Mined from the notebooks. March 5, 2016. Posted April 5.
Was just talking politics with Pop Mannion. Always frustrating because he still thinks TV news is what it was it Cronkite's day and the New York Times is still what it was when Tom Wicker and R.W. Apple covered politics for them.
And he thinks the GOP is what it was when he was our town’s supervisor and his best ally in getting stuff done was a Republican.
He can't get his head around the fact there are no moderates or even conservatives left in the GOP.
And he can't even see that political news has become all about scandal and spectacle and how that plays into the Republicans’ hands.
And he refuses to believe that the New York Times’ political desk has become the Paper of Record’s anti-Hillary bureau.
I think he’s been watching too much TV political news. Too much Matthews. Too much Maddow. And, sadly, too much Fox.
It isn’t the case that he’s turning into one of those old men, those guys who watch Fox and are poisoned by it. He’s still the good, staunch liberal Democrat he’s always been. He’s for Hillary. He appreciates Bernie, but he’s not taken with him. Pop’s one of the last great New Deal Democrats. And if you’re thinking to yourself, Then shouldn’t he be for Bernie? you really don’t understand FDR and the New Dealers.
They weren’t revolutionaries. They were problem solvers.
Pop has been a problem-solver all his life. Solving problems was what he did as a scientist and college professor. It’s what he did as town supervisor. Bernie doesn’t strike him as a fellow problem-solver. Hillary does. In his judgment, she’s the most presidential candidate on the stage right now.
That’s what’s troubling him.
He can’t understand why there seems to be such a strong effort by everyone in the media to tear her down.
What's going on with the emails, he wants to know. Is she going to be indicted? And, thinking too well of his son the world-famous blogger’s savvy and political insight, he looks to me for an explanation.
But he doesn’t like my explanations.
Actually, it’s more like he can’t fathom them.
That political journalism has become a toxic mix of celebrity worship and sports journalism, that controversy for controversy’s sake sells advertising, that the Republicans who aren’t vicious are crazy, that the powers that be at the TV networks are afraid to offend them because they want their voters’ as an audience, which is to say, as customers, more than they want Pop because Pop can’t be as easily suckered into buying what the advertisers are selling, and that the political press corps, besides being craven, corrupt, and depraved, just plain hates the Clintons for no rational reason that anybody has been able to come up with, and that’s especially true of the reporters for the New York Times---none of this computes for him, and he keeps circling back, demanding that I re-submit my data.
So, Pop and I don't have arguments exactly. We just go around and around in circles as my answers to his questions make no sense to him.
As far as he's concerned, I'm answering questions about what life is like on earth by telling him what it's like on the Moons of Endor.
Anyway, it'll soon be baseball season and we'll have more to talk about than politics. That'll make us both happier.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
By Slate Chief Political Correspondent, CBS News Political Analyst, and roving street photographer Jamelle Bouie. Somewhere inside the Beltway. Thursday evening. March 17, 2016. Used with Jamelle’s permission, of course. Forgot to ask him if he stopped in for take-out and if it’s any good. Also, I wonder how the kabobs are at the Red Toque Cafe next door.
My Wired Critics class is going to watch Zero Dark Thirty this coming Thursday and to prepare I had them read Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad by Peter L. Bergen. This means I had to re-read it. Hardly a chore. But, this being my fourth time through, you’d think nothing in it would come as a surprise. But I was surprised---by the cameo appearance of Donald Trump. I’d forgotten he shows up.
Manhunt was published in 2012 so Trump shows up as what everyone took him for at the time, a celebrity clown making a public nuisance of himself as the leading Birther of the day. Bergen refers to him dismissively as the “publicity-hungry billionaire Donald Trump” and “the blowhard billionaire” without any sign that it even crossed his mind that come the next presidential election season Trump would not only be running for the Republican nomination, he’d be on the way of winning it. Trump is only in the book because he happened to be at the White House Correspondents dinner that was held on April 30, 2011, the night before the raid that killed Osama bin Laden at his hideout in Pakistan, and President Obama made him the butt of some jokes in his monologue.
At 7 p.m. Saturday, Barack and Michelle Obama showed up as scheduled at the cavernous banquet hall of the Washington Hilton, the president in black tie and the first lady in a brown silk sleeveless gown with a plunging neckline. At the back of his mind, Obama was turning over the details of the Abbottabad operation, but he still managed to deliver a hilarious after-dinner monologue centered largely on the faux controversy about whether he was actually an American citizen. In the audience was Donald Trump, the blowhard billionaire who had been especially vocal in questioning the president's citizenship, and who hosted the NBC reality show Celebrity Apprentice. Obama began his monologue by saying, "My fellow Americans...Donald Trump is here tonight! Now, I know no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than 'the Donald.' And that's because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter---like, did we fake the moon landing?...But all kidding aside, obviously, we all know about [Donald Trump's] credentials and breadth of experience. for example---no, seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice---at the steakhouse, the men's cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. but you, Mister Trump, recognized the real problem was a lack of leadership. And so ultimately, you didn't blame Lil' John or meatloaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir. Well handled." Trump listened with a pained smirk.
Of course we soon learned what kind of decision would be keeping the president up that night. And, if the New York Times is right, we now know what kind of decision was in process behind Trump's pained smirk.
If the Times is right, the public humiliation of that night is a big part of the reason Trump is on the way to becoming the Republican nominee for President:
That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature within the political world. And it captured the degree to which Mr. Trump’s campaign is driven by a deep yearning sometimes obscured by his bluster and bragging: a desire to be taken seriously.
I say “if the Times is right” because, like much of the analysis of Trump’s campaign and its success so far, the Times’ article is built on their reporters trying to figure out what Trump’s thinking based on what he’s done and said and the problem with that is that there’s pretty much no thinking behind the things he does and says. Trump is motivated by ego, vanity, appetite, whim, and a conman’s instinctive grasp for what draws the suckers in and causes them to part with their money. He does whatever he does and says whatever he says pretty much because he feels like it. He doesn’t think. He acts. Which is a main source of his appeal. People who don’t think but feel deeply like that about him. You can’t analyze the thinking of someone who isn’t in fact thinking. On top of that, he’s a liar. But not as reflexive a liar as he’s often supposed. So if you ask him to explain himself, you can’t be sure if his answer is truthful, a lie, or a combination.
Trump himself denied to the Times that the President’s jokes bothered him the least little bit, let alone caused him to make up his mind to run for president himself.
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Trump acknowledged that he had encountered many who doubted or dismissed him as a political force before now. “I realized that unless I actually ran, I wouldn’t be taken seriously,” he said. But he denied having been troubled by Mr. Obama’s derision.
“I loved that dinner,” Mr. Trump said, adding, “I can handle criticism.”
That last statement of his is a lie, but maybe he did have a good time at the dinner and the pained smirk wasn’t as pained as it looked. It doesn’t really matter. The point of the Times’ article is that around that time Trump was taking steps to get people to take him seriously as a political mover and shaker. And his most telling and effective step, which the Times only glances at and which Bergen didn’t grasp at the time, was making himself the hero of the Birthers.
