Brief Thoughts on the Foibles of Famous Contributors to Society

Food for thought: Is it wrong to bring up famous artists’ and humanitarians’ foibles? MLK, Jr. and JFK were notorious womanizers. The poet Wallace Stevens and writer Virginia Woolf were racist pro-colonialists. Gandhi tyrannized his wife and children. Marion Zimmer Bradley, who wrote the masterpiece novel THE MISTS OF AVALON, allowed her husband to sexually abuse their children. Mother Theresa schmoozed with dictators without challenging their committing of cruelties. The list goes ever on. Ultimately, no famous person was truly a saint. For many, they were far from being so. But, sometimes I feel more readily neutral and able to still engage with the contributions of a person more easily than another’s. It all depends, case by case. However, I generally can and do eventually get to a place of appreciating someone’s work regardless of the individual’s shortcomings in their lifetime. That all said, I don’t think any messengers conveying the wrongdoings of a famous contributor to society should be shamed or vilified. It is important to learn from the mistakes of others so as not to repeat them.

Brief, Random Thoughts About Universes

Random thoughts: if there exist as many universes as there are possibilities, which has been postulated elsewhere, perhaps every living type of creature on Earth has a world somewhere that they dominate, like us humans do here. Also, I have wondered if every idea ever conceived already exists somewhere else in the great beyond. Maybe Plato was onto something with his ideal representations theory, or whatever it’s properly called.

Brief Thoughts on Aging and the Term “Old”

I understand how the term “old” is subjective for many and age being viewed as “just a number.” But, I think it’s healthy and important to reclaim “old” as not meaning something to feel afraid and/or ashamed of. It seems many people believe old to mean one is definitely about to croak and/or rendered irrelevant. Neither is true. And those who are ageist can be educated, if they’re open, or otherwise left alone to isolate in their ageism. Technically, I’m middle aged but, if I’m fortunate enough, I’ll manage to grow old. At that point in time, I intend to celebrate living into old age, whenever that happens to be. Growing older and wiser is the track I’m on, which includes being committed to staying healthy as best I can for as long as possible. Celebrating life every day is important, and not just when you’re young. My quality of life has only improved with age. I wish that to be the case for everyone.

TV Series Review (STRANGER THINGS, Seasons One Through Four, 2016-2022)

I can see why the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS is so popular, particularly the first two seasons. I enjoyed how it takes place in a small city/town (fictional Hawkins, IN) in the early 1980s, culturally similar to where I was growing up at that time, which was Grass Valley, Northern CA. The writers clearly have Gen Xers, such as myself, very much in mind.

Both season one and two had powerful endings, culminations of tightly written plot lines. What great writing, a balanced mix of tender, funny, dramatic, creepy, and suspenseful. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many lovable, compelling characters, most of them misfits and outsiders, like myself, all in one movie or series. Each kid in the friendship group of nerdy middle schoolers was adorable, initially bonding around playing Dungeons and Dragons. I was left feeling warm fuzzies, which I wasn’t at all expecting.

This show is unabashedly derivative, which is how even a certain young character in a scene aptly describes the whole bizarre situation the main cast finds itself in: “derivative.” But, the way the recycled ideas are written into such tight, creative scripts in the show’s first two seasons is impressive. It comes across like the best elements of 1980s sci-fi and horror movies and television shows, plus terrific music from that period (including the Clash’s wonderful “Should I Stay or Should I Go”), got selected, thoughtfully put together, and then more deeply explored in places.

