Sunday January 31, 2021
Movie Review: Tribute to a Bad Man (1956)
There’s a moment two-thirds of the way through “Tribute to a Bad Man,” when Steve Miller (Don Dubbins), the neophyte ranchhand from the east, from Penn-sai-vane-ai-ay, as ranch owner Jeremy Rodock (James Cagney) keeps saying, is trying to convince Rodock’s woman, Jocasta (Irene Papas), to run away with him. She pulls back and looks at him with sympathy. “You are so young,” she says finally.
Here are the ages of the three actors when the movie premiered in April 1956:
- Dubbins: 27
- Papas: 29
- Cagney: 56
So yes. A bit young in the Hollywood scheme of things.
“Bad Man” was supposed to star Spencer Tracy, but he got sick, or the high altitude in the Rockies got to him, or he probably just had second thoughts about the script; but after many delays MGM fired him and came hat-in-hat to Jimmy—who had just starred in the studio’s hit “Love Me or Leave Me,” with Doris Day. “There were some 80 people in Montrose, Colorado, waiting to get the job done,” Cagney wrote in his memoir, Cagney By Cagney. “I was about as interested in working as I was in flying, which means a considerable level below zero, but after much gab, I agreed.
As for what he thought of the film? “The result was all right, I guess.”
Emphasis on “I guess.”
It’s Cagney’s third and final western, and it’s not as good as the others. It’s Cinemascope—his second—and the shooting location in the Rockies is beautiful; but it feels like movie by committee. Hey, Shane worked, let’s adapt another story by that Jack Schaefer guy. Teens are popular, let’s get some kids in there and try to understand them. May/December worked in High Noon, let’s go for that.
Everyone here is a second choice: Cagney for Tracy, who got sick; Dobbins for Robert Francis, who died in a plane crash; Papas for Grace Kelly, who turned it down.
Even the title is sloppy seconds. It was a working title for Vincente Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful,” where it made more sense; here it’s a misnomer. Is he a bad man? Seems decent enough. And what’s the tribute? Steve’s voice-over? Schaefer’s original title, “Hanging’s for the Lucky,” gets at the conflict. Rodock is a rancher in the Wyoming Territory who dispenses frontier justice for horse thieves. He gets “hanging fever,” according to his men. “It’s fear that keeps men honest,” he tells Jocasta. “And with that hanging today, I laid fear like a fence 10 feet high around my property!”
Except he didn’t. He keeps making enemies, and they keep coming around to steal his horses. No one raises this point. If hanging’s a deterrent, Rodock, why do you have to keep hanging men? Instead, their message is a mushy moral one. Jocasta just thinks it’s wrong. Steve just thinks it’s wrong, too.
Rodock: He stole my horses, didn’t he? He shot at me, didn’t he? He killed Whitey, didn’t he?
Steve: How do you know he killed Whitey? … You don’t know. You’ll never know. [looks down] I’ll never know.
Along with men trying to steal his horses, Rodock is surrounded by men trying to steal his woman. Jo is the only woman for, what, hundreds of miles? I guess there’s Peterson’s wife (Jeanette Nolan) but she actually looks like a frontier woman. The first time we—and Steve—see Jocasta, she emerges from the shadows, her body wrapped in a white, hip-tugging and low-cut dress, and Steve’s eyes practically fall out of their sockets. That moment is directed and photographed well (by Robert Wise and Robert Surtees, respectively), but it’s not exactly cinema verité.
I assumed Rodock would have to fend off some of his men, particularly after one of them, Fat Jones (Lee Van Cleef), talks up the new mail-order catalogs that have pictures of women in corsets. “I ain’t seen a woman outside of Jocasta in eight months,” he declares with menace, then turns to another wrangler. “And you ain’t gettin’ no prettier.” It’s a good bit, but Cleef barely has a role. No, it’s the smooth head wrangler, McNulty (Stephen McNally), who’s a problem. He’s actually a bigger problem for the movie. He should be two-faced—subservient to Rodock while privately making moves on Jo—but he shows just the one: smarmy and insinuating with both. “You act like a man with a lot of ideas. But all of them second rate—and not one honorable,” Rodock says, but for some reason he keeps him on. It’s a disconnect. Eventually, though, McNulty makes one pass too many, there’s a fistfight, etc. Oddly, when he returns for revenge, he wants the horses rather than the woman.
The other rival for Jo’s attentions is Steve. He should have the better shot—blonde, handsome, age appropriate—but he’s not only “so young,” as she says, but so soft. Cringingly so. His voice narrates the film, about how both Jo and Rodock helped him become a man, but I don’t see him living long enough in the Wild West to reflect back on it all. I’m shocked he made it all the way to Rodock’s place to begin with.
But that’s the movie’s conceit. Soft Steve needs to toughen up while tough Rodock needs to soften.
Turnin' of the earth
For all this, the movie still has a shot. In the final act, McNulty teams with Peterson’s son, Lars (Vic Morrow), who bears a longstanding familial grudge, and a third man, Barjak (James Griffith), to steal Rodock’s mares and foals. Rodock and Steve find the horses and the thieves in a valley; but before he can get to hanging, he realizes the mares have had their hooves cut to the bone, making it painful for them to walk. These men crippled these horses for life, in order to make sure they didn’t stray. It’s the most horrific act in the movie. I wanted them hanged. But this is when Rodock doesn’t do it. Instead, in an eye-for-an-eye moment, he makes them take off their boots and march the 100 or 200 miles to the nearest town/jail. Steve and Rodock ride behind on their horses.
The pace is relentless—a slow, steady drumbeat. The thieves begin to stagger, stockinged feet torn and bloody, but he keeps them marching. It recalls an earlier, “Searchers”-esque line of Steve’s when Rodock was pursuing Whitey’s killer. “He kept going … He kept going…” There, though, Rodock’s relentlessness fed his anger; here, the opposite. Steve counsels restraint (“Mr. Rodock, you gotta stop”; “This ain’t punishment, Mr. Rodock, it’s revenge!”), and Rodock slowly relents. He gives the prisoners water and lets them rest in the shade. His reward? Lars tells him he’s greedy and cruel. He lets Barjak, who’s collapsed, ride the rest of the way; Lars tells him “My pa shoulda killed you 20 year ago.” Eventually Rodock just lets them go—these horse thieves and cripplers. He even returns Lars to his mother personally. His reward? Lars goes for a shotgun and tries to kill him.
So maybe Rodock was right all along about frontier justice? It just takes too much to get these guys before a judge. Sadly, Rodock doesn’t point this out; he becomes good for the sake of being good. His reward? When he returns to the ranch, Jo leaves him for Steve.
Except when she finds out Rodock didn’t hang the horse thieves, she returns to him with open arms. That’s our happy ending. Good comes to the good. Or so Hollywood wants us to believe. Probably because we want to believe it.
I still think there’s something in that final act if they’d just finetuned it. Maybe Steve is horrified by the horse crippling and wants blood, and maybe this is why Rodock holds back on the hanging—because he doesn’t want Steve to become like him. Or sure, continue with the long march, but prove Rodock right. Acknowledge the danger in it—the long absence. Maybe deliver the men to the judge, as Jo wanted, then return to find Jo killed or missing. Just gone, and he'll never find out why.
During the 1950s, movie studios kept pairing Cagney with young, dull male co-stars whom they hoped would become stars but never did: John Derek, Roger Smith twice, Don Dubbins twice. Cagney is either learned and teaches (“Run for Cover”), or corrupt and learns (“These Wilder Years,” “Man of a Thousand Faces”), or corrupt and teaches (“Never Steal Anything Small”). Here, I guess, he’s corrupt but teaches wrangling while learning a higher moral standard. The worst part is the sense that Rodock wants the approval of the kids: not just Steve but Lars, too. Somewhere, Tom Powers spits.
Because of the Spencer Tracy overruns, “Tribute to a Bad Man” didn’t make back half its cost, and Cagney, a true outdoorsman, increasingly attracted to the western genre, never got to make another western. His good deed (filling in for Tracy) went punished. A better lesson than the mushy one the movie gives us.
Minneapolis newspaper ad from 1956. Wonder where the free parking was.
Tuesday January 26, 2021
Movie Review: One Night in Miami (2020)
The first time I heard that Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali got together in Malcolm’s motel room on February 25, 1964, the night Ali/Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world, I thought, “That should be a play.” Kemp Powers was way ahead of me; it was first performed in 2013. Now he and director Regina King have turned his play into a movie.
And it doesn’t exactly shake up the world.
Immediate takeaways on the four leads:
- Eli Goree is good with the public, loudmouth Clay/Ali schtick, but that’s all he does. He doesn’t give us a private, quiet Ali the way Will Smith did in Michael Mann’s movie. At times I felt like I was watching a cartoon.
- Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcolm X suffers the opposite problem. He seems small and slight, without any of Malcolm’s commanding presence.
- I don’t know if Aldis Hodge’s Jim Brown is a good characterization of Brown, since I don’t know Brown, but this guy should be a star. He’s got something. He’s intriguing in the way Tom Hardy was in “Inception.” You wonder what he’s thinking. Handsome as fuck, too.
- OK, if they don’t make the full-length Sam Cookie biopic starring Leslie Odom, Jr., I’m going to be very, very disappointed in Hollywood (for the zillionth time). He’s the right age, a good actor, and his voice is to die for. Get on it.
Cooke v. X
Basics: Behind the scenes, Malcolm prepares to break away from the Nation of Islam even as Clay is preparing to join. But does Malcolm want Clay on his side of this internecine struggle? Of course. Is he willing to ask him? Not according to Peter Goldman in his book “The Death and Life and Malcolm X”:
The night [Ali] beat Liston, Chicago telephoned him at this victory party—an ice-cream social, more accurately, in Malcolm’s motel suite—and awarded him his membership and his new name; the next morning, reborn Muhammad Ali, he confirmed his conversion to the world. Malcolm liked Ali too well to interfere in this or to involve him further in his private difficulties. When he broke with the Nation two weeks later, he counseled Ali to stay with Mr. Muhammad—and swallowed his hurt feelings when Ali took his advice.
In the movie, Malcolm asks—to not much drama. If you’re going to muck with the history, make it resonate. This doesn’t.
The movie’s main conflict is one we’ve seen many times—radical (Malcolm) vs. moderate (Sam Cooke)—and the movie doesn’t do much new with it. They make both men more extreme versions of themselves to create the conflict, then ease up for the resolution.
