Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Movie Night: Ann Sheridan in KINGS ROW

A dozen thoughts about Ann Sheridan in KINGS ROW, coming up after the trailer:


  1. Ann Sheridan is awesome.

  2. The first movie I remember seeing her in is ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, which is one of my favorites. She’s the female lead, having to play off Jimmy Cagney’s swaggering gangster. She is tough as nails and gives better than she gets. She is awesome.

  3. Tonight, I saw her in KINGS ROW.

  4. KINGS ROW is remembered — to the extent that it’s remembered — as a star-making turn for Ronald Reagan. And deservedly so! His line upon discovering that his legs have been amputated — “Where’s the rest of me?” — has been quoted quite a bit over the years. But when the moment comes, it’s full of panic and pathos. It’s genuinely moving.

  5. But Ann Sheridan is the rock of this movie.

  6. It’s a weird little movie. What is it exactly? Small-town coming of age story? Family drama? Tragic romance? Gothic horror? All of the above? Well. All of the above. I can’t even really sum up the plot line really all that well. Check out the Wikipedia description, but that doesn’t do it justice really. Maybe it’s TWIN PEAKS set around 1900?

  7. Sheridan’s character is the only one that never really loses her head in the movie. 

  8. Oh, sure, she sheds a few tears. These are the least-believable Ann Sheridan moments.

  9. The most-believable: When she steels herself for whatever needs to be done in the moment. She’s nobody’s sidekick — though she tries to play one. “I’m just a woman” she says, pretending not to steer Reagan’s character to a good decision, even though she’s … steering Reagan’s character to a good decision. The audience is not fooled. She’s in control and we know it.

  10. There are some good non-Ann Sheridan moments in this movie. One is an implied sex scene early on, in which the lights are turned out and we see the two lovers moving toward each other through the dark only when the room is briefly light by flashes of lightning. Splendid.

  11. But Ann Sheridan is the sturdy pillar that makes the movie possible. Without her and her character, Randy, KINGS ROW becomes a bit batshit.

  12. Ann Sheridan is awesome.

Monday, August 10, 2020


 Three thoughts about THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, coming up after the trailer...

* This is Orson Welles' follow-up to CITIZEN KANE, and it shares much with its predecessor: The use of shadows, light, and deep-focus shots on the technical front, as well as an obsession with the decline and fall of wealth -- of a single man, in the case of KANE, of a whole family in AMBERSONS. It is beautiful to look at, and I'll want to revisit it again sometime in the near future.

* Welles' narration of this movie reminded me very much of the narration in Martin Scorcese's THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, and in a way that makes a whole lot of sense: The source novels for both movies appeared two years apart, and they both document the fine details of wealth -- both the physical setting, as well as the social customs -- in an era just before modernity struck.

* The studio famously stuck a kind-of happy ending onto this otherwise dark picture, and hoo boy, it shows. Everything is depressing until the last 30 seconds. Agnes Moorehead's character, who has been in  a state of near-hysteria for much of the film, ends the story with a smile on her face. It's weird. But there's so much to enjoy in the rest of the movie, and it's not like pretty good movies aren't stuck with bad endings all the time, even now. Still worth another view.

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS is currently on Criterion Channel.

Movie Night: 13 thoughts abut Gene Hackman in THE FIRM

13 thoughts about Gene Hackman in THE FIRM (spoilers!) coming up after the trailer.

1. THE FIRM is a pretty decent bit of early 1990s suspense thriller filmmaking — something studios used to do a fair bit of before everything became either a low-budget indie or a massive blockbuster. The cast of this movie is filled with ringers: Gary Busey makes what amounts to a cameo, Holly Hunter is the second female lead, Ed Harris does Ed Harris things and Wilford Brimley is evil. But even among all these stellar actors and movie stars: Gene Hackman stands apart.

2. Gene Hackman plays a character named “Avery Tolar.” This is because John Grisham is terrible at making up character names. See also: F. Denton Voyles, Roy Foltrigg, Clint Von Hooser, Wally Boxx, Gavin Vereek, and Fletcher Coal — names from THE FIRM, THE CLIENT, and THE PELICAN BRIEF, respectively.

3. Tolar has a lot of great lines in THE FIRM. Like this exchange:
Mitch McDeere : What led you to law school?

Avery Tolar : It's so far back I don't think I can remember.

Mitch McDeere : Sure you can, Counsellor.

Avery Tolar : I used to caddy for lawyers and their wives on summer weekends. I looked at those long tan legs and just knew I had to be a lawyer. The wives had long tan legs, too.
He has so many good lines that I told my wife: “Man, they gave Hackman a lot of good lines.” And then I realized the same writers wrote all the characters in the movie. They didn’t necessarily give Hackman good lines. He made them good lines.

