Still catching up on notes from past family movie nights. August 21, 2015.
“Candlesticks always make a nice gift.” In the most famous mound conference in baseball movie history in one of the best baseball movies, Durham Bulls catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner, center) does what good catchers have to be able to do: swallow their pride and sublimate their egos for the good of the team.
Ellis had caught Kershaw when he was working on a new pitch before, with mediocre results. At the beginning of the 2007 season, Kershaw skipped High-A ball and went from Low-A ball to Double-A Jacksonville. Because he didn’t yet have an effective changeup, the Dodgers wanted him to throw fifteen of them a game, no matter what, to try to develop one. They didn’t care if batters hammered it. Though Ellis and Kershaw would later become the best of friends, their first meeting was no lovefest. Ellis went to catch one of Kerhsaw’s bullpens in Jacksonville when Kershaw was working on his changeup. Frustrated by the pitch’s lack of deception, he kept throwing it high and away so the batter wouldn’t swing at it. Ellis called out to hi, “Hey! Get the ball down!” Annoyed, Kerhsaw looked back at Ellis and yelled: “Hey! Relax!”
“And that was when I realized it was better if I didn’t try to talk to him when he pitched,” said Ellis.
On the morning Greinke threw his first bullpen session for the Dodgers the following spring, Ellis approached him and asked him how he liked to warm up...Greinke smirked and stared at his feet. “I’m pretty easy,” he said. “You go over there and I’ll stand over here. I’ll throw the ball and you catch it. Then you throw it back to me.” Ellis couldn’t contain his laughter. He laughed again when, weeks into the season when the Dodgers were stuck in a painful slump, he asked Greinke what roster moves he might make to improve the team. Greinke considered the question carefully, as he always did, then came back to Ellis with his answer. “Well, the first thing I’d do is trade you because your value will never be higher,” Greinke said. And then I’d sign Brian McCann in the off-season to play catcher so we can upgrade the position offensively.” He was serious….
Greinke wasn’t trying to be rude. He just lacked the ability to sugarcoat words as they stumbled off his tongue. Once, after Greinke had been riding Elis hard for being so slow on the basepaths that Greinke’s bunts had to be perfect to sacrifice Ellis over, a teammate told Greinke that for every five mean things he said to someone he had to pay one compliment. He was half joking, but Greinke took it to heart. The next day, Greinke approached Ellis between innings and told him he’d done a nice job framing a low pitch. Ellis wondered what the hell he was talking about. Then he remembered Greinke’s new orders to be nice. He laughed again.
The point of the first story is that Ellis knew when to back off and defer to his pitcher’s judgment of his own wants and needs.
The point of the second story is that Ellis had enough understanding of how his pitcher ticked to know not to let the pitcher’s eccentricity get to him.
The point of both stories is that Ellis is a good catcher because he knows it’s not about him or about the pitcher. It’s about what works best to help the team win.
To do their jobs well, good catchers have to be all things to all men. They have to know the game better than anyone on the field. They have to be aware of everything that’s happening on the field. They have to know their own team’s strengths and weaknesses on defense. They have to know the opposing team’s just as well. And since they’re expected to hit with power and for average, they have to know themselves pretty well too. What’s more they have to be able to read minds. Their pitchers’, their managers’ and coaches, the opposing batters’, the umpires. They have to be able to negotiate, cajole, calm, encourage, inspire, and persuade. They have to be able to deal diplomatically with all sorts and conditions of difficult characters---eccentrics, egomaniacs, and nutcases---and other high-strung, proud, competitive, talented young men who because they are so talented and so young are often arrogant young men who for one reason or another don’t take kindly to criticism or even helpful advice. In order to handle all this, catchers have to be psychologically astute and, at least on the field, in command of their own egos and emotions. They have to be self-effacing and self-sacrificing. It’s not that they have to be lacking in ego and pride. They just have to be able to keep both in check. For the good of the team, and for the sake of their own sanity, they can’t take any of it personally.
It’s also why two good baseball movies, both of which have been recent features of Mannion Family Movie Night, Bull Durham and A League of Their Own, have catchers as their protagonists. The stories of both films hinge on their catcher-hero/heroine submerging their egos and sacrificing their pride for the good of the team and to advance another player’s career.
Bull Durham holds up beautifully, thanks mainly to Susan Sarandon’s performance and the whole conception of her character, that worshipper at the Church of Baseball, Annie Savoy. But it tells a good baseball story that’s self-contained. Other sports movies depend on building to the Big Game for tension and suspense. Bull Durham is content to be about loving baseball for baseball's own sake.
A League of Their Own holds up less well, and I didn’t think it was all that good when it came out. I enjoyed it, and not only for Tom Hanks’ and Geena Davis’ performances, terrific as those were. And it’s still a fun and often funny film---though not as funny as I remembered it. It’s also not as well-made as I remembered it and it wasn’t on my list of potential Oscar-winners back then. In fact, it’s small in scale and artistic ambition, rather shoddily made, uninspired cinematically, and somewhat perfunctorily directed by Penny Marshall, who seems to have approached it as if she was shooting a three-camera sitcom on a studio sound sage. Long shot followed by medium shot followed by close up, again and again, with scene-setting cover shots interspersed as needed.
And it doesn’t look right.
That is, it doesn’t look like it’s taking place in the period.
The details are right. The costumes, the make-up, the sets including the color schemes, the props---they’re authentically 1940s America. But they don’t come together to give the film the feel of the times. The period and places don’t come to life because the things that are meant to tell us when and where we are aren’t used in a lively way. Marshall doesn’t put them to work (or play around with them) to add texture, add motion, or add visual or aural commentary. She doesn’t give them to her actors to use for character-defining business. She just photographs them. They’re statements of historical facts, items from a museum catalog, not indispensible tools of her storytelling kit.
Not only doesn’t it look like a glimpse into the past. It barely looks like a movie.
It looks more like a TV movie of the week from the 1970s doing its best on a low budget to suggest time and place than a Hollywood feature film---lit in a wash, with stodgy, uninspired camera work, lots of unutilized space within frames, little to look at in the foregrounds or backgrounds, most shots laid out along a single plane. I seem to remember that a critical complaint from the late 80s and early 90s was that movies were being made with the idea that they would be watched on more television screens than movie screens, thanks to the sudden ubiquity of VHRs. There were few widescreen TVs back then and a 27-inch screen was considered large. I can’t get into the problems with color and depth of focus because I don’t know the technical details. Everything had to be shrunk to fit and toned down to be visually comprehensible to audiences watching from their couches.
That’s what I remember, anyway. I don’t know if that’s what was at work here but it would explain Marshall’s by the numbers approach. Some of the same downsizing effects are evident in Bull Durham too, it turns out, but director Ron Shelton and his cinematographer, Bobby Byrne, and his designers were more skillful and inspired when it came to mixing things up, composing shots that filled in spaces without overcrowding them, keeping the focus on the actors, and giving the film its own look and sound.
Plus there’s Shelton’s wonderful script in which every exchange of dialog counts and most of the lines are gems or, at any rate, fastballs grooved right into Susan Sarandon’s, Kevin Costner’s, and Tim Robbins’ wheelhouses.
A League of Their Own has plenty of funny one-liners, some good speeches----and one great one. You know whichoneImean.---but very little real dialog. Just about everything the characters say they say to the audience. It’s exposition. And the exchanges don’t fall flat just because of the weak writing.
The acting’s weak too.
Actors don’t talk to each other. They talk at each other. They seem to be listening only for their cues. “Are you done? Good. Now it’s my turn to tell the audience about my character.” The exceptions are Davis and Hanks but only in their scenes together.
Costner listens to the batboy in their two-line exchange with every bit as much attention as he does to Sarandon and Robbins.
I wonder how much I overlooked A League of Their Own’s weaknesses the first time I saw it because of the surprise of Hanks’ performance as the team’s reluctant manager Jimmy Dugan. I now take Hanks’ brilliance for granted but this was the first movie in which he proved that Big wasn’t a fluke and Bonfire of the Vanities wasn’t his fault. Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, and Toy Story---don’t underestimate how much Woody contributed to Hanks’ reputation and the establishment of his movie star persona---all followed one right after the other so closely that what he did as Dugan got folded into his growing legend fairly quickly and it’s hard to remember how new it seemed at the time.
But the main thing that diminishes A League of Their Own for me now is the same thing that disappointed me, in fact, infuriated me then.
It doesn’t take baseball seriously.
Despite its seeming dependence on its being based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, baseball is not intrinsic to the story. It’s colorful background for a domestic tale of two feuding sisters, to whom the beauties, intricacies, demands, and fun of the sport aren’t nearly as important to them as their personal drama.
Dottie Hinson, star catcher for the Dugan-managed Rockford Peaches (Davis) doesn’t even want to play baseball. Her younger sister Kit (Lori Petty), a talented pitcher with a big chip on her shoulder, plays only for herself---everything she does, on the field and off, is about proving she’s better than her kindly, self-sacrificing, much more talented big sister. And with that sibling rivalry centering the plot, everything that happens between the two leads could have been played out without their ever leaving the family farm where the movie finds them at the beginning and for all it matters what they compete at the climactic scene could be a milking contest or a bake off. Which is a way of saying that their particular skills, talents, and achievements aren’t really important. A very strange lapse of thematic focus for a movie that’s ostensibly celebrating women’s skills, talents, and achievements in a particular profession they were traditionally assumed not to be as capable as men at excelling in.
Just as strange is that it’s a baseball movie about a pair of ballplayers who don’t care about baseball and don’t get any enjoyment from it.
