Lancelot Links postsWednesday October 21, 2009
- Tablet has a nice, short piece on the history of Hasidim on film—from Molly Picon in “East and West” (1923) to (convert me, baby!) Natalie Portman in “New York, I Love You” (2009).
- Also from Tablet: Ben Birnbaum, two years ago, explaining much of what goes unexplained about Gertrude Berg in Aviva Kempner's documentary “Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.”
- Have you read Tad Friend's New Yorker piece on Nikki Finke yet? Finke is good at what she does but I don't quite get what she does. She has a lot of inside information on the Hollywood industry, and, with her blog, Deadline Hollywood, scoops rivals at Variety and The Los Angeles Times. But most of her scoops, at least according to Friend's article, are stories that would come out anyway: next week, tomorrow, in an hour. So-and-So is replacing Such-and-Such at Yadda-yadda. Thingamajig is making Whatever with Whomever. Dick Cook is getting fired. She's scooping press releases. I understand why it leads to a kind of power, I just don't get why she would want to do it—other than the power. Is this what she's here for? Isn't there a better use for her inside information?
- Also from the New Yorker, Dana Goodyear's piece on Titanic director, and enfant terrible, James Cameron. Great first graf:
The director James Cameron is six feet two and fair, with paper-white hair and turbid blue-green eyes. He is a screamer—righteous, withering, aggrieved. “Do you want Paul Verhoeven to finish this motherfucker?” he shouted, an inch from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face, after the actor went AWOL from the set of “True Lies,” a James Bond spoof that Cameron was shooting in Washington, D.C. (Schwarzenegger had been giving the other actors a tour of the Capitol.) Cameron has mastered every job on set, and has even been known to grab a brush out of a makeup artist’s hand. “I always do makeup touch-ups myself, especially for blood, wounds, and dirt,” he says. “It saves so much time.” His evaluations of others’ abilities are colorful riddles. “Hiring you is like firing two good men,” he says, or “Watching him light is like watching two monkeys fuck a football.” A small, loyal band of cast and crew works with him repeatedly; they call the dark side of his personality Mij—Jim backward.
- A friend of mine, a big Phillies fan, mentioned a line that's gaining currency among Phillies fans: The Bigger, Redder Machine. (She actually told me, “Bigger. Redder. More Machine,” but same idea.) It's cute. But even if the Phils do repeat this year, as the original Big Red Machine, the Cincinnati Reds, did in 1975 and '76, they're hardly, you know, bigger and redder. Put it this way. Six times in 8 years (1970-77) a Cincinnati Red won the NL MVP: Bench in '70 and '72, Rose in '73, Morgan in '75 and '76, and Foster in '77. The Reds had perennial gold glovers at catcher (Bench), second (Morgan), short (Concepcion) and outfield (Geronimo). Their record in '75 was 108-54, which was 18 games better than the second-best team in the league. Their record in '76 was 102-60, which was only one game better than the second-best team in the NL, the Phillies, whom they swept anyway in the NLCS before sweeping the Yankees in the World Series. In two years they only lost three games in the post-season—all to the Red Sox in that epic '75 Series, which, of course, the Reds won anyway. The current Phillies (92-70 last year, 93-69 this year) are good and all. But the original Big Red Machine? They were GOOD.
- Nice piece on Torii Hunter from ESPN.com before the start of the ALCS with the Yankees. I was living in Minnesota at the time the Twins gave him up and thought it a mistake—although my reasons were of the heart more than the head. Torii was getting old and slowing down in center field, but he was so positive, so outspokenly positive in a sport that needed heroes, that I thought it worthwhile to keep him on those grounds alone. Turns out he's actually improved as a player. So now he's the guy you want in the clubhouse and at the plate. Imagine if the Twins had kept him and Johan Santana, Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza. How quickly would they have crushed the Yankees in the ALDS? This is why Major League Baseball feels like a joke. The other teams are essentially farm systems for the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Mets. Everyone says nothing can be done but... something needs to be done.