4. There is a scene early in the movie where Tolar, having won a small but important victory with a client, does a grinning victory dance on the hotel balcony. Wife and I responded at the same time: “Hackman,” chuckling ruefully.

5. In this movie, Tolar is corrupt. 

6. In this movie, Tolar is skeezy.

7. In this movie, Tolar is sad.

8. In this movie, Tolar has an abandoned underlying decency. This decency is not written all that well, honestly, but it needs an appearance to make the movie work and give it some additional stakes, so here we are.

9. Gene Hackman takes all these varying traits and makes them into a person. And in so doing, we decide to give the writers a pass on the unlikeliness of his decency.

10. That he can do so, with wit and occasional charm, is what makes him an actor and a star.

11. Also: Gene Hackman is a middle-aged man in 1993, and this movie lets him look it: His skin is a bit mottled, and age spots are starting to appear. Today, those imperfections would probably be botoxed and digitally buffed into oblivion. Which is too bad, because they make his character seem more real.

12. It says something that Tom Cruise is the star of this movie, but Hackman, a supporting character, is the one who makes us feel like any of the people we’re watching might have souls.

13. But when he dies, the death — violent — occurs offscreen. The moviemakers didn’t want to bum us out too much.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Movie Night: LUST FOR LIFE

 Three thoughts about LUST FOR LIFE, coming up:

* I love Kirk Douglas. But I went into this movie unsure if he was the right man to play Vincent van Gogh. Douglas is fierce and proud and righteous in movies like SPARTACUS and PATHS OF GLORY, and van Gogh ... isn't those things, and least not in the same way. So give Douglas credit here: He wasn't playing Kirk Douglas with red hair dye. The character is scary and violent at times, heedless of others, self-involved -- and, yes, mentally ill. My favorite scene is when he greets Paul Gaugin, played by Anthony Quinn, and becomes a pure puppy dog -- hunched over (instead of upright) in submission to Gaugin, his face full of joy. The performance isn't subtle, exactly, but it works.

* Vincent's brother Theo is played by John Donald, and the movie makes the unusual decision to have Theo narrate Vincent's letters instead of using Douglas' voice. One thing this does is let us view Vincent through the eyes of somebody who loves him, who is willing to persist with him when others have given up -- and the audience might be ready to do the same.

* Seems appropriate that this movie was directed by Vincent Minnelli, whose own work in Technicolor filmmaking in the 1950s -- AMERICAN IN PARIS, BRIGADOON -- feature a love of color and visuals that please the eye. Minnelli was an artist, and a sympathy for the artist's struggle is deeply felt here.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Is the media making us think we're more racist than we are?

In Tablet, Zach Goldberg documents that major media outlets are using terms "racist" more often. Some initial thoughts about his article.

He writes:
One possible way of explaining these statistics, is that America experienced an explosion of racism over the past decade and white liberals are uniquely reflective of that change. But another possibility, perhaps more likely, is that ascendant progressive notions about race reflected in a steady drumbeat of reporting and editorializing on the subject from leading national media outlets, encouraged white liberals to label a larger number of behaviors and people as racist. In other words, while the world may have stayed more or less the same, elite liberal media and its readership—especially its white liberal readership—underwent a profound change.
Let me offer a third possibility: That there is probably not that much more racism in America than there was 10 years ago, but that racists -- who empowered President Trump and were also empowered by him -- are more vocal and prominent in American life than they were a decade ago: The societal consensus that required racists to be careful and closeted has largely, but not entirely, disappeared. That has led to growing pressure from and within mainstream media outlets to call a thing a thing -- euphemisms like "racially charged" are now widely seen as weak tea, and there's a growing sense that the media doesn't have to be mindreaders to name a racist act a racist act.

Goldberg writes:
In 2011, just 35% of white liberals thought racism in the United States was “a big problem,” according to national polling. By 2015, this figure had ballooned to 61% and further still to 77% in 2017. ... Did white Democrats simply come to know more racists in these years? It’s possible, but if so that would indicate that the media’s increased reporting on racism actually correlated to a marked increase in racists being detected by white Democrats.
In other words, Goldberg's case is that the perception of racism in American life is pretty much a media-driven phenomenon -- manufactured by "woke" elites -- rather than events- or information-driven. But the  rise in the use of the term racism, you'll see in the chart above, starts around 2011. That's when Donald Trump was going around TV promoting birtherism. In 2012, Trayvon Martin was killed. In 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement got started, with events in Ferguson helping spark a wave of protests -- and coverage. In 2015, Tanehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me" came out, giving many readers a sense of what America looks like through African-American eyes. And in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. The period of increased "racism" coverage also coincides pretty much with the rise of viral videos depicting police brutality against black people. A lot of actual racism that was invsible to white liberals became more visible during this time. Alongside that, so did efforts to explain and understand the contours of that issue. "Did white Democrats simply come to know more racists in these years?" Goldberg asks. Unlikely, but it seems possible that white Democrats saw how other whites -- including folks they knew -- responded to events and concluded their circle of acquaintances probably contained more racism then they had previously realized. 

