Cruise Ship Books

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I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors while perusing the books other passengers have left behind in shipboard libraries. While cruising in Alaska, I discovered Michael Frayn and couldn’t stop until I had devoured all of his novels and then looked around hungrily for more.

Spies is perhaps my favorite. A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village, where he tries to make grownup sense of things that happened there so many years ago, while he and his boyhood friend hid in the privet bush pretending to be spies. The dual perspective of middle age and childhood, as well as the contrast between the WWII setting and the “present” of 30 years later makes the book particularly evocative, and the mystery of what actually happened drives the story.

Frayn’s books often present a tone of detachment and loss, as expressed in these opening lines from A Landing in the Sun:

On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive, but perfectly still. One of them is sitting, poised like a crab about to scuttle, the fingers steadying a fresh Government-issue folder. The other is holding a grey Government-issue ballpoint above the label on the cover, as motionless as a lizard, waiting to strike down into the space next to the word Subject.

These hands, and the crisp white shirtsleeves that lead away from them, are the only signs of me in the room.

The separation of the action performed by his hands from his intentional, sentient will is also reminiscent of the book-burning fireman, Montag, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Montag . . . glanced to his hands to see what new thing they had done.” Both authors use synecdoche effectively to suggest the protagonist’s looming split with authority and his attempt to regain control over his life.

A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village.

It was on a cruise ship traveling around Australia and New Zealand that I discovered the historical novelist Tracy Chevalier. Her Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which she creates a compelling and poignant backstory for the supposed model of Vermeer’s famous painting, had recently been made into the film that launched Scarlett Johansson to stardom; but the book that hooked me was Fallen Angels, a name that refers to the memorial stones in a local graveyard but also to the fallen characters within the story. Beginning at the end of the Queen Victoria’s reign, the book’s multiple storylines focus on husbands and wives, friends and lovers, ruling class and servant class, and a gravedigger’s son.

From the moment I entered Chevalier’s world of shifting narrative perspectives set in turn-of-the-century England, I didn’t want to leave. I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century. Similarly, while viewing Manhattan from across the river in one of the books I review here, a character observes, “You wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.” That’s how I felt while reading many of the books I’ve mentioned in this review — I wanted to approach the end, but never quite arrive there.

This past month I was cruising the western Mediterranean when I discovered Rules of Civility by the talented author Amor Towles, whose fresh metaphors and unexpected developments delighted and surprised me. I had barely finished reading it when, craving more of his elegantly crafted sentences and trusting his storytelling skills, I downloaded his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, to my Kindle for the long flight home from Europe.

I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century.

The title Rules of Civility refers to George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a dog-eared copy of which is discovered by the narrator, Katey Kontent, on the bedside table of the central character, Tinker Grey. Towles’ book is a novel of manners set in 1938 Manhattan and framed by a 1966 photography exhibition. As the book opens, a middle-aged Katey spies two candid photographs taken of her long-lost friend Tinker at the beginning and the end of 1938. This chance sighting becomes the catalyst for her recollection of that year, a year that became a turning point in her life as she navigated between boarding houses and mansions, trust-fund kids and dockworkers, the upper West side and the lower East side, in her journey to define who she would become.

Katey begins 1938 living in a women’s boardinghouse and working in a steno pool. She and her roommate, Eve Ross, meet the posh and elegant Tinker Grey at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, and he becomes the direct and indirect catalyst for everything else that happens that year.

Like the original “novels of manners,” set in manor houses and often populated by governesses or impoverished heiresses who make satirical observations about the ruling class, Rules of Civility contains biting, cogent cultural commentary. Katey is paid well as a secretary, but when she decides to move on to a job in the literary world, she must accept a huge cut in pay. She wryly observes, “A secretary exchanges her labor for a living wage. But an assistant comes from a fine home, attends Smith College, and lands her positions when her mother happens to be seated beside the publisher in chief at a dinner party.” I worked under an executive director who landed her position in the same way, and it was just as galling. Katey also notes, after guests at a dinner party heap praises upon the hostess at the end of a fine meal, “This was a social nicety that seemed more prevalent the higher you climbed the social ladder and the less your hostess cooked.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer.

Katey is a philosopher by nature, and her thoughts begin to resonate with the reader. As she looks back on 1938, she recalls, “To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course . . . shouldn’t come without a price. I have no doubt [my choices] were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance — in this case, from the bright optimism of making right decisions to the mournful grief of cutting oneself off from other options — permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer. Consider the span of emotion in moments like these: “I tore the letter into a thousand pieces and hurled them at the spot on the wall where a fireplace should have been. Then I carefully considered what I should wear.” And: “Something fell from my jawbone to the back of my hand. It was a teardrop of all things. So I slapped him.” And this cautionary reflection: “In moments of high emotion — whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment — if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”

Katey wants everything to be neat and orderly and open. As a secretary, she “suture[s] split infinitives and hoist[s] dangling modifiers,” and she wants life to be as simple as that, with rules that allow no ambiguities and people who are who they say they are. But soon she realizes that “it’s a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon, a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact . . . there are tens of thousands of butterflies, men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings — one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage — and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings.” Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Katey is not well-bred, but she is well-read, and her running references to such books as Walden, Great Expectations, Washington’s Rules of Civility, Agatha Christie novels, and others add depth to the story. I especially like the way she combines insights from Thoreau and Christie to deliver this:

In the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. . . . For the most part, in the course of our daily lives we abide the abundant evidence that no such universal justice exists. Like a cart horse, we plod along the cobblestones dragging our heads down and our blinders in place, waiting patiently for the next cube of sugar. But there are certain times when chance suddenly provides the justice that Agatha Christie promises.

We all have turning point moments in our lives — moments that occur during the years when we’re deciding who we will be and making decisions so profound that they change our course completely and irrevocably. They often seem insignificant at the time, and the people who influence us most profoundly move on from our lives. Although we may never see them again, we think of them frequently. I have one such friend from my childhood who moved on from my life when we were 11, yet much of who I am today comes from the experiences I shared with her during the three profound years we spent together, just as Michael Frayn’s narrator in Spies is forever influenced by the events he experienced with his childhood chum.

Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Towles suggests the importance of these so-called minor characters when Katey begins reading a Hemingway novel from the middle rather than the beginning: “Without the early chapters, all the incidents became sketches and all the dialogue innuendo. Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way.”

And Katey learns to read life that way too — paying more heed to the side characters who influence us unexpectedly. Eventually she discovers that “when some incident sheds a favorable light on an old and absent friend, that’s about as good a gift as chance intends to offer.” Reading Rules of Civility gave me cause to reflect on many an old and absent friend, and that’s one of the many good gifts of this book.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spies," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2002, 261 pages; "A Landing on the Sun," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2003, 272 pages; and "Rules of Civility," by Amor Towles. Penguin Books, 2011, 338 pages.



