Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Original Common Freshman Text: David Letterman and My Generation

Early in my freshman year of college, a couple of us decided that we would make Thursday nights Letterman night.  (This was right around the time NBC began to own Thursdays but had not yet come into full control of it.)  At about midnight, we'd more or less commander one of the upper floor lounges in our dorm (I lived in a high-rise, known as Tower B), bring the cheap pizza and pepsi that had been delivered to  the main desk, and settle in to watch Late Night.  We chose Thursday because that was Viewer Mail night.  After a few weeks, the numbers swelled, until one night I showed up and the lounge was packed.

(For those of you my kids' age: we didn't have tv's in our pockets, and we couldn't just push a few buttons and watch whatever/whenever we felt like. Though many of us had VCRs at home, few of us took them with us to the dorms, so if there was something we'd want to watch, we'd have to wait until the network actually broadcast it for us.) 

As the guests came around for one final farewell for Dave these past few weeks, I was particularly struck by the appearances of two guys who are basically my age: Norm Macdonald and Adam Sandler.  I'm not especially a fan of either of them, but that's not my point anyway. What struck me was not so much what they did (Sandler's song was cute, and Macdonald's standup tribute -- telling a joke from Letterman's standup material he remembered seeing when he was a teenager -- was amusing) as much as it was the evident display of appreciation and admiration they had for Dave.  But even to refer to that display of affection is not quite accurate.  It was a realization for me of what Letterman means to people from my demographic, born in the late sixties.  (Macdonald was born in '63, but I'll let that go for the moment.)

I think that Letterman is more important for us than for any other generation that came afterward.  I tread very dangerously on the path of narcissism akin to that of the Boomers -- no generation has ever been more full of self-importance, even in this Age of Kardashian -- but here's what I mean.  My demographic were teenagers when Late Night began.   At that age, we begin to fully define our identities, distinguishing ourselves from our parents, staking out a territory that belongs to us. (Unlike most animals that mark their own territory by pissing on it, we mark ours by pissing on Mom and Dad's.) We took to Dave because we'd never seen anything like it.  (We didn't have YouTube to remind us that before there was the Rice Krispies suit, there was Steve Allen's "human tea-bag." Don't let us old folks tell ya we knew our history better'n you kids.)  It wasn't just idle chit-chat between host and movie- or book-plugging guest. It was a guy who showed you how stupid the world could be, and how even more stupid show-biz was.  It was dropping stuff off the roof.  It was absurdist interventions from a Guy Under The Seats. It was Brother Theodore and Kamarr the Discount Magician.  It was Larry Bud Melman as Roy Orbison.  It was Prancing Fluids and Monkey-cams.  It was Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler. It was the G.E. handshake. It was heckling Bryant Gumbel.  It was Jane Pauley on helium during the custom-made show.  It's Dr. Ruth talking about cucumbers and making the host walk off the set, leaving the musical director to finish the show. And it was musical acts whose records you actually owned. 

Yes,  the late-night Jimmys grew up with all of that, too.  But people my age are just old enough to remember the world before Dave.  It wasn't a totally terrible place.  Johnny was a genius, let's not forget that, and the comics he brought out -- including Dave -- were great talents.  Dave didn't really bring us a vastly different world (at least, at first); he simply showed us that there was another way of looking at it.  By the time the next generation of talents came along, those were kids who'd always lived in Dave's world.  It's the difference between treating television as a new, transformative box, and treating it as just another appliance.  Veteran comedian Mort Sahl -- who never was part of the mainstream, but an influential genius nonetheless -- said it best when he explained Letterman's genius to Bob Costas: Letterman told us that this whole show-biz/celebrity thing is completely disposable and pointless, and even though I'm benefiting from it, that also is absurd.   In many ways, his show is a twisted response to Catcher in the Rye -- a novel I didn't read in high school, having sat through enough book reports and Billy Wilder movies to know its message -- but instead of the spoiled, "urbane"cynical child-hero, we have a midwestern kid with a public school education wearing a suit of alka-seltzer and trying very hard to give away a stereo tv to a guy in Lancaster, PA who probably thought it was a prank call.

In adolescence -- which, scientists are discovering, really lasts from the teen years to the mid-twenties (mid-fifties for Congressmen) -- our brains are rapidly re-wiring themselves as they prepare for adulthood, and our lives are felt and lived more intensely than they ever will be, and the culture we consume becomes the culture that remains lodged in our brains longest.  And there is where David Letterman's importance lies for me and all the members of the classes of 84-90, especially those who ended up in show-biz: it's not just that Dave gave them a place to show off their skills, but that their very sensibilities were informed greatly by the sensibility of Letterman's show.  (For better and for worse, I suppose, we are Dave's Children.)   He was for us what Steve Allen was for him.  

