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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Walk the Ray

Walk the Line is a fine movie.  I recommend it.  Joaquin Phoenix is uncanny, and Reese Witherspoon—whom, I confess, I’ve never really liked before now—is just remarkable, bringing a subtle, bitter edge to her otherwise chirpy portrayal of June Carter.

But here’s the thing.  I also liked Ray.  Jamie Foxx was uncanny, and Regina King was remarkable.  For that matter, I liked Coal Miner’s Daughter way back in 1980.  Sissy Spacek was uncanny, and Levon Helm was remarkable.  You get the idea.

Does anyone else have the sense that these music biopics have gotten a bit . . . um . . . formulaic?  The Walk the Line / Ray similarities are, admittedly, a bit strange: flashback to rural poverty and the life-scarring Death of the Brother.  Lifelong struggles with drugs and a stripped-down narrative of the Other Woman.  But even biopics about figures whose lives weren’t quite so similar as those of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash seem to me to be built on the same premise: a string of highlights and low points (ending on the former), held together (or not held together) by the lead’s ability to inhabit the body and soul of the subject.  Extra bonus points are awarded for people who do their own singing, like Spacek or Gary Busey in 1978’s The Buddy Holly Story, or who know a thing or two about their instrument, like Foxx in Ray.  Audience responses to the genre of the biopic, accordingly, seem to hinge almost entirely on assessments of the performance of one or two lead actors and actresses: hence Ray, Walk the Line, and Buddy Holly draw raves, Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to Do with It and Forest Whitaker in Bird get mixed reviews, and Kevin Spacey in Beyond the Sea and Dennis Quaid in Great Balls of Fire! wind up very quickly in the 99-cent bin.  And I won’t even bother to dismiss Jessica Lange in Sweet Dreams, because (for whatever reason) she only appeared in ten minutes of that film, the rest of which was devoted to Charlie (and might as well have been called Patsy Cline:  Charlie’s Story).

Which brings up an ancillary point.  Because most of the challenge of the biopic lies in the casting, for obvious reasons, with films like Walk the Line, you’ve got a curious intertextual phenomenon going on: Waylon Payne’s Jerry Lee Lewis is far more convincing than Dennis Quaid’s, which makes it look almost as if Walk the Line is out-Jerry Lee-ing Jerry Lee’s own biopic, in a weirdly Jerry Lee kind of way.

Still, I have to admit that I would have paid good money (not counterfeit money!) fifteen years ago to see Denzel in What’s Going On?  The Story of Marvin Gaye. Hey!  When is someone going to get to work on that film anyway?

Oh, I almost forgot.  I really liked Pollock.  Ed Harris was uncanny, and Marcia Gay Harden was remarkable.

Posted by Michael on 11/30 at 02:10 PM
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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

“Die Hard” Diehard Catching Flak for Epic Iraq Flick

Variety, May 1, 2008—According to insider reports, action star Bruce Willis is drastically over budget and cannot decide on an ending for his pro-war Iraq film, Mission Accomplished.

“He’s spun completely out of control,” said one member of the crew, who spoke on condition of anonymity.  “He’ll spend a month filming the ‘democracy’ ending, but no one knows what that’s supposed to look like, and then he decides it’s ‘too boring anyway.’ So we’ll spend another month on the ‘fighting terrorism’ ending, where we wipe out an entire city, then another month on the ‘civil war’ ending, featuring a bunch of Shiite death squads, then another on the ‘revenge’ ending with these incredibly gory Abu Ghraib scenes, then another on this bizarre ‘call in the bombers’ ending that reads like it was written by Sy Hersh.  And then he’ll just spend days alone in his trailer, blasting this turgid crap by The Doors and painting his body from head to toe.”

Willis has assured his initial backers, Passion Media, formerly known as Pajamas Media, formerly known as Open Source Media, formerly known as Pajamas Media, that he will finish the film “when it is done,” but has refused to set any timetable for its completion.  Lead screenwriter Roger L. Simon defended Willis’s refusal, issuing a terse press release, “cowards yell ‘cut’ and run, action figures never do.”

