Saturday August 31, 2013
The Lesson of Adolf Hitler or Taylor Swift
A friend posted a link to The Atlantic's quiz, “Who Said It, Adolf Hitler or Taylor Swift?” and I took it and got 8 out of 10. I missed the first two, then realized the key: It's in language and metaphor. Hitler wouldn't say “flaws” or “over-achiever.” Swift wouldn't use magicians or bridges as a metaphor. In the end, it's not that hard.
This is how the whole thing started:
This “Hitler or Taylor” joke started with a Pinterest user named Emily Pattinson, who juxtaposed pretty images of Taylor Swift with quotes from the “real Taylor Swift” ... [Except] the quotes Pattinson was using actually belong to the likes of Hitler, Osama bin Laden, and Joseph Stalin — and no one noticed.
Then The Atlantic tries to draw a lesson from it all:
So are Taylor Swift fans gullible? Do Swift's words resemble Nazi propaganda? Is Hitler the voice of the millennial generation? The answer isn't so obvious. Or is it?
Here's the lesson to me. A quote isn't validated or invalidated by who said it. None of us are 100 percenters. Just because Hitler said something doesn't make it awful. Just because Lincoln said something doesn't make it moral. Just because Swift said something doesn't make it fatuous. Look to the words and the meaning.
Friday August 30, 2013
Movie Review: Oblivion (2013)
What does it say about us?
That’s the point of movies set in the future, right? They tell us a little about ourselves today? That we’ve become dangerously consumerist (“WALL-E”), or dangerously blind to global warming (“Waterworld”), or just plain dangerous (most of them). We’re a violent, selfish people and we destroy the planet in some way. We blow it up, damn us, damn us all to hell. The future world is always out of balance, delivering either too much authority (“1984,” etc.) or too little (“Mad Max,” etc.), and the point of the story is to restore the balance or die trying.
So what does the world of “Oblivion” say about us?
I have no fucking clue.
I guess that we’re resilient. I guess that you can replicate us and replicate us and we won’t lose our soul. Much.
A king of infinite space
It’s the year 2077 and Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his wife, Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), live in the pristine Tower 49 high above the sad, dry remnants of what was once New York City. Sixty years ago (or four years from now), an alien race, Scavengers, diminutivized to Scavs, destroyed our moon, which caused massive environmental chaos on Earth; then they attacked us. Smart plan. But we beat them back. We used our nukes and beat them. “We won the war but lost the planet,” Jack tells us in voiceover. He’s still pissed off about it; he thinks it unfair. Most of humanity now lives on Tet, a gleaming tetrahedral space station orbiting Jupiter, I believe, while Jack and Victoria stick around to mop up the remaining Scavs. But in two weeks, they, too, go to Tet. Victoria’s excited. Jack?
Jack has bad dreams. Scratch that. He has good dreams that imply reality is out of joint. He dreams of a beautiful woman, Julia (Olga Kurylenko), and the black-and-white tones of the pre-war years—a time before he was born. He dreams of being with Julia atop the Empire State Building, looking through the viewfinders. They’re young and in love and the world is whole. Then he wakes with a start to find himself in the post-war world living with Victoria, who is British, clipped, and so pristine herself she seems like CGI. They have sex in the pool. The pristine piscine.
Jack has a secret life. While Victoria remains atop Tower 49, he pilots a kind of whirligig spaceship—a future ride at Universal Studios if the movie had done better—to mop up the Scavs, but he doesn’t want to leave Earth. He relives old Super Bowl games, picks up old books. He keeps bringing books and other paraphernalia to a lakeside cabin, where he puts on a Yankees cap, a flannel shirt, and listens to Zeppelin, bro, and broods.
This cabin abuts the radiation zone and is out of range of both Victoria and their boss, Sally (Melissa Leo), who gives them orders from Tet in a scary-smooth honeysuckle Southern accent. “How are y’all doing this morning?” she says. “Are you an effective team?” she asks. Say what I will about the movie, and I will, Leo’s fantastic. I kept flashing back to “Three Days of the Condor,” and the soulless responses of the Major, a wheelchair-bound operative who is supposed to help the hero but doesn’t; who is probably on the other side.
How to find yourself in the desert
Then a beacon atop what’s left of the Empire State Building brings down a pre-invasion spacecraft with five humans in suspended animation aboard. A drone, a flying globe with R2D2 sound effects, kills four of them, even though it’s only supposed to kill Scavs. The fifth human turns out to be Julia. Jack risks his life to save her.
Once Julia awakes in Tower 49, she views both Jack and Victoria with wide-eyed (and full-lipped) suspicion, then asks that they retrieve the flight recorder at the crash site. But she and Jack are captured, not by Scavs, but by remnants of humanity, dressed in Sandpeople-ish outfits, and led by the cigar-smoking Beech (Morgan Freeman) and the dashing Sykes (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of “Game of Thrones”). Beech, intrigued by Jack, tells him three things:
- We didn’t win the war, we lost it.
- Tet is housed, not by us, but by an alien intelligence.
- Jack will find the truth about himself in the radiation zone.
What truth? Later, bro. We need third act reveals, after all.
Of course, let loose, Jack doesn’t go to the radiation zone. He goes to what remains of the Empire State Building, where Julia tells him, yes, they’ve been there before. In the pre-war years. This is where he proposed to her. She’s his wife. They embrace. But Victoria sees this, via the ship’s monitors, and she tells Sally they are no longer an effective team, and Sally sends drones to kill them all. Victoria dies, Jack and Julia escape, but in a damaged ship that crashes in the radiation zone. And what does Jack find there? Radiation maybe? Nope. He discovers ... himself. Literally. He comes upon another version of himself, whom fights and defeats.
Eventually, via Beech, he learns the whole truth. The aliens attacked Earth, not with Scavs, who never existed, but with clones of Jack and Victoria, astronauts from 2017, who destroyed the rest of humanity and have been involved in mopping up operations ever since. Jack, in other words, thinks he’s the hero but he’s the villain. We think he’s the hero but he’s the villain. This is a rather remarkable plot point for a modern Hollywood movie. Writer-director Joseph Kosinski (“TRON: Legacy”) supposedly wanted to make a sci-fi movie in the 1970s vein, and this is an element of it—that Vietnam War era “we know not what we do” malaise—but Kosinski doesn’t stress it enough. He covers it up. He keeps going back to the post-“Star Wars” roller-coaster ride, without which no big-budget movie is produced anymore.
Jack, in other words, or this particular clone of Jack, has to redeem himself, and Beech has a plan: reprogram a drone to deliver a nuke and blow up Tet from within. And after a final battle with drones, Jack does this: He flies to Tet, with a wounded Beech along for the ride, quotes poetry for poignancy and a final “fuck you” for the yahoos in the audience, and presses the trigger. And nothing happens. Well, something happens, an explosion, but the alien technology is much more advanced than we realized, and the damage from the nuke is contained, and the rest of humanity is mopped up by more drones and Jack clones. The End.
Kidding! No, they totally blow the thing up—BOOOOOOM!—and from our planet it looks like beautiful fireworks, and the Ewoks dance. No, the humans celebrate, including Julia, now living at the lakeside cabin.
At this point I was thinking, “Well, at least the hero died. That’s a bit of the 1970s. That’s something in this age of the happily-ever-after Hollywood ending.”
Except: Several years later, in a postscript, Julia and her young daughter (from Jack, obviously) are farming and subsisting by the lakeside when they are visited by a gang of marauding rapists. Kidding! No, they are stumbled upon by the remnants of Beech’s crew, now led by Sykes, who takes Julia as his fifth wife in order (he says) to better propagate the species. Again, with the kidding. No, Beech’s crew shows up, yes, led by Sykes, yes, but with that other clone of Jack, 52 as opposed to 49; and amid voiceover talk of souls being made up of the love we share, unbound by time and death, it’s implied that this clone, as opposed to dozens of others scattered around the planet, this particular clone and Julia live happily ever after.
And there’s your Hollywood ending.
1970s homage, my ass.
An effective team
So what does this futuristic movie say about us in the here and now? Don’t fuck with the moon? Don’t think yourself the hero? The life you save may be your clone?
That’s the biggest problem with “Oblivion.” It tells us nothing about our own time. It resonates not a whit. It has some clever bits, and some nice art direction, and a feint toward more poignant 1970s fare, but mostly it just fills in the modern Hollywood blanks. It feigns preference of the rustic (the lakeside cabin) over the sterile (Tower 49), but is itself as sterile as that tower. Kosinski and Cruise, and screenwriters Michael Arndt (“Toy Story 3”) and Karl Gajdusek (“Trespass”), make an effective team. They mop up well.
Thursday August 29, 2013
Movie Review: West of Memphis (2012)
I’d heard good things about “West of Memphis,” the documentary by Amy Berg detailing the arrest, trial, and conviction of three young men, Damien Wayne Echols, 18, Jason Baldwin, 16, and Jessie Misskelley, 17, in the 1993 deaths of three young boys, who were found naked, bound and mutilated in a shallow pond in the Robin Hood Hills section of West Memphis, Ark. Two of the young men were sentenced to life in prison; one (Echols) was sentenced to death.
The evidence against them? The confession of one, Misskelley, who was questioned for 12 hours by the police, and who later recanted. Some eyewitness testimony from others, later recanted. Direct evidence? Nothing. DNA evidence? No. Hysteria over the crime helped. The focus of the investigation became Echols after more than month because the crime was perceived to be a Satanic crime and Echols was perceived to be a Satanist, even though he was probably just a Goth kid.
Although we don’t really know much about him, do we? Instead, the doc strings us along for two and a half hours with various guesses about the crime and wringings of hand over the miscarriage of justice and footage of Lorri Davis, who married Echols when he was in prison, reading love letters from him. And, yes, you read that right: two and a half hours. I know the story of the West Memphis Three is a tragedy twice over, but it took Steven Spielberg only a half-hour longer to present the entirety of the Holocaust. Can’t a brother get a film editor in here?
At first “West of Memphis” is a horrific crime story (which it is), then it’s a story of a horrific miscarriage of justice (which it seems to be), then it becomes a kind of detective story—if these kids didn’t do it, who did?—and different people become involved in the investigation and the attempt to right the crime after the crime. San Francisco’s Dennis Riordan becomes the most prominent of the lawyers, but even he winds up with a backseat in the doc to all of the celebrities who made the case of the West Memphis Three their cause: Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp, and Peter Jackson. But how did they all get involved? Did Rollins start it? And did he bring the others along? It feels like that’s the case but we don’t know for sure. Here’s the question I have that the documentarians don’t seem interested in answering: Of all the miscarriages of justice in the world, how did so many work so long on this one?
That’s the oddity. We have a two-and-a-half-hour doc that still leaves us with fundamental questions. When did doubts about the boys’ guilt first arise? Immediately? What were the West Memphis Three thinking back in 1994 as they were on trial? Did they think they would get off? Did they realize the gravity of the situation? Instead, they’re silent, background figures in their own story. They’re virtually unknowable. But the doc churns over (and over) some of the same material. It draws out the drama and thus draws out the doc. You feel it happening. You feel the manipulation.
“West of Memphis” ultimately disappoints for not being more concise, for not seeing the wider picture, for not answering fundamental questions despite its length. Who doesn’t disappoint? Eddie Vedder. A talking head, he comes off here as sober, intelligent and thoughtful.
Wednesday August 28, 2013
How the March on Washington was Viewed in 1963
From my review of “Report Civil Rights,” Library of America's massive (and much-recommended) collection of eyewitness journalistic accounts and in-depth magazine articles on the civil-rights struggle from 1941 to 1973, which appeared in The Seattle Times 10 years ago:
Appropriately, some of the articles upend our warm, hazy view of [the March on Washington].
True, E.W. Kenworthy of The New York Times wrote that the demonstration had “an air of hootenanny about it”; but Russell Baker reminds us that by the time Dr. King spoke, “huge portions of the crowd had drifted out of earshot,” while civil-rights worker Michael Thelwell details how the Kennedy administration hijacked the march's original intent — a one-day sit-in to “completely immobilize the Congress” — and turned it into something “too sweet, too contrived, and its spirit too amiable to represent anything of the bitterness that had brought the people there.”
Bitterness? The March on Washington? Indeed. In Marlene Nadle's Village Voice article, in which a busload of New Yorkers ride to the march, a white Peace Corps volunteer talks, with perhaps too much paternalism, about why he wants to help Nigeria. Suddenly a black activist shouts, “If this thing comes to violence, yours will be the first throat we slit. We don't need your kind. Get out of our organization.”
To me, though, the most fascinating thing about the Library of America collection remains its lessons in journalistic objectivity.
From 1946 to 1963, most articles gave both sides of the argument, black rights vs. states' rights, and the journalist didn't choose sides. This is what Negroes think, this is what Southerners think. Decide for yourself.
That began to change after Birmingham, the March on Washington, and the JFK assassination. Among the societal assumptions ecompassed within journalistic objectivity, in other words, was the assumption, post '63, that Negroes had gotten a raw deal in the South and beyond. “The moral issue was simply too stark, and segregationist logic too twisted,” I wrote 10 years ago. “By June 1963, even The New York Times was referring to the White Citizens Council as 'a racist organization.'”
“It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream ...”
Wednesday August 28, 2013
Understatement of the Year
“So the notion that the public, which is generally happy to ignore critical opinion when it comes to big commercial releases, was suddenly compelled to obedience in the case of 'The Lone Ranger' seems a bit dubious.”
-- A.O. Scott, responding to charges, mostly from the movie's principles (Depp, Hammer, Bruckheimer), that all-powerful movie critics killed “The Lone Ranger” at the U.S. box office in a way they couldn't with ... take your pick: the “Transformers” movies, the “Twilight” movies, the latter “Pirates” movies. It's such an absurd charge you want to slap Depp across his pretty, privileged face.
Scott's article, “Maybe 20 Years From Now, Tonto: Reconsidering Box Office Bombs Years After the Fact,” which is unnecessarily careful, uses “Ishtar” as an example of a critical and box-office bomb that is getting a modern-day rehearing and possibly parole, and wonders which critical and box-office bomb this summer, in what is now officially called the summer of box-office bombs, might be rehabilitated 20 years from now. Scott picks “Lone Ranger,” since revisionism has already begun. But the French critics (and British critics, unnamed by Scott) who hold it up still need to answer, for me anyway, the following matters:
- If Tonto and the Lone Ranger are both created from tragedies of their own making, why are they treated like comic relief?
- Why further juxtapose the comic (Tonto and Lone Ranger getting away via railway handcar) with the genuinely tragic (the slaughter of the Commanches)?
- If the point is to upend the heroic myth via the comic and tragic, why buy into the heroic myth (complete with Wm. Tell Overture) in the final act?
- What the hell is Helena Bonham Carter doing here with her rifle leg?
Revisionist critics tried to do this with “Sucker Punch,” too. They tried to turn the stupid into the subversive. Best argument I've heard in this regard is still this reader's comment to my review of 2012's bomb, “Battleship.”
But “Lone Ranger”? Hi yo.
Apparently Johnny Depp believes that a powerless, dying race (movie critics) is secretly all-powerful.
Tuesday August 27, 2013
Netflix Gets It Wrong
More than five years ago (have I been doing this that long?), I wrote a post called “Netflix Gets It Right” in which I lauded the online DVD service for changing the default listing of its movies from alphabetical to chronological. I'm a chronology guy. It's how I see the world. You could say it's how I live through the world. You, too.
Now, five years later, Netflix has changed it up again. Go to the Woody Allen page or the Martin Scorsese page and their movies aren't listed chronologically or alphabetically; they're listed by user rating.
I get the idea. Why not let someone who doesn't know Scorsese or Allen see their best first rather than their most recent?
If it's their best. That's the problem. The highest-ranked Woody Allen movie, for example, is “Woody Allen: A Documentary” by Robert Weide, which is good, but I assume even Weide would be embarrassed by that ranking. Second is “Antz.” Third, “Radio Days.” “Annie Hall,” one of the great films, one of the great romantic comedies, turns up sixth.
Scorsese's aren't bad. “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” “No Direction Home,” “Hugo.” Not bad. “Taxi Driver” is 16th but what are you going do? “Raging Bull” is 25th, behind “The Aviator” among others, but what are you going to do?
The bigger problem is the clutter. The seventh-best Scorsese movie is “Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends.” You think, “I didn't know Scorsese made a doc on Bennett,” and he didn't. Bruce Ricker did. It's from “American Masters.” PBS. Scorsese is a talking head. So Bruce Ricker directed the seventh-best Martin Scorsese movie.
Other movies in the Scorsese section?
- The Song of the Little Road (a doc on Satyajit Ray)
- Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project (also ahead of “Raging Bull”)
- Quiz Show
- Shark Tale
- Hollywood Uncensored
- Cannes: All Access
IMDb sorts by function: writer, director, actor. Would be nice if Netflix allowed this option. Or any option beyond its default option.
It's not bad for laughs, though. Bill Murray's best movie is “Eric Clapton: Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010,” then “Zombieland,” then “Space Jam.” Brad Pitt's best is “Legends of the Fall,” while his fourth-worst is “The Tree of Life.” Orson Welles' best movie is “The Muppet Movie.”
Monday August 26, 2013
Movie Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)
We should enjoy it, shouldn’t we, this tale of one of the 1%, a rich, useless woman, the wife of a Ponzi schemer, who, after her husband is caught and jailed and commits suicide, is forced, horribly, to live like us, and with us, in a small, tacky apartment above the New Central Cafe in San Francisco. She’s forced to do more than shop with friends, and lounge by the pool, and go to yoga and pilates classes. She’s forced to look for a job and a purpose. So we should enjoy her discomfort. We should say: Welcome to the party, pal.