It's also worth noting that Goldberg focuses his examination of the issue through the eyes of white liberals. In 2010, though, most Black Americans -- according to Pew Research -- already thought racism was a "big problem." The figure has only grown in recent years, but a lot of people for whom racism would actually be a big problem already thought it was a problem.

There may be more "wokeness" among media elites. But Goldberg barely entertains the possibility that events have helped create the phenomenon he describes. Instead, he suggests that the real problem is that newspapers started using academic jargon surrounding the issues of race a lot more. "Intentionally or not, by introducing and then constantly repeating a set of key words and concepts, publications like The New York Times have helped normalize among their readership the belief that “color” is the defining attribute of other human beings," he writes. This is similar to the "if we don't test, we won't have cases" logic that President Trump uses with COVID-19. I won't say that elite media efforts to describe the racial landscape of the United States haven't had an effect on that landscape. But the anger over the deaths of people like Breonna Taylor, Phlando Castille, Tamir Rice, George Floyd and all the rest didn't come about because people were reading the New York Times.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

DS9 binge-watching

Nerdery ahead...

Like everybody else, we're binge-watching family favorites -- comfort TV -- during the pandemic. We've started watching an episode of DEEP SPACE NINE most nights with supper. It's not the first time we've watched this show together -- I believe this is the best of all the Star Trek shows -- but we're doing it differently now. Last time, we basically confined ourselves to episodes that directly involved the Dominion and the wars that occupied the last few seasons of the show -- which means we mostly skipped over the standalone episodes that constituted the bulk of the first few seasons.

This time, we're watching them all. What else are we going to do? Go to the movies?

What I've discovered is this: The standalone episodes are pretty good, too. I'm not sure I realized that on my previous viewings of the series. Season Two, in particular the show really establishes itself with a three-episode arc involving the villainy of Frank Langella -- DS9 had a pretty impressive roster of guest stars, actually -- and it's off to the races.

Some highlights so far:

* "Progress," where Kira realizes that she has transitioned from being a rebel to being the one rebelled against, with Brian Keith playing an old coot.

* "Necessary Evil," a murder mystery featuring Odo. 

* "Blood Oath," where Jadzia joins old Klingon friends to take vengeance against an enemy.

*  "Past Tense," where Sisko, Jadzia and Julian get transported to dystopian Earth in 2024.

* Any episode featuring Garak.

* Any episode where O'Brien is made to suffer. (There were a lot of those.)

A couple of thoughts on all this:

First, it's really true how much this show differed from its predecessors. In Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation, you knew the good guys from the bad guys, and everybody tried to do the right thing all the time. In DS9, the lines aren't always so clear, and the endings are often ambivalent. 

Second: Serialization has become a feature of "prestige" TV, even dramas that aren't so prestigious. DS9 was an early adopter of the trend. But there are pleasures in standalone episodes, too.

Anyway, that's where we are. Going forward, I'll be blogging our binge-watch because ... what else am I going to do? Go to the mall?

John Yoo defends the presidency, not the Constitution

John Yoo, the lawyer best known for authorizing war crimes during the Bush Administration, has a piece up at National Review purporting to explain that "Trump has become a stouter defender of our original governing document than his critics."

Let's take a look. He starts with some stuff about how Democrats are the real abusers of the Constitution, before mounting his defense of Trump as (possibly accidental) defender of the realm:

But Trump’s defense of the constitutional order has gone beyond simply blocking bad ideas. His battle for the Constitution took three basic forms. First, and most importantly, he fought off Robert Mueller’s special-counsel investigation and impeachment. Both challenged the president’s authority to govern the executive branch and to fulfill his constitutional duty to enforce the law.

This treats the investigation and impeachment of Trump as though they were merely challenges to his authority, instead of legitimate inquiries into corruption to acquire power and abusing that power to keep it. It's a false distinction. Congress challenges the authority of presidents all the time. It is rare that those challenges rise to the level of special counsel investigations or impeachment. Yoo seems to conceds the legitimacy of the inquiries in the very next paragraph.

Trump didn’t win acquittal based on innocence, however, but because the Constitution gave him a built-in advantage.

That's ... not a great defense of the Constitution, is it?

With 53 Republicans holding the Senate majority, the House had to persuade 20 Republicans to vote to convict. They convinced only one, Senator Mitt Romney (R., Utah). The Founders didn’t impose the two-thirds vote requirement in the Senate to protect Trump. They did it to defend the institution of the presidency. The Framers rejected a parliamentary system in which Congress selects a prime minister who both leads the legislative majority and heads the executive branch. Their great experiment with a separation of powers required a presidency independently chosen by the people and vested with its own unique powers and responsibilities.

