Jack H. Harris, 1918-2017

March 27, 2017

jack_harris.jpgJack H. Harris passed away a couple weeks ago at 98 after a long and happy life. That name probably means nothing to you, but it means a lot to me. Mr. Harris was partially responsible for my Master’s degree.

Jack Harris was a movie producer with a real eye for developing talent: he produced the first features by John Carpenter and John Landis. But it was his own first feature that cements his place in Hollywood history. In 1958, Jack H. Harris produced THE BLOB.

5546b5c45040e_358452b-986x750.jpgIt was the age of exploitation in the movie business as the industry frantically swatted away against the incursion of television on its customers’ leisure time: movies needed to be — or at least seem to be — bigger, bolder, better. Plus, by the late Fifties the recently christened “teenager” had developed into its own lucrative category for marketers. As another contemporary showman put it, these kids loved cars, girls and ghouls. So movie after movie gave it to them. And towering over them all was a big ball of malevolent jelly, the frickin Blob.

The Blob’s from outer space. It falls to earth in a meteor or something. An old man pokes around the crash site with a stick into some goo that suddenly rushes up the stick and onto his arm! (The old roll-the-film-backward gag, but it looked good to us.) We never see this schnook again. Every time the Blob eats something it gets bigger and hungrier, and how are you going to stop it?

Now here’s the thing. The first people who realize we Earthlings are in trouble are…teenagers! Well, sort of. “Steven” McQueen, in his first leading role, was already 28, and his squeeze Aneta Corseaut — who went on to play Andy Griffith’s Mayberry love interest, Helen Crump — was 25, but you get the idea. The cops don’t want to hear from hepcat Lover’s Lane jalopy jockeys. No adult does. It gets worse and worse until the Blob finally makes its public debut at a crowded movie theater, and by now it’s the size of a movie theater. If the squares had only listened!

blob-1455054521-726x388

The Blob is ready for its closeup at the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, PA.

About fifteen years later, THE BLOB figured into a notion I was mulling for my Master’s thesis at the University of Georgia. I wanted to write something on popular culture — just entering the halls of academia at the time — but there had to be a serious subtext. I decided to look at fantasy and science fiction movies in the period from Hiroshima to JFK’s assassination (when our national innocence evaporated), through a Commiephobe’s point of view. Monsters were then wildly popular, I thesed, because Americans were frightened of Russian saboteurs and uneasy about the still unknown consequences of opening the nuclear Pandora’s box. Invading aliens represented…invading aliens. “Atomic testing” induced wild mutations, most frequently gigantism. And outer space was a fearful place: anything could drop from the sky. Even…a blob!

By now this all may seem obvious, but at the time — I remember listening to the Senate Watergate hearings over my shoulder while working — it was fairly unmowed ground. I touched on dozens of examples in the paper but went into greater detail on four movies, and one of them was THE BLOB. So I have a soft spot for that mound of mush.

Guys like Jack Harris weren’t trying to send a message. They were trying to make money. Most critics savaged THE BLOB, but it became a smash hit, and that means something. If a movie is popular, by definition a great many people have been persuaded to see it. So it is scratching some itch — maybe not even articulated but real just the same.

hqdefaultI’m not sure whether THE BLOB is still part of our shared culture. It once was. Everybody knew the goo, even if they hadn’t seen the flick. But everything has changed. One of the reasons I know Jack Harris’s name is that I created an appendix at the end of my paper with the critical info on about 150 movies, all laboriously gleaned from staring into a tv screen and jotting as fast as I could. At the time I considered that appendix a more important piece of scholarship than the paper itself. But it’s utterly worthless today. Every little cross-referenced mote, down to uncredited cameos, is available with a couple of clicks.

But they still remember THE BLOB in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, the real-life location of that famous movie theater attack. Every year they hold a Blobfest. The next one’s in July. I’ll bet it’s a little sadder now that Mr. Harris is gone, but they’ll honor his memory: after all, NOTHING CAN STOP IT!

Director JACK H. HARRIS poses for photographers as he recieves the 2;517th star on

In 2014, at 95, Jack H. Harris became the oldest honoree in the history of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


Making The Sale

March 9, 2017

h_51493177.jpgIn the early Fifties — the dawn of a Golden Age of advertising, when the new medium of television was jostling recently comfortable postwar, post-Depression families about most everything — a Mad Man named Rosser Reeves came up with a profound theory about how to make tv campaigns effective. He called it the Unique Selling Proposition, and it boils down to this: there is nothing else like our product, therefore you should switch brands to get it.

