Rudy, Hitting the Showers
There's a kind of insane interview between Isaac Chotiner and Rudy Giuliani on the New Yorker site. A lot has to do with the Buzzfeed article last week about whether Trump ordered Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about when Trump Tower Moscow negotiations ended. We now know Cohen did lie to Congress—he told Congress the negotiations ended in Jan. 2016 when they continued until at least June 2016 and possibly into the Nov. election—but is there evidence or corroboration that Trump told Cohen to lie? That's the issue. That's where we are now.
The insane thing is how all over the place Rudy sounds. He's not exactly playing it close to the vest. He says he can only talk a minute because he needs to take a shower and then just keeps talking. That gift of gab is probably in his DNA.
He's also doing the lawyer thing: What can be charged, and what can be proven, in a court of law? It's insane that that's where we are with the president of the United States, where even appearances are supposed to matter:
Does it matter to the American people if it's true? We are living in a democracy here. We want to know these things.
That's an insane question you just asked me. I am not saying that he did it. I just told you he didn't do it. I am telling you that their investigation is so ridiculous that, even if he did do it, it wouldn't be a crime. Now, would the American people be interested in it? Of course. There's a big difference between what the American people would be interested in and what's a crime. The American people can be interested in a lot of things people conceal that aren't crimes. I'm a criminal lawyer. I am not an ethicist. And I defend people against unfair criminal charges.
We haven't begun to pay for all this.
Movie Review: Free Solo (2018)
There’s no more thankless role in movies than the wife who urges her husband away from the plot. We’re here to see the hero do X (investigate the JFK assassination, say, or fight foreigners who disparage Wing Chun), she tell him, “Don't do that, you’re breaking apart the family!” or whatever her argument is, and so we have to wait until she caves or goes away and we get to watch the hero do what we paid to see him do.
“Free Solo” contains the first non-fiction version of this thankless role I’ve seen.
The documentary by husband-and-wife team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Meru”), is about Alex Honnold, one of the most acclaimed free solo rock climbers in the world. “Free solo” means climbing without ropes, harnesses, etc. You fall, you die. He's one of the most acclaimed in the world not only because he boldly goes where no one has gone before, but because the others keep dying.
Why does Alex do it? He says he likes how focused and concentrated he has to become. I have a friend, Craig, who wrote a song in the ’90s called “Marina,” based on the T.S. Elliott poem of the same name, and which includes many of the same words. Both begin, for example, with: “What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands/What water lapping the bow.” My friend’s song, though, contains a thought not in Elliott’s poem:
I’d trade all the world and all time before me
For one pure day alive
I believe that’s Alex’s trade-off. He’s risking all time before him for one pure day alive.
Oh, there’s another factor for why he does it. There’s a portion of our brains, called the amygdala, which controls emotions such as fear; and after Alex has a brain scan we find out his amygdala is way less responsive than the norm. The fears that stimulate the amygdala in others don’t for his. Which is why he is able to do what he does.
Who knows? Maybe he free solos so he can feel as much of a thrill as we feel when we do a cannonball off the high dive.
Live long and prosper
Anyway, that’s our guy. He’s been on the cover of all the rock climbing mags, as well as The New York Times Magazine. He makes a decent living—as much as a dentist, he tells the kids in his old high school—but he lives sparingly, in a kind of junky mobile van, where he stir-fries meals and eats them with a spatula to give himself fuel for the next day’s climb. He’s superfit, with a fantastic core and fantastic balance (he does the tree pose on a tree fallen at a 45-degree angle), and with hands and fingers so strong and fine-tuned they look like they could seek out nerve endings in your neck and kill you. He looks like he could do the Vulcan neck pinch. (I wonder what amygdalas in Vulcans are like?)
He’s a good-looking kid, too. At times, I was thinking Lukas Haas grown up; other times, Jim Caviezel (“The Thin Red Line”). He’s got insanely large pupils that no one comments on. Very little of the white part, the sclera. I was reminded of Robert Durst, the accused murderer featured in the HBO doc, “The Jinx,” which is obviously less a compliment than Jim Caviezel or Lukas Haas.
As the doc opens, Alex is already at the top of his game; but he has a challenge remaining: to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite, a 3,200-foot sheer granite vertical climb that no one has ever free-soloed. Because, you know, it would be insane. Besides the 3,200 feet straight up, El Capitan has six “trouble spots,” which, in rock-climbing parlance, indicates an area where you don’t have fractions of an inch to rely upon for finger- or toe-holds; where you somehow have to vault the blank area to the other fraction-inch finger/toehold. All of this at 600 feet up, or 1500 feet up, or whatever it is; where the trees below look like tiny stalks of broccoli.
