erik lundegaard

Monday September 30, 2013

Quote of the Day

“Financial markets have long treated U.S. bonds as the ultimate safe asset; the assumption that America will always honor its debts is the bedrock on which the world financial system rests. In particular, Treasury bills — short-term U.S. bonds — are what investors demand when they want absolutely solid collateral against loans. Treasury bills are so essential for this role that in times of severe stress they sometimes pay slightly negative interest rates — that is, they’re treated as being better than cash.

”Now suppose it became clear that U.S. bonds weren’t safe, that America couldn’t be counted on to honor its debts after all. Suddenly, the whole system would be disrupted. Maybe, if we were lucky, financial institutions would quickly cobble together alternative arrangements. But it looks quite possible that default would create a huge financial crisis, dwarfing the crisis set off by the failure of Lehman Brothers five years ago.

“No sane political system would run this kind of risk. But we don’t have a sane political system; we have a system in which a substantial number of Republicans believe that they can force President Obama to cancel health reform by threatening a government shutdown, a debt default, or both, and in which Republican leaders who know better are afraid to level with the party’s delusional wing.”

-- Paul Krugman, “Rebels without a Clue,” NY Times.

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Posted at 02:19 PM on Sep 30, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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That's All, Bitch

That's All, Bitch: Jesse Pinkman and the Breaking Bad finale

OK, that was a pretty good finale. If it has a fault, it lies in the old U2 lyric: I gave you everything you ever wanted/ Wasn't what you wanted.

“Felina,” meaning “finale,” and maybe the old Marty Robbins/New Mexico song “Faleena,” which we hear as Walt cuts out of New Hampshire, gave us everything we wanted. Was it what we wanted?

Here's what it gave us. It's ordered by how much I wanted it:

  1. Jesse choking Todd to death. Yeah, bitch! I think I might watch this scene a couple more times to get it out of my system. It fulfilled my hashtag request from yesterday: #FreeJessePinkman
  2. Walt laying waste to Uncle Jack and his crew.  If there's anything more satisfying than watching Nazis die on screen, it's watching American Nazis die on screen. Seriously. It's 2013 and they're still bowing down to the swastika? Fuckers are useless.
  3. The big reveal with Gray Matter's founders Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz. This might have been the best part of the episode becuase it was both satisfying and smart. Did anyone see this coming? Yet once it came, it seemed so obvious, so perfect. Of course! Launder the drug money through them. Use them to channel it to his children once he's gone. Plus scare the shit out of them in the process. It's win-win-win. Plus—bonus!—the reappearance of Badger and Skinny Pete! Patricia called this last one. She figured it was them outside.
  4. The death of Lydia through ricin poisoning. Apparently we all know what ricin is now.
  5. The final conversation with Skyler and owning up to the fact that he'd done it all for himself.

Walt made everything work in this final episode. The problem is that Walt never makes everything work. Normally he stumbles his way ahead. Here he was the terminator. Maybe it helped that he was finally, irrevocably terminal. Maybe he was thinking clearly, rather than frantically, for the first time. (Emily Nussbaum has a good take on the New Yorker site: “The Closure-Happy 'Breaking Bad' Finale.”)

Question: Did he beat cancer the first time because he became Heisenberg? Because he found something to live for? Something he thrived at? It returned once he stopped. That's a little awkward.

And whither Jesse? He's last man standing. His digital confession is still in the Nazi hideout—although maybe it got riddled into oblivion by the MacGyver-esque machine-gun contraption Walt built. Even so: What becomes of him? Does he, as last man standing, go to jail, since they can't put anyone else there? Who knows? I like to think of him, eventually, as a drug counselor, doing carpentry on the side. If he sees the path. He'd be good at it.

But he's free. That's what matters. So is Walt: first free of his lies, then of his life. Most importantly, we're free now, too. Carry on.

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Posted at 07:22 AM on Sep 30, 2013 in category TV
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Sunday September 29, 2013

#FreeJessePinkman: A Late-to-the-Party 'Breaking Bad' Rundown

YO: SPOILERS, BITCHES

We were late to the party. We barely made it in time. We showed up as dishes were being cleared away and put in the sink and washed. But the hosts waved us in anyway.

I suppose Patricia was always more interested in “Breaking Bad” than I was. I had other things I wanted to watch, movies mostly, and I wasn’t ready to invest any time in yet another TV show. It would mean, what, three years, then four, then starting last fall, five? How many hours is that? 60? 70? Too many.

But it’s the bomb, yo.

Yeah. No.

But it’s the greatest show EVER!

Really? Better than “The Wire”?

Naw, I’m telling ya, man, this thing rocks.

Not sure what wore me down. All the chatter? The fact that I’ve liked Bryan Cranston since his “Seinfeld” days? Or was it simply a need for another show for P and I? Because we have so much time left in this world?

I don’t even know when we began to watch. Wait, Netflix will tell me. Breaking Bad: Season 1: “Pilot” ... Viewed August 26, 2013. A little over a month ago. We caught up last night. Via On Demand, we watched Season 5, Episode 15, “Granite State.” Friends have asked, “What have you been doing lately?” and I haven’t had much to say. Watching TV seems like the wrong answer.

I know it’s the way we do it now but I don’t think this is the best way to watch these shows. I remember a friend telling me the longer you learn a language the longer you’ll remember it; but if it takes you only three months to get proficient, well, you can lose it that easily, too. Here, too. Episodes blur together. You’re not slowly steeped, you’re not talking about it with friends, you’re slamming through. And we did. And we made it in time to watch the final episode, “Felina,” in real time, with all y’all.

But now I’m heartbroken. I had trouble sleeping last night. Not because the show is ending but because of what creator Vince Gilligan has done with his characters.

Or one character.

Breaking Bad: Walt and Jesse

Jesse and Walt at work.

Living long enough to become the villain
No, not Walter White (Cranston). Who gives a shit about him? He’s basically the show’s villain.

Walt starts out the hero, right, the worm-turns hero, the put-upon, underemployed, high-school chemistry teacher whose 50th birthday party is usurped by his loud-mouthed brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent, and Hank’s klepto wife with her purple fixation. He’s not rich. He works at a local high school and at a local car wash. His son, Walt Jr., has cerebral palsy and his wife is pregnant. Then he finds out he has cancer: stage 3, inoperable cancer. He’ll be dead in a year. That’s when the worm turns. That’s when he stops being us and starts being other, and we cheer him on at first. At a department store, his son is mocked by a jock, in the fashion of jocks, and Walt bursts in and takes the jock down and stomps on his leg and leaves him limping. Around this time, Hank offers Walt a ridealong to a meth bust and at first he turns it down and then changes his mind, because he changes his mind about meth. He stops seeing it as a drug and starts seeing it as an opportunity: an opportunity to make money to pay for his hospital bills and leave something behind for his family when he goes. Yeah, he’s got hospital bills. Yeah, his insurance sucks. The entire show is basically an argument against the American healthcare industry. Legitimately.

So the arc of the show is how this nebbish, this noodge, through a combination of smarts and dumb luck, becomes one of the most powerful drug figures in the Southwest. And how, in the process, he loses his soul. How he becomes hardened. How he becomes like a granite state.

But when in the arc do we lose sympathy for him?

Certainly not when he kills Krazy 8 in Jesse’s basement in season 1, episode 3. That’s easy to justify.

Is it when he turns down the financial aid of his former Gray Matter partners out of pride, stubborn and overweening and prickly pride? That’s a bit of it. I know a friend who jumped off the series then. Season 2. By that point, Walt knows what the meth trade brings. It brings murder, heartache, violence. By that point, he’s killed Emilio and Krazy 8 and blown up Tuco’s place, and he and Jesse have been taken hostage by Tuco and nearly killed by Tuco, and they have to account for being away and missing for days. Now his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), is suspicious. She thinks he’s fooling around. She knows he’s keeping secrets. His work for his family is destroying his family. So there’s a “Godfather” echo. It gets louder as the show progresses. By season 5, it’s deafening.

Remember when he’s so prideful he can’t bear the thought of laundering his drug money through the website that his son, Walt Jr., created to solicit donations, because he can’t bear letting anyone else—even his son!—get the credit? Awful. He thinks he’s tougher than he is, or luckier than he is, because he tries to expand their base of operations. He pushes to sell crystal blue meth in other territories, and, as a result, the following happens: 1) Combo is killed; 2) Jesse (Aaron Paul), distraught and a former addict, starts using again; 3) his girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), a former addict, starts using with him; 4) Walt inadvertently causes Jane’s death by disturbing their sleep and then letting Jane choke on her own vomit. This then causes 5) the crash of Wayfarer flight #515, a 737, because Jane’s father, distraught, goes back to work too early as an air-traffic controller and  ...  boom. An explosion over ABQ. The next season everyone sprouts light blue ribbons in sympathy.

That’s already a lot of deaths on his head but he keeps rolling. His cancer goes into remission but he keeps rolling. He has the money, easy millions, but he wants control and credit. It’s awful. He’s an awful person. And again, it’s less the people he kills or causes to die (Gale, Gus Fring, Hector Salamanca, Mike) than the prickly pride, the awful lies, the hectoring and scolding he does even with blood on his hands. He’s just an awful person to be around. He’s fucking annoying.

So it doesn’t matter that eventually he loses his family, and has to live out his days as a new person in a new state (the granite state). That’s all as it should be. I was fine with it.

It’s what Vince Gilligan does to Jesse that left me sick to my stomach.

Jane and Jesse, season 2

Jesse and Jane: Before the crash.

Three guys
So if Walt is initially the hero, then its villain, who is the real hero of the series?

Three guys. I can see arguments for three guys.

Not Walt, Jr. He’s kind of a non-entity.

Not Saul. He’s fantastic comic relief but he’s comic relief.

No, we care about Mike (Jonathan Banks), Gus’s former right-hand man, the guy who knows the guy. He’s basically a Michael Mann antihero. He does the job, he does it well, he doesn’t mince words. And he’s loyal. Seriously, Michael Mann could’ve made a good movie about Mike. Maybe that’s why he’s named Mike? In homage to Mann? But he gets it in season 5, episode 7. He’s about to get out of Dodge when Walt shoot him. Then Walt keeps talking. “Shut the fuck up and let me die in peace,” Mike says. Amen.

We also care about Hank. The annoying, overbearing brother-in-law from the first episode is revealed to be an exuberant man, a kind man, a man who shows how much he cares by giving someone shit. By belittling them. But he’s got soul, too. He cares about his annoying wife, he cares about Walt and Skyler, he cares about the men on his team. He wants to do the job well. And he’s good at it. He suspects Gus Fring when no one else does. He finally gets Walt, too, only to have it all go awry. These are among his final words to a skin-crawling neo-Nazi named Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen): “My name is ASAC Schrader. And you can go fuck yourself.” These are his last words to Walt, who is still bargaining for Hank’s life: “You’re the smartest guy I ever met and you’re too stupid to see he made up his mind 10 minutes ago.” Those are sad last words. Then a shot rings out and Hank and Gomey are buried in the place where Walt once stored his millions.

Finally, there’s Jesse, the other annoying character from season 1, episode 1, the dipshit former student who thinks he’s hot shit, who calls himself the Captain, who has vanity plates reading THE CAPN, because he cooks his meth with ... what was it again? Chili powder? He’s also comic relief, and Jesse’s various sayings are all over the internet. You can barely click a link without finding one. But as time progresses, as violence occurs, as Walt and Jesse remain standing, Walt loses his moral compass while Jesse’s grows stronger.

He can’t kill. Walt does, in season 1, but Jesse can’t, and other’s deaths (Combo, Jane, the kid by the train) leave him distraught. He can’t deal with them. He hides away. He hides by using. But creator Vince Gilligan always has to bring him back.

One of my problems with the show, why I don’t put it on par with “The Wire,” for example, is because I don’t buy some aspect of the Walt/Jesse relationship, which is the principle relationship in the show. For much of the show to work, they have to get together to cook even though they clash. They are magnets that both attract and repel, but the show only keeps going on the track it’s going on by having only one of them open to the relationship at a time. Who this is keeps changing. Sometimes Walt is open and Jesse is closed, sometimes Jesse is open and Walt is closed. Sometimes Jesse wants Walt dead, sometimes Walt wants Jesse dead. Then Jesse risks his life to save Walt and vice versa. They’re family. We get it. Jesse is the family who knows the real Walt. But I don’t buy all of the openings and closings. A few of them ring false. But the series has to continue on the track it’s on.

Even so, I began to care about Jesse. He’s everyone’s lost son. He’s the lost son mentored by the unworthy father.

And what becomes of him? That’s the thing that makes me sick to my stomach.

Jesse Pinkman

The unlikely moral compass

#FreeJessePinkman
After Hank is killed and Walt leaves town, Jesse is beaten and held prisoner by the neo-Nazis, then chained in a lab and made to make the crystal blue meth that only he and Walter can make, and that Todd (Jesse Plemons), the nephew to Uncle Jack, is too fucking stupid to make.

Todd is the anti-Jesse. He’s polite, willing to learn, soulless. There’s no there there. He’s terrifying in his own way. He never realizes the bad he’s doing. I don’t know if I’ve despised a “BB” character more, wished a “BB” character dead more, and he’s the guy jerking Jesse’s chain. He’s the one chaining him up in the lab next to a picture of Andrea (Emily Rios) and her son, Brock (Ian Posada), as a warning. Do this or they get it. You could say his situation here is analogous to ours. Most of us are chained to our jobs for the good of our family. We have to do it or they get it. We put pictures of them on our desks to remind us.

Seeing what’s happened to Jesse, how tortured he is both physically and spiritually, and how, last week, in the second-to-last episode, his one chance of escape leads to the death of Andrea, I got sick to my stomach. It says something about the quality of the show, I suppose, and the quality of the writing, and the quality of Aaron Paul’s acting, that I care this much about a fictional character. At the same time, after “Granite State” was over, I grew angry. I was furious actually. I wasn’t furious at Todd and Uncle Jack and the other neo-Nazi scumbags who give me the creeps more than any member of any Mexican cartel; no, I was furious at creator Vince Gilligan. He’s the master of all this. What he was doing seemed sadistic to me. So in my rage, I took to Twitter. I tweeted this:

Finally watched last week’s second-to-last episode of #BreakingBad. Vince Gilligan is one sadistic fuck.

Then I added this, thinking myself clever:

 #FreeJessePinkman

When I clicked on the hashtag, however, I realized I was late to that party, too. There were tons of them. They were all over Twitter:

Many have professed sadness that “Breaking Bad” is ending. Not me. I just want it to end right. I want it to end as Mike ended, as Hank ended. With the right words.

I don’t care what happens to Walt. But I would like the neo-Nazis to get it. I would like Todd to get it. Above all, I want the hashtag prophesy fulfilled. By any means necessary.

See you in a few hours.

The end of Jesse Pinkman

“Felina” = finale.

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Posted at 12:01 PM on Sep 29, 2013 in category TV
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Saturday September 28, 2013

Quote of the Day

Most of the quotes I quote (yes) are so I can remember them to quote them later. This is something I first read and wrote down in 1987:

He is so exceedingly anxious to justify himself that if he thinks he has said anything too precipitate or too general or only half true, he never stops qualifying, modifying, and extenuating, until at last he appears to have said nothing at all.

-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” pg.45

I've known people like this. Sometimes I'm one of them.

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Posted at 08:20 AM on Sep 28, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday September 27, 2013

I'd Rank 'Em: Gordon-Levitt First, Merchant a Close Second, Fallon a Distant Third

If this great lip-sync battle on Jimmy Fallon's show proves anything, it's that all those years I was lip syncing? I wasn't even good at pretending to be a star. Put another way: People with talent are better at pretending to be people with talent than people without talent.

Merchant's first kills, and it's funny, but the moment that ups the ante is Gordon-Levitt's slide toward the camera on “Tiny Dancer.” It's some kind of bizarro mix of funny and cool. It looks too good not to wish you could do it. And that's an odd moment. Suddenly you want to be the guy who's pretending to be the guy who's doing the thing. I'm sure even Elton John looks at this and goes, “Wish I could do that.”

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Posted at 10:49 AM on Sep 27, 2013 in category TV
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When is the GOP Going to Take Back the GOP?

In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait runs down the list of demands from the GOP in order to prevent a government shutdown—including Paul Ryan tax reform, offshore oil drilling, keystone pipeline, tort reform, blah blah blah, and a yearlong moratorium on Obamacare—and points out its similarity to the Mitt Romney platform that U.S. voters rejected last November. Then he writes this:

The fact that a major party could even propose anything like this is a display of astonishing contempt for democratic norms. Republicans ran on this plan and lost by 5 million votes. They also lost the Senate and received a million fewer votes in the House but held control owing to favorable district lines. Is there an example in American history of a losing party issuing threats to force the majority party to implement its rejected agenda?

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers then provides an answer:

There is an obvious example: the election and subsequent secession crisis of 1860. The southern Democrats were quite clear with their threats to secede from the Union should Lincoln be elected.

Another reader details the hypocrisy of the demagogic right:

More to the point, there didn’t appear to be all too much Republican anti-government resentment during the George W. Bush Bush presidency, as the GOP pushed for Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, the executive’s asserted power to wiretap and to detain & torture US citizens without charges or a warrant, surpluses turned into deficits, the right in Raich v Gonzales to imprison folks for activity legal under state law, and the invasion for bogus reasons & failed occupation of an arbitrarily selected Middle Eastern country.

