Culture postsWednesday May 15, 2013
'Negroes Oppose Film': A 1921 NAACP Protest of 'Birth of a Nation'
I love the stuff you find in The New York Times archive. It's our history written in stilted language.
I was recently looking into D.W. Griffith's “Birth of a Nation,” for example, and came across this from May 7, 1921:
It's not just a world before the civil rights movement; it's a world before acronyms. (Five of the protesters were arrested, including three women and two ex-servicemen.)
The full article is available here. If you subscribe already. Which you totally should.
How Roger Ebert is Wrong in that Sundance Clip
The clip below has been making the rounds in the wake of Roger Ebert's death last week.
At Sundance in 2003, during the Q&A after a screening of Justin Lin's “Better Luck Tomorrow,” an audience member stands up, talks about the talent on screen and on the stage, then asks, or demands, “But why, with the talent up there, and yourself, make a movie that's so empty and amoral for Asian-Americans and for Americans?”
Then Roger Ebert stands up. Among other things he says is this: “What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is that nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, 'How could you do this to your people?' ... Asian-American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be!”
Everybody loves this clip. The presumption of the one guy, the lusty defense by the other. It's a Hollywood movie in microcosm. We have our villain (the presumptuous bastard), our hero (Roger Ebert, RIP), our stance (moral).
Question: In what way is the villain right? And in what way is the hero wrong?
Roger asks why white filmmakers don't have to justify their choices. They do, but not as white filmmakers. Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese had to defend their choices as Italian-American filmmakers. Philip Roth spent a career defending his choices as a Jewish writer. Of course Coppola and Scorsese had to defend themselves from other Italian-Americans, or at least Italian-American groups, while Roth had to defend himself from Jewish groups. That's the presumption in the above clip. The questioner steps outside the racial lines we've all drawn. He's a chastising outsider in what, at best, is an internecine affair.
In a perfect world, yes, no artist, no person, is asked to embody their race, even though, in other contexts, such as the big screen on Friday (Jackie Robinson in “42”), and in the book I'm currently reading (“Hank Greenberg: Hero of Heroes”), we celebrate this. But we don't live in a perfect world.
I grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., Scandinavian descent. After college I lived for two years in Taipei, Taiwan, where I quickly realized that if I acted in such a way it wouldn't just be me acting this way. I wouldn't just be an asshole, in other words, I would be an American asshole.
Or would I? I suppose the greater question is this: Do majorities suffer from this type of myopia (seeing the one as representative of the whole) or do minorities only fear that they do? And is this fear its own form of myopia (seeing the majority as one entity) or merely common sense (people are the way they are)? This conversation isn't limited to racial matters, by the way. See: Cars/bicyclists, for example. See anything.
In the above, Roger is mostly correct. Asian-American characters do have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. But the other dude is right, too. Justin Lin made his characters shallow and empty in a world that's already full of the shallow and empty. For that, Lin has been rewarded mightily by Hollywood. His new movie, “Fast & Furious 6,” opens in May.
Want to Be Taken Seriously?
In my InBox this morning...
The key word, the word that prevents argument, is “better.” Become a good writer? I am a good writer. Become a better writer? Well, even James Joyce can't argue.
You can argue with the enticement: to be taken seriously. Is that something to be desired in a less-than-serious country? And, if desired, would becoming a better writer achieve that goal? Most writers, who work in the dark and do what we can and give what we have, assume writing is a great path to not be taken seriously. Being taken seriously involves mostly one thing; one weird trick, as they say: how much do you make?
My friend and fellow writer Andy on all the failure that goes into writing. “To get it wrong so many times,” as E.I. Lonoff said.
My favorite part of the email? “Tailored For You.”
The Most Brilliant and Necessary Thing You'll See All Day: 'Onion Talks' on Social Media
This is basically my thoughts about corporations and social media. My favorite part:
“Using your brains to think of an idea and your skills to implement it? Tha's the old model. And like anything that's old and requires effort, it's inefficient.”
Making the Dish, and a Portrait of the Artist as a Stand-Up Comedian
Andrew Sullivan's blog, The Dish, linked to mine today, which is very, very cool, particularly considering how often I've read him and quoted him. I figure I still owe him about 499 posts to make up the difference. I'll get cracking.
Sullivan was interested in a post of mine from last week comparing American comedian Louis C.K. with French author Marcel Proust, both of whom, 100 years apart, talked about how technology that was once considered amazing (the phone and smartphone), each became, very quickly, a subject for complaint. For this, Proust called us “spoilt children.” Louis C.K. is a bit more florid, calling us “the shittiest generation of piece-of-shit assholes that ever fucking lived.” Proustian.
I came across the Proust quote in Alain de Botton's book, “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” which is particularly good in the early chapters, particularly Chapter 3, “How to Take Your Time.” That, of course, is another piece of advice from Louis C.K.: “Give it a second,” etc.
I'm not surprised, by the way, that there's this connection between the early 20th-century French author and the early 21st-century American stand-up comedian. In de Botton's book, Proust is quoted as saying that artists are...
...creatures who talk of precisely the things one shouldn't mention.
And that's what the best stand-up comedians are, too. They stand before us and tell us uncomfortable truths to make us laugh. If it's done poorly and without empathy, you get Daniel Tosh earlier this week or Michael Richards a few years back. If it's done well, you get Louis C.K., Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor.
“Take your time” vs. “Give it a second”
IMDb's Trivial Problem
On IMDb.com, if you have someone writing your bio for you, as someone named Larry-115 apparently did for Paris Hilton, then on your credits page you'll have a link reading “See full bio,” which will lead you to, in this case, Larry-115's bio of Ms. Hilton and all relevant material, such as nicknames, height and “That's hot.”
If you don't, as acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafaar Panahi doesn't, you'll simply have a link reading “See more trivia.”
As a result, Paris Hilton's pampered, celebrity life is considered “a bio,” while Panahi's arrest and conviction by Iranian authorities, which has been protested worldwide by every filmmaker and filmmaking body, as well as heads of state, is considered “trivia.”
A micro example of a macro problem. Two macro problems, actually: automation isn't concerned with nomenclature; and modern culture has turned on its head what is significant and what is trivial.
Sharing a Birthday with Hannibal Lector
Thanks to FlavorWire's infographic on the birthdays of famous (and not-so-famous) fictional characters, I know now I share a birthday with Hannibal Lector. We'll be serving fava beans, a nice chianti, and... not sure what kind of meat yet. No worries, though. Our butcher gets the freshest cuts.
Via the same infographic: my father gets MacGyver, which is so wrong (the show is schlock and Dad can hardly change a lightbulb), my Mom gets Jean-Luc Picard (whom I'm sure she's never heard of), while Patricia, poor Patricia, hardly a sci-fi fan, winds up with lesser sci-fi: Daniel Jackson of “Stargate SG-1.” Even *I* don't know who that is.
Nephews Jordy and Ryan share days with, respectively, Dr. Watson and Captain America. (That's more like it!) Grown-up nephew Casey gets Martin Riggs of “Lethal Weapon.” My sister Karen? Rick Peterson, “East Enders.” (Got nothing.) My brother Chris probably gets the best birthday companion: The King of Earth from “Time Stranger Kyoto.” I don't know who that is but it sounds impressive.
Time for the birthday cake, Clarice.
Black History Month Linkage
I have no profound thoughts on black history month, the shortest month of the year, other than to hope that someday it won't be necessary.
In the meantime, lamely, I offer past articles that touch on some of the issues this month touches on:
- A 2003 Seattle Times review of Library of Congress' epic, two-volume, two-thousand-page tome, “Reporting Civil Rights: American Journalism: 1941-1972,” which gives us the history before it's history, and before it's been sweetened and commodified and forgotten. One of the more important books you can read about the civil rights movement.
- A 1998 Seattle Times review of David Halberstam's “The Children,” which focuses on the Nashville sit-in kids, including future U.S. Congressman John Lewis and future DC Mayor Marion Berry.
- A 1997 personal review of Jules Tygiel's seminal book, “Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his legacy.”
- A short, personal review of Henry Louis Gates' “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man.”
- A 2008 personal review of Barack Obama's “Dreams From My Father.”
- A 2005 MSNBC article on actor Jeffrey Wright.
- A 2006 MSNBC analysis of the career of director Spike Lee.
- A 2007 MSNBC paean to Morgan Freeman.
- A 2008 MSNBC dissection of the secret to Tyler Perry's success.
In “Reporting Civil Rights,” Russell Baker reminds us that by the time Dr. King spoke, “huge portions of the crowd had drifted out of earshot,” while civil-rights worker Michael Thelwell details how the Kennedy administration turned the March into something “too sweet, too contrived, and its spirit too amiable to represent anything of the bitterness that had brought the people there.”
NEWSFLASH: Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Not Hot!
A funny thing happened on the way to being excited over the first shots of Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln,” scheduled for a December 2012 release.
I ran into women.
OK, I ran into two women: Patricia and a friend on Facebook. Both had the same reaction: repulsed. My exchange with the friend went like this:
She: Yikes, he just dropped off my list of hotties :(
Me: But he looks amazing. He's going to be amazing.
She: I just preferred his look in “Last of the Mohicans.”
Me: This is a different role. I mean, who would he say “I WILL find you” to in “Lincoln”? South Carolina? Jefferson Davis? A decent Union general?
She: I didn't even see “No Country for Old Men” because I just couldn't bear to see Javier Bardem look so awful. Call me shallow, I don't care. Thank god men are more cerebral and don't react this way about hot actresses. ;)
After thinking about it a bit, though, I believe women, who have a rep for being less shallow than men, behave worse in this regard than men. That takes doing.
When I first saw shots of Meryl Streep's transformation into Maggie Thatcher for “The Iron Lady,” I was amazed, not disappointed—but then, one could argue, I'm not hot for Streep. (OK, not much.) So let's talk about more obvious hotties. I was amazed, not disappointed, at Charlize Theron's transformation in “Monster,” and by Marion Cotillard's transformation in “La vie en rose.” On and on. I never thought any of them would be stuck that way. I knew they were acting. In roles. For awards. And getting them.
But for female fans, it seems more personal. They can't get past it. It's like all men are one Amish beard away from forever being struck from the hearts and loins of women.
Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln hanging out in a Confederate (Richmond, Va.) restaurant.
Fifty Years Later, The Hamster Wheel Answers Philip Roth
“The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is an embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is constantly outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
Philip Roth wrote that in his essay “Writing American Fiction” back in the early 1960s, and only the most blinkered among us would think that things haven't gotten worse. Our current national talents haven't outdone the writers of that period (Roth, Mailer, Baldwin, Capote), while the figures our culture tosses up have only gotten more ridiculous. Roth's examples include Charles Van Doren, Roy Cohn, David Schine and Dwight David Eisenhower, while our current culture tosses up (but not out, never out) Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, Michael Jackson, Michele Bachmann, “The Situation,” Herman Cain, Rick Perry or just, fuck, really anyone running for the 2012 presidential nomination on the GOP ticket. Dwight David Eisenhower is a mountain of sanity in comparison. Put it this way: What Roth rejected as ridiculous? That's what we yearn for.
No one I know has figured out how to properly deal with this gap between reality and the unimaginably idiotic and surreal characters who dominate our culture.
A brilliant solution. Roth suggested such a solution back in the early 1960s but we were too blind to see it:
“Whatever else the television debates produced in me, I should point out, as a literary curiosity, they also produced professional envy. All the machinations over make-up and rebuttal time, all the business over whether Mr. Nixon should look at Mr. Kennedy when he replied, or should look away—all of it was so beside the point, so fantastic, so weird and astonishing, that I found myself beginning to wish I had invented it. But then, of course, one need not have been a fiction writer to wish that someone had invented it, and that it was not real and with us.”
Question: What current American figure do you wish was merely a brilliant satiric character from Sasha Baron Cohen?
Question II: When our current crazies talk their crazy talk, shouldn't we treat them as “The Hamster Wheel,” an Australian comedy show dealing with the media, treated Lord Monckton? As a proper joke? As a Sasha Baron Cohen character?
Again: brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Quote of the Day
“This Shariah law business is crap. It’s just crazy, and I’m tired of dealing with the crazies. It’s just unnecessary to be accusing this guy of things just because of his religious background.”
--Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, responding to questions about the campaign to villify his judicial appointee to the Superior Court in Passaic County, Sohail Mohammed.
I've been on this story for awhile. Six years ago, the publication I work for featured Mohammed in the profile “First Call for Freedom.”
Mohammed, despite the crazies, wound up being confirmed. He's now the second Muslim judge in New Jersey. Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for Bloomberg News, applauds Christie here.
And here's the full Christie. Enjoy:
What's Been Posted on Roger Ebert's Facebook Page to Show Him How Insensitive He Is
Here's what Roger Ebert tweeted about “Jackass” star Ryan Dunn, who died in a car accident Sunday night following several drinks (6? More?) at a local bar:
- Friends don't let Jackasses drink and drive.
Here's a small portion of what those who objected to Ebert's insenstive remarks posted on his Facebook page today:
- Show some respect... you know he has a family... you pinochio looking jerk wad
- Enjoy ur cancer. I hope someone makes fun of you when you die.
- Roger I hope you read all these posts on your wall so u can realize how much o an insensitive jerk you are. U are a terrible critic and u should go to hell.
- How can you have a soul when you side with death over somebody's life. He put joy and laughter in the hearts of millions and millions of people since Jackass began.
- All you insensitive pricks getting off on bashing somebody that tragically died will burn in hell. There is a special place in hell for you people.
- I figured it out, Roger Ebert has no emotions because he is a robot. Robots have no emotions. Fear the robot dickwad revolution.
- who is this roger guy? i read bams tweet about him! if bam catches him his gonna knock him out i say. ryan dunn was epic :D toy car & a condom need i say more.
- it took such courage to shit all over the recently deceased. anyone could have said what you did. they just chose not to. you are not insightful but ignorant you smug prick
- Roger Ebert is a dried up old has been. Siskel is not here to pack him anymore. The most pathetic thing, is that he is using Ryan Dunn's death like a defibrillator. He is using the death of someone popular to try and jumpstart his dead career.
- I agree with Mr.Ebert. In addition, I believe Ebert should speak at Mr.Dunn's funeral to highlight the dangers of drunk driving....oh wait EBERT CAN'T SPEAK. Have fun with that cancer, fatty.
- Dude u need to fuckin grow up u got fuckin probs making fun a ryan dying fuck u! u need to fucking grow up and stop making fun a peoples death! your fucking sick SO GROW UP AND GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF UR FUCKING ASS! U STUPID FUCK! POINT BLANK ENUFF SAID!
A small portion, as I said. Five minutes worth.
The Meaning of Charlie Sheen
I've ignored the whole debacle up to now. An overpaid TV star says insane, egomaniacal shit and everyone tunes in to cluck their tongues and confirm how awful celebrities are; then we make online mashup jokes: Charlie Sheen and Muammar Gaddafi; Charlie Sheen and New Yorker cartoons. Etc.
It didn't have any meaning for me. The opposite. It showed how meaningless our culture is.
Then I read an article in the New York Times yesterday, “The Disposable Woman,” on Charlie Sheen's long history of domestic abuse. I posted it to Facebook under the title, “Time to stop laughing...” I expected others would chime in on the awfulness of it all.
I didn't expect a friend to suddenly defend Charlie Sheen.
This column is completely and utterly missing the point about Charlie Sheen. He is mentally ill. He has bipolar disorder. It is a disease. Blaming him for his disease is like blaming someone for having a kidney stone.
Anyone who has ever been close to someone with bipolar disorder — especially someone in the midst of an unmitigated, unmedicated manic attack — can watch about 10 seconds of these Sheen interviews and make the diagnosis.
All these journalists are making fools of themselves by failing to recognize what's going on.
There should probably be some kind of law against holding up someone's mental illness for public inspection, condemnation and ridicule, even if it does make for riveting television.
Initially I resisted this line of thought. “Yeah, blame it on 'bipolar disorder.' Like a husband blaming his infidelity on 'sex addiction.' Next.”
But I Googled it anyway. I'd certainly heard of the disorder but I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know, for example, that bipolar disorder type I is what we used to call manic depression. Its symptoms:
- Inflated self-esteem (delusions of grandeur, false beliefs in special abilities)
- Little need for sleep
- Noticeably elevated mood
- Increased energy
- Lack of self-control
- Racing thoughts
- Over-involvement in activities
- Poor temper control
- Reckless behavior
- Binge eating, drinking, and/or drug use
- Impaired judgment
- Sexual promiscuity
So I asked: Has he been diagnosed with it? If so, why is he off his meds?
People with bipolar disorder are notorious for not taking their meds. When they are manic, they feel as high as a kite. They feel invincible.
The exchange made me rethink the little I'd thought about Charlie Sheen up to then. It actually restored meaning to the entire, week-long episode for me. Instead of an ass surrounded by cameras and guffaws, a scenario in which no one comes out clean, we have a mentally ill person surrounded by cameras and guffaws, a scenario in which at least one person comes out clean.
Frontier Airlines: New Babysitters Club
Do airlines no longer handle suits? I mean the clothing kind. Just last May, on a Delta flight from Seattle to Minneapolis, the flight attendants took care of my suit—hung it in a closet—but this past week, flying to a memorial service in Minneapolis, both US Airways (to) and Frontier (from) had nothing for me. “You can lay it on top of the suitcases in the overhead bin,” I was told. “If there's room.” On the last leg, I didn't even get this option. I was told, because I had a bag in the overhead bin, to stuff my suit under the seat in front of me.
This wrinkle, so to speak, fits the way airlines increasingly treat customers: as children rather than suit-wearing adults. The Frontier flight attendants in particular, on both legs of the journey, had a kind of hectoring, head-shaking attitude toward its customers. Listen people, keep moving. Stay in your seat. Hey! I said stay in your seat, young man!
Admittedly we're an unruly crew in this country. Admittedly it's a tough, cramped job. But is it necessary to resort to the methods of the worst babysitters? We were given a single chocolate-chip cookie and essentially put in front of the TV set. Each seat, on that final leg of the journey, came equipped with a TV screen, which you could dim into nonexistence, but which few people did. Thus everywhere you looked: a multitude of screens watching a multitude of shows. I know Louis CK has mocked modern complaints; but that last leg of the journey, stuck on the Denver runway for an hour before takeoff (de-icing), with a baby wailing and 180 people channel-flipping and landing on crap, well, it felt like a new circle of hell.
My own fault. The book I brought (“Freedom”) was digital, on an iPad, and had to be powered down for the hour we were on the runway. I'm sure my report card would've read poorly: “Erik tried to read while we were on the runway and he refused to watch TV. Plus he brought a suit along. But he did eat his cookie.”
Finally makes sense why they keep showing us how to use a seatbelt.
Viddy well, little brother. Viddy well.
When news of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) arrived late yesterday morning, via a Facebook post from a friend, I alternated between The New York Times and other sites to find out what was happening. The other sites tended to update more quickly, the Times more accurately. The Times never declared, for example, as Huffington Post did in a banner headline, that Rep. Giffords was dead. I should've just stuck with the Times but there's always that urge to find out now, now, now. We refresh pages like Mark Zuckerberg at the end of “The Social Network.” With about the same results.
At the same time, for something that's a little more than 24 hours old, a lot of smart, thoughtful stuff has already been written.
Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic liveblogged the news. It includes some initially incorrect reporting as well as a particularly vile e-mail he received.
James Fallows, also of The Atlantic, warns us all how the politics of an assassin and the politics of the intended target are rarely at odds. He sums up:
1) anything that can be called an “assassination” is inherently political;
2) very often the “politics” are obscure, personal, or reflecting mental disorders rather than “normal” political disagreements. But now a further step,
3) the political tone of an era can have some bearing on violent events. The Jonestown/Ryan and Fromme/Ford shootings had no detectable source in deeper political disagreements of that era. But the anti-JFK hate-rhetoric in Dallas before his visit was so intense that for decades people debated whether the city was somehow “responsible” for the killing. (Even given that Lee Harvey Oswald was an outlier in all ways.)
