erik lundegaard

Tuesday November 30, 2010

R.I.P.: Uptown Theater (1926-2010)

What can you say about an 84-year-old movie theater that dies? That it was cold and rundown? That it loved documentaries and foreign films? And “Transformers”? And me.

I first heard the prognosis a week ago when Patricia and I were having dinner at the home of Michael Upchurch and John Hartl, and John, long-time movie critic for The Seattle Times, dropped the bomb. I can't say I was suprised. Here's what I wrote in May 2009:

The Uptown was renovated in the early 1990s but that’s all I have on its history. It’s part of the AMC chain, but it’s an odd link in that chain. It usually plays small, independent films, or mid-range films, but occasionally it’ll show a big feature on opening weekend—as with “Angels & Demons.“ The place never seems crowded. Feels like it's dying. The 4:05, Friday showing of “Angels & Demons” had fewer than 16 people in an auditorium built for...300? Which doesn't bode well for either “A&D”’s box office or Uptown Cinema.

It got worse. I saw two movies there in the same week at the end of October: ”A Film Unfinished,“ in which I was joined by one other person, a man in his 60s, and ”Aftershock,“ in which I was joined by ... no one. When I left the theater, the guy working the popcorn stand asked me how the movie was. ”You're the only one who's seen it,“ he said.

How AMC handled ”Aftershock“ is part of the problem, John thought. They didn't advertise it at all. At all. No ads in the print version of The Seattle Times. ”Aftershock“ was a movie that set the box-office record in China this year and no one in Seattle knew it was playing. I only knew it was playing because I'd seen ”A Film Unfinished“ a few days before, me and the other guy, and they'd played the trailer for ”Aftershock“ beforehand, and I thought, ”That looks interesting.“ Then that Friday I walked past the theater—I work a block away—and saw it on the marquee.

A block away. I'm gonna miss that. Ever since I moved back to Seattle in September 2007 and began working in lower Queen Anne, I've had that opportunity, that convenience. The Uptown is where I was suprised by ”The King of Kong,“ charmed by ”Hors de Prix,“ disappointed in ”Angels & Demons,“ disgusted by the overwhelming stupidity of ”Transformers 2,“ and moved by ”Bright Star“ and ”A Film Unfinished.“ It's where I saw one of the first movies I reviewed for The Seattle Times, ”Titan A.E.,“ in 2000. It's where I attended special screenings for ”What Lies Beneath“ and ”Meet the Parents.“ Forgettable movies, but for some reason I remember seeing them at the Uptown. 

There were problems. The sound wasn't always great, the films sometimes seemed dim, the theater often felt cold, the popcorn—when I bought it—tasted day-old. None of that was the Uptown's fault. It only closed because people stopped caring: AMC and moviegoers.

SIFFblog has a nice historical rundown here. The theater opened on May 25, 1926, showing ”The Sea Beast,“ an adaptation of ”Moby Dick" starring John Barrymore. The Seattle Star  (R.I.P.) celebrated its grand opening:

The newest styles in projection machines of the reflector type are installed to prevent eye strain. A new Wurlitzer is to be put in, and Carl Weber's orchestra is playing. Dan Gipple is the manager.

There was a record-breaking crowd that night.

The Uptown Theater in lower Queen Anne, Seattle

Posted at 07:41 AM on Tuesday November 30, 2010 in category Movies - Theaters   |   Permalink  

Monday November 29, 2010

Jordy's Reviews: “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010)

Another must-read movie review by my nine-year-old nephew Jordy...

“How To Train Your Dragon” is based off a book, and whenever a movie is based off a book, it either is a great movie (“The Shining,” Harry Potter Series, “Stand By Me”), an okay movie, (“The Lightning Thief,” “Diary Of A Wimpy Kid”) or an awful movie.

However, “How To Train Your Dragon” is one of the best books turned into a movie ever. For starters, the animation is fantastic. Everything in the world is detailed, looks amazing, and the world they created will blow your mind. The characters all are very well voiced. They manage to put emotion into everything they say, so you can tell if they’re being sarcastic, if they’re angry. They express their feelings like they are the characters. Speaking of which, the characters are very well crafted. You will care for them, you will feel bad for them, and that is something only a great movie can do.

I did not get to see the movie in 3-D, but the scenes are still thrilling, and I bet they were incredible in 3-D. Also, the script has a very surprising dramatic depth, and it does well in making you enjoy the movie. The action scenes are great. They make use of the characters talent and they use their knowledge to win the battles. Parents, be warned that this is more of a kid movie, so you should watch this with your kids if you have any. (I am not saying that you should not watch this, because it is still a fantastic movie.)

Now, I think it’s time to finish… oh, wait, I forgot to tell you the story! In this movie, you meet Hiccup Horrendous Haddock The 3rd, (He says himself it’s a bad name) heir of the Viking chiefdom, who has one very big problem: a Viking he is not. “How To Train Your Dragon” is the righteous story of Hiccup’s quest to find the world’s fiercest dragon, bring it into submission, and hopefully pass his initiation by killing it. Instead, he finds out that the fiercest dragon on earth is also the most lovable one! The story gets deeper, but you’re going to have to find out why for yourself. I thought that “How To Train Your Dragon” was going to be an okay movie, but not a great one. I ended thinking that I was so wrong. “How To Train Your Dragon” is going to be nominated for animated movie of the movie of the year. I am not sure if it’s going to win, but it’s going to be nominated. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but this movie is one of Dreamworks best films, and it’s their best animated film in my opinion. But you don’t have to take my word for it. See it yourself, because this movie soars with the best of 2010.

98% Iffy For: 6+

(Please comment on what you think of my review and say what you think I should review in the future, and try not to pick something that is rated “R”, because I only saw “The Terminator”, and my dad has been regretting it ever since.)

Jordan Muschler, 2010


Posted at 06:51 AM on Monday November 29, 2010 in category Jordy's Reviews   |   Permalink  

Sunday November 28, 2010

Packer on W.

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, George Packer, who spent all that time in Iraq thanks to George W. Bush, goes over W.'s memoir and comes up with a telling but not surprising question: Why does a book called “Decision Points” tell us so little about how the author's decisions were made? But of course this tells us almost everything we need to know about George W. Bush (but knew already).

Some excerpts from Packer's review:

  • There are hardly any decision points at all. The path to each decision is so short and irresistible, more like an electric pulse than like a weighing of options, that the reader is hard-pressed to explain what happened. Suddenly, it’s over, and there’s no looking back.
  • Here is another feature of the non-decision: once his own belief became known to him, Bush immediately caricatured opposing views and impugned the motives of those who held them.
  • For Bush, making decisions is an identity question: Who am I? The answer turns Presidential decisions into foregone conclusions: I am someone who believes in the dignity of life, I am the protector of the American people, I am a loyal boss, I am a good man who cares about other people, I am the calcium in the backbone. This sense of conviction made Bush a better candidate than the two Democrats he was fortunate to have as opponents in his Presidential campaigns. But real decisions, which demand the weighing of compelling contrary arguments and often present a choice between bad options, were psychologically intolerable to the Decider. They confused the identity question.
  • For him, the [Iraq] war remains “eternally right,” a success with unfortunate footnotes. His decisions, he still believes, made America safer, gave Iraqis hope, and changed the future of the Middle East for the better. Of these three claims, only one is true—the second—and it’s a truth steeped in tragedy.

Then there's this devastating close:

  • Bush ends “Decision Points” with the sanguine thought that history’s verdict on his Presidency will come only after his death. During his years in office, two wars turned into needless disasters, and the freedom agenda created such deep cynicism around the world that the word itself was spoiled. In America, the gap between the rich few and the vast majority widened dramatically, contributing to a historic financial crisis and an ongoing recession; the poisoning of the atmosphere continued unabated; and the Constitution had less and less say over the exercise of executive power. Whatever the judgments of historians, these will remain foregone conclusions.
Posted at 07:37 AM on Sunday November 28, 2010 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Saturday November 27, 2010

Review: “L'arnacoeur” (“Heartbreaker”) (2010)


It’s a brilliant idea for a movie: Hire a handsome guy, French no less, to break up couples.

Immediately I thought of the unrequited lover who wants a chance, so he hires this French guy, let’s call him Alex (Romain Duris), to wedge himself in-between the girl and the dullard she’s currently dating, pry her away, then cast her adrift, where unrequited can go for it. Or maybe it’s a jilted lover who just wants a good, malicious laugh. Or maybe a girl wants to break up the couple so she can go for the guy. The possibilities seem endless. There’s always some disgruntled person on the periphery of a happy loving couple.

“L'arnacoeur” (“Heartbreaker”), a French romantic comedy by first-time director Pascal Chaumeil, quickly circumscribes the possibilities.

As the movie opens, a French couple is vacationing in the Middle East. He is, yes, a dullard who wants to stay by the hotel pool and watch a wet T-shirt contest, while she actually wants to see the country they’re visiting. To do so she hitches a ride with a rugged humanitarian (Alex), who is bringing medicine to orphans, and they connect, and fall in love, although he insists he can no longer be with anyone. But: “I’ve never felt so alive,” he tells her. “You deserve better,” he tells her. And back at the hotel she promptly dumps her jerk of a boyfriend and gets on with her life.

It’s all a pretty ruse. Later we see Alex getting paid by the brother of the girl, who couldn’t stand the boyfriend. Alex’s contract comes with a money-back guarantee and the brother asks how often he’s had to return the money. “Jamais,” Alex replies. Never. Then Alex walks through the airport in super-cool slow-motion with his team, Melanie (Julie Ferrier) and Marc (François Damiens), while in voiceover he tells us about the gig.

There are three categories of women in relationships, he says:

  1. Happy
  2. Knowingly unhappy
  3. Unknowingly unhappy

He concentrates solely on no. 3. Drag. Plus he doesn’t sleep with the girls. Dragger. He simply makes them realize that other men, vaguely handsome men, desire them, allowing them to dispense with whatever lame-o they’re currently dating. It’s pretty clean stuff. Rather too clean. Not only do these principles circumscribe possibilities, they actually get in the way of a good story. So they’re abandoned five minutes later to allow us our lukewarm story.

Back in Paris, Alex and his team are contacted by a man named Van Der Becq (Jacques Frantz), whose daughter, Juliette (Vanessa Paradis), is about to marry a rich Brit named Jonathan Alcott (Andrew Lincoln). Can they break off the wedding? Ca depend. They concentrate solely on no. 3s, remember. So first they have to determine if Vanessa is truly happy in her relationship. And how do they do this? By seeing what kind of man Jonathan Alcott is. They determine her emotional state, in other words, through his personality. How enlightened.

Worse, they come off like muckraking journalists rather than true investigators. At one point, disguised as panhandlers outside a fancy restaurant, they see Jonathan, inside, asking for a doggy bag. Ah ha! They assume the pejorative (doggy bag = cheap), rather than the positive (doggy bag = thrifty), but, regardless, we see the punchline a mile off. Jonathan hands them, the poor panhandlers, his food. Doggy bag = charitable.

They take the gig anyway. Alex owes gamblers and needs the money. So much for the principles he told us five minutes earlier. Hey, he lied to us in slow-motion!

The wedding is to take place in Monaco, and, to get close to Juliette, Alex passes himself off as a bodyguard hired by her father. She resists and acts the brat, but he arranges to save her from a car thief in grand, nonchalant fashion, so she allows him to stick around. And everything falls into predictable patterns. She seems to fall for him. He seems to fall for her. But there’s the fiancé, who’s a nice guy, and the mob enforcer, who isn’t.

Comic relief is provided by Marc (who has a Rhys Ifans thing going), and Juliette’s crazy friend, Sophie (Héléna Noguerra). My favorite bit is when Sophie aggressively, sexually attacks Alex in his room and Marc is sent to create a diversion. He does. He knocks her out from behind.

Question: Why do we assume that people are attracted to each other through commonalities? They research Juliette and discover she likes the music of George Michael and the movie “Dirty Dancing” so they create situations where these commonalities can be introduced. Oh, you like Wham!, too? Oh, you like “Dirty Dancing,” too? Thus they bond. But do we simply want mirror images of our own tastes? Don’t looks and personality still predominate?

To its credit, the movie never makes Jonathan a villain. He’s always a nice guy, who always loves Juliette.

In fact, I began to root against Alex. Or maybe I just began to root against the traditional romantic comedy. No, don’t bring the two stars together just because they’re the two stars. No, don’t make the girl fall for the guy who’s spent the entire movie lying to her. Surely, I thought, the French won’t let me down the way that Hollywood does.

They didn’t. Alex’s team fails for the first time, and, in a callback to the open, we see Alex walking through the airport in slow-motion and telling us who he is and what he does. “We only break up couples, we never break hearts,” he says, before adding this poignant code: “My name is Alex Lippi and today I’ve broken my own heart.”

Nice end, I thought.

Except that’s not the end.

