It’s Time To Talk About Mike White

The writer Mike White is a gay man who grew up in California, born in 1970 and got his first writing credit at 28. In 2000 he acted in a movie he wrote called Chuck & Buck, which was the first time I noticed him and my first introduction to his work. Then The Good Girl, Pasadena, Enlightened, and most recently, The White Lotus, the series he considers to be his best work. That’s him on the poster for Chuck & Buck.

His characters are usually emotionally conflicted and/or stunted. But in Chuck & Buck it was so extremely broken the character came off as a stalker rather than someone with an obsession about an old boyfriend.

Don’t really need to speak about The Good Girl or Pasadena as I don’t remember them. Enlightened I loved and watched the series several times. In that show there was really just one broken person: Amy (played by Laura Dern who gets increasingly brilliant as she gets older). There might be 3 broken people if you include her former boyfriend (Luke Wilson) and her mother (Diane Ladd.) All the other characters were “others.” They were corporate stooges. But one of the funnier things for me was the way each episode would begin and end with Amy reciting all these aphorisms, like “Change Begins with Me.”

Her character was so un-enlightened it earned all the comedy from the satire and what we call dramatic irony — that is when the audience knows more than the character. So we, the audience, see Amy’s corporate friends laughing at her and gossiping about her and we see how hypocritical her former assistant “Krista” played by Sarah Burns is. We see her mother’s sighs and eye rolls which Amy, sitting right in front of her, doesn’t, apparently see.

But I think it was that focus on the one character that made it an easy comedy to watch. It probably deserved a few more seasons, but it got two and the show was completed — it wasn’t left in the middle like many other good shows. And in the end she got what she wanted, which was to bring her company down.

The White Lotus comes ten years after Enlightened, and this time, just about all the characters are deranged. That, perhaps, is one of the reasons some people have said they can’t stand it. As I wrote somewhere else it’s a very hard comedy to laugh at. The Mossbachers (a family of four who have brought with them a dark skinned friend of their daughter’s. Her ethnicity matters in the plot.) are played by Steve Zahn (Mark), Connie Britton (Nicole), Sydney Sweeney (Olivia) and Fred Hechinger (Quinn). Paula is Sydney’s friend and is curiously, not given a last name in the series, but is played by Brittney O’Grady.

Jake Lacey arrives on the same boat with his brand new wife Alexandra Daddario. They are Shane and Rachel Patton. The last guest on the boat is one of my favorite actors, Jennifer Coolidge who plays Tanya MacQuoid which she explains is pronounced with “one syllable.” That sort of nonsense is the kind of thing all the hotels workers have to put up with and the leader of these “others” is Armond, played by Murray Bartlett and the lesser ranked Belinda Lindsey (Natasha Rothwell) who runs the spa, which seems to be the only reason Tanya has come to this Hawaiian resort. There are also a couple of cute assistants: Dillon and Hutch (Lukas Gage and Alex Merlino.)

The series starts almost at the end of the story with a very morose looking Jake Lacey waiting by himself at the airport. He tells some inquiring tourists if he liked his stay and when he said he stayed at The White Lotus, the couple say, “We heard someone died there.” He tells them to fuck off, goes to look out the window at the plane and sees them loading a coffin size box with the words “Human Remains” on the side. The scene cuts to 7 days earlier when all those mentioned above are first arriving at The White Lotus. So from the start, there is a mystery about who died and who is the coffin at the end.

People have said — probably correctly — that this is about white privilege or rich white privilege because all the characters, with the exception of Paula, is white and they are all rich. The staff is either Hawaiian or white, and all have to work. But I think what Mike White shows, or believes, is that it is not possible to “mingle” or really even co-exist when half the people in this resort are working their asses off to please the other half who are doing nothing but eating or funtivities like learning to scuba. The service class — which is now 77% of America and includes 16 to 17 million people working in hotels and resorts — is very much a suffering silent class with almost no unionization and low pay. When things go wrong, and everything more or less goes wrong for these people, it is the service class who will pay the price.

The first thing to go wrong is a genuine mistake. Murray has accidentally double booked the Palm Suite which Shane Patton thinks is his honeymoon suite. Murray lies and says it must have been booked wrong by Shane’s mother, but says correctly that the Pineapple Suite is a better suite. This isn’t good enough for Shane and, in fact, nothing is ever good enough for him. His wife is already having doubts about having made a mistake marrying him because she knows she’s just eye candy for his ego. She’s a trophy wife and he is also unable to listen — most of the time because he’s obsessed with not getting the room he wanted. Tanya in the meantime, is a drunken mess, but makes friends with Belinda at the spa and invites her to dinner. She repeats several times that Belinda ought to go into business for herself and she could finance it. The fact that she’s repeating herself should have been a clue for Belinda that she’s constantly drunk and not remembering things.

