Friday May 27, 2022
Ray Liotta (1954-2022)
I first saw him in “Something Wild” as the ex-con hubbie of Melanie Griffith and he scared the shit out of me. I next saw him in “Field of Dreams” as the heavenly “Shoeless” Joe Jackson playing baseball in the Iowa cornfields, and he scared the shit out of me. Then it was “Goodfellas,” playing lead character and narrator Henry Hill, a kid from the neighborhood who becomes a wise guy, rats, and has to live out the rest of his life in suburbia “like a schnook,” and it was Joe Pesci who scared the shit out of me. That was one of the things that amazed me about that film—that Ray Liotta didn't scare the shit out of me. Of the wiseguys, he was the nice one.
He didn't get an Oscar nomination for “Goodfellas”—he was never nominated, in fact—but Pesci did, and won, and his career took off. Liotta? I'm looking at his IMDb page right now and the early '90s are full lof lead roles in forgetful movies. In “Article 99” he plays a compassionate doctor working with vets. In “Unlawful Entry” he plays a creepy cop obsessed with Madeleine Stowe. In “No Escape” he plays an Army captain convicted of murder and sent to a hellish prison. In “Corrina, Corrina,” he plays a 1959 widower who hires Whoopi Goldberg as a nanny. In “Operation Dumbo Drop,” he plays an Army captain who delivers an elephant to a Vietnamese village. I didn't see any of these movies. I doubt many people did.
I saw “Copland,” with Stallone, but... Apparently he was on a killer good episode of “Just Shoot Me,” playing a Christmas-obsessed Ray Liotta. Then bits and pieces in other people's movies: “Blow,” “John Q,” “Bee Movie,” “Observe and Report,” “Sin City 2,” “Kill the Messenger.” Sometimes he popped, sometimes he didn't. He did for me in “Marriage Story,” as the 40th-floor attorney who is too cutthroat for Adam Driver until his own nice-guy lawyer, Alan Alda, gets burned. Then Driver says, “I need my own asshole.” Cut to Liotta. He should've played these roles more: fierce guys who cut through the shit.
He puffed out in his later years and his piercing eyes seemed smaller in his head, but when he was young he was beautiful. Apparently he died in his sleep in the Dominican Republic filming another movie. “And now it's all over,” as Henry Hill said. Just 67. Another guy in his 60s.
Last night, in honor, Patricia and I watched “Goodfellas” again. It's one of the great movies, with one of the great endings, with one of the great examples of nonstop movie narration. It will live as long as people care about movies.
Thursday May 26, 2022
“Life eventually humbles us all. What I love about experts, the best of them anyway, is that they get to their humility early. They have to. It's part of who they are. It's necessary for what they're doing. They set out to get to the bottom of something that has no bottom. And so they're reminded, constantly, of what they don't know. They move through the world focused not on what they know, but on what they might find out.”
-- Michael Lewis, “Against the Rules” podcast, Season 3, Episode 7, “The Person Who Knows.” This season focused on experts and the whole thing is worth listening to. This particularly episode, dealing with pandemic response generally and our fucked-up Covid response in particular, was infuriating—having to listen again to those who spread misinformation and never bothered to correct matters; who never offered up even one small mea culpa for all the damage they did.
Wednesday May 25, 2022
I can't remember if two kids were known dead at that point or 14 but yesterday afternoon I went onto The New York Times site looking for more details about the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. I saw the shooter was 18; I saw he'd been killed. Vaguely, I wondered if we'd find out why he did it. Then I stopped myself. Why? A guy walked into an elementary school and started killing children. There's no why to that. There's nothing that'll make sense of that.
Is there anything that'll make sense of us? Maybe Yeats. The usual Yeats.
The Republican party is a party of child killers. They're opportunists who know the problem and pretend the problem is something else in order to get votes and stay in power for the next two or six years and then do nothing. They're cowards who can seriously go fuck themselves. That's the only proper response when they start spouting their bullshit. Go fuck yourself.
The best reaction I saw yesterday was from an NBA basketball coach.
Tuesday May 24, 2022
Roger Angell (1920-2022)
His books were always subtitled “A Baseball Companion,” which is what he was.
In the fall of 1994, after Major League baseball players and owners did what world wars couldn’t do and canceled the rest of the season, the postseason, and the World Series, I made up for the lack by reading all of Roger Angell’s New Yorker baseball essays in order. I think I’d read him piecemeal before. Now I began with “Box Scores” and “The Old Folks Behind Home,” the 1962 essays from “The Summer Game,” and continued through the joys of Bob Gibson (“Distance”), the sorrows of Steve Blass (“Gone for Good”), until I got to “Up at the Hall,” from the summer of 1987, the last essay in “Season Ticket,” and oh so tantalizingly close to reading Angell on my own team, the Minnesota Twins, finally winning the World Series. It was four books, about 1500 pages, and a quarter-century of the most elegant baseball writing.
The early books were better, but then they were among the best baseball books I’d ever read. I’ve always loved his account of the 1968 World Series, punctuated throughout with descriptions of Lou Brock—“Brock was stranded at third after stealing second...” “Lou Brock twice stole second...”—before the grand paragraph that reads like a punch line:
Sunday's game, played in a light-to-heavy Grand Banks rainstorm and won by the Cardinals, 10-1, offered several lessons, all of them unappreciated by the Tigertowners. (1) Lou Brock does not always steal second. He led off the game with a homer, tripled and scored in the fourth, grounded out in the sixth, and then doubled and stole third in the eighth. It was his seventh stolen base of the Series, tying the record he set last year against Boston.
There was wisdom in his writing. On the Amazin’ Mets in ’69: “Disbelief persists, then, and one can see now that disbelief itself was one of the Mets’ most powerful assets all through the season.” On getting used to the outlandishness of the Astrodome: “I don't know if this revisionism is the result of trying to be nice to Astros fans, or, perhaps worse, if it's part of that human trait that has kept our species thriving for so long but which may lead to our ultimate downfall—the fact that human beings can get used to anything.”
