Homeless to Harvard: The Liz Murray Story [2003)

Happy Birthday to Thora Birch, my favorite actress of all time!

Yes, I know…I know.

A film critic whose favorite actress is a young 35-year-old whipper snapper???

Yes.

That’s alright.

Laugh at me.

If the question was, “Who was your favorite classic Hollywood actress?,” then I would answer, “Lauren Bacall”.

But I said favorite actress of all time.

You can search my “Thora” category here on my site for why exactly this actress is my favorite.

Because otherwise, we’re going to be here all day.

And I have a movie to review!

One of my favorites:  Homeless to Harvard.

It is, indeed …The Liz Murray Story, but I will be using the shortened title hereafter for brevity’s sake.

It is my contention (and I have made the point elsewhere…probably on this very site of mine) that Thora Birch produced a trilogy of acting performances which are more-or-less analogous to Bob Dylan’s classic trilogy.

Let’s start with Dylan.

The three (at unity from a similarity of intense expression):

Bringing It All Back Home

Highway 61 Revisited 

and

Blonde on Blonde

And now the Thora films which correspond in my mind:

American Beauty

Ghost World

and

Homeless to Harvard

Sure…Birch didn’t direct these films.

But her acting is so strong, she might as well have.

By this point she was no longer a prodigy.

She was a mature actress.  A master of her craft.

And the story here is one to really sink teeth in.

[In which.]

We recently touched on homelessness here in the review of Alicia Vikander’s stellar turn as Katarina from Till det som är vackert.

Pure.

But the esthetics of Homeless to Harvard are different.

This isn’t European arthouse.  It’s a Lifetime made-for-TV film.

But don’t go running anywhere!!!

This is as gritty as any Lou Reed tale.

And it’s all real.

Too pure.

Heroin addict parents.

Mother schizophrenic.

Blindness.

Genetic.

Mother with HIV.

Father with AIDS.

Vice versa ice Ursa.

Father in homeless shelter.

Mother wielding knife.  Vomiting.

Alcoholism.

Really appealing, eh?

But you gotta stick with it.

This isn’t Darren Aronofsky mise-en-scène.

It’t not, “Let’s win an award at Sundance.”  Or, “Let’s sweep at Cannes.”

It’s more like one of Aesop’s fables.

It’s the message, man!

And so first, let’s honor the director.

Peter Levin.

Who knew a television film could be so artful?

Well, when you combine the history of Histoire(s) du cinéma with the precedent of Twin Peaks, you should know by now that television can produce good stuff.

Hell…

Your TV can even WATCH YOU! (as per WikiLeaks Vault7).

But I digress…

The weeper (no masonry) sob story…had me crying in my Junior Mints…we must attribute to the excellent writing of Ronni Kern.

Who the hell is Ronni Kern?!?

Male?  Female?

I’ve had less trouble finding the gender of completely unknown foreign movie people.

But Kern is pretty invisible on the Internet.

And maybe there’s a point here.

  1.  It doesn’t fucking matter.
  2. You should judge someone on their work, not their gender.

Hopefully Ms. Birch will appreciate this flash of liberalism should she read this review.

[I’m not holding my breath]

But we have just celebrated International Women’s Day.

And the fact that Birch’s character here is a “feminist” is a running pseudo-joke.

Which brings us to the performances.

Michael Riley is stellar, stellar (I know…) as Liz’s father Peter.

Kudos to the styling department.

That beard.  And that hair!

Crazy, man, crazy!!

But Riley’s performance is really special.

It touched my heart.

Long ago.

When I first saw this film.

And dare I say, this movie made me appreciate my own family.

It made me miss my folks.

And so I salute Peter Riley and Lifetime and all involved for that effect on my heart.

Jennifer Pisana is really fabulous as the young Liz Murray here.

It’s an unenviable task.

To precede Thora Birch’s entrance.

But Pisana is indispensable to this little masterpiece.

Those sweaters.

And the full pronunciations…”Mommy”…”Daddy”…

Ms. Pisana affects the necessary naïveté to be juxtaposed against the sad schizophrenia of Kelly Lynch (who plays Liz’s mom).

And Lynch is great.

Think Cries and Whispers.

[cris et chuchotements…(( (( ((…et chuchotements]

Robert Bockstael does a fine job as Liz’s teacher David.

Very convincing.  Excellent craftsmanship.

Makyla Smith is piquant in her depiction of Liz’s best friend Chris.

[God…the Magic Marker…and the pine box…fuuuuuuck]

Yes, friends…this is Lifetime Television.

So the brisure (bonjour, monsieur Derrida) is “crap”.

“Crap happens.”

Whoa…watch thy mouth, Kelly Lynch!

So again…Peter Levin does a fantastic job shoehorning a true X-file into PG territory.

We see a syringe here and there.  A tourniquet.

Riley cleaning a spoon.

But the real heartbreak is Wheat Chex with tap water.

Yeah…

Hello Gummo.

Ellen Page has a small role here.

And she’s good.

Fine actress.

But we’ve been waiting to roll out the big gun.

Thora Birch.

