Friday, October 26, 2007

Sidney Stumbles; Israeli Directors Take Up the Slack.

Long(ish) time between drinks, huh? I would have referred you to my new piece in Jewish Week on the Israel Film Festival but the JW website has been out of order for several days now. Instead, I'll give it you below, shortly.

Sidney Lumet has been a prime whipping boy of mine since I was a college film critic way back in the Iron Age. He has always worked fast, chosen good casts and interesting material. But he has invariably betrayed that material and those casts with a visual style that is obfuscatory at best and downright incoherent at worst. There are a few notable exceptions -- Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City -- but for the most part, I find his films not up to the level of his aspirations.

Lumet has been making feature films for 50 years now, and he is probably best known for his deep attachment to New York locations and the fast, off-the-cuff directorial style that he learned in his formative years in live television. His latest film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, falls into the crime genre, which he has explored repeatedly. Unlike Serpico, Q&A and Prince of the City, the police are a minor afterthought in the new movie.

Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are ill-matched brothers; Andy, the older of the pair, is a successful real estate agent who is living way beyond his means, nursing a serious drug habit and a shopaholic wife (Marisa Tomei), while the younger Hank is a perpetual screw-up with a mountain of debt and an ex-wife clamoring for child support payments. Each of them needs a way out of the tightening noose of debt that hangs around their necks and the ever-resourceful Andy has a simple solution: rob a mom-and-pop jewelry store in the suburbs. The catch is that this particular mom and pop are their parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Nanette (Rosemary Harris). Needless to say, as Hank reports early in the film, “Everything fell apart all at once.”

Lumet tells this part of the story, the first two-thirds of the film, in a complicated series of time-travelling flashbacks from a profusion of points-of-view. Only in the film’s last 40 minutes does he eschew this device and allow the final movement of the narrative towards revenge and devastation – this is a really nuclear family -- to take its linear course. And that is a big part of the problem with Before the Devil. The flashback structure, which was present in Kelly Masterson’s original screenplay and preserved by Lumet when he did rewrites, is rickety and gimmicky. There is no particular reason to tell the story this way; the same shifts of point-of-view could be accomplished in a linear narrative. The time jumps don’t tell us anything extra, add nothing to our understanding of the characters or their situation, don’t even add to the suspense, since we see the robbery go sour almost from the start of the film. All this structure does is to make a film that would have been riveting at 95 or 100 minutes seem attenuated and strained at 116.

Although Lumet has certainly provided us with some memorable screen moments over the past half-century, but the most striking scenes in the new film are ones that stay in my memory because of the lost opportunities they represent. I will merely offer one example, the scene in which the family is informed that Nanette has been declared brain-dead and is on life support. Lumet shoots the scene in a single take, which could be very effective, except that he chooses an elevated long-shot with the camera viewing all the participants from such a distance that we cannot see how anyone reacts to the news. Even the doctor’s face is obscured. The only communication with the audience comes from Albert Finney’s body language, his slow slump into his chair as the light and energy are drained out of his home and life. Too much of this film feels as drained of life as his character, drained by Lumet’s odd directorial choices.

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For obvious reasons, Israeli culture has a high tolerance for ambiguity and contradiction. As the English-born Israeli theater director and playwright Robbie Gingras says, “You must remember that Israeli artists celebrate ambivalence, questions and problems.” Anyone attending this year’s Israel Film Festival, which opened on October 23, could tell you that.

Clearly, that fascination with gray areas is the source of the new-found strength of Israeli cinema. Consider, Aviva, My Love, by writer-director Shemi Zarhin, knowon here for Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi and Passover Fever. The film’s central figure, the eponymous Aviva (Assi Levy), is juggling her job as a hotel cook, caretaker for her crazy mother (Levana Finkelstein), unemployed husband (Dror Keren) and three kids who suffer from a variety of character flaws and tics. At the same time, pushed by her sister Anita (Rotem Abuhab), she is trying to pursue a writing career under the guidance of one-book wonder Oded (Sasson Gabai).

As the plot synopsis might suggest, Zarhin starts the film off in a highly comic vein, bordering on TV sitcom. But after the first 20 minutes, it takes a sharp but well-modulated turn into something much darker. Perhaps Oded sums it up best when he asks his pupil, “You’re a funny woman, why are your stories so tragic?”

