“Facebook has filed thousands of patent applications since it went public in 2012. One of them describes using forward-facing cameras to analyze your expressions and detect whether you‘re bored or surprised by what you see on your feed. Another contemplates using your phone’s microphone to determine which TV show you‘re watching. Others imagine systems to guess whether you’re getting married soon, predict your socioeconomic status and track how much you‘re sleeping.
”A review of hundreds of Facebook’s patent applications reveals that the company has considered tracking almost every aspect of its users' lives: where you are, who you spend time with, whether you‘re in a romantic relationship, which brands and politicians you’re talking about. The company has even attempted to patent a method for predicting when your friends will die.“
the lede to Sahil Chinoy's piece, “What 7 Creepy Patents Reveal About Facebook,” in today‘s New York Times.
What are the 7 Creepy Patents? They involve:
- Predicting whether you’re in a romantic relationship (Don't we already tell them this?)
- Using your posts and messages to infer personality traits—and thus ads
- Using posts, IMs, and credit card transactions to predict major life events
- Gving your camera a unique signature to further figure out your relationships (who else uploads your photos, etc.)
- Using phone mic to guess TV-watching habits. And more?
- Using phone to track weekly routine
- Using phone to track relationships
Yeah, they're not making me feel safer. Then again, who is?
Box Office: ‘Jurassic’'s Roar Ain't What It Used to Be
Right. This again.
“Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom” grossed $150 million at the U.S. box office this weekend, which is the 20th biggest domestic opener ever, but it's kind of ho-hum. It's down nearly 30% from the previous movie, which opened to $209 in 2015.
These are the tentpole films that opened bigger than expectations or previous iterations in 2018:
- “Avengers: Infinity War”
- “Black Panther”
- “Incredibles 2”
And there are the movies that opened down from expectations or previous iterations:
- “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”
- “Solo: A Star Wars Story”
Apparently superheroes are still ascendant. Domestically. Internationally, “Jurassic” has already grossed $561 million. Somehwere, somehow, people will see their dinos.
I admit, I had zero interest in seeing this thing and the 50% Rotten Tomatoes rating didn't help. This morning, though, I realizes its new director, J.A. Bayona, was the dude who made “El Orfanato” in 2007, which is one of my favorite horror movies. Now I'm a little intrigued. Will have to see what the wife says. If she's up, maybe.
But yeah, I know: Directors of tentpole films can only do so much. Can't even imagine what it's like to deal with all of those corporate hands.
Elsewhere, “Incredibles 2” fell 55%, which is a lot of an animated kids movie, but then it opened bigger than any animated kids movie ever did. After 10 days, it's at $350, which is already the fourth-best box office for a Pixar flick. No. 1 is “Finding Dory” at $486. It‘ll pass that soon.
“Ocean’s 8” grossed another $11.6 mil to eke over the $100 million mark in its third weekend. Bullock's reign continues. Has anyone seen it?
Brad Brevert at BOM brings up an interesting stat: This is only the second time that two different movies opened north of $100 million in consecutive weekends. Of course, the first time it happened, it wasn't exactly anything to crow about: “Shrek the Third” followed by “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End” in 2007. Blah.
Movie Review: Ip Man 2 (2010)
“Ip Man 2” has the same basic structure as “Ip Man.” Why not, right? Why mess with success?
For the first hour, the battles for the titular hero (Donnie Yen) are internecine—i.e., among other Chinese. Loudmouths challenge him. Other kung fu schools challenge his. There are hints of corruption among the powerful.
In the second half, the real enemy emerges: a foreigner. In the first movie it was an occupying Japanese general intent on proving the superiority of karate over Chinese kung fu. Here, it’s a huge, brash Brit intent on proving the superiority of western boxing over Chinese kung fu.
The movie also tosses in a bit of “Rocky IV.” You see it coming a mile off. You know exactly how it’s all going to end but it’s still a pleasure getting there.
To be honest, I’ve never really understood the respect Hong Kong movies have given western boxing—as if it were on par with martial arts. Is it grass-is-greener stuff? Is it a century of defeat at the hands of western powers? The size of the combatants? Politeness? I always thought Asian martial arts kicked western boxing’s ass. Maybe that’s my own skewed grass-is-greener perspective. Maybe it’s my wish, as a short man, that something besides brute force wins. Not to mention this: You have a handful of boxing movies in Hollywood but it’s hardly a prospering genre. And in those few boxing movies, you don’t have the hero saving the day outside the ring with their skills. There’s just no comparison.
“2” opens with Ip Man, his young son, and his forever disapproving wife, Wing Sing (Lynn Hung, doomed to be the Adrian in the series), moving from his hometown of Fushun to Hong Kong in 1950. Kan (Ngo Ka-nin), an old Fushun friend, shows him an apartment with a rooftop where he can set up his Martial Arts school. But does anyone want to study? That’s the first dilemma. He draws flyers, puts them up, 没有了. He looks worried. They’re broke. His son asks for student fees but he can’t pay them; when the landlord knocks they pretend not to be home.
Then Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming, Marco from “Women Who Flirt”), a brash kid, arrives and says he’ll study if Ip Man can beat him. Defeated, Leung flees, then returns with three friends, whom Ip Man takes down without breaking a sweat. He beats them while protecting them. And suddenly he has students. Four becomes 12 becomes 20. First dilemma resolved.
But it leads to the second: Rival schools tear down the Wing Chun posters and insult Ip Man. Students fighting amongst themselves lead to Ip Man taking on 30 of the students, which leads to the reveal of the rival school’s master, Master Hung, played by Hong Kong legend, and this movie’s action choreographer, Sammo Hung. Now Ip Man has to meet the other Hong Kong masters. He has to pass a test: Around a sea of upturned chairs—which used to be knives, we’re told—he has to stand on a wide, round table and take on all comers until an incense stick burns itself out. If he’s so much as knocked off the table, he’s out. Master 1 tries, Master 2 tries. Then it’s Master Hung. They battle to a standstill, but when Ip Man is still too honorable to pay into the club, which he sees as a form of brivergy, e remains unprotected. We get more squabbles. Along the way, Hung develops a quiet respect for Ip Man.
Then the real enemy emerges: Twister (Darren Shahlavi), a western boxing champion, who, at an event to honor him, mocks the display of Chinese martial arts as “dance,” and then beats up all rivals. He stands in the ring, roars like an animal, and insults the Chinese, as Ip Man, stunned, watches from the crowd. You can see where this is going.
Except first we get the “Rocky IV” component: Twister takes on Master Hong and kills him in the ring—the way Ivan Drago killed Apollo Creed. That’s telegraphed a mile away, too.
I was surprised at how worried Ip Man looked before his match—and how beat up he gets. Another “Rocky” element, I suppose. Halfway through the match, he’s suddenly not allowed to use his legs, which seems a cheat; but then, channeling the spirit of Master Hing, he perseveres, saves the honor of China and Chinese martial arts, and gives a ringside speech about the dignity of all peoples. But first he punches Twister’s stupid face in. Because, c’mon, that’s why we came.
It works. It’s a good sequel to a good movie. Director Wilson Yip gives us sweeping shots of old Hong Kong and the production values are high. Plus we get a tease for the arrival of Ip Man’s greatest student: Bruce Lee.
Plus: What a calm, pleasant hero. He massages his pregnant wife’s legs and helps his neighbor hang her laundry. When Leung asks him if he can defeat 10 men (which he did in the first film), he simply smiles and says, “It’s better not to fight.” When Leung asks, “What if they have weapons?” Ip Man responds: “Run.”
Again, this may be grass-is-greener, but I could use some Hollywood heroes similarly inclined.
George Will: ‘Vote against the GOP this November’
Probably no column headline will be more important this year than George Will's today:
That's right: George Will, the face of the old-school media GOP since at least 1980—that's about when I became aware of him—has finally turned. Which makes sense. He's a fiscal conservative and Trump is not. He's a free market guy and Trump is all about those tariffs. He's well-educated, well-read, bow-tie-wearing; Trump isn‘t, isn’t, and favors fat, sloppy ones. If Will could have an embarrassing hillbilly cousin by way of midtown Manhattan, Trump would be it.
In a way, it's a shame it's still about Trump since the GOP and its state-sponsored propaganda machine (Fox, Rush, Alex, Breitbart, Sinclair) created him. A lot of owning up still needs to be done.
I‘ll take it. Will tears into Paul Ryan and the congressional GOP for being too weak to provide an actual check on Trump’s tyranny. This would be my pullquote if I were editor:
Ryan and many other Republicans have become the president's poodles, not because James Madison's system has failed but because today's abject careerists have failed to be worthy of it.
