erik lundegaard

Wednesday January 31, 2024

Postseason Droughts, .350, and the Ol' Doubles, Triples and Homers Question

Can Shohei do something nobody's done since Johnny Mize in 1941?

I meant to write this in November, then got busy. And then the world fell apart. Now we're just a few weeks from pitchers and catchers. So let's look at the baseball questions that I (and maybe only I?) am interested in:

Did anyone hit. 350 in 2023?

Yes! For the first time in a full season since 2010, when Josh Hamilton hit .359, we had a .350 hitter in the Majors: my man Luis Arráez. He won the AL batting title in 2022 with my Minnesota Twins, hitting. 316, was traded to the Miami Marlins in the off-season, and promptly won the NL title with a .354 average. Don't think that's ever happened before—i.e., winning a title, traded, winning another title. It's rare enough to trade a batting champion, though I guess the Twins did it before under different circumstances. In 1978, Rod Carew won his seventh batting crown with the Twins, hitting .333. Then in the off-season Twins owner Calvin Griffith got drunk at a Lions Club meeting in Waseca and spewed racist BS and called Carew “a damned fool” for accepting below-market value. Carew demanded a trade and got one—to the California Angels, where he continued to excel, hitting .314 over seven seasons, but never won another crown.

Arráez was hitting .400+ as late as June 24, and ended July at .381, so there was actually .400 talk. Then August hit and he didn't; just .236 for the month. But he recovered in September to get above .350. That .350 drought between 2010 and 2023 (for full seasons) is the longest in MLB history. By far. It's 11 seasons, leaving aside the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. The previous record was five seasons: 1962-66.

Oh, and the last guy to hit .360 in a season? Also a Twin: Joe Mauer in 2009. For those scoring at home. 

Is anyone closer to becoming the first player since Johnny Mize to lead the league in doubles, triples and homers at some point in their career?

Yes! And guess who? SHOHEI. Big surprise. If someone is going to do something that hasn't been done in MLB in nearly a century, Shohei always seems to be the guy. 

Here's the background on that stat. Only seven players in modern MLB history (sans 19th c.) have ever led the league in all three extra-base categories—doubles, triples and homers—during their careers, and, yes, Mize was the last to do it, completing the triumverate in 1941. 

Here's the 2023 leaders in those three categories:

  DOUBLES TRIPLES HOMERS
AL Corey Seager (TEX) Bobby Witt Jr. (KCR) Shohei Ohtani (LAA)
NL Freddie Freeman (LAD) Corbin Carroll (ARI) Matt Olson (ATL)

Freeman is a doubles machine—he hit 59—and it's the fourth time he's led the league in the category. But he's never led in triples and homer. Ditto Kyle's kid brother, who led the NL in doubles in 2019. Witt Jr. and Carroll were both rookies, so obvious firsts for both of them. It's also the first for Matt Olson.

Shohei, meanwhile, is missing a category, doubles, that seems doable. Up to now, the active players with two of the three were either light-hitting guys that needed homers (Whit Merrifield and Cesar Hernandez, and the latter didn't play last year and seems done), or they were aging slowpokes that needed triples (Nolan Arenado, Bryce Harper).

But Shohei, an impressive combo of power and speed, has already led the league in triples. He did it in 2021 and nearly did it again last year. Add the HR title and he just needs doubles. One wonders if he actually has too much power and too much speed to do this. Mantle and Mays were two such guys who never did the doubles thing. Shohei's career high is 30, from 2022, and that's not going to lead anything, particularly with new teammate Freddie Freeman around. Still, he's got a better shot than Bryce Harper has with triples or Whit Merrifeld with homers. I'll be watching to see if he does it. 

Which team has the longest postseason drought?

For a number of years, this belonged to my Seattle Mariners, who went in 2001 and then not again until 2022. Now it's a tie between the Tigers and Angels. Both last went in 2014. After that? Pirates and Royals, both of whom last went in 2015. The Royals, of course, won it all in '15 so that takes some of the sting out. The Pirates? Oof...

Which team has the longest pennant drought? 

Still my Seattle Mariners, born in 1977 and pennantless ever since. A close second is the Pittsburgh Pirates, who last saw the World Series in 1979.

Which teams haven't won a pennant this century?

Nine teams: M's (n/a), Pirates (1979), Brewers (1982), Orioles (1983), Reds (1990), Athletics (1990), Twins (1991), Blue Jays (1993) and the Padres (1998). 

Which team has the longest World Series championship drought?

Still the Cleveland Indians, who have not won it since 1948, though they've been four times since: 1954, 1995, 1997 and 2016. Then it's a big jump to the Padres and Brewers (b., 1969). Then You-Know-Who.

