Thursday, February 18, 2016

Hail Caesar! A movie review by William Falcetano

Hail Caesar!  A movie review by William Falcetano

As a big fan of the Coen brothers I was looking forward to seeing their latest film – Hail Caesar!  a parody of the old Hollywood studio system and the kind of movies they mass produced back in the day.  Though the film takes place in the 1950s the movies they are making at Capitol Studios seem to be from the 1930s; but that’s not the worst thing that can be said about this unfunny comedy, which brings together the old team the Coens used with such great success in Burn After Reading – George Clooney, who plays Baird Whitlock, the hapless, empty-headed star of a sword-and-sandal epic, Tilda Swinton, who plays two roles, twin sisters who are both Hedda Hopper-type gossip columnists, and Francis MacDormand, who has a bit part as a film editor who is almost swallowed up by her machine in a scarf fiasco – a sly allusion to Isadora Duncan.  They add to this team the considerable talents of Josh Brolin in the lead role of Eddie Mannix, a front-office studio fixer who is at the center of the whole 3 Ring Circus, Ralph Fiennes, the director Laurence Laurentz (you can imagine how much fun they have with that name), Scarlett Johansson as an Esther Williams-type bathing beauty, with bit parts by Jonah Hill and Dolph Lundgren.  With a roster of talent like that you should be able to hit a double if not a home run; but the Coen brothers strike out with this big-production loser.  The worst thing you can say about this film is that it’s simply not funny.  And there is nothing worse than a comedy that not only doesn’t make you laugh, but makes you wince and squirm in your plush reclining seat.  Of course humor is relative; I was accompanied by a friend who grew up in the Soviet Union, and who found the whole movie incredibly funny.  She attributed it to growing up in a country in which everything was fake – the Potemkin Village effect, one might say.  That was actually the Coens’ point – that American popular culture was (and still is?) mass produced by a studio system that was little more than a vast network of factories and offices, exploited writers, and was only too happy to throw good taste and fine art under the bus so long as the yahoos and goobers kept buying tickets.  “People don’t want the truth – they wanna believe!” Brolin says to Tilda Swinton in perhaps the best line of this ambitious, silly flop. 

For an example of just how unfunny this film gets, imagine a meeting of the movie mogul and 4 clerics – a rabbi, a priest, a minister, and a patriarch.  Sounds like the raw material for a joke but they are there to discuss the theology of the new film which stars Baird Whitlock – a cross between Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas – as a Roman soldier who has a life-altering encounter with Jesus, “the Nazarene”, the Rabbi keeps saying.  Eddie Mannix just wants a pass from these censors – he doesn’t want the film to offend anybody.  The ball gets kicked around the table about the nature of the godhead, the unity-in-division of the trinity, and the prohibition against representing god directly (“but we don’t think he’s God; so it’s OK”).  The meeting is a kind of a “who’s on first” parody but it’s anything but funny. Could it be the Coen brothers didn’t get the memo that theological discussions don’t make promising material for screw-ball comedy?  They definitely didn’t get the other memo that arcane disputes among communists of the 1950s also don’t tickle the funny bone.  Warning: whenever the word “dialectic” is used in a joke it is sure to flop, even if delivered by a guy doing a reasonably good send-up of Herbert Marcuse crossed with Sigmund Freud. 

            For a satire to be effective its target must be vulnerable and deserve the drubbing.  But each big-budget set-piece takes aim at a whole genre of movie-making – the cowboy western with the rodeo star miscast in a dinner-jacket society drama (Alden Ehrenreich), the Busby Berkeley aquatic fantasy of perfectly synchronized swimmers, the tap-dancin’, singin’ sailors with framing shots straight from On the Town, and finally the corny religious epics of yesteryear that look so campy today.  What was entertainment then, what was considered believable drama in an earlier age, is depicted today as laughable and silly, overacted or pretentious.  It’s interesting to see how the history of film reveals the way in which the art of acting and the methods of drama have changed over the decades.  Who could look at the silent pictures with their wide eyes and exaggerated gestures as anything but laughable today?  Marlon Brando complained that the actors who came before him were tediously predictable – you always knew what you got when you saw Clark Gable or Mae West.  He is widely credited with introducing a different style of acting, one that was more life-like and surprising.  Generally, we think that things have gotten better, that our arts and dramas are superior to those of yesteryear.  Yet this way of thinking misses the obvious point that things are bound to appear that way since we are the consumers of today’s products, and so naturally we prefer them to yesterday’s stale bread.  Yesterday’s confections were created for yesterday’s consumers, who had different sensibilities than our own.  When today’s snark meets yesterday’s camp the results should be funny; but sadly they are not in this latest of the Coen brothers’ efforts.  I guess you can’t hit every pitch out of the park. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Missing Persons by John Surowiecki

