Those pesky ads

18 Sep

old_style_tv_setPlease ignore any ads you see in this space.  The opinions expressed therein do not not reflect the view of the (for want of a better word) author.


A Two-State Solution

11 Oct

Perhaps it’s time to admit that the divisions in the US have become so great, the polarization so insurmountable, that the only course left is to split into two nations, US x and US y – a civil war without the war. This will be more like a messy divorce, only with lots more lawyers.  The actual country names can be worked out later (Personally, I like Fredonia and Cloud Cuckooland.)  Like the Brexit, this will pose some problems.  How do we divvy up the deficit? Will Washington D.C.will become a ghost town or a historical theme park? (Ride the Filibuster! World’s longest lasting ride!)  How do we decide who gets what turf? The good news is that after it’s over we’ll have two nations whose inhabitants are reasonably happy with their respective countries.

The turf question provides an array of possibilities. In the lower 48, we could decide on an East-West demarcation line or one that runs North-South, like we had during the Civil War. A more likely solution is that the two nations will split by ideology. Each state will vote to decide whether to join US x or US y. Those living in states that voted against their preferences will need to migrate to the other country or stay in place and dislike the government (which is already the status quo for many.)

The Presidency, the Congress, and the Supreme Court will all be dissolved along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Each country will decide on its capitol and system of government.  The nukes will be divvyed up along with the other military hardware and the military itself.  Each nation will have its own legislature, currency, courts, tax laws, health care policy, drug policy, firearms regulations, you name it.  The possibilities are endless – US x may decide to have a monarchy.  US y may abolish its former state boundaries and become one big nation.


US x and US y

In the illustration, I divided the country into those states that voted Democratic in at least two of the last three Presidential elections and those that voted Republican in at least two of the last three. (Florida, who’d a thunk it?) It may not play out this way in real life should it actually come to this, but you get the idea.  I dispensed with the colors blue and red, as I wanted to suggest that these will be two brand new nations, albeit only one is contiguous.

International treaties will be torn up and new ones written for each country. Corporations will have offices in both countries (they, along with the 1 per cent will come out OK no matter what.)  Each country will decide to build a wall and try to get the other to pay for it.

The concept of a bifurcated US is certainly not new – Robert A Heinlein explores this idea in If This Goes On … and Coventry.  Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle postulates a US ruled by Nazi Germany in the East and Japan in the West.  You can probably think of other examples.

At first, the two nations will be hostile to one another, like an intense football rivalry. As time goes by, old divisions may be forgotten and the two may become like the Great Britain and the current US. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not thrilled with the idea – it sounds like a big, fat drag.  Nevertheless, the status quo seems unsustainable.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.  I hope someday you’ll join us (or not).  And the US will live as two.

The Persistence of Memory

2 Oct

As I write, Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her while both were in high school is perhaps the top story in the news (at least in the US.) The story has become a Rorschach test of sorts; how you see the issue depends not just on your political views, but on other views, such as your views on how memory works.

I once had a job repairing damaged motion picture prints of a talking head giving a lecture. The guy in the film talked about significant emotional events,  those events that  leave an impact that is not soon forgotten. The event could be a long-lasting one, such as the Great Depression, or a shorter one, such as the experience of being shouted at by another person.


No, not that Persistence of Memory…

I’m not surprised that Dr. Ford says that she does not remember some details of the alleged incident, as that’s how memory often works. When I was in high school, a teacher/coach grabbed another student and I and slammed our heads together. (Our crime?  We’d gone to our lockers  for our books, and he hadn’t authorized the trip.) My head hurt and I remember feeling angry, humiliated, and helpless. I pulled out of the teacher’s  grasp and made an “Errrrgh!” sound, the most resistance I could muster at that moment. Though he hadn’t quite managed to knock us out, I not sure whether I went back to his classroom or went somewhere else after this incident. (I’m not even sure of the time of year, though I believe it was late winter / early spring.) Had the other student or I reported the teacher, he might well have faced disciplinary action, perhaps even termination. I don’t remember telling anyone about the teacher’s mean-spirited act at the time. I believe that the first person I told may have been my wife, years later.

