Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sunday Reading

Nothingburger with Cheese — Charles P. Pierce.

I think I may have broken the RETURN key on my laptop. I was reading The Memo a short time after its release by the Republican majority of the House Intelligence Committee. I got to the end and I realized that, even though the Christopher Steele report is The Memo’s chief bogeyman, there was nothing in The Memo that undercuts anything we know about the substance of the Steele dossier. In fact, there is nothing in The Memo that undercuts anything pertaining to the relationship between the Russians and the Trump campaign, nor is there anything that undercuts what we know about the Russian ratfcking generally. I got all the way to the last of the six pages and I couldn’t quite believe that this was what all the fighting had been about for the past couple of weeks. There had to be more. I kept hammering that poor RETURN key in vain. You let me down, Devin Nunes, you White House lawn ornament, you.

I grew up with the Watergate tapes. I grew up with the revelations of the Pike and the Church committees. (Revelations, I might add, that produced the FISA process and the congressional intelligence procedures that Nunes turned into dog food Friday.) I grew up with George Schultz’s diaries that showed that everyone in the upper reaches of the Reagan administration was involved in the crimes of Iran-Contra. I watched every second of the several inquiries into the Whitewater land deal, which is how I know what a crock that was, but at least there was some phony substance to those phony charges. This Memo, Devin, isn’t even a good try. You and your staff have to be the laziest alleged obstructors of justice that I’ve ever seen. All it appears to be is a lame-ass defense of a self-important goofball Russophile named Carter Page. That’s all you got?

This is a guy that got on the FBI radar in 2013, when the president* was still firing celebrities on his television show. The FBI found that Page had been actively cultivated by Russian intelligence as a possible asset. And now, your whole argument is that the FISA warrants were prompted by the Steele dossier and that Steele is a shtunk who was biased against the president*? For this, you needed a memo? For this, you needed a month’s worth of drama? For this, you needed to demolish the good faith between the intelligence community and the congressional committees designed to conduct oversight of that community? You couldn’t even get the date of David Corn’s breakthrough story in Mother Jones right. Hell, you could have saved us all the trouble and just done a couple of nights on Hannity to make that case. You’d have reached every single American that currently buys what you’re peddling.

This is threadbare. This is shabby. This reveals absolutely nothing. All it does is damage. It isn’t even really good ratfcking. I mean, what the fck, Devin? You should’ve outsourced this to the Russians, who really do know how to do this kind of thing well. They wouldn’t have left hanging details like this, from Section 5 of The Memo:

The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late 2016 by FBI agent Pete Strzok.

I thought it was The Dossier. I’m confused.

And the Russians never would have tried to argue that Steele was simultaneously an untrustworthy operative and a “longtime” FBI source. The FBI wouldn’t have kept him on as a “longtime” source if he wasn’t trustworthy. The FBI is not as dumb as you are. And this is the best you have for a defense?

“The Committee has discovered serious violations of the public trust, and the American people have a right to know when officials in crucial institutions are abusing their authority for political purposes. Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies exist to defend the American people, not to be exploited to target one group on behalf of another. It is my hope that the Committee’s actions will shine a light on this alarming series of events so we can make reforms that allow the American people to have full faith and confidence in their governing institutions.”

Oh, shut up.

‘The brave and assiduous oversight by Congressional leaders in discovering this unprecedented abuse of process represents a giant, historic leap in the repair of America’s democracy. Now that a few of the misdeeds against the Trump Movement have been partially revealed, I look forward to updating my pending legal action in opposition to DOJ this weekend in preparation for Monday’s next small step on the long, potholed road toward helping to restore law and order in our great country.’

Good lord, Carter. Brave! Assiduous! Unprecedented! Giant! Historic! The long, potholed road! Who the hell are you when you’re at home?

The fact is that there isn’t a serious violation of the public trust anywhere in The Memo. There is no abuse of authority. There is nothing giant and/or historic about anything in it. On MSNBC, retired FBI agent Bobby Chacon rightly called The Memo a glorified motion to dismiss the evidence, and not a very good one, either.