But President Bush was One of Us. The Kenyan anti-colonial secret Muslim? Less so. Hence, insane demands, in the service of taking Our country back from Them.

That's been the cry, hasn't it, since January 20, 2009: taking the country back. It's the wrong cry. The right cry (both ways) is this: When is the GOP going to take back the GOP from the Ted Cruzes of the world?

Ted Cruz reads Green Eggs and Ham, nonsensically, during 21-hour bloviation-fest.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) reads “Green Eggs and Ham,” nonsensically, during 21-hour bloviation-fest.

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Posted at 08:09 AM on Sep 27, 2013 in category Politics
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Thursday September 26, 2013

The Yankees Original Owners

I read this last night after the New York Yankees were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs for only the second time since 1995. It's from Robert Weintraub's “The House that Ruth Built,” and it's about the Yankees original owners:

The owners, Frank Farrell and William Devery, were former bartenders who used corrupt connections in Tammany Hall and the police department to punch about their weight and become owners of a baseball team. They were usually broke, thanks to tastes for liquor, (slow) horses, and prostitutes, and forever on the verge of indictment for one dubious scheme after another.

Devery, apparently, was a New York City police captain known for graft, mocked in editorial cartoons in Harper's Weekly. According to The New York Times, July 1903, Devery also popularized the colloquial phrase, “Touchin' on and appertainin' to ...” which, because it wasn't good English, he then denied he popularized.

These guys sold the team, still mostly known as the Highlanders, to Jacob Rupert and Tillinghast Huston in January 1915 for $460,000. Then Harry Frazee needed cash to continue his theatrical productions and the rest is history.

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Posted at 03:32 PM on Sep 26, 2013 in category Yankees Suck
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The First Sentence of Every Short Story in 'American Short Stories, 4th Ed.'

In 1982, in one of the first college English courses I took, we were given, or, OK, made to buy, a book called “American Short Stories, 4th ed.,” edited by Eugene Current-Garcia and Walton R. Patrick. It was eye-opening. It made an impression. I kept reading the stories even after the class was over. It made me think, “This is what I want to do.”

I didn't know that this—the centrality of literature to the culture—was already over.

American Short Stories, Fourth EditionI still have the book and I picked it up again recently. For some reason, maybe the editor in me, I began to check out the first sentences of each story. I noticed patterns, the way they changed with the times: now boats, now trains, now cars. Here's a description of nature setting the stage and the mood. Now we're in the South, now we're in New York, now we're a consumerist society buying Camel cigarettes. Characters used to be from Italy, then it was simply a place to visit. We're stiff New Englanders, we're wide-eyed Midwesterners, we're defeated Southerners. We're black, we're Jewish, we're the last of the great WASPs. Metafiction rears its ugly head before we return, perhaps self-consciously, to colloquialism.

I was going to divide these stories by their various categories but decided to just lay them out as I read them—chronologically. Enjoy. In some ways it's the history of America:

  • “Whoever had made a voyage up the Hudson must remember the Kaatskill Mountains.” -- Washington Irving, “Rip Van Winkle” (1819)
  • “Young Goodman Brown came forth at sunset into the street at Salem village; but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife.” -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Young Goodman Brown” (1835)
  • “A young man, named Giovanni Guasconti, came, very long ago, from the more southern region of Italy, to pursue his studies at the University of Padua.” -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Rappaccini's Daughter” (1844)
  • “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” -- Edgar Allen Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846)
  • “True! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” -- Edgar Allen Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843)
  • “A steamboat on the Mississippi, frequently, in making her regular trips, carries beween places varying from one to two thousand miles apart; and, as these boats advertise to land passengers and freight at 'all intermediate landings,' the heterogeneous character of the passengers of one of these up-country boats can scarely be imagined by one who has never seen it with his own eyes.” -- Thomas Bangs Thorpe, “The Big Bear of Arkansas” (1841)
  • “I am a rather elderly man.” -- Herman Melville, “Bartleby” (1853)
  • “In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me frm the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler, and inquired after my friend's friend, Leonidas W. Smiley, as requested to do, and i hereunto append the result.” -- Mark Twain, “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865)
  • “As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in the moral atmosphere since the preceding night.” -- Bret Harte, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1869)
  • “The air was thick with the war feeling, like the electricity of a storm which has not yet burst.” -- William Dean Howells, “Editha” (1905)
  • “The fighting has been hard and continuous; that was attested by all the senses.” -- Ambrose Bierce, “The Coup de Grace” (1889)
  • “'Our feeling is, you know, that Becky should go.'” -- Henry James, “Europe” (1899)
  • “When the porter's wife, who used to answer the house-bell, announced, 'A gentleman and a lady, sir,' I had, as I often had in those days—the wish being father to the thought—an immediate vision of sitters.” -- Henry James, “The Real Thing” (1892)
  • “The leaves were so still that even Bibi thought it was going to rain.” -- Kate Chopin, “The Storm” (1898)
  • “It was late in the afternoon, and the light was waning.” --Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, “A New England Nun” (1891)
  • “When it is said that it was done to please a woman, there ought perhaps to be enough said to explain anything; for what a man will not do to please a woman is yet to be discovered.” -- Charles Chesnutt, “The Passing of Grandison” (1899)
  • “The nearer the train drew toward La Crosse, the soberer the little group of 'vets' became.” -- Hamlin Garland, “The Return of a Private” (1892)
  • “The great Pullman was whirling onward with such dignity of motion that a glance from the window seemed simply to prove that the plains of Texas were pouring eastward.” -- Stephen Crane, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” (1898)
  • “None of them knew the color of the sky.” -- Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat” (1897)
  • “To Carson Chalmers, in his apartment near the square, Phillips brought the evening mail.” -- O. Henry, “A Madison Square Arabian Night” (1908, approx.)
  • “From the table at which they had been lunching two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age moved across the lofty terrace of the Roman restaurant and, leaning on its parapet, looked first at each other, and then down on the outspread glores of the Palatine and the Forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval.” -- Edith Wharton, “Roman Fever” (1934)
  • “It was Paul's afternoon to appear before the faculty of the Pittsburgh High School to account for his various misdemeanours.” -- Willa Cather, “Paul's Case” (1906)
  • “She was an old woman and lived on a farm near the town in which I lived.” -- Sherwood Anderson, “Death in the Woods (1926)
  • ”'I'll tell you what I'm going to do with you, Mr. Bartlett,' said the great man.“ -- Ring Lardner, ”The Love Nest.“
  • ”The grandfather, dead more than thirty years, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow.“ -- Katherine Anne Porter, ”The Grave.“
  • ”Mr. Martin bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded cigar store on Broadway.“ -- James Thurber, ”The Catbird Seat“ (1942)
  • ”'And where's Mr. Campbell?' Charlies asked.“ -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, ”Babylon Revisited (1930)
  • “When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant—a combined gardener and cook—had seen in at least ten years.” -- William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily” (1930)
  • “Isaac McCaslin, 'Uncle Ike,” past seventy and nearer eighty than he ever corroborated any more, a widower now and uncle to half a county and father to no one“ -- William Faulkner, ”was“
  • “It was late and every one had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light.” -- Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933)
  • “About fiften miles below Monterery, on the wild coast, the Torres family had their farm, a few sloping acres above a cliff that dropped to the brown reefs and to the hissing white waters of the ocean.” -- John Steinbeck, “Flight“ (1938)
  • “She was a large woman with a large purse that had everything in it but hammer and nails.” — Langston Hughes, “Thank You, Ma’am.”
  • “Solomon carried Livvie twenty-one miles away from her home when he married her.” -- Eudora Welty, “Livvie.”
  • “Verna bent over the old-fashioned bath tub—the kind with legs, and the white enamel worn thin in places—to turn the faucet and start the hot water running.” -- Cyrus Colter, “A Man in the House.”
  • “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying: ‘I drank too much last night.’” -- John Cheever, “The Swimmer.”
  • “Fifth Avenue was shining in the sun when they left the Brevoort.” -- Irwin Shaw, “The Girls in the Their Summer Dresses.”
  • “Not long ago there lived in uptown New York, in a small, almost meager room, though crowded with books, Leo Finkle, a rabbinical student in the Yeshivah University.” -- Bernard Malamud, “The Magic Barrel.”
  • “Whenever someone misunderstood Aunt Munsie’s question, she didn’t bother to clarify it.” -- Peter Taylor, “What You Hear from ‘em?”
  • “Some boys are very tough.” -- Grace Paley, “Samuel.”
  • “Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings.” -- Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People” (1955)
  • “Without discarding what he’d already written he began his story afresh in a somewhat different manner.” — John Barth, “Life-Story” (1968)
  • “Edward was explaining to Carl about margins.” – Donald Barthelme, “Margins” (1964)
  • “right there right there in the middle of the damn field he says he wants to put that thing together him and his buggy ideas and so me I says ‘how the hell you gonna get it down to the water?’ but he just focuses me out sweepin the blue his eyes rollin like they do when he hegs het on some new lunatic notion and he says ...” etc. – Robert Coover, “The Brother“ (1969)
  • “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.” – John Updike, “A&P” (1961)
  • “Go’n be coming in a few minutes.” – Ernest J. Gaines, “The Sky is Gray“ (1963)
  • “‘You’re a real one for opening your mouth in the first place,’ Itzie said.” – Philip Roth, “The Conversion of the Jews” (1959)
  • “Her name was Connie.” – Joyce Carol Oates, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (1966)
  • “She was afraid to look at herself just yet.” – Toni Cade Bambara, “A Girl’s Story” (1977)

Any favorites? To me, as first sentences go, you don't get much better than Bret Harte's from 1869.

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Posted at 07:34 AM on Sep 26, 2013 in category Books
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Wednesday September 25, 2013

Start ... Spread-ing ... the Noooooooze

For only the second time since 1995, the New York Yankees failed to make the postseason. They currently have 82 wins with four games to go. In the A.L. East, they're tied for third, 13.5 games back of Boston. Their run differential is -23. Their average age is 53.

From manager Joe Girardi:

It's extremely disappointing, and back to the drawing board. It hurts.

Show 'em where it hurts, Carey:

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Posted at 10:25 PM on Sep 25, 2013 in category Yankees Suck
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The Lessons of 'Star Wars,' Doofus Edition

Courtesy of “Breaking Bad,” season 3, episode 9: “Kafkaesque,” written by Peter Gould and George Mastras:

Jesse: What's the point of being an outlaw when you got responsibilities?
Badger (thoughtful): Darth Vader had responsibilities. He was responsible for the Death Star.
Skinny Pete: True that. Two of them bitches.

God, I laughed.

P and I have been playing catch-up with “Breaking Bad” and are now in season 5. We hope to be done before the final show so we can watch it with all y'all.

More thoughts later. I'm not as enamored of the show as some, but then some think it's the best show ever and that spot has been taken.

Here's the scene:

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Posted at 12:16 PM on Sep 25, 2013 in category TV
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Book Review: '11/22/63' by Stephen King

Stephen King’s “11/22/63” is really four Stephen King stories in one. It’s:

  1. a horror story about a crazy ex-husband who murders his family in a horrible small town in Maine.
  2. a love story about a 1960s teacher and librarian who deal with small-town mores and another crazy ex-husband.
  3. a story of a lucky gambler who invokes the wrath of the mob.
  4. It’s also the main story: A teacher from 2011 goes back in time to Sept. 1958 to stop 1), above, unexpectedly gets involved in 2) and 3), and, most importantly, tries to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from killing John F. Kennedy five years later. He’s going to try to right a great American wrong.

That’s why this thing is 800-plus pages. It’s heading toward a day we know too well but takes its time getting there. It gives us other stories, other books, first.

Stephen King: 11/22/63King is a great storyteller, and he can do the creepy vibe better than almost anybody, but even he can’t make Lee Harvey Oswald interesting. That’s where I got bogged down: When our hero, Jake, who takes the name George Amberson in the past, spies on Lee and Marina in their ramshackle Texas apartment. That’s when I began to lose interest. I began to flip pages.

Similarly after 3), when gangsters beat up George and leave him for dead. By then it’s September 1963, just two and a half months to go, but he barely survives the attack. He loses much of his memory. Will he get it back? Will he remember what he’s supposed to do? Of course he will. But not for a while yet. So more page flipping.

Sorry, Stephen. I know the past is obdurate—it doesn’t want to change (I love that bit, by the way)—so I know everything will get in the way of Jake/George trying to change it. But that’s why we’re here. We want to see what happens. We want to see if he stops the JFK assassination, and, if so, what happens afterwards.

Here’s a relevant quote from Gore Vidal’s review of William Manchester’s “Death of a President” way back in 1967:

The narrative is compelling even though one knows in advance everything that is going to happen. Breakfast in Fort Worth. Flight to Dallas. Governor Connally. The roses. The sun. The friendly crowds. The Governor's wife: “Well, you can't say Dallas doesn't love you, Mr. President.” And then one hopes that for once the story will be different—the car swerves, the bullets miss, and the splendid progress continues. But each time, like a recurrent nightmare, the handsome head is shattered.

Here, for once, the story is different and the handsome head isn’t shattered. Here, in fact, King gets to vent against the little pissant who altered our history:

The presidential limo had taken off, driving toward the Triple Underpass at breakneck speed, the two couples inside ducking and holding onto each other. But the security car had pulled up on the far side of Elm Street near Dealey Plaza. The cops on the motorcycles had stopped in the middle of the street, and at least four dozen people were acting as spotters, pointing up at the sixth-floor window, where a skinny man in a blue shirt was clearly visible.

I heard a patter of thumps, a sound like hailstones striking mud. Those were the bullets that missed the window and hit the bricks above or on either side. Many didn’t miss. I saw Lee’s shirt billow out as if a wind had started to blow inside it—a red one that tore holes in the fabric: one above the right nipple, one at the sternum, a third where his navel would be. A fourth tore his neck open. He danced like a doll in the hazy, sawdusty light, and that terrible snarl never left his face. He wasn’t a man in the end, I tell you; he was something else. Whatever gets into us when we listen to our worst angels.

A bullet spanged one of the overhead lights, shattered the bulb, and set it to swaying. Then a bullet tore off the top of the would-be assassin’s head, just as one of Lee’s had torn off the top of Kennedy’s head in the world I’d come from ...

King has written about political assassinations before, hasn’t he? “Dead Zone” from the mid-1970s anyway. There, his main character doesn’t come from the future but he can see the future. There, he’s the assassin of a man who will end the world if he becomes president. Here, he’s the killer of an assassin ... and winds up, well, ending the world.

That’s the other disappointing part of the novel. You want to see what happens with Kennedy unharmed. You want to see how our history, meaning my entire lifetime, is changed. But King stacks the decks against that future by having the cosmos essentially object to its changed course. Nov. 22 1963: JFK is almost assassinated but saved by two schoolteachers; Yay! Nov. 24, 1963? Massive earthquake in California. Seven thousand people die. Whoops.

And it gets worse. When George returns to 2011 it’s a sci-fi dystopia: roaming noseless hoodlums and China Syndrome radiation and regular earthquakes everywhere. Scientists predict the world, the universe, will break apart by 2080 and that will be the end of everything.

Stupid Kennedy.

I went to the site once. In late spring 2004, the year George W. Bush beat John Kerry for the presidency, I visited Dealey Plaza. It was quiet that day. Not many people walking about. No one was ever walking about much when I was in downtown Dallas. It felt like a ghost town. But I believe the schoolbook depository is still there. What is it about Texas and schoolbooks anyway? Back then they altered our history. Today they keep trying to do that.

King obviously has it in for Dallas. Without apology. From the afterword:

On the day Kennedy landed at Love Field, Dallas was a hateful place. Confederate flags flew rightside up; American flags flew upside down. Some airport spectators held up signs reading HELP JFK STAMP OUT DEMOCRACY. Not long before that day in November, both Adlai Stevenson and Lady Bird Johnson were subjected to spit-showers by Dallas voters. Those spitting on Mrs. Johnson were middle-class housewives. ...

This is an afterword, not an editorial, but I hold strong opinions on this subject, particularly given the current political climate of my country. If you want to know what political extremism can lead to, look at the Zapruder film.

Agreed.

“11/22/63” isn’t a bad book but it doesn’t mean much. It's the wound we keep probing to no final resolution, no final effect. Plus I never really liked George, or Jake, King's main character. I kept thinking: Can someone travel into the past and not be condescending or superior? Knowing everything that’s going to happen? That’s how George comes off. The past may be obdurate but it’s also easy. The future is malleable and that’s why it’s hard.

JFK assassination

King probing wounds to no final effect.

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Posted at 06:51 AM on Sep 25, 2013 in category Books
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Tuesday September 24, 2013

Five A.L. Teams with Six Games to Go

Two weeks ago, Sept. 9, I wrote about the final wild card spot in the American League, adding:

Assuming the first wild card spot goes to Texas, which is 1.5 games behind Oakland but 3 games ahead of Tampa ...

Turns out that was a big assumption. Starting that very day, Texas lost seven in a row and 10 of 14. They're now a game back of Cleveland, who is a game behind Tampa.

