Yes, But Is It True?

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You probably heard the scuttlebutt about All the Money in the World, even if you haven’t seen the movie: the film was set for a mid-December release with Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty, but six weeks before its release actor Anthony Rapp made sexual allegations against Spacey, and rather than risk their $60 million investment in the film, producers opted to cut all of Spacey’s scenes and reshoot the film with Christopher Plummer. Plummer was an excellent choice — he even looks like Getty — and the editing is virtually seamless. But after seeing the film, my reaction was that they needn’t have bothered. Getty is so despicable in this film that Spacey would have fitted right in. I was so repelled by the character’s meanheartedness that I couldn’t even stomach the thought of visiting the Getty Museum again.

But how accurate is this film?

It’s set in July 1973, when young J. Paul III (Charlie Plummer — no relation to Christopher), Getty’s 16-year-old grandson through Getty’s fourth wife, is kidnapped in Rome. The backstory shows Getty with a special affinity for this particular grandson — his namesake, in fact — and his desire to groom young Paul for the business world. (Come to think of it, that might have been extra creepy with Spacey playing the role.) This makes it all the more despicable when Getty refuses to pay the $17 million ransom demanded for Paul’s return. Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) is determined to change his mind, and soon Getty’s security agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) is on her side. Much of the film focuses on the conflict between the two: Getty, who loves only his money and his art, and Gail, who is willing to give up all further ties to the Getty fortune if her former father-in-law will just pay the ransom for her son. In one particularly deplorable scene, Getty turns Gail away and then immediately meets with an art dealer who offers him a painting of the Madonna and Child by an old master. Getty pays the price demanded — almost as much as the kidnappers’ latest demands — without batting an eye, and caresses the face of the cherubic baby with more apparent love for this oil-on-wood painting than he feels for his family.

J. Paul Getty is so despicable in this film that Kevin Spacey would have fitted right in.

Meanwhile, one of Paul’s captors, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), befriends Paul and begins to protect him from the other kidnappers. He cares for him tenderly, almost like a father for a son. The film becomes as much a story about what it means to be a family as it is about a kidnapping. In the end, Getty dies clutching his painting while Paul is nurtured by Cinquanta. Gail inherits the Getty fortune, and she gets the idea of turning his California villa into an art gallery to share with all the world.

Hold on a minute. That isn’t exactly how it happened. Getty died in 1976, three years after Paul’s abduction and two years after the Getty Museum was founded — by Getty, not by Gail. And it was his son J. Paul II, not Gail, who negotiated with his father for the ransom. Moreover, Getty provided three legitimate reasons for not paying the ransom. First, he had 14 grandchildren, and he felt that paying the ransom would put all of them at risk. Second, he believed that giving in to the demands of criminals leads inevitably to increased hijacking, lawlessness, and terror. The third and most compelling reason was that, far from being the favorite, Paul had been something of a hippie and a bum, was estranged from his grandfather, and had often joked about faking a kidnapping to get money from the billionaire. Getty, ever careful with his money, initially wanted to call Paul’s bluff. Once he knew that Paul was truly kidnapped, he negotiated with the kidnappers and paid the money. Getty does present these reasons in the movie, but because Paul has been established as a favorite (and because the audience has seen that the kidnapping is real) the arguments seem callous, uncaring, and heartless.

It’s true that Getty was frugal to a fault, but he was also a risk-taker who earned his billions. He invested $50 million in his Middle East oil fields before they finally paid off. No one would have bailed him out if his oil wells hadn’t come in. And he recognized his weaknesses. He often lamented the fact that he wasn’t a good husband. He is quoted in Psychology Today as having said, “I hate to be a failure. I hate and regret the failure of my marriages. I would gladly give all my millions for just one lasting marital success."

The film becomes as much a story about what it means to be a family as it is about a kidnapping.

If you can set all this aside and watch All the Money in the World as a work of fiction, you could probably enjoy it. Gail is a strong, indefatigable heroine. Getty is a mean, despicable villain. Paul is a sweet, likable victim. Chase is a character who undergoes change. The acting is topnotch, and the story is tight and suspenseful. But as a piece of history, it leaves me outraged, especially because so many teachers looking for a shortcut will use this as the definitive representation not only of Getty, but of capitalists in general. I’m always puzzled by how hateful Hollywood capitalists are toward capitalists in any other field.

Another biopic with a liberal sociopolitical agenda and a sketchy hold on the truth is The Post. Once again we see a film about a real person that is heavily skewed to fit Hollywood’s culturally acceptable storyline, whether it’s true or not. In this case, the story is “women were oppressed in the ’60s.” The “oppressed woman” is Katharine Graham, the powerful Pulitzer-Prize-winning publisher of the Washington Post during its most successful and influential decades.

In the mid-1960s, Daniel Ellsberg was a military analyst working on a top-secret study of classified documents about the war in Vietnam. What Ellsberg discovered was a trail of misrepresentations and outright lies about US involvement in Southeast Asia stretching as far back as the Truman administration. This 7,000-page study would become known as the Pentagon Papers. The gist of the story was that everyone knew that Vietnam was a war the US could not win, but no one wanted to be associated with defeat, so they kept offering platitudes like “our progress over the past twelve months has exceeded our expectations” when they knew we were losing ground. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of American teenagers were being drafted to fight — and many to die.

As a piece of history, it leaves me outraged, especially because so many teachers looking for a shortcut will use this as the definitive representation not only of Getty, but of capitalists.

Disillusioned by what he discovered, Ellsberg began systematically sneaking the report out of the offices a few folders at a time over the course of several months, right under the noses of the guards. After copying the originals and returning them to their filing cabinets, Ellsberg made the papers available to several antiwar congressmen before offering them to Neil Sheenan of the New York Times, who wrote a series of nine articles containing excerpts and commentaries. But before the second story could be published, a federal court issued a restraining order and shut the story down, citing national security violations and threatening felony indictments if the Times published another installment.

Ellsberg had made numerous sets of copies, and offered them to several publications. The restraining order applied specifically to the Times, leaving the door ajar for the Washington Post and other papers to publish. Maybe.

This is where The Post begins. The movie is not so much about what the Pentagon Papers contained or Ellsberg’s role in obtaining them as it is about the Post’s decision about whether to defy the implicit injunction and run the story. At the center of the conflict are publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and Graham’s close advisor Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), who was in the middle of helping Graham take the Post public when the story broke. Not only was freedom of the press at stake, but Graham stood to lose millions of dollars if the sale of shares in the Post fell through.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of American teenagers were being drafted to fight — and many to die.

Standing trial in this film are both the New York Times and the stifling cultural setting of the 1960s — especially the upper-class 1960s. Streep’s Graham is not the tough, iron lady we expect the publisher of a major national newspaper to be — male or female. She’s tentative, indecisive, often close to tears as she faces decisions. In one scene, Beebe coaches her on what to say in a meeting with potential investors. She writes the phrases down on a notepad so she won’t forget them. She fumbles as she enters the boardroom, unsure where to put her armful of books and notes. And when the time comes to say her words, she stares at them on the notepaper, unable to give them voice. Beebe, noticing how flustered she is, steps in and makes the point for her.

As a 21st-century audience with 21st-century sensibilities about women, we aren’t comfortable with Graham’s discomfort. We want her to be bold and take charge. We don’t like seeing her walk behind three male colleagues as they virtually snub her, and having her take it without so much as a roll of her eye or a clenching of her jaw. We don’t like the fact that she seems clumsy and always out of breath. We also aren’t comfortable with the way she inherited the Post, almost as an afterthought, from her grandfather to her father to her husband and finally, when no one else was left, to her.

Kay Graham was a skilled hostess and socialite at a time when a woman’s home and children were a reflection of herself. At a social gathering of ladies, one woman asks Kay, “How do you find time for everything when you go to the office all day?” My audience groaned, but these women were serious. Similarly, at a dinner party, as soon as the conversation turns to politics, the hostess calls out cheerily, “That’s our cue to leave the table, ladies!” And they do — cheerily.

Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham is not the tough, iron lady we expect the publisher of a major national newspaper to be — male or female.

This scene reminded me of being invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a wealthy college classmate in Chevy Chase, a posh neighborhood near DC, in 1972, just a year after this film takes place. After dinner I went into the TV room with my then-boyfriend, where all the men were watching football. Soon the matron of the house called to me from the doorway, “Wouldn’t you like to join the women in the living room?” I was enjoying the men’s conversation and told her I was comfortable where I was. Undaunted, she coaxed again, suggesting that I might want to join the cousins for board games. Finally, exasperated, she sent me to the playroom with a trumped-up message about cake and ice cream for the children. I had no idea at the time that men and women were supposed to separate after dinner.

But this was Kay Graham’s life — or so the filmmakers would like us to believe. It fits the social narrative that women are victims. And there is some support for this characterization of Graham. In her memoirs, she said of her father’s decision to give the paper to her husband, “It never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.” She also confesses to having lacked confidence in her own decisions and having been slighted by the men in the room during business meetings. Streep presents these weaknesses to a fault in the film.

While the film is interesting historically, it isn’t very exciting or compelling dramatically.

But Graham was a cagey, crafty woman. Notice that she didn’t say, “It never crossed my mind that I was capable of taking on an important job at the paper.” She said, “It never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me” as such. The remark says more about her father than it does about her. Similarly, if men slighted her in business meetings, she would have considered that a condemnation of them, not herself. I asked a friend of mine, a publisher who was part of the news scene in Washington during the decades when Graham ran the Post, what he thought of her. Without thinking twice, he said, “She was strong, demanding, and hard to work for.” Not for one second did he buy Meryl Streep’s characterization of Kay Graham as timid and indecisive.

The characterization of Kay Graham isn’t my only complaint about The Post. While the film is interesting historically, it isn’t very exciting or compelling dramatically. Let’s face it: this is a piece about writing. And talking. And talking about writing. There isn’t much action, and Spielberg is an action director. He does what he can to spice it up with odd camera angles, mood lighting, and naturalistic acting techniques. But it doesn’t quite work. The movie does pick up in the second half, when they’re racing against time to read the Pentagon Papers and meet the Post’s front page deadline. But again — it’s about reading. And talking about what they’re reading. This film would also be difficult to follow for someone who doesn’t already know the story. Spielberg provides precious little exposition, and if you didn’t already know who key players are from their names, you wouldn’t be able to figure it out from the context.

Nevertheless, The Post has been nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture for Spielberg and Best Actress for Streep. And if it weren’t for the fact that she so utterly misrepresents Kay Graham, I might agree. It’s a stellar piece of acting. Streep is famous for listening attentively and stepping into the conversation before her partner has completed his lines — as though she just thought of something and can’t wait to say it. But when Hanks parrots back the same style, the result seems forced and competitive. I’m crossing my fingers for Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water (see my review, “Knights in Dark Satin”) if only because I don’t want to be lectured about politics even one more time by Meryl Streep.

In creating their political parable, Spielberg and screenwriter Liz Hannah are about as subtle as the Old Spice aftershave your father used to wear. They want us compare the era of the ’60s to ours and come up with the same conclusion: throw the bum out of the White House. They do this by presenting the cultural victimhood of women, the importance of whistleblowers, the so-called separation of the “fourth estate,” and the suspicious, paranoid personality of the president in the White House.

But let’s examine these so-called similarities. MeToo movement aside, women have made gigantic strides in journalism, medicine, boardrooms, academia, politics, and just about every field except perhaps moviemaking, where the casting couch is finally airing its dirty linen. Whistleblowers are back too, but they don’t need the New York Times to break their stories. Wikileaks, YouTube, cable news, and Project Veritas are just a few of the current outleats for non-mainstream voices.

The filmmakers want us compare the era of the ’60s to ours and come up with the same conclusion: throw the bum out of the White House.

And journalists are still in bed with the stories they cover. The Grahams frequently socialized with the Kennedys, the Johnsons, Robert McNamara, and other leaders in Washington. Their stories were influenced by their friendships. The Post went after Nixon with a vengeance, but looked the other way at the Kennedy men’s sexual infidelities and Bob McNamara’s part in the Vietnam War. In the movie, Ben Bradlee glances wistfully at personal photographs taken with the Kennedys and declares, “The days of smoking cigars together are over,” suggesting that journalists would now become objective and trustworthy — that today’s mainstream media are objective and trustworthy. Spielberg might like to think that’s true, but it isn’t. Journalists and Hollywood types continue to fawn over their favorite politicians, especially the Clintons and the Obamas, but also including Donald Trump (if they want to get an interview).

George Orwell selected the title of his famous dystopian novel by flopping the publication date, 1948, to create 1984, and Spielberg likes to point out the similar connection between 1971 and 2017 to emphasize his allegorical connection between Nixon and Trump. (In fact, he rushed production of The Post in order to release it in 2017.) Nixon is portrayed as the bad guy in this film, going off on a tirade against the press and banning all Washington Post reporters from ever entering the White House again. (These are Nixon’s own words, by the way, using audio from the Oval Office tapes, although we don’t know the context of the recording; was he banning them because of the Pentagon Papers or because Post reporter and future “Miss Manners” columnist Judith Martin crashed his daughter Tricia’s wedding?) President Trump’s paranoid war against the press, tweeting diatribes in the middle of the night, and threatening to close down the mainstream media, come inevitably to mind.

Ironically, Richard Nixon was the president who finally had the courage to end the draft and the war in Vietnam, and therefore he should be considered the hero in the Pentagon Papers. But Nixon’s brooding paranoia would not allow him to let Ellsberg get away with being a whistleblower. Hoping to tarnish Ellsberg’s reputation, Nixon’s lackeys broke into the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, searching for records that would impugn his mental heath. That break-in led to the Watergate investigation, Nixon’s downfall, and the Post’s biggest story. Could a similar downfall be on the horizon for Trump?


Editor's Note: Reviews of "All the Money in the World," directed by Ridley Scott. Imperative Entertainment, 2017, 132 minutes; and "The Post," directed by Steven Spielberg. Amblin Entertainment, 2017, 116 minutes.



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What Followed the Triple Axel

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In America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, you can be anything you want to be, if you just dream big enough and try hard enough. Right.

Well, not quite.

In U.S. Figure Skating, you can deliver the skate of your life, earn a silver medal, and still not make the Olympic team. Ross Miner did just that on January 7, skating a nearly perfect program to a rousing medley of Queen songs that earned him a silver medal behind 18-year-old skating phenom Nathan Chen and his five quadruple jumps. No one was going to beat Chen; silver was the new gold in 2018.

To win that silver medal, Miner had to be perfect. And he was. From the exquisitely light landing of his opening quad-salchow to the high, tight rotations of his triple lutz-triple toe to the musicality of his footwork and the unusual entrances into his fast, centered spins, Miner was perfect. No panic, no worry, he was “cool, relaxed, got hip, got on his tracks” as the lyrics sang during his footwork pattern. In figure skating there’s a term called “peaking at the right moment,” and Miner did. He laid out a perfect program when he needed it most: the national championships leading into the Olympics.

In U.S. Figure Skating, you can deliver the skate of your life, earn a silver medal, and still not make the Olympic team.

Miner handily beat bronze medalist Vincent Zhou and pewter medalist Adam Rippon. At 17, Zhou has the quads but not the musicality of a seasoned skater; at 28, Rippon has the seasoned performance quality, but he choked when it counted, falling on his quad and popping two of his planned triples into singles. It was a devastating moment, one sure to haunt him for the rest of his life.

