Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A wiseguy for parking?

This short post was inspired by two things:

1. Reading Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy, the famous nonfiction work that became the basis for Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas
2. Spending some time in the city this weekend, trying to win lottery tickets to see Newsies for thirty bucks. 

I was fascinated to read Henry Hill's account of all the privileges the mobsters he associated with were able to attain: front row seats at the Copa, bypassing the line at first-class restaurants, access to quality food even when in prison, etc.  The wiseguys may have hustled a lot of cons, but they did seem to live the good life. 

Me, I just want to have one perk: I'd be a wiseguy if I could park any place I wanted to in the city. Really. 

I'd like to just put my car across the street from any fine restaurant or theater and stick a tag in it, and BAM! I'm protected from tickets and tows. 

I'm pretty smart about parking, and I know where and when's a good time to park in the most crowded space in America, but there's nothing like the thrill of parking where you're not supposed to and getting away with it. 

I'm not into running numbers or selling dope, or hijacking trucks, or transporting cigarettes across state lines (which is illegal because of the differences in state taxes on them).  I just wanna park.

Sadly, I did have a friend who had a special handicapped tag that allowed her to do what I want; she could even park in places where you were not allowed ever, like in front of churches. But she suffered from MS, and has since passed on.  (I'm pretty sure the parking perks and her death were not related.)

One more thing about Henry Hill: it seems pretty clear from Pileggi's book -- let alone the life he led after the book's initial publication, when he was still in the Witness Protection Program -- that Hill had absolutely no feelings of remorse for living the life he led.  As far as he was concerned, guys like his father, who worked hard and never really got the American Dream, were suckers.  If you wanted to really get the good life, you had to be willing not only to work hard, but to work hard doing things that were not always on the level.  Hill may have had some compulsive need, even after he ratted out his buddies, to keep doing illegal things, but he clearly made many choices that he simply lived with.  (And like a lot of other wiseguys, it was never his fault; he is angry at getting caught, at those who helped him land in jail, forced to rat out his associates.)  Hill gave the impression of being a smart man to Pileggi, but he clearly had a blind side too. 

Anyway, more on this topic when I write about Goodfellas, which I'll get to eventually, as I'm showing it in my class in a coupla months.  Unless of course I'm spending some time for trying to operate a crooked parking pass scam.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ferguson: A polemic disguised as a film review

Over at Bill Simmons' Grantland magazine's web site, a fascinating review of Luke Greenfield's ill-timed comedy Let's Be Cops by Wesley Morris, one that doesn't say much about the film itself -- probably a wise thing, given how awful it appears to be -- but does an impressive job of looking at the discourse of law and order and race around which the film attempts to deliver its slapstick humor.

It's not especially easy to have a comedy out there about fake cops when there is so much uproar in this country about real ones.

Morris hits many of the current spots, notably of course the shooting death by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri and its aftermath. (Some of the violence that has taken place in Ferguson since Brown's death has occurred since Morris's review was first posted.)  Other recent incidents of black men being shot by police are also mentioned.  But Morris also goes back to the 2009 arrest of noted Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates to point out that once again, our first Black president has had to deliver a statement on race relations in America. 

The Gates incident goes to the heart of the matter, as Morris knows, that America still sees blackness as a threat.  As George Zimmerman shows us, such a matter is not just about cops.  (Frankly, the practice of policing, the choices made as to where to bust, help bring out the racially charged incidents more so that the individual racist cop, though it's easy enough to find the latter, like Justin Volpe, who shoved a broom handle into the rectum of Hatian immigrant Abner Louima while Louima was in police custody.)  It's about the easy equation pigmentally challenged Americans make about men of color and their presence in public spaces.

I find it interesting to read Morris's essay as it moves from the realm of the fictional to the realm of the real.  In a way, it makes perfect sense in our postmodern world, where a jury in L.A. could accept the argument that Rodney King beat himself up rather than draw the obvious conclusion from the infamous videotape that the cops used excessive force to restrain him.   I'm surprised Morris didn't mention the ill timing of The Watch, which was supposed to be titled Neighborhood Watch, but in the wake of Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin, the filmmakers had to change the title to avoid the negative connotation. (It didn't help.) 

Morris does go back, however, 25 years, to Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee's most important fiction film, focusing as he does on the death of Radio Raheem, which leads to a riot in Bed-Stuy.  The film was eerily prophetic in its expression of racial tension and violence that led to numerous incidents like the shooting death of Yusef Hawkins in an Italian American neighborhood in Brooklyn just weeks after Lee's film premiered.  (I wish he'd mentioned the fact that Radio Raheem's big rings marked "LOVE" and "HATE" were Lee's homage to the Charles Laughton-directed, James Agee-scripted classic The Night of the Hunter, starring Robert Mitchum as the deranged preacher who has those words tattooed across the knuckles of his hands.) 

In writing a review of a fiction film about idiots who decide to pretend to be cops, Morris shifts back and forth, almost like a Chinese puzzle box, to reveal layers of the real beneath the fantastic.  The disturbing thing  is that the more things change, the more they stay the same: a black man's life is of great significance, but only as it must be defined by those who hold the real power: politicians and pundits even above law enforcement.  Once again, the Black man is merely a cipher on which white Americans write what they want, on all sides of the political spectrum. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Film Friday: Robin Williams

Robin Williams died four days ago, and in today's "news cycle," that's a damn eternity, even as more recent revelations that he was in the early stages of Parkinson's have come out, along with unequivocal statements that he was sober at the time of his suicide.

