Saturday November 27, 2021
Birbiglia, Barth, and the Problem with Protagonists
On the Friday-morning drive back from spending Thanksgiving in Port Townsend, Wash., I listened to the episode of Mike Birbiglia's “Working It Out” podcast with Bill Hader. Or I relistened to it, since I'd listened to it when it first dropped last summer. Back then, I was doing my usual walk—from the First Hill neighborhood where I live, along Columbia Avenue, which is one of those “walkable” pandemic streets, to Madrona Park along Lake Washington. It's a not-bad hike, about two and a half miles one way, with a lot of public stairs at the end. You have to do the “Rocky” thing on the way back.
Anyway, that first time I remember laughing my ass off, and thinking, “I have to post about some of this when I get back.” But then life.
Yesterday's drive back was quite lovely: foggy, cool, and misty-rainy in the early morning. I took this shot when I was on the ferry to Seattle, which gives an idea of it:
Looks gray, but it was beautiful.
And I had great company. I still laughed my ass off, and learned, or relearned, life lessons, or art lessons, such as Bill Hader's via the “South Park” boys: The story isn't “This, and then this, and then this.” It's “This, so therefore this, so therefore this.” Here's the bit I wanted to post about last summer and never got around to. Mike Birbligia tosses out some stuff that isn't even going into his standup; he's thinking essay. It's one after the other, and they're all takeoffs on the idea that life is like a movie, although sometimes it's more specific. Example: “Life is like a Pixar movie: It's so good but then you think, 'What age is this for?'”
But my favorite, and Bill's, too, judging from his laughter, was the first:
Sometimes life is like a movie: Your friend dies, and it's crushing, but some part of you thinks, “Well, I guess he wasn't the protagonist.”
That's brilliant and cold and hilarious, and it suggests the screwed-up way we view our lives and our stories. John Barth wrote a bit about this, too, in his 1958 novel, “The End of the Road,” when one character lectures another about how we're all the protagonist in our own lives, and how our stories exacerbate this by narrowing the focus to a single point of view. “'Hamlet',” the character says, “could be told from Polonius' point of view and called 'The Tragedy of Polonius, Lord Chamberlein of Denmark.' He didn't think he was a minor character in anything, I daresay.” One wonders if this is where Tom Stoppard got the idea for “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” which plays off of all of that. As does Birbiglia in his podcast.
Anyway, just wanted to pass along.
Friday November 26, 2021
'Give Us a Kiss': from Cagney to Lennon
This scene in “Taxi!” (1931), after James Cagney gets into a fight with George Raft at a dance contest, and his girlfriend Loretta Young berates him on the subway ride home, made me think of two things: Loretta Young looks dynamite but her tone is a bit hifalutin for the daughter of a cabbie (screenwriter John Bright was actually appalled by the casting); and Cagney's line at the end, “Give us a kiss, will ya?” seemed awfully familiar to me.
Something about it: train ride, being berated, the cheeky comeback. Then it hit me: John Lennon says the exact same thing (sans the “will ya”) to the harumphing commuter who berates the Beatles in “A Hard Day's Night.”
Anyone know of other moments in TV or movies where you get that dyanmic and then that line? Because surely it didn't stop there.
Wednesday November 24, 2021
Cagney's Old Man
I'd forgotten that James Cagney lost his father to the pandemic 100 years ago. This description of the cemeteries in New York City, taken from his 1974 memoir, reminds me of some of the descriptions of New York City in April 2020:
I was at Columbia [in the WWI-era in the Student Army Training Corps] when my dad died. I got a message he was about to leave for the hospital, so I hurried home to accompany him, but he had gone. I took the streetcar, and when I arrived at the hospital I went to the desk nurse and said, “I want to see Mr. James Cagney.” Her face fell. “Oh, I'm sorry,” she said. “He died this morning.” The flu epidemic was then raging, and caskets were piled six or seven high outside the cemeteries, so many people were afflicted. Mom was carrying Jeannie at the time, and Dad was sent to the hospital so that Mom would be safe from infection. So quickly had my sunny, charming old man left us. Old! He was just forty-one.
Friday November 19, 2021
Movie Review: Belfast (2021)
“My ma says if we went across the water, they wouldn’t understand the way we talk,” says Buddy, age 9, to his grandfather, Pa (Ciaran Hinds), halfway through “Belfast,” Kenneth Branagh’s short, feel-good memoir about The Troubles.
Buddy’s ma ain’t wrong. I don’t think I got about a quarter of the film. So it’s a bit unfair for me to even write this review.