Because the way we consume television is so different from what it was when I was a freshman in college, I doubt very much that any one talk show host will capture the consciousness of such a large number of people.  As Dave's run neared its end on NBC, there were many different people getting late-night talk shows; cable and satellite exploded in the post-deregulation era; and now with people no longer tied to any set time frame to watch tv, even the term "late night" means nothing.  Those who attempt to carry his mantel will grab eyeballs in all sorts of different places, but they will not necessarily inspire people to go a public place like a dorm room lounge at the same time once a week to declare their loyalty and identity.  For me, it really was a Late-Night World.  Goodbye, Dave. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Leonard Nimoy

It's been two weeks since Leonard Nimoy died, and given his state of health in recent months, the only thing surprising about his passing is that the news of his death didn't break the internet. If ever there was a patron saint of Geekdom, Nimoy, or rather, his famous alter-ego, was it.  

The appeal of the half-Vulcan, half-human Spock owes much to Nimoy's portrayal of him.  There are numerous stories of the specific things he brought to the character, most famously the "Live Long And Prosper" salute and the neck pinch, but he also brought a willingness to work with what the writers and producers gave him.  Early in the first season of Star Trek, he was presented with a script written by Dorothy Fontana (who once had been Gene Roddenberry's secretary, by the way, a common circumstance for women in creative fields in the fifties and sixties).  In it, Spock was to fall in love. Nimoy was stunned at first, as he was still trying to get a grasp on the character; in the then-unseeen pilot episode from 1965 called "The Cage" and in the second pilot from 1966 "Where No Man Has Gone Before," Spock does quite a bit of yelling as he gives out orders.  Even in the first aired episode, "The Man Trap," Spock is excitable and aggressive, attacking the "salt vampire" at the episode's climax. That aspect of the personality had been toned down, for the cooler, logical character we came to know.  And now, here comes another wrinkle, as Spock is to be affected by spores that will allow him to express happy emotions and feel love for a woman who had loved him once before and never got over him.   But as written by Fontana, Spock's transformation is wonderfully treated, and Nimoy delivers a great performance (though the moment of transformation itself is a bit over the top, courtesy of the score used). 

Is there luck involved in all this? Sure?  Trek was initially produced by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's Desilu Productions; their other great drama program from the same era was Bruce Geller's spy series Mission:Impossible.  One of its stars was Martin Landau, who had also auditioned for the part of Spock.  Can you imagine Landau in the role?  As gifted as he is, I think Landau's acting was often intense, florid, in appropriate for the part.  (Could he play a cool customer? Yes, especially in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors. But his gifts generally lay elsewhere.)  The reverse is also the case; when Landau and his wife Barbara Bain walked away from the series in a contract dispute, Nimoy stepped in (Trek's run was shorter than Mission's) to play a new master of disguises, and while he was fun, it was not the same.   Nimoy's Spock was perfect for television, cool, like the medium he worked in. 

I go back to McLuhan's definition of tv as a cool medium because indeed, Spock's character was one that we could also "fill in," bringing our own feelings and desires on him.  Spock was cool on screen in the way the Kennedy was cool and Nixon was not (until he learned how to be).  Plus, the character suggested endless possiblities, as writers of Trek fan fiction will tell you.  Because he was an alien, because he had the pointed ears, and because Nimoy was tall, Spock always drew your attention, even though it was Bill Shatner's Kirk in the big chair in the center of the frame.  We've seen characters similar to Kirk before, as great as that character is (and yes, as great as Shatner was as him -- yes WE all MAKE fun OF him AND his draMATic STYLE, but IT'S part OF its uh-PEEL). Spock was something else. 

For teenagers, "something else" was important.  Spock is an alien among humans, which is what it feels like to be fourteen (except that the fourteen year olds usually get to go overboard with their emotions).   Spock was an idealized being because of his intelligence and his great strength; teenagers are beginning to feel their power, yet don't have a handle on how to rain it in.  Spock could show them how, though sometimes in tragic ways. (There have been a few stories of youths who have committed suicide because they tried to imitate Spock's lack of emotional expression, but failed.)   As Spock's human mother, Amanda, once explained to Kirk, it's never been easy, being neither human nor Vulcan, "at home nowhere."  That's a pretty damn good description of adolescence: you're not a kid, but you're no adult either. 

The world that Gene Roddenberry created with Star Trek has had an enormous reach; the fandom of the series still amazes me. (I've been only to one convention.)  Those early fans who organized the events were passionate about the series, and they were able to raise money to bring the cast together to talk about their work; it was the beginning of a relationship between tv stars and the public that has helped them to connect more. (This has had both positive and negative consequences, yes.)  Nimoy spent years trying to draw a line between himself and Spock, but remained in awe of the devotion of the fans.  In the seventies, Paramount had tried to launch a new network with a revamped Trek as its flagship series, but when the money fell through, decided to try and make some films.  Nimoy was a bit reticent to do it, the first film did well enough (despite weak reviews) to warrant a second, and of course that film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is still held as the apex of the old cast's movies. 

