Grey Gardens (2009) (TVM)

Grey Gardens 2009

Everyone thinks and feels differently as the years pass by. Long Island, the mid-70s. The documentary filmmakers Albert (Arye Gross) and David Maysles (Justin Louis) are showing some of the footage they’ve shot about former members of NYC high society 79-year old Edith Bouvier Beale (Jessica Lange), the sister of Black Jack Bouvier, father of Jackie Kennedy (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her daughter 57-year old Little Edie (Drew Barrymore) to the pair. The women are living in a decrepit dirty house in East Hampton filled with cats and other stray animals and we learn how they wound up in poverty without electricity and running water, starting in the Thirties when Little Edie refused to marry any pig-headed momma’s boys bachelors and wanted a career on the stage. When her father Phelan (Ken Howard) divorces her mother she lives in the city and tries out for shows and models and falls into an adulterous relationship with Julius ‘Cap’ Krug (Daniel Baldwin) a married member of Truman’s administration. Her father tries to end it but it’s Cap who finishes with Edie and she retires to the beach house effectively replacing the attentions of her mother’s former lover, children’s tutor Gould (Malcolm Gets) and never leaves …  I don’t think you see yourself as others see you. In 1975 Albert and David Maysles released their eponymous documentary about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’s aunt and cousin and people were horrified. It was deemed tasteless and exploitative, its stars clearly not fully compos mentis and their sad lives in a state of utter disarray and poverty. What it lacked was context and that sin of omission is repaired here as we enjoy a series of flashbacks starting in 1936 when Little Edie is such a loser on the husband-hunting trail that would settle her for life while her parents’ marriage falls apart – a situation that would eventually leave her mother and herself penniless and isolated. It’s rare to see a TV movie made with such care and complexity; the word apoplectic appears at key points and has a different resonance on each occasion. Perhaps the makers understood the term palimpsest. This certainly fills the gaps the initial documentary leaves but it also restages certain scenes from Grey Gardens (1975) and the framing story as the women watch clips of their lives unspooling on the wall of the decaying house elicits some priceless reactions by the mother and daughter. This is really a story of women who are left behind and the limited options available even to the supposedly fortunate daughters of the very wealthy:  a priest reporting to Phelan Beale about Little Edie’s behaviour at a party sets the ball rolling disastrously. It’s a deeply felt film about performance on several levels and Barrymore is quite astonishing playing Little Edie in different phases of her life. Her failed debutante, girl about town and finally recluse are brilliantly developed. Her devastation and consequent alopecia when Krug tells her she has naïvely mistaken their sexual escapades for a special relationship is heartbreaking. The possibilities for misunderstandings multiply over the decades and Barrymore masters that flat affectless Boston brahmin drawl, offsetting the emotions in counter intuitive fashion. The final performance for a gay crowd at a NYC club before she leaves the State for good is good natured. Maybe she was in on the joke – at last. Throughout she seems to drift in and out of different kinds of consciousness. We know she definitely can’t stand another winter in the freezing cold of Long Island. She is matched in a different register by Lange whose role requires quite a different set of nuances not to mention a love of cats. There’s a very enlightening sequence when the newspapers break the shocking story about Jackie O’s sad cousins living in squalor and the woman herself visits and promises to have the place redecorated. Little Edie delights in lying to her that she should have been First Lady instead if Joe Kennedy Jr had lived despite having only seen him once at a party. Jackie sadly agrees:  not the anticipated reaction. The Edies enjoy the deceit, setting the scene for their final reconciliation when they finally forgive each other for the destruction of their lives. Perhaps justice is finally done for these eccentrics whose destinies were dictated by men. Written by Patricia Rozema and director Michael Sucsy. Grey Gardens is my home. It’s the only place where I feel completely myself

State Secret (1950)