There are clips from an MSNBC interview with Rep. Giffords last year in which she sounds off about that political tone.
But the best thing I've read thus far is George Packer's “It Doesn't Matter Why He Did It” on The New Yorker's site, which also delves into the larger point:
This relentlessly hostile rhetoric has become standard issue on the right. (On the left it appears in anonymous comment threads, not congressional speeches and national T.V. programs.) And it has gone almost entirely uncriticized by Republican leaders. Partisan media encourages it, while the mainstream media finds it titillating and airs it, often without comment, so that the gradual effect is to desensitize even people to whom the rhetoric is repellent. We’ve all grown so used to it over the past couple of years that it took the shock of an assassination attempt to show us the ugliness to which our politics has sunk.
The massacre in Tucson is, in a sense, irrelevant to the important point. Whatever drove Jared Lee Loughner, America's political frequencies are full of violent static.
Quote of the Day (Disney Version)
“I encountered nothing in 15,000 miles of travel that disgusted and appalled me so much as this American addiction to make-believe. Apparently, not even empty bellies can cure it. Of all the facts I dug up, none seemed so significant or so dangerous as the overwhelming fact of our lazy, irresponsible, adolescent inability to face the truth or tell it.”
—James Rorty, “Where Life is Better” (1936)
Beam Me Up, Scottie
It recently occurred to me that post-9/11 airport security has become like a version of the transporter on the old “Star Trek” TV show.
On the show, characters would stand, whole, on the transporter platform; someone would say “energize” and their beings would be disassembled into molecules, which would then be shot through space and reassembled elsewhere: on the planet surface, on another ship, etc.
At the airport, we do this to ourselves. We show up, whole, but to pass through security we have to lose the jacket, the scarf, the shoes, the belt, the watch, the wallet, the extra layer of clothes, any jewelry we're wearing, and only then, disassembled, are we allowed to pass through the metal detector, where, on the other side, we get to reassemble ourselves: gathering up and putting back on our shoes, watch, wallet, sweater, scarf and jacket, until we're whole again.
So kinda like beaming down on “Star Trek.” Just way less cool.
A.O. Scott, Movie Violence and the Art of Collapsing Distinctions
There are important things to say about movie violence, but A.O. Scott, in his piece in The New York Times last week, “Brutal Truths About Violence,” doesn’t say them.
He takes two recent movies that have little to do with each other, or, to be honest, with the film culture at large—“Kick Ass,” which opened below expectations in April, and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which barely opened in the U.S. at all (153 theaters)—ties them together, and tips them over. He creates his own tipping point. “Enough is enough,” he writes. Or in typically qualifying fashion: “We will, I suppose, each find our own limits and draw our own boundaries [about movie violence], but it may also be time to articulate those and say when enough is enough.”
The problem? These two movies display completely different attitudes about violence. Scott would argue that both revel in it, but at the least they’re polar opposites in intent: “Dragon Tattoo” is trying to make you feel the violence (so you can be horrified), while “Kick Ass” needs you inured to violence (so you can laugh at it).
At this point in his article, though, we’re merely having a mild disagreement. What propelled me to write this post is the way he dissects two scenes of rape and revenge in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” He writes:
[Director Niels Arden Oplev’s] feminist impulse is overpowered by the unwavering attention, pornographic in form if not intent, to the vulnerable, suffering, sexualized bodies on the screen. While the film may want to draw a moral distinction between the episodes — one an unprovoked and heinous assault, the other an act of righteous vengeance — their intensity renders them equivalent.
Renders them equivalent? I don’t know what this means. That they’re both intense? Or that their very intensity renders their differences meaningless? And if the latter, is this specific to “Dragon Tattoo“? Or does the intensity of, say, Dirty Harry killing Scorpio render it morally equivalent to Scorpio killing innocent people?
Hardly stopping for a breath, Scott then ties ”Dragon Tattoo" to one of the most infamous movies ever made:
The 1978 exploitation film “I Spit on Your Grave” was widely reviled upon its release, but the violation and vengeance it presents, and the detail with which it depicts a gang rape and a victim’s serial revenge, are not so far from what is shown in “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Both belong on a spectrum with Gaspar Noé’s “Irreversible” (2002), which narrated its story of rape and revenge out of order, and collapsed any meaningful distinction between condemning sexual brutality and reveling in it.
I haven’t seen “Irreversible” so I can’t comment on it. I have seen “I Spit on Your Grave.” Parts of it. And I can comment on why “Dragon Tattoo” is not on the same planet.
Here’s the IMDb plot description for “Spit”:
An aspiring writer is repeatedly gang-raped, humiliated, and left for dead by four men whom she systematically hunts down to seek revenge.
Now here’s the plot description for “Dragon Tattoo.” Apologies for its verbosity:
Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her uncle is convinced it was murder and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family. He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, ruthless computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate. When the pair link Harriet's disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from almost forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history. But the Vanger's are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.
The rape-revenge cycle of “Spit on Your Grave” is the whole story. It was designed to appeal to our darker, prurient desires, and then to metaphorically kill them off, one by one.
The rape/revenge scenes of “Dragon” aren’t even mentioned in this overlong synopsis. The movie’s themes are certainly about “men who hate women” (it’s the Swedish title of both novel and movie: “Män som hatar kvinnor”), but the movie’s a mystery, a thriller, a crime drama, and a kind of romance/buddy tale. The rape/revenge scenes, if we haven’t read the novel, actually come as a shock. They come, to be honest, as a kind of disappointment. Lisbeth is our hero here. We thought she was too smart to get trapped in this manner. It’s like watching Spider-Man getting raped.
Which brings me back to this line:
But [Oplev’s] feminist impulse is overpowered by the unwavering attention, pornographic in form if not intent, to the vulnerable, suffering, sexualized bodies on the screen. [Emphasis mine.]
Again, I’m not quite sure what he means. “Pornographic” in the sense that the scenes show naked bodies? Or “pornographic” in the sense that the scenes arouse lust? I certainly agree with the former definition (we see two people naked) but not the latter. At least the scenes raised no lust in me. And I’m hardly a boy scout.
Rape scenes are always going to inspire some mix of horror and lust, and the goal of a responsible filmmaker, as opposed to an exploitation filmmaker, is to tamp down the lust and increase the horror. And the best way of doing this it to let us know the woman. Let us care about the woman. She can’t be a stranger and she can’t be fake.
Oplev does this. Lisbeth is never sexualized during the film—that helps—but more importantly, at this point in the story, we know enough about her to care about her. Lisbeth reminds us of women we know so we care what happens to her; the woman in “Spit” reminds us of women we don’t know so we don’t. It helps that Noomi Rapace in “Dragon” is a real actress and Camille Keaton in “Spit” is not. She’s a B-movie actress in the middle of an exploitation film, and almost every scene is so badly produced it reminds us that it’s being staged. She can’t remind us of women we know because she’s obviously not real.
There's great irony in Scott's piece. Certain violent movies, he argues, create equivalence (through intensity) or collapse distinctions (through chronology), but I would argue it's actually Scott who does this. He focuses on meaningless similarities and ignores meaningful distinctions. That's either no way to begin a serious discussion about movie violence...or the best way.
Writin' is Whitenin': Ishmael Reed's Racial Assumptions about "Precious"
Apparently media outlets are still giving Ishmael Reed, racial curmudgeon, a forum. Last Friday it was The New York Times.
Reed's op-ed is about the film "Precious," and, big surprise, he's not a fan. Neither was I but the two of us are not-fans for different reasons. Actually we may be not-fans for the same reasons but it's hard to tell from Reed's writing. As I mentioned in The Seattle Times in 2003 when I reviewed Reed's book, "Another Day at the Front," if writin' is fightin' (the title of another Reed book) then Reed is one of our great literary flailers. He comes at everyone without landing a solid punch.
He begins with this premise about "Precious": white people love it, black people hate it. Maybe, but his evidence is anecdotal. He also misinterprets the film's director, Lee Daniels, post-Oscar nomination. On Feb. 2, the Times, reported:
Speaking by telephone, Mr. Daniels said he hoped the nomination would bring more viewers to a movie — about the abuse and triumph of an overweight ghetto girl — that has been only a modest draw at the box office. “That’s what these awards do,” he said. “A lot of middle-class white Americans haven’t seen the film yet.”
In fact, the director, Lee Daniels, said that the honor would bring even more 'middle-class white Americans' to his film."
Reed's biggest problem, as ever, is one of racial assumption. He quotes Barbara Bush: "There are kids like Precious everywhere. Each day we walk by them: young boys and girls whose home lives are dark secrets." He quotes Oprah Winfrey: "None of us who sees the movie can now walk through the world and allow the Preciouses of the world to be invisible." Then Reed asks this question: "Are Mrs. Bush and Ms. Winfrey suggesting, on the basis of a fictional film, that incest is widespread among black families?"
Jesus, I get tired of this. Look, I'm hardly color-blind, but it's seems the group Precious represents for both Mrs. Bush and Ms. Winfrey is: "victims of physical and sexual abuse." To Mr. Reed, it's: "black girls." Who can't see past race here?
Reed adds that shame doesn't fall upon the white community for such films as "Requiem for a Dream," yet "Precious," he writes, casts "collective shame upon an entire community." But that's only true if we see the characters as representatives of the black community. Do we? Does he? Either he can't see past black and assumes no one else can, or he assumes the white community can't see past black so he can't, either.
How unclearly does he see race? He writes:
Black films looking to attract white audiences flatter them with another kind of stereotype: the merciful slave master. In guilt-free bits of merchandise like “Precious,” white characters are always portrayed as caring. There to help.
There's a general truth to this but not as applied to "Precious." After all, what do the white people in the film, as mild as they are, do? They pass the buck. And that's all they do. It's black people—albiet light-skinned black people—who save Precious.
Reed saves his worst comment for the end:
It’s no surprise either that white critics — eight out of the nine comments used on the publicity Web site for “Precious” were from white men and women — maintain that the movie is worthwhile because, through the efforts of a teacher, this girl begins her first awkward efforts at writing.
Redemption through learning the ways of white culture is an old Hollywood theme.
Once upon a time Ishmael Reed said that writin' is fightin'." Now he says it's whitenin'. I can't imagine a more harmful lesson.
Next time the Times op-ed has extra space they should give a forum to Jill Nelson. She didn't like the movie, either, but at least she was smart about it.
Many Nations, Under Netflix
Everyone and their brother has posted this already but last week the New York Times gave us a great interactive feature tracing the popularity of 2009 Netflix rentals by zip code. Here's mine in Seattle, for example:
What do the above movies have in common? Most are smart, some are Oscar contenders, only a handful did well at the box office.
But that's hardly news, is it? More interesting is the fact that you can calculate the racial makeup of cities by toggling toward films such as “Not Easily Broken,” starring Morris Chestnut, which was very rented in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, but nowhere rented in Seattle and Minneapolis and Denver. Not a speck of color on those maps. Same with “Obsession” or any Tyler Perry flick. In fact you can guess which is the whitest (or least-African-American) city of the three based on these rentals. According to Netflix's maps? Seattle. And that checks out. According to 2005-07 data, the African-American population in these cities are: 8.2% in Seattle, 9.9% in Denver, and 17.7% in Minneapolis.
Equally intriguing is calculating where films such as “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” are popular (in the South) and where they aren't (in cities). It's the anti-“Milk,” which is hugely popular in cities and not at all in outlying areas. Looking at these maps, you realize, yet again, that we're hardly “one nation,” let alone “under God.” And don't even get me started on “with liberty and justice for all.”
Quick quiz. The maps below represent the 2009 Seattle Netflix rental habits for four movies: “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Rachel Getting Married,” “Cadillac Records” and “Seven Pounds.” The darker the color the more popular the film in that area. Click on each map for its answer.
Clay Shirky Quote of the Day
"It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race, a misfortune because surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.
"To make a historical analogy with the last major increase in the written word, you could earn a living in 1500 simply by knowing how to read and write. The spread of those abilities in the subsequent century had the curious property of making literacy both more essential and less professional; literacy became critical at the same time as the scribes lost their jobs.
"The same thing is happening with publishing; in the 20th century, the mere fact of owning the apparatus to make something public, whether a printing press or a TV tower, made you a person of considerable importance. Today, though, publishing, in its sense of making things public, is becoming similarly de-professionalized; YouTube is now in the position of having to stop 8 year olds from becoming global publishers of video. The mere fact of being able to publish to a global audience is the new literacy, formerly valuable, now so widely available that you can't make any money with the basic capability any more.
"This shock of inclusion, where professional media gives way to participation by two billion amateurs (a threshold we will cross this year) means that average quality of public thought has collapsed; when anyone can say anything any time, how could it not? If all that happens from this influx of amateurs is the destruction of existing models for producing high-quality material, we would be at the beginning of another Dark Ages.
"So it falls to us to make sure that isn't all that happens."
—Clay Shirky, in a collection of World Question Center pieces
Respect My Authoritai!
Still thinking on Clay Shirky's piece on algorithmic authority. I know I'm in a fading demographic, for whom the Internet arrived, it wasn't just here, but in my own serious work—that is, my day job—I still lean on the traditional forms of authority for back-up or confirmation. Sure, for a particular spelling of a word, occasionally I go quick-and-dirty with Google: 12 million hits this way, 7,000 hits that way, guess I'll go this way. But if I need solid information on a subject I lean on The New York Times not Wikipedia. The latter isn't the disaster I thought it'd be but it's hardly foolproof. Neither is the Times, i know, but on the Times site you wouldn't come across what I came across on Wikipedia on Tuesday:
Harriet Ellan Miers (born August 10, 1945) is an Astronaut and former White House Counsel. In 2005, she was nominated by President George W. Bush to be an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, but opposition from both sides of the political spectrum led President Bush to withdraw the nomination at Miers' request.
An astronaut? I wasn't sure if it had to do with this comment or not, which Miers made in 1996 about then-Governor Bush:
In a note to him a few days later, Miers described a little girl at the event who got his autograph. Miers wrote, "I truly believe, if the Governor told her she should be an Astronaut, she would do her best to become one. I was struck by the tremendous impact you have on the children whose lives you touch."
On the plus side, without any prompting from me, it took Wikipedia less than 24 hours to change "Astronaut" back to "American lawyer." Even so.
- It's already over but here's a great piece from Dan Savage who defends the sexification of Halloween as a kind of straight people's gay-pride parade: a day when straight people are allowed to dress up and bust loose:
We don't resent you for taking Halloween as your own. We know what it's like to keep your sexuality under wraps, to keep it concealed, to be on your guard and under control at all times. While you don't suffer anywhere near the kind of repression we did (and in many times and places still do), straight people are sexually repressed, too. You move through life thinking about sex, constantly but keenly aware that social convention requires you to act as if sex were the last thing on your mind. Exhausting, isn't it?
- Martin Scorsese on the 11 scariest movies of all time. I've seen 1, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 11. I keep missing the Brits.
- It's not just me. Even members of the Academy question havng 10-best-picture nominees.
- Hilarious piece from The Onion on the long, sad, World Series drought for the Philadelphia Phillies. Sample: "To put into perspective just how long the Phillies have gone without a championship, the earth has almost made one full orbit of the sun since the franchise last paraded through downtown Philadelphia holding the famed Commissioner's Trophy."
- Floyd Norris, in his column in The New York Times last Friday, says people who ask why financial-industry CEOs are so well-compensated are asking the wrong question. The real question is: Why is there so much more money in the financial industry than there used to be? From 1929 to 1988, the financial sector averaged 1.2 percent of GDP. Then it shot up in the 1990s, peaking at 3.3 percent in 2005. Why? He tosses out some possibilities, including higher charges (for managing hedge funds) , concentration (the big guys are bigger), the derivatives debaccle, evading taxes and rules, and excessive risk-taking. Worth reading the whole thing.
Quote of the Day
"I like to be the good guy because the good guy gets to kill the bad guy."
— my nephew, Ryan, 6, talking about playacting, but encapsulating the schizophrenia at the heart of our culture, during a walk around Mountain Lake on Orcas Island.
The Moon Landing from Africa, and Other Stories (Translated from the French)
Earlier this week, Le Monde ran a series of snippets from readers on where they were and what they were doing 40 years ago when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. With the help of my French teacher, Nathalie, I've translated some of these. Most were more interesting than the reports I saw in the U.S. this week. This was a global event. How did other people around the world see it? I know how we did but how did they?
First the French, then the translation. All errors, as the big boys say, are mine:
La Lune et le croissant, par Smail Houri
A l'époque, la télévision n'existait pas encore à El-Oued, une oasis du sud algérien, mais les gens qui voyageaient et avaient pu voir les images dans les grandes villes comme Alger, ont raconté l'événement dans tous ses détails. Répandue comme une traînée de poudre, la nouvelle a fait réagir les plus profanes. Les gens ne discutaient que de cela et les commentaires allaient bon train. Même les religieux, d'habitude réservés sur de tels sujets, se sont mis à discuter longuement de l'exploit accompli. La question qui revenait sur toutes les bouches était : "Comment est-ce possible que l'homme ait pu percer le ciel pour atteindre le croissant ?"
The Moon and the crescent, by Smail Houri
At the time, television did not exist in El-Oued, an oasis in southern Algeria, but people who traveled and had been able to see the images in big cities like Alger, recounted the event in all its details. Spreading like wildfire, the news made even non-believers react. People talked only about the moon-landing, and commentaries gathered steam. Even religious people, who are usually reserved on such subjects, started to discuss it at length. The question that kept returning was: “How is it possible that man was able to pierce the sky to get to the moon?”
Hypnose, par Eric Lefèvre
J'avais 14 ans. Je me trouvais ce soir-là sur le toit d'une vieille maison près d'Evry. Le ciel était clair et la Lune brillait. Mes yeux étaient hypnotisés par la mer grise de la Tranquillité à des centaines de milliers de kilomètres de là. Subitement, j'eus l'impression de voir des formes s'y déplacer. J'oubliais alors la radio. Cette vision suffisait à me faire comprendre le moment extraordinaire que j'étais en train de vivre.
Hypnosis, by Eric Lefevre
I was 14 years old. That night I found myself on the roof of an old house near Evry. The sky was clear and the moon brilliant. My eyes were hypnotized by the gray Sea of Tranquility hundreds of millions of kilometers away. Suddenly I had the impression of seeing the forms shift. I forgot about the radio. This vision was sufficient to make me understand the extraordinary moment I was living in.
Un chat sur la Lune, par Moussa Touré
Lorsque le premier homme a marché sur la Lune, j'avais 6 ans. Je me souviens que tout le monde en parlait. Pour moi, c'était possible. Chez nous au Mali, on expliquait à chaque éclipse qu'un chat avait grimpé sur la Lune. En tout cas, c'était une légende. Moi je m'étais dit que si un chat pouvait monter sur la Lune, pourquoi un homme ne le pourrait-il pas ? Après ce succès, je me rappelle encore que de nombreux orchestestres de musique Mandingue ont été baptisés "Apollo".
A cat on the moon, by Moussa Toure
When the first man walked on the moon, I was six years old. I remember all the world was talking [but], for me, it seemed very possible. In our house on Mali, we would explain every eclipse [by saying] that a cat had climbed on the moon. In any case, it was our legend, so I said that if a cat could go up to the moon why couldn’t a man? After this success, I also remember a number of Mandingan orchestras were christened “Apollo.”
