Friday July 31, 2020
Jared Kushner's Covid Task Farce
Vanity Fair's Katherine Eban has a must-read piece on whatever happened to Jared Kushner's crack Covid team and why we don't have a federal plan like every other industrialized country. “South Korea serves as the gold standard, with innovative ‘phone booth’ and drive-through testing sites,” Eban writes, “results that get returned within 24 hours, and supportive isolation for those who test positive, including food drop-offs.”
As for us? Some of the lowlights:
Countries that have successfully contained their outbreaks have empowered scientists to lead the response. But when Jared Kushner set out in March to solve the diagnostic-testing crisis, his efforts began not with public health experts but with bankers and billionaires. They saw themselves as the “A-team of people who get shit done,” as one participant proclaimed in a March Politico article.
Members of Kushner's task force include:
- Adam Boehler, Kushner's summer college roommate
- Nat Turner, CEO of Flatiron Health
- Jason Yeung, a Morgan Stanley banker
- Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen.
Onward and downward:
By early April, some who worked on the plan were given the strong impression that it would soon be shared with President Trump and announced by the White House. The plan, though imperfect, was a starting point. Simply working together as a nation on it “would have put us in a fundamentally different place,” said the participant.
But the effort ran headlong into shifting sentiment at the White House. Trusting his vaunted political instincts, President Trump had been downplaying concerns about the virus and spreading misinformation about it—efforts that were soon amplified by Republican elected officials and right-wing media figures. Worried about the stock market and his reelection prospects, Trump also feared that more testing would only lead to higher case counts and more bad publicity. Meanwhile, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, was reportedly sharing models with senior staff that optimistically—and erroneously, it would turn out—predicted the virus would soon fade away.
Against that background, the prospect of launching a large-scale national plan was losing favor, said one public health expert in frequent contact with the White House's official coronavirus task force.
Most troubling of all, perhaps, was a sentiment the expert said a member of Kushner's team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” said the expert.
As of today, the U.S. has 4.5 million Covid cases with more than 150,000 dead. The last time fewer than 50,000 new cases were reported in a single day was July 6.
I look forward to more articles like this. Blow the lid off. Blow it the fuck off.
Friday July 31, 2020
Oh, to Be a Cat Now that the Pandemic Is Here
Jellybean in repose the other night as we went through a mild heat wave by Seattle standards: highs in the high 80s/low 90s.
Friday July 31, 2020
- Early Silicon Valley investor Roger McNamee is getting out in a big way—writing a book “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe,” and warning people and politicians. Brian Barth's story in The New Yorker from a few months back is a bit cynical about McNamee but still eye-opening. “I was as addicted as anybody,” he says, “ but we have the power to withdraw our attention.”
- I have.
- I remember first reading about Google, the better search engine, in The New Yorker in 2000; I actually brought this info to people working at Microsoft, who hadn't heard of it. (I also remember how for years the search engine made me thinking not only of Barney Google but Koogle flavored peanut butter from the ‘70s, before it became establlished enough to become a verb.) Well, McNamee is not only anti-Facebook but anti-Google. He recommends DuckDuckGo, which, Barth writes, “serves up ads based on keyword searches rather than on user profiles.” I add in case any old Microsoftees are out there.
- The Athletic on Roberto Clemente’s year with the Montreal Royals after being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Imagine if they'd held onto him.
- Where is your favorite Hall of Fame baseball player buried? Stew Thornley has the details. California has 21, New York 20, Pennsylvania 19, Ohio 17, Florida 16. Washington state has two, with one in Seattle—Amos Russie at Acacia Memorial Park and Funeral Home near Lake Forrest Park along the northwest part of Lake Washington. As for Minnesota? Zip. The cold, most likely.
- Vanity Fair on how Jared Kushner's supersecretive team totally screwed up our national Covid response. “No nationally coordinated testing strategy was ever announced. The plan, according to the participant, ‘just went poof into thin air.’” Today's totals? U.S. at 4.5 million confirmed cases, 152,000 confirmed death. Our death total is approaching three times the number of Americans who died during the Vietnam War.
Wednesday July 29, 2020
Chyron In His Sleep
Remember George W. Bush's last press conference when he seemed to pity himself? Quote:
I believe this—the phrase “burdens of the office”—is overstated. You know, it's kind of like, “Why me? Oh, the burdens,” you know. “Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?” It's just—it's pathetic, isn't it, self-pity. And I don't believe that President-Elect Obama will be full of self-pity.
We mocked him for it. I did anyway. Until today I thought he actually was full of self-pity. He shouldn't have brought it up the way he did, particularly during such a dark time, but it wasn't as bad as I thought back then. But we‘re getting the real deal with Donald.
Again, though, if you listen to the whole thing, he seems to be mocking himself. There’s at least a light tone to it. I don't know if that makes it worse since 150,000 Americans are still dead. That's three times the number of Americans who died during the Vietnam War. And that's in the span of five months rather than over 12 years. In the press conference, he mentions a few of the things he did kinda sorta right, vaguely, like the China ban. But he half-assed that, too. It wasn't a smart ban. It wasn't “Chinese nationals are banned and anyone who's coming here from China has to be tested.” It was just the first part, while Americans, Europeans, etc. who arrived here from China could just waltz in. And guess what they waltzed in with? Meanwhile, Trump praised Xi. He said the virus would be gone in April. He said we had 15 cases and it would soon be down to zero. He said anyone who wanted a test could get a test. Then he wanted to reopen too soon. He told governors, “Get it yourself.” Then he pimped hydroxychloroquine as a cure, then bleach. He's made basic precautions—mask-wearing, social distancing—a partisan issue rather than a national urgency. The usual suspects helped him: Fox News, Rush, Sinclair. It's why our response has been the worst in the world. #AmericaFirst in Covid cases. Don't cry for us, South Korea. Or do. It's not getting better anytime soon. We still have a blistering idiot in charge.
He's still on the hydroxychloroquine bandwagon. The other day he retweeted a video of a Houston doctor, Dr. Stella Immanuel, who says mask-wearing is unnecessary and the cure is here: hydrochloroquine. He was asked about it. He said this:
“She was on-air, along with many other doctors. They were big fans of hydroxychloroquine. I thought she was very impressive. ... She said that she's had tremendous success with hundreds of different patients. I thought her voice was an important voice, but I know nothing about her.”
No vetting, just hoping. No science, just PR.
The Daily Beast vetted Dr. Immanuel. Their report:
She has often claimed that gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches. She alleges alien DNA is currently used in medical treatments, and that scientists are cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious. And, despite appearing in Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress on Monday, she has said that the government is run in part not by humans but by “reptilians” and other aliens.
The U.S. currently has 4.3 million Covid cases, 149,000 Covid-related deaths, and fewer than 100 days until the election.
Tuesday July 28, 2020
Movie Review: John Lewis: Good Trouble (2020)
Dawn Porter’s documentary, “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” is a celebration of the life of the civil rights icon and a warning that his life’s work is being undermined in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling. It chronicles his rise from an obscure farm in Troy, Alabama and onto the world stage, gives us his greatest hits from 1960 to 1965—Nashville sit-ins, Freedom Rides, March on Washington, Selma—and follows him around during the 2018 midterms as he campaigns for Democratic candidates in Texas and Georgia. Post-credits, we also get a Covid-era Q&A conducted over Zoom between Lewis and Oprah, which is like a master class in interviewing. Seriously, if you’re interested in journalism, watch it and learn it. She keeps going back, keeps politely digging, trying to find something new and deeply felt beyond the stories that have long been memorized and memorialized.
She even asks the very question that I wanted to ask Lewis, but lacked the courage to do so, when I saw him on a book tour in 2000: “After facing all of the dangers you’ve faced, what can possibly still frighten you? What are you still afraid of?”
It turns out: Nothing. Here’s the exchange:
Oprah: You talk about losing your fear at that moment on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I want to know if you lost it forever and from that day forward you became a fearless warrior for civil rights? Or have there been times when the fear was there and you just used your bravery and courage to move forward? Did you lose your fear completely or were there days where you still felt it?
Lewis: I lost my fear.
Lewis: On that bridge, I thought I was going to die.
Oprah: Can you pause right there? I’ve heard you say that before. What does that feel like? When you think you’re going to die?
Lewis: Well, Oprah, I had what you call an executive session with myself. I said, “This is it. I’m going to die on this bridge.” And I thought others was going to die. And somehow, in some way, maybe history intervened or God almighty kept me. And I’m glad he kept me.
Oprah: But in that moment, when you’re thinking you’re going to die, are you also thinking, “But this was worth it”?
Lewis: Oh, I thought, along the way, if I have to do more than shed some blood, and I must die, this is worth dying for.
Lewis: [Here gets emotional.] My own mother, my own father, my uncles and aunts, my teachers, could not register to vote. So I had to do something. I had to bear witness to what I felt was the truth.
I’ve interviewed tons of people in my career and I’ve long known that you can ask the best question in the world and get bupkis, and then some offhand comment will bring up the most fascinating vein of material. I don’t know if Oprah’s small, sympathetic “Mm” elicited that emotion from Lewis, or if it was the follow-ups she was asking, or if he was going there anyway. But he got there. I think with her help.
The boy from Troy
My wife and I watched the doc the weekend after Lewis died from pancreatic cancer. It had been released a few weeks earlier, and in better times he might have been at its premiere, thin and hobbled, but these aren’t better times. So the doc was simply released online without much fanfare; and there it was the weekend after he died.
It could’ve been tighter. I think we get too much in 2018—maybe a little too much back-and-forth with his chief of staff, Michael Collins, as they josh about Michael not knowing that Texas grew cotton, or about all the kisses Lewis received from the ladies at the local church. Sometimes the joshing veers into uncomfortable territory, as if the two are a long-married couple getting on each other’s nerves. I guess that’s kind of fascinating but it still made me uncomfortable.
I like the scene of Lewis voting in the 2018 election at his local polling place: looking around, admiring the turnout. Made me think of all the other times he voted in midterms when there were no cameras following him and the turnout wasn’t so good. Did he ever wonder, “I got my skull fractured for this?” But that wouldn’t be him. And anyway 2018 was different, 49.3% turnout, the highest for a midterm since 1914. In that campaign, we see him stumping for Colin Allred, who wound up defeating Pete Sessions 52-46, and Lizzie Fletcher, who turned Texas’ 7th district blue for the first time since 1967. The House turned blue. The Congressional black caucus wound up with a record 55 members.
We also seem him campaigning for Stacey Abrams for Georgia governor, and Beto O’Rourke for the U.S. Senate. On election night we hear him say, “I’m so sorry about Stacey and this kid.” This kid. Love that. We get about 10-15 seconds of Beto here, and it’s so electrifying it makes you wonder what might’ve been. If he’d won the Texas seat, would he be the Democratic candidate for president now? Maybe. But he lost, narrowly, and every week or so Ted Cruz’s stupid head pops up on my Twitter feed to provoke or prevaricate while the world crumbles.
The Abrams loss was worse because it points to voter suppression—the very thing Lewis spent his life fighting. The doc gives us some of the sad post-Shelby County numbers:
- 27 states adopted voter ID laws
- millions purged from voter rolls
- more than a thousand polling stations closed
I know the weak GOP arguments for the first two, but is there any argument for closing polling stations? Making people stand in line for hours and hours to participate in a constitutional right? How does that help democracy?
Interspersed with all this is black-and-white footage from the march toward those voting rights the GOP is now curtailing. A lot of the footage I’ve never seen before. A lot of the footage John Lewis had never seen before. That’s what he says to the camera: “Dawn, I’ve seen footage I’ve never seen before.” Maybe I saw some of it back on the “Eyes on the Prize” days? Did they show Rev. James Lawson’s non-violent workshops in that doc? Or Lewis and his roommate Bernard Lafayette talking by a creek about how they were involved in the protests despite the concerns and fears of their parents? Or Lewis speaking at the March on Washington, and extolling the crowd, “Wake up, America, wake up!” while Bayard Rustin, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, hangs behind him?
Lewis didn’t have Martin Luther King’s voice—who did?—nor his words. What did he have? He was a slight kid with a childhood stutter and a thick Alabama accent who had the quiet courage of his convictions. That was it; that was his superpower. He was literally willing to die for the cause. He was also handsome. I always thought so anyway. A bit of nerd, too, standing there on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with his backpack on over his tan overcoat. The other day I saw photos of Lewis at a Comicon a few years ago, after the graphic novel, “The March” came out, and cosplaying as his younger, iconic self: tan overcoat, backpack. Beautiful.
What happened after SNCC sloughed him off for rabble-rouser Stokely Carmichael in 1966? We don’t get that story much. We do here. He went to Mississippi with Julian Bond to register people to vote. He was gaining weight and losing his hair by then. He worked in the Carter administration—although doing what we never find out—then became a city councilman in Atlanta. And in 1986 he ran for the U.S. House from Georgia’s 5th District. Against Julian Bond. I had no idea. I know a lot about Lewis but I had no idea about this. (I guess I don’t know a lot about Lewis.) And though Bond was tall and handsome, and better known, Lewis won in an upset. He brought up a Reagan-era issue, drug testing, and was willing to take one, and Bond wasn’t, and maybe that tipped the scales. It probably did with their friendship. Bond never ran for public office again, while Lewis kept representing the 5th every day until July 17, 2020.
Lewis has long been my hero—I’ve written about that to the point of boredom—so it was great finding out that he was everyone’s hero—or at least that part of the public that cares an iota about our history. We get shots of him walking through an airport in 2018 and everyone stopping him to shake hands, get pictures taken. We hear stories about being in a Ghanaian marketplace and shouts being heard: “John Lewis!” Or from an Egyptian cabdriver. The director asks … one of his brothers? ... or Congressional staff? I'm not sure. I apologize. But she asks what’s it like walking through an airport with Lewis. After a pause, he deadpans, “Tedious.”
Some of the celebration of Lewis here, his indispensability, comes across as ominous in the wake of his death. Listen to these quotes knowing he’s gone:
- Hillary Clinton: His voice and his example are probably needed now as much as they’ve ever been.
- Nancy Pelosi: He challenges the conscience of the Congress every day he is here.
- Stacey Abrams: You cannot replace a John Lewis.
