Idle thoughts about our human duality

Eric Idle, one of the great Monty Pythonians, spoke in yesterday’s newspaper to say this: “I think I am an optimist by day and a pessimist by nighttime.” 

I take this to mean that life’s workaday gunk, from headaches to the headlines, and the daily news cycle, that cataract of informational sewage, from Trump to pathologically unfit Supreme Court nominees, poisons him in a most unpleasant manner. 

That he undergoes a sort of icky Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde binary: By day he’s merry old Eric Idle (Jekyll), getting along hunky-dory, and by night, fangs sprout, thick hair unfurls on his hands and face, and his disposition waxes decidedly splenetic (Hyde).

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Mr. Hyde, left, and Dr. Jekyll — same fella, different moods

For all that, Idle is evidently not a morning person. He says: “I can’t stand talking to people before lunch. I don’t think anybody civilized does.” (Hear, hear!)

I relate, to an extent. I am not a morning person. It takes a couple of hours, and at least one caffeinated elixir, for the early-hour crust to peel away, the nocturnal fog to burn off, my voice to clear from hoarsey to honeyed, my mood to shift from monosyllabic zombie to socially functional, with a possible grin if you’re really nice.  

It’s like the transformation of the Wolf Man back to a regular bloke, while we’re trading in Universal Horror metaphors.

But Idle and I differ in that I am a pessimist by day and an optimist by night — polar opposites. I arise and experience the day as Hyde — hairy, harried — and then I cool off, wind down and digest the day’s doldrums and distress during the dark. I relax, anxiety dissipates, I operate in a less pressurized space, though I must say I miss Hyde’s chimpanzee orthodontics and senatorial eyebrows. 

I rise in a murky mood. And, though it improves quite quickly, pessimism hovers over me during the daytime, an existential pall, a storm cloud poised to spit angsty, acid raindrops. I’m a little tense and the day’s news buffets me and only mixes me up more, stirs the pessimistic pot, which is really more like a cauldron, black and bubbly.

And then! The sun ducks, darkness falls like a stage curtain on the woozy light, and I slowly unwind. I once asked a therapist why this was — why my mood and my whole being gets, well, better at night. He had an answer that I cannot recall. It was some time ago. Bummer. I think it’s something about letting things go. Work is over. The night is yours. A splash of vino is poured. Fists unball.

I googled this phenomenon with imperfect results. All sorts of reportage about morning people vs. night owls popped up, but none of it addressed mood and state of mind, optimism vis-à-vis pessimism, focussing more on sleep habits, insomnia, and other folderol. There’s much about how some at night get droopy and others get galvanized, staying up later than the snoring household.

That’s not what I’m on about. It is noontime as I type this, warm, partly cloudy, just like me — warm and partly cloudy. Darkish thoughts percolate, I’m a little clenched, my forehead is a map of (mostly innocuous) worry. I am Mr. Hyde to Eric Idle’s enviable Dr. Jekyll.

But our roles will switch as the day progresses. Idle is slowly being filleted by life’s slings and arrows, so that by nighttime he will curdle with negativity. I’m already a wreck, lucky me. I’m Dracula (another Universal Horror allusion, you’re welcome), miserable in the sunlight, a goddam barrel of monkeys by night. We do what we can.

Istanbul’s citywide kitty corner

Goddamm cats. 

All over Istanbul, they ramble and climb, pounce and shinny. These homeless street beasts tackle each other in play; hiss and strike in combat; scrounge and scavenge for the next meal. They barge into shops and curl up in chairs and beg for food at sidewalk cafes with various degrees of rough-hewn etiquette (claws, paws and purrs).

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From the film “Kedi”

Most importantly, they insinuate themselves into the homes and hearts of many of this huge city’s denizens, soft souls who often regard the felines with an almost spiritual gravity, spurring the occasional display of soggy sagacity: 

“Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t,” a cat-lover says in “Kedi,” a documentary about the thousands of stray cats of Istanbul. “Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will.” 

I’m pretty sure I have no idea what that means.

