerfully unsatisfying.

Nerdy Chick: Let's just say that when he died, I wasn't the least bit surprised.Ted Fontenot: Talk about bringing home naturalism's truth that this is indeed a pitiless universe, though. I mean, four garbage bags of human remains were eviscerated from that bear. Jesus.

Also, I'm ambivalent about Herzog's decision not to attempt to use the audio of the attack. He tries to make his refusal to even contemplate using it an issue of solemn human respect (that it was unthinkable--why?). I don't know. . . . I'll have to think about that.

ChrisJ: Why? He certainly realized there was real exploitation value in playing those tapes for everyone to hear them. Yet the exploitation was only slightly less by NOT playing them and it was the RIGHT and dignified thing to do. He had control perhaps over playing them or not. I think he insisted on them being destroyed (don't know if they were though--but I'll bet they were) to also remove temptation from himself and others to go after them and try to exploit them further.

No, Jewel didn't destroy the tape.

TonyaJ: You know, I think Herzog was right though in what he said to her. That it would forever be a white Elephant in the room, if she didn't.

Hell, it's already a white elephant in his film. In any q & a, the one question always asked is 'why didn't you play the tape?' They would say 'it's because we didn't feel it was appropriate to the film, and it was a big violation of the dead's privacy, next question" and the next question would always be: 'no, seriously, why DIDN'T you play it?'


Yet another "Critic After Dark" article (in English, this time)

Another article--and yet another HUGE pic--on the Rotterdam programe:

Hearts beating after dark


"The Shop Around The Corner" revisited

Saw for some reason The Shop Around the Corner again, few nights ago, and it's as enchanting as ever. We've talked to death how good Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart (in his non-stuttering mode) are, but this time around, I've got to say something about Frank Morgan. His Mr. Matuschek is your classic portrait of a benign tyrant who without explanation becomes less benign and more unstable as the story progresses, and Morgan shows us this change in character with remarkable understatement, so quietly and naturally you accept it at the same time you're upset by it, especially when it begins to have a terrible impact on his employees.

His relationship with his people is complex--he's not one to put himself on equal footing with them, but there is an unspoken affection between them, an acceptance by them of him as a father figure, and when he betrays this, especially in relation with Stewart (at one point Stewart reminds him of this out loud), you feel the betrayal keenly.

When the plot turns, it turns quickly, one revelation following another; suddenly peoples' status are overturned, and Matuschek is left like a fifth wheel outside his shop looking in, watching his people make their biggest sale ever. The scene where, after he hands out the bonuses and scrounges around for a companion for Christmas dinner is heartbreaking, all the more so because Morgan refuses to ask for any sympathy; we just gradually realize what he's doing, and the pathos of his situation is lightly and delicately played. I'll bet it's the finest scene Morgan's ever played as well.

The film is based on a play by Miklos Laszlo, and I think I understand why Lubitsch would insist on setting it in Budapest--there's something about Eastern Europe, its acceptance of workplace politics and of petty hierarchies that's unique to the culture. Well, maybe not--I've worked in a bank some ten years, and some of the backbiting and ass-covering almost seems to have been taken verbatim from some of what I hear in the picture (I'd call it one of the most damningly accurate depictions of a workplace ever filmed). But the flavor of the bickering seems distinctly of the place.


The Red Shoes have finally stopped dancing

Moira Shearer

She was beautiful, she was brilliant, she was luminous, and now she's gone. Break, heart, I prithee.

(note: link has changed to The Daily Telegraph; their obituary is much more comprehensive)

Another article on the Rotterdam "Critic After Dark" programme

An article in Dutch by journalist Lot Piscaer (and a huge--I mean HUGE--picture) in page 3 of the Jan. 28 issue of the festival's Daily Tiger:

Daily Tiger interview (PDF file)