Saturday, July 6, 2019

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sunday Reading

Writing On Writers — Anthony Lane in The New Yorker reviews two films about those ink-stained wretches.

Having earned his spurs directing and acting in movies of “Henry V” (1989), “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), “Hamlet” (1996), “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (2000), and “As You Like It” (2006), Kenneth Branagh is at liberty to make of Shakespeare what he will. Had he offered a souped-up “Twelfth Night,” set in the hot-rod capital of Illyria, with Dwayne Johnson as Malvolio and Vin Diesel as Sir Toby Belch, I would have been the first to line up. Instead, Branagh has gone for a quieter option, by giving us “All Is True.”

The title is a clever thing, i’faith. For a start, it is the alternative title of “Henry VIII,” the play that was being performed at the Globe on June 29, 1613, when a cannon shot, designed to beef up the regal show, set fire to the roof. The entire theatre burned down. (It is surely a cause for regret that this chastening tradition—of major dramatic endeavors being abruptly terminated by too many special effects—has not survived to the present day.) Moreover, to call any movie “All Is True” is a sly provocation, hinting that what follows may not be wholly reliable. Compare the legendary film, set in South America and laced with documentary footage, that was conjured up by Orson Welles in the nineteen-forties but left unfinished. The title? “It’s All True.”

Branagh’s movie is not, for once, an adaptation of a play. Written by Ben Elton, it’s all about Shakespeare: not the Maytime of his youth, or the glorious summer of his prime, but his withdrawal—the period after the conflagration at the Globe, when he quit London and went home to Stratford-upon-Avon with his memories, his dirty laundry, and his 401(k). What occurred between his return and his death, in April, 1616, is as open to rash conjecture as every other patch of Shakespeare’s life. We can, with some certainty, attest that he played very little golf with former dentists, but that’s about it. Even the assumption that he stayed put for the rest of his days doesn’t quite bear scrutiny, since a friend reported meeting him in London in November, 1614. The received wisdom, according to the Shakespearean scholar Jonathan Bate, is that “the dramatist ‘retired’ to Stratford, settled down to property dealing, minor litigation, and the life of the complacent country gentleman. This is a myth.” But movies, like history plays, take no pleasure in verification. Why puncture a myth when you can pump it up?

The part of Shakespeare in “All Is True” is taken by Branagh himself, or by as much of him as can be discerned behind a wig, a false beard, and an even falser nose. How to account for this late-blooming interest in personal camouflage? First came his Hercule Poirot, in “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017), when it seemed that Birnam Wood had bypassed Dunsinane and parked on Branagh’s upper lip, and now we have his Bard. To make things worse, he is often viewed from the side, allowing us to gauge the precise angle at which the beard, short and sharp, has been glued on. It looks like some sort of digging tool, and, indeed, much of the movie is spent in Shakespeare’s garden. Maybe we are meant to suppose that, ever the innovator, he was the first Englishman to plant sweet damask roses with his chin.

Also resident at New Place, the swell joint that he bought in 1597, are his wife, Anne (Judi Dench), and his daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder). It has been ungallantly pointed out that, though Anne was William’s senior by eight years, the age gap between Dench and Branagh is almost twenty years wider; on the other hand, no chance to see her on film should be disdained. She finds in Anne the mordant fatigue of someone who has long since resigned herself to being ignored. Weary of her husband’s reputation, she asks, “Have you even once considered mine?,” a jibe that is all the more piquant for being a perfectly scannable, if unwitting, line of Shakespearean verse.

Judith is more blatant in her wrath. Her twin brother, Hamnet, died in 1596, and the movie contends that, whereas he was the apple of his father’s eye, she is regarded—or so she believes—as “a useless, pointless girl.” She and her mother sit and stew in the shadows, bent over their needlework (neither of them can read), and, after one fracas with her father, Judith storms out of the room. You can hardly blame her, given the bondage of the times. “A woman is put upon this earth for one reason,” she exclaims. It is a matter of record that, in 1616, she married a vintner named Thomas Quiney (who really was useless, not least at keeping his pants on), and the film shows Shakespeare rising at the wedding feast and assuring his guests that “family is everything.” Ah, yes. Look at the Lears.

