Monday, June 19, 2017

Four Films

As I have mentioned previously, I don't often go to the movies anymore. There is little in the theaters I care to see; most of it is the sub-literate, comic book inspired pablum which the studios believe is all the American public craves or deserves. Making my absence from the theaters even more likely is the fact that my son has installed Netflix on my phone -- imagine, on a phone! -- and so I tend to stay at home even more weekends these days.

Recently I have seen three films, two new, one not so new, that I would like to mention. At the urging of my step-daughter, I did go to the theater to see "Get Out." Now, for many years I have said that there was only one film which I wish I had not seen, and that was "Don't Look Now," a horror-thriller directed, as I recall, by Nicolas Roeg. I regretted it not because it was badly made (it was, in fact, well made), but because it was so disturbing. It took me months to get over the morbid nightmares I suffered after seeing it, and, in saying this, I am not recommending that you see it. "The Others" and, of course, "The Exorcist" gave me turbulent dreams, but I do recommend them if you like a good scare. But "Don't Look Now," involving as it did my least favorite theme, danger to a child, was just plain wrenching.

Well, now I can add a second film to my wish-I-hadn't-seen-it list: "Get Out." I won't say much about it. It was tolerably well done, though the acting, especially in the two leads, was pretty poor. The main character was just not a very good actor, and his girlfriend was simply annoying (her character and her performance). But it was the themes and questions that the film raised that so put me off: Don't date outside your own race; don't meet the parents after only a few months' dating; don't trust white people; and, most problematic of all, white people secretly want to be black people, or was it, black people secretly want to be white people.

One thing I did enjoy about the film was that it sent up the phony racial tolerance of wealthy, liberal whites. The garden party to which the young black man and his white girlfriend are invited was populated by the whitest, most transparently hypocritical "Obama-was-our-greatest-president-I'd-vote-for-him-again-if-I-could" white people I've seen outside of Hollywood. (Now that I think of it, those characters were the creations of Hollywood, so I suppose even they can't be considered outside it.) Suffice it to say, "Get Out" is the most crass kind of sensationalist exploitation of white guilt and black mistrust, aimed clearly at the high-school and college-age bracket. But when you consider that the real desire of these ultra-suburban white liberals is, in effect, to devour young blacks, it appears even more cynical. And to top it all off, the resolution, when finally it arrives, is cliched, silly and utterly improbable. I wish I hadn't seen it.

There is one saving grace to this despicable film, however: the performance of Betty Gabriel. Every so often we see a mediocre (or worse) film in which there is one performance which seems that it belongs in something much better. Such was her portrayal of the weirdly docile housekeeper. She is by far the creepiest character in the film, and two scenes of hers in particular are worth the price of admission. One, the hands-down scariest moment in the film, which made the entire audience jump, simply involves her walking across the background of a shot. The other is her "No, no,no, no, no, no, no" tear-streaked moment which, deservedly, has become a YouTube meme, and which ought to enter the popular jargon as a terribly conflicted denial of absolutely everything about reality.

The other theatrical release is a film quite similar to "Get Out" in some ways: "It Comes at Night." It may be clear from all this that I do enjoy a genuinely scary film, and this one was certainly that. Several things set it apart from, and far above, "Get Out." First, the execution. As I watched it I kept thinking: this is really wonderful film-making. Beautifully directed, superbly photographed -- it is all about darkness and shadows; indeed, they are characters as much as the people in the film. The way the shadows move, as if alive, the way the director uses darkness, which is perhaps humans' primal fear. I won't say too much about the film in case you intend to see it; however if it is a conventional monster-in-the-woods or ghost-in-the-house film that you are expecting, you will be disappointed. As my step-daughter was, after, in retaliation for "Get Out," I urged her to see it. At the risk of giving something away, however, I will say this: what comes at night is nothing visible, nothing tangible; rather, it is fear itself. And the questions the film raises, unlike those of "Get Out," are primal, profound and genuinely worth pondering.

