Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Justin Amash and the travail of choices

I discovered that Justin Amash was seriously considering a presidential run as a Libertarian when I read the board this morning. The person who posted the story immediately attacked Amash for potentially threatening Biden's victory by providing conservatives that dislike Trump with another option. The first response to his post was a dismissal akin to "Egotistical politicians all think they're the savior that America needs.", which was also an expression of dismay that someone else other than the two anointed ones might get involved in the race. I found both reactions to be an interesting display of both a failure to see beyond one's own window and an assumption that almost all politicians, by their very existence, are bad people. Both are also implicitly expressions of American monotheism in politics.

First off, it's ridiculous to deny the presence of ego in politics. Most people who run for office have a fair share of it in order to stand up in front of people and say either "I have new ideas" or "I'm the voice for your ideas", if not both. Most politicians are fond of their own opinion. That's why they're politicians. The question of the presence of egotism is a bit murkier and certainly the speculation that all politicians have a messiah complex is just part of that "Politicians are bad people" trope. There are a number of reasons that most people choose to run for office. John Conyers used to talk about civic duty. When he started, there weren't a lot of people willing to stand up and talk about what was happening in that part of Detroit, because it was mostly Black. (I once joked with him, on a live mic, that he'd be better off joining the Greens, since his outlook was closer to ours. He suggested that we should talk later.) Similarly, a lot of minor party or impossible-to-win-in-this-red/blue-district races are run because there's no one speaking for the people in that locale who don't agree with the dominant viewpoint. And some people just think they can do things better than the person already there. Look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example.

In this case, the latter motivation is likely what's moving Amash. The guy already left the GOP because of how insane it's become, despite continuing to spout off regular conservative viewpoints as an independent. How many times have we seen Republicans (Never Trumpers, etc.) talk about how repelled they are by what their party has become and, yet, Amash's run somehow has to be all about Amash? But they're all corrupt! They're all in on it! They're all fatuous egotists! Both sides! All sides! But if you can't believe anyone who wants to run for office might do at least OK in that office, then what's the point of any of this? The old homily that the "best person to run for president is the person who doesn't want the job" is moronic. What's the best example? The current idiot in the White House. He didn't want the job. He just wanted the attention, narcissist that he is. That's why he's spent half his time in office playing golf. Being president is kinda difficult. It's a lot of work. Who wants that? Well, really driven people who think they have good ideas. That old James Lipton questionnaire that he always asked of guests on Inside the Actors Studio had a "What job would you never want to do?" question. The nearly universal answer was "Politics."

There are few more ego-driven people in the world than actors. They have to be. That's part of their craft. And, yet, none of them want to take the role of society's presumed egotists. Why? The simple answer is that none of them want to be "bad people." The more reasonable answer is that all of them realize that it's a difficult job trying to respond to the wants and needs of a variety of people in whatever district, municipality, or nation that they happen to oversee. It's often a thankless job, whereas at least as an actor you get applause and sometimes awards. And it's also a job that brings such an intense level of warped scrutiny from media sources and the public that even those people already under intense scrutiny, as actors, are probably not interested in subjecting themselves to it. You can't please everyone or, often, even anyone when compromise (that thing that existed pre-1994) is the order of the day.

Which brings us to our second response: the idea that Amash is somehow threatening Biden's chances in November and should, therefore, be condemned for it. This is the opposite of the typical perspective; that Democrats are threatened by Greens and those to the left, while Republicans are threatened by Libertarians and those to the right. In this case, the initial poster determined that there are a lot of non-Trump conservatives out there, just like Amash, who would otherwise be voting for Biden. This is a much more difficult question (and assertion) and there's really no way to state anything about the situation as a fact. As we've all seen, repeatedly, in recent elections, there's basically no way to determine who someone will vote for given alternative choices. The popular theory on the Democratic side is that, without Nader's presence in the 2000 election, it's a "fact" that all of those Green voters would have voted for Gore.

This is the point where another popular saying comes up: "Anecdote does not equal evidence." The difference is that this saying is actually accurate. I don't know whom Green voters in Florida or elsewhere would've voted for. I do know that I, as a Green voter in Michigan, wouldn't have voted for him because I've never voted for a major party candidate for president in my life. Without Greens on the ballot, I always voted for socialists who, incidentally, gained more votes in Florida than the difference between Bush and Gore in 2000, if you really want to get picky about it. Can anyone tell me, for certain, that non-Trump Republicans were going to bite the bullet and vote for Biden? Can anyone tell me they won't do that, anyway, even with Amash in the race? Of course not. That's about as predictable as Clinton losing all of the upper Midwest in 2016, right?