It doesn’t help that while the movie seems to expect us to be torn in our sympathies between Dottie and Kit, Kit is almost impossible to sympathize with. She’s selfish, self-centered, oblivious, unfeeling toward Dottie, and consequently, and almost invariably, wrong about everything. Basically, she’s an overgrown brat. Some of Kit’s lack of appeal is due to Petty’s not being a natural movie star. She can’t capture an audience’s attention and affection just by soaking up light. She’s a good actress playing the part as written but not a good enough actress to play against how it’s written.
But thanks to how it’s written, on top of everything else is that because Kit’s a selfish player who stubbornly refuses to be coached, she’s a bad ballplayer, despite her supposed talent, and doesn’t deserve to succeed. This puts the baseball fans like me in the position of rooting against her for the good of the game. That would be fine, in another movie. In this movie, though, we’re not only expected to root for her, we’re expected to think it’s a happy ending that she succeeds even though she doesn’t change her ways.
The worst part, though, is that in the end the movie betrays itself by betraying its characters and baseball.
Kit triumphs by being the bad ballplayer she’s been shown to be. This happens sometimes. Bad and selfish players get away with decisions that ought to have cost their team a run or the game. But not only is not supposed to happen, it usually doesn’t because bad play produces bad outcomes nearly 100 percent of the time and so a bad players manager and teammates don’t put up with a bad player’s bad play or bad attitude, at least not for long.
But Kit also gets away with it because Dottie seemingly helps her.
This might be the result of bad editing or a poor directing choice on Marshall’s part---she might not have trusted the audience to take in what happens---but it looked to me then and looks to me now like Dottie deliberately drops the ball.
Dottie, the ultimate team player lets her deserving teammates down---out and out betrays them---in order to make her spoiled brat of a baby sister feel better about herself.
It baffles me why the filmmakers chose to give their lead character the first name and reputation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League’s best player, Dottie Collins, but then gave Collins’ career to Kit. Leaving aside the unintended slur of Collins brought about by equating Collins with Kit, I understand why the movie’s Dottie is a catcher not a pitcher. I don’t understand why she isn’t allowed to have not just a career as stellar as Collins’ but any real baseball career at all and apparently it’s by her own choice.
In the end, Dottie, who knows how good a ballplayer she is, knows she could come back and lead the team to the championship next season, decides to give it all up to go back home to Nowheresville, Oregon for a life on the farm as Mrs Boring Despite His Being Played by Bill Pullman Wounded War Hero.
The heroine of a movie about how women can do anything men can do and often do it better is the least proto-feminist of the female characters and her happy ending is to watch her sister go on to have what would be if it had been possible a Hall of Fame type of career while she lives obscurely and self-effacingly but contentedly as a wife and mother.
When I tweeted about this back in July, my sister-in-law, Mrs Luke Mannion, stepped into the box to tell me I’d missed the point.
Dottie doesn’t get a happy ending.
Women of that era like Dottie didn’t.
Not that kind of happy ending, at any rate.
Mulling it over, I think I see Mrs Luke's point.
Crash Davis has a lot of pride and it’s been wounded again and again over time. And it takes another blow when the movie begins. In one way, his being given the job of teaching the feckless and selfish phenomenon Nuke LaLoosh how to be a good pitcher as a sign that the organization respects Crash's baseball intelligence and character and trusts him to handle what in their eyes is their major league teams future fortunes. But he's savvy enough to see that it's also a clear indication they have no use for him anymore as a player in his own right. He fairly certain that no matter how well things go with the education of Nuke, his own career is probably done. It's almost the last straw. He's already frustrated, disappointed, angry, and at the point of turning on himself, thinking that not only is he a failure, he's a fool for ever thinking he might have ever had a chance to make it to the majors.
It doesn't help that not only is Nuke as a person hardly worth the effort, he's a rival for Annie Savoy's affections, which Nuke doesn't deserve anymore than he deserves the talent the baseball gods have bestowed upon him.
What keeps Crash going is his love for the game and his faith. Like Annie, he's a believer who worships in the Church of Baseball. He only comes to grudgingly like Nuke. But he feels responsible for him. More specifically, he feels responsible for Nuke's becoming as good a player as his talent warrants. And taking this responsibility seriously becomes a point of pride with him.
Dottie has no pride, no vanity, and practically no ego. She isn’t a saint because she has no belief in anything. She’s self-sacrificing by reflex. Baseball is not her church or even at the top of the list of her interests. When we meet her she’s playing in a company league but it seems to be to giver her something to do while she’s waiting for her husband to come home from World War II and she can devote herself to the family they’ll start together and her farm work isn’t taking up enough of her free time. Baseball isn’t fun for her. As I said earlier, it’s not fun for Kit either. In fact the the only members of the team having fun playing the game are Madonna’s and Rosie O’Donnell’s which is why they are the most fun to watch when Tom Hanks isn’t on screen. But for Dottie baseball is more than not fun. It’s a painful obligation she can’t wait to be rid of because it does what she most hates---causes people to praise her and tempts her to put herself and her desires ahead of other people’s.
By training and upbringing (and by temperament), Dottie is in the habit of putting other people’s needs---particularly her family’s, which will come to include her husband and their children---ahead of her own wants, dreams, and desires. Women then were expected not to have any wants, dreams, and desires of their own. Still are, in some quarters. Dottie is a product of a time she helps to bring to an end through her self-sacrifice. She’s a heroine because she leads others to their individual and collective Promised Lands, but she doesn’t get to enter the land flowing with milk and honey herself. She ennobles Kit, redeems Dugan, and more or less saves the careers of all the Rockford Peaches by keeping the entire league in business through the popularity and respect she earns for herself and women ballplayers by being the best player in the league. But she’s denied any share of the credit and glory and isn’t even allowed to take satisfaction in what she’s accomplished.
At the end of Bull Durham, Crash winds up with Annie, a happy enough ending for anyone, but his playing days are over and his future in baseball far from guaranteed. The manager's job he's planning to apply for and is hoping will set him on a different sort of path to the major leagues may not even be open. When he shows up on Annie's front porch he's feeling heartbroken and defeated. And the movie allows him the dignity of his sadness. Before they start dancing in celebration of their romance, Annie joins him in grieving for his lost career and unfulfilled dreams.
I’m not convinced we're intended to see Dottie's story as having a less than happy ending, let alone see her as a tragic figure, but if we are, then not only does A League of Their Own betray baseball and its characters in the end, it betrays the feminist principles it otherwise congratulates itself for celebrating. The movie's final scene minimizes any lingering regret and resentment Dottie might feel and even attempts to wash it away with a gush of sentimentality and nostalgia. Dottie isn't allowed the dignity of her sadness. She isn't even given her due for the sacrifices she made. And she is shown to be still, nearly fifty years later, trying to make it up to Kit for being the better ballplayer and person and we're meant to find this amusing and endearing instead of perverse and pathetic..
It's debatable whether or not we're meant to see Dottie deliberately drop the ball. But either way it's still a question whether or not Kit is out anyway. It looks to me like the tag's put on before Kit reaches the plate and Dottie has control of the ball when she tags Kit and holds onto it well after an umpire who wasn't blind would have called Kit out. But what's your call? Here's the clip.
A League of Their Own capped a decade of good baseball movies, including, beside Bull Durham, The Natural,Eight Men Out, Major League, and Mr. Baseball. Of those others, I think Major League is the most fun for fans because it best captures the the rhythm of a season, the excitement of being at the ballpark watching your team win, and the importance to a community of a having a team to root for. But although it builds predictably to the Big Game, the most thrilling moment isn’t the play that wins it, but the moment that has become a matter of routine celebration for the fans---Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn’s coming in from the bullpen. And the thrill is in the fans’ communal enjoyment and our getting to share in their fun. We’re brought into the game too.
Catching up on more notes from Family Movie Nights. August 1, 2015.
Patient and doctor, criminal and victim, tragic villain and comic hero: Robert De Niro as Paul Vitti, a mob boss suffering from crippling anxiety attacks, and Billy Crystal as Dr Ben Sobel, the psychiatrist Vitti "hires' to cure him in a scene from the 1999 comedy Analyze This that looks like it could have come straight from a serious gangster film like Goodfellas. In fact, in may have. Anybody recognize it?
AnalyzeThis, the 1999 comedy directed by Harold Ramis and starring Robert De Niro as a mob boss suffering from depression and Billy Crystal as the psychiatrist forced at gunpoint, literally, to treat him, is set in the same universe as the Godfather movies, Goodfellas,Heat, ABronxTale, and other realistic gangster films of the last third of the 21st Century that the first Godfather begat. Crime is vicious and ugly, criminals are brutal and without conscience, violence causes suffering, pain, and death, and suffering, pain, and death are real.
The difference is that in Analyze This the potential pain, suffering, and death of innocents are the story’s main concern.
That’s what makes it a comedy.
In true comedies It’s possible that the hero will die.
The three types of comedies I tried to define in myreviewofAnt-Man, romantic comedy, farce, and what I call, for want of a better term, true comedy, aren’t the only types and they aren’t mutually exclusive. They get mixed in together all the time, especially in Hollywood movies.
There have been very good movies of all three forms, but as a form romantic comedy is the least, well, serious because it is the least consequential. All that’s at stake in a typical romantic comedy is the domestic happiness of the two lovers. Sometimes, depending on who’s starring, just one of the lovers. The other’s eventual happiness is taken as a given. As soon as the star ends up in the arms of his or her heart’s desire all will be well that end’s well, with the wants and desires of the love interest assumed to be the same as the main character’s, even if they don’t know it themselves, a typical plot device that’s infuriating because it becomes the main character’s job to convince her---it’s almost always a her---that he knows what’s best for her better than she does, which besides denying the woman agency over her own life and, essentially, body, presents what amounts to stalking as a romantic gesture.