The challenge, of course, is to veer off the record in style. “Cursed be he that moves my bones,” we are cautioned by the epitaph on Shakespeare’s tomb, but that has not deterred us from rearranging the skeletal outlines of his life and cladding them in speculative flesh. In “A Room of One’s Own,” Virginia Woolf gives him an imaginary sister, “wonderfully gifted,” who, after being flogged for refusing marriage, escapes to London with dreams of becoming an actor. (They are foiled, and she kills herself.) Germaine Greer, meanwhile, has suggested that Judith became a maidservant in the Quiney household, before marrying Thomas to save his family from scandal. All power to Branagh and Elton, then, as they devise a peculiar plot about Judith and her lost brother, even supplying a whiff of spicy whodunnit. “How did Hamnet die?” his father inquires. For a while, I wondered if Branagh might be morphing back into Poirot.

The problem is not that this film plays fast and loose. Nor that it slides into anachronism, with Shakespeare crowing over “my vast, complex, and spectacularly successful business,” as if he were in shipping or aerospace. At a pinch, I can even take the preëmptive puffery of the script, whereby lesser characters keep lauding his omniscient genius. (Serious bardolatry didn’t get into its stride until the eighteenth century.) No, what’s dismaying about “All Is True” is that it plays so slow and loose. The action seizes up. The mood is chronically autumnal. The women suffer under hats the size of fire hydrants. The music is mostly scored for piano and mush. And our attention is drawn, at inordinate length, to landscapes that look too fanciful to be rooted in the real. The falling leaves that swirl around our hero are clearly being driven by somebody just off camera, gunning his leaf blower to the max.

And yet, if you skip the movie, you’ll miss out. For ten minutes, it holds you in its thrall. The occasion is a visit by the Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare, early in his career, dedicated two long poems. He is played by Ian McKellen, who immediately strikes the right balance of gravity and sport. The two men sit by the hearth, warmed by its glow as Falstaff and Shallow were in Welles’s “Chimes at Midnight” (1965). The Earl credits his host with “the finest, the most _com_plete, that most beautiful mind, I’ll warrant, that ever existed in this world” (no one but McKellen would think to stress that syllable), only to gaze upon him and ask, “Why are you such a little man?” Talk about lordly. They trade recitations of Sonnet 29—Branagh with a half-angry admission of love, McKellen with amused and flirtatious hauteur. To watch these fine actors, with Shakespeare in their marrow, forgo the toil of modern dialogue for the gracious ease of verse, enfolded in firelight, feels like a privilege. Such an encounter, like most of the events in this movie, probably never took place, but the flame of the words requires no invention. It’s all true.

Why do people keep making films about writers? And why do people watch them? It’s not as if writers do anything of interest. Unless you’re Byron or Stendhal, a successful day is one in which you don’t fall asleep with your head on the space bar. An honest film about a writer would be an inaction-packed six-hour trudge, a one-person epic of mooch and mumblecore, the highlights being an overflowing bath, the reheating of cold coffee, and a pageant of aimless curses that are melted into air, into thin air. As Martin Amis observed of writers, in “The Information,” his winningly defeatist novel of 1995, “Most alive when alone, they make living hard to do for those around them.”

All of which is unfair to J. R. R. Tolkien, who was a good and kindly man, with friends possess’d. Much of the time, nonetheless, he dwelt in the hobbit-hole of his brain, a richly furnished refuge, and his creative exertions, seen from outside, entailed little more than the refilling of his pipe. One of his biographers claims that, from 1925 until his death, in 1973, “nothing really happened,” so it makes sense that “Tolkien”—a new film, directed by Dome Karukoski—should draw us back to his earlier years. Things happened then.

We find Tolkien as a child (Harry Gilby), already fatherless, living in rural bliss with his brother and mother. Paradise is lost when they move to the murk of Birmingham; there he attends a formidable school, declaiming Chaucer by heart and growing close to a trio of like-minded students. Tolkien, now played by Nicholas Hoult, lodges in a house whose décor, overstuffed and precious, with a surfeit of William Morris wallpapers, makes it seem like a cozy jungle. He falls in love with Edith (Lily Collins), and they kiss backstage during a performance of Wagner’s “Rheingold.” (In fact, Tolkien scorned the “Ring” cycle, as he did any attempt to link it with “The Lord of the Rings.” In his judgment, “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.”) He goes to Oxford, where his lambent gift of tongues is recognized and encouraged, and then to war, where everything he values is laid waste.

The movie, as embarrassed by religion as “The Lord of the Rings” is by sex, averts its gaze from the Catholic faith by which Tolkien was sustained; in all other respects, however, Karukoski is determined to map Middle-earth onto the life of its creator. Thus, the club of school comrades foretells the brotherhood of Frodo and his fellow-hobbits; flamethrowers, in the trenches, turn to dragons in Tolkien’s fevered eyes; mustard gas slithers and drifts like the Ringwraiths. The question, though, is not whether the psychobiographical dots can be joined in this way, but whether they ought to be; as a prominent Elf says to Frodo, “Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.” You have been warned.

