The late winter and spring has been a busy time this year. I’ve traveled quite a bit, and there was a six-week period when I was in my own home for about 6 days total. It’s not a pace I am used to and it’s made me realize I’m still in lockdown-mentality. It’s still a novelty to go out, meet up with friends, be in public, basically. In general, I need a lot of down-time, to recharge and refresh. I need buffer periods between things to do. Sometimes, though, buffer periods are just not in the cards.
I wanted to catch people up on some of the things I’ve been doing, pieces I’ve written, projects in the works.
The biggest news is Criterion tapped me to write the booklet essay for their release of Martin Scorsese’s unfairly-dismissed-at-the-time cult-classic-now 1986 film After Hours. There’s an entire Reddit thread, apparently, devoted to After Hours fandom, and the eruptions of glee and ecstasy when Criterion made its announcement was heartening to see. The cover design of Criterion’s release was done by the talented Drusilla Adeline, and it’s gorgeous, the colors and collages immerse you in the world of the film.
This will be my seventh booklet essay for Criterion (I’ve also written/narrated two video-essays, one for Love Streams and one for Raging Bull). After Hours will be released on July 11, 2023.
My After Hours essay led to 40-minute phone conversation with the director himself, a man I’ve met a couple of times at this or that event, and who sent me a hand-written snail-mailed note of thanks about my Raging Bull video-essay. So there was a little bit of history there, but the conversation we had on the phone, a wide-ranging talk about satire and childhood and New York and my essay, was another level. He was so nice I forgot to be nervous.
Just five days later, I was in New York to present Viva Las Vegas at the Paris Theatre, part of their ongoing series programmed by NYFCC members. (Every other Sunday at 3 p.m. is a screening hand-picked and introduced by a NYFCC member.)
It was so much fun to screen that charming entertaining movie in such a beautiful theatre. There was a nice turnout, with people I knew, either in real life, or online, as well as a bunch of people I didn’t know, who were drawn to the screening because of Elvis. Because of course. Elvis still packs ‘em in. Paramount supplied a 35mm print, very exciting, and the colors of Vegas, the “bright lights city”, all that neon, Ann-Margret’s pink dress and yellow bathing suit, Elvis’ reds and blacks … everything looked so beautiful, rich, deep. My speech beforehand went pretty well and overall I think it was a success. I had never seen Viva Las Vegas on the big screen, so it was a treat all around. A woman came up to me afterwards and introduced herself to me as a huge Elvis fan. Her adult daughter, standing beside her, confirmed: “She’s a huge Elvis fan.” We talked about Viva Las Vegas and she told me she had seen the film so many times but had never really thought about it in a serious way, or wondered about the production. “This was the first time I really studied it! I was noticing so many new things!” Huge compliment. Then she said, and this solidified her Elvis-fan-bonafides like no other comment could: “Thank God you didn’t screen Clambake.” I burst out laughing and so did she. No further explanation necessary, if you are a serious Elvis fan. For all of Clambake’s multitudinous sins, none is worse than the white jacket he is forced to wear, which cuts off a little bit above his waist, making him look blocky, pudgy, and like he doesn’t know how to dress. Unforgivable.
Somewhere along in here I flew out to Illinois to attend Ebertfest.
I haven’t attended since 2018. I can’t remember why I didn’t go in 2019, and of course since then it was Pandemic Time. My first Ebertfest was in 2013, so this year marks the 10th anniversary. 2013 was a big year for me, one of the biggest in terms of transformation (I went to Memphis by myself for 10 days, I got diagnosed bipolar, I started writing for Rogerebert.com - invited to do so by the man himself, a month before he died, I attended Ebertfest for the first time - with Mum accompanying me, because I was in the middle of a full-blown mental crisis in 2013, I experienced all kinds of new things for the first time - quite a feat for someone of my age, and I think I comported myself rather well, all things considered. Thank you, Mum, for coming with me to the festival. It became a “thing” we did every year for four years in a row.) I mention all of this to say that I thought it would be a good thing to go to Ebertfest this year, for myriad reasons, but mainly to acknowledge how far I have come: how monumental it was, Roger reaching out, changing my life, all in the midst of a nervous breakdown. You can’t make this shit up. Earlier this year, I went to Memphis, the same dates as that trip in 2013, staying in the same hotel I stayed in ten years ago. I wanted to mark the time, take stock, be in the place, experience it anew. Ebertfest was the second part of this story.
