We Interrupt This Blog for a Wedding
That's me on the right later today. But hopefully better dressed and with less drama.
Wait, that's wrong, isn't it? He's dragging Elaine away from a wedding. Oh well, you get the idea.
Also, what other movie image to go with? “The Godfather”? He's going to abuse her, then one brother will beat him up while another will have him killed. “Diner”? That's about fear of marriage. “Romeo and Juliet”? Doesn't end well. So, this. Plus Dusty's one of my patron saints.
In the Future, We Will Know Nothing as Well as We Know Every Action on a Baseball Diamond
From The Only Rule Is It Has to Work: Our Wild Experiment Building a New Kind of Baseball Team by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller:
Lead length [by a baserunner contemplating stealing] is one of many new measurements made possible by Statcast, a system installed in every major league park for the first time in 2015. Statcast combines a Doppler radar array that takes two thousand readings per second with a network of high-definition cameras that capture images thirty times per second, producing a three-dimensional record of every action on the field: every player's position at every instant, as well as the speed, spin, and trajectory of every thrown and batted ball.
The book is about two stats heads (the authors) who run a semipro baseball team in Northern California for a season, and try to remake it according to SABERmetrician logic. It's about where they're right, and wrong, and what happens when statistical probabilities collide with reality. Well-written by both, who alternate chapters, although I did keep losing track of which player was which.
I'm a baseball fan, but the above makes me wonder whether we're spending too much time on the national pastime. If we're going for a three-dimensional record of every action on a particular field, the floor of Congress might be a better place to start.
Movie Review: The General (1926)
Does anyone else extrapolate beyond Hollywood endings?
I know Buster Keaton’s “The General” is a classic, voted the 18th greatest movie of all time by the American Film Institute, with only Chaplin’s “City Lights” (No. 11) ahead of it in the pure comedy category. And I know 1926 wasn’t exactly an enlightened time when it came to race, so the fact that our hapless hero is in effect fighting to preserve slavery, even if he is just trying to get the girl, well, I’ll let go of that.
But the ending? Keaton’s Johnnie Gray finally gets the girl and the uniform; he’s both honored and loved. And we get that great final shot of Keaton and the girl, Annabelle Lee of Marietta, Ga. (Marion Mack), sitting on the siderod of the titular train, kissing, as he keeps saluting passing soldiers at such a furious pace it’s as if he’s dismissing them. There’s almost an Army schmarmy vibe to it. It’s as if he’s saying “Make love not war” 40 years before that became a rallying cry.
But it’s still 1862. And he’s still wearing Confederate grays. “So he’s dead in three years,” I thought. “And at best she’s Scarlett O’Hara, at worst ‘A Woman in Berlin.’”
I know. Don’t extrapolate.
Comic imperatives, narrative imperatives
The story is built on misperceptions that would easily be cleared up if someone, anyone, would just say something. Ironic, given silent film.
Johnnie, we’re told, loves two things, his train and Annabelle Lee. and we see him wooing her in her front parlor in his usual fumbling fashion. Then Confederates fire upon a Union garrison at Fort Sumter, war is declared, and Annabelle’s father and brother immediately go to sign up. And what about you? Annabelle seems to indicate to Johnnie. It takes a second for the other shoe to drop. Oh, right, I’m supposed to be brave. I loved Keaton at this moment. For not going along.
Except then he does. He’s first in line to sign up, but the Rebs won’t take him. The officers behind the scenes feel he’ll be more valuable as a train engineer except nobody bothers to tell him this. Despite his persistence, they simply order him out, repeatedly, and out he goes, dejected, only to be greeted by Annabelle’s father and brother, who eye him the way Annabelle did: So? You signing up? And he doesn’t bother to tell them. They think he’s a coward. Annabelle does, too. Even when he tries to tell her, she doesn’t believe him.
A year later, her brother has medals (I thought of Bob Dylan’s “John Brown”), her father’s been injured (superficially), and she’s still ignoring Johnnie. Then his train is hijacked by Yankee spies, who plan on destroying the Western & Atlantic Railroad tracks between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., cutting off the South from needed supplies. (Needed to keep slavery going.) This is based on a historic incident, the Great Locomotive Chase, or the Andrews’ Raid, after James J. Andrews, a Kentucky civilian who concocted it. The hero for the South was the train’s conductor, William Allen Fuller, who, per Wikipedia, “pursued the train hijackers on foot, by handcar, and in a variety of other locomotives.”