Which teams have never won the World Series?

A year ago there were six. Now, thanks to the Rangers great October run, there are five: Padres and Brewers (b., 1969), Mariners (1977), Rockies (1993) and Rays (1998).

Posted at 10:57 AM on Wednesday January 31, 2024 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

Tuesday January 30, 2024

Who Watches Watchmen? Not IMDb

Who exactly is running IMDb into the ground? This was a photo on Cord Jefferson's page:

Jefferson is the writer-director of “American Fiction,” starring Jeffrey Wright, and for the past 10 years he's worked on “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” (196 episodes), “Master of None” (10 episodes), and “The Good Place” (25 episodes). All good shows. He also wrote and was executive story editor on “Watchmen,” the great 2019 ur-superhero HBO series that introduced the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre to most Americans. The photo is him accepting a WGA or two for that work.

And what does IMDb credit him for? The shitty 2009 “Watchmen” that Zack Snyder adapted.

I've seen a lot of these types of mistakes recently: wrong title, wrong link. It's like IMDb has shunted half its shit off to AI, and AI doesn't know between “Watchmen” (2009) and "Watchmen (2019). It's just ... try a little, IMDb. You still have a good thing going. Try a little. Before we all find a hell of a good universe next door.

Posted at 06:54 AM on Tuesday January 30, 2024 in category Technology   |   Permalink  

Monday January 29, 2024

Movie Review: American Fiction (2023)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s been a while since I’ve identified with a movie character as much as I did with Jeffrey Wright’s Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the movie’s main theme, race, nor with Monk’s own racial attitudes. It has to do with everything else: west coast, separated from family, distant and not just geographically, a writer whose work nobody gives a shit about, and who is, on the wrong side of 55, increasingly grumpy and fed up with the world.

I felt seen.

OK, I’ll bring race into it, too. I am frustrated by all we can’t talk about, or won’t talk about, and it’s a list that feels like it’s growing rather than ebbing. I like that early scene in the college classroom when the white female student objects to the title of the short story they’re discussing, Flannery O’Connor’s “The Artificial Nigger,” which is written on the blackboard in big letters. She’s offended by that. She says so. And Monk sighs and says if he can get past it, she can.

And for that, and other missteps, he’s given a leave of absence from the college.

Here’s some of what I think is going on there. In order for the student to prove her racial innocence, she takes ownership of a word—meant to disparage him—away from him. She gets to own it and hide it away from everyone. And is that what’s been happening in the larger culture? We say “the n word,” rather than what the n word is, not to protect black people but to protect white people.

More offended than thou means more innocent than thou, which is the current game. And it’s getting old.

Heavy lifting
There are two forces pressing in on Monk in the early going: family and monetary needs back home in Boston; and the awful African-American books being elevated by white culture, such as “We’s Lives In Da Ghetto” by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), while his own novel, an adaptation of Aeschylus, is deemed “not black enough” and can’t find a publisher.

Some of this latter, to be honest, feels a little dated. The novel on which the movie is based, “Erasure” by Percival Everett, was published in 2001, and its author was apparently riffing off of 1990s books like “Push,” by Sapphire, which became the movie “Precious.” And is that still a thing? Also an adaptation of Aeschylus not finding a publisher isn’t exactly a racial problem; it’s wider. There’s a scene, too, where Monk goes into a bookstore, asks after his books, and an employee takes him to the “black” section. Incensed, since there’s nothing inherently black about his books except their author, he grabs an armful and redistributes them, over the hapless employee’s objections, to the classics section.

Thoughts from 2023-24:

  • He should be happy there’s a bookstore
  • He should be happy they have his books
  • He should be happy they have enough of his books—three copies each of four different titles, it looks like—that he can grab an armful of them

That’s the dated thing. Or the ego thing. And the ego thing should’ve been tempered by now. He’s 55. He should know better.

I loved the early conversations with his sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), a doctor at a clinic in Boston, who’s been doing the heavy lifting in family matters. Reminded me of my sister and I. They talk through serious issues, like what to do about their mom’s creeping dementia, and they joke and tease like siblings. She is so fun, in fact, and they have such good rapport, I wondered why Monk was so disengaged from his family. And then in the midst of drinks, in the midst of laughter, she has a heart attack and dies, and we’re crushed along with him. Not just because she was a great character but we worry for the movie. Wait, we’re left with just him? Who’s he going to play off of?

But that’s the point: Now he’s got to do the heavy lifting. There’s a line from Leonard Cohen’s “Night Comes On,” that I’ve been thinking about a lot since my brother died, and it fits both me and Monk: “I needed so much/To have nothing to touch/I’ve always been greedy that way.” Now he doesn’t have that remove.

