New post, in which I give up.

I’m looking at the post-ette I started day before yesterday. It was about Garrison Keillor. Remember him? Seventy-two hours ago, maybe 48, he was in the news, which now seems like 25 years ago.

At some point in the last few hours, I gave up, and watched “Fifty Shades Darker.” It was on HBO. It’s the second movie in the Fifty Shades franchise, I believe. I’ve never seen the first one, and won’t see the third one, but God help me I watched the second one. And this is my manifesto:

The rule of threes is important in storytelling: Beginning, middle, end. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Couple meets and does sex stuff, couple breaks up and does more sex stuff, and whatever the third movie is about, I don’t care, because hoo-boy, this second movie. It’s hilarious.

It also follows the contemporary model of girl-centered soft-core porn movies, in that sex is only a fraction of the guy’s appeal. The rest is his money, which is ludicrously abundant. Christian Grey is under 30, has a billion dollars and a million exquisitely decorated houses. Lines like “I have a place there” and “I own that” and “I had it made at my shipyard in Seattle” are repeated so often it’s kind of a joke, and needless to say, all the work we see Mr. Grey doing consists of sitting at the end of a boardroom table, while people make notes on legal pads in leather covers. He also has a closet stocked with designer gowns for his girlfriend Anastasia Steele – these names, right? :::eyeroll::: – all of which fit her perfectly and the ones she wears? Someone manages to speak the name of the designer. (I see you, Monique Lhuillier, and I’m sorry the moment went by so fast I didn’t quite catch the proper pronunciation.) Oh, and a helicopter. I think a plane, too, but that was in the first movie. At one point they go to a party, and travel in a three-vehicle motorcade. Of Audis. Like the president.

They have lots of sex, needless to say, which is very well-lit and free of awkward moments like ow you’re on my hair or move your leg or so forth. And here you’re not going to find me getting on the S&M-is-abusive train, because you don’t even need to have taken Psych 101 to see the appeal, especially for women who are submissive. If your hands are tied to the headboard, no one is going to ask you to fold the laundry, or drive them to soccer practice or even touch someone else’s body parts. You just go OK, sure, happy not to make any decisions here. (I’ve always heard this is popular among CEOs, who are mostly submissives.) But this sex is pretty boring, anyway, although there is some tension in seeing how Dakota Johnson can manage to have so much of it without ever smearing or even touching up her vivid lipsticks.

At one point I noticed that both Marcia Gay Harden (who plays Mr. Grey’s mother) and Dakota Johnson were wearing the exact same shade of cranberry-colored lipstick. That’s how boring this movie is. Of course it ends with a marriage proposal, and then I noticed that Dakota Johnson’s character will be Anastasia Steele Grey. That’s sorta funny.

And of course I did all this because if I didn’t, I’d read another million Twitter threads of other sharp analyses of the day’s events, and honestly, I’d rather think about whether cranberry lipstick is right for me.

The rest of you have a good weekend, OK? And please don’t fight anymore.

Posted at 6:48 pm in Movies | 73 Comments
 

Bad moms.

Wednesday is upon us, and I’m still mulling over last night’s entertainment — with Alan off this week (pulling the boat, putting storms in the doors, that sort of thing), we’re doing weeknight thing we never get to do otherwise. Staycation fun, peeps! Monday night was open-mic comedy night at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, at which we were the only white folks and I heard more N-bombs than in a month of streaming hip-hop. And last night we saw “The Florida Project,” a spectacular micro-budget film about poverty in the Sunshine State. I can recommend it highly, for standout performances and an almost perfect mastery of tone in a story that’s essentially plot-free but still has a lot to say.

What plot there is revolves around Moonee, a six-year-old who lives with her mother Hallee in a dive-y motel near Disney World. Hallee has the emotional maturity of maybe a seven-year-old, so they get along like aces. Moonee is charming and fearless, and her mother is the same way, only in the adult you can see the sociopathy that lies beneath. (I don’t recommend this to Jeff, unless he can fit it in during work hours.) As a journalist, all I could think about were the stories I and my colleagues have been writing for years, calculating how far behind Moonee must be in school by now (even as a first-grader, yes), her behavioral deficits, even the toll her diet – which seems to consist solely of waffles, jelly sandwiches on day-old bread from the food bank, soda and pizza – is taking on her baby teeth. The film takes place over part of a summer, when Moonee and a couple of friends run wild through the motel, and others like it nearby, having charming kid adventures, while her mom tries to avoid work but still make the weekly rent on the $38/night room they share.