I have remained quiet on the death of this mad genius, mainly because his death was unexpected, despite Williams' history of struggles with substance abuse.  (I was pretty quick to post something about James Garner's death, because I knew he'd been sick, and kind of knew what I was going to say before he'd died.) Williams' sudden death was something I needed to process, and still am processing.

My first thoughts were not nice ones. 

They were tied to the anger stage of grief, I suppose, though that would imply that I actually knew Williams well enough to feel grief.  (Some shrinks might say that grief is grief, but when we express grief for the death of a celebrity there has to be some sense of being at a remove, no?)  But I was thinking of another gifted actor we'd just lost too soon, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who, from my angle, threw his life away due to his heroin addiction. And I remember Williams' joke about cocaine being "God's way of telling you you have too much money," and wondered what drove this man to hang himself in despair. 

I thought of how many Americans killed themselves this week.  I don't have an answer at the moment. A quick Google search shows that 38 American soldiers committed suicide in July.  We're only talking about one American civilian.  That is to be expected in our media-saturated culture.  I have argued that in the media-world, the first person with HIV was Magic Johnson (not Arthur Ashe or Rock Hudson, both of whom died of AIDS before Magic was diagnosed as HIV-positive.), because that put the disease in a whole new frame of reference for Americans. Will Robin Williams' suicide do that for America when so many others' deaths did not (including the mass-murder suicides such as Adam Lanza, the Newtown massacre killer)?

What scares me is that Williams had so many resources at hand to fight his mental illness, and he had an awareness of his illness, unlike most Americans whose mental illnesses will go undiagnosed.  If he couldn't stop himself from suicide, what chances do those who can't afford a doctor have? I read a small article in the paper wherein a doctor suggested that the Parkinson's diagnosis probably did not  directly lead to Williams' suicide, since he was in its early stages and it would not have hampered him physically to the point where he'd have been frustrated enough.  As if someone who had never actually met the patient could be certain of this. 

As more information emerged, I began to reflect on my recent post about the relation between genius and madness; that Williams fit such a profile is not a surprise to anyone who had a copy of Reality -- What a Concept in the 1970s.  Playing Mork made perfect sense; Williams was not of this world in how he saw it. When Williams turned to film -- wrongly miscast in Robert Altman's Popeye --  he was often accused of having to "rope in" his anarchic talent, which is why he was praised so much for Good Morning, Vietnam, which allowed him to "be crazy" yet at the same time demonstrate his considerable acting talent.  (Lest we forget, the man trained at Julliard.)  

Such an assessment was never really fair, but it is true that many of his better written roles came after GMV, notably Good Will Hunting, for which he won his Oscar. (While his speech about love is probably his most remembered, the real acting came as he talked about the most famous moment in Boston Red Sox history prior to 2004, Carlton Fisk's home run in Game Six of the 1975 World Series; Williams was never a sports fan and comprehended just enough about sports to fake it for this moment.)  It was easy to sit back and enjoy Williams giving voice to the genie in Alladin, where he could pretty much go all out, but he could impress even in modulated roles like that of Dr. Oliver Sacks in Awakenings.  I actually think his performance in/as Mrs. Doubtfire is creepier than his role as the ostensibly creepy Sy in One Hour Photo.  His role in Death to Smoochy, as a fallen kiddie-show star, is wonderfully perverse, and one that has gone overlooked in all the comments and tributes I have seen.

Williams also made a lot of crappy movies, some unfunny comedies and a few overwrought dramas.  Par for the course if you stay long enough.  Was anyone watching his new sitcom?  That's not a rhetorical question or a snarky judgment; I have no idea.  Hist standup and talk show appearances are legendary, and YouTube has em all over the place.  There is a reason why Johnny Carson would ask him to be there on what would be his final "regular"-format of The Tonight Show (the last being just Carson and Ed and Doc talking about the show and saying goodbye).  He was an impossibly funny man, and like more than a few clowns, agonized inside, unable to believe in his talent, that he was good enough, like so many geniuses, unable to appreciate how special he was.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Baseball's New Commissioner: A Lesson CBS could teach him

Okay, the white smoke has appeared, and in a move that surprised no one, Bud Selig's wingman Rob Manfred has been named the next commissioner of Major League Baseball. And there have been tons of posts out there outlining the Top 5 (or 3) (or 10) (or --this is clever -- 9) (you know, since baseball games take 9 hours to finish) Things that the New Commissioner of Baseball Must Do To Save the Game.

This is not one of those posts.

I don't pretend to have a wholly original perspective here, because numerous media-heads have made one specific point of concern here: that baseball's main audience is getting old, too old to keep it relevant.  (The median age for last year's World Series was over 50. The median age for the NBA Finals was just over 40.) 