The family is a shit show. Perhaps the most unlikeable group of the bunch. The daughter Olivia and her friend Paula are constantly mean, to everyone. They pretend to read books and have a book consultant tell them what to pretend to read. The mother is the breadwinner in this family and she’s always going on about having to zoom China. (In real life, Connie Britton speaks either the Mandarin or Cantonese Chinese.) The little brother Quinn, is the picked on runt of the group and the girls make him sleep on the beach because they don’t want him fapping while looking at Paula. He’s addicted to his devices, but they fall off his chaise (or chayze if pronounced by Tanya) while he’s sleeping, the tide comes in and washes them away. The girls have brought drugs, including ketamine, and do some but forget to take Paula’s backpack with them. The pack gets turned in, eventually winding up in Murray’s hands who, coincidentally, is 5 years sober. Not anymore. The hilarity of all these people being mean to each other continues for six days until finally, someone is accidentally killed. I had, by the last episode, a pretty good idea of who the victim was, but was hoping it was not. There’s enough info in this review to make a guess, but you’d have to read between the lines abit.

Slapstick is a strange form (well all comedy is strange I think) — but slapstick in particular is usually at its funniest when the characters are all in a struggle to live. They’re running in and out of doors so that the man with the axe doesn’t get them, or the police don’t catch them and take them to jail. Slapstick is desperation. The sitcom is a mini tragedy. In each episode the characters do the wrong thing — think of I Love Lucy and how many times she did the wrong thing that got her into trouble and antics. There’s a reason Ricky kept saying “You can’t be in the show.” Think of Mary Tyler Moore giving dinner parties. How many times did Murray try to insult Sue Ann Nivens, only get an insult ten times as nasty, usually about his baldness.

This show made me think of the line of Thoreau’s that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” He felt this was caused by misplaced value. And one very cogent reviewer said, of this series, that the series is about people who are being made miserable by all their things and posessions, but would rather hang onto them than give them up. I think that’s half an explanation because it fits in with Quinn, the overlooked little brother, eventually finding some emotional satisfaction in paddling an outrigger with some local men who affectionately call him “fucka.” But this wasn’t by choice. His sister and her friend made him sleep on the beach and the waves took his devices. It was only when he was freed from these chains that he found something else. I think most of the characters were desperate, in one way or another, but I don’t always think that came from wealth, phones, devices or drugs. I think the deeper answer is that we are living in an impossible situation — perhaps one of the reasons people in this covid era of reopening are not going back to work like everyone expected. As Murray said, before he started doing some drugs, “I exploit you, they exploit me, that’s how it works.”

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Two movies, completely different.

Annette, written by Ron Mael and Russell Mael of Sparks, and Carax.

Free Guy, written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn.

First one first. Annette is a musical disaster, but it is such a peculiar disaster that it’s actually interesting, and in a completely bizarre way, it’s saved by a puppet and perhaps by Adam Driver and Marianne Cotilliard’s naked bodies. The theme is moonlight, pop culture, parental abuse, male rage and drunkenness. You can look on Wikipedia for the entire plot, which is dull. (More or less A Star Is Born, as Marion Cotilliard’s career as an opera singer who dies in almost every performance becomes more famous, and Driver’s career as some kind of weird comedian gets lost in his internal rage — kind of like Lenny Bruce — until he is finally, thankfully, booed off the stage.) At that point, they have already made love, in a gorgeously filmed sex scene where their white and hairless bodies look ghostly and strange, had a girl baby, performed by a puppet, who seems preternaturally thoughtful, and sung many awful songs. The end doesn’t matter, except like Pinnochio, the little girl puppet, who has managed to put her father in prison, turns into a real young girl with an astonishing ability to sing.

Ultimately, there is no point to the movie. There is no internal reflection and it’s not even clear what either of the parents want (the third adult in the movie is the puppet/girl’s probable father and he has a very clear want, but the film makers turn him into a passive participant in his own death, so that bit was ruined). Adam Driver can barely sing — though he sings better than Russell Crowe in Les Miserables. I thought Cotilliard’s singing was dubbed, but I wasn’t sure. The very young girl at the end — the live version of the puppet — was extraordinary for the fact that she could sing, but is so young she can’t pronounce the words properly. Most people, leaving the theatre, were amused by the piece. But it’s basically a musical written by a not very good band.

