In His Own Words: Charlton Heston
- “On any subject other than their own work, [actors] should keep quiet.” --1952
- “Moderates don't make themselves heard on public issues. It's too bad because moderates make democracy work. --1968
- ”My living depends on people not getting mad at me. No matter what, I've never felt a significant part of the audience was mad at me. ... The trick is to state your views as moderately as you can.“ --1984
- ”Moses was a conservative. You don't mess around with Moses. He was an angry, harsh leader, not a friendly fellow.“ --1998
- ”[Regular people] have precious little time or resources to battle misguided Cinderella attitudes, the fringe propaganda of the homosexual coalition, the feminists who preach that it's a divine duty for women to hate men, blacks who raise a militant fist with one hand, while they seek preference with the other.“ --1998
- ”The last two generations have abandoned even the idea of greatness. The media, academe, the creative community, now extol the ordinary, enshrine the victim.“ --2000
- ”Vote freedom first. Vote George W. Bush. Everything else is a distant and forgettable second place. This is the most important election since the Civil War. Al Gore, if elected, would have the power to hammer your gun rights right into oblivion. Instead of fighting redcoats, we are now fighting blue blood elitists.“ --2000
- ”My Dear Friends, Colleagues and Fans: My physicians have recently told me I may have a neurological disorder whose symptoms are consistent with Alzheimer's disease...“ --2002
Most of the above quotes are from Chapter 7 of ”Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics," by Steven J. Ross.
It's Late September: Do You Know Where Your Best Pictures Are?
I“m beginning to worry about the 2012 movie season. I know people think of the final three months of the year as the serious movie season, but for the last three years this hasn't been my experience.
And by this point in 2012?
I liked ”Footnote“ and ”Monsieur Lazhair“ well enough, both 2011 movies but released in the states in 2012, as well as ”Jiro Dreams of Sushi,“ ”The Avengers,“ ”The Woman in the Fifth,“ and ”End of Watch.“ But none of these stunned me, or worked their way inside me, or acted like a cresting wave showering me with clarity or epiphany. None of them made me look at the rest of the movies coming down the pike and think, ”Let's see you beat that.“
Did I miss something? Is the best still to come? I've seen ”The Master“ (review up soon), which is deeply and resonantly filmed, and beautifully acted. But there's a lot of ”buts“ there. Other critics loved ”Beasts of the Southern Wild“ and ”Moonrise Kingdom“ more than I did; I don't even think of them as Top 10 material. I have hopes for other films that are fast becoming the usual Oscar suspects—Ben Affleck's ”Argo,“ Steven Spielberg's ”Lincoln,“ Tom Hooper's ”Les Miserables,“ Ang Lee's ”Life of Pi“—but these are the usual Oscar suspects, meaning they're the best movies of the year that fit into preconceived Academy notions of ”best." It's a narrow field, even when expanded to 10 nominees.
Three months to go. Fingers crossed.
My Name is Saul Berenson; You Attacked My Country; Prepare to Die
Me: You think she's leaving him?
She: How can anyone leave Mandy Patinkin?
--Conversation between Patricia and myself while watching Season 1, Episode 5 of “Homeland,” starring Damian Lewis, Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin. The show, which we're obviously late to, ain't bad.
The Seventh and Final Quote from Jill Lepore's 'The Lie Factory: How politics became a business'
This isn't a quote so much as a summation and a warning. Jill Lepore's New Yorker article, “The Lie Factory: How politics became a business,” on the rise and ascendancy of Clem Whitaker, Leone Baxter and Campaigns, Inc., the first political consulting firm in the world, which mostly handled right-wing candidates and issues in the 1930s, '40s and ''50s, includes this line: “Whitaker and Baxter weren’t just inventing new techniques [to win political campaigns]; they were writing a rule book.”
This is the rule book. See if you can spot familiar political techniques:
- Make it personal: candidates are easier to sell than issues.
- If your position doesn’t have an opposition, or if your candidate doesn’t have an opponent, invent one.
- Pretend that you are the Voice of the People.
- Attack, attack, attack. (Whitaker: “You can’t wage a defensive campaign and win.”)
- Never explain anything. (Whitaker: “The more you have to explain, the more difficult it is to win support.”)
- Say the same thing over and over again. (Whitaker: “We assume we have to get a voter’s attention seven times to make a sale.”)
- Subtlety is your enemy. (Baxter: “Words that lean on the mind are no good. They must dent it.)
- Simplify, simplify, simplify. (Whitaker: “A wall goes up when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think.“)
- Fan flames. (Whitaker: “We need more partisanship in this country.”)
- Never shy from controversy; instead, win the controversy. (Whitaker: “The average American doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind; he doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen. But there are two ways you can interest him in a campaign, and only two that we have ever found successful.“ You can put on a fight (“he likes a good hot battle, with no punches pulled”), or you can put on a show (“he likes the movies; he likes mysteries; he likes fireworks and parades”). “So if you can’t fight, PUT ON A SHOW! And if you put on a good show, Mr. and Mrs. America will turn out to see it.”)
- Winner takes all.
It's like finally finding the Covenant of the GOP.
Baxter and Whitaker helped elect conservative candidates and defeat progressive legislation for decades. “A wall goes up when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American Citizen work or think," Whitaker said.
The Sixth Quote from Jill Lepore's 'The Lie Factory: How politics became a business'
“In this profession of leading men’s minds, this is the reason I feel it must be in the hands of the most ethical, principled people—people with real concern for the world around them, for people around them—or else it will erode into the hands of people who have no regard for the world around them. It could be a very, very destructive thing.”
-- Leone Baxter quoted at the end of Jill Lepore's New Yorker article, “The Lie Factory: How politics became a business,” She and her husband, Clem Whitaker, were the biggest and most inovative political consultants in the middle of the 20th century. Among other things, they helped: defeat Upton Sinclair in his bid to become governor of California in 1934; defeat Gov. Earl Warren's California health care proposal; defeat Harry S. Truman's health care proposal; usher in the era of dirty, media-driven, money-driven politics.
The Fifth Quote from Jill Lepore's 'The Lie Factory: How politics became a business'
“'Government by Whitaker and Baxter' appeared in The Nation in three parts, in April and May of 1951. ...[The author], as Whitaker and Baxter must have very well understood, had played by different rules from theirs. He hadn’t been simple. He hadn’t attacked them. He had taken time to explain. He hadn’t invented an enemy. He hadn’t taken remarks out of context. He hadn’t made anything up. He hadn’t lied.”
A Walk in Seattle
Last night I was going to meet my friend Vinny at the Grand Illusion Theater in the U district for a showing of Ozu Yasujiro's “Tokyo Story” (1953), which was recently named the third-greatest movie of all time by critics worldwide, and the greatest movie of all time by directors worldwide. Both groups were polled by “Sight & Sound” magazine, which does this kind of thing every 10 years.
I usually bike to work in lower Queen Anne, so I could've done that, then biked over, then biked home at 10. For some reason, maybe the late-night ride, I decided against. I decided to walk to work, walk to the U district, then catch a ride with Vinny after the movie.
It was a nice day for a walk, and I needed it. Last fall I was diagnosed with subacute thyroiditis, which messes with the thyroid hormones released into the body. First you're in a hyperthyroid stage (too much), then the thyroid shuts down and you go into a hypothyroid stage (too little), then you stabilize eventually. If you're one of the 85% who stabilizes. Apparently I'm one of the 15% who doesn't. So last week I began taking levothyroxine, a supplement, and yesterday, in the middle of the day, I developed symptoms that I associate with hyperthyroid: I got cold, my heartrate went up, and I felt a huge bout of anxiety, for no reason, about nothing.
So a late afternoon walk felt like a blessing. I stopped in my bank, stopped at Cinema Books, the best movie-bookstore in the world, owned by Stephanie Ogle, where I bought two books, then at Scarecrow Video, where I checked out its vast Criterion Collection. Then I met Vinny at Thai Tom on the Ave.
Some iPhone photos from the walk:
Mercer Mess, 4:15 pm. When I bike, I weave through this like the centipede in the old video game.
South Lake Union.
The I-5 bridge from the University bridge, late afternoon.
I'm interested in the lesser-known names in and on our public places. Here's Ms. Hagy's Seattle Times obituary.
Cinema Books, on Roosevelt Way, which is always packed in this manner. It's owned by Stephanie Ogle, who is always a delight.
The wall behind the cash register at Cinema Books. Ms. Ogle's photo (with ...?) is between and to the left of Marilyn Monroe's and Catherine Deneuve's.
The Grand Illusion was sold out for “Tokyo Story.” The movie fit my mood. But ... third-greatest ever? Greatest ever? No movie should have to live up to that.
The Fourth Quote from Jill Lepore's 'The Lie Factory: How politics became a business'
“Whitaker and Baxter went to Washington and persuaded a hundred congressmen to let them read their constituent mail. At the start of the campaign, Whitaker reported, mail from voters 'was running four and half to one in favor' of Truman’s plan [about national health care]. Whitaker and Baxter went to work. 'Nine months later it was running four to one against.'
-- from Jill Lepore's New Yorker article, ”The Lie Factory: How politics became a business,“ on the rise and ascendancy of Clem Whitaker, Leone Baxter, Campaigns, Inc. and politcal consulting. Among the charges against Truman's plan was the notion that it was ”socialized medicine."
Movie Review: Trouble with the Curve (2012)
Remember all of those aging decrepit scouts in “Moneyball” who didn’t know shit compared with the sabermetric whiz kid with the computer (Jonah Hill)? Well, they’re back, but this time they’re the heroes. Indeed, the lead scout is played by one of the most iconic figures in Hollywood history (Clint Eastwood), while the sabermetric whiz kid is played by the asshole who cuckolded George Clooney in “The Descendants” (Matthew Lillard). Consider it “Moneyball II: Revenge of Not Nerds.“
There’s great irony in all of this, which I’ll get to by and by.
Eastwood hasn’t acted in a movie since “Gran Torino” in 2008, and he hasn’t acted in a movie he didn’t direct since Wolfgang Petersen directed him in “In the Line of Fire” back in 1993. So what’s he doing in this piece of crap? Did some big-name director lure him in? Hardly. This is Robert Lorenz’s first movie as director. But Lorenz was assistant director on 26 pictures, including eight of Clint’s (“Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby,”), so I assume Eastwood’s thanking him or throwing the kid a bone.
Or maybe Eastwood was drawn in by the script? It’s another estranged daughter tale, and Clint likes those. He likes being trailed after by young, smart, talkative women who allow him to do his incredulous, almost Vaudevillian slow burn. Think Tyne Daly, Geneviève Bujold, Bernadette Peters, Rene Russo, Laura Dern, Hilary Swank.
Now it’s Amy Adams as Mickey (named for Mantle), whom Gus (Eastwood), a legendary scout in the Atlanta Braves organization, more-or-less raised himself when his wife died young. Well, “raised.” Now and again, he shunted her off to relatives, which is why she’s in therapy and has trouble committing to men. But at least she’s a top-notch lawyer on the partner track. Unfortunately the name partners at her firm are led by Bob Gunton, the guy who played the asshole warden in “Shawshank Redemption,” so you know she’s going to get the old scroogie, even though it’s 2012 and the law firm doesn’t yet have a female partner. Like it’s 1981 or something. Like it’s a Hollywood studio or something.
