Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Ad Nauseam

I am a sucker for space movies. The first one I ever saw, when I was a kid, was a curious little clunker called Angry Red Planet, made, if you can believe it, in East Germany. It was silly, stupid, poorly done, but I was nine and I was hooked. Then I saw Forbidden Planet, and I was hooked for life. I think I've seen just about every space movie ever made, from Melies to Kubrick and beyond, including classic ones like 2001, the original The Day the Earth Stood Still and the original The Thing; dopey and pretentious recent ones like Interstellar and Contact; pretty good recent ones like Gravity and Sunshine; nice-try-near-misses like Pitch Black and Event Horizon; and very good ones like Alien and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris.

And so, when I read about the new Brad Pitt movie Ad Astra, which was receiving good reviews and Oscar buzz, I dragged my son to the mall to see it. I should have saved myself the time, the thirty-four dollars and the aggravation of trying to get a teenager to do anything with me on a Saturday night. In a word, Ad Astra was dreadful. As in the Neil Armstrong film First Man, the director made just about every wrong choice he could have, and the script was awful. How anyone allowed lines like "I can't go to Mars with you," and "I'm on my way to Neptune" to get onto the screen is as mysterious as deep space to me. 

About forty minutes into the film I ceased caring whether Brad Pitt ever found his father or not. We were beaten over the head so many times with the son-in-search-of-missing-father routine that, in fact, I hoped he wouldn't just to spite him. The incessant internal monologues were aimless, poorly written and, eventually, anesthetizing. Again, as in First Man, the actor and director chose, for some unfathomable reason, to strip the main character of nearly all emotion, rendering him uninteresting and unengaging. Brad Pitt's facial expression never changes, and the repeated resort to the cyber psychological evaluation only served to reinforce the fact that this was not a human being so much as an extension of technology and the result of bad parenting. His character feels somewhere between Nicholas Cage's drunk in Leaving Las Vegas (which, apparently, Brad does) and Robocop. 

There was a motif of flashbacks to his former life when, hard as it is to believe, he was happy, but his devotion to his job trashed that. Now, usually in the case of a character whose past is catching up and whose regrets are haunting him, we care about his emotional health and his prospects for redemption. Not this time. There was so little in Brad's character to involve us emotionally that it made no difference to me whether he ever saw either his father or his ex-wife again. And when, finally, having returned from Neptune he meets up with her in a coffee shop, the insignificant morphs into the unintentionally comic.

Right around the time I stopped caring about whether Brad would find Tommy Lee Jones, I realized that Ad Astra is a remake of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The only clever invention of the film is that it turns Conrad's seeker and the crazy Congo recluse Kurtz into father and son, thus opening the floodgates for an unstoppable elegy of remorse inside Brad Pitt's head. There are so many closeups of the movie star's face that I began trying to count the visible pores in his nose, since there wasn't much else to occupy me. But I digress...

The choice of Donald Sutherland as the ancient astronaut who is supposed to accompany Brad to Neptune was mystifying. He was far too old for such a trip to be in any way credible as a character and, in fact, the first thing he does when he gets to the lunar base is to have a heart attack. (Why the geniuses who chose him didn’t see this coming is puzzling.) This is when his character gets to utter the immortal line, "I can't go to Mars with you." When Brad makes it to the moon he goes on a rover excursion to the Mars launch base, only to be - get this - attacked by lunar bandits in hot rod rovers. Now, I ask you: Where did these anonymous Mad Max hijackers come from? How did they get to the moon? Where do they live? Where do they park their rovers? And most puzzling of all: How hard can it be to find bandits on the moon? Do they occupy some secret crater that no one knows of? Are they being protected by a corrupt local sheriff? This sequence was not just improbable, it was ridiculous. Banditos on the moon? You've got to be kidding me. They don’t even have water there let alone tequila

I won't say much about the special effects and art direction, though that is what I enjoy the most about space movies. But in Ad Astra, they were really quite conventional and showed me nothing that I had not seen done, and done better, several times before. Even fifty years ago Kubrick's Space Odyssey technology was more impressive on a technical and design level, and Ridley Scott's spaceships in Alien were far better than those in this new 80-million-dollar film.

I could go on citing the film's foibles, and I think I will, touching only on the most egregious ones. Brad Pitt manages to stow away on a Mars rocket. And how does he do it? By swimming through an underground lake (we are never told where the water came from) and climbing up into the rocket's exhaust mere seconds before it lifts off. When he gets into the air lock, the three crew members try to subdue him, resulting in a) weightless Kung Fu fighting and b) the deaths of all three of them. I’m sorry to be the one to point it out, but at this point Brad's character is guilty of at least three counts of negligent homicide. But this fact seems either to have escaped the filmmakers' notice, or it simply doesn't concern them, since all that matters is getting Brad, now alone, to Neptune. 

By this time we have learned that his father, Tommy Lee Jones, has, thirty years before, commanded an expedition to the edge of the Solar System in search of intelligent life beyond. In the process, he has gone wacko and murdered all the other members of his crew. This makes him a serial killer, another fine point of morality which escaped the filmmakers, though it does introduce a like-father-like-son theme. Both of them, no matter what we think of their sufferings or their exploits, are murderers, and anywhere back on Earth they'd be facing life in a super-max prison, which makes the long schlep to Neptune look like a Sunday stroll in Griffith Park.