The Most Powerful Man In The World? — Alexis C. Madrigal in The Atlantic on Mark Zuckerberg.

The Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes made a personal, riveting case for breaking up Facebook in a new essay published in The New York Times today. His argument hinges on the idea that Mark Zuckerberg is a “good, kind person” but one whose “power is unprecedented and un-American” and whose “influence is staggering, far beyond that of anyone else in the private sector or in government.”

A major, if not the, reason to break up Facebook is that, as the philosopher Kanye West once put it: “No one man should have all that power.” What makes the situation complicated, however, is that the type of power Mark Zuckerberg holds is what’s actually unprecedented.

In the terms of traditional power, Facebook and its CEO are not overwhelming by historical or contemporary standards. Militarily, of course, Facebook is a nonentity. Zuckerberg commands no world-class army, which ranks him significantly below Chinese, American, and Russian leaders. Politically, Zuckerberg has no base, and despite being very famous, is quite unpopular. Culturally, Zuckerberg does not have the mystique of Steve Jobs, nor has his philanthropy turned him into a wise nobleman like Bill Gates (not yet, anyway). Financially, his personal fortune is among the world’s top 10, but there are a lot of other billionaires with comparable fortunes, from the space enthusiast Jeff Bezos to the many children of very successful businesspeople.

Even Zuckerberg’s company, measured by traditional means, is merely strong. Facebook is not among the top 75 revenue-generating companies. It has roughly as many employees as the Arizona mining company Freeport-McMoran and the steelmaker Nucor, or roughly 0.01 percent as many as Walmart. Facebook’s profits land it in the top 15 companies, and its market value is in the top 10 on its perceived potential for growth. Taken as a whole in the context of the global economy, Facebook looks like a very profitable, high-potential company, but it does not stand out on any one metric. (The Saudi oil company Aramco, for example, generated $224 billion in profits in 2018.)

But few companies are as tightly controlled by one person as Facebook is. The company came of age during an era of Silicon Valley in which founders retained remarkable control over their enterprises. By creating different classes of shares with different voting power, Zuckerberg has retained operational control while still selling shares of his company. “Facebook’s board works more like an advisory committee than an overseer, because Mark controls around 60 percent of voting shares,” Hughes notes in the essay. Even the Ford family, which famously created an unusual dual-class share structure in the 1930s, only holds 40 percent voting control of the company. When it comes to Walmart, another unusually closely held operation, the Walton family owns fewer than 50 percent. And these are families, with their own conflicts and competing interests. Zuckerberg is both the chief executive and holds the majority of voting shares. There is no institutional check on Zuckerberg.

Yet his power is great. Hughes is correct that we’ve never seen anything like it. Mark Zuckerberg controls Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp—three of the five most popular communication tools on the planet, alongside Alphabet’s YouTube and Tencent’s WeChat. In many countries, Zuckerberg’s products are the internet. They are the media for information dispersal—like a newspaper or television channel—as well as for peer-to-peer communications, like an old-school telecom network. They are also a crucial ligature for small businesses, as internet home, customer-service desk, and advertising platform, and for direct sales through tools such as Facebook Marketplace.

Who is Zuckerberg like? The best parallels might be the newspaper barons, such as William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch. But it’s more like if all three broadcast-television networks of the 20th century were owned by the same person, in one corporation that he completely controlled, and that also was the central venue for political speech and finding an electrician. Or maybe, as we’ve argued, he’ll be this generation’s Bob Moses, who, in his quest to remake New York, first acquired power through building, and then by any means necessary.

As Max Read has pointed out, no one can quite figure out what Facebook is, and by extension, no one really knows what Zuckerberg’s power could do. While Zuckerberg has been driven to dominate his corporate rivals, he has yet to use the power that he holds to do anything other than compete (that we know of, at least).

What could an evil Zuckerberg do?

Because Facebook Inc. has developed the most sophisticated tools for predicting human behavior that the world has ever seen, and because its user bases are the largest in the world, the company could exert more persuasive power over more people than has ever been possible.

Facebook gets people to use its products, and it uses the actions that people take to manufacture more useful data about their tendencies, as Shoshana Zuboff has laid out in her book Surveillance Capitalism. That is to say, all the things we control about interactions with the empire—the friends we have, the photos we post, the text we write—are not the information that Facebook is after. These are the raw material for the machine-learning processes that generate Facebook’s real power: their ability to forecast what you’ll do when faced with a set of choices.

