Friday July 31, 2009
The Boston Red Sox got the big bat they were looking for, acquiring All-Star slugger Victor Martinez from the Cleveland Indians on Friday...
Martinez, who had spent his whole career with Cleveland, fought back tears after being told he'd been traded. He sat in front of his locker, hugging son Victor Jr. -- earlier in the day, the young boy asked his dad, "Are we still an Indian?"
"It's tough," Martinez said. "This is my house. This is my home."
Martinez leaves Cleveland a day before the Indians were to hold Victor Martinez Bobblehead Night at Progressive Field in their game against Detroit.
Friday July 31, 2009
Le Monde lede of "Adieu, Gary"
Voici déjà quelque temps que le cinéma, à l'instar d'un public touché par la crise, ne prend plus de vacances. Chaque été, entre un mastodonte de l'animation hollywoodienne, quelques titres d'auteurs confirmés, une brochette de reprises savoureuses et un lot avarié de fins de série, se glisse donc une découverte à la fraîcheur bienvenue.
The cinema, following the example of a public affected by the economic crisis, can’t take vacations anymore. Every summer, between the mastadon of Hollywood animation, several titles from confirmed aueturs, a kabob of savory revivals and a rotting batch of oddities, slips a discovery of welcome freshness.
Friday July 31, 2009
Before the Show at Pacific Place No. 2
Movie: “(500) Days of Summer”
Theater: Pacific Place
Screen: No. 2
Location: Downtown Seattle
Seated: 3:18 for a 3:30 showing.
- Blackberry Pearl Smartphone. Includes butt conversation. Classy.
- U2: “Every generation gets a chance to change the world.” Or advertise in it.
- Extended featurette for a new TV series by David S. Goyer: Flashforward: “It began like any other day...until 7 billion people blacked out.” Apparently we wake up knowing our future. And what do we do with that knowledge? And how much, if anything, can be changed? Etc. I probably won't be there for it, but...bon appetit.
- Jeter, Federer, Tiger Woods, a dude trying to pick up a girl: “We all have confidence, we all have doubt.” But some of us don’t have to try to pick up girls.
- Cube Mobile. Turns out it’s an ad for a car.
- That Facebook thingee with the girl who can’t sing.
- That Benjamin Bratt show, in which he saves addicts while “Hallelujah” plays in the background. I remember when that song was new. (More on this later.)
- “What has search overload done to us?” Somehow Bing is supposed to help. That's like: What have all of these Big Macs done to us? Eat at Burger King.
- A J.C. Penney whatever.
- The dancing shark/Minute Maid thing. Is “Who’s gonna get the empties?” the best line they could come up with?
- A bunch of bugs steal a bottle of Coke from a picnic and then crawl all over it. Num.
- “First Look”: Actually second. It's a summary of what's just been advertised. In case you've forgotten.
- Blowing up Mt. Rushmore/turn off your cell phone message
- MST 3000 Fathom event ad: Thursday, August 20. Might be fun.
- Magic Flute Fathom event ad: August 5. Might be fun.
- Will Rogers Institute
- “In case of emergency, walk, do not run, to the nearest exit.” These are new. Wonder what brought them on? What tragedy where? What lawsuit where?
- “Funny People”: “I think your grandfather went to hell” is one of the funnier lines I’ve heard in a trailer. I mean it. Despite mixed reviews, I’m looking forward.
- “Time Traveler’s Wife”: In any love story, the dramatic question is: How do you keep the lovers apart? The solution here is to steal from Kurt Vonnegut. I.e., Eric Bana just got unstuck in time. “I can’t stay,” he says. “I know,” she says. So tragic. If he'd only stay they'd realize how much they don't want to be together. Nice to see you again, Rachel McAdams, but not in this.
- “Love Happens”: Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart give the rom-com another go. His wife has died and he’s written a book about it, a self-help book, that’s sweeping the nation. He’s in Seattle for a book reading. She’s in Seattle. They click. They don’t. Their noodging friends push them together again. (Beautiful people in love are such pains.) He needs her. He confesses that his book is a lie. He probably comes clean. They probably get together. What’s the point of seeing this now? Now that they’ve given it all away?
- “Julie & Julia”: I am so there.
- “Taking Woodstock”: Fingers crossed.
Forgot my watch. Not sure when the movie started. But that's altogether too many ads. They're taking them from where they're needed (newspapers) and putting them where they're not wanted.
Friday July 31, 2009
King Kong 1, 2 and 3?
“The battle of the sequels continues ad naseum. No sooner did That's Entertainment, Part 2 open than serious negotiations for That's Entertainment, Part 3 began. Meanwhile, Dino De Laurentis not only has King Kong 2 on the boards before the premier of the first King Kong but even has a hat trick in mind, and is offering Jeff Bridges $1 million to perform in King Kong 1, 2 and 3.”
—New Times magazine, May 28, 1976 (cover story: “Demystifying Jerry Brown: The politics beyond the lotus position,” by Robert Scheer).
Kong is now known as such a bomb that I laughed when I read this—and was equally amused by the magazine's futzing over harmless That's Entertainment sequels—but it turns out that not only was King Kong the no. 3 movie in America in 1976 but a sequel was made. It's called King Kong Lives and it came out 10 years later, in 1986, produced, yes, by De Laurentis (who, in the interim, had produced Orca, Flash Gordon, Ragtime, Dune and the Conan movies) and directed by the same director, John Guillerman (who, in the interim, had directed Death on the Nile, Mr. Patman and Sheena). The corrected summary from IMDb: “The giant ape, King Kong, who was shot and fell off the World Trade Center, has been in a coma for 10 years and desperately needs a blood transfusion in order to have an artificial heart implanted. Suddenly, in the rainforest, another gigantic ape is found—this time a female... ” It was Guillerman's last feature film. De Laurentis lives, he's 90 this year, and is still producing movies.
Oh, and the sequel-mania that New Times feared came from the no. 1 movie (and best-picture winner) that year: Rocky. A year later, Star Wars was released, and we were off to the races.
Thursday July 30, 2009
Review: “(500) Days of Summer” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS THAT WERE MEANT TO BE
Here’s how difficult it is to do a love story. “(500) Days of Summer” is one of the smarter, more original romantic comedies released in some time and yet it still reminds me of other love stories. The jumbled chronology, the attempt to remake a magical moment (“Our sink is broken”) and the bittersweet end all recall “Annie Hall.” The architect showing the girl his favorite buildings is like Sam Waterston in “Hannah and her Sisters.” The characters talking directly to the camera, documentary-style, about the time they fell in love, is reminiscent of “When Harry Met Sally,” which itself is reminiscent of “Annie Hall,” while the protagonist’s relationship with his overly mature little sister is straight out of the Holden/Phoebe School—a school that, let’s face it, should’ve closed a while ago.
But at least I was reminded of good stories. More, and to the film’s advantage, I was reminded of my own story—and to an uncomfortable degree. When I was young, like Tom Hansen, the greeting-card writer/architect played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, I was short, sensitive, and somewhat passive, and I was once in love with a girl with long dark hair and wide eyes—a girl with whom the world seemed to be in love, too. One difference. 500 days, Tom? Piker.
The poster gives us fair warning. “This is not a love story,” it says. “This is a story about love.” So we expect the end but we still root against it. We want things to turn out right in art, as Alvy Singer says, because they rarely do in life. Also we’ve been conditioned by a million other movies: boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl. How many movies does that describe? “We sell lies,” Tom says of the greeting-card company he works for, New Hampshire Greetings, just before he quits, and he could be talking about Hollywood. He is talking about Hollywood. “What does that even mean—love?” he says. “And we’re responsible. I’m responsible. We do a bad thing here.” This movie is a corrective. It’s Hollywood’s latest mea culpa for feeding us the lies we want to believe in.
Theirs is an unremarkable relationship, isn’t it? Maybe that’s part of the mea culpa. The things Tom and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) do together are the things city couples do together. They go to museums and mock the modern art; they go to IKEA and make jokes about living there; they go to art houses (“The Graduate”) and shop at hip record stores. They have memorable snatches of dialogue. “Nobody loves Ringo Starr,” he says. “That’s what I love about him,” she says.
They already feel bored. I’m sorry. Even at IKEA, a high point in their relationship, they feel heavy and unremarkable together. It’s not like the lobster scene in “Annie Hall,” which is memorable and funny. Maybe it’s because they’re shopping. We see Annie and Alvy cooking together, being together, while we see Tom and Summer shopping together. Shopping is not being.
