Going to Paris in the Present Tense

Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense opens with a magical passage dreamily describing that feeling of flying, sitting in a plane and taking-off, the world a string of lights slowly falling and fading away beneath you.  It’s a magnificent episode.  So much of the mood he sets was exactly what I felt on a flight ascent from Toronto to Philadelphia many years ago, and I had always wished I had the nerve to capture it properly in words.  Alas, Helprin captured it better than I ever could have…and wisely changed the setting to Paris, to boot!

The novel was a gift from my wife this past holiday season, and the greatest gift the novel gave to me was its ability to bring back memories of our trip to France in September of 2015 just a month before we were married.

Helprin’s swooning and expansive tale of an elderly cellist facing down the demons of his past and the fate of his legacy is dense, dense stuff.  Helprin’s vivid, thick, sometimes blustery, sometimes flowery descriptions of people, places, food, wine, and emotions are intermittently wondrous, evocative, illuminating, frustrating, and too often clichéd.  Oh, yes, anyone who has been there gets it…Paris is undeniably Hemingway’s Moveable FeastContinue reading


To Serve the Governed not the Governors in The Post

Could it be more a more timely moment than now for Hollywood to remind the public (and Washington) of the purpose of the free press?

The first hour of The Post is a rather hum-drum by the numbers affair about the lead up to the publication of the Pentagon Papers, first by the New York Times (who instantly get sued by the Nixon administration) and then by the Washington Post.  But hey, it’s Steven Spielberg directing…and Meryl Streep as the “I can’t believe I got into this mess but by golly am I gonna make something of myself by leading with my gut here!” owner of the titular Post…and Tom Hanks as chief editor Ben Bradlee (previously featured in All The President’s Men, to which this film cannily sets itself up as a prequel in the final moments)…and just look at all those TV stars in supporting roles (Carrie Coon!  Bob Odenkirk!  His comedy pal David Cross!  Bradley Whitford!).  So what the heck, the humming looks and sounds great, even if it’s all a bit dry.

But then, thanks to Spielberg’s midstream change of pacing (and the work of excellent editors), and John Williams’ score that hums like that of a great thriller, all of a sudden this little bit of “history we already knew” plays like a cracker-jack suspense flick as reporters feverishly try to meet the printing deadline working out of Bradlee’s drawing-room, and lawyers and whatnot weigh in on the implications of publishing the top-secret stuff. Continue reading

Land Needs a Deed not Deeds in Mudbound

Indeed, you might need a deed to own land, but it’s all those horrible deeds that lead to systematic oppression that tie the tortured souls of Mudbound to the land.  Even in the afterlife they can’t escape the land, which swallows their flesh and churns up their bones, the indentured survivors plopping their dead loved ones’ bodies right into the ground, rendering all their deeds and deeds undone.

While still stewing over the fact his vile racist Pappy (Jonathan Banks) sold the only land the family ever had, Henry (Jason Clark) is so damned obsessed with the idea of owning land and working it that he uproots his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan, ever graceful in her depiction of a woman’s arc from blissful naivety to pessimistic pining) and young daughters to go live on a godforsaken plot of harsh farmland in Mississippi.  There the work and hardships are shared with an African-American family led by the spirited Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his stoic wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) who have been toiling the land in quiet dignity for generations, first as slaves, and now as sharecroppers.

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Nevertheless They Persisted at Dunkirk

The closest we get to an audience proxy in Christopher Nolan’s relentless exercise in tension and survival is the young soldier played by Fionn Whitehead. He could be anyone’s son, and he’s a partly shell-shocked but still wily (and very observant) lad in Nolan’s wartime nightmare/day scream. We open with him walking through abandoned French coastal village streets as pamphlets rain down announcing, “We surround you.” That first gunshot, setting him off on a run for his life, is so piercing you feel like you’ve been shot at…and it invites the audience to partake in this immersive first-person narrative. He’s the first and last one we see in the film, and his Murphy’s Law-ridden week-long escape from the besieged French shores anchors the multi-POV time-collapsing narrative. Most notably, his struggle to survive is not alone. He doesn’t get from point A to point Z without interacting with others equally driven to survive, and not without help.