So, in ad terms, the hard shell of M&Ms “melts in your mouth, not in your hand” like other gooey chocolate candy does. FedEx delivers overnight “absolutely, positively,” unlike any other carrier. KFC uses a “secret” proprietary recipe; so does Coca-Cola. If your Domino’s ‘za isn’t there in 30 minutes, it’s free. Even staid old Smith Barney made money “the old-fashioned way. We earn it.” Unlike, I guess, those other shysters who only push paper around. These days Reeves’s principle is more commonly known as “positioning,” but that’s just nomenclature. The fact is, the ultimate position in commerce is still the USP: everybody wants it and only we have it.

As others have noted, a political campaign is nothing but an instant business startup that has to go from zero to sixty right away. Donald Trump brought his own USP to the 2016 presidential campaign, and I think it did most of his heavy lifting before he ever opened his mouth. It was a simple, even diabolical position: I am a rich, successful non-politician. That bare statement, plain enough for anyone to comprehend, does a whole lot of subliminal selling.

He’s rich. To be sure, there are other politicians who are also rich. (By a remarkable coincidence, many of them managed to become wealthy even while serving in office!) The subtext is, I’m so rich that I don’t have to worry about special interests, because big shots don’t have the money to push me around: I have a screw-you fortune. (“Special interests” are “powerful entities who don’t donate to me,” just as “outside agitators” are “people who oppose me, no matter where they come from.”) To Americans, great wealth also connotes great worth: that pile of dough has to represent someone’s sweat equity, even if Trump inherited his from Pop, whose initial loan set Young Master Donald on his corporate way. Monarchic subjects worldwide know money can represent nothing more significant than ancestry or blind luck, but we are a nation of rolled-up sleeves and tales of derring-do. To us, rich suggests brave and bold were once up in there too.

But what does “rich” mean? Is it the balance-sheet remainder of one’s assets minus one’s debts? Or is it just a lifestyle choice funded by kicking a gilded can ever farther down the road? There are two widely held harrumphs about Trump’s bottom line. (1) He isn’t as rich as he says he is. (2) It’s paper wealth anyhow, funded by bankruptcy relief, “brand equity” and Scroogelike stiffing of subcontractors and other underlings, and could come tumbling to earth at any time. We can’t evaluate (1) because we are not permitted to see the president’s tax returns, and (2) because the Trumpian empire consists of hundreds of dodgy LLCs (546 to be exact, per a disclosure form filed in May 2016), most of which are trading on a brand name instead of a tactile piece of physical property. The Trump Organization’s largest source of revenue is probably licensing, thus putting the word “Trump” on a par with the Playboy bunny logo. I use the word “probably” with faux Trumplike assurance because I don’t know for sure, and neither do you. The boss wants to keep it that way.

Trump has claimed a net worth of more than $10 billion. (At least his campaign office did, on July 15, 2015.) That number fluctuates over time, but as David Cay Johnston, author of the bio THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP, says, “there is not now and never has been any verifiable evidence that Donald Trump is or ever has been a billionaire.” Still, the guy does live in a big-ass tower on Fifth Avenue with his name on it (the White House has basically become his pied-à-terre), so for the sake of argument let’s concede nine-figure “rich.” However, using the president’s own logic, I will state here and now that Trump’s net worth is nowhere near a billion dollars and that’s an absolute true verifiable fact. Now it’s up to him to prove me wrong, and he can’t do it without unzipping his financial fly. So I think I’m on pretty solid ground here when I make my bold, unsubstantiated assertion.

Of course, as the bard of Asbury once observed, “Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain’t satisfied / Till he rules everything.” Even if Trump didn’t need other people’s money to bankroll his campaign — he sure didn’t spend much, since he got most of his national exposure for free — homemade bread doesn’t inoculate him from “special interests,” who would very much like to become very much richer on his watch.

He’s successful. Well, at least he’s still around, and he has many possessions. But he’s gone bust often enough to have made “Donald Risk” — that’s what bankers actually call it: yes, the president of the United States has poor credit — unwelcome at U.S. lenders since the mid-Nineties. (Explain to me again how you can lose money running casinos.) This is why people seriously suspect him of having sizable Russian financial obligations. If he needs capital, he has to raise it from somewhere else, and the oligarchs who sacked the Russian state love to park money in real estate. Note that he’s never mentioned Ukraine, either as candidate or president.

But that’s reality. Instead, this guy deals in perception. For more than a decade Donald Trump has played a CEO on television, whose job it is to fire imaginary employees from an imaginary company. This is the image his fans have seen with their own eyes. Of course he’s successful: he’s the big boss! Just ask Gary Busey! One assumes that his “executive producer” position carries a financial piece of THE APPRENTICE along with it. If so, pretense could be more lucrative than actuality. This program, and not real-life business deals, may even have represented Trump’s major source of income these past few years; a hit tv show certainly enriched his boy Steve Bannon for life. But again, I don’t know, and neither do you.