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How to Succeed by Failing

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While Hollywood remains determined to commit financial suicide by focusing on their never-ending stream of superhero flicks (such as the recent Suicide Squad), film lovers can still find satisfying fare by looking beyond the major studios. Florence Foster Jenkins is a case in point. Produced by BBC Films, it is utterly delightful — and it delivers an important message about passion and dreams to boot.

The film is set in 1944 New York, where Madame Florence (Meryl Streep) is a popular socialite and patron of the arts, a woman who has established several music clubs to further the careers of budding composers and musicians. She also loves to produce tableaux and small operatic concerts with herself in the principal roles. The only problem is that she can’t sing. The solution, for her, is that she is blissfully unaware of how painful her voice is, and her husband St. Clair (Hugh Grant) is determined to keep it that way. He sits in on her lessons, hires only the best voice coaches and pianists, and invites “members only” to her performances while keeping the legitimate press away.

This ruse becomes more difficult when Florence books herself at Carnegie Hall, and St. Clair has to work even harder to protect her from learning the truth about how she sounds to others. (Evidently there is more than one way to get to Carnegie Hall; while most musicians have to “practice, practice, practice,” “money, money, money” can be just as effective.)

Their love is entirely believable and entirely captivating. We glimpse the richness of a relationship that endures in sickness and health, in good times and bad.

As Madame Florence prepares her new accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), for their “rigorous” training schedule, she warns him, “I practice an hour a day — sometimes two!” She hires the likes of Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) as her voice coach, and St. Clair sits in on the lessons, smiling contentedly as she sings. We in the audience wince painfully, and Cosmé can barely control his embarrassed laughter — until he realizes that St. Clair is as serious as Florence about her singing.

Soon, however, Cosmé is drawn to Florence’s eccentric charm. So are her numerous friends. And so are we. From the flowery froufrou and feathers of the self-designed costumes on her matronly figure to the bathtub full of potato salad for her lunchtime soirées, we can’t help but love her free spirit.

Because Florence has a chronic health condition, she and St. Clair have a platonic marriage. But their love is palpable. He protects her and cares for her with a tenderness that transcends the tear-off-her-clothing kind of love portrayed in most movies. And she returns his affection with the confidence and sincerity of a woman who feels adored. Their love is entirely believable and entirely captivating. We glimpse the richness of a relationship that endures in sickness and health, in good times and bad.

Hugh Grant made his career playing the young and somewhat bumbling British heartthrob with the self-effacing demeanor and dazzling boyish smile. Then, in Music and Lyrics (2007), at the age of 47 he played a washed-up singer almost as an aging parody of himself, as though he couldn’t imagine himself as a believable love interest any longer. Happily for us, he was coaxed from a self-imposed semi-retirement by the prospect of playing opposite Meryl Streep. Actors have said that they love performing with Streep; she is so fully engaged in her character that they can become more completely engaged in their own. In this case Grant seems to provide that same emotional depth for Streep, who as Florence Foster Jenkins gives what I think is her finest performance ever — and this is a woman who has been nominated for 19 Oscars and has won three of them.

Madame Florence hears the voice of an angel when she sings, and that is the subtle message of her story: embrace your passions, whether or not you have the skill or talent to succeed by the world’s standards. It made me think of the many people this month who, fueled by the passion they’ve seen in the Olympic athletes, donned track shoes or swim suits and began “training” for the Tokyo Olympics four years from now. I remember the skating moms I knew when my daughter was a competitive figure skater, and how each of us imagined our daughters would stand on that ultimate medals platform — even though we knew, deep down, that the chance was pretty slim.

I also remember performing in Oklahoma! many years ago and being so surprised when I saw the video of the show — I had danced with the heart of a Rockette, but in reality I had barely left the ground. Still, I love to dance, and I’m perfectly happy never to see what I look like. In my heart and my mind, I’m a pro. As Madame Florence confesses with a smile, “They may say that I can’t sing, but they can never say I didn’t sing.” So sing your heart out. Or run. Or do whatever it is that brings you joy. Don’t let what others think keep you from doing what you love.

Embrace your passions, whether or not you have the skill or talent to succeed by the world’s standards.

Just how bad was the voice of the real Florence Foster Jenkins? When Streep began to sing, I thought she was exaggerating the squawkiness out of fear that modern audiences, raised on pop culture, wouldn’t know a well-sung aria from a flat one. I thought that no one could really sing that badly. But as the credits were rolling at the end of the film, a recording of the real Florence’s voice was played, and I have to hand it to Meryl Streep — she nailed it. It was godawful. But the film is brilliant. Don’t miss it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Florence Foster Jenkins," directed by Stephen Frears. BBC Films, 2016, 110 minutes.



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And the Winner Is . . .

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Who would ever have thought that a Mad Max film would earn a nomination for Best Picture from the staid and serious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? “Oh what a day — what a lovely day!” was my reaction when I heard the news (quoting a character from the film).

I wrote in my review last spring: “The characters aren’t nuanced, the storyline is one unending chase scene, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Still, it’s the craziest, wildest, most badass thrill ride to come to a theater since — well, since Mad Max: Road Warrior premiered in 1981.” Do I think it will win? Not a chance. But as I wrote in that review, “for pure, nonstop thrills with an undercurrent of resonant mythology and a libertarian hero just looking out for himself, Fury Road can’t be beat.”

I’ve already reviewed half of the nominees for Best Picture, including The Martian ; The Revenant; The Big Short; and Bridge of Spies, in which Tom Hanks once again heads a Best Picture cast without being nominated for Best Actor. Go figure. Here I round out the category by reviewing Spotlight, Room, andBrooklyn.

In 2002 the Boston Globe presented a story that was shocking not only in its subject but in its scope: over the course of several decades, Catholic priests had molested hundreds of children in the Boston area, and the church’s response had been to cover it up by quietly paying settlements and transferring the priests to other areas, where many of them molested other children. “Spotlight” was the name of the investigative team that uncovered the scandal, and it is the name of the film that has been nominated for Best Picture.

"Spotlight" adopts a didactic tone more appropriate to a documentary than a fictional narrative and just as dry.

There’s a risk inherent in focusing on the reporters who told the story rather than on the story itself. While we admire the reporters’ diligence, tenacity, and determination to get it right, writing — even when it entails researching and interviewing — is mostly a static pursuit. The actors do their best to make their scenes dynamic and interesting, and the writers did their best to introduce some action for the reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) jogs to work and attends a baseball game, William Robinson (Michael Keaton) plays golf, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) does a walk-and-chat through a park with a molestation survivor (Michael Cyril Creighton), and Matt Carol (Brian D’Arcy James) runs up the street to look at a neighboring house. But that’s about it in the action department.