En route to Mars, the commander of the top-secret ship in which Brad is being transported decides to stop to help a stranded Norwegian science vessel (a Norwegian spaceship?) over Brad’s rather limp-wristed objection. When they enter the ship, which everyone in the audience knows they should not, they are attacked by – get this – the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. I’m not making this up, folks: The ships’ commander has his face eaten by ravenous weightless monkeys.

Well, they finally find each other, Brad and Tommy, out by Neptune and there ensues some of the most inept and pointless dialog you will find in modern filmmaking. Most of what Tommy Lee says is pedantic and meaningless, and the only thing that Brad contributes of any originality is a single carefully framed tear. This is supposed to make us think that he has finally dealt with his grief and begun a new chapter in his emotional life. Nonsense. One tear doth not redemption make.

This is the intellectual and emotional climax of the film. The entire extravaganza comes down to a single line muttered by Tommy Lee: We are all we have. Is this something no one ever thought of before? Did we have to go a billion miles into space to discover this? Is this all that Tommy’s character gleaned from three decades of total isolation: that we need one another? What were the filmmakers thinking?

I won't tell you what happens when they finally decide to go back to Earth together, to face, I hope, a judge and jury, but let me say that it is as inconsequential, predictable and chock-full of contradictions and improbabilities as everything else in the film. When Brad finally coaxes Tommy into his space suit, which must be thirty years old, it looks almost exactly like Brad’s suit. Hasn’t the technology improved in three decades? And this raises other questions in the inquiring mind: What did he eat for thirty years? Did he brush and floss? Didn’t he run out of toilet paper? Presumably, having killed everyone else on board there was more for him, but for thirty years? Three decades with no companionship, no one to talk to, nothing but himself, and Tommy's character, while a bit melancholy, is still focused and lucid? Anyone under those circumstances would long since have gone completely nuts and probably killed himself. At least Kurtz had the company of his adoring minions. But not in the alternative universe of Ad Astra. Once again, the father-like-son motif rears its head: These two creatures, whatever else they may be, are not human.

Then, of course Brad makes the long solo trip home (since Brad in this movie, like Sandra Bullock in Gravity and Matt Damon in The Martian) cannot be left to die in space. In space, it seems, movie stars are not expendable. Having suffered through the agonizing trip to find his father only to lose him again, Brad does make it back to Earth, though, oddly, he programs his spaceship to take him to the Moon. It seems the computer was off by 240,000 miles since Brad lands near (I think) Lake Mead where he started, a stone's throw from Vegas. It is there, I suppose, that he finally reunites with his ex in a coffee shop which clearly is not Starbucks. What a pity the writer didn't take advantage of this chance to make a devilishly clever pun. If he had, at least I would have had something to relate to, since Brad went to the stars and my thirty-four bucks went to him. 

Ugh! I thought Interstellar was bad with its dust bowl and bookcase, but Ad Astra nearly put me off space films forever. 



Monday, September 2, 2019

Union, Joker, Hong Kong and Hypocrisy

Voting is under way for the Writers Guild leadership positions. I have already cast my vote for the opposition slate, for reasons which I have explained in two previous posts. The Guild needs new leadership and must return to negotiations with the talent agencies so that its members, especially the young members, can get back to the business of earning a living. However, while I am hopeful of a change I am not sanguine about it. The solidarity mentality pummeled into our heads is a powerful anesthetic, and the entrenched leadership with its fifties labor union mentality will be hard to deracinate. Still, I have voted and hope for the best.

I would like to make here a point which I have forborne to do in the past. I hesitated, I shall be frank, because of my fear of reprisal, for which I apologize. It has become so clear to me that the Writers Guild now exists primarily for the sake of television writers that the implication of this shift can no longer be avoided. Just today a prominent Guild member, in writing to support the current leadership, admits that we must recognize that "TV issues are going to determine our life in the next decade."

As a feature writer, this leaves me out in the cold. The last strike and the current labor action have largely ignored the needs of feature writers, who increasingly have little in common with their television colleagues. This is more than a matter of emphasis; it represents, to my mind, a bifurcation in the interests of the Guild. For this reason I believe that the Guild itself should split into two parts, a screenwriters guild and a television writers guild, and devote equal resources to servicing the needs of both sets of writers. (Those who work in both media can be members of both wings.) This is the very kind of cultural shift for which I argued in my recent post on the Guild, and I believe it is time we Guild members began this discussion. The entertainment industry is changing, and this is the sort of change in our thinking that we ought to consider.


I have just read three reviews of the new Joker movie. One declares it a masterpiece, another an "aggressively terrible" film, and the third splits the difference at great length calling it a brilliant but failed attempt at psychoanalysis and social commentary. Opinion is equally divided on Joaquin Phoenix's performance, which (the critics apparently are unable to decide) is either glorious, gratuitous or implacably ghoulish. I have never seen a Marvel Comics movie and never wanted to, but given this schizophrenic hoopla about Joker, which is already being cast into the murk as Oscar bait, perhaps I will break my rule so that I may judge for myself. I will let you know.

I may mention in passing that this film appears to be yet another example of the phenomenon I discussed in my post about binge-worthy streaming TV. The Joker character, a secondary villain in the Batman series, has now become the protagonist of a film, elevated from an execrable villain to an object of curiosity and even of sympathy. It is a cultural development which I find troubling for what it says about the state of our social consciousness - we grasp now at role models precisely because they are anti-heroes of an unredeemable sort, admired for having sold or surrendered their souls. Mark Twain once said that Satan was admirable because he was the spiritual leader of four-fifths of the human race and the political leader of all of it. He was, of course, being facetious, but it seems his remark is no longer a joke.


