“Phantom Thread”: Paul Thomas Anderson mesmerizies us with female treachery in the 50s couture world (how to use emetics to find a husband)

You expect big visionary and concurrently intimate drama from Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood“), but “Phantom Thread” turns out, for me at least, to become a set piece, a mood inducement, almost a stage play, only gradually evolving into mystery and treachery.

The film is set in the couture world of London in the mid 1950s, and mainly stays inside. But the story of a growing love affair between a confirmed bachelor dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (a gaunt Daniel Day-Lewis) and a waitress, Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), who early on asks him why he isn’t married.  He’s not gay (that would have been interesting, a few years after Alan Turing’s end); he really is set in his ways and the details of his work.  He says he can hide his life story with inner threads in his garments. But she is set in her ways too.

The business seems to reside in his mansion of a flat, with a number of employees, whom Cyril (Lesley Manville) manages, often speaking with great firmness and clarity. The film shows with fascinating detail how dressmaking got done in those days, down to the taking of measurements. You see how prudish earlier dress standards used to be, down to long-stockings and garters for men (oh, going bald on the legs anyway). I recalled a day when my parents took me to Schwarz in Baltimore to be fitted for a boy’s suit and I got stuck by pins all day. I was also reminded of the film “LBJ” where the president talks about his tailor, how he can have a sartorial emergency.  Remember the boon of English literature courses, Thomas Carlyle’s “Sartor Resartus“.

Reynolds resents changing his ways, as with the way she prepares his meals.  One day, in the middle of a work session preparing a wedding gown for a princess from Belgium (OK, the movie didn’t have a role for Timo Descamps, the singer who is practically the country’s and maybe the surviving EU’s best face), he starts ranting about the work and suddenly collapses, and soon vomits as if he had the flu (like George Bush when he visited Japan in 1992).  But Alma has given him some questionable wild mushrooms.  Now she has a chance to care for him, as he resists attention from “the good doctor” (Brian Gleeson) out of fear of romantic rivalry.

He recovers, and proposes to her.  Her Hitchcockian ruse has worked. They go to a New Year’s party at a Swiss chalet and he slips into his introverted ways again, although the indoor balloon and costume celebration (with elephants) provides some of the best photography of the film (which is shot in standard aspect in order to maximize facial closeups). So, she soon tries her trick again with his omelette.  We are treated to an intimate scene where he is eager to kiss her while holding a vomit bowl in his lap.  He seems to accept the need to become weak and vulnerable as the ticket to having children and a progeny. It seems like a rather corrupt value system, which drives some men away from heterosexuality, even “Masters and Johnson”.

The background music, of piano and chamber ensembles, is fascinating.  It was put together by composer Jonny Greenwood.  The opening arpeggio-like piano stuff may come from Debussy, and later Schubert’s monumental E-flat Piano Trio is quoted. But the most fascinating music, used in the previews, occurs before the first “illness” sequence: the piano plays repeated notes, in an ascending sequence, with odd impressionistic harmonies, with rhythm that sounds like syncopated 5/4 time.  I think I’ve heard the theme before, and wondered if it was by one of NYC’s Metropolis Ensemble composers, but it may be original with Greenwood.  If so, it certainly belongs in some larger chamber work that would get concert performance (maybe at DC’s Dumbarton series).

I did wonder how people with eating disorders would feel about this film.

Another film to remember for comparison is “The September Issue” (2009), or even “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) with Meryl Streep.

Wikipedia Haute-couture show.

The theater offered a short film from “Made 2 Measure Haute Couture“, “Thom Browne: A Fashion Fairytale“, just before the previews.

(Embed from M2M was removed because it caused a popup; I’ve put the YouTube embed there instead)


Name: Phantom Thread
Director, writer:  Paul Thomas Anderson
Released:  2017/12/31
Format:  1.85:1 (heavy emphasis on closeups)
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, 2018/1/23, 10 PM, small audience
Length:  130
Rating:  R  (language)
Companies:  Focus Features, Annapurna
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, January 24, 2018 at 2 P< EST)

“Unrest”: a graduate student and filmmaker with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome documents her own illness

With “Unrest”, Harvard Ph. D. graduate student Jennifer Brea documents her own odyssey into Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFE).