Industry analysts note that the cost of Mission Accomplished now exceeds $200 billion, but few of the cast or crew are willing to speak on the record, fearing reprisals from Willis, who demands complete and unquestioning loyalty from everyone working on the film.  “It’s way beyond what happened with Coppola,” said one of the film’s producers, “not that there are any parallels with Vietnam or anything.  But I think we’re past the worst moments of last fall, when Bruce was insisting on doing this Twelve Monkeys in Iraq bit where he travels back in time to find weapons of mass destruction.  Honestly, most of us wish that Bruce had stuck with the first ending, where Bush lands on the aircraft carrier in a flight suit.  Everything tells us that’s the ending with the biggest box office.”

Posted by Michael on 11/29 at 08:38 AM
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Monday, November 28, 2005

Host story

Tell me now, you Muses who have your homes on Olympos.
For you, who are goddesses, are there, and you know all things,
and we have heard only the rumour of it and know nothing.
Who then were the guests who came to my house for Thanksgiving?
I could not tell over the multitude of them nor name them,
not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths, not if I had
a voice never to be broken and a heart of bronze within me,
not unless the Muses of Olympia, daughters
of Zeus of the aegis, remembered all those who came to Pennsylvania.
I will tell the drivers of the automobiles, and their passengers.

Oh, to hell with the dactylic hexameter.  It doesn’t work in English, anyway.  The point is that we had seventeen people in this house for Thanksgiving, starting with the first arrival last Tuesday and ending with the final departure Sunday afternoon.  It was the March of the Lyons.  Janet’s mother, three sisters, one brother, and many Significant Others, along with Janet’s best friend Gail, her brother-in-law, and two teenage children.  And, of course, Nick came home from college.  I used to tell people I’d married into a large and powerful family, sort of like the Habsburgs.  Now, for two Thanksgivings in a row, I’ve hosted the Habsburgs in my humble abode.  Not everyone stayed in our house—just ten of our guests, plus the four of us.

How do we do it?  Volume!

Seriously, if you’ve ever had fourteen people living in a medium-sized house for four days, you know what it’s like.  And if you haven’t, you’re about to find out! 

The most critical thing, of course, is plumbing.  Our house is about eighty years old, and its plumbing leaves something to be desired—like, for example, water pressure.  Water doesn’t flow out of our shower heads so much as ooze, and that can be a problem when large families want to take showers one person at a time.  The “indoor plumbing” thing was further complicated, this year, by the fact that one toilet had come loose from its moorings (oh, don’t ask), one shower stall was leaking to the floor below, and another shower/ bathtub had lost much of its caulking.  Fortunately, Todd’s boyfriend Hayward knows everything in the world about How Things Work, and better still, everything in the world about How to Fix Them.  So while Hayward replaced the toilet, recaulked two showers, weatherstripped a doorway and repaired a door, fixed an air vent behind the stove, and placed a jack under our bowing porch, I did what I do best, namely, sitting around making remarks about stuff.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  I also distinguished myself in the Eating and Drinking department, as the Lyons and Corbins arrived with chili, bacon, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, salads, cakes, cookies, more cakes, and forty-five cases of wine, to which we added the stuffing, potatoes, and pair of turkeys we’d ordered from Wegmans, along with twenty more cases of wine.  Through fortitude and perseverance, I managed to gain thirty-five pounds in four days, while making salient contributions to the nightly games of “names,” poker, and charades.  (In Texas Hold ‘Em, Nick, with three of a kind, saw me and raised a couple of times, believing that (a) I was bluffing and (b) no one could make anything of the Q-2-8-A-4 on the table.  Imagine his surprise when I turned over a 3 and a 5!  On the very next hand, Gail’s son Brendan kept raising me with a flush, not realizing that I was capable of complementing the 9-9-4 on the board with a 9 and a 4 of my own.  Thanks, kids!)

