"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
April 30, 2013
BASEBALL/POP CULTURE: 42
Over the weekend, I went to see 42, the Jackie Robinson movie. A few thoughts, with spoilers for those of you who do not already know the story by heart (I can't say my take here is that radically different from a number of other reviews I've read from other baseball writers):
1. The movie is a snapshot - not the full story of either Robinson's life and career or the integration of baseball. It starts with Branch Rickey's decision to bring a black player to the Dodgers in 1945, and ends with the Dodgers winning the 1947 NL pennant. Even within that snapshot, once Jackie makes the Dodgers' minor league team in Montreal, almost nothing is shown of his 1946 season, and some other events are compressed (the Cardinals get off easy, as the film focuses on the Phillies as the main villians who threatened not to take the field against an integrated team). That keeps the plot and pacing relatively tight (even though the endpoint is no surprise), but it necessarily leaves off a lot of background and detail as well as the other storied chapters of Robinson's career. And relatedly, the film is intended mainly to tell Robinson's story to a generation of moviegoers who don't know all the details, so there's a bit of broad exposition that would not be necessary for people like me who are already steeped in the whole story.
2. The performances are everything they needed to be. Harrison Ford - while still recognizably Harrison Ford - steals every scene he's in as Branch Rickey, and captures "Mr. Rickey's" character and style (complete with his trademarks - his sermonizing speaking style and outrageously bushy eyebrows). Similarly, Christopher Meloni and John C. McGinley look, act and sound like the real Leo Durocher and Red Barber, other than Meloni being a lot bigger and bulkier than the diminutive Lip.
Chadwick Boseman has the unenviable task for a young actor of having to carry the film while competing with Ford and other more experienced actors, but while he doesn't mimic Robinson's high-pitched voice, he captures the man's fierce competitive drive and hatred of segregation, and perhaps even more importantly he's truly believable at bat and on the basepaths, where Jackie worked his memorable magic. More broadly, the baseball in the movie is really well-done: the players, the game and the parks all look like 1940s baseball. Brad Beyer as Kirby Higbe, for example, looks very much the part of your typical Sourthern farm boy turned power pitcher of that era.
In some ways, Jackie Robinson's challenge in holding his temper in check and channeling it into the game reminds me of what I've written about George Washington; neither was the kind of man to meet adversity with Zen-like calm, but both managed to become complete masters of their own powerful emotional currents - anger, rage, despair - and present to the world a stoic face. That's an incredibly impressive skill, for such a strong personality to remain so contained. The film captures that challenge, and takes some dramatic license to illustrate it with a scene (which almost certainly did not happen) of Robinson breaking down in the tunnel behind the dugout and requiring a pep talk from Rickey.
(Nicole Beharie is elegant as the still-elegant Rachel Robinson, but doesn't really have much of a role to work with beyond the standard baseball-wife scenes. The film does spend some time with the Robinsons as newlyweds, which reminds me of an interesting question that I think I asked on Twitter a while back to not much satisfactory response: what is cinema's most compelling black romantic couple? We can all name lots of famous onscreen romances, but it's only much more recent films that have really developed those relationships between a black man and a black woman, and I can't think of one that stands out as iconic. But there has to be one I'm not thinking of.)
3. The dialogue is frequently terrible, windy and too self-aware, and there's a handful of scenes that are anachronistic in the way the characters speak and interact (men in the late 40s didn't talk with each other about their feelings a lot, for example). While the usual rule in biographical films is to avoid mimicry, the best dialogue is actually characters like Rickey, Barber, Durocher and Happy Chandler speaking the way those men actually spoke (I sat through all approximately 478 hours of Chandler's Hall of Fame induction speech in 1982). Branch Rickey really did talk as if he was orating for the history books; most of his players did not.
4. The movie's inaccuracies were irritating but few and minor. Leo Durocher's suspension for the 1947 season is portrayed as solely the result of his scandalous affair with Laraine Day, when in fact the stated reason for the suspension was over Durocher consorting with gamblers (Happy Chandler also cited "the accumulated unpleasant incidents in which he has been involved," which also covered the affair and a variety of Leo's other feuds). (I'll forgive the filmmakers for sneaking into a night-time phone conversation Leo's iconic "Nice guys finish last" line). Pee Wee Reese is given Gene Hermanski's famous clubhouse wisecrack about how the Dodgers should all wear 42 when Jackie gets a death threat, so nobody could tell which one was him. Fritz Ostermuller's family claims that the film inaccurately portrays him as a racist who beaned Robinson in a game. (The family of Ben Chapman, who eventually repented of his racist torments of Robinson late in life, could make no such claim). The film ignores Dan Bankhead, the second black Dodger who joined the team in late August. But on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the attention to getting details right that historians of the game would notice. The movie captured both the essential truths of Robinson's battle against the color line and the twists along the way. Particularly interesting and mostly accurate was the differing motivations of the players who rallied around Robinson, from Reese's reluctant solidarity (as a son of Kentucky) to the scrappy Eddie Stanky, who like his mentor Durocher would walk over fire for you if you were on his team and could help him win a ballgame.