Gus, who signed anyone worth a damn in the Braves system (Ralph Garr, Dusty Baker, Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine), is in his 80s now, and there are these nerdy sabermetricians hanging around with their computers, and, oops, his ophthalmologist diagnoses him with macular degeneration just as the organization sends him to North Carolina to scout a potential first-round draft pick. Does he fess up? Nah. He goes. But Director of Scouting and good friend Pete Klein (John Goodman) sends Mickey after him even though she’s, you know, estranged and all, and needs to close a big deal to make partner. But she goes, fuming and checking her Blackberry.
While in North Carolina, they run into Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a former flame-thrower whom Gus scouted back in the day, but who tore his rotator cuff after being traded to the Boston Red Sox. He’s now scouting for the Sox, and, for some reason, despite being a newbie, and despite wanting to be an announcer, he’s the guy the Sox trust to check out their potential No. 1 draft pick. Seems everyone is after this kid.
Who is he? Bo Gentry (Joe Massingill). And we quickly find out the following:
- He’s a major asshole.
- He’s a bit tubby for someone in their late teens. Five-tool? More like five-meal.
- His homeruns are hardly mammoth. Despite the aluminum bat, they only land a couple rows deep.
Gus and Mickey stay at The Grey Squirrel Motel, run by a nice Hispanic woman who has two sons: one about 8, the other, named Rigo (Jay Galloway), about 18 going on 25. At one point, Rigo, selling peanuts at the local stadium, has to toss some to Bo, who’s being an asshole, and he throws them pretty hard.
See if you can guess where this is going.
Yeah, it goes there.
Gus, with macular degeneration, hears that Bo has trouble with the curve, which is confirmed by Mickey, who sees his hands drift. So Gus counsels against Bo, and even tells this to Johnny, his rival, and the Sox pass on Bo; but the Braves’ GM, Vince (Robert Patrick), ignores both Gus and Pete Klein, assumes Shaggy the Sabermetrician is right, and picks tubbo. The Sox, thinking they’ve been cuckolded, fire Johnny, which leads Johnny to think Gus and Mickey tricked him, which leads to scenes and recriminations and revelations—including the real reason Gus shunted off Mickey to relatives. For some reason this doesn’t bring father and daughter closer together. But it allows Mickey the moment to hear, and then see, and then catch, Rigo, the nice, flamethrowing Hispanic kid; and it’s Mickey who brings him to Turner Field to face Bo, who is hitting batting-practice pitches into the stands for the local press. It take Rigo all of five pitches (two fastballs, three curves) to dismantle the Braves’ No. 1 pick. In the process, Rigo is compared to 1) Sandy Koufax, 2) Steve Carlton and 3) Randy Johnson, and Mickey, who, yes, got the old scroogie from the warden at Shawshank, becomes Rigo’s agent. Johnny returns, he and Mickey kiss, and we get our happy, Hollywood ending.
It’s a long, slow trek to the obvious. It’s painful.
Stats vs. scouts
It's also ironic, since it unintentionally disproves its point about scouts. “Scouts, good scouts, are the heart of the game,” Gus says. “Anyone who uses a computer doesn’t know a damn thing about the game,” Gus says.
Yet these scouts are creatures of habit. They sit in their same seats, go the same dive bars, and, one assumes, check into the same motels. Which means Gus, and maybe some of the other old-timey scouts, have hung out before at The Grey Squirrel Motel. And they never noticed the hulking lefthander, close cousin to Sandy Koufax, playing catch with his little brother?
The stats vs. scouts argument is an ongoing one among baseball nerds. I’ve written before that I think Billy Beane, the protagonist of “Moneyball,” was right in adopting the sabermetric lessons of Bill James, but wrong in interpreting the lessons of his own life, including his aversion to scouting. I’ve written that a more balanced approach between the two is probably the best approach. But one area where the Moneyball people have it over scouting people? “Moneyball” was a Major League movie. This thing can’t hit its way out of A ball.
The Third Quote from Jill Lepore's ‘The Lie Factory: How politics became a business’
“The scuttling of [CA Gov. Earl Warren‘s] health insurance plan was a confirmation for Warren of the nature of the political process, in which advocates of programs based on humanity and common sense were pitted against selfish, vindictive special interests.”
Earl Warren’s biographer, G. Edmund White, on the defeat of the California governor’s proposed 1945 health care legislation, which was demonized by the political consulting firm, Campaigns, Inc. Previously, in 1942, Campaigns, Inc. had helped elect Warren. The quotes above and below appear in Jill Lepore's excellent New Yorker article, “The Lie Factory: How politics became a business.”
“In 1942, the problem with Earl Warren was that he was grim. Baxter said that, to get women to vote for him, he and his wife had to agree to have a picture of their family taken, and publicized. Warren’s wife, Nina, objected. ‘She didn’t want to exploit her family,’ Baxter said. ‘But we knew that he had to get that family.’ They took a picture—Earl, Nina, and their six children. They look like the Von Trapp Family Singers. Campaigns, Inc., distributed three million copies.”
The Second Quote from Jill Lepore's 'The Lie Factory: How politics became a business'
“Upton [Sinclair] was beaten ... because he had written books.”
--Clem Whitaker, one of the first political consultants, in Jill Lepore's New Yorker article, “The Lie Factory: How politics became a business,” on the rise and ascendancy of Whitaker, Leone Baxter and Campaigns, Inc., the first political consulting firm in the world. Among other things, Campaigns, Inc. placed out-of-context quotes from Sinclair's books and novels every day on the front page of The Los Angeles Times.
From the Los Angeles Examiner, 1934.
Movie Review: End of Watch (2012)
This is what I knew going into “End of Watch.” It’s what I’d read on IMDb.com a few hours before showtime:
Two young officers are marked for death after confiscating a small cache of money and firearms from the members of a notorious cartel, during a routine traffic stop.
So you wait for that story to begin. You see our guys, Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena), from the perspective of their patrol-car camera, chasing suspects and engaging in gun battle. You see them return to duty after a month-long investigation that clears them, even as the Captain reminds the troops that “an on-the-job shooting is always considered a homicide.” In this manner, Brian and Mike go back on patrol. At one stop in south central LA, Mike gets into it with an old-time gangster (Cle Shaheed Sloan) and fights him—Brian laughing all the while—but earns his respect by 1) winning, and 2) not pulling rank. At another stop, Brian and Mike guard an abandoned, burned-out SUV used in a drive-by shooting. It’s Mexican gangsters taking over from African-American gangsters just as homicide detectives take control of the crime scene from Brian and Mike, who are given police-tape duty. Everyone has their turf battles. They guard the scene for two hours while the detectives work. “Comfortable footwear,” Mike tells Van Hauser (David Harbour), the cop who relieves them. “Policing is all about comfortable footwear.” You see them investigate a missing kids case, finding two stoned adults in the living room and the kids duct-taped in a closet. Afterwards you see Brian in a distant shot overlooking LA, crouching. It’s a kind of exhale.
Brian often films what they do, so a lot of what we see is of the found-footage variety. He’s ... pre-law? Dating various girls. But he’s tired of it. Date 1, they kiss by the door. Date 2, they get it on. Date 3, they have nothing to say. “I want a smart girl,” he says. Mike, the voice of the men in the audience, has no sympathy. What Brian sees as his problem—too much sex with too many women—is not a problem; it’s the wish-fulfillment fantasy of the men in the audience.
But Brian finds his smart girl, Janet (Anna Kendrick), with a master’s in fluid hydraulics, and we get this exchange:
Mike: Did you run her?
Brian: Yeah, she’s clean.
Love that. Googling for cops. We see Brian and Janet sleep together, and the next morning she films herself going through his wallet. A list of girls’ numbers? “You won’t be needing this anymore,” she says, plucking it out. Love that, too.
On night patrol, Brian and Mike face down some partying Mexican gangsters, the ones who did the drive-by, including Big Evil (Maurice Compte), with his blank death stare. Just a Mexican/American stand-off but one assumes it anticipates a third-act confrontation. Later they bust one of his men, carrying drug money in a soup pot and a glittery AK-47 in the back of his pickup. “Liberace’s AK,” they call it. Brian talks about the three essential food groups of patrol: money, drugs and guns. Now they just need the drugs. “The ghetto will provide,” Mike says, not unhappily.
At this point in the story it’s all very episodic. Brian and Mike save kids in a burning building, receive medals of valor from the city, and afterwards, on patrol in a convenience store, talk about how they don’t feel like heroes. Both Janet, and Mike’s wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez), chastise their men for risking their lives to save other people’s kids. But that’s the job. Brian takes Janet to the Philharmonic. Mike and Gabby have a kid. Brian and Janet get engaged, then married. “You’ve got a lot of heart hooking up with a cop,” Mike tells Janet during the wedding toast, adding, “We’re all happy you can make a man out of Brian because we’ve about given up.”
All the while, our two heroes, who don’t know who the true villains of the movie are, bust each other’s balls on patrol while busting perps. And each time they go out, we wonder: OK, is this when the story starts?
In this home, they find illegals imprisoned in a backroom, and a towering DEA agent descends upon them, saying, “You guys fucked up.” In another home, they find a 70-year-old woman in a plastic bag in a back closet. Further in, they come across a room of cut-up bodies, like a scene out of “The Killing Fields.” They find cocaine, too. Shortly afterwards, via infrared camera, we see and hear the drug cartel leader, most likely in Mexico, talking on the phone. “This is just two city cops,” he says. “Take care of those assholes,” he says. Is the DEA doing the filming? Will they warn our guys? They don’t. The original gangster, whom Mike fights at the beginning, does. He heard from a dude in prison. They laugh it off. “We’re cops. Everybody wants to kill us.” Then they forget it. They’re back to shooting the shit. They’re being tailed and they’re arguing about rubber bands.
By the time the final showdown occurs, way into the third act, we’ve realized, “This is the movie.” It’s them in the patrol car and them doing their jobs and them living their lives. After the final showdown, after the shooting gallery and the police funeral, Brian, arm in a sling, looking wrecked, has to speak at Mike’s funeral—just as Mike spoke at his wedding. “He was my brother,” Brian begins, then pauses. The pause continues and fills the room. Finally, he leaves the podium. Even if he could say more, that’s all that needs to be said.
Even after all that, we get them one more time on patrol: a flashback to the day of the shooting. One braces oneself. Will it explain things retroactively? Give a clue to the doings of the Mexican drug cartel? Perhaps indicate a betrayal? No. It’s just them shooting the shit and laughing. It drives home what the movie is, and it’s a reminder of what was lost.
“End of Watch,” written and directed by David Ayer (“Training Day”; “Harsh Times”), is powerful, original, funny and terrifying. It feels as authentic as anything that’s been filmed about cops. It’s the coppiest of cop movies without being close to a copy. True, our guys run into more trouble in a year than most cops do in a lifetime; but the tone is right, the dialogue and acting so natural they verge on improvisational, and the vernacular so specific to police work you almost need a lexicon to understand what’s being said.
As for the Mexican drug cartel? It keeps on. Mike dies, it lives. He dies not even knowing the story he was in.
One wonders if this isn’t a healthier ending than the wish-fulfillment fantasies Hollywood provides, or the kind of catharsis Aristotle recommended. We get no catharsis here, no justice, so maybe we search for it elsewhere. Maybe we try to make it happen elsewhere. At the least, “End of Watch” is a movie everyone who funds the illegal drug trade should see. Because no matter how much damage drugs do to you, the real damage isn’t done to you.