Malcolm is about to create a more accommodating version of himself but here he spends the evening haranguing Sam Cooke for being too accommodating. Meanwhile, they all but say Sam is an Uncle Tom. He’s staying at a ritzy hotel in the white part of town, tries to play the Copa before a hostile, white audience, and he’s criticized for singing one way before white crowds and another before Black crowds. “You Send Me” and “Sentimental Reasons” are used as punchlines. His background in the Black church? Unmentioned. His financial and organizational support for Black artists? Unmentioned until the 11th hour. At one point, Malcolm has the effrontery to play Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”—as if Sam doesn’t know his own industry or art—asking, basically, “How come you don’t do this? This white boy from Minnesota pens something that speaks more to our people than anything you’ve done. How come you don’t get involved in the movement?”
That’s when I knew where they were going. I thought: No no no no. Don’t tell me that because of Malcolm’s pointed attacks throughout the night, Sam will go off and create “A Change is Gonna Come”? Fun fact: By Feb. 25, 1964, Sam had already written, sung and recorded “A Change is Gonna Come”; it was on an LP released that month. But, yes, that’s what happens. We see it a mile off, it’s untrue, but it gives the movie its facile resolution. Oh, and they insult Jackie Wilson along the way, too.
Plus … the movement? Malcolm doesn’t care about the movement. Malcolm attacked the movement. He didn’t hold it up as something to aspire to.
At one point, during the eternal back-and-forth, I thought: “Didn’t Cassius just win the heavyweight championship of the world? Shouldn't this be a little more celebratory? Shouldn’t there be a little more celebrating?” Oddly, Clay becomes a background figure on his big night. Imagine that: Muhammad Ali, a background figure.
Brown v. Board of St. Simons
Of the four, Jim Brown’s internal dilemma is the least interesting: Should he leave the NFL for a Hollywood career? The movie makes it seem like a political decision, a radical act, when both are forms of entertainment for the masses. Jim is either entertaining in a dangerous field where he’s the best by far; or he's doing it in a cushier field where he’s kind of meh. He went meh. But he’s the only one of the four that’s still alive.
That said, the best scene in the movie is Brown’s. It’s when he visits his mother’s former employer, Mr. Carlton (Beau Bridges), in his birthplace on St. Simons Island, Ga. On the porch, he receives a hero’s welcome and lemonade is served. We keep waiting for Mr. Carlton, old, white and Southern, to stick his foot in it but he keeps saying and doing the right thing. Even when his daughter reminds him he has to move a dresser, he doesn’t ask Brown to help as if he’s some servant; he going to do it himself. Amused, Brown offers, but Carlton responds matter-of-factly: “Why, Jim, you know we don’t allow niggers in the house.”
That line is dropped like a fucking hammer. Not only does Brown not expect it, we don’t. We were expecting it, but Carlton had passed our tests and we'd dropped our guard. Excellent writing.
I like that the movie doesn’t give the Nation of Islam a pass. Malcolm and Betty reference Elijah Muhammad’s frequent affairs with his teenage secretaries, while Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee (Michael Imperioli), gets in some digs at the Nation’s absurd origin myth—its theory that all white people are literal devils on this earth. Lance Riddick is powerful, too, as a Nation minister guarding and/or spying on the four men.
Two of the men—the non-athletes—died within a year of this meeting: Sam in December, Malcolm the following February. Both violent deaths. Clay became Ali and a legend, while Jim Brown embarked on a so-so movie career. Ali and Malcolm have risen in stature over the years, Brown and Cooke less so. A good reason to get started on that Sam Cookie biopic.
Sunday January 24, 2021
Henry Aaron (1934-2021)
The greatest season-ending cliffhanger of my childhood was not “Who Shot J.R.?” from “Dallas” but the finale to the 1973 regular baseball season when Hank Aaron finished one homerun shy of Babe Ruth's hallowed 714 mark. I was 10.
In my fifth grade class, my friend Dan and I were resurrecting a stapled-together magazine we'd done in third grade called “Kids Life,” and in the first issue in the fall of '73 I wrote a two-page article on Henry Aaron. Here it is, mistakes and all:
Hank Aaron By Erik Lundegaard
Hank is closing up on Babe Ruth's 714 HR's. Hank ended this season with 713, one short of Babe Ruth. Near the middle of the season, some pitchers were going to try to let Hank Aaron get his 715th HR off of them. When Aaron broke into the majors he batted cross handed. When Aaron hit his 700th HR of his career, he didn't even get congratulations from Bowie Kuhn. Hank leads every player All-time for total bases. Not many people thought Hank would break Ruth's record until 1971. Aaron has also led the NL in batting twice. (1956-1959) Hank has only led NL in HR's 4 times. Aaron has also been MVP once. Aaron hit 40 HR's at the age of 39. Aaron gets most of his power from his wrists. No wonder opposing pitchers call him Bad Henry
Most of the information must've come from biographies I'd read (“Hammerin' Hank of the Braves”), general baseball books (“Heroes of the Major Leagues,” “Baseball Stars of ...”), as well as “Baseball Digest,” my off-season Bible. The cover headline, meanwhile, was taken from the Bill Slayback song, “Move Over Babe, Here Comes Henry,” which I believe played on “Game of the Week” a few times in '73. I loved it. Even without YouTube I could sing you the chorus:
Move over, Babe, here comes Henry
And he's swinging mean
Move over, Babe, Hank's hit another
He'll break that 714
It's interesting I don't mention race in any of the above, because I knew he was getting hate mail and death threats. The newspapers talked about it. “Peanuts” talked about it. Did the first glimmers of America's racist history come to me through baseball? “Dad, why don't they want Rod Carew to get married?” “Why were there no Black players before Jackie Robinson? ”Why do people want to kill Hank Aaron?“
That was the worst part of the cliffhanger: Not the six months between seasons—an eternity when you're in fifth grade—but the question: Would Hank Aaron live through it? We weren't the only ones asking. According to biographer Howard Bryant, Aaron ”believed he would be assassinated in the offseason. He had received enough letters to convince him so. He received death threats from 1972 to 1974—all for doing what America asked of him.“
Dan and I wound up making about 30 issues of ”Kids Life“ that schoolyear, and as I look over them I can see my different passions flowering: now football, now Marvel Comics, now politics. But always baseball. That spring I did a special BASEBALL! issue, with the exclamation point of the logo a fat baseball bat, and on the cover, via my older brother Chris, a sketch of a baseball-clad Richard Nixon, not long for the presidency, swinging and missing. The issue included an in-depth, two-page quiz, predictions for the '74 season, and another bio. Or the same one.
Hank was born on February 5th 1934 in Mobile Alabama. When Hank was in High School, he playd for a black team and he batted cross-handed. So his manager made him change but when his back was facing the dugout he would swich hands. Either way he batted great and helped the Braves to win the World Series in 1956 [sic] and in 1958 he lead them to the pennant but they failed to win the Series. Aaron has been underrate al lhis life until about 1970. He has become a great athlete. The chances for him to break Ruth's record are 99 to 1 his favor.
Was I only reading about Henry Aaron during that long Minnesota winter? He's in the quiz, too (”EASY QUESTIONS: Who is no. 44 for the Braves?“) and in the crossword puzzle (”Where Aaron was born“).
For the curious, Aaron hit No. 713 in the second-to-last game of the '73 season, after which he came up five more times. He didn't exactly wilt under the pressure, going 4-5 with four singles—a good reminder that along with the homerun record, he retired with the second-most hits in baseball history (he's now third) and the most total bases (he's still first—by a long shot). My favorite baseball factoid: If you turn all of Hank Aaron's 755 homeruns into strikeouts, he would still have more hits than Babe Ruth and fewer strikeouts than Reggie Jackson. Astonishing.
Once the '74 season began, he didn't make us wait long. It was like he wanted to end it as soon as possible:
He couldn't have done it better. He tied the record on his first swing (six years to the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated), then broke it the following Monday, at home, and on national television, so all of us could watch. I remember being very excited, and then very, very embarrassed when the two white college kids ran onto the field to pat his back. At first, I think I thought they were going to attack him. Dude was getting death threats, dudes! When it was revealed to be just back pats, that felt awful, too. It's his moment, not yours! But apparently he didn't mind. He was mostly worried about the trouble they would get into. He's been reunited with them a few times since. He was always gracious about it.
Did something break in him during that time? He was coming off a 40-homer season, and he hit seven in April; but then the cliff: just 2 HRs each in May, June and July; four in August, three in September. He'd hit at least 20 homers every season since 1955, and he did it again in '74 but just barely. He hit No. 20 on the last day of the season and in his last at-bat in an Atlanta uniform. That off-season, he was traded to the Brewers and the city where he'd started, Milwaukee, where he hit 12 in '75 and 10 in '76. I got to see him hit No. 738. He made 755 a magical number.
In a way he made 713 a magical number—at least to me: that long winter when he was sitting on it, when I was reading and regurgitating his story, it became imprinted on me. I remember a game at the Kingdome in '96, '97, when someone either asked me for the time or I noticed it, but out loud I said: ”7:13.“ And then as a joke: ”Time for a homerun.“ The next pitch, Alex Rodriguez hit one into the left-field bleachers and the guy in front of us turned around and stared at me like I was Nostradamus. I shrugged. ”713. Hank Aaron. C'mon.“
But yes, something in him broke during that long winter. From his New York Times obit:
In the early 1990s, he told the sports columnist William C. Rhoden of The New York Times, ”April 8, 1974, really led up to turning me off on baseball.“
”It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about,“ he said. ”My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ball parks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won't go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.“
Former baseball commissioner Bartlett Giamatti once said that baseball is designed to break your heart, but it's not always baseball. In the scheme of things, it's rarely baseball.
Henry Aaron died late last week at age 86. I got the news something was wrong via Joe Posnanski's Twitter feed. Just this cry:
Encomiums and remembrances have been pouring in ever since. This morning my friend Ben sent me Douglas Brinkley's piece in the Times, about what Aaron meant to him, about his final interview with him in November—just before the election. You can sense his gentleness. I like what he says about Jimmy Carter. And they go over it all again: the inspiration of Jackie Robinson, leaving to play Negro League Baseball with $2 in his suitcase, the '57 World Series, the 714 chase and the pain of it. They talk about friends who have passed and how hard it is to process. ”It's sad,“ Aaron says. ”But I guess in some ways, you know, you come here, and you have to leave. God doesn't expect you to stay all the time."