Free Guy I had wanted to see because I once read a story that was told from the point of view of NPCs in a video game. Normally, Non Player Characters (NPCs) just walk around in the background of a video game completely ignorant of the Players that are trying to kill each other. They’re not even “ignorant” because that would imply consciousness. They are no more animated than the trees or grass of the game which might, depending on the people coding the game, move a little. This story tries to take “blue shirt guy” and make him “real” — also like the puppet from the movie above — by linking him to a core component of the programming, which was an attempt at AI (artificial intelligence). In the real world McKees (Joe Keery) and Millie (Jodie Comer) are the creators of this AI programming and Millie has launched a multi-million dollar lawsuit against their boss (an insufferable Taika Waititi), who has stolen their code and embedded it in a secret place inside the world of the game, which is called… I can’t remember. But the difference is that in a normal MMORPG game, you can’t interact or do anything with the NPC unless they have a specific purpose, like to sell you a drink or a toy or a piece of equipment. In this game, you can kill, maim or harass any NPC you want. Well one day this guy, “Blue Shirt Guy,” played by Ryan Reynolds in his usual dim way, wakes up. He doesn’t know he’s in a game, yet, but he does know that he can do things differently. And that begins his transformation — not from puppet to human, but from computer code to slightly more aware computer code. If the movie had been at all interesting, they might have tackled subjects like “Is a computer code that is self aware considered to be alive, and what might the obligations be for us to keep that universe alive?” As technology nerds continue to work on AI, they might, if they were smart enough or moral enough, actually have to ask themselves this question. It’s already been brought up several times and the movies I can think of right now are three: AI, by Spielberg, and the two Blade Runner movies. A book is Never Let Me Go, by Ishiguro. And of course, P.K. Dick addressed this in so many ways. Blade Runner is based on his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I’m sure Isaac Asimov addressed the question — perhaps in 2001: A Space Odyssey, with the computer HAL being heartbreakingly aware of itself and its own slow murder. Star Trek (the ones with the android Data) also tried to tackle this thorny question and eventually just gave him the rights of all humanity and even tried to let him age a little. Alien, in most of its versions, gave us an android that was almost always a villain, even when he seemed heroic as happened in Alien: Prometheus (heroic) and Alien: Covenant (back to evil).

But the movie was entertaining and slightly funny. Ryan Reynolds is always nice to look at and I wonder what will happen in five or six years when he’s not so good looking. I also wondered if people my age would even understand it. The terminology of young people and the way they talk now is so different and strange. They speak in acronyms and are plugged into their music all day. I’m not sure this movie will work for anyone who isn’t young. I happen to know some of these terms. But when the “real world” decides to “reboot the server” in order to change the game to its original factory settings, does anyone who’s not worked in technology even understand what that means? When they are searching for the AI code inside the game itself, does it even make sense to someone who has no experience with technology, other than looking at the cracked screen of their cellphone? And will anyone even notice the reference to The Shining when Antwan decides to take an axe to all the servers in the server room. I don’t think so. This is a world where people don’t want to take a vaccine because they fear they will be tracked and traced by a secret microchip, and they express this fear while they hold their cell phone in their hand.

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The Hunt

Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof

This isn’t about whether or not this is a good movie. It’s a stupid movie. The premise is that about a dozen people wake up in a forest somewhere and find out, rather quickly, that they are being hunted. They don’t know why and they barely have time to guess. There’s a large box in the middle of a field which contains a pig and a huge array of weapons. But even as they’re choosing their weapons, the hunters start firing on them.

But to understand what’s going on you have to go to the first moment in the film, and then the last moments, so that’s where all the spoilers are, if you’re even interested in this piece of crap. The writers and director have worked on admiral pieces before, like Mare of Eastown and The Leftovers. Damon Lindelof reimagined Watchmen in a brilliant way that brought the formerly forgotten Tulsa White Riot to the world’s attention.