The film opens with her going to the emergency room at Princeton Hospital in Princeton MJ (I remember a night in 1970 when I was taken there by a friend after I broke my arm falling off a bicycle – odd total recall).

The early part of the film gives some medical history, dating back into the 1980s when CFE was getting some attention while AIDS, which is biologically unrelated, exploded.

In fact, the film discusses findings that CFE or “myalgic encephalomyelitis” patients also show an acquired immune deficiency, which may be related particularly to earlier infection with Epstein-Barr virus, a herpes DNA virus that also causes mononucleosis.  There have been particular clusters, such as at Incline Village, Nevada;  but the CDC also did a study in the 1980s in which if found no consistent immune abnormalities and claimed it was hysteria. Indeed, patients have often been told “it’s in your head” (as in the opening scene in an emergency room).  But the film also explains how the physiology of the disease involves the failure of “anaerobic respiration” within cellular mitochondria. A research project at Stanford is briefly shown.

The coincidence with the publicity over AIDS and HIV in the 1980s might have given the “religious right” the opportunity to make another charge:  that people already immunocompromised by HIV could nurture other secondary infections (like TB) that might then spread to the public at large.  But this did not materialize. But it’s a sobering thought when you compare it to the public health issues surrounding severe forms of influenza today, and also SARS about ten years ago;  but that’s a different movie.

CFE seems to occur more with women, although a teen male patient is shown in the film. It seems to occur rather suddenly, and then the patient may only gradually get better.

The personal aspects of caregiving in this film make it intense to watch in spots.  Brea is profoundly weak in some scenes, having to be picked up off the floor by her father.  At times, I wondered if there could be any connection o ALS, which has happened in my own extended family.

The disease causes partial cognitive decline, which seems reversible (ALS does not cause that).

In the 1980s, a coworker’s wife had CFS.

The film aired on PBS Independent Lens on Jan. 8, 2018.   The film had an odd alternate title “Canary in a Coal Mine”.

Picture: Princeton campus, my picture, April 2010

Name:  “Unrest”
Director, writer:  Jennifer Brea
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS video, 2018/1/22, aired 2018/1/8
Length:  84
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS, Shella Fims, Little by Little Films
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Monday, January 22, 2018 at 12 noon EST)

Beau Biden’s tragic death of cancer and Joe Biden’s “Promise Me, Dad”

Joe Biden’s memoir, “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose” intermixes the most productive years of Biden’s vice-presidency under Obama, with the tragic loss of his son Beau Biden in 2015 to an aggressive brain tumor.

The book narrative is often out of sequence, starting out on vacation and then shifting to his vice-presidential home near the Naval Observatory, before taking off with competing narratives.

Beau had served as Delaware attorney general, and had been quite supportive of progressive causes, including LGBT marriage equality. The family’s Catholic upbringing did not lead to any personal moralizing on the social issues.

Biden first notice symptoms around 2010, which went away until about 2013 when he was diagnosed with an aggressive glioblastoma. His genetics made the cell type particularly aggressive.  The physicians (including MD Anderson in Houston) tried a novel approach of engineering a live virus that would attach itself to the tumor cells and stimulate an immune response.  In the end, it seemed promising for a while but Biden suddenly deteriorated and died with family present on May 30, 2015.

I had an uncle who apparently died at age 60 of a similar tumor in 1976.  Even with genetic causes, its actual appearance is unpredictable.

Biden discusses his foreign policy work, especially with regard to ISIS, Russia, and Central America. He covers the second Obama term well, a history that took a shocking deadend with the election of Trump. He wrote the book just before we have a real understanding of the Russian “fake news” campaign and of the way Trump would be able to resurrect tribalism within “the proles”.  Biden is quite specific in his account of Putin’s cruelty with rebels in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

He also talks about infrastructure, and his work on improving natural gas lines and other critical infrastructure, some of which he says is made of wood. He does not seem to particularly oppose pipeline developments and on may economic and industrial policies he may have been more conservative than Obama.  But he would have supported aggressive policy on climate change (picture above: damage in Florida keys from hurricane Irma, my visit).

