Ruby Sparks (movie review)

Five years ago the movie Ruby Sparks appeared briefly in theaters. Reading the newspaper reviews intrigued me and I wanted to view the movie, but it was gone again before I had a chance to see it. This summer, using birthday gift money, I was able to buy a DVD of the movie. It arrived in yesterday’s mail. I watched it last night, and I am pleased to report that it met and exceeded my expectations.

The central premise of the plot is that a novelist creates a character—the title character of the film—and then she suddenly becomes a real person. This story retells the Greek myth Pygmalion, in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue he has carved and a goddess transforms the statue into a living woman. Of course this story has been retold many times in a variety of settings. Ruby Sparks does a better than average job of making the main characters believable, set in a twenty-first century California city.

Paul Dano plays the writer, Calvin, and Zoe Kazan plays the title character. (Kazan also wrote the script for the movie.) Brief appearances by Elliott Gould, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas add texture to the film. Calvin is approaching his thirtieth birthday, having written the Great American Novel while still a teenager. Like many prodigies, Calvin struggles to meet the high expectations triggered by his early success. Early in the movie he is shown in a counseling session in which his self-doubt and fear of failure are clearly revealed. A girl he first meets in two separate dreams, coupled with a suggestion by his counselor, ignites Calvin’s imagination and sends him into a writing frenzy, creating a romantic novel starring his dream girl, Ruby Sparks.

The character of Calvin is well established when the appearance of the real Ruby Sparks begins to be foreshadowed. Her sudden manifestation in his kitchen causes Calvin to doubt his sanity, a verdict in which his brother concurs. Two revelations follow: other people can see Ruby and interact with her, and Calvin can cause Ruby to speak fluent French by adding a sentence to his novel. Calvin soberly locks the text of the novel in a desk drawer, and then he and Ruby establish a beautiful romance.

Of course the magic relationship does not last forever. Ruby wants more excitement than Calvin’s reclusive life offers. She increases her independence until Calvin begins trying to manipulate her through his writing. His own emotional problems are magnified in her behavior, until an ugly and inevitable confrontation between author and character occurs, vividly depicted by Dano and Kazan.

The pace of the movie follows the inner life of the author. His emotional disorders are subtly portrayed in a variety of ways without becoming distracting or insulting. His eccentricities—such as using an obsolete typewriter for his work—are important to the story. Yet many of the reviews I have read this morning miss the point, treating the pace, the actor’s work, and the details—such as the typewriter—as flaws.

Ruby Sparks covers far more than emotional disorders. It delves into the relationship between artists and the products of their art. A creator wants to be in control, yet the creator must also allow the art to develop in its own way. Characters find their own voice, begin to make their own decisions, and even force changes in the plot of the work. I am sure that painters, sculptors, and composers of music can share similar stories of the ways their creations overpowered them and forced them to change the work they were doing.

That said, Ruby Sparks is not a flawless movie. The characters are foul-mouthed and have no respect for the marriage bed (although fornication is not depicted on-screen). The ending tries to be both charming and ambiguous and instead is unsatisfying. One cannot be certain whether Calvin has learned from his experiences or if he is doomed to repeat his mistakes again. Like many good movies, though, Ruby Sparks manages the little nuances which carry the story of the movie without relying solely on dialogue and action. It is more than a romantic comedy; it is a thoughtful approach to creativity and the loneliness of the artist. For that reason alone, I recommend it. J.

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First Friday Fiction–Susanna, part four

Tony was still doing his best to give Susanna a hard time at work. He had updated his song selection to “Wake Up, Little Suzie” and “Susie-Q.” Every day he criticized her wardrobe selections, saying, “Mighty colorful today—are you trying to catch someone’s attention?” and, “How can you keep your balance on heels that high? And why would you even bother to try?” Conrad actually agreed with Tony about the heels, but he would never confront a woman about her clothing, especially not in front of other people. Susanna did not show any irritation at Tony’s ribbing. Sometimes she forced a small giggle at one of his comments. Usually she waved her hand at him or simply ignored him.

Conrad was also not bold enough to rise to Susanna’s defense. He wanted to tell Tony to leave her alone, to stop being such a bully, but instead he suffered in silence.

He tried to find ways to start little conversations with Susanna, but most days “Good morning” was as far as they got. On Mondays he would try, “How was your weekend?” but Susanna replied with one-word answers such as “fine” or “OK.” She wasn’t unfriendly toward him; it was clear that she just didn’t want to talk.

She opened up to Tina, though. The two of them conversed about Netflix and recipes and their cats. With his back to the conversation, Conrad was able to listen while he appeared to be working. He loved the timbre of Susanna’s alto voice and the jingle of her laugh when it was sincere, not forced. He resented the Saturdays and Sundays when he didn’t see her or hear her voice. Constantly he waited for the clue that she was ready to accept the offer of a date.

Then, one Friday morning as the women were visiting, Tina said, “Oh, by the way, how was dinner last night?”

“The food was just OK,” Susanna answered. “The company was not as bad as I feared. He can be decent and polite and gentlemanly when he tries; he just doesn’t seem to want to try too often.”

Conrad tried not to jump to conclusions. Susanna might have gone out to eat with her father or brother or some other family member. But in his heart he was convinced that she had had her first date in a long time, and obviously that date had not included him.

About a week later, Tina asked a similar question—“How was the movie?”

“It seemed long,” Susanna admitted. “I guess I’m just not into car chases and explosions and ten minute fights that devastate an entire city.” Conrad knew which movie she was describing. It was new to the theaters that month.

Tony happened to be walked toward the door when Susanna spoke. He stopped and looked at her. “I’m sure that when you choose the movie,” he said, “it’s going to be some girly romance with mushy music and long gazes into each other’s eyes, and I’ll be bored stiff.”