The real villain in this “piece” is corporate political correctness. A group of friends working in this company exchange some texts and one of them says, “At least we have the Manor.” That is an inside joke among these liberal people: Hillary Swank has rented a 3 bedroom house in Croatia which her friends keep calling The Manor. Well right wing-nuts get a hold of these texts and turn it into a conspiracy theory that liberal elitists (New Yorkers of course) are hunting human beings in an unidentified location called The Manor. The corporation fires everyone who was involved in the chat. Now pissed — but pissed, not at their corporation, but at the right wing nut jobs who peddled this garbage — they decide to play it out for real. They do their research to figure out who is spreading these lies; they train for six months (at least Hillary Swank does); then they kidnap and drug all twelve purveyors of fake news. And then they kill them. Except one, Crystal, happens to have military training and did a tour of duty in Afghanistan. She ends up killing all the liberal hunters and then has a showdown with the last one standing: Hillary Swank, where Swank discovers that they kidnapped the wrong Crystal and that, in fact, she’s actually a really smart person because she read George Orwell’s Animal Farm. She kills Hillary Swank and then gets on the plane that brought them all their and says she wants a ride home and “that’s not going to be a problem is it?” To show us that she’s a decent person, which she’s not btw, she has the flight attendant sit down with her to share some tea. The end.

Some people say it’s a satire of “both sides” but I think that engaging in both-sidism and saying one is equal to the other is another of our problems. People who peddle these lies and knowingly spread them are the side that resulted in our almost losing our democracy. The other side is effectively weaker and more thoughtful. The other side (the liberal side) brings butter knives to gun fights, almost always. A perfect example is Chuck Schumer and his inability to get rid of the filibuster which allows a minority party (when they are in the minority that is) to block all meaningful attempts to govern. When they are in the majority they do what they want, including backing an insurrection and allowing a criminal president to get away with multiple crimes and major corruption.

In this movie, the liberals don’t bring butter knives, they bring assault rifles and training. Oh and, a complete lack of morality or empathy. They should have taken their rifles to the company that fired them. But then how do you hunt a corporation?

Anyway people seem to like it. I just thought it was total nonsense.

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Two movies about Mexico

I Carry You With Me, written by Heidi Ewing and Alan Page

The Forever Purge, written by James DeMonaco

The first was infinitely better, although by the end I was not sure what the movie was about. It was more like a character study of a guy and his boyfriend who crossed over the Mexican border to the U.S. and, in New York City of course, managed to go from deliveries and mopping floors to being the chef and owner of his own restaurant. The movie would infuriate anti-immigrant people or people who insist there’s a “right” way of immigrating and an “illegal” way. What those people don’t understand is that the people who do it impulsively, to make money, say, are stuck forever, unable to return to see their families or travel the way any of us born here would. But then that’s where the movie ended — kind of stuck, plot-wise. Perhaps that was the point. I still liked it. The “you” is deceptive and kind of meta, in that it doesn’t actually refer to his partner. The story is based on a true story.

The Forever Purge turns its sight on Racists which has been the under-story for the entire series. The premise of all the purge movies is that one night a year, The New Founding Fathers, (a group that sounds suspiciously like Maga-heads), have declared that for one night a year, from sundown to sunrise, all crime, including murder, is legal. This supposedly allows for citizens to vent their spleen. And crime disappears on the other 364 nights and days. But the entire series is an accidental proof that most people, unlike the Maga-heads, are not interested in murdering, maiming, or beating the shit out of others.

Previously, Purge took on the issue of helping someone who is trapped outside. Most of the movie takes places inside a single home. Purge: Anarchy moved outside and tackled the issue of people working together. I think this was the first time a character said “Fuck the New Founding Fathers.” That’s only important because of the final purge movie. Purge: Election Year (2016) ironically, finds a female presidential candidate under attack by the mob. This movie acknowledged that most of the violence committed on Purge night was against the poor and needy. The First Purge is the most hated of all five movies: and most feel it was absolute racism. But I think they’re overlooking the fact that New Founding Fathers decided to test their theory of Purge night on a poor neighborhood of black people. Because those black people, including a gang leader, go hunting down the white nazis who have come into their neighborhood specifically to kill blacks, I don’t think the accusation of racism is fair. But I hardly remember the movie (or any of them really), so I could be wrong about the plot. I just remember thinking that yes, the Purge would not affect the wealthy because they’d be able to hire security and batten down their homes and that is consistent in all the movies, including the First Purge, because this is a test run. The Forever Purge finally ends this series by bringing in some Mexicans (illegal of course), and their wealthy white employers who seem to be cattle ranchers and horse owners or breeders. They live near El Paso. Like always, the wealthy roll down the iron screens to their enormous house, as well as their horse and cattle stables, and they spend a comfortable night with dad and sis drinking wine and listening to music. The poor people get on a bus and make their way to a large warehouse which is guarded by former soldiers. Everyone survives okay. The action really begins the day after, when the Maga-heads decide that they are going to “forever purge” and make their intentions to kill Mexicans known and “keep” “their” country pure. It ends on a dour note, as Americans start fleeing to Mexico and Canada to escape these people, and some camera retreats to google earth type views show an America that is completely in flames. The New Founding Fathers have failed. The purge they tested out in The First Purge, and in all the later movies, has turned around and consumed its creator. I wouldn’t really say this had very much to do with Mexicans, except in an oblique way with the Texas cattle rancher (Josh Lucas) expressing discomfort with people speaking Spanish and getting frustrated with the fact that they don’t care to speak English. This is a common complaint among people who consider themselves non-racist, and the character even says, later, that he has nothing against Mexicans. But he could have added, “as long as they speak English and stay in their place.” In the end, he’s going to have to learn Spanish anyway.

