erik lundegaard

Wednesday November 14, 2018

U.S. to Mexicans 100 Years Ago: Come In, Don't Stay

From the “The past isn't dead, it isn't even past” dept., via Jill Lepore's “These Truths: A History of the United States”:

After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, large growers had turned to Japanese laborers, but a so-called gentleman's agreement between Japan and the United States ended their migration in 1908, after which growers began sending employment agents over the border and into Mexico to recruit workers. In an era when the regime of scientific management maligned Hungarians, Italians, and Jews as near-animals who needed to be ruled not by the lash but by the stopwatch, business owners and policymakers tended to describe Mexican immigrants—desperately poor political refugees—as ideal workers. In 1908, U.S. government economist Victor S. Clark claimed that Mexican immigrants were “docile, patient, usually orderly in camp, fairly intelligent under competent supervision, obedient and cheap,” and, in 1911, a U.S. congressional panel reported that while Mexicans “are not easily assimilated, this is not of very great importance as long as most of them return to their native land after a short time”...

This did not quiet nativists, the American Eugenics Society warning: “Our great Southwest is rapidly creating for itself a new racial problem, as our old South did when it imported slave labor from Africa. The Mexican birth rate is high, and every Mexican child born on American soil is an American citizen, who, on attaining his or her majority, will have a vote. This is not a question of pocketbook or of the ‘need of labor’ or of economics. It is a question of the character of future races. It is eugenics, not economics.” Congress, pressured by eugenicists and southern and western agriculturalists, in the end exempted Mexicans from the new immigration restriction regime, while also requiring not only passports but also visas for anyone entering the United States. Thus it erected hurdles that allowed Mexicans to cross the border to work temporarily but denied access to citizenship.

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Posted at 05:02 PM on Nov 14, 2018 in category Books
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Tuesday November 13, 2018

Canó Faces Consequences?

Ken Rosenthal has a piece on The Athletic about off-season trade questions, including: Should Arizona trade Zack Greinke? How much research are the Yankees doing on Manny Machado anyway? And which execs are going to lead Baltimore into the future?

Plus this: 

And what about Canó?

Yeah, what about Canó?

It's basically: Are the Mariners going to tear down and rebuild? Even if they do, suggests Rosenthal, who wants the scraps? Both Felix and Kyle Seager have big contracts and are in the midst of seemingly unstoppable downhill slides. Then there's Robinson Canó, who was busted for taking a banned PED-masking supplement, missed half the season, and still has another five years and $120 million on his contract. Not many teams want to pick that up, even with a boost/bribe from the M‘s. 

More, the M’s just traded for Mallex Smith, a centerfielder, which means Dee Gordon's experimental season there might be at an end. But if he goes back to second, his natural spot, where does Canó go? To first base? Where he doesn't want to go?

Rosenthal ends the section on a surprisingly ominous, almost vindictive note: 

Canó surely wants to salvage his legacy, but his path to Cooperstown might be as difficult to forge as his path out of Seattle. He made his choices. Now he faces the consequences.

My thought: What exactly are those consequences, Ken? Playing first base? Or just playing in Seattle? 

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Posted at 09:44 PM on Nov 13, 2018 in category Seattle Mariners
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Monday November 12, 2018

Stan Lee (1922-2018)

Stan Lee at the Avengers premiere

Stan at the Avengers premiere in 2012. His tongue was in his cheek when he called it “The Marvel Age of Comics,” but that's what it's become. 

I got to meet Stan Lee in November 1975 when I was 12. I‘ve written about it before. Here’s the longer version. 

I'd been collecting comics for about two and a half years and Stan was legendary to me. He was “Stan the Man,” credited as “Editor in Chief” in the front of every issue, with “Stan's Soapbox” in the back of every issue. Plus his outsized personality permeated the Marvel world. It was a kind of tongue-in-cheek braggadaccio, chest-thumping but with a wink. He'd say “ish” for “issue,” “Excelsior!” as a sign-off. I loved it all. I was a “true believer” who was ready to “face front” in the “Mighty Marvel Age of Comics.” ‘Nuff said!

One Sunday night, my father, a reporter for The Minneapolis Tribune, called my brother and I into his bedroom. I think I went grumpily—or warily. Was I in trouble? There was memorabilia—books and calendars and things—on the bedspread, and I didn’t think much about it until I noticed they were all Marvel comics characters.