Naturally, various Democrats have chimed in, all expressing great disappointment that Nunes has turned out to be the unmitigated hack they all knew he was. (Hell, even gonzo former Congressman Joe Walsh believes that.) The Democrats on the Intelligence Committee said, in part:

“The premise of the Nunes memo is that the FBI and DOJ corruptly sought a FISA warrant on a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, and deliberately misled the court as part of a systematic abuse of the FISA process. As the Minority memo makes clear, none of this is true. The FBI had good reason to be concerned about Carter Page and would have been derelict in its responsibility to protect the country had it not sought a FISA warrant. In order to understand the context in which the FBI sought a FISA warrant for Carter Page, it is necessary to understand how the investigation began, what other information the FBI had about Russia’s efforts to interfere with our election, and what the FBI knew about Carter Page prior to making application to the court – including Carter Page’s previous interactions with Russian intelligence operatives. This is set out in the Democratic response which the GOP so far refuses to make public.”

Let us be clear about one thing. I do not care if the meatheads and morons out there buy this bilge. I don’t care how “effective” as spin the acolytes of the Church of The Savvy think the release of The Memo is. I think the Mueller investigation will blow through this flimsy excuse for an argument like a train through a willow tree. But the damage it will do to congressional oversight of the intelligence community—a dubious proposition on its best day, which was not Friday, god knows—will be long-lasting and far-reaching.

That oversight, as well as the FISA court, grew out of the CIA and FBI horror stories revealed in the late 1970s, which was a genuine scandal, and one with an actual body count. (Some of the more noxious revelations from the congressional investigations of that time were illegal CIA operations within the United States, CIA assassination plots overseas, and the foul campaign against Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. waged by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover.) People risked a lot to inform American citizens of what was being done in their name; Frank Church of Idaho, who led the Senate committee looking into the crimes, was defeated in the next election. Even the current system, which is not something of which I am overly fond, deserves better than what Devin Nunes did to it on Friday in order to run cover for a president* of very dubious character.

And now everybody’s on board. Speaker Paul Ryan, the zombie-eyed granny starver from the state of Wisconsin, is posing once again as a civil libertarian.

“Unlike most judicial proceedings, the FISA system depends not on an adversarial process, but instead on the government providing a complete presentation of the facts and circumstances underlying its warrant applications. It is clear from this memo that didn’t happen in this case, and as a consequence an American’s civil liberties may have been violated.”

And, meanwhile, everybody involved in Friday’s burlesque, from Devin Nunes to Carter Page to the president* himself, knows full well that the Russian ratfckers are gearing up for the 2018 midterms. And the institutions of our government are being asked to resist assaults from without and within. Things are not looking up. At all.

The End of Football — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

The Super Bowl is the most popular annual event in American life. When the ritual began, in 1967, the Green Bay Packers, of the National Football League, defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, of the American Football League, by a score of 35–10, and, although the Los Angeles Coliseum contained patches of empty seats, more than fifty million people watched on television, the largest sports audience in the history of the medium at the time. Last year, more than a hundred and eleven million people watched the Super Bowl, more than triple the TV audience for the Oscars. There’s little doubt that the game between the Patriots and Eagles on Sunday night will attract a similarly gargantuan viewership.

Fans of a certain age (and all those with the technical dexterity to operate the YouTube time machine) might best recall the charms of the early Super Bowls, and of the game itself, by watching N.F.L. Films and listening to its most stentorian narrators, including John Facenda, a.k.a. the Voice of God. N.F.L. Films was the brainchild of a Second World War veteran and topcoat salesman named Ed Sabol, who, in the early sixties, won a small contract with the N.F.L. to film the games and produce highlight films for broadcast on television.