The third film was a Netflix. A Korean film entitled simply "Tunnel," about an ordinary sort of man driving home from work at a Kia dealership who is trapped when a newly constructed tunnel collapses. (And thank God he was driving a Kia, since, if it had been, say a Ford Focus or a Fiat, the film would have been ten minutes long.) I cannot help but feel that "Tunnel" was inspired by, if not based on, a wonderful old Kirk Douglas movie, "Ace in the Hole," which I had the privilege of discussing with Mr. Douglas one night years ago over dinner. As with that film, "Tunnel" is about suffering, survival, and the the crude exploitation of them by an unfeeling media circus. What sets "Tunnel" apart is how very well it is made, and the performance of the lead actor, Jungwoo Ha, with whom we identify completely, and whose fate we genuinely care about. How the director, and especially the cinematographer, manage to keep us involved, aware of every nuance of change in the cramped space, and yet not feeling so claustrophobic that we have to stop watching, is a source of real wonder and admiration to me. I am aware of course that the film was not shot in such tomblike confines, yet it truly feels as if it were, and this fact is the source of its intensity and power.

Even though I watched it at home, and was a few steps from the kitchen and the bathroom, I could not allow myself the luxury of pausing it and walking away. There is also embedded in the script a scathing attack on the vapidity and operational inhumanity of the media, as well as a wry, soul-saving humor that makes it possible to endure the extreme-close-up nature of the story. I was so impressed with the film that I took the trouble to read some of its reviews (which were universally positive), and while I agree with the majority opinion that it was ten or fifteen minutes too long, I disagree about the main female character's performance. I thought Doona Bae did a very good job of portraying the wife of the trapped man given the limited screen time and emotional bandwidth with which she had to work. In some ways, as a character, she was as trapped as he. As a visceral thriller and a fine piece of film-making, I recommend "Tunnel," which is still available on Netflix. And do have a snack and a bathroom break before you turn it on.

I promised a fourth film, and this is it, in the form of a disclaimer. I have had several inquiries about the new Tupac Shakur film, "All Eyes on Me," and I want to make it clear that, though I was involved in the scripting process for this film for the best part of a year, I had nothing to do with the finished product. Although I was invited by the Writers Guild to participate in the credit arbitration based on the amount of time and the number of drafts I invested in it, when I read the final shooting script, I declined even to apply for credit. I have not seen the film and probably will not, and given the amount of research and writing I put into the development of it, and the respect I acquired for its subject, I feel genuinely regretful about the outcome.




Sunday, June 4, 2017

Noises

A few noisy observations...

A Noise Within

This one is strictly for locals. There is a wonderful little theater near my house called A Noise Within. They do only classic plays, and it has been an education in theater history for me and my teenager. When it first opened, the productions were good, though not great, rather uneven, especially in the quality of the acting. However, as the company has matured and integrated more fully into the venue, the shows have become very good indeed. Last night I saw (for the first time) "Man of La Mancha," and in the cordial, intimate setting of Noise Within, it was a wonderful experience, beautifully mounted, very moving. Before that I took my son to see their "King Lear," which was, I must say, one of the best productions of the play I have seen (and I've seen Olivier, Ian McKellan, Paul Scofield, Albert Finney and Ian Holm). I found Geoff Elliott's Lear deeply moving, focusing as it does on Lear's descent into senility, which we now call Alzheimer's.

Before that, we saw Moliere's "Imaginary Invalid," Beckett's "Endgame" Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," "The Tempest," "Threepenny Opera," and several other classic plays. A Noise Within is a treasure-house, a genuine source of education and entertainment, and I feel fortunate to be a stone's throw away from it. A quick dinner at Maria's Italian Kitchen, and it is a two-minute trip to an experience of classical theater which only becomes more innovative, impressive and affecting with every season of plays. If you live in the Pasadena area, or anywhere in Los Angeles for that matter, please do go and experience A Noise Within. Your life will be richer for having done so.

