September 17, 2018

Life Itself: When the critics don’t get it!

I had the chance to see a pre-opening of Life Itself, coming to theaters September 21, 2018, and, go ahead, call me a sap: I loved it. The critics don’t. Here are early stats: 21% Rotten Tomatoes, 28% Metacritic, 1.54 Roger Ebert. Critics have even said that Dan Fogelman, who wrote and directed Life Itself, doesn’t understand how a movie works, the inference being that he doesn’t understand narrative—when that is exactly what this film is ultimately about.

Dan Fogelman is well-known for Crazy, Stupid, Love, a flick that rings way true and wildly entertains, and, yes, I loved it, too, and for the television series This Is Us that I have to admit to not having seen.

So, you can’t call me an out-and-out Fogelman fan. Haven’t seen any of his other flicks either.

So here goes on why I think the critics don’t get the flick Life Itself.

The critics call this film manipulative, perhaps even mannered or affected in the telling. They miss Fogelman’s central thesis: That art, a story told, a movie watched, a narrative that tries to make sense of the unspeakable can help us face the curve balls that life throws.

The opening of Life Itself relies on an unknown voice-over throughout its chapters. Yes, the film, like a novel, works in short chapters, four of them and an epilogue. In the first chapter, the voice-over tells us, “No one knows where their story is going or who the heroes in it are going to be.”  

That one key sentence describes life but not narration that seeks meaning in the face of meaninglessness. 

In that opening chapter, Olivia Wilde, who plays Abby to Oscar Isaac’s Will, states the premise in her proposal for her college thesis: She argues, quite smartly, I might add, that the author of fiction is always an “unreliable narrator,” in some sense, because the distance between what we write as authors and what is told always involves an artful lie. 

I argue that Fogelman is not asserting that fiction lacks emotional truth or that memoir is better, for that matter. What he is saying is that narration requires a leap, what used to be described to you by your English teacher as “the suspension of disbelief.”

As a commentary on narration, he and Abby are correct.

Then Abby and the movie go on to assert, to extraordinarily sharp criticism by movie critics that Fogelman states the obvious, that the “ultimate” unreliable narrator is life itself. From there on out, the critics take the film apart as trite, sentimental and manipulative. “Get your hankies out for this Hallmark card” might be another way to state the overall criticism this film is getting before its city-wide opening. 

What they do not get is Fogelman’s subject: The importance of narrative in our lives to make sense of the unspeakable.  

 Abby’s professor of literature fails her thesis because, as he asserts, she appears to think she has wandered into a creative writing class. What the critics miss is this: That  is Fogelman’s point. 

What the critics I’ve read could attack but don’t is that the film operates on what we writers term “the fortunate coincidence” to drive the narration. That may be fair criticism but also Fogelman’s point.

The key chapters, without revealing the story fully, focus on an accidental death, (one in the present action of the story and two in Abby’s troubled past), a suicide that results from the accidental death, a child-witness to the accidental death who later appears in the story as a grown man, and a death from illness, all in separate tales that ultimately and “fortunately” become linked in the epilogue. 

And I’ll come back to that closing for it is key to the way the narration operates in chapters with an authorial, omniscient narrator.

Abby, Will’s adored wife, also adores Bob Dylan and his Time Out of Mind album recorded when he was 56 in 1998 when many thought he might be washed up. Abby tells us how much he was criticized for including in the series of despairing rockers, a melodic love song ballad “Make You Feel My Love” and insists, while in bed with Will, that he listen to it, that he pay attention. As an aside, this song may be Dylan’s most-covered ballad. 

On point here, in the movie, the voice-over tells us that even Garth Brooks recorded it. On point here in this review, the song was called by critics at the time “a clunker,” and that fact is the key to the narration Fogelman bravely asserts in this flick. Here’s one of the lyrics we hear in the film: “When the whole world is on your case/ I could offer you a warm embrace ….” 

Dylan’s decision to include this gorgeous ballad was not a mistake, as some called it, but his point.