But hold on. Ross Miner didn’t make the Olympic team. He’ll be in South Korea as an alternate behind Zhou and Rippon. Unlike what happens in track and field, swimming, skiing, and just about any other sport, winning at U.S. Figure Skating Nationals doesn’t guarantee you a trip to the Olympics. In figure skating that decision is made behind closed doors by a committee that examines the skaters’ “body of work” to decide who is most likely to bring home a medal. And this season they’re betting on Rippon. Thanks for the memories, Ross. See ya later.

Selection by committee instead of competition also allows the judges to keep out the riffraff, which they weren’t able to do in 1994, when national gold medalist Tonya Harding, accused of masterminding the attack on competitor Nancy Kerrigan, sued the United States Figure Skating Association for her right to compete on the US team in Lillehammer, Norway. Under the new rules, she would not have been able to sue, because medaling would not have guaranteed her a spot.

But that wasn’t the first time the judges tried to keep Harding down. A jumping powerhouse from the time she was a child and the first woman to land a triple axel at Nationals, Harding was never liked by the judges. She didn’t represent the sport the way the judges wanted. She wasn’t “an old timey version of what a woman is supposed to be.” There was a hard edge about her that came from growing up in hard circumstances. She had thick thighs, over-permed hair, and heavy makeup; her practice outfits were too garish, her music too brash, and her performance dresses too full of froufrou. She practiced in a shopping mall ice rink. Instead of taking her under their wing and helping her succeed, the judges brushed her aside with low scores and hoped she would go away.

Harding was never liked by the judges. She didn’t represent the sport the way the judges wanted.

Nancy Kerrigan was the opposite of Tonya Harding. She wore simple practice dresses and elegant performance dresses, pulled her sleek hair back into a bun, selected classical music for her routines, and even had her tiny front teeth capped to please the judges and develop the proper “look” for ladies’ skating. She was a skilled, elegant skater as well, with confident jumps and her trademark hand-on-knee spiral that young skaters liked to imitate. But more than anything, she had the look. The judges loved her.

Everyone knows what happened next: a goon named Shawn Eckardt hired another goon named Shane Stant to clobber Nancy Kerrigan with a collapsible baton during practice just two days before the senior ladies’ competition at Nationals in 1994. Eckardt was Harding’s bodyguard and the best friend of her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. Harding was blamed and her career was over. As the US gold medalist, she successfully sued to compete at Lillehammer. But at her ensuing trial she would be banned for life from any USFSA competitions, events, or activities.

Although pleas were entered and verdicts were pronounced in the Harding-Kerrigan case, no one really knows what happened. I don’t think even the principal characters know for sure. Eckardt was a self-important blowhard who insisted he had done espionage work for the CIA. Gillooly would have turned in his own mother to stay out of prison. Harding would have done the same to save her career and compete in the Olympics. In a situation like this there’s a tendency for the brain to rearrange its memories in a way that defends and protects its host; I doubt that Tonya Harding really knows what she knew, and when she knew it.

All of this is chronicled admirably in the new film I, Tonya. Libertarians will see an ironic connection in this title that is probably unintentional; just as no one person can make a pencil, no one person is responsible for the making of Tonya Harding. She is the product of poverty and poor education, abandonment by her father, beating by her mother, more beating by her husband, and unfair judging in a sport that was the only good thing in her life. I’m not defending her here; what happened to Kerrigan is inexcusable. But I am strangely sympathetic to her as a tragic hero who fell so far and so hard.

In the Harding-Kerrigan case, no one really knows what happened. I don’t think even the principal characters know for sure.

The film uses the mockumentary interview format made popular by Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest in such films as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. This fictionalized interview style is exactly the right choice for presenting a story that relies so completely on unreliable narrators who think they have a lock on the truth. The result is a film that’s as funny as it is tragic.

We see the same kind of delusional defensiveness in the mock interviews with Tonya’s mother, LaVona Harding (Allison Janney). “She skated better when she was enraged,” she explains, justifying her harsh treatment of Tonya, which includes beating her, berating her, and even throwing a knife at her (the real LaVona denies the knife throwing, but she acknowledges and justifies the “spankings”). When Tonya’s coach suggests that a ladylike demeanor might help Tonya fit in more with the other skaters, LaVona shouts, “Tonya doesn’t fit in. She stands out!” When LaVona thinks Tonya needs a little more determination to prove herself on the ice, she pays a fan to heckle her own daughter. She is cold, cruel, and unintentionally comical, and Janney plays her to the hilt of the knife she flings into Tonya’s arm.

The other characters are equally entertaining in a “stranger-than-fiction” sort of way. It’s like watching skating’s equivalent of a 20-car pileup: you just can’t look away. And it does offer a plausible backstory that makes Harding (played at different ages by Maizie Smith, McKenna Grace, and Margot Robbie) a more sympathetic character as a battered woman, bullied by everyone around her, than the one we’ve seen in documentaries over the past 24 years.

“She skated better when she was enraged,” Harding's mom explains, justifying her harsh treatment of her daughter, which includes beating her, berating her, and even throwing a knife at her.

As a former skating mom, I remember the meanness of certain skaters, the prejudice of certain judges, the “acceptable” sabotage that often went on in dressing rooms. I taught my daughter to hold her head up, skate her best, and act as though everyone liked her. Eventually, everyone did. But a girl as socially inept as Tonya, with an ex-husband as hotheaded as Gillooly and a bodyguard as delusional as Eckart might almost be forgiven for . . . um . . . Nope. Not forgivable.

Nevertheless, the film has become something of a darling among the feminist set who are determined this year to make heroes out of victims with vaginas, even one who may have ordered a hit on another victim of the same gender. The black-dress ladies fawned over Tonya at the Golden Globes and are likely to do the same at future awards events this season. Watching the real Tonya Harding skate her landmark 1991 program as the movie credits rolled, seeing the joy on her face as she landed her triple axel and completed a clean program, I could almost agree with them. It was all so senseless. She didn’t need to beat Kerrigan to beat Kerrigan.


Editor's Note: Review of "I, Tonya," directed by Craig Gillespie. Clubhouse Pictures, 2017, 120 minutes.



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All that Glitters Is Not Green

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Say what you will about urban woes, there is an American City — let’s call it the Emerald City — where everything appears to be swell, all the time. Just think: even among its lowly municipal employees there are 10,600 who make over $100,000 a year. That’s $1.3 billion a year, total.

This city employs a commissioner of aviation — I suppose to fend off flying monkeys and witches on broomsticks. The commissioner must do a good job, because last year she earned a $100,000 bonus, on top of her $300,000 salary.

Emerald City’s Water Management Department employs none but the finest: more than 700 of its people merit and receive over $100,000 a year, each.

This city employs a commissioner of aviation — I suppose to fend off flying monkeys and witches on broomsticks.

To keep the streets all green and shiny, Emerald City pays at least 160 of its Streets and Sanitation employees more than $100,000 a year. And to keep those streets safe, the city fields 5,007 Police Department employees who work so hard, what with overtime and all, that they too make more than $100,000.

Their salaries are especially well merited, considering the extreme and demoralizing difficulty of solving the city’s crimes. In this capital of clever criminals, more than 71% of murders go unsolved, despite the efforts of 4,800 police detectives, some of whom are paid more than $120,000 in overtime alone.

Only a happy and wealthy populace can afford to employ civil servants at prices like these. The willingness — nay, the eagerness — of Emerald City’s citizens to employ no one but the best is indicated by the fact that during the past five years, the average family’s tax contribution has increased by $1,700. That’s city taxes alone, mind you. But the citizens go farther: as of three years ago, they were willing to go into debt to the tune of $63 billion, an average of $61,000 per household — more than enough to move into a brand-new house almost anywhere on the Yellow Brick Road. And those figures have risen since.