Les Américains ont aluni sur Boufarik ! par Bouzgaou Abdelhamid
J'avais 16 ans, et j'ai vécu cette fabuleuse épopée en direct sur notre chaîne de télé algérienne. J'en garde un souvenir impérissable. Et pour cause. Je crois que mon papa a été le premier a en douter, en m'affirmant qu'il s'agissait d'un montage des Américains. Il était 3 h 30 ou 4 heures du matin quand il m'a trouvé scotché à la télé. Surpris, il me demanda ce qui m'a retenu si tard. Je lui ai répondu, tout heureux et émerveillé : "Papa, les Américains sont sur la Lune. Il pouffa, et il me dit : Pauvre incrédule, tu aurais dû dormir d'un bon sommeil. Ils ont aluni, mais sur Boufarik (ville à 30 km d'Alger) !"
The American moon-landed on Boufarik! by Bouzgaou Abdelhamid
I was 16 years old and watched this fabulous epic live on our Algerian television channel. I keep an undying memory from that time. With reason. I think that my father was the first to doubt the moon landing, to assert that it was a matter of cinematic editing by the Americans. It was 3:30 or 4 in the morning when he found me glued to the television. Surprised, he demanded that I refrain from staying up so late. I responded, all happy and filled with wonder, “Papa, the Americans are on the moon!” He sniggered and told me, “Poor unbeliever, you must have had a good sleep. They have moon-landed...but on Boufarik!” (A city 30 km from Alger.)
50 Million Necrophiliacs Can't Be Wrong
Patrick Goldstein over at The Big Picture takes Vanity Fair to task for their Heath Ledger cover story (which I haven't read and don't care to read):
As anyone close to Michael Jackson can attest, with Larry King having done something like 23 consecutive shows about the dead pop star, each one more tawdry than the last, apparently even death can't stop the endless parade of morbid media snoops from carving their initials in every available celebrity grave.
I agree but "even death" is missing the point. Death is the point, particularly young death, death before its time, death in which youth is preseved: Valentino, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, Elvis Presley (OK, more-or-less preserved), Princess Di, now Heath and Michael and Farrah. We're a necrophiliac nation. We're at heart immature. We want what isn't here. We appreciate what's gone or yet-to-be. We brush those things with nostalgia or hope. Because what's here and now is just so damned confusing. What's here and now takes work.
Wherever you are, if you have the chance to see a play by Craig Wright, you should go. If you have the chance to see an episode of television written by Craig Wright (“Six Feet Under,” “Brothers and Sisters,” “Dirty Sexy Money”), you should see it. If you’re lucky enough to get DVD commentary from Craig Wright you should listen to it. It’s always worthwhile.
I am hugely biased in this matter since Craig is a friend of mine. We’ve known each other, off and on, since 1987, and, back then, despite my easily bruised, young writer’s ego, I quickly realized he was in another league. He still is. I love, for example, his comments about “Waiting for Godot” here:
I’m reminded of Rilke and his advice to a young poet: Learn to love the questions themselves. For many, including myself, including probably Beckett, Godot was The Answer, and that’s why he never showed up. For Craig, Godot is in the questions, and the questions are always there, and in innumerable form. His discussion here also reminds me of his song, “Heaven,” which he wrote with Peter Lawton:
All we would like to know
Is why you kept all of us waiting
When you knew
That you would never be coming at all
Life is a mystery
It’s mystery enough without waiting
For someone who
Knew he would never be coming at all
We want to be open
We want to be open
But you don’t give a single sign
You’re coming to call
That’s Beckett. And, yes, Craig. But the song ends with a notion that’s purely Craig:
Or is this waiting
What you meant
When you said
He does this alley-oop all the time, as I’ve written, and every time it’s surprising and beautiful.
Quote of the Day
“People are always hurting each other but love keeps happening.”
—David, in Craig Wright's play “Orange Flower Water,” at ACT Theater in Seattle until July 20.
I could quote a dozen brilliant lines from this play. Some people are optimists, some are pessimists, but Craig, who is a friend, is both. Or he pulls his optimism from pessimism—as the above quote indicates. Both parts of the quote are true. Separate, they mean little. Combine them and you get a powerful statement of humanity. The genius is in combining them.
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose
"But a few of the old hands within Salomon Brothers suffered a more complicated response to their money [in the 1980s]. Not that they ever doubted they were worth every penny they got. But they were uneasy with the explosion of debt in America. (In general, the better they recalled the Great Depression, the more suspicious they were of the leveraging of America.) The head of our bond research at Salomon, Henry Kaufman, was, when I arrived, our most accute case of cognitive dissonance. ... As he wrote in the Institutional Investor of July 1987:
One of the most remarkable things that happened in the 1980s was [the] sharp explosion of debt, way beyond any historical benchmark. It was way beyond anything you would have expected relative to GNP, relative to monetary expansion that was taking place. But it came about, I think, as a result of freeing the financial system, putting into being financial entrepreneurship and not putting into being adequate disciplines and safeguards. So that's where we are.
That is where we are: wild, reckless, and deeply in hock.
— from Michael Lewis' "Liar's Poker," pg. 60
Humans from Earth
Spores! Of course, being me, I thought of that first-season episode of “Star Trek,” “This Side of Paradise,” in which on yet another of the many “Eden” planets the Enterprise crew encountered, a particular breed of plant shot spores at the crew and turned them all lovey-dovey. Even Spock. Especially Spock. Cue “love theme” music.
Deeper into Kolbert’s article, you realize that the greater problem isn’t spores but, well, us, and the impunity with which we move about the planet. This, too, recalls “Star Trek,” or, at least, my criticism of the recent “Star Trek” movie:
In the original series, particularly its first season, there was a mystery, and a creepiness, to what they might find out there, always augmented by that great background soundtrack of creepiness. ... There are still stories to be told out there, that add to the mystery rather than pave it over, but you’ve got to drop out of warp-drive, and pause, and look around, and reflect, in order to tell them properly.I apologize for the glibness of this comparison. It just feels like what’s wrong with the new “Star Trek” as a storytelling device is simply a reflection of what’s going wrong here. Microscopically, things are deadlier than we realize. But the deadliest thing of all may be our own sense of impunity.
Goldstein Disappoints on Susan Boyle
The film makes a halting attempt to introduce a contemporary storyline -- his paper has an annoying young blogger on the same story -- but instead of pursuing the tension in that relationship, the film simply turns the character (played by Rachel McAdams) into a perky gofer for Crowe's big-shot journalist.Why it was disappointing to read his take on Susan Boyle, whose soaring breakthrough on “Britain’s Got Talent” is currently not just the most-seen video on YouTube this month, but, because of various copycat uploaders, it's the three-most-seen videos on YouTube this month — with 37 million views, 10 million views and 7 million views respectively. And counting. Other videos of her occupy, currently, 6th, 7th, 10, 11th and 12th places as well.
Everyone has an opinion on this phenomenon — including, yes, me — but Goldstein’s seems odd. For one thing he repeats an offer from a pornographic site not worth repeating. But he also writes this:
What has made her sudden celebrity so fascinating -- and disturbing -- is that it seems thoroughly intertwined with the notion that, to be blunt about it, an ugly woman can have a beautiful voice.
If a petite, pretty in pink 20-year-old had done a marvelous job of warbling the song, would anyone have made such a big fuss about it? Clearly not. Would the Web be so full of wonder if the singer were a chubby guy who hadn't had a date in a decade? In a word: No. So for all our delight in Boyle's triumph, isn't the fuss over her a compelling example of our society's rampant sexism?
First, I’m not sure why her sudden celebrity is particularly disturbing. I would assume the success of all of those pretty women who can’t sing — and we know who they are — is even more disturbing, yes?
As for the sexism issue: Hasn’t Mr. Goldstein heard of Paul Potts, who won “Britain’s Got Talent” two years ago, and whose initial appearance on the show — shy and dentally challenged but then busting out into a beautiful operatic voice — is, at the moment, still ahead of Ms. Boyle’s on YouTube, with 47 million views? (For the record, neither his nor her video is in YouTube’s all-time top 25, and both are far, far away from the most viewed video: Avril Levigne’s “Girlfriend,” with 118 million hits. At least she can sing...ish.)
A more intriguing area of inquiry into the phenomenon may be the set-up itself: an individual standing before three often bored or jaded judges, who are either slowly or quickly bowled over by the talents of that individual, who is a stand-in for all of us. Who knew, in other words, that “Flashdance” would be so influential for something other than torn sweatshirts and legwarmers?
“Mr. Wright's Masterly, Affectionate Vision...”
So if you're near the Two River Theater Company in Jersey in the next week, check out Craig Wright's play “Melissa Arctic,” a modern adaptation of Shakespeare's “Winter's Tale.” And if you're not, at least read Anita Gates' glowing review in The New York Times:
Mr. Wright’s lyrics are a little like Stephen Sondheim’s might be if Mr. Sondheim were stabbed by a ray of sunshine midthought.
And if you're a theater director in Seattle, how about putting on some of Craig's plays already? Man!
Quote of the Day
— James Harvey Robinson
We Are Not a Serious Nation
I checked out YouTube for the first time in a long time this morning, saw the shit that passed for shit there, and thought of Gore Vidal: We are not a serious nation. I read a friend’s account of how even at a pizza gathering half the kids were texting other kids rather than talking with the kids present, and thought: We are not a serious nation. I read Paul Krugman’s column in this morning’s New York Times, about how serious our economic crisis is, and how lame the response in Congress has been, particularly from the Republicans in Congress, and thought: We are not a serious nation.
I look at this site and think the same. You do what you do. I try to write about movies seriously but to what end? We’ll see where this goes. Both versions of “this.”
In November I wrote a spirited defense of how “The Daily Show” would fare in an Obama administration but I’m having my doubts now. It’s the economic crisis more than Pres. Obama. Every joke about it, from a guy making millions, and I think: “That shit ain’t funny.” Comedy is, what, tragedy plus time? They’re ignoring time. We’re just wasting it.
I apologize for this post but a blog is about what’s on your mind and this is what’s on my mind. Probably yours, too.
The economy shed 598,000 jobs in January. I knew of three of them.
Edward Hopper's Quiet
Patricia and I finally got down to the Seattle Art Museum to see “Edward Hopper’s Women,” a small exhibit, limited to two rooms, that has been on view since mid-November. I’m of the “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like” school, and I love Hopper. He may be my favorite artist. His paintings feel quiet. There’s a stillness to them, often a sad stillness, but I’d still like to be in them. My favorite in this exhibit, which included maybe a dozen paintings, was “Automat.”
A few years ago, reading Milan Kundera’s“Ignorance,” I realized that the saddest thing in the world to me is loneliness — particularly female loneliness. If men are lonely I often view it as their own damn fault. But the loneliness of women kills me. Here’s the paragraph that did it. Re-reading it now, it doesn’t seem like much, but back then it brought tears to my eyes:
Standing at a bar, she slowly sips a beer and eats a cheese sandwich. She does not hurry; there is nothing she must do. All her Sundays are like that: in the afternoon she’ll read, and at night she’ll have a lonely meal at home.This graph could be describing an Edward Hopper painting. It could be describing “Automat.”
Patricia, meanwhile, loves “New York Movie”: the light on the woman and how lost in thought she is.
The exhibit does a good job of describing how weighed-down she seems, reminding us that, though most of us go to the movies to escape, it’s reality, sometimes grim reality, for those who work there. Me, I love the sliver of black-and-white — the 1939 film — on the left side of the painting. (It’s much more noticeable in person.) It didn’t strike until now but it’s fascinating that the black-and-white world is the escapist fantasy, while the world full of color is the one where we’re heavy with burden. That feels so right (in the painting) and so wrong (in the world).
Afterwards, Patricia and I walked home via Westlake Center in downtown Seattle. It was a beautiful day for the last day of January — low 40s, the sun out, less gray than usual. We passed panhandlers, street performers, black kids selling candy bars. More than usual? It felt like it. It felt like the beginning.
Ponzi and the Happy Days (Are Here Again) Gang
My friend Dave McLean, currently living in Presov, Slovakia, alerted me to this piece by Dan Roberts in the Guardian, which, with the aid of some cheery graphics, explains, in layman's terms (or as layman as he can get), the extent of the less-than-cheery global financial crisis, and why the infusion of hundreds of billions of dollars from the federal government isn't likely to stabilize the beast. Just how much is the world in debt? Or overvalued? Some stats: from small to large numbers:
- $845 billion: The amount of gold reserves in central banks — held as a buffer against financial instability.
- $3.9 trillion: All global notes and coins in circulation, plus reserves, in Oct. 2008.
- $39 trillion: The assets (or loans due to be paid back) at the world's big financial banks.
- $62 trillion: The peak amount of credit derivatives, which, from my limited understanding, is a financial instrument whose value is derived from the value of something else, such as an asset or index. All part of the shadow banking system, which I also don't understand.
- $290 trillion: Peak of the total asset value of all developed economies.
Roberts says that it resembles, if anything, a Ponzi scheme. I get it...but still don't understand it.
Meanwhile Wall Street bankers gave themselves $20 billion in bonuses for 2008. That, unfortunately, I understand.
“There's Work to be Done”
Here's a great site, via Andrew Sullivan, that collects the newspaper headlines of the day. Yesterday was the day for it. Interesting to see what different editors chose to highlight or headline. There's almost poetry in it:
“A New Era,” “A New Day,” “A New Beginning,” “A New Start,” “A New Hope.”
“Hope Over Fear,” “Hope Meets History,” “History Made Today,” “History in the Making,” “Remaking America.”
“Hello, Mr. President,” “Mr. President,” “The President,” “The 44th President,” “The 44th and the First.”
“President Obama,” “Obama Ovation,” “Obama's Promise,” “Let's GObama,” “The Obama Era Begins.”
“Change,” “Change Has Come,” “The Time Has Come.”
“Face of a Nation”? “Yes, He Is.”
“Mark This Day”: “We Are Ready to Lead.”
There was also this:
It struck a chord and it took me a minute before I remembered why. It's similar to a line in “TimeQuake,” Kurt Vonnegut's last novel. I reviewed it for The Seattle Times in 1997. Back then I wrote:
Just as Billy Pilgrim could get unstuck in time (in “Slaughterhouse-Five”) and gravity could become variable (“Slapstick”), so Kilgore Trout and the world discover in “Timequake” that the universe isn't always expanding. In the year 2001, the universe has second thoughts and contracts, or hiccups, sending everyone back to what they were doing 10 years before.
It's a perverse form of eternal recurrence. Everyone has knowledge of the next decade but is unable to alter it in any fashion. They essentially become prisoners within their own bodies.
Thus, when the universe gets going again, people are unprepared — asleep at the wheel, as it were — and disasters occur. They don't realize that once again they have to drive their cars or fly their airplanes or concentrate on walking straight. So cars crash, planes plummet, people wobble and fall over.
Trout, one of the first to realize what has happened, tries to wake people out of their stupor by shouting, “You have free will!” When this doesn't work, he tells them, “You were sick, but now you are well, and there's work to do!”
It's January 21, 2009. You were sick. But now you are well. And there's work to be done.
The Man Who Sold "Crash" to the World
When Crash won the Oscar for best picture, I was half-drunk at a party in Seattle but sobered up quickly. I had to. I’d promised my editor at MSNBC that if the unthinkable did happen, if Crash won best picture that night over Brokeback Mountain, I’d write a piece about it. I finished it at 10 a.m. the next morning. It included diatribe, head-shaking and a quiz. It included everything but a culprit.
Now we have one. In the Jan. 19 issue of The New Yorker, regular contributor Tad Friend writes about Tim Palen, co-president of theatrical marketing at Lionsgate, the studio responsible for, on the one hand, Fahrenheit 9/11, 3:10 to Yuma, The Bank Job and Gods and Monsters, and, on the other, the Saw films, The Punisher (both recent versions), Good Luck Chuck and Witless Protection.
These two hands are obviously my hands, critical hands, hands that divide quality from crap. They would not be Palen’s.
Friend drops a bomb early:
Publicity is selling what you have: the film’s stars and sometimes its director. Marketing, very often, is selling what you don’t have; it’s the art of the tease.
That's great, insidery detail but it feels like it's missing the point. Yes, marketing, in this sad age, is selling what you don’t have. But how is that a tease? A tease is offering what you do have but not following through. Selling what you don’t have? The rest of us call that a lie. Sometimes we call it a felony.
In Hollywood, they brag about it.
“The most common comment you hear from filmmakers after we’ve done our work is ‘This is not my movie,’ ” Terry Press, a consultant who used to run marketing at Dreamworks SKG, says. “I’d always say, ‘You’re right—this is the movie America wants to see.’”
Nice. Apparently Hollywood isn’t dream factory enough. Apparently Hollywood filmmakers aren’t offering enough wish fulfillment. That’s where marketers come in. They lie to us about the lie. If the film is crap, they figure out ways to get us to eat it. Palen is one of the best at this. He entices us into the restaurant, gets us to sit down at the table, gets us to chew. By the time we realize what we're eating, he’s gone.
And, yes, he’s the one responsible for the bad taste in our mouths the morning of March 6, 2006:
Paul Haggis, the writer-director of the 2005 film “Crash,” says, “I came in thinking Tim was doing everything wrong. He made the poster Michael Peña screaming over his daughter, rather than selling Brendan Fraser or Matt Dillon or Sandra Bullock. I worried that the trailer, a mood piece about how people have to crash into each other to feel alive, was going to seem like overly significant claptrap. Then Tim and Sarah”—Sarah Greenberg, Palen’s co-president, who handles publicity—“came to me and said, ‘We’re going to go for an Academy campaign.’ I really, really thought they were crazy: this was a little six-million-dollar film.” For the cost of three full-page ads in the Times, about two hundred thousand dollars, Lionsgate sent more than a hundred thousand DVDs of the film to every member of the Screen Actors Guild—pioneering a now common saturation technique. In a huge upset, “Crash” beat “Brokeback Mountain” and “Munich” to win Best Picture.
Remember how polarizing that battle was? That’s Palen’s specialty. The article opens with the premiere of Oliver Stone’s W., a Lionsgate film Palen has to sell, even though, particularly for a Stone film, it’s actually, unfortunately, kind of fair. Palen can’t use that. “From the marketing perspective,” he says, “we needed some teeth.” Later, Friend writes: “Palen has always believed in being polarizing, always been willing to alienate much of the audience in order to motivate his core.” Dots aren’t connected, but one can’t help but be reminded of someone else who sold us a W.
It’s a sad article, a wag-the-dog article that is more effective for Friend’s restraint. Marketers now run the show: Oren Aviv at Disney; Marc Shmuger at Universal. “Marketing considerations shape not only the kind of films studios make,” Friend writes, “but who’s in them.” Why are stars disappearing? This is part of the reason. Why so many niche movies? This is part of the reason. Why do films no longer bind us together but keep us apart? This is part of the reason.
It's a must-read. Palen, whose mother was assistant to a cheese manufacturer, tends to use the word “cheese” to describe what he’s selling. “America likes cheese,” he says of Good Luck Chuck. “...straight out of the America-loves-cheese playbook,” he says of an upcoming Gerard Butler trailer. It’s a kind word for what he’s selling. Don't bite like the Academy did.
Dark Knight: Adventures in Alphabetizing
A couple of days ago Tim alerted me to this post by Max Barry about his problems viewing a “Dark Knight” DVD. I sympathized. Now I sympathize a little more.
Last night, still getting socked by bronchitis, I wasn’t in the mood to watch anything too highfalutin, and, of Comcast’s “On Demand” films, the one Patricia wanted to see the most was “The Dark Knight.”
Except it wasn’t available in HD. How could that be? It was listed in the “Just in” section, but not among the “HD” films.
I suggested we watch something else instead. But she really wanted to see “Dark Knight.” So...
