Daddy Film School #8: High Noon (1952) & public service

We watch this because it’s free on Comcast.

CHARLIE (12) is immediately engrossed.

FINN (9) chooses Pokemon on Nintendo DS, but stays in the room to insert comments.

HIGH NOON’s critically regarded as one of the best (if not THE best) Westerns, and among the greatest dramas ever made. The movie is a master’s class in tension, unseen conflict and character development.

LESSONS LEARNED:

  1. Sorry, Kiefer. 24 was not the first REAL-TIME thriller. The movie runs 84 minutes and is based on roughly 90 minutes of time.
  2. How does the world get built so well and so quickly? The depth of each character is established through dialogue and action. The wedding. The long, sauntering walks to and from the train depot. Reactions of townsfolk. CHARLIE “gets it” immediately.
  3. Film is entree to the indomitable Lon Cheney, Jr. which opens doors to classics like The Wolf Man, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and even Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London. 

Cheney’s role is small, but his character is the emotional core of the film, and it carries a timely message:

A deadly killer with a score to settle returns to town, bent on killing Gary Cooper’s (Wil) newly retired, and newly married (Grace Kelly is becoming a DFS staple), sheriff.

The lawman, with an hour or so to prep for the outlaw’s arrival, has a hard time finding support from a town he’s spent his whole life protecting.

In the scene (see link above), Lon Cheney Jr (Martin) plays the previous sheriff: an old, broken- down former lawmen and Wil’s mentor.

Cheney’s character calls the job of “sheriff”-ing “meaningless.”

You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you’re honest you’re poor your whole life, and in the end, you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.

ME: (reacting to the monologue) That sounds A LOT like being a teacher.

CHARLIE: I want to be a teacher.

ME: Please don’t say that.

CHARLIE: Why? You’re a teacher.

ME: I know. But I want better of you.

CHARLIE: It’s not a good job?

ME: It is. But it’s not a wonderful job. It’s not the perfect job. I want you to go out and be something wonderful. Do something perfect. Make art. Be happy. Or, if you’re not happy, at least make lots of money.

FINN: I’m gonna be a pilot weather man. That’s the perfect job for me.

CHARLIE: But you told (insert name of past student turned education major here), ‘it’s the greatest job there is.’

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FINN: Except, I’m afraid of weather…

ME: Yeah, but I don’t love him.

FINN: …and flying

Martin’s speech reviews the perils of public service: the “tin star.” The public servant lives to protect and serve, knowing full well she will never “fix” the system. The system, by its very design, always wins, always evolves in its complexities and needs. The best public servants work their whole lives only to be chewed up and spit out. The lesser, give up way before the end of their tenure, resigned to the superiority of the system. Injustice outlives the best of us.

It outlives our tenure. Despite our best efforts. Just ask this guy.

“When Wil Kane dies, this town dies with it.” Wil doesn’t die by the outlaw’s hand in the end, but he also won’t live forever.

In many ways, this the life of the mid-career public servant. Keep fighting for fighting sake. Determined to find solace in the torch-passing. Or move on. Tackle something consummate. Something in which your efforts do not live only in a vacuum.

I’m proud of what I do each day, but I’m sensible enough to want better for my kids.

“People gotta talk themselves into law and justice before they’ll do anything about. Maybe, cause down deep, they don’t care. They just don’t care.”

Funny cause it’s true. It certainly feels like that sentiment landed us squarely in the Trump administration. Then again, maybe this is less true today than ever before. 

 ME: So what did you think about the movie?

CHARLIE:  It was really good. Amazed me.

FINN: It was boring. I didn’t like looking at that guy.

ME: What guy?

FINN: The fighter man (at the time of writing I still have no idea who he means).

CHARLIE: Shut up, Finn. It was good. The movie makers did so much by showing so little. I like that.

FINN:  You know what, maybe I’ll just be an artist. Would that be ok, Dee Dee?

ME: That would be perfect.