Things happen, expected things. But the story still feels like a series of snapshots laid in a row. Both thrilling to watch and deeply unsettling. Find it at an arthouse near you.

I see somehow the comment thread on the last post skated off on a tangent about wind turbines. Michigan is starting to add them here and there, primarily in the Thumb, but the ones we see most often are on the Canadian side of Lake St. Clair, and by “see” I mean that driving home on a dark night when it’s reasonably clear, you can see their red lights blinking way over the water.

A more vivid experience was a few years ago, when we drove to Stratford for a little theatuh, and took the Port Huron route, which is less freeway and more country road than you get by crossing in Detroit. It was a foggy day, and these behemoths were obscured until we were almost upon them, and they’d loom up out of the mist, turning slowly. Very dramatic, like something in a fairy tale. It was almost enough to distract from the unexpected (for an American, and especially a Michigander) pleasure of driving on a well-maintained, non-potholed road.

Canada. They get the job done.

I have yet to see a driverless car on the roads around here, although truth be told, you wouldn’t know one to see it – they still have people sitting in the driver’s seat. There’s a robot bus running around north campus at U-M in Ann Arbor, not sure of the human-override factor on that one, although my guess is, they have one. The technology isn’t advanced enough yet, but it’s getting there, and fast. David Leonhardt wrote a column about testing a driverless Volvo that got to the heart of the adoption problem, I think:

I expect that we will agonize about using them, out of both legitimate caution and irrational fear. Any driverless crashes will be sensationalized, as has already happened, while we ignore tens of thousands of deaths from human crashes. But I still expect that driving will be revolutionized sooner than many people now understand. …Those researchers at Penn and Chicago also studied the circumstances in which people get comfortable with computer control, and found a theme: When the choice isn’t all or nothing — when people have “even a slight amount” of control — they are more open to automation.

That’s where driving is headed. The shift will be gradual, not sudden, as Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, told me. Cars will handle many tasks, while a human driver will have override power. The combination won’t be perfect, but it can be much better than the status quo.

I suspect he’s right. What he’s describing sounds like the cake-mix problem I read about somewhere. Duncan Hines is fully capable of producing a just-add-water cake mix, but they don’t, because customers prefer to add an egg and half a cup of oil. It makes them feel like they’re baking, not just phoning it in.

It’s funny. I know people who are terrified to fly for fear of crashing, but think nothing of driving every day, when statistically one is leagues safer than the other. But the feeling of control is powerful, no doubt.

I was charmed by the WashPost’s account of David Letterman’s Twain award ceremony. Perhaps you too.

Posted at 10:44 am in Current events, Movies | 135 Comments
 

You otter be in the water.

My friend Bill is recently retired, which means he’s in the go-go stage of post-work life. (The other two, of course, are slow-go and no-go.) He’s having a great summer, bombing around the state with “12th & Clairmount,” the documentary film our employer co-produced, and on his travels, he’s developing a new sport. The sport of the future! he says. He calls it ottering – it’s open water swimming in fins and a life jacket. He keeps saying we should go so I can try it out, and Sunday we worked out our schedules and did so.

We drove to St. Clair, Michigan, on the St. Clair river between Lake Huron and Lake St. Clair. There’s a park there, with a long boardwalk and seawall. We put on the gear and jumped off into 68-degree water and spent an hour ottering. It’s fun. The PFD holds you up and the fins allow you to master the current, which runs about 3 miles per hour draining the Great Lakes toward the sea. At least half a dozen ships passed us, and their wakes bobbed us up and down pleasantly as we drifted and floated.

Why is this the sport of the future? Because Bill has been swimming there most of his adult life, and in recent years has developed shoulder pain, enough that he fears one day injuring himself climbing back up the ladder on the seawall. Hence the PFD. The fins just make it easy to move around. So the pitch really should be, Ottering: The sport of the future in an aging America.

Now to monetize it. I told him to write the book and I’d contribute a chapter. He could do a merch run. It could be his gift to the world, a way to bring the joy back to swimming for people who don’t feel confident enough to do it in deep water anymore.

Then we had lunch and a couple of beers. Not a bad way to spend half a Sunday.

It was a pretty FUBAR weekend all around, with Alan suffering drug side effects from his oral surgery. He had hiccups all day Friday. Seriously, all day. Was awakened at 6 a.m. by hiccups, in fact. Turns out they’re a side effect of the steroid he’s on. Then you have the antibiotics and the painkillers and a UAW vote in Mississippi on a Friday night, and there goes half the weekend. I had to finish a story to boot, so there went half of mine. I was able to slip away for a while Friday night, for a house music lineup at a local bar.