I follow the Hong Kong protests with great interest. No matter where you stand on this story, you must admire the sheer courage of the, mostly, young protesters in defying the Communist Chinese monolith and demanding something as fundamental as freedom. Today the students of Hong Kong staged a boycott of classes, a tactic which I applaud and with which I can identify, since we did the same sort of thing in my school days. In that case we were defying the American military-industrial-political monster that was destroying the culture of Vietnam and devouring the lives of our friends. In some ways, the struggle that the Hong Kong protesters face is even greater. Communist China is not only an anti-democratic tyranny, it is a leading military power and also a leading economic one. And that means that other nations, democratic nations that ought to know better, are reluctant to criticize the police state's creeping oppression of Hong Kong because they have so much money invested in China. It is crass, cowardly self-interest turning a blind eye to a minority's courageous call for freedom.

This rather reminds me of the civil rights struggle in the Sixties in the South, when an oppressed minority put everything on the line for the sake of freedom, while the invested powers, North and South, tried to maintain an immoral status quo for the sake of stability. And while stability is desirable for economic and political reasons, it is never to be valued over the basic human right which underlies all human progress - the right to liberty and self-determination. I watch in dismay as our own government, which is so deeply in debt to China that it may never extricate itself, remains mute or largely so while the brave people of Hong Kong teach us the lesson we ought to have learned in the 18th century: If you buy stability at the price of liberty, you deserve neither.

On this score, let me repeat a suggestion I made after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting. At that time, I urged students to organize a nationwide school boycott until the paralytic political class changed the gun laws in this country to help ensure the students' safety. Walk out, I argued, and stay out until your schools are safe to attend. Do not march lemming-like into classrooms that are open targets for lunatics who should never have gotten guns in the first place. Demand absolute background checks, deny guns to anyone with a history of violence or mental illness, hire veterans as armed guards in schools, institute a ban on private ownership of all military-style weapons and ammunition, and launch a national gun buy-back campaign to get rid of at least some of the 400 million guns in America.

The young people of Hong Kong are giving us a brilliant example of how to organize and implement mass protests in the 21st century. They are risking their lives and freedom for the values that our young people take for granted. And so I plead once again with students: Use your smart phones and social media not as sources of mindless entertainment, but as tools to create a movement in your own interests - the interests of your safety and your lives. Walk out of school and stay out until the mad culture of gun worship in this country is quelled, and you can go safely back to your most important business, the business of education. Without fear.


Finally, there were several stories in the news today that make it clear that the intolerance of the Hollywood left for dissent is not a fabrication of the conservative mind. Two prominent actors have demanded the publication of the names of Trump donors so that "we will know who we don't want to work with." This is shameful. To refuse to work with people with whose politics you disagree is exactly the same as refusing to work with them because of their race, religion, gender or class. These Hollywood liberals do not realize the utter hypocrisy of their position. In flaunting their so-called progressive mindset, they are, in fact, joining the very ranks of the race-baiters and blacklisters whom they claim to despise. The personality of the president aside, the right to free expression and association remains sacred, whether it makes you uncomfortable or not.




Monday, August 26, 2019

Solidarity


When I was in college I had to work to support myself, part-time during the academic year and full-time during summer. That meant that I had to take whatever job I could find. From September to May I worked on the college's theater crew, building, cleaning, organizing, helping to run shows and special events. I was paid $35 a week and was glad to get it since it enabled me at least to buy food and pay for the off-campus room I shared with another student. From May to September, I worked as a houseman at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, Philadelphia's largest, which, alas, is no longer with us. It was a dirty, demeaning job, and as I recall, I was one of only two white workers in the entire Housekeeping department. Since I was the most junior houseman, and since I showed a willingness to work, I was heaped with the jobs that the older and wiser men were eager to avoid. 

In order to work at the hotel, I was compelled to join the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. It was my first experience of unions, and it left a lasting impression on me. The local was, to put it bluntly, run by the Mafia. Its officers were gangsters and thugs who raked every penny they could off the workers, and who cared not a whit for their welfare, their earnings or the conditions in which they labored. And for the "benefits" of belonging to this union, I was required to pay dues out of my $80 a week salary. Yes, that's right: We housemen were paid 80 dollars a week (before taxes) for a full 40-hour week and frequent overtime, for which we were not paid. 

I happened to be working at the hotel one sweltering July when the union contract came up for renewal. Through three summers I had seen how badly the employees were treated - black  maids on their feet eight hours a day, trying to raise children and in some cases grandchildren on the slave wages they received; elderly black men who were held in open contempt by the white managers and given the most menial jobs to do. A half-hour unpaid lunch in an attic locker room where the temperature often exceeded 100 degrees, and no prospect of promotion or a raise. 

I did some research on the local and our contract and learned that every year no demands were made on behalf of the workers. Instead, the union accepted what was called a sweetheart contract in return for generous bribes to the officials. Being young and idealistic, I started a campaign among the workers to demand real negotiations for real benefits. I even went so far as to write on the chalkboard in the lunchroom a denunciation of the sweetheart contract. As a result, I was summoned to the office of the local boss, who made it clear in vivid language that if I persisted in being a troublemaker both my legs would be broken. I chose not to persist: a summer job at 80 dollars a week was not worth losing the ability to walk. 

