The election of 1800 started as a bitter fight, but a legitimate one, over federal powers and the role of the president. Jefferson thought that Adams had overstepped his bounds and was guilty of “a monarchie masque,” a masked monarchy. It was a matter for sober constitutional debate, but the campaign soon devolved into personal attacks, with Adams’s followers winning the early rounds. It was intimated in many quarters that there was something sinister about a man with philosophical pursuits. Jefferson’s side answered back in a style just as slithering. Meanwhile, the animosity against Jefferson soared to a strangely flattering exuberance. Federalist predictions credited Jefferson with organizational skills even he would have envied. “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will be openly taught,” predicted a Connecticut newspaper, “---and practiced.”
And that election was between two of the greatest men in the history of the country. Jefferson won, by a whisker, and that was for the best, all in all. But we did end up with Aaron Burr as Vice-President and that turned out well, didn’t it?
Finally blasted from the notebooks. May 21, 2016. Posted June 22.
Assiduously ignoring they’re stuck in the 1970s: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, and Angourie Rice in The Nice Guys.
The Nice Guys is set in L.A. in 1977 and there are moments when it looks like it was filmed in L.A. in 1977.
It looks more like it was filmed in L.A. in 1977 than some movies actually filmed in L.A. in 1977.
It looks more like it was filmed in L.A. in 1977 than The Rockford Files, and nothing looks more like it was filmed in L.A in 1977 than The Rockford Files.
And the movie doesn’t seem to notice this about itself. That is, Shane Black directs The Nice Guys as if he doesn’t notice this about his own movie or expect us to notice.
That’s the joke. The joke behind the jokes, at any rate. Black and his designers have meticulously recreated the look, feel, and sounds of that kidney stone of a decade and then Black’s proceeded as if he’s shooting a movie about the here and now in the here and now.
The effect is that The Nice Guys, for all its period detail, isn’t a period piece. It isn’t about the 1970s.
It’s less about the 70s than, well, some movies made in the 70s. The Nice Guys had me fondly recalling a trio of serio-comic detective movies from the time, The Long Goodbye, The Late Show, and The Big Fix. But not because The Nice Guys contains any specific allusions to them that I caught or that like them it satirizes life in L.A. in the 70s. In fact, I didn’t catch many specific allusions to any movies or TV shows from the 70s. Very little of the humor is based on observations of the fashions, politics, technology, or pop culture. There’s little commentary on the times at all. If anyone mentions Jimmy Carter I missed it. I don’t remember any obvious gags like the “science oven” in American Hustle. poking fun at the the now quaintly old-fashionedness of things that were avant-garde or cutting edge back then. The Waltons gets referenced in the darkest, most un-Waltonesque way imaginable in the person of a hitman who goes by the name John-Boy and looks eerily like Richard Thomas down to the mole.
The point of this lack of history is that the 70s were to people living then what 2016 is to us. Just the present. And they took their present for granted the way we take ours for granted. It was just the way things were or, rather, are.
The bad hair, the ugly clothes, the ridiculous posturing of so many supposed adults trying to be with-it like the kids. The banalities and absurdities of pop psychology and the nihilism and narcissism passing as an individualistic politics of embraced alienation that was hard to distinguish from sulking self-pity. The decadence that was sold as liberation. Disco.
At one point, people accepted all this as normal.
Most people. Some didn’t. At least two.
The heroes of this movie.
Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a freelance legbreaker and enforcer. Someone needs a debt collected or a blackmailer scared off, they call Healy and Healy pays a call that usually begins with the debtor or blackmailer getting punched in the face. After that, things get violent. Lately, though, he seems to be specializing in protecting young women from various kinds of sexual predators. Which is a way of saying he rescues damsels in distress.
Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a licensed private detective who may once have been as brilliant a detective as he thinks he is but who when we meet him seems to be specializing in easy missing persons cases that he pretends are taking a long time to solve in order to gouge his unquestioning clients out of money for “expenses.”
Healy and March meet up while working the same case but from different ends and at cross-purposes. Both are out to rescue the same damsel in distress, but they have different understandings of from whom and from what sort of distress.
The initial misunderstanding results in Healy paying a call on March with the usual introduction. However good a detective March was or is, he has a real talent for getting himself hurt.
The misunderstanding gets cleared up, although not without March’s experiencing a little more pain and humiliation, when Healy realizes his damsel client is in a lot more distress than she’d led him to believe and he doesn’t have the detective skills and experience he needs to help her. With no other option, he hires March to help him help her.
The two men are both good at what they do or at least good enough. But neither is particularly successful They’re not exactly hardship cases but they’re just getting by. The problem for both is lack of focus. Both are adrift.
Healy has recently had an experience that made him reassess his life and decide he wants to do something good with it but he has no idea how to change direction or what exactly to change it to.
March’s situation is sadder and more desperate, although he doesn’t seem to be aware that either’s the case. But then he’s in denial. His wife has recently died in an accident he blames himself for and he’s struggling to raise their junior high school age daughter Holly on his own, something he has no clue as to how to do. Meanwhile, Holly needs him to be twice the parent he was and twice the hero she’s always believed him to be, which means being twice as good a detective, and the trouble there is that in his grief March has lost interest in his work. He’s going through the motions with not just a lack of focus but a lack of emotion which leads to a lack of sympathy for his clients and that leads to a less than solid commitment to principle. He’s become a fraud and Holly is beginning to realize it.
What both of them need from Healy then is for him to turn March back into a good detective, and to do that Healy has to become a good detective himself.
Together they become a comedic, down-market, middle to working class version of Holmes and Watson, with March providing the detective’s deductive reasoning and Healy the good doctor’s emotional intelligence and physical muscle---Conan Doyle downplays it but don’t forget, Holmes is dangerous but Watson the ex-military man suffering from PTSD is deadly. The Benedict Cumberbatch-Martin Freeman BBC TV series keeps that fact in the foreground. Watson can and will kill you. Healy can and does kill. What he gets from March, though, is almost the opposite of what Watson gets from Holmes.
Through Holmes, Watson has opportunities for the action and adventure he craves and that give him channels for the pent up angers and energies left over from his service in the Afghan war. Through March, Healy is given the responsibility to think before swinging or shooting and to express his more domestic and tender feelings.
Both March and Healy are at odds with the times. Each in his way too nice to fit in. Despite the sloppiness of their personal lives and the grubbiness of their professions, they’re both rather strait-laced to the point of being prim, even prudish. In another age, when the role played by private eyes was taken by knights, they’d have been described as chaste. As loyal to their lost ladies-faire as Lancelot to Guinevere. March is devoted to the memory of his wife. Healy is bitter about marriage, his wife having left him for his father! But he’s faithful to the ideal of marriage and building a family together he thought they shared and by that he’s faithful to the ideal of the girl he thought he married. Which turns out to be the basis for his growing fondness for March. Healy’s quest isn’t self-redemption. It’s to save the March family and in doing that complete the adventure he thought he’d begun with his ex-wfe. In other words, he’s out to restore the fortunes of the wounded king and his princess.