“The Summer Game,” with its great cover drawing by James Stevenson, covered 10 seasons, and the subsequent books would cover only five—the next, “Five Seasons,” announcing itself as exactly that—but they were all about the same length. So was Angell given more space? Was he less concise? Sometimes it felt like it. He also might have been writing more essays. Along with his spring and autumn pieces, he’d do features on fans (“Three for the Tigers”), owners (“The Companions of the Game,” about the Giants’ Horace Stoneham), old players (“The Web of the Game,” Smoky Joe Wood), and new aspects of the old game, (“Sharing the Beat,” about women sportswriters). In “Stories for a Rainy Afternoon,” he told, via Tommy Lasorda, the Greatest Baseball Story Ever Told.
Occasionally, intentionally or not, he wound up encompassing the rhythms of the season: the hope of spring, the harsh reality of fall. Early in 1971, he wrote that “the best entertainment in baseball this year is watching Willie Mays,” who started out hot, and his closing sentence for that article was: “The leader is still leading.” Four months later, after Mays performed poorly in the postseason, Angell urged him to retire: “Hang them up, Willie. Please.” In the spring of 1979, he wrote of Carl Yastrzemski, “Sometime next August, he will knock out his three-thousandth base hit; along about the same week, if statistical projections hold up, he will hit his four-hundredth homer. The two blows might be the same blow; it might even happen in Minnesota on August 22nd, on Carl Yastrzemski's fortieth birthday. I wouldn't bet against it.” He should have. In the autumn piece, he admits how No. 3,000 didn’t come until September, an infield dribbler, after Yaz suffered through “an excruciating dry spell at the plate.”
The subhed of his Steve Blass piece was about how “baseball suddenly stopped being fun for him,” and I felt a bit of that happened to Angell in the late 1970s. He admitted as much late in “Late Innings,” the third collection: “… I badly wanted to shake my miseries over the money side of the game.” He did. He always found the joy. And we found the joy in him. Here he is, a sentence before a game-tying home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series:
Bernie Carbo, pinch-hitting, looked wholly overmatched by Eastwick, flailing at one inside fastball like someone fighting off a wasp with a croquet mallet.
Angell was a real writer. I say this not only because he wrote so well but because when he appeared as a talking head in the Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, which first aired that bereft fall of ’94, I was kind of disappointed. That’s him? And that’s all we get from him? He wrote so beautifully and spoke only OK. He popped on the page, not on the camera.
He was also the magazine’s fiction editor, of course, a position that had once been his mother’s, and he wrote his own fiction. And as he aged, he wrote about aging. He’d been a political child, raised in a democracy during Fascist times, and in his last articles for The New Yorker he did not fail to recognize the moment he was in:
I am ninety-eight now, legally blind, and a pain in the ass to all my friends and much of my family with my constant rantings about the Trump debacle—his floods of lies, his racism, his abandonment of vital connections to ancient allies and critically urgent world concerns, his relentless attacks on the media, and, just lately, his arrant fearmongering about the agonizingly slow approach of a fading column of frightened Central American refugees.
Then he urged us all to vote. That was in 2018. Two years later, in his last article, just four paragraphs long, he wrote about the deep pride in democracy and debates, and how Donald Trump was making a mockery of both. I’m glad he lived long enough to see Trump lose.
His baseball writing will live on. He knew what made the national pastime unique:
Baseball's clock ticks inwardly and silently, and a man absorbed in a ball game is caught in a slow, green place of removal and concentration and in a tension that is screwed up slowly and ever more tightly with each pitcher's windup and with the almost imperceptible forward lean and little half-step with which the fielders accompany each pitch. … Any persistent effort to destroy this unique phenomenon, to “use up” baseball's time with planned distractions, will in fact transform the sport into another mere entertainment and thus hasten its descent to the status of a boring and stylized curiosity.
In theory, Roger Angell knew, a baseball game could go on forever. He nearly did.
Monday May 23, 2022
Movie Review: You Can't Get Away With Murder (1939)
Billy Halop of the Dead End Kids is third-billed here, but he’s really the lead. The movie’s on his shoulders. Too much.
He plays Johnnie, a Hell's Kitchen punk who begins palling around with hoodlum Frank Wilson (Humphrey Bogart) despite the positive example of his older sister Madge (Gale Page) and her fiancé, policeman Fred Burke (Harvey Stephens). It doesn’t help that sis and Burke are bland as all get-out.
A Shawshank vibe
Early on, Johnnie steals Burke’s gun, which Frank then uses in a pawn shop robbery that goes bad: Frank kills the owner. “Yeah, with Fred’s gun,” Frank tells a distraught Johnnie. “And you give it to me. You took it from the copper’s room. … There’s a murder rap hanging over both of us.” Shortly afterward, Johnnie and Frank are picked up by the cops—but for an earlier robbery. It's Burke who's arrested for the pawn-shop murder.
At this point we’re 17 minutes into a 78-minute movie, and the rest of it boils down to this question: When will Johnnie come clean? He’s certainly worried about Burke but Frank says Burke’ll be fine. “He’s got an alibi, don’t he?” Then Burke is convicted and sentenced to death. Again Johnnie is worried, again Frank says what he says. Each iteration we get the same back-and-forth, and the emotional weight of it is always the same. Johnnie seems as worried at the idea Burke will be arrested as he is with the reality that in three hours Burke will be executed for a crime Frank committed. Plus we must get some variation of this conversation a half dozen times:
Concerned adult: You know something, Johnnie, something that will save Burke, and it’s weighing down on you. What is it?
Johnnie: I don’t know nuttin I tells ya!
