Betty Lundegaard (1930-2019)
“She loved horses more than she loved most people,” my sister wrote in the obit, “but she liked people enough that she coveted the middle seat on an airplane.”
My mother died two weeks ago, August 8, 2019, at Jones-Harrison nursing home in Minneapolis. I was on my way to see her. I was waiting in the security line at SeaTac airport when I got word.
After my sister Karen told me the news I asked if should delay coming out since I wasn't feeling well. “Are you kidding?” she said. “You know how much there is to do?” Truer words. There should be a book on it. “So You‘re Going to Die...” or “So A Loved One Is About to Die...” or “1,001 Questions to Answer Before You or a Loved One Dies.” I’m not talking existential questions, although those, too. I'm talking the mundane:
- Open casket?
- Which casket?
- Which vault?
- What's a vault?
- Makeup? Hairdo?
- Flower arrangements?
- Minister? Pastor?
- Funeral procession?
- From where?
- Chapel service?
- Deceased's father's name?
- Deceased's mother's maiden name?
On some of the bigger questions, I knew where Mom stood. Considering that she'd had a stroke in Sept. 2016 and couldn't speak afterwards, just nod or shake her head, we actually had some fairly deep conversations. This year, for example, on a Saturday morning in May, I found her crying in bed. She'd been crying a lot since the seizures began in December and they'd put her on anti-seizure meds. We were never sure if it was the meds, the seizures, or what, and we'd tried different meds, and different doses, and some seemed to work better than others, but not completely. Mostly we were in the dark.
When I found her that day, crying like she no doubt found me crying at the age of 7, or 3, or 3 months, we had the following conversation.
- Are you in pain? Physical pain? (No.)
- Is someone here hurting you? (No.)
- Being mean to you? (No.)
- Do you feel like it's the anti-seizure meds? Chemistry? (Confused. No.)
- Are you scared? (Yes.)
- Are you scared of dying? (Yes.)
- Are you scared of being judged after you die? (Yes.)
I did my best with that. I told her that if we‘re judged on our actions in this life, and she, of all people, is judged wanting, then heaven wouldn’t be a very populated place. It certainly wouldn't be a place I'd want to be.
I confirmed she didn't want to be cremated; she wanted to be buried. Two weeks ago, it was up to my sister and I to figure out the rest.
Some of our answers to the 1,001 questions helped answer the other ones. My sister wanted a closed casket (open caskets creep her out), so we didn't have to worry about hairdo and makeup, and since burial was within six days of death, we didn't have to embalm, either, thank god. My art-director wife's advice was to avoid the ornate and go simple, and we tried, even though the impulse is to spend, spend, spend. What—don't you care? We chose a finished pinewood box which promised that for every such casket purchased, 100 trees would be planted in Wisconsin. We eschewed the gaudy floral arrangements for flowers from the Farmers Market—a place Mom loved. We did the photos ourselves. The chaplain at Jones-Harrison was away on vacation but my sister had a friend who was a minister who agreed to do the service. Initially it was a graveside service. But after visiting cemeteries in the Twin Cities, and deciding on Lakewood Cemetery near Lake Calhoun/Bde Make Ska, we found out they had a chapel there we could use for free, and which was gorgeous. So that's where we did it. Lakewood is where Hubert H. Humphrey is buried (Mom would‘ve loved that), and it’s only a little more expensive and you get so much for that: Not just the chapel, and the beautiful grounds, but a sense of space in figuring out what you want. I felt rushed and pressured at the other place but none of that from Lakewood. The rep there gave us space; and she was so helpful. If you want a name to contact, let me know; I can't recommend her, and Lakewood, highly enough.
There was also an obituary to write, and a eulogy (below), and a service to put on. Thankfully Karen married into a talented family and had talented kids. Here's Jordan singing one of the songs we went with, “Anytime (I Am There),” from the musical “Elegies,” by William Finn. He played it for Karen and I in the basement, and reprised it for me here after the ceremony. As impressive as the singing is, it's equally impressive that he suggested it—that he plucked this perfect song for the occasion, and it dovetailed so nicely with what I was writing in the eulogy, and with what I was thinking and feeling. We'd Googled “funeral songs” but that wasn't among them, and it's much better than the others. Apologies for the hand-held camera.