To me, the movie is mostly a script for talking heads. To be sure, it is a well-written script filled with the kind of loaded, eloquent dialogue that writers tend to write, and the subject is clearly important. The actors have been praised for mimicking the real reporters so well, and indeed they gesture skillfully, squint concernedly, touch their faces absently, and adopt careful postures and stances that they have observed by studying the actual reporters. But it looks staged, more artifice than art.

Spotlight also adopts a didactic tone more appropriate to a documentary than a fictional narrative and strangely (for a film with this topic) just as dry. We learn statistics about the “recognizable psychiatric phenomenon” of abusive priests and the cult of secrecy caused by forced celibacy that isn’t really enforced. We hear important opinions about how such heinous crimes could be committed against so many children without anyone stopping it, thoughts such as “if it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one,” and “lawyers turned child abuse into a cottage industry” by quietly brokering secret settlements. We also hear moments of bitter irony, as when one survivor says, “the priests preyed on us instead of praying for us,” and when Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), who represented the church in covering up the crimes, says after the attacks on the World Trade Center, “Pray for the victims, pray for the injured, pray for those who survived.” The same could be said, of course, for the children who were molested. But this didacticism is hardly original; it was all in the articles we read when the stories broke.

Even worse, the men who had been molested as children — all of them — are portrayed as broken, stunted, and socially inept, not survivors at all, but victims. Sadly, I know many people who were molested as children, most of them by family members or neighbors. They have scars and sorrows, but they are neither broken nor socially inept. Most of them are strong, active, and successful. You simply would not know what they have endured. It isn’t right to portray all of these survivors in this way.

If nothing exists on the other side of the door, then there is no reason to grieve or long for release.

Spotlight tells an important story, but despite the protagonists’ success, it isn’t one of those films that makes you cheer their success. Yes, the reporters broke the story and forced the church to do something about the abusive priests. Yes, the film demonstrates journalism at its best in terms of the diligent digging, insistence on accuracy, and compassion toward the survivors interviewed. Yes, it allows hundreds of victims to tell their stories. But despite all this, it is a tedious film, and all I could feel was relief when it was over.

Room addresses a similarly horrifying topic. It’s every parent’s greatest fear: a child goes off to school and doesn’t return. Simply vanishes. Hours go by, then days. Then weeks. Has she been kidnapped? Murdered? Did she run away? Then years. Life is never the same, because you can’t even grieve — you have to keep hope alive, and that means telling yourself that your child isn’t dead, that someday she will walk back through that door, and everything will be the same again. Anything less is betrayal. To “move on” would be like killing her yourself. So you wait. Or maybe you do move on. Either one is agony.

Room tells the story of such a young woman. Joy (Brie Larson) has been kidnapped at the age of 17 and held hostage for seven years in a small shed, where she is abused by her captor every night and has no hope of escape. But if you are looking for (or have been avoiding) a lurid, prurient tale of sexual abuse, you won’t find it here. Instead, the story is told through the innocent eyes of Joy’s five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who, because he has never known any other world than “Room,” is content with his life and the characters who populate it: Sink, Bed, Wardrobe, Chair, Bathtub. The world he sees on the screen of a small television set is just a nice fantasy.

Like the whimsical father (Roberto Benigni) in Life is Beautiful (1997), who shields his little boy from the truth of their captivity in a concentration camp by making a game of it, Joy has determined to create the semblance of a normal life in an abnormal world by acting as though Room is the entire world. If nothing exists on the other side of the door, then there is no reason to grieve or long for release. Jack is content, and his presence makes her life endurable.

Nevertheless, when Joy thinks of a way for Jack to escape, she forces him to take it, no matter what the consequences might be for her. Jack’s terror as he tries to get away from a world that seemed normal to him creates the most harrowing scenes in the film. My heart was racing the whole time.

That’s about it: just a simple love triangle, the kind you might find in a Harlequin romance.

One would expect that escape from the shed would mark the climax, but it’s really just the middle. Room is told in two solid acts, and in the second we learn that there is more than one way to be imprisoned. Joy’s parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) have also been held hostage by Joy’s kidnapping, unable to move forward, unable even to change the room where Joy grew up. They are trapped by their expectations, trapped by their imaginations, trapped by their blaming and their guilt. Jack becomes trapped as well, in a world so gigantic he doesn’t know how to process it. Even more poignantly, Joy has to escape the confining expectations she has nurtured about what it would be like to leave Room and go home. The film asks us to consider what makes a woman a mother, what makes a man a father, and what makes a place a home.

Brooklyn is another Best Picture nominee that asks us to consider what “home” means. Beautifully filmed in Ireland and Brooklyn, as they were in 1951, the sweeping landscapes and nostalgic cityscapes are full of soft blues and greens that highlight the blue-green eyes of the movie’s protagonist, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan). Eilis loves Ireland and her family, but like so many Irish citizens of the period, she is a bright young woman with a drab future as a part-time shopkeeper. When a family friend arranges for an invitation and a job in America, she takes it.

There she lives in a modest boardinghouse run by a motherly woman who watches over the morals of the girls who live with her, even as she pushes them into social situations where they can find a nice Irish immigrant to marry. Eilis finds Tony (Emery Cohen), a nice Italian immigrant, instead. Tony eases Eilis’ homesickness, and they fall sweetly in love. However, when Eilis returns to Ireland for a visit, the familiarity of home wraps itself comfortingly around her. Eventually she must choose between two men who love her: the comfortable Irishman (Domhnall Gleeson) and the New World Italian.

Her choice is not so much about the man who will be her husband as it is about the style of life that goes with the man.

That’s about it: just a simple love triangle, the kind you might find in a Harlequin romance. Not your usual Best Picture fare. But the production values lift it to award-winning possibilities. The cinematography is lovely, as are the costumes and set pieces. The music is evocative, and the acting is superb, especially Eilis’ controlled, reserved passion and Tony’s Brandoesque tender exuberance.

Moreover, Brooklyn is more than a romance; it’s a classic journey tale. Eilis journeys not just from Ireland to Brooklyn but from childhood to adulthood. Her choice is not so much about the man who will be her husband as it is about the style of life that goes with the man. At one point Eilis says, “I’m not sure I have a home anymore.” She learns in the end that “Home is where your life is.” And when she chooses the life, she embraces the man.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spotlight," directed by Tom McCarthy. Open Road Films, 2015, 128 minutes; "Room," directed by Lenny Abrahamson. A24, 2015, 118 minutes; and "Brooklyn," directed by John Crowley. Wildgaze Films, 2015, 111 minutes.



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You Can’t Judge a Film by Its Title

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You might expect a film about organized crime and bearing the title A Most Violent Year to be filled with bloody, sadistic mayhem, à la Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. You would be wrong, however, as I was. Yes, there is violence in this story about a heating oil supplier who wants to run his business without paying for protection, without acknowledging mob-determined territorial monopolies, and without engaging in corruption. But it’s a believable kind of violence, without guns blazing, cars crashing, and hands being smashed by hammers — the kind that is more likely to exist in real life when an honest businessman tries to compete with a dishonest cartel.

