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Saturday, February 18, 2017

    My Review of the film 'Jackie' for Philadelphia's Irish Edition

  Look at photographs of the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, where President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade sped away after an assassin’s bullets in 1963 changed the course of history, and you may find yourself imagining the pain the First Lady felt as she held her dying husband in her arms.  

   That horrific moment still lives in grainy newsreel footage, but it comes alive for us again in the form of Natalie Portman who plays Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie,” an intense psychological biopic about the life of the First Lady immediately after the assassination. Those dark days put the nation in mourning even as Jackie processed the shock alone, as the scene of Portman as Jackie scrubbing her face of her husband’s blood in the bathroom of Air Force One so chillingly details. 

    “Jackie” opens with the former First Lady being interviewed in the Kennedy Hyannis Port compound by Theodore H. White for Life magazine. White is played by Billy Crudup who captures the writer’s suave and erudite manner. Eager to make a name for himself in journalism, his engagement with Jackie has all the elements of a verbal fencing match. Jackie isn’t going to let him have her story without a struggle. More therapist than journalist, Crudup’s White is patient to a fault but he’s not afraid to dig deep. He wants Jackie to spill her guts and relive what she saw and felt that day near the grassy knoll.  Jackie acquiesces in small doses and gives White an occasional Big Feeling Moment, but then states, “Of course this is off the record.” Portman is so believable as the First Lady that we begin to realize that this is much more than a film but, as has been stated, “The scariest history lesson ever.”

    The nearly flawless script by Noah Oppenheim makes this 95-minute film seem much shorter. It also makes us not care so much that JFK (Caspar Phillipson) appears only a few times in quick juxtaposed flash backs. 

    Portman’s Jackie opens a world heretofore unseen: We are with her as she walks through the rooms of the White House like a numb, disembodied spirit. On her first night in Washington after the assassination we see her taking off her blood stained clothes and breaking down in the shower. Then she puts on a chiffon night gown and in a radiant gesture, crawls into bed in a lounging position and lights a cigarette to life.

   Alone with her children, who can’t understand where daddy is and why he won’t be coming home, Jackie’s sense of alienation grows. The viewer feels her growing displacement and the fact that the White House is now alien territory, a morgue of memories filled with mementos that she must wrap up and put into boxes for her new home in New York City. If there is one flaw in the film it is the odd choice of actors portraying Caroline (Sunnie Pelant) and young John John (Brody and Aiden Weinberg). Their odd physical features are far removed from the standard Kennedy and Bouvier good looks.  
     A decidedly unhappy moment in the film occurs when Jackie’s walks in on Lyndon Johnson and Lady Byrd as they pick out new White House wall paper; in an instant we see what the widow sees: her famous remodeling of the White House going up in smoke. But all is not perfect ladylike composure, especially when she loses her temper with brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) and with the Secret Service over arrangements for the presidential funeral.

      Priests are rarely portrayed well in Hollywood, but John Hurt as Father Richard McSorley displays the seasoned wisdom of a long suffering philosopher. When he walks with Jackie in a tree lined Washington park on cold gray winter afternoons, he does his best to answer her questions concerning the mystery and (possible) futility of life.  

       Happily, Jackie feels little futility when she decides to promote the legacy of Camelot after replaying the music that she and Jack had so enjoyed in happier days.  If she cannot have her husband back, she can at least extract ‘revenge’ in the form of an historic legacy that will live well into the ages.



The New Civil War


    Some people say that the political polarization in the country is worse now than it’s been since the American Civil War. It has even been predicted that the country is on the verge of another civil war. That seems a bit of a stretch although it is true that during the Vietnam War many protesters believed that the antiwar movement was the second American Revolution.

     But what if the current unrest in the country does lead to a second American Civil War? How would that play out in the modern era? Granted, there wouldn’t be battles like those that were fought in Gettysburg or Vicksburg, but it’s very conceivable that each side would come up with their own flag design. Signs and symbols, after all, are important. The President’s people might construct an orange flag, which would stand in stark contrast to the flag of the Resistance: a pair of big furry pussy ears fixed to a raised fist.