The best comment on the idea of free-soloing El Capitan comes from rock climber extraordinaire, and Alex’s friend, Tommy Caldwell:
People who know a little bit about climbing, they’re like, “Oh, he’s totally safe.” And then people who really know exactly what he’s doing are freaked out.
Chin’s camera crew follows him around as he prepares for this feat. “I’ll never be content unless I at least put in the effort,” Alex says. He also says: “I could just walk away, but I’m like, I don’t want to.”
El Capitan, though, turns out to be just one challenge Alex has to overcome. The other is the girlfriend who urges him away from the plot.
By his own admission, Alex, despite being handsome and fit as fuck, didn’t date much. He wasn’t into the long-term thing. He has some pretty fun, almost Vulcanish comments about love. But as the doc progresses, he does, in fact, have a girlfriend, Sanni, whom he met at a book-signing. She did the cheeky thing: As he signed her book, she slipped him her phone number. And because she’s cute, with a high-wattage all-American smile, complete with dimples deeper than some fingerholds he uses, they got together and became a couple.
They seem good together, and sweet, and he takes her on climbs. Not free solos—regular climbs with ropes and safety gear. Which is when Alex begins to fall. The man who never fell before is suddenly falling. It’s almost a metaphor for love if Alex seemed like somebody in love. At one point he hurts his back; in the other, he sprains his ankle. Alex never used to get injured, Caldwell says; yet here, in the summer of 2016, before he’s attempting to free solo El Capitan, it happens twice with Sanni. Is she a jinx? A distraction? No one raises such points in the doc; we, in our seats, raise them ourselves.
He tries the free solo anyway in the fall of 2016, five weeks after he sprained his ankle. Doesn’t take. In the early morning dark, he gets to the first trouble spot, “The Boulder Problem,” 600 feet up, and decides to return. The others talk about how they’d never seen Alex do that before. He seems defeated. At the same time, just think about what he’s done. He spent the morning free-soloing 600 feet—or two football fields—straight up a granite monolith. For you or I, that would be the achievement of a lifetime. To him, it’s a crushing defeat. His amygdala remains unstimulated.
That winter, he and Sanni buy a house outside of Las Vegas. Why Vegas? No one says. But now he has his own place. I love them shopping for refrigerators together, opening and closing doors on these behemoths, and Alex settling for a regular-sized model circa 1960.
But he still has his mind set on El Capitan. And the closer he and Sanni get, the more it bothers her. Early on, she’s the modern “you do you” girlfriend. She says: “If he doesn’t do this stuff, he’d regret it.” The closer it gets to spring 2017, however, the more emotional she becomes. “What if something happens?” she tells the camera in tears. “What if I don’t see him again?” And in this way, she becomes the real-life version of the wife who gets in the way of the plot.
Does she become annoying? After the doc was over, the first words out of my wife’s mouth were, “I know this is bad, but I didn’t like her much.”
That’s the moviegoer in us. Then you pull back, and you think, c’mon, she’s simply worried about what any of us would be worried about: the unnecessary risks loved ones take. Besides, she vastly improves the movie by creating a dilemma within the dilemma. She’s El Capitan, Jr.
The doc itself is beautiful, exhilarating and exhausting. I don’t do well with heights—just climbing the stairs of the Eifel Tower and looking down, my legs turned to jelly—so I could barely watch his free-solo ascent. It was like a horror movie to me. And this knowing he succeeds. Because if he didn’t, the doc wouldn’t have been made; or it would’ve been made way differently.
That said, I love the smile on his face as he passes each of the trouble spots, and, lickety split, keeps ascending. I love the joy of it. There’s humor, too. Halfway up, he crosses a flat ledge where someone’s been camped out for the night ... in a giant bunny costume. WTF? Alex breezes past him, hardly seeming to notice. One wonders which sight is actually odder: a dude in a bunny costume halfway up El Capitan, or a guy free-soloing up El Capitan? I think the bunny dude was more freaked.
Love the kicker, too. In the celebratory high afterwards, there's relief and respite for both Alex and Sanni. He doesn't have the task nagging at him and she doesn't have the worry that he might die tomorrow. And then in a post-climb interview, he talks up other challenges; maybe some free solo greater than El Capitan? And we see both the excitement in his eyes, and, in the background, her dawning realization that this isn't a one-off; that the horror will continue; that the problem isn't the plot but the man. Maybe that should be the end of every “wife urging husband away from the plot” movie. As I said, it's a thankless role.
