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.

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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.

mad_men_opening

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!”.

filmworker-vitail

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.)

animation

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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deathwatch_beetle

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?

nugent

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.)

money_programme

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.

  1. https://walberg.house.gov/issues/taxes-spending
  2. http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-tax-plan-analysis-tpc-gop-bill-text-2017-11?op=1
  3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2012/11/02/non-partisan-congressional-tax-report-debunks-core-conservative-economic-theory-gop-suppresses-study/#12928b2922e6
  4. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1s3hvkcwikiUJdgRxDTb3wS79DHhUpr3gkjwlu2BNr1o/edit?pli=1

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.

El-guapo

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.

Thor-Ragnarok

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.

Ben_Mendelsohn_as_Danny

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.

bloodline_family

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 …

 

A Small, Beautiful Wall That Mexico’s Not Going To Pay For

4 Sep

We1 haven’t posted anything in for, like, ever. The reason for the hiatus is that we got involved in a household project. It’s axiomatic that any household project you tackle will take longer and cost more than you thought, and this one is no exception.

It started when we noticed that our crawlspace had no vapor barrier, which they’re apparently supposed to have. No one wants to think about crawlspaces and many people probably don’t even know what they are. (We sure didn’t.) They’re places in the basement for plumbing, wiring, ductwork and so forth.) If a house has one, it’s usually dark, dank, cramped, and perhaps a home for spiders, mice, and mold. In short, not a fun place – the stuff of horror flicks. A patio hot tub is much more fun to think about.

Anyhoo, “crawlspace encapsulation” is a term that’s all the rage right now, and it apparently means making it so the space is less dark and dank (it’ll still be cramped) and less likely to be a home for spiders, mice and mold. We got the usual estimates. One contractor noted that whoever built the house had made the area under the porch part of the crawlspace instead of walling it off like he should have done. He said, “It’ll be cheaper if you wall it off yourself using concrete block or plywood.” He’d said the magic word: CHEAPER!

Under the porch of a house

Before

Never mind that we can scarcely hammer a nail without bending it, we were going to build a wall, and by gum, were going to do it ourselves! We’d be like Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, hauling a ship over a mountain in the Amazon jungle (only instead of the Amazon jungle, we’d be in a dark, dank, cramped space in the basement and there was no ship – other than that, same difference.)

We soon learned that thinking about something is often a lot cooler that actually doing it. It one’s mind’s eye, everything is pristine, nails don’t bend, everything is plumb, and things go according to plan.

The crawlspace entrance is 3/4 up the basement wall; “convienent” had apparently not been a word in the builder’s lexicon. The interior has lots of fine gravel, and we had to dig a bunch of it out where the wall was going to be. Where there wasn’t gravel there was hard clay and that had to be dug out as well.

At last we could start actually building. There was a lot of grunting and groaning as we exercised muscles that we hadn’t used in years. At one point, we were convinced that we’d torn a rotator cuff (we hadn’t – we’re just hypochondriacs.) We cursed as we drilled holes in the concrete block that seemed to take forever. We measured twice and cut once and still screwed up the length of the cut. We used that expanding foam stuff to fill in cracks, made by those wonderful folks that brought you napalm.  (If you get it on your hands, the only way to get it off is for it to wear off, so don’t ignore the instructions like we did – wear rubber gloves!)

At last, we finished the wall. To us, it’s an engineering marvel comparable to the Great Wall of China. The crawlspace encapsulation guys are coming next week. We can’t wait to see the look of awe on their faces as they gaze upon the wonder that is Our Wall.

finished wall

After

  1. The author insists on referring to himself in the third person – a pretentious affectation to be sure.

Hey, Let’s Do the Limbo Rock …

17 Jun

We 1 and our spouse listened to some DVD lectures on utopian and dystopian literature, and all the usual suspects were there: Thomas More’s Utopia,  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,  Zamiatin’s We, and of course, George Orwell’s 1984. We asked Maryam (our spouse) if Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo was among the dystopian works. It was not. “How can this professor not include Limbo?”, we demanded.  Used to our irrational outbursts, Maryam merely smiled and said that she didn’t know how such an egregious mistake happened. Sheepish, we then realized we hadn’t actually read Wolfe’s book and hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was about. We set out to rectify that problem.

We first heard about Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo in college when we were editing lectures on utopian and dystopian works for broadcast on the campus radio station.  Using a razor blade, an editing block, and splicing tape (this was audio tape, in the days before digital), we soon became adept at removing long pauses, sneezes, ums, ahs, irrelevant announcements, and anything else that might interrupt the flow of an otherwise scholarly lecture. We remembered that one lecturer had said “Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo is a good book. It’s a good novel, it’s a good dystopian statement.” But was he right? Flash forward several decades – it was time to find out.

An inter-library loan later, we tore into the book, which soon started to bum us out. That’s not a criticism; Limbo is a dystopia after all, and any dystopia worth its salt is going to bum the reader out at some point. After our initial ennui  wore off, we had to admit that Wolfe’s premise is really clever.

Suppose, after a nuclear war, you found to your shock and surprise that a work you’d written 18 years earlier had become the basis of the culture in which you found yourself?  That’s the plight of Dr. Martine, Limbo’s main character.  As the novel unfolds, Martine finds both the Inland Strip (the former US ) and the East Union (formerly Russia) have interpreted his words in ways he hadn’t intended. That is all we can really tell you about the plot (and we worry that we may have already said too much, so forget the last several sentences!)

Limbo

Works in the utopian/dystopian genre are really about the times in which they’re written, not the time in which they’re set. Limbo was published in 1952, but don’t let that throw you – in our humble opinion, it’s still very readable and relevant today. In an afterword, Wolfe describes the book as “a grab bag of ideas that were more or less around at the mid-century mark.” If the book has one weakness, it’s that at times the plot takes a back seat to the ideas in the book. Wolfe takes a heaping spoonful of Freud and adds Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Malraux, Wilhelm Reich, and others into the pot. This material  enriches the book, but at times we found ourselves struggling to keep up with Wolfe’s multifaceted mixture.

So, we have to agree with the anonymous professor whose lecture we edited several decades ago: Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo is a good book. This book should take its rightful place in the canon of dystopian literature.

1. The writer of this blog has a habit of using the first person plural in lieu of the first person singular. This is an annoying affectation that this individual persists in using.