Now, you can also find a few posts which suggest that the sky is  not falling yet for MLB. Television viewership in general is getting older, and that's because until recently, Neilsen was not tracking web viewing as part of its methods of calculating viewership. Since sitting in front of the tube is becoming a bit of an outmoded way of consuming television, naturally us old folks -- I'm in my mid-forties -- are the ones less likely to use mobile devices (though I do stream on my smartTV instead of using cable).

I'm nevertheless inclined to see the glass half-empty for the sport, and this is especially the case because young folks are not rushing out to play it, let alone watch it.  Now here's a little history lesson for you.

For several generations CBS had dominated American broadcasting.  Not just television, but radio before that.  Amid the swirling cultural changes of the late sixties, CBS maintained its position on top with shows that seemed not at all to take those changes into account: Green Acres, Hee HawPetticoat Junction , Gunsmoke, Beverly Hillbillies, Gomer Pyle and Mayberry RFD (both spinoffs of The Andy Griffith Show).  All these shows enjoyed years in the top thirty, often top ten, and several of them were still highly rated when they were canceled.  By the 1971-72 season, all but Gunsmoke (an institution of a Western that started on radio) were gone.  (Hee-Haw survived through the seventies in syndication.) 

What happened?  The executives at CBS realized that they were appealing to an older, rural demographic with such programming, and that they were not gaining the desirable markets in their network-owned-and-operated stations in the big cities.  They sought a younger, urban, more educated audience, and went after it: The Mary Tyler Moore Show (debut 1970-71), All in the Family (1971-72), M*A*S*H  (1972-73), The Bob Newhart Show (1972-73).  These shows changed American television comedy, and people working on these programs went on to produce other classics of American TV for the next twenty years.  AITF was the number one show on tv for five consecutive seasons, the last great consensus of American television programming. 

CBS did not totally abandon its older audience; the rural drama set in the Depression, The Waltons, became a staple, for example, but that's a key point: it was a drama, not a sitcom.  Cop shows remained popular for all the networks, and CBS had its share, the most successful and longest lasting being the original  Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980).  But the network understood this: the product of television is not the programming, it's the audience.  CBS was in the business of selling viewers to sponsors, and that's why it altered its lineup in the early seventies.

The change was not as dramatic as it may sound in this short recap, but it was significant in the long run.  CBS could not have kept its programming as it was, or appeal only to an older audience.  Baseball may face the same situation -- as long as there are fifty-somethings who will turn on the set, they're fine, but what happens when they're gone?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

"Redskins' Kike Owner Won't Change Offensive Name"...

That title is borrowed from the Onion, whose piece makes a very sharp point about language, context, and why such issues actually matter. The article uses several terms to describe Jews that many people, Jews and gentiles alike, would deem very offensive. 

There are a couple of important things to consider about the controversy surrounding the pressure the NFL is trying to put on Daniel Snyder to change the name of his team.  Just to catch you up to speed on a few facts:

  • The US Patent office has canceled most though not all of the trademarks associated with the team.  This means that if I want to start selling mugs with the team name and certain logos, I can, and Synder can't stop me. 
  • How many Native Americans are offended by the name? That really depends on what polls you look at, as any google search asking the question will show.  
  • That said, NFL Commissioner Roger Godell wants no one to be offended, so that's why he has begun to listen to Native Americans who are. 
  • The team became called the Redskins supposedly in honor of the coach, who was thought to be an Indian but in fact may not have been; it was also as much about promotion as anything else, to be able to have someone dress up in costume for the crowd (not unlike the use of blackface in minstrelsy, yes. And here's a pic to make that point: on the left is an image of "Sambo," the racist characture of Black boy, and on the right is that of Chief Wahoo, the mascot of the Cleveland Indians.) 

So, having noted all these pieces of information, let's point out a few things that this case is and is not about.

It's not about "they're taking away our freedom."  No one is putting Daniel Snyder in jail.  No one is forcing him to sell the team.  This isn't about First Amendment stuff, either.  It's about trade.  Would the Patent Office allow a sports team with the name "New York Niggers"? What if that had been the team's name since 1947? What, we can't change it?

It's not about maintaining a "tradition." Owning people was a tradition.  So was segregating sports organizations by race. Be wary of the "purist" fan of any sport; go back far enough in time, and you realize that the "purists" wanted to keep Black players out of MLB.  It's not in and of itself a good reason not to change the name.

Snyder does not intend the name to offend people; he says that it's meant to honor the "warrior spirit" of the Native American, who some condescending stuff that reminds one of James Fennimore Cooper's characterization of Uncas in Last of the Mohicans.  And some radio commentators talk about "intent" as if that makes being offended problematic.  There is intent and there is effect.  The WB cartoonists may not have intended to perpetuate stereotypes of people of color in several of their cartoons, but that doesn't mean they are not racist stereotypes (which is why they are less likely to be put on DVD and Blu-Ray sets).  In many legal matters, effect is more important than intent: a man may claim not to intend to offend a co-worker with some crude sexist remark, but that doesn't mean he won't be called into the HR office and given a talking-to. 

Think of it this way: if an Englishman runs a B and B in the Hamptons of New York, and he tells a female guest, "breakfast starts at 6; what time shall I knock you up," he's going to get slapped! The fact that the British expression "knock you up" has a very different meaning from the American expression isn't going to help him, and if he keeps using that phrase, he'll probably get bad Yelp reviews and lose his business unless he changes his language, and too bad for him, he can't use the "but I'm British!" excuse. 

