Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence

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For Dr. Dann, whose kind words encouraged me to resume this blog.

This fever dream wrings the sweat out of  a question: What’s the difference between a gentle man and a gentleman? The English would-be gentleman struggles with how to be. The Japanese would-be gentleman struggles with how not to be. Such men are too ashamed to hope, too proud to fear, and too stubborn to know. The gentle man patiently endures the gentleman’s blows, wishing every day could be Christmas.

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Eye in the Sky

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Where morality is rational utility maximization, the best moralists are machines. They can reduce the risk of collateral damage to a number: unexpected consequences are re-cast as improbable results. They even excel at the all-too-human skill of recognizing faces.

This is as gentle a take on drone warfare as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was on racial strife. We enjoy omniscience through constant cuts across continents from battlefield to command centers. The terrorists are ticking time bombs right out of the textbook, and everyone else has only the best intentions. Discussion up and down the military-civilian chain of command often resembles a spirited Introduction to Ethics seminar at a nice college or law school—a far cry from Dr. Strangelove’s “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” Come to think of it, the terrorists are the only people we don’t get to hear, though the two Brits and one American likely record their martyrdom videos in English.

The movie’s focus on one drone strike and one innocent little girl puts it at a bliss point, kind of like a Dorito. The scenario is messy enough to be exciting, yet tidy enough not to be disturbing. The whole story could’ve been told in under ten minutes, leaving plenty of time to see many more drone strikes and their human consequences, both for those who control the Predators and those who are incinerated by the Hellfires.

You’re primed to leave with your date discussing not what it’s like to be a citizen of a nation pursuing perpetual global robowar, but how to balance the Good of the One with the Good of the Many. Kind of like one of those vapid personality puzzlers on the website that matched you up.

 

Stromboli: Fear of Boredom

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And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishers. And he said unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.

Matthew 4:18-21

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Karin has fled Eastern Europe and wound up in an Italian refugee camp. Being Ingrid Bergman, she’s held on to a chic purse and a suitcase full of fine clothes. A bureaucratic soul right out of Kafka denies the undocumented damsel an exit visa. A fling with a hunk (Mario Vitale) in the adjacent soldiers’ camp blossoms into a a marriage of convenience: a home and papers for her, a beautiful wife for him, and some hope of genetic diversity for the small fishing village on the volcanic island of Stromboli.

The Italian version is called Stromboli: Terra di Dio (Land of God). The English version is just called Stromboli, but could also be called Stromboli: Fear of Boredom. Ennui is usually a lurking, lingering imbalance of humors, but Karin experiences it as a shock: both the island and its inhabitants immediately strike her as irredeemably backward and coarse. We never see a cinema, a radio, or even a delivery of mail. Life centers around the church, where the islanders pray for the saints to pray to God to sustain them from the sea and spare them from the volcano. The women regard the beautiful newcomer with a suspicion that appears indistinguishable from hostility.

Like Emma Bovary, Karin wants more. Though her situation is difficult, she’s clever enough to find a way out if she wants one. She stays because she’s weary, and seeks out the priest (Renzo Cesana) as the only other educated person on the island. Or does she stay because of her conscience and seek out the priest as a pastor?

How may she be consoled? She could be encouraged to be content with food on the table, a roof over her head, and a devoted husband—especially at a time when millions are suffering from world war and its aftermath. She could be reminded of the transience of diversion and the insatiability of desire. Such might be the advice of a pagan philosopher or of Dr. Johnson.

Another alternative could be the sour-grapes-intoxicated hedonism of Lorde:

And we’ll never be royals

It don’t run in our blood

That kind of luxe just ain’t for us

We crave a different kind of buzz

A Christian consolation, as offered by the priest and posited by the movie, would require her not just to accept her lot, but to transform her soul. She would have to recognize that her superiority of education, taste, and person does not make her a superior being. For beside, say, the Queen of Sheba, would she not be as common as the women of Stromboli? Christ, after all, was born of a woman betrothed to an itinerant carpenter, and chose a fisherman as the rock of his church. Despair is not only a choice, but an act of selfish rebellion against God. Prayer is not only the antidote, but also the antithesis of despair.

Every cinematic element, from the “neorealist” casting of non-actors, to the studied shot composition, to Renzo Rossellini’s contemplative score, supports the moral theme, and conveys both the couple’s and their neighbors’ discomfort, bewilderment, and faith.

Rossellini could be accused of hypocrisy for beginning an affair with Bergman (married with a child at the time) while making this movie. This isn’t, however, a case of “do as I say, not as I do,” because the movie doesn’t tell us to do anything. Moralizing is haughty and presumptuous. Telling a moral tale, as Rossellini does here (inspiring countless other filmmakers), is an act of faith not in a particular doctrine, but in the capacity of human beings to seek the good.

Spotlight

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At the turn of this century, the long truce between Boston’s First and Fourth Estate came to a sudden, shocking end. Back then journalists were, or at least aspired to be, gritty locals who strove for accuracy. A story could be printed not only too late, but too early. If today’s holders of advanced degrees from Medill and Columbia wore caps, it would be appropriate to tip them to those who remain of the dying breed, and to pause for a moment from click bait content creation.

Outside of the Boston Globe offices, the “Spotlight” investigative team assertively asks pointed questions. Interviews amongst themselves usually go like this:

Q. How big is this?

A. Big.

Q. How far up does this go?

A. Far

Q. Who knew?

A. Everybody

No heroic efforts in Vatican catacombs were necessary to find the paper trail of priests molesting young people. The key documents could all be found at the public library, the county courthouse, and the Globe’s own archives. The staff’s old-timers sense that their institution and by extension they themselves have been complicit.

Hollywood focus group testers must’ve determined fifteen years out was ideal timing for this movie. Any earlier and it would’ve been too controversial. Any later and nobody would care anymore.

The producers delayed so long that the movie became a period piece. The props master and set designer had to assemble a newsroom full of clunky PC’s with cathode ray monitors. The location manager faced the formidable task of depicting a Boston without Prius-drivers, selfie-takers, and skinny jeans.

Leisurely integration of back stories and slick but vapid cinematography, editing, and music suggest there’s great potential here for a TV series that follows the Spotlight team through a new investigation each season.

The Thrill of it All

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And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me. And she said, Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have given children suck? for I have born him a son in his old age. —Genesis 21:7

The elderly wife of a soap magnate cackles up and down Fifth Avenue. Her obstetrician (James Garner) has worked a miracle. A three-month prescription cruise with her husband will bear fruit.

The father-to-be invites the obstetrician and his wife (Doris Day) over for a celebratory dinner, complete with round-trip transportation from his personal chauffeur. Minutes after they arrive, he has an epiphany: a Real Housewife, so real that her only hobbies are the PTA and ketchup-bottling, could pitch Happy Soap on TV much better than a chorus girl. A wholesome suburban family of four (plus live-in maid, played by Hollywood veteran ZaSu Pitts) becomes unhappy in its own way. Thank God MILF has yet to enter the lexicon.

Carl Reiner’s script shows a discriminating ear for dialect and a campy zeal for mayhem. Norman Jewison’s direction, of both people and things, combines gentleness and innuendo in a way reminiscent of Lubitsch.

There’s an uncanny resemblance between the lead couple in this movie and that in Eyes Wide Shut (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman). Both stories are about a chiseled, successful doctor and blonde, stay-at-home mom whose marriage is threatened by a voyeurist/exhibitionist offer from the capitalist class that can’t be refused.

 

Hail, Caesar!

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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.

 

 

Giant

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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

Rambling

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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.

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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)

Movie

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.