This is a difficult balancing act, one that Zarhin couldn’t quite bring off in Monsieur Shlomi. But his new film is exquisitely judged, a bittersweet tale of the Faustian bargains at the heart of creating art. The film is filled with images of his characters framed in doorways, hesitating between bad choices, trapped by their own self-images. The result is a deeply satisfying and very accomplished piece of work.( Zarhin is also represented in the festival by Noodle, directed by Ayelet Menahemi from a script the two co-wrote.)

Ironically, two of the festival’s most successful documentaries, “The Modern Ones” and “Film Fanatic,” center on similarly dismaying sets of possibilities. Each is concerned with the difficulties facing Orthodox Jews confronted with the modern world. “The Modern Ones” examines the dilemma of young Orthodox singles who have gradually come to the realization that, despite all the pressures to marry and have children, they will probably never find a satisfactory mate. Cheli Roesnberg tells this story with a mordant, dry wit, starting from a meeting of a couple dozen matchmakers that bears a startling resemblance to every shadkhen joke every told.

The protagonist of Shlomo Hazan’s “Film Fanatic” is Yehuda Grovais, one of the pioneers of the exploding Haredi cinema, a film-obsessed ex-insurance salesman who, like the young men and women of “The Modern Ones,” is caught between the demands of his community, his conscience and his passion. Grovais has made over 50 feature films that you probably have never heard of, let alone seen, working on less-than-shoestring budgets with an ingenuity that would do Roger Corman proud. He is also a sweet, deeply sincere and somewhat na├»ve young man who we see desperately trying to find foundation money to film a dream project on the Psalms. Hazan treats his subject with respect and affection and at the film’s close Grovais is making something of a small, richly deserved, career breakthrough.

The ambiguities of Israeli history are too well known to repeat here. Eli Cohen, who is by now one of the grand old men of Israeli film, examines such period with great intelligence in his documentary “Till We Have Built Jerusalem.” The film retells the story of the British Mandate in Palestine, a period of only 30 years in the 5,000 year history of the City of David, but a pivotal interlude. Beginning with a deliciously ironic use of the William Blake poem, now virtually a second British national anthem, Cohen traces the story of the British involvement from WWI through to the dissolution of the Mandate after WWII through a series of talking-heads interviews with historians and wonderful and rare footage from the period. The film is never less than fascinating.

After many years of cheap humor at their expense, Israeli filmmakers have begun to take the Mizrahi community much more seriously. The family in Aviva My Love are originally North African Jews, and at least two other features in the festival are set in similar communities. Kululush by Nati Adler, takes place in an Iraqi community in the Tikvah neighborhood of Tel Aviv, while Three Mothers takes place in a community of transplanted Egyptian Jews. What all three films have in common is the sense of insular, almost dead-end worlds, stifling and claustrophobic. Family in these films is not a source of support but a battlefield.

Kululush centers on an ill-matched pair of brothers. Avi is a sad sack whose emotional life is invested primarily in the B’nei Yehuda soccer team, an aggregation as hapless as he is. Ronni once was the greatest scorer in B’nei Yehuda history but went to Europe to pursue his career; there, his compulsive gambling landed him in some unspecified trouble. His return to their slum neighborhood precipitates a series of crises, including the death of their grandmother, a toothless, beady-eyed nut who spies on the neighbors through a periscope erected on their roof, and the unearthing of an old family feud that has prevented Avi from wooing the girl of his dreams.

Adler handles all the complex action adroitly, but there is a lingering sour taste in the screenplay by Shaul Bibi and Ofer Tabechnik, a bile-filled bitterness that undercuts the film’s attempts at humor and the potential warmth of the relationships between the brothers, their grandmother and their neighbors.

Three Mothers won Israeli Film Academy awards for best cinematography and costumes, and picked up a couple of statuettes at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Directed by Dina Zvi-Riklis from a script by Alma Ganihar and the director, the film is an old-fashioned multi-generational saga, the sort of “women’s picture” that Warner Brothers would have pulled together for Betty Davis, Mary Astor and Priscilla Lane, with Claude Rains as the indulgent father. The three mothers of the title are actually triplets named for flowers, Rosa, Flora and Yasmin, and the atmosphere of their upbringing is definitely of the hothouse variety. Their mother is the midwife to King Farouk’s palace and when the trio are born he bestows a royal visit on them. As one of them later recalls, “He turned us into queens.”

