Entries from August 2012 ↓

Clint Am Us (or US)

I didn’t witness Clint Eastwood’s ride into Samuel Beckett territory last night as I had tickets to see the Best Team in Baseball play the Defending World Series Champions. I heard about it, though, the minute I came home from Nationals Park and patched into the digital hive-mind. And the chatter continues well past dawn (Oh the humanity!): The bitter laughter, the gnashing of teeth, the told-you-so smugness from the Clint haters juxtaposed with the exasperated Clint acolytes who have for decades defended his work despite his politics and whose reactions to last night’s monologue-with-empty-chair range from bemusement to avowals that they’ll never watch his Blu-Rays again.

 
As Marie Windsor, that great Mormon character actress, once muttered to a randy Jeff Bridges in Hearts of the West, “Lie down and cool off!” Those taken aback by Eastwood’s woozy-looking appearance should have taken the time yesterday afternoon to consult Christopher Orr’s astute preview charting the peripatetic course of Eastwood’s politics. (Note: I said “politics”, not “ideology.” We’ll discuss the distinction further along.) As Orr recounts, Eastwood has always been the Republican equivalent of a “yellow-dog Democrat”, i.e. someone who’d vote for a Democrat even if it were a yellow dog. Indeed, Clint’s been truer to the GOP than many a so-called Reagan Democrat insisting on being the “true” voice of the legacies of FDR, Truman, JFK and so on.

 
Still, for a lifelong Republican, Eastwood’s made some funny noises over time; the most recent of them coming in a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler this past February with his “Halftime for America” narration that was so reminiscent of a Joe Biden pep rally that Karl Rove called him out for it. (All Eastwood had to do, apparently, was squint back at Rove to make Ol’ Turd-Blossom say nothing more about the matter.) He cops to being fiscally conservative, but is also pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage and, as his movies, musical tastes and inter-personal relationships prove, sympathetic to multi-cultural concerns.

 
In short, he’s a lot of things at once and no one thing in particular. When you smile and say, “Hello”, to Mr. Eastwood, you are greeting the American electorate itself whose politics are considered a personal, even an intimate matter because they come not from the brain, or the heart, but from the glands.

 
The extremist-libertarian Republicans who seek to squeeze Eastwood and, for that matter, the voters into their ideological camp are in for profound disappointment, no matter what transpired last night or will happen over the next couple months. This is because – and let’s read along slowly because some of you have trouble accepting this – America is not now and never has been an ideological country. Let me summarize:
Americans?
Ideological?
Antithetical!
No way!
Aint Happ’nin!
What do you want on your pizza?

 

Those liberal Lefties in whose consequentiality Newt Gingrich continues to invest a near-poignant belief stumbled into the aforementioned conclusion decades ago, but have yet to figure out what to do about it. Paul Ryan and company will assuredly discover the same thing. The only question being how much damage to Truth and Justice will be done by then.

 
As confirmation for the glandular state of political life, or at least, the perception of political life, one need look no further than Veep, the HBO sitcom starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a self-aggrandizing, self-sabotaging VPOTUS. As with many critics of the series, I had misgivings early on about the show’s sly avoidance of fixing  Dreyfus’s Selena Mayer in any political party or (of course) ideology. Her pet causes – filibuster reform, the environment – are non-controversial and vaguely ecumenical enough not to distract from the office slapstick that’s the show’s principal attribute.

 
After several episodes (which I watched in repeats this past week mostly as refuge from Tampa’s muggy rhetoric), even these “issues” become less relevant than Selena’s slow-burning sense of personal affront at every staff blunder, mismanaged transaction and embarrassing gaffe. It’s not about oil or filibusters, dammit, it’s about me! How much more perfect the country would be if everybody was like me! No, not like me! Me! The late Gore Vidal, in his serene vanity, could relate to Selena’s frustration. And so, for that matter, could his old antagonist, William F. Buckley Jr. More to the point, so could most American voters for whom “issues” matter less than whatever it is matters to their own immediate needs.