I’m probably making too much of the knight-errant theme. But that’s what private eyes are. Knights-errant on quests to rescue people, particularly damsels in distress, ideal and idealistic heroes who are above and apart from the general sinfulness of their place and time. Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Travis McGee, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser---sometimes Parker made too much of this---Jim Rockford, all tough guys with rigid moral codes although with holes in them ---bullet holes---out to right wrongs and slay dragons.
March and Healy are more scattered in their thinking than their literary and cinematic forebears. Distracted might be the more apt description. And they’re not as smart. Not as sharp-witted or quick-minded, at any rate. And while the typical hard-boiled private eye is often temporarily deluded by a usually female client into thinking the world might be better than it is and finishes his story like Sam Spade, cruelly disillusioned, Healy and March are self-deluded, living in a dream world in which they are as stalwart, stoic, resourceful, and brave as Marlowe or Magee. They’re more like a pair of Quixotes than Lancelots or Galahads.
As usual for me, I’m making too much of the literary and not enough of the cinematic, which in the case of The Nice Guys means overstating the romance and ignoring the comedy.
I should have mentioned it before although you’ve probably heard. The Nice Guys is a funny movie.
There isn’t much of a plot. In fact, there’s barely a plot at all. What there is instead is a series of comic set pieces, action sequences, and incidents contrived to make it look as though Healy and March are actually investigating, following leads, gathering clues, and making deductions just like movie detectives are supposed to do. Not all of this is played for laughs. Most of the humor is due to the partnering of Gosling and Crowe as a pair of complementary incompetents in over their heads and at a loss as to what to do next.
After a nearly decade-long string of dark and darker movies that he seems to have chosen in order to shake free of typecasting as a romantic juvenile and establish himself as an anti-hero if not an out and out villain, (He worked Crazy, Stupid, Lovein there but in that one he didn’t play a particularly, um, nice guy.) Gosling now seems set on reminding us of what he was up to ten years ago in Lars and the Real Girl, proving himself a talented comedic character actor. He was mordantly funny in The Big Short playing a wiseguy cynic with the gift of disingenuous gab. In The Nice Guys he shows off his considerable talents as a physical comedian.
In one of his best scenes, which you can watch in the trailers without its being spoiled because it’s a moment worth watching over and over, he does what amounts to a dance with a bathroom stall door. In another hilarious moment he channels the ghost of Lou Costello at his double-taking, scared speechless best. And I lost track of the number of ways he contrived to fall down, fall over, and fall into things.
Crowe is the straight man in the teaming and he more than Gosling retains some of his romantic leading man authority so Healy never becomes as clownish a character as March. But that doesn’t mean Crowe isn’t funny. What can be forgotten is that the straight man can get big laughs of his own by playing it straight. Without ever mugging it up, Crowe makes visual one-liners out of Healy’s expressions of bafflement, bemusement, exasperation, frustration, impatience, and resignation in response to the craziness around him
And it’s a generous performance. (The mark of good actors is their generosity to their co-stars and supporting players.) Crowe and Gosling are equally the leads in the sense of shared screen time, but Healy is the supporting character in that he subordinates himself to the goal of making March a success as a detective and consequently as a father and family man, and Crowe subordinates his performance to Gosling’s, content to play the lead in the scenes in which Healy’s going it alone.
The damsel in distress at the center of the story isn’t as much a character as she is a plot device---she’s Hitchcock’s McGuffin---and unlike typical hardboiled detective stories there’s no femme fatale, and since both Healy and March are, like I said, devoted to idealized women from their past, there’s no love interest for either hero. But that doesn’t mean The Nice Guys is without a female lead.
She just happens to be thirteen years old.
March’s daughter Holly, played by the now fifteen year old Angourie Rice, is her father’s Girl Friday, legman, driver (and, no, she doesn’t have a license. She’s too young. What’s your point?), nurse, and conscience. She latches onto Healy because she senses right away that he has the qualities her disappointing father needs to shape up and then finds that she has to keep Healy on the straight and narrow in order for him to do what she needs him to do. Rice gives Holly a perfect mix of enforced maturity and precious competence and a still young girl’s innocence and need to be taken care of herself. But while Holly thinks that all she wants is to have a father she can trust and rely on again, she also wants to be like him in being able to live a life of adventure and mystery. Rice makes Holly plucky, resourceful, independent, and self-assertive without a trace of brattiness. And it’s not just the case that she holds the screen with Gosling and Crowe. She’s clearly inspired them to step back and let her take over her scenes.
And she’s got terrific comic timing of her own.
One thing about The Nice Guys disappointed me. Although, like I said, the movie looks like it was filmed in L.A. in 1977, L.A. is actually pretty much missing from the story.
Timelessness can be a virtue. Placelessness usually is not. Los Angeles is not quite as there on the screen as the 70s but it’s there, vividly there, but it’s subject to the same treatment by Black. He doesn’t pay it any particular attention. The effect, though, is different.
Black calls attention to the 70s by not paying them particular attention and that’s the joke. But his not paying particular attention to L.A. just seems like an oversight.
March’s stated intimate knowledge of the city and its natives and their ways is a key to solving the mystery, whatever intimate knowledge of L.A. and its natives Black and his screenwriting partner Anthony Bagarozzi possess themselves hardly shows up in their writing
One of the jobs of fictional detectives is to be explorers and observers on our behalf. They’re our guides into strange new worlds populated by interesting and up till now unmet characters with personalities and behaviors shaped---or warped---by the way they’re forced to live to survive in the their peculiar world.
In the course of their investigation, Healy and March do a lot of running around town but they never seem to arrive anywhere that’s identifiably and unmistakably in L.A. From just about every place Healy and March lead us into L.A. seems to disappear as soon as they walk in and the setting becomes generic. We might as well be in Kansas City or Minsk as Southern California. (Inexplicably they never even get to the beach. I thought a scene at the beach was a requirement for every detective story set in L.A.) And the characters they introduce us to are mainly stock characters who could have been drawn from any run of the mill TV or movie detective story. And there aren’t that many of them either. L.A. comes across as strangely underpopulated.
Still, it’s a fun night out at the movies and I’m looking forward to the inevitable sequel. And it got me thinking about some other movies I haven’t seen in a long time and now want to see again, like The Late Show and The Long Goodbye. It also got me thinking about what The Nice Guys would have been like if it actually had been filmed in L.A. in 1977.
Who’d have played March and Healy?
Buddy cop comedies weren’t a staple of the 1970s. Offhand I can only think of two, Freebie and the Bean and Cotton Comes to Harlem.
The more usual detective movie featured an alienated, angry, and conflicted hero operating on his own and that’s what Healy is to start. Clint Eastwood. Steve McQueen. Charles Bronson. Sean Connery. Burt Reynolds. James Caan. Richard Roundtree. They each played that sort of character and would have been fine as Healy.