So, this is mostly about American political monotheism: Thou shalt worship no other gods before the Democrat and the Republican. This is the argument usually put forth by someone who is content with the current establishment, barring one orange, misogynist outlier. This is why entities like the New York Times won't mention that many current systems are broken or that the president tells lies almost literally every five minutes. They're content with the way things work right now. Life isn't as good as it could be, but they have jobs, they have health insurance, their 401ks and their mutual funds are doing OK; things were generally fine until the orange man-baby arrived. So, they don't want people to question the way the system operates (good luck with that during a pandemic!) They just want to focus on getting rid of the "other guys." This is what minor party people like myself used to laugh about when it seemed like the biggest difference between a Dem or GOP Congress was who had the larger offices in the Capitol.

Along comes former Republican, Justin Amash, and... he might spoil(!) everything! Once again, he's giving people CHOICE on the ballot! You know what happens when people have choices! The wrong people might win! But still the system will remain unchanged and the 'right' people will win it back later. This is the "boogeyman" argument that both major parties have used for the last thirty years. A lot of Democrats feel justified in currently saying something along the lines of "See?! We were right!" Well, yeah, albeit once in 30 years is similar to suggesting that the two non-Trumpers you've spoken to have said they're voting for Biden and that makes all the difference. Hey, the one time you were right has given us an election where only the hardcorest of the hardcore actually want to vote for president! Great. But it's not that simple, because it never is.

And now we're in a situation where all the systems are breaking down and their flaws are being seen not just by the people who have struggled under them for decades (if not centuries), but by everyone. Amash is essentially saying: "Hey. This isn't working. I'd like to do something different." And the response is: "All politicians are egotistical assholes and YOU'RE not the right kind of asshole!" In other words: "Not this time. This isn't the right time for change. Wait until next time." I would ask: "If not in the midst of a pandemic that's going to have lasting effects on life around the world, is there a time that is a good time?" Because time is what a lot of people will be lacking, quite soon. Without jobs, a lot of people are going to find themselves without food and shelter. Is your only answer to them going to be "Hey. Things will be fine if we all line up behind so-uninspiring-he's-soporific Joe Biden, so that things will go back to normal." 'Normal' is the problem; politically, economically, socially. Doing 'normal' with Democrats and Republicans is what has gotten us to this state of affairs; with people dependent on jobs for insufficient insurance, living paycheck-to-paycheck on those jobs, and not knowing what they'd do in any kind of calamity... just like this one.

Just as a side note: No, I'm not making a direct comparison between Dems and the GOP. Even if I were inclined to believe in the "all politicians are horrible" trope, as with all things in life, there are gradations of horrible. Some are clearly worse than others. In my direct encounters with most politicians, they're usually just regular people: dumb, self-interested herd animals. That's kind of demoralizing when it comes to the federal government, as you'd like to think that people who made it that far aren't fucking idiots but, as we've seen, that's very, very far from the case.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Walking old ground

Strangely, we've spent more time in front of the TV these days. Crazy, I know. With that in mind, one or both of us have sat down to watch things that came highly recommended within the past few years that we haven't gotten to. And, no, one of those things was not Tiger King. I realize it may be all the rage right now, but I sat through 40 minutes of the first episode to see what the fuss was about and turned it off. It was like an episode of Inside Edition, except longer and dumber (For those of you not old enough to remember Inside Edition, it was where Bill O'Reilly got his start in leading a "news" program, if that gives you any insight.) If I want to watch contemptible people trying to justify their awful or ridiculous behavior, I can watch our idiot president every day. I don't need to see animal cruelty on top of pettiness.

But one of the things we have watched that was worthwhile is Fargo. As a devoted Coen Brothers adherent, I am, of course, a fan of one of their greatest films. There were a couple people on the board constantly recommending the series as one of the best things on TV for a year or two, but we'd just never gotten around to recording it. (Does anyone actually watch TV with commercials, unrecorded, now that sports aren't happening?) Having watched the first season, I'd have to say that they were probably right. It certainly doesn't hurt that season 1 is basically just the film extrapolated to a larger picture. Lester Nygaard's (Martin Freeman) scheme is more impromptu than Jerry Lundegaard's and Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) isn't pregnant or the chief of police, but the essence of the story remains the same, without a wood chipper, but with far more death and destruction. One of the keys to telling a good story in modern, serialized television is keeping a certain pace. That demands solid writing, directing, and especially editing. I think season 1 achieved that by constantly turning the bizarreness screw, but not turning it so fast that it became farce. Instead, we were regularly re-interested in what was happening with Lester, Molly, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), and their cast of supporting characters. No individual storyline rose above another, to where we were occasionally waiting for one scene to end to get back to another, more entrancing character.