Here's where we stand. I didn't include Baltimore, who has lost five in a row, and Manny Machado (to the ghost of Earl Webb?), and is now five out with six to go:

Tampa Bay 87 69 .558 - 51-30 36-39 664 622 +42 Won 4 7-3
Cleveland 86 70 .551 - 49-30 37-40 705 643 +62 Won 4 8-2
Texas 85 71 .545 1 40-35 45-36 694 612 +82 Won 1 4-6
Kansas City 83 73 .532 3 44-37 39-36 630 581 +49 Won 2 6-4
NY Yankees 82 74 .526 4 46-32 36-42 637 648 -11 Lost 1 4-6

Remaining schedules:

  • Tampa Bay: @ Yankees (3); @ Toronto (3)
  • Cleveland: vs. ChiSox (2); @ Minnesota (4)
  • Texas: vs. Houston (2); vs. Angels (4)
  • Kansas City: @ Seattle (2); @ ChiSox (4)
  • Yankees: vs. Tampa (3); @ Houston (3)

I'm rooting for Kansas City, forever bottom-dwellers, who has the easiest schedule. I'm waiting yet again on the death of the Yankees (Start spreading the news ...). I'm assuming the one-game playoff is Tampa vs. Cleveland. But you know what my assumptions are worth.

Ideal situation? The Yankees ending their season on the road in meaningless games against the worst team in baseball.

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Posted at 07:47 AM on Sep 24, 2013 in category Baseball
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Monday September 23, 2013

Quote of the Day

“In a way, you can see why the food stamp program — or, to use its proper name, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) — has become a target. Conservatives are deeply committed to the view that the size of government has exploded under President Obama but face the awkward fact that public employment is down sharply, while overall spending has been falling fast as a share of G.D.P. SNAP, however, really has grown a lot, with enrollment rising from 26 million Americans in 2007 to almost 48 million now.

”Conservatives look at this and see what, to their great disappointment, they can’t find elsewhere in the data: runaway, explosive growth in a government program. The rest of us, however, see a safety-net program doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: help more people in a time of widespread economic distress.“

-- Paul Krugman, from his piece ”Free to Be Hungry" in today's New York Times. Read to the last graf. (Like good to the last drop.)

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Posted at 01:23 PM on Sep 23, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Salinger (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I saw it (Seven Gables theater) and what the lousy drive over was like (lousy), and how I was occupied and all before the show (buying books at Cinema Books), and all that Pauline Kael kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, you would probably have about two hemorrhages apiece if I kept this up. You’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but you’re also sensible as hell. So what you really want to know is this: Is the movie any good?

Not really. If I were in an uncharitable mood I would say “Salinger” is a documentary made by phonies.

That’s too easy, though. “Phony” is almost a worthless word now, thanks to Salinger, and it’s certainly worthless in anything related to Salinger. It’s the “groovy” of Salingerologists.

Besides, it’s not quite right. Shane Salerno’s “Salinger” is too clichéd. That’s better. It’s tabloid. It’s begins OK and ends awful. It doesn’t push the conversation in the direction it seems to be going, it just steeps itself in the evidence. The tabloid mentality never asks what things mean. It just wants dirt, and gets it, and presents it to us, saying, “Look at this. Isn’t it awful?”

Yes. It’s awful.  

‘Salinger’: An Introduction
I should add: I’m not a Salingerologist myself but I am familiar with his works. Salinger documentaryI’ve read the four books countless times and “Hapworth 16, 1924” twice. I spent the summer after college back in the university library looking up and reading the stories he’d published before “Nine Stories”: “The Young Folks,” and “The Varioni Bros.” and the like. I wish I’d done this with a purpose, such as writing about Salinger, but it was more out of haplessness. Salinger was practically the only writer I could read that summer so I had to seek out more of him. Oh. I’m also the guy who outed “Hapworth” when it was about to become a book. I ruined that for everyone. Apologies.

Even so, even with this CV, the doc tells me a lot about the life of J.D. Salinger I didn’t know.

I didn’t know much about his prep school and military school days, and I didn’t know about his weekly poker playing with fellow writers like A.E. Hotchner, and I didn’t know he married a German woman, possibly with Nazi party affiliations, shortly after the war. These things were news.

The doc implies that William Shawn, the editor in chief at The New Yorker, to whom “Franny and Zooey” was dedicated, didn’t start working directly with Salinger until the other New Yorker editors were ready to reject “Zooey” in 1957. Which means Shawn, to whom I’ve given much credit in helping Salinger become Salinger, actually only helped with Salinger’s three most self-indulgent works: “Zooey”; “Seymour: An Introduction”; and “Hapworth 16, 1924.” No wonder he just gets the metaphoric lima bean.

But is that right? We get one mention of it and no corroboration, and the doc doesn’t seem to recognize its significance. Because it means when it comes to Salinger: a) Shawn was late to the party, and b) the other New Yorker editors were ready to reject the work of the most famous, most buzzed-about writer in the country on principle. Because it wasn’t up to their standards.

The doc keeps doing this. It keeps missing opportunities.

The Bulls-Eye Kid
We get footage, for example, of what is assumed to be Daytona Beach, Fla., circa 1948, and people dancing happily on the beach. Then the footage slows ominously to invoke the disconnect that Salinger, returning from World War II, had with those who remained in the states. I thought: a good time to quote from “The Stranger,” a Dec. 1945 Colliers story in which the main character, Babe, returns from war to tell the girlfriend of an army buddy, Vincent Caulfield, how Vince died. As Babe watches an old man walking his dog on the New York streets, Salinger writes:

Babe figured that during the whole of the Bulge, the guy had walked that dog on this street every day. He couldn’t believe it. He could believe it, but it was still impossible.

But “Salinger” doesn’t go into the early works. It doesn’t try to connect the early works to the later works. It hardly goes into the writing at all. So allow me.

In “The Varioni Bros.” (Saturday Evening Post, 1943), the more poetic half of a songwriting duo dies tragically young—prefiguring Seymour Glass. In “A Boy in France” (Saturday Evening Post, 1945), Mattie’s letter to Babe allows him to fall “crumbly, bent-leggedly, asleep”—prefiguring “For Esme With Love and Squalor.”

The doc implies that in the early 1940s The New Yorker wanted O Henry-type stories, alley-oop-type stories, which he was above. Except he wasn’t. He wrote them. “Hang of It” (Colliers, 1941) is exactly that. It’s about a screw-up before World War I whose mean drill sergeant bellows at him, “Aincha got no brains?!” But in the end we find out that the narrator is actually the screw-up, who’s now a colonel, and forever indebted to his loveable old drill sergeant. Alley oop.

The doc implies that the war changed Salinger but not the way it changed his writing, which is what really matters. Think of the sentimentality of “Hang of It,” and then look at these lines from “The Stranger”:

Your mind, your soldier’s mind, wanted accuracy above all else. So far as details went, you wanted to be the bulls-eye kid: Don’t let any civilians leave you, when the story’s over, with any uncomfortable lies.

“Hang of It” is Hollywood sentimentality, “The Stranger” is devoid of it. That’s what war did. It turned him into the Bulls-Eye Kid.

Or did it? Babe has a younger sister, Mattie, prefiguring Phoebe, and Esme, and Franny, and this is how the story ends, with Mattie jumping:

With her feet together she made the little jump from the curb to the street surface, then back again. Why was it such a beautiful thing to see?

Is this sentimentality? A lie? If it is, it winds its way through all of Salinger’s works. His screwed-up characters are forever trapped between an older, male wisdom that is dead, and a younger, female innocence that will inevitably grow up; and even as they aspire toward the former, they soothe themselves with the latter.

It’s also evident in Salinger’s early work. “The Last Day of the Last Furlough” was published in The Saturday Evening Post in July 1944, so a few months before the Battle of the Bulge, and it ends this way. Babe is thinking about Mattie again. He’s thinking of what advice to give her:

It’s a quick business, being a kid. ... But my main point, Mattie ... kind of live up to the best that’s in you. ... If you can’t be smart and a swell girl, too, then I don’t want to see you grow up. [Emphasis mine]

Surely that would have meaning in the doc. Surely you could get some critic or writer to talk about it on camera. Surely writer-director Shane Salerno knows about it.

But not a peep. Just the dirt.

Girls girls girls
Here’s the dirt: Salinger liked young girls (14-21). He often abandoned them as they reached maturity. He didn’t want to see them grow up.

What questions, as a documentarian, might you derive from those facts? Here are some obvious ones:

  1. Would Salinger have been so fixated on young girls if he hadn’t lost Oona O’Neill (to Charlie Chaplin of all people) when he was 21-23 and she was 16-18? Were all of these other girls attempts to make up for Oona? Was she the Annabel to his Humbert?
  2. Would he have been so fixated without World War II? Was he, like his characters, trying to surround himself with innocence as a way to overcome horror?
  3. Some combination of 1) and 2)?
  4. Or did he come into this world so fixated?

Instead, the dirt. The same sad story, over and over.

There’s Sylvia Welter, German, whom Salinger meets during the mop-up campaign, but their marriage is annulled quickly after they arrive in the states. The doc implies two things about her: 1) that she was young (21 when they married?); and 2) that she had Nazi party affiliations. But these two things don’t sit well together. If she was 21 in 1945 then she was 15 when the war began and 9 when Hitler came to power. Even if she was a member of the Nazi party, what does that mean?

There’s Jean Miller, whom Salinger meets on the beach in Florida in the 1940s, and who may have been the inspiration for Muriel in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” They begin a relationship, platonic, for years, until she’s at college and makes her move. They have a fling. But then she says something, laughs at something, and he freezes and shuts her out. This is a common occurrence for all of Salinger’s friends: something is said or done, resulting in anger, resulting in the end of the friendship. It happened to A.E. Hotchner, too.

There’s his next first wife, Claire Douglas, who may have been the inspiration for Franny, and who was, according to one family friend, a nonentity to Salinger after the birth of their two children, Margaret and Matthew.

Then there’s Joyce Maynard. There’s way too much of Joyce Maynard.

In April 1972, Maynard wrote a first-person New York Times Magazine cover story, “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” and the Times put her on the cover. She’s cute. She’s got big eyes, bangs, is grabbing her shoe like a little girl, and she’s looking at the camera with an expression that conveys both a “Who me?” vibe and a “Yes, me!” vibe. It’s like nails on a chalkboard to me, that look, that vibe, and it never goes away. Maynard never goes away. She keeps talking. Apparently Salinger wrote her a letter after the Times piece came out, and she visited him in Cornish, N.H., and stayed, and lived with him, and worked with him, and watched old movies with him (“Lost Horizon,” about a place where people don’t grow old), until that day on the beach when he told her, whew, he didn’t want any more kids, and she told him well she did, and so he said good-bye right then and there. Gave her 50 bucks, told her to take a cab to the airport, bye. Like that. And she hasn’t gotten over it.

The irony? Maynard may have been the perfect choice for Salinger. She really is the girl who never grew up. She keeps living that moment, those moments, and Salerno lets her. Is he letting her hang herself? I don’t know. But I got so bored at this point in the doc. I kept thinking, “We get it.” I kept asking, “But what does it mean?”

But the tabloid mind doesn’t care about that.

Books books books
One of my favorite things in documentaries about artists or craftsman is hearing from other artists or craftsmen in the same field: directors on directors, comedians on comedians, writers on writers. “Salinger” doesn’t give us much of this. We get a bit from A.E. Hotchner and his personal relationship with Salinger; we get a little of E.L. Doctorow (who seems wary), a little of Gore Vidal (who trots out his well-worn lines), and that’s about it. Did the others have nothing to say? Did Salerno not seek them out? The doc has a Hollywood attitude about writers: Who needs them when we can hear from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen and Ed Norton? You know: the stars.

We keep getting documentary clichés. After the same sad story—how Salinger abandoned Hotchner or Maynard—Salerno gives us the same sad shot: the friend or lover, head bowed, silent and bereft. He keeps giving us a stage dramatization of Salinger, a small figure in the foreground, with cigarette going, typing away, while in the background huge images of violent war footage, indicating his state of mind, play out. Salerno does this about a million times.

The other great Salinger mystery, besides the mystery of the girls, is the mystery of his reclusiveness. Salinger abandoned New York for New Hampshire in the early 1950s, then he abandoned publishing altogether in 1965, but the doc makes it clear he wasn’t a recluse in the Howard Hughes sense. He had friends. He went outside. He visited folks in Cornish and elsewhere. If anything, the privacy he craved was less for himself than for his characters. He didn’t want the world to get at them so he didn’t let it happen. He didn’t publish.

But he kept writing.

Now those works will get out. According to “Salinger,” we’ll see the following starting in 2015:

  • “A Counterintelligence Agent’s Diary,” a novella, most likely based on his own work during World War II.
  • “A World War II Love Story,” most likely based on his marriage to Sylvia.
  • The Complete Chronicle of the Glass Family,” featuring five new stories about Seymour.
  • “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans,” about Holden Caulfield.
  • A religious manual about Advaita Vedanta Hinduism.

I hope it’s good stuff. I hope it sheds light. I hope it sheds more light than this doc sheds.

Because here’s the thing about a documentary on a subject this big. You want accuracy above all else. So far as details, you want to be the bulls-eye kid.

Instead we got this.

The goddamn movies. They can ruin you. I’m not kidding.

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Posted at 08:26 AM on Sep 23, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Saturday September 21, 2013

A-Rod Sets Grand Slam Mark; World Yawns

Am I the only one who cares about the grand slam record? It seems so. Alex Rodriguez broke the mark, set by Lou Gehrig way back when, when he hit his 24th Friday night, and there's nary a buzz. Maybe if a better man had broken the mark, one not so universally reviled or tainted, it would've garnered more attention. As is, a blip.

But I think it's more than that. Here's how unimportant the mark is:

Baseball Reference --> Leaders --> .... Nada

Baseball Reference gives you Single Season/ Career/ Active/ Progressive/ Yearly League/ Year by Year Top 10s in these categories, among others:

  • Singles
  • Times on Base
  • Hit by Pitch
  • Double Plays Grounded Into
  • Outs Made

They'll also give you some of the newer stats: WAR (their version), RE24, WPA, REW.

But grand slams? Grand schlams.

Growing up, the grand slam mark meant something to me. Maybe because Lou Gehrig meant something to me, seeing as I was an overly sensitive kid and seeing as his was baseball's most melodramatic story. Or maybe it was because Gehrig was hanging out there all by himself with 23. The nearest guys? Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams with 17. Willie McCovey would eventually hit 18 but not until 1977 or so. There was Gehrig and then everyone else.

And Babe Ruth batted in front of him! How about that? The guy in front of you was baseball's most famous base-clearer and yet you hit more grand slams than anyone. Of course, the guy in front of you also walked more than anyone else. That helped.

Obviously, to do this, you need to be on run-scoring teams for a long time and during a high-production era, and Gehrig was and was, and A-Rod was and was. So now the mark is his. 24. Junior's number.

It was even important. It put the Yankees ahead. They were tied with the Giants, 1-1 in the bottom of the 7th, and A-Rod jacked it with two outs. A single, a HBP and a walk and then gone. And then magic. You could almost call it heroic.

What's sad about all of this for people in Seattle? Three of the guys that scored in that historic grand slam for the Yankees were former Mariners: A-Rod, Ichiro, Brendan Ryan. More power to them. It's nice to know that somewhere, something historic is happening.

Alex Rodriguez's record-setting 24th career grand slam

Yankee mystique: Brendan, Ichiro, Alex.

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Posted at 05:52 PM on Sep 21, 2013 in category Baseball
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How the Miss America Controversy is like the Movie 'Crash,' and Other Observations

My friend Tim alerted me to this quote from Aasif Mandvi on “The Daily Show” the other night, reacting to the Miss America/Twitter controversy:

Look, John, it's Twitter. It's like that movie “Crash”: You've got 140 characters and 120 are racist for no apparent reason.

You know about the controversy, right? Nina Davuluri, an American of Indian descent, as in India the country, as in Gandhi and “Slumdog Millionaire,” won the Miss America crown over the weekend and a few racist people on Twitter had a shit fit. They called her Miss 7-11, Miss al-Qaeda. They said, “She's a TERRORIST,” and “This is AMERICA!” It's just stupid shit. The world is full of stupid people and now they're online. The Pakleds have spoken.

The early reaction on social media and Salon was one of umbrage, which is a little boring. A better reaction came from “The Daily Show” and “Stephen Colbert.”

Colbert did it first:

Stephen Colbert Miss America woman in bikini Muslim Extremist

That's brilliant. Or: that's truly how sad and stupid those people are. So sad and stupid they probably don't even get the joke.

Then we got Aasif, my brother of the double-a from another continent, with his critique via “Crash,” which longtime readers know I didn't exactly think was best picture material. Brilliant again.

BTW: In the various footage about the controversy (or kerfuffle, or blip), we'd often get shots of Ms. Davuluri in the talent competition doing a Bollywood-type dance. I kept thinking, “It looks like she's doing that 'Dhoom Tana' dance from 'Om Shanti Om,” which is one of about three Bollywood movies I know. Turns out? She is.

In the end? Racists with a foot in the 19th century objected that a competition that had its heyday in the middle of the 20th century was won with something reflecting 21st century values. No surprises here.

