Because Stone Cold Said So
“I don't give a shit if two guys, two gals, guy-gal, whatever it is, I believe that any human being in America, or any human being in the goddamn world, that wants to be married, and if it's same-sex, more power to 'em.
”What also chaps my ass, some of these churches, have the high horse that they get on and say 'we as a church do not believe in that.' Which one of these motherfuckers talked to God, and God said that same-sex marriage was a no-can-do?
“OK, so two cats can't get married if they want to get married, but then a guy can go murder 14 people, molest five kids, then go to fucking prison, and accept God and He's going to let him into heaven? After the fact that he did all that shit? See that's all horseshit to me, that don't jive with me.”
-- WWE wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin on his podcast a few months back.
And that's the bottom line ...
Your Red Sox/Yankees Quote/Quiz of the Day
About which trade/signing was the following said by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner?
We understand that John Henry must be embarrassed, frustrated, and disappointed by his failure in this transaction. Unlike the Yankees, he chose not to go the extra distance for his fans in Boston.
- A) Roger Clemens
- B) Johnny Damon
- C) Jacoby Ellsbury
- D) Alex Rodriguez
Answer in the Comments field.
Movie Review: Under the Skin (2014)
Walking to the Harvard Exit theater last Sunday my main thought was this: “Will ‘Under the Skin’ be my kind of arthouse film?” Based on the trailer I saw last month, I thought not. But I knew it would be a topic of conversation this spring. I knew it would turn up on top 10 lists at the end of the year. Critics would heap praise. And they have: 85% on Rotten Tomatoes.
What is my kind of arthouse film? Something with story. Something that’s not mostly mood or atmosphere. Something that resonates. In recent years, my kind of arthouse film includes “No,” “A Hijacking,” “Footnote,” and “Rust and Bone.” I go for “Drive,” not “Only God Forgives.” I loved “The Tree of Life” and was disappointed by “To the Wonder.”
“Under the Skin”? Not my kind of arthouse film.
It has moments of genuine human and extraterrestrial horror but it’s mostly mood and discordant soundtrack music and different shades of incomprehensibility.
The white dot
For a brief period in college, or maybe after college, I often saw human beings as if through alien eyes. What odd creatures, I’d think. These sticks to walk on, these sticks to grab with, that circular protuberance on top. It lasted, off and on, a few years. I think I thought I was being profound.
That’s the feeling throughout most of “Under the Skin”—viewing human beings through alien eyes—for the simple reason that we are viewing the world through alien eyes. Also because we’re in Scotland.
The movie begins in darkness. We get a few credits, then director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) lets the screen go dark. He holds it, and holds it, and holds it. Gradually we hear noise—traffic? static?—before we get a white dot in the center of the screen. The Earth? The sun? The iris of an eye? A 1960s-era TV turned off? All of the above? Then we get the title.
There’s a man on a motorcycle. He picks up the body of a woman in a ravine and deposits her in a white van. Then we’re in an all-white, bright room, like in a 1970s sci-fi movie, and one woman, naked, is removing the clothes of the woman from the ravine. Then she puts her clothes on. The first naked woman is Scarlett Johansson, the woman from the ravine is ... a dead prostitute? The previous alien on earth? I assumed the latter since I knew ScarJo was an alien in this thing. But I could be wrong. Or right. Or who knows.
In the novel by Michael Faber on which the movie is based, the alien woman is named Isserley but Glazer doesn’t bother to name her. So what should we call her? ScarJo? Alien? Species? Because that’s what this is: an arthouse version of “Species” (from what I understand of “Species”): a hot alien lures men to their doom. In the novel, it’s for their meat. They’re a delicacy. Here? Who knows?