Several things stand out here: vivid details that I remember, other details that are hazy, a failure to tell others, and a passage of decades.  At the core though, I remember the other student’s name, I remember the teacher’s name and that this event happened.  There is no possibility that a different student was there or that another teacher assaulted us.  If anyone were to suggest that over time I confused the student with a different classmate or the teacher with another, my account would not change; though I have forgotten many details about that day, I know who the other parties were.

Some have suggested that Dr. Ford is mistaken, and that the alleged perpetrator was someone other than than Brett Kavanaugh.  I doubt that. My own experience of a significant emotional event suggests that  vivid recollections of disturbing events  remain vivid over decades, though peripheral details may be lost. In regard to current events, I believe that those who suggest otherwise are at best mistaken about how episodic memory works, or at worst, trying to dissemble. Those who suggest a political motive may well have their own.  Though I have used the term “alleged” throughout this post, I must admit that I believe Ford’s account; I know how episodic memory works. Of course, don’t take my word for it – think of a dramatic or traumatic event from your own life (not too traumatic, I hope!) and see if your experience fits the same constellation.

Mad Men and Richard III

14 Sep

Our adult daughters introduced us to Mad Men (we never watched during its run), and we’ve been binge-watching it on Netflix in two-episode sprints. It’s a window on a brave new dysfunctional world (or a brave old one – it’s set in the 60s, after all.)

[ This next bit has spoilers, but let’s face it, they’re no longer making new ones. ]

Mad Men is a pithy title.  It’s an anagram for “Damn Me.”  Rearranging the letters again yields “Med Man”, a good title for a future doctor show. How about a gender-bending show?  “Mme Dan”, of course! After watching a few episodes, I thought the show should be called “People Who Smoke Too much, Drink Too much, Cheat on Their Spouses a Lot, and Generally Make Poor Choices.”  Or perhaps, “Men and Women (but Mostly Men) Behaving Badly.”  By virtue of its brevity, Mad Men is a much better title.  Lately I just call it by my own title: “Sick People.”

This is not to say I don’t like watching Mad Men.  It’s just that watching the show is sort of like watching a version of Shakespeare’s Richard III where more than one character is playing Richard.  This comparison admittedly falls short of the mark; no character seems “determined to prove a villain.” The characters are often villainous, but unlike Shakespeare’s Richard, they don’t see themselves as such. Jon Hamm’s Don Draper steals another man’s identity because it’s the easiest way out of a war.  Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell takes advantage of an au pair he has helped because he feels a sense of entitlement.  John Slattery’s Roger Sterling is essentially amoral (albeit not unlikeable.) He’s not trying to be a villain – he just is one.


During the opening credits, how come the woman’s leg doesn’t kick the guy back up in the air?  That’d be cool.

One can view the show through an anthropological lens, a diorama of life in America just after the midpoint of the last century.  I don’t know if the show’s depiction of working at an ad agency in the 60s is an accurate one, but if so, no one seems to work particularly hard (save for Elisabeth Moss’ character Peggy Olsen), smoking is ubiquitous, drinking on the job is OK, and policies to prevent sexual harassment don’t exist. Males rule; Mel Brooks’ adage “It’s good to be the King” definitely applies here.

Jon Hamm’s Don Draper is a bit of an antihero. His adulteries are casual, he cruelly rejects a younger sibling who seeks to reunite with him, and he commits the aforementioned identity theft.  Nevertheless, we never really stop sympathizing with him (in part due to the flashbacks to his lousy childhood.)

Hamm’s character seems at his best when he is not doing something.  When Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) stages a power play, Draper’s sparse, “Gentlemen, include me out” non-reaction allows him to carry the day and Phillips is the one frozen out.  In a later episode, Draper pretends to shoot an expensive TV commercial knowing that the ruse will spur a rival firm to shoot a TV spot and overspend their budget. It’s when he acts that he seems to stumble most; during a meeting with a cereal company, he blurts a slogan that a hapless job seeker (Danny Strong) had pitched to him earlier. When the client buys the slogan, he is forced to hire the candidate.