 
I’m not saying there aren’t politicians whose actions, unlike Selena’s, are set in motion by something greater than their own personal gratifications. (I know, for a fact, that there are.) I do think, however, that’s what the majority of Americans believe. And they will vote this fall out of the same soft-clay visceral instincts that, apparently, guide even a rock-ribbed, yellow-dog Republican like Clint Eastwood, who, like the Jazz Guy he is, makes his mind up as he goes along. So laugh or howl at the geezer babbling to an empty chair. Just know that you’re also laughing and howling at yourselves.

Folo: This Aint Exactly Atlantic City in 1964…

…nonetheless, it suggests that there’s probably more interesting stuff going on behind the curtain than we suspect. Take this. Or this

I don’t even want to think about what these people would have done to Fannie Lou Hamer.

Why I Choose To Run From Nominations

For a long time, I’ve wondered why news organizations, such as they are, bother sending reporters to political conventions. If all you’re doing is assessing performance for its own sake, then you should send critics and only critics. Theater, film, music – it doesn’t matter. The most seasoned professional spectators have keen, highly-cultivated senses of how a show is coming across to the rest of the audience. The best convention reports of the last century were filed by H. L. Mencken and Norman Mailer, who were, among many other things, first-rate critics. Imagine how better served the last few conventions would have been if writers as diverse and idiosyncratic as Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs had been allowed to review them as they would any bloated blockbuster or overhyped concert.

I’m afraid, though, even they would be challenged by this year’s product and the mass media knows it. There’s no sign anywhere of prime-time network coverage of this week’s Republican National Convention. Just reruns and “reality” programming. Who can blame them? I know I should be incensed about this blithe transgression of civic duty in favor of NCIS repeats, except that I’ve become one of those people who would just as soon watch Mark Harmon and his posse find another sailor’s mutilated corpse on the Anacosta River Basin (even when I already know who put it there) than listen to one speaker after another question Democrats’ patriotism. And lest you accuse me of bias (of which I’m otherwise guilty-as-charged), if next week offers a choice between a Modern Family rerun and another wonky stem-winder about saving Medicare from the clammy clutches of GOP Voldemorts, I’d just as soon enjoy another half-hour watching Dunphys humiliate each other.

There’s no joy or smugness here. Just the opposite. I used to love watching political conventions, even after they became little more than four-day infomercials for their respective parties. (Or do I have that last clause backwards?) Given the choice, when I was 12 years old, of watching a baseball game in person or witnessing a live platform-adopting session of a nominating convention, I would have immediately chosen the latter. Being so much older then and younger than that now, I’m now looking for ball games to go for the next couple of weeks. Doesn’t matter what kind of ball: rugby, lacrosse, mixed-doubles squash…Anything to avoid watching whatever happens in Tampa or Charlotte besides weather updates or NFC South scouting reports.

Only there is no “whatever happens” with conventions any more. And there really hasn’t been since…since…Well, I remember my late, lamented Newsday colleague Murray Kempton telling me that not since 1952 have there been political conventions whose outcome was far from certain. That year, it was true for both parties as Robert Taft and what was then the Republican paleo-conservative wing were still in position to hold off Dwight Eisenhower and his Eastern Establishment backers while everything was so up in the air for the Democrats that the now-forgotten Estes Kefaufer was holding off the likes of Dick Russell and Averill Harriman until Harry Truman reached into his hat and pulled out Adlai Stevenson. As I was still in utero that summer, I never got to see or hear any of these hi-jinks.

So why was I so hyped about this stuff in1964? Well, because it was the sixties and there was so much stuff happening all the time back then, most of it on live TV, that you were afraid you’d miss something if you weren’t looking. So I stared at the Republicans assembling in San Francisco that July as Bill Scranton, the Eastern Establishment’s pride-and-joy was about to get crushed by the locomotive momentum of the conservative’s newest hero Barry Goldwater. I actually watched the Democratic coronation in Atlantic City a month later as Lyndon Johnson toyed with Hubert Humphrey’s neediness for the vice-presidency the way a cat tweaks a mouse.

(What I didn’t know until many years later was that LBJ, who for some unfathomable reason was paranoid about losing southern states in an election that was already being forecast as his own private landslide, forced Humphrey to tell a renegade Mississippi delegation of black and white civil-rights activists to go home and give way to the segregationist regulars. If poor Hubert didn’t do it, it’s been said, Johnson would have tapped someone else for the ticket. No Dunphy went through as humiliating a hazing as Humphrey did by telling such courageous people as Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses that they’d come all the way to the Jersey Shore for nothing.  And you wonder what would have happened to Humphrey if he’d simply told Johnson that the vice-presidency wasn’t worth it. He and the rest of us might have all been better off in the long run, maybe… Anyhow, I digress here to explain how even the backstage stuff of conventions was more interesting in days long past.)

