From Kristof's column, “A New Way to Tackle Guns.”
Kristof's new way doesn't really feel new but it does feel reasonable: universal background checks, tighter regulation of gun dealers, a 10-year prohibition on possessing guns for anyone convicted of domestic violence, assault or similar offenses. The problem is he's trying to talk to unreasonable people.
Catch of the Day: Kevin Pillar
This was yesterday:
Superman comes to mind. You can see it here.
A Few Thoughts After Watching '2001' Last Night
I was thinking about Kubrick in the mid-sixties making it, when the year 2001 was in the future, and me in my living room last night watching it, with the year 2001 now more than a decade in the past.
And I was turning over the four-part structure of the film:
- The dawn of man, in which a group of ape creatures, driven from their water hole by a rival tribe, awaken to a thrumming black monolith, and thereafter make the giant leap forward: they use a bone as a weapon and take back their water hole.
- The near future, 2001ish, and the discovery of the monolith buried on the dark side of the moon.
- The mission to Jupiter, 18 months later, in which the HAL 9000 computer malfunctions, then kills four of the five crewmembers before being deactivated.
- Whatever the fuck is going on at the end. Old age and new births. A new dawn of man? A dawn of AI?
And I thought about what the year 2001 meant to its creators and what it wound up meaning to us.
To Kubrick, it meant a bland, clean, artificial efficiency. To us, it’s the year a rival tribe grabbed a new weapon and beat its enemies. It’s a year you would associate with the first part of the film (millions of years ago) rather than the last three parts (the near future).
I think Kubrick would've smiled at that.
A vision of the future from the past, with Pan-Am flights to the moon and Howard Johnson’s Earthlight Rooms.
Freedom vs. Community: The Lone Ranger Solution
I like this quote from “A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980” by Robert B. Ray, from a chapter examining the movies, “It's a Wonderful Life” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”:
As a way out of the impasse between the attractiveness of the outlaw hero's life, lived solely in terms of the self, and the need for community responsibility, the Classic Hollywood movie had proposed the archetypal American solution: the individual hero whose willingness to help society was pictured as a temporary departure from the natural and proper pattern of his life, which remained free of abiding entanglements. Involvement, then, represented only a momentary concession to emergency and not a genuine acknowledgement of society's claims. As Leo Marx has pointed out, such a view discredited politics in America; to make a career out of involvement was somehow suspect.
Cf., Bob Dylan:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto are riding down the line
Fixing everybody's troubles, everybody's 'cept mine
Somebody must've told 'em I was doing fine
Cf., as well, Zorro, “Kung Fu,” “The Incredible Hulk.” Cf., Ethan in “The Searchers,” delivering Debbie but not crossing the threshold to the house. Cf.,...?
He even wore the outlaw's mask.
Saddest Headline Ever
I posted this a few weeks ago but we had server issues and it was never saved. So here it is again. It's from The New York Times:
It took me a moment to realize what that headline was saying: that even though our overuse of oil is warming the planet, it's not warming it fast enough for oil companies to immediately monetize the Arctic for more oil exploration.
It's an open admission that what we're doing is destroying the world as we know it. But the only concern is that Big Oil can't do more of that thing.
I can't imagine a culture more lost.
Lancelot Links Chokes Bryce Harper
- So over the weekend the (recent) closer from the Washington Nationals, Jonathan Papelbon, called out the star of the Washington Nationals (and the best player in baseball) Bryce Harper for not running hard enough on an eighth-inning pop out. He kept at him. Harper said come get some. And Papelbon went for his throat. Literally. So teammates separated them.
- I first read Tyler Kepner on it, and he put a lot of blame on manager Matt Williams for allowing Papelbon to go out in the ninth and pitch. He thinks he should've sent a signal to the rest of the team.
- Joe Posnanski said much the same thing in his inimitable fashion—meaning with humor and sadness. He talked about when it's right to do this kind of thing and when it's wrong. He felt the Nats demonstrated the really, really wrong way to do it.
- Then former pitcher, and decent writer, C.J. Nitkowski weighed in with quotes from other players ... who backed Papelbon.
- Then Washington Post sportswriter Adam Kilgore weighed in, saying it was SO Papelbon's fault, don't even THINK it wasn't. Plus Harper did run out that pop-up.
- And Posnanski offers a further (rather classy) follow-up to Nitkowski's column. I'm sure there will be more to come.