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Posted at 08:43 AM on Sep 21, 2013 in category Culture
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Friday September 20, 2013

Quote of the Day

“What Congress is doing right now is important. Unfortunately, right now the debate that's going on in Congress is not meeting the test of helping middle-class families. It's just ... They’re not focused on you. They're focused on politics. They're focused on ... trying to mess with me. They’re not focused on you.”

-- Pres. Barack Obama speaking at a Ford manufacturing plant in Liberty, Missouri, after the House GOP voted once again to defund Obamacare. This is a day after they voted to cut $39 billion from the food stamp program.

The votes on the passage of the budget, tied to defunding Obamacare, was 230-189, and pretty much along party lines—although one Republican, Scott Rigell, Virginia, voted against the defunding. Of the 10 Washington state reps, three of the four Republicans (McMorris Rodgers, Reichert, Hastings) voted in favor of defunding Obamacare; one (Herrera Beutler) didn't vote. The six Dems (McDermott, Kilmer, Larsen, DelBene, Heck and Smith) all voted against.

The above quote begins at 1:12:

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Posted at 05:13 PM on Sep 20, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Michael Clayton (2007)

WARNING: SPOILERS

What’s nice about the title is that it makes us ask the question almost everyone in the movie asks: Who is Michael Clayton?

Chronologically:

  • Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton): Who’s this guy they’re sending here? Clayton? I never heard of him. ... Who is this guy?
  • Michael (George Clooney): I’m not the enemy. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson): Then who are you?
  • Don Jeffries (Ken Howard): What the hell’s going on? Who are you?

Michael’s brother, Gene (Sean Cullen), a cop, has a spin on this question that echoes Arthur’s spin:

You got all these cops thinking you’re a lawyer. And you got all these lawyers thinking you’re some kinda cop. You got everybody fooled, don’t you? Everybody but you. You know exactly what you are.

He does. He says it early in the movie but near the end chronologically:

I’m a janitor. ... The smaller the mess the easier it is for me to clean up.

“Michael Clayton” is about a big mess.

Good at work, bad at life
First, let me say what a pleasure it is to watch a movie as smart as this one. I had to work to keep up. I missed some of the shorthand.

Me: Wait, what’s he saying?
Patricia: That it’s a bribe; that he’s taking the money to keep quiet about Arthur and U North.
Me: Right.

Michael Clayton: The Truth Can Be AdjustedMost of the characters use shorthand: Michael, Arthur, certainly Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), the head of the prestigious New York law firm, Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen. (“This is news? ... Fifteen years in I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?”) It’s not a Michael Mann style shorthand, which tends toward the working class and criminal class. It’s a white-collar shorthand. It’s for movers and shakers who can’t be bothered with extra words or with people who don’t know how the world works. It’s for a different kind of criminal class.

Unraveled, the story is pretty simple. Michael, the fixer for his firm, attempts to clean up a mess caused by Arthur Edens, the firm’s star litigator, who, in the midst of a 12-year, $3 billion class-action lawsuit—in which he and the firm have represented U North, an agrochemical firm—goes bonkers. He goes off his meds (literally) and strips down (literally) in the middle of a deposition while declaring his love for one of the plaintiffs, Anna (Merritt Wever). He becomes professionally muddled as he develops moral clarity.

That’s what Michael is trying to fix. Oddly, we don’t hear from the plaintiff’s attorneys. The folks at Kenner, Bach are mostly worried about their client, U North, run by CEO Don Jeffries and GC Karen Crowder. They’re worried about professional liability. They’re also worried that the stink from this incident will warn off a big London firm with whom they’re trying to merge. (Sidenote: According to DVD commentary from writer-director Tony Gilroy, a few scenes were filmed at the New York offices of Dewey Ballantine, which, that year, merged with LeBoeuf, Lamb to become the megafirm Dewey & LeBoeuf, which, five years later, went bankrupt. They got too big during a global recession. All mergers aren’t necessarily good ones.)

That’s what Michael is working on professionally. He’s also got his hands full personally:

  • He and his younger brother, Timmy (David Lansbury), an alcoholic, have lost their restaurant/bar, which is being auctioned off.
  • His owes $75K to people who aren’t a bank, and they want it now.
  • He’s divorced, with a kid, and he has a gambling problem.

Basically Michael is good at his job but bad at his life. He’s good at fixing other people’s problems but not his own. He enjoys gambling with everything but his career, where he’s risk-averse. Way back when, he took the easy route. He gave up litigation for fixing. He’s morally compromised, financially bankrupt, and 45. On the plus side, he looks like George Clooney.

Is it too much, by the way? An alcohol addiction and a gambling addiction? Bankruptcy and the mob? Mergers and murder? Not murder from the mob, either, but from the agrochemical company. The moneylenders are sweethearts in comparison.

Anna or the memo?
So why did Arthur begin to lose it? Two reasons. There’s Anna, whom he loves, or professes to love; and there’s a smoking gun, United Northfield Culcitate Internal Research Memorandum #229, in which an in-house scientist basically owns up to everything the plaintiffs are alleging. Their product kills.

Curious about a couple of things:

  • How did Arthur get this memo?
  • How did the plaintiff’s attorneys not find it after 12 years of discovery?
  • What did Arthur do once he found it?

Because, I assume, if you’re the defense lawyer in this situation, you bring the memo to your client. You tell them, “Look at this.” You tell them, “We’d better settle, fast.” Did he do any of this? Or was he already losing it?

More: Which came first, Anna or the memo? Anna obviously represents something clean to Arthur, just as the memo represents the dirty, dirty aspects of his job. That’s why he’s reaching out to her. He’s desperate to be clean again. I assume his need for Anna is a consequence of the awfulness of the memo but I could be wrong. Maybe he was infatuated with her first. You never know.

A bit of applause, by the way, for Tom Wilkinson. This movie was released in 2007, two years into my job as editor of a legal trade publication, and I remember thinking, “This guy is the senior litigator of a New York law firm? Please.” All of that vulnerability in his eyes? No.

Then you get the scene in the alleyway and this dialogue:

Michael, I have great affection for you and you live a rich and interesting life, but you’re a bag man, not an attorney. If your intention was to have me committed you should have kept me in Wisconsin, where the arrest report, the videotape, eyewitness reports of my inappropriate behavior, would have had jurisdictional relevance. I have no criminal record in the state of New York, and the single determining criterion for involuntary commitment is danger. “Is the defendant a danger to himself or to others?” You think you got the horses for that? Well, good luck and God bless, but I’ll tell you this: The last place you want to see me is in court.

For the last lines you see steel in his eyes. And I thought, “There’s my super lawyer.”

Anna is to Arthur as X is to Michael
Questions remain. Two anyway.

This is a movie about moving pieces in which our protagonist is mostly playing catch up. Arthur is on the move and Michael is trying to catch up to him. U North already has, in the guise of its own fixers, who aren’t as nice as ours. They murder Arthur and make it look like a suicide. Afterwards, Michael commiserates with Marty Bach at a high-end bar. He wonders if he’s partly responsible. Did he push Arthur too far? Bach goes bah, more or less. He assumes it was all an accident. He wants to say something else, something horrible, but can’t quite do it. So Michael does it for him. “We caught a lucky break,” he says.

Is that what drives Michael for the rest of the movie? That thought? Marty Bach is an interesting character, and Sidney Pollack, who may have missed his calling by becoming a director, plays the crap out of him, but he has a failing. He’s had the answers for so long he assumes he has the answers. He doesn’t. He’s distant from the Arthur situation and incurious. Michael, our protagonist, can’t let it go. Arthur’s death is too convenient for everybody. Maybe, as a fixer, he can spot a dirty fix when he sees one.

So is this why he calls Anna? It’s the phone call that sets the third act in motion but he doesn’t have much of a reason to make it, does he? He’s never met Anna, he doesn’t know what she thinks of Arthur, and he’s certainly got enough troubles of his own. It’s kind of a logical glitch in the plot. This, and stopping by the field at dawn to commune with the horses. You can make arguments why he does both things, but both are more necessary to the plot than to Michael. They’re convenient.

But let’s go with it. Let’s say he makes the phone call because he can’t let go of the nagging thing inside him and he stops in the field because it’s there, it’s beautiful, it’s dawn, and there are horses. The horses are themselves. They are pure in this way that humans are not. We take on roles. As Arthur had Anna, Michael has the horses.

These two actions, which kinda sorta make sense, are related. The first sets U North’s fixers on him. (They figure out he’s figuring out Arthur didn’t kill himself.) The second rescues him from U North’s fixers. (Although as careful as they are with Arthur, they’re just as sloppy with Michael.)

But I guess I do have another question. It has to do with the $80K.

1970s movie, happy ending
Michael figures out Arthur was killed, he figures out why—all those copies of Memorandum #229—but at the office he gets the $80K from Kenner, Bach, “a bonus” it’s called, while objecting to the notion, floated by Marty Bach’s right-hand man, Barry (Michael O’Keefe), that it’s shakedown money. Yet he certainly acts as if it is, doesn’t he? He’s investigating Arthur’s death, gets the answer, then he gets the check and lets Arthur go.

He admits as much at the end, setting up Karen Crowder:

I’m not the guy you kill, I’m the guy you buy. Are you so fucking blind that you don’t even see what I am? I sold out Arthur for 80 grand. I’m your easiest problem and you’re gonna kill me?

He seems to believe this. But does he believe that Mary Bach believes this? That Marty Bach knew U North killed Arthur, Michael figured it out, so the money is keeping Michael quiet? That interpretation seems off. Or am I being naïve?

Either way, great ending. Happy ending. “Michael Clayton” strives to be a ’70s movie but it still gives us a happy ending. In the beginning Michael was morally compromised and financially bankrupt. By the end he’s financially solvent and morally assuaged. Nice trick. Plus he still looks like George Clooney. Once more around the block, cabbie, with feeling.

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Posted at 06:38 AM on Sep 20, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Thursday September 19, 2013

Quote of the Day

“Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd, two of the most influential opinion columnists in the nation, are bad opinion columnists. Friedman is facile and dull. Dowd is snide without being witty, repetitive, and an occasional plagiarist, and worse. Today, they both have new columns in the New York Times. Both are bad. Not their worst work, but perfectly representative of what makes each of them bad. Which one is worse? Let’s investigate, together.

”Here is Thomas Friedman’s 'lede,' silly journo-speak for 'first sentence': 'I was at a conference in Bern, Switzerland, last week and struggling with my column.' Has ever a more Friedmanesque sentence been published?

-- Alex Pareene, “Who wrote a worse column today, Maureen Dowd or Thomas Friedman?”, on Salon.com

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Posted at 02:20 PM on Sep 19, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Something Scarier than Sharks

Nice piece on great white sharks by Alec Wilkinson in the Sept. 9th New Yorker. It's called “Cape Fear” but it's locked online. Subscription only. So get your subscription already.

I relate to this portion of the article, and its last sentence, very, very well:

The appeal of white sharks to the imagination is so obvious that it hardly needs stating, but, even so, like all big, fierce creatures, they exemplify the mysterious and ungovernable parts of our lives. White sharks roam the ocean the way unspecified urges and figures roam the psyche—liable to appear abruptly, often destructively, and whenever they decide to, on their terms, not ours. When I think of white sharks, I think of the maps from antiquity that have whirlpools and sea monsters and blank areas where the unknown begins.

Once you enter the ocean deeper than your knees, you become part of the food chain.

Another great description later in the piece:

One woman told me that when she saw a white shark for the first time she felt as if she were seeing a dinosaur rising from the depths.

For the first time? Who is this woman that she's seen great whites more than once? And if she's scientist, why doesn't Wilkinson say so?

This next portion, by the way, is just kind of tossed out:

No one among the grownups I knew [as a kid] thought there were white sharks off Cape Cod becuase it wasn't discovered until the 1970s that they can raise their blood temperature as much as fifteen degrees above the water temperature, meaning they can tolerate much colder water than anyone believed they could.

In 1990, a white shark was seen off Cape Cod. Five years passed before another was sighted. Lobster divers in Provincetown said that they sometimes came face to face with them in the murky water off Race Point. In 1999, two were seen; one was seen in 2001 and four in 2004. Twenty-one were seen in 2012.

It's an article about sharks but there's something scarier than sharks.

Why don't you shovel this shit? Scene from JAWS

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Posted at 08:09 AM on Sep 19, 2013 in category Nature
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Wednesday September 18, 2013

Why Jack Zduriencik is Not Billy Beane

From David Schoenfield's ESPN.com blog, in the post “The Mariners' historically awful defense”:

At this point, it's pretty obvious: Jack Zduriencik is not Billy Beane. Maybe that's unfair to say; maybe no general manager is Billy Beane. As Dave Cameron pointed out on FanGraphs, even the Rays have spent more on big league payroll than the A's the past two seasons and yet the A's have won 10 more games.

Seattle Mariners logoYou can argue the A's have been lucky — nobody expected Josh Donaldson or Brandon Moss to be this good, or Bartolo Colon to resurface as an elite pitcher. But the A's also have a plan; as Joe Sheehan pointed out this week on his podcast, the A's target a certain type of player (Colon being the big — literally — exception): Players 25 to 29 years old, the age at which they should either break out or have a career year. Look at the current ages of the players they've added in the past two years: Moss (29), Jed Lowrie (29), Yoenis Cespedes (27), Josh Reddick (26), Chris Young (29), John Jaso (29). OK, Seth Smith is now 30 and closer Grant Balfour is 35. Other than Cespedes, those were all players considered disposable by their former teams. Individually, they don't look that impressive; collectively, they're a team.

Now look at who the Mariners added this offseason: Raul Ibanez (41), Aaron Harang (35), Jason Bay (34), Kelly Shoppach (33), Joe Saunders (32), Mike Morse (31), Kendrys Morales (30). That's not a plan. That's a tragedy.

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Posted at 03:56 PM on Sep 18, 2013 in category Seattle Mariners
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The Case of the Buffering TV

This is a post about modern problems, first world annoyances. I suppose it's the not knowing that's the annoyance. It's the not knowing where to begin.

Here's the problem: Buffering issues while streaming content (movies, TV shows) via Netflix.

Here are the suspects:

  • Netflix, the content provider
  • Comcast, the internet service provider
  • Apple AirPort, the router
  • Motorola Surfboard, the modem
  • Sony, the Blu-Ray player
  • Sony, the TV

We've had this problem for years, ever since we started streaming a few years back. 2009? 2010? When did that begin? It's part of the reason why I don't use the feature much. Too annoying.

“No, my dear, the REAL murderer is--”

*Buffering*

“No, Luke. I am your--”

*Buffering*

This year, for different reasons, we got a new wireless router, the Apple AirPort. But no change on the buffering front.

We also bought a brand-new, high-speed modem to replace the 5-year-old thing we rented from Comcast. Better. At least it would start better. Ten megabytes per seconds. Maybe 15 or 20 or even 25. Then, poof, right in the middle of the show:

“Yo, Mr. White, I said--”

*Buffering*

From 20 beautiful MBPS we'd be down to 2. Less than 2? Less than 1? C'mon, buddy. Pull up, pull up, pull up!

*Buffering*

“Is your network password protected?”

“Of course.”

“Does the buffering happen during primetime?”

“Now that you mention it ...”

That was a techie friend last month. He explained about fiber optic cable, and how Comcast, sure, uses it, but into neighborhoods, not homes; and once people get home they tend to use it, and all that use weighs on the system. Everyone's sharing, so everyone has a little less. That was the problem. That was the culprit. Comcast.

Comcast didn't think so. According to them—when I could finally reach them—we were getting a nice ... whatever. Count. Number. Head of steam. Head of stream. They were delivering what we had bought.

I began to doubt Comcast was the culprit, too. I began to realize (derrr) we had three items sharing our wireless network: two computers and the TV/Blu-Ray player. And the computers were fine. Always. I streamed, via Netflix, without issue on the computer.

But maybe streaming via HD TV takes a bigger hit?

So I decided to test it. One Friday. At noon, my computer, via the Ookla speedtest, was delivering 33.35 MBPS; the TV, via steaming, 18.1 MBPS. At 6 PM, it was 30.45 vs. 16.9. And at 9 PM? 23.37 and 2.

Whoops. Bit of a drop there. Even the computer took a hit during primetime. But not like the hit the TV took.

So now we were down to two culprits.

Both the TV and the Blu-Ray player had been bought about the same time. 2009? Not 2008, was it? Was it that old? Either way, I assumed Blu-Ray player, since that's what we streamed through, and since it was cheaper and easier to replace than the TV.

Or should I get an Apple TV? A complication. But not much of one. It would be another device next to the TV. It would be more wires added to my wireless network.

The ending, being without problems, was anticlimactic. I searched online for good 2013 Blu-Ray players. I bought one online. It arrived. I plugged it in and set it up. It works like a dream. A Hollywood ending.

And it only took 9 months.

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Posted at 07:42 AM on Sep 18, 2013 in category Technology
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Tuesday September 17, 2013

About Which NY Yankee's Post-Season Performance Was the Following Said?

Here's the quote:

It is almost certain that X can never be restored to anything like the position he held in the minds of the fans ... X is no longer a youngster, and [has a chance] to become a liability to the NY club instead of its best asset.

Is it:

  • A) Alex Rodriguez after the 2007 postseason.
  • B) Babe Ruth after the 1922 World Series.
  • C) Joe DiMaggio after the 1949 World Series.
  • D) Derek Jeter after the 2012 postseason.

Answer in the comments section.