When the nominees were foregone conclusions, there was always something that leaped out of the corners, a breakout speech, an unexpected switch in the program. I remember when Gerald Ford was supposedly all wrapped up to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate in 1980 when just before Reagan’s nomination-night appearance, CBS’s Lesley Stahl broke the news that the deal with Ford was off and George H.W. Bush would be the running mate. (“Walter!” she said. “It’s Bush! It’s Bush!”) This year, I was secretly hoping Newt Gingrich would ramrod his delusions of grandeur all the way to convention time if only for comedy’s sake. He seemed to hate Mitt Romney enough to go through with it. But as with much else about Newt, this was empty bluster stoked by antediluvian romanticism.

Some sentimentalists believe that someday, somehow, there will be a presidential nominating race that wont be settled by the primaries. But there have now been at least three generations who have no idea why being “nominated on the first ballot” is such a big deal. And if we’ve gone this long without that happening, then the next question is, besides sentiment (and, of course, the local diversions), why bother having conventions in the first place? I never thought I’d ask such a question. But it’s going to be a loooong couple weeks of me holding the remote, grazing for true enlightenment.

Seymour Movies Retrospective: Sa Da Tay, Louis C.K.

The best movies I saw this summer? Let me get back to you on that. The best filmmaking I saw this summer? Week after week on the FX Channel’s Louie and I’m not the only one who’s noticed it. Most of the hosannas lofted in the direction of Louis C.K.’s semi-autobiographical sitcom, now on the home stretch of its third season, tend to measure its innovative excellence by everything that’s ever been on television – which on the one hand offers a striking contrast and on the other is way too limiting.

You could, for instance, take the Aug. 2 episode, “Barney/Never” (the title alone could be a minimalist poem), and submit it to Cannes or Sundance with every expectation of winning a short film prize. (The Oscars? Well, yeah, if they deep-sixed their restrictions on previously broadcast films and that’s not gonna happen anytime soon.) From its opening black-and-white shot of both Louie and a barely recognizable Robin Williams as the only mourners at a club manager’s burial to its concluding exchange between Louie and an intractable little boy who “diarrheaed” in his bathtub, the episode seems as familiar and as startling as the best works of realism in any medium. Kurt Vonnegut has said the human condition can be summed up by the word, “embarrassment.” Amplify that to “mortification” and you’d have to conclude that, as writer, director and actor, Louis C.K. has become as inquisitive and as unsparing an auteur of the human condition as those hydra-headed humanists Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel. And I’m not embarrassed to make the comparison.

Nor am I embarrassed to trace Louis C.K.’s filmmaking acumen back to what remains his only big-screen directing credit. I refer, of course, to Pootie Tang, which barely gets mentioned in profiles of Louis and reviews of Louie. Apparently, C.K. remains more embarrassed about it than anybody else. I suppose if Roger Ebert uses phrases like “train wreck” and “not bad so much as inexplicable” to describe my first at-bat as a director, I’d think twice before mentioning it, too.


C.K. and Ebert can think what they want. But if you go to www.rottentomatoes.com and look up the critics’ reviews for Pootie Tang, you will find by my name a red, ripe tomato among a relative sea of green splotches. I am as proud of that tomato as I am of anything I’ve achieved in thirty years of newspaper work. Having watched the movie again recently, I’d add another half star to my original two-and-a-half-star Newsday review in which I brought in both Jean-Luc Godard and Rudy Ray (“Dolemite”) Moore as direct and equivalent influences.