The First Quote from Jill Lepore's 'The Lie Factory: How politics became a business'
“[W]hen modern advertising began, the big clients were just as interested in advancing a political agenda as a commercial one. Monopolies like Standard Oil and DuPont looked bad: they looked greedy and ruthless and, in the case of DuPont, which made munitions, sinister. They therefore hired advertising firms to sell the public on the idea of the large corporation, and, not incidentally, to advance pro-business legislation. It’s this kind of thing that [Upton] Sinclair was talking about when he said that American history was a battle between business and democracy, and, 'So far,' he wrote, 'Big Business has won every skirmish.'”
--Jill Lepore in her New Yorker article, “The Lie Factory: How politics became a business,” on the rise and ascendancy of Clem Whitaker, Leone Baxter and Campaigns, Inc. Much, much recommended.
Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker of Campaigns, Inc., the first big political consulting firm.
Movie Trailers: 42 (2013)
I got a shiver at the beginning of this trailer, but then ... I don't know. If you're a baseball fan, you know most of the lines, apocryphal or not. “You want a player that doesn't have the guts to fight back?” “No, I want a player with the guts NOT to fight back.” Right. The lead, Chadwick Boseman, looks the part but he needs to be solid and immoveable, confident and competitive and angry. He's definitely not doing Jackie's voice, which, let's face it, sounded a bit like a black stand-up comic doing a stereotypical white guy. The homerun is good but we need speed on the basepaths. That was the shocking thing Jackie brought to a staid game. And Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey? Was Philip Seymour Hoffman busy? John Goodman?
Writer-director Brian Hegeland has written some good movies (“L.A. Confidential”; “Mystic River”), a lot of mediocre ones (“Blood Work”; “Man on Fire”; “Robin Hood” (2010)), and a few bombs (“The Postman”), but he's directed nothing of interest (“Payback”; “A Knight's Tale”; “The Order”). The movie looks majestic and false. Somewhere Spike Lee is bitching. Hopefully, in April, I won't be.
Movie Review: Battleship (2012)
The big question in alien invasion movies is generally: What’s their major malfunction? In “War of the Worlds,” it was bacteria. In “Signs,” water. Here? They’re biped lizard creatures so they’re vulnerable to ... wait for it ... sunlight. For creatures attacking Earth, that’s a little less dopey than water but not by much. Sunlight is bad for them so they go to Hawaii? What’s the matter with Seattle? Even Edward was smart enough to hang on the Olympic peninsula.
I’d heard “Battleship” had been unjustly sunk by critics and audiences. I’d heard it was better than that. Or at least better than the “Transformers” movies. Which is like saying a number is bigger than zero.
IMDb.com is actually helpful in this regard. It lets us know that People who liked this also liked ... and then a list: Ang Lee’s “Hulk,” “Battle Los Angeles,” “I Am Four,” and “Green Lantern.” A film festival in hell.
So why do these aliens come here in the first place? Because scientists send a signal into outer space inviting them. Stupid scientists. Brainiacs. With their brains.
Who’s our protagonist? An impetuous ne’er-do-well named Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), who has an older, steadier brother in the Navy, Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård), and who, because he’s trying to impress a girl in a bar who looks like a supermodel (supermodel Brooklyn Decker), winds up with a choice between prison and the Navy. He goes Navy with his brother. He also goes with the supermodel. She’s actually a physical therapist. She’s also the Admiral’s daughter. For a change.
Then the aliens land and everything that was wrong about Alex turns out to be right. He’s the wrong guy in peace but the right guy in war. His steady brother buys it early (loser), his Japanese antagonist, Capt. Yugi Nagata (Tadanobu Asano of “Ichi the Killer” fame), becomes his comrade, and he hangs with a petty officer who looks like a supermodel (supermodel and singer Rihanna). Together they take on the aliens.
The assumption, made early and often, is that the one alien ship that burned up entering our atmosphere was the communication ship; so the aliens are going to use our communications system to contact the home planet with the message, “Bring more. Easy pickings.”
How do we know this is the message they want to send back? We don’t. How do we know they’re not scared and asking for help? Because that would involve empathy, dude, and they’re fucking lizard creatures. In fucking warships. What are you—a fucking scientist? A brainiac? With your brain?
Still, one wonders at what point the aliens’ message would continue to be: easy pickings. After they’ve lost one ship? Two? Four of the five? Just before their final ship is blown up by a decommissioned battleship, the U.S.S. Missouri, and its crew of hotheads and supermodels and geriatric war veterans? It’s all so stupid. We’re paranoid that the aliens are going to attack in greater numbers with their superior technology, but their technology isn’t superior. They get beat by octogenarians.
So, rah rah, we win. Hopper gets promoted, Rihanna gets wet (no umber-ella), the crippled war vet finds a purpose, and the cowardly scientist demonstrates a modicum of courage at the right Han Solo moment.
Brainiacs with their brains fuck it up but gung-ho military sorts sort it out. Yet another liberal message from the liberal folks in liberal Hollywood.
Weekend in Minneapolis
If you were wondering about the five-day interruption here, and who wasn't, I was in Minnesota for a few days of work-work. (Thus the Eagan hotel encounter.) But you know the saying: all work-work and no play-play... I lucked out there. Glorious weekend. Clear skies, low 80s. Some iPhone photos:
Saturday: Lake Harriet from the bandshell side. All the boats were out. Or nearly.
There's an initiative on the Minnesota ballot in November to define marriage as between one man and one woman in the state constitution. It's running about 50-50. In South Minneapolis, of course, different story. I saw nothing but VOTE NO signs but this was my favorite: in front of the Shir Tikvah Synagogue along the Parkway. Obviously I hope it won't pass, and Minnesota will VOTE NO, but I also think of the time and energy it took to force this non-issue before the public, to waste all of this time and energy and money, and shake my head.
Is there a better ice-cream place than Sebastian Joe's? One quibble: They never have my favorite flavor anymore, Angelica, which is a mix of hazelnut ice cream and coffee ice cream. Where's the love? Because, you know, Molly Moon's and salted caramel is making overtures.
Sunday morning walk, Lake Nokomis.
I liked the lettering on these boats—that alone took me back—but wondered about the word TENDER. Later a friend explained that a tender boat is one that takes you from the dock to your boat. Good to know. “A learner, rather,” as Stephen Dedalus says.
The turtle at the Lake Nokomis beach.
Mel the cat in Ingrid's garden, looking like a miniature, lopsided version of the NY Public Library lions.
There's A Lot of Trouble Behind a Bar, Etc.
He: There's a lot of trouble behind a bar.
Me: How do you mean?
He: The drinking. Plus everyone wants to fuck the bartender. It's a good job to have in your 20s, but once you hit 35...
--Conversation at the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel bar, in Eagan, Minn., while watching “Monday Night Football.” The guy I was talking to, another guest at the hotel, looked a bit like Lawrence Tierney in “Reservoir Dogs,” but with black-framed glasses. He was the father of at least two, and was talking about his daughter, who had recently graduated from college with a dual degree, neither of which she was using. Instead, she was bartending and teaching snowboarding in Colorado. At one point, despite his words, I said, “You seem proud of her,” and he shrugged without shrugging. “The world was made for people like her,” he said. “Now my son. He studies, plays by the rules. He'll struggle his whole life.”
Could've talked to the dude all night.
Lawrence Tierney in “Reservoir Dogs.”
Quote of the Day
Q: How did you and Gene Wilder become friends?
A: These things are gradual. We played tennis together, then he met Gilda Radner, I became friends of both of them, and I arranged for their wedding here, their engagement dinner; and then, you know, it just got solidified. Some lawyers feel it’s important to keep the desk between themselves and the client--so that they have respect from the client. And I feel that to know me is not necessarily to disrespect me.
--Eric Weissmann, entertainment attorney, during my Q&A in the Feb. 2011 issue of Southern California Super Lawyers magazine, “Take Your Violin and Go Back to Vienna!” Mr. Weissmann, a gracious interviewee, also has great stories on Burt Lancaster, Mel Brooks, the making of “Jaws,” and escaping Nazi-occupied Europe as a child.
Freedom vs. Security: Entering Salman Rushdie's World
In the latest New Yorker, Salman Rushdie has an essay, third person, on his life after the fatwa. The following is my Sept. 2002 review of his book, “Step Across Ths Line: Collected Nonfiction: 1992-2002.” In it, Rushdie raises questions not just for himself but for all of us in the 21st century.
On Feb. 14, 1989, Indian novelist Salman Rushdie was sentenced to death by Islamic fundamentalists for the way he wrote about Islam in the novel “The Satanic Verses.”
On Sept. 11, 2001, all of us, in a sense, entered Salman Rushdie's world.
The issues that Salman Rushdie has been dealing with for the past 13 years are now our issues: terrorism versus security, security versus liberty. “How many more murders and assaults on innocent men and women will the Free World tolerate?” he wrote in October 1993. The answer was: thousands.
And in a sentence that might one day rank with W.E.B. Dubois' 1903 contention that “the issue of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line,” Rushdie wrote, in January 2000, “The defining struggle of the new age would be terrorism and security.”
During the early, dark years of the fatwa, Rushdie was encouraged to keep quiet about the fact that an entire nation (Iran) and an extreme faction of a religion (Islamic fundamentalists) had ordered his death. His adopted homeland, Britain, was still negotiating with Islamic fundamentalists for the release of British hostages (Terry Waite, et al.), and it was felt that Rushdie shouldn't stir the waters. When the hostages were finally released, Rushdie's voice was finally released, and many of the pieces in his new book, “Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002,” were the result.
In articles and letters, and in speeches given around the world, Rushdie kept reminding us that he was not the issue, that what he had written was not to blame. “Many people say that the Rushdie case is a one-off,” he told the International Conference on Freedom of Expression in April 1992, “that it will never be repeated. This complacency, too, is an enemy to be defeated.”
He spoke out not only against atrocities that related to the fatwa (the shooting of his Norwegian publisher; the murder of his Japanese translator) but against religious extremism everywhere: from the persecution of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin to the Kansas Board of Education's decision, in 1999, to remove evolution from the state's recommended curriculum — an action which, Rushdie writes, actually disproves Darwin's greatest theory: “the dumbest and unfittest sometimes survive.”
Throughout, one feels Rushdie's prose sharpening, his anger growing. In the early years, he writes about freedom of expression and national sovereignty. But after Hindu and Muslim violence killed hundreds of innocents in Ahmadabad, Gujarat, in March 2002, he becomes more blunt. “What happened in India happened in God's name. The problem's name is God.”
Not all of the pieces in this collection are fatwa-related. If most writers struggle for the world to take them seriously, Rushdie struggles with the opposite, and in one section of the book Rushdie indulges his pop-cultural sweet tooth with quick articles on U2, the Rolling Stones and soccer. He is most impressive in a long essay about, of all things, “The Wizard of Oz,” focusing on the film's internal contradiction: the need to leave (“Over the Rainbow”) versus the need to return (“There's no place like home.”). He defends the state of the novel (yet again) from those who would declare it dead — making the fine, contrarian argument that the novel's problem is actually its abundance. “Readers ... give up. They buy a couple of prizewinners a year, perhaps one or two books by writers whose names they recognize, and flee.”
Most of the articles, unfortunately, were written for newspapers, and are thus only two or three pages long. Reading straight through can sometimes seem like riding in a car with a stick-shift novice: as momentum builds, you jerk to a stop, only to start up again. Also, many of the pieces are literally yesterday's news. Who wants to read once more about Elian Gonzalez or hanging chads?
