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.

Monday, January 29, 2018

At The Movies

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve seen “Darkest Hour,” “The Shape of Water,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” “The Big Sick,” and “Victoria & Abdul.”  Four of the six are contenders for Best Picture of the Year as judged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.  This is the first year that I’ve seen more than one or two of the contenders, but chances are that I won’t be seeing the rest until they’re on Netflix or HBO.

If I were voting, “Call Me By Your Name” should win best picture based on the cinematography and writing, although “Three Billboards” was good in those areas, too.  As for acting, Frances McDormand had me at the first shot, and Timothee Chalamet was a real contender with his understated but powerful performance as Elio, the pursuing/pursued teenager.  That’s not to say there weren’t other worthy performances, including Woody Harrelson in “Three Billboards” and Armie Hammer in “Call Me By Your Name,” but both Ms. McDormand and Mr. Chalamet were so good in crafting their parts and inhabiting their characters that they left the others behind, although Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” truly did bring powerful life to the story of Britain at their finest hour.

If special effects are important, then “The Shape of Water” would win, but the story was a big predictable, if not soggy, love story — the Creature from the Black Lagoon meets lonely girl — and didn’t go anywhere that you couldn’t figure out from the first few minutes.  Kudos to Richard Jenkins for a great job as the supportive friend; he’s an actor who deserves more recognition.

As for “The Big Sick,” it’s a mash-up of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” with a Pakistani twist and “Love Story” with a happier ending, and “Victoria & Abdul” is sumptuous and beautiful, but overlong and even Dame Judi Dench seemed to be tired of playing the queen.

So, what have you seen?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Monday, December 18, 2017

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sunday Reading

December To Remember — Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker on how this next month could make or break Trump’s presidency.

Donald Trump is unique among modern Presidents in that he has no significant legislative accomplishments to show for ten months after taking office. Year one is when Presidents usually make their mark, especially if they came into office with unified control of the government, as Trump and his party did. Presidents in the first year of their first term are often at the peak of their popularity, have the biggest margins in Congress, and are free from the scandals and intense partisanship that start to gather around them later and make governing ever more difficult. By the second year, a President’s legislative agenda becomes complicated by the hesitancy of members of Congress to take risky votes as midterm elections approach, particularly if a President is unpopular. The math is stark: on average, modern Presidents have historically lost thirty House seats and four Senate seats in their first midterm elections.

Trump is governing well below the optimal levels of recent successful first-year Presidents. In 1981, Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, Reagan was so personally popular that he was able to convince a Democratic-controlled Congress to pass a major tax cut. In 1993, Bill Clinton used a Democratic Congress to pass a major economic plan, the Family and Medical Leave Act, gun legislation, and NAFTA, though his signature health-care bill eventually failed. (The political cost was high: in midterm elections the following year, Clinton lost his Democratic Congress for the rest of his Presidency and was later engulfed in scandals that slowed his agenda.) In 2001, George W. Bush, who also started with a Congress controlled by his own party, passed a major tax cut and a significant rewrite of federal education policy, two pieces of legislation that came with significant support from Democrats. Barack Obama came into office, in 2009, with large Democratic majorities, high approval ratings, and a massive economic crisis, all of which he leveraged to pass the most ambitious first-year agenda of any President since Lyndon Johnson, including an enormous economic-stimulus package and major reforms of the financial regulatory system and health care. (The final version of Obamacare, after some drama, was actually signed into law in March of his second year.)

Trump’s first year has been different. He has a record low approval rating. He is mired in scandal. And he, so far, has no major legislative accomplishments. He looks like a President in his eighth year rather than one in his first. All of this makes December crucial for the White House.

From now until the New Year, Congress will be jammed with legislative activity that may make or break Trump’s first year in office. Most of the attention has focussed on Trump’s tax-cut legislation, which is deeply unpopular according to public-opinion polls but which Republicans believe is essential to pass in order for them to have something to show for the year. But there are many other politically consequential bills that must be passed in the weeks ahead. On December 8th, the money to fund the federal government runs out. Staff members for the four top Democratic and Republican leaders have been meeting with the White House for weeks to negotiate a deal. On Tuesday, these leaders—Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, and Chuck Schumer—will meet with Trump at the White House about the issue.

Schumer and Pelosi have been maneuvering for this moment all year, and they have significant leverage. The Republican Party, despite unified control of Congress, does not have the votes to pass bills to fund the government in either the House, where many conservatives refuse to support annual appropriations bills, or the Senate, where they need sixty votes but have only fifty-two Republicans. For several years, a coalition of mostly Republican defense hawks, who want higher levels of Pentagon spending, and Democrats, who want higher levels of discretionary spending, have joined forces to provide the votes for the annual appropriations bills. Pelosi and Schumer will not deliver those Democratic votes without extracting a price from Trump and Republicans.

