Posted Monday night, October 24, 2016.
The polar explorer in question is Roald Amundsen.
To jump straight to Megan Gannon's article at Live Science follow the link to 80 Years Later, Polar Explorer's Sunken Ship Floats Again.
Posted Monday night, October 24, 2016.
The polar explorer in question is Roald Amundsen.
To jump straight to Megan Gannon's article at Live Science follow the link to 80 Years Later, Polar Explorer's Sunken Ship Floats Again.
Posted Sunday morning, October 23, 2016.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Ed Snowden, the computer analyst and programmer who exposed the U.S. government's mass surveillance of American citzens , wearing an expression as blank and unreadable as the movie he’s starring in often is itself, Oliver Stone’s untypically understated Snowden.
I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Snowden. With apologies to Matt Zoller Seitz, I’ve never been much of an Oliver Stone fan. I find his movies too...loud. And insistent. And he's too much of a believer in the idea of the Last Honest Man. I feel like all his movies tend to be about how one noble and innocent man, after temporarily losing his way, redeems himself by taking on and defeating the SYSTEM or in being defeated by it.
Of course that’s not entirely true. At any rate, it’s not true of Nixon.
But Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, JFK, Any Given Sunday, even Talk Radio fit the pattern. I probably could make the case that Natural Born Killers is his own dark parody of the same theme.
And hand in glove with the Last Honest Man theme is Stone’s vision of America as a generally dark and sinister place ruled by a shadowy and corrupt elite made up of ruthless and power-hungry schemers, thieves, mass murderers, and madmen, and in that Nixon does fit the pattern. Richard Nixon and Nixon’s America are the implicit or explicit evils at work in all those other movies.
There are too many days when I agree with Stone on this and it’s one of the things I go to the movies to escape, that grim, cynical, despairing sense that Nixon won.
So I was expecting more of the same from Snowden. But it wasn’t just the existential dread I was dreading.
I was dreading that Stone would try to make a hero of Edward Snowden, and I just can’t bring myself to think of Snowden as a hero.
This says more about my own orneriness than about anything else. I think a lot of liberals need to see Edward Snowden as a hero the way a lot of conservatives needed to see Chris Kyle as a hero. And I want no part of that. They’re both too complicated, flawed, and all too human. I’ve always seen Snowden as an idealistic and well-meaning but naive young man who tried to do a good thing, by his lights, and did it badly in a way that ended up screwing himself and tainting his cause.
I’ve also never been sure exactly what good he hoped to do or how much good he actually accomplished.
I don’t know which side in the debate to trust either. The government’s argument has been we need to do what we’re doing in order to stop the terrorists but don’t worry we’re not overstepping, which is not the kind of reassurance the government should expect people to just accept. What government has ever not overstepped? And they've released no evidence that spying on everybody has worked or that it's necessary. It didn’t help get bin Laden and the major terrorist threats that we know failed---the shoe bomb that didn’t go off, the underwear bomb that didn’t go off, the Times Square bomb that didn’t go off---were thwarted mainly by accident and the terrorists’ own incompetence.
On the other side, the argument seems to be that nothing the government does to protect us is worth the assault on our civil rights and privacy---brave words, but seem to me to come out of a sense that there's nothing to protect us from.
I figured I’d sit through the movie feeling as frustrated and manipulated and pulled in too many directions by the story Stone was telling as I’d felt by the real story as I heard it told in the news and online all along.
Didn’t seem like a fun way to spend a couple hours.
In the end I felt I had to go so I could write about it in order to maintain my standing as a dutiful liberal blogger. In other words, I went as homework. Not the best reason to go to a movie.
Turned out it wasn’t the kind of Oliver Stone movie I was dreading. It wasn’t loud. It wasn't insistent. It didn't beat me over the head with its arguments. It was even nuanced. And parts of it were quite...sweet.
A nice surprise, at the beginning. By the midway point, though, I was wishing it was that kind of Oliver Stone movie simply because it would have been more exciting and fun. As it is, Snowden is as low-key, reticent, unforthcoming, emotionally reserved to the point of repressed, and monotone as its portrayal of Edward Snowden himself.
But...while in certain ways it's still a typical Oliver Stone movie, including its being about another Last Honest Man, whether or not it’s a typical Oliver Stone movie and whether or not I’m an Oliver Stone fan doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m a Joseph Gordon-Levitt fan and Snowden features what’s becoming a typically excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance.
An excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt performance doesn’t mean an excellent movie. It just means a movie that’s at least worth watching for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance.
Gordon-Levitt’s Snowden is watchful, self-contained, maybe not emotionally repressed but definitely willfully undemonstrative. He rarely seems to smile on his own volition. A smile is a reflexive reaction he should have controlled. When he’s made to smile---and it’s always as if he's been made to, against his will and better judgment---there’s a look in his eye that’s partly regret and partly amused admiration for whatever or whoever’s forced him to smile, as if he’s been fooled by a card trick he should have known better than to fall for but he still can’t help enjoying the trick and having been tricked in spite of himself. And he talks openly only a little more often than he smiles. He says only what he has to say. He has vibrant inner life but he’s determined to keep it to himself. He’s an intellectual and a voracious reader. He thinks deeply and philosophically about what he reads. But you have to work hard to get him to talk about it. You have to work hard to get him to talk, period. When he does speak it’s with a slight, barely perceptible hesitation, and with a studying look in his eyes, as if he’s scouting the path a sentence is going to take for holes to avoid stepping in and roots to avoid tripping over. It’s as if he’s hooked himself up to an inner lie detector test to ensure that everything he’s about to say---and feel---is truthful and accurate. A conversation style that cuts down on small talk. That’s the point. Talking just for the sake of talking is when you’re likely to give yourself away.
Not that Snowden has anything to hide---when we first meet him, at any rate. He’s not deceitful. He’s not particularly shy, either, and not naturally taciturn. His reticence is more like a point of principle. His business is his business, and yours is yours. He’s the living embodiment of the principle he’s ultimately going to ruin his life defending. No one gets to pry into anyone else’s life without explicit, specific, and limited permission.
Conversations should be about practical matters at hand, and he’s not just willing but eager to talk about those. He’ll gladly go into detail about what he’s working on---if you have the security clearance and he’s judged you smart enough and competent enough to follow him. He just won’t tell you why he’s working on it and for whom he’s doing the work.
Temperamentally, intellectually, emotionally, and, as it turns out, politically and ideologically he’s suited for working for the NSA and the CIA, which is to say essentially as a spy and an eager volunteer in the cyberwar on terror. Edward Snowden, I was surprised to learn, was a Republican and a libertarian when he started out in the intelligence business.
The problem, he learns to his own dismay, is that the nature of the work he has to do, and wants to do, and is proud to do and be able to do, is in conflict with his own nature.
As it happens, at this critical point in his life he falls in love with someone who in her own way is as all wrong for him as it’s becoming clear his job is all wrong for him.
His job requires him to treat everyone else’s business--and it’s literally everyone else’s business---as his business. Being in love with the politically liberal artist and professional free-spirit Lindsay Mills, played charmingly, exuberantly, and winsomely---but not too---winsomely by Shailene Woodley, means allowing his business to become her business and through her the business of everyone else or, at any rate, anyone else she whimsically decides to share it with it and, given her nature, that could mean literally everyone else.
If Snowden’s motto is “Nothing about me is your business”, hers is “Everything about me is not only your business but something I expect you’ll find totally fascinating.”
Good liberal that she is, she isn’t the least bit worried about the government’s spying on her or on anybody because she not only doesn’t have anything to hide, she doesn’t hide anything. Puts her whole life online, practically uploading her soul and personality, a virtual her who’s even more open and free-spirited and uninhibited as the analog her.
She’s an exhibitionist. Her whole life is a work of performance art. Multi-talented, her art of the moment is photography and she’s using her camera to chronicle her life. Snowden, as an important part of her life, is an important part of the chronicle. He must be photographed. Continually. Her favorite model. She adores him as a person so she adores him as a subject. He has to perform for her. For her camera, at any rate. He has to smile. And despite himself, he does. He even begins to enjoy it, both smiling and performing for her.
So, even though at first glance in one way she’s all wrong for him, she’s in this way just right for him. She frees him up to be more himself. She brings him out of himself, gets him out and about in the world, shows him how to have fun and enjoy what life offers beyond work. It’s the old, old story going back to Pride and Prejudice. Creative and intelligent and passionate free-spirited young woman finds true love and happiness by saving a dour, emotionally repressed, all work and no play from himself and the stodgy, conventional boring life he’s headed for. It’s an old story but a good story.
Trouble is it’s usually a funny story.
Pride and Prejudice is a comedy. Bringing Up Baby, another version the old, old story, is a farce. Buried in Snowden is a comedy called When Eddie Met Lindsay or Pride and Prejudice and Programming. Edward Snowden is a Mister Darcy who’s a genius computer programmer addicted to his work. Lindsay Mills is an Elizabeth Bennett who takes nude selfies and posts them on the internet. They get together, despite themselves, and live happily if somewhat complicatedly ever after.
This would be fine if only the story around them had also been a comedy. It could have been one too, if Stone had chosen to see it that way. There is something farcical about the government’s “Let’s spy on everybody!” plan to combat terror. And the character who serves as the movie’s central villain, a CIA operative named O’Brian and Snowden’s suave and sophisticated but sinister mentor, brilliantly played by Rhys Ifans, is in his essentials a comic villain.
With his long lupine face topped off by snow white hair combed boyishly forward, he looks like Draco Malfoy whom no one has told is now middle-aged and a lot less pretty than he was when he and Harry Potter last crossed wands---an effect probably emphasized in my mind by Gordon-Levitt’s looking as though the part of Snowden was between him and Daniel Radcliffe and Stone told him he’d only cast him if he played it as a grown-up and grown Severus Snape-grim Harry. The improbable hair cut hints at the man’s vanity as well as his phoniness.
