Aug 31, 2009

Towards a general theory of movie suckitude

The Daily Beast (for which I occasionally blog) goes the love-him-or-hate-him-at-least-we're-talking-about-him route, in order to quell the debate over Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. I have a question: how come, when people always make this argument, they're always talking about bad movies, never good ones? This is not to say that controversies don't sometimes erupt over good movies, particularly if the subject matter or theme is charged, but when the controversy centres over the quality of the movie, the movie generally sucks. JFK, Basic Instinct, Natural Born Killers, Crash, Inglorious Basterds. I cannot think of a single example that defies this rule.

Cheney's offer to America: drill, baby, drill

WALLACE: So even these cases where they went beyond the specific legal authorization, you're OK with it?


In the wake of recent revelations about the CIA murdering, choking and threatening its detainees with power drills, Dick Cheney popped up on Fox yesterday to explain why such actions were essential to the security interests of the United States. To both him and his defenders I want to say the following: okay, have your way. Sign out of the Geneva Conventions. Strike out Reagan's signature on the 1984 Convention against torture. Legalise it. Don't beat around the bush with mealy-mouthed legal memos. Say it loud and proud. "The United States tortures its prisoner." Drown, choke and beat every prisoner to within an inch of his life. Then watch what happens next. See Great Britain pull all of its troops out of Afghanistan. See alliances with every civilized nation in the developed world crumble and fall, starting with Germany and France and Australia and finally including even China and Russia. See every country in the Western hemisphere change its extradition laws. See The US lectured on human rights by Yugoslavia and Columbia. See international trade dwindle and sanctions put in place. See Mi5 and Scotland Yard and Interpol refuse to cough up intelligence. See the United State unable to draw on a single military partner in the so-called 'war on terror'. Then we can talk about how important it is to you to go waving power drills in people's faces. But only then. Go on. Do it.

Nor is this a fanciful projection: it was beginning to happen. I like Obama's word for the Cheney experiment: unsustainable. Like the career of a kamikaze pilot, or, for that matter, suicide bomber. That's what Cheney was offering the American people — a dark, glamorous form of national suicide, as bewitching as only suicide can be.

Aug 28, 2009

Punch drunk love

"If Alexander Portnoy had had a younger brother, he might have sounded a lot like Jonathan Ames... For all the bodily fluids and rampaging hormones on display, The Double Life Is Twice As Good possesses a winning vulnerability, a sweet ache. Ames is the guy at the orgy who just likes the company."

From my review of Jonathan Ames's The Double Life Is Twice As Good, for this week's Book Forum, here

Gored by a minotaur: pros and cons

Is Using A Minotaur To Gore Detainees A Form Of Torture?

Confessions of a Streep Agnostic

Those vaunted gaurdians of the aesthetic high ground, The Onion, have an interesting piece maintaining that Meryl Streep has never starred in any truly great movies. A long-term Streep agnostic, I was all ears.

Kramer Versus Kramer? "It's more Dustin Hoffman's movie than Meryl Streep's movie." Sophie's Choice? "A fairly routine melodrama, with a Holocaust backstory thrown in to make the love triangle seem less banal." The Deer Hunter? She was only in it for "three. maybe four minutes." Out Of Africa? "Come on." They're a little unfair to The Bridges of Madison County and The Devil Wears Prada but then they also forget to mention The French Lieutenant's Woman, which proves their point exactly. There's a lot of high-toned crap in there.

I wonder, though, if what this actually illuminates is a difference between actors' and actresses' careers. Look at their examples they give by way of comparison: Al Pacino in The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy. That's one big helping of dirty realist machismo. You can practically smell the hangover. The only woman who gets her own "classic" is Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. There's a big boy;s club in effect. Actor's careers are more auteur-driven. They make hard, gritty movies of the kind that get called "classics" by critics who like hard, gritty movies. De Niro hooks up with Scorsese and the result is a small library of classic movies. Same with Hanks and Spielberg. Where, in short, is Meryl Streep's Tarantino?

It's all about the women

So we're about halfway through our Mad Men marathon and my main feeling is this: the title is wrong. Its not about the men. Its all about the women. Forgive me if everyone already knows this. Maybe every single reviewer out there has said this until its a cliche — everyone knows Mad Men is about the women — duh — but here are my thoughts.

Partly its to do with period. We are back in the era when men bestrode Madison Avenue like colossi, while the women plot and plan their way through the maze. This makes the female characters, at a rough estimate, about ten times more interesting than the male ones. It's a man's world — they're the fish out of water. Then men are all boorish cardboard cutouts whose sexist zingers fizzle upon launch. They never quite seem to fill the space marked out for them. I was reminded of Phillip Semour Hoffman's saying that the hardest thing about playing a male priest in the fifties was getting the entitlement right: the fact that he could walk into a room and if Meryl Streep was sitting in his chair, she would eject herself from it immediately. He remembered thinking: holy heck, Meryl Streep! and wanted to apologise.

Most of the male acting is a bit like that: they haven't really inhabited the bullish body spaces of these men. They don't fill their suits. (Only John Ham does that.) But the women are all great, from the conniving Christina Hendricks, whose sails through each scene, bosom thrust forward like a ship's prow, to the the mousy secretary with a trick up her sleeve, played by Elizabeth Moss, to the peppermint-voiced January Jones, who delivers a fascinating study of a woman locked into her beauty — both bored and a little puzzled by the power she has been arbitrarily ceded. I've rarely seen someone play a beautiful woman so well, which is to say, not a woman who is beautiful because she happens to be played by a movie star, but a woman whose beauty is a stubborn actual fact, out there in the world, like a third thumb.