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Posted at 03:10 PM on Sep 17, 2013 in category Yankees Suck
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Woodrow Wilson, With a Message for the Originalists

Here's Woodrow Wilson in 1908 in his book, “Constitutional Government in the United States,” arguing against, of all ideas, checks and balances:

The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.

I came across it while reading Jill Lepore's article, “The Tug of War: Woodrow Wilson and the power of the Presidency,” which is ostensibly a book review, or books review (“Wilson” by A. Scott Berg; “Woodrow Wilson” by John Milton Cooper, Jr.), but which ranges more into the life, and into the office, than into the books. That link to the article, by the way, is just to a snyopsis. For the full thing you need the magazine. Which you should get. Sept. 9, 2013.

Helluva rise for Wilson. Named president of Princeton in 1902. Elected governor of New Jersey in 1910. Elected president of the United States in 1912 and again in 1916. Helluva fall as well: illness and incapaciation. The elections, meanwhile, required help: Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party splitting the Republican vote in the first; winning 10 of the 12 states where women could vote in 1916. I hadn't realized suffrage had been a state by state thing before the 19th amendment.

He was the first Southerner since the Civil War to be president. James Weldon Johnson said he “openly condoned and vindicated prejudice against the Negro.” His wife died in office; he remarried in office; his second wife ran things during his incapacitation.

Lepore also reminds us of the swift change of things: “During Wilson's Adminstration, Congress lowered the tariff, reformed banking and currency laws, passed a new antitrust act, instituted a graduate income tax and the first federal inheritance tax, passed the first private-sector-eight-hour-workday legislation and the first federal aid to farmers, abolished child labor, and established the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve. Wilson believed  that it was the obligation of the federal government to regulate the economy to protect ordinary Americans 'from the consequences of great industrial and social processes which they cannot alter, control, or singly cope with.'”

Are Democrats more likely than Republicans to be academics? From this list it seems so: Wilson, LBJ, Clinton, Obama. Also, look at all the Navy boys.

Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States

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Posted at 06:35 AM on Sep 17, 2013 in category U.S. History
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Monday September 16, 2013

Movie Review: Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

IMDb trivia:

According to Casey Affleck, the title is the director David Lowery’s misquotation from lyrics of a song and has no actual meaning.

That’s a bit how I feel about “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” It’s a beautifully atmospheric story that has no actual meaning. It’s inspired by Terrence Malick but it doesn’t inspire like Terrence Malick. It’s about a boy and a girl and a shootout and a prison escape, and how there’s no escape. It’s about men who will do what they can to protect a woman who may not be worth protecting. It’s about love and mumbling. A lot of love and a lot of mumbling. Brando’s diction was Gielgud’s in comparison.

Full disclosure: I’ve been losing my hearing for a few years but it hasn’t really been a problem until now. Until now I just turned up the volume, or leaned forward, or cupped my hand behind my ear like an old man. Last year I went to see about a hearing aid but once you begin to use it you have to use it always. It’s not like glasses, which you can take on and off. The hearing aid would be a thing I’d put in in the morning and take out at night, and that more than anything else soured me. Something else to add to the routine? Another barnacle to my hull? Not yet.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” has convinced me that maybe I do need that hearing aid. So an aspect of that awful fact may color this review.

Trying to catch up to Ruth
Bob (Affleck) begins the movie trying to catch up to Ruth (Rooney Mara). He spends most of the movie doing the same.

Ain't Them Bodies SaintsWhy is she walking away from him at the beginning? Because, in conversation with others, he used the phrase “on my own.” He has to tell her, “When I say ‘on my own,’ I mean you and me. I always mean you and me.” He says this calmly and sweetly. Then he promises her things: 1) She won’t go to jail; and 2) He’ll work on getting them out of that shack of theirs. Then she drops her bomb. “I think I’m going to have a baby,” she says. He pauses. Then a smile. It’s a gorgeous smile. “We’re going to have a baby?” he says. Again with the we. I liked him here. I like people who run to love. She’s running away from it. She’s already a bit of a pain.

It doesn’t take long before they make their play with their friend Freddy (Kentucky Audley), the son of the man, Skerritt (Keith Carradine), who helped raise them. In a shoot-out with the cops, Freddy dies, Ruth wounds one of the cops, Patrick (Ben Foster), and freaks. So Bob takes the blame. He lives up to promise #1. He surrenders himself with literal blood on his hands (Freddy’s) and goes to prison for Ruth. There, he writes letters to her even as he tries to break out of prison. The sixth time’s the charm. By this point, four-plus years, and maybe 15 minutes of screentime, have gone by. The rest of the movie is prep for his return.

No show to run
Slowly, people take positions, or take up positions around Ruth. Is Patrick using Ruth to get to Bob, or Bob to get to Ruth? In the end, he gets got himself. He falls for her and her daughter. He falls for the woman who shot him.

Ruth keeps watching the door, scared and hopeful Bob will walk in; Patrick keeps hanging around Ruth, hoping Bob will walk in; but it’s Skerritt who gets the walk-in. Bob shows up in the back of Skerritt’s store, an amused, proud look on his face. Lookee what I did. Is he a little soft in the head? He seems to be missing something up there. Maybe love is laid over it. We sing songs about it but it’s a burden.

Skerritt warns Bob away. The house that Bob didn’t get Ruth? Promise #2? Skerritt got it for her. He lets her live in one of his houses, next door to his own, and he doesn’t want Bob hanging around. Bob’s got his dream, of course—to disappear with the girls and settle down and buy a house and open a shop and grow old like Skerritt—and Skerritt’s fine with it except for the getting the girls part. “You got trouble heading your way,” he reminds him. Then he holds Bob’s face down on the wood countertop. He’s tougher than Bob. Maybe that’s why Bob wants to be him. Maybe that’s why we all do. It’s a great scene.

Bad men come looking for him. Big silent men led by a talkative runt named Bear (Charles Baker, Skinny Pete from “Breaking Bad”). Are they bounty hunters? Are they after reward money? Skerritt warns them, too, but eventually he sets the rest of the movie in motion by sending them to where they might find him. They just better not get the girls involved. Famous last words.

There’s an ennui, a dissipation, in the town and in the film. At one point we get this dialogue:

Bob: Who’s running the show?
Skerritt: No show to run. Not anymore.

That’s how it feels. Not much on the shelves here. At Maude’s Bar, where Bob holes up, which his friend, Sweetie (Nate Parker), runs, or owns, there’s even less. It’s barren and there’s rot in the floorboards.

No legendary outlaw
One night, his daughter’s 4th birthday, Bob shows up, sees his daughter through the front window, sees a man with her. It’s Patrick. Does he know it’s Patrick? He leaves anyway. He returns, I believe, to the shack where he and Ruth used to live, where the shoot-out took place, where he buried the money. This time Bear and the men are waiting. Bob gets two, one gets him. He stands over him, disbelieving. “You shot me,” Bob says to Bear. “Why’d you shoot me? I never even seen you.”

He is missing something, isn’t he? He doesn’t know the way the world works. He’s got a romantic streak in him when it comes to Ruth and himself. He thinks he’s a legendary outlaw now but there are no legendary outlaws now. It’s like what Skerritt said about the show: no one’s running it. Bloodied again, Bob flags down a driver, Will (Rami Malek), and on the way to Ruth’s they have this conversation:

Bob: Tell your daddy who you gave a ride to today.
Will (after a pause): Who?
Bob (confused): What?
Will (choosing words carefully): Who are you?

I love that. This, too. When Bob’s in prison, he writes this in a letter to Ruth. It’s about how he keeps himself going:

Every day I wake up is the day I think I’m going to see you. And one of these days, it will be so.

It is. It’s also the day he dies.

No point
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is well acted, beautifully shot, with some good, minimalist dialogue. I liked scenes. I admired the effort. Casey Affleck continues to impress and it made me retroactively miss Keith Carradine, who seems to have made a deal with the devil when it comes to aging. He’s looked about the same for 30 years.

But overall? It doesn’t resonate and I don’t know why. Too much atmosphere? Dissipation? Because it’s a copy of a copy? It’s another story of the outlaw couple, kind of, told in the manner of Terrence Malick, kind of, about a few scattered people at the end of it.

It misses the big conflict, which is dramatized in the scene between Bob and Skerritt: For the good of what you love, you should stay away from what you love. But Bob’s too thick to realize it. It’s the scorpion and the frog, and it’s in Bob’s nature to catch up to Ruth. That’s what he does, that’s what he’ll always do, but it’s not that interesting. In the end, Bob and Ruth are not that interesting. People in love rarely are.

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Posted at 07:24 AM on Sep 16, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Sunday September 15, 2013

Quote of the Day

“You have to finish things—that’s what you learn from. You learn by finishing things.”

--Neil Gaiman, writer, via the brain pickings site.

No tagsPosted at 06:00 PM on Sep 15, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Weekend Box Office is Insidious, But You Knew That

Here's Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo on Thursday:

Combining goodwill from the first movie with a Friday the 13th release date, horror sequel Insidious Chapter 2 seems poised for one of the biggest openings ever for the month of September. Meanwhile, Luc Besson's The Family should take a distant second place.

And?

And “Insidious Chapter 2” had the second-biggest opening ever for the month of September ($41 million, $1.5 off the record), and “The Family” finished a distant second ($14.5).

All y'all are so predictable.

But there's good news.

“Riddick,” which didn't open particularly strong, fell off a whopping 63.1% for third place, while “One Direction: This is Us,” top of the pops two weekends ago, is now 8th, adding another $2.4 million to a now $28.6 million total. Skimpy compared to Bieber ($73 in 2011) but not to the Jonases ($19 in 2009). It's also good for fourth in concert films since 1984. Third, though, is “Hannah Montana” at $65 million. So fourth it is.

“Lee Daniels' The Butler,” meanwhile, lost 91 theaters but fell off by only 33% to finish fourth. It also broke the $100 million mark. It's the second-highest grossing film to open in August/September, after “We're the Millers,” which is good news. I mean I'm not much of a fan of the movie but I like the idea of it and wouldn't mind seeing more of it, but better.

Meanwhile, the Mexican comedy “Instructions Not Included” dropped to sixth place for the weekend ($4.2 million) and rose to sixth place in terms of unadjusted foreign box office since 1980 ($26.5 million).

All in all, it feels like September, doesn't it? Not much happening at the theaters but the blogs are agog with Oscar buzz.

The tallies.

Insidious Chapter 2

No problem. I didn't even know there was an Insidious, Chapter 1.

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Posted at 10:49 AM on Sep 15, 2013 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday September 14, 2013

What’s Wrong with Jonathan Franzen’s ‘What’s Wrong with the Modern World’?

First there’s the title. It reminds me of  “The Secret of Life,” the awful title of the awful article Andrew McCarthy’s awful character finally gets published in the awful “St. Elmo’s Fire.” It’s a title that’s too stupidly general. What’s wrong with the modern world? That’s a wide target, boyo. At the same time you think, “Well, how can Franzen not hit that one?”

He manages. A lot of his targets are my targets, too: modern technology, the Internet, “cool,” the pauperization of freelance writers, the marginalization of almost everything I once considered central to the culture. So he should be speaking for me. Yet for most of the essay he doesn’t speak for me.

Franzen is attacking the early 21st century through the writings of Karl Kraus, an Austrian satirist, who attacked the early 20th century. Franzen’s first target? Those Mac vs. PC ads. Seriously. It’s a form and content argument, a “cool” vs. “uncool” argument, and Franzen places himself squarely among the uncool Microsoft/PC people. He backs the content of the PC, its utilitarianism, over the meaningless form of the Mac. He writes:

Simply using a Mac Air, experiencing the elegant design of its hardware and software, is a pleasure in itself, like walking down a street in Paris. Whereas, when you’re working on some clunky, utilitarian PC, the only thing to enjoy is the quality of your work itself. As Kraus says of Germanic life, the PC “sobers” what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned.

Until it crashes.

That's a joke but it's a true joke. Mac is not only better in form but in content; in code. The Mac is both more beautiful and more utilitarian. But then Franzen isn’t really talking about the product but our interaction with the product. He’s apparently saying it’s harder to see ourselves against the beautiful; it’s easier to see ourselves against the plain or ugly. Meaning Franzen should be happy with the way our modern cityscapes have developed. We should be able to see each other well now. Hey, you. I know you.

Franzen keeps taking these cheap shots. His complaints are monumentally small and of the straw-man variety. He criticizes Salman Rushdie for “succumbing” to Twitter, which apparently means being on it. He’s disappointed in those who hold up the Internet as somehow positively “female” and “revolutionary,” when other people’s misinterpretations of the Internet are not the problem with the Internet. He writes:

You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it 2 billion now?) “individualised” Facebook pages may make you want to say them.

Facebook pages? He’s not even using the right words. He’s attacking our way of seeing a thing even though it’s not how we see the thing.

Here’s another unworthy straw man:

To me the most impressive thing about Kraus as a thinker may be how early and clearly he recognised the divergence of technological progress from moral and spiritual progress. A succeeding century of the former, involving scientific advances that would have seemed miraculous not long ago, has resulted in high-resolution smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos into litre bottles of Diet Pepsi and shouting “Whoa!”

Louis C.K. has done a better job, a more human job, parsing this divide.

OK, so Franzen gets better the further he gets into the essay. Here, for example, is something he writes that I can get behind:

... we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and emailing and Tweeting and posting on colour-screen gadgets because Moore’s law said we could. We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children “passion” for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep up with it. The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability – and who wouldn’t want them? – we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety. We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.

That’s getting at it. I like this quote from Kraus:

This velocity doesn’t realize that its achievement is important only in escaping itself.

That’s getting at it even more.

I like the tail-end discussion about the privileged anger of both Kraus and Franzen. Kraus is to Franzen as George W.S. Trow is to me. We all need our previous-generation curmudgeons.

Then Franzen does a back-and-forth thing with Amazon.com, and Jeff Bezos, and the destruction of the thing Franzen holds dear: the physical book, and book culture, and book stores. He delivers the line that’s the most-quoted from this piece: “In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen.” He writes this:

Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion. The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world.

Except that world is the world, and it’s almost always been the world, and we’ve always been to the side of it. Franzen doesn’t seem to get that. The world of America is a world of selling, of business, of getting ahead. It’s a world of competition. It’s a ruthless world of by any means necessary. If literature is marginalized now it just means it’s more marginalized now. It’s not just marginalized by movies, and radio, and television, as it was in Franzen’s youth, but by everything on the Internet, which is almost everything in the world. It’s almost embarrassing to be here, really, and doing what I’m doing, writing this blog, writing these words, because what’s the point? The other day at a party, a friend said to me, “I’ve been reading your blog lately” and my immediate reaction was one of embarrassment. It was almost as if he’d said, “I saw you standing on the street corner lately, shouting.”

He ends well. Franzen begins horribly and ends well.

Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal. I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending. But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments, and the Amazon basin was intact, and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows.

Well shouted, Jonathan. And from a better street corner, too.

Jonathan Franzen, angry young man

Franzen, B.B. (Before Bezos)

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Posted at 11:14 AM on Sep 14, 2013 in category Culture
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Friday September 13, 2013

The Fourth Rule of Seattle Traffic

4. When confronted with a situation requiring either efficiency or politeness, choose politeness.

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Posted at 02:23 PM on Sep 13, 2013 in category Seattle
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Quote of the Day

“Bad time to be a politician. Dibs on shooting/hanging the President.”

-- a commenter on the far-right website MinutemanNews.com, responding to an article about the problems leftists will have when/if they try to rescind the Second Amendment, as reported in Rick Perlstein's Nation article, “Stack Them In the Streets Like Cordwood”: The Gun Control Debate and Our Civic Life," Sept. 13, 2013. Some of the other comments, which Perlstein also quotes, are equally awful, with worse spelling. Perlstein's research indicates that the site, which seems a fringe organization, actually draws almost as many readers as The Nation.

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Posted at 12:21 PM on Sep 13, 2013 in category Politics
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The 13th Rule of Seattle Traffic

13. A long line of cars trailing behind a Seattle driver is a sign of the driver's patience and kindness and a testament to their moral superiority. You will often see these drivers, even with a long, impatient line behind them, waving cars in front of them to “go ahead” with a smile. In Seattle, this is known as “the long tail.” Drivers with short or non-existent tails are generally recent emigres from the east coast and should be avoided.

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Posted at 10:25 AM on Sep 13, 2013 in category Seattle
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The 17th Rule of Seattle Traffic

17. The first person in line will be the last to notice the light has turned green.

Not to get all Ferengi here.

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Posted at 07:34 AM on Sep 13, 2013 in category Seattle
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Thursday September 12, 2013

Quote of the Day

“The Reagan Administration’s decision to tolerate Saddam’s depravities [with chemical weapons] proved to be a colossal moral failure and strategic mistake; it encouraged Saddam’s aggression and internal repression, and it allowed Iraq to demonstrate to future dictators the tactical value of chemical warfare.”

-- Steve Coll, “Crossing the Line,” on the history of chemical weapons use and what Pres. Obama should do in Syria, Sept. 9, 2013.

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Posted at 01:41 PM on Sep 12, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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The Most Horrible Thing I've Ever Heard

Lately I’ve been reading “Popular Crime: Reflections on the celebration of violence,” by Bill James. Yes, that Bill James. Along with baseball stats, he’s apparently got a bit of a crime-story fixation. He considers himself an amateur sleuth. He has a few corrections in mind for the justice system.