Every generation learns history anew, and Jackie Robinson's corner of history is one worth retelling. If you haven't seen 42 yet, you should.
April 16, 2013
WAR: Calling The Thing By Its Name
Three hours after yesterday's Boston Marathon Bombings, President Obama gave a short statement in which he pointedly declined to use the word "terrorism." Shortly after his appearance, an unnamed White House official issued a written statement "Any event with multiple explosive devices -- as this appears to be -- is clearly an act of terror, and will be approached as an act of terror." Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel echoed that this morning, calling the bombings a "cruel act of terror." This morning, Obama followed suit, specifically using the term "terrorism."
Presidents must choose their words carefully in these situations, and I do not fault Obama for moving with caution* just hours after the attack, when he undoubtedly had not had the time to gather the full input of all the relevant agencies or separate fact from rumor.** But he is right to call this what it is; as as we move forward, we must all have the courage and clarity to call this terrorism.
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The Act of Terror
We do not yet know who launched yesterday's attacks, what their motive or cause was, whether they had any outside assistance, or even whether they believed they were acting for or against any political, religious or social cause at all. And I recognize that standard governmental definitions of terrorism often demand that these things be present. But in my view, this is mistaken, and part of the confusion that has plagued us for years, especially since September 11.
By definition, setting off bombs in a crowd of civilians at a peaceable event should be regarded as terrorism, regardless of what kind of terrorism it is. Of course, terrorism by a lone domestic nutjob with no coherent political ideology and no real allies presents different issues and requires different solutions than terrorism committed by an international organization with money, ideology, know-how and a recruiting and logistical apparatus. But both meet the essential criteria of terrorism: they seek to spread fear and horror by mass violence directed at society at large. Moreso than individual crime, the harm they cause is larger than the victims themselves: acts of this nature have a disproportionate cost in public fear and naturally tend to lead to expenditure of money on public safety and restrictions on liberty in order to preserve the ability of citizens to gather safely in public places. That harm is the same regardless of the motive.
This is related to why I favor an objective definition of hate crimes, in which motive is similarly irrelevant. If the circumstances of a crime would cause an objective observer of the crime to believe it's a hate crime, it's a hate crime and should be singled out for an elevated degree of punishment regardless of the motive and regardless of the kind of hate involved; the appearance of targeting a stranger for violence for any identifiable or apparent characteristic should be enough. Let me elaborate with an example: a white man attacks a black stranger in public, while shouting the "N word". It doesn't matter whether that crime is racially motivated or not - the effect will be a larger intimidation of black people in the area than a random street crime, because a reasonable observer would believe that it signifies that black people are in danger there merely due to the color of their skin. It's that additional effect that we punish above and beyond the punishment for the crime itself. If it looks like a random street crime but the perpetrator secretly reads skinhead books at home, the effect is not the same (obviously the use of racial slurs is not the the only objective indicia you would look to, but the test should be an objective one considering the observable circumstances). As with an objective definition of terrorism, eliminating motive has a clarifying effect: certain acts cause harm beyond their victims by nature of act, and are more damaging for that reason.
Terrorism At War
This may seem like a semantic point, but it is not. The inability to define our words with clarity, and to use them to draw meaningful distinctions, always has consequences. This is even more true at war as it is in domestic disputes like the battle over the meaning of the word "marriage" or the various efforts at euphemisms to describe abortion. Whatever words we use, sooner or later become the name of the thing. Words are never unimportant.
The effort to put specific kinds of political terrorism in a box separate from other mass atrocities is partly a result of the imprecision of the term "War on Terror": the Obama Administration doesn't want to admit to suffering a major terrorist attack on American soil, and doesn't want to feel compelled to ramp up the whole "War on Terror" machinery over every such incident. The fault runs back to the Bush Administration's use of the term - you don't fight wars against a tactic, but an enemy, and the difficulty of defining an enemy has been a major part of our difficulty in properly explaining at home and to the world what we are doing and why. Part of what we've been struggling with since September 11 is that our imprecise language reflects inability to think or communicate clearly.