Instead, it’s brutal. It’s painful. I kept shielding my eyes from the screen.
It’s brutal in two ways. First, Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is still an awful person. She says the worst, most obtuse things to her sister. She doesn’t fit in, she doesn’t want to fit in, but she has no other choice. She can’t help but be herself but she can no longer afford to be herself. So where does she go? What does she do?
She retreats into the past. She stares into space. She goes slightly crazy. That’s the second way the film is brutal: documenting, in a stunning performance, in a raw, Oscar-worthy performance, a woman’s descent into mental illness.
So we keep bouncing back and forth between these thoughts, these emotions. We think: My god, what an awful person. Oh, but what a shame that that’s happening to her. But my god, is she awful!
Everything you always wanted to know about sexual harassment*
It begins with an airplane, high in the clouds, coming toward us, and a voice saying, “There was no one like Hal.” That’s Jasmine talking to her seatmate, an older woman, who in their short time together hardly gets in a word. Jasmine keeps babbling about herself, and her life, and her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), now deceased, as if there was something positive about it; as if Hal hadn’t ruined her life.
She’s moving, with her Louis Vuitton bags, from New York to San Francisco, and into her sister’s small, cramped apartment, but we keep getting flashbacks to her other life since she keeps flashing back to her other life. She wants to live there. Even though she’s awful there.
One flashback, for example, involves a week-long trip her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), and Ginger’s then-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), took to New York City a few years earlier. Jasmine’s reaction at the time? “I guess I have to see them,” she tells Hal. Ginger and Augie are both working class, and salt of the earth, but Jasmine can’t make the time or the space. The visitors stay at a Marriott rather than with Hal and Jasmine. Hal loans them his car and driver, so that’s something, I suppose. While that’s happening, Ginger, perhaps too coincidentally, sees Hal kiss a stunning woman on Park Avenue, and later, at a party, inadvertently plants the seed that ends it all. She doesn’t tell Jasmine outright; instead she asks: Who is that woman with Hal? I don’t like the way she’s hanging around him. But Jasmine refuses to open her eyes to what everyone else sees.
This continues in San Francisco. She needs to get a job. She needs to get a life. But she can’t imagine doing what Ginger does, cashiering/clerking at a local grocery store (which, FYI Woody, wouldn’t pay enough to raise two kids in San Francisco). So she talks up going back to college. To study anthropology. But to do what exactly?
At least she’s got her high-toned looks, her high-toned clothes. Ginger, ever helpful, suggests maybe design? Interior decorator? She loves the idea! Except doesn’t she need a license? But couldn’t she get one online? But wouldn’t she need to use a computer for that? She doesn’t know how to use a computer. Meaning: she’s never used a computer. So she signs up for a class—this is the hardware, this is the software—while working as a receptionist in the office of a mutual friend, Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Jasmine, computer illiterate, has obviously missed out on a lot. Has Woody? We’re in San Francisco now, but between Ginger’s ex (Dice Clay), Ginger’s current boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and Chili’s friend, Eddie (Max Casella), we might as well be in New York or New Jersey. Who feels San Franciscan in San Francisco? Worse, Dr. Flicker becomes romantically (or at least sexually) interested in his new receptionist. He takes her out for drinks. One night at work he makes a pass. Is it played for laughs or is it simply played? No one involved—Flicker, Jasmine, Woody—seems to realize the magnitude of the moment. It could be a comedy scene out of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*” except it’s horrible. Jasmine cries, “This is so ... embarrassing!” but doesn’t seem to realize this is her ticket out. It’s blatant sexual harassment. She could take him for everything. Shouldn’t Dr. Flicker realize this as well? In 2013?
At times, in “Blue Jasmine,” it almost feels like director and actor are at odds. Woody seems to find amusing moments that Blanchett finds tragic. In this battle, if it is in fact a battle, Blanchett wins. Hands down. I can’t recall a better performance of someone slowly losing their mind. Travis Bickle is a piker in comparison.
Crimes and Misdemeanors
From one of her Computer Use 101 classmates, Jasmine accepts an invitation to a Sunday afternoon party (another oddity), meets a diplomat there, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), and pretends to be what she failed to become: an interior decorator. Hey, he just bought a place that needs work! So they go there. She pretends to be the widow of a doctor who had a heart attack. He, of course, is interested in more than her design. He proposes they go to Vienna together. Eventually he proposes.
Meanwhile, she’s convinced Ginger that Chili is no good for her so Ginger has started an affair with Al (Louis C.K.), a sound man, who, rather than meeting her one day, reveals by phone that, oh, didn’t I tell you? I’m married.
At this point I was thinking, “OK, so Jasmine is going to get out of it.” The movie will be the fall and rise of an awful person, who is restored to something like her previous status even as she brings her sister, who was helping her survive, low.
Nope. At the 11th hour, she’s revealed, to Dwight, to be a liar, while Chili shows his worth by taking Ginger back. The final scene is like the first scene—Jasmine talking about Hal—but this time she’s on a park bench, sans make-up, her hair straggly and wet from a shower, and no seatmate. She’s no longer talking about herself with someone simply there. Now she’s just talking to herself. The camera closes in and then the movie fades to black and everyone in the theater exhales.
Questions. The big third-act reveal is that Jasmine caused her own downfall. Hal was seeing another woman, their French au pair, but seriously this time. He loved her, he said. So Jasmine finked on him. She called the FBI about his investments, etc. (The scene where he’s arrested is great, by the way, as he goes from this monumental sense of entitlement to something approaching vulnerability.) But this reveal doesn’t have much bite, does it? I mean, wouldn’t he have been discovered anyway? Eventually? Like Bernie Madoff? Yet Jasmine gets the blame. She gets the blame even from Hal’s son (from a previous marriage), who is now working at a guitar store in Oakland—another nice coincidence. She shows up, and the former spoiled kid from the flashbacks seems content and well-adjusted and accepting his lot in life. Yet he still blames her for finking rather than blaming his father for creating the false world in the first place. Something wrong about this.
We get great performances throughout. Hawkins and Cannavale are so natural, so perfect, I could’ve happily watched an entire movie about them. Dice Clay has gotten good notices but I particularly like how Louis C.K., in a small supporting role, doesn’t adopt Woody’s rhythms, as many actors in Woody Allen’s movies do. His rhythms remain his own.
But Blanchett? Holy god. She’s acting the raw, three-dimensional pain of the world against what feels like a one-dimensional backdrop.
Sunday August 25, 2013
Raise High the Bookshelves, Carpenters: More Salinger Books on the Way
Since I'm the man who inadvertently put the kibosh on the last published J.D. Salinger book, I'm delighted with the news, via Michael Cieply in The New York Times, that more Salinger books, plural, are on the way:
One collection, to be called “The Family Glass,” would add five new stories to an assembly of previously published stories about the fictional Glass family, which figured in Mr. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” and elsewhere, according to the claims, which surfaced in interviews and previews of the documentary and book last week.
Another would include a retooled version of a publicly known but unpublished tale, “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans,” which is to be collected with new stories and existing work about the fictional Caulfields, including “Catcher in the Rye.” The new works are said to include a story-filled “manual” of the Vedanta religious philosophy, with which Mr. Salinger was deeply involved; a novel set during World War II and based on his first marriage; and a novella modeled on his own war experiences.
Not sure which excites me more: the five new Glass family stories (since “Hapworth” was hardly “Franny” or “Bananafish”), the novel set during World War II, or the WWII-era novella.
Cieply gathered the news from the new Shane Salerno documentary, as well as its accompanying book, both entitled “Salinger.”
The Salinger family, meanwhile, is still not talking.
The downside of all of this? The companion book, which comes out Sept. 3, was co-written by David Shields, whose “Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season,” I skewered almost 15 years ago. How does that guy keep getting work? And awards?
Oh right. The world.
This Salinger tidbit via Cieply is equally fascinating—if creepy:
Another relationship described in the book and film will provide plenty of intrigue to Salingerologists: after the war, Mr. Salinger met a 14-year-old girl, Jean Miller, at a beach resort in Florida. For years, they exchanged letters, spent time together in New York and eventually had a brief physical relationship. (She said, in an interview in the film and book, that Mr. Salinger dumped her the day after their first sexual encounter.) Ms. Miller said in the book that Mr. Salinger once saw her stifle a yawn while talking to an older woman and borrowed the gesture for one of his short stories, “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor.”
“He told me he could not have written ‘Esmé’ had he not met me,” Ms. Miller said in an interview in the book.
The doc opens Sept. 6.
“If you really want to hear about it...”
Sunday August 25, 2013
Weekend Box Office: 'You're Next' Isn't
Among new entries this weekend, horror movie You're Next seems like the strongest contender, and could claim first place ahead of Lee Daniels' The Butler.
“You're Next,” the horror movie with cute animal masks, finished 7th for the weekend, grossing $7 million in 2,437 theaters, for a lousy $2,893 average. “The Butler” came out on top again, grossing $17 million, but its total gross after a week-plus is still only $52 million. Meaning it probably won't do “The Help” kind of business, which was up to $71 million after its second weekend, on its way to $169 million. Because “Butler” lacks foregrounded white characters? Because it's about men rather than women and stories about men don't do as well at the box office? (Ha! Had to get that in there.) Because it's not as good? Not that “The Help” was ... you know.
Elsewhere, “We're the Millers” finished second and has now grossed $91 million; “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” surely one of the worst-titled movies in recent years, grossed $9.3 million in 3,118 theaters, while the British sci-fi apocalyptic comedy “The World's End” grossed almost the same ($8.9) in half as many theaters (1,549).
- Highest grossing: “The Butler,” $17 million
- Most theaters: “We're the Millers,” 3,445
- Best theater average: “The Grandmaster,” $18K in seven theaters
- Best theater average > 1000 theaters: “The World's End,” $5,773
- Biggest drop for a movie in wide release: “Kick Ass 2,” -68%
A lot of box office disappointment in August. “Planes” is at $59 million, “Elysium” $69m, “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” $48. “Kick Ass 2” has only grossed $22 million, while “Jobs,” the Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher of all people, has grossed only $12 million.
After you ... No, after you ... No, I insist.
Sunday August 25, 2013
Running More Reds in Noodge City
On the bikeride to work the other day, stopped at a red light at 1st and Denny, a dude in a truck to the left motioned me over. Initially I thought he was going to ask for directions but no.
Dude: Can I ask you something? Why do you feel you can go through that red light back there?
Me: You ever drive on the freeway?
Dude [unsure]: Yeah?
Me: You ever go over the speed limit?
Dude: OK, but ...
Me: Same thing.
He didn't think it was. I did. We talked over each other until the light turned green and we went our separate ways.
I've written before why I think running a red for a bike and speeding on the freeway for a car is similar. You can read it here.
The irony is where we had the above conversation. Stopped at a red light.
Saturday August 24, 2013
Movie Review: The World's End (2013)
There’s always something wrong with the perfect village.
In “Shaun of the Dead” it’s infiltrated with zombies, in “Hot Fuzz” with murderers, and now in “The World’s End,” the third in the so-called Cornetto trilogy, genre-comedies created by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, it’s been taken over by aliens who replace the village residents, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”-style, with robots.
Each, by the way, is a commentary on some aspect of our sad society.
Zombies? They’re so much like us—who commute daily between soul-destroying jobs and mind-numbing drink and TV at home—that they’re not even noticed at first. The murderers? They take out anyone who threatens their “Village of the Year” title. They do bad merely to appear good. And now? The robots? It’s part of that odd, return-to-your-hometown vibe. Doesn’t everything seem the same and yet ... odd? Clean and quaint and blank and homogenized? That’s why. It’s not you, it’s them.
Each movie also happens to be very funny.
But does each buy too much into the genre? The first and third certainly begin as character studies (young slacker tries to get life together; middle-aged man attempts to relive school-age glories), then become action films. They begin slightly British and end very Hollywood.
I’m free/ To do what I want
Gary King (Pegg) is the self-proclaimed leader of a group of mates who graduated in 1990 with an attempt at the “golden mile” pub crawl and came up three pubs short. Now it’s 23 years later, he has nothing going for him, and he wants a re-do. Where does he realize this? At a 12-step meeting. One assumes (rightly, it turns out) at an AA meeting.
But his friends have moved on and grown up. Peter (Eddie Marsan) sells cars at his father’s dealership, Steve (Paddy Considine) runs a construction company, Oliver (Martin Freeman) is a real estate broker, and Andy (Nick Frost), the old hard-drinking rugby player, has a corporate job and hasn’t had a drink in 16 years. None are too happy to see him. All agree, nonetheless, to take the train to Newtown Haven on Friday at 4:00, where Gary will pick them up. He does—an hour late. He’s driving the same 1989 car, “the Beast,” and wearing the same types of clothes—hipster 1990 clothes: the long trenchcoat, etc. Basically a cooler, darker version of my college wardrobe.
On the drive to the village center he starts playing the 1990 hit “I’m Free” by the Soup Dragons, and Steve’s interest is perked. “I put this on a tape for you,” he says, slowly remembering. Gary’s response is enthusiastic. “Yeah, this is it!” he says. At first, Steve is confused, then dumbfounded, that they’re actually listening to that same tape, and that Gary didn’t have to dig it out; it’s been in his car the whole time. All of the various iterations of technology—CD to MP3—have passed him by. Considine’s doubletake, backed by Pegg’s obtuse enthusiasm, made me laugh out loud, but this back-and-forth is also relevant to the story. More later.
So they begin the crawl, catch up, draw closer, even as Gary, the instigator, remains the outsider. He’s a bit like David Brent, isn’t he? Thick and self-important and sad. Oliver’s sister, Sam (Rosamund Pike), shows up, a one-time source of rivalry between Steve and Gary since they saw her wearing fishnet stockings in their school production of “Cabaret,” and Gary greets her, “Cabaret”-like, with “Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome.” A minute later, she slaps him and hangs an OUT OF ORDER sign around his neck. At another pub he’s reduced to defending his sad life to his mates. “You’re all slaves and I’m free!” he says, echoing, unintentionally, the Soup Dragons.
The evening is dying on the vine for him and he tries to show off in the men’s room to a kid there, part of a gang who remind him of them back in the day; but the kid doesn’t respond to his sad bragging. A fight breaks out and the kid’s head is crushed against a urinal and ... pops off. He bleeds blue ink. He’s a robot. So is most of the town. The homogenization of the pubs in the crawl? That’s why. That bad piece of public art? It’s a sentinel. The crazy man who drinks with a crazy straw? He’s the one who knows.
The robots are easy to kill but quick to reboot, and our heroes’ numbers begin to dwindle. First they get Oliver, then Peter. Gary insists on continuing the crawl so as not to alert them, then because he has nothing going with his life. In the end, at the final pub, The World's End, the alien intelligence—a beam of light with the voice of Bill Nighy—greets them and tells all. Replacing humans with robots is being done less for nefarious purposes than to provide harmony to the universe. Earth? It’s the least-civilized planet. It’s full of fuck-ups involved in the same cycles of self-destruction. Like Gary. So a few robots replace a few humans to keep things running efficiently. Except—and Gary points this out—we’re such fuck-ups, we’re so uncivilized, that the aliens have had to replace almost the entire town. He defends the species, after a fashion:
Gary (to alien): To err is ...
Steve (to Gary): ... human.
Gary: To err is human, so ... (defiant shrug)
He tells them where to go:
Why don’t you get back in your rocket and fuck off back to Lego Land, you fucking cunt!
What I like? It works. The aliens give up without a fight. Nighy sighs, says, “Fuck it, it’s pointless arguing with you,” and the aliens leave, reducing much of our technology in the process. Because, right, all the tech, how interconnected the world has become, from satellites to the internet to MP3s, that was the aliens’ doing. They leave, it falls, and we descend into a post-apocalyptic world, with Gary a kind of Mad Max figure picking fights in pubs with, as his mates, former robots, now called blanks.
What I don’t like? It’s kind of the redemption of Gary, isn’t it? And I never liked Gary.
I like the other guys. I like them getting together again, the rekindling of something, the warmth of old friendship. These are good actors, funny and smart. I like the self-sacrifice of thankless jobs (them) rather than self-aggrandizement and chest-thumping through an empty pop-culture filter (Gary).
I like the Britishness of their friendship. They discuss etymology and Alexander Dumas. You don’t get that much in American movies. They discuss Shakespeare. They have an old phrase, “Let’s boo-boo,” for when it’s time to go, and they recall its derivation. It began when they studied “A Winter’s Tale” and laughed over the stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” Then it became something about exiting with Yogi Bear; then it became “Let’s boo-boo.” That’s nice. It’s almost a throwaway, but it’s there and it recalls a history. And it’s smart.
But the movie suggests that the true savior of the world isn’t the self-sacrifice of men in thankless jobs—in fact, they contribute to the problem—but self-aggrandizing fuck-ups like Gary. It dismisses what’s British and holds up what’s American. As an American—not even an Anglophile, more of a Francophile—I object. Or maybe I just object as someone in a thankless job.
Friday August 23, 2013
Quotes of the Day
“The company starts valuing the great salesmen, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company.… [Then] the product guys don’t matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off. It happened at Apple when [John] Sculley came in, which was my fault, and it happened when Ballmer took over at Microsoft. Apple was lucky and it rebounded, but I don’t think anything will change at Microsoft as long as Ballmer is running it.”
-- Steve Jobs on Steve Ballmer, who announced his resignation today from Microsoft.