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Recommendation for a company that wishes to take on the galactic empire of Amazon.com

Bookshop.org

That’s it. That’s all you need to know. If you buy a book from them, the affiliated bookstore will receive 30% of the cover price. That’s far more than Amazon pays. (Amazon takes a cut of everything, from self-published authors, to traditional publishers, to people selling toothpaste or weird doo-hickies that go into your windowshades.) Bookshop.org also donates, every six months, among all it’s affiliated bookstores, money to help them keep going. So far they’ve donated more than $14 million dollars. Amazon donates nothing. They take a little longer. They don’t have free shipping like Amazon prime. But they support local bookstores and they even have a map of local bookstores near you that you can direct your indirect donations to.

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Promising Young Woman, written and directed by Emerald Ferrell

I had to see this a second time after reading an interesting New Yorker review from the perspective of a woman who has seen a lot of rape revenge movies, and revenge movies in general. The first time I saw it, I enjoyed the movie but found it a bit strange, with an unsatisfying ending. After reading the review, I realized what it was I had missed.

The premise is that she (Cassie) and her best friend Nina were both going to medical school, when Nina had to drop out because she had been gang raped at a frat party where she was shit faced drunk. Cassie was not there at the time, a small detail which is probably at the core of Cassie’s personality. Cassie dropped out to help Nina, but it was to no avail. Nina killed herself. Now, some nine years later, this woman who was on course to becoming a great doctor goes out every weekend, pretends she’s falling down drunk, and accepts the aid of all the “nice guys” who want to help her get home safely, but then decide that they’ll have their way with her. She then suddenly comes to, reveals that she’s completely sober, and basically scares the shit out of them.

(Don’t read anymore if you hate spoilers. I’m going all the way to the end of the movie.)

Sometimes the person is someone who has a connection to what happened to Nina and sometimes not: A woman named Madison (played by Alison Brie) didn’t believe the story and/or blamed Nina for getting that drunk; A lawyer (played by Alfred Molina), who has helped young men get out of sexual assault charges for most of his career; and a college dean who says to Cassie that the college has to give these boys the benefit of the doubt and that she doesn’t remember the case from nine years ago because they get so many of them (she says this without irony).

But it seems, generally, that she has just chosen to live this way — of going out and scaring “nice” guys who turn into predators when she looks helpless and drunk. She keeps a book of conquests — basically slashes — and it appears that she’s done this to possibly hundreds of guys in Los Angeles. (I assumed it was L.A. but the script doesn’t say.) She lives with her parents and works at a minimum wage job as a barista. She’s angry and has decided to stay angry. Even Nina’s mother, (played by Molly Shannon), tells her that her anger isn’t helping. But I think the anger hides a different aspect which calls to mind the old joke, “Two lesbians were making out and a guy walked by and said, ‘Are you sisters?'” Cassie was in love with Nina and Nina was in love with Cassie. Whether this was ever sexual is irrelevant. They each had a half heart with the other one’s name on it.

Bo Burnham plays a guy named Ryan who gets probably the only sympathetic male part in the movie. He shows up, recognizes Cassie as that promising young woman and they start dating because he genuinely seems kind. Cassie seems to be healing in his presence. But even with him, there was something really bothersome about a scene in a pharmacy where he starts singing to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind,” in a jokey way, but also in a way that made you feel that Cassie simply can’t go that route. Paris Hilton represents all that’s wrong with the world. The “promising” of the title has vanished. She is simply a 30 year old woman whose love was raped and killed herself because of the trauma.