“Whoa!”

It was like Christmas in November. We jumped onto the bed with him. I grabbed a calendar, “The Mighty Marvel Bicentennial Calendar,” and began flipping through it. January was “The Invaders,” an attempt to reboot ‘40s-era superheroes like the original Human Torch and Toro, Captain America and Bucky, and the Sub-Mariner. They were all standing on the deck of a Revolutionary-era clipper ship. I groaned: “Frank Robbins,” I said.

“Which one is Frank Robbins?” Dad asked.

“No no. The artist.”

“You can tell who drew it?”

“Sure.”

“How?”

I shrugged. “Looks like Frank Robbins.” 

Dad had been going through “Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics,” Stan Lee’s much-anticipated (by me) follow-up to “Origins of Marvel Comics,” a trade paperback which had featured reprints of the debut issues of characters like the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Thor, along with Lee’s memories of their creation. The sequel would focus on Captain America, Iron Man and X-Men. 

“I’m interviewing this guy tomorrow,” Dad said.

“What guy?”

“Stan Lee. You know him?”

It was like asking if we knew Jesus. Chris and I actually shouted with joy. We couldn't believe it.

“So do you want to meet him?” Dad asked. 

And that's when I suddenly felt nervous. Meet Stan Lee? What would I say to him? What if he turned out to be an asshole? What if he didn't like me? What if Dad embarrassed me? Oh god, Dad was going to embarrass me.

Their interview took place during a late lunch at a swanky downtown restaurant. I got out of school early and took the unfamiliar bus to the unfamiliar location. A maitre d’ led me to a dark back table where my older brother already sat next to my father, both listening to an older guy with graying hair, sunglasses, and a moustache. I think I was initially disappointed. I don't know what I thought Stan Lee looked like (Reed Richards?) but I didn't imagine a hood from “Baretta.”

My father asked him how old he was and he said 52, then added, “Does that sound too old? How old would you like? Make it 50.” He gave great quote. He talked up the secret to his success. “We took the one-dimensional cardboard figures that had inhabited comic books until then and breathed life into them. The good guys weren’t all good and the bad guys weren’t all bad.” When the interview was over, staff photographer Mike Zerby asked me to stand on a chair and hold a light for him. Stan posed. He did the classic strong-man pose. Zerby loved it. The next day when the article appeared, the photo looked dark and I thought I'd screwed up in some way. “No,” Dad told me. “That's the way it's supposed to look.”

As for meeting Stan? It was amazing and incredible and fantastic and uncanny. After the interview, he didn’t turn off. I don’t know if he had an “off.” He invited Chris and I over and drew us out. He drew a cartoonish Captain America holding a banner up to his nose—like Kilroy. Beneath, he added the usual semi-ironic Marvel braggadaccio: “Another practically priceless Stan Lee original!” He signed our books and gave us bullpen nicknames in the Mighty Marvel Manner. “To Charismatic Chris,” he wrote in Chris’ “Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics.” “To Erudite Erik” he wrote in my copy of “Origins of Marvel Comics.” He may have been the nicest famous person I ever met. 

It's interesting contemplating what it would‘ve been like for him then. A dozen years earlier he was a middle-aged dude working for a dying company in a disprespected industry. Then his boss, Martin Goodman, told him to create a team of superheroes like DC did with “Justice League of America.” Apparently it was Lee’s wife who suggested he do with the characters what he'd long said he wanted to do:

The characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to; they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty and—most important of all—inside their colorful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay. 

The team turned out to be the Fantastic Four, of course, and they were followed by Hulk and Spider-Man and Thor and Iron Man and X-Men, and the rest is both history and not history, since it's ongoing; since the biggest movies in the world are based on those characters that Stan and Jack and others created for a dying company in a disrespected field more than 50 years ago.

Thanks, Stan. Excelsior.

Stan Lee drawing of Captain America

Practically priceless.