The film takes its title from the fact that it’s set in New York in 1981, statistically one of the most crime-ridden years in the city’s history. Against this background Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is about to complete the biggest deal of his life, purchasing a large oil terminal that will allow him to double or even triple his business. He has already put down a million dollars — in cash — and now has 30 days in which to pay off the remainder, or he will lose his entire deposit. (This isn’t your typical real estate deal brokered by Century 21.) His banker has agreed to lend him the additional million and a half. Abel couldn’t be happier as he and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) move into their brand new mansion, coincidentally closing that same day.

It’s a believable kind of violence, without guns blazing, cars crashing, and hands being smashed by hammers — the kind that is more likely to exist in real life when an honest businessman tries to compete with a dishonest cartel.

Well, maybe he could be just a little happier. Complicating the consummation of this deal for the oil terminal are two other deals: the Feds are suddenly investigating him for evidence of tax fraud or other crimes, and someone — he doesn’t know who — is threatening his employees by dragging drivers from his delivery trucks and roughing up his sales staff as they meet with potential clients. One of the things I like about this movie is that the employees aren’t the gangland thugs typical of this genre, and they aren’t shooting up everyone in sight. In fact, they aren’t shooting anyone if they can help it. They are ordinary young men and women — mostly white, mostly nervous — who are just trying to make a living at a relatively unskilled job, selling something as mundane as home heating fuel.

Surprisingly, that makes the film more suspenseful, not less. I actually began worrying about the men who deliver heating oil to my home in New York. Might they be involved in territorial warfare? Might they bring this violence into my backyard? The story is true in a way that is rare for Hollywood. They never use the word “Mafia,” and Abel’s name is Morales, not Morelli. The name suggests that he is able to run a business with morality and integrity, even in a city that is crumbling in moral decay.

This is the kind of film that suffers at the box office from not delivering what it seems to promise. Audiences who are drawn to thoughtful, character-driven, metaphorically rich films are likely to avoid it because of its title, while those who expect to see a typically violent and graphic gangster flick will complain that it was too bland and slow (as did many of the viewers in the theater where I saw it). And that’s a shame, because a film like this one, about an honest businessman trying to remain clean in a dirty industry, deserves a larger audience.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Most Violent Year," directed by J. C. Chardor. A24 (a production company that tops the funding list of over two dozen independent production and distribution companies), 2014, 125 minutes.



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There Is No Such Thing as an Innocuous Tax

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On July 17, Eric Garner was accosted by police on the streets of Staten Island, suspected of selling cigarettes on which no tax had been paid. Garner complained, the police tried to arrest him, they got him in a chokehold, and he died as a result. His death has become an issue because he was black.

Do people really need charges of racism before they see how vicious the state can be — how vicious it routinely is — when it enforces its laws?




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Confessions of a Sports Fanatic

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As a libertarian, and a nonfollower of sports, I often wonder why people get deeply involved in America's great community project of watching games, cheering for teams, keeping track of trades, remembering statistics, and all the rest of it. To be honest, I simply don't understand why anyone would follow sports. So I asked a libertarian sports fan, Russell Hasan, to explain it to me. Here's what he said. See what you think.

— Stephen Cox

Ancient Greece held the Olympics. In ancient Rome the Emperor held gladiator games at the Coliseum. In modern America we have the Super Bowl. Given the broad fan base of sports, from baseball and football in the USA to soccer in Europe and South America, to rugby and cricket in England, Australia, and Asia, there must be something about sports that appeals to a deep and fundamental need in human nature.

Why do people like sports? The appeal of sports is not complicated, so I think I can explain it, although it reduces to basic emotions that you either feel or do not feel. Being a fanatical fan of the New York Yankees, and also following the New York Giants football team closely, does several things for me. I’ll list them.

1. Enjoyment. Watching sports is fun. If you don’t enjoy watching sports, then you are never going to be an avid sports fan (unless you play sports, which is a different article altogether). I like watching baseball and football, so it is natural for me to be a sports fan. Having been born and raised in New York, I root for the Yankees and the Giants. Sports gives me something to do when I am bored. There are 162 games during the baseball regular season, and more games when the Yankees make the playoffs. The Giants play 16 games in the football regular season. When you enjoy watching sports on TV, there is always something to watch. Factor in parties to see a game or seeing a game at a sports bar, and one can build an entire life out of watching the Yankees.

2. Tension. But why do I enjoy watching my Yankees play against another team, especially against the accursed, vile, rotten, Red Sox (their division rival)? Well, if you don’t see what I see then this might be like describing music to a deaf person, but something articulable can be stated about what it is like for a sports fan to see a game. I would describe a good game as “tension, adrenaline, excitement, and suspense.” Baseball and football are designed so that the games are usually a close contest between the two teams. A few crucial plays can determine who wins. When the Yankees are ahead by one run, and a fly ball goes to the outfield, I root for the Yankees outfielder to catch it. He does so 99% of the time, but there is a little sting of excitement to see the ball shoot over to him, and then a small but pleasurable sigh of relief when the baseball is caught.

The appeal of sports is not complicated, so I think I can explain it, although it reduces to basic emotions that you either feel or do not feel.

When I root for a team it means I want them to win, so I am happy when my team scores. I am elated when the Yankees win, and I feel horrible when they lose. I enjoy the adrenaline rush of being in a nerve-wracking high-stress situation when my team is in a key situation in a close game. To feel that, and then to see my team make a play and win the game, is thrilling.

3. Personality. So I enjoy games because I get to see my team win and the other team lose. But why am I a fan of the Yankees and Giants particularly? Each sports team has its own personality, which can only be seen when you follow the sport as closely as I do. For example, the Yankees are the equivalent of a rich successful businessman who dominates his competition and buys mansions and yachts, while the Red Sox are the equivalent of lovable loser underdogs who have recently changed their bad luck and become winners after decades of being horrible. The Mets (and also the basketball team the New York Knicks) are the pathetic loser that you feel sorry for and root for because of a deep, committed passion to be there for them no matter what, even though they constantly lose despite having every opportunity to win. It’s as if the Mets were your alcoholic brother who puked on your bathroom floor on a regular basis.

In football, the New York Giants’ personality is defined by their quarterback, Eli Manning, who once stood in the shadow of his more successful brother Peyton but later emerged and developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the game, crowned by two victories over the Patriots in the Super Bowl, victories that gave New York bragging rights in the perpetual New York vs. Boston sports feud. That sort of success story can be found at some point in the history of most teams. The flavor of the Yankees dates back to the trade for Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, which trade made the Yankees and the Sox what they are: the Yankees became winners and the Sox became lovable losers. The personality of a team comes from its players and its fans, but it grows into a spirit that surrounds the team; and team personality is a great basis upon which to choose whom to root for. In the 2014 Super Bowl, the personality of the two teams is easy to see: the Broncos are Peyton Manning’s team as he fights to be recognized as the greatest football player of his era, while the Seahawks seek to give Seattle sports fans their first championship in a major American sport and reward Seattle’s fan base, which is known as the “Twelfth Man” because it is so loud that it’s like another member of the 11-man Seattle defense.

