On a Screen Near You: Julia and Belfast

We saw two movies last weekend, and if your area is like ours, there are no covid concerns. There couldn’t have been more than 10 other people in the theater for either showing.  Good for infection control, bad for the continued viability of our nonprofit movie house, the Garden Theater.

Belfast

We were really looking forward to this autobiographical film about the Northern Irish childhood of writer and director, super-star Kenneth Branagh (trailer), and we were not disappointed.

Branagh’s  parents were Protestants, but no Belfast resident of either religions could escape the tribal hatred of the late 1970s that ripped neighborhoods asunder.

Nine-year-old Buddy (played convincingly by Jude hill) had a dad (Jamie Dornan) working in England, who comes home occasional weekends to face his family’s deteriorating security situation. His absence leaves Buddy’s mother—in an unforgettable star turn by Caltriona Balfe—to cope as best she can. She has lived in Belfast all her life. She (and her kids) know every street, every person. Can anything persuade her to leave?

Beautifully directed by Branagh, it shows how hard in the moment are decisions that seem obvious in hindsight. Predictably wonderful portrayals of Buddy’s grandparents by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds. Music by pre-off-the-deep-end Van Morrison, et al.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 92%.

Julia

This documentary about foodie icon Julia Child is well worth seeing for anyone who has experienced (or benefited from—and that’s every one of us ) her tornado-like arrival on the American culinary scene (trailer), directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West.

Born in Pasadena to conventional, conservative parents, Julia McWilliams got her first taste of other possibilities when in World War II, she joined the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA), which took her to Ceylon and China and, more important, introduced her to interesting, unconventional food and friends, including her eventual husband, diplomat Paul Child.

When Paul was stationed in Paris after the war, she fell in love with French cuisine and decided to attend the mostly male Cordon Bleu, the premier French cooking school. As a woman, she wasn’t welcome, but she persisted. Eventually, she teamed up with two Frenchwomen and produced Mastering the Art of French Cooking (two volumes of which are on my kitchen bookshelf today). This led to an interview on the then-barely-watched Boston Public television station, WGBH. The result is history. Episodes of The French Chef still appear on public television 50 years later, and generation of American cooks abandoned jello salads and Spam in favor of, well, real food. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences 92%.

Some Washington, DC, Travel Highlights

The list of interesting things to do and see in our nation’s capital—indoors and out—is endless. A lightning trip there last week gave us the chance to see temporary exhibits featuring Rosa Parks and Laurie Anderson that we greatly enjoyed.

Performance artist Laurie Anderson’s work has taken over the entire second floor of the Hirschhorn Museum, and it’s thought-provoking and entertaining by turns. Titled “The Weather,” the exhibition is on view until the end of July 2022, the largest-ever US exhibition of her work. There are soundscapes (using the instruments she’s designed), fascinating visuals (including photos of her sleeping in various unlikely places), and works large (entire rooms) and small (tiny holograms of people).

Not to miss are her written statements about the work, which add immeasurably to the experience. One room, walls and floor painted black like a chalkboard, is emblazoned with hand-drawn figures and sayings that are by turns full of pathos, humor, and insight (video here). In that room also is an enormous crow made from shiny black plastic and a parrot intoning nonsense.

If I had to sum it up, I’d say it’s a homage to creativity.

A second highlight was a visit to the main building of the Library of Congress, now open again to the public. Docents are scattered around (and available on screen) to explain the building features, which are nothing short of spectacular!

We also spent time in the temporary exhibit, “Rosa Parks in Her Own Words,” and had the good fortune to be guided by an exhibit curator. When Rosa Parks would not give up her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955, and catalyzed the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott, she was no stranger to Civil Rights activism. Her work to free the Scottsboro Boys and with the NAACP and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters extended from the 1930s up to that fateful day.