Trump’s first move, then, towards making himself a viable candidate for the Republican nomination was to encourage and exploit the belief that a black man could not be President of the United States.
He’s still at it.
He’s dropped the Birther crap but the warp and woof of his campaign is racist contempt for the President whom he constantly derides as weak, incompetent, and not very bright or at least not as smart as he, the Donald himself, but then who is? Not a black guy, at any rate, that’s for sure.
And his supporters eat this up with a spoon!
Or better to say with a knife and fork, smothered in barbeque sauce. It’s red meat to them.
I’ve written before about a trend among political journalists and pundits to warn Democrats that they need to sympathize with Trump voters and take their worries and concerns seriously or...else! As far as I can tell it’s mainly a case of elitist journalists trying to prove their blue collar cred by speaking up for people they don’t sympathize with or take seriously themselves and in fact look down upon and despise. Maybe they’re sincere. Maybe they don’t just put on their hard hats and workboots when they sit down at their keyboards and they’re all working class heroes even when they’re away from the computer. I don’t know. And I don’t care. What I care about is that generally their apologies for Trump voters excuse, explain away, minimize, or just out and out ignore those Trump voters’ xenophobia and racism. And they do it while quoting Trump voters cheerfully, proudly, and belligerently declaring they’re racist and xenophobic and that’s why they’re for Trump.
The line generally runs like this: Trump voters are just average working stiffs who’ve been shafted by the economy and used and abused by the elites of both parties who want their votes but have done nothing to help make their lives and circumstances better in return.
For some reason, the pundits think these people are people Democrats need to be nice to because they’re people who ought to be voting Democratic.
Yes, they ought to be. But they don’t and they won’t, not because they don’t understand their own best interests but because they understand all too well that the Democrats don’t stand for one of their main beliefs---that it’s a crying shame that “we” have to share the country with “them.”
Trump did not set forth as the champion of the economically hardpressed. He set forth as the champion of people who blame their hard times on THEM!
Those other people!
Black people, brown people, Asian people, female people, liberal people, any people who aren’t “our” people.
It’s true that, traditionally, blue collar workers have been an important part of the Democratic coalition, but things change and it’s been a very long time since they were reliably so. The roots of their disaffection wind their way from far back---from the Cold War through the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and the decline of America’s industrial dominance in the world in the 1970s. Whether they were eventually lured away by the likes of Richard Nixon and George Wallace or pushed away by the likes of Gary Hart and Jimmy Carter or it was a combination is worth debating, but it would be a debate about history. The present fact is when it comes to Trump’s voters, if there are Democrats among them, the last Democrat they voted for for President was probably Lyndon Johnson.
But let’s get some things straight.
Not all working people are white.
Not all white working people are for Trump.
Not all Trump voters are blue collar workers.
And very few of them are Democrats.
Now, working people of all colors are an important part of the Democratic coalition. Millions of them, including millions who are white, vote Democratic election year in and election year out. Their problems and concerns are of great matter to Democratic politicians from mayors on up to the President. The question is have they mattered enough lately and by lately I mean over the last twenty-five years?
My feeling is no. I think they’ve been taken for granted to the point of having been neglected. I think there have been too many Democratic politicians whose only offered solution to working people’s economic distress has been, basically, “Go back to school!” Which, considering how that’s actually impossible for many people because it costs money they don’t have and requires time they don’t have, is the liberal version of “Get a job!” I think Democrats need to worry more about these people and do more for them for their sake and for the sake of the party, not to mention the country---people should not be left hurting, these are Democratic voters who might be tempted to go over to Trump but are even more likely to just stay home, and the economy is stronger when the middle class is growing and thriving.
This is why I’m glad Bernie Sanders is in the race and why I’ve been glad he’s been doing so well. (Why I don’t plan to vote for him in the primary is another long post. Well, actually, it’s half a dozen posts that are stuck in my notebooks. I suppose I should dig them out before they’re irrelevant.) I think Hillary would have played it too safe, sounded too cautious (Yes, I know she sounds that way anyway to many of you.) if he wasn’t in it and pressing hard. She’s holding a rally in Cohoes, New York Monday. If there’s any town in New York that’s potentially a Trumpville because of its economic woes, it’s Cohoes. It’s not all that surprising that Hillary’s going there if you followed her Senate career. (This is part of the reason I’m voting for her and something else that ought to be a post of its own if I can blast it out of the notebooks.) But I’m not sure she’d be going there if Bernie hadn’t made it so she can’t take an easy and lopsided victory in New York for granted.
Millions of people were knocked sideways by the Recession and are still suffering from it. But they’re not all voting for an irresponsible, reckless, egomaniacal, megalomaniacal, xenophobic, racist demagogue. They’re voting for Bernie. They’re voting for Hillary. They’d vote for some sane and responsible Republican if there was one running. The people voting for Trump are people who want to vote for an irresponsible, reckless, egomaniacal, megalomaniacal, misogynistic, xenophobic, racist demagogue because they like all that about him and think he’s just what the country needs.
At best, the pundits are asking Democrats to feel sorry for these Trump voters because they share the same economic woes as every other candidates’ voters.
And I guess we should. I guess we should.
But they make it very hard and not just by being racists, xenophobes, know-nothings, and misogynists themselves.
Trump voters are people who believe Trump is smart because he’s rich. They believe he knows what’s what because he tells them he does. They believe he’s qualified to do the job because of what they’ve seen on Celebrity Apprentice. They believe that his decision to fire Gary Busey is equivalent to deciding to send the Seals into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, and that all the decisions a president has to make are that simple and that easy.
They believe that what the country needs to solve all its problems (really, their problems) is a big, strong man with a loud voice who will tell THEM, THOSE OTHERS what to do and where to get off, who when he tells THEM, THOSE OTHERS to jump, THEY, THOSE OTHERS will have to answer How high? And any of THEM, THOSE OTHERS who don’t jump high enough, fast enough, and far enough in the right direction gets fired.
In short, they believe that what the country needs is a boss.
There’s a technical term for a political leader like that.
And we’re supposed to sympathize with people who want one of those? ___________________________________________________________
To get back to Manhunt before I sign off here. Like I said, Trump appears in the book as what most people took him for at the time of that Correspondents Dinner on the last night of April, 2011, a buffoon and a bully throwing his money and weight around just for the attention and deserving of the President’s scorn. And, again like I said, because Trump can’t explain his own thinking because he doesn’t think, he feels, and because he’s motivated by appetite, vanity, and whim and so there’s really no method to much of his madness, and because he’s a liar, it’s hard to know to what degree he was hurt by the President’s joking at the Correspondents’ Dinner and how much it increased his determination to make himself a serious political force. But it’s easy to believe that what the President did the next night, the first night of May, came as a terrible wound to his vanity and ego.
The President went on television and announced that Osama bin Laden was dead on the President’s orders, demonstrating without his having to say it, without his even thinking about it---and he wouldn’t have been even if he’d been inclined to---that he was as a President everything Trump claimed he wasn’t and that he, the Donald was in comparison exactly what the President implied with his jokes, a TV clown pretending to be serious and important.