Farce is the most common form because it offers the most opportunities for the kinds of jokes and gags that get the biggest laughs, the ones based on how ridiculous it is to be human. Lazy and desperate writers often reach into their joke writers toolkit for farcical tropes, even if they’re working in one of the other forms, thinking it’s easy laughs. Not if it’s good. When it’s good, the laughs only seem easy. The gags and jokes having been carefully and smartly set up and constructed. But it’s also demeaning and distancing, making its characters objects of derision and encouraging us to feel superior to them while reducing their pain and suffering to jokes.
True comedy treats its characters as realistically human and takes their pain and suffering as seriously as any tragedy. In fact, true comedies are tragedies in which through the efforts of the heroes and heroines the tragic ending is postponed and happiness, at least for now, regained.
Its heroes and heroines are concerned with more than their own individual happiness. They are heroic. Not necessarily in the sense of being of superior virtue, but in the sense that they are active and self-sacrificing in their roles as saviors of others’ lives and happiness. They are redemptive figures.
This is why the hero (and there’s a reason why I’ve switched to the gender-specific singular) can die and the story still be comic. His personal happiness isn’t what’s at stake or most at stake. It’s not important that he survives, only that he succeed.
So, Frodo could have died on Mount Doom---and symbolically he does. The eagles arrive to carry him off to heaven---because his work is done. But Bilbo has to live, and not just because he’s the hero of a children’s fairy tale. He has work left to do. He has to carry home the lesson and he has to keep the Ring safe until it’s time for Frodo to take over.
Similarly, Harry Potter could have died at the end of The Deathly Hallows---and like Frodo he symbolically does---because there’s nothing left for him to do once Voldemort is defeated. But Luke Skywalker has to live because he has to rebuild the Jedi Order and secure the future of the Republic. I hope The Force Awakens understands this and doesn’t turn him into a tall, pale Yoda, that is, doesn’t make him Merlin but leaves him Arthur, a lion in winter not an old sage retired to teaching.
Ok, Analyze This is not as grand and transcendent a story as The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. It’s not a myth. But it is an example of how myth manifests itself in real life. (See my yet to be written scholarly treatise on the subject.) Billy Crystal’s character, Dr Ben Sobel, is a redemptive figure, a hero who doesn’t know he’s a hero and wouldn’t want to be if Gandalf or Obi-wan appeared to tell him it was his time. He’s a better than averagely decent guy who happens to have chosen a profession that requires him to try to help other people be happy or, at any rate, less miserable. By nature and training, he’s inclined to put other people’s happiness ahead of his own. And this is what gets him into trouble.
At the beginning of the movie, Sobel’s personal happiness is already assured. He has his problems. Things could be better for him professionally. But his romantic comedy ended before the story starts. He’s won the heart of the woman he loves. The form of comedy he’s about to enter is the domestic farce of TV sitcom-land, with his kooky patients, his exasperating parents (Bill Macy and Rebecca Schull), his goodnatured but smartalecky teenage son (Michael Sabihy), and his loving but clear-eyed wife (Lisa Kudrow). The intrusion of De Niro’s character, mobster Paul Vitti, disrupts that, but more to the point it drags Sobel out his personal comedy and into Vitti’s tragedy.
What happens happens almost as it would if Analyze This was a Scorsese film---in fact, imdb tells me that Scorsese was asked to direct it---including the violent deaths of sympathetic characters. Ramis does his best to make the film look, sound, and feel like it was directed by Scorsese or Coppolla or at least one of their better imitators. If it doesn’t contain as many direct visual quotes from their movies as I think I caught, it definitely contains plenty of allusions. The difference is that the cast of characters features people in central roles who aren’t as mean, selfish, vicious, and violent as the usual suspects, the kind of people who are usually seen at the peripheries of those movies, Sobel and his family mainly, and with them as the focus, it’s the gangsters who are pushed to the edges of the story. Seen that way, at a distance from the point of view of normal human beings like Sobel, they’re still mean, selfish, vicious, and violent, but now also somewhat absurd. Their lives, their passions, their concerns, their codes and their dreams and desires make no sense. In short, there’s absolutely no romance to them and no allure.
Vitti’s “problem” is that that’s how he has begun to see himself and his life, at that distance and from the point of view of normal people. He’s becoming absurd to himself, and a mob boss who can’t take himself and what he does seriously is at a disadvantage in dealing with other mob bosses. What he wants Sobel to do is cure him of encroaching sanity so he can go back to being mean, vicious, selfish, and violent without qualm or scruple.
What he thinks he wants.
Sobel’s diagnosis is that what Vitti really wants is out.
At first, Sobel agrees to treat Vitti (perfunctorily) to get him out of his life as quickly as possible. But then he begins to realize that Vitti is in real distress. He’s suffering a crisis of conscience that’s causing him crippling emotional pain. Sobel starts to see Vitti as a patient. Which makes him his responsibility.
He also realizes that if he can cure Vitti he can save more lives than his own. Helping Vitti become the strong and effective mob boss he was will prevent a gang war that will probably end with a lot of bodies on their way to the morgue or hole in the ground in New Jersey and Vitti’s bloodthirsty rival (Chazz Palminteri) controlling organized crime in the city.
This presents another problem for Sobel.
By helping a criminal become a good criminal again he is aiding and abetting. He’s making himself a criminal. Which is how the FBI sees it.
The feds show up to put pressure on Sobel to help them nab Vitti and the other mob bosses.
Sobel finds himself torn every which way, between his ethical obligations to his patient, his legal obligations according to the law, his moral obligations to doing what’s right and honest and good for others, and his personal obligations to protect his family. And it seems that no matter which way he goes, it will lead to him getting killed.
This is the stuff of tragedy. That’s why it’s the stuff of true comedy. The stakes are real and high. And the hero has real work to do that may cost him everything.
Sobel is a true comic hero, which is funny because he’s not funny. I mean that Sobel, even though he’s played by a comic, is the movie’s straight man. The mugging and clowning is all De Niro’s (who of course underdoes it brilliantly). And the weakest scene in the whole movie is the one in which Crystal is allowed to play it for laughs.
Except for that scene, though, Crystal plays it pretty much as straight as if he was acting in a serious gangster film. So does most of the rest of the cast. The odd person out is De Niro, but he goes back and forth, almost as if he’s switching masks from Tragedy’s to Comedy’s, which is appropriate---Vitti’s tragedy is that he’s someone who not only longs to be in a comedy, he belongs in one.
Analyze This is a bigger film on the inside than it appears on the outside. Despite himself, Sobel is a redemptive figure, dedicated to bringing happiness to others and his job, the job of all comic heroes, is to rescue others from the tragedy in which they’ve gotten lost and and bring them home safe and sound back into the comedy, even if it costs him his own life.
Analyze This, directed by Harold Ramis, screenplay by Peter Tolan and Harold Ramis and Kenneth Lonergan. Starring Robert De Niro, Billy Crystal, Lisa Kudrow, Chazz Palminteri, Joe Viterelli, Bill Macy, Rebecca Schull, and Michael Sabihy. 1999. Rated R. Available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon. Also streaming on Netflix.
New genetic analyses confirm that a pair of highly similar-looking South American woodpecker species once thought to be closely related are actually only distant cousins. By copying the appearance of a larger, socially dominant woodpecker species, the subordinate mimic species reduces the aggression that it receives from other potential competitors, enhancing its access to food resources…
The bird’s call and behavior tipped off the researchers that this species may have been misclassified. When Robbins encountered a helmeted woodpecker during a trip to Brazil in 2010, he was stunned that its vocalizations sounded nothing like other Dryocopus species in the region. Co-author Kevin Zimmer had also noted the helmeted woodpecker’s behavior was unlike that of other Dryocopus euncountered during his 20 years of field research in Brazil.
The shy and little-known helmeted woodpecker shares the red crest, black back, and barred underside of two larger woodpeckers—Dryocopuslineatus and Campephilus robustus—all of which occupy the same habitat and share similar food preferences. Though it had been previously classified in the genus Dryocopus due to its remarkable similarities in appearance with Dryocopuslineatus, genetic analysis by Benz and his colleagues confirms that the helmeted woodpecker is actually not closely related to other Dryocopus woodpeckers at all and belongs in a different genus, Celeus.
After examining specimens in the AMNH collection, Benz concluded “The helmeted woodpecker is basically a typicalCeleus in Dryocopus clothing.”
Or I can just stay home and dream of there while watching the downy and hairy woodpeckers in the neighborhood:
New Yorkers need not travel any farther than Central Park to see an example of ISDM, as the unrelated but incredibly similar in appearance hairy and downy woodpeckers (Picoides villosusand Picoides pubescens, respectively) have been eliciting double takes from birders for years.
...even a top leader of the United Church of Christ labeled [the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade] ‘historic not only in terms of women’s individual rights but also in terms of the relationships of church and state.” The clergyman’s reasoning: “Although religious principles often form the basis of secular law, we hold that where religious beliefs vary, American law traditionally establishes the neutrality of the state. The doctrine of one religious group is not imposed by legal fiat or enforced by criminal sanction on the rest of American society.”
There’s the rub.
The Religious Right believes that that one religious group does get to impose its doctrine on the rest of society.
And they don’t believe religious beliefs vary. There are no religious beliefs. There is only belief. Belief in the one, true God. Their God. So there is belief and there is godlessness. They are the believers. Everybody else is godless. And the godless have no religious liberty because they have no religion. So the only religious liberty that needs to be respected by law, custom, tradition, and practice is their own.