Again, Nimoy took a chance. He didn't want to keep appearing in the films, so new producer Harve Bennett said, let's kill him off! I don't think I need to remind the fans of those final scenes ; they are moving and beautiful, as hurt as we all felt at watching this icon die.  (For the record, I'm a pro-bagpipes guy.)  But then, Nimoy turned to Bennett at the wrap party and said, I can't wait to do Star Trek III! Since Spock was dead, Bennett decided to give Nimoy a chance to direct; Nimoy also directed the fourth film, "the one with the whales" (as non-fans know it), with much success.  (Compare those two films with the fifth, which Shatner directed, if you dare.) 

Nimoy didn't get behind the camera much after that, though Three Men and a Baby was a surprise hit.  He did do a lot of theater work throughout his career, and you can hear his voice reading more than a few short stories as part of public radio's great Selected Shorts series, which often films at the theater named after him at Symphony Space in New York.  He was a great patron of the arts as much as he was an arts-worker.  And I haven't even mentioned his photography!   or the series of unexplained phenomena he hosted in the seventies, In Search Of ! (I loved that series, and I found the DVD boxed set at Costco a few months ago!)

I hope that as he neared the end of his life, Nimoy could fully grasp how many lives he touched by his work, as Spock and beyond Spock.  It is a richer world because he was here.  (My way of giving the salute with words.)  

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Film Friday: Otis Redding Shakes Monterey

Ages ago, I was a grad assistant for the late documentary film maker and teacher George C. Stoney, a genial Irish-American who taught an introductory lecture course simply called "Documentary Traditions."  It was really two courses; every fall he'd show films organized thematically, but every spring, he'd bring in guests every week, his friends in the biz to talk about their experiences and to show their work.  There was a certain rotation of people, obviously, since scheduling is not always so easy, but one regular was D.A. Pennebaker, famous chronicler of Bob Dylan's 1965 U.K tour and the Monterey Pop Festival, among many other great documentaries.  Sometime in about February or March of 93 -- I wasn't assisting George yet --  Pennebaker brought with him a rough cut of a film he was still working on about the Bill Clinton campaign.  Yep: about sixty students got to see The War Room before it was released and went on to be hailed as a classic (and made media darlings of James Carville and George Stephanapoulos).  

The role of the grad assistant for the course was not too hard; it mainly consisted of grading journals and some papers at the end of the term, and if necessary, going to the filmmakers' places to pick up prints of film.  Sometimes that involved carrying the heavy, octagon-shaped metal cans holding reels of 35mm film. (Here's a pic:)

And so it often was for the assistant who went to Pennebaker-Hedgedus Films uptown.  He'd also bring stuff on video or 16mm, on occasion. 

He brought a bunch of things to share the time I carried them cans.  He showed a short profile film about the quirky singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, whom I totally developed a crush on afterward. (Williams is the founder of the Sweet Relief fund for ailing musicians; Williams herself was diagnosed with MS, and indeed Pennebaker showed a video he made for a Williams tribute album that had been released to promote and support the fund.)  At Stoney's request, he showed (from them 35mm cans I carried) his great film whose title tells you what he captured, Original Cast Album: Company, made in 1970.  I'd never been a fan of Sondheim, but whatever respect I have for his work today stems from watching this fine cast (featuring the great Elaine Stritch struggling to get "Ladies Who Lunch," only to just strike gold the next day). 

But the film I have carried with me since was the short that if memory serves was also on 35mm. Pennebaker and his wife Chris Hedgedus and his son Frazier had been for a many years going back over the footage shot for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.  (Eventually a lot of the stuff was released by Criterion Collection.)  In the late eighties, Pennebaker released two shorts that featured the entire sets of two of the most famous performances from the festival, Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding.  The two had long been linked since the audio recordings had been compiled as a single LP back in the early seventies.   Pennebaker brought Shake! Otis at Monterey to class.  I told the students that they had to write in their journals that it was the greatest movie they saw all term.  There were more than a few great ones I saw in the class, but this was it

I am always amazed at how in the early days of these festivals the camera crews were able to get great footage of the night-time performances when lighting was not always film-friendly (nor consistent).  Pennebaker uses the lights from in front of the stage, shooting from behind Redding at times, or shooting him from the side, creating these momentary silhouettes before the audience gets hit by the light.  He also has a few quick cuts up his sleeve, notably during Otis's ferocious version of the Stones' "Satisfaction" (whose famous riff the Stones recorded as Keith's version of the Memphis horns).  He also plays up the psychedelia, showing off the "coool" designs being projected on the stage behind drummer Al Jackson. 