- Meanwhile Buzz Bissinger misses the point completely in this New Republic article on Michael Lewis' Moneyball. He says Moneyball is dead. He says it's particularly dead this season, with the higher-payroll teams (Yankees, Red Sox) making it once again to the post-season, while lower-payroll teams such as Billy Beane's A's, the subject of Lewis' book, finishing last in their division. But Moneyball didn't deny that higher-payroll teams had an advantage. That, in fact, is the whole point of the book. How can lower-payroll teams even compete? Lewis found an answer with the A's and sabermetrics in the early 2000s, in which, through his inevitable Wall Street prism, the A's took what was undervalued (on-base percentage) and bought it, and took what was overvalued (closers) and sold it. Not a bad strategy. An inevitable strategy, given the uneven financial playing field of MLB, but it led to this problem: the other MLB teams, particularly the Yankees and Red Sox, now value what was undervalued. Beane no longer has that advantage. This season doesn't disprove Moneyball, as Bissinger argues; it proves it. Bissinger himself proves it. He writes: “Market inefficiences are harder and harder to find, one of the ironies of Beane's brief but successful reliance on on-base percentage from 2000 to 2002 is that it has made players with such skill far too expensive for his pocketbook.” Exactly. That's why Moneyball isn't dead but more alive than ever. As for Bissinger's argument about the importance of closers, I'd say Mariano Rivera is the freakish exception that proves the rule. The rule is Joe Nathan and Brian Fuentes, Brad Lidge and Jonathan Broxton. Four of the best closers in baseball over the last two years. Match them up with your favorite, late-inning, post-season, season-altering gopher ball.
- Andrew Sullivan has long been arguing that Obama's opponents underestimate him. They think short-term (news cycles); he thinks long-term (public policy). They think his passiveness is weakness; Sullivan sees it as cunning. The latest argument in the Times online. Hope he's right.
- Sully again—on how it's time to stop the stoner jokes about medical marijuana. I couldn't agree more. On this issue, for most of my adult life, I've been caught between two forms of stupidity: people on the right who criminalize what is medicine, and necessary, for people in pain, for people who are dying; and people on the left, the partying crowd, who laugh and go “Ow!” whenever MEDICAL marijuana (wink-wink) is mentioned. Overall I'm in favor of legalizing marijuana itself but the medical marijuana issue is, in my opinion, and with no pun intended, a no-brainer. Don't even get me started on the fact that it's been deemed a schedule 1 drug (harmful, addictive, with no medical benefits) by cops rather than doctors, when all the medical evidence points to the fact that it isn't addictive and has medical benefits. More from Glenn Greenwald at Salon here. Review of Dan Baum's history of the war on drugs, “Smoke & Mirrors,” here.
- Also via Sully, this graph. Nice to be part of the the growing, hopefully vocal minority:
- Here's a good piece by my friend Jessica Thompson, who's lived in India for a year now, on the sexual harassment—called "Eve teasing"—there: "Eve teasing is to sexual harassment what Delhi Belly is to projectile vomiting and diarrhea: both are really ugly things hidden behind a cute name."
- Jeff Wells begins the end-of-decade ceremonies with his top 37 (37?) films of 2000-2009. It's a fun list—particularly his no. 1 choice. Have only vaguely thought about my top list, but it would include "The Pianist" (his no. 9) and "United 93" (his no. 5). What else would I have? "Yi Yi"? "Spider-Man 2"? "Munich"? "Brokeback Mountain," definitely. That movie just gets better with age. What about you? What movies in this decade stand out in your mind?
- Is "web" really the proper metaphor for this thing? It works, although not with the verb. You crawl a web while we claim to surf this one—and surfing is much cooler than what we do here. The metaphor that comes to my mind is pinball. I bounce from spot to spot. I careen the Pinball. The other day I visited Jeff Wells again, and he bounced me to this James Rocchi piece on MSN about press junkets in general and "Couples Retreat"'s in particular, and after reading one sentence I sought more of Rocchi and bounced all over the place. Found this MSN review on "Transformers 2," which definitely echoes my feelings about that abomination: "Where the first film was desperate, this one is desperate and sad. Where the first film sent mixed messages about ethnic and racial groups and women, this one is overtly racist and sexist. Where the first 'Transformers' was clumsy, 'Revenge of the Fallen' is paralyzed with its own stupidity." Rocchi's own site is here.
- Some good lines from Anthony Lane on "The Invention of Lying": "...as for the soundtrack, it’s like being haunted by the ghost of Easy Listening Past. Supertramp and the Electric Light Orchestra are one thing, but Donovan: there’s no excuse. And what really galls is not the songs themselves but the greasy way in which they are wrapped around crucial passages of action, to muffle any awkward transitions; thus, once Mark has armed himself with white lies, he strolls off to reassure all the other miserable folk we have encountered so far—old-timers, bums on the street, a bickering couple—with a smile and a word in their ears. But what word? We can’t tell, because Elvis Costello is busy belting out “Sitting” by the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens."