There can be no argument that those production qualities were helped along by a stellar cast. Both Freeman and Thornton played characters that were similar to what they've done before, but neither with quite as much edge, in my experience. Thornton does "implacable" quite well, but usually not with as much malice. Similarly, Freeman does "bumbling" really well, but never to the point where he's finally lashed out and shown just how dangerous he can be. But the pinnacle to me was Tolman. She was delightful every time she came on screen and she played her role so subtly that it lent weight to the "reality" of the situation. We've all been in situations where we thought our boss and everyone around them were idiots, but no one (normally) explodes with indignation. Neither did Molly, as she simply swallowed the outrage of being the only competent person in the room and kept trying to do her duty (and a bit more.) I thought sheriff Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) really highlighted this by being clueless not because he was stupid, but because he was just looking at things from a small-town person perspective and was genuinely shocked at the level of perfidy that was happening in that small town, enacted by people that he'd known for most of his life. Again, that's a genuinely normal reaction in abnormal circumstances and I think that kind of thing made it more digestible to the audience. It was also kind of funny to see Keith Carradine again playing the retired lawman role, similar to what he'd played in Dexter, many years ago.

That, of course, leads right into season 2, which is about the younger Lou Solverson, among others. We're three episodes in and... we've kinda stopped. There are good story elements there and there is, at the very least, an interesting cast (Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons of Breaking Bad fame, Ted Danson.) But, despite keeping that "edge of bizarre but still reality" motif, season 2 seems to lack the charm of the first season and the film, which was an essential element of what made both of them compelling. We'll probably get back to it, at some point, but right now it feels very much like a sophomore slump.

Speaking of sophomore slumps, let's talk about True Detective. We picked up HBO for free for a few days, so I thought I'd look in on the third season. As many of you may remember, I think the first season is one of the best things HBO has ever done, which is a very high bar, while the second season was a faceplant of genuinely epic proportions. Somehow, HBO continued to let Nic Pizzolatto be the showrunner and he did them the service of basically ripping himself off. In short, season 3 is a retread of season 1. It's largely the same premise: missing children, weird dolls, backwoods mysticism, local people covering for their own, etc. The genuinely new elements are twofold: 1. Issues of race in the South (Really?!) are confronted head on. 2. The format of following the investigation through three different time periods (1980, 1990, 2015) is an interesting one that keeps the story moving. Otherwise, more people might have figured out that this was just season 1 set in Arkansas.

The story is entirely based upon the relationship between Wayne "Purple" Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo) which, again, is just like season 1. The latter was also centered around the relationship between Marty and Rust. That was the important part; not dead children or perv hoarders living in old fortifications out in the bayou. Same thing here. The dynamics of Wayne and Amelia completely supersede the "buddy cop" situation of Hays and Roland West (Stephen Dorff); thankfully, since the latter isn't much of a "buddy" situation and there isn't anywhere near the magnetism between Ali and Dorff as there was between Harrelson and McConaughey. Considering their importance, it's gratifying to see both Ali and Ejogo completely carry the season; especially Ali, whose emotional reactions and expressions utterly sell scene after scene. I'm a Mahershala Ali fan in the first place (his performance in Moonlight is a must-see), but he was really excellent here. It was also encouraging to see female characters who actively propelled the story forward, like Amelia, rather than being scenery.

All of that said, unlike season 1, having seen it once, I have no compulsion to go back and see season 3 again; largely because we were retreading old ground from the beginning. The LA experiment crashed and burned in season 2, so Pizzolatto headed back to his home territory and... basically told the same story. I mean, I guess that's fine, if that's your schtick. Aaron Sorkin has gotten away with it for most of his career. But there were some really questionable approaches in the wrap-up, too. Like season 2's "entire plot contained in one desk drawer", we basically had an Agatha Christie summation in the final episode of this season. This wasn't about leaving unanswered questions or letting the characters (and the audience!) make their own decisions about what happened. No, this was all wrapped up with a nice bow on top. The End. Happily Ever After. Much of the final episode was like reading the Wikipedia summary of the entire series, which basically could've been "Watch season 1, instead." Also, the final image was strange. Hays being a LRP in Vietnam was an aspect of his character but not a really prominent one, so to close the series with him ducking into the bush again seemed markedly out of place after having summarized your whole story as being about the connections of family (both murder/kidnapping case and on a personal level.) Unless Pizzolatto was just going all Jacob's Ladder on us. The most absurdly funny aspect to this season was watching HBO's Inside the Episode shorts after each one, where Pizzolatto spares no effort to pat himself on the back for "how good this scene was" or "how much I like this part of the story." All creative types have to have some degree of ego. Most are usually more adept at containing it. I think I'm going to go rewatch Chernobyl...

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Have mercy

Clemency' Review: No Place for Mercy - The New York Times

While everyone is still under house arrest, we decided to continue our film-indulging ways by watching things that we otherwise would've seen at the Michigan Theater via other outlets (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc.) This week's pick was Clemency, something we'd wanted to see after watching a couple trailers before other films, but its residency at the theater was only for a few days. Too-rich-to-give-his-employees-sick-time Jeff Bezos to the rescue(?) I guess.