And that’s Keaton. There’s a great balance here between the comic imperative to have Johnnie fumble and the narrative imperative to have him succeed, and Keaton threads it like the silent-film genius he is. It’s this element of the movie, oddly, that Mordaunt Hall, in his review in The New York Times in February 1927, found problematic:
It is difficult to reconcile one’s self to a hero who is apparently astute in some things and almost idiotic in others. This man, who has difficulty in crossing a road, is supposed to be crafty enough to outwit the Northern General.
Hall’s piece is titled “Mr. Keaton’s Face Overpowers This Film,” which most modern critics would agree with; but he also dismisses the film as “somewhat mirthless,” which, for most critics, is like shots fired at Fort Sumter.
I’m in the middle. Keaton does beautiful things onscreen but he doesn’t make me laugh like Chaplin. Chaplin is also gentler around women. There’s something petulant and vaguely menacing about Keaton at times. Example: As Johnnie and Annabelle work to bring back The General and save the South (temporarily), she keeps mucking up in ways different from his own. So he throttles her neck. Like she’s Laurel or something. I guess it’s EOE but it’s still a bit of a surprise, particularly given his parlor shyness. Beware the shy ones, girls.
Most of the movie is chase, and includes the most expensive scene of the silent era: a locomotive is sent over a burning bridge, which collapses and sends the train, a real train, into the river below. But its most famous shot is an early one: a heartbroken Keaton sitting on the siderods as the train moves again, taking him up and down as if on a merry-go-round, or, more aptly, on the vicissitudes of life. It’s exquisite. I also liked a moment in the North when Johnnie is hiding under a table where the generals are making their plans. A cigar burns a hole in the tablecloth, and for a moment we fear that Johnnie will be revealed. Nope. It’s so Johnnie can see Annabelle through the hole. It’s a natural iris shot. Lovely.
But 18th all time? In AFI’s first 100 greatest films list, from 1997, “The General” didn’t even make the cut. Anyone know what happened between 1997 and 2007 to give it such a boost?
Plus, fuck it I’ll say it, Johnnie is fighting to preserve slavery. That curdles some of the comedy for me.
Movie Review: The Red Menace (1949)
“The Red Menace,” a 1949 B-picture from Republic Studios, was one of the first anti-communist movies to be released during the post-WWII Red Scare, but from a distance it’s kinda quaint. Sure, there’s a Soviet cell operating in the U.S., but it’s the furthest thing from effective. A better title for the movie might be: “Red ... Menace?”
A tall, broad-shouldered lunkhead, Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell), is pissed that he’s been ripped off in some GI real estate scam and the government won’t do anything about it. Overhearing, a party member invites him to a nearby bar “for discriminating people,” where two broads make a play for him. While the brunette, Yvonne (Betty Lou Gerson), looks on disgruntled, the blonde, Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller), takes him back to her place and mixes drinks while he peruses the shelves and ... Hey, what are these books? Marx? Lenin? You’re a commie! Yeah, but a looker. C’mere. Pucker up, baby.
Irish Italian Jewish Negro
The Soviet cell that Bill Jones is slowly indoctrinated into is like one of those WWII movie platoons: someone from every race:
- Henry (Shepard Menken), a nice Jewish poet, cuckolded by Mollie on a weekly basis.
- Mollie, Irish Catholic, whose mother hangs around like a gray cloud, mourning the loss of her daughter’s respectability.
- Sam, the affable Negro front-office worker at The Toilers, the commie newspaper.
- Reachi, the Italian, who wonders if communism is a democracy as they say, why is it called “a dictatorship of the proletariat”?
- Nina, the foreign beauty, who will become The Love Interest.
Things first go south when Reachi is killed in a back alleyway for asking questions. Then Henry gets curious, too, and is kicked out of the party. He quickly turns into a patriot:
At least that [American] flag has three colors in it, not one. Not one bloody one!
But he can’t take the ostracism and throws himself out a window. He leaves a note for Mollie, telling her to return to her mother, which she does; in a church. Sam leaves with his respectable father, while Yvonne, always ratting out others, is picked up by the cops, who, it turns out, know everything. (Because our law enforcement is on the case.) Then she goes mad. (Because that’s what happens to commies.)