House music sounds like this, at least this set did. That link is to a short video. (If it gives you problems or won’t play on your phone or whatever, I don’t want to hear about it.) I like it OK, and that was a nice early-evening groove, not too loud, so a pleasant way to pass a couple hours.

And suddenly, there goes the weekend. August is flying by. Next week is the OABI, the Once Around Belle Isle kayak race, which I’m on the fence about entering, and the weekend after that is Swim to the Moon, my first open-water swimming event (besides ottering). And then another kayak thing and into Labor Day. Stay a little longer, summer.

So, on to the bloggage? Sure.

This German dude is a future otter, commuting to work via swimming the Isar River, through Munich.

Man, the Chinese have this hoax nailed. Down.

Another take on “Detroit,” this one calling the film immoral.

Oh, and finally, perhaps appropriate because we spent all weekend working, we watched “Obit” on Saturday night, a documentary about the NYT obit desk. Very enjoyable, and I recommend. Let’s hope the weekend ahead is the same.

Posted at 12:13 am in Current events, Detroit life, Movies | 44 Comments
 

‘Detroit.’

The events of the last week of July 1967 in Detroit are one of those things everybody knows, and nobody knows, including what to even call what happened. “Riot” is the generally accepted language, although among African Americans, “rebellion” or “uprising” is nearly universal these days. Ever the wishy-washy moderate, I usually opt for “civil unrest,” because the most destructive element of the violence was the widespread looting and arson, which is hard to justify as an act of rebellion, especially considering how many black-owned businesses were destroyed that week.

But never mind that for now. Everybody knows the precipitating event was an early-morning raid on an illegal drinking establishment, known as a blind pig in the local parlance. Detroit still has zillions of these, mainly after-hours bars. I’ve never been to one because I’m a thousand years old, but my young friends all have their favorites. It’s where Detroit’s techno/house music scene took root and continues to thrive. They continue to be busted by the police, too, although I’m not sure if the customers are rousted with quite the vigor the law displayed in the 1967 raid on the establishment on the second floor of a 12th Street print shop. It was the rough handling of the folks being put into paddy wagons, especially the women, that supposedly moved Bill Scott to climb onto a car and exhort the crowd of onlookers:

“Are we going to let these peckerwood motherfuckers come down here any time they want and mess us around?”

The crowd roared back, “Hell, no!” and the bottles and rocks started to fly.

That’s from my colleague Bill McGraw’s excellent story of the family who owned the blind pig, whose own history reverberates with fallout from that night to this day. I’ve posted it before, but it’s worth your time if you didn’t get to it then.

Anyway.

The city was 40 percent black by that point, but its police were still overwhelmingly white and dedicated to keeping the black community in its place — in their neighborhoods, and out of white ones. Unlike most cities its size, Detroit grew horizontally; one reason it has the specific and unique problems it has today is that sprawling footprint, mostly covered with modest working-class housing for the huge labor force that gathered there in the early 20th century. They came from all over the country and all over the world, and working side-by-side in factories didn’t necessarily make them love one another. My friend Michael once drove me around his old neighborhood, where something like four Catholic churches existed in just a few square blocks — one for the Italians, one for the Hungarians, etc., like the punchline of the joke about the two Jews on a desert island.

Anyway. It was with all this knowledge in our heads that we went to see Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit,” which will open in a theater near most of you August 4. We got the “now playing in select theaters” early run.

Bigelow is a director I run hot and cold on. Hated “Blue Steel,” found “Point Break” ridiculous, liked “The Hurt Locker,” found “Zero Dark Thirty” troubling but worth seeing. She’s undeniably skilled, with an eye for finding beautiful images in horrific stories. “Detroit” kicks off with the blind pig raid, but quickly gets to the main narrative — the events of one night at the Algiers Motel, a fleabag at Woodward and Virginia Park, stormed by police, National Guard and Army troops after they heard shots fired from the building.

They never found a gun — which was said to be a starter pistol one guest was messing around with — but did find a number of black teenagers, 17-19, some members of The Dramatics, a singing group. Two of the teens were white girls, visiting from Ohio. At the end of the night, three of the young men were dead, and the survivors told of being tortured and terrorized by Detroit police in search of the gun and the shooter. This story didn’t come out immediately, but after an investigation, which led to murder trials for the Detroit officers and acquittals by all-white juries. The facts of what went on that night have never been definitively established — the cops claimed self-defense — but the rough outlines of the narrative have: Three dead teens, no gun found, survivor stories of torture.