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Posted at 04:39 PM on Nov 12, 2018 in category Superheroes
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Movie Review: The Phantom (1943)

Review of the 1943 Phantom movie serial

WARNING: SPOILERS

I never dug the Phantom. None of my comic book-buying buddies did. Probably because he wasn’t a comic book guy but a comic strip guy—born in those pages in 1936, two years before Action Comics #1 introduced Superman to the world. After I began collecting in 1973, I recall being vaguely intrigued by the Phantom’s daily strip, since, at the time, he was as close to a superhero as you could find in the funnies. But no, he was boring. I kept waiting for him to do something super. I kept waiting for him to return from the jungle until I realized, “Oh, he’s supposed to be there.” He was what we now call a transitional superhero: mask and skintight suit, yes, but everything else spoke to boys adventure stories of the 1910s: the jungle, “magic,” signet rings, subservient natives, a German Shepherd sidekick. He was your grandfather’s superhero and creaked like it.

The 1943 Columbia serial, “The Phantom,” is that turned up to 11.

It’s a movie serial so it’s going to be cut-rate and clumsy; and it’s set in the jungle (Africa, South America, we’re never sure), so it comes loaded with the usual racial landmines. The filmmakers manage to trip them all:

  • Natives kowtowing before a white man (our hero), who is proclaimed a god
  • Flabby white dudes, wearing leopard-skin diapers, playing the natives
  • Flabby white dudes saying things like “Boola boola cahoola” and “Ubba gonga tonga” as examples of the native language

This last is like what “Gilligan’s Island” would be two decades later. I also got a whiff of “Star Wars.” At the end of Chapter 10, “Chamber of Death,” the Phantom falls through a trap door and into a pit, where a metal panel opens revealing ... a rancor! Kidding, it’s a tiger. But it’s still very much like Luke in Jabba’s lair in “Return of the Jedi.” Yet another reminder that these things hugely influenced filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who hugely influenced everything else. “The Phantom” and other serials are like the ur-texts of what’s playing at your local multiplex.

Boola boola cahoola.

That old cistern
What’s the story here? Glad you asked!

Prof. Davidson (Frank Shannon) and his team, including his spunky niece Diana Palmer (Jeanne Bates), arrive in the town of Sai Pana, on the edge of the jungle, hoping to find the fabled “Lost City of Zoloz” and its various riches.

Meanwhile, a gang of thugs, led by Dr. Max Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald), needs the area to construct a landing strip in the jungle—for war, one imagines, but the why is never stated—so they try to throw the Professor’s team off the scent. Then they try to keep everyone out of the jungle by riling up the natives. Best way to do that? Kill the Phantom.

The Phantom, you see, is the reason there’s any peace in the jungle at all. He demands it. And he’s revered and kotowed to as a god because he can’t be killed. He’s “The Man Who Never Dies” and “The Ghost Who Walks.” But it’s a trick; he’s just been played by different men through the years—20, as the serial opens.

The first Phantom we see is played by actor Sam Flint, born in 1882, who looks every bit of his 61 years. (I was reminded of Alfred dressing up as Batman in the ’66 TV series.) Thankfully, as he makes an appearance before the natives, sitting in a rising stone throne behind a smokescreen, he’s shot by a poisoned dart blown from one of Bremmer’s men. He knows he’s a goner so sends word to his son, Geoffrey Prescott (Tom Tyler), to take over. Geoffrey, who just happens to be part of Prof. Davidson’s team, arrives just in time to get Phantom 101 lessons and meet the natives on their side: Suba and Moku.

There’s also a treasure in jewels and gold, “a tomb of your ancestors,” an oath, and a signet ring. Like any boys club. Then, when Phantom XX dies, our newer younger version rises in the stone throne behind a smokescreen to make his proclamations.

My thoughts at this point:

  • Why wasn’t he trained in sooner? Seems a bit last minute.
  • Why a skintight purple suit and black mask? That’s not really ghostly. Nor good camouflage. Not to mention breathable. He is in the jungle, after all.
  • Why do Suba and Moku go along with the ruse?
  • How come, when the new Phantom emerges, no one says, “Hey, doesn’t he look 30 years younger to you?”

Bigger point: Our hero is someone who uses literal smokescreens to trick the natives. “There’s nothing that so sways the native mind as a few simple tricks and illusions,” Phantom XX tells him. That’s our hero. Did they know back then how bad this sounded? One wonders. In episode 9, the Phantom tells Diana about the ancient legend of the Fire Princess: How she arrived, helped them rule, then disappeared with a promise to return.

Diana: But surely you don’t believe that legend.
Phantom: Heh. Of course not. But the natives do. That’s why whoever calls herself the Fire Princess now can take advantage of them.