And that power is growing with both the data in the system and the development of the artificial intelligences that feed on it.

Even if Mark Zuckerberg has never used this power for anything other than getting me to buy sneakers, it probably is not a great idea for one person to have so much predictive capacity about the citizens of the world. That Zuckerberg has not done so might be the best argument for breaking up Facebook now—because it’s not too late.

Breaking up the company probably would not (immediately) solve the problems we’ve come to associate with the internet. Who knows, it could even exacerbate them. But it would take one major, underappreciated risk out of the future: that Mark Zuckerberg decides to wield the tremendous power he has so far eschewed.

 

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Monday, February 25, 2019

Catching Up

I’ve been away all weekend and so there’s a lot of things that went on that I am now catching up on.  Such as:

Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots got busted for solicitation at a strip mall (so to speak) “massage” parlor in Jupiter (nowhere near Miami) Florida.  He’s not the victim.  The women being trapped and trafficked in the joint are.

Trump is taking over the Washington, D.C. 4th of July celebration as his own orgy, taking his cue from his BFF KJU of North Korea;

Trump Jr. put out a self-aggrandizing tweet about possibly running for president in 2024;

Roger Stone, who is G. Gordon Liddy to Trump if Liddy were played by any one of the Three Stooges, got slapped down by the judge overseeing his case but still can’t keep his clods in line;

“Green Book” won the Oscar as best picture of 2018.  Haven’t seen it yet.

What else did I miss?

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Long Game

Rather than watch the football game, I turned on TCM at 4:30 and, for the first time since I saw it in a movie theatre in 1965, I watched “Doctor Zhivago,” three and a half hours of long, silent wide-screen shots of the Russian steppes punctuated now and then with longing looks between Omar Sharif and Julie Christie and the occasional World War I battle and the Russian Revolution.  The actual story itself could have been narrated and shown in about twenty minutes.

I hear the football game wasn’t much more interesting.  Then again, the movie was presented without commercial interruption.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sunday Reading

Invasive Pythons — Charlie Pierce on the GOP shenanigans in Florida’s recount.

Before we descend into the madness that is Florida and the way it conducts itself during elections, we should get a bit of a look at what’s at stake so we can understand a) why the Republicans are fighting so hard; b) why the Democrats should match their ferocity, and c) why Marco Rubio is peddling his self respect one Tweet at a time on the electric Twitter machine. As part of the latter effort, Rubio tweeted out a video from a guy who was a Seth Rich Truther. But we are concerned at the moment withother swamps and other critters therein. From the Miami Herald:

In a series of morning tweets, Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg claimed “the public deception is underway” as a South Florida Water Management District government board meeting started in Miami. Eikenberg accused officials of trying to derail the project by tying up the land for two more years and failing to give adequate notice for the decision. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast echoed those concerns during public comment, saying Ron DeSantis, the Republican who has railed against the sugar industry and maintains a narrow lead in a state governor race facing a recount, asked him to deliver a message: Postpone the vote. “The governor-elect as well as federal legislators would like to be briefed,” said Mast, a fellow Republican whose district includes coastal communities along the St. Lucie River repeatedly slammed by blue-green algae blooms ignited by polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.

DiSantis [sic], who is headed for Recount City with Andrew Gillum, and Rick Scott,who is presently tied up pretending to be Juan Peron in his battle against Senator Bill Nelson, both have opposed extending the leases on the land held by the literal sugar daddies. Everybody—including Senators Nelson and Rubio—have argued for the necessity of letting the leases run and then establishing the reservoir on that land. The state has been an environmental catastrophe this year, so much so that even Scott, who would sell his grandmother for parts if he thought the old girl would bring a price, got concerned.

This past summer, that outrage was compounded by a saltwater red tide, also fed by coastal pollution, that littered beaches with dead marine life and became a central issue in a heated election. DeSantis, who claimed to be the “only candidate who fought Big Sugar and lived to tell about it,” and voted against sugar subsidies while in Congress, has been embraced by some environmentalists. His opposition to the industry helped him win an endorsement from the Everglades Trust and a hearty congratulations from the Everglades Foundation, which does not endorse candidates but has lent support, including a press conference with outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott in the closing days of his race against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. The tight Nelson-Scott race is also going to a recount. District officials said they complied with meeting laws and would have listed Thursday’s vote in the meeting agenda sooner but only reached a deal with Florida Crystals late Wednesday. Board chairman Federico Fernandez, who seemed genuinely surprised by the negative reaction, said he was assured the decision met requirements.