Missing Persons by  John Surowiecki
Farmington, ME: Encircle Publications, 2015
ISBN -13 978-1-893035-30-0
ISBN -10: 1-89303530-1
23 p $12.95

Reviewed by Susan LaFortune

            John Surowiecki’s beautiful collection of elegy poems “Missing Persons” is the 2015 winner of the Encircle Publications Chapbook Contest.  All sixteen of these pieces have been published before, in such literary journals as Alaska Quarterly Review, Nimrod and Tupelo Quarterly 5. Mr. Surowiecki is no stranger to poetry fame with four full length poetry collections and seven chapbooks, his awards and recognitions are great, but what he presents to us in this latest collection is a theme often uncelebrated, a tribute to loss. 

             Within the poems of  “Missing Persons” he creates characters and moments so real and full of life that his remembrance of them is one glorious last breath. The people here ponder the loss of others as well as their own youth; as in his opening poem “Her Lear” in which a woman comes to realize her own aging as she considers the wear of her favorite book:

“She can’t remember when
it lost its cover or when
its spine cracked or its
yellowing pages browned”
She continues to contemplate what this means for her and her book:

“Promises her Lear will never
be Lear, forsaken on a trash heap.
It still rages, still warehouses
rags and disguises,”

            With this collection of poetry Mr. Surowiecki takes great care that none of these pieces will be forgotten. He composes stanzas eloquently written as in Janice, Who Was Talland breathes life into the line:

“She was our beautiful crane.”

and continues with a heartbreaking description of her death:

“ and we were so saddened by the news: it was as if someone
had put our lovely bird in a cage and tossed it into the air
and expected her to fly and carry the cage along with her.”

            Another beautifully written poem, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” is an elegy for love or lack of believing in what love is:

“She said Love was a statue made of air,
a garden without soil: only the anticipation that preceded it,
the longing for it, the need for it, were real; and so were
the bitterness and penance that followed it and now and then
the sense that you’d been robbed of everything you ever owned.”

            Some poems in this collection are about other kinds of loss, a more collective sadness  brought from tragedy. Mr. Surowiecki creates a horrifying scene yet offers hope in the end of his line from the poem “Hartford Circus Fire (1944)”

“that elephants strolled to safety, nose to tail, while mothers
ran in savage circles clawing each other to death
 and only the luckiest babies were yanked through slits
of canvas as if fireborn.”

            He offers this same hope in the poem At the United Mine Workers Monument to the Victims of the Ludlow Massacre, Ludlow, Colorado” He describes the monument as it is now.

“The air is just air, the woods
 are just woods. The clouds that move across the sky
aren’t unfamiliar. We know what the wind is.
We understand how the earth absorbs.”

            Three of Mr. Surowiecki’s poems come to us in the way of music, “The Accordionist at Nineteen”, “ Chopin: Mazurka in A Minor, Op17, No 4”, and “Aunt Annie (Four Last Songs)”.
            It has been said that one of Chopin’s greatest losses was in having to leave his homeland of Poland and never return. Mr. Surowiecki brings to life this grief as Chopin did with his music. Experiencing both together creates a brilliant sadness, beautifully remembered.
            “Aunt Annie (Four Last Songs)” perfectly ends this collection for us, by opening with the Epigraph “Dying is just as I composed it.” by composer Richard Strauss
            Four Last Songs” were Strauss's final work and he never lived to see its premier. Herman Hesse was so inspired by “Four Last Songs”, he wrote three poems Spring, September, and Going to Sleep, while Joseph von Eichendorff wrote At Sunset. Our poet, Mr Surowiecki, found inspiration from these poems and wrote his own, staying close the key ideas and images found in the originals. Savor this final poem as it is the last bit of breath in this book:

“A nurse says darkness
arrives earlier this time of year and she says
pretty soon it’ll be there from the start.”