Uh, dude? You’re basically describing you. It’s one of the better examples of projection I’ve seen from a so-called hero. One wonders if it wasn’t a wink from the screenwriters.

Speaking of: I expected them to use the “man who never dies,” conceit more than they do. The problem with superheroes and serials is that each chapter has to end with a cliffhanger, and it’s absurd that: 1) the superhero gets into so much trouble, and 2) keeps surviving. “The man who never dies” conceit, at the least, gives a plausible explanation to the other characters for that survival. Except they never use it. Instead we get:

Rocco: Great news, Chief! We knocked over the Phantom!
Bremmer: The Phantom? But Long and Chris told me they took care of him at Rusty’s shack.
Rocco: Well, we’re not responsible for what they say.

And:

Flunky: Hey Doc! We sure got the Phantom in a pocket. He’s trapped in that dead-end tunnel.
Bremmer: I thought he’d drowned in that old cistern.
Flunky: He must’ve gotten out of that somehow, but he’s a sure goner now.

I think at one point Bremmer does wonder if maybe there’s something to “The Man Who Never Dies” legend, but it should’ve been integral throughout the serial. Missed opportunity.

(Sidenote: Daka, the Japanese villain in “Batman,” another Columbia serial from 1943, assumes with Batman what’s actually true with the Phantom. Since Batman keeps surviving, he decides there must be many Batmen, “all members of the same organization,” and if one goes down another takes his place. Probably no coincidence that the serials share two screenwriters: Victor McLeod and Leslie Swabacker.)

For those who care, these are the cliffhangers/escapes:

  1. The Phantom is stuck in a swamp with an alligator approaching ... but Devil, his German Shepherd, chases the alligator away then pulls Phantom out.
  2. A lion attacks him ... but is killed by a native’s spear.
  3. A grenade blows up a hut ... but Phantom had escaped beforehand.
  4. He’s being gassed to death ... but Devil warns his friend, Rusty, who pulls him to safety
  5. A rope bridge breaks ... but he survives the fall.
  6. A booby trapped is rigged ... but Devil saves him.
  7. The bad guys collapse a well ... but Phantom crawls through a tunnel.
  8. He falls into a canyon and there’s an explosion ... but survives.
  9. He seems to succumb to fire-dance flames ... but is pulled to safety by Moku and Devil.
  10. He falls into a pit and a tiger is released ... so he lights a flare and escapes through the tunnel the tiger emerged from.
  11. A metal gate portal is brought down ... but he rolls to safety.
  12. In a pit, he’s forced to fight an ape ... and kills it.
  13. In a cistern, water is dumped on him ... but he survives.
  14. An explosion in a cavern ... doesn’t kill him.

How does he survive? Either somebody helps, he did something beforehand we weren’t shown, or he just shakes it off. The best escape is really from the tiger. At least that involved some ingenuity.

Devil (played by Ace the Wonder Dog) is an interesting addition—he certainly beats the boy sidekick—but it creates an added absurdity. He wasn’t Phantom XX’s dog but Geoffrey Prescott’s. I.e., there’s Geoffrey with Devil; then Geoffrey disappears and Devil is suddenly the Phantom’s dog. In Chapter 8, “In Quest of the Keys,” Diana, who’s been wondering over the disappearance of Geoffrey, calls the Phantom on this. She asks: Why do you have Geoffrey’s dog? “I found him wandering in the forest,” he responds.

Smooth, bro. 

‘Bring sparkling burgundy!’
Tyler, who also played the first live-action superhero ever (Captain Marvel in 1941), is a good fit for the role. He’s strong-looking, athletic, and dull. As dull as I remember the Phantom being.

This is one of the serials in which we know the villain from the get-go and our hero doesn’t; so we wait for him to catch up. We wait 15 chapters—300 minutes. The villain is good in the sense that he’s infuriating—a liar and a scoundrel—and we can’t wait for the moment of comeuppance. So guess what they do?

They handle it off-screen.

For like the 10th time, Bremmer assumes the Phantom is dead, so he concocts a not-bad scheme to control the natives: He has one of his henchman dress as the Phantom. They do the whole nine yards: smokescreen, stone throne, but now phony Phantom just stands there; it’s Bremmer who does the talking. He’s in the midst of this when one of the natives, the long problematic Chief Chota (Stanley Price), takes this moment to reenact what the bad guys did in the first episode: He shoots a dart at the (phony) Phantom, who goes down. Chota is killed, and then there’s more smoke. When it clears, the real Phantom is standing there with .... Bremmer dead.