A Response to a Request
Here's another tale of modern living.
Last month I received several copies of the same letter from our mortgage company. It began:
Thank you for responding to our request for proof of a current hazard insurance policy on your property. Please note that your acccount has not been charged for any lender-placed hazard insurance.
Well, thank god for that. But wait: Who responded to whose request for what? I didn't respond to any request. I didn't even get a request.
There was a phone number to call. Do I call it? Was it a scam to get me to buy insurance? I wound up tossing it in that pile of stuff I should do something about one day but never do. But yesterday I received another such letter—my fourth—and said fuck it and called.
This was not our original mortgage company, by the way. When we refinanced in 2016, we shopped around and went with a local bank. They had an office nearby in case we had questions. We could walk in. We could see people. But last year, less than a year after the refinance, the local bank sold our mortgage to an outfit in Irvine, Ca.: a loan management service. Sometimes they call themselves “debt collectors.” They often feel slightly off or cut-rate to me. I get the feeling there's just executives and drones and that's it—no middle people doing real work.
I also wonder what other services get to do this besides mortgage banks. Can a gym sell your membership to another gym? “No, sorry, you work out across town now. You work out in Irvine, Ca.” Can your bank sell your savings account to another bank? Why is it allowed with the most important thing you own?
Anyway, the phone call. That letter thanking me for responding to their request for proof of insurance? That was the request. They were asking for proof of insurance. Read it again. It's the worst ask I‘ve ever read.
Oh, and guess why they wanted to know? Because, they said, our previous insurance policy had expired. Except it hadn’t. What they thought was our insurance company wasn‘t, and hadn’t been for years.
Meanwhile, the correct insurance company didn't respond to their subsequent request for information since they had a different mortgage lender on our policy. And not the local one either. The one before that. So I spent a long afternoon sorting shit out.
- There's a lot of bad data floating around, like garbage orbiting the earth, that may one day cause havoc with everything.
- Write clearer sentences.
Movie Review: The Guilty (2018)
In “The Guilty,” a woman is kidnapped by her ex, alerts the police by pretending to call her daughter, and the cops spend the rest of the movie frantically searching for her before it’s too late.
And it all takes place in an emergency police dispatch room.
Most of the movie is 112 operator Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren in a standout performance) working the phones, doing what he can, and often more, to bring her back safely. We see him, but only hear the other end of the line. We have to imagine that part. It’s almost like radio.
And it’s riveting.
The evening for Asger begins in almost comic fashion as he receives 112 (i.e., 911) calls that really aren’t. A man is mugged ... by the hooker he was soliciting. There’s a fight at a bar ... and the drunk caller expects Asger to know where it is and curses him when he doesn’t. A woman phones from a car ... and talks nonsense and calls him “Sweetie.” Asger is about to hang up on her, too, when something she says triggers the cop in him and he realizes she’s being kidnapped. By the time they’re disconnected, he knows she’s in a white van heading north from Copenhagen. He relays this info forward. Normally that would be the end of it for him. Others are now on the case.
Asger, though, stays involved. He’s a cop, doing dispach work temporarily, and his computer lets him know the name and number of who called—Iben (voice of Jessica Dinage)—so he phones Iben’s home phone. Her daughter Mathilde ( Katinka Evers-Jahnsen), 6 years old, answers. She’s alone but for her brother, Oliver, who’s just a baby. After she gives Asger the information he needs—her father is named Michael (Johan Olsen), this is his phone number, he was mad, he had a knife—he can’t get her off the phone. She’s scared and alone and he makes promises he knows he shouldn’t make: mostly that her mother will be alright.
Asger, we soon realize, has issues of his own. He’s a foot patrolman who’s being disciplined and has a hearing the next day. Later we find out he shot and killed a man in self-defense. Except after he convinces his partner, Rashid (Omar Shargawi), to break into Michael’s home for clues, we infer from their conversation that it wasn’t in self-defense. One wonders: Is his desperate attempt to save Iben a way to assuage his guilt? Or is it more of what got him into trouble in the first place? Or both?
The horror intensifies when two patrolman are sent to Iben’s house and find Mathilde with blood on her. Not her blood. Oliver’s. He’s dead in his crib. Cut to pieces.
First-time director Gustav Möller, whose work here won him best director at the Seattle International Film Festival, makes it all come to life within that small, confined space. But here’s the best part: the movie we think we’re watching isn’t the movie we’re watching.
M. Night, eat your heart out
We think we’re watching a movie about a cop who maybe redeems himself by maybe saving a woman from her crazy, murderous ex-husband. Indeed, when Iben calls again, he tells her to put on her seatbelt and then pull up the emergency brake. She does. The phone goes dead. Is she dead? No. When she calls back, she’s been bundled into the back of the van and is hysterical. He calms her down. He gets her to talk about things she likes. She says she takes her kids to The Blue Planet, an aquarium in Copenhagen. Mathilde goes for the turtles. Iben says she likes it all. She likes the calm and the quiet of life underwater. And it’s working. She’s calming down. They’re bonding. Now he’s telling her to find a weapon to use against Michael when he opens the van doors. And just before he does, she mentions the snakes. “Snakes?” Asger says. Yes, she says. The snakes in Oliver’s belly. She got them out for him.
It was her. She killed her son. Her ex isn’t kidnapping her, he’s taking her back to a psychiatric facility in Elsinore—home of Hamlet—so she won’t do more harm. But because of Asger’s dogged determination to help, she’s able to escape—for a time. It’s one of the greater plot twists I’ve seen in recent movies. M. Night Shyamalan, eat your heart out. And please don’t try to remake it.
That said, does it hold up when you examine it from all sides? Why, for example, wouldn’t Michael simply have called the cops when he came across the crime scene? Why take his ex to Elsinore himself? And leave his 6-year-old alone with a baby corpse?
I still highly recommend it. As you watch this movie about a hero cop and a damsel in distress, you wonder who “The Guilty” of the title refers to. It winds up referring to the hero cop and the damsel in distress.
Present at the Destruction
From George Packer's brief, “Donald Trump Goes Rogue”:
Dean Acheson, President Truman's Secretary of State, called his autobiography “Present at the Creation.” The title referred to the task that confronted American leaders at the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War, which was “just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis,” Acheson wrote. “That was to create a world out of chaos; ours, to create half a world, a free half, out of the same material without blowing the whole to pieces in the process.” A network of institutions and alliances—the United Nations, nato, the international monetary system, and others—became the foundation for “the rules-based international order” that the leaders in Charlevoix saluted. It imposed restraints on the power politics that had nearly destroyed the world. It was a liberal order, based on coöperation among countries and respect for individual rights, and it was created and upheld by the world's leading liberal democracy. America's goals weren't selfless, and we often failed to live up to our stated principles. Power politics didn't disappear from the planet, but the system endured, flawed and adaptable, for seventy years.
In four days, between Quebec and Singapore, Trump showed that the liberal order is hateful to him, and that he wants out. Its rules are too confining, its web of connections—from trade treaties to security alliances—unfair. And he seems to find his democratic counterparts distasteful, even pathetic. They speak in high-minded rhetoric rather than in Twitter insults, they‘re emasculated by parliaments and by the press, and maybe they’re not very funny. Trump prefers the company of dictators who can flatter and be flattered. Part of his unhappiness in Quebec was due to the absence of President Vladimir Putin; before leaving for the summit, Trump had demanded that Russia be unconditionally restored to the G-7, from which it was suspended over the dismemberment of Ukraine. He finds nothing special about democratic values, and nothing objectionable about murderous rulers. “What, you think our country is so innocent?” he once asked.
Kim Jong Un is Trump's kind of world leader.
It's a short read, worth it.
Quote of the Day
“On the Texas side of the Mexican border today, thousands of children, by order of the Trump Administration, are learning what it is to be objects of deliberate state-sponsored cruelty. In a heartless act designed to arouse the furies of his electoral base, the President has ordered children to be separated from their parents and stowed in tent cities and cages and a hollowed-out former Walmart. The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, justifies this act of ”zero tolerance“ by quoting from Scripture: 'I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.' This is the political leadership of the United States—at once cruel and sanctimonious. And it is on this platform of division, fear, and cruelty that the President has chosen to lead his party into the 2018 midterm elections.