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Aka The Great Manhunt. It’s very gratifying to think that a doctor can still perform a non-political operation. American doctor John Marlowe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) is visiting England when he is deployed to Vosnia, a small middle European country where people speak Esperanto. He finds that he is there to operate on the country’s dictator who dies during brain surgery but is replaced by a look-alike. As one of the few who know, Marlowe is hunted by the country’s secret police who are intent on shooting to kill because the dictator’s death must be kept secret. Marlowe flees and seeks the help of music hall performer Lisa Robinson (Glynis Johns). They blackmail Balkan smuggler Karl Theodor (Herbert Lom) into helping them. Pursued across the country, they are on the point of escaping when Karl is shot and killed and Lisa is wounded. Marlowe could escape without her but remains. Government minister Colonel Galcon (Jack Hawkins) arranges a ‘shooting accident’ for Marlowe but as Marlowe walks to his fate, the false dictator’s speech is being broadcast on the radio. Shots are heard and Galcon confirms that the stand-in has been assassinated and realises that it may all be over for him … Have you changed your mind?/No, I’ve just lost it. Loosely adapted from a Roy Huggins novel by director Sidney Gilliat, this is a cracking thriller as you’d expect from one of the writing team (with producer Frank Launder) behind Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich It’s nicely shot by Robert (The Third Man) Krasker who has fun at the start with some point of view shots underscoring Fairbanks’ narration and Trento and the Dolomites make great locations although the locals weren’t too happy during production with post-war communist feelings at fever pitch. The suspense quotient is upped by a superior score from William Alwyn. The version of Esperanto here is made up of Latin and Slavic languages but the universal language is thrills and it has more of those when Johns joins the chase 45 minutes in and Lom cracks wise as the shyster because Fairbanks is a fairly flavourless lead. Every time I have a haircut I’ll be thinking of you

Jules and Jim (1962)

Jules and Jim

Catherine never does anything halfway. She’s an irresistible force that can’t be stopped. Her harmony is never shaken because… she knows she is always innocent. In the days leading up to the First World War, shy Austrian writer Jules (Oskar Werner) becomes friends with extroverted Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre) and they travel to an Adriatic island to see an ancient sculpture, eventually encountering a free-spirited woman Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) who is a double for the statue. Jules and Catherine become involved and go to Austria to marry while Jim is involved with Gilberte (Vanna Urbino). The men serve on opposite sides during the war and wonder if they’ve killed each other.  They survive and Jim visits Jules and Catherine in their Black Forest home where they have a young daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin) and the marital tensions are evident with Catherine torturing Jules due to her recurrent infidelities. She tries to seduce Jim and Jules permits their marriage but wants them all to live together but when Jim and Catherine can’t have a child she leaves him… I may not be very moral, but I have no taste for secrecy. One of the great French New Wave films, François Truffaut adapted (with Jean Gruault) a late semi-autobiographical first novel by elderly art collector Henri-Pierre Roché, turning it into a freewheeling nostalgic tragedy, boasting incredible and playful cinematography by Raoul Coutard, a stunning score by Georges Delerue (with a hit song, Le Tourbillon de la vie) and a standout performance by Moreau, the centre of this love triangle which above all is about enduring friendship in the face of passion. She bewitches, she betrays, she is incandescent, vivacious, an irresistible siren. As Jules says, Whatever Catherine does, she does fully. She’s a force of nature that manifests in cataclysms. In every circumstance she lives in clarity and harmony, convinced of her own innocence. Yet it’s also about war and the particular awfulness of trench warfare, emblemised by a story Jim tells about a man who falls in love with a girl on a train and how he keeps himself alive in the hope of seeing her again. A landmark in cinema, this never fails to entertain, to involve, to terrorise, to touch. It is a kind of enchantment that starts like a dream and concludes in unbearable tragedy, a story of a joyous life lived at full throttle. You said, “I love you.” I said, “Wait.” I was about to say, “Take me.” You said, “Go away”

Veronika Voss (1982)