Now, I mention all this by way of explaining that, after my experience at the Ben Franklin, I promised myself I would never again join a union. And I never did - until I came to Hollywood. Here, the first thing I learned was that in order to earn a living as a screenwriter, I would have to join the Writers Guild. I am not suggesting that the Guild is analogous to the Hotel Workers local, except in one regard: the demand for absolute, unquestioning adherence to the principle of solidarity. To borrow a phrase: "My union right or wrong, my union!" 

Today, four months into what I see as a very ill-advised action against the talent agents, I hear the call for solidarity almost every day. I learned the danger of this blind obedience during the last strike, but I did not let the lesson sink in. Dutifully, I joined the picket line at Disney Studios, where I was the only feature writer in a queue of TV scribes. Their talk of writers rooms and sponsors' diktats chilled me and made me realize how little I had in common with them. Bad as the studios' interference in the feature writing process was, I knew I would never have stood for the kind of aesthetic molestation the TV writers described. 

I remember one prominent writer, a member of the elite, urging us "to walk in circles forever" without question if the Guild ordered us to. I found the idea revolting, a violation of the spirit of the writer as I knew and cherished it. Writers do not march in lockstep on orders from above. Our job is to challenge the dictates of institutions when they seem unreasonable, and to question every form of authority, even our own union. Somerset Maugham said that the writer is the only truly free man. The solidarity that was being demanded of us by the union was slavish. 

The other realization I had was that the strike was called for the benefit of the television writers. There was nothing in it for me or my feature colleagues. Indeed, after a 100-day walkout, the union managed to obtain concessions which the Directors Guild had achieved in a few weeks of quiet negotiation. The strike was called simply as a show of muscle, but proved, in my mind, to be a show of hubris and ineptitude. I recall attending the post-strike meeting, where it took the chief negotiator nearly fifteen minutes to explain what we had won - a lot of minutiae having to do with alternative media and the length of TV seasons and foreign TV residuals. To me it was all esoteric and irrelevant. What was neither was the damage the strike had done to my finances. 

I had also attended the mass meeting of members called to declare the strike. At that disgraceful conclave, which reminded me of Bolshevik rallies of the early 20th century, I heard dissenting voices shouted down in the most vulgar terms, with no objection from the Guild leadership. The climax came when one young writer questioned the Guild's negotiating tactics, and a board member hollered at him to "Shut the fuck up!" The leadership said nothing, did not denounce their colleague, did not call for civility. Instead, there was widespread applause. That was when I and a few other members walked out.
  
What I ought to have learned from all this is that the Writers Guild is first and foremost a union in the old-fashioned sense, and not an association of artists. The tactics used by the Guild in its organization and negotiations are those of the unions of stevedores and auto workers of the fifties, which do not reflect the character of its members today. The mentality is entirely adversarial: If you are not one of us, you are the enemy. This attitude is reflected in the Guild's rhetoric at this very time. Producers and agents, instead of being regarded as partners in a creative enterprise, are denounced as criminals and merchants of evil. In the current labor action, the Guild has simply refused to negotiate with the agents collectively (which I would have thought inherent in the concept of collective bargaining) and has adopted instead a piecemeal approach which has been nearly barren of results. Additionally, though the Guild did not inform us in advance of the tactic, it has filed lawsuits against the four major agencies, the real targets of this action, provoking a series of countersuits which threaten to cost a fortune and drag on for years. 

As the current labor action wears on with no apparent endgame and no negotiations, the Guild leadership has become more deeply entrenched in its strong-arm tactics. In April it ordered all members to fire their agents, which can be construed as a violation of its constitution which requires the Guild to facilitate our ability to work with our agents to earn a living. The order was accompanied by thinly veiled threats of retaliation, including expulsion, which the leadership has since tried lamely to deny. However, when the first member arose to challenge the leadership's tactics and declare himself a candidate for president, members of the board immediately called for an investigation into his behavior, a rather bald form of intimidation aimed at anyone who might dare to dissent. 

A slate of opposition candidates has emerged, and I have seen them denounced in online forums in the most scurrilous terms. While it is true that no one has threatened to break their legs, they are being called traitors, scabs and other less discreet names. Lurking behind it all, of course, is the threat of reprisals. The Guild does provide a very good health and pension program, and no writer working today can afford to lose those benefits. So, in the face of opposition, the Guild's leadership is falling back on the very sort of implicit punishment which the hotel local used against its members. One result of this is that many writers are unwilling to speak out, fearful of both the labels and the reprisals. 

(Now the Guild leadership has announced the formation of a committee to enforce the order that we fire our agents. This unmasks the intent they had had from the beginning and have tried to deny - there will be investigations and reprisals. The intimidation has become an open threat. We are on notice: Solidarity is no longer an ideal, it is a mandate.) 

In forcing us to fire our agents, the Guild leadership has made it difficult, and, in the case of younger writers, impossible to find work. Though the stated goal is to reverse the slide in members' earnings, the Guild recently reported record earnings. And though the action is described as an effort to bring the talent agency business into line with writers' needs, it is in fact directed at the four major agencies, multi-national enterprises which can easily outlast this action. 

