The Place Beyond the Pines — The Desperation of James Dean

Last Saturday, Heron and I went down to the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood to see The Place Beyond the Pines. It  came out the day before, and we really knew nothing about the movie beforehand. I saw that Eva Mendes, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper were in the movie, and I thought that sounds like a terrible mix. The film is pitched as a crime movie, but in the end, it seems to be more about familial relationships, generational feuds and the tension between father and sons. Plus, there is a lot of dirt-bike riding and bank robbing. For the women: Gosling’s abs; for the men: Mendes without a bra. (Let me take that back. There are probably a lot of men interested in Gosling and a lot of women interested in Mendes, too.)

So, what did I think of this movie? Before I tell you my opinion, I want you to listen to what others had to say about this movie.

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In the LA Weekly, Scott Fondus writes that he’s unsure if Gosling is parodying masculinity. It seems to me that Fondus is unsure how to read Gosling’s character, Handsome Luke, in the movie. He also calls Mendes disposable. “But the disparate pieces,” Fondus later writes, “never quite jell; the movie is all trees and no forest.”

The LA Times gave the movie a tepid review: “The movie is intimate in its telling, sweeping in its issues and stumbles only occasionally.” The writers riffs on the economic conditions the director, Derek Cianfrance, loves to focus on and how these people are on the fringes of desperation. Cool. I feel yah.

Justin Craig at Fox News, well, he basically calls for an oscar — but not really: “It’s usually far too early to even utter the words “Oscar,” but “The Place Beyond the Pines” is movie gold. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper have never been better than in Derek Cianfrance’s (“Blue Valentine”) brooding, immersive crime drama.” I was generally surprised that someone at Fox News would like this movie, but maybe I shouldn’t be such a stereotyping asshole.

A.O. Scott at the New York Times has this to say: “It goes on too long: the three-part story, spread over nearly two and a half hours, represents a triumph of sympathetic imagination and a failure of narrative economy. But if, in the end, the film can’t quite sustain its epic vision, it does, along the way, achieve the density and momentum of a good novel.” Good for Scott. He’s telling it like he sees it. The movie is long — over two hours — and the story has three parts, and it makes an abrupt shift in point of view in the middle that is shocking and almost absurd. I hear you. Don’t worry though. I’m getting to my point. First, watch the trailer:

Now I’m not a movie critic, and I don’t pretend to be. But I know story. And I’m going to say what all the other critics were too scared to say; The Place Beyond the Pines will be a classic movie, and Gosling’s performance, his character, will become legendary. Gosling as Handsome Luke reminds me of a James Dean. The characters in The Place Beyond the Pines and a move like Rebel Without a Cause — Handsome Luke and Jim Stark — are remarkable and similar, because they are on the edge of desperation (to borrow a term from the NY Times), searching for something to care about, to believe in; once they find that something, there is no letting go. And there is usually violence and an unbridled pursuit of disaster. Gosling captures, in my opinion, this rare energy that goes beyond masculinity and into the realms of madness. A controlled madness poking below the surface. A madness, a failure to fit within certain roles, an inability to accept the rules of society. In Handsome Luke’s case, the rule that he is not allowed to see his child. He’s one of those characters who Kerouac would have wanted to follow down the streets lit by hysterical roman candles.

Of course, there are elements of this movie at first glance that can seem pedantic. Yes, there are a lot of bank robbing scenes, and the main character is robbing banks to provide for his family. Yes, there is a bad-ass dude riding a bike — but it’s a dirt bike. Yes, the movie has another role where Bradley Cooper’s character has a tremendous amount of douchey vibes. And yes, the movie does have segments that shift abruptly and seem to make the movie feel long.

But Alfred Hitchcock was accused of something similar when Psycho came out. The main character, the woman who is killed in the Bates Motel, is suddenly gone from the movie, leaving the story to continue without her. It broke the normal and accepted narrative structure, and the story seems to begin again — though it circles around again at the end.

And without ruining the movie, The Place Beyond the Pines makes a similar move, but this is what I love about the movie. It doesn’t succumb to the normal rules of modern cinema; it doesn’t treat the viewer like an idiot who can’t sit still for over two hours; and it reminds the viewer that stories come in all shapes and sizes. This movie and Gosling and Cooper’s performances will be remembered for a long time. Plus, the two kids at the end are amazing. Go see this movie and let me know what you think. As always, your comments are more than welcome. Love to hear what you thought of the movie.

Judge These Book Covers: My 10 favorite book covers in my house

Heron’s sister and her friend came over this weekend and rearranged our house as a wedding gift. They put my books all around the house, and it provided a great opportunity to look at some of them I haven’t paid attention to in a while. So I decided to put together a list of my favorite book covers I currently have in my house. Now, I didn’t include art books, because I thought that would be unfair, and some of my books I gave away. But these are the books I find myself just admiring for the cover sometimes long after I had finished it.

10. Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time — Trains and War and Masculinity 

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9. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Basic Writings — The “superman” on the cover looks like he’s actually the cause of earthquakes.

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8. Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism — I found this rare book in a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI. Love the hand drawing the hand imagery.

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7. Jack O’Connell’s Word Made Flesh — A futuristic and twisted version of my home, Worcester, MA. 

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6. Henri Matisse’s Jazz — No, I’m not cheating. Matisse does write in this book, and it’s one of my favorite book covers — and books — of all time.

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5. Osip Mandelstam’s Stolen Air — This is a simple cover with a simple swirl, but it speaks so loudly, somehow, to Mandelstam’s poetry. 

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4. Raymond Carver’s Cathedral — If you’ve read the story, Cathedral, then you understand why this cover is so beautiful.  

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3. Charles Bukowski’s Ham on RyeImagining a young Bukowski always makes me laugh.  

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2. Philip Levine’s What Work Is — This photograph of the girl at work in a textile plant is haunting and glorious, just like this book.

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1. Mike Davis’ The Ecology of Fear — Los Angeles poking through the clouds.

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Los Angeles Loves Their Middle Fingers: Flip the Bird L.A.

So earlier, I was walking my dog down Barrington, and the sky was oh-so blue; the flowers were blooming; and the traffic was slowly meandering towards the 405. I HAD been at work all day, and the spring air was thrilling — almost like something you would read out of some grocery-store novel to enliven the jaded from winter-solstice blues. I was training Hendrix, my dog, and I was thinking about something I saw earlier on Facebook: Anger is a choice.

That’s when I noticed a truck barreling down behind a car on the way towards Santa Monica. The truck blew past the car trying to turn left, and as the truck was passing, the guy stuck his finger out the window and flipped the car the bird. And it wasn’t just a regular old middle finger; it was the Washington Monument of Fuck Yous — if you know what I mean.

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Los Angeles, I have never seen a city so free with their middle fingers. The other day on my way to work, I was driving towards Westwood, when a white Bronco came out of nowhere, swerving in and out of lanes, and for whatever reason, the Bronco starting flipping me the bird — as if I had just cut her off. I couldn’t figure out what this person’s problem was because we were stuck at a red light and nobody was moving. It just struck me very strangely — don’t Angelenos know that the middle finger should only be used in the most extreme offensive? Only in times of extreme offense like somebody kicked your dog or called your wife a bitch.

So why is it that Angelenos use the middle finger so freely? 

Because Los Angeles is so large and people are moving so fast, I have a feeling most casual users of the middle finger have never experienced this gesture gone wrong. A driver will flip the bird, and there will be no time for retaliation. Well, I, unfortunately, have experienced the wrong side of the middle finger.

Back in high school, my buddies — Czar and C-Mac — were driving up to Riverside Park — an amusement park in Springfield, Massachusetts, now called Six Flags — in my Subaru Wagon. I was driving, and we were rushing to get there. We wanted to have the whole day at the park to make the crazy admission fee worth it. So I was pissed to find this guy in a SUV, driving 65 m.p.h. in the left lane.

I passed the SUV on the right and then pulled back over to the left lane, slowing down just enough so he could see me. I stared back at him through my mirror, and I saw the man’s face; I saw his wife; I saw the New Hampshire license plate; and I saw his kid in the back seat. Without any hesitation, I showed him my middle finger so proudly you would have that I had been waiting my entire life to tell someone they drive like an asshole.

Big mistake. I drove a little bit faster, and then all of a sudden, a red truck pulled up out of no where, and they flew right behind me. They were right on my bumper, and I thought they were going to hit me. I looked in my rearview mirror, and there were two guys, maybe about 23, with their shirts off, a small confederate flag draped over their mirror, and they were demanding I pull over.

My buddies didn’t say a word; they just looked at me to see what I was going to do. I didn’t know what I was going to do though. So I just pretended like I didn’t see them. I stared straight ahead, thinking they would go away.

But they didn’t stop. They drove up to the side of our car, and they were yelling at us, calling me a pussy and telling me to pull to the side of the road. Well, I wasn’t stupid; I wasn’t about to pull to the side of the road in the middle of Wester Massachusetts. Remember, I was 17–years old; I basically just got my license. Best I can figure it, these were the older sons of the guy in the truck — or maybe even brothers — and they were exacting revenge.

I thought it was going to get real bad when they pulled up in front of my Subaru and started slamming on the brakes. Luckily I stayed calm and just avoided their truck. It must have went on like this for over 15 minutes, until they gave up and moved on.

They sure scared the shit out of me, and I learned that I would make sure if I was going to use the middle finger, then I should use it for something worth fighting about.