It began with that awful, VHS-era line about the film being formatted to fit your TV. Bad enough, in other words, that we couldn’t get it in HD. Now we had to get the pan-and-scan version? Even though our TV has been formatted to fit any film? I couldn’t stand it. But we’d already paid for it.
For the first 20 minutes I made apologies. “This looks much better in HD,” I told Patricia. Even so, she was enjoying herself. She’s not much into comic-book movies, but with “DK” she kept saying “Cool” and “Fun.” She’s always liked Christian Bale. And she was blown away by Heath Ledger.
Two hours later, during the credits, I hit the “stop” button, which takes you back to the “On Demand” screen, where one of those fluff-jockeys prattles on about the latest films. This one talked up “Dark Knight,” which was, she said, “available in HD.”
I went back to Comcast’s HD movies and scrolled to the D’s. Nothing. Then it hit me. I scrolled to the T’s. There it was. “The Dark Knight.” Listed under the T’s.
My god. How dumb can we get?
Thanks for the sour taste, Comcast.
Good-Bye To All That
All of which puts a cap on a year most of us are happy to see leave. Hell, I almost feel like giving it a swift kick as it exits. Take that, you little f--ker.
Some bright spots (Pres. Obama) but otherwise a lot of noise and short-sightedness, entropy and quick, unprecedented collapse. Nobody I know is hurting yet, but some are pinched, and everyone’s wary. We’ve been feeding on stuff we know is bad for us and now comes the price and the wrong people will probably pay it, as wrong people often do.
It’s an arbitrary point we’re crossing, but it doesn’t mean we can’t feel new. So wave good-bye (or swift-kick) 2008. And hello gorgeous.
From the Vault: Freelance Writing 101
The following is a piece I wrote four years ago that was never published. Some of it is still relevant.
On a Tuesday morning in 2004 I received a phone call at my apartment and a male voice asked, “Do you have time to speak with Karl Rove?” A second later, the senior advisor to the President of the United States got on the line. We talked for 10 minutes.
The next morning a female voice informed me that Walter Mondale was waiting to speak with me. A second later, the former Vice President of the United States got on the line. We talked for 10 minutes.
Who am I that such powerful people contact me at home? I’m the most powerless person in the world. I’m a freelance writer.
In his novel “Waterworks,” E.L. Doctorow got the job description right. “Most freelances are nervous craven creatures,” he wrote, “it is such a tenuous living after all…” Indeed, the same week I talked to Karl Rove and Walter Mondale I drove down to the unemployment office for a seminar on how to search for a job. Maybe I should’ve just asked Karl Rove for one.
This is the most bizarre aspect of being a freelance writer: You’re poor and powerless and yet – if the gig is right – you’re constantly rubbing elbows with the most powerful people on the planet. One of my regular jobs is writing for a law magazine, “Law & Politics,” which was founded in Minnesota in 1990. Seven years later, they created a Washington state version, which is where they met me. Then they created lucrative “Super Lawyer” magazines all over the country, which is where they sent me.
Last year they flew me to Dallas and Houston and L.A. and Chicago. I interviewed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, boxer George Foreman, “Godfather” producer Robert Evans and former Microsoft general counsel Bill Neukom. While calling an acquaintance of a Houston lawyer to set up a quick interview for a quote, I Googled him and discovered he was a Forbes 500 billionaire. Yikes. His secretary answered, put me on hold, then, 30 seconds later, put me through. “Yes?” he asked. I fumbled for my notes. If I’d known I was going to talk to a billionaire that morning I might have showered. Or at least worn pants.
The entrée in that case was the Houston lawyer’s name, but generally my entrée is the pub I’m writing for that particular day, which is often no entrée at all. “Who do you write for? And that’s what kind of publication?” Yet somehow it all works, and in this manner the powerless hook up with the powerful.
Unfortunately the powerless are only getting moreso. Fees are dwindling. writing contracts expanding. One place sent me a 10-page contract for a thousand-word article – three times as many words in the contract as in the piece. Another place – OK, the same place – hired a third party to create online invoices, but the process is so cumbersome and non-intuitive that your per-hour wage (which one part of your brain tries to keep track of) bleeds away as you attempt to master it. If I got paid for the hours spent trying to get paid I might actually make money.
The language in these contracts is enough to scare away the best writer in the world: “The publication [and its sublicensees] acquires exclusive worldwide rights in all languages to unrestricted use of your work in all media, existing or to be invented in the future, including in all editions of the publication.” To be invented in the future? Obviously they’re worried another Internet will take us all by storm but can a contract really lay claim to the future? Why not the past, too? Why not other dimensions? The publication [and its sublicensees] retain exclusive worldwide rights on the Bizarro planet and in The Land That Time Forgot, unless otherwise agreed.
Did I mention the dwindling pay? Two years ago, one newspaper paid me $50 less for the same work I’d done the year before. Last year they tried to cut it another $25. I balked. It’s often the puniness of the amount they’re trying to extract that’s insulting. A check arrived last week five dollars short. I searched for an explanation and found it in the invoice: “Deduction: $5.” As long as they had a good reason.
Yet it’s often editors who cause the most heartache. Let’s face it: Most freelancers aren’t in this for money or fame but for the joy of stringing a few words together, and editors often stomp on this joy. If I’ve been lucky lately with my editors, it wasn’t always so. My early editors were often uncommunicative and tin-earred. In my review of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, “Timequake,” I sketched a scene in which Kilgore Trout tries to wake people in a stupor with this call-to-arms: “You were sick, but now you are well, and there’s work to do!” I wrote: “The metaphor for our time is obvious,” but my editor changed it to, “The metaphor for our time becomes obvious.” Becomes obvious? What does that even mean? Who wrote this crap? “By Erik Lundegaard.”
That was a mere pinprick. Years ago I was working in a bookstore warehouse to make ends meet, and one Sunday morning, lugging books down to the basement in a gray metal tub, one of my co-workers, Chris, mentioned in passing, “Hey, saw your article in the paper the other day.”
I looked up, puzzled. “I didn’t have an article in the paper the other day.”
“Didn’t you? I thought it was you. Yeah, that was you.”
“What was it about?”
My jaw tightened. A week earlier I’d sent the local paper a humorous piece on postage stamps but hadn’t heard back. When I finally saw what they’d printed, my piece had been mangled beyond recognition. I felt like Brando in “The Godfather” pulling the sheet back from Sonny’s bullet-riddled corpse: “Look what they done to my boy.” Mobsters at least have the decency to send along fish.
The next day I phoned the editor. “I sent you a piece last week.”
“It was in the paper on Friday.”
“Nobody told me.”
“Oh?” A chuckle. Then nothing. In his silence was a challenge: What are you going to do about it? I brokered a deal for money when I should’ve just blasted him. Kids: Curse today, for tomorrow the prick may retire, as this one did.
I’ll say it: Freelancing is truly an awful way to live. You start out with big aspirations – a novel, a play – but one day you write a little essay and lo and behold they publish it. Sure, they chop it up, but there’s your name, and suddenly you’re addicted. Even as they change the rules on you you’re addicted. The playing field gets smaller and smaller (1000 words...no, 800 words...no, 600 words), and the rejection notices pile up. You study the pubs, because that’s what people tell you to do, but they’re either celebrity-laden and corporate, or radical and ironic, and you don’t see where you fit in. You write specific pieces for specific pubs – bending your personality to suit theirs – which makes the form rejection notices sting even more. Maybe you’re doing bad work? You’re often doing bad work (“The metaphor for our time is obvious” is a pretty bad line), but what they print is usually worse. You tell yourself your skin is thickening but you doubt it. You feel weaker, not stronger; smaller, not bigger. The silence surrounding your rare successes is deafening. And then you’re at a dinner party and the executive next to you finds out you’re a freelance writer and says, “You know, I’ve always wanted to write,” and it’s all you can do not to slug him.
My friends and family gave me metaphoric backslaps when I got an editing job this winter. It was seen as a step up and it is. Now I’ll send out the contracts with the threatening legalese, and now I’ll have final say on which words go where. But it’s not writing. The writing I’ll still do in the mornings before work. The editing? I’ve spent 15 years learning what kind of editor not to be. Hopefully some of it has sunk in.
All Customer-Service Roads Lead to India
Just got off the phone with India. Okay, with amazon.com's customer service department. Should I put "service" in quotes? Yeah, like that.
We all know the game. Tried downloading a song off amazon.com, something millions have done without a problem, but when choosing the application with which to open the .mp3 file, I picked, apparently, incorrectly. At least a pop-up window told me I'd picked it incorrectly. But instead of sticking around to help, the window disappeared. Meanwhile a big thank-you from amazon on my purchase. And the purchase? Nowhere. Just another day in the disconnected neighborhood.
Amazon's "Help" section not only didn't help me locate the file anywhere on my computer, but somehow,while clicking this and that not too carefully, I inadvertently bought another song. One I'd never heard of.
So. Searched for and called their customer service number. Explained the situation in a very hoarse, bronchitis-ridden voice and was informed that they weren't trained for MP3 problems, but they gave me a number to call. That person, too, wasn't trained on MP3 issues but she transferred me to someone who was. Apparently the transfer went all the way to India (more likely: stayed in India) because the dude on the other end had a thick Indian accent. If he's in the U.S. I feel sorry for him because no one will think he's in the U.S.
After I explained the situation (sans the second, inadvertent purchase: too complicated), he said he was sending me an e-mail with instructions and I was to go to the amazon page and refresh it, but his instructions merely led to more questions, which I tried to ask, but which he batted down, initially, with a demand that I not interrupt him. Since his final instructions didn't answer my questions, I asked them. Do I refresh the amazon homepage or the "thanks for purchasing..." page? Do I click on this link in the e-mail? Is refreshing the homepage supposed to do something? Because it did nothing for me.
He: "Sir, this is the last time I'm going to tell you this..."
Really? The last time?
This is how you lose customers. You create a needlessly complex model that contains bugs on common paths and a customer-service department half a world away.
Finally bought the song on iTunes. Time wasted: an hour.
Escape from Sea-Tac
You know that scene in "The Empire Strikes Back" when Han Solo and his Millennium Falcon crew run away from x-wing fighters and land inside a hollow meteor, which they soon realize, as it rumbles, is not a hollow meteor after all but some kind of space creature, and so they zip out to safety just as the thing snaps at them and nearly devours them? That's how Patricia and I felt Sunday getting out of Seattle. Just with a lot more downtime.
Merely getting to the airport was an adventure, and involved a friend's 1961 Land Rover, several steep hills that were supposedly "closed" but weren't blocked off and which we went down anyway, a broken windshield wiper and a broken cable. But we made it...
Except you heard about Sea-Tac that day, right? Waited in line an hour, checked luggage, through security, drink at that sad little African-themed bar that has nothing at all to do with Seattle, then to Gate A14. Which showed no signs of our flight. Departure board said A11 and we went there. Voila. Except another flight, to New York, was loading. Just as it was leaving we were told, "Go back to A14." But there was another flight there that wouldn't take off for another hour. Meanwhile it kept snowing. Meanwhile all Alaska and Horizon flights were cancelled. Meanwhile our flight, which was "on time" and scheduled to leave at 4:10, disappeared completely from the Departure board because, I suppose, the flight was "on time" and it was now past 4:10.
Finally we got the news: "Go back to A11." Where we were told that our plane, which had landed two hours earlier, would finally deplane at Gate A2, but we couldn't go there because that gate had no computer to check us in. Eventually it showed up, at A11, and, as snow swirled in the darkness outside, we boarded. About two and a half hours late.
Then we waited. And waited. For the de-icer. There were three planes ahead of us and two de-icers. (For the entire airport?) One broke. The second ran out of fluid. When they got the fluid, its pump broke. Meanwhile it kept snowing. Meanwhile the plane kept getting hotter. Meanwhile our pilot informed us that if this process took longer than 90 minutes, federal regulations stipulated that this flight crew couldn't continue and would be forced to take a sleep break. Meaning the flight would be cancelled? That question was left unanswered. Meanwhile, according to the Seattle Times Web site, which I checked via my iPhone, all hotels in the area were booked.
And still it snowed.
About 45 minutes later, our plane was finally de-iced. Then we sat in the darkness for half an hour. No word, no nothing. Finally, without a word, our plane began to move. People applauded. At approximately 10 p.m., or six hours late, we were airborne.
The awful thing about the entire process, like everything these days, is the lack of accountability. Yes, the snow, and, yes, Seattle is unprepared for the snow, but why the constant stutter-steps with the gates? Why was our flight unable to find a gate? Why did they run out of de-icing fluid? Etc. But who to call? Sea-Tac? Port of Seattle? Our tickets were purchased online and the entire horrible process felt that way. Like there wasn't a person at the other end.
The punchline? Airborne now, the pilot came on and announced: "We will be arriving in Minneapolis at approximately 2:50 a.m. Current temperature there is...eight degrees below zero."
Merry Christmas, everyone.
My French teacher, Nathalie, spent a week in Sayulita, Mexico last month and took this picture of the Mexican version of Shepard Fairey's famous series of Obama posters. Cambio. Change.
The people there told her about the spontaneous celebrations that erupted the night Obama got elected. As here in Seattle. As all over the world.
I'm sure there are similar posters from different countries and in different languages. If you know of any, or, better, if you have images of any, please send them my way.
I was reading something yesterday and the author used the word “humbug” as a noun and my mind immediately tried to translate it into modern terminology. “Fraud” would be accurate but my first impulse was “bullshit.”
That actually works better as a translation for the word as an exclamation. Which made me imagine Scrooge saying it throughout “A Christmas Carol.”
“Merry Christmas, Uncle!” said Scrooge's nephew, as he strode into the office.
“Christmas,” muttered Scrooge. “Bullshit!”
Makes him seem less quaint, and crazier.
Eastwood and CIA: Offline
I cut through the Sunday New York Times these days — basically: Week in Review, Arts & Leisure, Sports during baseball season, maybe the Magazine if the cover looks good (“The Year in Ideas”: No) — and in the cutting through this morning there was an interesting pro/con about the Internet.
In a mock-fearful but ultimately laid-back article on Clint Eastwood and “Gran Torino,” the writer, Bruce Headlam, whose first sentence is great, mentions that the menu at Eastwood’s Mission Ranch restaurant has plenty of meat, adding:
Despite what you might have read on Wikipedia, Mr. Eastwood is not a vegan, and he looked slightly aghast when told exactly what a vegan is. “I never look at the Internet for just that reason,” he said.
Meanwhile, in an Op-Ed in the Week in Review section, Art Brown, a 25-year veteran of the CIA, lists what’s wrong with our spy agency. His first point? Its distrust of outsiders breeds a brand of insularity at odd with its mission of keeping Americans safe:
Despite their reputation as plugged-in experts on other countries, many C.I.A. officers do not even have Internet access at their desks. Worse yet, they don’t think they need it.
I empathize with both arguments. The Internet is the new form of communication with a lot of crap on it. Doesn’t mean you can’t communicate on it well, or accurately, but it does mean that if you want to stay up-to-speed with what’s going on in the world you need to at least be aware of the kinds of things you’ll find there. The danger in not doing so is apparent in Brown’s Op-Ed and even in Headlam’s profile. Eastwood’s attitude is: I do what I do, and I do it for me. In his movies, he shows his age. With the exception of beating up punks, he acts his age. He’s got a great quote on not playing your age:
“You know when you’re young and you see a play in high school, and the guys all have gray in their hair and they’re trying to be old men and they have no idea what that’s like? It’s just that stupid the other way around.”
There’s a quiet power in movies like “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River” but, Headlam notes, also an anachronistic quality at odds with their contemporary settings. This is part of what happens when you let modern culture and all of its idiocies pass you by. In Eastwood’s case, the trade-off might be worth it. The CIA, not so much.
Some of the most coveted real estate for any illustrator — probably the most coveted — is the New Yorker cover, and this week, for I believe the second time, the owner is Marcellus Hall, with whom I ran cross country at Washburn High School in Minneapolis in the early 1980s. He lives in Brooklyn now. You can view his Web site here. You can view his MySpace page, and listen to his music, here.
Amazingly talented even back then. Somewhere I have an old Marc drawing titled “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” and delineating what we considered our predicament: a skinny, geeky dude sitting by himself, while a bulbous, dopey football player is surrounded by admiring girls.
The New Yorker cover is titled, in typically dry New Yorker fashion, “Green Christmas.”
Two Huff Posts to bring to your attention.
The first, mine, is a look at Barack Obama's book "Dreams From My Father." It will also be in the book review section of this site soon.
In the second, Chris Kelly, a writer for Bill Maher and easily the funniest guy on the site, takes on those chest-beating Kid Rock/National Guard ads that play before trailers in chain theaters. The ad includes a "citizen-soldier" (read: out-of-work actor) in Afghanistan, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. spinning the track, and Kid Rock screaming and then singing: "So don't tell me who's wrong and who's right when liberty starts slipping away/ And if you ain't gonna fight, get out of the way." First time I saw it I nearly threw up. Kelly shells the thing with his wit. Check out the rubble here.
But read mine first.
Coughlin Jumps Orwell
So Hendrik Hertzberg, one of the "Talk of the Town" writers for The New Yorker, whom I've blogged about here, here, here and here, was jumped last week by a couple of guys with mics working for "The O'Reilly Factor" and then raked over the coals by the host of that show, who called him "dishonest" and himself "an easty target" for people like Hertzberg. All of which is a little like George Orwell being jumped and called dishonest by Father Coughlin. You can read Hertzberg's take on it here. My favorite bit is New Yorker editor David Remnick's response to a polite e-mail and invitation from the producer of O'Reilly's show:
Dear Mr. Mitchell,
Thanks for your courteous note. It’s an interesting contrast in tone with the the fantastical on-air description of Rick as a left-wing zealot, the nonsense that he had refused a real interview before sending a crew to his apartment building, and the sneering descriptions of Rick, me, and the magazine from Mr O’Reilly on air. Quite a performance. So while I appreciate your note, you’ll forgive me if I pass in wanting to engage this any more. What I said at the start stands: I thought Rick’s piece, considering Newt Gingrich’s language, was, as you might put it, fair and balanced.
Respectfully yours, David Remnick
Didion, Clad in her Armor
Last night, the cover of the latest New York Review of Books — VICTORY!, with a cartoon of Obama in the center, and promises of articles by Joan Didion, Darryl Pinckney and others — made me happy for a moment... until I began reading Didion’s article. Then I went: Oh yeah. This.
Didion was an established writer by the time I began to read serious literature, well-known for her essays, and I enjoyed White Album and others in my twenties but began feeling disappointment in my thirties when I read Salvador. I thought: “Does she only have irony? Is that her sole tool?” After reading all of Norman Mailer’s messy attempts to be engaged with the world, Didion’s ironic distance felt dry and useless.
In the Review she writes about how, in the Obama era, irony is supposedly out. Her essay proves otherwise. She casts an ironic eye less on Obama than on the support he engenders:
Irony was now out.
Naiveté, translated into “hope,” was now in.
Innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.
Partisanship could now be appropriately expressed by consumerism.
I couldn't count the number of snapshots I got e-mailed showing people's babies dressed in Obama gear.
Was innocence ever prized in this campaign? Youth, yes, but innocence? As for the consumerism and snapshots, well, maybe she needs new friends. I received no snapshots of babies in Obama gear during this election season. My friends were too busy, among other things, campaigning for Obama. Being engaged.
She goes on:
I couldn't count the number of times I heard the words “transformational” or “inspirational,” or heard the 1960s evoked by people with no apparent memory that what drove the social revolution of the 1960s was not babies in cute T-shirts but the kind of resistance to that decade's war that in the case of our current wars, unmotivated by a draft, we have yet to see.