But he also talks about the depth of the financial crisis of 2008, and of the need to make work pay better in relation to capital.

Toward the end, he talks about the sudden decision not to run against Hillary Clinton, and about his reservations about superfund money in the Democratic Party primaries.

Beau’s story also reminds me of the narrative of Lee Atwater, who collapsed at a speech in 1989.

Somehow, I wonder about the “originality” of books by established politicians, who have made their names for themselves before taking up the pen.  Echo Hillary’s book.

Author: Joe Biden (Beau Biden)
Title, Subtitle: Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose
publication date 2016
ISBN  1250171679
Publication: Flatiron books, hardcover (airport purchase) also Kindle, 264 pages
Link: official

(Posted: Monday, November 20, 2017 at 10:30 AM EDT)

“Legion of Brothers”: CNN airs Sundance documentary of the early days of Bush’s war in Afghanistan using the Green Berets

Legion of Brothers”, directed by Greg Barker, aired on CNN Sept. 24, focuses on the very beginning of the “War on Terror” announced by President George W. Bush after 9/11.

I remember a Sunday afternoon, around Oct. 6, 2001, when Bush announced from the White House his first major steps to the American public in a televised address. The major networks allowed an airing if a very personalized address from Osama Bin Laden to follow.  There would be another such video screed on December 13, the day of my layoff.

But this film follows what is rather little known, about the efforts of a group of about ten Green Berets to start the overflow of the Taliban, as a “Direct Action Team” (and phrase “Smoke ‘em”), which this film tracks for its 79 minutes. The battle scenes are quite graphic – it’s hard to believe that combat journalists could get such footage. The narrative intersperses with scenes back home, especially in Texas.  The two main soldiers are Jason Armine and Mark Nutsch.  Some men are badly ounded, as one loses an arm.

Sebastian Junger would interview Northern Alliance leader Massoud himself before the latter’s death.  Junger would later help produce “Restrepo” and “Korengal” and write the Vanity Fair “Hive” article “Into the Valley of Death”.

What would follow, of course, was Bush’s own war in Iraq, with over 7000 deaths (combined with Afghanistan), and the whole “Stop-Loss” issue (actually a 2008 film from Paramount) with what amounted to a backdoor draft.

It’s ironic that on Sept. 9, 2001, HBO premiered “Bands of Brothers”, set in World War II, both Europe and the Pacific.

Name:  “Legion of Brothers”
Director, writer:  Greg Barker
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2017/9/24
Length:  79
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  CNN Films, Gravitas, Sundance Selects
Link:  CNN

(Posted: Monday, September 25, 2017, at 9:30 PM EDT)

NY Philharmonic presents Johnathan Biss and Timo Andres in Part 2 of the Beethoven Concerto cycle

The New York Philharmonic and pianist Johnathan Biss presented one of the segments of Biss’s project of commissioning contemporary composers to invent new piano concerti inspired by the five Beethoven piano concerti. The concert was conducted by Courtney Lewis.

The concert presented Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #2 in B-flat, Op. 19, which was apparently the first composed and started at a young age. The starting point of inspiration was the more contrapuntal and even sometimes dissonant cadenza that Beethoven composed twenty years later.  Otherwise, the work is “not one of Beethoven’s best”.

The Beethoven opened the second half of the concert.  Biss, to my ear, seemed in accelerate his tempi during certain phrases in the first movement, an odd effect.

The inspired (I won’t say derivative) contemporary piece (performed first, before the intermission) is the 23-minute Piano Concerto #3 in B-flat by Timo Andres (B. 1985). The subtitle is “The Blind Banister”, a curious metaphor, of a stairway railing looking into an abyss, across a gulf, without light – danger for elderly people alone. The gulf was, though, what the decades-spanning special dissonances in the cadenza inspire.

I ought to do more guest posting myself (or invite it), but Biss explains his own understanding of the piece here, and this leads naturally do a discussion of how composers get works commissioned today, what audiences will pay to hear (and sponsor), and it’s all potentially sensitive.

