The First 48 Hours

January 23, 2017

trump-inaugurationWell, that was one hell of a weekend. We have a new President and maybe, just maybe, we have a new counterculture as well. That’s probably the wrong word to use, since the Trump Administration’s #1 takeaway from its first few days in office ought to be: geez, there are more of them than there are of us. Maybe it’s the Trumpkins who are the counterculture.

It sure sounded that way during the first few moments of Donald J. Trump’s presidency. After acknowledging the four former Presidents in attendance, he essentially told them: by the way, all y’all suck. Trump’s America, on their watch, has devolved into a land of carnage and tombstones where vicious foreigners steal our jobs and try to con us into believing the climate is changing. In other words, he was talking to his base — which still believes crime and unemployment got worse under President Obama (they both declined, along with the uninsured rate). He wasn’t finished, of course, and the next morning took issue with estimates of the size of the crowd, thought to be about a third of the one Obama drew in 2009, and slagged the “dishonest” press for having the temerity to report it.

That yuge crowd and dishonest press stuff came during a visit to the CIA, where the spooks seemed puzzled at the lack of attention in their new boss’s remarks to, well, to the CIA. After all, he’d been slamming them for weeks. To make matters worse, while he was at Langley a crowd was gathering to protest his ascension and his disdain for women’s rights. Joined by quite a few men and boys, the marching assumed Obaman proportions, dwarfing the inauguration with three times as many people. And that was just in Washington. All over the country — all over the world — similar protests erupted, surprising officials everywhere with their numbers. Not just New York, L.A., and the other big cities, but all over. A thousand in Jackson, Mississippi, as red a place as you can find. Twenty thousand in Phoenix, not far behind it in redness. Forty thousand in Austin, twice what was expected, more than that in San Diego. Five thousand in Birmingham, Alabama (they expected 200). Healthy six figures in Boston and Seattle — even “several thousand” in Knoxville, Tennessee. Three hundred in Tel frickin Aviv!

Trump couldn’t know the extent of the demonstrated fervor against him while he was still obsessing over the size of his penis crowd, but as the reports poured in from everywhere — the numbers above came spontaneously from Facebook friends — it looked more and more like a massive repudiation that made the hoity-toity inauguration weekend its bitch. (I refer of course to the canine connotation, women’s rightists.) Trump was so embarrassed by photos proving that his audience was a mere fraction of Obama’s that he sent mouthpiece Sean Spicer down to the press scrum on Saturday night to spit out as many falsehoods as he could manage. The Times did a nifty summation, finally calling false even in its headline reporting on a one-way “press conference” during which Spicer took no questions from reporters. According to the Presidential press secretary, it was the largest inaugural audience ever, period (it wasn’t); the DC Metro had more riders than for Obama’s inauguration (it didn’t); special floor coverings initiated this year made the audience look smaller (they use them every time to protect the grass); and new fencing and magnetometers kept people from the Mall this year (nope, same security as before).

Kellyanne Conway, the most beleaguered spin doctor of our time, basically gave up the game Sunday on MEET THE PRESS when she called Trump’s own statements about the media ginning up a conflict between him and the intelligence community “alternative facts.” My absolute favorite one was, when I began my inaugural address it stopped raining and became sunny, then when I finished, it started pouring. Everybody there knows that it drizzled throughout and kept on drizzling after the horrific oratorial train wreck was over. It reminds me of that old punch line from the man whose wife catches him in bed with another woman: “Who you gonna believe: me or your lying eyes?” We are left to wonder, why even bother lying about something so insignificant as the weather? Is the President’s truth toggle stuck on OFF permanently? Or does he live in a fantasyland where the sun was indeed metaphorically shining during the eighteen minutes the entire world was focused on him? It’s only a matter of time before Kellyanne tells us those agita-making crowd shots were Photoshopped by the dishonest media.

Remember now, all this happened just in the first 48 hours. Trump intimated that he’ll start really signing stuff today, Monday, which he evidently considers to be his first full work day. Over time it may sink in that the Presidency is a 24/7 gig, but don’t tell him yet: the more Donald Trump is out of the office, the better.

So, people had some fun and Trump Hulked out, just as they’d hoped. What comes next now is: what comes next? The demonstrations on Saturday were as much a form of personal catharsis as they were a bold statement supporting what the Wonkette calls the “vagenda.” Trump & minions have been dramatically reminded that most voters disapprove of him (see: popular vote). But it falls to the opposition to keep the pressure on. The left couldn’t sustain Occupy or Black Lives Matter, but it is still possible to change things from the ground up. For proof, and to learn a few important things for the game plan, those who oppose the Conmander-in-Chief should carefully study, and then improve on, the most successful populist anti-POTUS movement of the 21st century:

The Tea Party.

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The Elephant In The Room

January 17, 2017

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump poses on the cover of Time Magazine after being named its person of the year

It’s sinking in. The New York Times front page no longer reminds us of an Onion parody. Well, maybe it still does, but we can no longer look at it that way. This is serious. On Friday, that boorish, petulant, childish, nuance-deprived, attention-span-lacking, sexist xenophobe charlatan bully Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as President of the United States. The mind can no longer boggle. Boggling time is over. Now we have to face reality, stand our ground, find some traction, and fight back. Pretending this crisis can be solved by demographics, adversarial competence or even basic common sense is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place. No more bringing knives to gunfights. We need the political equivalent of the Magnificent Seven to help us, but they don’t exist. Any magnificence will have to come from within us, and the first thing to summon is the quality Pubs have displayed in abundance for forty solid years: determination. (A clear subtext, by the way, of the classic SEVEN SAMURAI tale.)

You’d almost feel sorry for Trump’s most rabid fans if they weren’t so mean and vicious in victory. Let them wallow in it for now. They think they found Moses, but it’s only Professor Harold Hill, and one day they may again recognize flimflam when they hear it, wiser but definitely sadder. Mitt Romney was right. The President-elect is a con man, a fraud, manifestly unfit for the high office he will begin to besmirch on Friday afternoon. I realize Presidents have lied before, even ones I admired. This will be the first President I assume to be lying.

You think that was prejudiced? I’m pre-judging the 45th President because I’m expecting no purifying magic to flow through his hands once he completes the oath of office. If there was ever a time to begin acting Presidential, it was the transition period which is now ending. It hasn’t happened, and now I don’t expect it to. If somehow I am surprised and proven wrong, I will be one of the happiest goddam Americans you have ever met. Instead, I’m ashamed and embarrassed, even before I arrive at anger. Should I give the newbie a chance? I’d rather he got the same treatment he visited upon his exemplary predecessor. I strongly doubt this salacious stuff about kinky Russian sexplay, but I’m delighted that it’s become a comedians’ meme. It couldn’t have happened to a not-nicer guy, because this is exactly what Trump pulled for seven long years with his absurd birth-certificate slop. So, in Fox News-speak, “some people are saying” that Trump hires hookers to perform “water sports” in private. Is it true? Hey, I don’t know. But some people are saying it…especially down in that pizza-parlor basement where Hillary Clinton and John Podesta run their child-sex ring. Repeat “Goldengate” often enough and some rubes might even start to believe it. They’ve already demonstrated that they wouldn’t be scandalized by anything Trumpian, so long as Hillary won’t be able to order them around.