As usual, I don’t know where I’m going with this, except to say that watching Mad Men gives me pause. Sure, the acting is good and the writing is often good (except when they toss in dream sequences to fool the viewer – that’s a pet peeve of mine), but the world that the show depicts is often ugly.  I know, I know – you’re probably thinking, “It’s a fictional TV series, man – get a grip!” I hear ya.  But let’s face it, it’s not like watching, say, Gilmore Girls. Watching Mad Men is akin to eating potato chips  – ya know that you should stop, but they’re so darn addictive, ya just don’t.

Lord Bullingdon Bounces Back

22 Jul

“But what will I tell Stanley?”
-a question/lament said to have been uttered often by employees of Stanley Kubrick

“I loved him. I hated him. I went though every emotion with him.”
-Malcolm McDowell on Stanley Kubrick

Filmworker 1 begins by likening Leon Vitali to a moth who got his wings burned by the bright light of Stanley Kubrick. It’s a poetic conceit, but I’m not sure it holds up. Vitali worked for Kubrick over 30 years and remained in the job of his own volition. Vitali, as you may recall, played Lord Bullingdon in Kubrick’s 1975 film, Barry Lyndon. He later worked for Kubrick behind the camera as a jack-of-all-trades and continued in this capacity up to (and even after, as the film shows us) the director’s death in March, 1998.

One learns about Vitali during the course of the documentary, but let’s face it, that’s not why anyone will see this film. Most people (that would be me) will go hoping for stories about what an obsessive crazy nut Kubrick was, and in this regard, the film does not disappoint. (Kubrick ordered around 30 takes of the scene where Barry Lyndon beats Lord Bullingdon. In the film, Ryan O’Neal expresses regret about hurting his co-star. There are other, better stories, but I don’t want to ruin the film for you.)

Vitali goes without sleep, works while ill, and endures Kubrick’s never-ending demands for his time and energy. Emilio D’Alessandro, another 30-year Kubrick assistant, tells similar tales in Stanley Kubrick and Me. Neither work is a hatchet piece, but while Emilio’s book left me feeling bathed in a warm, nostalgic light, I felt angry at the end of Filmworker. I couldn’t figure out why until I realized that in a book one cannot see the narrator. The documentary shows us Vitali both as a pouty young man and as the wizened, wiry man he is today. It’s not hard to look at him and think “Kubrick did this!”.


It’s your fault, Kubrick!

Early in Filmworker, Vitali describes a sort of epiphany he had while working on Barry Lyndon. “This was filmmaking”, he says (or something to that effect – I didn’t take notes!) Though he had acted in film and television, it was not until he worked with Kubrick that he felt truly cognizant of what filmmaking could be.

Though I enjoyed the documentary, it may not be for everyone. I particularly liked a sequence where the color timing of Kubrick’s films is discussed. Timing refers to the adjustments in exposure and filtration that give a film it’s “look” when the negative it is printed. Vitali discusses his efforts to get labs to produce the desired result. Even Kubrick’s detractors will concede that his work is well -photographed (look at any given frame in Paths Of Glory if you don’t believe me), and this section provides a look into one step in that process. Though the section is brief, it may seem wonkish to some.

This is definitely a film for Kubrick fans, and for fans of cinema in general – I would recommend this film. Though it does not strike me as a “great” documentary (whatever that means) I found it to be engaging and definitely worth your time.

1. Filmworker isn’t a great title, but it’s apparently the occupation that Vitali listed on his passport.

Land Wars in Asia, Sicilians, and Buildings in the UK

29 May

You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – the most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” – but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!”1

-The Princess Bride (Movie)

My wife and I have got hooked on watching shows on the idiot box2 about restoring old buildings in the UK. There’s Restoration Home, which we like, and Restoration Man, which we like even better. (The first seasons of the latter have this cool Monty Pythonesque animation, that is, sadly, absent in later seasons.)


Gotta love that animation

North America lacks any really old buildings, but the UK apparently has scads of ‘em, some of which date back to before the time of Shakespeare. Now, some UK folks with more enthusiasm than sense (or money) fall in love with one of these derelict, falling down hulks and vow to restore them, turning an old ice house, or water tower, or church, or mill into the home of their dreams. We’ve watched multiple episodes of these shows, and this next bit is for you if you’re one of those UK folks bitten by the “I can restore this old ruin” bug:

This next bit:
Run away! This will make you crazy! It will cost more than you ever dreamed, take far longer than you thought, and the UK planning commission folks will be arbitrary- they’ll impose rules that make absolutely no sense! Build a new house or buy an existing one – it’ll cost less! Take a cold shower! Sober up! Run away!