”Some pundits have suggested that what is happening now in Texas will be ‘Trump’s Katrina.' But, without excusing the racism and the indifference shown by the authorities in that horrific episode, it ought to be pointed out that at least the federal government did not order the flooding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. What is happening now is purely gratuitous, a deliberate act of cruelty intended as leverage to build a ‘beautiful wall.’ And it is a wall intended not only to block Mexicans and Central Americans from making their way into the United States but to divide the United States itself, in order to retain power.“
David Remnick, ”Trump's Cruelty and the Crying Children at the Border,“ The New Yorker. Today, Trump signed an executive order to finally rescind that ”zero tolerance" policy of breaking up families at the border as a way to warn others from ever arriving. But it did more than that. It tarnished for a long time the image of America as a shining city on a hill. I‘ve said it before: We’ll be apologizing to the rest of the world for Donald J. Trump for decades.
Movie Review: The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful (2017)
In modern Taipei, a high-powered female official with a prosthetic leg leaves a high-powered meeting while the news cameras record her phone conversation outside. What is she saying? No one is sure. They obsess over it. Then we cut to two blind, traditional storytellers, who, in sing-songy Taiwanese, begin to chant the tale we’re about to see.
“The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful,” which was nominated for seven Golden Horse awards (Taiwan’s Oscar), and won three, including best picture, is basically an art-house version of a female-driven soap opera. Imagine “Dynasty” remade by Jonathan Glazer.
The Tang sisters—the eldest Ning-Ning (Wu Ke-Xi), and the youngest Chen-Chen (Vicki Chen)—along with their mother, Madame Tang (longtime Hong Kong action star Kara Wai), constitute, it seems, the three titular possibilities. Which one is bold, which corrupt, which beautiful.
Since we first see Ning having sex and smoking opium with two men in the little cottage in the back of their estate, and within the watchful eyes of her innocent, younger sister, we assume she’s the corrupt. Or maybe she’s the bold? Maybe it’s the mother who’s corrupt, since the mother counsels the youngest to treat the cattiness of her cousin, Pien-pien (Wen Chen-ling), with a calm and an impenetrable smile—as we see Madame Tang do with the powerful ladies at a dinner later that evening.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter at all, idiot, since “The Bold, the Corrupt and the Beautiful” is simply the U.S. title.
Right. What was I thinking? The Chinese title is “血觀音,” or “Xue guan yin.” Guan yin is the Bodhisattva associated with compassion and known in the West as “The Goddess of Mercy.” Xue is blood. So ... “Blood Goddess of Mercy” or “Blood Bodhisattva” maybe. Yeah, the three English adjectives don’t have much to do with it other than adding a soap opera patina.
对不起。Forgive all the throat clearing.
Anyway, these are our main characters:
- The icy geniality of Madame Tang
- The licentious rebellion of her eldest daughter, Ning
- The wide-eyed innocence and voyeurism of her youngest daughter, Chen
Every powerful family in their circle seems to have a similar set-up of icily polite women. The men in the movie are mostly nonexistent. If they’re there, they’re there to be manipulated.
The land speculation scheme involving the Tangs threatens to burst open after a local legislator and his Japanese wife are murdered, and Pien lies in a coma. A stable boy, who was involved with Pien, is the main suspect.
The whole thing is needlessly confusing—at least for me. Chen waits by Pien’s side at the hospital. Because the Tangs care? Because they want her quiet—or dead? Meanwhile, Madame sends Ning to turn the head of the by-the-numbers cop investigating matters. She brings him a Bodhisattva; she charms him. Or does he charm her?
Best served cold
The biggest threat to the Tangs, though, is themselves. Everything the mother wants hidden, the eldest daughter wants revealed—including the biggest cover-up of all: the fact that Chen isn’t Ning’s sister but her daughter. Shades of “Chinatown.” It’s a long-ago scandal that was swept under the rug by a subterfuge that couldn’t last.
In the end, Ning tries to escape; but her mother’s reach is long. And brutal.
The movie itself is a bit long and brutal. The stable boy’s 11th-hour rape of Chen, and her attempt at suicide by throwing herself off the train, seem unnecessary to me. The latter at least explains the prosethetic leg at the beginning. The modern, high-powered official, we learn, is Chen, and she’s leaving the high-powered meeting to go the bedside of her mother. Madame Tang, now aged, in pain, and near death, has a DNR but her daughter tears it up. Out of love? No. The opposite. She wants her mother to live with the pain. She wants to watch her twist in the wind. It’s a brutal, satisfying end to an otherwise too complex tale.
Oh, THAT Robert Redford
IMDb needs to fix its algorithms. Seriously. There's tons of them that just make you do a double-take. I came across this one this morning:
“Who's Robert Redford again?”
“You know. He was the producer of ‘The Company You Keep,’ starring Shia LeBeouf.”
Fox Family Values
This is the latest Fox-News anti-Hollywood piece. It's in reaction to Robert De Niro cursing out Trump at the Tony Awards. De Niro said “Fuck Trump” twice and got a standing ovation. So this.
Fox counters De Niro with Zachery Ty Bryan, which is a little like countering John Updike with me. Who's Bryan? He played the non-heart-throb child of Tim Allen on the 1990s sitcom “Home Improvement.” He's now a producer.
On air, Bryan seems like a decent sort, but he raises two problematic points. The first is apparent from the headline:
Former Sitcom Star: There Are 'A Lot More' Conservatives in Hollywood Than You'd Expect
Meaning Hollywood isn't as liberal as we think? So it‘s not liberal Hollywood? Fox gets a lot of mileage out of calling it that. Indeed, that’s most of their Hollywood coverage. So do they need to stop now? And if these conservatives are so numerous, aren't they a bit cowardly for not “coming out” sooner?
A lot to unpack there.
The second problematic point occurs at the end, when the female host brings up how great “Home Improvement” was. She says it wasn't political, it was just about “family values” (“Tool Time Girl” notwithstanding), and “what so many families go through: the ups and the downs.” She wants TV to do this more. “Just take it back to family. Just being a family.” Bryan agrees:
We need to start getting back to our traditional values. Because we've lost that. And a lot of things happening in the world are because of losing that family background.
Box Office ‘Incredibles 2’ Shatters Animated Mark
Animated movies tend to open slower than the other kind but have longer legs. Before this weekend, the biggest animated opener was Pixar/Disney's “Finding Dory” in 2016, which opened to $135 million in 4,305 theaters. That's the 25th best opening ever. We rush to the other kind but I guess it's sometimes hard to get the kids, or their parents, organized for opening weekends. Plans.
Not this weekend. Now “Dory” is the 26th-biggest opening because Pixar/Disney's “Incredibles 2” opened to $180 million. That's eighth-best all-time. It shattered the animated mark by nearly $50 million. It jumped 33 percent. As Frank Tarkenton used to say, that's incredible.
(BTW: The best opening for an animated non-sequel? This, at $104 million.)
Elsewhere, “Ocean's 8” dropped 53% to finish second with $19 mil and a cumulative $79 mil. The men-will-be-boys comedy “Tag” (RT: 56%) opened to $14.6 and third place, while the “Superfly” reboot landed in seventh with $6.3. John Travolta's “Gotti,” with its infamous 0% RT rating, slept with the fishes: $1.6, 12th place. Just ahead of it? The 15th weekend of “A Wrinkle in Time,” which got a theater boost (+85), and perhaps a publicity boost from Brie Larson vis a vis the preponderence of white male critics, to gross another $1.7, which allowed it to finally gasp over the $100 million domestic mark, at $100,000,127. Its worldwide gross is $132.
Speaking of gasping: Fourth place was occupied by “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” which earned another $9 mil for $192 million domestic. How low is that? If you adjust for inflation, it's the lowest-grossing among the 10 “Star Wars” canon movies. The previous record was the second prequel, 2002's “Attack of the Clones,” which grossed the equivalent of... $476 million. So a bit of a drop. That's also Disney, of course. So moviegoers giveth and taketh. And sometimes we can only taketh so much.
Louis Menand has a piece in The New Yorker on the legal and technological history of privacy in America that's worth reading. The following is one of its least important parts but it hit home.
In the late 1940s, the District of Columbia began allowing the Muzak company to pipe radio broadcasts (90% music, 5% news, 5% ads) into its buses and trollies at low volume. Two men objected, took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but lost, 7-1. The lone dissenter was William O. Douglas, who felt it was a privacy issue. “The beginning of all freedom,” he wrote, is “the right to be let alone.” Not many have agreed with him. Or: People agree but on a case-by-case basis.
As for why it was 7-1 when there are nine justices? Menand writes:
One Justice, Felix Frankfurter, recused himself. Frankfurter explained that his own aversion to Muzak was so visceral—“my feelings are so strongly engaged as a victim,” he wrote—that he was incapable of attaining the degree of disinterestedness necessary to render a judgment.