At one point during the food preparation rituals on Thursday, I realized that there were nine or ten people in the kitchen, and at least five things being baked, boiled, or warmed.  So I decided to go on a garbage/ recycling run, filling the Subaru with bags and bottles.  That’s right: I couldn’t stand the heat, so I got out of the kitchen! Who knew that could really happen?  I always thought it was a metaphor of some kind.  Next thing you know, I’ll be lying down with dogs and getting up with fleas!  But the garbage/ recycling run was great, because the recycling bin required me to take the bottles one by one and sort them into clear, brown, and green before tossing them into a nearly-empty dumpster.  Much noise, and much fun!  I love the sound of breaking clear, brown, and green glass.

Then on Friday and Saturday, it was off to the movies with Jamie and the crew.  I’ll file my review of Walk the Line tomorrow; today I have to add to my long-running Harry Potter commentary.  By the way, did you know that there are only two functioning sectors of the American economy now?  Housing sales and Harry Potter films.  That’s it.

But the Potter bubble won’t burst anytime soon, at least, because Goblet of Fire is the best of the series so far, better even than Azkaban.  Brendan Gleeson is inspired as Mad-Eye Moody, and we approve of Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort (though I know that some people say Voldemort should be more heavy-set and sclerotic).  The Triwizard competition is terrific, and—most unexpectedly—the moments of humor are brilliant.  The first time through, I didn’t care for the maze scene, thinking I’d already seen it in The Shining, except with less fog.  But on second viewing, it was . . . adequate.  Though still too foggy, in a couple of ways.

It’s a shame, though, that Mike Newell ran out of film at the very end.  How else to explain Dumbledore’s incomprehensible scene at Harry’s bedside, and then the flubbed final exchange among Harry, Hermione, and Ron?  Yes, I know the movie couldn’t have ended with ten minutes of “As you know, Harry” exposition from Dumbledore, but honestly, when Michael Gambon mutters “prior incantatem” and then tells Harry that no spell can reawaken the dead, that’s not a useful gloss on Harry’s duel with Voldemort—it’s just muttering.  If you’re not going to explain the “prior incantatem” phenomenon, then don’t bother mentioning it.  It’s like the moment earlier in the film when Barty Crouch is discovered unconscious in the forest—it simply doesn’t work in the film, because everything that explains it in the book has been excised; it winds up looking like a stray visual footnote to the book and nothing else.  (Though David Tennant’s snakelike tongue thing worked well as a tipoff to Crouch’s reaction to Mad-Eye.) And what’s with Dumbledore’s line about how we must choose between what’s easy and what’s right?  That makes no damn sense at all.  As if Voldemort and the Death Eaters represent the “easy” path?  Finally, who advised Emma Watson to laugh through her closing line about how everything will be different now?  That was just weird.

Probably most important, however, is the scene of the Quidditch World Cup.  I didn’t notice this on first viewing, but the second time it was unmistakable: when the Irish National Team swoops onto the field, there is no hint of orange in their jerseys. The same is true of Fred and George Weasley: they have painted their bodies and faces green and white for Ireland, and there’s no orange to be seen.  The obvious question poses itself: WHY DOES HOLLYWOOD HATE PROTESTANTS? As if it’s not bad enough that Hollywood has banned all mention of Christmas in the United States and the ACLU is putting fluoride in our eggnog!! Now we have to deal with Harry Potter rewriting history?!?

I hope Michael Medved says something about this, and soon.  Because you sure can’t expect the MSM to sit up and take notice.  They’re completely in the tank with the Papists, and have been ever since JFK = Joe For King stole the Presidency in 1960.

Posted by Michael on 11/28 at 11:42 AM
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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving Day

We have so much to be thankful for this year!  First there were the indictments of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney this past summer.  Then the Democrats’ massive victories in the House.  And now, of course, Speaker Pelosi’s “Clean Government Initiative,” with its three special House investigations—the Waxman Committee, reviewing the Bush Administration’s manipulation of prewar intelligence; the Evans Committee, conducting hearings on Jack Abramoff and his many friends in the GOP; and the Murtha Committee, looking into Halliburton’s overbilling and fraud in Iraq and the Gulf Coast.  And that’s just for starters!  I’m telling you, it was so smart for the DNC to take my advice on the “Clean Government” thing—it really resonated with voters, especially in the Southwest and California, where we picked up sixteen . . . uh . . . say what?