Because at the check-in desk he suddenly realizes his life is incomplete and runs back to Monaco, literally runs, a la Benjamin Braddock, to get to the wedding before it’s too late. Juliette, more Julia Roberts than Katherine Ross, doesn’t wait, either. She runs away at the altar on her own. Eventually they run into each other on a beautiful stretch of road overlooking the sea. They catch their breath. They talk. They kiss. It’s meant to be. The End.

Blech. What’ll it cost me to break this couple up?

Posted at 09:12 AM on Saturday November 27, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010   |   Permalink  

Wednesday November 24, 2010

Review: “Vertigo” (1958)


Okay, girls, who would you rather go out with: John “Scottie” Ferguson or Norman Bates?

I know. A no-brainer. Kindly, lovable Jimmy Stewart, Carol Burnett’s favorite actor, versus one of the creepiest serial killers ever to interrupt a girl’s shower. Of course Scottie kills the girl, too. Twice. And at least Norman lets her wear her hair the way she wants.

“Vertigo” did poorly with audiences and critics when the movie opened in 1958, for which Sir Alfred Hitchcock harrumphed and blamed his long-in-the-tooth star. (He never worked with Stewart again.) Others have blamed the ending, or near end, when Hitchcock lets us in on the secret before Scottie figures it out himself. Hitch sacrificed mystery for suspense, as he often did.

Both explanations, to me, are off. The problem, if it is a problem, is with Scottie. Here’s what he does:

  • Causes the death of a fellow cop
  • Pretends he’s still on the police force to get information during a private investigation
  • Has an affair with the woman he’s tailing
  • Has an affair with the wife of an old friend (same woman)
  • Forces one woman to dress up like another woman (same woman)
  • Causes her death

People go to the movies expecting someone like Jimmy Stewart to play the hero. It’s a mystery and he’s a detective and he’ll figure it out and get the girl (half his age). But in “Vertigo” he actually plays a terrifying figure. Scottie Ferguson isn’t “Jimmy Stewart” here; he’s halfway to Norman Bates.

The movie begins with a horizontal split screen—foreshadowing all of the movie’s doppelgangers—which crystallizes into the close-up of the bar of a metal ladder. A crook, as lithe as a young Bob Fosse, is being chased over rooftops by an elderly cop in uniform and plainclothes detective John “Scottie” Ferguson. The crook jumps rooftop to rooftop and the cop follows. Scottie attempts the jump, misses, slides down the slanted roof and clings to the gutter. He looks down and panics. We get that famous track-in, zoom-out shot to represent vertigo, and Scottie cries out in fear. The cop doubles back to help but Scottie’s helpless. He can’t help himself, and he can’t help the cop when the cop slips and falls past Scottie and into the alley below.

At this point, Scottie is still clinging to the gutter five stories above an alleyway, but Hitchcock has done what he wants here and moves the story along. In the very next shot, we see Scottie, hanging out, leisurely, in the sunny loft of his friend, Midge (Barbara Bel Gedes), attempting to balance a cane on the palm of his hand. Doesn’t he feel guilty about the dead cop? Later in the scene, we get this exchange:

Midge: It wasn’t your fault
Scottie: I know. That’s what everybody tells me.

An argument can be made that everything else results from Scottie’s repressed guilt feelings about the cop. He’s nonchalant here but for the rest of the movie he’ll be haunted by the dead.

I should say he seems nonchalant. In actuality he’s completely unmanned in the loft. He has no job. He needs a cane. He wears a corset. He’s spending time with a woman who is busy designing women’s underwear so he’s caught up in that frilly world—sexless and neutered. This woman, to whom he was once engaged, mothers him. She calls him “Johnny,” the diminutive, and shoots him a dirty look when he says, “Oh Midge, don’t be so mothering.” But she’s like the worst of mothers: she wants him weak. When he talks up his baby-steps approach to overcoming his vertigo, and demonstrates, she demands he go higher, with a stepladder, and when he fails and falls into her arms, she’s there to catch him and coo his name.

Afterwards he meets an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), a bland man who married into his position as shipbuilding magnate, and who offers Scottie a job tailing his wife Madeleine. Not because he thinks she’s fooling around but because he’s worried about her. Supernatural elements are brought up, and Scottie, the modern man, scoffs, but Gavin is serious and insistent. His wife thinks she’s been taken over by the spirit of a dead woman.

It’s a job anyway. It’s a purpose. So for the next 10 minutes of screentime—an eternity—we see Scottie tailing Madeleine (Kim Novak): into an alleyway (where she buys flowers); into a church graveyard (where she visits the headstone of Carlotta Valdes:1831–1857); into a gallery (where she genuflects before a portrait of Carlotta Valdes, whose hair, Scottie notices, is done up the way Madeleine does hers). Not a word is spoken. For 10 minutes, we only hear Bernard Herrmann’s eerie soundtrack music. It’s like something out of “Alice in Wonderland,” and we find ourselves, as in that book, pulled into this hazy, silent dreamworld where dead girls possess live ones. We almost begin to believe it. Does Scottie? He follows Madeleine to the McKittrick Hotel but suddenly, poof, she’s gone, and the hotel clerk insists she was never there. Like a ghost.

The next day Madeleine tries to make herself a ghost by jumping into San Francisco Bay, but Scottie jumps in after her, pulls her out and takes her home. Not only does he take her home—rather than, say, Gavin’s home or office—he takes her wet clothes off. He leaves her naked in his bed. All of which goes unsaid but is alluded to in that stifled 1950s fashion. “When you, um,” she says, with a look toward the bedroom. “There was something in my hair?” The next day she mentions the whole thing must’ve been embarrassing for him. “No, I enjoyed it,” he responds, before tamping down his enthusiasm. “Uh, talking to you.”

We understand. Given the opportunity, who wouldn’t want to undress Kim Novak? But in Scottie’s mind he’s not doing anything particularly creepy. He’s the hero. That awful nightmare of clinging to a rain gutter and causing the death of a fellow cop? That’s over. He’s strong again. Madeleine plays on this need. When he tells her his name, she responds, “Good strong name.” When she’s piecing together what happened, and says, “I fell into the bay and you fished me out,” his response, “That’s right,” is flushed with pride. He needs her to fall into the bay—so he can save her—so he can forget the first two minutes of the movie. Here’s a question. Since it’s all a ruse, including, possibly, her fainting spell, was she awake the whole time he was undressing her? He’s taking advantage of her helplessness under the guise of heroism and she’s being taken advantage of under the guise of helplessness. No one is what they seem, but at least Madeleine/Judy knows she’s playing a role.

By the time she leads him to San Juan Batista, they’ve begun a romance. “No one possesses you,” he says, trying to possess her. “You’re safe with me.” But she breaks away and runs up the stairs of the tower. He tries to follow, but, ah, there’s the vertigo again. He drops to his knees. He can’t make it to the top of the tower. Yes, it’s a sexual metaphor. Then there’s a scream and he sees her body drop past the window and crumpled on a rooftop below. The woman who was making him forget the dead cop is now like the dead cop.

Books have probably been written about Scottie’s reaction shot here. At first he looks sad. But when nuns arrive to check out the body, he suddenly seems trapped, and guilty, and he bites his hand and skulks away. This is necessary for the plot—if he checked out the body, he’d see it wasn’t his Madeleine—but forget that for a second. Why should Scottie feel guilty? Truly guilty? Because he hadn’t protected her? Because the arrival of the nuns remind him that he hadn’t been such a nice Catholic boy? He’d mixed business with pleasure. He took off her clothes and kissed her but he couldn’t ascend the tower. He couldn’t be a man so now she’s dead. It’s a wonderful, oil-and-water amalgamation of Catholic guilt and impotent guilt. Is the crime lusting in his heart or not lusting well enough with his body?

Catholic guilt or impotent guilt? Or both?

After an inquest that’s so brutal it’s humorous (Coroner: “We are not here to pass judgment on Mr. Ferguson’s lack of initiative; he did nothing, and the law has little to say on the subject of things left undone”), Scottie winds up in a sanitarium, watched over by Midge, whose interest in him increased as his interest in Madeleine increased. In their opening scene, Midge couldn’t be bothered to go to dinner. But once he’s on the case, once he’s virile again, she can’t abide it and does her own detective work, mocking his. She finds the painting of Carlotta, and, in surely one of the creepier moments in movies. repaints it with her own face. In the sanitarium, she pleads with him as he pleaded with Madeleine: “Johnny, please try. You’re not lost.” But then she adds her own touch: “Mother’s here.” Ick. The role she rejected in the beginning is the role she adopts. She’s part of the reason he’s halfway to Norman Bates.

A second later she’s gone from the movie. The last time we see her, she’s walking down a gray hallway in a gray suit. Contrast this with Madeleine, whom we first see in a startling green dress, who drives a green car, and who, as Judy, is first seen in a green sweater and illuminated, by the neon sign outside her apartment, in green—like a precursor to some alien chick in “Star Trek.” When Scottie and Madeleine visit the giant redwoods, Scottie tells her the Latin name: “Sequoia sempervirens,” he says. “Always green. Everliving.” Is that her? Even when Madeleine goes gray, she stands out. The gray suit is fitted, perfect, and her blonde hair is fitted and perfect. Midge, whose name is the name of an annoying insect, blends into the walls as she leaves. It’s as if she left the movie before she left it. She’s another kind of ghost—the one Scottie can’t see.

Sequoia sempervirens? Or the first Orion slave girl?

Confession: I was once obsessed with a girl in the 1980s and after it ended I saw her doppelganger everywhere. A couple of times a week I’d see a tall, athletic girl with long brown hair, and think, Is that her? Is that her? That’s Scottie after the sanitarium. His case was to follow a woman obsessed with a dead girl and now he’s the one obsessed with the dead girl. Suddenly, too, San Francisco is full of women with gray suits and upswept blonde hair. Those are his triggers. At first, when he runs into Judy, he doesn’t even register her, since she’s brown-haired now, wearing it down, and wearing a sloppy green blouse. Her personality is brassily American rather than vaguely, fussily British. But it’s the same girl.

Hitchcock lets us in on this fact early—too early for some—but I think he made the right move. Without it, her actions would seem incomprehensible and his actions would seem crazier than they do. Plus it shifts the point of the view from his to hers. We worry about her now, this accessory to murder, because we worry what he’s going to do when he finds out. He’s still slightly bats: disconnected, given to rages. He’s not satisfied with her as Judy so he takes her to a department store to buy gray suits and shoes. He looks at her hair and demands she dye it blonde. “It can’t matter to you!” he says. Each step brings him closer to the truth. “When will he realize?” we wonder. We don’t want him to. We’re rooting for her now. The hero is the monster.

Hitchcock once said, in a conversation with Francois Truffaut in the 1960s, that he sees this dress-up game as a kind of reverse stripping. “Cinematically,” he says, “all of Stewart’s efforts to recreate the dead woman are shown in such a way that he seems to be trying to undress her, instead of the other way around.” But Hitchcock must have been aware of other echoes. Kim Novak herself supposedly had trouble with the gray suit but he won her over. He convinced her. Wear it, Kim. Wear it. He got her to dress up like other actresses, now dead to him, such as Madeleine Carroll and Grace Kelly, just as he would with Eva Marie Saint and Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren. Yeah, that’s the suit. Yeah, pin up your hair like that. Which raises the question: How much of Hitchcock is Scottie channeling?

Dress-up equals control, and control equals power, and sex is in there somewhere. Once Scottie figures out Judy is Madeleine, he takes her back to San Juan Batista and up the stairs of the tower. His rant against her, as he’s shaking her, is a poem to perverted jealousy:

You played the wife very well, Judy. He made you over, didn’t he? He made you over like I made you over. Only better! Not only the clothes and the hair but the looks and the manner and the words! ... And then what did he do? Did he train you? Did he rehearse you? Did he tell you exactly what to do, what to say? You were a very apt pupil, too, weren't you? You were a very apt pupil!

Two years later, Hitchcock will forego the woman altogether and have the man play dress-up himself.

Though “Vertigo” did poorly with both critics and audiences in 1957, it’s since been embraced. Hugely. In 2002, readers of “Positif” listed it the fourth greatest film ever made, while the critics of “Positif” placed it higher: no. 2. It also placed second in Total Film’s “100 Greatest Movies of All Time” in 2005.

The second-greatest movie ever made? I appreciate “Vertigo,” I love analyzing it, but I get little joy from it, just as I get little joy from most Hitchcock. (“The 39 Steps” is an exception.)