On this, her birthday, I am only just now getting towards a handful of reviews honoring her unique thespian gift.

What to say?

That every look is magic?

That every glance is gold?

That she has crafted her microexpressions in solitude…and wielded them like an Arthurian sword for the duration of this flick?

Yes, yes, and yes.

[and an Oxford comma]

Because kids take it for granted.

Rich kids.

Harvard.

Penn.

Princeton.

Maybe…

But even more so the lesser ivied walls.

I won’t name names.

But the spoiled kids.

Not turning in homework.

Bragging about shortcuts.

Those, ultimately, will be life’s losers.

But Liz Murray worked her butt off to get into Harvard.

From sleeping on the B Train.

Four years of high school in two.

And Thora Birch has worked her butt off too.

She hasn’t gotten the roles her talent deserves.

But the roles she has gotten, she has largely smashed out of the park.

Like the Babe Ruth of leading ladies.

And so there are other actresses I admire.

But Thora Birch was the first.

The first to give me that magical feeling which only Neil Young has adequately described:

“I fell in love with the actress/She was playin’ a part that I could understand”.

Happy Birthday, Thora Birch!

And may all your days and films be filled with the joy which you have put into the world through your cinematic brilliance.

-PD

SNL Season 1 Episode 12 [1976)

Wikipedia generally gives a nice overview of some of these early Saturday Night Live episodes, but not in this case.

Even so, that’s alright.

We’ll make do.

It might be enough to focus on the divide between droll host Dick Cavett (his pitch for “his” Nebraska Pimp book as part of “Looks on Books” kinda sums it up) and impassioned musical guest Jimmy Cliff.

Cavett is that sort of personality that everyone likes.  Always a warm smile.  A wry smile, perhaps.  A smart guy, but not too smart.  Cavett was, in some ways, in the exact middle of the cultural road.

He was just hip enough to be marginally “with it” in a revolutionary era (witness the Weekend Update attempts to cover “war-torn” Luanda, Angola) steaming with frustration.

And so the natural way to play off his image is to have him do risqué things.  For example, the skit “Our Town” substitutes New York City for the Grover’s Corners of playwright Thornton Wilder.

Cavett describes the more prurient details of NYC.  At one point, it is fairly obvious that he is describing the old Times Square full of sex shops and massage parlors.  As always, the exercise of watching this show gives us an opportunity to reflect on days gone by.  For example, this must have been around the time of a sanitation workers strike in the Big Apple.

[Speaking of Big Apple, the home movie sent in by someone (whose name I have forgotten) makes nice use of apples (and plums) as actors in a stop-motion Super-8 experiment.]

But yes…Dick Cavett is kind of like a bathroom sanitizer.  You’re glad he’s there (when the place is sullied), but he is generally harmless and flavorless.

What is staggering about this episode is that I remember a friend from college who (on second thought) reminds me quite a bit of Cavett.  The craziest part is that Jimmy Cliff does a song in this episode which played a part in my college days (funny enough, in relation to the aforementioned gentleman).

It’s funny how the mundane can make us sentimental.  However, Jimmy Cliff is not at all himself mundane on the song in question:  “Many Rivers to Cross”.

Jimmy Cliff couldn’t be more different in persona from Dick Cavett.  Cliff delivers the first great, desperate performance in SNL history.  Sure, Simon & Garfunkel were great in the early season, but they were pretty…composed…easily poised.

On “Many Rivers to Cross” Jimmy Cliff sings like his life depends on it.  The guitars are out of tune.  The drummer is barely in control of the song.  A bongo player (who alternates on timbales…with brushes) adds a bit of flavor.  The SNL horns (Howard Shore’s band) add some nice stabs and swells of excitement.

But it is Jimmy Cliff.  Singing right in tune.  Dead serious.  Pinging each note in absolute perfection.

Closing his eyes.  Lifting his head back.  Singing so the veins bulge out in his neck.  …ending the performance out of breath.

Cliff absolutely deserved to perform the three songs he did on this episode.  However, neither of the other two match the intensity of “Many Rivers to Cross”.

And so it takes me back.

These memories I mentioned.  They’re important to me.

If I’d only chosen to have my taxes done by H. & L. Brock…I coulda been a contenda.

How do we become losers?

Is it from the very first hand we’re dealt?

Some things feel like a lost cause.

Life is unkind.  Sometimes.

But what I want to know is…will it pay off?

Jimmy Cliff was ready when the opportunity arose.

How significant was this performance for the acceptance of reggae in America?

It doesn’t matter.

Those questions don’t matter.

What matters is what each one of us feels…in little moments of reflection.

I’d like to think that I’d belt it out just like Jimmy Cliff.

That’s when you give it all you have.

It’s when your passion raises you head and shoulders above the rest.

It’s a passion.  A hunger.  Of going from nothing to something.

I think quite a few of us feel like nothings.

It’s all we ever get to be.

We’re behind.

I can only speak for myself.

No wife.  No kids.

In school for the millionth time.

And my dreams seem light years away…in the rearview mirror.

Will I find them again down the road?

Is this a loop?  A mere episode?