This is part of the reason why the fight in Florida has gone to knives as swiftly as it has. Along with the climate crisis, quick-buck development scams and environmental predation have been devouring Florida for decades and the political establishment there never has been able to unite against these threats to the ordinary citizens.This time, apparently, it has. So the reservoir now becomes something that may be at stake in whatever backroom maneuvering is undertaken in the pursuit of the two contested political offices. And, my lord, is that becoming a tangled disaster. Once again, Broward County is haunting the nation’s dreams and, once again, we find ourselves in the preposterous position of having one of the candidates controlling the process of settling an election in which he is involved. The count in the Senate race has closed to within the state’s requirement for a statewide hand recount, and Scott went into a frenzy trying to stop it. From the Tampa Bay Times:

Rick Scott filed suit against Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes over the county’s delay in completing its count of the votes from the midterm election. Scott sued as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, not in his capacity as governor of Florida. Scott followed up by lashing out at Snipes in an extraordinary press conference at the Governor’s Mansion on Thursday night. Broward County lags the rest of the state in completing the first, crucial phases of counting ballots from Tuesday’s midterm election. As of 8 p.m. Thursday, the same time the governor summoned reporters to the mansion, Broward County was the only one of the state’s 67 counties that had not reported to the state that it had completed its tabulation of early votes. Early voting ended Sunday in Broward.

Scott, acting in his capacity as governor in furtherance of his attempt to become senator, sicc’ed the state police on the election officials in Broward. Armed police officers were headed to the counting houses. In a late-night press conference, Scott wentall the way up the wall.

“I will not sit idly by while unethical liberals try to steal this election from the great people of Florida,” Scott told reporters on the front steps of the stately Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee. The targets of Scott’s wrath were Brenda Snipes, the Broward County elections supervisor, and Palm Beach supervisor Susan Bucher. Both officials are Democrats; Scott is a Republican. Scott unleashed the attack as his slim lead over Democrat Bill Nelson in the Senate race continued to evaporate. It stood at 15,092 votes, or .18 percent, on Thursday night. President Trump chimed in on Twitter, describing, without any evidence, a “big corruption scandal” involving election fraud in South Florida. Scott took the unusual step of delivering a partisan political attack from his taxpayer-funded residence, which is reserved for official state events.

A reminder: what we are talking about here is the counting of votes, which is the basic fundamental process for every election. We are not talking about recounts and chads and all that other nonsense that is surely coming down the pike because this is Florida, man. We are talking about counting the votes. And Scott is using his authority as governor to ratfck that process with armed law-enforcement personnel. Somebody get this guy a white suit with some braid, and a balcony on which to stand. And he’s doing so with the entire Republican political apparatus up to and including the White House supporting him by enabling and weaponizing what are so far baseless charges. There is a great deal at stake here. We should wait and see what gets traded away and what gets held hostage and which firmly held political positions are used as currency. The gators and cranes and invasive pythons in the Everglades should be watching, too.

The Queer Coming-of-Age Film Comes of Age — Spencer Kornhaber in The Atlantic.

“My God, are we gonna be like our parents?” That’s the fear voiced by one of the five motley high-school students locked in detention in John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club—and that’s the crucial question underlying most movies about adolescents coming of age. The onscreen antics of teenagers might take the form of giddy flirtations (Grease), drunken ramblings (Dazed and Confused), or feisty self-renaming (Lady Bird), but the kids’ objectives are usually the same: to fashion an identity by rebelling against the authorities—and expectations—that raised them. This quest is, however, circular. The losing of virginities and conquering of cliques may require transgressions in the moment, but by the time the credits roll, the teens have generally started prepping for a productive adulthood against which their own children might someday revolt.

For some kids, though, rule-breaking is less a route toward self-definition than a requirement built into existence. That’s the reality recognized by a recent crop of popular films centered on the queer teen, a figure who until now has been cinematically marginal: casually stigmatized in crass banter, relegated to playing sidekick in someone else’s rites of passage, or claiming the foreground only for small art-house audiences. The first major-studio movie about adolescent gay romance, Greg Berlanti’s spring hit, Love, Simon, uses teen-comedy tropes to portray homosexuality as no big deal in a well-off, relatively woke slice of America. But other recent films, set in less tolerant places and eras, hint that integrating queerness into a schema that has been overwhelmingly straight isn’t so simple.
Two prominent depictions of Christian gay-to-straight “conversion therapy,” the star-studded Boy Erased and the Sundance winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post, forgo the notion of puberty as a full-circle journey. So, in more oblique ways, did Moonlight, the Best Picture winner at the 2017 Oscars, and the 2018 Best Picture contender Call Me by Your Name. Whether persecuted or nurtured by their surroundings, queer teens fundamentally flip the Breakfast Club script: Their fear is not that they’ll become their parents, but that they face a future in which that isn’t a possibility. If that sounds potentially freeing, it is also, in these movies at least, a special kind of terrifying.