She looked up at him, a twinkle in her eye. “I hadn’t planned on such a movie,” she said, “but if that’s how you feel, then that’s what I’m going to choose.”

Tony imitated Susanna’s way of waving away an insult and went on his way. Conrad sat stiff in his chair, staring at the monitor. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Susanna dart a guilty glance in his direction, but he might have imagined it. He tried to focus on his work, but his mouth was dry and his heart was dancing in the middle of his chest. “Why Tony?” he asked himself again and again. “What could she possibly see in him?”

A few minutes later, Susanna grabbed her coffee mug and headed to the break room. A few seconds later, Conrad followed. He was relieved to see that no one else was in the room when he got there.

“I know it’s none of my business,” Conrad began, and a truer statement had never left his mouth. “But I have to know… did I just overhear that you and Tony went to a movie together?”

“Well, yes,” she said, and she looked down at the floor. Her cheeks were beginning to turn rosy.

“Didn’t you tell me a couple weeks ago that you aren’t ready yet for that sort of thing?”

“I didn’t want you to know,” she admitted. “I’m sorry you overheard. Honestly, I would never want to hurt your feelings.”

“I just don’t understand. How can you be ready to see a movie with Tony but not ready to see one with me?”

“I don’t want to have to answer that—please,” she begged. Her rosy cheeks were now glowing bright red, and a tear welled out of her right eye.

Conrad knew that he was probably making a big mistake, but he persisted. “I think I have a right to know.”

Susanna set her mug on the counter next to the coffeemaker. “Look,” she said, “It’s this way. I accepted a date with Tony because I knew what to expect—a night out on the town, nothing more. For that, yes, I’m ready. And if he wanted anything more, it would be easy to tell him no.

“But with you…” she shook her head. “With you it’s different. I’m not ready to get involved quite yet, not ready for a serious relationship.” She looked up at him, “When I’m ready for a man in my life, a real man, I promise to let you know.” She turned, filled her mug, and went back to her desk.

Conrad stood in the middle of the break room for several minutes, staring out the window.

 

Romantic comedies

“Boys only want pork if it’s kosher” is a mishearing of a line from a Taylor Swift song. It makes just as much sense as the real line, though. We live in a culture that is confused and misinformed about love. For generations, poems, books, songs, and movies have distorted the meaning of love. No wonder our culture is trying to redefine marriage, when we cannot distinguish true love from infatuation, romance, or just plain selfishness.

That said, I actually enjoy watching romantic comedies. The late Nora Ephron is one of my favorite movie-makers in the genre, largely because her distortions of love are so over-the-top that they practically serve as satires rather than portrayals of romance. I must add, though, that I would not want my children to watch her movies without a clear warning that true love is nothing like what they will see in Ephron’s movies.

When Harry Met Sally (1989) was written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner. It follows two shallow and shabby characters through several years of their lives. The wit of Billy Crystal and the charm of Meg Ryan make the movie entertaining. The most telling quote from the movie comes from the wedding reception of Jess and Marie. Harry and Sally had tried to arrange a blind date in which Harry was matched with Sally’s best friend Marie, and Sally is matched with Harry’s best friend, Jess. Instead, the two best friends become attracted to each other, ignoring Harry and Sally. At the reception, Jess, the groom offers this toast: “To Harry and Sally. If Marie or I had found either of them remotely attractive we would not be here today.” As in all Nora Ephron’s movies, the main characters practice serial fornication without shame, although Sally is affronted by Harry’s casual attitude about his behavior. The movie is packed with clever lines and convincing portrayals of the characters. The interviews with married couples between acts of the story are a nice touch, showing diverse ways that a man and a woman can become a couple. As a love story, though, the movie is sadly lacking any other positive portrayals of true love.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993) was both written and directed by Nora Ephron. Tom Hanks plays a man who was happily and faithfully married, but then his wife dies. Hanks’ portrayal makes Sam likeable and vulnerable, but Sam boasts of fornication with eight different women during his college days, and he seems inclined to return to that lifestyle. Meg Ryan’s Annie is already living with her fiancé, but when she hears Sam’s voice on the radio, she suddenly becomes a stalker who pursues him from across the country and arranges to meet him in New York City on Valentines’ Day (because she and her fiancé will be registering for wedding gifts at the time). Annie’s pursuit of “magic” in a romantic relationship reveals exactly what is wrong with our culture’s understanding of love.

You’ve Got Mail (1998) brings back Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as a romantic team. Nora Ephron wrote, directed, and produced this story, in which Ryan’s Kathleen owns and manages a small book store, specializing in children’s books, while Hanks’ Joe Fox is part of a family which owns and runs a large chain of book stores, the kind of chain that puts stores like Kathleen’s out of business. While the two compete professionally, they are also becoming friends in anonymous email exchanges. (At the same time, they are both living with partners to whom they are not married.) In the latter part of the movie, after Joe has realized that his email partner and business competitor are the same person (and after her shop has closed), he begins a crafty and manipulative pursuit of Kathleen which leads to the expected happy ending. If one of my daughters became involved with a man like Joe Fox, I would urge her to run the opposite direction as quickly as possible.

More recent movies from Nora Ephron include Hanging Up (2000) which she wrote and produced (and which again stars Meg Ryan), and Julie & Julia (2009) which Ephron wrote, directed, and produced. In both movies, the romance in the plot takes second place to other happenings. Hanging Up is about three daughters and their relationship with their aging father. It speaks on several levels about life and death, love and families, and our dependence upon technology. Julie & Julia, starring Amy Adams, is based on a true story of a woman who chooses to blog about her attempt to cook every recipe from a book by Julia Child (portrayed by Meryl Streep) in one year. Both movies benefit from the same clever dialogue and convincing acting as in the other three I have mentioned.

