Thursday October 31, 2013
Here's your info graphic of the day courtesy of WhiteHouse.gov:
Feel free to use it when talking to various right-wingers and Tea Partiers and FOX News watchers who complain about how out-of-control spending has gotten under Pres. Obama. Just don't expect them to listen. From Salman Rushdie's memoir of his fatwa years, “Joseph Anton,” pp. 70-71:
In February 1983 thirty-eight Shia Muslims, followers of a man named Sayyad Willayat Hussain Shah, were convinced by him that God would part the waters of the Arabian Sea at his request, so that they could make a pilgrimmage across the ocean floor to the holy city of Karbala in Iraq. They followed him into the waters and many of them were drowned. The most extraordinary part of the incident was that some of those who survived claimed, in spit of all evidence to the contrary, to have witnessed the miracle.
Wednesday October 30, 2013
Photos of the Day: No Public Mooring
Here are two photos from recent walks on different days in downtown Seattle. They just seem to go together.
Tuesday October 29, 2013
Watching the World Series in a Seattle Sports Bar When the Seahawks are on Monday Night Football
Because Patricia cut our cable by mistake, and because it's taking Comcast a week to send someone to fix it, and because my baseball-watching friend Tim is in LA and Mike is in the exurbs, and because I don't even know if Jim has a TV, I was forced to watch both Games 4 and 5 of the World Series in sports bars.
Sunday, for Game 4, I walked over to Garage, the hipster, pool/bowling alley/restaurant on Broadway and sat in the bar. They had two TVs there and switched one to the World Series for me. That's where I sat for the game. Occasionally some dude would come up, squint at the score, then walk away even as I tried to engage them. Mostly I watched it with the bartender, Seth, with whom I spoke about life matters mostly. He's out of Arizona, a budding Buddhist. We talked about unhappiness in the U.S. and its relation to the plethora of choices available. We talked about this even as it took a while for me to choose from the plethora of choices on the menu.
Last night I figured Buckley's in lower Queen Anne would be the place, since it's only two blocks from where I work, and it was. I arrived a few minutes before the first pitch and the place was packed. I mean, packed. And on every screen but one they were showing Monday Night Football. Really? Over the World Series? I mean, not to get all Randle Patrick McMurphy about it, but it is the World Series, baseball. C'mon, Chief, put up that hand!
Then the other shoe dropped. Ah. The Seahawks are playing. Fuck.
One woman, waiting for her boyfriend, was nice enough to let me sit with her. We talked about the relative popularity of various sports. She's a big Sounders fan but thinks soccer isn't that big a sport in the U.S. I said, sure, but it's on the rise. Unlike baseball, whose popularity is falling. She wondered about that: Is it falling? I trotted out the various measures. Overall, attendance is up, because each team markets well, and each fan is a fan of that team. They go for the entertainment value. But they're not lovers of baseball as baseball. Once the World Series is on, the biggest games of the year, most people are elsewhere, watching Sunday Night or Monday Night Football. Ratings have been dropping for 30 years.
I was also able to do my napkin bit about every team sport, and why they're all the same, and why baseball is different, and why this difference doesn't suit the television age. I'll do it for you sometime, if you like.
But after one G&T I'd had enough of the crowd and walked toward downtown, then detoured over to ... yeah ... Paddy Coyne's Irish Pub along the waterfront. Why not?
That place was deserted in comparison, although all of the screens were tuned to MNF; but I asked the maitre'd, who looked around and gave me a TV in the corner. So that's where I sat for the remainder of Boston's 3-1 win: in a booth, drinking Carlsberg, eating a grilled cheese sandwich. I tweeted:
New definition of a loner: wanting to watch the World Series in a Seattle sports bar the night the Seahawks are on Monday Night Football.— Erik Lundegaard (@ErikLundegaard) October 29, 2013
But I wasn't unhappy. I even got to celebrate a bit. On the long walk home, past the various homeless and crazies on Pike Street between 1st and 3rd, I spotted a guy waiting for a bus on 4th. He was wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. I went up to him, fist extended. He smiled, bumped mine. I smiled and walked on.
Game 6 tomorrow night. I might actually get to watch it at home. Of course, if I do, I won't have a story to tell. But I'll probably drink less.
From David Shoenfield: Big Papi: He went 3-for-4, the one out being a screaming liner to center field that ended a streak of nine straight times reaching base. He's hitting .733/.750/1.267 in this World Series.
Tuesday October 29, 2013
Thoughts on the 'Captain America' Trailer
- Instead of “Was he wearing a parachute?” shouldn't the line have been something like, “Was that a parachute on his back?” Also, the guy who answers should be less smug. Also, barbershop quartet? Steve Rogers became Cap in the 1940s not the 1900s.
- Holy shit! Robert Redford!
- “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” Interesting.
- “This isn't freedom; this is fear.” Wow. Even more interesting. Oh please, let this play out. Let it be smart. Let Cap not be on the “not fear” side until he's played and then comes over to the S.H.I.E.L.D. “fear” side. The side that has to punish before the crime.
- “You've shaped the century.” Uhh ... what century? Dude was on ice, literally, from 1945 to 2010.
All in all, though, this is my Captain America. I collected comic books from 1973 to 1978 and that Cap, mostly written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Sal Buscema, was not only a man lost in time but a man without a country. He was not a superpatriot. He was to the left of the superpatriots. He didn't trust superpatriotism. In one of the best storylines of the Marvel age, Englehart retconned the Captain America of the 1950s into a completely different Cap (since our Cap was on ice, remember?). Englehart made him a McCarthy-loving, Red-baiting, paranoid nut who winds up being freed after Nixon goes to China and then goes after our Captain America, the original Captain America.
The whole storyline was great commentary upon America of the 1950s. Maybe this movie will be great commentary on America of the 2000s. Doubtful but maybe.
Final thought: Three years ago, I thought Chris Evans, the hotshot Human Torch, was all wrong to play Captain America. Apologies.
Monday October 28, 2013
Movie Review: All Is Lost (2013)
Do all stories about old men and the sea immediately lend themselves to metaphor? It did with Ernest Hemingway and it does with J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call”) in his new movie, “All is Lost,” starring Robert Redford.
Starring Robert Redford, I should add, and nobody else. You don’t see one other person in the movie. It’s just him and the boat and the sea. There’s hardly any dialogue, or, I suppose, monologue. We get a bit, at the beginning, of the old man reciting lines from a diary. “Thirteenth of July, 4:15 PM,” he says, and then, “I’m sorry.” He says, “I tried.” He gives the movie its title: “All is lost here—except soul and body, or what’s left of them, and a half-day’s rations.” Then he ends as he began:
To whom is he sorry and for what? Exactly what did he try? We don’t find out. We never even find out his name. He thinks, and reacts, and does, but he doesn’t talk much, not even to himself. The lack of words adds to the tension in the movie. It adds to the sense that we’re suffocating, drowning.
That we’re dying.
Eight days earlier, the old man, whom I’ll call Redford, wakes on his 39-foot yacht, the Virginia Jean, to water pouring into the cabin. In the middle of the Indian Ocean, his boat has struck the side of one of those giant metal containers, apparently filled with shoes, that apparently slid off a ship. He extricates himself ingeniously, using an anchor weight on the other side of the ship container, then patches the hole using homemade glue and something resembling gauze. He tests it. It holds. He pumps out the water. He tires, he eats, he sleeps. He watches the sun set and smiles.
But he’s in trouble. The water ruined his electronic equipment so he has no way to navigate, no way to send an S.O.S. And storms are approaching.
I’m a landlubber who isn’t good with his hands, so I’ll leave it to others to say whether Redford makes all the right moves. He seems to. He seems to make smart moves—using everything he has, everything around him—and it doesn’t matter. Storms are coming and he has a hole in the side of his ship.
It was about this point in the movie that I wrote in my notes, “Metaphor for age?” That’s how “All Is Lost” feels. It’s an Ivan Ilyich movie. The world closes in. Options disappear. No matter how smart you are. No matter what you can do with your hands.
The storm comes, the boat overturns, the mast breaks. Worse, the hole in the side is leaking again. Then the boat pitches forward and he’s knocked out. He wakes to water lapping up to the bed in the cabin. It’s waist high and getting higher. The ship groans under the weight. Once again he looks around. Once again he considers his options. They’ve disappeared. They’ve reduced themselves to one: LIFERAFT. Redford gathers what he can before the Virginia Jean sinks into the ocean.
The Lady or the Tiger?
We watch movies rooting for the protagonist—to live, survive, thrive—but some part of me, the critic part of me, remained aware that for this movie to have any meaning Redford has to die.
Even so, it’s tough to hold onto the thought. He reads an old book, “Celestial Navigation for Yachtsmen,” and calculates he’s entering a shipping lane. He encounters two big ships, and tries to signal them with flares, but they keep going. We don’t see anyone on them, they don’t see him. Sharks begin to gather. He’s slowly dying—of thirst, hunger, exposure. His hands aren’t working. He can do less and less. It’s impressive that Chandor and Redford make this interesting throughout. We keep caring. We keep wondering what he’ll do next. We want him to be rescued even though we know he should die.
Amazingly, Chandor satisfies both of these desires.
Redford’s passed the shipping lane, and hope is gone, along with food and water. Then he sees a .. what is it? A small boat on the horizon? Lit up? He wants to signal it but he’s used up all his flares on the bigger ships. So he creates a fire in an old, cut-out plastic container, and feeds the pages of his book into it. He stands and waves. Will the fire get out of control? Of course it will. Will he go into the water? Of course he will. He tries to stay afloat but he’s too tired, too weak, too old, and he sinks. He’s dying just as—no! The other boat, comes over to his raft, attracted by the flames. It flashes its light, searching the dark waters. And something in him, that drive in him, stirs, and he fights and swims up toward that other boat, and we see a hand reach down to grasp his, and we’re reminded—or at least I was reminded—of Michelangelo’s painting of God and Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. And in that moment he’s pulled into the light. The End.
And a second later, the light goes on for us.
We can argue all we want about this ending—is this rescue or death?—but I tend to go with the interpretation that gives a deeper meaning. And the latter interpretation, death, actually encompasses both of our desires. We know the old man should die, and he does; but we want him to be rescued, and he is.
This hasn’t been a very good year for movies, and “All Is Lost” isn’t exactly a fun movie to watch. It doesn’t press our pleasure points throughout the way most movies do. But then most movies leave us feeling tawdry and unsatisfied afterwards. “All Is Lost” left me feeling still, yet exhilarated. It left me feeling this much more aware of the inevitability of diminishing options.
Sunday October 27, 2013
Joe P on Game 3
As you know, if you've been reading, I didn't get to see Game 3 of the World Series last night, so I missed most of the action before the final at-bat, which I've since seen on the mlb.com site. But Joe Posnanski did. And he has a few things to say about Boston manager John Farrell:
And then, Farrell made one of the oddest moves in World Series history. He let his relief pitcher, Brandon Workman, hit. It is not often that you see a manager make a move, especially in the World Series, that is inarguably stupid. Even the moves most people might disagree with — a shaky bunt decision, a questionable pitching change, an ill-timed intentional walk, whatever — will have its counterargument. But hitting Workman was one of those moves that has no counter. It was just a brain cramp by the guy who will probably win manager of the year. It’s hard to believe that somebody, anybody, didn’t stop him from doing it. ...