But I’m thinking that Gene Hackman would have been the best choice because of the basic Everyman decency he brought---and still brings---to every role even his villains, which is what makes them so villainous, the fact that there’s a decent guy in there somewhere who’s decided to be evil and is enjoying it. And Crowe seems to me to be at the point where he could leave his romantic leading man past entirely behind and from here on out work steadily as admirably as his generation’s Gene Hackman.
Finding a March would have been tougher. It would have had to be someone who could play against his own image as a romantic leading man and handle the physical comedy. And I know just the guy.
He did it back then, in fact. In What’s Up, Doc? And there’s another movie from the 70s it’s time for me to see again.
As for Holly. There were two obvious choices, weren’t there?
Jodi Foster might have been the better choice because she was the better actress, but I’d have to go with the sentimental favorite. If we’re casting Ryan O’Neal to play March than who better to play Holly than his real life daughter?
And now Paper Moonjust landed in the queue for a Mannion Family Movie Night.
The Nice Guys, directed by Shane Black, written by Shane Black and Anthony Bagarozzi. Starring Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe, Angourie Rice, Kim Basinger, Amelia Kutner, Matt Bomer, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Beau Knapp, and Jack Kilmer. Rated R. Still in some theaters.
Mined from the notebooks. Tuesday, May 24, 2016. Posted June 18.
Pick-up came up behind me tonight as I was waiting at a light and I guess when the light changed I was too slow off the mark for the driver because he laid on the horn and then passed me on the right, using the shoulder. He cut back in as soon as he felt had room and floored it, getting a whole twenty yards ahead of me before he came up on the tail of another car ahead and had to slow down again. That one he was able to pass on the left.
It was a big pickup. White. Size of an F-350, with jacked up wheels and over-sized tires. Looked brand-new. I didn’t catch what make because my attention was grabbed by the large campaign sticker on the gate.
I had to laugh.
It’s been a long-running joke here in Mannionville that I’m probably the only one continually finds funny---probably because it’s my joke---that every bad and aggressive driver is a Trump voter. I figure they drive like they’re voting, intending to force everyone else to get out of their way, and here was this guy---had to be a guy, right?---confirming it for me.
Trump voters are guys who think other people are on the road just to make their lives difficult and the only way to deal with them is lay on the horn, flip them the bird, and show them just who owns the road.
I love this story from Hillary Clinton’s memoir Living History for a number of reasons, among them the historical irony of three future Democratic nominees for president meeting when only one of them was realistically looking at a chance that would happen, one of them was only beginning to dream and scheme, and the third apparently and likely had no clue as to what her own future would bring. But what really makes me smile is remembering Jimmy Carter’s smile back when he was still full of hope and promise and had reason to smile like that and when that smile brightened the mood of the whole country in those first years after Vietnam and Watergate. Hard to remember that it wasn’t Ronald Reagan who first made people feel that it might really be morning in America again. Hard to remember that Reagan’s failed campaign to take the nomination away from Ford in ‘76 was a mean-spirited one. But as Mom Mannion observed, Carter’s fate was sealed when he stopped smiling like that. Like this:
Bill Clinton’s first election victory as Attorney General of Arkansas in 1976 was anticlimactic. He had won the primary in May and had no Republican opponent. The big show that yea was the presidential contest between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.
Bill and I had met Carter the year before when he gave a speech at the University of Arkansas. He had sent two of his top lieutenants, Jody Powell and Frank Moore, to Fayetteville to help in bill’s 1974 campaign., a sure sign he was surveying the political landscape with an eye toward a national run.
Carter introduced himself to by by saying, “Hi, I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m going to be President.” That caught my attention, so I watched and listened closely. He understood the mood of the country and bet that post-Watergate politics would create an opening for a newcomer from outside Washington who could appeal to Southern voters. Carter correctly concluded he had as good a chance as any, and as his introduction implied, he certainly had the confidence necessary to undertake the ego-mangling of a presidential campaign…
At the end of meeting, Carter asked me if I had any advice for him.
“Well, Governor,” I said, “I wouldn’t go around telling people you’re going to be President. That could be a little off-putting to some.”
“But,” he replied with that trademark smile, “I am going to be.”
Just another old-style pol: Hillary Clinton on the night she became the first woman to clinch one of the two major political parties’ presidential nomination, June 7, 2016.
Like I would know, but I suspect that a lot of Bernie-voting young women who claimed they didn’t care if we elect the first woman president this time out are finding out that they do.
Also like I would know, but I’ve believed all along that the majority of Bernie’s voters are good liberal Democrats who voted for Bernie because they wanted a more liberal nominee or at least a more outspokenly and less defensively liberal nominee than they perceived Hillary to be. Now that it’s over, I expect that they’ll be just fine with voting for her and not just against Trump. It may take time, until the convention if not all the way to November, but they’ll come around. Most of them. Some never will. That’s the way it goes every election.
A twitter acquaintance who tweets under the handle of Seedsdown sent me this link to a post by Laffy who blogs over at Radio or Not. Laffy’s a stalwart Bernie supporter and is of course feeling mightily disappointed these days. But it sounds like Laffy’s working her way there. Her friend, radio broadcaster Angie Coiro, whom Laffy quotes in her post, hasn’t started yet and may never get there.
Yes, like it or not, Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee; a woman can finally claim that victory and that’s a ‘uuuuge deal. While I’ve never been an identity voter or even a single issue voter, I fully and enthusiastically acknowledge that this is a biggie, it’s historic, and a long overdue accomplishment.
It’s a bit of a stunner to be a feminist of so many years, then sit with distress and disappointment at the country’s first woman major-party presidential nominee.
That’s where I’m sitting – not sure how to process this long wished-for benchmark, when the mark has been made by an old-style politician. Old style in her questionable sincerity and her lack of transparency. Old style in her connections to the monied and the power mongers.
Different set of genitals – which yes, does have historical significance – but mostly the same old shit.
I can tell you this: if you told 20-year-old me that one day I’d be disappointed that the old, established white guy couldn’t overturn the powerful woman who bore the black president’s stamp of approval, I’d have laughed you out of the room.
Before I get to the idea of HRC as an old-style pol, about Bernie as a new-style one…
I like a lot of Bernie’s politics. Of course I do. It’s the kind of liberal politics I learned at the knee of that great old-style Democrat Pop Mannion. That’s why Bernie’s never stuck me as particularly new-style. As far as I’ve ever been able to tell, he’s a throwback. Much of his “socialist” rhetoric was old-hat when he came of age politically in the 1960s. As far as what he’s actually stood for, he’s not much to the left of Walter Mondale, Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, or, for that matter, Lyndon Johnson. I’m not criticizing. That he’s in their company is high praise and I’m glad he’s there helping to renew the spirit of their old-style politics.
But he didn’t start this. The renewal has been going on for the last seven and a half years, led by the most successfully progressive president since LBJ.
The only thing that puts Bernie to the left of Barack Obama is that the president has had to actually get things done while all Bernie’s ever had to do is vote the right way.