At the same time, it was my first Seattle theater experience since the pandemic began so it feels like something that should be celebrated. Even if I don’t celebrate everything in it.
And it stoned me
I’d heard good things about “Belfast” (Best Film at the Toronto International Film Festival, etc.), as well as not-so-good things (critics complained it wasn’t all that), and, shocker, I’m closer to the critics on this one. The movie is filmed in luminescent black and white, we get some nice Irish gallows humor, and everyone knows I’m a sucker for a coming-of-age story (“20th Century Women”), particularly if it’s against a backdrop of tragedy (“Hope and Glory”). Plus Branagh and I are almost contemporaries—he’s got three years on me—so this is the period of my own coming-of-age, too. Buddy reads “The Mighty Thor” and plays with Matchbox cars while I was more “The Amazing Spider-Man” and Hot Wheels, but it’s basically the same. Buddy watches “Star Trek” and goes to see “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and I did and did.
“Belfast” begins the day The Troubles began in August 1969. Buddy (Jude Hill) is playing medieval war with trash-can lid and wooden sword when his drop-dead sexy mom (Caitríona Balfe) calls him home. He goes cheerily, interacting with almost everyone in his tight little Belfast neighborhood; and then as the camera spins around him several times, his worldview is upended. Riots break out at the end of the street, spill into his, and he has to be rescued by his mother. His pretend shield, the trash-can lid, is used deflect actual rocks being thrown at them. Nice touch.
Buddy’s family is Protestant, the neighborhood is cordoned off with sandbags, and folks have to show papers to the poor neighborhood watchman, whom most ignore. There’s a local troublemaker, Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), who wants Buddy’s impossibly good-looking father (Jamie Dornan of “50 Shades”) to pick a side; and even though Clanton seems like not much, everyone lets him stalk around and make noise. The impossibly good-looking father, meanwhile, is rarely around. Working elsewhere, he returns on weekends. I thought he was having an affair but it’s not that. He also owe back taxes. I was never quite sure what that was about.
Despite the advent of civil war, most of Buddy’s life is: mooning after a blonde girl in his class (Catholic); listening to the wisdom of Grandpa and Granny (Judi Dench); and eavesdropping on his parents as they plan, or argue about, their future. He’s got an older female cousin, Moira (Lara McDonnell), who involves him in her own troubles—shoplifting from the local Indian-owned drug store, for example—and he has the quietest, most nondescript older brother in cinematic history. Sorry, Will (Lewis McAskie).
Eventually the impossibly good-looking dad secures a good job in England so they can get out. Except Ma, a Belfast girl, doesn’t want to go. Eventually she realizes it’s a good idea—kids the age of Will and Buddy are dying, her husband tells her—except then Buddy doesn’t want to go. He wails about it at Christmastime. For some reason, he’s listened to. (The movie has a lot of For some reasons
Over the next few months of inaction, Grandpa dies, the blonde girl kinda likes Buddy back, and in the movie’s climactic moment, cousin Moira involves Buddy in an actual riot of a grocery store, led by Billy Clanton. Terrified, Buddy steals one item: a box of chocolate cereal. For some reason, Ma decides he needs to return it that instant when the grocery store is still the center of a riot. Then, for some reason, Billy Clanton decides to hold her, Buddy and Moira hostage, and for some reason he has to face off against Buddy’s dad in their neighborhood street. And for some truly, truly awful reason, Branagh overlays the scene of Pa’s triumph (he throws a rock that knocks the gun out of Billy Clanton’s hand) with Tex Ritter singing “Do Not Forsake Me,” from the film “High Noon,” which Buddy had watched earlier on TV.
After this, the family finally gets out of Dodge, and the movie ends with dedications to those who left, those who stayed, those who didn’t live to see the brand new day.
Brand new day
“Belfast” works if you consider the fact that it’s told from a child’s point of view. I.e., my parents are movie stars, my father is a western hero, the neighborhood bully is one-note. Here’s the problem with that. Most movies, certainly most Hollywood movies, are all but told from a child’s point of view. They are absolutist in nature: good guys vs. bad guys, and the good guys win. We go to movies like “Belfast” for something deeper. Branagh didn’t give it. Hell, Thanos is a deeper villain than Billy Clanton. And I really could’ve done without the “Everlasting Love” scene.
Still, the movie looked gorgeous, it was great hearing a lot of Van Morrison, and I loved being back in an actual movie theater—SIFF Egyptian, Seattle—after our own version of the troubles. Which, sadly, aren’t nowhere near over.