Aug 26, 2009

Craig Brown: Obama chooses icecream

"I stand before this ice-cream truck today humbled by the task before me, grateful for the trust my wife and my daughters have bestowed upon me, mindful of the great and inspiring choice of popsicles and ice-creams and other light refreshments both borne and consumed by our ancestors before us. We should rejoice in this choice and this variety. It is the differences between iced comestibles that make them so attractive. So let us celebrate these differences.

"Daddy," says Malia Ann. "May I please have a Tutti Frutti?"

I look at her through these eyes, the eyes of a father both loving and dutiful.

"I say to you this, Malia Ann," I say. "And this I say to you. The Tutti Frutti is a fine ice cream. Of that there is no doubt. But let us go further than that. Yes, the Tutti Frutti has all the truly outstanding qualities of a great ice cream. It is cold. It is colorful. And it is good to the taste. It remains firm upon the stick, and is able within its noble resilience to endure the harsh heat of sunlight.

"But I tell you this, Malia Ann. Once an ice cream is eaten, it is eaten. And that ice cream remains eaten. For all its worth, that ice cream once swallowed does not have it within its power to reappear on that stick. That is our one true sorrow. But it avails us nothing to pretend that is any other way. So now, Malia Ann, is the time for realism. Now is the time for tough choices--choices that is in the heart of each one of us to address. Now, Malia Ann, is the time to confront the popsicle."— Craig Raine, Private Eye

Aug 25, 2009

Power drills to the head: pros and cons

Publius summarises the IG report:—
The highlights include: (1) mock executions; (2) threatened rape of family members; (3) threatened murder of children; (4) kicking and beating a detainee with a metal flashlight to death; (5) threatening naked hooded detainees with power drills; (6) blowing cigar smoke in detainees' faces until they got sick; (7) waterboarding with massive volumes of water far beyond what OLC authorized (to make it "poignant"); (8) stress positions that nearly caused shoulder dislocations; (9) scraping detainees with stiff brushes; (10) choking a detainee with one's bare hands until they nearly pass out; (11) subjecting detainees to extremely cold temperatures and water dousing; (12) "hard takedowns" (sometimes in diapers); and (13) beating detainees with butts of rifles (followed by kicking them).
Cheney, needless to say, claims vindication. The power-drills worked. But remember, these methods were used on suspects, not members of Al Qaeda, but people the administration suspected of being members of Al Qaeda. Many of the detainees were tortured due to "assessments that were unsupported by credible intelligence". Translation: they were innocent. I'm tried of keeping track of this stuff, tired of rehearsing arguments about why power drills to the head of innocent people is not an efficacious idea; tired of hearing news anchors weighing the pros and cons of torturing people; tired of people talk about "enhanced" interrogations and "poignant" waterboarding; when all I really want to say is: stop it. Stop defending the people who did it. Stop protecting the people who ordered it. Just stop.

Aug 24, 2009

Inglorious Basterds: Pros and Cons

Since Tarantino is very much a filmmaker of bits — good bits, bad bits, cool bits, indifferent bits — I've decided to chop up Inglorious Basterds into its constituent parts. Beware: spoilers ahead.

Some things I liked about the film:—
1. The scar on Brad Pitt's neck. Intriguing.
2. The entire first scene, including the cows.
3. Christoph Waltz's performance, until the point where he decides to throw in the towel.
4. Melanie Laurent. The red dress. The lipstick. Everything.
5. The shot of the strudel. Funny, for reasons I can't put my finger on.
6. The baseball bat to the head. Shocking.
7. The dialogue in French and German.
8. The freeze frames.
9. The use of David Bowie's Putting Out Fires. Cool.
10. Brad Pitt's line about how much he doesn't like fighting in basements.

Some things I didn't like about the film:—
1. The rest of Brad Pitt's performance.
2. The speeches giving us a potted history of German cinema.
3. The misspelt (borrowed) title. Never fails to irritate.
4. Eli Roth, but particularly the shot of him mowing down unarmed Germans.
5. Christopher Waltz' performance after the point when, just seconds away from total crushing victory over his enemies, he decides to jack in this whole Nazi thing and join the allies. Somebody explain to me why.
6. The plot. I thought Tarantino was going to make a "ten men died getting us this information" kind of a movie, in which the Basterds attempt to ascend the Matterhorn of impossible missions: taking out Hitler. Instead Hitler just walks into a trap that wasn't even set for him. Huh.
7. The dialogue in English. First draft stuff. I loved Tarantino's riffs on the differences between a Royale with Cheese and a Big Mac. Riffs on the differences between rats and squirrels didn't do it for me.
8. The fact that torture always ellicited accurate information.
9. We only get to know two of the basterds.
10. The guy two rows in front of me laughing at every damn thing.

Aug 23, 2009

Those death panellists in full

John McCain joins Texas Governor Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Senator Chuck Grassley, Senator Orrin Hatch, Betsy McCaughey, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, The Washington Times, The American Spectator, Senator Tom Coburn and RNC chair Michael Steele in their belief that the government is planning to euthanise the elderly, or see advantage in being perceived to hold such a belief. McCain argues that the bill is "ambiguous" which is true up to a point. It if you are one of those people who see the phrase "end-of-life care" as potentially meaning the kind of care which brings about the end of your life, the yes, the bill is indeed ambiguous.

Where are the women?

"Does this mean that the novelist-as-rock-star is a mostly male phenomenon? Or that women stayed sloshed for longer? It could be that there are many sober women writers out there, but they’re better at maintaining their anonymity than men."
A response to readers who commented on the lack of women writers in my article about novelists and sobriety for Intelligent Life.