That’s really still what he is, he’s just got millions of Republican yahoos pretending along with him, which unfortunately makes him serious and important and in an extremely frightening way.
Still, there’s an amusing irony in this from Manhunt:
As the Obama national security team left the Situation Room and the president was making some final edits to his remarks, TV screens in the White House were tuned to the regularly scheduled programming that the bin Laden announcement would soon interrupt. Tony Blinken [Joe Biden’s top security advisor] noticed that on NBC, the show that was going to be interrupted was Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice. “You can’t write this stuff,” says Blinken.
Tom Welling as a responsible but still fun-loving Clark Kent in the TV series Smallville, seen here in one of his responsible moments as he considers how best to put his superpowers to work helping him do the day’s chores around the Kent family farm. Unlike Henry Cavill's Clark Kent in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, who is neither responsible nor fun-loving, Welling's Clark enjoys having superpowers and welcomes the responsibility of being a superhero.
Over the course of Smallville’s ten-season run, we watch a teenage and then early twenty-something Clark Kent discover, develop, hone, and learn to use responsibly the powers and abilities that when combined and mastered will make him Superman. The last of his powers to appear is flight. The first two are superstrength and superspeed. A theme of the show is that Clark is ambivalent about having superpowers, mainly because they scare him. He doesn’t feel in control of himself and he’s afraid he might hurt someone. But on the whole he likes being superstrong and superfast.
Being the first is useful when he does chores around the Kent family farm. His superspeed is useful too, but it’s also a lot of fun.
Routinely he’ll go for a run for the sheer, simple pleasure of moving faster than a speeding a bullet. We see this best in an episode in which Clark meets another kid with superspeed. The kid calls himself Bart Allen. He also goes by the aliases Barry Allen, Jay Garrick, and Wally West. Whatever his real name is, he’s going to grow up to be the Flash. At the end of the episode, Clark and Bart/Barry/the Flash have a race that’s just pure fun for the both of them.
In another episode Clark makes a run from his house in Smallville to Metropolis and back, a round trip of a couple hundred miles, to pick up a pizza and he gets it home still piping hot. He does it because he wants pizza and it’s the best pizza in the Midwest. But he also does it because he can.
Smallville is a 218-chapter origin story: How Clark Kent became Superman. Really how Clark Kent decided to become a superhero. In too many episodes there’s some highblown but empty speechifying about accepting his destiny, but basically the show is all about Clark trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up while having to deal with the emotional and physical turmoils of growing up. For the first several seasons his one over-riding ambition is to just be a normal teenager. He wants to have fun, be liked by the other kids, and fall in love. He actually manages all that. But having powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal adolescents presents challenges and temptations that are also far beyond those faced by normal teenagers. He isn't normal. And not just in the sense of being different. He's not a freak or a geek. He is, it turns out, what most every other kid dreams of being. He is a hero.
In the true sense of the word, not in the celebrified sense that’s tossed around in the news and the media as if all it means is someone celebrated for having done a good deed and earned media attention for it. Being a hero is a calling, a vocation, and a responsibility. Heroes put the powers and abilities they could use to enrich and aggrandize themselves to work making other people’s lives better. Heroes live their lives in the service of others. They see themselves as having a responsibility. They believe they have been given powers and abilities---talents, skills, and know-how---for a reason.
One of the goofier moves Smallville made was to have Clark convince his parents to let him try out for the football team. Of course he makes the team and becomes the starting quarterback. This seems not only unfair to the other kids---not to mention dangerous. People break their hands punching Superman in the jaw. What would happen to someone who tried to tackle him on the run or, worse, who got tackled by him?---but it would also seem to be incredibly stressful, not just because he’d have to expend a lot of mental and physical energy keeping his powers in check so he didn’t hurt anyone, but because he’d have to be always having to decide when it was ok for him to score a touchdown and when he needed to miss a wide-open receiver or throw an interception or let himself be sacked in order to give the other team half a chance, let his teammates contribute and not win every game single-handedly, and, most importantly, not make people suspicious. But apparently, among his other abilities, is the ability to shift into a lower gear so that he plays merely at the level of a high-school All-American. He becomes a star and a hometown hero in a way that allows him to feel as if he’s earned it like a “normal” kid. So he’s popular, admired, justly proud of himself, having fun and...unsatisfied.
Disappointed, as a matter of fact.
The writers and producers of Smallville had great respect and affection for all the incarnations and iterations of Superman that had come before, especially Christopher Reeve and his first two Superman movies, and I have to believe the Clark as football hero story arc, goofy as it is, was inspired by one of my favorite scenes in the first of Reeve’s movies. In that scene, on his way home from school, teenage Clark Kent (played by Jeff East but overdubbed with Reeve’s voice) outraces a train and is waiting by the driveway up to the Kents’ farmhouse when a car full of his classmates, including his crush Lana Lang and his football star rival Brad, who left school well before him, pass by. Lana’s impressed and Brad’s flummoxed and Clark gets a kick out of having done both. But his father---earth father---Jonathan Kent (a wise and gentle Glenn Ford) catches him feeling a little too pleased with himself.
Jonathan: Been showing off a bit, haven't you, son?
Clark: I didn't mean to show off, Dad. It's just that, guys like that Brad, I just want to tear him apart.
Jonathan: Yeah, I know, I know.
Clark: And I know I shouldn't…
Jonathan: Yeah, I know, you can do all these amazing things and sometimes you feel like you will just go bust unless you can tell people about them.
Clark: Yeah. I mean every time I get the football I can make a touchdown. Every time! I mean, is it showing off if somebody's doing the things he's capable of doing? Is a bird showing off when it flies?
Jonathan:: No, no. Now, you listen to me. When you first came to us, we thought people would come and take you away because, when they found out, you know, the things you could do... and that worried us a lot. But then a man gets older, and he starts thinking differently and things get very clear. And one thing I do know, son, and that is you are here for a reason. I don't know whose reason, or whatever the reason is... Maybe it's because... uh... I don't know. But I do know one thing. It's not to score touchdowns.
In the Smallville story arc, Clark figures out that Jonathan’s right. He isn’t here to score touchdowns. Not only that, scoring touchdowns for a living isn’t what he wants to do. At a certain point he realizes that he doesn't want to just be good at something. He wants to be good and do good. He wants to be good by doing good, which I guess is the tautological definition of good. And from then on the questions he wrestles with are on what scale should he do the good he wants to do and can he handle the responsibility---and the loneliness: he has to decide, Does he want to live his life entirely for other people?
And that’s his story for the rest of the series’ run, Clark figuring out what his responsibilities are and how best to meet them. How best to use his powers and abilities to help people. And learning to find satisfaction and fulfillment and enjoyment in being a hero and, not incidentally, a responsible adult. Clark begins to look forward to spending his life doing what he’s best at and what he wants to do.
There’s a word for people who find satisfaction and fulfillment in getting to live their lives doing what they’re best at and what they want to do.