But he doubled down on that blunder in the ninth inning. He decided to hit Workman because, he said, he NEEDED Workman to pitch more than one inning. This was pure nonsense. Everyone in the entire world knew that as soon as Workman gave up a single or a walk or anything else to put a runner on base, he would get yanked and closer Koji Uehara would come into the game. So, Farrell absolutely DID NOT need Workman to go more than one inning, and had no intentional whatsoever to stay with him if he got into even the mildest trouble. Farrell batted Workman because he was not thinking clearly.
And, what’s worse, as you know, the Red Sox had one of the better hitters in baseball, Mike Napoli, just SITING ON THIS BENCH. Two innings earlier, Farrell proved willing to play havoc with his defense just to give Will Middlebrooks the puncher’s chance of hitting an unlikely home run. But in the ninth inning of the World Series, he hit his pitcher instead of Mike Napoli — still boggles the mind — and again his explanation was as baffling as the move. He said he wanted to hold Napoli back because he thought the game would get into extra innings and the pitcher’s spot might come again. This is just so bizarre you don’t even know what to say.
Workman struck out on three pitches, of course, and I suspect will never forget his first big league at-bat. Yeah, that’s right. His first big league at-bat. But that’s OK. He never got a minor-league at-bat either. This at-bat is legend now.
Then he gets on him again for the non-intentional walk in the bottom of the 9th:
As it was, the Cardinals had runners on second and third, one out, and Jon Jay came to the plate.
I suspect that I don’t need to review my loathing, unadulterated loathing, for the intentional walk. And so it is with great regret that I say here: I cannot believe the Red Sox did not intentionally walk Jon Jay. If you are ever, ever going to use the intentional walk, this was it:
- You set up the force play at the plate.
- You set up a potential double play.
- Instead of facing Jon Jay — a left-handed hitter with a career .300 batting average against righty pitchers — the Red Sox would face Pete Kozma, who can’t hit. The Cardinals had backed themselves into a corner by using up their entire bench. Kozma and his season-long .217/.275/.273 line — he has had one hit in the NLCS and World Series combined — was followed by Kolen Wong, a rookie who hit .153/.194/.169 this year.
- The one significant disadvantage of loading the bases — that a walk or hit batsman would force in the winning run — was almost entirely muted by the fact the Koji Uehara was pitching. The man has not walked or hit a a single batter since August 3. Repeat: He has not walked or hit a batter since August 3.
Joe P. also comes down on the side of umpire Jim Joyce for making the right call. He comes down a bit hard, I think, on Will Middlebrooks for the Matt Holliday double in the 7th, but he's right about Middlebrooks futile attempt to stay on the bag in the 9th. There was no force. The ball gets by it's the game. Why do it?
Read the whole piece.
According to Posnanski, the stumblebum was Boston manager John Farrell.
Sunday October 27, 2013
The Rainbow Warrior in Seattle
On my walk to work the other day—First Hill to lower Queen Anne, mostly along the waterfront—I saw a harbor seal swimming in Elliott Bay off Myrtle-Edwards Park. On my way back, I saw this docked off one of the piers. Did a doubletake, then returned to take this picture:
Apparently there are tours.
Sunday October 27, 2013
Why I Missed One of the Oddest Finishes in World Series History
We had people over last night, a long-standing commitment, but that’s not why I missed the ending to Game 3 of the 2013 World Series, which will long be remembered as one of the oddest ends to a World Series game ever. Runner obstruction? Really? Well, it is in the rulebook. And it’s not based on intent, which is always tricky to judge. Even so ...
What ending compares? Maybe Babe Ruth caught stealing in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 of the 1926 World Series with the Yankees down 3-2? That was also against the Cardinals, by the way.
But runner obstruction is such a deflating end. It’s an NFL end. It feels like the umpires rather than the players deciding the outcome.
But I didn’t see it. By the time it happened our dinner party was beginning to dissipate and I—a few others—could’ve stolen away to watch the game. But we didn’t.
You have to go back to Thursday. I was coming home from work on a not-particularly-good day—health issues, etc.—and anticipating celebrating our friend Vince’s birthday at a bar in Capitol Hill. Figured I’d watch some of the game (Game 2), then head over. It would be a nice walk on a not-bad evening weatherwise.
But when I got home, Patricia, who had been sick all week, was up and about. There was a garbage bag by the door and a step ladder in the hallway. Sitting in bed, she’d decided it was time to repaint the bedroom, so this, I assumed, was prep work.
“By the way,” she said. “Our internet’s out.”
Really? I thought. We’d gone through this in September and it had been fixed. But I looked and, yes, the router’s light was yellow instead of green, and the modem was showing two blue lights instead of three (that’s the depth of my tech knowledge). Plus the cable TV wasn’t working. So I did what you do. I checked the connections. I rebooted the system. Then I called Comcast.
While I was on the phone, Patricia, who had just taken out the garbage, was standing abjectly in the hallway. “I don’t know if this has to do with it,” she began. “but I took out the cables up there.” Then she made an “u” motion above her head.
“Wait, what? What’s this?” I imitated her “u” motion.
“All those old cables we don’t need,” she said. That was what was in the garbage bag she’d just taken out: the old cables we don’t need.
“Yes, but why are you making a ‘u’ motion? It should just be there,” I said, indicating one side of the u. “Not both,” I said, sweeping my arms in the u motion again. “Where did you ...?”
But I knew. I knew then.
We live in a condo, built in 1909, which now has cable running throughout the building. Our unit, which we bought in 2007 (don’t ask), included a line of cable to the bedroom, where the previous owners used to watch TV. We don’t. That cable’s been unnecessary since at least 2007.
It splits at the top of the hallway—in the center of the “u”—and that splitter was the cause of our difficulties last month. But the tech came in, and, rather than replace the splitter, simply connected the outside cable line directly to the line that leads to our living room cable connection: modem, router, cable box, etc. Wah-lah. Perfect.
Patricia, in her enthusiasm, had removed not only the line of (unnecessary) cable leading to the bedroom but the line of (necessary) cable leading to the living room. She’d cut it in two places.
My heart sank. Or my stomach. Some part of me sank.
Comcast, when I got through, didn’t help with the sinking. Despite my protestations, the service rep, who I’m pretty sure was in Mexico, made me run through the diagonistic test; only only after that failure did we get down to an appointment.
He: We can have someone by on .... Wednesday, October 30th.
Me (long pause): You’re kidding.
He wasn’t. Anyway that’s why, for the end to Game 3 of the 2013 World Series, I was following it via ESPN.com’s pitch-by-pitch meter (our kind neighbors are letting us use their wifi). The pitch meter is a kind of 1920s throwback, isn’t it? Plus it can raise more questions than it answers. I mean, this is pretty straightforward:
A Craig doubled to left, Y Molina to third.
J Jay grounded into fielder's choice to second, Y Molina out at home. A Craig scored, J Jay to first on interference error by third baseman W Middlebrooks.
I’ve since seen the play online, and while I know Jim Joyce made the right call, it’s still a disappointing end. I’m rooting for the Sox—after rooting against them in the ALCS—and it’ll be interesting to see to how they come back from this. Will they be deflated or fired up? And where will I watch it?
Either way, that was a helluva play by Dustin Pedroia.
Thursday October 24, 2013
It Depends on What the WSJ's Meaning of the Word 'Was' Is: Revealing propagandist tendencies in the right-wing press
James Fallows posted this on his Atlantic blog the other day. It’s a screenshot from a reader’s iPad newstream that tells the same story two different ways:
Fallows’ post was headlined “Why to Get More Than 1 Newspaper, iPad Edition,” and included the following subhed:
One paper’s headline writers choose the word “dips”; the other's choose “only.” The difference those two words can make.
To me, Fallows focuses on the wrong word. It's less “only” than “was.” Something sinister lies behind that word.
Let’s look at the headlines again. The New York Times:
U.S. Economy Adds 148,000 Jobs, as Unemployment Dips to 7.2%
This is a Sgt. Friday headline: Just the facts, ma’am. Both things are correct.
Now here’s The Wall Street Journal:
U.S. employers added only 148,000 jobs in September; unemployment rate was 7.2%
Until now I didn’t notice the difference between “U.S. Economy” and “U.S. employers” but that’s problematic as well. It’s as if the WSJ is dredging up tired GOP talking points. But onward.
Fallows focuses on WSJ’s use of “only” but that doesn’t bug me too much. It’s a value judgment but ultimately, or at least comparatively, correct. In the eight months prior, the U.S. economy added more than 148,000 jobs five times, and exactly 148,000 jobs one time, so, yes, September wasn’t one of our better months. Last year, eight of the 12 months were better in terms of job growth. So I’ll let them have “only.”
But they fuck up big time with “was.”
First, writers and journalists go out of their way to avoid passive verbs. “Is” and “was” just sit there. That’s what they do. That’s their job.
The WSJ headline writer went out of his way to embrace the passive verb. Why? Because he wanted the unemployment rate to just sit there. Apparently he didn’t want people to know that it moved.
Read it again. It’s so awkward: Jobs added and “... unemployment rate was 7.2%.” Was? You mean in the past? So what is it now? Oh. That’s what it is now? So why didn’t you just say that?
The headline writer has tied himself into knots to avoid any sense of movement, and in so doing has created a sentence fragment that doesn’t inform. He is trying to hide facts, rather than reveal facts, with his words. That’s not the work of a journalist; it’s the work of a propagandist.
Indeed, this little screenshot is indicative of exactly what’s wrong with the mainstream media. The Times strives for objectivity and gives us the facts. WSJ strives for right-wing talking points and hides the facts. Somehow, even in the mainstream press, this combination is known as “the liberal media.”
Wednesday October 23, 2013
Outer Space Needle
This could also be known as the “Suck it, Ward!” post, since our friend Ward is no fan of the Space Needle. Thinks it's ugly. Most of the time I dig it. Tonight? On the bikeride home? With a low fog and evening sun above glinting off the top? It looked like some visitation from another planet. This iPhone photo doesn't do it justice.
Wednesday October 23, 2013
Movie Review: Stories We Tell (2013)
“Who fucking cares about our family?”
Joanna Polley says this with a smile at the beginning of “Stories We Tell,” Sarah Polley’s documentary about the history of her family, her mother, herself. Answer? We do. We particularly care about Joanna and her siblings. They’re fun to hang with. Joanna is beautiful with a twinkle in her eye, half-brother John Buchan has a more mischievous version of that twinkle, Mark is sweet and sensitive.
Who isn’t much fun? Who is often a silent and annoying presence in Sarah Polley’s doc?
One of the documentary’s central conceits is that we all have our stories, and they often differ, even when we’re talking about the same thing. We all have our perspectives and things get mangled in the telling. They get mangled by being processed through us. This is hardly news.