What you do know regarding “successful” is this. If he incurred a $916 million loss that allowed him, through the use of real-estate tax credits, to avoid federal income tax for nearly twenty years, that doesn’t make him smart. It makes him a businessman who lost a billion frickin dollars.

He’s not a politician. This is the crux of the matter. Trump’s pitch is, politicians got us into all these messes, but elect me and I’ll run the country like a business. (Like I do on tv, not like I did in Atlantic City!) But here’s the thing that escapes many patriots: the government isn’t a business.

One of the hoariest chestnuts regularly heard on the campaign trail is, “You balance your family’s budget, don’t you? Why can’t the government balance its budget?” Well, if you own a home or a car, you probably took out a loan to buy it. In other words, you engaged in deficit spending, you owe more than you have, and you haven’t balanced doodly squat. If you drive on a road, stop at a traffic light, call a cop or fireman, drink water that’s not filthy or flammable, or use the many other benefits we take for granted — we haven’t even touched upon soldiers — it takes money to put them there and keep them there. Government does have a purpose. We have to buy some things collectively if we want them at all. Yes, the national debt is onerous, but that’s why we should pay it down when we run a surplus rather than further cut the taxes of bigwigs.

If you equate America — or any nation — to a business, you’re getting some crucial things wrong. To Trump, our relationship to other countries is analogous to the way some CEOs view their competition. It’s a zero-sum conflict: if we win, you lose. That’s not entirely true for businesses like, say, books, which was my last trade. A bestseller lifts all boats. Everybody wants to have Harry Potter at the expense of the competition, sure, but if Potter explodes, that just brings more people into the real or virtual bookstore, and they don’t have to leave with only that. They might buy some books of yours as well.

Now, an auto purchase is a zero-sum game. If you buy a Nissan, you won’t be shopping at a competing dealer for a good little while. All other automakers have lost a sale. But even so, keeping one’s eye on pure profit can be shortsighted. That’s why Henry Ford’s doubling of the minimum wage while he was rolling out Model Ts was so brilliant. He reasoned: if I pay my people more, I’ll be making less on each car, but they can afford to buy cars themselves! We’ll keep making ever more Model Ts, and earn more money in the long run! “The owner, the employees, and the buying public are all one and the same,” quoth Henry, “and unless an industry can so manage itself as to keep wages high and prices low it destroys itself, for otherwise it limits the number of its customers. One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers.”

We know that Trump’s worldview is of a shark tank where all nations compete for the chum. He based his whole campaign on that, beginning with Mexico. His travel ban is a piece of theater, since no terrorists from the affected countries have ever threatened the U.S. (Why not ban Saudis, who were the majority of the 9/11 hijackers? Oh yeah, I forgot.) It’s vital for Trump’s pitch to identify a nation-state as the enemy, even though there’s no official policy anywhere to “take American jobs” — capitalism is handling that for itself by buying labor as cheaply as it can, anywhere it can. Official job poaching was Rick Perry’s specialty when he was governor of Texas, but that’s interstate ball.

International relations is not a series of “deals.” It’s the result of centuries of finely hewn agreements and disputes and alliances, most of them based not on inward-looking nationalism but the recognition that we live in an intertwined global society. If we somehow can’t get along politically, at the very least we have to respect one another. For example, there’s one big issue that affects us all. The worst of enemies still share the same planet, and its ecosystem is quickly going nuts. Everybody’s on board except one country, and Trump will almost certainly make our shameful reticence and isolation on climate change even worse.

Any leader of the free world needs a Henry Ford moment. If you help others, that will make life better for you too. As departing longtime diplomat Daniel Fried put it, “We are not an ethno-state, with identity rooted in shared blood. The option of a White Man’s Republic ended at Appomattox. We have, imperfectly, and despite detours and retreat along the way, sought to realize a better world for ourselves and for others, for we understood that our prosperity and our values at home depend on the prosperity and those values being secure as far as possible in a sometimes dark world.”

In contrast, the “America First” viewpoint is very close to Trump’s own personality: look out for Number One. Whip the competition by any means necessary. Renegotiate everything. Break stuff. But Newton’s Third Law applies to politics too. If you suggest abdicating or even reducing U.S. commitment to NATO — yes, everybody should pay their fair share — then Germany has to consider going nuclear for its own protection. If you start banning the immigration of putative “bad dudes,” then the next generation of technologists will locate elsewhere. If you make all undocumented aliens vanish, then your crops will rot in the field.

Trump’s “business experience” consists of overseeing a closely held private family firm, answerable to nobody: not directors, not shareholders. As he has already discovered, the powers of the president are great but not unlimited. Now he’s in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy that won’t necessarily do his bidding. He’s already picked fights with the intelligence community, the judiciary, and his predecessor. Wait till Congress puts its dukes up or Putin finally wipes the smile off his face. The best and worst thing about this amateur is the same: there’s no subtlety. He tweets out what he’s thinking, but at least you know what he’s thinking. Unfortunately, so do his many more businesslike counterparts around the world.