Veronika Voss

Aka Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss. Light and shadow; the two secrets of motion pictures. Munich 1955. Ageing Third Reich film star Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) who is rumoured to have slept with Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda Josef Goebbels, becomes a drug addict at the mercy of corrupt Lesbian neurologist Marianne Katz (Annemarie Düringer), who keeps her supplied with morphine, draining her of her money. Veronika attends at the clinic where Katz cohabits with her lover and a black American GI (Günther Kaufmann) who is also a drug dealer. After meeting impressionable sports writer Robert Krohn (Hilmar Thate) in a nightclub, Veronika begins to dream of a return to the silver screen. As the couple’s relationship escalates in intensity and Krohn sees the possibility of a story, Veronika begins seriously planning her return to the cinema – only to realise how debilitated she has become through her drug habit as things don’t go according to plan … Artists are different from ordinary people. They are wrapped up in themselves, or simply forgetful. The prolific Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s penultimate film and one of his greatest, its predictive theme would have horrible resonance as he died just a few months after its release. Conceived as the third part of his economic trilogy including The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola, this reworking of or homage to Sunset Blvd., whose ideas it broadly limns, has many of his usual tropes and characters and even features his sometime lover Kaufmann who could also be seen in Maria Braun; while Krohn tells his fellow journalist girlfriend Henriette (Cornelia Froboess) of his experience and potential scoop but Veronika’s hoped-for return is not what he anticipates with a Billy Wilder-like figure despairing of her problem. Its message about life in 1950s Germany is told through the style of movies themselves without offering the kind of escapist narratives Veronika seems to have acted in during her heyday.  She’ll be your downfall. There’s nothing you can do about it. She’ll destroy you, because she’s a pitiful creature. Fassbinder was hugely influenced not just by Douglas Sirk but Carl Dreyer and this story is also inspired by the tragic life of gifted actress Sybille Schmitz, who performed in Vampyr.  She died in 1955 in a suicide apparently facilitated by a corrupt Lesbian doctor.  The unusually characterful Zech is tremendous in the role. She would later play the lead in Percy Adlon’s Alaska-set Salmonberries as well as having a long career in TV. She died in 2011. It’s an extraordinary looking film with all the possibilities of cinematography deployed by Xaver Schwarzenberger to achieve a classical Hollywood effect for a story that has no redemption, no gain, no safety, no love.  Fassbinder himself appears briefly at the beginning of the film, seated behind Zech in a cinema. This is where movie dreams become a country’s nightmare. All that lustrous whiteness dazzles the eye and covers so much. Screenplay by Fassbinder with regular collaborators Peter Märtesheimer and Pea Fröhlich.  Let me tell you, it was a joy for me that someone should take care of me without knowing I’m Veronika Voss, and how famous I am. I felt like a human being again. A human being!

Hitchcock (2012)

Hitchcock 2012

But what if someone really good were to make a horror movie? In 1959 the world’s most famous film director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) is fretting about his next project, fearing his best days are behind him, chooses to adapt a horror novel, much to the disgust of his wife and collaborator, Alma Reville (Helen Mirren). He is forced to finance it himself with the assistance of agent Lew Wasserman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and has to deal with censorship issues through the office of meddlesome Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith). As they decide he should hire Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) to play the lead, Alma fears Hitch is obsessing over his leading lady and develops her own interest in screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote for Hitch a decade earlier. When the film runs into trouble in the edit, Hitch needs Alma’s full attention to save it … You may call me Hitch. Hold the Cock. The screenplay by John J. McLaughlin is based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho and it then takes a dive into a fantastical cornucopia of Hitchcockiana, turning a factual account into a world of in-jokes, dream and reality, with Hitchcock on the couch to pyschiatrist Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the real-life model for serial killer Norman Bates (James D’Arcy), screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) exploring his own relationship with his mother and star Janet Leigh dealing with information Hitch’s former protegée Vera Miles (Jessia Biel) has supplied about the director’s penchant for control. It’s wildly funny, filled with a plethora of references to Hitchcock’s TV show, psychiatry, other movies.  The reproduction of how the shower sequence is shot is memorable for all the right reasons and Johansson is superb at conveying Leigh’s game personality. “It was the knife that, a moment later, cut off her scream… and her head.” Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical!  You’ll chafe initially at the casting but the performances simply overwhelm you. There is so much to cherish:  for a film (within a film) that boasts the most famous [shower] scene of all time it starts in a bathtub and features excursions to the family swimming pool and screenwriter Cook’s beach cabin where Alma might just enjoy some extra-marital succour. The metaphor of a man whose life is in hot water is understood without being overdone. The suspense is not just if the film will be made – we already know that – but what kind of man made it and how it might have happened despite the begrudgers. There are insights about filmmaking and acting in the period and it looks absolutely stunning courtesy of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Judy Becker.  The blackly comic playfulness is miraculously maintained throughout. Hitchcock fetishists should love it, I know I do. Directed by Sacha Gervasi. And that my dear, is why they call me the Master of Suspense.  I’ve written about it for Offscreen:  https://offscreen.com/view/hitchcock-blonde-scarlett-johansson-scream-queen