But here’s a curious thing. The median household income of the United States is something like $56,000, but in only 16 of Emerald City’s 50 most populous statistical neighborhoods is the median household income $56,000 or greater. The bottom 16 neighborhoods have incomes of less than $37,000. Isn’t that interesting?

In this capital of clever criminals, more than 71% of murders go unsolved, despite the efforts of 4,800 police detectives, some of whom are paid more than $120,000 in overtime alone.

Another interesting statistic: In 2016, there were 762 homicides in Emerald City, a number that a police spokesman called “unacceptable.” Yet by mid-August of this year, the figure for 2017 already stood at 463.

And if report be true, Emerald City is not the spotless land of delight that Dorothy Gale reported visiting. Recent visitors speak of filthy streets, ridiculous traffic, ugly social customs, and a general sense that if you are not very rich in Emerald City, then you are very poor.

Yet, according to statistics, not many of the very rich actually live in Emerald City. None of the city’s 50 neighborhoods has a median household income of $100,000. In the wealthiest one, median incomes are in the low 90s, less than the incomes just cited for the 10,600 civil servants. And since the median income of the entire city is only $47,000, it seems likely that a sociologist would analyze the situation as one in which a comparatively small number of city employees ruthlessly exploit the great majority of their employers, giving them practically nothing in return.

The sociologist might then turn to the political scientist and ask, “How long can this go on?” The political scientist might answer, “Who knows? Somehow, the voters of Emerald City have empowered the same political party, the same political customs, the same political regime, for more than three generations, no matter what happened as a result. This looks like a job for a psychologist.”

Recent visitors speak of filthy streets, ridiculous traffic, ugly social customs, and a general sense that if you are not very rich in Emerald City, then you are very poor.

Thus consulted, the psychologist would probably say, “The citizens of Emerald City are like almost everyone else in the United States. They all do things like this. Who am I to judge? Statistically, people in Emerald City are sane and normal.”

I think there’s a chapter in one of the Oz books where this problem comes up. Having discovered what is actually going on in the Emerald City, a crowd rushes to the palace, shouting, “To the Wizard! To the Wizard! The Wizard will explain it!” Sure enough, the door of the palace opens, and out comes the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He’s carrying a book, and he says, “Back where I come from, we have people who are called theo . . . theologo . . . theologians! They spend all day thinking about the human soul. And they have nothing more to say about it than they can find in this old book.”

The Wizard opens it and reads:

A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?

“So,” said the Wizard, “you can all go home. Get out of here now — go on! Go on home.”




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Music Hath Charms

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“What is the soundtrack of your life?”

Shedrick “B,” an inmate presenter at the TEDx Sing Sing I helped organize a few years ago, asked that question of the audience of 100 or so civilians and inmates. He went on to explain that music has the power to transport him back to certain moments in his life: holding hands with his first girlfriend, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, Christmas Eve with his family, being booked for the crime that landed him in prison. When he hears the songs he remembers, he returns to those moments, good and bad.

With the invention of the MP3 player and iPhone, music could indeed become the soundtrack of our lives. Suddenly we had instant access to thousands of songs that used to be piled in a shoebox or stored in the wrong jewel case in a closet back home. And with music-streaming platforms like Pandora, we have access to thousands more songs that we haven’t even purchased. We can listen to music when we’re walking, driving, biking, talking, waiting, even sleeping. When I go hiking, the station I select — sometimes upbeat ’60s, sometimes a mellow Coldplay, sometimes classical or Broadway or hymns — controls my mood and thus my experience. It was inevitable that a movie would take that ubiquity and turn it into a giant of a movie. That movie is Baby Driver.

Baby isn’t just skilled; he’s a veritable savant, and we barely hang onto our seats as he hightails the robbers through the streets of Atlanta.

Other films have toyed with the concept; Woody Allen is known for the jazz pieces he selects for his soundtracks. Music stands out in Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the protagonist in Guardians of the Galaxy (also 2014), listens to an ’80s mix tape his mother made for him as he gathers the energy to save the universe. The soundtrack was the best part of Guardians, and fans couldn’t wait to hear the selections for Guardians Vol. 2. Even calling it “Volume 2,” like an album, instead of “Part 2,” like a movie, acknowledges the importance of the music as a main ingredient of the franchise’s popularity.

But music isn’t just the soundtrack of Baby Driver; it’s the driving force. Baby (Ansel Elgort) can’t function unless his earbuds are delivering exactly the right playlist of high-octane music to his brain, even when his life depends on getting the hell out of there now. Baby is the highly skilled getaway driver for the mastermind, called Doc (Kevin Spacey), behind a series of bank and post office heists. He isn’t just skilled; he’s a veritable savant, and we barely hang onto our seats as he hightails the robbers through the streets of Atlanta while dodging cars, cops, and bullets. The music is perfectly synchronized with the actions and gestures of the characters, even when they’re sitting around a table having a conversation. It all creates the sense that we’re watching a choreographed concert as much as a movie.

Despite his childlike name, Baby is cooler than cool. No matter how many times he loses his sunglasses (or someone takes them) he has another pair in his pocket to replace them. He carries multiple iPods loaded with music for any occasion, and he doesn’t flinch when his life is endangered. When he isn’t driving like a stunt man, he’s running through streets and leaping over benches and stairs like a parkour expert.

Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) heightens the fun with unexpected edits and background details. As Baby leaps through the streets to a chorus of “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” the word “Yeah” is seen spray-painted on three successive trees, exactly in time to the music. In the window of the bank that’s being robbed, we see a poster advertising college loans — a kind of bank robbery itself, and a life sentence for many students who get in over their heads. When Baby is at a laundromat, the clothes cycling around in the dryer become a 45 record spinning us into the next scene. Baby uses sign language to communicate with his rheumy-eyed foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) who looks blind, not deaf.

When he isn’t driving like a stunt man, he’s running through streets and leaping over benches and stairs like a parkour expert.

We soon learn that Baby isn’t really a bad guy at heart. He’s gentle and thoughtful with Joseph. He’s in love with a sweet young waitress (Lily James), who is just as anxious to blow this town and start a new life as he is. But he owes a debt to Doc, the cool and sadistic mastermind, and he has to do one last job to be free of the debt. If you know anything at all about film scripts, you know that the words “one last job” can be deadly.

So Baby is enlisted for one last heist, driving Doc’s newly organized team (John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Elza Gonzalez); as expected, things begin to go deliciously, suspensefully wrong. Baby takes a few wrong turns and a few right ones as he tries to extricate himself from Doc’s employ while protecting the two people he loves — and always with exactly the right music and the right pair of sunglasses to motivate him for the job. In my opinion the film jumps the shark toward the end, when a glaring red haze demonizes a particular character and culminates in the virtual fires of hell, but I can forgive that over-the-top indulgence. The entire film is over the top, and that’s what’s keeping it at the top of the box office. Baby Driver is a winner from the word “Go.”




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Welcome to My Neighborhood

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The first time we saw Connie she was packing a snub-nosed .38. It was strapped snugly to her narrow hips, which were wrapped in skin-tight jeans — knee-high black leather boots and matching jacket rounding out her outfit.

She didn’t look around as she mounted her Harley — or put on a helmet. Her dirty blonde mane was blowing in the breeze. Connie was hot, albeit a bit rough around the edges — what some people might call “rough trade.”

We’d just moved in across the street from her house, a plain, white block bungalow without frippery or landscaping, other than a lawn, doubtless maintained because of the nearly free irrigation water available — and her job.

Connie was hot, albeit a bit rough around the edges — what some people might call “rough trade.”

Parts of the Phoenix metro area are serviced by the Salt River Project (SRP) irrigation district, organized in the 1800s to exploit the flows of that perennial river for the benefit of the surrounding desert farms. Today, much of the farmland has been turned to housing, and the irrigation water, delivered by canals, to lawns bordered by berms to retain the water.

