Saturday, October 9, 2010

Dog Years

This morning I woke up with my dog curled up on top of my body under the covers of my bed.  It's getting cold enough that we have come to depend on shared mutual body warmth to get us through the nights.  The dog weighs 28 pounds, yet I'm amazed how much heat he puts out--better than an electric blanket, I kid you not.

On Monday my dog Tom Ripley turns fourteen years old.  Even though I am not the type of person who considers his dog his child, I can't help but think that Ripley would be in ninth grade at school right now if he were a child.  Fourteen is old for a whippet--about 78 in human years, so his maturity stretched past mine some five years ago.  And in the past year or two we have had some touch-and-go days, where mentally I was preparing myself to see him off.  Lately, though, he has been fine--not the leaping marvel he was several years ago, but still a quietly active dog, who enjoys his treats and walks.

My dog years stretch from the day I picked him up at eight weeks old, early December of 1996 in Savannah, to the present, in Durham, North Carolina.  He was born almost exactly a year after my mother's death (that sad anniversary was yesterday), and I suspect my motivation for getting a dog then, some thirteen years after my last dog, was partly to fill the loneliness I felt after a parent's death, even a parent who was already mentally lost to Alzheimer's-like stroke symptoms some years before, and three years after the breakup of what was probably my most significant human relationship as an adult.

There's nothing objectively special about Ripley.  He's the mute companion that other dogs are to their masters, Ripley more mute than others, since he so seldom barks.  And like other dog owners, I can testify to the weird telepathy that develops between human and dog over years--a language the dog trains the master to recognize as the master trains the dog to recognize simple monosyllabic commands.  As a puppy, Ripley used to sit with his back to the door when he needed to go outside.  Over the years, that signal has been refined and pared down to just a certain barely detectable flicker of light in his eyes, which I cannot describe and which apparently few other people can see at all.  That is if "light" is the right word, since that "look" also has the power to wake me from a sound sleep.

In my imagination, Ripley represents not just himself but also all the friends, family, and lovers I will never see again, but whose images remain close because Ripley's eyes have seen them too.  That, of course, is my sentimentality carrying me away--but dog ownership is itself convicting proof of sentimentality in a man or woman, so there is no escaping the charge:  I am a sentimental guy.  Buried under my dry ironic pessimism and icy layers of asociability and indifference is a belief that my dog means something--this coming from a guy who is not convinced that all of human history means anything, given the immense scope of the cosmos.

And, yes, we will be celebrating Ripley's birthday on Monday.  I am a gay middle-aged man, after all.  Freeze-dried liver treats and beer.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Let Me In

Some people are tired of vampires.  I am not.

In 2008, Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In (based on the 2004 novel by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist) offered serious horror film lovers the opportunity to experience a horror film built on texture and tone, rather than shock effects, creating a mood, rather than an assault on the senses.  Its international popularity ensured that there would be a Hollywood remake, with American actors and an American setting.

I am happy to report that Let Me In, directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), is in many ways better than the original.  It "explains" more than the original film did, unfortunately, but it also trims away some scenes that slowed the Swedish version down.  And the explanations are not tiresome or cheap.  The new film's special effects are superior in every way.  I miss the cat-attack scene--but it's a scene so full of unintentional comic effect (as is true in the original to some extent) that its deletion is understandable.  Sexual ambiguities in the original are tidied up--with clear, no-nonsense borders for American audiences--while maintaining the original's queasy evocations of pedophilia.

The setting is switched to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in wintertime ... to good effect.  The site's history well evokes the idea of "necessary evil," which is central to the story's theme and the perplexing moral anxiety that threads through it.  More unexpected is the switch of the setting to 1983, with flickering images of Ronald Reagan lecturing the American public on "evil" and the 12-year-old protagonist's mother's absorption with televangelists.  In the original, set in the present day (so I thought) the vampire's presence in the small Swedish town evokes the pervasive fear of strangers we have because of the age of terrorism.  But then the theme--that harsh violence is sometimes necessary to resolve existing injustices at the hands of mindless wielders of power--might be too harrowing in post-9/11 America ... even though neither film is expressly or explicitly political.

The performances by child actors Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moritz are amazingly good--frighteningly good.  Richard Jenkins, great in anything I have ever seen him in, is superb here too, in the role of the vampire's caretaker.  And Elias Koteas tones down his usual manic tics to deliver another great performance as a police investigator looking into what he suspects is a series of satanic ritual slayings.

I intend to rewatch my DVD of the Swedish film sometime between now and Halloween.  Hopefully, more intriguing contrasts will be brought to my attention then.  But the remake is good, very good, and I wouldn't be surprised that I will want that DVD too, once it becomes available--and perhaps give it another look while it is still in theaters.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

10 Things About "The Social Network"


  1. Smooth,  unpronounced special effects in making actor Armie Hammer into twins.
  2. All the characters have the same vocabularies, speech patterns, and wit--but then the same could be said of Oscar Wilde's characters.
  3. Director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin perform a small miracle in making a talky movie about computer programming and marketing that is interesting to watch, with hardly anything in the way of action, sex, or violence.
  4. The camerawork and editing during the crew competition look great in a life-insurance commercial sort of way.
  5. Great opening dialogue between Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara, poignantly scripted and well acted ... and nicely mirrored in the film's closing shot, underscoring the protagonist's loneliness with a quasi-Citizen Kane-style coda.
  6. The film can be interestingly read as a drama about Jewish identity and intellectualism in the face of persistent American antisemitism.
  7. A fine understated performance by John Getz as Sy--be sure to notice it.  No small roles only small ... etc., etc.
  8. Trent Reznor's musical score suggests psycho thriller, subtly elevating what is basically dramedy-slash-biopic and giving emphasis to (perhaps?) underlying social critique.
  9. This movie is this generation's Less Than Zero, for better or worse.
  10. The movie invites smug superior laughter from the audience--so that placing sixth in the Olympics is something we all feel we have done, it would seem, and that we know oh so well the challenges of being a billionaire.  We leave the cineplex feeling smarter and more accomplished than we really are.  We know that "appletini" is funny and appalling, for reasons impossible for us to articulate.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


I had a funny thought today ... well, not funny: sad, I guess.  Sad in the way that my mind still works sometimes, and funny that I sometimes have to remind myself of things like this.

A friend sent me a link to a New York Times opinion piece, which details the sorry state of the American character today.  You probably don't need me to give you the details ... you know:  an assistant state attorney general who cyber-bullies the openly gay student body president at the university he once attended, otherwise intelligent gay young men who kill themselves in large part because some dick doesn't like the kind of sex they're having, the extension of U.S. military bombings in countries (Pakistan, for instance) we are not at war with, media hogs who scream "class warfare" when working-class people complain about being drained dry by faceless corporate financial institutions, the mindless and incessant rallying over values which are, in effect, just prejudices and issues which are, in effect, just hurt feelings.

In response I said, wittily, "Kind of makes me wish I lived in a socialist republic.  Cuba, anyone?"  Then immediately I thought about what I had said and wondered to myself whether I could indeed live in a country like Cuba, ... given its history of human rights abuses, particularly the campaign against gay men during the 1960s, so stirringly depicted in Nestor Almendros' 1984 documentary Bad Conduct and poet Reinaldo Arenas' 1992 autobiography Before Night Falls.

Then I had to laugh (the funny part) ... and asked myself how I manage to live in the United States, given its history of human rights abuses (the sad part).  Slavery, massacres of its original inhabitants, the biggest prison population in the world, extreme interrogation techniques, carpet bombings, and evisceration of its own middle class are hardly things a country can boast of ... not even a god-fearing yet tolerant democracy with a laissez-faire free market.

And in the '60s, while Castro's henchmen were rounding up gay men into concentration camps, the state and local police in the USA were still raiding gay bars and shaking the patrons down for no-contest fines, a state of affairs that eventually erupted in the Stonewall Riots.  In the 1960s, the American Psychological Association still categorized gays and lesbians as mentally ill, subjecting them to apomorphine aversion therapy to "cure" the disease.  Last month, Castro apologized for his contribution to the persecution of sexual minorities.  Last year, Fort Worth and Atlanta police raided more gay bars, beating some of the patrons severely.

The blessings of liberty, folks.

(Photos:  slave with whip scars, a medicine man after the Wounded Knee massacre, 2009 police raid on a gay bar in Atlanta, lynched black man, the Stonewall Riots, child killed by poison gas near a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, lynched black man, incarcerated Japanese-Americans during World War II, and Abu Ghraib.)


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