There are three major pieces of legislation that Democrats want: a bipartisan fix for Obamacare, a legislative fix for the Obama-era DACA program that Trump recently ended, and the extension of a popular health-care program for children—SCHIP—that recently expired.

Some liberal Democratic senators have said that they won’t vote to fund the government unless the DACA fix is included, though that is not yet a Party-wide position. As for the Obamacare fix, which is known as Alexander-Murray, after the two senators who negotiated it, the current version of the G.O.P. tax-cut bill includes a repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, which would hobble Obamacare rather than fix it. The politics for Trump are tricky. Senator Susan Collins, of Maine, a shaky vote on the tax bill, has hinted that she wants the bipartisan health-care legislation passed as the price for her vote on any tax bill that repeals the mandate. Schumer has said that passing a mandate repeal would blow up the Alexander-Murray Obamacare fix. In other words, Schumer is not going to help pass the health-care fix as a way to grease the skids for McConnell to secure Collins’s vote on tax cuts. Trump is likely going to have to give ground on one or more of these Democratic priorities.

“Any Republican senator who thinks they can pass the individual mandate [repeal] and then turn around and get Murray-Alexander passed is dead wrong,” Schumer said on November 15th, after McConnell added the Obamacare-mandate repeal to the Republican tax bill.

The last time Trump cut a deal with Schumer and Pelosi was in May, when the leftover spending bills from the previous year were negotiated and passed to keep the government operating through the end of the fiscal year. In fact, this was arguably the most significant piece of legislation of Trump’s first year, and it was widely considered to be an enormous success for the Democrats because it included high levels of discretionary spending opposed by Trump and no funding for the border wall that he requested. Trump was so angry about the coverage that he tweeted that perhaps there needed to be a government shutdown the next time the two sides entered spending negotiations. “The reason for the plan negotiated between the Republicans and Democrats is that we need 60 votes in the Senate which are not there!” Trump said in a series of tweets. “We either elect more Republican Senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%. Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ .”

Tuesday’s meeting at the White House between Trump and congressional leaders from both parties is meant to avoid a December 8th government shutdown. How much Republicans are willing to give Democrats may depend on the status of the G.O.P. tax bill. There are at least half a dozen G.O.P. senators with serious policy concerns regarding the tax proposal. And there are three Republican senators—John McCain and Jeff Flake, of Arizona, and Bob Corker, of Tennessee—who dislike Trump so much that they may be looking for reasons to oppose any legislation that empowers his Presidency. Republicans already have a ready-made conservative reason: the proposed tax changes will increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion.

If the tax bill is cruising through the Senate—McConnell wants a vote next week—there may be less incentive for Republicans to risk a shutdown. But if it dies next week, or is delayed, Trump will be under intense pressure to avoid ending the year with no major legislative accomplishments—and the chaos of a government shutdown. In order to keep the government running, Trump would have to strike another deal with Pelosi and Schumer and sign a bipartisan spending deal that includes major Democratic priorities.

As a result, Trump would end his first year in office with no Republican legislative accomplishments and two deals with Pelosi and Schumer that boost the Democratic agenda. If that seems likely to happen, it would enrage conservatives and the Republican base. For Trump, December could be the month that makes or breaks his first year in office.

The Dangers Of Losing Net Neutrality — John Nichols in The Nation.

Net neutrality is the First Amendment of the Internet. It guarantees that speech is equal on the network of networks—whether the words come from Walmart, the corporate behemoth that identifies as the largest retailer in the world, or Walmart Watch, the movement that “seeks to hold Walmart fully accountable for its impact on communities, America’s workforce, the retail sector, the environment and the economy.”

Net-neutrality protections assure that the essential democratic discourse on the World Wide Web cannot be bartered off to the highest bidders of a billionaire class that dominates the political debate on so many other media platforms.

Citizens love net neutrality. “The overwhelming majority of people who wrote unique comments to the Federal Communications Commission want the FCC to keep its current net neutrality rules and classification of ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act,” Ars Technica reported in August. How overwhelming? “98.5% of unique net neutrality comments oppose Ajit Pai’s anti–Title II plan,” read the headline.

The media monopolists of the telecommunications industry hate net neutrality. They have worked for years to overturn guarantees of an open Internet because those guarantees get in their way of their profiteering. If net neutrality is eliminated, they will restructure how the Internet works, creating information superhighways for corporate and political elites and digital dirt roads for those who cannot afford the corporate tolls.

No one will be surprised to learn which side Donald Trump’s FCC has chosen.

FCC chair Ajit Pai, who does the bidding of the telecommunications conglomerates with the rigid determination and focus of the former Verizon lawyer that he is, has been racing to eliminate net neutrality. Pai plans to have the FCC vote on December 14 to overturn the safeguards that were put in place during the Obama administration. If Pai and the Trump-aligned majority on the five-member commission succeed in gutting the existing Open Internet Order, they will alter the future of communications in America.