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

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Everybody got honourable mention who showed up. Opthamologist Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) wants to preserve his marriage to Miriam (Claire Bloom), and his dangerous brother Jack (Jerry Orbach) comes up with what appears to be the only viable solution – murder. Initially he is plagued with guilt about his infidelity and confides in his Rabbi client Ben (Sam Waterston) whom he is treating for sight loss. However when he becomes certain that his neurotic and hysterical mistress Dolores (Anjelica Huston) is about to tell his wife about their four-year long affair, Judah agrees to Jack’s plan. Cliff Stern (Woody Allen) is a documentary maker whose films make no money and he spends his afternoons at the movies with his orphaned niece. His wife Jenny (Joanna Gleason) chides him for his failure and refuses to have sex with him but things seems to be resolved when her brother, horribly successful TV comedy producer Lester (Alan Alda) says he can make a film about him, which introduces him to associate producer Halley (Mia Farrow), who shares his love of movies Without the law it’s all darkness. A film of two halves in which Allen tries to unite the ideas of tragedy and comedy – happily Alda is at hand to illustrate it via Oedipus Rex using the hoary saying, Comedy is tragedy plus time. It’s a wholly ironic work in which Huston’s death should trigger guilt in Landau but he escapes scot-free while his rabbi advisor ends up with sight loss; and Allen’s character who wisely advises his orphaned niece about life through daily trips to the movies doesn’t see what’s clear to his wife – that the object of his affection Farrow is in lust with the obnoxious Alda. Meanwhile his philosophical hero Professor Louis Levy (Martin S. Bergmann) whose interviews form a Greek chorus of morality for a proposed film commits suicide. That the entire tragicomedy is concluded in a wedding is the greatest irony of all in a work which balances like the finest of high wire acts. God is a luxury I can’t afford

 

 

 

Manhattan (1979)

 

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Chapter One. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. Oh, I love this. New York was his town, and it always would be. 42-year old TV comedy writer Isaac Davis (Woody Allen) is involved with high school student Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) and freaking out about his Lesbian ex-wife Jill’s (Meryl Streep) forthcoming memoir of their marriage breakup; while his best friend, University professor Yale Pollack (Michael Murphy) is cheating on his wonderful wife Emily (Anne Byrne) with cerebral egotist book editor Mary Wilkie (Diane Keaton). Isaac quits his job in a fit of pique which he instantly regrets and has to downsize in order to finance a year when he will try to write a book. Yale breaks up with Mary so when Tracy says she wants to go to London to study acting Isaac and Mary get together … I’m dating a girl who does homework. Elaine’s, the Empire Diner, The Russian Tea Room, Central Park, the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, Bloomingdale’s, Dean and Deluca, the Lincoln Center, Rizzoli’s bookstore, Zabar’s, the now-demolished Cinema Studio, this is the one where Allen fully expresses his love of his native city and it’s more than a Valentine as the story inspired by George Gershwin’s music, starting with Rhapsody in Blue, transports us into the inner workings of the characters and their preposterous lifestyle problems. The script by Allen and Marshall Brickman gives Keaton absurdly self-aggrandising dialogue protesting the burden of her beauty, Allen jokes about his castrating Zionist mother and jibes about Lesbian fathers, and everyone bar 17-year old Tracy is fairly ridiculous but even she is a serious sexpot who wants to go to London to train as an actor (supposedly based on Allen’s relationship with Stacy Nelkin). A gorgeous, funny, satirical film about silly people whose therapists call them, weeping, and they carry on doing stupid things, risking their relationships and their careers on a romantic whim in a disposable culture. (That’s Mia Farrow’s sister Tisa talking about the wrong kind of orgasm, BTW.)  It’s all told with love and humour and shot in ridiculously beautiful widescreen monochrome by Gordon Willis because of course the real unadulterated love spoken of here is for New York City and it gives the writer his voice.  Of the two of us I wasn’t the amoral psychotic promiscuous one  MM #2,600