Five Reasons Why My First Trip to Vegas Won’t Be My Last

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Las Vegas was my honeymoon — a lune de miel — except it wasn’t. Unfortunately, Heron and I didn’t leave for Europe or Cambodia immediately after our wedding, and we went back to work. I was exhausted after the wedding — we sure smoked it to the filter — and I was still sore from our family football game at the beach (my best man did elbow me, accidentally, in the face). And on the way to Vegas, driving through the Mojave Dessert, I was married and young and alive. It was exhilarating, and it was my first time to Vegas. Before the trip, I balked at the thought of the Sin City; the image of men and women popping quarters into slot machines depressed me almost as much as that dog commercial with Sarah McLaughlin. But I decided to give it a shot, and what I found was I absolutely loved Vegas. Let me explain.

5. The Beatles’ Love

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If you’ve been reading my blog, then you know I’m a huge Beatles fan — like most of the world. Ever since I heard there was a show in Vegas built around the Beatles’ music, I’ve almost wanted to go to the city in the middle of the desert just for that. Well, Heron and I stayed at The Mirage, and we splurged and bought some tickets. Well, it was a great show, and there was a moment during “Within and Without you” where a large tarp was flowing over the crowd, and it became clear that the director was trying to realize a deep spiritual understanding, a global consciousness, a Jungian harmony of epic proportions, that I understood how special this show was; it was something more than just a dance or performance; it tried to express the underlying themes of my favorite albums.

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4. Buffets

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Well, people who go to Vegas always talk about the buffets. And I’m not really the biggest fan of buffets; all that food just sitting there, rotting and wasting away in the neon lights and glassed by sneeze bars. So in an attempt to try something new, Heronand I went for it, and we ate the buffet at The Mirage. It was amazing. I ate eggs Benedict, sushi, crab legs, barbeque, pho, wonton; basically I feel like I tasted a little bit of the world. Surprisingly, the food was fresh, and the dessert bar was one of the most unreal displays of gluttony I have ever seen. It was nice to let go after a few weeks of a crazy wedding diet.

3. Opulence, vainglorious, grandiosity, absurd swagger

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Honestly, before I went to Vegas, I thought it was just a soul-sucking world where people threw money around like they were making it rain in a strip club; I thought that it was a stain on the country so obsessed with all that was anti-soul, anti-knowledge, anti-enlightenment. Ah, I was so serious. But when I arrived in Vegas, I just started to laugh. All of the opulence and mosaics and sculptures, well, it seemed like a joke. Instead of over thinking the superficiality of Vegas, I just kind of became a part of the joke, the theme, the grand gestures that signified nothing. I let loose and laughed at the computerized murals of Michelangelo. I laughed at the vainglorious attempt to bring joy to the adult world. And I wondered, what the hell would future generations think of this place? Would they call Caesar’s Palace a monument? Would they see beauty in our vanity?

2. Blackjack

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What surprised me — and sort of scared Heron — was how much I loved blackjack. I sucked at blackjack, but I started to read about the game and when to bet. So at one point I was down 60 bucks, and I started to play the game differently. I ended up winning 10 bucks, but I started to enjoy the chances, the calculated risk. And then I started applying these lessons to economics. I began to wonder if the stock market was like gambling. The house always wins in blackjack, but does the house always win in stocks and investment? I’m starting to see myself as more of a businessman, strangely, and somehow blackjack just encouraged a deep hunger of mine — an almost need to put my chips on the table and succeed.

1. Vegas is a science-fiction novel

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Of course, Hunter S. Thompson pointed out the absurdity of the city in Fear and Loathing, but I feel like the appeal of Vegas is deeper than drugs and the search for the American Dream. It’s a place that Vonnegut would have imagined for one of his characters; it’s a place where time and location exist in its own world; and it’s absurdity runs so deep that the week before we showed up, a huge gun battle happened on the streets. Think about it: you can head to the Venetian and see Gondolas; you can see a pyramid next to the Eiffel Tower; and no one seems to pay attention to time — as if the city existed outside of any Earthly moment. It’s a place so unique in its wonder and nonsense that it seems to make perfect sense for the setting of a science-fiction novel. And that awesome strangeness is fascinating.

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New piece at the L.A. Weekly — an interview with L.A. author Amelia Gray

Ever since I started working at my new job in public relations, I haven’t published anything new in the LA Weekly or the OC Weekly. In fact, I haven’t published any form of journalism since I was married. Honestly, starting a new job, planning a ceremony, writing a blog and a memoir have all sort of over taken over my life. Though I have been working on a larger piece for the LA Weekly book section, my interview with Amelia Gray was the first piece I had published in a bit.

And it felt great, because I was able to speak to an amazing writer and discuss with someone who is infinitely more successful than me. That’s always inspiring, because it reminds me that they were once where I am. And it’s a struggle; it’s a fight; it’s a ton of hard work to go to a place where Amelia Gray is currently standing: a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist. Wow, could you even imagine that? Well, check out the interview to see what it must feel like.