Good luck finding that review on-line, though. For that matter, good luck finding a DVD of Pootie Tang. You can, however, stream the whole movie the way I just did: in pieces, on You Tube. And it doesn’t matter what sequence you watch them in since, befitting the movie’s origin as a recurring sketch on The Chris Rock Show (where Louis C.K. served as staff writer), Pootie Tang is a surreal mélange of bits, sight gags and spoofs glued together by a plot line whose puerile silliness is among the movie’s woozy, offhand graces.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll try to be brief: Pootie Tang (Lance Crowther and where the hell is he these days, anyway?) popped up on Chris Rock Show as this mysterious, bespectacled Lothario whose ways with women were as impenetrably enigmatic as his speech patterns. Pidgin English doesn’t begin to define Pootie’s patois, whose best-remembered outgrowths include the movie’s original title, “(I’m Gonna) Sine Your Pity on the Runny Kine”, “You’re a baddy daddy lamatai tebby chi” (In my delirious moments, I almost get that one) and the oft-repeated, apparently multi-purpose “Sa dat tay.”

The character proved popular enough (even Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on the Rock show doing Pootie-speak) to tempt Rock, C.K. and fellow travelers to concoct a blaxploitation parody giving Pootie a back story: He is born in a “small city outside Gary, Indiana” and raised by a widowed father, a foundry worker played by Rock, who perishes when he’s mauled by a gorilla at work. (“Third time it happened that month,” someone says.)

Daddy Tang bequeaths to his grieving son the belt the former frequently and vigorously applied to the latter as punishment. Pootie is told that he can use the belt to apply Whup Ass to whatever evil comes his way – as it inevitably does in the form of a corporate sharpie (Robert Vaughn) wishing to neutralize Pootie’s global influence as a do-gooder-pop-star-positive-role-model-vigilante.

The pace is pokey. The visual style (or “style”) goes from pasty to pallid in ways that Quentin Tarantino would covet for his own cracks at Roadhouse Chic. The Godard-ian moments come principally in those interludes where Wanda Sykes as Pootie’s loyal, bewigged squeeze Biggie Shorty speaks to the camera at oddly-placed interludes. Any rational minded movie-goer would judge the whole thing as half-baked. But so are most of one’s fainter-by-the-year memories of blaxplotation movies and Pootie Tang’s klutziness works in its favor as a subversive spin not only on what it’s spoofing, but on the very idea of spoofing the genre in the first place.

As J.B., Chris Rock’s narrator-dee-jay persona puts it: “Pootie Tang will draw you a picture of how he gonna kick your ass, then mail it to you ten days in advance. The picture gets there right? You’re goin’, “What the hell is this?” and then Pootie Tang knocks on your door, Promptly kicks your ass and you still won’t know what happened to you!” OK, this isn’t precisely the analogy I was looking for. But re-think the above quote’s references to Pootie Tang as the movie rather than the character and it makes some kind of twisted sense — as does the movie.

Most will never bother finding out. I doubt this brief will change the minds of haters or makers. (As Rock himself said in an episode of The Bernie Mac Show, “Even my momma didn’t see Pootie Tang!”)

Still, whatever problems Louis C.K. has with this movie’s existence, its refusal to paint even within its own wobbly lines resounds in the groundbreaking, boundary-breaching nature of Louie. As Pootie himself might say, and I’m only guessing here, “Dadda bee inna detta tau dandee day.” Or something like that,

Best Movie Year Ever (in my lifetime)

Looks as though they’re calling it a movie summer out here in the Zeitgeist – which also means that the movie year is two-thirds over as well. Autumn, of course, will tell us how 2012 measures up in cinema history. And we’re all looking forward to The Hobbit, Lincolnand, of course, This One. But I already doubt that this year in movies will provide as bountiful crop as the one yielded Fifty Years Ago.

 

Consider even this partial list of 1962 releases, in no particular order: Lawrence of Arabia, The Manchurian Candidate, Ride the High Country, The Exterminating Angel, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Miracle Worker, Winter Light,  Dr. No, Lolita, La Jetee ,The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Sanjuru, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Advise and Consent, L’Eclisse, Hatari, The Intruder, Lonely are the Brave, Birdman of Alcatraz, Cape Fear, Days of Wine and Roses, Jules et Jim, The Longest Day, Knife in the Water…

 

Men and Women of Good Will can argue about the relative merits of these and other releases from that same year. But for even a casual movie buff, this (again, partial) list has enough eclectic pleasures to fill a month of revelatory joy. (I haven’t even mentioned Kid Galahad, which devotees of Elvis Presley movies claim to be his all-time best – unless I’m confusing it with Girls, Girls, Girls, released that same year.)