Yet there are excellent longer pieces, particularly a 30-page essay on returning to India (the first country to ban “The Satanic Verses”) after 11 years of exile, in April 2000.
Most important, Salman Rushdie has been living in a post-Sept. 11 world now for 13 years, and his wisdom is earned. His January 2000 column alone should be required reading for everyone in America. “We need to understand that even maximum security guarantees nobody's safety ... ” he writes. “And to thank our secret protectors, but to remind them, too, that in a choice between security and liberty, it is liberty that must always come out on top.”
Quote of the Day
I thought of Lundin's tweet about the deaths at the American embassy in Libya yesterday while driving home from work. The deaths occurred to protest Sam Becile's anti-Islam movie, “The Innocence of Muslims,” which Jeffrey Welles calls a ridiculous, “grade-z” movie. Some wonder whether Sam Becile is a real person. (Sam Becile? Imbecile?) Some wonder whether the movie is a real movie.
What made me think of Lundin's tweet again was the song that played on the car stereo: Steve Earle's “Little Emperor,” written for George W. Bush. In particular, these lines:
Hey Little Hypocrite
What you gonna say
When you wind up standin' naked
On the final Judgement Day
How you gonna justify it
Who you gonna call
What if it turns out that
God don't look like you at all
For all the above idiots.
Movie Review: Cosmopolis (2012)
In 10th grade I wrote a small play, full of symbolism, a new word for me back then, about a kid who takes a ride on a department store elevator, which we performed in Mr. Wolk’s English class. The different floors were supposed to represent the different stages of the kid’s life, etc., until he arrived at the top floor, where, of course ...
I think I got a B-.
“Cosmopolis,” directed by David Cronenberg, and based upon a novel by Don DeLillo, is a dreamlike limousine ride through New York City that is representative of a life. During the course of the day-long journey, the 28-year-old billionaire assets manager in the backseat, Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), loses everything—tie, jacket, wife, fortune—then arrives at the end of the line, where, of course... Or I should say maybe...? Cronenberg doesn’t pull the trigger.
I’ll give him a B-.
Packer is in a stretch limo in the first place, with bodyguards patrolling the perimeter, to get a haircut across town. But he keeps running into obstacles. The president is in town (“The president of the United States,” he’s told, when he asks which president), so traffic’s a bitch. Then there’s an anti-corporate protest against corporate mucky-mucks like him—more Battle in Seattle than Occupy Wall Street—and a funeral for a Sufi rap star. As a result, the limo, moving slowly downtown, becomes his rolling office. People enter and exit like they’ve been waiting on the sidewalk all day.
His first seatmate is his start-up partner, Shiner (Jay Baruchel), who feels left behind. He can’t keep up. Neither can we, really. There’s technobabble talk of a “bot” that keeps getting faster and faster in exploiting market inefficiencies, until it, and Packer, never live in the present. They’re always in the future. Or futures. Doesn’t he say this? “Why can I see the future?” Packer asks. Or does he say “can’t”? Early on, Packer sounds like Holden Caulfield with the ducks when he wonders where all the white limos go at the end of the day. Shiner sounds like Fenwick in “Diner” when he says, “You ever get the feeling you don’t know what’s going on?”
Other seatmates include a 22-year-old whiz kid who’s still excited by the numbers (Philip Nozuka); a doctor there for Packer’s daily checkup; and an older French mistress (Juliette Binoche), whom he fucks in the backseat, and who tells him of an available Rothko when he’s interested in a chapel, an entire chapel, that he wants to buy and put in his condo. Whole. They talk over the efficacy and morality of this.
She: People need to see it.
He: Let them buy it. Let them outbid me.
Packer always asks his seatmates “What else?” because he feeds off information even though the most basic information—the president’s in town, one of his favorite singers has died—escapes him. “What do you do exactly?” Elise (Sarah Gadon) asks him at one point. “You know things. I think this is what you do. I think you acquire information and turn it into something awful.” She’s his wife, we find out. At first I thought she was merely a taxi-cab pick up. Then I realized: no, she’s his fiancée. At the diner, she’s his wife, and by the end they’re divorced. A life together in a limo ride. Modern life.
Some of the conversational back-and-forth is fascinating. (“When I was four,” he tells Elise, “I figured out how much I weighed on all the planets in the solar system.”) Other times, it merely sounds like clever tweets. (“Talent is more erotic when it’s wasted.”) Throughout, nobody really listens to anyone. It’s like a “Seinfeld” conversation except dreamy, gloomy, and not funny.
Let’s ask the basic question of Packer that we ask of all of our protagonists: What does the guy want? I don’t know. I’m not sure he knows. He seems to be a man trying to feel something again. That’s why the limo ride to the haircut in the first place. It’s where he got his haircuts when he was a kid. Since Packer lives in the future, or futures, where nothing can be felt, he tries to feel via his past. His present certainly isn’t doing it for him. In the backseat of the stretch limo, which looks like the inside of the Batmobile, and which he initially rides as if he’s Capt. Kirk on the U.S.S. Enterprise, he does whatever he can to feel something. He screws his mistress (Julie Binoche) and has a lengthy prostate exam (his prostate is asymmetrical). Later he screws one of his security guards (Patricia McKenzie) in a nearby hotel, which Cronenberg films as if it’s as cramped and claustrophobic as the limo. When anti-capitalist forces rock the limo, Packer doesn’t react. As he’s losing his fortune, Packer doesn’t react...much. Some critics blame Pattinson for this but it’s obviously the point. What can make him feel again? Why not get out of the limo and walk? He’s the boy-king, trapped, and eventually he kills his bodyguard and dismisses his driver and stands in the dirty streets where an assassin, Beno Levin, (Paul Giamatti), an ex-employee, takes potshots at him. Only then does he come alive again. For a moment. But the confrontation with Levin is a letdown. Levin’s motivation, he says, “is not original.” Eventually Packer shoots his own hand. Then he feels something. But not enough. The awful dreamlike state continues. Until it doesn’t.
Cronenberg does dreamlike well, of course, and the movie’s themes (wealth inequality, living the future, creating a life that speeds past us) are all extremely relevant. But early on I didn’t care what was happening, and I never got back to caring. The man who feels nothing is a dull protagonist. Other people’s dreams are a drag. I also felt about Packer’s ride the way Packer felt about Levin’s motivation. It’s not very original. See: “The Swimmer,” “Heart of Darkness,” “A Face in the Crowd,” and my 10th-grade play.
Quote of the Day
The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be “imminent,” although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.
But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives’ suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.
In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.
--from “Deafness Before the Storm,” by Kurt Eichenwald, author of “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars," in the New York Times Op-Ed.
Eleven Years Ago
“Before 9/11, the World Trade Center was never particularly beloved. 'A standing monument to architectural boredom,' said one critic in the early 1970s. 'Two huge buck teeth' blighting the Manhattan skyline, said Norman Mailer. Earlier skyscrapers tended to end like church spires, pointing towards the heavens—the Empire State Building is even called 'The Cathedral of the Skies'—but tapering means losing valuable real estate. Thus modern skyscrapers’ blocky shape. The World Trade towers pointed at nothing. They just stood there.
”The towers came to represent not architectural beauty like the Empire State Building, nor the liberty of the Statue, but blunt financial power. 'Greed is good,' Gordon Gekko famously says in Oliver Stone’s 'Wall Street,' and so the film begins with morning shots of the Manhattan skyline, with the World Trade Center front and center. 'I have a head for business and a bod for sin,' Tess McGill says in Mike Nichols’ 'Working Girl,' but this is a feel-good movie, and so in the single-shot opening, the focus is on another working girl, the Statue of Liberty, who gets her 360-degree close-up. The twin towers are once again relegated to the background.
“Now those very background shots take our breath away. God, the World Trade Center towered, didn’t it? It towered over even New York City, which towers over the world. Other cities have one tall building, but only New York, New York, the town so nice they named it twice, had the audacity to throw up two. Now that they’re gone, the skyline doesn’t look the same. Now that the buck teeth have been knocked out, we keep probing their absence with our tongue.”
--from “Remembering the World Trade Center: How the World Trade Center was portrayed in movies before 9/11; how it’s been portrayed since,” which I wrote for MSNBC in August 2006. The above shot is from Julian Schnabel's “Before Night Falls,” starring Javier Bardem, and released in 2000. Patricia and I watched it again in late August. The WTC snuck up on us in the background. It took our breath away.
For a more extensive list of movies featuring the World Trade Center ...
Movie Review: Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust (2004)
Daniel Anker’s “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust” is essentially split into two parts: how Nazi Germany was presented on Hollywood screens before the war (barely), and how the Holocaust was depicted on Hollywood screens after the war (ditto). But the question that haunts the documentary is this: to what extent can the Holocaust be recreated or depicted at all? Yes, one must never forget. Yes, one must bear witness. But how do you turn the great tragedy of the 20th century into entertainment?
The first example of how badly this can go was an episode of the television show, “This is Your Life,” from May 1953. The guest was the first Holocaust survivor to be interviewed on national television: Hanna Bloch Kohner. Why was she chosen? The documentary doesn’t say, but this article by Kohner’s daughter, Julie, makes it clear: Hanna’s husband was the agent for Ralph Edwards, the host of “This Is Your Life”; and once he heard Hanna’s story, and no doubt saw how pretty she was, the show found a way, as narrator Gene Hackman tells us, “to package the Holocaust for mass consumption.”
Here’s what Edwards says in his smooth, pleased-with-itself, radio announcer’s voice:
Looking at you, it’s hard to believe, that during seven short years of a still short life, you lived a lifetime of fear, terror, and tragedy. You look like a young American girl out of college, not at all like a survivor of Hitler’s cruel purge of German Jews.
Special guests/reunions include a fellow concentration camp inmate:
It was your friend and companion from four concentration camps. Now fate was kind to her, too, for she lives here in Hollywood: Eva Hertzberg, now Mrs. Warner Forsheim!
Worst of all? This conversation:
Edwards: You were each given a case of soap and a towel, weren’t you, Hanna?
Hanna [laughs slightly]: I don’t remember the soap.
Edwards: Well, you were sent to the so-called showers. [Hanna bows head.] Even this was a doubtful procedure because some showers had regular water, others had liquid gas. And you never knew which one you were being sent to. You and Eva were fortunate, others were not so fortunate, including your father and mother, and your husband, Carl Benjamin. They all lost their lives at Auschwitz.
It’s not just the words but the voice. He could be selling cars or hot dogs between innings of a baseball game. Instead he’s telling us of a tragedy so great, of cruelty so institutionalized and mechanized, that it obliterates the possibility of God. Tone is so at odds with subject matter as to seem the work of a madman.
“You were sent to the so-called showers...”
American moviegoers got their first sense of the Holocaust in May 1945, when the newsreels showed graphic footage of the concentration and extermination camps, including, as historian Michael Berenbaum says here, “the bulldozers of Bergen-Belsen shoveling the bodies into mass graves.” Such footage also appeared in Orson Welles’ “The Stranger,” from 1946, about a Nazi war criminal living in Connecticut, but Anker ignores the film. Instead we get the two 1947 films on anti-Semitism, “Crossfire” and “Gentleman’s Agreement,” along with a clip of “The Search” (1948), starring Montgomery Clift as an American GI trying to unite two Auschwitz survivors. We get “Singing in the Dark” (1956), starring Moishe Oysher as a Holocaust survivor with amnesia, but not “The Juggler” (1953), starring Kirk Douglas as a Holocaust survivor in Israel. “Exodus,” the big-budget, All-Star cast film from 1960, goes unmentioned, too.