It’s a fantastic scene, though. She takes them to a home on the outskirts of town, and then they’re in an all-black room, as opposed to the earlier all-white rom, and she’s walking ahead, slowly removing her clothes. They follow, doing the same. Then they begin to sink in the water. Are they at a lake? No. And there’s something wrong with the water: it’s viscous. And she’s not sinking. The first man we see—a man without family, a man who won’t be missed: that’s ScarJo’s m.o.—simply disappears beneath the smooth black surface and we don’t know what happens to him. We stay with the second man, and watch as he watches ScarJo walk back above him while he remains underwater. Is it underwater? Is it water? He looks around. He’s not panicking. Not yet. It’s like in a dream that hasn’t become a nightmare. Yet. He sees another man, the first man, naked but bloated, and slowly, with the painful, takes-forever-to-get-there movements of a dream, reaches out to the bloated man, even as the bloated man seems to pull back. Is he pulling back? His skin ripples. Then it’s like a popped balloon. There’s a fury of movement, and when it stops he’s just skin floating in the ether.
It’s a great, creepy scene, and it’s followed, from what I remember, by blood being channeled somewhere? Harvested? Sluiced? Like in a slaughterhouse? But we don’t know where or what it means.
There’s another great scene of genuine horror, but oddly it’s disconnected from ScarJo, or connected only in her imperviousness to its horror.
She’s walking along the beach, the cold, rocky coastline of Scotland, where a young man in a wetsuit emerges from the water. She talks to him, flirts with him in that dazed, extraterrestrial way she has. Nearby a couple with an infant is having a ... picnic? Their dog is in the water. Then panic, crisis. Now the woman is in the water—trying to rescue the dog?—and her husband follows her in, and the man in the wetsuit follows him to drag him out. To save him. Except he goes back, while the heroics have exhausted the man in the wetsuit. He lays prone on the beach. So ScarJo walked up to him, looks around, grabs a heavy rock, and bashes his head. Then she drags him away. Later she returns to retrieve a piece of clothing. By this time it’s evening, it’s growing cold and dark, and the infant, 18 months old, is alone and crying, even as high tide approaches. As the baby keeps crying, ScarJo walks up, picks up the clothing, and walks away. The baby remains. Soon it will be dead. It’s the helpless, abandoned.
Do these cries eventually get to ScarJo? Is it that, slowly, ScarJo is beginning to see human beings, her prey, as more than just meat? She encounters all kinds: the self-sacrificing swimmer; a pack of hooligans who threaten her in her van. There’s men who help, men who hurt. And men who are hurt.
The last man we see her pick up is disfigured. The actor who plays him, Adam Pearson, suffers from neurofibromatosis, which causes non-cancerous tumors to grow on the body. His tumors grow on his face, and his character is on his way to the grocery store—a lonely, disconnected man—when she pulls up beside him and talks to him. You can see, in his reaction, a disbelief. He’s waiting for the moment she’ll be horrified by his appearance but she never is. She probably can’t tell the difference. It’s probably all the same to her. So we get the scene again: in the house, disrobing, leading him on, as he sinks beneath the surface. Then she puts her clothes back on and gets ready to leave the house. Then he’s there again. And they both leave the house.
Did the system reject him for his disfigurement? Did she let him go? Because she’s beginning to feel for these creature? Us creatures? We watch as he’s being pursued by the man on the motorcycle, whom as I think of as the alien version of The Wolf, Harvey Keitel’s character in “Pulp Fiction.” He’s the cleanup crew. And he stuns the disfigured man, deposits him in a car trunk, drives off. Then he goes looking for ScarJo.
What is she doing? She’s trying a piece of cake. She looks at it, cuts off a piece of it with her fork, lifts the piece to her mouth and deposits it in there. Then she gags it out.
For most of the movie we know what she’s doing; for the rest, we don’t. She’s lost, I suppose. Like E.T. Has she failed in her mission? Has she gone over to the other side? Our side? She started out predator and now she’s prey. Maybe that’s all there is. She’s walking in the cold drizzle without a coat and a man urges her over to his bus stop. He takes her home. To take advantage? No, he makes her tea. Later, he attempts sex. Later still, she’s in the woods being pursued by a logger who wants to rape her. But in tearing her clothes, he tears her skin and sees what she is. So do we. She’s all shiny black beneath the ScarJo outfit. Then the logger returns, pours gasoline on her, and lights the match. She runs out of the woods on fire and falls to her knees. We watch the smoke rise. We watch the snow fall. We watch the credits roll.