OK, if you’re not one of the UK folks bitten by the restoration bug, I can explain. Watching a few of these shows doesn’t make me an authority, but patterns have emerged. The restorers frequently say the same things:

1. “We have budget of X thousand pounds to complete the project.” (Double it!)

2. “We will be in by Christmas.” (It’s not gonna happen!)

3. “I think the planning commission will accept my proposed design and extension.” (These folks are bonkers! They’ll reject stuff for no apparent reason!)

OK, I’m not against preserving the past – I like the fact that there’re folks willing to take on these arduous projects. However, if preservation comes at the cost of peoples’ mental and economic health, then some of these old structures can sink back into the bogs from whence they came, in my humble opinion.

Many of these old structures are “listed”, which means that they’re part of a national registry of old buildings. You can’t do anything you want to these buildings – a commission has to give the go-ahead. Some of these commissions seem reasonable, while others seem downright despotic. An episode we watched recently (shot in 2008, I think) showed a couple with four daughters who restored a building that dated from 1632. The timbers were in good shape, and they’d installed a beautiful new thatched roof. The rub was that the existing structure was inadequate for six people, so they’d designed a two-story extension to be connected to the original building. (This is apparently not uncommon and such additions are often approved if something, say, a glass-enclosed corridor, separates the old from the new.) For no discernible reason, the planning commission dictated that the extension’s size be reduced by 40% and that it not be as tall as the existing structure. If this were, say, Tokyo, where every square foot of space is precious, this might make sense. However, this was a rural part of England, with no other buildings in the vicinity. Go figure.

This couple were lucky in that the original timbers were still in good shape. Many of these folks find to their horror that deathwatch beetles3 have eaten the wood, or the house is plagued with ‘rising damp’ (whatever that is) or some other unforeseen calamity.

Having said all this, the restorers are often amazing. Experienced builders may find themselves in over their heads, while novices determined to make a go of it often learn quickly and do the work themselves.

For me, the appeal of these shows is in seeing several years of hard ‘graft’ (in the UK it apparently means ‘work’, but in the US anyway, it means ‘corruption’) distilled down to about 40 minutes of screen time in which we follow a couple (usually) from the rapture of finding their dream ruin, though trials and setbacks (on the job site, in the pocket book, the relationship, and/or in the bureaucracy) to the payoff where we get to behold the completed structure. Or not – in several episodes (a Restoration Man with a hapless chap trying to restore an ancient tower comes to mind), the work never even gets off the ground.

As usual, I don’t know where I’m going with this, except perhaps to say that I find the concept of a “dream home” a bit dubious. Having a nice view, or energy efficiency, or clean tasteful lines all make a house a more pleasant place to live. However, in the end, it all comes down to the people in it.

1. Only slightly less well known than that is “Never restore a listed building in the UK when your sanity and finances are on the line.”

2. A lot of these episodes are on You Tube, but we’re watchin’ You Tube on our idiot box. Is this You Tube stuff bootlegged? I have no idea.

3. Xestobium rufovillosum, if you wish to be pedantic.

Smarter Than the Rat

1 May

“The more weapons you posses,
the greater the chaos in your country.”
-Lao Tzu

I haven’t posted anything in a while, an’ it’s ’cause I wanted to write something about guns.  However, this policy stuff is not in my normal books-and-movies stomping ground, hence I dawdled.

I gather that most people don’t care about the issue one way or the other. I base that on the fact that the NRA holds so much sway – most Americans disagree with the NRA’s extremist views, yet the NRA continues to get its way.

I once knew a veteran who related a dream about being back in Viet Nam. To his surprise, a rat was in charge of everything. “Why is the rat in charge?”, he asked his buddies. “After all, we’re smarter than the rat.” I don’t remember the rest of the story, but in a similar vein, I have often wondered the same thing about the NRA.