That’s it. The filmmakers, I’m sure, wanted to make sure communism didn’t seem attractive, but they were so successful they made it seem hardly a threat at all. Which makes the way the movie is bookended even odder.
‘We can’t suspect everybody’
It opens steeped in paranoia. Nina and Bill flee California, sure that communists are right behind. At an Arizona gas station, the attendant makes small talk—Where are you from? Where are you going?—and Nina freezes:
Nina (whispering): Why’d he say that?
Bill: Just to make conversation probably.
Nina: I don’t believe it. There must be some reason why he’s so curious.
Bill: Take it easy, Nina. We can’t suspect everybody.
After we get the rest of the story in flashback, we see them driving into Talbot, Texas, where Bill suddenly becomes sensible: “I’ve been thinking, Nina. What are we running away from? This is the United States not a police state. Let’s go see that sheriff.” Which they do. And they tell him their tale. (This really should’ve been the spot for the flashback, but the movie screwed up that, too.)
The sheriff’s response to their tale?
You folks have been running away from yourselves, and the fear in your own minds.
The entire movie is an argument against the paranoia of groups like HUAC, presented as an argument in favor of such groups.
Nobody on either side of the political fence saw this. The Daily Worker denounced the movie, while California’s own HUAC, the Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, honored it, commending “Republic Studios and those persons who have so courageously assisted in this production.”
And then, like most anti-communist movies, it died at the box office. No one went to see it because that stuff's a drag: preachy, heavy-handed. It's called the free market.
Quote of the Day from Last Week
“Indeed, the road to Trumpism began with ideological conservatives cynically exploiting America's racial divisions. The modern Republican Party's central policy agenda of cutting taxes on the rich while slashing benefits has never been very popular, even among its own voters. It won elections nonetheless by getting working-class whites to think of themselves as a group under siege, and to see government programs as giveaways to Those People.”
-- Paul Krugman, “Hilary and the Horizontals,” The New York Times, June 10, or two days before the Orlando shooting. Trump doubled down on that.
Movie Review: The Innocents (2016)
It’s December 1945, and Mathilde Beaulieu (future international star Lou de Laage) is an intern with the French Red Cross in Poland, helping identify, treat and repatriate French citizens in Nazi camps. One day, a young Polish nun asks for help; Mathilde directs her to the Polish or Soviet authorities then goes about her day. At the end of it, as she’s smoking a cigarette, she looks outside and sees the same nun praying in the snow.
At the convent, she arrives to find a nun in pain—giving birth to a breech baby—and she does what she does. Then she discovers other nuns are pregnant. Six? Eight? Is it a miracle? The opposite. Backdate eight months and it’s when the Soviet Army came through. These are women who hardly know their own bodies, whose bodies, they feel, belong to God. Some of them won’t even let Mathilde examine them for the shame of it all. And Russians soldiers were at the convent for three days. That’s the first horrific revelation.
Mathilde is sworn to secrecy in all of this. The Mother Superior, Mere Abesse (Agata Kulesza, who played the freewheeling, self-destructive aunt in “Ida”), has found homes for the babies but it’s all hush-hush. They’re under Soviet occupation now; they’re Catholics in a communist world. Plus 1945 wasn’t exactly an enlightened time for victims of rape.
Gradually, Mathilde develops friendships with the nuns, particularly Maria (Agata Buzek), who is younger and more open than the Mother Superior. Mathilde has her own run-in with Soviet troops in the woods at night, and barely escapes. When Polish troops come through, she scatters them with talk of disease and becomes a hero to the nuns—a sweet scene.
Her superiors, meanwhile, wonder what’s up—she’s falling asleep on the job. A Jewish doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne), woos her with such blunt, dead-eyed hopelessness we worry for her, but he turns out to be a fascinating character with some wit. “Yes, a Jew,” he says, evenly, at one point. “There are still a few of us left.” He loves though the light in his eyes has gone out.
The film itself is so dimly lit that for a time I wondered if the projector at SIFF Uptown was missing a bulb. Was it all natural lighting? Was Fontaine going for the look of classic paintings? The palette reminded me of “Les raboteurs de parquet” by Gustave Caillebotte. It's the look of the first winter after our most horrific war.
I won’t go into the second horrific revelation but will add that I didn’t see the solution to the problem even though it was right in front of me the entire time. I like that. I like the feel of the film and its ending notes.
