Imitation of Life

Imitation_of_Life_1959_poster copyI suffer from a condition common among film buffs: classic movie backlog. Weekend binge watching is often my only defense against my DVR purging important stuff to free up space. When that happens, I’m like a hoarder on a reality show who finds an old VHS tape in a skip in my driveway, after an intervention.


Friday night’s DVR clean out featured Imitation of Life, recorded from Turner Classic Movies back in February. It’s a remake of a 1934 film based on a novel by Fannie Hurst, starring Claudette Colbert. (Full disclosure: I’ve neither seen the original, nor read the book.)

In the 1959 version, Lora Meredith (played by Lana Turner) is a widowed mother who dreams of Broadway stardom. One sunny afternoon at Coney Island, she encounters another single mom – Annie Johnson (played by Juanita Moore), who is African American – and her daughter Sarah Jane.

Sarah Jane has such fair coloring, Lora assumes she’s white and mistakes Annie for her caregiver. Annie isn’t offended. It’s a common assumption, she explains. Sarah Jane’s father was very “light skinned”.

The women commiserate about the challenges of single motherhood, until Annie suggests she and Sarah Jane move in with Lora and her daughter Susie, so that Lora could be free to audition. Lora initially turns her down, because she can’t afford live-in help, then changes her mind when she realizes the two are homeless.

Over the course of the film, Lora’s singular ambition pays off. She becomes the golden girl of Broadway comedy, and later drama. All the while, Annie is her housekeeper, nanny, friend and support system. The women and their daughters upgrade to a beautiful home – where there are no lowly servants’ quarters — and Annie is financially secure for the first time in her life.

Imitation of Life has stuck with me for days. Is it a great film? Probably not, by most measures. Upon its release, a reviewer at the New York Times sniffed, “It is the most shameless tear-jerker in a couple of years.” Still, it got me thinking…

I wondered if the friendship between Lora and Annie was shocking for the time – but a Google search suggests it wasn’t. It would seem that audiences struggled more to relate to single motherhood – uncommon in 1959 — than to interracial friendship.

The aforementioned New York Times reviewer sneered, “There are two mothers in the situation—and no fathers, by the way; no parents of masculine gender to confuse the rich flow of mother love.”

Listen closely and you can almost hear the favorite anti-feminist boo-hoo: “Women think they don’t need men anymore!” (In case you were wondering, David Brooks was NOT the Times film critic in 1959. But that sure sounds like him, doesn’t it?)

An important storyline in Imitation of Life revolves around Sarah Jane’s light complexion, and her relentless determination to “pass”. 

Early in the film, she refuses to play with black dolls – a nod to the Doll Test, conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s to assess the impact of segregation on the self-esteem of black children. Before long, Sarah Jane is passing. Everyone in her new elementary school class assumes she’s white – and she does nothing to correct this misassumption. Annie is devastated. Being black “is who you are”, she reminds Sarah Jane.

For the rest of the film, the young woman (played by Susan Kohner) stares across America’s racial divide, and longs for a different life. She can have it, if she reinvents herself as a white woman. She runs away, and disowns Annie. The consequences are heartbreaking.

The biggest surprise in the film is its treatment of Lora’s professional aspirations. She balances on the bleeding edge of self-aggrandizement and ambition, without coming across as a selfish shrew.

She sometimes neglects her daughter Susie, leaving her in Annie’s care for long periods – but Lora is generally portrayed as a kind employer and loving mother, and her bond with Susie is unambiguously strong.

Early in the film, she flirts with a Broadway agent to get a part, but draws the line at diving onto his casting couch. Later, she embarks on a long romance with a writer/producer who develops plays that turn her into a Broadway comedy star – then unapologetically breaks off their engagement when she sets her sights on more dramatic parts. She isn’t cruel, but she’s unsentimental and doesn’t shed a tear.

She also strings good-guy Steve along throughout the film. Each time they renew their romance, and she agrees to marry him, she receives a telegram – she’s been offered the role of a lifetime! Suddenly it’s, “Steve? Steve who?” In one instance, the engagement and breakup happen on the same afternoon.