1ebc6c36719f7cd18cadb2b884fa8be6.jpg


Readi, Steadi, Go!

February 28, 2017

exovest_girl.jpgLast year was the 40th anniversary of the Steadicam, which revolutionized filmmaking as much as CGI did a tech generation later. The very first Steadicam shot was realized for Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie pic BOUND FOR GLORY (Steadicam shots in MARATHON MAN and ROCKY were filmed later but released earlier), and within a year or so the amazing contraption became available to everybody. Even to us in Mississippi, where I was the first producer in the state to rent a Steadicam, for use in a tv commercial. The leading edge is sometimes the bleeding edge: I wound up wasting money, but I learned a lot in the process.

tumblr_n33o7qxqtq1rovfcgo1_r2_1280

Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown (l.) with Stanley Kubrick and Danny Lloyd on the set of THE SHINING. The Steadicam absolutely made that movie.

A cinematographer named Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam and operated it for each of those movies. The “cam” part of the trademark is a tad misleading. There’s nothing special about the camera itself, which is the very one you already owned. It’s the rig that rocks. The camera operator wears a vest attached to a series of gimbals and counterweights so ingenious that when you adjust everything just right — it’s different for each operator — the camera sort of floats. You can guide it on the gimbal with one finger. Yet the weight of the counterbalance and camera maintains a stubborn inertia, as a bowling ball does when you try to shake it quickly. So minor movements of the operator don’t affect the camera’s orientation. You can take it down to ground level and operate from above. You can walk with it and get an unusually smooth shot. You can run with it. Dash up a flight of stairs (ROCKY). Follow your subject down a hotel hallway or inside a hedge maze (THE SHINING). Walk through a set, twisting and turning as smooth as silk, for a complicated “impossible” shot (BOOGIE NIGHTS, GOODFELLAS). You can even simulate high velocity, as in RETURN OF THE JEDI, for which Brown shot the speeder-bike chase by walking through a redwood forest cranking at only one frame per second instead of the normal 24.

Or you can take a Steadicam up in a helicopter, which is what I did.

That first shot in BOUND FOR GLORY had DPs all over Hollywood abuzz as soon as they heard about it. It began with Garrett Brown shooting from high up in an elevated crane, which slowly boomed down until he could step off and walk forward through the set, all in the same smooth motion. It didn’t look “hand-held” — even the best operators can’t prevent the camera from shaking a little — but what kind of quantum-physics crane was this? Veteran camera operators tended to be rather beefy guys — sort of natural-built Steadicams — but this changed everything and flung the craft open to anybody who could walk a straight line. Panavision marketed its own “Panaglide” stabilization system, and Dean Cundey used it to perfection in HALLOWEEN, especially in the bravura swooping, twisting killer’s-eye-view opening shot.

garretbrown-2aFor our advertising client, a junior college, we wanted to show prospective students that there was a world of possibility at this one institution — both solid vocational training and excellent prep toward finishing a degree at a four-year school. To seize tv viewers’ attention, I imagined doing a reverse BOUND FOR GLORY shot. We’d bring representative gear and people from as many departments as possible outside into a large open space on campus — bigger than a “quad,” but still surrounded on three sides by buildings — to illustrate the school’s vast array. After cutting and dissolving in closeups without revealing where we were, we’d fix on one setup and then pull back, up, up, up, higher than any crane, until we could see the whole tableau from the air. We’d achieve that last shot using a Steadicam.

I did everything I could think of as a producer: organizing the complicated process, setting up weather options just in case, renting the harness a couple days ahead so our operator could get used to it. Shooting day dawned bright and clear, and we’d already begun setting up before sunrise. Our chopper arrived on time and we strapped the operator in so he could lean out the open passenger door. We experimented with a couple of passes and ran into two problems nobody had anticipated.

First, it turns out a Steadicam works better when the operator himself is actually in motion rather than sitting still in a moving vehicle. The shot looked smoother than we could have otherwise gotten, but it wasn’t as mind-blowing as we’d hoped. A little practice, and we learned that slight impromptu camera motion on the way up helped sell the “impossibility.” But by then we’d already stumbled upon the second problem.

There was a little breeze on that bright sunlit day. Not enough to make flying dangerous, but just enough to create a modest crosswind once we passed the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, which were protecting the people on the ground. Try as he might, our pilot couldn’t avoid a slight horizontal motion as he adjusted for the wind change. We hated it, but there was nothing to do except keep trying until we got lucky, so we did, and on one take we did. We’d hoped to do the final move three or four times starting with various departments to make alternate versions of the spot, but we had to settle for the good one in the can. It was nice, but we would have gotten pretty much the same result by bolting the camera down and packing it with sandbags and stuff to muffle shimmy. Then again, as a friend of mine likes to say, it’s all part of life’s rich pageantry.