The “man of the people” will actually be the most gilded POTUS ever, and, if confirmed, Trump’s cabinet may even render his own fortune below the median of the senior team’s personal wealth. (“Some people are saying” that Trump claims to be richer than he really is.) And make no mistake about that “unity” crap: if you didn’t vote for him, why then, as Vice President Dick Cheney once growled on the Senate floor, “go fuck yourself.” For example, why else would he threaten to tie up Fifth Avenue traffic at the “Northern White House” for years to come, at a cost to the city of literal millions? (Congressional Pubs won’t let go of more than a fraction of the money needed for extra security; NYC is just too blue.) It’s because four out of five Manhattanites voted for his opponent — and besides, whenever he wants to go in or out, he has a motorcade to help him plow through the thicket as if it were a Miss Universe contestant. So where’s the problem? By the way, I’m sick of hearing that Arkansans, “the people who know them best,” don’t care for the Clintons, but I get it. New Yorkers, the people who know him best, can’t stand Donald Trump.

You don’t have to be Hitler or Kim Jong-Il to cause, or at least abet, great damage. Though he has instinctively borrowed from the fascist playbook — identify and vilify a threatening Other and smother any dissent — I don’t think Trump himself is a fascist, merely an opportunist. I don’t perceive any deeply held political beliefs beyond his own self-interest, which is why he’s always been able to flip-flop on any issue like a landed marlin. But indifference can be dangerous in itself. Trump will uniquely have to rely on a ill-equipped but suddenly super-powered cabinet not only for advice but for actual decisions — and remember, he believes the last person he talked to and says whatever a particular audience wants to hear. The howling zealot at the campaign rallies was vastly different from the meek pussycat who met Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto or the editorial board of the New York Times.

Bringing back outsourced American jobs? I’ll believe it when I see it. A trade war won’t solve anything because others can make stuff cheaper than any rich country can (some of it is made for us). They easily win any ill-advised race to the bottom, even after you’ve removed all bargaining leverage from your own work force by busting every union you can. It’s not politics, just math. The only people who still buy American products even though they cost more and perform worse own Harley-Davidsons. Those “open shop” auto workers down in Mississippi? They’re making Nissans, for crying out loud. Repairing our crumbling infrastructure would be a terrific temporary employment stimulus, but Pubs don’t seem to feel any urgency. Gated communities don’t have potholes, man. It’ll probably take a few bridge catastrophes or rolling blackouts to get their attention, but if reason ever does come up for air, those would be real jobs that could only be done in this country.

What about Trump’s new bestie, Vladimir Putin? First of all, don’t act so shocked, shocked over Putin’s (OK, “alleged”) interference. According to research from Carnegie-Mellon, we’ve tried to influence elections in at least 45 other countries since the end of World War II. But why did Putin take such a front-facing swing at this one? Simple. He’s not afraid of Trump. When the President-elect asked at his first news conference, “Do you honestly believe Hillary would be tougher on Putin than me?” I thought, damn right I do, pal, and so does Putin! (Trump: “Give me a break!” Me: “No!”) Manipulating Trump will be child’s play — literally.

His post-election “thank-you tour,” which accomplished nothing, was pathetic proof that he craves the adulation he enjoyed during the campaign, feeds off it, which is why he turned that press conference into MAGA-rally fodder, complete with applauding sycophants. I don’t believe Trump ever really wanted to win, just tend the brand. But incredibly, the yapping dog actually caught the car, and now it has to take responsibility. I think Trump likes the idea of being President over doing the President’s job. At any rate, he’s already won the victory that may be sweetest of all to him: as of January 20th, anyone possessing an ounce of the grace and probity he so baldly lacks will have to call Trump “Mister President” for the rest of his life. (My advice: don’t call him, period.) I hereby predict that once he can nail the spin that makes him look like a hero, he’ll pull a Palin and decline to serve out his entire term. Donald Trump bores easily.

This is all so bizarre that it defies rational thought. It’s like trying to divide by zero. As we wrap our minds around the concept of a narcissistic buffoon leading the free world, a natural coping mechanism will be to seek to adapt, deal with it somehow, shrug and say well, this is the new normal. Don’t. It’s not normal. Not at all.

It’s easy to assert — as I do — that Donald Trump is not an accurate reflection of the country at large, but there’s a lot of frustration out there and “professional” politicians have been talking past the vast middle class for decades. Hillary Clinton famously won the 2016 popular vote by three million, but remove California and New York and Trump wins the popular by three million. (As Meryl Streep alluded, most of the culture would now have to be imported.) This is the America from which newly cosmopolitan people emigrated to congregate on the coasts and in college towns and big cities. It’s an America that resents pointy-headed college towns and filthy big cities, it just elected a new President, and there’s only one thing we can do in response. Stand the frick up. Resist. Soon it’s once again gonna be “unpatriotic” to criticize the President, because it always is whenever a Pub’s in office. So we need a ton of unpatriots, stat.

March in protest if it makes you feel better, but that’s not what I’m talking about. (Did any rally on the Trump side ever change your mind about anything?) I mean resist the normalization of abnormal behavior. If President Trump doesn’t want you to read or hear something, don’t just ignore him: actively seek it out. When this silly fool slanders a brave civil-rights infantryman, a decorated war hero or a set of Gold Star parents, don’t be suckered by the torrent of misdirection that follows. Trump’s secret has always been to lay outrage upon outrage so the press will be fascinated by the latest shiny object and let the slowly rusting ones go. Remember Mexican rapists? When he maligns women, blacks, Hispanics, journalists — to succeed, he has to split us into warring camps, because a despot can only conquer if we’re divided — don’t let it stand. That may sometimes mean talking calmly to people who don’t agree with us, but we could all benefit by wandering out of our bubbles more often.

Most important, don’t keep quiet. There are many ways to register disgust, but the worst-kept secret in Washington is that letters, faxes, emails and even tweets are routinely ignored and trashed. What no member of Congress can ignore, however, is a telephone that won’t stop frickin ringing. That’s how the Pub scheme to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics got derailed, at least for now. So get your representative’s number and use it. Old-fashioned telephone call. It’s what works best when done en masse.

We have no idea whether POTUS-E is free from foreign investments or other entanglements, up to and including blackmail. (Still, what could he possibly have done in Russia that’s worse than the stuff we already know about?) Some transparency would be helpful but he simply refuses to come clean, a red flag in itself. We do know bits of his dodgy history, though, and it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. That means every interaction, especially with Russia, is now suspect. Every decision — including each executive or judicial nomination — needs to be sifted for a presumed selfish motive. Donald Trump gets the same honeymoon period the Pubs gave Obama: none. And standing guard means supporting a free, vibrant press corps. We can’t watch him conflate CNN with “fake news” websites and let him get away with it. We can’t dismiss the latest idiocy as “just another Trump tweet.” We cannot allow a new normal to seep in, but if we don’t pay attention, it will.