I’m glad Imitation of Life narrowly escaped the dreaded DVR purge. I like a movie that surprises me, and challenges my assumptions about America in the decades before I was born. Most of all, I was intrigued by the film’s portrayal of an ambitious woman who enjoys success after success, without an eventual downfall because she chose her career over Mr. Right.

I can’t help but wonder how the New York Times would review the film today?

What’s more, I keep envisioning a 2017 remake, with the race of the characters flipped. What if an ambitious African-American woman befriended a down-on-her-luck single mom who was white?

That’s a movie I’d pay to see.

“Weiner”: What’s in a name?


Anthony Weiner Huma Abedine 2013

Anthony Weiner: the name that launched 10,000 puns.

If you’re like me, you haven’t heard or thought much about the disgraced former congressman recently. He sort of disappeared from political conversation after his shellacking in New York City’s 2013 democratic mayoral primary.

But fear not, rubberneckers! Anthony Weiner — aka Carlos Danger – is making a return, of sorts, in a documentary directed and produced by Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman.

Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedine, People Magazine, 2012Weiner was originally intended to record the potential comeback of a one-time political pariah, and late-night punchline. Filming began in spring 2013, when Weiner announced his candidacy for mayor — and one year after a lengthy People magazine interview, in which he and wife Huma Abedin shared how their marriage had withstood his 2011 sexting scandal, and subsequent resignation from Congress.

The documentary crew had unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the candidate, his staff and his family. Remarkably, this continued even after a new batch of more explicit Weiner “selfies” — taken around the time of the People interview – came to light.

Weiner is riveting, like a crime scene or train wreck, if you don’t focus on the human toll. It follows a delusional career politician who revises history and weaves elaborate lies about the present, unwilling to acknowledge that violating public trust is a legitimate campaign issue. I felt a strong urge to shower by the end of it.

Two scenes in particular sent chills down my spine:

  • First, Weiner is riding with his campaign communications director. She’s reading questions from the media aloud, diplomatically asking her boss to be sure he’s comfortable with his answers, so that she isn’t forced to revise or contradict herself later. (She doesn’t specifically ask for candor, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. It’s probably pretty hard to come right out, and ask your boss not to lie.)

There’s a saying about lying – that the hardest part is keeping all the lies straight, and not tripping up. Anthony Weiner does not have that problem. It’s like he has a Rolodex in his head, containing every detail he’s provided to the media on the subject of his inappropriate behavior. (A Rolodex is a non-digital piece of office equipment, millennial readers. Stick with me.)

Weiner formulates his answers by whizzing through this mental Rolodex, deciding how many women he’s sexted based on what he’s previously told the New York Times vs. the New York Post vs. TV interviewers — but doesn’t search his memory for what ACTUALLY happened. He never once references the need (or intention) to be truthful. It’s disturbing.

  • Next, near the end of the film, Abedin declines to accompany Weiner to the polls on primary day. So, he weaves an implausible, easily disproved yarn about his polling place losing his name, thus creating a delay and forcing Huma to vote on her own later. Weiner races down the street, dictating the story rapid-fire to his staff, like someone in the throes of a manic episode – oblivious to the fact that his stream-of-consciousness lying is being observed and recorded. He later (sheepishly) tells the story to reporters, who seem unconvinced

I thought I’d have more sympathy for Abedin. By all accounts, she prefers to exercise her considerable power behind the scenes, while her husband stands out in front seeking public adulation. As the documentary progresses, she’s the voice of reason while he goes off the rails. Eventually she physically and emotionally distances herself from him, rolling her eyes or glaring but rarely speaking.

Even so, her mask occasionally slips. In one scene, Weiner meets with his dejected campaign team in his home, to help soothe their sense of betrayal. Several staffers point out that the communications director is being followed and harassed by the media everywhere she goes. Abedin shows little concern, and reminds the woman that the cameras will still be outside when she leaves.

Abedin asks, “You’ll look happy, right?” Then, realizing how unfeeling that sounded she adds, “I mean, I’m asking for YOU because I’m worried about YOU.” Sure you are.