Sabol, soon joined by his son Steve, did for the League what John Ford did for the War. Most historians of the form speak of Sabol’s film of Green Bay’s last-second victory over the Dallas Cowboys on “the frozen tundra” of Lambeau Field, in 1967, as his masterpiece, but, like those cineastes who unaccountably prefer the period charms and underlying darkness of “The Magnificent Ambersons” over the more obvious qualities of “Citizen Kane,” I am partial to “Elements of Victory,” an ambling masterwork on the Packers-Browns championship game of 1965, featuring a Hemingway-terse script by Tex Maule, Ray Scott’s understated narration, and the kettledrum-and-brass soundtrack that thunders under each “Super-Slow Motion” play from scrimmage. The narration begins—“In the gray chill of early dawn, the snows came to Green Bay”—and the martial drama unfolds from there. The dramatis personae include the stout and earnest place-kicker Lou Groza, the omnipotent running back Jim Brown, the “Golden Boy” Paul Hornung, and the hulking creatures of the line—particularly the pulling blockers Jerry Kramer and Fred (Fuzzy) Thurston. Sabol’s signature technique––his answer to Orson Welles’s “deep focus”—was called “tight on the spiral,” in which he keeps the camera trained on the pigskin as it leaves the quarterback’s twisting, unravelling arm; gently ascends in slo-mo; peaks downfield, then descends, rotating, rotating, into the outstretched hands (always “the outstretched hands”) of the receiver. The setting is rarely a sunny clime; nearly always, the action unfurls in frigid places like Lambeau Field, in Green Bay, where “the elements”—snow and rain and mud and “howling wind”—conspire to make the gridiron battle resemble the Battle of the Somme, but with commercials for beer and radial tires.

When I was a kid, I watched these Sabol-produced films incessantly: “NFL Game of the Week,” “Hard Knocks,” “Greatest Moments” (the histories and tragedies), and also “Football Follies” (the comedies), which featured the League’s fumbles, pratfalls, and bobbled balls. Sabol made the games far more dramatic than they were; there were no longueurs. Each moment of action was heightened, prolonged, monumentalized.

But what the Sabols, to say nothing of the various N.F.L. commissioners, broadcasters, and advertisers, were not especially eager to emphasize was the damage. Super-Slow Motion was a super deception. Collisions on the field that led to fractured arms and legs, broken backs, cracked spines, torn ligaments, and, above all, concussions, were lost under all the Wagnerian flights, the basso-profundo voice-overs, and the mythopoetical scripts.

The hits were always “spectacular,” never gruesome. Injured players got “dinged,” then they “shrugged it off.” Someone got his “bell rung” or his “cage rattled.” Euphemism was, for decades, the stoical language of football. And yet we now know, and we have known for long enough, that football doesn’t have “an injury problem”; it has a brain-damage problem. Countless players suffer from early dementia, depression, confusion, suicidal tendencies, and countless other alarming, often mortal, conditions resulting from the game.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that, when scientists examined the brains of a hundred and eleven deceased N.F.L. players, all but one showed signs of degenerative brain disease. That’s what all those “spectacular”—and unspectacular—hits so often come to: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E.

When Rob Gronkowski, the redoubtable tight end for the Patriots, got “dinged” in a helmet-to-helmet collision with the Jaguars safety Barry Church last month, he suffered an injury, his second concussion, that could only hasten a path to a diminished middle age. Nevertheless, he has pronounced himself “full go, ready to roll” for the Super Bowl. “My mindset is, whenever you hit a speed bump in the road, just to get back up, keep doing what you gotta do through the process and not put yourself in more danger,” he told reporters. “Do everything that you can right, and just keep on truckin’ and get back out there.”

In the mid-fifties, the dominant sports in the United States were baseball, boxing, and horse racing. American life had not urbanized and accelerated to the point where the three hours of languid, pastoral play in a Tuesday-afternoon baseball game were deemed “slow.” Speaking one night at Delmonico’s, in 1889, Mark Twain referred to the sport as “the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century!” That lasted well into the twentieth, somehow. In the mid-fifties, everyone knew the name of the heavyweight champion, an exalted office, and columnists competed to find the apt gladiatorial metaphor to describe each bout. The Kentucky Derby was an event far bigger than the N.B.A. Finals. If you were Jimmy Cannon or Red Smith or any of the big columnists, you saw basketball as a banal game of “up and down,” played by curious overgrown gland cases; you preferred an afternoon at Churchill Downs, the grandstand redolent of bourbon, crushed mint, and horseshit.

