Alan Alda but it Should Be Ernst Lubitsch

Alan AldaOn this day in 1887, the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein was born. He is especially known for his performances of Chopin, so here is Nocturne Opus 9, No 2:

The great film director Ernst Lubitsch was born in 1892. Despite the fact that he died at the age of only 55 of his sixth heart attack, he managed to make some of the best comedies of the 1940s. These included: The Shop Around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait, and one of my very favorites, Carole Lombard in her last film, To Be or Not to Be. Here is the beginning of the film:

John Banner was born in 1910. He was the actor in Hogan’s Heroes who played Sergeant Schultz. But if you go back to television throughout the 1950s and 1960s, you will see him here and there. He made the show work. Without him, you have Nazis on one side and the Allies on the other. And as much as identify with the Allies, all they do in the show is go around blowing up people who are mostly just caught in the middle. Schultz was the heart of the show. He is the perfect example of what I call the 95%: people who just want to live their lives.

Singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan is 46. Here is her music video for “Possession”:

Other birthdays: composer Gregor Werner (1693); philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853); William S Burroughs Version 1 (1857); novelist Colette (1873); theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874); painter Jackson Pollock (1912); puppeteer Harry Corbett (1918); musician Cash McCall (73); evil pastor Rick Warren (60); the great journalist Michael Hastings (1980); and actor Elijah Wood (33).

The day, however, belongs to writer, director, and actor Alan Alda who is 78 today. I’m not that fond of him as an actor, but he’s perfectly fine. And there is nothing noteworthy about his directing. But he really is a damned good screenwriter. He wrote some of the best episodes of M*A*S*H as well as a number of good films. The Seduction of Joe Tynan is almost creepy given many of the political scandals we’ve lived through since. I suppose nothing ever changes. The Four Seasons is a beautiful script, although it could have been a play. I still have a guilty love of Sweet Liberty. I know that in a fundamental way, the film doesn’t really work. But you do get to see Lillian Gish on film at 91. (She’s wonderful in it!) The big problem is that I don’t think Alda is really the guy to write satire; he’s seems too nice and disinclined to offend. Anyway, it’s too bad he doesn’t seem to write and direct anymore.

Happy birthday Alan Alda!

Humor, Despair, and American Music Club

American Music Club - MercuryAt one time, I listened to little else but American Music Club. I still think they are one of the best bands ever. They are sometimes referred to as “sadcore,” which Wikipedia defines as having “bleak lyrics, downbeat melodies and slower tempos.” That’s not the greatest definition of the band, however. It is best to think of singer-songwriter and frontman for the band, Mark Eitzel, as a man who is drowning his sorrows but who hasn’t lost his sense of humor. A good example of this is the song “Lonely” off their 1988 album California. The refrain of the song is, “If I have to be this lonely, I may as well be alone.”

But the one AMC song that most haunts me is off their major label debut Mercury, “I’ve Been a Mess.” Here it is:

The first line is typical tragicomic, “Lazarus wasn’t grateful for his second wind.” Any time someone whips out Lazarus, you know you’re in for some fun. And of course Eitzel had to take a contrarian view of it. Everyone else thinks Jesus did his friend a great favor, but Eitzel thinks Lazarus was pissed off. But the whole verse brings the actual theme of the song in two parts:

Lazarus wasn’t grateful
For his second wind
For another chance
To watch his chances
Fade like the dawn and leave
I can barely tell you
Just how pale I get
Without you.

First he makes clear exactly why Lazarus is ungrateful. It’s just another opportunity to be disappointed. Then he moves, without any clear indication from either music or transitional lyrics, to the concrete first person narrative: he misses his lover and it is making him ill. That takes us to the very simple proclamation of the chorus, “I’ve been a mess since you’ve been gone.”

In the second verse, he comes back to Lararus. At this point, the metaphor is clear:

What were the first words
That crowd heard him speak
I’ll bet he was cursing at the sky
I’ll bet he wasn’t
Turning no other cheek.
And was there still hope and desire
Left in his heart
For the last word in love?

Again, this is very funny. He’s hammering so hard on poor Lazarus. You can just image a drunk rant, “I’ll tell you this! Lazarus probably just punched Jesus right in the face. And he’s right!”