Generally, in the first few decades after the war, Hollywood dealt with the Holocaust only when its hand was forced by other media. The popularity of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as both book and Broadway play, led to the scrubbed1950s movie version, starring model, and WASP, Millie Perkins. Television showed us “Judgment at Nuremberg” before Stanley Kramer directed his Oscar-nominated version.
Then came “Holocaust,” the nine-hour miniseries from 1978 that followed in the wake of “Roots,” and to which, we’re told, “One in every two Americans tuned in.” It went abroad, to West Germany, where it was shocking news to a younger generation, and where it led the German government to extend statute of limitations on Nazi war criminals. “In Germany they told a joke,” Berenbaum says, “about the docudrama ‘Holocaust.’ They said it had more impact than the original.”
Objections came. “TV and Theresienstadt are not compatible,” wrote Elie Wiesel in The New York Times. He called the project morally objectionable and indecent. Others complained about the soap-opera nature of the storyline, and to the fact that there were any commercials at all. “It’s not that it was bad,” says Rabbi Wolfe Kelman in a clip from an NBC Special Report, “Holocaust: a Postscript.” “It’s that it wasn’t good enough.”
But it led to the documentary “Kitty: Return to Auschwitz” (1979) and the feature film Sophie’s Choice” (1983) and to yet another mini-series, “Winds of War” (1988). And all the while, questions. Can you bear proper witness without being graphic? Can you be graphic without being exploitative? Steven Spielberg argues for “graphic” (during histrionic scenes of “Winds of War”) even as film critic Neal Gabler praises Spielberg for his restraint in “Schindler’s List.”
The debate in “Imaginary Witness,” unfortunately, isn’t at a high level. “Schindler’s List” is treated as the pinnacle in Holocaust depiction—the acclaimed, Oscar-winning film from Hollywood’s most popular director—but the doc never delves into its controversy. David Mamet, for one, in his essay, “The Jew for Export,” called it melodrama. He said it was destructive and its lesson a lie:
Members of the audience learn nothing save the emotional lesson of all melodrama, that they are better than the villain.
Gabler talks up “the casualness of the violence” in “Schindler’s List,” a rework of “the banality of evil,” Hannah Arendt’s phrase from the Adolf Eichmann trial in 1963. But, to me, “The Pianist” (2002), directed by Roman Polanski, a survivor, gets at this much better than Spielberg, a suburban kid from Arizona, ever did.
“The Pianist,” unfortunately, is a blip here, in part because it’s not a true Hollywood production, and the doc, per its title, focuses on Hollywood. I wanted to go beyond Hollywood. I wanted to see what other countries were doing. I wanted clips from “Ostatni etap,” a 1948 black-and-white Polish drama about a woman sent to Auschwitz, and “Nuit et brouillard” (1955), the powerful, half-hour documentary from Alain Resnais and poet Jean Cayrol, which was the only Holocaust documentary produced anywhere in the world during the 1950s. “Shoah” (1985), Claude Lanzmann’s 9 1/2 hour documentary-to-end-all-documentaries, goes unmentioned as well.
According to Wikipedia, 174 narrative films worldwide have been made about the Holocaust in some form—focusing on survivors, a search for Nazi war criminals, or recreating the camps themselves—and I could’ve done with a five-minute survey of some of these, and less talk from, say, Prof. Annette Insdorf, who always sounds excruciatingly helpful in explaining the most obvious thoughts.
“Imaginary Witness” is a good beginner’s guide to its subject. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s that it’s not good enough.
Waiting for 'The Master'
It's always a bit of a drag to see trailer that makes you lose interest in the movie you're about to watch. It happened to me all the time during the Winter of 2011 whenever I saw a trailer for Terrence Malick's “The Tree of Life,” which became my favorite movie of the year. It's happening to me again whenever I see a trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson's “The Master,” which just won various awards at the Venice Film Festival, including acting, directing, and best picture. Whoops, wait. New Venice rules prevent one film from dominating too many categories, so the jury, led by Michael Mann, took the best picture award back. Everyone's thought: Why take that one back? Wasn't it obviously best picture?
The film, shockingly, opens next week, limited, and the week after, wide. To me, it looks like a late December release. Not that I'm complaining.
Here's the trailer that keeps distracting me from what I'm about to see:
- From The Telegraph, 50 Years of James Bond posters! Cool. Until I realized it wasn't really 50 years. It's 10 posters: seven from the 1960s, one from the 1970s (“For Your Eyes Only”), one from the '90s (“Tomorrow Never Dies”), and one from the 2000s (“Quantum of Solace”). That's skipping a lot of Bond. On the other hand the objectification of the Bond girls from the early 1960s (“From Russian with Love” and “Thunderball” in particular) is rather startling. I would've thought that would've been more of a '70s thing.
- I'll have a review of Daniel Anker's “Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust” (2004) up soon. But this is his next doc: “Sidney Lumet: A Moral Vision.” I'm there.
- Nathaniel Stein of The New Yorker talks up Bill Clinton's conversation with the teleprompter: How he remade his much-talked-about speech at the DNC on the spot.
- Also from the DNC: Andrew Sullivan on Obama's acceptance speech: “Obama knows how to build a speech: 'Yes, our path is harder but it leads to a better place.' The Christianity of the man shines through at moments like this. He isn't promising heaven and earth (and he didn't last time, either); he's promising persistence in defending the middle class in a globalizing world economy and increasing social and economic inequality.”
- Philip Roth tried to get Wikipedia to change its entry on his novel “The Human Stain” but he was told he wasn't a credible source on Philip Roth. The younger Roth would've lobbed a hilarious bon mot at the site or written an article-length parody. The elder Roth just goes on and on.
- Rightwing nutjobs on the wrong side of history in Minnesota are trying to constitutionally restrict marriage to unions between one man and one woman. But some older folks are on the right side of history.
- Do you shut down 24-year-old phenom Stephen Strasburg when his team, the Nationals, has a chance to bring a pennant to our nation's capitol for the first time since 1933? Joe Posnanski weighs in.
- The Angels' Mike Trout began Saturday's game with a homerun and ended it robbing Prince Fielder of a homerun. Trouth giveth, taketh.
- Why we need more government jobs. Per Krugman.
Early GOP Brass
“[George] Murphy and [Ronald] Reagan's electoral success was directly tied to Southern California's emergence as the center of a plethora of socially and religiously conservative groups that preached, as one historian notes, an ideology of 'staunch individualism, Protestant piety, and resentment against Washington ”collectivists'.' Ironically, this hotbed of antifederal activism owed much of its wealth and growth to Washington's largesse. In 1957, defense-related jobs accounted for 70 percent and 59 percent, respectively, of all employment in San Diego and Los Angeles counties. By the early 1960s, defense was the nation's largest business, accounting for 62 percent of the federal budget, and Southern California received the majority of those funds.“
--Steven J. Ross in ”Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics," pg. 164. In Clintonian terms, it takes some brass to come to power by attacking what has created and nurtured you.
My Overwhelming Conviction about Pres. Obama's DNC Speech
I disagreed with many people who were immediately disappointed with Pres. Obama's acceptance speech before the Democratic National Convention Thursday night. I loved it. I thought it was straightforward and honest and at times uplifting. It was uplifting enough that it lifted me up from my couch and over to my computer where I donated another $500 to the Obama campaign.
But the line of the speech wasn't an uplifting one—except in the sense that it was beautiful. It wasn't even Obama's. It came from Abraham Lincoln.
Here's what Pres. Obama said:
While I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'
God, that's beautiful. You don't even have to believe in God to know the feeling. We've all felt it. We can only imagine how a president in a time of crisis must feel it.
The quote comes from Noah Brooks writing in Harper's Weekly three months after Lincoln's assassination. Brooks was a journalist for the Sacramento Union, and, particularly because he didn't indicate the circumstances under which Lincoln said the line, some doubt whether Lincoln said it at all. If he didn't then Brooks is less hack than great writer, because it's a great line worthy of repeating.
It's one of our most fundamental and human images, isn't it? Man on his knees in times of crisis and despair. As soon as Pres. Obama said it, as soon as I began to play it over in my mind, I thought of two similar lines, one humorous, one spiritual.
This is the humorous version. It's from Saul Bellow's “Herzog”:
On the knees of your soul? Might as well be useful. Scrub the floor.
The other, more spiritual line, comes from U2's “Mysterious Ways”:
To touch is to heal - to hurt is to steal
If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel
We are driven down by the weight of the world; but in accepting our failings we are raised up. It's the low place we go to find hope.
Pres. Obama greeting tourists at the Lincoln Memorial in 2011. White House Photo.
Sad Yankees Fan of the Day
In honor of the Yankees losing 10-6 to Baltimore last night and sole possession of first place in the AL East, here's your Sad Yankees Fan of the Day. Consider it the first in a series. Collect them all!
The shot is from “Four Days In October,” a one-hour documentary about the 2004 ALCS between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. It's one of ESPN.com's “30 for 30” documentaries. I watch it whenever I need to cheer up.
In case you don't know about that series: the Yankees were up three games to none and leading by a run in the bottom of the 9th inning in Game 4 with the greatest closer in baseball history, Mariano Rivera, on the mound. And then ... And then ...
No team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-7 series to even play Game 6. The Red Sox, after decades of humiliation at the hands of the Yankees, came back to play and win Game 7 and go to and win the World Series for the first time since 1918. It's not just the greatest upset in baseball history; it's, with apologies to Jesus, The Greatest Story Ever Told.
And it's currently streaming on Netflix.
Quote of the Day
“So did you see the AP fact-check of Bill Clinton’s long speech last night? It’s sort of amazing. Like, for example, while Bill Clinton claimed that the Romney/Ryan campaign is dishonest, the reality is ... MONICA LEWINSKY.
”CLINTON: 'Their campaign pollster said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” Now that is true. I couldn’t have said it better myself — I just hope you remember that every time you see the ad.'
“THE FACTS: Clinton, who famously finger-wagged a denial on national television about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and was subsequently impeached in the House on a perjury charge, has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth. 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,' Clinton told television viewers. Later, after he was forced to testify to a grand jury, Clinton said his statements were 'legally accurate' but also allowed that he 'misled people, including even my wife.'
”How is this a checking of a fact?“
--Alex Pareene, ”The AP's Amazing Clinton 'Fact Check,'" Salon.com
* * *
Not sure what's with AP these days. They often run extremely conservative and/or opinionated stuff under the guise of objectivity. I first noticed it--but have noticed it many times since--while working on a profile of Robert Rubin, litigation director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area:
Rubin, of course, is aware of the more famous Robert Rubin, the former treasury secretary, but there was a day last November when, if you were online, “You didn’t have to go through Robert E. Rubin to get to me,” he says.
It was the day an AP story came out critical of the fact that the only two lawyers to sue under a provision of the 2002 California Voting Rights Act were the two lawyers who helped write the provision: Joaquin Avila and Rubin. The law, according to the article, “makes it easier for lawyers to sue and win financial judgments in cases arising from claims that minorities effectively were shut out of local [at-large] elections.” The story, despite a passing reference to Rubin’s salaried position, also implied that the two lawyers were getting rich from it. Headlined “Jackpot: Lawyers earn fees from law they wrote,” it spread quickly on anti-lawyer blogs.