Pennebaker told a story that Redding's people didn't want him to play Monterey.  They saw it as a dumb hippie fest, and, well, they were right, but Otis apparently didn't care.  He just wanted to play and hang out and smoke a little weed and entertain what he called on stage "the Love Crowd."  He knew how to play to any audience, any size.  (He also used the Bay Area as the setting for his swan song, the contemplative "Dock of the Bay.")   And God, he played that crowd. 

Redding sang five songs in about 18 minutes.  He opened with his punishing cover  of his idol Sam Cooke's "Shake," and over the first chorus, Pennebaker brings out the title credit: SHAKE!! He's got the crowd screaming.  None of the California acts -- northern or southern -- generate that kind of energy.  (The best acts were the outsiders, really: Janis of course, the Who, and Jimi, and even Eric Burdon, with his wild version of the Stones' "Paint it, Black" -- they all played with great energy and passion. Of course Paul and Artie didn't exactly shake things up.)   He then tells the crowd that a "good friend" of his "took" this song he recorded, "she took it..." he says breathlessly.  Is he breathless from the song he just sang, or from thinking about what Aretha Franklin did with his modest hit "Respect"?  Whatever the case, he says, "I'm still gonna do it anyway" -- it's a great performance, though you can't say he takes it fully back from Aretha. 

He slows the tempo down for "I've Been Loving You Too Long," a pleading ballad that builds to a fabulous climax; here Otis stops several times, turning to Al Jackson and telling him, "play that part one more time" -- and the band does.  "one more time--  ONE MORE TIME -- and he moves with the short break, getting more and more outlandish, yes, heading into James Brown territory emotionally but remaining on Redding's turf.  and the camera is perfectly placed behind Redding but in front of Jackson, so you can't see Al's reaction, but you feel it -- thanks to the lights that keep coming and going out of your view by Redding's head-bobbing.  The bit with Jackson is the usual thing they do on this song, but it feels so damn fresh, as it surely was for the Monterey crowd. 

After "Satisfaction," he takes on the standard that Sam Cooke also recorded, that Otis had resisted recording for a long time, but when he did, he took it to the stratosphere: "Try a Little Tenderness."  It's the one disappointment, the cameras had run out of film early in the song and magazines were being changed during most of it, so Pennebaker gives us a montage of the many young women the crews photographed during the festival. (You'll see a cute shot of Mama Cass Elliott early on.)  It's an interesting if perhaps sexist time capsule of what the scene was like.  Fortunately the cameras are back on just as Otis turns up the heat and Jackson picks up the tempo -- "GOT-ta GOT-ta GOT-ta have! Try a little TEN-derness...!" as Duck Dunn thumps his bass guitar and the unseen horns blast away. (Guitarist Steve Cropper -- who co-wrote "Dock of the Bay" with Redding -- can also be seen a lot in the film  Missing from the screen is the keyboard player, Booker T. Jones.  Those four men -- Jones, Jackson, Cropper, and Dunn -- were of course Booker T. and the MGs, the world's greatest backup band.) 

We are quite fortunate to have a chronicler like Pennebaker, and I haven't spent enough time noting his ability to get such great close up shots and remain unobtrusive to the performers, or his interesting editing choices he's made in his films.  But if that's the case, it's because Otis has such charisma on the stage, that you are overwhelmed. 

This is a so-so copy of the whole thing, but you can easily find most of the individual songs in better quality.  Or, just go pay the big bucks down to get the Criterion "Complete" Monterey Pop Festival 3-Disc set.  Shake! is worth it. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Film Friday: The Limitation Game