“Kedi” (cat in Turkish, though it sounds a lot like kitty) is a well-received film from last year that lavishes the love — there’s not one hater in the whole picture, no one shooing away a cat with a broom — on Istanbul’s famed felines. It feels like a short film stretched taffy-like into a 79-minute feature that’s at once indulgent and superficial, while pleasant and lightly informative in an ingratiating PBS sort of way.   

Someone in the movie declares the homeless kitties are the city’s soul, but on my few visits to Istanbul I saw far more stray dogs than cats. Like this winsome fella, who became my pal for nearly a month:

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Istanbul, 2008

Still, I certainly saw many cats, such as this leery pair of scrappy, well-fed survivors:

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Istanbul, 2008

In “Kedi” cats inhabit rooftops, cardboard boxes, markets, cemeteries, trees and awnings, and the film paints artful visions of the kitty stars, from Bergmanesque close-ups to whisker-level Steadicam action of running, jumping and chasing (mice beware).

The cats comprise a motley array, and I expect to see the kitty cavalcade when I return to Istanbul next month — toms, calicos, tortoiseshells, mamas nursing their babes, cats with patterns like a painter’s palette, or, one of the stars of “Kedi,” a female hellion dubbed “the neighborhood psychopath.”

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From the film “Kedi”

Inevitably, kitty characters and personalities emerge, inescapably anthropomorphized. “It’s so fascinating,” says a simpatico fishmonger of the cats who not so mysteriously follow him around. “They’re just like people.”

We have two cats. They’re just like people: indifferent, solitary, narcissistic, wise, wily, incessantly hungry, jerks.

Yet in “Kedi” the humans are like grandparents who spoil their charges. A shopkeeper compares a kitty comrade to one of his children as he brushes her fur while she looks off into heavenly ecstasy. Another man compares the company of cats to the soul-soothing power of prayer beads.

Our cats provide the soul-soothing power of pooping, crotch-licking gremlins.

Taking care of these furry street urchins is, they say, their duty. They are cat custodians, and for many of them the animals supply a divine connection that is healing, curative and therapeutic.

How is this possible? one may ask. Cats purr and meow, but are otherwise as mute and inscrutable as the Sphinx. They scamper off a lot for no damn reason.

“I imagine having a relationship with cats must be a lot like being friends with aliens,” muses a dreadlocked woman in the film. “You make contact with a very different life form, open a line of communication with one another, and start a dialogue.”

As someone who talks to the animals, from cats to rats, I love that.

(“Kedi” stuff, including trailers, can be seen here.)

Five irritants that shouldn’t irritate. But do.

1.  The copout final shot in the Chloë Grace Moretz LGBTQ drama “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.” Without resolving anything dramatically, director-writer Desiree Akhavan avoids the hard work of crafting an actual ending, letting her and her characters off the hook by sticking them in the back of a pick-up truck to literally drive off into the sunset, then: fade to black. Such open-ended fade-outs — what will happen to our beloved heroes? — are not only lazy but a rancid cliché of undercooked indie filmdom. (Wait. Was I supposed to say: Spoiler alert!)

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2.  The local wallpaper-tattooed hippie-hipster barista who, when asked how he’s doing, invariably replies, “Livin’ the dream!” (Spoken in a groovy Jeff Spicoli cadence.)

3.  Pro sports. I have no stomach for fans’ foaming-at-the-mouth, chest-thumping, near-nationalistic posturing, the players’ obscene paydays, the blanket machismo and braggadocio, the snarling, whooping competitiveness. It’s a gross, alien world that, save the occasional semi-civilized soccer match, I find revolting. Any artistry is sheer brute. I’m a bit like author Roxane Gay: “As a child, I was awkward, unathletic and uninterested in becoming athletic. I was not a team player. I was a dreamer, something of an oddball loner. I wanted to spend all my time with books.” Then there’s the waspish H.L. Mencken who injects venom: “I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.” Oh goodie: Football season is upon us.