I enjoyed Clemency in principle, but not so much in execution. It's not unusual that I'll see a film that I think has value because of its story and the message that story conveys, but might've had more if they didn't lean so hard into that message. This film was one of those. Alfre Woodard does a great job playing a prison warden (Bernadine Williams) who is so consumed by her job that she's allowed herself to simply become the tool that performs it, rather than the woman she used to be.  This is hammered home a couple times when she's overseeing the most stressful part of that job- organizing executions by lethal injection -and she becomes lost in the trauma of what she's witnessing while someone tries to get her attention. Repeated exclamations of "Warden?" don't snap her out of it. But finally using her name "Bernadine!" does. It's clear that her identity is lost inside her job until someone finally uses the now-unfamiliar title (her name) that separates her from her primary role. That role also leads her to nursing whiskey alone at the local watering hole and letting her marriage disintegrate, which her husband, Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) doesn't hesitate to remonstrate about, (Don't mess with The Bunk!), despite earnest attempts to keep it alive.

Sharing the slide with Woodard in this downward spiral is Aldis Hodge, as Anthony Woods, the next victim of the state's retribution. He also has some great moments as he comes to grips with the fact that his earnest pleas are falling on the same deaf machinery in the form of the warden, as in the form of the state process. One is essentially inseparable from the other. But he still makes headway with Williams so that we can see just how conflicted she is about what she's become, even as she retreats into that machine-like identity in order to escape the anguish that said conflict is bringing to her. It's a concise form of self-destruction that is the personal mirror of what the state is inflicting upon these prisoners. One can argue that their own actions led to their demise, but it's an open question as to whether being put to death is justified. Similarly, Bernadine must perform her duty, but is the price of the rest of her life and, possibly, her sanity worth that diligence? Again, in principle, that's a story with a solid foundation, interesting characters, and challenging questions. But...

It's simply too slow. The pace of the film is somewhere between overly-thoughtful and tedious. It's clear that writer/director Chinonye Chukwu wanted those long shots of Bernadine in the bar and Woods in his cell to convey the agony of the personal traumas that they were facing. But there are limits to all things and we reached them about halfway through a film that was slightly less than two hours. There were some great moments, like Woods bashing his head against his cell wall in frustration and Bernadine getting jarred from a nice anniversary celebration when she realizes that Jonathan is trying to coax her out of her duty. Those are solid, emotional, storytelling scenes. But they kind of get lost amidst the veritable sea of existential dread; the camera pulling back from Woodard's forlorn, deadened eyes or Hodge's desperate, anguished ones for what seems like several minutes. You remember that moment in Reds where Louise Bryant has been arguing that her repetitive writing is intentional because she's trying to make a point only to realize that it's actually monotonous? Here ya go.

I could see what Chukwu was trying to do and I kind of wanted her to do that. She wrote and presented an emotional film about an emotional topic. That's fine. The problem is that the camera spent so much time lingering on that emotion that I think it kind of missed the forest for the trees. At the aforementioned halfway point, I found myself repeatedly checking the clock because I was really kind of waiting for it to end. A bit more elaboration; a couple more interesting encounters; a few less plaintive stares into the camera and I think we're good to go. As much as I enjoyed the performances, I think you probably want to pardon yourself from this one.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The state of my political world

I haven't talked about politics in this space for a long time because, frankly, the state of politics in this country bores the shit out of me. My friend, David Palmer, has tried to get me involved in a couple different efforts in the last couple years. One of them was to help Rashida Tlaib in 2018. Another one was a project oriented around voting patterns and trying to use that info to help campaigns that we were interested in (like Rashida's, by and large.) And, y'know, I was willing to help, but I didn't do either effort any justice, mostly because I've become something of a political nihilist in the 15 years since I got out of regular activity.

When I helped build the Green Party in this state and was its chair for five years, I was still an activist. There were still principles that I was willing to work a second full-time job without pay for. There were principles that I was willing to ruin my marriage for (although that likely should have ended a lot sooner than it did, anyway.) I still hold those principles among the guiding truths of my life. But most other people don't give a shit. Quite honestly, most people didn't give a shit then, which is why I walked away from it, having burned out on doing most of the work myself because everyone else had better things to do when they weren't spending a couple hours a week in a local meeting, thinking that the more they talked, the closer the world came to suddenly transforming. When Tricia and I met up with David after a concert one night, he asked her: "So, what's it like living with an actual revolutionary?" We all laughed because it was kind of a joke. I laughed at least in part because I knew that almost everything I'd done was a complete waste of time. Most revolutionaries at least have the integrity to spend a long time in prison or be assassinated or something like that.