And Mom (Leslie Uggams) is getting worse. The family has a longtime housekeeper, Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), but she’s getting up in years, too, and anyway she has a new suitor, and by the end of the movie she’ll be married. So Monk looks into nursing homes, trying to figure out what they can afford. It felt like things I’ve done. “Yeah, it’s $5,000+ per month, more for a single, and how do we afford that? And do they just keep taking her money until she doesn’t have any? And then it’s Medicaid? How does it work?”* All of those issues.

(*One way it works is that if it wasn’t for Medicaid, our family would be bankrupt. So thank you LBJ.)

Late one night, drinking, feeling the financial pressure, and tired of the Sintara Goldens of the world, he begins writing his own ghetto-ish story, recreated in his study, between Willy the Wonker (Keith David) and Van Go Jenkins (Okierete Onaodowan, Hercules Mulligan of “Hamilton” fame). It’s supposed to be a fuck you to the literary world, and that’s all it’s supposed to be, which is a little odd. He needs the money, and this is where the money is. Grab it. But I guess this is the way he gets to stay innocent. Because white publishers don’t get the joke; they love the book and want to give him a $750,000 advance. His attempts to sabotage all this goes nowhere.

Along the way there’s a budding romance with a neighbor above his paygrade, Coraline (Erika Alexander), and a budding relationship with his younger brother, Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), whose marriage ended when his wife found him sleeping with another man. He’s out now, and into drugs and drink (despite the six-pack abs), and all of that felt a bit ’90s, too. A Clifford today wouldn’t go the heterosexual marriage route. He’d know who he was.

Peace sign
Does the movie not go deep enough? That was my initial feeling. At one point, both Monk and Golden wind up on a prestigious literary committee that is attempting to diversify, and where he has to rule on his own book, which was published with a punny pseudonym: Stagg R. Leigh. The white people on the committee love it. Golden doesn’t, which surprises him. You can see him thinking, “Wait, I was just doing what you were doing. So why is yours valid and mine not?” They talk about it briefly but she doesn’t know the parameters of the discussion. She doesn’t know she’s talking with the author. That felt like a good, unexplored area: the divide between what she felt was good and not, and authentic and not, in black literature.

Everything spirals away from Monk—but successfully: the book is a hit, it gets picked up by Hollywood, but his self-disgust ruins his relationship with Coraline. Then the movie becomes a kind of satire of Hollywood’s racial attitudes rather than the literary world’s. We get a multiverse of endings. Should it be this? Should it be that? Felt like a cop out.

I like the scene at the end in the Hollywood backlot where Monk gets into the convertible and locks eyes with the black extra in slave gear, eating his lunch, who flashes him the sideways peace sign. Monk nods. There’s a lot in that nod. There’s a lot in Jeffrey Wright’s eyes there.

“American Fiction” was adapted and directed by Cord Jefferson, who also did the recent, great “Watchmen” series on HBO, an ur-superhero tale that introduced the 1921 Tulsa race massacre to most Americans. I look forward to more from him. I’d like him to go back to that opening scene, the white student offended, and drill the fuck down.

Posted at 08:34 AM on Monday January 29, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Sunday January 28, 2024

Drowning Men

I don't think enough attention has been paid to the second stanza of Leonard Cohen's “Suzanne.” Or maybe I just haven't paid enough attention to it. I've been on Cohen kick lately, and when listening to “Suzanne” recently that second stanza really hit home:

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

I particularly like the idea of Jesus as a sailor that only drowning men can see. Also that almost throwaway “almost human” line. The idea of it. And pairing it with “broken” and “forsaken,” as if that's what makes us human. The song is a bit like “Hallelujah,” isn't it? The way it trades verses about the Bible and women. Cohen's two spirituals.

Posted at 03:09 PM on Sunday January 28, 2024 in category Music   |   Permalink  

Saturday January 27, 2024

$83.3 Mil

Yesterday, after I texted a friend of mine the above number—the amount a jury told Donald Trump he had to pay writer E. Jean Carroll for defamation, or defamation after the fact, or defamation after the facts had found for a first defamation—my friend responded in the weary manner of people on the left: Yes, but will she ever see it? Which, yeah, I get. Trump can appeal, Trump can delay—and he's good at appealing and delaying—but at least here he has no case to appeal because his parking-garage lawyer didn't set it up to be appealable. She needed to introduce evidence correctly, or offer objections at the right moment, and she didn't do these things. So appeals may be shorter and more pointless than normal.

More important: Give us this moment. For god's sake. Let's bask in it. Let's enjoy it. 