If there was a contest for being the most contemptible organization in America, the NRA would win (despite stiff competition from multi-level marketing companies.) Their rhetoric about freedom, the Second Amendment, law-abiding citizens, and the like is just a smokescreen; the NRA is nothing more than a flack for the weapons industry. The “Brand Partners” listed on the NRA’s Web Site include Ruger, Hornaday, Smith and Wesson, Mossberg, and Sig Sauer, and that’s only some of them. The organization claims it’s “America’s longest-standing civil rights organization.” Why the plural form?


Distinguished NRA Board Member Ted

As I write, more than a month has passed since the March for Our Lives. I know that the young people from Marjorie Stoneman High School have rattled folks at the NRA by the amount of invective being hurled at them. These students have obviously struck a nerve. News stories have quoted NRA board member Ted Nugent as saying “These poor children, I’m afraid to say this and it hurts me to say this, but the evidence is irrefutable, they have no soul.” Wow, Ted. Irrefutable. I never knew that you were the arbiter of such things. I don’t think that Nugent has any integrity, though; he famously declared “If Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I Will Either Be Dead or in Jail by this time next year.” Obama was re-elected, but Ted still hasn’t delivered on his promise.

For me, it comes down to pointing out the obvious:

1. The Second Amendment does not describe a right to own any weapon you want and carry it wherever you want.  Even the Supreme Court’s Heller decision (much lauded by the NRA) states:

“Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment, Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

The Heller decision went against over 100 years of jurisprudence on firearms, but even Heller is not a blank check.

2. You don’t need a military-style semi-automatic weapon to protect yourself.  You might want such a weapon, you might even own such a weapon. But you don’t need it.

3. The absurdity of “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This is just plain (I don’t like to work blue, but I’m afraid I must here) cow poop. The NRA came up with this one after the Sandy Hook massacre. Note how it plays into the weapons industry’s agenda – if you bought more of our guns, you’d have more weapons than the sociopath who bought our guns.

4. The absurdity of “Criminals will always be able to get guns so gun laws are useless.” Embezzlers still embezzle despite laws against embezzlement. Ponzi schemers still run Ponzi schemes despite laws against them. This argument peddles the false idea that unless a law is 100% effective, it’s bad policy.

Now, I don’t know who this is going to play out in the future, but I’m rootin’ for the students.

A bewildering mash-up of US tax legislation and a really good short story by D.H. Lawrence

8 Feb

I didn’t want to bring this up, but there’s  no gettin’ ‘round the subject of the tax legislation that passed late last year. This topic deserves mention simply because those who passed it again repeated the same hackneyed pap they always repeat after passing legislation that mostly benefits the wealthy (that is, tax cuts that benefit the rich are just what us average folks across America need most.)


A press release from Representative Tim Walberg (R-Michigan) states: “With this bill, the typical family of four earning the median family income of $73,000 will receive a tax cut of $2,059.”1 This conveniently leaves out the fact that according to a non-partisan analysis, the average 2018 tax cut for people in the top 1% will be $37,000.2 (And if anyone takes issue with the line they’re being sold, members of Congress can always suppress the dissenting view.) 3 This “trickle down” theory was all the rage during the Reagan era, and Congress and the current White house have revived it again (not that they necessarily believe it themselves.)

However, I’m already off in the weeds.  All this policy wonk stuff doesn’t ultimately interest me.  Books and movies do, and as I read of the latest attempt to sell the American people on this shopworn idea, I kept thinking about D.H. Lawrence’s, The Rocking Horse Winner.

In this short story, an unhappy wife, an unlucky husband, two daughters, and a son, Paul are haunted by voices:

Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll’s house, a voice would start whispering: “There must be more money! There must be more money!” And the children would stop playing, to listen for a moment. They would look into each other’s eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. “There must be more money! There must be more money!”

Paul’s frenzied rides on his rocking horse allow him to predict the winners of horse races. His winnings are considerable; through his uncle and the family lawyer he arranges for a thousand pounds to be paid to his mother on her birthday for five years. The mother renegotiates the deal to receive the entire five thousand in one lump sum. Once again, D.H. Lawrence:

And yet the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy: “There must be more money! Oh-h-h; there must be more money. Oh, now, now-w! Now-w-w – there must be more money! – more than ever! More than ever!”

