Category Archives: movies

Putty Hill: A review

The only thing I knew about Putty Hill as I headed in to the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago was that Roger Ebert had recommended it on Twitter with a four-star rating.

I tend to know a good deal about a film before I see it (I wish this were not so) and so it was a rare delight to go in to this screening knowing absolutely nothing about this one. This stirring and honest work nails what it is like to experience the aftermath of a life just ended.  Yet this film is about much more than loss and grief.  It’s an attempt to bring together something that might be fractured beyond repair.

There is dizzying deflation that comes along with death. Director Matt Porterfield (who contributed the story) weaves together many threads using startlingly fresh technique that by the end of the film left me impressed with his confidence, smarts, and sensitivity.

From the lack of a screenplay credit, I assumed that the performances were improvised.  (I verified this later by reading interviews with the director.)  The revelation that the cast is made up largely of untrained actors surprised me; they are that good.  Sky Ferreira (Jenny) is the lone professional, and she is known more as a singer-songwriter than an actor.  She joins a talented ensemble of unknowns who create some of the best work by an ensemble you’ll see this year in film.  Not only did I believe what I saw on-screen, I also shared in the survivors’ experiences and feelings as they react to Cody’s death.

There’s no point putting a varnish on this next statement.  So much of what we are given as consumers of modern cinema is bullshit.  It’s bullshit we don’t believe, and it’s bullshit that we can smell before we enter the theater or switch it on at home.  I ask you a simple question.  Don’t we deserve better?

Putty Hill answers that question as it brings us into a loosely connected family and network of friends in a small community in lower class Baltimore.  They have lost Cody (a young man we never meet) to a drug overdose. An off-screen presence, voiced by Porterfield, interviews in documentary style those Cody left behind.  These characters reveal more about themselves than they do about Cody; he remains a vague shadow throughout the film.

That’s all I really want to say about plot and structure.  From the opening shot that serves as the backdrop for the main titles, a shot that shows us the dying light of a day in an empty room, Jeremy Saulnier’s stirring photography lifts this film from the ranks of typical low budget indie features.

This is a small film that you might have to go out and find.  Please, go find it.

It takes more than one person to make a movie.  Visit http://puttyhillmovie.com/ for the names of the cast and crew who made one of this year’s best films.

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Tortured by Tarantino

The title to this post is not an exaggeration. I went to see Inglourious Basterds today after a good practice session this afternoon with my improv troupe Long Division. I’m not writing to rail (much) against Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. Instead, I want to take a moment to dissect a strange tendency of mine. I tend to see movies I am certain are not of the highest quality.

Considering how much it costs to see a movie these days, why don’t I seek out film art of the highest possible caliber instead of dragging myself unhappily to see shit? It’s not that I always avoid films of quality. It’s just that there are days when I am in a shitty mood and I subsequently put myself into a theater to see a particular kind of bad movie.

Listen, it doesn’t take a super genius to guess that a Tarantino WWII film might suck. He is such a film geek that his movies tend to be about movies even if he doesn’t intend it. So since most of modern US impressions about WWII are based on the info given to us from the movies–even those made during that war–what sort of bizarre bastard child of a story should we expect from a filmmaker who is obsessed with film?

Yuppers. Inglourious Basterds.

I won’t explore in detail what I loathed about the movie, especially since it would involve plot details. I will say that Tarantino often times chooses to display a tasteless and perverse fascination with violence and gore. This is cinema, dude. Try to suggest what you don’t ever need to show and you’ll find that the impact is much greater than the graphic and perhaps even anatomically accurate portrayal of the destruction that might be wrought with a knife’s edge.

Why do I do this? I think I know now. I never looked carefully at this trait of mine to seek solace in a theater while garbage flickers at me in the dark, not until a dear friend asked the simple question, “WHY?” There might be the twisted and indulgent need to feel superior to the material presented. This is a minor thing, almost an afterthought really, because the egotistical gratification from that cannot last very long. [In fact, I reject this as an explanation. I leave it here because it’s always possible, but upon reviewing this essay, I think it’s not accurate.] I suspect the main reason is the very common reason why films are such a popular form of entertainment: to disappear in the dark. When I’m feeling lonely, I can feel less lonely in a movie theater, because even though others are there with me, and quite often couples and groups of friends, there is anonymity and an acceptable solitude that one can find in the cinema.

I suppose that doesn’t make sense to me now as I just re-read what I wrote. I can do the same thing in the park, right? Perhaps not. I mean, sitting on a park bench with a forlorn look on my face is not private. Sitting in a movie allows one to feel alone and not-alone, because we are all engaged in the same activity, at least while the film plays.