 

 

 

 

The First Thanksgiving (from PONDER REVIEW, summer 2017)

(This piece was originally published in PONDER REVIEW, Volume 1, Issue 1, Summer 2017 Click here for more on this wonderful journal or to subscribe)

This piece is copyrighted to Joe Costal, 2017. Any reproduction of this piece must credit the author and PONDER REVIEW as original publisher.

THE FIRST THANKSGIVING

By Joe Costal

 

You call him Uncle Bobby.

The whole family calls him Uncle Bobby, but he‘s a second-cousin. On your father’s side.

Uncle Bobby has Dracula hair, 70s Dracula, high and poofy in the middle, but peaked and gray-streaked up front. He loves old country music and older rock ‘n’ roll. He is a United States veteran. Vietnam. If people, forget that, he reminds them. Or his bumper stickers do.

“Freedom isn’t Free.”

“If You Haven’t Been There, Shut Your Mouth.”

“He was just a cook,” Aunt Jean, who’s not really your aunt, told you once after too much Anisette. In fact, she’s less your aunt than Bobby’s your uncle because she’s his third wife and not really related to anyone. But you call her Aunt Jean, anyway.  

 

“He made casseroles in a Da Nang cafeteria,” she says. “Only action he saw was in the mess hall closet, if you know what I mean?”

You don’t know what she means. 

Today is Thanksgiving. Your first Thanksgiving without me. Uncle Bobby and his wife are coming to dinner. This pisses you off.  

“They’re family,” your mom reminds you. “What do you want me to do, leave them alone on Thanksgiving?”

If you’re being honest, yes, they should be left alone. But you’re never honest with your mother.

Their coming is a bigger deal than your mom lets on. It means good plates and dish washing. Trading pajama pants and inter-family mockery for polite laughter and small talk. They’re “family,” but not family enough. They’re still guests. Now Thanksgiving dinner will be an “affair,” instead of you licking pie filling from your fist, bra-less, in a high school t-shirt.

You wake so psyched to see the Macy’s parade. You even tear up and clap when Al Roker and that top-hat lady cut the ribbon. You told your parents you wanted to stay over last night to see the parade. Truth is, you hate sleeping alone, especially on holidays.

It’s a week now, since you left. You ignore my calls, my texts. Before you left, you said to me, “I know you love me, but I’m not sure you like me.”

I said, “What’s wrong with that?”

***

They’re reviving Bye Bye Birdie. A Geico float has a lip-syncing boy bandand you remember how hard the Macy’s Parade sucks. You go back to bed. When you wake, again, after noon, your mom is already yelling about “unrinsed wine glasses.”  

You rinse wine glasses. You dress, and then the baby arrives, so you sit criss-cross applesauce on the couch. It snuggles into the crook of your legs and stares up at you. You finger its fist while your sister moans about how much your brother-in-law works, and how he’s lost all his patience. Her eyes get dusty as she describes the baby’s cries, and how her husband wants it to cope “on his own,” and how two nights ago he held the baby upside down, by its feet, but just for a second, a “half a second” really, because he wanted it to “effing stop.”

You gasp and demand she leave her husband. She and the baby can live in your apartment in the city. You’ll walk the baby in a carriage down to the park, and you’ll eat lunch someplace new everyday. You call it “perfect.”

She calls you “stupid,besides, her husband’s the family’s only lawyer. She wipes mascara from her face as she goes off to help your mother who is calling your father a “barbarian” for putting a “whole bottle of Coke right on the table.” 

“Jesus Christ…it’s THANKSGIVING,” she says.

No one responds.

The baby cries when Uncle Bobby presses the doorbell no fewer than thirteen times. He ambles in looking much older than you remember. He hands your dad a brown overcoat and fur-trimmed hat. It’s 67 degrees outside. He is wearing a full suit. Hanky-in-pocket, tie-clip and all.