It is very hard for three queens to share one throne, and the smothering closeness of the sisters’ relationship to one another virtually shuts out their husbands. There is a complex set of subplots revolving around Rosa’s singing career and infidelity, Flora’s inability to have children when her husband is crippled in a construction accident, and the mysterious fate of the child she eventually does raise. All of this is told in a densely structured series of flashbacks while the sisters wait for a kidney donor for Yasmin, who is dying of nephritis.

Zvi-Riklis (whose husband, Eran Riklis, co-produced) handles this complicated saga deftly, although the plot contrivances are pretty obvious. She has a knack for the subtle use of camera movements to emphasize the emotional isolation of her characters and she has ample opportunities to do so. The script, too, has some nice grace notes, such as the constant shifting between Hebrew and French when the sisters converse together. The result is a bit too studied to be genuinely moving, but it is handsomely mounted and moves along fairly swiftly. Three Mothers is a film in desperate need of a sense of irony or at least a bit of mystery, but it isn’t dull.

One might say the same of Frozen Days. The film begins strongly, setting up an intriguing situation. Miao (Anat Klausner, who is never off-camera during the film’s 91 minutes) is a drug courier who sets up a date with a guy she met in an on-line chat room. Alex Kaplan, the young man, is supposed to meet her at a local club but they fail to connect when a terror bombing rips through the club, leaving him in a coma, covered with bandages from head to toe. She takes advantage of this opportunity to take over his identity gradually, finally cutting her hair so that she even looks like him.

Lerner gives two great big Hitchcockian clues to what is happening right away. The credit sequence is an homage to Vertigo both in its graphic design and Tomer Ran’s elegant piano music. And the name of the seeming bombing victim, Alex Kaplan, is an echo of the mysterious George Kaplan of North By Northwest. For the first half of Frozen Days, Lerner gives a deft impression of the Master of Suspense, utilizing crisp and inventive black-and-white cinematography by Ram Shweky, with lighting coming from strange and incongruous places. As long as he keeps up the subtler forms of disorientation, the film is a griping and sure-footed genre piece. But in its second half, as Miao becomes absorbed into Kaplan’s life, Lerner pulls out all the stops, with 720-degree pans, sudden, pointless zooms and increasingly crazy camera angles underlining everything we already have suspected. By the film’s end, one realizes that Lerner has taken a story that would make a neat 30-minute episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and blown a lot of hot air into it. There is an undeniable talent at work here, but Lerner needs more seasoning.

The 22nd Annual Israel Film Festival runs through November 8 at the Clearview Cinema (Broadway and 62nd Street) and Florence Gould Hall (55 E. 59th St.). For information, go to http://www.israelfilmfestival.com/iff07.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Return of the Drive-In?

My first movie memory is of seeing 101 Dalmatians at a drive-in theater somewhere in Poughkeepsie. I suspect that the memory is incorrect, since I would have been almost eight when the film opened, we no longer lived in Poughkeepsie and I was too old for both the movie and the pajamas-with-feet-in-the-back-of-the station-wagon experience that I vividly recall.

But I'm sure about the drive-in. Back in the day, this was the easiest way for a young family with children to get to a movie without having to hire a babysitter. Of course, if I had been a teen, I would have taken some unsuspecting female to the drive-in to watch early Roger Corman and neck. The drive-in was probably less than an ideal way to see a movie -- you had to contend with atmospheric effects ranging from drizzling rain to glorious sunsets, and the little speakers that hung on the car window had a tinny sound that would be unacceptable today in our Dolby-ized world.

At any rate, the 1973 oil crash put paid to the drive-in for all intents and purposes. A few lingered on, indeed, according to the excellent DriveInMovie.com, there are 30 working drive-ins in New York State alone. But that is quite a comedown from a 1963 peak of over 150.

The reason I'm waxing nostalgic for the lost paradise (such as it was) of automotive movie-going is an item on CinemaTech in which Scott Kirsner talks about MobMov, a new digital operation that is quickly spreading across the country, showing movies outdoors around the country (and the world, apparently). This is not that new an idea; Jeanne Liotta has been doing it every summer on the Lower East Side with her Firefly Cinema. But these gents are working with young filmmakers to provide a new way of getting unreleased features a screening for a live audience before they go to DVD (and probable oblivion). At the very least, an outdoor screening would allow those of us who still do so to smoke during the movie. (I probably miss that more than the drive-in, even though I almost never smoke anymore.)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

An End at Last

As my friend Daryl Chin notes on his blog, we have finally reached the end of the New York Film Festival press screenings. For me they ended with a bit of a bang, Peter Bogdanovich's documentary Runnin' Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, the closing night film.