And now I'm back in Seattle, and there's nothing else to do for her now; there's just a bone-deep sadness.
Here's the eulogy.
Shortly after Mom’s obituary went up on the Star Tribune website, and was shared on my sister Karen’s Facebook page, and then mine, I got a text message from my sister-in-law, Jayne. Over the past 10 years Jayne has lost several family members to cancer, including her mother and sister, so she knows her away around this. She knows what to say. She sent her sympathies, of course. She also added this thought:
We only get one mother and no matter how many years we get with her, it’s somehow never enough.
It was the perfect sentiment for that imperfect time.
It certainly resonated with me. Thursday morning, just five days ago now, I was working at home in Seattle when I got the call from Karen. Jones-Harrison, where Mom has been living since the stroke in Sept. 2016, called and said Mom wasn’t good and we’d all better gather soon. As I made my plane reservations, I was already thinking of what I wanted to say to her. I wanted to say that because of her, I was able to move through life knowing there was someone, somewhere, who loved me unconditionally. There’s a lot of strength in knowing that. You always have a base somewhere; and she’d given me that base.
I remember when I first moved to Seattle, I arrived abruptly, unprepared, and without much money. I felt like a failure and didn’t want people to know where I was. She was the first person I told, the first person I reached out to for help. Because I knew she would give it without judgment. And she did. She sent me money, even though she didn’t have much of her own, and helped right me again.
The Seattle story I tell more often, though, because it’s funnier, is one from a few months earlier, when I was simply visiting Seattle for the first time. My sister was living there then, and Mom had come out a week earlier and so she knew the lay of the land. She got to show me around. I think she liked that—showing me the ropes. On my first full day there, we walked down Queen Anne hill to take the bus downtown. When the bus arrived—I don’t know why, maybe because she's my mom, maybe because I thought she had a bus pass for both of us—I assumed she would pay. So I just walked in and down the aisle until the bus driver called me back. “Hey, hey, didn’t pay!” I walked back, digging into my pockets for coins. Mom was still standing next to the coin box. “You have to pay,” she said. I did; I dropped the coins in. “Now ask the man for a transfer.” I didn’t have to. The bus driver, suppressing a laugh, just handed it to me. And when I turned to go back down the aisle, I saw an entire busload of people smiling with suppressed laughter. But she was happy. She was showing me the ropes.
We all have such stories. One of Mom’s best, oldest friends, JoAnna Vail, a nurse like mom, who actually introduced Dad and Mom, and so is the reason we’re all here—certainly Chris, Karen, and myself—she called these stories “Bettyisms.” One time, for example, they were cooking dinner and Dave Vail, her husband, tasted the sauce and said, “Needs a certain je ne sais quoi." Mom said, “You mean salt and pepper?”
Mom had a tendency to collapse hierarchies. She was the farm girl who liked working people and the British royal family. When my father was a young reporter, he introduced her to the owner of the Minneapolis Tribune and she responded, “Oh, you work for the paper, too!” In the late ’60s, a party was thrown for John Berryman, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, who had recently returned from Ireland on a Guggenheim fellowship. It was thrown by the mayor of Minneapolis, Art Naftalin, and was full of the movers and shakers of the Twin Cities. Plus Mom and Dad. At one point in the evening, John Berryman gave a poetry reading, which he dedicated to three women in the room: Fran Naftalin, the wife of the mayor and hostess; Maris Thomes, the wife of his friend and physician, Boyd Thomes; and Betty Lundegaard. At the mention of the third name, all of these people, the movers and shakers, turned wondering, “Betty Lundegaard?” And there was mom, sitting on the floor, almost preening, as proud as could be.
She didn’t have much formal education. There’s a movie that reminds me of mom and me: “Philomena,” with Steve Coogan and Judi Dench: His college smarts learning her wisdom. Mom was just so kind and genuine. She liked people. She loved animals and they loved her. Everyone here knows about the horses. She was all about the horses. I can’t have a eulogy for Mom without mentioning Jody’s Nifty Bee, her favorite.