Life will bring us to our knees says the narrator who is finally revealed as a writer at a reading in a bookstore for her book entitled Life Itself. This is my story, she says, and there she stands. 
She is the storyteller. She is arguably the unreliable narrator of this tale full of fortunate coincidences that drive the film to its well-earned close. 

Admittedly, I reveal here that I have been brought to my knees by the death of my 46-year-old son on November 4, 2017. I’ve been artistically paralyzed: Can’t write, haven’t posted a column here for this year that closes on the memorial of his death in 2018. 

But today, as Fogelman and his stand-in author in the bookstore suggest, I got off my knees and wrote this review of a moving film with brilliant and controlled performances by Annette Benning as a shrink who sneaks smokes; by Mandy Patinkin as a beleaguered grandfather; by Olivia Wilde as a joyful Dylan lover and literature commentator; by Oscar Isaac as an outrageous, oversensitive and endearing lover; by Sergio Peris-Mancheta as a controlled, warm and loving and nearly martyred spouse; by Antonio Banderas as an unlikely hero with one of the longest soliloquys in the film, beautifully done.

Yes, life is unreliable. Yes, life sometimes is unbelievable. Yes, life will bring us to our knees. 

And, yes, this much-criticized film will get you in the heart, but not through the manipulation it is being criticized for, but through its narrative insight that shows us how, despite all that brings us down, a story can get us to see that we must get up off our knees. 

Note: Dylan’s ballad is also attached here:

Mary Tabor is the author, most recently, of the novel Who by Fire, reviewed on FactsandArts by Michael Johnson. 

March 09, 2018

Benjamin Hammerschlag (1971-2017) Memorial at Imprimata

Water color by Mary Tabor
     McLaren Vale, where my son Ben lived on his vineyard: I held a memorial to honor his life and work. His friends and colleagues met on the apex of his vineyard Imprimata.


Steve Pannell,
Pannelle Wines logo
wine maker and friend, spoke first. He began with these words: "This is hard."

Melissa Edwards, long time friend, spoke next (The wind blew ...):

Corinna Wright, friend, winemaker and director at Oliver's Taranga Vineyards, tells a story:

Jock Harvey, soulful friend, reads: Note: Don't click on the photo below that I posted of Ben Glaetzer, Ben's friend and long-time comrade, but move directly to the next video where his soulmate Jock Harvey speaks for himself and for Ben Glaetzer, who did not attend the memorial:
Ben Glaetzer

James Lindner, who sent The Freedom, wrote

and so did Mark McCarthy, who was indeed present:

Ben Riggs of Mr. Riggs talks of a hard time for Ben (and the wind keeps blowing):
Mr. Riggs vineyard

I read Roger Milner's warm tribute (while the wind blows and concerns about carpet baggers):

Julie, love of Ben's friend David, tells a memorable story:

Tony Parkinson of the marvelous Penny's Hill
with how Ben began (and the lovable Zar Brooks weighs in; watch for it!):
Skeleton Key Shiraz

Del talks love and cars:

Imprimata, photo by Del

Ben, recently, in, of course, a used Porsche

I close:

Zar Brooks, friend and winemaker, ever-present, ever-loving.

An excerpt from his talk:

"Presumption aside, I know I speak with many voices indeed – your Benjamin was also our Benjamin. We would do anything to bring him back.

"Perhaps even more incredulous than that wish, is to note how extraordinary it came to pass that you, Mary, and Ben's Dad and family raised him to become such an extraordinary person. Parenting Ben to become what he became – well you should be profoundly proud. Having reread Ben's dog-eared copy of The Woman Who Never Cooked, it is patently clear the proverbial pomegranate did not fall far from your family’s tree.

"His mates and Australian families would probably not want me to point out that the only singular smile that might be raised in this most awful of times is perhaps this: Our Ben would have, cursing in bold type and bloody Hammer-ness truly hated, really f-ing hated if he came across someone speaking so well of your Ben. Especially revealing a little of our beautiful and bad Ben with you."

