Friday, November 20, 2009

Crispin Hellion Glover @ Charles Theater

Crispin shows what it is and how it is done

This was a busy week for a reclusive suburban shut-in like me, but when opportunity knocks, ya gotta answer the call - especially when it's two pioneering artists like Devo and Crispin Hellion Glover that are knockin.' On Sunday night I spent (factoring in the requisite Ticketron "service" charges) roughly $55 to see Devo play their first album Q: Are We Not Men, A: We are Devo! and two encore songs over the course of roughly one hour. (And since we're talking D.C., factor in another $20 for parking.) Three days later I paid $20 plus a mere $2 parking to see Crispin Hellion Glover present over four hours of entertainment and crowd interaction, including "Crispin Hellion Glover's Big Slide Show" (a one-hour reading from all eight of his altered/authored books), his latest film It is fine. EVERYTHING IS FINE!(this 2007 film, co-directed with David Brothers, is the second part of Glover's "It" trilogy that began with 2005's What Is It? - which he screened the trailer for afterwards), an exhaustive post-screening audience Q&, and an even more exhaustive post-Q&A book-signing with fans. My girlfriend Amy and I were starving, but we feasted on entertainment value; as Amy said later, with her signature omnivoristic perspective: "I loved Devo but this was the better value meal!"

The gathered masses apparently agreed. The event was sold-out and as I nodded to and greeted a sea of familiar faces in the Charles lobby, I commented to Amy: "I think every Baltimore hipster, artist, and scenemaker is here tonight. If a terrorist or right-wing Christian wacko [since The Charles Theater was screening Lars Von Trier's Antichrist there] blew up the Charles Theater tonight, they'd wipe out Baltimore cultural arts community in one fell swoop."

Local luminaries lobbied in the Charles
Theater lobby for the CHG Live Experience

To be sure, as I looked around it was a Who's Who of local notables, including John Waters; his pals "Orpheum" George Figgs and former Atomic Books/Atomic TV honcho Scott Huffines; Reptilian Records mogul Chris X; Merkin Records founder Joe Goldsborough; Sondheim Award-winning artist Laure Drougoul; beautiful MICA film animator/teacher Laurence Arcadias; artist-about-town Dan Van Allen; Normal Books & Records' impresario Rupert Wondolowski; dynamic arts duo Lynne Parks & Chris Siron; former Meatjack maestro Brian Danilowski; Rock Star frontman Todd Stachowski; erstwhile Katatonix musico and eternal "Living Legend" Adolf Kowalski; grub critic Richard Gorelick; comedian/Crystal Palace FC USA-booster Kevin Hall; filmmakers Karen Yasinsky, Stephanie Barber, Ann Everton, Billy McConnell, and Craig Smith (Psychedelic Glue-Sniffing Hillbillies); and on and on and infinitum.

Roll call at The Charles

"I wish I had my Hipster Bingo cards on me tonight," I mumbled to Amy. "I'd have shouted 'Bingo!' by now." I'd already spotted the requisite Hot Asian Girl with digital camcorder and stylish zippered jeans (they seem to be everywhere these days!), the Weezer Guy with the nerdy glasses, the cool styled-sideburns kid, the Bettie Page and Louise Brooks fashionista femme fatales, and all the tatted and pierced wannabees in their fedoras, pea coats, skinny jeans, and spotless red or black Chuck Taylor kicks.

"The Big Slide Show" ran about an hour and was very amusing, though it could easily be trimmed down to, say four or five books. I think I enjoyed Concrete Inspector and Rat Catching the best, both of which are still available for purchase on CHG's website:

Glover is very protective of intellectual property rights (don't count on finding YouTube clips or screeners for any of his works!), but he has sanctioned this reading of What It Is and How It Is Done - because it's on his website! Better yet, it was taken from an episode of Atomic TV and even has our logo on it!:

Next up was It Is Fine. EVERYTHING IS FINE!, which ran 74 minutes.


The film is of a type that whose format you either accept within the first 5 minutes - or bail on while there's still time to opt out...the kind of motion picture of which All About Eve's Bette Davis would advise: "Fasten your seatbelts; you're in for a bumpy ride!" In short, it was written by and stars Steven C. Stewart (pictured below), a man born with cerebral palsy who spent the formative years of his life in a nursing home where he was disdained as an "M.R." (Mental Retard).