That’s what Bigelow and her team were working with. And I’ll give her this: That lady knows torture. The police lined eight men and two women up against a wall in the motel for an hour, and that’s about how much screen time it takes, too. It’s an excruciating hour. Individuals are peeled off and taken into rooms, where police then fired gunshots, coming out to tell the rest that, well, we killed that guy, and would anyone now like to change their story and produce the gun?

There’s little relief in that hour. State police decide not to intervene. A few of the Guard/Army troops commit acts of mercy or stand in judgment of the insanity unfolding at the wall, but no one really intervenes. The baddest of the bad guys is a punk-faced, trigger-happy racist with a penchant for shooting people in the back and the unfortunate gift of making weaker men follow his lead. The other two are nearly as bad. One sneeringly asks one of the girls why she “fucks niggers” and how she can stand the smell of Afro Sheen.

Eventually the incidents at the motel conclude, and the film swings into an awkward third act — trials for the cops, recovery for the victims. You can feel the air go out of the balloon after the blood is mopped up. It really doesn’t feel like Bigelow’s heart is in this part of it, although this is where the greatest injustice happened. No one was ever held responsible. One victim is left with PTSD. Bad police are still abusing black people with impunity, and the president is encouraging them. And a corner that once looked like this now looks like this.

I walked out impressed by Bigelow’s technique but hardly entertained, or even enlightened. I think the critic for Roger Ebert’s site, Angelica Jade Bastien, got it exactly right:

Watching “Detroit,” the latest film directed by Kathryn Bigelow and penned by Mark Boal, I hit a breaking point I didn’t realize I had. I was disturbed so deeply by what I witnessed that I left the theater afterward in tears.

It wasn’t the relentless violence inflicted upon black bodies or the fiery devastation of the riots ripping apart Detroit but the emptiness behind these moments that got under my skin. Watching “Detroit” I realized that I’m not interested in white perceptions of black pain. White filmmakers, of course, have every right to make stories that highlight the real and imagined histories of racism and police brutality that pointedly affect Black America.

…“Detroit” is ultimately a confused film that has an ugliness reflected in its visual craft and narrative. Bigelow is adept at making the sharp crack of an officer’s gun against a black man’s face feel impactful but doesn’t understand the meaning of the emotional scars left behind or how they echo through American history. “Detroit” is a hollow spectacle, displaying rank racism and countless deaths that has nothing to say about race, the justice system, police brutality, or the city that gives it its title.

We saw the film at a multiplex on 8 Mile Road, and were apparently the only white people in the theater. (We were certainly the only ones who sat through the credits to see my boss’ name; he did research for screenwriter Boal, and was listed as a consultant.) “Well, I HATED that,” a woman said, loudly, as she filed out, and I expect that will be a pretty uniform opinion among black folks. To be sure, it’s a terrible story with an unhappy ending. The bad guys got away with it. And they were terrible bad guys.

But in the end, it’s an incredibly bloody film that is ultimately rather bloodless.

One final note: When I was young and ignorant, my boyfriend’s stepfather was a retired prison guard. He’d worked at Riker’s Island, in New York. I asked him what sort of weaponry he carried as a guard, and he quickly corrected me: He never carried a gun, or even a nightstick. Guards can’t take the risk of being disarmed by prisoners.

I thought of him during the riot scenes, which underline how fragile order really is, how thin is the social fabric we all walk around on and under, every day. It doesn’t take much to turn a Saturday-night party into something far more sinister, something police flee from, how quickly even these guardians of order can be overcome. Temperatures rise, tempers flare, a guy stands on a car and shouts encouragement — that’s it. And the correction, the restoration of control, is worse. It leads to harsher policing, more fearful citizens, more guns in nervous, fearful hands.

I hope I don’t live to see something like this happen again, but I fear I will. We always speak of events in incendiary terms, of “powder kegs” and “ticking time bombs” and “lighting the fuse,” etc. But all these things have to have a supply of powder, a bomb, to exist. How about building fewer bombs? Just a thought.

Posted at 12:10 am in Detroit life, Movies | 68 Comments
 

Waiting for a miracle.