Many years ago, I wrote a piece on just this: my endless search for quiet:
In Taiwan in the late ‘80s I was forever asking restaurant managers to turn down their overly sentimental, usually western rock n’ roll so I could study during lunch. Tai da shung, I would tell them, pointing at the ceiling. Too loud. Ching... I would pantomime turning a dial. Back at my table, was it my imagination, or had the music actually gotten louder?
At a hotel restaurant in Portland, the waitress appeared both surprised and grateful by my request. You mean we can actually turn the music...down? Thank God! A teriyaki place I frequent in Seattle, on the other hand, has adamantly refused my entreaties. Because the kitchen help is listening to the same music and it's all they have to help through another day of drudgery? No, they play their own tunes. The music is for our benefit. Background noise, perhaps, so we won't hear one another chew, or so single diners might feel less lonely (listening to songs of love and loss). The real reason probably lies closer to my own reaction. As soon as I finish my food, I'm gone. There's no reading the rest of the chapter. There's no lingering there.
Over the years, I think I‘ve gotten better at blocking it all out. I guess you have to. There are no quiet places. At the Mariners game on Wednesday, my friend Jim complained about the overly loud music between innings, making conversation difficult, and I nodded, but I’m like the traffic cop now. “Oh right. That.” But back when I wrote the piece? The Mariners game was exactly one of the complaints:
At a baseball game my friends and I have to shout at one another to be heard over the PA system and its warmed-up rock classics. Ditto the bar after the game. Are we all such lousy conversationalists that we need to create so many impediments to conversation? Or does the loud, raucous background give the appearance that we are leading loud, raucous lives?
Anyway, now I know who to blame: Public Utilities Comm'n v. Pollak (1952).
I think the metadata on me floating around between corporations and their handers is screwed up in some fashion. Everyone I know says when you hit 50, when you immediately hit 50, you begin to get AARP magazine. Or you get some notice from AARP. They reel you in, in other words. I'm 55 (and a half) and I haven't gotten bupkis from them. I almost feel bad about it.
I was hoping it was because I looked young, but today I got some spam snail-mail from Neptune Society that puts that to rest. Literally:
Time passes so quickly. Before you know it, a year has passed, then two. You start thinking about all those things you should do, but haven‘t. Take the time now to make an affordable, sensible choice. Cremation is dignified, inexpensive and has less impact on our environment.
I’ve passed retirement and gone straight to death.
Trump's Delusional Reality Show
It's hard for me to choose a good quote from Andrew Sullivan's latest New York magazine piece, “Trump Is Making Us All Live in His Delusional Reality Show,” because it's all good; it's all quote-worthy; it all gets at the stinking heart of Trump and his followers. So you should read it all.
I mean, this was me on Wednesday:
I'm afraid I cannot forgive or forget Trump's praise for the most hideously totalitarian regime on the planet, for a bloodthirsty scion who conducts regular public hangings, keeps his subjects in a state of mind-control, holds hundreds of thousands in concentration camps, and threatens the world with nuclear destruction. To watch an American president give his tacit blessing to all of that, to laud Kim for being “rough” on his people, right on the heels of attacking every democratic ally, is an obscenity.
Sully's graf on the week that wasn't is also superlative. It's refreshing. It's realizing, YES, someone feels exactly like I do:
This past week was a kind of masterpiece in delusion. It was a long version of that surreal video his National Security Council created for Kim Jong-un. It was crude, crass, and absurd. I can't begin to unpack the madness, but it's worth counting the bizarre things Trump said and did in such a short space of time. Trump clearly believes that Canada's milk exports are a verifiable national security threat to the United States. He thinks Justin Trudeau's banal press conference, reiterating Canada's position on trade, was a “stab in the back.” And he insists that the nuclear threat from North Korea is now over — “Sleep well!” — because he gave Kim the kind of legitimacy the North Korean national gulag has always craved, and received in turn around 400 words from Pyongyang, indistinguishable from previous statements made to several presidents before him. For good measure, he took what was, according to The Wall Street Journal, Vladimir Putin's advice — I kid you not — to cancel the forthcoming joint military exercises with the South Koreans. More than that, he has offered to withdraw all U.S. troops from the peninsula at some point, before Pyongyang has agreed to anything. He regards all of this as worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize, his Reagan moment. And he is constructing a reality-television show in which he is a World Historical Figure.
But this may be the most important graf, since it gives us a framework for today and tomorrow and battles ahead:
The president believes what he wants to believe, creates a reality that fits his delusions, and then insists, with extraordinary energy and stamina, that his delusions are the truth. His psychological illness, moreover, is capable of outlasting anyone else's mental health. Objective reality that contradicts his delusions is discounted as “fake news” propagated by “our country's greatest enemy,” i.e., reporters. If someone behaved like this in my actual life, if someone kept insisting that the sea was red and the sky green, I'd assume they were a few sandwiches short of a picnic. It's vital for us to remember this every day: Almost no one else in public life is so openly living in his own disturbed world.
Again, read the whole thing.
Tweet of the Year
But my emails. https://t.co/G7TIWDEG0p— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) June 14, 2018
It's funny but in a “and now I‘ll stab myself” way. It’s funny cuz then she lost and now the president of the United States lies 20 times a day, bullies the cowards in his own party, makes enemies of our allies and embraces murderous dictators. His mere stupid presence dumbs down the world. All of the people who made this happen can go fuck themselves.
Movie Review: The Taste of Betel Nut (2017)
Have I ever seen a revenge tale in which the revenge comes first? In “The Accused” we see the crime at the end, rather than the beginning, but that one’s hardly a revenge tale in the traditional sense. Jodie doesn’t take the law into her own hands; she gets a lawyer.
Here we see the revenge first. Li Qi (Yu Shen Shi) is a gentle man who works with dolphins and seals at a small Sea World-type show in Hainan, China. We watch him wordlessly go through his paces. Now he feeds the critters; now he puts on clown makeup; now he takes it off like Glenn Close in “Dangerous Liaisons.” It’s nighttime and he gazes at the ocean. What is he thinking? There’s viritually no dialogue. Then it’s daytime and we watch him follow a fat man with dyed blonde hair from a crowded marketplace to a broken-down area where Blondie hangs with peers and chickens. Qi hangs back with ... is that a steel pipe in his hand? Or a long knife? When Blondie goes to investigate a squawking rooster, Qi makes a move.
At this point, director Hu Jia cuts the action and the screen goes dark for a second. When it returns, Qi’s face is covered with Blondie’s blood. No more clown makeup.
That’s the act of revenge. The rest of the movie is why it was necessary.
I didn’t much like “The Taste of Betel Nut,” by the way. The lack of dialogue at the beginning? That’s throughout. The movie is mostly quotidian atmosphere. We get few clues as to what is happening when. And why. Like what’s going on with the guy walking in the ocean? Periodically, we get underwater shots of his legs. Is something going to happen to him? Is he the reason for the revenge? Only later do we realize these are like chapter breaks—but why underwater shots, and why of a man’s legs, I have no clue.
The story comes by and by. Qi lives with Ren Yu (Zhao Bingrui), a brash, handsome, generally half-naked kid who runs a karaoke biz on the beach at night. He’s told he looks like Leslie Cheung, the movie star, and he kind of does: full lips, lidded eyes. He’s also generally irresponsible. Qi quietly plays the wife role in their relationship.
Into their little community comes Bai Ling (Yue Yue), the daughter of the woman who serves meals on the beach at night. Qi kind of lights up around her, she kind of lights up around Ren Yu. Classic love triangle. Does she know about Qi and Ren Yu? That they’re a kind of couple? One night, after a wedding, the three get drunk, chew betel nut, whose properties, they’re told, make your body tingle and make it tough to breathe. “Like love,” Bai Ling says. Afterwards the three have their threeway.
In the aftermath, for a day or so, it’s awkward. Then Bai Ling suggests an adventure, and they take a boat to get lunch. At the bar, while the boys are outside, a group of jerks, including Blondie, come on to her with crude comments, and she tosses a cup of tea into Blondie’s face. He’s about to slug her when Ren Yu breaks a bottle over his head, and off they all run, chased by eight or nine jerks. They get away. But because of the opening, we know they’ll return. We know something bad will happen.
While we’re waiting for it, we get the back-and-forth of the love/sex triangle. Bai Ling wants to be Ren Yu’s girlfriend, he says no, she kisses Qi, then runs off and kisses Ren Yu passionately. She’s about to leave for school again when she and Ren Yu go missing. The cops show Qi footage from a security camera on a bridge: eight motorcyclists, including Blondie, force them to stop, beat Ren Yu unconscious, and take Bai Ling away. Ren Yu winds up in a coma; Bai Ling’s naked, bound and beaten body washes up on the beach. It’s horrifying. It's suddenly just horrifying. But now we know why the blood at the beginning.