Both of Tricia's kids, Keller and Simone, are Bernie supporters. Being from the current generation, they recognize the obvious injustices of American society and understand, as much as they instinctively understand breathing, that things need to change. I don't know how much of my occasional ranting has influenced that outlook, if at all, since they both seem to have developed opinions on their own based on their open-minded view of society. I remember when Simone was in eighth grade and mentioned that a couple of her classmates had already declared themselves to be transgendered. I just shrugged, but I chuckled inwardly, trying to imagine any set of circumstances where I could've been at the age of 13 where anyone would even consider doing that, much less actually following through. There are many things that have changed for the better on a social level in the last 37 years. And, of course, there are many things that really haven't. Such is life.

But I was having a discussion with a guy I know on that Michigan board I've been hanging out on for 23 years. I don't even watch Michigan anymore, but I've known these people for a long time and they're still worth the conversation. He's a Biden supporter because he's a former Republican, appalled at the party's descent into Trumplandia, and he just wants to remove the game show host from the Oval Office. In other words, "anyone but Trump." That's not an unreasonable position and it's been supported with Biden's victories in most of the primaries and with his support from the DNC that Sanders has continually attacked and derided (possibly not the best strategy when trying to win the party's nomination, as a non-party member. Just sayin'.) But it's also emblematic of the status quo, which is essentially "put things back to where they were", pre-Trump.

Those of you who've listened to Mike Duncan's superb Revolutions podcast will have heard him regularly opine on the difference between a political revolution and a social revolution. The former is what founded this country. It was a bunch of wealthy, highly-educated, landholding White guys who objected to being denied any way to govern themselves and to having their money taken just because they weren't part of a few particular families. It wasn't about slavery or poverty or the inability to find a job or any other basic human right. It was mostly about money. I've always said that America was founded as a way to make money and it has never changed. This event was no different. These guys were part of the Haves in 18th century America, even if they didn't have the coat-of-arms to prove it back in the old country.

A social revolution is a very different animal. It's almost always initiated by the Have Nots who have been denied those basic rights, typically because the Haves have kept those things from them. Why? Because denial of basic rights usually makes money. This class division has existed throughout human history and the consequent revolutions have occurred whenever that chasm has gotten so wide that the Have Nots on one side of it see no way that they're ever going to close it without violence. And here we are.

The trigger event, in this case, may be a global pandemic, which has suddenly kickstarted conversation on topics that were formerly taboo. Could you imagine middle schoolers declaring themselves to be TG in 1985? 1995? Of course not. By the same token, could you imagine anyone talking about a universal basic income on the floor of Congress before the last couple weeks? Or seriously discussing national healthcare as a necessity, rather than a political prize? Or, for that matter, even envision the idea of Congress discussing just giving... money... to people.., that actually need it...? I can't. It violates so many tenets of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps America that it's hard to comprehend. It's absolute heresy to the give-more-money-to-the-rich-and-they'll-be-kind-and-generous religion. But those are the realities we're facing, as the trickle-down crowd shouts that grandma should be sacrificed to their ever-failing experiment, and they somehow fail to see that "the economy" also won't recover if a good chunk of the population ends up in mass graves instead of, y'know, buying shit on Amazon. And who is our hero to carry the banner of these new, transformative measures in society?!

Joe Biden.

Joe Biden, long-time senator from Delaware, the most corporate-friendly state in the Union. Joe Biden, scion of credit card companies and the leading supporter of the 2005 bankruptcy act that makes student loans non-dischargeable (You may have heard that that's a small issue to many young Americans and Democrats.) Joe Biden, vociferous proponent of both of George W. Bush's decades-long wars, which cost ungodly amounts of money. In many ways, Biden is the model, establishment Democrat. He's the perfect example of what I usually refer to as the "I got mine!" Democrats; giving lip service to a lot of issues, but only really following through on the ones that keep the status quo for the Almost Haves. You may know them as America's diminishing middle class. They have some money. They do OK. They're never going to be a Bezos or a Bloomberg, but they're content as long as things stay the same. In other words, Biden just wants to bring us all back to pre-Trump, when the poor got poorer but there weren't as many kids in cages at the border. And the president didn't act like a spoiled child. And professionals weren't dismissed from government service for making the president feel bad. But, uh, the poor still got poorer and nothing much else really changed, especially for those young people looking to make their way in the world. "Let's get back to the time when you still didn't have much chance at finding the American Dream!" isn't much of a slogan, but it's all he's got.