 But, "it's a slippery slope."  Down what? So, one day the Washington team has to change its name, the next the government comes after your guns? Are you worried about being soooo PC that we end up living like the people in Fahrenheit 451, a society that decided that no books were better than any that offended even just the smallest group of people? Really? Is that what's going to happen? I've heard people ask, where do we draw the line on offense? Do we have to have a certain poll's percentage of people offended in order to change the name? Will Notre Dame have to give up "Fightin' Irish" one day? We've seen some college programs change their Native American names; the St. John's "Redmen" (sound familiar?) became the "Red Storm."  And why can't we just look at each situation individually?  A good test, as Mike Greenberg said on his radio show "Mike and Mike in the Morning," is simply this: would you use the word "Redskin" in any other context besides referring to the team? The answer is "no," because it's considered a slur, and so it makes sense to consider a name change. 

Why does this matter? As author Sherman Alexie tells Bill Moyers, it's about cultural power -- or the real lack of it, for those whose ancestors were in the US before 1492.  That's why the name "thing" is an issue.  When you are in the cultural majority, such naming seems "natural," or perhaps (as per Genesis) your God-given authority.  But it's not.  Language is power.  It's the little things that hurt even worse than the land-grabs and the reservations, Alexie once said.

And ultimately, how many of us will care if/when the team changes its name?  The NBA's Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans, kept the name Hornets, then after the NBA gave Charlotte another team, the Bobcats (why did they try again? Oh, that's right, the new owner in Carolina was Michael Jordan), and a few years after that, the New Orleans Hornets changed their name to the Pelicans, and now the Bobcats are going to be the Hornets again, in Charlotte.  (And I'm ignoring the fact that New Orleans once had an NBA team called the Jazz, which makes perfect sense, but they moved to Utah, where calling them the Jazz makes no sense at all.)  Who gives a crap? How many people were OUTRAGED when the New York Highlanders changed their name to "Yankees"?  A few, perhaps, but did any of them care when a few years later Babe Ruth was hitting 60 home runs and helping them on their run of 27 World Series titles?  Did you know that once the University of Nebraska's football team was known as the Bugeaters? That's right, "Bugeaters."   Anyone in Lincoln hoping they go back to it? The point: no one will really care.  

I would want to add one last thought on the question of language and power that does give me food for thought.

Lenny Bruce's famous routine in which he just rattles off a ton of racist slurs (eventually calling them out as if he were an auctioneer) made a very fascinating argument: that the suppression of words people find offensive gives those words more power.  (Think about the "bad words" we don't want our kids to say. Once they know Mom and Dad don't want them to use "fuck," they often gravitate to it.  I know I did, and still do.) If society just keeps using words repeatedly, in an ordinary context, their power to hurt diminishes.   Dick Gregory was so influenced by this routine that he called his autobiography Nigger, dedicating it to his mom, saying that now she shouldn't cry when they shout out the word because they are just plugging his book. (Gregory has since changed his view on the Bruce routine.)  But what Bruce, in this context an idealist, overlooks is that language is not just about power, but power relations.  That's why it does matter.  But one other thing the debate on the name-change demonstrates is that language is a living thing; meaning is not totally fixed forever.  The word "gay" now has a very specific cultural meaning that was not its only meaning a hundred years ago.  It may be that the term "redskin" becomes somehow culturally accepted in twenty years; think about the very debate happening over hip-hop culture's use of nigga.  (And yes, it does mean something different when middle aged college professor uses that term.) 

Ultimately, this is not about freedom; it's about money.  When the NFL starts losing money because of the loss of trademark revenue, that's when the name will change, and no one will cry the End of America after a few years. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Film Friday: Boyhood

The "gimmick" behind Richard Linklater's newest film, Boyhood, is that Linklater conceived the project as one that would evolve as his child cast got older.  Reflecting on his daughter Lorelei's entrance into elementary school, Linklater approached IFC for funding for a longitudinal project consisting of fictionalized incidents of his central characters' growing up.  Thus, Ellar Coltrane plays the central character, Mason, from the age of 6 to 18, and Lorelei plays Mason's older sister Samantha (but note the film's title; don't be confused about whose story this is). Linklater and his crew -- which had the daunting task of shifting film technlologies -- filmed the action over a period of a few days every so often for the dozen years it took to watch Mason grow from a kid to a college freshman.

So, the gimmicky stuff: well, Coltrane's pretty impressive as he responds to the world around him, and there are times where you think, he must be really biologically related to Ethan Hawke, who plays his father. Hawke, and Patricia Arquette, Mason's mother, also show their age over time, and give remarkably credible performances. I like that the transitions are relatively subtle, as we move from one period in Mason's life to the next, and what's also impressive is how there are characters who come and then go in his life, never to return, like the step-siblings Mason and Samantha had from Mom's second marriage (which ends because those kids' father -- once Mom's college professor -- is an alcoholic).  That's how things are for Mason; even his dad comes and goes, unable to hold steady, except for his GTO, which the boy adores. 