Monday November 08, 2021
The 2021 World Series: Got Dingers?
Last week was a busy one and I never followed up on the World Series and my shitty prediction of same. The morning of Game 1, I laid out all the reasons why the Astros would win it all (boiled down: they hit, they hit, they hit) and not only did the Braves win in six but the Astros didn't hit. The best-hitting team in the Majors in 2021 got cold at the wrong time.
They were shut out twice and almost no-hit in Game 3. Only Michael Brantley hit regularly: .333. I didn't get why Dusty Baker didn't move Kyle Tucker up—or why he was batting so low in the first place. (.294 for the season, .286 for the Series.) When No. 3 man Alex Bregman turned ice cold, hitting .095 for the Series, Tucker, or maybe Yuli Gurriel, seemed a good replacement. Instead Dusty went with Carlos Correa. I guess?
Beyond that, it was just a dull Series. Except for Game 4 (when the Braves battled back from a 2-0 deficit) and Game 5 (Astros, 4-run deficit), no leads changed hands. None. Braves jumped out to an early lead in Game 1 and it was never close. Astros jumped out to an early lead in Game 2 and it was never close. In Game 6, after Series MVP Jorge Soler's monster 3-run homer in the top of the 3rd, the Astros never even brought the tying run to the plate. In the 3rd they got a man on; erased in a double play. In the 4th, a man on; erased in a double play. In the final five innings, down 6-0, then 7-0, they managed three singles in three separate innings—two by Brantley—and never moved any of them along. At the end, in the bottom of the 9th inning of the last game of the 2021 season, Brantley led off with a single and was stranded at first. The Series in a nutshell.
So instead of the Astros winning their second title, tying them with the Mets and Royals for the most among expansion teams, the Braves won their fourth. Before this, they had a title per city: Boston (1914), Milwaukee (1957), and Atlanta (1995). Now Georgia gets the deuce. Four titles after almost 120 years doesn't seem like much but it actually ties them with the Tigers for ninth-most in baseball history: Reds and Pirates have five, Dodgers seven, Giants eight, A's and BoSox nine, Cards 11, and the Yankees, those bastards, a bit out front with 27. Braves move ahead of the ChiSox, Cubs, Twins and O's, all of whom have three, and the Indians and Phillies, who have two apiece.
I should add that, for the Series, the Braves hit slightly worse than their regular season numbers, too, except in one category:
Over the six games, the Astros scored 20 runs but only two via the long ball—two solo shots by Jose Altuve—while 18 of the Braves' 25 runs came via homers. This worries me. I was hoping the Astros would be a fun, slap-happy, keep-the-line-moving team, a la the 2014-15 KC Royals, and show GMs a better path to better baseball. Instead, the lesson for GMs is the same dull one: Got dingers?
Well, at least we had a season.
Tuesday October 26, 2021
2021 World Series: Cheaters vs. Tomahawk Chops
A few quick thoughts before Game 1 of the 2021 World Series tonight.
First, it's not an ideal series: The Cheaters vs. The Tomahawk Chops. Yay.
Me, I'm rooting for the Cheaters. I figure most teams cheat, Astros got caught, oh well. But the Tomahawk Chop is loud, stupid, incessant, racist. Shut it down. And right now, the best way to shut it down—the only way, really—is to shut down the Braves. So go 'Stros.
But can the Astros do it? The Braves, after all, have already taken down, rather handily, the 95-win Brewers and the 106-win Dodgers. Surely they can add the 95-win Astros to their belts.
Maybe. But if I had to bet, I'd bet on the Astros.
In the regular season, the two teams had pretty good pitching staffs. The Braves seem to have a few more standouts but overall the two teams were neck and neck in the stats. The Astros had the seventh-best ERA in the Majors (3.76), the Braves the eighth-best (3.88). Astros' team WHIP was 1.23, Braves 1.24. Astros struck out more (1,456 to 1,417), but the Braves walked fewer (516 to 549). I'm not seeing a big advantage for either team on the mound.
But at the plate? Astros.
With the possible exception of the Red Sox, the Astros had the most well-balanced offensive attack in baseball this season. They ranked first in singles (962), third in doubles (299), and ninth in homers (221). The Braves got them beat with the long ball, ranking third overall with 239, but rank only 14th in doubles (269), and shockingly, 29th in singles (779). Only my Mariners hit fewer singles than the Braves. And if you combine singles and doubles, the source of relentless “keep the train moving” offenses that often do well in the postseason, the Astros rank first while the Braves rank 24th. This is also where you can't point to the Dodgers or Brewers and go, “Well, the Braves handled them, so they'll handle the Astros,” because the Dodgers ranked 18th in singles and doubles and the Brewers ranked 27th. The Astros offense is designed to constantly put pressure on a team. They put the ball in play. They had the second-fewest strikeouts in the Majors and the ninth-most walks. They're relentless.