And now he's the nominee. The Democrats' constant "boogeyman" approach to elections has finally reached the bottom of its barrel. Now it's not just "You have to vote for us because, if you don't, THAT GUY will win!" It's that and "You're going to help us elect a guy whose only worthwhile attribute is that he's not THAT GUY!" Get fired up, yo. And all I can do is look back at the work I used to do and think, again: What a complete waste of time. Because I'm still looking for jobs that I'll hate in order to afford the drugs that keep me alive to be miserable, since Joe doesn't want national healthcare. Most people will never be free of the mild terror of knowing that, if they lose their job, they've not only lost their health coverage but will soon be out of their home because Joe's in favor of our all-or-nothing system. A lot of people are crashing face-first into those realities right now because of that global pandemic and the inaction of the current idiot in the Oval Office. And do you know what Joe's response is?

He doesn't want to fight the president.

Millions are outraged at the president's delays, where he refused to listen to his own HHS secretary, because a health crisis would make Trump look bad. But Joe doesn't want to point that out. Despite the attempts to put a $500 billion slush fund in the emergency aid bill that was directly requested by the White House when Trump realized that 6 of his 7 biggest properties were shuttered by state lockdowns, Joe doesn't want to fight about that. Millions are appalled that news sources like the New York Times and CNN won't simply call the president on his lies, especially when they're indirectly leading to people dying from coronavirus or directly leading to people poisoning themselves with various forms of quinine. But Joe doesn't want to call the president a liar. That would be unseemly.

So, this is where we are. And I think back to David's comment... "Revolutionary." I wish it was still funny.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Deep burn

I had an odd delay with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. We saw it last week and I haven't gotten around to writing about it until now; not for any particular reason, like disinterest, but because I simply haven't. But I was writing something for ThereWillBe.Games about women in gaming and it occurred to me that I hadn't actually put down any thoughts about this film that's about as "woman-centric" as any major release is going to get.

In most cases, I make an effort to not get any of these reviews hung up on questions of identity, unless that topic is central to the story of the film, as it was in Les Misérables. I don't want to call out Portrait as a film about women because it really isn't that broad in its approach. It's a very simple story about a love affair that just happens to be between two women. Whether the discussion of its quality should be identity-focused seems to veer somewhere between irrelevant (it doesn't matter what kind of people it's about if it's a good story and a good film) and stilted (Are we talking about it being good because it's so unusual (all female cast, vast majority of the crew including writer, director, and producers also women)?) I think the former distracts from the quality of the film and the latter possibly detracts from it. People should be looking at Portrait as a work on its own merits, rather than whom it was created by. But the other thing that occurs to me is that this is a film that would often be derided as a "chick flick" and, notably, I think I, as the only male in our little film-going group, was the one who liked it best.

Now, again, that shouldn't determine or predetermine anything. The fact that I identify as male and the movie was made by women shouldn't affect anything about how I feel about it. It's either a good story and/or a good film or it isn't. But in our typically aggressive, masculine society, the phrase "chick flick" is usually meant to dismiss things that "guys aren't supposed to like" and it struck me as funny that all three women that I watched it with seemed to have reservations and I really didn't, aside from the usual French tendency to make little things have dramatic import when they often don't need to. It makes me wonder if my delay in writing about it was a subconscious instinct not to talk about those "non-male" things like (gasp!) emotion and how I felt it was the basis of a good film whereas everyone else I was with (i.e. three women) felt it was less so. The popular concept is that women generally engage their positive emotions more often than men do and are more comfortable expressing themselves in that fashion. Is that an implicit bias? Am I assuming something on the part of my girlfriend and friends that may be doing them a disservice simply because they didn't think a movie was as good as I did?

The story is set in the 18th century, as a painter (Marianne; Noémie Merlant) is hired to create a portrait of a young woman of Brittany (Héloise; Adèle Haenel) who is being married off to a Milanese noble. Héloise isn't interested in this whole transaction and, over the course of Marianne's attempts to complete her contract, the two have a brief and intense affair. The story doesn't need to be more complicated than that and director Céline Sciamma does a good job of keeping the focus on the intensity between Merlant and Haenel, as they explore life outside of 'adult' supervision (Héloise's pragmatic and traditional mother, The Countess; Valeria Golino), around the studiously indifferent glances of the housemaid, Sophie (Luâna Bajrami), and from altered perspectives (recreational opium.) The most important aspect to any tragic romance is that the audience go away not feeling like it was a completely downbeat tale, but appreciating it for the time that was spent enjoying it, whether in sympathy with the main characters or simply because it was a good story. One can hearken back to the basis of modern Western literature and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as a case example of this. Again, I think Sciamma does a good job of keeping the audience aware that the story is simple, but allowing the emotion to play out in any number of ways; from the obvious to the mildly surreal. One moment that was especially poignant was when Sophie had traveled to a local wise woman for an abortion and had to lie in a bed waiting for it to take effect while the woman's adorable infant crawled over her.