Scott Lemieux ranks Obama's along with Lincoln's, FDR's, and LBJ's as one of the "handful of American presidencies under which there were major shifts in American policy in a clearly progressive direction". Democrats experiencing “Buyer’s Remorse” are imagining the President could have governed as liberally as FDR and LBJ did without having their overwhelming Democratic majorities in Congress. Some of them think he had that. They’re forgetting---or ignoring---that during the very short time between July 2009 (Cf. Al Franken) and February 2010 (cf. Scott Brown) when Democrats held both houses of Congress with a filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate those 60 seats included those of Joe Lieberman, Evan Bayh, Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Kent Conrad, and Byron Dorgan.
Not a single one of them is in the Senate anymore. And I’d say good riddance, except that only Lieberman's and Conrad's seats have been taken over by Democrats and only Lieberman's by a true liberal. The rest have been replaced by Republicans, and that’s cost the party the majority. Still, I think it’s made the caucus more liberal and it’s likely to get more liberal after the election. And I think it’s freed up President Obama not to have worry about being undermined by members of his own party.
But back to Bernie. With Hillary now the presumptive nominee, the last four Democratic nominees have been her, Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Al Gore. Squinting in from far off to the left, they may look center right to you. To most Democrats they look like what they are, good old-fashioned liberal Democrats. And recapping the lists, Clinton, Obama, Kerry, Gore, Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Lyndon Johnson, and throwing in Franklin Roosevelt for good measure, the only way Bernie doesn’t fit right in is he’s made a point of not being the kind of party man and woman all of them, with the possible exception of McCarthy, are and were. Which has limited his effectiveness as a legislator and turns out to have hurt him badly in the primary. What makes him sound more liberal is he’s been promising to spend more than they did and has put items from their wish lists on his to-do list with no solid or sound plans to pay for any of it, a rather too familiar form of old-style liberalism.
“Soak the rich!” is a stirring battle cry but it’s hardly newer than “Remember the Maine!”
In short, when I’m feeling kindly towards him, I see him as a nostalgia act. When I’m in a meaner mood, I see him as a self-promoting grandstander trying to claim credit for ideas and programs countless Democrats have put forward and fought for for over a century. Most of the time, though, I see him as something else old-fashioned, a tax and spend liberal of the most egregious and stereotypical sort. Nothing new-style in that.
On top of which, it’s hard for me to see what’s new-style about a canny old pol who’s managed to stay in Congress for twenty-five years by making opportunistic alliances with the kind of old-style Democrats Coiro disdains.
As far as it goes, Bernie himself has come late to his own revolution.
Meanwhile, it baffles me how the first woman nominated for president by either one of the two major parties can be said to represent old-style politics. The very fact of her is revolutionary in itself.
It appears that it’s the money that marks Clinton as old-style in Coiro’s mind. That and her connection to the “power-mongers” whoever they are. I don’t know how they expected Bernie to run a competitive campaign in the fall without his making his own connections to the monied and the power-mongers. Same way he was going to get his Social Democratic agenda through a Republican-controlled Congress, I guess, but never mind. Bernie people fixated on the money are right that all that dough coming in does give the rich access and influence that the rest of us can’t hope to have except by relying on the good-hearts and commitment to democratic and Democratic principles of individual politicians. And Bernie’s supporters, encouraged by Bernie himself, have talked themselves into believing they can’t rely at all on either Hillary’s good heart or her commitment.
I believe I can, because I have. For the eight years she was my senator. She disappointed me a number of times. I expect she will again from time to time as President. Name a great liberal politician who doesn’t have black marks next to their name. But never mind me and whatever I may represent among her supporters. Among many others, millions of women and children here in the U.S. and around the world have relied on her good heart and commitment to help make their lives better...to help give them lives.
In their assessments---dismissive assessments---of her credentials as a “progressive”, Bernie supporters, again taking their cue from Bernie himself, have tended to ignore the work she has done since law school on behalf of women and children. (Their ignoring it, by the way, is another reason Bernie has lost. Women have noticed.) But of course women’s issues---family issues---are progressive issues and her feminism goes hand in hand with her progressivism. When that’s added to the equation, there are significant ways Hillary is to the left of Bernie.
Another thing old-style about Bernie is he seems to share the old-style Left’s indifference to women’s issues or, at any rate, the old-style’s Left’s habit of thinking that everything will taken care of by their economic agenda whether specifically addressed or not. Not just women have had some problems with that notion and that’s led to Bernie having problems getting their votes.
There is a way in which Hillary is undeniably an old-style politician. She’s been in politics for a long time and has been a party loyalist doing the kind of old-fashioned field work that helps win Democrats elections and that has meant dealing with some very old-style politicians . Here’s a story about a type of old-style politician she had to deal with back in 1976 when she and Bill went to work for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign:
Upon [Bill’s and my] return to Fayetteville, Carter’s staff asked Bill to head the campaign in Arkansas and me to be the field coordinator in Indiana. Indiana was a heavily Republican state, but Carter thought his Southern roots and farming background might appeal even to Republican voters. I thought it was a long shot, but I was game to try. My job was to set up a campaign in every county, which meant finding local people to work under the direction of regional coordinators, mostly brought in from around the country. The Indianapolis campaign office was in a building that housed an appliance store and a bail-bonding firm. We were right across the street from the city jail, and the neon sign flashing “Bail Bondsman” still hung above the Carter-Mondale posters in the front windows.
I learned a lot in Indiana. One night I had dinner with a group of older men who were in charge of the Democratic Party’s get-out-the-vote efforts for Election Day. I was the only woman at the table. They wouldn’t give me any specifics, and I kept pressing for details about how many phone calls, cars and door hangers they planned to put out on Election Day. All of a sudden, one of the men reached across the table and grabbed me by my turtleneck. “Just shut up, will you. We said we’d do it, we will, and we don’t have to tell you how!” I was scared. I knew he’d been drinking, and I also knew all eyes were on me. My heart was beating fast as I looked him in the eye, removed his hands from my neck and said, “First, don’t ever touch me again. Second, if you were as fast with the answers to my questions as you are with your hands, I’d have the information I need to do my job. Then I could leave you alone---which is what I’m going to do know.” My knees were shaking, but I got up and walked out.
That’s from her memoir Living History and anyone who wants to talk knowledgeably about her heart, her commitment, her politics and political education needs to read it.
That story is forty years old. The sexist Hoosier bully is probably gone from the earth. But you think his style of politics doesn’t live on? Never mind the sexist bully the Republicans are going to run against her. There are plenty of other people, and not Republicans and not just men, for whom the idea that a woman can have personal agency let alone be President of the United States is still so new they can’t even begin to fathom it.
Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and his panther mentor Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) prepare to meet the elephants in The Jungle Book, director Jon Favreau’s reimagining of the Walt Disney cartoon classic as a heroic action-adventure tale in the spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s novel and stories.