One of his last acts in the House was introducing and urging passage of the new voting rights act, HR1, “For the People Act,” whose purpose is to “expand Americans' access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, and strengthen ethics rules for public servants.” The House passed it and sent it to the U.S. Senate in March 2019. It hasn’t left Mitch McConnell’s desk. A newscaster in the doc tells us “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the Senate will not vote on HR1,” and he’s been true to his word. It's as if racists don’t need armed state troopers anymore. They have Mitch McConnell.
The title comes from Lewis’ main stump speech: “My philosophy is very simple: When you see something that is not fair, not right, not just, say something, do something! Get in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble!” “Good Trouble” is like that. It's a good doc, a necessary doc. We should all watch it. Listen to his words and translate them to our era. What’s going on in this country post-Shelby County? Let’s say something and do something. At the least, let's do what John Lewis’ own mother and father, and his aunts and uncles, were prevented from doing most of their lives: vote.
Monday July 27, 2020
MLB Hits Covid Snag After 3 Games
This morning, when I heard that the Yankees-Phillies came was suspended because the Phils had been playing the Marlins and a Covid outbreak has been reported among players and coaches on the Marlins, I tweeted the following:
I blame Derek Jeter.
I was joking. Jeter is part owner and full-time corporate spokesman for the Marlins, not to mention my frequent bete noir, but I wasn't really blaming him. Half an hour later, he was trending because many fans were. So I deleted the tweet. You‘re welcome, Derek.
How much do I want to watch baseball these days? Yesterday, I watched the Diamondbacks vs. the Padres. That’s how much I want to watch baseball. (Tyler Kepner chronicles some of the joys of that first weekend here.) I was even beginning to think that maybe I was wrong and the short season might work out after all. Here's what I wrote earlier this month:
Sorry, I just can't see it working. What if a player contracts Covid during the season? How long must he be in quarantine? How long will his team be in quarantine and what will that do to the schedule? Do they forfeit games? Do they try to make them up? What if this happens during the World Series? And imagine if a player dies. The U.S. is currently averaging 50k confirmed cases a day. Just don't see it working. Hope I'm wrong.
The worst part of the report—and one of the reasons many were angry at Jeter—is that some players tested positive yesterday and played the game anyway. WTF? What protocols has MLB put in place? Is there no one in charge of this ride? Craig Calcaterra has a good short piece about the confusion on NBC Sports, “Derek Jeter's statement about the Marlins COVID-19 outbreak raises more questions,” and he begins it by quoting CEO Jeter:
The health of our players and staff has been and will continue to be our primary focus as we navigate through these uncharted waters.
Calcaterra then adds this graf, which is about the smartest graf I‘ve seen about corporate America in years:
The “____ is our top priority” form of corporate statement is always — always — deployed when the thing the business is claiming to be its top priority has been manifestly compromised. If a plane crashes, “safety is our top priority.” If employees are mistreated, “the well-being of our workers is our top priority.” If there’s a chemical or oil spill, “responsible environmental practices are our top priority.” It's become such a cliche that it's hard to take that bit of businesspeak even remotely seriously.
If you're on Twitter, follow Craig Calcaterra.
I still want to be wrong.
Monday July 27, 2020
Olivia de Havilland (1916-2020)
Just as Ginger Rogers gave Fred Astaire sex, David Thomson wrote, so Olivia de Havilland gave legendary lothario Errol Flynn onscreen stability. She tamed the bad boy. She basically made a husband out of him. Neat trick. In this way, she may be every woman's wish-fulfillment fantasy. To have that kind of power. No settling for the Ashley Wilkeses of the world. Or: You get your Rhett and Ashley in one.
She survived him by a longshot. I was thinking about this recently: They starred in movies together in the 1930s, he died in 1959, and she lived for another ... wait for it ... 61 years. She lived longer past his death than he lived his entire life. That should be an AA commercial. A warning.
It's been decades since I‘ve seen “Captain Blood,” and 10 year since “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” and a few years further for “Gone with the Wind,” which is the movie she’s probably best known for.* She lived long enough to see it go from the pinnacle of classic Hollywood to being so problematic that in the wake of the George Floyd killing HBO Max pulled it from its menu until they could offer it with historical context. Sure, why not? Should‘ve done that decades ago. The movie is still the biggest hit in Hollywood history if you adjust for inflation—and always will be. Adjusted, it’s at $1.89 billion. That's just domestic. Game over.
She was also the Curt Flood of Hollywood—but a successful Curt Flood. Again, from Thomson in his book on Warner Bros.:
Olivia de Havilland felt neglected at her own studio. On loan out to Paramount, she got a Best Actress nomination in Mitchell Leisen's Hold Back the Dawn, but she was not being offered demanding parts at Warners. So she was refusing scripts and being suspended. It was the Bette Davis story all over again, except that de Havilland took expert legal advice. Martin Gang looked at the statutes and told her that in the state of California it was illegal for any contract to extend beyond seven years, so that the studio practice of adding on suspension time was not legitimate. De Havilland went to court—if Jack Warner could find the time to attend—and she won. It was a decision that changed the contract system for all time, just as the confidence that had once reckoned on seven-year deals was coming to a close. De Havilland was not forgiven or renewed at Warners, and she had a period of two years out of work. Jack had been furious: he had brought this actress “from obscurity to prominence,” and $125,000 a picture! Bette Davis admitted that “Hollywood actors will for ever be in Olivia's debt.” Soon enough, she went over to Paramount and won the Oscar twice in four years for To Each His Own and The Heiress, with another nomination for The Snake Pit.
She just turned 104. She was born during the Great War, when cars and flight were new, and radio was still a sloppy version of the telephone. She lived to see talking pictures, a Great Depression, another world war, atomic power, man on the moon, etc.. She lived through the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. She was born two years before the last global pandemic and left us during this one. Imagine that life. The things she's seen we wouldn't believe.
(* OK, so not her best-known movies according to IMDb. Jesus, those algorithms have issues. “The Heiress”? The fuck? Do they weight Oscars that much? If so, where's “To Each His Own”?)
Sunday July 26, 2020
Lies, Damned Lies, and Trump
I'm not a big fan of Frank Bruni, but I like his column in today‘s Times, all about Trump’s re-election strategy:
...his strategy isn't really “law and order” or racism or a demonization of liberals as monument-phobic wackadoodles or a diminution of Joe Biden as a doddering wreck. All of those gambits are there, but they spring from and burble back to a larger, overarching scheme. His strategy is fiction. His strategy is lies.
Can he sell enough Americans on the make-believe that he really cares about the quality of life in cities and is dispatching federal officers as a constructive measure rather than a provocative one, in a flash of empathy versus a fit of vanity? He gave himself away a few days ago when he punctuated a mention of “the wonderful people of Chicago” with the needless notation that it's “a city I know very well.” Everything Trump says is self-referential, and everything he does is self-reverential.
This is pretty dead-on. Then Bruni goes over the recent lies:
- Joe Biden plans to abolish the police
- U.S. management of the Covid pandemic has made us “the envy of the world”
- The pollsters who predict he‘ll lose in November are incompetent liars
He goes over why Trump gets away with it: social media platforms, particularly Facebook; internet clusters reveling in a made-up world. Does he mention the weakness of the mainstream media? He should.
It’s a good column. It's a good reminder to just call out the lies. Bruni anticipates they'll get worse before November, and they will. Trump has gotten away with it all his life but I get the feeling the bill is coming due. Pass the popcorn.
Sunday July 26, 2020
John Saxon (1935-2020)
This morning, before the news, if you'd asked me what I remembered John Saxon in, I would‘ve said a sci-fi TV movie from the 1970s in which he winds up in the future or something, in a land ruled by women, and his top is torn off as he’s auctioned off at the marketplace. But after the news, and after I looked at his credits, I realized the first big impression he made on me was in a “Six Million Dolar Man” episode called “Day of the Robot,” where he plays Steve Austin's old army buddy who gets kidnapped and replaced by a bionic robot. At one point, mid-battle, his “face” gets knocked off, revealing the machinery beneath. I know. But he made an impression. He was not necessarily imposing but the character/robot seemed imposing: stolid and blank-faced and forever pushing forward. It was an early look at what the “Terminator” movies might be.
Turns out he was on almost everything I watched as a kid in the ‘70s: “Petrocellli,” “Kung Fu,” “Wonder Woman,” and in a different role in that two-part “Six Million Dollar Man”/“Bionic Woman” episode about Big Foot. I kept turning on the TV and there he was: slightly receding hairline, strong jaw, evil eyes. Did they ever cast him with Anthony Zerbe as brothers? They should have. Even now I get them mixed up. I was like, “Wasn’t Saxon on a ‘Star Trek’ episode?” As a Klingon? Except that's not even Zerbe. It's John Colicos. But all of them should‘ve been Klingons.
Saxon also played the awful, no-nonsense corporate CEO Hunt Sears in “The Electric Horseman,” and he had a small, consequential role in Bruce Lee’s big breakthrough, “Enter the Dragon,” but he's chiefly known, per IMDb and the honors pouring in this morning, for a movie series I never saw and don't have interest in seeing: the “Nightmae on Elm Street” movies. He went on to stuff I didn't care about: “Dynasty,” “Falcon Crest,” “Murder She Wrote.” Where did I last see him? “From Dusk Till Dawn” in ‘96? Maybe. But in truth, a few times a year, I saw him in my mind’s eye as a contemporary man in a future world run by women: “Planet of the Apes” but with women. Not sure why that stayed with me.
Turns out it's called “Planet Earth” and this is IMDb's description:
A man awakens from suspended animation and finds himself in the 22nd century, where he finds that women rule the world and that men are slaves called Dinks.
Dinks? That's a little on-the-nose, isn't it? I'm not sure if it felt anti-feminist to me then or just subsequently, but the odd thing is it's a project developed by the supposedly far-sighted Gene Roddenberry. He created it, wrote it, and gave it to longtime “Star Trek” director Marc Daniels (everything from “The Naked Time” to “Mirror, Mirror” to “Spock's Brain”) to direct. Plus the clothes look like if “Trek” had continued into the 1970s. I might have to revisit one day.
Thursday July 23, 2020
‘Known For’: Notorious REG
The filmed version of “Hamilton” (review up soon) made me buy a subscription to Disney+ and forced me to see this travesty when I searched out what each of the cast members have been up to. According to IMDb, this is what my Hamilton crush Renee Elise Goldsberry is “known for”:
Good god. Not sure who this indicts more: IMDb (for ranking them thus), Hollywood (for not getting this beautiful, talented woman better roles), or us (for supporting Steven Seagal more than Renee Elise Goldsberry).
Would it make sense for IMDb's algorithms to somehow include theater? Or at least Broadway? I know it's the Internet Movie Database, but it already includes not only TV and online videos. YouTube videos.
Speaking of: This is one of those #Ham4Ham things from 2016. The Notorious REG is third. She played Mimi in “Rent” in the 2000s sometime. It shows.
Some good news: Since this weekend, her “Hamilton” credit, for which she won a Tony as best featured actress in a musical, has moved past “Pistol Whipped,” a straight-to-video Seagal flick, where she is 13th-billed. Slow hand clap, IMDb.
Wednesday July 22, 2020
Quote of the Day
“You know who's at fault? Donald Trump. Because so many other nations have addressed [the Covid pandemic] properly. And this president, for the first six weeks, refused to acknowledge that this was even a serious thing. ... He has not done the things you need to do.”
Tuesday July 21, 2020
Movie Review: Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
One, two, three for Cagney: First Cinemascope, second-billed, third Oscar nom.
There’s a line near the end of this that made me laugh out loud. At the grand opening of a nightclub, “M.S.,” its proprietor and namesake, Marty Snyder (James Cagney), steps out of a car and is arguing with a friend when a young autograph hound spies him and shouts: “Hey, that’s the guy that shot the guy!”
That is so good. Is it based on anything? A famous Hollywood story? Or did it come from the imaginations of screenwriters Daniel Fuschs and Isobel Lennart? Or director Charles “not King” Vidor? I’m finding nothing online. Anyway, it was the best line in the movie.
A lot of firsts and lasts with this one. Released in June 1955, “Love Me or Leave Me” was Cagney’s first Cinemascope picture; it was the first time he was second-billed since the 1930s (apparently at his insistence), and it garnered him his third and final Oscar nomination for lead actor. (He lost to another Marty: Ernest Borgnine.) It was a huge hit—the eighth-biggest of the year—while its soundtrack was the No. 1 album in the country for six months: from early August to late January 1956. (It was replaced by “Oklahoma!,” which was replaced by “Belafonte,” which was replaced by … wait for it … “Elvis Presley.” And now you know the rest of the story.)
“Love Me or Leave Me” was also the second-to-last time Cagney played a gangster, and he may never have been scarier. Imagine Cody Jarrett hopelessly in love. The movie is based on a true, tempestuous love story that Hays-Code Hollywood probably couldn’t tell properly, so, in between socko Doris Day numbers, they made it about an abusive relationship. It doesn’t mesh. It’s kind of exhausting, actually.
Mean to me
Background: Singer Ruth Etting said she married gangster Moe “The Gimp” Snyder “9/10 out of fear and 1/10 out of pity.” She feared that if she left him, he would kill her.
Cagney’s Marty has elements of the real Moe, but Ruth has been cleaned up. From IMDb:
Ruth Etting was a kept woman who clawed her way up from seamy Chicago nightclubs to the Ziegfeld Follies. It would require her to drink, wear scant, sexy costumes and to string along a man she didn't love in order to further her career. There was also a certain vulgarity about Etting that she didn't want to play. Producer Joe Pasternak convinced Day to accept the role because she would give the part some dignity that would play away from the vulgarity.
Except Ruth’s lack of vulgarity makes the abuse seem worse. Day’s dignified Ruth is a declawed cat being messed with by a junkyard dog. One yearns to see the claws come out.
In 1920s Chicago, Etting is a dime-a-dance girl who doesn’t like men who paw at her, which is all of them, so she’s fired. Snyder, shaking down the proprietor, takes a shine and uses his connections to get her singing gigs, expecting some quid for his quo, but she keeps putting him off. Until he’s tired of being put off. But even then nothing comes of it. In her dressing room, he says he’s stuck on her, she says she’s not on him, not yet anyway (that’s the lie), and the higher she rises the more jealous he becomes: of potential rival agents and potential rival lovers—like that piano player Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell), with cheekbones like diamonds.