Thursday January 21, 2021
Brand New Day
When all the dark clouds roll away
And the sun begins to shine
I see my freedom from across the way
And it comes right in on time
And it seems like and it feels like
And it seems like, yes it feels like
A brand new day
A brand new day
-- Van Morrison, “Brand New Day”
I listened to Van Morrison's “Brand New Day” while making coffee yesterday morning, then posted the video later on Twitter. That was the feeling—mine and everyone's. By the time I woke, Donald Trump had left the White House for the last time as president. He was done. At 7:30 AM PST, when I woke up Patricia, festivities were already beginning. Have I ever watched an inauguration ceremony all the way through? I suppose 2009's, at a party, a brunch, but I don't think I watched with this level of scrutiny and caring and just overall relief.
And what a show they put on. It was exciting when each new couple strolled down the Capitol steps—the site, two weeks ago, of so much violence and chaos and horror. I even appreciated the Republicans there. I appreciated Mike Pence for showing up to represent the administraton since Trump didn't have the courage to do so; since he never realized the importance of the office; since he always thought it was always about him rather than the office. Moscow Mitch was there, too, so I stopped hating on him for a few hours. Roy Blunt gave a not-bad speech and made a not-bad snow flurries/Amy Klobachur/Minnesota joke. I loved the rendition of “This Land is Your Land” from J-Lo and the “Hamilton”-inflected poem from a 22-year-old former stutterer (like Biden). I liked Garth Brooks' “Amazing Grace” (but brother, put on a mask), but I particularly loved Lady Gaga's powerful rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Her phrasing, and the events of two weeks ago, not to mention the past four years, lent new meaning to the words, “... gave proof through the night/ That our flag was still there.” Words that I've sung literally thousands of times suddenly had new meaning for me. I felt myself tearing up.
And man did I love Biden's speech. He was serious and straightforward about our problems. This part:
Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies—lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.
It's the part Republicans have seized on in the last 24 hours. They've cry like stuck pigs. But they know. They know what they've been doing. Double down, Joe. Double down.
I think he's the right man for the moment. He's worked in the federal government so long he knows how to make it work. He's both old enough to be crotchety and impatient, and been through enough tragedy to be empathetic. I don't think he'll suffer the many fools in the GOP. I want to hear a lot of “C'mon, man”s directed at Mitch, Lindsey, et al.—the ones who lie for power and profit. The ones who put party above country.
I still remember a dinner out with friends a few years back when everyone was talking up who they wanted on the Democratic side in 2020. This was Seattle so Elizabeth Warren was a popular choice. I said Kamala, with Joe a close second. I also said the best ticket, or the ticket that had the best shot at winning, was Biden-Harris. Glad I wasn't the only one who thought that.
Brand new day.
Wednesday January 20, 2021
T Minus 2 Hours
“In the end, Trump was everything his haters feared—a chaos candidate, in the prescient words of one of his 2016 rivals, who became a chaos President. An American demagogue, he embraced division and racial discord, railed against a 'deep state' within his own government, praised autocrats and attacked allies, politicized the administration of justice, monetized the Presidency for himself and his children, and presided over a tumultuous, turnover-ridden Administration via impulsive tweets. He leaves office, Gallup reported this week, with the lowest average approval ratings in the history of the modern Presidency. Defeated by Joe Biden in the 2020 election by seven million votes, Trump became the first incumbent seeking reëlection to see his party lose the White House, Senate, and the House of Representatives since Herbert Hoover, in 1932. A liar on an unprecedented scale, Trump made more than thirty thousand false statements in the course of his Presidency, according to the Washington Post, culminating in perhaps the biggest lie of all: that he won an election that he decisively lost.
”Yet Republicans—the vast majority, that is, of those who still identify themselves as Republicans—continue to embrace Trump and the conspiracy theories about his defeat that the departing President has spread to explain his loss. This, more than anything, might have been the most surprising thing about Trump's tenure: his ability to turn one of America's two political parties into a cult of personality organized around a repeatedly bankrupt New York real-estate developer. And so we are ending these four years having learned not that Donald Trump is a bad man—the evidence of that was already voluminous and incontrovertible before he entered politics—but that there are millions of Americans who were willing to overthrow our constitutional system in order to keep him in power, who would follow Trump's dark lies rather than acknowledge unwelcome truths.“
-- Susan B. Glasser, ”Obituary for a Failed Presidency," The New Yorker
The above and Michael Lewis' comments from the other day feel like the two biggest takeaways from this horrific era: tens of millions of Americans are willing to undermine American democracy for a demagogue; and the demagogue lost re-election not because of his undemocratic, inhumane and bullying impulses, but simply because he was a bad manager in a time of crisis.
Tuesday January 19, 2021
T Minus 12 Hours
“Donald Trump's tenure was characterized by colossal incompetence and mind-numbing indifference to the public good. His coronavirus management has resulted in more than 24.1 million cases in the United States and almost 400,000 deaths — projected to exceed 500,000 deaths by May. While overseeing arguably the worst loss of life since the great influenza of 1918, Trump also presided over the worst unemployment since the Great Depression. He is the first president in modern history to see a net loss of jobs during his time in office.
”He was the most dishonest president ever: He produced more than 30,000 documented falsehoods.
“He was the most corrupt president ever. He used his office to enrich his businesses, interfered in Justice Department investigations, engaged in obstruction of justice, stonewalled Congress, refused to release his tax returns, purged inspectors-general and pardoned his cronies and co-conspirators.
”He was the most openly racist president in modern times — arguably since Woodrow Wilson. ...
“He was the first president who refused to accept election defeat or propagated bizarre conspiracy theories to undermine confidence in the electoral system.
He became the only president ever impeached twice — once for trying to blackmail Ukraine into helping him politically, the second time for inciting a violent insurrection to try to stay in office. ...
”Thanks, President Trump. By being so awful, you have all but guaranteed that Biden will be far more successful by comparison.“
-- Max Boot, ”Trump was the worst president ever. But his failures set up Biden for success," The Wasington Post.
Tuesday January 19, 2021
Don Sutton (1945-2021)
How often does a player wind up in the all-time top 10 in a statistical category without once leading the league? Seems like it would be a rarity. Yet Don Sutton, who never led the league in innings pitched, is seventh all-time in that category—behind only Cy Young, Pud Galvin, Walter Johnson, Phil Niekro, Nolan Ryan, and Gaylord Perry.
He did this the way he played baseball—by being very good for a very long time. His first season was 1966, his last 1988, and from '66 to '85 (ignoring the lockout-shortened '81 season), he never threw fewer than 200 innnings nor more than 300 innings in a season. He won 15 or more games a dozen times, but 20+ only once. His ERA was never over 5.00, never under 2.00. His best bWAR was 6.6 and he was only negative once, his last season, and just barely: -0.1. No Cy Young Award, not even a second-place finish, and a so-so postseason career. But he led the league in ERA once, starts once, strikeout-to-walk ratio three times, and WHIP four times. He was Ol' Man River; he just kept rolling along.
“I never wanted to be a superstar, or the highest paid player,” he told Baseball Digest in 1985. “All I wanted was to be appreciated for the fact that I was consistent, dependable, and you could count on me.”
He was and you could: Only two players in baseball history started more games: Nolan Ryan and Cy Young. Only 13 players won more games, only nine pitched more shutouts, only six struck out more. Strikeouts is another of those categories he never led the league in but finished in the top 10 all-time. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1998.
Sutton, born in Alabama, the son of a sharecropper, died Monday night in Rancho Mirage, Calif., age 75.
Tuesday January 19, 2021
T Minus 17.5 Hours
“Mr. Trump said in 2016 that America must be 'more unpredictable.' He was true to his word.
”The sudden infatuation with North Korea's Stalinist leader, Kim Jong-un, the kowtowing to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, the 'Chinese virus' obsession, the enthusiasm for the fracturing of the European Union, and the apparent abandonment of core American democratic values were so shocking that Mr. Trump's departure on Wednesday from the White House is widely viewed with relief. ...
“'Mr. Trump is a criminal, a political pyromaniac who should be sent to criminal court,' Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's foreign minister, said in a radio interview. 'He's a person who was elected democratically but who is not interested in democracy in the slightest.'”
-- from “Trump Bequeaths Biden an Upended World,” Roger Cohen, The New York Times
Monday January 18, 2021
'We Should Have a Deeper State': Michael Lewis on Trump, Presidential Transitions and the American Attitude Toward Government
One of the few podcasts I subscribe to is Michael Lewis’ “Against the Rules,” where he takes seeming dull topics (refs, coaches) and dives so deep and wide that they immediately become fascinating.
At the end of November, a special episode became available—a half-hour interview conducted by Axios’ Niala Boodhoo, in which Lewis talks about presidential transitions. His previous book, “The Fifth Risk,” is about what the incoming Trump team didn’t do in 2016, and now the topic was what the outgoing Trump folks were trying to prevent the incoming Biden team from doing. But the conversation is more than that. I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it forever: “The Fifth Risk” is the answer the Democrats never gave to Ronald Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric. It’s the conversation we need to be having.
I’d give you a link to his Axios interview but I can no longer find that full episode online. It’s no longer on his site, for example. But there is a 10-minute version here. That will do for now. If you find the longer version, let me know.
In the meantime, I took part of the weekend to transcribe the longer version—which I'd already downloaded to my phone. Feel free to pass it on.
How did you get interested in this whole idea of presidential transitions in the first place?
I got interested the day after Trump was elected and Steven Bannon announced they were going to toss all the books prepared by the Obama administration in the garbage can, and Trump fired many hundreds of persons, his transition team, carefully assembled by Chris Christie. Then I kind of asked: What is this thing they decided not to show up for?
Our government is different than the government in other democracies. Even though it gets accused of being a deep state, it’s actually quite a shallow state in some ways. That we have more than 4,000 political appointees who come in to actually run the thing. So there’s not a permanent leadership in the same way there are in other civil services. And the problem is continuity. You don’t have a continuity in management or leadership. So you’ve got new people who come in to run this whole thing. And they often have no idea what it is they’re taking charge of.
So let’s take an example. This is what really piqued my interest in writing “The Fifth Risk.”
Rick Perry had been a presidential candidate who got on stage and said, during a presidential debate, that he was going to eliminate three departments of the federal government. He couldn’t remember their names but he said he was going to do it. Afterwards he remembered their names, and one of them was the Dept. of Energy. Now Donald Trump, after he’s elected, picks Rick Perry to be in charge of the Dept. of Energy—which he said he was going to eliminate. At which point, Rick Perry admits he actually has no idea what goes on in the Dept. of Energy. And lo and behold, what goes on in the Dept. of Energy is they manage the nuclear arsenal. Among other things. I mean, things that are just critical to the society. At which point, Rick Perry backpedals furiously and says, “This place is absolutely critical and we’re going to keep it, and I’m going to run it.”