The Tao of Steve: babes find cerebral palsy studs irresistible

The frustration of that kind of backstory helps explain why he wrote the screenplay as a sort of 1980s made-for-TV crime thriller in which he plays a cerebral palsy guy named "Paul" irresistible to women (and fetishistically attracted to their long hair!), whom he kills when they threaten to leave him - or cut their hair! The biggest stretch of the imagination is that he believes people can easily understand him, even though he speaks at best like Monty Python's Gumbies. As I whispered to Amy, "The only thing worse than trying to understand what a person with cerebral palsy is saying is trying to understand a Scotsman with cerebral palsy...that's a double whammy no-win situation!" Glover gets around it by having the actresses and other characters move the narrative along with their dialogue (e.g., "Why yes Paul, I'd like to have you meet my kids.")

To pass his time, Paul fantasizes about the man he should be despite his twisted body and four possible relationships he could have and their (always dire) outcomes. In the film's most graphic moment, he receives fellatio from another handicapped patient. I loved the post-screening Q & A when Patti Vucci asked the question I had been wondering, too, when she said, "I know this isn't an art school question but more like a junior high type question, but was he really fucking that chick at the end?" (Answer: Yes! And the fellatio was not simulated. Shocking as it may be, it's not that hard to find struggling actresses in Southern California who will do sex scenes if a good role comes up.) (Equally shocking: these sex scenes are...very un-erotic! If you get off on them, you have more problems than Steven C. Stewart!) (Then again, one man's prime rib is another's Hamburger Helper: I can still recall creepy library patrons who got off watching glimpses of flesh in our potty training and breast cancer videos!)

The decision to not use subtitles and to let the star speak in his indecipherable natural voice was as much a testament to the filmmakers' sincerity (as Edith Massey sang in her cover of "Big Girls Don't Cry": "Sincerity counts when you're talking to me!") as it was to testing an audience's endurance. (But as the Merry Prankster himself, Ken Kesey, once delineated: "You're either on the bus or off the bus."

Or as Chris Gore commented:
“Glover and Brothers force you to see this crippled person as a suave leading man. To say the film is weird would be cliché, it's way beyond that the film drew laughs and gasps from the audience. The odd thing about it all - it works. It's actually refreshing to see someone who actually has cerebral palsy in a film rather than some actor playing someone with cerebral palsy…"

Though a friend (legitimately, understandably) groaned afterwards that, "That was painful!," I enjoyed the movie and was impressed by the technical aspects of Glover's and Brothers' filmmaking, from the look (it was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm), to the lighting and wonderfully anachronistic set designs. In short, it was a Midnight Movie made 30 years past its heyday. Back to the Future, indeed. The rich, color-saturated photography made me think of Kenneth Anger's Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, while the sparse, East German-kitsch sets with their technicolor shag carpets made me think of early John Waters and David Lynch movies - not to mention Chuck Statler-era Devo music videos.

PAPER Magazine's Dennis Dermody nailed it when he wrote:
“Glover's co-director- David Brothers' art direction create streets and apartment interiors of hallucinatory luridness. That, mixed with the thunderous soundtrack of Beethoven, Smetana and Tchaikovsky give the movie a relentless nightmare quality. What Diane Arbus was to photography, Crispin Hellion Glover is swiftly achieving as a filmmaker. Training his sardonic eyes on the strange and afflicted he achieves a mad dark poetry on celluloid.”

And, yes, the all-classical library soundtrack was pitch perfect - and again reminded me of early Kenneth Anger soundtracks, before he started using pop music.

In a major casting coup, the film also features Fassbinder regular Margit Cartensen (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fear of Fear) as "Linda Barnes" (though at first I thought she was a man - her look here is very David Bowie circa Hunky Dory), not to mention Crispin's old man Bruce Glover, who is currently working on a documentary about the making of It Is Fine, and former Playboy January 1997 "Playmate of the Month" (and ex-Glover girlfriend) Jami Ferrell (she's on Facebook!) as the drunk blonde who is flattered she can "give a cripple a hard-on."

Margit Carstensen, back in the day...