In the third season of STRANGER THINGS, the initial focus seemed to be more on the characters with their friendships and/or romantic relationships than the slowly unfolding plot line of a monster causing trouble in Hawkins, yet again from a neighboring dark dimension. We the audience spend a lot of time hanging out with them and meeting a few new people introduced on the show. There is definitely less eerie intrigue and intensity to the plot compared to the first two seasons. That felt okay with me, since I like most of the ensemble cast a lot and the small-town setting in the 1980s is pleasantly nostalgic. Clearly, though, this season was not as good as the two preceding ones. The main storyline involving Soviet Russians interfacing with the evil from a parallel dimension was weaker, less focused, even ridiculous in places. And there was far less mystique about this dark world itself, given that it had already been slowly introduced in the first season and then further explored in the second. But, compared to the previous seasons, there seemed to be more dialogue written for laughs and warm fuzzy moments between characters. With the exception of a few newcomers, the writers emphasized having established characters deepen their bonds with each other wherever possible, which some viewers might find annoying, perhaps feeling it siphons off energy for action scenes and plot intrigue. Frankly, I didn’t mind this because the players got to be fleshed out a bit more as people. And what other worthwhile and intriguing sci-fi plot can unfold in a small Midwestern municipality anyway? I think the writers were scraping at the bottom of the barrel for coherent, compelling story ideas by this season. (No wonder why the fourth season took place in other locations in addition to Hawkins, IN.) Hence, more focus on relationships and character development, I guess. Towards the end, there were some overt saccharine moments between two individuals to lighten the tension of suspense a bit, which seemed ridiculously, unnecessarily drawn out. But, most of the writing was pretty even overall.

Several scenes took place in a shopping mall, which aptly represented a lot of 1980s youth culture and its being replicated, hyper-commodified, at the expense of uniqueness on both individual and regional levels. The dark economic effects of burgeoning shopping mall development on American culture were explored in the third season somewhat. This added a bit of thoughtful depth next to all the humorous dialogue and campy imagery of slimy monsters and over-the-top Soviet villains. I was tickled to find myself remembering that I had seen every movie listed on the theater marquee in fictional Hawkins’ indoor mall (built by the Soviets and including a secret underground facility— rather funny), which is set in the summer of 1985. The frequent verbal and visual references to TV shows and films from that period piled on the already substantive nostalgia for me. It’s interesting to know that the Duffer Brothers, twins who created this show, are actually Millennials, not Gen Xers like I and the teenagers in the series are. They seem to have a fascination with 1980s Americana, which is pleasantly fine with me.

The fourth season of this Netflix series left me largely unimpressed. For one thing, the story arc was spread way too thin compared to the relatively tight narratives of the earlier seasons, especially the first two. By the seventh episode or “chapter,” the series “jumped the shark,” as is often said when TV shows go precipitously downhill, by becoming conveniently contrived and absurd. There’s creatively campy overdone and then there’s way overdone, which this season devolved into being. I find the latter of the two styles tiring and annoying on one hand and laughably ridiculous on the other. That all said, I continued watching due to being invested in the characters. I felt both for them and the actors playing them. Hence, I watched ‘til the careening end of this bloated up season, the ninth and final “chapter” lasting over two hours. Five of the episodes averaged around seventy-plus minutes in length, three far longer than that, all a bit too long. I wonder if the writers, producers, and, perhaps, even some or much of the crew and cast took drugs to get through this exhausting latest season. Any traces of the series’ initial eerie tone and intriguing, tight writing were long gone. I will say here, though, that the end decently came together, finally, after so much mind-numbing drama. The many moments of characters bonding through heart-felt dialogue, like in the third season, did continue to occur somewhat in the fourth set of chapters. But, these were often in between tiresomely drawn-out scenes of action and over-stuffed displays of pretentious, contrived/tacked on back story exposition. Also, some of the dialogue was pat and sappy in places more than I recall in earlier seasons, even season three. And we the audience never find out how a certain dynamic character manages to return from the first season. I may have missed some quick explanation, but I don’t think so. That seemed to be a blatant plot hole. Messy.

In the fourth season, which has a supernatural and haunted house story arc, the arch villain Vecna comes across as a mix of Freddy Krueger, a creature from the Predator franchise, a bit of monster influence from the Alien movies (such as in skin color and texture), some vague elements from the 1980s Poltergeist movies, and surely other source influences I can’t consciously recall right now. Perhaps I’m jaded because I felt like I’d seen this guy elsewhere before, a lot. His presence and his antics were blatant, in your face, devoid of mystery or intrigue, and all-too-familiar feeling. This particular derivative aspect of the series felt tired.