Halop was good as the leader of the Dead End Kids, but you get why he never became a leading man. Put him in a suit and fedora next to Bogart and he’s just a kid playing dress up. Director Lewis Seiler doesn’t seem to help him much, either.
Anyway, that’s what’s wrong with the film: We keep spinning our wheels. Here’s what’s interesting about it. You can’t help but wonder if a young Stephen King saw it on late-night TV.
Most of the movie is a prison movie, most of the prisoners are colorful characters, and there's a real “Shawshank Redemption” vibe. Toad (George E. Stone) is the bookie who takes bets on whether guys fry or not; Sam (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson) is the hungry guy who reads recipes aloud to sate himself. There’s even a happy-go-lucky con named Red (Joe Sawyer), who is sure he’s going to get paroled. But the real “Shawshank” vibe comes from Pop (Henry Travers, Clarence the Angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life”), who runs the prison library and who trains Johnnie on the system. He’s quiet, kindly, moves slow. I immediately flashed on James Whitmore’s Brooks Hatlen. I'm not the first.
Get busy dying
So after spinning our wheels for 68 minutes, everything comes to a head on the same night Burke is to be executed for Frank’s crime:
- Frank and Scappa (Harold Huber) plot a prison escape
- Red is denied parole and joins the prison break
- Pop becomes ill
- Johnnie writes out his confession and leaves it for Pop
- Frank takes the confession
Only Red successfully makes it over the wall. Scappa screws the pooch, is killed. Holed up, Frank confronts Johnnie with his written confession, shoots him, and gives himself up. But Johnnie lives long enough to right the record.
Oddly, his first words aren’t about the pawnshop murder; they’re about himself. “Wilson … shot me,” he says. He says it twice, near death. Only then does he finally get around to saying what he should've said an hour earlier: Burke is innocent. Cut to the infirmary, surrounded by everyone, and Johnnie apologizing to Burke. He also tries to thank Pop, the movie’s true father figure, but Pop tells him to get some sleep. “You’re right, Pop,” he says, “I can …. sleep … now,” and his head drops off. He's dead, but at least his burden is over. THE END.
One question the movie doesn’t answer: Did Red get away? I like to think that he did. I like to think he made it across the border. I hope the Pacific was as blue as it had been in his dreams.
Friday May 20, 2022
Movie Review: San Quentin (1937)
Warner Bros. tosses a lot of its 1930s tropes into this thing but they don’t connect. At all.
The new tough-but-fair “Captain of the Guard” at San Quentin prison, Stephen Jameson (Pat O’Brien), becomes involved with a nightclub singer (Ann Sheridan) who is sister to one of the inmates (Humphrey Bogart). From that, for most of the movie, we're wondering two things. Can he reform the men? And can he do it without showing favoritism to the brother?
To which the movie gives us these answers: He kind of reforms the men. And he thinks he doesn’t show favoritism.
Forever blowing bubbles
At the start, San Quentin is a mess, run by Lt. Druggin (Barton MacLane), a martinet whose answer for any infraction is taking away privileges and a month in the hole. But his draconian ways create more problems than they solve—the men keep rebelling—so the warden, and the prison board, bring in an actual army captain.
Odd coincidence: The night before Jameson begins, he meets and falls for lounge singer Mae de Villiers, nee May Kennedy (Sheridan). Odder coincidence: That very night, her brother, Joe “Red” Kennedy (Bogart), shows up backstage and asks for some dough. He says he needs to get to a new job in Seattle but he’s actually on the run from the cops, and they catch up with him in Mae’s dressing, in front of both Mae and Jameson, and haul him away—to San Quentin, of course.
So how is Jameson’s method different than Druggin? Here's how. His first day on the job, giving a quick speech in the yard, a wag in the back mocks him, but rather than a month in the hole Jameson makes him stand on a soapbox and sing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” into the evening. (“Public Enemy” homage, anyone?) Then during inspection, he chastises an old-timer for not showing a newbie how to fold a blanket properly, and talks with a prisoner who’s suddenly making a good living as a writer. So he knows them. He also gains some measure of respect when he talks down then overpowers a dimwitted Christian prisoner (Garry Owen), who’s holding the yard at gunpoint.
But it’s not until more than halfway through, after Jameson has to explain charges of favoritism before the prison board, that we get anything like a philosophy from him. And it’s basically this. In prison, there are two groups of men: hardened criminals who have no hope of rehabilitation ... and the other kind.
No one asks him how he knows which men belong in which group. Instead, the warden simply says, “Gentleman, I’m convinced that Jameson is right,” and the Board mumbles its assent.
That’s the movie: vague pronouncements from the steadfast Jameson, while everyone else veers wildly—poor Bogart in particular. Initially he thinks little of Jameson (“He’s just another copper to me”) and plots with “Sailor Boy” Hansen (Joe Sawyer) to escape when they get road-gang work. Then he’s impressed by how Jameson handles the dimwitted prisoner. Then he gets the road-gang work but suddenly he’s already reformed. Yeah, that quick. He says he’s gonna do his time and come out on the right side and get a job. Until, that is, the other prisoners tell him he’s getting these plum assignments because his sister is “dating” Jameson. So now he wants to kill Jameson, and, though one would assume there was ample opportunity in the yard, he thinks the prison break with Hansen is the best path.
Here’s the movie’s biggest disconnect: When “Red” Kennedy gets the road-gang assignment, it is considered such a violation of protocol that the other prisoners all but riot. They stage a strike. But at this point, no one even knows about Jameson and Mae; they just think it stinks of favoritism without knowing why “Red” would be favored. Now you’d think if you made a decision that favored the brother of your girlfriend, and it pissed off enough people that they all but riot even though they don’t even know about your personal connection, it might give you pause; it might make you wonder if maybe you were favoring him for personal reasons. But there’s no pause here—from Jameson or the film. Jameson just barrels through in that steadfast Pat O’Brien way. He’s right because he’s the hero.