Aunt Jean wears stretchy pants and a Lane Bryant floral top. You use the baby as a shield when you say hello. This way, no one can hug you or kiss you. Instead their closeness translates to cooing and fingering the baby.

Operation Baby Shield works like gang-busters. You want a baby so bad. You can feel a sensation where you think your ovaries are.

Uncle Bobby reaches, with intense flourishes, for the arm rest of a soft beige recliner in your living room. He lowers himself with the careful calculations of a life boat descending the side of a steam liner. Once settled, he sighs deep declaration of his intent to stay in the chair for the day. Then he smiles and stares straight ahead, his eyes the half-moons of a bored pharaoh.  Bags hang from his cheeks, and his mouth never fully closes. He calls out to your mother. “Maria, where’s the bread?” 

Then, “Maria, where’s the antipass–?” 

And, “Maria, you got Sprite? I don’t drink the Cola.” He’s the only person in the house who calls your mom by her first name. Even your Dad calls her “mom.”

“Maria, howsabout more shrimp for me?” Uncle Bobby beckons. Your mom shuttles him small plates from the kitchen. At one point, Uncle Bobby exclaims, “The shrimp. They’re good, right?”

“Oh yeah, Bob, that’s good shrimp,” no one’s Aunt Jean yells back at him.

“Very good, right? You know where I got that shrimp? Dorian’s. You know, on 15th?”

“Oh sure. They got fresh shrimp, heh?”

“Sure. The freshest in the city.”

“You drove through the tunnel for that shrimp, huh?”

“Sure. Cause it’s the best. So fresh. You can see the boat they come off! If those shrimps was people, Trump would send them back, heh?”

Uncle Bobby and no one’s Aunt Jean bought the shrimp. They have no need to discuss the particulars. Still, they persist in recounting the glory of the shrimp purchase right here in your living room. You’re disgusted, so you must whisper the annoying truths of this exchange to your sister.

“They’re old. Give them a break.

You wonder why your sister’s being such a bitch and return to the kitchen to find no one’s Aunt Jean at the refrigerator, staring at the magnets through caked purple eye shadow. Her silver, icicle earrings dance at her neck, even when her head sits completely still. She picks off one of the South of the Border Pedros your family collected on countless summer vacations to and from Florida. She studies him. She turns him over in her hand, squinting where his butt would be were he a real man and not a one-dimensional kitchen magnet. She puts him back and pries off another. When she sees you watching, she asks, “what’s with all the Mexicans?”

You stammer and say something about “silly souvenirs” and “oh, you know Dad,” and when Aunt Jean says nothing back, you add a comment about keeping Pedro behind a Donald Trump wall. No one’s Aunt Jean smiles and walks off, and you can’t believe yourself. You pandered. One comment from a walking heap of Revitol and Dr. Scholl’s, and you lose your entire fucking identity? You become some raging racist? You voted for Hillary. You were Vice-President of Amnesty International in high school.

You drown your sorrows in stuffing, you scoop right out of a pan in the kitchen.

***

Uncle Bobby keeps his suit jacket on through dinner. It creases caverns under his arms when he pushes himself up to eat. He puts the food on his fork with his index finger. You can’t stop watching him. He has missed a spot shaving. A patch of long hairs extend from the right corner of his mouth, past his jawline. Your older brother points this out, seconds after your niece finishes saying grace. “Whatya shave in the dark, Uncle Bobby?” 

Uncle Bobby responds with, “Heh?”

Your brother’s an asshole. Uncle Bobby asks someone to repeat what your brother said. Then your father calls your brother an asshole. No one’s Aunt Jean repeats the shaving crack to Uncle Bobby. Your mom says, “ignore him.” Your nieces ask you three questions at the same time. Your brother holds his arms to his sides like someone’s pointing a gun at him. Uncle Bobby laughs this wheezy, gagging laugh and repeats your father’s name as if your father, not Uncle Bobby, were the butt of a joke.