The Sower
sculpture by artist and dear friend
Monserrat Daubón

Photo by Jock Harvey


Sunset at Imprimata by Benjamin Hammerschlag

November 09, 2017

Benjamin Hammerschlag, 1971 to 2017: a tribute to my son

Benjamin George, this sensitive, intuitive child became the inventive man who created Epicurean Wines, its CEO, winemaker and importer whose wines are sold and cherished all over the world. His continent, Australia, he chose for a third grade project at the Barrie Day School: He chose his future early for that is where his vineyard Imprimata stands today and produces remarkable wines: Robert Parker in 2005 named him wine personality of the year and honored his wines until the day Parker retired. Here’s what he said, “For a young man (early thirties), Hammerschlag has put together a remarkable portfolio of artisinal/hand-crafted Australian wines, primarily from the Barossa and McLaren Vale. He has a degree of enthusiasm, talent, and above all, wisdom, that belies his youthful age. We should all be thankful for the diverse group of wines that are now available in the United States because of the work of Ben Hammerschlag.”  Food and Wine Magazine named him best under 35 of wine makers and chefs and Jay MacInerney highlighted his work in A Hedonist in the Cellar: Adventures in Wine in 2006 and again in The Juice: Venous Veritas in 2012 and his article solely about Ben for House and Garden magazine and in his Wall Street Journal wine column —and they became friends. He would send MacInerney Old Bastard, yep that’s the name of this biggy, as a gift, a wine made by Reid Bosward of Kaesler winery, a brilliant winemaker who earned recognition as one of the Wine Advocate’s personalities of the year. He brought Bosward’s and Ben Glaetzer’s Amon Ra and many other Australian winemakers whose wines knew only that continent from Ben’s early grade school project until he visited Australia after working some five years in the wine department of the Bellingham Grocery store where the butcher got his growing profits, but where he was named "The Wine King of Seattle"—and then off he went to Oz to discover and impress winemakers and then to import, starting with only one shipping container of wine that he managed to get Robert Parker to taste. Perhaps his most famous wine that he developed and blended with the gift of his palate is Woop Woop that The New York Times named best taste and best value and that still sells for around 14 bucks and drinks like a 40-dollar fine Shiraz. And most recently, his own vineyards produce the marvelous Imprimata Grenache and Imprimata Proprietary Red and the Flegenheimer Bros that honors his great-great grandfather on his father’s side who, we learned long after Ben had forged his way, had married a young girl by the name of Flegenheimer and joined her family’s business: The Flegenheimers were New York Wine Merchants and that casts back to Ben’s years at the Pleasant Peasant Restaurant as he named one in this collection: Paisant Red. 

My memory casts me back to the young boy who in 4th grade at Garrett park elementary school won the creative writing contest with “Cuddles the Clever Chipmunk” the same year his sister’s story “My Hippopotamus” won for the kindergarten/second grade category. They were together writing plays long before that: I’ll never forget “There’s a fly in my soup.”  At age 13 Ben put on his shirt and tie and got himself a job cleaning toilets at Jerry’s Sub Shop but soon he was cooking at the grill. From there he went to the Pleasant Peasant Restaurant where he was in charge of the dessert bar in Washington’s tony Friendship Heights. I began referring to him as the Soviet Union, not because he was a communist—far from it but because he had a five-year plan: The man with the plan.

By age 15 he had enough money in the bank to buy a used Porsche that he and Del researched until at age 16 he could drive it home. Rumors at Bethesda Chevy Chase HS were drug dealer when in fact he was the man with the plan. His love of cars and high-speed driving go with him in this passing.

The drive and invention that underlie this tale landed him in Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration where he’s been invited back to talk to students about his journey and theirs as potential inventors of a future unknown and to be discovered. Invention was the name of his game. And he flourished as a businessman and farmer, who one year saved his crop and one female winemaker’s crop while other male winemakers thought, What does this American city boy know about soil samples? Ignored his advice and lost their crop that year. Del’s father, a successful Iowa farmer never stopped telling that story.