Margit Cartsensen, more recently

Daddy-O Glover: Bruce Glover as Bond villain
Mr. Wint in "Diamonds Are Forever"

Following is a trailer for It is Fine:

It Is Fine trailer

It became clear from the Q & A afterwards that Crispin Hellion Glover is a passionate idealist who truly really believes in what he believes in. And not as crazy as the roles he portrays or the David Letterman moments make him appear. Basically, he's a throwback to the non-conformist, anti-Hollywood indie filmmakers of the "Midnight Movies" era of the late '60s, the '70s, and early '80s, in the pre-VCR days when the John Waters, Alejandro Jodorowskys, and David Lynchs of the world were making fare like Divine Trash, El Topo, and Eraserhead. (And speaking of El Topo, George Figgs correctly pointed out in the post-screening Q & A that Jodorowsky's ground-breaking Midnight special featured midgets and other Fellini-esque human oddities way before Glover was accused of exploiting differently-enabled people). And, as in the pre-VCR/pre-Video-On-Demand days of yore, Glover is a theatrical purist who believes films should be seen in a communal setting in theatres (yet another reason why he won't release his films on DVDs or send out screeners to festivals).

The gist of Glover's Q&A was a re-statement of the points he made on the Tom Green show (see video clip below):

Crispin Hellion Glover on Tom Green

Basically, he's anti-"Corporate Hollywood" filmmaking, though he has learned "What it is and how it is done" enough to take the money for mainstream fare in order to finance making the kind of movies he wants to make, and he wants to harken back to the days of thought-provoking and boundary-pushing films that challenge the viewer to ask questions like: "Is this right?" "Is this wrong?" "Should I be watching this?" "What does this mean?" That is, it's unlikely he'll be renting formulaic Sandra Bullock movies or going to the Cineplex to see CGI-laden blockbusters like 2012.

He apparently made a lot of money from his non-talking role as the "Thin Man" in Charlie's Angels, a classic example of "corporate Hollywood" crapola that Roger Ebert once described as "eye candy for the blind." But the filthy lucre received for his Charlie's Angels performance financed the cost of shooting It Is Fine on film.

But perhaps the most interesting factoid gleaned from the Q&A was the answer to a question about the nursing home depicted in the film. Ironically, the only place the filmmakers could find to film in was same institution Steven C. Stewart had been locked in for 10 years during his Twenties. As Glover said, "You can see that was not a fun place to be living."

Afterwards, it was out to the Charles Theater lobby, where CHG patiently signed any and everything handed to him and posed for photo ops with a long line of adoring fans.

Rupert Wondowlowski takes an iPhone pic
of his gal pal posing with Crispin Glover
(I like how CHG is under a poster for "A Serious Man")

If I could find my The Big Problem does not equal the solution. The Solution equals Let It Be LP (featuring the classic ditty "Clowny Clown Clown"), I might have been tempted to stay, but Amy and her friend Donna Diode were tired, so we called it a night and headed back home in the rain.

In closing, kudos to Charles Theater revival series programmer John Standiford for booking the event. It was yet another good call!

Now if only I can find that dang copy of my (long-misfiled) Crispin Hellion Glover LP The Big Problem...

"The Big Problem..." LP

Related Crispin Hellion Glover links: (official web site)
Essential CHG Videos
It Is Fine trailer 2
"Clowny Clown Clown" music video
Crispin Hellion Glover interview in Filmmaker magazine
It Is Fine cast bios

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009


October 14, 1978
Set: "Satisfaction," "Jocko Homo"

After seeing DEVO play their debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! live at the 9:30 Club in D.C Sunday night, I thought back to the first time I saw the Spudboys. I know my college pal and erstwhile Katatonix bandmate Tom Lehr turned me onto DEVO's music sometime during our late '70s school daze at Towson State University, but I don't recall seeing them before 1978, when I saw them with Tom at Georgetown University in D.C. and later at Painter's Mills in Owings Mills, MD with the fledgling Katatonix lineup of Katie Katatonic and Adolf Kowalski (a gig I vividly recall because when Mark Mothersbaugh came into the audience - which was pretty cool in and of itself, as wireless mics and guitars were a new thang - Adolf tore off a patch of Mark's yellow jumpsuit and gave it to me - I later had it laminated and carried it around in my wallet as a memento!).

But I'm pretty sure the first time I saw them was on the historic Fred Willard-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live, October 14, 1978. And when they played their robotic cover of "(I Can't Get No) Satisfation" it was both a visual revelation and a sonic epiphany. I got chills and the kind of nervous excitement kids get when all riled up and without their Ritalin...and I recalled where I was and who I was with just as vividly as I recalled JFK's assasination (yup, I'm old enough have seen that on black-and-white TV as well!), or initially seeing Blade Runner at the Timonium Theater, hearing about Pee-Wee Herman's sex scandal, or seeing the breaking news report about former Maryland Terps star Len Bias' coke-overdose death - for some reason these were and are the momentous, life-changing touchstones of my life to date. Each one filled me either with eye-opening awe or an unbelievable sense of great loss.