“He’s got you there, heh?” Uncle Bobby repeats this as he taps your father’s forearm repeatedly with his fork hand. Your niece asks “what’s asshole?” Your mother rises from the table muttering about wine. Your other niece laps champagne from your flute like a dog. Her father swipes at her arm too hard. The flute falls. She cries. And that’s when you escape.

And now’s my chance.

I calculate all of this will come to full fruition at exactly 4:52 p.m., Eastern Standard Time.

You‘ll leave the table and check your phone, first. See if I called. I didn’t, but you’ll wish I had called. You‘ll switch to your camera roll and stare at a picture of us. The one from last summer. The one by the lighthouse.

You‘ll write me a text: “Hi.”

 

Now. Maybe 4:53 p.m. I rise from my own hell-hole Thanksgiving dinner and stare at my phone.

***

You didn’t press “send.” But when you sit back down, you keep your phone in your hand. The holiday is young.

Uncle Bobby chases his mouth crease facial hairs with his tongue. His tongue is more beige than pink. It moves in circles like a snake in a fish bowl. Above the chase, you notice his nostrils teem with tufts of bristling nose hair, like hay hanging from the Dutch doors of a barn. And you feel sick.

Sick enough to pull up from your mom’s Thanksgiving dinner, even though it’s your most favorite thing in the world. Even though you talk about it all year. You curse Uncle Bobby. His tongue. His hairs. His lack of holiday options.

After dinner, you’re still hungry. You ask Siri if Burger & Barrel is open on Thanksgiving. It isn’t. You wash, dry and stack until your fingers prune. Uncle Bobby is back in his chair, watching your dad play Uno with his grand-daughters. He notices you staring, so he looks back at you. He smiles big, dark and wet. He seems older when he smiles. It scares you. You should smile back, out of politeness, but you can’t force the corners of your mouth up. Uncle Bobby breathes with both shoulders and his whole chest. Extra skin moves around his face in faint rhythms, like a canvas tent flapping in the wind. The darkness inside Uncle Bobby’s mouth pools until it seems ready to drip, like honey, from his open lips. The dark inside his mouth like a shadow that could flood the room, burrow deep dark holes into the spaces between you and him.  

His stare turns to a squint. You can’t look away. You can’t tell what he’s thinking. Is he checking you out? Committing you to some sick old man spank tank? File you away with youthful memories of Vietnamese pin-up girls tacked inside a locker door? Are you today’s cover of the secret magazine squirreled into the sock draw of his mind? Maybe he’s an even bigger perv. Maybe in his mind you’re in a ball-gag humming Christmas carols.

It’s not lust on his face, you decide. Maybe compassion. Maybe even love. Could he look to you like the daughter he never had? Maybe he feels close to you. Maybe it is OK, and you’re just a miserable bitch who can’t muster enough human decency to pity an old, lonely man. Uncle Bobby leans his turkey neck against his upper chest, as if to better examine you. Like he’s reading fine print on your face. You fade right before his eyes.

Maybe Uncle Bobby pities you. Maybe he knows how jilted and shattered and angry you are under your Max Mara dress and boots. Maybe he feels bad that so much silent loneliness lives and breathes and hides in a girl so pretty and so young.

Uncle Bobby’s pharaoh eyes slip closed, and his breathing grows loud enough to hear. And all at once, you realize he has fallen asleep. And everyone in the room has noticed Uncle Bobby fell asleep. His snores ring out. Your nieces laugh. Your sisters scold. Your mom pleads to “leave him alone.” No one’s Aunt Jean “tsks” and rolls her eyes at her Prosecco, and Uncle Bobby wakes, much quicker than he fell, with a “heh” and bubbly spittle falls on his lapel.

You look around to make sure no one noticed you staring at sleeping Uncle Bobby.

***

“So what’s new, Spaz?” Your brother sits on the counter top beside the dishwasher and takes the Pyrex bowl from your kitchen toweled hand. “What the hell are you doing with yourself?” he asks.

 

“Nothing. You?”