   The first shot of the new civil war will not be fired at Fort Sumter but will ring out during one of the many demonstrations being held throughout the nation. Lulled into a false sense of security by the relative liberality and “ease” of the Obama years, the Resistance will have little sense of limits when it comes to protesting President Trump and the GOP, which they will happily refer to as Grab Our Pussies. The false sense of security that former President Obama’s policies would last forever will mislead those in the Resistance to believe that a slap on the wrist or squirts of pepper spray will be the highest price to pay for blocking highways and traffic at rush hour. They will have forgotten about history, namely the May 4, 1970 killing of Kent State antiwar student protesters by the National Guard. The Resistance will be taken by surprise when after months of engaging in property destruction, government building invasions and street mayhem, President Trump declares Marshal Law.

      The Resistance’s worst fears will materialize but only because they worked to push the protest limits into the stratosphere. One might compare this ‘every action has a reaction’ mindset to the closing of Cione Field to the general public because of the irresponsible habits of a few dog walkers who don’t clean up after their animals poop. The Resistance will have created a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Like Mary Shelley who created the novel Frankenstein, they will have created Dictator President Trump.  The Resistance will pretend to be scandalized at the turn of events but down deep they will be happy because life for them has no purpose if one cannot ...resist.   

         Driven underground, the Resistance will form collective huddles in basements and community centers. Formerly benign groups like Nuns on the Bus will be renamed Nuns with Guns and the streets of the city will become like an armed camp.  At night, armies of pussy eared fem soldiers and their Lone Ranger masked boyfriends will scurry from one back alley to another in defiance of the new curfew laws. The Marshals will catch many of the curfew breakers, remove their knitted hats and then put the ears on the top of stakes that will line major thoroughfares.

     Citizens not involved in the new civil war will stay put in their houses after sundown, where they will load up on popcorn and NetFliks. These people will be called ‘The Middles’ because they admire some things about President Trump although they cannot buy his entire agenda. The Middles will support some Resistance ideas although they will continue to have issues with abortion or dressing up their two year old daughters as “walking vaginas” who scream “fuck you” at supporters of the President. The Middles will call for peace and compromise but the nation will have become so polarized that The Middles will be seen as even greater enemies than the enemy that each side is supposed to hate.  

   Violent skirmishes in the streets of the city will be common, such as gunshots, home made explosions, screams and the sounds of large groups as they charge into buildings or attack limos in the vicinity of the Union League. These will be intensely dark times for the nation, and especially for Philadelphia, which will see brother against brother, mother against son, and neighbor against neighbor. The agreed upon boundaries of civil tolerance will disappear. There will be no discussion, no dialogue. Speakers with an “incorrect” point of view will be dragged from podiums, hog tied and gagged. It will make the humble beginnings of political discord and intolerance on Facebook, when friend “unfriended” friend, seem like innocent child’s play. 

    Philadelphia City Hall, because of its prime reputation as a major Resistance city, will become a nerve center in the new civil war, even under Marshal Law.  Mayor Kenney will lead the charge, continuing to defy a federal ban on Sanctuary cities to the bitter end, even as the stoppage of federal funds from Washington hurls the city into dire poverty and forces many public schools to close. The mayor will ask citizens to accept the suffering as a sacrifice for the noble ideals of The Resistance. Many will come to see him as the American male version of Joan of Arc and join in chants like, “death is better than capitulation.” Indeed for some it will be death because many will even not be able to afford a block of Velveeta cheese. The end of federal funding will spiral outward and affect all areas of city life. Outdoor restaurants and cafes will close sidewalk service and theaters will close or choose not to offer frivolous plays about millennials in love or esoteric love stories that have ties to quantum physics. Every play will have a Resistance theme.  
   Civil War, after all, is serious business!

    Ideological frenzy will be the order of the day. The Resistance will demand the resignation of President Trump and demand that “reality” return to the way it was under President Obama.  The Orange Brigade, on the other hand, will be just as immovable, having long ago repealed Obamacare without replacing it with anything except a promise to come up with something better “very soon.” But even President Trump, with all of his mighty Executive Orders, will not be able to slay three giants, the American Medical Association, Big Pharm and the insurance industry when it comes to implementing a sensible health care program for all Americans.   

     Without national health insurance and with the new Congress’ dismantling of many programs for the poor, like Medicaid, long standing institutions like Health Care Six on Girard Avenue will close its doors. The poor will now have no medical care even in hospital emergency rooms where it was once possible to apply as a charity case patient. Those who cannot pay for hospital treatment upfront on a credit card, check or cash will be sent back into the streets or to their homes to die.   

