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Steven Rea
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Lists, lists, lists.... Any editor will tell you that lists are clickbait -- the stuff that drives web traffic. The 20 best bookstores in the world. The 30 essential jazz albums. The top ten places for American ex-pats to live. Thirty-seven pasta recipes that will change your life -- and your girth. And just today the arts team and film critics at The Guardian have posted a doozy: The 100 best films of the 21st century. Why now, in 2019, I don't know, but how can you not look at this and think yup, that's right (Capernaum, A Prophet), and yes, good one (Sarah Polley's meta-documentary/family history, Stories We Tell) and the number one movie: Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood-- that might just be it. But, inevitably, there are serious omissions here, as well as some laughable inclusions. (Comedy is always tricky, but putting Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (no. 70) and Ted (Mark Wahlberg and his potty-mouthed teddy bear-- no. 60) on the list at least allows us to pinpoint where the Guardian crits position themselves on the humor spectrum. So here are my three biggest cries of "What, no...'s," the how-could-you-forget-about screams of injustice, my top 3 list of where The Guardian went wrong: 3) Into the Wild, the devastatingly sad, beautiful 2007 road movie, directed by Sean Penn, adapting the Jon Krakauer biographical novel. 2) Michael Clayton (also 2007), Tony Gilroy's taut, multi-layered legal thriller/existential drama, starring George Clooney. and 1), the BIGGEST OMISSION OF ALL: Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fierce, funny, breathless dive into the head of a movie star in the throes of mental, spiritual and professional crisis -- with Michael Keaton in a career-defining performance. Birdman operates on a whole other plane of existence (I'm stealing from my Philadelphia Inquirer review, and here comes a statement right up there on the chutzpah scale akin to posting "The 100 best films of the 21st century" only 19 years into the century... ) Birdman, I wrote, "is exhilarating moviemaking, an out-of-the-blue masterwork that ranks as one of the best films of not just the year, but the decade, the century." So there. Continue reading
Posted Sep 13, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
It wasn't until I hunkered down in a screening room one weekday morning in the summer of 2013 that I finally found out about Tony Hoagland. I was there in my then-capacity as movie critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, watching the new Joe Swanberg pic, a walk-y, talky, beery study of two couples and their intersecting lives. Drinking Buddies, it's called, with Olivia Wilde, Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson. It's a smart, shambling affair about friendship, fidelity (and infidelity), temptation and temperament, set in Chicago, where Wilde's Kate works at a craft brewery, and sleeps with Livingston's Chris, a somewhat older, somewhat insufferable record producer. One night he gives Kate a hardcover edition of John Updike's Rabbit, Run to read, because, he says, "you kind of remind me a little bit of the hero." Really, he's just calling out a book that reminds him of himself. Later on, as Kate and Chris' relationship fractures and he drifts towards Kendrick's Jill (and Kate towards her beer business best bud, Johnson's Luke), the self-appointed literary mentor has another book at the ready as a gift: it's the perfectly titled 2003 collection of Hoagland poems, What Narcissism Means to Me. There in the darkened theater I chuckled to myself, and quickly jotted down the title. Afterwards, back at my desk, I read a few Hoagland poems online, and then ordered the book (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award that year), and then ordered every other Hoagland collection published to date. How did I not know about these finely tuned, keen and insightful, deadpan, heartbreaking poems? Thank you, I mumbled to filmmaker Swanberg, for the recommendation! Thank you Tony Hoagland for being Tony Hoagland! Sadly, Hoagland -- who taught creative writing at the University of Houston -- died last year in his adopted hometown, Santa Fe: pancreatic cancer, age 64. Happily, his words survive -- continuing to resonate, reverberate, digging into those places that only a good poem can go. And showing up in Drinking Buddies, of course -- and Judd Apatow's I Found This Funny anthology-- too. Continue reading
Posted Sep 12, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