Up the ladder she goes: from singing, to headlining, to radio, all the way to New York City and the Ziegfeld Follies. For the real Etting, that was 1927 and she’d been married to Snyder for five years; here, they haven’t even kissed. Opening night at Ziegfeld, Marty rushes backstage during the middle of her performance, has his way blocked, decks a tall guy (as Cagney is contractually obligated to do), and is hustled out, huffing and puffing, between two other guys. Back at her hotel room, we find out he’s particularly mad at her for not sticking up for him. “You walked away!” he shouts. He talks about the debt she owes him but she says there’s no way she can pay it off. “Ain’t there?” he cries, then throws her down on an ottoman and kisses her. She stumbles away, in tears.
This was supposed to be a rape scene, believe it or not. According to IMDb, “As originally filmed, Cagney slammed her against a wall, savagely tore off her dress, and after a tempestuous struggle, he threw her onto a bed and raped her.” Can’t quite see that happening in a 1955 movie, but its removal means after one kiss she’s suddenly undone—lifeless. She marries Marty, quits Ziegfeld, tours with Marty. He tells her he’ll take care of her, and, dead-eyed and dead-voiced, she responds: “You don’t have to sell me. I’m sold.” Great, sad line.
Eventually he lands her a gig in Hollywood. Guess who’s there? Johnny Alderman of the cheekbones. He’s musical director for the movie she’s working on, Marty doesn’t like it a bit, and for some reason she chooses this moment to fight back.
Snyder: That’s the way with those phonies: You gotta let ’em know who ya are.
Etting: Who are you, Marty?
Snyder: What do you mean?
Etting: What have you accomplished? Can you produce a picture? Have you done one successful thing on your own? Just who do you think you are?
Ouch. In front of her he makes a joke but behind the scenes he’s seething. His good-natured right-hand man, Georgie (Harry Bellaver), tries to make him feel better by saying he was a big man in Chicago but here they think Ruth’s his meal ticket. Doesn’t go well. Marty decks him. Then he gets an idea. He’ll open his own nightclub! That’ll make him a big man. Everyone else thinks it’s a lousy idea but now he’s too busy to hover around Ruth, so her romance with Johnny blossoms.
That sets up the rest. He tries to get Johnny fired from the movie, she objects, he slaps her, she leaves him for good. He assumes the worst: cheekbone dude. And he finds them in a doorway clinch. So he shoots him.
Shaking the blues away
One assumes some kind of comeuppance for all of Marty’s crimes but it doesn’t quite arrive. Because it’s based on a true story and MGM wanted everyone to sign on? Because Cagney’s fans needed to be placated? Marty is a monster, truly—by the end we’re as twitchy around him as Ruth—but after he’s bailed out on attempted murder charges he discovers that Ruth is actually headlining the opening of his nightclub. All his friends arranged it! And Ruth agreed to it! (She feels she still owes him.) All of which just pisses him off—it’s the meal-ticket thing—but eventually he calms down. And leaning against the bar at his brand-new nightclub, he takes it all in, while the girl he abused belts out the closing number for him.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Again, Day is fine if miscast; and while she’s got great pipes, the musical numbers have that hammy, Eisenhower-era cheerfulness at odds with everything else going on. Mainstream 1950s movies—selling Technicolor and Cinemascope and uplift—really were the worst.
Cagney, though, is great. I don’t know if he got the Oscar nom for the limp—you know how Academy voters are—but in those early confrontations there’s such a look of betrayal and contempt and anger in his eyes. He’s never not in this guy’s fucked-up worldview. It’s as if he got the limp from the massive chip on his shoulder.
This is third time Cagney played a ’20s gangster—“The Public Enemy” in 1931 and “Roaring Twenties” in 1939—and we get other echoes from Cagney pictures, too. Setting up his club, isn’t it a bit like Bat setting up his bar in “Frisco Kid”? Marty doesn’t speak Yiddish but he does get off a “Mazel tov” before Ruth headlines her first show. And I don’t know if this was intentional or not—if the phrase was already in the cinematic lexicon—but before her first show, Ruth asks the piano player, Johnny of the cheekbones, how she looks. His reply? “Top of the world.”
Monday July 20, 2020
‘Let’s Stop This Nonsense'
The Atlantic: Can you update us on your relationship with the president?
Fauci: Well, the scene has changed a bit. When we were having frequent press briefings, I had the opportunity to have a personal one-on-one to talk to the president. I haven't done that in a while. But a day does not go by that I am not in contact with Debbie Birx, with Bob Redfield, or Steve Hahn and others. My input to the president goes through the vice president. But clearly, the vice president—literally every day—is listening to what we have to say, there's no doubt about that.
The Atlantic: Do you know why it is that you don't talk to President Trump more often?
Fauci: No, I don‘t.
The Atlantic: Everyone who knows you has talked about the fact that you are indefatigably honest; that is your reputation, someone who always tells the truth. Can you tell us the truth about the federal response to the pandemic?
Fauci: When you look at the numbers, obviously, we’ve got to do better. We‘ve got to almost reset this and say, “Okay, let’s stop this nonsense.” We‘ve got to figure out, How can we get our control over this now, and, looking forward, how can we make sure that next month, we don’t have another example of California, Texas, Florida, and Arizona? So rather than these games people are playing, let's focus on that.
from Fauci: ‘Bizarre’ White House Behavior Only Hurts the President, on the Atlantic site
BTW: We all know who the problem is. Let's stop that nonsense, too. If you judge us against other European countries, Trump's ineptitude is currently responsible for more than 3 million people being infected in the U.S., with north of 100,000 American deaths. Meaning Donald Trump has killed twice as many Americans as were killed in the Vietnam War.
Monday July 20, 2020
‘John Lewis is an American Hero Whose Life Work I Undermine Every Day’
John Lewis with fellow Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg in 1961
Good Slate piece by Joel Anderson about conservatives calling John Lewis a hero on social media while spending most of their careers opposing his life's work—and continuing to do so.
- Rep. Kevin McCarthy: “When Lewis was co-sponsor of a bill to renew portions of the Voting Rights Act in December, McCarthy and all but one of his Republican members voted against it. As recently as April, McCarthy blasted voting by mail as dangerous for the country and said the system involves 'a lot of fraud' while offering no evidence for the claim.”
- The Cato Insitute, which argued in favor of striking down the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, had the nerve to call Lewis a “Libertarian Hero.” Assholes.
- Gov. Brian Kemp cheated to win the governorship from Stacey Abrams in 2018 by purging black people from the voting rolls but still proclaimed Lewis as “a Civil Rights hero, freedom fighter, devoted public servant, and beloved Georgian who changed our world in a profound way.” Right. Which Kemp and his cronies are trying to change back. Just without the dogs and hoses and hoods.
- Sen. Mitch McConnell: “In many ways, McConnell's betrayal was what kept Lewis working in his final years. ‘In December 2019, Lewis presided over the House as it passed legislation to restore and modernize the Voting Rights Act, requiring states with a long history of voting discrimination to once again get federal approval for any changes to voting procedures,’ [Mother Jones' Ari] Berman writes. ‘In a primary season marred by voting problems, like six-hour lines in Lewis’ home state of Georgia, it's been sitting on Mitch McConnell's desk for 225 days.'”
Mitch: You're a villain in our history. Now and forever.
Sunday July 19, 2020
Quote of the Year
“[John] Lewis was too good a man to be praised by Mitch McConnell.”
Jelani Cobb, “The Essential and Enduring Strength of John Lewis,” The New Yorker
Sunday July 19, 2020
Would-Be Religious Conservative Mogul Denies that Religious Conservative Movies Already Exist
Recently on Fox News and its website, we apparently needed to know the following information:
And it's about time! Stupid liberal Hollywood. There's just no place for religious conservative filmmakers to tell their stories.
Except, of course, for Pure Flix Entertainment, which has produced and/or distrubted 88 such movies this century, including “God's Not Dead” (2014, $61m), “God's Not Dead 2” (2016, $21m), “Unplanned” (2019, $19m), “The Case for Christ” (2017, $15m), “Hillary's America” (2016, $13m), and “God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness” (2018, $5.7 m).
Then there's Affirm Films, a subsidiary of Sony Pictures. It distributed three religious films in the past three years: “All Saints,” “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” and “Overcomer.” The last is about a high-school coach who trains a troubled teen in long-distance running. It grossed $34 million in August 2019.
Other studios have also gotten in on the religious conservative action. This year, Lionsgate distributed “I Still Believe,” about Christian music star Jeremy Camp, which had the bad luck to open as the Covid pandemic was starting but still managed to gross $9 million opening weekend. Last year, IFC Films distributed “Mary Magdalene” ($124k) and 20th Century Fox distributed “Breakthrough,” which was that “my son broke through the ice, please pray for him” movie that featured, among others, Topher Grace, Dennis Haysbert and Josh Lucas. It took in a cool $40 million.
There's also just the plain religious stories, sans “conservative,” that Hollywood has told in recent years: “Noah,” “Silence,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” “The Nativity Story.” Hell, Tyler Perry's entire hugely successful career is based on telling Christian tales in modern settings. (Caveat: it's black people.)
And if none of that works for you, well, you can still check out mainstream Hollywood fare, in which, often, 1) two attractive white heterosexuals meet and fall in love, or 2) some American dude saves the world—generally with his NRA-approve firearm.
A few follow-ups we didn't get from host Maria Bartiromo. Does Sabato, Jr.'s promise about making movies by “religious conservatives” includes other religions besides Christianity? And do the people at Pure Flix Entertainment view Sabato Jr. as a potential partner, a rival, or just some doofus trying to steal their glory?
As for the idiot idea that religious conservatives are “blacklisted” in Hollywood? Just refer him to Clint, Arnold, and any number of right-wing stars doing regular work in Hollywood. If you can make money for someone in Hollywood, they‘ll hire you. If you’re a professional with a known face and schtick who won't waste anyone's time on set, they‘ll hire you. And if you’re neither of these things, then you're just like every other schmuck clawing for a piece of it. Welcome to the party, pal.
Saturday July 18, 2020
John Lewis (1940-2020)
Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the march.
The Proust Questionnaire is a series of questions French author Marcel Proust dreamed up which are designed to make you think deeply about yourself and your place in the world. Vanity Fair uses it every month to ask a different famous person for their own answers and publishes them on its back page. In 2009, I decided to do my own. One question, it turned out, was pretty easy to answer:
Which living person do you most admire?
After a seven-month battle with stage IV pancreatic cancer, and a lifetime of struggle against racism, oppression and injustice, John Lewis died yesterday. He was 80.
I got to meet him once. In February 2000, University Book Store, where I’d worked two years before, held an event at the University of Washington campus for Lewis and his book, “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement.” The event’s organizer, Kim Ricketts, was a friend, and she made sure I not only got in but backstage for a post-speech event.
Two main memories. One, I didn’t ask Lewis the question I wanted to ask. Others stepped up to the microphone to ask their questions but I kept editing mine in my head and never stood up. The question was basically “After facing all of the dangers you’ve faced—from the Nashville sit-ins to the Freedom Rides to Selma—what can possibly still frighten you? What are you still afraid of?” Yes, it’s part compliment, part legitimate query, which is partly why I hesitated; but I’m still curious what his answer would’ve been. I’ll never know.
Two, I did get to meet him at the event afterwards. He asked me about me. At the time I was an STE, or software test engineer, at Microsoft. That’s the grand way of putting it. The more straightforward way is: I tested Xbox games for a living. But he was curious, and complimentary, and told me I was doing good work. I think I cringed inside at his compliment. I knew it wasn’t good work. Or: I knew it wasn’t worthy work. It was getting-by work. Maybe he knew that getting-by work was most work for most people. Maybe he was being kind. Maybe he knew a well-placed compliment was a better spur than a finger-wagging judgment.
I probably first became aware of him after watching the PBS documentary “Eyes on the Prize” but he became my hero when I read “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” the first of Taylor Branch’s three-part epic, in the late 1980s. There are a lot of lesser-known movement heroes but I identified with him. He seemed calm to me. I like calm. And I just couldn’t believe how often he was at the forefront. Again and again, it was his body that went into the breach. He offered it up time and again in the Gandhian fashion to Southern racists, who rarely turned him down.
This is from page 261 of “Parting the Waters”: the first time Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and movement attorney Fred Gray met Lewis, 18, who wanted to sue for the right to attend Troy State College in his home country of Troy, Alabama:
King encountered a young man somewhat like himself in appearance—small, sturdy, dark-skinned, with a round face built for warmth more than looks—but completely lacking in refinement. Lewis spoke with a stammer, and could barely complete a full sentence even when the stammer gave him peace. He said he had “come up” so far back in the country that he could not remember even seeing a white person in his youth. This made him decidedly not the type the NAACP lawyers had ben choosing for integration test cases, because he appeared to be a Negro whom no amount of education could polish. Yet there was an incandescence in Lewis that shone through all his shortcomings. He said he was ready to die to go to Troy State but that he could probably avoid such a fate if he followed nonviolent principles. …
Lewis was proud of the fact that he had discovered King before the bus boycott made him famous. By chance, he had listened in 1955 to a radio sermon entitled “Paul’s Letter to the American Christians,” in which King assumed the style and theology of St. Paul to criticize Christians for selfishness and failures of brotherhood. Lewis still remembered being heartshaken in front of the radio. Within the space of an hour, his dreams of becoming a preacher had focused upon a new idol.
He was an odd child. He found God at age 8 and felt that chickens more than other farm animals were worthy of salvation. Maybe because they were the most vulnerable? The most helpless? He preached to the chickens and baptized young chicks. If a chicken was killed for dinner, Branch writes, “Lewis cried hysterically and boycotted meals.”
He wound up at Nashville rather than Troy, participating in non-violent workshops and then the sit-ins that took the movement to its second phase: not merely avoidance (of discriminatory buses), but direct non-violent confrontation (at Woolworth’s lunch counters). The sit-ins began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in February 1960, quickly spread across the country, and Nashville became a focal point. Then Freedom Rides, SNCC, March, Selma. He went from young firebrand (at the March) to ousted SNCC leader by the next and less worthy generation of firebrand (Stokely).