The ending is ambiguous. Qi is walking toward their rooftop apartment, through the billowing, drying sheets on the clothesline, and sees a young man with a shaved head (and scars there, as if beaten there) staring out at the water. The young man turns and smiles. It’s Ren Yu. Alive? Or is this just Qi's wish? Or is Qi dead now, too, attacked by the gang after he killed Blondie, and this is a kind of wishful afterlife? Ren Yu is welcoming him to heaven.
Again, I can’t really recommend “Betel Nut.” I wanted less mood, more character. Or more interesting characters. I wanted some fucking dialogue.
But placing the act of revenge at the beginning of the movie was well done. It’s almost as if we don’t get the revenge. The images that linger are the crimes, so horrific and needless.
U.S. President Gives Thumbs Up to Murderous Dictator
This is just to remind myself that this happened today. The president of the United States said the following about a murderous North Korean dictator:
“He's a tough guy. Hey, when you take over a country, tough country, with tough people, and you take it over from your father — I don't care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have.
”If you can do that at 27-years-old, I mean, that's one in 10,000 that can do that. So he's a very smart guy. He's a great negotiator. But I think we understand each other."
I liked it better when Trump was calling him names.
Nixon was a crook, and paranoid, but he wasn't delusional. Trump lies all the time but I think he believes the lies. Or he thinks he can make the world the way he sees it simply by pushing the lies all the time. It's maddening for us. For him, I think it's close to madness.
She Has a Name. It's Elaine. Not Tootsie or Toots or Sweetie or Honey or Doll. Elaine May.
The following quote is from the oral history, “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency” by James Andrew Miller. The speaker is Dustin Hoffman. He's talking about the work necessary to massage the script for “Tootsie” into something that Sydney Pollack would be interested in directing:
So we were finally getting somewhere. But then Sydney called and said he was very disappointed, and that Larry [Gelbart] wasn't successful enough on the draft for him to do the film. He sent me the draft and I agreed. We knew we needed a new writer, and I told my lawyer Bert Fields we were in trouble. He suggested Elaine May, and got me together with her. Elaine read the script and she was extraordinary. She hit it on the head; she understood what we were trying to do. She came up with my roommate and that the girlfriend has to have a shithead as a lover, and she has to have a kid, and a father who falls in love, and she said, “I'm telling you right now, you have to have a girl already in your life and I'm going to write her with Terri Garr in mind.” She was amazing, wrote it in three or four weeks, and that was it. Whatever was missing, we knew we could correct during shooting.
Look at all she added. That's a lot of the story. And guess what? She was incredited. No onscreen credit. According to the above, she actually made the movie possible, and her reward was whatever they paid her and “Thanks, Toots.” Meanwhile, for decades, people have been slapping Larry Gelbart on the back. All of this for a movie about how women get screwed in the workplace.
At least it explains why Hoffman did “Ishtar.”
Family Feud Nation
“I hate to do this, because it’s so pathetic, it takes us so far down, but it’s really necessary to ask you, dear reader, after you read [Eisenhower’s memoir] Crusade in Europe, to pick up a copy of, oh, let’s say The Art of the Deal, by Donald Trump, and see what it is he’s recommending you bring with you to your next meeting. I’m not betting on you—as against the Chinese, the Indonesians, or the Dutch—at your next really important business meeting if all you’re going to that meeting with is what Donald Trump is recommending.”
George W.S. Trow, “My Pilgrim’s Progress,” 1998
I came across this passage last week, just as Pres. Trump was talking to the press about his upcoming meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore. In one breath Trump said he was well-prepared for that meeting and in the next he said he didn’t need to prepare much: “It’s about attitude,” he said. Then he flew to the G-7 Summit, where he insulted our allies, demanded Russian re-entry, and continued to gin up a trade war that could bring about global economic collapse.
So the passage seems a little relevant.
Why was I re-reading my George W.S. Trow? Because of standup comic John Mulaney, of course. Together, the two of them explain Trump better than just about anyone.
I was late to the John Mulaney party but I’ve been aware of him for a while. He was the “Saturday Night Live” writer who made Bill Hader laugh, right? He was young and handsome and looked like he should’ve been on the show—or some show. He looked like he should’ve been on “Mad Men.” I could see him playing the up-and-coming ad exec with the hip ideas who’d take a run at Don Draper—for an episode—until Don came up with the slogan that won the day and beat him back. That’s how I thought of Mulaney.
Then he hosted “SNL” in April and blew me away. You should watch his opening monologue if you haven’t. It’s topical, funny, unique. But you know what really won me over? The gazebo bit. Mulaney talks about visiting Connecticut and seeing a gazebo that was dedicated in 1863, and before he gets to the joke, this was my immediate thought: “Huh. Right in the middle of the Civil War.”
And that’s the joke.
Mulaney imagines the scene with a Prof. Harold Hill-type charlatan selling town leaders—who have just read off their Gettysburg war dead—on this “gazebo” concept. It’s a good bit, but more, I immediately felt I’d found a kindred spirit: someone who paid attention to the chronology of things.
Our culture generally doesn’t do chronology. It shamefully doesn’t. Movies often pretend that, say, the hairstyles of 1963 are interchangeable with the hairstyles of 1967, when they’re so, so not; when how those hairstyles changed is actually the story, and, to ignore it is to completely fuck up the story. Google does this, too. They make it next-to-impossible to track the course of human events—or even the day’s events. They don’t care about chronology or originality or ownership. Search for an article and you can get 10 articles commenting on your article before you get the original. There should be uproar over this. It’s partly why we are where we are.
Anyway, after finding this kindred spirit in John Mulaney, I did the usual deep dive into YouTube for all of his back clips. And I came across three different jokes Mulaney told about Trump at three different points in Trump’s career. Here are the basics of each:
- 2007: Trump isn’t a rich man; he’s what a hobo imagines a rich man to be: “Oh, as soon as my number comes in, I’m gonna put up tall buildings with my name on ‘em, I’ll have fine, golden hair, and a TV show where I fire Gene Simmons...”
- 2015: Trump isn’t good at running for president, he’s just good at “Family Feud.” “And these other people are terrible at ‘Family Feud.’ So when the Steve Harvey of this election is like, ‘Name something that is bothering Americans,’ and Ted Cruz is like [buzzes in] ‘Benghazi!’ BAWWWP! But then Trump is like [buzzes in]: ‘All the problems.’ And that’s the number one answer.”
- 2018: Trump is a horse loose in a hospital. “I think everything is going to be OK but I have no idea what’s going to happen next.”
The most recent one, as good as it is, merely explains our current precarious situation; it doesn’t explain the how of it. The other two explain the how of it. And it was the second one, the “Family Feud” reference, that led me back to Trow.
* * *
I’ve written about Trow before. He’s the brilliant cultural critic and New Yorker writer who is best known for his 1980 seminal essay, “Within the Context of No Context.” It’s an easy, tough read. Trow uses mostly short sentences, in mostly short sections, to delineate extremely complex matters. His basic argument is that TV killed history and replaced it with demographics, and anyone who grew up on TV won’t know what they need to know to be a real person in the real world. They’ll know something else. Something lesser. Something essentially meaningless.
Even in the late ’70s, Trow writes, TV was already beginning to reflect back this meaninglessness to us. It was out of necessity. If people didn’t know what they needed to know, what could the shows be about? What could the game shows be about? Maybe that meaninglessness? And here he nails it—35 years before Mulaney:
The important moment in the history of television was the moment when a man named Richard Dawson, the “host” of a program called Family Feud, asked contestants to guess what a poll of a hundred people had guessed would be the height of the average American woman. Guess what they’ve guessed. Guess what they’ve guessed the average is.
It is astonishing when you unpack it. The answer isn’t based on a statistical fact which exists—the height of the average American woman—but what others think that statistical fact is. You could be right (as to the stat), but still be wrong (if others were similarly misinformed).
“No reality whatsoever,” Trow writes. “No fact anywhere in sight. That’s real privilege, of course. When you are rewarded for knowing what your fellow citizens are likely to say their delusions are.”
When you are rewarded for knowing what your fellow citizens are likely to say their delusions are. Does any sentence better describe the Trump phenomenon? This is exactly what he does. This non-knowledge. A hundred people surveyed, top seven answers on the board, name America’s traditional enemy. Russia? BAWWWP. Canada? Ding! Name how many people saw Trump’s inauguration. Lots. More than Obama’s. Name seven things that are ruining America. Mexicans. Muslims. Free trade. Football players taking a knee. Whatever I say. Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!