Yes, there’s the plausibility angle, which Hitchcock always dismissed because his films were invariably implausible. OK, so Gavin Elster wants to kill his wife so he creates a suicidal doppelganger (Judy), a reliable witness (Scottie), and the most elaborate backstory in the history of crime. I mean, couldn’t Madeleine simply be suicidal? Why bring poor Carlotta into this? Plus, to make it work, Gavin has to rely on four increasingly implausible things happening:

  1. Scottie’s vertigo has to prevent him from ascending the tower. (Most plausible: It’s why he was chosen.)
  2. Scottie has to see the body fall past the window. (Less plausible: It requires a scream and a quick turn of the head. Plus his vertigo has to freeze him at a point where he can see out a window.)
  3. Scottie can’t check out the body once he descends the stairs. (Even less plausible: Wasn’t he a detective once?)
  4. The cops can’t ascend the tower themselves to check out what is known, in some police circles, as “the scene of the crime.” (Least plausible of all. If they’d done so, they would’ve found the dead woman’s husband and another woman, hysterical, dressed like the dead woman, at the very spot from which the dead woman jumped. Questions, one hopes, would’ve arisen.)

But this isn’t why I get little joy from “Vertigo.” Hitchcock’s movies are certainly personal, which is a positive, but sometimes they feel a little too personal. He delves inward and finds the peculiar rather than the universal. His obsessions are not my own. He once famously said that his movies weren’t slices of life, they were slices of cake, and they are, but often they’re slices of cake laced with something astringent. I take a bite and make a face. “I like the chocolate but...too much tannin.”

That said, no one did endings better than Hitchcock, and “Vertigo” is one of his best: a kiss, a fright, a scream... and for the third time in the movie, and the second time with the woman he loves, Scottie, good ol’ Jimmy Stewart, stares down at yet another death he’s responsible for. The beginning is the middle is the end. The nightmare is cyclical. One gets the feeling it'll never end.

Posted at 06:44 AM on Wednesday November 24, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday November 23, 2010

Lancelot Links

  • Are you counting down with Alex Pareene's “Hack Thirty”—the 30 worst, most insufferable political pundits—on Salon? It's brutal and fun. Hard to believe there are 29 worse than David Brooks, who begins festivities at no. 30, but I suppose in the scheme of things he's a lightweight. Consider no. 26, Jeffrey Goldberg of The New Yorker, of whom Pareene writes, “There's a special circle of hell for the journalist whose mendacity or incompetence directly leads to actual war.” Pareene, late of, has a thing for exclamation points and the jugular, and so far (until he gets to someone I like?), it feels like something we‘re not used to in the cable-news/internet age: It feels like accountability. Here’s Goldberg's representative quote, from the build-up to the Iraq War, hoisting himself:

“There is not sufficient space, as well, for me to refute some of the arguments made in Slate over the past week against intervention, arguments made, I have noticed, by people with limited experience in the Middle East (Their lack of experience causes them to reach the naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East, rather than respected).”

  • Hendrik Hertzberg takes down Glenn Beck for his B.S. takedown of George Soros. Job done (but never done), Hertzberg then takes questions for New Yorker readers and assorted FOX nutjobs. Watch for the ones accusing the opposition of their own crimes. These people won't be happy until they destroy democracy. Don Segretti is the new norm.
  • David Frum takes down Sarah Palin. Via Tweet.
  • A reminder—again and again and again and again—which party is the truly fiscally responsible party during the last 30 years. Hint: It's not the party of voodoo economics. H.W. was right back in 1980. He was right in 1990, too, but the rich turned on him. They ate their own.
  • James Surowiecki on how seniors voted earlier this month. It's not pretty. “The very people who currently enjoy the benefits of a subsidized, government-run insurance system,” Surowiecki writes, “are intent on keeping others from getting the same treatment.” I should add, in defense of the elderly, and with some small amount of pride: Not my old man. He's generally to the left of me. Don't mention George W. to him, for example, around anything flammable.
  • I would like to live in a world where I could disagree with Andrew Sullivan more often—where we‘re both not fending off the idiocies of the right and thus in constant agreement—but here’s a post with which I disagree. He's high on Bjorn Lomborg's “Cool It” doc, which I haven't seen, but for which I saw trailers; and for most of the trailer I assumed this guy was a global warming denier. He certainly positions himself that way. I think Andrew O‘Hehir gets him right in his movie review, whereas Andrew Sullivan unjustly writes “O’Hehir whines from the right.”
  • Great piece by Dave Kehr on the first cog in the star machine, Charlie Chaplin, whose movies at the Keystone Studios in 1914 are now available on DVD. “It was now possible for a performer to appear before widely different audiences in widely separated corners of the world,” Kehr writes, “and Chaplin was the first to feel the full impact of this new kind of celebrity.” In case anyone's thinking Xmas presents for yours truly.
  • Nice Dave Niehaus obit by his former broadcasting partner Ken Levine. “People in the Pacific Northwest clung to his every word,” Levine writes. “The attraction was not the team; it was listening to Dave. His passion for the game, vivid descriptions, and magnificent voice made any baseball game sound exciting, even a Mariners’.”
  • In between rants about the TSA, Tim Harrison nudges the M's on how they might, finally improve
  • Uncle Vinny, with whom I'm taking that Hitchcock class at Northwest Film Forum, drinks the Kool-Aid on Hitchcock. But it's FrenchKool-Aid,and il a tres soif.
  • Finally, my favorite show on television right now may be the little-seen “Bored to Death,” about a failing writer who takes up detective work, and which just finished its second season on HBO. The lead character, named for the creator, Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman), is the opposite of hard-boiled; he's part of my touchy-feeling generation, forever drinking white wine, forever engaging people in conversations about heart-felt issues. Example: In one episode, Jonathan worries about the size of his penis and mentions it to his friend, Ray (Zach Galifianakis), while they‘re at a cafe in Brooklyn. Then he asks him to come into the bathroom to check him out. Watching, I thought: “Like Hemingway and Fitzgerald in ”’A Moveable Feast.'“ A second later, Jonathan says, ”Hemingway checked out Fitzgerald when he went through a crisis like this. He wrote about it in A Moveable Feast.“ ”Bored to Death“ is a show for every literary person who fears for the death of the literary; who cares for the literary in an off-hand but all-encompassing way. I haven't even mentioned the best part yet: Ted Danson is to ”Bored to Death“ as Alec Baldwin is to ”30 Rock." Brilliant. Check it out. And don't tell me you don't get HBO. There's a thing called DVDs now, and DVD players? You put one into the other and, boom, you have shows to watch.
Posted at 08:26 AM on Tuesday November 23, 2010 in category Lancelot Links   |   Permalink  

Monday November 22, 2010

Movie Review: Inside Job (2010)


I know very little about business and economics but I knew a lot of the information in “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s documentary about the global financial meltdown of ... 2008? Just two years ago? Wow.

Ferguson puts together all of the pieces familiar to me, then adds a couple I don’t know. He clarifies and reminds.

Oh yeah, there’s Pres. Reagan deregulating the S&Ls overnight in 1982, which Ward B. Coe III and I talked about during our Q&A for Maryland Super Lawyers magazine in 2009. Oh right, Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, whose attempts to regulate derivatives during the Clinton years were shot down by Larry Summers , and who became the subject of that “Frontline” special I streamed off of Netflix earlier this year. Oh god, there’s Joe Cassano, the idiot head of A.I.G. F.P., and the bete noir in Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair piece in July 2009. Oh lord, there’s Alan fucking Greenspan and Henry fucking Paulson and Phil fucking Gramm and Richard fucking Fuld and Larry fucking Summers.

It’s old home week. They got the gang back together again.

The little Don Segretti of the global financial meltdown
Except they didn’t. None of the big boys (Greenspan, Summers) agreed to sit for “Inside Job,” just as none of the big boys (Bush, Cheney) agreed to sit for Ferguson’s previous documentary, “No End in Sight,” about our missteps in Iraq after March 2003.

What sticks out in that earlier doc, though, is the he said/he said between Col. Paul Hughes, who worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and who seemed to have a sense of what Iraq was and what we should do there, and Walter B. Slocombe, the Senior Advisor for Security and Defense to the CPA, who arrived for a week in May, got his boots a little dusty, and helped make all the wrong decisions. Hughes seems insistent and exasperated, while Slocombe starts off almost jaunty; then, as he is questioned about, and held accountable for, his actions and policies, his eyes retreat, his voice turns tinny, he reveals himself a hollow man. One wonders what lies he tells himself to make it through the day.

The Walt Slocombe of “Inside Job” is the aptly named Fred Mishkin, an American economist who was one of six members of the Board of Governors for the Federal Reserve from 2006 to 2008. Another talking head, Robert Gnaizda, general counsel for the Greenlining Institute (a non-profit working for the disenfranchised in local communities), was aware of the problems with subprime mortgages, with predatory lending practices, with defaults and foreclosures, and he had semiannual meetings with Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, to attempt to address these issues. But only in 2009 did Bernanke admit there were problems that needed addressing.

Of course Bernanke didn’t agree to be interviewed. He’s insulated and unaccountable. Ah, but there’s Mishkin, tanned beyond recognition, proudly admitting he was at the semiannual meetings between Gnaizda and Bernanke. He’s expecting softballs. Instead, Ferguson, off camera, states that Bernanke was warned and did nothing. Mishkin’s response? He collapses. He evaporates into nonsense:

Yeah. So, uh, again, I, I don't know the details, in terms of, of, uh, of, um – uh, in fact, I, I just don't – I, I – eh, eh, whatever information he provide, I'm not sure exactly, I, eh, uh – it's, it's actually, to be honest with you, I can't remember the, the, this kind of discussion.

One almost feels sorry for him, this little Don Segretti of the Global Financial Meltdown, until later in the doc, when Ferguson gets into the conflicts of interest between economics departments and industry: How industry often pays prominent academics to present viewpoints industry wants. Mishkin did this in 2006. He was paid $125,000 by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce to coauthor a study of Iceland’s financial system and found it stable “with prudent regulation and supervision.” But “Inside Job” actually begins in Iceland, where we’re informed of the deregulation that occurred in Iceland’s banking industry in 2000, leading to insane loans, and, currently, a debt 10 times its GDP. Mishkin owns up to that. “It turns out that the prudential regulation and supervision was not strong in Iceland,” he says. So Ferguson asks the obvious follow-up: What led you to think that it was? Mishkin’s stuttering response? He seeks refuge in the passive voice and second-person point-of-view. He says all of the following:

  • “You’re going with the information you have.”
  • “The view was that Iceland had very good institutions.”
  • “It was an advanced country.”
  • “You talk to people.”
  • “You have faith in the Central Bank.”

Suddenly you’re disgusted all over again. These are charlatans in prominent positions. They are hollow men. Mishkin was paid more than twice as much as I’ve ever made in an entire year to simply co-author a study...and he couldn’t be bothered with independent research. He said what they wanted him to say.

But that’s not even the worst part of the incident. The worst part is when Ferguson asks him why the title of this study, “Financial Stability in Iceland,” has been changed, in Mishkin’s current CV, to “Financial Instability in Iceland.” As if he foresaw and warned against a crisis whose hand he held all the way to the precipice:

Well, I don't know, if, whatever it is, is, the, uh, the thing – if it's a typo, there's a typo.

In “All the President’s Men,” Deep Throat notices that Bob Woodward is focusing too much on the ratfucking activities of Donald Segretti, and reminds him of the deeper issue: “They cancelled Democratic campaign rallies. They investigated Democratic private lives. They planted spies, stole documents, and on and on. Now don’t tell me you think this is all the work of little Don Segretti?”

So while it’s fun to watch Mishkin hemming and hawing on camera, it’s less important than: How we got here, what happened, where we are now.

How we got here
Rep. Barney Frank talks up the old borrower-lender dynamic—a dynamic that, even three years ago, I thought was still in place. A person borrowed, a bank lent, and the borrower paid back to the lender; and because it usually required decades to pay back, the lender was careful about who was doing the borrowing. That’s the way the world worked.

The world changed in the 1980s when brokers at Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment bank, created complex mortgage derivatives called collateral debt obligations, or CDOs. Per my limited understanding: The mortgages were sold from banks to investment banks, who cut them up, bundled slices with hundreds of slices from other mortgages—to spread and thus minimize the risk—and sold them to investors.

So now when you pay your mortgage, you pay, not the bank, but these investors. Of course, since banks sold the mortgages, banks could be less careful about who they loaned to; and since, with all of that bundling and slicing, risk was minimized, risk could be increased. As it was. Which is how you got subprime mortgages: loans being given to people who had no collateral and couldn’t afford the payments, and who would ultimately default. Their entry into the system drove up prices, and their exit from the system collapsed the prices. The exit almost collapsed the system.

We get some back-and-forth on who foresaw the crisis (Allan Sloan) and who didn’t (Alan Greenspan). We get a little on who began to bet against all of the subprime mortgage loans (Goldman Sachs, chiefly), and who didn’t (A.I.G., chiefly).

One of the most telling incidents, about which you could make a good HBO movie, occurred at the 2005 Jackson Hole Symposium, at which you had the usual suspects: Greenspan, Bernanke, Summers, Geithner, and where an IMF economist, Raghuram Ragan, delivering a paper, less on the nitty-gritty of subprime mortgages and CDOs, than on the larger topic of incentives and risk. Here’s narrator Matt Damon:

Rajan's paper focused on incentive structures that generated huge cash bonuses based on short-term profits, but which imposed no penalties for later losses. Rajan argued that these incentives encouraged bankers to take risks that might eventually destroy their own firms, or even the entire financial system.