All the advice was to see “Dunkirk” in IMAX, so I googled around. Turned out there’s an IMAX screen at a multiplex in Royal Oak that I didn’t know about. Royal Oak is closer than the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, which is where I feared we’d have to go, so this was good news. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a regular theatrical-entertainment film in IMAX, only short science films like they show at museums. Bought tickets online, paid IMAX prices.

After the credit-card sale went through I looked at the tickets. “‘Dunkirk’ in EMAX,” they said. What’s EMAX? I thought, but figured it had to be some version of IMAX.

It wasn’t. It was just a wide screen. The theater is called Emagine, and sure enough, there’s no such thing as EMAX as a film format, it’s just the chain’s name for “PREMIUM LARGE FORMAT, bigger picture & maximum sound.” You can say that again; it was really, really loud. But the screen was nice and wide and oh well, at least for a movie like this you don’t generally have people talking throughout. And if they had, the soundtrack would have drowned them out pretty well.

And I can’t say I missed the IMAX, honestly. “Dunkirk” was an immersive experience in every sense of the word; it’s hard to see people wearing boots and heavy wool uniforms trying to swim in an unforgiving sea. A colleague saw it Thursday and panned its storytelling trick of multiple, non-synchronized timelines, but it worked for me. I imagine service in a war zone is a series of minutes-become-hours, hours-pass-like-seconds episodes, part of what makes it so disorienting.

You can read entire shelves of books about the Dunkirk evacuation, and thousands of words about this telling of the story, so I won’t add to it other than to say I liked the film very much and it made me want to sail our boat across the lake and rescue some Canadians. Or maybe the other way around. And I’ll also stand with David Edelstein, who took a pasting in the comments about his review in New York magazine, for writing that he assumed one chapter/timeline, titled “the Mole,” was about the anonymous soldier at its center, who has a prominent mole on his jaw. I did too! And I subsequently learned that “mole” is another term for a jetty, pier or breakwater, a structure that is very important in this story. I’ve read pretty widely and spent lots of time on or near water and boats, and I’ve never heard this before. Ever.

Before the movie, we visited a local brewhouse/restaurant. On the menu:

Proud to be an American.

I guess the next movie we’ll see in a theater is “Detroit,” about an incident in the ’67 riots, being commemorated this very week. Here’s a tick-tock by my former colleague Bill, roused from retirement to help the Freep staff. Lots of links within to other stuff, and sorry about the goddamn autoplaying videos, but that’s Gannett these days. And here’s the News’ editorial-page editor with the suburban take.

Over my years here, I’ve heard many personal recollections of that week, mostly bad ones. Some were grimly amusing; a guy on a local message board lived in St. Clair Shores, and remembers one of his mother’s friends knocking on the door late one night in a panic. She’d heard that gangs of black men were going house-to-house in Grosse Pointe, raping white women, and could she take shelter with them? He thought it was extra funny that he saw her a year later at a party his parents threw, and her escort was a black man. I always wonder, when I hear stuff like that, if there are people who deliberately start hateful rumors in the wake of chaos, for whatever reason. They were rife after 9/11, none backed by any shred of evidence.

This personal story isn’t funny at all, but it was written by a friend whose father was a Detroit firefighter in 1967, and it’s sad and worth your time.

As for the events from Washington, the Fall of Spicey and the rise of the next guy, Scaramucci, I leave it to the comedians.

Happy week ahead, all.

Posted at 12:10 am in Current events, Detroit life, Movies | 89 Comments
 

Diurnal animals.

I don’t know what you were doing late on a Sunday afternoon, but after cooking two complicated, and error-filled, dinners on Friday and Saturday afternoon, I can tell you what I’m doing: Dreaming of a pizza made by someone else. And then watching “Game of Thrones.” Because Sunday funday.

Everyone is out enjoying some activity. Alan went sailing, Kate’s at Belle Isle with her buddies, and I’m listening for the dryer buzzer. Did a bit of a bike ride, but a persistent backache set in at mile six or so, and I turned around rather than gut it out. Once out of the evaporative breeze of movement, I commenced to once again re-secure my title as World’s Sweatiest Woman. But it’s nice and cool in the AC and under the ceiling fan; time to enjoy my solitude and get a little blogging done.

A quiet weekend, all told. I feel like we’re getting old — we’re not doing much this summer, but truth be told, I don’t mind. Happy to stay home and bake cherry pies and not get sweaty waiting in lines. And lines are simply the reality at some of these summer events we’re all beckoned to. You might as well bring a picnic basket. A couple weeks ago, I spent a lengthy lunch hour riding the new streetcar down to where the food trucks were parked, and ended up in a bar, unwilling to wait in line for 20-30 minutes to get a cardboard-bowl lunch. So sorry, missed the Concert of Colors last night, but we watched “Nocturnal Animals” on iTunes and it was very disturbing, but a pretty OK movie.

