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Friday, July 31, 2009

Bless You Boys


Hard to believe, but it's been twenty-five years since the glorious baseball season of 1984, when my team, the Detroit Tigers, went wire-to-wire and won the World Series. The team has only won two world championships in my lifetime, and the win in 1968 was a bit before my time. '84, though, lives well in my memory.

My late grandmother was also a big Tigers' fan, and a few weeks ago my aunt put out her belongings and let the grandkids go through and take anything they wanted. I took a few pictures and also a few books, including Ernie Harwell's autobiography (he was the long-time radio play-by-play man) and a book with the inelegant title of '84--The Last of the Great Tigers. It was written by Eli Zaret, who was host of the pre-game show in those days. It was fascinating to me, because it was a game-by-game recitation of that season, along with profiles of the key people involved. For those who don't care about the Tigers, it would be a crashing bore.

The season got off to a fantastic start--the best ever. The Tigers won nine to start the season, including Jack Morris' no-hitter against the White Sox in game 4. They then went on to be 19-2, 26-4, and and a mind-blowing 35-5. Yet the pesky Toronto Blue Jays dogged them all season. Finally they put them away, won the AL pennant with a sweep of the Royals, and defeated the Padres in five in the World Series.

Zaret goes into great detail on the season, starting with the moves in the off-season. The key move was picking up relief pitcher Willie Hernandez from the Phillies. They gave up a promising outfielder, Glenn Wilson, and long-time favorite John Wockenfuss. They got Hernandez and Dave Bergman. Some thought it was a terrible deal, and angry fans wrote into the newspapers that the manager, Sparky Anderson, was the worst ever. They really had to eat their words, for Hernandez went on to win both the Cy Young Award and the MVP, while Bergman had some big hits all season, including the game-winning three-home run in two different games against the Blue Jays (won of them was on a Monday Night Baseball telecast that I remember watching as if it were yesterday).

Zaret also writes insightfully about Anderson's managing style, which I had never really considered before. He's always been such a twinkly media figure, with his fractured grammar and his snowy white hair, that it can be easy to overlook that the man wasn't so successful by accident. Zaret also doesn't pull any punches, writing about the skinflint general manager, Jim Campbell, who wouldn't spend money on improving the stadium (the dugout ceiling was less than six feet high, so players constantly bumped their heads) and refused to institute marketing gimmicks, insisting that what was important was the product on the field.

As a TV reporter during those days, Zaret also delves into the media coverage, including the derivation of the catch-phrase of that season, "Bless You Boys," which was initially coined by sportscaster Al Ackerman. Initially it was a derogatory sneer, but when the team started winning it ended up a rally cry. We also learn about some of the activities of the bleacher denizens. They are responsible, for better or worse, for popularizing the "Wave," but I liked a bit they did in which, aping a popular beer commercial, one section would yell "Tastes great!" while another would answer with "Less filling!"

I watched all of this from my mother's house in New Jersey. I was just out of college and living at home, working a nothing job in town. We had a black and white TV, but I had a little bit of money so I bought a color TV with the specific intention of watching the post-season in living color. And it was glorious. I still remember a play Darrell Evans made on Willie Wilson in game three of the ALCS, when Evans field a grounder and had to beat the speedy Wilson to the first-base bag. Of course every Tiger remembers Allan Trammel knocking two home runs in game four of the World Series, and then Kirk Gibson's majestic shot off Goose Gossage late in game five to seal the deal. Elmore Leonard wrote a foreward to Zaret's book that speaks of that moment: "My all-time favorite highlight was Kirk Gibson taking that Goose Gossage fastball into the upper deck to clinch the '84 World Series. I saw it from the centerfield bleachers and screamed my head off along with 51,901 Tigers fans."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Dark Side of the Rainbow


The Dark Side of the Moon, the album by Pink Floyd, is one of the greatest records ever from the classic rock period (or any other period, for that matter). It spent almost 750 weeks on the Billboard charts, and when I was in college it could be heard in dorm rooms almost any night. The wall in the student lounge in my high school was painted with the distinctive prism/rainbow art from the album cover (which has no doubt been painted over many times by now). The album was the band's meditation on madness, prompted by the institutionalization of their former mate, Syd Barrett.

I had only owned the record on vinyl, but yesterday I picked up a CD version so I could conduct an experiment I had heard about--synchronizing the album with the film The Wizard of Oz. Supposedly there were all sorts of mind-blowing coincidences between the music and the images, which were first reported in the 1990s and there are any number of Web sites that chronicle all the freaky match-ups of sound and image. This is called The Dark Side of the Rainbow (also The Dark Side of Oz or The Wizard of Floyd).

Here's the way to do it: put in your Pink Floyd CD and hit play and then immediately pause. Start the Wizard of Oz DVD and when the MGM lion has roared a third time, start the CD. Then wait for the magic to come.