I enjoy Nora Ephron’s movies for their cleverness. I also enjoy the way she portrays holidays with genuine affection for their flavor. Harry and Sally’s Christmas decorations and New Year’s Eve revelation, Sam and Annie’s meeting on Valentines’ Day at the top of the Empire State building, and Kathleen and Joe’s contrasting celebrations of Thanksgiving (both involving singing) are all nice touches in each movie. In fact, the friendships depicted in all of these movies are frequently healthier relationships than the romantic relationships at the center of each plot. J.

It’s a Wonderful Life

My plan to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with my family this weekend was delayed as my daughters ran from one Christmas party to another. I hope we will be able to squeeze the movie in one evening in the next two weeks, because the uplifting story of kindness and generosity returned in a time of need suits the holiday spirit of Christmas.

I love this movie despite its errors. I am not talking about continuity errors or character errors. (You can read about those on IMDB if you are interested.) The movie contains some significant theological errors, some of which are even essential to the plot.

First, people do not become angels when they die. Human beings remain human, even when their spirits are separated from their bodies. Angels have always been angels. Just as cats never turn into dogs, so people never turn into angels. If Clarence is an angel, then he has always been an angel.

Second, the conversation between Clarence and Joseph, prompted by prayers to God on behalf of George Bailey, totally fails to mention God. True angels serve God and do his will. They do not answer prayers or step into the lives of God’s people without a direct command from God to do so. Perhaps the makers of the movie were afraid that a portrayal of God would offend some people. If so, they were probably right. Still, the omission of God from the heavenly counsel is also problematic.

Third, angels do not need to earn their wings. The wings of angels are rarely mentioned in the Bible, although the prophet Isaiah saw angels surrounding the throne of God–they each had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet, and with two wings they flew. Also, the angels depicted on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant and in Solomon’s Temple had wings. Angels do not need wings to fly. They are spiritual beings, not physical beings. They do not take up space or reflect light. When angels become visible, they generally do so to deliver a message from God. (The word “angel” actually means “messenger.”) Instead of reflecting light, they emit light, which is probably why they often begin conversations with human beings by saying, “Don’t be afraid.”

Fourth, the Bible does not mention first-class angels and second-class angels. The angels Isaiah saw were called seraphim (“burning ones”); other angels are called cherubim (“near ones,” perhaps because they remain close to God). There is also an archangel (“head angel”) named Michael. Medieval theologians speculated that there are nine ranks of angels, including thrones, dominions, virtues, and powers. There is no evidence that angels can be promoted from one rank to another by doing good deeds.

Why do I love a movie that is so wrong about angels? The movie is really about people, not about angels. Its hero, George Bailey, cares about people, especially the poor and the working class. His nemesis, Mr. Potter, cares only about money and power. In a run on the town’s bank during the Great Depression, George Bailey uses his personal funds (saved to finance his honeymoon–the run occurs the day he is married) to help others, while Mr. Potter takes advantage of the run to take over the bank. Even though George Bailey is a hero, he is not unflawed. Under stress he verbally abuses his wife and children, then self-medicates with alcohol. His religious beliefs are never stated, but it appears that he prays only as a last resort, not faithfully. Christmas provides a reason to decorate the home and the office, but its significance for George Bailey seems less than the significance of an approaching party to be held for his younger brother, a war hero.

For the Christian, It’s a Wonderful Life might be experienced like the book of Esther. God is never mentioned by name in Esther, although he is clearly the moving force protecting the Jewish people. Like Queen Esther, George Bailey acts in a godly way to help others; like Esther, he receives help when he needs it most. In Esther’s case, she needs the approval and support of the emperor; George Bailey needs the support of his friends and neighbors. Both of them receive what they need because God is in charge of their lives.

In short, Clarence is not the answer to the prayers prayed by and for George Bailey. The answer to prayers comes by way of the hearts of the residents of Bedford Falls. The ironic use of the hymn “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”–meant in the movie only to underline Clarence’s role–can instead remind Christians of the true meaning of Christmas: “Glory to the newborn King, peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” J.

Lucas

My favorite back-to-school movie is Lucas. Filmed in the Chicago area in 1985, it was released in 1986 to generally favorable reviews. The movie stars Corey Haim in the title role and includes Kerri Green, Winona Ryder, and Charlie Sheen. This discussion of Lucas will contain **many spoilers** so, if you haven’t seen the film, you might want to stop reading now.

Lucas Bly is a high school student with much intelligence and a deep interest in nature. He is smaller than his classmates, perhaps because he was accelerated a year or two in elementary school. He scorns the superficial aspects of high school social life, including football and cheerleading. During the summer he befriends a girl, Maggie, who is new to the area. She likes Lucas and appreciates his attention, but once school begins she wants to fit in with her surroundings. She joins the cheerleading squad and, by the middle of the movie, she is dating a football player, Cappie, who happens to be the only athlete in the school who does not either bully or ignore Lucas.

I attended high school in the Chicago area, and I can affirm that Lucas shows what life was really like at that time and place. Bullies were bullies, the student body was divided into cliques, and school life seemed more oriented around sports than around scholastic achievement or the fine arts. My high school expected to win football and basketball games until we were overpowered by much bigger and wealthier school districts (represented in the movie by Rockford High School). Along with the scenes inside the school, the outdoor scenes also ring true, especially those set by the tracks of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.