The story is a good one, so I encourage you to read the whole text (and its subtext, for that matter.)  It’s often in anthologies or you can read it online 4.

In my humble opinion, real life will mirror fiction in the current round of tax cuts. The cuts will kick in, and instead of Shangri-La, the end result will be that those who benefit most will in a relatively short time go back to complaining how much they’re taxed. Big business will still grouse that US corporate tax rates are too high. Businesses will reward their stockholders, their workers not so much, the deficit will rise, and that will be that.

I’m not anti-tax; I actually like having good roads. The thing that rankles me is that not only did the Republicans (not trying to be partisan here – let’s face it, the GOP owns this one) pass the bill, they tried to sell the American people an obvious fiction.  I would have had more respect for ‘em if they’d have said “Hey America, guess what? The beneficiaries of this legislation will mostly be Big Business and the top 1%!  Your kids will end up paying for the resulting increase in the deficit! We did it!  Hooray for us!” Had they done this, I would have respected ‘em more.  Not much more – maybe 0.000125 % more. But more, nonetheless.


Outlander and The Three Amigos

9 Dec

Conchita: Carmen, tonight you are to be El Guapo’s woman. I am going to give you some hints about lovemaking with El Guapo.
Carmen: I would rather die first!
Conchita: Tell me, Carmen, do you know what foreplay is?
Carmen: No.
Conchita: Good! Neither does El Guapo.
“The Three Amigos”

We’re not gonna rehash what’s happened in the third season of Outlander ’cause the season finale is coming up and it’d take too long. (We won’t mention Clare’s ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ hair-do during the 60s or the touch of grey in her hair that seems to come and go once she hightails it back to the 18th century. Jamie’s aged too – we know this ’cause he actually has to wear spectacles sometimes.) We will however, discuss an aspect of the show that we’ve noticed every season that no one, as far as we know anyway, seems to be talking about.

We’re referring to the show’s sex scenes. OK, we admit -everyone’s talking about ‘em. We just did a Web search and there’s a whole lot of material out there. So, if everyone’s talking about ‘em how can it be that no one’s talking about ‘em? Well, there’s an aspect of these scenes that goes unmentioned, we think. We’re having trouble coming to the point because we’re Irish Catholic and we’re probably going to Hell or something just for broaching the subject.

We’re not talking about the rapy sex scenes with Black Jack Randall – those are just plain disturbing, in our humble opinion. We’re talking about the supposedly ‘hot’ and ‘romantic’ scenes between Clare and Jamie. OK, we’ll just blurt it out: Jamie is a minute man.


Neither does El Guapo

Remember when Clare married Jamie? On their wedding night, Jamie didn’t seem to have much, well, stamina. Clare comes into the 18th century via the 1940s. At that time, the sexual revolution was yet to be, but the show establishes pretty early on that Clare is not from the close-your-eyes-and-think-of-England school of thought. After returning to the 1940s, Clare waits ’til 1968 to do the time warp again and rejoin Jamie. So, coming from 1968 and being a doctor, Clare would likely have heard of Masters and Johnson and their work in human sexuality. Nevertheless, upon returning to the 18th century, Jamie’s minute man approach does not seem to faze her. We couldn’t figure out why she didn’t hit him upside the head and tell him to shape up.

A recent episode shows Clare and Jamie at sea. The ship has been becalmed for weeks – no wind and no rainfall. The crew are ready to throw overboard a man suspected of bringing on this bad luck. To save the man’s life, Jamie’s Chinese friend “Willoughby” buys time by launching into the story of how he left China. Willoughby’s diversion pays off – the sails fill with wind and the rain is not far behind. Then comes the “Hurray! The wind and rain are back! Let’s have sex!” scene. Clare and Jamie steal away below decks and with seemingly no foreplay whatever, begin having sex. This is romantic? Call us crazy, call us irresponsible, but we’ve always thought that a little lead-in was a good thing. We’re not sayin’ that sex scenes have to be long in duration, but there could at least be the suggestion that more than 30 seconds have passed before someone asks “How was it for you?”