Does this mean what I think it means?

"To turn classic Beatles songs into the stages of a video game, each song needed to be separated into its several components, so that if the person playing the guitar misses a note, the guitar sound can drop out while the music made by the other instruments is unaffected... Apple’s preoccupation with security meant that the high-quality audio “stems” he created never left Abbey Road. If the separated parts leaked out, every amateur D.J. would start lacing mixes with unauthorized Beatles samples. Instead, Martin created low-fidelity copies imprinted with static for the Harmonix team to take back to the States — in their carry-on luggage. They were just good enough to work with until the game coding could be brought back to Abbey Road and attached to the actual songs."
Does this mean that if every player but one stops playing the game, only one "stem" will be heard? In other words: it will be possible to isolate George Harrison's guitar riff at the beginning of Here Comes the Sun? The harpsichord in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds? The string section in Eleanor Rigby? Presumably those won't be imprinted with security static.

Aug 22, 2009

A theory of unrepresentative masterpieces

I've been trying to hone my theory of unrepresentative masterpieces, which goes something like this: the works which critics single out for masterpiece status are often the least representative, and consequently least satisfying, works of the artist in question. It was with Vertigo that I first noticed this, a film frequently held up as Hitchcock's masterpiece by the Sigh & Sound crowd, and I get it, I really do: the film is melancholy and haunting and dreamlike, in many ways Hitchcock's greatest — or indeed only — love story. But that's just it. It is his only love story. The rest of the time he made sharp, speedy, suspense-filled pictures with great set pieces, droll jokes, and stars looking for a little mischief.

By those standards, Vertigo is not a patch on, say, Notorious or even Strangers on a Train whose plot is so tight you could bounce a penny off of it. It is slow and dolorous and illogical, and were it not for Barbara Bel Geddes, almost entirely joke-free. So why the critical raves? My guess is: the film is accorded masterpiece status precisely because it fails to play to Hitchcock's traditional strengths. Geniuses can — let's face it — get fairly tiresome after a while, knocking out one great work after another. Critics get bored; they start to look for the artwork that falls outside the norm, or "transcends" genre, or does something they haven't seen the director do before. They hanker for self-consciousness, technical innovation, broken ground.

A case in point is Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. On the whole, the Beatles are not a gimmicky, self-conscious band who serve up concept albums posing questions about the very nature of modern pop spectacle. In fact only one of their albums does this so that one gets to be the masterpiece. But really, when it comes down to it, wouldn't you much rather listen to Revolver? Sgt Pepper is so much of an operation: you've got to sit there admiring the overall concept. With Revolver all you have to do is listen to one great song after another.

I was recently reminded of this when the New Yorker's Richard Brody called Funny People Judd Apatow's "masterpiece." As I understood him, what he really meant was "not as funny as Apatow's previous films." Bingo. It isn't.

Time to let Holder off the leash

It looks like the shit is about to hit the fan again with regard to the torture of detainees. The Pentagon has just reversed its policy and is giving the names of detainees to the Red Cross and on Monday, that long-delayed internal report about detainee abuse is going to be made public. A preview:

According to two sources—one who has read a draft of the paper and one who was briefed on it—the report describes how one detainee, suspected USS Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was threatened with a gun and a power drill during the course of CIA interrogation. According to the sources, who like others quoted in this article asked not to be named while discussing sensitive information, Nashiri's interrogators brandished the gun in an effort to convince him that he was going to be shot. Interrogators also turned on a power drill and held it near him. "The purpose was to scare him into giving [information] up," said one of the sources. A federal law banning the use of torture expressly forbids threatening a detainee with "imminent death." The report also says, according to the sources, that a mock execution was staged in a room next to a detainee, during which a gunshot was fired in an effort to make the suspect believe that another prisoner had been killed. The inspector general's report alludes to more than one mock execution.

I've been trying for a while to determine Obama's policy with regards to possible prosecutions. My sense of his predicament is as follows: he can either do what is in the long term interests of the country, and let the law take its course, or he can do what is best for his administration, and try to avoid accusations of a partisan witch-hunt. My sense is that he is trying to smudge it — allowing investigation of abuses only at the bottom of the food-chain — though I have tried to reserve judgment. He may be playing a long game, i.e. he knows that this will all come out in the end, but is waiting until public opinion compells him to act. Weighing up the relative merits of a full-functioning Obama administration versus the pay-off of seeing justice done with regard to the detainees, I, too, have wavered: wouldn't it be in the nation's best interest to have Obama operating at full steam on issues like healthcare, the environment, gays in the military etc, rather than see justice done for a handful of detainees, most of whom don't wish me at well? Seeing the way the Republicans have reacted to Obama's healthcare proposals, however, I am beginning to lose faith with this idea of maintaining peace at all costs; bipartisanship only works if both parties do it. Which makes me a little more bullish about the detainees.

The design flaws of the Death Star

"An unshielded exhaust port leading directly to the central reactor? Really? And when you rebuild it, your solution to this problem is four paths into the central core so large that you can literally fly a spaceship through them? Brilliant. Note to the Emperor: Someone on your Death Star design staff is in the pay of Rebel forces. Oh, right, you can't get the memo because someone threw you down a huge exposed shaft in your Death Star throne room" — some thoughts from John Scalzi

Aug 21, 2009

How much seriousness can one nation take?

