Entries from October 2012 ↓

Still Amused, But Mostly Disgusted

Red Hot Patriot, which ends its Arena Stage run Sunday, met most of my expectations, even the rueful ones. Mostly, it reminded me how much I regret never having met Molly Ivins in person despite our having at least a dozen mutual acquaintances. Its particulars also evoked what is already regarded as the last heyday of the glorious/terrible American newspaper trade when it was still able to attract, nurture, shelter and, most of all, break the hearts, if not the spirits of romantics such as Molly Ivins.

Lest you think I’m being in any way dismissive, allow me an urgent shout-out to everyone I ever shared a newsroom with: Whatever good things you heard about Kathleen Turner’s performance can be verified in this shabby corner of the web, and if Red Hot Patriot happens to show up in your immediate neighborhood, you shouldn’t wait a second after it lands to check it out. You’ll come away with the same bittersweet regrets I did. But mostly you’ll feel as though you got to spend a bit of hang time with the real Molly after all, if by proxy.

 

It’s been weeks since I saw the show. Yet I’m only now writing about it because, as thoroughly as I enjoyed Patriot, there was something discomfiting that chewed at me throughout. And it was crystallized today by some random acts of idiocy occurring within the previous 24-hour news cycle that need not be re-hashed, except here. Or here. Or even here.

The point being that while Ivins was as capable as any reasonably sane human being of being infuriated by these yotzes (Oh, do stop! “Yotz” is SO a word! See?), she somehow managed to channel her anger into robustly sardonic humor – Think
Mister Dooley, with more barbecue sauce and cumin – that never indulged her targets, but somehow contained her progressive readers’ collective outrage. “Sure,” each Ivins column seemed to say, “these guys (and they were always guys) are assholes. And worse. But they’re the price we pay for all the other perks we get for our democracy. So slap ‘em around, but remember: There’s always another two or three comin’ from behind.”

I am trying harder than ever to maintain even that much equanimity as this year’s campaign-from-hell staggers and wobbles along the back-nine. Somehow, laughter, however sardonic or withering, seems too good for the Mourdocks, Akins, Palins, and Trumps. It certainly is too good for the crowd that agreed not long ago that African Americans were better off under slavery. Which is just about the time I stopped finding these zealots funny. Laughing at their monstrous idiocy may not be the same as sanctioning it. But it’s a distraction from acknowledging just how dangerous these zealots are.

My loss of equanimity is neither a joy nor a relief. I cherish the example of Murray Kempton, as fierce and funny a practitioner of the 800-word screed as Ivins though a much different breed of stylist who habitually probed beneath the darkest and meanest of souls to find a glimmer of good. But I like to think even he had his limits with yotzes. Ivins certainly did.

Seymour Movies Redux

“SEYMOUR MOVIES” was the title of my long-lost weekly TV review block for WPIX-TV. (Hey, guys. How’s it going up there? Miss you much.) It’s re-invented here as a new blog feature that won’t run as regularly. Another installment will follow this one soon. Promise.

The Master — (IMMEDIATE REACTION: I don’t care how great a filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is; I am never going to his house to watch sports with his friends if they’re all like his main characters.)

If I ran a repertory movie house, I’d set up a double feature with Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line leading off and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master as its companion piece. I’ll bet you they’d flow so seamlessly into each other that audiences willing to sit through the whole program would swear they were the same strange movie. And I would bill the double-feature, for either Veterans Day or Memorial Day, under the general rubric: “The Greatest Generation: Approach With Caution.” Here’s another one: “War is Hell and So Are Other People.”

You’re never allowed to know the specific kind of trouble Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has seen during World War II. But you’re free to guess the worst from watching Freddie distilling moonshine from toxic industrial wastes and humping sand-sculptured women. Never mind if he was unhinged before the war; only a rare strain of shellshock (an expression I will always prefer over PTSD) could have caused such a severe case of nervous decompression. .

The protagonists in Anderson’s movies are either highly combustible (Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood; Barry Egan in Punch-Drink Love) or highly malleable (Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights; almost everybody in Magnolia). Freddie carries both these extremes into the only place where someone like him could find comfort and release: a pseudo-scientific, quasi-mystical cult whose leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) fills in the dark, empty spaces in Freddie’s soul. Not even this outfit can meet his amorphous needs – and the movie’s bleak theme may be that nothing can.