4. Regional Pride. Sports teams bring together a city or region and provide a bonding experience. The Yankees and Mets give New Yorkers something to talk about. I have had experiences at the dentist and the grocery store in which someone saw my Yankees cap and I had an interesting talk with a total stranger. In ways like this, sports gives a community something to discuss, something in common. Each city and region has a team that it is passionate about. New York has the Yankees and Mets, Boston has the Red Sox, Dallas has the Cowboys, Seattle has the Seahawks. These teams give regional identity and cultural flavor to an area, and this is good for the community.

The flavor of the Yankees dates back to the trade for Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, which trade made the Yankees and the Sox what they are: the Yankees became winners and the Sox became lovable losers.

5. Discussion. As I mentioned, sports give people something to talk about. Every day of the year, I suspect there are a multitude of conversations about sports, and in the absence of sports these would be mere awkward silences between people who have nothing to talk about. There are millions of Yankees fans across America, and if I need to chat up any of them, I immediately have something that provides content for a friendly conversation. I can talk about the recent Yankees seasons for hours, and make intelligent observations about the team. I can talk about the decline of pitcher C.C. Sabathia’s arm strength, the ineptness of general manager Brian Cashman’s minor league talent scouting system, Robinson Cano’s greed, Babe Ruth’s stats (interesting fact: Babe Ruth has some of the best stats as a pitcher in baseball history, despite being better known for hitting over 700 home runs), and I could pull a dozen other conversation topics out of my Yankees hat. People need something to discuss when making friendly small talk, and sports is an easy, fun, enjoyable topic for them to discuss. I have found this to be true even among libertarians; for example, the famous Objectivist philosopher Chris Matthew Sciabarra is as avid a New York Yankees fan as I am.

6. Bonding. Sports brings friends together, and it brings families together when they share the same favorite team. Watching a baseball game together, or playing baseball in the backyard of your house, is a common father-son bonding experience. In my own case, if not for the fact that I and my mother and father are all Yankees fans, I would have very little in common with my parents, neither of whom are lawyers and both of whom are liberal Democrats.

7. Achievement. Sports, particularly baseball and football but also tennis, soccer, hockey, basketball, and most other sports, are almost unbelievably difficult for the athletes to play. Coaches and players require a chessmaster-like grasp of strategy, especially at the quarterback position in football. The quarterback needs to identify the defense’s scheme in about three seconds and find the right hole through which to throw the football. Major League pitchers need to be smart in deciding which pitch to throw to fool the batter. Intelligence is necessary. But athletic prowess is obviously also needed, and today’s professional athletes have almost unbelievable muscles. Some professional football players can lift a refrigerator, while there are baseball players who look like statues of the Greek gods. It is fun to watch people be good at something very difficult and challenging.

Also, a lot of success in sports is psychological. As Yogi Berra remarked: “Ninety percent of baseball is half mental.” To me, it is motivating and inspirational to watch the players on the team that is losing cope with the challenge of a deficit in the score and overcome their problems for a come-from-behind win. Both times the Giants beat the Patriots in recent Super Bowls, the Giants were the underdog and rallied to defeat a New England team that had more talent and was supposed to win. Stories like that are heartwarming. I was ecstatic when the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and especially the second time they did it, when at the end of the game the Giants defense made a play against New England quarterback Tom Brady, who is probably the single most dangerous player in the NFL.

Some professional football players can lift a refrigerator, while there are baseball players who look like statues of the Greek gods.

Why do I like sports? I like sports because I enjoy watching the Yankees and Giants play. Why do I like watching them? Because it is fun to root for the home team. Why do I root for them? Because I am a Yankees fan and a Giants fan. Why am I a fan? I guess it really all reduces to a personal decision about how you choose to express yourself and what sort of personality you want to create for yourself as a human being, and what you enjoy in life. If I wanted, I could be a “foodie,” obsessed with sushi and sashimi. Then I would be writing about Japanese food instead of sports. But that isn’t who I am. Who I am is a New York Yankees fan and a New York Giants fan. And a lot of other Americans feel the way I do.




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The Forgotten Gibbs

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Wolcott Gibbs contributed more words to The New Yorker than any of his better-remembered contemporaries — Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, E.B. White, to name a few. And unlike them, he contributed pieces of every kind. His boss, founding editor Harold Ross, called him “the best goddam editor in the world.” Yet, as Thomas Vinciguerra reminds us, Gibbs is hardly thought of today. To remedy this unfortunate oversight, editor Vinciguerra has brought forth a new collection of Gibbs’ writing, which he entitles Backward Ran Sentences. With a useful introduction by the editor and a foreword by P.J. O’Rourke, the book is a literary bargain.

Gibbs wrote fact and fiction pieces — “Talk of the Town” items, so-called casuals, profiles, short stories, reviews of plays and motion pictures. His writing had an elegant bounce, when he was just trying to be funny, or when he was taking apart an unsatisfactory play or a bothersome personality. And yet, as editor Vinciguerra tells us, Gibbs was a sad man, full of self-doubt, caught up in cycles of alcoholism, and all the while a chain smoker. Like Harold Ross, A.J. Liebling, and Alexander Woollcott, Gibbs died in his fifties. His wife suspected suicide, but smoking on top of pleurisy and too many martinis may have been enough to kill him.

Backward Ran Sentences contains some fascinating cultural history. The names associated with the Gibbs era roll off the pages like gumdrops — Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mrs. Fiske, Marlon Brando, Joan McCracken, Ethel Merman, Alfred Drake, Eva Le Gallienne, and on and on. Among his shorter pieces, Gibbs addresses the joys of getting the measles — a disease with little suffering, but still requiring a quarantine — and the sadness of leaving his beloved refuge, Fire Island, and returning to Manhattan. There is the tale of a man who leaves his car, typewriter, and golf clubs in a creek because he was “tired of fooling with it.” (I am in complete sympathy.) And consider the following lines from an item dated December 13, 1941: “War came to us with the ball in Brooklyn’s possession on the Giants’ forty-five yard line. ‘Japanese bombs have fallen on Hawaii and the Philippine Islands,’ a hurried voice broke in to announce.”

Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.”

Gibbs’ profiles describe the rise to prominence of some New York lights and contain perhaps the best writing in the book — witty, detached, and not overly personal.

One unique offering describes a lady who collects stray cats and hauls them to the SPCA.