Right Wing Christians do not understand the phrase “religious liberty” as meaning that individuals have the liberty to worship as their beliefs and consciences dictate, anyway. When they say the United States is a Christian country they mean it’s a country in which Christianity rules. Their brand of Christianity. They are the only true Christians. Their “religious liberty” is the liberty to tell everybody else what to believe and how to conduct their lives, and whenever they are blocked from doing that, they feel their liberty threatened.
In their mouths “religious liberty” is just a synonym for "us" or “we”. So they’re not saying “religious liberty is threatened.” They are saying “we are threatened.” It’s another Right Wing “Us versus Them”-ism. And the majority of Americans are them.
In the end the Nazi learns genocide is bad but it's the heroine who converts! She becomes a Christian!
The novel came out last year and was greeted with some acclaim and nominated for awards, including Best First Book and Best Inspirational Romance by the Romance Writers of America, prestigious honors in the romance writing world, Messina informs me.
Using the Holocaust as background for a love story is a problematic choice, but it's been done. Using it as the background for a conventional romance, however, is in questionable taste. And you’d have to be really good to pull off making a Nazi your Mr Darcy or Rochester. But I suspect that what really upset people was having the heroine convert and making that conversion integral to the happy ending.
Probably didn’t sit well, either, that the heroine’s blonde and blue-eyed.
Political Correctness, as you know, is the tyrannical practice of pointing out to people who’ve done something offensive that they’ve done something offensive.
Rice also called the critical reaction to the book a lynching.
I’m not going to be politically correct and point out what’s offensive about that.
The author and the publisher were astonished that anyone would find the story offensive. The author, who isn’t Jewish, says she intended to honor Jewish courage and resiliency in the face of thousands of years of persecution and suffering. She was inspired, she says, by the biblical story of Esther.
Now, I think if you want to write a biblically inspired story about a Jewish heroine in the Holocaust Judith would be the better choice. Or Jael. Driving a nail into a Nazi's head seems like a more "inspirational" dénouement than "Reader, I married the blackshirted swine."
Hemingway said that an important part of a writer’s job was to tell how the weather was. Start your book with a weather report like this, and you’ve got me hooked:
The summer I spent as a reporter covering the war between the oysters and the wilderness, every night was a foggy one. The long days ended with a relief that arrived in two stages. The first came when the outstretched arm of Tomales Bay began to fill again in the late afternoons, submerging the gasping mud flats and exposed estuarine grasses as the little waves came lapping in, reaching high tide just as darkness fell. The second came when the fog made its way over the forested ridge from the sea, rolling wetly down hillsides, across meadows, and into valleys. Still, as the clock ticked towards midnight, and then one, and then two, as I sat hunched over my desk night after night in the little newspaper office by the coast, I often wondered how it was that I found myself in the middle of all this.
Newly back in town after ten years spent mostly away, it took a while to get my bearings. My life in the big city had been frenetic, and it was jarring to suddenly find myself one foggy spring night in Vladimir’s, a Czechoslovakian pub on the edge of Tomales Bay, eating fish and chips with septuagenarian cowboys. Wild mustard was still growing tall along the roadsides, clustered white and purple against the weathered wood of old barns. Evenings came on blue and heavy from out over the Pacific. Some friends were skeptical of my decision to abandon the city, even if only temporarily. But outside, beyond the glow of Vlad’s lanterns, the air was thick and wet and quiet, and it felt good to be home.
He was no saint, but among the many virtues of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), whose real life tragedy is told in Ryan Coogler’s masterpiece of naturalistic storytelling Fruitvale Station, was that he was a loving and devoted and involved father to his daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). Unfortunately, his virtues didn’t save him and may even have contributed to his death.
Tonight's feature for family movie night was Fruitvale Station, the winner of, among the many awards it and its director Ryan Coogler and leading man Michael B. Jordan garnered, the Sundance Festival's Grand Jury Prize for 2013. The film tells the story of the last day in the short, frustrated life of Oscar Grant, a twenty-two year old black man who was shot and fatally wounded in the back by a white transit police officer on a subway train platform in San Francisco on January 1, 2009 while not only unarmed but already under restraint by several cops and in the process of being arrested for his suspected part in a fight aboard one of the trains. I'm still mulling over what to say about it as a movie but for now: See it. See it right away. It's streaming on Netflix. But I've got a couple thoughts together on it is a documentation of a real life tragedy and a commentary on one of the most pressing issues of our time. Here's my first thought.
There's a scene, as the story closes on its climactic moments, when Oscar (Jordan) and his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz), in San Francisco from their home across the bay in Oakland to celebrate New Year's, make a pit stop at a restaurant so Sophina can use the bathroom. The restaurant's closing for the night, the owner's about to lock up, but Oscar persuades him to let Sophina in. Oscar, however, has to wait outside. Fine with him. But while he's waiting another young couple walks up with the same urgent need.
Oscar prevails again on the owner, who again agrees to let the woman in but makes the guy wait outside. As it happens, this couple is white. They're married and she's pregnant. Oscar now finds himself waiting awkwardly with the other guy. But they start to make friendly small talk about their respective marital states. Oscar asks the guy, whose name is Peter, how long he's been married, and something in Oscar's tone alerts Peter to Oscar's doubts about getting married and after answering (eight years) he asks back You thinking about it and then to follow up with What's stopping you?
No money, Oscar says. He's out of work, having recently been fired from his job at a butcher's. The only money he has coming in is from dealing pot and he's not particularly good at that because he doesn't like to do it. He's basically an honest person and he wants a more stable and life for himself and Sophina and their daughter Tatiana.
Peter waves the lack of money away as a shitty reason to put off getting married. He didn't have any money when he got married.
Oscar perks up. If this guy managed things without money, maybe he can too. He asks Peter how he bought an engagement ring.
I stole it, Peter admits, sheepish but also a little proud, as if the fact marks him as a daring and clever outlaw and rebel in the cause of true love. Now Oscar is really intrigued. He's spent time in prison for dealing. Peter's a fellow outlaw who appears to have done what Oscar wants to do, leave that sort of life behind.
Peter's in a confessional mood now, and he tells Oscar how he stole the ring and at the same time how it happened he had no money so he needed to steal it.
"I used to be good with credit cards."
He means, of course, that he was bad with them. Lots of debt. Lots of bills he didn't pay off. He warns Oscar not to let that happen to him. Oscar assures him he knows better. But we can see from his expression that knowing better isn't the reason he won't get into trouble with credit cards. The reason is he knows, probably from bitter experience, no bank's going to give him one.
Peter goes on, not wanting Oscar to think he's still a loser but also wanting to encourage Oscar with his example. "But then I started my business," he says, implying he's done well for himself since. And this does give Oscar a moment of hope. Starting his own business? There's an idea. Wouldn't it be great to be his own boss. He asks Peter what he does.
Web design, Peter says matter-of-factly and he hands Oscar his card.
Oscar looks at it, crestfallen, his hopes already fading.
He'd thought he and Peter were kindred spirits, and in a way they are. But Peter has advantages Oscar can't see himself ever acquiring.
Credit. A college degree. And a marketable skill in a growing and lucrative field.
Sophina and Peter's wife come out of the restaurant and the couples part ways. Nothing comes of the scene. Oscar doesn't have a chance to think about it or tell Sophina because the very next scene is the one leading up to Oscar's death. But it doesn't matter, narratively, except in its being yet another seemingly minor incident that as part of a string of such incidents puts Oscar in the wrong place at the wrong time and leads to his death.
If Sophina hadn't had to use the bathroom, if the owner hadn't let her or if he'd taken less time to agree, if Peter and Oscar had talked longer, if, if, if...then maybe he wouldn't have been on that particular train in that particular car at that particular time.
But the scene matters more thematically. Oscar’s being on the train at that moment is simply a simple twist of fate. He’s there because one thing leads to another, yes, but those things happen because he is who is he is. And big part of who he is is a poor young black man living in an American city in the first decade of the 21st Century.
Things don’t just happen to Oscar. He does things. He makes choices. Some of those choices aren’t the wisest he could make. Most, though, make sense, given the circumstances and the options he has. And that’s the problem: his circumstances limit his options.
At no point does Coogler suggest that Oscar’s fate is determined by socio-economic forces over which he has no control. He isn’t a victim of those forces although he is a product of them. He doesn’t have control over that, but he has control of himself or, rather, he sometimes exercises self-control in a way that gives him some mastery over his own fate.
But then sometimes he doesn’t exercise that control and sometimes even when he does larger forces defeat him.
And that makes Oscar something of an everyman and not only an every poor young inner-city black man.
We are who we are and what happens to us happens to us, Coogler is saying, through a mix of character, circumstance, and accident.
Now that I think of it, I do have something to say about Fruitvale Station as a work of moviemaking art.
It’s a nearly perfect piece of naturalistic storytelling.
Every scene moves the plot along even the scenes that seem random and pointless. Every scene illustrates Coogler’s themes. No scene hits us over the head with the latter or seems forced in doing the former.
Coogler works his way subtly, patiently, and confidently to Fruitvale Station’s inevitable tragic conclusion using a cinematic verite style that doesn’t feel like an affectation or a gimmick or even visual commentary on the film’s being based on real events---it just seems like the right choice, as if this is the way this story had to be told.
Fruitvale Station is a tragedy before it is a social commentary.
Which isn’t to say it isn’t a social commentary. The social commentary is intrinsic to the tragedy.
It’s been the reflexive conservative position that poverty and the crime it engenders are not socio-economic problems. They are problems caused by individual failures of character.