The work comprises three movements: “Sliding Scale” (slow), “Ringing Weights”, leading to a cadenza, and then a “Coda: Teneramente”. The opening emphasizes descending scales in drop-rolls in the piano, somewhat lushly harmonized, even sounding familiar to me. The middle section becomes more Parisian to my ears, in fact reminding me of the day I spent in Lourdes, France on May Day 2001, as young males danced a healing ritual. The work slows down and will finally end loudly (unusual for Andres, who considers quiet endings a usually necessary courtesy for listeners).

The NY Philharmonic program notes for the new work are here.

I had the mistaken impression that the work had been called “The Blind Barrister”, which would be a curious idea indeed, given Brexit. (Oops?  England?)

The concert had opened with excerpts from Hector Berlioz’s Dramatic Symphony, Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17, after Shakespeare’s Tragedy. The excerpts (14 min) seem to contain the love theme that starts the slow movement, and the Queen Mab Scherzo. The very ending was a loud chord and one soft grace note (like the Dvorak New World, which I have always found very curious).  I’m not a fan of excepting from works purporting to be sonata-like “symphonies” In fact, I had heard the Montreal Symphony play the complete work (with chorus) in Minneapolis around 2002 when I got a comp ticket while working for the Minnesota Orchestra.  I remember the happy ending, as the feuding families reconcile.  Not so in the two movies (especially Ziffereli’s) that I have seen , one while working as a substitute teacher. In fact, when the play is taught in high school, teachers have to explain that it was legal (even expected) for women to fall in love and marry much younger than it is today.

The concert concluded with the 20-minute tone poem “In the South (Alassio)”, Op. 50, by Sir Edward Elgar.  That refers to the Italian Riviera. There is some nice octave work in the brass with some dissonance in the development. I have a Chandos recording of this with Thomson.

James Oestereich reviews the concert for the New York Times here.

(Posted: Thursday, April 20, 2017 at 11:45 PM)

“Careful What You Wish For”: Nick Jonas uses street smarts in another mini “Body Heat”


Name: “Careful What You Wish For”
Director, writer: Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum
Released: 2016
Format: 2.35:1
When and how viewed: 2016/12/8, Netflix DVD
Length 91
Rating R
Companies: Starz, Anchor Bay, Image
Link: official site

Careful What You Wish For” (directed by Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum, story by Chris Frisnia) sounds like a nice conservative aphorism for a genre mystery set in the North Carolina Blue Ridge, at a lake resort.

Nick Jonas plays Doug Martin, working as a waiter at a lake resort, well raised by wealthy parents (mom (Kiki Harris) is a lawyer, conveniently). His best friend is Carson (Graham Rogers), who probably aspires for more than waiting for rich people himself.

One day, an investment banker Elliot Harper (Dermot Mulroney) and his Playboy wife Lena (Isabel Lucas) rent the house for the summer, and Elliot quickly hires Doug to maintain his boat. Quickly, Elliot demonstrates his authoritarian (like Donald Trump) personality, getting ahead with dealing and manipulating people. Lena is just as “bad” (eg, she his is “process piece”) and soon seduces Doug by playing on the duties of his masculinity. People used to try that with me – back in 1980, a female coworker in Dallas said that men should be able to change tires for women – it’s that kind of thing. What follows is a but of a reenactment of the 1980 thriller “Body Heat”, even with chimes.

Exactly half way through the movie, Elliot turns up dead. Lena claims to Doug that Elliot attacked her. But, predictably, the sheriff and an insurance investigator (Kandsye McClure) come into the movie and Doug is the prime suspect.

Doug has to use his street smarts and wits to survive this legally, in a typical thriller fashiom. But the very ending is a bit of a copout. Doug’s opening line is, “When you’re a kid, you don’t think about consequences.” As Dr. Phil says, the teen brain doesn’t see around corners.

But the movie can make you ponder why some people see everything through being able to manipulate others, as if that were the only virtue.

Nick Jonas certain looks good in the film. He had suddenly to deal with juvenile diabetes as a teen.

(The DVD came with English subtitles and all the screenplay parenthetical actions, even though the film is in English. I’ve never seen this before.)

(Posted: Thursday, December 8, 2016 at 12 Noon RST)