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4.  If you don’t read the weekly book reviews by Dwight Garner in The New York Times, you are missing some of the freshest, funniest, metaphor-drunk reviews in mainstream newspapers. You are, alas, culturally bereft. But I have a pet peeve (even the best aren’t immune): his unfailing penchant to quote other writers in 99-percent of his essays. Not writers he’s reviewing — that’s expected and apropos — but other writers, as if he can’t think up his own ideas. (“As Hunter S. Thompson said about firearms …,” or “To quote Bob Dylan on heartache …”) It’s a crutch he can’t relinquish. I devour his stuff, but his quotation-happy habit stops me cold. (Yes, I use quotes, too, but I’m not writing for the rarefied Times.)

5.  Middling to bad stand-up comedy specials flooding Netflix. Such jollity as the new “Demetri Martin: The Overthinker,” a depressingly anemic stand-up hour showcasing a once-hilarious comic in full sputter. Also schticking up the streaming service: Patton Oswald, who, on stage, is a peg above pedestrian; Judah Friedlander, a wan, wannabe Mitch Hedberg; the meh Noah Trevor; the slick Iliza Shlesinger, all harpy cutes; the shrill, aggressively pregnant Ali Wong (watch how she practically weaponizes that big old baby bump); and floundering fat-joker Gabriel Iglesias.

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Ali Wong: irritating

But let’s cool down and depart with a smiley-face emoji, tongue out, winking. Netflix tucks sparkling gems into the mix, like Fred Armisen’s joyfully sui generis “Standup for Drummers,” John Mulaney’s knock-dead “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City,” Aussie comedian Hannah Gadsby’s devastating “Nanette” (caveat: she may change your life), and the beyond-words brilliant “‘Oh, Hello’ on Broadway,” starring John Mulaney and Nick Kroll, whose marksman satire is so inspired and athletically sustained, you’ll be craving the most overstuffed tuna sandwich you’ve ever seen. (Watch the show. Then you’ll know.)

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Not irritating: “‘Oh, Hello’ on Broadway,” with Nick Kroll and John Mulaney

School sucks. ‘Eighth Grade’ doesn’t.

Her chin and forehead dappled with continents of acne — I thought I spotted an inflamed Australia — 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy with rumpled long blonde hair, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly-crooked and slightly bucky, will break your heart.

Kayla, played by a preternaturally perfect Elsie Fisher, is the can’t-keep-your-eyes-off lead in Bo Burnham’s indie hit “Eighth Grade,” and she’s a compendium of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. 

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I kept wincing, re-feeling those awful transitional days, the insecurities, the free-floating dread, the fluttering anxiety — and the irrepressible excitement of the new.

But that’s not the movie’s point. “Eighth Grade” isn’t about me and my cohorts’ feathered hair, terrycloth polos, flared corduroy Levi’s and those giant combs hanging out our back pockets. Or the flubbed first kisses and mortifying social fumbles. 

As Owen Gleiberman puts it in Variety: “The beauty of ‘Eighth Grade’ is that it’s highly specific and generational. It’s the first movie to capture, in a major way, the teenage experience of those who have only existed on this planet during the digital era.”

In other words, it’s not about us geezers and our times bridging, torturously, eighth-grade and high school. It’s about today’s kids, like my niece, who’s exactly in Kayla’s fashionably beat-up sneakers. She’s 13. She’s glued to her phone. I wish her good luck.  

It’s about forging one’s individuality amidst willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for our times, I truly believe, lives by her words, the dictums she professes on the videos she so bravely records on her phone. It doesn’t always work out, but watch her grow stronger after each posting. 

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For all the bracing, spot-on scenes in Burnham’s dynamic debut — the movie is really a 90-minute reel of the smashingly real — I picked out my favorite midway through. Kayla is alone in bed at night and she’s surfing a kaleidoscopic stream of videos, social media, Instagram and whatever kids sift at no attention-span speeds. The music, playing loudly on the soundtrack, is sublime.