The schedules for lawn flooding are on a rotating continuous timescale, with no lawn receiving its share at the same time each irrigation period. Floodgates may be opened or shut at any time of the day or night, according to SRP’s schedule. Most homeowners, people who work regular jobs and value their sleep, prefer to hire out this task. Enter Connie, who, for a small fee, was available to take care of your irrigation responsibilities.

Within days after our move into the neighborhood, Connie came over to introduce herself, scope us out, and proffer her services. It didn’t take long for her to feel comfortable and express her relief that we weren’t black or Mexican. Before she got too carried away, ranting and raving against those two groups, I told her I was Cuban-American and my wife was Mexican-American.

She said she’d been married to a founder of the Aryan Nation, a white prison gang. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

She said that was of no consequence. She was prejudiced against these people as a group, not against particular individuals, and she added that one of her best friends was black.

Yeah, right, I thought. To allay our doubts, she explained.

She said she’d been married to a founder of the Aryan Nation, a white prison gang. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. We had needed at least as long to absorb it. (What sort of neighborhood had we moved into?) She continued, explaining that the gang had been formed for protection and that racial and ethnic affinities were the simplest methods for organization. The gangs — black, white, and Chicano — set behavioral rules and enforced them. Compliance led to respect, and respect to incipient friendships — the tortuous path that had led her to a friendship with a black.

Whether Connie was a racist might be debatable, but her opinion of men was definitely single-minded. Glancing at Tina, my wife, and then locking eyeballs with me she declared in no uncertain terms that all men were after the same thing. Sex — no exceptions.

We signed up for her irrigation services.

Connie never answered her door. She figured only bad news would come calling. All visits had to be prearranged. Her house was ringed by security cameras, footage from which was usually available to neighbors to figure out neighborhood mysteries. On at least one occasion, she helped resolve a vandalism incident. Her boyfriend, a muscle-bound, tattooed skinhead in a permanent tank-top, was surprisingly modest and self-effacing. He would often wait hours in front of her door for a response.

Connie, however, was a meth head and occasionally went on binges. Once past the high, she’d get nasty and combative but then, when coming down, would sink into maudlin depression. Her solace was Frannie, our octogenarian neighbor. Frannie was a talented oil-on-canvas painter, fluent in Mandarin and Swahili, and a horny old woman. She and Tina would often share a glass of wine in the afternoon under the carport and talk men. I think it was Frannie’s affinity for Tina that facilitated Connie’s trust in us.

Connie never answered her door. She figured only bad news would come calling. All visits had to be prearranged.

Connie once invited Tina to a shooting range. She’d always wanted to try some shooting, so she enthusiastically accepted. Connie provided Tina with what Tina called a “complicated” handgun, while Connie took a semi-automatic rifle (Tina, knowing little about guns, called it a machine gun).

The female bonding experience was going well until Tina became friendly with the cops who were sharpening their skills in the adjacent gallery. Connie turned combative and abruptly cancelled the date.

Her immediate neighbors were of two minds about her. The family due west was reminiscent of the Gallaghers, the family depicted in the TV series Shameless — dissolute, disorganized, undisciplined, and possessed of a passel of kids. Connie pirated her TV cable off their cable and, I believe (I didn’t pry), shared the monthly fee. The family due east was a couple of editors for the Arizona Republic, the state’s leading newspaper. They and Connie were feuding — something having to do with a tree growing over the cyclone fence separating their back yards.

When Connie found out I was a mason, she asked that I build a block wall between her property and these neighbors’. Except for those lots, most properties in the old subdivision were separated by four-inch-thick block walls supported every ten feet by eight-inch-thick block pillars. I agreed, but I needed to look at her back yard to estimate the extent of the job. She took us over for a look.

Her home was neat and clean. She’d remodeled the tract house to carve out a tiny control room where she monitored the surveillance cameras, and a gun closet where her arsenal was stored. But her bedroom took the cake. A four-poster, crinolined, oversized bed dominated the room, together with a four-by-eight mirror on the ceiling. We didn’t ask.

Frannie was a talented oil-on-canvas painter, fluent in Mandarin and Swahili, and a horny old woman.

Connie didn’t depend for her income on just being the irrigator. When a neighbor discovered her call-girl website, the place went ballistic. (Meanwhile, of course, all the men surreptitiously peeked at her website.) Two doors down from Connie and one door down from the Gallagher-like family lived a cop. He knew all about Connie. He refused to get involved. His philosophy was, if Connie didn’t disrupt the neighborhood, he left well enough alone.

One midday our house was broken into. Purely by happenstance, Tina showed up while the burglar was inside. Tina didn’t hesitate; although small in stature, she was fearless, a rock climber, and built like a female Schwarzenegger. She opened the door and bee-lined toward the hubbub. Catching the thief as she was attempting to climb out the window, Tina wrestled her to the ground and was about to begin pounding when the woman yelled that she was pregnant.

Having been brought up by drug-addled parents in dodgy environments and shuttled between foster homes, Tina had street smarts and could spot a line of BS instantly. “That jewelry that you stole was given to me by my husband just before he was killed in a shoot-out,” she responded, giving the thief pause.

Tina dragged her to the phone and called 911. The operator told her not to attempt to apprehend the thief. While Tina was on the phone, the thief slipped her grip, ran across the street, and jumped up on the four-inch block wall separating Connie’s house from her cable-sharing neighbors. Then, incredibly, she ran atop its length to the next street, where her car was parked. For all her athletic abilities, Tina couldn’t catch up, though she did provide a description of the car.

Catching the thief as she was attempting to climb out the window, Tina wrestled her to the ground.

The thief didn’t get away. Two female officers had already been dispatched and caught her attempting to flee. Tina ID’d the woman and, expecting a lecture about taking the law into her own hands, apologized to the officers for not following the dispatcher’s orders concerning the thief’s apprehension. Instead, the cops congratulated her and expressed a wish that more citizens would get more involved. They added that the woman had done time and was under suspicion and surveillance for similar burglaries in the area — one reason they’d been able to respond so quickly.

When we related these events to Connie, she said the woman was lucky she hadn’t broken into her house.

I never built a wall for Connie; she was too unpredictable. Instead of improving, Connie’s situation deteriorated. She took more drugs, got more combative, and alienated more neighbors. We sold our house at the top of the market bubble (the one that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner didn’t spot), made a tidy profit, and moved away. Frannie told us that Connie ended up in prison for, I think, owning a firearm — a no-no for a convicted felon.

I love a diverse neighborhood: academic editors, polyglot artists, cops, Aryan Brotherhood meth heads, Cuban & Mexican-Americans, housing bubble speculators, handy call girls, classic car collectors, and other unique personalities we never got a chance to meet.

Our new neighborhood in a small town, anarchic in a completely different way, is calmer. While the characters aren't quite so extremely colorful, the property mix — along winding and hilly streets that change names seemingly without logic, and irregular land parcels — contains multimillion-dollar homes on acreage next to mobile homes and modest DIY homes on small lots, and even a nearly perennial creek called Miller Creek. We don’t even lock our doors.




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There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Reverse Mortgage

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Hell or High Water is a classic film about down-on-their-luck bank robbers and the gruff-but-tenderhearted sheriff who doggedly chases them. The bank robbers are brothers Tanner (Ben Foster), an ex-con recently released from prison, and Toby (Chris Pine), a rancher trying to save the family home from foreclosure because the recently deceased mother had tied it up with a reverse mortgage. Come “hell or high water,” they are determined to pay off the debt before the bank gets the ranch.

There isn’t a bad guy in this film. The robbers are bumbling and likeable, with a noble if misguided motive. “We ain’t stealing from you, we’re stealing from the bank,” Tanner tells one bank manager as he points a gun at him. They’re smart enough to garner our admiration for their home-saving plan, dumb enough to make us laugh, and kind enough to tellers and waitresses to engage our sympathy. The bank managers and tellers are also just ordinary folks doing their jobs, and a little bit dumb as well. Their video cameras aren’t working, and they seem to have no security plan in place. If anyone could be considered a villain in this film, it would be faceless bank presidents and real-life folks such as Alex Trebek and Tom Selleck, the television hucksters who promote reverse mortgages as the financial saviors of old age — but they don’t actually appear in the movie.