In the book, he goes over some of the more famous murder cases in American history (Lizzie Bordon, Lindbergh Baby, O.J.), some sensational cases in their day that have receded from view (Elizabeth Canning, Mary Rogers, Hall-Mills), and he has a chapter on serial killers that will make you want to flee the planet.

He also talks about the most famous American murder of the 20th century: John F. Kennedy. And it’s there that I read one of the most horrible things I’ve ever read.

James begins many of his discussions by saying, basically, I’m just some guy; what the hell do I know? Then he tells you what the hell he knows. This is particularly true here. He says there are a zillion books on the JFK assassination—that you can read one a month for 20 years and not be done—but he can recommend two: Gerald Posner’s “Case Closed” and Bonar Menninger’s “Mortal Error.” I was familiar with the first (Oswald did it, by himself, get over it) but not the second, and that’s the one he really recommends. Bill James: Popular CrimeIt’s based on the work of Baltimore ballistics expert Howard Donahue. In 1967, CBS News was attempting to recreate what Oswald had done to see that it could be done—to see if someone could hit a target at that distance with that gun three times in 5.6 seconds. So they hired Donahue. Who did it in 5.2 seconds. Case closed.

Except Donahue became fascinated with the assassination and did his own research and came to his own conclusions.

Three shots were fired that day at Dealey Plaza. This is what Donahue believes happened.

He believes Oswald fired the first two shots. The first missed, but a ricocheted fragment hit the President in the neck. The second shot hit both Kennedy and Connally. Then Oswald’s gun jammed and he never got off a third shot.

So what happened? Who fired the third shot? Was it David Ferrie in the grassy knoll with the candlestick?

Here’s why Donahue believes Oswald didn’t fire the third shot:

  1. The third bullet disintegrated upon impact, which a bullet from Oswald’s Carcano rifle would not have.
  2. A Carcano round fired at that distance—from Oswald to Kennedy—would not have had the impact the third bullet that hit Kennedy did.
  3. A Carcano round is 6.5 millimeters in diameter. The final, fatal entrance wound was 6 mm wide.
  4. The trajectory of the final bullet, based upon entrance and exit wounds as well as the position of the President’s head at the time, traces back, not to the book depository, but to the car directly behind Kennedy.

And who was in the car directly behind Kennedy? The Secret Service.

No, the Secret Service wasn’t in league with LBJ and Castro and the Mafia to bring down Kennedy. In some ways, it’s worse:

... a Secret Service man, George Hickey, grabbed a weapon when he heard the first shot. Hickey’s weapon accidentally fired, and that bullet, from Hickey’s gun, mortally wounded the President.

Hickey’s gun, an AR-15, uses bullets 5.56 mm in diameter, which disintegrate upon impact. Hickey was also close enough to the President to account for the big blam of the third shot.

An accident. A fucking accident. That’s how our history changed.

The night I read this I went numb with horror.

I should add that I, like James, don’t know anything, but I really don’t know anything. I don’t know ballistics and trajectories and yadda yaddas. I haven’t studied any of it.

But I know what makes sense. Here’s James:

On first hearing this theory, almost no one believes that it could be right. ... But I have read Mortal Error carefully, and I have to tell you, if there’s a flaw in his argument I don’t see it. Unlike the conspiracy theories, which are almost universally based on some conversations which tooks place in Russia in 1961, in New Orleans in 1962, or in Tampa in 1972, the Donahue analysis is based primarily upon a detailed, careful study of what happened in Dealey Plaza on November 22.

I still don’t know if it’s true or not. Most people think it isn’t. But of all the conspiracy theories out there, this is the one that fits my worldview. To plot out, and organize, and initiate, a murder of this size and scope, and then disappear from view? Poof? We’re just not that smart.

But a mistake? A screw-up? A horrible, horrible accident? Oh yeah. That’s us. That’s us all over.

JFK and his motorcade, Dealey Plaza, November 22, 1963

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Posted at 07:54 AM on Sep 12, 2013 in category U.S. History
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Wednesday September 11, 2013

Movie Review: Super (2011)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“I’ve wondered all the time why no one’s ever stood up and become a real superhero.”

That’s Libby (Ellen Page), early in James Gunn’s low-budget, Troma-inspired “Super,” before she becomes Bolty, girl sidekick and sometime lover (or rapist) to the Crimson Bolt (Rainn Wilson). Anyone not caught up in a fantasy world, of course, knows the answer to this one, and it comes to Libby later in the movie. Too late, it turns out.

She and the Crimson Bolt are storming the palace of drug lord Jacques (Kevin Bacon, in an amused performance), until one of the bad guys shoots them both and they fall in the high grass. Super poster: Shut up, Crime!By this point, we know they’re wearing body armor so we’re not worried. And sure enough, Frank Darbo, the Crimson Bolt, groans, shakes his head and begins to get up. He shakes Bolt Girl, who is lying on her side away from him—c’mon, get up—and she rolls on her back and half her face is gone.

That’s the answer. That’s why no one’s ever stood up and become a real superhero. Because bullets don’t bounce off.

Credit “Super” for not imagining otherwise. “Kick Ass,” which was released a year earlier, and had a bigger budget and bigger stars, pretends a young girl with martial arts moves can take on a roomful of bad guys and not get injured. That movie feigns ironic indifference to the very thing it desperately wants: wish-fulfillment fantasy.

“Super” doesn’t. But it’s still an odd movie. It still sends mixed messages. It still gives us an improperly sweet ending.

Finger of God
Frank Darbo is a man for whom two good things happened in his life: he pointed out a thief to a cop (“He went in there, Officer!”), and a beautiful girl, Sarah (Liv Tyler), agreed to marry him. He draws pictures of both of these things and puts them on his wall. Then Sarah gets involved with drugs again and Frank is too weak to stop her. Then she leaves him for Jacques, the local, genial drug lord.

Jacques is so genial, in fact, and Frank so grotesquely, huffingly obstinate, it’s as if Frank is the villain. Frank goes to the cops, who tell him they can’t arrest Jacques for winning the girlfriend battle. Frank goes to Jacques, who remains good-natured even as Frank pounds on his car. But then Jacques’ men, including Michael Rooker, pound on Frank.

Why the superhero route? Because Frank comes across a TV show, “Holy Avenger,” in which the long-haired pot-bellied hero (Nathan Fillion) uses the power of Christ to defeat villains and keep the same two clean-cut teens on the straight and narrow. Apparently this show is based on some direct-to-video thing called “Bibleman,” starring Willie Aames, which is an odd thing to parody—something that’s barely made inroads into popular culture. Oh, and Frank also has a dream, or maybe a vision, in which his skull is cut open and his brain touched by the finger of God.

Despite God, his crime-fighting starts poorly. He hangs behind a garbage dumpster for a few days waiting for crime to happen. In his first encounter, a drug dealer pulls his mask down (“No fair! No fair!”) and Frank is forced to run. So he returns to the local comic book store, where Libby works, and asks a question: How do superheroes without superpowers get by? Libby shows him Batman, who has a utility belt, and the Green Arrow, who has his arrows, and Frank decides on a weapon: a pipe wrench. He clocks bad guys on the head with it then says his line: DON’T STEAL! DON’T MOLEST KIDS! DON’T DEAL DRUGS!

Is he too distracted? What does fighting crime have to do with rescuing Sarah? He gets further distracted waiting for a movie only to have a middle-aged couple butt in line. He speaks up; they sass back. Then he splits the guy’s head open. It’s actually kind of funny—the awfulness of what he does—but then Libby, guessing his identity, defends him to him. “I hate when people butt,” she says. That’s kind of funny, too.

Libby is there to make the wholly unreasonable Frank seem entirely reasonable. She insists on dressing up as his sidekick, all 5’ 1” of her, and taking out a smarmy dude who keyed her friend’s car. She crashes a glass vase over the dude’s head but afterwards reveals doubt about the crime. “Yeah, pretty sure it was him,” she says. She rams one bad guy into a wall with Frank’s car and revels in his pain:

That’s what you get for fucking with the Crimson Bolt and Boltie, cocksucker! Now your legs are gone! Ha ha ha ha ha! .... It’s called internal bleeding, fucker!

People cheer.

I assume we’re supposed to laugh and be horrified at the same time—that’s what I did anyway—I just can’t tell if there’s more going on or less. The goal of “Super” is to shock us with the consequences of violence, but to what end? To what alternative? And what to make of the sex?

Right, the sex. Libby comes on to Frank. She asks to make out with him. Later, she rapes him. If “no means no,” she rapes him. It never would have made it off the page, let alone on screen, if the genders had been reversed, but here it’s, I don’t know, horrific and funny again. And sexy? A bit.

Plus her action spurs Frank to action, to taking on what he’s been putting off. They attack Jacques’ place, and Libby sacrifices half her face, and her life, but the Crimson Bolt kills everyone else, and rescues Sarah, who’s a virtual prisoner by this point, a near rape victim herself. In a few months, we’re told in an afterword, she leaves Frank again to marry a better man. She has four kids with him. These kids call Frank “Uncle Frank”; and Frank, who began the movie with only two good memories, and who was too timid to even buy a rabbit for a pet, now holds his pet rabbit while gazing at a wall full of great memories he’s had from the adventures we’ve just watched, and his voiceover searches for a greater meaning to everything that’s happened.

Mixed feelings
Now I guess I’m doing that. I’m searching for greater meaning to everything that happened.

“Super” was written and directed by James Gunn, who also wrote “The Specials,” a lame superhero parody from 2000, but is this movie even a superhero parody? I like the scene where, in the mirror, a la Travis Bickle, the Crimson Bolt tries out his signature lines:

  • Everybody give up!
  • It’s me, the Crimson Bolt!
  • You just made the biggest mistake of your life!

Before settling on one:

  • Shut up, Crime! Here’s the Crimson Bolt ... Crime.

But the Crimson Bolt isn’t super. He knows no skill like Batman or Green Arrow or Zorro. If anything, the movie feels like a parody of vigilante movies or worm-turns movies than superhero movies. It’s a “true life” version of those genres. It reveals, via an imperfect, dangerous hero, the awful violence implicit in our stories. Gunn doesn’t clean it up; he doesn’t make it easy for us. We are revealed by what we want—even as he sometimes gives us what we want.

Overall “Super” gives us massive mixed feelings. When the Crimson Bolt stabs Jacques to death, he says the following:

You don’t butt in line! You don’t sell drugs! You don’t molest little children! You don’t profit off the misery of others! The rules were set a long time ago! They don’t CHANGE!

This is wrong twice over:

  1. The rules do change
  2. The rule that changes least is the one Frank is engaged in.

Would the movie have been better if it had not played up Jacques’ 11th-hour villainy—allowing Sarah, for example, to be nearly raped? If Jacques had remained fairly genial throughout? If Sarah had been watching TV when Frank burst in? Would it have been better without the semi-sweet ending, which allows Frank both epiphany and happiness? His epiphany involves self-sacrifice, in letting Sarah go, which is also how he finds happiness. Fine. But Libby is still dead, dozens have been wasted, and that couple in line still had their heads cracked. It gives us sweet when we needed a little more horror.

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Posted at 07:08 AM on Sep 11, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2011
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Tuesday September 10, 2013

Quote of the Day

“Losing is the great American sin.”

-- sportswriter John R. Tunis (1889-1975), as quoted in Robert Weintraub's “The House that Ruth Built,” pg. 61.

No tagsPosted at 02:30 PM on Sep 10, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Lovelace (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The first half of “Lovelace” documents how a sexually inexperienced girl, Linda Boreman (Amanda Seyfried), living with her strict parents in 1970 in Davie, Fla., becomes involved in the hard-core porn industry.

The second half gives us the same story but from a degrading perspective.

Sorry. Bad joke. Yet true.

There are certainly intimations of abuse in the first half. That bruise on her thigh. That rhythmic noise in the motel room that doesn’t sound like knocking boots. The too-tight pants and muttonchop moustache of her Svengali-like husband, Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard).

Lovelace poster with Amanda SeyfriedBut overall, Linda, soon to be Linda Lovelace, the most famous porn star in the world, a topic on “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” and the butt of snickering jokes from everyone from Johnny Carson to Bob Hope, seems to be a willing participant in the process. Chuck may come off as creepy and unctuous and vaguely threatening, but many of the other principles, from director Gerry Damiano (Hank Azaria) to producer Butch Peraino (Bobby Cannavale), come off as loveable rogues. Here’s Butch arguing against casting the dark-haired Linda in “Deep Throat”: “People want blonde hair, huge tits, and a nice round ass. It’s the harsh reality of our chosen profession.” Here’s the exchange after actor Harry Reems (Adam Brody) finishes too quickly as a result of Linda’s talents:

Linda: I’m sorry, did I do something wrong?
All men (lust-struck and reassuring): No, no, no ...

At this point, it’s actually comic.

Then in the second half: beatings, guns and gang rape.

Either/or, leaning toward or
This isn’t a bad structure—here’s the story and then here’s the real story—but it leaves our lovable rogues out of the picture, more or less. The beatings are from Chuck. The gun belongs to Chuck. The gang rape is organized by Chuck. These events are seen from Linda’s perspective. But the other guys? Are they what they seem in the first half? What does she really think of Wes Bentley’s short, sweet turn as a photographer who brings out her beauty? Was that real? At the least, the scene made me miss Bentley, whom I’ve barely seen since “American Beauty” in 1999.

I’m also curious if the filmmakers—writer Andy Bellin (“Trust”), and directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Times of Harvey Milk,” “The Celluloid Closet,” “Howl”)—chose this structure for more than aesthetic reasons. The “Deep Throat” story, after all, is still a he said/she said affair, and nobody wants a lawsuit. Was Linda Boreman brutalized into fame? Or, once famous (or infamous), did she deny responsibility for her choices by claiming coercion? One imagines it’s some combination of the two, but here, sadly, it’s either/or. Leaning toward or. Fingers are pointed squarely: at Chuck, of course, but also at Linda’s mother (a nearly unrecognizable Sharon Stone), who is puritanical about sex and then unsympathetic about Linda’s plight. It’s not until the 11th hour that she realizes how awful she’s been; what she’s done to her baby.

By giving us the same story twice, too, we also don’t have time for less-well-known aspects of Lovelace’s career, such as the 1975 movie “Linda Lovelace for President,” with Mickey Dolenz. What the hell was that about?

More importantly, why did “Deep Throat” break through? In “Lovelace,” its success is assumed but back in the day Vincent Canby of The New York Times was as baffled as anyone. Here he is in a January 21, 1973 article, “What Are We to Think of ‘Deep Throat’?”:

When I went to see it last summer, mostly because of the Goldstein review, I was so convinced of its junkiness that I didn’t bother writing about it. Still uncertain, I went back to see it again last Sunday. ... Although the audience last Sunday was a good deal more cheerful and less furtive than the one with which I first saw it, the film itself remains junk, at best only a souvenir of a time and place. I’m sure that if “Deep Throat” hadn’t caught the public’s fancy at this point in history, some other porno film, no better and maybe no worse, would have.

A helluva cast
Yes, Seyfried is good in the title role, and, yes, Sarsgaard can probably do the greasily unctuous thing in his sleep. Overall, it’s quite the cast. Besides those mentioned above, add James Franco (as Hugh Hefner), Robert Patrick (as Linda’s father), Chris Noth (as a producer), Chloe Sevigny (as a reporter with one line), Debi Mazar and Eric Roberts.

But what complexity the movie could have—about where we’re going and where we’ve been—isn’t there. The movie becomes an oft-told tale. It’s about a good girl who winds up with a bad guy, then finds her way home again.

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Posted at 06:36 AM on Sep 10, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Monday September 09, 2013

Just What the Internet Needs, Erik: A Cute Cat Photo

Whenever Patricia is away and I'm home I send her a photo of Jellybean, our cat, because she misses her. Because look:

Jellybean, asleep

Jellybean, in her element.

This is the one from this weekend.

One of P's former coworkers once called Jellybean a fluffy meringue. She was right.

Related: Stephen Colbert on NYC's subway kitten crisis and the one candidate willing to take a stand.

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Posted at 01:57 PM on Sep 09, 2013 in category Jellybean
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The Wild Wild Card

After dropping three of four to Boston, the New York Yankees are 10 games back in the A.L. East ... and, thanks in great part to the lowly Seattle Mariners, who beat Tampa Bay twice in a three-game series at Safeco Field, only 2.5 games back for the second wild card spot. Which is turning into a wild wild-card spot.

Five teams are vying for it. Five teams are within 3.5 games of each other: Tampa, then Cleveland and Baltimore (2 GB), then the Yankees (2.5) and Kansas City (3.5). Assuming the first wild card spot goes to Texas, which is 1.5 games behind Oakland but 3 games ahead of Tampa, which of these five teams has the best shot at the post-season?

They each have six series left:

  • Tampa Bay: Boston, @Minnesota, Texas, Baltimore, @Yankees, @Toronto
  • Cleveland: KC, @White Sox, @KC, Houston, White Sox, @Minnesota
  • Baltimore: Yankees, @Toronto, @Boston, @Tampa, Toronto, Boston
  • Yankees: @Baltimore, @Boston, @Toronto, San Francisco, Tampa, @ Houston
  • Kansas City: @Cleveland, @Detroit, Cleveland, Texas, @Seattle, @White Sox

red = .500+ team

The Yanks and KC are down to just two home series (vs. four away) while the other split theirs (three home, three away).

