The King Of The Cinema

November 6, 2017

images-5.jpegSteven Spielberg is the Stephen King of movies. He’s one of the best pure storytellers in his medium, but his immense success has earned him a raft of detractors. Constantly challenged by his inner need for achievement, he escapes a creative pigeonhole again and again and continues to produce unexpected work that comes from an unfamiliar place. His legion of fans connect to him on a visceral basis, which makes others in his field envious. His first name is Steve.

images.jpegI hope they never make a 2:30 documentary about the career of Stephen King, because a writer’s life ain’t too visual, and on most of the occasions King’s made it to the big screen, the results have been varying shades of regrettable. But HBO has done just that for Spielberg, and the entertaining career retrospective is not only fun but also eye-opening.

MV5BMTMwNzk2ODEyMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzQ4MzczMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1495,1000_AL_.jpgSpielberg has been around since before the dawn of the summer blockbuster (as has King), which is generally thought to have commenced with the release of his picture JAWS in 1975. He was just a kid but he already had lots of experience shooting tv for Universal under the tutelage of executive Sidney Sheinberg. Legend has it that young master Spielberg sneaked onto the lot and commandeered an empty office for months. I don’t believe that, and neither does David Geffen, who refers us to the famous LIBERTY VALANCE line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I do believe Spielberg himself when he says he ducked off the studio-tour tram at a bathroom break and stuck around for the rest of the day, maybe even more than once. Spielberg had been shooting his own 8mm movies since adolescence, learning by doing. He saw the world during his awkward years through the lens of a movie camera. His short film AMBLIN’ was good enough to impress Sheinberg, and that’s how he really got on the lot. He didn’t have the grades to get into film school, so Universal became his film school. He soaked it all up like a sponge.

images-1.jpegSpielberg was part of that Seventies group of young turks who threatened to take over the movie business, then wound up doing exactly that. Francis Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma – each of them is among the talking heads in the HBO doc. Think about the mind-blowing movies that came from that group alone, yet Spielberg towers over them all. He could always out-nerd every single movie nerd in the whole posse. In the fullness of time he’s become the world’s most famous working film director. His name on a picture alone makes you perk up and pay attention.

images-4.jpegHow do you follow a sensation like JAWS? For this whiz kid, with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. He didn’t really have to deal with abject failure until he made 1941, a low comedy which I find underrated but which was widely reviled — and, more important to Hollywood, lost money after blowing a huge budget. It was hubris that did Spielberg in: he says at that point he thought he could do anything.

images-2.jpegHe licked his wounds for a year or so until his old friend George Lucas “came to the rescue,” as Spielberg puts it. Every studio wanted the proposed Lucasfilm archaeologist character, but nobody wanted Spielberg to direct because he was already notorious for trashing schedules and budgets. Now he had something to prove — and a compadre to prove it to. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was a delight from beginning to end, largely because its audience didn’t grow up with Republic serials — “every reel was a cliffhanger,” says Spielberg of the first Indiana Jones movie — so everything old was again a surprise.

images-3.jpegAfter achieving great success, Stephen King seemed to need to self-test his creative chops. He had demonstrated that he could do sprawling epics like THE STAND. How about telescoping down to two characters? MISERY. One? GERALD’S GAME. Similarly, Spielberg ventured out from his fantasy wheelhouse into significant forays like THE COLOR PURPLE and SCHINDLER’S LIST. By the time of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, he was able to employ both sides of his brain at once. The opening and closing scenes are probably the best cinematic depiction of WWII-era battle you can find on the screen, but in Spielbergian fashion they’re hyper-realistic, more real than reality. Then MUNICH, LINCOLN, BRIDGE OF SPIES: “serious” films by Steven Spielberg. Now people don’t bat an eye whenever he veers from the fantastic.

spielberg-lucas-cropped.jpgHe tells us in the doc that he only has a vague idea of what’s going to happen when he arrives on set every morning. He’s the anti-Hitchcock. He thinks that frisson of everyday terror keeps him sharp (although one of the best pieces of advice he ever got was, never let the crew think you’re not in control: they’ll lose all respect for you). This sounds true to me: nearly every writer I’ve ever had the privilege of editing suffers to one degree or another from impostor syndrome.

images.jpegI think Spielberg may have to wait for posterity to receive his proper due, like John Ford or Howard Hawks. But if you don’t already think you’re living through the career of one pure-dee historically significant filmmaker, watch this doc and think again.

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My NYFF 2017

October 27, 2017

NYFF55.jpgOrdinarily the New York Film Festival arrives along with the first crisp autumn weather, and this year it started out as usual. But too many hurricanes, etc., and NYC turned unseasonably warm, around 80F highs, for the rest of the fest. Nevertheless, we persisted. I should remind you that NYFF is the only major film festival which does not present awards. Its purpose is to celebrate cinema in general, so anybody on the “Main Slate” (still 25 films long after more than half a century) is automatically a “winner.” But there are many others, spread all over the fest’s Lincoln Center campus. Most of the flicks I see are Main Slaters, but one of my favorites this year was an outlier that reminded me of Stanley Kubrick. Literally.

This year a single movie studio attained each of the three most coveted slots on the NYFF schedule: Opening Night, Centerpiece, and Closing Night. It wasn’t Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros., Fox, Universal or Sony. The trifecta was scored by…Amazon Studios.

Madame_Hyde_000052_c_Les_Films_Pelleas.jpgMADAME HYDE*** (North American Premiere) Isabelle Huppert is one of the most luminous actors in the world. It’s hard to take your eyes off her. She was the centerpiece of the provocative ELLE from last year, but here she gets to have a little more fun. This is a very loose adaptation of the Jekyll & Hyde story, with Huppert as a slightly less nutty professor. That is, mousy Mrs. Gequil (get it?) is a physics teacher in a tough Parisian high school, ragged on by everybody — students, staff — except her doting househusband. But one stormy night she is struck by lightning and transformed. There’s a new swagger and energy, and oh yeah, super powers. Serge Bozon combines screwball comedy with thriller elements, and the mashup doesn’t always fold together neatly. But Huppert is transfixing as usual, calling forth the subtlest facial gestures and deftly walking the line between funny and unsettling. Romain Duris is hysterical as her principal, managing to steal every scene he’s in — even those with Huppert.

western_2_h_2017.jpgWESTERN*** (U.S. Premiere) A tale of the frontier, meaning a lonely spot in Middle of Nowhere, Bulgaria, where a German construction team arrives to build a water facility. They’re construction-gang chummy except toward a tall quiet new guy (Gary Cooper — I mean Meinhard Neumann). They consider themselves superior to the Bulgarian rubes and don’t think much of Meinhard’s natural inclination to get to know the locals, in more than one sense of the word. A beautiful snow-white horse complicates the plot and completes the Western metaphor. Most of the actors are non-professionals, which gives the movie a verite sheen. German director Valeska Grisebach really makes you feel the grime of their physical labor and the low heat of their inevitable testosterone battles.

37352-zama__1_-h_2017.jpgZAMA*** (U.S. Premiere) 18th century South America — maybe Paraguay but we don’t know for sure — is a strange place. Not just the period costumes and customs, but in Lucrecia Martel’s visually striking production, landscapes and even sounds are strange too. Don Diego de Zama is an Americas-born functionary of the Spanish crown who wants to be transferred to a more prominent post, preferably in the old country. But in his way are the hurdles of an imperious lumbering bureaucracy and the shadow of a notorious outlaw as slippery as the Scarlet Pimpernel. His lurching, then crawling quest occasionally passes like a dream, aided by the striking metamusical sonic design by Guido Berenblum. The story comes from a classic 1956 Argentinean novel and it sometimes took effort for this non-reader to hang on, but the atmosphere is rich, musky, and exotic. Is that enough? Dunno.