America is not at war with Islam any more than it is at war with "Terror" or "Terrorism," but a specific faction within Islam is at war with us, and not every terrorist attack or international dispute in the world is part of that war. You can call them, for lack of a better term, Islamists; we can debate the proper nomenclature ("Islamofascist" was more accurate but clunkier), but you cannot be a serious person and ignore their existence and role in violence around the globe. The enemy is not a single terrorist organization, but a larger movement with a political ideology that spans state and non-state actors, Arab and non-Arab Muslims, and factions within both Sunni and Shi'ite Islam. It is a political movement with political ideas and goals, albeit ideas and goals that are advocated in the name of a religion and with citation to religious authority. The relationship between Islamism and Islam is a subject for another day, but it's important to recall that, in addition to citing chapter and verse of the Koran and the history of the ummah, the political movement's propaganda and ideology also borrow extensively from Western sources - the propaganda and ideology of the Nazis, the Communists and academic lefists of the Edward Said/Noam Chomsky variety (all of whom have borrowed freely from each other's sources of propaganda over the years when it suits their purposes).
As an act, the Boston Marathon Bombings are terrorism whether or not they turn out to be connected to that war. If evidence shows that they are not connected, that does not change the ongoing nature of the war, which thankfully has mostly been conducted outside the United States and outside the West since the London bombings of 2005, as the attention of the Islamists has turned to the turmoil within the heartland of North Africa, the Arab Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. If it does turn out to be connected, we will undoubtedly be reviving many of the debates we have had previously about the "War on Terror." Either way, we should not fear to call either the act or the perpetrators by their true names. Calling a thing what it is, is the first step to facing it.
* - Yes, I know that, in other cases like the Henry Louis Gates flap and the Trayvon Martin story, Obama has been quick to jump in with hair-trigger conclusions when he feels he can score a point. But that's not a trait of his to encourage. Likewise, there's a longstanding pattern, repeated again yesterday in some quarters, of mainstream media figures and liberal politicians rushing to convince the public before the facts are in that every terrorist act and mass shooting is the work of right-wing extremists. But again, this sort of thing should be denounced, not imitated. Political conclusions about a terrorist act can await the facts.
** - This is why Mitt Romney botched the criticism of Obama on Benghazi. The problem wasn't when the President used the right word; it was the fact that the Administration was pushing a false factual narrative (that the attack in Benghazi was the result of a protest against a YouTube video rather than a planned assault backed by Islamist extremists) well after the Administration knew it to be false.
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POLITICS: The Popup Presidency
I went to the White House website this morning, whitehouse.gov, looking for a copy of the President's statement on the Boston Marathon Bombings, and instead found the front page roadblocked by this popup ad:
Now, the White House's website is inevitably - and properly - going to reflect the president's governing agenda. But it shouldn't be necessary to explain why the White House deserves an official .gov website with less overt partisanship & more dignity than popup agitprop. The fact that the website would be doing this even this morning, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on American soil, is sadly reflective of the current occupant's partisan smallness.
Joe Klein, usually a bitter-ender defender of all things Democratic, has complained of late that the shoddy implementation of Obamacare illustrates that "Barack Obama is not a 'how' President" - he's long on public pressure campaigns and short on actually making the government run properly. So perhaps we should not be surprised that the White House website is now just another vehicle for left-wing community organizing. But we can still be disappointed that, five years into his Presidency, this is what it has come to.
April 9, 2013
POP CULTURE: Oz
A few weeks back, I took my family to see Oz, the Great and Powerful, the Disney reboot that has drawn - from reviewers and people whose opinions I trust - wildly divergent reviews, some people liking it and others loathing. (This review's a little late, but I had written about half of it shortly after seeing the film). We hadn't planned in advance on seeing the movie and had paid only modest attention in advance to reviews and the massive promotional campaign (which included a yellow brick road installed in the middle of Penn Station), so perhaps I was spared the expectations that a lot of others brought to the film. It won't go down anywhere in movie history next to the original - parts probably won't hold up that well on repeated viewing - but there was enough movie magic to make it well worth our while.
A few quick disclaimers. First, we saw the film in 3-D, so your mileage may vary if you skipped the 3-D or watch it at home.