   The lovely, free Obama phone will disappear from view. Methadone clinics will disappear or be taken over by for profit companies that will demand hours of work in exchange for counseling and treatment. Social Security will not be affected for those already retired but the scale of future benefits will be radically marked down for millennials so that by the time they retire the benefits will be down to almost nothing. 

   Conversely, there will be plenty of jobs. Factories will make reappearance so that if a new hire doesn’t like one job they can quit and literally walk down the street to another factory and be hired on the spot.

       America will be a mixed bag of opportunities and devastation.  

   The new Civil War will be long and protracted. It will mostly be a war of banishment and shunning more than a violent conventional war. In the end, it will be The Middles who will work to negotiate a peace treaty. They will find a way to get both sides to sit down and talk and come up with a comprehensive Middle Way to Restore the Nation.  Ideological fanatics on both extremes will fight this but in the end they will lose.

      The nation, exhausted by strife and unrest, will finally realize that the extreme ideologues on the Right and the Left have to go.  



   The death of a loved one or family member is for most people a traumatic experience.   That’s because most of us assume that our lives will go on for a long time and that death won’t happen today or even the day after tomorrow but sometime in the distant future.
   Death is never a pleasant topic. There are no “nice” deaths, either. One can die instantly of a heart attack, stroke or in an automobile accident, or one can die slowly over a period of months or years. In the case of the latter, at least there’s a chance for the one who is about to die to say good-bye. In the case of the former, there are no such options. In the Orthodox Church there are prayers asking God to save us from an instant death. It is always better to be prepared for this important transition from life to after life.     
   My sister in law recently reposed. We were not extremely close but we still had a closeness made palpable by decades of family dinners and reunions. When I say we were not extremely close I don’t mean to imply a distance caused by alienation. Like most people, we were caught up in our own lives which led us to assume that there would be plenty of time to see one another again.
      Fioerlla came into my brother’s life at a point when he really needed change and a life partner. One day my mother called me up and said, “You’ll be meeting Fiorella this Sunday. I think your brother has met his match.”
   Fiorella had long straight hair, a winning smile, a keen intelligence and an acute sense of humor. Her Italian family roots could be traced to the area by the Adriatic Sea. She was born in Italy but migrated to the United States as a toddler with her parents. She married my brother in Saint Patrick’s church in Malvern, an old gothic structure with enormous glass stained windows. I attended the wedding. It was the 1970s and all the men in the wedding party had long hair and mustaches. The reception was a rollicking party along the lines of Saturday Night Fever.