It’s only human to feel tense right now as we await the ascendancy. 2016 was one sucker-punch of a year. Lots of Americans — certainly most of those who voted — are demoralized. (When will the left learn that apathy makes Pubs salivate?) But as Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Joe Biden noted last month, 1968 was pretty damn traumatic too, and “America didn’t break.” This may be a low point, almost too painful to contemplate. But we can yet prevail, and if President Trump doesn’t kill us, his unseemly reign may wind up galvanizing the opposition and making us stronger. Together.

LATER ON 1/17/17: Thankfully, I may have gotten that no-honeymoon part right.


An I For An Eye

December 21, 2016

ultra-high-definition-4k-wallpapersI’m having the video equivalent of what serious audiophiles must have gone through when digital recording appeared in the Eighties. I can barely believe I used the term “video,” but that’s the age we live in. Sometimes it’s all too digital.

We bought each other a holiday gift this year, a new tv to replace the ten-plus-year-old one. Back in vinyl days, all you had to worry about on your stereo was whether the left channel was connected to the left speaker: you uncrated and assembled in half an hour and thought you were MacGyver. But today’s gear is so complicated that rather than bang our heads in frustration, we just call in “Agents” from the Geek Squad — Best Buy is literally across the street from us, maybe 100 paces away. First we got a consultation visit. All our stuff still worked, but we were wondering if we weren’t missing out on some tech developments over the last decade, and on a few components we were. (Not everything new is necessarily good. We were actually warned against buying a set that could play 3-D; evidently that’s the Google Glass of home video just now.)

When we installed our old tv a decade ago, the big new thing was high definition in broadcast, Blu-Ray in physical media. Most major network shows had only recently gone hi-def for a quantum leap in picture clarity: video-taped chat shows appeared to be coming through a window and DPed film series like LOST were crisp and sharp, stone cold gorgeous. People my age can remember when they first had access to a color tv set: you’d uncritically watch anything just because it was in color. Same deal here. Hi-def was the bee’s knees.

Now they’ve ramped it up to “Ultra” HD, “4K” encoding. By coincidence we’ve caught this wave earlier in the cycle. The networks aren’t there yet, but Netflix is already streaming in 4K, and no big home video release arrives without an “Ultra HD” version (continuing to represent the leading edge, all Criterion releases are 4K transfers now). So, let’s give the new tube a spin!

The resolution is indeed immaculate: you can see pores on the anchorman’s face, a tiny drop of hot-light sweat from a talk-show guest that would have been undetectable before. For live or taped material it’s as if you were sitting in the control room with the director. Amazing. Then I put in a Blu-Ray of a film and the strangest thing happened: all of a sudden, I didn’t like the effect any more.

To my surprise, even images captured on celluloid and realized using an emulsion looked like studio-bound video tape. On old black-and-white pictures the effect can be refreshing, making them appear to be immaculately preserved. But everything else was somehow cheapened, as if we were screening videocam dailies rather than the full cinematic monty. Expensive visual effects looked awful, traveling mattes shimmering, CGI performers out of match with their real-world counterparts. Everything was this way. THE GODFATHER. THE WIZARD OF OZ. AKIRA KUROSAWA’S frickin DREAMS! Films I knew by heart looked as if their production budgets had been cut in half. Yes, resolution was indeed off the scale, but the bald, flat end result was plug ugly to me.

I had a week with the system before my Geek Squad agent returned to install a small piece of audio gear, and by then I was ready for some help. At first I had a little trouble explaining what was wrong, but then he said, “You mean everything looks like a soap opera.” Exactly! “That really annoys some people.” Count me in! “Easy fix.” Evidently it has something to do with how movement is depicted on the screen, a feature you can toggle. He did, and now the ultra-sharp image wasn’t quite as ultra-sharp as before, but a movie looked like a movie again. (I’ve noticed that an object which isn’t moving at all, like a framed photograph on a desk, can look a tad sharper than the rest of the scene.)

My reaction was interesting because it goes against the grain. My eyeballs have become desensitized enough that I actually prefer digital images. I first noticed it at the New York Film Festival two years ago, when P. T. Anderson made a big deal out of the fact that we were going to screen his new movie INHERENT VICE by actually running film through a projector. Goosebumps! Then the thing rolled and my heart sank, because the very imprecision that makes film film now read as murkiness, deterioration of focus, mere proximity to the image I really wanted. The same sequence repeated this year with James Gray’s THE LOST CITY OF Z. Note that I’m not commenting here on the artistic quality of the work, only the physicality of the visual image as seen through my eyes. Celluloid projected at 24 frames per second can only approach perfection. Digital projection ensures focus, balance, and no deterioration whatsoever. (Also no reel-change dots: some people think that’s weird.)

I’m not saying digital is necessarily better. But it is what I’ve become accustomed to, what I expect. Hard-core stereo freaks had to clap their ears closed at compact discs when they first appeared, and even I could imagine a clipped, mechanical aspect to early full-digital recordings like TRICYCLE by Flim & the BB’s or Dire Straits’ BROTHERS IN ARMS. And why not? It’s the difference between the physical back-and-forth vibration of a record needle and the ja-or-nein precision of a stored byte, the way a string player creates vibrato versus the way a bunch of electronic cables are routed. But thirty-plus years later, digital audio sounds normal to me. It’s what I’ve become accustomed to. What I expect.

Filmmakers who still shoot on film are a dying breed. Anderson, Gray, Spielberg, Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow — you can almost call the roll in your head. Even the Coens have thrown in the towel. Digital is just faster and cheaper (the current trendiness of handheld doesn’t hurt), making it the medium of choice for young DPs, and in a generation or two it’ll be hard to put together a “slow” celluloid crew at all. TV and indie crews tear through many times the script pages of a lumbering big-time feature, but do you have any tech complaints about, say, GAME OF THRONES?

Digital still looks great when projected, not at all like the “soap opera” on my badass monitor. I cannot recognize a digital shoot just by looking at it. Again and again I’ve been surprised by end credits or festival Q&As when it’s revealed. (Some productions even brag: it’s no longer uncommon to see “Captured in…” rather than “Filmed in…”) Vinyl-record devotees still maintain their purity, and someday film snobs will rage, rage against the dying of the light. But face it: we’ll still call them “films,” just as we still call them “albums,” which they haven’t been since the days of the 78rpm single. Things change — which I believe is also a comprehensively stated history of the universe.


Notes On The Apocalypse

November 10, 2016

greatWow.

Today we feel much as we did on 9/11. Besides mourning the horrendous loss of life, we were weighted down with the sickening revelation that human beings could even be capable of such heedless obscenity. That existential despair was the miasma which took the longest time to shake. Nobody died on Tuesday, at least not as a direct result of the election. But now our sad incredulity is directed at what millions of our fellow citizens turned out to be capable of doing, and I can tell you from personal experience that this is the scar which will last the longest.