How does he die? Who knows? What of the fake Phantom? Got me. But that’s it. Not much of a payoff after five hours of drivel.

Oh, and the treasure from the lost city of Zoloz? The Phantom has it. He’s always had it.

There are many absurdities—snow-capped mountains in chapter 8, for example—but my favorite is the sideplot to the Genghis Khan-like castle of Tartar (Dick Curtis). It’s like the screenwriters ran out of ideas and so went the Khan route. At one point, impressed by the Phantom’s survival skills, Tartar calls for a celebration. “Bring sparkling burgundy!” he cries.

More lines like that might’ve made “The Phantom” worth watching.

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Posted at 02:12 AM on Nov 12, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s
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Sunday November 11, 2018

Armistice Day + 100: 'I do not believe that any of us loves a blustering nationality'

More kismet with Jill Lepore. I'm up to WWI in her book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” and read the following this morning—on the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I:

These TruthsThe scale of death in the American Civil War, so staggering at the time—750,000 dead, in four years of fighting—looked, by comparison, minuscule. Within the first eight weeks of the war alone, nearly 400,000 Germans were killed, wounded, sick, or missing. In 1916, over a matter of mere months, there were 800,000 military casualties in Verdun and 1.1 million at the Somme. But civilians were slaughtered, too. The Ottoman government massacred as many as 1.5 million Armenians. For the first time, war was waged by airplane, bombs dropped from a great height, as if by the gods themselves. Cathedrals were shelled, libraries bombed, hospitals blasted. Before the war was over, nearly 40 million people had been killed and another 20 million wounded. What sane person could believe in progress in an age of mass slaughter?

U.S. involvement by way of the Zimmerman telegram—a German promise to Mexico that it would regain the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona if it fought us—also led to our first federal propaganda department, the Committee on Public Information, which was “headed by a baby-faced, forty-one-year-old muckraker from Missouri named George Creel, best-known for an exposé on child labor called Children in Bondage. Creel applied the methods of Progressive Era muckraking to the work of whipping up a frenzy for fighting.”

Lepore reminds us of the backlash against civil rights during the era. After Congress passed the 1918 Sedition Act, the Justice Department charged more than 2,000 Americans with that crime—particularly socialists. The leader of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Bill Haywood, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Former presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 for delivering a speech, Lepore writes, in which he'd told his listeners that they were “fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.”

As for now? Yesterday, our current president traveled to France to participate in 100th anniversary ceremonies to honor the war dead; but then he decided not to. The White House said bad weather was the reason but didn't extrapolate, leaving everyone guessing. From the Washington Post: “The cemetery is 50 miles from Paris. Perhaps the president was planning to travel on Marine One, which is occasionally grounded by the military.” Today, other world leaders rebuked Trump's nationalism. Pres. Macron: “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism by saying, ‘our interest first, who cares about the others?’”

Which brings us back to “These Truths.” Wilson's 1916 re-election campaign slogan was, of course, “He kept us out of war,” which Teddy Roosevelt, still fomenting, called an “ignoble shirking of responsibility.” Wilson's repsonse: “I am an American, but I do not believe that any of us loves a blustering nationality.”

I'll let Paul Simon take us out.

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Posted at 02:15 AM on Nov 11, 2018 in category U.S. History
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Friday November 09, 2018

WSJ: ‘The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan has gathered evidence of Mr. Trump's participation in the transactions'

Today, the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2015 Donald Trump sat down with media mogul David Pecker, who runs The National Enquirer, among others, about quashing potential allegations of sexual misconduct directed at then-presidential candidate. Pecker would buy the stories, sign the principles to an NDA, then never run them. 

We‘ve known about some aspect of this story for a while now. What’s new, in the WSJ piece, is Trump's direct involvement: 

Taken together, the accounts refute a two-year pattern of denials by Mr. Trump, his legal team and his advisers that he was involved in payoffs to Ms. McDougal and a former adult-film star. They also raise the possibility that the president of the United States violated federal campaign-finance laws.