Season four was very uneven. Besides being overdone and spread thin, as described above, it was sincere and heart-felt in places, but periodically silly and childish in tone in others. To sum up the fourth season of STRANGER THINGS in brief, it was often tiring and contained tired elements. This is what seems to eventually happen for a series or movie franchise when its creators try to continue to appeal to a wide audience and go beyond their interesting original, though inevitably limited, story idea and its settings. The order eventually grows too tall to fill, or one that’s simply run out of substance. Time to generate another idea and different kind of narrative altogether.

The acting was generally excellent across the board, even after the ensemble cast was given increasingly less quality material to work with after the first two seasons. However, Argyle (Eduardo Franco), was introduced in the fourth season, to my extreme irritation. This long-haired, bright colors wearing, perpetual pot smoker remained two dimensional throughout. Talk about over-acting a stereotype of 1980s California youth. I’m sure he was written in for comic relief and as a convenient device to help a handful of the veteran characters achieve their collective purpose in one of the subplots. But, he did not mesh well with the other comparatively fleshed out players, instead standing out like a poorly drawn cartoon within a world of live action. I waited for Argyle to fall in a hole or get lost in a smoky haze from one of his lit up joints, never to be seen again. No such luck, so his screen presence continued to drain focus and energy from me, the viewer. More unevenness.

Millie Bobby Brown was notably compelling in her role as STRANGER THINGS’ linchpin character Eleven/Jane (“El”), a girl with telekinetic and clairvoyant abilities who was secretly institutionalized and experimented on during the first twelve or so years of her life. We meet her early on when she has newly escaped from her strange prison, an ominous government facility on the outskirts of Hawkins. The actress clearly put much thought into portraying El, pausing often when speaking and only verbalizing simple words and sentences. She believably came across as a child raised in extreme isolation. I can see why Ms. Brown has received much praise for her work here.

Talented, ruggedly handsome actor David Harbour was my favorite person to watch through the whole series (as it exists thus far). He plays Jim Hopper, the Hawkins chief of police. Exhibiting a brutal exterior, Chief Hopper endured intense loss in his past. Although the child actors physically changed through the series due to naturally growing up, Mr. Harbour’s changes in appearance and demeanor are the most dramatic. He eventually lost an incredible amount of weight for the part while also having Hopper grow into being a more introspective and compassionate human. Remarkable. I applaud David’s dedication to the role, which appeared very challenging to play. I’ve actually seen him in a fair amount of movies and TV shows over the years. He can portray both dark villains and caring heroes well. He’s admirably versatile. No doubt, we will continue to see more of Mr. Harbour in assorted productions. I’m a new fan of his.

A few vintage songs stood out for me on STRANGER THINGS. The fourth season made wonderful use of Kate Bush’s song “Running Up That Hill,” first released in her native UK in 1985 and growing popular among Progressive Rock genre fans in the United States by 1986. This song was basically a personal anthem for a certain troubled character Max Mayfield (played by the adorable red-haired Sadie Sink), who used it to get herself through an arduous psychic confrontation with Vecna while he exploited parts of her painful past in an attempt to kill her. This was excellent use of an established, cool artist’s music, and an introduction to a new generation of listeners. I’m glad for Ms. Bush.

The other song I appreciated was Siouxsie and the Banshees’ 1981 recording of “Spellbound.” It was perfectly placed at the very end of the final episode in STRANGER THINGS’ fourth season, continuing as the credits roll. I’ve always dug Siouxsie and the Banshees with their haunting, elegant sound. The foreboding music closed the series as the main main cast and the rest of Hawkins face more ominous challenges on the horizon, literally.

I can’t imagine what turn of events await in the fifth and final season of STRANGER THINGS, due out sometime next year (2024). Will some of the youths actually, finally look and seem too old for their roles? Will the writers even out the show again with consistently good dialogue and more focused, original plot development? I somehow doubt it with this latter wondering. But, I’ll be there watching anyway because I’m committed to this universe of mostly endearing people in Hawkins, IN even if you, the reader, need not be, particularly after the first two seasons when this series steadily went off the rails.