I also yearned to be in the midst of the Ebert family. I hadn’t fully realized, until the pandemic, how much I loved attending every year, how I loved seeing the same people every year, the Ebertfest people, the staff, the ushers, the volunteers, some of the guests. Not to mention the Ebert editors, whom I correspond with constantly, but almost never see in person. Once a year, I could count on seeing all those people, having lunch, sitting in the theatre, catching up as though no time had passed. The pandemic has taken much from us, but things were so serious I still haven’t quite absorbed the cost. I missed all of these people. I wanted to see them again.
I flew into O’Hare and Mitchell, one of my best friends, picked me up there and we drove down to Champaign-Urbana. Mitchell was my Ebertfest guest for two years, and this would mark his third time attending. We had a blast. We only attended two days of the festival but it was like we were there for two weeks. I re-connected with people: Brian, Matt and Nick - the Ebert editors, Chaz Ebert, Nell Minow, Matt Zoller Seitz - friends I haven’t seen in three, four years. It filled my heart! In many cases, our conversations were brief, but they were intense: we cut to the chase. The lineup of films was impressive. The opening film was Nine Days, directed by Edson Oda, who was in attendance. I reviewed the film for Ebert, and was happy to interview Oda onstage following the screening. I used to interview people all the time, another activity cut short by 2020-2022. I was nervous beforehand but it went well. The film is beautiful and emotional, but perhaps the most emotional thing was feeling the packed audience - over 1,000 people - listening so closely to the dialogue, riveted, intrigued. There’s nothing - nothing - like the sound of the intent listening of 1,000 silent people. Exhilarating.
Other films screened: Yasujirō Ozu’s masterpiece, Tokyo Story - overwhelming on the big screen, Robert Weine’s classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with live accompaniment by Ebert regulars, the Anvil Orchestra (“orchestra”, in this case, connoting two people, Terry Donahue and Roger Clark Miller: you can’t believe the sound comes from just two people!). Later that day, I saw American Folk, and, along with Nell Minow, interviewed director David Heinz and lead actor Amber Rubach onstage afterwards. Mitchell and I took off the following morning. A satisfying trip all around.
I spent a couple of days in Chicago afterwards, holed up with Mitchell and Christopher, in their cozy homey highrise apartment, with a view of Lake Michigan out the window. Jordan, Mitchell and I took a walk along the Lake Shore on a chilly day, with melodramatic lighting in the sky and on the water, and were bombarded by a sudden blizzard, complete with horizontal driving snow. It came from out of nowhere. Hilarity ensued. Nobody else was around. The blizzard was over almost as soon as it began.
It was magical.
There have been family events, too: my niece Lucy’s 14th birthday, my niece Beatrice’s birthday, train travel with Mum to attend Beatrice’s birthday, and family gatherings for Easter, for other events. The other day my niece Lucy and I binge-watched Stranger Things for five hours. We literally did not move for five hours. She’s obsessed with it. In fact, my sister-in-law Melody made Lucy a Stranger Things cake for her birthday. Please be in awe of Melody’s genius:
I haven’t seen the show, and so Lucy was so excited to show it to me AND so excited that I loved it. (I now understand the symbolism in Melody’s cake.) Winona Ryder is crushing it. (Late to the party, I realize.) On a rainy day, Lucy and I lolled about in the living room, watching episode after episode. We talked about the characters. She did her best to avoid spoilers. I asked her why she liked this or that character the best. It was such nice aunt-niece time. I filled in references for her. “Oh wow, okay, that’s a shot from E.T.” or “Hey! That’s a shot referencing Stand By Me, Lucy, a film from the ‘80s.” She actually had seen Stand By Me at a sleepover: “I was ten. I was traumatized.” lol I also gave her a small lecture on the history of MK Ultra. I’m sure it’s so nice to have your crazy aunt fill you in on secret government mind control programs involving hallucinogenic drugs!
It’s been a while since I’ve done a roundup like this. Thought I’d point the way to some of the things I’ve written in the last couple of months:
I reviewed Unwelcome, an Irish horror film about leprechauns, “the little people” and malevolent red cap fairies.
I really liked Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game, starring Mike Faist, “one to watch” for sure.
I thought The Lost King was a little silly in execution, but the story is fascinating. My review also gave me the chance to recommend the far more successful The Dig.
Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men is not to be missed.
Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up is … I’m ambivalent. But the portrait of small-ish town artistic community is spot on.
François Ozon’s latest, Everything Went Fine, killed me. So good.