Norman Mailer once said that art depends upon incomplete communication so the audience can respond “with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.” But there’s incomplete and there’s incomplete, and I suppose my incomplete isn’t necessarily yours. Some may have thought “The Tree of Life” incomplete. They might have wondered why go from Texas in the 1950s to the birth of time and the creation of life on earth and then the extinction of the dinosaurs, but that made sense to me. The main characters in the movie are questioning why God lets horrible things happen—this boy burned, this son killed—so writer-director Terrence Malick gives perspective. God let entire species go extinct and you’re asking Him about a fire? There was enough there for me to complete the communication.
Here, there’s not. “Under the Skin” is a moody piece about an alien cultivating humans in a borough of Scotland (for some purpose), who stops doing that (for some reason), and whose story plays out in this inconsequential way.
Other perpsectives are welcome.
'Yankees Suck': A Message from Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man
With “Amazing Spider-Man 2” on the way, is it time to ask the question that the first “Spider-Man 2” suggests? Namely: Do the Yankees suck?
Here’s the guy who finds Spidey’s outfit in a garbage can and brings it to J. Jonah Jameson. He winds up selling it for a measly $100:
And here’s the guy on the elevated train who helps carry Spidey back, in pieta fashion, after his epic battle with Doc Ock. He’s also the one who says, “He’s ... just a kid. No older than my son.”
He’s also the last one to let go of Spidey when Doc Ock returns to finish him off.
So is it better to be a Mets fan than a Yankees fan in the Spider-Man universe? Do the Yankees suck according to Spider-Man? In the series, Yankee fans can always point to this in their favor. But Peter Parker did grow up in Queens, which is where Shea Stadium was and Citi Field is. And he is an underdog.
One wonders how the rest of the Spider-Man universe divides itself up. Norman Osborne probably had a suite at Yankee Stadium. He probably gladhanded with George Steinbrenner. Kingpin? Yankees, totally. Flash Thompson? Yankees again. J.J.J. should be rooting for the Mets (Daily Bugle/Daily News) but the Yankees sell newspapers, so he's probably going there. Robbie's probably a Mets fan, though, if not an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Maybe he's still loyal to the Dodgers. Quietly, though, the way he's loyal to Spider-Man.
We'll see how the baseball caps line up, if they line up, in “Amazing Spider-Man 2” in a few weeks.
UPDATE FROM A COMICS FAN: “Spidey is canonically a Mets fan in the comics. Glad to see that the movie got that right!”
Weekend Box Office: 'Captain America' Threepeats; Christian Movies Play Smallball
Last year, the first movie to reign atop the box office charts for three weekends in a row was “Gravity,” released in October.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” has just won its third weekend, and, though it’s only mid-April, it’s the third movie this year to threepeat—following “Ride Along” (Jan. 17-Feb. 2) and “The LEGO Movie” (Feb. 7-Feb. 23). Not sure what that means.
Well, it means this anyway: Not many people were interested in Johnny Depp’s “Transcendence,” which got weak reviews and finished a weaker fourth place with $11.1 million. Why weak reviews would matter in a world in which “Transformers” dominates I have no idea. Maybe it’s the type of weak review? Critics called “Transformers” loud and stupid and teenage boys went “Alright!” (Shots of Megan Fox bending over a car’s engine didn’t hurt, either—at least not that way.) Critics call “Transcendence” a “snooze-fest” and teenage boys went, “Yeah ... no. And it stars the Pirate of the Caribbean guy? What is he—like 60?”
“Heaven is for Real” is for real, though. So, apparently, are small-ball Christian movies. I.e., Don’t go for the big bucks of “Passion” or the big production values of “Noah”; just make something small and awful and very, very Christian, and gross in the $40-$60 million range.
So far this year, that’s been done with “Son of God,” patched together from a European TV movie with a superhot Portugese actor (Diogo Mrogado) in the role of Christ ($59.4 million); “God’s Not Dead,” in which an annoying and bland college freshman proves the title thesis to his atheistic and Mephistopholean philosophy professor ($48.3); and now “Heaven,” about a young boy who dies for a moment and then comes back with a certain knowledge of the after-life. It grossed $21 million this weekend for a five-day total of $28 million.