Feeling professionally obligated to keep his true self hidden and to appear in the world in disguise, he’s chosen for his primary false identity to disguise himself as someone twenty years younger. In another of his guises, he’s a Hemingwayesque outdoorsman and hunter. (For this one he wears a Stetson that looks as improbable on him as the haircut.) He’s also, at various times, a bon vivant and man of the world and a country club-style hale fellow well met type of 19th hole regular as gregarious and sycophantic as if he’s congratulating business contacts he’s let beat him at golf. (This one seems to be real in that it’s something he really does as part of his spy craft.)
The role he plays most often with Snowden is that of wise to the ways of the world and magic wizard instructing an apprentice, Merlin to Snowden’s Arthur, Dumbledore to Harry, Obi-wan---the haircut is also reminiscent of Alec Guinness’s wig in the original Star Wars movies---to his Luke.
All of these disguises are self-flattering and self-aggrandizing and there’s comedy to be found in his inflated view of himself. But it’s also a wonder that he can keep them all straight and doesn’t occasionally play the wrong part at the wrong time for the wrong audience and that could have been funny, his getting mixed up from time to time. A few more good jokes and with Stone pushing him to ham it up a bit more---or giving him permission to. Ifans probably wouldn’t have needed much prodding or direction. He is British, after all, (Well, Welsh, technically, but so was Burton) and the Brits are taught how to be hams as part of their basic training as actors.---and O’Brian would have been a funny bad guy.
But even though there are funny moments in Snowden, Stone doesn’t find any of the larger story amusing. That’s one of the reasons I’m not a fan. There’s never much he finds amusing. That’s ok, though. Not all love stories are comedies. Young lovers who would have had happy endings if only the grown-ups had stayed out of it are regularly in story and song brought to sorrow and grief. (See Romeo and Juliet.) For stretches of the movie, it looks as though that’s what’s going to happen to Snowden and Mills. His work is going to break them up, break their spirits, and break their hearts. There’s even a tragic flaw within their love for each other that would have helped that to happen.
As good as she is for him in one way, she’s bad for him in another, because, despite her being a liberal hippie in comparison to him, she’s a spoiled rich girl used to living well and traveling in the “right” social circles. His job allows for both and she likes that.
As O’Brian’s protégé he’s invited into the homes of the Beltway elite where he meets and is taken a shine to by important and Very Serious People who are happy to boost his career. When he gives up government work only to go back to work for the government as a consultant, his salary jumps and he and Mills are suddenly very flush with money. At first, Snowden’s not impressed by either the money or the social advancement. But he is impressed by how it makes her happy. And, under her influence, he begins to like it too, both the money and the social success.
On top of this, Mills is a bit of a vicarious thrill-seeker and she pushes him to go out into the field and do some actual spying.
This leads to what I think is the best section of Snowden, almost a movie within the movie that could have been expanded into the plot of an entire Hitchcockian thriller focused wholly Snowden and Mills as a pair of innocents caught up in intrigue and adventure.
Snowden is sent to Austria---setting of The Third Man---where he teams up with a charming but oily, hedonistic, and morally bankrupt operative, played by a leering and cheerfully dissolute Timothy Olyphant to manipulate an innocent banker into giving them information about a would-be terrorist. The banker isn’t connected to the terrorist himself. He has family connections who have connections to people who have connections to people who...you get the picture. He himself has no idea how he’s connected at such a remove, but Snowden and his partner get to those connections through his daughter. This leads to tragedy and Snowden’s first serious crisis of conscience.
There Stone had, a story, if he’d wanted to tell it, about a pair of lovers who are tempted by money, status, and the pure thrill of behaving amorally and either fall into corruption or are saved from it by their own innate decency or the intervention of angels in human form, a tragedy or a comedy, whichever way he chose. He chose to go back to his main story about Snowden standing up to the System. That could have been a tragedy or a comedy too. Except for one hitch. Neither the tragedy nor the comedy happen because neither did happen.
You’d think that wouldn’t have been a problem for him since what really happened has never stopped him before from telling the story he wanted to tell and making the points he was determined to make.
But this time it did. Stone let himself be blocked by reality.
The real Snowden and Mills seem to be living out a romantic comedy. Who knows if they’ll live happily ever after, but from all appearances they’re living pretty happily in the here and now, despite the inconvenience of their Russian exile. The System gets taken down and Snowden and Mills survive as individuals and as a couple, leaving Stone with a love story that’s neither comic nor tragic just kind of sweet, interrupted too often by a not particularly dramatic historical drama.
Again, there’s a way he could have dealt with this. The one I suggested earlier. He could have the plot that surrounds the romance a comedy too or, at least, comedic.
For reasons I can only guess at, he didn’t do that. But then he didn’t do what I’d actually expected him to do. Treat the whole thing as a typical Oliver Stone overwrought melodrama.
There’s a surprising matter-of-factness to his storytelling in Snowden. A this happened, then this happened, then that happened straight-forwardness that not only cuts down on the suspense but causes the movie to resist emotional involvement.
How are we supposed to feel about all of this?
The answer seems to be a bit of a shrug.
Ok. Then how about think? What are we supposed to think?
I was dreading going to Snowden because I expected Stone would try to be as emotionally manipulative and intellectually dishonest---in the cause of dragging the audience to the right side---as he’s often been. I didn’t want to be imaginatively wrestled into taking Snowden’s side and cheering him on as a hero. But I think I would have enjoyed that better.
Stone seems to be way too willing to let the facts speak for themselves for once. In truth, he seems barely interested in presenting the facts at all. At any rate, he doesn’t do much to dramatize them, let alone over-dramatize them in keeping with what I’ve always thought is his idiom. He appears to take it for granted we know all we need to know about the government’s massive data gathering enterprises and that we disapprove on intellectual, constitutional, and moral grounds, and he doesn’t have to work to make us disapprove.
The result is some rather desultory storytelling with many confusing and lazy plot twists and turns. Details and events have to be left out, compressed, or elided in all historical movies for the sake of time and in order not to overwhelm the audience with facts as if in a well-meaning but counterproductive effort to help us cram for a final exam. But in Snowden those left-out details and events aren’t compensated for either imagistically or through poetic license. This happened, then that happened, then...this happened. Wait? What? How did we get to that last this happened? What happened during the ellipses?
We’ll have to go back and read the books.
As for Snowden himself and what good he did...or harm…
On this point, as with the other, Stone seems to take it for granted that since we already agree that what the government was doing was wrong on principle, then we already agree that what Snowden did to put a stop to it was right on principle, and therefore Ed Snowden is a champion of truth, justice, and the American way on principle and we will cheer for him in the end on principle.
I don’t like to go to movies on principle. I went to this one on the principle I needed to do my homework for the blog and I wasn’t looking forward to being manipulated. But I would rather be manipulated into cheering for the hero than being expected to do it on principle. And that’s what I missed watching Snowden, Stone’s old manipulative tricks.
I missed his special pleadings. I missed his tampering with history and the histrionics that usually go with it. I missed his very dark view of America. The government as presented in Snowden is generally incompetent while being too competent at the wrong things, corrupt but only routinely so and mainly because individual actors are corrupt, and generally wrongheaded to the point of stupidity. Which is why I think it could have been treated comically. But it isn’t actively evil. And it isn’t anybody, really. President Obama appears in clips that show him saying things we now know were official lies. But that’s all they are, official lies of the sort any and all political leaders engage in as a matter of course. There’s no George W. Bush here, no Dick Cheney. I didn’t miss them, particularly. But I missed there being real villains.
Especially the chief villain of Stone’s dark vision.
I missed Nixon.
Snowden, directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone, based on the books The Snowden Files by Luke Harding and The Time of the Octopus by Anatoly Kucherena. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkerson, Rhys Ifans, Timothy Olyphant, and Nicolas Cage. Rated R. Now in theaters.
Posted Saturday morning, October 22, 2016.
Be sure to read the post. It’s by the clinic’s manager and one of his volunteer physicians, Dr Muhammad Safwatullah.
To go directly to the post, follow the link to This Muslim Clinic, Treating Mostly Latinos, Is What ‘Makes America Great’ Already at Huffington Post.
Posted Saturday morning, October 22, 2016.
Well, politics is a performance art.
Most of what Trump says boils down to "I would act the role of President well. I'd make President sounds. You would think 'He's President.'"— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) September 19, 2016
Posted Tuesday morning, October 18, 2016.
This morning. Around 8:30. Saw this in the parking lot of McDonald’s as I swung through the drive-thru to grab some coffee---Yes, Chris. It’s still the best coffee in the world. Stickers may be a little hard to read. I need to get a real camera. Let me help you out with a sample…
The one down on the right hand corner of the bumper says “Welcome to America. Now Either Learn English or Leave.”
Up in the right hand corner of the rear window: “NRA Stand and Fight” and that’s a picture of a .45 automatic next to “Piece Be With You”.
Here are some others:
“The Best Homeland Defense is an Armed Citizen”
“Communists Now Call Themselves Democrats”
“Bring Home Our Troops. Send the Democrats”
“Save Freedom. Stop Hillary.”
“What Do You Feel When You Kill a Terrorist? Recoil.”
And, incongruously---or maybe not: “Cats. Nature’s Little Speed Bumps.”
All the stickers look as though they’ve been on there for a long time, weathered, faded, peeling. The "Save Freedom. Stop Hillary” one looks as though it could be left over from 2008 or even from her last Senate run in 2006, although I don’t think the truck itself is that old. All I think this means is that these are long-standing sentiments for the owner and not necessarily feelings ignited by this election. I think we can guess who this guy’ll be voting for, but he seems to be a single-issue voter. Guns really matter to him.
You might be asking yourself, as I did, who could be so frightened and paranoid that he needs to express his gun-nuttery like this? You might also be asking yourself, as I also did, who would mess up an otherwise handsome pickup with all those ugly stickers? Never mind what they say. They just ruin the look of the truck.