It’s the most affecting use of Enya’s 1988 harp-heavy hit “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)” I’ve ever heard. The scene actually redeems the woozy, New Agey song. Lush, lyrical and frenetically up-to-the-minute, the sequence is a masterpiece of visual-aural agreement. It weirdly moved me, and it encapsulates the undeniable artistry, the tender emotional truth of this excellent film. For a brief moment, Kayla soars. 

See the trailer for “Eighth Grade” HERE.

Four of the finest movies this year so far

It’s one of the highest rated movies of the year — people love this thing — but I wasn’t enamored with Marvel’s “Black Panther,” a slick, savvy vehicle that got predictably bogged down in mythical mumbo-jumbo, comic-book convolutions and contrivances that I hadn’t the energy to follow or care about.

I’m pretty sure my Marvel/DC movie days are behind me. The films are tedious, head-rattling, kind of stupid and rarely fun. That said, I crushed on last year’s tough-minded “Logan” and relished the smart-alecky wit writer-director Taika Waititi smuggled into the whomping cacophony of “Thor: Ragnarok.” (If that movie amused, see Waititi’s whip-smart “What We Do in the Shadows,” a hilariously deadpan vampire mockumentary whose cult-classic status continues to swell.)

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Brilliant spoof “What We Do in the Shadows”

So even skirting the lumbering, stumbling franchises — sorry “Solo” — I’m still behind on this year’s movies. I haven’t even seen Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” which I expect to be a mild amusement, more cracked smiles than snorts and giggles. I will see it, more because I like dogs than I like Anderson. 

I also haven’t seen these films atop my list: “A Quiet Place,” “Loveless,” “The Incredibles 2,” “Leave No Trace” and a slew of other gushed-over indie titles, from “Let the Sunshine In” to “Lean on Pete.” And I’m keenly looking forward to Bo Burnham’s dramedy “Eighth Grade,” coming July 13.

What I have seen of note are four features that regaled with smarts and originality. To wit:

Mister Rogers was a badass. Twinkly television host, child advocate, public broadcasting pioneer, musician, writer, Presbyterian minister, seat-of-the-pants puppeteer, colorful cardigan fetishist and all-around super fella, Fred McFeely Rogers (McFeely!) held a special passport into fledgling hearts and minds to become a noble pied piper of cheering children across the land. 

He worked his educational magic with a voice of honey and silk, a lilting, cooing instrument so soothing it could place you in a spontaneous coma, and a dapper dependability that made him seem like the safest person in the world. He was made of gumdrops and hugs, and soaring imagination. 

Not a scintilla of this hagiographic portrait is tarred in the straightforward, illuminating and touching documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a critical and audience smash that follows the self-styled teacher of tots as he crafts his TV programs, mainly the paste-and-plastic “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” which ran from 1968 to 2001 on PBS.  

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Henrietta Pussycat and Mister Rogers, a sweet couple in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

It’s an adoring snapshot, a trippy bit of time-travel effusive with nostalgia and bolted together by Rogers’ nearly A.I. perfection. His virtuosity almost cloys: he was a wonderful husband and father (no! Not gay!), and his Midas touch with preschoolers was no fool’s gold. In the sphere of pedagogy, his sainthood is locked.

You slip behind the scenes of the papier-mâché realm of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe and meet the show’s gallery of ragged thrift-shop puppets (the meow-meowy Henrietta Pussycat looks like a relic of the Victorian age), actors and crew, with lots of laughter and nary a wisp of negativity. Showered in praise, Rogers’ native humility pops open like a big umbrella.

It’s all here, all fascinating, all squeaky-clean. The movie’s about the imperishable legacy of Mister Rogers, who died in 2003, that’s cheery, oozing empathy and strenuously loving till the very last huggy squeeze.

Rogers was a smiling, sugar-dusted Presbyterian minister — a whole other animal than Ethan Hawke’s furrowed, profoundly conflicted Protestant minister in Paul Schrader’s searing spiritual drama “First Reformed,” one more knockout picture of the season.

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Ethan Hawke has burning questions in “First Reformed.”