What’s the most memorable thing they do as a couple? You remember Tom’s magical musical number, his dance with the world after they consummate their relationship; and you remember the world turning gray and dissolving after she breaks up with him. But what happens in between? IKEA? “The Graduate”? Ringo Starr? “Penis”? You could say nothing becomes their relationship like its breaking up.
The movie again offers the male perspective. I hate to keep referring to “Annie Hall” but it's a compliment. You could say there are four tiers of contemporary movies: bad; good; good enough to compare to the best and found wanting; good enough to compare to the best and belong. “(500) Days” is third tier. Not bad. For some youngins not already steeped in “Annie Hall” it may even seem fourth tier. They’ll learn.
So one of the nice things about “Annie Hall” is that we get Annie Hall. She’s a real person. We see her clearly even as she develops, even as she changes. Maybe especially because she changes. The problem with Alvy is that he doesn’t change. His famous line about relationships being like a shark could be self-referential. A person has to keep moving forward or he dies, and Annie keeps moving forward and he doesn’t. He dies. Particularly when he tries to move backward via the second lobster scene.
But who’s Summer? She begins as an unknown and ends as an unknowable. Why does she do what she does? Why is she the way she is? The third-person narrator is no help, either; he tells us about him but not her. The movie buys into her beauty (spiking sales of Belle & Sebastian records; double-takes on the bus) and then implies it’s all in Tom’s head and heart. Do we have to go back to Tennyson to explain her? “Oh if she knew it/To know her beauty might half undo it.” She’s oblivious to her charms but not completely. Maybe she uses her obliviousness as armature—to keep the world out—and maybe that’s why the world keeps trying to get in. Or why Tom does.
The scene at her party is devastating—the true bookend to his magical dance number. Tom tries to tamp down his expectations but the film gives us both, expectations and reality, in a split-screen format. At first reality is a muted version of expectations; then it veers off humorously; but as soon as Tom sees her with the guy, obviously her boyfriend, then showing off her engagement ring to another friend, the difference between expectation and reality isn’t funny anymore. The questions he asks her later at the park bench are the correct questions. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you dance with me if you were going out with someone else?” The unasked question is the question we keep asking: Who are you?
Their relationship is framed by discussions of “the one,” the “meant to be,” the soulmate. He buys into it and she doesn’t. He’s the romantic and she isn’t. There’s a sweetness, I suppose, to the fact that, when she first meets her husband, and falls for him, she thinks of Tom and their discussions. “You were right,” she tells him at the park bench. “It just wasn’t me you were right about.” Tom wins the argument but loses the girl.
After that scene on the park bench, the last scene with the two of them together, we keep following him but I’d rather follow her. What is she like in that relationship? How does she differ from the way she acted with Tom? Him we know. He has to move on, as he does, with an impossibly good-looking girl named Autumn. Seasons change. Cute.
It’s a good movie. Third tier. It should be getting a wider release than it’s getting. Smart kids will like it. It’s not a lie, like greeting cards, like most Hollywood love stories, but it is one-sided. Its omniscient narrator wasn’t so omniscient as to fathom girls.
Wednesday July 29, 2009
Wearing Wool Caps in 100 Degree Weather
It hit 100 degrees in Seattle today. It’s been over 90 degrees for, what, four days in a row now? Five? That’s a lot of heat for a city without much air-conditioning, and where people tend to complain when it hits 78. Seattleites like their weather, like their politicians, temperate.
Despite this, biking through downtown this morning, I saw a few people wearing wool caps. Yesterday, when it was already around 75 degrees, I saw a guy wearing a thick coat, a stocking cap, and a determined look of crazy. You avert eyes at that point. You just keep biking.
I thought of these folks when I visited Oliver Willis’ site and watched the clip of Orly Taitz on “The Colbert Report.” Stephen was having fun with this lawyer/dentist/realtor and professional debunker of Pres. Obama’s birthplace, but the interview ceased to be funny after a while. The woman is under the mistaken impression that because Pres. Obama’s father was not a citizen of this country, then Pres. Obama cannot be a citizen of this country, and therefore he cannot be president. If her first fact is so wrong, so grossly wrong, why is anyone giving her a forum?
But then how does Michelle Malkin get a forum on the "Today" show? How about these folks on “The O’Reilly Factor,” slamming Amsterdam with words meant to evoke ‘60s liberalism (naïve, social tolerance, free love), while ultimately revealing how clueless they are?
More and more of the prominent voices on television, on the Internet, and particularly within the Republican party, remind me of folks wearing wool caps in 100 degree weather. I avert my eyes.
P.S. Visit Amsterdam.
Sunday July 26, 2009
Overreacting with Color Coding: 1975
“The biggest bomb at the Pentagon recently was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's Christmas party for the department's 22,000 employees. The recently appointed secretary decided to introduce himself by throwing a handshaking party. Expecting one of the largest reception lines in history, Rumsfeld had aides devise a three-party, color-coded pass system to prevent congestion and delay. ... There were few takers. Rumsfeld set aside three hours and was prepared to stay longer. Only 200-odd employees showed up, however, and by 4:00 a bewildered Rumsfeld was standing virtually alone with his deputy defense secretary, William Clements.”
—New Times magazine, January 23, 1976
Saturday July 25, 2009
Quote of the Day — Gates Case
“It is unwise for anyone of any race to raise their voice to a law enforcement officer. But the result at the end of the day is this was a man who violated no law, was in his own house, who is the top academic star at the top academic school in the nation, and he was still taken away and arrested.”
— Al Vivian, diversity consultant, Atlanta, in the New York Times article “Professor's Arrest Tests Beliefs on Racial Progress”
ADDENDUM: Stanley Fish has a great post comparing both Henry Louis Gates' troubles in North Carolina and now Cambridge with the non-issue of Pres. Obama's birth certificate: “It isn’t the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate that’s the problem for the birthers. The problem is again the legitimacy of a black man living in a big house, especially when it's the White House.”
Added thought: From Birchers to birthers. In 50 years, the extreme right in this country has managed to change nothing but one letter.
Friday July 24, 2009
Anatomy of a Catch: DeWayne Wise
Seriously, if you haven’t seen DeWayne Wise’s catch with nobody out in the top of the ninth inning to preserve Mark Buehrle’s perfect game yesterday—only the 18th perfect game (including the postseason) in Major League Baseball history—you’ve gotta see it.
As I said before, I may have seen better homerun-robbing catches but never in that kind of situation, never to preserve that kind of baseball history. Not even close. It’s the catch of the year.
Watch where he starts from. I mean he’s dead centerfield and not particularly deep. He has to run a long way to get to that thing. He has to run at a sprint to be exactly where the ball is heading.
He runs so fast, in fact, that it allows him to slow down at the warning track. That’s key. If he’d been running faster when he made his leap, the ball probably would’ve jarred loose from his glove when he hit the wall. Or he might’ve injured himself. Instead, because of his earlier speed, he’s able to slow down and go into the wall relatively softly.
OK, over the wall. Because it’s obviously a homerun. Kapler hit a homerun. Until Wise brought it back.
But even going over the wall relatively softly, the ball is still jarred loose from his glove. So, coming off the wall, falling down, he is able to bare-hand the ball (both hands, kids), roll over on his back, and stand and raise the ball in his fist. I mean...goddamn.
Then he does a very baseball thing. With his gloved hand he points at Buehrle. I love that. I’ve written articles about “the point” in baseball and how it compares favorably to the antics in other sports, particularly the solipsistic celebrations of football, which are all me me me. Pointing in baseball means: “Good job, you. Good work. We’re a good team.” But why does Wise point at Buehrle here? Because Buehrle kept Kapler from hitting it deeper? Because Buehrle’s pitch, and Kapler’s hit, have just made DeWayne Wise a household name? Of course not. He’s just on automatic. I’m sure he’s pumped. But in baseball, particularly in the field, you maintain cool while the game is going on. You maintain nonchalance. Wise does. You can see his adrenaline almost overwhelming his nonchalance but he keeps it tamped down. After all, there are two outs to go.
Then he taps gloves with the left fielder and goes back and retrieves his sunglasses. Unsmiling. He’s serious. After all, there are two outs to go.