When I leave the theater after seeing a bad film alone, the walk out of the theater feels particularly awful. Because not only did I waste money on garbage, I am still feeling like shit. I do not recall one time when I saw what I suspected would be a shitty movie where I felt uplifted, surprised, elevated, or even mildly entertained. Maybe my mood always damns the entertainment value before the first frame plays. I doubt this, because most US movies are of low quality, and when I have revisited a movie later to give it another chance, or seen it again in the company of friends, I don’t recall the verdict being overturned. I think it’s easy enough to judge in advance the merits of a film based on the marketing campaign. It’s easy enough to smell a heap of dung before one plunges one’s shoe into it.

So…I do this to make myself feel worse? I do this to make myself feel worse.

That’s probably the best and truest answer I can come up with as of this writing. I see shitty art to make myself feel more like crap than I did before seating myself in the dark. So when I say I have been tortured by Tarantino, it’s Timmy who’s doing the torture. Quentin Tarantino is a fall guy. It’s my decision to subject myself to potential crap, and sitting through it invariably makes me feel worse than if I had not gone at all.

For the record, I do see good things. This morning I went to a gallery in Brooklyn down by the anchorage of the Manhattan Bridge. A friend has a piece in this show of women artists called tART. The exhibit was good and my friend’s piece was really fucking great. When I sent her a text message today to tell her how much I loved it, I told her it was both epic and sweet, and that’s not an easy pairing to pull off. My friend is Carrie Rubinstein, and even though a picture cannot possibly do the impact of her art justice, elements of it suspended in mid-air, this is a photograph of her piece:

Carrie Rubinstein, Where are the Years?, 2007, paper, wire, thread, gel medium

Carrie Rubinstein, Where are the Years?, 2007, paper, wire, thread, gel medium

See, I expose myself to good things, too. I’m just terribly erratic. It’s very frustrating!

I suppose this entry is my attempt to end one of my frustrating and silly behaviors by dragging it out from under the rock where it has been hiding.

Now if I can figure out why a man who is as much-loved as I am can feel as lonesome as he does…

Well, that’s nonsense. I know why. But that’s a story for another entry in this on-line journal.

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Death By Installment: Introduction

People die. They do. Everyone dies. We’re born, we live a life, and then it ends-we die. Everything ends.

So why is it that one life–one death–is sometimes insurmountable? What happens? Is it that a connection is made that tethers us to the dead, and release will not be given? Is it that we are weak and can’t let go? Is it that we suffered a trauma that needs attention so that we might recover from the death of a loved one?

This isn’t an adolescent rumination on Death. I’m just trying to come to terms with my own particular case. I need to go out and be productive right now, so I’ll need to do this in installments. The impulse to write about this came from seeing two films over the last three days: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Seven Pounds. These two films are different in many ways. One similarity they share is the effect they had on me as I sat in the theater; at one point, I wanted to get up and leave.

I was writing in my journal on the train ride home after seeing Seven Pounds yesterday. It occurred to me that I never sought the sort of help that might have helped me get past some of the grief issues related to my wife Siri’s death. It occurred to me that maybe I suffered some sort of (I choke on the use of this word) trauma from the experience of seeing her through her last days and having her die at my side. I did not do well toward the end, and the year following her death was a lost year. I lost myself.

I understand this might all be very cryptic. Many biographical details need to be provided. I will get to that soon. But now I need to go feed a friend’s cats, and I need to start packing my apartment for moving on December 30. So I will write this by installment. I need to promise myself that I will go forward with this. I also need to make sure I call that therapist on Monday. It’ll be good to talk some of this stuff through. Maybe he’ll put me in touch with someone who does grief counseling.

One thing I know is this: when mediocre films like Seven Pounds find a way to upset me by recalling my past, there must really be something wrong with me. Or…there is always the possibility that what I am feeling is normal…is it that I won’t or can’t let myself feel true sadness? Is it that I skirt around it and feel morose and miserable but never let myself be pulled all the way in, because I am afraid of never coming back out of it?

One other thing: an internet amiga wrote this on Twitter.

Come back to town Peter Falk! I want a sketch of you, BY you. peterfalk.com for $100? That’s a steal!!1!

And this was my reply.