Can’t complain.

Can complain about this, though: No more celebrities running for office, for fuck’s sake. Their recent record is, how you say, uneven. Sorry, Caitlyn Jenner. Sorry, Kid Rock. (I won’t link, because I can’t even bear to Google.) Sorry, actual Rock. Now more than ever, we need competence. I don’t generally swoon over Frank Bruni the way some people do, but buried in his Sunday column was this brief passage:

Infrastructure that’s no longer competitive (or safe), a tax code crying out for revision, a work force without the right skills: When do we fix this? How far behind do we fall?

In-effing-deed. When? How? The world is at a very dangerous precipice. Career politicians, which is to say, people who know how the game is played and how to get results out of the system, may be our last hope.

Meanwhile, the picture of Jenner that accompanies that story is ghastly. Looks like she ordered the Madonna model cheek implant in XL.

Meanwhile, some comic relief: A little bit of the sunshine Ann Coulter spreads in the world came back to her over the weekend. We can all agree that when Ann has a bad day, the world gets a little bit nicer.

Finally, think you’re good at spotting fake news? Here’s a game that will let you show your skills. (Use the quick start option.) I found it pretty easy, considering you could view the source for individual stories.

For me, it’s back to “Game of Thrones” homework. See you mid-week.

Posted at 12:23 am in Current events, Movies, Same ol' same ol' | 92 Comments
 

That’ll do, pig.

Question for the room: Is there an actress as fantastic in every sense as Tilda Swinton? I don’t think so, so let’s close the discussion on that one right here, and instead speak of the glory available to all Netflix subscribers, which is to say “Okja,” streaming now.

I heard an interview with the co-screenwriter, Jon Ronson, on the way back from Columbus. The role of Netflix in producing films isn’t without controversy; hardcore film fans want films to be films, projected in theaters and watched by audiences. Netflix makes films to be streamed on televisions, which is where most Americans watch movies, these days.

I guess, when a Netflix-produced film debuted at the Cannes film festival, the audience booed. I’ll leave that debate for those who care about such things. But I was struck by something Ronson said in the interview, about how often film studios say no, but Netflix says yes. And in this case, the “yes” was to an action comedy that isn’t for children, with plenty of social commentary, and half its dialogue in Korean, with subtitles.

But it’s so! Fabulous! And funny, and warm, and touching, and a satire of modern life, spectacle and…TED talks, I guess. Tilda plays the CEO of a rapacious, relentlessly greenwashed Monsanto-like company that is breeding a super-pig to feed the world. It’s a 10-year project, with specimens distributed all over the world. The Korean pig is the Okja of the title, and boy, is she cute. What’s more, she’s spent the last 10 years becoming best friends with an even cuter girl, who is now a young teen. With the decade up, the company is coming for its property, trailed by a film crew making propaganda to flatter it.

Things get complicated from there. But it’s a wonderful journey, with what you’d expect — chases, jeopardy, complications — but produced with wit and verve and all very fun to watch. Even the soundtrack is surprising. When was the last time you heard “Annie’s Song,” really?

The following night we watched something very different, also on Netflix — “American Anarchist,” the story of how a 19-year-old working out his anger at the government wrote “The Anarchist Cookbook” and opened Pandora’s box in the process. Since 1970, the book has been found in the possession of school shooters, terrorists and ne’er-do-wells of all stripes.

The author, William Powell, went on to do real good with his life, as a teacher of special-needs children all over the world. But the book trailed after him like a demon, coming up time and again. The most powerful scene in the film is when director Charlie Siskel, who comes off as a bit of a scold here, lays out all the cases, many of which Powell appears to not even know about. He cops to Columbine, but there were more, many more, and you can see Powell deflating as it goes on. Powell was (he died last year) clearly highly intelligent, and as he points out in the story, all the information was freely available in the New York City public library, on open shelves. (He mainly used military manuals.) But his story is the 1.0 version of today’s social-media nightmares, where nothing ever goes away, no matter how much your repudiate and walk back and deny.

Should a man be held accountable throughout his life for something he wrote when he was 19? That’s the question.

And that concludes today’s movie reviews. What happened in the world today?

Eh, who cares? The president is in Europe, and doom will surely follow.