The reason flight is the last of his superpowers to appear is that it is symbolic. It’s the ability that makes him Superman by allowing him to use all his other powers and abilities to do the most good and help the most people. It seems as if he’s given the power to fly as a reward for finally embracing his “destiny”---almost as if he’s literally graced by God. But, really, he’s had the power almost all along. He’s just had to want to use it. It’s like Glinda tells Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, she could have used the ruby slippers to take herself back to Kansas at any time ( I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that Dorothy Gale and Clark Kent both hail from Kansas, but if it is it’s one of those wonderful ones that give meaning to our appreciation of works of art), she just had to want to go home. It’s important that she doesn’t really want to go home until after she’s done all the good in Oz she can do. Clark could have started flying anytime. He just had to want to. Which is a way of saying he had to decide he wanted to be Superman.
Which raises a question.
Who wouldn’t want to be Superman?
The Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, that’s who.
In Snyder's universe, Clark Kent never has fun having superpowers. In fact he's been taught to be ashamed of them. In Man of Steel, for a long time before he puts on the cape, he wanders the world doing good but secretly because he doesn’t want people to know he’s there. He’s afraid they’ll think he’s a monster not a hero. That’s because he thinks of himself as a monster. He doesn't like himself at all. Which, apparently, has caused within him a too strong desire to be liked by others. He’s conflicted about that too.
A favorite trope of writers of the Superman comics over the years has been to build What If stories around the question What would Superman be like if the Kents hadn't been the ones who found him and raised him. The answer is almost always not Superman, that is not the good guy we know and love. Man of Steel is a What If story too: What if the Kents hadn't been the Kents we know and love? What if they'd been fearful, paranoid, and neurotic? What if their love had been selfish? What if they'd taught young Clark that other people were just plain no good and not to be trusted?
If the first Christopher Reeve Superman includes one of the best father-son scenes in movie history, Man of Steel includes one of the most horrifying.
After junior high school age Clark saves a busload of his schoolmates from downing when their bus goes off the road and plunges into the river, Pa Kent scolds him for it. He could have been seen. The outside world might have learned there’s a dangerously superpowerful alien in their midst. Clark asks what he should have done instead, let those kids die? And Jonathan’s answer is…
Jonathan re-appears in Dawn of Justice to teach Clark a corollary: There’s no point in doing good for others anyway because every attempt to do good results in harm done down the road.
Snyder’s Jonathan is a disappointed and cynical man, deliberately alienated and lonely. His only solace is his wife Martha. ‘She’s my world,” he tells Clark, implying she’s his only reason for living, just what a kid wants to hear from a parent, but also that she’s the only person worth living for.
The Kents are their own little world, living entirely unto themselves and for themselves, owing nothing to anybody else.
Martha herself reinforces this notion:
Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be... or be none of it. You don't owe this world a thing. You never did.
This is shocking to hear for those of us who took to heart Uncle Ben’s admonition to Peter Parker, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
Yes, that's Marvel, but I think it’s taken for granted that that was a line Stan Lee intended to tie Spider-Man to Superman. At any rate, it’s become a motto for all superheroes since. More than that, however, is that it’s an admonition for all us not to be bullies and an implicit instruction to do unto others because we have a responsibility to each other and for each other.
Zack Snyder’s Superman was raised to reject those ideas and ideals and to look out first and foremost for Number One.
Dawn of Justice continues Snyder’s What If story by asking the next question, What if a Clark Kent raised to be inward, self-protective, self-centered, and self-doubting became Superman before he was mature and wise and well-adjusted enough to handle the responsibility? Before he’d even accepted that he has that responsibility? In Superman, Clark doesn't go to Metropolis until he's thirty, having spent twelve years in the Fortress of Solitude being taught how to be a hero and a good person by Jor-el and Lara's ghosts. In Smallville, he arrives there still in his early twenties but wise and mature beyond his years, having spent the last decade working very hard on acquiring wisdom and maturity and a sense of grownup responsibility. Basically, in both the movie and the TV series, Clark doesn’t become Superman until he’s ready to be Superman. In Man of Steel, practically the day he puts on the supersuit for the first time he has to get right to work saving the world. From here on out, then, it's going to be on the job training for him. Of course he's going to make a few mistakes.
Like letting thousands of people while he wrestles with General Zod.
In Dawn of Justice, he's still making mistakes and still not having much fun being Superman. And, apparently, he's taking too much satisfaction in being beloved.
He’s essentially Superboy and not yet Superman. He has that adolescent ability to demand that adults (like the movie’s Batman) live up to standards and according to ideals the demanding adolescents aren’t emotionally mature enough to manage themselves.
There’s nothing inherently wrong (from a purely dramatic point of view) with positing a still very young and emotionally immature Superman who at twenty-three or twenty-four has to learn lessons about growing-up most young adults learn when they’re around sixteen or seventeen. But that type of young men (plenty of whom exist in real life) tend to be both annoying and boring. It’s a trick to make them interesting and sympathetic as characters in a movie, a trick Snyder doesn’t pull off.
His Clark is boring. And he’s annoying. And he’s definitely no fun to be around. And it doesn’t help that he’s paired with another conflicted, neurotic, humorless, inward-looking, self-pitying, and self-involved superhero who’s also not having any fun being a superhero.
It’s hard to see how their becoming friends will make either of them any happier or content with their roles and responsibilities, unless each one looks at the other and sees a version of himself that horrifies him.
Dawn of Justice ends with the hope that Batman has regained a small measure of sanity and the sister hope---based on the possibility that Snyder has read Joseph Campbell and understood an important step on the hero’s journey or that he’s at least seen the original Star Wars trilogy and absorbed the lesson of Luke and not just of Vader---that Clark is finally going to become the Superman we know, love, admire, and need.
But there’s enough in the movie that suggests Snyder’s long-term plans for the future Justice League movies involve dashing those hopes and that he’s going to give us another Batman v Superman face-off, this time between a powerless, helpless, and totally alone Batman and a thoroughly evil Superman.
Fun for the whole family or at least for the sullen, selfish, and self-loathing teenager in the house who needs to know that it’s ok to be sullen, selfish, and self-loathing because nobody’s any good anyway and life stinks no matter who and what you are.
Not only is Snyder’s Superman self-loathing and self-absorbed and entirely without a sense of fun, he’s also entirely without a sense of humor. Smallville's and Superman's Clarks have very good senses of humor They’re also pranksters. In Superman II, he even saves the day by pulling a prank. If the fascistic statue of Superman that figures prominently in Dawn of Justice had been erected in either of those Clarks’ universes, if it didn't disappear overnight after its unveiling, pulverized into dust and blown away with a blast of superbreath, the city of Metropolis would have to dedicate a line in its daily operating budget to scrubbing off the painted-on mustaches and cross-eyes every morning.
In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman kills people. He cuts them to pieces with the Batplane’s machine guns. He blows them up with rockets. He rams their cars with the Batmobile causing them to crash and burn. He beats a few so badly you have to think they couldn’t survive. He fries someone with a flame thrower. And, of course, he tries to kill Superman.