This is the thing that comes across the most in the film: Mason is of a generation that is very temporary, in the sense that they are less rooted in place and even time. Mason and Samantha don't assume that their lives will be totally secure, that they will find an employer who will give them a job for their entire lives, the way that their grandparents' generation would have assumed. If Mason's seeming indifference -- or perhaps, diffidence -- to the world around him is inexplicable to the adult figures who try to give him advice, like his high school photography teacher, or his boss at a local diner (figures who do like him and mean well, it should be noted), it's not surprising, given his background and given the very unstable era in which he lives.  Near the end of the film, first-day freshman Mason remarks, they say we should seize the day, but what if the day really seizes you? He -- and the pretty girl he's just met -- both recognize that there is a lot out of their control.

Is that why technology is so important to Mason, from the early video game consoles to the digital  cameras?  (One of the cooler things about the film is to watch the switches from the ancient Atari and Nintendo consoles to the Game Boy/XBOX/Wii.)  Watch the way he handles those old joysticks, seeking order in his world.  Digital photography also makes sense for Mason, allowing him to keep distance and remake the world he sees. As a boy, Mason often stares out a classroom window, getting chided for it. (Indeed early on there is much tension between him and Sam, who is the Perfect Student, always seeking motherly approval until the teen years.) Teachers worry about his lack of focus, but once he gets the digital camera -- a gift from his mother's third husband -- it gives him at least some sense of purpose, though he still prefers the quietude of reflection.

Boyhood is a lot like Linklater's other talky films, notably the Before trilogy, which has followed the characters of Jesse and Celine from their early twenties to their middle ages.  The film does not have some specific narrative structure; it is a series of moments that the cast and director seized, as it were.  The conversations work when they are most "real," most true to life: this is what kids and their parents do, and some of it's charming, and some of it's not pretty. (The alcoholic stepdad, played by Marco Perella, is in some was more believably menacing as he criticizes Mason and his stepbrother than when his boozing  becomes out in the open.) The acting, too, has compelling moments: Lorelei Linklater's irrational teenaged rage at her mother is note-perfect; the look of dejection on Coltrane's face when he finds out that his father has sold that GTO -- which he had "promised" to Mason when the boy was in 3rd grade -- in order to buy an SUV for his wife and newborn son, is one of quiet heartache. At Mason's graduation, Hawke and Arquette have an awkward exchange about ex-husbands and new wives, and when Hawke leaves to find his wife's purse to give Arquette money as a thank-you-and-sorry, Arquette's expression tells a full story: you finally have become the man I wanted you to be, but with some other woman and for some other baby.

Arquette has perhaps the most difficult role, since she is the one who must react to all the males in her life fucking up and leaving her hanging. It is her resilience that does give a model for her children to hang onto, even if they don't recognize it as such. (Teenagers don't recognize anything, since of course, the already know everything and their parents are morons.  I am a parent, yes.) I do wonder if there is a certain amount of sexism in how Linklater creates Olivia, though Arquette does shape that role, too. She does have a lot of bad things happen to her, but is Linklater saying that it's her fault in some way, or is it just bad luck.  (As Lou Reed put it in "Street Hassle": some people don't have a choice/ and they can never have a voice,/ to talk with, that they can really call their own/so the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be/why, they follow it, /you know it's called: baaad luck." ) It certainly is real, that women like Olivia have to do the dirty work of parenting, and that moment when Mason leaves for college and she says it's the worst day of her life is powerfully true for so many mothers.  (One of the producers on the film says she almost word for word said this to her daughter when she left home.)

The one element about the sense of the temporary about Mason's life is that despite spending nearly three hours with him, I don't know if I connect with him, they way I do with his mother, or his sister, and not the way I so tightly connected to Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise. (Had there never been another film about those two, I think their lives still would matter more to me than Mason's does.) Am I too removed from my own youth?  Is Coltrane to blame? (I like him, actually, and the experiment in acting continuity is put to the test for all the actors, and they more or less come through.) I just have a feeling it's not going to be as central to the Linklater filmography as it probably should be.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Monuments Men, Monuments Meh...

George Clooney has an interesting sense of history, be it American history or film history.  I tend to think that he means well.  He's been a part of numerous "based-on-true-stories" films like Three Kings and The Men who Stare at Goats.  He did a moderately amusing tribute to football history (and more precisely old football movies) with Leatherheads.  He's also taken risks on remakes of noted films like Ocean's Eleven, and as a tribute to the early days of live television drama, he remade Sidney Lumet's Fail-Safe as a live-tv event. (Worth noting that he was the prime mover in a special live-broadcast episode of E.R., the series that made him a star, before Fail-Safe.)