“It was very biased and one-sided,” Brown says of the article. “They didn’t ask for competing points of views, they didn’t discuss the purpose of public-interest impact litigation. It suggested that these lawyers were in it for the money; but a lawyer like Robert Rubin has dedicated his entire life to public interest work. He’s certainly not in this line of work for the money.”
“I’ll make two points,” adds Brad Seligman, a civil rights attorney with Impact Fund. “The first is voting rights litigation is extremely difficult. It’s often unsuccessful. And unlike many other areas of the law they don’t create any damage pot. The only way to get paid in those cases is if you actually win the case. Then it’s up to a judge to decide how much you get paid. That’s number one. It’s unlike almost every other area of law. There are no rich lawyers doing voting rights cases.
“The second is Robert is an employee of a nonprofit organization. He doesn’t make any money personally from these cases. And his salary level as an employee is way lower than what he could command in private practice. In fact, if he was in private practice, given his reputation and experience, he’d be making a million dollars a year. But he’s working in a nonprofit agency.”
Quote of the Day
“Now, the fact that a lot of Americans are still opposed not simply to the presidency of Barack Obama but to the idea of the presidency of Barack Obama is not something that Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, or in fact any Democratic speechmaker will talk about at the convention. But it's indisputable, and it accounts for the almost fantastic nature of what many Americans think of both the president and the First Lady. To be sure, they're politically vulnerable on merit; but they're also vulnerable because even, after their four years in office, a weirdly unvarying percentage of America does not accept them as Americans. It is prejudice, pure and simple, and it manifests itself less in polling results than it does in a political discourse warped by whispers and suspicions kept sub rosa.
”And so it was hard to say what Michelle Obama had to do on Tuesday night, because so much of what she had to do tonight was something outside the realm of polite speech. Republican commentators spoke almost winsomely of Ann Romney's need to humanize Mitt Romney; but no Democratic commentator could speak of the necessity of 'Americanizing' Barack Obama without indulging the worst instincts of the American electorate. So what Michelle Obama did, quite simply, was engage the best. I sat with the Ohio delegation as she spoke, and I watched from close up as she went from one thing — a woman of glamor and poise, in a dress the color of sherbet and matching heels — to quite another, in the course of a single speech. She never sounded embattled on Tuesday, but she was clearly responding to something, and it was this aspect of her speech that lent it a special force...
“Tuesday night's speech had an almost lonely power, because it wasn't only about him but about them — about a couple that has changed the world, only to be misperceived. And it addressed those misperceptions not by naming them but by rising above them, and inviting the rest of America to rise above them, too.”
--Tom Junod, “The Lonely Power of Michelle and the Idea of Barack,” on THE POLITICS BLOG at esquire.com
Movie Review: Touch of Evil (1958)
WARNING: TOUCH OF SPOILERS
Who do we like in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”?
Yeah, I know. It’s such an amateur question to ask of such an auteur filmmaker. But it’s not a bad way to begin a discussion of the film.
Normally we like the protagonist. Normally he’s handsome and brave and the object of our wish-fulfillment. Here, Mexican cop Mike Vargas is, yes, handsome and brave, but, no, he’s not the object of our wish-fulfillment. For one, he’s played by Charlton Heston and that’s a sore point for cineastes 50 years on. “Touch of Evil” only got made the way it got made because Heston insisted upon Welles as director, so we should be grateful. We’re not. Because it’s still Heston: wearing dark make-up and a thin moustache and annunciating lines as if they were chiseled in marble.
Even so, shouldn’t we at least like Mike Vargas? Isn’t he the moral exemplar of the film? Isn’t he so upstanding, so dedicated, that he delays his honeymoon to tag along on a criminal investigation to make sure no innocent is railroaded by corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Welles)? And doesn’t he get Quinlan in the end? And isn’t that admirable?
No. Here’s why.
What’s the matter with Vargas: Betraying Susie
“Touch of Evil,” follows two storylines: Quinlan’s investigation into the death of Linnekar, whose car is blown up at the Mexican border; and the stalking and eventual assault on Vargas’ American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh), by the Grandis, who are after Vargas because he put one of their own behind bars. Vargas immediately recognizes the first danger but never the second. Fearing for Susie’s safety, he pushes her away ... and into the arms of men who do her harm.
Let’s cut to a scene halfway through the movie. By this point, Quinlan and his toadies are grilling their No. 1 suspect, Sanchez (Victor Millan), in his apartment, and Vargas goes across the street to make a phone call. The proprietor of the store is a woman, blind, with a sign that reads “If you are mean enough to steal from the blind, help yourself.” When Vargas finally gets through to Susie at the Mirador Motel, they have the following conversation:
Vargas: Darling, the news is bad. Quinlan is about to arrest that boy Sanchez,
Susie: Oh Mike, is that why you called—to tell me somebody’s been arrested?
Vargas: No, that’s not really why I called. (Turns away, whispers) It’s to tell you how sorry I am about all this. And how very much I love you.
Susie: I’m still here my own darling Miguel.
Vargas: Oh, I thought you’d fallen asleep.
Susie: I was just listening to you breathe.
This latter part of the conversation could be any couple on their honeymoon. But they’re not on their honeymoon. The wife is ready:
But this is who Vargas is spending his honeymoon with:
The woman is as blind as justice, which is what Vargas is pursuing; but Welles also makes her ugly, which is the kind of justice Vargas will find. The discrepancy between the two women—the one Vargas should be with and the one he chooses to be with—is so great that, watching the movie a second time, I burst out laughing. Vargas doesn’t seem admirable here for keeping an eye on Quinlan and ignoring his wife. He seems a fool.
Then it gets worse. After Susie is terrorized, kidnapped, and possibly gang-raped by the Grandi gang, Vargas finally shows up at the Mirador Motel. The place is empty except for the night manager (Dennis Weaver, overacting). Presented with overwhelming evidence, Vargas remains uncomprehending. These are among the things he says:
- “The lights seem to be out in all the cabins.”
- “Party? What party?”
- “Brawl? You mean there was some kind of a fight?”
- “This can’t be my wife’s room.”
He’s not even concerned about Susie until he finds the briefcase with his gun missing. That’s what really sets him off: Not the missing wife but the missing, Freudian gun. Only then does he react.
Or overreact. He goes on a rampage, careering around on the Mexican side of the border and tearing up bars, in search of Susie. He basically goes from being a blissful idiot—thinking the world is all chocolate sodas—to being a malicious idiot. At one point, when a helpless Susie waves at him from a nearby balcony, he’s too busy looking for her to find her. In the end, she winds up in prison, charged with Quinlan’s murder of Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). When he visits her, she says what she’s said to him throughout the movie: “Don’t go!” So what does he do? He goes. In pursuit of justice, which is blind and ugly.
As bad as all that is, he’s even worse in the final act.
What’s the matter with Vargas, part II: Betraying Menzies
At the prison, he convinces Quinlan’s best friend, Sgt. Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), to wear a wire to entrap Quinlan for the greater good. But as Menzies is doing this, betraying his best friend for the greater good, Vargas, skulking around and under a bridge, gets too close with the receiver, and Quinlan, hearing echoes of his own conversation, realizes he’s being recorded and betrayed. So he shoots Menzies with Vargas’ gun. It’s a great image: When Menzies goes down, the man figuratively behind him, Vargas, is literally revealed. This shooting sets up another great image: Quinlan stumbling down the riverbank to wash his blood-soaked hand in the river, which is also filthy. Nothing comes clean in Welles’ world.
At this point, Vargas has several options. While Quinlan is occupied with his hand-washing, he could, 1) take his gun back; 2) knock out Quinlan; 3) grab his transmitter/recorder and run away. But what does he do?
Earlier in the movie he had needlessly lectured Menzies in the Hall of Records. “What about all the people put in the deathhouse?” he asks in that marble-shitting voice of his. “Save your tears for them.” Now he needlessly lectures Quinlan. Doing so, he wakes a sleeping giant:
Vargas: Well, Captain. I’m afraid this is finally something you can’t talk your way out of.
Quinlan: You want to bet? [Pauses] You killed him, Vargas.
Vargas: C’mon, give me my gun back.
That’s actually funny. In a second, Vargas goes from sounding like an arresting officer to sounding like the smallest kid on the playground. C’mon, give it back. It’s up to Menzies, with his dying breath, to kill Quinlan for him.
Just think of what Menzies has done here. He betrays his best friend for the greater good. Then he gets shot by his best friend because Vargas screws up with the transmitter. Then after Vargas screws up yet again, allowing Quinlan to get the bead on him, Menzies shoots and kills Quinlan before dying himself. Now that’s a man who deserves a good eulogy. But when assistant D.A. Al Schwartz (Mort Mills) arrives with Susie, this is the eulogy Vargas gives him:
That’s Menzies. He’s dead.
At which point he rushes to his wife. It’s the one time in the movie he rushes to his wife and it’s the one time he shouldn’t.
But there’s more. Consider it the movie’s gloriously cynical punchline.
Throughout, Vargas has basically jumped storylines to pursue a greater good. He’s trying to prevent Quinlan from using his so-called intuition as a means to railroad another innocent—Sanchez—with false evidence. But in the end, in a by-the-way manner, Schwartz informs us that Sanchez actually confessed to the crime. He did kill Linnekar.
Quinlan’s famous intuition—which beats Vargas’ intuition, which suggested going after poor Eddie Farnham (Gus Schilling)—was right again.
By jumping storylines, Vargas creates tragedy out of both storylines. If he’d stayed with Susie, she wouldn’t have been terrorized and assaulted. And if he hadn’t tagged after Quinlan, Quinlan wouldn’t have died, Menzies wouldn’t have died, and the right man, Sanchez, would have been railroaded for the right crime.
Vargas isn’t the hero of “Touch of Evil.” He’s what causes everything to go so horribly wrong.
“You killed him, Vargas.”
What’s the matter with Quinlan: Murder and railroads
So who do we like in this movie then? Vargas’ opposite? Quinlan?
Welles certainly has a habit of playing likeable scoundrels: Kane, Harry Lime, Falstaff. Some are more charming in their rise (Kane), some more sympathetic in their fall (Falstaff), but all are usually smarter than the characters around them.
As here. Quinlan’s introduction reminds me of one of the most famous introductions in movie history: Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in “Casablanca.” First we hear everyone talking about him; then we’re allowed to see him. Rick Blaine, though, is obviously a hero: resplendent in tux, smoking a cigarette, exuding cool. Quinlan, in contrast, is repulsive: chomping a cigar, swaddled with extra weight, barely able to lift his girth from an automobile.
There’s something hunted and haunted about him, too. He’s so haunted I assumed—when I first saw this movie back in the late 1990s—that he blew up Linnekar. Turns out he’s haunted by his reputation. He knows his famous intuition is built on a pack of lies and every new case is a chance for that reputation to be tarnished. You could say he’s haunted by the man he pretends to be. Or maybe he’s haunted by the man he used to be.
But he’s still a pig. He still greets Menzies by calling him a “jackass,” and he still revels in the attention and power of his position, and he still railroads the innocent, or not-so-innocent, to preserve his rep. He’s not only morally unrecognizable from the upstanding cop he used to be, he’s physically unrecognizable, too. When he shows up at the brothel of Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), we get this exchange:
Quinlan: Have you forgotten your old friend?