Weiner’s most regrettable impact is 15 more minutes of fame for the candidate’s 23-year-old sexting partner Sydney Leathers (campaign codename: Pineapple). She’s a guest on Howard Stern. She makes a sex tape. She stalks Weiner around New York, tabloid photographers in tow. Watching her chase him through a Manhattan McDonalds, on his way to his concession speech, is a definite low point.

In the final weeks of his campaign, Weiner makes an appearance on MSNBC where he is smug, combative and high strung. Lawrence O’Donnell mocks his decision-making by asking, “What’s WRONG with you?”

It is a cheap gotcha question, meant to entertain the lowest common denominator. Yet once the film credits started rolling, I had the same question. What is wrong with Anthony Weiner?

I’m still not sure, but it’s something.



Crowd watching movie in theatre, rear view

“Is it just me, or are they speaking Chinese?”

Crowd watching movie in theatre, rear view

This weekend was a long one in the United States, with many businesses closing Monday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s an important holiday that can feel a little déjà vu-ish, falling so soon after Christmas and New Year’s Day. But we unlucky few who have to work on Presidents’ Day are desperate to make the most of it, because we won’t see another public three-day-weekend until Memorial Day in late May. (“Mon dieu,” gasp the French!)

Thanks to El Nino, I spent a lot of the weekend curled up on my sofa binge-watching football and Netflix – “Making a Murderer” and “House of Cards”. Today there was a break in the weather, just long enough for me to head downtown and catch a movie – “The Big Short”. That’s when things got kind of crazy/funny.

I knew something was up when I arrived in the theatre, and the screen was black. No ads, no previews. When the movie finally started, the studio name appeared… in Chinese characters. Then the production company… a Chinese name I didn’t recognize. Actors emerged, singing in a karaoke bar. There were subtitles.

Was it possible that a movie about the collapse of the U.S. mortgage securities market could only get backing from China? I read “The Big Short” a few years ago, and was racking my brain. Was there a Chinese character in the film? Someone who liked to sing sappy pop tunes in public? Neither scenario made sense.

Soon, other moviegoers started to whisper and giggle. Quite a few rushed to the exits, assuming they were in the wrong theatre. Eventually, the movie stopped and an usher arrived to apologize, they had accidentally queued up a Chinese language film called “Detective Chinatown” that was scheduled for later. The correct movie would start in a few minutes.

As the usher was leaving, one patron shouted out, “OK, but what about the previews???” I’m pretty sure he was serious. It was a very San Francisco thing to do. We go to the movies for the WHOLE cinematic experience, especially since some of us pay $30 just to park at the cinema. Plus, without previews how will we know which movies to expect next Christmas?

If “Detective Chinatown” is among the coming attractions, I think I’ll pass. When a “Variety” review starts with “A budding Chinese Sherlock Holmes meets his dumbass Watson in Bangkok…,” I know it is my time to rush for the exit.

Detective Chinatown movie poster

Sweet Talk

Woman's feet on a bathroom scale.A few weeks ago, nearly everyone in my office was cleansing. All around me, colleagues detoxing from sugar, caffeine, gluten, fat – you name it – belched $10 kale juice, while I drank Diet Coke and scarfed down all manner of “bad” carbs. At home, I consumed too much wine and snacks, slept badly and skipped the gym.

I’m not sure what got into me, but I had taken a pronounced detour from the detoxers, and my “thin” clothes that I’d worked so hard to fit into last year, had become a pretty tight squeeze.

Then I hit the trifecta. Or did I enter the Bermuda triangle? Not sure, I suppose time will tell.

First, I read The Shift: How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life, by Tory Johnson. The book received mixed reviews, but I’d heard it was a fast read so…

Tory’s story begins on the day she is “invited” to breakfast with a senior executive at ABC, where she is a weekly contributor at Good Morning America. Tory knows what’s coming: She’s about to be told to get thin – or else. Because she is the primary breadwinner for her family, she decides to finally get serious about food issues she’s struggled with since childhood. The Shift tracks her one-year weight loss journey.

I’d be fibbing if I said I enjoyed the book overall. For starters, it is a chronological account that resembles a monthly journal. That’s a writing style I don’t care for to begin with, plus let’s face it: Diets (the non-fad ones, anyway) are monotonous as they stretch over months and months. That’s why diets are so hard, they are relentless! Who wants to read about one, blow-by-blow?