She loved being a nurse. That’s why she kept doing it until she was 80: open-heart surgery, eye surgery. If any of us were sick in the middle of the night, she would be ready in the bathroom with a cold washcloth for our forehead. Me especially. I was a sickly kid. Mom was a nurse for 50 years but 60 if you count my childhood. She had a nurse’s instinct. She knew Karen was pregnant just by talking to her on the phone, long before Karen told anyone.
She loved doctors. She would quote her favorite, Dr. Segal, as if her words had come down from Mt. Sinai. Her time nursing also made her somewhat blunt about medical matters. I once came home and found the following on my answering machine. It was her stern voice, meaning something serious had happened: “Erik. This is your mother. Uncle Roger is in the hospital. He’s bleeding from his rectum.”
But my sister-in-law Jayne is right. We get so many years but it’s somehow never enough. I was waiting in the security line at Sea-Tac airport when Karen called again with the news that mom had passed on. At the Minneapolis airport, my brother-in-law Eric picked me up, and we drove out to Jones-Harrison. It was past midnight. My sister made sure they didn’t move the body until I arrived, so I had time with her. So I could say the things I wanted to say. And I did. I told her that because of her, I was able to move through life knowing someone, somewhere, loved me unconditionally, and what a gift that was. But it wasn’t the same. Of course not. There’s a blunt finality to death. When I was talking to her, she didn’t react, as Mom always reacted; Mom lit up when you talked to her. And when I kissed her goodbye, her forehead was the one thing mom never was: cold.
But I’m glad I had that moment. And the truth is I’d been saying these things to her as soon as I’d heard the news in the security line at SeaTac airport. Ever since, I’d been talking to her and telling her things. Going through security, waiting at the gate, on the plane. It’s like in the beautiful song that my nephew Jordan just sang. “I am there each morning/I am there each fall/ I am present without warning/ And I am watching it all.” My wife’s mother died six years ago and she says she talks to her every day. I imagine I’ll be the same. I’m already talking to her about all this: Mom, look at this chapel. And free. What a deal Karen got! And did you hear the songs your grandsons sang? Thank god they have Eric’s voice. And look at all the nice people who showed up. What a time, Mom. What a time.
Hey Jack Kerouac, I Think of Lopes' Homer
Last night, after Omar Narvaez lined a single to right in the 7th inning, breaking up Dinelson Lamet's bid to become the first pitcher in San Diego Padres history to throw a no-hitter (the only MLB team that doesn't have one), and after the Padres scored 3 more in the top of the 8th, making it 8-0, there didn't seem to be much for a Mariners fan on a lovely Tuesday Seattle night to root for. But then baseball happened.
No, the Mariners did not threaten. Not really. We just had a nice moment in the bottom of the 8th.
Mariners fans need nice moments in this rebuilding phase, where the players come and go with dizzying regularity, and where the only game we might win against the other 29 teams would be Scrabble, considering our current high-value Scrabble-tiled players: Broxton, Narvaez, Vogelbach and Mallex, each of whom started last night. At one point a call to the pen brought in Zac Grotz. That's right: from Z to shining Z.
The comedy that is the 2019 Seattle Mariners was exemplified by the caps on the pitching matchup I saw on ESPN.com before the game:
A little one-sided. Which is, of course, how the game turned out.
The nice moment in the 8th began with a little nubber from Mallex Smith that didn't go more than 10 feet. The Padres' catcher sprang on it, but Mallex has wheels, and the throw was a little high, necessitating a slight jump from first basemen Eric Hosmer. Safe. So instead of 2 out and nobody on, we had one out and somebody superfast on. Next batter, J.P. Crawford, lined a single to left-center and Mallex went for third and to be honest I thought he was going to be nailed. Nope, safe again, and the Pads had blown their umpire challenge on Hosmer's hop. Meanwhile, Crawford went to 2nd on the throw. Now we‘re cooking. Then Domingo Santana singled, and we had a run. Then Santana stole 2nd and the throw went into center field and we had another run. Meanwhile, the batter was someone named Tim Lopes. My friend Andy, who keeps abreast of the comings-and-goings of the Mariners less than I do, asked who he was. I shrugged and looked at the scoreboard. Lopes had an odd line: 2 games, 1 AB, 0 H, 1 W, a .667 OBP. I was trying to make sense of the OBP math (answer: he got hit by a pitch) when Lopes clobbered a pitch over the left-centerfield wall.