Anyway, Red and Sailor Boy do escape, taking Druggin hostage, then kick him out of the car even though they still need a hostage. We get a long car chase, and a car accident in which Sailor Boy dies while Red escapes uninjured. He shows up at Mae’s apartment at the same time as Jameson, then learns the two are in love. So he leaves, is shot trying to escape, but, to prove Jameson’s “reforms” worked, fights his way back to San Quentin, where, with his dying breath, he says to a guard, “Tell Jameson I come back. Tell the cons to play ball with him. He’s … He’s a swell g—” The he dies. And that’s the end of the movie.
Fuck is that bad. No wonder Bogie drank.
Eight writers—four credited, including John Bright, who wrote “The Public Enemy”—contributed to “San Quentin.” Early on, the night Jameson and May meet, we do get this nice bit of dialogue:
Jameson: Hi, Beautiful.
May: Hello, Sergeant, where's the war?
Jameson: Haven't you read the papers? We’re fighting the Indians because they won't take the country back.
May: Really, Sergeant?
Jameson: And don’t call me Sergeant!
May: Well, I won't if you promised to tell me what you are.
Jameson: Do you know what two bars mean?
May: Sure, twice as many drunks as one bar.
I like the two bars joke. And I really like his line about how the Indians “won’t take the country back.” That points to a wry, underdog sensibility—but one closer to John Bright than Capt. Stephen Jameson.
The above exchange provides more sparks than the rest of the so-called romance, which is dullsville. O’Brien schlumps his way through the project and Sheridan isn’t much better. Only Bogart pops. Veda Ann Borg is also good as the moll who helps with the escape.
Warner Bros. mainstay Lloyd Bacon directed this thing, and he fit right into the “roll ‘em out quick” mode of the studio. He made some of my favorite early Cagneys (“Picture Snatcher”), and some of my least favorite (“The Irish In Us”), but you have to admire a guy whose career goes from silent, black-and-white comedic shorts to wide-screen Technicolor. One of his first features was “The Singing Fool,” the follow-up to “The Jazz Singer,” the first credited talking picture; and his last was “The French Line,” with Jane Russell filmed in Technicolor and 3-D. That’s a lot of innovation in technology and storytelling in 25 years. It’s the beginning and end of things all at once.
Wednesday May 18, 2022
The Book on The Book of Boba Fett
I was never a huge Boba Fett fan. I was there at the beginning, original “Star Wars” with lines around the block and are you a Luke or Han guy; and then “Empire” dropped and suddenly dudes were talking Boba Fett. Boba who? You mean the guy that turned in Han? You're not supposed to like him! But many of my contemporaries did. They thought he was cool. And even though he went into the mouth of the desert-monster thingy in “Return of the Jedi,” the legend grew. And eventually we learned—I guess in the prequels or one of the cartoon shows I never watched—that Boba was the model for the stormtroopers. They're all clones of him. Or his father? Or something? And he's a clone of his father, too? Another example of how, in trying to connect his universe, George Lucas destroys it.
Long way of saying I didn't jump right on Disney's latest “Star Wars” series, “The Book of Boba Fett,” even though I liked “The Mandalorian” enough. But this spring I finally got around to it. I'd heard it had Luke in it. The return of Luke! Looking like 1983 Mark Hamill! With scenes and everything! I was always a Luke guy. How could I miss that?
And I liked the Boba Fett stuff.
I liked that they didn't explain it. They just take us to Tatooine, and the now darkened, empty halls of Jaba the Hutt's lair, and then outside into the desert, and eventually down into the mouth of that desert-monster thingy, the sarlacc, with Boba Fett in its maw, or stomach, or wherever he is. And how he blasts his way out. And how the Jawas arrive and strip the Mandalorian armor from the unconscious Boba Fett. Then a Tusken tribe takes his body. I liked seeing all these creatures again. I assumed Boba would eventually turn the tables on the Tuskens, the Sand People, who make him a kind of slave. Instead, he proves his worth, adapts, and is welcomed into the tribe. He likes the Tuskens. He basically becomes the T.E. Lawrence of Tatooine.
All of this is intercut with later scenes where Boba is the crime lord of Mos Espa, with Fennec Shand (Wen Ming-Na) by his side. (Aside: Wen is nearly 60 years old and hot as all get-out.)
So I liked how it opened. But when it shifts to pick up on the Mandalorian's story in episode 5, and when in ep. 6 we get my man Luke and baby Yoda, now named Grogu, I was hugely disappointed. I'd somehow forgotten that, yes, during the prequels they'd made the Jedi boring. They made them assholes. They created a kind of Buddhist ascetism, which the Jedi-in-training has to follow whether he's a twentysomething Luke or a baby Yoda. We see Luke training baby Yoda and it's kind of painful to watch. The Mandalorian shows up, essentially Grogu's dad, with a present for him, chain mail, and isn't even allowed to see him. And Luke presents Grogu with a choice: the chain mail and life with Mando, or Yoda's lightsabre and life as a Jedi. “But you may choose only one,” he says. For life. He says this to a baby.
So stupid. Luke's path to the Jedi-hood was way more haphazard: Yeah, there's this thing called the Force, here's how you try to access it, not bad, hey, the Force is strong with this one, OK, why don't you go to Dagobah and learn from this dude Yoda? And by the time he chose the path he had nothing to lose: no parents, no aunt/uncle, no Ben. He had nothing to give up. And now he's asking Grogu—a baby—to give up his dad.
Anyway, Grogu chooses Mando, and good for him. Maybe that'll begin to set this galaxy on the right path. Lord knows the Jedi haven't helped much. One wonders, in fact, if the problem with this galaxy isn't just the bad guys, the Empire, but the good guys, too, and their ascetic rites. Both sides are just different kinds of assholes: one takes, one denies. Two sides of the same fucking coin.