I was at party with a bunch of Deadheads and pot-head pixies. When Devo came on, it blew everyone's minds. They had no frame of reference to prepare them for this, for there are only two timelines in the course of human history: B.C. (Before the Coming) and A.D. (After Devo). Devo's performance gave the past the slip and plunged pop culture consciousness into its rightful role of Duty Now for the Future. Thanks Spudboys!

(Apparently, the SNL appearance was just as momentous for Devo as it was for the SNL cast and the rest of America. Mark Mothersbaugh started dating Laraine Newman and Gerry Casale later claimed that John Belushi "snorted the entire contents of the first gram of coke I ever purchased." And Dan Akroyd became a fan, later getting Devo to write the theme song to his movie Doctor Detroit.)

Unfortunately, I can't post a video clip of Devo's historic performance, as NBC-Universal has pulled all copies off the Internet.

*** But wait - this just in! ***

Thanks to Scott Huffines for finding me the "Satisfaction" video on Videosift!


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Monday, November 09, 2009

The Shepherds of Berneray

The Shepherds of Berneray
a film by Allen Moore & Jack Shea
(Canada, 1981, 54 minutes)

filmed and edited by Allen Moore
conceived and produced by Jack Shea
narrated by Finlay J. MacDonald
executive produced by Robert Gardner
principal characters: Kate Dix, John Ferguson, Angus Beag MacLeod, Angus and Chirsty Ann Munro, John and Christine Munro

The original Ram's Head, Live - from Berneray!

Last night I was among a handful of cineastes that were treated to a special screening of Allen Moore and Jack Shea's 1981 documentary The Shepherds of Berneray at the Hexagon on N. Charles Street. The event was the latest offering in Miguel Sabagol's continuing "Free Wednesday 16mm Film Series" at the Hexagon, which the Baltimore City Paper named "Best Multi-Purpose Space" in its 2009 Best of Baltimore issue.

Allen Moore

I only heard about the screening because, in addition to being an award-winning cinematographer for Ken Burns and a well-respected film instructor at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, Allen Moore is also a regular patron of the Enoch Pratt Central Library, where he often pops in to check out titles from our 16mm film collection. So when he mentioned last week that he was screening one of his films at the Hexagon, I had to give props to a filmmaker and lenser that I greatly admire. I wasn't disappointed. At the risk of sounding like a hyperbolic fanboy, I think film historians will rightly rank Moore's cinematography alongside that of the all-time great lensmen. And, beyond knowing how to frame and present "pretty pictures," Moore is also an accomplished director and editor, at least from I've seen of his own films.

Small wonder then that the film - made with funds from The Film Study Center, Harvard University, The Highlands and Islands Development Board of Scotland, and The Scottish Arts Council - won a CINE Golden Eagle, a Red Ribbon at the American Film Festival, and a Special Mention of the Jury at Cinema du Reel. Soon after completing The Shepherds of Berneray, which was shot over 12 months from May 1978 to 1979 and took another 18 months to edit, Moore received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Filmmaking from December 1982 to November 1983.

So what and where is Berneray? Quickly searching the Internet for a Wikipedia article, I learned that Berneray (Scottish Gaelic: Beàrnaraidh, from Old Norse for "Bjorn's island") is a small island to the north of North Uist in the Sound of Harris, Scotland.

It is one of fifteen inhabited islands in the Outer Hebrides, measuring 2.5 acres with a population (as of May 2009) under 124 permanent residents. It is famed for its rich and colourful history which has attracted much tourism - including Charles, the Prince of Wales, who in 1987 visited the island to live a normal Berneray life as a "crofter" (small-scale farmer). (Prince Charles lived and worked with a crofter for one week and his visit spawned the 1991 television documentary, A Prince Among Islands; he returned to the island in 1999 to formally open the causeway connecting Berneray and Otternich on North Uist). Its main industries are fishing and sheep, but because seafood is a valued export to the mainland, the island's lifeblood is its sheep. Hence the focus of Moore's remarkable film, which documents one year in the life of the sheep and their Gaelic-speaking (and singing) keepers, split into seasonal chapters.

Berneray: Shaped like the headstock on a Fender guitar

The documentary begins and ends with an elderly woman (Kate Dix) speaking in her native Gaelic (thank God for subtitles!) outside her croft, a perfect bookending of the year's journal. Moore's print looked absolutely pristine and flawless, with nary a scratch on the screen. Shooting with a non-synch sound Bolex 16mm camera, he was able to follow the shepherds and their flock through every nook and cranny of the island, capturing both its natural beauty (the gorgeous blue skyline and shoreline in summer, the blooming flora in the spring) and the raw unpredictability of its stormy, wind-swept winters.