Andy and I were celebrating and high-fiving with the guy sitting next to us, an air-traffic controller from Ireland, who was attending his first baseball game with his family at the tail end of a west-coast family vacation. At one point I asked him if he had any questions about the game but he seemed to understand it well enough. “It’s similar to a game called rounders we played in school,” he said. Rounders from visiting Brits again. Cf., this afternoon game from 2017.
I think we first began to talk to him in the 5th inning or so, when Andy and I were talking literature, and he disagreed with Andy's disparagement of Jack Kerouac. It was a good-natured conversation with a “grass is greener” tinge. Andy, who has read Ulysses several times, and once did the Joyce walk around Dublin, talked up James Joyce, whom our Irish friend thought overrated; while our Irish friend talked up the all-American Jack Kerouac, whom we thought overrated. So it goes.
As Lopes was rounding the bases, I looked up at his stats again and said, “I wouldn't be surprised if that was his first Major League hit.” Five seconds later, the scoreboard announced exactly that, and he got a curtain call and everything. Nice moment for the kid, who isn't much of a kid: He turned 25 in June. Mariners drafted him in the sixth round in 2012 and he's been bouncing around the minors ever since, where his slash line was a not-great .277/.339/.382. This year, though, he hit better in AAA Tacoma (.302/.362/.476), maybe because AAA is experimenting with the bouncier MLB ball and homeruns have skyrocketed. Either way, he got the call up in July. He came in as a 9th-inning defensive replacement July 24 (no chances, no ABs), then started the next game against Detroit, playing second and batting ninth. He led off the bottom of the 3rd and drew a walk against Drew VerHagen and later scored on an error. He led off the bottom of the 4th with a HBP, stole second, and scored on a triple by J.P. Crawford. In the 5th, he grounded out (there goes his 1.000 career OBP), and in the 7th he was replaced by Dylan Moore. The fear was concussion from the HBP. He was activated before last night's game when—more fun for M's fans—Tim Beckham was suspended 80 games for a PED violation.
Good thing. Lopes, apparently unrelated to Davey, gave some buzz to the evening that otherwise wouldn't have had much. His homer, in fact, was the last Mariners hit of the game. After him, we went gentle into that good night.
‘How Did Any of Us Walk Away Unchanged?’
In the wake of the mass murders in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio this weekend, Joe Posnanski wrote the following poem and posted it on his site, where he usually writes about sports. This piece is called “This Isn't Sports.” It begins this way:
Didn't a little piece of you die in Newtown?
A little piece of me died there.
They were just babies.
Cut down like wheat
Six and seven years old
Still learning how to read and write
Big block letters
Unicorns and baseball cards
Jumping in front of a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle
A Glock 20SF handgun
Hoping to save one
How did we not all die in Newtown?
How did any of us walk away unchanged?
It's that last line that got me. How did the NRA/GOP get away with it? They evoked Hollywood (“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun...”), whom they also attack. They also made asinine suggestions like arming teachers. There's this thing that kills people, see, so the way to reduce the killings is to make sure more people have this thing that kills people. It's Illogic 101.
Yet they got away with it. We let them get away with it.
Joe goes on to mention other places now marked as places of mass murder: Tucson, Vegas, Virginia Beach, Chippewa Falls, Sebring and Aurora. He goes through Yountville and Paintsville and Nashville and Asheville. He ticks off so many places, so many tragedies, for which we did nothing. Half of them I'd already forgotten. That's how often it happens here:
In Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit
Just as in Lutcher and Gravette and Ascension Parish
In a Pittsburgh Synagogue
And a Charleston church
And a Sutherland Springs church
And an Annapolis newspaper office
And an Orlando nightclub
And Marjory Stoneman Douglas High
And an El Paso Wal-Mart
And just outside a Dayton Bar
How do any of us walk away unchanged? Yet bit by bit we are changed. For the worse.