faces_places_h_2017.jpgVISAGES VILLAGES***** (FACES PLACES in America, but I think the rhyme is more clever in French.) Most of us have blind spots in our cinematic lexicon, and Agnes Varda was once one of mine. I vaguely knew her as the “grandmother of the French New Wave” (why grandmother?), she was married to Demy and knew all the others, but I’d never seen her work until a friend of mine rhapsodized about her in a book. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since, but at 88 she’s still ahead of me: I’ve never seen a better Varda film than this one, my favorite flick of the whole festival. Her collaborative partner is the photographic artist JR, who specializes in black-and-white portraits blown up to gargantuan proportions which his crew then pastes onto large surfaces, usually but not always the sides of buildings. Varda and JR tool around rural France to meet villagers and leave them one of JR’s titanic souvenirs. In Varda style, the duo thus celebrate the culture and tradition of the undercelebrated: miners, a farmer, a postman, factory workers, a waitress in a cafe, the wives of dockworkers, a soon-to-be-abandoned village, and so forth. Some of the images are so spectacular that they take your breath away — the wives in particular form a miraculous high point at the unveiling of their installation. While all this is going on, Varga and JR constitute a winsome comedy team: he’s quick and glib, she’s pixielike and game. Toward the end, Varga herself is captured in a heart-tugging verite moment that nobody expected, but it only serves to make the project feel more truthful. It’s a love letter to cinema, the power of art, and the people who make up the backbone of society, all of them fascinating even before they’re turned into colossi. There’s a goofy smile on your face as the credits roll. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

The-Florida-Project-1.jpgTHE FLORIDA PROJECT**** (U.S. Premiere) Another strange place, this one much closer to home. It’s a rundown weekly-rate motel in the literal shadow of Disney World (“the Florida project” was what Walt called the park in the earliest stage), where three six-year-olds shriek and romp in glorious abandon while the adults in their lives doggedly scrounge to pay the rent. The notion that Americans next to the poverty line can possibly be living so close to affluent vacationers — near enough to lie back on the grass and watch the Disney fireworks every night — is maddening because there’s no easy solution. The kids, led by spitfire pheenom Brooklynn Prince, are heartbreaking and exhilarating in their ability to adapt, but this is definitely not for kids to watch: it’s gritty and profane. Newcomer Bria Vinaite plays Prince’s 20-year-old mom, who up-sells wholesale perfumes to the well-heeled worthies at nicer hotels just down the street. The wrenching balance between kids’-eye euphoria and adult desperation is what makes Sean Baker’s film special. Willem Dafoe, in a subtly effective turn as the motel manager, keeps us anchored, as much as his character can.

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Leon Vitali in BARRY LYNDON…

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…and today.

FILMWORKER**** Stanley Kubrick is my favorite film director, so any documentary with some insight into his process has automatically sold at least one ticket. Leon Vitali had a thriving acting career in England when Kubrick cast him as “Lord Bullingdon” in BARRY LYNDON. Leon still has an actor’s sonorous tone and cadence: compare his furious music-recital speech in BARRY LYNDON with the calmly menacing “Red Cloak” in EYES WIDE SHUT; that’s what he sounds like today. He had been profoundly moved by Kubrick’s 2001 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and was walking on air when his hero hired him. So just after BARRY LYNDON wrapped, Leon began to school himself on film editing and other below-the-line tasks, expressly to offer his production services to Kubrick as he was prepping THE SHINING. They went on to work together for the rest of the director’s’s life. To call Leon an “assistant” was to diminish his vital role: no mere “assistant” could color-correct Kubrick’s final film or supervise digital transfers of the entire library. Leon became lieutenant, right-hand man, factotum on 24-hour call to a mercurial obsessive, all at great physical and psychological cost. This film documents that unique relationship using archival footage and new interviews. It strives to help us understand why a talented and successful actor would forsake a fine potential career to become an anonymous “filmworker” (that’s the term he used on application forms requiring his profession). Besides Leon himself, we hear from Kubrick performers including Ryan O’Neal, Matthew Modine, the all-grown-up Danny Lloyd of THE SHINING, and FULL METAL JACKET’s drill instructor, R. Lee Ermey. These actors rhapsodize not about Stanley, but about Leon. Kubrick made him responsible for prepping a real-life Marine D.I. for the shoot, and Ermey tells us that he might have done only a third as well if not for Leon. Lloyd took to him instantly and Leon became the tyke’s best friend on set, crucially easing for Kubrick the burden of directing a child. On and on, Leon was utterly devoted to the maestro, who was so intensely focused that he could omit niceties and coldly command one’s life. We also hear from Leon’s siblings, friends, three somewhat rueful children, and a few talking heads from longtime studio partner Warner Bros., who were regularly tormented by Stanley and Leon’s fanatical insistence on perfection. I hope this overdue report — heartwarming in its own rugged way — will help set the record straight and rescue one filmworker from undeserved obscurity. Before the screening Mr. Vitali was greeting friends in the lobby, so I walked up and thanked him for what he’d done all those years. In shaking his hand I felt, however obliquely, connected to Kubrick. But as the film then rolled, I found out I’d only had a tiny inkling. After seeing this earnest, revelatory movie, I realized that the real honor had been meeting Leon Vitali.

c-q6gmgw0ae_wba-jpg-large.jpegLET THE SUNSHINE IN*** (North American Premiere) Like Huppert, Julliette Binoche has matured so gracefully that she still commands rapt attention. Her prodigious onscreen charisma is essential to this small story of a middle-aged woman’s search for romantic love. She careers almost randomly from man to man, and the audience becomes so bought in that we start auditioning prospects in our heads: get rid of the bum, this guy looks promising. Each relationship is fraught with its own limitations, but somehow the film retains a sly sense of humor. A famous actor shows up in the final moments as an inscrutable fortune-teller and gets laughs with an amusingly transparent monologue.

Screen-Shot-2017-09-20-at-6.37.51-AM-1024x389.pngWONDERSTRUCK***** (Festival Centerpiece) The second adaptation of a Brian Selznick illustrated book (after Martin Scorsese’s HUGO), this is a wonderfully imaginative story that alternates between two timelines to achieve a satisfying dramatic unity. In 1977 a lightning strike renders a preteen Minnesota boy deaf, and he makes his way to New York in search of the father he’s never known. Meanwhile — or, to be precise, fifty years earlier — a deaf little girl in Hoboken goes to the city to meet a celebrated actress. Director Todd Haynes’s meticulous replication of 1950s New York was a highlight of his previous CAROL, and here he vividly depicts not one but two other historical periods, allowing us to ponder how much of the city’s culture endured over that half century. The two story strands eventually merge, brought together by Julianne Moore’s lovely dual role. Much if not most of the movie is free of dialogue, reflecting the experience of the two young leads. Our screening included subtitles for the hearing-impaired, who were so well represented that an ASL signer was on stage for the pre-show introductions. I don’t know whether that was just for us or for general release, but not only didn’t the titles distract, they forced each of us to imagine living in a world without sound. This one is for all ages, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s smart, it’s pretty, it’s original, it doesn’t pander or condescend, and Haynes gets your approbation the old-fashioned way: he earns it.

screen-shot-2017-09-05-at-7-57-03-am.pngLADY BIRD*** The directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, who says her script was inspired by incidents in her own life. Saoirse Ronan plays a free-spirited, Gerwigian high-schooler who longs to escape the one-horse town (to her) that is Sacramento. She’s even invented a sullen bohemian persona for herself and insists that everybody call her not Christine, but “Lady Bird.” Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts are the long-suffering parents who contribute to her long suffering. There are a few tropes too familiar to the coming-of-age genre, or maybe just to late adolescence in real life. But the screenplay bounces along from humor to pathos and back again, Ronan kills as the daffy/heartful heroine, and Gerwig displays quite the steady hand behind the camera. I’ll definitely be there for her next one. Nothing more than a trifle, but a charming one indeed.

maxresdefault.jpgBPM (Beats Per Minute)**** (U.S. Premiere) One reason I enjoy film festivals is the blank screen: I usually have no idea what to expect as the lights go down. To preserve my blissful ignorance I read as little as possible beforehand, only speed-skim what’s necessary to make choices. So when I sat down I presumed this to be a documentary about ACT UP Paris at the height of the AIDS crisis, and that’s exactly what it plays like. But gradually I caught on. There were impossibly too many cameras in the ACT UP war room, right into too many members’ snoots as they made comments. Moments that might be too intimate even for a doc were focused and framed just right. These are actors, an ensemble which stuns in its evocation of life with HIV — most ACT UP members were and are “pos” — as the rest of the world seems blasé if not downright oblivious. Director/writer Robin Campillo does a magnificent job of bringing us ever closer to the individual radical activists, especially the sad-eyed Nahuel Perez Biscayart as Sean, pulled through the disease’s grim stages as we watch helplessly. The film is not without scenes of joy, but its meat is the courage and inventiveness of a group that will not be silenced, for as their motto attests, that equals death. Some people talk a good game, especially many Americans these days, but this is what real resistance looks like. France’s submission for the foreign language Academy Award.