     Fiorella’s mother was a gifted seer who provided her daughter with advice and counseling. Her father had a talent for winemaking; his wine was famous for its smooth medicinal properties and it rarely if ever caused a morning hangover. We all asked one another, “how does he make this stuff?’
     My brother often spoke of his mother-in-law’s intuitive talents. Like the mystic and saint, Padre Pio, it was claimed that Fiorella’s mother could be in two places at once. This is called bi-location. My brother once told me that his father-in-law would often see his wife in the garden and then half a second later at the kitchen stove. It was just one of life’s unexplained mysteries. Still, Fiorella’s mom’s excellent “intuitions” were sometimes not what her daughter or my brother wanted to hear.
     I remember the time when she warned them to travel by plane rather than take the train when planning a cross country trip. The advice seemed backwards because conventional wisdom suggests that flying would be more dangerous than traveling by Amtrak. Fiorella was afraid of flying and she tried to avoid it whenever possible, so it took all her strength to muster up the courage to fly with my brother when they embarked on their honeymoon to Acapulco.
   But Fiorella’s mother was persistent: “Do not take the train! Take the plane!”
      Fiorella’s fear of flying was just too great, so she and my brother decided to take the train, despite the warning. Once on board Amtrak in the train’s sleeping compartment, there was a crash and a sort of explosion that sent the two of them flying off their bunks. Smoke entered their compartment and a lot of panic ensued. Fortunately they escaped without injury: the train had derailed or had crashed into something, I’m not sure which, but those uncertain moments were very scary for them.  
    Fiorella and my brother settled in a house in a development in Exton, Pennsylvania   where they raised three children. The years advanced and as often happens with families there were times when we Nickels siblings would drift apart only to come together during the holidays or a 4th of July picnic. On one 4th of July Fiorella and my brother hosted a massive reunion for my mother’s side of the family. The ‘Muldoon-Kelly’ reunion covered the waterfront in terms of disparate personalities and incomes. Fiorella and my brother had also managed to obtain old photos of distant relatives in Tyrone County, Ireland, men with long black beards covering their chest and women carrying parasols.  
   Fiorella contracted breast cancer a few years ago. She had a single mastectomy and routine chemo and radiation treatments. After that she and my brother went on an extreme health regime. Life was fine for a while but then two or three days after Christmas it was discovered that the cancer had returned, only now it was in her liver.
    In no time at all it seemed the cancer got worse and spread to other parts of Fiorella’s body. She was admitted to Bryn Mawr Hospital. When the truth of her incurable cancer became an undisputable fact, her youngest daughter, Amanda came up with a plan.
     Scheduled to be married to her fiancé Mark in September 2017, the couple organized a wedding in the hospital chapel before their big September church wedding. All of my brother’s children pitched in to create what became a miniature but full extravanza in just 24 hours. That included getting the wedding rings, hiring musicians, a priest, ordering food and champagne and negotiating with a tailor to alter Fiorella’s old wedding gown for Amanda to wear.
   Fiorella was informed of the impromptu chapel wedding and was given an extra treatment of radiation so she could attend. The morning of the wedding she woke up and said, “I feel great!”
   The small ceremony turned the hospital upside down when nurses and physicians, and even the hospital’s president and CEO, crowded into the small chapel, many of them in tear.
    My last visit with Fiorella was Tuesday January 31 when I entered her hospital room around 5:20 PM. She was alone and she looked to be sleeping. The room was empty except for the sounds of a nurse running water in the bathroom. When the nurse asked me who I was, I told her that I was a brother in law. In the few seconds that it took me to say this I thought I saw a smile cross Fiorella's face. Was I imaging this? My brother had told me earlier that his wife was comatose but that she could hear what was being said. The nurse said I could spend as much time with her as I wanted, and so I sat with Fiorella until the chaplain walked in and told me that Fiorella had actually died hours before, at 3:20.
    Hearing this was disconcerting because all along I had thought that she was asleep. I spent 30 minutes sitting with Fiorella, meditating, thinking of times past.
   Then I thought of the words of St. John Chryosotom who wrote that although death is terrible and frightening—yes, even its name is devastating-- that for those who know the higher philosophy there should be no shuddering,
      That’s because death is merely a passing over when we leave this corruptible life and go on to another, which is unending and incomparably better. 


Three Political Philadelphia Stories



   There have been a number of quirky, unsettling city news items lately that make me wonder what else might be in store in 2017.    
   One issue that got everybody stirred up was Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell’s introduction of a City Council bill that would have made it mandatory for city residents to get a letter of support from their local or district Councilperson before putting flowers or potted plants on the sidewalk in front of their own homes. Talk about House and Garden floral Marxism. This news struck me as so strange that for a minute I wondered what Ms. Blackwell had been smoking. I even thought of Pedro Almodovar’s 1988 Spanish black comedy-drama film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and wondered if perhaps something like a breakdown had happened to the venerable Councilwoman.

        Also included in Blackwell’s bill was a clause stating that businesses, especially restaurants, had to ask permission before expanding their bevy of café tables and planters on city sidewalks. This section of the bill didn’t seem so unreasonable since navigating Center City sidewalks in warm weather can often be a precarious experience, with pedestrians bumping into restaurant wait staff or tripping over café table legs. It was Blackwell’s focus on residential flower pots, however, that got so many city row house dwellers up in arms. Much like Mayor Kenney’s soda tax, the proposed flower pot rule seemed to stretch into Twilight Zone absurdity, or ust another notch on a big tree called The Nanny State.  
        The situation got me thinking about the mood swings a City Councilperson must experience when the thrill of the job begins to wane.  When someone is first elected to City Council it must be a terrific feeling to know that you are about to become an integral part of City Hall. Imagine the rush new Council members must experience when they realize that they are going to represent constituents and be taken so seriously that every word they utter will probably be quoted in the local press. Add to this the excitement of photo ops, assorted professional and personal perks and guest-of-honor speaking engagements at swank luncheons and dinners, and you have a pretty nice life.  