The Facts of Life (1960)

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Am I really going to San Francisco to spend the weekend… with the husband of my best friend? When neighbours Kitty Weaver (Lucille Ball) and Larry Gilbert (Bob Hope) meet it’s irritation at first sight but there’s an undeniable attraction which they eventually act upon during the annual neighbourhood vacation in Acapulco when they’re forced to spend it together. Problem is, they’re both married, she to habitual gambler Jack (Don DeFore), he to perfect homemaker Mary (Ruth Hussey) and they both have two children. They vow to take off together after circumstances and regular encounters at social gatherings mean they keep running into each other but a messed up drunken assignation at a motel makes them rethink. Then things change after Larry finds out that Kitty has written a note to Jack to tell him she’s leaving him when the pair take go to San Francisco for the weekend during the winter vacation … This is my first affair, so please be kind. A breezy but cold-eyed comedy of suburban middle class adultery is not necessarily what you might expect with that cast, but that’s what legendary screenwriting partners Norman Panama and Melvin Frank created and it’s very well played by the leads who of course are both peerless comedy performers and this is the third of the four films they made together. It’s as though Johns Cheever and Updike decided to up sticks and go Hollywood and take all the baggage of midcentury masculinity with them. Panama and Frank are of course great comic screenwriters.  Their first screen credit was on Hope’s 1942 movie My Favorite Blonde and later work with him includes Road to Utopia, Monsieur Beaucaire and an uncredited rewrite of The Princess and the Pirate so they know his strengths (they are his, as it were) and they turn a messy uncomfortable familial disruption into an easily enjoyed romcom whose moral messiness is tidied into great dialogue and barely concealed social anxiety.  This is the essence of comedy and it’s their forte. There are some shockingly barbed exchanges and there are excruciating sequences when the couple discuss the legal and financial ramifications of two divorces and realise when they’re finally alone together that they’re probably mismatched; when they almost get found out by neighbours at San Francisco Airport the tension is horrific.  There’s a notable score by Johnny Mercer and Leigh Harline with the title song performed by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé and while Frank gets the sole directing credit, it appears Panama co-directed. There’s an unexpectedly conventional titles sequence designed by Saul Bass, putting us right in the mood for the tenor of that era’s comedy style and it all looks beautiful in monochrome thanks to cinematographer Charles Lang. Night-time Los Angeles looks glossy even in black and white.  It’s an interesting one to compare with another film about an extra-marital suburban affair filmed the same year, Strangers When We Meet. Played a beat slower with a fraction less of the leads’ comedy mugging and shot in colour, this could match its melodramatic tone. Are you sure you’re with the right woman?