“Working.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Where’s your boyfriend, anyway?” he asks.

You need to bounce. You need to go. You need to get away from your family and back to the city. You need, you decide, to disappear back into the city where the faces don’t look back, and the shrimp are all still alive, still waiting at the docks, all fresher than fresh.

You start your excuse to leave. You blame the cat, which is fucked up because the cat is mine and not even at your apartment anymore. When you kiss Uncle Bobby good-bye, you have to stoop toward his chair. He sits erect and pushes a fleshy cheek to your lips. You’re awash in off-brand aftershave. Probably CVS. It’s on you. CVS and death smell stuck on your clothes now.

Is it in your hair? There’s no one to ask. You swipe at it as you bound down the driveway. The click of your heels on the pavement makes you self-aware.

You sigh aloud once you get to your car. You miss my Amazon Music subscription. You look for a song to play on your phone, but you can’t choose. You can never choose. I always choose. From literally thousands of songs, you feel sick of them all. And so you pull down the street in a panicky silence. You dread the traffic waiting between you and the tunnel and the city and its gridded, alternating street directions. You feel sick from these thoughts, and yet, also better, as home fades in your rear-view.

And that’s when you call, your face giant and smiling on my screen. I smile back for a ring or two, before I swipe my thumb over the red circled “X.”

Daddy Film School #7: Special Bonus 80s Horror Double Feature: GREMLINS (1984) & POLTERGEIST (1982)

My sister runs a horror fan podcast and website. I have been guest-hosting through a March-Madness-style tournament these past few weeks. Check us out here.

Charlie came to a recording, and his already budding love for scary movies became borderline obsessive.

To be fair, he has been attending Comic Cons and other nerd-fests with me for quite some time. Here he is at Philly’s Wizard Comic Con at age eight, compliments of Uncle Sean Bergin.

431842_578691192161207_1211717870_nMost certified nerds will tell you that super heroes are a gate-way drug to horror. Han Solo is only a parsec away from Ash Williams.

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This “monster magazine” from the 80s–in which Jason Voorhees & ET share the cover–proves the steepness of the slippery slope from children’s sci-fi to all out horror.

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I, like many American young men, found horror through comics. My parents didn’t bat an eyelash at my Amazing Spiderman subscription, but at the comic book shop, I stumbled into my first Tales from the Crypt. That led to Vault of Horror. Then Weird magazine. Then Famous Monsters of Filmland. And before I knew it, Fangorias were stashed under my bed with the…um…well, you know…board games. *COUGH*

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I was ten when I hung the above picture, possibly from this very magazine, on my wall (next to Rowdy Roddy Piper).

My son and I are from very, very different generations. He catches fake monsters on walks through the neighborhood and has already (by 6th grade) had a relationship with a girl that lived and subsequently died, all through text messaging.

But Charlie and I share many interests, and the other day when he changed his cell phone wallpaper to the cover art for Poltergeist, it felt like a rite of passage I could relate to.  

***

CHARLIE WANTS TO WATCH HORROR MOVIES:

I put together a starter double feature:

GREMLINS 1984

Charlie asks, “If they can’t get it wet, why does the mom want to serve it chicken soup?”

And, “isn’t it always technically after midnight somewhere?”

This is my beta test. I decide that our foray into horror will stop here if Charlie is even a little freaked out.

He’s not. In fact, he is most disturbed by all the smoking. The adults smoke. The gremlins smoke. Everyone smokes.

Me: “That’s the 80s.”

Charlie: “Really?”

Me: “Yeah, most adults I knew smoked. You could smoke on an airplane.”

C: “Yeah, right.”

Me: “No. I’m 100% serious.”

C: “Stop. I’m not stupid. Where would the smoke go? That’s so dangerous. Stop.”

But he is entertained, and Gremlins magic holds up.

For the record, this is barely a horror movie. I mean, how many horror movies do you know of had their own picture book series? Happy Meal toys?