That alteration would “rig the internet,” according to Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who say, “If [Pai] is successful, Chairman Pai will hand the keys to our open internet to major corporations to charge more for a tiered system where wealthy and powerful websites can pay to have their content delivered faster to consumers. This leaves smaller, independent websites with slower load times and consumers with obstructed access to the internet—a particularly harmful decision for communities of color, students, and online activists. This is an assault on the freedom of speech and therefore our democracy.”

“There can be no truly open internet without net neutrality,” says Copps. “To believe otherwise is to be captive to special interest power brokers or to an old and discredited ideology that thinks monopoly and not government oversight best serves the nation. In this case, I think it’s both. The FCC under Pai is handing over the internet to a few humongous gatekeepers who see the rest of us as products to be delivered to advertisers, not as citizens needing communications that serve democracy’s needs. By empowering ISPs to create fast lanes for the few and squelch alternative points of view, the Trump FCC fecklessly casts aside years of popular consensus that the public needs net neutrality. The tens of thousands of Americans I have talked with, both Republicans and Democrats, fully understand this need.”

Copps says: “This naked corporatism is Washington at its worst.”

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the worst of the Trump agenda is on display in the attack on net neutrality. The stakes are that high.

It’s Still The Same Old Story — Noah Isenberg in Salon on why “Casablanca” is still revered 75 years later.

When a movie is still talked about three quarters of a century after its debut, revered in the kind of hushed tones normally reserved for discussing a nation’s most precious cultural treasures, people often want to know why. In the case of “Casablanca,” that holy grail of classical Hollywood that turns 75 on Sunday, there is no easy answer.

Sure, there are the iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and company. There’s also the film’s auspicious timing, appearing as it did just weeks after General Patton’s troops deployed in Operation Torch declared victory in the North African city where it’s set. Then, too, there are its endlessly quoted lines (“Round up the usual suspects!”), crafted by screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein, together with Howard Koch, and the many decades of packed revival screenings at repertory theaters and student film societies, not to mention innumerable television broadcasts and TCM airings.

While we may search in vain for a single reason that accounts for the magic of “Casablanca’s” enduring success, it can’t merely be considered “the happiest of happy accidents,” as critic Andrew Sarris once branded it. Even its theme song, “As Time Goes By,” — a Tin Pan Alley number from the 1930s written by Herman Hupfeld, which composer Max Steiner initially shunned — has in its lyrics a line that almost makes a deliberate claim on a deeper narrative foundation that is at once eternal, an ever-green of sorts: “It’s still the same old story.”

Perhaps this explains why screenwriters, novelists and composers still turn to “Casablanca” for source material. “We drink at the well of ‘Casablanca’ many times,” said television writer and producer Matt Selman, who’s had a hand in creating several of the episodes of “The Simpsons” that offer a satirical wink at the picture, in a phone interview with me in 2016. Today, it’s such an essential part of our cultural lexicon that you don’t even need to have seen the movie to recognize the references.

Last year alone brought us a pair of movies that paid homage to that most quoted of classics. In “La La Land,” a blustery love letter to old Hollywood, writer-director Damien Chazelle made a conscious decision not only to cast Emma Stone as an aspiring actress with an outsize Ingrid Bergman obsession, bedroom poster and all, but to have her work on the Warner Bros. lot at a café directly opposite of the set once used for Bogart and Bergman. There’s even the faint suggestion of a direct quote (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world”), or perhaps more of a thought bubble, delivered by Ryan Gosling’s character, and a recognizable nod to the famous bittersweet ending.

Similarly, in his deeply personal, and comparatively underrated, “20th Century Women,” writer-director Mike Mills incorporated his own mother’s love of Bogart movies of the 1940s into the script. In the film’s opening scene, as the voice-over narration given by the family matriarch Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) describes the various things that she introduces her son to, when she gets to movies, the camera cuts to an iconic still of Bogart and Bergman on the airport tarmac in their trench coats and snap brim hats. This sort of subtle touch confirms a statement made by Umberto Eco in the 1980s: “Casablanca” is not just one movie, it is “the movies.”

This same tendency to draw on “Casablanca,” and to weave strands of its celebrated story into a new plot, can be found in several highly successful recent novels as well. Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer prize-winning “Orphan Master’s Son,” published in 2012 and set in modern-day North Korea, involves a furtive viewing of the contraband DVD on a laptop in Pyongyang. Its story offers inspiration for a daring escape to America in the absence of letters of transit.