The Wall Street Journal found that Mr. Trump was involved in or briefed on nearly every step of the agreements. He directed deals in phone calls and meetings with his self-described fixer, Michael Cohen, and others. The U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan has gathered evidence of Mr. Trump's participation in the transactions.

More more more, as the lady sang

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Posted at 05:56 AM on Nov 09, 2018 in category Politics
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Movie Review: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Queen’s performance at Live Aid, July 13, 1985, before 100,000 people at Wembley Stadium and millions watching worldwide, is often called one of the great live performances in rock history. And not just by its fans. Backstage, Elton John supposedly told the band, “You bastards, you just stole the show.” Dave Grohl, who’s played his share of stadium concerts, and knows a thing or two about how that can distance you from your audience, has said this:

Every band should study Queen at Live Aid. If you really feel like that barrier is gone, you become Freddie Mercury. I consider him the greatest frontman of all time.

Bohemian Rhapsody movie reviewIt wasn’t just the vocals and the strut, it was the interaction with the crowd: the whole DAY-oh! thing. He got them going and moving and a part of it. It’s become legend. 

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” the new biopic of Freddie Mercury, smartly ends with that concert.

Not so smartly? They try to tie up all the loose ends and anticipate the next six years of Freddie’s life before his death of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 45. 

I’m not talking about telling the other members of the band he has AIDS in 1985 rather than 1989. I’m not even talking about the rationale for Queen’s late entry into Live Aid. For the movie, Freddie’s nefarious assistant, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech of “Dowtown Abbey”), wasn’t relaying messages to Freddie, keeping him in a bubble, and away from friends and family. This included tearing up a desperate message that Queen was wanted at Live Aid. Except it wasn’t. In truth, the concert’s organizer, Bob Geldof of Boomtown Rats fame (“I Don’t Like Mondays”), didn’t even want them. Queen kept playing venues that were being boycotted by everyone else: Argentina in 1981; Sun City, South Africa in 1984. They were politically toxic. That’s why the late entry. Little Paulie’s machinations had nothing to do with it.

But—again—I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about how the movie presents Freddie’s day, July 13, 1985.

He gets up, feeds his cats, goes out. To Wembley? For the afternoon concert? No. According to the movie, this is the day Freddie finally tracks down Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), with whom he would spend the rest of his life. In the movie they meet at a raucous party in ... 1980? Freddie’s naughty, Jim gives him a dressing down, Freddie acts the chastened schoolboy and is intrigued. Then he spends five years or whatever tracking Jim down. And he finally does it on this day: July 13, 1985.

And then Freddie goes on to Wembley to make rock history.

Actually, no. Though Freddie and Jim haven’t seen each other in however many years, they’re immediately a couple. Like that. So much so, that Freddie picks this day of all days to then visit his parents, stalwart immigrants, and to introduce Jim as his partner. And he’s not just introducing Jim; he’s coming out to his family. And guess what? They’re immediately accepting of him! Because of course they are. Father hugs son, mother is teary-eyed, son promises mom he’ll blow here a kiss during his performance, and everything is made right on this day, July 13, 1985, just before Freddie heads to Wembley for an afternoon concert to make rock ‘n’ roll history.

In the audience, I kept shaking my head.

Oh, and then the movie implies that no one gave a shit about starving kids in Africa until Queen started playing. Not sure who’s more insulted by that: the other bands at Live Aid, or all of us.

Is this the real life
The tagline for “Bohemian Rhapsody” is: 

FEARLESS
LIVES
FOREVER

Which I misread at first. I read “lives” as a noun rather than a verb—as in “He led a fearless life.” Either way, it doesn’t quite fit. Freddie was fearless in being flamboyant and original. But he was still a gay Parsi kid named Farrokh Bulsara who spent most of his life hiding his heritage and his homosexuality. Apparently he wanted to both stand out and fit in. That’s the wish of most of us, really. That’s where the dilemma is, but the movie makes a muddle of it.

The movie’s a muddle generally. You wait for the great songs (“Killer Queen,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Somebody to Love,” “Crazy Little Thing”), and you thrill at Rami Malek’s dead-on impersonation of Freddie’s unique, strutting stage presence. But in between these moments, we get conflicts that are either cliché or contradictory.

