Movie Review: The Farthest (2017)
During the end credits, one of the talking heads/scientists questions the off-camera documentarian’s use of the word “she” to describe the two Voyagers that we sent into space in 1977 to collect data and send out a multilingual message of greeting, Mozart and Chuck Berry to other potential life forms. He says, no, we don’t anthropomorphize the Voyager spacecraft, adding, with a twinkle, “They wouldn’t like it.”
We need that twinkle because anthropomorphizing Voyager is part of what we, and this doc, have been doing for 90 minutes. It’s why the doc has such emotional heft.
12 billion and counting
“The Farthest” is a good intro doc for idiots like me who haven’t been paying attention. I mostly knew Voyager from its reincarnation as V’ger in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” I didn’t know both Voyagers were still out there. I didn’t know that in 2012 Voyager I became the first man-made object to reach interstellar space. I didn’t know what “interstellar space” was.
Distance is a big part of the anthropomorphization. We see (through digital animation) how far it’s gone, and we see (through actual photos it’s sent back) how far away we are, and we can’t help but feel a pang of ... loss? Concern? Solicitousness? It travels at 10 miles per second, to where no man has gone before, and it’s surrounded by the vast cold and not much else. It doesn’t even have close encounters with planets anymore: Jupiter, Saturn, and for Voyager 2, Uranus and Neptune. It doesn’t even have the company of the other Voyager: Voyager 1 is years ahead of 2 and on a different trajectory. Our greatest stories, from Iliad/Odyssey to “The Wizard of Oz,” are about going out and returning home, and the Voyagers can’t do the second. They can only send back messages. Increasingly distant messages.
That may be the thing that stunned me most watching this. How do we still communicate with these guys? How are we able to tell 2 to turn and take a picture of our solar system as it’s leaving it? I sometimes have trouble getting a signal from a router down the hallway and we can communicate with a spacecraft 2.7 billion miles away? Or, now, 12 billion miles?
And this is with mid-’70s technology! Each is the size of a gangly bus, and for each, its total memory is, according to one scientist, “240 thousand times less than in your smart phone.” You do a double-take. “Wait, did he say 240 or ... Really? 240 thousand? Whoooaaaaa.” You think of all Voyager has done despite those limitations, and all that we haven’t with the world at our fingertips.
We get a few pop culture moments. The Beatles, or one of its reps, apparently turned down the chance to be on the gold record we sent into the farthest reaches of space, which is why Chuck Berry is on it instead. (Are the Rolling Stones miffed they weren’t asked?) We see a clip of SNL psychics talking up the future news in 1978, one of whom, Steve Martin, says the big news story will be the four words we hear back from the farthest reaches of space, which indicate intelligent life elsewhere: “Send more Chuck Berry.” But there’s no “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” or other sci-fi incarnations here. It’s science.
I kept flashing on sci-fi, though. Ten years ago, I wrote a short history of alien-invasion movies for MSNBC, and what stood out during the research—the long hours watching those hokey movies—was the absolute paranoia of ’50s movies versus Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977:
At no point does anyone in Spielberg’s movie worry that the aliens might be less than kind. Sure, they kidnap our military pilots and small children, and they’ve obviously got superior technology. But look at the lights! Look at the pretty lights!
The Voyagers, which were sent into space the same year “Close Encounters” was released, assumed benevolence, too. We not only sent our music and messages and photos, we indicated where we were in case anyone wanted to come visit. Can you imagine if NASA attempted that today? What Fox News would say? Or Rush or Drudge? One scientist/talking head says here, “There’s never going to be another mission like it. It’s the first and last of its own kind,” but I’m curious why. Why aren’t we interested enough to make it happen again? Because of the paranoia? Because there’s no money in it? Because in space, no one can hear you profit?
The long and winding road
“The Farthest” isn’t even an American documentary. It’s Irish. It’s written and directed by Emer Reynolds, who works as an editor in the Irish film industry, but who’s done a few documentaries over the years: shorts one, TV ones, one on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and now this. She’s a big science geek, and did a whistle-stop tour of the U.S. to interview our extant Voyager scientists. What she comes away with is glorious.
Reynolds gives us a lot of shots of the earth looking up from a deep below, and we get the computer simulations of the Voyagers, as well as the actual photos they took, but what makes the doc work—and cue John Ford, please—is the human faces of these scientists: their smarts, enthusiasms, and pure joy in the journey. That we sent this piece of ourselves out there, and it’s still going, and it will likely still be going when you and I and all of our loved ones are long dead. “Four billion years from now,” says one, “when our sun turns into a red giant, Voyager is still going to be trucking out there, through the stars. We’ll still be out there.”