Prof. Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard:

Rajan hit the nail on the head. What he particularly said was: “You guys have claimed you have found a way to make more profits with less risk. I say you've found a way to make more profits with more risk.”

The reaction to his paper? Larry Summers attacked. He accused Ragan of being a Luddite. “He wanted to make sure that we didn’t bring a whole new set of regulations to the financial sector at this point,” Ragan says.

“Inside Job” is divided into five parts—“How We Got Here”; “The Bubble”; “The Crisis”; “Accountability”; “Where We Are Now”—and should be required viewing for every man, woman and child in the United States. It won’t be, of course. So far it’s grossed $1.8 million, which works out to about 180,000 people. Out of a nation of 308 million. It's barely being seen.

I could've used more on the history of deregulation (the who and how) and on what reforms have been enacted since Sept. 2008 (if any). I also would’ve liked something on the way the crisis has been spun by the anti-regulation right. It’s doing the shit it always does: blaming the opposition for its own crimes. In this scenario, the crisis was caused by government, not the private sector. In this scenario, government is still the problem and the financial industry can regulate itself—give or take a multi-trillion-dollar bailout from the federal government. I wanted Ferguson to take these guys down. (Though he does have a nice back-and-forth with Glenn Hubbard, Chief Economic Advisor during the Bush Administration, current Dean of the Columbia University Business School, and a nasty piece of work.)

The poster for “Inside Job” shows a suited man crossing his fingers atop a pile of money. This is a key metaphor for me. I don’t know much about business and economics, but, to me, here’s what life feels like in a fairly well-off, post-industrial society.

Most of us struggle to find something we’re good at, and for which we can get paid, and, if we’re lucky, we do this thing for 40 to 50 years until we can hopefully retire with a bit of comfort. And while we’re doing this thing, we’re putting our money, bit by bit, into a room, which is where other people, bit by bit, are putting their money, too. So there’s a huge pile of money in this room. Now there’s another group of people who are attracted to this room for the pile of money. They see the pile of money and say, “That’s what I want to do.” They believe they can take that pile of money, our money, and turn it into a bigger pile of money, which will be mostly their money. But while they’re doing this magic act, they don’t want anyone to watch. Because we can trust them. Because they are self-regulating. Because what could possibly go wrong?

Posted at 06:29 AM on Monday November 22, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010   |   Permalink  

Sunday November 21, 2010

Hollywood B.O.: Potter Flies, Skyline Drops

The seventh “Harry Potter” movie had the sixth-best opening weekend in U.S. box office history, grossing an estimated $125 million in three days, which is the best opening ever for Harry, Ron and Hermione. Unless you adjust for inflation. Then it's the third-best, after “Goblet of Fire” in '05 ($127 million) and “Sorcerer's Stone” in '01 ($126 million).

(You could argue that “Sorcerer's” did so well because it was the first, while “Goblet” did well because it followed “Prisoner of Azkaban,” which, according to my nephew, Jordy, is the best of the lot.)

Keep in mind, though: the last two, “Half Blood Prince” and “Order of the Phoenix” opened on Wednesdays, so you don't have that true boffo box-office weekend. Regardless, there's obvious interest in “Harry Potter 7.”

How much interest? All of the returning wide-release movies fell off by at least 40%, which doesn't happen often, while the only other new, wide-release movie, Russell Crowe's “The Next Three Days” (awful title), grossed only $6.7 million, for fifth place.

BTW: all of those returning films that fell off by 40-50%? “Skyline” wishes it was one of them. Universal added three theaters but “Skyline” still dropped more than 70% to gross $3.4 million. Good enough for 7th place this weekend but bad enough for the 12th-worst second-weekend drop among wide-release films ever:

The magical totals here.

Posted at 04:55 PM on Sunday November 21, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  

Saturday November 20, 2010

Jordy's Review: “Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 1”

Another must-read movie review by my nine-year-old nephew Jordy...

I went to see this at 7:45 on Opening Day because I am a huge Harry Potter fan. I walk in early to get good seats and wait for it to start. When the movie starts, I become hooked. With its great comedic moments, fantastic acting, amazing special effects, and stunning visuals, this is going to be one of the most money-making movies of 2010. Daniel Radcliffe stars as Harry Potter, as he begins (it says part 1 because it’s not his whole adventure, and Part 2 is scheduled for July 2011 release) his journey for Vol- -wait, I better say He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Nam- aw, I’ll just say Voldemort’s Horcruxes.

Meanwhile, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) help him find the Horcruxes. The main cast is excellent, and probably understands their characters well. The visuals were chosen wisely, and they seem to be taking the backgrounds straight from the books. The dialogue could have been better, but at least they took some of the lines from the books. The special effects are great, but I think they should’ve taken a look at Prisoner Of Askaban’s special effect’s and realized that it has the best special effects in the series because they’re not either a flash of light, a line, or sparks flying, they’re actually a bright light that is creative and cool. The action scenes really took a lot of the special effects to work, and, as I already said, the special effects are great, so the action scenes work really well and they seem to take place right when they should in the book.

Speaking of which, the movie follows the book really well, and seems as though they had a copy of the book while they were filmmaking and making sure that people who read the book wouldn’t be mad if they took out one of their favorite parts of the book. The cinematography usually works, but during one scene (which was an action scene with people chasing them), I couldn’t really tell what was happening. Yeah, I know it was probably just sparks flying, but the camera was too zoomed-in for you to tell what spells they’re using, and where the people who were chasing them were. It’s not really important, but it still is a problem.

Another thing I didn’t like about the movie was that unless you have read the book, it could be kind of hard to follow. Also, the ending was kind of disappointing because it makes it seem like J.K.Rowling would be making another book. However, Harry Potter 7 is definitely a great, emotional movie that really succeeds in being entertaining, funny, sometimes scary, and is definitely going to win at least one Oscar this year.

Let’s just hope that Part 2 can be even better. I think this is one of the best movies of the year, and I hope you will agree.

(New: 0 to 100 % and age recommendation!) 87%, Iffy For:13+

Posted at 05:29 PM on Saturday November 20, 2010 in category Jordy's Reviews   |   Permalink  

Friday November 19, 2010

FOX News: Accusing Others of Its Own Crimes

What must it be like to be Roger Ailes? To conduct the national discussion as if it were a symphony? To get people to talk about what you want them to talk about. To get them to question what you want them to question (Pres. Obama, NPR, ACORN, “the ground-zero mosque,” Woodrow Wilson) and get them to accept what you want them to accept (Pres. Bush, WMD, Sarah Palin, the Bush tax cuts).

That’s a lot of power.

But apparently the FOX-News channel isn't enough of a bully pulpit for him. So he spouted off yesterday to The Daily Beast about NPR, saying the following:

“They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don’t want any other point of view.”

He’s since apologized. “Apologized.” He apologized to the Anti-Defamation League, with whom he now has a bit of a relationship, ever since one of his more popular stars, Glenn Beck, earlier this month, spun George Soros' attempts to pass as a gentile in Nazi-occupied Europe as if they were Nazi war crimes. But he didn't apologize to NPR. In fact, he continued to attack NPR in his apology:

“I’m writing this just to let you know some background but also to apologize for using ‘Nazi’ when in my now considered opinion, ‘nasty, inflexible bigot’ would have worked better.“

Ailes is a fascinating man. If he weren't upending democracy and ruining this country, he might be amusing.

Look again at what he says about NPR:

These guys don’t want any other point of view.

Or in the apology:

Nasty, inflexibile bigot.

Who does this remind you of?

There’s a documentary out now called “A Film Unfinished,” which is one of the best movies of the year. Is it playing somewhere near you? Can you stream it? PPV it? Do so.

The background: At the end of World War II, a 60-minute, silent documentary was found in the German archives on Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto in the months before the ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants shipped off to the extermination camps of Treblinka. The question arise: Why document what you‘re about to destroy? And why stage scenes of better-off Jews going about their day? A woman puts on lipstick in her vanity mirror, another buys goods at the butcher, couples dine out. Initially one thinks the Nazis are showcasing comfortable people to refute claims of horrible conditions. Except they also showcase the horrible conditions. We see emaciated people with shaved heads. We see children in rags. We see a corpse every 100 meters. The Nazis filmed it all. Why?

The answer is juxtaposition. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of a well-off woman buying meat at the butcher while children in rags starve outside. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of sated couples leaving a restaurant and ignoring the emaciated woman in rags begging for a handout. This juxtaposition is justification. The Nazis are attempting to showcase a race of people so indifferent to the suffering of others that they didn’t deserve to live. They are documenting an excuse for extermination.

Once one realizes this one finally understands the true meaning of propaganda. It is the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. The Nazis herded 600,000 Jews into a single zone of Warsaw. They gave them no way to live. They let them starve. They let them die by the hundreds of thousands. Then they staged scenes of Jewish indifference to the suffering of others.

There is, of course, no modern equivalent of the Nazis. But there is modern propaganda. There is even modern propaganda is this most virulent form: the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful.

Example: class warfare.

You hear that phrase all the time on FOX. It may be the only place you hear it. And you hear it lately for the following reason: the Bush tax cuts are set to expire on Jan. 1, 2011. Pres. Obama wants to preserve the middle-class portion of the tax cut and allow the tax cut for the wealthiest one percent to expire. The tax rate for the wealthiest Americans will zoom from 35% all the way up to 39%. On FOX-News, this is considered class warfare. Here’s an example of that language. Here's another. OK, here's a bunch of them.

But who's really conducting class warfare? I would argue it's the rich, the powerful, who are accusing the poor and middle class, or the powerless, of what the rich are in fact doing. Because the rich can't deal with a 39-percent tax rate.

Question: What was the top tax rate during most of the Reagan years? 50 percent.

Question: What was the top tax rate during the Eisenhower years? 91 percent.

It's all here.

So the question shouldn't be: ”Should we roll back the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans to a 39-percent rate?“ The question should be: ”Should we tax the richest Americans at a 50 percent rate?"

The right, and FOX-News, keep doing this. It's not always powerful/powerless—Pres. Obama isn't powerless, for example, and the Democratic party shouldn't be powerless—but FOX's attacks almost always have that vibe. It's FOX-News accusing others of its own crimes.

Here's Ailes:

These guys don’t want any other point of view.

Here he is on Jon Stewart:

“He loves polarization. He depends on it. If liberals and conservatives are all getting along, how good would that show be? It’d be a bomb.”  

He's describing himself and his own network. Again and again and again.

Pay attention. That's all. Just pay fucking attention.

Posted at 08:03 AM on Friday November 19, 2010 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Thursday November 18, 2010

The Joy of Mere Words

I often re-read George Orwell's essay, “Why I Write,” because it's short, and good, and when I need a reminder now and again. When I need bucking up.

I've always liked this bit in particular:

When I was about sixteen I suddenly discovered the joy of mere words, i.e., the sounds and associations of words. The lines from Paradise Lost—

So hee with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on: with difficulty and labour hee,

which do not now seem to me so very wonderful, sent shivers down my backbone; and the spelling “hee” for “he” was an added pleasure.

Ernest HemingwayFor me it was later, when I was about 19, and taking a freshman literature course at the University of Minnesota. One of the books on the syllabus was Ernest Hemingway's “In Our Time,” and one of the stories in that collection was “Soldier's Home,” about a young man, Krebs, coming back from the Great War. This is the second paragraph:

There is a picture which shows him on the Rhine with two German girls and another corporal. Krebs and the corporal look too big for their uniforms. The German girls are not beautiful. The Rhine does not show in the picture.

That seemed wholly perfect to me in a way that no paragraph ever had. Hemingway gives us an image, which, because we're romantic fools, can be romanticized; then, with the next three sentences, he takes away all romantic notions. Some part of me still thinks “The Rhine does not show in the picture” is the greatest sentence ever written in the English language.

I stared at the paragraph after I'd read it until tears came to my eyes; then I took it downstairs to share with my father. Because the joy of mere words needs to be shared. 

Posted at 06:35 AM on Thursday November 18, 2010 in category Books   |   Permalink  

Tuesday November 16, 2010

Review: “Notorious” (1946)


Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” is the greatest love story ever filmed between a cold bastard and a drunken whore.

That’s a joke and it isn’t. There’s the story we watch and there’s the way Hitchcock undercuts the story we watch. He smuggles all sorts of shit in. He gets America, this puritanical country, to care about these less-than-pure people.

The Hays code helped. In the first five minutes we learn that Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), whose father was recently convicted as a Nazi spy, drinks too much and sleeps around, but we only see her drunk once, and we never see her sleeping around—just flirting with Cary Grant, who, let’s face it, is Cary Grant, the Man from Dream City, etc., so who can blame her. The Hays code, by keeping Alicia’s more notorious activities discreet, keeps her sympathetic. When others bring up her past, it almost seems unfair, as if they were tarnishing her with rumors rather than agreed-upon facts.