Oh, right, my mistake.  This is next year’s Thanksgiving post.  Sorry about jumping the gun, everyone.  Never mind!  Have a happy turkey day anyway.

Posted by Michael on 11/24 at 11:50 AM
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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

So Long . . . and Thank You

My last few posts clearly hit a nerve, which suggests to me that tempers are frayed on the left.  No surprise when recent poll numbers (this from the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll) tell us that 51% of Americans think our government has handled enemy detainees in a perfectly acceptable manner, while 30% think the government has “gone too far.” (Details over at my blog, Public Intelligence.) Small “d” democrats haven’t got the luxury of being Straussians like the neo-cons or Leninists like the Old Left; we can’t work behind the populace’s back and still retain any semblance of good faith with our fundamental commitments. Yet the actions of our government around the globe belie any easy retreat to “all politics is local.”

But, really, I was getting to the local.  The posts were meant to work by an inclusive logic, moving through various sites of political engagement in order to find one where the “fit” felt satisfying, felt “organic.” I guess, instead, the posts came across as too abstract and too wistful (if the responses were a fair indication of the general sentiment out there.) In any case, the plan was to end with a tribute to and meditation on the work of my ex-student and friend Paul Castelloe, co-founder of the Center for Participatory Change, a community organizing effort in the mountains of western North Carolina.

I will talk about Paul over at Public Intelligence within the next week.  But, for right now, I will, by way of farewell, just recall that Hannah Arendt would have loved to mix it up with Bobby Orr and Rod Gilbert because she was fully convinced that politics is a contact sport.  And she was equally convinced that politics wasn’t worth a candle if it didn’t deliver a “public happiness” whose source was the quality of the interactions with one’s fellow citizens in a public, non-domestic, space.  She was fond of recalling Socrates’ delightful image of the afterworld as one giant Greek agora, where he would be able to question and converse with all the great thinkers, politicians, and heroes of history. 

Michael’s blog has created its own version of that dialogic community and it has been a great privilege to be able to try out some of my ideas in front of this demanding, intelligent, and passionate audience.  I thank you for your patience—and even more for your impatience.  And I thank Michael for having given me the chance to hang around for so long.

Posted by John McGowan on 11/23 at 11:16 AM
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Monday, November 21, 2005

We interrupt this hiatus . . .

. . . to bring you the following urgent announcement:  I did not tell Bob Woodward that Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA agent.

Over the weekend, John McGowan wrote to me about this matter, telling me that he was “uneasy” about the fact that I have never denied speaking to Woodward about Plame.  When I told him that I have never spoken to Woodward about anything, John was relieved, and suggested that I take a moment to assure my loyal readers that I had no hand in disclosing Plame’s identity, or, indeed, in seeking retribution against Joseph Wilson or anyone else who, in 2002-03, doubted the Bush Administration’s claims about Saddam’s attempts to buy aluminum tubes, eat Nigerian yellowcake [update—or Nigerien yellowcake! (see comments)], develop weapons of mass destruction related program activities, or request assistance in moving fifty million dollars out of the country by means of unsolicited emails.  (Not that we want to rewrite history on this blog.)

I assured John that I would do so at my first opportunity, which would be now.  He replied that it might be a good idea to ask all bloggers to issue similar disavowals, so that we can use the power of the blogosphere to identify, by elimination, the person who first spoke to Woodward.  So if you have a blog, won’t you please take a moment to tell the world that you didn’t have anything to do with leaking Plame’s name to Bob Woodward?  I know that many of you have other things to do, but I’m kind of hoping that by the end of the week, we can narrow it down to this guy, who’s probably blogging as usual from his secret undisclosed location.

Thanks very much.

Posted by Michael on 11/21 at 09:02 AM
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