O Captain Your Captain
As the stomach turns.
Wall Street Journal sports editor Sam Walker has written a book about what makes a great team captain, and, anticipating it, or publicizing it, or simply tweaking the noses of Yankee fans everywhere, he has a piece on Deadspin about why Derek Jeter doesn't make the cut—and why it's not even close. It's called “Why Does Everyone Think Derek Jeter was a Great Captain?”
It's the greatest thing I've ever read.
OK, but nearly.
He brings up stuff I know all too well but not enough apparently do: How Jeter became captain in 2003, after the Yankees' great run, meaning the team won just one World Series under his stewardship—and that thanks mostly to Jeter's bete noir Alex Rodriguez; how Jeter never suggested moving away from shortstop when a better defensive SS came along (A-Rod again), not even in his dotage when he was, by any statistical measure, a massive defensive liability. Walker also brings up that awful farewell tour in 2014, when enemy teams bestowed gifts upon him, and enemy fans stood and applauded. The stomach turns at the thought.
But this is the decisive blow:
There's another crucial piece of context to factor in, here too—money. It's true that Jeter's captaincy coincided with an aggressive new MLB luxury tax that forced the Yankees to surrender a chunk of their revenue to support the league's poorer teams, but the Yankees still had more than enough left over to maintain a sizeable spending advantage. In fact, according to payroll figures over those 12 seasons, the Yankees outspent the No. 2 MLB team by more than $1 billion.
All of that money, and Jeter's supposedly brilliant leadership, produced the same trophy haul as the Florida Marlins.
Read the whole piece. It's nice seeing this Macy's parade balloon popped.
Ailes Obit I
“I would distill Ailes's genius down to the following formula: There is a person at a great distance from you who, simply by existing, insults your existence; therefore, that person does not have a right to exist. Ailes did more to degrade the tone of public life in America than anyone since Joseph McCarthy, and, even the day after his death, it is a struggle to write about him without borrowing from that tone.”
-- Stephen Metcalf, “How Rogers Ailes Degraded the Tone of Public Life in America,” The New Yorker
Movie Review: The Big Sick (2017)
“The Big Sick” is the funniest movie I’ve seen in years. It’s the best romantic comedy I’ve seen since longer than that. Its humor is sometimes whimsical, sometimes brutal, but always honest. It moves like life but makes us laugh more.
I went in not knowing much—other than the movie was written by and starred Kumail Nanjiani, Dinesh of “Silicon Valley”—and if you’re like me and you like not knowing much of the story, stop reading now. Seriously. Come back after you’ve seen it. Spoiler alert redux.
My wife Patricia read a piece in The New Yorker about it, so she knew this much going in: “Sick” is based on Nanjiani’s relationship with co-writer, and now wife, Emily V. Gordon. That’s why it feels like life. It mostly is.
Boy meets girl’s parents
Nanjiani plays Kumail, a first-generation Pakistani-American and struggling stand-up comedian who makes a living as an Uber driver. He’s treading water but doesn’t seem to mind. Nanjiani isn’t a great actor but he often has an amused gleam in his eyes—like he’s holding onto a secret or a joke, and to share it would be too good. Weekends he visits his parents in a Chicago suburb, and his mom is forever trying to fix him up with single Pakistani girls. He’s got a box at home with their photos. He calls it the X-files.
One night after his set, he’s talking up a cute girl, Emily (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia), who “whoo!-ed” during his set, and he teases her about heckling him. She gives as good as she gets. Their repartee is quite charming. They sleep together that night, and as she’s getting ready to go, he objects: They haven’t had sex again yet. She: “I’m just not that kind of girl—I only have sex once on the first date.” They’re that rarity: the Hollywood movie couple who feel like they should be together.
Life proceeds. They grow closer, he’s up for a prestigious Montreal comedy gig. Mom keeps bringing in Pakistani girls for weekend dinners but he doesn’t let his parents know about Emily. It’s bad enough he’s an Uber driver/stand-up comedian rather than a doctor. But to date outside the religion? That would kill them. Or excommunicate him.
Eventually, Emily finds the X-files box, questions him, realizes he’s never told his parents they’re dating, and, in tears, asks if he can imagine a world in which they end up together. “I don’t know,” he says, so she ends it. Like the “Seinfeld” Band-Aid.
