Hail, Caesar!


What a seething self-indictment of “independent” auteurist movies! This script never would’ve made it out of the slush pile at the kind of Golden Age Hollywood studio it attempts to glorify. At its best, the picture is a meticulous reproduction of the kind of behind-the-scenes-at-the-studio shorts that used to be made and shown as afterthoughts, not main features. At its worst, which is most of the time, it is a comedy that alternates between bad gags and none at all. The most painful sequences to watch feature Tilda Swinton playing identical twin Hollywood gossip columnists. If you want to watch Hollywood nostalgia that’s smart, self-aware, and “zany to the max,” I suggest you ditch these twins and watch the Warner triplets instead.






This movie is about the relationship between the United States of America and the Lone Star Republic. After a fast courtship they settle into a twin bed marriage and eventually come to love each other.

The opening act trots like a show horse through picture postcards of the Old South and Old West. The middle act flies like a twin-engine airplane through the pages of Vogue. The short, magnificent concluding act envisions how the Johnson Administration appeared through a crystal ball in 1956.

People both discover and demonstrate who they are through how they confront the irreconcilable. We watch a quarter century of Texan-sized struggle: stallion-taming old-ways old-money rancher vs. gusher-capping new-ways new-money oilman, coffee vs. tea, enlistment vs. deferment, train vs. car vs. plane, old vs. young, and most significant because most deeply tied to power: Anglo vs. Chicano and man vs. woman.

The march of time in USA from the turn of the 20th Century to the post-WWII boom was particularly cruel. Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) spent his childhood, youth, and most of adulthood struggling in heat and dust to maintain his patrimony – a mansion sitting on half a million acres of the middle of nowhere. He and his ilk will always look and feel out of place beside a concrete swimming pool or in a grand hotel. This discomfort pales beside the pain of watching children grow up with values that suit their environment rather than their parents.

Each character sometimes tries to swim with the current of time and sometimes tries to resist it, but is always flailing. Only Leslie Lynnton Benedict  (Elizabeth Taylor) floats through time, with a grace that only Jett Rink (James Dean) can fully appreciate.

Dean not only plays, but ages as a man who’s half Heathcliff and half Charles Foster Kane. Had he lived, he would’ve been much more than a teen heartthrob.

As in Rebel Without a Cause, Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper both appear. This time, both are in supporting roles as young men who exhibit shy toughness in the Gary Cooper mold.

There’s much less innuendo than could be expected from the definitely gay Hudson and Mineo and the delightfully ambiguous Dean. A jet of oil does, however, bubble to the surface and inundate Dean, who proceeds to clock Hudson in his manhood.

One scene feels timely and I hope prophetic: A blustery Texas senator is humiliated and a businessman who names hotels after himself is ruined because of their bigotry toward Mexican-American neighbors.

Cannabis Culture, Part II: Feelin’ the Bern



Western Massachusetts seamstress Emily Engel with her hit Lil’ Berniedoll

Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible – at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress.

—G.K. Chesterton, “On the Negative Spirit”

Grass-Fed Democratic Socialist Capitalism

I arrived at the UMASS Amherst arena about fifteen minutes prior to the rally’s scheduled 7pm start. The press release encouraged folks to come early and leave their bags at home. A day of February thaw cooled into an evening of light-jacket ruddy collegiate chill. The line spanned the equivalent of a few city blocks.

It was the first day of the Monday-Wednesday Apollonian period of campus life. Most of the students around me in line either chatted about classes or stood silently looking tired. A Dionysian Thursday-Saturday or Tartarean Sunday would’ve had very different vibes.

A well-positioned UMASS Dining Services food truck was doing great business. The work-study burger-flippers said my grass-fed patty was one of the last, and interrupted our transaction to radio for a re-supply. My $10 bill yielded $4.50 in quarters as change.

Each time I used to visit friends at UMASS, I was struck by the sight of students employed as cooks and janitors. At least in recent times, the work-study students at Bernie’s and yours truly’s common alma mater helped professors with research, shelved books at the library, or ran the hippest coffee shops on campus. Black and Hispanic locals were employed by food service giant Aramark to do the dirty work.

Rules of Engagement

Though we were all but a captive audience, no one tried to engage us until we’d almost reached the entrance of the arena. A grungy man in his 30s asked if anyone was a local registered voter who could sign a petition for a 22-year-old running for state legislature. A Unitarian church lady decked out in Bernie tried to pep us up: “You’re almost in! It’s warm in there! There’s loud music!” A tall, well-built young man with earnest eyes, solid cheekbones, and a serious black suit stood beside the line asking “any questions?” like an inexperienced teacher. It took a moment to realize he was the one running for state legislature.

