Deep Breathing and Brett Butler
“This morning I woke in the dark and put on a bunch of layers and a balaclava and scarf and bright reflective coat and helmet and rode my bike four miles or so down Ashland through an icy wind to sit on a cushion for 40 minutes at the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate meditation hall. For many years I meditated sporadically and romanticized about someday attaining enlightenment, you know, bursting into painless admirable bliss forever, but now I just fucking meditate every day. The turning point in this increase in constancy was becoming a father and how that becoming and its accompanying stress prompted me to frequently assault myself with blows to the head. This was no way to live, I finally realized. I don't punch myself in the head much anymore. In fact I can't remember the last time I did it. I don't particularly want to wake up in the dark once a week and ride through the cold and sit on a cushion with my legs aching. I don't particularly want to sit on a cushion every night after my kids are in bed. But I do it. It keeps the head punches at bay, for one thing, but also the more I do it the more I clearly I see that I'm going to die, and that clarity brings panic and hopelessness and sadness. There's no way out alive. And so I sit every night plus one morning a week after a long bike ride and sometimes on that cushion I feel everything drop away altogether and for a few seconds there is just life right now, and I have no complaints, no questions, no thoughts at all, and a feeling of gratitude wells up in me for this singular vanishing, this gift of life.”
Josh Wilker, “Brett Butler,” on the Cardboard Gods site
I haven't reached the meditation stage yet, certainly not on the level he's at, but for several months last year I did sit quietly and breathe deeply, in and out, in the morning and in the evening, to try to keep my anger level down. I was getting hair-trigger angry too often, once horribly so. (Verbal violence, not physical. Moments I‘ll carry the rest of my life.) The deep breathing helps. These days I do the deep breathing more often as it’s happening. Something stupid will be happening, I‘ll feel that adrenaline surge of anger—which, c’mon, is a fucking great feeling—but I'll be aware of the bad place it leads and just focus on the breathing.
Josh, whose book “Cardboard Gods” I recommend highly, ties all this to a Brett Butler baseball card.
The John Dean Moment
We used to have to wait a day for headlines like these—or at least until the afternoon newspaper, kids—but now it plays out in real time. Along with the denials and obfuscations and general muddying of waters. That's all the GOP has these days: mud to add to otherwise pretty clear water. It's becoming apparent to more and more people what should‘ve been obvious a long time ago: Donald Trump is a crook.
The Times’ subhed is just as important: Pence and Pompeo. Frick and Frack. Or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Nah, that's letting them off too easily.
The Times has a piece on the five key things we learned from Gordon Sondland's testimony, some of them direct quotes:
- “We followed the president's orders”: Meaning it was a Trump operation all the way.
- “Everyone was in the loop,” including the aforementioned Pence and Pompeo. (This reminds me of Woodward's line in “All the President's Men”: “Everyone was involved.”)
- Trump's goal was to get the Ukranians to announce the investigation (Is this a new thing? It was certainly between-the-lines in everything we already knew).
- Good god, yes, to quid pro quo.
- This was the only foreign policy vis a vis Ukraine. The backchannel was the channel.
I‘ll keep reading. It’s a bad day for Fox News, Rush, the GOP, et al.; it's a good day for American democracy. To me, it's not even a partisan thing. There's joy today because some truth got out.
Alan Moore on Our Superhero Fixation
What was the impact of popular heroes comic books in our culture? Why are people fascinated by alternative realities?
I think the impact of superheroes on popular culture is both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying. While these characters were originally perfectly suited to stimulating the imaginations of their twelve or thirteen year-old audience, today’s franchised übermenschen, aimed at a supposedly adult audience, seem to be serving some kind of different function, and fulfilling different needs. Primarily, mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (a) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (b) the relatively reassuring 20th century. The continuing popularity of these movies to me suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest, combined with an numbing condition of cultural stasis that can be witnessed in comics, movies, popular music and, indeed, right across the cultural spectrum. The superheroes themselves – largely written and drawn by creators who have never stood up for their own rights against the companies that employ them, much less the rights of a Jack Kirby or Jerry Siegel or Joe Schuster – would seem to be largely employed as cowardice compensators, perhaps a bit like the handgun on the nightstand. I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.
interview between “Watchmen” creator Alan Moore and Brazilian writer/editor Raphael Sassaki, which took place in 2016, and was translated and published in January 2017. Full interview here.