Cleveland looks to have the easiest schedule: they're playing KC twice and then the three worst teams in the American League: Houston, the White Sox (twice) and Minnesota. Baltimore, I think, has the toughest schedule, including Boston twice, but they're the only team that ends its season at home. Something to be said for that. Of course they end it against Boston while KC ends it on the road against the Mariners and White Sox, while the Yankees get Houston, the worst team in baseball. Something to be said for that, too.

What this really means? We've played 90% of the season, 145 games, and have really only eliminated six of 15 teams. Somewhere, Bud Selig is smiling. Are we? How close is this to the NHL?

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Posted at 07:06 AM on Sep 09, 2013 in category Baseball
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Sunday September 08, 2013

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

Last “Les Miserables” post of the day.

I first saw the cinematic “Les Miserables” before I was familiar with the music, and the music I became familiar with after seeing the movie was the original Broadway cast album, which has great singing performances from, among others, Robert Billig and Michael Maguire.

The movie has great performances, too, but the voices don't soar quite so much. Director Tom Hooper went for verisimilitude. He had his performers singing live, rather than to a studio-recorded playback. I still like that choice, that chance. This is what I wrote last December:

There’s power in these songs, and from these actors, that you don’t normally get from lip-synching to playback. You definitely feel it in Hathaway’s signature song. You feel it in Hugh Jackman’s early numbers, too, with his red eyes burning into you (“What Have I Done?), and in Redmayne’s great song of survivor’s guilt, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which is my second-favorite number in the movie. 

This week I saw the movie again on HBO, and the standout this time was Eddie Redmayne as Marius. Particularly “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”:

Apparently “Les Miserables,” as a musical, began as a concept album in the 1970s, then became a French musical in 1980 that closed after three months. It was revived in its English-language form in London in 1985, where it became a hit, and then on Broadway in 1987.

So it was written long before the AIDS crisis. Even so, I can't hear this song without thinking of AIDS and the havoc it wreaked:

Oh my friends, my friends, forgive me
That I live and you are gone
There's a grief that can't be spoken
There's a pain goes on and on

Watching this video several times today, I also thought of the Onion Cellar from Gunter Grass' “The Tin Drum”: that place where stoic people go to cut open onions and cry and feel. That's movies, too. The better ones?

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Posted at 06:07 PM on Sep 08, 2013 in category Music
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After the Revolution: An Interview with Michael Maguire, the original Enjolras in 'Les Miserables'

It's less a lazy Sunday than a Les Miz Sunday.

To go along with my sister's chance encounter with Hugh Jackman at the Toronto airport, here is part of my Q&A with Michael Maguire, who played the original Enjolras on Broadway, and is now a family law attorney in Beverly Hills:

Q: You won a Tony for playing Enjolras in the original Broadway production of Les Miserables. You perform with symphonies all over the country. So I have to ask: Why law?

A: I wanted to go to law school for years. I just wanted the intellectual challenge. I mean, I do recognize that I have a physical gift. It’s almost like being a fast runner or something. I have a talent that I needed and still need to share.

But while I was singing with symphonies, I was also buying and restoring old houses in Hancock Park in Los Angeles. I love historic restoration. I made good money doing that. But the market started looking soft to me in 2005 and I thought, “If I’m ever going to go to law school I should do it right now before I’m just too old and lazy to do it.”

Q: And why family law?

A: I had a nasty divorce. During the course of that divorce, I started recognizing that my attorneys were billing me a tremendous amount of money for basically regurgitating what I told them. Or they were checking boxes that I could have checked. And they didn’t understand numbers like I did because I’d been a broker on Wall Street prior to going into the theater. I just had a mission in my life, and it continues to this day, to try to keep other people from going through that. ...

Q: Does it ever get in the way of your family law practice—the fact that you played Enjolras?

A: I don’t tell anybody about it.

Q: Right, but …

A: So if somebody knows, it may, and only for a minute, get in the way. Actually, if anything, it gets in the way of the opposing counsel. Because they think, “Oh, this guy’s just a singer.”

Q: So they’ll underestimate you.

A: They underestimate me big time. And that’s their big mistake.

Maguire dominated the “Les Mis” cover of Newsweek magazine in 1987. In a bit of coincidence, that cover was designed by Patricia.

Maguire's voice still gives me chills, by the way, particularly the way he sings the following:

With all the anger in the land
How long before the Judgement Day?
Before we cut the fat ones down to size
Before the barricades arise?

It's my favorite part of the musical, give or take an “oo and ah.” Or an empty table or empty chair.

You can hear the person sing here. He shows up at 1:54:

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Posted at 03:47 PM on Sep 08, 2013 in category Music
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Weekend Box Office: ‘Riddick’ Sputters on Diesel Fumes; ‘Instructions’ Instructs Hollywood

“Riddick,” starring Vin Diesel, won the weekend, grossing $18.6 million, but that’s not the big story. Its opening total, after all, was still $6 million less than “The Chronicles of Riddick” in 2004, and that movie was considered a box-office disappointment, grossing $57.7 overall.

“One Direction: This is Us” fell off by 74.1%, one of the biggest second-weekend drops in movie history, but that’s not the big story, either, since two other movies (“Texas Chainsaw 3D” and “The Purge”) actually had bigger second-weekend drops this year. Besides, who’s surprised? One Direction has one fan base, and they went last weekend.

No, the big box-office story this weekend is the movie that came in third place with $8.1 million: “Instructions Not Included.” It’s a Mexican comedy (“No se Aceptan Devoluciones”) starring Eugenio Derbez as a playboy who one day receives a package on his doorstep: a baby girl, from a past encounter, whom he’s forced to raise. In the process, he has to grow up, etc.

Why is that the big story? Because after two weekends, this thing has now grossed $20.3 million in the U.S. Here’s a list of Hollywood movies it has already outperformed:

  • Broken City ($19.7)
  • Admission ($18)
  • Jobs ($15.5)
  • Spring Breakers ($14.1)
  • The Last Stand ($12)

It’s already the 10th-highest-grossing foreign language film ever in the U.S., and should move up to sixth ($24.6 million) by next Friday. At that point, only these films are ahead of it:

  • 5. Amelie ($33)
  • 4. Pan’s Labyrinth ($37)
  • 3. Hero ($53)
  • 2. Life is Beautiful ($57)
  • 1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ($128)

Most of the above movies, though, were critically acclaimed Oscar contenders and/or released by Miramax, which marketed and pushed and bullied them into box office successes. “Instructions” is barely getting any attention from the critics. It is, however, being distributed well by Lionsgate, who, earlier this summer, turned Kevin Hart’s concert film, “Let Me Explain,” into the fourth highest-grossing concert film of all time, after “Raw,” “The Original Kings of Comedy,” and “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.”

Apparently someone at Lionsgate knows what they’re doing. Without instructions, either.

The numbers.

Instructions Not Included

The 10th-highest-grossing foreign language film in the U.S. after only two weekends.

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Posted at 01:31 PM on Sep 08, 2013 in category Movies - Box Office
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My Sister and Hugh Jackman

My sister Karen and her husband Eric spent the last few weeks traveling around Ireland and England and were coming home via the Toronto airport when this happened:

Hugh Jackman at the Toronto airport

Photo credit: Eric Muschler

Comments on Facebook, where this was posted, ranged among the following: Oh my! ... Eek! ... !!!!!! .... Drool ... Eric looks good in a green T-shirt ... Are you kidding me? Holy Hannah he is so hot! ... I don't get very star-struck, but that guy is seriously delish.

Coincidentally, I'd watched a bit of “Les Miserables” on HBO this week, partly because I'd become a fan of the music (original Broadway cast album) since seeing the movie, and partly in anticipation of the Bloomington Civic Theater's production of “Les Miz,” which will star my nephew, my sister's son, Jordan, as Gavroche. And that's what I wanted to know. Did Karen tell Hugh Jackman about her own Gavroche? She did, and he wished Jordy well. She added:

He's even more lovely in person. He shook all the security people's hands and smiled through the wait to get through and didn't even bother to put his shoes on before taking this picture with me.

“The best thing about traveling,” Eric wrote, “is the people you meet.”

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Posted at 07:31 AM on Sep 08, 2013 in category Personal Pieces
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Friday September 06, 2013

Quote of the Day

“Chick's ass is like an onion—makes me want to cry.”

-- Hank Shrader (Dean Morris) in “Crazy Handful of Nothin',” season 1, episode 6 of “Breaking Bad.”

I know. Patricia and I are way late to this party; and while it's not giving me “The Wire” vibe yet, I'm liking it. Shrader seems this show's Roger Sterling: the eminently quotable semi-charming asshole.

We're now up to season 2.

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Posted at 02:38 PM on Sep 06, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Early Oscar Predictions: The Signal and the Noise, Noise, Noise

OscarThe other day, Amir, on Nathaniel Rogers' Film Experience site, threw up a post about the 10 biggest awards-season flops: movies that had buzz, then didn't. A few of these speak ill of the Academy (both “Zodiac” and “In the Wild” deserved more attention), but most (“Bobby,” “J. Edgar”) speak ill of the buzz machine, which makes noise without knowledge, without, often, having seen the movie in question. This machine, some combo of PR and online prognostication, seems to be getting bigger and louder.

Interestingly, Nathaniel himself has just joined the main online prognosticators, David Poland's Movie City News' Gurus of Gold, which, a few weeks ago, tossed up its early predictions for 2013's best picture. (Click for a bigger version. Or go right to the source.)

August 2013 early Oscar predictions: Movie City News Gurus of Gold

Many haven't seen the movies in question yet so I'm sure we'll have a few “J. Edgar”s in the group. But most have seen “Lee Daniels' The Butler,” and yet there it is, up there at the top.“ It's such a nothing movie, such awful history. But then ”The Help" was nominated. Awful has nothing to do with it. 

Question. Do buzz machines like MCN actually help promote the unworthy? In Nathan Silver's dichotomy, do they create any kind of signal or simply more noise?

On his site, Nathaniel often goes over past Oscars, and what should have been nominated (or should have won) instead of the mediocrity that did. The Academy, like any group, has a long legacy in this regard. But does the machine contribute to this problem? By forcing the discussion into what will be nominated rather than what should be nominated?

Stay tuned.

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Posted at 06:37 AM on Sep 06, 2013 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Thursday September 05, 2013

Tweets of the Day: Mark Harris vs. Richard Brody

Mark Harris, author of “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollwyood,” started a bit of a contretemps when he tweeted the following earlier today:

Most folks were just dying to know which movie, or movies, he was talking about (I have my own thoughts), but Richard Brody of The New Yorker replied as follows:

It's a common disagreement among critics and moviegoers: the well-structured and dull vs the formless and dull. I like being surprised by the new as much as anyone but lately I haven't; lately I've grown bored with the indie aesthetic. More from Harris:

Ha! Then this exchange:

Brody, by the way, was the man who liked “Tabu” so much.

More later, as the man said.

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Posted at 03:05 PM on Sep 05, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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What Shaw Thought Shakespeare Would Have Thought of Chaplin

In 1919, William Bridges Adams was appointed director of the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare Festival and pushed to use the theater for film as well as plays. Controversy ensued. George Bernard Shaw weighed in thus, as recounted in “Bernard Shaw on Cinema,” edited by Prof. Emeritus Bernard F DuKore:

In my opinion the Governors of Statford Memorial Theatre have acted very sensibly in resolving to sue the theatre for the art of the cinema instead of leaving it to eat its head off or harbor casual touring companies or strolling entertainers, very few of whom provide as edifying an entertainment as a well-conducted cinema theater with a good orchestra. There is nothing wrong with the cinema that is not equally wrong with the theater; and until Mr. Bridges Adams brought genuine Shakespear performances to Stratford the so-called performances of Shakespear's plays there were a far grosser insult to his art, his authority, and his memory than the films of Mr. Chaplin, in whom Shakespear would have been delighted.

And why leave off the “e” in Shakespeare's name? Short answer here.

Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, and company.

Chaplin and Shaw hanging with British Airwoman Amy Johnson and Lady Nancy Astor in 1931. (Shakespeare not pictured.)

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Posted at 01:54 PM on Sep 05, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

“Riddick,” starring Vin Diesel, the third in the “Riddick” series, and the first since “Chronicles of Riddick” in 2004, opens tomorrow. Here's a look back at my 2004 Seattle Times review of “Chronicles.” At the time, Vin Diesel seemed to be the new Rock, or Hunk, or Lump; but the movie grossed only $57 million and Diesel went on to other things, including, sadly, serious drama. In 2009, mostly forgotten, he returned to the “Fast and Furious” franchise, which is all he's done since. Until this most unnecessary of sequels.

Chronicles of Riddick starring Vin Diesel

Don’t think you have to see “Pitch Black” in order to understand its sequel, the sci-fi/action film “The Chronicles of Riddick.” I saw “Pitch Black” two weeks ago and I still didn’t get “Riddick.” The terms come at you—excuse me, Vin—fast and furious. Necromongers. Furyans. The Purifier. The Underverse. Crematoria. Of course these terms could’ve originated in one of Riddick’s other showcases: a 2000 TV production; a 30-minute animated feature being released this month; or the “Riddick” video game. It’s a whole other universe out there. Let’s not go.

Is it Gene Roddenberry’s universe? “Pitch Black” borrowed heavily from “Alien,” and now “Riddick” is boldly going where Capt. Picard has gone before. Basically Riddick is fighting a race similar to the Borg of “Star Trek The Next Generation": aliens that destroy planets and assimilate survivors. The Borg were more mechanized, though, so scarier. The Necromongers (awful name) have a quasi-religious bent. “Convert now or fall forever,” they say. Not exactly “Resistance is futile.” Necromonger iconography is dark Egyptian, although some wear chain-mail like medieval knights, while others borrow the long leather coats of Nazi S.S. officers. Apparently planets are being assimilated into a very large wardrobe department.

It’s five years after “Pitch Black” and Riddick (Vin Diesel), who just wants to be left alone, is being pursued by mercenaries, or mercs, and suspects his old pal, Imam (Keith David), of fronting the money. He confronts him (with a blade) and learns that Imam’s planet is about to be taken over by Necromongers. Will he help? “Not my fight,” he responds. Then it becomes his fight. In the ensuing onslaught he’s captured and the Necromongers are curious about him, particularly the Lord Marshall (Colm Feore). Riddick’s a Furyan, see, and it’s been prophesied that a Furyan will overthrow the empire.

Before the audience can blink, though, or distinguish among the various Necromongers, Riddick escapes and is then recaptured by the mercs, who take him to Crematoria, a subterranean prison planet. There he becomes reacquainted with “Jack,” who, in “Pitch Black,” was a 12 year-old tomboy. In the intervening years she’s blossomed into a tall, ass-kicking French model (Alexa Davalos). We should all have such puberties.

“Riddick” wants to be epic but feels stunted, as if hemmed in by an adolescent boy’s imagination. It introduces too many characters, including Thandie Newton as an over-the-top, Lady Macbeth schemer, and Dame Judi Dench, of all Dames, as an ambassador from a ghost-like race. The villains, meanwhile, have a huge, absurd Achilles heel. Resistance is recommended.

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Posted at 07:13 AM on Sep 05, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Wednesday September 04, 2013

Where Andrew Sullivan is Wrong on Syria, Obama

From Andrew Sullivan's site, which I subscribe to. First he quotes a Washington Post/ABC News poll:

Only 32 percent said Obama had explained clearly why the U.S. should launch strikes. Back in March 2003, as the Iraq War started, 49 percent said that President George W. Bush had compellingly made his case for what was then at stake.

Then he adds this:

So Obama has much less domestic support than Bush, no backing from the Brits, open hostility by the UN for immediate war, and an obviously conflicted administration. This is a war even less likely to succeed than Iraq and even less popular.

The war in Iraq didn't fail because of an erosion in domestic support; it failed for other reasons that were reflected in an erosion of domestic support. 

This is not an argument in favor of missile strikes in Syria, by the way. I don't know enough on that subject to even begin discussing it.

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Posted at 10:32 AM on Sep 04, 2013 in category Politics
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Movie Review: The Spectacular Now (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s been 32 years since I’ve been the age of the principle characters in “The Spectacular Now” (18), so I don’t know how true their story is today. But this is how true it feels: I was bored during great parts of it. I was bored and extremely uncomfortable during the sex scenes. I felt I should avert my eyes. Kids having sex? Quit watching, Erik. Go to the concession stand already. Pervert.

“The Spectacular Now” is a good movie, and I hope it resonates with kids that age. But 10 minutes in I was thinking, “This is a mistake. This is not a movie for me anymore.”

A loveish story
Sutter (Miles Teller of “Rabbit Hole”) lives in the now, spectacular or not. He lives in the moment. He’s a popular senior in high school who isn’t interested in college—that’s the future—and gets by on easy charm, mild humor and frequent libation. This last sneaks up on us. We first see him getting drunk the night after his girlfriend, the equally popular Cassidy (Brie Larson of “21 Jump Street”), leaves him, so we don’t think twice about it. We’d do the same. But then he’s at work at a men’s store and he sneaks the contents of an old-fashioned flask into his plastic soda cup. After a while, we begin to realize we rarely see him not drinking. How old is he? Won’t this be a problem? For the movie as well? Won’t it become an afterschool special?