"It took 65 years for a film-maker, instead of bringing Germany's evil 20th century history to life once more to have people shudder and bow before it, to simply dream around it. And to mow all the pigs down. Catharsis! Oxygen!... More than horror, Tarantino fears the conventions that have long surrounded the Nazis and the Holocaust -- these leaden, sepia-toned suggestions of authenticity that a film can never really live up to. Tarantino throws gasoline on the fire of the Nazi film to create the big bang to clear the way. A crazy idea. So crazy that it might just work."— German critics on Inglorious Basterds
Actually, I can see it working in Germany. One of the things that must be onerous to modern Germans is not just the national guilt that they learn to negotiate as early as the class-room, but the sheer scrotum-tightening seriousness of the holocaust and its aftermath. How much moral seriousness can one nation take? Its must be liberating for them to watch a movie which lays waste to those who got them into this mess, and to do so with such a giddy irreverence. Maybe Tarantino has done something useful, after all.

A dream of mine just came true

I just got taken to lunch by my New York editor, a long-held dream for any writer who steps foot on the isle of Manhattan hoping to one day being published. I've seen it in so many movies I had to pinch myself. It really was a most magical day. My publisher, Thomas Dunne at St Martins Press, was located on Fifth avenue, in the Flat Iron building no less. My editor, Marcia, turned out to be a preturnaturally calm, white-haired woman with a twinkle in her eye and a ready supply of stories about the history of Macmillan. Did you know that they used to wait until the end of lambing season before publishing any books because it was the only time they stood any chance of getting James Herriot to show up? My trip was not without its frights: I got an attack of James-Stewart-style jitters on the stairwell, peering down 18 floors, but to my delight, the offices at the front of the building really do narrow to a nub, and the view — a radial view of the hub where Fifth avenue and Broadway intersect, with the Empire State Building just a block or two away — was simply spectacular. I can't wait to see it under snow.

Aug 20, 2009

The sound a broken promise makes

"The most surprising part of the news that the White House was surprised that liberals had grown so attached to the public plan was that they were surprised" — Marc Ambinder

Aug 18, 2009

A brief history of crazy in the U.S.A.

In light of the recent "death camps" imbroglio, Rick Perlstein, author of the superb Nixonland, has written an excellent history of crazy in American politics. Which helps. A lot. It leans left but the view is still pretty good, taking in Vice President Richard Nixon's claim that the new Republicans arriving in the White House "found in the files a blueprint for socializing America; the attempt to take John F. Kennedy's enthusiasm intercontinental ballistic missiles as evidence that the young president was secretly disarming the United States; claims that the entire concept of a "civil rights movement" had been hatched in the Soviet Union; a right-wing radio host assertion that the expanded mental health services introduced by the Kennedy administration were designed to intern political dissidents, Soviet-style.

The instigation is always the familiar litany: expansion of the commonweal to empower new communities, accommodation to internationalism, the heightened influence of cosmopolitans and the persecution complex of conservatives who can't stand losing an argument. The various elements -- the liberal earnestly confused when rational dialogue won't hold sway; the anti-liberal rage at a world self-evidently out of joint; and, most of all, their mutual incomprehension -- sound as fresh as yesterday's news.

There is one difference, says Perlstein.

You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to "debunk" claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president's program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn't adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of "conservative claims" to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as "extremist" -- out of bounds. The tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America's flora. Only now, it's being watered by misguided he-said-she-said reporting and taking over the forest.

My blog: a snap shot

Excuse me if this is a little self-involved, but I've just been looking at the stats for the traffic to this blog. Most of it is visits from people who know the blog exists and have chosen to come here, but some of it is driven by Google searches. The majority of them are for me, or for me plus the title of my novel, which is nice to know. But there were also searches for "hitler's driver," "old french movie, bad guys turn preachers","barack and lavatory room junior high school", "carey mulligan", "marxism for beginners", "saddam hussein torture pictures", "movies with unicorns", "chauncey gardener", "I didn't get duplicity" and "tom hanks big buildings are boring dinosaur" — a slightly garbled reference to Hank's great speech in Big where he mocks that prototype for a toy robot that turns into a building. In most cases I know the posts that attracted these searches, and I have to say I'm rather pleased with this cross-section of my interests and obsessions.

While I'm here, Id like to give a shout-out to the reader in Bali who wanted information about Obama's lavatory in high school, the reader in Bayern who was interested in Saddam's torture methods, the Carey Mulligan fan in Val-de-marne, plus my readers in Mumbai, Bali, Trollhatten, Jakarta, Melbourne, Belfast, Singapore, Cincinnati, Brussels, Ancara, Pulau Pinang, Rome, Bangalore, Bucharest and Milton Keynes.

Yo, world!

Aug 17, 2009

Okay, okay, I give in, I'll watch it

So I'm watching Mad Men for the first time this evening. I've held out for as long as I can. At first you resist simply because it's new and you don't want to take a risk. Then everyone says it's good but you still don't watch it. This time your resistance is sulky. 'I refuse to accept than can be good,' you go to yourself. 'I must have refused to start watching it for some reason.' And then it starts winning awards. You're still not watching it but now you feel a little excluded, resentful of those cool, risk-taking trend-setters who watched it from the beginning, because how on earth are you going to catch up even if you wanted to? You double down in your misery. And then the third seasons comes along. You've got a gap for a new program in your life. Like someone who sees a bus pulling out from the stop and decides to jump onboard — hell, why not — you start watching. Just like that.

Nobody say anything, okay?

What went wrong, Quentin?

"I have sibling rivalry with Orson Welles. I don't think he's that good...all right? I have sibling rivalry with him and Stanley Kubrick" — Quentin Tarantino on CBS Sunday Morning
I have no desire to see the new Quentin Tarantino movie. This fact amazes me. I used to love his films. They felt so fresh and startling and original you felt like you'd just laughed yourself awake. That's quite a come-down, from 'as good as laughing yourself awake' to 'don't even want to see them.'