Second, I'm a sucker for fantasy or sci-fi as long as it's at all competently done. I enjoyed, more or less, the Star Wars prequels, even if they were not what they should have been. I enjoyed reading the Eragon books, derivative as they were, to my kids. Heck, I actually re-watched The Black Hole with my kids not long ago. Just give me something to work with.
Third, I regard the original Wizard of Oz as the greatest movie of all time. Not my personal favorite (that would be Star Wars, followed by The Untouchables), but certainly a movie I've seen more times than I could count. While you can make the case on pure artistic merits for competitors like Citizen Kane, The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia, the Wizard of Oz stands out among the all-time great movies as having the broadest appeal across ages, genders, generations, and genres; a classic story that long since transcended its original political allegory; scores of memorable and quotable lines appropriate to many situations; breathtaking, groundbreaking and still-fresh-today cinematography that is woven into the plot; lots of songs that range from the memorable to the classic; and some vivid performances, from the star-making turn for Judy Garland (the best female vocalist of the first half of the twentieth century) to the iconic roles of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West and a slippery-limbed Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow.
Tampering with the original movie would be borderline heretical. But I had no real objection to doing an Oz prequel - Frank Baum wrote more than a dozen other Oz stories himself. And in fact, not only did the original film take some liberties with Baum's classic, Baum himself had previously done so when adapting it to the stage. (The Broadway show Wicked, which I have not seen, covers the same time period as the Disney film, albeit - from what I understand - with a radically different story). What matters is whether the adaptation is done well.
With those preliminaries out of the way, my review - spoilers included - below the fold.
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As I said, Oz contains a lot of visual movie magic, riots of color that evoke the original film. But it rises and falls on its story and characters. The most emotionally powerful moments come from one of the few parts of the movie with no real parallel in the original film: the scenes with the China Doll and the devastated China Town are heavy tearjerking, but effective nonetheless. The cheesiest scene is the concluding duel between Glinda the Good and Evanora, the Wicked Witch of the East, which essentially rips off Yoda's showdown with Palpatine in the Senate chamber in Revenge of the Sith.
It's the actors that have to bring life to all that CGI. As prominent as their works are, I'd actually never seen anything with James Franco, Mila Kunis or Michelle Williams in their entirety (naturally, I've seen parts of the Spider-Man films and bits of some That 70s Show episodes). Williams lends warmth and emotional depth to Glinda, and Rachel Weisz chews the scenery with campy, vampy abandon as the Wicked Witch of the East. But the really polarizing performances are by Franco and Kunis, the young leads.
Both of their performances betray the callowness of youth, in contrast to the Wizard and the Wicked Witch of the West we remember from the original film, especially the toweringly theatrical malice of Hamilton's Wicked Witch. But of course, those are mature characters; these are confused young people finding their way in the world, and we would expect them to be less mature and imposing. It's the same basic challenge of every prequel giving youthful backstory to an iconic character.
Franco too often fell into the Joe Biden trap of letting his teeth emote for him, and at times he's too obviously unbelievable for the trust people place in him, but on the whole his Wizard stole enough scenes to pull off the Big Con. It's easy enough, watching him as a young man on the make, to see in him the tired old Wizard eager for a last look at his home when he greets Dorothy - who, this film suggests, is the daughter of a woman he left behind in Kansas. (One continuity irritant: we never see how he gets his original hot air balloon back to the Emerald City).
Then there's Kunis as Theodora, the Wicked Witch of the West (Kunis, by the way, is almost certainly the last major American film or TV star born in the Soviet Union; her average-American-teen locution is a facade to cover the fact that English is not her native tongue). When we meet her, her big puppy dog eyes are impossibly enchanting, a physical counterpart to the almost excessive beauty of the Land of Oz. (My wife was more offended by the idea that she was wearing leather pants and high-heeled boots in 1905, but this is a fantasy world and she's a witch; some license can be forgiven in the area of literally outlandish clothing). On the scale of cinematic transformations to the Dark Side, her turn into the Wicked Witch is no Michael Corleone, and the filmmakers took an easy out by having her transformed by a single, irrevocable magical choice, but her woman-scorned is miles more convincing than Hayden Christensen's Anakin Skywalker. Rather than a maestro of wickedness, Kunis plays Theodora as a merciless zealot with the fervor of a new convert - shocking even her more purposely wicked sister - giving herself over wholly to a bitterness that has literally rotted her.