If only those people would exercise self-control, behave, adopt better habits and values. If only they’d be more like us.
As if having been born white and middle class and into a stable, lucky family living in a good neighborhood was the result of choices they made and actions they took.
Conservatives seem to feel a desperate need to feel they have total control over their own fates---even the ones who claim that we are all pretty much God’s pawns and he moves us around the chessboard of life in accordance to his plans. Their hedge is that God’s moving them into advantageous positions is his way of rewarding them for being good people, so it’s not really the case that their fate is out of their control. There are a number of reasons behind their needing to feel this, but the point here is that one of the ways they make themselves feel it is to deny their own advantages. This is how we get the ludicrous phenomenon of someone like Paul Ryan talking as if he’d worked his way up from the gutter and lecturing people who weren’t born into a rich family and then married money on how to improve their lives. More generally, it’s how we get middle class and wealthy straight white American men talking about themselves as if they are an oppressed minority---the oppressed minority.
They refuse to acknowledge the advantages they were born with and refuse to acknowledge the disadvantages people who are not like them have to deal with from birth.
“It’s all your fault you are not safe, comfortable, prosperous, and successful like me. So stop asking me to care about you and your problems or do anything to help you solve them especially if what you’re asking me to do requires me to give up any of the advantages or privileges I refuse to admit I have.”
And this is one of the points Coogler’s making in the scene between Oscar and Peter outside the restaurant.
Oscar is far from a saint. But he is a bit of a hero. He has flaws and is given to vices. He’s impulsive, self-indulgent, arrogant (in the way most twenty-two year old men are, regardless of their virtues), entitled (again, in the way most twenty-two year old men are), thoughtless (again. But also a little more so), and he has a quick temper that he doesn’t feel a need to control. But he’s also tender and tender-hearted, generous, quick-witted, resourceful, charming, empathetic, and brave. His tragedy is that his virtues sometimes get him in more trouble than his vices---it’s even the case that if he wasn’t brave and generous and loyal and charming, he might not have wound up face down on that train platform with a cop’s gun to his back---and even when they don’t cause trouble they don’t earn him any rewards.
He can’t work his way out of his situation no matter how good his character if he doesn’t have the right skills or isn’t given the opportunities.
If society sees no use for people like Oscar---and it pretty much doesn’t---then his good character doesn’t matter. And if it does see a use for people like Peter, then his lack of good character doesn’t matter.
Peter likely has many virtues, but the only one we see is that he’s friendly. Otherwise all we know about him is that at one time he was a sneak, a cheat, a liar, and a thief. Just like Oscar. And, while one of the lessons we can draw from this, one Oscar tries at first to draw for himself, is that if Peter could save himself from his own screw-ups, then maybe Oscar can too, there’s the fact that Peter had and has advantages Oscar didn’t and doesn’t, possibly even more advantages than we can know from just this scene, like a family and friends who could help him pay off his debts and finance his start-up. Oscar’s family and friends are all as without money and connections as he is himself. In fact, he has to help them out of trouble as often as they help him, which sometimes means putting himself into more difficulties.
Like I said, sometimes his virtues cause more trouble than his vices.
But only to the degree it can overcome or at least survive the forces of bad luck and socio-economic conditions designed to keep people like Oscar from mattering, no matter what their character.
I feel like this needs to be stressed: Whatever Oscar Grant did or didn’t do that landed him face down and under arrest on that train platform that night, he should not have wound up dead. His death is entirely on the cop who shot him.
Boiled down, the conservative position on just about every socio-economic problem is “They aren’t like us and therefore we don’t owe them sympathy, pity, or aid.” This, of course, is heartless, inhumane, and un-Christian (and most conservatives in the United States boast of being good Christian), not to mention selfish and self-serving. Which is why they try to cover it with hypocritical sermons on values and character. They don’t want to be seen for what they are. So when it comes to discussing problems of the inner cities, they are quick to jump on evidence that those problems are all their own fault. For instance, they like to point to all the evidence of family dysfunction, particularly to the absence of fathers in the lives of their children. (This has the added benefit to the cause of male authoritarianism generally and denying women their rights to control their own bodies as well as their work and family lives.) They refuse to consider the possibility that they are reversing cause and effect. The toll the high rates of violence, crime, unemployment, and mass incarceration take on young men of prime parenting age includes removing those young men from their families and reducing their influence on the raising of their children.
Coogler doesn’t make much of this in Fruitvale Station, but it’s there to be seen if you're looking for it: in the various family arrangements among Oscar’s circle of friends and relatives shown in the course of the movie, there are no young adult men significantly involved in the family’s daily lives…except Oscar. And it’s no small part of the tragedy that Oscar’s death robs Tatiana of a loving and involved father.
Here’s a very good interview with Ryan Coogler by Benjamin Soloway at the Boston Globe that includes background on the making of the movie and the real life events surrounding Oscar Grant’s death: What happened at Fruitvale Station.
Fruitvale Station, written and directed by Ryan Coolger. Starring Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz, Octavia Spencer. Rated R. Now available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon. Also streaming on Netflix.
I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.---Doctor Writer-Writer Doctor Oliver Sacks.
This is the only way I am at all like Oliver Sacks as a writer:
I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs…
But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.
My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.
I started late. Nineteen. But it took me a few years to really get going. I haven’t filled close to a thousand notebooks. But it’s up into the hundreds. I keep them in clear plastic storage boxes so I can look at them anytime. But I don’t just look. I read them. What’s more, I make use of them. A lot of what goes onto the blog comes out of the pages of notebooks. This post you’re reading right now, for instance. Point is, he kept journals, I fill notebooks, and that’s about the size of it. Where our alikeness ends. I’m what I am. He’s Oliver Sacks.
He told us he was going, back in February, but I didn’t believe him. We need people like him to live forever. I thought he knew that.
A MONTH ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. The radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye. But though ocular melanomas metastasize in perhaps 50 percent of cases, given the particulars of my own case, the likelihood was much smaller. I am among the unlucky ones.
Last spring, one of my students was pre-med and during an editorial conference we got to talking about writing in general and doctors as writers in particular. She wanted to improve her own writing, but she also wanted to read about her chosen field written by people who didn’t drain all the life, interest, excitement, and joy out of it. I told her there’s a tradition of doctors who were good writers or, if you wanted to look at it the other way, good writers who happened to be doctors. She was surprised. Everything she’d ever read written by people in the medical profession was dry and dull, textbook-ese even when it wasn’t a textbook. I listed a few doctor writers (or writer doctors), starting with Sacks. Could have ended with Sacks. A summer spent reading all his books---assuming she could fit them all in---would have been all she needed to learn what she wanted to learn.
The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.
Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.
I have Sacks’ book of essays An Anthropologist on Mars and some of his online writing on the syllabus for my course this fall, Public Intellectuals in the Digital Commons. I was planning to use his online chronicling of the coming end of his life and lesson in what can be done in writing for a virtual audience and how to write well about esoteric subjects and abstruse ideas, that is, for lessons my student was looking for for herself when she and I talked about doctors writing and writers doctoring. I think I’ll leave him on it.
There’s still so much left for him to tell us and I think my students will appreciate the lessons:
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
Hunting the Creatures from the Green Hills of Africa: Lt Colonel John Henry Patterson (Val Kilmer, left), an engineer with the British Army, and American big game hunter Charles Remington (Michael Douglas) pause while tracking a pair of man-eating lions to admire the beauty that conceals the horror of colonial Africa in the "based on a true story" monster movie disguised as a period piece, The Ghost and the Darkness.
Family movie night at the Mannion ranch has never been a strictly educational event. We don't watch movies as homework. Sometimes we'll watch a movie because it's related to something one or the other Mannion guys is studying in school. Sometimes because it's connected to a discussion of history or current events we had at dinner. But the point is to have a fun and relaxing time. We try to pick movies we know are good but that doesn't mean they have to be high art. We'll watch schlock, fluff, camp, schmaltz, doesn't matter. As long as it's competently and intelligently made. Tonight's feature, for example, The Ghost and the Darkness, isn't high art. It's not schlock, fluff, camp, or schmaltz, either, although it has moments of all four. It's a pretty good monster movie disguised as a period piece.
There are two monsters in The Ghost and the Darkness. A pair of man-eating lions that terrorize the work camp of British railroad company building a bridge across the Tsavo River in what is now Kenya in 1898. It's based on a true story and director Stephen Hopkins shot it as if it's a realistic historical drama, taking advantage of the African scenery---I don't think Out of Africa features as much pretty nature photography---both to distract us from implausibilities in the plot with the verisimilitude of breathtaking landscapes and to emphasize the horror by showing it as inseparable from the beauty of the place. Hopkins' cinematographer was multiple Oscar winner and nominee Vilmos Zsigmond who's worked with Robert Altman (McCabe & Mrs Miller, Images, The Long Goodbye), Steven Spielberg (Sugarland Express, Close Encounters), and, recently, Woody Allen (Melinda and Melinda, Cassandra's Dream, and You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger). He also did the cinematography for Deer Hunter. But more tellingly, in relation to what he does with the camera in The Ghost and the Darkness, he shot Blow Out for Brian de Palma and Deliverance for John Boorman. Deliverance is still a master class on how to make the beauty of a place intrinsic to its violence and horror.
What this amounts to is The Ghost and the Darkness looks like a better movie than it is.
I don't mean it's all shiny on the outside and empty on the inside. I mean it's more enjoyable if you don't let yourself think too far ahead of where the camera's going or back on where it's been and just let your eyes carry you along. Even the performances are better seen than heard.