But now you see there’s a problem, right? You’ve got a guy who clearly doesn’t know what he’s running. And if he doesn’t show up to listen to what the people going out have been through for the last four or eight years, or listen to the civil service about what the problems are? You’ve got incompetence and ignorance just waiting to cause trouble.
You spent so much time talking to these people about how they were preparing for a transition [in 2016]. Can you give us a sense of what that involved?
Sure. So any place you went in the government, you could find things that were being done that if they weren’t done would be very disturbing to the American people. They just don’t pay attention to what’s going on in these places. When people think transition they think the White House. They don’t realize, “No, it’s actually the entire federal bureaucracy, the entire federal government, is being handed over.” And by law. There’s actually a law that requires the administration to prepare for this moment of handoff.
The Bush administration, for example, had been very, very diligent in preparing to hand the government over to the Obama administration and Obama was very grateful for how they did that. Obama could get up to speed on the problems they were dealing with—like, for example, a global financial crisis. The Obama administration had done the same thing for the Trump administration. So there are these briefing books—let’s say you’re taking over the nuclear arsenal. There’s a dude, in a room, who’s been managing the nuclear arsenal. It does require management. You don’t want the bombs going off when you don’t want them to go off, and you want them to be able to go off when you want them to go off. You have, among other things, billions of dollars of projects in nuclear waste cleanup underneath you. You have complicated problems you are managing. And there are these books that you’ve created to explain to the people who are going to take over from you how you’ve been doing it.
What happened four years ago that was so peculiar was that I, a journalist, could walk into any one of these departments, find something that was actually critical—like the feeding of 30 million schoolchildren every day—and be the first person to receive the briefing on how this was done. There was no interest from one side to the other. Now the situation is reversed. The outgoing administration has no interest in handing over to the incoming administration. It’s a different problem, right? And I’m watching it from a distance rather than reporting on it now, but it is a different kind of problem, and there are maybe more workarounds here than there were the last time.
I wonder if we can play some audio for you, to get you back to four years ago. And this is the moment of the handover between Pres. Obama to Donald Trump.
Obama: I’ve just had the opportunity to have an excellent conversation with president-elect Trump. It was wide-ranging. We talked about some of the organizational issues in setting up a White House. We talked about foreign policy, we talked about domestic policy. And as I said last night, my no. 1 priority in the coming two months is to try to facilitate a transition that ensures our president-elect is successful.
So that’s a different spirit, right? That’s the spirit of someone actually trying to operate in the spirit of the government and make sure that bad things don’t happen because the incoming administration wasn’t prepared by the outgoing administration.
So now we have a slightly different situation, where the president, uh, well, he doesn’t even want to acknowledge that he lost, for starters, but beyond that seems intent on withholding as much as possible. A couple of things come to mind when I’m watching this happen.
There are obviously just facts you need to know that may be classified that you can get access to. That may be a problem for the Biden administration. But there are a lot of little, practical things. I saw one the other day. The Biden administration is going to have to manage the pandemic. I was in the office of a friend over at the University of California, San Francisco, the other day; and in his office, he had, I don’t know, 10,000 of these Abbott Lab rapid Covid tests—take 15 minutes to do it. He had them because the federal government had bought the first 150 million of these things, and not knowing what to do with them had shipped them off to the states on a per-capita basis. And the states didn’t know what to do with them. They didn’t even know if they worked, so they sent them to UCSF to test them. And in fact they do work very well. Now it’s one little piece of the Covid response. There are a thousand things like this. The Biden administration probably doesn’t even know those things are out there, or where they are, or what the state of play with them is, or how they might be used. If you have 150 million rapid Covid tests, there are obviously smarter places to put it than others—places where you get more leverage out of them. But you can’t even think of them unless you have been briefed.
I wonder how much of the chaos we’re seeing now you think stems from … not just from the 2016 transition, but as you explored all this, the folks that were coming in from the Trump administration really seemed to have the attitude that the way the government is run now is just wrong, and people are doing things wrong, and it doesn’t make sense to listen to the people who have been doing it wrong for however long they’ve been doing it.
But the minute you got into any kind of specifics, it just broke down. I mean, it’s wrong how the nuclear arsenal is being managed? Please explain. And in many cases they weren’t actually proposing a different policy, they were just proposing to be more negligent in the way they managed it. Now, obviously, there were strains to this government. Yes, it was true there were things in the federal government they just wanted to shut down—like, for example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But there were other places—like, for example, managing a pandemic, or managing the nuclear arsenal, or managing nuclear waste cleanup, or distributing school lunches, which they didn’t propose to get rid of, or running the National Weather Service, or collecting taxes—that they weren’t proposing to do away with. In fact, they weren’t proposing to do anything differently. But even in those cases they showed no interest in getting briefed.
The third strain was, there were cases—and the Weather Service is an example of this—where there were private companies that had an interest in making it difficult for the government to do its job so they could extract more profit from the marketplace.
It was a hodge-podge of things, it wasn’t one ideology at work. And on top of it all, there was a president who was perfectly happen to govern in ignorance. In fact, in a funny way, he elevated it to a principle. And to the extent that he kept everyone as in the dark and confused as he was, we were all playing on the same field.
But he seemed to operate almost from a position that he already knew everything. That’s what he’d said to Chris Christie, who had managed his transition team. When Christie said, “You know, this is a big thing, Donald, it’s a 2 million-person operation you’re gonna have to run and you’ve never run anything bigger than your own company,” [Trump] said, “Chris, everything you and I need to know about running the government we can learn by taking an hour away from the victory party.”
Now if that’s your attitude, I mean, really the only way you’re going to proceed is to not pay much attention to it. Because in fact it’s an enormously complicated task. It’s not like it’s easy for anybody. In some ways, the job is undoable. You come in cold. You’ve got to appoint 4,000 people to run this whole operation—get many of them confirmed by a Senate that is hostile to you. Very hard to hire and fire people in the federal government. Everyone knows you’re there at most eight years. It’s a management challenge in the best of times. When you throw into that the people that are handing it off to you are going to obscure from your view everything you need to know to manage it well? You’re just asking for trouble—you just don’t know what the trouble is.
I think in many ways “The Fifth Risk” is kind of like this love letter to bureaucracy and the federal government. There’s so many stories of relationships of people that you met. I think that people don’t think that the National Weather Service is there to provide tornado warnings or hurricane warnings.
They take the progress for granted. Your weather forecasts are so much better than they were a generation ago, and they’re better than they were a generation before that. And there’s a reason for that. And the effect of that is huge. The effect on commerce, the effect on human life, the ability to pinpoint where the hurricane is going to hit land. This is a relatively recent phenomena. And it’s driven entirely, or almost entirely, by the government’s work in the area.
Now there’s been help from the private sector, but the government is the center of the collection and analysis of the weather data that led to the progress in weather prediction. And we just take it for granted. We don’t think, “Huh, who did that? Who were the people who threw themselves into that enterprise?” And when you dig into it, you find it was the woman who, as a 10-year-old girl, was traumatized because in a hurricane a tree fell on her house and she said “I want to make sure that doesn’t happen to other people. I’m going to learn how to predict the weather.” You find these very curious characters who were drawn to the mission. And sometimes the stories are quite moving.
There’s a guy in the book named Arthur Allen, who was laid off during the government shutdown, who was in the Coast Guard, who basically invented a way to predict the way objects drift at sea—depending on the object: if you’re on a life raft or a life preserver or an 18-foot sailboat. And this enabled the Coast Guard to find thousands of people who were lost at sea that they never would’ve found otherwise. This is a guy who saved thousands of lives, and he did it without anyone asking him to do it, just because he got an interest in it while working at a government job. And he got laid off as an unnecessary worker during the government shutdown.
There’s story after story that doesn’t get out there, because the government isn’t allowed to market itself. It doesn’t promote itself—unlike every other sector of society. The book? Yes, it is a bit of a love letter. It didn’t start that way. It started with me just wondering: What happens if people who are going to run this place don’t show up to learn what happens inside of it? And I was shocked by the caliber and the passion of the people I met. A side effect of [the current transition], and a side effect of the entire Trump administration, is to send a signal to those people: You stuck your neck out for this society and we’re going to chop your head off. Or: We don’t honor what you did for us. And that to me is a great shame. That, to me, is the biggest shame of the Trump administration.
Do you think that is reflected in the fact that he lost the election? If you look at polling, how people felt about the way coronavirus has been handled, that was a significant factor in how people voted.
I was betting when I was working on the book that his managerial ineptitude was much more important than people were crediting, and that something would happen. I didn’t know what it was. But one way to frame the federal government is a manager of a portfolio of risks—and some of these risks are existential risks. Something always happens, right? You never know what it is. The presidents don’t get to sit there and coast for four years. Something happens. And when it happens, [Trump] would be unprepared to manage it because of his approach to the enterprise—and because his approach to the enterprise is reflective of deeper problems.
But: Yes, I think he lost the election because of his approach to government. People might not quite put it that way, but put it another way: Let’s say he was a Mussolini who could actually make the trains run on time; that he actually had management ability. Along with everything else he’s got—anti-democratic impulses, all that—that he could make the trains run on time, that he could actually a pandemic effectively. He’d still be president. He’d have won. So, yes, it wound up being his Achilles heel: not paying attention to the enterprise he was supposed to manage.
Now we’re in this in-between period and we’re also seeing a lot of firings: the Defense Secretary … these are important roles. I wonder just sort of what implications you think this period has—not just thinking about President Trump obstructing President-Elect Biden—but also the people who are here.
Well, I don’t know what it means for Trump to fire someone right now. I don’t know if they’re really fired. They’re fired for two months? I don’t know. They could come back. What effect would it have on me if I was in one of these enterprises? It would be just to lay low until the guy is gone. Because why attract attention to yourself? You might be the next one to be fired. But I don’t think it would stop me from having the conversations I’d need to have with the Biden administration—the stuff I felt they needed to know. So I assume a lot of people feel that way. Seems like the natural way to feel. I could be wrong about this. I think of these kind of managerial moves he’s making now as farce and theater. They’re not going to make much of a difference. You’re removing people from jobs for a couple of months. It just seems like noise and distraction.
I wonder if we can end by cutting through that noise and distraction by you just sharing what are the most important things you’d like to be seeing happening. Even if they’re not happening, what should be happening?