In literature and elsewhere, the go-to queer narrative is the coming-out story, which might seem well suited to the on-screen LGBTQ teenager on the brink of autonomy. After all, high-school movies are always, on some level, about outing: The protagonist struggles—nervously or defiantly or both—to announce who she really is to the world. But the queer teens now taking center stage are understandably gun-shy about this rite. Almost in passing, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird highlights the difference in what’s at stake. For Saoirse Ronan in the title role, bucking the dutiful-teen image is a performative thrill; her boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), who she discovers is gay, isn’t ready to upend parental expectations in what feels like a more irrevocable way.

Putting that apprehension in the foreground, this year’s gay-teen movies summon external forces to yank identity struggles into the open. In Love, Simon, Simon (Nick Robinson) is blackmailed by a classmate who discovers the secret Simon had hoped to keep through high school—and the kid eventually outs him anyway. Family members, peers, and school staff rally in support of an almost caricatured romantic-comedy finale for Simon: Young lovers ride a Ferris wheel, happily ever after. Simon never dreamed he’d remain in the closet; he just wanted to time his emergence to his arrival at college. That the mortifying disruption of this plan turns out to be kismet is not unlike what happens to the straight teens of Sixteen Candles and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, who have their private crushes revealed against their will.

The recent conversion-therapy movies redraw the blueprint more radically with the simple recognition that for a lot of queer youths, exposure really can spell catastrophe. In Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, set in the 1990s, the title character (Chloë Grace Moretz) is furtively hooking up with another girl at prom when the car door is flung open by Cameron’s male date. In Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, Jared (Hedges again), the Arkansas son of a hard-line preacher (Russell Crowe), diligently resists acting on his same-sex attractions—but is still outed, in extremely traumatic circumstances, when he goes to college in the early 2000s. The unmasking of these characters doesn’t represent a capstone of self-actualization; it kicks off a communal effort to constrain who they might become—to stop same-sex attraction before it “gets worse,” as one Boy Erased church elder puts it.

Change, usually the liberating mantra of coming-of-age movies, represents oppression and conformity in these films: It’s what the Christian brainwashing camps insist is possible for gay teens, something very near the opposite of the discovery of a true self. The comic pop-culture trope of the regimented high school morphs into a grimmer setting of hapless yet powerful adults and trapped kids. Even the homework is a perverse twist. For The Breakfast Club’s crew, being forced to write an essay about “who you think you are” offers each teen a pretext to break out of a stereotyped public image. But mandatory self-analysis, when truly futile, begins to resemble torture: Jared must annotate his family tree with the sins of his forebears (alcoholism, gambling, gang affiliation), and Cameron draws an iceberg showing all the supposedly malign influences below her surface (enjoyment of sports, lack of positive female role models). “How is programming people to hate themselves not emotional abuse?” Cameron asks.Seeing through the quacks in charge and confirming the truth of their own desires—which both of them ultimately do (Jared with the eventual support of his mother)—isn’t a prelude to fruitful rebellion or an upbeat transition away from home. Jared the earnest church kid frets about his parents’ love more than anything else. Cameron takes on light punk airs, joining ranks with the pot-smoking skeptics in the program she’s sent to, but she’s not fighting the system to achieve acceptance. Though both characters end up as runaways of sorts, they don’t seem to be running toward any particular adulthood they may be dreaming of. Survival has to come first.

Set further in the past, the breakout queer-teen movies of the previous two years each consider—from opposite perspectives—how a person’s initial environs might follow them forever. In Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, the black youth Chiron (played in turn by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) suffers bullying and parental abuse as he grows up amid Miami drug dealers and addicts in the 1980s. Moments of grace and fellowship are precious, and he’s shown acting on his same-sex desires in only one fleeting teenage encounter. In his high-school years, he does rebel—but by savagely beating a classmate, making a display of masculinity that brings him in line with the heterosexual status quo. Years later, he hasn’t diverged from the script that shaped his youth—he’s become a drug dealer—and whether he may belatedly be ready to pursue his desires is left open. Life itself may have erased this boy.