Trump Outsources Foreign Policy to Russian Gangsters
“A week ago, CNN found Trump had at least ten interactions with [Lev] Parnas and [Igor] Fruman [who were arrested by federal agents on Oct. 10], straining his denials beyond all credibility. Friday night, CNN unearthed an even more dangerous piece of news. Parnas and Fruman, along with their partner, Rudy Giuliani, met with Trump in the White House during its annual Hanukkah party. Parnas told two people that Trump tasked them with pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.
”Trump's dishonesty is so comprehensive that the revelation he lied about knowing Parnas and Fruman—the sort of lie that would badly damage a normal president—barely registers. The fact that he allegedly commissioned Parnas's work directly might prove more damaging. Here Trump recruited a pair of sleazeballs with ties to the Russian mafia to communicate with the Ukrainian government on his behalf. ‘President outsources his foreign policy to gangsters’ is the sort of charge that ought to draw more attention than it has.“
Jonathan Chait, ”Trump Personally Directed Mob-Linked Figure Tied to Ukraine Shakedown," New York magazine
Movie Review: The Irishman (2019)
It goes pretty fast for a three-and-a-half hour movie. Surprising since the movie itself isn’t rushing through anything. It moves leisurely. It’s got an old man’s pace—befitting its storyteller.
No, not director Martin Scorsese, who just turned 77, and who can still make movies as clipped and zippy as his own much-imitated speaking style. I’m talking the title character. The movie opens with a single-shot pan down the hallway of a nursing home, which eventually turns a corner and settles on an aged Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), sitting in a wheelchair in an alcove and talking about his past. To whom? One might think it’s Charles Brandt, the former Delaware attorney general who, six months after Sheeran’s death in 2003, published the book on which the movie is based. Except that book, “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran & The Inside Story of The Mafia, The Teamsters, & The Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa,” has been pretty much debunked, and anyway we never see Brandt. We don’t see anyone. Sheeran is sitting by himself and talking to himself—or talking in his head. He’s all he’s got anymore.
Could his story have been shorter? My friend Jim felt that. He’s from Jersey, loves Scorsese, but near the end I caught him fidgeting. As soon as the movie he was over, bye, he was outta there. An hour later he shot me this email:
Loved seeing those actors, especially Pacino and De Niro, liked it, coulda got ’er done in 2 ½ hrs.
Jim wanted less of the last half hour—after the death of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Once that happened, he felt, the story was over. He’s right. But Scorsese is interested in the other story, too, the effect of all this crime on the man. Plus, when introducing characters throughout the movie, Scorsese will often freeze-frame the shot and let us know when and how that character died. Usually it’s brutally. John Irving did the same thing in “The World According to Garp,” telling us the how and when each of his characters dies, leading to this last great sentence: “Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” That’s where I assumed Marty was leading us with the extended denouement: to the terminal case of Frank Sheeran.
And that’s the one he doesn’t give us. He shows Frank buying a coffin. He shows him estranged from his family—his four girls—one of whom tells him that growing up they could never come to him with a problem. If they did, he would overreact and hurt people. Scorsese shows us FBI guys visiting Frank, trying to get more details on the Hoffa case. But then this too goes away. Everything goes away. The nurse taking his blood pressure (Dascha Polanco) doesn’t know from Jimmy Hoffa. Frank is more and more irrelevant, more and more alone, until he asks the departing nurse to leave the door open to let a little light in.
And that’s where Scorsese leaves him: an old man in a wheelchair, alone, with no connection to anyone or anything. He leaves him in purgatory.
I like that. As for the movie?
Not Irish enough
I had trouble getting past the CGI and (believe it or not) the casting. De Niro’s the reason the movie even got made—he’s been pushing to do it, with himself in the lead, since the book was published—but he’s wrong for the role. It’s not just that Sheeran was 6’4”, 250, and De Niro isn’t, and Sheeran was Irish while De Niro, while part Irish, is the most iconic Italian-American actor of his generation. It’s that Sheeran was Irish among the Italians. He was an enforcer for the Italian mob in Philly, so you really want to feel that ethnic difference: How he is one of them and not; how he’ll never be one of them; and how maybe he has more in common with Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, who was, after all, half Irish. But we don’t get this. It’s the “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” and “Casino” crew, but with one guy pretending—kinda—to be Irish-American.