Ng Joins Breitbart
Last week I read that David Ng, entertainment reporter for the LA Times, was hired by the right-wing propaganda site Breitbart.
First thought: Is that the guy who...
Yes, that's the guy.
Two years ago, Ng wrote a piece in the Times whose headline says it all: “In liberal Hollywood, a conservative minority faces backlash in the age of Trump.” I wrote a response for Salon a few days later mostly attacking the notion of a liberal McCarthyism or a liberal Hollywood blacklist—notions perpetuated by right-wing propaganda sites like ... Breitbart.
And now the writer of that Times article is with Breitbart. Shocked, shocked.
He's written often of the Breitbart. Such as here in late Nov. 2016: Breitbart News sees advertisers exit, calls Kellogg's decision ‘un-American’
The ickiness is really in pretending they‘re not doing what they’re doing; that they‘re legit. Like this:
“I’ve always been drawn to publications that have an iconoclastic voice and that challenge the orthodoxy on both sides of the political spectrum. Breitbart is definitely that,” says Ng. “It's hard to overestimate the impact that Andrew Breitbart has had on our current political and cultural climate, and I'm excited to be part of that legacy.”
“Both sides.” Good god.
“I'm excited to be part of that legacy.” Have fun with the white supremacists, David.
Box Office: Ampersand-Heavy ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ Wins Weekend; But...
Not a fan of box office takes like these:
This hed is from Indie Wire, which should know better. And does, really. You read the article and it's all about why studios are reluctant to make new, original movies like “Once Upon a Time...” when even a spinoff from a profitable franchise can turn this kind of buck. But that's Box Office 101 these days. As Joe Henry sang in “Dirty Magazine”:
Just tell me everything I‘ve heard before
Like it was news
Like it was news
To me, the real story is that even though “Hobbs & Shaw” won the weekend, and did so with the 8th-best opening of the year, it’s way down from previous “Fast & Furious” franchise films:
- 2009: Fast & Furious: $70 mil
- 2011: Fast Five: $86
- 2013: Fast & Furious 6: $97
- 2015: Furious 7: $147
- 2017: The Fate of the Furious: $98
- 2019: Fast & Furious presents: Hobbs & Shaw: $60
Not sure what to make of that “Fast & Furious presents...” bit. Will other franchises follow suit? “Star Wars presents...” “Batman presents...” Just what we need: more colons in film titles. Not to mention ampersands.
After “F&FP:H&S,” the third weekend of “Lion King” came in at $38.2 for a domestic total of $430 and a worldwide take of $1.195 billion. It's now No. 2 both domestically and worldwide, beating out “Captain Marvel” on both charts.
Tarantino's take on LA 1969 dropped 51% for another $20 mil; it's at $78 domestic, which, unadjusted, is fourth-best for a QT movie, after “Django” ($162), “Inglourious” ($120), “Pulp” ($107). Adjust and “Pulp” is No. 1 at $228.
In true indie-wire news, “The Farewell” added 270 theaters for 409 total and grossed another $2.4 mil for $6.8. That's the movie you should go see. That and “Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood.”
Movie Review: Hatchet Man (1932)
It’s not often that a movie in which the principle characters are white actors in yellow face is more embarrassing for its sexual politics. But here we are.
After playing Italian gangster (“Little Caesar”) and Greek barber/gambler/gangster (“Smart Money”), Warner Bros. cast Edward G. Robinson as Wong Low Get, an honorable hatchet man from Sacramento, who is sent to San Francisco for a job. What is a hatchet man? The opening title card tells all. Warning: It's a bit dated:
San Francisco's Chinatown of fifteen years ago had the largest Oriental population of any colony outside China. Its forty thousand yellow residents were divided into various political factions known as “Tongs,” each governed by a President and Council. These various Tongs were almost constantly at war, so the office of “Hatchet Man” was one of special importance. The honorable title of “Hatchet Man” was passed from father to son by inheritance only, and it was he, with the aid of his sharp axe, who dispensed the justice of the great god Buddha.