Having written recently about a film based on a true story (American Sniper), a story that I knew little of prior to the film, I find myself in a similar position this week.  Alan Turing’s name was a bit more familiar to me than Chris Kyle’s was, since he had made important contributions in the fields of mathematics and artificial intelligence. (“Turing machine” was the name given to describe, theoretically, machines that would eventually become known as computers, and the “Turing test” was an indirect inspiration for the “Voight-Kampff” test used by Philip K. Dick’s hero Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, filmed by Ridley Scott under the more familiar name Blade Runner.)   The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum (the Norwegian’s first English-language film) is not the first film about the work done at Bletchley Park; Enigma (Michael Apted, 2001), is a dramatic account of those events, based on a novel by Robert Harris. (The screenplay was Tom Stoppard’s.)  And I knew something of these machines as a tourist, visiting places like the Spy Museum in DC.  I also knew that Turing was charged with the then-crime of homosexuality and that it led to his early death by suicide. But all this just means that I knew a wee bit more about Alan Turin than I did about Chris Kyle. 
While The Imitation Game is based on a biography of Turing, it very clearly utilizes the persona of Benedict Cumberbatch – apparently himself a distant relative of Turing – that he has cultivated with the enormous success of the BBC Sherlock.  That persona is a man of great intellectual gift but poor social skills.  There is more than a touch of Sherlock in the Turing we see in the first few scenes of the film; he heads to Bletchley Park with a good deal of confidence that he can be of help to the military, even though the entire efforts to break the Enigma code are top secret – so secret that there is an entire MI division that no one knows about that’s recruiting select brains to crack the code. Turing is initially part of a team, but he resolutely works on his own, and when his demands for funds for a machine to crack Enigma are turned down, he writes to Downing Street  -- and not only gets his money, but gets the authority to head the project, which allows him to fire some of the team. 
Unlike Sherlock, however, we see Turing’s social awkwardness in a much more painful light, courtesy of childhood flashbacks which show a young Turing having symptoms of OCD and getting bullied because of it.  He manages to gain the sympathy of one friend, Christopher, who will introduce him to the world of cryptography.   Christopher becomes the name of the machine Turing devises to try cracking Enigma; it’s easy enough to see that Alan was in love with Christopher, whose sexuality is never revealed, since he died not too long after the friendship with Alan was struck (due to a long fight with tuberculosis – this death is not revealed in the film until near its end). 
Christopher has a parallel character in Joan Clarke, the sole woman on the Enigma team, whose story has remained largely obscured in the efforts to honor Turing as a compensation for his mistreatment by a set of rules that no longer exist.  It is Clarke who helps Turing find some way of making at least civil connections with the other men on the team, and this pays dividends when they stand up to the Naval officer who threatens to pull the plug (yes, literally, really) on the machine.  Despite an engaging performance by Keira Knightley, the role is pretty clichéd – the Woman Behind the Great Man.   Turing’s marriage proposal – however complex it might have felt for Turing in real life – is presented here as a blatant pretext to keep Clarke on the project instead of going back to London to her parents (who disapprove of their unmarried daughter living far away from them). 
The film’s editing shifts among three distinct time frames:  Turing’s friendship with Christopher, the Enigma project, and a present-day (1951) investigation of a break-in at Turing’s home that leads to charges of indecency being brought against Turing, then a respected university professor.  This investigation provides the frame story, giving Turing a chance to explain to the lead detective what he really did during the war – effective if shopworn as a dramatic device.   Sometimes titles tell us where we are; sometimes not, though their placement seems haphazard.  For a film that has as its central drama the race against time, The Imitation Game certainly presents that race a bit sloppily. 
The theme of the film is secrecy – and perhaps the drawing of the line between secrecy and privacy.  Turing confesses to one of his co-workers, John Cairncross, that, despite his engagement to Joan, he’s gay.  But Cairncross himself is carrying his own secret, that he’s a Soviet spy.  (Perhaps that’s why he’s so calm when hearing Turing’s confession.)   Turing has to lie to Joan’s parents about the kind of work she’s being asked to do at Bletchley Park.  And the MI6 commander has a few secrets up his sleeve too (including the destruction of pretty much everything connected with the project after the war’s end).  Indeed, when the machine finally breaks the Enigma code – in one of the film’s most satisfying if obvious moments – Turing realizes that they will have to selectively use the information they gain by cracking the code in order to keep the Germans from realizing that it has been cracked.   I suppose it makes perfect sense that a closeted homosexual math genius would be the one to play such a central part in cracking one of the most complicated intellectual secrets of the 20th century.  Which is another way of stating the film’s feel-good message, repeated by Christopher, and echoed, through Turing, by Joan in the film’s final moments, as Turing has opted for “chemical castration” as an alternative to prison time. 
The film’s strengths lie with the cast; despite being given some pretty typical roles, the actors who are on the team give their characters a decent amount of depth.  We sense their frustration as the end of a 24 hour period means the wasting of a day’s work on Engima (which resets every 24 hours, which is why there were so many combinations possible), but we also feel their agony when they discover that knowing the code doesn’t mean immediate victory.  Cumberbatch is particularly good as Turing, showing the shifting moods and perceptions of the professor who doesn’t think much of war, but becomes a crucial strategist once the code is broken, and who dislikes the various double-cross games British military intelligence is playing.  Especially noticeable is Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander, Turing’s quasi-rival, and Rory Kinnear holds up well in the limited role of the detective trying to get at Turing’s military record and coming up against literal blanks.  The story it tells is compelling, though it must rely on closing titles to tell us what the Enigma code-cracking meant in terms of helping the allied forces win the war.   And because it is a British production, it has that classic sheen of the historical drama, that makes it rise above the sentiment of an After School Special, even though that’s at heart what it is.  Also, dramatizing the cracking of Enigma makes for much more compelling drama than debating the intelligence of machines.  (Save that for the next Transformers movie.  I’m kidding.) 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Film Friday: Juno and the Previa

In a discussion of Jason Reitman's 2007 film Juno, I decided to address, briefly, issues of class in the film.  And for me, that meant talking about this:

The MacGuff family car, a Totoya Previa, circa 1992. 