Elsewhere, on one fateful day, we have another brave boy named George (Barry Keoghan) selflessly join his friend (Tom Glynn-Carney) and friend’s father (a superb Mark Rylance) as they take their pleasure yacht to join a civilian fleet heading to Dunkirk to pick up some of the 400,000 soldiers stranded there between the English Channel and encroaching enemy tanks on the land. When he hops aboard the vessel after only supposed to have helped father and son set off, the wise elder tells him, “It’s a war, George.” To which George calmly and confidently replies, “I could be of use, sir.”

The film is filled with that kind of stark to-the-point dialogue, interspersed judiciously in a cinematic story otherwise devoid of spoken language but swelling with human emotion transmitted visually across a sprawling canvas of land, sea, and air. Continue reading

Searching for Momentum in The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z

Writer/director James Gray’s latest cinematic tome, The Lost City of Z (based on David Grann’s bestselling book about the incredible true story) unfolds like a long…very long…novel. It’s a curious think-piece about a man’s obsession with finding a lost civilization in the Amazonian rain forest that despite being handsomely mounted (among many other cinematic accomplishments) lacks momentum due to a decidedly old-fashioned pace. Yet, there is so much to admire here.

Witness the classical cinematography by Darius Khondji, exquisitely lit and painterly to highlight the sumptuous locales and pristine production design. Individually there are some amazing sequences staged by Gray and Khondji, including the film’s opening elk hunt done up in a thrilling manner that one wishes would’ve punctuated later moments in the epic narrative. While overall the film could’ve used some judicious editing (and script tightening), a series of amazing dissolves and scene transitions (witness liquor poured onto the uneven floorboard of a ship transition into steam from a train cutting across the Bolivian countryside…or wind through the Amazonian jungle transition to a seaside breeze in England fluttering white curtains inward over the desk of a wife reading her husband’s letters) create indelible moments one wishes to savor like a top shelf whiskey. Continue reading

Matterlightblooming and Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

In an ancient cemetery on a hill near Washington D. C. the dead-who-know-not-they-are-dead rise from their sick boxes at night to cavort, cajole, console and wonder, wander, ponder. They have developed their own culture, their own shadowy cadence of “living” in this self-inflicted purgatory, patiently waiting for some sign to know what to do next, while fellow spirits vanish in the matterlightblooming and others join them in fresh sick boxes, an eternally spiraling phantom world of temporary inhabits…ships passing in a melancholic feverishly nightmarish harbor where the waters are haunted by memories of thier life in that other place from before they so long for…

One such spirit is left dispirited by another (who committed suicide)…exclaiming…

“You did not give this place a proper chance, but fled it recklessly, leaving behind forever the beautiful things of this world…Forgoing eternally, sir, such things as, for example: two fresh-shorn lambs bleat in a new-mown field; four parallel blind-cast linear shadows creep across a sleeping tabby’s midday flank; down a bleached-slate roof and into a patch of wilting heather bounce nine gust-loosened acorns; up past a shaving fellow wafts the smell of a warming griddle (and early morning pot-clangs and kitchen-girl chatter); in a nearby harbor a mansion-sized schooner tilts to port, sent so by a flag-rippling, chime-inciting breeze that causes, in a port-side schoolyard, a chorus of childish squeals and the mad barking of what sounds like -” (p. 140-141)

Apparently in George Saunders’ purgatorious bardo, every ghost is a poet…and a grammarian champion of the semi-colon. Saunders’ ghosts go through the metaphysical motions, getting bawdy like Shakespeare in their regaling of tales and nihilistic like Beckett’s Godot waiters…waiting, for something…someone…to rock their boats. Continue reading

A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance: The Popular Appeal of Hidden Figures and Rogue One



Americans love movies. The movie theater has in many ways always been (even through the golden age of television and our current age of social media) our most beloved and nostalgia brewing institution. Often when our other beloved institutions, namely of a political nature, become maligned (and most recently, tainted a most toxic orange) Americans will flock to the darkness of the communal cinematic space and revel in stories of real and fantastic rebellion. Could there be a more perfect milieu for the crowd pleasing and rabble-rousing likes of Hidden Figures and Rogue One? Continue reading

Random Places I Have Been in 2016

What stories do these wild Colonial Spanish horses (clearly plotting something) and ghost crab (what are you running from?) have to tell?