Also, Tory can be a little cheesy, like when she waxes romantic about how losing weight improved her sex life with her husband. It’s enough to make a Harlequin romance writer roll her eyes. On this topic I say, less is more.

That said, the book is unique in that it makes no promises, and offers no gimmicks. In Chapter 11, Tory acknowledges “the delusion of a quick and easy fix… There is no instant gratification, just hard work and patience.” This is not the message most folks who buy diet books want to receive, so I applaud her for not pulling punches.

Even if the writing is not inspired, The Shift is unique in that its focus is mostly on what’s going on in Tory’s head, rather than the physiology of weight loss, or tricks and shortcuts to losing 50 pounds in an absurdly brief period of time. If you have ever struggled with your weight, you might recognize some of her patterns – which she sheds, one by one.

Food for me, now, is fuel. It does not have to be amazing, entertaining or exciting. Each meal does not have to be like a trip to the county fair or a fantasy segment of Top Chef. I’ve had enough “Wow!” meals to last a lifetime. I want a different set of “wows” now.

How many times have we heard a friend (or ourselves) promise they’ll start a diet tomorrow, because tonight’s meal (with extra bread, butter, wine and dessert) is “special”? Tory Johnson may not be in line for a Pulitzer, but she’s a pretty good truth teller.

80% of products in US grocery stores are spiked with added sugar. 1/3 of Americans will have diabetes by 2050.
Photo: UCSF

If The Shift provided food for thought, it was just an appetizer. I followed it up with the movie Fed Up, a stinging indictment of the food industry lobby, and government agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture, for their contribution to America’s obesity epidemic. As with The Shift, the information provided in Fed Up is not all new. Most of us know by now that sugar – in all its sneaky forms – is unhealthy. It’s been linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc. But there were still a few gob-smack moments for me.

I felt sick as loving, well-meaning parents featured in the film fed their families “low fat” processed foods, loaded with sodium and sugar to make them taste good. It was heartbreaking to watch their obese children sob in confusion, because they were getting heavier despite making what they thought were good food choices. The kids believed the advertisements for reduced fat products, and blamed themselves for their lack of weight loss success.

I was also struck by a rather obvious question posed by producers: Have you ever wondered why food labels list the recommended daily allowance of all kinds of ingredients, except sugar? (Um, no. Sadly, I never even wondered.) The fact is, most processed, packaged foods contain more than the recommended daily amount — six teaspoons for me. Telling consumers this might interfere with consumption, so the food industry lobby has opposed such transparency.

So today I embarked on the 10-day Fed Up sugar-free challenge, applying greater scrutiny to food labeling than I ever have before – and it’s already super freaking hard! Day one’s excruciating a-ha moment: Even plain Greek yogurt has sugar. In some cases, a lot of it. My favorite brand is Athena, which has eight grams of sugar. That’s one third my target maximum for a NORMAL day.

I’m a diehard (or hardboiled?) egg lover, but I am not sure I can eat eggs for breakfast for the next 10 days. Face Greek yogurt has just four grams of sugar per serving (one sixth of my recommended daily amount) and there’s some in my fridge…

Oh yeah, this thing will be hard.

Part three of my trifecta: for the past two days San Francisco bus and subway drivers have held a “sick out”, leaving passengers waiting up to one hour for a ride to work. I sometimes walk home in the summer, but have always steadfastly refused to consider walking TO work. (I’ll get too sweaty! My hair will go nuts in the fog! I have too much to carry! I’m wearing the wrong shoes!)

View of downtown San Francisco, the Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Buildin, from Broadway at Jones Street.
View of downtown San Francisco from Broadway at Jones Street.

This week, I’ve had no choice but to walk, and of course it’s been fine. I show up at work with more energy, and according to my Jawbone Up the round trip pushes me past my daily goal of 10,000 steps, even if I’m a total slug for the remaining 22 hours of the day. Commuting on foot also offers stunning reminders of my good fortune, to live in such a beautiful city.

I can’t promise I’ll walk to and from work every day, once MUNI drivers go back to work. But my new goal is to walk at least one direction.