When the guy who caused that trauma (Chris Lowell) returns from England and Cassie learns he is about to be married and have a wonderful life, she also learns that a video was made of this assault, shared with many people and still exists. She watches it and discovers that Ryan was there, laughing and ogling with a little bit of Billy Bush awe. So her world has ended, once again, and she decides to take the ultimate revenge by pretending to be a stripper and crashing the bachelor party for Al. She intends to carve Nina’s name into his stomach, first by sending him up to the bedroom and then by drugging (with vodka shots poured directly into their mouths) all the friends who are celebrating. In the bedroom she handcuffs Al to the bed and as she reveals who she is and what happened to Nina he starts screaming for help that isn’t coming because they’re all passed out downstairs. Just before she manages to start carving Nina’s name into his stomach, he manages to break one hand free of the cuff and overpowers Cassie, smothering her in one of the longest death scenes I think that’s ever been filmed. It’s gruesome and meant to be. He even screams “Stop fucking moving!” as he’s killing her, as if she should just go quietly. You keep thinking maybe she’ll jump up and not be dead, but she doesn’t. She is very much dead. His friend Joe comes up in the morning, and when Al tells him that he killed the stripper, Joe asks, “Is the 90s?” Until he takes the pillow off her head and sees it’s true. Together they burn her body somewhere deep in the woods.

And then the wedding happens. It’s an absurd wedding, with lots of weird dancing and horrible vows. The lawyer she previously went to harm and ended up forgiving instead, receives a package saying that she is probably dead, explaining everything she meant to do, and that she was probably killed by Al. In the package is the half heart Nina would have worn around her neck with the name Cassie on it. They do a search for her body and find the ashes, as well as the necklace she was wearing with the name Nina. The police invade the outdoor wedding and arrest the groom. Ryan, who is attending the wedding, receives a series of scheduled texts. “You didn’t think this was the end did you?” and then finally “love Cassie and Nina.” That was another thing I missed the first time. She also committed suicide, to be with Nina. The New Yorker review pointed out the similarity of this ending to Thelma and Louise, which has divided so many people. Way back when women all over San Francisco and probably in cities everywhere were wearing shirts that said, “I am Thelma,” or “I am Louise,” as if their drive over the canyon cliff was a happy ending. Men tended to disagree and saw it as tragic.

But as this movie makes very clear men also tend not see sexual assault as much of a big deal as women do. They elected a man who has been sued by 26 women who have said he assaulted them. Probably hundreds more who he kissed without their permission, or squeezed their ass cheek, or something else. And still they supported him. Because they don’t care about misogyny. Assault is just a misunderstanding. Boys will be boys.

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French Exit, a film written by Patrick DeWitt

Well I don’t know how to make this thing word wrap, but I recently saw this in a re-opened theatre. There were about 6 customers. Afterward, I looked for some thoughtful reviews and could find none. Most were negative and gave it two stars, citing Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as the reason for any stars at all.

I thoroughly disagree. I was moved by the end and thought that probably most of these people saw it on a streaming platform and have become too impatient when a story, or plot, doesn’t “follow” the typical American 3 act format that Hollywood has made almost mandatory. A movie like this is hard to follow because as you learn about the characters you learn about what’s motivating them. So it’s not a movie like, “I want to go to Paris and rejuvenate.” It’s more of a character deciding not to fight her fate.

The title is a play on the “Irish Exit,” which is when you decide to sneak out of a party without saying goodbye to the host(s) or other guests. I see nothing wrong with that, especially if the party is loud and raucous. But I did it once and the person never spoke to me again, ever. I didn’t particularly care and when I realized I didn’t care, I realized we weren’t really friends anyway. But you take a risk when you do something like that, even if there’s a nice word for it.

So this is French Exit and it takes place mostly in Paris. She has gone through her fortune and the bank is taking everything. A good friend offers her to use her apartment in Paris, and like a typical American, thinks that Michelle Pfeiffer is going to get back on her feet. At some point in Paris she writes a postcard to this friend and explains that after her 100,000 Euros runs out, and it will because she keeps giving 10,000 Euro tips to mystified waiters, homeless people, etc. — after the money runs out she is going to kill herself. She folds this postcard up and puts it under a tea cup at a cafe she’s at. The waiter sees it and apparently decides to mail it for her.

Lucas Hedges is her son and seems weirdly passive and obedient. But you find out why later. He has made this choice. She has a black cat with her, which she smuggles into the country by giving it an Ambien and making it sleep in her bag, and the cat turns out to be a significant character which they use a medium to communicate with. It contains the soul of her dead husband.

I can see why people didn’t like it (and she does not kill herself, at least in a way that is shown), but her exit from the movie was really one of the great ones. She just walks off into a dark alley with the cat (her dead husband) dutifully following, and instead of creating the sense that she is walking to her doom, you had the sense that everything was forgiven.