So what happened?

Reading reviews you get the impression that Tarantino has lost his edge, or gotten too grandiose, or self-involved, or arrogant, or whatever (insert relevant word here). I don't think that quite accounts for the difference between films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown, on the one hand, and the films he's been making recently: Kill Bill, Grindhouse, Inglorious Basterds. It's not just that the former are good and the latter are bad. The two groups of films are so wholly different, the gap between them so marked that its more like a switch of genre, or aesthetic. It's not that Tarantino trying to do what he did before and failing. He is doing something completely different. That different thing is very wrong, and it's killing his filmmaking, but it's quite deliberate on his part.

So what is the thing he's doing different? I'm going to think it over some, try to put my finger on it, but here are some initial thoughts.

He's making action movies now. But he's not really an action movie director. He used to make movies about what happened before the violence started, or after the action had subsided. He was all prelude and after shock. That's what made him so formally inventive. Just look at the flashback structure of Reservoir Dogs, or the looping narrative of Pulp Fiction. Its like he was making movies out of all the bits other directors left on the cutting room floor. He's not doing that anymore. He's making them out of the same bits other directors make their movies.

He's playing away from home. Neither Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds are set in contemporary America. Kill Bill takes place within the kung-fu universe. Inglorious Basterds takes place within the Nazi movie universe. But Tarantino writes dialogues for contemporary Americans. It's what he's best at: profane, loopy dialogue that glances off contemporary pop culture in a way that connects with an audience, even as the situation on screen does not. Most members of his audience have not held a gun to someone's head. But they'd eaten Pop tarts. His films used to live in that gap.

Not anymore. There's no contrast, no twists, no transplant. It's as if Spielberg, in 1984, had decided that he didn't want to make make movies that filter sci-fi ideas through a suburban setting, but wanted to make pure sci-fi films — no suburbia, just rocket ships and lasers. He's not playing to his strengths; he's playing to his weaknesses.

Aug 15, 2009

Brits defend their health service

At welovethenhs. Hawking, Cameron and Brown join the fray here. Drudge is indignant ("Brits mock American healthcare?!") over this report. As the dust clears on the whole fracas it is becoming increasingly clear that we have something quite rare on our hands: a situation where both sides look down their noses at the other. Both sides are getting patronised by someone they have long pitied.

The Americans look down on the Brits for their healthcare, having no idea that the British have long looked down on the Americans for the same. Both, unbeknownst to the other, have regarded the other's system as the acme of dysfunction. And — here is where it gets blissful — both are having the other's attitude revealed to them at the exact same time. How often does that happen?

Depressing as hell. That's entertainment.

"Watching the president of the United States make the rounds to deny that Congress is planning 'death panels' while protesters compare him to the twentieth century's greatest monster is in some ways depressing. Looked at another way, though, it resembles nothing so much as good-old-fashioned entertainment. No screenwriter could possibly gin up a scenario this delightfully loony, and if one did, no one would believe it." — Peter Suderman, Reason
This is exactly where I find myself, watching the current healthcare debate unfold, somewhere exactly halfway between being depressed and entertained. Today, for example, the senate finance committee decided to drop the provisions for consultations for end-of-life care from the healthcare bill.* For no other reason but that Sarah Palin and others had lied about it so many times that the provision had become toxic. There was nothing wrong with it. Nobody had any objections to it. It would have provided crucial valuable consultations for those facing end-of-life care. A republican proposed it. But Palin saw an opportunity to blow it up into the spectre of government 'death panels' and now the provision is gone. Because a politician wanted to play a game. And everyone else caved.

It's the latter that I find most depressing. Nobody said: 'this is a bald-faced lie, I'm sure that when we get the truth before the American people, they will see it for what it is, Palin will look a fool and the millions will get the care they need'. They just gave up. The consequences of this seem to me nothing short of revolutionary. Obama can come up with the most thoughtful and effective immigration reform in the world, but if Palin claims there's a provision in it dealing with the enslavement of the white race, even if there is not, that bill will face certain defeat. Or if Obama decides he wants to let openly gay people into the military, and Palin says they will insist on wearing sequin-covered uniforms, even if they are not, that bill will be toast, too. And if Obama finally gets bin Laden in his sights and Palin suddenly screams "Don't let him kill my Trig!", even if Trig is nowhere nowhere near the target area, the airforce drones will be forced to abort their mission, turn around, and obediently return to their hangars. Amazing.

*Naturally, Palin had no choice but to celebrate her role in denying the terminally ill the opportunity to discuss with their doctors what they want in terms of end-of-life care. In a Facebook post, she wrote, “I join millions of Americans in expressing appreciation for the Senate Finance Committee’s decision to remove the provision in the pending health care bill that authorizes end-of-life consultations (Section 1233 of HR 3200).”