So there’s the fictional record exec (Mike Myers, in a nod to “Wayne’s World”’s Queen scene) who can’t see the point of a six-minute single 10 years after “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Hey Jude” broke the barrier. He gets his. So there’s the nefarious underling who pulls Freddie away from family and friends and toward decadence. (Pull Freddie toward decadence? From what I’ve heard, he leapt.) And they can’t even do this right. When the schemer, Paul, assistant to manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen of “Game of Thrones”/”The Wire”), tells Reid that maybe Freddie should break from the band for a solo career, and then Reid suggests this to Freddie in the back of a limo, Freddie is so incensed by the suggestion that he fires Reid on the spot. So Paul becomes the manager. Then Freddie agrees to do the very thing he fired Reid for even suggesting. Why? How did Paul change his mind?

I don’t know how many times Freddie talks up the fans in the back row, the ones who don’t fit in, the freaks who are different—as he was, called “Paki” (for his heritage) and “Bucky” (for his teeth). And yet what are some of their biggest songs? Jock anthems: “We Will Rock You,” “We are the Champions,” “Another One Bites the Dust.” Each has been adopted by some sports team or another. The World Series-winning 1981 LA Dodgers even performed a horrible rendition of “We are the Champions” for posterity. I would’ve loved 10 seconds on that incongruity. Seeing jocks singing it at a futbol match: “These arsholes would’ve beaten me up at St. Pete’s.” Something.

Here’s the biggest question: Where did it all come from? The singing, the talent, the strutting? To the movie, it’s just suddenly there. He’s a shy kid working baggage at Heathrow and admiring a band, Smile, who’ve just lost their lead singer, Tim Staffel; and then he’s onstage and he’s Freddie. In real life, according to Slate, they all knew each other much earlier:

Mercury, who had drifted through other groups as a keyboard player, always wanted to be the band’s lead singer, sometimes shouting, “If I was your singer, I’d show you how it was done,” from the audience and already offering unsolicited advice on image and performance, telling them, according to May, “You’re not dressing right, you’re not addressing the audience properly. There’s always opportunity to connect.” In fact, by the time Staffell quit, May, Taylor, and Mercury (then still Bulsara) were sharing an apartment, so when the vacancy arose, Mercury was the natural person to fill it. 

I love the thought of Freddie shouting from the audience. Would that we could’ve seen it.

Is this just fantasy
Great casting. I’ll give it that. Dead on. Everyone looks the part. 

But “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t live up to its tagline. It’s not fearless. It’s a typical rock biopic. It’s ordinary. It’s what Freddie wasn’t.

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Posted at 01:20 AM on Nov 09, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Thursday November 08, 2018

Movie Review: First Man (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Shouldn’t it have been more fun?

I love that they make space travel seem hard, and foreign, and existential. It was and is. There’s a moment when they’re closing the metal door on the Apollo 11 capsule, with its metal handle, and I thought, “Someone made that metal handle on that metal door to lock into place, and seal in these men on a four-day flight through space, to the moon, and then back again. Human beings did that. And they did that only 60+ years after we first figured out how to fly in airplanes. My god, what a leap. What a gigantic undertaking. How monumental.”

So shouldn’t the movie have been more monumental?  

First Man reviewThe eight years “First Man” encompasses, from 1961 to 1969, are serious, driven and haunted. Also ultimately triumphant—but triumph in the minor key. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) does it, NASA does it, but to what end? A few dead friends, a troubled marriage, a month of quarantine, and many people arguing whether we should’ve gone in the first place. We get Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon” before whitey was even on the moon. Seeing the plethora of American flags, and the idiot left arguing against going (because we have so many problems here on earth), made me flash on today’s idiot right protesting the movie because it wasn’t patriotic enough. They wanted the money shot, the planting of the American flag on the moon’s soil. Without it, apparently, they couldn’t get off.

Both Ryan Gosling and Neil Armstrong have been criticized for being too emotionless, so the part seemed well-cast. Plus Gosling has worked with director Damien Chazelle before—in 2016’s award-winning “La La Land.” That movie was like the arthouse version of the musical. This is like the arthouse version of an adventure story. And I guess I wanted more adventure. Or a better story. 

Perspective
As is, the story is a subtle refrain on dealing with grief.