You know how you lose books, lend books, spill a pot of coffee on books, slip books into Little Libraries around town, put books on the sidewalk in a box marked "Free!" -- never to see them again? There are books I've owned over the years that I don't own now, and most are not missed, but every now and then you're reminded of a volume that was significant in your life that is now nowhere to be found. Of course there are public libraries, and Amazon, eBay, Indie Bound and used book shops, but why didn't I hang onto that British first edition of John Fowles' The Magus with the purple spine, or the Black Sparrow Press paperback of Charles Bukowski's The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills issued when the indie publisher was still using a Los Angeles PO Box as its address? And then there is Baba Ram Dass' Be Here Now (Lama Foundation, 1971, San Cristobal, New Mexico), a big square trade paperback, in which I had dutifully inscribed my name (neatly, I think, in ink) and drawn a little Om symbol alongside. Spiritual was me! Lots of readers were reminded of Ram Dass, nee Richard Alpert -- the Timothy Leary cohort turned Hindu/Buddhist-inspired guru to a generation of questing Aquarian Agers-- by David Marchese Talk interview in the New York Times Magazine this past Sunday. There's a lot to mull there, and if some of the lose-your-ego stuff is hard to hang onto now, Ram Dass, 88, living in Hawaii, remains one of the first extollers of "mindfulness," and the stories he tells in his book, and the spiritual lessons imparted therein, still resonate. Or at least I think they do. I'll have to go out and rustle up a copy -- there are more than two million in print. But if anyone has the dog-eared edition that says "Steven Rea" on the inside page, hey, I'll make a deal with you. Namaste! Continue reading
Posted Sep 10, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Ever write a poem, a story, a novel (hundreds of them, right?), and find yourself, at the end, in the throes of epic indecision, stymied and desperate to come up with the right title? The place-holder you have is either too telegraphic, or soporific, or sophomoric, or just plain wrong. On the other hand, ever find yourself staring at a blank page or screen, ready for the words to come pouring out in an exhilarating rush of killer metaphors and breathtaking reflections on the meaning of life, and the only thing stopping you from starting is the absence of a header, a title? How can you truly get going if the brilliant thing you're poised to produce comes with the wishy-washy appellation "Untitled?" As someone who has spent a good chunk of time delving into Hollywood history -- mostly via the satisfying-hobby-turned-ridiculous-obsession of collecting vintage publicity stills issued by the studios to promote and publicize their latest releases -- I think I may have a solution to this titular dilemma. I've purchased photos over the years (from dealers, auction houses, movie memorabilia shops) full of striking images of sultry starlets and dashing leading men, marvelous scenes of comic mayhem, romance, film noir menace and sci-fi strangeness, heralding movies that otherwise I would never have known existed. Down through the decades since Silent Era days, the major motion picture studios and B-movie factories issued hundreds upon hundreds of movies every year, and most of them have faded into obscurity. But the titles of these movies? A few of them are priceless, and deserve to be resurrected and repurposed. There are no copyrights on movie titles, of course, and anyway, there's really nothing ethically shaky about taking found materials from popular culture and redeploying them in an altogether different context. Warhol, the Dadaists, Mark Bradford's multi-tiered canvases full of torn pages from old Marvel and DC Comics.... Inspiration can come from any corner, so herewith a list of a dozen titles, from films decades old, half-remembered or wholly forgotten, to get your creative juices flowing. The studio and year of release is included with the respective names, so you can duly note on your Acknowledgement page. Or maybe not. Attack of the Puppet People (American International Pictures, 1958) Doughnuts and Society (Republic Pictures, 1936) The Great Mr. Nobody (Warner Bros., 1941) Half a Sinner (Universal, 1934) Hotel Haywire (Paramount, 1937) I Dream Too Much (RKO Radio Pictures, 1935) The Incredible Melting Man (American International Pictures, 1977) The Magnificent Lie (Paramount Pictures, 1931) Married Before Breakfast (MGM, 1937) Naked Alibi (Universal Pictures, 1954) Pardon My Past (Columbia Pictures, 1945) The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (American International Pictures, 1958) Continue reading
Posted Sep 9, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
I don't think a book is going to happen with this set of photographs, but I've got a couple of portfolios' worth of images of, yes, movie stars with dogs -- professional Hollywood canines, beloved pets, mutts that just walked into the picture. Here are a few. And what do you know, Peggy Cummins, it appears, is having a cup of coffee as she offers her terrier a treat! That's Gary Cooper with pipe and pooch, Mr and Mrs Bogart sharing some lawn time with their Boxer, and Joel McCrea, in western wear, fooling around with his springing spaniel. Arf! Continue reading