What could someone like Liam Neeson have brought to the role? That’s what I kept wondering. Neeson is also 10 years younger than De Niro, who’s 76, so the CGI wouldn’t have had to work so hard. Here, it works way too hard. Things happen when you age that CGI can’t erase. Your lips get thinner; your mouth may curl inward; you lose any spryness in your step. We watch Frank, a 20-something WWII vet, moving like a 70-something worried about breaking a hip. It takes you out of the film. The farther back we went, the worse it got. At time, he looked like Robin Williams, other times Kevin Kline. At one point, so much of De Niro’s age and humanity had been erased that I flashed on Tom Hanks in “Polar Express.”
The production values, on the other hand, were amazing. Did our mob visit any business that’s still in existence? It was all Stuckey’s and Howard Johnson’s and Sunoco. It was famous mob-hit locations: Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy, where Crazy Joe Gallo (standup comic Sebastian Maniscalco) bought it; the Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, the last place Jimmy Hoffa was seen.
There’s a scene in 1975 where Frank is driving through Detroit neighborhoods to the house where Hoffa will get whacked. I came of age at that time, in Minneapolis, and goddamn if it didn’t feel like a Midwest neighborhood in 1975. But perfectly. The Coens were able to do the same with a 1960s lake in “A Serious Man.”
The early stuff—how, as a trucker, Frank met Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), delivered stolen, cut-rate meat to Felix DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), and got in good with those boys—was OK, even if the CGI was distracting, and even though we’ve kind of seen it before. But I like how characters came and went. They seem central until they’re not. Like when was the last time we saw mob boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel)? At the testimonial?
It’s once we’re introduced to Hoffa, and get into national politics with the Kennedy boys, or at least Bobby (Jack Huston, sounding just like him), that I became truly interested. Has Scorsese done this before? Brought us the national and international import of the mob? In the past, he’s stayed in the neighborhood.
Pacino’s still got energy, and he’s paired against up-and-comer Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham, Al Capone in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” and Graham goes head to head with Pacino like not many can. Their argument in prison was riveting. BTW: Is it an agreed-upon fact that Sam Giancana helped elect Kennedy in ’60 or is that still supposition? Feels like supposition, and the why of it here feels shaky. Giancana wants the mob back in Cuba, now run by Castro, so he needs the attempted coup that Kennedy launched in April 1961—the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation. Sure. Except that was planned in Ike’s term; Kennedy just came in at the tail end, then launched it without air cover. Are the theorists claiming Nixon wouldn’t have launched it against Castro? Tricky “Pink down to her underwear” Dick? President “Sure, let’s go into Cambodia” Nixon?
The movie has Frank running guns down to Florida for the operation, where he briefly meets David Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), weird eyebrows and all. First thought: Hey, Pesci’s character from “JFK”! Second thought: So is this their linkage between the mob and the assassination? When we get the assassination again, we get it the way most people got it in 1963—on television. Frank, Hoffa and others are at a diner when we hear the “flash out of Dallas” and Walter Cronkite’s heartbreakingly professional reporting. Everyone’s shocked and distraught except for Hoffa. He’s quiet. He seems to be ruminating. Did he know? Did he know who knew? Was he in the room where it happened?
Not ‘Goodfellas’ enough
I could’ve done without some of the daughter stuff. Leave in Frank busting the grocer’s hand in front of Peggy (Lucy Gallina, eventually Anna Paquin), but take out the stuff about her not liking Russell and liking Hoffa. Pesci’s cast against type here—he’s calm, wise and understanding—but his fixation on the kid is a little weird. You need to know why the Frank is estranged from his daughters and that’s it.