Those are the small moments that I thought brought depth and feeling and a realistic veneer to an occasionally phantasmagoric story (Marianne seeing ghostly images of her lover in a wedding dress throughout the house.) They were moments that resonated with me because of the ability to tie them to moments in my own life, even if they were based on scenarios that I have never encountered and, very likely won't, such as Sophie's abortion. That speaks to me of the essential humanity of the picture and the players, which I think was the central premise of the film: Even these people not like you are still like you and they inhabit a scenario that you'll know, even if it initially feels like a far off painting of a woman in flames.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Right Out

We saw the trailer for Knives Out a few months ago and my kneejerk reaction was: "It looks like Clue: The Movie, but with better actors." And it is quite the (middling to real) star-studded cast, with Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Don Johnson, and Lakeith Stanfield. There was enough intrigue there (Don Johnson, back on camera? Jamie Lee Curtis, likewise? Daniel Craig, seemingly attempting a Southern accent?) to at least make me curious. But then, seriously, it looked like the plot of a Clue-type boardgame. I suffered through enough Agatha Christie adaptations as a kid and have never been a fan of police procedurals, be they Angela Lansbury vehicles (Murder, She Wrote makes a cameo on a TV screen) or modern, CSI-type stuff. So, I waved a hand at it, thinking I wouldn't bother.

And, then, the snowball started. Audiences were flocking to it. Critics were singing about it (97% on Rotten Tomatoes!) So, I was thinking, maybe I was being too cynical. Maybe there was something here that writer/director Rian Johnson (now famous/infamous for The Last Jedi) was onto. Maybe Daniel Craig doing a faux Louisiana drawl wouldn't be that bad for two hours? So, when the opportunity came to sit down and watch something on Amazon, we decided that we'd watch one of the nominees for best original screenplay...

So, here's where you automatically say to yourself: "Always trust your first instinct. That's why they call it an 'instinct', defined as 'an inherent inclination towards a particular complex behavior.'" My particular complex behavior? Avoiding awful fucking movies, because that's what this is. It's tedious. It's obvious. It's completely predictable. I was seriously bored halfway through it while waiting for Craig to chew through another one of his monologues, none of which are memorable, half because he wasn't saying anything interesting and half because his accent is so bad as to distract from anything interesting he might've been saying. I seriously considered just doing a La La Land and turning to Tricia and saying: "Yeah, I can't watch this." But we'd paid for it, so I kept going, in the desultory hope that something positive might happen (I think I snorted a couple times, but I'm not sure if it was at an actual funny moment or in derision at their attempts to produce one.)

Best original screenplay! This film! For writing! I can't even... OK. Back up. There are generally two ways that a screenplay gets nominated: Clever writing and good storytelling (sometimes, you get both!) An example of the first is Pulp Fiction. All you have to do is say the phrase "Royale with cheese!" and you'll get most people spewing other lines from that opening dialogue between Vincent and Jules in the car on their way to a hit job. It's a totally natural conversation between two friends/colleagues and they deliver it with aplomb. Most of the lines in the film are delivered that way and that's why most of them are memorable. That's why actors clamored to be in the 'next Tarantino' because they saw that and wanted to be the next cool cat on the screen saying that cool shit.

An example of #2 could also be derived from Pulp Fiction, given its non-linear approach and sharp camera work, but my favorite is always Blade Runner, the director's cut. Blade Runner is a brilliant example of visual storytelling. Most people, indeed, think of dialogue when they think of screenplays, but the writer is also responsible for laying the groundwork for the director to build on and Ridley Scott does an excellent job of telling the story just with what you see on the screen. The idiots at Warner Bros. decided to ruin the theatrical release by adding Harrison Ford's voiceover, but you don't need that because the story is in front of you and everything you need to know about Deckard, Rachel, Roy, and everyone else appears in the words they speak and the faces they show. Those are proper screenplays; proper stories; and, often, great films. But there's an old moviemaking aphorism: You can make a bad film out of a good screenplay, but you can't make a good film out of a bad screenplay.

Knives Out has neither of those two key aspects (dialogue, storytelling.) I can't think of a single memorable line from the entire movie. I can't think of a single moment that said to me: "Yeah. I'm watching something interesting develop here." Most of these characters are intended to be contemptible. The problem is, they have to be interesting, as well, if you're going to continue to enjoy watching them, and they simply aren't. In some ways, it reminded me of another film where the patriarch (also a writer) dies and the family comes together for his funeral: August Osage County. That had an ensemble cast, as well, and the story was similar; in that old, family dynamics reemerged and chaos erupted as people remembered just how much they can't stand each other and why they left Osage County, OK in the first place. Many of those characters, likewise, were contemptible in their own ways. But they were also human and the story was heartfelt. These characters were plastic and two-dimensional, which means that there was no depth in them to be suffused with any of the genuine emotion that came from AOC.