I liked his editing touches, little things like the footage at the island's church where the minister reads "The lord is my shepherd" to the shepherds, and the sheep point-of-view shots when they are being dipped into an anti-tic bath.

My fellow Pratt librarian (and fellow film geek) Marc Sober was also in attendance, and I knew the avowed vegetarian was in for a rough viewing experience during the no-holds-barred footage depicting the inevitable killing and eating of sheep (the islanders eat a lot of mutton - they save the tasty lobster for export to the mainland and the $$ it promises in return). As was the Maryland Film Festival's Eric Hatch, another vegetarian I spotted, sitting in front of Marc Sober (I'm pretty sure I saw Eric looking away during the more grisly segments!).

Moore leaves nothing out as far as documenting the sometimes harsh lifestyle entailing by living off sheep on a remote island. There's the birth and death of sheep, branding the flock by cutting off part of the ear, the inevitable wooly-bully sheep shearing, even an "old school" cirmcumcision of a ram by an old-timer who bites off the skins and spits it out! (I'm glad I ate before the screening and not after!).

Remarkable as the natural beauty of Berneray and Moore's cinematography are, the film is more than just a visual record of a remote land and people. Key to its translation of Berneray's culture is the poetic language of its people, which Moore captures not only in the Gaelic monologues of grande dame Kate Dix (who, Moore said afterwards, unfortunately passed away before the film's completion), but in the native folk songs of Mary MacAskill, Duncan MacKinnon and Christine Munro, and the poetry of the Bard of Berneray, Duncan MacLeod of Besdaire (1906-1980).

"Moore has become renowned in filmmaking circles for the way he portrays the intimate relationship of a culture to its environment, a vision he calls primarily poetic," wrote Baltimore Sun critic Linell Smith. He was referring to Moore's award-winning 1990 film Black Water (co-directed with Charlotte Cerf), which documented an artisanal fishing village in northeastern Brazil struggling to survive the impact of industrial water pollution, but he could just as easily have been talking about The Shepherds of Berneray. For Moore is an ethnographer as well as a photographer and documentarian, one just as interested in understanding the best way to present a foreign culture as a lensman is interested in the best way to present images to the human eye. Like his camera, Moore's eye is unflinching, direct, and true. And the impressions he leaves on our eyes are indelible.

Click here to watch segments from The Shepherds of Berneray (Vimeo).

Related Links:
Isle of Berneray website
The Shepherds of Berneray @ Internet Movie Database
Scottish Screen Archives
Allen Moore's MICA bio
Allen Moore @ Florentine Films
Allen Moore Films on Vimeo
Black Water @ Icarus Films

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The Damned United

The Damned United
directed by Tom Hooper
written by Peter Morgan, based on the book by David Pearce
Cast: Michael Sheen (Brian Clough); Timothy Spall (Peter Taylor); Colm Meaney (Don Revie); Jim Broadbent (Sam Longson)
(Sony Pictures Classics, 2009, 97 minutes)

When It Reigns, It Pours

I saw this great film, penned by hottest-Brit-screenwriter-of-the-moment Peter Morgan (The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, Frost/Nixon) and starring hot-Brit-actor-of-the-moment Michael Sheen (he played Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon), at the Landmark over the weekend. I like British soccer and my girlfriend likes British films, so it wasn't a hard sell to get her to go to a movie ostensibly about the Leeds United football club and the dismal 44-day reign in 1974 of its enigmatically brilliant-cum-destructively megolomaniacal big mouth manager Brian Clough (pronounced "Cluff" as in "rough"), a former star striker (251 goals in 274 games for Middlesbrough and Sunderland) who at one time was called the Muhammed Ali of British football for his brand of brash trash-talking.

Besides, though my GF Amy would much rather watch Cops or the Home Shopping Network, she'll tolerate watching soccer games if Ray Hudson's announcing ("I like that crazy Geordie guy - he's funny!") or if Chelsea or Tottenham are playing - the former because she loves the band Madness and singer Suggs wrote the anthem "Blue Day" for his East London heroes...