It’s a forbidding takeaway and the movie’s frosty, near-clinical diagnosis of such angst won’t win your heart. Phoenix, improbably, almost does in the way that an injured wolf, however much he snarls and tears at you, can subdue your resistance with its whimpering. As unnerving as Freddy is, you come away worrying about his future. I’m also kind of worried about Anderson’s. The Master can only enhance his long-term prospects for moviemaking immortality. But it leaves you wondering how hard he’ll press his ongoing inquiry into the nature of need. Addiction itself can only be his next logical subject and it’s more than a little scary to wonder how he’ll frame that discussion.

Argo – (IMMEDIATE REACTION: Is Bryan Cranston the greatest American actor?)

The tight spaces of Argo’s narrative and settings don’t give Ben Affleck the kind of room he had in both 2007’s Gone Baby Gone and 2010’s The Town to show his facility as a director with gritty atmosphere and smoldering passion. If anything, Argo’s account of how six American foreign service workers were extracted from post-revolutionary Iran by posing as a Canadian film crew seems more like a calling card for Affleck’s potential television work in case the feature-film thing doesn’t work out.

This movie’s success with critics and audiences so far seems to assure Affleck of more chances at the helm, even if his performance as CIA operative Tony Mendez, the escape plan’s mastermind, seems contained to a fault. But then, containment seems to be the movie’s prevailing motif. The decision to shoot every character, even Kyle Chandler’s perfectly puffy rendition of Carter chief-of-staff Hamilton Jordan, as if each was in a box too small to hold them works to the movie’s advantage by boxing in or, maybe more accurately, bottling up your dread and anticipation throughout. There would be no purpose in making a movie like Argo unless you can make your audiences worry how the story’s going to turn out – even when they can easily research the outcome before they buy tickets.

So far, the only actor here who seems to be getting anything resembling Oscar buzz (Really? Now?) is Alan Arkin as the brash-but-soft-hearted movie mogul who cooperates with the Agency by selling the idea of a fake Star Wars rip-off. Arkin’s fine and John Goodman, as the droll makeup artist who serves as middleman between the spooks and the suits, is even better. But you’ve seen them do their respective shtick before, however effectively mounted here. The performance that most conspicuously breaks through the tightly-wound story line belongs to the increasingly legendary Bryan Cranston, who is yet again playing a character with warring intentions, though there’s no reason to place his harried Agency middle-manager Jack O’Donnell in the same clinic with Walter White, the self-justifying sociopath Cranston’s made immortal on AMC’s Breaking Bad. It would be easy for most actors to play O’Donnell at a single high pitch as he’s pushed around by those above and below his GS level. Somehow, Cranston makes O’Donnell’s passage from skeptical boss to harried controller to steely improviser seem recognizable to anyone who’s either supervised or been supervised towards an impossible deadline. He seems too well-adjusted to be involved in such abnormal shenanigans, which is precisely what makes him authentic in this welter of quick-change deceit. I doubt such intelligent work will be rewarded with an Academy nomination. Cranston will just have to settle for covert acclaim – at least for the time being.

The Paperboy — (IMMEDIATE REACTION: So oily and greasy, I could fry a whole chicken in it.)

Books are books and movies are movies and I’ve been acutely aware of the difference since sixth grade when I tried to pawn off a book report of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea based solely on the Walt Disney movie version – and, yes, I am still ashamed of myself, thanks for asking. But I’m hearing so many people, even a few I trust, saying Paperboy the movie is the fault of Paperboy the book that I am compelled to pick up my magnifying glass and serrated tweezers to split a few hairs I might have otherwise left alone.