It’s beautiful. Everything I love about baseball is in this moment.
Friday July 24, 2009
The Moon Landing from Africa, and Other Stories (Translated from the French)
Earlier this week, Le Monde ran a series of snippets from readers on where they were and what they were doing 40 years ago when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. With the help of my French teacher, Nathalie, I've translated some of these. Most were more interesting than the reports I saw in the U.S. this week. This was a global event. How did other people around the world see it? I know how we did but how did they?
First the French, then the translation. All errors, as the big boys say, are mine:
La Lune et le croissant, par Smail Houri
A l'époque, la télévision n'existait pas encore à El-Oued, une oasis du sud algérien, mais les gens qui voyageaient et avaient pu voir les images dans les grandes villes comme Alger, ont raconté l'événement dans tous ses détails. Répandue comme une traînée de poudre, la nouvelle a fait réagir les plus profanes. Les gens ne discutaient que de cela et les commentaires allaient bon train. Même les religieux, d'habitude réservés sur de tels sujets, se sont mis à discuter longuement de l'exploit accompli. La question qui revenait sur toutes les bouches était : "Comment est-ce possible que l'homme ait pu percer le ciel pour atteindre le croissant ?"
The Moon and the crescent, by Smail Houri
At the time, television did not exist in El-Oued, an oasis in southern Algeria, but people who traveled and had been able to see the images in big cities like Alger, recounted the event in all its details. Spreading like wildfire, the news made even non-believers react. People talked only about the moon-landing, and commentaries gathered steam. Even religious people, who are usually reserved on such subjects, started to discuss it at length. The question that kept returning was: “How is it possible that man was able to pierce the sky to get to the moon?”
Hypnose, par Eric Lefèvre
J'avais 14 ans. Je me trouvais ce soir-là sur le toit d'une vieille maison près d'Evry. Le ciel était clair et la Lune brillait. Mes yeux étaient hypnotisés par la mer grise de la Tranquillité à des centaines de milliers de kilomètres de là. Subitement, j'eus l'impression de voir des formes s'y déplacer. J'oubliais alors la radio. Cette vision suffisait à me faire comprendre le moment extraordinaire que j'étais en train de vivre.
Hypnosis, by Eric Lefevre
I was 14 years old. That night I found myself on the roof of an old house near Evry. The sky was clear and the moon brilliant. My eyes were hypnotized by the gray Sea of Tranquility hundreds of millions of kilometers away. Suddenly I had the impression of seeing the forms shift. I forgot about the radio. This vision was sufficient to make me understand the extraordinary moment I was living in.
Un chat sur la Lune, par Moussa Touré
Lorsque le premier homme a marché sur la Lune, j'avais 6 ans. Je me souviens que tout le monde en parlait. Pour moi, c'était possible. Chez nous au Mali, on expliquait à chaque éclipse qu'un chat avait grimpé sur la Lune. En tout cas, c'était une légende. Moi je m'étais dit que si un chat pouvait monter sur la Lune, pourquoi un homme ne le pourrait-il pas ? Après ce succès, je me rappelle encore que de nombreux orchestestres de musique Mandingue ont été baptisés "Apollo".
A cat on the moon, by Moussa Toure
When the first man walked on the moon, I was six years old. I remember all the world was talking [but], for me, it seemed very possible. In our house on Mali, we would explain every eclipse [by saying] that a cat had climbed on the moon. In any case, it was our legend, so I said that if a cat could go up to the moon why couldn’t a man? After this success, I also remember a number of Mandingan orchestras were christened “Apollo.”
Les Américains ont aluni sur Boufarik ! par Bouzgaou Abdelhamid
J'avais 16 ans, et j'ai vécu cette fabuleuse épopée en direct sur notre chaîne de télé algérienne. J'en garde un souvenir impérissable. Et pour cause. Je crois que mon papa a été le premier a en douter, en m'affirmant qu'il s'agissait d'un montage des Américains. Il était 3 h 30 ou 4 heures du matin quand il m'a trouvé scotché à la télé. Surpris, il me demanda ce qui m'a retenu si tard. Je lui ai répondu, tout heureux et émerveillé : "Papa, les Américains sont sur la Lune. Il pouffa, et il me dit : Pauvre incrédule, tu aurais dû dormir d'un bon sommeil. Ils ont aluni, mais sur Boufarik (ville à 30 km d'Alger) !"
The American moon-landed on Boufarik! by Bouzgaou Abdelhamid
I was 16 years old and watched this fabulous epic live on our Algerian television channel. I keep an undying memory from that time. With reason. I think that my father was the first to doubt the moon landing, to assert that it was a matter of cinematic editing by the Americans. It was 3:30 or 4 in the morning when he found me glued to the television. Surprised, he demanded that I refrain from staying up so late. I responded, all happy and filled with wonder, “Papa, the Americans are on the moon!” He sniggered and told me, “Poor unbeliever, you must have had a good sleep. They have moon-landed...but on Boufarik!” (A city 30 km from Alger.)
Thursday July 23, 2009
Why Watching Isn't Enjoying
What greeted me when I went to Netflix just now:
New Release For You!
Because you enjoyed:
- Swimming with Sharks
We think you'll enjoy:
I hate this kind of thing. I watched “Idiocracy” but that doesn't mean I enjoyed it. In fact I was horribly disappointed by it. And while I re-watched “Swimming with Sharks” for this article, that doesn't mean I liked it any more than when I saw it in a theater in '95. Which is to say: Not much.
Hollywood makes this kind of mistake all the time. See, for example, this year's backlash against “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which, yes, many people watched.
Thursday July 23, 2009
What I Would‘ve Said If I’d Been with the Cambridge Police Dept. and Seen Henry Louis Gates Breaking Into His Own Home
“I really liked ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man.’ Good book. Needs an update, though, don't you think? Hey, what are the chances of my nephews getting into Harvard? Ha ha. Just kidding. Well, duty calls. Sorry about the door, sir. You should have somebody look at that.”
Wednesday July 22, 2009
Global Financial Meltdown 101
Last May, in his essay “The Death of Kings” in The New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten, among other tasks, looked for the worst offender in the Global Financial Meltdown, a “sin eater,” he says, then writes:
So far, Bernie Madoff, John Thain, Dick Fuld, Joseph Cassano, and even Jim Cramer, to name a few who have been cast in the role, have proved insufficient.
Michael Lewis, author of “Liar’s Poker” back in the day, and “Moneyball in a more recent day, says not so fast. His piece on A.I.G. in the July Vanity Fair, “The Man Who Crashed the World,” not only offers one of the clearest pictures of this huge, vague mess, it offers up that worst offender: the aforementioned Joe Cassano, head of A.I.G. F.P. (Financial Products.)
Because of Lewis’ connection with Wall Street—as a trader for Solomon Brothers in the 1980s—he became (initially, an unwilling) confidante first to A.I.G’s Jake DeSantis, for whom Lewis opened the doors to the New York Times Op-Ed page, and then to a host of mostly anonymous A.I.G. F.P. employees. who gave him the inside story of A.I.G. F.P. in the 2000s. It’s a familiar story to almost anyone who’s had an idiot, micromanaging boss. The difference is in the damage this particular boss did.
Read the entire article. Lewis gives us a quick background on how A.I.G. became Wall Street’s designated insurer for what were still perceived to be fairly risk-free mortgage securities. He writes:
The risks it ran were probably trivial in relation to its capital, because the risks that the financial system wanted to lay off on it were, in fact, not terribly risky.
Then the clouds darken:
At the end of 2001 its second C.E.O., Tom Savage, retired, and his former deputy, Joe Cassano, was elevated. Savage is a trained mathematician who understood the models used by A.I.G. traders to price the risk they were running—and thus ensure that they were fairly paid for it. He enjoyed debates about both the models and the merits of A.I.G. F.P.’s various trades. Cassano knew a lot less math and had much less interest in debate...