Suggs Song Blue

...the latter because she loves their Shakespeare-derived name Hotspur (although everyone just calls 'em "Spurs"). She also likes Stoke City because their team name is The Potters (after the pottery industry in Stoke-on-Trent) and Hull City because they make her think of the Rutles song "Finding Your Bride in the Arms of a Scotsman from Hull." Plus she loves all the drunken singalongs in the bleachers and will start laughing the minute she hears a good "Here we go" or "Who are you?" from the stands. So, like I said, it wasn't a hard-sell.

I knew nothing about Clough or the Leeds United "glory years" of 1961-1974 when they dominated English football under manager Don Revie, but I remembered liking Leeds in the early Noughties during their last spell in the top-flight Barclay's English Premiere League - right before financial troubles at the big club finally saw them relegated to the minor leagues in 2004. (They currently toil in the 3rd-tier League One.) Under manager David O'Leary (1998-2002), Leeds routinely finished in the EPL's top five and I loved his lineup, which before financial woes included Robbie Keane, Alan Smith, Jonathan Woodgate, and Australian superstars Harry Kewell and "The Duke," Mark Viduka. I'll never forget seeing "Super" Viduka score four goals to single-handedly lift Leeds over Liverpool 4-3 at Elland Road in 2002. (It's hard enough to forget Viduka as is, because he bears an uncanny facial resemblance to comedian Fred Willard!)

Separated at Birth: Willard and Viduka

Super Viduka's 4-goal spree against the Reds

The big man's deft touch and ability to hold the ball up while being muscled in the box made him the definitive back-to-the-defender striker, the likes of which are only seen today in the form of Chelsea's Didier Drogba or Barca's Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

But I digress...back to the film, which despite all this talk of football isn't really so much about kicking a ball around as about things like male bonding, interpersonal relationships, ego and one man's Capt. Ahab-worthy obsession - not to mention that particularly Anglo "us vs. them" fixation about Northern vs. Southern that dominates all aspects of British sport and culture (whether it turns up in Morrissey lyrics or in rivalries like Mancunians Oasis dissing Londoners Blur). The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips saw the film mainly as the story of a rocky marriage between Brian Clough and his lifetime assistant coach and best friend Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall of the Harry Potter films and BBC TV's The Street). In fact, it was Phillips insightful review "Small Soccer Tale Pays Off Big" (reprinted in last Friday's Baltimore Sun) that sold me, the soccer fan, on this film being more than just an 11-on-11 kickabout. His words, reprinted below, do more justice to this fine film than I am capable of.


Small soccer tale pays off big

by Michael Phillips
Tribune Newspapers critic
October 16, 2009

In most sports movies the big moments are big: Robert Redford's star-spangled mega-homer in "The Natural."

By contrast the best of many good scenes in "The Damned United," a winner for soccer fans and soccer idiots alike, is a small one. Brian Clough, one-time English footballer turned failed manager of the Leeds United club, spends a match alone in the changing room. Through smeared windows we see, and hear, the crowd roaring approval in between tense, uncertain passages of time. Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in "The Queen" and David Frost in "Frost/Nixon," portrays Clough, and he's marvelous, suggesting warring strains of confidence and doubt in his nervous pacing and darting eyes.

Sheen dominates director Tom Hooper's vivid examination of arrogance, pride, Humpty Dumpty-size falls and self-rehabilitation. He is not, however, the whole show. Drama is a balancing act, and one of the great strengths of screenwriter Peter Morgan lies in the way he juggles characters and shifts the expected emphasis from one playing field to another.

Morgan's work for the screen often pivots on a shadowy antagonist, as with dictator Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland" (which he co-wrote), or with Richard Nixon in Morgan's own adaptation of his play "Frost/Nixon," or with British royalty as embodied by Helen Mirren in "The Queen." The same strategy applies in "The Damned United" and its use of Don Revie, the successful manager of Leeds United before Clough's disastrous 44-day tenure. The reliable, granite-like Colm Meaney does a fine job with Revie's sneers and smiles, but it's not his story. Nor does "The Damned United" devote much screen time to how Clough and his invaluable assistant manager, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), went on to glory with the Nottingham Forest club.

Rather, Morgan sticks to his dramatic guns and gives us Clough, in present-tense 1974 and flashback sequences, as he realizes how much he needed Taylor, and how much his Leeds players detested him. The crucial story here is about a marriage dissolving and then reconstituting. Clough and Taylor are the symbolic spouses (they had real ones as well). "The Damned United" reminds us that backstage characters often have the most to tell, and Sheen and Spall are both first-rate character men who happen to be tackling leading roles.