Of course, that's over the 2021 season, and this is a short series, and, as the saying goes, anything can happen. Eddie Rosario might continue to be the second coming of Mickey Mantle. Or someone else might step up. Or Astros' bats might grow cold.
But if I was a betting man, I'd bet on the 'Stros. Go Cheaters! Stifle the Tomahawk Chop!
GAME 1: So far I couldn't be more wrong. The Braves scored on the third pitch of the night, in the first three innings, and again when they needed to widen their cushion. They outhit the Astros 12-9 and won 6-2. Everything about the Astros evening was “almost.” He almost got the ball, he almost tagged that guy, the ball almost went out. Both teams left nine men on but it felt like the Astros were way worse. They were always behind and could never break through. It was a blue-ball evening. But they did break Bravers' starter Charlie Morton's leg with a comebacker. Dude still threw 16 more pitches. That's Bob Gibson territory.
GAME 2: OK, this is more along the lines of what I was thinking might happen. In the first, Altuve doubled, Brantely sacrificed him to third, Bregman sacrificed him home. In the second, with one out, we got: single, single, infield single, single to left and an error/mental lapse by Eddie Rosario who threw to third base with no one covering. Then a two-out single for another run. That made four runs on five singles. The Astros led the Majors in singles this year, and by a long shot, and they didn't strike out much, and if you keep putting the ball in play, the Eddie Rosarios of the world will make mental lapses. That said, the Astros got as many hits in this game as they did in the first game (9), they just strung them together better. And the Braves were unlucky. A lot of their early swings were rockets right at someone. The World Series is tied at one game apiece, but the games themselves have rarely been close. In both games, one team took an early lead, a 3+ run lead by the second inning, and never reliinquished it. Now we move to Atlanta.
Monday October 25, 2021
Fox & Fascists: What Birtherism Gave Birth to
“[Roger] Ailes tested something too: a Trump call-in segment on Fox & Friends. On March 28 , the hosts teed up Trump to irresponsibly fearmonger about Obama's birthplace. Gretchen Carlson looked skeptical, but the men went right along with Trump's lies. Doocy even took a shot at the news media, telling Trump, 'They're trying to paint you as the mayor of Crazytown for bringing this up'...
”This, it turned out, was the first episode of 'Monday Mornings with Trump,' a weekly segment that changed the course of American politics. Ailes even ordered up TV promos for the segment. 'Bold, brash, and never bashful, the Donald now makes his voice loud and clear every Monday on Fox,' the announcer said. Trump loved it. He was ticked off that people weren't taking his political gambits seriously, and the segment helped him change that by giving him a direct connection with the conservative base. Through the weekly calls, he got to know Ailes's priorities. He got to know Fox's priorities. He got to know the people who became his voters. And they got to know him...
“The birther smear helped cement the impression of Obama as a foreigner in the minds of millions of viewers, wedded Trump to the Fox base, and foreshadowed Trump and Fox's full-throated embrace of white identity politics.”
-- from Brian Stelter's “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth”
Sunday October 24, 2021
Peter Scolari (1955-2021)
I loved “Bosom Buddies” when it first aired in 1980-81. I kept telling people, “You gotta watch this show. Something about the two leads—they have such great chemistry.” I added: “I think the shorter one is going places.”
And he did, just not to the level of the other guy, Tom Hanks. But then, who has?
Peter Scolari kept acting but I kept missing him. I didn't watch “Newhart,” for which he was nominated best supporting actor three times. I did see him in the Tom Hanks-directed “That Thing You Do!” in 1996. And I saw him regularly on “Girls,” playing Hannah's dad with impeccable, fumbling, comedic timing. Almost Bob Newhart-esque timing. He won an Emmy for that. It was fun seeing him regularly again.
On “Bosom Buddies,” I identified. He was short, cute, and wanted to be a writer. I remember they did an episode where it became clear that it's almost impossible to make a living and pursue your passion. The ending cut to Kip's empty canvas and Henry's cold typewriter. The show was trying to warn me of the future.
Scolari died this week of cancer, age 66. Here's his New York Times obit. Godspeed, Henry.