 

-PD

 

Modern Times [1936)

We who have nothing implore you who have much.

I think this might be the message.

And yet, whatever the message, there is no denying the beauty of the department store scene.

The breathtaking Paulette Goddard, a grease-stained child of the streets, asleep beneath a fur coat on a feather bed.

Tucked in by The Little Tramp…only to be ripped from the bedrooms of the rich by that opening whistle.

It was a valiant stand.

At the lunch counter.

Ravenously eating tomorrow’s sandwiches.  A piece of cake.  Eat up!

It is sad.  It brings me back.  To art.  To a time when a meal was a religious experience.

A moment of companionship shared by artists on the run.

But as Neil Young so wisely sings in the song “Ambulance Blues,”…”It’s easy to get buried in the past/when you try and make a good thing last.”

And so The Little Tramp would probably say, “Buck up, cowgirl!”

Indeed, it’s not the end of the world.

It ain’t over till Yogi Berra sings.

And Chaplin sings too.

It’s true!

Up till now he had no voice.

Pantomime.

The purest artist going.

So entrenched that he continued with silent films well after their demise.

Yet this is really a sound film.

And, it really is (also), a silent film.

Most of all, it is a brilliant film!

She sleeps so cozy.  Perhaps.  In Denmark they would comment thusly.  Hyggeligt.

Denmark…where amber washes up on the beach.  Not ambergris…but that too.

No.  Electrum.

And the sheer magnetism of Chaplin.  All a’flurry on his rollerskates.

We “oooh” and we “ahhh” as he rides a wave of serendipity.

It’s not all smooth sailing for The Little Tramp, but it’s always interesting.

And so we can laugh with him.

And we can dream with the auteur Chaplin behind the camera…what vision to concoct such consolation for so many.

I can’t put it any better than that.

-PD

Aaltra [2004)

Everything happens for a goddamned reason.  I wanted to type.  So I did.

It leaves me uneasy.  It’s the start of a faux writer.

But it fits this film.  If ever a film was accursed (like the archetypal poète maudit), then it is this immortal piece of cinema.

Long ago…in a messy room not so far away…I took a gamble on this Belgian film.  Because it was Belgian.

Belgium.

What is Belgium?  It’s not France.  It’s not Netherlands.  For the world of art, it exists as a sort of other Switzerland.

(At least that’s how I had it in my mind.)

I think of the great César Franck.  The great Symphony in D minor.

And I think of René Magritte.  [particularly L’Assassin menacé]

And so I jumped into this film as blindly as anyone.

What I could not have predicted was the sheer perfection which followed upon rolling tape.

There is strictly zero plot outlined on Wikipedia for this film.

Thus, you needs must only remember two names:  Gustave de Kervern and Benoît Delépine.

These two directors blessed the world with a film equal to any of the nouvelle vague triumphs (not least because they chose to shoot in grainy black and white).

These two writers concocted a story which only Louis-Ferdinand Céline could have dreamt up.

And finally, these two actors (the same two gentlemen) schooled thespians the world over on how drama should be approached in the 21st century.

We must trust the images.

There are two handicapped spaces for rent, but a veteran from the Belgian Congo pushes them aside.

“Bwana, bwana”…like he’s in his Popemobile.

When you have lost the function of your legs, a bottle of rum is not begrudged.

The tide is high.  Now that we’ve fallen asleep.

Two heads bobbing in the water.  Wheelchairs in wet sand.

But it is sad as anything.  Two grown men.  A level of breakdown sobbing which is painful to watch.

Why me?

I can’t believe this.

The gags in this sob story (juxtaposition intended) modulate ad nauseam like Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” sung in Finnish.

Ah, Finland…

From Belgium to Finland.

Beware of pity (warned Stephan Zweig).

Maybe it’s best just to suck on the tailpipe of your Motocross dreams in Brazil.

Two crippled chaps on their way home.  Ambulance blues.  Drivers stop at a pub to shoot the shit (out in the agricultural boonies).  Two extra pints grasped at intervals by disembodied, transient hands.

Have you ever been cold and hungry?

Think about it (Jerry Lee implores).  Next time you see a beggar.  They may have the most unbelievable backstory imaginable.

Because people are nice and charitable (on average) for a maximum of about 10 minutes (if at all).  Usually nothing.

Must be a drug addict.  Doesn’t really need that wheelchair.  Probably got it at Homeless-Props-Are-Us.

When you’ve just been fired and you come home to find your wife fucking another man.  And he doesn’t even stop.

When you live in a barn and cook your miserable meals on a hotplate.

I’ve slept on that cot.  That’s why this film might be unbearable (and absolutely necessary).

Did I mention that this is a comedy?

Two blokes paralyzed and the doctor a paragon of efficiency (drumming for reflexes as they lay ridiculously side-by-side on parallel provincial hospital beds).

Meet me in my office in 30 minutes or you’re fired.

Nothing is more awkward.  Crammed in the same room to convalesce.  Enemies whose childish fight has left them forever outcasts.

Adding insult…(mugged…no money…no IDs…no passports)…to injury.

Bloody jawdropping genius.

-PD