Things have changed. As baseball’s ratings slump and twitchy fans complain of games dominated by long episodes of spitting, scratching, and pitching-mound conferencing, there are rumbles of reform (shifting the strike zone) and revolution (a seven-inning game). Baseball is still selling tickets and drawing fans, but it feels as though it has dropped out of the center of popular entertainment, lost pace with the times. Horse racing has declined far more radically, overwhelmed by alternative games of chance. An image of corruption, drugs, and cruelty to animals did not help much, either.

Boxing, by its very nature, proved unreformable. There is, undeniably, a terrible beauty in the best fights––an athletic craft exemplified by the likes of Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Roberto Durán––but cruelty and violence, and the terrible pleasure taken in cruelty and violence, are at the center of things. The very point of the contest is to render an opponent temporarily unconscious or to bruise and bloody him into a helpless state of “technical” knockout. Who wants their child to box? Twenty years ago, when I was writing a book about Muhammad Ali, nearly all the ex-fighters I interviewed displayed signs of dementia or worse. When I spoke with the former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, in 1997, he was still the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, which supervises prizefighting in the state. He was only intermittently coherent. The next year, during a deposition, he could not remember the names of his associates or of his secretary, and he had to step down from his position.

In the journalism of the past decade, more and more N.F.L. players and players’ families are describing the toll of the game on their bodies, their minds, and their lives. It is a collective portrait of pain, mental illness, physical debility, and, often enough, shattered families. The latest is an essay published this week in the Times, by Emily Kelly, whose husband, Rob Kelly, played for the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots in the late nineties and early two-thousands. As with so many other veteran players, Rob Kelly suffers from debilitating emotional problems, including paranoia, sleeplessness, depression, and an inability or unwillingness to communicate. There is almost no doubt that the cause is football.

How do you “fix” a game in which the attraction of the game resides in its violence, in the crash of huge, super athletic men, down after down, game after game, year after year? A special helmet? More rule changes? No less an authority than the President of the United States has complained that rule changes are “ruining the game.” “Today, if you hit too hard, fifteen yards, throw him out of the game!” an outraged President Trump said during a rally in Alabama last year.

I don’t watch much football anymore—the N.B.A. playoffs are, for me at least, an infinitely greater pleasure—but, hypocritical as it is, it’s hard to deny the excitement or the beauty of the game when I do tune in. But the beauty is the beauty of a car crash in an action movie—only here there are no stuntmen, no C.G.I. As N.F.L. players often say, nearly every play feels like a car crash, a real one. Even after an “injury-free” game, players soak themselves in ice baths; they are, head to toe, an enormous contusion.

After covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I remember driving one Friday night from New Orleans to the airport in Houston to get a flight back to New York. For hours, all I could find on the radio was high-school football, and everywhere I looked, along the road in Louisiana and Texas, there were illuminated stadiums filled with cheering fans and kids slamming into one another, revelling in the game of football. Now the ratings for the N.F.L. are starting to decline. Some Pop Warner and high-school programs, particularly in wealthier communities, have diminished or shut down. Parents are asking the question once asked of boxing: Do you want your kids to play football?

This will not be the last Super Bowl any more than Ali–Frazier III was the last heavyweight-championship fight. But, just as boxing inexorably shifted to the margins of American life, this might be, for football, the start of the long eclipse.

The Multiple Lives of J.K. Simmons — Melanie McFarland in Salon profiles the understated but prolific actor.

You may find it hard to believe this, but aside from a mercifully brief stint as an overwhelmed temp, “Counterpart” star J.K. Simmons has never worked in an office. “Oh god, I’m glad nobody has film of that,” he told Salon recently.

This is a rare and somewhat odd gap in the resume of a man who has played an extensive range of roles, lending his talents to everything from animated series aimed at children to Tom Fontana’s celebrated HBO drama “Oz” which spun a tapestry of violence cruel enough to force the hardiest of viewers to tap out.