It’s a brilliant piece of acting from a brilliant and underappreciated actor.

As inept as they seem, Toby and Tanner leave no clues behind — largely because the bankers are so inept themselves. Sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is determined to catch these thieves through cunning instead of force. He would rather figure out their next move and wait for them at the next bank than chase them down with forensics and SWAT teams. He’s an old codger of the proverbial “dying breed,” and the true thief in this film — Jeff Bridges steals the show. Bridges has long been one of my favorite actors, as skilled as Tom Hanks but without the pizazz and notoriety. He just gets the job done, quietly and without fanfare, much as his character, Marcus Hamilton, does in the script.

Underlying the bank heists and chase scenes and good-ol’-boy ribbing is a poignant story about how difficult it can be for men to express deep affection for one another. Tanner and Toby clearly love each other, yet they can’t put that love into words. Instead, they undertake a risky scheme to demonstrate their loyalty to each other. Similarly, Toby is estranged from his sons, who want nothing to do with him, yet he is willing to risk death or prison in order to give them a better life.

If anyone could be considered a villain in this film, it would be faceless bank presidents and real-life folks such as Alex Trebek and Tom Selleck, the television hucksters who promote reverse mortgages.

The relationship between the sheriff and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is even more striking. Marcus is an old-fashioned “man’s man” who can’t express his appreciation or affection in words. Instead, he peppers his Native American partner with an incessant barrage of racist jokes and stereotypes that cause the audience to cringe and laugh at the same time. But we catch a glimpse of his true emotion in a particular moment when Marcus first laughs in exultation over something he has just accomplished, then strangles that laugh into a sob, and then lifts his head with stoic calmness and moves on. It’s a brilliant piece of acting from a brilliant and underappreciated actor.

Hell or High Water is a character-driven film with an engaging story and topnotch acting. I’ve come to expect the best from Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, who tend to abandon themselves in their acting and let the character take over with gestures and expressions that are simply and unexpectedly perfect. But Chris Pine, who is known mostly as an action figure with a pretty face (Star Trek, Jack Ryan), delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance as well. Come hell or high water, you should see this film while it’s in theaters this month.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hell or High Water," directed by David Mackenzie. Film 44 / Odd Lot Entertainment (that’s right — not a big studio; they’re all busy making superhero movies), 2016, 102 minutes.



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Riddles, Wrapped in Mysteries

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How in the world did this happen?

That’s a question I often ask myself when I read the news. When I ask it, I’m seldom reacting to the events reported. One can easily imagine what makes drunk drivers crash into trees, or political parties disgrace themselves before their constituents. But how in the world did the report end up that way?

On July 11, an inmate in the Berrien County, Michigan jail snatched a gun from an officer and began shooting people. Reporting on this event as it developed, the Washington Post went for some local color:

Video footage posted online that appeared to be from outside the courthouse in southwestern Michigan showed a litany of police vehicles with their lights flashing parked outside the building. . . .

The courthouse is located about 50 miles west of Kalamazoo, where an Uber driver killed six people in a shooting spree earlier this year.

It isn’t hard to see what went wrong with that first sentence. Somebody wanted to jazz it up, and he or she remembered that there was, somewhere in the dictionary, perhaps under the letter “l,” the word litany. Why not use that word? The reason not to use it was merely that it doesn’t mean a line of vehicles, or a line of any kind of objects. It means a series of things one says in church. Its use was, therefore, ludicrous in the extreme.

Oh well, bad guess. A couple of hours later, the sentence was revised to read: “Video footage posted online that appeared to be from outside the courthouse in southwestern Michigan showed numerous police vehicles, their lights flashing. . . .” In some dark cavern of the Washpo building, a graybeard had been found who actually knew what is the meaning of litany.

Did the Washington Post mean to suggest that Uber drivers from Kalamazoo infest the grounds of the Berrien County courthouse, waiting a chance at murder and mayhem?

But what about the second sentence? It was changed, too; the word located was excised: “The courthouse is about 50 miles west of Kalamazoo, where an Uber driver killed six people in a shooting spree earlier this year.” Well, that’s fussy, isn’t it? And it was a fussiness triumphant over meaning. No one addressed the issue of the strange, unfinished quality of the sentence as a whole.

What does it mean to say that the courthouse where an inmate tried to escape is 50 miles west of a town where an Uber driver started killing people at random because, according to him, his app told him to do it? What are we supposed to make of this peculiar lesson in geography? Did the Washington Post mean to hint that there was some hidden connection between events that happened 50 miles, 264,000 feet, away? Did it mean to suggest that Uber drivers from Kalamazoo infest the grounds of the Berrien County courthouse, waiting a chance at murder and mayhem? Or that the Berrien County inmate was an Uber driver in disguise? Or that southwestern Michigan is not, as it appears to be, a lovely champaign country of farms and woodlands — that it is instead a focus of violence in our modern world? Or are we simply to assume that the august editors of America’s second-ranking “intellectual” paper are unable to spot and remove a silly factoid extracted from Google Maps?

We will never know. On this point we must remain as ignorant as MSNBC alleged itself to be when it ran this headline during the terrorist episode in Dhaka on July 1:

Was the Bangla Desh attack premeditated?

Was it? Let’s see. . . . On the evening of July 1, five terrorists attacked a café frequented by foreigners, took hostages, and executed people who were unable to recite passages from the Quran. Twenty-nine people died. Might this event have been premeditated? Gosh, how could MSNBC, or anyone else, for that matter, possibly divine the answer to a question like that? You have to see how these things play out, wait for the investigation, call in the experts. Even then, you may never reach the definitive explanation. When you hear that a bunch of people have invaded a café and taken hostages, you shouldn’t rush to judgment about the way it happened. Even long afterward, you may still be asking, with Mrs. Clinton, "Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some foreigners? What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?"

But you can bet that if a bunch of Baptists, en route to some fundamentalist conclave, were stopped for speeding with an unlicensed gun in their trunk, not a minute would pass before MSNBC and all the rest of them would be talking about nothing except the vast rightwing conspiracy.

Of course, there are many things that American journalists neither know nor care about, even while feeling obliged to “report” them. One is the sickening number of murders, mainly of young black and Hispanic people, in America’s inner cities (i.e., cities that are completely dominated by Democrats). The statistics are sometimes given, the deaths are pronounced unfortunate, but no explanations are provided. May these terrible events have something to do with the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty, which were succeeded by a civil war within the young male populations most affected by them? Just a thought, which is one more thought than the Washington Post and the New York Times are willing to come out with. I don’t believe that calling these murders “gun deaths” qualifies as an explanatory thought. It qualifies only as willful ignorance.

This type of ignorance actually deepens when we turn to news reports on foreign people. I recently read a report on the tribal wars in South Sudan, a story that waited until paragraph 19 to indicate that the violence was occurring between members of different tribes. Readers were left to guess that tribal rivalry might conceivably be the cause of the terror that had been described in lavish detail by the first 18 paragraphs. No interest was expressed in exploring the idea.

May these terrible events have something to do with the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty, which were succeeded by a civil war within the young male populations most affected by them?

All right, you say, reporting on Africa has never been very interested, except when white people have been concerned. That’s a fact, although it’s not a fact to be proud of. But even big reports on big events in Europe are full of real or constructed ignorance.