But the story of Sarah and her family is news—for most of us.
Remember the kids’ book “Are You My Mother?” That’s sort of what this is. The search for who the departed mother is (spiritually) becomes a search for who the father is (biologically).
The mother is Diane, a stage actress and free spirit, whom we first see in old black-and-white footage from, one assumes, a 1950s Canadian TV show. “Who, me?” she asks the camera, half self-conscious, half flirtatious. Yes, you.
She died in 1990, at age 55, when Sarah, her youngest, was 11. She had five kids by two men. Scratch that. Getting ahead of myself.
Her first husband, George Buchan, was the kind of man her parents wanted her to marry—stolid, good postwar job—but she found the life stultifying and they divorced. He got custody of the two kids because she’d had an affair. Apparently it was the first time in Canadian history that a mother hadn’t gotten custody of her own kids. This was 1967.
Was the affair with Michael Polley? The doc doesn’t say. Diane first saw him in a play, “The Caretaker,” and went backstage, and yadda yadda. They were both actors but otherwise opposites. She was excitable, he was calm. She liked people, he liked privacy. “Diane would be doing 10 things at one time,” Michael says. “I’d be doing half of one thing.”
Does Michael say this while reading from his memoir at the recording studio? Sarah has him do that. She makes this old man walk up three flights of stairs and makes him reread certain lines over and over. More: She shows how she makes him reread certain lines over and over. It’s an interesting dynamic—the director-child is father to the old man—but it doesn’t exactly show her in the best of lights. On purpose? Does she need certain lines repeated for us, for emphasis, or does she need her father to repeat certain lines for her, for satisfaction? Cut to: director in close-up, silent. Not telling.
Apparently Toronto, where they lived, is a bit like Seattle—full of cold and distant people—so it was a bit of a reprieve for Diane in the late 1970s when she got a gig performing in a play in Montreal. The title was ironic: “Oh Toronto.” Her marriage with Michael was also reprieved by the gig. He showed up, sparks flew. But she hadn’t been faithful to him there. Then she got pregnant. At 42, she considered an abortion but changed her mind. “Amazing, isn’t it?” Michael tells the off-camera director. “How close we were to you never existing?”
But who was the father? There were jokes, when Sarah was young, and Michael participated in them probably because he didn’t believe in them. “Who do you think your father is this week, Sarah?” they’d ask. In her early 30s, a famous actress herself now, she tries to find out. She asks Geoff, the lead of “Oh Toronto,” but he denies it. She asks Harry Gulkin, one of her mother’s friends at the time, who produced the award-winning film, “Lies My Father Told Me,” if he thought Geoff was her father. No, he says. Why? she asks. Because I’m your father, he says.
Sarah reenacts the scene of the revelation. She dramatizes it. She actually makes it undramatic. Maybe that’s necessary or maybe that’s just her. Then we get Harry’s version of Diane, and Harry’s story of his love affair with Diane, and Harry’s subsequent father-daughter relationship with Sarah. A paternity test is done, emails are read, relatives are met, gumlines are compared.
When the news reaches him, Michael is stunned—he raised Sarah by himself from age 11—but ultimately he takes it with a kind of sad equipoise. The kids, too. John says Mark was disappointed in their mother but in the doc he’s actually rather empathetic. He talks about what a scary scenario it is, having someone else’s kid and hiding that fact from the people you’re closest to. “Look at the mess she got into trying to look like everything was OK,” he says.
It’s such a great story everyone wants to tell it: Michael, Harry, the press. Sarah’s against this. She’s against all of it. Which is probably why she made this doc, which attempts to encompass all of these stories—Michael’s, Harry’s, her siblings'—but which she ultimately controls. “I can’t figure out why I’m exposing us all in this way,” she says. We can.
The ending is clogged with those points of view. Michael tells her the story should be funnier. “You see what a vicious director you are?” he says. Harry tells her the very idea of her documentary, encompassing all of these stories, is false. There has to be a singular point of view, he says. “The story with Diane is only mine to tell,” he says.
This echoes something he’d said earlier, for which I was grateful. People tend to treat love as the pinnacle of human existence—“to love another person is to see the face of God,” is how “Les Misérables” puts it—but I’ve always felt there’s a negative aspect that goes unspoken. Harry speaks it:
When you’re in love like that you become utterly selfish. Nothing that’s happening to anyone else matters at all or is a matter of any consideration. You just wind up sort of focused, intense, wanting to consume the object of your love, and nothing else exists.
“Stories We Tell” is delightful when the focus is on Diane, the mother. It is less so when the focus becomes Sarah, the daughter and documentarian. Maybe 10 minutes could have been excised from the end. Or maybe use these 10 minutes to give Sarah’s siblings, rather than Sarah, more screentime. They’re fun, Sarah less so. Which is itself fascinating. Sarah Polley has made a documentary in which she is the least interesting character. There’s something wonderfully Canadian about that.
Tuesday October 22, 2013
First Sentence: 'Joseph Anton'
As Bonasera in “The Godfather” believed in America, I believe in first sentences. At bookstores I still pick up books that might interest and buy them based on their first sentence. I did that recently with “Joseph Anton,” Salman Rushdie's memoir of his post-fatwa existence. Here's how it begins:
Afterwards, when the world was exploding around him and the lethal blackbirds were massing on the climbing frame in the school playground, he felt annoyed with himself for forgetting the name of the BBC reporter, a woman, who had told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin.
I liked the rhythm of it, and the roundabout way of beginnning at the major moment, but through memory and annoyance rather than momentousness. On first reading I didn't even pick up on the Hitchcock reference, but two pages later, Rushdie names and expands upon the metaphor. He writes about the scene outside the schoolhouse in “The Birds”: the children chanting, Tippi Hedren smoking, and the single black bird alighting on the jungle gym. He writes about how that first bird is singular, individual. No theory is needed to explain it. The theories are necessary only when the mass of birds gather and attack.
He equates his experience with radical Islam with that first black bird alighting on the jungle gym.
Before the fatwa.
Monday October 21, 2013
A Conservative Theology Becoming a Revolutionary Idea by Attracting the Non-Urban and Marginalized: A Quiz
Quick quiz about the following quote:
Here was a fascinating paradox: that an essentially conservative theology, looking backward with affection toward a vanishing culture, became a revolutionary idea, because the people whom it attracted most strongly were those who had been marginalized by urbanization—the disaffected poor, the street mob.
Who said it about whom? Was it:
- A: Andrew Sullivan on the Tea-Party-wing of the GOP
- B: Gore Vidal on the '64 Goldwater campaign
- C: Salman Rushdie on the birth of Islam
Answer in the comments section.
Wednesday October 16, 2013
Moyers: It's Not a Shutdown; It's Sabotage of the Democratic Process
Here's Bill Moyers on the Tea Party-led and GOP-led and credibility-destroying government shutdown. Moyers doesn't like the term 'shutdown':
At least let's name this for what it is: sabotage of the democratic process; secession by another means. And let's be clear about where such reckless ambition leads: as surely as night must follow day, the alternative to democracy is worse.
See the whole video essay here.
American idiot celebrating secession by another means.
Wednesday October 16, 2013
When Roth Was Good
Many readers still consider “The Ghost Writer,” the novel that introduced Nathan Zuckerman and reimagined the story of Anne Frank, to be Roth’s most perfect work.
Couldn't agree more. It's perfect in the way that “The Great Gatsby” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” are perfect. It should be read.
Caveat: Didn't “My Life as a Man” introduce us to Nathan Zuckerman?
Tuesday October 15, 2013
Heading Into Nut Country: From Dealey Plaza to the Tea Party
George Packer has a good piece in The New Yorker called “Leaving Dealey Plaza,” about the Kennedy assassination, whose 50th anniversary is upon us and Dallas. He opens in this haunting fashion:
Ever since the age of seven, I’ve been obsessed with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It took place when I was three, and though I have no memory of hearing the news, the President’s murder, in Dallas, hung over my childhood with the vivid and riveting terror of a dream. On my parents’ bookshelf, there was a slender, crimson-jacketed pictorial account of November 22, 1963—fifty years ago next month—and the days that followed, by the photographers of the Associated Press, called “The Torch Is Passed.” I would sit by myself for what felt like hours and stare at the black-and-white stills—the roses in Jackie’s arms at Love Field; the open Presidential limousine gleaming in the sunlight; the waving, unknowing crowds; Kennedy’s smile in the images just before the first shot; Jackie’s face turning toward him as his fists jerk up to his throat; the black shoe hanging over the back of the seat as the limo speeds away toward the underpass.
Recently he visited Dallas for the first time, so he went, like I went, to Dealey Plaza. He found it much like he'd always imagined it whereas I'd always thought it was located in the center of the city. Not sure why. Because it's central to our history? Instead it's on the edge of the downtown area. It's on the extreme edge. It's the road you take before leaving the center forever.
Packer's article is about the extremism in Dallas at the time, and the hatred—“We're heading into Nut Country,” Jack apparently told Jackie on the flight down—and the difficulty Dallas has dealing with the crime. It's the city that killed the president. Then Packer makes the inevitable update, the inevitable warning, the plus ca change warning. That hatred of Kennedy isn't gone, it's just been transferred. In 50 years, as the rest of us have progressed, the extreme right has managed to change one letter: they've gone from Birchers to Birthers. Nut Country is more diffuse now. It's also in the halls of power. Packer concludes:
Last week, as part of the anniversary build up, the Morning News ran a brutally honest article about the city fifty years ago. The piece quotes Darwin Payne, a historian and former Dallas newspaperman: “You could feel it in the air. When I hear some people express hatred for Obama, it feels the same. But I never have felt we are on the verge of anything like the events I witnessed back then.”
American politics today isn’t haunted by the same fear of sudden, shattering violence. But, as for nut country, it’s migrated from the John Birch Society bookstores to the halls of Congress, where angry talk of socialism and impeachment is almost routine. Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Louie Gohmert are the spiritual descendants of Walker and Hunt. Fifty years later, Dallas would like to move on from Dealey Plaza. This is normal and right. What’s holding it back is the Republican Party.
Monday October 14, 2013
Krugman Does Montoya
“I do not think that word 'compromise' means what Mr. Ryan thinks it means.”
-- Paul Krugman in his column, “The Dixiecrat Solution,” about You Know What. The rest of the piece focuses on “How does America become governable again?” Read that part, too.
For more on movie quotes and why Krugman's works, here.
Monday October 14, 2013
Movie Review: Captain Phillips (2013)
In 2004, Karl Rove declared that American liberals want to “understand our enemies.” In 2008, Sarah Palin declared that Barack Obama wants to “read terrorists their rights.” Both are not-very-veiled code for the perceived weakness and general softness of the left.
In “Captain Phillips,” directed by Paul Greengrass (“United 93”), written by Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”), and starring Tom Hanks (you know), we come to understand, a little better, our enemy, the Somali pirates, one of whom is read his rights at the end. But there is no sign of weakness here. The opposite. The superorganized, superefficient, massive technological power of the United States of America—aircraft carriers, helicopters, superbuff Navy SEALS, superscope weaponry—is brought to bear on four skinny dudes on a raft. Yes, the Somalis have automatic weapons. Yes, they are holding our title character hostage. Yes, they are often unpleasant.