The effect was underwhelming to say the least. Oh sure there are some coincidental neat-o tricks, most of which have to do with timing: when the chimes of "Time" ring, we get our first glimpse of Elmira Gulch. When the cash register sounds of "Money" start (which was the beginning of side two in the vinyl days) is the moment when Dorothy opens the door and enters Munchkinland, which of course means that the film has changed to color.

There are also some nifty coincidences concerning lyrics: when Dorothy is balancing on the fence rail next to the pig sty, we hear "balanced on the biggest wave." When she runs away from home, we hear "No one told you when to run," and when Professor Marvel looks into his crystal ball to convince Dorothy to return home, we hear "Home, home again." I also liked that when the Wicked Witch makes her first appearance we hear the intonation of the word "Black," and then "who knows which is which and who is who." When Glinda's bubble disappears, we hear "Out." The album ends with the sound of a heartbeat, which is precisely when Dorothy is banging on the Tin Man's chest to prove he has no heart.

Supposedly there are a lot more of these, but those would be stretching it even further than I have. If you leave the album on repeat and have it go through a second or third playing you don't get much.

Anyone suggesting that Pink Floyd did this on purpose is crazy, and is suffering from what psychologists call apophenia, which is finding random patterns in meaningless data. It's sort of like all the "Paul is dead" clues in Beatles' lyrics and album art--one is starting with a result and then looking for trails to that conclusion, which is backward thinking. There is plenty about the experiment which doesn't lead credence to any intent on Pink Floyd's part: the electronic music of "On the Run" plays during Dorothy singing "Over the Rainbow," which doesn't jibe at all, and "Money" plays during the Munchkinland sequence. I don't know of anyone who suggests that the excesses of capitalism, which is what the song is about, has anything to do with Munchkins. Some have cited the line "Got to keep the loonies on the path" playing during Dorothy and the Scarecrow heading down the Yellow Brick Road, but these two aren't loonies in any way, shape or form.

But I didn't find the experiment a waste of time. There are some juxtapositions that are unexpectedly moving, mainly the "The Great Gig in the Sky" playing during the twister sequence. Watching Dorothy struggle to get back home and then try to get into the storm cellar while Clare Torry's soaring vocals are in the background is heady stuff.

In the final analysis, I think if you take any record and play it against any movie, you'll get similar results, and these will only be exaggerated by imbibing mind-altering substances. If I had more time I'd try Aqualung, or better yet, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Grin Without a Cat


This is a three-hour documentary, made in 1977 by French filmmaker Chris Marker, and revised in 1992, concerning the leftist movements of the 1960s and '70s. It is periodically fascinating, but mostly a trudge that only someone with an advanced degree in world politics could appreciate.

Marker's film goes all over the world, mostly focused on Latin America and Europe, with some sidetrips to the U.S.A. The film opens with scenes of atrocity in Vietnam, intercut with a U.S. pilot talking about how "fun" it is to drop bombs on the citizens. Later he spends some time on the revolutions in South America, namely Venezuela and Bolivia, with footage of the corpse of Che Guevara, who gets a hero's treatment here.

Much of the middle section of the film is pretty dull, with lots of talking heads in grainy black and white footage arguing about the status of the French communist party. There are scenes of the May Day riots in Paris, and then the attempted revolt against the Soviets in Prague (ironically a tank that was used when the Russians liberated Prague in 1945 remained in a public square as a monument, but it was now a monument to something quite different).

The film ends with a long segment on the election and then overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile. Allende, of course, was overthrown with help from the U.S. This is reinforced by scenes of the opulent lifestyle of the Shah of Iran, who of course was also propped into power by the U.S. So if the obvious anti-American sentiment of a French guy rankles, at least we can believe that he's telling the truth.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Horse Feathers


A few days ago I was watching MSNBC's Hardball and Chris Matthews showed a clip of Groucho Marx singing from the opening scene of the 1932 film Horse Feathers:

I don’t know what they have to say,
It makes no difference anyway --
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
No matter what it is or who commenced it,
I’m against it.

Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood --
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,
I’m against it.

Of course this ditty was seen as a parallel to the Republicans in Congress and their intransigence with almost every initiative from President Obama. Beyond that, though, it got me to dig out the DVD from the Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection. In my book, this 1932 film is the second-best from the boys (eclipsed only by Duck Soup) and I watched it for the umpteenth time.

That opening scene features Groucho as Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, who has just been named the new president of Huxley College. His son is played by brother Zeppo, who is student who is only interested in the "college widow," played by Thelma Todd. He's also on the football team, and urges his father to hire two ringers to join the team. Of course he hires the wrong players, namely Harpo and Chico.