For a man who has played all kinds of roles, “Counterpart” may prove to be one of his most challenging projects because he’s playing two versions of the same person, at the same time. Not only that, it places him inside the life of, yes, an office drone.

Simmons’ Howard Silk amounts to more than this — twice as much in fact. In the show’s chilly Berlin setting, Silk is a bureaucrat whose job entails completing a set task each day that isn’t just boring, it makes no discernible sense. But he soon finds out that the world doesn’t make sense, largely because there are two versions of it, the result of a Cold War event gone wrong.

These parallel existences mean that every person has a duplicate, although the government strains mightily to keep that under wraps. Howard’s happens to be a spy assigned to a mission to capture a killer who has found a way to cross between these existences.

Dual roles aren’t unique — especially in recent seasons — or relegated to science fiction. Think James Franco playing the role of brothers on “The Deuce,” or Ewan McGregor pulling off a similar job on the third season of “Fargo.”

“Counterpart,” currently airing Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz, creates a different challenge for Simmons in that the actor must play one man, two different ways. In the drama’s universe, they share the same upbringing and the same memories until the split forced one to take a part the other probably did not consider. And he manifests this with delicate changes between one personality and another. The smallest change in posture gives Howard Silk the bureaucrat the torso of a sedentary working stiff, which is apparent as he stands across from Howard Silk, government agent.

And as Simmons recalled, two versions of one person in a number of scenes made this role a little more daunting than others.

“I was going to say there were no days off of work,” he said, “but every once in a while those days where all I had to do was, ‘You’re just walking from here to there, and now you’re walking from there to here’ turned into, ‘but you’re this dude, and you’ve experienced this, this, this, and this, which we haven’t shot yet. And you’re pretending to be the other dude.’

He jokingly added, “I kept thinking of the line from Robert Downey Jr. line in ‘Tropic Thunder’: ‘I’m the dude dressed as a dude, pretending to be that other dude.’ That was the guy I felt like sometimes, yeah.”

In the real world, if Simmons seems like he’s everywhere, that’s because he kind of is. Simmons takes the term “working actor” seriously to a degree that’s beyond impressive, continuing to rack up voice work credits even while he’s in demand as a film actor and TV star.

Spend an hour watching TV, and it is possible to see him as the spokesperson for Farmers Insurance company, to hear him voicing the part of the yellow M&M (yes, that’s him) and, possibly, popping other animated roles within the same stretch.

Simmons got his first Hollywood break relatively late, at the age of 39 when he landed a part in the Denis Leary vehicle “The Ref.” Cutting his teeth on stage in the early years of his career provided a basis for dramatic versatility that has served him incredibly well ever since.

His wide-ranging adaptability as a performer enabled Simmons to move past being associated with one of the most terrifying characters on television, the white supremacist leader Vern Schillinger on HBO’s “Oz.” Schillinger was Simmons’ first regular series role, and the viciousness the actor poured into the part made Schillinger tough to forget. Fortunately it didn’t typecast him. During the run of “Oz” Simmons appeared in the “Law & Order” franchise as Dr. Emil Skoda, a psychiatrist working with the police department.

He also went on to play J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” in addition to extensive work in TV, including on series such as “The Closer,” before landing the role of a cruel, hard-driving instructor in the Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning 2014 film “Whiplash,” the part that would earn him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

“That’s a blessing that I’ve had, really my whole career since I was doing theater 40 years ago, is I’ve had opportunities to play many different kinds of characters,” he said.  In this, to be able to play different kinds of characters on the same show, on the same day, in the same scene sometimes, is just a really, it’s like a nice workout where you’re . . . I don’t know . . . you get in your cardio and your weight lifting at the same time.”

Doonesbury — Missing in action.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” He’s everywhere, but I still think his best role was the cruel, demanding teacher of the band, driving the young drummer to exhaustion and over the top in “Whiplash”. Simmons is one of the best ever.

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