It would’ve ended there—without much of a story—but one night her roommate phones to tell him Emily is in the hospital. Why does the roommate send him? Why doesn’t she go? Who knows? At first, the illness doesn’t seem serious, then it does. The doctor, in fact, wants to put her in a medically induced coma, and Kumail is the only one who can give permission. A nurse informs him gravely that he should call her family. It’s a “shit gets real” moment and he’s not ready for it. He doesn’t know how to contact her parents, and, when he takes her phone by the bedside stand, he doesn’t know her password to get in. She’s unconscious next to him; so knowing what he’s doing is very, very unethical, he borrows her thumb. Shit gets real but remains funny.
The parents are Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), and when they show up they’re dismissive. They literally dismiss Kumail. He can go. This is the guy, after all, who hurt their little girl. Why is he even hanging around? But he stays.
The amazing thing? This is the brunt of the movie. It’s mostly about Kumail growing closer to Emily’s parents while she’s in a coma. Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, girl winds up in medically induced coma, boy hangs out with her parents. For rom-coms, this is a breath of fresh air.
It helps, of course, that it’s Romano (the dry comedian as actor) and Hunter (the great actress who kills at angry, deadpan comedy). The looks she gives Kumail are priceless, but not as priceless as the moment she first walks into her daughter’s apartment, sees the familiar stuff, smells her daughter’s clothes. We get this exchange, one of many great ones:
Terry: Let me tell you something, Kumail. Love isn’t easy. That’s why they call it love.
Kumail: (Pause) I don’t really get that.
Terry: I know. I thought I could just start saying something, and something smart would come out.
Since I didn’t know this was based on real life—that the film’s co-writer is the woman in the coma—I kept going back and forth on what should happen. Obviously I didn’t want Emily to die. But would the movie be better for it? More memorable? Where could they go with the story if she survived?
Here’s where they go: The doctors finally figure out what’s wrong, she’s brought back, everyone’s happy, and she basically looks at Kumail and says, “Why are you here?” He’s grown in the relationship but she’s still back at square one. He’s closer to her parents now than he is with her.
“The Big Sick,” directed by Michael Showalter (“The Baxter,” “Wet Hot American Summer”), is a Judd Apatow production, which means it goes on a bit longer than it probably should: 119 minutes rather than the traditional 90 for rom-coms. But the extra time is taken up by life’s twists and turns, its ragged edges. And the movie still ends on a grace note that’s satisfying.
How lovely to get such a round portrait of this Pakistani family, too, which is both new to us and universal. The story of America is the story of assimilation; we encounter it over and over again in our history and literature—Irish-Americans, Southern-Americans, Jewish-Americans, African-Americans. Add this. When the great confrontation between Kumail and his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) finally arrives, he asks them, essentially: Why did you come to America? Why continue with the old ways when we arrived here for the new? It’s a winning argument that doesn’t win—not immediately anyway. More ragged edges.
I feel like I’m still not telling you the best stuff about “The Big Sick.” The best stuff is the comedy—including a 9/11 line that absolutely killed when the movie played the opening of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival. I missed a lot because of the laughter ringing in the theater throughout the movie. I’m ready to see it again.
Lancelot Links Can't Stop Reading the News
- It's tough to keep up these days—for obvious reasons. I think of the opening of David Remnick's great piece on Trump's first 100 days: “For most people, the luxury of living in a relatively stable democracy is the luxury of not following politics with a nerve-racked constancy. Trump does not afford this. His Presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite.” I wonder if productivity has gone down in the U.S. under his administration. Wouldn't be surprised.
- The big story of the week, in a week of big stories, was the New York Times' revelation that Comey has memos from his meetings with Trump; and during the Feb. 14 meeting, Trump supposedly told Comey to back off the investigation into Gen. Flynn. Right now it's he said/he said, but if there are tapes, as Trump has implied, and the tapes bear out Comey's claim, well, then it's obstruction of justice. The whole thing is Watergate on speed.
- Or maybe we don't need the tapes. According to the Times today, Trump told Russian diplomats in the Oval Office: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. ... I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off.” This is according to documents summarizing the meeting. That sounds like obstruction of justice to me. So it's all about the validity of the documents. Which are apparently official White House documents.
- Before these more egregious Trump stories broke, Evan Osnos at The New Yorker was already answering the question, “How Trump could get fired?” The stuff on Reagan and the 25th amendment is particularly interesting.