Tanya: I told you we’re closed.
Quinlan: I’m Hank Quinlan.
Tanya: [Pause] I didn’t recognize you. [Pause; she looks him up and down.] You should lay off those candy bars.
Quinlan: It’s either the candy or the hootch. Must say I wish it was your chili I was getting fat on. Anyway, you’re sure looking good.
Tanya: You’re a mess, honey.
He is. He plants false evidence, conspires with Uncle Joe Grandi to abduct Susie, then kills Uncle Joe Grandi with his bare hands only to pin the murder on Susie. Later he kills Pete. He would’ve killed Vargas, too, if not for Pete.
So that’s two railroadings, two murders, and one attempted murder in a 24-hour period. Likeable or not, Welles’ famous charisma—like Quinlan’s famous intuition—only goes so far.
“You‘re a mess, honey.”
What’s the matter with Susie: Street dumb
So if not the protagonist or antagonist, who’s left? The girl?
It helps that Susie looks like Janet Leigh. It also helps that in the beginning there’s something pleasantly brassy about her. But we judge characters by the choices they make, and Susie makes some lousy choices.
Early on, she’s about to walk into the path of a pickup truck when a leather-jacketed hood, quickly dubbed “Pancho” (Valentin de Vargas), saves her. When a few locals inform her that Pancho wants to give her something, she responds, street smart, “I know what he wants.” Except he doesn’t want that. (Not yet.) He wants to give her a note: “Follow this boy at once. We have something very important for Mr. Vargas.” She looks around and shrugs. “Well, what have I got to lose?”
After that, she’s about as street-smart as June Cleaver.
She follows him. She gets her picture taken with him. She goes into a hotel with him. Sure, she takes on Uncle Joe Grandi with her exclamations of “Yeah!” but why follow the boy in the first place? For the thrill? Because she thinks she’s helping Mike? Because the boy has “pretty teeth”?
Whatever her rationale, for the rest of the film she’ll be followed by the gang, and the camera, both licking their lips. At the Mirador Motel, she’s taunted, cornered, surrounded on the bed. “Lemme stay, I wanna watch,” says the lesbian gang member (Mercedes McCambridge), in one of cinema’s most chilling lines. It’s particularly chilling because she speaks for us, too. We’re there to watch, after all, and part of us wants to watch this. We don’t get to. “Close the door,” Pancho says, and they do, on us. In a sense, they close the door on Susie, too. She’s a non-entity in the second half. The movie treats her the way men tend to treat women after they get what they want. It forgets all about her.
The early, brassy Susie (Janet Leigh), not letting a phallic cigar get in her way. Her opposite is actor Akim Tamiroff, immortalized in J.D. Salinger’s “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.”
And the rest
So is there anyone left to like?
There is. They’re my two favorite characters in the movie and they’re both minor. One is cynical and gives us the movie’s final line. The other is the real hero of “Touch of Evil.”
The cynical one is, of course, Tanya, who has an authenticity about her. She looks you straight in the eye and speaks the world-weary truth, as she did to Quinlan at the brothel, and as she does in the end by the river. She seems a little saddened by Quinlan’s death and offers up a better eulogy than Vargas offers Menzies: “He was some kind of a man.” A second later, as if even this simple line is too much for her, but without a qualifying signifier, she adds, “What does it matter what you say about people?” It’s one of the more famous last lines in movies. It also gives lie, if you believe it, to my entire exercise.
But I don’t quite believe it. I believe it does matter what you say about people. At the least, it matters what film critics say about characters. And that brings us to the hero of the movie.
If the hero is the one who gets the bad guy, then Sgt. Pete Menzies, who gets Capt. Hank Quinlan, is the hero of the movie. If the hero is the one who sacrifices himself for the greater good, then Menzies, who sacrifices himself for the greater good, is the hero of the movie. If the hero is the one who makes the most progress, then Menzies, who starts out a toadie only to redeem himself twice, only to become a man of honor, is the hero of the movie.
In a dirty world, with dirty jobs and dirty rivers, where it doesn’t matter what you say about people, we don’t need the dull, hectoring, chocolate-soda-drinking likes of Mike “C'mon, give it back” Vargas, who causes more problems than he solves. We just need someone with a touch of good.
The toadie with a touch of good; the cop with a touch of evil.
David Denby's Defense of Clint Eastwood—Annotated
David Denby, film critic for The New Yorker, took the road less traveled last week and wound up defending Clint Eastwood's speech at the Republican National Convention. I'm a fan of the “In Defense of...” article—I've done a few of them myself—but, as I began the piece, I couldn't imagine what defense Denby could conjure. Here it is:
For the record, I didn’t think Clint Eastwood’s chair dialogue was “sad and pathetic” as Roger Ebert put it, or the weird mutterings of a senescent citizen, as Rachel Maddow and other liberal commentators thought, or quite as incoherent as Amy Davidson said. John Cassidy admitted that the speech was “refreshing,” which was closer to my response. It’s amusing that so many commentators complain about the wooden or pre-fabricated nature of convention speeches and then carry on as if some unspeakable disaster had taken place when someone tries something off-beat and a little strange. That's actually not a bad defense, particularly from a film critic. 'In a world of Hollywood gloss, Eastwood has given us mumblecore.'
Rachel Maddow, whom I generally admire, teases Republican squareness with shrugs and grins in every broadcast. Every broadcast, Gracie? I think I've seen, at most, a half-hour of her show total. But then I don't watch TV news. But last night, with a larger than usual national audience watching, she relied on some presumed proper standard of behavior to judge Eastwood, using that assumption as an opportunistic sarcastic tool. Last night, Maddow came off as the square.
I deplore most of Clint’s politics, yet this speech was not a disaster but an act of cunning, like many of his public appearances. I looked at it as an act of “One-take Clint.” Here's Armie Hammer on Eastwood's directing style: “At one point he was like, 'OK, cut, print.' And I was like, 'Whoa, whoa, Clint, I had my sides in my hands, I thought we were just rehearsing that.'” That's how Eastwood does it and he probably thought he could get away with it at the RNC, too. He couldn't.
He eschewed rhetoric and “rousing” pro-Romney remarks. Apparently most of the speakers did without rousing pro-Romney remarks. They weren't there to nominate Romney; they were there to nominate against Obama.
I could have done without his reprisal of “Make my day,” but, in general, he was folksy, Will Rogersish, eccentric, maybe, but less doddering than mock-doddering. Look at it again: there’s a kind of logic to what he said. As always, his focus was on his idea of integrity—a man should do what he promises to do. Like give a good speech at a national convention?
That led him into a tangle on Obama’s not closing Gitmo, but he started out by saying that it was a broken promise. That matters to him much more than ideology. Then why is he stumping for Romney--a man who's repudiated everything he ever did as governor of Massachusetts? Does Eastwood like the fact that Romney's making no promises other than the generic and jingoistic? That's he's making the usual Republican promises to increase defense, cut taxes on the rich and yet somehow balance the budget? That he's promising us voodoo economics all over again? Does Eastwood like how the GOP's attack on Obama is an attack on a strawman? Does he like Romney's line about “voting for the American” as if Obama isn't?
He’s always been more of a libertarian than an orthodox Republican, and is actually quite liberal in his social views. Exactly. So why was he there?
His remark that we should have consulted the Russians before going into Afghanistan was startling and very far from stupid. No, it was stupid. Particularly if it was an attack on Obama. Or was it an attack on Bush 43? Or was it attack on our post-9/11 response? Dirty Harry was telling us we shouldn't have attacked those who attacked us? That we should have read al Qaeda its rights? Funny.
His assertion that Obama should bring the troops home tomorrow morning was even more startling. How many people at the convention reject our military efforts in Afghanistan and want to end them tomorrow? Besides Eastwood and the Ron Paulites? I'm guessing ... none.
Eccentric, maybe, but not a disaster, and it will be remembered fondly as the one humanly interesting moment of the convention. Nice try, David. The mere fact that Eastwood was there was a bad call, given his politics; but it was his lack of rehearsal, his thought he could do this in one take, that hurt him. Sometimes, Clint, a man's gotta know his limitations.
Eastwood said Hollywood has conservatives; they just don't “hot-dog it” like Hollywood liberals. And where did he say this? Before a national audience at the RNC.
- My old high school classmate Marcellus Hall has illustrated a children's book: “Because You are My Teacher.” Looks great. And timely.
- Nathaniel of Film Experience has a funny take on watching “The Avengers” on an airplane.
- Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells gives us the Telluride buzz. Up: “Argo,” “No,” “The Gatekeeper.” Down: “Hyde Park on Hudson.” Not surprised by this last.
- The Obamanator sits down to dinner and urges you to contribute to the Obama campaign. As do I. I'm down $1,000 now to Obama, which is a lot of money for the middle class, but the horror of the GOP, its lies and greed, are unmaking my country. They're making it into oligarchy. Someone cue Joe Henry's “Our Song.”
- The Obamanator also provides this link to Obama's top 50 accomplishments. On the list? Health care reform, stimulus, Wall Street reform. The end of the war in Iraq, the end of Osama bin Laden, the end of Gadaffi. Repeal of “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” and coming out in favor of gay marriage. An auto industry bailout that works. (Wasn't Clint in favor of that at Super Bowl time?) Unmentioned but at the top of my list? An intelligent, articulate man behind the presidential seal. I just like hearing him talk.
- A doc on Milos Forman, “What Doesn't Kill You,” played at SIFF last week but I missed it. Didn't even hear about it. Would've gone if I had. In my search to find it online, I came across its IMDb.com page, where, according to IMDb's algorithms, people who liked the doc also liked “Just Go With It,” starring Adam Sandler. Right. Thanks. Trailer's here.
- Dinesh D'Souza, creator of that Obama doc, on Bill Maher's show. Maher hands him his ass.
- Finally, here's this shot from Jeff Wells of Marion Cotillard at the Telluride Film Festival: natural lighting, hair up, little make-up. You know those STARS WITHOUT MAKEUP shots the tabloids like to run? That's basically Marion here ... and she looks more beautiful than ever. Hollywood Reporter's Scott Feinberg, next to her, has a right to be smiling that big, shit-eating grin of his.
Marion Cotillard and... why is someone else even in this picture?
Quote of the Day
“How can I not be serious? What's not to be serious about? What could I take more seriously than this? And what's the point of waking up in the morning if you don't try to match the enormousness of the known forces in the world with something powerful in your own life?”
--from Don DeLillo's “Underworld,” pg. 323. I've always like that description. I think that's what gets most people, eventually: the enormousness of the known forces in the world.
Chris Rock Rules
Movie Review: Premium Rush (2012)
Did it have to be a fixie? That distracted me right away. Dude’s a bike messenger in New York City, zipping along and through massive amounts of traffic, and he has one gear and no brakes? I’ve never understood the appeal of fixies. People ride them even in Seattle. I can’t imagine the leg strength it takes to bike up, say, Queen Anne hill in one gear, or the balls it takes to bike down, say, Fremont hill with no brakes. What’s the advantage? Why take the risk? Is it for the ... premium rush?
Bad title, by the way. I’ve forgotten it about five times since I saw the thing.
No one in this movie gets why Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) rides a fixie, either. Not fellow messenger and sometime-girlfriend Vanessa (the superhot Dania Ramirez, last seen, by me, as Alex on “Entourage”), and not fellow messenger and obnoxious rival for her affections, Manny (Wole Parks). But Wilee has a secret that keeps him safe. He’s the Sherlock Holmes of bike messengers.