Why, one may ask, make a four-hour-plus film about Petty and Co.? Besides the fact that they are a seriously badass rock 'n' roll band, Petty is a genuinely gifted songwriter and the core of the band has been together for 30 years? Of course not every long-lived hitmaking band is worth this much attention, but Bogdanovich certainly justifies the film's length by including a lot of music, many complete numbers, frequently in unreleased versions. And Petty is an engaging guy who is funny and sweet and smart about his music. Rhythmically, Bogdanovich tries to recapitulate the slow burn to a big climax of a good live set and the film is seldom dull. In the last half-hour, I found myself occasionally thinking, "This quote is redundant, you could trim it," but the film is pretty lean as it is and I don't think you could profitably cut more than five or ten minutes at the very most.

Incidentally, some of my favorite moments in the film involve the band's tour with Dylan. I mention this by way of linking you to my other Jewish Week piece on the Film Festival, which has a lot of Dylan in it. As one questioner at the press conference noted, The Man looks more at ease with Petty, et al., than in most of the concert footage we usually see of him. He also rocks like a motherfucker. Great stuff. [The JWeek site seems to be down right now. I'll add the link as soon as it is technically possible.]

One intriguing sidebar: the film is produced by Warner Brothers Records, and it playing for a single night in nearly thirty cities, on October 15. Then it will be screened on Sundance Channel on the 29th, , and will be available in a multi-disc package exclusively at Best Buy, including the 30th anniversary concert in Gainseville complete. This could be an interesting new way to market certain kinds of films -- I wouldn't want it to happen to, say, the new Bela Tarr, but for a music film, it has definite promise. For more info, go here.

Persepolis is an interesting change of pace, although Satrapi is an avid rock fan, as evidenced both by the film, the books and her remarks at the press conference (mainly in praise of Iggy Pop, who is doing one of the voices for the English-language version of the film). Unusual to see an animated feature chosen for one of the festival's spotlight events, in fact, I can't recall too many other animated features playing NYFF in its 45 years of existence. (If you remember ones that I've forgotten, feel free to make yourself known in the comments section.)

The choice of animation is a shrewd one. As Satrapi said, a live-action film gives the story too much specificity, but animation -- particularly with the free-floating abstract backgrounds that she and Parronaud use -- keeps things universal. The film has something of the visual feel of a shadow-puppet film (think of a postmodern, very hip version of Lotte Reiniger) with segmented characters moving across an often two-dimensional visual field. The filmmakers kept the wit and warmth of Satrapi's books and the French-language cast (featuring Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni) is splendid. Given that one American studio wanted to film the books as a live-action feature to star -- brace yourself -- J. Lo and Brad Pitt as Marjane's parents, we are particularly lucky to have this version of the film.

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Margo, the b.w., and I are going to Madison Square Garden tomorrow to adopt two new cats. It has been a decent interval since Walter and Stella died and my hours of working at home are empty without some companionship, whether feline or human. At any rate, the folks who run the Cat Show are hosting a big adoption fair with the ASPCA, the Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals and about 20 shelters. If you are interested, go here.

The real reason I mention this, however, is that in the process of reading about this event, I went to the Mayor's Alliance website, where I found a link to a recent story from the Daily News about the severe shortage of funding for the city-run shelters that houses the STAR program (Special Treatment and Recovery), which provides medical treatment to cats and dogs that would have otherwise been euthanized. Animal Care and Control has three shelters, and they are not "no-kill" shelters, unlike the ASPCA's. Without funding to provide treatment for the animals brought there (and their contract with the city requires them to accept all animals brought in or found on the street), some of them will be euthanized anyway. The story may be found here, and if you want to make a donation to the STAR program, send a check made payable to: Liz Keller, STAR Fund, N.Y.C. Animal Care & Control, 11 Park Place, Suite 805, N.Y., N.Y. 10007, or visit online at www.nycacc.org.





Tuesday, October 09, 2007

And Now, in a Mad Rush, the New York Film Festival (Well, Some of It)

Okay, at long last, the New York Film Festival. Sometimes it feels like every year I see fewer and fewer films despite my best intentions. This year, with only three more days of screenings, I’ve seen ten films so far, about a third of the new films on offer. It’s too small a sample to make any definitive statement about the state of the art – as if any one festival could give you enough data for that purpose – but it feels like it has been a good festival. At any rate, I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve seen. In quick brushstrokes, here are the films I’ve seen (with the exceptions of the stuff I’m reviewing for Jewish Week), in the order in which I saw them.