Lucas attempts the hopeless quest of joining the football team, dreaming that he can win Maggie’s affection away from Cappie. Of course the coach has no intention of allowing Lucas onto the team. When Lucas insists upon his legal right to be allowed to participate in school athletics, he is sent to the principal, who demands a note from Lucas’ father giving permission for Lucas to try out for football. Lucas is stymied, since his father will have nothing to do with the school. However, on the Saturday of the home game against Rockford, Lucas sneaks into the locker room after the game has started, suits up, and trots out to the field. When Lucas badmouths the coach (whose team is already losing badly), the coach decides to teach Lucas a lesson—he sends him out to the field for one play. Lucas is of course knocked to the ground, but he is determined and will not leave the field. The next play develops badly, Lucas runs alone downfield, and he has an opportunity to become the hero of the game.

Some people complain about the key scene, which is that one football play. Their complaints overlook the fact that everything that is wrong about that play fits the rest of the movie’s plot. The football coach is incompetent—he probably has not drilled into the quarterback that one football play cannot have two forward passes. The referees probably did whistle the play dead when the second, illegal, pass was thrown, but given the crowd noise, the whistles are not heard, especially downfield. Lucas drops the pass—even if it were a legal pass, it would be incomplete, and the play should be whistled dead. One of Rockford’s players grabs the loose ball and runs with it, which is exactly what good defenses are trained to do. Lucas has never been taught the rules of football, so naturally he tries to tackle the opposing player with the ball. In the pile-up that results, Lucas is knocked unconscious.

He recovers in the hospital, with Maggie sitting by his side. No, she is not his girlfriend now, but as a friend she is concerned for him. A few days later, Lucas is able to return to school. He is uncomfortable at first, as his fellow students are all staring at him. When he opens his locker, he finds a school jacket hanging inside. The football players who once bullied him now lead the other students in the hallway in applauding Lucas for his strong if pointless determination.

I first saw this movie in a one-dollar theater in the summer of 1986. I was in the Chicago area at the time. The Chicago Bears had won the Superbowl in January of 1986—after the movie was filmed, but before it was released. Football fans will remember that Chicago had a rookie defensive lineman named William Perry, nicknamed the Refrigerator because of his size and weight. The Bears’ defense coach called Perry “a wasted draft pick,” but Perry unexpectedly became an offensive star for the Bears. Coach Ditka used him late in one game as a running back, intending only to maintain possession of the ball without risking his star backs. Instead, Perry showed that, because of his size, he could advance the ball against the defense. Soon Coach Ditka was sending Perry into the game on goal-line situations, and the “wasted draft pick” was scoring touchdowns. He became a hero, along with his more experienced and more talented teammates. His jersey, number 72, was a best-selling item in Chicago area stores all that season and through 1986.

When Lucas snuck into the locker room and suited up, he happened to choose jersey number 72. (Remember, this was filmed before the Bears’ football season had started.) The Chicago area residents in the theater laughed and applauded when undersized Lucas trotted onto the field with William Perry’s number on his back. That remains one of my most vivid memories of watching a film in a movie theater. J.

Movies helpful to history students

As a history teacher, I often mention movies in the classroom to help the students gain some perspective on events and experiences that might be foreign to them. I’ve found that we cannot discuss the Greek and Persian wars without the movie 300 entering the conversation. To explain the events before and after that battle in light of what they think they know from the movie is beneficial. Once I led a before-class discussion of which war movies were truest to life. Since many of my students have military backgrounds, their perspective of war movies is probably more useful than that of the general population. Recently I recommended 1776 as a way to learn the issues and personalities surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Although Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the rest did not sporadically burst into song in Philadelphia that summer, the movie script successfully reproduces the conversations that happened during that key historic event.

In the coming week, I will be mentioning three more movies to the students. When we are at this part of the book, I frequently want to watch all three movies, even though generally I don’t have enough time for even one of them. Besides, I’ve already seen each of them enough times that I probably could speak much of the dialogue along with the characters on the screen.

Evita (1996) tells the story of Eva Peron, wife of the caudillo Juan Peron. She was part of his message to Argentina that he supported the common people and their goals. (After all, he married one of them.) The movie comes from a musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, first performed on Broadway in 1979. (The soundtrack album was recorded and released in 1976.) As is the case with 1776, Evita depicts the principle characters singing rather than talking. In fact, there are very few spoken words in the entire movie. Casting Madonna in the title role was extremely controversial in the 1990s, but it worked. While the movie condenses history and combines events, it reflects the emotions of the time and place in a way that a classroom lecture and discussion cannot replicate. The movie runs two hours and 15 minutes.

Gandhi (1982) won many awards for its biographical portrayal of Mohandas Gandhi, known in India as the Mahatma. Like Evita, it condenses history, combines some events, and skips others entirely. Unlike Evita, the film Gandhi is not a musical. The key events of Gandhi’s life and career are shown within the proper historical and geographical setting. Again, a sense of the flavor of India during the first half of the twentieth century cannot be reproduced in the classroom. The movie runs three hours and 11 minutes.

The Last Emperor (1987) shows Chinese history during the first half of the twentieth century from the point of view of the final Qing emperor, who was only a boy when the rise of the Republic threw him out of power. Later, he naively cooperated with Japanese officials in an attempt to regain some of his lost power. He then is captured by Communist forces, who retrain him to be like everyone else in China. Once again, the film gives context to the historic events, dramatically depicting the way real people dealt with the changes that were happening in China during those decades. The movie runs two hours and 43 minutes.

An odd similarity among these movies is that all of them begin at the end of the life of the title characters (in the case of Evita and Gandhi, with their funerals) and then treat their lives and histories as flashbacks. This allows the moviemakers to make dramatic jumps in time between two events, omitting the portions of history that are less relevant or interesting for the script and the audience.