These three films, on Box Office Mojo’s Christian movies chart (1980-present), already rank fifth, sixth and tenth. Caveat: a movie like “Noah” isn’t considered a Christian movie. Because it mentions the Creator but not God? Because it’s Old Testament? Because it isn’t vengeful enough? Who knows?
The Breitbart site, no doubt, will trumpet all of this even though, in box office predictions, it overplayed its hand:
Deadline reports that this Easter weekend at the box office we have two openly Christian films perched in the top ten. Meanwhile, Darren Aronofsky's anti-God “Noah” sailed over a cliff, failing to even rank.
Yes and no. Both “Heaven” (No. 3) and “God’s Not Dead” (No. 10) made the top 10. But so did “Noah,” which shed 745 theaters but still grossed $5 million for ninth place.
So far, “Noah” has grossed $93 million domestic and $290 worldwide. Breitbart dismisses this against its production budget ($125 million according to B.O. Mojo), and calls the film “anti-God"; but imagine if they’d just embraced the movie rather than throwing it to the culture-war wolves. Then they could claim three Christian movies in the top 10. But to do that would require ... what’s the word again? ... charity.
A Breitbart site screenshot this weekend.
The Only Goldman Sachs Employee Arrested by the FBI in the Aftermath of the Global Financial Meltdown
Most of Michael Lewis' book, “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt,” focuses on Brad Katsuyama, his team, and the revelation of how the game is fixed, the Wall Street, high-frequency trading game, and what Brad and his team try to do to fix it. But there's a chapter in the middle of the book about Sergey Aleynikov, a Russian programmer for Goldman Sachs, that is maybe even more depressing than the knowledge that we're all getting screwed.
Initially I thought Serge would wind up on Brad's team. That's how Lewis handles most of these chapters. He'll introduce someone new, give us their background—talents, smarts, disillusionments—and wind the story around to where they hook up with Brad.
Serge's story is different. He's a sought-after programmer that winds up at Goldman Sachs in the mid-2000s.
What does his story reveal? The kind of awful person who thrives in our current, chest-beating society:
The programmer types were different from the trader types. The trader types were far more alive to the bigger picture, to their context. They knew their worth in the marketplace down to the last penny. They understood the connection between what they did and how much money was made, and they were good at exaggerating the importance of the link. Serge wasn’t like that. He was a little-picture person, a narrow problem solver. “I think he didn’t know his own value,” says the recruiter.
What else? How little companies and corporations look to the long-term; how all the goals are this year, this quarter, this month, this week, today:
After a few months working on the forty-second floor at One New York Plaza, Serge came to the conclusion that the best thing they could do with Goldman’s high-frequency trading platform was to scrap it and build a new one from scratch. His bosses weren’t interested. “The business model of Goldman Sachs was, if there is an opportunity to make money right away, let’s do that,” he says. “But if there was something long-term, they weren’t that interested.“
A few weeks ago at a nonprofit fundraiser, I heard a speech from a grassroots organizer in which he encouraged everyone in the audience to not think of the world as a zero-sum game. You don't have to fall if I rise; we can both rise. I nodded. But then I thought, ”Except there are people out there who will think of it as a zero-sum game. And you can't change them. And they will always have the advantage because of it."
Here's an example from Lewis' book. Open source coding is a great, utopian concept. You take, you improve, you return. We all rise. But some people just take advantage of it:
For their patching material he and the other Goldman programmers resorted, every day, to open source software—software developed by collectives of programmers and made freely available on the Internet. The tools and components they used were not specifically designed for financial markets, but they could be adapted to repair Goldman’s plumbing. He discovered, to his surprise, that Goldman had a one-way relationship with open source. They took huge amounts of free software off the Web, but they did not return it after he had modified it, even when his modifications were very slight and of general, rather than financial, use. “Once I took some open source components, repackaged them to come up with a component that was not even used at Goldman Sachs,” he says. “It was basically a way to make two computers look like one, so if one went down the other could jump in and perform the task.” He’d created a neat way for one computer to behave as the stand-in for another. He described the pleasure of his innovation this way: “It created something out of chaos. When you create something out of chaos, essentially, you reduce the entropy in the world.” He went to his boss, a fellow named Adam Schlesinger, and asked if he could release it back into open source, as was his inclination. “He said it was now Goldman’s property,” recalls Serge. “He was quite tense.”