Fados (Carlos Saura). For his latest excursion into dance-on-film, Saura pays tribute to his Portuguese neighbors and their most important musical gift to the world, the fado, a plaintive song of longing. The film itself is essentially a series of rather unconnected musical and dance performances, linked primarily by share physical space and projected images, mostly of Lisbon (one of my favorite cities). The music is wonderful, ranging from period recordings of Marceineiro and Amalia Rodrigues to contemporary Portuguese hip-hop takes on the fadista tradition and fado-influenced songs from the former colonies. There is a lot made of the tension between three-dimensional space the the flattened images of the projections, but I’m just not sure how Saura is using the screen space to unite the film formally, and I have some mild misgivings about its overall structure, but the music is wonderful – I would definitely buy the soundtrack album in a heartbeat – and the film has a playfulness that is really charming.


The Man From London (Bela Tarr). This could be the Bela Tarr film for people who hate Bela Tarr; it’s an adaptation of a Georges Simenon novel, shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Fred Keleman, a modern-day noir without the smartass cynicism that has disfigured most of the neo-noirs. In short, it’s a real throwback to the moody, fate-drenched worlds of Lang and Wilder in the ‘40s and, at slightly over two hours should be accessible enough for anyone.

What hasn’t changed about Tarr, and what I love about his films, is the slow unfolding of screen space and the extraordinary care with which he uses camera movement to explore his visual universe. The opening shot of The Man From London is a masterpiece of slow disclosure, encapsulating the entire plot in a seven- or eight-minute take that links a ship at the docks, a control tower, two little jutting pieces of land and the city of Bastia, a desolate harbor town. We see a man toss a bag of smuggled money off the ship and two men fight over the loot, all from the point of view of Maloin (Miroslav Krobut0, a shabby, exhausted railroad worker. Once he inserts himself into this drama, things can only go from bad to worse in typical noir fashion, but Tarr works out this tale of retribution and redemption with the pitiless inevitability of Fritz Lang, tempered by the compassion of Jean Renoir and illustrated by his own trademark gliding camera movements and well-concealed sense of humor. This may be Tarr’s most accomplished film to date, not an omnium-gatherum with the power of Satantango perhaps, but a shrewd usurping of genre prerogatives for his own purposes. An undeniably great film by one of the best working filmmakers in the world today.


Paranoid Park (Gus van Sant). Van Sant continues to explore the nether regions of the teen psyche in this bleak, yet strangely lyrical film about a kid who accidentally causes the death of a security guard then tells no one what has happened. The boy, Alex (Gabe Nevins) is the latest in a series of opaque, impassive protagonists that van Sant has been exploring in his recent, Bela Tarr-influenced films as he turns his back on Hollywood narrative to try something more indeterminate, more elusive. Paranoid Park is probably the most accessible of his films since Elephant, particularly since it lacks that film’s insistently slow rhythms and occasionally offers us a fleeting glimpse into its central figures mind in sumptuously shot skateboarding sequences. The title refers to a skateboard park of sinister reputation in Portland, where the film was shot and set, but it could just as easily stand for the state of mind of its disaffected adolescents. As in Elephant, these kids aren’t exactly rebelling against the world their parents made for them. It’s more like they’re opting out, although without any particular animus or display of strong feelings. An elegant piece of filmmaking and an disturbing ride.


I’m Not There (Todd Haynes), The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan, Newport, 1963-1965 (Murray :Lerner) and Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach). I reviewed these three films for Jewish Week, and the piece will be posted on-line on Thursday.


Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov). After his last couple of films, I began to fear that Sokurov had lost his way. I have a sense that Russian Ark represented more of an epistemological break than even he had intended and films like Father and Son feel distinctly like the work of someone treading water until he figures out his next move. (I, for one, wouldn’t be heartbroken if he never completed that trilogy.) In fact, Alexandra feels like a deliberate and refreshing throwback to the political films that Sokurov made around the time the Soviet Union began to collapse. The film is simplicity itself: Alexandra Nicolaevna (the magnificent Galina Vishnevskaya) is the grandmother of a Russian officer stationed in Chechnya, not in a combat zone exactly, but close enough for discomfort. She goes to visit her beloved grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), stays for a few days, meets his comrades, goes into town and becomes friendly with a local Chechen woman, then gets back on the train to go home.