“They were never as ambitious product-wise as they should have been. Bill likes to portray himself as a man of the product, but he’s really not. He’s a businessperson. Winning business was more important than making great products. Microsoft never had the humanities and liberal arts in its DNA.”
-- Steve Jobs on Bill Gates.
So maybe I was right about the Gore Vidal stuff.
Both quotes come from Walter Isaacson's bio, “Steve Jobs,” but I read them in Kurt Eichenwald's excellent 2012 Vanity Fair article, “Microsoft's Lost Decade.”
Friday August 23, 2013
My Steve Ballmer Moment
It was late summer 2003 and I was once again on the test team for “NBA Inside Drive,” which Microsoft created with a Chicago outfit, High Voltage Systems. By this point in the Xbox timeline we were relegated to the provinces of the Millennium buildings in Redmond. Just take 520 east until it ends and turn right. It wasn't on the Microsoft campus, it wasn't near anything but a small cemetery, but there were lots of parking spaces.
This was my fourth or fifth go-round with Test and I'd already determined it would be my last. Turns out it would also be the last not only for “NBA Inside Drive,” which would know no 2005 iteration, but the sports software group itself. Microsoft would kill it in late summer 2004.
In Redmond, there are six Millennium Buildings, A through F, and we were in F, which, on the sign, was shortened to Mil-F, which caused a bit of Beavis-and-Butthead-like snickering from the mostly male members (cue more snickering) of the test group. The cafeteria? That was in Millennium E. You could drive into town, Redmond Town Center, for Red Robin or Arby's or some such, but what was the point? More and more, particularly that last year, I opted for the cafeteria. On nice days I also liked to sit in one of the few outdoor spots available, in the cramped space between Mil-D and Mil-E, and eat and read at one of the few tables there. It was small and sad but it was something. That's what I was doing this day, eating a grilled cheese sandwich and reading a book of essays by Gore Vidal, when a group of men walked hurriedly, importantly by, from Mil-D to Mil-E.
One of the men was Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, and he gave me a look. Well, you never know. He could've just had that look. He could've been completely in his own mind. Lord knows enough people have misread the look on my face over the years. But as I read the look on his face that day, that afternoon, it seemed to be saying, “Who the fuck is this fuck readingin the middle of the fucking workday?” Or something.
Then they were gone and I went back to Gore Vidal. Then I went back to testing “NBA Inside Drive,” a job which, by this point, gave me little pleasure.
Today, Steve Ballmer announced his retirement from Microsoft. Here's Nick Wingfield at The New York Times:
Mr. Ballmer, who joined Microsoft in 1980, will be departing a company that is very different than the fearsome software giant of the 1990s. Under his leadership, the company has failed to capitalize on some of the most important tectonic shifts in technology, including the rise of mobile devices and Internet search.
Mr. Ballmer also watched as Apple, an old nemesis that nearly went bankrupt in the late 1990s, and Google, which didn’t even exist until then, have soared.
As chief executive, he has faced regular calls for his ouster from investors and analysts in recent years because of the company’s missteps, and in fact Microsoft’s stock — which has languished for most of his tenure — rose 6 percent on the news Friday.
Maybe he should've read more Gore Vidal.
Friday August 23, 2013
Ronald L. Motley (1944-2013)
From The New York Times:
Ron Motley, a trial lawyer who built a fortune out of high-risk cases against the asbestos and tobacco industries, leading the litigation team that helped bring about the largest civil settlement in American history — $246 billion — died on Thursday in Charleston, S.C. He was 68.
The cause was respiratory complications related to a long illness, said his friend and law partner of nearly 35 years, Joe Rice.
The son of a gas station owner and a schoolteacher, Mr. Motley rose to the heights of the legal profession, displaying a startling memory for detail and an ability to get his ideas across, connecting evidence and courtroom tactics seemingly on the fly. William S. Ohlemeyer, a lawyer who opposed him in a 1998 case in Indiana involving environmental tobacco smoke, said, “When you were in court and he was sitting behind you, you could almost feel him thinking.”
I'm now the editor in chief of a national legal trade publication, so I know a bit about him, but Mr. Motley first came to my attention in the guise of Bruce McGill in Michael Mann's “The Insider.” Here's the famous scene:
I like the calm after the storm: “Answer the question, Doctor.” The New York Times obit, which includes some great anecdotes from Mr. Motley's career, also mentions the above scene:
Mr. Motley’s advocacy in those cases earned him a moment of fame in Hollywood’s version of the tobacco wars: the movie “The Insider,” about the whistle-blower Jeffrey S. Wigand. Mr. Motley was played by Bruce McGill, and his bellowed “Wipe that smirk off your face!” to a tobacco industry lawyer stands out as a moment of high drama in the film.
Thursday August 22, 2013
Why Ben Affleck is All Wrong to Play Batman
Batman has to be fierce and intense. He has to be crazy enough to dress up like a freakin' bat and hang out in Gotham City and fight crime. Michael Keaton embodied this intensity, Christian Bale embodied it even more. But Affleck? He's usually the mellow guy dealing with a short, short-tempered friend. See “Good Will Hunting” and “The Town.” He's pretty good at this. But intense? Not.
The best acting I've seen from him was when he played George Reeves, the original Superman on TV, in “Hollywoodland.” It's the anti-superhero movie that made up for Affleck's turn as “Daredevil.” And now he's going back to the superhero role? Did he not talk to George Clooney first? Clooney was as wrong for Batman as Affleck is. Both men are too cool, too even-tempered. You can't play Batman as cool and even-tempered.
Bad move for Affleck, who's recovered his credibility. Bad move for Warner Bros. and DC, who are attempting to recover theirs.
To play Bruce Wayne/Batman, you need something of the intensity of Michael Keaton and Christian Bale.
I've never seen that level of intensity in any role Ben Affleck has played—with the possible exception of O'Bannion.
Thursday August 22, 2013
Quote of the Day
“First of all, the Ichiro getting to 4,000 total hits thing is awesome. No qualifier. It’s awesome. Ichiro is a singular player, absolutely one-of-a-kind. No player in Major League Baseball history has stockpiled hits as quickly as Ichiro Suzuki. He has 2,722 hits in his first 13 seasons — that’s 175 more than Pete Rose. The fact that he now has 4,000 hits between his time in Japan and his time in the Major Leagues is a wonderful achievement and I’m glad it’s being celebrated. No qualifier. It’s awesome.”
-- Joe Posnanski, “Ichiro and Moon and Amazing Stories.” I'm with him through most of this: Ichiro, Warren Moon, stats that don't tell a true story. But I think he's wrong on adding in postseason stats. That's an unlevel playing field. That helps the counting numbers of the Yankees, maybe some Cardinals, maybe some Dodgers, maybe some Red Sox. It helps the counting stats of recent players, and the three- or four-tiered playoffs system, over players before 1969. It doesn't feel kosher to me. It feels like it's not telling a true story.
Ichrio Suzuki, tugging his sleeve, getting ready for one of 4,000 and counting.
Thursday August 22, 2013
Movie Review: To the Wonder (2013)
Is it that’s it’s love? Is that the problem? It’s not taking a hill in war, it’s not taking over a new world, it’s not coming of age. It’s love. Blah blah love.
Is there anything more boring than two people in love? Who are so into each other that the rest of the world, including you and me, fall away? Cease to matter? I mean, dramatically speaking, the point of the love story is to keep the lovers apart for as long as possible. Because when they’re together? Ick.
Terrence Malick doesn’t do this. He begins “To the Wonder” with the lovers together, and in love, and in fucking Paris for fuck’s sake. He begins at the top of the heap. He begins with them heading out to Mont Saint Michel in Normandy off the coast of France. It’s a beautifully constructed island and that’s what they are.
These are the first words we hear, in French, from the unnamed Russian/Parisian Marina (Olga Kurylenko), who is in love with the unnamed American Neil (Ben Affleck):
I open my eyes
Into the eternal light
I fall into the flame
We get shots of her skipping, and running from the camera, and twirling away from the camera. There’s a constant lightness. Light kisses. Light touches. Trees dappled by sunlight. Then more fucking twirling.
I in you
You in me
I’m already bored with it. It feels like bad e.e. cummings to me.
I get it. Malick is interested in transitions, in new worlds. So to go along with the transition between life and death, between Europe and America, between youth and adulthood, he gives us the transition between being in love and seeing the world anew (in Europe), and then falling out of love and back to Earth (in Texas or Oklahoma).
But it doesn’t resonate. Because it’s love or because it’s latter-day Malick? Latter-day Malick seems to have given up on dialogue, on specificity of story. By denying specifics, is he trying to create universality? By denying dialogue, is he saying to the only true life is the inner life?
I mean, what is the problem for Marina and Neil? What is the story?
They meet in Paris, fall in love, move to America with her middle-school aged daughter Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline). At first, Tatiana loves it all. She’s like her mother. They dance through the grocery aisles. “Everything is beautiful here,” she says in the grocery store. “Look how clean it is!” CUT TO: Neil, a kind of environmental engineer, measuring levels of toxicity in the soil. There’s lead; there’s cadmium. People are getting sick and dying. That’s the secret of America: It looks clean but it’s not.
Then Tatiana goes to school. She doesn’t like it. She’s a cute French girl with a cute French accent but she doesn’t fit in. We see girls talking, doing cartwheels, and then Tatiana is complaining she has no friends. “We need to leave,” she tells her mother. “Both of us. There’s something missing.” Can she not do cartwheels? Is that the problem?
And what of Neil? Let’s talk of Neil. Who the fuck is Neil? Neil is basically Malick, since this story is based upon Malick’s 1980s romance with Michèle Morette, but he gives himself short shrift here. We get all the thoughts twirling through Marina’s little head but little of what Neil is thinking or feeling. She’s light, he’s heavy. She’s a ballerina, he’s a bear. She represents the evanescence of love, he represents—whether Malick intended it or not—something more stolid.
That’s the thing. The movie is about the inability to hold onto this feeling, this love, whether it’s the love between a man and a woman or between a man and God. Here’s what Father Quintana (Javier Bardem), who is losing his faith, tells his parish:
There is love that is like a stream that can go dry when rain no longer feeds it. But there is a love that is like a spring coming up from the earth. The first is human love, the second is divine love and has its source above.
That’s what we strive for: the love that is like a spring coming up from the earth: constant.
Neil actually kind of embodies this. Doesn’t he? At the least, he never seems too deeply in love and thus never seems to fall too deeply out of love. It’s Marina who goes from twirling through all the delights of the world to trashing the house.
Neil has a different problem, also articulated by Father Quintana, who tells his parish the following. It’s the most meaningful part of the movie for me since I felt myself in the words:
To choose is to commit yourself. And to commit yourself is to run the risk of failure, the risk of sin, the risk of betrayal. But Jesus can deal with all of those. Forgiveness he never denies us. The man who makes a mistake can repent. But the man who hesitates, who does nothing, who buries his talent in the earth, with him he can do nothing.
That’s beautiful. That’s enlightening. And it’s Neil. He’s the one who hesitates. Marina’s visa is about to expire, he needs to marry her, but he hesitates and she returns to France.
You know what? I was kind of relieved. I thought, “OK, maybe now we’ll get a story.” No such luck. Neil falls into it with Jane (Rachel McAdams), an old high school flame, who has a ranch but lost a daughter, and they do the love thing for 15 minutes (voiceovers, magic-hour light, fields of wheat), before Marina contacts Neil again and returns. And there goes Jane. What was the point of her?
Now Neil and Marina get married in a courthouse. Now Neil and Marina get married in a church. With Father Quintana? No. His story is still separate, an echo of theirs. The lovers move into a new ranch house. They try to rekindle the wonder. Does it work? Will they get some furniture? It doesn’t work. They don’t get furniture.
She has a beautiful, loud Italian friend (Romina Mondello), who teaches her to be crazy and loud. She meets a carpenter, an echo of Neil, with whom she has an affair at an EconoLodge. The story is unspecific but the places are very specific. Malick does that well. He does America well—like Nabokov in “Lolita.” Flat lands and big sky and loud marching bands and the screech of roller coasters.
Don’t get me wrong. The film is shot beautifully. It’s gorgeous and deep. But the story in the foreground is gorgeous and shallow.
So their love dries up. It’s a stream that goes dry. Earlier Father Quintana says this:
You fear your love has died; perhaps it is waiting to be transformed into something higher. Awaken the divine presence which sleeps in each man, each woman. Know each other in that love that never changes.
That’s what these characters are striving for: the thing that never changes. But of course it keeps changing. Where did they think they were? Where does Malick think he is? How old is he anyway?
This is what Father Quintana says of God:
Everywhere You are present and still I cannot see You.
That’s how I felt about “To the Wonder.” Malick was present in every frame but I could never see his point.
Wednesday August 21, 2013
Movie Review: Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013)
Talk about writing history with lightning.
Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) joins the White House staff as a butler in 1957 just in time to watch Ike (Robin Williams) paint and federalize the National Guard in Little Rock. Then “that slick white boy” JFK (James Marsden) shows up with his bad back, cute daughter, hot wife (Minka Kelly), and makes his great civil rights speech during Birmingham, but of course, bam! bam! he’s assassinated, and that leaves LBJ (Liev Schrieber) to dictate civil rights from the toilet and push for the Voting Rights Act and say in a televised speech “We shall overcome.” But of course Vietnam comes along, MLK is assassinated, and Nixon (John Cusack), newly installed in the White House, plots against the Black Panthers, then sits sweating out his last days in office. Ford and Carter come and go, playing themselves in newsreel footage, before Reagan (Alan Rickman), in 1986, insists he will veto any sanctions against South Africa.
Meanwhile, all this time, Cecil’s son, Louis (David Oyelowo), against his father’s wishes, attends Fisk, where he gets involved in the Nashville sit-ins, becomes a Freedom Rider in the Deep South, is hosed down and attacked by Bull Connor’s dogs in Birmingham, then gets beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He’s in Martin Luther King’s motel room in Memphis when Dr. King is assassinated, so of course he becomes a Black Panther, sitting around the dining table in a black beret and dissing his father and Sidney Poitier with his long-time girlfriend, Carol (Yaya Alafia), now sporting a scowl and a huge Angela Davis afro. But he leaves the Panthers, gets a Masters in political science, runs for Congress, and in 1986 leads an anti-Apartheid rally at the White House, where his father, finally retiring, finally joins him in protest.
Meanwhile, all this time, his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) ... Well, she’s not really involved in history the way they are. She’s got her own subplots. She’s proud of Cecil, then bored because he’s never home, then fools around with the local ne’er-do-well (Terrence Howard) and becomes an alcoholic. She’s jealous of Jackie Kennedy for some reason. But she shapes up, mourns the death of her youngest son, Charlie (Elijah Kelly), who inexplicably leaves college to go to Vietnam, then dies of old age right before Obama is elected.
Then Obama is elected.
The most untrue thing
I’m sorry. I knew going in that “The Butler” would be, in Woodrow Wilson’s phrase, like writing history with lightning. The years would tumble, and our main characters would bump up against historic events. I just didn’t know how much. Wilson’s quote referred to “The Birth of a Nation,” and he supposedly added, “My only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Of course it wasn’t. And neither is this.
The most untrue thing? The tagline. It reads: “One quiet voice can ignite a revolution.” Whose quiet voice? Not Rosa Parks. Not Dr. King. It’s the butler. It’s Cecil Gaines.
According to the movie, at opportune moments, the various POTUSes ask him about him and his, and what he thinks about this and that, and sometime he says, and it leads them into doing the right thing about race matters. All those boycotts and sit-ins and jail-ins and protests and marches? Dr. King and the SCLC and SNCC and CORE might as well have stayed home.
OK, so it’s not that bad. In fact, at one point, the Nashville sit-ins are juxtaposed with a state dinner at the White House, and I was thinking, “Everything thinks history is being made at the White House. But that’s a nondescript state dinner that’s long forgotten. History is actually being made at that Woolworth’s counter in Nashville.”
But that sense—that history isn’t always made in the halls of power—is forgotten amid Gloria’s infidelities and her inexplicable jealousy over Jackie. Not to mention hanging out in the halls of power. You know what else is forgotten? The March on Washington. Plus the SCLC and SNCC and CORE.
Who do we blame? Is the medium just wrong? Does it try to do too much in two hours? Does it tack on Oprah’s unnecessary subplots and does the son’s Forrest Gump-like tendency to be at every major civil rights moment stretch credulity? I helped write a piece a few years back about a top Georgia attorney, Richard H. Sinkfield, who was in Montgomery during the bus boycotts, helped with the Nashville sit-ins, and was in Memphis when Dr. King was assassinated, but even he was given a breather now and again. No Freedom Rides, Birmingham, Selma, Malcolm X rallies. Right, Louis and Carol also attend a Malcolm X rally in 1965. Forgot to mention that. Thank God it’s not the one where he gets assassinated.
Director Lee Daniels (“Precious”) and screenwriter Danny Strong (HBO’s “Recount” and “Game Change”) move the history parade along at an easy clip, and though they foreground Cecil he still gets lost in it all. He’s supposed to be unknowable but he’s unknowable to us, too. Does he have a thing for the Kennedys? For Caroline? A “Bluest Eye”-type thing. Was the article upon which the movie was based, Wil Haygood’ “A Butler Well Served By This Election,” too schmaltzy? Does the movie spend too much time defending that which doesn’t need defending? Cecil’s lifelong service?
Does it not juxtapose well enough the father’s service to the family versus the son’s service to the cause? Should the first son have been the SNCC student while the second son became the Black Panther? Wouldn’t that have been more logical?