I mean, was this supposed to be a modern Death on the Nile? Was Daniel Craig supposed to be a Hercule Poirot reference, just in case a contemporary audience hadn't seen murder mysteries from the 70s where the entire plot had to be re-told, step by step, at the end? One envisions a young Liam Neeson explaining to an equally young Jim Carrey that it's "not a ripoff. It's an homage!" in The Dead Pool (not that Deadpool...) Was Craig's Benny Blanc(o) (from the Bronx!) an homage or a parody? Were we ever going to get an explanation as to why the local cops were so willing to put up with his antics? Or why the insufferable family considered a PI some kind of voice of authority? Or why the suspicious death of a multi-million selling author wasn't immediately TV newsworthy, but his leaving all of those millions to a young, Hispanic woman somehow was, in this, our Internet age of conspiracies and Twitter hordes? Wait. Am I venturing too far outside the canned, Hallmarkian plot? Sorry. I guess I should have stopped thinking.

Every time I sit down to read a book or watch a film or an episode of a TV series, my main desire is to be told a story. It doesn't even have to be an original story. Just tell me a good one. Give me a reason to say: "Yeah. That story was good because..." This film didn't do that and, what's worse, it didn't provide any other reason (performances, cinematography, visuals) for me to think that I didn't waste two hours of my life because I, once again, didn't trust my first instinct. Every time that happens, I say: "Never again." And, yet...

Monday, February 3, 2020

Miserably good

I've only seen the original Les Miserables once. It was the 1982 version, directed by Robert Hossein, and I've never read the novel. I do, thankfully, know the story pretty well, since it's one of the fictional hallmarks of anyone that's ever been involved in progressive politics: oppressed populace with little outlet, desperate hero steals to keep his family alive, and is then pursued to the point of futility for this "crime." It's a story about economic trauma, personal obsession, and the basic ethics of society: cooperation or competition?

But I was instantly entranced upon seeing the trailer for the latest adaptation by Ladj Ly, both because it was covering a very modern premise (the immigrant slums of Paris and the general indifference shown to them by the government) and because that premise meant the story was likely going to veer pretty far from the one I already knew so well. That expectation turned out to be accurate. Thankfully, my anticipation for the quality of the story was met, as well. The story centers around a special police unit that is used to contain the projects, rather than "serve and protect", as it were. The trio of officers who carry the story spend most of their time following groups of youths who may or may not be doing anything illegal, but in true, Javert style, are determined to catch them, regardless. Competing with the police are various other entities (a community leader/racketeer; the local mosque; the thoughtful owner of a kebab shop) who are also attempting to direct the kids into what they think are constructive directions (whether for their own purposes or the actual benefit of the children.) When a confrontation between the police and their targets becomes violent and that encounter is filmed by another youth with a drone camera, it's akin to dropping the match into the puddle of gasoline.

From an American perspective, it's interesting that the encounter that the police are so determined to cover up is actually a non-lethal one. The weapon that ends up injuring one of the kids isn't really capable of killing and one could almost assume, given the circumstances, that the use of it was accidental. But, even in a situation where much of the French public is somewhere between ignorant and contemptuous of the conditions in this housing, the police are terrified that what they've done could be seen as an overreaction. I'm sorry to say that much of the American public would look at what happened as entirely justified, if not simply easily dismissed. In this instance, as in so many others, the European perspective is the more ethical one, even if the police don't generally share that perspective. But, in turn, one of the best things about the film is that Ly takes the time to show the emotional impact of the events on the three officers of the unit: the abrasive, ego-driven leader (Alexis Manenti); the jaded sidekick who grew up in the projects (Djibril Zonga); and the new guy who can't believe that this is what his job has become (Damien Bonnard.)

For all of its well-developed characters and social leanings, however, the film doesn't shy away from the action, as the final scene is both intense and compelling, dispensing with the spotlight moments that are so prevalent in Hollywood action films, which remove any doubt about the outcome. The results here, both in terms of what happens to the characters and whether any kind of resolution has been reached, are left open to question, which is almost always the ultimate sign of a good story.

There are a number of good, little details, as well; from Buzz (the drone flyer; Al-Hassan Ly) being bullied by the local girls basketball team, showing how normal the fight for hierarchical status is, no matter where kids are; to examples of The Commissioner's (Jeanne Balibar) casual corruption and opportunism; to the name of the kebab shop ("Ali Boumaye", the chant that the Zairean public issued to Muhammad Ali before and during the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974 (It basically means "Ali, murder him.")) All of these details provide a textured image of a story and a community with many facets, which shows the care and attention that Ly took in shaping the story (he was also a co-writer) and delivering the final product. I've never been a tremendous fan of French cinema, but this one stood out as exceptional and is well worth the effort of tracking down.