But A.I.G. F.P. was a subdivision of A.I.G. How did the parent company allow someone who knew little about the product, wasn’t interested in debate, and punished those who didn’t agree with him come to power? The long answer is that they always do. The short answer is here:
A.I.G. F.P.’s employees for their part suspect that the only reason [A.I.G. Hank] Greenberg promoted Cassano was that he saw in him a pale imitation of his own tyrannical self and felt he could control him. “So long as Greenberg was there, it worked,” says one trader, “because he watched everything Joe did. After the Nikkei collapsed [in the 1990s], a trader in Japan lost 20 million. Greenberg personally flew to Tokyo and took him into a room and grilled him until he was satisfied.” In March 2005, however, Eliot Spitzer forced Greenberg to resign. And, as one trader puts it, “the new guys running A.I.G. had no idea.” They thought the money machine ran on its own, and Cassano did nothing to discourage the view. By 2005, A.I.G. F.P. was indeed, in effect, his company.
But almost every company has guys like this. You’ve probably worked for guys like this. And they’re not bringing down the entire financial system. Something else had to be going on:
The more subtle change inside A.I.G. F.P. occurred not long after Cassano assumed control. ... The banks that used A.I.G. F.P. to insure piles of loans to IBM and G.E. now came to it to insure much messier piles that included credit-card debt, student loans, auto loans, prime mortgages, and just about anything else that generated a cash flow. ... Because there were many different sorts of loans, to different sorts of people, the logic applied to corporate credit seemed to apply to this new pile of debt: it was sufficiently diverse that it was unlikely to all go bad at once. But then, these piles, at least at first, contained almost no subprime-mortgage loans.
Here’s the telling stat:
The combination of the dot-com bust and the 9/11 attacks had led Alan Greenspan to pump money into the system, and to lower interest rates. In June 2004 the Fed began to contract the money supply, and interest rates rose. In a normal economy, when interest rates rise, consumer borrowing falls—and in the normal end of the U.S. economy that happened: from June 2004 to June 2005 prime-mortgage lending fell by half. But in that same period subprime lending doubled—and then doubled again. In 2003 there had been a few tens of billions of dollars of subprime-mortgage loans. From June 2004 until June 2007, Wall Street underwrote $1.6 trillion of new subprime-mortgage loans and another $1.2 trillion of so-called Alt-A loans...
And here, to a certain extent, is why this was happening:
Perhaps the biggest reason for this [booming demand for housing and a continued rise in house prices] was that the Wall Street firms packaging the loans into bonds had found someone to insure against what turned out to be the rather high risk that they’d go bad: Joe Cassano.
A.I.G. F.P. ... went from being 2 percent subprime mortgages to being 95 percent subprime mortgages. And yet no one at A.I.G. said anything about it...
I like stories of the guys who figure it out early and who complain to deaf ears. Gene Park was one such guy:
He suspected Joe Cassano didn’t understand what he had done, but even so Park was shocked by the magnitude of the misunderstanding: these piles of consumer loans were now 95 percent U.S. subprime mortgages. Park then conducted a little survey, asking the people around A.I.G. F.P. most directly involved in insuring them how much subprime was in them. He asked Gary Gorton, a Yale professor who had helped build the model Cassano used to price the credit-default swaps. Gorton guessed that the piles were no more than 10 percent subprime. He asked a risk analyst in London, who guessed 20 percent. He asked Al Frost, who had no clue, but then, his job was to sell, not to trade. “None of them knew,” says one trader. Which sounds, in retrospect, incredible. But an entire financial system was premised on their not knowing—and paying them for their talent!
Eventually, thanks to Gene Park, Joe Cassano figured it out before most others and A.I.G. F.P. stopped insuring the risky sub-prime mortgage bonds. But it was already too late. Worse, in 2006 and 2007, Wall Street took on the risk themselves, resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars in losses there. Then the earlier, A.I.G.-insured subprime mortgages began to default, too.
The system was built on the premise that everyone wouldn’t, couldn’t default at the same time; then, to continue making easy money in down times, everyone went about making sure that this unlikeliest of scenarios became more and more likely.
Tuesday July 21, 2009
Die, Die, Die!
For the first time since it opened on June 24, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” made less than $2 million (domestically) in one day—when it grossed $1.7 million yesterday, down 42% from the previous Monday. I know. Cold comfort. But so far it's the only comfort I've found.
Tuesday July 21, 2009
Tax the Rich Already
Hed and subhed in today's New York Times:
Obama Pushing, But Early Vote on Health Fades
Tax on rich is at issue
My question: At issue? For whom?
Tuesday July 21, 2009
Before the Show at the Uptown
Movie: “The Hurt Locker”
Theater: The Uptown
Screen: Just the one
Location: Uptown, Minneapolis, MN
Celebrated in: Prince’s 1982 song “Uptown":
Everybody's going Uptown
That's where I wanna be
Set your mind free
Built in: The 1930s, after a fire destroyed the original Lagoon Theater. Another Lagoon, a multiplex Landmark theater, was built a block away in the 1990s. Landmark brags that the Uptown has the biggest screen in the Twin Cities but I can't believe it's bigger than the screen at the Riverview.
Operated by: The Landmark chain since 1978.
Memories: Too many to mention. I could write an essay on the number of times I went to the Uptown as a kid and teenager when it was a retrospective theater, showing double and triple features of old and recent films. Saw tons of Woody Allen there. Saw “Casablanca” for the first time and remember a few women hissing when Ingrid Bergman says, “You’ll have to do the thinking for both of us.” Saw “A Clockwork Orange” before I’d had sex and it probably screwed me up for life. Saw “The Man Who Fell to Earth” with my friend Nathan Katruud, and, as we stood in the lobby makng fun of the people milling about, I noticed one hipster dude and said he was probably thinking how everyone else was probably thinking he looked like David Bowie. Then I looked over at Nathan for confirmation—he was probably the funniest guy I’ve ever known—and his face seemed startled, as if I’d read his mind. He was in the early stages of rock-star fever. Eventually he changed his name and became Nash Kato of “Urge Overkill.”
Seated: 1:05 for a 1:15 showing. No ads, just alt pop playing (“Summer Number 39” by Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers), while floodlights bathed the screen in pinks and yellows and blues.
Lights go down: 1:15
- HDNet News. (British voice: “But what led your brother to become a suicide bomber?”) HDNet movies. (Demi Moore??? That’s a selling point?) Dan Rather.
- Stella Artois: “C’est pour toi, papa,” etc.
- The Palm 3 from Sprint. Apparently an ad for Facebook and a singer named, I believe, Joanna Gikas, as well. Do the advertisers know how off-key she sounds when she’s singing a capella?
- “Cold Souls”: “This is Paul Giamatti. And he has a problem.” So a character named Paul Giamatti sells his soul, then tries to get it back, but it winds up in Russia, where he travels to retrieve it. Amazing how both off-beat and familiar this thing feels. I guess it’s the off-beatness that feels familiar.
- “In the Loop”: This movie opened the Seattle International Film Festival in May but it already feels old, doesn’t it? Feels like it should’ve been released last year. But if it gets good reviews I’ll go.
- “The Cove”: A documentary about dolphin-killing in, particularly, Japan. “The dolphin’s smile is nature’s greatest deception.” Ditto.
- “500 Days of Summer”: Tough girl, moony boy. Once upon a time, that was my story. Now? I’ll probably go—it’s gotten great reviews—but it’s no longer my story.
Movie starts: 1:28
Monday July 20, 2009
Review: The Hurt Locker (2009)
In 10th grade, we watched a short film in history class about a soldier trying to survive World War I. I remember little about it except that he was handsome, died hours before peace was declared on November 11, 1918, and one of the girls in class moaned with sorrow when it happened. He was so close, so close. It’s a common trope, seen just as often, if not moreso, in police stories: The older detective getting killed just days from retirement.
The makers of “The Hurt Locker,” writer Mark Boal and director Katherine Bigelow, are aware of such melodramatic tropes. From the start they give us a countdown: 37 days left; 16 days left; 2 days left. Time ticks away, like the IEDs in Iraq, and we expect an explosion. It’s a great framing device because it plays into our expectations but doesn’t deliver on them. It upends them. “The Hurt Locker” is a suspense story interested in a different kind of suspense. It’s an heroic story interested in a different kind of hero. It takes our tropes and skews them ever so slightly so we don’t quite know what we’re watching.