Noises Without

I have sworn off politics. I promised myself I would blog no more about it. But I must say this: I have never in my lifetime seen such vituperation, such sheer venom in the public discourse as I do now. Politics has become a sorry circus, and the mainstream media a shambles of cheap showmanship and partisan propaganda. There is simply no pretense of objectivity in the media anymore; all is cynical, biased, lowest-common-denominator cacophony, and I can take no more of it.

I write about it now only because the trend has become threatening.  In my view, the mainstream media is mounting a coup. They are determined to see the president removed from office, and are engaged in a ceaseless campaign of slanderous attacks and marginal reporting to that end. Now, I have said here before that I could not vote for either pathetic excuse for a presidential candidate vomited up by the twin billy-goats of the political parties. But we elected a president, he has a program, and he ought to be given space sufficient to try to implement it. Instead, the mainstream press devotes none of its attention to the program, and all of it to the person and his faults, real or imaginary, in a relentless effort to generate an impeachment.

Indeed, some harebrained politicos and their cronies in the press were crying impeachment even before the president was sworn into office. And the drumbeat has only increased in din and deviousness since then. Meanwhile, the media continue to sanctify the memory of Barack Obama, publishing a steady stream of sentimental tripe about his eating habits, his wife's wardrobe, their new house, their hand-holding, vacations, romance and on and on ad nauseam. The media simply cannot accept the fact that their dreamboat has finally left office, and they continue to mythologize and apotheosize him in his absence.

Now the media has embarked on a most dangerous but determined course: it is putting the American public on notice that it, and not the voters, will decide who runs for office and who gets elected. And if the public is so stolid in its stupidity as to elect someone else, the media will marshal all of its resources to hound that person out of office. They are doing so now, and it is nothing less than a coup d’état, systematically devised and assiduously carried out by a small group of powerful people colluding with an even smaller group of craven political careerists, who have arrogated to themselves the right to override the electoral process and determine who will and will not serve.

The irony is that this cabal of conspirators is trying to use Russia as the tool to evict Trump from the White House, when it is, in fact, they who have undermined the electoral process and are mounting what cannot be described as anything other than a coup. As a nation, we must take this into account, and we must hold to account those who are responsible for circumventing the will of the people and setting themselves up as the true power in America.

Nothing but Noise

There was recently a protest march in Washington D.C. to vent dudgeon regarding climate change. (Now, you will notice that this phenomenon used to be called global warming, but, since the Earth has been cooling for the past nineteen years, the name has conveniently been changed.) Is the climate changing? Yes, of course it is. The climate of Earth has been changing for tens of millions of years (just ask the dinosaurs); it changed long before there were humans, it is changing while there are humans, and it will continue to change long after humans have burnt themselves out as a species (just ask the Ice Age mammals). But the marchers on Washington insist that humans (that they themselves) are largely responsible for the change, and to this I say: hubris, pure and simple. Do you really think that we as a species are so powerful, so all-fired mighty that we can change the climate of the Earth and bring life itself to a crashing halt?

Of course not. But this is the doomsday hubris that so characterizes the left it is not only predictable, it is pathetic. However, it is nothing new. I saw it, participated in it myself in the seventies, when we were utterly convinced that only our generation could save the nation, the species and the planet. And so we invented and engaged in endless causes and movements, and marched and protested and sent our money in to self-consecrated leaders whom we idolized as prophets. The same sorry spectacle is playing out today on the ecological front, whether it is the climate or the extinction of the bees or earthquakes caused by the extraction of natural gas. There will always be such causes, and they will always have unelected leaders, and these leaders will always become... rich.

And therein lies the heart of the matter. Mark Twain said, "Tell me where a man gets his money and I'll tell you what his beliefs are." Whether or to what extent the climate is changing and humans are responsible for it, whether the bees are dying or the Earth is being fracked into frenzy, one thing I can assure you: somebody is making a lot of money out of insisting that it is true. And those somebodies are not the warm bodies they manage to marshal for their marches and their fundraising.