Here's some basking: a good article from Eric Lach over at The New Yorker. I'm basking in the headline alone: “Nine Regular People Tell Donald Trump to Shut Up and Pay Up.” How perfect is that? Lach references it near the close while also taking a swipe at the GOP:

After taking a close look at the facts, nine people picked at random determined that Trump was responsible for what he did, and needed to be punished for it. In this, the jury has gone further than the United States Congress was able to go. It gives you some kind of hope.

Why $83.3 million? Because Carroll had good lawyers, led by Roberta Kaplan, whom, in my day job, we covered nearly 10 years ago. Maybe it's time to do it again.

It's a huge number. Last spring, after hearing a related case that Carroll brought against Trump, an earlier jury had also sided with Carroll, concluding that Trump had sexually abused her and then defamed her—but the award in that case was five million dollars. During this second trial, which began in mid-January, Carroll's lawyers emphasized that Trump's attacks on their client continued, even after the first jury found against him. “This is a fake story, made-up story,” Trump said at a CNN town hall last spring. “What kind of a woman meets somebody and brings them up and within minutes you're playing hanky-panky in a dressing room?” If anything, the attacks escalated after the last trial. “For more than four years, he has not stopped,” Shawn Crowley, another of Carroll's lawyers, said. “How much money will it take to make him stop?” Kaplan, during her closing arguments, reminded the jurors that Trump claims to be a billionaire. “It will take an unusually high punitive-damages award to stop Donald Trump,” she said. She suggested at least twenty-four million dollars. The jurors came to $83.3 million all on their own.

Trump is still the presumptive GOP nominee. But I'm enjoying a moment of well-deserved comeuppance for shit stain of a person. Let there be many, many more.

Posted at 01:16 PM on Saturday January 27, 2024 in category Law   |   Permalink  

Friday January 26, 2024

Talking Clint, Sergio and Ennio with IMDb's Known For Algorithm

Me: I've been on a bit of a Clint Eastwood kick lately, probably because TCM/HBO has been on a bit of a Clint Eastwood kick lately. It's been fun.
IMDb's Known For Algorithm: Clint ... ? Oh, the guy who played Frankie Dunn in “Million Dollar Baby”!
Me: Um, sure? Not where I would've gone, but yes. He also directed the movie. 
IMDb: He's a director, too? 
Me: Yeah. Kept getting nominated for Oscars for it. Won three, I think.
IMDb: Huh. I guess I don't know him from that.
Me: But Frankie Dunn...
IMDb: Totally!
Me: As actor, I guess I tend to associate him more, you know, Dirty Harry.
IMDb: In what movie?
Me: Um ... “Dirty Harry”?
IMDb: Sorry. No.
Me: Also “Magnum Force,” “The Enforcer,” “Sudden Impact.” [Bad imitation] “Go ahead ... make my day.” Reagan quoted that in a speech, that's how big that was.
IMDb: Hm.
Me: On HBO, I've been watching the spaghetti westerns again. The Sergio Leone stuff.
IMDb: Ah, the “Once Upon a Time in a ...” guy!
Me: Yes!
IMDb: The writer.
Me: Huh?

IMDb: Sergio Leone. He's a writer. That's what he's known for.
Me: He may be a writer but I think he's pretty well known for being a director. “Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” etc.
IMDb: Hm. Don't know that one.
Me: You don't know Sergio Leone for “The Good, Bad and Ugly”? C'mon! It's got that iconic Ennio Morricone score: Denenenene ... wuh WA WA.
IMDb: Morricone? Ah, “The Hateful Eight” guy! Also “The Best Offer” and “The Legend of 1900”! Great stuff.

Me: Wow. And I thought you cared about film. 
IMDb: I do!
Me: But you think Clint Eastwood is best known for playing Frankie Dunn, Sergio Leone is a writer, and Ennio Morricone isn't known for composing iconic spaghetti western scores.
IMDb: Exactly. You've got to get off this spaghettios kick. Nobody knows that shit.

SPLAT! ... Wuh WA WA.

Posted at 09:13 AM on Friday January 26, 2024 in category Movies   |   Permalink  

Thursday January 25, 2024

Movie Review: Public Hero No. 1 (1935)

WARNING: SPOILERS

So is it “Public Hero Number 1” or abbreviated to “No. 1”? Or hashtagged “#1”? Even MGM couldn't decide. It went hashtag for the title card, abbreviation in the trailer, and completely spelled out for the posters. The confusion continues to this day: Wikipedia goes hashtag, AFI abbreviation, IMDb spells it out. Thanks for the clarification.