In 1962, Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, dies at the age of 2 from a malignant tumor in her brain stem. Armstrong is clearly devastated but he throws himself into his work. He’s an engineer and a pilot. For NASA? I think so but it’s hard to tell. The movie opens with him test-piloting a plane past the reaches of our atmosphere but having difficulty with re-entry and rocketing up past 140,000 feet before regaining control and landing at Edwards Air Force base. Supposedly this was legendary but it’s not clear why we see it—other than for the perspective it offers: the blue warmth of earth, the cold blackness of space.

He talks about perspective when he interviews for NASA’s Gemini program:

I don't know what space exploration will uncover, but I don't think it‘ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it allows us to see things—that maybe we should have seen a long time ago—but just haven't been able to until now.

To me, that perspective is: It’s just us. Whatever “us vs. them” we have going on down here, in the big picture it’s earth vs. a vast nothing. So don’t fuck it up.

In that interview, Armstrong also talks briefly about grief:

NASA official: I was sorry to hear about your daughter.
Armstrong: I'm sorry, is it a question?
NASA official: What I mean is... Do you think it‘ll have an effect?
Armstrong: I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn’t have some effect.

That’s good. The interview is good. It’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. Which is a little sad when you think about it. A movie shouldn’t hit its high point with a job interview.

During the decade, grief grows. Friends are made, friends die—including Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham). With each death, Armstrong seemed more enclosed, more driven, until he’s chosen as commander of Apollo 11, the flight that will send a man to the moon and safely back to earth before the end of the decade, fulfilling JFK’s 1961 promise. Did that promise piss off anyone at NASA? Did anyone go, “Wait, what? We have to do what by when? Are you shitting me?” That would be funny if true. But every movie treats the promise with reverence.

At a press conference before the Apollo 11 flight, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) is joking around, talking about bringing his wife’s jewelry on the flight. Is the conversation a riff on Gus Grissom’s fuck-up during the Mercury program? Loading himself down with coins, etc.? Anyway, Armstrong is asked, in the same jokey manner, what he’d like to bring, and, in that blank-faced sotto-voce way, replies, “More fuel.” Party pooper.

Even so, at that moment, I flashed on his daughter’s bracelet. After her funeral in 1962, Armstrong puts her bracelet into a desk drawer, which he closes with authority, as if to blot it all out. But it's like Chekhov's gun: a bracelet shoved into a drawer in the first act will reappear in the third. As it does. Armstrong has it on the moon. And as Aldrin is bouncing around with joy, Armstrong, forever serious, glances down at the bracelet, and, as if with a sigh, lets it drop into a nearby crater. And we get closure.

And bullshit.

Apparently it’s educated conjecture but it still felt like bullshit to me. Everything else in the movie is so grounded—ironically so, given the topic. It’s the dreary day-to-day. Then this moment. Would Armstrong really do that? On the first flight? When we didn’t really know how much of it was even possible? When all of it was still educated conjecture?

Vinny’s lament
My wife loved “First Man.” My friend Vinny—a fan of the 2007 documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon”—didn’t, and for many of the same reasons I had a problem with it. On Twitter:

  • How did they take an event oriented so strongly around risk, optimism, technology, discovery and imagination, and turn it into a moody grouchfest?
  • Why did they need to turn Aldrin into a bad guy?
  • Why is 30% of the movie about Armstrong’s wife and kids?

Answers in reverse order:

  • Because that’s what Hollywood does. (Cf., the wives and kids in “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff”)
  • I don’t know. (Although I liked this exchange, as the astronauts stare up at one of Apollo’s rockets. Aldrin: “I’m just saying what everyone’s thinking.” [Long pause] Armstrong (quietly): “Maybe you shouldn’t.”)
  • Because that’s what Hollywood does. 

I don't mean Hollywood does “grouchfest.” I’m thinking of the daughter. I’m comparing it to “Contact,” the 1997 film starring Jodie Foster. A monumental, fictitious event—first contact with ETs—is reduced, emotionally, to Foster’s character’s closure with the premature death of her father. Hollywood seems to think we can only understand or root for the monumental by reducing it to the personal.

Even so, I did want more fun. At one point, in the mid-60s, Ed White stops by Neil’s home as he’s doggedly going over all the engineering calculations he needs to know for the next phase, and asks him down to his house for a beer. Neil begs off; then he seems to study himself. Or maybe he studies others’ perceptions of him? But he relents. “I could use a beer,” he says.

That's the movie. The movie could’ve used a beer. 

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Posted at 02:21 AM on Nov 08, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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