But let us remember that the world of business doesn’t cherish the sensitive heart. And that the sensitivity that marked his genius marked his pain. The cutthroat armor he had to don in that world took its toll on that vulnerable heart that I hold in my heart. Look at his eyes in this photo that I brought today and you will see what I mean. I salute you today, my love, for the honor and loyalty to all who worked with or for you and the hope you carried like a banner that waves and that shall live on. Though we mourn today that your life is cut short, we shall not forget what you forged with open and vulnerable heart.

Here I pause for his sister Sarah Hammerschlag’s eulogy:

When Ben and I were children he had a butterfly net. Our neighborhood was under construction. Everywhere was mud and sheetrock and machinery but up the road was a field of milkweed and thistle and together we caught monarchs and swallowtails. We kept their beautiful bodies in cookie tins.

I followed him everywhere in those years. Everything he did I wanted to do. Everything he played I wanted to play.

He taught me the names of birds and how to kill ants with Windex.

In the afternoon when my mom was at work, we made steak sandwiches and played Monopoly. He always won because he put hotels on Park Place.

There were summers when we stayed up too late. In the quiet house long after midnight, we lay in bed together, watched his black and white TV and ate gummy bears.

He taught me to catch crabs with chicken necks. He loved clams so I loved clams. He loved chilis so I loved chilis, the hotter the better.

When we were older I watched from afar as he made his life like a master craftsman out of keen taste and exacting standards. Cultivating and choosing with a singularity of purpose that was his stamp on the world.

Even when he was mean, which often he was, his eyes were full of sadness and love and heartache.

Sometimes he didn’t call for months and then out of nowhere sent a mixtape so that I could learn to love Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, and A Tribe Called Quest.

When my daughter was just a baby, he played her the Jackson Five and Prince. Although the music was too loud, he held her tiny hands and they danced.

I came to see him just a few days ago. He showed me his beautiful kittens. We watched them climb and tumble. We took a walk behind the house, the path covered in wet yellow leaves the size of dinner plates. He asked to hold my hand when he went up and down the stairs. We drank ginger beer together and listened to Neil Young. He put his arms around me and I told him I loved him but I knew it was both too much and not nearly enough. Though we didn’t talk about it, I know we both remembered those summer days out in the fields beyond the house with his net.

In the end, my brother was a butterfly catcher. He went after beauty with his whole heart and sometimes with a hammer.

The Branch and the Butterfly by Zaara:

And I close:

AE Houseman in “To an Athlete Dying Young” opens with this stanza:

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

And so we do today, borne on the shoulders of those who love you, and we set you to rest to the last song we listened to together just before you passed, your favorite Neil Young’s “Change Your Mind” from his album Sleeping with Angels, and where you shall lie, my son.

December 26, 2016

On Gifting

Gratitude and the gift exchange are perhaps best expressed by Lewis Hyde in his book The Gift: Imagination andthe Erotic Life of Property (now in its 25th anniversary edition with a new title) and where he wisely tells us:
“[T]he true commerce of art is a gift exchange, and where that commerce can proceed on its own terms we shall be heirs to the fruits of a gift exchange: in this case, to a creative spirit whose fertility is not exhausted in use, to the sense of plenitude which is the mark of all erotic exchange, to a storehouse of works that can serve as agents of transformation, and to a sense of an inhabitable world—an awareness, that is, of our solidarity with whatever we take to be the source of our gifts, be it the community or the race, nature, or the gods.” (pp. 158-9)

 On Christmas Eve while I was away, Michael Czyzniewieski, former editor of Mid-American Review and now Story366 gave me an incredible gift that I hope you will check out and where you will find so much more in stories he's discovered and brought alive by giving them a chance to be seen.

Here's a photo of his hand in front of his laptop, holding The Woman Who Never Cooked:

Mike defines what Lewis Hyde so eloquently explains.

I close this with gratitude and hope for all who invent, who try, who leap, despite the failures and losses that so often accompany the risk,