I’m going to fix upon what may be the smallest of these hairs: Yardley Acheman. In Pete Dexter’s book (which, since I have the floor, I will declare one of the two best novels written by my former Philadelphia Daily News confrere while withholding for now the other one’s title), Acheman’s a white journalist who sees himself as a stylistic dandy when compared with his bloodhound colleague Ward James. Despite his own propensity for turning newspaper work into something perilously close to poetry, Pete carries an abiding bias towards hard-working, nose-to-the-ground reporters like Ward over “New Journalism” peacocks such as Yardley and I badly missed that subtext in Lee Daniels’ movie, where subtext along with subtlety has been tossed over the side like so much tainted cargo.

In said movie, Yardley is a black Englishman (David Oyelowo) who’s supposed to be the “word man” on an unnamed Miami newspaper to the “leg man” here re-dubbed Ward Jansen (depicted by Matthew McConaughay with more peacock swagger than one might have expected.) I don’t know why the name change had to happen, but I’m guessing that the novel’s 1965 setting was moved four years ahead in order to make more plausible the idea of a newspaper-reporter-of-color coming to a small Florida town to help prove that a white swamp rat named (as in the book) Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is innocent of murdering a bigoted local lawman.

It’s still not plausible. African-American reporters were barely integrating northern newspapers in 1969, making it more improbable that black tabloid transients were being imported from overseas to juice up New South broadsheets. And they sure as hell weren’t getting jobs as “New Journalists” in New York as Yardley’s supposed to have achieved in the movie. I was looking very hard for black New Journalists in those days because I badly wanted to become one. That’s how I know this is bullshit.

Defenders of both the movie and Daniels shrug at such anachronisms. It’s a vision of the past, O.K.? No one expects Imitation of Life or The Long Hot Summer to be documentaries of their time and place. Word. But whatever you may think of those 1950s melodramas to whose levels of warm moisture and socio-cultural itchiness Daniels’ Paperboy seems to aspire, there’s a spike of emotional truth that cuts through their respective levels of gauziness and muck. This movie’s glib re-jiggering of Yardley’s identity and purpose into a racial-sexual red herring signifies a preference for gaudy effects over the kind of honesty that’s ONLY possible in great melodrama. Someday, assuming Daniels gets more chances to deploy his over-the-top blend of raciness and grotesquerie, there may well be retrospectives devoted to his body-of-work, his – if you will – vision. I may even be around to bear witness if I choose to. I will find something else to do.

Oh, yeah. Don’t know if you’ve heard but Nicole Kidman pees all over Zac Efron’s jellyfish bites. Have I ruined it for you? Guess what? That’s not even the grossest thing you’ll see.

My Favorite Astronaut, or Zen & the Art of Laughing in Orbit

 

Neil Armstrong is dead, and so for the time being is any substantial effort by America to put people in space. People forget to be dismissive or incredulous about manned-space-travel when they realize the shuttle’s never flying again – or when someone like Armstrong joins the ancestors. His impulse to spurn the glare of celebrity-hood was duly noted and even praised by a culture that not too many years before (in part because of this semi-reclusive nature posthumously hailed as a virtue) would have easily mistaken him for any of the other men who flew during what we nostalgically term, “The Space Age.” If you asked the average American to name an astronaut from the 1960s, they would likely have mentioned Armstrong for being The First Earthling on the Moon, but more likely would have named that archetypical all-American hero John Glenn and even James Lovell, who was some guy Tom Hanks played in a movie.

 Fifty years ago tomorrow morning, just as I was heading off to school, the man who would become my favorite among all the astronauts took his turn to ride a Mercury spacecraft into orbit. Wally Schirra’s nine-hour, six-orbit flight about Sigma 7 wasn’t noteworthy for setting any world records. (The Russians had by then quadrupled our relatively meager number of manned orbits. It somehow seemed more fun in the days when we had some catching up to do.) Nor was it distinguished by any hair-raising crisis or daredevil flourishes. Indeed, the near-elegant perfection of Schirra’s Mercury flight from lift-off to his precisely-timed splashdown was far more appreciated by engineers than by the general public.