These three movies are vastly superior to the large number of movies that use history only as inspiration for the story the moviemakers want to tell. Most movies of historical fiction (and even some that pretend to be documentaries) consist of more fiction than history. This phenomenon is not new—Shakespeare’s historical plays were more imagination and propaganda than they were historical truth. (This may be as close as Oliver Stone will come to being compared to Shakespeare.) When I can point to a few helpful movies, though, it may assist at least one student to gain more appreciation of history than can be imparted in the classroom. J.

The privilege of genius

Last weekend I saw Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining for the first time. Two nights later I saw it for the second time. I’ve also done some reading on the Internet about this movie and how it was made, as well as biographical information about Kubrick.

I’ve seen about half of the movies Kubrick made, and I’d like to see the rest, except for maybe his earliest work. Kubrick is acknowledged a genius in the making of movies, with classics such as Spartacus and 2001: Space Odyssey to his credit. He is famous for shooting each scene dozens of times to achieve the best possible result; also, he is famous for detailed and meticulous planning of his filming, so that everything in each frame contributes to the story that the movie is depicting.

For example, in one of his movies, two characters are having dinner, and they are seen from various angles while they eat and drink. Yet the amount of food and wine in front of them fluctuate irregularly rather than disappearing steadily, as one would expect during a meal. Any other director would have been accused of continuity errors, but Kubrick says that he mangled the continuity purposely to make viewers share the feeling of disorientation that the main character was feeling.

The Shining has similar distortions of continuity which Kubrick’s fans consider deliberate and meaningful. During one conversation, Jack pulls a sheet of paper out of his typewriter and rips it to pieces; minutes later he is typing again—paper is in the typewriter, even though he never added another sheet. In the same conversation a chair is seen behind Jack at first, but it has disappeared later. In the pantry cans of food appear mid-scene on shelves that were previously emptier. In other scenes items are rearranged from moment to moment without ever being touched. Even light switches and electrical outlets appear and disappear during the course of the movie.

One might assume that all these distortions are simply continuity errors, but with Kubrick’s reputation for genius and for meticulous planning, his fans are certain that every one of these distortions was done for a reason. Because The Shining is about haunting and supernatural abilities, some viewers assume that moving chairs and lamps reveal telekinetic abilities of the characters. Others think that the hotel itself is inhabited by malignant spirits that steal light switches and provide paper for Jack’s typewriter. Because the cans of food which appear out of nowhere have a Native American as their logo, some viewers think that the entire movie contains a message about Native Americans.

Of course it is also possible that by filming each scene dozens of times, Kubrick left himself vulnerable to continuity errors. Maybe after filming the conversation five or six times, Kubrick decided he didn’t like the chairs behind Jack and had them moved, but when he edited the footage he found that Jack’s best delivery of a certain line happened before the chairs had been taken out of the set. Perhaps he rearranged props in the pantry, not to make a point about Native Americans, but to achieve a certain proportion of shape and color in the background. Since the light switches and outlets were props, perhaps they were installed after some scenes had already been filmed.

Stanley Kubrick was a genius. Therefore, what would be a mistake for any other director is part of his deliberate plan to film a masterpiece. People have tried to make maps of the Overlook Hotel, the setting for The Shining, only to discover that the layout seen in the movie is impossible. Interior and exterior windows do not match, interior rooms have windows that show outdoor scenes, stairways lead to dead ends, and journeys through the passageways are inconsistent from scene to scene. Of course the movie was filmed on a group of sets, not in an actual hotel. Other directors would have been blamed for these inconsistencies, but Kubrick is assumed to have created an impossible hotel for dramatic purposes.

The privilege of genius is that mistakes don’t happen. A good explanation can be found for everything a genius does, even if it looks like a mistake. Of course people study the work of geniuses far more carefully than the work of average people—most movies set in a hotel don’t compel viewers to draw maps of the hotel. Ordinary people make ordinary mistakes that most of us don’t even notice. Only geniuses can make what seems to be a mistake and send people searching for its meaning.

By the way, the thought that Stanley Kubrick made The Shining to confess that he helped fake film footage of Apollo 11’s trip to the moon is ridiculous. J.

Field of Dreams

Spring begins this weekend, and a young man’s thoughts turn to… baseball. Spring training is underway, and the regular season approaches quickly. With that, the time has come for me to review my favorite movie involving baseball. Warning: spoilers abound in the following paragraphs.

Field of Dreams, made in 1989, is about baseball and about much more. It is about pursing one’s dreams. It is about reality and how poorly we notice what is truly real. It is about the relationship of parents and children. It is about two hours long.

Ray Kinsella and his wife, Annie, own a farm in Iowa. With their daughter Karen they live in a farmhouse next to the cornfields. One day, as Ray is inspecting his corn, a voice tells him several times, “If you build it, they will come.” Ray has visions of a ballfield and of the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball because of his association with gamblers. In spite of his doubts, Ray plows under some of his corn and invests the family’s savings to build a baseball field. He installs a small set of bleachers behind the first base foul line. There is no outfield wall; the corn begins where the ballfield ends.

Many months pass before the ballfield receives its first mystical visitor. One evening Shoeless Joe Jackson appears. Ray hits a few fly balls to the outfielder and then throws some batting practice. Joe reminds Ray that seven other White Sox players were banned from the game. Ray assures Joe that they are all welcome.

Meanwhile, Ray and Annie are facing financial hardship. Annie’s brother Mark offers to help them by buying the farm from them. Annie was willing to consider his help until Joe appears. Ray and Annie discover that Mark is unable to see the baseball players; neither can Mark and Annie’s mother. Ray is delighted being able to hang out with the baseball players, but then he receives a second message: “Ease his pain.”