These days that shoot would have been a piece of cake. We’d have used a drone and beaten the breeze by pulling the shot fifty times instead of fifteen. But in the late Seventies such niceties didn’t yet exist. What did was the baddest piece of gear around, we had it, and we absolutely loved going steadi with our new friend.

4752975841_0774134ca0_o.jpg

The Steadicam map for the opening shot of BOOGIE NIGHTS, which lasts 2 minutes and 45 seconds.


My Sundance 2017

February 2, 2017

sundance-2017-700x435We finally saw the results of a genuine Rocky Mountain winter storm this year in Park City. Good for skiing, I suppose, but bad for getting around to see movies. The plowed drifts were high and the walkways were icy, but we didn’t even get the worst of it. That happened the week before, while most of the Hollywood suits were still in town. I hear navigating the hilly Main Street was a special challenge. They even lost power during one screening for “Sundance Circle” VIPs.

Indoors, I noticed almost immediately that the latest shiny plaything for screenwriters and directors seems to be social media. Packing a cell phone, even texting, is no longer sufficient shorthand for “contemporary story,” but using something like Instagram or Tinder still is. (Swipe-and-like is also the easiest kind of digital interaction to depict in a movie, simple and visual.) In the first film I saw, social media actually drove the plot, then they kept peeking out again and again. Everybody was sizing up potential hotties, even at a police station in Cairo. A trend? Impossible to tell when you see only a fraction of the flicks on tap. This year I caught eighteen:

elizabetholsenaudryplazaingridgoeswest-1200x520INGRID GOES WEST*** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award) A pathologically insecure young woman befriends an “influencer” online, becomes obsessed, and moves to Los Angeles to be closer to her idol. The idea of social-media stalking does feel relatively fresh, and Aubrey Plaza strikes just the right tone of desperate neediness to make us sympathize even as we squirm over her escalating dependency. She worms her way into Elizabeth Olsen’s glamorous life by kidnapping her dog and grandly returning it, but there’s my main problem. The audience is uncomfortably waiting for the other shoe to drop — we knew Plaza was bad news from the opening scene — while the film continues to play too much for fun and giggles. We can’t really settle back for Act II because we know this won’t end well, and it sort of doesn’t. But only sort of. Still, that is one subtle piece of work from the leading lady. Picked up by Neon.

Stars On The Set Of 'Sidney Hall' In NYCSIDNEY HALL**** (World Premiere) Propulsive study of a tortured artist, beginning when he’s eighteen years old and jumping to his 24- and 30-year-old future selves in a screenplay that never shows its cards until it must. The title character is a talented writer in high school whose English teacher shows a partial manuscript to a publishing pal. His first novel is finished and released and he becomes a pheenom, striding self-consciously through New York publishing circles in his twenties with a little of Jay McInerney or David Foster Wallace in his subtle swagger. Six years later he is a scraggly, hirsute hobo who has gone — or maybe fallen — off the grid. We learn only gradually how these changes were wrought in non-sequential scenes, with a tick-tock sense in the background as the senior iteration of the now-reclusive Sidney Hall is pursued by an anonymous badge-flashing investigator. Magnificent performance by Logan Lerman in what are essentially three distinct roles, adjusting his carriage and cadence so naturally between them, despite a fake-o final mop and beard that betrays the indie budget. Elle Fanning shows us a similar transformation as Sidney’s squeeze. Tremendously satisfying in nearly every respect, through filmmakers still have a tough time plausibly portraying a book publisher.

newness-sundanceNEWNESS** (World Premiere) Again with the social media. Two millennials, online-hookup-app addicts, connect and are so good together that they set up house. But that adventurous streak is still there, and for a while they try to combine domesticity with independent wild-oat-sowing. What could possibly go wrong? She (a luscious Laia Costa) is more into “newness” than he (a soulful Nicholas Hoult), and thereby hangs Ben York Jones’s fairly flimsy tale, earnestly realized by Drake Doremus. The images are beautiful but feel itchily voyeuristic. It’s as if some middle-aged guy has just discovered that those young’uns, strangers, are actually tapping their phones to tap each other, as libertine as the hepcats in those ludicrous Sixties “psychedelic” movies. It’s hard to work up much empathy since this truly is another world foreign to me, and, I submit, to most others, including, I’ll wager, the lead actors.