Even so, the power discrepancy is so great, so absurd, I literally laughed out loud in the theater. Where’s the drama? There’s no drama. One side has everything, the other nothing. It’s such an unfair battle, you begin to wonder who to root for. The weight and power of the response almost seems to justify the crime.
Paul Greengrass tends to make smart action movies about the collision of first and third world: “United 93,” “Green Zone,” “Bloody Sunday.” In these, he never fails to show us a bit of the other side.
So with “Captain Phillips.” The movie opens in Underill, Vermont, in the quiet home of Capt. Richard Phillips (Hanks), who, in spring 2009, is prepping for his next assignment aboard the Maersk Alabama, which is moving hundreds of tons of cargo—food, fuel, water—from Oman to Kenya. Then he and his wife, Andrea (Catherine Keener), drive to the airport. They have a conversation that’s a bit freighted. It comes to us with quotes attached. The kids aren’t trying hard enough in school, he says. The world isn’t like the world they came up in, he says. It will be tougher. Fifty guys are competing for every job. There will be greater competition.
CUT TO: Greater competition. Men in vans, with automatic weapons, pull up in a village in Somalia, and wonder why no one’s at sea. “The boss wants another ship today,” they say. Teams are picked. Sides are chosen. One team leader is hopped-up and wide-eyed. The other, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), casts cool, almost disdainful looks over the proceedings. He’s got a stillness to him. He says little and chooses carefully. At times he looks like the emaciated younger brother of Omar from “The Wire.” In another movie, he’d be the hero.
This is the collision that occurs: between two men doing their jobs.
The first half of the movie is exciting, pulse-pounding, etc., as Muse and Phillips play cat-and-mouse from a distance, then face-to-face. “You know the ship, they don’t,” Phillips tells his crew as the Maersk is being boarded. “Stick together and we’ll be alright.”
The crew hides. They power down the ship and claim it’s broken. Phillips plays innocent in the face of a semi-automatic. One pirate is nearly crippled by broken glass, another, Muse, is taken hostage. In the standoff, they offer the pirates $30K from the ship’s safe and a lifeboat, which looks a bit like the submarine from “Yellow Submarine.” The pirates take both and Capt. Phillips and head back to Somalia.
And that’s when all the drama drains away.
I’m not blaming the filmmakers for this, by the way. “Captain Phillips” is based upon a true story, or at least Captain Phillips’ account in “A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea,” written by Stephan Talty. The movie fudges some details from the book—apparently Phillips was on the lifeboat for five days, not a day and a half; and apparently he was beaten and mock executed after his attempted escape; and apparently he didn’t have a nervous breakdown after his rescue—but overall the movie strives for verisimilitude.
No, I blame the U.S. defense budget. In 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. spent $682 billion on defense, which is $30 billion more than the defense budgets for the next 10 countries combined. Face to face, no one else has a chance. Put it this way: The Somali pirates in this movie got bested by unarmed slacker crewmembers and a 50-year-old man in a light blue polo shirt. What chance do they have against men who trained their entire professional lives for this? They don’t. Remember when the Dream Team—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, et al.—first showed up in the Olympics in 1992 and beat teams by like 75 points? It wasn’t a question of whether they would win, it was a question of by how much. Same here. You wonder how, not if, Capt. Phillips will be rescued.
Here’s how. U.S. military technology identifies the pirates, the square-jawed negotiator then calls them by name and gets them to agree to be towed. They take Muse on board, ostensibly for negotiations, but there are no negotiations. Instead SEALS take out the three remaining pirates with simultaneous headshots—boom boom boom—and Muse is read his rights. He’s now serving 33 years in a federal penitentiary.
Compare all of this with “Kapringen,” a 2012 Danish film about Somali pirates hijacking a Danish frigate, which was named best Danish film at the 2013 Bodil Awards. Without a military to come to the rescue, it becomes a matter of tense negotiations and threats and inevitable death. It’s about the toll taken and the lessons learned.
What lessons are learned in “Captain Phillips”? Unarmed frigates should be armed? Sail 600 miles rather than 400 miles from the coast of Somalia? Keep a SEAL team on retainer, as one doofus American posted on IMDb about “Kapringen”?
Here’s the lesson I learned: The U.S. military is powerful enough to kill drama. It’s so powerful, the people it’s protecting don’t need to learn lessons. Which explains so much about the current state of the United States of America.
Sunday October 13, 2013
More Unseemly Sideshows
From Margaret Talbot's Talk of the Town piece, “Washington Dramas,” in The New Yorker:
There was a rather unseemly sideshow at the memorial to the Second World War, where Republican representatives turned up to personally inform elderly visiting veterans that it was President Obama’s fault that the memorial was closed. The chair of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, later offered to use R.N.C. funds to open the memorial, claiming that the Administration was keeping “the Greatest Generation away from a monument built in their honor.” You could deny eight hundred thousand federal employees their paychecks, you could cripple entire agencies, but close the war memorial? The National Park Service declined the offer, because, as a spokesperson explained, “we are a national system.” The park service could hardly pick favorites—opening the memorial for the Second World War but not for the Vietnam War, opening Yellowstone but not Yosemite—and it shouldn’t be asked to.
What the Republican intransigents were willing to deprive of funds, besides the Capitol police, included the following: The Centers for Disease Control, which said that it would have to stop its seasonal flu-prevention program and would “have significantly reduced capacity to respond to outbreak investigations.” The Environmental Protection Agency, which would close down almost entirely, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which would stop most of its inspections. The WIC program, which provides healthy food supplements for millions of pregnant women, new mothers, and babies, and could run on temporary federal funds only through the end of the month. The Food and Drug Administration, which said it “will be unable to support the majority of its food safety, nutrition, and cosmetics activities,” and would have to halt “the majority of the laboratory research necessary to inform public health decision-making.” The National Institutes of Health, which announced that it would not be enrolling any new patients in ongoing studies or clinical trials.
The fringe elements of the GOP have created even more unseemly sideshows at our national monuments. Today, huge crowds turned out at the World War II memorial, whose closing is still blamed on Pres. Obama rather than (rightly) on the GOP, and several took the baricades there and moved them to the White House as a kind of symbolic gesture. They waved a Confederate flag outside the White House. Other flags were unfurled, including a “Right to Heaven” flag, which an Andrew Sullivan reader reminds us is an invocation to righteous rebellion and revolution.
These are people who don't recognize that they are what they accuse others of being. They are antidemocratic, anti-American fascists.
Sunday October 13, 2013
Idiot of the Day
“I call upon all of you to wage a second American nonviolent revolution, to use civil disobedience, and to demand that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.”
Giving Klayman a run for his money.
Sunday October 13, 2013
Our Misapplication of the Golden Rule
We know it this way:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
But we tend to live it this way:
Why aren't others doing unto me as I would do unto them? Fuckers.
Or the shorter version:
Well, I would never...
Saturday October 12, 2013
Happy Birthday, John Lennon
John Lennon would've turned 73 earlier this week. I thought of that sad fact while reading a great piece by the New Yorker's John Seabrook on the latest hitmaker in what's left of our hit parade: Lukasz Gottwald, aka Dr. Luke, who, with Max Martin, a Swede, has written top-10 hits for, among others, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Kesha. The money graph:
In writing lyrics, McKee [one of Gottwald's protegees] adheres to the Swedish school of pop songwriting championed by Max Martin. Words are chiefly there to serve the melody. “It's very mathematical,” McKee explained. “A line has to have a certain number of syllables, and the next line has to be its mirror image.” I asked for an example, and she sang, “California girls, we're unforgettable, Daisy Dukes, bikinis on top,” then said, “If you add one syllable, or take it away, it's a completely different melody to Max. I can write something I think is so clever, but if it doesn't hit the ear right then Max doesn't like it.” Don't these strictures make the songs formulaic? McKee doesn't think so. “People like hearing songs that sound like something they've heard before, that's reminiscent of their childhood ... people still just want to hear about love and partying.”
The talent in the room: Britney, Katy, Kesha, Miley
Saturday October 12, 2013
The 2013 World Series Possibles: And Then There Were Four ...
We're down to four teams, each one of the original 16, three still playing in their original cities.
For the Series itself, we'll either get ...
- Cardinals vs. Tigers: a rematch of 1934, 1968 and 2006.
- Cardinals vs. Red Sox: a rematch of 1946, 1967 and 2004.
- Dodgers vs. Red Sox: a rematch of 1916, when LA was in Brooklyn and Brooklyn was called the Robins.
- Dodgers vs. Tigers: WS newbies.
Interesting tidbit from the Cardinals: against both possible A.L. opponents, they had memorable series in '34, '46, '67 and '68, all of which went 7 games. Then in the 2000s, blpppthh, four and out each time. At least they turned that around in 2011 against Texas.
BTW: if either the Cards or Red Sox win it all, they will be, in terms of titles, the winningest team of the 21st century. Suck on it, Yankees.
Friday October 11, 2013
By the Book: Erik Lundegaard
Sunday, the New York Times Book Review intereviewed Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Blink,” “Tipping Point,” “Outliers,” etc., about his taste in literature. It's a fun read.
Here are my answers to most of the questions they asked him.
What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
George W.S. Trow's “My Pilgrim's Progress: 1959-1998.” But it's hardly a new book. I'm always behind.
Which writers do you find yourself returning to again and again — reading every new book and rereading the old?
I don't know if there is anybody anymore. I keep returning to writers until I don't: Vonnegut until “Galapagos,” Roth until “Everyman,” Kundera until “Ignorance,” Irving until “A Widow for One Year.” When did I lose Doctorow? Some time in the '90s. But I keep rereading all of them. For a time, I measured how far I'd come by my latest reading of “The World According to Garp” but I haven't done that in 10 years. I've been looking over Roth recently. The Zuckerman trilogy. Salinger, too, but that was for the doc on him.
Actually, you know who I keep returning to these days? Joe Posnanski.
Did you identify with any fictional characters as a child? Who was your literary hero?
Holden Holden Holden. Before that, Peter Parker. Before that, Joe Hardy of the Hardy Boys. Before that, Danny of “Danny and the Dinosaur.”
So I guess my literary heroes were F.W. Dixon, until I found out he wasn't real; Stan Lee, whom I met in 1975; then J.D. Salinger. Then off to the races.
In general, what kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you steer clear of?
I don't read much genre fiction. It does nothing for me. I get two pages in and think, “Who cares?”
As I've aged, I read more nonfiction. At lunchtime I like reading about baseball as a kind of palate cleanser. At night, anything. I want things explained. I want arguments and ammunition. Sometimes I feel like I'm prepping for a battle that will probably never come.
What’s the last book to make you laugh out loud? To cry? And the last book that made you angry?
I get mad reading blogs more than books but I got pretty angry reading “Shipwrecked: A People's History of the Seattle Mariners”; through no fault of author Jon Wells.