Donald J. Trump’s candidacy should have been stillborn. The litany of disqualifying facts, quotes and acts is too long, too familiar and too dispiriting to recount. He should have been laughed out of the race after his announcement speech, and anybody else would have been. But Donald Trump is a tv star, and he’s been in the living rooms of the reactionary faithful. They may not know him, but they recognize him.

Likewise, you can second-guess Trump’s opposition until the asteroid hits. Bernie Bros who stayed home. Hillary Clinton’s inability to excite the base like Barack Obama. Her old-car smell. The female lady thing. The vast right-wing media which have hammered out Hillary hate for thirty years. Pseudo-scandals like Benghazi and Emailgate that clouded airtime. Voter suppression. James Comey. Gary Johnson.

Nearly three million more people voted for Clinton over Trump on Tuesday, almost six times Al Gore’s popular vote margin in 2000. In fact, over the last seven Presidential elections spanning 28 years, the Pubs have won the popular vote exactly once: George W. Bush’s second term, when Dick Cheney’s fear-fanning campaign slogan was basically, vote for me or die. Of course, that’s not how we elect the POTUS. But if you think the overall tally is just an electoral trivium, imagine the situation reversed, if Trump had won the popular but been denied the White House by Electoral College math. Torch and pitchfork time, maybe even a Second Amendment solution or two. Democrats just tend to accept it instead, maybe to a fault. Yes, there are students holding up NOT MY PRESIDENT signs today, but they’re mistaken. The Constitution says he is your President-Elect. If you don’t accept it, you’re no better than a Birther, and man, you are way better than that.

Our disappointment, sorrow and even fear is not equivalent to any other election. If John McCain or Mitt Romney had beaten Obama, I would have been bummed, sure, but I wouldn’t have doubted the victor’s ability to lead the country. Even George W. Bush, whom I felt was in over his head the moment he was inaugurated, managed to keep things running (with those two exceptions in 2001 and 2008). Unlike those men, a President Trump doesn’t inspire a shred of confidence in me. I followed his shameful campaign. We all did. He’s going to have to purge that memory, along with our strong suspicion that he is so monumentally unfit for the office that the safety of our nation could be at stake.

It makes you miserable to imagine the next four years. Trump delivering the State of the Union. Newt Gingrich. Trump before the United Nations. Rudy Guiliani. Trump ignoring climate change. Chris Christie. Trump facing a natural disaster. Bobby Jindal. Trump versus Putin or Kim Jong-un. Roger Ailes. Trump explaining to the plebes why he won’t be building a wall on the Mexican border. First Lady Melania Trump!

Oh yeah. The courts. Mitch McConnell barely won his gamble of stonewalling the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court for nearly a year, in violation of his Constitutional duty. (At the time he was sure he was saving it for Jeb or Rubio. Bullet frickin dodged!) If I were McConnell, I’d quickly junk the filibuster rule so I could seat any Neanderthal I wanted to replace Scalia, wait for Ruth Bader Ginsburg to finally give up, and pack the court red for another couple generations. I’d also pull the holds on all those other Obama judicial nominees, replace them with my own guys, and robe ‘em fast, thus taking effective control of the third branch of government to complete the trifecta.

The Republican id has made this decision and it’s been set loose. GOP worthies are in charge, and now there are no checks and balances preventing them from doing any goddam thing they want. It stays that way for at least two years and probably four, since the House is gerrymandered out of reach and Senate Democrats will be playing defense in 2018. So here we go. Full Republican control. Now let’s see if they can still remember how to govern, because continuing to say no to everything is no longer an option.

I have thought of a couple of silver linings in these ominous clouds. My favorite is that if you’re Ted Cruz, quit wringing your hands over whether to run in 2020 because now you can’t. Neither can any of those other tards. Trump is impeachment-proof (see Congress, and besides, what could he possibly do that he hasn’t already done?), and even if something should happen to the boss, Vice President Pence, that Christian soldier, is onward of you in line.

Another is that we might finally get some action on our second most important challenge behind climate change: repairing the national infrastructure. Everybody agrees we should do it: hell, they’ve known that for years. But remember, GOP big shots decided on Inauguration Day 2009 not to give Obama anything, no matter how vital. They love their party more than they love their country. Now that Republicans are running the show, they can take political credit for a massive project that will create millions of temporary jobs. It’s past time to quit whining about deficit spending, borrow some money at next to nothing, and begin a no-brainer jobs program.

There are three major drivers of our economy: consumers, business and government. When consumers slow down spending because they’re not making ends meet, business can’t grow because it doesn’t have enough customers to justify new factories and the like. Increased government spending (also known as “stimulus”) is our economic last resort, and thoughtful leaders have the guts to break that glass in an emergency. We’re going to have to repair the crumbling grid eventually. The process might have been started years ago, but, you know, the black guy. Watch how fast Paul Ryan forgets about “austerity.”

If Ryan’s even Speaker any more. The inmates haven’t just taken over the asylum, they’re burning it down, and some of them think the Ayn Rander isn’t conservative enough. (By now I guess you must have to bite the heads off chickens on the House floor or something.) And the Freedom Caucus may have one additional obstacle: the party leader. Trump is a RINO (Republican In Name Only) who has frequently flip-flopped on many issues that are very important to the base and there’s no indication that he’d be willing to toe any party line, making him an utter wild card. When I wrote earlier about his resemblance to a bad-guy professional wrestler, I figured he might pivot from a “heel” to a “babyface” for the general election. Now I hope to God it happens before he takes the oath of office.

These are dark days. So much so that the morning after the election, my wife and I were distraught enough to have a serious conversation about leaving the country, at least for retirement. We decided that we were in shock (I confess that I’m slowly pulling myself out of this stage — the front page of the New York Times still looks like an Onion parody or a terrible nightmare from which I pray I’ll wake up) and that we’d give the Trumpies one year, then pick up the conversation again when we’re more clearheaded. I fear the worst and hope for the best. Unlike El Rushbo (“I hope he fails”) or Mitch McConnell (“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”), I’m willing to give the guy a chance. He needs all the help he can get. One only hopes he can swallow his outsized pride long enough to accept it.


The New Deal Is Old Again

October 28, 2016

img_0077We went up to Poughkeepsie (that name always makes me think of THE FRENCH CONNECTION) last Saturday to attend a glorious wedding, but first we took a side trip to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in nearby Hyde Park. The library is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The math doesn’t seem to work, does it? That’s because Franklin Delano Roosevelt had no idea that he would serve a third term as President (he claimed he hadn’t even decided to run yet, but playa hataz on the right didn’t believe him) so construction began in 1939 and the facility officially opened on June 30, 1941, barely five months before the event that would determine the second half of his service as POTUS.