Actually, I have a pretty good idea who owns the truck or, at any rate, I’m fairly sure he’s one of a half-dozen or so regular customers, a group of men, white men, in their 60s, I see here from time to time. They like to talk politics. Which is to say they like to complain about how the country’s going to hell in a handcart and it’s all THEIR fault. One of them talks very loudly. But I don’t think he’s the owner. Tell you why.
He talks like one of Limbaugh’s dittoheads which makes me think he’s like Limbaugh himself. Somebody who’s always been all talk, no action. The owner of the pick-up has seen action.
One of the stickers says: “Death Smiles at Everyone. Marines Smile Back.”
Down in the left hand corner of the bumper: “USMC Sniper.”
I have a feeling the subtext of all the stickers is a lot sadder than simply "Vote Trump".
It never goes away. Never.
Posted Saturday night, October 15, 2016.
We watched The Nice Guys for Family Movie Night Friday night and as I said in my review back in May (re-posted below), director Shane Black and his cinematographer and designers re-created the look, feel, sound, and tone of the 1970s and then Black proceeded to ignore his and everyone else’s hard work and shoot the film as if it was just a routine contemporary comedy crime movie. The effect is that The Nice Guys isn’t about the 70s and it doesn’t simply look like the 70s. It’s as if it came out of the 70s. The only giveaway’s the casting of the leads, and then you can almost make yourself believe Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe traveled back in time to star in it.
I didn’t catch many explicit references or allusions to the movies and TV shows Black is parodying the first time we saw it in the theater. Didn’t catch many more this time through. Mostly it’s a matter of scenes and shots and characters looking and sounding as if they could have been lifted straight from some movie or show from the period but I couldn’t put my finger on any particular movie or TV show. Except one.
Gosling plays Holland March, a down on his luck private eye whose desperation and lack of ambition---whatever drive he ever had he’s lost due to his grief and his guilt over his wife’s accidental death---has reduced him to taking missing person cases from old ladies who want him to find loved ones who they can’t admit to themselves have died. It’s also given him a drinking problem. Early in the movie, there’s a throwaway moment when March is recovering from a hangover on the floor of his bathroom and we hear the phone ring in the background and the answering machine pick up. We hear March’s message: “You’ve reached March Investigations. This machine records messages. Wait for the tone and speak clearly.”
This isn’t a time marker like the recurring jokes about the microwave oven in American Hustle. Answering machines were hardly new in 1977 and people weren’t expected to be surprised at reaching one and need to have it explained to them what one was and how it worked.
The first time we saw the movie I thought the joke was on March. The commentary isn’t on the now dated technology of the 1970s, I thought. It’s on March’s showing off that he has an answering machine long after they’d become ubiquitous as if it puts him on the cutting edge. It’s a way of telling us how out of step he is with the times and how naive he is, considering his business.
Last night I decided it might have been more of a clue than a joke. Black and his screenwriting partner Anthony Bagarozzi do that throughout---rather than waste time on exposition setting up plot points to come, they drop hints that, if we were paying attention and remember them, will explain things that happen in later scenes. I think March’s answering machine message is giving us a clue to who his clients are these days.
Excited and frightened old ladies in 1977, who’d still remember when they had to dial operators to place calls for them, using what to them was the baffling cutting-edge of telephonic technology, push-button Princess phones, to call detectives to find dead relatives might need to have it explained to them that they’d reached a machine and not a human being and then need instructions on how to talk to the machine. One especially desperate calling to report she’d just seen her murdered niece alive and well might need to be reminded to wait for the tone and speak clearly. That would be true in 2016 as well as in 1977.
Both could be going on or neither, the joke on March and the clue being given. What I’m sure of is that the answering machine is there as an homage to a famous 1970s television detective who is still identified in blessed memory by the ringing of his telephone.
You’re ahead of me as usual here, aren’t you?
Every episode of The Rockford Files, which premiered in 1974, opened with a shot of the telephone ringing on Rockford’s desk, the answering machine picking up---”This is Jim Rockford. At the tone leave your name and message. I’ll get back to you.”---and someone, usually someone mad at Jim over money or with some other form of bad news for him, almost never a paying client, leaving a message we know Jim’s going to wish he could un-hear.
An all time favorite of Oliver Mannion’s and mine had Rockford’s troublesome scam artist friend Angel on the line: “Jimmy, old buddy? It’s Angel. You know that one phone call they give you? Well, this is it!”
In the person of James Garner, Bret Maverick, the hero of the 1950s TV western that brought Garner to stardom, looked as if he could out-draw, out-shoot, and out-fight any other TV cowboy except Clint Walker’s Cheyenne and James Arness’ Marshal Matt Dillon. If he had to. But he never had to. Because he could out-think them all, including the likes of Cheyenne and Matt Dillon---in one episode he out-thinks a Marshal Mort Dullard with the effect that Dullard’s self-confidence is shattered. Maverick, as an act of charity, glues Dullard’s ego back together by pretending Dullard has frightened him into leaving town.
I loved this when I saw it as a kid. (For the record, I’m not that old. I watched Maverick and most of the other famous TV Westerns after school when they were in syndication in the 60s.) If someone with fists as big and hard as Maverick’s didn’t choose to think with them, if he didn’t have to be quick on the draw because he was quick with his wits, then solving problems by resorting to fisticuffs and gunplay resulted from a failure of nerve and brain and was therefore obviously the wrong way to go about solving problems.
Rockford was intended to have been cut from the same cloth as Maverick. Like Maverick, Rockford, as originally conceived, could have been the same type of two-fisted, dead-eyed hero as the other heroes of his genre, if he wanted. It wasn’t meant to be the case that next to him Joe Mannix was a pacifist and Kojak a pussycat. But he was meant to be fit company for the likes of Philip Marlowe. Bogart's Marlowe more than his own and Chandler’s Marlowe more than either. With maybe a touch of Elliott Gould’s. After all, he also had to fit into 1970s L.A.
Just an aside: Garner’s Marlowe is my second favorite Marlowe, after Bogart’s, just ahead of Gould’s.
At any rate, in early episodes Rockford could be every bit as hardboiled as Chandler’s Marlowe, and sometimes as cynical and acerbic as Bogart’s. In the first episode, a potential client played by the pre-bionic Lindsay Wagner is offended by his apparent lack of sympathy for her plight and his brusque demand that he get paid up front.
“Tell me how you got this wonderful finishing school approach, Mister Rockford.”
“People come to me all the time and they all have problems...I used to be soft-hearted and I’d sit and listen. But they couldn’t pay the freight. So they’d leave and be all depressed. And I’d be depressed. It was turning me off my own business. So now I do it this way.”
A few minutes later he’s even acting as malicious and thuggish as Sam Spade slapping Joel Cairo and taking his gun away---"When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it!"---and bullying Wilmer the gunsel. Wagner’s character’s punkish and hippie-ish drug store clerk kid brother tries to act tough with Rockford:
“You’re a cop, huh?”
“No. What I am, sonny, is about fifty pounds heavier and a helluva lot meaner. So you better straighten up your act. I don’t think I like you.”
The point is Rockford had a mean streak in keeping with his profession and with his having spent five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And he could be violent and threatening, if he wanted or needed to be. The premise of the show was that his time in jail had hardened him but had also made him something of an idealist. He’d become a private eye with the express purpose of helping people wrongly accused of crimes and solving cases the cops had bungled.
But the writers and James Garner quickly figured out that the forty-something Jim Rockford might have another reason to play things safe and try to outwit the bad guys rather than outfight them that the twenty-something Bret Maverick didn’t have: A long history of failure at either talking himself out of trouble or fighting his way out of it. Maverick was a gambler who was usually right in calculating the odds. Rockford might have been a gambler once upon a time, but he was aware his luck had long since run out and he acted or, more often, chose not to act, accordingly.
Many episodes of Maverick were built around Maverick’s getting himself into trouble through youthful recklessness or seeing a chance for some easy money or being drawn into it by a pretty young woman, some innocent in trouble, or an old friend who’d made a play for easy money and miscalculated the odds to a degree Maverick himself would not have. The way out of trouble usually had Maverick thinking and conniving and finagling his way to a solution to the fix he was in. Only once in a while did he wind up drawing his gun.
Rockford is always in some sort of trouble. When most episodes begin, we’re seeing him already having a bad day that’s just about to get worse.
His constant sorrows and woes, often brought on by his own weaknesses and bad judgment, have given him something Maverick seemed to lack. A guilty conscience. He has a habit of seeing things going wrong in other people’s lives as somehow his fault or as his responsibility to put to right. That’s made him a soft-touch. He dreads getting hurt himself. He hates seeing others get hurt, sometimes even people who are out to hurt him, and, despite his regularly stated determination to look out first and foremost for Number One, he sets out to protect them, from the bad guys and from themselves.
Stories, then, routinely feature him picking up strays. People who aren’t his responsibility and whom he often doesn’t like or want anything to do with latch onto him and he finds himself taking care of them to his regret and chagrin and cost---financial and physical. Holland March could be one of those strays. In fact, in a number of episodes those strays were other private eyes. The most beloved of them, as fans of the show will be quick and happy to tell you, was Lance White, who was everything Rockford was not, bold, brave, idealistic, optimistic, and successful. Everything worked out for the best for him. Things he did that in Rockford’s view should have gotten him hurt or killed earned him riches and fame and the love of good women. White was played by...Tom Selleck.
But then there was Freddie Beamer.
Freddie (played by James Whitmore Jr.) was not only more of incompetent than March, he wasn’t even a real detective. He was a mechanic who dreamed of being a private eye...like the guy whose cool car, banged up in another exciting chase or escape, he routinely worked on, Jim Rockford.
He idolized Rockford to the point of deciding to become him. When Jim’s away on vacation, Freddie “borrows” his identity and sets up shop as a detective. He uses Jim’s credit card to buy all sorts of expensive high-tech detective equipment of the sort Rockford would never use himself and, operating out of Rockford’s trailer-office, takes on clients whose cases he proceeds to bungle.