Basically they keep the peace by chopping off people’s heads. And whose head needs chopping off in San Francisco? “Not Sun Yat Ming, the silk merchant?“ says Wong Long Get, stunned. ”But he’s my closest friend!”
Of course he is.
And how about that name? Sun Yat Ming? They didn’t dig deep into Chinese history for that one, did they? Why not Chiang Kai Qing? It’s as if the Chinese created an American character called Abrajim Lincoln.
Initially objecting in a way that gives us backstory (“Why, we were boys together, came over on the same boat from China”), Wong relents and sadly visits Sun (J. Carrol Naish), who is, of course, writing his will. And of course leaving everything to his good friend Wong Low Get—including, by the way, the hand of his daughter, Toya (Loretta Young) when she comes of age. Except she’s not Loretta Young yet. She’s just young: 6 years old, to be precise.
When Harry met Toya
We do get some nice early shots from director William Wellman. When the gong of war sounds, the camera pans across the street and back again, as people panic. And after Sun is killed by Wong, we cut to his daughter falling asleep, while her doll, with its head barely held on, lolls to the side. Nice.
One would think the plot would revolve around what happens when Toya (a name that sounds a bit Japanese) discovers her husband killed her father, but that doesn’t enter into it. Suddenly it’s 15 years later, the Tong wars are heating up again, and Wong, now on the council, keeps pushing for diplomacy. He warns that the actions of Tong president Nog Hong Fah (Dudley Digges) will cause wars in Chinatowns across the U.S. Wong’s argument wins the day, but Nog (a name that sounds a bit ... caveman) insists on bodyguards to protect against assassins from the east. Wong finds this amusing—a bodyguard for a hatchet man—and when he sees them he dismisses them aloud: “Boys. Just little boys.”
One of the little boys is Harry En Hai (Leslie Fenton), whom we’ve already seen make a play for Toya at a nightclub. Of course he’s assigned to Toya. Of course Wong is sent to Sacramento. Of course when he returns he finds Toya in Harry’s arms. They’ve become lovers. A dark shadow falls across Wong, and Harry panics:
Harry: You can’t take the law into your own hands like this! We’re in America.
Wong: Tonight, we three are in China.
Except Toya objects, Wong remembers his promise to her father, so he gives her to Harry. He makes one demand: Make her happy. Classy move, considering. But not to Nog, who expels Wong from the Tong for acting “in a manner unworthy of the great Lem Sing Tong.” In a flash, Wong loses his wife, his place in society, his business.
As slow-paced as the first hour is, the final 10-15 minutes cover a lot of ground. When we next see Wong, he’s an itinerant field worker, yet somehow a letter from Toya finds him. Guess what? Harry didn’t exactly make her happy. Opposite. They’re in China, he’s an opium addict, and she’s become a servant girl in the same opium den. She calls it “a living death more terrible than that which mercifully puts an end to suffering.”
So hatchet man to the rescue. He buys back his hatchets from a pawnbroker, shovels coal to pay for his slow boat to China, and finds her in an opium den/brothel at No. 7, Street of Red Lanterns. The Madame there objects to Wong taking Toya, since she paid good money for her, but Wong plays the hatchet-man card. He demonstrates with an expert throw across the crowded room—which, unbeknownst, kills Harry, who was leaning against the wall on the other side. That’s how the movie ends. Someone is talking to Harry, and Harry, dead-eyed, seems to be shaking his head, but it’s because someone is trying to dislodge the hatchet on the other side. When it’s pulled free, Harry falls, we hear a scream, the movie ends.
That's a pretty good end for a pretty weak movie.
Related to Russian royalty
“Hatchet Man” is a First National picture, which is basically Warner Bros., which is why you have all the Warners players from the early ’30s in yellow face. It was based on an unproduced play, “The Honorable Mr. Wong” by David Belasco and a guy named Achmed Abdullah, a pulp writer who grew up in Afghanistan and claimed he was related to the Russian tsar. One gets the feeling his life and lies would’ve made a more compelling movie than this one.