the_rider_01_h_2017.jpgTHE RIDER**** Here’s another one which feels utterly real, but for a different reason. It’s about a South Dakota horse trainer and bronc rider on the rural rodeo circuit who suffers a head injury that threatens the career in which he excels. He is played by Brady Jandreau and the film’s story is inspired by his own life (the actual incident is shown: there’s no way a stunt player could have pulled it off). Brady has never acted before, and neither have the other principals, but they’re playing characters very close to themselves, so we get to see what hand-to-mouth rodeoing is really like. You utterly trust everybody, because they’re the real thing. In one scene, Brady becomes the first human being ever to get on the back of one particularly unruly horse. We witness his patience and respect as he takes incremental steps to earn the wild horse’s trust before our very eyes. You can’t fake that. The director is Chloe Zhao, a Beijing native who went to Mount Holyoke and NYU; in other words, she ain’t exactly from big-sky country. But she displays the strength and heart to present this lifestyle as naturally as a movie can — never do we detect anyone in the amateur but authentic cast “reciting lines.” It’s an amazement, an emotional visit into a foreign land most of us have never seen before.

woody-allen-photo.jpgWONDER WHEEL*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) The timing of Woody Allen’s latest premiere probably wasn’t super-terrific, what with Harvey Weinstein and all. But this has nothing to do with sexual predation and everything to do with New York — specifically, bustling Coney Island in the Fifties, its heyday beautifully recreated by what must have been an army of CGI artists. There’s a love triangle (studly lifeguard and fourth-wall-busting narrator Justin Timberlake, frustrated middle-ager Kate Winslet, and her nubile stepdaughter Juno Temple) along with Winslet’s carousel-operator husband (Jim Belushi, in a role that James Gandolfini might have played in a parallel universe). The ingenue has come back to Coney and her estranged father after an unauthorized escape from her mobster husband, who has sent out two goombahs as a search party (both actors are SOPRANOS veterans, just so you’ll understand). Thus there are many narrative shoes which threaten to drop, and several do. Some folks don’t know what to make of the Woodman’s work these days. He’s back in New York after a multi-year sojourn in Europe, but he’s not making comedies any more — I mean, there’s definitely laughter here, but that’s no longer the point. He’s always flattered his female actors, and true to form, this movie absolutely belongs to Winslet. You can enjoy visiting a bygone era, as with WONDERSTRUCK (hey, what’s with all the “Wonder” this year? Maybe it’s that there Woman’s fault), and the other three leads really work hard, but in the end there’s not much that sticks to the ribs. By now the Woody Allen film has become a genre unto itself. So this is a pleasantly made picture which doesn’t rise above its genre.

WISH I’D SEEN: LAST FLAG FLYING, PANDORA’S BOX (on the big screen; check it out for the most knowingly seductive silent siren ever filmed), THE SQUARE, TROUBLE NO MORE, THELMA

ALREADY SAW: MUDBOUND***

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Room & Bird

September 18, 2017

Most of us have our lists of favorite movies, and I’d wager no two lists of, say, the top 25 are exactly alike. However, we’re less inclined to make lists of the worst movies we’ve ever seen, because it’s our natural tendency to try and forget ’em, despite the best efforts of the gang at MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. Today I have two for you, so beautifully bad that they break through the looking glass: I expect you will thoroughly enjoy watching each of them. They’re both available to rent on Netflix, and they’ve both been heckled by my MST3K-veteran pals at RiffTrax, but you don’t need their help. Just hit PLAY, sit back, and ponder the depths of determination and delirium that got these two particular movies made.

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I first heard of THE ROOM in 2010, seven years after its release, by reading a Harper’s piece by Tom Bissell. Roughly halfway through, I had to start reading again very carefully from the beginning, just to make sure I wasn’t the victim of a practical joke (the issue date was August, not April!). For what Bissell describes as a “post-camp cult film” had actually attracted a devoted midnight-screening audience since its release, the same kind of groundswell which propelled THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW — which I must emphasize is a legitimate movie with professional levels of production and performance, in stark contrast to THE ROOM — only with slathers of irony, akin to putting a tablespoon of wasabi into your mouth. I’ll try to describe it for you, but I won’t get any closer than Bissell’s best line: “It is the movie that an alien who has never seen a movie might make after having had movies thoroughly explained to him.”

The auteur of THE ROOM is a man who calls himself “Tommy Wiseau.” He desperately wants to be a movie star like his idol James Dean, though he has a slightly vampiric look and speaks somewhat broken English with a distancing Eastern European accent. (To hear Tommy’s voice for yourself without seeing THE ROOM, call the film’s hotline at (323) 654-6192.) After frustrating failures in scene classes and fruitless attempts to get auditions, he writes a “play” intended for the stage — which begins with an “external shot.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tommy Wiseau.

THE ROOM is an effort to produce an intense personal drama about a love triangle, but it is written, directed and lead-acted with such monumental incompetence that it turns in upon itself and becomes a thing of fascination. The writer has no idea how to fashion a single scene that makes any sense, let alone a feature-length plot. The star actor can barely remember the simplest line, forcing the production to use the first acceptable take it can possibly manage. The director is completely clueless about any aspect of staging, camera movement, continuity, or guiding a performance. Tommy Wiseau is the diametrical opposite of a natural. He makes Ed Wood look like Orson Welles.

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If it all sounds like something you’d be better off avoiding, please read THE DISASTER ARTIST, a book by featured actor Greg Sestero and journalist Bissell, and you’ll be dying to see THE ROOM. As well you should. In fact, you might want to do it before December, when a feature film based on the book appears, directed by and starring James Franco as Tommy. (He reportedly stayed in character between takes, in a bit of warped good sense.)

The book — and, I presume, Franco’s movie — cuts back and forth between THE ROOM’s hilarious production phase and Tommy’s backstory, or at least as much as can be gleaned by Sestero, his somewhat reluctant best friend in America. Even to those who know him best, Tommy is a man of mystery. His very age is in dispute. As the author well understands, those few crumbs Tommy drops about his earlier life have been provided by an unreliable narrator. Yet these same crumbs are vital to our curiosity: as Sestero writes, THE ROOM is “so incomprehensible that you find yourself compelled to watch it over and over again. You become desperate to learn how (if) on earth it was conceived: Who made it, and for what purpose?”

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Tommy’s one-sheet (l.) and James Franco’s fake for the DISASTER ARTIST movie.

THE ROOM is a product of almost superhuman determination. It is also a vanity project. Tommy got rich enough somehow — the source of his money remains unclear — to bankroll the $6 million budget personally, and he goes to extremes and beyond. What tugs at you while the film runs is that the crew behind the scenes are evidently real movie people: the camera’s in focus and the sound is clear. It’s just that they, along with a handful of not-untalented actors who have been sucked into the project’s maw, have absolutely nothing to work with.

They were, however, working with Tommy’s own equipment, purchased — not rented, as anyone else would do — from Birns & Sawyer to the tune of a million bucks. Cameras, lenses, Arriflex lighting equipment. For reasons we still do not understand, Tommy decided to simultaneously shoot THE ROOM in 35mm and digital HD. He ordered a mount that could hold both cameras at the same time. That meant hiring two different crews and using two different lighting systems that did not agree with each other, constantly forcing the DPs (Tommy ran through two disgusted cinematographers and finished the film with a third) to split the difference. Tommy wanted to be the first filmmaker to shoot this way. He never pondered why nobody else had preceded him.

The ROOM shoot is studded with examples of such amazing idiocy, but as you work your way through the book and get to know Tommy a little better out of context, he gains a human dimension, much like the obsessed Wisconsin filmmaker Mark Borchardt of the documentary AMERICAN MOVIE. The difference is that Borchardt has no money — and his knowledge of what he needs to do on set may be crude, but it’s still light-years beyond Tommy’s.

THE DISASTER ARTIST ends with the world premiere of THE ROOM, which of course bombed in a house Tommy had papered, then went on to gross $1800 — yes, that is four figures — during its original two-week LA engagement. But two young film students noticed it, encouraged others to come — as I hope you discover, it is mesmerizing in its surreal way — and before long alternative comedians like David Cross and Patton Oswalt, and eventually the general public, became believers. At midnight screenings, they use ritualistic synched reactions like a ROCKY HORROR crowd. The flick has played and is playing all over the world: Tommy has even started referring to it as a comedy. Against all odds, he has managed to become famous.

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I can only hope that in the movie version Franco treats Tommy with the empathy he deserves and plays him as something broader than a cartoonish object of ridicule. Meanwhile, I urge you to enter THE ROOM for yourself, making sure to pick up your jaw off the floor at regular intervals, and swirl, sniff, and savor. You are experiencing the awesome power of sheer will.

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“You are tearing me apart, Lisa!” Tommy’s James Dean moment.

In January 2009, I was walking down Park City, Utah’s Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival when a…car…festooned with phony crows and feathers, with loudspeakers broadcasting bird calls, drove by, attracting gawkers wherever it went. On the side of the car was a banner reading

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SHOCK AND TERROR

I would learn to watch for this car, which made its lonely path down Main Street dozens of times during the fest. It was promoting an ultra-low-budget picture which we later found out was actually called BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR. That’s right, the signage on the promotional car, the only way this film’s producers could possibly position themselves before the Sundance crowd (or so they hoped), misspelled its own title. But was it really a stroke of genius instead? We all noticed it. We all silently added the poor missing R.

Then I saw the movie. It was not a stroke of genius.

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It was easy for director James Nguyen to overlook the typo, because like Tommy, English is not his native tongue. A Vietnam-born software salesman, Nguyen shot the self-financed BIRDEMIC on weekends over seven months, then spent several years looking for distribution. Also like Tommy, Nguyen fervently believed that he was producing a great work of art. Inspired by Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (and, he says, APOCALYPSE NOW), Nguyen contemplated a romantic thriller with an ecological message. What he achieved was instead a mess — but, again like Tommy, the sheer ineptitude becomes entertaining all by itself.

Let’s start with the “birdemic,” though Nguyen doesn’t. In fact, the first bird attack won’t appear until about halfway through. But it is a master class in preposterous visual effects. Before that comes a romance between a Silicon Valley software salesman (!) and a wannabe model, utterly barren of chemistry or even nuance. At first it’s curious, then it becomes fascinating. Meanwhile, ecological anomalies begin happening behind their backs. Finally, when the tension reaches fever pitch — shock and terror! Or so we’ve been promised.

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“Can they get in?”

Nguyen also shares with Tommy a gobsmacking inability to even comprehend, much less explore, the language of film. Scene-setting is done using a series of slow pans and crane shots, like you might see in a better movie, but they continue long after the scene is set, eons after it’s been nailed frickin down. When bids — excuse me, birds — mass outside the motel where they’ve just spent a snuggly night, the girl (who is actually movie-star-pretty but gets no help from the script, the director, or the rest of the cast) peeks out from the drawn curtains to see an eagle hovering outside. She goes back to the bed to sit by the boy. “Can they get in?” she asks. He stares at the shut curtains, moves his focus back and forth for a few seconds, and replies, “Not at the moment.” He hasn’t seen any birds. Rather, his motivation is, that’s what it says in the script.

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A “bird” “attack.”

The bird scenes are the pièce de résistance. Cheap video matte effects are re-used to the point of redundancy: a flight of birds travels from left to right, then the same effects shot is flopped and the bird group comes back in the reverse direction. Identical hovering birds are liberally scattered throughout. And these birds dive to the sound of turbines and spit fire or something, at which point the buildings below them emit what looks a little like computer-generated smoke and fire but couldn’t fool an attentive five-year-old.

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“Birds” setting “fire” to some “buildings.”

I’m aware that this all sounds terrible, but like THE ROOM, BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR passes through a creative portal that, say, MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE — the worst movie I’d ever encountered until I saw THE ROOM — can’t penetrate. MANOS has nothing to offer but boredom and its makers are clearly passionless. But Tommy Wiseau and James Nguyen actually think they’re shooting terrific movies when they just might be in over their heads. Their stoic struggles actually do wind up legitimately entertaining the audience — two miracles which prove that thing called “movie magic” is hardly monopolized by the suits in Hollywood. They’re each sui generis, each tons of fun. Do yourself a favor. Two favors.

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Trumpthink Doubleplusungood

August 4, 2017

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I’ve just re-read George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, partly because I recently saw a stage adaptation on Broadway (by way of the U.K.), and partly because I can’t shake the feeling that we may be nuzzling closer to this famous dystopia.

OK, I may be overstating a tad, but the shape of reality sure feels funny right now. And that intense British stage production wouldn’t be in New York today had Donald Trump not won the 2016 election. Shortly after the inauguration and Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts,” the novel became a national bestseller once again, and one of the show’s writer-directors sent a simple text to a producer: “84 NY?” The reply was evidently “!”

Even on my first reading as a kid, I had an unusual reaction to this provocative novel. I was most fascinated not by the “bare, hungry, dilapidated” world inhabited by Winston Smith and his fellow citizens of Oceania, or his savage climactic retro-indoctrination at the hands of senior Party member O’Brien. What really knocked me out was a device that appears about two-thirds in, when Winston opens and begins reading a secret book — with us reading over his shoulder — called THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF OLIGARCHICAL COLLECTIVISM, written by Emmanuel Goldstein. (Spoiler Alert: it wasn’t.)

The passages we are allowed to see lay out, with cold detachment, the purpose and method of creating a topsy-turvy society in which WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. The hardscrabble life of nearly all citizens isn’t some crisis caused by natural or even economic calamity. It has nothing to do with forces that can’t be controlled. Winston’s torpor and misery are visited on him deliberately, planned and sustained by the very few who are actually in charge.

We can’t see “Goldstein”’s entire book, but we get enough to divine that in a venal, bloodless way, the real oligarchs of Winston’s country — and of Eurasia and Eastasia, the two other superstates which share the planet with Oceania — have created a society of stasis, of brutal rationing in service to perpetual war (the exact enemy changes at will), of narcotized subservients who are unable to grasp that life could be better because they are not allowed to have such a thought.

What a weird, science-fictional concept, right? Except you can’t read this stuff these days without thinking of Trump and his pals.

Now I am not seriously suggesting that anyone in the Trump orbit — not Steve Bannon, certainly not the boss himself — is smart enough or even shrewd enough to manage perception the way “Goldstein” and O’Brien do in Orwell. They’re not that calculating, not that sophisticated. Their choices are instinctive. They rule from the gut. Trump can sense unease and capitalize on it — he’s probably the most naturally gifted American politician since Bill Clinton. He has a huge swath of people convinced that he’s looking out for them, even though they have absolutely nothing in common besides mutual loathing for Barack Obama. And what looks like ridiculousness to most people reads as pioneering boldness to an unshakable base whose information is carefully managed — not by Trump personally, but by a right-wing echo chamber which pronounces that his was the largest inaugural crowd ever, Obamacare is destroying America, legitimate journalists can’t be trusted and should be ignored, etc. And that’s way before we get to the Sandy-Hook-was-faked and 9/11-was-an-inside-job rants.

These hamhanded clowns couldn’t possibly create Big Brother. It’s far beyond their skill set. But whether they know it or not, they are quoting from “Goldstein”’s playbook.

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Big Brother (top) and Goldstein (above) in Michael Radford’s film whose title is also its release date, played by, respectively, actors Bob Flag and John Boswall.

The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim— for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives— is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal. — Emmanuel Goldstein

This is the standard socialist spiel, far from original to Orwell, but it does heretically acknowledge middle-class aspiration. “Goldstein”’s secret is that the middle class in Oceania has been effectively managed out of existence. It’s vanishing in our real world too, through forces which are largely economic, but Trump says he knows a more nefarious secret: Others — Eastasians, Eurasians? — are sneaking into the homeland and stealing our jobs. In Oceania (its governing system is called Ingsoc, or “English Socialism” expressed in the official language, Newspeak), the notion of a happier life has been quashed. Trump’s America is no less wounded. It doesn’t look upward but backward, to a time when hard-working (ok, white) families could look at the rich and say, one day that’ll be us. What prevents them from living the dream is the enemy: Mexican workers, effete academics, “fake news,” coastal elites, the term “Happy Holidays,” take it from there. Only a drumbeat of constant cultural battle can deflect the base’s attention away from the lack of real progress. In that frail sense, war actually is peace, because…

A Party member is expected to have no private emotions and no respites from enthusiasm. He is supposed to live in a continuous frenzy of hatred of foreign enemies and internal traitors, triumph over victories, and self-abasement before the power and wisdom of the Party. [N]o change in doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one’s mind, or even one’s policy, is a confession of weakness. — Goldstein

Gosh, which political party does that remind you of? This week as I write, there’s a tentative movement toward a bipartisan sitdown in the House to try and thrash out some fixes to the Affordable Care Act — which everybody agrees is flawed. But we’re already hearing whelped, primary-scared Representatives oppose any such powwow on principle: you mean you want to meet with the ENEMY?

Fear and hatred are and always have been the animating forces that stoke the roiling conservative base. Sometimes it’s out in the open, as when Mike Flynn led the crowd in that “LOCK HER UP!” chant at the Republican National Convention. Weeks before I ever conceded the possibility of an actual Trump presidency, that moment reminded me of Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hate”: Hillary Clinton as Goldstein. (Oceanians regularly assemble to boo and curse at a projected image of Goldstein — somehow officially deemed an enemy of the people — until it mercifully dissolves into the likeness of their hero and protector, Big Brother. All Flynn lacked was a Hillary headshot for the Jumbotron.)

Trumpkins are sometimes tagged as rebels against the 21st century GOP, which they view as soft and ineffectual. They keep any “moderate” elected officials dishonest with the constant underlying threat of being “primaried” by somebody even more crazed. But the Pubs have depended on social “wedge issues” to motivate their base since the days of Ronald Reagan, and one strays from official orthodoxy at one’s peril. Republican, Freedom or Tea, the “Party” demands utter fealty no matter what you call it.

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The Two Minutes Hate in the 2017 Broadway production.

If leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance. — Goldstein

Many observers look at Trump and see an crude, ignorant, incurious child-man who has no idea how to do the job to which he’s amazingly been elected. Remember, he’s really nothing more than a frickin game-show host. But to his most devoted fans that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. It’s so satisfying to think, he’s no smarter than I am, no better than I am, and look where he is. Trump’s business history is studded with failure. No US bank will lend him money, which is why he depends on Russian oligarchs who love to park their dough in real estate. But that’s all superseded by the fact that he’s been on our telescreens — oops, I mean TV sets — playing a tycoon for the better part of a decade. How can you blame people for confusing the actor and his role? TV Trump likes to growl, “You’re fired!” Real Trump desperately avoids conflict: he’s afraid of firing people in person, so instead he makes their lives so miserable that they quit in disgust. Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus are just the latest heads to auto-roll; at this writing, Trump is working on Jeff Sessions.

You can’t think too hard about all this, though, or else the show-biz veneer will dissipate. In fact, one of the most serious potential threats to both Big Brother and Trump is — thinking at all. One side of the cultural divide is more educated, the other less so. I’ll bet the larger cities and college towns where you live voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But the rest of your state belonged to Trump. “I love the uneducated!” he crowed during the campaign. Pointy-headed intellectuals who never did a day’s honest work, ridiculous “safe spaces” for coddled crybaby students, angry protests silencing right-wing lecturers — in a Pew Research poll released in July, 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they believed colleges and universities had a negative effect on the country. In other words, most of them. (Almost three fourths of Democrats and like-minded independents thought the effect was positive.)

Trump has made a fetish out of ignorance. Behind the hollow bluster, he’s actually proud that he doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know. It’s easy to say, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” (By the way, whenever Donald Trump says “believe me,” don’t.) His ingrained narcissism may even actually convince him; delusion seems to be his copilot. But the tiniest bit of independent thought — “as a moment’s reflection will reveal,” as a friend used to say — can show Cloud Cuckoo-Land for what it truly is. Therefore independent thought is just as much an enemy to Trump as it is to Ingsoc. Most decent undergraduate programs have the same underlying goal: to teach students not what to think, but how to think. I can’t say the same for many schools founded and supported by fundamentalist Christians, or for Fox News, Breitbart and the other reactionary megaphones. Many people have their opinions handed to them because they are unwilling or unable to verify truth independently. In Trumpland, ignorance is strength.

…the essential act of the Party is to use conscious deception while retaining the firmness of purpose that goes with complete honesty. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies— all this is indispensably necessary. — Goldstein

This is the principle behind “doublethink,” Orwell’s evil-Zen state that allows dutiful citizens to hold and believe in two contradictory arguments simultaneously, or to accept as truth something that can be easily disproven. Like the old joke about the husband whose wife catches him cheating: “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”

I know we’ve heard presidential fabrications before, even from men I admire. But has there ever been a more brazen bullshitter than this bird? Donald Trump is a pathological liar. I don’t think he can stop himself. He lost the election by three million votes, and his electoral-college margin turned on about 80,000 votes in three states, yet he calls it a historic landslide. “I got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them.” Um, nope, that didn’t happen at all. “Even the president of Mexico called me,” Trump lied to his Cabinet. “They said…very few people are coming because they know they’re not going to get through our border, which is the ultimate compliment.” ¡Mentiroso hijo de puta, señor!

My favorite Trump lie, out of hundreds spewed out over the past six months, concerned his inaugural speech: “It was almost raining — the rain should have scared them away — but God looked down and he said ‘we are not going to let it rain on your speech’… and then it poured right after I left.” As anybody who was there or watching on tv knows, it rained through the first few minutes of Trump’s speech — you could see people behind him wearing ponchos — and it most definitely did not pour afterward. You’re left with a kind of reluctant awe: why would you even bother to lie about something as trivial as the weather?

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John Hurt as Winston Smith in the Radford film.

At least part of the answer may be the heady ability to alter history. While researching that last quote, I stumbled on a Christian website that reported the sun “shone” for Trump’s inauguration as a sign of God’s blessing. There’s a kernel of truth in that: the sun did peek out through overcast skies for an instant during the ceremony. But evidently God didn’t dig Trump’s speech, because moments later she made it rain again. However, to the readers of that website, the rain stopped and the sun shone as Trump took office, and that’s that.

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. — Ingsoc party slogan

Winston Smith, you’ll recall, works for the Ministry of Truth, or Minitrue. His job is to repair and replace the historical record. For example, he alters a past promise to maintain rations at the current level. He scrubs all references to a purged Party member, or “unperson,” rendering him nonexistent. But a fissure appears in his capacity for doublethink when he is told Oceania is at war with Eurasia — yet he knows that the enemy has been Eastasia for the last four years. No matter. “Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.” Doublethink is maddening and terrifying at the same time.

Of course retroactive reality is impossible to concoct in our hip, wired age. Just ask the Secretary of War. Oh, wait, that’s his old title: now he’s Secretary of Defense, or “SecDef,” a term that sounds a hell of a lot like Newspeak. Or read yesterday’s Congressional Record to find speeches that were never uttered: there isn’t one veteran member of Congress who hasn’t inserted something after the fact. Or sit with the Texas State Board of Education as it sifts through history and science texts for orthodoxy that, because of the practicalities of educational publishing, will have to be replicated nationwide.

The most effective and “Orwellian” stroke of the current regime is the concept of “fake news.” Unlike anal-probing space aliens or government gun confiscation, we know “fake news” is really a thing. Eastern Europeans were actually making money by inventing outrageous clickbait all through the last election cycle. One whopper really gained some traction: that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were operating a child sex ring from the basement of an innocent DC pizza parlor. It went viral, and in December a 28-year-old North Carolina man fired three shots in the restaurant with an AR-15-style rifle, striking walls, a desk, and a door. He told police he was there to “self-investigate” the conspiracy that came to be known as “Pizzagate.” (As you may have expected, the restaurant doesn’t even have a basement.)

Fake news isn’t some kooky fear: it’s definitely out there. In fact Breitbart, the “alt-right” website run until recently by presidential advisor Steve Bannon, absolutely dotes on the stuff. Still it was shocking to hear Trump, at his first news conference as president, pass over CNN’s Jake Tapper and growl, “you’re fake news.” Whaaaat? Within days, Trump was using the term to describe any news organization he didn’t like, and it was an unwitting masterstroke. The eight letters of “fake news” are short-attention-span-friendly, instantly graspable. This is why the “liberal media” are constantly after Trump: all their stories are as bogus as Bigfoot, he’s actually doing a great job but nobody’s giving him a chance. But the most insidious effect is that, for his most ardent fans, Trump is slowly delegitimatizing all genuine sources of objective coverage. The truth is whatever he tells them it is. No lie is too outrageous. Even pollsters are “fake” if he doesn’t like their numbers: remember how they underestimated him last year? He recently attacked as unfair the Congressional Budget Office, which is damn near the last nonpartisan entity left in DC. When you can’t turn anywhere else for validation, you’re as psychologically dependent as Winston Smith. After all, these are people who actually believe crime and unemployment both spiked under President Obama, because that’s what the Party told them.

Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity. — Goldstein

With “fake news” as a cudgel to tamp down any contradiction or stray heretical thought, Trumpism becomes almost inevitable among true believers. The same antics which embarrass some people excite others. To them Trump is a human Molotov cocktail, and the more damage he does to the system the better. Yes, it’s sad-making — the 2016 election was probably moderates’ low point for a good long while, and many of us still feel apprehensive opening our morning papers — but it doesn’t have to be debilitating, for several good reasons.

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O’Brien (Reed Birney) with Winston (Tom Sturridge) and Julia (Olivia Wilde) on Broadway.

They are outnumbered and they know it. Eighty-five percent of Oceanians are lowly “proles” and therefore largely ignored. Well, a minority controls Congress and most statehouses in America too. Not only did the Pubs lose the popular vote for President, they also lost the popular vote for Senate races: more than 45 million Americans voted for a Democratic Senate candidate, while just under 40 million Americans voted for a Republican. In fairness, the Senate was specifically created to bolster the influence of smaller states: Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was re-elected with 111,000 votes and has the same Senate authority as Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, who was re-elected with 4.8 million. But even the House, which is supposed to better represent actual voter proportions, is grossly skewed. In 2016, 63.1 million Republican voters claimed 247 House seats. The Democratic vote was nearly equal, 61.7 million, but it was only worth 188 seats. That’s way out of whack and eventually something has to give.

You can blame some of that inequity on gerrymandering: for example, Austin, the most progressive city in Texas, has been electorally neutered by splitting it up into tiny parts of five different Congressional districts, four of which are represented by Republicans. But a deeper cause of inertia is incumbency: in 2016 only twelve House seats changed hands, six for each party. And a third cause is voter apathy, which is something we can actually work on.

Republicans are more successful at winning state and local elections because they understand how to rile up the base and get them out to the polls. Trump’s staggering incompetence may be having that same visceral effect on the left. We’ll find out next year. The best indication that Pubs are nervously looking over their shoulders is their massive voter suppression effort. The crown jewel is Trump’s loony Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (I love that name, it’s so…Orwellian!). Just remember, it’s in Democrats’ interest that you vote; it’s in Pubs’ interest that you be prevented from voting. We could make elections fairer by adopting ranked voting or jolt turnout by moving Election Day to the weekend, but Pubs are protected by the status quo so it will not happen any time soon. Counting on changing demographics to affect electoral results — for example, wishing Texas purple — is foolish, but it’s also foolish to squander a natural advantage when you get one handed to you. It’s not a gimme; it’ll take work.

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In Room 101.

One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. —O’Brien

Trump is beginning to neglect his constituency as he shows his true colors. I don’t think the president is a fascist or an Ingsoc functionary; I don’t believe he has any deeply held principles beyond his own self-interest. Well, there may be one. Trump is petty and childish enough that he may still be smarting over the humiliating roasting President Obama gave him at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. With the exception of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination (and that was mostly Mitch McConnell’s doing), nearly every move Trump has made as president has been a direct erasure of an Obama initiative, often without even thinking about it. He’s trying to rewrite history, to make Obama an unperson. But when he took on Obamacare — that blasted name again! — he didn’t count on his own voters understanding that they were about to lose their coverage. Even when McConnell cynically tacked on a two-year delay period so Pubs could “repeal Obamacare” with impunity, the shouting back home was just too great. And speaking of personal payback, was that why we saw John “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured” McCain kill the repeal effort with the flourish of a Roman emperor? As mining jobs fail to come back to coal country, day laborers for construction and agriculture disappear, and opioids continue to decimate the heartland, some suffering citizens may finally break the spell and relearn how to put two and two together.

Trump’s legislative base is crumbling as his popular support dwindles. “The ratings machine, DJT” actually had coattails in 2016, but they are starting to fray. The near-unanimous votes in both houses on Russian sanctions were a veto-proof slap in the face that said, “we’re not afraid of you.” The disconnect is probably personal. I have no idea whether Trump did anything illegal, but he clearly has money tied up in Russia and that source of capital is key to any future expansion plans, so his instinct is to make nice to Putin. One problem, though. Pubs have been taught to hate Commies for literal generations. By now, asking them to coddle Russkies is like trying to divide by zero. Yes, the hypocrisy is acrid: if Hillary had invited a Russian spy into the Oval Office, much less spilled intel to his face, the Pubs would have her turning on a spit by now. But Trump — who was already in the hole the moment he took office — has been whittling away at his own approval ratings more effectively than any enemy ever could. To be impeached by this Congress, he’d probably have to bite the head off a live chicken at the Lincoln Memorial. (Nor do I fancy a President Pence.) But remember, this entire shitstorm has occurred in just six months. I don’t think Trump can last four whole years — especially with a Congress that is less than sycophantic.

After Winston Smith survives the horrors of Room 101, we can see that he has changed. As the Cap’n says in COOL HAND LUKE, he “got his mind right.” Two plus two equals anything O’Brien wants it to be. Everything is all right, the struggle is finished. Well, that is not going to happen to us. We are still capable of seeing clearly if we only concentrate. The outrage that spits out almost hourly from this administration must not, will not become normalcy. The world has not turned upside down. Our system builds political antibodies to negate such an aberration, and if we are still suffering from shock, that means we have the capacity to resist — in the streets, in the voting booths, in the offices of our representatives. That passion is precisely what saved the Affordable Care Act. And it is what is going to eliminate Big Bother [frickin sic] once and for all.

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows. — Winston Smith

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I, The Juror

July 19, 2017

90887318.pngI just spent a month serving as Juror No. 3 in a murder trial. I don’t care to give you the details, though some New Yorkers might be able to suss them out when I tell you we reached our verdict this past Monday morning.

What I want to talk about instead was the jury-room dynamic, that tension which Reginald Rose so searingly dramatized in 12 ANGRY MEN. While we never descended into Rose’s near-feral warring factions, there was definitely an added burden which we all felt — for although some of us had done jury duty before, this was the first homicide case for everyone.

Years ago I served on a narcotics grand jury, where our job was mainly to rubber-stamp crack purchases by undercover cops. In a month of half-days, covering about a hundred cases, we only refused to indict three or four times. All we had to answer was, is there enough evidence to justify going to trial? The resolution in court would be somebody else’s problem.

I was also on the jury for another criminal trial, in which the defendant used a knife but nobody died. It was my introduction to an uncomfortable position: the law can be black and white on such matters, and whether or not you agree with a statute or think it’s fair in any individual case is beside the point. After some discussion and even some tears, we found the defendant guilty because we had to. We empathized with him but we couldn’t get around the fact that the law clearly says if you do this, you’re guilty of a crime. And we were only condemning the defendant to a minor jail term: it’s a great relief that the actual sentencing is done by the judge later.

This case in June and July was different. There were four counts in descending order of gravity, the most serious being second degree murder. It was similar to my previous criminal case in that this defendant also freely admitted his actions. The nuances surrounding the death he caused formed the core of the trial. The one legal aspect each of the four charges shared was “justification,” more commonly known as “self-defense.” The prosecution was required to prove that he had not been justified, had not acted to protect himself under the law. Those black-and-white statutes couldn’t help us, no matter how many times they were re-read to us by the judge. This was about the finer points of the law, which couldn’t be applied in this case without a collective judgment call.