Other than the repetition of the chorus, there is only the bridge, which is about as gin-soaked as anything AMC has ever done. In it, he returns to the first person:

Your beauty is just a slap in the face
That’s gonna bring me back to life
Back to another sky that’s blue
It’s gonna turn me into another
Great american zombie
So hungry for you.

As is traditional for a bridge, he provides us with a different way of looking at the rest of the song. There is that concern that once you have survived a breakup and become deadened to the ex-lover, seeing them again will start it all over again. So it circles back very nicely to the beginning. But he can’t resist ending with a joke. So he refers to himself (and thus also the risen Lazarus) as a zombie who is “hungry for you.”

Life may be hell, but it is nice to have company that understands that. And American Music Club is excellent company.

Did Paramilitary Approach to Law Enforcement Get an Officer Killed?

Sgt Tom SmithBack on the 21st, exactly one week ago, BART Police officers were searching a suspect’s apartment when one of them accidentally shot and killed another. Michael Maes, a 26-year veteran, shot Sgt Tom Smith, a 20-year veteran who was the head of their detective bureau. BART has defended itself, noting that in its 42-year history, this is the first officer to be killed on duty. Sadly, the same could not be said of BART customers. Regardless, it is a tragic accident.

The question is why it happened. All kinds of details have been provided. For example, we know the suspect was in jail. We know that Smith had particularly bad luck in that the bullet went through a gap in his body armor. There is even speculation that Smith surprised Maes, by coming through a different door than the crew had originally come through. I assume this means that Smith went out the back door without Maes noticing, and when Smith came back in, Maes was startled and shot. What we don’t know is a general overview of what happened, or how many officers were in the apartment.

Given that they were wearing body armor, I assume that the officers—quite rightly—were cautious entering the apartment. They couldn’t know that it wasn’t occupied. But once inside, they were performing a search. Why did one of them have his gun out? But even if it was during the initial entry, the whole thing screams out as another example of over-stimulated officers making mistakes.

This is a common problem with the police. When the adrenaline is pumping, officers are at their worst. This is what leads to unacceptable behavior like the Rodney King beating. And I assume that whether Smith was killed while entering the apartment or when he unexpectedly came through the back door or at some other time, the primary cause was that Maes was in an agitated state. This is not meant as any special criticism of him, but it might be some criticism of his training and police training in general.

What bothers me about this case is how it generalizes. In the long ago past, a “probation search” would have been done without much ado. But now we have a paramilitary approach, with guns drawn and officers in body armor. That breads the feeling that what the officers are doing is very dangerous—much more dangerous than it actually is. It helps to put them into an agitated state where mistakes are made. We really ought to look at these unnecessary tragedies and think about what our changing policing efforts are doing to us and the officers themselves. I’m not at all certain that they are making us safer and they certainly didn’t make Sgt Smith safer.

Rian Johnson Delights and Disappoints

BrickI’m am fond of the film The Brothers Bloom. It is a mess of a plot with a totally inappropriate ending.[1] But there is so much to like in the film that it triumphs nonetheless. But even more than that, it is a film that has made me want to check out other things that writer-director Rian Johnson has done. And last night, I did just that by watching his first feature film, Brick.

I try to stay away from being a film ombudsman. My opinions about film are not representative of what other people think. What’s more, my opinion about a film can change dramatically over the course of a short time. But above all, I don’t think it helps anyone to say that a film is good or bad. I could easily write bad reviews for my very favorite films—and vise versa. And the problem is greatly increased when dealing with a work that is trying to do something different.

Brick is such a film. Johnson put Dashiell Hammett into a high school. It is idiosyncratic to say the least. This is especially true because the film is more an homage to the books than it is to the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s. There is no softening of edges here. As a result, the film is very smart and often hilarious. The problem with it for me is that I never got past the conceit of it.

This is especially true of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has to speak some of the most silly dialog ever:

No, bulls would gum it. They’d flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one. But they’d trample the real tracks and scare the real players back into their holes, and if we’re doing this I want the whole story.

It is all played totally straight. If anything, the performances are too extreme. But Johnson never lets the viewer forget the absurdity of the film. At one point, Gordon-Levitt’s character is badly beaten and nearly killed by the drug kingpin’s henchman. After everything is worked out, the kingpin, who still lives at home, has his mother give cereal and juice to Gordon-Levitt. Before leaving, the mother kisses the kingpin on the cheek and he says, “Thanks, mom.” High concept stuff.