Lewis and Jim Zwerg during the Freedom Rides, 1961.
I forget when I found out Lewis was still alive but it amazed me on some level. He kept putting his body on the line, and he was part of such important history, that I always thought of him in the past tense. And he survived it all? And was now representing Georgia’s 5th District in the U.S. House of Representatives? And fighting the good fight every day? “Good trouble,” he called it. He created the circumstances that allowed his career.
I got angry at John McCain’s attempt to use him during the 2008 debates. I teared up reading David Remnick’s story about Jan. 20, 2009: “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.” The bad guys are still at work, of course. They’re still trying to undo it all. The last time I posted about him was just before the 2016 election: “Friends of mine gave their lives [for the right to vote],” he wrote on social media. “Honor their sacrifice. Vote.” It included a photo of a young, beaten John Lewis being carried to a police wagon. “The above is still happening,” I added, “just in more muted form. I think some of Trump's supporters would like to unmute it. Don't let them.” Not enough people listened.
I wish he’d outlived Trump’s presidency but I’m glad he got to see the country and the world rise up in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. “It was so painful, it made me cry,” he said of Floyd’s death. “People now understand what the struggle was all about. It’s another step down a very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.”
I recommend “Eyes” and “Parting the Waters” and “Walking with the Wind.” I recommend “Reporting Civil Rights,” Library of America's two-volume collection of eyewitness journalistic accounts on the civil rights struggle from 1941 to 1973, which was published on the 40th anniversary of the March. I recommend “Selma.” I have yet to see “Good Trouble,” the documentary on Lewis that premiered this month. That’s next. I recommend Charles Pierce’s beautiful eulogy:
He was the bravest man I ever met. Heroes in war, most of them, know that the country will embrace them when they come home. They have that to sustain them in the worst circumstances. They already know they have a country worth fighting for. When John Lewis was riding buses, and using forbidden washrooms, and walking across the bridge, he didn’t have that on which to rely. In that violent, freighted time, he was a man without a country. His courage came from a different place. It came not from being a man without a country, but from being a man demanding a country, and he wanted this one. … John Lewis had the most American soul I ever saw.
I was surprised how much it hurt, hearing of his death last night, and it made me want to do something. Someone on Twitter mentioned that there were pedestals in need of statues. Indeed. Someone else suggested a renaming of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Yes. Yet others reminded us that in December the U.S. House, led by Lewis, voted to restore the Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court had gutted in Shelby County v. Holder, and that the bill is currently languishing in the U.S. Senate, so now’s the time to pass it. I’m down for all three. But I have little faith in the third happening with Republicans in control of the Senate. Which brings us back to John Lewis’ life work. Honor him on Nov. 3. Make good trouble. Vote.
Friday July 17, 2020
He Says Goodbye, And He Says Hello
“What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I'm a luxury item they don't want to afford. And that's entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space. Actually attacking, and even mocking, critical theory's ideas and methods, as I have done continually in this space, is therefore out of sync with the values of Vox Media. That, to the best of my understanding, is why I'm out of here. ...
”And maybe it's worth pointing out that ‘conservative’ in my case means that I have passionately opposed Donald J. Trump and pioneered marriage equality, that I support legalized drugs, criminal-justice reform, more redistribution of wealth, aggressive action against climate change, police reform, a realist foreign policy, and laws to protect transgender people from discrimination. I was one of the first journalists in established media to come out. I was a major and early supporter of Barack Obama. I intend to vote for Biden in November.
“It seems to me that if this conservatism is so foul that many of my peers are embarrassed to be working at the same magazine, then I have no idea what version of conservatism could ever be tolerated.”
Andrew Sullivan, in his final New York magazine column, “See Ya Next Friday: A Farewell Letter,” in which he also announces that he's restarting his blog, The Dish, but on a weekly basis rather than daily. (The daily one nearly killed him.) I‘ve already subscribed. And I doubt I’ll renew my online subscription to New York magazine, if the story he tells above is in fact the story; if that's who and what they've become.
Thursday July 16, 2020
“Donald Trump bears very little in common with any actual woman I know. But, oddly, he has a lot in common with the basest, most unfair stereotypes of femininity. He is ruled by feelings rather than facts. He is fickle, gossipy and easily grossed out. He uses florid language, like ‘beautiful’ and ‘perfect,’ and says he and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un ‘fell in love.’ He deals with adversity like a Mean Girl with a burn book, via insults and freeze-outs. For any Neanderthal who has ever feared electing a female president because what if she's too cranky when she's on her period — congratulations. For approximately 1,300 days, you have had a menstruating man in the Oval Office.”
Monica Hesse, “The weird masculinity of Donald Trump,” Washington Post
Wednesday July 15, 2020
Movie Review: Three on a Match (1932)
Blonell and Dvorak switch places. Bette Davis the blonde, boring one.
Our title three are Mary, Vivian and Ruth (Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis), who know each other in grade school and meet up again 10 years later. Of the three, Bette Davis is the boring one, believe it or not, the “…and Peggy” of the group. She’s got no bit. She’s the smart one who becomes a typist and then a nanny. I guess such were the options for smart girls in the 1920s and ’30s. Or for Warners bit players, which Davis was at the time.
The other two switch places. That’s the movie's real story.
Dempsey, Vallee, Lindsey
We first see them as kids at Public School No. 62, where Mary smokes with the boys (including Frankie Darro, uncredited) and doesn’t care about showing her bloomers on the monkey bars. Vivian is the popular one—although one wonders why since she seems kind of snooty. Either way, their futures appear pre-written. And indeed: Mary (now Blondell) winds up in reform school and becomes a show girl; Ruth (now Bette) winds up at business/typing school and becomes a secretary; and Vivian (Dvorak) goes to prep school—where she reads racy books to the other girls—then marries a rich, prominent lawyer, Robert Kirkwood (Warren William), and has an too-cutesy three-year old, Junior, played by Buster Phelps, who’s a bit like a boy version of Shirley Temple.
Anyway, they meet up again in 1930 and have lunch together. At one point, they light their cigarettes from the same match. “Three on a match,” one of them says.
Know the saying? I didn’t. Apparently if three smokers share the same match, one of them dies. That was the superstition. It may have started during wartime—Boer, WWI—since if the light from the match burned long enough it made the men a target. Another version has it that the slogan was popularized in the 1920s by Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish “match king”—yes, they had those back then—who wanted people to use more matches. War or greed: either could be correct.
Interestingly, Warren William’s next movie was “The Match King,” a fictionalized version of Kreuger—I guess matches were a bigger thing then—while both “three on a match” theories are mentioned here via newspaper headlines. Normally they‘re used to set the scene/era. So in 1919, along with “Public Enemy” footage of people hoarding booze, we get these headlines:
- DRY LAW IN EFFECT TOMORROW
- WOMAN SUFFRAGE PASSES CONGRESS!
- DEMPSEY KNOCKED OUT WILLARD
There’s also an article about fashion trends, and how the “proper dress length next fall will be six inches from the ground.” It was tongue-in-cheek scandalous. “Not since the days of the Bourbons,” etc. It was 1932 making fun of 1919.
As for 1921? Babe Ruth maybe? Douglas Fairbanks? Nope. Instead we get:
- The music sheet for Eddie Cantor’s “The Sheik of Araby” (which the Beatles did 40 years later)
- PRESIDENT HARDING LAUNCHES NEW “ERA OF GOOD FEELING” (sure)
- AMAZING FEAT OF NEW “WIRELESS TELEPHONE” (i.e., radio)
- The music sheet for “The Prisoner’s Song”
- SHENANDOAH WRECKED! MANY LIVES LOST
- “RED” GRANGE FOR CONGRESS
- YOUNGER GENERATION RUNS WILD, SAYS JUDGE BEN LINDSEY
I love the stuff that meant something then but less so now. I guess the U.S.S. Shenandoah dirigible crash was eventually usurped by the Hindenburg? Meanwhile, Ben Lindsey was indeed a judge—and a social reformer—but lost to us through the years.
Then we’re up to 1930—only two years removed from when the movie was made and released—so less aware of what might be historically significant. What do they give us?
- The music sheet for “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” by Rudy Vallee
- WALL STREET LEADERS SEE BUSINESS UPTURN: Stock Slump Only Temporary…
Never heard of the Vallee song. The other is 1932 thumbing its nose at 1930—or at least its pundits. We still haven’t learned that lesson.
Again, this is when our girls meet up. Both Mary and Peggy/Ruth are scraping to get by, Viv has it made but she’s not happy. She’s bored. With husband and maybe child? But the husband is understanding. He suggests a trip to Europe, which she thinks won’t work. Then he suggests a trip to Europe without him. She’s more interested in that. Yikes. She even takes along her annoying son. But she never gets out of port.
Before the ship sets sail, she meets a friend of Mary’s, Michael Loftus (Lyle Talbot), and the two drink each other in; they can’t get enough of each other. And so she and son slip off and spend time with him in a high-priced hotel. She spends most of it drinking, but it soon becomes apparent she’s snorting cocaine, too. Yes, cocaine. Pre-code. By and by, she loses her son (Mary brings him back to the father), her husband divorces her (and quickly marries Mary), and she becomes destitute. Like that. She and Mary change places.
Wait, it gets worse.
Good-for-nothing Michael owes $2k to gangsters. The big man is Ace, played by Edward Arnold, whose henchmen include Allen Jenkins (forever a secondary gangster), an uncredited Jake La Rue (whose got a Bobby Cannavale thing about him), and, in his first gangster role, and only ninth feature, a young Humphrey Bogart. He’s one of the best things in the movie. There’s a stillness to him that feels threatening. There’s a leanness to him that’s like a razor blade.
Since Michael can’t pay them off, he decides to kidnap Junior for ransom. Then the mob wants in on the action: Not the $2k he’s demanding but $25k. Soon it becomes like a Lindbergh baby thing, with headlines around the country and everyone in the city after them and closing in. Things get so hot the others decide to just kill Junior and scram. Vivian overhears, hides her son, writes a message on her nightgown in lipstick, and when the bad guys enter the room she screams and jumps out the fourth-story window. It’s the great sacrifice after the great indulgence.
The boy survives, unlike Lindbergh’s baby, and everyone lives happily ever after except for Viv. She’s the third on the match. Let this be a lesson, moviegoers. Stay away from booze, coke and Lyle Talbot.
‘World War Foreseen’
Yeah, it’s not a great movie. The history of it is more interesting.
- As mentioned, it’s the first gangster role for Humphrey Bogart.
- Sidney Miller has a small role as the humorous Jewish kid at P.S. 62. He’s good. It’s basically the same role he played in “The Mayor of Hell” from ’33. I wrote more about him there.
- Talbot, who’s quite handsome here, became the first screen version of Lex Luthor in 1950s’s “Atom Man vs. Superman.” He’s one of those guys that never stopped working. According to IMDb, this is his 11th credit and he would wind up with 330 of them—the last being a bit part in the satiric, funny “Amazon Women on the Moon” in 1987. He died in 1996, age 94.
- Of the titular three, it’s the “…and Peggy” of the group, Bette Davis, who became the star. Maybe because she wanted it most? In her biography, Joan Blondell wonders aloud whether she should’ve fought for better roles like Bette did rather than acquiescing to the Warners; she decides it just wasn’t in her nature.
- The story came from John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, the guys behind “The Public Enemy,” and it shares a bit of a “Public Enemy” vibe: from seeing our leads as kids to giving us the year yardmarkers throughout. Unlike “PE,” though, the past is not prologue.
Then there’s all those historical and cultural indicators mentioned above. This is the last group we get—from 1931:
- Music sheet for Fanny Brice’s “I Found a Million Dollar Baby (In a Five-and-Ten-Cent Store)” (they loved their music sheets)
- WALL STREET LEADERS SEE BUSINESS UPTURN
- “SUN SUITS” RULES BEACHES (as juxtaposition with 1919 fashions)
But this is the headline that intrigued me:
“Row” is a bit undercutting it; but very, very prescient.
Tuesday July 14, 2020
Kelly Preston (1962-2020)
There's a scene in the 1997 movie “Addicted to Love” that I‘ll always remember.
Matthew Broderick and Meg Ryan play a pair of jilted lovers who hide out in the rundown building opposite where their former lovers have set up shop. He simply pines for his ex, played by Kelly Preston, while she wants revenge on hers (Tcheky Karyo). And I guess they do get revenge on him. They make his life miserable or something? Because he’s a snooty French restauranteur? Anyway, initially, they simply spy on the couple. She bugs the place and he sets up a camera obscura so the image from their exes' apartment is projected onto their wall. At one point, to make the image clearer, Matthew paints the wall white. Basically it looks like he's magically painting Kelly Preston onto the wall. It's a lovely scene. (You can see it here at about 3:40.)
And how lovely that Kelly Preston got to play the object of our love for once. Normally, she played the object of our lust. She shot to fame as the sexy girl—with a bit of a mean streak—who would improbably let us get to first or second base with her. Or even home? She played the point of the movie, the girl of our dreams, who would turn out to be maybe not worthy of our dreams. And by our and us I mean schleppy guys: the Doug McKeons and Matt Adlers of the world. What a scam. It was almost a relief when she was partnered with Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Twins.” Good. Quit kidding us we had a chance.
As in real life. She and George Clooney were an item. Her engagement to Charlie Sheen was short and marred by violence. Her marriage to John Travolta was long and marred by Scientology. Also tragedy: Her oldest child, Jett, was born with “Kawasaki's Syndrome,” resulting in severe allergies and asthma attacks; he died at age 16 of a seizure. Apparently she did a lot of work for CHEC, the Children's Health Environmental Coalition, a nonprofit focused on educating parents about environmental toxins adversely affecting the health of children.
I kept waiting for her to break bigger but she kept getting cast as the other girl, the one the lead needed to break free from—whether bitchy in “Jerry Maguire” or sweet in “Addicted to Love.” In my MSNBC days, about 2005, I was asked to put together a click-bait list of the top 10 sexiest actresses. She was the first one I thought of; I placed her fourth. But by then Hollywood was already casting her as the mom: “Cat in the Hat”; “Sky High.” When did I last see her? “Casino Jack” maybe? From 2010?