The Spectacular NowTo the filmmakers’ credit, it doesn’t. It becomes a love story. Maybe a love-ish story.

The morning after his first binge he wakes up on the front lawn of Aimee (Shailene Woodley, spectacular), who knows who he is though he struggles to remember her. It took a moment for me to register this. “Oh,” I thought. “So he’s in with the popular crowd and she isn’t. She’s the odd, plain girl in school. Shailene Woodley. OK.” The filmmakers do what they can to make this believable—Woodley hardly wears a speck of make-up throughout—but she’s still got those beautiful eyes and that vulnerable, heartbreaking face. But you give it a pass. In the movies, a man can fly and Shailene Woodley can be the unpopular girl.

This, along with his drinking, is the tension that drives the movie: How will Sutter break Aimee’s heart? Sutter’s friend, Rick (Masam Holden), who never had a girlfriend until Sutter set him up, is against the relationship. “She’s a strange choice for a rebound,” he says. At first Sutter denies he’s even interested in Aimee. But he keeps drifting that way. He enjoys being with her, talking with her. Maybe he sees her as a rehab project—as with Rick earlier in the movie? Rick is alone so here’s a girl. Aimee is alone so here I am.

He also keeps drifting back toward Cassidy. They’re like magnets that attract from a distance and repel close up. Sutter has a lot of drift in the movie. At one point, he and his boss, Dan (Bob Odenkirk), have this conversation about Aimee:

Dan: I kinda thought she would be the one to yank you out of neutral.
Sutter: Neutral? What are you talking about? I’m in overdrive!

They’re both right. Sutter’s in overdrive to live in the spectacular now, which is almost a Zen thing, but the spectacular now can also be a road to nowhere. Sutter realizes that in the second half of the movie.

The parent trap
For the first half of the movie, the parents are almost like Charlie Brown parents: unseen. Wu-wurh, wurh wu wu wurh. We get a few scenes with his mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s a nurse, and grumpy. Her mom, glimpsed from a distance late in the movie, has a paper route but it’s Aimee who delivers them. She’s against Aimee going away to college for this reason. Because who will do her paper route? I suppose there are such short-sighted parents, but the smallness is spectacular.

The dads? Hers is dead, his is deadbeat. Early on, he lies to Aimee about him—says he’s a pilot—but in reality he doesn’t even know how to contact him. And he’s 18? Eventually, he gets the dad’s contact info from his older sister, Holly (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), forever wearing pearls, and phones him. A meeting is set up but when he arrives, with Aimee in tow, the dad, Tommy (Kyle Chandler, forever playing dads), living in a motel-like apartment, is scattered, distracted, not there. Is he on drugs? Is he an alcoholic? Is he just an asshole? Mostly 2 and 3. He takes the kids to a local dive bar, orders a pitcher, but isn’t exactly forthcoming. Sutter asks about the marriage: What happened between you and mom? “What happened? Things didn’t work out, that’s what happened.” By revealing nothing, he reveals everything. Then the wallop.

Tommy: I don’t live in the past, I live in the now. Do you understand that?
Sutter (scales falling): Yeah.

For some reason, this encounter devastates rather than wakes up Sutter. Obviously he sees himself in his father and doesn’t like what he sees but he doubles down on their very similarities. He drinks more. He drifts over the yellow line. He crashes into the mailbox. He’s responsible for Aimee winding up in the hospital but this doesn’t wake him up. His math teacher (Andre Royo, wasted) will flunk him unless he applies himself so he doesn’t. Everyone is graduating, everyone is moving on, and he’s stuck with a non-diploma.

He’s still got the men’s store, right? Except Dan tells him business is bad and he can only keep one of his two employees; and while he wants to keep Sutter, who is great with the customers, he adds a stipulation. Sutter can’t show up drunk; he can’t drink on the job. A revelation. Dan isn’t as dumb as we thought and Sutter isn’t as sly as he thought. But Sutter can’t accept those terms. In admitting that, he admits, perhaps for the first time, that he has a problem. Then we get this very nice, very deft bit of writing:

Dan: If I were your father, I guess this would be the part where I give you a lecture.
Sutter: If you were my father, you wouldn’t have to give me a lecture.

No bullshit Autumn
“The Spectacular Now,” from the novel by Tim Tharp, was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also wrote “(500) Days of Summer.” That movie was indie but this is even more so. There is no bullshit greeting-card job here. There is no bullshit Autumn after Summer. There is just autumn after summer. There is just college after high school. There is just the road vs. the road to nowhere.

Stories about addicts tend to be boring because addicts tend to be boring. They fumble, disappoint, betray. Their trajectory is downward and they either hit bottom and bounce or don’t and die. Neustadter and Weber, with director James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”), avoid a lot of these pitfalls. Their story is subtler. Does Sutter rebound? A bit. How? We’re not sure. Dan, with his either/or proposition, helps. So does Aimee. So does Sutter’s mom, who tells Sutter why he’s not like his father: “You have the biggest heart of anyone I know,” she says. But nothing is clear-cut. The story frays a bit but in a good way. The ending is ambiguous. Sutter, disappointed, disgruntled, but taking steps on the road back, shows up at Aimee’s college. She sees him. For a moment she’s happy. Then she’s not. Then ... ?

I hope kids go see “The Spectacular Now.” I hope they learn something. I did. I learned that Shailene Woodley is the real thing. I learned that Miles Teller can play both charming (here) and sad and creepy (“Rabbit Hole”). I also learned that 18 was a long time ago.

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Posted at 07:12 AM on Sep 04, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Tuesday September 03, 2013

Trailer of the Day: Errol Morris' 'The Unknown Known: The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld'

First, Bob McNamara in “Fog of War” and now Donald Rumsfeld:

Somehow I get the feeling he's not learning any of the 11 lessons Robert McNamara learned--let alone the lessons the directors of Shin Bet learned in fighting terrorism in Israel. Rumsfeld's a little too pleased with himself, isn't he? It's a bit scary. That one may smile and smile and be a douchebag.

Somewhere, Charles Ferguson is pissed off.

“The Unknown Known” is making the festival circuit and will be released later this year.

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Posted at 02:29 PM on Sep 03, 2013 in category Trailers
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What are the Best Movies of 2013 So Far?

I was at a wedding the other day and a friend asked me what recent movies I'd recommend and I came up blank. I mentioned some of the movies from 2012 that skittered through Seattle in spring, like “No,” “The Gatekeepers,” “Rust and Bone.” But recent movies? In theaters?

I mean, these are my reviews of 2013 movies and only a few stand out and nothing really stuns the way “Rust and Bone” stuns. I know. We'll get those later. Hopefully.

Anyway, here are the 2013 movies I liked well enough to say I liked them. The first six I recommend highly:

  1. Muscle Shoals
  2. Mud
  3. We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
  4. The Bling Ring
  5. The Trials of Muhammad Ali
  6. 20 Feet from Stardom
  7. Man of Steel
  8. Blue Jasmine
  9. Fruitvale Station
  10. Dirty Wars
  11. 2 Guns
  12. The World's End
  13. The Great Gatsby
  14. The Spectacular Now
  15. Warm Bodies
  16. World War Z
  17. The Way, Way Back
  18. 42
  19. The Heat
  20. Lee Daniels' The Butler

Four of my top 6 are are documentaries. It's the Year of the Documentary.

Of the top 6, “Mud” got the widest release, 960 theaters, and grossed the most, $21.5 million. Then “Bling Ring” (650, $5.8), “20 Feet” (147, $4.2), “We Steal Secrets” (25, $166K), and “Trials of Muhammad Ali” (1, $3K). “Muscle Shoals” is getting its close-up at the end of the month.

The first wide-release film on my list is “Man of Steel,” about which I have reservations, but it still makes me smile. Ditto “2 Guns” on the strength of the Denzel/Markie Mark chemistry. Ditto all of these, really, with greater reservations the further down we go.

The rest, below, blow. They're ranked within each category from best to worst, or worst to downright insulting. Apologies for this method, but it was just too difficult to parse the disappointment I felt for movies like “To the Wonder” and “Only God Forgives” with the absolute horror I felt from movies like “Olympus Has Fallen” and “Identity Thief.”

Your results will vary.

Dude, what happened? Your last movie rocked:

It's the end of the world as we know it ... and I feel deja vu:

Spare a cup of testosterone?

Way to shit all over a classic, Hollywood:

Superheroes?

Comedies?

Again, results will vary. A few critics liked “Only God Forgives” while “Frances Ha” is beloved (93% on Rotten Tomatoes). Plus I have yet to see a few movies that are supposed to be good: “Before Midnight,” “The Conjuring,” “Much Ado About Nothing.” Not to mention “The Act of Killing.” But mostly it's been a godawful movie year for me. And I didn't even see “Grown Ups 2.”

Anyway it's nice to know it's not my memory.

Some of the best movies of 2013

The few, the proud, the worthwhile.

http://eriklundegaard.com/reviews/2014/foreign-scandinavia/kraftidioten-%7BIn-order-of-disappearance%7D.php

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Posted at 06:43 AM on Sep 03, 2013 in category Movies - Lists
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Monday September 02, 2013

Quote of the Day

“Originally, believe it or not, Labor Day actually had something to do with showing respect for labor.

”Here’s how it happened: In 1894 Pullman workers, facing wage cuts in the wake of a financial crisis, went on strike — and Grover Cleveland deployed 12,000 soldiers to break the union. He succeeded, but using armed force to protect the interests of property was so blatant that even the Gilded Age was shocked. So Congress, in a lame attempt at appeasement, unanimously passed legislation symbolically honoring the nation’s workers.

“It’s all hard to imagine now ... that Congress would unanimously offer even an empty gesture of support for workers’ dignity. For the fact is that many of today’s politicians can’t even bring themselves to fake respect for ordinary working Americans.”

-- Paul Krugman, “Love for Labor Lost,” The New York Times, Sept. 2, 2013

Squeezed between low wages and high rent

Caught in the vise between high rent and low wages: a problem of the old Gilded Age and the new one. 

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Posted at 03:10 PM on Sep 02, 2013 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Fruitvale Station (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Fruitvale Station” is a true-life character study but you could argue the character being studied is our own.

It’s based on an incident I hadn’t heard about, or had heard and forgotten, in which, in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009, several African-American men were detained by the transit police at the BART Fruitvale station after a fight on the train; and one of the men, Oscar Grant, 22, handcuffed and in the prone position, was shot in the back by a police officer and died later that morning. Several cellphones videotaped the incident. The movie opens with this real-life cellphone footage.

The rest of the movie is a day in the life. A last day in the life.

The last day
Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan, Wallace from the first season of “The Wire”) is a young man at a crossroads. He’s been to prison, recently lost his job, and recently got caught fooling around on his live-in girlfriend, Sophina (Melonie Diaz), with whom he has a daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal). He’s a good father, though, with a charming mix of discipline and allowance. He gives Tatiana the fruit roll-up Sophina won’t but doesn’t let her win games the way his mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer), will. He makes her brush her teeth before bed. He brushes his own with his finger to keep her company.

Fruitvale Station posterOn this day, his last day, he tries to get his old job back at a local supermarket, and when that fails he tries to sell some pot to a friend. Waiting to make the deal, he flashes back to prison, to the disappointment of his mother there, and dumps the pot into the ocean. He saves a bit for his friend for the trip up. He turns down the cash offered.

He’s a man who has a code in a society that doesn’t, much. At a near-deserted gas station along the coast, he sees a dog run over by a car that keeps going. After yelling at the guy to stop, he picks up the dog and carries it to the sidewalk and comes away with blood on his shirt. The dog is foreshadowing. It’s a metaphor. There are things that keep getting run over by things that keep going.

Mostly, on this last day, he’s running around trying to get things ready for his mom’s birthday party that evening. He picks up crab at the grocery store, goes to the drug store for two birthday cards—one from him and one from his sister, who’s working late. “Don’t buy me no fake-ass card with no white people on it,” she tells him. Which is exactly what he does.

Oscar is someone who makes things happen. A pretty girl at the supermarket (Ahna O’Reilly) needs fish advice so he calls his Grandma to give it to her. Sophina and her friend need to use the bathroom New Year’s Eve and he brokers the deal with the storeowner who’s closed. He takes the lead with the transit cops at Fruitvale Station, too.

But for most of the day, most of the movie, there’s little driving the story forward except our foreknowledge of how it will end. That can be boring. I admit to being bored. I liked the glimpses of the life but I understood early what first-time writer-director Ryan Coogler was doing. “I wanted people to see a little of themselves in Oscar even if they were outside of that community,” he told The Guardian earlier this year. I am and I did. I still wanted a greater driving force.

In the end, amid the small details of the last day, Oscar makes two big decisions. Should he sell pot when he can’t get his job back? (No, he decides.) Should he tell Sophina that he lost his job? (Yes, he decides.) There are more decisions to make—his money and job problems loom—but all of his decision-making ends with someone else’s decision. If it was a decision.

The first day
You can’t say boo in America anymore without it being politicized—particularly about racial matters—and “Fruitvale Station” is no different. Many are comparing the movie to the Trayvon Martin case, and there are similarities, but just that. The Oscar Grant case, sadly, feels typical: unarmed black man shot by cop, who receives light sentence (two years, probation after 11 months). The Trayvon case was slightly atypical: unarmed black kid shot by citizen (or would-be cop), who wasn’t arrested until weeks later. That’s what made it a national story: the lack of arrest, and the assumptions that went into that lack of arrest. Reverse the colors of the principles—armed black man shoots unarmed white kid—and the structural leniency accorded George Zimmerman disappears.

There are assumptions in the Oscar Grant case, too, at least as dramatized in “Fruitvale Station.” A fight on a train New Year’s Eve, white vs. black, and who gets pulled off? Not the white guy who started it. He isn’t touched. No, the transit cops pull off, isolate,  handcuff and arrest Oscar and his friends, despite a decided lack of evidence. The shooting, with Oscar handcuffed and lying in the prone position on the ground, is ambiguous—it occurs off camera—and in real life was ruled involuntary manslaughter. The officer says he thought he was shooting his Taser, not his service revolver.

The great irony is when all this happened: Not just the first day of the new year but the first day of the year we would inaugurate our first black president. It was the first day of the first year of post-racial America.

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Posted at 07:30 AM on Sep 02, 2013 in category Movie Reviews - 2013
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Sunday September 01, 2013

First Sign of Autumn

Seen on the way back from the Harvard Exit this afternoon.

Flu shots today

I cried.

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Posted at 05:57 PM on Sep 01, 2013 in category Photo of the Day
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Weekend Box Office: Five Brit Kids Race, Beat Up Old Black Man; Mexicans Laugh

The concert film “One Direction: This is Us” won the weekend with a $17 million haul. That's a lot of bubblegum, kids. It's the fourth-biggest opener ever for a concert film:

  Movie Opening Theaters Total Gross Release
1 Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds $31,117,834 683 $65,281,781 Feb. 2008
2 Justin Bieber: Never Say Never $29,514,054 3,105 $73,013,910 Feb. 2011
3 Michael Jackson's This Is It $23,234,394 3,481 $72,091,016 Oct. 2009
4 One Direction: This is Us $17,000,000 2,735 $17,000,000 Aug. 2013
5 Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience $12,510,374 1,271 $19,162,740 Feb. 2009
6 Katy Perry: Part of Me $7,138,266 2,730 $25,326,071 July 2012
7 Glee: The 3D Concert Movie $5,961,231 2,040 $11,862,398 Aug. 2011

After that you've got hacks like U2, the Rolling Stones, the Talking Heads and Prince.

Miley Cyrus started all this. In Feb. 2008, her concert film grossed an easy $60 mil and so every year we get another one: Miley (2008), the Jonases (2009), Justin Bieber (2011), Kate Perry (2012). Distributors choose a weak weekend to release it. Kids flock. Now it's One Direction's turn.

What is One Direction? I knew them from that Pepsi commercial with Drew Brees but apparently they got their big break on “The X Factor” in Great Britain. They auditioned separately, lost, but were put together and entered the group category and did well, finishing third. Then they were signed to Simon Cowell's record label. I think that's a stipulation of appearing on one of his shows, right? He gets right of first refusal. 

After being thus packaged by corporate flacks, here they are in a video in which they resist being packaged by corporate flacks.

As for the rest? “Lee Daniels' The Butler” fell off only 10% to finished a close second ($14.7 mil), “We're the Millers” fell off only 3% for third ($12.6) and “Planes” fell off 9% for fourth ($7.7).

In fifth is the Mexican comedy “Instructions Not Included,” directed and starring Eugenio Derbez. It grossed $7.5 million in only 347 theaters. My interest is piqued.

The breakdown:

  • Highest gross: “One Direction: This is Us,” $17 million
  • Most theaters: “We're the Millers,” 3,445
  • Best theater average: “Instructions Not Included,” $21.6K per theater in 347 theaters
  • Best theater average > 1000 theaters: “One Direction: This is Us,” $6,216
  • Biggest drop for a movie in wide release: “Jobs," -57.4%

One Direction

One Direction: Just five lads havin' foon.

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Posted at 12:20 PM on Sep 01, 2013 in category Movies - Box Office
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