Immediately below him the hillside fell away, clean and cleared for fifteen hundred feet, where a little village of stone-walled houses, with roofs of beaten earth, clung to the steep tilt. All round it the tiny terraced fields lay out like aprons of patchwork on the knees of the mountain, and cows no bigger than beetles grazed between the smooth stone circles of the threshing-floors. Looking across the valley, the eye was deceived by the size of things, and could not at first realise that what seemed to be low scrub, on the opposite mountain-flank, was in truth a forest of hundred-foot pines. Purun Bhagat saw an eagle swoop across the gigantic hollow, but the great bird dwindled to a dot ere it was half-way over. A few bands of scattered clouds strung up and down the valley, catching on a shoulder of the hills, or rising up and dying out when they were level with the head of the pass. And “Here shall I find peace,” said Purun Bhagat.
James Alan McPherson turned out to be a very shy man. Jim, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction---he won it in 1978 for his short story collection Elbow Room---wasn’t a reason I chose to go to the Iowa Writers Workshop, but he was a reason I was glad to be going there. I looked forward to having him as a teacher. I was hoping some of the Pulitzer luck would rub off. I was relieved when he turned out to be kind, patient, tolerant, and encouraging. Writers don’t always make the best teachers. I’d heard stories about other writers who’d made life hell for their students. John Cheever had taught at the Workshop. It didn’t go well. Jim was not like John Cheever. He did have one serious drawback as a teacher, however. He didn’t talk.
Not much, at any rate. Not in class. Less outside class. In class he let us do most of the yakking and kept discussions on track and arguments from getting out of hand with judicious nods and shakes of his head, wry smiles and doubtful frowns, and the occasional joke, muttered quietly, so quietly that if you were at the far end of the table you only knew he’s said anything, let alone something funny, by the laughter of the two people sitting on either side of him. He kept his opinion of whatever student work was being workshopped that week to himself, and you only found out what he thought of your story or novel chapter in the one on one meetings he held in his office later. And then it was indirectly. He let you know where he thought your story needed work but he didn’t tell you how he thought you should go about fixing it. Instead, he’d suggest something to read. “So and so has a scene like this in his/her short story/novel,” he’d say. Then you’d have to go puzzle out for yourself how whatever he’d had you read could help you fix whatever it was he thought needed fixing. It was a bit like having to solve a zen koan. At any rate, that’s how I got to reading Isaac Babel’s short stories...without ever quite understanding what particular lesson I was supposed to learn from them.
Jim thought I should read "The Story of My Dovecot."
I left our meeting heading straight for the library where I checked out Babel’s Red Cavalry and The Odessa Tales, determined to have all the stories in both read by next week’s class.
I also left disappointed that we hadn’t gotten around to talking about---or, really, that I hadn’t managed to steer the discussion around to talking about---a writer I assumed was a mutual favorite, Rudyard Kipling.
At our first class meeting, after introducing himself and his goals for the class and letting each of us do the same, and with no stories ready yet for us to workshop, rather than sending us on our way early, Jim had surprised me and I expect the whole class by reading us “The Rout of the White Hussars”. In all likelihood, I was the only one in the room beside Jim to whom the story wasn’t new. Students at the Workshop then weren’t a particularly widely-read bunch. My friend Ann took an informal poll once and discovered that out of the fifty students in the fiction writing program only a handful had read Moby-Dick. And I’m pretty sure I was the only one at the table (Ann was in a different workshop that semester) who didn’t think it was strange that Jim had chosen to read us a story by Kipling.
But it was strange.
Not going to get deep into why it was strange that a writer teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the mid-1980s was reading Rudyard Kipling to his students. It simply was and it shouldn’t have been.
Kipling is a problematic figure in the history of English literature and there’s no use in pretending he wrote only The Jungle Book and the Just-so Stories. But it’s also mistake to read him as if all he wrote were variations on “The White Man’s Burden.”
Kipling is a terrific poet and one of the greatest prose stylists and storytellers in English literature. Mark Twain rated Kipling among his favorite writers. Kipling is who Hemingway wanted to be when he grew up and learned how to tell a joke.
But most of us at the Workshop at the time were writing with the ambition of getting published in The New Yorker and that meant most of us were diligently imitating the likes of Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and Bobbie Ann Mason. Quirky, minimalist, domestic realism was the fashion.
I say most of us, but I really wasn’t one of us, yet. Jim’s reading Kipling meant a great deal to because it made me feel at home.
I’d come to Iowa more than half-convinced I was going to be out of my league and when Jim started reading those old, familiar, beloved words I suddenly thought, Hey, maybe I’ll be all right here.
I wouldn’t have said Kipling was one of my major influences. But Twain sure was, and Twain was a major influence on Kipling and I’ll bet I picked up on it. And I arrived at Iowa after at least a year’s worth of immersion in Kipling’s direct literary descendants Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene---the line of succession goes, I think, Stevenson, Kipling, Conrad, Maugham, Greene, le Carre---so if I’d become the famous writer I thought I was going to be, there’d have been someone’s Ph.D dissertation in teasing that out.
More to the point here is that Kipling was one of my favorite writers back in junior high when my reading was mostly boy’s own adventure stories and I read as much of his work I could squeeze in between Stevenson’s, Twain’s, Melville’s, Conan Doyle’s, Jules Verne’s, and Alexander Dumas’. “Gunga Din” was one of the first poems I memorized on my own. In fact, I didn’t find my way into Kipling’s world through the Just-So Stories or The Jungle Book as I suspect a lot of young readers do. Gunga Din was my guide. And in that world Mowgli and Baloo and Bagheera weren’t my brothers as much as Mulvaney, Learoyd, and Ortheris were my mates.
Fact is, if there was one work by Kipling I didn’t love, it was The Jungle Book.
It may just have been that I came to it a little too late and I thought it was too much of a little kid’s book. But I think it was more Kipling’s own fault. He’d taught me to expect one sort of thing from him and The Jungle Book didn’t deliver it. There was nothing in it I wanted. No soldiers. No Soldiers Three. No Mulvaney, Learoyd, or Ortheris. No battles with guns and cannon blazing. No men who would be kings. No captains courageous. No Tommy this and Tommy that. No Din! Din! Din! Where the mischief ‘ave you been? No villages, towns, or temples. No crowds. Herds and packs but no crowds. Kipling was good with crowds. No romance. No ghosts. And no good jokes. At least none that I understood as jokes.
Just animals talking, and talking pompously, thou-ing and thy-ing at each other like characters in a biblical epic.
Of course you know why I’m bringing all this up.
We finally got around to seeing Disney’s new movie version of The Jungle Book the other day.
Because it wasn’t among my favorites, I can’t say it bothered me that there’s not a whole lot of Kipling’s Jungle Book in it. There’s more of it than I expected, however, and more of the spirit of Kipling than that. There are scenes and images that reminded me of Gunga Din---the movie not the poem, but the spirit of Kipling is very much alive in that---and others that reminded me, more obliquely, of The Man Who Would Be King---again, the movie, but still.