And I think it all works. It is certainly what Johnson was trying to do. And he shows a surprisingly firm hand for a rooking feature film director. But it is entirely an intellectual experience. There is absolutely not a single character in the film that the viewer can care about, because in a very real way, there are no characters in the film. There are just archetypes from the genre. So the ending is just an intellectual exercise of wrapping up a plot that I didn’t care about involving characters I didn’t believe in.

Still, I watched the whole film because it was engaging. In addition to it being a loving and twisted love letter to a genre I like, it was visually interesting—far more so than the noir films themselves. Johnson clearly worked very hard on this, because he has very little to work with in terms of production design. The cinematography by Steve Yedlin was very good, and surprisingly consistent for such a cheap film. But more than this, I thought the framing of shots was particularly good. I don’t know who was responsible for that—probably Yedlin and Johnson together. And the editing helped a lot, although the jump cutting sometimes annoyed me.

In the end, Brick is something like “the best student film ever made!” And that’s a good and bad thing. Having now seen Rian Johnson’s first two feature films, I don’t think I’m any closer to understanding his work. To some extent, I think people have given him a lot of money to play in his sandbox without much thought for who might be interesting in what he produced. That’s certainly the case with Brick. The savage editing required for The Brothers Bloom is another. But there is no doubt that Johnson’s creative flashes are superior to the vast majority of Hollywood directors. I’ll have to check out his newest film Looper.

Afterword

This has nothing to do with the film, but I can’t get it out of my head. “The clothes she wears, the sexy ways, make an old man wish for younger days…”


[1] The problem is not that Stephen dies. The problem is that the rest of the film doesn’t prepare for it, either in terms of plot or theme. There is a bit of foreshadowing, but that is about it. The ending also doesn’t make practical sense.

Cuomo Hides Economic Conservatism With Liberal Social Policy

Andrew CuomoI saw on The Daily Show that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently said that “extreme conservatives” don’t belong in the state. This has caused a firestorm in the right wing media. It’s a great moment for them. Conservatives always knew that liberals were non-inclusive snobs and now they have the proof. It’s typical of the Ring Wing Outrage Machine, and that’s probably why whole thing happened over two weeks ago without my noticing it.

But I’m curious how Cuomo defines “extreme conservatives.” It is very telling. They are people who are anti-choice, anti-gay, and pro-assault riffle. What stands out there is that there are no economic issues. That doesn’t surprise me, of course. In general, liberalism in the United States is defined by these kind of social issues. And Cuomo is the ultimate example of the New Democrat. On economic issues, he’s a Wall Street marionette.

I’m almost to the point of giving up. The Democratic Party has ceded so much ground on economic issues that it is now a conservative party. It is true that the Republicans now hold economic views that would fit right into a Bizarro comic. But this is what happens when the “liberal” party takes over the position of the conservative party. There is no ideological oxygen on the right and so its policies have become brain damaged.

I don’t so much see the conservative positions Cuomo mentioned as all that extreme. At least they have a reasonably large constituency, unlike many of Cuomo’s Wall Street economic policies. Gay rights is great, but I have to say, the Democrats are only about ten years ahead of the Republicans on the issue. There are still a lot of conservative Christians who have a problem with it for religious reasons—or so they’ve been told. Regardless, this absolutely will not be an issue in 20 years.

Abortion is a very similar thing, although the argument against rights is a whole lot stronger. Regardless, no one likes abortion. Americans’ opinions on the issue are nuanced to say the least. So again, there are a lot of people who are anti-choice. And a smaller, but still large, set are absolutists. As with gay rights, I think these opponents are profoundly misguided. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist—even in New York.

The assault weapon issue is just laughable. We have a huge gun problem in this country. But that problem is with handguns, not assault rifles. The focus on them is the Democratic Party desperate to do something about guns and thrashing about looking for any legislation that they might be able to pass. Look, if we liberals want to do something, we should be talking seriously about what needs to be done and not making largely symbolic legislation that motivates conservatives to come out and vote against us.

I’m sure that among the Wall Street bankers with whom Cuomo spends a lot of time, these issues are beyond the pale. But that doesn’t make them extreme. What Cuomo is doing is what New Democrats have been doing for decades: signally that he is liberal with selected social issues to distract from his economic conservatism. That’s the real story about what Cuomo said, not that such anti-gay politicians don’t fit in with New York voters. That is largely true of the bright blue state.