My other takeaway from “The Book of Boba Fett” was what a potpourri of film history it was. “Lawrence of Arabia” was just the start. We also got the kids from “Quadrophenia,” an alien cowboy looking like Lee Van Cleef from the Leone-Eastwood movies, and King Kong. I liked the alien cowboy. I thought the “Quadrophenia” stuff a bit silly.
But I think it went from homage to derivative in the final episode when it lifted lines directly from the early “Godfather” movies. As the other crime families align with the Pyke Syndicate, betraying Boba Fett, Mando says, “It was the smart move,” echoing Michael's line about Tessio's betrayal. Then, trapped, Boba sends Mok Shaiz's Majordomo (an excellent David Pasquesi) to negotiate the terms of his surrender, which turn out to be “Nothing,” echoing Michael's line from “II” about what he's willing to offer the scumbag U.S. Senator. I doubt the makers of “Boba Fett” thought they were scamming anyone—that we wouldn't notice. I'm sure they thought it was homage. But it still felt wrong. The way to create cool lines is not to lift the cool lines of better films. You gotta write them.
Tuesday May 17, 2022
Movie Review: Nation Aflame (1937)
I rented this from Scarecrow Video—yes, I still do that—because of a screen credit that might not have been a screen credit.
Thomas E. Dixon Jr. is infamous as the white supremacist lawyer-minister who wrote the 1905 novel “The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan,” which became the 1915 D.W. Griffith movie “Birth of a Nation,” which rejuvenated the KKK in the first half of the 20th century and led to who knows how many lynchings and how much more American misery.
And on IMDb, “Nation Aflame” is listed as Dixon’s last screen credit.
Here’s the thing, though: the synopsis of the film seems the opposite of Dixon’s earlier work:
Believing they can make a ton of money, a gang of opportunists uses the country’s racial and ethnic tensions to start a Ku Klux Klan-type organization.
So did Dixon, who died on April 3, 1946, have a change of heart about race matters?
Well, it turns out his prejudices were kind of complicated. He thought Black people were inferior but Jewish people superior. He never understood anti-Semitism, reminding people that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was Jewish. As for the reconstructed Klan he helped popularize, he saw it as “a growing menace to law and order.” Which is maybe why he helped write “Nation Aflame.”
If he helped write “Nation Aflame.” From the American Film Institute:
Although onscreen credits read, “Story by Thomas Dixon, author of Birth of a Nation,” and the film’s reviews state that the film was based on a story by Dixon, a 29 Jun 1936 HR [Hollywood Reporter] news item claims that the story was an original written by Leon d’Usseau.
OK, so who was Leon d’Usseau? According to his 1963 obit, he was a producer-director and sometime screenwriter who helped found RKO Studios. He was married to actress Ottola Nesmith and was the father of Arnaud d’Usseau, a playwright-screenwriter who was blacklisted in the 1950s, refused to name names, and left for work in Europe. Apparently the son roomed with another blacklistee, Zero Mostel, for a spell, too.
So what evidence is there besides the 1936 Hollywood Reporter article that the story came from d’Usseau and not Dixon? Not much. A search of “d’Usseau” and “Nation Aflame” on newspapers.com brings up literally nothing. And Dixon is on the poster—prominently. And, as we’ve seen, he wasn’t exactly a fan of the new Klan. So … who knows? It’s a question for a college professor on sabbatical. (I really should’ve been a college professor with sabbaticals.)
As for the movie?
The suckers’ll eat it up
A bunch of grifters with a real-estate scheme get run out of town and need to come up with a new scam; and though they’re led by the portly, jovial Roland Adams (longtime character actor Harry Holman), it’s newcomer Frank Sandino (Noel Madison) who figures out that the next great grift is a very old one: xenophobia.
Sandino: We’ll capitalize on jealousy, intolerance and patriotism. We’ll form a secret lodge, and band our members into a legion of patriotic avengers: the Avenging Angels!
Adams: That’s a great name! The Avenging Angels: plenty of mystery, secret meetings, secret oaths, mysterious robes and phony rituals. [Laughs] Boy, the suckers’ll eat it up!
They wind up descending on a town where Adams was once mayor, and where Adams’ daughter, Wynne (Norma Trelvar), is now—inexplicably given his down-and-out status—a kind of socialite running the upper-crust party scene. Very quickly, Sandino, who has Americanized his name to Sands, has the rubes in his clutches, and Wynne turns out to be one of those rubes. She even begins a relationship with him. When Adams objects, Sands shuts him up by making him governor. Dad of the Year right there.
The forces aligning against the fascists are typical for ’30s Hollywood: the intrepid local DA (Arthur Singley) and the intrepid local newspaper editor (Allen Cavan). The latter goes an editorial too far and winds up being killed by Angels’ hatchet man Dave Burtis (Roger Williams). Both Adamses are appalled, and when Gov. Adams breaks from the group he—in a seeming nod to the 1935 assassination of Louisiana populist Huey Long—is gunned down.
So what finally stops Sands? The same thing that derails many a powerful man: a sex scandal. Except this one is kinda-sorta manufactured by Wynne, who sacrifices her reputation to bring down Sands.
Someday it would be nice if fascists were undone by, you know, their fascism, but apparently that's too much to ask.
The shame of my lifetime
“Nation Aflame” is not a good movie. It was directed and produced by Poverty Row brothers Victor and Edward Halperin, who probably deserved their Poverty Row status. It’s edited poorly, and, after years of neglect, the quality of the film isn’t the best.
But it’s worth watching for how much the arguments of its villains wouldn’t be out of place today on Fox News or at a Republican convention. Here’s an early speech of Adams’:
“We’ve been traveling all over the country studying the unemployment situation and the growing recklessness of our nation’s youth. After an extensive study of those conditions, Mr. Sands and I have concluded that their basic cause is primarily: foreigners. Too long have we permitted aliens and foreigners to prosper by whatever means they choose!”