I know. People tried. I know. “The Butler” was hard to get it made in the first place.
Right-wingers, I’m sure, will squawk about “The Butler,” if they haven’t already, since it paints the Dems in a more-or-less positive light, but less so Nixon and Reagan. It also casts, as Ron and Nancy, a homosexual actor (Rickman) and Hanoi Jane (Fonda). Ha! And it ends on the very positive note of Obama’s election. I teared up a bit then. It got me then. I admit it.
But conservatives shouldn’t squawk. The hero, and the movie’s ethos, is ultimately conservative: Do your job, listen to your parents, don’t belch at the dining table, and maybe you too can influence history. It’s a movie for Bill Cosby.
“Domestics play a very big role in our history,” Martin Luther King (Nelsan Ellis) says to Louis in that Memphis hotel room. “In many ways they are subversive without ever knowing it.”
I wish I could say the same of “The Butler.”
Tuesday August 20, 2013
A 1944 menu in Stephenson, Wash.
Because we would have arrived at Wendy's place in Prindle, Wash., in the awkward hour after lunch without having had anything to eat, and because the paper-mill smell in Washougal was making one of our party lose his appetite, and because we didn't find much in Skamania or Bonneville, we ate lunch at the Big River Grill in Stephenson, Washington, much recommended, where we found this on the wall of our booth:
Click for a bigger view
The building has been there since the '20s, and was restored in the '90s, and it has a lot of license plates on the wall, along with a lot of good nostalgic items, meaning they are not overdone and seem specific to the location. Well, OK, so this is a menu from the Chicago Union Station Building. I still like it. I like the war bonds slogan. I like the use of “wearing items” for “clothes,” and “occupational expense” for “tip.” I like that there's a day on the menu, as if they change it every day. I like that this day is the same day a group of Nazis attempted to assassinate Hitler, and that, 25 years later, man walked on the moon. From the middle of World War II to walking on the moon. Talk about a giant leap for mankind.
What would you get? I might go traditional and go for the pork chops, mashed potatoes and string beans, and, for desert, butterscotch pie a la mode. Assorted cold meats looks pretty good, too.
OPA, by the way, is Office of Price Administration, which was created in 1941 and abandoned in 1947. Some of its powers were transferred to the FTC.
Monday August 19, 2013
Five Books I Bought at Powell’s This Weekend
We didn't have much time at Powell's this weekend so I dashed to the BASEBALL section, then FILM/TV, and grabbed the following:
- The House that Ruth Built by Robert Weintraub, and the '23 season
- A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez by Selena Roberts, about You Know Who.
- Good Enough to Dream by Roger Kahn, who buys a minor league team in the early 1980s.
- Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality by Neal Gabler, which is recommended by its subtitle.
- Bernard Shaw on Cinema edited and with an introduction by Bernard F. Dukore, which sounds fascinating.
I also asked at the information desk about George W.S. Trow but they only had “Within the Context of No Context.” Then I searched under “Capote” and “Roth” and then checked out with a cashier who had a lot of tats, some beautiful. I asked her if she'd seen “Elysium.” I told her that in the year 2154, according to that movie, tats would still be popular and cool. I meant it as a kind of joke but she took it as a given. She was young.
Will used bookstores survive the digital age? I had this discussion with Patricia, and our friends Richard and Mirra, on the way out of Portland. At the least, I thought, you'd be able to get out-of-print books at a used bookstore. But then I thought, “Will any books be out of print in the digital age?”
But you'll be able to browse, I thought, and find things you didn't know existed. Like the Bernard Shaw book above, which I didn't know existed until I saw it.
Or could that be an old construct already? Today, kids might think, “No, you just go to the site and it tells you what you want. That's how it works.”
How was your weekend?
Eclectic but not really.
Friday August 16, 2013
George W.S. Trow and the Problem of the Final Failed Connection
If you've been reading this blog lately you've noticed a few posts about George W.S. Trow, whose “Within the Context of No Context” I've practically memorized, and whose “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998” I've been reading.
“Pilgrim's” is not as tight as “Context,” maybe because Trow was 20 years older when he wrote it, maybe because William Shawn wasn't around to edit it, maybe because Trow was already beginning to lose his mind. But there are many instances when Trow, as it with a wave of his hand, reveals the world to us. That thing that's been nagging at you for 20 years? This is why. Right here. He connects the disconnected.
Near the end of the book, in the chapter “My Life in Flames,” he gives us one such moment. He writes about the two houses in Hyde Park that are owned and maintained by the federal government: FDR's, of course, and a big marble palace built by Frederick Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius. Trow writes that it was FDR's idea to preserve the Vanderbilt home as a kind of testament to an awful period when too few people had too much of the money:
At a time—it was wartime—when people had ration coupons; when people had family members who were dying abroad, when soldiers were receiving pay, and I don't know exactly what a G.I.'s pay was during World War II, but was it sometimes fifty dollars a month for a private?—and all of this sitting on top of the Great Depression; in the early 1940s, say, a big marble house built by a robber baron forty years before was—almost an object of terror, one wants to say; a lesson to a mistake that had been made and suffered through.
Trow writes about how in the America of his youth it was not acceptable for some people to be making $15 a week while others lived off the income of their income. Then he writes this:
About three years ago [mid-1990s] I noticed an extraordinary change in the Vanderbilt house ... The guides [rather than being in the spirit of a 1953 public librarian] were all young; not particularly well informed as to the overall flow of American history, but wildly well informed as to the history of the Vanderbilt family; and suddenly out of the woodwork, or out of some books, came all kinds of facts and figures about the Vanderbilts, in terms of how much money they had and how many houses and how many yachts and so forth, which showed that the Vanderbilts, at least in the minds of the guides, and I guess, probably, everyone else, had lately been put on a new kind of Mount Rushmore; these were people who had invented the aesthetic that everyone at this recent moment had decided to embrace. This, of course, represented a kind of defeat for FDR's intent. I didn't see one horrified face or one disapproving face as the young guides described plutocracy in its old form.
Well, Reagan did that, didn't he?
I'm reading and saying, Yes, yes, yes! It's particularly nice that Trow gets to Reagan because he tends to gloss over the Reagan years. The subtitle of the book is “Media Studies 1950-1998” but Trow rarely gets out of the 1950s, his formative years, and only sometimes into the 1960s, when he was at Harvard and then hired by The New Yorker, and also into the 1970s, when “Within the Context of No Context” was written. But here he finally lands on the 1980s: Reagan. The answer.
He adds, “But how on earth did it happen ...” I.e., how did Reagan do it? And he goes into the anti-money aesthetic of the 1960s left-wing, and how he, Trow, was at odds with that aesthetic. He recalls attending a 1969 meeting with a friend about turning Time magazine into a worker-owned publication like Le Monde, and how isolated he felt at that meeting. He liked the culture of the old artistocracy; he palled around with them, as we say today, and yet by 1998 he was against the newly sympathetic relationship to the old plutocracy in a way that his old left-wing friend was not.
He had gone from “Time magazine ought to be like Le Monde” to being at the party for the man who thought that Time-Warner ought to triple in size, perhaps.
Then he repeats his question about Reagan, “Reagan did it, but how did he do it?” and I'm thinking, C'mon. Tell us already! Because I know Trow. It won't be the typical answer. It won't be resentment against blacks (“Welfare queen,” etc.), and it won't be Carter's foreign policy (hostages, etc.), and it won't be Carter's domestic policy (“Are you better off ...” etc.). It won't be the radicalism of the left in the 1960s and the various humiliations America suffered in the 1970s, which is my vague answer. It'll be something better. Something right in front of our eyes.
But he keeps putting it off. He goes into a story about how Richard Avedon took a photograph of Diana Vreeland at the Reagan White House, curtsying before an amused Prince Charles, and how it's a real curtsy, and yadda yadda, and how one of the men in the background of this photo was Jerry Zipkin, whom he derisively calls a “walker,” which is a guy, probably gay, who takes society women around town. Zipkin was in Trow's social circle for a while and Trow didn't think much of him. And then out of the blue, when we're not looking, Trow suddenly gives us the answer:
And I looked at that photograph and I thought, “Oh, God, Studio 54.” And that's how Reagan did it.
Wait—WHAT? Studio 54?
So you read on. Trow writes about how the American aesthetic was often a New York aesthetic, since the center of television and publishing was in New York. Then he tells us a Studio 54 story, his Studio 54 story, how he went there with Diana Vreeland shortly after it opened, and how they sat in the VIP gallery and he looked out at a scrim celebrating cocaine use. Except he had a friend, a good friend, who was suffering from substance abuse at the time so Trow didn't think much of this celebration. Then he writes that Dionysian energy like Elvis' often gets warped by the media filter and how Studio 54 was the 1960s reconfigured as the 1970s; and then he writes this:
As of 1978, New York had run out of specific cultural information; Roosevelt had died and had been buried; Winchell could be Army Archerd from the Hollywood Reporter or any other angry tabloid person; there was no reason Walter Winchell, dancing on Roosevelt's grave, couldn't be that loathesome man who gave us Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. As to Hyde Park versus the Vanderbilt house, the Vanderbilts had won.
Right. But ... The connection? Between Studio 54 and Reagan?
You can guess, certainly. The VIP gallery stood for exclusivity rather than egalitarianism, as did Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and suddenly that's what everyone wanted: the exclusivity of the rich and famous. With drugs. There's something to that. But just something. And it doesn't quite lead to Reagan.
For the final few pages of the book, Trow talks up the relationship between FDR and Walter Winchell, the fierce tabloid reporter, and how the Kennedys are the link between FDR and what we have now, “where political figures of every stripe and at every level struggle to find the next camera angle.” But Reagan? It has something to do with George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House, apparently, which Trow wants us to read, as well as preindustrial probity, which FDR embodied, and ... And then the book kind of swirls away and leaves you, or me anyway, bereft, without a final connection.
I mean, you go back and dig again. Right, so FDR is aristocratic but egalitarian, and Studio 54 is pedestrian but exclusive. It's undemocratic. FDR came from money but strove for egalitarianism, JFK added glamour, but in the 1960s we dipped our toe in greater egalitarianaism, greater democracy, and came out disgusted. We came out wanting the money and the glamour and the exclusivity. We wanted to be behind the VIP ropes.
But it's not enough. The point of the great thinker and the great writer, which Trow is, is to make the connections the rest of us miss; but Trow has a nasty habit, and this goes back to “Context” as well, of leading us to the Great Connection and then abandoning us there while he goes off on another tangent. He takes us halfway across the chasm and then helicopters out of there, toodle-oo, and we look to the other side, alone, without a guide, and we wonder, “But how do I make that leap?”
More, I'm sure, to come.
How did Reagan do it? Well ...
Thursday August 15, 2013
Where Alyssa Rosenberg Goes Wrong on Superhero Sexism
The female Avengers via FanArtExhibit. Missing: Black Widow as a man.
This article by Alyssa Rosenberg, “Legendary Comics Creators Dismiss Sexism Critiques,” in which she confronted comic book creators Michael Kantor, Todd McFarlane, Len Wein and Gerry Conway about sexism in the industry, made the rounds among geeks last week.
Here's McFarlane's response to the charge of sexism within comic books:
As much as we stereotype the women, we do it with the guys. The guys are all good looking, not too many ugly superheroes. They’ve all got their hair gelled back. They have got perfect pecs on them. They have no hair on their chest. I mean, they are Ryan Gosling on steroids. Right? They are all beautiful. So we actually stereotype and do it to both sexes. We just happen to show a little more skin when we get to the ladies.
Here's Rosenberg's written response to that response:
It’s an ancient canard that male heroes are as idealized as women, an idea that ignores their costumes, the difference between a fantasy of power you want to inhabit and sexual ability you want to take advantage of, and the contrast between admiring what someone can do with their body, and what you can do to theirs.
It's a smart-enough response if a bit dismissive of the effect comic books and superheroes have on boys. Plus it's neither a canard nor ancient.
It also ignores the way power tends to be conveyed in our culture. For men, it's still about what you do; for women it's still about how you look. This has been changing during my lifetime, and unfortunately toward greater shallowness for both genders. The 1970s feminist critique of the objectification of women hasn't led to women being less objectified, but it has created more objectification of men in terms of their looks. (The idea that men were never objectified is incorrect. They were objectified by what they did, and how much they earned. That hasn't gone away.)
What's the endgame in the argument? That's what I'm curious about. Is Rosenberg suggesting that better female superheroes will create greater female readership? Or will empower that female readership? As it's done all these years with boys? Except, right, it hasn't empowered shit, has it? There's no correlation between reading fantasies of superhuman powers and being empowered in the real world. Judging from a typical comic convention, you might say it's the opposite. You might even say girls are better off without this particular superpowered fantasy to contend with.
You want empowerment? Here. Figuring out what's missing in a particular medium is, yes, a sign that there's something wrong with that medium. But if the medium is thriving, and has the attention of the marketplace, it's also a glorious opportunity.
Further reading on the subject: a review of the documentary “Women Women! The Untold Story of American Heroines.”
Thursday August 15, 2013
Quote of the Day
“It is abominable that National Geographic would have anything to do with a hateful figure like Bill O'Reilly and I would be ashamed to have anything to do with the project.”
-- Rick Perlstein, author of “Nixonland,” to a National Geographic publicist who asked him to help premier their global television event, “Killing Kennedy,” based on O'Reilly's book. He says he hasn't heard back yet.
Thursday August 15, 2013
Does Anyone Know What the Civil Rights Movement Is Anymore?
The other day a Facebook friend directed me to Ann Hornaday's Washington Post article about how “The Butler,” or “Lee Daniels' The Butler,” will finally be putting the Civil Rights Movement on the big screen. Then she admits this:
“The Butler” largely focuses on Gaines’s family life and interactions with the presidential families he serves. But it also chronicles the burgeoning movement taking shape on the streets far beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Exactly. It's the ups and downs of one fictional family—at least a black family this time—as seen against a backdrop of some aspects of the Civil Rights Movement. It's some mix of “Dowtown Abbey,” U.S. version, and “The Help.” It's a 21st-century “Backstairs at the White House,” which itself was a mix of “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Roots.” But it's hardly a big-screen rendition of the Civil Rights Movement.
But “The Butler” is a start, right? It's an attempt. That's mostly what Hornaday is saying. Particularly on the second and third pages of her essay, which go into the usual sad complaints that Hollywood studios only back superhero and tentpole movies rather than dramas.
And then you read the comments to her article.
I know. Never read the comments. It's the online version of “Never get off the boat.” And yet there they were.
The first commenter refuted the notion that we haven't portrayed the Civil Rights Movment on the big screen:
Ghosts of Mississippi
To Kill a Mockingbird
I'm sure there are others I can't remember.
The second one piled on:
Remember the TItans
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
A little American History 101 (or is it Movie History 101?) for the kids:
- Mississippi Burning: A glorification of the FBI during a fictionalized account of the murders of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964. Black people in the movie are mostly backdrops. They are incidental characters in their own story.
- Malcolm X: About the man who brought the Nation of Islam to prominence. But this is not about the Civil Rights Movement. It's about a different kind of separatism rather than an attempt at integration.
- Ghosts of Mississippi: More white people wrangling over black tragedy: this time, the murder of Medgar Evers in June 1963.
- To Kill a Mockingbird: Set in the 1930s, it has nothing to do with the Civil Rights Movement.
- Remember the Titans: Set in the 1970s, it's about football. (But it does have a good line by Denzel.)
- Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: A white famly wrangles with the prospect of their daughter marrying a handsome doctor.
Seriously, does anyone know what the Civil Rights Movement is anymore?
Wednesday August 14, 2013
Photo of the Day
I should've written something about Ken Griffey being inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame, but I've written a lot about Junior over the years and didn't really have much to add. I'll wait three years for the biggee.
Even so, this was a big day for Mariners fan, including Jon Wells, publisher, editor, etc., of The Grand Salami, the official alternative program for The Seattle Mariners since 1996, who dug deep in his pockets and came up with the dough for this flyover message:
(Click on the image for a better read.)
Longtime readers know how much I agree.
Wednesday August 14, 2013
The Damage and the Glory
“An image comes to life here: a man on a piece of land. The land is damaged; the man has damaged it. But look: the man is powerful, strong and happy. ... This is what American history is like, but it is hard for us to accept: that a vigorous and splendid country could have been built by really guilty people. ... People who think that American enthusiasm ought to be curbed ignore this strong man and look only at the damage he has caused. Pinchot is one of a small number of powerful American men (Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt are others) who allow themselves to see both the glory of the vigorous man and the damage he has done. Pinchot takes note of the wonderful force that has been used to do the damage and asks that it be allowed to continue--but doing different work.”
-- George W.S. Trow describing Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, in his book, “The Harvard Black Rock Forest,” pg. 27.
Wednesday August 14, 2013
Movie Review: Spider-Man (2002)
WARNING: RADIOACTIVE SPOILERS
Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” which, in 2002, became the first film to break the $100-million opening-weekend barrier, and thus ushered in the frantic age of superhero moviemaking we’re all stuck in, owes a lot to a movie that set an earlier opening-weekend record ($40 million) back in June 1989: Tim Burton’s “Batman.”
Just as Burton filmed a scene in which the hero is viewed as a figure of horror (the opening rooftop scene), so does Raimi (the warehouse/burglar scene). In “Batman,” a city-wide celebration with parade balloons and the popular R&B singer of the day (Prince), is ruined by an attack from the hero’s grinning, insane arch-nemesis (the Joker); same with “Spider-Man” (Macy Gray; the Green Goblin). Raimi uses the same composer, Danny Elfman, who scores the movie in a similarly ominous manner. “What are you?” the petty crook asks in the beginning of “Batman.” “I’m Batman,” Batman replies. “Who am I?” Peter Parker asks us at the end of “Spider-Man.” “I’m Spider-Man,” he answers.