I was glad I was assigned the documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything - at a certain point, words fail, and the impact of one human being can’t be measured - at least not someone who is as deep a wellspring as Little Richard - but the attempt to acknowledge it and put it into words is super important and is, basically, the driving force of what I try to do in my writing. I’ve written a lot about him on my own site as well.
I reviewed The Artifice Girl, an interesting thought-exercise on A.I., which has - understatement - been in the news lately.
I really loved The Eight Mountains, a gorgeous film about a 40-year friendship. See it.
Another film I’m happy I was assigned to review, the Yogi Berra documentary It Ain’t Over. In one month I got to geek out on Little Richard AND Yogi Berra.
I reviewed the French crime procedural The Night of the 12th. There’s more going on there than meets the eye.
Dissident writer Dubravka Ugrešić passed away in March. She’s a (relatively) recent discovery of mine, and I have torn through all of her work. Wrote a brief tribute to this GIANT on my site.
Wrote a short piece about Sister Rosetta Tharpe for her birthday. (Speaking of Little Richard …)
I worked hard on this one and it got a lot of traction: I wrote about Janis Martin, a totally lost/forgotten figure of the early rockabilly era, one of the few women to make inroads in the boys’ club of the mid-’50s. Marketed as “the female Elvis”, understandable as a PR ploy but it did her no favors. Barred from the business just as her career was taking off. Please check her out. She wrote her own stuff, she’s great.
I paid tribute to murdered Irish journalist Lyra McKee on the event of her birthday. Still no convictions. It’s a disgrace.
I wrote a personal post, rare for me these days, commemorating the ten-year anniversary of all the dramatic changes in my life. 2013 was The Big One.
Most importantly and I can’t believe this day has come, although I still hesitate to trust it: Jafar Panahi’s travel ban has been lifted. Can this be? His wife posted a picture on her Instagram of the two of them at the airport, leaving the country for a short holiday. I know times are still tough and there is much to be fought and protested, but … it’s important to just take a moment - just a moment - in the midst of the upsetting chaos, to feel the impact of this, particularly for those of us who have been writing about him and thinking about him for decades at this point. I almost started crying when I saw the picture
.Wrote a little joyous post about it.
And finally: Amis
I don’t have much to say about the passing of Martin Amis, although I have read many of the tributes with great interest. I liked Dan Kois’s piece in Slate, (in general, I’m not a fan of his stuff. But I liked this one). I like how he captures a moment in time, the uproar surrounding the famously outrageous advance Amis got for The Information. I wasn’t even paying attention to Amis at the time, or to book news, and there was no Twitter, where “discourse” coalesces around every controversy with the swiftness of hurricane winds, before blowing on by to the next thing. Even without paying attention, the controversy reached me, this is the way news worked then, there was no central place where things were hashed out and bashed to death with a mallet, and I followed the whole thing. It never seemed to end, this controversy. So many articles, so many round-ups of writer responses to the advance, so many literary BEEFS launched. It was awesome.
What I will say about Martin Amis, and I’ll close with this:
I read an interview with him once, and he went on and on for about 2 minutes about a poem he loved. He said every time he read it, it sharpened his instincts in terms of seeing, it reminded him of the mindset required for a writer. See things fresh, or try to.
I had never read the poem he mentioned. I hadn’t even heard of it. I looked it up, read it, and was completely flattened. It instantly became an all-time fave, one I read often, and for the same reasons Amis expressed.
So thank you Martin Amis, and for personalizers of literature everywhere, for loving stuff as intensely as you do, and for passing on the word to the rest of us.
A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979)
By Craig Raine
Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –
they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.
I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.
Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on ground:
then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.
Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker.
Model T is a room with the lock inside –
a key is turned to free the world
for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.
But time is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.
In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.
If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep
with sounds. And yet, they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.
Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room
with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises
alone. No one is exempt
and everyone’s pain has a different smell.
At night, when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs
and read about themselves –
in colour, with their eyelids shut.
Hope you all are doing well, and thank you so much for subscribing. I appreciate your presence here and your support for my writing!
Until next time,
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I actually gasped when I saw which poem you'd posted; that's been one of my favorites since I stumbled across it as a high school nerd. The way it makes the mundane weird and magical ... so with that, after lurking around your page for ages and loving your words; I had to subscribe, as a small way to pay back the joy you've brought. Your insights helped me survive the Dabb catastrophe of Supernatural, too, when I felt like some kind of Cassandra screaming "they're ruining it!" into the void. Anyway, thank you for your observations; I enjoy learning from you.
STUNNING ! Thank you Sheila for putting these words on the page. I'm flattened. Love you !