‘Green Book’ Wins PGA Award
“Green Book,” the anodyne-yet-controversial update of “Driving Miss Daisy” with the racial positions reversed, won the Producers Guild Award, or PGA, last night in Hollywood.
What does this mean? Historically, it means the movie has a 66% chance of winning best picture at the Academy Awards. That's the numbers from this century. (See below.)
The 10 PGA nominees weren't exactly stellar anyway, since 2018 was a fairly lousy year for American movies. If I had to rank them I'd go:
- The Favourite
- A Star is Born
- A Quiet Place
- Green Book
- Black Panther
- Bohemian Rhapsody
- Crazy Rich Asians
There's a big dropoff after 1) and another big dropoff after 3). So “Green Book” winning is a kind of middle-of-the-road pick by the PGA. For an anodyne road picture.
Well, “anodyne.” What struck me when first seeing the film, which is based on a true story, is how quickly its racist chauffeur overcomes his racism. It shows up in the first act and never again. He's also not homophobic. In 1962. He also has to show the black guy black culture. All of that. He's got the biggest heart of any man out there, and guess what? The screenplay was co-written by his son! Who, oh right, had a habit of retweeting racist accusations Donald Trump made. So apparently racism is harder to overcome than Vallelanga or Hollywood would have us believe. (See also: yesterday.)
The Academy has become a bit more diverse in recent years, a consequence of the #OscarsSoWhite viral campaign, so maybe they‘ll be able to go another route. The two surest: “Roma,” which is the best pic of the bunch by far, and “A Star is Born,” which is a well-made, traditional Hollywood story by favorite son Bradley Cooper.
What an odd situation to be in. Expecting Oscar to save the day.
Here are the PGA/Oscar comparisons.
|2017||The Shape of Water||The Shape of Water|
|2016||La La Land||Moonlight|
|2015||The Big Short||Spotlight|
|2013||Gravity/ 12 Years a Slave||12 Years a Slave|
|2011||The Artist||The Artist|
|2010||The King’s Speech||The King's Speech|
|2009||The Hurt Locker||The Hurt Locker|
|2008||Slumdog Millionaire||Slumdog Millionaire|
|2007||No Country for Old Men||No Country for Old Men|
|2006||Little Miss Sunshine||The Departed|
|2004||The Aviator||Million Dollar Baby|
|2003||Lord of the Rings||Lord of the Rings|
|2001||Moulin Rouge!||A Beautiful Mind|
|1999||American Beauty||American Beauty|
|1998||Saving Private Ryan||Shakespeare in Love|
|1996||The English Patient||The English Patient|
|1994||Forrest Gump||Forrest Gump|
|1993||Schindler's List||Schindler's List|
|1992||The Crying Game||Unforgiven|
|1991||The Silence of the Lambs||The Silence of the Lambs|
|1990||Dances with Wolves||Dances with Wolves|
|1989||Driving Miss Daisy||Driving Miss Daisy|
For a time there, I would've gone PGA: Apollo 13, Private Ryan, Brokeback, Little Miss Sunshine. Better choices, all. And yes, the PGAs awarded “Driving Miss Daisy,” too.
Tweet of the Day
Upending the lives of DACA recipients and then using them as hostages for an absurd and useless wall as hundreds of thousands of government workers go unpaid is one of the most immoral polices any modern president has pursued. Can’t dance around this. It’s just awful.— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) January 19, 2019
I came across this old Milton Caniff strip on IMDb.com when I was watching the 1940 movie serial of the same name. Serial wasn't bad, considering it was a 1940 movie serial. There was racism in it, but nothing like this.
A few thoughts:
- “Chinaman” isn't even the bad part.
- “Warm up to that Chinaman”: That's the bad part. Terry, our hero, is being duplicitous from the start.
- And how does he warm up to him? He takes his “A” sweater and makes it spell “SAP.” He turns him into the butt of a joke.
- And for that, he demands a favor. God, what a dick.
- And those Chinese characters Caniff writes? They‘re not anything. The only one that’s a real character is the first: 女。It means “female.” It's generally not part of a name, and it certainly wouldn't be part of this guy's name. The others are horseshit. Like pretending Xtruioq is a word.
- But because Terry can't pronounce the Chinese guy's name (that isn't a name), he renames him. Is there a joke in the name, too? Like a pitiful sigh?