She died Sunday after a two-year battle with breast cancer. Same age as me: 57. Too soon. Too soon.
Monday July 13, 2020
Movie Review: Palm Springs (2020)
Could infinite time loops be their own genre? The form would be more constrained than most, of course, but maybe that would spur imaginations. It could be the villanelle of movie genres, with Harold Ramis as its Dylan Thomas.
They certainly feel appropriate to the Covid era. Who doesn't feel trapped these days? Who doesn't wake up and think: Oh right. This again. Fuuuck.
Unlike “Groundhog Day,” which begins with the first day Bill Murray gets stuck in the time loop, “Palm Springs” gives us Nyles (Andy Samberg) already stuck in it for who knows how long.
We don’t know that initially. We see him and his girlfriend, the vapid Misty (Meredith Hagner, fantastic), staying at a motel on the day of the wedding of their friends, Tala and Abe (Camila Mendes, Veronica of “Riverdale” and Tyler Hoechlin, Superman of the DC TV universe). He has sad morning sex with Misty, swims and drinks beer in the motel pool, shows up (in Hawaiian shirt and swimsuit) late to the wedding reception, where he rescues the bride’s sister, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), from having to give a speech by giving his own: a semi-profound talk about how we’re all born lost, and love and marriage is when we’re found. He’s glib, like an “Animal House” fratboy, but surprisingly meaningful, like an old soul. Like someone who’s lived countless lifetimes.
Saving Sarah from fumbling her speech is part of a plot to sleep with Sarah. It almost works. At first she’s like “What about your girlfriend, dude?” and we cut to the two of them crouched outside a motel room where another wedding guest is going down on Misty. Then it’s Nyles and Sarah in the desert, making out; then out of nowhere Nyles is shot by an arrow from a paramilitary dude named Roy (J.K. Simmons). Chased, Nyles crawls into a cave that pulses red like a beating heart. Sarah follows him in to see if he's OK. He yells at her to leave. She doesn’t.
Then it’s the next day. Or the same day. “Palm Springs” doesn’t begin with his first time-loop day but hers. The cave—which opens up during an afternoon earthquake—is where it happens.
It’s an interesting wrinkle to the formula: What happens when you have someone to share that same day with? Who won’t re-set like the rest of the world? How much better does it make it?
Not necessarily better. Turns out Roy is another wedding guest with whom Nyles once got high in the desert; and when Roy said he’d love to live out there forever, a stoned Nyles introduced him to the cave. He wasn’t happy. Every so often, he chases down and tortures Nyles.
Sarah isn't happy, either. She wants out, and immediately latches on to the “Groundhog Day” lesson: It’s karma, and to break free they need to be better people, and she needs to do a selfless act. Doesn’t work. She tries to kill herself. Ditto. Eventually she calms down and the two act like high school kids playing hooky. They goof around, waste time, prank the other guests. They go to a shooting range, steal a plane and crash it, go to a dive bar and synchronize dance. They begin to enjoy themselves. They wake up with smiles on their faces. Every day doesn’t matter but they have each other.
But then the reveals. He admits that during his solo infinite loop, they had sex maybe a thousand times. She reveals—or he finds out—that the bed she wakes up in every morning is not hers but the groom’s, her sister's betrothed, and she’s wracked with guilt. Eventually, she simply disappears every morning, leaving Nyles bereft. But she's going to the local diner to study quantum physics. To get the fuck out of Dodge. Thankfully, she's a quick study. She realizes that if they blow themselves up in the cave at the exact right moment…
I’ll cut to the chase: It works.
The movie was made for Hulu by writer Andy Siara (“Lodge 49,” shorts) and director Max Barbakow (shorts), and it's not bad. I laughed throughout. I think I laughed the hardest at that chaotic scene when the beautiful Tala falls on her face and breaks her two front teeth before the wedding. Sandberg’s got the Know-It-All’s smirk down; Milioti is smarter but not as funny. Hagner as Misty is a stand-out. Simmons is becoming our weathered wise man: Sam Elliott with anger issues.
Time-loop movies always make me wonder what I’d do in that situation. I think, initially, I'd assume I was in purgatory and paying for my moral failings. But since every day was without consequences, there would be that urge to have more moral failings. I might also do all the stuff I don’t have time to do now: become fluent in Chinese and French; research the books I want to write. Maybe I’d finally read “Ulysses” or “Remembrance" or the Bible. Would I travel? Get half- or quarter-days in Paris or Shanghai or Kauai? Eventually, I assume, I would go mad. Or does that just mean you wake up sane again?
Here, since you could bring others into the time loop with you, I was wondering if they would inundate the cave with guests—flood the zone, as it were—and hope they broke free. Or: rather than study quantum physics—good luck with that—how about bringing a quantum physicist through the cave with you? So you’d have him on your side. What would the world be like if you had a thousand or a million people restarting on the same day but retaining their memories? When would it begin to feel like you were eternal? When would it feel less like hell and more like heaven?
For all the laughs, the ending of “Palm Springs” disappointed me. He was in the loop for, what, 10 years? Twenty? So what would you do the glorious day you finally broke free? Guess what they do? The same shit they were doing in the loop: lounging in a nearby pool and drinking beer. Huge disappointment.
It does lead to a joke about the family that owns the pool. He says: “I guess they return on November 10.” Meaning the time-loop day was November 9. Which also happens to be the day after Donald Trump was elected president. What a fucking day to be stuck in. Here’s to breaking free of all that.
Sunday July 12, 2020
Movie Review: The Assistant (2020)
There’s a moment in “The Assistant” when I lost a little respect for our title character.
Jane (Julia Garner of “Ozark”) is a quiet, nervous assistant—one of three, and the only female—to a powerful unseen boss (voice: Jay O. Sanders) in a New York-based film production company. Halfway through the film, after a helluva day, she goes to see the head of HR, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), in the gloom of his small, dim office. Most of the offices in the company are small and dim. Assuming you even have an office. Everyone there feels broken. They suck up to the people above them and bully those below, but no one seems to want to leave. They want to stay close to power even as it breaks them. It’s a company of quiet desperation.
We assume we know why Jane is at HR. Her unseen boss seems like a Harvey Weinstein type and we figure she’s going to lower the boom. The movie has been called a #MeToo movie but it’s really a #PreMe movie. It’s about everything that’s suspected but isn’t said. But we figure our girl has the goods.
She doesn’t. She blows it.
This is how she begins:
“Uh, there’s this girl who arrived here today. She’s from Boise. And she’s very pretty. And she’s young.” Wilcock, taking notes, seems confused, and Jane continues. “She was waitressing in Sun Valley when she met him. And he liked her, apparently, and just gave her an assistant job.”
That’s Jane’s first salvo and we immediately know it won’t land. There’s no accusation there, just vague innuendo.
What’s her second salvo? Reiteration of the first salvo. Boise girl, no experience, he flew her in and put her up in a hotel. “She’s very young,” Jane adds, as if that seals the deal.
It doesn’t. Wilcock doesn’t even know—or pretends not to know—what’s she’s implying. He asks, “Has this girl done something to harm the company?”
Some part of the movie loosened for me there. I lost interest. I was thinking maybe Jane wasn’t a character worth following around.
Couldn’t she have said something like this? “OK, this is a film production company, and so I get that there are young, good-looking girls hanging around all the time, but I keep coming across a weird vibe with it all. I have to stock the Boss’ desk with drugs and hypodermic needles? And I find used hypodermics in the carpet? I find other things in the carpet, too. A hair tie. An earring. The girl who owned the earring came by today and she seemed despondent, broken, and I don’t know why. Maybe the interview didn’t go well? Or is it worse? I don’t know. But the vibe is not good.”
Own up to the ambiguity. Again, I was hoping she would shed light. For us. Doesn’t she look at the drugs she stocks in his desk? Is he a diabetic? It’s possible. We could be condemning a man who simply has a problem with his pancreas.
You know what the back-and-forth between her and the HR rep reminded me of? Woodward and Bernstein in “All the President’s Men.” Bernstein was forever assuming the evidence meant X, Y and Z, and Woodward was forever reining him in and sticking to the facts. Ditto Harry Rosenfeld: “I’m not interested in what you think is obvious,” he says to Bernstein early on, “I’m interested in what you know.”
Check out this dialogue from “The Assistant”:
She: What can we do?
He: Do about what?
She: About the girl.
He: OK, let’s … bear with me here. … So a new assistant arrives, from out of town, and she’s being put up at The Mark. And your boss at some point left the office.
She: To meet her at The Mark, yes.
He: Yes, according, apparently, to the jokes at the office.
She: Yeah, I guess.
He: So … that’s it? That’s why you came in?
Here’s the thing: Are we supposed to sympathize with her here? Because she annoyed me. She kept fumbling. At the same time, her most egregious error, her great missed opening, is still coming up.
L’espirit de l’escalier
By this point in the conversation, Wilcock (surely a loaded name) feels like the enemy. He turns from open and sympathetic to closed and harsh. We assume we know why. We assume he’s in on it, part of the boys club, forever talking about the New York Rangers. But we don’t really know. He could be someone who’s simply tired of vague accusations.
And he begins to ask Jane about herself. First one in in the morning, last one out at night, right? Northwestern? Smart. On the fast track. Where do you want to be in five or 10 years? Oh, a producer? He has to stifle a laugh at that. As I did. A producer is a ruthless SOB who gets things done and she’s not that. She can barely open her mouth. But he placates her. He says that we need more women producers. He tells her she’s smart. Then he begins to drop the hammer.
He: So why are you in here trying to throw it all away with this bullshit?
He: This. Whatever it is.
He makes veiled threats. He assumes (or pretends to assume?) that she was disparaging the Boise girl because she was merely a waitress. What was Jane, after all, when she first arrived five weeks ago? What was her experience? “Couple of internships, am I right? You know how many people want to work here? I’ve got 400 resumés teed up for your position alone. Ivy League grades, 4.0 GPAs. And here you are, sitting in my office, stressed out, jealous of some new assistant who’s getting more attention than you.”
Except this is the point when she nails him. “If you have 400 resumés from 4.0 Ivy League grads teed up,” she asks, calmly, but with steel suddenly showing in her eyes, “why did he hire the waitress from Boise?”
And there's silence. And … I’m kidding. She doesn’t say that. It’s what I thought she should say. Maybe it’s what she thought later in the day? Yeah, that probably would’ve been me, too. L’espirit de l’escalier, right? We think of it later, not in the moment. Even so, I wanted more from this scene. I wanted more from Jane. I wanted her to be worthy of our attention.
Instead, Wilcock of the loaded name uses the lingo of feminism to condemn Jane. Jane says she’s concerned for the girl and he snaps, “She’s a woman. She’s a grown woman. You think a grown woman can’t make her own choices? Because she’s a waitress?”
It’s not a bad scene—you could dissect it forever—but I could feel my attention wavering. I knew we would get no resolution now. “The Assistant,’ written and directed by Kitty Green, is atmospheric and ominous. A critic on IMDb says it’s like a movie about an assistant to Dracula in which we never see Dracula, just the vague evidence he leaves behind. That’s a good description. Moira Macdonald in The Seattle Times says the movie shines a light “on a malevolent shadow.” That’s a good line. Its score on IMDb, by the way, is 6.0, which is way, way low, which makes me think there's been a deliberate attack on it. It's much better than that.
Saturday July 11, 2020
‘What Is That Your Business? He Stopped Doing His Homework!’
“I envy those people who derive solace from the belief that the work they created will live on and be much discussed and somehow, like the Catholic with his afterlife, so the artist's ‘legacy’ will make him immortal. The catch here is that all the people discussing the legacy are alive and ordering pastrami, and the artist is somewhere in an urn or underground in Queens. All the people standing over Shakespeare's grave and singing his praises means a big goose egg to the Bard, and a day will come—a far-off day, but be sure it definitely is coming—when all Shakespeare's plays, for all their brilliant plots and hoity-toity iambic pentameter, and every dot of Seurat's will be gone along with each atom in the universe. In fact, the universe will be gone and there will be no place to have your hat blocked. After all, we are an accident of physics. And an awkward accident at that. Not the product of intelligent design but, if anything, the work of a crass bungler.”
Woody Allen in his memoir “Appropos of Nothing.” Recommended. If you‘re a fan you’ll hear echoes from all of his movies.
Saturday July 11, 2020
Tweet of the Day
On NPR this morning, sadly, Scott Simon and Ryan Lucas mostly trotted out the president's line. Stone was a victim of “the Russia hoax.” Stone “was treated unfairly.” He was “charged by overzealous prosecutors” pursing a case that “never should have existed.” Democrats object. Etc.
You know: The usual partisan stuff.
They never say what I would say: Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress and the FBI on behalf of Donald Trump, had his 40-month sentence commuted by Donald Trump. That's how I would begin. Parse it from there.
The New York Times writes about the 11 people Trump has pardoned or whose sentences have been commuted by him. It's mostly the rich and famous, and cronies, with a few black folks tossed in.
Elsewhere, Jeffrey Toobin writes about how this makes Trump worse than Nixon, since when Nixon had a chance to pardon, say, E. Howard Hunt, he didn't even think of going there. To me, it's less Trump/Nixon than today's bankrupt GOP vs. the GOP of 1973 that still had some upstanding members. It's also the press. If they don't bury the lede, like NPR, they are wholly partisan like Fox News.
Mitt Romney gets it anyway. He describes it better than NPR did.
Friday July 10, 2020
How do you break down something as insane as this?
For the 1/100th time, the reason we show so many Cases, compared to other countries that haven’t done nearly as well as we have, is that our TESTING is much bigger and better. We have tested 40,000,000 people. If we did 20,000,000 instead, Cases would be half, etc. NOT REPORTED!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2020
Sure, it's his normal message. “We have more cases because we test more.” Except those cases still exist—those people are still sick with Covid and some will die—so this is a head-in-the-sand argument, which has been Trump's argument from the get-go. “If we only knew less, things wouldn't be so bad.” Given his position (president of the United States), given the number of cases and deaths the U.S. is seeing (3.1 million/133k), given how much Europe has bounced back from its springtime plague and is opening up smartly and responsibly, this attitude is basically criminal. It's the story of the year, and the mainstream media isn't covering it enough. Probably because there's not two sides to it. There's the smart, science-based side (test as much as possible, contact trace, open up responsibly rather than when it's politically convenient), and then there's this pile of dumbshit.