This is not Batman behaving like the Batman most of us know and admire, no matter where we know him from, previous movies, the comic books, the television cartoon shows, and one other venue.
Over-heard after Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: A father to his five year old son, "What did you think of the movie? Long and boring, wasn't it?"
The kid nodded solemnly in agreement.
The movie is two hours and thirty-one minutes long and I swear an hour of that is taken up with long, pointless panning and tracking shots overplayed with ponderous music that add nothing to the story or our enjoyment.
Nothing seems to be in the movie for anyone's enjoyment.
At one point, there's an artfully angled and lit shot of a dripping faucet that goes on long enough for us to start counting the drips and has no apparent purpose except to call attention to itself. I don't think this was intended as self-commentary.
But I suspect it wasn't only director Zack Snyder's diligent pursuit of dullness that explains that little boy's solemnity and his father's obvious disappointment on his and his own behalf. I would bet it was Snyder's relentless, remorseless determination not to allow us to have any fun or to like and even sympathize with either Batman or Superman.
It's not that there aren't any moments of fun to be found in the script, but Snyder treats them as chores to be done as soon as possible in order to move on to the next scene of gloom and doom and whenever he meets with a joke he stamps it out like it's a fire.
Gal Gadot is terrific as Wonder Woman---once she finally gets to be Wonder Woman---and she seems to be having a good time but I can't help thinking she only got away with it because Snyder wasn't paying attention to her. Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman suffer from too much directorial attention and look worn out and dispirited by the effort of playing their characters as worn out and dispirited.
But never mind what Zack Snyder’s thinking, giving us this grim, dark, brutal, neurotic, very kid-unfriendly version of the World’s Finest superheroes. What was DC thinking allowing him to do this to the mainstays of their franchise? "Hey, let's ruin Batman and Superman for an entire generation of kids!"?
If DC's lucky, parents around the world are showing their kids Bruce Timm's animated series and the Christopher Reeve movies and saying, "Forgive us for taking you to that. Here, these are the real Batman and Superman."
St Patrick's Day post. He was an Irishman, after all.
Where’s Oscar?: Oscar Wilde holds forth on art and beauty in A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 by William Powell Frith. See if you can spot him and his friend Lillie Langtry in this crowd of late Victorian era celebrities.
Maybe you remember how last month when the Mannion gang was having lunch at a restaurant called Lillie’s in Greenwich Village I got lied to by the maitre d’. I’d asked him why the burger I’d ordered was called the Oscar Wilde Burger and he responded with a lulu.
Lillie’s is named for the actress Lillie Langtry. She and Wilde knew each other socially and professionally, so it makes sense, sticking with the restaurant’s theme, there’d be an item on the menu named after him. But the maitre d’ apparently thought that that was too boring an explanation.
He said---confided might be the better word, considering his mischievous furtiveness as it practically whispered his information---it was because Wilde and Lillie were secret lovers and she used to serve him a burger like this whenever he stayed over at her apartment when they were both living in New York. The maitre d’ didn’t mention it, but that would have been in 1882.
The maitre d’ might have been telling two lies there. It’s not clear hamburgers as we know them had been invented during Wilde’s lifetime. But the obvious and egregious lie was that they were lovers. Wilde was gay and as far as anyone knows he had sex with only one woman during his entire life, his wife. If he had a secret affair with Langtry, they kept it really secret. But they were friends and the story of their friendship is actually more interesting than any conventional heterosexual adultery.
Before I looked into it, I assumed Wilde and Langtry were brought together by their work in the theater. It turns out that Wilde helped Langtry begin her career as an actress.
She was already a celebrity when they met, “a society beauty who owed her fame to her status as the mistress of the Prince of Wale,” according to David M. Friedman, author of Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity. Wilde was smitten with her but platonically and, perhaps, opportunistically. Friedman suggests his infatuation with Langtry---he had a shrine to her in his apartment---was something of a career move. Wilde, Friedman writes, “believed any poet worthy of the name needed a public passion; if it was unrequited, that only made it more poetic. Lillie Langtry would be his passion.”
So he showered her with public adoration that was impossible to ignore, not just by Langtry but by all of London society...He “always made a point of bringing me flowers,” Langtry wrote in her memoir, “but he [couldn’t] afford great posies, so...he would buy me a single gorgeous amaryllis...and stroll down Piccadilly, carefully carrying the solitary flower.” It was said that Mr Langtry [Lillie was married. The Victorians weren't as Victorian as they liked to let on.] returned home late one night after a long night of socializing (without his wife) to find Wilde asleep outside the entrance to the Langtrys; apartment, snoring as he clutched a solitary blossom to his heaving chest…
...invited her to parties in his home on Salisbury Street. He gave her advice on fashion and told her what novels to read. He took her to museums and art galleries. He urged her to become an actress and found her an acting coach. He even became her personal classics tutor. When Sir Charles Newton, the man who unearthed the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus---of the the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World---gave a lecture at King’s College, London, Wilde brought Langtry there in a carriage, from which they alighted, waving like royalty to their fellow lecture-goers. After Langtry studied the Iliad, Wilde wrote a poem about her titled “The New Helen.”
There’s enough to have earned his having a sandwich named in his honor at “her” restaurant right there. But there’s more to go with it.
In October of 1882, Langtry came to New York to star in a play by the author of Our American Cousin, the play Lincoln was watching when John Wilkes Booth shot him. Wilde was in the city, resting up before heading home to London after a nine-month lecture tour of the United States that took him to 150 cities on a circuit that covered around 15,000 miles. Wilde met her ship at the dock---”I would rather have discovered Mrs Langtry than have discovered America,” he told reporters waiting for her arrival with him.---and he spent the next few weeks showing her around and showing her off, acting as her guide to the city and introducing her into New York society. They didn’t spend as much time together as Wilde would have liked, though. For one thing she was busy with rehearsals. For another…
Rather than spending her free time with him, she was spending it with Freddie Gebhard, and American playboy and heir to a huge real estate and manufacturing fortune, who was happy to spend vast sums of money to keep her entertained and by his side.
Maybe Lillie’s should serve a Freddie Gebhard burger. Then the maitre d’ would have a story perhaps more to his liking to tell.
The painting up top, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881, was painted by William Powell Frith in 1883. It depicts Wilde, standing just off to the right of center in a top hat and a velvet coat with a lily in the buttonhole, holding forth to a pair of female admirers on his theories of art and beauty. The crowd around him includes a number of other people who were well-known in their day, several of whom whose fame has lasted: Anthony Trollope, Robert Browning, Thomas Huxley, John Tenniel, Prime Minister William Gladstone (Gladstone’s rival Benjamin Disraeli appears by proxy in the form of two portraits of him on the gallery walls), and the actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Lillie Langtry is there, wearing a white dress and standing just off to Wilde’s right (our left). She doesn’t appear to be paying attention to him.
Bernie supporters would never vote for Obi-wan Kenobi. Too many ties to the old Jedi establishment.
Look at his friendship with Anakin Skywalker. He still refuses to repudiate him. Yes, he once called him more machine now than man and twisted and evil, but he was just saying that because Bernie pushed him to it. He trained his son, for the Force's sake! And look how well that worked out.