A contrast to Chiron in so many ways, the white and wealthy Elio (Timothée Chalamet) of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name avails himself of a few different scripts over one blissful ’80s summer in the Italian countryside. Like a stereotypical 17-year-old, he sneaks around in pursuit of sex behind his worldly parents’ backs, at first with girls and soon with Oliver (Armie Hammer), the handsome graduate student spending the summer at his family’s villa. Yet what looks like brave same-sex exploration on his own terms is suddenly cast in a very different light at the film’s close: Elio’s father indicates that he’s been aware of the affair all along. In fact, he’s been jealous of it, having yearned in vain for similar experiences.

Can Elio be who his father wishes he’d been? The film holds out, for a moment, the utopian possibility that a queer kid could be propelled forward by the possibility of fulfilling unmet parental dreams, rather than disappointing deeply entrenched ones. Yet a shadow flits across that uplifting prospect. Elio is soon heartbroken to learn that Oliver, who has returned to his grad-student life, is marrying a woman. “You’re so lucky,” the older man tells the younger one over the phone while reflecting on their tryst. “My father would have carted me off to a correctional facility.” In the film’s pointedly open-ended final scene, Elio just sits and cries. Presumably he’s contemplating the mystery of his future, one in which the men who might have been his role models appear to have surrendered some part of themselves. Even in Elio’s liberation, there’s no clear path for him to walk.

Most teen stories, of course, are open-ended on some level. Puberty breaks everyone’s life in two, and what comes after graduation is necessarily unwritten. But for gay kids, a ready synthesis between the old order and the new sexual self doesn’t obviously await. Willingly or not, they’re swept into an unfolding historical saga. These characters thus come to inhabit their misfit status—a dislocation that’s permanent and deep, rather than fleeting and cosmetic—reluctantly, quietly, and often with gestures toward external conformity.

In look and feel, these movies mimic their muted heroes. Mostly gone are the hijinks and raunch of typical teen comedy, eclipsed by struggles to belong that tend toward stately, notably pretty melodrama. A sensitive camera eye helps capture teens’ interiority, a social vista, and the chasm between them. Yet the critic D. A. Miller has convincingly argued that mainstream gay movies’ “mandatory aesthetic laminate, which can never shine brightly enough with dappled light,” is also a sop: meant to make homosexuality palatable for a broad audience.

Certainly it’s curious that in an age of unprecedented visibility for LGBTQ communities, the queer teens chosen for the cinematic spotlight appear so allergic to, well, seeming gay. Simon is self-mocking as he at one point indulges in a daydream of being accompanied by a rainbow-clad cheering squad when he leaves the closet, and he keeps the only out kid at school—sardonic, femme, and black—at arm’s length. Elio pokes fun at the flamboyant older gay couple who visit his parents, and Jared’s arrival into a life of writing New York Times op-eds and attending Brooklyn dinner parties is shown glancingly, in an epiloguelike time jump. Whether the implied assimilationist impulse reflects the filmmakers’ or the characters’ caution is up for debate. Either way, the caution serves as a reminder: There’s a reason slogans like “It gets better” have tried to give queer kids the kind of optimistic narrative arc that pop culture has offered straight teens for so long.

And even in their mannered quietude and their relegation of politics to subtext, these films carry a disruptive message. Boy Erased ends with Jared telling his dad that he, not Jared, is the one who needs to change. When Simon’s father repents for all the gay jokes he’s told over the years, the gesture is warm but wan. The parental apology suggests why coming of age feels so heavy in these movies: It’s the world, not just the teen, that’s struggling to mature.
Doonesbury — Veterans Day.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sunday Reading

Unrestoring the Past — Sopan Deb in the New York Times on director Christopher Nolan’s “unrestoration” of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Photo from Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan was 7 years old when he went to see Stanley Kubrick’s classic “2001: A Space Odyssey” in London with his father. He was gobsmacked.

“You sit there and you just go, ‘This is a film that’s not observing any conventions,’” Mr. Nolan said in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

Four decades later, Mr. Nolan has himself been compared to Kubrick for a similarly meticulous approach to filmmaking and a taste for ambitious productions like “Interstellar.” He shrugs off those comparisons — Mr. Nolan said he’s just a fan — but for his latest project, he put himself directly in Kubrick’s shoes. On Saturday, he’s going to the Cannes Film Festival for the first time to screen a restored 70-millimeter print of Kubrick’s seminal work to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

But calling it a restoration, Mr. Nolan said, isn’t quite right. He prefers “unrestored.”