I thought the title wordplay was at least original but it turns out not. In the wake of the “Public Enemy No. 1” coinage (circa 1930, for Al Capone), the press, for a time, trotted out its opposite. These are among those touted “Public Hero No. 1” in newspapers in the mid-1930s: Charles Lindbergh, Dizzy Dean, J. Edgar Hoover, and—interestingly—John Dillinger, whose bank-robbing exploits were cheered on in the midst of the Great Depression, and whose story elements are in this thing. 

That’s what drew me to the movie in the first place—hearing it was about Dillinger—but it's not. Not really. Yes, we get a shootout in a lodge in rural Wisconsin called “Little Paree,” rather than Dillinger’s “Little Bohemia”; and the main baddie, Sonny Black (Joseph Calleia), is gunned down outside a movie theater the way Dillinger was, but it's in Madison, Wis., rather than Chicago, Ill. That's as close as we get. Black’s gang is actually called “the Purple Gang,” a real 1920s mob that had nothing to do with Dillinger.

We don’t get much Dillinger because you couldn’t even say Dillinger in Hollywood movies in 1935. According to Thomas Doherty in his book Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration, the normally wishy-washy Will Hays had “squelched the trigger-happy gangster cycle with a ukase against storylines inspired by John Dillinger.” This was in 1932, two years before the Production Code grew teeth. Why it worked in this instance and almost nowhere else, I don’t know. Why an edict against Dillinger squelched the gangster cycle, I don’t know, either, but squelched it was. After James Cagney’s great turn as Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy,” for example, he was cast more often as grifter than gangster. If he began a movie as a gangster, his arc was toward respectability: reporter in “Picture Snatcher”; movie star in “Lady Killer”; juvenile prison reformer in “The Mayor of Hell.”

Once the code grew teeth in July 1934, all the studios rushed to turn their charismatic gangsters into cops. Warner Bros. actually beat MGM to the punch by a few weeks. “G-Men,” with Cagney, was released May 4, 1935; this one, “Public Hero,” with Chester Morris (a gangster in “Alibi” and “The Big House”), came out May 31.

“G-Men” was better.

Drunk docs and crazy coincidences
Morris plays Jeff Crane, a new, loudmouth convict in prison, who is stuck in a cell with Sonny, the suspected leader of the “Purple Gang,” who quickly puts him in his place. But Crane learns no lesson and before long gets 21 days in solitary. Afterward, still learning no lesson, he’s got a scheme about breaking out, and does, and brings Sonny along. Except Sonny gets shot and a doctor is needed. Luckily, Sonny has one: Dr. Josiah Glass (Lionel Barrymore). Unluckily, he’s a drunk. Since this is the 1930s, it’s played for laughs.

On the way to deliver the drunk doc, Crane nearly runs into a bus that skids off the side of the road. On board? A crazily persistent woman named Maria Theresa “Terry” O’Reilly (Jean Arthur), who insists Crane take the stranded passengers back to town. He does, griping all the way. Then she insists he take her to the next town. He doesn’t. But a bridge is washed out, there’s delays, she stows away in his car, etc. That’s how they stay together.

So what’s her deal anyway? She’s trying to hook up with her brother, Dinkie, about an inheritance. And who’s this Dinkie when he’s at home? Yes, it’s Sonny Black. What a crazy coincidence—running into Sonny’s sister when he’s taking a drunk doc to remove a bullet from Sonny. She doesn’t know her brother is a gangster, either. She’s innocent. She’s Jean Arthur.

But she does think that Crane is a gangster, even though, by and by, we realize he’s an undercover fed who is out to get Sonny and bring down the Purple Gang. That’s why he acted so over-the-top in prison. Because he was acting.

Much of the rest of the movie is Crane trying not to fall in love with Terry before he betrays her brother. But when bro slaps her, Crane decks him. For that, Crane loses two gigs. He’s tossed out of the Purple Gang, and then, because his punch wasted months of undercover work, he’s also tossed out of the Bureau, too. Ah, but then he tricks Dr. Glass into taking him to Little Paree, notifies his stickler boss, Special Agent James Duff (one-time real-life convict Paul Kelly), where Little Paree is, and the feds descend. There’s a shootout, Doc gets it, but before dying he reveals that, yes, Sonny is their leader. A few months later, Sonny gets his outside the movie theater where Terry works. Crane pulls the trigger.

Now he just has to win Terry back, and does, kinda, on a train in the last two minutes of the film. It’s not good. You feel for her need to get away. It’s a little creepy.

Sour-pussed sticklers
All of which points out the difficulty of Hollywood shifting gears and ignoring its charismatic anti-heroes for tight-assed, puritanical law enforcement. MGM is trying to make the feds look good here, right? So why do they come off so poorly? They drop Crane at the drop of a hat then welcome him back when he solves everything? Not cool.