While not an icon, “Our Lady of the Cats” — Miss Rita Ross — will live on in this footnote to New York’s history. The three-part profile of Alexander Woollcott isn’t all that insulting, though it led to a final break between Woollcott and Harold Ross. Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.” Other profiles in the present collection include those of Lucius Beebe, epicure, journalist, chronicler of “Cafe Society”; Ethel Merman, who could carry a Broadway musical “on her shoulders”; and William Sylvester Maney, famously irreverent press agent and inventor of an ersatz profanity. The not-quite-flattering description of Thomas E. Dewey led him to impound Gibbs’ bank account. According to editor Vinciguerra, Dewey thought Gibbs was employed by the Democrats. When the Gibbs article appeared, Dewey wasn’t yet Governor (here the editor errs), but still District Attorney for New York County. Thus he could sequester Gibbs’ reserves as evidence in a criminal investigation — though the necessary legal cause has eluded me. At the time (1940), Dewey was beginning his first run for the presidency after a famous tour as prosecutor of mobsters. He became the prototypical Republican losing candidate.

The Ralph Ingersoll profile contains some interesting history. Ingersoll worked at The New Yorker and then for Henry Luce at Time. While there, he split with Luce over the traditional Time cover showing the Man of the Year. The chosen man in this case was Adolf Hitler. Luce wanted to display an ordinary photograph, but Ingersoll preferred an illustration carrying an anti-Hitler message. Later, in the course of building the left-leaning PM magazine, Ingersoll scooped everyone on the burning of the French ocean liner Normandie. The US government had seized the liner and was converting it into a troop ship when it caught fire in its berth in New York Harbor. Before the fire, a PM reporter had sneaked aboard the Normandie and discovered that it was, as Gibbs put it, “a fire-bug’s dream.” And so, when the liner finally burned, the PM story was ready to run.

Placed among a cluster of Gibbs’ parodies — those of Hemingway and Noel Coward are themselves funny — is his famous portrait of Henry Luce, written in the compressed, turned-around style invented by Luce’s late partner, Briton Hadden. In it we find the words, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which provide the title for editor Vinciguerra’s collection. The parody of Time’s style later became a tit-for-tat justification for Tom Wolfe’s satirical treatment of The New Yorker as it was under William Shawn. Wolfe’s effort was rather more barbed than Gibbs’ parody, its author perhaps having failed to see the sadness of a man trying to preserve an age forever gone. Still, as the legend goes, when Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window. Were passages like the following all that provocative? “Very unlike novels of Pearl Buck were his early days. Under brows too beetling for a baby, Luce grew up inside compound, played with two sisters, lisped first Chinese, dreamed much of the Occident.” Or this one: “Typical perhaps of Luce methods is Fortune system of getting material. Writers in first draft put down wild gossip, any figures that occur to them. This is sent to victim who indignantly corrects errors, inadvertently supplies facts he might otherwise have withheld.” Well — perhaps.

The New Yorker “casuals” were very short stories, short fact pieces, anecdotes, and even brief parodies. In these and in his short stories, Gibbs could be unfunny when he wrote about the drinking class and its special problems. “Wit’s End” is a depressing story about a man who awakens to find his bed on fire — a situation in which Gibbs found himself more than once. On the other hand, “Ring Out, Wild Bells” is an amusing tale of his own youthful performance as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His mother had sewn little bells on his costume, and as he maneuvered on stage their ringing drowned out the other players’ lines. “The Curious Incident of Dogs in the Night-Time,” a story set in a restaurant, tells of two men, learned in Sherlock Holmes lore, who ingest an unbelievable number of martinis. Finding their way to an upstairs dining room, they think they’ve discovered a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars. Actually, it’s a convention of roofers from Denver. The story ends with the two inebriates singing at the piano and the conventioneers filing out of the room.

As the legend goes, when Henry Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window.

For 18 of his New Yorker years, Gibbs was its drama critic — for some of that time, he also reviewed motion pictures, a task he disliked. As P.J. O’Rourke writes, “He was not fooled by talent.” His standards applied equally to everyone who wrote, acted in, or directed Broadway productions. Taken together, his reviews represent a theatrical history of Broadway’s great age. They address plays by, among others, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, and musicals with words or music by Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner, and Lowe. The productions had names such as Ah, Wilderness! (a mixed review from Gibbs, with praise for George M. Cohan, playing the father), The Time of Your Life (slightly favorable), Romeo and Juliet (poor, but Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh will attract an audience), Blithe Spirit (good), Oklahoma! (great, of course), South Pacific (excellent, with special praise for the players), Guys and Dolls (great, with praise for Pat Rooney, Sr.), Me and Juliet (mixed, but with praise for the fated Joan McCracken), The Glass Menagerie (excellent, with exceptional praise for Laurette Taylor), My Fair Lady (excellent), Waiting for Godot (“meager moonshine”), Long Day’s Journey into Night” (good, with reservations about the play’s “epic scale of calamity,” but with praise for director Jose Quintero), West Side Story (fair, with praise for choreographer Jerome Robbins), The Music Man (good, but “not as good as all that”).

There are bits and pieces of other reviews under the heading “Curtain Calls,” including a very good one for Kiss Me Kate and a dismantling of Shaw’s The Millionairess and Katharine Hepburn’s performance in the title role. There follow some movie reviews, including an amusing one of National Velvet, and some personal essays. Among these last is a tribute to his friend Robert Benchley, who preceded Gibbs as The New Yorker’s drama critic. Benchley was famous for such humorous essays as “The Menace of Buttered Toast” and “Carnival Week in Sunny Las Los,” as well as his appearances in movies. Like Gibbs, he was a serious drinker, and like Gibbs, he died at the age of 56.

As I emphasized, Wolcott Gibbs drank to excess and was a chain smoker. Neither of those habits met with the same disapprobation that meets them today. Writers drank — perhaps Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis set the style — and some drank too much. (The trick was to drink without being tiresome.) The quality of Gibbs’ writing doesn’t appear to have suffered from the constant bombardment of martinis. But why did he saturate himself so often? Perhaps because what he had wasn’t what he wanted, and what he wanted, he couldn’t have. When Gibbs said he should be writing novels, I think he was telling the awful truth. That was what he perceived as unattainable. But was it really? — no, not if he had been less of a defeatist. He certainly had the talent required to write novels. Perhaps he should have gotten away from New York — with all its personal and professional entanglements — found some odd corner, and started pecking away on his Royal typewriter. But that would have put at risk the only comfort and security he had ever known. So, instead, he maintained his self-deprecating attitude, and took to minimizing the importance of the writing profession and the magazine that employed him. He remained a resident outsider, which probably made him a more effective editor and critic. And he kept on drinking to ease his pain.

The final Gibbs piece in the current collection is an intra-office memo that found its way into print. It’s entitled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles,” and contains some worthwhile advice for writers. For example — “Writers use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently, I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said.’” The office copy of the Gibbs memo carried a note by his contemporary, the fiction editor Katharine White. It describes Gibbs as “one of the most talented and witty magazine editors of all time.” He was that good.