I think if we back away from this? And asked “What should we all learn?” We really shouldn’t be at the mercy of one man like this. And there shouldn’t be 4500 people to be appointed by the president to run the civil service—we should have a deeper state. We should have upper-level management positions at all of these agencies that are permanent civil service. We should convert a lot of political positions to civil service positions. So that the transition is less critical; that the expertise at the top stays—much of it; and every department has its Tony Fauci. So the handoff is just not as big a deal.
Think of what the Biden administration is having to do. How much easier it would be if it was 200 people they needed to put in. And only at the very top. And underneath the very top, you had these people who actually knew what was going on in the enterprise; who were actually managing it. My takeaway is we need to reform the government so it would be easier to manage; and it looks more like other enterprises in society that are successfully run.
I think Trump supporters—people who voted for him because they said he’s a businessman and knows how to run a company, and he will clean up the swamp—would agree with you. So what would you say to those people about the government has been run, not just for the past four years, but needs to be reformed in the way that you’re talking about?
You just explain it. You know, the problem is: It’s not explained. If you look very broadly at Trump’s support, what’s the first two things you notice about it—aside from race and gender. You notice where they live. It’s rural. Rural America is the most dependent on the American government of any part of America. Rural America, above all, would welcome a better-run federal government because they’re at the mercy of it. You just explain how. It’s a civics and public education problem. We don’t have that conversation. We shout at each other a lot. I think someone willing to teach, and lead by teaching, absolutely can deliver this message.
So you wrote the book a few years ago: I’m wondering what stories have stayed with you. You mentioned a few. Are there any more?
The person of whom I would think “You would need one of him in every department”: John Mcwilliams, who is the first person I go to see at the Dept. of Energy. He’s just out of the Dept. of Energy when I started this book. And he was a private sector guy. He was a guy that lots of people who hate the government would still find ways to admire him. He made millions of dollars as a private equity person. He knew the energy sector really well. He was a successful investor and money manager. And he was brought in as a risk manager in the Dept. of Energy. His job was to run around the whole place and figure out what are the risks we’re managing. And he stopped at 138. Every one of them seemed terrifying when you sat down and talked to him. He knew nothing about the government when he came into the job. He came away shocked—shocked—by the talent that was inside the Dept. of Energy, and by the energy and ambition, which was just directed at something other than making money. But also shocked by the fact that no one had put names to these risks. Some of the risks are quite slow-moving—like the risk of underinvesting in science and technology. Long-term science projects are being funded by the Dept. of Energy that won’t be funded by the private sector. The future of the economy is being funded, in part, by the Dept. of Energy.
He’s interesting as a person. But that character intrigues me as someone who we could use everywhere in the government. And then have that person explain, publicly, what it is we need to be thinking about and worrying about.
What’s at the top of the risk list?
The top of the list is whatever you’re not thinking about. Because you never know what’s going to happen. I promise you, you and I sit down in four years, some things will have happened that we could never have imagined. But someone in the government is in charge of imagining it and thinking about it and preparing for it, and making a slightly better response to it.
We should’ve been able to guess that we would be crippled by a bug. Right? Some people said some things about it, but it wasn’t at the top of mind four years ago—that we’re all going to be cowering in our homes because there’s this new cold virus going around. There’s a similar unimaginable thing on the horizon. We would do well to buttress the people in the government whose job it is to prepare us for those things.
We didn’t do it in this case. Quite clearly, we didn’t do it in this case. Beyond that, we didn’t empower them after the fact. Trump did things that gutted our ability to respond to this thing, but it was much more what he did after this thing was upon us that was so disturbing. Even now, we’re arguing if government is a solution to the problem. Even now, we alone, in the world—think about this—we alone in the world are fighting about whether or not we should wear masks or congregate in large numbers.
This is the thing to me that’s unbelievably bewildering and telling. We are the inventors of pandemic planning. The Center for Disease Control was in effect the World Health Organization. We have the leading scientists, we’re leaders in medicine, we should be the A team in responding to a pandemic. That we have four-and-something percentage of the world’s population and 20-and-something percentage of the world’s deaths is a spectacular indictment of our relationship to our government. There’s no other explanation than that for our failure. We should be winning the pandemic and we’re losing it.
Sunday January 17, 2021
Fatty Arbuckle and the Original Cancel Culture
Recently I finished a rare read for me: a true-life crime thriller. It's also a not-so-rare read since it's set in the early days of Hollywood.
William J. Mann's Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood is about the unsolved 1922 murder of William Desmond Taylor, a director at Famous Players-Lasky, which became Paramount Pictures. Some of the key figures Mann writes about include:
- Adolph Zukor, Famous Players' head honcho and the most powerful man in the motion picture industry at the time
- Will Hays, the Kennesaw Mountain Landis of the movies, brought in to save the industry and assuage the blue noses amid sex- and drug-related scandals
- comic movie queen Mabel Normand
- up-and-coming ingenue Mary Miles Minter
- shady lost soul Margaret “Gibby” Gibson aka Patricia Palmer
The last three are friends and acquaintances of Taylor—and suspects in his murder.
(Typing out the above, I suddenly wondered if the writers of “Sunset Blvd.” got the name “Norma Desmond” from some combo of Desmond Taylor and Mabel Normand. According to IMDb, that's half correct. Yes to Desmond but Norma was after Norma Talmadge, whom IMDb claims was romantically invovled with Taylor. That would be news to William Mann, who says Taylor was a closeted homosexual.)
The Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle scandal is peripheral to the main storyline but it's the part that felt disturbingly contemporary. A girl, Virginia Rappé, died at one of Arbuckle's parties, and he was eventually charged with manslaughter. The gossip against him was frequent and lurid while the evidence against him was so nonexistent his lawyer asked the judge to dismiss the case altogether. But the judge didn't—and in the worst way. “We are not trying Roscoe Arbuckle alone,” Judge Lazarus declared. “In a large sense, we are trying ourselves. We are trying present-day morals, our present-day social conditions, our present-day looseness of thought and lack of social balance.”
Good god, what a pompous, unjudicious declaration. As a result of such grandstanding, Arbuckle was forced to sit through three trials—two ended in hung juries—while his career dissolved. Mann writes:
Overnight, Arbuckle vanished from the screen. At the Manhattan Opera House, a rerelease of one of his shorts with Mabel, Fatty and Mabel Adrift, was scrapped at the last minute. When a title card announced that “in view of public feeling due to the San Francisco affair, it was deemed advisable to substitute another subject,” the audience erupted in applause. That broke Mabel's heart. It also terrified her. Because if they were gunning for Fatty today, she might be in their crosshairs tomorrow.
And that's the part that felt disturbingly contemporary to me. The terror Mabel Normand felt. I flashed on the #MeToo movement and cancel culture. These later movements are more legit, of course, and have led to a much-needed recalibration in Hollywood and elsewhere; but as #MeToo gained in power it widened its reach and ensnared and ruined the lives of those it shouldn't have: Al Franken, Aziz Ansari, maybe Garrison Keillor. One accuation was often enough—or several vague ones. Many people still assume—vehemently so, brooking no opposition, caring about no evidence—that Woody Allen is guilty even though he's the one who's been proven not so, and even though his son, Moses, has written eloquently in his defense.
Even after Arbuckle was acquitted, the media noise against him stayed strong. The New York Times editorialized: “Arbuckle was acquitted by a jury, but an odor still clings to him.” Will Hays compared the outrage to the Dreyfus affair but he hoped it would dissipate. He didn't want to be a censor; he believed in both the free market and that whole “innocent until proven guilty” proviso. And most people, according to Mann, were ready to welcome him back:
Every time working people, young people, blacks, and immigrants were offered a say in the matter, Fatty triumphed. The Kansas City Journal polled its readers, and the results came back ten to one in favor of the comedian. The same thing happened when the Blackstone Theatre in Detroit asked its audiences to vote. Yet Arbuckle's fate didn't rest with the entire public. It was decided in white, middle-class drawing rooms where the Federation of Women's Clubs took their votes, and in church halls where ministers whipped their flocks into outrages over Hollywood.
Hays did remove the ban against Fatty but outrage erupted again. In an attempt to repair the damage, he held a meeting with, among others, James West of the Boy Scouts, and Mrs. Oliver Harriman of the Camp Fire Girls (who were on his side), and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, a national representative of the Girl Scouts, and Charles A. McMahon, of the National Catholic Welfare Council (who weren't). A “compromise” was reached. Arbuckle could work as a writer or director but was banned as an actor. Bad enough. But Mann says that Hays knew the compromise was empty:
The Federation of Women's Clubs was still vowing to boycott any film he made, whether he was in front of the camera or behind it. The National Board of Review announced that it would exclude any film directed by Arbuckle from its list of recommended films, which many communities used to decide what to show in local theaters.
Arbuckle worked sparingly over the next 10 years and died in 1933, age 46.
What is Aziz Ansari up to these days? Anyone know?
Friday January 15, 2021
T Minus 114 Hours
Friday January 15, 2021
'The Bill is Coming Due'
“If this were still 2015, Trump could fall back on his tried-and-true income generators: money laundering and tax fraud. The problem is that his business model relied on chronically lax enforcement of those financial crimes. And now he is under investigation by two different prosecutors in New York State for what appear to be black-letter violations of tax law. At minimum, these probes will make it impossible for him to stay afloat by stealing more money. At maximum, he faces the serious risk of millions of dollars in fines or a criminal prosecution that could send him to prison.
”Trump reportedly plans to pardon himself along with a very broad swath of his hangers-on. But ... a pardon might constitute an admission of guilt, which could open up Trump to more private lawsuits. Remember how O. J. Simpson was ordered to pay $34 million to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, even after he beat the murder rap? The families of victims of the January 6 riot might well sue Trump for his role in inciting the violence. Trump might try pardoning himself to make sure he can't be charged with criminal incitement, but admitting the crime makes it even easier to bring a civil suit against him. ...
“At noon on January 20, Trump will be in desperate shape. His business is floundering, his partners are fleeing, his loans are delinquent, prosecutors will be coming after him, and the legal impunity he enjoyed through his office will be gone. He will be walking naked into a cold and friendless world. What appeared to be a brilliant strategy for escaping consequences was merely a tactic for putting them off. The bill is coming due.”
-- Jonathan Chait, “Trump Is on the Verge of Losing Everything,” New York magazine
Thursday January 14, 2021
Hoyden (n.): A boisterous girl
“I saw a kid playing baseball on the street with some other kids—it was next door to a friend of mine who was a Paramount executive. She was a cute-looking little tomboy—about twelve—a hoyden, out there knocking hell out of the other kids, playing better baseball than they were. And I needed someone of her type for this picture [A Perfect Crime, 1921]. She'd never acted, so we talked to her parents and they let her do it and she was very good. Her name was Jane Peters; she later changed it to Carole Lombard.”