Both superheroes also fit our dictionary definition of a superhero: They: 1) have a secret identity, 2) prowl the night in search of crime, in order to 3) cleanse themselves of a past tragedy.
The similarities end there. Spider-Man fights out of guilt, Batman out of revenge. Spider-Man is colorful and glib, Batman dark, silent and brooding. Spider-Man has the proportionate strength of a spider, Batman … um … knows martial arts and stuff. Peter Parker is poor and struggling to survive; Bruce Wayne is rich and struggling to remember where things are in his house.
I’ll take both Spider-Man and “Spider-Man.” But I’ve always been a Marvel guy.
Improving the origin
This is a fairly faithful adaptation of the comic book. It’s bright, colorful, quick. It has a Stan Lee ethos as opposed to a Frank Miller ethos. It doesn’t lose its sense of humor.
Tobey Maguire is your Steve Ditko-era Peter Parker, though a little sweeter, a little less mopey, and with the ability to shoot webs out of his wrists rather than out of web shooters attached to his wrists. He webslings through the high-rises of Manhattan and trash-talks the crooks and Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) calls Peter “Tiger” even though it’s 2002 and not 1966. In MJ’s fall from the Queensboro Bridge we get echoes of Gwen Stacey’s fall in Spider-Man #121, and in the Green Goblin’s death by glider we get echoes of Gobby’s death by glider in Spider-Man #122. Spidey calls him Gobby. Our hero is happy as Spider-Man and unhappy as Peter Parker, and he learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and that’s pretty much how it works.
Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp even improve upon the origin. In Amazing Fantasy #15, when the petty thief (forever known as “The Burglar”) runs past Spider-Man, we recognize that Spider-Man’s refusal to help is the act of a selfish jerk. “From now on I just look out for number one—that means—me,” he tells the cop, then swaggers away. Peter’s not us here; he’s other. In the movie, the petty thief rips off the wrestling promoter who has just ripped off Peter Parker. “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” the promoter tells Peter when Peter complains. This allows Peter, 30 seconds later, to throw the words back at him. “You coulda stopped that guy easy,” the promoter complains. “I missed the part where that’s my problem,” Peter tells him.
Here’s how brilliant that is. When I saw “Spider-Man” in a crowded movie theater in 2002, moviegoers, who obviously didn’t know where the story was going, who didn’t know this was going to be the saddest moment of Peter Parker’s life, actually laughed. They’d been trained to expect put-down quips from their action heroes, and this was a better quip than most. Haw! Told him! The laughter was indicative. We identify with Peter here. He’s not other; he’s us. Thus when the horrible lesson is imparted, it’s imparted to us, too. With great power comes great responsibility. It’s a lesson our popular culture doesn’t deliver much.
All of that said ...
Testing around the fix
OK, here’s the difficulty in improving upon stories, and allow me a quick metaphor. For a number of years I was a software test engineer at Microsoft’s Xbox Studio, and whenever we, in Test, filed a bug, and the developers fixed it, we had to test around the fix. Because whenever anything is fixed in computer coding, something else can easily get broken. I would argue that this is true in storytelling, too. It’s certainly true in telling Spider-Man’s origin. Koepp and Raimi fixed one problem, the problem of “otherness,” but in the process what gets broken? The street smarts of everyone around Peter Parker.
This guy is ripping off a wrestling promoter and his escape route relies upon … an elevator? Really? And what to make of the promoter? He has a fan-favorite wrestler, Bonesaw (Randy Savage), and this little pipsqueak with the arachnid fixation defeats him. Pipsqueak not only stays in the ring with Bonesaw, he beats him. He knocks him out. What a godsend! If you’re a wrestling promoter, this is the guy you’ve been waiting for all your life. And what does our guy do? Find out who he is? Sign him to a contract? No. He cheats him. He relies upon a technicality to save himself $2900. He makes an enemy out of the kid who could be his goldmine.
And, hey, just how long is Bonesaw in that ring anyway? There’s a line of guys waiting to fight him. That doesn’t seem fair. And if the point is to stay in the ring with Bonesaw (to earn the $3,000), and it’s thus in the promoter’s interest to have Bonesaw throw combatants out of the ring (so they don’t pay the $3,000), what’s the point of a cage match? You can’t throw anyone out of the ring in a cage match. And when Peter shows up, and is introduced as “the terrifying ... the deadly ... the amazing Spider Man!” why do boos rain down on him? He’s this scrawny thing in a silly mask. Shouldn’t everyone laugh? Wouldn’t that have made for a better scene? He shows up, they laugh, and he beats Bonesaw quickly in a non-cage match. Wouldn’t that have been a better way to handle it?
And when Spider-Man later appears as a crime fighter, doesn’t the promoter, who saw Peter’s face, connect the dots? Doesn’t he track him down? And do the kids at Midvale do the same? Hey, remember how Parker beat Flash that one day? Doing flips and shit? Then punching Flash like right across the hallway? Like with one punch? And, hey, didn’t that happen right after we went to the science museum and saw all those freaky spiders? And ... right! ... wasn’t one of them like totally missing? Like tour-chick said there were 15 and MJ goes, dude, 14, and tour-chick goes like whatever? I bet something freaky happened with that spider and Parker is totally Spider-Man!
All in all, there’s entirely too much shrugging going on in the movie. “Here are 15 genetically designed superspiders.” Nope, 14. “Huh. I guess the researchers are working on that one.” Then Peter wakes up with perfect eyesight and simply goes: “Weird.” He wakes up totally buff and just flexes in the mirror. Then checks out his package? Where’d that come from? Who thought that was a good idea? And when this heretofor nerdy kid beats up the toughest bully in school with moves that Jackie Chan couldn’t make in his dreams, how do the other kids react? “Jesus, Parker, you are a freak.” Or go this route: Imagine you’re an 18-year old kid who gets bit by a spider and wakes up the next day superstrong and superagile And you look down at your hands and see black things, like tiny black razors, coming out of your skin; and you flex your wrists and out comes superstrong web filaments, meaning these things are being produced inside your body. At what point do you begin to freak out? At what point isn’t your reaction simply “Wahoooooo!”
For my final problem with “Spider-Man,” I have to return to Batman for a second.
“The Dark Knight,” for me, has the same problem that every other “Batman” movie has. It’s not about Batman. I think Heath Ledger is just phenomenal and the character of the Joker is beautifully written. He has a particular philosophy that he carries throughout the movie. He has one of the best bad guy schemes. Bad guy schemes are actually very hard to come up with. I love his movie, but I always feel like Batman gets short shrift. In “Batman Begins,” the pathological, unbalanced, needy, scary person in the movie is Batman. That’s what every “Batman” movie should be.
I add this not only because I’m not a huge fan of “The Dark Knight,” but because bad guy schemes are something most moviegoers don’t look at. The villain leads us all on a chase, and it’s fun, but most moviegoers don’t stop to ask: Wait, what was the point of the chase? Why is he doing this? What does the guy want?
What does Norman Osborne, a.ka., the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) want? He starts out just wanting to save his company, Oscorp, from losing a big military contract. General Slocum (Stanley Anderson), who apparently can speak for the entire Pentagon, acts as if creating a genetically superior man is like inventing a better brand of pistol and is ready to pull funding. He acts, to be honest, like a studio exec ready to mothball his predecessor’s projects. “I never supported your program,” he tells Norman. “We have my predecessor to thank for that.”
So Norman does what he does and becomes the Green Goblin. Then he kills Slocum and the competition. As a result, at the next board meeting, he announces, “Costs are down, revenues are up, and our stock has never been higher.” The board’s reaction? “We’re selling the company ... The board expects your resignation in 30 days.” Instead they get theirs at World Unity Day.
Now up to this point the Green Goblin’s schemes have been pretty straightforward. He even annunciates what they are to his more timid alter ego: “To say what you won’t. To do what you can’t. To remove those in your way.” So why go after Spider-Man? Sure, he encounters him at World Unity Day, and Spider-Man is trouble for him—rescuing that doofy kid from the balloon, as well as MJ from the balcony—but he hardly keeps him from his goal. Gobby still kills the members of the board who would sell Oscorp. Yet for the rest of the movie, the Goblin’s bad guy scheme involves Spider-Man. This is how he puts it:
There’s only one who can stop us. Or—imagine if he joined us.
So for the rest of the movie he offers a hand to Spider-Man; and when it’s rejected, he tries to kill him. He tries to kill those Peter loves. What remains unanswered in the above quote is this: Stop us from what? Join us TO what? The Goblin has no goal, no scheme, other than to recruit and/or kill Spider-Man. But that is supposedly a means to an end. We just don’t know what the end is.
Here’s a question: If the Pentagon had a more far-sighted general, or if Oscorp had a less greedy board of directors, would the Green Goblin have even been necessary?
Guilt > Revenge
There are other problems. Even when I was 12, the J.Jonah Jameson/Peter Parker dynamic never made much sense to me. Peter has something everyone wants (photos of Spider-Man), but he sells them for a pittance to J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), who uses them to turn the city against Spider-Man. What the hell, dude? C’mon, Brainiac, act like a Brainiac.
And do we need some explanation for why our guy is quiet/polite as Peter and glib/bratty as Spider-Man? Or do we just make the assumption that the mask allows him to finally let out what he’s held back all these years?
But for all that, “Spider-Man” still works. For starters, it’s expertly cast by Lynn Kressel and Francine Maisler. A few years ago, shilling for MSNBC, I wrote a top 5 list of the best superhero casting and put Maguire second, after Christopher Reeve and before Hugh Jackman. I mean, casting handsome leading men to play heroes is a no-brainer. But casting a nerd to play a nerd? That’s refreshing. Dafoe is a bit undone by the “Alien”-like Goblin mask but Franco makes a good, believable son for him. And Dunst? Cliff Robertson? Rosemarie Harris? J.K. Simmons? Perfect, perfect, perfect, perfect. Simmons provides levity and Robertson provides heart and pathos. He provides the lesson. Or The Lesson.
A year before that top 5 list, I did another list, the 10 great superhero scenes (circa 2007), and the death of Uncle Ben was no. 8 on my list. I wrote this:
Outside there’s a crowd and flashing lights. Then something pulls Peter toward the crowd and he sees what everyone is rubber-necking: Uncle Ben lying bleeding to death. In the comic book, Peter is simply told his Uncle Ben is dead. Here he gets to speak to him. At first this worried me. “Oh crap,” I thought, “He’s gonna blah blah blah and then die. It’s gonna stink.” But Cliff Robertson delivers. Peter’s voice seems to call him from a faraway place and he looks confused and scared to be where he is, then grateful, grateful to see the face of his nephew. He says his name once, twice, a gurgle in his voice. Then he slips away.
At that point, as the cops talk up the carjacker/Burglar, Peter’s eyes fill with rage and he’s this close to becoming Batman. But then he tracks the guy, captures him, holds him high; and in the spotlight he sees the dude’s doofy hair and stupid face, and his eyes fill with something besides revenge. He knows now. He knows he’s partly to blame. He was given this gift, this power, and it allowed him to act less than noble—less noble than his Uncle Ben would have wanted; and in the act of squandering this gift, his Uncle Ben died, and he’ll carry that knowledge and that guilt with him for the rest of his life.
This is why Spider-Man resonates more than Batman. Revenge is a loutish emotion, a wish-fulfillment fantasy emotion, which is why it’s so popular at the movies and in the comic books. Revenge suggests that there’s something wrong with the world but not with us, but Peter Parker, all of 17, knows better. Guilt is not only more complex, it’s more universal. Few of us walk around every day with revenge in our hearts; but all of us are guilty.
Tuesday August 13, 2013
Attention Green Bay!
My nephew Ryan takes a defiant stand at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.
Tuesday August 13, 2013
Why the Want Ads Suck
“The reason [the minimum wage] has become a big political issue is not that the jobs have changed; it’s that the people doing the jobs have. Historically, low-wage work tended to be done either by the young or by women looking for part-time jobs to supplement family income. ... Now, though, plenty of family breadwinners are stuck in these jobs. That’s because, over the past three decades, the U.S. economy has done a poor job of creating good middle-class jobs; five of the six fastest-growing job categories today pay less than the median wage. ...
”The situation is the result of a tectonic shift in the American economy. In 1960, the country’s biggest employer, General Motors, was also its most profitable company and one of its best-paying. It had high profit margins and real pricing power, even as it was paying its workers union wages. And it was not alone: firms like Ford, Standard Oil, and Bethlehem Steel employed huge numbers of well-paid workers while earning big profits. Today, the country’s biggest employers are retailers and fast-food chains, almost all of which have built their businesses on low pay—they’ve striven to keep wages down and unions out—and low prices.
“This complicates things, in part because of the nature of these businesses. They make plenty of money, but most have slim profit margins ... The combined profits of all the major retailers, restaurant chains, and supermarkets in the Fortune 500 are smaller than the profits of Apple alone. Yet Apple employs just seventy-six thousand people, while the retailers, supermarkets, and restaurant chains employ 5.6 million.”
-- James Surowiecki, “The Financial Page: The Pay is Too Damn Low,” on the New Yorker site. Read the whole thing.
Monday August 12, 2013
And for Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles
Here's a portion of Rand Paul's recent interview with Bloomberg Businessweek:
You’re a big reader of Austrian economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who don’t believe in stimulus and say the economy can return to health only through austerity.
You can stimulate prosperity by leaving more money in the hands of those who earn it. If you want to stimulate the economy in Louisville, leave more money in Louisville and send less to Washington. My plan has a 17 percent flat tax with very few deductions, and it would leave $600 billion in the economy. But it would work better than a government stimulus because of the Milton Friedman proposition that nobody spends somebody else’s money as wisely as they spend their own. I think you’d have a boom like you’ve never seen in this country.
Who would your ideal Fed chairman be?
Hayek would be good, but he’s deceased.
Nondead Fed chairman.
Friedman would probably be pretty good, too, and he’s not an Austrian, but he would be better than what we have.
That's pretty funny. I agree with Paul's first sentence, btw, but I assume we mean different things by “those who earn it.” I also like the chutzpah in this sentence: “I think you’d have a boom like you’ve never seen in this country.” Really? So the economic history of this country, thus far, has been a disappointment to you? And with you at the helm things would finally take off? What a sweetheart.
Paul Krugman takes him down another peg.
Monday August 12, 2013
Quote of the Day
“Obama’s political style is useless, apart from becoming the first black president, saving the US from another Great Depression, succeeding at getting universal healthcare, rescuing the American auto industry, presiding over a civil rights revolution, ending two failed wars, avoiding two doomed others (against Syria and Iran), bringing the deficit down while growing the economy, focusing the executive branch on climate change, and killing bin Laden. Yes, his ethos 'sometimes' 'collides' with political success.”
-- Andrew Sullivan, refuting Maureen Dowd's criticism of Obama's political style, in the post “MoDo's Pure Washingtonism.”
Monday August 12, 2013
Movie Review: Pacific Rim (2013)
What is it? What’s the movie?
Well, it’s a sci-fi action-adventure movie. Specifically it’s giant robots battling giant monsters. If I were pitching it to a Hollywood studio, I’d say it’s Transformers vs. Godzillas.
But what else is it?
Right. Since the battles between giant robots and giant monsters only take up a portion of the movie’s 131 minutes, things have to take place between the scenes in which giant robots battle giant monsters. And what fills these gaps is a soap opera involving stock characters and bits cadged from other movies: the headstrong younger brother whose older, better brother is killed in action, a la “Battleship”; the rivalry with the cocky fellow pilot that ultimately leads to respect, a la “Top Gun”; the Asian girl with a tragic past and fierce martial arts skills, a la every comic book fantasy ever; the tough-as-nails commander leading his team; the bureaucratic, governmental indifference; the impossible odds. But wait! The inspiring speech! The fierce final battle! The sacrifice! The final bit of information rushed in by the comic-relief scientists! The explosion! The hushed breath. Does our hero survive? Wait for it ... Wait for it ...
Yeah, you don’t have to wait.
What I liked (about 10 minutes)
“Pacific Rim” is an awful, derivative joke of a movie but first let me say what I liked about it.
I liked the opening, which, in 2-3 minutes, narrates how the creatures, called kaiju, first appeared in San Francisco and killed tens of thousands, then in the Philippines, then Cabo, back and forth like that across the world, until we created these giant robots, called jaegers, with two people inside them, a kind of left brain/right brain thing, to defeat them. And the men and women who ran the jaegers became heroes. They became pop cultural flotsam. They wound up on talk shows. The rest of us got cocky. We developed kaiju toys and made jokes about them, but then, off the coast of Alaska, they came back stronger than ever and laid waste to the jaeger program. And we began to build walls to keep them out. Even though we would never keep them out.
I liked the further backstory: how the kaiju, who emerged from a kind of extra-dimensional rift under the Pacific Ocean, had actually come here before. Dinosaurs, yo. But the environment wasn’t suitable for them and so they went away. But we, being us, inadvertently heated up on our planet and terra-formed it for them. That’s your global warming message for the summer, kids. Not that it’ll get through.