These days you need to hold up on the museum until your complete term is finished. Pubs wanted to make sure there could never be another wildly popular progressive like FDR: their solution was a Constitutional term limit. But liberals can’t really complain. Absent the 25th Amendment, Ronald Reagan might well have been re-elected way past his sell-by date. He would almost certainly have won a third term in 1988, yet even Reagan might not have been able to beat Bill Clinton four years later. His poignant letter to the nation (“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life”), bravely acknowledging and declaring his battle with Alzheimer’s disease and giving a Reaganesque boost to research efforts, came in November 1994, and presumably he had already begun showing symptoms in public. The public would be unable to ignore the President’s illness.

img_0062I’ve been to a few of these POTUS museums — keep in mind that the primary mission of each one is not to preserve history but to make the boss look good — and FDR’s is right up there with the best of em. It’s not rickety at all for something that’s older than I am, and the display technology is fairly up to date: rear-projected video, sleek design, intuitive self-guidance. It’s clearly been modernized over the years, making the contemporary Roosevelt items look even more historic. My favorite display was a mockup of a typical Thirties blue-collar household ready for a Fireside Chat: clothes hanging from a line, the radio a centerpiece of the room. You’re invited to sit down at the table on the “set,” choose a Chat, and take yourself back in time.

This great cultural remove, the many titanic developments that separate us from the imaginary family in that room, struck both of us independently as we realized how eerily similar we are, all these years later. Too easily we tend to call this or that event “unprecedented.” Man, just about everything is precedented.

img_0059Historical events can appear inevitable in hindsight, but they weren’t at the time. People who agree with SCOTUS Justices Scalia and Thomas call themselves “originalists” and like to base their opinions on “what the Framers intended.” But a Broadway frickin musical gets closer to the actual atmosphere. The Framers were a bunch of argumentative partisans looking out for their own personal interests and pocketbooks, and they didn’t intend anything as a group. The Constitution wasn’t written on stone tablets by Jesus. It was hammered and pleaded and compromised into shape, and ratification was a series of bruising battles. The resulting document was the best these flawed people could do — and note that it was almost immediately amended ten times because some states demanded it.

img_0061Well, Roosevelt’s presidency was no less of a struggle. Despite being dealt the worst hand of any successor in Presidential history (Barack Obama received the second worst), FDR went to work almost immediately to move the dispirited country forward again. All these dopes who say, “on my first day in office, I’ll…” to get cheers from the cheap seats should be awed by what President Roosevelt accomplished in his first 100.

img_0056The first thing that struck us is that, much like today, Roosevelt had plenty of powerful opposition even though the country had officially grown desperate. (At least he was white, so he had that goin for him.) Private industry didn’t want to take the rap for the Depression, so the New Deal was roughly derided as Commie incursion by a volatile group of nay-sayers. That display up there on the first 100 days rightly concedes that some of FDR’s early proposals were failures. But at least he got the needle moving in the right direction — yet he was dogged at every turn. Even as war clouds darkened, isolationists begged to keep our concentration inward. Some were morally against war, others were morally against any disturbance to the fragile return of profit, and some farseers realized that grand-scale war could itself be very profitable, but that’s another story. The Orc hordes currently arrayed against President Obama (and almost certainly massing against a potential President Clinton) are nothing new — even today’s shameful level of disrespect has at times been seen before — and the most active, significant administrations have still faced constant braying from the other side.

img_0073“No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy,” said Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, and the second thing we noticed was that luck plays an outsized role in any Presidency. FDR had a giant bit of good fortune on the horrible day of December 7, 1941. He had long understood that Hitler was the greatest worldwide danger, but there was a strong resistance to the US entering the war (some still remembered the trenches and mustard gas of the previous Great War). Then came the brutal surprise assault on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. War with Japan was declared by an inflamed Congress — and the Axis’s Tripartite Pact meant that Germany and Italy were also at war with the US. So, only a week after the “day which will live in infamy,” Congress declared war with Germany without a single dissenting vote, and FDR had the authority he knew was necessary all along. He was lucky. The Axis did the work for him.

It’s easy to imagine the heated fervor of the time for anyone who lived through September 11, 2001 and its aftermath. Though we didn’t go so far as to set up internment camps for Muslim-Americans (some Americans wanted to; a few still do), the neocons in the White House saw a similar galvanizing opportunity. They could re-draw the map in the Mideast on the back of a national frenzy for revenge. The real motives for their warmongering (oil? strategic military bases? gargantuan wartime profits?) may never be known for sure, but we do know they were almost peeing themselves with excitement over an American presence in the region while the country rattled its sabers alongside them. Hence the tepid, nearly nonexistent opposition to the Patriot Act, George W. Bush’s warmaking power, and the hamhanded invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and was no threat to the homeland whatsoever.

Face it, Americans frighten easily. Look at the overblown Ebola scare of 2014, during which I recall a sitting Senator, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, actually staring into a camera and warning, “We’re all gonna dah!” (Never mind the genuine scourge in Africa.) We as a nation have a knack for setting calamity aside when it happens far away, but when danger threatens at home we freak out. It happened in 1941 and it happened again sixty years later. That quaint little room with the radio has faded into history, but the thing is, history keeps repeating itself.

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My NYFF 2016

October 17, 2016

unknownThe evolution of movie distribution is starting to affect my behavior at film fests. Tech has all of a sudden gotten personal.

For the first time in the New York Film Festival’s 54-year history, it opened with a documentary, Ava DuVernay’s 13TH, a searing look at the dysfunctional American prison system — and I didn’t lift a finger to attend. (N.B.: I’ve seen it now, it’s quite powerful, but the following comments aren’t about the quality of the work.) This picture is distributed by Netflix and became available for streaming while the fest was still underway. I also knew the docs HAMILTON’S AMERICA and GIMME DANGER were headed for streaming or PBS before the month was out. This choice has arisen before, at Sundance. But Sundance happens to happen in midwinter, a fallow period on the annual movie schedule. The broad-release windows are far enough away that at high altitude it seems worth it to check out stuff like WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? or FREEDOM SUMMER then and there. (I would never want to miss the next SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN by so much as a day.) But in the hipness of time, by NYFF’s autumn I want to know in advance the distributor and the release pattern before I give up a precious festival slot. Lots of previous NYFF entries have debuted theatrically within days of their fest screenings — even streamers still need that public release for notoriety and Oscar qualification — but there’s something more immediate about being able to punch it up at home on your own schedule. You may never ever do that. Most Netflix queues are very long. Later, gater. (A film-sprocket joke.) But if that recent additional option dampens attendance at certain fest screenings, it’ll be interesting to see if/how that affects selection and programming in the future. As always, one never knows, do one?