Remember: This was read by kids. Terry was a role model for kids. Next time some right-wing yahoo complains that modern athletes aren't good “role models,” feel free to bring up Terry and the Pirates.
In the rest of this Sunday strip, which you can see here, Pat, the older hero of the strip, Batman to Terry's Robin, is almost seduced by the sexy “Dragon Lady.” It's both sides of the All-American white male attitude toward the Chinese: the women are sexy and thus dangerous; the men are idiots and thus comic foils.
Roughing the Ref
The other day, Joe Posnanski mentioned something in passing—an “outtake,” in his words—during an extensive post on why Aaron Nola's 2018 stats are so incredibly good by certain statistical measures, and whether those measure are wrong or Nola's really that good (spoiler: the measures are wrong).
What he mentioned in passing was about reffing in the NFL:
The referees immediately called it an incomplete pass [in the Philly-Chicago playoff game two weeks ago] because it's not humanly possible to officiate an NFL game. I don't mean this facetiously. It is not humanly possible to officiate an NFL game. The game moves too fast, there's too much happening at once, the rules are too vague and teams work harder at breaking the rules than referees could ever work at upholding them.
Calling an NFL game is like trying to police a 42.4 mph speed limit (or maybe it's 37.3 mph speed limit) on the Autobahn if the cars were (only in specific ways) allowed to crash into each other.
Watching a different game that weekend (Seahawks vs. Cowboys), I had the exact some thought.
It was the 4th quarter, Seahawks were still down by 3, and they had the ball on their own 20 with 9:33 to go. So here we go! First pass from scrimmage, gain of six. No, wait. Penalty on us: holding. Now it's first and 20 at the 10.
So here we go! Another short pass, five yards. No, wait. Penalty on us: unncessary roughness. Now it's second and 22 at the 8.
All of that kind of killed that drive. We wound up punting, they wound up scoring (to go ahead by 10), we wound up scoring (to bring it within 2), but then flubbed the onside kick and that was the game and the season.
I‘ve spent a lifetime listening to my father yelling at the refs on Sunday afternoons in Minnesota, and I kind of did the same during that drive at a Seattle bar, but it also made me think. How many refs are there on the field? Seven? How many umps during a MLB game? Four? Six during the postseason? But think of the difference in responsibilities. In baseball, the job is basically to follow the ball. That’s really it. If a player leads off an inning with a single to right, umps won't have to look at the center-fielder or left-fielder or third baseman or shortstop; they won't factor. Just follow the ball and follow the runner.
In football, refs have to watch every single player on every single play. Even a guy across the field from where the action is. He could do something—flag!—that brings the play back. Imagine if that happened in baseball. “Sorry, Felix, that's not a strikeout; the third baseman did X while you were throwing the ball.”
I don't know how refs do it. I suppose we should stop yelling at them and take in the enormity of the task.
Longtime readers may notice there is no more comments field on EL.com. Been thinking about removing this for a while, since it was a bit clunky-looking and most people know how to contact me anyway. If you don‘t, check out the bio page or the Twitter feed.
The deathknell came from a spammer, stephane3constant, who, on Jan. 11, placed 14 comments on 14 posts that were all basically ads. Each of these had to be removed individually, which is a pain, particularly when you add in remembering exactly how to do it. That always takes me a while. So I finally said, “Enough. Tim, let’s just remove it.” Now gone.
Have to admit: I feel sorry for anyone who felt placing spam on my site would help them in any way.
Movie Review: Borg vs. McEnroe (2017)
Turns out some of my 1970s heroes were the opposite of what I thought they were.
Back then, Steve Martin seemed the hippest host of the hippest show on television; but then you read his autobiography, “Born Standing Up,” and realize what an absolute square he was. He was such a square that while others were marching for civil rights, or against the war in Vietnam, he was doing magic tricks at Knotts Berry Farm. That’s like writing online movie reviews during the Trump era.
And if there was anything we knew about five-time Wimbledon champion Bjorn Borg, it was this: He was emotionless. Borg’s smiling face appeared on the cover of Time magazine in June 1980, and I remember adults commenting on how odd it looked. Borg didn’t smile. He was a tennis machine. He was an ice machine.
Not so much, it turns out.