On My Appreciating the Beauty of Those Who Are No Longer Young

More and more, I especially enjoy the beauty of people well over forty, i.e., those in my age group, and even older. Beautiful youths and thirty-somethings are starting to feel like people I view caring about as if I were their older relative and/or mentor. Beauty shows up in so many ways and it’s been a fascinating evolution for me to grow more open to noticing how and where this value manifests in people and the world at large. This has been an internal perspective shift that’s hard to put into words. Interesting.

TV Series Review (WEDNESDAY, Season One, on Netflix)

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I just finished watching the final of eight existing episodes (thus far) of the Netflix series WEDNESDAY and remained pleasantly impressed throughout. I found myself particularly relating to the titular character as she freakishly danced at a school party, not caring what others thought. I remember doing that too a few times in high school, only I didn’t have a hot guy for a date admiring me and another one nearby jealously watching. But she, brooding, poised, and darkly beautiful, understandably did.

This is quite an imaginative, zany, and macabre show that shoots zingers at age-old insider/outsider social dynamics, making the insiders/establishment folk look like self important, often fake, fools. This first (but not last, I hope) season opens with the young Ms. Addams causing major mischief at a predominantly white public school, appropriately named Nancy Reagan High, getting promptly expelled from there, and enrolling in the Nevermore Academy, an old, somewhat Gothic style boarding school for misfits. She soon becomes embroiled in solving the mystery behind a string of grisly murders. The withering one liners Wednesday (Jenna Ortega) delivers, including about herself, are frequently the best moments. Her lovely, dead-pan visage in the face of so much shenanigans going on around her is both precious and funny. And some of the women’s clothes are fabulous, such as those worn by the tall and arch Larissa Weems (Gwendoline Christie), headmistress/principal of Nevermore.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, while no Carolyn Jones, who still remains the quintessential Morticia for me, makes a competent, glamorous enough Addams’ family matriarch. She is not as good as Anjelica Huston’s Morticia, due to being far less expressive with her eyes and more wooden in her interpretation. Nonetheless, she looks the part and smolders, somewhat, especially due to her sultry lips and voice.

I felt a mixed response to this series’ choice of Gomez Addams (Luis Guzman), Wednesday’s father. After watching suave and gorgeous Raul Julia portray him in the two A.F. movies from the 1990s, I initially found Mr. Guzman a let-down. He is thuggish and rather squat in appearance and very subdued. However, there is what I would call both a haunted and haunting quality about him that comes through. To an extent, he grew on me. At least he is more substantial than non-Latinx John Astin’s repetitive, two dimensional caricature of Gomez in the 1960s TV series.

I’m glad to see Thing, the Addams family’s (re)animated hand servant, playing an important role as Wednesday’s helpful companion and a sort of familiar. His/its use of ASL and general expressiveness are wonderful developments beyond the more limited use of this character on the original THE ADDAMS FAMILY series and the aforementioned two movies. The wonders of finely honed CGI have also helped to make Thing come alive more.

I would have liked to see at least one or two student characters of the Nevermore Academy portrayed as trans and/or queer in some way. Instead, we viewers have to settle for a Latinx lesbian couple being the two moms of one of the students. Their roles are brief, very peripheral. Well, that’s better than nothing for LGBTQ portrayal here, I suppose. Perhaps, and hopefully, the next season of this series will introduce a trans and/or queer identifying Nevermore student or two.

WEDNESDAY is a visual and verbal equivalent to an exotic dessert involving truffles and dark chocolate, a thrilling, rare treat. This is high camp with heart, Goth style. Delicious!

Movie Review (THE WOMAN KING)

THE WOMAN KING, starring Viola Davis in the title role, is beautifully filmed and well-acted from start to finish. Written and directed by Dana Stevens and Gina Prince-Bythewood, the movie takes place in 1823 in the West African kingdom of Dahomey. Ms. Davis plays General Nanisca, leader of an all-female group of warriors, the Agojie, who comprise the core of the story. In her influential role, Nanisca eventually persuades the Dahomey king, Ghezo, to forego participating in the slave trade with Europeans, including Portugese merchants. To follow through with this, King Ghezo prepares for war against the Oyo empire, a larger neighboring kingdom that has long been involved in trading enemy captives, such as Dahomey people, to slavers.