Editor's Note: Review of "Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker," edited by Thomas Vinciguerra. Bloomsbury, 2011, xix + 646 pp.



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The Thin Blue Line

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There’s a lot we won’t ever know for sure about the death of 16-year-old Kimani Gray, shot to death by police on Monday, March 11 in the Brooklyn district of East Flatbush. Here’s what we do know: two plainclothes officers approached Gray after seeing him “suspiciously fixing his waistband.” The confrontation ended with the officers firing eleven bullets at the teen, hitting him with seven, including three in the back.

In between the waistband-fixing and the body hitting the ground, things get less clear. The officers claim that as they approached Gray, he pulled out a revolver and aimed it at them, thus their use of deadly force. At least one eyewitness, however, claims that Gray had nothing in his hands and did not appear armed; furthermore, when he was already on the ground, clutching the wound at his stomach, one officer told him to “Stay down or we’ll shoot you again.” Another witness claimed that Gray did have a gun, and was trying to make that known precisely so he wouldn’t be perceived as a threat. But let’s give the cops the thing they never seem to give suspects in these situations: the benefit of the doubt. Say Gray was pointing a gun at them. Are they justified in firing? Firing eleven rounds, including three after Gray’s back was already turned?

Remember, from Gray’s point of view, these men aren’t identifiable as policemen. That’s the whole point of plainclothes. All he sees is two random guys approaching him, intent on something. Even if he does draw, even if he does take aim, this is still a defensive posture. The police and various eyewitnesses naturally disagree as to whether any advance warning was given, but even if the officers did announce themselves before firing, Gray has no reason to believe them.

Bear in mind that this is the version in which the police come off best. This isn’t the telling in which two patrolmen shoot yet another unarmed black male, and plant a gun on him in order to cover up their malfeasance, and trust in the blue wall of silence to take care of the rest. No, in this rendering, a case could be made, however tenuous, for pumping seven bullets into a scared teenager. But even so, the incident — like several hundred more in the last few years alone — stands as an indictment of the policing tactics in Mayor Bloomberg’s city.

If you disagree, you are free to protest — but NYPD is also free to treat your protest as an incipient riot, and deploy troops accordingly.

Recall that it was Bloomberg who strongly encouraged the use of “stop and frisk” techniques, which allow policemen operating under a “reasonable suspicion” to detain anyone on the sidewalk, and publicly pat them down for weapons. Even though more than 90% of these stops do not result in arrests — and far fewer still in convictions, often because they illegally seize small drug stashes (and, lately, arrest women carrying condoms as prostitutes) in the process — and even though by the city’s own stats these tactics are disproportionately used on blacks and Latinos, intensifying the distrust felt by many minorities for the police, Bloomberg insists this suspension of Fourth Amendment rights is crucial to protecting New Yorkers as they go about their daily business.

The question of who, exactly, will protect New Yorkers like Kimani Gray (or those within stray-bullet or ricochet range when police open fire), seems irrelevant to these calculations — if you are “fixing your waistband” in public, and especially if you’re young, black, or Latino, you simply don’t count in the same way as the hypothetical citizen Bloomberg has in mind. If you disagree, you are free to protest — as many in the community did in the nights after Gray’s death — but NYPD is also free to treat your protest as an incipient riot, and deploy troops accordingly. The last few nights, police in riot gear have used “kettling” tactics, extending netting across streets and maneuvering on horseback in order to constrict protestor movement, and eventually to envelop them completely. A minimum of 19 (and possibly upwards of 40 or 50) were arrested, many of them young black women. Hair was pulled, faces were pushed into concrete, pregnant woman were shoved to the ground.

When several journalists, who were streaming a live feed of the scene, tried to approach closer, they were met with police claiming another of Bloomberg’s suspensions of constitutional rights: the “frozen zone” that supposedly trumps the First Amendment protection of freedom of assembly. Like so many abrogations of our rights, this has its roots in counter-terrorism, being conceived as a justification for dispersing crowds around the WTC site on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. It was deployed liberally against the Occupy crowds, since Zuccotti Park was conveniently located near Ground Zero; now it appears to be available as an on-site justification anywhere in the city. Here’s how it seemed to work last night: a journalist approaches the scene of an arrest, and a cop orders them to leave, because it’s a frozen zone — and that is the extent of the logic involved: “Because I said so.”

It’s the same logic that’s at work throughout Bloomberg’s fiefdom, extending all the way from Wall Street to the corner store (even if the ludicrous Big Gulp ban was at last overturned). The control he exercises makes him the envy and icon of every politico who aspires to power simply because he knows best — and, if you’ve been keeping track, you’ll know that’s pretty much every one of them.

The end result of such arbitrary, good-for-you power is what has been termed the “carceral state”: a polity based on imprisonment, whether or not that corresponds with actual prison bars. The days of community policing are long dead; the model now is adversarial policing. Kettling, stop and frisk, frozen zones: these are prison tactics, marks of a society bent on treating citizens as inmates. So far in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, that has meant inconvenience and harassment for millions, and death for Kimani Gray and hundreds more.



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Not Just a 9/11 Flick

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To say that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about 9/11 is akin to saying that Moby-Dick is about a whale. Yes, the attack on the Twin Towers is an essential part of the story, but it is used as a metaphor, not as a plotline. The attack provides a setting and a backdrop for exploring the universal issues of grief and crisis, and of family relationships. This film is about fathers and sons, and about mothers, too. It is about trying to make sense out of something that is essentially senseless.

Death is always cataclysmic. It always feels like two giant towers collapsing. When one person dies, another disintegrates. That's the larger point of this film.

Many elements of the movie just don't seem to make sense — initially. The central figure, 9-year-old Oskar (Thomas Horn), simply isn't reacting properly. When he returns home from school on the morning the Towers come down, he's too flippant with the doorman, and too calm when he enters his apartment. The doorman is flippant in return. I was in New York that day. I know what it was like. And it wasn't like this — calm and normal, as though nothing had happened at all.

Before long, however, I realized that this was the other point of the film. It challenges our ideas of what "normal" means. And "proper." And "making sense." The film's series of mistakes isn't really a mistake. It is a deliberate means of conveying an idea: life doesn't make sense, but we have to try to make sense of it anyway.

To make this point, director Stephen Daldry uses a precocious young boy as his central figure. Oskar has a remarkably close relationship with his father (Tom Hanks), who encourages his young son's imagination with games of discovery and "expeditions." Oskar has "something like Asperger's syndrome," which gives him tremendous focus and memory. It also explains his odd reactions in the first half hour of the film. His condition provides not only a skewed point of view, but a metaphor.

Grief, we come to realize, does not have to be public to be cataclysmic.