You know how the modern cinematic Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) can play out events in his superfast mind before they happen? He can calculate, without really knowing his opponents, which martial arts skills it takes to bring them all down? And then things happen exactly that way? Wilee does the same thing at dicey traffic intersections. This path? Crash 1. That path? Crash 2. The other path? Safety. It’s always the third path. As with jokes.
I admit I was vaguely intrigued by the trailer. Bike messenger has a package, or envelope, or ticket, that he’s supposed to deliver across town, and bad guys (led by Michael Shannon), want it. What could it be?
The movie, jumbled chronologically, begins with Wilee flying silently across the screen and crashing onto the pavement after a bike accident. Drivers are horrified. Vanessa crouches before him teary-eyed with worry. We’re told it’s 6:33 PM and then we flash back to 5:00 PM and Wilee doing his rounds. A slight flirtation with a receptionist. Manny being Manny (i.e., a dick). Wilee and Vanessa on the outs. A last-minute call, or ticket, that Wilee takes. Hey, it’s at Columbia University. Hey, it’s for Vanessa’s roommate, Nima (Jamie Chung). Hey, she seems nervous. Hey, why is this demented, big-headed dude after me?
At Columbia we learn Wilee went to law school but never took the bar. He didn’t want the office life, man. Why make $250-$500 an hour wearing a suit when you could make like $15 an hour riding in the open, polluted air. Vanessa doesn’t get this aspect of him. They’re on the outs because he missed her “school thing,” which turns out to be college graduation, which he thinks isn’t important. I’m with her. For all of Wilee’s hipster accoutrement, his attitude is basically white and privileged. She’s ready to grasp opportunities while he’s coasting on charm and letting opportunities pass him by, because, as a member of the majority group, he can afford to. Dude, just use your knowledge. Pass the bar. Hang a shingle. Help those who need help most. You don’t have to be a corporate lawyer. You can help the Vanessas and Nimas of the world. You know: pretty girls of all races.
Instead, he’s zipping uptown followed by that nutjob Robert Monday (Shannon), who’s trying to kill him. At one point Wilee gets a smartphone photo of the dude’s license plate and takes it to the nearest police station to register a complaint. And who walks in? Monday. He’s a cop. A detective. He’s got a gambling addiction. Another flashback. He’s playing Mah jong in Chinatown and losing bad and owing big. Nima’s ticket represents $50,000. Some Chinese dude tells him about it. How does the Chinese dude know? Do we ever find out?
Soon both Monday and a bike cop (Christopher Place), who must be the fastest bike cop in the world, are racing after Wilee, but our hero gets away using some Danny Macaskill maneuvers (stunt double: Danny Macaskill), then punks out and returns the ticket to Columbia. Not even to Nima. To the receptionist. When Nima finds out she’s distraught. Because that money? She’s been saving that money for two years, working three jobs, in order to ... wait for it ... bring her son to the United States.
In my seat I immediately deflated. The movie’s two big mysteries are: 1) a corrupt cop with a gambling addiction; and, 2) a mother and child reunion. All the fixies and tats in the world can’t make that shit seem new.
But now Wilee is ready to help. Except Monday has recalled the order to a flower shop on 28th rather than Chinatown, and Manny’s picked it up, and he refuses to listen to Wilee. But he will race him. He wants to show him up. So off they go, through Central Park.
This isn’t where the accident happens, by the way. The accident happens after Wilee, being wily, puts the ticket inside his bike handlebars for safe keeping, then comes to a red light that allows no Sherlockian safe path. Boom. Crash. Dead? No. Cracked ribs. Monday rides with him in the ambulance and basically tortures him to get information. Oddly, Wilee doesn’t send him across town. He sends him to the exact spot he sent Vanessa, the police impound lot, where, cracked ribs and all, Wilee grabs another bike and gets away using some serious Danny Macaskill maneuvers (stunt double: Danny Macaskill), and then, in the magic-hour light, on the bike cop’s bike, rides to the Chinatown restaurant.
Monday is there waiting for him, boiling with frustration, while the Chinese flee inside like it’s a remake of “High Noon.” Who doesn’t flee? Bike messengers, dude. They take their tats and dreds and gnarly rides to that same spot, yo, and mess with Monday. But the final blow comes from the gun of a Chinese gangster. Shannon gives us a nice death scene here—it almost makes up for some of his earlier scene-chewing—and Wilee is able to deliver the ticket in time, at 6:59 PM, or 26 minutes after the crash. We should all pack our half-hours with such activity.
David Koepp, best known as a screenwriter (“Jurassic Park,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Spider-Man”), tends to direct, when he directs, the forgettable movies of established stars: “Ghost Town” with Ricky Gervais in 2008; “Secret Window” with Johnny Depp in 2004; “Stir of Echoes” with Kevin Bacon in 1999. Add Joseph Gordon-Levitt and whatever the hell this movie is called.
Mitt Romney Drives I-5 to Chehalis
My friend Ben (“The Obamanator”) has a cousin who helped create this video for the Obama campaign. “He built it,” as Ben says. It focuses on the lack of specifics in Mitt Romney's speech at the GOP convention last week:
I didn't watch that speech or much of the convention. I had a busy week at work building things and didn't need the extra aggravation of all the GOP lies. But what stands out in this video is less Romney's generic fluff than this line from his acceptance speech:
When the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American.
Lousy sentence construction anyway (“the world”...“you”) but worse in its implication. Romney = an American. Obama = not an American. You know. It's a sentiment straight out of I-5, Chehalis. Mitt Romney: What a fucker.
Other Delights Besides Whipped Cream: Dolores Erickson & Soul Asylum
Remember the girl on the cover of the Herb Alpert album 'Whipped Cream & Other Delights'? The other delights? Of course you do.
Her name is Dolores Erickson, and she's 76 now, and lives in Longview, Wash., and she recently traveled to Seattle to help celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the Golden Oldies record shop in Wallingford. The Seattle Times had the story a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, they cadge their best lines from The New Yorker, as many of us do. Worse, they: 1) don't mention the original author (Nick Paumgarten), 2) mess up the year it appeared (it's 2006, not 1996), and 3) don't provide a link to the original. Here's the Paumgarten quote in full:
It was a variation on a sentiment that decades ago fogged the minds of many young men, as they gazed at the album cover and attempted to ascribe personalized come-hitherhood to the woman staring back. In the picture, she sits holding the stem of a rose in her left hand, above which the inner portion of a bare breast protrudes from the foam. She is licking cream from the index finger of her right hand, and a dollop of the stuff rests atop her forehead, like a tiara. (This is the only real whipped cream in the shot. The rest is shaving cream.) The image still seems a little raunchy, in a home-movie kind of way, but in the virtually pornless atmosphere of the suburban mid-sixties it was—and we’re relying on the testimony of our elders here—the pinnacle of allure. The Whipped Cream Girl, as she came to be known, helped make Alpert and his Tijuana Brass even more famous than his loungy arrangements, smooth trumpet work, and suave song production destined them to be. The album shot to No. 1 and stayed on the charts for more than three years. Alpert would say, when performing live, “Sorry, but I can’t play the cover for you.”
Here's what all the fuss was about:
There have been many parodies of this album cover since, but the one I remember is the one Soul Asylum did in 1988, on their final EP for Twin-Tone Records, “Clam Dip & Other Delights,” before going national with A&M (Alpert's label). The cover featured bassist Karl Mueller similarly ensconsed in clam dip. Was Alpert not pleased? Did he sabotage their career as a result? I seem to remember hearing that. Not sure if it's true.
“Clam Dip,” I should add, includes one of my favorite Soul Asylum songs, “P-9,” an homage to the 1985 strike at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minn. I used to listen to it while schlepping at the University Book Store warehouse in the 1990s. Among its lines:
- “You gave me nothing/ Now you're taking it away”
- “If we could see eye to eye/ We could see just exactly who is small.”
- “Is it just a job I'm working for?”
Shit doesn't get old.
Here's the video, which is a little old:
OK, that was a mistake.
Yesterday I posted something nice about Derek Jeter, the man whose FOX-Sports-sponsored leaping and gamboling after another world championship haunted the dreams of every Yankee-hating son of a gun (my brethren) in the late 1990s. It was a first. Me saying something nice about Jeter.
And it led to this post on my Facebook page:
If any of you had someone on your team even a teeny bit remotely like Jeter you would be awash in sentimental plaudits. Face it - he is simply THE BEST!!! GO JETER!! GO YANKEES!
The apparent assumption in the above is that Jeter doesn't get enough attention; that, unlike this MLB poll from a few years ago, he's not the most overrated player in baseball but actually underrated.
There was a phrase I could feel in the back of my mind, forming, but I didn't wait for it to form. I simply responded with a kind of mild amusement under which something else percolated:
Well, in a ranking of career OPS, he's currently ranked 238th, tied with Harlond Clift, and 232 places away from Albert Pujols. But if you want to call that THE BEST, feel free.
That didn't stop it, of course. It escalated it. It led to a discussion of baseball being more than numbers, and how character matters, and how Jeter has character and is a leader, etc. Then this from the Yankees fan:
Because I am SO TIRED of Yankee haters waxing poetic about their own half baked players while viciously tearing down Jeter. I love baseball and any player who plays the game right. I don't respect the ones who don't no matter what team they play for. I grew up in NY and have been a Yankee fan since I was 9 years old. You know it's just jealousy, not rational baseball assessment.
At which point I should've taken a klonopin.
This was a discussion with someone who's never heard the phrase, “He'll look good in pinstripes.” This is someone who doesn't understand that the true finish to her sentence, “If any of you had someone on your team even a teeny bit remotely like Jeter...” is “...the Yankees would have taken him a long time ago.”
I kept returning to that redundant, under-the-top phrase ...even a teeny bit remotely like Jeter. I thought of Edgar Martinez, a career .300/.400/.500 with the Seattle Mariners who never made the cover of Sports Illustrated. I thought of underrated stars like Paul Konerko, Adrian Beltre, Billy Butler.
Even a teeny bit remotely like Jeter...
Mildly amused gone. Buttons pushed. Erik smash.
Thirty-three comments later, we ended it.
I ended it with the phrase I could feel forming in the back of my mind at the beginning of the conversation. It's what Crash Davis says to the player who stands and appreciates his homerun after being told what pitch is coming:
That was my feeling.
I give you a GIFT and you stand there and show up my Facebook page with your Yankee rantings? Run, dummy!
Elsewhere on FB, another Yankees fan, even before last night's 6-1 loss to Baltimore, was lamenting the state of the team. I checked the standings. They were in first place in the AL East but other teams were within spitting distance. They had the second-best record in the American League but just second best. That's a time of celebration for fans of most baseball teams but a time to lament if you're a Yankees fan. Yankee fans have what Louis C.K. refers to as “white people problems.” That's where your team is amazing so you make shit up to be upset about.
I call the Yankees and their fans the 1% of baseball and they are. As the rich have no clue what it means to be poor, Yankee fans have no clue what it means to be a fan of the Kansas City Royals, or Pittsburgh Pirates, or Seattle Mariners. To develop talent only to see it taken by the Yankees. To have no shot in June, or April, or during the off-season. To have no money, or hope, or banners. They don't realize that this is what we're saying when we say: Yankees Suck.