The grim Yorkshire weather is captured just so by cinematographer Ben Smithard. The movie gives you its little dose of triumphalism in a coda, but one of the chief virtues of this unusually honest sports film is its determined focus on the losing before the winning, and the hard lessons to be learned from it.

Oh, as a postscript, I have to mention that while attending this weekend's Sherlock Holmes Society event at the Enoch Pratt Central Library, I sat behind a guy wearing a yellow-and-white English football scarf for...Leeds United! I had never seen anyone wearing Leeds gear in all my time in all the soccer bars in Baltimore until that Saturday afternoon. Something must be in the air...a strong Yorkshire draft coming across the pond to Charm City. Anyway, I told the guy about the movie and he was excited...

Friday, November 06, 2009


"I exist to annoy you!"

I am a freak magnet.

Trouble follows me whererver I go.

Today was my day off and I was really looking forward to grabbing a coffee and reading the new movie reviews in the Baltimore Sun at my local Starbucks. Things looked promising as I entered and anticipated only two customers ahead of me in line.

Then I saw him. In a yellow rain slicker. Big goofy glasses. Unruly hair. Unruly manner. Yes, it was one of my library patrons. One of the most loathed patrons in my experience - both by me and all my co-workers. Actually, that's an understatement, for this man isn't just loathed: he's hated. Yes, I hate him, with all my heart and soul.

I don't know his name, but his M.O. is: booming loud voice; non-stop banter; go-nowhere line of questioning; annoying manner; and complete obliviousness to all around him except his own difficult-to-please personal needs. And always - ALWAYS - high-maintenance. A real time vampire, sucking away the seconds, minutes, and hours of a librarian's life of public service away, leaving me drained and empty headed and angry - yes, angry! (Few customers push me to the edge of contemplating violence upon their person, but this guy, I'm ashamed to say, pushes my buttons to the point where I wouldn't mind pushing him around.) You see, nothing is simple for idiosyncratic oddballs like this; there are no simple transactions. Everything is a struggle. Like their personalities. I truly believe that we live in the Great Age of Asperger's, where no one seems to care about anyone but their own narcisistic selves, and this guy was the Poster Boy of his Times, for he was oblivious to the fact that he was holding up the line. With his de facto need to be annoying...and the center of attention.

"Oh, God!" I muttered when we made eye contact, quickly fumbling with some change in my pockets to avert his gaze. My best laid plans had suddenly been turned askew.

Something was going on with the Man in the Yellow Slicker.

"Why don't you just write it down?" he asked the kid at the cash register.

Minutes passed as it became apparent that he was asking for a receipt. For his $1.97 cash transaction, the cost of a large coffee. The kid at the cash register couldn't get it to print out, so he consulted his co-worker, a new guy. Meanwhile, people started coming in. The line was getting longer.

"Oh, God!" I muttered again. "It's starting." Naturally, wherever this freak went, trouble and delays surely followed.

Since the guy's a clear nutjob and I doubt seriously that he's emplyed, I wondered why he had the pressing need for a $1.97 receipt. I mean, it wasn't like a big receipt for a car rental, a hotel room, or even gas for a business trip. It was for a fricking coffee - not even a fancy latter! I've given 2 bucks in change to bums on the street for crying out loud. We're talking a measly two bucks. And now suddenly the line is 10 deep.

More minutes pass, and now it's taken two Starbucks employees several minutes to ascertain that there's a problem with the cash register. Now, any normal person would wave off the receipt request and say, "I don't want to hold the line up; it's not that important, catch you next time."

In my dreams.

Nope, the Starbucks kids call out their manager for assistance. Now there are three employees involved in making sure this freak has it his way.

The Man in the Yellow is speaking for, well, he never stops speaking.

"You know, I never ask for receipts when I get my coffee and then today it just dawned on me, hey, I should ask for a receipt," he blathers on in his ghetto-blaster-loud voice.

"You know," he continues, "Most people don't know about this option. Most people don't think to ask for a receipt."

"And most people are normal," I mutter under my breath, much to the amusement of the girl in front of me, who starts cracking up.

The tension in the line is now palpable, as eyebrows start to roll and feet start tapping. There are now about 20 people in the line, which now stretches to outside the door.

Alerted by the girl's laughter, the Man in the Yellow Slicker now stares at me, and I do mean stare. It's a psycho-intense stare, the kind that, between two men, can only mean: A) a pick up in a gay bar or, B) a "What's your problem, whaddya looking at, pal?" pre-barroom brawl stare.