The testimony took three weeks. We listened to about thirty witnesses, including the defendant, heard opening statements and summations, then handed in our cell phones and sat in a small conference room. For the next four days we hashed it out, pausing only for deli lunches brought in by the court. Four counts, guilty or not guilty, each verdict had to be unanimous.

Since all four counts included justification, we took our first vote on that issue. If we all agreed that the defendant was justified — or, more precisely, that the prosecution had failed to prove he was not — then case closed, not guilty on all counts. Our first vote as a jury was split. We were going to have to talk it over.

I know that there’s a science to jury selection, some lawyers are better at it than others, and on a big case like Cosby or O.J. they even hire consultants to help them. (Read John Grisham’s THE RUNAWAY JURY for an almost satirical look at this process.) But it’s utterly beyond me. The twelve of us — there were also four alternates and one of them had to join the jury proper after a family death — were racially, ethnically and psychologically diverse: I couldn’t discern any rhyme or reason. But I will say this. Every single one of them was trying their best to do the right thing. I heard cogent arguments from a couple of people who I’d thought hadn’t been paying attention in court. I was mistaken. One juror was a university professor whose default mode was to treat us like students, so frequently came off as patronizing. Another one liked to draw diagrams, and changed my own mind with one. One tended to talk in platitudes that seemed irrelevant, then something important would dart in.

The thing 12 ANGRY MEN got right was that a jury is a hive mind. Nobody remembers everything, but twelve people together can come damn close. Little bits of evidence were bandied back and forth until we had competing views on a series of events and were able to say, it could have happened this way, but this other way is more probable. By definition the process isn’t simple. If this had been an easily decided open-and-shut case it would never have gone all the way to trial: the defendant would have copped a plea or they’d have let him go. It was relentlessly tough to slice, dice, and true up slightly divergent testimony from various witnesses.

In fact, sometimes I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility over a man’s life, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. How could I possibly get to a place where I could mete out justice fairly? We were missing critical first-hand documentation, as juries so often are, and had to fill in blanks ourselves. At one point eleven of us were of one view, against one lone holdout; I thought immediately of Henry Fonda in 12 ANGRY MEN. The pressure was so great on the twelfth juror at that major impasse, the doubt so profound, that we all had to step back and consciously let the person breathe. This wasn’t a Reginald Rose drama. This was real life.

Then, one night as I was trying to drift off to sleep, I came to my senses. I wasn’t lacking any information. I had all the evidence I needed. It wasn’t my job to reconstruct the incident like a detective. All I was being asked to do was to judge whether the prosecution had proven its case in open court. This I could get my head around. After some more ups and downs, more backs and forths, and more soggy deli sandwiches, we made up our collective mind.

Many people think jury duty is a drag, but I’m glad I spent that month in court. Because of the nature of the case, I learned a lot about how certain New York City institutions really work (and if you’re paranoid, you should probably remain blissfully ignorant). For me the experience was grueling, yes, but ultimately positive. It has frankly made me feel a lot better about human beings, and boy, do I need that right about now.


Et Tu, Delta?

June 18, 2017

tn-500_juliuscaesar0037rr.jpgOutre settings for otherwise respectfully mounted Shakespeare productions are nothing new, and not just since the Royal Shakespeare Company started dressing Montagues and Capulets in biker leather. The very presence of female actors is a departure from any performance the Bard saw in his own lifetime — so much so that it took some getting used to when Shakespeare’s Globe brought its all-male TWELFTH NIGHT/RICHARD III company to Broadway four years ago. Nazis, cowboys, wartime grunts — they’ve all served as exotic backdrops to Shakespeare, the intention being to make the words shine at different angles as we twist the prism. Some inevitable day Romeo and Juliet will both be robots, if it hasn’t happened already.

The seeking and wielding of power hasn’t changed all that much in the four centuries since JULIUS CAESAR (1599) was written. It shows us authority stretched to the point of monomania, then an affronted, violent reaction to this perceived threat to the republic, and finally the utter disaster that befalls the polity after the ultimate defacing of democracy, the replacement of discourse with murder. There’s nothing particularly historical about these forces. They’re with us today and will be here long after we’re gone.

So JULIUS CAESAR’s examination of power and ill-advised redress is particularly suited to a contemporary setting. Hell, any setting. The latest effort finishes its outdoor run on schedule tonight at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park as part of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare In The Park program. It’s a great production, but it leaves a wake of unwanted notoriety. For this Caesar, as played by Gregg Henry, looks and acts a lot like Donald Trump.

caesar.jpgThere’s nothing coy about the portrayal. Absurd blond wig, blue suit a tad too small, necktie a tad too long, relentlessly working the real audience as he enters. (Off mike, he bragged near us, “Biggest crowd in the history of the theater!”) There’s no question who this Caesar is supposed to suggest. Tina Benko’s slinky Calpurnia even speaks with a Slavic accent.

It’s remarkable how time can actually transmute Shakespeare’s lines. For example, when Caesar first appears amid an adoring throng and senses the presence of the Soothsayer, he asks, “Who is it in the press that calls on me?” “The press” as written meant “the crowd,” but the Trumpworld audience hears, “the failing MSM.” When Brutus’s boy Lucius brings news of a “post,” he hands his master a smartphone and we understand instantly. These are all Shakespeare’s words (edited way down to an intermissionless 2:02 by Oskar Eustis, the play’s director and the Public’s artistic director) but three new ones come at a critical point. When Casca marvels at the blind loyalty of the Great Man’s fans, the line reads, “If Caesar had stabbed their mothers, they would have done no less.” Eustis adds, just before the comma, “on Fifth Avenue.” Screams.

90.jpegOf course, anyone who has ever seen, read or heard JULIUS CAESAR, or knows the slightest thing about the historical personage, is well aware that his enemies in the Senate were so devoted to the Roman republic and its traditions that the threat of imperium drove them to assassination. Caesar was offered a crown and made to refuse it thrice, but we and they can tell it’d feel good on his head: it’s only a matter of time. On the Ides of March they strike, stabbing the triumphant warrior to death before our eyes.

Screen-Shot-2017-06-13-at-12.27.16-PM.pngHere is where America’s deep polarization rears its ugly head. Again, anyone familiar with the material is keenly aware that seeking change by doing violence becomes the downfall of each and every conspirator — in fact, that is the very point of the play. But pause for a second to consider Trump’s devoted base of supporters. They are greatly rural, greatly uneducated (“I love the uneducated!” Trump gushed on the campaign trail), and distrustful of “elites” in cities and college towns. Most of them have never seen, read, or heard JULIUS CAESAR. All they have to go on comes from professional shit disturbers who tell them that up in fancy-schmantzy New York, some guy dresses up like Trump, then a bunch of senators stab him to death onstage while the audience just sits there and watches. And that’s all true. The real shame should fall on the cynical pitchfork salesmen who deliberately withhold any context from the infomasses and not only ought to, but in fact do know better.

There’s a lot to love in Eustis’s dynamic, immersive staging. The cast are all around you — it’s far and away the most exciting CAESAR I’ve ever seen. Marc Antony is searingly played by Elizabeth Marvel and is referred to as “she” throughout. Her feverish funeral oration, delivered with a slight Southern-senator twang, so rouses the 1800-member audience that we want to pick up weapons ourselves. The energy and drive is contagious: it becomes a spectacle when the dark consequences of the assassination roll in. At times there is a literal crowd on stage, all the stagehands and extras Eustis could find. The theater erupts with passion. By now the Trump references are basically subsumed: for an hour, he’s only been a stiff under a sheet, or a ghost with no snark or irony at all.