                        John Surowiecki’s poems in “Missing Persons” are alive and breathing. Elegant yet tragic, this chapbook is full of life and its little death is the ending of this beautiful collection.

Susan LaFortune’s work indulges us with gritty moments of everyday life and often illuminates them with traces of love and beauty. Her first chapbook, Talking in my Sleep, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2013 and was nominated for a pushcart prize. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications including Muddy River Poetry Review and Ibbetson Street Magazine. She is an annual supporter of the Newburyport Literary Festival, Poets & Writers Magazine, and is associated with several poetry organizations in New England. She is a member of Somerville’s Bagel Bards.

Sunday, February 14, 2016




There has always been a café in my life—some haunt where I can read the paper, get my head on straight, maybe do some writing—and then move on. T.S. Eliot wrote that he could measure his life in coffee spoons. I guess I can relate to that. Back in the 1980s when I moved from the student ghetto of Allston in Boston to Cambridge, the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square became my cafe of choice. This sprawling café was my home every morning after I left my small rent-controlled flat on Forest Street-- a short distance away. The café is located right outside Harvard Yard. On any given morning I would prop myself on a hard metal chair, put my feet up on the railing, and watched the pedestrians of every nationality, every slice-of-life, rush by for points beyond. After awhile I became part of the subculture that existed there-- a place marked by chess-masters, homeless people, students, poseurs, stumble-bums, poets, academics, you name it. There were a number of people who were castoffs from Harvard—unmatriculated hangers-on – people expelled from the academy—or people who graduated but couldn't take the next step. They seemed to be caught in the orbit of the university. There was one guy I used to talk to who was once a promising lawyer. He showed me a newspaper clipping about a case he argued in front of the Supreme Court. But the years of booze and other demons defeated him and he was left to drift about the Square talking about his long-ago triumphs to any willing listener. There was Myron who was something of an expert on Indian artifacts, and made a name for himself in the field when he was younger. He was divorced, and survived on a dwindling trust fund. He was picked up by the cops for disorderly conduct now and then. He told me about his trips to Indian reservations, and would sometimes sell me Native American statuettes that I would present to my future wife. There was Mike -- a shambles of a man—who would pick newspapers from the trash cans and often would discuss current events with me—pointing to a soiled Boston Globe. He was forever talking about some scandal at Harvard that he was privy to. It was rumored that he had a daughter who was a Harvard-trained lawyer but that they were estranged for years. All the while I was taking mental notes—ideas for future poems, trying to get insight into my own confusing life—what to avoid—what to embrace. Later I moved on to other Au Bon Pains, and wound up as a regular at one in Davis Square, Somerville, where I started a writing group that has lasted for over a decade. I don't hang at the Harvard Square café much anymore, and many of the characters I have known have passed away or split the scene. But one day while sitting on the 2nd floor of the Starbucks overlooking the Square, I saw what I thought was Mike, picking through the trash like he was at a buffet. I rushed outside and scoured the Square—but he was nowhere to be found. I never saw him again. But that time in my life at the cafe—those long, hot summer mornings with a spinach croissant and a French Roast, my legs propped up, my limbo before the next phase, stage, or whatever, is something that comes back to me time and time again.

The Sunday Poet: Margaret Young

Margaret Young
Margaret Young grew up in Oberlin, Ohio and studied at Yale and University of California, Davis. She earned a 2005 Individual Artist Grant from the Ohio Arts Council and has published two poetry collections, Willow from the Willow (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2002) and Almond Town (Bright Hill Press, 2011). She teaches at Endicott College and lives in Beverly, Massachusetts.

Red Grooms’s “Ruckus at Grand Central Terminal”

In New York in the last century
everyone carried a lunch pail
with some Lunch Poems in it.

The taxis were yellow hippos
sneezing down the dusty streets,
shedding piles of checkers at stop lights.

Their drivers all smoked or chewed
and had something personal to say
about the pastrami in your sandwich.

Grand Central glowed with pink
and orange lights, it had a disco
ball, all statues wore drag.

Small dogs in sweaters, eyes bulging
from their skulls, oozed from the arms
of ladies in fur coats and jewels.