Aug 13, 2009

Living is easy with eyes closed

"In Thailand, for example, local officials were said to be growing uneasy about a black site outside Bangkok code-named Cat’s Eye. (The agency would eventually change the code name for the Thai prison, fearing it would appear racially insensitive.) The C.I.A. wanted its own, more permanent detention centers. Eventually, the agency’s network would encompass at least eight detention centers, including one in the Middle East, one each in Iraq and Afghanistan and a maximum-security long-term site at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that was dubbed Strawberry Fields, officials said. (It was named after a Beatles song after C.I.A. officials joked that the detainees would be held there, as the lyric put it, 'forever.')"— New York Times

My movies of the year (so far)

1. The Hurt Locker — Kathryn Bigelow
2. Up — Pete Docter
3. Anvil! The Story of Anvil! — Sasha Gervasi
4. Moon — Duncan Jones
5. Funny People — Judd Apatow
6. Star Trek — JJ Abrams
7. (500) Days of Summer
— Marc Webb
8. In The Loop — Armando Iannucci

Quote of the day

"I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS. I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived."— Stephen Hawking, The Guardian

Calling occupants of interplanetary craft

"As ideas go, this is a beauty. It took a certain type of surly ingenuity to imagine that if aliens were to finally make contact with the human race, they might do so not in a blaze of music and lights, or rockets and laserfire, but instead taking up residence in the same sump of mistrust and resentment with which immigrants have been treated since time immemorial. The film is an anti-apartheid movie for little green men." — from my review of District 9 for The Daily Beast
I forgot to mention just how ill the movie made me feel. But Jeff Wells was on hand to help out:
"There's so much garbage, dirt, dust and detritus that started to feel physically dirty after a while. I started to smell it almost. I began to feel like taking a shower or at least some sanitary wipes. If someone had come up to me and said "if you give me $20 bucks I can fix it so that the movie will stop with the dust and the desaturated color and all the scuzzy gooey stuff and cut to a full-color scene in a fashion mall with a couple of pretty women talking about nothing over margaritas," I would have given him the money. Dust! Fucking smelly dust and skanky garbage and black goo leaking out of wounds!"

Aug 12, 2009

Harrison Ford wants his family back. And his wife. And his daughter. And that lamp.

Never say never

"We were like the Darling children when they made the decision to leave Neverland. And John was Peter Pan, warning us that if we left we could never come back. And, true to his word, not only were we unable to return, but he went one step further. He did away with Neverland itself."
From Molly Ringwald's remarkably frank and perceptive reminiscence about John Hughes in today's New York Times.

The great and the good

One of the nice things about walking around New York at the moment is how much Michael Jackson music you hear playing out of passing cars. I'm not overly fond of hip-hop blasting out of rocking pimp mobiles; I don't like the queasy feeling you get in your chest from drum 'n' bass being played at top volume. But to hear Don't Stop Til You Get Enough — the closest the 20th century ever came to producing a Bach fugue* — drifting out of an open-top convertible, as I did the other night on the corner of Bleecker and 10th, is something else. Life does not get much better that hearing music you love played from someone else's car. It even beats hearing that same music in your own car, because of the bonus feeling of connectedness and community you get — the treasurable confirmation that the good and the popular can be one and the same thing.

*Actually I'm not really up on my Bach. And I wouldn't know a fugue from a cantata. But Bach is the guy everyone always invokes when they want to mark the absolute peak of musical complexity, with all sorts of competing contrapuntal stuff going on that somehow combines into a whole of almost mathematical beauty. That's how I think of Don't Stop Til You Get Enough. Plus you can dance to it.

Aug 11, 2009

Another gem

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Healther Skelter - Obama Death Panel Debate
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorSpinal Tap Performance

Too expensive to keep

"People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless" — Investors Business Daily
What nonsense. Any fool knows that Stephen Hawking does live in the UK, on account of his being British and that he was euthanised several years ago by his local death panel in Cambridge who refused the cost of some new batteries.

A font of irrepressible self-delight

"By now this actress has exhausted every superlative that exists and to suggest that she has outdone herself is only to say that she’s done it again. Her performance goes beyond physical imitation, though she has the rounded shoulders and the fluting voice down perfectly." — A O Scott reviewing Meryl Streep's performance in Julie & Julia
Really? I found her close to unwatchable. The self-delight coming off the performance is so overpowering that it was all I could do to resist a movie-long sulk. It's this close to being the worst bit of over-acting you've seen in years (which means she's virtually a shoo-in for yet another Oscar). She sounds like one of the Pythons doing a woman, and acts like a tipsy eleven- year old, stealing scenes that are already hers, rolling her head around her shoulders, chortling constantly, as if thinking of some secret joke, which only she has got to hear in its entirety but which we in the audience are sure to get if we are smart enough. The joke, of course, is that Meryl Streep — Meryl Streep — is playing Julie Child. Julia Child! Imagine that! Isn't that something? Isn't that a blast? A hoot? Isn't that just divine? Isn't that the most hysterical thing you ever did hear?

Or not. I'm not sure when all this started. I think it was around Death Becomes Her. That was the first performance where Streep decided she was going to kick off her heels, relax and have her some fun. I'm all for fun, of course, and but Streep's impersonation of the stuff has everything going for it except the quality of relaxation. To me she the person she most resembles in these roles — Death Becomes Her, Adaptation, Mamma Mia, Julie and Julia — is the high school Latin teacher who has had enough of being demonised by her children and decides to join in the end-of-term panto, on order to show her 'lighter side'. The children, meanwhile, smile grimly way through the whole ordeal, not wishing to offend her, knowing how quickly the jolly chortling matriarch in front of them can snap back into being a fire-breathing dragon who has held them captive all term.

Aug 10, 2009

My favorite Spielberg shot

I found this wonderful still from Duel on the interweb the other day. Seeing as this is my blog, and I can do what I like, I'm going to post it. It's my favorite Spielberg shot; you see it in almost every film of his. Sometimes the truck is a dinosaur.* Sometimes it's a Nazi. But there's a always a monster-in-the-rear-view-mirror shot. Its the concision I love: both chaser, and chasee, compressed into a single frame. Hitchcock would have loved it. Only that shot of cracking glass in The Lost World — you see both the spreading splinters in the glass and the rocks many hundreds of feet below — comes close.

*Jurassic Park's rear-view mirror includes the crowning detail: "Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear."