But of course the piece de resistance, the chef's kiss of the tweet, is the 1/100 at the top. What a wanker.
I'm curious: When did a country like Italy begin to turn it around? Turns out: early April. They now average about 200 cases a day:
Yesterday, the U.S. had more than 63,000 cases. One day. This is our daily case trajectory.
The U.S.'s disastrous response to the Covid crisis, the sickness and death and jobs lost and lives lost, all that's on Fox News an the GOP and most of all Trump. But at least he's given this country his all: 1/100th percent.
Thursday July 09, 2020
'A Certain Kind of Soft Drink'
In a season 5 episode of “The Simpsons,” “Bart Gets Famous,” there's a great throwaway bit about the awfulness of local television and local news that I‘ve quoted over the years.
Bart gets a job on Krusty the Klown’s show—this is before he becomes famous as the “I didn't do it” boy—and he wants to show his friends his name in the credits. But even as the credits zip by, the screen tilts, and half the screen is filled with the local anchor Kent Brockman, who pimps the news:
On the 11:00 news tonight, a certain kind of soft drink has been found to be lethal. We won't tell you which one until after sports and the weather with Funny Sonny Storm.
This morning I was listening to the radio (NPR/KUOW) and it was near the top of the hour—NPR's “Morning Edition” time—and local anchor Angela King said this, basically (apologies: no direct quote yet):
A Covid outbreak has shut down a favorite Seattle restaurant. We‘ll tell you what to do if you’ve eaten there ... in 4 minutes.
It turned out to be Duke's Seafood at Alki Beach, but good god, KUOW, can't you do better than this? You‘re playing directly into a 25-year-old satire of how bad local news can be. But it worked, didn’t it? I stuck around. I had been ready to turn it off and continue my morning but yesterday my wife and I ordered takeout from our favorite local restaurant, Ba-Bar, so I had to wait to find out.
Anyway, thanks for the news. Four minutes later.
Thursday July 09, 2020
Quote of the Day
“How [my father] loved that life. Fancy clothes, a big per diem, sexy women, and then somehow he meets my mother. Tilt. How he wound up with Nettie is a mystery on a par with dark matter. Two characters as mismatched as Hannah Arendt and Nathan Detroit, they disagreed on every single issue except Hitler and my report cards.”
Woody Allen in his memoir, “Appropos of Nothing,” which I'm currently reading. It's zippy and funny. Right now his complaints are childhood complaints about family; will be interesting to see how far he goes into his life and what those complaints become.
Wednesday July 08, 2020
Movie Review: The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)
James Cagney and Bette Davis were the stars that made the most trouble for Warner Bros. during the studio era. Cagney wanted more money, Davis wanted better roles, and both felt Jack Warner didn’t know jack. In his book “Warner Bros.: The Making of an American Movie Studio,” film historian David Thomson attempts to thread the contretemps:
Bette was looking for a battle, whether she could know that, or admit it. At any other studio, she would have become a problem, because her angry eyes needed to feel she was embattled and scorned. There are artistic spirits that can be crushed by kindness and understanding.
As for Cagney, his own track record wasn't stellar. After the classic Warner Bros. film “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (best picture, best actor), he was finally free of his contract, and he and his brother William promptly produced two war movies at the end of the war (when everyone was tired of the war), and “The Time of Your Life,” based on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play by William Saroyan. Prestige! Importance! Cagney plays “Joseph T. (who observes people).” Yes, that’s his character name. The movie bombed so badly that Cagney was forced to return to Warners, which promptly put him into another classic, “White Heat,” and the gangster role he was always running from.
So maybe Warners knew a little something.
Was “The Bride Came C.O.D.” a kind of punishment for both of its unruly stars? Cagney was afraid of flying yet Warners kept casting him as a pilot. This is his third of four goes in the cockpit between 1935 and 1942. Meanwhile, Davis spends half the picture landing ass-first on cacti. “We both reached bottom with this one,” Davis writes, probably punnily, in her autobiography.
But it’s not that bad. Davis in particular is good, and surprisingly sexy, as the frivolous, combative daughter of a wealthy oil man who runs off to marry a bandleader/singer after knowing him only four days. The supporting cast—led by Jack Carson as Allen Brice, and Harry Davenport as Pop Tolliver—is about perfect.
Cagney’s the problem. He’s not as trim as he used to be and he lands too hard on jokes that need a soft touch. Was he not made for comedy? Or love stories? Here’s Thomson again on Cagney’s appeal:
He was Irish—he was a gentle, quiet guy in life and a family man—but he photographed like a featherweight devil, full of violent urges and sniping back talk. He was dangerous on screen; it was what he had instead of sex. He might kill anyone, devour an actress, or turn into a dancing machine. No one had ever moved like Cagney, or seemed such a feral, animated figure.
What do you call a feral figure in a screwball comedy? Misplaced, maybe.
Back and forthy
The movie opens with a nationally known gossip columnist, Tommy Keenan (Stuart Erwin), literally ambulance-chasing for a story for his upcoming broadcast. Even the scoop by blithely vain bandleader Allen Brice (Carson, brilliant) that he plans to marry oil heiress Joan Winfield (Davis) won’t help. That’s three days away, and Brice has been married before, so who cares? But wait! If they elope to Vegas? Now that’s entertainment.
But Winfield’s dad, the recent oil millionaire Lucius K. (Eugene Pallette), strenuously objects, which is probably one reason why it’s so appealing to Joan. It’s classic Bette: I’m going to do what you don’t want me to. The plan is to charter a plane to Vegas, Keenan will be aboard, he’ll get his scoop. Except the plane belongs to Steve Collins (Cagney), he owes $1,000, so he makes a deal with the dad to deliver his daughter without the fiancé. $10 per pound, cash on delivery.
Yeah, it’s a little “It Happened One Night”: engaged heiress battles her rich father, who’s against the wedding, but on the road she falls in love with rascally working man.
I love Davis’ reaction when he tells her she’s been kidnapped. Kidnapped, she says, intrigued. One can see her imagining the headlines and just the scandal of it all. We get the following Q&A:
- “Have you got a mob?” “No, they call me The Solo Kid.”
- “I suppose you’re taking me to your hideout.” [Almost Bogart-esque]: “You said it, babe.”
- “Have you always been a criminal?” “Oh no, ma’am. I used to be a boy scout.”
- “How much are you asking for me?” “I’m just a beginner. I’m only asking for carrying charges.”
Could his lines have been better here? The screenwriters are the Epstein brothers, Jules and Philip, who would pen “Casablanca” a year later, so it’s not like they suck at this. The director is William Keighley, who directed his share of so-so Cagneys: from “Picture Snatcher” to “The Fighting 69th.” This is his last with Jimmy. He made a few more before supervising the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Air Force during the war.
Once Joan realizes it’s not a scandalous kidnapping but her father’s powerful arm trying to rein her in, she grabs a parachute to jump from the plane. Except Steve knows it’s not a parachute so he keeps tilting the plane to keep her in. One too many times and the plane sputters and crash-lands in the desert. Luckily it’s near the former gold mining town of Bonanza. Unluckily, it’s deserted. Luckily, there’s one man remaining, Pop Tolliver (Davenport, charming), who lives in the deserted hotel.
The movie’s basically this kind of back-and-forth, and it might get a little too back-and-forthy. Steve claims they’re a honeymooning couple and Pop won’t believe Joan’s pleadings that she’s been kidnapped until the news comes over his radio. (The media frenzy montage is great.) Now Pop won’t believe Steve’s declaration that he was simply returning daughter to father. Instead, Pop nearly shoots his head off and locks him in the local jail. Joan attempts to signal search planes with a mirror (“They’re looking for me! Isn’t it wonderful? I feel so terribly important!”), and Steve’s attempts to foil her by shooting a pebble via a rubber band from the jail cell. It's that kind of silly. But they’re spied, and it’s a race between fiancé and father to get to Bonanza first. In the meantime, on the radio, the truth of Steve’s declarations are revealed, so Steve is sprung and Joan is jailed. She gets out, he chases her into a mine, which she collapses. Etc.
The first to arrive is neither father nor fiancé but LA’s Sheriff McGee (William Frawley, in his second Cagney feature). By this point, Pop is part of Steve’s scheme to delay the wedding so he can collect the money, and Pop puts off the sheriff with Maine-like stoicism:
McGee: How’s business?
Tolliver: About the same.
McGee: Same as what?
Tolliver: About the same as usual.
The mine scene isn’t bad. She suspects they’ll die; he finds a way out via Pop’s food-laden storage cellar, eats his fill, returns but doesn’t tell her. By this point, they’re canoodling and eventually they kiss. Five seconds in, her eyes widen, she leaps to her feet and shouts “Mustard!” Great moment.
We get more screwball antics for the wedding. Is Bonanza in California or Nevada? (Pronounced Ne-VAY-de by Pops.) Which minister will work? Steve challenges the groom to a fight and gets clobbered by the good-natured Brice. (It’s fun seeing Cagney lose a fight for a change.) Steve’s schemes are all about getting the C.O.D. money but all the while Joan is falling for him. The final scene is their honeymoon, back in Bonanza. Hold the mustard.
Again, a lot of the elements are there for a classic. The miscast, sadly, is Cagney. Put Gable in the role and you see things maybe falling into place.
Tuesday July 07, 2020
Common Sense by Thomas Hanks
“The idea of doing one's part should be so simple: wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands. That alone means you are contributing to the betterment of your house, your work, your town, your society as a whole. And it's such a small thing. And it's a mystery to me how that has been wiped out of what should be ingrained in us all. Simple things. Do your part.
Tom Hanks, who contracted Covid in March, on the ”Today" show this morning.
Tuesday July 07, 2020
‘Sports Are the Reward of a Functioning Society’
“We‘re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people. We‘re way worse off as a country than where we were in March when we shut this thing down. And look at where other developed countries are in their response to this. We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back. Sports are like the reward of a functional society, and we‘re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve.
”We did flatten the curve for a little bit, but we didn't use that time to do anything productive. We just opened back up for Memorial Day. We decided we‘re done with it. Like, if there aren’t sports, it's gonna be because people are not wearing masks because the response to this has been so politicized.
“We need help from the general public. If they want to watch baseball, please wear a mask, social distance, keep washing your hands. We can't just have virus fatigue and think, ‘Well, it’s been four months. We‘re over it. This has been enough time, right? We’ve waited long enough, shouldn't sports come back now?'”
Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle, on the third day of MLB camp, speaking the truth in a way few in the media do. He nails it all: 1) We‘re worse off than in March because, 2) we (particularly Trump) didn’t do anything productive during that time, but 3) we felt like 3-4 months is enough so party on, Wayne. This is how America ends: Not with a bang but with a kegger.
Monday July 06, 2020
Opening Day 2020: Your Active Leaders
SLIDESHOW: Sorry, I just can't see it working. What if a player contracts Covid during the season? How long must he be in quarantine? How long will his team be in quarantine and what will that do to the schedule? Do they forfeit games? Do they try to make them up? What if this happens during the World Series? And imagine if a player dies. The U.S. is currently averaging 50k confirmed cases a day. Just don't see it working. Hope I'm wrong. In the meantime, we‘ll always have stats. Here’s MLB's active leaders.
BATTING AVERAGE: For the sixth year in a row, it's Miggy. He's at .3146 while Jose Altue is a tidge below at .3145. Oddly, Miggy had that .0001 advantage last season as well but they both fell off at the same pace. There are currently 10 active players with career BAs over .300 but for the first time since 2001 one of them is not named Albert Pujols. His eighth season in a row below .300, and fourth overall below .250, finally knocked his career mark to .299. For the record, Miggy's .3146 is 70th all-time, just behind Lew Fonseca.
ON-BASE PERCENTAGE: We‘re about to see a changing of this guard. Joey Votto has been the active leader in OBP since 2013, but last season he posted the worst OBP of his career: .357. True, his OBP over the last four seasons is still .418, and only one other active player is over .400, but that one is Mike Trout, who, over the last four seasons, has an OBP of .445. Right now it’s Votto .421 to Trout's .419. Expect change.
SLUGGING PERCENTAGE: Speaking of: Trout's at .581 and no one else is over .550. Can Trout reach .600 career? At least for a time? Maybe. His numbers for the last three seasons: .629, .628 and .645.
OPS: Again, it's Trout and no one else. He's at .999 while the second-place finisher is Joey Votto 60 points back at .940. The other five active players above .900 are: Miggy (.935), Albert (.927), Paul Goldschmidt (.915), Giancarlo (.905) and Kris Bryant (.900).
GAMES: Only eight players have ever played 3,000 career games (Rose, Yaz, Hank, Rickey, Ty, Stan, Eddie, Cal), but Uncle Albert might join them. He's 177 games short at 2,823 with two years left on his contract. OK, one and a half. Only three other actives have played in more than 2,000 games: Miggy at exactly 2,400, Cano at 2,185 and Nick Markakis at 2,117.
HITS: Same four, same order: Albert (3,202), Cabrera (2,815), Cano (2,570) and Nick Markakis (2,355). Miggy has a shot at three-thou if he stays healthy (he stopped hitting for power last season but didn't stop hitting), while Markakis has never had 200 hits in a season but seems a few good seasons from knocking on 3,000. Has that ever happened? A player with no 200-hit seasons but 3,000 career? Just looked it up. These guys: Cap Anson, Carl Yastrzemski, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray and Rickey Henderson.
DOUBLES: Pujols is seventh all-time with 661, and just 8 more would put him past Brett and Biggio into fifth place. Only four guys have ever hit 700: Speaker, Rose, Cobb, Musial. Can Albert reach that? He's hit 42 over the last two seasons, but between age and Covid I'm not sure. Miggy's got 577, Cano 562.
TRIPLES: With Curtis Granderson retiring, Dexter Fowler takes over as the active leader in triples with 82. When was the last time the active leader in triples had so few? 1883. When a dude named Tom York had 80. Here's a nice bar bet: Name the 4 active leaders in triples. After Fowler it's Brett Gardner (huh), then Dee Gordon (I can see that), who is tied with ... Hunter Pence??? Those are the only guys with more than 50. Somewhere, Wahoo Sam sheds a tear.