The reward for knowing the delusions of your fellow citizens used to be cash and prizes; now it’s the White House. Now you get to be the most powerful man in the history of the world.
* * *
In “My Pilgrim’s Progress,” Trow’s 1999 follow-up to “Within the Context of No Context,” from which the quote that begins this post was taken, Trow lionizes three leaders: Churchill, FDR and Eisenhower. Particularly Eisenhower. He says he doesn’t just like Ike, he loves him. “I think he’s uniquely American,” he writes, “and I’m sorry we’re not going to have him anymore.” He’s not talking about not having Eisenhower physically—Ike died in 1969—but as a type: someone formed before history turned into demography; someone who possessed not marketing considerations but what Trow calls “judgment with a capital J.”
To get a sense of what this is, Trow recommends Ike’s wartime memoir, Crusade in Europe. He thinks that book would help anyone—a businessman going into an international business meeting, for example. He keeps addressing this imaginary business person who might be helped by such thinking. He spends a chapter, for example, detailing the knowledge and judgment that Ike brought with him to a summit with Nikita Khrushchev in Geneva in 1955, which is, Trow argues, why Ike succeeded at the summit: all that preparation.
Then he offers up the negative version of this.
“My Pilgrim’s Progress” was published in 1999 so there’s no political animus involved. But think about what Trow is saying: Ike’s thoughts about war are more helpful in business negotiations than Trump’s book about business negotiations. If all you know is Trump, you hurt yourself in a low-level business meeting—never mind international summits with communist dictators. Trow needed a negative example of the sound judgment of Ike, the 34th president of the United States, and out of all the possible people in the world he plucked the one that we, 18 years later, in all of our “Family Feud” wisdom, elected the 45th president of the United States. And now we‘re sending him into international summits with communist dictators. For which he doesn’t prepare.
Trow was right: It is pathetic. It takes us so far down.
Own the Epithet
“Many in town called us the ‘TV boys,’ which was meant in a demeaning way, but we made a decision to joke about it and embrace it. We would walk into a room and say, ‘The TV boys are here.’”
Michael Ovitz, on the early days of CAA, in the oral history “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency,” by James Andrew Miller
Movie Review: Hal (2018)
What did I know about Hal Ashby before I saw this documentary?
That he was an iconoclastic filmmaker whom actors loved working with, and who made his best movies, including “Harold and Maude,” “The Last Detail,” “Bound for Glory” and “Being There,” in the 1970s. He didn’t do much in the 1980s. He might’ve died early in that decade.
And what did I learn about Hal Ashby from this doc by first-time director Amy Scott?
Oh, right, “Shampoo” and “Coming Home.” Can’t believe I forgot those.
And, wow, I guess he did make movies in the ’80s; they were just stinkers. The way that all of his movies in the ’70s were good, all of his movies in the ’80s were not. It’s like a switch had been thrown. “Slugger’s Wife”? That was his? Never even heard of “Second-Hand Hearts” (with Robert Blake) and “Looking to Get Out” (with Jon Voight). The doc implies that “Eight Million Ways to Die” (with Jeff Bridges) was ruined because the studio took it away from him and edited it poorly, but who knows? He’d already directed three stinkers in a row by then. The highest IMDb rating among his ’80s work is “Eight Million,” which garners a 5.7. That’s the highest. His lowest of the ’70s is “Shampoo,” a 6.3—and that underrates it considerably. It’s much better than that.
What was true for Ashby was also true for the movies themselves. The great directors’ decade of the 1970s was over; the era of the blockbuster had begun. But did any great director fall so precipitously?
On the road to find out
Ashby was born and raised in Utah, wasn’t a Mormon, and his father left the family when he was about 6. He worked his way up in Hollywood—although they don’t tell us when he arrived. Like even a decade. I hate that. Give me some chronology, people. Norman Jewison talks up running into him in an editing room where he was helping edit William Wyler’s movies and grabbing him for himself—but not when this was. 1964? 1957?
Ashby wound up editing some of Jewison’s best: “The Cincinnati Kid,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.” Then Ashby began to direct his own. He and Jewison remained tight all of their lives.
(Among respected directors, Jewison is the real oddity, isn’t he? He flourished in the late ’60s, stumbled in the director's decade of the ’70s (“Rollerball,” “F.I.S.T.”) when everyone else was prospering artistically, and righted himself in the ’80s (“A Soldier’s Story,” “Moonstruck”) when everyone else was stumbling artistically. That arc seems worthy of a doc of its own.)
“Hal” barely touches on the work Ashby did with Wyler. According to IMDb, helped edit “Big Country,” “Diary of Anne Frank” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” What was that like? Watching the studio system disintegrate? And it doesn’t mention this fact at all: In the midst of that A-level Hollywood work, Ashby was also assistant editor for “Captain Sindbad, a cheapie German film from 1963 that my brother and I saw, dubbed, at the Boulevard Theater in re-release some Saturday matinee in the early 1970s. I mostly remember it because Sindbad (the extra “d” was to avoid copyright infringement) stabs the villain in the chest but the blade comes out clean. The villain has no heart! It’s locked at the top of a tower. Sindbad’s goal thus becomes getting to that tower and throwing the beating heart over the parapet. Which he does.
So how did Ashby wind up working on that? Nothing. Crickets.
Miles from nowhere
What else did I learn? He had a lot of girlfriends/wives and he smoked a lot of dope. The great Cat Stevens’ songs in “Harold and Maude” were demos, but Ashby liked them well enough, or was behind deadline enough, that he stuck them in—much to Stevens’ initial chagrin. He’s cool with it now.
Ashby also set to be the original director for “Tootsie” but had to step out because his post-production work on “Lookin’ to Get Out” wasn’t fulfilled. Too bad. His ’80s oeuvre would’ve looked a little better with that on it. If it came out similarly.
That’s about all I learned.
“Hal” is well-named: It's pleasing; I’d recommend it for film fans. It's about Hal, your pal. I wanted more on Ashby.
“The retirement of David Koch from Koch Industries will make it easier to see more clearly what has been true from the start: Charles and David Koch, who came to be known as ”the Koch brothers,“ were equals in bloodlines and in wealth, but Charles has always been the brains behind the brothers' vast corporate and political operations. Those who know the brothers well predict that David's retirement will have scant impact, particularly in the political realm, where the Kochs exert enormous influence.”
Jane Mayer (who should know), “One Koch Brother Forces The Other Out Of The Family Business,” in The New Yorker
‘Not a Recipe for Artistic Renewal’: The IP taking over Hollywood
“People who are nothing like us rescuing a world that is nothing like ours...”
I'm going to miss the print New Yorker when it goes. This is the online hed/sub for Stephen Metcalf's piece on what has happened to Hollywood and the movie-star system in the age of the superhero film. It's straightforward. It's a straight arrow:
How Superheroes Made Movie Stars Expendable
The Hollywood overhauls that got us from Bogart to Batman.
Here it is in print:
How superheroes killed the movie star.
How perfect is that? Succinct, clever, resonant. It's both The Thing's longtime catchphrase and what superheroes—though not the Fantastic Four, interestingly—have made of traditional movie stars. Because it's open-ended, it also makes you wonder what else is getting clobbered? What other parts of our lives? The online headline is specific and designed to get clicks. It's actually part of the problem the article is delineating.
I was actually dismissive of the piece before I read it. I was like “No shit, Sherlock, we were all writing about this 10 years ago.” The early going didn't help much. Metcalf calls it a “startling fact” that the biggest movie in China in 2005, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” pulled in just $12 mil vs. nearly $400 million for last year's “Fast and Furious” sequel. Startling ... unless you read me. More, “Fast & Furious” was only the second-biggest hit in China last year. The biggest, “Wolf Warrior II,” grossed half a billion dollars more.
But then, in reviewing four books (The Big Picture“ by Ben Fritz; You‘re Only as Good as Your Next One” by Mike Medavoy; “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency” by James Andrew Miller; and “Representing Talent” by Violaine Roussel), Metcalf gives a great overview of the various stages of the star system, and who held power in Hollywood during those stages: from Thalberg to U.S. v. Paramount to the rise of the super-agent. Who could force the cut-rate on whom? It used to be studios on the theaters: If you want this A picture you need to pick up these three B pictures. Then it became the agencies over the studios: If you want this A star, you need to hire these three B- or C-list clients.