The film's title is about Oskar's reaction to sensory stimulation, not to the planes flying into the Towers. Oskar has extraordinary intelligence, but struggles to make sense of ordinary things, like sidewalk lines and answering machines. Similarly, we struggle to make sense of the crises that happen in our lives. Death is an "ordinary" thing. It happens every day. But when it happens to someone we know and love, it isn't ordinary at all. And it does not make sense.

When Oskar finds a key inside a vase in his father's closet, he is convinced that it will lead him to something profound that his father left for him. With his unusual focus and quirky intelligence he devises a plan and sets out on a journey that will take him over the boroughs of New York, searching for a message from his father. He knows it will be nearly impossible, but he says, "If things were easy to find, they wouldn't be worth finding."

Along the way Oskar meets dozens of New Yorkers. Many of them have experienced a profound loss. Their losses are not as public or as shared as the losses experienced at the Towers that day, but they are felt just as deeply. Grief, we come to realize, does not have to be public to be cataclysmic.

Early trailers focused on the scenes that include Tom Hanks, a multiple Oscar winner and box-office draw. This makes good marketing sense, even though Hanks is seldom on screen. But after the Oscars were announced last week and Max von Sydow was nominated for best supporting actor, I noticed that the trailers suddenly changed and von Sydow became their new central figure. That makes good business sense too, and even better artistic sense. Von Sydow plays a renter who lives in an apartment across from Oskar's building. Known simply as The Renter, he has experienced a trauma that prevents him from speaking, but not from communicating. Von Sydow is simply brilliant in the role. His expressions transcend the need for words.

As Oskar's mother, Sandra Bullock also demonstrates a wide range of emotions, from numbness to horror to sadness to joy. Yes, even joy, amid the loss. Her grief is almost too painful to watch as she realizes that her husband is doomed, yet she never steps into the realm of melodrama. She manages to stay authentic and vulnerable in every scene.

I wish the same could be said for Thomas Horn as Oskar. He speaks precociously enough, and his moment of cathartic crisis is believably powerful. But he does not portray Asperger’s (or the condition that is "like Asperger’s") well. He has the actions down, but something is missing. Or, more to the point, something almost imperceptible is not missing from the look on his face. It keeps the film from quite making sense . . . but that seems to be the point too, doesn't it?

I wasn't planning to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I really wasn't ready to see a schmaltzy, melodramatic movie about the day the Twin Towers were attacked, and that's exactly what the early trailers led me to believe Extremely Loud would be. But when it was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, I felt an obligation to review it, even if just to say, "What was the Academy thinking?"

Having seen it now, I have to admit: the Academy was right. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is another of this season's artistic gems. I don't think it deserves the Oscar, but it certainly does deserve the recognition of an Oscar nod.


Editor's Note: Review of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," directed by Stephen Daldry. Paramount, 2011, 129 minutes.



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Social Security

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My father’s siblings were an eccentric bunch. Born and bred in Brooklyn, they had a very peculiar perspective on the world. None of them ever learned to drive or talked on the phone. They seldom watched TV but lived by the clock, obsessively timing their every move down to the minute — meals, drinks, constitutionals, shopping, reading, waking and sleeping. They minutely measured every quantity that affected them — the volume of their hamburgers (a 50-cent piece), the number of cans of creamed corn in the pantry (4), the size of the jigger of gin in their drinks (1 oz.), the number of daily drinks (3 — plus a Ballantine’s Ale at lunch and a 6 oz. glass of Cribari Red with dinner), the length of their walks (10 blocks), etc.

Ken, the oldest, for some unknown reason, wasn’t fond of black people. But after his wife of 35 years passed away, he married a Japanese mail order bride and adopted two Korean orphans. The gambit forever severed his relationship with his first set of offspring.

Ruth, the only sister, moved in with the other three bachelor brothers — Wallace, Arthur, and Stanley — when her marriage fell apart. Wallace, a chain-smoking aesthete, wrote volumes of poetry and literary criticism, yet never held a job — an attitude vaguely reflected in his politics: he was a progressive social democrat whose ideal society, he quietly enthused, was realized under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. He kept a secret stash of mild pornography in his closet.

Arthur, the youngest, lived under a tiny cloud of shame no one ever alluded to. A Teamster stevedore, he’d once had one drink too many and passed out on a park bench on his way home. Other than tending the siblings’ elaborate truck garden, he never worked again. On walks to the grocery store he’d stop to turn over upside-down beetles.

Stanley, a diminutive stockbroker with coke-bottle glasses, supported the household. He and Wallace had served their country during WWII in noncombatant roles. Stanley had once been engaged, but when his fiancée broke off the engagement without an explanation, he was heartbroken and disillusioned, and always remained that way. Upon retirement, and after Ruth’s death, the remaining brothers moved to a small town in eastern Colorado, where they lived very frugally except for the weekly visit of a cleaning gal.

Stanley and I kept up a weekly correspondence, mostly a running commentary on politics and current events. One day I received a letter informing me that the cleaning lady had altered a $100 payment check to read $1,000, cashed it, and disappeared. Stanley, who budgeted their affairs down to the penny, said that the theft — along with the rampant inflation of the 1970s — had reduced their finances to below a sustainable level. Could I help them out with a monthly stipend?

It must have been a tough letter to write.

I did — and enlisted my brother and sisters in the project. When my mother found out, she complained that the uncles refused to collect their Social Security checks. It was a matter of principle to them: even though they had paid into the system, they perceived it as welfare — not something they wanted to participate in (except for Wallace, I presume, who may not have paid anything into the system). Despite all that, I never questioned their decision, and continued to send a monthly check.

When Arthur passed away, Stanley turned down my offer to visit and help out. It would, he said — in the only phone conversation I ever had with him — “disrupt their routine too much.” When Wallace died, Stanley again begged off. He died in 1995 at the age of 86.

Last month, in anticipation of turning 62 before the year’s end, I visited my local Social Security office to help determine whether it was better to collect early benefits or wait until I turned 65. Unlike my uncles, I have no qualms about collecting from a system that I’m forced to pay into. I passed a security check, took a number, and patiently waited my turn. When it came, I got a totally unexpected surprise, untempered by any introductory foreplay: I was told that unless I paid another 20 quarters worth of taxes into the system, I would not qualify for any Social Security benefits.

Now, I’ve worked all my life (and continue to do so), and have always paid all my taxes assiduously (though not all of my income was subject to Social Security taxes). I've paid nearly $17,000 into the “compact between generations” (as the Social Security Administration phrases it). I figured my “investment” would be worth at least $80 a month. In spite of knowing that government programs never live up to their promise, I’d never considered that I would be outside the receiving end of Social Security benefits.

What might I have done with those $17,000 I’d paid in over the years? Or with the thousands in stipends I sent my uncles in lieu of their Social Security checks?

Who knows? But I am certain of one thing: I will not throw good money after bad.




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