Jim returns home---unexpectedly early. His vacation was in Vegas and he blew all his money at the Black Jack table---and discovers that not only is his credit card maxed out but a number of very dangerous people are very angry at “Jim Rockford.”
The rest of the episode has Jim trying to get himself and Freddie out of the jam Freddie’s gotten them both into while Freddie continues to play, ineptly, at being a hardboiled detective. And there are echoes of this plot of The Nice Guys.
March, who was a good detective before his life fell apart, still thinks of himself as not just still good at the job but brilliant at it. He’s constantly showing off for his erstwhile partner, Russell Crowe’s character, the tough guy for hire, Jackson Healy, and his showing off and over-confidence cause trouble for himself and Healy that Healy has to get them out of. If Healy turned up on an episode of The Rockford Files, he wouldn’t be one of Rockford’s strays, exactly. He’d be one of Jim’s old army buddies or a prison crony who comes to Jim for some help helping someone else and gets Rockford in trouble with by being too quick with his fists or with a gun or too intimate with the worser sort of criminals. Healy’s not a detective himself but his work requires certain detective skills and he knows how to put those skills to effective use. More important, he’s braver and tougher than March and much more competent with his fists and a gun.
Put like that, Healy sounds a bit like Rockford himself in relation to someone like Freddie Beamer. And that brings me to something I brought up in my review of The Nice Guys: Who’d have played Healy and March if The Nice Guys actually had been made in 1977 instead of just looking as if it had?
I decided on Gene Hackman and Ryan O’Neal. I was torn between Jodie Foster and Tatum O'Neal for Holly but I made what I considered the sentimental choice and went with O'Neal because of Paper Moon. (One of my commenters, Nondisposable Johnny, agreed with my choice but he didn't think there was any sentimentality to apologize for. "Foster was the better grown-up actress (probably because she worked at it). She wasn't the better kid actress because nobody was. No need to bring sentimentality to your choice. From the way you describe the daughter, she sounds like a slightly older Addie Pray anyway and you've made me doubly regret that I missed this in the theater!)"
But now that I think of it, James Garner would have made a good Healy. The reason I didn’t think of him is that I don’t think of Garner as a movie star. He was, of course, but he was pretty much done with being a leading man in the movies by 1977. He made some good films after Rockford---Murphy’s Romance, Sunset (Well, not actually a good movie, but he was good in it), Victor/Victoria, and Mel Gibson’s Maverick (Really. It’s pretty good.)---but after Rockford, his best work, and it was great work, was on television: Promise, Barbarians at the Gate, and one of my favorites not just of his television performances but of all his work, The Streets of Laredo.
And, still thinking along those lines, something else has occurred to me.
Garner could have played Healy but I think Crowe could now play Garner. That is, if someone decides to reboot The Rockford Files (again but successfully this time), someone other than Vince Vaughn, please, Russell Crowe would make a good Jim Rockford.
Think about it. It works.
If you can’t see it yet, watch The Nice Guys then that episode of The Rockford Files with Freedie Beamer or, really, any episode. They’re all streaming on Netflix.
Because I just gotta, and you wouldn't forgive me if I didn't...
Posted Friday afternoon, October 14, 2016.
Forget the pizza and wings this week, folks. Get out the fondue forks and heat up the Swedish meatballs. It’s 70s Night for Family Movie Night tonight here in Mannionville. Our feature is…No, not Saturday Night Fever, although would be a good one. The Nice Guys! Starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe and a whole lot of polyester. Here’s my review from when it was in the theaters back in May.
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-wife. 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, Love in 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 Moon just 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. Available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Posted Wednesday evening, October 12, 2016.
Just so you know how lucky my students are, Brian Switek, the tweeter of this tweet and author of the article tweeted in the tweet, is the virtually guest lecturing in my Digital Commoners class tomorrow.
Posted Tuesday morning, October 11, 2016.
Found this one from back in June adrift in the Twitter stream. It’s from shortly after he’d sewed up the nomination and was beginning to establish his pattern of following up a good day for him with a public meltdown. I’ve hauled it ashore and patched up some leaks with some consultation of the notebooks and am relaunching it because I’m kind of proud of it and, unfortunately, it's still relevant.
What would happen if Trump picked a popular, qualified vp, started talking only abt need to change DC, middle class, Hillary=status quo?— Mark Halperin (@MarkHalperin) June 19, 2016
People would start looking in his basement for the pod. https://t.co/yDOXZ8ZyQt— Lance Mannion (@LanceMannion) June 19, 2016
There’s been no presidential pivot. There’s not going to be a presidential pivot. There never was going to be a presidential pivot. The reason is simple. Donald Trump is never going to stop being Donald Trump.
Many members of the political press corps, not just the egregious Mark Halperin, still haven’t gotten their heads around this. Many who have still haven’t come to terms with it and don’t know how to continue to cover this election except in the same way they’ve covered past elections---badly and shallowly, as horseraces and performance art, focusing on personality and process and who’s up and who’s down in the polls today, ignoring issues and the candidates’ proposed policies as much as as possible and never, ever coming close to making a call as to who’s right and who’s wrong, whose policies would work and whose are unworkable, except when they can make it sound like the Democrat is wrong even when she’s right because, as we all know, she’s inauthentic. She’s not in touch with regular Americans and, never mind what she plans to do, she’s a terrible a candidate and people don’t like her. This has to be said over and over again, as if it’s a fact and not a self-defensive excuse. It has to be done for the sake of “balance” because God forbid anyone accuse journalists of having a liberal bias.
But Trump with all his awfulness, his shameless demagoguing, his constant, brazen, and borderline psychopathic lying, his racism, xenophobia, sexism, know-nothingism, and general hatefulness, makes covering this one like any other nearly impossible. What’s a poor objective journalist trying to describe his view from nowhere to do?
Pray he’ll change. Pray he’ll transform right before our eyes into a version of a Republican that doesn’t exist. That idealized avatar of Ronald Reagan whom too many members of the press corps pine nostalgically for. That genial, twinkly-eyed, fatherly moderate and pragmatist. The Reagan who didn’t mean anything he said. The Reagan who didn’t do his no small bit to help push the GOP farther to the ideological and racist right. The Reagan who didn’t try to sell an Us vs Them vision of America. The Reagan who didn’t blather about Welfare Queens and Young Bucks and how government wasn’t the answer it was the problem, government happening to be in our democracy how we all work together to make this that Shining City on a Hill he also blathered on about.
That Ronald Reagan.
That’s the one they want to take over Trump’s body and infuse it with something resembling a soul.
Only one way that’s going to happen. But I wouldn’t go searching in the basement any time soon.
Mined from the notebooks. Sunday, September 4, 2016. Posted Sunday, October 9.
Jimmy Carter padded his resume a bit when he ran for President in 1976.
He made a point of telling voters he’d been a farmer, a businessman, an engineer, and a nuclear physicist. He couldn’t hide the fact he’d been governor of Georgia but he didn’t emphasize it or, rather, he treated it matter of factly, as not something worth boasting about, unlike those other jobs he’d held. He was much prouder of those things. What he was really proud of, though, was that they let him run for President as not just another politician. He’d held real jobs. Done real work. Demonstrated real talent and ability. He was knowledgeable and skilled in many fields.
His resume, selectively evaluated and applied, helped him run in the first presidential election after Watergate as an outsider and a populist. He wasn’t like those political animals in Washington. Most definitely not like that scheming liar Richard Nixon.
For the same reasons, he was prouder of things he wasn’t or he could make it sound that way when he was on the stump. Here he is in Iowa in 1975, as described by Rick Perlstein in The Invisible Bridge:
The event, on February 26, 1975, was the first of Carter’s unprecedented twenty-one campaign visits to the state---the first of many time perhaps (for the event was too far below the radar for any record of it to have been preserved) in which he drawled winsomely that, since his assets were already listed in his campaign literature, he would instead note his liabilities.
“I’m not a lawyer.” (A good laugh line.)
“I’m not from Washington.” (That one was even better.)
“I’m not a member of Congress.” (Bull’s-eye.)
“I’ve never been part of the national government.” That line, a reporter said, drew so much laughter that he couldn’t continue.
He was a farmer. But almost only nominally in 1976. He’d grown up on a farm but by the time he ran for president his primary non-political occupation was a warehousing and seed-growing business for other farmers. So he was a businessman. It was a stretch calling himself an engineer but not too much of one. He studied engineering in college at Georgia Tech and then at the Naval Academy and as an officer in the submarine corps he was expected to know his way around an engine room and every other part of a sub.
As he relates in his recent memoir, A Full Life:
While not on duty, each officer was responsible for supervising one of the major functions of the ship’s operations. In addition, I was expected to learn from experienced enlisted men about every valve, pipe, lever, switch, hatch, torpedo, compass wheel or instrument that was used in the normal operation of the ship and in times of combat or other emergencies.
If things broke down, Ensign Carter had to know how to fix them in a hurry. Which happened now and then.
On one occasion we had a fire in our engine room while submerged, and, as engineering officer, I was the leading firefighter. I donned the appropriate clothing and gas mask, discovered the source of the fames in the main motor, and directed the application of carbon dioxide and dry powder, since water or foam could not be used. I was wearing headphones and speaking into a microphone to the captain, and I reported that the fire was under control. The next thing I remember was lying on a table in the crew’s mess room with a hospitaman’s mate trying to get me to breathe oxygen.
So I suppose he could have added firefighter to his resume.
As for nuclear physicist, that was a bit of creative licensing. He’d studied some physics, having taken a few graduate level courses when he was a young officer recently recruited into Hyman Rickover’s newly formed nuclear-powered submarine corps. What nuclear physics he actually knew, he learned by doing. Rickover sent him and another young officer along with a team of seamen to the General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York,---where he could have crossed paths with my grandfather, Pop Mannion’s father, a metallurgist at GE---to assist in building one of the twin nuclear engines that would power the USS Seawolf, the Navy’s second nuclear-powered submarine, then under construction. And while he was at GE, he took those classes at nearby Union College.