I don't know about the last book but Bill Bryson makes me laugh out loud like nobody's business, and I don't think I ever cried harder than reading the last pages of “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” I was at a noodle shop in Taipei, Taiwan, before teaching an ESL class, and, despite everyone around me, despite the bustle, tears just welled up in my eyes and wouldn't stop.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I don't know. I've got tons of literature: Baldwin, Capote, DeLillo, Doctorow, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Irving, Joyce, Kundera, Mailer, Morrison, Orwell, Roth, Salinger, Tolstoy, Updike, Vidal, Vonnegut, Wolff. I've got an entire shelf of baseball books. I've got books on movies, comic books, Superman, politics. Is anyone surprised yet?
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
I guess Michael Lewis' “The Big Short,” but I hope he's already read it. Would “A Confederacy of Dunces” help with Congress? I also woundn't mind George W.S. Trow's “Within the Context of No Context.” Just for his thoughts.
What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I should like Michael Chabon more than I do. I should be pulled into his world more easily. Maybe 30 years ago, I would have. I didn't finish “Kavalier and Clay,” for example. I keep meaning to return to it.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
Shakespeare, to find out how he did it. Or maybe Matthew, Mark, Luke or John: to know what they know.
If you could meet any character from literature, who would it be?
My first thought was Caddy, who smells like leaves. My second thought was Holden, to tell him it gets better. But I guess I'll go with Buddy Glass. Over beers.
What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed not to have read?
Like Leonard Zelig, I've never read “Moby Dick.” I've also never read “The Scarlett Letter.” No Chaucer and very little Plato. I'm surprised they let me graduate with a degree in English literature.
What do you plan to read next?
Maybe Salman Rushdie's “Joseph Anton.” Maybe Emily Bickerton's “A Short History of Cahiers Du Cinema.” I've got a stack waist high next to my book shelf. Literally. It admonishes me daily. It tells me, “You are a very bad reader.”
Thursday October 10, 2013
Everything Jeff Wells Hates
In the past I've poked fun at Jeff Wells' anti-“Lincoln” rants and his perverse insistence on schooling Jackie Robinson on baseball but I love it when he goes on rants about the shit he hates in modern movies. Maybe because it's the same shit I hate. A recent example:
Studly, sword-brandishing, robe-wearing beardo: “I know what you are.” Tantalizing Lucretia McEvil: “You have no idea.” Brrrnnnggg! Any film in which a major adversarial character says “you have no idea” is instantly disqualified. Everything loathsome and detestable about 21st Century mass-moron pulp entertainment in one downmarket Asian combat film. Cartoon-level CGI. Robes. Samurai swords. Catchy macho-challenge lines (i.e., “C’mon”). Steely glares. A once-influential marquee-name actor reduced to pandering to people whose taste in movies couldn’t be more primitive or less evolved.
Yep, yep, yep, yep, yep.
He's writing about “47 Ronin,” starring Keanu Reeves and Rinko Kikuchi. Trailer here. Enjoy:
Thursday October 10, 2013
Patricia and I were talking the other night, and I mentioned the movie “Rush,” which I'd seen and she hadn't, and I suggested she might like it. “So it's good?” she asked, and I said, “Yeah, it's good,” then thought for a moment and added this.
It's what most movies should be. If Hollywood still made movies for adults, as they did in the '30s and '40s, the modern version would be this. It's a good studio movie. It's interesting, exciting, sexy. It's fairly intelligent for a story about racecar drivers. It has a few good scenes. It's not great but most of the parts work. It's a type of movie that should be the base for us. It should be the norm. Instead the norm is what we got: giant robots and superheroes and rock 'em sock 'em and adolescent crap.
Ron Howard's “Rush”: A modern studio picture?
Thursday October 10, 2013
Scalia Views Congress as Source of Tyranny
Another excerpt from Justice Scalia's conversation with Jennifer Senior in New York magazine. This is right at the beginning and seems, given recent events, prescient:
[In 1974] I knew very well that the 900-pound gorilla in Washington is not the presidency. It’s Congress. If Congress can get its act together, it can roll over the president. That’s what the framers thought. They said you have to enlist your jealousy against the legislature in a democracy—that will be the source of tyranny.
But weren’t you just saying that you learned from Watergate that presidents aren’t incorruptible?
What, and Congress is? I mean, they’re all human beings. Power tends to corrupt. But the power in Washington resides in Congress, if it wants to use it. It can do anything—it can stop the Vietnam War, it can make its will felt, if it can ever get its act together to do anything.
Apparently it doesn't even take all of Congress to get its act together. It merely takes one faction of one party, along with a yellowbellied Speaker, to create a kind of tyranny. Does Scalia view the current crisis (gov't shutdown, hostage taking, etc.) as just that, or do his politics, which tend to the right, get in the way?
Either way, what made me do a doubletake were his examples.
OK, first, the follow-up is wrong. The question isn't who is incorruptible (which is no one) but who holds the power. And according to Scalia, Congress holds too much of it. His evidence?
It can do anything—it can stop the Vietnam War, it can make its will felt, if it can ever get its act together to do anything.
So: stopping a war it didn't start, despite Article One of the Constitution, and the vague “making its will felt.”
Sloppy. I need to see more work here, Antonin.
Wednesday October 09, 2013
Dr. Frankenstein, Meet Monster
From today's New York Times:
WASHINGTON — House Republicans, facing the ninth day of a government shutdown, appeared increasingly isolated on Wednesday from even their strongest backers, with business groups demanding the immediate reopening of the government and benefactors such as Koch Industries publicly distancing themselves from the shutdown fight. ...
On Wednesday, the National Retail Federation joined other business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers in asking House Republicans to relent.
From the same article, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), apparently an architect of the government shutdown, tries to score the usual, sad political points and gets his ass handed to him:
At a House hearing on death benefits, Representative Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas, asked Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, “Do you think Harry Reid doesn’t like the V.A. or our veterans?”
Mr. Shinseki, looking baffled, replied: “I think he highly values veterans. As to why Congress is unable to do its business, I will leave to the members to discuss.”
Representative Tim Walz, Democrat of Minnesota, called the question “beneath the dignity” of the veterans affairs committee and offered Mr. Huelskamp 30 seconds to apologize. He declined.
Wednesday October 09, 2013
Where I Agree with Scalia
Earlier this week, New York magazine published a much talked-about Q&A with Justice Antonin Scalia. I was going to write a combative post about some of his combative comments but realized it would take too long. Besides, I kept running across things he said that I agreed with.
So here are the things he said that I agree with.
On “stupid but constitutional,” which is like “shitty but not illegal”:
A lot of stuff that’s stupid is not unconstitutional. I gave a talk once where I said they ought to pass out to all federal judges a stamp, and the stamp says—Whack! [Pounds his fist.]—STUPID BUT CONSTITUTIONAL. Whack! [Pounds again.] STUPID BUT CONSTITUTIONAL! Whack! STUPID BUT CONSTITUTIONAL … [Laughs.] And then somebody sent me one.
On the idiocy of the State of the Union:
I know you haven’t been to a State of the Union address for a while, and I wanted to know why.
When was the last time you went to one?
Oh, my goodness, I expect fifteen years. But I’m not the only one who didn’t go. John Paul Stevens never went, Bill Rehnquist never went during his later years. Because it is a childish spectacle. And we are trucked in just to give some dignity to the occasion. I mean, there are all these punch lines, and one side jumps up—Hooray! And they all cheer, and then another punch line, and the others stand up, Hooray! It is juvenile! And we have to sit there like bumps on a log. We can clap if somebody says, “The United States is the greatest country in the world.” Yay! But anything else, we have to look to the chief justice. Gee, is the chief gonna clap? It didn’t used to be that bad.
He also knows who to blame for that:
The Gipper may have been the one who started it. He’s the one who brought in people he would recognize in the audience, and things of that sort—made it a television spectacle. And once it becomes a television spectacle, it’s nothing serious.
I loved Seinfeld. In fact, I got some CDs [sic] of Seinfeld. Seinfeld was hilarious. Oh, boy. The Nazi soup kitchen? [sic] No soup for you!
On low expectations:
If you have low expectations, you’re not disappointed. When it’s somebody who you think is basically on your side on these ideological controversies, and then that person goes over to the dark side, it does make you feel bad.
On writing and aging:
But I often worry when I go back and read one of my early opinions like Morrison v. Olson. I say, “God, that’s a good opinion. I’m not sure I could write as good an opinion today.” You always wonder whether you’re losing your grip and whether your current opinions are not as good as your old ones.
Much of the rest I disagree with. We have different world views, different concepts of, in particular, absolutism and relativism. I wish the Q, Jennifer Senior, had asked him, for example, what he thinks is absolute and what he thinks is relative. Maybe that's too broad a question. Maybe it's too boring. He's obviously aware the world changes. But he also says this: “Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn’t change.” Esqueeze me?
Antonin and I.
Wednesday October 09, 2013
Another Boardwalk Empire/ Pinstripe Empire Casting Call: Domenick Lombardozzi as ... ?
When HBO's “Boardwalk Empire” cast Domenick Lombardozzi, Herc from “The Wire,” as Al Capone's brother, I thought, “Perfect.” I was surprised that Lombardozzi towers over British actor Stephen Graham, who is otherwise fantastic and underrated as Al Capone, and I‘ve wondered whether the real Al was shorter than his brothers. Otherwise it’s perfect casting.
Last week, when we saw Lombardozzi hatless and in period clothes, I thought something else: Holy crap, this guy should totally play Babe Ruth:
Domenick Lombardozzi and Stephen Graham as Ralph and Al Capone in HBO's “Boardwalk Empire.”
In the past, Hollywood has cast fatties to play Ruth, but Ruth wasn't really fat until the end of his career. He was certainly odd-shaped, with thin legs on thinner ankles, and his face was never lean, but he wasn't gut-heavy until the 1930s. He was tall, too, 6‘2“”, and Lombardozzi is 6’0“. Can he swing a bat? Left-handed? He seems athletic enough. He's actor enough.
Someone at HBO needs to push this through. Billy Crystal needs to finally make his follow-up to ”61*.“ And why not the greatest Yankee of them all?
The Bambino and Sultan of Swat, circa 1920
Tuesday October 08, 2013
Quote of the Day
“Some of the current GOP delusions: the deficit is rising (it isn’t); the debt is currently unsustainable (it isn’t); the public wants Obamacare ended (it’s split on even delaying it); climate change has nothing to do with human-produced carbon emissions (it is, according to almost every single reputable scientist examining the issue). Why are we surprised that the people who predicted a Romney landslide a day before he was trounced might actually be prone to believing in things that simply are not true by any empirical, objective standard? That’s the true danger here. Their epistemic closure is now not just threatening them, but all of us.”
-- Andrew Sullivan, “The Debt Ceiling Denialists,” The Dish
Tuesday October 08, 2013
Movie Review: Gravity (2013)
Is “Gravity” the new Hollywood spectacle?