The Monuments Men is Clooney's tribute to a special group of people who marched alongside the Allied armies as they pushed back the Nazis in an effort to save as much art and architecture as they could, rescuing lost, damaged and stolen works from museums and private collectors.  Clooney's narrative style is very much old-fashioned too, with hardly a trace of irony (despite the presence of Bill Murray and Bob Balaban).  It gives us a clear sense of purpose, and tackles at least partly the theme of redemption; the one British officer working with the team has disgraced himself due to alcoholism, but in his efforts to prevent the movement of Michelangelo's Madonna and Child statue by the Nazis back to Germany, he is killed and thus properly martyred.  The melodramatic question is asked at the end: was it worth it, to lose the lives of two members of his team to rescue thousands of works of art, the Clooney character answers, yeah:  but in a sappy twist, the final "yeah" is delivered not by George, but by his dad Nick, the former AMC host (who no doubt gave George his sense of film history).  The film has its amusing moments, pulls at the sentiment strings without quite snapping them off, and remains reasonably sincere. 

Of course, it also does what a lot of Hollywood films about American history do: glamorize and simplify. 

The historical truth is that there were a few hundred individuals working on the allied effort to preserve the art.  And the effort was begun by the British, not the Americans, as Clooney's film seems to claim. (As Supreme Allied Commander, it was Eisenhower who did sign off on the orders establishing the central group.) Clooney's film makes it seem like it was an American-created entity, and the American-ness of the narrative is clearly demonstrated in that the only two of the Monuments Men to die are both foreigners. Interestingly enough, this American-ism is what Ben Affleck did in making Argo, the film about the rescue of American diplomats after the Iranian revolution: the effort appears almost entirely the making of the CIA, when it was really the Canadian ambassador and his people who made the great escape possible.  (Why did Affleck's film take home Best Picture and Clooney's end up with about a 30 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating?  I'm betting it was mostly that the film kept an ironic stance, and because Alan Arkin is fucking funny as the producer.)

But as I said, Clooney has to put some personal faces to this mission, since this is drama after all.  In getting us attached to the individual members of the team, we don't worry too much about the historical reality.  That said, there's one scene that kind of creeps me out.

Cate Blanchett plays Claire Simone, a French museum curator who has quietly worked for the Resistance in Paris even as she supervises the movement of works of art out of Paris and into Germany (mainly to the private homes of the major Nazi figures, Hitler and Geobbels).  We will find later that she has kept a thorough catalog of pretty much every work of art the Nazis have moved, though at first she is reticent to help one of the American Monuments Men, played by Matt Damon, because she believes he represents American museum interests and hopes to take as much stuff back as he can take.  We see her at a cafe reading the news that the Nazi officer who was in charge of moving all the art (who at one point threatened her life) has been caught and will likely be killed for his crimes. (The capture is an amusing scene featuring Murray and Balaban.)  At that point, she smiles, and notices Damon's character crossing the street.  They talk, and she wishes to celebrate; she invites him to her apartment, knowing that he's married and has young children.  "Paris is full of 'good husbands,' " she seductively observes.)  Eventually, she gives him her catalog, because she trusts him to do the right thing (which, aw shucks, he does), and he also does the right thing by not spending the night with her, though she does directly offer. 

It sure as hell seems to me that Blanchett's character is aroused at the news of the Nazi officer's arrest.  Or maybe it's just coincidence that, at the moment she reads the newspaper, she sees Damon's character, dressed in Class A uniform, and realizes: holy shit, that's Matt Damon and he's so hot! It's this and other odd moments in the script that show the flaws of this well-intended tribute to people who probably deserve better than this film gives them.  It's the kind of film that should be just a launch point for people who want to learn more about this.  Except that Clooney is more than capable of making a movie for grown-ups, too, and I wish he had done that here. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

No Comedy for Old Men: Monty Python Live (Mostly) from O2 Area (simulcast/rebroadcast)

So I don't live in London.  I wasn't lucky enough to be one of the people who got tickets in less than sixty seconds after they went on sale.  Hell, I couldn't get tickets to the live simulcast at the movie theater at Union Square in the city; I had to get tickets for the rebroadcast of the final show four days later. So it was a lot less special than actually being at O2 when those final shows were performed.  You get what you pay for.  (I didn't even get a totally raucous crowd, with almost everyone dressing up in some fashion:  a few Gumbys here and there, perhaps, and a wee bit of singing along, but if you're in Greenwich Village you expect more silliness.)

I took my eldest (fourteen) to see the rebroadcast.  We had a great time, really.  She doesn't know all the words yet -- but that's probably because I haven't shared them all with her, since her younger sister has no self-control, and would suddenly start singing "Sit on my face" at her elementary school.  She was in joyous disbelief at the arrangement of "Every Sperm is Sacred." (So was I.)   The "cameo" by Stephen Hawking after the universe song was a highlight for her, too. (Yes, she's a nerd. Apple doesn't fall too far from the tree.)  And she loved the passion I brought to the singing: "Emmanual Kant/was a real pissant," etc.

But let's face it: this was really the Eric Idle Show, with sets by Terry G., with Michael, John, and Terry J. showing up and not always hitting their marks.  (The live show grew out of Idle's solo performances "Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python," and it showed.)  The musical numbers were terrific, and hilariously choreographed.  Gilliam's set designs were inspired and sick. The use of video was in keeping with previous live shows, taking on a certain poignancy because of the late Graham Chapman's presence in them.  (Nice of them to feature a moment of his as The Colonel.)  Other members of the crew stepped in for some of the sketches in which Chapman originally appeared, like the classic "Four Yorkshiremen."  The Anne Elk (Miss) sketch was a pleasant surprise.  And after all these years, who can resist Carol Cleveland asking, would you like an argument or a blow job? 