Of course the artist whose spirit this Jungle Book’s meant to conjure up isn’t Kipling’s. It’s Walt Disney’s.
This Jungle Book is a re-imagining of Disney’s Jungle Book, famously the last full-length cartoon Walt himself steered through to completion. And here’s something I can’t tell you. How good a job it does at that. I’ve never seen the original in order from start to finish. I’m not sure I’ve seen all of it. I refused to go see it with the family when I was a kid on the grounds that it was a little kids’ movie and it wasn’t on the Mannion guys’ To Be Watched Over and Over Again Until Mom and Dad Run Screaming From the House List when they were little kids. They both claim to have seen it more than once but I can’t recall ever having been forced to sit through it with them.
Both songs are in this Jungle Book. I’d be inclined to say it would have been better if director Jon Favreau had left them out (although I’m sure the powers that be at Disney didn’t give him the choice, even if he’d wanted it), because they come across as breakings of the fourth wall and actually take you out of the onscreen story. But Christopher Walken does such a surprisingly delightful job with “I Wanna Be Like You” that I’m glad Favreau didn’t have the choice, if he didn’t, or chose to leave the songs in if he did.
I can tell you, with pleasure, that Favreau does an excellent job working in homages and parallels to at least two other but more recent Disney classics. Tarzan and The Lion King. There are nods as well to some non-Disney movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the second Hobbit, the most recent Planet of the Apes, and The Wizard of Oz. But those two, Tarzan and The Lion King figure most prominently. At several points, Favreau includes extended visual quotes from The Lion King and even restages the stampede in the ravine, and he’s almost made Mowgli’s story into another retelling of Tarzan’s origin story.
Favreau knows how to tell an origin story. He directed Iron Man, which I still rank as the second best of the Avengers movie franchise. (Guess which one I think is the best.) He also knows how to direct what’s essentially a live-action cartoon---and all superhero movies are essentially live action cartoons. He takes the material and the characters seriously but isn’t over-serious in going about it. He has a light comic touch and is skilled at mixing comedy with drama. He hasn’t directed all that many films, but you have to admire a career that includes Made, Elf, Iron Man, Chef, and now The Jungle Book.
Kipling’s Jungle Book isn’t the little kids book about talking animals I took it for when I was a kid myself. It’s a Boy’s Own Adventure Story. I probably don’t need to say that I don’t think it’s Kipling’s best of the form---although it’s been a long time since I last read Kim and Captains Courageous and both pale in my memory compared to their obvious inspirations, The Prince and the Pauper and Treasure Island. I told you. Kipling was one of my favorites. But he wasn’t one of my very favorites. ---but that’s what it is, the epitome of a boy’s own adventure story and that’s what Favreau’s Jungle Book is. In fact, based on my unreliable sense of the cartoon---a lighthearted musical comedy about about a boy playing with his stuffed animals come to life, with Mowgli as a Christopher Robin free from all adult supervision and able to join in the hijinks and share in the danger---I’d say that’s the main point of departure for Favreau’s movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s why Favreau wanted to direct The Jungle Book: to make an adventure movie.
He’s made a rousing one.
The many chases, fights, perils, and escapes are genuinely thrilling and surprising, the dangers and violence are shocking and terrifying. Favreau keeps it all moving briskly without the characters and story getting lost in the action. He varies the tempo and the scale and mixes things up so that the movie isn’t just one, extended action scene. And his Mowgli isn’t just a lucky boy who grows up and learns a lesson. He’s a true young hero.
Thirteen year-old Neel Sethi stars as Mowgli. Stars is the right word. It’s very much his movie. His movie-star voiced animal co-stars are his supporting players and sidekicks. His Mowgli is brave and curious, of course, but he’s smart, active, energetic, clever, and competent, without his becoming a miniature adult in a kid suit. He has a wide-eyed look of astonishment that comes over him in the dangerous moments that lets you know he’s still a little boy making it all up as he goes along and regularly surprised that there’s more to the world than he has even begun to know.
What he does know, however, he knows. This Jungle Book isn’t about a young innocent learning lessons. It’s about a young hero putting to work lessons he’s already learned and teaching himself new lessons on the run...and the climb.
One thing I can say for sure about the cartoon Jungle Book. The voice work of the four main animal stars was excellent. It would have been hard to top Phil Harris as Baloo, Sebastian Cabot as Bagheera the panther, George Sanders as Shere Khan the tiger, and Louis Prima as King Louie the orangutan. But Walken, as I said, is a delight as Louie, doing a bit of Robert De Niro. Idris Elbla as Shere Khan scared me. Ben Kingsley is Obi-wan-esque as Bagheera. Imagine the younger, post-Revenge of the Sith Obi-wan, getting to know Luke as a little boy, which happens, and maybe we’ll get a movie that shows that.
Bill Murray is Baloo because who else?
Add to this, Scarlett Johansson as an unnervingly seductive, gender-bent Kaa the python.
The CGI work on the animal characters is exquisite. There were very few moments when I noticed those aren’t real animals up on the screen.
And Favreau doesn’t forget that the jungle and all the terrain through which Mowgli travels are as intrinsic to the spirit of the story and the formation of Mowgli’s character as the animals. The sense of place is as important here as it is in all Kipling’s fiction. Favreau pauses from time to time---but never for too long---to give us the visual equivalent of passages like this from “The Miracle of Puran Bhagat,” one of the stories in Kipling’s Second Jungle Book:
There was a sigh in the air that grew to a mutter, and a mutter that grew to a roar, and a roar that passed all sense of hearing, and the hillside on which the villagers stood was hit in the darkness, and rocked to the blow. Then a note as steady, deep, and true as the deep C of the organ drowned everything for perhaps five minutes, while the very roots of the pines quivered to it. It died away, and the sound of the rain falling on miles of hard ground and grass changed to the muffled drum of water on soft earth. That told its own tale.
Never a villager — not even the priest — was bold enough to speak to the Bhagat who had saved their lives. They crouched under the pines and waited till the day. When it came they looked across the valley and saw that what had been forest, and terraced field, and track-threaded grazing-ground was one raw, red, fan-shaped smear, with a few trees flung head-down on the scarp. That red ran high up the hill of their refuge, damming back the little river, which had begun to spread into a brick-coloured lake. Of the village, of the road to the shrine, of the shrine itself, and the forest behind, there was no trace. For one mile in width and two thousand feet in sheer depth the mountain-side had come away bodily, planed clean from head to heel.
At the end of my two years at Iowa, I asked Jim McPherson to be on my thesis committee. He declined. Politely but reticently, with no more explanation than was absolutely necessary. He had already agreed to serve on too many other students’ committees and simply couldn’t take on even one more. This was almost certainly the truth. There were twenty-five of us with essentially whole books that needed reading, and, although there were three other members of the faculty, each of the four of them had to serve on five or six committees. Jim would have been the first choice of almost of us and had probably already turned down at least ten requests by the time I asked him. Assuming I wasn’t one of the first five to ask him. Which I tried to assume.