The movie’s primary focus is on Nanisca and Nawi (played by South African actress Thuso Mbedu), a strong-willed young woman who joins the Agojie after defying her father by refusing to marry men who would physically abuse her. She is befriended by a veteran warrior, Izogie (Lashana Lynch, a costar in 2019’s CAPTAIN MARVEL), who becomes like a mentor to Nawi. We viewers witness the young woman evolve into a mighty warrior while navigating an initially fraught relationship with General Nanisca.

Handsome Jordan Bolger plays the half Dahomey and half Caucasian (Portugese) Malik, a man involved with slave traders allied to the Oyo. Nawi first meets him in the jungle as he walks naked out of the water, having just bathed. She grabs his clothes right before they engage in conversation. This scene is filmed from the refreshing lens/perspective of the female gaze, where an attractive man is rendered vulnerable and an object of curiosity and desire by a leading female character, who remains clothed. He wears a metal cross around his neck, which Nawi looks at with curiosity. Malik offers the necklace to her but she drops it at his feet when she runs off upon hearing his companions approaching. The implications are rich in this scene, such as Nawi’s leaving Christian symbolism behind and returning to her home without seeming influenced by this Western religion and its values.

John Boyega as King Ghezo is, well, lovely. He stands tall, handsome, and stately, having come into his own in this role after playing the comparatively child-like Finn in three STAR WARS franchise sequels from 2015 to 2019. For a good while, I couldn’t figure out where I’d seen this actor before. He is so different here, transformed. Impressive.

I was fascinated with a certain supporting character who we see and hear from now and then throughout the movie, but never get to truly know. He is a feminine, cross dressing, probably gay man (and/or maybe a eunuch?), always gorgeously dressed and graceful in movements, who has some kind of attendant (go between?) role with King Ghezo and his wives. After looking up the cast on assorted sites, such as imdb, Wikipedia, and Google, I could not clearly match a name up for either the character or actor who plays him (except, possibly, “Ajahe” for the character). Anyway, his androgynous presence had me thinking of what are called “Two Spirits” in certain Native American tribes, gay and lesbian people that are not gender binary conforming but are given important, respected positions in their society. I found myself wishing for some brief exposition as to his role and presence close to the king and his wives, including his primary wife. That was a loose end in the narrative that left me feeling like the lovely, queer man was made to seem mainly decorative and mysterious even though, clearly, his presence was substantive and relevant. Ah, well.

Without giving anything away, I will say that we the audience are led to hope for a certain outcome between some characters. But, to the writer’s and director’s credit, this movie does not completely fall into formulaic, predictable plot patterns. And to the extent that it does, I found this acceptable and satisfying. The narrative moves along with a balanced mix of character development and intense action.

The portrayal of the Dahomey here glosses over historically just how steeped they were in enslaving people within their own kingdom. Apparently, they also committed human sacrifice, which is not shown or mentioned in this production. The movie is mostly fictionalized, albeit inspired by true events.

The landscape scenery is exquisite in places, the building sets of the Dahomey kingdom’s capital city beautiful in their mix of clean lines and solid earth tones. The costumes of the Dahomey and Oyo are all elegantly worn by people each stunning in their own way. Visually, THE WOMAN KING is a colorful, energetic feast, filled with compelling, interesting characters with whom I was happy to spend a little over two hours.

Book Review (PAUL NEWMAN: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF AN ORDINARY MAN, A MEMOIR)

I just read THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF AN ORDINARY MAN, A MEMOIR (published in 2022 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, U.S.A.) the new and fascinating life story of actor, director, champion race car driver, and philanthropist Paul Newman. This is his authorized biography, based on interviews and oral histories conducted and recorded from 1986 to 1991 by Paul’s long-time friend Stewart Henry Stern. After several years of the subsequent transcripts– which numbered somewhere over fourteen thousand pages– sitting in storage, a family friend and some of Paul’s close relatives (such as at least one of his five daughters) finally went through them. David Rosenthal then compiled and edited the chosen ones for this book. The narrative is interspersed with reflections by family members, friends, and work associates, such as Elia Kazan and Karl Malden, to name just two. This helped to enrich the reading and flesh out Paul the person from within his own thoughts and in those of others, making for a creative, robust approach to a complex human being. The several black and white photos throughout further enhance the reader’s sense and understanding of this wonderful, often self-deprecating, man through his lifetime.