The underrated Hawke, in his most hoarse, laser-beam performance, plays Rev. Ernst Toller, a plainly clinically depressed man of enforced solitude who is too enmeshed in overwhelming epistemological questions for all that mainstream life stuff. He lives on the margins. He lives for God. He lives to save others, if not himself.

Schrader taps into his unshakable lodestar — Bergman and Bresson’s transcendental cinema of existential turmoil, spiritual struggle and personal despair — and fashions a dire universe for Toller, one consumed by crises of faith, guilt and penitence. Toller drinks too much. He suffers ominous stomach pains. He keeps a troubled diary. He meets a woman.

Eco-terrorism, love and redemption crash his cloistered life, which Schrader portrays with verbal maximalism and visual minimalism. And he leaves you with an ending that invites either bewilderment or overdue catharsis.

Like Toller, viewers will find themselves entangled in the film’s philosophical and theological brambles. Austere, glacial and bruised, “First Reformed” is not an easy picture. But it feels like a necessary one.

Pain is also a prevailing theme in another of the year’s best, “The Rider,” but it’s physical rather than psychic pain, the kind inflicted when the hoof of a bucking bronco jackhammers into your skull.

That’s the case for young Brady (played by non-actor Brady Jandreau with heart-pulping sensitivity), a one-time rodeo hero whose injury in the ring has sidelined him for good. Lost, his story is one of recovery and rediscovery, of a stubborn cowboy trying to compromise in a desolate, hardscrabble environment that’s unforgiving that way.

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Brady Jandreau and Apollo in “The Rider.”

Easily the most moving film of the year — I rhapsodized about how affecting this people-scale drama is here — “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie by writer-director Chloé Zhao. It’s probably my favorite movie of the year.

Staying in cowboy country but in an artificial version compared with the unflinching realism of “The Rider” is “Damsel” by the reliably off-kilter Zellner brothers, whose mischievous m.o. is to rock your equilibrium, and their own storytelling, with assertive peculiarity. 

Braiding the movie with trusty tropes of old-timey westerns — grit, guns, horsies and hangings — and that ineffable Zellner zing, the result is a lumpy kinda-comedy, kinda-drama in which both elements could have been amplified for the sake of coherence. 

A spirited Robert Pattinson, with a twang and one gray tooth, plays the heartsick pioneer Samuel who’s in search of his lost love, Penelope, played by a spunky Mia Wasikowska. He tows behind him a darling miniature horse named Butterscotch (an aimless visual gag) that he plans to give to her as a wedding present. Risking his life, he finally locates Penelope. Things get very messy from there. 

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Robert Pattinson and Butterscotch in the comic-western “Damsel.”

Its erratic pacing, pesky dead spots and jokes that don’t land hold “Damsel” from crackpot classic. It’s slapstick and slapdash, and keeps you watching if only to make sure lil’ Butterscotch fares well.  

If I didn’t love “Damsel” I appreciated it and its sometimes squiggly logic. It could be a lot funnier, but as it is — a shaggy road movie not fully sure what it wants to be — it’s an oddball original. Keep an ear peeled for the snazzy period-inspired score by whirlingly inventive The Octopus Project. And Adam Stone’s photography — you can’t miss it — is beyond lovely. It’s often ecstatic.

Tough and tearjerking, ‘The Rider’ might be the best movie of the year

If you want to have your heart gently removed from your chest and dropped softly into a Cuisinart that’s switched to purée, go see the quietly devastating rodeo western “The Rider,” now in select theaters, mainly arthouses, which are so often repositories for rich, challenging, downcast dramas reeking of raw humanity so true it sears.  

Chloé Zhao’s lo-fi drama — the Dakota prairie lushly shot by cinematographer Joshua James Richards — moves at a painstaking pace, the clip of everyday life in action. But little is everyday here: Twenty-something Brady is a local rock star of rodeo bronc riding whose skull, we see in the opening shots, is stapled shut and oozing blood. A terrible accident in the ring has left him slightly brain damaged. He’s forced to give up the rodeo, the only life he knows, outside of breaking colts, which he does with a calm, tough-love Jedi mastery. His skill and sensitivity with the beasts are sublime to behold.