(It should be noted that these mega-agencies have engaged in the practices of packaging and affiliation, to which the Guild objects, for some 45 years, and these practices represent a revenue source of hundreds of millions of dollars. In brief, packaging means assembling talent from an agency's ranks to staff a project, for which service the agency receives a fee. Some writers actually benefit from packaging both in the form of reduced agency commissions and projects that are more likely to be set up. Affiliation refers to the growing trend of agencies to align with production companies, thus becoming producers in their own right, and sharing in the profits of production. Of course this means, as the Guild argues, that our agents also become our employers, which represents a clear conflict of interest. In demanding an end to these twin practices, the Guild is attempting nothing less than to change the business model of the agencies and production companies, and to alter the fiscal culture of Hollywood.) 

And so, while the working writer (as opposed to the elite) scrambles to pay the bills, the Guild offers makeshift mechanisms for TV writers to contact producers directly, reducing the possibility of anyone finding a job to the handful of established writers already known to the producers. In the meantime, younger writers, stripped of representation, are losing their earnings to the point where they cannot qualify for health insurance benefits. In response, the Guild recently offered them the opportunity to attend a seminar on stress management. 

I have gone on much longer than I intended. What I am trying to say, in sum, is really quite simple: The Guild needs not only a change in leadership, it needs a change in culture. We have to replace the archaic adversarial mentality with a collegial one. In an era when the entertainment business is convulsing with change, when parts of it are shrinking and others exploding, we must drop the rigidity of the past and adopt a more flexible attitude. Our partners in the entertainment industry may not be our friends - it is after all a business - but they must not be our enemies. In any given dispute it ought to be possible, in a spirit of shared interests, to find common ground. If the other side proves intransigent, if they refuse to compromise, then we retain the option of labor action. But only as a last resort, and only for a cause that can be readily explained and easily understood. Clearly defined, realistic goals and strategies (absent in the present action) are much more likely of success than mean-spirited and adversarial tactics. If solidarity is desired, this is the way to achieve it - not coercion, not threats of reprisals, not demands for blind obedience from professionals whose ethic is, or ought to be, enlightenment, not blindness.


Friday, July 19, 2019

Binging

At the urging of my two sons, I have thrust myself into the world of streaming television. I was aware of how popular certain series were, but I had carefully avoided them on the grounds that life, especially with a heart condition, is too short. However, the boys, whose opinions I value, told me that I was missing an important part of contemporary culture, and so began my binging odyssey.

On their recommendation, I started with Mad Men, a series set in the world of Madison Avenue advertising in the Sixties. Thinking I would just give it a try, it quickly proved to be an addiction. Very well written, acted and directed, it recreated the era in which I was raised, and I found the verisimilitude exacting. The characters, though all of them loathsome, were engaging, and, despite my best intentions, I watched it through to the end. Why? Because I just had to find out what happened to the members of this odd and predatory sub-species.

Having had a taste of the binge, I next turned to Breaking Bad, which both boys assured me was well worth my limited time. Though a bit more uneven than Mad Men, it shared two salient characteristics: it was well written, acted and directed, and the characters were all despicable. But again, I was hooked, and I endured to the end to see how the creators would resolve this complex puzzle of contemptible people engaged in the worst sorts of anti-social behavior.

Now thoroughly infected with the binge bug, I undertook the Breaking Bad spin-off, Better Call Saul, which traces the prequel career of the sleazy lawyer, Saul Goodman, explaining (at least to the extent that it has reached) his journey from failed ambulance-chaser to monumental disgrace to his profession. Again, the show, though less even than either of the others, was engaging, well acted and written, and generally well directed. It was a brilliant idea: anyone who had watched Breaking Bad would be unable to resist the backstory of the meth master's attorney-cum-confidant, played with charming unscrupulousness by a very good actor, Bob Odenkirk.

Since Saul has yet to play itself out, I next turned my attention to House of Cards, though neither son favored it especially. However, I know that it has had an important influence on our culture, and especially on the popular view of politics, and so I thought I'd give it a whirl. I didn't make it through the second season. Unlike the others, it is rather poorly written, and since each episode is directed by a different person, it is inconsistent in tone and look. The acting varies from very good (Spacey and Robin Wright) to adequate to amateurish. Once again, all of the characters are flawed, and most of the important ones are revolting. But in the pursuit of venality, House of Cards goes over the top. The Kevin Spacey character, Underwood, is deliberately, calculatedly vile, lacking the kind of scurrilous spontaneity of Walter White or Don Draper or Saul. Where the other shows give the impression of following dark truths about humanity, House seems forced and overly-plotted. These political vermin are evil, the show tells us, so let's sit back and enjoy them devouring one another. Well, I found it rather unenjoyable, and some of the plot devices, such as Underwood's murders and the whole subplot of replacing the vice president and killing off the cross-addicted, whoring would-be Pennsylvania governor simply unbelievable. It was all too much. Even evil must be moderated if it is to be entertaining; otherwise it is just a tepid bath in dirty water.

What interests me about these series as a cultural phenomenon is that each one draws you irresistibly into a world of unredeemable characters. Walt, the fallen high-school chemistry teacher who slides eagerly into drug-dealing, Don Draper and his  ad-world colleagues, who satiate themselves leech-like upon the vulnerability of consumers, and Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman, who, despite a residue of altruism which occasionally bubbles to the surface, finds his true moral home in craven dereliction. So, why? Why are we fascinated by these archetypes of evil-doing, though we would never dream of associating which such creatures in real life? Why do we feel compelled to follow their footsteps through the mire episode after episode?