I also liked the scene where Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), the headstrong younger brother of the deceased soldier-hero, can’t understand why the headstrong commander, Stacker Pentecost (yes, that’s his name, and he’s played by Idris Elba), won’t let the beautiful Japanese girl with the tragic past, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), operate a jaeger with him. So, being headstrong, he grabs his superior officer’s shoulder before he can get away. Pentecost stops. He shoots him a look. This is Idris Elba, after all. And Pentecost tells him this:
Two things. One, don’t you ever touch me again. And two, don’t you ever touch me again.
It’s Elba’s best moment in the movie.
What I didn’t like (and the rest)
I mean, what’s with his accent here? Elba’s British, and he’s doing British, but it’s worse than his American accent in “The Wire.” That’s pretty sad.
How sad of a bad imitation is “Pacific Rim”? When the two pilots of a jaeger are strapped into the jaeger, they communicate with one another via something they call “the drift.” As in: “The drift is strong today.” As in this line from the father-figure commander, to Mori, just before he dies: “You can always find me ... in the drift.” So it’s like the Force except, you know, meaningless.
When did scientists become comic relief in these types of movies? “Battleship” had one. Here we get two: the loud, vaguely Jewish one who tries to communicate with the kaiju via the drift (Charlie Day), and the Dickensian British one, who walks with a cane and is compiling data as to the timing of the attacks (Burn Gorman, Guppy of BBC’s 2005 “Bleak House”). These two are smart, but they bicker, and it’s funny because they’re funny-looking and they think they’re so smart but they just bicker all the time, ha, like eggheads do, man. Using words. But there’s a moment in Hong Kong when they figure out why our final plan of attack won’t work and they need to communicate this information as quickly as possible to Shutterdome, which is the name of the final jaeger station on Earth. Or is it Shudderdome? Or is it a pun on “Shut her down,” since that’s what the leaders of the world wanted to do with the jaeger program? Thank God Pentecost was there, right, to save us all from their cowardly bureaucratic incompetence.
Anyway. They have this info. It’s 2025. They’re scientists who have figured out a way to tap into the brain of a kaiju who just died. So how do they get this information to Shutterdome? Do they phone? Walkie-talkie? Use Morse code? No. They fly there in a helicopter, of course. Then they run to the command station. Then the loud, vaguely Jewish one grabs the microphone to talk to the jaegers who are battling the kaiju. This takes hours rather than seconds, but what’s the rush?
How about the nationalities of these jaegers? You have the Russian one and the Asian one and the Aussie one and the American one. The Asians and Russians go down first, because you know them. The American one is the last one standing. It delivers the final, crushing blow. Hooray for Hollywood.
How about the nationalities of the actors playing these stereotyped nationalities? We get a Brit and a Canadian (Hunnam and Diego Klattenhoff) playing the swaggering Americans, an American and a Brit (Max Martini and Robert Kazinski) playing the swaggering Aussies, a couple more Canucks playing the silent, glowering Russians. Why this shell game? Is it easier to stereotype others than your own? And why didn’t they just make Elba American, too? His American is so much better than his British.
One of the things that began to amuse me as the story continued in its horrifically predictable fashion? It’s a small thing but I couldn’t let it go. Hollywood is still using green teletype in the lower left-hand corner to tell us locations and times of the events onscreen. It’ll type out:
Then it leaves the cursor there blinking for a second. I mean, when did we first see this? In “War Games”? It’s a futuristic movie but this conceit is like something from a 1977 Apple computer.
See: “Writing American Fiction,” Philip Roth, 1961
Anyway. You knew this was going to be this going in. You hoped for better but writer Travis Beacham (“Clash of the Titans”), and writer-director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy”), delivered this.
If you like the idea of giant robots battling giant monsters, you might like “Pacific Rim.”
If you like soap operas about good-looking stock characters acting through the dilemmas seen in other features, you might like “Pacific Rim.”
Otherwise “Pacific Rim” is so derivative, so by-the-numbers, so absurd, it’s as if it’s satire. If we did satire anymore.
Sunday August 11, 2013
Harmon Killebrew's 500th Homerun
Killebrew receiving his 500th homerun ball from the Hamilton family of Golden Valley, Minn on August 10, 1971. The father, Bob (second from left), caught it after it caromed off another fan's hands in the left field bleachers. Looks like it was a cold night for early August. Love the youngest boy's Twins hat.
There was a bit of an anticlimax to it. We'd been so spoiled and we'd waited so long, and summers can be long enough in Minnesota when you're eight years old.
Harmon Killebrew hit 49 homeruns in 1969 and 41 in 1970, and he began the 1971 season with 487 homeruns, 13 shy of 500, which only nine players had ever reached before. By the end of May he was five away and we figured, sure, easy.
But June was a slog and so was July, and he went from a .295 batting average and an .885 OPS to .255 and .802. Worse, for us, he hit only 3 homeruns in June and didn't hit No. 499 until July 25th, off Luis Tiant, his only homerun all July—unless you count the All-Star Game homerun in Detroit that year, when the following players hit homeruns: Killlebrew, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Roberto Clemente and Johnny Bench. That was the game Jackson hit the transom on the top of the roof in right field at Tiger Stadium—one of the longest homeruns ever hit. The wind was blowing to right, and everyone went to right except for Clemente, who went to center, and Killebrew, who powered it over the wall in left. Has there ever been a game like that? Where so many premiere players, all future Hall of Famers, all first-ballot guys except Killebrew, hit homeruns? Who, when they retired, were No. 1 (Aaron), No. 4 (Robinson), No. 5 (Killebrew) and No. 6 (Jackson) on the all-time homerun list?
After the homer off Tiant, Killebrew came to the plate 28 more times in the homestand but didn't go deep, then the Twins went on a seven-game roadtrip, during which he came up 31 times and managed only four hits, all singles, and his OPS dipped to .781. This for a guy with a lifetime OPS of .884. When he retired, he had the third best homerun-to-at-bat ratios in the history of the game, behind only Babe Ruth and Ralph Kiner, a homer every 14.22 at-bats. Yet he'd been sitting on 500 for 59 straight at-bats. He'd been sitting on 499 even longer. Our attention wandered.
That was the summer things began to fall apart for the Twins. They'd been one of the best teams in the American League in 1969 and 1970 but not in 1971. The Orioles, meanwhile, the better team in the American League in 1969 and 1970, who crushed the Twins in six straight games in the playoffs those years, were better than ever, on their way to having a record four pitchers win 20 games. And guess what? They were the team coming to town, August 10, 1971.
My mother's mother, Grammie, was also in town, and she was a big Orioles fan. She lived in Finksburg, Maryland, worked at Black & Decker for decades, occassionally ranted against miscegenation and the like. Grandparent visits were always a treat but a summer one seemed odd—usually they came at Christmas—but at least it meant we could take her to a ball game. And we did, August 12th, in what looked like a good pitching match-up: Jim Kaat vs. Jim Palmer. But Don Buford deposited the first pitch into the bleachers and the Orioles romped. In my mind it was 8-0 but according to Baseball Reference my mind is faulty. It was 8-2. We might have left before the Twins scored their final run. My father was a “leave early” guy. He was a “beat the traffic” guy.
Is that the summer things began to fall apart for my parents? Is that why Grammie was out? My parents would separate in 1974 and get divorced in 1975 but they'd always been fighting. They really weren't made for each other.
Grammie was staying in my little sister's room, off in the corner, light green everywhere (shag carpet, flowery wallpaper), and on August 10th she was listening to the game on a radio in my sister's room. Why wasn't she watching it on TV? Maybe it wasn't on TV. Baseball was rarely on TV back then. Why wasn't she listening to it in another room? In the kitchen? Had there been a fight? Was she involved in it? I don't remember. I don't remember who asked her how the game was going, either—it could have been me—but she had nothing but complaints. The Orioles weren't winning. That Killebrew kept hitting homeruns.
Wait—WHAT? Killebrew hit a homerun?
He's hit two, Grammie answered.
Hey! Hey, everybody!
We all gathered in the tiny room with the light-green shag carpeting, my father, my brother and I, and peppered Grammie with questions.
She didn't have many answers but Baseball Reference does. He hit No. 500 in the bottom of the 1st, two out nobody on, to put the Twins up 1-0. In the bottom of the sixth the Twins were behind 3-1, and he came up with one on, one out, and slammed another one to tie the game. It went into extras. The O's won it in the 10th, 4-3, with Cuellar going the distance and getting the win, his 14th, which he would need to get to 20, which he would need for the Orioles to set a record with four pitchers winning 20 games. Killebrew almost prevented that from happening.
I like the fact that he hit two homeruns that day. When I was a kid going to Met Stadium, it seemed Harmon Killebrew always hit two homeruns. More importantly, he'd finally broken through and went on a late-season tear: six homeruns in August, 10 in September, 28 for the year. A comedown, sure, and I still think of 1971 as the year Harmon Killebrew got old, or human, but this is a bit faulty, too. He still led the league in RBIs with 119, and walks with 114—not that anyone was paying attention to walks or OBP or OPS back then. Back then, we were hoping he'd simply been pressing too much in June and July. Maybe things would go back to normal the following year. Normal was: my parents together, Nixon in the White House, Harmon Killebrew leading the league in homeruns. This was before I realized that normal was things falling apart.
Killebrew was 36 the next year when he would hit 26, and 37 in 1973 when he went down with an injury and hit only five. He rebounded a bit in 1974 but in January 1975, the Twins, ever loyal, released him, and a week later he signed with the Kansas City Royals, where, in his final season, 1975, he added 14 more homers for a career 573. He hit his last one, fittingly, off the Twins at Met Stadium on September 18, 1975, and that was the difference: the Royals won 4-3. I wish I'd gone to that game but my life was complicated by then. My mother and sister were living in Maryland and I was being bussed to a different school. I was learning what normal meant.
But I kept the newspaper for No. 500. I wrote my name on it as if to make sure it never went away.
The Minneapolis Star, August 11, 1971 edition. (Click on the image for a bigger, more readable version.)
Saturday August 10, 2013
Above the Clouds on Granite Mountain
“Writing is of use to the psyche only if the writer discovers something he did not know he knew in the act itself of writing.”
-- Norman Mailer, “The Presidential Papers of Norman Mailer,” pg. 219
I read that quote early this morning while I was contemplating a hike up Granite Mountain. I'd planned on the hike but woke up to see a different weather report. Rain? Thunderstorms? Possibly? I decided to drive out to the trailhead, see what it was like. At worst, I'd just turn around and come back.
Norman was big on the journey without a known destination. He was anti-repetition. I kept thinking about that in the early stages of the hike. I was on a hike whose ending was known to me—I'd done it two or three times over the years—but today I didn't know what I would find. Would the weather turn bad? Would I have to turn back?
About a third of the way up, I came upon a clearing with blue skies peeking through and inwardly rejoiced. A second later, the switchback switched back, and when I came out on the woods on the other side we were socked in again.
Then I noticed the wildflowers. They looked beautiful with the sun filtering through the condensed air.
The wildflowers were even more out when I left the woods completely and scaled up the south side of the mountain.
Off and on, we were still socked in. I worried there would be no view. But near the top, before the final ascent to the lookout tower, I got above the clouds and could see the Cascades, clearer than normal on a late summer day.
And by the time I got the top, well, no complaints.
Here's to not knowing what the end will look like.
Saturday August 10, 2013
Movie Review: Elysium (2013)
Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Borke should sue.
Near the end of “Elysium,” Neill Blomkamp’s long-awaited follow-up to “District 9,” as our hero Max (Matt Damon) battles, struggles and crawls toward unifying our long disunited peoples living on both Earth (third world) and Elysium (first world), the music wells up operatically, with a Mid-East tinge, reminding me , almost exactly, of the music from Michael Mann’s “The Insider.” Specifically it reminded me of Gerrard and Borke’s “The Sacrifice,” which I’ve burned to many a CD over the years. Then it hit me: Of course. The sacrifice. Max won’t make it. And so he didn’t. In order to recreate the universe, Max had to leave it. And in order to leave the movie, the movie had to recreate the music of Gerrard and Borke.
I wasn’t among those long-awaiting this follow-up, by the way. Not much of a fan of Blomkamp’s earlier effort, which, remember, was nominated for best picture that year. In “District 9,” Blomkamp adhered too much to the metaphor. Aliens land and become just another despised minority on Earth? Please. A lot of the movie was original but its racial metaphor was too stark and stupid. It lacked imagination within the metaphor. It trapped us there.
With “Elysium,” Blomkamp shifts his metaphor from race to class. In the late 21st century, Earth becomes too populated and polluted, and so all the rich folks, like out of some Ayn Rand novel, leave the planet for the orbiting satellite of Elysium, where computers cure their diseases and keep them young, and swimming pools and palm trees dot every manicured backyard. It looks like Beverly Hills or Hollywood. Earth? Well, all of Earth looks like East L.A.
Born in East L.A.
We get a bit of backstory first. Apparently Max grew up in an orphanage with a girl, Frey, who grows up to be Alice Braga, a nurse, while Max grows up to be a thief. We meet him, though, as he’s trying to live the straight and narrow.
As his day begins, Hispanic gangsters give him shit for his dayjob, kids beg him for money, and robot cops don’t like his attitude, break his arm, and accuse him of violating parole. When he goes to the hospital, he hooks up with Frey even if they don’t hook up. (He’s interested, her life is complicated.) When he visits his parole officer, it’s a computer-simulation, who says, “Elevation in heart rate detected. Would you like a pill? Would you like to speak to a human?” I like that part. That made me laugh.
What I didn’t like? It’s 2154. That’s 141 years in the future. And what are the barrio boys like? Well, like today. They kinda dress the same, kinda talk the same, have the same kind of tattoos. Apparently gangster tattoos are still a thing in 141 years. Apparently so is line-work at a plant. Max works at Armadyne, lorded over by Elysium citizen John Carlyle (William Fichner—does he ever get to play a good guy?), helping to build the robots that police the Earth, but he could basically be in an auto plant in Detroit. At some point I backdated. So if this is 141 years in the future, what’s 141 years in the past? A hundred, forty, minus one, equals ... 1872. Seven years after the end of the Civil War. Right. A few changes since that period. A few rights recognized. Some things invented: the automobile, the airplane, the rocket ship, the computer, the Internet.
Something else bugged me about Blomkamp’s future. In the barrio of Los Angeles, which is where Max lives, people speak English and Spanish. And on Elysium, dotted by the pampered and supercilious, people speak English and French. I think Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster) is even supposed to be French. So what do the French have to do with the ultra-wealthy? Isn’t their current society more egalitarian than ours? Well, sure. But you know how it sounds. That French stuff. Like they’re above us. In essence, Blomkamp is relying on a cultural construct to reveal an economic one. It’s like his creative consultant is Karl Rove.
So: One day at the plant, Max, because of a headstrong foreman, receives a lethal dose of radiation poisoning. He’s given five days to live. A simulated doctor tells him, “Please sign this to receive medication. It will keep you functioning normally until you are dead.” Another good bit.
But Max doesn’t want to die. Didn’t the sisters at the orphanage tell him he would do great things? That he was special? Didn’t he always want to visit Elysium? And couldn’t they cure him on Elysium? Like that?
Getting to Elysium is tough, though. Spaceships entering that area are shot down. Only citizens—i.e., the rich, branded as such—are allowed in.
But Max has his underground contacts, particularly Spider (Brazil’s Wagner Moura), who hatches a scheme to exo-skeleton Max up, grab a citizen, and upload his memories into Max’s head. That’ll get him to Elysium or something. They choose John Carlyle. Hey, guess what! Secretary Delacourt has been in contact with Carlyle to reboot the entire Elysium system so that her bete noire, President Patel (Faran Tahir, the villain of “Iron Man”), will lose office. It’s a kind of hacktvisit coup d’état. And guess when Carlyle uploads the reboot program into his head for transport from Earth to Elysium? Right. At the exact moment Max and the other men strike. And so that information, the most important information in the world, goes into Max’s head.
Not that he realizes it. It’s scrambled, encrypted, but he’s chased through L.A. by one of Delacourt’s non-citizen henchmen, the fierce, awful South African Kruger (Sharlto Copley of “District 9”); and in the process he entangles Frey and her daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay), who, whoops, is in the last stages of leukemia, and eventually they all wind up heading to and crashlanding on Elysium.
There are other good moments if you can get past the monumental coincidence of the attack on Carlyle. I like how Delacourt, who orchestrated the whole thing, still blames the crashlanding on President Patel, because he didn’t take Elysium’s defenses seriously enough. But what’s Jodie doing here? She extra arch, her acting over the top. Is that her being French or her being 22nd century? Or her being her?
In the ensuing chaos on Elysium, Kruger kills Delacourt, and he and his men begin a kind of revolution, oddly, or at least they begin to fuck things up, because why not, while Max, who was always just looking out for himself, overpowers guards to look after Frey and Matilda. He makes sure that Matilda gets cured. He does this by killing Kruger’s two men and then battling Kruger himself on one of those futuristic walkways between buildings, with no guard rails, and a thousand-foot drop on either side. (See: “The Empire Strikes Back” and almost every science-fiction movie since.) This is when the “Sacrifice”-like music wells up, and Spider, who has made the trip to Elysium himself, rewrites the code, changing “illegal” to “legal,” a moment that caused outright laughter from the techie crowd at the Cinerama in downtown Seattle. And as Elysium is rebooted as a more egalitarian society, where robot doctors and beds are sent to Earth to cure the sick, and Matilda herself is cured, Max, finally a hero, recalls his childhood one more time, running with Frey in slow-motion at the orphanage, and then he’s gone.
Then what happens?