A meeting is held at the school. Some parents are demanding that certain books be removed from the curriculum, particularly books written by Terence Mann. Annie defends Terence Mann, one of her favorite authors from the 1960s. Ray concludes that he is supposed to ease Terence Mann’s pain by driving to Boston and taking Mann to a baseball game. When he does so, Mann is skeptical and even hostile toward Ray. Reluctantly he attends the game with Ray, where Ray receives a third message: “Go the distance.” On the scoreboard, statistics are given about a former ballplayer, Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played one inning of one major-league game in 1905. Ray decides to drive to Chisholm, Minnesota, to meet Graham. Surprisingly, Mann decides to accompany him.

Throughout these occurrences, Ray reveals to Annie and to Terence Mann that he regrets being alienated from his father, who has since died. In Minnesota, Ray and Terence Mann learn that Graham became a doctor, a pillar of the community of Chisholm, but he has also been dead for years. When Mann learns from a newspaper that his father has reported his disappearance to the police, Mann telephones his father, and Ray goes for a walk. He finds himself walking the streets of Chisholm in the year 1974, where he encounters an elderly Doctor Graham. Graham invites Ray to his office and reminisces with him about his brief baseball career. Ray comments that some people would consider coming that near to their dream and having the experience end as a tragedy. Graham replies that if he had only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, that would be a tragedy. He declines Ray’s offer to visit the ballpark on Ray’s farm.

The next morning, on their way out of Chisholm, Ray and Mann pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a youthful Archie Graham looking for a place to play baseball. He accompanies Ray and Mann to the farm, where the three of them discover that Joe Jackson has invited other deceased players to join him on the field so they can play ball. Graham is welcomed to join the other players.

The next day Ray, Annie, Karen, and Terence Mann are watching the players on the field. Archie Graham takes a turn at the plate. Shortly thereafter Mark arrives. He tells Ray and Annie that they are delinquent on their mortgage and are about to lose the farm. Terence Mann gives a moving soliloquy about the importance of baseball and promises Ray that “people will come” to his magical baseball field. In his exasperation at Ray’s seeming lack of concern about his financial predicament, Mark accidently knocks Karen off the bleachers. She lies on the ground, not breathing. Annie is ready to phone for an ambulance, but Ray’s eyes turn to the field. Young Archie Graham rushes to help. An instant later, the elderly Doctor Graham is tending to Karen. She was choking on a piece of hot dog, but the doctor revives her. Only then does Ray realize that Archie will not be able to play baseball again, but the doctor assures him that he doesn’t mind. He then walks off, disappearing into the corn.

Terence Mann is invited to explore the unknown with the baseball players through whatever spectral gate exists in the cornfield. Ray objects, but he is reminded that his family needs him. With the help of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ray learns that the man catching in the ballgame is his father, now young and living his dream of playing baseball. Ray introduces his father to Annie and Karen. The two men are seen playing catch as a line of cars is revealed approaching the field, carrying those people that Terence Mann promised would come.

The movie succeeds on many levels. The themes of baseball, finding one’s dreams, accepting alternate realities, and loving one’s family are skillfully intertwined. The movie is filled with memorable scenes: a debate between Annie and another mother about Terence Mann’s writings, Mann’s initial refusal to let Ray take him to a baseball game, Doctor Graham’s conversation with Ray in the doctor’s office, baseball players emerging from the corn and disappearing into it again, and Mark striding across the field oblivious to the baseball game happening around him. The script, the scenery, and the soundtrack are all superb. Many of the exchanges of dialogue are classic lines: Shoeless Joe asks Ray, “Is this heaven?” and Ray responds, “No, it’s Iowa.” Mann says to Ray, “You’re seeing a whole team of psychologists, aren’t you?” Ray, watching to find the gate in his cornfield protests that he has taken so many risks and done so much work to provide the ballfield, “and I’ve never once asked, ‘What’s in it for me?’” “What are you saying, Ray?” Joe asks him, and Ray shouts back, “I’m saying” (pause) “’What’s in it for me?’”

Even the casting is superb. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella. Costner also played a minor league catcher in 1988 in Bull Durham, and he would go on to play a major league pitcher in 1999 in For the Love of the Game. Amy Madigan plays Annie, and Gaby Hoffmann plays Karen, one of several little-girl roles she portrayed around that time. Ray Liotta is Shoeless Joe Jackson, Timothy Busfield is Mark (Annie’s brother), James Earl Jones is Terence Mann, and Burt Lancaster is Doctor Graham.

Field of Dreams is based on a book, Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella. The book is good, but the movie is excellent. The book includes several additional characters: Ray has a twin brother named Richard, whose location has been unknown for years until he appears at Ray and Annie’s door. Ed Scissons is the farmer who sold Ray and Annie the farm; he claims to have pitched for the Chicago Cubs and to be the oldest surviving member of the ballclub. Instead of Terence Mann, the writer whose pain Ray seeks to ease is J. D. Salinger. By replacing Salinger with a fictitious writer, the moviemakers managed to avoid a lawsuit and also were able to have some of W. P. Kinsella’s best lines in his book written or spoken by Terence Mann in the movie.

The book explains why Mark is eager to buy the farm from Ray and Annie. It is not merely that he wants to help his sister and her family; Mark and another investor want to take several small farms and make one large agricultural establishment, streamlining production by removing all the fences and farmhouses, and mechanizing farming. This sort of thing was happening at the time in Iowa and other states. The book also makes clear that Ray and Annie’s financial difficulties were not caused merely by an acre or so of corn being used for a baseball field—the real problem is that Ray used all the family’s money to buy supplies and equipment to build the field, and now they cannot pay their debts. In the book, Ray visits other ballparks on his way to Boston, and he and Terence Mann and Archie Graham also break into the ballpark in Minneapolis to frolic on the field late at night.