Posted Apr 8, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
Earlier this week I was writing up my review of Born to Be Blue, Robert Budreau's appropriately jazzy tribute to the great trumpeter and singer Chet Baker -- with Ethan Hawke in the lead as the cool cat West Coast horn player with the tragic end story and the knocked-out teeth. It's a very good film, evoking 1950s/1960s L.A. and New York, and that's Hawke singing his way through a couple of the standards ("My Funny Valentine," "I've Never Been In Love Before") that Baker made his own. So, by way of due diligence, and as an excuse to put the headphones on at work and take myself somewhere else, I listened to one of the best of Baker's collection of vocals: (Chet Baker Sings) It Could Happen to You. The LP came out in 1958 on Riverside, and Baker's song choice and silky readings are sublime. There's Rodgers and Hart here ("Do It the Hard Way," "Dancing On the Ceiling"), and the Gershwin boys ("How Long Has This Been Going On?") but maybe my favorite of the bunch is the Matt Dennis/Tom Adair woebegone ballad, "Everything Happens to Me." How's this for poetry: Everything Happens to Me I make a date for golf, and you can bet your life it rains. I try to give a party, and the guy upstairs complains. I guess I'll go through life, just catching colds and missing trains. Everything happens to me. I never miss a thing. I've had the measles and the mumps. And every time I play an ace, my partner always trumps. I guess I'm just a fool, who never looks before he jumps. Everything happens to me. At first, my heart thought you could break this jinx for me. That love would turn the trick to end despair. But now I just can't fool this head that thinks for me. I've mortgaged all my castles in the air. I've telegraphed and phoned and sent an air mail special too. Your answer was goodbye and there was even postage due. I fell in love just once, and then it had to be with you. Everything happens to me. I love that line: "I've mortgaged all my castles in the air!" Sinatra recorded "Everything Happens to Me," too, and it's none too shabby. But I'll take Chetty. Give a listen... . Continue reading
Posted Apr 7, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
I've got a clutch of vintage photographs that didn't make it into Hollywood Cafe: Coffee With the Stars -- acquired too late for publication, but too good to pass up. Here's a backlot, between-scenes shot of Janet Leigh and Jack Lemmon getting their cups freshened by a snazzily-attired unnamed Columbia Pictures gent, on the set of 1954's My Sister Eileen. The caption on the back of the photo is headlined "COFFEETIME," it's credited and stamped "Van Pelt," the studio's veteran photographer, Homer Van Pelt. A World War II Army colleague of director John Ford, post-war, Van Pelt was hired on to shoot production stills for almost all of Ford's films. And nothing to do with Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Homer Van Pelt or John Ford, here's a poem by Ron Padgett, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation. A Google search reveals that there's actually a roaster and cafe in Knoxville, Tennessee, called Three Bears Coffee. Maybe the proprietor was inspired by Padgett's caffeinated musings? (P.S. -- Note the name of Padgett's publisher. It's a caffeinated conspiracy!) Prose Poem ("The morning coffee.") BY RON PADGETT The morning coffee. I'm not sure why I drink it. Maybe it's the ritual of the cup, the spoon, the hot water, the milk, and the little heap of brown grit, the way they come together to form a nail I can hang the day on. It's something to do between being asleep and being awake. Surely there's something better to do, though, than to drink a cup of instant coffee. Such as meditate? About what? About having a cup of coffee. A cup of coffee whose first drink is too hot and whose last drink is too cool, but whose many in-between drinks are, like Baby Bear's por- ridge, just right. Papa Bear looks disgruntled. He removes his spectacles and swivels his eyes onto the cup that sits before Baby Bear, and then, after a discrete cough, reaches over and picks it up. Baby Bear doesn't understand this disruption of the morning routine. Papa Bear brings the cup close to his face and peers at it intently. The cup shatters in his paw, explodes actually, sending fragments and brown liquid all over the room. In a way it's good that Mama Bear isn't there. Better that she rest in her grave beyond the garden, unaware of what has happened to the world. Ron Padgett, "Prose Poem" from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2013 by Ron Padgett. Reprinted by permission of Coffee House Press. Source: Collected Poems (Coffee House Press, 2013) Continue reading
Posted Apr 5, 2016 at The Best American Poetry
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Apr 4, 2016