                  Over time, of course, all those City Council perks and privileges would probably become routine. After so many years they may even become mundane. Drifting in placid seas is even boring for sailors, so it’s not surprising that every now and then a City Councilperson will come up with an outrageous suggestion just to show the public and the press that they have not fallen asleep on the job.  Jannie Blackwell’s chose flower pots to get city residents to notice her again but her bill   was shot down like an ill designed drone wobbling in the air over Bridesburg.  
    When Blackwell withdrew her bill she artfully segued out of some embarrassment by stating that her original intention was to put a hold on the proliferation of bike racks that have been swallowing up city sidewalks. The bill was not killed but put on hold, meaning that at a future date it could rear its head again.
        In other city news, it was reported that the city’s Director of LGBT Affairs, Helen “Nellie” Fitzpatrick, would resign her office sometime in the coming months.  While I’ve never met Ms. Fitzpatrick, she seemed like a thoroughly earnest person intent on doing the best job possible but in the end pleasing all of the people all of the time just isn’t humanly possible. Fitzpatrick has been around since 2014 when she was appointed to the post by then Mayor Michael Nutter. Given the strict progressive political tenor of this town, Fitzpatrick seemed to be a sensible choice. Her progressive credentials were so stellar it was a shock when she came under fire from those in her own political camp. And it all had to do with a bar called ICandy.

      ICandy, a gay bar in Center City, has never had a good reputation. It is a bar that caters to a very young party hearty crowd. It’s the sort of bar where over 40 patrons are ignored as if they are wearing a cologne called Invisible. ICandy used to be called Equus in the 1980s and at that time it was considered to be one of the city’s major musical hot spots.  Maureen McGovern of Superman fame appeared there for several nights in a row. Decades before that, sometime in the 1910s or earlier, it housed an illegal, news making abortion clinic. One can almost say that the ground on which ICandy stands is both blessed and cursed. 

         The story goes that ICandy’s owner was secretly taped using the N-word during a private 
conversation. There were also allegations that the bar was turning away people dressed in sweats and dirty Timberland boots, claiming that these items violated the dress code. The unfortunate N-word tape was actually three years old when it resurfaced and recycled into the public arena. The bar owner issued a public apology  but some activists claimed the apology was insincere and called for boycotts and on-site demonstrations demanding ICandy’s closure.

   Apparently, forgiveness does not come easily in the world of political activism. The bar owner might as well have raised his middle finger and said that he stands by the word he used on the tape. How is it that even in the worst fundamentalist religions one can be forgiven and even promised “a life after sin.” Why is kind of mercy nonexistent in the activist realm?
   When mob mentality triumphs, there comes a need for a sacrificial lamb or scapegoat, so activists blamed Nellie Fitzpatrick for not doing enough to stem the shadow of “racism” in the Gayborhood.  Mayor Kenney, to his credit, jumped into the fray and defended Fitzpatrick, saying, “the attacks against her are misplaced.” 

   In yet another news item, we saw newly inducted Philadelphia Councilwoman-at-Large Helen Gym take to the streets and join a die-in protesting President Trump’s immigration and refugee policies when Republican lawmakers spent the day in Philadelphia.
   Now, I have to hand it to Gym, she has extreme national aspirations and she’s a PR genius. I’d even say that she’s aiming for the cover of Newsweek or Time and that she’ll stop at nothing to make sure that the ‘gymnastics’ implied in her last name catapults her into being Philadelphia’s first female mayor. (When she becomes mayor, Jannie Blackwell’s flower pot bill will resurface).

    Helen Gym’s first political protest photo op occurred when she attacked the Wheely Wheely Good University City food truck as being racist because ‘wheel wheely’ sounds like what a thick accented Chinese immigrant might sound like when they use the word ‘really.’ The Chinese co-owner of the truck was taken aback at Gym’s charge, and told Philadelphia Magazine that, “She approached our truck while we were working and started to argue with my partner and me.  She told us, ‘Your truck’s name is super-racist.’ She used those words.”
   Gym also criticized the Asian caricatures on the truck and the typeface used in the design. In 2016, Gym was adamant about instituting a parking tax to help pay for the schools. "Parking lots don't move, they're ugly, and we should tax them more," she said.
   That’s right, let’s tax the immovable and the ugly.