Union is practically right down the street from Mom and Pop Mannion’s house, the house I grew up in. Pop Mannion’s best friend taught computer science there. Pop taught there himself for a year. At his friend’s urging, he was trying it out while on a sabbatical from the state university at Albany to see if he was interested in making a change. (He decided the place was too small and the faculty too chatty. He wondered when his potential future colleagues got any work done, they were so busy yakking it up in the department halls.) I had friends who went to school there. I went to dances and parties and concerts and plays on its campus. I considered going there myself but I had an itch to move away from home and as Oliver Mannion likes to say, “Thank God for that or you’d never have met mom and I wouldn’t be here.” Our good blogging buddy, Chad Orzel, teaches physics there. My nephew, Lyle Mannion’s son, was accepted at Union. But he was accepted by RPI too and RPI won.
All this is to say I’m familiar with the place, So when at Father Blonde’s funeral last Saturday [August 27] one of Mrs M’s cousins told us that his son would be starting school there this fall, I had some things to tell him. Some of what I told him was in answer to his actual questions.
One was that the college scenes in The Way We Were were filmed at Union. It was big news that Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford were being spotted here and there about and around town. A teacher at the high school got a job as an extra and was that close to both of them. He can be glimpsed at the punch bowl in the scene at the college dance. Redford, he reported, was short.
Another bit of trivia I passed along is that when I was a kid Union’s one claim to presidential greatness was that Chester A. Arthur graduated from there. There’s a statue of him on campus. The statue got a bit part in The Way We Were too. There’s a brief scene in which Redford and Bradford Dillman, playing their characters’ young selves as a pair of campus cut-ups, put a fishing pole in the statue’s hand as a prank.
Nowadays, of course, as I told Mrs M’s poor too-polite to look bored or wander away cousin, Union can claim, with more pride but less accuracy, Jimmy Carter as one of their own, and, I said, I think they should erect a statue of Carter to honor him. But, I added, the statue should acknowledge the reason behind Carter’s connection to the school and depict him not as President or elder statesman and humanitarian but as a young Navy officer. In fact, it should depict this incident from when he was an ensign serving aboard the non-nuclear sub Pomfret in 1949 and a storm came up while the Pomfret was running along the surface. I told Mrs M’s cousin the story, but here’s Carter telling the story himself in A Full Life:
I was standing watch on the bridge about two hours after midnight, with my feet on the slatted wooden deck, when I saw an enormous wave dead ahead. I ducked down beneath the chest-high steel protector that surrounded the front of the bridge and locked my arms around the safety rail. The wave, however, smothered our ship, several feet above my head. I was ripped loose, lifted up, and carried away from the ship. This was my first experience with impending death, but when the wave receded I found myself on the main deck directly aft of the bridge and was able to cling to our five-inch gun. In the interval before the next wave, I scrambled back onto the bridge, where I found the lookouts hugging their protective rail, drenched above their waists. We all donned life preservers, and I tethered myself in place with a rope. If we had been traveling just a few degrees at an angle to the waves, I would have been lost at sea. It would have been impossible for the ship to return to the same site, and finding me in the dark would have been a hopeless effort. The next morning I made a report to the captain, but with a minimum of dramatic effect, just telling him that I had been swept from the bridge, landed on the afterdeck, and recovered without injury.
He reported it to the captain “with a minimum of dramatic effect”? Hard to imagine any less dramatic retelling of the story than the one he gives in A Full Life, but never mind. That’s the scene I think the statue should show, young Ensign Carter clinging to the gun mount while the ocean swirls around him.
When Carter was running for president as a farmer, didn’t fail to mention he’d been in the Navy. Counting his time at the Academy, he served for about ten years. He told that story or encouraged to get told. It was hardly on par with JFK’s PT-109 heroics but it portrayed Ensign Carter as a brave, unflappable, and resourceful young officer and implied the potential for heroism while emphasizing his humility. Carter was vain about his modesty.
“You almost drowned, Governor Carter?”
“Shucks, Ah hardly thought about it. Ah was more concerned for my shipmates.”
What he didn’t emphasize or what I don’t recall him emphasizing is that he was a young officer on the rise. He was on the command track. If he hadn’t left the Navy, he’d have very likely been made captain of his own sub within a few years.
But his father died in 1953 and for reasons he claims in his memoir he still can’t entirely explain he felt obligated to resign his commission and return to Georgia to take over the family business.
The decision almost cost him his marriage. Rosalynn had no wish to return to Plains and the stifling, narrow-minded, parochial small town life she believed she and Jimmy had long outgrown and left behind for good. She liked being a navy wife for the independence it allowed her. (Jimmy was often away at sea, and she commanded the homefront while he was gone with a freehand and a confidence most housewives of the time could only dream of.) And she was, although shy and not particularly socially ambitious for her own, she was ambitious for her husband who was highly regarded by his superiors and definitely on the command track. What she didn’t realize at the time was that her multi-talented and extremely ambitious husband had just exchanged the command track in one profession for what would prove to be the ultimate command track in another. Politics.
Carter wouldn’t have liked saying in in so many words, because it went against the central theme of his campaign, but it was implicit whenever he did talk about his time as governor: Among his many skills, talents, and accomplishments was that he was an extremely smart and gifted politician. Practically a natural. Arguably born to be president.
His competence at almost everything he set his hand to, his wide-ranging intelligence and extensive breadth of knowledge, was the basis of Dan Aykroyd’s impersonation of him on Saturday Night Live.
The “Ask President Carter” sketch is so funny because of its inherent truthfulness. It was possible to imagine Carter being able and happy to help people with their most mundane but practical problems, from explaining to a frustrated postal worker how to recalibrate the armature on a malfunctioning automatic letter sorting machine to talking a strung-out teenager down from a bad acid trip.
The “Pepsi Syndrome” skit in which Aykroyd’s Carter attempts to shut down a nuclear power plant in full meltdown and is mutated by exposure to the radiation into the amazing colossal President was inspired by Carter’s visit to Three Mile Island after the disaster there. But it had a biographical fact behind it too.
When he was in the Navy, Rickover sent Carter and part of his crew from GE to help dismantle and rebuild a Canadian nuclear power plant that had been destroyed by an accident that had resulted in a meltdown of the reactor. Carter and his men took turns working in ninety-second shifts inside the reactor. They wore protective gear that probably didn’t protect them very much.
So, Rosalynn was almost certainly right. If he’d stayed in the Navy, he probably would have risen very high. Possibly becoming an admiral. Possibly rising even higher. Oliver Mannion gets a kick out of imagining an alternative universe in which people remember former Secretary of the Navy James Earl Carter or even former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Carter.
Since his days as president, Carter has added painter, poet, novelist, and carpenter, plumber, and electrician to his resume. Teacher has been available to him all along. The title of his memoir, A Full Life, is the opposite of resume padding. It’s an understatement.
That Carter was good at pretty much everything he set his mind to reminds me of one of my---and Oliver’s---favorite moments from The West Wing.
President Bartlet and his wife Abbey, the doctor, are having one of their many minor affectionate arguments in which Abbey expresses her usual frustrations about being married to the President of the United States. Bartlet defends himself and their marriage by pointing out that things could have been worse. She could have married an astronaut.
Bartlet: Did you know that hardly any of the guys who landed on the moon are married to the same people they were married to before they went there?
Abbey (baffled by what strikes her as a complete non-sequitur): What?
Bartlet: I'm just saying that it could be worse. I could have been an astronaut.
Abbey (Not about to put up with any of his self-aggrandizing arrogance): You could not have been an astronaut.
Bartlet: I’d have been a great astronaut.
Abbey: You're afraid of heights, speed, fire and small places!
Bartlet (after almost conceding the point): I’d have overcome it to go to the moon.
At which point Abbey remembers just what kind of man she’s married to.
Abbey (with as much love and admiration as exasperation): I know you would have.
I imagine similar conversations took place regularly around the Carter household. Are probably still taking place.
I believe Jimmy Carter could have been an astronaut if he’d set his mind to it, and he’d have been a good one, the commander of a moon mission, perhaps. He over-achieved in everything he did.
Until, of course, he became president.
Carter's memoir, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety, his novel The Hornet's Nest, and The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Pelstein are available in paperback and for kindle at Amazon.
“Ask President Carter.” You didn’t think I would try to get away without posting it, did you?
Mined from the notebooks, Sunday, October 2, 2016. Posted Wednesday night, October 5.
Denzel Washington (center), magnificent as the kind of western movie hero he should have had a chance to play a long time ago, in Antoine Fuqua’s remake of the 1960 western classic The Magnificent Seven.
Saw the new version of The Magnificent Seven last weekend. Not as magnificent as the original, but how could it be? The original has had fifty-six years to burrow itself deep into the culture and our popular imagination. It’s practically not a movie anymore. It’s part of the collective unconscious. But the new one’s pretty darn good. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that while I was on my way out of the theater I was thinking it might be better than the original.
Took about two minutes of rewatching the original last night to disabuse me of that lunatic notion.
By the way, before we go any further, when I refer to the “original”, anyone who says, “Oh, you mean The Seven Samurai?” is just showing off.
The Seven Samurai is a whole higher level of art and it’s unfair to it and to The Magnificent Seven to think of the latter as a remake. Beside that, the changes, in time, place, language, and genre, along with the resulting differences in cultural references and resonances, set the two movies so far apart from each other in effect that to point out Kurosawa’s name in the credits of The Magnificent Seven is practically just to point out an interesting bit of movie trivia. Calling The Seven Samurai the original Magnificent Seven is like calling Macbeth the original Throne of Blood.
The original Magnificent Seven---director John Sturges’ 1960 shoot-em-up starring Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, Brad Dexter, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, and Horst Bucholz, with Eli Wallach absolutely wonderful as the villain---is a re-telling of the old story re-told in The Seven Samurai. Almost all stories going back to Gilgamesh are re-tellings of old stories. The questions at work are how good a job did the new storyteller do re-telling the story and how good a job did they do in making the story their own in the re-telling? And, of course, if the story’s being told as movie, how good a movie is it?
Time has proven that Sturges did an excellent job on all three scores, although no one would argue that on the third he made as great a film as Kurosawa made with the original original. Still, as westerns go, The Magnificent Seven is a classic piece of moviemaking.
Antoine Fuqua, director of the new version starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Byung-hun Lee, Martin Sensmeier, Manual Garcia-Rulfo, and Vincent D’Onforio as the Seven, with Peter Sarsgaard as the lip-curling, capitalist villain and Haley Bennett as the female lead the original conspicuously lacks, settling for a generic love interest instead, succeeds well on the first score. His version is a rousing tale of good old-fashioned western adventure and derring-do.
On the second, he hasn’t done as well. This Magnificent Seven never escapes the shadow of the original. But then Fuqua deliberately didn’t try too hard to do that. In fact, as he told New York Magazine, he saw it as an important part of his job not to.
From directing 2004’s King Arthur, Antoine Fuqua learned a key lesson about building new movies out of old material. “Make it your own, but be conscious of the things that mean a lot to people,” he says. “When you bend it too far, it gets hard for people to wrap their heads around.”
But while Fuqua didn’t feel free to depart too far from the original, he freed himself up in other ways. He gave himself room to pay homage not just to the original but to other classic westerns. Not just pay homage but in places to subvert and even mock the conventions of the entire genre. And Denzel Washington’s character owes more to Clint Eastwood than to Yul Brenner and pieces of the plot seem lifted from Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales---with the uniforms reversed---and Pale Rider.
This goes a long way towards Fuqua's making the movie if not the story his own and that brings me to the answer to the third question.
Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven is a rip-roaring, exciting, suspenseful, and at times moving western. It may take fifty years to decide if he’s made a classic on par with the original, but it’s good enough that, like I said, I almost had myself convinced it’s better than than the original.
And there are things about it that are better, starting with the leading man.
It’s a good bet people will be watching this Magnificent Seven fifty years from now as one of Denzel Washington’s best movies. Yul Brenner is better in the original than I remembered and more plausible. But mainly his job was to fill a space that should have been filled by the likes of Glenn Ford, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, or Jimmy Stewart---the angry, un-amiable, dangerous Stewart of the Anthony Mann westerns. Denzel is the more ferocious presence those stars would have been.
As Sam Chisolm, the leader of the Seven, he burns holes in the screen. Unlike Brenner’s Chris Adams, Chisolm is a lawman not a hired gun, althouth not opposed to doing a bit of freelancing on the side. That allows Washington to play Chisolm with an anger and air of menace that, while daunting, never threaten to define his personality for us. They’re professional qualities. Tools of the trade and part of what passes for a uniform. He puts them on like he puts on his gunbelt and his big, broad-brimmed black hat, to go to work.
First order of business, though, is to make plain an important change from the original to the new Magnificent Seven. In outline, the plots are the same. Bad guys threaten simple townsfolk. Simple townsfolk hire a band of gunslingers to drive away the bad guys. But the original is set mainly in Mexico and the simple townsfolk are simple peasants leading simple movie peasant lives. The remake is set somewhere in the United States---possibly California but that’s not made clear---and the simple townsfolk are farmers and not all that simple in their ways and their personalities. In fact, on the whole, they’re an angsty and emotionally conflicted lot and not all that likable. I think the change in location was made not just to make this a different movie or even to avoid the kind of well-meaning but unfortunate ethnic stereotyping the original fell into.
I think it was done in order to give the designers permission to make things in the town more “realistic'---that is, gritty, dirty, ugly, and drab---and to give the actors parts to play more “realistically'---that is, they get to emote more.
Whatever the reasons, though, I think the change is one of the things that work to make it a lesser movie than the original, as I’ll explain in a bit.
The other obvious change is in the characters of the seven heroes.
There are no one-to-one correspondences between Fuqua’s leads and Sturges’. The closet, I think, after Washington in the role of leader played by Brenner in the original---They both wear black. But Brenner smiles a whole lot more.---is Chris Pratt as Josh Faraday, Chisolm’s sidekick and lieutenant, the role McQueen filled in the original.
But, good as he is, Pratt is no Steve McQueen and Faraday is no Vin Tanner.
Tanner is good-natured and easy-going. Faraday is good-natured and easy-going but careless. Tanner has a sense of mischief. Faraday has just learned to enjoy being in trouble, a useful adaptation to circumstance since he gets himself into it so often. Tanner has avoided being tied down by responsibilities on a kind of principle. Faraday is just plain irresponsible. Tanner is drifting, going the way the wind blows just to see where it takes him. Faraday is adrift. He’s letting the wind take him because he has no idea what else to do with his life. Tanner is shrewd and observant. He picks his fights and takes no chances without first figuring out the odds. Faraday is impulsive and self-indulgent. He’s been getting by on his wits and his luck and we get the sense that his luck has been running low and he’s afraid, with good reason, it’s about to run out.
That I can write that much about Faraday tells you something else Fuqua has done differently. His seven leads are played by stars or known up-and-comers and he’s given them characters to play.
McQueen, Bronson, Coburn, and even Robert Vaughn have achieved icon status, but in 1960 only McQueen could have been considered a star and he was a television star, the star of the TV western Wanted: Dead or Alive. Horst Bucholz was a star in Germany, but The Magnificent Seven was his first American film. The rest were known, as well as they were known, as regular guest stars on television. It’s hard but if you try, you can see them as what they were to the audiences at the time, talented, young---McQueen was thirty, Coburn thirty-two, Vaughn only twenty-eight. Bronson was an old man of thirty-nine.---journeymen actors getting a lucky break and making the most of it.
But there wasn’t much for any one of them to make of their parts. When you get down to it, they were each playing an attitude more than a character. The leader, the cheerful one, the greedy one, the arrogant one, the sentimental one, the coward, and the kid. Their characters barely even have names.
The new Seven have all been given extensive backstories and come with enough to be the leads in their own movies or, at any rate, regulars on Deadwood, if David Milch ever gets around to resurrecting it. In some ways, the movie is about them as characters rather than about them as heroes of an adventure story we’re meant to be paying the closer attention to.
In the original, the villagers, even with the stereotyping, are individualized. We feel we know them. What’s more, we like them. We’re rooting for them, which is why we root for the Seven. And they save the Seven as much as they are saved by them. Sturges never lets us forget that these are not good men. They’re not altogether bad but they’re killers for hire. They’re in the business for the money and the thrill. What happens is they draw strength and learn virtue from the villagers.
(This is especially true of Bronson’s character, Bernardo O’Reilly, who is adopted by a group of boys from the village. As they cheerfully and proudly tell him, it’ll be their job to mourn him when he’s killed and make sure there are always flowers on his grave. O’Reilly sardonically asks if that means they’ll be happy if he’s killed.
Oh no, they assure him. They’ll be just as happy if he survives.
“Maybe happier,” says one.
“Maybe,” adds another.)
This new group of heroes come across more as a collection of loveable rogues and scoundrels. Their violent pasts and deadly occupations are taken as givens of the time period and more or less forgiven or excused or explained away. And while they’re not in it for the money---because there’s hardly any money in it---they’re not in it for any principle either. They’re mostly just along for the fun of the adventure and, it looks like, the fun of playing off each other, and I mean the characters as well as the actors.
They get interested in saving the town when the plot requires them to but for the most part their minds are on other things and their hearts are elsewhere. So are Fuqua’s. He doesn’t seem to care that much for the townsfolk except in that they’re victims menaced by his villain. And for all the realism of the make-up and costuming and the actors' acting, it’s often hard to tell them apart. This is particularly true of the men whose faces are lost behind too much “realistic” facial hair.
We don’t even get to see these farmers’ farms. So we don't get to know except as an abstraction what they keep telling us they're willing to die fighting for.
So in this, it has less human feeling than the original.
But I have to admit, I got caught up in the acting of the leading men. Denzel first and foremost, but the others are all charming and charismatic and make their characters compelling. My favorites were Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio.
D’Onofrio plays an old bible-quoting mountain man and renowned Indian fighter named Jack Horne (No doubt in honor of Tom Horn, played in the movie by that name by Steve McQueen.) who says his prayers, recites scripture, and threatens bloody vengeance in a high-pitched hoarse voice that is either the result of his having had his throat cut and his vocal cords severed in a fight some time back or spending too much time alone singing hymns to the trees and hills at the top of his lungs.
Hawke plays Goodnight Robicheaux. a crack rifleman and Confederate Civil War hero whose guilt and PSTD have, fifteen years after the war, finally caught up with him. Robicheaux’s days as a killer are secretly over, but he needs people to be afraid of him in order to make his living. He’s been getting by on his reputation and by a pretense of bravado and cavalier charm that we can see is a parody of his once brave and noble self.
Lee and Sensmeier are fine in lesser roles, but I was particularly taken with Manuel Garcia-Rulfo who really doesn’t have much to do as the gentleman bandit Vasquez except adopt an attitude of raffish charm. Oddly---or maybe not---he reminded me more of McQueen in the original than Pratt did.
And then there’s the villain.
Peter Sarsgaard who looks like he’s having a high old time playing the grasping, monomaniacal Bartholomew Bogue as practically a mustache-twirler out of an old-time melodrama. He doesn’t actually twirl his mustache, but he makes it clear that if the mood struck him, he would, and he'd get away with it.
But that brings me to another significant difference between Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven and Sturges’, and it’s epitomized in the differences between the two movies’ villains.