la-et-mn-sundance-la-times-feature-20170117L.A. TIMES*** A smart, amusing trifle, a comedy of manners among a loose orbit of thirtysomething Angelenos. Michelle Morgan wrote, directed and stars (“I have a cameo,” she coyly said in her introduction) as a blithe hypercritical non-romantic. Hilariously featuring awkward prostitution, awkward near-incest, an awkward VERTIGO riff, and so much more awkwardness that Woody Allen reverberates throughout, along with Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson. In fact, that’s the key: if you think much younger people kvetching like the Woodman sounds like fun, then you’ll be right.

the-hero-sam-elliottTHE HERO**** A welcome vehicle for Sam Elliott, who plays it close to the vest as an aging actor known for Westerns, particularly one iconic role in a movie with this same title. His personal life is a jumble, he lives on voiceover work, he indolently drinks whiskey and smokes pot all day, and as the film opens he receives a diagnosis of cancer. While scoring from his dealer and friend — he’d rather buy weed the old-fashioned way than go to a marijuana dispensary — he bumps into an alluring younger customer with a sly smile, and we’re off. Director Brett Haley and co-writer Marc Basch clearly love Elliott, whose signature persona infuses the movie (at a lifetime achievement award ceremony, a smitten woman says she loves his mustache. He nuzzles her with the billowing thing and replies, “And it loves you too.”). Laura Prepon is wonderful as his May-December love interest, and Elliott’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross, shines as his ex. The great thing about this movie is that it’s not bogged down with angst. No magic wand can fix everything, but you can come to terms with most anything. Bought by the Orchard.

mudbound-movie-4MUDBOUND*** (World Premiere) Life in the hardscrabble Mississippi Delta in the Forties, as Jim Crow reigns and World War II pulses in the background. A white farming family and the black clan which survives by working for them each send a son to war while they struggle to tend barren, flood-prone land. Upon returning, the GIs face the same repressive society they left — but in Europe, the black man has gotten used to entering and exiting by the front door and drinking from any fountain he chooses. Born of mutual respect and wartime scars, their interracial friendship offends the locals, led by the white family’s crass, mega-bigoted patriarch. It’s nice to see the Army’s forced camaraderie depicted on screen; it was the first chink in the Deep South’s culture of institutionalized racism and it directly led to the civil rights movement. Except for Pappy McAllan, played with malevolent relish by Jonathan Banks, the white family is portrayed in shades of grey, as much victims of the system as perpetrators. In contrast, the black family, led by the fabulous Rob Morgan as Hap Jackson, is depicted as unremittingly noble: the narrative dice are thus loaded, so this movie isn’t as profound as it thinks it is. But the Louisiana-for-Mississippi setting is beautiful, Carey Mulligan and Jason Clarke do solid work as the McAllans, and there’s a great performance by none other than Mary J. Blige as the Jackson mom. If ever this music thing should fail her, she has a fine acting career ahead. Bought by Netflix.

crownheightsCROWN HEIGHTS**** (U.S. Dramatic Audience Award) The searing true story of Colin Warner, who was convicted of a 1980 murder he didn’t commit, and of his best friend Carl King, who devoted years of his life to proving Colin’s innocence. As if a wrongful conviction wasn’t bad enough, Colin also had the misfortune to be caught in the middle of the Reagan-era get-tough-on-crime wave, and he resolutely refused to take any plea-bargain or early parole deals which required him to confess to something he didn’t do. The amount of time he unjustly served in prison will horrify you. Lakeith Stanfield kills it as Colin and writer-director Matt Ruskin does a great job of keeping us behind bars with only a few glimpses of the outside world, mostly Carl’s increasingly quixotic campaign which his own family begins to doubt. After our screening, Ruskin brought out the real Colin, whose lilt and cadence made us even more appreciative of Stanfield’s interpretation. Ruskin first heard Colin’s story on THIS AMERICAN LIFE, and turned it into something amazing. Picked up by Amazon Studios.

golden-exitsGOLDEN EXITS** Talky, tiresome few months spent with self-absorbed Brooklynites whose routines are disrupted by the arrival of a stunning Aussie student (Emily Browning) whose cheekbones arrive in the room before she does. Everyone is trying their best, but the 94-minute running time feels twice as long.

fun-mom-dinner_0FUN MOM DINNER**** (World Premiere) A kinetic, furniture-smashing romp: BRIDESMAIDS, but with moms. (Judd Apatow is again responsible.) A mom’s night out for four women escalates into a picaresque odyssey. The energy is high, the humor is low — jokes and biological matter both fly — but there’s a sweetness throughout as the quartet, some of whom hate each other at the top, bonds in the most eccentric ways possible. Great ensemble work by the Apatowian posse (Paul Rudd’s wife wrote it), but the headliner is Bridget Everett, who steals every shot she’s in, much like Melissa McCarthy can. This is not a great film. It doesn’t even want to be a great film. It only wants to make you laugh, and in the realm of cheerful anarchy — a love letter to mothers with some naughty bits too — it’s a scream. FUN MOM DINNER probably has the greatest commercial potential of any movie I saw this year. Bought by Netflix.