I’m curious what Blomkamp thought happened. I mean, to me, the movie ended at its most interesting part. I even wrote that in my notes: So what happens? And the answer is that the movie ends. The hero is dead, his heroic deed accomplished, and all people of Earth are now citizens of Elysium. Which means ... what? They all can’t live on Elysium. So what does it mean? How will we fuck it up again? I mean, won’t we? Inevitably?
The art direction of “Elysium” is good, the story is well-paced, and it takes chances with its hero—making him less than heroic until the end. At times, it’s clever. But it doesn’t enlighten. It sheds no light on their time or ours. Like “District 9,” it lacks imagination within its metaphor.
Friday August 09, 2013
Quote of the Day
“If you're born with a gift, to behave like it's an achievement is not right.”
-- Woody Allen, What I've Learned, Esquire magazine. The whole thing is great. Make sure you read for the quotes on Mel Brooks, Bob Hope, and Ingmar Bergman. Not to mention his whole life philosophy—which, if you seen a Woody Allen movie in the last 40 years, not to mention the opening monologue of “Annie Hall,” you already know. In fact, see below.
“It's just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don't have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we're just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything that you value, whether it's Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci, or whatever, will be gone. The earth will be gone. The sun will be gone. There'll be nothing. The best you can do to get through life is distraction. Love works as a distraction. And work works as a distraction. You can distract yourself a billion different ways. But the key is to distract yourself.”
Thursday August 08, 2013
Quote of the Day
“In the eyes of God, I doubt that I am a better person than Cap Anson. Self-righteousness is a poor foundation for a philosophy.”
-- Bill James on Joe Posnanski's site.
Short version: A Posnanski reader, quoting James, argued that Cap Anson doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame because he helped keep African-Americans out of the Major Leagues 100 years ago. Posnanski asked James to respond and he does so in measured and forceful fashion. Among other things, this point: “If you leave Anson out of a Hall of Fame, how would you justify including Ty Cobb? Cobb was certainly a MORE virulent racist than was Anson. Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby were members of the KKK. If Dizzy Dean had lived another six months he would have been indicted for fraud.”
Thursday August 08, 2013
Movie Review: The Gatekeepers (2012)
Has Dick Cheney seen this documentary? He should. Have you? You should, too.
“The Gatekeepers” documents the nearly 50 years of struggle, tension, and terrorism between Israel and Palestine since the Six Day War, as seen through the eyes of the six surviving directors of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency, whose motto is “Defender that shall not be seen.” Here, they are seen. Here, they talk.
Near the end, when documentarian Dror Moreh asks his subjects if they support speaking to the enemy, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the like, they all say yes. Every one of them. Even Avraham Shalom, who looks like your favorite Jewish uncle (checked shirt, red suspenders) but has something deeper and darker in him, even he says yes. “Anyone we can, even if they answer rudely,” Shalom says, adding, “It’s a trait of a professional intelligence operative to talk to everyone. Things get clarified.”
Things get clarified in “The Gatekeepers,” too, even if that clarification leads to no easy answers, or, really, any answers. But it clarifies in demonstrating a path that hasn’t worked. Which just happens to be the path we’re on.
What do you do?
It’s tough to imagine the work it took to get these guys to speak, but they do, and they do it with intelligence, thoughtfulness, and a surprising lack of bullshit. These men have seen things and done things and made decisions and taken lives. They’ve lived the dilemma most of us merely debate over.
The doc begins with one such dilemma, presented rhetorically by Yuval Diskin (director of Shin Bet, 2005-11), even as it becomes a real-world situation later in the film. A known terrorist is with two other people, and you don’t know whether they’re part of it, but you can’t take him out without taking them out, too. “What do you do?” Diskin asks Moreh, just off-camera. “Do you fire or not?” He says not doing anything seems easier but it’s actually harder. Then he says something fairly remarkable for the head of a national security agency. It’s a worldview we don’t get much in the U.S., where absolutism, if not outright chest-thumping, is the norm. It’s a measured response; it resides in the gray areas:
We all have our moments. On vacation, you say, “Okay, I made a decision and X number of people were killed. They were definitely about to launch a big attack. No one near them was hurt. It was as sterile as possible.” Yet you still say, “There’s something unnatural about it.” What’s unnatural is the power you have to take three people, terrorists, and take their lives in an instant.
Israel is more besieged than the U.S.—tiny rather than huge, surrounded on all sides by enemies rather than oceans—yet its heads of security present a more human face than ours. They seem smarter. “We took intensive courses in spoken and literary Arabic,” says Yaakov Peri (1988-94). “Anyone who took the Shin Bet’s Arabic program seriously, knows Arabic.” They have a sense of humor about dark matters. Avi Dichter (2000-2005), who looks like he could be Mel Brooks’ younger brother, talks about the dangers of bad Arabic as officials go door-to-door in occupied territories. Adding an accent to the H? It’s the difference between “We came to count you” and “We came to castrate you.”
What’s the dilemma? It’s occupation—of the West Bank and Gaza. How do you control what can’t be controlled? How do you sort the innocent from the dangerous without creating more of the dangerous? How much surveillance is enough to keep your group safe, and when is it OK to shoot to kill, and in the process what do we become? More: How do you fight an enemy whose notion of victory, as one Palestinian tells Ami Ayalon (1995-2000), is “seeing you suffer”? An enemy who thinks you don’t even have the right to exist?
One solution is an open hand—giving up the occupied territories, West Bank and Gaza—but of course the Oslo Accords were meant to do that and it led to fierce reaction and outcry from within Israel and to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the subsequent resignation of Shin Bet director Carmi Gillon (1994-96).
Another solution is the closed fist. But in 1984 that led to the Bus 300 Affair, in which two Palestinian hijackers were executed summarily by Shin Bet, which led to outcry, investigation, coverup. Yahya Ayyash, chief bombmaker for Hamas, was assassinated in 1996, but there was collateral damage, and outcry, and when a larger group could have been targeted, lesser bombs were used and terrorists survived. For which there was outcry.
Good and safe
We want to be safe but we want to be good. That’s the dilemma. Yet the more practical question is this: Is our method for making ourselves safe in the short-term making ourselves safe in the long-term? Are our methods sustainable? For these six men, whose positions and presence carry considerable weight, the answer is no, no, no, no, no and no.
Of all things, I kept being reminded of “The Wire,” David Simon’s superlative series about cops and drug dealers (and politicians and teachers and the media) in Baltimore. Tactically, it’s about tracking guys too smart to use cellphones. Politically, it’s about the numbers game. Here’s Shalom:
Peri kept showing us this chart. How many people were caught? How many informers were there? How many attacks were prevented? How many weren’t? The picture was always rosy but it was point-specific. There was no strategy, just tactics.
Moreh doesn’t get into the differences between the six Shin Bet directors/talking heads. Is Shalom, for example, talking about Yaakov Peri here? I assume so. Did he object to him? Does he blame him for the all tactics/no strategy policy? But wasn’t Shalom director of Shin Bet then? Could he do nothing?
Moreh doesn’t give us much on the history of Shin Bet, either: when it was formed, by whom, for what; how it differs from Mossad. We don’t get the background for people like me who know very little of the history of Israel. We have to search that out. Which isn’t a bad thing, just a thing.
Finally, beyond what they did with Shin Bet, we don’t learn much about these men. Who went on to politics and the Knesset? Who was born where and when? Shalom, it turns out, was born in Vienna in 1930. He was eight during the Anschluss. Apparently he barely knew he was Jewish, or what that meant, until the day after Kristallnacht when he was beaten up at school. None of that is in the doc, but it lends even more power to one of the doc’s more shocking moments: when Shalom, the former director of Shin Bet, the man with a darkness in his eyes, compares the Israeli army, his army, to the German army of World War II:
The future is bleak. It’s dark, the future. Where does it lead? To a change in the people’s character. Because if you put most of our young people in the army, they’ll see a paradox. They’ll see that it strives to be a people’s army, like the Nahal unit, involved in building up the country. On the other hand, it’s a brutal occupation force, similar to the Germans in World War II. [Pause] Similar, not identical. And I’m not talking about their behavior toward the Jews—that was exceptional, with its own particular characteristics. I mean how they acted to the Poles, the Belgians, the Dutch. To all of them. The Czechs. It’s a very negative trait that we acquired, to be ... I’m afraid to say it, so I won’t. [Longer pause] We’ve become cruel, to ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population, using the excuse of the war against terror.
Moreh was inspired to do “The Gatekeepers” by Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War,” and he was able to get his first subject here, Ami Ayalon, who opened the gates as it were, because of “The Fog of War.” He told Ayalon he wanted to do something in that manner, and Ayalon nodded and said that Morris’ documentary should be required viewing in war school.
So should “The Gatekeepers.” Forget the modifier.
Wednesday August 07, 2013
By the Time I Get to Arizona, 2013
Pres. Obama traveled to Arizona today to talk about his recent housing proposal and was met by protesters outside Desert Vista High School in Phoenix.
From the Arizona Republic:
Obama foes at one point sang, “Bye Bye Black Sheep,” a derogatory reference to the president's skin color, while protesters like Deanne Bartram raised a sign saying, “Impeach the Half-White Muslim!” ...
Deanna Bartram, a 17-year-old University of Arizona student from Black Canyon City, lashed out at people who call her racist for not supporting Obama. She believes Obama supporters use the “race card” against her because they disagree with her political message.
“Obama is ruining American values. He is ruining the Constitution. He needs to go back to where he came from because obviously, he is a liar,” she said. “I am not racist. I am part Indian. Obama’s half Black, half White.”
“He’s 47 percent Negro,” shouted Ron Enderle, a 77-year-old Chandler resident who said that he and his son served as Marines and his grandson is currently serving in the Marines.
Chuck D could not be reached for comment.
By the way: Isn't it “Bye Bye Black Bird” and “Bah Bah Black Sheep”?
Wednesday August 07, 2013
George W.S. Trow on 'All About Eve'
“All About Eve is a good marker in that it describes a shift from a Broadway and Hollywood studio reality to a television reality, and also a shift from a society of vanity, epitomized by Mankiewicz's heroine, Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis, to a society of narcissism, the Anne Baxter character, Eve Harrington.
”Marilyn Monroe was used as the television avatar, and she doesn't make it in the Broadway world, certainly, and George Sanders says her next move ought to be in television, and Marilyn Monroe says, 'Are there auditions in television?' She's just flunked an audition for a Broadway play, and George Sanders says, 'Yes, there are auditions in television. In fact, that's all television is.' All auditions.
“Well, so it was in 1950, and it's just a useful social marker, and I always want to refer to Diana Vreeland's famous remark, 'I loathe narcissim; I approve of vanity.' The shift from a society of vanity to a society of narcissim—not a small shift, vanity being one of those things, like sexuality itself, that humans are called upon to accept as part of their condition, and narcissism being something from another planet—and Mankiewicz is indicating not just that there's a devolution in American character but that this devolution is henceforth going to be at the top fo the American cultural hierarchy. I take Manciewicz's film very seriously, more seriously than I take Citizen Kane, which is a theatrical fantasy.”
-- George W.S. Trow, ”My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,“ pp. 205-06
Narcissism (left) takes over from vanity (right), with television in the middle.
Wednesday August 07, 2013
Movie Review: The Specials (2000)
I threw up in the early morning hours after watching “The Specials.” Unrelated, I’m sure.
Who was it that told me this movie was good? Any of you? This is me shaking my fist at whoever that was.
I’m not much of a fan of one-joke movies, and I’m not much of a fan of movies in which the chief metaphor is Hollywood-related, and “The Specials” is both. It’s about a team of low-budget, B-list superheroes played by a group of B-list actors and actresses and filmed in a low-budget manner. It’s written by James Gunn, who would go on to write the two “Scooby Doo” movies, and directed by first-time director Craig Mazin, who would go on to direct “Superhero Movie,” and it has a tinny, flimsy quality. It feels like something filmed in rooms with wood paneling. There’s no comedic rhythm and less comedy. The heroes’ super-powers are never on display. It’s anti-special.
One of the leads is Jamie Kennedy, a kind of break-out star amid the young and loutish in the late 1990s, who has never said one thing that made me laugh. He keeps his string alive here. He plays Amok, blue-skinned and dickish. His bit is to say rude, unfunny things, particularly about women. It’s how we imagine Jamie Kennedy is.
Another of the leads is Rob Lowe, fresh from “West Wing,” who plays a good-looking, two-timing superhero named The Weevil. It’s how we imagine Rob Lowe is.
And so on. Fresh-faced Jordan Ladd, daughter of Cheryl, plays fresh-faced new member Nightbird, with bird-like superpowers (including laying eggs), who has admired the Specials ever since she was a kid. Thomas Haden Church is The Strobe, the nominal leader, who takes seriously the role-model aspect of superherodom, while Paget Brewster plays his wife, Ms. Indestructible, who is growing weary of her husband’s blowhardness, and is thus having an affair with The Weevil in the backseats of cars.
Kelly Coffield of “Mad TV” plays Power Chick, who is raising Alien Orphan (Sean Gunn), who is bald and green and bendable. The bit goes nowhere. Judy Greer is one of the few bright spots as the super-cynical Deadly Girl, who is offered a gig with The Femme Five by Sunlight Grrrll (guest star Melissa Joan Hart), whose ‘90s-feminist name she dismisses with a deadly reaction shot. The movie’s screenwriter, James Gunn, gives himself one of the best bits, playing Minute Man, who is forever correcting folks that his name is pronounced my-NOOT (as in small) rather than MIN-it (as in time). Oh right, there’s U.S. Bill, too. Mike Schwartz. He says nothing funny and does nothing memorable.
I liked the notion of the Specials as “the 6th or 7th greatest superhero team in the world,” and I liked the line about “a holocaust of stretchy people” and the commercial for the Specials’ action figures actually made me laugh out loud. This is the plot point for the first half of the movie: the idea that the Specials don’t get Oscars, they get action figures. But then the commercial is unveiled, and Minute Man’s action figure is black (minority representation was needed), and one hero has Richard Dawson’s head (the company had leftovers from “Hogan’s Heroes”), and Ms. Indestructible’s doll has enormous boobs, and ... etc. It’s a disaster and pretty funny.
The rest of the movie—in which The Strobe finds out about his wife’s infidelity, disbands the group, then gets them together to battle giant ants who have taken over the Pentagon (which we never see, of course)—contains jokes like this:
Deadly Girl: Has anyone noticed that Mr. Smart has an enormous package?
Mr. Smart: My father, too, had a large penis.
According to IMDb, “The Specials” was filmed in 18 days. It shows. According to IMDb, it’s also only 83 minutes long. Mercifully.
Tuesday August 06, 2013
Quote of the Day
“There are good reasons Baseball did not suspend any of [the previous superstars] by the way – but it still paints a picture. And the picture is of a bunch of kids trying to sneak into the ballpark without paying, and the helpless ticket guy (representative of MLB) trying to grab as many as he can, while shouting in a funny Irish accent: 'You … little … squirts … get back here … oh … when … I … get … my … hands … on … you!' And in the end the guy catches one, holds up him by the scruff of his neck, and says, 'I’ll make an example of this one, I will.'
”So Baseball wants to make an example out of A-Rod, and he’s the obvious choice because almost nobody likes him. Well, he brought that on himself. He’s pompous, a bit delusional, strange, certainly a cheater, certainly a liar, and anyway not good enough anymore to have many Yankees fans in his corner.
“When a governing body can unload on a wildly unpopular figure they tend do so with gusto and fury and all measure tossed out the window. So Baseball floated the crazy idea of a lifetime ban, cut off negotiations with A-Rod’s people, talked about keeping him off the field in the best interest of baseball and then slammed A–Rod with a suspension four-times longer (and many millions more expensive) than the others. None of it exactly seems 'fair' – the guy used steroids to become a better baseball player, like many others; he didn’t torch a village — but when it comes to A-Rod, how many people care about fairness?
“'Hit Da Roid!' the New York Daily News cover advised Rodriguez. 'Just Go!' the New York Post said a bit more succinctly.
So, at the moment, most people figure to side with Baseball no matter how big a suspension they give A-Rod. If they ruled that A-Rod should be imprisoned in the Tower of London, it would probably get 73 percent approval rating. But now the court shifts away from public opinion. The appeal process will probably take a while, allowing A-Rod to play. Baseball’s case against A-Rod might rely heavily on Biogenesis’ Tony Bosch, who isn’t exactly Walter Cronkite in the credibility department. They will have to make a strong case that what A-Rod did was SO much worse than what the others did. Maybe they have the goods. Maybe they don’t.”
-- Joe Posnanski, “Fair or unfair, Major League Baseball making example of Alex,” NBC Sports. Read the whole thing. So worth it.
Tuesday August 06, 2013
Why Denzel Matters: Before the Show at the Regal Meridian
“2 Guns,” which I reviewed yesterday, has good chemistry between its leads, good dialogue, but that's about it. The most moving part of the movie for me happened before the lights dimmed.
Patricia and I went to see the 4:30 show on Sunday afternoon at the Regal Meridian in downtown Seattle. We were supposed to meet a friend at a restaurant to celebrate her birthday, but the friend wound up with a migraine, canceled, and we wound up doing this instead.
In the lobby I noticed a black woman, 60s I'd guess, sitting by herself on a bench. She stood out for being in her 60s, and for the Sunday church hat she wore, and for the big purse on her lap. The rest of us were dressed in the slob/slut clothes typical for a hot weekend afternoon: stuff too baggy or too tight. She was dressed proper. She looked out of place.
I saw her again after we sat down in the theater. She was still alone. She came in by herself and sat down off to the side, with her back straight, her hat on her head, her purse in her lap.