-- Allan Dwan, “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors,” by Peter Bogdanovich
Thursday January 14, 2021
More IMDb Disconnect
When Michael Apted died last week, most headlines referenced two of his acclaimed movies/projects: “Coal Miner's Daughter” from 1980, and the “Up” series, which began in 1964 and continued into 2019. It's what people who care about cinema think of when they think of Apted. It's what I would've thought of.
Meanwhile, over at IMDb, now owned and operated by Amazon, this is what its algorithms say Apted is known for:
“Rome” is a good, truncated HBO series. “The World is Not Enough” is lesser, lesser Bond. Haven't seen the others.
I remember a time when IMDb felt like it was a place for people who cared about cinema.
Wednesday January 13, 2021
Movie Review: Mister Roberts (1955)
So were there any competent Navy captains in the Pacific during World War II? It’s a wonder we won.
At first blush, “Mister Roberts” seems like a lighter, breezier, Cinemascope and Technicolor (sorry: Warnercolor) version of “The Caine Mutiny,” with its incompetent captain obsessed with fruit (oranges rather than strawberries) and played by a 1930s Warner Bros. gangster (James Cagney instead of Humphrey Bogart). But that’s kind of backwards. “Mister Roberts” came first. It was a best-selling novel in 1946 and a smash Broadway play in 1948, while Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” wasn’t published until 1951. Many of its reviews even invoked “Roberts”:
- “‘The Caine Mutiny’ is a sort of serious ‘Mister Roberts’… — Des Moines Register
- “His Captain Queeg [is] … somewhat reminiscent of the commanding officer in the play, ‘Mister Roberts’…” — Hutchinson News
“Caine,” however, did beat “Roberts” to the screen by a year, which is par for the course for later Cagney. He made his WWII movie (“Blood on the Sun”) at the tail end of WWII, his O.S.S. movie (“13 Rue Madeleine”) a year after the officially sanctioned “O.S.S.,” and his Huey Long movie, “A Lion Is In the Streets,” four years after “All the King’s Men” won best picture. “Come Fill the Cup,” his movie about alcoholism, showed up six years after “Lost Weekend.”
America to me
Cagney gets second billing here—he’s next to Henry Fonda on the title card—but it’s not a meaty role. It’s small and one-note. The Captain’s wartime goals seem to be: 1) prevent his men from going on leave; 2) prevent Lt. Roberts from being transferred; 3) don’t share fresh fruit. He’s a petty asshole who barely gets a name.
What’s his inner life? His backstory? Lt. Barney Greenwald salutes Queeg’s earlier career—“Who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours?”—but the only one defending the Captain is the Captain. During an argument with Roberts, he gives his raison d’etre: class resentment.
I’ve been seeing your kind around since I was 10 years old—working as a busboy. “Oh busboy, it seems my friend has thrown up on the table. Clean up that mess, boy, will ya?” And then when I went to sea as a steward—people poking at you with umbrellas. “Oh, boy! You, boy! Careful with that luggage, boy!” And I took it. I took it for years! But I don't have to take it any more. There’s a war on, and I’m captain of this vessel, and now you can take it for a change!
That’s only vaguely interesting, probably because it’s so vague. Not to mention incomplete. It may explain his pettiness toward Roberts but not to the mostly working-class boys on his ship. He’s awful to them, too.
On Broadway, the role of the Captain was actually darker. He was played by William Harrigan, a longtime character actor in Hollywood, whose roles included “Mac” McKay, Cagney’s gangster benefactor in “G-Men.” He was also the real-life son of Edward Harrigan, a 19th-century Irish playwright/actor for whom George M. Cohan wrote the song “Harrigan,” which, of course, Cagney sang with such gusto in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Amazing the connections when you dig a little.
Joshua Logan, who co-wrote both play and film, criticized the way John Ford directed the Captain character. “In Christ’s name, what has Ford made Cagney do [but] play the Captain like an old New England bumbler, without any hatred, without darkness, without threat? He’s all Down East accent—and comic at that.” Logan also complained how the atmosphere on the ship changed from “prison-like” in the play to “boys camp“ in the movie. But apparently that was necessary to get the cooperation of the U.S. Navy.
All of which created a mess behind the scenes. I’ll try to untangle it.
Because he was 49 years old and hadn’t starred in a movie in eight years, Warner Bros. didn’t even want Henry Fonda, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, to star in the movie version of a play for which he’d already won a Tony. They wanted Marlon Brando or William Holden. But Ford fought for him. Then he fought with him. Fonda hated the lighter, breezier tone and at one point the two men came to blows.
Ford also fought for Cagney and then with Cagney. Apparently on the first day of shooting, Cagney was slightly late, Ford went into a tirade, but Cagney cut it short: “When I started this picture, you said we would tangle asses before this was over. I’m ready now. Are you?” Ford wasn’t, and eventually his excessive drinking got him canned. The irony is he was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy, whom Cagney hated. Cagney did one movie with him, ”Hard to Handle" in 1933, and pegged him as a brown-noser who took too much credit on too little talent. LeRoy’s autobiography seems to bear this out. Among other things, he claims credit for directing Cagney in one of his first films, “Hot Stuff” in 1929. The problem? Cagney wasn’t in “Hot Stuff.” He wasn't even in Hollywood until 1930.
Another irony: That “boys camp” atmosphere Ford fought for is the part of the movie that’s actually aged the worst. The crew seems both gay dream team (young, fit, shirtless, sweaty) and #MeToo scandal waiting to happen (voyeurism; literally tearing the clothes off women during shore leave). They're also, per every Hollywood WWII movie, a melting-pot vision of America—except more melted than usual. Sure, we get a Rodrigues (Perry Lopez) and a Stefanowski (Harry Carey Jr.), but they hardly register. It’s mostly bland, randy white guys who come from nowhere specific. The one time anyone brings up a state back home, it’s the Shore Patrol Officer with the bad southern accent (Martin Milner), who tells Roberts that six of his men razed the home of a French colonial governor. An Army private brought them there as a joke:
Shore Patrol Officer: He told them it was, uh... well, what we call in Alabama … uh…
Mr. Roberts: Yeah, we call it the same thing in Nebraska.
I like that they use Fonda’s home state for Mister Roberts’ home state.
Fonda makes the movie. His goal is noble. The Reluctant is a cargo supply ship drifting in a chain of islands in the Pacific, far from the war, and Roberts wants to be where the war is—he recognizes the historical moment—but his transfer is continually denied by the Captain. Since Roberts can’t get what he wants, he at least tries to get the men what they need. Sure, men, you can take your shirts off in these hellish conditions. Sure, I’ll sacrifice any attempt at transfer and follow all the Captain’s orders forevermore so you guys can have this one shore leave. It’s another of Fonda’s noble men—from Abe Lincoln to Wyatt Earp; from Tom Joad to Juror 8. For the ways Ford screwed up the movie, he couldn’t have fought for a better actor.
He humanizes what is otherwise a fairly cartoonish group. Just that opening, looking out at the open water, the yearning and hurt on his face. He obsesses over his latest transfer letter like he’s an upbeat Joseph K., giving Doc (William Powell) a boyish grin at his new turn of the phrase—the thing that he hopes will finally get him transferred. And that Fonda voice: slow, measured, stretching out his words: “Carriers so big they blacked out half the sky. Battlewagons sliiiding along, dead quiet.” You know the song lyric, “What is America to me?” Henry Fonda isn’t a bad answer.
Even with this great open, though, you sense the movie’s behind-the-scenes schism. Roberts walks out on deck on a sunny day, surveys the horizon with the water bright blue, then sits down with a pencil in his mouth—like a dog with a bone—to go over the letter again. Then it’s a reverse angle for the intro of Doc and … Where did the sun go? We don’t really see anything but the metal of the ship. I assume it was shot on a sound stage in LA rather than off the coast of Hawaii. It’s a disconnect. It’s Ford vs. LeRoy.
A quick synopsis. In the first act, the men admire Roberts. In the second act, not knowing his sacrifice, they turn on him, think he’s bucking for promotion. Third act? After he tosses the Captain’s prize palm tree overboard, and the men learn about his sacrifice through a kind of loudspeaker ex machina, they work to get him the transfer he’s always wanted. And they do! And they shower him with gifts and send him on his way.
And on that battleship, he dies in the waning days of the war.
Oddly, there’s no mea culpa from the men, no thought of, “Gee, if we hadn’t have gotten him that transfer …” Instead, Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon, in an Oscar-winning role), who is now a lieutenant and in Roberts’ role, and who never had the guts to finish one thing, finally does. He does what Roberts might’ve done—but with Pulver’s bluster. Over the loudspeaker, they hear that the night’s movie has been canceled, and, in a sudden rage, Pulver a secondary palm tree overboard and busts into the Captain’s quarters:
Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver, and I just threw your stinkin’ palm tree overboard! Now what’s all this crud about no movie tonight?
Roberts is dead; Roberts lives.
Sadly, Cagney’s reaction is a comic wuh-wuh. It’s “Not this again?” as he buries his face in his hands. It feels off, considering what we’ve just learned about Roberts.
I like all the loudspeaker announcements we hear in the movie—spoken in that bored military cadence of an amateur draftee. “Attention! Attention!” Then some stupid annoying thing. Then: “That is all.” Fifteen years later, the movie “M*A*S*H” would use these to great comic effect.
“Mister Roberts” was nominated for three Academy Awards—picture, sound, supporting—and won for Lemmon. Don’t quite see it. His character is only mildly amusing, with that classic Lemmon jitteriness that never appealed to me. I like the calm guys. The opening scene, in the morning on the deck, where Doc and Roberts talk? That could’ve been the movie for me. But Fonda didn’t even get nominated. He got nomed for “Grapes of Wrath” in 1940 and not again until “On Golden Pond” in 1981. It’s one of the great travesties of the Academy.
Monday January 11, 2021
Impeachment Now — Part II
“As [the attack on the U.S. Capitol] was unfolding on television, Donald Trump was walking around the White House confused about why other people on his team weren't as excited as he was as you had rioters pushing against Capitol Police trying to get into the building. ... He was delighted.”
-- Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), via Vox
Monday January 11, 2021
The Pandemic Year: A Reminder
Finally got around to reading Lawrence Wright's epic article, “The Pandemic Year,” in the Jan 4/11 New Yorker, and it's something we should all know, read, remind ourselves of. It's not just last year's timeline. Pfizer, Moderna, et al, were able to develop a vaccine so quickly because doctors and scientists—Dr. Barney Graham and Dr. Jason McLellan, prominently—had been working on the issue for 20 years:
Within a day after Graham and McLellan downloaded the sequence for sars-CoV-2, they had designed the modified proteins. The key accelerating factor was that they already knew how to alter the spike proteins of other coronaviruses. On January 13th, they turned their scheme over to Moderna, for manufacturing. Six weeks later, Moderna began shipping vials of vaccine for clinical trials. The development process was “an all-time record,” Graham told me. Typically, it takes years, if not decades, to go from formulating a vaccine to making a product ready to be tested: the process privileges safety and cost over speed.
We also get behind-the-scenes political stuff, which I've already tried to track before. (I look forward to the tell-all books.) Some officials come off well: Matthew Pottinger, a deputy National Security Adviser, who kept beating the drum on the seriousness of it, and, surprisingly, Dr. Deborah Birx, a current punching bag for both parties, who seemed to acquiesce to the worst of Trump's claims last spring but then spent the summer traveling around the country and warning governors to adopt state-wide mask protocols. The C.D.C. and W.H.O. are mixed bags. The C.D.C. bothed the rollout for test kits, while both organizations muddled the initial message on mask-wearing. By the time they got it in order (masks save lives), Trump and Fox News had muddied the waters further. “This is voluntary,” Trump said about mask-wearing, adding, “I don't think I'm going to be doing it.” That decision—whatever part of his brain it came from—is probaby responsible for the deaths of 100,000-200,000 Americans. Maybe more.
Sadly, the behind-the-scene stuff stops once Trump turns his full attention to Covid in the spring—just when we need it most. That section is called “The No-Plan Plan,” as it was, and it's an infuriating reminder—as if last week wasn't enough—of what a horror show his presidency has been:
Trump held a conference call with governors [in March]. “We're backing you a hundred per cent,” he said. Then he said, “Also, though, respirators, ventilators, all the equipment—try getting it yourselves.”
Most governors had assumed that, as in the event of a hurricane or a forest fire, the federal government would rush to help. Storehouses of emergency equipment would be opened. The governors, faced with perilous shortages of ventilators, N95 masks, and nasal swabs, expected Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act, forcing private industry to produce whatever was needed. Surely, there was a national plan.
Governor Inslee, of Washington, was flabbergasted when he realized that Trump didn't intend to mobilize the federal government. Inslee told him, “That would be equivalent to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on December 8, 1941, saying, 'Good luck, Connecticut, you go build the battleships.' ”
Trump responded, “We're just the backup.”
“I don't want you to be the backup quarterback,” Inslee said. “We need you to be Tom Brady here.”
I'm disappointed Inslee used a Tom Brady allusion instead of Russell Wilson, but I'm sure Brady, a Trump fan, resonated more with Trump. But this is another key Trump decision that boggles the mind. Why does a man with autocratic tendencies step away from accruing power? Is it the responsibility of it? The management? Delegate then. Was he afraid of making the pandemic seem worse than it was? Did he think he could control the message?
And then it got worse. The governors, remember, had to bid against each other for needed PPE, driving up the price. And sometimes the feds took it away anyway.
[Massachusetts governor] Charlie Baker arranged to buy three million N95 masks from China, but federal authorities seized them at the Port of New York, paying the supplier a premium. In another group call with Trump, Baker, a Republican, complained, “We took seriously the push you made not to rely on the stockpile. I got to tell you, we lost to the Feds. . . . I've got a feeling that, if somebody has to sell to you or me, I'm going to lose every one of those.”
“Price is always a component,” Trump replied coldly.
The governor of Rhode Island finally got FEMA to send a truckful of PPE to her state. When it arrived, it was empty. They sent an empty truck. Inslee says only 11% of my state's PPE came from the feds.
Around this time, a reporter asked Trump, “You've suggested that some of these governors are not doing everything they need to do. What more, in this time of a national emergency, should these governors be doing?”
“Simple,” Trump said. “I want them to be appreciative.”
He should be impeached a second time just for this. Keep impeaching the son of a bitch into eternity. He's been that bad.
Saturday January 09, 2021
A Reckoning I
“Let it be known to the business world: Hire any of Trump's fellow fabulists above [Sean Spicer, Kellyann Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Stephanie Grisham, Kayleigh McEnany] and Forbes will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie. We're going to scrutinize, double-check, investigate with the same skepticism we'd approach a Trump tweet. Want to ensure the world's biggest business media brand approaches you as a potential funnel of disinformation? Then hire away.”
-- Randall Lane, chief content officer and editor of Forbes, “The Truth Reckoning”
About fucking time. I'm glad it's here, but about fucking time.
Saturday January 09, 2021
Movie Review: The Black Bird (1926)
Lon Chaney was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and this film is a kind of primer on that. He has a dual role and we get to watch his character physically transform from an able-bodied man to one crippled by childhood disease. It's stunning. Ironically, the one thing that doesn’t change much is his face. His saintly character never looks saintly enough. He looks like the same bastard both ways.
When I began the film it seemed an earlier version of “San Francisco”—crook on one side, saint on the other, music hall in between—but instead of boyhood friends, they’re brothers, twins, who live in the Limehouse District in the East End of London at an unspecified time. It feels 19th century. The Bishop (Chaney) runs a mission and is beloved by all. He’s also crippled, with a gnarled right hand, an arm held at a 90-degree angle, and a useless, dangling leg, who gets around by means of crutches. His brother, Dan Tate, or the Black Bird (also Chaney), is a despised thief.
As the movie opens the cops have come calling about a recent crime, but the Bishop says no, Dan was there all night, and goes upstairs to get him. That’s when we discover the Bishop is the Black Bird. Dan simply contorts his body into the Bishop’s shape.
Then the movie forgets about the Bishop for half its length.
Instead, we follow Dan, usually at a rundown music hall, with its cheap liquor and crappy acts, along with groundlings drinking the former and hooting the latter. The one act everyone seems to love is a bizarro puppet show put on by Fifi Lorraine (Renée Adorée, née Jeanne de la Fontein). It’s a regular puppet show but her actual (large) head is on one of the puppets, while one puppet can elongate its neck to extreme degrees.
This is one of the moments that remind us that Tod Browning, famed for the 1932 movie “Freaks,” directed “The Black Bird.” Another is the movie’s opening: a series of close-ups of the tough, grotesque faces that populate the Limehouse District.
A Browning moment.
Of course Dan falls for Fifi. So does another thief, “West End Bertie” (Owen Moore, Mary Pickford’s first husband), who, with his top hat and prince nez, is slumming with his society friends at the music hall. The next half hour is each man trying to outdo the other for her hand. As for what Fifi thinks? She likes the necklace on one of the society friends, so Bertie steals it for her, but, amid negotiations, loses it to Dan. Not that it matters. She’s scared of Dan—Chaney has that great glowering presence throughout—and winds up engaged to Bertie.
Except who do they ask to marry them? The Bishop, who is secretly his rival. Seems a stretch, but sure. And it sets up the rest of the movie. First, to Fifi, the Bishop outs Bertie as a jewel thief, but Bertie owns up. He also promises to return all the jewels he stole. Ah, but the necklace Fifi liked? Dan anonymously returns it to the cops, fingering Bertie, and when they show up at his place, Dan shoots a cop from the shadows and everyone blames Bertie. Now he’s truly on the lam and the Bishop offers to hide him. And this is where the Bishop/Dan becomes like Iago in his machinations. After three days, the Bishop lets slip that Fifi has been going around town with Dan (she's not); and to Fifi he lets slip that Bertie plans to leave town that night without her (he's not). Then he puts them in the same room and lets them peck at each other.
The finale is interesting. Someone “peaches” to the cops that it was Dan who shot the Scotland Yarder; and while Dan hurriedly tries to change back to the Bishop, the door to his room is flung open, he’s knocked on his back, and actually becomes the painful cripple he’d long pretended to be.
The original plan was to have him become a better person as a result. Instead, he simply dies, and the down-and-outers gather around his bedside and praise him: “God will be good to you, Bishop … cause you were good to us.”
It's not a bad movie—although apparently at the box office it did poorly for a Chaney flick. Browning did the story, with dialogue from Waldemar Young, who had a long career in the silents and then went on to write screenplays for such acclaimed talkies as “Island of Lost Souls.” I like one bit in particular here. A flower lady, wearing the same type of hat Audrey Hepburn would wear in “My Fair Lady,” tries to sell her wares to the necklace-clad society lady, but the woman mostly ignores her while holding a handkerchief to her nose. So, while leaning across the table, the flower lady purposely steps on her toes. The woman yelps.
Society dame: I wish you’d put your feet where they belong.
Flower lady: If I did, you wouldn’t sit down for a month!
The best part is the dawning realization of the insult by one of the swells, who, after a beat, roars his head back with laughter.
Things I learned: Chink was an already epithet back then. A white girl shows up at the music hall with a Chinese man (Willie Fung), which enrages Dan. He scares the man way and roars at the girl: “Want me to tell your dad you’re drinking with a chink?” before literally putting his boot to her backside. Not sure how we’re supposed to feel about that scene—or how audiences were at the time.
None of the principles survived long. Chaney died of a throat hemorrhage in 1930 (age 47), Adorée of tuberculosis in 1933 (age 35) and Moore of an alcohol-induced heart attack in 1939 (age 54). It’s as if even silent stars couldn’t last long in the sound era.
Friday January 08, 2021
Trump: The Reviews
- “He's a fucking moron.” — Rex Tillerson, Trump's Secretary of State
- “He's an idiot.” — John Kelly, Trump's Chief of Staff (who denied the comments)
- “A professional liar.” — Gary Cohn, Trump's Economic Adviser
- “Like an 11-year-old child.” — Steve Bannon, Trump Adviser
- “Trump is a batshit crazy person.” — Sean Hannity, Fox personality
- “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.” — Gen. James Mattis, Trump's Secretary of Defense
- ”The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership. ... He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He's flirted with white supremacists.“ — U.S. Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE)
These are all Republicans. And this was all last year. And they said this while he was in power. Imagine what they'll say after Jan. 20. Or after next week? Or later today? Because it's all unraveling for the worst person in the world.
Fallout from the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol that Trump orchestrated keeps growing: The U.S. House is drafting articles of impeachment against Trump; Twitter permanently banned him from its social platform; Apple has given the right-wing platform Parler 24 hours to moderate its site or else its app is no longer in the Apple Store; and ... I forget. It's hard to keep up.