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The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

This was the third in the trilogy of Thomas Cromwell’s life living under Henry VIII. The first was Wolf Hall and the second was Bring Up The Bodies. I think her titles are particularly interesting because they are not what they seem. Wolf Hall is the Seymour family seat in Wiltshire and Jane Seymour (Henry’s yet to be third wife) is just a lady in waiting to Anne Boleyn (his second wife, who he has not yet married in this book). Wikipedia (and an article on BBCAmerica) suggests that the title is an allusion to a Latin expression which roughly translates “Man is wolf to man.” Well that may be true under horrific tyrants like Henry VIII. But I think Wolf Hall is a terrific title that suggests something far off. Wolf Hall shows how Thomas Cromwell worked the system to twist Henry’s 20 year marriage to Katherine of Aragon (mother of Mary) into an illegal marriage which allowed it to be annulled. It ends with Thomas More’s decapitation.

Bring Up The Bodies refers to the guards in the Tower of London who, on the day someone was to be executed, would shout down the staircase, “Bring Up The Bodies.” Gruesome, but emblematic of how Henry VIII reigned: by execution. He is thought to have executed some 50,000 people who were not loyal to him, refused to recognize him as the head of the English church, or were just treasonous. The second book deals with his disintegrating marriage to Anne Boleyn, who is probably the second most famous person in Henry VIII’s orbit, as her story is the most dramatic and terrifying. Though she bore Elizabeth, who would eventually become “the virgin queen,” after her brother Edward (by Jane Seymour) and Mary (by Katherine of Aragon), she could not bear other children and so, with Cromwell’s help, a conspiracy was concocted and she was accused of having many lovers (most of the king’s privy counsel) and incest with her brother George Boleyn. She was decapitated the day after most of the king’s counsel were hanged. A second book in the series that ends with a decapitation.

So the third, obviously, is going to end in a decapitation and this time it will be the main character’s: Thomas Cromwell, who, in this horrific and murderous reign, is turned on for no clear reason, other than having arranged a marriage with Anne of Cleves who Henry found repulsive and could not touch. The tile of this one refers to Henry himself, who is both the mirror and the light: one cannot see oneself or judge oneself except by him. This was the hardest to get through. Jane is dead, having passed soon after giving birth to Edward, and there are hundreds of pages of governing, collecting taxes, fighting battles with the Scottish, worries about France and Spain and, of course, the power of the Pope. Increasingly, you sense Cromwell is making more enemies and he has also risen to be the most powerful of the king’s secretaries. But once Henry meets his fourth bride to be, you feel the tables turn and the loss of the king’s approbation. As you zero in on the last hundred pages or so, reading this book becomes almost frightening and it’s because she has for 1800 pages through all three books, kept us firmly rooted in the Thomas Cromwell’s mind. At this point, because of the time you’ve spent with him and because of Hilary Mantel’s skill in making you really feel what it was like to live and eat and walk around in those days, and even, I would say, live under a cloud of inevitability — that one day Henry will turn on you and send you to the Tower, you don’t want to continue. You want to leave it unfinished and not follow Cromwell to the Tower and then to the place where he is going to put his head on the chopping block, while people, including his children, watch.

But she manages, I think, to make the end both horrific and bearable, because I think she allows the character of Cromwell to make it bearable for us. She allows us to find comfort with Cromwell, not just for him, before the axe finally lands on the back of his neck.

She gives an addendum, in her own voice, pointing out that Cromwell was executed the very day Henry was married to his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, who would later be executed for committing adultery with a distant cousin Thomas Culpepper. But if you do a little more reading, there’s not really very much explanation for why Thomas Cromwell was executed, and his children, in fact, continued to work in Henry’s court. One thing these books made me feel, is how fortunate we are not to live under authoritarian regimes and how frightening it is that so much of the world seems intent on bringing back some of that style. For his final days in office, Trump has decided to execute five federal prisoners, making it a total of 13 since July. One gets the sense this is as just as arbitrary as Henry VIII’s nonsense.

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The horse race

I put this on Facebook, but as I don’t want to be too obnoxious, I kept it private. It’s not intended to start a fight. But one of my more bizarre ways of coping with stress is to study numbers (stats) or science (distance). When my father died, I became obsessed with trying to study the number of seconds a person has to deal with death — the instant of death that is — when someone dies in front of you, vs. the number of seconds a person deals with life. It was an attempt to understand why that moment of passing is so much more powerful than all the rest of living: the arguments, the anger, the simmering anger, the unspoken hostility, the love and the respect. I was convinced at the time, that I had experienced something unique. The other thing I did was try to draw on a regular size piece of paper, the size of the earth compared to the sun. And then I tried to draw the distances between the planets. I don’t know why but it comforted me. What I’ve been doing since the middle of March when everything closed down (and it closed down about a week before it was ordered to by the government, which I think is an important missing and forgotten fact), is doing a spreadsheet of the numbers of new cases. At first I started with the national numbers, and then I realized that New York’s high caseload was distorting what was going on in the rest of the country. Everyone was thinking that it was dropping, and it was, as a collective of 50 states plus Guam, Puerto Rico and DC. But if you separated out New Jersey and New York from the other 50 states, the picture was dire. I started doing that May 14 and at that time, the percentage of cases outside NY and NJ was already 65%. Now it’s 85% and it has not stopped rising. I then became curious about the top ten and whether or not the fast rising states of Florida, California, Arizona, Texas and Georgia would approach or even surpass New York’s numbers. So I did a rolling 7 day average of each states cases, added those to their numbers, and pushed this all the way out to the end of summer. After Memorial Day, I’m sure the numbers will skyrocket again, as people (with their Facebook degrees) continue to talk about herd immunity, or “trust in God,” or say idiotic things like “If it’s my time, it’s my time,” all of which is slap in the face of the health community and the hospitals, who are risking their lives to help save these people who, in my opinion, don’t deserve to be saved. Here’s the post and the numbers. I would love to be proven wrong, but so far, with the exception of NY and most of the northeast coalition, the numbers are actually getting worse, not better.

“Pushing the numbers out to the end of August. Congrats Florida. You’ll be number 1, with about 828K cases. (you can thank all your old folks and their fatalism “If I get it I get it,” attitude.) California, sorry, you only place with 766K cases. Texas, as big as you are, you just show with 753K cases. Very close. NY, you were sort of on your own, in the middle of the pack, with 440K. Arizona and Georgia, you were neck and neck at 267K and 260K respectively. You did manage to pull ahead of Illinois (208k) and New Jersey (185k). Penn and Mass, you fought for the 9th and 10th spots valiantly, but ultimately Penn, you take 9th place with 137K and Mass, just 125K.This forecast doesn’t take into account any of the current 10-20th place contenders. But it looks like Louisiana and North Carolina, by adding a whopping 15000 cases a day, might ultimately push Pennsylvania and Mass into the dustbin and could even give New Jersey and Illinois a run for the money. But Florida, this is yours to lose. Keep feeding your old people to the virus.”

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Initially I was put off by the translation. I felt it wasn’t complex enough or it lacked some sort of depth. I like reading translations because they are often vastly different from American books, many of which seem too simplistic to me. But then as I got deeper into the book I could start to understand why the language is the way it is. There’s a feel of an anthropologist looking at these particular subjects, much the way Tom Perrotta looks at the suburbs of New Jersey. So he, the narrator, feels like he exists somewhere up above and quite distant, but with binoculars and high powered cameras, and is able therefore to dig into the characters predicament(s). And then, in fact, when you’re in the fourth or fifth section, Kundera starts referring to I, meaning his narrator self. He tells us which characters he loves. And why. By this point I had no problem with the translation at all.

I’d bought this book when it was reissued in 2009 and have had it on my stack since then. What prompted me to pick it up is that someone in my writing class said that the character I am working on was much like Tomas, of this book, in that he is a womanizer (my character is gay) and doesn’t like to stay in the same bed with someone after he has climaxed. My character is the same, but describes it as a kind of gauze that lands on him and makes him want to flee. People object to this and think it depicts some sort of pathology — that he’s sick. In fact my book is called Impaired and, as my teacher Susan Breen has suggested, the novel’s question is whether or not he is, in fact, impaired, in all the meanings of that word.

Although I really liked this book and it goes deep into the politics of instilling fear (which I remembered from the movie), I did not really understand why Tomas was so sexually promiscuous. There’s a place in the book where he tells friends that he figures he has slept with about 200 women. In the gay world, of course, that number is more like 2,000. But what that had to do with all the other themes of the novel, I don’t know, and I could draw no conclusions by the end. It seemed like it was just his personality.

If we’re looking for a question that this novel is supposed to answer, it would be this, from page 5. “What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” The idea of the eternal return, he says, weighs on us because eternity is unbearable. Conversely, without anything to act as a burden on our lives, we become lighter than air and only half real.

I suppose then on the next page, Kundera says, “I have been thinking about Tomas for many years.” And goes on to tell how Tomas, a womanizer, ends up being “burdened” with Tereza, a woman he meets in a distant town. This book is essentially the story of their lives, with other lives woven into the narrative, all told against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

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