Just as J.R.R. Tolkien intended Middle-Earth to provide a distinctly English fairy tale, Frank Baum designed Oz to be a distinctly American fantasy world, and Disney's Oz stays true to that ambition. Where Tolkien's cast of characters was full of duty-bound aristocrats and humble gardeners resistant to change and technology, the Wizard is a blend of audacious self-promotion and Yankee ingenuity, a disciple of Thomas Edison who borrows from Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in his improvisation. Some reviewers have characterized the film's message as a trite "believe in yourself," but that's not exactly what's going on here - Oz at the beginning of the film is full of self-confidence and big dreams, and he's failing miserably. What he learns, in part, is how to accept responsibility, but even that's not really all that selfless, what with trading in his threadbare transient showman's existence for a hoard of gold, a beautiful and (literally) enchanted woman and power over a luminous city. More importantly, Oz learns to take his friends, his allies and his talents where he can find them - to, as Don Rumsfeld would say, go to war with the army he has, rather than the army he'd like to have.
Disney has reportedly signed at least Franco and Kunis to a sequel, which will present new challenges: the plot will be even more constrained by the problems of prequel-hood, and the actors will have to add more gravitas to characters who can rely less on their youth and newness as the story progresses. But at least the first visit back to Oz was worth the trip.
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April 2, 2013
POP CULTURE: Death at Downton
Like a lot of its more recent viewers, I was originally skeptical of the Downton Abbey phenomenon, somewhat grudgingly agreed to watch it with my wife, and got completely hooked by the end of the first episode. The show is a really excellent example of both historical fiction and character drama. Some have complained that Downton is something of a glorified soap opera, but of course that's true of any drama, especially an episodic TV drama - the line between Shakespeare and the soaps is often one of degree, not kind. I was particularly sucked in by the World War I storylines that dominated the second season.
That said, I think the show will face a serious problem as it enters its fourth season.
NOTE: SPOILERS FOLLOW IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN ALL THREE SEASONS
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Dramas do need to kill off characters now and then, and as you know if you watched through the end of the third season, Downton Abbey upped the ante dramatically this season by not only killing off younger sister Sybil in childbirth but then - in a particularly melodramatic sequence - killing Matthew Crawley in a car accident driving home from seeing his first-born son for the first time at the hospital.
The show's writers had no real choice but to get rid of Matthew, given that actor Dan Stevens wanted off the show (a decision he only half-explains in interviews), and the manner of his death felt a little like the writers were making it deliberately soap-operatic in a snit.
The smaller problem for the show is that Matthew's death leaves the younger generation of the family depleted - only two of the sisters now remain, plus Sybil's widower Branson, requiring the show to add a theatrically flighty new female cousin who seems designed to blunder into trouble in screamingly obvious fashion. The larger problem is that the show's narrative lens is now broken, probably beyond repair. The world of Downton Abbey is a world quite different from our own, and while parts of that world are glamorous and attractive, the whole idea of an idle aristocracy supported by - and supporting - a tirelessly laboring servant class is quite literally un-American and in many ways ridiculous to the modern eye. Particularly at the show's start, there were very few characters who were both sympathetic and worthy of the viewer's respect. But crucially, we were given a bridge into the world of Downton by two outsiders who had to work their way into the two levels (upstairs and downstairs) of the household - Matthew, the practicing lawyer with middle class tastes and work ethic who often found the place as silly as the average viewer did, and Mr. Bates, the wounded Boer War veteran who had to surmount opposition among the servants to secure his position as valet and who, alone on the staff at the time, knew a world outside "service."
Many of the other characters have become more sympathetic and three-dimensional since the opening; Matthew had become more thoroughly assimilated, while the other servants got out in the world more, with two of them going to the trenches. Mr. Bates' term of imprisonment for a crime he kinda sorta didn't commit (but believably could have) made it necessary to change the way the downstairs part of the show unfolded.
But the show's basic perspective on the family at the center remained: Matthew's modern, professional-class sensibilities bridged the gap between the world of the Crawleys and the world of the viewers, who got to see them through his eyes. Branson (at his best a prickly, impulsive and Utopian character), as the remaining outsider, is no substitute for Matthew; the show has never really written episodes from his point of view, and it would be late to start now. That means that the sisters don't just need new love interests; the show, in effect, needs a new protagonist. That's generally easier said than done. I have to think the narrative problems caused by Matthew's departure will doom the show to extinction at the end of the fourth season, already an unusually long run by the standards of this kind of British TV. Which is a shame; the third season wasn't as good as the first two, but the show did not, previously, feel as if it was ready to run its course.
Then again, the aristocracy didn't see it coming either.
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