Sometimes we are inspired to change. At other times, change is thrust upon us. Right now, I’ve got a little bit of both going on – and I’m trying to grab on with both hands.

Seriously, though. Can anyone recommend a sugar-free Greek yogurt? Does such a thing even exist? (FYI, I draw the line at buying my own cow. Or goat.)

Draft Day: Who Let the Dawgs Out?

"Draft Day" movie poster, featuring Kevin CostnerLast night a friend — also of Buckeye origin — and I went to an early showing of Draft Day, a completely fictionalized account of the National Football League’s player draft process for the woeful Cleveland Browns. Fair warning, read further and I will spoil this movie for you.

Or will I? It’s not that great, so there’s not much to spoil.

Kevin Costner plays Sonny Weaver Jr., the Browns’ GM. His late father was the coach at one time, until Sonny fired him. (Hiss!)

Sonny’s goals on draft day are to salvage football in Cleveland, and resurrect his professional reputation. He would prefer to choose tackle Vontae Mack based on family values — Mack needs a big contract to support his two orphaned nephews! — and gut-feel, but the team’s owner pushes Sonny toward a draft-pick trade that will “make a splash”.

Here’s why I can’t possibly spoil Draft Day for you with this blog post: It’s clear from the moment Sonny accepts a really terrible deal, giving up three consecutive first-round picks to Seattle for a quarterback he has apparently never even done due diligence on, and isn’t sure the team needs, that:

  • The deal will go south, quickly
  • The head coach, played by Denis Leary, won’t like it
  • The QB Sonny is expected to draft will be an arrogant jerk, possibly with something unsavory in his past to disqualify him
  • Sonny will throw a Hail Mary of sorts, once the Browns are on the draft clock, that will incense the team’s owner — but ultimately leave the team better off than if the bonehead trade had never happened

Jennifer Garner, who I normally appreciate in just about any role, plays Ali, the team’s number cruncher as well as Sonny’s secret girlfriend. When she breaks the news on draft day that he’s going to be a father, she is shocked — SHOCKED — and hurt that he is a little preoccupied.

Ali is supposedly a lawyer, salary-cap-analyst extraordinaire and self-taught football wonk — all while teetering on four-inch heels — but she’s not smart enough to wait for a more opportune moment to share this joyous news? Like the day AFTER draft day?

Jennifer Garner and Kevin Costner, in a promotional still from Draft Day.I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an on-screen couple with less chemistry than Costner and Garner. For starters, I don’t think he touches her — not even a peck on the cheek — until the final scene. Ali exists just so that Sonny can pull her into the supply closet several times a day to talk about either his draft troubles, or his ambivalence about fatherhood. She reacts with an empathetic (or is it patronizing?) look and pursed lips, but no meaningful dialogue.

Also, any time she’s asked if a proposed draft choice will put the team over the salary cap, Ali does some mental math (out loud), and concludes, “we’ll look at it, but I think it could work”. So then, why do teams always make this salary cap stuff seem so difficult? It is obviously simple and straightforward. What a bunch of drama queens…

I cannot explain Ellen Burstyn as Sonny’s mom, who arrives straight from the reading of her husband’s will — just one hour prior to the draft — to scatter his ashes on the Browns’ practice field. Even Ali has better timing!

It is also not clear why she brings along a pouting Rosanna Arquette, Sonny’s ex-wife. Huh? How many ex-wives are invited to the reading of a former in-law’s will, especially when there are no children involved, as well as to the scattering of the ashes? Arquette’s is not even a speaking part, just a scowling part. (Somebody needs a new agent.)

I’ve never been to a team’s green room on draft day, but I have a hunch Sonny’s last-minute heroics are the least realistic thing in this film. It’s behavior that makes those of us in the corporate environment roll our eyes. He’s got a team load of hard-working scouts, number crunchers, coaches and trainers to collaborate with — but he decides to shoot from the hip, and fly completely solo. They’ve presumably spent months and months developing reports on the players, but Sonny goes with his gut — and since it’s Hollywood, not Cleveland, everyone lives happily ever after.