Except that they all have wonderful voices, Michael Douglas, John Kani, and Tom Wilkinson might as well be in a silent movie for all they say that needs to be listened to for us to understand their characters.
All three play men who are more than eccentrics. They're in different ways and to different degrees madmen.
Douglas' great white hunter is crazy like a fox crazy but still crazy.
Kani’s Samuel, the chief foreman on the construction site, is mad in a resigned, amused, giving into others’ madness way. His attitude is, the world is crazy, the white men I work for are the craziest part of it, so I might as well laugh as cry.
Wilkinson’s demanding, emotionally sadistic, and self-infatuated head of the railway is a cheerfully malevolent megalomaniac who just can't help admiring himself for what a dandy bully he is.
They tell us everything there is to know about these men through some high caliber mugging and with their great big individually styled smiles.
They are three of the smiling-est madmen you’ll ever see in the movies.
As the movie's hero, British Army officer John Henry Patterson, Val Kilmer doesn't do much smiling. He's not given much to smile about. He's not given much to do except hold the camera and be watched as he looks determined and stoic and somehow conveys that he's someone who can engineer and build bridges and hunt big game with skill and courage and come home and write a bestselling book about his adventures, all of which the real Patterson actually did.
Now here’s the thing.
The Ghost and the Darkness is what we Mannions want a family movie night feature to be, intelligently and competently made offering and a fun and relaxing night of movie-watching. It’s suspenseful, thrilling in spots, and even occasionally truly frightening. But for us it was something else that I said we aren’t actively seeking when we decide on a movie.
Like I said, The Ghost and the Darkness is based on a true story and while that means what it means about any movie making that claim, that the filmmakers are reserving the right to make things up as they see necessary to tell a rattling good yarn with pictures, it happens that the true story was written by Patterson himself and without any embellishment it is a rattling good yarn.
Hopkins and screenwriter William Goldman have made some things up. Douglas’s character, for instance. But, as Oliver Mannion discovered in doing a bit of research after the credits rolled, some of the more incredible moments in the film are toned down from even more incredible things that really happened.
Patterson himself was an incredible character. He was every bit the adventurer and hyper-competent overachiever he’s depicted as in the movie. His extraordinary career included service in World War I in then British Palestine where his successful command and organization of local forces there earned him credit as the father of the Israeli army. His wife, Frances, played by a luminous Emily Mortimer, who appears necessarily briefly in the movie, was herself an interesting and admirable character---one of the first women in Great Britain to earn a law degree.
And the lions, the real lions, whose articulated skins are now on display at the Field Museum in Chicago, were every bit as frightening and deadly as the lions in the movie. They were intelligent and cunning and may not even have been man-eaters. As a rule, Lions don’t usually eat humans, and these two may have been killing their victims for sport. In other words, they may have been big game hunters themselves.
They didn’t look like the lions who play them in the movie though. The real Ghost and the Darkness didn’t have manes.
Tsavo males look different as well. The most vigorous Serengeti males sport large dark manes, while in Tsavo they have short, thin manes or none at all. “It’s all about water,” Patterson says. Tsavo is hotter and drier than the Serengeti, and a male with a heavy mane “would squander his daily water allowance simply panting under a bush, with none to spare for patrolling his territory, hunting or finding mates.”
That’s from an article by Paul Raffaele at Smithsonian. The Patterson quoted is Bruce Patterson, a contemporary zoologist at the Field Museum who is no relation to John Henry Patterson. Here’s the link, Man-Eaters of Tsavo.
The Ghost and the Darkness, directed by Stephen Hopkins, screenplay by William Goldman. Starring Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas, John Kani, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Mortimer, Bernard Hill, Brian McArdle, and Om Puri. 1996. Rated R. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon, as well as on Netflix.
As usual, high-school over-achiever Tracy Flick (Reed Witherspoon, with her hand up) is the first with the right answer, but having the right answers isn’t the same as being right, a lesson neither of the main characters learns in Election, the 1999 movie, written and directed by Alexander Payne, about how supposedly good people give themselves permission to behave badly.
“America is a didactic country whose people always offer their personal experiences as a helpful lesson to the rest, hoping to hearten them and to do them good---an intensive sort of personal public relations project. There are times when I see this as idealism. There are other times when it looks to me like pure delirium.”---from Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow.
“This might have been a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that people need a little loving and, God, sometimes it’s sad all the shit they have to go through to find some.”---from “The Betrayed Kingdom” by Richard Brautigan.
I don’t get the point of Ashley Madison.
Isn’t half the fun of an affair that’s it’s an unplanned giant mess that ends in heartbreak, recrimination, the hiring of lawyers, the possibility of violence and bloodshed, and general humiliation for everyone involved?
Not every surprise is a nice one and there are things I would have been happier not knowing about and information I’d rather not have.
The story of those two state legislators is a case in point.
As usual, it’s not the sex that’s dirty. It’s the hypocrisy.
One of them boasts on her campaign website she's for "Strong Families!" You know, like people who don't cheat on their spouses are for weak families. Her thank you letter to her constituents ends with “With Firm Reliance on Divine Providence.”
Neither one plans to resign from offices they won promising to force their right wing Christian values on everybody in Michigan.
Of course they’re Republicans. Of course they’re “Christians.” Of course they’re pro-life and pro-family which means anti-sex.
Of course, of course, of course.
And it is of course.
Right Wing Christians give themselves permission to sin.
Some of the worst behaved people are those who know they are going to heaven, and cheating on their spouses is among the least of their sins and crimes.
And it’s all ok because they are good. Being good means they don’t---can’t---do anything bad.
People are no good. One of the no good things about us is how good we think we are. We're always telling ourselves we're good.
Among the worst behaved among us are the ones who can tell you just what makes them so good and how they know they're going to heaven and YOU aren't.
Conservative rhetoric is all a matter of conservatives finding ways to tell themselves how good they are, how "we" are going to heaven and “those others” aren’t.
But I'm not just talking about Right Wingers. It’s an American affliction. We love to boast. About anything and everything. One of our best tricks is bragging about how modest we are. Another favorite trick is to put the bragging and boasting in the form of advice. “Let me tell you how you can be as wonderful as I am. That way you can get to heaven too.” Heaven, of course, can take many forms. There are plenty of liberals who apparently believe there's a liberal heaven and they can tell you exactly how they know they're going there and YOU aren't. They LIKE to tell you.
Generally, it's a pretty easy path to liberal heaven. You just have to vote for the right candidates and adopt the right attitudes.
There’s a difference, though, between sanctimonious liberal hypocrites and conservative self-elected members of the elect like these state legislators. But before I continue climbing up on my high horse about them and their ilk, three names.
Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton.
Just something to keep us from getting too full of ourselves.
The disgusting thing about the Right Wing hypocrites is their determination to police the bedrooms of people whose love lives are more respectful of self and partner, more faithful, more family supportive and supported, and generally healthier and happier than their own.
It’s not simply the hypocrisy. It’s the envy, malice, and spite. It’s their determination to make life a misery.
It’s happiness they hate. Their own as much as everyone else’s.
And it goes beyond attempts to deny people fun and happiness in bed. Look at how they set out to punish the poor. The worst thing poor people do in their eyes is use aid money to bring a little joy and comfort to their lives. The poor are supposed to be abject, miserable, and ashamed. That’s a religious tenet with many conservatives. But life for everybody is not meant to be enjoyed, merely suffered through on the way to heaven.
It comes very close to believing that being born human is a sin.
Things are predictably tawdry up in Michigan. Both lovers have “apologized” in ways that make clear they’re only sorry they got caught. Their families have been dragged into it. She has done what male politicians caught cheating do and made her husband stand next to her and look supportive while she confessed to TV cameras to how she had humiliated him. It’s already becoming more than a sex scandal as they both may have used state money to cover up their affair, a possible crime that the legislature has to investigate, meaning a headache for their colleagues and fellow Republicans and a bill charged to taxpayers who were promised they would save money if they voted Republican.
And now it turns out that the staffer who exposed their affair and the details of sex games they played in the office, claiming he was too morally offended to keep quiet, is a client of…Ashley Madison.
Now I’m the hypocrite. I said I wished I didn’t know about any of this. But I want to know. I want to know more. I just don’t want to know it from Twitter. Or Facebook. Or anywhere online. Or from newspapers or TV news.
They’d all just give me the facts. The facts are boring and tawdry and don’t tell me anything. They don’t tell the story. I want the story. The whole, true story.
I want to know what was going on in these people's heads.
For that, you need fiction.
Usually when I talk about why we need fiction, I’m looking for a short story or a novel to help make my case. This time, though, I’m thinking we need a movie.
And I have an idea who I’d like to write it and direct it.
In Election and Citizen Ruth, Payne showed that he can tell the stories of people who, knowing themselves to be on the side of righteousness, that is, people who know they are going to one form of heaven or another, give themselves permission to engage in all sorts of bad behavior. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Citizen Ruth and I should watch it again soon---it’s streaming on Netflix. So is Election but I don’t feel a need to re-watch that one because I’ve never been able to forget it since I saw it when it first came out. It was one of the most cringe-inducing movie-going experiences of my life, because I identified too closely with Matthew Broderick’s character, Jim McAllister, the nice guy high school civics teacher who humiliates and then destroys himself through vanity and self-deception.
I think when they think of the movie, most people focus on the student, Tracy Flick, and not without good reason. Tracy is a vividly drawn monster of ego and ambition brilliantly brought to life by Reese Witherspoon. At the time Election came out, national political reporters and pundits amused themselves comparing Tracy to Hillary Clinton, who was then caught up in her own election, running for the United States Senate. This was unfair and mean and dirty-minded, to boot, because no one except the most dirty-minded ever really thought Hillary got ahead by seducing her mentors. It was sexist, too, in that it was based on the assumption that the only real-life versions of Tracy Flick are female. But on top of everything else, the comparison missed an important point.