In his 1932 New York Times review, Mordaunt Hall writes of the New York premiere in which Robinson and Abdullah overpraise each other and visiting star Janet Gaynor blows kisses from the audience. Hall, who mistakenly calls Naish’s character “Sun Yat Sen,” doesn’t praise the movie much, but adds:
It is, however, a fast-moving tale with an Oriental motif and one of its particularly effective features is the make-up of the players, not so much that of Mr. Robinson but of others, especially Dudley Digges and Loretta Young.
So the thing that was praised then is what’s embarrassing now. I’d also disagree that the make-up was effective, particularly for Loretta Young. She looks ridiculous. And was it considered far-sighted that the white actors don’t use pidgin English but speak in their own voices? Maybe, but it winds up sounding ridiculous, too.
Question: Did Robinson always play guys betrayed by women? Was that part of his shtick? Cagney slaps them around, Bogart gets his heart broken, Robinson is betrayed.
All of this is true, by the way: the Tong wars and the hatchet men in turn-of-the-century Chinatowns. A good movie could be made from this.
Box Office: How Often is the Biggest Movie of the Year (Worldwide) Not a Sequel?
I recently found out Box Office Mojo has a page that breaks down worldwide box office by year. This is helpful. I think of all the times I went to its overall worldwide box office page and searched by year. Now, no need.
If you go to the year-by-year page, what do you immediately notice? In the ‘90s, those titles were sure shorter, weren’t they? Because? Yes, they weren't sequels. No need for colons. Sometimes just a word would do. “Ghost.” “Aladdin.” “Titanic.”
A few years ago I did a post where I broke down, by decade, how often the biggest domestic movie of the year was a sequel. Wait, a few years ago? It's been 10 already. It looked like this:
- 1970s: 0
- 1980s: 2
- 1990s: 2
- 2000s: 7
Except this was before “Avatar” was released and it looked like “Transformers 2” would be No. 1 for 2009, so I included it in the 2000s. So if you correct that, and add this most recent decade (I'm assuming “Avengers: Endgame” has got it this year), it looks like this:
- 1970s: 0
- 1980s: 2
- 1990s: 2
- 2000s: 6
- 2010s: 9
I should clarify: I'm not just counting sequels, but prequels and “continuing universe” movies. So, to me, both “Avengers” and “Black Panther” fit that bill. The one year in the 2010s the No. 1 domestic movie wasn't a sequel, prequel or continuing universe movie? 2014: Clint Eastwood's “American Sniper.” It's also the lowest-grossing of the decade's top-grossing films: $350 million. About a third of what “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” made a year later.
Anyway, that's how we look domestically.
And worldwide? For which we now have a page? It's similar:
- 1990s: 2
- 2000s: 8
- 2010s: 9
The only top worldwide movies this century that weren't sequels, prequels or “continuing universe” movies were:
- 2001: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (because it was first)
- 2009: Avatar (ditto)
- 2013: Frozen (ditto)
The top movies for the last six years have all been colon movies: Long titles with a colon in the middle, as “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” The days of one-word titles dominating? Gone like “Ghost.”
Movie Review: The Farewell (2019)
The Chinese title is more direct (《别告诉他》or “Don’t Tell Her”), which is a little ironic since the point of the movie is a particularly Chinese lack of directness; of keeping an unpleasant truth from a beloved family member.
I’ve encountered this before, by the way. Not just in Taiwan when I lived there (1988-90) but in film. There’s a 1989 Jackie Chan movie called “Mr. Canton and Lady Rose,” in which several friendly gangsters get involved in an elaborate scheme to pass off a poor flower lady as a rich Cantonese woman for the benefit of her daughter's rich, prospective in-laws. I kept waiting for the in-laws to find out, and for everyone to find out how it didn’t matter since we’re all the same, blah blah blah, as it would be in a Hollywood movie. Except the in-laws never find out; the subterfuge is never revealed. Because in China, Face is more important than Truth.