- Elsehwere, meaning the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle Mariners, who have now been absent from the postseason longer than any team in baseball (14 years and counting), have hired a new general manager: Jerry Dipoto, 47, who apparently resigned as GM of the Angels earlier this year because he favored analytics. More later on our new GM.
- Grantland's Alex Pappademas has a great piece on why the new “Muppets” suck. Then he goes further: “We are a terrible, dispirited society and we finally have the terrible, dispirited Muppets we deserve.” Fun! (Quibble: While I think Alan Moore critiqued the suphero-as-vigilante, I think Frank Miller bought into it from the get-go.)
- Nicholas Dawidoff (the heir apparent?) writes of another lost Red Sox season in The New Yorker. I question the “another.” The BoSox are tied with the San Francisco Giants for most titles this century (three) and won it all as recently as 2013. Twins fans? Haven't been, or won it all, since 1991. Mariners fans? Never won it all. Never been. How do you like them apples, Bahstan?
- Kevin McCarthy, another heir apparent, who shares a name with the star of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” apparently has loose lips. Essentially he's saying: Look how we torpedoed Hilary with Benghazi! Classy.
- A lot of reporters are giving John Boehner a pass as he heads off into the sunset. Not Jeffrey Toobin.
- How is America like the worst girlfriend in the world? Louis CK explains.
Where Michael Medved Went Wrong with ‘Hollywood vs. America’
OK, so I finally got around to reading Michael Medved’s “Hollywood vs. America.” Give me a few decades and I’ll get right on things.
What surprised me? I agreed with him more than I thought I would.
Our minds meet here:
- Movies influence us. In my view, everything affects everything, and movies, with their wide reach, with millions of potential viewers, can influence that much more. So there’s a responsibility there. With great power, etc.
- Movies are excessively violent. Given his conservative credentials, I was pleased that Medved attacks right-wing icons Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris. He doesn’t give them a pass. Here.
- Too many ‘Kid Knows Best’ features are a drag. Obviously the goal is to flatter one of Hollywood’s key demographics while insulting the people actually paying for the ticket.
Our disagreements cut deeper.
Medved thinks Hollywood movies are generally anti-family, anti-hero, anti-country, anti-religion, pro-obscenity, and with a tendency to glorify ugliness.
I think most Hollywood movies are good-vs.-evil heroic wish-fulfillment fantasies, and so much about the beauty of its stars that for the rest of our lives the rest of us feel like something the cat dragged in.
But our biggest disagreement is who we blame for whatever mess we think Hollywood is in.
Me: Hollywood’s a business, they’re trying to appeal to as many people as possible—to make as much money as possible—and so they come up with these wish-fulfillment fantasies about heroic men and beautiful women because that’s the story we want to see again and again. The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.
Medved: It’s the hippies.
Between 1965 and 1969 the values of the entertainment industry changed, and audiences fled from the theaters in horror and disgust.
A little background. In 1966, Jack Valenti, the newly appointed president of the Motion Picture Association of America, officially ended the longstanding Hays Code, which had banned, among other things, nudity, miscegenation, “sex perversion,” and “willful offense to any nation, race or creed”—or at least the white ones. In its place, he instituted a ratings system: initially G, M, R and X; eventually G, PG, PG-13, R, X and NC-17. From then on, characters on movie screens could swear, and take off their clothes. If you pricked them they bled and if you poisoned them they died. Movies could have sympathy for criminals and could ridicule clergy.
To Medved, that’s where everything went wrong. In 1966, Hollywood opened Pandora’s Box, filth came out, and most of us turned away. He writes:
While individual examples of the countercultural trend might achieve respectable box office returns (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967; Easy Rider, 1969; Midnight Cowboy, 1969; M*A*S*H, 1970), the general distaste for the industry’s emphasis on sex and violence provoked an unprecedented flight of the mass audience.
My thought while reading: Except there wasn’t an unprecedented flight of the mass audience.
According to Medved, there was:
In 1967, the first year in which Hollywood found itself finally free to appeal to the public without the “paralyzing” restrictions of the old Production Code, American pictures drew an average weekly audience of only 17.8 million—compared to the weekly average of 38 million who had gone to the theaters just one year before!
Wow, I didn’t know that. Hollywood lost more than half its audience in a single year? And did nothing about it?
So where did Medved get those numbers? From the footnotes:
All figures on weekly movie attendance from the Motion Picture Association of America (research by Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey), cited in Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records, by Cobbett Steinberg, Vintage Books, 1978, pp. 370–71.