Procedural vs. reckless
The scene is familiar: a dusty street in Baghdad 2004, where a U.S. Army company, Delta Company, arrives and sets a bot (a small, droid-like robot) in motion to uncover and then disarm an IED. But the bot malfunctions and the star of the movie, Sgt. Matt Thompson, who looks remarkably like Guy Pearce, puts on “the suit,” reminiscent of astronaut gear, and goes to work disarming it himself. Several Iraqis are watching from the sidelines and one of them pulls out a cellphone. Immediately Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) leaps into action, yelling orders at both Sgt. Thompson (to get away from the IED) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who advances on the man with weapon drawn, yelling at him to put down the cellphone. In the audience I’m thinking, “Aren’t they overreacting?” But they’re actually underreacting. Most movies give away too much, and in such clearly delineated fashion, that courses of action are obvious. Not Boal and Bigelow. We in the audience are in the same situation as the men in the movie. We don’t know citizen from terrorist, and the guy with the cellphone is a terrorist who uses the cellphone to detonate the IED. As Sgt. Thompson is knocked over by the blast, one sees, or thinks one sees, blood splatter in the glass of his helmet. Is he wounded? How badly? A scene later we get our answer: He’s dead. That was Guy Pearce, and he’s not the star of the movie. The star of the movie, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), arrives to replace him.
Within minutes we’re back in the same situation—IED in the middle of a dusty, Baghdad road—but the caution Sgt. Thompson and Sanborn exercised is tossed away by James. He ignores the bot. He straps on the suit. Then he walks down that Iraqi road less like a clumsy astronaut than with the swagger and purpose of an All-Star walking out to centerfield. We’re on tenterhooks but he’s relatively cool, and disarms one device, then follows the wires until, in the shot captured on the movie poster, he uncovers half-a-dozen live IEDs encircling him. It’s a horrific moment for us but not for him. He almost seems delighted. Urged to flee by Sgt. Sanborn, he instead sits down and disarms them all, then walks back to the HUMVEE and enjoys a quiet cigarette.
The epigraph at the beginning of “The Hurt Locker” is a quote from New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges that war is a drug, and that’s the case for James. He’s an adrenaline junkie. He gets high off danger. He’s also good at his job. Most of us gravitate toward what we’re good at, and James just happens to be good at something that could kill him at any second. How good? After he takes off the suit to disarm a complex car bomb (“If I die, I want to die comfortable”), a nearby colonel (David Morse) corrals him, admires his courage, and asks how many bombs he’s disarmed. He deflects the answer. He’s asked again. “873, sir,” he says.
Many critics have admired the supposed “heart-stopping action” of the film, and obviously there are certain tensions when watching someone defuse a bomb—particularly with friendlys or unfriendlys in the area. Why does that guy have a camera? Why aren’t those guys waving to us? Are they waving to us? Or are they waving at the cameraman? Yet after one or two IEDs, the action isn’t so heart-stopping. Either the thing blows up or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, there’s another tomorrow.
No, to me, the real drama is in the tensions between the three men. James is reckless, Sanborn is procedural, Eldridge is guilty. Eldridge knows Sgt. Thompson would be alive if he’d only shot the cellphone-carrying Iraqi, and he carries this with him every second. A desk colonel, John Cambridge (Christian Camargo), tries to get him to open up but Eldridge will have none of it. He demonstrates what’s wracking him by shooting his now-empty rifle. Dead. Click. Not-dead. Then he guilts Cambridge into coming out of the Green Zone, where, of course, Cambridge gets killed. Yet another thing for Eldridge to carry all his life. He can't win.
James can. He’s the hero but he’s not. At one point, while exchanging macho stomach punches, Sanborn pulls a knife on him and lays it at his throat. James leans into it. When Sanborn asks him, “Do you think I got what it takes to put on the suit?” James replies, “Hell no.” Which makes us wonder what it does take. Which delivers this answer: A lack of concern about living.
In a way the movie doesn’t go deeply enough into this tri-part relationship. I wanted to know more about Sanborn. I wanted a better discussion of procedural vs. reckless. Might not reckless actually be safer? We saw procedural at the beginning and it sure wasn’t safe for Thompson. Using the bot allowed crowds and enemies to gather. Better to act like James and walk down the street like you’re walking to the beach. Either the thing blows up or it doesn’t.
Boal and Bigelow keep playing with tropes. James befriends, in an offhand way, an Iraqi boy who sells blackmarket DVDs; but when he finds him dead on a table, cut up into a human bomb, he loses it. He goes after the boy’s boss, he breaks into a Baghdad apartment, he runs through the streets of Baghdad after midnight. Then the boy turns up. The dead boy was not his boy. We were already wondering how stable James is and this gives us a better idea. Something ain’t working there.
The frozen food aisle
The best trope in the film is still the countdown to being shipped home. In “The Deer Hunter” there’s that great transition where one moment our boys are partying in rural Pennsylvania and the next moment they’re in a deadly firefight in Vietnam. Boal and Bigelow do the opposite. There’s two days left, James has just met his match with a human IED (although James survives), and our boys are in their HUMVEE getting pelted with rocks from Iraqi children. The next second James is standing in an American grocery store, frozen food aisle, muzak in the background. He’s wearing civilian clothes. He looks ordinary. The grocery store, particularly compared to the bright heat of Iraq, feels cold, devoid of life, awful. It feels like a dream but not a pleasant one. You feel the cultural dissonance James must feel, the dislocation, the difference between that and this. And as awful as that was, this feels worse. The fluorescent lights are not real lights, the music is not real music, the food is not real food. Everything is false. And yet this is what we’re fighting for. It’s one of the best scenes of the year.
It also prefigures James decision to re-up and return to Iraq. The final shot of the film is James swaggering down yet another dusty street in his moonsuit. He could be a cowboy in the Old West. 365 Days Left. But until what? Until the deadness of the frozen-food aisle again. There is no safety.
It’s probably dangerous to see Sgt. James as more than just Sgt. James but I can’t help it. Is he representative? Does he represent us? In other words, is our incessant foreign adventurism the result, in part, of having a home life, and a home culture, that feels like a lie? American culture isn’t what we’re fighting for; it’s actually what we’re running from.
Too broad a stroke, I know. And yet. And yet.
Sunday July 19, 2009
50 Million Necrophiliacs Can't Be Wrong
Patrick Goldstein over at The Big Picture takes Vanity Fair to task for their Heath Ledger cover story (which I haven't read and don't care to read):
As anyone close to Michael Jackson can attest, with Larry King having done something like 23 consecutive shows about the dead pop star, each one more tawdry than the last, apparently even death can't stop the endless parade of morbid media snoops from carving their initials in every available celebrity grave.
I agree but “even death” is missing the point. Death is the point, particularly young death, death before its time, death in which youth is preseved: Valentino, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, Elvis Presley (OK, more-or-less preserved), Princess Di, now Heath and Michael and Farrah. We‘re a necrophiliac nation. We’re at heart immature. We want what isn't here. We appreciate what's gone or yet-to-be. We brush those things with nostalgia or hope. Because what's here and now is just so damned confusing. What's here and now takes work.
Sunday July 19, 2009
Prescient Quote of the Day
"She may decide that she does not need office in order to have great influence—any more than Rush Limbaugh does."
—Todd S. Purdam in his August 2009 Vanity Fair article on Sarah Palin, "It Came from Wasilla," published before her July 3rd resignation announcement.
Sunday July 19, 2009
What's Wrong with Entertainment Weekly (Part II)
I remember before they showed “Jurassic Park” in theaters in the summer of ’93 they gave us a trailer for the upcoming “Flintstones” movie. Upcoming in the summer of ’94. Me in the audience: “Aren’t they getting a little ahead of themselves?”
Now that time-frame is the norm—particularly with journalism. “Now” is so last week, and “next week” is so five minutes ago. On Entertainment Weekly’s latest cover, we get Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johnasson and Mickey Rourke with the headline “THE RETURN OF IRON MAN (Did You Miss Me?)” Miss you? Weren’t you here just last year? Ah, but I guess last year is so five years ago. Next year, when “Iron Man II” opens, is the new now.
Here's part of my review of “Food, Inc.”:
The business of business is to speed up the assembly line, to push things through the system at a faster and faster rate, and in doing so, they’ve created a product that is not the product.
So we get food that is not food and news that is not news. This emphasis on ignoring what is, or has been, in favor of what isn't yet, feels like this to me: We can't stand ourselves.
Sunday July 19, 2009
What's Wrong with Entertainment Weekly (Part I)
From their July 17th issue, on the backpage “Bullseye” section, far from the center of the bullseye (Brookie Shields’ eulogy for Michael Jackson):
Jon and Kate spend July 4 together. Remember three weeks ago, when we actually cared about them?