It's a staring contest the Man in the Yellow Slicker wins, for I look away, fumbling with my money and hoping against hope that he doesn't recognise me and instead is just having a Meds-Kicking-In Moment.

After 10 minutes, the Man in the Yellow Slicker gets his receipt and looks satisfied at having held the entire Starbucks staff and customers waiting in line hostage to his demands.

Passing me in line he stops.

"God, just kill me now!" I think to myself, but it's too late.

"Hey, don't I know you," the Man in the Yellow Slicker says. "Where do I know you...oh yeah, the library!"

I should have denied it, but having just attended a workshop the day before called "De-escalating Confrontations with Brain-Damaged People" (real title - I kid you not!) in which the guest speaker - a police officer who handles crisis situations and hostage negotiations - warned against lying to mentally disabled people (because in his words, "You may run into them again and lose credibility if you're not truthful"), I came clean.

"Yes, I work at the library," I said, and looked away, moving up in line. "And I drink coffee. Small world, huh?" I turned away and thought to myself: What part of my "I'm Ignoring You" body language are you missing? But he had already tagged his next victim and I was "It."

"You getting coffee on your way into work?" he asked, prolonging the "conversation" (and my agony).

"No," I answered curtly. "I'm off today."

"So what's your name, I never knew your name?" the Man in the Yellow Slicker badgered me.

At this point I should have lied and said something like, "Ricardo" or "Malik Al-Shabazz." But again I thought back to the cop's advice at the mentally ill crisis workshop and replied, "Tom."

"Have a nice day," I said through clenched teeth as I brushed past him to the counter and my long-awaiting morning cup of coffee. I had thought about saying to him point-blakn, "Hey, at the library I have to put up with you because it's my job, unfortunately. But now I'm not at work and don't want to talk to you because I really don't like you!" (Notice that in my fantasy dialogue I avoid using the word hate in order to spare his feelings; I can be a nice guy at times, after all).

Peering over shoulder, I noticed that instead of leaving the Man in the Yellow Slicker had taken a seat at the table next to where I had parked my messenger bag.

"Well," I thought to myself, "That kills the idea of sitting here and reading the paper." The Man in the Yellow Slicker was clearly enjoying all the commotion he had caused and was milking every second of it. He was sticking around, alone, drinking his coffee, looking around for people to "talk to" (i.e., annoy).

After getting my coffee, I headed to counter to add cream and sugar, careful to position myself so that I wouldn't be facing the Man in the Yellow Slicker who, as luck would have it, was RIGHT NEXT TO IT.

Then, as I poured the half and half into my coffee, I heard the voice.

"Do you anything about DeBourg?" the Man in the Yellow Slicker bellowed in his booming voice. I had made no eye contact with him, so it could have been Query At Large to Any and All Starbucks Customers. But I knew better...I knew worse. It was addressed to me.

And there he was looking up at me as I poured a packet of Splenda artificial sugar into my coffee.

"Nope," I replied as tartly as possible.

I don't think he even bothered to wait for my reply, as he was already off on a (now-caffeinated) new verbal roll. Receipts were a thing of the past, now he wanted to talk about someone or something called "DeBourg."

"Really because you're the library guy I mean you work in the audio-visual department and movies and such and you're the film guy and DeBourg blah blah blah film blah blah blah and DeBourg was French and blah blah blah and blah blah blah."

"Don't know anything about it" I said, adding a second packet of Splenda (Starbucks coffee is very bitter).

"DeBourg was a filmmaker and one of the first Situationists, I thnk," the Man in the Yellow Slicker continued.

"Fascinating," I replied, minimally.

"Blah blah blag DeBourg this, blah blah blah DeBourg that, blah blah blah blah blah," the Man in the Yellow Slicker blurted away, foam forming at the corners of his mouth. This guy's problem wasn't just that he lacked all social skills and empathy with the feelings of others; no, it was much worse, for he fancied himself an "intellectual" to boot - hence his name-dropping and I Know Stuff demeanor. As Alexander Pope said, drink deeply from the well of knowldge...otherwise you end up like this guy...albeit crossed with a personality disorder and Asperbergers.

"Hmmmm, don't know anything about it," I said, capping my coffee and heading out the door. "Have a nice day."

On my way out I fantasized about the similarities between freak patrons and zombies. In zombie movies, when you spot one, you shoot them in the head to get rid of them. In real life, when you spot a zombie patron, you can only give them the brush off. Regrettable.

You can take the librarian out of the library, but you can't take away the things that annoy librarians (i.e., "patrons") when they leave the library.

They walk among us!