I always tell my writing students: you don't just drive a "car," you drive a _____, and you have to fill in that blank with at least the make(r) of your car.  Mercedes-Benz suggests one socioeconomic position; Yugo suggests another.  Likewise Maserati and Mustang. 

When watching the film for a second time in a week, I began to reflect: when was the last year Toyota even sold Previas in the U.S. (or at least, that version of it)?  The answer: 1997.  Assuming Juno to be a contemporary film, that means that Juno's family has a car that's at least ten years old, and probably closer to fifteen.  That tells an audience much about the family's economic circumstances; the Previa looks out of place as it pulls in front of the "McMansion" (thanks, Dave Monahan, for that term) where the prospective adoptive parents of Juno's unborn child live. 

While Juno's dad and stepmom run their own businesses, they are very small operations; they are really working-class, though the film is at some pains to give them a middle-class sensibility, which is to be expected in most American films.  They seem a lot more articulate and witty than, say, working-class characters in British films (even those written by the Angry Young Men of the fifties and sixties). We sympathize with them, especially as we begin to get to know them apart from Juno's perspective.  (At first, Brenda, her stepmom, is a figure of ridicule, but when Bren confronts the sonogram tech who speaks condescendingly about Juno's situation, she pulls no punches in defending her "dumbass stepdaughter" and even goes so far as to suggest the tech go back to school and get a "real job.")  

They are contrasted with Mark and Vanessa, the clean-cut yuppie couple whose house is meticulously ordered in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of the Burnham home in American Beauty.   We are supposed to feel a little superior to them, despite their wealth.  They are eager and mostly serious, where Juno and her dad are not.  When Vanessa asks, "did you ever feel like you were born for something," Juno's dad mock-agrees, saying "cleaning H-VACs."  He's got a level of class-consciousness that few of his position ever really get, or rather, he knows that life is pretty much a crapshoot and that you do what you can with the cards you get.

As the film goes on, we begin to feel less and less dismissive of Vanessa, and we have to re-think our opinions of Mark when he decides he's not ready to be a parent and wants to leave Vanessa and try once again to make it as a "real" musician instead of the hack-jingle writer he's become in order to pay for the McMansion.  (Of course the film posits the "really cool" music Juno and Mark both like, along with the equally cool soundtrack, against the jingle work, without acknowledging that a pop song is in and of itself an advertisement, one that says, "BUY THIS RECORD! GO SEE THIS ACT!" This irony is missed.) 

But again, since the film is about Juno -- hence the title -- and much of the narrative is her point of view, we don't really pay much attention to the economics of single motherhood that Vanessa is about to embark upon, as she agrees to continue with the adoption without Mark.  The film doesn't address the question of Vanessa's financial circumstances; we don't know if she'll have to sell the house and move into Juno's neighborhood, but it seems unlikely.  There's no consideration of the economic impact a separation is going to cause -- divorce is expensive and only the lawyers profit by it.   Will she have a nanny, or daycare, or will she work from her home? None of that is relevant to the film's ending, because once Juno gives up the baby,  she more or less returns to the concerns of being 16, even as she has learned quite a lot about life and relationships during the course of the pregnancy.

Juno could have tried harder to give us some insights into class, and in fact there are those subtle signs.  But its script and direction have other concerns. Maybe that's why we don't see the Previa at the end, after its served its final purpose of getting Juno to the hospital in time.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Film Friday: American Sniper

Our Hero is a devout Christian, who has found a means of reconciling his faith with his role as a gifted marksman, serving his country in a war of questionable morality.  He’s a bit uncomfortable with the fame that greets him when he comes home, but his conscience is clean regarding what he did with his marksmanship.  And Cooper, the actor who plays him, gives a terrific, Oscar-winning performance.  

No, I’m not being premature.   I’m talking about Sgt. York, Howard Hawks’ great biopic of the World War I hero Alvin York, played famously by Gary Cooper. 

It may be that Bradley Cooper wins the Oscar playing Chris Kyle for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, and I’ll say that he really did a remarkable transformation to play the part of this Navy SEAL recognized as one of the most successful marksmen in U.S. history.  I knew Cooper was playing the part, and still I didn’t believe it when we first meet him. 