 
Even I didn’t take much note of Schirra’s flight until I paid closer attention to a recording of his transmissions. (You could actually buy this stuff on 45 RPM back then.) I was struck by how utterly unfazed he seemed with everything. He was not only joking with communicators on the ground, he was even…laughing! I don’t remember hearing any of his fellow Project Mercury astronauts laughing up there. Not Glenn, not Scott Carpenter, not Alan Shepard; certainly not Gus Grissom. And Schirra’s laughing wasn’t the nervous tittering you put on to make yourself forget how high and far you are from everything you know. He was messing with the solemnity expected of this occasion in the same manner he’d habitually mess with the ground crews or his peers. More than any of the others, he behaved up there the way I imagined my own father would: poking holes in other people’s uptight modes for perspective’s sake. As Tom Wolfe noted in The Right Stuff: “Schirra cut the jolly, fun-loving figure so well that people sometimes failed to notice how formidable he could be. But his emphasis, after all, was on maintaining an even strain, His pranksterish, rib-shaking, wild-driving gotcha intervals gave him plenty of slack when the time came to wind things up and get tight.”

 
Never was Schirra’s Ultimate Cool more conspicuous than on the morning of December 12, 1965 when he and Thomas Stafford were supposed to have lifted off the pad in Gemini 6 for a history-making rendezvous mission with Gemini 7. When the countdown reached zero, their Titan II booster abruptly shut down. For several long-ish seconds, no one was quite sure if this was going to be a replay of one of those awful 1950s-newsreel moments when the whole missile was going to explode. And why, an anxious America wondered, hadn’t the two pilots pulled their ejector rings? Apparently, Schirra, as command pilot, was exercising his prerogative to slow everybody’s roll rather than kill the mission – or, quite possibly, him and his co-pilot – over what turned out to be some kind of mundane plug glitch. “OK, we’re just sitting here breathing,” he calmly assured Mission Control. For this, he got another medal in addition to the one he received for carrying out the rendezvous three days later. Getting a medal for stillness rather than action – How very Zen!

 
I wish I could find among the hours of broadcast footage from that day the black-and-white video of Schirra and Stafford as they entered the so-called “ready room” where they climbed into their Gemini cockpit hours before the aborted launch. Broadcasters always told you how conscientiously clean that room had to be with all those white-smocked launch-team personnel making sure no dust or dirt entered the spacecraft with the astronauts. The first thing Schirra did when he got off the elevator was walk over to a far corner to rub his gloved finger over a rail. He turned in mock outrage to show an imaginary speck of dust to the crew chief. OK, maybe you had to be there. But this bit preceded one of history’s more frightening moments and here was Mr. Annapolis-grad-veteran-test-pilot performing low comedy as if it were beer call instead of T-minus-whatever.

 
Schirra achieved an above-average measure of fame for Gemini 6, and for commanding the first manned flight in the Apollo program in October, 1968 – when he caught the head-cold heard – or groused about – round the world. His name still didn’t glow in the dark as brightly as Glenn’s did, or Armstrong’s would. Still he got more famous after he quit the program to become an on-air analyst for CBS News; playing, if you will, John Madden to Walter Cronkite’s Pat Summerall throughout the lunar-landing phase.

 
He died in 2007 at 84. He would have been fun to hang out with, even though his politics were so deeply right-wing Republican that he said Glenn was the only Democrat he’d ever vote for (and I’m not altogether sure of that.) Still, laughing came so naturally to Schirra, as Norman Mailer once observed, that you were sure he could overlook any differences you had with him and chuckle over old times, his and yours.

 
And while I still haven’t found clips of that dust-mote gag, I did find among the CBS archival footage a pre-Gemini 6 interview with Schirra in which he’s asked the de rigueur question about duty and family:

 
BILL STOUT (CBS): Even though you’ve been there before, how do members of the Schirra family feel about the coming flight?
SCHIRRA: I’m sure there’s always a degree of apprehension. I hope there’s not fear. I hope to dispel fear by dispelling ignorance. And if I can explain the details of what were doing in our mission satisfactorily to you and to your audience, then possibly you know that’s what I’m trying to do for my family. To make them aware of what I am doing.

 

 
If I’m old enough to fondly remember Wally Schirra, then I’m also old enough to remember when dispelling fear by dispelling ignorance was a primary directive for everyone in American life regardless of where you stood on the political spectrum. It could be again, someday. In the meantime,  follow Captain Wally’s example and laugh at the scary stuff. It’s good for you.