The original kind, created in the wake of television, tended to be overlong, wide-screen, supersaturated Biblical epics. Hollywood studios were trying to give you an experience you couldn’t get in your home. They were trying to get you out of your home and away from your TV set. This type of spectacle was eventually replaced by epic musicals (“Sound of Music,” etc.), which were replaced by director-driven films with sex and/or violence (“Bonnie and Clyde,” etc.), which were replaced by the ascendance of B-movie fodder with A-movie production values (“Star Wars,” etc.). We’re still in this last period, more or less, but Hollywood studios are still looking to give you something you can’t get in your home. They’re trying to entertain you away from your home entertainment system.
“Gravity” is short: 90 minutes. It’s a novella of a movie. It promises, not a cast of thousands, but a cast of two. For much of the movie, in fact, it’s just one. It’s “Castaway” in space.
But it’s still a kind of experience, particularly with IMAX and 3-D, that you can’t get in your home. It’s an event.
But how’s the story?
In space, no one can hear things explode
“Gravity” opens beautifully. We see the Earth, boom, in front of us, huge, and surrounded by the silence of space. Then writer-director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”; “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) holds on it. And holds on it. Then, slowly, people and voices come into view. They rotate into view.
It’s the five-person crew of the Explorer, a U.S. ship in orbit. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer tethered to the Explorer, is attempting to fix a motherboard outside the ship. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), astronaut, an old space hand, jets about, filling the vast silence of space with his cynical, amused charm. “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” he jokes. He tells well-worn or half-finished stories about his wife leaving him, about New Orleans in the 1980s, about how he’s going to come up short of breaking the space-walk record set by Anatole Somethingorother. He’s a George Clooney character: He knows his business, he knows the score, he’s been broken in some way but charm seeps through the cracks.
For the moment, Ryan is resisting that charm. She lives up her family name. She’s lost in her work.
Not for long, though. The Russians have destroyed one of their satellites, and this has destroyed others, setting off a chain reaction of orbiting destruction, with the Explorer directly in its path. This storm of debris arrives like a silent meteor shower, and Stone is torn from the Explorer and goes rocketing and flipping through space. Earlier, when asked what she likes about being up there, she replied, “The silence.” Here, she finds out how frightening that silence can be. Here, she’s grateful when she finally hears a human voice, Matt’s, in her radio transmitter. He urges calm. He tells her what to do so he can find her. Then he brings her back to the ship.
But the Explorer is no longer a ship, simply more space debris, and the rest of the crew are dead. There’s no radio contact with Houston. They’re alone up there. But Matt has a plan.
See that light over there? That’s a Soyuz space station. They’re going to head over there, Ryan tethered to Matt, Stone to Kowalski, and take one of its capsules back to Earth. But beware the orbiting space debris. By his calculations it will return in 90 minutes.
There are other things to worry about, too. They arrive just as she’s running out of oxygen and he’s running out of jet fuel. (Why does he not run out of oxygen? Isn’t he the one doing all the talking?) Worse, Soyuz is damaged, they bounce off it, and Ryan almost goes flying off into the void, forever, but her feet get tangled in the cords of a deployed parachute. Matt is less lucky. He sees that she won’t make it unless he lets go. So he lets go.
And then there was one.
The roller coaster
Other movies come to mind watching this one. “Alien,” obviously. (Terror in space, female survivor.) “Barbarella,” oddly. (A woman removing her spacesuit in zero gravity.) “Castaway,” as above.
But the dominating influence is Steven Spielberg. “Gravity” is a roller-coaster ride with smarts and art and, well, gravity, but it’s still a roller coaster ride. It’s still skin-of-the-teeth stuff. For 90 percent of the movie, Ryan is staying just one small step (rather than one giant leap) ahead of destruction, until the final, beautiful shots when her capsule splashes to earth, she crawls to shore, and pulls herself up on the land. You almost feel the weight of gravity holding her in place then. It’s a great shot. “Gravity” begins well and ends well, and the middle is a ride. But it’s just a ride.
Within this ride, yes, Cuarón and company do some good work. We get a bit of background. We find out Ryan lost a child, a girl, 4 years old, and when she died much of Ryan’s reason for living died with her. She shut herself off. She almost does that here. In Soyuz, before traveling to the Chinese space station, Tien Gong, she powers down the systems, turns off the air, gives up. She’s ready to die. She’s ready to join her daughter.
Then a knock on the door.
No joke. At first I thought it was one of the cosmonauts—the face looked gigantic and grotesque—but it’s actually Matt, the sexiest man alive, who has miraculously survived. He enters the spacecraft and fills it with his energy. Did you find the vodka? he asks. Well, I finally broke the spacewalk record, he says. Now let’s take this puppy home. It’s a great moment, even if it doesn’t seem reasonable—given the verisimilitude of everything else in the movie—and it isn’t. It’s a dream. A figment. Matt’s dead, she’s alone, but the moment—the dream, the vision, whatever—inspires her to try again. The whole scene is really well-done. I was happy when Matt returned (we needed something), and I was sad he turned out to be a figment, even as I realized it was the right thing to do for the story.
A helluva story to tell
So they do good things within the ride, but is it enough? Is Ryan an interesting enough character to hold the screen by herself for half the movie?
At one point, Matt, or maybe his figment, tells Ryan why she needs to keep trying: You’ll either die, he says, or you’ll have a helluva story to tell.
When you see “Gravity,” see it on an IMAX screen with 3-D. Make it an event. Because for all its spectacle, for all its effects, “Gravity” doesn’t have a helluva story to tell.
Monday October 07, 2013
What's a Level Playing Field?
Here’s a quick quote from Tyler Kepner’s piece yesterday defending Major League Baseball from the likes of, I assume, Jonathan Mahler, who, in the Times last week, wrote about how baseball was no longer central to the culture. One of Kepner's talking points is how MLB has leveled its playing field:
Twenty-six of the 30 teams—all but Kansas City, Miami, Seattle and Toronto—have reached the playoffs in the last eight seasons.
Fans in Seattle: *heavy sigh*
Not sure why Kepner limited it to eight seasons, though. Two years earlier, Miami, then Florida, won its second World Series title, so he could've eliminated them by making it an even 10. Toronto has its two titles, of course (’92 and ’93), while KC its one (’85). Which leaves our Seattle Mariners as the worst of the worst. No trips to the postseason in eight years; no trips to the World Series ever. Despite the talent that came through here in the 1990s. Despite “Refuse to Lose.” Ever since, it’s been “Stallin’ to Win.” They’re good at that. I’m talking the front office. I’m talking Lincoln and Armstrong.
Kepner’s math is also a bit off. Does he mean the last eight seasons including this one? That’s the only way you include the Pirates. Or does he mean 2005, too? That's the only way you include Houston. In eight seasons you can't have both, yet he includes both. So he obviously means eight-plus seasons. Nearly nine.
What does Kepner's level playing field look like anyway? Here's a chart of the post-season trips, etc, dating back to 2005, and including 2013 thus far:
Not that level. A few teams still dominate, and titles are won by those few teams: Yankees, Cards, Phillies, Red Sox. The ChiSox and especially the San Francisco Giants are the exceptions to this latter rule. Generally the more often you get to the post-season, the better your chance of winning it all. The Braves, Twins and Reds are exceptions. Numerous trips, not even a championship series, let alone a pennant, let alone a title.
At the least, though, these eight-plus years are more level than the previous 10, 1995-2004, when the Yankees won four titles and six pennants. That's the sad thing about this unlevel playing field. It's comparatively level.
The Giants are 2 for 2 in recent postseasons.
Sunday October 06, 2013
Houston, We Don't Have a Problem: 'Gravity' Breaks October Box-Office Record
Houston, we don't have a problem.
“Gravity,” Alfonso Cuaron’s powerful two-actor space novella, set a record for an October film opening with a $55 million haul, breaking the record set by *cough* “Paranormal Activity 3,” $52 million in 2011, and creating new record openings for its two stars, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
Bullock’s previous best was “The Heat” ($39 million in June), while Clooney’s, believe it or not, was “Batman and Robin,” way back in 1997. All of Clooney’s best openings are from back then: “The Perfect Storm” ($41m in 2000) and the various “Ocean’s” movies ($36-$39m from 2001 to 2007). After that, they drop off to less than $20 million. He’s the quintessential Hollywood movie star, the last movie star according to an old Time magazine cover, and yet his movies don’t open the way that movies about giant robots open. He makes smart movies that open small. The following all opened on fewer than 30 screens:
- The Descendants (29 screens)
- Up in the Air (15)
- Michael Clayton (15)
- Good Night, and Good Luck (11)
- Syriana (5)
- O Brother, Where Art Thou? (5)
- Fantastic Mr. Fox (4)
He’s the last adult in the room.
But “Gravity” is a good sign. It pulled in the sci-fi geeks, the IMAX folks, and the people who pay attention to buzz, who care about how movies do on the festival circuit, and the final opening tally was $55. Good news. To paraphrase Maj. Frank Burns: It’s nice when the nice happens to nice movies.
Review up tomorrow.
Elsewhere, “Runner Runner,” that Justin Timberlake thing with Ben Affleck as the villain, opened in more than 3,000 theaters but grossed only $7.6 million, for a pretty lousy $2,500k-per-theater opening. It finished third for the weekend. No. 2 was the second weekend of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2,” which dropped only 36% and grossed $21.5.
A third film opened in 387 theaters and grossed $2.5 million to finish ninth for the weekend: “Pulling Strings.” Never heard of it? It’s a Mexican comedy. It’s Lionsgate attempting to redo its success with “Instructions Not Included,” the Mexican comedy that opened at the end of August and has slowly become the fourth-highest-grossing foreign-language film ever in the U.S., grossing more than $40 million. Ahead of it? “Crouching Tiger,” “Life is Beautiful,” and “Hero.” It won’t catch those. Even so, this is one of the bigger box-office stories of the year: the under-the-radar success of Mexican comedy in the U.S. Don’t tell FOX-News.
Sunday October 06, 2013
Objectivity Is Not Stupidity: The Culpability of the Mainstream Media in the Government Shutdown
From Bill Moyers:
Beltway reporters who see their professed neutrality as a higher ground bear an enormous amount of responsibility for encouraging this perversion of democratic governance. With a few notable exceptions, the media have framed what Jonathan Chait called “a kind of quasi-impeachment” in typical he said-she said fashion, obscuring the fact that the basic norms that govern Congress have been thrown out the window by a small cabal of tea party-endorsed legislators from overwhelmingly Republican districts. The media treat unprecedented legislative extortion as typical partisan negotiations, and in doing so they normalize it.
But it’s not normal.
I keep seeing this, too, particularly in the national New York Times coverage and the local Seattle Times coverage. The latter has been particularly bad at the false equivalence: a kind of, “Oh can't those two get along?” exasperation. Those two being Pres. Obama and the full Congress, rather than one house of Congress, rather than one faction of one party of one house of Congress.
Is the coverage getting better? Some say so. But it's taken awhile, too long, and not just the country but the truth has been sacrificed in the meantime.
This is not rocket science, kids. The job is pretty easy:
- What is the thing?
- Describe it.
This, for example:
A long time coming.