And he supported the Clone Wars when it was obvious to everyone Palpatine was lying about the Trade Federation and using the war to gain control over the spice routes.
Sure, he has the Wookie vote. But if the Wookies really knew Bernie and how his programs would benefit them they'd #feeltheBern!
Besides, Bernie has the padawans! The kids love Bernie and they're the future of the Order!
You simply can't trust Obi-wan Kenobi. Look at his theory that things are true or not true depending on your point of view.
Now he’s claiming he supports the Rebellion. But he came late to the cause, didn’t he? Wasn’t he hiding out on Tatooine while Rogue One was stealing the plans to the Death Star?
Finally, let's not forget that Obi-wan's master was trained by Count Dooku. Bernie once went on a mission with Mace Windu!
Yes, Bernie people say they’ll vote for Obi-wan if he wins the nomination and the Republicans nominate General Hux. But they’ll make sure we all know that for them it’s practically giving in to the Dark Side.
And I expect it won’t be long before some of them are making the case that maybe four years of rule by the First Order would be a good thing. It will show people Bernie’s brand of a social-democratic Force is the way to go and move the Jedi to the left.
One last thought. Remember who helped save Jar-Jar Binks!
Vote Bernie and may the Force be with you, always!
So. I was saying. About Black Mass. Not a crime story. Not a life and times story. What kind of story is it then? What’s the staw-ree heah? As Boston cops used to be prone to say when they arrived on the scene.
It’s a morality tale. Practically a fable. On a realistic level, it’s the story of a man’s corruption. Symbolically, it’s the story of the deal he made with the devil.
The corrupted man isn’t Whitey Bulger’s. The movie’s Whitey Bulger isn’t corrupt. He’s just plain evil. How he got that way, whether he was born bad or if circumstances made him a criminal isn’t a question the movie bothers to ask. It happened too long ago. He’s evil now and the question is how much more and how much worse evil is he going to do before he’s stopped?
Bulger is the movie’s devil. The corrupted man is that boyhood friend of the Bulger brothers, Whitey Bulger the criminal and Willliam Bulger the politician, who grew up to be an FBI Agent, John Connolly.
That story, Connolly’s story, gives Black Mass its narrative framework. But the movie’s reason for being isn’t to tell a story. It’s to paint a picture. Black Mass is a character study. Johnny Depp and director Scott Cooper have collaborated to paint a portrait of evil.
That’s what Black Mass is about. Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger.
I mentioned how once upon a time without knowing what it was I had lunch at one of Whitey Bulger’s favorite hangouts in South Boston, Triple O’s Lounge. I said there was a real possibility Whitey was there when I was there without my knowing it. He and some of his lieutenants could have been planning crimes over beers at a nearby table, I wouldn’t have recognized him.
If you’ve seen photos of the real Whitey Bulger and of Depp in the part, you’ve probably been awed by the uncanny resemblance. In which case, you’re probably asking, “How could you not have recognized that guy, Lance? That’s someone who’d definitely have made an impression!”
Answer is, I don’t think I had even the vaguest idea what Bulger looked like, but even if I did and if I saw him in person, I don’t think he’d have made that kind of an impression.
I don’t remember his picture or even his name being in the papers much. The news was full of the doings and undoings of other criminals, mainly Italians, who were featuring in stories about their arrests by the FBI. The Bureau was working from information they got from Whitey Bulger, that fact, of course, being never mentioned. And there were stories about crimes Bulger and his gang were committing and pictures of their victims. But his name was left out. The way those stories were reported it could seem they weren’t committed by anybody. The reason for Bulger’s lack of publicity we know now is that the FBI was protecting him, literally letting him get away with murder in exchange for his help bringing other murderers and criminals to justice.
It would have depended on who was with him, of course, and how people were acting around him. A guy surrounded by obvious goons and thugs would stand out. So would someone most other people in a room went out of their way to steer clear off or, just the opposite, made too much of a show of going up to say hello to, how ya doin’, Jimmy---and, by the way, you never called him Whitey to his face, if you knew what was good for you. You called him by his real name. Jimmy. Which I didn’t know at the time. His real name or that he went by it. But all by himself, the real Whitey Bulger wasn’t such that you looked at him and thought right away, there’s a scary guy.
From the pictures and video clips I’ve seen since, the real Whitey Bulger came across like any of a thousand other blue collar neighborhood types you sat next to on the T or found yourself waiting in line with to buy tickets on game days at Fenway...or may have happened to notice occupying a nearby table at a corner bar. If he carried himself with more authority than the average working stiff, if he seemed more thoughtful, more observant, smarter than everybody else around him, you might have thought he was a foreman at a factory or maybe owned his own small contracting business. That’s what you saw. Depp plays him as he was. You wouldn’t see him as he was until the moment he decided he was going to hurt you.
I had to look hard to find Depp in there. It’s not just that he’s disguised by the make-up, prosthetics, contacts, and wig. He’s disguised from within. Everything about him is different. Different kind of pent-up energy. Explosive not antic. Different kind of thoughtfulness. Calculating not deliberative. Different kind of watchfulness. Opportunistic not curious. And he imbues Bulger with a very different kind of innate sadness. All Depp characters, who aren't mad as hatters, are sad at heart. They recognize that for most people life is full of sorrow and pain and he feels a saint-like pity for them. As Depp plays him, Bulger seems to suffer bouts of existential despair as if he’s suddenly overcome by his own emptiness and the meaningless of it all. It doesn’t make him feel the least bit of pity for anyone. It just makes him mad.
Bulger isn’t a sociopath. He’s not a savage. He’s not really even a villain, that is, he’s not consciously evil. I’d call him a psychopath, which is probably an accurate description of the real Whitey Bulger, but it seems too reductive and easy for what Depp is portraying.
His Bulger is a beast. His motives are more like animal instincts. He’s someone who very early in life decided to live by rules based on an animal’s sense of how the world is divided---between me and mine and food.
“You wanna take your shot, Tommy? Take your shot. But make it your fucking best. 'Cause I get up, I eat you.”
Of course he’s not being literal, but there is a way in which it can be taken literally. He turns on you and you’re dead meat. But there’s more to it. He turns on you, you suddenly find yourself no longer part of him and his, and if you aren’t part of him and his, then you only exist to help him and his survive and thrive. In that effort, you’re either a useful partner or you’re there to be used. If you’re not useful in either way, then a hindrance, an obstacle, or a threat. Or you’re nothing.
Nothing may be the most dangerous category to find yourself in.
Nothing can be disposed of without a thought or a qualm.
Scenes that show his love for his young son, his devotion to his mother, his affection for his brother and his brother’s family, his kindness towards his favorite old grade school teacher don’t humanize in the usual movie “Maybe he’s not such a bad guy after all” way. They make him even more frightening.
The intensity of his loyalty to those he feels deserve it suggests how hard it would be to deserve it in his eyes and how easy it would be to have it snatched away and how fast that would happen, as fast as the swipe of a paw. Or the pull of a trigger, the looping of a length of rope, the reaching out of hand for a throat.