“Come Back To Town, Peter Falk!” That sounds like a play title…who’s writing it? (Maybe me…)

The subjects that came to mind were memory and regret. The News reported recently that Mr. Falk is suffering from Alzheimer’s. I adore his acting work and was saddened by this news. I wonder sometimes if memory is not my nemesis when it comes to getting past Siri’s death. And then right now writing this I realize what a crock of shit that is. It’s such a lame excuse. My nemesis is me.

One last thing: the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. Remember that. Work through those. Get some help with it. And then just deal with it. It’s not that I haven’t gotten on with my life. It’s that I am living a second life while that first one has been left to rot. There is little connection between the Tim of Then and the Tim of Now. Except for the ache. And that is doing no one any good. They say that pain is a warning sign. When am I going to heed the warning sign?

Oh, and maybe I can also acknowledge my own experiences with death and illness.

At the root of it all is a fundamental lack of compassion by me for me. It’s an old problem.


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WALL·E and Xmas

It’s Xmas Eve and I am home watching WALL·E on my computer. I Netflixed it recently and I have not allowed myself to watch it all the way through since it arrived.

I’m struck by how much WALL·E reminds me of me. Yeah, I am sure that’s sort of intrinsic to the appeal of the character and the film. But seriously…his clumsiness, sweetness, and charm? Me.

wall-e-holdinghands

So it’s Xmas Eve and I am home alone. This is the way I planned things this year. Tomorrow, Xmas Day, I am meeting one of my loveliest friends for breakfast at Veselka and then we are going to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She’ll go to work and I’ll go feed the cats of friends who are out of town and then at night we will meet up again and have a lovely non-christmassy xmas.

Because I just don’t and can’t do xmas the way I used to. More about that some other time. Maybe.

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Why “above the roofs” anyway?

When I decided to start blogging again, I had to think of a name for the blog. Names and titles do matter. It might not matter what the particular name is for the flower I call a rose, but once named, that name carries with it associations and meaning. So what’s in a name? Sometimes everything.

Something I constantly remind people to do here in New York is to look up.  I don’t mean in the optimistic sense, but actually just to look up once in a while because there is a lot of amazing stuff up there. What reminded me to write about the naming of the blog was seeing the original teaser today for Wall-E. There is a moment when the little robot looks skyward with those amazingly expressive eyes of his. It’s that thing right there that killed me the first time I saw that trailer, and I remember crying a little bit. Just that simple little moment of loneliness and hope and endless possibility…wow, Pixar, wow.

I stayed home sick today from work and did a little bit of what some folks refer to as “surfing” on the internet. (If you don’t know me, I tend to be a little silly, and sometimes that comes out as as archness or stiffness in my writing. This paragraph’s beginning is me having a ball. Yeah, I know…) I clicked and read and clicked and read and had a grand time filling my aching head with good things. (I try not to waste my time badly. I like wasting my time in positive ways.) At one point I was reading some Roger Ebert reviews (I like the humanity he displays in his writing, and he’s funny in a dorky way) and then went to Jim Emerson’s blog. I learned he’s grieving the death of an animal very dear to him from an entry he posted about why scenes in certain movies are lately quite intense for him. It’s clear Jim’s really quite sad about his pet’s death (I like Emerson’s humanity too). He brings up Wall-E’s close-call with a landing spaceship, and in one of the comments on his piece someone mentioned The Crying Girl.

Well, that brought me to Courtney Mault and her touching story about a visit to Pixar. You have to read it to believe it.

And this is why I love the internet sometimes. I don’t watch TV and so the web is where my info comes from. And the way it allows us to find each other sometimes astounds me. Reading Courtney’s Wall-E story made me watch that original teaser again, and yes, I cried at the same place I did the first time I saw it. He looks up. The clouds part. And the heavens dance above him.

He looks up.

I borrowed the name for my blog from Vincent van Gogh. On 31 May 1876 in a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent wrote the following:

That same night I looked out of the window of my room at the roofs of the houses you can see from there, and at the tops of the elms, dark against the night sky. Above the roofs, a single star, but a beautiful, big, friendly one.

The quote is to the right there in the sidebar in fine print, but just in case I someday put something else in its place, I wanted those words to appear in the blog. This idea of looking up is just about being present, about being willing to take things in. I sort of did that today by bouncing around the web. And seeing Wall-E in that scene brought it all full circle.

It’s easy to forget to look up. It’s so damn easy to go about your business and get to where you’re going and then only rest once you are there. But the journey is yours too, and the things you pass along the way are sometimes the best reason for taking that very first step on your trip. I need to remind myself to look up too. It’s natural to forget. We get busy and distracted and sad and lazy and excited…and then we just happen to look up and see something we’ve never seen before, and that (I hope) encourages us to do that again, to just stop right there and look up, to look around. It’s why I sometimes take a longer less direct path home when I come out of the subway. It’s why I sometimes walk the bridges when I have the time to get where I am headed. There’s just a lot of cool stuff to look at and I don’t want to miss any of it.