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Brady Jandreau and pal Apollo in “The Rider.”

Brady (played by crisp, affectless non-actor Brady Jandreau) lives with his drinking and gambling father (gruff Tim Jandreau) and mentally challenged little sister Lilly (an extraordinary Lilly Jandreau, who is actually disabled) in a ramshackle trailer. It’s a hardscrabble existence with scant room for creativity or reinvention.

“The Rider” is a fine-grained portrait of the pains of getting back on your feet after life-altering disappointment, about rebuilding your spirit after it’s been body-slammed and shattered. This is Brady’s task, and he goes at it with gimlet-eyed resolve and a proudly perched ten-gallon hat.

th.jpegWe see Brady drinking beer with his cowboy bros, working valiantly in a drug store and, most exquisitely, visiting his best friend Lane (Lane Scott), another former rodeo luminary, who, now severely paralyzed from a car accident, lives at a rehab center. Scott, who is really paralyzed and non-verbal, is spectacular in a turn of heartbreaking clarity. He’s hard to watch, but you can’t take your eyes off him.

Elegiac and painful, wreathed in dusty, grassy beauty, the film wears a gritty, documentary patina. It’s been called “American regional-realist,” which sounds about right.

“The Rider” is easily one of the best movies of the year — it has a 97% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes — partly because it doesn’t rub your nose in sadness; the emotion just organically, effortlessly surfaces. It’s driven by an ensemble of untrained actors behaving like actual people — people so achingly authentic, it sort of tears you up.

Writers die. The art doesn’t.

The great authors Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth died eight days apart this month. I heard nothing about the startling proximity of the loss of two of America’s towering writers. And nothing about the theoretical third death of someone else famous when two celebrities die back-to-back. Nothing about that ghoulish trifecta.

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Philip Roth, died May 22.

If that make-believe third fatality does indeed occur soon, and he or she happens to be another English-language writer, which giant will fall? Toni Morrison? Stephen King? Alice Walker? John Irving? Ian McEwan? Cormac McCarthy? None of these literary lions are spring chickens, excuse the mixed animal metaphors.

Such morbid business is the stuff of cocktail party parlor games, slightly sick, if innocuous: King? No way. McCarthy is next, just watch. He’s 84! Or some such scintillating blather.

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Tom Wolfe, died May 14.

When a popular artist dies it makes a loud rip and a mighty hole in the cultural fabric. A sometimes-fan of Wolfe — I couldn’t get through much of his work, but “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities” thrilled with reportorial breadth and linguistic virtuosity — I am a confirmed Roth acolyte. His death briefly shook me and cast me in a blue mood. Celebrity passings rarely have this effect on me. I took it personally.

Yet the sting faded, and I was gladdened to see book shops and libraries erecting proud shrines to the author of “American Pastoral,” “Sabbath’s Theater” and “The Human Stain,” small mountains of hardbacks and paperbacks as monuments to genius.

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I’ll get back around to the books, but for now I’m revisiting the PBS documentary “Philip Roth Unmasked,” an incisive portrait for the budding Rothian, a reminder of what made the novelist a colossus and worthy of the Nobel Prize that so shamefully eluded him.

I should say I was also hit harder than usual by the deaths last year of novelist Denis Johnson and playwright-author-actor Sam Shepard. Johnson was a marvel, his seminal short stories “Jesus’ Son,” the hypnotically chiseled “Train Dreams” and the haunting Vietnam epic “Tree of Smoke” funny, hallucinogenic and wildly transporting.

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Shepard, who I met and interviewed (see here), was always a personal favorite. An artist disguised as a road-weary bohemian cowboy, his acting was consistently spot-on (he was ace in the 1983 movie adaptation of Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”) and I’m deeply partial to his 1980 play of fraternal fury “True West,” a raging comic masterstroke about bad blood, beer suds and the prickly craft of screenwriting. 

Watch it on YouTube, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise as riotously bickering brothers. It will, like Philip Roth at his best, knock you out. When you come to, the whole world will be a little bit different.