I did not realize it when I was an idealistic twenty-something but I see it clearly now: the cause-careerists only believe to the extent that they can profit from the belief. They want warm bodies and hard cash, and, like Obama, they don't give a good Goddamn about you. For just as surely as that dozens of young black people are shot in Chicago every weekend, Obama does not, never did, and could not care. He's made his millions, he's bought his mansion, and he is being raised to the level of a mythological hero by the media, and so to hell with the teens and toddlers who are dying on the streets of his hometown. It is a lesson for all of you who contribute your bodies and your money to the causes célèbres of today, just as my generation did in the sixties and seventies. All they want is your participation, for that translates into their power, and more power means more money.

Now, I understand your caring and your zeal; I, too, wanted to change the world. I admire your spirit and I applaud your desire to commit to causes. But if you really want to be the change you dream of, go to the worst public school in your neighborhood and volunteer as a teacher's aide, or find the shabbiest nursing home near you and volunteer to work with the patients, or volunteer for an adult literacy program, and help people who are more at risk than the climate or the bees, and you will make the world a better place.







Tuesday, April 4, 2017

THEM!

There was a classic sci-fi movie in the Fifties called THEM. I saw it when it first came out, and it still gives me a chill to think about it all these years later. It depicted an invasion by giant radioactive ants, fugitives from desert A-bomb testing that made a rampage of death and destruction across the Southwest until finally settling in the sewers of Los Angeles. I remember it starred James Arness, fresh from playing the intergalactic vegetable in my favorite monster flic, The Thing. Since seeing THEM as a child, I have never been able to hear the pronoun "them" used out of context without thinking of that movie.

Well, I heard it used just that way the other day. My step-daughter told me that one of her classmates, who was born female but identifies as male, was insisting that everyone at school not refer to her with the words "him" or "her," but rather, as "them." Now, to paraphrase Mark Twain, this is asking the English language to do something it wasn't designed for. He/she is now them, his/her possessions are now their and theirs, and, presumably, when they refer to themselves (themself?) it is as we, us, they and ours.

I, of course, suggested that the person in question be encouraged to see the movie THEM before demanding to be identified with it (at least in my mind). I mean, the giant ants were terrifying to look at, ravenously homicidal, and made a horrible screeching noise. But I don't suppose they will - look at the movie, that is. This is all by way of saying that, increasingly, social norms and political correctness are wreaking the havoc of giant ants on our language (not to mention on bathrooms, proms, marriage, and so on). History teaches us that the first victim of tyranny is always language; bullies, oppressors and self-styled victims must always attack the way we think and speak about things, which enables them to slip into a mainstream distorted sufficiently to accommodate them (us, theirs, they).

Now, I have long been a firm believer in the principle that every human being should be allowed to live his or her life as he or she wishes without interference from the outside. As far as I'm concerned you can be any gender you want and use any bathroom you please; but there are limits, and pronouns clearly are one of them. Our pronouns were designed to reflect three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. As a language, we are fortunate to have three: Romance languages (that is, languages derived from Latin) have only two - masculine and feminine - and I have witnessed the confusion that can cause as new words enter these languages. The French, for example, have to decide whether software is male or female, requiring them to invent a new word and trace its imaginary origins back to Latin. How would the Romans have referred to a blog or a selfie? Are they masculine or feminine? What would Augustus say?

The short answer is that they are neither; that is, they are neuter, and if French-speakers would simply synthesize a neuter gender and shove all their neither-one-nor-the-other words into it, life would be much simpler for them (her, him, it). But when I once suggested at a dinner table full of Belgians that they do this, the very suggestion was met with scorn and indignation. A third gender? An "it"? Never! Why not? I don't know, but no!