A funny example was Christiane Amanpour’s alleged reporting on the Brexit vote for CNN. How this woman with the empty head and the foghorn voice ever got a job, much less managed to hold it for generations, is beyond me. But as the Brexit returns came in, she gave the most amusing of her many unconsciously amusing performances. Clearly shocked by results she did not desire and had not imagined, she mourned, she spluttered, she pontificated, she asked the hapless people she “interviewed” how it was possible that the voters should have ignored “all the experts”? Well, as demonstrated by the results of her “interviews,” if you don’t already know a thing like that, no one can explain it to you. And since she couldn’t understand the obvious answers to her endlessly repeated “experts” question, it would clearly have been hopeless for anyone to bring up the next point, which was why people like her should be regarded as experts in the first place, if they can’t conceive of anyone disagreeing with them.

A less amusing example of ignorance came from the Washington Post (which, I see, has emerged as the chief villain of this month’s column). The Post ran a long “report” on the sexual attacks perpetrated by men from Islamic countries, many or most of them “refugees,” during the 2015–16 New Year’s festivities in Germany. The events themselves were scandalous; even more scandalous was the subsequent cover-up by police and political authorities. At length, the terrible information came to light: hundreds of women had been attacked. And now, a still more terrible thing has been revealed: more than 1,200 women were attacked, by more than 2,000 men.

Even big reports on big events in Europe are full of real or constructed ignorance.

Somewhere, a sufficient explanation must exist for the fact that liberal media and public figures do everything they can to deflect blame from people (i.e., radical Muslims) who violently oppose the liberals’ most cherished values, people who persecute gays, victimize women, and systematically deny the rights of everyone who does not profess their religion. The fact is notorious, and since I do not have an adequate explanation myself, I will merely state that fact and comment on one of its worst effects, which is to obscure the distinction between barbarian fanatics, who commit horrible crimes, and modern, progressive, enlightened Muslims, who would not dream of doing so. To treat the members of a white supremacist church with the same sweet condescension that one extends to the nice ladies in the altar guild at St. Anne’s would be to demoralize the latter while inciting the former. This is obvious. It is something that everyone knows, or ought to know.

But here is the intellectual payoff (if you want to call it that) of the Washington Post’s report on the German liberals’ attempted cover-up of the events of New Year’s Eve:

The delay in communicating the extent of the New Year's Eve crimes [“delay in communicating” = “cover-up,” a word that appears nowhere in the report] is most likely due to a balancing act between the determination of the Cologne police force to not fuel tensions against refugees and the public expectation to fully reveal what happened that night.

That wad of words, so complicated, so self-conscious, so faux-judicious, virtually cries out, “How clever I am!” But again: how did it happen? Did anyone at the Post actually read that sentence? I mean, did anyone spend the 30 seconds necessary to determine whether it made sense? Not whether it was true, or even whether it employed good grammar — which it doesn’t — but simply whether it made any sense. The answer appears to be No.

What does the sentence say? It says that there were two things being balanced. One was the cops’ politically motivated determination (not just desire, but determination) to cover something up. The other was the public’s desire to know. And the result was that the cops covered something up. Where’s the balance in that? There isn’t any; the whole business about a “balancing act” is meaningless.

I hope I am right in suggesting that nobody read that sentence to see whether it had any meaning. The alternative — that somebody read it and thought it was right in every way and looked forward to readers’ being influenced by it — is almost too shocking to consider.




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We Are All Victims Now

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On April 30 a 19-year-old Arizona man was arrested on 70 criminal charges after it was discovered that, in a picture taken last August of his high-school football team, the tip of his penis was protruding from the top of his pants. Although the photo, joke included, appeared in his high school yearbook and in programs distributed at sports events, it took all this time for someone to notice the little flash of penis. Nevertheless, “Mesa [Arizona] police booked Osborn [that’s the kid] on one count of furnishing obscene material to minors, a felony, and 69 counts of indecent exposure. Ten faculty members and 59 students were present when Osborn exposed himself and are considered victims, according to police and court documents.”

This happened in a country in which Prince, a musician who appeared on stage and in videos with his naked butt protruding from his costume, while dancers mimicked sex acts, was mourned as a national hero after his death from an apparent drug overdose; a country in which the most profitable music lyrics are so obscene and violent that journals not labeled “adult” never quote them; a country in which, over two decades ago, the Surgeon General suggested that young people be taught to masturbate; a country in which hundreds of thousands of young women are exploited as “baby mamas” by irresponsible men; a country in which major corporations boycott a state because it does not stipulate that people can enter any restroom that matches their own idea of their gender; a country in which . . . Add your own examples. This is the country in which 70 people became sexual victims without even knowing that anything happened to them.

By the way, the charges against the young man have now been dropped. There was a public outcry, thank God. Now I hope we can all focus our attention on our national schizophrenia about sex.




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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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Alive! It’s Still Alive!

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In 1823 Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and explorer, was mauled by a bear and left for dead by the soldiers who were ordered to remain with him until he either recovered or died naturally. One of these guardians was 19-year-old Jim Bridger (yes, that Jim Bridger, who would become a significant explorer of the American West). Alone and without any weapons or supplies, Glass managed to set his own broken leg, dress his own wounds, and drag himself 200 miles to Fort Kiowa, where he vowed revenge against those who had abandoned him. His story became the stuff of wilderness lore for nearly two centuries, and provided material for numerous articles, books, and movies, including Man in the Wilderness (1971) with Richard Harris in the title role.

In the hands of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass, this story outshines them all. A 19th-century romantic sensibility runs through the film, beginning with the cinematography that mimics the Hudson River School of art with its soaring landscapes overshadowing the humans; at one point Glass is a mere speck in an ocean of snow, barely visible between two towering mountains. Romanticism also appears in the film’s reverence for nature and the “noble savage,” its presentation of spiritualism and the occult, and its celebration of rugged individualism. The film is an exquisitely beautiful paean to nature. All this occurs through the artistry of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who could be experiencing a hat trick at the Oscars, after taking home the award for cinematography (Gravity, Birdman) the past two years. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s musical score, with its deep somber strings resonating with sorrow and grief, is also masterly.

Most of all, though, it’s a thrilling story with many heartstopping moments. I heard myself shouting, “Oh no oh no oh no!” as I felt myself plunging headfirst over a cliff. I also hurtled down rivers and over waterfalls, endured bloody hand-to-hand combat (including a fight with that bear), encountered stunning dream sequences, and could swear the overhead fans swirled icy air through the theater whenever Glass was nearly freezing to death.

At one point Glass is a mere speck in an ocean of snow, barely visible between two towering mountains.

Three main storylines intertwine to develop the plot. First, a group of fur trappers must make its way to safety at Fort Kiowa, after being attacked by Indians and losing most of its men. The group is led by Glass and his Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) until Glass is mauled by a grizzly protecting her cubs. It’s one of the most terrifyingly realistic animal encounters I’ve ever seen on film. I don’t know how DiCaprio had the courage to make this scene, and I don’t even want to know how they did it; I just want to believe it. Second, in a reverse allusion to John Wayne’s The Searchers (1956), the Indians are searching for their leader’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by a group of white men. Finally, a group of French fur traders contributes to the problems encountered by both of the other groups.

At the center of the conflict is Glass’ personal vendetta against John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the man who has killed his son and then abandoned Glass to a premature grave. Fitzgerald is an illiterate adventurer whose backwoods accent is so thick it’s sometimes hard to understand his words. But there’s no misunderstanding his pragmatic survivalism. When Bridger (Will Poulter) reminds him to think of his life, Fitzgerald responds, “Life? I ain’t got no life. All I got is livin’.” With no hope for a life beyond trapping, he is motivated only by his animalistic need for protection, food, and shelter. But Glass does have a life, or at least he did; he had a son. His desire for revenge motivates him to keep moving when others would have given up and died. He emerges from his grave as a man emerging from the womb of the earth. Wrapped in the skin of the bear that mauled him, he becomes the bear, avenging the cub he could not protect.