Must be tough to be one of Didion’s friends — to hear your words later mocked in her essays. Yet wasn’t Obama, certainly on the most basic of levels, transformational? Wasn’t he inspirational? It feels so small, her objections. She stands back, like in the famous David Levine caricature, holding her cigarette aloft, clad in her irony, while the world celebrates. It’s an easy stance because the world is full of fools and she quotes some of them. A commentator who said other nations now “want to be with us.” That’s how she ends her essay:
Imagining in 2008 that all the world's people wanted to be with us did not seem entirely different in kind from imagining in 2003 that we would be greeted with flowers when we invaded Iraq, but in the irony-free zone that the nation had chosen to become, this was not the preferred way of looking at it.
Maybe this was not the preferred way of looking at it because “wanting to be with us” came from a commentator after someone else’s election, while “greeted with flowers” came from the highest officials in the Bush administration before their own invasion. The first, though clumsily phrased, was based upon evidence we could actually see: people around the world celebrating Obama’s victory. The second was based upon evidence the Bush administration didn’t let us see and which they wanted to see: Their policy dictating their evidence, rather than vice-versa. Maybe that’s part of why Didion's way is not the preferred way of looking at it.
Irony isn’t out; it’s simply, as always, an easy way out.
NY Times: A Graf Too Far
A couple of bits in yesterday's NY Times turned me off the paper for the day — both in the Week in Review section. (Loudon Wainwright: "Now who in the hell wants a review?/ Once was enough for me, thank you.")
Peter Goodman's piece — on the Long Island Wal-Mart employee trampled to death by shoppers looking for bargains on Black Friday — went a graf too far. It should've ended with the pinata metaphor ("lots of treats in there, but no guarantee that you will get any"), but kept going to this: "It seemed fitting then, in a tragic way, that the holiday season began..." Fitting? That's some cold shit. And part of the Times' habit to make the news fit the times.
Then in Anand Giridharadas' piece on the Mumbai terrorist attacks, we got this graf on the reaction to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's "emotionless" television address to the nation:
His temperateness helped to keep the ever-present threat of religious riots at bay. But it also seemed to misread the mood of a country that wanted it to be 9/11 — if not in the sense of war and conquest, then in the sense of instant clarity, of the simple feeling that an era had ended and that enough was, at last, enough.
So if the Prime Minister misread the mood of the country, how does a journalist exactly read the mood of a country? The evidence given, in the following graf, is all YouTube commentary. Not exactly an unimpeachable source. More, if this is in fact the mood of the country, why doesn't the paper question it? Two areas to delve into: How are the Mumbai attacks not like 9/11? And where did that supposed post-9/11 clarity take the U.S.? Few things, after all, can be as obfuscating as clarity.
Makng up for all this is David Barstow's must-read piece on retired U.S. generals like Barry McCaffrey working for military contractors and the media at the same time — without mentioning the former to the latter, or to the latter's viewers, or to Congress when testifying on military policy. Even Ike didn't foresee this. A new question to ask when analysts show up on the news or before Congress: Who else do you work for?
Torture to Watch
“Dark Side” uses the incarceration and subsequent death of an innocent Afghani taxi driver while in U.S. military custody as the starting point to examine our entire post-9/11 system of torture and humiliation — specifically at Bagram, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. It’s a good overview of what will surely be one of the blackest marks of the many black marks on the Bush administration. For some, of course, the mark isn’t even black, but this doc should give pause to proponents of torture, as well as to regular viewers of “24” — where the efficacy of torture in extracting accurate information is regularly dramatized.
Morris’ film is more focused and creepier. He trains his eye on Abu Ghraib, on what was done there, on the photos that were taken there, on what they say or don’t say and how they lie or don’t lie. He interviews, almost exclusively, the various “bad apples” who forced Iraqi prisoners to debase themselves. It’s beautifully shot, but claustrophobic and so sad about human nature. What people can convince themselves to do — particularly when ordered to do so. What they can convince themselves of afterwards. A few small apples were scapegoated for our unethical system, and their main defense is the Nuremberg defense: I didn’t know any bettre; I was just following orders. They also blame the photographs. They blame the evidence rather than the crime. It’s as if being scapegoated for the crime is keeping them from examining their role in the crime.
I’m not sure what happens when we stare into those faces as they justify their actions, but it’s definitely uncomfortable. Would we have done the same in their situation? Are they us? The tawdriness of the enterprise is overwhelming. Maybe it says something that the talking head who is least culpable — who was not even a guard at Abu Ghraib, but who wound up in the background of some photographs and was prosecuted based on that evidence — blames himself the most. Maybe that’s something the rest of us could begin to emulate.
I know what I'm thankful for. It happened exactly 23 days ago.
Debating our National Story
It doesn't. Lists like these, if they're done carefully, are attempts to order the messiness of our culture, but mostly they ignore the larger questions they raise.
I went into the piece, for example, thinking we don't make American epics anymore, but we do, to a certain extent. At the least, we make shorter versions of epics — sans overtures, intermissions and entre’acts. What we don't do is go see them. And even if we do, the epics don't leave the kind of mark on our culture they used to. "Dances with Wolves" was probably the last to do so. The question is why.
I would argue that it has less to do with a general disinterest in our country's history than a general disagreement on what that history is or means. We no longer agree on our national story.
In the past, films like "Birth of a Nation" and "Gone with the Wind" could sub for our national story, but each has a casual attitude toward slavery and its aftermaths, and, for each, the triumph is not the removal of the great stain on our nation but the South rising again after the stain is removed — either individually, like Scarlett, who would never be hungry again, or collectively, like the Klan in "Birth of a Nation," who are essentially our first superheroes, a team of Lone Rangers riding to save the virtue of white women from carpetbaggers and freed darkies. That was the lie we told ourselves 100 years ago.
We’ve grown, as a country, but we haven’t been able to take our national story with us. We haven’t been able to dramatize it. We’ve only been able to dramatize it abroad, where the enemy was clear (“Saving Private Ryan”) or ourselves (“Apocalypse Now”). But at home?
The great battle within the United States in the 19th century was the Civil War, which was the subject of a ton of movies. They’re still turning them out. From this decade: “Cold Mountain” and “Gods and Generals.”
The great battle within the United States in the 20th century was the civil rights movement, which has been the subject of... what? “Mississippi Burning”? About white FBI agents?
How much has Hollywood, this supposed bastion of liberalism, ignored the civil rights movement? This much: No theatrical film has ever featured, as the main character, an actor playing Martin Luther King, Jr. None. On the other hand, the same could be said, in the era of talkies, about George Washington, so one wonders how much racism, or at least monetary calculations involving race, play a part. You know they do, you just don’t know how much. And if, in an era of Will Smith and Barack Obama, things are changing.
Or are we shying from the epic because we no longer believe the lies we once told ourselves to create such national stories as “Gone with the Wind”? Rather than a misty, nostalgic eye, we keep casting a cold eye upon our past: “There Will Be Blood,” for example.
Others may argue that the multiculturalism of the United States — and the insistence on recognizing each, specific culture and its contributions, however small, to our society — disallows a national story, but I don’t agree. You can find the universal in the specific — that’s the best place to look — and you can find the American-ness in the ethnic story. Just look at “The Godfather.” No movie’s more Italian, no movie’s more American.
I’d be curious to hear what stories, fictional or not, that seem to reflect some aspect of our national story (whatever that is), people would like to see made into movies. There is an epic, I know, to be made out of the civil rights movement. Someday, someone will do it. And if they do it right, people will come.
15 Films Up for Best Documentary
The documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has already tightened the race for Best Documentary to 15 films. They are:
- Steve James and Peter Gilbert's death-penalty critique "At the Death House Door"
- Ellen Kuras' "The Betrayal," about the impact of 1980s U.S. military operations on a Laotian family
- "Fuel," Josh Tickell's examination of America's oil dependency
- "I.O.U.S.A.," Patrick Creadon's primer on the nation's fiscal crisis
- Carl Deal and Tia Lessin's Hurricane Katrina chronicle "Trouble the Water"
- Errol Morris' Abu Ghraib thinkpiece "Standard Operating Procedure"
- Werner Herzog's visit to the South Pole, "Encounters at the End of the World"
- Gini Reticker's celebration of female peace activists in Liberia, "Pray the Devil Back to Hell"
- Daniel Junge's true-crime account "They Killed Sister Dorothy"
- Roberta Grossman's "Blessed Is the Match: The Life and Death of Hannah Senesh," about a Hungarian-born Jew who fought to save her people during WWII.
- Stacy Peralta's "Made in America"
- Scott Hamilton Kennedy's "The Garden"
- Scott Hicks' "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts"
- Jeremiah Zagar's "In a Dream"
- James Marsh's "Man on Wire."
Check 'em out wherever you can. I've only seen two of the 15: "Man on Wire" and "I.O.U.S.A." The first was uplifting and beautiful; the second was scarier than all hell. And that was before banks starting collapsing.
I'm particularly interested in seeing the death-penalty critique. If the use of DNA evidence has taught us anything, it's that we sometimes arrest and convict people innocent of the charges against them. And the only reason we haven't yet found a case where an innocent man was put to death by the state (that is, by us), it's because the dead don't petition for a new trial.
Dan Savage Opens a Can of Whup-Ass
The Best Argument for Gay Marriage
This is one of the best arguments I've heard in the battle for gay marriage, and it's just one sentence. Irony in it, too. One of the questions (whispered or otherwise) in the civil rights struggle was, "Yeah, but would you want your daughter marrying one?" It was the anti-progressive argument. Now it's the progressive argument. What gets whispered now is all that's implied in that question. Would you want your daughter involved in a marriage with someone pretending to be what they were not? Someone incapable of loving them fully? Lying to them — daily? There's an overwhelming sadness in it. The time lost. The lives lost. C'mon, people, wake the eff up. It's hard enough to do this without barriers.
Obama in '03: Mistaken for Waiter, Deemed Unworthy of Magazine Profile
Via Eric Alterman, the WSJ's Katherine Rosman has an account of meeting a young state senator at a literary party five years ago. At the time he was about to run for the U.S. Senate. He's now president-elect.
The punchline is that, back then, an author at the party mistook the future president for a waiter:
But what I will always remember is as I was leaving that party in 2003, I was approached by another guest, an established author. He asked about the man I had been talking to. Sheepishly he told me he didn’t know that Obama was a guest at the party, and had asked him to fetch him a drink.
Equally telling to me about the way the world works is the fact that Rosman, impressed with the young man, tried to pitch a story about him to a national magazine but got shot down. They weren't interested.
Obama? Apparently there was nothing to sell there.
Sully points out some idiotic commentary, from Dan Kois and Joe Carter, on the future of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report during an Obama administration. Can they skewer a Pres. Obama as effectively as they did a Pres. Bush? Both say the fun's over. Kois indicates that Colbert will overtake Stewart while Carter actually suggests replacing Stewart with something for a “hip, young, right-leaning audience” and offers up Dennis Miller.
OK. Yes, it will be tougher for these two shows during an Obama administration. But what they skewer more than anything else is hypocrisy and there's still plenty of that to go around. There always will be. Start with the media. The best bits of The Daily Show have focused on the hypocrisy, or just the absolute stupidity, of many in the media, mainstream or otherwise, and that ain't going away. Kois' and Carter's inch-deep articles are testament.
As for the right-leaning audience thing? Republicans don't do comedy well. Sorry. Humor comes out of powerlessness, and, no matter who's in power, Republicans, by virtue of their wealth, are never out of power. There may be a Dem in the White House, but, in business and industry, it's Republicans who are still running things. Running them, I should add, poorly. Which is why we'll have a Dem in the White House in January.
So NY Times reporter Michael Sokolove returned to his hometown of Levittown, Pa., on Election Day to find out how and why people were voting. Great piece. Read it in full.
Some might wonder how this differs from what Maureen Dowd does. The biggest difference is in the question itself: “Why are you doing what you're doing” vs. “How do you feel?” The latter is a lousy question even when it comes from a reporter and is directed at a championship-winning athlete, and it's positively abyssmal when it comes from two citizens partcipating in the same democratic process. It implies a separation (as between reporter and athlete) when there should be none. It also assumes that people within a generalized group (that is, African-Americans) fit the generalization (that is, support Obama), and Dowd's black bartender, a Libertarian, was one of 4 percent nationwide who did not fit this generalization. Oops.
Sokolove asks a real reporter's question (or a reporter's real question?) and gets great results. Why did this area, which went overwhelmingly for Hilary during the primaries, now go for Obama?
- “McCain pointed a lot of fingers instead of giving answers,” Steve O’Connor, a plumber, told me.
- “I don’t want a clone of George Bush,” Mark Maxwell, 47, a corporate chef, said. “With McCain, that’s exactly what we’d get.”
- Said Lisa Winslow, a 20-year-old college student: “I’m not rich. I can’t afford to vote for McCain.”
- Levittown is filled with a great many veterans of the Vietnam War, not all of whom served happily. “I didn’t want to be there when I was told to go,” said Frank Carr, 62, who recently retired from his shipping job in a corrugated box factory. “I know how the boys feel. I believe Obama is a man of his word.” When Mr. Obama says he is going to bring home the troops, “I believe him,” Mr. Carr said.
Sokolove then concludes smartly:
The people I met in Levittown were not on Mr. Obama’s e-mail list or among his donors, but they may be more likely than his younger supporters and more affluent ones to give him what he most desperately needs: time and patience. Like characters from the songs of one of Mr. Obama’s celebrity endorsers, Bruce Springsteen, many Levittowners have been weathered by life. They haven’t benefited from a lot of quick fixes. Others of his supporters say they’ll be patient, but I sensed these people really mean it. They were harder to sell, but they could end up being pretty loyal.
“How long did it take Bush to get us into this mess?” Mr. Carr, the Vietnam veteran, asked. “It’s a lot easier to screw things up than to make them better.”
Maureen Dowd Sucks (Again)
As the posts below indicate, I've been waiting for the Sunday Times since Tuesday evening around 8 PM (PST). Wasn't the first thing on my mind, certainly, but at some point I did want to hear how Frank Rich and the others reacted to the Obama victory.
Rich's main point is that we're a better country than we (and the Rovian Republicans) think we are. Thomas Friedman wants foreign leaders, giddy over an Obama victory, to remember to back Obama when things get tough: when we try to extricate ourselves from Iraq without collapsing the entire structure, or when we have to put pressure on Iran to keep them from developing nuclear weapons. Nicholas Kristof, echoing what I've long felt, wonders if Obama's victory is as much a victory for another embattled minority group, intellectuals, as it is for African-Americans.
And Maureen Dowd? She begins her column not poorly:
I grew up in the nation’s capital, but I’ve never seen blacks and whites here intermingling as they have this week.
That made me want to read on. Until the very next sentence:
Everywhere I go, some white person is asking some black person how they feel.
Really? I thought. Surely not everywhere you go. Surely there are white people in D.C. who realize how condescending that is. Surely there are white people in D.C. who are happy enough to bask in their own joy without probing into the joy of perfect strangers — as if an Obama victory went beyond their ability to understand or experience. As if it wasn't for them as well.
But Ms. Dowd finds them. Or at least writes about them. A white customer quizzing his black waitress. White women quizzing their black bartender. A white-haired white woman and a UPS delivery guy. Dowd herself and her mailman. Each instance involves a black service-person and a white customer. Nice. Where does she live again? Maybe she needs to get out more. Or further.
And the point of her column? It comes in the second-to-last graf:
But is it time now for whites to stop polling blacks on their feelings?
Jesus. So Maureen Dowd writes a column in which a group of people act in a suspect manner to impart the lesson that this group of people probably shouldn't act in this suspect manner.
Can someone please put Maureen Dowd out of her (and our) misery? Please?
Karim Sadjadpour Quote of the Day
“If you’re a hard-liner in Tehran, a U.S. president who wants to talk to you presents more of a quandary than a U.S. president who wants to confront you,” remarked Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment. “How are you going to implore crowds to chant ‘Death to Barack Hussein Obama’?"
—from Thomas Friedman's column "Show Me the Money."
"These are not the Snicker bars you're looking for."
My nephew, Jordan, dressed as Obi-wan Kenobi. Somehow, on the last day of October, he managed to get almost everyone in his neighborhood to part with free candy. I'm assuming Jedi mind trick.
We Never Imagined That In Our Lifetime...
The editor-in-chief of Super Lawyers was in Georgia yesterday with our chief photographer shooting photos of our feature subjects for the March issue. One is a late 50s African-American attorney. He's one of nine children — and the only professional in the group, but his daughter is now second-year at Harvard Law. She applied too late for an absentee ballot so flew back to Atlanta just to vote. The attorney, a real gentleman according to our EIC, was stunned by Obama's victory. He twice said he never imagined he'd see a black president in his lifetime.
A common refrain. It was my refrain five years ago.
Meanwhile the writer of that piece told me the following: “On a totally personal note, I live in John Lewis' district and my neighborhood was also a great place to experience an Obama victory last night — white people setting off fireworks for our first black president. It was fabulous!”
“Idiot Wind” by Bob Dylan
Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they'd cut it out but when they will I can only guess.
They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy,
She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me.
I can't help it if I'm lucky.
People see me all the time and they just can't remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts.
Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at,
I couldn't believe after all these years, you didn't know me better than that
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth,
Blowing down the backroads headin' south.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.
I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike
I haven't known peace and quiet for so long I can't remember what it's like.
There's a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin' out of a boxcar door,
You didn't know it, you didn't think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars
After losin' every battle.
I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin' 'bout the way things sometimes are
Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin' me see stars.
You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies.
One day you'll be in the ditch, flies buzzin' around your eyes,
Blood on your saddle.
Idiot wind, blowing through the flowers on your tomb,
Blowing through the curtains in your room.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.
It was gravity which pulled us down and destiny which broke us apart
You tamed the lion in my cage but it just wasn't enough to change my heart.
Now everything's a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped,
What's good is bad, what's bad is good, you'll find out when you reach the top
You're on the bottom.
I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can't remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes
don't look into mine.
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime
turned Slowly into autumn.
Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull,
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.
I can't feel you anymore, I can't even touch the books you've read
Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin' I was somebody else instead.
Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy,
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory
And all your ragin' glory.
I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I'm finally free,
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.
You'll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above,
And I'll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love,
And it makes me feel so sorry.
Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats,
Blowing through the letters that we wrote.
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves,
We're idiots, babe.
It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves.
Movie Quote of the Day
"Tonight we got Hayfield. Like all the other schools in this conference they're all white. They don't have to worry about race. We do. But we're better for it."
—Coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) in Remember the Titans. It's not a good movie — there are very dishonest parts — but these lines, part of the "big game" speech, resonate beyond the film. They articulate my hopes about our country. Other countries, in Asia, in Europe, haven't really been dealing with racial matters for as long as we have, and haven't gone as far as we have. And I like to think we're better for it.
U.S. Presidents on Film
I’ve got a piece up on MSNBC today about portrayals of U.S. presidents on film — to coincide with the release of Oliver Stone’s W. Here’s a quick synopsis of some of the films I had to watch for the piece.
Worth the time:
1. Thirteen Days (2000): Focuses on the Cuban Missile Crisis through the eyes of Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), special assistant to the president, whose biggest worry, at the story begins, is his son’s report card and Jackie’s party list. Then the world nearly ends. Watch the film and you can count the ways it nearly ends: If JFK had listened to the Joint Chiefs or if he had listened to Dean Acheson or if Bob McNamara hadn’t come up with the quarantine alternative or if General LeMay had gotten his way (“The big red dog is diggin’ in our backyard and we are justified in shooting him!”) or if the Russian ships hadn’t turned back or if the administration hadn’t come up with the plan to ignore Khrushchev’s second letter in favor of his first…well, then you might not be reading this. These days, almost everyone on the right, and a few on the left, invoke Neville Chamberlain as the diplomatic bogeyman. Get bullied and World War II results. JFK and his team repeatedly invoke The Guns of August: the book about how misunderstandings between countries led to WWI. Presidents reading. Imagine that.