Saturday October 05, 2013
Movie Review: Una Noche (2013)
“From the tops of the trees you can see the planes coming in from Miami. Sometimes people come back to Cuba from the outside world. They return like kings: fatter, happier, trusting. They lose that nervous desperation.”
-- Lila (Anailín del la Rúa de la Torre) in writer-director Lucy Mulloy’s “Una Noche.”
Filmed in cinéma véritée fashion, “Una Noche” is a movie about that nervous desperation. It’s about three young people in Havana bouncing here and there, scrimping this and that. Do they have a plan? We assume so. We’ve seen the movie poster. We know what the movie’s about, more or less. But the plan has no center.
It’s a subtle film. Some friends of Elio (Javier Núnez Florían) pick on a gay guy and his face retreats. Is he gay? (Yes.) It’s an ironic film. Raul (Dariel Arrechaga) prostitutes himself to get the money to get the drugs to help out his prostitute mother, who has AIDS. It’s an evocative film. One of the characters mentions you can smell the tourists coming. “They use a soap we can’t get here.”
But mostly it’s about 90 miles.
That’s the distance from Cuba to Miami, from poverty to wealth, from communism to capitalism. It’s the distance to a different kind of desperation.
Lila and Elio are twins—she’s eight minutes older—who have always communicated well, who can almost finish each other’s thoughts. Lately, though, Elio’s grown distant, and Lila follows him around to find out why. She follows their father, too, a military man, and discovers he’s having an affair. She’s teased by other girls for the hair on her arms, and wonders whether she should pluck her eyebrows. She holds off the boys but dreams of first kisses. Despite all this, we don’t really get to know her, and what we do know isn’t that interesting. She’s most interesting in voiceover. All of them are.
We don’t really get to know Elio, either. Lila thinks he has a girl but he has a boy. Except the boy, Raul, doesn’t know it. Of the three, Elio is the most serious. He’s not following after other people’s drams, as Lila, nor sabotaging his own, as Raul, but moving forward. He’s doing it all for love.
That’s an answer to this question: What kind of desperation makes someone get on a small raft and paddle 90 miles across shark-infested waters? It’s not just the beacon on the other side. You need a push.
Raul is pushed by a mistake. There are two classes of people in Havana, citizens and tourists, and he’s seen talking to a tourist, and that tourist—or her father?—winds up in the hospital, so Raul is suspected since no one else is. “In Havana,” Lila says in voiceover, “only a fool runs from the police.” Raul is that fool. And that’s his final push. Elio is then pushed—or pulled—by his love for Raul. Lila discovers their plans and can’t abide Havana without her brother. That’s how all three wind up on this small raft, paddling.
The young and the pretty
One hopes, away from the bustle of the city, that things will calm down and the three will get serious. Instead, on the small raft, their stupidity has nowhere to hide. Raul complains about paddling. He asks for a backrub from Lila, flirts with Lila, tries to kiss Lila. Elio kisses Raul. They fight. Then the shark comes. By then, I’d lost interest. The characters were too stupid, too spoiled, to care about.
I gained some sympathy back again when Lila and Raul finally float, exhausted, to land, and are greeted by white jet skiers. For a second, we think: Miami. But wait, doesn’t the blonde-haired girl look familiar? Isn’t she the one Raul was talking to earlier? Indeed. One of the jet skiers, a tourist boy, leans forward and says, “Are you trying to get to Miami?” and flashes a big grin to his friends. It’s a joke to them, these boat people, trying to get to Miami but winding back in Havana. It’s a kind of horror for us. Elio doesn’t make it.
“Una Noche” is at its best when it gives us flashes of the hectic life in Havana, a city that time forgot, where 1950s cars coexist with knockoff smartphones. (They’ve improved the catcalls anyway. One guy, to a hot girl passing: “I’ll wash, iron and cook for you daily!”) It’s a trapped city and these three try to break free of it. They’re young and pretty, and, like the young and pretty everywhere, just not that interesting.
Friday October 04, 2013
How Nutjob Republicans in Congress are Destroying Democracy as We Know It
From Andrew Sullivan regarding a poll showing 41% of independents blame the GOP Congress for the gov't shutdown, while 33% blame Pres. Obama:
I’d find the narrow split among Independents unnerving, if I were the president. 33 percent blame the president for the shutdown and impasse? Given that he has already conceded sequester-level spending, and has cut the deficit in the last three years by the swiftest amount since the end of the Second World War, what else do they want him to do? If he were to abandon his signature domestic achievement after re-election, because of blackmail, we might as well give up on elections and representative government altogether.
I'm disappointed by those numbers but not overly surprised. We're not a smart people. We don't deserve what we've been given. We've been handed something on a platter, and we ask if we can have the platter, too.
Here's your talking point, also from Andrew Sullivan, if you run into one of the 33%:
What president has ever “negotiated” repealing a duly enacted law because one faction in one House has decided that it will shut down the government and destroy the US and global economy if he doesn’t? When has such a thing ever happened before? What are the Republicans offering in return? Nothing but the maintenance of basic government functions.
That's why it's blackmail, kids. That's why it's unprecedented. Figure it out, fuckers.
Friday October 04, 2013
Movie Review: Rush (2013)
Everyone’s driven by something.
That’s the movie’s tagline. Of course, being a movie, it’s more interested in the “driven” than the “something,” but at least it makes feints toward the latter. It’s written by Peter Morgan and directed by Ron Howard, the team who gave us “Frost/Nixon,” so it should aspire to some kind of meaning. It shouldn’t just be zoom-zoom.
And it’s not. It’s zoom-zoom but it’s also a vague character study in the Peter Morgan mould. Is that enough?
Peter Morgan is big on his dichotomies, isn’t he? He’s particularly big on historical dichotomies of the past 40 years. Thus Idi Amin and Dr. Nicholas Garrigan in “The Last King of Scotland” (2006), Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth in “The Queen” (2006), David Frost and Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon” (2008), and Don Revie and Brian Clough in “The Damned United” (2009). Now, in “Rush,” we get the epic battle between 1970s-era Formula-One race-car drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl).
Ready? Hunt is tall, blond, a sex machine and a party animal. Lauda is short, mousy, with rat-like buck teeth. He’s blunt and friendless while Hunt is friends with everyone. Hunt takes risks, Lauda less so. Lauda is all about calculations and odds, while Hunt is like Han Solo: Don’t tell him the odds! He’s balls out. Lauda keeps his balls in, thank you.
At the start, we get voiceovers from both men about why men in general race cars around tracks: They’re rebels, dreamers, people desperate to make a mark. “I don’t know why it became such a big thing,” Lauda says about his rivalry with Hunt. “We’re just driven.”
These voiceovers occur on August 1, 1976, a rain day full of portent. At which point we flash back six years earlier. Hunt is walking, almost strutting, into a hospital with bloody nose and bare feet. In voiceover, he asks us, as he flirts with one of the nurses, (Natalie Dormer of “Game of Thrones”), why women like racecar drivers.
Uhhh... Cuz you look like Thor?
“It’s our closeness to death,” he answers.
At this point Hunt is only a Formula Three driver. But in the first race we see, he butts heads, and cars, with Lauda. Hunt shows up late, having partied all night, while Lauda shows up early to study the race track. He’s a student and a businessman. He’s careful. Too careful. At a particular turn, he doesn’t take the risk, Hunt does, Hunt wins. Thus begins the rivalry.
This rivalry takes them to the top: Lauda drives for Team Ferrari, Hunt for Team McLaren, in Formula One racing. Along the way, Hunt settles down, kinda, with supermodel Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde, who looks great as a ‘70s blonde), while Lauda meets cute with a German girl, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), as both flee a party where neither wants to be. He was driven there, she’s driving. He pauses to tell her everything wrong with her car. She scoffs. Cut to: the car smoking by the side of the road. OK, so we see that coming. Then it becomes a riff on the hitchhiking scene from “It Happened One Night.” He tries, gets nowhere. She tries, in her party dress, and a car comes screeching to a halt. Except, nice bit here, the two men, rowdy Italians, bypass her to get to Lauda, the Formula One racecar driver for Ferrari! They’re beside themselves. They even let him drive their car. When Marlene mocks his careful driving, he takes it to another level. All in all, a nice scene.
The focus of the film is the rivalry between Lauda and Hunt in 1976. Lauda, the reigning world champion, starts out strong, winning race after race. Then Hunt begins to win. Will he catch up? That takes us to the day of portent, in rainy Nurburg, West Germany, the 10th race of the 16-race season. Lauda, who measures the odds, who knows that with every race he has a 20 percent chance of dying, and that the rain is increasing those odds, suggests cancelation. The others vote to race. He’s the one who pays. His car spins out, erupts in flames, and he suffers smoke inhalation damage and lifelong scars on his face. He’s done but Hunt continues.
But Lauda isn’t done. Less than two months later, he’s back, and the rivalry plays out on the final race of the season.
On another rainy day, Lauda, mid-race, bows out, deciding it’s not worth it. He sees the face of Marlene, whom he’s married, and whom he told on their honeymoon, “Happiness is the enemy. It weakens you. Suddenly, you have something to lose.” That’s what appears to happen here. He sees his wife’s face, he quits. Meanwhile, Hunt, with a last-minute sprint, finishes third in the race, which gives him just enough points to beat Lauda for the world championship. Now he’s World Champion.
At which point we get one of the odder things I’ve seen in a movie.
Most movie montages are there to set up the third act, a la “Rocky,” but once Hunt wins we get a kind of “Will Success Spoil James Hunt?” montage: partying, sex, blow, and TV commercials. I thought: “Wait, isn’t the movie nearly over?” It is. This montage sets up the epilogue. And the epilogue upsets the rest of the story.
In an airplane hangar, Hunt runs into Lauda, who’s working on his plane, and who waxes poetic about flying. He seems like he’s retired from racing and encourages Hunt to try flying. Then he encourages Hunt back on the track. But Hunt is too busy being a celebrity. They have a serious moment here. Hunt says he feels bad about his part in making Niki race on August 1, 1976. Lauda acknowledges it, in his blunt manner, but adds, “You were equally responsible for getting me back in the car.” I.e., Because Hunt kept winning races, Lauda had to come back from his horrific accident and disfigurement.
And he’s still racing. That’s the thing. Lauda is back on the track and he wants Hunt there, too. He talks about how far both of them have come, in part because of their rivalry, and he wants that rivalry to continue. But Hunt is noncommittal. In an afterword, we’re told he stops racing to become a TV commentator while Lauda wins back the world championship in 1977 and again in 1984. You think, “Wow! That’s a great story. How come we didn’t get more of that story?” In this way, “Rush” is similar to Morgan’s “Damned United.” There, in an afterword, we’re told that Brian Clough, the careful coach, went on to huge success, but the movie focuses on his rivalry with Don Revie, the balls-out coach, because apparently that’s what Peter Morgan likes to focus on. Apparently he thinks such rivalries and dichotomies are more dramatic. Maybe they are. Even so. Something’s missing here. And it’s “something.”
Everyone’s driven by something. It’s a movie, yes, so we get the “driven” more than the “something.” Normally that would be fine. But since the “something” goes away for one man and not the other, that’s the key. But we don’t get it.