I think the answer is rather complex. First, audiences have always had a soft spot for the villain - Iago, Lady Macbeth and Richard III come to mind - and it is a truism of drama that villains always get the best lines. We identify with their foibles, even with their depravity, as a vicarious thrill, though we have been acculturated to expect them to meet justice in the end. Some of the horrid creatures in Breaking Bad do end badly, though others survive and even prevail. In Mad Men, since it is the times and the profession that are the real locus of evil, everyone gets away Scott free in the sense that, to the very end, few of the characters learn anything worth knowing, and Madison Avenue continues to flourish and exploit.

(Now I must add that much depends on how you interpret the final scenes of Mad Men. Personally, I saw them as a broad condemnation of the era and its values, but I have gradually come to the suspicion that the last image is, in fact, an affirmation of everything hateful about the period. Mediocrity prevails; manipulation makes its masterpiece. Though I had resisted this conclusion for a while, I now realize that the cynical view is the one more consistent with the tone and experience of the series.)

Beyond that, we are now living in a divisive and contentious time. It is sufficient for a hero or a moral icon to emerge from the daily round for him or her to be strip-searched and desecrated in the public sphere. Gorky once said of the Russian people that they would much rather tear someone else down than elevate themselves. We are doing that now. With the surfeit of electronic media, the meanest minds and most cynical voices rise to the surface and choke out real introspection and expression. For every model of selflessness there are hundreds of selfish brutes ready and eager to lash out and destroy. And so, I think, the villains of the streaming series merely reflect the worst of our societal ethos: the bad guys are not only the new heroes, they are what we ourselves envy and would gladly emulate but for fear of punishment.

Finally, I think that the vile characters who inhabit the binge-worthy shows represent a new era in literature: the era of the anti-hero as surrogate hero. Unable to sustain heroism in the face of the twenty-four-hour news cycle and the social media circus, we substitute for heroism in the traditional sense this image of the successful monster, the charming Frankenstein. He or she becomes our fantasy, our guilty daydream. If only we could screw society out of every hard-earned penny and get rich and drunk and laid, they make us think. Why slave away at a job we hate when we could so easily turn to the most heinous crimes - drug-dealing, even murder - and make a fortune, and, like Walt's young partner Jesse, just walk away into the night? And if power corrupts then absolute power must be the rationale for every deceit and hypocrisy imaginable, up to and including homicide.

These are the messages that the binge-shows are sending to us, and, given the leaking, rudderless nature of contemporary society, they are messages which we are only too eager to hear. Walt and Don and Saul would have been secondary characters in the arts of the past; today they are offered as our role models, not shining and inspiring, but dark and demoralizing; and, God help us, we love them.

Having said all this, there is one exception - I would have said one bright spot, but it is in fact even darker than the rest - Chernobyl. Both of my boys and all of the critics insisted I must see it, and so, dutifully if doubtfully, I plunged in. It is brilliant - not uplifting or inspiring, but soul-searing in its drama, and awesome in its execution. As in the other series, the characters are despicable; in fact, since they are almost all Soviet bureaucrats, they are the definition of evil banality. Nonetheless, out of this radioactive heap of human rubble three characters manage to emerge, and to reach a kind of nobility: the physicist Legasov, the academician Khomyuk, and the apparatchik Shcherbina. The last of these is, in some ways, the most interesting since he mutates under the truth of the cataclysm from a soulless functionary into a human being; no mean trick for a career Soviet official.

Chernobyl is an enigma of catharsis. How did it become so successful, given that it is darkness descending into darkness? How did it get made, with its unrelieved tragedy, an almost entirely male cast, a mere splash of a love story in which the boy literally melts before our eyes, and given that it is a period piece which takes place in a country we know little about and about which we care even less? The series is not only a marvel of storytelling, it is a miracle of production. That it managed to make it to the screen, and that it boasts such extraordinary production values is, to me as a filmmaker, astonishing.

Good as the other binge-series are, Chernobyl outstrips them in every regard. The cast is extraordinary, especially Jared Harris (who was wonderful in Mad Men) and Stellan Skarsgard. The directing is flawless, the art direction is beyond impressive, and the sheer size and scope of the recreation of the period and place and of the disaster are breathtaking. One wonders how it is possible to watch such a darkly powerful tale as entertainment, yet it is impossible to take one's eyes from it. And not, as in the other series, just to find out what happens next, but to experience the fear and danger, and to learn from them through the characters' eyes. This is why I say that Chernobyl is catharsis, in the ancient Greek sense of the word: an experience of horror the depth of which scours our souls and leaves us feeling not wearied but wiser, not entertained but edified.

But what impressed me every bit as much as the intense drama, the historical context and the character development is the fact that, for all its darkness, Chernobyl serves as an antidote to the anthropomorphism of the undercurrent of evil in our society. Even out of this massive, murderous climate of lies and destruction and death, it seems to be saying that something valuable may be learned and something noble may arise. From the toxic rubble of Chernobyl comes something to be admired and even cherished: the spirit of goodness which resides in each of us and which, even in the most horrific circumstances, may yet take wings and fly, if only for a moment.



Monday, May 20, 2019

Timing


As I grow old and grey and full of sleep (to borrow from Yeats), my attention is increasingly divided between the very long past and the foreshortening future. Inevitably, this is a time of regret for that which has not been, and trepidation for that which is bound to be. I often think these days that I wish I had the years to do over again, but almost immediately realize that I would just make the same stupid mistakes, and so the longing for bygone years is pointless.