More significantly, in the book much time passes between the return to the farm and ballpark and the key events involving Mark, Terence Mann, Karen, and Doctor Graham. The movie condenses those events into a single day, which is important for a reason I am just about to explain.

Before I do, however, I must again marvel over the many little touches with give the movie depth and authenticity. In a store Ray asks another farmer if he has ever heard voices in the field; that farmer and the others in the store stare silently at Ray while the overhead radio plays Beverly D’Angelo singing “Crazy.” While Ray is fretting over hearing voices and wondering what it means, Karen is watching the movie Harvey on television—when he recognizes the movie, Ray quickly clicks off the television. As Terence Mann rides in Ray’s van at night after the ballgame, the neon sign with the word “Books” is briefly reflected off the windshield in front of the writer. From all these details, I know that the moviemakers did on purpose what I am about to describe.

In Chisholm, Doctor Graham tells Ray that he mildly regrets never getting to bat in the major leagues. He reflects that as the pitcher went into his windup, he would wink at the pitcher as if he knew something the pitcher did not know. In Iowa, when Archie Graham gets to bat, he winks at the pitcher, Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte. In response, Knuckles’ first two pitches are aimed at the vicinity of Archie’s head. Shoeless Joe gives some friendly advice to Graham, who swings at the next pitch, flying out to right field. His teammate at third base then scores, beating the right fielder’s throw to the plate.

In baseball, when the ball is hit in the air, the runner must then touch the base where he was when the ball was hit before advancing to the next base; otherwise, the fielding team can throw the ball to the fielder where he was, and the runner will be called out. Once he has touched the base after the catch, though, the runner can advance, hoping to make it to the next base before the ball can be thrown to the fielder at that base, who would otherwise tag the runner out. When a fly ball is hit and caught and the runner advances, the batter is not charged with an official at bat. In other words, Archie Graham still does not have an official at-bat although he has helped his team to score a run. This play is called a sacrifice—signaling what the good doctor will do shortly to save Karen’s life. J.

Arthur, King of Britain

The legends of King Arthur have extended through the history of the English language. Each generation, it seems, owns Arthur and his story; each generation, it appears, rewrites the story to suit its own challenges and values.

More than likely, Arthur did exist. If so, he was a Celtic warlord at the time that the Romans were withdrawing their troops from Britain. Arthur probably was trained by the Romans in military matters and in Roman law. Quite likely Arthur was Christian. His fame rested, at first, on his leadership of the Celts against the German tribes of Saxons and Angles who were crossing from mainland Europe to replace the Roman rule in Britain. Arthur seems to have won several victories before dying in battle; his legend was remembered, not only by the Celts who withdrew from southeastern Britain, but also among the German tribes who established the country called England.

Arthur is remembered as a Christian king. Many of the adventures of his knights took place when Arthur’s court met to observe Christian holidays (such as Christmas, Candlemas, Easter, and Pentecost). Some of the adventures, though, seem to be retellings of myths and legends from the pre-Christian religions of Britain. The presence of monstrous giants, fierce dragons, and the magician Merlin (sometimes identified as “son of the devil”) bears witness to Celtic beliefs. Queen Guinevere is kidnapped by enemies of the kingdom and must be rescued by Arthur. As the Norsemen (or Vikings) raided English and Celtic settlements, memories of King Arthur and his successes multiplied. Other local heroes became identified with Arthur’s court, and dreams of the Round Table encouraged people during this time of turmoil.

In the middle of the eleventh century, two kingdoms that had arisen from Viking settlements sought to claim England. The English army defeated the Danes, only to lose to the Normans, who came from Normandy, land previously granted to them by the king of France. The new rulers of England introduced a culture that was part Viking and part French, but which was able to incorporate the story of Arthur into its vision of England. A little less than a century after the victory of the Normans, Geoffrey of Monmouth included accounts of King Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain. Already Arthur was said to be the son of King Uther Pendragon and Ygerna, then wife to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwell. Uther dies when Arthur is fifteen, and Arthur is made king. During the following years Arthur consolidates his kingdom, first on the island of Britain, next extending to Ireland and Iceland, then to Norway, and eventually to Rome itself. Arthur defeats the Roman Emperor Lucius Hiberius, but before he returns to England his throne is seized by Mordred, a kinsman of Arthur who had been placed in control of the English government during Arthur’s absence. A bloody battle ensues in which Mordred is killed and Arthur is mortally wounded. He is taken to the island Avalon, according to Geoffrey, in the year 542, and the kingdom passes into other hands.

Around the same time that Geoffrey was writing his military history of Arthur, in France Chretien de Troyes was blending the romances of chivalry into the accounts of Arthur’s rule. Chretien is the first to mention the name Camelot; he is the first to tell of Lancelot’s affair with Queen Guinevere and the first to describe the quest for the Holy Grail. Stories of the Fisher King, somehow related to Joseph of Arimathea, were told earlier, but they were not linked to King Arthur until Chretien wrote his work. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, as the Italian Renaissance was already well under way, Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, probably the most famous compilation of the stories related to King Arthur and the knights of Camelot.

England’s importance grew tremendously during the rule of the Tudors, the Stuarts, and the Hanovers (as well as the time of the Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell). An empire was established, and an industrial revolution began in England that changed the entire world. By the nineteenth century, readers of the English-speaking world favored a return to the romantic stories of earlier times. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, a series of poems about Arthur and his knights. Howard Pyle wrote children’s books to tell the story of Arthur and Camelot. (Pyle’s version is the first that I read as a child. Pyle is also known for his accounts of Robin Hood and for his stories about pirates, both strong influences on literature and storytelling to the present.) Well before Monty Python produced a comic film version of the story of King Arthur, Mark Twain explored the comic possibilities of Camelot in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s Arthur and Merlin are not the noble heroes of Malory and Tennyson. They are bumbling, superstitious, and easily awed by the scientific and technological knowledge of the time-traveling American.