Mr. Newman often self reflects quite deeply. He is someone I’ve long admired for his philanthropy, progressive political views, acting talent, and incredible pulchritude. To me, Paul Newman is still one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen in photographs and up on screen. He aged gracefully, both in appearance and, more importantly, emotionally and philosophically/spiritually. I did not know that The Economist recorded Mr. Newman as being the most financially generous person, relative to his income, in the twentieth century history of the United States. He also made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest champion race car driver. These are two facts I learned from reading this book, the others being more juicy tid bits about certain movies he starred in, some of the people with whom he worked, and his experiences as a political activist and philanthropist. However, there is assorted other information that is not revealed, such as Paul’s cause of death being from lung cancer. He was a very private person, described by more than one individual he knew as being shy. The story bypasses much of the glamorous parties and red carpet events Paul attended, focusing more on his personal and professional life, such as his first marriage to Jackie Witt and second one of fifty years to actress Joanne Woodward. The latter comes across as a soulmate to Paul, the way he admiringly and lovingly talks about her, even though he never uses such a term to my recollection.

Other than the very end of the text, I found Paul’s childhood the most interesting and emotionally powerful to read about. The younger of two sons, Paul grew up in an upper middle income home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy white suburb of Cleveland. His Jewish father Arthur Newman was alcoholic, working hard at a sporting goods store he cofounded with his brother Joe (a.k.a. J.S.), Paul’s uncle. Theresa, Paul’s non-Jewish, Christian Science member mother, was what I gleaned to be quite narcissistic, tending to fly into sudden rages, sometimes for no clear reason, and viewing and treating her younger son as a pretty “ornament” (Mr. Newman’s descriptor). He did not recall her ever expressing curiosity about him as a unique person with interests and feelings of his own. His parents often loudly fought, sometimes destroying property. With all this domestic chaos and tension, no wonder why Paul and his older brother Arthur, Jr. developed a habit of taking turns banging their heads repeatedly on their dining room wall. Paul described it thus: “We just knocked our fucking brains out. It was our own Wailing Wall. I couldn’t take my rage out on anybody my size, so I took it out against the wall [pg. 6 in the hardcover ed.].” It is sad how Paul’s incredible popularity over his physical appearance fed into the painful “ornament” status first imposed upon him by his problematic mother. I felt for him as he tried to escape this, which, it seems, he finally did (at least somewhat) later in life.

Like his father, Paul went on to heavily abuse alcohol for most of his adulthood, stealing beer where he could while serving in the Navy during WW II, drinking his way through college and, later, when acting in movies. The alcohol assisted Paul in maintaining a largely emotionally detached perspective, particularly due to his deep self doubt and tending to feel like an impostor in many situations. Towards the end of the narrative, he shares how he has “always been in pain, always needed help [pg. 280].” He sought out psychotherapy on “more than one occasion.” It is not clear how helpful he personally found it to be, except with a certain psychiatrist he saw early on after becoming a successful movie actor. He viewed these sessions with the psychoanalyst as not very productive, which Paul largely attributed to not feeling able to introspect well at the time. I’m certain that Mr. Newman needed a more developed type of trauma and recovery treatment, which, sadly, did not yet exist in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Regardless of Paul Newman’s subjective experiences with psychotherapy, he lived long enough (eighty-three years) to become a more self-reflective, engaged father and husband, devoted friend, and giving individual. As a psychotherapist myself, I’m inclined to think that he eventually found one or more therapists who substantially helped him. More importantly, this man clearly held a deep curiosity about life and a drive to not only succeed but grow in his capacity for empathy and compassion, which he significantly, impressively did. Two of his five daughters basically state these last points in the book, one (Melissa Newman) in the foreward and another (Clea Newman Soderland) in the afterward. It is understandable and very moving, to the point of tears for me while reading the end, how and why his surviving children (having lost his oldest child and only son to suicide) continue to admire and miss Paul each and every day.