Some part of me wonders if the studios weren’t trying hard enough on purpose. I.e., they saw law enforcement as an extension of the puritanical Joe Breen and the Production Code Administration and portrayed them as they were: sour-pussed sticklers, gumming up the works.

Barrymore gets top billing here despite barely being in it, while Arthur is second-billed though you don’t see her for a half hour. That felt odd: watching a movie and not seeing either of the top two stars for 30 minutes. Morris is fine but he’s no Cagney. He’s not even the Morris of “The Big House.” I liked the Morris of “The Big House.”

As for Sonny Black? It took me a while to realize why the actor’s name, Joseph Calleia, was so familiar. Twenty-three years later, he played Sgt. Pete Menzies, the man you could argue (as I did) is the true hero of Orson Welles’ great noir, “Touch of Evil.” Make sure you see the director’s cut.

Posted at 03:56 PM on Thursday January 25, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  

Sunday January 21, 2024

Birthday, Inc.

Among the birthday wishes I received yesterday were emails from the following:

  • Bloodworks Northwest
  • Providence Swedish
  • Regal Crown Club
  • URaiseMN

Regal offered a free small popcorn (within 30 days of receipt), Providence asked me to celebrate all that I've accomplished this year (I guess in the last three weeks), while Bloodworks tied giving blood to helping someone reach another birthday (that one made sense).

Oh, I also got animated balloons from Google.

Is all of this an intrusion? A bit. It just feels wrong. The pretense of it. The pretense that there's people there, a face behind the messages. I imagine it'll only get worse.

Tags:
Posted at 09:25 AM on Sunday January 21, 2024 in category Culture   |   Permalink  

Saturday January 20, 2024

61*

This was part of an exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis that we saw last August, in what I now think of as the before time, and I was amused by how it went up to the day before my birthday and just ended. 

Was the artist commenting on the final days of the Reagan presidency? Hadn't thought of that—oddly, since I'm all about the politics, and if anyone knows when Inauguration Day is, it's anyone born January 20.

Today is my first birthday without my brother. Last night I dreamed we were sharing a prison cell, and I felt kind of safe, but then in the middle of the night someone broke in. They were a slow heavy presence, on top of me, and I felt weak and ineffectual, and I kept trying to wake Chris up. But he didn't wake up. A little on the nose, unconscious.

Posted at 09:56 AM on Saturday January 20, 2024 in category Personal Pieces   |   Permalink  

Friday January 19, 2024

Movie Review: Asteroid City (2023)

WARNING: SPOILERS

My wife and I watched “Asteroid City” last September and came away disappointed. “Didn’t quite get that,” was the general feeling.

I recently watched it again hoping for a different reaction.

Nope.

Junior stargazers
What’s the point of the story within the story within the story? Why does it have to be a kind of documentary, with an Edward R. Murrow-esque narrator (Bryan Cranston), talking about playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and his final play, which is … this movie? How do the extra layers add anything? For me, they mostly detract. They confer artificiality—that Wes Anderson staple. Maybe that’s why he wanted them.

Right, he does this a lot. The three stories of “The French Dispatch” are three stories from The French Dispatch. In “Grand Budapest,” the story of Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave F. is told through F. Murray Abraham’s Mr. Moustafa. Etc. But this felt a frame too far for me.

The desert town of Asteroid City, pop. 87, hosts an annual Junior Stargazers convention during the coldest part of the Cold War. Atom bombs are detonating in the distance (to shrugs), the military is there to encourage young minds (to beat the Russians), while the townsfolk try to make do. There’s a mechanic (Matt Dillon), who doesn’t seem to be cheating anyone, and a motel manager (Steve Carell), who is selling real estate via vending machines. They are two of the 87. There’s also a diner.

Into this sleepy berg, family station wagon sputtering and clanking and breaking down, come the Steenbecks: father Augie (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer; eldest Woodrow (Jake Ryan), a Junior Stargazer; and the three daughters, who come off like the witches of “Macbeth,” all toil and trouble. Augie had planned on stopping at Asteroid City for Woodrow, then driving on to California and the estate of Augie’s father-in-law, Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), but the car trouble necessitates Stanley coming there, which he’s not happy to do. Particularly since Augie has put off his fatherly duty of telling the kids their mother died two weeks earlier. 

Another Junior Stargazer is Dinah (Grace Edwards), whose mother is movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Midge would like respite from the noise and the crowds but gawkers still prevail—star gazers, you could say—even if they’re deadpan stargazers like Augie, who takes a photo of Midge from across the diner. They have bungalows opposite each other, and from open windows flirt in that deadpan Wes Anderson manner. In this way, they draw closer.