2. Path to War (2002): John Frankenheimer’s last film, about how, step by step, LBJ got us involved in Vietnam. What’s intriguing about this version of history is how early the designers of the Vietnam War, particularly Robert McNamara (Alec Baldwin, shining), realized a victory wasn’t a sure thing. There’s a powerful scene, just after McNamara talks with his aides about how many losses we’ll probably sustain for such-and-such a period, when a Quaker, Norman Morrison, sets himself on fire outside McNamara’s Pentagon office to remind everyone what a loss of a life is. Ultimately the film is a semi-sympathetic portrayal of Johnson. He listened to the wrong advice, probably against his gut instinct, and stuck us there for 10 years and lost his (and our) Great Society along with 50,000 American lives. It’s another example of the U.S., the most powerful country in the world, getting involved where they shouldn’t, and against their own better instincts, because of a combination of hubris and the fear of appearing weak. Helluva cast: Baldwin, Michael Gambon (as LBJ), Donald Sutherland, Philip Baker Hall (who played Nixon in Secret Honor), Frederic Forrest and one of my favorite character actors, Bruce McGill, who plays CIA Chief George Tenet in W.
3. The Day Reagan was Shot (2001): A surprisingly good Showtime film from the early 2000s. Actors who have to play well-known figures should study Richard Crenna here. He merely suggests Reagan, he doesn’t imitate him. The film is sympathetic to Haig, too, who is played by Richard Dreyfuss, who would go on to play Dick Cheney in W. What I learned: Reagan came close to dying that day in 1981; and the federal government was more or less in chaos; and the White House was unable to even secure outside lines when they needed to. The usual bureaucratic pissing matches are fun to watch: FBI vs. Treasury; Haig vs. Weinberger. The film is both comic and scary. At one point, for example, the “football,” or the briefcase with the nuclear launch codes, goes missing.
4. Secret Honor (1984): I first saw this when it came out, or at least when it came to the University of Minnesota in January 1985, and I wondered if it would hold up. Does. It’s a one-man show, all Phillip Baker Hall, bless him. Nixon, drinking in exile, lurches between defending himself and attacking, vituperatively, profanely, his many enemies. “I was just an unindicted co-conspirator like everyone else in the United State of America,” he rails at one point. As for that secret honor? According to Altman’s Nixon, the people that put him in charge, the Committee of 100, wanted him to continue the Vietnam War, to nab a third term, and to use China against the Soviets and then “carve up the markets of the rest of the goddamned world.” Nixon fell on his sword rather than let this to happen. So Altman’s take was similar to Stone’s later take. Both imply that while Nixon may have been a bastard, the people behind him? Man, you don’t want to go there.
5. Nixon (1995): I got stuck with the director’s cut. Interestingly, the reinstated scenes on an HDTV show up blurry, or blurrier, so let you know exactly what was cut. And why. Because most of these scenes focus on that Oliver Stone paranoia of “the system” being like a “beast.” They deserved the cutting room floor. That said, the theatrical version is quite good and fairly sympathetic to Nixon. So interesting. Hollywood gives us sympathetic Nixons and LBJs but coldhearted Thomas Jeffersons. Love Anthony Hopkins in the title role, but Joan Allen (sorry, darling) is way too sexy to play Pat Nixon. Money quote: “People vote not out of love but fear.”
6. The Crossing (1999): An A&E film. A little slow but a fascinating look at the low point of the American Revolution. It’s the moment when, out of desperation, we went on the attack, the surprise attack, and salvaged our last chance at independence.
1. Truman (1995): Gary Sinese is great but it’s a dull, conventional film (from HBO) about the man who, we’re told time and again, was “as stubborn as a Missouri mule.” Sample line from a speech during his 1948 whistle-stop tour. “I am for the people and against the special interests.” Hey, me too! In the end, too much life to be portrayed in too little time. And, sorry Gore Vidal, but no mention of the creation of the National Security State in 1947. Yeah, big shock.
2. Jefferson in Paris (1995): One gets the feeling the filmmakers wanted to suggest the leisurely pace of 18th century society, as Stanley Kubrick did with Barry Lyndon, but here it just comes off as dull. Nolte’s Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, is a remarkably cold and hypocritical man.
3. Wilson (1944): Another reluctant president. Another pure man. The only presidential biopic to be nominated for best picture. Also helped kill the presidential biopic since it bombed at the box office.
4. The Reagans (2003): Before Josh Brolin played W., his father, James Brolin, played Reagan. All in the family. Good quote from Republican operatives in 1964 talking amongst themselves: “His lack of political knowledge, c’mon fellas, just makes him seem more a man of the people!” Republicans have been following that script ever since: Reagan, Quayle, W., Palin...
5. Sunrise at Campobello (1960): Former Navy secretary and vice-presidential nominee FDR contracts polio but makes his political comeback at the 1924 Democratic Convention. From a popular play, but onscreen (sorry) it just sits there.
6. Abraham Lincoln (1930): D.W. Griffith’s last film. Ponderous, folksy, monumental, dusty. Like Truman in Truman, Lincoln is portrayed as a man without ambition. Here’s an idea of what the film is like: At one point, late at night, Lincoln (Walter Huston) paces in the White House only to stop and proclaim: “I’ve got it, Mary! I’ve found the man to win the war! And his name is…GRANT!” And that, kids, is how presidential decisions are made.
7. DC 9/11: Time of Crisis (2003): The worst.
Canvassing for Obama in Youngstown, OH
My friend Andy Engelson, a father of two, an editor in Seattle, and one of the nicest people I know, spent the first weekend in October canvassing for Obama in Ohio. Here’s what he found…
After flying into Columbus and driving three hours east, I arrived in Youngstown in the early evening. This is a former steel town, and enormous empty steel mills fill the Mahoning River Valley. Most of the city is perched on the hills above the valley, and evidence of a broken economy is everywhere: boarded-up businesses, crumbling homes, a nearly empty downtown.
But the campaign office was a hub of activity—filled with local volunteers with union T-shirts, OSU Buckeye sweatshirts and Obama buttons. The volunteer coordinator (who works long, long hours) was a bubbly college student from Long Island. She quickly put me to work calling volunteers to set up door-to-door canvassing over the weekend.
You may have heard about the strength of Obama’s “ground game”—a vast grassroots network of volunteers. It is truly impressive. Both in Philadelphia (where I canvassed for Obama in April), and in Youngstown, everyone who volunteers is quickly trained, put to work and effusively thanked. Every person we call who is voting for Obama is asked to volunteer, and those who say yes get a follow-up call.
During the next afternoon, I headed out to the local Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Target and other big-box stores to register voters. I had done this in Seattle, and in Youngstown I succeeded in signing up about a dozen new voters. Unfortunately, after a while, a cranky middle manager came out of Wal-Mart and told me “You can’t gather signatures here!” I told her I was simply registering voters but she wasn’t sympathetic. Too bad these companies, which profit so much from working people, don’t want them to exercise their right to vote.
The next day, it was into the neighborhoods to canvass. I was paired up with Beverly, a woman from Buffalo, who, like me, had arrived for the weekend to volunteer. She told me she has a 26-year old son, also named Andy, once ran for city council as a Republican, but is an avid supporter of Obama. She was particularly impressed with his leadership and speaking skills, and felt the need to convince others. She’d lost her own election, but it had given her experience going to door-to-door and talking to voters. A number of years ago, she was a Buffalo Bills cheerleader, and there’s still a bit of that spirit in her as we went door to door in Youngstown urging people to vote for Obama.
Youngstown is definitely in hard times. In many neighborhoods we visited, it seemed as if every other home was abandoned: broken windows, vines growing up the sides of the house or trees fallen in the yard from Hurricane Ike. There are still some jobs in Youngstown—GM has a plant not far from town—and you will find pockets of nice homes. But often, just across the street, you’ll see the burned-out shell of a school or a group of men sitting on a doorstep drinking beer from 20-ounce cans in paper sacks.
In Ohio, voters can go to any Board of Elections building and vote anytime between now and Nov. 4. The campaign was pushing this hard in order to get everyone eligible out to vote and reduce lines on election day. You may remember the news from 2004, when in parts of Ohio there were eight-hour lines at polling places.
What I enjoy most about canvassing is talking to undecided voters. The conversations we had were positive, instructive and encouraging. Generally, these undecided voters are white, working class and over 60. One woman and I talked a good 10 minutes about the economy, about people not getting medical care because they don’t have insurance, about the situation in Youngstown. People here are amazingly upbeat and friendly despite the circumstances.
Occasionally, I’d meet less-than-friendly people. I also had one very negative confrontation.
It was late in the day, and I knocked at the second-to-last house on my list. I heard a gruff “WHO IS IT?” from behind the door. I said I was a volunteer with the Obama campaign and inquired about a young voter on my list who lived there. Silence. So I said goodbye and left some campaign literature at the door. As I was walking back to the sidewalk, the man burst out a side door and literally came running at me, red in the face. A young black man was running up behind him, but unable to hold this guy back. Just inches from me, the man, a white man with a beard and shirt with a motorcycle logo, shouted “Who the HELL are you?” He was shaking with rage. I told him again who I was and after a brief pause he yelled at me,“Just keep walking! NOW!” I did just that, moving slowly away. I met up with Beverly, who’d been working another street, and we drove back to the campaign office in the fading light.
It was scary to say the least. Had I flinched I think the guy would have struck me. What may have triggered the outburst was an incident in the neighborhood several days before. Two young African American men had posed as campaign workers just up the street, then robbed the home at gunpoint. So frustrating. Two stupid kids had hurt our efforts and inflamed racial tensions in this hard-hit town. Afterwards, we reported the encounter to the campaign office, and they agreed to stop canvassing in that immediate neighborhood.
But nothing was going to stop me from going out the next day.
On Sunday, I was invited by my hosts to attend a prayer breakfast at their church—the oldest African American church in Youngstown. Everyone was dressed in their finest, and the program featured members of churches talking about what had happened over the past year. There were presentations on what the church was doing in the community for children, for the elderly, and for those who were sick or homebound. A guest speaker joked about being riveted to CNN, and then talked about how many people in the community were worried about the future but were finding solace in the community of the church. There was plenty of singing, clapping, and a huge breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon, biscuits, and grits. Afterwards, my host, Goldia, introduced me to the pastor, and, he shook my hand for at least a full minute. I was humbled to be so welcomed.
Then back to the neighborhoods. We visited 200 or more homes over the course of the weekend. We talked to many undecideds, most of whom were worried about the economy. Youngstown is already dealing with a recession, they’re already “ahead” of the country in that regard. In fact, many, of the voters on our lists had already moved away. Either they’d been unable to make payments or they’d left Youngstown for good.
It’s clear Youngstown’s problems will not be fixed overnight. Perhaps there’s not even much Obama can do outright. But I do think a fairer tax policy, some efforts to boost new energy industries, and getting more folks covered by health care is a start. The last eight years have not been good to this town. It reminded me how much is riding on this election.
After a day knocking on doors in brilliant sunshine, Beverly returned to Buffalo and I spent the evening training a new volunteer, Ann, who had driven to Ohio from Los Angeles and would be volunteering in Youngstown until election day. If only I had the time to do that! I can’t say enough about how people respond to one-on-one contact with volunteers. People are appreciative and want to talk about the issues and hear about your personal reasons for supporting Obama.
Even Republicans supporting McCain were appreciative. I talked to an older man named Jim while I was registering voters outside Walgreens. We had a friendly conversation. Even though he supported McCain, he thanked me for coming out from Seattle. It was those sorts of conversations that make me realize we are not as divided as the media portrays us. One of the things that draws me to Obama is that “agree to disagree” philosophy that has been missing from the national discourse for some time.
And there’s a real satisfaction when you make a connection. That happened back in Philadelphia, when an older woman took me into her home and confessed that she would vote for Obama (rather than Clinton) but didn’t want her neighbors to know. She told me how, as a recently widowed woman, she was struggling to make ends meet. In tears, she told me how heating oil had cost her dearly the previous winter, and how she’d had to keep the thermostat below 60 to afford it. She’d voted for Reagan but was now more excited about the Obama campaign than any since Bobby Kennedy’s in ’68. She felt Obama actually gave a damn about people like her and was excited to see so many young people inspired by the campaign. And she was thankful, I think, that someone had taken the time to listen to her story.
More than anything, though, this campaign has helped me. Helped me see what people are going through in places less fortunate than my own. Helped me see what issues are truly important to people. It has shown me that even in difficult times, people maintain a sense of humor and a friendliness that is truly inspiring.
It also helped me meet people like Frank and his wife Mary. They are in their late 60s and have lived in Youngstown most of their lives. Frank suffered a stroke a few years ago so Mary asked if Beverly and I would come in and briefly talk to him: “It would mean so much to him. He can understand everything you say, but he can’t say anything.” We came into the home, and Mary introduced us as two volunteers working for the Obama campaign. “Frank, they’ve come here to visit you and ask if you’re going to support Obama. What do you think of Obama, Frank?”
Sitting at the kitchen table in a wheelchair with his head cocked to one side, he eyed us for a long moment. Then he slowly raised his hand and formed his shaking fingers into an OK sign.
Letters from Norman
Finished reading the political excerpts of Norman Mailer's letters in the Oct. 6 New Yorker (apologies: I've been busy) and it reminded me all over again why I love that old left-conservative bastard. He's grandiose but self-effacing. He's far-sighted and non-doctrinaire. He's a late '40s Marxist who despised the Soviet Union, a man who admired both Fidel Castro and William F. Buckley, who even contributed to The National Review, but who, at the same time, or later (in '76), wrote, “But as for Ford, Reagan, Dole and the rest of that pirate ship — Mary, they're puke,” and who wrote, even later (in June '03):
Even if you're a deep-dyed conservative, and Republican, please disabuse yourself of the idea that Bush is a good guy. Please, Sal. It seems to me the best argument you can present is that he's a total, shallow, maniuplative shit, but that he's got the luck of the devil working for him and so his policy may not end up in total disaster...
Or how about this 1987 observation on the nature on Russians and Americans:
There is one difference between Russians and Americans that is crucial: in America we keep running ahead of our guilt. We stay ahead of it by technique, by every trendy step. We’re analyzed, tranquilized, and roboticized, nouvelle cuisine-ized, yuppified, we stay ahead of our anxiety and our great guilt and are able to avoid the issue. The Russians aren’t. They’re marooned in their guilt and there are very few Russians who don’t have a bad conscience because the history of that place for 30 years required one to turn on friends, not overly perhaps, but through acts of omission, not helping friends who run afoul of the authorities. And authority itself kept stalling in its own huge bad conscience. The Russians, I think, live closer to their souls than we do because they’re guilty, and I can’t tell you how moving it is that out of the top bureaucracy itself has come this recognition that they’ve got to change and have a more human government.
My favorite letter may be the one to Don DeLillo in 1988 congratulating him on Libra. Most people can't get past the size of Norman's ego but if they did they'd find a largeness of spirit that few people have:
What a terrific book. I have to tell you that I read it against the grain. I’ve got an awfully long novel going on the CIA, and of course it overlapped just enough that I kept saying, “this son of a bitch is playing my music,” but I was impressed, damned impressed, which I very rarely am. I think we keep ourselves writing by allowing the core of our vanity never to be scratched if we can help it, but I didn’t get away scot-free this time. Wonderful virtuoso stuff all over the place, and, what is more, I think you’re fulfilling the task we’ve just about all forgotten, which is that we’re here to change the American obsessions—those black holes in space—into mantras that we can live with. What you’ve given us is a comprehensible, believable, vision of what Oswald was like, and what Ruby was like, one that could conceivably have happened. ... It’s so rare when novel writing offers us this deep purpose and I swear, Don, I salute you for it.
Reporting the Forecast: Sports Illustrated's Baseball Preview Predictions
I have SI’s March 31st issue, their baseball preview issue, and of course they include their predictions for the coming season. Not sure when this became de rigueur for publications. Growing up in the ‘70s, I don’t remember reading how the experts predicted the coming season in, say, the March issue of Baseball Digest. Were we more of a history-based culture then? This is where we’ve been, who knows where we’ll go? Now we ignore the past, are jittery in the present, pull the future towards us like Al Pacino pulling the fax out of the fax machine in The Insider. Haven’t seen it? See it.
Anyway, SI. Six divisions in baseball and they picked only two division winners correctly: Cubs and Angels. I know. Who knew the Rays would rise, the Tigers and Rockies would tank, the Mets would repeat last year’s September slide? They also correctly picked the bottom-dwellers only twice: Orioles and Pirates. They figured the Yankees would have the best record in baseball (94-68) while the O’s would have the worst (64-98), when it turned out to be Angels (100-62) and Nationals (59-102). They had the Mariners second-place in the West, five games out, rather than last place and 39 games out. They had the Twins in last place in the Central rather than playing the White Sox for the title in a one-game playoff.
None of the four teams remaining (Rays vs. Red Sox, Dodgers vs. Phillies) are the four teams they predicted (Tigers vs. Yankees, Cubs vs. Rockies). Their World Series is a classic matchup of Tigers vs. Cubs, with the Tigers winning. Reality? The Tigers finished the season in last place in the A.L. Central. Yeah, worse than the Royals.
But at least SI's predictions were from last March when 30 teams were in play. ESPN.com’s team of 18 experts made their postseason predictions on October 1 and after just one round only five World Series winners are left. Seven experts predicted the Angels would win it all while five gave it to the Cubs. Poof.
Yes, I know, predictions are fun, but we do too much of it. We predict and events play out, and we predict and events play out, and we never own up. I’m reminded — again — of Ron Suskind’s 2004 interview with an official in the Bush administration:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” ... “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.Is it too easy to say, now, particularly now, that that's not the way things have sorted out?
How to Predict: Follow the Numbers
The first, about baseball, from May. On the 21st, I said it was a good time to hate the Yankees. They were 20-25, in last place in the East, 7 1/2 back of the Rays, and, most importantly, “without the positive run differential they had last season that indicated they’d probably turn things around.” Five days later they were 25-25 but it was mostly on the backs of the hapless Mariners, whom, at that point, they’d beaten six out of six times, scoring 50 runs to the M’s 17. And they wouldn’t have the M’s to kick around much anymore.
How did it turn out? The Yankees did better than I thought they would. They finished 89-73, better than their record in, say, 1999, when they won it all. But it wasn’t good enough this year. For the first time in 14 years, they didn’t make the post-season. That’s how it appeared in May.
The second prediction, from early August, was about The Dark Knight. After its first week, MSNBC asked me to check out how it was doing, where it might be going, and could it unseat Titanic? I checked the numbers. I said in terms of worldwide box office, and Titanic’s $1.8 billion, no way. I said in terms of domestic box office, adjusted for inflation (and thus going up against Gone With the Wind’s $1.4 billion), no effin’ way. But domestic box office unadjusted for inflation? Titanic’s $600 million? I came up with a formula via a similar box office smash, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, and crunched the numbers. The numbers indicated a final take of $515 million. I wrote:
Other factors will come into play. “The Dark Knight” is better than “Pirates 2,” so it should have longer legs. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, singled out for high praise and Oscar buzz, may draw into theaters moviegoers who might not otherwise check out a superhero pic. And if Ledger, or the film itself, is nominated for an Oscar next January, that could boost its box office as well. Assuming it’s still in theaters. Even so, it would take a lot to make up $85 million.The Dark Knight is still out there, plugging away, keeping us safe, and the movie has now reached $525 million. But it won’t get much higher. It made less than $1 million this past week, and that number, like all b.o. weekly totals, can only get lower. Probably won’t reach $530 million before it’s pulled.