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Still, Gremlins has monsters, and people die. Well, presumably, only the teacher is a confirmed death, and no one seems too shaken up about that in the end. Maybe it’s because he’s the kind of guy who keeps kids in class on Christmas Eve then stays behind and uses public funds to do experiments on critters.

I worry over the Phoebe Cates creepy dead Santa dad story. I even consider fast-forwarding it, since it has no relevance to the plot whatsoever. I don’t, but Charlie is unphased. He just says, “What? Seriously?” And sort of scoffs.

For weeks, he walks around saying, “They’re watching Snow White, and they love it.”

POLTERGEIST 1982

Finn joins us for this one, then starts playing video games in the middle. He never makes it to either worrisome scene:

  1. Mr. Peeley Face (now THAT would’ve been a bad ass Happy Meal toy)
  2. skeletons in the pool (again)

THE DISCUSSION:

Charlie: I loved it. I love Spielberg movies. This twas a perfect balance. A little tiny bit gory, but mostly just really cool. I loved Zelda.

Finn: “Who? The little grandma?”

C: “She was so cool. Like Yoda, but real.”

F: “Who? The little grandma? She was scary Charlie Brown opera for sure.” (Note: Finn once used the term “scary Charlie Brown opera” to describe Nights on Broadway by the Bee Gees.)

C: “She’s not a grandma, Finn. Not all old ladies are grandmas.

F: “How do you know she isn’t a grandma?”

C: (moving on) “She and Nosferatu would be the perfect couple. Him…tall, vampire guy. She…tiny ghost exterminating lady.”

F: “Steven Spielberg is a scary man.”

C: “Steven Spielberg is the man.”

Me: “Why do you think Steven Spielberg is scary, Finn?”

F: “This, Jaws, that creepy alien guy with the wrinkly neck…”

Me: “E.T.? He’s not supposed to be scary.”

F: “He’s definitely a grandma.”

C: “E.T. is the scariest of them all. Finn’s got a point, there.”

F: “This movie wasn’t scary like Jaws, Dee Dee (me).”

Me: “What do you mean?”

F: “You know, when the angry fisherman guy was eaten, I cheered. He went down a little slide (editor’s note: boat shrapnel), and *GULP* (Finn makes a series of chomping noises to denote his satisfaction with man-eating sharks). I didn’t care about those guys. They were angry. They were grumpy. They were bad employers.”

Me: “Bad employers? Ok. So why was Poltergeist scarier? Because it was about a family?”

F: “Yea. These were kids! Kids dying? C’mon, Steve Spielberg.”

Me: “But the kids don’t die, Finn. Nobody dies in Poltergeist. Isn’t that weird? You still found it scarier.”

F: “Because I don’t care when fisherman guys die.”

Noted that I know more than just “fisherman guys” die in Jaws. In fact, a kid DOES die in Jaws. Still I understand Finn’s point. I go on to explain the profound truths he has uncovered. How we are all more frightened by relevant ideas. How Finn is explaining the dynamics of character development, the psychology of bonding that fiction writers exploit when developing horror. But before I can finish, they digress.

C: “Wow, Finn. You see? You know more about this than you think you do.”

F: “Dee Dee, there’s a kid in class who keeps farting.”

C: “Finn, you’re not even listening.”

F: “Charlie, I’m gonna push you into a trashcan. And then let the closet eat you. It’ll be the best day of my life.”

And…bed time.

No more horror for a while. Back to Westerns? I have High Noon on the DVR.

 

Literary Characters & The Oscars (By the Numbers) | Quirk Books : Publishers & Seekers of All Things Awesome

Since the first Academy Awards in 1928, thirty-three Best Picture winners were based on novels. All told, that accounts for almost half of all Academy Award winning films! That’s quite a track record attesting to the critical success of “book to screen.” But do literary characters fare equally well?

Source: Literary Characters & The Oscars (By the Numbers) | Quirk Books : Publishers & Seekers of All Things Awesome