I tried not to take it personally. Jim was in fact my third choice. I’d already nabbed Ron Hanson and I’d had the bright idea to ask one of the poets teaching in the Poetry Workshop, James Galvin, and in going over my thesis (a pair of novellas) Galvin gave me one of the best pieces of advice I got while I was at Iowa: boiled down it was “Make it sound like you talking.”
That, by the way, as Galvin explained, not permission for lazy, “colloquial” writing. Read some of his poetry and you’ll see what he meant.
Anyway, I was happy with my committee, they seemed happy with me, and I was able to tell myself that Jim’s---the first Jim, McPherson---begging off was not a judgment on my writing.
I told myself that. I still tell myself that. I’m telling myself that right now.
It nagged at me and still nags at me. There’s some insecure part of me, which is to say the whole writer part of me, that can’t help suspecting that whatever else he might have thought, he was certain of one thing.
I was no Rudyard Kipling.
The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau. Screenplay by Justin Marks, based on the novels by Rudyard Kipling. Starring Neel Sethi. With the voices of Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Lupita Nyong'o, Giancarlo Espisito, and Gary Shandling. Rated PG. Still in theaters.
Sunday. June 5, 2016. Revised Tuesday, June 7, with the editorial advice of Oliver Mannion.
Oscar Isaac in an all too typical moment of mighty frowning as the supervillain Apocalypse with Jennifer Lawrence in an untypical moment of blueness as the heroic shape-shifting mutant Mystique in Bryan Singer’s disappointing X-Men: Apocalypse.
I hadn’t heard promising things about X-Men: Apocalypse going in, but I didn’t expect to spend time watching it thinking, “You know, Batman v Superman wasn’t so bad.”
Hold your four horsemen! I’m not about to make the case that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t bad or that X-Men: Apocalypse is anywhere near as bad. X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t bad, but it isn’t very good either. And it was more of a disappointment not just because I expected far more of it going in than I did of Batman v Superman.
Batman v Superman is what it was going to be and about all it could have been given that Zack Snyder was directing it and given Snyder’s ambivalence towards superheroes in general and Batman and Superman in particular. Snyder’s not interested in his characters except as symbols of his own problematic relationship with the whole idea of heroism and the story he wants to tell is an allegory of his feelings on the matter, and his movie is unremittingly grim, gloomy, and dull. But that results in a kind of perverse aesthetic and narrative consistency. It’s not fun movie storytelling but it is storytelling.
X-Men: Apocalypse’s director Bryan Singer is interested in his heroes as characters and treats them with real affection. He just keeps losing track of them.
And it’s not clear what story he’s interested in telling or that he even has one in mind to tell. There are a number of interesting storylines he starts and lets drop in order to focus on his plot: the world’s first mutant (played by Oscar Isaac), an immortal and nearly all-powerful supervillain who’s named En Sabah Nur but who’s known by what’s essentially his job description, Apocalypse, is resurrected after five and a half millennia of suspended animation under the collapsed ruins of an unearthed pyramid in Egypt. Apocalypse, eager to make up lost time as a self-proclaimed god, immediately sets out to destroy the world and remake it in his own image, a task that doesn’t require him to break a sweat but does involve lots of screen time devoted to images of buildings disintegrating, bridges collapsing, holes opening up in the earth, crowds of people staring bug-eyed and open-mouthed at the sky, and dust and debris flying around and about everywhere and obscuring the views of building disintegrating, bridges collapsing, holes opening up, people screaming, and, oh, by the way, the X-Men coming to the rescue.
None of that is interesting or makes for good movie storytelling.
X-Men: Apocalypse is the third installment in a series that I guess is serving both as a set of prequels to the X-Men trilogy of the last decade and a reboot of the franchise. It’s set in 1983, ten years after X-Men: Days of Future Past, which was set ten years after X-Men: First Class.
One of my disappointments with X-Men: Apocalypse, besides its not being as good as either Days of Future Past or First Class, is that while many references and allusions to events and pop culture highlights of the 1980s are scattered throughout the movie---for instance, there's a way too short scene of the teenaged Scott Summers, the future Cyclops, leading his School for the Gifted classmates Jean Gray, Nightcrawler, and Jubilee on a young X-men apprentices’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Offwhich unfortunately doesn’t include a cutaway to one of the teachers back at the school calling the roll and repeating “Summers? Summers?”---none of them figure significantly in the plot or even make it in as fully-developed jokes.
The Cold War undergirds the plot of X-Men: First Class and the 60s are invoked stylistically and thematically throughout the movie. The 70s matter in Days of Future Past as the target of commentary on the nightmare that was Nixon’s America and as an annoyance to Wolverine who’s forced to relive his least-favorite decade of his long life. In X-Men: Apocalypse the 80s are just background noise. Singer doesn’t even pause for a second to highlight the irony of Apocalypse setting out to make himself a god in the eyes of 20th Century humans by ending the Cold War at the moment the Cold War was actually ending.
Or maybe he does and I just missed it amid all the noise and computer-generated visual chaos and confusion. I think there was a muddled line or two in which Apocalypse suggests that one of the things he really doesn’t like about the 21st Century is that humans seem to have created a world in which gods like him are unnecessary.
Not just unnecessary but basically a nuisance.
The storylines and subplots featuring Singer’s other stars beside Oscar Isaac---Michael Fassbender as Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto, James McAvoy as Charles Xavier/Professor X, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast, Evan Peters as Quicksilver, all returning from the previous installments of the series, along with Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, and Alexandra Shipp making their first appearances as Scott Summers, Jean Gray, and Ororo Munroe, the future leaders of the real X-Men, Cyclops, Phoenix, and Storm---are interesting but like I said, Singer keeps dropping their storylines and losing track of their characters.
Eric Lehnsherr/Mangeto is working as a steelworker in Poland where he’s established a life as a normal family man with a wife and daughter, a good neighbor, and friend to all, secretly using his superpowers to do small good deeds, but mainly enjoying being an ordinary man and learning not just to tolerate non-mutants but to like them. That’s interesting. And since he’s essentially living out a subplot of Man of Iron, the 1982 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language film, which is set in the shipyards of Gdansk during the rise Solidarity’s challenge to Poland’s Soviet-puppet regime, the possibility is there that he’s taking part in the movement and has met Lech Walesa and that’s very interesting.
Charles Xavier/Professor X is happily running his school for “gifted” students---that is, for young mutants who need to be educated on how to control their superpowers and use them for good because with great power etc---which isn’t all that interesting, it’s simply required exposition. What is interesting and funny is watching him making a lovable goof of himself as he awkwardly tries to rekindle his romance with CIA Agent Moira Mactaggert without resorting to restoring the memories of their love affair he took from her at the end of X-Men: First Class for the usual stupid superhero’s reason for sabotaging his personal happiness, to protect her.