Now we find ourselves (theirselves, themselves) in a similar quandary. If people refuse to be labelled by traditional English pronouns implying gender, then it seems to me they have two choices: they can either adopt the neuter pronoun "it" (which would still give them the plurals they and them and those), or they can invent new pronouns for their own use, and try to force them (it, those) on the rest of us.

Of course, referring to oneself or being referred to as an "it" would appear demeaning, so I suppose that idea is a non-starter. And so it would seem that new pronouns are demanded. When I raised this inevitability with my fourteen-year-old, he informed me that an effort to create such gender-neutral (though not neuter) pronouns is already under way, and he did a quick Google on them (is Google male or female?). What he came up with was a gloss containing among others: e/ey, eirself, per, perself, ve, verself, xe, xemself, and ze, hir, hirself. (Yes, linguists in the LGBTQ community are actually working at this.)

Well, all of those sound pretty ugly to me, more appropriate for giant ants than humans, and so I want to suggest that we just go straight at the gender-neutral pronoun problem head-on and use "gen." Gen, gen's, genself, genselves. And that we adopt a fourth gender in the language: masculine, feminine, neuter and gen. Them will then become gen, their stuff will be gen's, they can think of themselves (theirselves) as genself and genselves, and they can all get rich selling t-shirts, charm bracelets, monogrammed towels and so on to their (gen's, gens') heart's content.

Friday, January 27, 2017

I Have Come Through Safely, and I Shall Return

For those of you who may not know, those were General MacArthur's words after he left the Philippines in 1942. (And while it was true that he did come through safely, as much cannot be said for heroes like Ed Ramsey and the members of the Philippine resistance who either could not or chose not to leave. They stayed and fought.)

In any case, I am back after a long absence during which much has occurred, and I think I shall resume posting now. A few random thoughts to get back into the swing:

I seldom go to the movies anymore, since it has become so expensive, and most of what reaches the theaters is pointless. However, every year I am sent Academy screeners for my "consideration," and I get around to watching them eventually. I have been doing so lately, and I have a few thoughts about last year's films.

"Arrival," about which I had heard many good things (including that it was a masterpiece), was a great disappointment. I found much of it, well... just dumb. The script, I thought, was weak, and the acting average. Once I adjusted to the idea that the aliens were nothing but an intelligent species of octopus, I went along for the ride. But the premise upon which the whole thing is based, namely, that language determines our experience of reality, is just silly. In fact, I think it is pretty clear that the reverse is true: experience of reality determines language. The fact that the linguist in the film learns the aliens' language does not make it possible for her to travel in time any more than the fact that I speak French means I can make a really great omelet. (I can't.)

"La La Land" remains a complete puzzle to me. That it should have been nominated for a record number of major awards is mystifying. I recall when I watched the opening scene on the freeway, I thought: God, is the whole thing going to be like this? It seemed to me an attempt to make "Singin' in the Rain" or a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical with half the talent. I decided pretty early on that Ryan Gosling can neither sing nor dance very well, and, for my taste at least, Emma Stone was just annoying. The script was quite mundane, the acting was merely tolerable, the musical numbers were undistinguished and the paean to Los Angeles (where I have lived for thirty-five years, including many non-musical maroonings on the freeway) was just inane. I can only imagine that its success is due to the fact that so many of the other films are dark, gloomy and depressing.

On that score, I must say that I attempted to watch "Girl on the Train," and had to turn it off after fifteen minutes, unable to take any more of its unremitting gloominess. Perhaps it did pick up something of a human tone later, but I don't care. The same was true of "Jackie." I managed about twenty minutes of that one given my general interest in the subject, but Natalie Portman's unchanging visage of dread and her bleak tone were just too much for me.

Then there were two films which, if they did nothing else, convinced me never to visit West Texas.

One was "Nocturnal Animals," which I nearly turned off after twenty minutes or so (the gloom factor), but I stuck with it because Jake Gyllenhaal is such a good actor (indeed, I think he has developed into one of our finest). What interested me most about this film was the fact that it was at once an effective argument for gun ownership and a powerful dramatization of the destructive effects of abortion on those who survive. It also argues, of course, that you should listen to your parents because they are usually right.

There can be no denying that if Gyllenhaal's character had kept a gun in his car, a lot of tragedy could have been avoided. And when we finally learn that the thing that broke him up with his wife was the fact that she had an abortion without telling him, then we realize that the taking of innocent life was the cause of everyone's suffering. Finally, if Amy Adams' character had just followed her mother's advice she could have saved herself and everyone else a whole lot of trouble. So what is the moral of "Nocturnal Animals?" Support the Second Amendment, oppose abortion, and obey your parents. A surprisingly conservative message in a Hollywood film.

About this film I will say that one thing jumped out at me with terrific force, namely, the performance of Michael Shannon as the deputy sheriff. It was a truly extraordinary job of acting, and it reminded me in some ways of Mark Rylance's performance in "Bridge of Spies," which, when I saw it, caused me to exclaim that not only would he be nominated, he would win. (He did.) I am not so confident about Michael Shannon's chance of winning, but I was very pleased to learn that he had been nominated.

The other "Never Go to West Texas" film was "Hell or High Water," much of which I enjoyed. A double buddy picture, it was well acted (especially by Jeff Bridges), well shot and directed, and I thought the script was quite good. It had its share of doom and gloom of course, but that was relieved by the interplay between the two Texas Rangers, much of which was entertaining in its unapologetic racism. It's a relief to see, after decades of political correctness, that it is still possible to find humor in stereotypes. I am not entirely sure whether I find the unresolved plot interesting or merely a cop-out, but the idea that banks (the kind of banks that presumably financed the film) are villains is just too simplistic. If the argument is being made that it's ok to steal from institutions if you think they have stolen from you, then I'm afraid I will have to demur and move on.

Which brings me to the one dramatic film that was not gloomy or depressing, and that is "Hidden Figures." Like "Bridge of Spies," I thought it a very good television movie, and I appreciated that it managed not to pound too hard at the racial issue. The performances were, for the most part, good, though not great, and I did get tired of seeing Kevin Costner and Taraji Henson play the same scene over and over: she experiences some form of discrimination and he appears magically to right the wrong and become a better person in the process. (Why anyone would take a crowbar to a Colored Restroom sign rather than just tell the maintenance people to take it down is beyond me, but it is the kind of heroic symbolism that liberals dote on. Rather like taking down the Confederate flag after a lunatic kills nine black people in a church.) At least the film was tonally watchable, and I found it informative and uplifting. I can't help but wonder why no one had made this story long before.

About the political paroxysm I will say very little. I could not vote for either candidate, and I am not thrilled that Trump won, though I continue to console myself with the idea that, at least it's not her. I must admit, however, that I am enjoying the spectacle of hysterics in the media as all those who got so much so wrong continue to try to explain how it all could have happened. At the same time, I am appalled at the level of hatred and naked bias in the coverage of the new president, which is gradually making it impossible for me to follow the news. One thing I will say for Trump, and which I think helps to explain the media's hysteria, is that he is moving quickly to keep the promises he made during the campaign. We are so used to being lied to by politicians that some among us (the media primarily) simply don't know how to understand what is happening. And on the question of lies: Obama lied to us consistently and confidently for eight years, and the media scarcely noticed. Now the L word is front and center in all the media reports. Hysteria meets hypocrisy.

That Obamacare is doomed I am glad; that the Dems won't get to nominate the next couple of Supreme Court justices is a very good thing; that at long last something may be done about illegal immigration is welcome. But I can't help but worry about the state of international affairs four years from now, given Trump's wide and deep ignorance on the subject. We shall see, without too much chaos and bloodshed I hope. Unlike most of the media and much of the electorate, I am prepared to give Trump a chance, but I do so with fingers crossed.