Have a swell weekend!

Posted at 12:09 am in Movies | 50 Comments
 

What’s unspoken.

As a card-carrying member of the evil media, I’ll acknowledge being a little out of touch, but there’s one thing you civilians do that has always bugged me. And that’s the insistence that when terrible crimes are committed, it’s somehow wrong to pay any attention to those who perpetrate them.

Seriously, I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people claim that it was wrong to put O.J. Simpson on the cover of some newsmagazine, or Tim McVeigh, or anyone other than, oh, Osama bin Laden. (Funny how this rule is suspended for certain terrorists.) Sometimes this goes to extremes; one of the best criticisms I read about the Oklahoma City memorial was that McVeigh is barely mentioned, and his cause not at all. We wouldn’t want to offend the families of victims, who don’t want to see him mentioned.

How such an unspeakable tragedy can happen in a vacuum escapes me. And I don’t think O.J. killed his wife and another man to get on the cover of Time magazine. But that’s how people think, and all I can do is argue.

This came up because Alan and I watched “Tower” on Saturday, an interesting and excellent documentary on the sniper shootings from the University of Texas tower in 1966. (Last year was the 50th anniversary.) The film uses actors, and the animation technique known as rotoscoping. This gives you the effect of hearing young people describe a 50-year-old incident, which gives it a sense of immediacy. It also covers up for the lack of contemporary footage – contemporary with 1966, that is. There’s some of that, but it being the era before cell phones and video, there’s not enough to make a whole movie from it.

But here’s what’s missing: Charles Whitman. I believe his name is mentioned once, and there’s zero discussion of his motivations, admittedly oblique. So what? So this: As these hideous incidents pile up, an amazingly consistent throughline is emerging – domestic violence. In fact, Whitman’s first act, before he climbed the tower, was to kill his wife and mother-in-law.

So when you say you don’t want to “glorify” killers, consider what else you’re doing, i.e., turning your back on knowledge that may be valuable in the future.

Last year I did a story on human trafficking, and one of the advocates made a comment that’s stuck with me; that is, that human trafficking is, in terms of public awareness and understanding, approximately where domestic violence was 30 years ago. The better we understand the link between domestic and mass violence, the better prepared we’ll be to put a stop to the next one.

But we can’t do that if we act like it’s somehow wrong to talk about the men — and it’s always men, at least so far — who perpetrate these things, that won’t happen.

Just sayin’.

It’s a good movie. On iTunes. Recommended.

Man, this week started at a gallop, and it’s still galloping. Worked last night, worked a little tonight, gonna work on the usual schedule all week because you all know what comes on Friday, right?

And today I drove back and forth to Ann Arbor. In a driving rain. I listened to a Chapo Trap House podcast, a Pod Save America podcast, and missed the day’s big news – the pardon commutation of Chelsea Manning’s sentence. What should we think of this?

The Obamas have started their move, evidently.

And that’s all I got. Back to work.

Posted at 8:31 pm in Movies | 42 Comments
 

Showbiz kid.

As a car-show widow for the last few days, I invited a friend over Monday night for dinner and a movie – “Bright Lights,” the Carrie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds HBO documentary that was rushed into release after you-know-what.

The film was just fine, an enjoyable tour through the past and present of both women, along with Fisher’s brother Todd, who comes across here as an amiable fellow who mostly escaped the family curse, but never learned it’s not appropriate to wear a baseball cap with black tie. The clan is (was) obviously close and loving, while at the same time a bit tetched in the head, as they say, but that’s showbiz. There’s marvelous, well-preserved archival footage of Carrie and Todd as children and teens, perhaps some of it from the famous MGM publicity apparatus. The various glimpses of magazine covers and newspaper clippings give younger viewers a hint of how ferocious that was at guarding and cultivating a very particular image of the various show ponies in the stable. The studio ran your life. Lots of people were happy it did. (As for me, I want to know where I can find the black-and-white dress Debbie wore in the birthday-party clips.)

Of course, the reality was as squalid as it appears to be now. Eddie Fisher not only left Debbie for the sexiest dish in town (Liz Taylor), he was shooting methamphetamine, which he referred to as “vitamin shots.” (It was very likely supplied by a studio doctor.) A brief scene of him at what had to be the very end of his life was painful to watch. And while the kids grew up with every advantage, as we like to say, it’s hard not to see how doomed they were, especially the pretty daughter called onstage at 14 by her mother to sing — we see a weird version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” — as part of mom’s cabaret act.