I braced myself for the Secret Service security detail. My last encounter with them was when my Parisian friend somehow scored VIP tickets to an outdoor rally featuring President Obama a few days before the 2010 midterm election. Our section of lawn was close enough to the Big O to warrant a Yankee White security checkpoint, complete with crew cuts and corded earpieces. Unlike run-of-the-mill TSA agents, those guys seemed very well trained in Israeli-style predictive profiling.

Bernie’s Secret Service protection consisted of TSA types in outfits that said Secret Service. There were no plastic baskets on the table next to the metal detector, so I just plopped down my $4.50 in loose quarters. Did my vintage Kent State sweatshirt (unstained from a thrift store rather than pre-stained from Urban Outfitters) attract suspicion?

An agent took a quick flip through my notebook but didn’t pat me down. Then, he told a young woman she couldn’t bring in her plastic water bottle, but would be allowed to leave it on the floor in a corner just outside the checkpoint. I felt enough at ease to snarkily ask him if any of the quarters was counterfeit (the Secret Service protects both high-ranking officials and the currency). He shrugged and replied, “I don’t know.”

Massachusetts Police stood guard at each door of the arena, approximately every 30 feet around the concourse. They’re the stars of all of the Commonwealth’s pride parades, regardless of whether they recognize or enjoy this distinction.


Huge Beatlemaniacal Amazonian War Shrieks

Once through security, I was greeted by a single volunteer, a 20-something black man. He suggested I go to section M so I could sit directly behind Bernie.

The organizers didn’t set up the customary risers behind the candidate filled with a diverse, choreographed group of supporters. Most candidates set up risers at most rallies. Trump serves as one-man color guard to a line of USA flags. As much as I would’ve enjoyed filling a square millimeter of TV screen with silly reaction faces, I opted for a frontal view. I can’t report on Bernie’s dandruff because I lacked the VIP mosh pit access bracelet.

Like Obama in 2010, Bernie was introduced by a Latina in both Spanish and English and summoned by a chant of his name. Homemade signs and other decorations weren’t allowed through security, but “Change We Can  A Future To Believe In” small signs were held up in abundance. The 10,500 seat arena was about 75% full.

The stump speech covered the same applause and boo lines as always, including:

“We need more jobs and education, not jails and incarceration.”

“What we need is a country that works for everyone, not just the top 1 percent.”

“We are the only major country on Earth that doesn’t provide health care to all people as a right.”

“The American people bailed out Wall Street, and now it’s their turn to help us by paying their fair share of taxes. Every one who’s capable deserves an education at a public college or university tuition-free.”

“We are the only major country on Earth that doesn’t provide paid family and medical leave to all workers.”

“So you ready for another radical idea?”

“No one who works forty hours a week should be living below the poverty line. The federal minimum wage of seven bucks and a quarter per hour is a starvation wage. We’re committed to a minimum wage of fifteen bucks an hour.”

“You want family values? A new mother who has a baby should be able to spend time with her baby.”

“X months ago we were at Y% and the pundits said we were going nowhere. Look where we are today!”

“We must reverse the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision.”

“We’ve shown that it’s possible to run a campaign without a Super-PAC based on more than Z million small contributions, of an average of $27. We’re bringing together young and working people who have previously given up on the political process.”

“We must re-build our crumbling infrastructure, creating millions of jobs.”

“A bank that is too big to big to fail is too big to exist. Break! Them! Up!”

“We must allow student debt to be re-financed at the lowest possible rates.”

“You might ask how I’m gonna pay for this. Good question. We will pay for this with a tax on Wall Street speculation and a repeal of loopholes that allow corporations to hide billions of dollars in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens.”

Any mention of women, especially “equal pay for equal work” and “control of their own bodies” elicited a Beatlemaniacal Amazonian war shriek from the young ladies present.

My favorite moment was when the crowd joined in a Brooklyn pronunciation of “Huge.”

Message Without a Target

Bernie’s voice often cracked. He started building up to a list of differences between himself and Hillary but lost his place in a pile of papers. The only foreign policies he proposed were to, in general, work with other countries to slow global warming and avoid trade deals that are bad for USA workers.

Targeted modifications of the stump speech were limited to using “people in Vermont or Massachusetts” as examples and thanking us “for sending Elizabeth [Warren] to the Senate.” He never shouted out to UMASS specifically as a great public university which he would make tuition-free. He neglected to mention last week’s campus rape sentencing and shooting scare. He said “gay” in a liberal college town where “LGBT” has been fashionable for years. His best moment was the only one that at least seemed impromptu and targeted:

“If you had told me ten years ago that in the year 2015 gay marriage would be legal in all fifty states, I would’ve asked ‘what are you smoking?’ [Pause] And by the way, that’s another issue.” [No elaboration, biggest howling applause of the night]

Speak Loudly and Wave Your Finger Around

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Bernie often cites both Presidents Roosevelt as role models, but doesn’t fully appreciate that they were not only great reformers, but cunning imperialists. Perhaps it’s hard to be one without being the other. Stay tuned for more on this big subject in the next post of this series.