Wild Horses Plotting Ghost Crab

It’s the last day of 2016, so it’s time for the Spin to look back on travel throughout the year for our annual “Random Places I Have Been” series. Apart from holidays in New Orleans and Montreal (featured in blog posts earlier in the year), 2016 brought me to some unique local events including a Chinese Lantern Festival and the opening of a new Mormon Temple in Philadelphia, as well as family vacations to Massachusetts (where we soaked up some history in Concord and on Walden Pond) and the Outer Banks of North Carolina (where we saw wild horses on the beach, the Wright Brothers’ Memorial and took in as many sunrises, sunsets and lighthouses as the waning summer week would allow).

Work also brought me to Jacksonville, Florida (my first time in Florida!); Auburn, ME (my first time in Maine!); and Greenville, South Carolina (a homecoming of sorts, as I had interviewed for a job there nearly 15 years ago, but this was my first time back, and both the town and I have changed soooo much…for the better).  However, the top-secret nature of those trips prevented me from taking any pictures (just kidding…about the top-secret stuff…not about the absence of pictures though).

The Outer Banks (and those wild horses and ghost crabs in particular) also brought about the genesis of a potential new novel, a grand over-the-top Southern gothic melodrama, one that will be a joint effort between my wife and I. If you ever do time in the Outer Banks, definitely sign up for the Corolla Wild Horse Fund guided tour…it was truly inspirational. I already wrote the first chapter shortly after our return home. Now it’s my wife’s turn…not that I’m putting any pressure on her or anything…

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Changing the World Brick by Brick in Loving



In Caroline County Virginia in 1958, an oridinary white man (Joel Edgerton) shows an ordinary black woman (Ruth Negga) the plot of farmland upon which he wishes to build them a house and then asks for her hand in marriage. It all seems so sweet and pedestrian and normal. He drag races cars when not building houses while she preps family meals and squeals with her sister over her coming nuptials. But it was anything but normal…in fact, their relationship was against the law in their own home state where both their families had lived and died alongside each other for years. After stealing away to Washington D. C. to get married, the couple are arrested in their bedroom upon returning to their peaceful Virginia homestead where the state refuses to leave them in peace.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols, who has become the premier chronicler of the American South for his cinematic generation, crafts a script that highlights the quiet, simple dignity of Richard and Mildred Loving while showing the casually insidious everyday acceptance of institutionalized racism. “You should’ve known better,” the law tells Richard. There’s no physical violence against the couple, but a threat of being torn apart emotionally hangs over them like a pall. Yet there are no histrionics over the Lovings’ predicament, no highfalutin ideals to which they subscribe, only a sense of what is decent and true. They love each other. It’s that simple. And they deserve to build a home and family just as much as anyone else. Both Edgerton and Negga transmit the feelings left unsaid through the nuances of their body language and facial expressions…both of them delivering master classes in subtlety and repressed emotions that come pouring out of their eyes. Always dignified…never wanting the spotlight. Continue reading

Dickensian Louisiana

Oak Alley 20

“It was the best of times…it was the worst of times.”

New Orleans has always been a city of extremes, and our recent visit proved that in spades.  It’s a place of both high-class Southern charm and “9th Ring of Dante’s Hell” style debauchery.  For me, it was a second visit to the fabled city that has been both blessed and cursed, and for my wife it was her first time.  She was greeted on the first night with a Carnivale parade – who knew the season was so raucous even with Mardi Gras still weeks away?  We erroneously stayed on the main parade drag on St. Charles Ave at an otherwise nice hotel where Murphy’s Law ruled the roost.  The next evening, my wife was paid a visit by yee olde food poisoning courtesy of a French Quarter Jazz Club that was otherwise lovely (tip: drink, don’t eat, at a jazz club).  Meanwhile, I was suffering from a head cold that started a few days earlier during a work trip to Jacksonsville, Florida.

Buuuut…once we survived all that and spread our wings to more relaxed environs (the Garden District, City Park, a tour of some of the grand River Road plantations, and Algiers)…it couldn’t have been nicer. Continue reading