Need another example? At the end of a recent episode, Clare has a fever and she’s besotted on Willoughby’s sherry-laced turtle soup. Then there’s the “I’m drunk and feverish! Let’s have sex!” scene. Is there any lead-in to this moment? Nope.

We weren’t going to say anything about it until our eldest adult daughter and her husband came to dinner at our house. She shared that she’d binge-watched Outlander during a bout of the flu. (She’s now into the middle of the second season.) We made some rather elliptical remarks about the curious nature of the romantic scenes, finally blurting out the same thing we blurted near the beginning of this post. (We blurt a lot.) “Oh yeah, Dad”, she said casually. “I noticed the same thing.” She had even pointed it out to her husband during a viewing of one of the episodes.

OK, so there you have it. We didn’t really wanna go there, but we hadda do it ‘cause everyone was talkin’ ‘bout how ‘hot’ the show is. In our view, though, Jamie and El Guapo have a lot in common.

Thor Ragnarok (and agonizing about the future of cinema)

5 Nov

Thor Ragnarok begins with our hero suspended in chains and speaking essentially to us, the audience. It’s not giving anything away to tell you that he soon breaks out and lots of action ensues. I1 saw the film with my wife, our adult daughters, and our son-in-law. They all loved the picture, as did I. TR has everything that we’ve come to know and love in a Marvel movie:

Humor? Check. Thor of the comics is (or at least was – I haven’t kept up) a stick-in-the-mud. Movie Thor is a fun guy. It also has a way of pulling the rug out from under you for comic effect, as when, later in the film – oops! – don’t want to give that away…
Big name stars? Check. Thor’s nemesis in this one is played by … well, you may already know, but I don’t want to give it away. Not only that, but there’s a really fun supporting character played by … oops, never mind…
Action? Check. TR is Action City.
Guest appearances by other Marvel heroes? Check. It’s almost a given.
Great special effects? Check.
A teaser after the end credits? Check.


Yeah, life’s like that sometimes.

Superhero movies tend to be lavish affairs, with filmmakers going overboard to lay on fantastic visions of other worlds, alien creatures, and futuristic technology. TR delivers in spades on this score. Any Marvel fan will come away smiling.

Here though, is where I become curmudgeonly.  I have issues with the film – well, not with TR specifically, but with franchise films in general ( 007, Alien, DC, Die Hard, Dirty Harry, Marvel, Star Wars, Underworld, you name it.)

1. Franchise films soon become formulaic (or tend to, anyway.) We know that 007’s imminent demise won’t happen. The bad guy will leave the scene certain that Bond can’t possibly escape. Bond does, of course, and the first few times, this is great. After that, it’s fodder for an Austin Powers parody.

2. Franchise films have a need to top themselves. If a lot of stuff blew up in the previous installment, more has to blow up in the next. If a car and a tanker truck collide in the first picture, the next will feature a collision between a car, a tanker truck, a motorcycle, a train, a helicopter, and an airliner.

3. The first two points lead to the third – since they become formulaic and have a need to top themselves, they essentially become vehicles for telling the same story over and over, with minor variations.

OK, maybe I’m being too crabby. That’s part of the fun, right? We know going in what to expect, but we can’t wait to see how the filmmakers will tweak the formula, adding new parameters and permutations to well-established patterns (even if it’s Jar Jar Binks.) Doesn’t classical music follow this model? Haydn would have taken this as a given (no, not the Jar Jar part – the thing about variations on well-established norms.)
Too, production values in franchise films are generally high – these pics have big budgets and it shows on the screen. What’s not to like about a well-conceived, well-photographed cinematic roller coaster ride?

I’m left though, with a certain disquiet. I worry that big-budget franchise films will and perhaps already have, resulted in a dumbing-down of cinema in general. The buzz for such movies generally includes a breathless report of the millions it cost to make it and the box office receipts after its opening weekend. That is not, in my humble opinion. and perhaps yours too, any way to judge the worth of a thing.

OK, here again, I’m off in the weeds – I really don’t know where I’m going with this. Thor Ragnarok is not Pride and Prejudice and it doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is – a fun (if often violent) fantasy. Tell you what – see the picture, and I’ll sit here and moan and groan about the dumbing-down of cinema and the future of motion pictures as an art form. Deal?