walking-out-movie-sundance-film-festival-2017-800x360WALKING OUT*** A tale of survival in snowy Montana, as a teenager joins his estranged father for a hunting trip that turns into a life-and-death struggle in a split second. The majestic Big Sky winter is gorgeous but forbidding; expansive helicopter and drone shots both sell the isolation and make the film look bigger. I’d imagine the only way a shoot could have been more difficult would be to set it on the open sea, but the weather is tamed, and we really feel the cold, hunger and thirst. Matt Bomer and Josh Wiggins as father and son nearly carry the entire picture, but there are nice flashbacks to a grizzled Bill Pullman as Bomer’s dad, and it was wonderful to see Lily Gladstone in a cameo near the heart-tugging end. Superb, absolutely convincing animal effects.

jessica-williams-film-the-incredible-jessica-james-to-close-sundance-2017-715x405-1THE INCREDIBLE JESSICA JAMES*** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) Jim Strouse used Jessica Williams in 2015’s PEOPLE PLACES THINGS, and just knew he had to write a whole movie for her. A former correspondent for THE DAILY SHOW, Williams combines wide-eyed ebullience with cheerful snark to, sorry, light up the screen. She’s going to be a star. Here she’s a New York playwright who’s getting over a breakup when she meets shaggy but lovable Chris O’Dowd, in similar straits himself. At first they use each other for support, but the relationship might become serious if Jessica can fend off her mooning ex-boyfriend. There are no real villains here, and the story is rather predictable: it’s the details and the laugh lines that make it work, along with the force of the leading lady’s personality. Though it’s really nothing special, this movie will be remembered as Jessica Williams’s breakout. Picked up by Netflix.

the-big-sick-movieTHE BIG SICK***** (World Premiere) My favorite movie this year. It’s based on the real-life experiences of Pakistan-born comic Kumail Nanjiani (best known as the nerdy coder in the SILICON VALLEY house), who falls in love with a cute grad student, Emily (Zoe Kazan), at a Chicago gig. So far, so good — except that Kumail’s parents follow Pakistani tradition, meaning his will be an arranged marriage (his mom makes sure female prospects “happen to drop by” during family dinners). He even keeps his romance a secret because his folks would never accept a white girl, and it breaks her heart when she finds out. Then, still furious at Kumail, Emily contracts a serious illness, his family disowns him, and his life begins to unravel. This wonderful film deftly walks the line between comedy and pathos: it’s never insensitive or maudlin. The stand-up comics in Kumail’s world, especially the Greek chorus of Aidy Bryant and Bo Burnham — supportive but itching to leave Chicago for New York — are really funny (unlike Laura Prepon’s bit in THE HERO), and so is Kurt Braunohler as Kumail’s roommate, a comic who’s not funny. Emily’s parents, expertly played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, rush to her side from North Carolina, hopping mad at Kumail for hurting her. Hunter’s clash with a heckler at Kumail’s show is an instant classic. You might be tempted to dismiss this multifaceted premise as too convoluted, but Kumail and the real Emily co-wrote the script: it’s based on their true story. A fine job by all concerned, well-made and satisfying. A big revelation is that Kumail Nanjiani can act, and this may even put him on the map alongside Jessica Williams. Picked up by Amazon.

an-inconvenient-sequel-truth-to-powerAN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER**** (World Premiere, Festival Day One) Why do a follow-up to Al Gore’s Oscar-winning AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH? Because global climate change hasn’t rested in the ensuing ten years. There’s plenty of news — not all of it is even bad. That famous slide show, which is now presented all over the world by Gore and an army of volunteers, has gotten ever more sophisticated and persuasive: some inconvenient truths will make you fearful, others will make you cheer. This film follows Gore as he travels the world to try and keep public attention focused on the existential crisis of our age. It doesn’t shy away from the bouts of despair that all climate activists occasionally feel; sometimes it seems that shortsighted deniers hold all the money and levers of power. But Gore, who calls himself a “recovered politician,” has made urging action on climate change his life’s work. People who took potshots against the original TRUTH, accusing Gore of exaggeration and fantasy, are refuted with video tape of “impossible” flooding, a rapidly melting ice shelf, and “hundred-year” meteorological events which now occur with frightening regularity. Some people believe we live in a post-truth age. But to his immense credit, Al Gore isn’t having any of it. Opens wide on July 28.