So in both cases my predictions weren't far off. But neither was a true prediction. I didn’t predict how the Yankees would perform before the season began, and I didn’t predict how much money The Dark Knight would make when it hadn't opened yet. Both predictions occurred as things were progressing — when there were numbers available (run differential/weekly box office totals and drop-offs) with which to formulate answers. I just followed the relevant numbers.
Early August, when I wrote that Dark Knight piece, feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it? If only we had people in power who knew how to follow the relevant numbers.
My Friend Craig
The new play of my friend Craig Wright, who has written for “Six Feet Under,” “Brothers & Sisters,” and is now the creator/producer/writer of “Dirty Sexy Money” on ABC, is reviewed today in The New York Times by Anita Gates. I'd call it a rave. Excerpts:
Mr. Wright’s earlier play “The Pavilion,” set at a high school class reunion, never touched the heart of nostalgia. The tremendously moving “Lady,” about three childhood friends on a hunting trip, says much more about the nature of change and distance and truth....
The director, Dexter Bullard, who directed Tracey Letts’s “Bug,” does thoughtful things with silence and stillness, and guides three finely detailed performances. Mr. Shannon delivers an almost unbearably touching death-bed-side speech, which primes us for the ensuing emotional battle.
“Lady” has considerable humor (commenting on medical marijuana, answering-machine messages and Hannah Montana, for instance), but it’s laughter to escape the pain and despair. In the end all the characters can do is bury their dead.
Even better: Go to the Times link above and check out the multi-media presentation halfway down on the left. It's Craig talking about his play and life in these United States in general: “I'm also interested in the American fascination with violence,” he says, “and also with the ease with which we accept the idea that so much time is spent ingesting media.”
He goes on to talk about some of the themes of this play and another, “Recent Tragic Events,” which concerns, he says, “What it was like to experience 9/11 as something on TV. And guess what? Here's the bad news. The voters of America have treated the response to 9/11 as if it was something they saw on TV. I believe if New Yorkers were the only people who were allowed to vote for what to do next as a country, we might have done things quite, quite differently, and I'd probably be a lot more in favor of what we did. But unfortunately the nation watched 9/11 happen on television, for the most part, and they voted, and they supported our response to it as if it were a movie on TV. And we're living the costs of that bad decision every day.”
38.4 Million Obama Fans Can't Be Wrong
Meanwhile, Barack’s acceptance speech, before 38.4 million people Thursday night, was about nothing but the serious business of getting us out of the serious mess we’re in. I had friends call me from California and Minnesota to talk about the speech. They were pumped.
Here’s the part that got me:
We may not agree on abortion, but surely we can agree on reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in this country.Amazing. He talked about bridging our divisions and then gave concrete examples. And not just any concrete examples. He gave examples involving four of the most volatile issues in our country: abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage and immigration. And I agreed with every one, every comment. This is a serious, common-sense response to the absolutism that has infected our country, not just over the last eight years, but over the past several decades.
The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than they are for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals.
I know there are differences on same-sex marriage, but surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in a hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.
You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don't know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.
For my brother-in-law, Eric, who is deeply involved in community projects, this was the big moment:
What the naysayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me; it's about you. It's about you. ... You have shown what history teaches us, that at defining moments like this one, the change we need doesn't come from Washington. Change comes to Washington.Both excerpts hearken back to why Obama originally (and immediately) appealed to me. Unlike 99.9 percent of the politicians out there, including John McCain, he’s not saying, “Here’s what I’ll do for you.” He’s saying, “Here’s what we can do together.” I think that’s hugely appealing. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want their life to have more meaning, and Barack is offering a path to that. He’s all about unity, no matter how divisive the issue. He’s all about what we can do when we work together. He’s a serious man for a serious time.
John McCain? I’m sorry, but he feels like a clown in comparison. Trotting out the same old divisive B.S. Sputtering the same old catchphrases. Injecting the same old fears. Focusing on everything that doesn’t matter: Britney, Paris, Sarah.
There’s no doubt who’s taking this presidency business seriously. The big question is: How serious are the rest of us?
Why you can't take toothpaste on an airplane
The day is July 27, 2006, when, in a move calculated to win some iota of support from African-Americans for the upcoming mid-term elections, Pres. Bush signs the Voting Rights Act reauthorization a year early in a ceremony on the White House lawn. It’s also the day Khosa is taken into custody by the Secret Service for fiddling with his iPod while waiting for a car to pass through the White House gates. He’s dragged into an interrogation room inside the White House, made to give up the names of friends and acquaintances, then let go with warnings. His friends and acquaintances will all be checked out. So will he. “We know everything about you and where to find you,” one Secret Service agent tells him. His crime? Fiddling with his iPod while Pakistani.
But the bigger issue, in the first two chapters, involves the backstory to the British government’s capture of a major terror cell in the suburbs of London, which was plotting to hijack airplanes and head for the U.S. East Coast. “The second wave,” Bush and Cheney had been warning us about.
MI-6 was cautious. Suskind writes: “The Brits, after their experience in Northern Ireland, were starting to believe that the key was to treat this not as a titanic ideological struggle, but rather as a law enforcement issue. This required being patient enough to get the actual evidence —usually once a plot had matured — with which to build a viable case in open court.”
Bush? Not so open. Not so cautious. Suskind implies that when Tony Blair refused to speed up arrests to suit Bush’s timetable — that is, the August before midterms — Bush nodded to Cheney, who dispatched the fourth-ranking CIA officer to Pakistan to alert the authorities there to Rashid Rauf, the Pakistani contact for the terror cell. Once Rauf was arrested, the terror cell panicked, and the Brits, who were apoplectic that their carefully constructed strategy had been knocked over, had no choice but to round them up... before they had enough evidence to put them away forever. And The White House got to say how they had been right all along “about everything.”
Suskind gets us into the heads of both Bush and Cheney, which is a little odd, you wonder which sources could possibly get us there. But these early chapters make you realize both a) how real the terrorist threat is, and b) how politically motivated and short-sighted the Bush administration response has been. It’s a scary world, but all the scarier for who we elected to protect us.
Cyclist "doored," ticketed
While doing research for my day job, which just had this nice (or, to be precise, extremely factual) write-up in The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, I came across this article in Ismthus, the alt-weekly of Madison, Wisconsin.
It seems that recently a Madison cyclist got “doored” (biking along, car door opens, splat), went to the hospital with multiple contusions and a fractured vertebra, and was then given a $10 ticket for violating — to quote the article — “a little-known state law that requires bicyclists passing a parked or standing vehicle to allow ‘a minimum of three feet’ between themselves and the car.”
Of course, allow the minimum three feet and you’re in the entire lane and you’ll hear it from the cars behind you. I just got into a rather acidic back-and-forth with an acquaintance who, responding to my earlier post about cyclists vs. motorists, made this exact point. He said he was sick of cyclists taking up lanes and slowing traffic. I said traffic slows traffic: the reason why cars go slowly, most of the time, is because there are too many cars. I also said that, in downtown Seattle anyway, cars slow me up. It’s not even close. I zip, they clog. Then he made the argument — so odd for a lawyer — that cars own the road and cyclists should just bike on the sidewalk where they belong. Nice. And illegal.
But the article and the back-and-forth do clarify the larger issue. Sidewalks are built for pedestrians. Roads are built for cars. Nothing is built for cyclists. Occasionally you get the bike lane, which, as I’ve said, is yours until someone bigger wants it, and it often just ends after a few blocks. Complain, and you’re made to feel like Oliver Twist: “MORE? You want MORE? That painted bike lane that ran two blocks ain’t good enough for the likes a’ you, is it? You wif your fancy ways.”
The solution, for me, lies in creating more roads specifically for bikes, and I would do it on existing roads, possibly with a concrete barrier between bikes and cars. Let’s face it: The safer you make it, the more people will use it. The more they use it, the fitter they’ll be, and the less oil they’ll burn, and the less pollution they’ll create. All of which are good things. The other side? Gas, pollution, fat. Bad things.
It’s not even an argument. You burn fat (and become stronger) or burn gas (and make the country weaker).
Let’s get on this. Because this shit in Madison? That’s gotta stop.
That McCain Rumor
Here’s the headline in yesterday’s New York Times: “McCain Is Trying to Define Obama as Out of Touch.” Here’s the unspoken subhed: “And we let him.”
Not that I don’t sympathize. It’s a tough gig being objective these days. The Republicans learned long ago how to use the mainstream media, always striving for objectivity, to their advantage: Pin what you want on your opponent and that becomes the talking point.
If I wrote, for example, that John McCain has no genitalia, merely a ball of fluff between his legs, and this rumor gained enough momentum, then that would become the story. Refutations, denials, headlines. “McCain: ‘I Have Genitalia’: But Refuses to Drop Pants for Media.” News cameras would focus on his crotch and news anchors, with resident experts, would analyze what we saw. “I believe there’s something there, Paula. Now whether it's actually genitalia...” The late night comedians would have a field day. Op-Ed columnists would opine that, even if the rumor were true, how does that relate to the act of governing? We’d get the European reaction, the Chinese reaction, and analysis of what this might mean for the War on Terror. Can we fight al Qaeda if our president literally has no balls? And no matter how many times the rumor was denied, and no matter from how many angles it was refuted, still, on election day, many voters would vote against him with this reasoning: Well, that McCain feller, he’s just got a ball of fluff between his legs.
So how do you fight this? How do you write about the process of the campaign without playing into one side’s strategy? How silly does it have to get before you throw up your hands and refuse to let the candidates dictate talking points?
At the least, Obama’s response to the lastest McCain attacks is exactly right: “Is that the best they got?” Hopefully, when Paris and Britney are mentioned during the rest of this campaign, most of us will simply be reminded of how trivial McCain and the Republicans want to make it all while the world burns.
From Robert Graves' I, Claudius, page 467. As a writer, I laughed out loud at Claudius' thoughts when he suddenly became Emperor of Rome:
“So, I'm Emperor, am I? What nonsense! But at least I'll be able to make people read my books now. Public recitals to large audiences. And good books too, thirty-five years' hard work in them. It won't be unfair... My History of Carthage is full of amusing anecdotes. I'm sure they'll enjoy it.”
My current interest in ancient Rome, about which I know nothing, began with a Sunday afternoon at the Seattle Art Museum's exhibition “Roman Art from the Louvre,” after which, in the museum gift shop, I picked up Graves' book, read the first sentence and bought it. From there we began watching the '70s BBC miniseries, “I, Claudius,” starring Derek Jacobi (nine episodes in now), and from there we watched Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953), which was much better than I thought it would be. The three leads are great. Brando stuns. He certainly stunned Patricia, who forgot how good-looking and sexy he was as a young man. I was surprised, not having read the play, and particularly after watching HBO's “Rome,” that Brutus turned out to be the least calculating and most honorable of all the characters in the play. Shakespeare himself makes the argument:
All the conspirators, save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought,
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the word, This was a man!
I knew the speech but didn't know it was for Brutus.
A curious thing about I, Claudius: Claudius is one of those Romans who wishes to restore the Republic, and the actions of the Emperors, particularly Tiberius and Caligula, certainly strengthen his argument. But the Senate is so weak, bends so willingly to those in power, that one wonders what good a restored Republic would be.
Another day, another glitch
Then, on Orbitz, I made a reservation two round-trip tickets to Minneapolis later this month. The price stunk, and went up mid-reservation, and I had to update some other info, but finally the reservation was made. Got an e-mail confirmation 15 minutes later. But while my seat was listed properly (8C and 20C), Patricia's was not (08 and 20 instead of 8B and 20B). Logging on, I found her seats filled but not by her. So either someone took them just before I did or (more likely) there was some kind of glitch. But who do you call at Orbitz? Is there anyone even there at Orbitz? So I called the airline, who confirmed what I suspected (P had no seats), and, after about 10 minutes, they rebooked us with crappier seats. And suddenly it was 3:30.
I want to emphasize I don't find the above exceptionally annoying. I find it typical — something you and I go through every day — and that's what I find annoying.
The Ten-Cent Plague and the ebb and flow of culture
Hajdu’s also adept at our cultural ebb and flow: how and why the focus of comic books became superheroes, then crime, then romance, then horror, then Mad and all of its imitators; how comic books nearly went down in flames in 1954 after often going up in flames in comic-book burnings in isolated spots around the country in the late 1940s.
The general historical overview of this period tends to focus on Frederic Wertham’s book The Seduction of the Innocent, and Hadju shows not only how Wertham was deeper — he opened the first mental health clinic, the Lafargue Clinic, in Harlem — but how the scare went wider, encompassing the rise of juvenile delinquency as far back as the early 1940s. Comic books were an easy scapegoat, the quick fix we’re forever looking for. Even if delinquency wasn’t necessarily on the rise, our concern about it was. One of my favorite bits, from pg. 213:
In the spring of 1953, juvenile crime showed no signs of worsening: to the contrary, on April 16, a headline in The New York Times announced “Youth Delinquency Down”...Eleven days later, the United States Senate approved a resolution to launch an investigation into the causes and effects of juvenile delinquency...Those televised subcommittee hearings seem a staple of the 1950s — Army-McCarthy, etc. — but what I didn’t know, what Hajdu lets me know, was how popular they were. Sen. Estes Kerfauver’s earlier hearings on organized crime, which traveled around the country, from New Orleans to Detroit to St. Louis and onto the west coast, before landing in New York in March 1951, produced gigantic ratings for the period:
Some 70 percent of New Yorkers with TV sets tuned in for the hearings — seventeen times the number of people who usually watched daytime television... Two theaters in Manhattan, finding their seats vacant during the “Kefauver hours,” set up systems to project the broadcasts on their screens... Homemakers had “Kefauver parties”...Several schools dismissed students early so they could watch the hearings at home...I’m reminded of the discussion here a few months back on the fragmentation of our society and our current lack of a national meeting place; these hearings were obviously one such place. I’m also impressed that there was a time when Americans would rather be informed than entertained — or, at least, they found information, this information anyway, entertaining. Not sure how our culture flowed away from that dynamic.
It's Sunday morning and I love David Mamet, Randy Newman, Frank Rich and especially Elizabeth Edwards
Loudon Wainwright III (M*A*S*H alumnus, father of Rufus and Martha) has a nice song called "Sunday Times" that I've included in more than a few mixed CDs over the years. Although the cost of that paper has gone up four-fold, the song basically reflects my views on the Sunday Times:
Well I’m trying to read my Sunday Times
It cost a nickel and twelve dimes
Bought it late Saturday night I’m almost finished but not quite
It weighed a ton it seemed to me that each one of them must take a tree to make
And also I should think it takes about a gallon of ink
Loudon then goes through the various sections of the newspaper — bleak section one, fun A&E section, boring Business, plus the Magazine ("the crossword will keep you up late/ And there's camp if your kid's overweight") — but the song's main point is that it's so big how can anyone possibly read it all?:
Well it’s Tuesday and I’m still not done
With Sunday’s Times — son of a gun
Monday and Tuesday’s still unread
I could’ve read War and Peace instead
So for those who are reading War and Peace instead, here are a few good articles from today's Sunday Times.
David Mamet has a great piece on the sad wisdom of fighters in movies, including Stanislaus Zbyszko from the great noir, NIGHT AND THE CITY, Kola Kwariani from Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING and my man Takashi Shimura from SEVEN SAMURAI and IKURU. I had an analysis of SEVEN SAMURAI on my previous site but it was among the 50 or so reviews I dispensed with in making the transfer here — it wasn't worthy of the film — but Mamet has some great descriptions of a couple of keys scenes. It's a beautiful read.
Further in the Arts section, Geoffrey Himes writes about the many versions of Randy Newman's song, "Louisiana 1927," and its popularity in post-Katrina New Orleans. At the breakfast table, Patricia mentioned how she always loved the line, "Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline." I immediately downloaded both Newman's and Aaron Neville's versions. Listening to them as I write this.
In the Week in Review, there's Elisabeth Vincentelli on the popularity in France of a fish-out-of-water, city-man-in-the-country comedy, BIENVENUE CHEZ LES CH'TIS (WELCOME TO THE STICKS), and what its popularity means for France and Pres. Sarkozy as France tries to find itself in a global economy (as we all do, as we all do). Then of course I went to my man Frank Rich and his take on how the prolonged Democratic primary really isn't bad for the Dems. The ending, in which John McCain uses prison help to set up tables and chairs for a private fundraiser in Selma, Ala., has a BRUBAKER quality to it.
Finally, there's Elizabeth Edwards, wife of John, on the awful, need-for-narrative, where's-the-beef? campaign coverage of this year's presidential election by the mainstream media. One can say her point is obvious, that everybody knows the media's dropping the ball, but as someone who's been accused of stating the obvious before, I tend to believe that it's the obvious and effed-up things that need more talking about, not less. Besides, Mrs. Edwards had a front-row seat for much of all this and has sharp things to say. I particularly like her thoughts on Joseph Biden (whom I've always liked) and how he was dismissed almost from the get-go by a media who felt they knew where the narrative was heading. She writes:
[That] decision was probably made by the same people who decided that Fred Thompson was a serious candidate. Articles purporting to be news spent thousands upon thousands of words contemplating whether he would enter the race, to the point that before he even entered, he was running second in the national polls for the Republican nomination. Second place! And he had not done or said anything that would allow anyone to conclude he was a serious candidate. A major weekly news magazine put Mr. Thompson on its cover, asking — honestly! — whether the absence of a serious campaign and commitment to raising money or getting his policies out was itself a strategy.
Bless her for that "honestly!" And one wonders: how is it that media momentum is built up in this fashion toward the inconsequential, the wrong-headed, the just plain stupid? Until we can answer that obvious question, we will always be a less-than-serious country in a very serious world.
“J'ai l'oeil americain”
Interesting sidenote on LE CORBEAU. At one point we see the good doctor reading one of the poision-pen letters and it's translated as “I see all and I tell all,” but if you look at the text it reads “J'ai l'oeil americain et je dirai tout,” which means, literally, “I have the American eye and I tell all.” So, one wonders, how did “the American eye” ever mean “seeing all”?
Some quick internet research. For a bottomless pit of information, there's not much out there and most of it's in French. From what I gather, though, the phrase related to the popularity, in France, of the early 19th-century novels of James Fenimore Cooper and his American Indian characters, who were far-seeing and eagle-eyed. Hawk-eyed. Madame Bovary even uses the phrase: “J'ai vu ça, moi, du premier coup, en entrant. J'ai l'oeil americain,” which my beginning French translates as “I have seen this, myself, the first blow is incoming. I have the American eye.”
I wonder if the phrase is still in use? Doubtful. America has come to mean something besides Indians in forests. More to the point, that American eye, in recent years, has become awfully myopic. It hasn't seen shit.
SUPERMAN! Starring Vass Anderson
I was thinking about buying Superman: The Movie (1978) yesterday and so checked it out at amazon.com. There are a couple of versions. The first DVD from 2001. The four-DVD set from 2006. And now the Blu-Ray version.
Looking over the choices, I got a sense of how much the great communication tool of our age — this thing here — is on autopilot. First, plugging in “Superman: The Movie” into amazon's search engine brought back the following options, in order:
- Superman: The Movie (Blu-Ray)
- Full Metal Jacket (Blu-Ray)
- Stir of Echoes (Blu-Ray)
- Superman: The Movie (Four-Disc)
- Superman: The Movie (2001)
- Superman: The Movie (HD-DVD)
- Swordfish (Blu-Ray)
- American Psycho (Blu-Ray)
- The Devil's Rejects (Blu-Ray)
- Superman: The Movie (soundtrack)
Stir of Echoes? American Psycho? Top results, indeed.