I like how all the men, even the self-assured Stanley Zak, buckle a bit in Midge’s presence. This bit made me laugh out loud:

Midge: I do a nude scene. You want to see it?
[Long pause]
Augie: Huh? Did I say yes?
Midge: You didn’t say anything.
Augie: Uh, I mean yes. My mouth … My mouth didn’t speak.

Their junior counterparts, Woodrow and Dinah, also draw closer. All the pretty girls like all the smart boys in Wes Anderson’s world.

You know how young couples become friends through the children? The movie is a bit like that. We meet the families through the Junior Stargazers—though none as well as Augie and Midge. There’s a nice scene where five of our JSes play a memory game around a table. You have to repeat the names that each person has mentioned before adding your own: Cleopatra leads to Jagadish Chandra Bose leads to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek leads to Paracelsus, etc. Most names are long, international, and science-based. I would be out in the first round but they play for days.

The only other real standout among the kids is Clifford (Aristou Meehan), whose bit is to say “Dare me?” and, when no one does, to do the thing anyway. Liev Schrieber plays his father, J.J. Kellogg, a curmudgeon in a porkpie hat, who finally has enough and asks his son the meaning of these dares. It’s a poignant scene. The boy, seeming to reflect on it for the first time, says, “Maybe it’s because I’m afraid, otherwise, nobody will notice my existence … in the universe.” It’s like he recognizes its truth as he's saying it; for the first time he’s wholly vulnerable. His father, too, is touched, and for once agrees to play the game. “Dare you what?” he says. “Climb that cactus out there,” the boy says, pointing. “Lord, no, no,” the father says.

I would’ve liked more of a focus on these families rather than the frame-within-the-frame-within-the-frame. Most of the characters orbit each other from a distance, curious but wary. We’re all junior stargazers.

The muchness
I guess the place is called Asteroid City because an asteroid crash-landed there at some point, and they’re there on its anniversary, and during the celebration, led by Gen. Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), an alien arrives to take the asteroid. That happens about halfway through, and leads to a military quarantine of the place. Everyone is stuck there, but the JSes band together to get word out.

Wes immerses us in all the 1950s Southwest-specific bric-a-brac: from A-bomb tests to road-runners. Apparently he’s said that the quarantine idea wouldn’t have happened without our own COVID-19 version, but our version didn’t involve escapades, and anyway, for me, the alien and the quarantine detracts from everything else: the orbiting, and the curiosity, and the dares. The humanity.

Also detracting is just the wealth of characters and talent in the room. I haven’t mentioned half of them. Maya Hawke plays a young schoolteacher leading kids on a field trip, and Rupert Friend plays a singing cowboy interested in her, and not orbiting at all but actually dancing. Tilda Swinton is a scientist, Willem Dafoe is a German acting teacher with maybe two lines, Margot Robbie plays an actress who had the part of Midge before Mercedes Ford (also Johansson), and who, across balconies, has a scene with Jones Hall, the actor playing Augie (also Schwartzman). It’s the muchness of it all that detracts. I wanted Wes to focus. But all the stars came out.

Posted at 08:36 AM on Friday January 19, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2023   |   Permalink  

Wednesday January 17, 2024

Where in the World is Daniel Davenport?

Hi Daniel. If you're still reading this blog, drop me a line. Much appreciated. 

Posted at 05:57 PM on Wednesday January 17, 2024 in category General   |   Permalink  

Tuesday January 16, 2024

Movie Review: Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In the 1970s, my father was the movie critic for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, my friend Dan R. was a big Clint Eastwood fan, and rarely the twain met. Eastwood may have been big at the box office but generally not with critics. I believe Pauline Kael even used the f-word for him: fascist.

One day, though, I was happy to report to Dan that my father actually liked Clint’s latest. Dan was unimpressed. “Probably means I won’t,” he said flatly.

I don’t know if Dan ever saw “Escape From Alcatraz,” but it’s not exactly a departure for Eastwood. He plays another strong, silent type dealing with men who want to break him down (Warden Dollison, played by Patrick McGoohan), fuck him up (guards, mostly) or just fuck him (Wolf, played by Bruce M. Fischer). But he survives. He wins. Every battle.

If the movie is a departure it’s because it’s based on a true story—a rarity for Clint in those days. It’s also a procedural, which is probably why my father liked it. It’s methodical and factual. It’s all about the how of a prison break.

The Shawshank distinction
Was “Alcatraz” the first movie I saw where prison rape was implied? I think so. It came out a year after “Scared Straight!” didn’t shy away from the topic.