The best parts of the sketches, however, often happened when they went slightly awry, or made a few nudge-nudge (not to say "Nudge Nudge") jokes, like when the one gay high court judge asked the other, "did you handle the Cleese divorce," receiving the reply, "which one?"  When Cleese mocked Jones as he read the label of the Whizzo chocolate ingredients for Crunchy Frog and they horsed around with the label card, as Gilliam, as the Constable, began his grotesque reactions; when halfway through "Nudge Nudge" Eric finally realized his mustache was half-off; When Cleese and Palin mocked their ineptitude during the oddly combined "Dead Parrot/Cheese Shop"  sketch; these were funnier because they showed them actually thinking on their feet, which they can still do, despite their ages.  Cleese's voice is pretty shot at this point: too many "HELLO POLLY" screams from a generation ago probably haven't helped. Palin's Gumby flower arrangement worked mainly as nostalgia (I still miss the Brain Specialist).   The Bruces' pre-song chatter was less amusing, though seeing Carol dressed up as "Punk Bruce" was fun. (In the old days, they tossed real cans of Foster's to the crowd; this time, it was just Foster's can-shaped pillows.)  Gilliam did seem to be enjoying himself a lot, I must say. 

The rock at the center of this craziness was Idle; he sings most of the songs (Palin gets "I'm a Lumberjack" this time, as he did on the tv show) and is clearly directing things on the stage.  The newer song material, like the silly walk song and the added lyrics to the "isn't it nice to have a penis" song, are his, and fit in well enough. He's a presence throughout the show, despite the several sketches featuring just Cleese and Palin (and one featuring just Cleese and Jones, the "penguin on the telly" sketch), where he is no doubt changing costume. It's he who speaks on behalf of the group as they prepare to sing the finale, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," which has become a standard in its own way. (A whole generation or three of us hope that at whatever memorials are given in our honor, everyone will sing and whistle it.)  And it's just so damn irrepressible, as is the joy I felt as I walked out of the theater, even though I think that if given a choice of two sets of old geezers, I'd probably take the Stones over these guys.  There is also something about passing the silly torch on to the young-uns, and while I might not have given my kids a tragic love for my Mets, at least they can converse in Dead Parrot. 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Get Rid of Bottle Deposit Laws! Now! (He wanted to say...)

About once a week, a ritual occurs in my neighborhood, and throughout the big city: people pushing shopping carts, going through the trash bins, looking for bottles (and cans) to bring to the nearest supermarket redemption center, to pick up their nickel or dime a bottle.

There goes another now. He lives on my block.  He owns a house.  And here he is, going through my recycle bin, collecting what few bottles I have that can be redeemed for their deposit.  (Maybe that's how he bought the house.)   And yes, I resent it.  (I know, I have issues.) That's my money he's taking from me. And he has to pick through my pails  and others -- including public trash cans -- to collect the change. (I also hate the mild invasion of my space: it's still MY trash until the sanitation workers take it away, dammit!)

Well, dude, why don't you just go to the supermarket and redeem them yourself? Answer: I don't have the time to wait on line -- it can take up to an hour or two -- just to redeem two bits' worth of bottles.  Why are the lines so long? Yes, because guys like this neighbor are there with a hundred or two hundred or a gazillion bottles, redeeming them.  Yes, the supermarket puts time limits, but unless they put a bottle limit, it's still not going to be good enough for me to come and get my coin. There's also the environmental cost of my driving to the supermarket.  (States wrestle with this irony as they contemplate bottle laws.) 

There are some solutions: I can and do try hard not to buy bottles.  When I do, it's usually while I'm out, and I put them in recycling containers in public places, or on campus.  But the fact that I do recycle, that it's become second nature to me, just makes me feel more strongly that the bottle deposit laws of my state are unnecessary, screwing the consumer out of a tiny bit of money that can add up to maybe a couple of hundred bucks a year.  I mean, who the hell doesn't separate their trash anymore?  Really!  So why should I subsidize the guy down the street just because he has the time to spend collecting and redeeming bottles and I go to work for a living???? (Yeh, I get all indignant like that. Make Paul Ryan proud, I'm sure.) 

So  did a little checking to see if I'm crazy, to see if there were any movements to end bottle deposit laws.  Well, there are.  But guess who sponsors those movements. 

Yep.  The American Beverage Association, mainly funded by the Big Boys of Battery Acid, Coke and Pepsi.  (Anheuser Busch is a big member too.) Why? They have to pay up to 3.5 cents for every can/bottle returned, and they don't want to.  They've fought legislation for years to expand bottle deposit laws, and they have successfully fought a national bottle deposit law, twice.

Wait -- did you even know about such a law being considered?  Well, keep this in mind:  There are only ten U.S. states that have bottle deposit laws on the books.  That's twenty percent of the entire nation, most of them in the Northeast (which do have high-density population centers -- which is no doubt why California also has a law).  They are all generally "blue" states, too, with a tradition of a more civic-minded environmentalism, and an understanding that there are some prices to be paid for public good.  The Beverage Industry has fought many campaigns to prevent bottle law expansion, and has successfully repealed the law in Delaware. 