And here’s Sandino/Sands:
“The only way that we can save the youth of our nation is to organize them in one single group, and through them, enforce the precepts of 100% Americanism! Corruption and politics must go! Civic virtue and patriotism must be our goals! We must enforce a reverence for our flag and our Constitution, and what is more, protect our American womanhood, and guard the sanctity of our homes. We must guarantee that the wealth of America must be shared only by real Americans! To maintain and declare absolute boycott against foreigners is our only salvation!”
What a shame that the rhetoric of stock villains in a 1930s movie is the rhetoric of the right-wing mainstream 100 years later. It’s the shame of my lifetime.
Monday May 16, 2022
Movie Review: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
I’m curious what I would’ve thought if I’d seen it opening night, with a crowd gasping and cheering and applauding—and if I didn’t already know about the multiverse and the supervillains and the return of Andrew Garfield and Toby Maguire as Spider-Man 1 and 2. I’m sure I would’ve been blown away. The concept itself is great. It means anything and anyone might come back. You could do this with the Hulk and bring back Ed Norton and Eric Bana. You could do this with Fantastic Four and bring back Miles Teller (from the disastrous 2015 film) and Jessica Alba (from the disastrous 2005 and ’07 films), and—dare I say it—Alex Hyde-White and Jay Underwood (from the uber-disastrous, super low budget 1994 film). Which reminds me: Did they consider reaching back to Nicholas Hammond for this one? Probably not. But either way I like it. I like anything that makes our culture less throwaway.
Except I didn’t see it opening night; I saw it several months later, when I knew most of the above. And while most of the movie still works, and the meeting of the Spider-Men is sweet and poignant, something kind of ruined the movie for me.
Aunt May’s dumbshit argument
It opens as “Spider-Man: Far From Home” closed: with J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons), a kind of Bill O’Reilly/Roger Ailes amalgamation on the Daily Bugle Network, broadcasting the final message from Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who accuses Spider-Man (Tom Holland) of the terrorist attack on London and then reveals his secret identity: Spider-Man is … Peter Parker!
And all hell breaks loose. Crowds gather around MJ (Zendaya), he swoops down to rescue her, then swoops them away because the crowd is celeb-crazy—or just crazy. It’s like a Twitter feed writ large. And suddenly there’s nowhere where they’re safe: Manhattan, Queens, anywhere. The FBI bursts in. Why does the agent in charge (Arian Moayed) bug me so much? Oh right, he played that asshole on “Succession.” Anyway, our heroes lawyer up with Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox), the alter-ego of Daredevil from the Netflix series. So they’re bringing him in? That’s pretty cool. Talk about a multiverse. Can Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin be far behind?
But this particular storyline doesn’t last long: the state has no case, and to get away from the crowds Peter and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) simply move to one of the Stark Industry safe houses. (Gotta say: Given its power in the world, Stark Industries, in the person of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), is fairly unhelpful throughout.) The world is still crazy, of course. Half love Peter/Spidey too much, the other half—spurred by Bugle/Fox News—think he’s a monster. First day of senior year does not go well, so Peter, MJ and Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalan) escape to the roof. And soon the focus of the movie becomes something else entirely:
Where are they going for college?
All three want MIT, but all three are rejected. Not because of grades, etc., but because they’re under FBI investigation. I guess you could say that everything that happens afterward is the fault of MIT.
Upset by the disappointment of his friends, Peter gets the bright idea to visit Avengers ally Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to see if he can’t do something about it. And he can! He can cast a spell to make the world forget that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. But when he’s casting the spell Peter keeps interrupting with “Oh, MJ should still know, and Ned Leeds, and Aunt May…” until Strange has to break off and contain the spell before it goes kabloowy. Except it’s already begun going kabloowy. That is, people who knew Peter Parker is Spider-Man from other universes begin entering ours.
The first is the best, Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), from “Spider-Man 2,” who battles Spidey spectacularly on a Manhattan bridge. Then the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) from the original “Spider-Man” arrives, tossing pumpkin bombs. And just as suddenly, Ock and Peter are transported to the “undercroft” of Doctor Strange’s “Sanctum Sanctorum” in Greenwich Village, where Strange lets him know what’s happening, and how others are sneaking through, too: The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), whom Strange caught, and Electro (Jamie Foxx), who’s causing havoc in the woods somewhere. Spidey goes there, subdues him, transports him to the cells Strange has constructed. Strange also has a cool-looking box, the Macchina di Kadavus, which houses the contained spell; and he’s finally figured out “the proper ritual” to reverse it and send everyone back to their own universes.
Wait, question: Do they have to be in Strange’s undercroft for the the ritual to work? If not, why send Peter out to subdue anyone? And if so, couldn’t there be a lot of people from other universes left in ours when Strange reverses the corrupt spell?
Anyway, that’s not the thing that ruined the movie for me. No, what ruined the movie for me is the reason Peter prevents Doctor Strange from reversing the spell—the thing that keeps the movie going for another 90 minutes. Aunt May convinces him to rehabilitate all the supervillains from all the other universes before sending them back. And that happens because Norman Osborn shows up at her homeless shelter, lost, babbling, and she pulls Peter aside:
May: He needs help. Maybe they all do.
Peter: Wait, you don’t mean... No, May. This isn't my problem.
May: Peter, not your problem? Hmm?
Peter: May, their chance of getting help is way better back where they came from. Sending them home, that's the best thing we can do for them.
May: For them? Or for yourself?
It’s the dumbest conversation, and the dumbest plot device, I’ve heard in an otherwise standout superhero film.
When May suggests that sending them back to their own universes is only best for Peter, that he’s somehow being selfish rather than altruistic like her, there’s a very easy response he could make: Sorry, Aunt May, but this is best for the universe. For all the universes. For the entirety of creation, which is now unstable, because I asked Strange to help me get into MIT. I love you, Aunt May, but you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.