But Chris Kyle is not Alvin York.  York resisted going to war, applying for Conscientious Objector status.   (After serving in the army during the war – he was drafted – he denied that he had ever claimed such a status.)  Kyle’s beliefs are clearly formed early in his childhood, and those beliefs propel him to joining the SEALs after the terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. 

American Sniper has done very well so far at the box office, and it has also caused a good deal of discussion because of its politics.   I walked out of the theater – on Martin Luther King Jr Day, of all holidays – feeling a sense of sadness about and for Kyle, whose life was tragically ended at home, allegedly at the hands of a troubled vet whom he’d tried to help.  I also felt that there was much missing in the film that might have made me connect more with Kyle; his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) tells us, in the last scene, that he’s made a major change since finally staying home and not going back to the war zone, but we hardly see that change itself.   Given the overwhelming amount of screen time devoted to four tours of duty in Iraq, something had to get short-changed, I suppose.  (Hawks’ film takes quite a while to get its hero to the European battlefield. Eastwood starts us there, and flashes back to Kyle’s past for about fifteen minutes.) 

The artistic choices made are intertwined not only with the tragic conclusion to Kyle’s life – Cooper was preparing for the role when Kyle was killed, giving Eastwood a different ending than he might have planned – but with the political and moral vision of those involved in the film’s making, including Kyle, who was credited as an associate producer of the film.  The film is based on Kyle’s book, a book that also received criticism for some of the questionable claims Kyle makes, particularly about his life away from Iraq.  I suppose it’s always a bit risky making a film from a nonfiction text whose authenticity is being questioned, but that’s neither here nor there for me, since I’ve not read Kyle’s book.   So when I refer to Kyle, I really mean Kyle as we see in the film, not the Kyle as he presented himself in print, or the historical person (who is also different from the other two). 

Kyle’s struggles are mainly external ones, not internal ones.  His moral vision of the world is black and white: there is evil, and evil must be defeated.  The confrontations he has on the battlefield are direct, tactical: find the insurgents and kill those who are trying to kill the marines whose lives he, as a marksman, is assigned to protect.  Some decisions are trickier, especially when children are used to launch attacks, but it doesn’t take much time for Kyle to accept killing them.  Eastwood’s battle sequences are gruesome, but not so horrific that we turn our heads.  The sense of suspense is lost, of course, given the fact that most viewers will know that Kyle does not die in combat.  Rather than simply allow an episodic structure, the film dramatizes Kyle’s tours to give us a single focal point (no pun intended): the mercenary sniper called Mustafa, whose gifts with the rifle match Kyle’s.   Mustafa’s successful kills of Kyle’s comrades provide the impetus for Kyle to return for yet one more tour; [SPOILER alert] it is after he gets his man, as a sandstorm approaches (a metaphor for the blurred lines of good/evil? Maybe, given that Kyle’s shot actually puts his team at risk since their air support is still minutes away when he fires), that he decides he’s ready to come home. 

Kyle’s commitments never really waver.  While we see some of the difficulties he has when he is stateside, in between tours, he’s up against a pretty weakly drawn set of characters:  Miller is given a set of wifespeak clichés: “even when you’re here, you’re not here” and “don’t expect us to wait for you if you go back there” (this last one is a paraphrase, sorry).   But even before their marriage, from when they meet to early on in their relationship, Taya is a straw-girl: she dismisses SEALs  as narcissistic, but still goes out with Chris; she expresses worry that their relationship won’t work but he simply tells her it will, and she accepts it.  The only thing she seems to assert in that early phase is the initial time they actually have sex. Kyle is the perfect gentleman, asking her if she’s sure she wants to.  (I could be picky about how Kyle’s religious values can make square premarital sex, but the film only uses his faith as a means of explaining how he can justify being a sniper and kill.)  In one potentially challenging scene, Taya and Chris talk after attending the funeral of one of Kyle’s comrades,  Mark, a former preacher who himself had begun to question the moral righteousness of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  His mom had read a letter that expressed her son’s growing ambivalence, and Kyle tells his wife, that letter is what got Mark killed: once you begin to think too much, or more precisely, doubt too much, you become ineffective as a soldier.  End of argument.  

Even more of a straw-man is Kyle’s kid brother, who is presented in the early flashbacks as the very weaker of the pair, and despite having joined the service, when Kyle sees his bro coming off a tour as he is going back on, he’s only slightly troubled by his brother’s obvious trauma and resentment of what he’s been through – and then we never see the brother again, nor hear about him.  Kyle is shaken for about three seconds, then it’s on to the next tour.