Her own letters to friends and family and Civil Rights leaders give a well-rounded picture of this dedicated American. Though she lived many years in extreme poverty, she eventually garnered many honors and honorary degrees. After her death in 2005, she became the first woman to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

Photo by Harry Breger

Best American Mystery and Suspense: 2021 – Part 1

Edited by Steph Cha–Short mystery/crime fiction lovers in the United States have been more than a little curious to see what changes might be made in this annual series since publisher HarperCollins yanked the project from founding editor Otto Penzler last year. The ousting prompted a juicy literary brouhaha. Some thought Penzler was mistreated, but many (including me) believed that, under Penzler’s guidance, the anthology trended too “white and male.” It wasn’t bringing in new voices and, by extension, wasn’t expanding the audience for the crime/mystery genre.

The new series editor is award-winning author Steph Cha (Your House Will Pay) with guest editor for the 2021 edition, Alafair Burke (The Better Sister). The process worked the same as under Penzler. Cha, as series editor, took an initial whack at the huge pile of stories and gave her favorites to Burke, who made the final selection.

The differences in the new collection are immediately obvious, in the refreshing diversity of authors and story content, as well as in the large number of new (to me) bylines. Undeterred by his ouster, Penzler maintains his past preferences in another new collection, confusingly titled, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year: 2021, now published by his own company, The Mysterious Press.

While the titles of the two collections have created some (deliberate?) confusion, their content couldn’t be more different. Only six of Penzler’s twenty-one selections (28 percent) are from women authors, compared to 60 percent of Cha’s. My data may not be perfect, but as far as I can tell, not one of Penzler’s 21 “best” was written by a person of color, whereas 45 percent of Cha’s selections were.

To bring a wider array of voices to the “best” table, Cha scoured literary journals, anthologies, and online publications. It’s heartening to see the number of high-quality, non-genre magazines that cherish high-quality crime and mystery fiction, well outside the usual stalwarts.

Diversity is the name of the game here. Not only diversity among the authors and the publications where their stories first found a home, but in the types of mystery and suspense stories represented. Whether your taste is for police procedurals or amateur sleuths, people getting their comeuppance, or giving it, or the hapless nature of criminals, you’ll find stories that hit those buttons, from across the social spectrum. They aren’t all conventional crime stories, either; in several, the characters are up against implacable bureaucracies.

Tomorrow: Some of my favorites from this year’s selection.

A Feast for Book Lovers!

Last week, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the New York Times Book Review, current staff and contributors presented an entertaining look back at books where reviewers got it dreadfully wrong and reviews that sparked particularly pointed letters to the editor.

Contemporary authors read scathing sections of reviews panning books now considered classics. Catch-22, reviewed in 1961, was deemed too long and too episodic—a collection of incidents, not a coherent novel. Though the reviewer of Anne of Green Gables considered her “one of the most extraordinary girls to ever come out of an ink pot,” she was deemed far too clever, well-spoken, and much too wise. (That’s why we readers loved her!) Fahrenheit 451, reviewed in 1953, was dismissed as a polemic. The reviewer believed Ray Bradbury had “developed a hatred for many aspects of current life,” and showed what would eventually happen if the tendency to treat reading as a heinous event went unchecked.

Book Review editor Tina Jordan called the letters the review has received “the Internet message board of their day,” containing praise, complaints, grievances, and corrections. In one from 1962, an author pointed out a mistake in the review, and the reviewer agreed she’d mis-read something (a bit unfathomably when they read us the disputed passage). Norman Mailer was mentioned in the review of a book by a different author, and Mailer wrote to dispute the comparison and in the process, assuring that more people heard about the controversy.

Best was Jack London’s response to a 1905 review that criticized the “unrealistic” fight scenes in his short story, “The Game.” A devoted boxing fan and amateur boxer himself, London felt obliged to respond, saying, “I have had these experiences and it was out of these experiences, plus a fairly intimate knowledge of prize-fighting in general, that I wrote The Game.” So there!

The 1986 novel in verse, The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth, received only condescending praise from its reviewer, which instigated a fiery letter from Susan Sontag, who called it “a thrilling, subtle literary achievement.” Clearly, opinions differ.