Instead, May’s dumbshit argument wins the day, and Peter actually fights Doctor Strange for control of the box so he can rehabilitate the supervillains before sending them back to…
Wait. Since they’ve all been pulled into this universe the moment before they die, is Peter/May sending them back to simply die rehabilitated? That seems unfair. Or will the rehabilitation change their trajectory so they don’t die? And if so, how does that change the course of events in those universes? I mean, if Norman Osborn’s rehab prevents “Spider-Man 2” I’m going to be pretty pissed. On the other hand, if it prevents the Hitler hair and “Saturday Night Fever” strut in “3,” count me in.
More immediately, in the universe of this movie, the rehab goes as poorly as anyone would expect. Osborn’s Goblin personality returns, he rallies the others, and they all but destroy the Stark-Industry safehouse. Then the Green Goblin actually kills Aunt May, who dies in Peter’s arms telling him that with great power comes great responsibility. A sad moment. It should be a poignant moment. But it’s not, because of her earlier dumbshit argument. And because we all saw it coming.
After that, distraught, Peter disappears, so Ned uses Doctor Strange’s ring to find “Peter Parker,” but he winds up finding PP2 (Andrew Garfield) and PP1 (Toby Maguire) instead. I have to admit, it’s great seeing them again. And these Peter Parkers, with MJ, figure out how to find our Peter Parker, and all three Spider-Men agree to contact Doctor Strange to send back the supervillains without rehabbing them because c’mon, hasn’t enough damage been done?
Kidding. They work up chemical formulas to cure the supervillains and lure them out for a fight. And not to sound like J.J.J., but hey why not fight supervillains at an irreplaceable landmark like the Statue of Liberty? Give me your tired, your poor, your superpowered sociopathic… It’s a good battle anyway, and I like the interplay and bonding between all the Spideys. These lonely kids find out they’re not so alone. And in a poignant moment, Maguire’s Spidey stops Holland’s Spidey from killing the Green Goblin; and in the movie’s most poignant moment, Garfield’s Spidey saves Holland’s MJ the way he could not save his own Gwen in “Amazing Spider-Man 2.” Afterwards he asks, “Are you OK?” and she nods, shook, then notices how much he’s tearing up. “Are you OK?” she asks. Perfect. I teared up myself.
But by this point the Goblin has unleashed Doctor Strange’s original contained, corrupt spell, and now more people are being pulled into this universe, and Strange can’t stop it. So our Peter, who had tried to make every little detail perfect, offers a great sacrifice: What if everyone just forgets Peter Parker? It would mean his best friend won’t remember him and the love of his life won’t remember him. It would mean, after bonding with the Spideys, after finding out he’s not alone in the multiverse, he becomes wholly, truly alone in his own—a man with no connections to anybody. But that’s the spell that Strange concocts that saves everything.
And it’s all the fault of MIT, which wouldn’t give these kids a fair chance at the beginning.
No. Well, kinda. But it's mostly the fault of Aunt May and her dumbshit argument. I’m sorry she’s dead, but she almost destroyed the fabric of the universe. Instead, she merely ruined Peter’s life forever.
Easy way home
OK, some mop-up stuff.
I’m curious if it’s just our universe that forgets Peter Parker or if it’s all the universes. Does Tobey Maguire go back and Kirsten Dunst is all “Who are you? Get the hell out of my apartment!” And if she does that, can’t he just point to the mantle and say, “I’m the guy in all those photos with you.”
That’s another thing: Does Strange’s final spell also destroy the historical record—newspaper headlines and YouTube videos and tweets and Tik-Toks and Flash Thompson’s self-aggrandizing book? Think about it: For a time, Peter was the most famous man on the planet. So either people can’t see that part of the historical record anymore, or a lot of the historical record has been expunged. And if neither of those, won’t people come across it and go, “What’s this ‘Peter Parker is Spider-Man’ video? Who’s Peter Parker? Hey MJ, you see all these photos of you with a guy named Peter Parker who’s supposed to be Spider-Man?”
It is interesting to think that Holland’s Spidey never had an Uncle Ben tragedy. He was introed in, what, “Captain America: Civil War,” back in 2016, with Tony Stark showing up at their pad in Queens, and I’d assumed, and I assume everyone assumed, that they’d just skipped over the whole Uncle Ben tragedy, since we’d already seen it in 2002 and 2012. No need to revisit. But it never happened. Which means his raison d’etre never happened.
God, the ways Hollywood screwed up the Uncle Ben tragedy—surely the most poignant of all superhero origin stories. In the original, they actually improved upon it, making Peter’s refusal to stop the thief who would later kill Uncle Ben not the act of a selfish jerk—as it was in Amazing Fantasy #15—but a tit-for-tat. Peter gets to throw the crooked wrestling promoter’s line back at him: “I missed the part where that’s my problem.” We laugh. He’s us here. Thus when the horrible lesson is imparted, it’s imparted to us, too. But in “3,” they blow it completely, saying that the petty thief didn’t even kill Uncle Ben; Flint Marko did. Peter never could have stopped it, so he has no reason to feel guilty about it, so he has no reason to do good and fight crime. It’s as if Bruce Wayne found out his parents died of heart attacks. Guess I’ll become a doctor then.
And in the 2012 version? Pete never avenges Uncle Ben’s death. He never gets the guy. He gets distracted. The movie gets distracted.
And now no Uncle Ben at all. Did May never marry? Maybe not. She was too busy saving the world.
Kudos, by the way, to J.K. Simmons. I know, they included his J.J.J. in this universe before they figured out the whole multiverse angle, but he’s still the only actor to play the same role in more than one universe. An Oscar’s a No Prize next to that.