Lancelot Links Goes to the 2016 Tonys
“Immigrants: We get the job done.”
- Lin-Manuel Miranda's first acceptance speech (for best score) was the highlight of the 70th Tony Awards for me.
- Here's that opening “Hamilton” parody for James Corden. Anthony Ramos killed it, but then he had the best line. Also like Corden's “No! Just you wait...” to the cast, RE: the Tonys.
- The ratings were up 35% from last year and posted the best overall numbers for the Tonys since 2001. What happened in 2001? “The Producers.” But back then, remember, YouTube hadn't been invented yet. So if you wanted to watch the Tonys you had to sit and watch the Tonys. You couldn't wait for it (wait for it).
- James Surowiecki on how scalpers set a true market value for “Hamilton,” allowing producers to double the most expensive seats; also a GOP Texas congressman attempts to undo Dodd-Frank. Of course.
- Adam Gopnik on what Hamilton and Burr checked out of the New York Society Library. “Slipping back out onto the noise of East Seventy-ninth Street, three tentative conclusions suggest themselves: art alone makes old things new; the more you read, the less you know for certain; and self-government, of every kind, is hard.”
- Gopnik also wrote about “Hamilton” back in February: “'Hamilton' is the Obama-era musical. At the simplest presentational level, it shows previously marginalized people taking on the responsibility and burden of American history.”
- Oh, and that opening number to the Tonys I love so much that Neil Patrick Harris did a few years back? The “Now we're bigger” thing? Apparently Lin-Manuel Miranda helped write it.
- John Oliver on the Orlando shooting: “That terrorist dipshit is vastly outnumbered.”
- Jiayang Fan's New Yorker piece on Chinese racism and that racist Qiaobi detergent ad begins well (great opening graf) but gets bogged down in handwringing and vague finger-pointing. The last graf begins, “Learning to live in a pluralistic world requires...” Too bad.
- The whole Qiaobi controversy reminded me of “Darkie” toothpaste from Taiwan, whose named changed to “Dakkie” when I lived there in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and then, apparently, “Darlie.” Researching, I came across George McKibbons' article on the history on “Darkie.” More than I ever knew.
- How do the movies differ from other art forms? Nora Desmond had the answer, and Vimeo has the video: “Every Face Tells a Story.” But I like dialogue, too.
- Slow Jamming the News with Pres. Obama. There will never be a cooler leader of the free world. I like the band cracking up behind him on “You know me.”
- Billy Crystal's eulogy at Muhammad Ali's funeral was as pretty as Ali was. Particularly love the anecdote about Cossell's funeral.
- Silent film trope: A history of women being tied to RR tracks. Except: 1) it rarely happened, and 2) when it did, it wasn't women.
- A Vulture Q&A with Louis C.K., who gets better with age.
- David Remnick lets loose on Donald Trump. Gloves are coming off all over the place.
- Speaking of: If this helps Liev Schreiber reprise his role as Marty Baron, I'm all for it.
- What's the matter with Twitter, part I, via The New York Times (it's the virulent racists).
- What's the matter with Twitter, part II, via Vanity Fair (it's the left-wing outrage machine).
Louis C.K. Endorses Hillary by Analogy
“Sometimes I think the system is so deeply fucked up that somebody as disruptive as Bernie — maybe he doesn't even do a good job as president but he jars something loose in our system and something exciting happens. I mean, Hillary is better at this than any of these people. The American government is a very volatile, dangerous mechanism, and Hillary has the most experience with it.
It's like if you were on a plane and you wanted to choose a pilot. You have one person, Hillary, who says, 'Here's my license. Here's all the thousands of flights that I've flown. Here's planes I've flown in really difficult situations. I've had some good flights and some bad flights, but I've been flying for a very long time, and I know exactly how this plane works.' Then you've got Bernie, who says, 'Everyone should get a ride right to their house with this plane.' 'Well, how are you going to do that?' 'I just think we should. It's only fair that everyone gets to use the plane equally.' And then Trump says, 'I'm going to fly so well. You're not going to believe how good I'm going to fly this plane, and by the way, Hillary never flew a plane in her life.' 'She did, and we have pictures.' 'No, she never did it.' It's insane.”
-- Louis C.K., in conversation with David Marchese, on the Vulture website. The conversation is long-ranging and worth it, with one glaring (to me) contradiction from Louie. I'll write about that later. Still need to see “Horace and Pete.”