As for the cold bastard? We first see Devlin (Grant) as the back of a head and wonder, “Why is Hitchcock filming the back of his head when the front of his head has Cary Grant’s face attached to it?” Answer: This is a man who reveals little. He’s a secret agent, CIA, OSS, or whatever the agency was between World War II and the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. He doesn’t talk much but every third word is sneered. It takes a lot to drain the charm out of Cary Grant but Hitchcock does it masterfully.

The greatest romance of all time!

The linchpin of the film is also masterfully, intricately created. Devlin recruits Alicia, this wanton, daughter-of-a-Nazi-spy, for an assignment in Rio de Janeiro, but before they get the assignment they fall in love. He loosens up and she looks like Ingrid Bergman again. It begins to feel like a traditional Hollywood romance. There’s even a famous two-and-a-half minute kissing scene that, by skirting the Hays’ code’s admonition of kisses longer than three seconds, relies on multiple, nibbling pecks, making it even sexier than if they’d been allowed to slobber all over each other.

Then the assignment arrives. She’s to infiltrate a gang of Nazis by throwing her charms at one of the leaders, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), who once had a crush on her. And by “throwing her charms at,” I mean “sleeping with.” Or “fucking.” All of which is discreetly implied with words like “playmates.” Hays Code to the rescue again.

So Devlin is torn. He’s a professional man but also a man in love. The man in love wants her to say “no” but the professional man knows the job is the job. Which side wins? The side that says nothing. He gets even more tight-lipped. Just when she wants him to talk.

She’s a woman in love but an amateur in this profession, so she goes along with the scheme, one can argue, for Devlin. He wants her to say “no,” but she says “yes” for him. Talk about cross purposes.

That’s how Hitchcock undercuts the traditional Hollywood romance. But “Notorious” is also a thriller, a post-WWII thriller about American agents battling South American Nazis, and the way he undercuts the film’s ostensible patriotism is even more brilliant.

Three scenes stand out.

In the first scene, early in the movie, Devlin recruits Alicia, not by appealing to her patriotism, but by revealing how patriotic she already is. Three months earlier, her father tried to recruit her to the German cause and she’d responded with a speech, straight out of a war-bonds fundraiser, about how much she loves America. Most of us reveal our best face to the world while doing what we do in private. She, apparently, is the opposite.

And how does Devlin remind her how patriotic she is? By playing a recording of that conversation with her father. The very government she’s defending on that recording, in other words, is in fact recording her. It’s spying on her. By showing her that she’s patriotic, he’s also showing her why she shouldn’t be patriotic.

Her secret shame: patriotism.

All of which goes unsaid. The second scene, halfway through the movie, is more overt.

By this point Alicia has infiltrated Sebastian’s sanctum at great risk and personal loss—she loses Devlin—but here she’s about to turn up at agency headquarters, and the man in charge, Capt. Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), worries. Another one of the higher-ups, Walter Beardsley (Moroni Olsen) adds, “She's had me worried for some time. A woman of that sort.”

During this conversation, Devlin had been showing us the back of his head to the room, but Beardsley’s remark literally turns him around. It forces him to reveal his true face:

Devlin: What sort is that, Mr. Beardsley?
Beardsley: Oh, I don't think any of us have any illusions about her character, have we, Devlin?
Devlin: Not at all. Not in the slightest. Miss Huberman is first, last, and always not a lady. She may be risking her life, but when it comes to being a lady, she doesn't hold a candle to your wife, sir, sitting in Washington, playing bridge with three other ladies of great honor and virtue.


Hitchcock, of course, grew up in working-class London and maintained working-class suspicions of the oligarchy. There are people who work and people who don’t. There are soldiers and those who order soldiers into battle. Alicia, at this point, is a soldier. These old men and their wives who look down upon the Alicias of the world? Not. They call into question her character but Hitchcock, through Devlin, calls into question their character, and all they can do in response is be affronted:

Beardsley: I think those remarks about my wife are uncalled for.
Devlin (unapologetic): Withdrawn. Apologized, sir.

The men who do little.

The man who reveals little.

His true face. “Withdrawn. Apologized, sir.”

The third scene, near the end of the film, may be the strongest of the lot.

By this point, Alicia has actually married Sebastian and is living in his mansion with his domineering mother, whom he calls “Mother,” prefiguring Norman Bates by 15 years. At a party to introduce Alicia to Rio society, Alicia and Devlin discover the Nazis secret: ore, most likely uranium ore, hidden in wine bottles in Sebastian’s basement. It’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin, but unlike most McGuffins it’s not harmless. It actually anticipates (in the writing and filming) the A-bomb, which will transform the world.

To discover this, Alicia has to steal the wine-cellar key, a Unica key, from hubby’s keyring. Unfortunately, he notices it’s gone, then notices it’s back, and in the wine cellar he finds jig-is-up evidence of Devlin’s clumsy snooping. “I’m married to an American agent,” he tells Mother. But what to do? Killing an American agent can’t make up for having married her in the first place; that won’t sit well with the other Nazis, who, remember, killed poor Emil Hupka (Eberhard Krumschmidt—his only role in movies!) simply for having a lousy poker face.

So Mother concocts a scheme to slowly poison Alicia. It will seem, to the other Nazis and the rest of the world, as if she had an illness and expired. Alicia figures it out, but too late, when she’s too weak to do anything about it, and she’s led, as if in a nightmare, up to her bedroom, where Mother, with her thick German accent, says, “We’ll take the best care of her,” and Sebastian, feigning concern (and with the camera zooming in tight on Alicia’s helpless, stricken face), tells the butler, “Josef, disconnect the telephone, Madame must have absolute quiet. Take it out of the room.”


Then, in rapid succession, we see:

  • Devlin sitting on a park bench, his meeting place with Alicia, looking at his watch.
  • Alicia in bed, dying. Mother off to the side, knitting peacefully.
  • Devlin, at night, pacing before the same park bench.

In our minds we’re going “Hurry! Hurry!” and finally we get a meeting between Devlin and Prescott. Most such meetings took place in Prescott’s office but this one is in Prescott’s hotel room. It indicates how worried Devlin is. He, like us, can’t wait for tomorrow.

The hotel room also allows Hitchcock to juxtapose Alicia, the solider, with Prescott, the general.

Like Alicia, Prescott is lying in bed. Unlike Alicia, he’s a picture of health. In fact, as Devlin reveals his concerns, and as we’re still shouting “Hurry!” in our minds, Prescott nonchalantly, infuriatingly, butters crackers and stuffs them in his face.

“Five days, eh?” he says, unconcerned. “That must be quite a binge she’s on.” Devlin figured the same—Alicia had lied to him about her sickness—but now he’s having second thoughts. Prescott has none. He even warns against Devlin checking up on her since he doesn’t want anything to jeopardize the mission. Then he picks cracker crumbs off his chest.


“That must be quite a binge she's on.”

How far will you go for love or country? That’s one of the main dilemmas of the film. Love doesn’t do poorly in this equation, since, in the end, Devlin comes through, despite Alicia’s past, despite Alicia’s assignment. But country? Beardlsey represents the country. He thinks poorly of the workers. Prescott represents the country. He can’t be bothered to get out of bed. While Alicia is dying in hers.

There is, in general, great balance in “Notorious.” In one of the first shots, we see the judges and executioners of Alicia’s father framed in a doorway; and in one of the last shots, we see the judges and executioners of Alicia’s husband framed in a doorway. After Alicia is reintroduced to Sebastian, we see Devlin sitting alone at a restaurant on the left side of the screen. In the next shot, we see Alicia sitting alone at a restaurant on the right side of the screen. Balance.


But there is no balance as to our loyalties. The film’s second-most famous shot, after the kissing scene, occurs at the beginning of the party, when the camera, starting from the upper floor, sweeps down to focus on the Unica key in Alicia’s nervous hand. It’s a great shot. One can’t help notice, too, the checkerboard pattern on the floor, and how all of the guests, milling about, look like pieces in a chess game. Which they are. That isn’t a point of contention. Our problem is with the men moving this particular piece. They don't know its value. They see a pawn. We see the queen.

Posted at 06:45 AM on Tuesday November 16, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s   |   Permalink  

Monday November 15, 2010

Hollywood B.O.: Denzel, Trains and Tony Scott: Who Are the Megaminds Who Came Up With That One?

How odd to be Tony Scott. You've directed 16 movies and the most popular is your second, “Top Gun” ($176 million in 1986), and your second-most popular is your third, “Beverly Hills Cop II” ($153 million in 1987), and since then only one of your movies, “Enemy of the State” ($111 million in 1998), has topped $100 million.

That's unadjusted, by the way. So your current movies, with all that inflation, don't come close to your 1986 movie and its puny 1986 dollars. Ouch.

But at least you keep making movies. And at least you keep making movies with Denzel—despite diminishing returns: “Crimson Tide” in '95 ($91 million), “Man on Fire” in '04 ($77 million), “Deja Vu” in '06 ($64 million) and “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” in '09 ($65 million). That last movie was considered a box-office disappointment but you've got balls. So does Denzel. A Tony Scott-directed movie about trains starring Denzel did so-so business, so you're back with... a Tony Scott-directed movie about trains starring Denzel. It does similarly. “Pelham” opened at $23.3m, “Unstoppable” at $23.5m. “Unstoppable” wound up second for the weekend to “Megamind,” which, in 10 days, has already grossed more than “The Social Network” has in 45 days ($89m vs. $87m). Inventing Facebook? We prefer our megaminds to be cartoons, thank you.

The two other big openers didn't open well. The low-budget but high-tech “Skyline” grossed $11m in 2800 theaters, while the adult drama, “Morning Glory,” about the dumbing down of morning talk shows, grossed $9m in 2500 theaters. They finished 4th and 5th, respectively. “Due Date,” or “Planes, Trains and Automobiles Redux,” came in third.

In other, better news, the “Saw” franchise appears to be dead. It peaked in '05 with “Saw II” ($86m) and it's been downhilll ever since. “Saw VI” only made $27m but I guess LionsGate wanted to see what sadism looked like in 3D. Opening weekend worked: $22 million. But now they're pulling out fast, dumping 800+ theaters, and last weekend it only grossed $2.7m for a 17-day total of not even twice as much as its three-day opener: $43m. Please play taps already.

Clint Eastwood's “Hereafter” (or, in self-help mood: “Hereafter: How Your Dead Loved Ones Can Help You Live a Better Life”), is also dead. Warner Bros. pulled it from 674 theaters and it responded with $1.3m and 13th place, for a total gross of $31 million. With the exception of “Letters from Iwo Jima” (which was in Japanese and did lousy business) and “Gran Torino” (in which Clint killed bad guys and which did boffo business), Eastwood's last six films have all settled in the $30 million range:

“Hereafter”: $31.4 (*still playing)
“Invictus”: $37.4
“Changeling”: $35.7
“Flags of Our Fathers”: $33.6

Many of these did better abroad—particularly in France. “Changeling” made $77m in the foreign market, “Invictus” $84m. “Hereafter” hasn't been released globally yet but one imagines it will since it's got an international cast and inernational settings. Clint Eastwood, the All-American tough guy, has become, in box-office terms, Woody Allen: more appreciated abroad than at home.

The sad totals.

Posted at 07:24 AM on Monday November 15, 2010 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  

Sunday November 14, 2010

Incident on 1st Avenue

I was biking to work the other morning, my usual route, and was riding up 1st Avenue North, near Key Arena, which is a one-way, two-lane street with an extra bike lane on the right-hand side.

(As an aside, this street has one of the more amusing road surfacing markings I've ever seen. Two lanes, right? But as 1st approaches Thomas, a road surface marking in the left-hand lane lets drivers know they can only go straight or turn left, while a road surface marking in the right-hand lane lets drivers know they can only go straight or turn right. I suppose the markings are there to remind drivers in the right-hand lane not to turn left, and drivers in the left-hand land not to turn right. Or maybe they're there to remind drivers not to go backwards.)

So I'm biking up 1st Avenue in the left-hand lane when a car zips past me and the driver yells something I don't quite catch. He has to stop at the traffic light on Harrison, which is where I catch up with him. His window is still rolled down and he's obviously exasperated. He points over to the right and says the following:

“How come you're not using the bike lane?” 

His subtext is obvious. Look, dude, we've given you an ENTIRE LANE of your own. So why are you clogging up legitimate traffic with your bike?

I have some sympthy—but only some—and I point to the Harrison intersection and say this:

“I'm turning left.”

Do I get an apology? Not really. I can see that he sees the logic, but the logic only makes his exasperation worse. At which point the light turns green and he drives on. 

Again, I have some sympathy with the dude. But only some. A cyclist has to turn left now and again.

Posted at 07:27 AM on Sunday November 14, 2010 in category Biking   |   Permalink  

Thursday November 11, 2010

Lancelot Links (My Oh My Edition)

Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus died yesterday of a heart attack at the age of 75 and appreciations immediately rolled in. I wrote mine upon hearing the news but didn't feel like I captured how much he meant to me. I wrote about meeting him, and I resurrected quotes, and audio clips, and LINED DOWN THE LEFT FIELD LINE FOR A BASE HIT, and all of those are good, but I tend to associate him with, of all things, cleaning my apartment on 44th and Evanston in upper Fremont on some weekend afternoon, the sun streaming in, a hopeless game on the radio. Cleaning isn't any fun, and Mariners games often aren't any fun, but he made them fun. Roger Angell has said that baseball is like life, because there's more losing than winning in each, and Dave was a guy you wanted to hang around with during all that losing. He made the losing, and thus life, bearable. Hell, he made it fun.

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments field below. Here are some others:

  • Mike Henderson at crosscut opens with a bang and tries to capture that Niehaus-Ron Fairly banter during an M's shellacking.
  • Rob Neyer visits the broadcast booth. “I didn't imagine, for even a second, that I would never have another chance. I sort of thought Dave Niehaus would live forever.”
  • Various clips and remembrances, including this one from Jay Buhner: “He could call a sunset.”
  • This U.S.S. Mariner piece needed to be longer, but I like the Bip Roberts remembrance. That's the Dave I remember. He's been called a “homer,” but he always got excited about good play from the opposition.
  • Kirby Arnold gives us reaction from Junior, and Dan Wilson, and Kevin Cremin. Ron Fairly says, “He was a huge Mariners fan; probably the biggest one in the Northwest.” 
  • John McGrath, in a piece about Niehaus' induction into the Hall, on how a Jay Buhner homerun call made him feel welcome in Seattle.
  • Mike: Off Mic, the voice of the Rainiers, on sharing the broadcast booth with a legend. “And nine miserable innings they were, Mike.”
  • Jim Caple on Joey and Joy. Here comes one, there goes one.
  • I choked up listening to these radio calls. They even have the grand-salami call off Roger Pavlik from '95. But make sure you stop it before the end. For some reason, KIRO 710 ends their tribute with an awful, generic radio voice; I'd rather end it with his very distinct radio voice.
  • Finally, Seattle Times' sports columnist Steve Kelley writes one of the best eulogies I've read: “He could be calling a baseball game, and it would seem as if literature broke out. ... In the cynical world of big-city sports, Dave Niehaus truly was beloved. I bet he didn't have an enemy in the game, in the business, in Seattle. And — my, oh, my — there will be times next season when his absence will feel almost too heavy to bear.”
Posted at 07:40 AM on Thursday November 11, 2010 in category Seattle Mariners   |   Permalink  

Wednesday November 10, 2010

Dave Niehaus (1935-2010)

Seattle is less an unforgiving city than a city that doesn’t care one way or the other about you—people walk by with empty faces, “everyone in their own cave,” as a friend of mine once said—so it’s tough to move here in the middle of a life and feel like you belong.

One of the first things that made me feel like I belonged in Seattle was the voice of Dave Niehaus, the Mariners broadcaster, who died today at the age of 75.

It was an old-school broadcaster’s voice better suited for radio than television. To me, it always recalled rocks that had been worn smooth over time. It felt chummy, like he was sidling up to you at a bar, with a beer, to talk about the game.

Dave was a homer, he root root rooted for the hapless Mariners, and even more so, in ’95, when they became a little less hapless; but more than anything he appreciated good baseball. I remember more than once how he talked up this or that kid for an opposition team. Dave was always excited by possibility. I think that’s how, through the years, he stayed excited about the Mariners, who gave him 10 good years and 24 bad ones, and who never got him to a World Series.

I interviewed him a couple of times—the first time on the Kingdome field in ’96. Later that day, or night, I got to spend an inning in the broadcast booth with him. I was nervous, of course, and spent too much time trying to get it all down to really have a good time, but he was a gracious host and gave me some wonderful soundbites. There were a couple of errors and overthrows in that half-inning, and Dave told the fans, “This is an ugly, sloppy ballgame.“ He never pretended the game wasn't what it was. He never minced words.

It was better when he didn’t have to; when his enthusiasm was allowed to burst out. For months, maybe longer, in ’95, and maybe into ’96, I had the following on my answering machine. It was his radio call of a grand slam by Ken Griffey, Jr. against the Texas Rangers on one of the last games of the ’95 season:

And Junior right down on the knob of the bat, waving that black beauty right out toward Pavlik; has it cocked and Pavlik is set. The pitch on the way to Ken Griffey Jr. and it's SWUNG ON AND BELTED! DEEP TO RIGHT FIELD! GET OUT THE RYE BREAD GRANDMA, IT IS GRAND SALAMI TIME! I DON'T BELIEVE IT! ONE SWING OF THE BAT, THE FIRST PITCH, AND KEN GRIFFEY JR. HAS GIVEN THE MARINERS A 6-2 LEAD OVER THE TEXAS RANGERS. MY OH MY!

Of course, there was also this. And this. And all of these.

For that ’96 piece I interviewed fans in the stands, including Peter Maier of Seattle:

Niehaus is the best, no question about that. I brought the radio because I came with my son and his four friends for his birthday party, so Niehaus is my adult friend. He has a modulated kind of voice that allows you to follow the game by his tone. You know when to tune in and find out what's going on.

I interviewed Lou Piniella:

I've gotten a chance to listen to him at times when I've been thrown out of ballgames by the umpires. Also from time to time I go in and watch the game on television for a couple of hitters. ... He's a manager up there too once in a while, right? No, I don't talk to him about strategy, but I'll tell you this: He knows the game of baseball.

I interviewed Rick Rizzs, his long-time broadcasting partner:

So many times he'll be doing his innings of play by play and I'll be sitting there, and I'll lose sight of the ballgame, because I'm listening to him like I would be in my backyard listening to, you know, Dave on the radio. He's able to reel you in whether or not you're in your backporch or your car or whether you're sitting right next working with him. To me he's the best broadcaster in baseball because he can set the scene, he can bring you in, he can make you feel it, smell it, touch it, and be a part of it.

Mostly I interviewed Dave. I asked him if he ever had trouble with M's management:

They have never, ever put words in my mouth. I say what I believe, what's in my heart, and I think you have to do that or you lose your credibility with the fans. If you lose your credibility with the fans you might as well get out of town anyway. Even though I'm hired by the Mariners, I think of myself as a fan guy. Somebody that the fans can believe.

I asked him if he preferred radio or TV:

I think baseball is a radio game. I can play with people's minds on the radio. That's one of the reasons I don't like indoor baseball. You don't have the elements: you don't have the wind, you don't have the cold. When you're outdoors you can explain all of this: the humidity, how hot, the beads of persperation. You go to Fenway Park in Boston, for example—which is my favorite park by far and it was built in 1912—you can smell it, you can smell baseball. I almost genuflect when I go in there. You can smell the stale beer and the popcorn and the hotdogs, even though they scrubbed it from the night before. And all of a sudden you walk down the aisle and you look at that green monster out there and just, ”Wow."

He told me this well-worn story about how he became a broadcaster in the first place:

I was going to go to dental school and I woke up one morning in college and said 'I can't stare down somebody's throat at nine o'clock in the morning the rest of my life' and I wandered by the radio and television school there and changed my major.

We’re glad you did, Dave. Thanks for welcoming me to Seattle. Fly, fly away.

Posted at 06:01 PM on Wednesday November 10, 2010 in category Seattle Mariners   |   Permalink  

Wednesday November 10, 2010

The 10 Best Movies of the First 10 Months of 2010

It's the next two months that get busy, of course, but thus far it hasn't been a bad year for movies... if you live in a city that plays limited releases and you know where to look.

Here are my top 10* thus far**. No order—although “Un Prophete” and “Restrepo” probably top the list. We'll see what the next two months bring.

What about you? Favorites of 2010? Recommendations?



*click on the poster for the review

**Caveat: I have yet to see “Grown Ups.”

Posted at 07:11 AM on Wednesday November 10, 2010 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Tuesday November 09, 2010

Hertzberg on the Midterms

Hendrik Hertzberg's column in the latest New Yorker, about the midterms, is a must-read.

He alludes to why the Republicans should be angry with, rather than beholden to, the Tea Party:

The Democrats retained their Senate majority, now much reduced, only by the grace of the Tea Party, which, in Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada, saddled Republicans with nominees so weighted with extremism and general bizarreness that they sank beneath the wave so many others rode.

He tells us where all the Democratic voters went: they didn't show up:

In 2008, when 130 million people cast votes in the Presidential election, 120 million took the trouble to vote for a representative in Congress. In 2010, 75 million did so—45 million fewer, a huge drop-off. The members of this year’s truncated electorate were also whiter, markedly older, and more habitually Republican: if the franchise had been limited to them two years ago, last week’s exit polls suggest, John McCain would be President today.

He comes up with a better metaphor (big surprise) than the Dems' “they drove it in the ditch/we‘re pushing it out”:

By the time the flames [from the economic firestorm] reached their height, the arsonists had slunk off, and only the firemen were left for people to take out their ire on.

Best, there’s this graf, on the “cognitive dissonance” of the election—or, in layman's terms, the reason why it was so fucking annoying:

Frightened by joblessness, “the American people” rewarded the party that not only opposed the stimulus but also blocked the extension of unemployment benefits. Alarmed by a ballooning national debt, they rewarded the party that not only transformed budget surpluses into budget deficits but also proposes to inflate the debt by hundreds of billions with a permanent tax cut for the least needy two per cent. Frustrated by what they see as inaction, they rewarded the party that not only fought every effort to mitigate the crisis but also forced the watering down of whatever it couldn’t block.

But the scariest graf is the penultimate graf, on the problems the Dems had this election: proving a negative (things woulda been worse without the stimulus), delayed gratification (the health-care bill doesn't fully enact until 2014), good-for-the-goose, not-for-the-gander logic (citizens tighten belts while government goes on a spree). Then he gets into what he calls “public ignorance”:

An illuminating Bloomberg poll, taken the week before the election, found that some two-thirds of likely voters believed that, under Obama and the Democrats, middle-class taxes have gone up, the economy has shrunk, and the billions lent to banks under the Troubled Asset Relief Program are gone, never to be recovered. One might add to that list the public’s apparent conviction that illegal immigration is skyrocketing and that the health-care law will drive the deficit higher. Reality tells a different story.

He goes on to show that each of these things is not true, and, in the final graf, blames the Dems for not beating their chests enough. I agree, but also fault Hertzberg (and everyone) for not stating what this “public ignorance” truly is: the triumph of FOX-News, the Koch brothers, and a propaganda machine that went into 24/7 mode as soon as Barack Obama took the oath of office in January 2009, telling us it was time to “get to work.” The propagandists listened. They cared not a lick for the act of governing; they weren't interested in sorting through proposals to see which were the best means of extracting us from the mess we were in; they were only interested in confusing the issues and demonizing opponents—often by accusing those opponents of the very things that the propagandists themselves were guilty of.

We need to call this what it is: propaganda. You don't need totalitarian control of the government, or the media, to effectively propagandize. You just need money, and a forum, and a message that appeals to our worst instincts.

The American people have been effectively propagandized. It can happen here. It has.

Posted at 07:38 AM on Tuesday November 09, 2010 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Monday November 08, 2010

Review: “The 39 Steps” (1935)

I'm taking a five-week course on Alfred Hitchcock this fall at the Northwest Film Forum so periodically I'll be posting reviews of the films we watch and discuss. Feel free to join the discussion...


Here’s a snatch of dialogue from early in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps”:

She: May I come home with you?
He: What’s the idea?
She: Well, I’d like to.
He: It’s your funeral.

He is Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian visiting London. She is Annabella, (Lucie Mannheim), who, unbeknownst to Hannay, is a secret agent. They’ve just met. They were both in a London music hall watching a man named Mr. Memory perform before a raucus crowd when shots were fired and everyone ran for the nearest exit. At the moment she’s playing the frightened woman even though she’s the one who fired the shots.

I love the economy in these four lines. With only 15 words, she seems to promise easy sex while he responds with a shrug—as if he knows he’s in a 1930s movie, where there is no sex, easy or otherwise. The final line is hilariously self-effacing. It’s also expert foreshadowing. Going home with Hannay will, in fact, be Annabella’s funeral.

“The 39 Steps” was the second of six films Alfred Hitchcock directed for Gaumont British Picture Corporation, films in which he began to perfect what became known as “the Hitchcock thriller,” and there’s something clean and nonchalant about it, the way there’s something clean and nonchalant about “The Great Gatsby” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.” There’s no wasted space in the plot even though we go off on tangents with quirky secondary characters, such as, here, the milkman, the underwear salesman, and the crofter and his wife. It feels pure and self-contained.

Hannay is the first great example of Hitchcock’s innocent man on the run. When he and Annabella get back to his flat, he fries her up some haddock while she tells her tale. Yes, she’s a spy. Yes, she fired those shots. There were men she needed to get away from. Those men are now outside. Hannay checks, confirms, and she warns him:

She: Now that they have followed us here, you are in it as much as I am.
He: How do you mean?

Now that’s innocent! Worse, though they seem intimate in the kitchen, always within a whisper of touching each other, the promise of easy sex remains just that: a promise. He gives her his bed while foolishly taking the couch, where, in the middle of the night, she wakes him, gurgling warnings, a knife in her back, a map of Scotland clutched in her dying hand. He backs away, wiping blood from his own hand. Now the men are chasing him. He may not get the sex but he catches the disease.

Annabella was vague about why she was being chased—because spies tend to be vague and because Hitchcock is always vague about his MacGuffin (that element that drives the story but is ultimately meaningless)—but Hannay knows the following: 1) Annabella was working to prevent information from leaving England; 2) there’s an important man to see in Scotland; 3) beware the man missing the top joint of his little finger.

Though Hannay gets away, just barely, from the bad guys, and settles into a train bound for Scotland, Hitchcock immediately lets us know there is no “away.” In the very next shot, a justifiably famous shot, Annabella’s body is discovered by a charwoman, and, as she turns toward the camera to scream, the sound we hear is the train whistle and the shot we see is the train coming out of a tunnel. It’s both humorous and immediately revives our sense of urgency. It’s as if the scream is already part of his getaway train. It’s as if the train now has the disease, too.

This is the second time in the film, by the way, that a face, or faces, have turned toward the camera, and us, in a moment of terror. The first was when shots were fired in the Music Hall.

The second is the charwoman finding the body.

First the gun, then the body. What comes next? Guilt and suspicion. The salesman on the train is actually in his own world of ladies underwear and cricket, yet he still stares with narrowed eyes at Hannay, and us, over the newspaper story of Annabella’s murder as if he knows.

I’m sure books have been written about this Hitchcockian perspective. But at its most base level it helps us identify with Hannay. We are the ones people are frightened and suspicious of. We’ve caught the disease, too.

Soon the police, who are remarkably efficient when the story needs them to be, board the train searching for Hannay. Trapped, Hannay barges into the compartment of a pretty blonde, calls out “Darling!” and kisses her as the police, clucking to themselves wistfully, pass; then he tries to get her, this stranger, on his side. It’s a key moment. The Hitchcock story isn’t just about the innocent person caught in a web of intrigue; it’s about the innocent person who can’t get anyone to believe their story. It’s the stuff of nightmares: I have the answer but no one believes me! The milkman—a great secondary character—was the first charcter who didn’t believe Hannay, and the pretty blonde, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who will be a primary character, is the second.

Pamela not only disbelieves him, and not only gives him up to the cops, but she does it with a kind of vindictiveness. When you contrast it with Hannay’s nurturing quality with Annabella in the kitchen, fixing her a meal, it seems not only unfair but unfeminine. Something more seems going on. One wonders if her anger stems from the sheer effrontery of Hannay’s kiss or the fact that she enjoyed the sheer effrontery of Hannay’s kiss.

Contrast her reaction, too, with the reaction of Margaret, the crofter’s wife (Peggy Ashcroft). Hannay escapes the cops on the train and makes his way across the moors of Scotland, where he chances upon an old scabby farm, run by an old scabby man, John (John Laurie), with whom he bargains for a room for the evening. Though John is suspicious by nature, it’s his wife, Margaret, who figures out why Hannay’s running, and who believes him, and who helps him escape and ultimately saves his life (with the hymnbook in the breastpocket). What does she get for it? An off-screen slap, and possibly worse, from her husband. Pamela, the ice queen, gets Hannay.

We get more caught/escape cycles. The important man from Scotland, Prof. Jordan (Godfrey Tearle), no. 2 from above, turns out to be no. 3 from above, the man missing the top joint of his little finger. Bad luck. The hymnbook saves Hannay there, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, he’s in the local police station, where the police finally believe him. Except they don’t. So he escapes again, this time through a political parade and into a political rally, where he’s on stage, and in the the midst of charmingly winning over the rowdy crowd (and anticipating Hugh Grant’s entire career), when he’s spotted by, whaddayaknow, Pamela, who promptly, and icily, gives him up a second time. Problem? She gives him up to the bad guys. And she’s brought along for the ride.

She gets hers, though. After he escapes again—this time handcuffed to Pamela—the two take a room at the Argyle Arms posing as newlyweds. Pamela is scandalized, you can see it in her pleading eyes, but we remember her previous behavior, so cold and unwomanly, and have no sympathy. Plus, let's face it, we’re titilated by her predicament. There’s a scene where she removes her damp stockings, Hannay’s handcuffed hand bumping along for the joyride, while the camera holds on her exquisite legs and silence—almost like held breath—envelopes everything. It’s one of the sexier 15 seconds in movie history.

The film ends where it began, in the music hall with Mr. Memory, whose rock-solid memory is the key to transporting the stolen information out of the country. On first viewing, this alley-oop seems brilliant. On second viewing, questions arise.

OK, so if Annabella was in the music hall in the beginning, did she know about Mr. Memory? If so, why point to Scotland? And how did those two bad guys kill her with a knife in the back but not get Hannay? Why kill Annabella—presumably inside the flat—and then phone Hannay from outside the flat? That makes no sense. And why phone the night before anyway? Aren’t they alerting both her and him to their presence? They’re not exactly putting the secret into secret agent, are they? Plus a hymnbook in the breast pocket? Come on. And Pamela shows up again at the political rally? In all the political rallies in all of Scotland, she has to walk into mine...

To which Hitchcock, somewhere, harrumphs. “I’m not concerned with plausibility,” he once said. Another time: “Must a picture be logical, when life is not?”

He might as well have said: Must a picture be logical when dreams are not?

Movies have been compared to dreams forever, and Hitchcock’s movies have been compared to nightmares forever, and this implausibility is part of the reason why. One can imagine Hannay waking up back in Canada and telling his friends about the odd dream he had:

I was in ... England, I suppose, and these fellows were after a woman, a beautiful woman, and I was trying to help her; and then they came after me. They thought I had information but I didn’t have information. I think I was charged with murder in there somewhere, too. I just kept running and getting caught, running and getting caught. I was even shot once but didn’t bleed. And there was another woman, another beautiful woman, who wouldn’t believe that I was innocent. No one believed it. So I had to keep running. Anyway, pass the sugar, will you?

Posted at 06:41 AM on Monday November 08, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Sunday November 07, 2010

Jeter = To Throw Away

It’s always amused me that jeter in French means “to throw away,” although, to be fair, Derek Jeter's throwing arm has never been much of a problem. He's got a gun. It's his range that's been the problem (if you‘re a Yankees fan) or a secret joy (if you’re not).

But I'm talking about another kind of throwing away. Of money.

What salary suits a legend most? Baseball fans have been wondering all year—particularly when Jeter's production went down and it became apparent it wasn't going back up.

In 2010, according to, Jeter made $22.6 million in the final year of a long-term deal, and, for all that money, this is what he gave the Yankees: career lows in batting (.270), on-base (.340) and slugging (.370). In the postseason, over 9 games, he posted a .289 on-base percentage from the lead-off position. In the last two games against Texas, as the Yankees went down and out, he never even hit the ball out of the infield.

Jeter, in 2010, improving his OBP.

And he's 36 going on 37.

But he's the Captain. Mr. November. Beloved in the Bronx. Most hits in Yankees history. So what do the Yankees do? And what does Jeter do?

Ben Shpigel of The New York Times wondered about this last week.

Most of what he writes is fine. One graf, though, stands out to anyone who doesn't live in New York:

If this were only about baseball and future production — and not about Jeter’s symbolic importance to the franchise — the Yankees could argue that Jeter, based on his statistics, age and veteran status, might be in line for a 2011 salary that would be half of the $21 million he earned in 2010.

Half $21 million? So $10.5 million? If he wasn't Jeter? That seems absurd. So I did some checking.

Out of the 149 major league players with the qualifying amount of plate appearances in 2010, Jeter ranked 115th in OPS, dead even with Orlando Hudson, the second baseman for Minnesota. Hudson made $5 million last year. And that salary was based on better numbers from the year before (.774 OPS). He might not make that now. And he's four years younger than Jeter.

So let's try the year before: 2009. The goal is to find a shortstop who hit about what Jeter hit in 2010, is about the same age, and became a free agent at the end of the season. And there is a guy. His batting average was higher (.284) but his OBP was lower (.316) but his slugging was higher (.389). Full-time player (656 at-bats). At the end of the season he turned 36. His name is Orlando Cabrera. He became a free agent and signed with the Cincinnati Reds in January 2010. For $2 million.

But that's unfair, too. Cabrera is a lifetime .715 OPS guy. Jeter is a lifetime .837 OPS guy. There's always the hope that Jeter's poor performance in 2010 was based upon some injury. There's the hope he can rebound in 2011.

So is there a guy with similar career numbers as Jeter who had a 2009 similar to Jeter's 2010 and then became a free agent?

Tall order. But Miguel Tejada is kind of close. His lifetime OPS is lower, .801, but he is a former A.L. MVP, a half-time shortstop, and currently only a month older than Jeter. In 2009, when he was 11 months younger than Jeter is now, he had a pretty good season with Houston. Hit .313, slugged .455, led the league in doubles with 46. An OPS of .795. Much higher than Jeter's .710 in 2010. And for all that, in January 2010, Tejada signed a one-year deal with Baltimore. For $6 million.

I have no idea what Jeter will ultimately get from the Yankees. But anyone thinking he'd get $11 million per if he had the stats of Jeter but not the cachet of Jeter is in a New York state of mind.

Posted at 07:13 AM on Sunday November 07, 2010 in category Yankees Suck   |   Permalink  

Saturday November 06, 2010

Lancelot Links

  • Tim Egan has become a must-read. Here he is writing about... well, the headline says it all: “How Obama Saved Capitalism and Lost the Midterms.” 
  • In a similr vein: WTF has Obama done so far? Plenty.
  • Whenever someone argues that FOX-News isn't biased, or is only as biased as MSNBC or NPR, trot out some of these figures. Then there's that slogan. If the most untrustworthy man is the man who says “Trust me,” what do you make of a news network that keeps reminding us they're “Fair and balanced”?
  • Rush Limbaugh keeps getting it wrong and keeps on trucking. This time he complains about the graduated income tax. Where did that come from? he asks. People who read stuff answer: Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.
  • After all that, not to mention Nov. 2, here's a little cheerer-upper: Ricky Gervais singing a celebrity lullabye to Elmo on “Sesame Street.”
  • I also love this early 1970s visit to “Sesame Street” from Paul Simon singing “Me and Julio” and getting upstaged (almost) by a little girl who just loves to sing. This may be the second time I've linked to it.
  • A documentary about Jews and baseball has opened in New York. I'm over here in Seattle. Am I holding my breath? Probably. Ah well. DVD. Streaming. Something. Eventually.
  • There's a new term in baseball, “super utility player,” but it's not a new phenomenon. Rob Neyer does the Dr. Livingstone thing and tracks it to its source, or at least a source: Cesar Tovar, one of my favorite players when I was a kid.
  • Skip the first eight paragraphs of Jeff Sullivan's MLB piece, “Season of the Improbable,” and just get to his list of all of the improbables that happened during the 2010 season. Fun! Yes, and not, Mariners fans. If there's any of you left.
  • The New York Times is screwing over David Waldstein! Or their search engine is. In Monday's edition, or Tuesday's west-coast edition, Waldstein published a piece titled “Renteria Is Positioned for Another Last Swing at a Title.” All about how the Giants shortstop had the final at-bat in the '97 Series (winning it for the Marlins) and the '04 Series (on the losing end of the Red Sox first title since 1918), and, who knows, maybe it'll happen again. It didn't, but Renteria did, in a sense, swing for the title: his three-run homer decided Game 5 and the Series for the Giants—their first since 1954. But online the Times appear to have written over that prescient piece. Search for it, then click on what appears to be the article (“Giants' Renteria Seeking Another Last Swing at Title”) and it takes you to a piece entitled, “Decisive At-Bat is Again Renteria's,” which is after-the-fact analysis. What the hell? To find the original opening you have to scroll a third of the way down Kenneth Plutnicki's live-blogging of the game. Not sure why the Times would destroy an online record of a helluva call.
  • I've been trying to write a Josh Wilkeresque piece but couldn't get past the definitive way he describes the joy of opening a pack of baseball cards  What could one add? Then I came across this piece from Jim Caple, which is from last February:

You hold the pack in your hand as if it were a lottery ticket. What players might be inside? You rip open the foil and are greeted by a familiar face. It is not a star — the first card is never, ever a star — but it is a reliable veteran, or a middle reliever, or maybe a September call-up who looked promising. You shuffle through the cards as hopeful as when you're dealt a hand in poker. Let's see, you got Eddie Guardado, and Nick Punto, and Ryan Garko, and — good grief, another Willie Bloomquist? — and James Parr, and then, boom! There's an Ichiro! When you turn over the card to glance at Ichiro's stats — nine consecutive .300-average and 200-hit seasons — summer and your childhood both seem a little bit closer.

  • My friend Nathalie, who watches “Dances with the Stars,” was complaining about this very thing the day before Andrew Sullivan posted it on his site. 
  • My friend Andy visits Hue, Vietnam, and sees ghosts.
  • Seriously, isn't the autocorrect on text messages one of the most annoying things about iPhones? It's bad enough that their suggestions are almost never correct; they also make the suggestions the default. You have to take action to prevent the auto-correct from writing over your words. The assumption is that they are smarter than you. That's getting into Microsoft territory.
  • Finally, happy belated birthday to Famke Janssen (above), who is two years younger and four inches taller than me. But where has she been lately? She never calls anymore. Back in 2005 I placed her second on my list of the 10 sexiest actresses (oh, the crap we'll write when editors call), and since then I've seen her in exactly one thing: playing the thankless role of the ex-wife in Liam Neeson's “Taken.” It doesn't help that she's on “Nip/Tuck,” which I don't watch, and starring in movies like “100 Feet,” which I'd only see if they paid me. Apparently in that film she's under house arrest for killing her abusive husband, then discovers that the house is the ghost of her abusive husband! On the poster she's frightened and crying. Because we don't see enough frightened and crying women on movie posters. You're a beautiful 46, Famke. Come back soon.
Posted at 08:52 AM on Saturday November 06, 2010 in category Lancelot Links   |   Permalink  

Friday November 05, 2010

The Frasco-Frisco Treat*

“This was San Francisco baseball. The Giants lost the World Series in seven games in '62. They lost the World Series of '89 that was better known for the earthquake. They lost the World Series in 2002 though they had a five-run lead with eight outs to go. But there was never the same angst in San Francisco about the losing that they feel in Cleveland or Boston or Chicago. There was, instead, a sense of anger and wonder. How could a team keep losing with all those great stars?

”And then ... this Giants team came along.“

—Joe Posnanski, ”San Francisco Finally Has a World Series Champion."

* how I heard the Rice-a-Roni jingle when I was a kid

Posted at 06:55 AM on Friday November 05, 2010 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Wednesday November 03, 2010

Why The Tea Party Hates George Washington

Here's the long view, courtesy of Joseph J. Ellis' Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Founding Brothers,” published in 2000:

There are two long-established ways to tell the story [of the founding of the republic in 1787]...

Mercy Otis Warren's History of the American Revolution (1805) defined the “pure republicanism” interpretation, which was also the version embraced by the Republican party and therefore later called “the Jeffersonian interpretation.” It depicts the American Revolution as a liberation movement, a clean break not just from English domination but also from the historic corruptions of European monarchy and aristocracy. The ascendance of the Federalists to power in the 1790s thus becomes a hostile takeover of the Revolution by corrupt courtiers and moneymen (Hamilton is the chief culprit), which is eventually defeated and the true spirit of the Revolution recovered by the triumph of the Republicans in the elections of 1800. The core revolutionary principle according to this interpretive tradition is individual liberty. It has radical and, in modern terms, libertarian implications, because it regards any accommodation of personal freedom to governmental discipline as dangerous. In its more extreme forms it is a recipe for anarchy, and its attitude toward any energetic expression of centralized political power can assume paranoid proportions.

The alternative interpretation was first given its fullest articulation by John Marshall in his massive five-volume The Life of George Washington (1804-18O7). It sees the American Revolution as an incipient national movement with deep, if latent, origins in the colonial era. The constitutional settlement of 1787-1788 thus becomes the natural fulfillment of the Revolution and the leaders of the Federalist party in the 1790s—Adams, Hamilton, and, most significantly, Washington—as the true heirs of the revolutionary legacy. (Jefferson is the chief culprit.) The core revolutionary principle in this view is collectivistic rather than individualistic, for it sees the true spirit of '76 as the virtuous surrender of personal, state, and sectional interests to the larger purpose: of American nationhood, first embodied in the Continental Army and later in the newly established federal government. It has conservative but also protosocialistic implications, because it does not regard the individual as the sovereign unit in the political equation and is more comfortable with governmental discipline as a focusing and channeling device for national development. In its more extreme forms it relegates personal rights and liberties to the higher authority of the state, which is “us” and not “them,” and it therefore has both communal and despotic implications.

It is truly humbling, perhaps even dispiriting, to realize that the historical debate over the revolutionary era and the early republic merely recapitulates the ideological debate conducted at the time, that historians have essentially been fighting the same battles, over and over again, that the members of the revolutionary generation fought originally among themselves.

When looked at through this prism, we get a sense of how fucked-up the current generation is.

The Jeffersonians in this equation are obviously the tea partiers, who are in the midst of an extreme, and paranoid, period. They view Pres. Obama, for example, who talks the language of cooperation, as a despot.

But the original Jeffersonians fought moneyed interests while the current Jeffersonians, the tea partiers, are bankrolled by those interests: The Koch brothers, the Citizens United decision, etc.

Moreover, if, in the 1790s, the debate was individual liberties (Jefferson) vs. American nationhood (Washington), the rhetoric on the right now equates individual liberties with American nationhood. At the least, the current Washingtonians, the Democrats, don't use the rhetoric of “America” as well as the current Jeffersonians, the Republicans. They haven't for some time. 

Thus we have imbalance. The rhetoric and the money have gone over to the Republican side. It's a wonder the Democrats ever win at all. Or to quote a cinematic version of FDR:

“I often think of something Woodrow Wilson said to me. 'It is only once in a generation that people can be lifted above material things. That is why conservative government is in the saddle for two-thirds of the time.'”

Posted at 09:29 AM on Wednesday November 03, 2010 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Tuesday November 02, 2010

Bush Offers Mea Culpa

  • WTF has Pres. Obama done so far? Click here.
  • My favorite sign from the Jon Stewart rally: “I support reasonable conclusions based on supported facts.”
  • St. Louis Park's own Tommy Friedman, that old Iraq War supporter, worries about a know-nothing future
  • Bob Herbert on what has happened to the middle class? Not in the last two years, kids. In the last 30.
  • Nate Silver, the 538 guy, predicts a divided Congress...but it could all go Republican.
  • A practical definition of propaganda could be: “accusing others of your own crimes.” For more than a year the right has called the left “Fascists.” But I don't remember anyone on the left literally stomping heads.  
  • Imagine any Republican, any, being as articulate and open as Pres. Obama is with this “It gets better” message.
  • No link here, but yesterday I kept seeing banner ads from “Freedom Club State PAC of Minnesota,” who apparently don't know I haven't lived there in three years, urging me to vote against Mark Dayton, and trotting out their favorite Republican candidate: Ronald Reagan. Love the new ideas they have. Love their new candidates.
  • And who is the Freedom Club State PAC of Minnesota? White suburban businessmen. The kind who give “white,” “suburban” and “businessmen” bad names.
  • Two years ago on election day, Michael Sokolove visited his hometown of Levittown, Penn., and found people both anxious for change and patient. Here's one former Vietnam Vet: “How long did it take Bush to get us into this mess? It’s a lot easier to screw things up than to make them better.” A shame this isn't the voice we're hearing these days.
  • Again no link, just a promise. No depression. Tomorrow I'll either be relieved or ... really pissed off. 
  • Vote. Democrat.
Posted at 07:21 AM on Tuesday November 02, 2010 in category Politics   |   Permalink  

Monday November 01, 2010

Review: “A Film Unfinished” (2010)


As the documentary started, I had a moment of regret.

“Why am I watching this?” I wondered. “What’s it going to tell me that I don’t already know? That conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto were horrific? That evil is banal?”

Here’s the background. At the end of World War II, a 60-minute, silent documentary was found in the German archives on Jewish life in the Warsaw ghetto in the months before the ghetto was liquidated and its inhabitants shipped off to the extermination camps of Treblinka. For 45 years, the footage, among the only known footage of life in the Warsaw ghetto, was treated as fact, as documentary fact, until a fourth reel was found indicating that many of the scenes were staged by the Nazis.

“A Film Unfinished” is Yael Hersonski’s 90-minute documentary on that 60-minute propaganda film.

Thus the moment of regret. “How,” I thought, “can Hersonski make this silent film interesting?”

Three ways.

First, it’s no longer silent. She adds her own narration as well as readings from various diaries, including those of Adam Czerniaków, head of the Warsaw Judenrat (Jewish Council), and Heinz Auerswald, the Nazi commissioner of the ghetto. The victims, along with the perpetrators, have voices again.

Two. She appreciates the power of the human face. She shows us not only the haunting faces in the silent propaganda film but the haunted faces of Warsaw ghetto survivors, “witnesses” she calls them in the credits, whom she films watching the silent propaganda film for the first time. There are five of them: four women and one man. The man has a slight smile on his face at odds with the heaviness of his sigh. The women simply looked pained. “Oh God,” one says, “what if I see someone I know?” Another: “I keep thinking I might see my mother walking.” There’s this tension between wanting to see and not wanting to see, between recovering this past and burying it forever. Will seeing her mother make things better? Or will it make the pain unbearable?

Finally, there’s the mystery. In the opening narration, Hersonski says the Third Reich was “that empire that knew so well to document its own evil,” but one still wonders why they filmed this particular piece of propaganda. What purpose did it serve? The staged scenes tend to feature better-off Jews going about their day: a woman putting on lipstick in her vanity mirror, another woman buying goods at the butcher, couples dining out. The witnesses refute each of these instances. “Most had sold everything.” “They were waiting to die.” “You woke up to find a corpse every 100 meters.”

Czerniaków’s diary details what was being filmed that day, the subterfuge that went into the filming, and then we see the footage. This bris, that ball, this show. The Jews in the show’s audience were held there all day, without food, without bathroom breaks, and ordered to laugh for the cameras.

Initially one thinks the Nazis are doing the obvious: showcasing comfortable people to refute claims of horrible conditions. Except they also showcase the horrible conditions.

We see piles of garbage. People were too weak to go downstairs, one witness says, so they simply threw garbage out the window. “I was 10 years old at the time,” another witness says, “and I was the dominant figure in my family.” She escaped the ghetto several times a week, risking her life, to get food for her family.

We see emaciated people with shaved heads. We see children in rags. We see a corpse every 100 meters. The Nazis filmed it all.

The point of the filming was, in fact, this juxtaposition. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of a well-off woman buying meat at the butcher while children in rags starve outside. Here’s take 1, take 2, take 3 of sated couples leaving a restaurant and ignoring the emaciated woman in rags begging for a handout.

Much of the footage was taken by Willy Wist, a German cameraman who testified during the war-crime tribunals in West Germany in the 1960s, and whose words, read by German actor Rüdiger Vogler, constitute less the banality of evil than the shrug of it. He didn’t know the ultimate purpose of the film; he just filmed it. He says, at one point, “I recall I had to film a mass grave,” and then we see that footage. A makeshift slide was created to deliver the corpses into the pit outside Warsaw. One lifeless, naked body after another slides down and lies crumpled at the bottom. It’s the final solution foreshadowed, and Wist filmed it all because it was his job to film it all. If this seems unforgivable it’s because it reminds us of us. We see a line, we thank the stars we’re on this side of it, and we continue to do what we do.

It may be obvious, as you read this, why the Nazis staged what they staged—the ultimate purpose of their silent propaganda film—but it wasn’t to me watching Hersonski’s doc until about three-quarters of the way in. Was it explained outright? Was it implied? I forget. Hersonski’s narration tends to be quiet and even, and she presents most of the material without editorial comment. In this restraint she shows her artistry. “You’ve got to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost once wrote, and she does, and that pressure builds, and eventually, either nudged by her or by some spark in my brain, it hit me, the answer, and I felt a fresh horror wash over me.

The juxtaposition between rich and poor Jews was justification. The Nazis were pretending to document a race of people so indifferent to the suffering of others that they didn’t deserve to live. They were documenting an excuse for extermination.

In that moment of horror, of revelation, one understands the true meaning of propaganda.

It is the powerful blaming the powerless for the crimes of the powerful. The Nazis herded 600,000 Jews into a single zone of Warsaw. They gave them no way to live. They let them starve. They let them die by the hundreds of thousands. Then they staged scenes of supposed Jewish indifference to the suffering of others.

I sat down for “A Film Unfinished” almost regretting sitting down. What else could I learn about the Holocaust that I didn’t already know? But there’s always fresh horror. The redemption, if there is any, is that the Nazis created a document of lies, and, from this, Yael Hersonski created a document of truth. She restores voices, and faces, and meaning.

Posted at 06:25 AM on Monday November 01, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010   |   Permalink  

Twitter: @ErikLundegaard