Here’s my take on the eleven films I saw this year, in order of screening:

manchester-seaMANCHESTER BY THE SEA**** Kenneth Lonergan is becoming more and more surefooted, both at the keyboard and the viewfinder. This is a subtle, confident meditation on grief and loss with frequent brushstrokes of levity, a movie made with such assurance that the story seems inevitable. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a morose handyman in Boston who is so tightly wound that early on, when he thinks two guys in a bar are literally looking at him the wrong way, he clocks them both. The rest of the picture gracefully and patiently shows us why: Lee has barely lived through an almost unutterable tragedy and now faces yet another upending trauma. The hollow look, the way he recoils from other human beings, the barren brokenness is off-putting at first, but as we discover details (shown in unannounced flashbacks, each calmly cut together as if it were the next present-day scene) the character gains dimension and color, served perfectly by Affleck’s trademark laconic mumble. The New England setting looks gorgeous, and a superb supporting cast, led by Lucas Hedges as a nephew whose path intersects with Lee’s, never falters, not even when a well-known star shows up for a cameo. Lonergan has come a long way since YOU CAN COUNT ON ME; his screenplay is sophisticated enough to deliver some redemption while reminding us that not everything in life can be tied up with a neat little bow, not even in the movies.

toni-erdmann-19-rcm0x1920uTONI ERDMANN**** A beauty that marches to its own drummer, Maren Ade’s new film is a screwball comedy about an ingratiating screwball, played by the marvelous (and that’s the word) Peter Simonischek. It’s also an intimate father-daughter story with real resonance, thanks to Sandra Huller’s brave, sensitive performance. Winfried is a lumbering freethinker who is always looking for the next practical joke, while Ines climbs the corporate ladder in her tailored black pantsuits. They seem to be emotional oil and water, and the film is essentially Winfried’s attempt at connection, but that makes it sound far too stuffy. The comic and dramatic tracks unfold simultaneously; we’re never far from the proverbial spoonful of sugar. There are piles of hilarious surprises, so I mustn’t reveal too much more, but let’s just say that the appearance and even identity of the title character gets a huge laugh. This film was the darllng of Cannes this year and the New York audience also ate it up. At one point they were shrieking so loudly that they would have missed a great topping line if not for the subtitle (it’s mostly in German, but there’s enough English to keep us off balance). That came during a bravura five-minute sequence toward the end that just might go down in movie comedy history. At 2:42 I found it a tad indulgent, but patience earns a huge profit.

paterson-credit-mary-cybulski-cannes-film-festivalPATERSON*** (U.S. Premiere) A new Jim Jarmusch flick is always of interest and this year NYFF has two, including GIMME DANGER, a documentary about Iggy & the Stooges. That subject seems an odd fit for Jarmusch’s dialed-back style, but there it is. This one is more in the zone. Adam Driver plays a city bus driver who scribbles poetry in his free moments. His name is Paterson and he lives in Paterson, New Jersey, just as did his idol William Carlos Williams, whose famous epic poem is called—but you guess. We spend a week with Paterson, his loving but ditzy wife (the pixieish Golshifteh Farahani) and their scene-stealing English bulldog Marvin, and the days are essentially the same. He gets up, eats Cheerios, walks to the depot, writes for a few minutes, drives all day (his recreation is eavesdropping: folks, the bus driver can hear you), goes home, has dinner, walks Marvin past a bar where he enjoys one beer, and heads back for bed. Paterson’s patience is inexhaustible: his wife burbles with out-of-reach ideas and is visually fixated on black-and-white designs on everything from shower curtains to cupcakes. He’s more polite than you would be on his first bite of her dinnertime cheddar-and-broccoli pie. The only conflict comes from people around him, until Marvin causes a heartbreaking event. We also hear Paterson narrate some of his poetry — it’s good, written for the movie by a ringer — and none of this would work if we didn’t buy that. Jarmusch specializes in finding the strangeness in normalcy, and there’s so much going on just to one side of the principals, barely in frame: for example, the offhand appearances of different sets of twins seems somehow foreboding, but it’s played as nothing more than a pattern recognizable to a poet. This is not for the antsy viewer, but it encourages us to keep our eyes and ears open to the wonders around us, because they are definitely there.

ukr_9mar150186_rgb-0-2000-0-1125-cropCERTAIN WOMEN*** A soft, sensitive melding of Maile Meloy stories, faintly connecting in the screenplay of director Kelly Reichardt. We are in Nowhere, Montana; the most urban place we see is Livingston, population high four figures. Three dramatic tracks follow a lawyer (Laura Dern) dogged by a disgruntled client (Jared Harris), a woman (Michelle Williams) whose family is building its own home, and another attorney (Kristen Stewart) who endures an eight-hour round trip from Livingston into the country to teach a weekly class in school law and infatuates an introverted ranch hand (Lily Gladstone, the movie’s real find). All the women are in different emotional places and want different things, but they each have to reach down and summon determination, even the quiet horsewoman who can barely look her idol in the face. There are thin threads beyond setting which join the tales: for example, at one point a character from another story walks through in the background, out of focus and casually ignored. The acting is fine all around, but whenever she appears you can’t take your eyes off Ms. Gladstone, even though she barely speaks and only changes expression very subtly; her attraction isn’t played as overtly sexual but you can definitely feel the heat. This performance is a career-maker.

arton4596JULIETA**** Another adaptation of short stories, this time from Alice Munro — realized by none other than Pedro Almodovar. It depicts the tumultuous events in a Madrid woman’s life extending some thirty years, and the title role is taken by two different actresses. We meet Julieta at age 50, played by Emma Suarez as a middle-aged beauty whose face is weary and drawn with emotional pain. After a chance meeting with an old friend, she abruptly disappoints her lover by changing their long-standing plans and sits down to write to her estranged daughter, beginning with the fateful night she met the girl’s father 25 years ago. Julieta at 25 is played by the glorious Adriana Ugarte, and gradually we learn the reasons for her torment and the split with the daughter. Almodovar manages to make the ladies appear to be the same person through gradual aging and a beautiful handoff some years later, in a defining visual moment that the French call a coup de cinema: Ugarte’s hair is being toweled off after a bath, but when the towel is removed, it’s Suarez once again in a near-perfect fit. Wow. There is some humor (notably from Almodovar regular Rossy de Palma as a Miss-Gulchian housekeeper), but much less of the wit and wackiness we’ve come to expect from the maestro, replaced here by portent and more drama, less melo. It’s seamless filmmaking that respects its audience by allowing loose ends to dangle until the moment their joining is needed. I’m not familiar with the source material, so I can’t speak to Almodovar’s merging of three Munro stories or shifting the setting from Canada to Spain, but it looks like it was meant just for him.

thumb_1892_media_image_1144x724PERSONAL SHOPPER** (U.S. Premiere) Olivier Assayas follows up CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA by bringing back Kristen Stewart as yet another assistant, who desultorily selects and buys haute couture for a wealthy Parisian woman. She has just lost her beloved twin brother to a congenital heart condition which she shares. She also believes herself to be a medium. These three premises get jingle-jangled together, none too neatly, as Assayas attempts a modern-day ghost story. The arm’s-length attitude of Stewart’s one-note performance, while suitably intense, prevents us from getting inside her head or caring about what happens to her. There’s enough arty murkiness to cause post-screening arguments over what we’ve just seen. Assayas is certainly talented: things go bump in the night with style and tension, and believe it or not, a suspenseful, eerie scene is composed almost entirely of text messages on a smartphone. But while I admired the attempt to keep so many dramatic balls in the air at once, I couldn’t buy the end result. Too bad: I loved Assayas’s version of DAY FOR NIGHT, 1996’s IRMA VEP.