Tracy isn’t the main character.
She’s not even the movie’s villain.
She’s far from admirable, of course. But she is smart and hard-working and she has reason to believe deserves to be elected class president. She has good ideas she knows how to implement. She is competent and accomplished. She is, by her lights and by the lights of most adults, an ideal student.
It is the case that because she’s smart, accomplished, has good ideas she knows she can make work, and she normally follows the rules, she’s given herself permission to break rules that get in her way. Break is the wrong word. Ignore is too. She doesn’t see them. But that doesn’t make her the movie’s villainess. That makes her very much like Broderick’s character.
McAllister knows himself to be a good guy, a good husband, and a good teacher. And knowing all this about himself, being proud of it, and constantly congratulating himself on it, which means telling himself he’s going to nice liberal guy heaven, he sets out to do things he knows are wrong---or that he would have called wrong before he was tempted to do them---and wrecks his marriage, wrecks his career, and nearly ruins the lives of other students besides Tracy, and in the end he doesn’t learn anything from it. He’s still congratulating himself on what a good guy he is and telling us---as the narrator of his own downfall---how he knows he’s still going to heaven.
Republicans debate tonight. Been some gossiping among political journalists that Bill Clinton has given his old pal the Donald some campaign advice. At Denny's for breakfast. Couple a few booths over. Married, I’m guessing. Both around 60. Both carrying some extra weight. She has a pale blond ponytail going white. His still dark hair is cut in a male shag, like a Sergeant Pepper era Paul McCartney.
Wife: Is Trump the only one they have advice for?
Wife: For tonight. Is Trump the only one they have advice for? Like "Keep your big mouth shut"?
Wife: Should be interesting. (Long pause.) We had a good waitress last night.
A few minutes later they pay up and leave. As I'm getting up to go myself I look out the window and see them crossing the parking lot, arms around each other's waists.
One of the best things about our Cape vacations was taking ourselves out to Cape Cod League ball games and root root rooting for the home team, the Chatham Anglers. Over the years we saw more than a few college players who went on the major leagues, some who became stars, including Evan Longoria,Todd Frazier, and Matt Harvey, who all played for the Anglers, and Buster Posey, who played for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. Part of the fun was the fact on any given night we might very well have been looking at some future big league All-Star and there was no telling at the time who that was for sure---I might have seen Harvey pitch but I don’t remember him particularly. Or Frazier. Probably because neither one did anything memorable in the games I happened to be at. I do remember Longoria, partly because of his name, mainly because he had a great game in the middle of a season when he was tearing up the league. Same deal with Posey. Posey had two championship summers on the Cape, one as a shortstop, the next as a catcher, to drive his name into my head, as if it wouldn’t have stuck otherwise. One of the best baseball names of all time.---but mostly the fun was in watching very good baseball being played in the most old-fashioned of small-town settings in crowds full of families on vacation and locals for whom the games, the league, and the players were part of the rhythms and texture of their daily lives. The players lived with local families and worked jobs at local businesses to put money in their pockets, so for the summer they were members of the community. The games were fun as much for what was going on around them in the stands as for what was happening on the field, and because you could sit so close to the field, you could see what was happening from a player’s or coach’s eye view and little scenes like this were as much a part of the stories of the games as who hit what or made what play or struck out so many batters, and it didn’t matter what the players might go on to be. At the moment, they were just characters in the ongoing dramas and comedies of life on the Cape.
This story, for instance, might be better if I could tell you for sure the prince was Matt Harvey---it could have been---but it doesn’t matter because it’s really the beggar maid’s tale.
And this story might be funnier if the first baseman was now playing professionally and you’d just seen him on TV last night pulling the same trick, but it’s funny enough as it is, even though he doesn’t appear to have made it to the Show or even to the minor leagues.
I miss it. I mean the Cape itself, of course. But also that level and style of baseball. Haven’t been to a game in four years and it’ll probably be some years before we get back to the Cape during the season. There’s a Single A club plays just across the river, the Hudson Valley Renegades. They’re one of Tampa Bay’s farm clubs and, as it happened, Evan Longoria put in part of a summer summer with them, a very small part. Only eight games. Productive eight games, though. Fourteen hits in 33 at bats, 4 home runs, 11 runs batted in. Rays promoted him in a hurry. And Yankee Stadium and CitiField are both a short train ride away. But the Renegades’ park is ugly and uncomfortable and Yankee Stadium and CitiField don’t exactly let you in free. Anyway, I’m spoiled. I want something like what the Cape League offers.
And I just learned I might be able to find around here it next summer.
We’re up visiting Mom and Pop Mannion at the old homestead and this afternoon, on our way out of the restaurant where Pop took us out for lunch, I spotted one of those little cardboard trays you often find on the counters of small stores and diners full of paper schedules for local sports teams. The ones here were for a baseball team.
While I wasn’t looking---that is back in 2011---a league of eight teams made up of college players maintaining their amateur statuses while playing a summer of minor-league level ball was formed in upstate New York, the teams mostly clustered along the northern reaches of the Hudson River and the eastern stretches of the Mohawk. I asked Pop what he’d heard about it.
He’d heard nothing.
Not a good sign, I thought.
If Pop, baseball fan that he is, devoted reader to the two local papers that he is, hadn’t heard of the PGCBL, how good could the play in it be? How viable a league was it?
There’s a PGCBL team not too far from here, about forty minutes north up the Thruway, the Saugerties Stallions, and I’m sure I’ll make it to several of their games over the course of the summer. But on opening day I’ll be in Albany watching the Dutchmen.
Bellizzi Stadium, home field of the Albany Dutchmen. Opening Day, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Albany Dutchmen.
The morning was cloaked with clouds. A helicopter awaited on the lawn. Nixon left the White House, said farewell to Gerald Ford, and walked to the chopper. [NSC officer David Michael Ransom] stepped out onto a balcony to watch Nixon fly away. Two other people stood beside him. One was the White House chef, wearing his white uniform. The other was Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, smoking his pipe.
“Nixon flashed his double-armed signal of departure with two fingers raised in a ‘V’ sign and then turned and entered the helicopter,” Ransom [remembered in an oral history recorded in 2003]. “It began cranking up very slowly. Finally, there was a deafening sound. The chopper lifted off, pivoted, and disappeared into the gloom of the morning. It was almost a haunted scene.”
As the helicopter faded into the fog, the three men looked at one another. Schlesinger took his pipe out of his mouth, banged it on the railing, emptying the bowl, and said, “It’s an interesting constitutional question, but I think I’m still the secretary of defense. So I am going back to my office.” He looked at the cook and said, “What are you going to do?”
The cook said, “I’m going to prepare lunch for the President.”
“I thought, ‘Of course. The king is dead. Long live the king!’” Ransom said. “The cook had it right. This wasn’t an abstruse argument over constitutional privileges. Our state was going to carry on and the president would want lunch in about an hour and a half. So, the cook went and prepared it…”
President Richard Nixon and the bound copies of transcripts of the tapes he had hoped to keep hidden from Congress and the American people. He may have wanted to keep hidden his true character along with his criminal acts. Listen to the tapes and what you hear is a spiteful, angry, fearful, mean, vindictive, dangerous man. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikipedia.
Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas opens with an anecdote about Nixon in the White House movie theater laughing at the scene in Around the World in Eighty Days where the elephant stops the train.
One of these things is not like the others.
I’m well into One Man Against the World and January 1973. I’ve only managed a few pages of Being Nixon. I’m not sure I’ll manage any more. I stopped in fury and disgust. I would have thrown it across the room if I hadn’t been listening to it in the car.
Instead, I contented myself with talking back to it as people do to their TVs, until I couldn’t take it anymore.
Nixon wanted to be upbeat, to be an optimist. He often tried to, as he put it, “buck up” his followers and his family.
They needed bucking up because he’d let them down and led them into trouble.
Late at night, sitting alone in his Executive Office Building hideaway…
And drinking himself drunk.
…he would take out is yellow legal pad and begin making noises about the leader and person he wished to be. He imagined, in the spirit of his mother’s Quaker faith, “peace at the center”; he would use words like joyful,serenity, and inspirational.
When he wasn’t writing down names for his list of enemies!
Hope and fear waged a constant battle in Nixon.
At the end of his Presidency, fear one out.
At the end? From the start! I’d say the fear brought about the end and it started the moment he took office.
Nixon was often driven by fear---he was, he believed, surrounded by enemies.
Well, to be honest, he was, not all of them of his own making.
At the same time, he understood the hopes and fears of others…
He’s sounding a little too much like FDR here.
…the insecurities of the people he memorably named “the Silent Majority.”
My grandmother did love the guy for that.
He was an introvert in an extrovert’s business; incredibly he was one of the most successful politicians in American history.
All right, I’ll give you that one. But it depends on what you mean by successful.
Weak at human relations but cunning at power, he made politics into a science and also an art; “for him it had a cadence, precision, beauty,” wrote his daughter Julie.
Ok, I see what Thomas is up to. The theme being developed is Nixon's divided personality, and Thomas is starting by reminding readers that Nixon had light side, which is fine. But then Thomas proceeds to minimize Nixon's dark side, which was undeniably his dominant side.
Nixon’s inclination toward the dark side has long been a cliché. Less understood (possibly even by Nixon himself) is his heroic, if ill-fated struggle, to be a robust, decent, good-hearted person. In the battle against his darker impulses he fought with a kind of desperate courage. At some level, I believe, he was aware of this struggle, though he gave every inclination of a man with little or no self-knowledge.