Ther's a horror in this chapter. Serge gets tired of working at Goldman Sachs, of repairing old code rather than starting from scratch. So when he has the chance to start anew, with another compamy, building the code for their high-frequency trading from the ground up, he takes it. The pay is less but he still takes it. He also emails to himself some of the open source coding he improved upon at Goldman Sachs. This code would be useless in his new job, which was using a completely different programming language, but he wanted it anyway. Just in case.
You see what's coming, don't you? Just before he leaves he's arrested by the FBI for stealing Goldman Sachs' proprietary information. He's charged and put on trial. And convicted. And sentenced to eight years in federal prison.
All of this is bad enough. But Lewis saves the coup de grace, the final outrage, for near the end of the chapter:
Thus the only Goldman Sachs employee arrested by the FBI in the aftermath of a financial crisis Goldman had done so much to fuel was the employee Goldman asked the FBI to arrest.
But at least there's an appeals process, and, a year later, on the day his lawyer argues before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Serge is released. Only to be—believe it or not—re-arrested for the same crime. Just different code. So no double jeopardy. But that arrest didn't stand long.
I don't know if this story can take more irony but here it is. By the end of the book? As Brad and his team work to create a more equitable Wall Street? Goldman Sachs is one of the good guys.
Quote of the Day
“Ranching is hard work. Drought and market swings make it a tough go in many years. That’s all the more reason to praise the 18,000 or so ranchers who pay their grazing fees on time and don’t go whining to Fox or summoning a herd of armed thugs when they renege on their contract. You can understand why the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association wants no part of Bundy.
”These kinds of showdowns are rare because most ranchers play by the rules, and quietly go about their business. They are heroes, in one sense, preserving a way of life that has an honorable place in American history. The good ones would never wave a gun in the face of a public servant, and likely never draw a camera from Fox.“
-- Timothy Egan, ”Deadbeat on the Range," The New York Times, April 18, 2014, about the recent Bundy ranch confrontation that has brought out the worst in the reactionary right.
God's Not Dead? Goody
The shot below is one of the IMDb.com pics of one of the stars of the godawful film “God's Not Dead”:
Apparently I wasn't the only one to have problems with the movie. The message boards at IMDb.com are full of complaints from Christians. “It's bad and I'm sorry,” reads one. Yet the Breitbarts of the world still push the film for political reasons. Shame. $42.8 million and counting. Although “Heaven Is For Real,” which opened yesterday, and also looks godawful, will probably cut into that. Well, you cannot serve both God and money. Someone said that once.
Movie Review: Finding Vivian Maier (2014)
“Finding Vivian Maier” is the “Searching for Sugar Man” of photography. It’s about the artist who is discovered after the career or the life. It’s about resurrection and redemption: finally coming into the light after years in the neglected dark.
Both movies are also mysteries.
The mystery of “Sugarman” is this: How did the singer/songwriter Rodriguez die in the early 1970s and why was he huge in South Africa and unknown in his native U.S.? The answers to these questions are intriguing. The mystery of “Vivian Maier” is this: Who was Vivian Maier, and why was she content to take tens of thousands of beautiful photographs and never show them to anyone?
The answers to these questions are less than satisfying.
Not a nice person
You know whose name I was surprised I didn’t hear during “Finding Vivian Maier”? Franz Kafka’s.
Kafka, private and reclusive, published only a few things in his lifetime but had written much, much more. On his deathbed, he instructed his friend Max Brod to burn the rest. Brod didn’t. He published. The rest is literary history.
Vivian Maier, private and reclusive, was born in 1926 and began work as a nanny in the 1950s because it allowed her the freedom to pursue her art: photography. She took pictures all the time but showed them to no one. Sometimes she didn’t even bother to get the film developed. After she died in poverty in 2009, some of her things were bought at an auction by real estate agent John Maloof, who saw value in it. He developed some of her photos and posted them to flickr. They took off. The rest is photography history.
Here’s another connection: Kafka once wrote, “A writer is not a nice person.”