As did the romantic artists and writers of the era in which this film is set, The Revenant champions rugged individuality. Iñárritu does this by contrasting pack mentality with the personal choice and actions of individuals on their own. For example, an early scene shows the fur trappers skinning hundreds of animals and leaving behind stacks of bloody carcasses to demonstrate the wanton waste and brutality of their trade. Soon after this scene we see Glass and his son Hawk stalking and killing a moose that they intend to eat, and we feel respect for their skill and their reverence for nature. Indeed, the men of all three groups are kept alive in the frigid winterland by wearing bearskin coats and hats. Later, a pack of wolves chases down a bison calf and kills it, and we feel horror for the calf. But when Glass catches a fish barehanded and bites its head off, straight out of the water, we feel how famished he is and again respect his skill. Similarly, when whites or Indians are in groups, they massacre each other’s villages viciously. But when Bridger sees a lone Indian woman in one of those massacred villages, he leaves behind a packet of food for her, and when a Pawnee Indian comes upon Glass in the wilderness, he shares his food, dresses Glass’ wounds, and gives him a ride. In short, groups are tyrannical, individuals are kind. I don’t know whether it was Iñárritu’s intent to demonstrate the tyranny of the masses vs. the nobility of the individual, but I found this aspect of the film quite satisfying.

Iñárritu gets the kind of budgetary green lights other directors can only dream of, and for good reason: he knows what to do with it. He is one of the most visionary directors in Hollywood today and will settle for nothing less than what he envisions a film to be. He has a reputation for being demanding and uncaring toward his actors and his crew; to make The Revenant they froze, they starved, and they froze some more. You can see the exhaustion and desperation in the actors’ eyes, and it’s perfect for the film. Reportedly some crew walked off the set, saying it was too dangerous and too hard. I can’t blame them. Yet those who stayed behind had the opportunity to make something remarkable. The Revenant is a film you will discuss on many levels for a very long time. It’s long, but oh my goodness, is it gorgeous!

The Revenant champions rugged individuality by contrasting pack mentality with the personal choice and actions of individuals on their own.

Another director known for his visionary style, engaging stories and brutal scenes is Quentin Tarantino, who has lately developed a tradition of releasing a new film on Christmas Day. Now, I would never choose a bloody Tarantino film to celebrate the joy of Christmas, especially one with the title The Hateful Eight. But movies are the “gifts that keep on giving,” so I waited to see his latest offering until two weeks later.

The two films have several other characteristics in common, in addition to the distinctiveness of their directors. Both are westerns that begin with expansive snowy landscapes reminiscent of the Romantic era, with characters appearing as mere specks in the frame. Both contain gorgeous musical scores that establish the mood of each scene and carry the story forward. Both tell intense stories that lead to graphic, bloody battles. Both plots are driven by the capture of a woman, and characters in each film are driven by a desire for revenge. Both even contain characters who whimsically stick out fat tongues on which to catch snowflakes, and both have characters who lose their testicles. So what sets them apart?

Let’s turn to The Hateful Eight. This is Tarantino’s eighth feature film (if you don’t count his segments in Four Rooms and Sin City, but you do count his half of Grindhouse, and you count Kill Bill as one film, even though it was released as two separate films . . .) Maybe you get the idea. Tarantino loves to create homages and echoes and allusions, and calling this one The Hateful Eight (which he arrives at by not counting the stagecoach driver, who would be the ninth character in the film) is important to him because it allows an allusion to Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), the title of which was chosen because Fellini had then made eight and a half films. Tarantino seems determined to make his homage fit, even if it means cutting off his toe to cram his size 10 foot into Fellini’s size 8 ½ glass slipper.

Tarantino waits a long time before the bloodbath begins, and even when it finally does, it isn’t at all what you expect.

As you can see, the homages and allusions and traditions can become a bit too precious and overbearing, but at the same time they create a certain resonance in Tarantino’s works that his fans have come to expect and enjoy. He also likes to include props and dialogue that astute fans will recognize from other films, and he has a stable of favorite actors who have become a veritable performance troupe with him. Fans also know to watch for his cameo appearance in his films, à la Alfred Hitchcock; in this one, which contains a closed setting similar to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), he voices the narrator.

Tarantino is also known for his orgiastic use of blood, which is always over the top, and always more than necessary. Way more. But he is a masterful storyteller, and that makes the gore almost worth enduring. Almost. I suppose many viewers have become inured to it by now. I have not.

In this film Tarantino waits a long time before the bloodbath begins, and even when it finally does, it isn’t at all what you expect. The first half of the story is immediately engaging. A stranger stops a stagecoach in the gathering snow and asks for a ride into town. The stagecoach is occupied by a bounty hunter named “Hanging John” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prize, the outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The stranger turns out to be another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and after some sparring and posturing the two bounty hunters are soon making their way by stagecoach to Red Rock, Wyoming, to deliver their cargo of outlaws. Major Marquis generally chooses the “dead” option in “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and he piles his three bodies atop the stagecoach where they are as stiff and oblivious as Grandma in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). “Hanging John,” on the other hand, believes in bringing them in alive so he can watch them hang. He keeps his lucrative captive handcuffed to him until he can exchange her for the $10,000 bounty. A third stranger (Will Poulter) also appears along the snowy road and joins them in the stagecoach. Tarantino develops the suspense in these opening scenes subtly. Knowing looks are exchanged between characters, unexplained props are noticed, and skillfully written music plays on our emotions. It is eerie and highly effective.

When the stage and its passengers encounter a blizzard, they pull into Minnie’s Haberdashery, a way station where four other travelers are already ensconced and Minnie is nowhere to be seen. No one trusts anyone else, and Ruth is particularly nervous that someone is going to get away with Daisy and steal his $10,000 bounty. The men exchange stories to pass the time, and as more and more details around the Haberdashery make less and less sense, the story plays out not only as a western but as a who-done-it and a what-exactly-has-been-done. It’s part Agatha Christie’s Then There Were None, part 3:10 to Yuma, part Magnificent Seven, part Canterbury Tales, part Hitchcock’s Rope, and some Friday the 13ththrown in for good measure.

With its single setting and familiar ensemble of actors, The Hateful Eight often feels as much like a stage play as it does a movie, and the jumble of genres becomes tedious when we are trapped with the characters in the cabin. But Jennifer Jason Leigh is particularly good as Daisy, the outlaw on her way to a hanging. She doesn’t have much dialogue, but she appears in most of the scenes. Just as then-newcomer Steve McQueen drew attention to himself in the Magnificent Seven by quietly making movements in the background — fingering his hat, spinning his gun, pacing around and generally upstaging Yul Brynner — Daisy wipes her noise, pokes around in her teeth, drags her tongue over her lips, grins seductively at the men despite her filthy ugliness, and steals nearly every scene. By contrast, Kurt Russell provides an understated performance as he channels John Wayne in the cadence of his drawl.

The story plays out not only as a western but as a who-done-it and a what-exactly-has-been-done.

Ennio Morricone’s original score is probably the best part of The Hateful Eight. Morricone scored most of the Sergio Leone “spaghetti westerns” that made Clint Eastwood a star. Morricone’s symphonic arrangements recall a 1950s sensibility, while his music controls the emotion of the film and leads the story throughout. It is a score that stands alone and could be enjoyed even without the film. I am not surprised that he won the Golden Globe award for original score, even though Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for The Revenant is also a powerful and essential part of that film.

In 2007 two westerns set in the 20th century, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, competed for the top film awards. This year we have two other westerns that were aiming for a shootout at the Oscars. Both have intense, gripping stories. Both demonstrate masterly cinematic skills. Both are long. But only one is gorgeous. The other made me want to go home and wash my eyes out with soap. There are many good reasons only The Revenant was nominated for Best Picture. Sorry, QT.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Revenant," directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. New Regency Pictures, 2015, 156 minutes; and "The Hateful Eight," directed by Quentin Tarantino. Weinstein Brothers, 2015, 165 minutes.



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