OK, I realize I have essentially thrown rotten tomatoes at Draft Day, but there’s a caveat. The movie was completely worth $11, because I grew up outside Cleveland. After attending church on Sundays, my family hurried home to worship the Cleveland Browns. My friend Jennifer and I laughed loudly at the local bar scenes, showing screaming fans wearing their jerseys and Dawg Pound face paint. Heck, I’d have paid even more to see that in 3-D.

I know it’s just a movie, but I feel excited about the Browns’ prospects this season. Watching Draft Day, I was reminded of my annual visits home. No matter where I go on weekends, I encounter long-suffering fans wearing brown and orange — regardless of the team’s abysmal record. The city is not nicknamed “Believeland” for nothing.

I hope to hang on to this warm, optimistic, nostalgic feeling — at least until the first snap of 2014.

Cleveland Browns fans in the end zone, also known as the Dawg Pound.


Under the Skin: Miss Scarlett’s Newest Is Like a Game of Clue

Movie poster for 2014 film "Under the Skin"This morning, I decided to have a chore-free Saturday. Well not exactly chore free, but I mostly spent a meandering day north of San Francisco in beautiful, sunny Marin County, checking off non-urgent items lingering on my to-do list. Charcoal filters for my compost bucket? Check. A new one-quart saucepan to replace the old one with the broken lid? Check, again.

I also visited multiple stores in search of, of all things, a new comb. Last weekend I somehow mislaid my cosmetic case, requiring a mopey trip to Sephora to replace the contents – so frustrating, and mighty pricey. Plus, who knew a good comb, like a good man, would be so hard to find?

ElvisThe comb needs to be small enough to fit into my new, small cosmetics bag, with teeth that are smooth and thick enough to glide through my hair and across my scalp, without the sensation of being inspected for lice. I’m making do with a scratchy black Ace number that cost about $2, and I feel like I’m channeling Elvis whenever I use it.

Too bad I didn’t lose a hairbrush. If I had, I would have had dozens to choose from at any store. Apparently, Americans no longer comb. They brush.

Smack in the middle of my duties, I decided to catch a movie: Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson. I’m not normally a Sci-Fi fan, but I gave it a shot because it is set in Scotland, and I’ve been feeling homesick for Britain of late.

I have never been so close to walking out of a film, yet afterwards felt so glad I stuck it out. (Alas, stunning shots of Scotland weren’t as plentiful as I’d hoped. And the Glaswegian accents were so thick, I could have used subtitles. If you’ve seen the movie, what the HELL was the bus driver saying?!?!)

I will not give away the plot here, because the pleasure of Under the Skin is piecing together scattered hints. It’s a bit like the neo-noir thriller Memento (2000), but more subtle. The story is extremely visual; there is so little dialogue, I suspect Scarlett learned all her lines in one afternoon.

The first 30 minutes or so really does plod along, as Johansson’s character cruises the streets of Glasgow looking for solo men to take home. While her agenda is murky, clearly it’s not sex she’s after. A pattern repeats itself with each guy, but every pick up provides a sliver of new visual information that will (for the most part) make sense later. There is no on-screen sex or violence, but from the get-go it’s pretty obvious that the men come to a terrible end.

About mid-way through the film, Scarlett’s character inexplicably changes her behavior – I wish I understood why, probably my biggest beef with Under the Skin – and that’s when the plot finally gets some traction. Honestly, I didn’t fully understand or appreciate what went down in the film, until I left the theatre and slipped behind the wheel of my car. I experienced mini revelations in every aisle of Whole Foods, and on the drive back to the city.

Scarlett Johansson gets her kit off at several points in the film, which by itself may be worth the price of admission for most male moviegoers. For my part, I must admit I was pleased to see a trim, healthy looking woman on screen for a change, instead of an undernourished marathoner. Scarlett Johansson has some meat on her bones, and she looks fantastic.. even if her character is incredibly spooky.

Have you seen Under the Skin? Or read the book? If so, let’s hear your review! If you catch the film after reading this, and find yourself frustrated by the pace and ambiguities… just remember the title.

Ahem, it’s a hint.


Promotional still from the 2014 film "Under the Skin" starring Scarlett Johansson