- In other news this week, Roger Ailes died. The man who wrote the book on him, Gabriel Sherman, says he's going to miss him.
- Matt Taibbi isn't so kind.
- Neither is Vice.
- Nor Media Matters.
- New Yorker.
- Sherman references Janet Maslin's takedown of his book on Ailes, which you can find here. Makes me never want to read Maslin again. Our insiders need to get outside once in a while. Breathe the air there.
Everything Old Is New Again
Apparently the president of the United States said something in the Oval Office that could lead to obstruction of justice charges and eventual impeachment—even prison. Right now it's he said/he said, but there are rumors of tapes. If they exist, will we need a subpoena? Don't touch that dial.
No, it's not Nixon '73 but Trump '17. Nothing this guy does is original. His whole scandal is like Watergate on speed.
Both images below came my way via social media yesterday. The first was in the wake of Trump calling the investigation into Trump/Russia ties, not to mention charges of obstruction of justice, a “witch hunt”:
Meanwhile, on Facebook, author Rick Perlstein posted this Art Buchwald column with the comment, “Some handy advice for Trump defenders from beyond the grave”:
Arguments that Trump and his supporters keep bringing up? 4, 5, 6, 8, 14, 25, 28, 29, 30. Sub in “Hillary” or “Obama” and you also get all the Chappaquiddick answers. Plus versions of LBJ, Truman and FDR.
Remember: He is not a crook.
How I'm Like Ricky Gervais
- I'm always early, hate late people
- Hate noisy chewers
- Don't get “Lord of the Rings”
- Don't get subscribing to any one religion
- We both have loud laughs
Watching, I kept going, “Yeah ... yeah ... yeah.”
Love this line: “But we're all sinners according to your lot.” Your lot. Also on the trinity: “Sounds a bit far-fetched to me.” And the Mr. Universe line is a throwaway killer.
Has anyone as funny as Gervais ever laughed as much as Gervais? Most really funny people seem take great humor with a kind of nod of appreciation, but that's it. Gervais still has his shotgun laugh. Both barrels.
Movie Review: Denial (2016)
So the Holocaust still happened. Good to know.
I’m not sure who “Denial” is supposed to appeal to. The protagonist, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), is unlikeable; her advocates, the solicitor/barrister team of Anthony Julius and Richard Rampton (Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson), aren’t given enough screentime to be interesting; and overall there’s just not much drama. Most of the drama, in fact, is provided by the unreasonableness of the protagonist, who favors emotional arguments in court over legal ones—but even this kind of drama only goes so far. Let’s face it: Hollywood, with its love of happy endings, isn’t going to make a movie in which a Holocaust denier wins.
Some background: In 1996, David Irving (Timothy Spall), a British scholar on Hitler and a recent Holocaust denier, sued Lipstadt for libel for the depiction of him (as a liar, etc.) in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust.” He sued her in British court, where libel laws favor plaintiffs. In U.S. courts the onus is on the plaintiff to prove libel, while in British courts it’s on the defendant to prove it wasn’t. So she and her team have to prove Irving a liar. Which they do. Many times over.
The scenes in the courtroom are supposedly taken verbatim from the trial transcript. Would that the rest of the movie was; we might have had something. As is, there's nothing. Seriously. There's no depth to any of the characters, there's little drama, we don't even get a clear idea of what about the Holocaust can be proven and what can't. When in doubt, writer David Hare (“The Reader”) and director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) simply send Lipstadt out jogging. I think we get four or five such scenes. It’s not an answer. To anything.
The creepiest thing about all of this? Many of the user reviews of the film on IMDb.com have been written by obvious Holocaust deniers. Some samples, without copy-edits:
- “I was not a Holocaust Denier ever but after watching the movie I became one. Not because of the historical facts exposed in the movie but I saw how the whole Holocaust saga had been hijacked by Jewish agenda.”
- “Irving,a famous best selling author,started having problems getting book contracts after the academic Deborah Lipstadt wrote about him giving him the Orwellian label of “denier”. He began to be blacklisted and his income was suffering and his response was to seek some justice.“
- ”David Irving is an extremely intelligent, well educated man. His work is very, very well researched. That is why they felt compelled to make this (really bad) movie about him, to try and discredit him."
What a shame a better movie slamming them and their man wasn’t made. They deserve it. They need to crawl back under their rocks and stay there.