I find that as time shortens it slows. Everything seems to move more slowly now, from my perceptions to my joints, from my intuitions to my ambitions. I have less time, and so I want less for myself, though I do still long for the most and best for those I love. And that circle of affection has narrowed almost entirely to my children, and to my new grandchild. For her, above all, since she is so new to the world, so pure and full of promise, I desire and hope for the broadest, deepest, most fulfilling experience of life, for the ecstasy of flowering imagination and the tragedy of unmasked reality. For myself, I must find a way to be content with what I have remaining to me: work, and worry, and a declining sense of wonder. Thus, happiness becomes acceptance of resignation.

My hands no longer work as they once did. I have always admired the prolific virtuosity of human hands; it is amazing what they can accomplish, the wide range of skills and intricate moments of movement which have enabled them to build and to destroy, to sign and shape and make imagination possible. They are capable of everything from musicality to murder, and from cruelty to caress. My hands always served me well, yet now, more and more, they defy my intentions and frustrate my efforts. I drop things, they simply slip from my fingers which once were so fervent in their grasping. I knock things over and lose things, and I look at my hands in a kind of mournful awe. ‘We have done your work,’ they seem to be telling me, ‘and now we will do our own will.’

The past, though it forms the bulk of my consciousness, I try not to dwell upon, for, as Lear said, ‘That way madness lies.’ If I were to allow myself the lurid luxury of living in the past, I would certainly lose such tenuous grip as I have upon the present, and whatever shredded hopes remain to me for the future. I know too well the mistakes that I have made – they haunt me continually like spectral hounds, yowling and yapping after me with greater alacrity as my forward momentum wanes.  For, you see, as time slows toward its end, the past rages closer, feeding on the diminishing momentum to which age condemns you. And so, try as I might, I find it more and more futile to escape the past with its snarling regrets and slavering demand for remorse.

Health and its perils you think more on, of course, and you must make a conscious effort not to talk about them since nothing is more tedious to young people than such talk. Unable to imagine themselves at your age, as you once were unable to imagine yourself as aged, they will at best endure your conversation about your health with kindly toleration. But you cannot help but see in their eyes and facial expressions and incipient movements toward the door or just toward a different subject, their roiling impatience, and so, one of the most pressing truths about yourself becomes a social taboo, and you feel even more isolated in your declining constitution. I have found that it is actually a relief to speak to people my own age since they understand that health is a pressing subject, and that it presses more and more as time grows short. And so, I allow myself to bask in talk of heart and kidneys and spine and mental powers in the rare conversations I have with my contemporaries. It serves to relieve the burden momentarily of the lonely consequence of age.

Looking forward is similar to looking into a mirror. You are reminded in every sag and wrinkle that time cannot reverse itself, and that since there is really nothing in the future for you but oblivion, you must gather all your strength to accomplish as much as you can before the end. And yet, you struggle against your own depleting energy, straddling a steepening fence line between what you feel compelled to do and what you still are capable of. People have often pointed out that I am a workaholic, and though I have never really thought of myself that way, in comparison to what I find that I can do these days, it now seems to have been true. Yes, I still have a headful of ideas and plans and projects, but they must be measured against the yardsticks of energy and time. That would seem to impose a need to devote oneself to the most important affairs, but there is, too, a sense that, having lived so long and worked so hard, I deserve a rest. And so, I find in my waking hours what I often tell myself at bedtime, when I hesitate to turn out the light: ‘You’ll have plenty of time to sleep in the dark soon enough.’

And so I go on working, and worrying about the future (my own and that of my loved ones), and trying to savor what little is left to me of the wonder that has driven my existence since the very first moment that I realized I existed, a moment of great peril and promise that has itself become lost to me in time.


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

In B Minor


It has been a year since I first watched the YouTube video of Yuja Wang playing the Liszt B-minor piano sonata. (I know it has been a year since I left a public comment on it at the time, something I rarely do.) And I find that I am as moved, awed and transported by her performance now as I was then. The B-minor sonata, which is in one 30-minute-long movement, is a snarling, graceful bear of a piece. I imagine that attempting it is rather like preparing for a championship boxing match, or, perhaps more aptly, an alligator wrestling match, since I think it is a piece that may very well devour you if you are not equal to it.

I have heard many pianists perform the sonata, from Horowitz to Argerich, and each time I delve into it with the pianist in expectation and anxiety. It is the only composition by Liszt which I truly admire, the only time that he attained a height I would call spiritual; and, to me, spirituality is the essence of genius. Bach often created on this level, as did Beethoven; Brahms managed it occasionally, Schubert at the end, Tchaikovsky only once (the Sixth Symphony), and most composers, never. And so, I think it takes – no, I know it takes – an artist capable of both spirituality and genius to undertake the sonata with the skill to perform it, the artistry to interpret it, and the courage to lose herself in it, and emerge victorious.

That is what Yuja Wang does. And that is why it is so important to watch her play the piece as well as hear her play it. In her face, her body language, her expressions of lips and arms and shoulders, is not just total absorption in the music, but a genuine spiritual connection to it. She does not just play the sonata, she lives it, embodies it, makes love to it. There are those who have commented on the performance that there is here and there a missed note, but that is like saying that life is not perfect. But life is vast and deep, joyous and tragic, filled with terrors and ecstasies, perfect in its imperfection. And so is Yuja Wang’s performance of the Liszt. A Russian Literature professor of mine once said that Madame Bovary is art, but Anna Karenina is life.  I feel much the same way about her performance.