Look, “Rush” is a good movie. It’s fun and semi-serious. The acting is good, the production values high. It’s just missing something.
Thursday October 03, 2013
Quote of the Day
Paul Waldman, The American Prospect, wonders whether publishers don't have responsibility in the Texas schoolbook controversy:
When this issue is discussed, the publishers are talked about as if they have no agency, no ability to affect the outcome of these events. But they're morally culpable for participating in these farces. If they wanted, they could stand up to the state of Texas. So how can the people who work at a publisher in good conscience agree to write a biology textbook that treats evolution as a wild, unsupported idea? What if the Texas Board of Education demanded that their books discuss the “controversy” about whether the Earth travels around the sun or vice-versa, or the “controversy” about whether earthquakes happen because the turtle on whose back the world sits is scratching an itch, or the “controversy” about whether stars are actually faeries winking at us from up in the sky? Would the publishers say, “OK, if that's what you want, we'll write it and print it”? Someone should ask them where they draw the line on their integrity.
My review of “The Revisionaries,” a 2012 documentary on the subject.
So what is it about Texas and schoolbooks? A schoolbook depository in 1963 changed America's future. Now schoolbooks in Texas are trying to change America's past. Both for the worse.
Thursday October 03, 2013
Movie Review: Short Term 12 (2013)
“Short Term 12,” written and directed by Destin Cretton, and based on his 2008 short film of the same name, not to mention his own time working at a foster-care facility, feels natural. The lighting is natural (read: washed out), the dialogue is natural (read: mumbled), the acting is natural (no glam). It’s like a Dogme 95 film without the pretension.
It’s about trouble teens who are helped by troubled staff who aren’t much older than they are. It’s the children leading the children. When do we see anyone over 30 in this thing? I guess when Dr. Hendler (Nora Walters) tells Grace (Brie Larson) she’s pregnant, but she’s only in it for like 15 seconds. I guess when the director of the foster-care facility, Jack (Frantz Turner), appears, but that’s not often. Mostly we just get the kids. It’s almost like a Peanuts cartoon in this regard.
It’s tough to pin down why it’s so good. It might have something to do with its ease and lack of pretension and the feeling it has for its characters. These characters move in a dramatic arc but there’s a cyclicality to the movie, too. Issues are resolved but we wind up back where we started.
The shark and the octopus
We start with storytelling. “There is no way not to tell this right,” says Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), bearded, amused, laid back. “It’s a storyteller’s wet dream.”
Various staff members at Short Term 12 are standing outside and taking a smoke break and welcoming the newest staff member, Nate (Rami Malek of “The Pacific”), when Mason decides to tell his well-worn story. It’s about a big kid named Wesley who bolted on Mason’s first day on the job. He left the premises and got on a bus, and Mason, who was dealing with stomach issues, followed. But the pressure in his stomach grew worse and when he finally confronted Wesley it all flowed south. That’s the punchline. They’re all laughing about it when one of the kids, Sammy (Alex Calloway), redhaired, pale and skinny, bolts from the place and they have to chase him down. That’s Sammy’s thing, by the way: making repeated and fruitless feints at escape.
All the kids have a thing. Luis (Kevin Hernandez) tends to tease Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who tends to burn with quiet rage, while Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), the new girl, is flip, closed-off, doesn’t give a fuck. It’s the job of the staff, Grace particularly, to open them up. Yet at the end of the day, in the quiet evenings she shares with Mason, Grace herself is closed off. Traditional gender roles here are reversed: he cooks; she instigates sex. She’s closed off, a mystery, while he wants her to talk about how she’s feeling.
At the moment, she’s feeling pregnant. That’s one of the things she won’t tell him. There’s other stuff: past abuse issues. She cut herself for a while. Jayden cuts herself, too, and Grace suspects Jayden is also abused. Or neglected? Her father is supposed to pick her up for her birthday and doesn’t, and Jayden cuts herself, and ...
To be honest, writing about it lessens it. There’s a subtlety to it. The revelations are just suddenly there, as if they’ve always been there, and are accepted with a barely discernible nod by the other characters. There are dramatic moments and histrionics, sure, but revelations tend to be made quietly and obliquely. One of the best such moments is a short story Jayden writes and reads to Grace. It’s about the friendship between a shark and an octopus. I won’t spoil it.
In life there are those who close us off and those who open us up, and “Short Term 12” is about a group of people who do the latter for a living; then they go home and do it with each other. You could argue that that’s the big battle: to remain open, and open others, in a world that tends to close us off.
That’s how the movie proceeds until we wind up back where we started: with a smoke break and storytelling and Sammy making a break for it.
Not exactly “Free to Be, You and Me”
I didn’t think I’d like “Short Term 12.” The trailer has a ’70s vibe. Not a ’70s film vibe, which would be great, but a living-through-the-‘70s-as-a-kid vibe, and dealing with the various “Free to Be, You and Me” group activities and unstructured environments that we were placed in. I hated them. They were supposed to be free and edgy and interesting but they were generally dull and chaotic. Sometimes they seemed a step above “Lord of the Flies.” With me as Piggy. But the movie’s not that.
“Short Term 12” is sort of like Grace herself. It sits next to you and quietly works on you without seeming to. After a while, you just find yourself opening up to it.
Wednesday October 02, 2013
Letters from Readers
I got this email the other day as a result of this post from last year:
It is interesting to note your interest in the existence of lesser known residents of the SEATTLE area. One such personality was my daughter, Tracia, who taught school in Portland and Seattle, performed on stage throughout the Northwest, attended Ringling Brothers Clown College, joined Floyd Schmoe in peace-related activities including going to Tashkent with a group of Seattle residents dedicated to building a peace park, and now lies in her grave in Issaquah. A white marble bench stands in memorial to her life in Seattle's Peace Park near University bridge. This past weekend Tracia's stepfather and I visited her grave and the site of her bench. How pleased I am that although the park had been rearranged, a bench still stands, as it has for the 20 years since her untimely death due to the rare disease Creutzfeld-Jacob, the human form of Mad Cow, which developed from a tainted injection of Human Growth Hormone.
So I appreciated seeing your article some time ago and always value my memories of Seattle and Tracia.
Here's a shot of the bench:
Tuesday October 01, 2013
Quote of the Day
“At midnight last night, for the first time in 17 years, the Republicans in Congress chose to shut down the Federal Government. Let me be more specific: One FACTION of one PARTY in one HOUSE of Congress in one BRANCH of government shut down major parts of the government. All because they didn't like ONE law.”
-- Pres. Obama, Oct. 1, 2013.
Tuesday October 01, 2013
Quotes of the Day on the Government Shutdown
Ezra Klein, “Don't Forget What the Shutdown is Really About,” The Washington Post:
1) This is all about stopping a law that increases taxes on rich people and reduces subsidies to private insurers in Medicare in order to help low-income Americans buy health insurance. That's it. That's why the Republican Party might shut down the government and default on the debt.
Andrew Sullivan, “'What Kind of World Do These People Live In?'” The Dish
Are you, Republicans, prepared to say that the countless working Americans who cannot now afford any of this should carry on without it indefinitely? People only have one life, you know. It can erode pretty quickly. On what moral grounds do you consign people to this fate when it is currently unnecessary? ... What hallucinating, self-serving monsters have you become?
Jonathan Chait, “How to Depose John Boehner,” New York Magazine:
Shutting down the federal government is not, by a far sight, the most dangerous, cruel, or ideologically blinkered thing the House Republicans have done. But it is surely the most baffling. They have taken an issue, broad disapproval of Obamacare, where they enjoy a modest but persistent advantage and turned it into an issue — shut down the government over Obamacare — where they stand at an overwhelming, three-to-one disadvantage. They stepped on the message of what’s sure to be Obamacare’s glitchiest day. They’ve followed a course of action their leaders know full well stands no chance of success yet carries massive downside risks. For an act of comparable cost-benefit political stupidity, you have to look to politicians who screw interns or hookers, and even that has a biologically explicable motivation.
The New York Times Editorial Board, “John Boehner's Shutdown”:
At any point, Mr. Boehner could have stopped it. Had he put on the floor a simple temporary spending resolution to keep the government open, without the outrageous demands to delay or defund the health reform law, it could easily have passed the House with a strong majority — including with sizable support from Republican members, many of whom are aware of how badly this collapse will damage their party. ... But Mr. Boehner refused.
Jon Stewart, “The Daily Show”:
This is not a game of chicken [as described in the mainstream media]. This is when someone is driving to work, and there's a car coming directly at them in their lane. That's not a game of chicken. That's an asshole causing a head-on collision.
Black Canseco, Twitter:
The New York Daily News:
Feel free to add more below.
Tuesday October 01, 2013
Why Baseball is No Longer Central to the Culture
Sunday there was an interesting piece in The New York Times by Jonathan Mahler (“The Bronx is Burning”) on the whys and hows of the waning popularity of Major League Baseball.
He says a lot of what I say. Yes, attendance is up, yes, revenue is up. But TV ratings for national games are down and the sport is no longer central to the culture in the way it once was. People rarely talk baseball the way they talk football. If they talk baseball, it's local. If they talk football it can be the playoffs or the Super Bowl or the Super Bowl commercials. If they talk basketball it can be March Madness. The World Series? Is that on?
So Mahler goes into why this is so.
Here's a key paragraph:
The N.F.L. has certain structural advantages over Major League Baseball: teams play only once a week, and when the postseason arrives, every game is an elimination game. But its real advantage is that it’s louder, faster and more violent — which is to say, better in tune with our cultural moment. “We are a shouting culture now, shouting connotes excitement and engenders excitement,” says Daniel Okrent, who is considered the founding father of fantasy baseball. “Baseball is quiet and slow.”
We‘re a more loutish country so we have a more loutish national sport.
It’s telling that professional football has been around for about 100 years, but that it didn’t find cultural traction until the age of television.
If baseball was a game you followed, football was one you watched. Beneath the surface, it was an enormously complicated sport. But the passing, the running, the tackling? This was great television. And under the lights, on Monday nights, with Howard Cosell making you feel like the country’s fate hung in the balance of even the most meaningless game? Forget about it.
But he stops there. He doesn't go far enough.
Why has TV been kinder to football and basketball and hockey? Think of those sports. Think of the shape of the football field or basketball court or hockey rink. What is that shape?
Now what is the shape of your TV screen?
Put those sports on your TV and they fit right in. Baseball? Not so much.
Those other sports are two-dimensional. You follow the ball. Wherever the ball is, that's where the action is. Baseball? Well, the ball's in the right-field corner, the runner is rounding second with the tying run. Can he make it in time? Where's the right fielder? Where's the cut-off man? Where's the base-runner now? Around third? Here comes the ball! We want to be watching several things at once. It's requires three-dimensionality but TV flattens everything.
Final thought: If baseball is less central because of TV and because we‘re more loutish, are these related? Are we more loutish because of TV? (Yes. Yes, we are.)
Watching Harmon Killebrew at Met Stadium in the 1960s, I didn’t know the sport's centrality was already waning.