Bernie’s No Crook

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Instead of supporting the K Street media consultants who spend most of Bernie’s campaign budget on Nixonian brainwashing,  I suggest you donate your $27 to my BernieSings Super PAC in order to flood the airwaves and internet cables with Bernie’s true, original message of justice, love, and peace.

The Out-Of-Towners (1970)


Husband (Jack Lemmon) and wife (Sandy Dennis) enter a business class nightmare. He responds to bad karma by blaming the innocent. Her slippers are broken beyond repair, yet she’s sure the real magic is in remembering There’s No Place Like Home. They behave more as brother and sister raised on screwball comedy than as husband and wife.

Neil Simon proves to aspiring screenwriters that a great script can indeed be assembled like a string of pearls. Cosmic irony is born out of a continuous compounding of situational irony. The trick is finding enough pearls.

The camera swoops about and keeps its distance, giving us a seat alongside whichever of the gods has chosen these two mortals as playthings.

There’s a great deal of airline humor a decade before Airplane! made it into a genre and three decades before the Transportation Security Administration made it into a way of life.

Each of Mr. and Mrs. Kaufman’s misfortunes has its basis in the real dangers and nuisances of life in the Hobbesian New York of the late 60s. Familiar Manhattan locations cement the link between this bourgeois horror story and the one told by your cousin-in-law last Thanksgiving. When Organization Man lacks food and shelter, he loses his patience. But when he lacks status and comfort, he loses his soul.


Cannabis Culture, Part I: Mao’s Magic Dragon


Elders often say that today’s weed is stronger than the stuff back in the day. I’m not that old and am no expert, but this seems plausible. What isn’t often mentioned is that USA culture–from music to product design to views on the purpose of existence, is stoned 24/7. This is the cumulative effect of decades of culture makers, consumers, and their friends and admirers who have been influenced either by weed itself or by others who have been influenced by weed.

One could say that there was more novelty to smoking weed in the pre-60s alcohol-culture than the post-60s weed-culture, even if the weed itself was weaker, and puffed from joints rather than vacuumed from bongs. Two reasonable, opposite corollaries follow: that in a stoned culture it’s either natural to be stoned all the time or gratuitous to be stoned at all.

Whatever weed is, it isn’t and never has been rebellious. Here’s a prime example of how stoned often can be squarer than square.



Peter, Paul & Mary’s contribution to Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 kiddie campaign likely lost him votes. If Sanders loses in the primary, his antecedent will have been McCarthy. I’m unaware of any video made to go with this song.



By the next year, the best indie folk music videos were being made by…Pepsi.



The tumultuous 1968 Democratic convention nominated Hubert Humphrey. Nixon’s campaign was artistically superior, in what I can’t help but see as stoner style.



If Sanders loses in the general election, his antecedent will have been George McGovern in 1972. Sanders isn’t meek like McGovern, but compensates with a double dose of self-righteousness. Here’s a plodding McGovern ad that feels much closer to an hour than a minute.



Meanwhile, Nixon campaigned on a flowers and sunshine platform.



Nixon’s new friend Mao, an accomplished poet, invented EDM to turn the youth against their parents. Next time you DJ a party, try throwing this into the mix after asking the Mandarin speakers not to spoil the fun.






Harold and Maude


From the start I couldn’t help but consider this super-stylized movie about a troubled rich boy a proto-Wes Anderson production. I’d be willing to travel a few hours to see it on 35mm.

Careful sequencing and timing of scenes give a sense of not only repetition but routine, despite Harold and Maude’s recklessness and “freedom.” This steady rhythm prevents the story either from melting into treacle or exploding into farce, making for one of the loudest quiet movies I’ve ever seen.

Cat Stevens is as integral to this movie as Leonard Cohen is to McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which also came out in 1971.



Oh, God!


Why wouldn’t God speak to John Denver? Pauline Kael’s main objection to this flawed but endearing movie was that it only has one joke: an anthropomorphized God (a crotchety, attention-grabbing George Burns) who puns on His own name. This strikes me as a perfect characterization, because God has a bad sense of humor.

Though it’s blasphemy for Jews to portray God in the flesh, writer Larry Gelbart and director Carl Reiner provide a distinctly Jewish, this-worldly take on revelation, prophecy, miracles, and God’s message to humanity.

A gag involving elevator access to a non-existent floor of an existent building could’ve inspired Charlie Kaufman when writing Being John Malkovich.

The cinematic craft is mediocre, but mediocrity went a long way with Technicolor in the 70s.

Blaise Pascal ghost-wrote the courtroom finale.