This is a great spot to note that Trump wasn't chosen by the people. Won the right states to win the Electoral College, but Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Common use of "the people" would generally suggest that the vote loser is not the person who represents them.

The Framers feared that impeachment and removal by simple majority vote would render the president dependent on Congress, and thus deprive it of the energy, speed, and decisiveness needed for good government. The two-thirds vote requirement ensured that Democrats could not remove Trump due to partisanship, or even policy disputes. The Constitution became Trump’s great shield, and in winning the impeachment battle, Trump repaid the favor by reinforcing the independence of the executive.

Again, this fogs the actual issues. Democrats didn't try to remove Trump because of "policy disputes," but because he used the power of his office to try to solicit foreign interference in the election. The Constitution didn't shield the executive's ability to act with energy in this case -- it shielded corruption. Yoo's argument here depends on conflating legitimate authority with abuse of power.

Second, Trump defended traditional executive primacy in foreign affairs and war. Trump has used his executive control over foreign affairs to achieve what may prove to be his most lasting effect on American policy — shifting America’s strategic focus onto China and away from the Middle East. He has used power given to him by Congress to ratchet up economic sanctions on Beijing, and exercised his constitutional powers to terminate arms-control agreements that restrained the U.S. but not China. 

It's important to note the arms control agreements that Trump terminated were with Russia, not China. The result is that China is still not restrained -- and, now, neither are the U.S. and Russia. But that's not really a question of his Constitutional prerogatives, but of his wisdom. (Maybe it should be: I'm not really sure why the Constitution requires a president to get Senate approval for a treaty, but presidents are seemingly free to withdraw from treaties without any kind of Congressional backing. Treaties are, Constitutionally speaking, the law of the land. Presidents generally don't get to repeal laws willy-nilly.)

Trump used his power as commander-in-chief to contain Tehran, as in the drone killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani...

That was an act of war against Iran. Congress has the power to declare war. Trump didn't even notify Congressional leaders ahead of time. Lauding this use of "his power as commander-in-chief" is to suggest Congress has no real role in warmaking or foreign policy. That's not what the Constitution says.

...while reducing U.S. troop levels in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Congressional opponents sought to block Trump by narrowing his war powers and control over foreign affairs, but so far with little result. While Congress may seek to advance different policies through spending or legislation, the Constitution designed the executive branch specifically so that it could quickly and effectively protect national security and pursue our interests abroad.

Again: The Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war. In reality, it has mostly ceded that responsibility to the president in recent decades, but that reality doesn't make it any less Constitutionally suspect.

Third, Trump appointed a Supreme Court that could return the Constitution to its original understanding on questions ranging from federalism to individual liberties. He nominated Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, conservative judges with eminent qualifications, to the Supreme Court, and has filled more than a quarter of the lower courts with young, bright, conservative intellects. Liberals rightly worry that these appointments augur a sea change in constitutional law that could threaten the vast administrative state, the creeping control of Washington, D.C., over everyday life, and even Roe v. Wade’s protections for abortion. Progressives responded by attacking the Supreme Court. During the Democratic presidential primaries, senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, among others, called for expanding the Supreme Court from nine to 15 justices so that the next Democratic president could pack it with liberals. 

I'm no fan of court-packing. But changing the number of justices wouldn't be against the Constitution: "The Constitution does not stipulate the number of Supreme Court Justices; the number is set instead by Congress. There have been as few as six, but since 1869 there have been nine Justices, including one Chief Justice." It has happened before. It might happen again. 

Democrats have attacked the personal records of judicial nominees and have even threatened to impeach Kavanaugh for sexual-harassment claims that the Senate fully aired during his confirmation. 

All of these attacks leave Trump in the position of defending the Supreme Court and the institution of judicial independence.

This seems pretty clearly to be BS. Trump is no more interested in "judicial independence" than he is in the Bible he held aloft at Lafayette Square. As Noah Feldman notes:
In nearly four years in office, President Donald Trump has challenged the independence of the judicial branch more than any other president. He’s accused judges of being “Obama judges” or “Mexican judges.” When he’s been investigated for corruption or obstruction of justice, he’s routinely portrayed himself as above the law. He’s directed his administration to issue a spate of unlawful executive orders. With the November election looming, it’s a good time to ask: Can the legitimacy of the federal judiciary survive another four years of this president?
Yoo's notion that Trump is a defender of the Constitution requires believing two things: A) Trump is honest. B) That Congress doesn't have Constitutional prerogatives of its own worth defending. As ever, John Yoo is defending the presidency, not the Constition. As ever, he is doing it to dangerous ends.