20th-century-women20th CENTURY WOMEN**** (Festival Centerpiece, World Premiere) A near-perfect invocation of a little-regarded time and place: Santa Barbara, 1979. The last vestiges of the counterculture have morphed into New Wave posing, and Ronald Reagan waits in the wings. No cell phones, no Internet, no MTV. Everybody still smokes. But life goes on in the rambling house of an unusual extended family, encompassing room renters and hangers-on. Mike Mills’s attention to period detail sets the stage wonderfully for a career performance by Annette Bening as the crash pad’s single-mother matriarch: still beautiful but cosmetically mature, she shines with life-force. The other two 20th-century women are fire-haired punk tenant Greta Gerwig and too-experienced teen Elle Fanning, who sneaks over from her own house to sleep — just snooze, no sex — with Bening’s hormonal son (a sensational Lucas Jade Zumann). A freelance carpenter (Billy Crudup) is also in the house and the story mix. I loved the amount of attention paid to the son’s dramatic arc: he’s a good boy who is nevertheless kicking at his stall, and his rebellious yet devoted relationship to his mom feels genuine. For fogeys like me, it’s painful to accept that 1979 is far enough gone to actually inspire nostalgia, but it is and does. A real crowd-pleaser that ought to have a nice commercial life.

thumb_1896_media_image_1144x724SIERANEVADA**** (U.S. Premiere) A pitch-black comedy about a dysfunctional family which gathers in its deceased patriarch’s Bucharest apartment to send off the old man with rituals, food and wine. The range of (mostly) comic clashes and conspiracy is so broad that at one point the camera rests in the middle of a hall and simply pans left and right as one or another door opens with the latest crisis. Other times the camera is locked down for ten minutes or so as the actors, I assume, improvise. The net effect is that it all appears to be happening in real time in front of us as if we’re another guest, even when we briefly leave the apartment at one point. The feast, which looks delicious, is delayed and delayed because a ritual must first be performed, and the priest is late. When he finally arrives, his chants and prayers are interminable and some guests are dying from hunger before he issues his laugh-out-loud exit line: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” I’m partial to movies like this because we can all recognize aspects of our own families, whether we’re related by blood or by lot: humanity is international. Cristi Puiu (THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU) has a twinkle in his eye, unlike several quarrelsome family members. At 2:53 it’s way too long (that trip outside isn’t really necessary; the crucial monologue could have been staged indoors), but I loved it anyway. We never find out the meaning of the title.

ob_ce416f_le-fils-de-joseph-8-eugene-green-amalrSON OF JOSEPH*** (U.S. Premiere) Bent spirituality and baroque satire from Eugene Green, a drama about a disillusioned, rebellious Parisian kid’s search for his, later just a, father. Satisfyingly skewered is the French publishing industry (“nothing is invented,” M. Green insisted afterward), as the kid discovers a high-rolling caddish book man is his long-deserted biological pop. Then he meets someone better, unaware that he’s the big shot’s brother. The director has a distinctive way of staging what would normally be intimate, personal scenes with austerity of language and motion; at times it’s anti-natural, almost as if we’re watching animatronics. (This oddly stilted effect is evidently even more pronounced to French speakers.) He also winkingly overlays the story with a Biblical subtext expressed in “chapters,” down to the ass which accompanies “Joseph” and “Marie” on a fateful journey toward the end. It’s too mannered to be a classic, but it’s quite enjoyable, pleasantly perverse in its own sweet way.

elle-cannesELLE*** (U.S. Premiere) Paul Verhoeven’s first feature in ten years, and first ever in French (it’s France’s submission for next year’s foreign-language Academy Award), is a genre-bender that really coaxes the gamut of emotions from its audience. It’s either a comedy with a very dark subtext or (my take) a very dark movie with some funny stuff in it. It also shares DNA with whodunits and thrillers, but it’s not really that either. As Verhoeven warned us before the screening, this film can be painful to watch at times. Before we’ve even caught our breath, the very first sequence depicts a violent rape. We are left completely at sea, unable to understand the victim’s oddly muted reaction. She is played incandescently by Isabelle Huppert, whose character is a video-game executive and the daughter of a reviled mass murderer: whew! I don’t mean any criticism when I say this story is populated by outrageous and awful human beings — that’s on purpose — but afterward we struggled to think of one “good guy” at all. (I think there’s only one in the entire flick. After you see it, I’ll tell you who.) While the credits were rolling I was thinking about this dramatic miasma and I would have given only two stars, which I consider a negative evaluation, because I was sinking under so much funk at that point. But we kept talking about it while waiting for our last movie (I heart film fests), and I realized that Verhoeven’s deliberate untidiness — he’d said afterward that he left some story threads unresolved so the audience could fill them in on their own — was actually a great strength. The more I thought about ELLE afterward, the more I auto-revised my opinion. (Shades of the French New Wave!) By the time the Oscars roll around, I may even wish another star upon it in hindsight. Be warned: this movie plays rough. But look how it affected me.

lost-city-of-z-charlie-hunnam-and-tom-hollandTHE LOST CITY OF Z*** (Festival Closing Night, World Premiere) An old-fashioned widescreen epic, a “movie movie” like they used to make, this is the story of Lt. Col. Percy Fawcett and his nearly lifelong obsession with a lost city in the Amazon rain forest. We pick him up as a young turn-of-the-century British officer who is sent on a mapmaking mission to ward off a looming dispute between Bolivia and Brazil. The jungle scenes are raw and exciting, and after some real scares Fawcett, whose noble chin belongs to a very capable Charlie Hunnam, comes to respect and admire the native people, especially when he finds evidence of a superior technology that was evidently developed in antiquity and in isolation. His expeditions back to “Amazonia” span nearly thirty years and are interleaved with stretches of life at home and some harrowing duty in the trenches of World War I; both Hunnam and wife Sienna Miller age very well, assisted by convincing makeup. It’s meant to be a grand adventure in the wild combined with gentlemen’s discourse by the stuffed shirts in England, sort of the PBS version of Indiana Jones. One can quibble with the balance because the movie really comes alive when we return to the jungle, again and again. In the tradition of such spectacles, the job of the director is to stay out of the way, and James Gray lets us concentrate on the story and forget about the production, except for one aspect, and here I must make a filmlover’s confession. This piece was shot on 35mm film and proudly projected that way for the Alice Tully Hall audience, but I have to say it: whether I’ve been desensitized or simply aging, I prefer digital projection. Celluloid looks great for brightly lit exteriors, and Darius Khondji’s landscapes earn oohs and aahs throughout. But for low-light scenes, especially interiors, the image is softer and it’s easy to be distracted by reel-change cue dots and other degradation on the film stock, even though it should have been the first time through the projector for this print. Some people like the look, just as some prefer to hear music from a needle vibrating on vinyl (and they may have a point). I don’t mind any perceived “harshness,” and at my age I want the image razor-sharp. It may be unhip of me but it matters for real: we wanted to check a musical piece and we couldn’t make out the teensy type as the end credits rolled by. It was slightly out of focus and thus illegible at the world premiere. This film is a nice diversion, a respectful and capable throwback of a production with great support by Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson (hey, Kristen Stewart’s not the only teen vampire turning into a real actor!), but sue me: I bet it’ll look even better on Blu-Ray.