More bothersome, to me anyway, was the cast list for the 2001 version. The film apparently starred, in order, Vass Anderson, Harry Andrews, Ned Beatty and Marlon Brando. That's it. The four-disc set gave us more familiar names (Reeve, Kidder, Brando, Hackman) but the new Blu-Ray version goes alphabetical again: Kirk Alyn, Vass Anderson, Harry Andrews, etc. This list is even more problematic because Alyn did star as Superman, but in the 1948 serial, so the listing might confuse the few people actually searching for that one.
Both of these errors, by the way, are quality-control issues, but, because I'm cynical, I assume the search-engine mistake is intentional — a way of getting unwanted Blu-Ray discs before our bloodshot eyes — while the alphabetical listing is an unintentional, autopilot, no-one's-paying-attention error. Expect to see more of both.
Oh, and Vass Anderson? He played Third Elder.
Captain America and the short end of the stick
Yesterday the New York Times ran this piece on Joe Simon, who, with Jack Kirby, created Captain America in December 1940. Simon is now 94 and part of a panel at this weekend’s New York Comic Con that he calls “The old geezer table.”
It’s a newspaper piece, and thus skimps, but it brings up a key issue not only for comic creators but for artists in general: the inability to profit from your own hugely successful creation. Simon, who got squat for creating the good Captain, puts it this way: “People in comic books have a very sad history in dealing with their creative people.” Todd McFarlane, reinventor of Spider-Man in the 1990s, and creator of Spawn, says this: “I read the stories of Jack Kirby. I read the stories of all those guys in the ’40s, ’50s and even the ’60s. I kept coming across this repetitive story: the creative guy got the short end of the stick.”
The great cautionary tale, of course, belongs to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the two Cleveland boys who jumpstarted an entire industry with Superman in 1938, and who, for their trouble, got $116 from Detective Comics (and, after decades of lawsuits, an annual stipend from Warner Bros.). Their story, along with many others, is told — extremely well, I should add — in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones. Check it out.
Why movies that open in 2,000 theaters should be avoided
I like crunching box-office numbers because it unwarps my perspective. It gives me a swift reality check.
Example. Last year I must have seen the trailer to Eagle vs. Shark a dozen times. I frequent Landmark Theater chains and they kept showing it, along with those increasingly bothersome Stella Artois ads; and while I was never interested in seeing the film (too many indie clichés), I assumed it would play in the 200-300 theater range, such as The Science of Sleep did in 2006. Nope. Topped out at 20. Twenty. Arrived June 15th, left August 5th. To me it seemed the film would never go away and yet it hardly showed up at all.
Meanwhile, movies that played in 100 times as many theaters, such as The Messengers, The Condemned, The Invisible and The Last Legion, didn’t even make a soft impression on my brain. Niche dynasties are being created without an ounce of awareness on my part. Or yours. And it’s only getting worse.
Overall, by my admittedly suspect calculations, and not including re-releases, 596 films played in U.S. theaters in 2007. They range in availability from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which overwhelmed 4,362 domestic theaters last May, to the 77 films, such as Oswald’s Ghost, Primo Levi’s Journey and Looking for Cheyenne, whose widest domestic release was exactly one theater.
In quality, 2007’s films range from IMAX: Sea Monsters, which got a 100% rating from the compiled critics on rottentomatoes.com, to the three films (Constellation, Redline and Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour) that couldn’t even manage a marginal thumbs-up from an online critic.
I’ve been crunching box office numbers for a few years now (here are links to articles about 2004, 2005 and 2006 box office) and, despite the occasional swift reality check, generally the numbers bear out what most of us know intuitively: critically acclaimed films rarely get wide or even marginal releases, while universally despised films are spread like manure across the country. You begin to wonder, in fact, why anyone in their right mind would want to be a movie critic. The job is essentially quality control in an industry that not only doesn’t care about quality but seems to punish it. No wonder print publications, which are abandoning their own forms of quality control, are letting movie critics go.
How bad was it last year? Of those 596 films, 406 didn’t manage a marginal release (500+ theaters), and of these, 65 were so marginal they didn’t accrue the five reviews necessary to get a Rotten Tomatoes rating. But of the remaining 341 films, 215 were deemed “fresh” by Rotten Tomatoes (i.e., 60% of movie critics gave the film a positive review). In other words, if you went to a film that didn’t get a marginal release in 2007 — including La Vie En Rose, Once and The Namesake — you had a 63% chance of seeing a film most critics thought watchable.
From there, the numbers drop. A movie whose widest release was in the 500-1999-theater range? A 39% chance it was watchable. In the 2,000-2,999-theater range? 22%. Basically one in five. You have a better chance of meeting someone who thinks Pres. Bush is doing a good job than seeing a good movie that plays in 2,000 theaters.
Here’s a chart:
|Widest Release||Movies||"Fresh" Movies||%|
| 1-499 theaters||341||215||63%|
| 500-1999 theaters||68||27||39%|
| 2000-2999 theaters||76||17||22%|
| 3000+ theaters||46||20||43%|
That spike in the 3000-theater range is a nice surprise, but it shouldn’t be. One assumes studios and distributors know what they’re doing and save their better popcorn films (a Norbit notwithstanding) for super-wide release. The critics’ numbers simply reflect that.
(And I don’t mean to imply that a Rotten Tomatoes rating is sacrosanct. One of 2007’s big disappointments for me, Spider-Man 3, buoyed, one expects, by fanboy critics and weary newspaper critics, managed a “fresh” RT rating of 62%. RT is simply a general overview — a way of quantifying quality — but there are still a few bugs in the system.)
The overall numbers are starker when you chart for initial release rather than widest release:
|Initial Release||Movies||"Fresh" Movies||%|
| 1-499 theaters||361||232||64%|
| 500-1999 theaters||53||14||26%|
| 2000-2999 theaters||74||16||21%|
| 3000+ theaters||43||17||39%|
Now I know that trying to stop a Spider-Man or a Shrek is like trying to stop an avalanche. But at the least — at the least — these numbers should give moviegoers pause before attending a film that opens in the 2,000-theater range. Think about it logically. For films to open in this many theaters, their concept has to have some kind of widespread appeal. So why don’t they open wider? Most likely, they’re not good enough to be popcorn pictures. Consider them stale popcorn pictures.
Imagine that you only saw films that opened on 2000-2999 screens. Here’s what you would’ve seen in the first 12 weeks of 2008: One Missed Call (0% RT rating), Meet the Spartans (3%), College Road Trip (12%), First Sunday (15%), Untraceable (16%), The Eye (19%), Mad Money (20%), Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (25%), Never Back Down (26%), Step Up 2 the Streets (27%), Rambo (31%) and Definitely, Maybe (72%).
One out of 12. And I don’t even know about the one.
Americans have already spent over $420 million on these 12 films. Surely there’s better uses for our money, our time, our lives. This ain’t practice, people.
The most popular movies of all time are chick flicks
The highest-grossing film of all time, both domestically and internationally, is Titanic, a chick flick. The highest-grossing domestic film of all time, after you adjust for inflation, is Gone With the Wind, a chick flick. The third-highest-grossing domestic film of all time, after you adjust for inflation, is The Sound of Music, a chick flick.
Moreover, all three films have the same basic storyline: A woman choosing between two suitors against a backdrop of historic tragedy.
So Rose has to choose between Jack and Cal (no choice at all, really) as she sails on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.
So Scarlett has to choose between Rhett and Ashley (a little more difficult, but not much) as she struggles to survive and thrive during the U.S. Civil War.
And so Maria has to choose between Captain von Trapp and God (perhaps the most difficult choice of all) during the 1938 annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.
If Hollywood is looking for a template on how to make a blockbuster, this is it: A woman choosing between two men (that’s how you get women in the seats) against a backdrop of historic tragedy (that’s how you get the men in the seats).
Given how much money Titanic made — $1.8 billion worldwide, more than $700 million ahead of the second-highest-grossing film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and almost a billion dollars ahead of the highest-grossing film from last year, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End — I’ve always been surprised that Hollywood hasn’t attempted to make more of these types of films. Then I found out they had. A friend, a screenwriter in Hollywood, told me that in the late ‘90s he worked on a water-themed movie because water-themed movies were big then. He said that was the lesson the studios picked up from Titanic’s success: People like water.
Some part of me doesn’t quite believe this. Some part of me thinks, “Surely the people in charge are smarter than that.” Then I remember that great line about the Nixon administration, and people in power in general, from All the President’s Men: “The truth is these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
Some may argue that the above films aren’t really chick flicks. That chick flicks are smaller-scaled, modern and light. That there is no historic tragedy in chick flicks.
Here’s the point. “Chick flicks” implies that movies for and about women are their own genre, or sub-genre, and don’t do well at the box office. That implication is 180 degrees from the truth. Boys may flock to Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings, and Jurassic Park, but they don’t flock the way that girls flocked to Titanic. Not even close
In fact, in order to create a blockbuster, all you’ve got to do is find the right actress, the right actors, the right historic tragedy, and then cross your fingers that you’ve created Titanic rather than Pearl Harbor. Which, I should add, still grossed $449 million at the worldwide box office.
The formula works even when the movie doesn’t.
Where in the world are Iraq War movies popular?
Discussions about box office tend to stop with Monday morning’s numbers and bad puns. So 21 “raked in the chips,” and Superhero Movie was “a superdud,” and Stop-Loss was “shot down at the box office.” Why not push the envelope? How about Stop-Loss was car bombed? Had its legs blown off? Got ambushed in an alleyway in Tikrit?
Admittedly Stop-Loss’s numbers weren’t great: $4.5 million; 8th place. But it played on only 1,291 screens, meaning its per-screen-average, while pretty sucky ($3,505), was still better than all but three films in the top 10. Unfortunately our discussions about box office don't go that far. Instead we make some bad puns and add Stop-Loss to the list of Iraq-war-film casualties: Lions for Lambs ($15 million domestic box office), Rendition ($9.7M), In the Valley of Elah ($6.7M) and poor, poor Redacted ($60K). Underperformers all. Cue taps.
Except: If Stop-Loss follows the example of these films, it will make most of its money abroad. Rendition made $14.9 million, or 61% of its total, abroad (U.K., mostly), while Lambs pulled in $41.9 million, or 74%, from foreign countries (Italy and Spain were the big spenders). Elah also made 74% of its total abroad (France and Spain, mostly), while Redacted, which couldn’t do much worse, didn’t, pulling in $600,000 (France and Spain, again), or 10 times what it earned here.
Is this something else Americans should be embarrassed about? We went into Iraq thinking it would be good entertainment, and for a while it was (Pvt. Jessica, “Mission Accomplished”), but when it turned serious we turned the channel. It was supposed to be a Jerry Bruckheimer flick, Shock and Awe, with clear heroes and villains, and it's become a complicated, hard-to-understand, morally ambiguous film out of the French New Wave. It's become Battle of Algiers.
Hollywood has tried to make it easy for us by making its Iraq War films about us, and setting the action here, in the U.S., but the source material is still that morally ambiguous, hard-to-understand, French New Wave film. So we're letting the foreigners figure it out. They're figuring it out over there so we don’t have to figure it out over here.
Yeah, we should be embarrassed. This is our national story but we can’t be bothered. Elah is a good movie but we can’t be bothered. Stop-Loss is another good movie, and it’s got handsome leads, and it’s about camaraderie, and the few sacrificing over and over again for the many, who are us, but we can’t be bothered.
How awful is that? We can't even be bothered with how little we're being bothered by the war. And how much others are sacrificing.
Thank God for France.
"In the Shadow of the Moon"
Here's a couple of lasts.
1) Last night I watched the David Sington doc In the Shadow of the Moon and this morning looked it up on IMDb.com. The site listed two under that name: the 2007 doc about the Apollo missions (mine), and something being released in 2009. For a moment I was excited. "Hey, are they making a feature film out of this?" and clicked on the link: "Small Northern California town deals with a pack of modern werewolves." Nope.
2) Last fall Shadow was playing a block from where I work, at the Uptown theater in lower Queen Anne, and I wish I'd seen it then. Wish I'd seen it on the big screen. Or a big screen. The doc also celebrates a time when the world came together, proudly, because of an American accomplishment, so feels like it should be part of the communal experience of theater-going rather than the singular experience of TV-watching. But I blew it. Many didn't. It did alright for a doc — $1.5 million globally — but you feel like it should've done better. It's easy to watch, makes you proud, fills you up. Apparently we can't sell this anymore. Even to me.
3) Last week P and I went to a birthday party in Fremont where I met Rick Shenkman, author of several books and editor at the History News Network, and he and I and some others were talking about his latest book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter, which comes out in May, and we got on the topic of the specialization, or "niche-ization" (someone come up with a better term, fast), of the national dialogue, and our current lack of a national meeting place, which is a well-worn topic for me. Someone asked, "What was a national meeting place?" and before I could answer, Rick said, "Walter Cronkite." Exactly. You could also say the Apollo lift-offs were national meeting places, too.
Shadow is made up mostly of interviews with the men who flew to the moon (sans Neil Armstrong, strong on Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin), with the emphasis, obviously, on the Apollo 11 moon landing. Apparently if 11 didn't work, NASA had two back-up missions ready, both in 1969, to ensure that President Kennedy's promise of sending a man to the moon and bringing him back safely before the end of the decade would be kept. Nice to have national goals. At one point Jim Lovell, commander of both Apollo 8 and 13 (Tom Hanks played him in the movie), talked about how Apollo 8 was switched from an earth orbital launch to a flight to the moon, which he thought a bold move. "But it was a time when we made bold moves," he says. He should've added "smart" to that. We still make bold moves. We still have national goals. They just haven't been smart for a while.
The Meek, etc.
Watched Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ the other night, and while I invariably stick my foot in my mouth bringing up religious matters — stating the obvious or uninformed or just plain wrong — I wondered, as I watched, what bizarre chain of events could make this figure, this particular figure, the leader of an established anything. The meek, the moneychangers, his comments on the wealthy. What establishment could find comfort there? How do they still?
Mentioned this to a friend who quoted a line from Christopher Lasch's Revolt of the Elites: "The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion."
While watching I also had one of those sharp drops into a greater sense of my own inevitable death. Say "0" is complete unawareness of your own death and "100" is total awareness, total insanity. I usually operate on a 15. The other night, for a moment, I rose to about a 50. Shuddered.
When I was a teenager I lived at 50.
A story in Newsweek claims that the "expert is back" and that user-generated content on the Internet is fading. They say that in this age of misinformation people are crying out for standards and information they can trust, and, as evidence, Newsweek cites the following: 1) Google is creating its own Wikipedia using authoritative sources; 2) Mahalo is creating a search engine with quality-based rather than link-based rankings; and 3)... Well, there is no 3). But the magazine adds some anecdotal stuff about Wikipedia's dustups and Craigslist scammers, and they quote a couple of dudes, like Mahalo's founder Jason Calacanis, who says, "The more trusted an environment the more you can charge for it," but who obviously has a stake in the matter.
The expert is back? I wish.
Here's the real reason why user-generated content isn't going anywhere: It's free. Not to readers but to producers. Ask a professional writer to write about movies and it'll cost you. Ask a "fan" and it won't. Generally a fan's stuff won't be nearly as good as a professional writer's stuff, but, you know, what's "good," right? So as long as the bottom line is looked at — and it'll always be looked at — the people in charge will go for the user-generated content. They'll go for the freebie.
Cute thought, though.
Our long national comeuppance
Gail Collins is both wittier and more substantive than her fellow Times Op-Ed columnist Maureen Dowd and she's particularly good today on Pres. Bush's speech before the NY financial community on Friday. She writes: "The country that elected George Bush — sort of — because he seemed like he’d be more fun to have a beer with than Al Gore or John Kerry is really getting its comeuppance. Our credit markets are foundering, and all we’ve got is a guy who looks like he’s ready to kick back and start the weekend."
That's pretty much it, isn't it? As long as we were sending other people's kids to die over there (so we wouldn't have to worry about dying over here), we were fine with it. Now it's hitting us where it matters. The volatility of the current market is truly scary and the only solution this guy has is to send out more checks so people can buy more stuff. Except everyone's so worried they're not buying more stuff; they're holding onto their money.
Are his numbers still at 30 percent? Who are these idiots? The atom bomb is old news but at this point you want to quote Alan Ginsberg. I'll finish with more Collins:
"O.K., so he’s not good at first-day response. Or second. Third can be a problem, too. But this economic crisis has been going on for months, and all the president could come up with sounded as if it had been composed for a Rotary Club and then delivered by a guy who had never read it before. 'One thing is certain that Congress will do is waste some of your money,' he said. 'So I’ve challenged members of Congress to cut the number of cost of earmarks in half.'
"Besides being incoherent, this is a perfect sign of an utterly phony speech. Earmarks are one of those easy-to-attack Congressional weaknesses, and in a perfect world, they would not exist. But they cost approximately two cents in the grand budgetary scheme of things. Saying you’re going to fix the economy or balance the budget by cutting out earmarks is like saying you’re going to end global warming by banning bathroom nightlights."
"60 Minutes" ran a piece last night called "And the happiest place on earth is..." A British study determined (how we're not really sure) that this magical place is ... drumroll ... Denmark! My peeps! The country I'm one generation removed from.
So as Morley Safer's story began, I kept wondering why we ever left. Even after they mentioned that herring was the national dish, I wondered. Then Morley & Co. gave me a bit of an answer as to why the Danes are happy; it also helped answer, maybe not why we left, but why it wasn't necessarily a bad idea.
Apparently the happiness there is less a matter of bright sunshine than low wattage. It's a culture of low expectations. If things turn out fine, great, but if they don't, well, who thought they would anyway? At least we won the UEFA futbol championship in '92. Now eat your herring.
There's more to the answer, of course, and the piece seemed designed less to talk up Denmark's happiness than the U.S. lack of. Danes are protected from birth to death by a large social safety net. There's no great disparity between rich and poor. Even middle-income wage earners pay 50 percent in taxes, and all of that money goes to cover health care, free education, maternity and paternity leaves, etc., throughout your life. As opposed to the U.S. with its shrinking social safety net and grandiose ambitions (and accompanying stress, and accompanying disappointment) for everyone involved.
Denmark's social safety net is fine; it's the low wattage that concerns me. The lack of casual conversations. The highly developed body language. The right not to be talked to. Danes go to southern climates and everyone seems happier: people are out in the streets, making noise, having fun. In a cultural sense anyway, I think I'd rather have the ups and downs, the blue skies and thunderstorms, than the overcast skies with a constant chance of drizzle.
So can you have a strong social safety net and grandiose ambitions? Or does a thick social safety net inevitably impinge upon ambition by handing you what you would otherwise strive for?
I do know this: I want to visit Denmark soon. Not to get all Alex Haley on everybody but it seems a shame I've never been.
Everyone deserves an Oscar nom
Lord knows I’ve had my complaints about the Oscars over the years but lately I’ve begun to have more complaints about Oscar’s complainers. A recent “Must List” in Entertainment Weekly is indicative. They subtitled it “Snubbed by Oscar Edition” and listed off 10 of the snubbees, including two for best actress (Keri Russell for Waitress, Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart), two for best actor (Christian Bale for Rescue Dawn and Ryan Gosling for Lars and the Girl) and two for best director (Joe Wright for Atonement and Sean Penn for Into the Wild).
All fine. But you’re not dealing with an infinite number of spaces here. So if you’re going to say Wright and Penn both deserve director nods, tell us who didn’t deserve them. Julian Schnabel? Jason Reitman? Tony Gilroy? Angelina Jolie was great. So choose her over who? Ellen Page? Cate Blanchett? And really? Christian Bale and/or Ryan Gosling over Tommy Lee Jones or Viggo Mortensen or Johnny Depp or George Clooney or Daniel Day-Lewis? If you’re adding, you gotta subtract. If you’re going to bitch about the Academy, you’ve gotta play within their parameters. Otherwise we’re back to grade school and everyone deserves a gold star.
And that’s my first petty bitching about other people’s petty bitching.
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