HOMERUNS: Pujols (656) is set to pass Willie Mays (660) for fifth on the all-time list, while Miggy is second on the actives with 477. Last season two guys hit their 400th: Edwin Encarnacison, 414, and my man Nellie Cruz, 401. The only other guys above 300 career are Ryan Braun (344), Robinson Cano (324), Jay Bruce (312) and Giancarlo Stanton (308). Yeah, Jay Bruce. Who knew?
RBIs: One more RBI, just one, and Pujols moves past Cap Anson (2,075) and into sole possession of 4th place on the all-time list. A dozen more and he moves past A-Rod (2,086) for third. Then it gets trickier. At that point he‘ll be 127 from tying Babe Ruth and 210 from Hank Aaron. How does it feel to be among the gods? I guess tiring.
RUNS: He’s less godlike on the runs scored at 1,828 or 17th all-time. Then it's the usual active suspects: Miggy (1,429), Cano (1,234) and Markakis (1,104). Mike Trout, the young buck, is currently 16th among actives with 903 after just nine seasons. Nice ratio. The record is Rickey Henderson: 2,295.
BASES ON BALLS: I used to think Albert had a greating batting eye but it looks like he walked so much because pitchers were afraid of him. Now they‘re not. In St. Louis he averaged 89 walks per season; with the Angels, 43. Yes, his plate appearances are down, but only slightly: 676 vs. 600. His intentional walks are way down. In 2009 he was IBBed 44 times. Last season, once. But he’s still on top here with 1,322 career. Then it's Votto (1,180) and Miggy (1,135). They‘re the only active players with more than 1,000.
STRIKEOUTS: Since Mark Reynolds retired in April, his 1,927 career Ks (9th all-time) is no longer topping our list. Now the honor goes to Chris Davis, whose 1,835 is 18th all-time. Justin Upton is second in actives Ks with 1,798, Miggy third with 1,761. Observation: There was a time when the active leader in K’s was a sure HOFer: Ruth, Foxx, Ott, Mantle, Killebrew, Stargell, Jackson. Now it's just as likely to be a Mark Reynolds, Adam Dunn or Chris Davis.
STOLEN BASES: Ichiro's retired, Jose Reyes and Jacoby Ellsbury are unsigned, and Rajai Davis is ... who knows? So the active leader is the Seattle Mariners' own Dee Gordon with 330. When was the last time the active leader had that few? 1963, when Luis Aparicio had 309. Then Maury Wills zipped past him as active leader before passing the baton to Lou Brock, who passed it onto Campy, and onto Joe Morgan, and onto, yeah, Rickey who owned it for a while. SBs are sadly not a thing anymore. Even Billy Hamilton is slowing down.
GROUNDED INTO DOUBLE PLAYS: The active leader is the all-time leader, Albert with 395. He's 45 ahead of Cal Ripken on the all-time chart and 77 ahead of Miggy on the active list. Then, for active players, it's Cano (277), Yadier (254), Markakis (209), Zimmerman (203).
DEFENSIVE WAR: I have issues with this stat. Andrelton Simmons has 26.7 dWAR after eight seasons while Yadier Molina is second with 25.0 after 16 seasons? Is eight seasons of the best defensive shortstop really worth 16 of the best defensive catcher? You try crouching all day. They‘re also the only actives > 20. Hell, Andrelton is 14th all-time in this category. He just passed Gary Carter and Bob Boone. I guess?
WAR FOR POSITION PLAYERS: What’s a good bWAR cutoff for the Hall? Seems about 70. It's cuspy there: Gary Carter, Barry Larkin, Ron Santo. There are first-ballot guys below you (Tony Gwynn, 69.2) and underrated guys ahead of you (Bobby Grich, 71.1; Lou Whitaker 75.1). But you‘ll definitely be in the conversation. Albert’s in, of course, at 100.8. Trout, too: 72.8. I assume Miggy (69.5) is in for the counting numbers and triple crowns and MVPs. His black ink is 43 vs. 27 for a typical HOFer. Cano (68.0) takes a ding for testing positive for banned substances and for being low on black ink numbers (1).
WINS: Will C.C. Sabathia be the last pitcher to notch 250 career wins or will Justin Verlander, the active leader at 225, bust that mark? He led the Majors last year with 21, and another year like that and he's a cinch. But he's 37 and the cliff can come fast. Second on the active list is Zack Greinke with 205. Then it's Jon Lester (190), Max Scherzer (170) and Clayton Kershaw (169). The probably-done Felix Hernandez also has 169.
ERA: In the last two seasons, Kershaw posted ERAs of 2.73 and 3.03 and his career mark went down: from 2.36 to 2.44. When was the last time his career ERA went down two years in a row? It's never happened. But he's still way up on top here. Second is Jacob deGrom with a shockingly good 2.62. Third is Chris Sale with 3.02. Who was the last starting pitcher to retire with a career ERA under 3.00? Jim Palmer maybe? Anyone?
STRIKEOUTS: Justin Verlander nudged over the 3,000 mark at the end of last season and leads the active parade with 3,006. He also has only 850 walks. Back in the day, the only pitcher with > 3,000 Ks and < 1,000 BBs was Fergie Jenkins. In the last two decades, he was joined by Maddux, Shilling, Pedro. Could JV make it an even five? Maybe. (Last season he gave up 42 freebies.) Second and third in active Ks are neck and neck: Scherzer/Greinke: 2,692/2,622. Both are in the 600s in walks.
BASES ON BALLS: JV's 850, followed by Ubaldo Jiminez's 848 (if he still counts) and then Jon Lester's 820. The last time the active leader had fewer than 850 BBs? When Walter Johnson had 845 in 1920.
INNINGS PITCHED: Verlander needs two complete games to get to 3,000. He's at 2,982. He‘ll be the 137th guy to do it. Greinke’s not far behind. Then it's Felix (if he returns), Cole Hamels, Jon Lester, Max Scherzer. The most IPs for someone in their 20s? Madison Bumgarner with 1,846. He's 29, though, and 30 on August 1.
COMPLETE GAMES: Every year of the 20th century some pitcher threw double-digit CGs. Every year. Then the calendar flipped and the CGs just disappeared. It's like in John Updike's “Rabbit Is Rich” when the ‘70s turn into the ’80s and disco just goes POOF. In the 21st century, only two pitchers have thrown double-digit CGs: C.C. in 2008 (10) and James Shields in 2011 (11). Now it's hardly a stat. Who led the league in CGs last season? Two pitchers tied with 3: Rookies Lucas Giolito and Shane Bieber. The active leader is JV with 27—only 722 behind all-time leader Cy Young.
SHUTOUTS: As recently as the ‘90s the active leader (Nolan Ryan) had 60+. As recently as the 2000s the active leader (Roger Clemens) had 40+. Now it’s Clayton Kershaw's 15, and he's been stuck on 15 since 2016. The only other active pitcher w/double digits (if Felix doesn't count) is Adam Wainwright with 10. All-time leader is Walter Johnson with 110.
SAVES: Top 3 are Craig Kimbrel (346), Kenley Jansen (301) and Aroldis Chapman (273). 24-year-old Roberto Osuna is in 7th place with 154. 25-year-old Edwin Diaz is in 12th place with 137. He ran into same issues last season, though. I still miss him.
WAR FOR PITCHERS: Usual suspects: Verlander (72.1), Greinke (65.9), Kershaw (65.3). Are they all HOFers or is the jury still out on Greinke? What about the dude in fourth place: Cole Hamels (58.5). What if he has 3-4 more seasons like his 3.2 WAR season last year? Nah. Like Cano, not enough black ink.
EXIT MUSIC (FOR A SLIDESHOW): Be safe, everybody. *FIN*
Sunday July 05, 2020
Movie Review: Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
Is there a more unlikely kid actor growing up to be his adult counterpart than Mickey Rooney becoming Clark Gable in this movie? That’s some adolescence he went through.
“Manhattan Melodrama” won an Oscar for best original story for Arthur Caesar (over “Hide-Out” and “The Richest Girl in the World”), and it has an OK rating on IMDb (7.2), but it’s not a good film. It’s one of those “two best friends grow up on opposite sides of the law” movies like “San Francisco,” “Dead End,” and “Angels with Dirty Faces.” “Angels” is the epitome. This? It’s MGM so it loses Warner Bros.’s brashness for a nobility nobody buys. Both men act noble beyond reason. Even the crook. Especially the crook. He’s got a joie de vivre even as he’s doing the dead man’s walk to the electric chair. No worries about me, you just make sure you win that governorship. Put ’er there, pal.
Saved by central casting
Both boys are orphaned after the General Slocum catches fire and sinks in the East River in 1904—a real-life incident in which more than 1,000 people lost their lives, the single-worst tragedy for New York City until 9/11. But central casting to the rescue. The boys are saved by a sturdy priest, Father Joe (Leo Carrillo), and adopted by the emotional Poppa Rosen (George Sidney), who is subsequently killed at a communist rally after standing up for America. Despite all the tragedy, Blackie Gallagher (Rooney/Gable) continues his happy-go-lucky, gambling ways while Jim Wade (Jimmy Butler/William Powell) hits the books and becomes a lawyer, then assistant D.A. Then he runs for D.A. and wins. He’s always modest, never ruthless. He always does right.
As does Blackie, running an illegal casino. Whenever the two meet, they’re happier to see each other than you’ve ever been to see anyone in your adult life. For one meeting, Blackie’s busy, so he sends his girl, Eleanor (Myrna Loy), who’s been trying in vain to get him to go straight and settle down. She’s quickly enamored of Jim, and he of her, and she soon leaves Blackie to be with Jim. How does Blackie react? Fine. She couldn’t have chosen a better guy. Put ’er there, pal.
Two deaths—murders—get in the way of all this brotherly love. Manny Arnold (Noel Madison) keeps chiseling on his gambling debts so Blackie kills him. (I think Manny’s going for his gun or something.) Jim investigates and finds a clue: his own tan overcoat, which he left behind after walking Eleanor home, and which Blackie or his dopey right-hand man, Spud (Nat Pendleton), leaves behind at the scene of the crime. Helluva story: D.A.’S COAT AT MURDER SCENE. Except we don’t go there. Blackie has another coat ordered, exactly to specifications, and puts a gavel tchotchke that Jim had bought in the pocket. Jim’s convinced. He’s schnookered. The crime remains unsolved.
Until Jim begins an “aw, shucks, me?” run for governor. Then a corrupt assistant D.A., Richard Snow (Thomas E. Jackson), who’s been dropped from the ticket, tries to blackmail him about the Manny Arnold murder. Does he have evidence? We never really find out. At the racetrack, Eleanor tells Blackie, who then murders Snow in a bathroom at Madison Square Garden. This time, though, Blackie is caught—the blind beggar outside the bathroom isn’t blind—and is put on trial. Jim, as D.A. running for governor, recuses himself from prosecuting his best friend, of course. Hah. Kidding. This is MGM so they have to milk all the sentimentality they can out of it. But Jim gets the conviction and wins the governorship and man Blackie is proud of him. It’s all so dopey.
Loy’s character is the dopiest and the movie doesn’t seem to realize it. She tells Blackie about the blackmail? What did she think he would do? Then she visits Blackie at the jail—even as her husband is about to prosecute him? “And I thought you were smart,” Blackie tells her, with something close to contempt. “That’s what I always liked about you. You were even smart enough to walk out on me.”
It gets worse. She demands Jim, as governor, commute Blackie’s sentence. He refuses. So she leaves him. So he rushes to Sing-Sing to stop the execution. Blackie won’t have it. He prefers death anyway than a lifetime in jail. And you need to run for president someday. Put ’er there, pal.
Top of the world, ma
After the execution, Jim, ever noble, tells all before the legislature and resigns the governorship despite cries from the gallery pleading that he stay. Outside, he finds Eleanor. They reconcile. And off they go to … who gives a shit? “Manhattan Melodrama” is mostly interesting for two reasons: the reenactment of the General Slocomb tragedy, and the fact that this is the movie John Dillinger was leaving when he was gunned down by federal agents. Poor bastard. Should’ve been a Cagney.
Saturday July 04, 2020
The Lincoln Project is that outfit of conservative Republicans who have banded together to stop Donald Trump from being re-elected. They‘re the Never Trumpers who stayed Never Trumpers. I follow them on Twitter. I began to follow them because their videos are so deadly. They mocked Trump’s “low-energy” Tulsa rally. They reamed him for his idiot demand to “slow the testing down.” They crushed him for being Putin's puppet when Putin was paying the Taliban to kill U.S. troops. “Any commander in chief with a spine would be stomping the living shit out of Russia right now.” They mock him, ridicule him, hang him out to fucking dry. Which raises the question: Why can‘t Democrats be this ruthless? It’s not even lying. They‘re just pounding him with the truth.
Here’s why. The org is run by Sarah Longwell, longtime Republican and lesbian (I know), who was profiled by Susan B. Glasser in The New Yorker in March: “The Trials of a Never Trump Republican. And early on, Glasser writes about her work in the early 2000s for GOP lobbyist Richard Berman:
Berman taught Longwell to discredit the opposition before it discredits you; to be edgy, memorable, and funny; and to always play offense, because, as Longwell put it in a 2014 presentation, ”defense over time loses.“ He devised an acronym for the firm's approach to ”managing“ public opinion: FLAGS, for fear, love, anger, greed, and sympathy. Of those, he told me, fear and anger are the most effective: ”Nobody likes negative ads, but everybody remembers them. I absolutely believe it."
That's the answer. The GOP is always on offense and the Dems are forever on defense so the Dems lose over time. They lose when they should win.
I'm glad they're on our side for now. Maybe some of it will rub off.
Friday July 03, 2020
‘Former Neo-Nazi Says Trump Uses Language of Neo-Nazism’: The Headlines NPR Can't Hear
Yesterday on “Morning Edition” I heard a story that was the best of journalism and the worst of journalism.
It was the best of journalism because it was an interview with a man, Christian Picciolini, who was once a neo-Nazi, and who is now the founder of a group that tries to prevent such racist extremism. In divisive times, we‘re getting insight from someone who’s not only been behind enemy lines but was once the enemy himself.