1 We’re eschewing the editorial ‘we’ that we normally use for this one.

Bloodline: A Show That’ll Make You Hate Yourself in the Morning

9 Sep

We try not to watch the idiot box too much, but almost against our will we binge-watched Bloodline on Netflix. It’s the story of the Rayburn family, who run a prosperous inn on one of the Florida keys.  It’s the kind of show that makes you hate yourself in the morning – a high-powered drama with a lot of secrets, crime, violence, drug use, cussin’, and enough booze to float an ocean liner.


Crazy good actor Ben Mendelsohn as Danny

The story begins as eldest son Danny (crazy good Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn) comes home after being away for years. Danny’s arrival arouses mixed feelings in the clan, as he’s the family scapegoat.  Danny is a deeply wounded character with whom we sympathize despite his serious character flaws. (Just about every character in the show is deeply wounded and  has serious character flaws, and with a few exceptions, we sympathize with them, too.) Sissy Spacek plays Sally, the matriarch, and the late Sam Shepard is the crotchety patriarch Robert.  In addition to Danny, the Rayburn siblings consist of Kyle Chandler as Jon, a straight-laced police detective, Norbert Leo Butz as Kevin, a hot-headed, impulsive boat mechanic with really lousy judgment, and Linda Cardellini as Meg, a lawyer. The principals bring lots of acting chops to the piece, as do the supporting actors (Jamie Mc Shane, Chloë Sevigny, John Leguizamo, and Beau Bridges, to name just a few); there’s not a bad player in the bunch.  (The show has some bad actors in that they’re criminals, but even the bad actors are good actors.  By acting bad, they show how good they are and  –aw, never mind,  you get our meaning.)  The series also has some pretty talented directors, including Michael Apted, who directed an episode in the third season.


Talk about your crazy, mixed-up family …

We don’t want to reveal any major plot points, but suffice it to say that Danny is in hock to some nasty folks (whom we never see but apparently, they’re out there.)  Strapped for cash, he soon takes up with old friend Eric O’Bannon (Mc Shane). They starting stealing gasoline, then move on to more lucrative pursuits.  As the story develops, Danny begins using the inn as a conduit for nefarious activity.

We like the acting, we like the directing, so what could be bad about Bloodline?  It’s the writing. OK, the writing is not really bad – sometimes it’s even excellent. Nevertheless, we sometimes got the impression that the characters were doing what the writers wanted them to do, not what they wanted to do.  Sissy Spacek’s Sally is a case in point.  At times she’s written as a loving mother who views her family through rose colored glasses.  At other times, she‘s written as a cynical, tough-as-nails woman who’ll do anything to keep from being dragged down.  Another is Marco (Enrique Murciano)  Jon’s detective partner, who pursues an investigation that may implicate Jon with a zeal that seems out of step with his character.  There are reasons he’s turned sour on the Rayburns, but to us that still did not adequately explain his Javert-like behavior.  And in the third season, John Leguizamo’s character Ozzy has an epiphany that seems to come from out of the blue.

The writers use also use dream sequences to lie to the audience; scenes beginning with shocking plot twists turn out to be dreams.  Even this is OK if used sparingly, but this trick it used enough to be annoying.  In one such sequence, Danny has a woman friend who is his alter ego or a grown-up sibling who died in childhood or something, it’s just not clear.  The series’ penultimate episode is pretty much one long dream sequence.  It’s an intriguing piece of filmmaking, but it does nothing to move the story toward closure.  Our other gripe is that one episode contains a baptism scene that’s lifted from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. (Spoiler: Coppola did it better.)

The first season packs the most punch, as it’s the one where Danny most takes center stage. Ben Mendelsohn seems to channel Shakespeare’s Richard III, and he infuses Danny with edgy charisma.  The second and third seasons have their moments though, as when Ozzy walks into a store after a fight that has left him bloody and bruised  and casually asks the shocked clerk if the frozen soft drink he’s about to buy will turn his tongue blue.

Bloodline is a crime show with elements of soap opera and a dash of Greek tragedy.  During the course of the series, a prominent family is brought low by their own deceptions.  After watching the last episode, we switched to networks news and caught a story about Donald Trump, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner …