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.