Sokurov deliberately avoids every temptation of melodrama and the film’s palette (it was shot by Alexander Burov) is similarly muted, seemingly coated with a patina of brown dust. Vishnevskaya is commanding as the old woman, bringing all her diva-ness to bear with a delicious show of dignity and self-assurance. Although nothing much happens during the film’s 92 minutes, there is an air of impending violence hanging over events and the town itself is seen as a dilapidated, bullet-riddled wreck, punctuated by a bedraggled open-air market filled with Russian military gear that soldiers have bartered away. With their omnipresent cellphones, the Russians are apparently seldom out of contact with home, but the result is not solace but a sullen dissatisfaction. Like the violence that never happens, the Sokurov’s deep distaste for Vladimir Putin’s imperial venture in Chechnya is never stated but always in the air. The result is one of his best films in a long time.

Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (John Landis). This has been a big year for Hollywood directors trying their hands at documentary. We’ve had Yippee, the Paul Mazursky film about Breslover Hasidim, Peter Bogdanovich’s epic film about Tom Petty (which is press-screening tomorrow morning, so watch this space), and this valentine to Rickles from John Landis. And make no mistake about it, this is a valentine, albeit a very funny one. (And boy, is his figure less than Greek!) Intriguingly, the bouquets are not only aimed at Rickles but also for a kind of Vegas act that no longer exists. If Scorsese’s Casino was a eulogy for the mob-run city of the ‘40s-‘70s, this is the gracenote to finish it. Thoroughly enjoyable – Rickles emerges as, to borrow a phrase from Landis’s remarks at the press conference afterwards, a performance artist rather than a stand-up, a sort of demented litmus paper against which to measure our prejudices and tolerance for stereotypes. In other words, he’s Sarah Silverman, only funny rather than ironic and smug. Landis soft-pedals Rickles’s sentimentality, although you catch enough of a glimpse to recognize it for what it is, but the guy’s inner teddy bear does come out in a surprisingly likeable way. The film will be airing on HBO in early December, so I will withhold further remarks until I do a full-length review for Jewish Week. (Hey, this is a very, very Jewish film.)

Monday, October 01, 2007

Another Year, Another Season, Another Banned Book Week

So the Yankees keep the streak alive with their 13th consecutive playoff berth (12 under Joe Torre, one before that under Buck Showalter -- remember him?). I have to admit that when George Steinbrenner hired Torre back then, I groaned loudly. Yeah, he had done a creditable job with the Braves, but his stints with the Mets and Cards had been fairly dire (those late '70s Mets teams under Joe Frazier and Torre were agonizing to watch), and except for his first year in Atlanta he had never won anything as a manager.

Okay. I was wrong. I happily admit it. As the Yankee manager, Torre has a winning percentage in the neighborhood of .605. You may say, well, that's Steinbrenner's checkbook talking. But you have to remember that until this year Steinbrenner's checkbook talking came attached to Steinbrenner talking. At any rate, he did a remarkable job in turning this season around and I have to say I like the Yankees' chances in postseason play.

Of course, in a fair universe -- were such a thing to exist -- the WS this year would feature the Cleveland Indians (no title since 1948) and the Chicago Cubs (not since 1908). But I don't expect that to happen. I've been out of the sportswriting business for over a decade (although there's a good chance I may be returning to it for at least a couple of books -- long story for another time), so I don't feel obligated to make public predictions. Or as Ben Johnson memorably says in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, "My mama didn't raise me to be makin' guesses in front of no Yankee captains." Of course, he means John Wayne, not Derek Jeter.

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Speaking of a fair universe, were such a thing to exist (as I said before), there would be no need for the annual ritual of Banned Book Week, organized by the American Library Association. But since we live in this universe and nobody in their right mind would call it fair, we have to deal with censors, both professional and self-appointed. As a writer and as someone who earns his living as a cultural critic, I feel a particularly close affinity with this cause. To the best of my knowledge, none of my three books has been banned anywhere, nor are they likely to be, given my comparative insignificance in the larger scheme of things. (Besides, who would want to ban a book on the worst teams in baseball history, other than the players commemorated therein?) But a lot of my favorite books and authors, not to mention movies and music, have been banned, expurgated, censored and burned over the past several centuries. As Heinrich Heine correctly observed, "Those who begin by burning books, end by burning people." Just ask any German Jew of a certain age.

You can find information about Banned Book Week here. I urge you to find out more and to act accordingly.

I'll get to the Film Festival later today (I hope).