No, I don’t. Because I never did. But I remember when EW did. And that’s the problem with EW. They reflect the fleeting, crappy taste of a generic America rather than commenting on it or attempting to channel it. They flatter whatever’s up and kick whatever’s down. So in the July 17th issue, “Bruno” was no. 1 on its “Must List,” with someone (everyone?) writing, “So dirty we can barely describe it...” In their July 24th issue, after a disappointing opening weekend, this headline: “Did Bruno Go Too Far?”
The subhed of the Must List is “The Top 10 Things We Love This Week.” The emphasis, I guess, is on “This Week.”
Saturday July 18, 2009
Quick Movie Quiz
Friday July 17, 2009
Wherever you are, if you have the chance to see a play by Craig Wright, you should go. If you have the chance to see an episode of television written by Craig Wright (“Six Feet Under,” “Brothers and Sisters,” “Dirty Sexy Money”), you should see it. If you’re lucky enough to get DVD commentary from Craig Wright you should listen to it. It’s always worthwhile.
I am hugely biased in this matter since Craig is a friend of mine. We’ve known each other, off and on, since 1987, and, back then, despite my easily bruised, young writer’s ego, I quickly realized he was in another league. He still is. I love, for example, his comments about “Waiting for Godot” here:
I’m reminded of Rilke and his advice to a young poet: Learn to love the questions themselves. For many, including myself, including probably Beckett, Godot was The Answer, and that’s why he never showed up. For Craig, Godot is in the questions, and the questions are always there, and in innumerable form. His discussion here also reminds me of his song, “Heaven,” which he wrote with Peter Lawton:
All we would like to know
Is why you kept all of us waiting
When you knew
That you would never be coming at all
Life is a mystery
It’s mystery enough without waiting
For someone who
Knew he would never be coming at all
We want to be open
We want to be open
But you don’t give a single sign
You’re coming to call
That’s Beckett. And, yes, Craig. But the song ends with a notion that’s purely Craig:
Or is this waiting
What you meant
When you said
He does this alley-oop all the time, as I’ve written, and every time it’s surprising and beautiful.
Thursday July 16, 2009
Goldstein's Posse Loses Its Mojo
Patrick Goldstein, over at The Los Angeles Times, begins today’s blog with a callback to his summer movie posse of six random, L.A. teenagers, who, in early May, gave their thoughts on the trailers and the prospects of some of the big summer movies. I was expecting such a callback. I assumed it would be a mea culpa. It’s not. It’s merely a lead-in to another story. It’s used to demonstrate the concern the powers-that-be have for teenage opinion.
I still want the culpa. Here’s Goldstein explaining the point of his posse:
I'd happily put the Posse's picks up against any Entertainment Weekly summer movie box-office prediction. The Top 5 picks from last year's Posse were: “Pineapple Express,” “The Dark Knight,” “Hancock,” “Iron Man” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” — all five were big hits. Their Bottom 5 films included “Love Guru” and “Speed Racer,” so I'd say they were pretty in touch with the summer movie zeitgeist.
So what did this year’s posse think of the big coming films? This is their final tally, with 60 being top score for a film:
|7.||“The Taking of Pelham 123”||44|
|9.||“The Ugly Truth”||42|
|10.||“Land of the Lost”||38|
|11.||“Night at the Museum 2”||33|
|12.||“I Love You, Beth Cooper”||32|
|13.||“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”||29|
|14.||“Drag Me to Hell”||27|
First, it’s odd that “Up” and “The Hangover” aren’t even on it. Particularly “Up.”
That said, among its top five picks, you have one overperformer (“Star Trek”: $252 million), one underperformer (“Terminator”: $123 million), one about-right–for-a-Michael-Mann film (“Public Enemies”: $70 million), one bomb (“Year One”: $41 million), and a film that opens in August. Not stellar.
Among the bottom five picks, meanwhile, you have, yes, two bombs (“I Love You, Beth Cooper”: $6 million: and “Land of the Lost”: $48 million), and two underperformers (“Drag Me to Hell”: $41 million; and “Night at the Museum 2”: $170 million—versus the $250 million the first film made), but also, ahem, the biggest movie of the year, freakin’ “Transformers 2,” about which the posse not only gave their second-worst score but was blistering and dismissive:
Ben: “I can't say this got my hopes up. It's just a lot of explosions.”
Molly: “And they only said five words in the whole trailer. I'm sure all those special effects were hard to do, but if you haven't seen the first movie, I'm not sure you'd even understand what was going on. And most of what was going on sure didn't look that good.”
Jasmine: “I wasn't sure I even knew what the movie was about until halfway through the trailer, and I probably know more than most people, since I have a little brother who's into Transformers. I think he'd be a lot more interested in the movie than me. It just felt pretty senseless.”
What does this mean? Either the summer movie posse, like most focus groups, ain’t worth much, or our popular movies have gotten too dumb even for teenagers. Whichever, Goldstein still owes us his mea culpa.
Of course it’s nothing like the mea culpa Michael Bay and fans of “Transformers 2” owe us.
Wednesday July 15, 2009
Things I Learned on Vacation in Minnesota
- Legos are insanely popular.
- What Bakugan is.
- Left to their own devices, kids will reduce the vastness of the world to Wii and Cheezits.
- When attempting to extract young, Wii-playing nephews from the basement, even to go to a place where they want to go (swimming pool, Lego Land), never begin a sentence with: “Do you want to...?”
- Losing your temper with children is way counterproductive.
- “Tin Tin” still works for eight-year-olds. Even though it has “bad words.”
- For eight year olds: If you’re writing all the bad words you know for your friend, who doesn’t read and write as well as you do, and you don’t want his parents to know who the author is, don’t sign your name.
- The best time to go to the Mall of America is just as it opens, particularly on a holiday, say the Fourth of July. It’s still relatively calm and manageable. The huge crowds, and the unrelenting din, haven’t arrived yet.
- On a weekday afternoon, you can still walk for blocks in south Minneapolis and see no one.
- Kids in south Minneapolis still put up lemonade stands.
- South Minneapolis is still a great place to grow up.
- Roseanne Cash has pipes. Her voice transcends genres. (Thanks, Jim and Jean.)
- It helps to know someone at Coastal Seafood. (Thanks, Doug.)
- Minneapolis is solving the unemployment problem with more summer road construction than is humanly possible...and yet that stretch of Hennepin between the Walker and Franklin Ave. still sucks.
- When putting helium-filled birthday balloons into a car, make sure the sun-roof is closed.
- Eight-year-old nephews can almost outrun their 46-year-old uncles now. And around a bouncy house in the backyard? In socks? The uncles have no chance.
- When unable to win at conventional warfare, everyone resorts to unconventional warfare. And by “warfare,” substitute “a game of Monster versus four kids around the bouncy house.” And by “everyone,” substitute “me.” I.e., Unable to capture all four kids in the dungeon (the hammock) without one, usually the eight-year-old nephew, freeing them, tell that nephew, currently in the dungeon, that the other kids, currently on a “water break,” are enjoying cool, refreshing water while he has none. And yet who always freed them? He did! And yet were they helping him now? No! They were enjoying cool, refreshing water.
- Caveat: Such psychological warfare won’t help you win the game but it’s still satisfying.
- The kid version of this is to call for a water break just as you’re about to be captured.
- Iphones are great for checking work e-mail. Particularly to let you know you have no important work e-mail.
- The best time for a conversation with an eight-year-old is while biking to and from tennis lessons.
- Be grateful, and almost melt, when your nephew takes to heart your comments about tennis lessons, and pays more attention to the teacher, and acts more like an eight-year-old should.
- Don’t be surprised that he’s only doing this to get back his “T for Teen” Wii game, which his mother took away from him the night before “until he acts more like an eight-year-old should.”
- The best place for kids to pick out presents for adults, that the adults don’t need but can’t possibly give or throw away, is the Minnesota store at the Mall of America.
- Any woman who agrees, on her birthday, to go to “Star Trek” for the nephews, and then, when the six-year-old balks, to go to a matinee of “Ice Age 3,” is the best woman in the world.
- The best potato chips in the world are Old Dutch Rip-L potato chips.
- The best french fries in the world are at Nick and Eddies.
- The best ice cream in the world is Sebastian Joe’s.
- The time to go on a diet is after vacation.