It’s a fierce and fearsome performance and makes for a chilling portrait of evil.
The problem with making a portrait the center of a movie is that portraits imply stories rather than tell them.
There’s not much a story to tell about Bulger’s criminality, anyway. There are stories. Really, anecdotes. His crimes, including his murders, vicious as they were, were banal. They were mostly opportunistic or impulsive, things he decided on the spot needed to be done as routine matters of business or because he felt like it at the moment. In Black Mass, they aren’t portrayed as pieces of a grand scheme or as steps on a descent deeper and deeper into hell. They’re simply episodes. And Bulger doesn’t change. He doesn’t even grow more evil. He is what he is, in episode after episode.
This is where Special Agent Connolly enters the picture. There’s definitely a story to tell about him. And in outline it’s a classic. I called it a fable. I could call it a myth. We’ve heard it a thousand times in a thousand different iterations. A good man sells his soul to the devil. A hero falls from grace.
But there’s a problem here too.
It’s hard to tell an emotionally compelling story about a man who sells his soul if that man doesn’t seem to have a soul that’s worth saving. We can’t mourn hero’s fall from grace if he doesn’t appear to have been in God’s graces to begin with or to have been much of a hero.
I can’t testify to the state of the real John Connolly’s soul at the time. In the movie, it’s hard to tell if even has one. As for his being a hero, if he was it was only in his being good at his job which was to put villains in jail, and Black Mass glosses over that.
Black Mass tells Connolly’s story but it doesn’t make him somebody whose story is worth caring about for two hours.
Connolly is played by Joel Edgerton with the too obviously forced charm of a not naturally charming man who has spent a lot of time studying real charmers and thinks he’s learned their secret. In actuality, he’s not so much charming as ingratiating. He’s a flatterer, a wheedler, and something of an emotional bully---he has a knack for picking up on others’ points of vanity and weakness and hammering on them. He’s also quite taken with himself and he assumes people he meets will naturally share his self-regard. This works often enough, but he’s so self-satisfied that he doesn’t believe it when it doesn’t and keeps at it even after it’s clear that instead of charming someone he’s annoying them or when he should see they’ve got him figured out and are using his own vanity against him.
In the movie, as it happened in real life, Connolly recruits Whitey as an informant to help the Bureau bring down the Boston Mafia. As the deal works out, it’s more the case that Bulger has recruited Connolly and through him the FBI to help him get rid of the Italian mobsters who are muscling in on his business and to help him then take over some of theirs.
In exchange for information that turns out to be available through other sources, Connolly, with the acquiescence of several of his fellow agents, covers up for Bulger and his gang as their crimes increase in frequency and violence and they expand their operations. In the process, Connolly becomes something of an honorary member of Bulger’s Winter Hill Gang and begins to enjoy the perks of being a wiseguy. As time passes, he grows to look and act more like a movie gangster than Bulger and any of his crew.
Edgerton is especially good at showing this. His eyes narrow. His mouth gets smaller and pouty, his cheeks puffier and flabby. He preens in his increasingly more expensive and better tailored suits. Even his haircuts express increasing corruption. We don’t see him do it, but Edgerton gives the impression that Connolly spends a lot of time in front of the mirror combing his hair.
It’s interesting to watch, to a point. It doesn’t make Connolly himself interesting. As good a job as Edgerton does, he’s not given much to work with. As he’s written, Connolly is a fairly ordinary man. He’s good-humored but not witty. He’s intelligent but not especially so and there’s no poetry in him. He’s an Irishman with no gift for Blarney. He doesn’t have the eloquence to tell us what’s going on inside him in an interesting way, not that there is much going on in there. He doesn’t appear to have an inner life. He doesn’t even seem to have a conscience.
He’s a superficial man, and that’s how Edgerton is left by director Scott Cooper to play him, as all surface.
The only intriguing thing about him is his friendships with Whitey Bulger and Whitey’s brother Billy, who was more than just a successful local politician, he was the president of the Massachusetts State Senate. Connolly seems to know this about himself but it’s a fact about him not a key to his character. It’s possible that the seed of his corruption was a sense of self-importance derived from his friendship with the Bulger and that his ambition is to be as admired, respected, and feared in his field as the Bulgers are in theirs. But that’s up to us to read into Edgerton’s performance. It’s not something the movie shows or makes use of.
Connolly is corrupted early in the story, and what we get to watch is him growing more steadily and less subtly corrupt. But whether he’s corrupted by vanity, ambition, greed, or a combination of all three, we don’t get to know.
This brings me back to what I was getting at in my first Black Mass post. Boston doesn’t figure much in the movie, either as background or as a part of the characters’ lives. Like I said, Bulger doesn’t seem to live in Boston. He just operates there. And we don’t even get to see how his operations work or how they affect---hurt---people, which they certainly did.
We hear that he’s worried about his vending machine racket. We don’t see him or his thugs terrorizing bar and restaurant owners into putting his machines in their establishments. Back then, you bought a pack of cigarettes from a machine, you were putting money in Whitey Bulger’s pocket.
We hear he’s into drug dealing. We don’t see the high school kids he made some of his best customers.
The only people he hurts on screen are other criminals. The closest to an innocent is only innocent in being too dumb to understand the immorality and criminality of what they’re involved in.
As for Connolly, it’s not just the people and culture of South Boston that are missing from his story. The people and culture of his professional life are absent to. The FBI is just the institution he works for. The other agents who appear as characters are there as foils or supporting players in his personal drama. The fact that it wasn’t just that Connolly was personally corrupt. The FBI’s informant program had been covering up the crimes of informants for years before Connolly recruited Bulger. According to T.J. English in Where the Bodies Were Buried, agents even helped frame several innocent men for a murder they knew one of their informants had committed and they did it with the approval of J. Edgar Hoover.
What this means for Black Mass is that Bulger and Connolly are pretty much seen as isolated cases. The movie is about them and only about them and other characters are there just to give Depp and Edgerton something to play off of besides just each other. And, while Depp’s Bulger is fascinating, he’s not dramatically compelling in that he changes or takes us or other characters anywhere, and, like I said, although his story does go somewhere and Edgerton does some fine work portraying him, Connolly just isn’t all that interesting.
This doesn’t mean that Depp and Edgerton might as well be alone on screen or that their performances are all there is to keep us watching. There are many fine actors making the most of their generally underwritten parts.
As Whitey’s brother Billy, Benedict Cumberbatch is mostly used as a ironic commentary on the self-servingness and opportunism of all politicians. But he’s charming and slick and convincing both as a certain type of politician and the “good” brother with enough of a heart and modicum of conscience that people looking at the two Bulgers might think basic decency was a family trait. You could see how people might think, How bad can Jimmy be if he’s got a brother like Billy who loves him?, instead of asking how honest can Billy be if he’s got a brother he loves like Jimmy?