This month, the Book Review will be publishing its list of finalists for the best book of the past 125 years—and you can nominate your favorite here! Meanwhile, you can read reviews and interviews selected from the Review’s amazing archives. The Book Review’s anniversary celebration isn’t ignoring the crime/mystery/thriller genre. Included in its retrospective content—linked above—are a 1912 review of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and commentary from over the years on such classics as Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Ellery Queen’s The Dutch Shoe Mystery, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and, one of my favorite books, not technically a crime novel, but filled with crimes, high and low—Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. A feast for book lovers!

A Question of Identity

pumpkin, book art

Our house is full of masks. They’re from 19th century China, modern Venice, the Northwest Indians, Mexico, Ecuador, Indonesia, and most of all, Africa. They make a dramatic display and watch television with us in our family room.

So, as I cast my attention forward to forthcoming holidays and focused on Halloween, the theme of masks—what they hide, what they reveal, and their impact on wearer and viewer—came naturally to mind. I’m so pleased that Kings River Life has included this story in its MysteryRatsMaze page—a great place to find new short stories any time of year!

The jumping-off place for this story was wondering what would happen if children’s families recognized them by their Halloween costumes and not their true selves? How confusing would that be? In my story, Jen and Tamika, nine-year-old best friends, play a trick on their parents and switch costumes—costumes that arrived mysteriously in the girls’ rooms, no one sure where they came from, but part of busy families’ “whatever.” And the parents don’t notice: right costume, wrong girl. Now, that’s confusing. Jen and Tamika don’t know what to think. Do their parents know what’s going on and have turned the tables on them?

When they put that bit of confusion to rights, Jen and Tamika display evidence that these costumes have some other, potentially darker powers as well. You, the reader, will have your own “what happens next?” ideas, and they may not be pretty. It all does take place around All Hallows Eve, after all, when all manner of strange events can occur.Read “A Question of Identity” for free here.

tiger, mask

Touring James Dean’s Home Town

Taking a trip to central Indiana? Consider a detour to the two-stoplight town of Fairmount, Indiana, boyhood home of actor James Dean. Maybe he’s not the household name he was fifty or sixty years ago, but even younger generations know about—or through the magic of video streaming—have seen the three movies where he had a leading role: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.

It was near the end of the Giant filming that he had the car crash that killed him at age 24. Filming of Giant was still under way when Dean died, which devastated his co-star and friend, Elizabeth Taylor, a year younger than he was.

Fairmount hasn’t forgotten him. When we visited in mid-September, the town was gearing up for the annual James Dean festival. Although he graduated from high school in Fairmount, he soon relocated to California attended Santa Monica City College and UCLA, majoring in theater, then to New York and the Actors Studio. The James Dean Gallery (a private museum in town) shows clips from the several dozen live television dramas where he had small parts. He also appeared on Broadway.

A certain amount of mythology grows up around someone who dies so young, so tragically, and many people believe he wrecked his car by driving way too fast. Not exactly true. Late afternoon, Friday, September 30, 1955, he was driving his new rear-engine Porsche Spyder to a race to be held the next day. In the car with him was his mechanic. Yes, he was driving about ten miles over the speed limit, but who hasn’t? A 1950 Ford Custom Coupe in the approaching lane turned left just in front of him. Dean was killed. The mechanic was thrown clear and survived.

Sedans in those days were not the aluminum and plastic vehicles we have today. Steel, baby. One and a half tons of it. Engine in the front, of course. The Porsche never had a chance.

You can visit the Gallery, see the farm where he grew up, the cemetery where he’s buried, and other modest sites, all in and around Fairmount, 70 miles north of Indianapolis. Take the country roads. One reason we went is because James Dean is my sixth cousin, with our common ancestors being our 5th great-grandfather. I had the list of intervening generations with me and asked the historian at the museum whether it looked right to him. “Those are all familiar names,” he said. A certified genealogist wouldn’t be satisfied, but I am!

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

I suppose at some point I must have known more about the downfall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker other than the broad outlines I remember: wildly popular televangelists who fell from grace in a financial scandal. Tip of the iceberg, it turns out.

The one specific I remembered was that I went cold-turkey on the blue eyeshadow. The new movie, written by Abe Sylvia and directed by Michael Showalter (trailer) is unexpectedly moving, as you realize many of the couple’s difficulties are the result of Tammy Faye’s own blind spots.