Mr. Nolan set out last fall to recreate the experience audiences had in 1968, allowing moviegoers today to see the epic exactly as Kubrick intended. His goal meant there would be no digital manipulation in the new version but the occasional visible scratch would be allowed to slip through. In a world of high-definition and 4K resolution, Mr. Nolan is, in effect, time-traveling to the days of analog. Think of it as listening to a classic record on vinyl, with pops and all.

Mr. Nolan has long been a passionate proponent of the 70-millimeter format. His war drama, “Dunkirk,” was shown in 70 millimeter at more than 100 theaters across the country last year. “It’s not about nostalgia,” Mr. Nolan said. “It’s a totally different way of watching a movie, and it’s in danger of being lost.”

Paradoxically, Mr. Nolan got involved in the Kubrick project when he was remastering the films in his own library last fall, digitally restoring them in 4K Ultra High Definition.

Ned Price, the vice president of restoration at Warner Bros., was working in the same lab on a similar update of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Mr. Price asked Mr. Nolan if he wanted to see copies of the original prints, the film industry equivalent of offering a historian access to an ancient manuscript.

In 1999, as part of a preservation project, Mr. Price’s team had made an “interpositive” of the film — essentially a protection copy of the original camera negatives, made up of 20 reels tucked away in a Burbank studio. To accomplish this in less than a year, the Warner Bros. team carefully cleaned the original negatives, removed old repairs and created new interpositives. The negatives, from which the preservation copies were made, were slightly shrunken and had some color fading. That was where the work stopped. The copies of the original reels were meant only for preservation, not for distribution.

But they were still in good enough shape that an intrigued Mr. Nolan approached the studio about continuing the work that had begun almost two decades ago. He proposed taking it one step further: recreating the 1968 theatrical release. Warner Bros. readily agreed.

Mr. Price and Mr. Nolan began by making duplicate negatives and then initiated a complex method of color correction. This process required some imagining of what Kubrick would want, with prompting from the faded source material.

“If the filmmaker intended the walls to be sort of green and you try to make them white, then other things will be problematic,” Mr. Price said. “The flesh tones will go off. The whites will turn magenta. Strange things will happen. To a certain degree, you have to listen to the camera negative itself.”

There was a singular aim to view the film in its first cinematic form. Instead of fixing several tears in the original negative, the team thought it would be more authentic to retain them. The original 35-millimeter six-channel soundtrack had decayed beyond repair, so Mr. Nolan sourced audio from a 35-millimeter preservation element made in the 1980s — a format rarely, if ever, used anymore.

During the process, Mr. Nolan discovered new quirks in “2001” that even he, a fan of the movie since childhood, hadn’t noticed before. For example, when Dave Bowman, the astronaut played by Keir Dullea, deactivates the supercomputer HAL, the machine asks Bowman if he’d like to hear a song (“Daisy Bell,” from 1892.) Before the restoration (or unrestoration), Mr. Nolan thought Bowman acquiesced to break the tension. But after dozens of viewings since the fall, he has found another motive: aggression.

“He’s saying, ‘Sing it for me,’ because he wants to be sure that he’s actually killing the computer as it sings,” Mr. Nolan said. “He wants to hear it disintegrate. I just never felt that. I never spotted that before.”

That Mr. Nolan found something new after all these years is not surprising to Katharina Kubrick, the daughter of the celebrated director. She recently caught a continuity error in the film she hadn’t seen before, although she wouldn’t say what it was. She said Kubrick would have been thrilled that Mr. Nolan was putting the same care into his film that he would have.

“I think it’s awesome actually,” said Ms. Kubrick, who will appear with Mr. Nolan at Cannes. “This is a movie that’s a half-century old and the fact that people are still fascinated, arguing about it and debating it and that it influenced many directors and filmmakers is nothing short of incredible.”

Stanley Kubrick’s films never played Cannes while he was alive (he died in 1999), and so far neither have Mr. Nolan’s. “I love the idea of going for the first time with an acknowledged masterpiece of another filmmaker,” Mr. Nolan said with a laugh. “I would say that’s a low-stress way of going.”

After the newest (oldest?) version of “2001” has its premiere at Cannes, it will open in select theaters in the United States on May 18. This fall, Warner Bros. will release a 4K version of the film. But it’s the analog version — stripped to its roots — that fascinates Mr. Nolan: “What I want audiences to take away is what I took away when I was a kid seeing it.”

Doonesbury — Teach your children wel.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Difference Between Film And Theatre

This is just an observation without any research behind it, but I think it points up another of the differences between film and theatre when a movie wins Best Picture without winning any acting or writing awards to back it up.

I can’t imagine that happening at the Tonys.  It probably has, but I can’t imagine it nonetheless.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

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.”