- The New York Times' business column is becoming more of a must-read every day, particularly David Carr's on Monday and David Leonhardt's on Wednesday. This week, Carr wrote a sober, infuriating piece on the $66 million in bonuses delivered to Tribune Co. managers who mostly axed reporters to increase profits...which mostly went to them. Funny how that works. Leonhardt, on Wednesday, wrote of the excesses of left and right economic thinking, and who on the right (Bruce Bartlett) is finally going beyond "cut taxes" as a means to economic stimulus. We'll see how it plays. A smart voice on the right would be a nice change.
- Not all these links are worth clicking on, by the way. This is one. I'm sure you heard about it: The First Lady has white, slave-owning ancestors. That's the big story. A bigger story for me is that Mrs. Obama's great-great-grandfather, Dolphus T. Shields, the first child born to Melvina Shields, who was born into slavery, co-founded the First Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which was pivotal in the civil rights movement. It's amazing, on the one hand, how carefully the Times tells its story, and, on the other, how carelessly. "While [Melvina] was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time." That's in the second graf. I would definitely lose "under circumstances lost in the passage of time," which is, given the circumstances, so romantic a phrase as to be close cousin to "under circumstances now...gone with the wind!" Plus the quotes from Edward Ball, "a historian who discovered that he had black relatives, the descendants of his white slave-owning ancestors," are embarrassing: "We are not separate tribes," he says. "We've all mingled, and we've done so for generations." Nice verb: mingled.
- Finally a must-read by another friend, Jim Walsh, in Southwest Journal in Minneapolis, on the funeral of the father of a friend. Jim's the real deal. Not just as a writer.
Lancelot Links, with Mike Blowers
Sober political pieces:
- Hendrik Hertzberg has been writing too many obituaries lately, as we all have, but here's a good one on former Carter press secretary Jody Powell.
- A smart take on the “is it racism or isn't it?” question regarding the vociferousness of the response to Pres. Obama's policies, via an unnamed reader on Andrew Sullivan's site. Money quote: “Of course they are screaming 'socialism.' They've been doing that since the 1950s at least. They're not talking about economic redistribution of wealth—they never have been. They've been talking about redistribution of privilege this whole time.”
- “Turkeys of the Year” from Minnesota Law & Politics, which is the first, parent magazine of the company that employs me. The difficulty isn't finding the turkeys anymore, it's choosing among them. There's a section here, “Quick! Cancel My Membership to the ACLU,” that is so full of the idiocies being spouted in public and political life that it might make the founding fathers rethink the First Amendment. Michele Bachmann rightly (no pun intended) gets her own section—including her frequent attacks on and insinuations about the U.S. Census Bureau. Glad that worked out. Then there's last year's gem from John McCain on why his pick, Sarah Palin, is qualified to be VP: “She knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America,” he said. How awful that reads today. What a sad thing they were trying to sell. What a sad thing they're still trying to sell.
Drunk movie pieces:
- What does it mean to be a back-up critic at a daily? It means you don't get first dibs. And it means that in looking over Rotten Tomatoes list of the worst-reviewed movies of the last 10 years, I discovered I reviewed no. 91 (“Surviving Christmas”), no. 36 (“The Whole Ten Yards”), no. 5 (“National Lampoon's Gold Diggers”) and...wait for it...no 1! (“Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever”) Not to nitpick...OK, to nitpick. “Gold Diggers” should've been no. 1. It was the worst thing I've ever seen—and I've seen garbage stewing for weeks by the side of a Taipei road in 100-degree heat. The big surprise for me is that “Elektra” didn't even make the cut. Now that's an impressive decade of film.
Partying baseball pieces:
- Ichiro is ejected from a game for the first time in his Major League career. Must've learned how to finally say “c***sucker.”