Tuesday July 14, 2009
Now That's Good Writing: David Denby
Denby, who has bugged me in the past, seems to be getting better. Here he is on what's not quite right with “Public Enemies”:
Yet, for all its skill, “Public Enemies” is not quite a great movie. There’s something missing—a sense of urgency and discovery, a more complicated narrative path, a shrewder, tougher sense of who John Dillinger is.
At the same time, he adds what's exactly right with Crudup's performance and the tone director Michael Mann sets:
Billy Crudup, who has done inventive work onstage in recent years, returns to the movies with a brilliant piece of high comedy. His cheekbones built up, his handsome features on the verge of disappearing into jowls, he plays the young but already insufferable J. Edgar Hoover as a bullying, righteous, and wary man, a natural-born populist authoritarian. One of Mann’s wittiest accomplishments is to recapture the stiffly formal side of official life in the thirties, the pompous tone of bureaucracy and media, too—the sound of a newly powerful country trying to impress itself with its own importance.
In the same review, he also takes out “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”...as much any critic can take out that $400-million piece of garbage:
“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” directed by the stunningly, almost viciously, untalented Michael Bay, is much closer to the norm of today’s conglomerate filmmaking. Two sets of leaden-voiced, plastic-and-metal monsters, the Autobots and the Decepticons, having failed to settle their differences over a parking space on an alien planet, fight it out on Earth—with human beings, in the dubious form of the teen couple Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, in the middle.
Tuesday July 14, 2009
Rich, Noonan, Palin
Many greeted Sarah Palin’s sudden, July 3rd resignation from the Alaska governorship with a Nelsonesque “HAW-HAW” but Frank Rich, last Sunday, argues both why she’s dangerous (“The essence of Palinism is emotional, not ideological. ... The real wave she’s riding is a loud, resonant surge of resentment and victimization that’s larger than issues like abortion and gay civil rights.”), and why she might be back (“No one thought Richard Nixon—a far less personable commodity than Palin—would come back either after his sour-grapes ‘last press conference’ of 1962.”)
For me, I doubt 2012 could be 1968, just as I doubt BHO could be LBJ. But the whole column is worth reading.
Then I found myself actually agreeing with Peggy Noonan (that Reagan shoe fetishist) in her July 11th column on same. She’s of the good-riddance school, and says what I’ve often said: It’s time for the Republican party to get smarter, not dumber. Then she adds this:
Here are a few examples of what we may face in the next 10 years: a profound and prolonged American crash, with the admission of bankruptcy and the spread of deep social unrest; one or more American cities getting hit with weapons of mass destruction from an unknown source; faint glimmers of actual secessionist movements as Americans for various reasons and in various areas decide the burdens and assumptions of the federal government are no longer attractive or legitimate.
All of us, certainly, have fears of a prolonged American crash and an American city getting hit. But secession? Is that a concern serious enough for the pages of the WSJ? It's certainly more politics of resentment. It also reminds me of a child throwing away a toy that he himself has broken. He's not even waiting around to see if the nearest grownup can fix it.
Monday July 13, 2009
Where Goebbels and Hollywood Agree
Hey all. Just got back from a family vacation in Minnesota, where I re-encountered two of my favorite junk foods: Old Dutch Rip-L Potato Chips and Sebastian Joe's ice cream. It's a good thing I don't live there anymore or I'd be 200 pounds.
While on vacation I read Cinemas of the World by James Chapman, from which I'll be quoting in the next couple of days. A bit academic but mostly interesting and always informative. British press. Here's the first of them:
Triumph des Willens represented the high point of Nazi propaganda: it enshrined the 'Hitler myth' so completely that no further films of the sort ever needed to be commissioned. Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.
Tuesday July 07, 2009
Revenge on “Revenge of the Fallen”
Here's the plan. We find every 14-year-old that's propeling “Transformers 2” toward the $400 million mark in the U.S., and possibly the $1 billion mark globally, and in 30 years force them to watch it again. Plus the original. Plus all sequels. Plus the '80s series. Back to back to back to back. As a way of saying thanks.
The movie's box office has fallen off, certainly, but not preciptiously liked I'd hoped. I had my fingers crossed for “Gigli” numbers (-81% during its second weekend) or at least “Wolverine” numbers (-69%), but “Transformers” only fell off by “Terminator: Salvation” numbers: -61%.
I'm hoping for better next weekend. Stop the stupidity. While we can.
Thursday July 02, 2009
Review: “Public Enemies” (2009)
WARNING: PUBLIC SPOILERS
So to the obvious question: Was Michael Mann initially interested in John Dillinger because he’s a typical Mann anti-hero, or did Mann turn the historic Dillinger into a typical Mann anti-hero?
In the film’s first scene, for example, we see Dillinger (Johnny Depp) entering prison in handcuffs. Turns out he’s not being led in; he’s breaking other guys, including gang boss Walter Dietrich (James Russo), out. Mid-break, though, one gangmember gets a little too rifle-butt happy on a guard, and shots are fired alerting the other guards in the towers. Before it’s all over, Dietrich is shot, dragged by the escape car, and finally succumbs and dies. Dillinger ain’t happy. The hood that got rifle-butt happy? He doesn’t last a mile from prison. Dillinger punches his face in and kicks him out the door. The dude is basically the Waingro of the movie: The unprofessional one who alerts us to the professionalism of the others. It’s a constant Mann theme.
Depp’s Dillinger is also, like most Mann heroes, a man of few words; a man who focuses on the essential. After meeting hat-check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) at a dinner club, we get this non sequitur:
Billie: How come you don’t know how to dance?
Dillinger: Frechette. That French?
Unfortunately, there’s also this. At a fancy restaurant, Billie feels awkward in her three-dollar dress and Dillinger looks around at the customers:
Dillinger: They’re all about where people come from. I only care about where they’re going.
Billie: Where are you going?
Dillinger: Anywhere I want.
In the theater I blanched at this conversation but in retrospect it works. Dillinger is at a high point here. He busts guys out of prison. He robs banks at will. Top of the world, ma. But tectonic plates are shifting around him. J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) is accruing power as the head of the FBI and places Melvin Pervis (Christian Bale), the man who killed Pretty Boy Floyd, at the head of a Dillinger task force in Chicago. Meanwhile, Dillinger’s sometime-ally, Al Capone’s former gang, now the National Crime Syndicate under Frank Nitti, is going corporate. They’re making money hand-over-fist, coast-to-coast, through wire-service gambling, and since they’ve paid off the cops to leave them alone, the last thing they need is the sensational bank-robbing antics of men like Dillinger attracting attention and possibly shining a spotlight on them. They make Dillinger an offer but he refuses and they cut all ties with him. Safe houses are closed off. Friends turn. This is the movie at its most intriguing. Dillinger isn’t simply a crook pursued by cops. He’s a man being squeezed by two corporate forces. He’s the last individual standing. And in this new world he finds he can’t go anywhere he wants.
The casting is intriguing. Depp, Bale and Crudup could play brothers they look so much alike. Dillinger and Purvis, in particular, are both professional men heading outfits that aren’t always professional or competent. They’re both guys doing jobs, but Dillinger is having more fun with his. Purvis, one feels, begins to lose his soul in the process. He places corporate results ahead of moral methods. He tortures out information. He’s basically us this decade. Crudup, meanwhile, still handsome, somehow suggests the fleshiness Hoover will grow into.
Depp is a revelation. I didn’t think he could do gangster but there’s always something hard and immovable in his eyes. Dillinger was supposedly one of the more graceful of bank robbers, and Depp demonstrates it, vaulting beautifully over a bank counter, machine gun in hand. I could watch “Public Enemies” again just for the dreamy, eerie scene where Dillinger is extradited back to Indiana. It feels like a mirage to me. I want to grasp at its meaning but it eludes me. Maybe its beauty is its meaning; maybe it wasn’t meant to be grasped.
Did Mann miss an opportunity by avoiding a tri-part structure and relegating Purvis and Hoover to secondary status? Is there too much a focus on Dillinger? Aspects of his story bored me. The romance. He meets her, wants her, gets her; then, of course, she worries he’ll be killed. “Dillinger: Wanted dead or dead,” one gangmember jokes, but it’s not a joke to her and she complains. But it’s a boring complaint, one we’ve heard in too many movies. It’s only in the second half of the film, when the FBI is watching her, bugging her phone using primitive phonograph technology, that this relationship becomes interesting. It’s even better when she’s caught and tortured for information. Cotillard is outstanding in these scenes.