Steinberg’s book does in fact give us those 38/17.8 numbers. In my updated 1982 version, they’re on page 46. But are they correct?
First, let’s admit it’s tough to get accurate box office data on almost anything before 1980. It’s all a little sketchy and the numbers never quite match.
That said, almost everything I’ve ever read on the history of box office disagrees with Medved/Steinberg. Here, for example, is a graph from George Lucas's Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success:
This is the agreed-upon history. From the late ‘40s to the mid-‘60s, fewer and fewer people went to the movies because of the following factors:
- The advent of TV (the big one)
- The 1948 federally mandated breakup of Hollywood’s production/distribution monopoly, causing the studios to sell its theaters and cut back on production
I.e., 3) meant traveling further when you left the house, 2) meant fewer film options once you left the house, and 1) meant “Why leave the house? Milton Berle’s on!”
(Another factor, less commented upon, is HUAC’s anti-communist assault upon Hollywood, which tainted the Hollywood/movie brand. For many Americans, the question became: Why spend time and money to see something created by pinkos and fellow travelers? The great irony is that HUAC’s search for communists damaged a successful capitalist enterprise that 99.99% of the time promoted American values around the world.)
Another graph, from Michelle Pautz of Elon University in North Carolina, in her paper, “The Decline in Average Weekly Cinema Attendance: 1930 -2000,” suggests that attendance actually began to level off around the time Valenti and Hollywood got rid of the outdated Production Code:
Movies survived the TV era by giving people what they couldn’t get on TV. In the 1950s, this meant Cinemascope and Technicolor and epics. In the mid-to-late ‘60s, it meant sex, violence and adult themes. This was the lifeline the movies used until Hollywood hit upon the summer blockbuster concept in the mid-1970s.
But it’s not just the above graphs that disagree with Steinberg. So does Steinberg.
During my online research, I came across a 2006 discussion on a message board devoted to arts and faith, in which one user quotes Medved’s 38/17.8 numbers, another challenges him, and the first essentially offers a mea culpa—linking to a LA City Beat article that refutes Medved’s numbers. Sadly, LA City Beat is no more, the links are broken, and I can’t find the original article or even its author’s name. (Let me know if you know who this is.) But the message board user did quote from the article:
...had [Medved] turned one leaf backward [in Steinberg’s book] to look at page 368, he would have seen the chart saying that the average 1966 ticket price was $1.094, and the average 1967 price $1.198. Had he turned one leaf forward, to page 373, he would have discovered that annual U.S. box-office receipts for 1966 were $1.119 billion; for 1967, $1.128 billion.
If anyone can tell me how ticket prices can go up roughly 10 percent, box-office receipts can go up a little under 1 percent, and attendance drop by nearly 53 percent … well, please drop me a line.
Let’s do that math, shall we? If you take Steinberg’s annual box office receipts and divide by Steinberg’s annual ticket price, then divide by the 52 weeks in the year, you get the following average weekly attendance for 1966 and 1967:
U.S. Box Office
Est. annual att.
Est. wkly att.
Not exactly 38/17.8.
So Steinberg doesn’t even agree with himself. In fact, he’s culling information from many different sources. But it’s only the average weekly attendance number, on which Medved based so much, and which comes from a study by the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, that includes a proviso from Steinberg:
These figures are only estimates of the average weekly number of American moviegoers. Industry statistics can never be exact here.
I searched to see if any book and/or movie critics at the time that “Hollywood vs. America” had been published had called out Medved on his suspect data. Nada.
I checked to see if Medved has since offered a mea culpa on his suspect data. Bupkis.
To be sure, Medved gets other things wrong, too. He goes on for pages about a 1990 Christian movie, “China Cry,” claiming it earned twice what Box Office Mojo says it grossed ($10 million vs. $4.2 million). He attacks B movies of the 1980s that aren’t worth a second thought, and ascribes shabby, countercultural motives behind Martin Scorsese’s desire to make “The Last Temptation of Christ.” He thinks R.E.M.’s song “Losing My Religion” is anti-religion and “The Simpsons” isn’t funny.
But this is the big one. He believes that the movie business, which has given us John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Rambo, Arnold and Bruce Willis, puts left-wing ideology before money. It’s right there in that 38/17.8 number: the number that other numbers, not to mention logic, not to mention its original source, tells us is wrong.