The twentieth century is known for two World Wars, and in that time of gloom the legend of Arthur was rewritten again. T. H. White wrote The Once and Future King, highlighting the tragedy and foolishness of war. His book was the basis for Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot, which was an award-winning Broadway musical, later made into a movie. In fact, Arthur has been portrayed in more than a hundred movies since 1909, including a Disney cartoon and a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Perhaps the best movie version of Arthur’s story is Excalibur (1981) starring Nigel Terry and Nicol Williamson, and directed by John Boorman.

In the past fifty years, many fantasy writers have labored to rewrite the story of King Arthur. Some have sought to place him in the proper time, at the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Others have tried to recreate the late Middle Ages’ romance and chivalry of Malory’s tale. Still others have tried to expand upon the magic of Merlin, Morgan, and the Lady of the Lake, putting Arthur and his companions in a world far removed from the contemporary world of science and technology.

In most versions of the story, Arthur does not die, but when he is badly wounded he is taken by barge to the mystical island called Avalon. There he continues to heal, but he will return to support his kingdom at its time of greatest need. Thanks to Geoffrey, Malory, Tennyson, White, and others, Arthur and his legend has frequently returned, supporting England and the entire world in those times when we need a legend to sustain us. J.

23 Odd Facts about Man on the Moon

In 1999 the film Man on the Moon was released as a bio-pic of entertainer Andy Kaufman. Because today is the 67th birthday of Andy Kaufman, I plan to watch that film tonight. Even before I do so, though, here are some interesting facts about Man on the Moon.

  • The title of the movie comes from a 1992 song by R.E.M., portions of which are heard several times during the movie; it is heard in full during the closing credits.
  • Jim Carrey, who portrays Andy Kaufman in the movie, was born on January 17, 1962, Andy’s thirteenth birthday.
  • Andy Kaufman’s granddaughter plays Andy’s sister Carol in the movie.
  • The real Andy Kaufman can be heard in the movie, singing the song “Rose Marie.”
  • The opening monologue of the movie, in which “Andy” tells the audience that there is no movie, is based on the opening of Andy’s TV special, in which he tells the audience that there is no special.
  • In the opening monologue, “Andy” tells the audience that “all the most important things in my life are changed around and mixed up for dramatic purposes.” The most significant change is that Andy’s Carnegie Hall performance took place several years before he was diagnosed with cancer.
  • The film presents Andy’s TV special as a condition for him to play a character in Taxi, but the special was actually filmed before Andy was invited to be part of the Taxi cast.
  • Jerry Lawler, David Letterman, and Wendy Polland are among about a dozen people in the film who play themselves.
  • Paul Giamatti plays Andy’s friend and co-conspirator, Bob Zmuda, and Bob Zmuda plays Jack Burns, the director of Fridays, who fights with Andy during the live show.
  • Danny DeVito plays Andy’s agent, George Shapiro (DeVito’s character in Taxi is ignored), and George Shapiro appears in the film as a nightclub owner who tells Andy that his act is not funny.
  • Courtney Love plays Lynn Marguiles, who was Andy’s girlfriend from 1982 to 1984, and Lynn Marguiles is briefly seen during the funeral at the end of the movie.
  • The movie shows “Andy” wrestling Lynn on the Merv Griffin show, but the two did not meet until long after Andy began wresting women as part of his act, and the two never wrestled each other in public.
  • The movie only mentions Lynn’s last name once, when Andy answers the telephone in the house they are sharing.
  • In the movie, “Andy” reads the entire novel The Great Gatsby, to an audience. Actually, Andy never read more than the first lines of the book to an audience. That skit ended with the recording of Andy reading the book after the audience has been asked to choose between hearing Andy read the novel or hearing a recording. However, when this skit was part of Andy’s act, his associates successfully spread the rumor that Andy had read the entire novel in his previous performance, making the audience’s reaction to his reading more genuine.
  • In the movie, “Andy” has already apologized for wresting women as part of his act and apparently has ceased doing so before the Carnegie Hall performance, but Andy actually did wrestle a woman as part of the Carnegie Hall performance.
  • The filmed version of the Carnegie Hall performance omits showing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the New York City Rockettes, probably because the real Choir and Rockettes did not appear in the show; their names were used by a different choir and group of dancers. As a result, Santa Claus is seen only in the background while Andy invites the audience out for milk and cookies.
  • In the movie, “Andy” reveals Eleanor Cody Gould’s age, but in the Carnegie Hall performance Eleanor Cody Gould refuses to reveal her age.
  • In the Carnegie Hall performance, Eleanor Cody Gould claims that the short movie “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” was made in 1931, but the copyright date of 1946 can be seen in the film itself.
  • As shown in the movie, Andy Kaufman was voted off Saturday Night Live in January 1983, by a vote of 195,544 to 169,186; Andy’s career was considered a flop at that time, not because of the difference of 25,000 votes, but because nearly half a million people had participated in a similar stunt the previous October, in which the question was whether to cook or release a lobster. Having more people care about the lobster than about Andy made a larger impression than the results of the vote.
  • When he imitated Tony Clifton, Andy never broke character; the movie’s scene set in a restaurant kitchen (in which “Andy” allows “George Shapiro” to recognize him) never would have happened.
  • As of this movie, five performers have imitated Tony Clifton: Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, Michael Kaufman (Andy’s brother, at the end of the Carnegie Hall performance), Jim Carrey, and Paul Giamatti. Zmuda has probably imitated Clifton more often than the other four combined.
  • While filming Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey demanded that he always be addressed as Andy, both on and off the set.