Now the hot hand is the intellectual property—divorced from the star. The power is in the copyright. And the powerless? Those without IP, as “The Big Picture” makes apparent. Also maybe us. “Today,” Metcalf writes, “the major franchises are commercially invulnerable because they offer up proprietary universes that their legions of fans are desperate to reënter on almost any terms.” This, too, will fade, though, because everything does. We can't be desperate forever.
Metcalf closes well.
The quality of film acting has never been higher, and there is still a craft in scriptwriting and directing that makes one regularly bow in awe. But a minimal standard of human relatability is not being met, on a routine basis, in the medium's most dominant genre. People who are nothing like us rescuing a world that is nothing like ours is not a recipe for artistic renewal. ...
The benchmark for a good movie was once coherence, and this meant more than a competently executed three-act script. It meant the unity of story with character, of character with star persona. The whole shebang was given life by a highly improbable marriage between our narcissism and our idealism. In this model, the movie theatre was a special kind of institution, where a primitive instinct for action and drama came together with a desire to banish our residual cruelty, if for no other reason than that it wouldn't play.
Hollywood was always called a dream factory. One wonders what kind of world we might create if we all woke up.
How Can Donald Trump Protect America When ... ?
I was going to do a post on the above photo—a screenshot from the documentary series “Dirty Money,” currently streaming on Netflix, and much recommended—and do it in the vein of: What if this were a Democrat? What if this were Obama with one of his daughters? How often would we have seen the image on Fox News? How stridently would his masculinity have been ridiculed? “He's not man enough to protect his own daughter, and you expect him to protect America?!?” It would be a cultural touchstone. The mainstream press would be forced to weigh in. Op-Eds in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal. Jokes on SNL. On and on. It would never go away.
But because it's Trump, it never arrived.
I was going to do all that, as I said, but why? Trump can do no right and it doesn't matter. The stink on him is overwhelming and Fox News calls it perfume. They and he play “Whoever smelt it, dealt it” and point fingers at the FBI, the intelligence community, John McCain and other lifelong Republicans. Any institution they once backed and saluted, they dump if there's a chance it might bring down this horror show of a man, this bullying liar, this lazy, ignorant embarassment to the office and the country and the world and the human race.
Who is that, by the way, violating Ivanka Trump's personal airspace right in front of her supposedly powerful father? It‘s Tevfik Arif, the Kazakhstan-born founder of the Bayrock Group, who, according to the documentary, “was associated with some of Kazakhstan’s more notorious oligarchs, who were known as being unbelievably corrupt.” According to this New York Times article, Bayrock had an office on “the 24th floor of Trump Tower, where they began work on the future Trump SoHo and used their connections to explore a possible Trump building in Moscow.” In 2010, they were all sued by 15 Trump SoHo buyers who said they'd been told 30-60 percent of the units had been sold when the building was nearly deserted: just 15 perecent of the units sold. That same year, Arif was arrested in Turkey and charged with human sex trafficking.
That's who that guy is.
OK, I‘ll say it: How can Donald Trump protect America when he can’t even protect his own daughter?
Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” is an edgy, topical film that fails miserably. Instead of precision targeting, it throws bombs everywhere. Was that a target? Did he mean to hit it? And did he? Or is it just wounded? The movie becomes anarchic and sloppy. The tone becomes sloppy. Are we supposed to laugh at this scene or be horrified? Maybe more accurate: I’m horrified, but why do I get the feeling it’s being played for laughs?
Certain white critics, I’m sure, will fall all over themselves in praise.
A banana in the tailpipe
Lakeith Stanfield (the “Get out!” guy in “Get Out”) plays Cassius “Cash” Green, a down-on-his-luck black dude living in his uncle’s garage in Oakland in the near future. Well, “down on his luck.” He’s sleeping with Detroit (Tessa Thompson), so it’s not all bad. She’s a performance artist whose day job is twirling a sign on a street corner. She does this at night, too. That confused me. Are there nighttime sign twirlers? She doesn’t seem bugged by her job, either. I guess as long as she’s got her art? But of course we only see 15 seconds of sign twirling. Try that for eight hours and see if you’re as chipper as Tessa Thompson by the end.
There are similar disconnects throughout the film. At one point, Cash is flipping TV channels. He’s got three options:
- An infomercial for WorryFree, a workplace where you work, eat, and sleep. Everything is provided but you have no rights; you’ve signed your life away to survive. Its CEO is Steve Lift (Armie Hammer).
- A game show called “I Got The Shit Kicked Out of Me,” in which contestants get beaten up to win cash and prizes. It’s “Fear Factor” without the wit. It’s for people for whom “Jackass” was too complicated.
- The news.
And that’s it. Three options? To keep the population docile, opiated, don’t you want many, many options? Like the obscene amount we have today? Why down to three? Is this 1971? Is it indicative of the limits in this reality or of Riley’s imagination?
Most everything in this reality is limited in scope—particularly available jobs, so Cash goes for one in telemarketing at RegalView. It sucks until an old hand, Langston (Danny Glover), tells him to use his “white voice.” When Cash objects, saying he doesn’t sound particularly “black," Langston clarifies: The “white voice” is the one that assumes everything will go your way. And it turns out Cash is a natural! But the effect, dubbed by David Cross, is odd—like a slightly better Hong Kong flick. Plus I didn’t buy the concept. That’s the voice of success? Nasal, polite, and enthused in a 1950s prep-school way? It sounds like an Eddie Murphy bit from the ’80s. At one point, the voice uses “chum” to mean “friend.” Chum? Who says chum?
But, using the voice, suddenly Cash cannot not sell. He’s on a roll, and will soon be promoted to “power caller” on the floors above. That’s where the real money is made. At the same time, his colleagues Squeeze and Salvador (Steven Yuen and Jermaine Fowler) begin to unionize, and so he must choose: his friends or the money? OK, it’s actually more complex. If he doesn’t get paid, like a lot, and soon, his uncle (Terry Crews) loses his home. So it’s more like friends + principles vs. family + money. He opts for the latter. His friends, and the movie, condemn him anyway.
They condemn him because he gets lost in the money. He’s got a new place, new furniture, new clothes. He and Detroit fight. She winds up with Squeeze. Whenever they were on screen together I just shook my head. It’s a “Who gives a shit?” subplot.
Going to meet the man
Meanwhile, Cash is going to meet The Man, CEO Steve Lift, at a party at his mansion. In the basement he accidentally stumbles upon a horrific scheme: Lift is turning his WorryFree workers into half horse creatures so they can do heavier labor.
It's a horrific reveal, but in the aftermath Riley keeps losing the thread. We get a bit of the Detroit on-again-off-again subplot. Cash then tries to alert the media. Initially I thought the preposterousness of the plot—the world’s richest man is using cocaine to turn his workers into half horse creatures!—would work against him, but nah. Bigger problem: Nobody cares. Or too few care. They’ve got their three channels, after all. That seems enough in this world.
Moments work. I like how Lift tries to soothe Cash and justify his actions as if they were logical and ethical. That was pitch-perfect. But the movie has huge targets it keeps missing. At one point, now siding with his colleagues, Cash wakes up in a paddy wagon and views the pitched battle through the thin slot in the door. There go the police routing the protestors. Nope, here come the protestors, led by the half-horse creatures. The back-and-forth looks comic but there’s nothing funny about it at all.
Movie Review: 1985 (2018)
In “1985,” a young gay man, Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), returns home to Fort Worth, Texas, in that pivotal, titular year, to come out to his conservative parents (Michael Chiklis, Virginia Madsen). That's the story. But I think writer-director Yen Tan wants to upend our expectations about how all this might play out. The parents, for example, know more than they let on. They’re conservative and everything—Reagan/Bush bumper sticker, nativity scene on the front lawn—but they’re cooler than we expect.
Adrian, meanwhile, is not. He’s duller. He may be dullest gay character I’ve seen on a movie screen. Or anywhere.
Yeah, it kind of ruins the movie.
It might have been ruined anyway. “1985” is another low-budget, black-and-white indie film full of static shots and dull dialogue.
Does the mom say anything of interest? The dad talks up the Vietnam war now and again, but in vague, clichéd ways. He complains that the youngest son, Andrew (Aidan Langford), is pursuing theater rather than sports. He wonders what happened to sports. He defends the way his father beat sense into him. No one talks politics except for the mother at the end, who admits, in secret to her son, that she voted for Mondale. Thanks, mom. He still lost. By a landslide.
As for Adrian, as you watch, you wonder how he’s going to come out; and then you wonder if he’s going to come out; and then you realize, shit, the point is his not coming out. There are a thousand openings and he doesn’t take any of them.
He meets up with an old girlfriend (Jamie Chung), who is trying her hand at stand-up comedy in Dallas, and you think: OK, this will be like his starter kit, the sympathetic girl. Then he can move onto the harder nut to crack—the Reagan-loving dad. Nope. He would rather leave her bitter about being rejected than admit why she was rejected. He only finally fesses up when she returns to make amends—and then he does this off-screen. Later, his father invites him out for a late-night backyard beer, tells him that when he went to Connecticut for his platoon leader’s funeral, he also drove down to New York City to see Adrian. And he saw him. On his stoop. With his arm around another boy.
This should be a good opening, right? To quote Al Pacino in “The Insider,” the cat is now TOTALLY out of the bag. But what does Adrian do? Nothing. If coming out of the closet were a football field, his father had just carried the ball 99 yards, and he’s ready to lateral the ball to his son, Adrian, for the final yard. But Adrian just sits there.
Sympathy for the dullard
I guess this is supposed to make us aware of how difficult it was to come out of the closet back then? And in such a place as Texas?
Unfortunately, it just makes us mad at the main character ... who, by the way, has AIDS. That’s right. He’s been to six funerals that pivotal year, his boyfriend is already dead, and he’s got KS creeping up his chest. It’s December 1985. He’s not long for this world. He knows it. He should be sympathetic. And yet all I had for him was impatience. I was annoyed at him for wasting everyone’s time, and at Yen Tan for wasting ours.
Got this from an anonymous reader the other day:
i stg if you say anything about the yankees again i will hit you with the quadruple roundhouse spinning back fist to the femur, yankees are love, yankees are life. sir dont make me swing
Took me a moment to realize “stg” meant “swear to god.” Initially I thought he was just so filled with rage he couldn't type straight.
The Agreed-Upon Facts of the Trump-Russia Investigation
There's so much distraction in the Trump-Russia investigation that it's good to remind ourselves what we know so far—the agreed-upon facts of the case. Thank Washington Post‘s Paul Waldman for the list below.
He wrote the piece in response to a series of tweets from Trump last Sunday, including this one:
Who’s going to give back the young and beautiful lives (and others) that have been devastated and destroyed by the phony Russia Collusion Witch Hunt? They journeyed down to Washington, D.C., with stars in their eyes and wanting to help our nation...They went back home in tatters!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2018
What do you say to that? How do you respond to the pathetic hand-wringing of a tyrant? Trump also blamed Obama, of course:
Why didn’t President Obama do something about the so-called Russian Meddling when he was told about it by the FBI before the Election? Because he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win, and he didn’t want to upset the apple cart! He was in charge, not me, and did nothing.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 27, 2018
This is like someone on trial for bank robbery saying, “That bank wasn’t even robbed! Somebody else robbed it! And what we should really be asking is why the cops didn't stop the bank from being robbed!”
Then he goes over the agreed-upon facts of the case, the collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, to remind everyone what's already out there:
- In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. was approached by an acquaintance with an offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton from a group of Russians, which the acquaintance characterized as follows: “This is obviously very high-level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump.” Don Jr. replied “I love it” and gathered Manafort and Jared Kushner to meet with the Russians.
- After that story broke last year, President Trump reportedly dictated a false story to be given to the press, claiming that the meeting took place to discuss adoption of Russian children.
- In July 2016, Trump publicly encouraged Russia to hack into Clinton's email.
- Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is under indictment for crimes connected to his relationships with a Kremlin-allied Ukrainian leader and a Russian oligarch close to Vladimir Putin. His deputy, Rick Gates, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI, and is cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
- In 2015, Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser, was paid $45,000 plus travel expenses to deliver a speech in Moscow at an event honoring RT, a television network that acts as a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. He sat with Putin. He pleaded guilty to lying to FBI investigators about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and is cooperating with Mueller's investigation.
- George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, got the FBI counterintelligence investigation rolling when he told an Australian diplomat that the campaign had been offered dirt on Clinton from Russia in the form of hacked emails. (The diplomat passed the information along to the U.S. government.) Papadopoulos also pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and is cooperating with Mueller.
- Carter Page, another Trump foreign policy adviser, had been on the FBI radar for years because they suspected that Russian intelligence agents were attempting to recruit him. In 2016 the FBI became concerned enough about his contacts with people connected to the Russian government that it obtained a FISA warrant to monitor him.
- Both in his confirmation hearing and on a security clearance questionnaire in preparation for becoming attorney general, Jeff Sessions claimed that he had no contact with Russian officials during the campaign. He later admitted that this was false and that he did have multiple meetings with the Russian ambassador.
- During the presidential transition, the Russian ambassador was picked up on surveillance telling his superiors that Trump's son-in-law and close adviser, Jared Kushner, had suggested they set up a secret communications channel, perhaps within the Russian Embassy or consulate, so that Trump aides could speak to the Russians without U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring the communications. Even the Russians found this suggestion completely bonkers.
Movie Review: Razzia (2018)
I kept hoping the various storylines of “Razzia” would come together in a way that felt meaningful and resonant and maybe even blew me away.
They came together anyway.
Everybody comes to Joe’s
Here are the main characters. Their stories occur in Casablanca, Morocco, in 2015, during economic unrest and protests:
- Joe (Arieh Worthalter), who drinks too much, fucks too much, cares for his aged father. He’s like the Jewish restaurateur version of Don Draper. The actor, bearded, is even reminiscent of Jon Hamm.
- Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid), a young gay kid who wants to be a singer, idolizes Freddie Mercury, is idolized by a younger sister, and is totally ignored by the father whose approval he craves.
- Ines (Dounia Binebine), a spoiled 15-year-old, mostly raised by her nanny, who secretly, and then not-so-secretly, loves a 17-year-old neighborhood servant girl.
- Salima (Maryam Touzani, also co-screenwriter, and a va-va-voomy Monica Bellucci lookalike), who discovers she’s pregnant and spends the rest of the movie recklessly weighing her options: marry her stuffy boyfriend; abort the baby; or leave Morocco altogether.
That’s for the present day. There’s actually one more:
- Abdallah (Amine Ennaji), a teacher in a mountainous village in the 1980s. He teaches the kids, who are rapt, in the local language until a powerful religious leader arrives demanding they use Arabic, which the kids don’t know, and fucks up everything. Abdallah tries to comply but eventually flees. In voiceover, he calls himself a coward.
The movie starts out as Abdallah’s. But once he flees, to Casablanca, he more-or-less disappears. His lover, Yto, follows, with her young, stuttering son, Ilyas, but never finds him, and older versions of the two become part of the other characters’ stories. Yto gives no-nonsense advice to Salima, while modern-day Ilyas is the sweet, dimwitted assistant to Joe. As Freddie Mercury is to Hakim, “Casablanca,” the Bogart film, is to Ilyas. He watches it all the time. He has it memorized. He believes his neighbor, who claims he saw Bogart and/or Bergman during its filming, when, c’mon, do the math. Most Hollywood movies of the period were filmed on Hollywood sound stages, and even if this one wasn’t? It was in the middle of World War II. North Africa was a battleground.
Of this group, I think I was most interested in Joe. I was concerned about anti-Semitic violence. He doesn’t suffer that, simply women abandoning him because he’s Jewish. He’s somewhat privileged (money, looks, charm) but not (Jewish in Casablanca). He feels the sting of constant rebuke.
I also liked Hakim, who often lies to his father to impress him. “Dad, my record was played on the radio.” “Dad, I got interviewed.” For a time, I actually bought the lies. Dad probaby didn‘t. Hakim also walks through a dusty town square, where kids taunt him, and police and/or Islamic fundamentalists shave the heads of men who ... I’m not sure. Have long hair? Are gay? They feel like “There before the grace of Allah” moments. It might as well be Hakim.
Here’s not looking at you, kid
So how do these stories intersect? On a night of protests and riots, Ines goes to a rich kid’s birthday party, which Joe and Ilyas cater, and where Hakim plays a musical instrument. The rich kids act douchey to the singer/dancer until Hakim snaps and beats the shit out of the birthday boy, whom Ines, trying to forget the girl she loves, had promised to sleep with. She laughs when the boy is beaten, Joe and Ilyas watch. In the aftermath, Joe tells Ilyas the truth: none of “Casablanca” was filmed in Casablanca.
As for Salima? Her story doesn’t intersect. That night, though, still pregnant, she leaves Casablanca. No Bogart, no Victor, no fog. No romance.
As for Abdallah? We finally see him. He’s still alive, watching the protests, staying indoors. He’s still not a courageous man. It’s Yto who’s out in the streets.
“Razzia” is close. It’s well directed and art-directed and acted. The stories simply don’t come together in a way that resonates.