Once Dillinger is squeezed by both the FBI and the Syndicate, he’s forced into partnership with less professional men like Baby Face Nelson, who promises big hauls and doesn’t deliver, kills unnecessarily and draws unwanted attention. The FBI closes in. More gangmembers go down. Eventually Dillinger is as alone as Frank was in “Thief.” He’s the last individual standing in a corporate world. There’s a great scene near the end when Dillinger drops off a girl downtown, then spies the Chicago Police Station across the street. He doesn’t just go into the police station, he goes into the Dillinger squad room, large, like a football field, and looks at all the photos they’ve taken, all the memorabilia they’ve gathered, all the equipment they need. To get him. Amusement shines in his eyes. The squad room seems empty, but slowly, dreamily, we realize, no, the men are just gathered at one end near a radio, listening to the ballgame. Dillinger stops, watches them, asks a question. They answer without looking up. He continues to smile. Tectonic shifts have occurred but he’s still a man who goes anywhere he wants. Even here.
I’m still gestating the film. I need to see it again. At the screening yesterday, someone brought a toddler and the kid talked through crucial scenes, distracting everyone. And since it was at a multiplex, a corporate AMC entity, there was no one there to complain to.
But I want to see it again. Maybe that’s comment enough.
Wednesday July 01, 2009
Minnesota Corrects a Low-Rent Mistake
Garrison Keillor is known for his supercalm demeanor on “Prairie Home Companion,” and he used it to good, skewering effect in this 2002 article on Norm Coleman, the former Democratic St. Paul mayor who switched sides, went deep for the Bush camp, and was rewarded, in the absence of Paul Wellstone, with a U.S. Senate seat in 2002. Now, finally, thankfully, about-freakinly-time, we've taken it away from him. Godspeed, Al Franken. Good riddance, Norm Coleman. Good work, Mr. Keillor.
Empty victory for a hollow man
How Norm Coleman sold his soul for a Senate seat
By Garrison Keillor
Nov. 7, 2002 | Norm Coleman won Minnesota because he was well-financed and well-packaged. Norm is a slick retail campaigner, the grabbiest and touchingest and feelingest politician in Minnesota history, a hugger and baby-kisser, and he's a genuine boomer candidate who reinvents himself at will. The guy is a Brooklyn boy who became a left-wing student radical at Hofstra University with hair down to his shoulders, organized antiwar marches, said vile things about Richard Nixon, etc. Then he came west, went to law school, changed his look, went to work in the attorney general's office in Minnesota. Was elected mayor of St. Paul as a moderate Democrat, then swung comfortably over to the Republican side. There was no dazzling light on the road to Damascus, no soul-searching: Norm switched parties as you'd change sport coats.
Norm is glib. I once organized a dinner at the Minnesota Club to celebrate F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthday and Norm came, at the suggestion of his office, and spoke, at some length and with quite some fervor, about how much Fitzgerald means to all of us in St. Paul, and it was soon clear to anyone who has ever graded 9th grade book reports that the mayor had never read Fitzgerald. Nonetheless, he spoke at great length, with great feeling. Last month, when Bush came to sprinkle water on his campaign, Norm introduced him by saying, “God bless America is a prayer, and I believe that this man is God's answer to that prayer.” Same guy.
(Jesse Ventura, of course, wouldn't have been caught dead blathering at an F. Scott Fitzgerald dinner about how proud we are of the Great Whoever-He-Was and his vision and his dream blah-blah-blah, and that was the refreshing thing about Jesse. The sort of unctuous hooey that comes naturally and easily to Norm Coleman Jesse would be ashamed to utter in public. Give the man his due. He spoke English. He didn't open his mouth and emit soap bubbles. He was no suck up. He had more dignity than to kiss the president's shoe.)
Norm got a free ride from the press. St. Paul is a small town and anybody who hangs around the St. Paul Grill knows about Norm's habits. Everyone knows that his family situation is, shall we say, very interesting, but nobody bothered to ask about it, least of all the religious people in the Republican Party. They made their peace with hypocrisy long ago. So this false knight made his way as an all-purpose feel-good candidate, standing for vaguely Republican values, supporting the president.
He was 9 points down to Wellstone when the senator's plane went down. But the tide was swinging toward the president in those last 10 days. And Norm rode the tide. Mondale took a little while to get a campaign going. And Norm finessed Wellstone's death beautifully. The Democrats stood up in raw grief and yelled and shook their fists and offended people. Norm played his violin. He sorrowed well in public, he was expertly nuanced. The mostly negative campaign he ran against Wellstone was forgotten immediately. He backpedalled in the one debate, cruised home a victor. It was a dreadful low moment for the Minnesota voters. To choose Coleman over Walter Mondale is one of those dumb low-rent mistakes, like going to a great steakhouse and ordering the tuna sandwich. But I don't envy someone who's sold his soul. He's condemned to a life of small arrangements. There will be no passion, no joy, no heroism, for him. He is a hollow man. The next six years are not going to be kind to Norm.
Wednesday July 01, 2009
Mann, Cruise and the Devil in the Details
If Micheal Mann's movies feel denser, heavier than most films it's because they are. They have the weight of history on them, the weight of detail. Here's Mann, from the director's commentary of “Collateral,” talking up Tom Cruise. I'd copied it down years ago for a possible “In Defense of Tom Cruise” article that never happened, but it works here, on the day “Public Enemies” opens. I've been excited about this film for a while, writing about it here and here and here. In an odd coincidence, three years ago this month, I wrote about both Mann and Depp for MSNBC.com. Mann was my choice for subject, Depp was my editor's, but both were fun to write about.
In the meantime, here's Mann on Cruise and on why details matter:
ON HOLSTERING THE GUN
“The real sign of how integrated Tom was to become with the skills that Vincent, in fact, would have, is the expression on Vincent’s face after he shoots these guys and when he’s holstering his gun. He’s not thinking about holstering the gun. He can do that in his sleep. Immediately after he fires that last round his attention gets focused on Wilshire Boulevard down at the end of the alley. Is anybody coming at us from there? Did anybody hear these gunshots? What’s Max doing? He immediately switches over to the next task and that’s absolutely perfect craft. And it’s exactly what somebody who had a lot of trigger time, who had been in the kinds of conflicts we imagined Vincent had been in, that’s exactly what he’d be doing. He wouldn’t be worrying about how he holsters his gun.
“So that is a beautiful little movement and it’s a testament to the commitment of Tom to the work of turning himself into Vincent, and having deeper and deeper understanding as well as acquiring all the physical skills. There’s no cutting in it, and Tom draws and fires five rounds in 1.4 seconds.”
ON ED SADLOWSKI’S STEEL WORKERS LOCAL
“Tom and I did a lot of work in trying to understand where this guy came from. If he was in a foster home, if he had an institutionalized childhood. He was back in the public school system at age 11, that would have been sometime in the ‘70s. He would have been dressed very awkwardly, he would have probably been ostracized cause he looked odd, and the kind of brutality, you know, [of] pre-teens and early adolescents. We postulated an alcoholic abusive father who was culturally very progressive. He was probably part of Ed Sadlowski’s steel-workers local in Gary. He was a Vietnam Veteran. He had friends who were African American on the south side of Chicago. The Checkerboard Lounge is 30 minutes away at the Calumet Skyway, so the father probably, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was an aficionado of jazz. There was a great jazzy scene on the south side of Chicago. Modern Jazz Quartet. But it’s almost as if the father blamed the son, i.e., Vincent, for what happened to the mother. And the father drank. And as Gary was being reduced—you know, it looked like Dresden at the end of the second World War—the father never tutored the boy in jazz but the boy extolled the virtue of knowing about jazz because he heard his father talking about jazz—not to him but to other people—and that’s why he knew about jazz."
ON VINCENT ON KILLING HIS FATHER AT AGE 12
“Now this is the truth but Vincent doesn’t play it for truth. And, again, this is a moment where I believe Tom absolutely hits a very difficult thing to nail, which is that Vincent is brilliant and he knows how easily shocked is petit bourgeois Max, and he says things to absolutely horrify and appall Max.”
ON WHY DETAILS MATTER
“We all bring our whole history with us into any moment of the present.”