Televangelists are not top-of-mind for me, and my default opinion is that they’re all con men. Jessica Chastaine as Tammy Faye and Andrew Garfield as Jim do such a good job that, OK, yes, they’re making money hand-over-fist, but there seems to be some sincere belief under all the trappings and on Tammy Faye’s side, real compassion for others. You can’t say the same for Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) or Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). In interviews, Chastain said that in her decade of research for the film, “I looked for a really seedy side that I thought was true, and I just couldn’t find it.”

From humble beginnings in Michigan and Minnesota, the Jim and Tammy Faye built an empire on Jim’s preaching and Tammy Faye’s singing that included a satellite broadcasting network, their PTL (Praise the Lord) headquarters, and a theme park in South Carolina. These expansions and the couple’s lavish lifestyle were funded by an estimated $1 million a week in contributions from viewers of the PTL club worldwide.

The movie is based on a 2000 documentary of the same name. Massive credit needs to go to the make-up department and the magicians who made Chastain go from slender to zaftig as the film’s time passes. While televangelism may make many viewers shake their heads in puzzlement, and, while it trods a path well-worn by other biopics, the fantastic performances of the two principals make it well worth seeing. “this exceptionally well-cast version of Tammy Faye’s story does manage to tap into a cultural moment with reverberations we continue to feel today,” says Alissa Wilkinson of Vox.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 65%; audiences 88%.

I Saw It at the Movies

Bernie

My original impetus for seeing Richard Linklater’s 2012 movie Bernie (trailer) was that at least some of it was filmed in Smithville, an east Texas town named after my great great grandfather, William Smith (as was Smithville, Mississippi). Smithville is in Bastrop County, where a lot of movies made in Texas are filmed. Add to that, it’s based on a true crime My interest was piqued.

Cleverly filmed like a Cold Case documentary, it uses interviews with the principals and various townspeople to gradually build up the story. Many of them are outrageously hilarious.

Jack Black does an impressive portrayal of the small town’s genial, much-loved assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede. Reviewer Roger Ebert said his performance “proves that an actor can be a miraculous thing in the right role.” Out of compassion or greed (depends who’s talking), Bernie takes up with a truly nasty elderly woman (Shirley MacLaine), and is accused of murdering her. Bernie’s nemesis is ambitious district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prosecute, no matter what the townspeople think about the crime. These are the kinds of roles where you can go over-the-top, and the cast does.

Rotten Tomatoes’ critics rating: 88%; audiences: 73%.

The Lost Leonardo

Here’s a story rife with ideas for crime writers! The documentary follows the trail of a painting purchased in 2005 from a New Orleans auction house for $1,175 (trailer). After restoration, it was believed (by some) to be the much-copied “Salvator Mundi” by Leonardo da Vinci. Twelve years later, carrying that identity, it sold at auction for $450,300,000. Now presumed to have been bought by Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, some believe it’s headed for Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Scandinavian documentarians, led by director Andreas Koefoed, never come to a conclusion about the work’s authenticity—how could they, when the art world remains so sharply divided?

However, it’s the middle of the story in which events become as murky as the overpainting of the possible masterpiece. In 2013, a Swiss art dealer, Yves Bouvier, purchased the painting for around $75 million and sold it to a Russian oligarch  for $127.5 million. The oligarch was displeased with Bouvier’s mark-up and sued. Interestingly, Bouvier ran an international company that specialized in the transportation and storage of art works, luxury goods, and other collectibles, and is currently under investigation in several countries. He exploited the concept of freeports, which rent space (and services) to art collectors and museums. These facilities are outside the control of customs and taxing officials and have come under increasing scrutiny for their possible role in the trafficking of looted Syrian artifacts, tax evasion, and money-laundering.

At present, no one knows for sure where the painting is. Some investigators believe it is in storage in one of Bouvier’s never-neverland storage facilities. Others, that it’s on bin Salman’s yacht. No one knows for sure. Prepare to be astonished!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 97%; audiences: 80%.