Mystique seems to be running an underground railroad for mutants, rescuing them from various troubles and perils and putting them on the route to someplace where mutants can live unthreatened and unexploited by humans. Mystique needs to keep a low profile so she has to go around continually shape-shifted into looking like Jennifer Lawrence which means Lawrence gets to spend less time naked and blue and more time in a black motorcycle jacket and Doc Martens, looking like she’s just finished a late-night gig at CGBGs. That’s neither interesting nor uninteresting but was probably a relief to Lawrence. The Doc Martens website, by the way, boasts of their boots’ popularity among punk rockers and skinheads and that’s interesting as in WTF? but beside the point here. Mystique’s adventures bring her into contact with a fixer and mutant mafiosi of sorts named Caliban, a strange and unnerving character who looks more like an extraterrestrial than he does like any mutant we’ve seen so far. He’s interesting.
Storm is a street rat in Cairo using her still far from developed weather controlling powers to help her steal food from street vendors, and that’s interesting.
Quicksilver is still living in his mom’s basement ten years after we last saw him in Days of Future Past but apparently, having gotten a taste of being a superhero, he’s been zipping out from time to time to fight crime on the QT, and that’s interesting.
Just as he did in Days of Future Past, Evan Peters runs away with the movie. That’s not a bad joke. Well, it is, but it’s also an accurate description of what happens.
Jean Gray/Phoenix and Scott Summers/Cyclops are introduced to us and each other, finally bringing together the core of the original X-Men from the comic books and the rebooted storyline near to the point where the first set of X-Men movies began way back in 2000. That’s probably interesting to fans of the comics and those movies. I’m not among either. But I recognize that’s me. The X-men left me cold when I was a comic-book reading kid in the 60s and when I got interested in them later, for a brief time in the late 70s, it was the group centered around Storm, Banshee, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Wolverine. Cyclops was just sort of there, the nominal leader, but really along for the ride, and Jean Gray was mostly offstage busy being sort of dead. But Nightcrawler is in X-Men:Apocalypse and that’s interesting because he’s interesting as a character and as he’s played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. I’m not interested in any more X-Men movies but I would be interested in a stand-alone that featured Nightcrawler and Quicksilver teaming up as a pair of not typically heroic superheroes who are essentially invisible when at work for secret and comedic crime-fighting adventures.
All that is interesting and could have been more interesting if Singer had given his supervillain an interesting story of his own and used it to weave his superheroes’ storylines together or, even better, been content to tell those stories without a superpowered villain and instead come up with a villain like Bolivar Trask in Days of Future Past who actually had to do things to demonstrate his evil genius beside wreak computer-generated havoc. But Apocalypse’s part of the movie is only plot and special effects and those storylines are just devices to bring the X-Men into that plot and then beat them up with the special effects. And Apocalypse himself isn’t the least bit interesting.
Unlike Lawrence, Oscar Isaac spends the whole movie not naked but blue. I couldn’t tell how much of what we see of him is makeup and prosthetics and costume and how much is CGI, but for all the acting he has to do and for all it matters that it’s Isaac doing the acting, Apocalypse might as well be entirely computer generated.
Isaac isn’t called upon to do much more than frown mightily or grin malevolently as he watches buildings disintegrate, bridges collapse, holes open up, etc. His dialog is mainly variations on the theme that it’s time for humans to learn their place and bow to him or die and he has to deliver most of his lines at the top of his voice in order to be heard over the din of buildings disintegrating etc. Apocalypse has no wit, charm, no verbal style. He doesn’t talk intelligently or even coherently about what he’s up to or what motivates him, probably because, as far as we can tell, he possesses no intelligence, not even of the movie evil genius kind, and doesn’t think at all, never mind think coherently. He fumes, rages, and sneers, but he doesn’t monologue like a good movie villain. He says that the power he wants most of all is the power to look into the minds of every human being at once but the one he really needs is the power to hold a simple conversation. In short, he’s boring.
In the comic books, Apocalypse has been continuously active interfering destructively in human affairs and trying to bring about the end of the world since he came into existence centuries upon centuries ago. This could have given Isaac something interesting to work with. Apocalypse could have amused himself and us monologuing about how much fun he had bringing about the Fall of Rome and guiding Cortes to Tenochtitlan and about his frustration at seeing his last chance to ignite a nuclear Armageddon slip away as the Soviet Union collapses.
Not having gone that way, however, Singer then could have spent time showing us an Apocalypse who, having gone to sleep in Pharaohic Egypt and woken up in an automobile traffic-snarled Cairo where the street vendors listen to Metallica on their boom boxes, struggles to figure out how to make himself a god relevant to life in the 20th Century.
But Singer has Apocalypse solve that problem for himself in a single quick scene. While visiting Storm’s apartment, Apocalypse picks up all the information he thinks he needs to navigate life in 1983 by absorbing everything being broadcast on her portable TV, which includes a rerun of an episode of the original Star Trek. The episode happens to be “Who Mourns for Adonais” in which Kirk and his crew are captured by the Greek god Apollo who is feeling lonely and bored after centuries of self-imposed exile on an uncharted planet the Enterprise bumps into while seeking out new life and new civilizations. Like Apocalypse, Apollo is looking to get back to work at that divine job of being worshipped by all of humanity. Apocalypse learns how to speak perfect 20th Century American English from that episode but he fails to pick up on its lesson: that the most powerful deities are no match for plucky humans who don’t need gods to rule them anymore, not even benevolent gods like Apollo, never mind malevolent ones like Apocalypse.
What Singer fails to pick up from his own inside-joke is what could have been a good plot for his movie that allowed for the development of his villain’s character in a way that might have made him interesting and even sympathetic.
Apollo is defeated when he’s forced to face the fact of his irrelevance. The realization and the implicit rejection by the humans he genuinely loves as his children breaks his heart.
X-Men: Apocalypse, directed by Bryan Singer, screenplay by Simon Kinberg. Starring Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Oscar Isaac. With Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Olivia Munn, Alexandra Shipp, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.
Next month, when the city had returned to its sun-baked quiet, he did a thing no Englishman would have dreamed of doing; for, so far as the world’s affairs went, he died. The jewelled order of his knighthood went back to the Indian Government, and a new Prime Minister was appointed to the charge of affairs, and a great game of General Post began in all the subordinate appointments. The priests knew what had happened, and the people guessed; but India is the one place in the world where a man can do as he pleases and nobody asks why; and the fact that Dewan Sir Purun Dass, K.C.I.E., had resigned position, palace, and power, and taken up the begging-bowl and ochre-coloured dress of a Sunnyasi, or holy man, was considered nothing extraordinary. He had been, as the Old Law recommends, twenty years a youth, twenty years a fighter — though he had never carried a weapon in his life — and twenty years head of a household. He had used his wealth and his power for what he knew both to be worth; he had taken honour when it came his way; he had seen men and cities far and near, and men and cities had stood up and honoured him. Now he would let those things go, as a man drops the cloak he no longer needs.