It’s one thing to want to avoid demonizing the man. It’s another to try to magic away the demons within him and replace them with an angel fighting to gain control.
Nixon was a tragic figure. But a tragic villain. A Richard III not a Hamlet.
Or, rather, a not as honest with himself Richard III who saw himself as a Hamlet, with whom he shared a tendency towards melancholy and self-pity but little else.
Even so, his constant attempts to be a better man, generous and big-spirited---and to control his fate, knowing, perhaps, that he was destined to fail, are poignant. Improbably, this anxious boy from a pinched background believed that he was meant to do great things. Shy and bookish, he wanted to wake up every morning and ask, “What will we accomplish today?”
He may have wanted to be a better man but mainly he felt sorry for himself because nobody saw him as that better man when he tried to portray himself that way.
And you see what this is?
Though Ronald Reagan gets the credit, it was Nixon who created the modern Republican Party, by breaking up the New Deal coalition and siphoning off disaffected Democrats who sensed that the native Californian, born to the lower middle class, was more sensitive to their wants and needs than the liberal elitists Nixon so enthusiastically scorned.
It’s half the story with the Southern Strategy elided.
And the credit for breaking up the New Deal coalition belongs more to George Wallace than to either Nixon or Reagan, but no one who’s read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, which Thomas lists in his end notes as a source, would fail to give Nixon his due here. Nixon’s part in the creation of the modern Republican Party is a major theme of Perlstein’s book.
Thomas points to Nixon's "liberal" policy achievements without noting he was signing into law bills passed by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress who’d have over-ridden his vetoes. Nixon was avoiding humiliation more than he was doing anything else. And just because he signed the laws didn’t mean he felt required to enforce them.
Thomas neglects to use the phrase "benign neglect."
But what really got me was when he said that what upsets people when they hear the tapes is Nixon's hubris!
What does more than upset people, it appalls them, is hearing the President of the United States talking like a mob boss.
And then there is all that fear, paranoia, and hatred. Nixon feared and hated everybody! On top of which he was often drunk.
If you're inclined to find anything sympathetic in the picture of him that's to be drawn from the tapes it's that he was often depressed. Probably clinically depressed and to the point where he couldn't think straight. He drank to self-medicate. "Nixon was slightly inebriated and deeply despondent," writes Weiner at one point in One Man Against the World, and that about sums it up. On days when he wasn’t too depressed to do the job of being President, he was so consumed by Watergate he couldn’t focus on anything else. It got so bad that by late 1973 the country was effectively being run by a duumvirate of Al Haig and Henry Kissinger.
Which is terrifying to contemplate.
But Thomas mentions only the hubris and then, almost offhandedly, he suggests that, because of the hubris, the private conversations of most Presidents, if we could listen to them, would sound like Nixon's.
If this was true, it's a reason to despair for the United States not a mitigation of Nixon's actions and behavior. But I doubt it's true.
I'm fine with being told Nixon loved his wife and daughters and that he laughed at silly movies.
But you'd better not try to sell me on the idea he was basically a likable guy with a few flaws who made some mistakes.
Listen to the tapes and what you hear is a spiteful, angry, fearful, mean, vindictive, dangerous man.
Nixon's "humanity" doesn't lie in his having some likable qualities. It lies in his awfulness. He represents the worst in us.
And he knew it. He didn't want to be what he was. Thomas is right about that. But he couldn't control himself. It's actually his being out of his own control that makes him so compelling. And tragic.
But, like I said, a tragic villain.
And it’s his villainy we sympathize with. Not that we’re all villains. But we know ourselves to be capable of being villains. We don’t find sympathy only with good guys because sympathy isn’t a matter of self-flattering identification. It’s a matter of recognizing ourselves in others.
And them in us.
Thomas isn’t giving his readers credit for having sympathetic enough imaginations.
Or he intends to portray Nixon as a tragic hero.
Not a story I particularly want to read.
But it is just the introduction.
Maybe I should give Being Nixon another chance. Maybe I will. But not before I finish One Man Against the World and January 1973.
By the way, the hubris Thomas describes is there to be heard on the tapes. Nixon was not a modest man, and hubris was one of his several fatal flaws.
Richard Nixon saw himself as a great statesman, a giant for the ages, a general who could command the globe, a master of war, not merely the leader of the free world but “the world leader.” Yet he was addicted to the gutter politics that ruined him. He was---as an English earl once said of the warlord Oliver Cromwell---“a great, bad man.”
Back in grad school I taught a creative writing class for the university's correspondence degree program. I was teaching online before there was an online.
A student, a wife and mother on a farm in the west of Iowa, out where the difference between Nebraska and Iowa is lost in the endless cornfields, submitted a long poem detailing her many hardships, troubles, and sorrows.
And she had many. It was a heartbreaking poem. It was also a good one. But its last verse bewildered me.
It was very upbeat. Literally her un-ironic riff on God's in his heaven and all's right with the world.
She finished saying she had a good life and she was happy. There was no blessing counting either. I didn't know what to think. Still don't.
I think he may be right. It was a prayer as much as a poem.
I was reminded of this student and her poem by today’s overhyped news story of the day.
A study has been done showing that Republicans have happier marriages than Democrats.
Well, that’s what the stories are saying the study shows.
You know how well journalists handle stories that involve numbers and research.
The headlines are click bait and the stories themselves are written to emphasize controversy and stir up arguments.
What do you know, news outlets in the Digital Age doing the cyber-equivalent of trying to sell newspapers!
If you want to give them the page views, I’ll be putting links to a few of the stories at the bottom of the post.
But, boiled down, the study does seem to show that if you want to know if someone is doing well financially and if their kids are all right and their marriages stable, and you don’t want to pry too deep, ask them how they vote.
When it comes to those measures of the quality of people’s lives, Republicans are better off and as a result report that they are happier all around than Democrats, especially when it comes to their marriages.
This is causing consternation among many liberals online.
It’s a part of our conventional wisdom, a point of pride, and a key component of our economic and political argument that red states---those states where Republicans run the show---are by most measures worse off than blue states. This is as true of people’s domestic lives as their economic lives.
So we think.
Red states have higher divorce rates, more children born out of wedlock, more high school dropouts, more poverty, more violent crime. But people forget that there are Democrats living in red states and Republicans in blue states, and if you look at where the Republicans are clustered in just about every state, you find that people in those areas are, like I said, doing just fine and are on the whole happier.
Their marriages last, their kids finish school and go on to college, they report they’re generally satisfied with their lives. It’s related to money, of course. People are happier and more content and better able to cope when they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from and if they’ll still have a job next week and what they’ll do if their kids get sick.
Well-off white people living in affluent neighborhoods and towns have more stable marriages. The assumption behind some of these stories seems to be that stability must be the result of happiness. The reverse seems more likely. But it’s not that Democrats are unhappy. (We’re still talking about well-off, mostly white, middle and upper class people of both parties.) Republicans are more likely to say they’re happy. Very happy. But Democrats don’t say they’re unhappy. They just say they aren’t as happy as Republicans say they are.
The important word in those statements is say.
They say they’re happy. Are they really? We have to take their word for it.
And what do they mean by happy?
Some people confuse complacency with happiness. Some people confuse discontent---the natural unease caused by the sense that things not only could be better but should be better that’s one of the curses of consciousness---with unhappiness. The former sounds like many conservatives I’ve known and the latter like many liberals. And in my experience, conservatives tend to be more self-satisfied, unreflective, and accepting of the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. Liberals tend to be anxious, self-doubting, and incapable of relaxing and enjoying the moment---which is to say, the liberals I have known and loved have shared a bad habit of making themselves unhappy.
This doesn’t tell you anything about anything except the kind of people I’ve happened to know.
But among those people, it’s the conservatives who have been more inclined to make a virtue of putting on a happy face.
But maybe that’s a necessary step towards being happy.
I had no way of knowing how that student voted. Out in Iowa back then, being Christian and living in a farm town was as likely to mean you were a liberal Democrat as a conservative Republican. It was the summer of 1984, but there was no sign in her poem that she thought it was morning in America, and it was God who gave her hope and comfort not Ronald Reagan.
What I do know for certain about her is that she did not have a good creative writing teacher or at least not a very wise or sensitive one. He was young, inexperienced, and full of himself.
I was arrogant enough to think what she wanted was an honest critique of her poem so in my notes I told her how much I liked her poem and pointed out the lines and images I thought were very well done but I added that her last verse didn’t fit with the rest of the poem, either thematically, tonally, or stylistically. As gently as I could, which probably didn’t strike her as at all gentle, I suggested she just cut the verse and end the poem with whatever solid image she’d crafted for the last line of her penultimate verse.
Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Republicans More Happily Married!:
Sez Emma Green at the Atlantic here: One Shortcut to a Happy Marriage: Vote Republican. I recommend this one because it’s a little more in-depth and skeptical and because Green suggests that an alternative headline for the story might be “In Polling About Marital Happiness, Nearly All Americans Are Liars.”
Newburgh. 7:25 a.m. 71 degrees. At the Riverfront. They have WiFi here! What they don’t have are benches. Sitting on the wet grass, watching the ducks dabble. One young drake taking a snooze on the water, head turned nearly 180 degrees, bill tucked into his wing up to his tightly closed eyes, slowly spinning in circles as he drifts. Must feel it when he drifts close to the rocks. Without untucking his head or opening his eyes, he starts paddling. Paddles himself back out into the middle of the channel. Goes back to sleep.