Meanwhile, I keep wondering about the 90 minutes it took the Pentagon to respond to the Maryland governor's request to call out the National Guard. I want more on that.
But for today, we have this:
Thursday January 07, 2021
Jan. 6, 2021 (Cont.)
Thursday January 07, 2021
Jan. 6, 2021 (Cont.)
“The invaders may be full of contempt for a system that they think doesn't represent them, but on Wednesday they managed to prove that it does. The system, which shrugged off their violence like it had been a toddler's tantrum, represents them. It's the rest of us it's failing to protect.”
-- Masha Gessen, “The Capitol Invaders Enjoyed the Privilege of Not Being Taken Seriously,” The New Yorker. Great piece. Why was the Capitol Hill Police unprepared? Gessen thinks it's because they didn't take the protesters seriously. They weren't afraid of them. Because what are we afraid of? The other. “Black Lives Matter protesters are other to the Capitol Police,” Gessen writes. “So are survivors of sexual assault or women who protest for the right to choose. But an armed mob storming the Capitol, and their Instigator-in-Chief, are, apparently, familiar enough to be dismissed as clowns.”
Wednesday January 06, 2021
The Good News Today
Margins for Republican U.S. Senate candidates in Georgia this century:
- 2002: +6.9%
- 2008: +3.0%
- 2014: +7.7%
- 2020: -0.8% *
- 2004: +17.9%
- 2010: +19.3%
- 2016: +13.8%
- 2020: -1.6% *
* And counting (98%, Dem districts mostly left).
Wednesday January 06, 2021
Jan. 6, 2021
Look at that headline. The main one—not the other story developing on the right. Look at that shit. Can the Times get any of this right? Forcefully? Sure, he began strong but he reverted to the B.S. argument that Republicans objecting in 2020 is the same as Dems doing so in 2000, 2004 and 2016. It began with the Dems, he implied. That's forcefully? Gore, Kerry and Clinton all conceded their elections. Trump hasn't. None of the Dems worked the phones to get other Dems to raise objections the way Trump has. None filed 60+ frivilous lawsuits. And let's not forget this: Hillary had legit complaints. The director of the FBI unprecedentedly opened an investigation into her 11 days before the election, which turned around the narrative, and, potentially, American history. And the Russians were working overtime to elect Trump—a fact that would've been known to Americans in a bi-partisian announcement in Sept. 2016 except some Republican objected and put the kibosh on it. Some Republican named Mitch McConnell. Trump was his path to a conservative Supreme Court. Well, he got that. He also got this. Put it on his doorstep in a paper bag and light it on fire.
For a time, by the way, the Times kept calling the right-wing nutjobs storming the U.S. Capitol “protesters.” Wish I had a screenshot of that. But eventually, as the day progressed and objections to such a designation were raised, it became this:
And then louder:
I was on a Zoom call this evening with some of P's Newsweek friends and one person kept calling the day's events “shameful.” That's exactly right. And the shame is on the GOP and the Fox Newses of the world.
I am so angry about this. I don't think I'll ever not be angry about this.
Two weeks left.
Tuesday January 05, 2021
Quote of the Day
“Every one of the almost 60 Trump challenges to the election has been rebuffed in state and federal courts, including the Supreme Court, involving more than 90 judges, nominated by presidents of both parties. But for scores of millions of mesmerized Trump Republicans, who think the absence of evidence is the most sinister evidence, this proves that the courts, too, are tentacles of the 'deep state.' Hawley and Cruz, both of whom clerked for chief justices of the Supreme Court, hope to be wafted into the White House by gusts of such paranoia.”
-- George Will, “Hawley, Cruz and their Senate cohort are the Constitution's most dangerous domestic enemies,” The Washington Post
Tuesday January 05, 2021
A Brother Named Ron
This made me laugh out loud. Well, the last part of it.
It's from The New York Times' coverage of Donald Trump's potentially criminal attempt to strong-arm the Georgia Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, to “find” 11,780 votes to overturn that state's already certified 2020 election results. Since Georgia wouldn't be nearly enough to actually win the electoral college, and thus the presidency, you can imagine Trump doing the same in other states. It's the president of the United States trying to subvert democracy. We knew he was doing this—only that and golf since Nov. 7—but now we can hear it for ourselves.
The phone call happened on Saturday and an audiotape of the conversation surfaced on The Washington Post on Sunday. I listened to the 4 1/2-minute version; my wife, poor thing, listened to all of it. What stood out for me was not only the request to “find” those votes but the way the president kept veering between vagueness about election fraud to absolute certitude and back again; from “That's what the rumor is” to “You know what they did and you're not reporting it” to “In my opinion, based on what I've heard...” It's nuts.
Among many other false claims, Mr. Trump and his lawyers have claimed that thousands of votes were cast in Georgia by people who were under 18, weren't registered to vote, registered late, or registered with a P.O. box instead of a residential address. The secretary of state's office investigated the claims, Mr. Sterling said, and did not find a single ballot cast by anyone in any of those categories.
“I've got such a long list,” he said as he rattled off claims about ballot scanning devices being hacked (“it's very hard to hack things without modems”) and people replacing parts in Dominion voting machines (“I don't even know what that means”). He added that Mr. Raffensperger does not have a brother named Ron who works for a Chinese technology company, as one of the conspiracies retweeted by the president claims — nor, in fact, does he have a brother named Ron at all.
Remember my love of the Hemingway paragraph that ends with “The Rhine does not show in the picture”? This is the journalistic version of that. It's about a president so dumb, so warped, so desperate to win, that he'll latch onto anything. No, Mr. Raffensperger does not have a brother named Ron who works for a Chinese tech company. He does not even have a brother named Ron.
Saturday January 02, 2021
Movie Review: First Cow (2020)
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s best-known film is probably “Wendy and Lucy,” about a girl and her dog, and this movie begins with a girl and her dog beside a wide, slow river in Oregon. The dog is sniffing and digging after something until the girl (Alia Shawkat, Maeby from “Arrested Development”) shoos it away; but by then the dog has uncovered a skull. Now it’s the girl’s turn. She digs until she uncovers two skeletons lying side by side, almost in repose, as if they’d died sunbathing. She looks up at the sky with something like wonder.
We don’t have to wonder. The movie will be about those two skeletons: who they were and how they got there. It’s a good framing device.
Not quite kindred spirits
Reichardt has set us up for the story we’re about to see in another way. The first shots in the present are of a boat making its slow way up the wide river, and it’s deliberately, glacially paced—as it is when we begin the story of Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee) in the Oregon Territory in the 1820s. I immediately flashed on Stanley Kubrick giving us the soporific pace of life in 18th-century England in “Barry Lyndon.”
We first meet Cookie collecting chantarelle mushrooms in the damp woods and righting a lizard that has flipped on its back. Then he hears a noise and flees. Sliding down an embankment, he winds up in a fur traders camp. “Frying pan, fire,” I thought. Nope. These are the people he’s traveling with and cooking for. But yes, too. They are brutish men: forever complaining and threatening him.
Cookie is a gentle soul in a brutish world. The next day, or week, or month—who knows?—during one of his forages, he comes across a naked Chinese man, King-Lu, who’s running from Russian fur traders since maybe he killed one of their friends after they definitely killed one of his. And it’s like with the lizard again. Cookie rights him. He brings him a blanket, then offers him his tent, then surreptitiously brings him along on the next leg of the journey.
He hooks up with him again at a trading post. Cookie has done his job, receives his payment, and with part of the money buys himself a new pair of boots. Initially he’s proud. We see him cleaning them, and he wears them, dandyish, with the trouser legs tucked in. Then one Oregon Territory weirdo (Rene Auberjonois, in one of his final roles) comments on them. Then others do. It feels like wolves gathering. The next time Cookie cleans his boots, he leaves the trouser legs untucked to not draw attention.
It’s at a bar that he see King-Lu again. Their conversation is stilted but friendly. King offers him a drink at his shack in the woods, Cookie accepts, he winds up staying. They keep chickens, forage, fish. One flashes back on the epigraph from William Blake that begins the film: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” This is that friendship.
If the first half of the movie is identifying the two men who would become the skeletons along the river, the second half is how they died along the river.
One day, while foraging, Cookie spies the titular cow, which he’d first seen arriving at the trading post, and which is the property of Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a powerful, homesick Brit. That evening, Cookie mentions the cow in passing to King and talks about what he could cook with milk. It’s King who suggests the nighttime raid to steal some of its milk. (Yes, I thought of John Mulaney.) And after a few bites of Cookie’s biscuits, it’s King who goes from impressed to impresario: How much would trappers pay for this? Early on, I thought the two men were kindred spirits, but King is less gentle soul than opportunist, and this is that opportunity. At the trading post, the biscuits are a hit. Long lines form.
I like that Cookie keeps improving the product: now some drizzled honey; now a sprinkle of cinnamon. He’s the artist and artisan. He’s also naturally cautious and assumes the milk raids can’t last. But King, counting the profits, figures the risk is worth the reward.
I was with Cookie. The pace might have been 19th-century but the tension was overwhelming.
Butch and Sundance
The longer they go, the more entwined they become with the man they’re stealing from, Chief Factor, who loves Cookie’s oily cakes, and asks if he can’t make a clafoutis to impress a visiting captain. Shortly thereafter they’re finally caught. Ironically it’s the lookout, King, who gives them away, when the tree branch he’s sitting on cracks and falls under his weight, alerting the household.
Now it’s a chase. In a scene reminiscent of “Butch Cassidy,” King jumps off a cliff and into a river, but Cookie, either unable to swim or unable to find the courage, hides in the bushes. Another irony: He’s the one who winds up wounded when he falls in the woods and hits his head. Eventually the two men reconnect, as we know they must, and attempt to flee to San Francisco. But Cookie is obviously hurt—I almost got nauseous imagining the dizzying head wound—and when they get to the river he has to lie down. King is lookout again, and again fails; soon he’s lying next to Cookie. It’s similar to the way the skeletons were positioned. A man with a gun is pursuing them, but Reichardt, mercifully, leaves them there, in the moment before their final moment. The death we’ve fretted over for two hours is never shown.
“First Cow” was voted the best film of 2020—admittedly a small sample size—by the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle. And while I don’t think it’s that good, it is wholly atmospheric. You feel part of that time. You also feel lucky to be part of this one, where warm homes and baked goods are readily available. The movie is sparse and slow, but those are the very things that make it interesting. The movie is about the lack. I liked it for John Magaro’s kind eyes, and the kind way he talked to the cow. That made the movie for me.
Friday January 01, 2021
My Talks with Jim Jordan
New year, same old assholes.