Eli Wallach is great of course and is obviously having his own great good fun as Calvera, the leader of the gang of bandits terrorizing the village the Seven have been hired to protect. But the key point is that Calvera’s gang is just that, a gang. It’s a big gang but still just a collection of thugs, drifters, ne’er-do-wells, bums, and other types of life’s losers and minor villains. In short, they’re just outlaws. Bank robbers, horse thieves, and cattle rustlers. They’re formidable only because there are forty of them and they’re led by Calvera. Which is why they stay loyal to him. They know they’re nothing without him. He in turn is loyal to them for pretty much the same reason. And that’s pretty much the whole of his motivation. His evil plan is to keep his gang together for as long as he can. That means keeping them fed through the coming winter. So the only thing he wants out of the villagers is food. Right now that’s all he’s interested in.
Not land. Not money. Not power. Not wine, women, or song. Not that he’s averse to any of these. But they’re not his immediate concern.
Bogue, on the other hand, is obsessed with money and power. He’s a robber baron intent on increasing his empire, which is based on land grabbing where the land being grabbed is rich in minerals and shiny metal. He doesn’t want anything out of the town his private army is terrorizing. He wants the town. There’s gold in them thar hills and he’s going to have it. All of it. And he doesn’t have a gang to help him with this. He has an army. He’s rich enough to hire mercenaries by the hundreds.
I think the conception of Bogue owes something to Deadwood’s version of George Hearst who is meant to embody the evils of capitalism and serve the theme that money corrupts everyone and everything. But in execution Bogue is essentially a Wild West Bond villain. Come to think of it, he could be a character out of The Wild Wild West, which was a Bond movie re-imagined as a TV western. Dr Miguelito Loveless didn’t have anything on Bogue in his lust for power and world domination or in melodramatic over-the-topness. It’s just that Bogue, if he was in the need, would just hire his own mad scientist rather than having to bother with being one himself.
One of the beauties of Sturges’ Magnificent Seven is that in its plot and characterizations it has the simplicity of a fable. It is a fable. But like all good fables it’s about something real. It’s a fable about the closing of the western frontier.
That is, it’s about the end of the Wild West.
Calvera and his gang have to resort to robbing the villagers of their food is that they can’t earn their keep the usual way by robbing banks and rustling cattle because civilization, and with it law and order, is closing in on them. There is an army in the movie, although it’s offscreen, and it belongs to the United States’ government. At one point, Calvera expresses his dismay and his surprise that the last time he and his gang crossed the border into Texas to rob a bank, the United States sent the army after them.
“A whole army!”
That narrow escape taught him a lesson. His days as an outlaw are numbered.
Now, here’s the critical point.
The days of the Seven are numbered too, if they’re not already over and done with it. At least in the United States, their services are no longer required. No more hired gunslingers need apply.
Oh, here and there, patches of the Old West where questions of right and wrong have to be settled with guns in the hands of men quick on the draw still exist. But the incident that introduces us to Chris and Vin and that catches the attention of the trio of villagers who have come looking for men like them to hire to come save their village---Chris and Vin driving the hearse carrying the coffin of an Indian up to Boot Hill where it’s met by a small band of bigots with their guns drawn, looking to keep the Indian from being buried in the same ground as whites, and isn’t that a metaphor for the settling of the West?---is instigated by a pair of traveling salesmen who have simply taken it for granted that common decency, fair-mindedness, a degree of tolerance, and the rule of law are the order of the day. This is how the country now works. The reason Chris and Vin have to take over is that the salesmen have to catch the next stage and don’t have time to go looking for the legal authorities.
In other words, although I don’t believe any exact date is given, the movie starts in the 20th Century or at least with the 20th Century well on its way.
Fuqua’s movie is set in 1879. But that’s just a date to explain the fashions and the guns. It’s not a true historical marker. And, as far as it matters, the United States doesn’t exist. Bogue operates as free of legal and political constraint as if there are no laws and no politics because there is no government. In reality, the settling of the west was almost entirely a political enterprise, sponsored by, encouraged, defended, and to a great degree financed by the federal government. Violence was rife but it was mostly a matter of the United States Army killing Indians as they drove them from their land and duly-sworn lawmen taking guns away from drunken cowboys.
Bowe wants to take their land away from a bunch of farmers. But to give you an idea of what life was like for real farmers in the West, at around the time the movie is set, the Ingalls family had already left their little house on the Kansas prairie, and they’d left it not because they were driven out by evil capitalist warlords with their own private armies. They had to leave because their homestead turned out to be on the Osage Indian reservation and for once the government was honoring a treaty with the Indians.
What I’m getting at is that the original Magnificent Seven is a fable with resonances with actual history and the remake is basically a fantasy whose main resonances are with other Western movie fantasies.
Still, it’s a lot of fun. Fuqua did what he says he wanted to do, make his own movie while remaining true to the spirit of the original. It isn’t as magnificent as the original but while you’re watching it you won’t care. Like I said, it’s a rip-roaring adventure with some terrific old-fashioned western action scenes and stunts and some excellent acting. And...it’s a great Denzel Washington movie.
He is, as usual, magnificent and, man, does he wear that big black hat well.
The Magnificent Seven, directed by Antoine Fuqua, screenplay by Richard Wenk and Nick Pizzolatto. Based on The Magnificent Seven directed by John Sturges and The Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa. Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, and Haley Bennett. Rated PG-13. (I know. I’m surprised too. It’s pretty violent.) Now in theaters.
Posted Monday, October 3, 2016.
“What have the Romans ever done for us?”
“Well, yes, public libraries, of course. But besides that?”
Mined from the notebooks. Saturday, September 10, 2016. Posted Saturday, October 1.
Hell or High Water’s one of the best westerns I’ve seen in a long time.
It’s also one of the saddest.
And one of the most overtly political.
If I had world enough and time I might make the case that it does a better job of examining the causes of the economic collapse of 2008 and its subsequent devastations than The Big Short. In The Big Short the victims are mostly invisible and the few villains we see are mainly clowns. The evil being perpetrated’s an abstraction that needs constant cinematic tricks and stunts to keep it in focus.
There’s nothing abstract in Hell or High Water and the victims and their sufferings are almost never off screen.
To be clear right way, Hell or High Water is a contemporary western. Like the TV series Justified, it transplants themes, tropes, conventions, and stock characters established in classic westerns to the 21st Century United States. Hell or High Water is even set in the west. West Texas, to be exact. But unlike Justified, Hell or High Water’s western-ness isn’t a matter of the filmmakers’ taking poetic license.
Justified turns Kentucky coal country into a modern day Tombstone in order to give Marshal Raylan Givens an excuse to act like Wyatt Earp and get away with racking up a body count that would fill several movie Boot Hills to capacity. It really isn’t much of a stretch but it’s a stretch to have Boyd Crowder and the rest of the criminal Crowders and Bennetts behaving like the Clanton Gang and the Cowboys who ran Tombstone before the Earps came to town. But it takes a good deal of our willingness to suspend disbelief to accept every other episode including a version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.
I wouldn’t call Hell or High Water a model of cinematic realism. But the picture it presents of economically blasted West Texas as the the Wild West or, rather, not as far removed from the days when it was the Wild West, has an essential realism.
The historical fact is that once upon a time the Wild West began just a short walk up from the beach at Plymouth, Massachusetts. A better name for the Wild West would be the western frontier and the story of the Taming of the West is the story of white settlement pushing the boundaries of the frontier farther and farther west.
The stuff of the legends, myths, and tall tales and the characters and exploits of the pioneers, immigrants, frontiersmen and women, heroes, folk heroes, and villains that have become in our collective imagination the story of the Taming of the West as we know it mainly from movies and TV began with the settlement of the wildnernesses of Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
It’s not unrealistic or at all ahistorical to see George Washington as one of our first frontiersmen heroes. James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, which are set in what are now some of the more touristy spots of upstate New York, are literature’s first Westerns. The second part of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, which focuses on the second generation of Puritan settlers in New England and their part in King Philip’s War, reads like a prequel to Cooper---written by a smart writer who took to heart Mark Twain’s furious contempt for Cooper’s writing---and includes a heroic Indian fighter who rivals Hawkeye in derring-do, fighting and tracking skill, and luck in surviving dangerous and bloody adventures and it’s all true. Mayflower is non-fiction. And what I’m saying is that much of what we think of as legend, tall tale, and myth is part of the true history of the of the often bloody “civilizing” of the frontier.
At one point, the West Texas of Hell or High Water was one of the farthest reaches of the frontier and it remained on the frontier for a longer time than other places on the continent where civilization took hold faster and more deeply. Basically, West Texas was what we think of as the Wild West long after the rest of the west was won and in defining economic ways it stayed the Wild West right up until the beginning of the 21st Century.
And what we see in the movie is that for many people West Texas as they’ve always known it is reverting back to the frontier it was when their ancestors arrived.
It’s important to keep in mind that a key part of the history of the taming of the West is white, English-speaking people stealing land from other people who were there ahead of them, people who in most places were Native Americans. But the English and their descendants also stole land from the French, Dutch, and Spanish while they were at it.
That the land we’re all living on today is mostly stolen land is a theme of Hell or High Water.
A Texas Ranger, who’s part Mexican and part-Comanche while without question being all Texan and all American, observes that the land the economically hard-pressed white people of West Texas feel being stolen out from under them by the banks and oil companies was stolen by their ancestors from his Mexican ancestors who in turn had stolen it from his Comanche ancestors who in their turn had stolen it from other Native American tribes.
This makes Hell or High Water an ironic tragedy. There’s a poetic justice in the people we’re rooting for, represented by the failed rancher turned bank robber, having their land stolen from them.
There’s another irony at work too, and that’s our recognizing that while we’re aware that their ancestors stole the land, in other movies we’re meant to root for those ancestors to get away with the theft.
This makes it hard to know who and what to root for in Hell or High Water.
Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is a divorced father of two sons he very much doesn’t want following in his footsteps. He’s been a sometime roughneck in the oil fields, a sometime ranch hand on his mother’s small and far from prospering ranch, and pretty much a full-time failure. Up until recently, he took a life full of hardship, money woes, and disappointment for granted. But his mother has died, leaving behind nothing but a pile of medical bills and the ranch and the ranch is facing foreclosure. His mother had fallen behind paying off the loan she been talked into taking predatory terms by unscrupulous bankers. The ranch itself isn’t worth much as a ranch. Toby’d only worked it to help out his mother and he’s not attached to it. He’d just as soon let it go except...oil’s been discovered on the property.