- Finally, here's an upper: In the pregame show before a late-September game between two teams going nowhere (Seattle at Toronto), color commenator and former third baseman Mike Blowers, known for the way he didn't crowd the plate during his playing days, made an insane prediction. He said Mariners rookie third baseman and Bellevue native Matt Tuiasosopo, who had all of 59 career at-bats going into the game, would hit his first career homerun that day. Not only that day but in his second at-bat. Not only in his second at-bat but on a 3-1 fastball and into the second deck in left field. Make sure you listen to what happens. I swear, Dave Niehaus has gotten such joy out of such lousy material—the short sad history of the Seattle Mariners—that he qualifies as the Patron Saint of the Pacific Northwest. And here, with great material, he's downright giddy. “I see the light! I believe you, Mike!” Way to go, Mike. Way to go, Dave. Touch 'em all, Tui. (UPDATE: Damn, even Rachel Maddow is on this story. Here she is, via Patrick Goldstein, who is also on this story. Hopefully more get on the story. It's a story worth telling.) (UPDATE: Here's the full play-by-play of the Tui homerun. It's worth listening to the entire thing.)
- I have to admit I'm a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to the Internet—it wastes too much time, it doesn't make enough money, there's so, so much crap on it—but every once in a while it tosses up something beautiful. This week it's Danny MacAskill's “Inspired Bicycles” video, which is like parkour for bike riders. I love this kind of thing because I'm so not like this. Kids, don't try this at home.
- Speaking of bikes and “crazy,” my friend Andy Engelson, who recently moved to Hanoi, finally got his bike out and rode around in Vietnamese traffic. Let Danny MacAskill try that!
- Over at the Film Experience blog, Nathaniel Rogers crunched the foreign-language Oscar numbers and came up with: “France.” That's the country that has the most recent noms and the most noms all-time. I love this kind of thing. Scroll down and it's obviously a work in progress, too, so keep coming back. It also raises questions. Beyond borders, what does the Academy reward? Or ignore? I think this looking at France. In the last 20 years, the one French film that actually won best foreign-language film was...Indochine? Long and stately and self-important without making a lick of sense. But the Academy's gotten better in recent years. Haven't they?
- Interesting column by David Leonhardt of the Times on med-mal practice and insurance rates. The money quote: “Here, then, is the brief version of the facts: The direct costs of malpractice lawsuits—jury awards, settlements and the like—are such a minuscule part of health spending that they barely merit discussion, economists say. But that doesn’t mean the malpractice system is working.”
- Will Ferrell Answers Internet Questions. One of the best takes on the lack of civility around these parts.
- I didn't watch the Emmys last Sunday (who does?) but I did check out Neil Patrick Harris' opening song, “Put Down the Remote,” which was a lot of fun and veered toward brilliance halfway through with this verse:
Straight from “Mad Men” there's Joan
Oh, the curves she's shown
They could make a blind man say “Damn”
She could turn a gay straight
Never mind, there's Jon Haaaaaaam!
And yes, I checked it out online for free. I'm part of the problem. But I'm trying to be civil. I'm trying real hard.
- My friends Andy and Joanie moved from Seattle to Hanoi earlier this month—with two young kids—and Andy's blogging about the adventure. And the life. Check it out.
- Great, simple and sarcastic piece by Nate Sliver over at FiveThirtyEight.com on the difference betwen the Canadian (single-payer) and the British (nationalized) health-care systems. Even I understood it. The funny thing, of course (or not-so-funny thing), is that Obama isn't proposing either. He's proposing a government option that would compete with private insurance. And even that simple plan has the wackos up in arms. Or carrying them. Maybe it's time to move to Hanoi.
- Meanwhile more revelations on the people who got us into this mess—the Bush administration—which most of these nutjobs supported, and would probably continue to support. So, yes, it turns out Karl Rove, and the White House, were involved in the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys. I mean how bad were these guys? It's not even funny anymore. I just get sick to my stomach.
- Andrew Sullivan's taking a break. He's right. Godspeed.
- Mark Seal's article in Vanity Fair about the making of "The Godfather" is a couple of months old but I only got around to reading it last night. Great hilarious stories and revelations. About who had mob connections and who didn't. About which lines were ad-libbed. (Would you believe: "Take the canoli"?) About the difference between frying and browning garlic. About the long list of actors considered for the role of Michael: Robert Redford, Martin Sheen, Ryan O'Neal, David Carradine, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. You read and realize all over again what a series of accidents any movie is. To this day Al Pacino doesn't know why the movie connected with audiences, but he adds, with great matter-of-factness, something that's close to the truth: "I would guess that it was a very good story, about a family, told unusually well by Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola." Mikey.
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