And Brian Sarsgaard has an impressive extended cameo as a business associate of one of Bulger's businesses associates, a very tightly wound psychopath named Brian Halloran who seems always about to come unwound in an instant with a very loud SPROING! and collaterally damaging shower of broken springs. Halloran has such poor control over his emotions he feels them all at once and is simultaneously on the verge of breaking into a fit of giggles and bursting into tears. This makes him somewhat unreliable as a criminal henchman to the point that Bulger feels he has to pay him not to kill someone Bulger wants killed. There's more method to Bulger's decision, but basically he's concerned not that Halloran won't get the job done but he'll get it done in a way bound to lead the police right to him and he'll point them straight to Bulger. Sarsgaard makes Halloran a compelling blend of pathetic and maddeningly annoying. We feel sorry for him and at the same time can’t wait to see him get what he's afraid is coming to him.
Black Mass’ depiction of Bulger’s right-hand man, Steve “The Rifleman” Flemmi isn’t strictly in accordance with the facts. In the movie, he’s the closest Whitey has to a real friend and his reason for being seems to be to look out for him. Rory Cochrane plays him with a mournful-eyed watchfulness that seems to be both professional and sympathetic. He’s far from a decent guy but he is doing the world one little bit of good by caring about Whitey enough to want to help keep his violence and rage in check if only so he doesn’t wind up in jail or dead. In reality, Flemmi wasn’t a friend. He was just a business partner and possibly the senior partner. Their relationship was as Flemmi says in the movie, “strictly criminal.” Cochrane delivers the line with the sense of disappointment of someone realizing too late he’d been fooled and was being used. But the real Flemmi wasn’t fooled and if he was being used by Bulger, he knew it and was using Bulger back.
Kevin Bacon appears as Connolly’s boss at the Bureau, the kind of tough and demanding boss whose vanity and ambition are always undermining his own efforts. David Harbour plays Connolly’s partner in handling Bulger as a get along-go along type who is weakened and corrupted by his too eager desire to be liked by everyone, even criminals like Whitey Bulger.
Julianne Nicholson is at first brittlely cheerful and then even more brittlely sad and angry as Connolly’s wife Marianne who enters the movie seeming afraid she’s not good enough for him and leaves it knowing he’s decided she’s right and he’s ready to trade up. Dakota Johnson as Lindsey Cyr, Bulger’s common law wife and the mother of his young son, stakes a claim on the place Jennifer Lawrence appears to be abandoning as the best young character actress now working as Lawrence seems to be forgetting how to play characters as themselves and not as Jennifer Lawrence trapped in an alternative universe. Johnson plays Cyr as so much a real person that the only clue she’s really just a movie star acting is that she happens to be in the same scenes as Johnny Depp.
Juno Temple is the right mixture of pathetic and infuriating as a prostitute who for all we know may have a heart of gold but who unfortunately and undeniably has a brain of mush. Corey Stoll plays a federal prosecutor whose complete honesty and utter incorruptability are demonstrated by his irritability and impatience. W. Earl Brown gives a chillingly deadpan performance as a thoroughly professional, totally unperturbable, and supremely competent hitman. And Jesse Plemmons impressed me as Bulger’s junior henchman Kevin Weeks by having one of the most true to life Boston accents I’ve ever heard in a movie. Those guys I knew back in Boston who knew guys? That’s how they sounded.
All good reasons to see Black Mass. Mainly though it’s to see Edgerton and Depp. And mainly Depp.
Depp spent his forties, which is to say most of his prime, playing live-action cartoon characters, which is fine because it gave us Captain Jack Sparrow but it didn’t give us many good movies besides the first Pirates of the Caribbean. (You could argue that Depp’s best movie in the thirteen years since Pirates of the Caribbean was an actual cartoon. Rango.) It will be nice if Black Mass marks the beginning of a decade of his being a male successor to Meryl Streep, our greatest chameleon of a movie star, who I think of as a portraitist who uses herself as her canvass.
Portraits in themselves don’t tell stories but they can certainly command attention.
Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper, screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jezz Butterworth. Based on the bookBlack Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. Starring Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, David Harbour, Juno Temple, Corey Stoll, and W. Earl Brown. Rated R. Now available on DVD and Blu-ray and to watch instantly at Amazon.
Sunset on the Hudson River. Looking west by southwest from around West 96th Street on Manhattan. Wednesday evening. March 9. 2016. From a series by blogging comrade Philip Turner. You can see the rest of the photos and read Philip’s account of “Catching a Precious Part of the Day” at his blog, the Great Gray Bridge.
Nazi Germany looked like something very specific. Nazi Germany.
That’s not a tautology. Nazi Germany was a triumph of design as well as of the will. The look---the uniforms, the arm bands, the flags, the swastikas and eagles, the goosestepping, the architecture, the hundreds and thousands of right arms shooting up in unison---was a carefully considered construct. The imagery and iconography had a totemistic purpose, to make people feel like Nazis, to think and act like Nazis. To make them Nazis. Trump voters wear those silly red ballcaps like campaign buttons. Germans put on the red armbands to share in the power. The Nazi salute was a ritual. The people at the Trump rally weren’t saluting. They were raising their right hands because that’s what Americans do when we swear an oath in public. It's just a gesture.
I’m not saying Trump isn’t a crypto-fascist. (I can’t say if he is or isn’t, because who knows what’s going on under that weave?) I’m not saying that none of his voters are fascist. Adjective there, fascist, not a noun, fascists. I don’t know if it’s their temperament or a belief system. I don’t know any of them. From what I’ve read, some of them sound like fascists. Most of them sound like run of the mill racists. None of them, though, sound or look like Nazis. And the point I’m making is that when you call someone a Nazi, they’d better look like a Nazi.
Tell people Trump’s Hitler and they’ll look for the mustache. Tell them his voters are his brownshirts and they’ll look for the brown shirts. And the jodhpurs and the riding boots.
And the armbands.
When they don’t see any of those, they’ll rightly want to know Was zum Teufel you’re talking about.
Which is generally not an opening for a reasonable political discussion.
Trump is an infection. And you have to diagnose an infection correctly before you can stop it from spreading.
Calling Trump and his followers fascists doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t describe them. It doesn’t explain them. It’s just name-calling.
There are plenty of better words for what Trump is beside fascist. Words that do describe him and explain him and explain what he’s up to and what he’s doing to the body politic. Liar. Fraud. Con man. Bully. Boor. Bore. Racist. Know-nothing. Tyrant. Despot. Tin-pot dictator. Ego-maniac. Jerk.
Like I said, I don’t know if Trump himself is a fascist. But I don’t think he is. I think he’s a would-be dictator and dictators come in all political flavors. Temperamentally, he’s a tyrant and like so many tyrants he’s all over the place in his thinking because he’s driven by vanity, appetite, and whim. You can’t be a good fascist if you’re not disciplined. But you can tyrannize with a vengeance.
Beyond that, Trump doesn’t remind me of a Hitler because, beside not being, as far as I can tell, a militarist and not calling for a merging of industry, church, and state, he’s too much in the American grain. Americans didn’t need fascists to invent racism and xenophobia for us or to teach us how to make hatred the foundation of our politics. Trump is in a line with Huey Long and George Wallace and that’s bad enough.