The piece, though in a single, prolonged movement, is, in fact, divided into several phases, intricate in their interconnection and breathtaking in their mingled delicacy and passion. If it were possible to hold one’s breath for 30 minutes, I suppose this would be the time to do it. And yet Yuja Wang remains utterly focused, sublimely transported, masterfully attentive both to detail and to the sweeping emotions, gentle reflections and bombastic outbursts of the piece. She is playing it from inside; not a brilliant technician approaching it from a distance, but a complex and sensitive soul making itself at one with the piece. And the result is a melding of art and music, artistry and poetry, poetry and profound insight that is at once powerful and touching.

How this young woman manages to keep all of that complex and demanding music in her mind, let alone under her control, is a mystery to me. But that she does, and does so with a clarity of vision and unity of expression, is nothing short of miraculous. I urge all of you to take 30 minutes out of your busy lives and demanding schedules, and sit in wonder and awe with Yuja Wang as she guides you through the vast complexities and delicate intricacies of this marvelous sonata, rather like a guide conducting you on a private tour of Yosemite in winter, or a wingless angel showing you the way into a world beyond the mortal.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Unreliable Sources


I have been a news junkie since my teenage years. I simply never felt comfortable unless I had a grasp on what was happening in the world around me. And for this, I relied on the mainstream media – newsprint, television and, more recently, alternative media. But now, I find, the media are no longer reliable. In fact, more and more, they strike me as downright deceptive.

I search the U.S. media in vain for news of the world. I have been trying to follow events in Venezuela, for example, and in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and North Korea. But now the mainstream media is all-Trump-all-the-time. Trump hating, Trump impeachment, the Mueller Report, Attorney General Barr, Trump’s taxes, Trump’s staff testifying before Congress, Trump-this and Trump-that! And the truth of it is that it is almost entirely speculation, not reporting.

The bias in the media has become so blatant, so bald and transparent, that the commentators and even the reporters no longer try to hide their contempt for the president and for their profession. Journalism, for the most part, is no longer objective, it is obsessive; it is no longer professional, it is overtly political. The facts have been sacrificed on the bloody altar of political agenda, and it is we, the public who seek information not indoctrination, who suffer.

Bias is everywhere now, and suffocatingly so, not only in the words the journalists use, but in their choice of stories, choice of guests, body language and facial expressions. Their disdain for the president, but beyond that, for professionalism, is so obvious that it is simply not possible to view them with any credibility at all. And so, I do not. The only news source I trust now is NHK, the English-language Japanese news service. It is there I go to get the headlines on U.S. news, and stories about all the other underserved parts of the world.

Of course, it is no surprise that the poll rating of the news media has now dropped to the level of that of Congress. And the reason for this is simple: the mainstream media are behaving like children. Trump won and Hillary didn’t, and they can’t forget or forgive the fact. Trump calls them names, and, like third-graders, they hate him and want to hurt him. Trump’s policies are working, and this drives them crazy in the same way that an ex-spouse’s successful remarriage drives the former spouse crazy. They feel bullied, scorned, vindictive and jealous. And they take it out not only on Trump, but on the rest of us.

Now, I will say again as I often have on this blog: I am not a Trump supporter. I could not vote for either candidate in 2016. But this juvenile obsession with undoing Trump’s presidency, marginalizing him, destroying him as a person and as a political figure, is disgraceful. I am old enough to remember Huntley and Brinkley, Walter Cronkite and even, vaguely, Edward R. Murrow.  In my recollection, they could be depended on for a factual presentation of the news. But now, gaggling puppets like Don Lemon, Rachel Maddow and Chris Cuomo, whose entire ethos is the demeaning and destruction of Trump, are simply unendurable.

Which brings me to the cavalcade of Democratic candidates for 2020. As they stumble over one another to prove who wishes more than the others that the United States was like Sweden or Denmark, they make it all the more likely that the Trump they so despise will be reelected. The current mania for socialism, an economic system for the organization of humanity which has failed miserably everywhere it has been tried, is a delusion bordering on psychosis. We have allowed ourselves to be driven 22 trillion dollars in debt, and yet all these latter-day Engels can think of is more and more government spending, more and more government control. Medicare for all, free college for all, the Green New Deal! The more they hawk this pie-in-the-sky nonsense, the more they urge independents into the Trump camp, which they would resist if they had a reasonable alternative.

And that is not Joe Biden. I have paid attention to him since his announcement, and I must say I am baffled. The man is so far behind the times, so unabashedly archaic, so muddled, that I cannot see why anyone would take him seriously. At 76, he is clearly showing his age. He slurs his words, loses his train of thought, and makes gaffes that no one can dare to overlook (China is not a threat!). Yet, according to the polls, he is the Democratic front-runner; and the media, slavishly looking for an alternative to Trump, continue to prop him up. This, of course, is the same media that created Trump in the first place, and, realizing with horror the true nature of its creation, has been trying desperately to destroy ever since.

And so, I have suppressed my lifelong appetite for the news, since there is no honest news left to be had, and gone on a subsistence diet. No longer able to stomach the vindictive tripe which passes itself off as journalism, I now subsist on such crumbs as I can gather from the few news sources which I still find credible. “Reliable sources:” in the news business these days, that has, alas, become an oxymoron.