That was one of the questions we batted about after the movie: Can you be a nice person and a great artist? Or even a crappy artist? Doesn’t art demand both empathy (to understand someone else’s life) and its lack (to use it for your art)? For the street photographer, how close to these strangers can I get? How much of them can I steal without their knowledge or permission? There’s a scene in the early 1960s in Highland Park, Ill., where one of the neighborhood kids is hit by a car. Everyone rushes around trying to help. Vivian? She’s taking pictures with her Rolleiflex.
The Rolleiflex helps in this regard. She can set the shot and take the picture without appearing to take the picture. She can look people in the eye as she steals from them.
For what it’s worth, I love her work. I love black-and-white street photography from bygone eras anyway and hers seems of a high standard. She’s got a good eye and a quick finger. She captures moments and lives. We see a lot of the photographs. But the doc, directed by both Maloof and Charlie Siskel (“Tosh.0,” producer on “Bowling for Columbine”), is mostly about Maloof’s search for her.
Initially, he knows nothing. He just has trunks of negatives and prints and undeveloped film and 16mm movies. He buys more of her things and lays them out before the camera like in a Wes Anderson movie: campaign buttons, for example. She was a pack rat. Later we learn she was a hoarder. And worse.
He discovers she was a nanny and find her former charges, and their friends, and the parents of their friends, who may have been her friend.
They describe her similarly: tall, domineering, to-the-point, political. She wore odd, heavy clothes and hats—like she was living in the 1920s rather than the 1960s—and walked with long strides and stiff arms. She had an odd French accent. There’s some debate about whether it was real or not. One man says yes; a linguist says no. Even we debated it afterwards. I assumed it was fake since she was born in New York, but my friends said no, it was real, since she lived half of her childhood in France with her French mother. We visit France, her mother’s village, Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur in the French Alps, and meet people there, and some part of the mystery is solved. A letter she wrote to a French developer about how she wanted him to print her work. She had high standards and wanted those standards met. This is a great, necessary revelation for Maloof, since he’s a nice person and is plagued by the doubt that Vivian wouldn’t have wanted her work exhibited the way he was doing. But here was proof. He could continue.
That’s hardly a revelation for us, though. We’re watching the doc, so we know Maloof continued with it, so getting a kind of posthumous permission isn’t news. Besides: permission? Did Vivian get the permission to take half the photos she took?
No, greater revelations comes in the final third, while interviewing her charges from 1968 to 1974. Apparently she became worse, and cruel. She force-fed one girl and hit her. She swung her around, then let her go. She brought her to the stockyards to watch animals being slaughtered. Somehow she kept her job for six years.
We lose the thread of her story in the ’70s and don’t pick it up again until the late ’90s. By then she’s homeless, and alone, and lonely. Some former charges—whom she didn’t abuse, apparently—pony up for a small apartment, where she lives until she dies in 2009. A few years later she’s an internationally acclaimed street photographer with exhibitions all over the world. Luck? Happenstance? Was she the one preventing her own success? Once she was out of the way, it came rather quickly.
Some day my Maloof will come
Question: do we get the wrong gerund in the title? Given the power, I would switch it with “Sugar Man”’s, since they actually find him. They interview him. We get a sense of who he is and who he was and why he did what he did. But Vivian? Do we find her? Not really. Too much of her remains unknown and unknowable. We’re left with questions. Why would she print nothing? Why would she show no one? Buddy Glass has a line in “Seymour: An Introduction,” “I always want to publish,” and that’s me, so I don’t get the opposite urge. But I admire it. Sort of.
I admire it for this reason. Besides being redemption songs, “Searching for Sugar Man” and “Finding Vivian Maier” are both wish-fulfillment fantasies for every would-be artist out there toiling in obscurity. It’s the “some day” wish. Some day they’ll know. Some day they’ll see. Some day my Maloof will come and the world will open its arms wide and take me in. And it’s an awful, awful wish.
Quote of the Day
“'Liquidity' was one of those words Wall Street people threw around when they wanted the conversation to end, and for brains to go dead, and for all questioning to cease.”
-- Michael Lewis in “Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt.” I immediately flashed to an interview I did with the king of Mergers & Acquistion law, Joseph Flom, before he died. I don't think Flom wanted my brain to go dead; it just did.
Twitter: @ErikLundegaardTweets by @ErikLundegaard