Did anyone else think of “The Natural? At the end of that movie, Roy Hobbs, an old, hobbled man of 39, fresh from the hospital, faces a blonde-haired, strong-armed boy from the farmland. He faces his younger self, in other words. In a perverse way, that’s Borg here. The revelation—both in “Borg vs. McEnroe” and the excellent HBO documentary “Fire and Ice”—is that as a very young man Borg wasn’t ice; he was fire. He was so passionate, so determined to win, he kept running into trouble. To succeed in Sweden, he had to learn to subsume his rage. And he did. Maybe if he’d grown up on Long Island, like McEnroe, he could’ve let loose.
Did anyone else think of Philip Roth’s “The Anatomy Lesson”? In that novel, Roth’s doppelganger, Nathan Zuckerman, is a huge success, a literary lion, but he’s also just received a deathbed curse from his father and can’t write anymore. He has constant backpain—perhaps psychosomatic—and dreams of going to med school and becoming the nice Jewish doctor every parent wants. At the least, he wants a different job. At most, he wants to be a different person.
That’s Borg as the movie starts. Early on, we see him duck into a café in France to avoid fans. The man running the place doesn’t recognize him, which, given his celebrity status, not to mention his distinctive, iconic look—long hair, headband, eyes close together—was like not recognizing Ali in his prime. But it’s a relief for Borg. Hanging in the café, he pretends to be an electrician named Rune. He pretends to be his father. Anything other than being himself.
Borg, here, is not too cold; he’s too hot. The superstitions of sports fans are nothing next to him. Wade Boggs (eating chicken every lunch for 20 years because the first time he did it he went 4-4) is a piker in comparison. Borg has to do everything the same way: stay at the same hotel, ride in the same car, and on the same side, eat the same foods. All of that was necessary to get him to the top and so he has to keep doing it. Because the only place he can go from there is down. And that’s death. What does his coach, Lenert Bergelin (Stellan Skarsgard), say? It’s first or nothing for him. Second or third might as well be 1,000th. “When he starts losing,” Bergelin says, “it’s over.”
Excellent casting, by the way. Sverrir Gudnason is Bjorn Borg’s physical doppelganger and Shia LaBeouf is John McEnroe’s temperamental one. In a way, LeBeouf’s is beyond typecasting. He’s like meta-typecasting. It would be a joke if it weren’t so perfect.
As doppelgangers go, Gudnason is slightly better looking than Borg and a whole lot older. He was about 39 when this was filmed. Whereas Borg in 1980—when most of this is set? After winning four straight Wimbledons and going for his fifth, and seeming like the grand old man of tennis? I was shocked when I found out. He’d just turned 24 years old. He won his first Wimbledon at 19 and his last at 24 and he retired at 26.
Anyway, that’s the dynamic. Each man isn’t quite who he seems to be on the court or in the press. McEnroe is studied and measured, Borg is seething behind his mask. He’s a bit of an asshole; he pushes everyone away. He mocks his coach. “What are you going to do—drone on about your lousy three quarter finals?” he says. Those were crowning achievements for Bergelin, but to Borg it’s not No. 1 so it might as well be nothing. “When did it stop being fun?” his girlfriend asks him. The movie, Swedish, makes McEnroe seem healthy in comparison.
They’re almost the same. They’re battling each other, sure, but they’re also battling us.
“Everyone acts like this is easy,” Borg complains privately. “You don’t understand what it takes to play tennis,” McEnroe says publicly.
Is this dynamic enough to sustain a feature-length film? Yes.
Did I want more? Yes.
Stockholm is closer to Minnesota than Long Island
I’d forgotten that McEnroe won the mythic 18-16 tie-breaking set. Borg was up two sets to one, and he had seven match points, and McEnroe beat back each one, and won the set, and forced the fifth. What I would’ve liked from the movie? A greater sense of how Borg culled up what reserves he had to win. How do you come back from that? How do you not tumble? He didn’t. Is it glorious—not tumbling—or is it part of the same psychosis? You can’t tumble because that’s death. He’s beating back death.
For what it’s worth, I was a Borg guy when all of this was going on; I hated McEnroe. I suppose I should’ve been rooting for the American, just on principle, but it wasn’t even a question. The way Borg did it, unsmiling and professional, is the way I thought you did it. It was Bud Grant and Harmon Killebrew. You didn’t celebrate when you hit a homerun or scored a touchdown, you just bowed your head and trotted the bases or back to the bench. You were almost embarrassed. In this way, Stockholm was closer to Minnesota than Long Island. Still is.
Borg won the 1980 battle but McEnroe won the war. The McEnroes of the world are everywhere now. What I thought was the norm is now a quaint anomaly. I miss it.