And he didn't disappoint. The other day, Donald Trump (the president of the United States, remember) retweeted a video in which, right at the beginning, someone shouted “White Power!” and NPR's reporter, Noel King, asks Picciolini about the phrase. He talks about the ways it was used in his former circles (as greeting, sign-off, philosophy) and she asks if it was ever used positively. No, he says. Then, maybe anticipating where she's going, he parses the difference between “Black power!” and “White power!”:
“‘Black power’ is used as a cry for equity and a cry against white supremacy. ‘White power’ has always been used as kind of a bludgeon and not as anything other than that.”
He keeps doing this. He keeps clarifying. And he keeps coming back to the larger point. She asks a convoluted question about whether Trump intentionally retweeted someone saying “White power!” and he doesn't lean in and dissect that unknowable moment but pulls back:
“This has been a pattern. This hasn't been the first time that the president has tweeted something that has come from a white supremacist or that has had a white supremacist message—whether it's talking about a conspiracy theory that's connected to white genocide or whether it's using pejorative language to describe other people. What is intentional, I believe, is the goal to instill fear. We‘re seeing a lot more language that is racist, especially with the use of social media, and he is emboldening that kind of language through his tweets.”
The most infuriating part to me—the worst of journalism—is how shocked she is that neo-Nazis mention and retweet Trump. Then she asks the same about Pres. Obama and George W. Bush and says, “Oh, wow! ... So it really is, in your experience, only since President Obama that U.S. presidents have become part of the discourse.” It’s like she doesn‘t see the difference between Obama and Trump here. Both of them are just “causing divisiveness,” as it were. But jus as she collapses distinctions, Picciolini raises them again. Obama was, he says, a focal point for their fear and paranoia. Trump? He’s their hero. “He was saying so many similar things that I was saying 30 years ago and that the movement said.”
Get that Noel King and NPR? Former neo-Nazi says president of the United States uses language of neo-Nazism. That's your fucking story.
Picciolini also says things will get worse, particularly if Trump loses the election, since many in the movement think this is their one shot, with this president, to get a world they want. That's the warning he wants to deliver. I doubt NPR heard it through the waters they continually muddy.
Thursday July 02, 2020
Movie Review: Footlight Parade (1933)
Has anyone in the movies ever talked as fast as James Cagney talks in “Footlight Parade”? Cagney’s patter is always rat-a-tat-tat, but here it’s so zippy it makes Cary Grant’s dialogue in “His Girl Friday” seem positively pensive. His mouth moves faster than our minds.
Cagney’s character, Chester Kent, talks fast in part because he’s scrambling. And he’s scrambling because new technology (talking pictures) has made his talents outmoded (kinda sorta), so he’s struggling to keep up. Also because he trusts the wrong people. Also because he might not be that smart.
He says the following halfway through:
Between Gladstone stealing all our stuff and you saying there are no profits, I’m getting pretty well fed up.
Turns out Gladstone is stealing all their stuff because Kent’s trusted assistant, Thompson (Gordon Wescott), is a spy. And there are profits, but Kent’s partners, the production team of Si Gould and Al Frazier (Guy Kibbee and Arthur Hohl), are cheating him.
Who figures all this out? Kent’s secretary, Nan Prescott (Joan Blondell), who’s not so secretly in love with him. How does he reward her? By dating her friend, Vivian Rich (thin-eyebrowed Claire Dodd, forever playing the other woman). And this after separating from a woman so rotten she deserves the grapefruit in the face Cagney delivered to Mae Clark in “Public Enemy.”
So is our hero, this great musical idea man, not the brightest bulb? You know those scenes in movies where they make the protagonist seem sharp by making them right on an historical moment—like Michael Corleone anticipating the Cuban Revolution in “The Godfather Part II”? They do the opposite with Kent.
A fad like mah-jongg
“Footlight” begins with a news ticker informing Kent and Thompson (and us) what I assume everyone in 1933 knew—SILENT PICTURES ARE FINISHED—but Kent’s not convinced. He says talking pictures are a fad—like mah-jongg. Thompson doesn’t think so: “Looks like I’m assistant to a guy out of a job,” he says. But is this too smart? Kent directs stage musicals. Why would talking pictures end stage musicals?
That’s the movie’s conceit, though. Kent and Thompson drop by the producers’ office and discover it’s all over.
Si: Talking pictures—that’s what they want. … Flesh is a dead issue.* We’re in the picture business. Exhibitors.
Al: Yeah, we just bought four houses.
Si: [gesturing to a film cannister] They deliver the show in tin cans and we got nothing to worry about.
(*Ironic given all the flesh in this movie.)
Then they take him to a B-movie starring John Wayne so he can see for himself. Except after the picture is over a mini-musical stage number begins, set in a harem (with, BTW, a superhot uncredited dance lead). I never knew about “prologues” before this movie but here’s a primer. Basically it was a bit of vaudeville between movies in the early days of talkies. The Rockettes got their start with prologues, while one of the impresarios was a guy named Chester Hale, upon whom Cagney’s character is based.
Kent sees the harem number and says, “Hey, why don’t I do that for you?” but Frazier and Gould tell him they’re already phasing out prologues. Too expensive. Then the idea. After Kent’s wife serves him divorce papers—“I’m used to good clothes and everything that goes with it!” is one of the more endearing things she says—Kent goes to a drug store to buy some aspirin and wonders off-handedly why it costs only 18 cents when next door it’s 25. “We got 100 stores,” he’s told. “We buy in big lots.” Kent snaps his fingers. “The chain-store idea solves everything!”* Returning to Frazier & Gould, he sells them on producing prologues that play around the country, not just in one theater, thus diminishing their cost.
(*For the curious: “Chain stores” were, if not a new phenomenon, somewhat new nomenclature in 1933. The first reference in the New York Times came in Nov. 1917 regarding the purchase of a lot by the W.T. Grant Co., which owned a chain of Twenty-Five Cent Stores around the country. At one point, there were 1,200 W.T. Grant Co. stores. It went bankrupt in 1976.)
All of this sets up the rest of the movie. And guess how long all of the above took? Seven minutes. With opening credits. Boom boom. Told you about fast talking.
Cats! The prologue
Now we’re into the scrambling portion of the film. Kent works day and night trying to think up themes for his prologues before Gladstone steals them. At one point we see this list in his office:
I would’ve killed to see the Russian Revolution one.
The first idea we actually hear from him is a doozy. Nan finds him asleep in his office chair, with a cat nuzzled by his side, and when she wakes him up, he looks around, remembers, and shouts, “Cats!” The night before, he’d seen an alley cat, liked its grace, decided it would make a great idea for a prologue. So Cagney, or writers Manuel Seff or James Seymour, or directors Lloyd Bacon or Busby Berkeley, came up with the idea for a “Cats!” musical about half a century before Andrew Lloyd Weber. The bit also allows comic-relief choreographer Francis (Frank McHugh), forever whining through a stogie, to parade around for a time with a long black tail affixed to his hindside.
Other ideas Kent imagines are alternatively racy or racist—sometimes both. Some black kids are cooling themselves off at a fire hydrant “That’s what that wood nymph prologue needs!” Kent cries. “A mountain waterfall splashing on beautiful white bodies!” OK then. In Nan’s apartment, he spies a book, Slaves of Old Africa, and cries: “I can see it now! Pretty girls in blackface, slaves of old Africa, white men capture them!” Ouch. Thankfully they didn’t film that one.
For the first hour, the movie is mostly drama and comedy, with only a smattering of musical numbers. There’s good back-and-forth between Nan and the gold-digging Vivian. “Miss B—,“ Nan begins before correcting herself: ”Miss Rich.“ Then the farewell: “As long as there are sidewalks, you’ve got a job,” she says, before literally kicking Viv out of her apartment. The main subplot is a romance between Scotty Blair and Bea Thorn (America’s then-sweethearts Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler). He’s the college-boy singer who gets a job through Gould’s relative; she’s the sharp, glasses-wearing secretary who rebuffs his charms. Until she doesn’t. Why does she change her mind? Who knows? But there’s a kind of “Gift of the Maji” bit where, as he leaves the stage for an office job, she leaves the office job for the stage. She also loses the glasses. It’s that Hollywood trope—“Oh, she’s pretty after all”—when she was way cuter with the glasses and the gruff putdowns. Losing both, she gushes.
It’s in the last 30-40 minutes where we get the musical—three Busby Berkeley numbers in a row, back to back to back. They’re the proverbial prologues that can save the studio, and they’re each gloriously absurd and surreal. The first is comic, “Honeymoon Hotel,” led by Scott and Bea, a couple trying to enjoy their legit honeymoon in a hotel overrun by the less legit kind (“We’re the house detectives but we’re puzzled with/ The fact that no one stops here unless their name is Smith”). It’s also overrun by “blonde gazelles” in negligees, and a kid, played by Billy Barty, who eyebrow-wags his way through several rooms. Then there's “By a Waterfall,” also with Scotty and Bea. They sing by a waterfall, he falls asleep, and we get that “mountain waterfall splashing on beautiful white bodies” that Kent envisioned. We also get Berkeley’s overhead shots and insane Spirographic concoctions of half-naked women. Part of the absurdity, or the humor, is that all of this is supposedly taking place on a stage. And on a budget.
The final number, “Shanghai Lil,” is the first big musical number that Jimmy Cagney got to perform on screen. He’d done a few quick dance steps in “Other Men’s Women,” and he’d always moved with grace, but here, on a bartop, with Ruby Keeler in Yellowface, he goes all out. He doesn’t disappoint. He’s so good one wishes there’d been more of it.
FDR and NRA
Why is he in the musical number at all? Another classic trope. The lead gets drunk and says he can’t go on. He and Kent tussle, and one of them—we don’t see which—falls down the steps and onto the stage, where the number begins. Of course it’s Kent. He plays a sailor in a Shanghai bar in love with and searching for the title character, a Chinese prostitute, who is called, at various points, a “fascinating heathen” and a “Chinee devil,” and who, when she first makes her appearance, tells Kent, “I miss you very much a long time.” Yeah, it’s a little racist. At the same time, there’s a moment where the camera pans down a long bar and an international central-casting group—Brit, Frenchie, Israeli—sing different lines. One of those is a handsome African with a white woman hanging on his arm. Plus some of the Chinese are actually played by Chinese. Progress.
Then there’s a call to arms, the soldiers and sailors march in Busby-esque formations, and it looks like Lil is going to be left behind. She isn’t. Her gets her a uniform and off she goes with him. To war. We get overhead shots with placards that form the American flag and then the recently elected president: FDR; then the boys, with “Yankee Doodle” piped in, form the National Recovery Administration eagle. Not bad for a bunch of Republican like Jack Warner.
That’s pretty much it. The show is saved, Nan gets her man, and a hundred scantily glad girls move onto the next scene. “Footlight” is one of three big Berkeley musicals that Warners released in 1933. A year later, the Production Code grew teeth and the girls covered up. The racism stayed.
A snapshot of the ”Shanghai Lil" number.
Wednesday July 01, 2020
Carl Reiner (1922-2020)
When I was growing up in Minneapolis in the 1970s, the non-music album we played the most was probably “2000 and THIRTEEN,” by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, which my father always felt was funnier than the more famous “2000 Year Old Man.” I agree. I still think it's one of the funniest things I‘ve ever heard. This is from memory so forgive all the errors:
CARL: [Somehow mentions Paul Revere]
MEL: Anti-Semitic bastard!
CARL: What? Why, we have no record of
MEL: Oh, he was scared of us. He was afraid. He was afraid we were moving into the neighborhood. I remember one night, he got on his horse, and he rode around yelling, “The Yiddish are coming! The Yiddish are coming!”
CARL: No, it was “The British are coming!”
MEL: Oy, my god!
CARL: You mean all this time...?
MEL: Oh, and I didn’t go to his funeral. ... I‘ll have to send his wife a note.
There are tributes and testimonials all over the internet and social media, of course. From Nick Kroll. From Al Franken. From Alec Berg, a “Seinfeld” writer. From Matthew Rosenberg, a comic book writer, who recounts his father’s love of “Your Show of Shows” with one sketch and one perpetual birthday dinner. Anyone who can get “Beef Straganoff” to trend on Twitter, instead of the latest Trumpian idiocies, is my friend for life. Paul Wadman simply posted a nonsense rhyme—Nog, Nog/McKellan bee bog—which I immediately recognized from “2000 and THIRTEEN” and translated. My friend Adam posted that the Reiner-directed “The Jerk” was “flat-out the funniest film ever made” and it made me recall all the bits from “The Jerk” Adam would do when we shared an office from 2005 to 2007.
Reiner was mostly straight man to hilarious men, wasn't he? To Mel. To Sid Caesar. To Steve Martin. I never regularly watched his huge breakthrough, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” but I did see most of the movies he directed in the late 1970s—and in the theater: “Oh, God,” “The One and Only,” and “The Jerk.” Yes, even “The One and Only,” since it starred Henry Winkler and I was Fonz-crazed at the time. Then I was Steve Martin-crazed. Though “Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid” and “The Man with Two Brains” might have been VHS but “All of Me” was definitely theater. In the autumn of his life Reiner did lesser summer movies: “Summer Rental,” “Summer School.” Apparently he was greatly disappointed in the box-office response to “Bert Rigby, You‘re a Fool,” his 1989 working-class, British, musical comedy. He thought the star, Robert Lindsay, was another Dick Van Dyke, but “working class” and “musical” and “British” didn’t take in the summer of Tim Burton's “Batman.” (What's with “Rigby,” by the way? It's also Martin's name in “Dead Men.” Anyone know?)
He kept going. He never stopped working. He appeared with Mel on Jerry Seinfeld's “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” He was nominated for an Emmy in his mid-90s for starring in and narrating “If You‘re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast.” He took potshots at Trump on Twitter. He became a toy in Pixar’s “Toy Story” world: Carl Reinerocerus.
Baseball historian John Thorn posted this trading card from the “1953 Bowman TV and Radio Stars of NBC” set—a thing I never knew existed, but you can look it up:
He made it a long way from the garment district. You look at that long, full life, full of laughter, and think, “That's the way to do it.”