To know all this about the production, however, you have to have actually seen it.

julius_caesar_production_still.jpgI don’t get my news from cable tv channels, but from what Trump calls “failing” and “fake” media instead. The only time I normally see these shows is in clips on Colbert or THE DAILY SHOW. I’d never witnessed the full-time 24/7 cacophony until the James Comey testimony, but it’s almost too much to take in, whether you’re watching MSNBC, CNN or Fox. Rachel Maddow in particular goes so fast that I can’t parse everything she says and still receive the sliding, ticking Chyron information crammed onto the rest of the screen. On the right there’s remarkable teamwork and cooperation: interchangeable Fox News hosts tag out once an hour, but the story of the day (in this instance, “Comey is a liar and a traitor”) is so similar that through repetition it looks like Americans of all colors and genders agree! The barrage goes on afterburners once a partisan meme begins (“the War on Christmas”), and this is what happened to the Public.

The “murder” of “Trump” drove some people batshit. Not only do cable hosts matter but now individuals do too, because social media give them their own megaphones. Somebody recorded the assassination scene with a smartphone (you’re supposed to turn them off, lady!) and posted it. The usual suspects began howling, and before long censure of the Public and this production gained traction. Delta Air Lines and Bank of America both actually pulled their funding for the Free Shakespeare in The Park program (I can’t tell whether they removed all Public Theater donation). Oh, by the way: the word “public” usually means “funded by taxpayer dollars,” but not in this case. Humiliatingly, the National Endowment for the Arts felt obliged to disclaim that none of its money was used to subsidize JULIUS CAESAR.

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Outside the theater on Friday, before the show, Trumpies…

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…and the opposition.

The icing on the cake came last Friday, the night I saw the show. There were dueling groups of protesters outside the theater beforehand; that appeared to be a ho-hum everyday event. But during the show, just after the murder, a woman ran on stage and began ranting about normalizing attacks on the right while an accomplice stood in the audience to record her on video and shouted, “you’re all Goebbels!” (Huh? I still don’t get it.) The production paused for less than two minutes, actors still on stage, while the trolls were peaceably removed through a loud ovation. Then came a spot of serendipity. The stage manager announced “Actors, please pick it up at [Cinna’s line] ‘Liberty! Freedom!’” This was too much: the audience leapt to its feet with a roar as the players regrouped to carry on. The woman continued to shriek way off in the distance for ten minutes or so, but she was wasting her breath. (P.S.: Joyce Carol Oates knows. She was there too.) The pair turned out to be a pal of James O’Keefe, the little dweeb who tried and failed to sting Planned Parenthood, and a guy who enjoys spreading nutty conspiracy theories, including Pizzagate. So much for spontaneity.

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Onstage, pre-show, audience members pour out their hearts onto a “Roman bill.” A matching one is at stage right, reading I HOPE FOR.

Please don’t feign patriotic offense at this production. I know this has nothing to do with respect for the office of the president. The reason I know is simple: this same play was staged back in 2012 by the Acting Company, using an Obama-like Caesar. He was stabbed to death on stage too, and nobody said doodly. What we have here is pure Act I, scene ii Caesar worship.

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Oskar Eustis.

Backstage just before the show, Oskar Eustis addressed a group of Public Theater donors and told them the challenge was theirs and his: to find ways to reach out to another America that not only has divergent views, but often finds no reason to even acknowledge the necessity of art to a healthy public life. I agree that if the choices are mutually exclusive, feeding children is more important than funding playhouses, but they don’t have to negate each other. The answers aren’t simple, but the Public is taking some concrete steps. It has already funded a bare-bones mobile production of Lynn Nottage’s empathetic Pulitzer Prize-winning SWEAT which it will take into coal and factory country, where the play is set. Maybe someone who sees it will receive the warmth of recognition that great art can provide: You are not alone. You are not forgotten. Now let’s make things better together. I believe that’s what many are really craving when they desperately cling to someone like Donald Trump.

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Two sheets tipped into the program after the shitstorm erupted.

Though the controversy may have affected the Public, rest assured it’s only a flesh wound. America’s greatest nonprofit theater will replace the lost private-sector donations and steam forward at full speed, but they’ll have to put forth some extra effort to do it. Meanwhile, off go my letters of censure to Delta (reminding them that, as they always say, they realize I have a choice when I travel) and BOA, just so they’ll know not all protesters think they did the right thing. And let’s at least thank goodness for an unusual and welcome side effect: for a few moments in the late spring of 2017, Shakespeare and the theater itself were as relevant as anything can possibly be.

7/3/17: In response to my letter of complaint to Delta Air Lines, I received the following email today: “Thank you for writing to let us know how you feel. No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of Julius Caesar at this summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We are sorry if our decision disappoints you. Thank you for your feedback. Regards, Ms. Rolfe.” I think Delta brass might be trying to officially pin this on the “gore” factor, not the actual one. But Shakespeare is way ahead of them. For example, Titus Andronicus serves up his own children in a fucking pie, and no corporate sponsors have ever said boo about that. The airline doth protest too much, methinks.


A Digital Guy In An Analog World

May 11, 2017

41-donald-trump-elena-kosvincheva.jpgThe Conmander in Chief seemed surprised the other day when Democrats not only failed to applaud his sacking of FBI director James Comey, but instead led a tsunami of howling blowback. The Trumpies were gobsmacked because the boss lives digitally — and that attitude has to trickle down if you want to appease him.

Donald Trump’s worldview is binary, like the basic one-or-zero building block of computing. You’re friend or foe, right or wrong, smart or stupid, rich or poor, safe or scared, strong or weak, winner or loser, Dem or Pub, toady or traitor, predator or prey, kin or stranger, Fox or fake, male or icky, white or threatening. His personality and character are not wired to coexist with nuance or subtlety, which are analog qualities with infinite gradations. Trump’s light switch is on-off. Most others use a rheostat.

Yet that messy imprecision dominates the environment he is forced to inhabit any time he steps outside his protective bubble. This is why foreign policy, for example, is beyond his grasp. He’s simply unable to perceive the shades of grey, the give-and-take required of statesmanship among sovereign nations. But somebody, if not Trump himself, better face it: despite our breathtaking advances in technology, we do not live in a digital world, but an analog one.

Trump evidently thought lefties held a digital view too: Hillary Good, Comey Bad. So getting rid of Comey — for whatever selfish reason — ought to make them cheer. It didn’t occur to him that you could both disapprove of what Comey did (even if unwittingly) to Hillary Clinton and take offense at his sudden dismissal just as he was revving up the FBI’s Russia hacking investigation.

Digital thinking is a temptation in our polarized society. The Comey firing became public just minutes before Stephen Colbert stepped onstage to deliver his monologue Tuesday afternoon. When his audience learned from the comedian that Comey was out, they reflexively applauded. That seemed to take Colbert aback. He and his staff, of course, had had time to think about it. The audience was responding digitally: serves him right for ruining Hillary! (Ludicrously, that was the White House’s official reason for the director’s firing!) But they quickly realized that Trump was really trying to stymie the Russia investigation, and when Jeff Sessions’s involvement was invoked a few minutes later, familiar boos rang out.

From most reports Comey is a stand-up guy who wants to do the right thing and is mortified by what turned out to be his role in the 2016 election. Trump is a narcissistic buffoon who couldn’t care less about how he won (the Electoral College is basically affirmative action for white people) and has never acknowledged any form of error. But as Comey put it in a farewell email to the Bureau, POTUS has the power to fire the FBI director “for any reason, or for no reason at all.” It’s telling that when the action was “imminent,” according to the New York Times, Trump called Lindsey Graham. He called Chuck Schumer. But he didn’t call Jim Comey, who found out he’d been fired when somebody noticed a tv news feed behind his back as he was giving a speech. That’s not a strongman. That’s a pathetic, classless coward.

Each time I thought Trump was done when he dissed John McCain’s war record, insulted a Gold Star family, cheered on goons at that rally, and bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. Each time I was wrong. Maybe he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not disturb the diehards in his 36% approval base. But this time he may at last find himself outnumbered. Dumping Comey was lousy in timing, justification and execution, a trifecta of malice and ineptitude.

How any serious Christian could support Donald Trump — how Mike Pence looks himself in the mirror every morning — has always been beyond me; I just do not understand. Now I add the word “Republican.” No, this isn’t Watergate — Richard Nixon only fired a special prosecutor; this is potentially even worse — but if members of his own party won’t stand up to Trump the way they did to Nixon, it’s not just the FBI’s reputation that’s in jeopardy, but their own as well. Not to mention their jobs. Because the votes of their constituents can be digital too.


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