Do we see Kyle have difficulties adjusting to life outside the war zone? A bit.  He does get upset at a barbecue when he sees a dog being overaggressive with his kid, but in a few moments, he’s at the VA and agrees to hang with the wounded vets and help them heal.  The problem, from a dramatic point of view, is that these scenes take up so little screen time that they don’t seem as real or as relevant as the battle scenes.  And Kyle is not at all troubled by his killing people; he’s troubled that he’s no longer protecting his country by being home, and that is partly remedied in these brief moments with the wounded vets.  

As I said, this moral vision has political implications.  It means that the enemy remains distant and one-dimensional.  While Mustafa is a formidable foe, he is not a character, any more than, say, Geronimo is a character in John Ford’s Stagecoach, or the Germans in many Classical Hollywood-era films about either of the two World Wars.   We know he’s Syrian and that he’s won Olympic gold for his shooting skills, but the only thing that we see that drives him to do what he does is money, and there is a price on Kyle’s head.   What might be his moral vision? We don’t know.  The use of children to attack soldiers simply points to the lack of morality of the insurgents.  The fact that they see the U.S. military as the evil ones is not the film’s concern.   The soldiers keep the language relatively clean when talking about the enemy,  going old-Hollywood school by calling them savages a bunch of times (speaking of Stagecoach…), though  as any soldier will tell you that’s pretty tame stuff.  In war, the enemy is de-humanized; that’s how you have to train your soldiers.  Once you think of the enemy as human, you’re in trouble.  (Think of Paul, the protagonist in the famous anti-war novel by Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front.)   The bigger picture – like why the U.S. invaded Iraq in the first place – is not the concern of the film.  (Kyle claims in his book to have found WMDs, but this again is disputed.) 

Eastwood’s politics are well-known, and telling Chris Kyle’s story allows him to take certain positions that we might otherwise question as givens.    You either accept them or you don’t. But no one is going to have their own views transformed by what they see in American Sniper.  Your own ideological biases will affect how you read the film.   We could see the subtle tragedy in the horrors of war, and what it must do to the men and women who fight.  (I said “women,” because that’s the fact, but I think I recall seeing only one female soldier in the film, and not in any of the many fighting sequences.)  But we cannot really feel saddened by what Kyle has become as a soldier, because Kyle is pretty much what he is: our reactions are really our projections.  If we agree with Kyle’s dad, that there are only three types of people in the world, then we follow along and support Kyle’s missions.  The film obviously wants us to see the world from his eyes.   The force of the battle sequences, their seriousness, does not ring of the jingo-ism of older Hollywood propaganda films.  This is heavy shit, and war is not glamorized here.  But the film does tell us that however brutal it is, war is necessary (not to say a necessary evil?), and, in the final credit sequence showing images of Kyle’s memorial service, the warriors should be honored because of their willingness to do the hard tasks of defending a nation from danger.   The larger issues have to be taken up by others. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

'Twas the Night Before Christmas in Academia

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the college,
not a student was stirring, their heads full of knowledge,
the grades were all posted through the portal, with care,
in the hopes that professors were kind and were fair,

with a tablet in one hand, I sat up in bed,
and visions of theses still danced in my head,
the freshman class papers I asked to review,
would wait until next week, perhaps even two,

when up from my inbox there rose such a clatter
I turned to my tablet to see what’s the matter,
Was my little ‘puter about to go crash
Or was it a pop-up to upgrade the Flash?

Ah, the expected messages, urgent and scared,
Hoping to find a professor who cared,
The names so familiar, the desperate tweet
Begging at last for one more Incomplete,

But there were still more; inquiring faces
From adjuncts still working out plagiarism cases,
automated requests from all over the nation
Grad schools seeking letters of recommendation,

Reminders from the Dean: the schedule’s due
For the Fall semester – 2032!
Another request, from someone named “whiner,”
Who wants to declare film and media minor,

And if all that stuff wasn’t enough enjoyment,
cv’s of teachers seeking employment,
some with their master’s, some with PhD,
and some without even an English degree,

then: please go to surveymonkey, we must vote
on whether we can keep your program afloat,
I looked at my watch, it was 10:59,
I wondered, what classes we could offer on-line!

I replied, I clicked links, I said yes, I said no,
I said maybe to some, and to others “I don’t know”
Some students were sincere, others just lazy
But then I hit TILT, I was going quite crazy

I screamed at the screen: “go get you out, Johnny!
Go Jacob, Go Jimmy, Go Bertha and Bonnie!
Dash away, dash away, dash away all!”
And I threw my hot tablet against my green wall!

I woke with a start (you saw this one coming)
On my couch, with the lights of my Christmas tree humming,
The children were dressing, and getting their wish:
Christmas Eve at Grandma’s with nine courses of fish,

And turned off my tablet, not in need of repair,
And forgot the dreams of an Associate Chair,
But not before mailing my family’s cheer,
To my colleagues: happy holidays, and happy new year!