This is Toby’s big chance, but he sees as not a chance for himself but for his sons. Problem is the oil company won’t start drilling and paying out unless he owns the place free and clear. He has to pay off the bank---forty-three thousand dollars in a matter of a couple of weeks.
He comes up with a plan to raise the money by robbing the very chain of banks looking to foreclose. Looking forward to foreclosing. The banks want that oil money too.
Toby, who has always been an honest man if not a successful one, enlists his ex-convict brother in the scheme. Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) has just finished doing a stretch in prison for killing a man in a bar fight. This was his second murder. He was never charged for the first one he’d committed. He’d shot his the brothers’ abusive father. That one got passed off as a hunting accident. Point is, Tanner is a man of uncertain temper, violent impulses, a live for the moment and to hell with the consequences philosophy, and a guilty conscience. He’s the type who tends to maximize trouble by way of solving a problem.
But he’s brave as all get-out---mainly because he doesn’t care if he lives or dies---and he’s fiercely loyal to Toby. He’s the older brother and he killed their father to protect his little brother.
Toby’s plan is to rob a string of the bank’s branches, taking only relatively small scores in small bills so they can’t be traced, until they’ve raised the required forty-three grand which he’s figured out how to launder. It’s a clever plan but it gives the Texas Rangers who are soon on their trail time to figure out more or less what they’re up to and start anticipating their next moves.
The two Rangers after the Howards are Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a cynical and worn-down days away from retirement but still almost as brilliant and fearless an investigator as he was in his prime, and his longtime---and longsuffering. Hamilton is deliberately difficult to get along with.---partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), the Ranger I mentioned above who voices and embodies the movie’s central irony. He’s a man of two worlds. In his Mexican and Indian heritages, he represents both West Texas’ frontier past and its diverse, post-agricultural, knowledge-based white-collar future.
Hamilton, too, is a man of two worlds. In temperament and by virtue of his own history as a Ranger, he’s a throwback to the old-fashioned lawman of classic Westerns. But on principle and through dint of intelligence, education, professional training, and common sense, he’s very much a modern police officer and detective. He knows what the future’s bringing and he’d be looking forward to it, if only he could be part of it. Forced retirement’s getting in the way of that. But it still makes him someone whose heart is divided between two worlds he can’t be part of, the lingering Wild West of his glory days and the bright civilized future he fatalistically figures he won’t live long enough to enjoy witnessing let alone be an active part of. Retirement, as a consequence, is looking to him like a state of death in life.
No surprise then that he’s clinging hard to the present moment and enjoying maybe a little too much the chase they’re on after the bank robbers. It’s his last hurrah. Alberto, though, worries that Hamilton’s looking to go out in a blaze of glory.
Hell or High Water, then, is the story of three desperately unhappy men, Hamilton and the two Howards, at the ends of their ropes, with only one of them, Toby, feeling he has anything left to lose.
Hamilton and Tanner seem to be having a high old time playing out a real life western, Tanner seeing it as a game of cowboy and Indian, with himself as the Indian. But at bottom both are as sad and sick at heart as Toby, and the three men’s different sadnesses are part of what makes Hell or High Water that saddest of westerns I described it as up top.
But that sadness doesn’t stop it from being an exciting western or a fun one.
Finally cutting to the chase, which is the opposite of what director David Mackenzie has done. Mackenzie smartly opens with the chase and takes some time to let the action settle down before laying out his themes and giving us the backstory.
We meet the Tanners in the middle of their pulling off their first robbery. And we’re told anything about them except that they’re not particularly experienced bank robbers. Terror, exuberance, affectionate squabbling puts us on the Howards’ side before we know who they are or what their longterm plans are. All we know is that they are in more trouble and immediate danger than the people in the banks they rob.
The teller at the first bank (Dale Dickey), although scared, is annoyed at them as much as frightened. She recognizes at once that they’re amateurs who haven’t come to work prepared. Her practical, no-nonsense reaction is indicative of most of the characters we’re going to meet along the way.
The regular folks of West Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle---a casino there figures at the center of Toby’s scheme to beat the banks with their own money---are like her, practical-minded, common-sensical, stoical, and even good-humored in their determination to make the best of bad situations. But that’s one of their problems. They’re resigned to hard times.
The teller is different in that we can see at once she’s someone who will survive and thrive whatever comes her way and not just because she works for a bank, one of the few prospering businesses around. She’s the type who thinks and plans ahead, who can think and plan ahead because she can imagine a different and better future for herself. (At the exact present moment that means coming out of this robbery alive.) But others can only see more hardship and sorrow ahead of them and their only solace is a kind of retreat into memories of a glorified past or dreams of improbably rosy future brought about not by hard work or careful planning but sheer good luck.
In counterpoint to the bank teller is a waitress at a diner where Toby and Tanner happen to stop in for breakfast on their way to their next hold-up. She’s a single mother who sees her only hope for a better life for herself as attracting the romantic interest of a customer with a good job. She is consequently overtly and too obviously and desperately flirtatious. We can easily guess that far more often than she’s come close to landing a husband and father for her child, she’s essentially prostituted herself for very little money, most likely usually not much more than a too generous tip.
What’s more important, though, is that we see through Kelly Mixon’s heartbreaking performance the waitress’ self-awareness and self-disgust and at the same time her resolve to keep her pride despite her sense that she’s humiliating herself and that her belief that her situation is hopeless.
This mix of courage and shame makes her more typical than the teller of the characters who populate the movie’s West Texas, and that includes Toby.
Toby is forward thinking and he’s a careful planner, but both are new to him and they’re reactions to the sheer dumb luck of oil being found on his mother’s ranch and his mother’s dying when she did---had she lasted a few more days, he might not have had time to put his plan into action before the bank took possession of the ranch. And his careful plan requires him to debase himself. An honest, considerate, and gentle man, he has to turn himself into a thief and point guns at innocent people’s heads. Already ashamed of himself for a lifetime of failure, he’s now disgusted with himself for having become a criminal and a threat and danger to people who’ve never done him any harm.
Jeff Bridges as Ranger Marcus Hamilton is unsurprisingly terrific, and I could go on and on about him and his performance; however, I think it’s best to leave things to Bilge Elbiri who writes about Bridges' remarkable career as one of Hollywood's best leading men of the past two generations in a article at the Village Voice. Chris Pine, though, does a to me gratifyingly excellent job as Toby. I’ve been rooting for him to become a major star since the first movie in J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise.
It was fun to see Hell or High Water not too long after Star Trek: Beyond. Abrams reconceived Jim Kirk as the popular jock who makes the class nerds feel good about themselves and inspires them to be heroes. But Pine never lets us lose track of the fact that Kirk is the son of a pair of brilliant scientists and takes after them in important ways. The driving quality of his life is an intelligent curiosity---what he wants most in life is to know. He’s every bit as smart as the nerds who look up to him and is, at heart, a nerd himself. In Star Trek: Beyond, Pine takes his Kirk a step closer to that Kirk, which is to say the Kirk we know and love from the original series. And that Kirk, besides being very smart, is a comic character. Although he has a melancholy streak, he’s essentially a happy man who takes great joy in life and in being himself.
Toby Howard is not a happy man nor does he take much joy in anything, especially not in being himself. He’s not stupid, by any measure, he is in fact quite smart. But he doesn’t really know how to be smart. He’s never had to be. He’s gotten by up until now by going along. He knows objectively that his plan is a smart one but he lacks faith in it because he lacks faith in himself. And more than he’s impressed by his own plan’s brilliance, he’s oppressed and depressed by its necessary criminality. That he has to break the law in order to save his sons' lives is proof to him that as smart as the plan is, it mean he's smart. A smart man wouldn’t have to resort to robbing banks, even if those banks deserve to be robbed.
Pine lets us see Toby’s heartbroken shame and self-doubt as clearly as Kirk’s exuberant and inspiring and good-humored self-confidence.
But as good as Bridges and Pine are, I think it’s Ben Foster who steals the show. While never letting us forget that Tanner has an awful mean streak, that he’s dangerously lacking in self-control, and that as much as he’s driven by loyalty to Toby, he’s driven by a desire to break things, he also never lets us forget that Tanner is large-hearted, brave, and in his way noble. He’s also very smart, in his own way. He doesn’t think before he leaps, but once in the air his mind sharpens and his thinking becomes focused and practical. In other circumstances---in another kind of movie---he’d be a hero. He’s practically the hero of this movie. A tragic hero, however and of course, because unlike all the other characters in Hell or High Water, including Toby and Hamilton, he’s not simply a victim of circumstance. He’s a victim of his own nature. It wouldn’t matter, when and where he found himself, he would eventually find himself on a path to self-destruction.
Hard times are what they are, is one of the messages of Hell or High Water, and to a great degree we’re all at the mercy of economic forces beyond our control, and that’s not just a tragedy it’s a crime, because there are people who can control those forces and who choose to use their control to serve their own narrow interests and destroy other people’s lives in the process.
But along with not having enough of a say in what happens to us, unless like Toby we strike oil in one way or another, that is, we get very lucky, we don’t have a lot of say in who we are either.
Mackenzie doesn’t push it, but it’s key to our understanding what’s going on that we keep in mind that Tanner and Toby are the sons of an abusive father and a cold and withdrawn mother who enabled the abuse.
The problem for other characters in the movie is that they too readily accept what’s happening to them.
Tanner’s heroism may lie in his too readily accepting who he is.
As if you don't have enough to read, here's my review of Star Trek: Beyond: Kirk's Odyssey Begins.
And over at the Village Voice, Bilge Ebiri's article The Searcher: On the Enduring Appeal of Jeff Bridges, All-American Loser.
Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie. Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham, Kelly Mixon, Dale Dickey, Buck Howard, and Kevin Rankin. Rated R. Still in theaters.