Carrie Fisher was renowned as a great writer and wit, and the latter is on full display here. She’s also an interior decorator nonpareil, and I would watch another documentary where the camera just poked around her house for a while.

But people, I gotta tell you: If you wanted a clearer, more sobering case against a life of smoking, drinking and related drug abuse, you couldn’t do better than Carrie Fisher. That fresh-faced gamine who played Princess Leia was only a year older than me, but you could hardly see the plucky leader of the rebel alliance in anything but her quick wit. The smoky-lens eyeglasses seemed to be hiding something, her hair was thin (I know she took medication to stabilize her mental illness, and I know it has side effects) and her lovely face looked badly used by too much ill-advised plastic surgery. Required to exercise under the gaze of a trainer for a part in the latter-day “Star Wars,” she struggles on an elliptical like someone far further down the road. We often refer to Hollywood as the beautiful people, but there has to be a better way to grow older.

This seems a good place to drop in this wonderful moment from “Postcards From the Edge” – Shirley MacLaine in the closest thing to a Debbie Reynolds impersonation you’re likely to find on YouTube.

Just a bit of bloggage today: A useful, deeply reported profile of Jared Kushner from New York magazine. The family history alone is fascinating.

Finally, a simultaneously hilarious and infuriating piece by Neal Pollack on the trials of educating one (1) kid in modern America. At least if you aren’t wealthy:

The school gave him math homework where the first problem was “1-0,” even though he already knew long division. And his teacher sent home an information sheet that began “To many times, their are students who …”

We pulled him out after two weeks, instead enrolling him in a “progressive” charter school that was only a 15-mile drive from our house. This school, located in a former mental hospital at the edge of a toxic waste dump near the airport, was so radical that it didn’t have a principal. Parents ran everything. The cinderblock buildings didn’t get washed very often. Supplies were in short supply. They combined fourth and fifth graders into the same class, which led to bullying problems. We spent three hours a day in the car, hauling Elijah back and forth.

At the end of the first semester, in lieu of a Christmas concert, the students performed a winter solstice dance in the midst of a freezing, stick-strewn field, like something out of a Lars von Trier film. My wife and I looked at each other and said, “no more.”

The kids I tutor in the after-school program where I volunteer frequently work from typo-strewn materials, too. Charters, almost to a person.

OK, good midweek to all.

Posted at 5:03 pm in Movies | 73 Comments
 

Raw powerless.

Alex said something in the previous post about idioms and language that gets lost between generations. Forte was his example, which became “Ford tape” in another’s ear/speech. It so happens I was editing a piece the other day and came across the phrase “like a broken record,” thought for a minute, and struck it. Who even knows what that means? How long has it been since vinyl records were in common enough use, and that particular defect well-known enough, to understand the reference?

Truth be told, when my records were scratched enough for it to be audible — and (she said modestly) I always took excellent care of my records, handling them by the edges and using that Discwasher stuff pretty often — the worst I heard was a pop or skip. The defect that makes them actually repeat, which is what the idiom refers to? I can’t even remember when that happened (although I’ve heard it). Must be a Victrola thing.

Once you start noticing them, you can’t stop. I had a boss who was obsessed with visual shorthand, like depicting a doctor wearing a head mirror. Is there a soul alive who has ever seen a doctor wearing a head mirror? (And yet, apparently they’re still a thing, maybe in places where they don’t have electricity or batteries.) Why is a cartoon dead person drawn with Xs for eyes?

These are Tuesday thoughts. Today it’s Wednesday. Sorry for two nights of no-show. Last night we went to an early screening of “Gimme Danger,” the Stooges documentary by Jim Jarmusch, with special guest Iggy Himself. It was good falling short of great, a touch over-long, but an otherwise enjoyable experience. Iggy walks as though his hip is bothering him. [Pause.] I wonder how many times I’ll write a version of that sentence before all these guys are planted.

Actually, I find his bandmate James Williamson’s story more interesting. Click that link and listen to the KQED podcast “The Leap,” about him.

So. Two more weeks to the election, and we seem to have entered a lull. After the rat-in-Skinner-box feeling of the last months, it’s a little strange. Well, there’s Newt Gingrich telling Megyn Kelly she’s “fascinated by sex,” which is simply too pot-kettle for words.

I cannot tell a lie: When this election season is over, I’ll be relieved, of course. But also kind of deflated. You?

Posted at 9:36 am in Current events, Movies | 59 Comments