discoveryTHE DISCOVERY** (World Premiere) There’s a great premise here: a scientist (Robert Redford) has discovered empirical proof of an afterlife, or an “alternate plane of existence,” as he calls it. In the two years since then, the world has been awash in suicides as people discard their bodies to “get there.” Nice idea, but it’s exhausted in the first five minutes. What we’re left with is lots of desultory talk as estranged son Jason Segel travels to Redford’s compound to try and convince him to tell the world he’s wrong and stop the carnage. (One character muses that murder can’t be far behind, since you’d only be sending your victim to a better place.) The exteriors are dull and gray. The interiors have that yellow-green tint that says “filthy hospital.” Now Redford is claiming to be able to record the passage visually, so everybody undergoes an impenetrable experiment, including Segal and Redford. Rooney Mara is around looking blond and creepy. A surprise reveal at the end comes out of the blue and might explain some of the technique, but it’s too little too late. This film combines the pace of SOLARIS with the yakety jargon of PRIMER. Before it’s over, you may understand why “getting there” became so popular.

The Nile Hilton Incident - Still 1THE NILE HILTON INCIDENT*** (Grand Jury Prize: World Dramatic) As a Cairo police detective investigates the 2011 hotel murder of a popular singer, he begins to realize that the case winds upward through the highest strata of wealth and power. This isn’t exactly a whodunit, since the audience knows perfectly well who. It’s more of a police procedural, but the Egyptian system is rife with bribes and other corruption, and our central character (Fares Fares) is certainly part of it. What he learns is that you can be so rich that you’re essentially immune, like a diplomat. This movie takes us through Cairo’s underbelly; here we’d call it a noir. Everybody smokes, all the time.

dina_still_sundance_-_publicity_-__h_2017DINA*** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Documentary) An intimate look inside the unusual romance of two people who are both on the autism spectrum. Dina Buno and Scott Levin met at a Philadelphia social group for neurologically diverse adults, founded by the late father of one of the filmmakers; Dina has been a family friend for 48 years. We see them plan for their wedding, attend night-before parties, interact with their parents, spend a day at the beach, and approach the issue of sex, which Dina expects and which seems to unnerve Scott. Dina has endured travails which would break most people: she lost her first husband to cancer and survived a brutal knife attack from a deranged later boyfriend, yet she’s still gregarious and optimistic about her new relationship. The access is remarkable, probably because Dina feels comfortable around co-director Dan Sickles. Some people may be offended by what they view as exploitation; are Dina and Scott even capable of giving informed consent? What struck me again and again, though, was how easy it was to look past their obvious disabilities and recognize issues common to many other earnest relationships. The bottom line is that Dina and Scott are good people, and it was nice being able to spend time with them.

i-dont-feel-at-home-in-this-world-anymoreI DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE*** (Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic) Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is the kind of person who hates it when you leave dropped groceries in the aisle or bring too many items to the express register. If these little things tick her off, imagine her rage on finding her home burgled and her laptop stolen. She determines to track down the thieves along with her weirdo, martial-arts-obsessed neighbor (Elijah Wood), but the trail leads to a group of hardened criminals and the amateur A-team is suddenly way out of their league. This movie takes a right turn once they fall deeper into the rabbit hole, and leads to some brutal violence. Writer-director Macon Blair owes a lot to Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, who can stage sudden setpieces that are gruesome yet provoke surprised laughter, such as the shooting of Steve Buscemi in FARGO. A home invasion sequence here leaves blood everywhere but it doesn’t take long to do it. What’s left is Ruth’s preternatural focus, which after a while becomes amusing in itself. A nice first feature, but obviously not for everyone. If you aren’t into the filmmakers named above, you should probably stay away. But if you are, this is one wild ride. Streaming on Netflix.

roxanne_roxanne_-_still_1_-_h_2017ROXANNE ROXANNE*** (Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance: Chanté Adams) The fictionalized story of “Roxanne Shante,” the real 14-year-old rapper from Queensbridge who in the mid-Eighties was the best battle emcee in New York, just as mike-dropping duels were about to take off. I had the same feeling I did when I watched 8 MILE years ago: Eminem seemed like a credible actor, but I couldn’t understand a damn word he rapped. This is Chanté Adams’s movie: she spends most of it in braces, sporting that closed-lip smile that embarrassed teenagers use. Then she matures on camera, and when she returns to the hood with teeth gleaming, you can hardly believe it’s the same actress. This movie was not made for me, but I enjoyed Adams’s performance, which I guess was the whole idea behind its special jury award. Picked up by Neon.

WISH I’D SEEN: BRIGSBY BEAR, A GHOST STORY, MARJORIE PRIME, THE POLKA KING, RESERVOIR DOGS (a 25th anniversary screening with QT present), WIND RIVER, XX, THE YELLOW BIRDS

img_0137

Previous Sundance Reports

2015   2014   2013   2012   2011   2010   2009   2008


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, um, 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.

women-640x360


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.


%d bloggers like this: