Boy Stories by
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I haven’t been getting out to the movin’ pitchers lately, although the place where I live crawls with them. I’m sure it’s a temporary hiatus. Film has shaped my life as it has for all of us. I came of age in a wonderful time for films, foreign and domestic.

Ah, Hollywood!

This year I didn’t plunge into the foreign market, but several domestic films interested me, potentially. “Jo Jo Rabbit” looks earnestly surreal and absurd. My students insisted I see “Joker” and I will, but I haven’t gotten there yet. Being a closet sports car, formula-one, road-racing aficionado, I suppose I’ll go see “Ford vs Ferrari,” although it looks dreadful and without the stink of rubber and high-octane racing fuel, most auto racing films don’t really get there. “Marriage Story” feels bathed in narcissism, even though I like the actors. I’m terrified enough of the world as is to subject myself to “Parasite.”

I settled on two boy stories, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and “The Irishman.” I watched them both; it took two sittings per film to get through both directors’ indulgences as they alternately punched up and wallowed in the past. Given that I couldn’t find a story line in either film, I couldn’t figure out why Quentin’s video-store version of the Manson horror — portrayed by  a herd of deranged hippie “girls” run amuck — took so long to put to rest. I’d say the same for “The Irishman,” although Scorsese did have to kill off Hoffa, which, given the length of the film, I gotta reckon was a difficult task.

The bro factor ran high in each film. Tarantino can’t “do” women, and Scorsese doesn’t seem to understand that they exist. So both tales were bro tales. DiCaprio felt so sorry for himself that I couldn’t find a trace of sympathy for the guy, even with my tongue jammed firmly into my cheek. Brad Pitt shure can strip off a shirt and fix a roof antennae in pretty edgy style, but I had no idea where his casual, slavish dedication to DiCaprio originated from.

Do you remember in high school or middle-school, dramatics, some kids couldn’t keep a straight face while playing any role — a wise man, a virgin, a flower, a cowboy or an Indian? They would hide their embarrassment behind awkward smirks. I had the impression when the two bros, De Niro and Pacino, especially Pacino, teetered on the ragged edge of laughter during those intimate buddy-to-buddy arm chair conversations. These scenes distracted me because I caught a whiff of improvisation.

Improvisation is risky in film. The camera nails you, there’s no place to hide from the starts, stops, stutters. Bad improvisation often gives an audience the impression that one or both actors has to go to the bathroom. Every time De Niro went to work on “it is what it is,” an apparently pivotal pronouncement for what little plot existed, I waited for Pacino to crack up. “It is what it is.” Knowing looks all around. Uh, what is what which is?

Endings. I sympathized with Scorsese’s almost boundless self-pity that De Niro so ably channeled. Yes, Marty, we’re all getting older, even Joe Pesci and Bobby De Niro. And it’s sad. It truly is.

Tarantino’s ending felt as if a tall, diabolical child had built a rickety tower of building blocks or Leggos, stood back from it for a minute, and then smashed the whole story to smithereens in an ecstatic fit of gratuitous, undeserved violence. The only sense I could make of Quentin’s ending is something I already know… The video store manchild continues to hate women.

Joe Pesci was great, as was Bobby Cannavale. Pacino ate the scenery as the producer in ‘Once Upon a Time,’ something he’s prone to do when he’s bored.

I am looking forward to seeing “Jo Jo Rabbit,” though. I can hardly wait until it appears on Netflix or Amazon.

I do love films, their capacity for intelligence and compassion, for sheer, unexpurgated beauty. I love writers and actors and directors, I admire DPs and grips, composers, union gaffers, and all the hard-working people who must collaborate to put a film together. I would love some recommendations, especially if they aren’t boy stories. Ah, Hollywood!

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Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website

Characterizations: right on!, well written


  1. Charles, I think not all but some of your Hollywood cynicism is merited, but have you seen last year’s Oscar-winning foreign film ROMA?
    If so, what did you think? I thought it beautiful and it has stayed with me.

    • Hi, Dana,
      I did see Roma and loved it. Beautiful simple story, real characters acting beautifully, establishing a powerful sense of place. It did stay with me!

      I’m not cynical about Hollywood in general. The community is way too multi-layered and -faceted to blanket with a single word. And I don’t feel that I am cynical about the two films I described. I believe I witnessed two very cynical films. To me, there is a difference.

      Thanks for the Roma suggestion. I was so delighted when it won. And wasn’t the lead also nominated for leading role? Did she win?

  2. Suzy says:

    This is terrific, Charlie, you do a magnificent job of analyzing these films, which I now don’t have to see! Your writing is, as always, superb. I love phrases like “alternately punched up and wallowed in the past.” Also your observation that “Tarantino can’t ‘do’ women, and Scorsese doesn’t seem to understand that they exist” is right on! The image of the rickety tower of Legos, smashed in an ecstatic fit of gratuitous, undeserved violence, is a perfect description of every Tarantino movie.

    It’s great to have you back on Retrospect! We’ve missed you the last 6 or 7 weeks when you’ve been busy with something trivial like your job!

  3. Understood, and glad that you also loved Roma, I don’t remember if the lead actress won but the film did win for cinematography and direction, and was auto-biographical on the part of the talented writer-director.
    Happy Holidays Charles’

    • Suzy says:

      The Roma actress was nominated, but lost to Olivia Colman in The Favourite. Alfonso Cuarón won for Best Director though.

      • Alfonso Cuaron also directed Children of Men, a wonderful adaption of the powerful and prescient novel of the same name by PD James. I became intrigued with the adaption process from James’ novel and read and viewed both several times. Highly recommended and the sometimes grumpy PD James liked how Cuaron’s adaption represented the novel.

  4. Marian says:

    Yes, these have a lot of the “bro” factor, Charles. As a contrast I’ll be interested to see Little Women. I think Greta Gerwig certainly can do women!

    • Hi, Marian. Yes, I’m thinking Greta and Little Women might make a pleasant antidote to the all-guy, all-the-time thing. I haven’t seen Lady Bird but am interested in her as an actor, writer, AND director. She’s collaborated with her partner, Noah Baumbach on several films as well.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Well, you are right in your assessment that Tarantino and Scorsese can’t do women, Charlie (though Sharon Stone won an Oscar for her deeply flawed character in “Casino”). I do love the way you describe those films, though I liked them more than you did.

    I loved “Children of Men” and found “Roma” fascinating. Now Clive Owens will be portraying Clinton In a TV version of that impeachment. Strange casting, I think, but good actor.

    The more I learn about “Little Women” (lots of press here in the Boston area, where it was filmed), the more I look forward to it. Gerwig went back to Alcott’s diaries for some of her dialogue, rather than taking it all directly from the novel, giving it a different spin.

    • Hi, Betsy,
      I did like “Casino,” largely because it did escape some of Scorsese’s goodfella obsession. I think I was a little rough on “The Irishman,” it was well-made but the sadness and sentimentality put me off, largely because I have no tolerance for sadness these days. The real world is already intolerably sad.

      I’m interested in “Little Women” as well. I’d heard that Gerwig went to primary source stuff from Alcott, which I found intriguing. Besides, I just like her, as actress, altho I haven’t yet seen “Lady Bird.” Have a sweet holiday. Hopeful for the coming year.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Sorry, Charles, but I liked both of the boy stories, although The Irishman was way too long and I spent much of it admiring the acting rather than being absorbed in the characters or plot. Once Upon a Time was just a fun flick for me, something I surely needed this year in light of the reality show playing out at the White House. Looking forward to seeing Little Women and also Queen and Slim. Often the best movies come out really late in the calendar year or in early January. Could have skipped Star Wars (aside from the opening theme and rolling story summary at the beginning) but my grandkids liked it.

    • Laurie, please don’t apologize!My ‘review’ was narrowly focused on the boy aspect to the exclusion of the complex reality of what makes a film flicker to life. To my own detriment, I carry my world-changing agenda to ridiculous lengths. Having chosen to change the world through theater, film, fiction, and music, I am still learning how to take myself with a grain of zen and come to the cabaret, old chum. I remember emerging from the first “Star Wars” with Jake, my stepson, sputtering about the glorification of empire. “Jeez, Charlie,” Jake said. “It’s just a movie.” I’m still learning. That said…

      I think Quentin Tarantino is a cynical, malicious piece of crap who knows how to write catchy dialog that inevitably leads to gratuitous violence. Bwah ha ha ha ha ha!

    • Hi, again, Laurie. Your comment got me thinking about the fun flick of Once Upon a Time as part of a larger conversation. I think I know you well enough to further the discussion.

      Glad to hear you found Tarantino’s flick a diversionary escape vehicle. We all need them — gawd, don’t we know it? — stuck under the Big Top of this unfunny battle for survival. But I see how Tarantino’s material feeds into the horrendous, man/woman/rich/poor/same/other split we have reached, and I bet you can, see that, too. Just sayin’…

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