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is certainly acclaimed. On Rotten Tomatoes it’s got a 93% critics rating and a 98% audience score. And even though it was released in the midst of Omicron part of the pandemic, it opened in the U.S. at $260 million (2nd all-time), grossed $804 million (3rd all-time), and earned $1.9 billion at the global box office (6th all-time). It’s the biggest movie of the 2020s. By far. It’s inventive and panoramic and a helluva roller coaster ride.
But the title is a lie. There was actually a very easy way home. You just had to let Doctor Strange do his job.
Saturday May 14, 2022
Sid Gillman and Me
Sid Gillman in 1981
Joe Posnanski is counting down his top 101 football players—to go along with his top 100 baseball players—and two months ago he landed on his No. 46 pick, Lance Alworth, who should be there for his name alone but of course has some pretty impressive stats. His career was ending about the time I began to watch the NFL, but I remember the reverence with which he was spoken.
Some of Poz's piece talks up Alworth's Chargers coach, Sid Gillman, who remade the NFL by focusing on the passing game. He was also one of the first coaches to buy his own movie projector (for $15) and use it to watch football film; to figure out what should and shouldn't be done. Poz adds this story:
In 1991, when Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmermann went to see the master, he found Gillman in a dark room watching film, even though he was 80 and no longer coaching.
“Sometimes,” Gillman said, “I think, Why am I doing this? I'm almost 80 years old. Why am I evaluating these quarterbacks?” And then, after letting the thought sink in, he would say, “Well, why not? What else would I be doing?”
I was never a football player and stopped watching the NFL seriously after 1980, so it's odd seeing a sliver of myself in such a legend—a coach who reinvented the most popular sport in America. But there I am. Why am I doing this? I'm almost 60 years old ... Well, why not? What else would I be doing? That's probably most of us at the end of the day.
Friday May 13, 2022
My Voyage to Italy: Bonnie and Clyde at the Tollbooth
The idea was to stay in an agriturismo, an old stone farmhouse converted for tourism, in a small town in Tuscany, and from there spend a week visiting the neighboring hill towns: Montepulciano, Pienza, Arezzo, Cortona. That, it was decided, would be a good European intro for the niece and her boyfriend, who'd never been off the continent.
There would be six of us, in all, and Italian cars are not that big, so we'd need two drivers. Alex, my wife's brother, would be one. Was I comfortable being the other?
Of course, I said.
That was months before we went, when it was all a vague, fun, future thing; when I knew I'd learn some Italian; when I was totally on top of things and the master of my domain.
And then I showed up at Amerigo Vespucci Airport in Florence not speaking a word of Italian, running on maybe one or two hours of fitful airplane sleep, and feeling nauseous from breathing my own masked fumes for 20 hours straight. My wife was there to greet me. She'd just spent two weeks hiking through southern France and knew the whole layout and was enthusiastic. This is where we wait for a cab, she said. So we waited. For five minutes. Until a helpful cabbie told us, no, it's around the corner.
From there we took a cab to a Hertz rental place 0.7 miles from the airport rather than the Hertz at the airport, since, I'd determined a month earlier, in my master of my domain phase, that it was much, much cheaper. Except there was no Hertz 0.7 miles from the airport; there was just an IKEA. After some backseat cursing, in defeat, we had the cabbie drive us to the Hertz at the airport, where we explained the problem.
Oh, there's a Hertz there, we were told. It's inside the IKEA.
Of course there is.
We eventually got our car, a Clio, a cute hybrid so quiet I couldn't tell when it was running, and we set off for the agriturismo in Rapale, a small village 90 minutes south of Florence. Well, “set off.” It took a bit to navigate ourselves out of the area. We went in a few circles. But eventually we got off the busy, narrow, Florentine streets and onto a highway of some kind. But what was that string of booths we just passed? Wasn't it like toll booths? Except I chose the path of least resistance and just drove through them. That wasn't a mistake, was it?
A short time later, navigating via Google Maps, we got off this highway, which, yes, turned out to be a toll road, and now we were at a booth with its arm down and we didn't know what to do. And since we spoke zero Italian, we didn't know what it was asking us for. Money, no doubt. Do we try a credit card? Patricia said she had euros. Give me five euros, I said, and fed that in. Nothing. We tried another five. Nothing. Now we're panicking. Patricia got out and asked the car behind us what we needed to do. “You need to give it the ticket,” she was told. The ticket, it turned out, was the thing I didn't stop for.
Around the same time Patricia spotted an employee at a booth several lanes over and made a beeline for him, the machine we were at suddenly spewed out a long piece of paper. For all I know it was a summons but I assumed it was a receipt of some kind. I stared it, looked at Patricia several lanes over, looked at the passenger side door, still wide open, and said to myself, “Don't take it. If you take it, the gate barrier will go up, and you'll have to drive through without Patricia. So don't take it. Wait. Don't take it. Wait.”
And then my mind wandered and I took it.
And the gate barrier went up.
Cursing, I yelled Patricia's name, and inched forward, being careful not to bang the passenger-side door against anything. I reached over to try to pull it shut but couldn't. I yelled Patricia's name again.
Finally she heard me, saw me, gushed thanks to the booth attendant that was walking over with her, jumped into the open passenger-side door. And we sped out of there, the most incompetent Bonnie and Clyde team ever.
And that was the first hour of my vacation in Italy.
Wednesday May 11, 2022
Quote of the Day
“The analysts who keep flogging Biden for his inability to pass more ambitious legislation through Rooseveltian persuasion and Johnsonian party discipline tend to ignore the fact that F.D.R. and L.B.J. enjoyed immense congressional majorities. Biden has Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. His stimulus bill, a significant achievement, attracted zero Republican support. The members of the political class of the G.O.P., with rare exceptions, have determined that their voters are with Trump, and so they must be, too. These men and women have all the political independence and moral courage of the trembling members of Putin's national-security council. They have traded the principles of a liberal democracy for a job.”
-- David Remnick, “A Role Model for the Midterms,” The New Yorker
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