Is it the hat that killed me? Is it that she was by herself?
The rest of the theater was the usual lowest-denominator crowd, slouched, bored looks on their faces, checking their smartphones before the show began. During the movie, the guy behind us kept laughing and crowing at all the stupid shit. He thrilled in the violence and the revenge and the explosions. Hollywood kept pushing his buttons and he kept making the proper noises.
Then there was this lady off to the side.
I'm sure I have her story wrong—it's not just Hollywood that tends toward the reductive and sentimental—but since she didn't seem the type of person to go to an R-rated shoot-em-up on a Sunday afternoon, I figured she went for one reason. She had her guy. He was in this. So she went. For her, the title might as well have been 1 Gun.
Monday August 05, 2013
Quote of the Day
“He was always thinking behind his own back."
Appropos of nothing: Without having known of the existence of this writer, I once wrote a novella about a young man obsessed with a girl named Allison Rose Landon.
Monday August 05, 2013
Movie Review: 2 Guns (2013)
We’ll forgive a lot for chemistry, won’t we? We’ll forgive absurd plots and too many explosions and maybe bad dialogue. Well, no, not that, bad dialogue is unforgivable, but that’s a moot point anyway because this movie has good some dialogue, and, more to the point, it has great chemistry between its leads, Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg. They have rapport, and zip, and zing, and one wonders if it’s in the actors, or in the script, written by Blake Masters from the graphic novel by Steven Grant, or does the director Baltasar Kormákur, late of Iceland and “The Deep,” help bring it out, too? Or some combination of all five? Or more? We on the outside can only guess. Maybe they on the inside, too.
Whatever the answer is, Wahlberg is one of Denzel’s better partners in years. I’d say white partners but that’s almost redundant. Hollywood keeps teaming him with the latest dude: Ryan Reynolds and Chris Pine and Russell Crowe and Ethan Hawke and keep on going back, back, back. It’s as if no one thinks that Denzel can carry a movie on his own.
Meanwhile, Wahlberg may have found his niche. I still think he’s a dull leading man and a dull action figure. He’s built an empire on these things, so what do I know, but when he plays the silent leading man he brings nothing to the role for me, no intelligence, no smoulder, no force of his face. “You have to hold something back for pressure,” Robert Frost once said of poetry, and it’s true for our best action heroes, too, you sense something, and sometimes a world, behind their silence, and Wahlberg doesn’t really have that. Any pressure at all dissolves in blank stares and his soft, nice guy voice. But here? Asked to talk a mile a minute? He’s in his element.
A 1970s aesthetic
There’s a very 1970s aesthetic to “2 Guns,” a kind of Stealer’s Wheel vibe: clowns to the left of us, jokers to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you.
Bobby (Denzel), an undercover DEA agent, and Stig (Mark Wahlberg), an undercover Navy Intelligence officer, are our two guys stuck in the middle with each other. The various clowns and jokers include corrupt DEA agents, corrupt Navy Intelligence, a Mexican drug lord and the CIA. It gives us a kind of snapshot as to where we are now, culturally and politically. Our heroes are still basically cops—we haven’t retreated into the antihero aesthetic yet—but they’re ronin cops since the system itself is corrupt. It’s apparently how we feel these days. Or enough of us feel this way that Hollywood is comfortable making a movie on it. Below us? The bad guys? Yeah, they’re bad. Above us? The government agencies policing the bad guys? You can’t trust them, either. So here we are, stuck in the middle with each other.
The fun begins almost immediately as Bobby and Stig arrive in a sleepy Texas bordertown, Bobby checks out the bank across the way, Tres Cruces (Three Crosses), and Stig slips into Maybelle’s Diner to order some breakfast. When they get together—by phone or in person—they disagree on everything: what to eat, what to tip, what Stig is doing winking at the waitress. Then they start a fire and blow up the joint. Why? “Have you ever heard the saying, ‘Never rob a bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties?’” Bobby says to Stig. Stig thinks he’s joking but the line is repeated later in the movie by another character, so it’s a thing, at least a thing in this movie, and that’s why our heroes remove the diner: so they can come back and rob the bank.
What’s the purpose of the bank robbery again? The plot is already convoluted. I think they’re trying to get at the money of Mexican drug lord Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos), who, they know, brings money to this bank daily. They think they’re going to get $3 million or so. Instead they get $43 million. Or as Earl (Bill Paxton), a rogue CIA agent keeps saying, “$43.125 million.” He ain’t letting go of that point-one-two-five. It almost has more meaning for him than the forty-three.
But it turns out Papi Greco doesn’t bank at Tres Cruces; the drug lord is simply making payments to the CIA. Elements at the DEA and Navy Intelligence, including Bobby’s ex, Deb (Paula Patton, still yowsah), and Stig’s superior Quince (James Marsden, still denied leading-man status), learn this, and that’s why Bobby and Stig are directed to rob the place. The DEA is supposed to stop the robbery but they never show. Afterwards, Stig is ordered to kill Bobby but simply wounds him and leaves him in the desert with a bottle of water. Everything comes undone.
When Wahlberg and Washington separate, things get dull—although Paxton is pure joy here. Later, things get convoluted and silly and unbelievable. Our guys torture Papi, then are tortured themselves by same, yet somehow survive and are sent on a mission for the $43 million and .... All the while, they never lose their glibness, their banter, even when hanging upside-down with a bull bearing down upon them. A Naval base is broken into, we get explosions, then more explosions, then the final Mexican standoff in ... where else? ... Mexico. Yawn.
A Tarantino aesthetic
Does the movie owe Quentin Tarantino a residual check? There’s a lot of him here. It has good dialogue, shoot-outs, Mexican standoffs. Not to mention arguing about the size of tips in diners before pulling a robbery. So maybe the movie has an early ‘90s aesthetic. Except Tarantino’s aesthetic was always ‘70s movies.
Here’s a sample of that dialogue I’ve been talking about. Bobby and Stig are awaiting their fate before Papi:
Stig: I told you I didn’t like [Pam], man.
Bobby: Shut up.
Stig: What are you getting mad at me for?
Bobby: Because you talk too much.
Stig: What did I ever do to you?
Bobby: Besides shoot me?
Stig: You – you know what you are? You’re a misanthorp.
Bobby: Misanthrope. I’m a misanthrope.
Stig: Did you know what I meant to say?
Bobby: No, what did you mean to say?
Stig: That you don’t like people.
Bobby: Shut up.
That crackles. Denzel and Wahlberg make it work. Watch it here.
There are other things to like. When they’ve captured Papi Greco and are about to waterboard him in Pam’s garage, the light, on a timer, keeps going out, and they have to wave their arms to get it going again. When Bobby is in the desert, he runs into some citizen border-patrol yahoos who demand to see his papers because they don’t want any Muslims entering the country. After he takes away their gun, he tells them, “As-salamu alaykum.” I like that. It’s an indication that there’s a non-corporate intelligence behind the movie.
Then we get lost in the absurd plot contrivances and corporate explosions. Too bad Hollywood doesn't realize that the best chemistry doesn’t lead to explosions. As-salamu alaykum.
Sunday August 04, 2013
Weekend Box Office: '2 Guns' Riddles 'Smurfs 2' with Bullets
Two movies opened wide this weekend, “2 Guns,” with Washington and Wahlberg (Denzel and Mark), and “The Smurfs 2,” with smurfs (and Neil Patrick Harris).
Correction: “Smurfs” actually opened Wednesday and in those five days has grossed what “Guns” grossed in three: about $27 mil. No great shakes either way. For the weekend, they finished 1st and 3rd.
Yawn. Yep, must be August.
“The Wolverine” didn't get great word-of-mouth and fell off by 59% for second place. A 59% fall-off ain't bad (“Wolverine” fell off by 69% in 2009) but the movie already opened below expectations and needed better-than-expected second weekend. Didn't get it. Bub.
How is summer box office shaping up overall? Here are the top 10 grossers:
|Movie||Total Gross||Thtrs||Opening Wknd|
|1||Iron Man 3||$407,436,786||4,253||$174,144,585|
|2||Despicable Me 2||$326,668,000||4,003||$83,517,315|
|3||Man of Steel||$287,214,823||4,207||$116,619,362|
|5||Fast & Furious 6||$238,015,000||3,771||$97,375,245|
|6||Star Trek Into Darkness||$226,209,000||3,907||$70,165,559|
|7||World War Z||$195,889,000||3,607||$66,411,834|
|9||The Great Gatsby||$144,333,501||3,550||$50,085,185|
|10||Grown Ups 2||$116,400,000||3,491||$41,508,572|
What a tepid lot, really. A bunch of shrugs, really. Plus a few stinkers. You know who I'm looking at, Adam Sandler.
Where are movies like “Up” (2009), “Toy Story 3,” “Karate Kid” and “Inception” (2010), “Bridesmaids” (2011) and “The Avengers” (2012)? The industry should be happy box office isn't down more. Or at all.
Summer underperfomers include “The Wolverine” ($95m), “Pacific Rim” ($92m), “The Lone Ranger” ($86m), “White House Down” ($71m), “After Earth” ($60m), “Reds 2” ($45m), “The Internship” ($44m), and “R.I.P.D.” ($30m).
The weekend numbers here.
“My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains!” — Philip Marlowe, “The Big Sleep” (1946)
Sunday August 04, 2013
Product Placement: These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty
From the question posed a few days ago, your answer:
Click on the page to see the cover of the trade publication, “The World of Pretzels,” which Patricia's grandfather edited.
Yes, “The Big Bounce” is the second film in as many years to feature ... pretzels!
The line is meant to trumpet the product but it almost feels disparaging, doesn't it? Because surely there were more movies with pretzels in them. It's such a standard product. It's as if some industry organization trumpeted their use of couches in a movie. Hey, we were able to make sure there were sinks visible to the public and in close association with this star who used this sink. Tell your friends!
Apparently, though, according to Patricia, scion of a pretzel empire, pretzels were basically an east-coast, Germanic thing and didn't start spreading across the country until the 1950s and '60s. Maybe Patricia's grandfather helped. Maybe Ryan O'Neal did. Who knows? But it's an indicator. Nobody wanted to be the guy who didn't get Clark Gable an undershirt in “It Happened One Night” and thus, and probably apocryphally, sunk the undergarment industry.
Do industry-wide organizations still engage in product placement (“Let's make sure there are oranges in this film!”) or are we all out for ourselves now (“Sunkist oranges!”)? The model is no longer the fear of being the undergarment industry in “It Happened One Night” but the fear of not being Reese's Piece in “E.T.”
Saturday August 03, 2013
Quote of the Day
“Who on earth was Ronald Reagan? The key is in the reaction of other Republicans to Mr. Reagan. They didn't know who he was. But they knew that when Reagan was allowed to be Reagan, something happened. What was that something? A kind of forgiveness, a kind of exit from every single difficult issue I've raised in this book. When Reagan was Reagan, you didn't have to think about it.”
-- George W.S. Trow, ”My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,“ pp. 224
Saturday August 03, 2013
Ranking Every Freakin' Superhero Movie with Mike Smith
The first three are, to me, hugely better than all the rest—though “Flash Gordon” is the most quotable. Endlessly, endlessly quotable. Those first three X-Men movies were awful, just awful, but “First Class” was OK. I really don't feel like the Spider-Man movies have aged well at all.
1. Batman Begins (2005)
2. Iron Man (2008)
3. The Incredibles (2004)
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
5. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
6. Flash Gordon (1980)
7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
8. Superman (1978)
9. Superman II (1981)
10. Iron Man 3 (2013)
11. X-Men: First Class (2011)
12. Iron Man 2 (2010)
13. Thor (2011)
14. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
15. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
16. The Green Hornet (2011)
17. Batman Returns (1992)
18. Spider-Man (2002)
19. Batman (1966)
20. X-Men (2000)
21. Batman (1989)
22. The Rocketeer (1991)
23. Hero at Large (1980)
24. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
25. X2: X-Men United (2003)
26. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
27. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Don't agree with your no. 25, of course, but completely agree with no. 26. “I don't have to explain myself—least of all to you.” My god. Has anyone ever used that against Brett Ratner? Shouldn't they? Also prefer Spider-Man (and “Spider-Man”) to Batman (and “Batman Begins”), beginning with this equation: Guilt > Revenge. My review of the 2002 “Spider-Man” should be up soon.
He never did that trick with the bats again, did he? Shit, if I were Batman? I'd be doing that shit all the time.
Friday August 02, 2013
The Enormous Mass of Facts
I read this today in George W.S. Trow's book, “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,” which was published in 1999:
The man of today is a citizen of the world. He seems to be ubiquitous. It is as though he had a thousand eyes and ears and, alas, only one mind. Thought has two conditions. First, knowledge as food and stimulus, second, time for distributing and digesting that knowledge. But the first is so superabundantly fulfilled that it completely obliterates the second. Knowledge comes pouring in from all quarters so rapidly that the man can hardly receive, much less arrange and think out, the enormous mass of facts daily accumulating upon him.
Yeah yeah yeah, you say. We know all that already. Move on already.
Except that's not Trow writing in 1999. That's John A. French writing in Continental Monthly in March 1864.
Here's part of the rest of his paragraph:
The boasted age of printing presses and newspapers, of penny magazines and penny encyclopedias is not necessarily the age of thought. There is a worldwide difference between knowledge and wisdom. The one consists of facts as they are, the other of facts as they may be. The one sees events, the other relations.
1864. Not only before the internet, but before television, radio, movies, the automobile. Before James Joyce. Hell, it was written, or at least published, a mere 20 years after the first telegraph message was sent in the U.S. That message: “What hath God wrought?” But even then, even in 1864, the complaint was that we had too much information besotting our brains. We had too many facts and too little wisdom.
You can take this two ways:
- Each age speeds things up enough so that the rush of information will feel overwhelming to any mind developed during the slower times of 20, 40, 60 years previous.
- We're fucked.
Thursday August 01, 2013
Woody Allen's 'Wolverine'
My friend Claudine alerted me to this: “Wolverine” as envisioned by Woody Allen. It gets better after the first 50 seconds. My favorite is the stuff with Cyclops in the Tony Roberts role:
My opening monologue for this movie:
There's an old joke. Two mutants are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of 'em says: “Boy, the food at this place is terrible.” And the other one says, “We are the future, Charles, not them. They no longer matter,” and incinerates the place.
Well, that's essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and, you know, incineration. Plus bad food.
The other important joke for me is one that's, uh, usually attributed to Groucho Marx, but I think it appears originally in Freud's “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.” And it goes like this. I'm paraphrasing: “I would never join a club that would have someone like me for a member.”
That's the key joke of my adult life in terms of my relationships with women. Not to mention the X-Men.
You know, lately the strangest things have been going through my mind, because I just turned 170, and I guess I'm going through a “I’m never gonna die” crisis or something. I, uh ... and I'm not worried about aging. I'm not one of those characters, you know. I mean, I know I’m not going to be one of those balding virile types in the wheelchair, or the distinguished grey who can bend metal with his mind, or even one of those guys who wanders into a cafeteria with a tongue like a toad raving about socialism.
Jean Grey and I broke up. OK, I killed her, but only because she was becoming so powerful she was destroying the fabric of the universe. But I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind and examining my life and trying to figure out where did the screw-up come. I mean, a year ago we were ... in love.
Thursday August 01, 2013
Quote of the Day
“Of the many traditions and quirks of baseball, I think my favorite is that baseball players — no matter how good or unknown or famous they might be — collect and return baseballs after batting practice. I love this tradition beyond words. I don’t mind baseball players getting hundreds of millions of dollars, not at all. They are fantastic athletes who play more games than anybody in any other sport, and they provide wonderful entertainment — they should get as much as anyone is willing to pay them. ...
But I hope that they always pick up their own baseballs. It’s a small thing, I know — we’re not exactly talking about the days when baseball players had to get winter jobs. But it represents something to me. Every time a coach shouts out, 'OK, get ‘em up,' and you see Barry Bonds or Derek Jeter or Chipper Jones or Dustin Pedroia or Miguel Cabrera go pick up baseballs and put them back into the bucket, I feel great. It is something that ties them to the game’s history. It is something that says,'No matter what I get paid, I’m a ballplayer — and while I might have yachts and sports cars and five homes, like all the little kids playing, I have to pick up my own baseballs.'”
-- Joe Posnanski, “Picking Up Baseballs,” a nice, even, piece about the recent firing of Tino Martinez as batting coach for the last-place Miami Marlins.
Thursday August 01, 2013
Can You Spot the Product Placement?
The photo below was taken from an industry trade magazine in December 1968 bragging about its product placement in this scene from the 1969 Ryan O'Neal/ Leigh Taylor Young movie “The Big Bounce.” Can you spot it?
Here's IMDb's description of the film (which, FYI, helps in no way with the question):
A Vietnam veteran and ex-con is persuaded by a shady woman to rob a $50,000 payroll account on a California produce farm. But who is playing who?
Another question: Is that Stafford Repp, Chief O'Hara in the William Dozier “Batman” TV show, as the bartender? It appears to be, but he's not listed among the credits. But “The Big Bounce” was produced by Dozier, in the wake of “Batman,” so maybe.
“The Big Bounce” is the last thing Dozier would produce. O'Neal, of course, would rocket to stardom with “Love Story” a year later. Repp would act a few more years before dying from a heart attack in 1974 at the age of 56. One of his last roles was as “Dirty Old Man” in the low-budget comedy, “Linda Lovelace for President.” He also apparently filmed scenes in Orson Welles' unfinished film “The Other Side of the Wind.”