Clint plays Frank Morris, who was sent to Alcatraz in 1960, and escaped with two others, John and Clarence Anglin (Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau) in 1962. Whether they truly escaped, or drown in the attempt, as the FBI contend, is still unresolved, but the movie leans toward escape. On Angel Island, 2+ miles from Alcatraz, and only a half mile from the mainland, Warden Dollison finds a chrysanthemum on a rock. Chrysanthemums, he’s told, don’t grow on Angel Island, but they were the symbol of hope and freedom for an inmate, Doc (Roberts Blossom), whose life the warden ruined. The flower, it’s implied, is a private message from Frank. A final fuck you.

Bigger point: Did Stephen King see this? He must have. He was a big movie guy and this was a popular movie, the 14th highest-grossing film of 1979. Three years later he published “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and there are parallels:

  • Prisoner protagonists with high IQs
  • Working out of the prison library
  • Being the target of rape/attempted rape
  • A battle of wits with the warden
  • The slow chiseling of weakened concrete
  • Releasing excavated concrete/dirt in the prison yard via pants legs
  • “Nobody ever escaped from Alcatraz/Shawshank”

“Shawshank,” the movie, makes the parallels more explicit. In the novella, Andy Dufresne is short; in the movie, he’s a tall drink of water like Clint. In the novella, Red is white. In the movie, he’s black, like English (Paul Benjamin), Frank’s kinda-sorta best friend in stir in “Alcatraz.” In the novella, Andy doesn’t hide his chiseling tool in a Bible—the way Frank does with the warden’s nail file and the way the movie Andy does with the rock hammer.

Both movies give us the feel-good camaraderie of a group of prisoners. Frank’s group includes:

  • Doc, whose painting privileges are rescinded when he paints an unflattering portrait of the warden. He winds up cutting off his fingers in protest.
  • Charley Butts (Larry Hankin), a new, dopey prisoner, and Frank’s neighbor, who is in on the prison break but chickens out at the last minute.
  • Litmus (Frank Ronzio), who keeps a pet mouse in his shirt.
  • English, the black con, who heads the prison library, and who taunts Frank (and is taunted back) with “boy” comments.

That said—and calm down already “Shawshank” fans—they’re completely different movies. “Alcatraz,” as mentioned, is a procedural. The prison break is step-by-step, which means we’re in on it throughout, which means we’re anxious throughout. Will Frank get caught? Can they make it to the water? Can they make it across the water? In “Shawshank,” Andy’s prison break comes as a surprise. We assumed he was leaning toward suicide.

Indeed, the difference in films is the exact distinction Alfred Hitchcock between suspense and surprise. Hitchcock sets up a scene: a ticking bomb beneath a table where two men are talking. Now you could direct it, he says, so the bomb just goes off. Or you could show the audience the men talking, then the ticking bomb, then the men talking.

In the first case, we have given the public 15 seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with 15 minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed—except when the surprise is a twist: that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

Which it is in “Shawshank.”

Boy toys
Something else I pondered watching “Alcatraz” in 2024: Was Clint a little racist or did he just keep pandering to his base? Or did he like ruffling liberal feathers?

All of the above?

I’m thinking of “I gots to know,” and that scene in “Jersey Boys”: “Come back when you’re black,” which is one of the most insulting lines in movie history.

Here, Frank not only calls English “boy,” but say to his face, “I guess I don’t like niggers,” and it’s fine. It’s fun. Because English started it both times. English keeps calling Frank “boy” until Frank, amused, responds in kind; and when Frank visits him in the bleachers in the black section of the yard, where he sits on the top step, a king of the hill, and then Frank, maybe out of respect, doesn’t sit with him, English says it’s either because he’s scared or because “You don’t like niggers.” At which point, Frank plops himself down next to him and says the line.

I’m probably overreacting. But the scenes do have a ’70s vibe rather than a 1960 vibe. The dynamic feels post-Black Power, rather than, you know, lunch-counter sit-in.

But the dynamic, and the rapport between the actors, is good, and they become friends. And in the end, Frank lets him know, subtly, that he’s breaking out, and offers his hand through the bars. After that, the day of the escape, Wolf is gunning for Frank in the yard with a shiv but English stops him. He puts him in a headlock and guides him to the black area of the yard. Because in the end black people watch over us? Because Frank represents hope, which is a good thing, and no good thing ever dies?

Anyway, my memory is correct: Dad liked it. Dan has yet to weigh in.

“A man of few words, two fists and the ambling gait of Henry Fonda” pretty much sums up the Eastwood persona.

Posted at 08:47 AM on Tuesday January 16, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1970s   |   Permalink  
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