“Above the roofs” means a lot of things to me. One thing very specific is that it reminds me of water towers. I am rather mad about them. My best pal gave me my xmas gift yesterday (she won’t be here for the holiday and likes to see me happy) and I am so happy about the gift that I am wearing it now. It’s a scarf from Brooklyn Industries. They use a water tower silhouette as their logo, and the water tower appears at the ends of the scarf. Here’s a picture so you can see what lovely thing hangs around my neck as I write.

my scarf!

my scarf!

I’ll have to write about water towers another time. Right now I should go. Thanks for stopping by.

Here’s to what you find above the roofs.

Oh, here’s something fun to watch. Wall-E and a vacuum cleaner. Hilarious.

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A Letter to Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin

Dear Charlie,

I discovered you because I was making my own movies. When I wasn’t making silly little movies with my Super 8 camera, I was borrowing films from the public library.  I had a projector and I didn’t like it sitting dark and still. So I watched movies when I was not making my own. My memory is a little fuzzy, but if it serves me in the slightest I recall watching abridged versions of King Kong and Gorgo (yes indeed) and short films from the Mack Sennett and Hal Roach library. This was how I was introduced to your genius.

Wouldn’t it be swell if I could tell you which one of your films was the first that I ran through my projector? I am so sorry! I have absolutely no idea. This is probably due to the fact that once I saw my first Chaplin short, I had to see immediately everything I could get my hands on. In the span of a few weeks I must have seen twenty or thirty of your early works. My goodness, do you have any idea what that did to me?

I think you do. And that’s because you knew the effect your work had on audiences. Maybe you never were quite certain if you were good enough, but Charlie, you measured yourself against your own yardstick. You did know that you had a singular and majestic gift. I know this.

Mr. Chaplin, you reached me. You reached me the same way you reached millions upon millions. You reached me with your heart and your art and with the truth. You never lied to me, Charlie. There is a quote attributed to Fred Karno in Richard Attenborough’s film Chaplin (I know! A film was made about your life.) He says to you in the film, “Do you know what comedy is? Knowing who you are and where you come from.”

You knew where you came from and you never forgot it. And you made sure we never forgot. You made sure we understood what poverty tasted like (The Gold Rush), what beauty sounded like (City Lights), what the future moved like (Modern Times), and what true ugliness looked like (The Great Dictator), even as you made us laugh harder than anyone except for maybe Buster Keaton. (Sorry, but I do need to give him his due. He was dreadfully funny.)

Charlie. I want to go on and on, but in honor of your finest short films, I think I’ll keep it short and sweet. I love you, Charles. I love you because you worked harder than anyone working in cinema. I love you because you loved your family. I love you because you fought the Red Scare and lost, but brother did you fight. They threw you out of the land you loved and owed everything to because they were cowards and you, Sir Chaplin, were not. They didn’t understand that their actions broke your heart and that you would never recover. If I could do anything to make up for it, I would. You know this!

Charlie, I need to share a couple of crazy facts with you before I go. When I moved to Hollywood after graduating from UCLA, I took an apartment in a legendary apartment building on Franklin Avenue where stars like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope had lived. Do you know who the landlady was? Paulette Goddard! Not your Paulette, of course, but how about that for fate slapping you in the face with a fresh mackerel. You died on Christmas Day. Do you know how much more meaningful Christmas became for me when I found out that fact? One more thing before you go. The person whom I adore more than anyone else in the entire universe (excluding my son) performed as you for Halloween this year. I am not sure where she got the idea. I don’t think she and I ever discussed you. But I do forget a lot, so who knows? Perhaps it was fate again. Goodness knows that fate has been good to me.

And most of all, I love you because you have the biggest fattest heart I have ever encountered in all my years of watching flickering images. You laid yourself bare, my friend, and if I didn’t learn that gift from you, Charlie, you sure let me know it was okay to have a big fat heart in a cold world. You gave me permission to be silly and to be a big old sap. Thank you for that, Charlie. Thank you for more than I can ever mention.

Yours,

Timothy Caldwell

P.S. Charlie, I probably don’t need to tell you this, but we all know that the kid you rescued at the end of The Kid was you. What you might not know is that the kid was me, too. Thank you.

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