I also would’ve trimmed down some of Frank’s attempts to get a post-prison Hoffa to back off from trying to regain control of his union. These are interminable. Of course, since all of this is being filtered through Frank’s mind, maybe he’s constantly replaying those scenes to justify what he did—killing his friend the way he did—but it doesn’t mean they don’t get dull. And was anyone else confused by the slow-mo assassination of one of the union/mob guys by the nondescript black guy? It seems like we’re in the early-to-mid 1960s, then we get this, and everyone in the scene is dressed like early ’70s, and ... I don’t quite get what it connects to.
I’m glad I saw it. It’s not “Goodfellas” but it adds to the pantheon. Leaving the theater, I even thought what a double-bill it would make with “Goodfellas.” Same director, same stars, but an old man’s pace rather than the cocaine-fueled rush of “Goodfellas.” That said, tough to watch any three-and-a-half hour movie on a double bill. Particularly at my age.
Box Office: ‘Ford’ Vrooms, ‘Angels’ Die
The fourth reboot of a ‘70s jiggle show may be the last ... for a while.
Still not a fan of Box Office Mojo’s redesign. So much data is now hard to find on the site, or is now only available if you pay $100+ a year for IMDb Pro. All this is Amazon, by the way. They didn't create either site, just bought them years ago, and are now mucking them up. No character searches any longer on IMDb; now all this crap.
That said, there may be advantages to the new setup. The No. 1 movie for the weekend, and the highest-rated (92%) RottenTomates new release, is “Ford v Ferrari,” which grossed just over $31 million. Second was the second weekend of “Midway,” $8.7 million, third was the first weekend of “Charlie's Angels,” $8.6.
Wait, whoa. Third? Not even $10 mil? Shame. Elizabeth Banks directed, which probably means—despite her “Pitch Perfect 2” grossing $184 in 2015—she won't be getting many more chances. On the plus side, maybe this is a stake in the heart of this intellectual property. How many variations have there been? From 1970s jiggle TV show to 2000 hit movie to 2003 disappointing sequel to 2011 disappointing TV show to 2019 disappointing reboot. Three disappointments and you‘re out? Probably not.
Anyway, I lost the thread. The advantage to the new cross-pollinated amazon setup may be this: I was curious what else “Ford v Ferrari” director James Mangold had done, and checked it out as part of my trial subscription to IMDb Pro. I was like: Oh right, the Wolverine stuff. Also “Walk the Line” and “3:10 to Yuma” and “Knight and Day” (underrated for that kind of film).
But to get to that info you have to go through “Projects in Development,” one of which, for Mangold, was this:
“Untitled Joe Namath Project”
The story of American football star Joe Namath, who became one of the sport’s early media sensations as well as a Super Bowl champion.
For a second, I was excited. I would totally be there for this. Then I saw how many other “Projects in Development” Mangold has: 10, and with eight of them he's attached as director. No way that's going to happen. So we‘ll see.
BTW: Elizabeth Banks has 30 projects in development right now, including five in which she’s attached as director, so I probably shouldn't worry too much about her. Or at all, given the state of the world.
BTW II: Adam Driver as Broadway Joe?
“Attempted murder? Now honestly, what is that? Do they give a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry? Do they?”
— Sideshow Bob, “The Simpsons,” Season Six, Episode Five, 1994
“This rhetorical absurdity, originally intended as a joke on a TV cartoon, is now being trotted out in all seriousness by the GOP. What New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait has called the ”Sideshow Bob defense“ has become central to Republican efforts to shield President Trump from accusations of wrongdoing. ...
”House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for instance, said: ‘Name me one thing that Ukraine did to release the money. Nothing.’ ...
“Nikki Haley reasoned: ‘... It’s hard for me to understand where the whole impeachment situation is coming from, because what everybody's up in arms about didn't happen.' ...
”It's hard to believe that the Sideshow Bob defense of Trump will be long-lived, as it fails to stand up to even the slightest scrutiny. It is literally a joke. (Still, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) felt obliged to stamp out any confusion during the impeachment hearing Wednesday. ‘Is attempted murder a crime?’ he asked Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. Laughing, Taylor responded: ‘Yes, attempted murder is a crime.’)“
Bill Oakley, writer for ”The Simpsons,“ in the Washington Post Op-Ed, ”One of the defenses of Trump is — literally — a TV-cartoon joke"
Quote of the Day
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
― Ronald Wright, “A Short History of Progress,” 2004