The attempt to keep the truth hidden in Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” is more personal.
Early on, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), the grandmother of a large, extended brood, is talking on the phone to her granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina), who lives in New York, while Nai Nai is visiting her doctor in Changchun in northern China. She’s having tests to see if the spots on her lungs are what the doctors fear. And they are: She has cancer. But the doctors don’t tell her; they tell her younger sister, (Lu Hong), who tells everyone else in the family. That’s the Chinese way. They keep it hidden; they don’t want Nai Nai to know she only has months to live.
Instead, the family moves up the wedding of grandson Haohao (Chen Han) to his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), so they all have an excuse to descend on Changchun and say their last goodbyes without actually saying goodbye.
What I love? In that moment before the CAT scan, both Billi and Nai Nai are doing exactly what the family will do for the rest of the movie. Nai Nai pretends she’s at home rather than the hospital, since, one assumes, she doesn’t want to worry Billi. At the same time, she tells Billi to wear a cap in New York (because it’s cold) and no earrings (because they’ll steal them right off you, necessitating surgery), and Billi says she’s wearing a cap (when he isn’t), and isn’t wearing earrings (when she is).
Oh, and the Guggenheim that Billi, a would-be writer, is up for? She doesn’t get it but pretends it’s still pending.
The tension for most of the movie is whether Billi, who’s lived in New York since she was 6 and is more Westernized than the rest of the family, will be the one to drop the bomb. Her parents are so worried about this they don’t invite her along. She shows up on her own—as the family is sitting down to dinner.
Much of the movie revolves around food and conversation and cultural differences. Billi’s mom, Jian (Diana Lin), gets into it with a Chinese in-law, who, though she’s sending her son to America to study, brags about how easy it is to become a millionaire in China. The family visits Nai Nai’s husband’s grave, bringing him food, and participating in the ritual burning of paper items in the shape of, for example, smart phones and TV sets, which he will then get to use in the afterlife. (I used to see such burnings all the time in Taipei.) Nai Nai argues over whether lobster or crab will be served at the wedding. She argues that three months is too short a courtship for Haohao and Aiko, and might start tongues wagging. Why don’t they tell everyone six months? How about a year?
Awkwafina is the big name here, as well as Tzi Ma who plays her father (he’s been in everything from “Rush Hour” to “The Arrival” to “VEEP”), but it’s first-timer Zhao as Nai Nai who steals the show. She’s feisty (doing her morning taichi exercises with loud hais to dispel evil spirits) and a little mean (calling Aoki stupid because the girl doesn’t speak Chinese) but she never seems mean. She just seems set in her ways and protective of her clan. Something about her feels so authentic.
Probably because she is. “The Farwell” is based on a true story, or, as the movie tells us, “an actual lie.” Writer-director LuLu Wang went through the same experience with her own Nai Nai a few years ago. The twist, which we find out in the end, is that her real Nai Nai is still alive. It’s six years later, and we get footage of her doing tai chi. Even better, she never found out about the cancer. She still doesn’t know. One wonders if the Chinese don’t have something with this “not knowing you’re going to die” thing. It’s like Wile E. Coyote staying in midair as along as he doesn’t know he’s in midair; it’s the knowledge that makes him fall.
Thoughts on the birds? A bird lands in Billi’s apartment in New York, and then in her hotel room in Changchun; she stares in silence at both. Then at the end, weighed down with the knowledge of Nai Nai’s impending death—Awkwafina is slouched like a teenager for half the movie—she suddenly takes up Nai Nai’s spirit-dispensing shout on the streets of New York and the birds goes flying into the air.
So are the birds the evil spirits? Or are they the trapped thing inside Billi? For that matter, does the fictional Nai Nai live simply because the real one did/does? One assumes, but we never really find out.
Bigger point: go. 去看看巴。This is a small gem of a movie that is funny, heartfelt, poignant. The cultural absurdities are specifically Chinese but the family absurdities are wholly universal. I love the final scene in China: Billi in the cab with her parents being taken to the airport, and watching her Nai Nai through the rear window waving and getting smaller and smaller. That’s all of us, eventually.