Hollywood released films like these and and “audiences fled from the theaters in horror and disgust,” says Medved. According to Steinberg, “The Graduate” was the No. 2 box-office hit of the 1960s, while the other two are in the top 20.
Movie Review: Focus (2015)
Why the Hollywood fascination with con artists? Is it an easy metaphor for what they do to us? Show us a pretty face or a handsome bod and while our attention is diverted pick our pocket? We leave the theater feeling rooked.
And what the fuck happened to Will Smith? For 15 years he couldn’t appear onscreen without exuding charm, but since coming back from a four-year hiatus he’s played the most charmless dolts. He plays soft-spoken superior men who don’t have time for the rest of us. We’re an avenue to his power. We get stepped on.
“Focus” is a kind of love story, just not a very good one. Nicky (Smith) takes Jess (Margot Robbie), a pretty blonde amateur scam artist, under his wing, and shows her the basics of grifting. Then during a Super Bowl weekend in New Orleans, he lets her in on the super-efficient rarefied air of his grifting operation, where members of his team pick pockets and scam football fans as easily as football fans high five one another. Before the game even starts, they’ve netted more than $1 million of, well, our money. Thanks, bro.
But there are intimations that Nicky has a gambling problem, and, at the game, which isn’t really the Super Bowl since the NFL didn’t want to be associated with this thing, he gets into a series of bets with Liyuan (B.D. Wong), a happy-go-lucky Chinese gambler, and keeps losing: $1,000, $50K, then $1 million—all the money he’d earned, or stolen, all gone on what are in essence 50/50 bets: The next play will be a run; the next pass will be caught, etc. Finally, ruined, he decides to make an absurd bet where the odds are astronomically against him. He bets that Liyuan can pick the number of any player on the field and Jess can guess it. Liyuan tries to warn him off; Jess is horrified and wants no part of it. But the bet goes forward. And using binoculars, Jess spies, on the sidelines, Farhad (Adrian Martinez), an overweight grifter who is part of Nicky’s team, wearing No. 55. So she chooses that one. Which is the number Liyuan chose. Nicky wins it all back! But how? That’s what Jess wants to know.
Turns out they’d set up Liyuan from the beginning. They made sure the number “55” kept appearing in his field of vision during the previous few days. They were also playing the Rolling Stones’ song, “Sympathy for the Devil” in the luxury suite, with its background vocals going “Woo woo, woo woo,” and Nicky helpfully explains to Jess that the Chinese word for five is “Woo.” Woo woo. Five five.
And that’s it. That’s how they won that absurd, impossible bet. In that absurd, impossible fashion.
It turns out Nicky doesn’t have a gambling problem. But then why does he go to the racetrack and lose? Who’s being set up there? Just us? And how did he know he would lose all of those 50/50 bets earlier? Or did he plan to just keep betting until they got to the point where the absurd bet was necessary? Except it never was.
After all this excitement, Nicky unceremoniously cuts Jess loose. He gives her the money she earned and boots her from his car. I guess he was becoming attached and he doesn’t want attachments. That would be vaguely human and Will Smith isn’t that anymore.
Oh, and FYI, but the Chinese word for “five” sounds more like “oo” than “woo.” It’s third tone, falling and rising. It's very specific. What the Stones sing sounds as much like five in Chinese as it sounds like five in English.
Anyway, that’s the first half of the movie. The second half is set in Buenos Aires, where a rich, unscrupulous racecar owner, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), against the wishes of his personal bodyguard Owens (Gerald McRaney), hires a seemingly bereft Nicky to scam his competition. Garriga owns a McGuffin that will allow him to race faster, and he wants Nicky to pretend to be a disgruntled engineer who will sell that technology to the Aussie competition, McEwen (Robert Taylor). Ah, except he’ll really be selling something that’s not quite as good, allowing Garriga to keep winning! Hahahahahaha.
So that idea is stupid. But then Nicky double-crosses him by selling the real McGuffin to nine of Garriga’s competitors, netting $27 million in all, even as Owens closes in on both Nicky and Jess, who is Garriga’s girlfriend, and over whom Nicky seems to be getting all moony-eyed. Seems he’s missed her these past years.
Except! She’s not really Garriga’s girlfriend. She’s just trying to steal his watch or something, while Garriga and Owens think of her as a garden-variety racetrack skank. (The movie is not kind to Robbie's character.) Plus! Nicky is faking being moony-eyed. That’s part of the scam, too. Because! Owens is really working with Nicky. He’s really Nicky’s father. Which leave us! Nowhere.