Neocons 4 Stewart

"Kristol told me: 'You'll be pleasantly surprised. He doesn't take cheap shots. Jon is smart.... There is genuine intellectual curiosity. He's a staunch liberal, but he's a thoughtful liberal, and I respect that" — Cliff May, former spokesman for the Republican Party. "He always gives you a chance to answer, which some people don't do. He's got his perspective, but he's been fair... In general, a lot of the media, especially on the left, has lost interest in debate and analysis. It has been much more ad hominem. Stewart fundamentally wants to talk about the issues." — John Bolton, former ambassador to the UN, New York Magazine

Aug 8, 2009

The presidential sense of humor

There's a nice piece by Matt Lai in the NYT mag about Obama's sense of humor. He rounds up all the right examples — the moment in the debates when asked what his failing was and said messiness, only to see Clinton and Edwards say they "care too much." ("well you know I like to help old ladies across the street. Sometimes they don't want to be helped. Its terrible.") And the time he foreswore, under pressure from McCain, some new white house helicopters ("The helicorpter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me. Of course, Ive never had a helicopter before..."). And edgiest of all, his recent joke that were he to get caught trying to break into his own residence, "I'd get shot." Lai makes the essential point: that Obama's sense of humor is essentially absurdist, looking askance at the pomp and imposture of high office.
"Such a perspective is entirely new in the White House, born perhaps of the same deconstructionist ethos that gave us The Simpsons and The Onion — self aware acts of ridicule that would have seemed wholly out of place in the age of All In The Family."
I would add a particular pecadillo of his: he seems to find old people funny. Again and again on the campiagn trail, he picked out a pensioner in the audience and riffed with them, to everyone's gathering delight — offering the vice-presidency to some old dear in clogs and shawl, waving the walking stick carved for him by an elderly gent and saying he'd "whup" congress's behind if they didn't pass his healthcare bill. This mixture of ease and vinegar may come from being raised largely by your grandparents, as he was. The absent father accounts for the hollowness-of-authority stuff, I think. Obama's best jokes are remeniscent of the child who points out that the emperor has no clothes. Except now he's the Emperor being carried down the street, in all his finery, his vast retinue behind, so dry self-mockery — rare in a politician — becomes his best self-defence.

Quote of the day

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care" — Sarah Palin
As Publius points out,Palin is right on one point: "there are people who weigh whether children like Trig are worthy of insurance. They're called insurance companies, and they have decided that these children are not in fact worthy of coverage. That's because Down Syndrome is a 'pre-existing condition'."

What happens if you get someone who, by some dark miracle, actually believes this bilge? That Obama wants to put the weak and unproductive to death via death panels? A credulous, angry fool who also believes that he is not an American, as do 58% of the Republican base. What would you do if you believed, honestly believed, that your country had been usurped by a foreigner, as part of a vast conspiracy to subvert the fabric of your country from within, and was now planning to exterminate your children and grandparents via a 'death panel'? You would try and take him out. Of course you would. It would be the only decent, patriotic thing to do.* With former vie presidential candidates now lending their name to this garbage, it's only a matter of time.

*Obama is the target of more than 30 death threats a day — up 400% from President Bush.

Aug 7, 2009

The unbearable hotness of zombie killing

Jovovich took the part, then read what they’d done to the script. “It was horrifying,” she says. “They’d brought in the Michelle Rodriguez character and given her all the kick-as action scenes. I was already on plane to Germany when I read it.”

She got off the plane, and marched straight to her director Paul Anderson's hotel room. ‘I’m leaving tomorrow,’ she announced. ‘This script isn’t the script I read. If you think I’m going to be in this you’re crazy. I’m on a plan in an hour.” They spent four hours going over the script together, line by line, giving her back the scene where she runs up a wall, scissorkicks the mutant dog, and breaks the neck of the zombie by crushing his head between her thighs.

“And that was how we met,” she says, smiling.

“How did it work with the sequels? Did he roll over in bed one morning and say ‘darling, I’m very sorry but in the second film you are going to catch the zombie virus.....”

“We had to work on the science of that one. I had the virus but I also had to look hot. So we had to come up with this explanation: the virus was mutating. I had bonded with it.”

“You can’t ignore the internal logic.”

My interview with Milla Jovovich here. One cut the editors made was the following anecdote, about the time Jovovich complimented my wife at a L’Oreal fundraiser, yelling “Great dress!” across a crowded room. When I told her this, Jovovich was delighted. “No way! That is so great... I always feel like I dress for women because men would never notice anyway. So if I see a girl who looks really nice I’ve got to give her props, like ‘I got you girl.... You’re good’.”

Aug 6, 2009

Budd Schulberg R.I.P.

Brando was unhappy. "The scene is unplayable," he told the director, Elia Kazan, who reported back to the film's writer, Budd Schulberg. "Marlon says the scene is unplayable."

"I don't understand it," said Schulberg. "You like the scene. I like the scene. Everybody likes the scene. Let's sit down and talk to him ..." Every time Schulberg tried to sit down with the star, however, the movie's producer found some way to call off the meeting. He was afraid Brando might walk. Finally, during a rooftop shoot, Schulberg approached Brando and took him aside.

"I don't understand about the taxi scene," he said.

"Well, it doesn't work," replied Brando.

"What's wrong, Marlon, why don't you like the scene?"

"Well, when I say that stuff about I could have been a contender instead of a bum and Steiger takes out a gun, I just can't say the rest of it. I think I'd stop."

"What if you just reach over and push the gun down while he looks at you?"

Brando thought about it.

"Oh, that's fine. That'll work."