WISH I’D SEEN: BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, MOONLIGHT, MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA, ONE-EYED JACKS (on the big screen)

Other NYFF Reports

2015   2014


The Moment I Got It

October 14, 2016

unknownWhen I heard the announcement yesterday that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, my first thought was, “What a strange choice.” My second thought, an instant later: “What took them so long?”

The “strangeness” comes because most of us don’t think of Dylan’s unmatched output as “literature.” Though much initial reaction is supportive, the backlash has quickly formed. Novelist Rabih Alameddine tweeted, “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.” Jodi Picoult offered the hashtag #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy? The meanest (and funniest) dig I’ve seen comes from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh: “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Unlike the timorous voters for Oscars and Grammys, the Swedish Academy was not afraid to take a bold step which arguably blows up the whole definition of literature, much as Dylan himself once did for popular music. It calmly explained in its citation that Dylan was being honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But that presents two problems for non-senile, non-gibbering purists.

First, “song.” That Dylan is a masterful writer — at minimum, one who has repeatedly been able to connect with his audience in a deeply felt way for more than half a century — cannot credibly be contested. But aside from the very fine prose voice of his memoir CHRONICLES VOLUME ONE, most of Dylan’s work has been written not to be read, but to be performed aloud. (He’s the first musician ever to receive this honor.) Walt Whitman may “sing the body electric” and compose a ”Song of Myself,” so a poem can be a song. But can a song be a poem? If not, the anti-Bob faction may have a point — but the selection committee emphatically says yes, it can.

Second, context. There have been quite a few print collections of Dylan lyrics over the years, and I believe another one is expected this fall. When you flip through a representative sample, you’ll indeed find a trove of vaulting images and dazzling metaphorical beauty. But you’ll also have to read past a simple 12-bar blues lyric that might sound great — fulfilling its artistic purpose — but looks hopelessly banal on the page. In other words, this big-tent view of literature will require its own aesthetic to be properly studied and appreciated. We haven’t developed that yet, which is one reason some folks are freaking out today.

tumblr_inline_mw3xrqtc8x1rilmyoThere’s one more strike against Dylan. Even conceding that a song is really a poem performed out loud, what’s up with that crazy anti-musical voice? I faced this problem myself when I encountered Dylan for the first time. It was fall 1964, I’d just entered high school, and I saw a short notice in Time magazine about his new record, ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN. I knew he was the guy who’d written “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” both covered by Peter, Paul & Mary (the latter by Simon & Garfunkel too: they and Dylan shared a producer, Tom Wilson), but I had never heard his voice. I dropped the needle on Side One Track 1, “All I Really Want To Do,” and almost started laughing. This nasal, vibrato-less wail was on pitch all right, but it cut through the air and clashed with the litany of rhymes in the verses, and then the sumbitch yodeled on the chorus and blew simple open chords on a harmonica! To the piano for “Black Crow Blues,” of which I thought nothing special, then an interesting little riff, “Spanish Harlem Incident,” but I still wan’t really paying attention.

The next song was called “Chimes of Freedom.” It begins, “Far between sundown’s finish / And midnight’s broken toll…” I perked up: something was different. I leaned in to a relentless cascade of images. Where “All I Really Want To Do” had been playful, this was mature and sophisticated — the yodeling hayseed was nowhere to be found. Now it was a rousing call for basic human decency using linguistic connections I’d never heard before. I listened to the entire seven-minute song, picked up the needle and played it again. The second time through, I found myself fixated on one word: the chimes of freedom were “flashing.” Chimes don’t flash. They peal, clang, bong, jingle, whatever. They toll in the song itself. Then I said, whoa: the lyric doesn’t say they’re listening to the chimes, it says they’re gazing upon them during a thunderstorm. Any other songwriter would describe the experience as aural. Who would think to observe the chimes of freedom visually? I listened one last time before continuing with the rest of the album. Now I was seizing on the lyrics. My focus had moved past the voice into the heartbeat of the songs. I was breaking down the verses in real time if I could, and on subsequent plays if not. There was a richness, a substance, that I’d never heard in popular music. By the Lp’s end I had become a Bob Dylan fan. On the power of the poetry. On the strength of the literature. And I’m only frickin fourteen.

Energized, I went back and bought his three previous albums (how would his own “Blowin’ in the Wind” sound, I wondered? Like Woody Guthrie in the Dust Bowl). Retroactively, I learned that he had arisen out of the “traditional” Greenwich Village folk scene but was upending propriety by “writing” his own songs early on. I use quotes because his early “Farewell” (the one at the end of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) is nothing more than “The Leaving of Liverpool” with altered lyrics, just as “The Patriot Game” becomes “With God On Our Side” in his hands. But melodic “homage” is part of the folk tradition too. Then Dylan became more topical and the darling of the civil rights and antiwar movements with powerful pieces like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” By the time of ANOTHER SIDE, though, he was undergoing another step in his evolution and setting the topical folk scene aside, causing resentment that survives in some circles today. And that’s where I caught up with him.

About a year later, on Nov. 27, 1965, my sixteenth birthday, I was sitting in an audience at McCormick Place in Chicago for an early stop on Dylan’s first tour with electric instruments, brought on after a solo acoustic set and intermission. Musically, he was advancing faster than his audience and there were plenty of boos during the second set. (This show was very much like the one recorded at the Royal Albert Hall the following year and released as part of the “Bootleg” series.) I have rarely been so thrilled to be at a concert. Maybe Elvis. Maybe Sinatra. Maybe not.

Dylan’s material didn’t sound like old folk songs any more. He was inventing beautiful melodies as well. The verbal allusions were a mashup of current popular culture and the classics, intruding on and elevating each other as if inside a dream. Yet even this was only a career byway. Dylan has continued to reinvent himself, periodically shaking off all but the most ardent fans in the process. (He lost me briefly during his born-again Christian phase in the late 70s-early 80s.) In this respect his career more resembles a painter’s than a performing artist’s: a country period, a gospel period, an American songbook period. Not every one of his song lyrics belongs in the permanent pantheon. Neither does every single thing written by Faulkner or Hemingway. But a remarkable body of Bob Dylan’s work does indeed belong there. If 2016’s Nobel Prize in Literature forces us to reevaluate the very meaning of the term, then that was a well-given prize indeed.

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10/30/16: Some of these same thoughts, more artfully realized, by David Hadju. (Listen to the commentary by Hadju, Sean Wilentz and Robert Christgau on the INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Criterion DVD.)


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