One of the other things I learned by researching this issue is that these laws have made a substantive difference in the amount of recycled materials.  Most evidence suggests that there are real environmental benefits that offset the costs to recycle, and of course if we had a real environmental tax on the manufacturing of products that fuck up the planet, we could encourage businesses to develop more eco-friendly packaging, or, in the case of the worst stuff, stop making it altogether. 

So as much as I really can't stand the guy who goes through my trash, that's a me problem.  I have to be more mindful of my habits. I can stop using my recycling can and use a clear recyclable plastic bag, which can easily show the scavengers that I don't have any money inside it, that I'm only throwing away cans of tuna and tomato sauce, if I really can't stand the banging around the metal can at night, making me think it's a raccoon or a skunk trying to find some grub.  And I can just let go of wasted anger, too.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

Film Friday: "What really caused the problem with movie theaters is not Netflix but YouTube" : and we're back to Walter Benjamin!

The above quote comes from Paola Antonelli, noted curator for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in article from the Atlantic by Megan Garber. The main focus is on a new MoMA experimental (mostly online) exhibit of hers, "Design and Violence," but if you read the article you can see that Antonelli makes a name for herself for conceptually stunning exhibits, like the one she did on video games a few years back.

The quote comes near the end of the piece, in which Antonelli discusses the participatory nature of museum interaction and experimentation. The digital age, she claims, is making us re-think the public's relationship to the museum, as it becomes increasingly more like a laboratory for artist and audience alike.

What Antonelli is getting at in her quote is that the age of the movie-theater-as-temple is over.  We no longer sit passively in awe at the giants on the big screen, and the real key to the destruction is the ability of all of us to shoot movies and share them via the internet.  It's not the streaming video revolution of Netflix, or the advent of the DVD.  It's not the increased presents of home video (like the VHS in the early days, or the expansion of cable/satellite tv).  It's not the very installation of the television into the family living room.  Nor is it the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system, that forced the studios to sell their interests in theater chains, nor the rise to power of agencies who allowed their star-clients to call the shots instead of the movie producers.  Nor the move to suburbia and away from the big cities, where the biggest movie temples lay in ruins for decades, with only a handful of legends survive.

If I may be a bit cheeky in turning back decades of history to chart the decline of the movie theater business, it's for an ultimate purpose.   Antonelli's comment reminded me of the famous essay by Frankfurt School theorist Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction."   Nearly a hundred years ago, Benjamin theorized that the relationship the public has toward art is fundamentally changed by the ability of art -- photograph and film in particular  -- to be reproduced over and over again.  There is no "original" to a photograph or film strip; the same content can be reproduced as long as you have paper or film stock to print, and thus an audience in one part of the world can see the same content as an audience in another part of it. The relation of Art in the pre-mechanical age to its audience once held a mystical, religious, magical quality. (Recall Antonelli's words about temples?) A work of art once held a kind of "aura."  In the age of Mechanical Reproduction, such an aura does not exist.  Art in museums are a "ritual function," according to Benjamin.

As Benjamin also notes, the status of "experts" has changed in this age.  In the technique of the film, he writes, everyone who witnesses it becomes a kind of expert; the authority of cultural critics in the style of Matthew Arnold is no longer accepted as (so to speak) Gospel.  (Benjamin mentions that sports is analogous to this, noting that every group of newspaper boys on bikes talks about races as if they were experts.  Should that surprise us, who live in the era of SportstalkRadio?)  The subjects of Art also once held aura, but now, says Benjamin, anyone can be filmed.  And of course in our age, anyone can be a film-maker.  Benjamin foresaw this when he wrote about the possibility of anyone becoming an author as print became even more cheap in his age. As he wrote of the distinction between how "the masses" respond to Art and to film, "The progressive reaction [to a Chaplin film, as opposed to a reactionary response to a Picasso] is characterized by the direct, intimate fusion of visual and emotional enjoyment with the orientation of the expert.

Benjamin's point about mechanical reproduction can also go back to Gutenberg, who really began the revolution that brought down the temples that the Church had built (leading to the Reformation, among other things).  But more on that another time. I think that what has happened today, when I reflect on Antonelli's comment, is that as the digital revolution took place, cinema itself became elevated to status of Art, of something sacred, and movie theaters too gained some semblance of aura.  (Great thinkers were arguing for film as an Art form going back almost to film's origins, but it's worth noting that the Supreme Court first decided that film was mainly a form of commerce in a famous decision in 1916, and that that decision was only overturned about forty years later, when film was given First Amendment protection.)  I certainly have felt that sense of the sacred in movie theaters, especially when a transformative film was unfolding, like 2001, or Vertigo, or Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. This is what often happens: a new medium almost automatically uplifts the status of the medium it supplanted to sacred.  The book -- not just THE Book -- was a sacred text, and when Gutenberg came along, there were fears that books written out on parchment would no longer matter, and lose their aura -- which they paradoxically gained once moveable type came along. Cinema did not have an aura, wrote Benjamin, but in the wake of so many revolutions since WWII, it has magically attained that aura.

That said: I'm looking forward to seeing Boyhood on the big screen tomorrow..