More recently, Amor Towles’ enormously popular novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” includes a pivotal late chapter in which the novel’s protagonist, Count Alexander Rostov, watches the movie with a former Red Army colonel. In addition to adding an extra layer of narrative complexity, the episode allows the novel’s protagonist — and, of course, readers along with him — to indulge in the film (“when the smoke from Rick’s cigarette dissolves into a montage of his days in Paris with Ilsa, the Count’s thoughts dissolved into a Parisian montage of his own”).

As Ingrid Bergman once observed of the film late in life: “I feel about ‘Casablanca’ that it has a life of its own. There is something mystical about it. It seems to have filled a need, a need that was there before the film.” Many decades later that need does not yet seem to have left us, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

Doonesbury — “It’s Hedley.”

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Monday, July 31, 2017

If Only

Steven Pearlstein last Friday in the Washington Post:

Remember this day, July 28, 2017: The day Donald Trump became a lame duck president. More significantly, the day the tea party revolution ended and Washington began the return to “regular order.”

As much as I and a lot of normal Americans — and normal people around the world whose fate is tied to America — would like that to be so, it’s not going to come true.  The defeat of the repeal of Obamacare will energize the hater-base and result in the GOP finding and nominating more Trump-clones out in congressional districts where the last of the moderate GOP representatives reside and primarying them to oblivion.  While that could open the door to some Democratic wins, it won’t be enough to sway the party off its lemming-like run.  So many districts have been gerrymandered into Republican enclaves it would take a seismic shift of Watergate proportions to do in the GOP majority in the House.  So far, that doesn’t appear to be on the radar.

The other element is that the Trump base seems to get their rocks off on having Trump and his minions under siege.  The more the elites in Washington and New York and Miami and San Francisco rail against him, the more sure they are that they voted for the right guy; the one who will piss off the pointy-headed latte-sipping Volvo-driving Russian-loving (oh wait) snobs who mock Trump’s glitz and glamor.  Any move to impeach Trump will be seen as a conspiracy against the God-chosen One, and even if Trump is somehow removed from office, he won’t go quietly, and neither will they.

So we have a bit of a dilemma.  Attempts to remove Trump from office by legal means, be it the impeachment process or Amendment XXV, will only make things worse even if they succeed because there will always be the vocal base who claim it was a coup d’etat and they’ll try for their own.  But the longer he remains in control the worse things get both politically and practically.  As noted below, nothing can be done in Congress as long as they’re forming their own death squads.

One of my favorite movies is Dave, where the president is incapacitated by a stroke and his body double (both roles played by the incomparable Kevin Kline) takes over and starts undoing all the disastrous policies the real president had implemented, and even repairs his marriage.  It’s a fantasy, but if only…

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Monday, February 27, 2017

And The Oscar Goes To… ?

I didn’t watch the show so I hear there was some confusion at the end.

“Moonlight” — the film — is based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney.  He’s a graduate of Miami’s New World School of the Arts and soon to be the head of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.

Wow. Congratulations.

By the way, if Betsy DeVos had her way, there would never have been a New World School of the Arts.  The money for that public school would have gone to some scammer setting up a charter school and strip joint and that would be the end of it.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Friday, July 22, 2016

Hello, His Name Is Edmund

I met Edmund Lupinski in September 1971 when we were both cast in the University of Miami Ring Theatre’s production of George Farquahar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, directed by the Old Professor.  (He had a lead as one of the beaux, I did two character parts.)  We did a number of shows together, everything from musicals such as Guys and Dolls to the 18th century comedy The School for Scandal, and I’ve always considered him to be a good friend.  He’s also a terrific actor, as you’ll see in this demo reel that he’s put together, including his most recent role on screen in Hello, My Name is Doris with Sally Field.  I thought I’d share this quick look at some of his work.  Enjoy.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Friday, April 29, 2016

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Jesus, These Millennials

I’m seeing promos on cable TV for this new movie, “The Young Messiah.”

Tells the story of Jesus Christ at age seven as he and his family depart Egypt to return home to Nazareth. Told from his childhood perspective, it follows young Jesus as he grows into his religious identity.

It has all the makings of a Mel Brooks road-trip comedy: “Hey, Joseph, would it kill you to ask for directions?  Moses thought he could lead the people out of Egypt and it took forever!”  Later they meet up with a hitchhiking Mary Magdalene who causes Mom and Dad no end of worry about what kind of influence she might have on their kid while they’re riding together in the back seat.

If this is a hit, then there will have to be sequels, including “Hanging Out on Easter Weekend,” and “Rise and Shine!”

Monday, February 29, 2016

Short Takes

Reformists make gains in Iranian elections.

Seriously, Donald Trump doesn’t know who David Duke is?

Suspect in Virginia cop killing is identified as a Pentagon sergeant.

Air strike targets suspected ISIS convoy in Libya.

SpaceX scrubs third launch attempt this week.

And the Oscars went to…