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

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I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything. New Jersey in the 1930s. Unhappily married Depression-era waitress Cecilia (Mia Farrow) earns the money while her inattentive husband, Monk (Danny Aiello), blows their measly income on getting drunk and gambling. To deal with her loneliness, Cecilia escapes to the cinema and becomes transfixed with the RKO movie The Purple Rose of Cairo and especially its lead character, archaeologist Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). When Tom notices this is her fifth time to see it he literally steps out of the black and white screen and into her life in full colour.  Both of their realities are thrown into chaos as he is confused by his actor’s identity of Gil Shepherd and the character he plays onscreen where he is indulged by Manhattan high society. Cecilia has to choose between Tom and Gil. Then the film’s producers discover that other Tom Baxters are attempting to leave the screen in other movie theatres ... You make love without fading out? Perfectly capturing the fantasy life of a moviegoer at the height of Thirties Hollywood, Allen blends Depression-era realism with the escape valve of Deco cinema against the backdrop of marital discord and domestic violence. The real ones want their lives fiction and the fictional ones want their lives real. The performances are pitch-perfect and the tone admirably sustained, Farrow enormously touching in capturing the bittersweet situation of a woman caught between what she has and what she wants:  When you kissed me, I felt like my heart faded out. I closed my eyes, and I was in some private place. In a role originally played by Michael Keaton until he and Allen agreed it wasn’t working ten days into production, Daniels has an existential crisis at the centre of his performance:  I don’t get hurt or bleed, hair doesn’t muss; it’s one of the advantages of being imaginary. The conceit is brilliant and it’s intelligently played out in one of Allen’s best screenplays with the film within the film wonderfully imagined and Gil’s belief that he created the character of Tom is an arrow across the parapet for screenwriters. I don’t wanna talk any more about what’s real and what’s illusion. Life’s too short to spend time thinking about life. Let’s just live it! Shot in shades of wistfulness and regret by Gordon Willis, this remains a classic interrogation of cinema’s power. I want what happened in the movie last week to happen this week; otherwise, what’s life all about anyway?

Radio Days (1987)

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Who is Pearl Harbour? Narrator Joe (Woody Allen) tells the story of two burglars in his childhood neighbourhood of Rockaway Beach, NY, who get caught when they answer the phone to participate in a live radio competition back in the medium’s golden age. The songs trigger childhood memories and we are taken back to his life as a child as Young Joe (Seth Green) immediately prior to and during World War 2 where his mother (Julie Kavner) served breakfast listening to Breakfast With Irene and Roger and his father Martin (Michael Tucker) keeps his occupation a secret from the family until Joe finds out he’s a taxi driver when he hails a cab.  Joe’s favourite show is The Masked Avenger so he has a healthy fantasy life but when he spots a Nazi submarine on the shoreline he fails to alert anyone because he thinks they won’t believe him. Unmarried Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) lives with them and is constantly going out with losers. Joe has heard stories about radio stars and we learn about Sally White (Mia Farrow) a hatcheck girl with acting dreams and a bad accent who sleeps with big names including Roger to get ahead but always gets left behind until she gets her big break when she witnesses a murder … He’s a ventriloquist on the radio! How can you tell he’s not moving his lips? As any fule kno, Rockaway Beach is one of the most inspiring spots in New York. Winning, winsome and witty, this series of vignettes is stitched together with what can only be described as love with nods to famous radio stories including Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, here interrupting a fogbound assignation. One of the funniest tales involves a sportscaster prone to melodrama regaling his audience with the story of a blind one-legged baseball star. Farrow and Wiest get two of the best character arcs, the former’s Singin’ in the Rain-ish storyline turning her from squeaky-voiced trampy wannabe actress to Louella Parsons-type gossip columnist via a run-in with a sympathetic mob hitman Rocco (Danny Aiello) from the old ‘hood; while the latter is terminally disappointed in love including a necessarily brief romance with a white-suited Tom Wolfe lookalike bemoaning the loss of his fiancée who turns out to have been a man called Leonard. Music and songs churn and curdle the endless embarrassment and kind hearted acts as friends, family and neighbours get on with their daily lives when war breaks out. Memories of Annie Hall abound in the voyeuristic kids whose new teacher Miss Gordon (Sydney Blake) turns out to be the exhibitionist they’ve been watching surreptitiously when they were out spotting German aircraft. Brimful of nostalgia and told with fond humour, this concludes on a bittersweet note as these little lives filled with crazy incidents and relatable attitudes acknowledge that they exist vicariously through what is the soundtrack of their lives, driven by the music of all the era’s greats with everyone from Artie Shaw to Duke Ellington and Xavier Cugat featured in the world of this kaleidoscopic narrative, like a lovingly reproduced living postcard. A beautiful, intensely funny and deeply affectionate work of art. I wonder if future generations will ever even hear about us