The speech stayed in.
My interview with Schulberg here.

The Oscar race starts here

My determination to predict the Oscars without having seen a single film have come unstuck: I've seen one of the movies I think is going to be a serious contender in at least three categories. Other than that I'm flying blind, so here goes.

Let's start with the safe bets: Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela in a Clint Eastwood film (Invictus) would seem to have best actor sewn up.

Supporting actor I think is going to go to Stanley Tucci for Julie and Julia. The movie carries a strong whiff of Tucci's wonderful breakthrough film, Big Night. (He's also in another contender this year, Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, so he's showing due diligence.) Other contenders are Alfred Molina for An Education, Matt Damn for Invictus, but Tucci has been delivering treasurable performances for many years now — exactly the mixture of technics and twinkle the Academy loves.

Actress is a little trickier. The front runners are clear enough — Sarandon for The Lovely Bones, Streep for Julie and Julia, Hillary Swank for Amelia and Carey Mulligan for An Education. I think we've all had enough of Hillary Swank, no? I know which I'd like to see win — Mulligan — about which more later.

Best Picture. Ten nominees aren't going to significantly widen the race, I don't think. There may be polite nods to Funny People, Up, or Avatar, but I think it'll be between Invictus, The Lovely Bones, and An Education. Invictus has the look of a Ghandi, to me: big and clunky and potent. But Clint's won twice, and recently. An Education is the one I've seen and think has the most potential for American audiences to fall in love with. It's the only 'small' movie up there, too, which gives it an asymmetric bounce. And the Lovely Bones, well, from the outside things look hopeful: the book was lousy, but hit a nerve — exactly the kind of bad book which has an mystifying habit of making for a good movie. Could Jackson turn in something as good as his Heavenly Creatures? If so he gets his second director Oscar as well and Steven Spielberg starts to sweat.

It all comes down to The Lovely Bones. It's the one piece of the puzzle around which the others fit. If it's good, we have a winner. If it's not, we have a race.

Best original screenplay: Nick Hornby or Judd Apatow.
Best adapted screenplay: The Lovely Bones.
Best documentary: Anvil! The Story of Anvil!
Best animated feature: Up
Special Effects: Avatar
Score: Clint Eastwood

Aug 5, 2009

Quote of the day

“It comes perilously close to negotiating with terrorists,” John Bolton told AFP when asked about Bill Clinton’s trip to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee.
But Kim Jong Il* is not a terrorist. He is the leader of North Korea. Bolton appears to be using the word "terrorist" in much the same way that children use the word "snotbag" or "meanie."
I mean this is a classic case of rewarding bad behavior, the seizure of these two basically innocent Americans. Obviously all of us want to get them out but we want it done in a way that doesn’t increase the risks in the future for other Americans seized by North Korea, seized by Iran, seized by other despotic regimes and then turned into pawns to get senior officials like former presidents to come and legitimize the regime in order to get them out.
Two lives in exchange for a photo-op is a bad deal? Really? Bolton certainly knows how to take a really big crap on good news.

*A name my wife cannot hear without hearing the three-note chorus of Simon & Garfunkel's Frank Lloyd Wright.

Aug 4, 2009

The death of the soundbyte

"Sound bites, says Clay Shirky, the NYU new-media philosopher and recent author of Here Comes Everybody, were a product of media scarcity, when public figures had a finite amount of time and space to make their points. Now we live in a world of “Publish, then filter,” he points out, rather than “Filter, then publish,” a time when the question is “Why not film this?” rather than “Why film this?” This makes Obama our first post-sound-bite president. If he wants to give a 37-minute speech about race, he can give a 37-minute speech about race, knowing that millions of Americans (now more than 6 million) will eventually hear it, even if they fail to catch it in real time. Not only is ubiquity strategy in a world of unlimited content, volume is too." — Jennifer Senior, New York magazine

Aug 3, 2009

A boomerang, comin' back at ya

Drudge links to this Telegraph story about the NHS cutting back on painkiller injections, presumably as a way of bolstering Republican arguments about the horrors of "socialised medicine." If you read the story, however, you find an even worse horror, waiting to pounce:
Specialists fear tens of thousands of people, mainly the elderly and frail, will be left to suffer excruciating levels of pain or pay as much as £500 each for private treatment.
In other words, the poor bastards will be subjected to the American system. What barbarism! Maybe not such a wise idea, that link. The Economist, meanwhile, has some fun with a piece in the Huffington Post noting that firefighting used to be a private, for-profit industry.

If we had to have the "conversation" about the firefighting industry today, we'd have socialism-phobic South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint on the TV every chance he could get saying things like, "Do you want a government bureaucrat between you and the safety of your home?" Rep. John Boehner of Ohio would hold press conferences and ask, "Do you want your firefighting to be like going to the DMV? Do you want Uncle Sam to come breaking down your door every time some Washington fat cat says there's a fire?"

One could write similar comedy sketches for most of the other formerly private services that have become public services over the centuries, as people realised that the free market doesn't provide them very well. (London, 1850. The Honourable Mr. John Boehner: "When an urchin pilfers an apple from your fruit stand, do you want to rely on some bureaucratic government 'copper', or do you want to follow the great traditions of our sunny isle and gather a vigilante mob to enforce justice?" Gaul, 45 B.C. Jimdemintix: "When a Roman phalanx advances on your village, do you want some lazy bureaucratic government-run army in charge of defending it?" And so on.)

Aug 1, 2009

The Uses of Literacy

Forgotten Bookmarks itemises the strange inserts found in books by a used-book seller. Left, someone uses Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting to remind themselves to "wear open-toed shoes" at 11.00 O' Clock.