Many comedians of the day made campus films. Harold Lloyd made The Freshman, Buster Keaton College, and later Laurel and Hardy would make A Chump at Oxford. Of course the Marx Brothers were different from most screen clowns of the day, as they did not come out of silent films, but instead Vaudeville. Therefore they were far more dexterous when it came to language. Consider this priceless exchange, when Chico is manning the door at a speakeasy and wants Groucho to give the password:

Chico: [through speakeasy’s door] Who are you?
Groucho: I’m fine, thanks, who are you?
Chico: I’m fine too, but you can’t come in unless you give the password.
Groucho: Well, what is the password?
Chico: Aw, no. You gotta tell me. Hey, I tell what I do. I give you three guesses. It’s the name of a fish.
Groucho: Is it Mary?
Chico: Ha-ha. That’s-a no fish.
Groucho: She isn’t? Well, she drinks like one. Let me see: Is it sturgeon?
Chico: Hey, you crazy. Sturgeon, he’s a doctor cuts you open when-a you sick. Now I give you one more chance.
Groucho: I got it. Haddock.
Chico: That’s-a funny. I gotta haddock, too.
Groucho: What do you take for a haddock?
Chico: Well-a, sometimes I take-a aspirin, sometimes I take-a Calamel.
Groucho: Say, I’d walk a mile for a Calamel.
Chico: You mean chocolate calamel. I like that too, but you no guess it. Hey, what’s-a matter, you no understand English? You can’t come in here unless you say, “Swordfish.” Now I’ll give you one more guess.
Groucho: ...swordfish, swordfish… I think I got it. Is it “swordfish”?

Though there are machine-gun-like wordplay and puns in Horse Feathers, there is also some almost surreal visual humor. When Groucho tells Harpo that he'll learn he can't burn the candle at both ends, of course Harpo produces a candle out of his coat with burning wicks at both ends. And then there is the memorable scene set in Todd's apartment. It is a bedroom farce with all the brothers, plus the heavy, David Landau, coming in and out of doors. Whenever Groucho enters, he opens an umbrella and takes off his shoes, and Chico and Harpo continually, without explanation, carry blocks of ice across the room and drop them out of the window.

And of course there's music. In addition to Whatever It Is, I'm Against It, the ditty Everyone Says I Love You is heard repeatedly, with each brother taking a turn (Harpo whistles it to his horse, and then plays it on the harp). By the time Groucho sings it, it's gone from a pleasant love song to completely cynical:

Everyone says I love you
But just what they say it for I never knew
It's just inviting trouble for the poor sucker who
Says I love you.

The film ends with a masterpiece of comedy, an extended football game sequence that features all the brothers playing (Groucho is particularly memorable, wearing a helmet along with his swallow-tail coat and smoking a big cigar), with Chico calling the signals:

Hey diddle-diddle
The cat and the fiddle
This time I think we go through the middle.
The game ends with Harpo piloting a horse-drawn garbage wagon across the goal-line for the victory.

Watching this film again had me thinking about some interesting aspects of the Marx Brothers. Chico and Harpo always represented the bottom rung of society who mixed things up by creating general anarchy. Groucho always seemed to be in some sort of position of authority--here he was the president of the college, and in Duck Soup he is the ruler of the country--but he freely contributes to the anarchy. Unlike several other films, there's no Margaret Dumont here as the stuffed dowager, instead there are a gaggle of college professors to play the role of the out of touch upper class (when Groucho tells them he wants the dormitories torn down, he's asked where the students will sleep. "The students will sleep where they always have--in the classroom!")

One other interesting note: Todd, who co-starred in many comedies, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in her car when she was 29 years old, and it remains one of Hollywood's most interesting mysteries--Kenneth Anger surmised, despite no evidence, that she was murdered by Lucky Luciano.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Baseball Heaven


This weekend I made my annual pilgrimage to Cooperstown, New York for the induction ceremony for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Aside from a few sprinkles and the usual traffic on the New York State Thruway, I had a grand time.

Cooperstown ended up being the site of the Hall of Fame based on completely faulty history--Abner Doubleday no more invented baseball than Christopher Columbus discovered America. But the little hamlet of Cooperstown, nestled in the gentle slopes of central New York, is a perfect place to celebrate the game.

This year three former players were inducted, as well as a broadcaster and writer. The players were Joe Gordon, now deceased, a second-baseman for the Yankees and Indians during the World War II era; Rickey Henderson, the greatest lead-off hitter of all time and holder of the records for stolen bases and runs scored; and Jim Rice, the fearsome slugger for the Red Sox during the 1970s and '80s. Each came to the Hall in a different route. Henderson was selected in his first year of eligibility by the Baseball Writers of American, the primary conduit of selection. He was a no-brainer of a choice. Rice was also tapped by the writers, but in his fifteenth and last year of eligibility (he retired after the 1989 season). Gordon was selected by the veterans' committee, who pore over the stats to right the wrongs of the writers.

The ceremony is full of nostalgia and pageantry, and exists in a kind of bubble. The word "steroids" or "arbitration" were not heard, it's all about the purity of the game. The returning members of the Hall of Fame are introduced one by one. This year there were 50 of the 65 living on hand. Carl Yastrzemski, who usually doesn't show, was there to honor Rice. Then each of the inductees makes a brief speech. Speaking for Gordon was his daughter, who was emotional and informative about her father. It was easy to feel how proud and excited she was to be going through this over thirty years after her father's death.

Rice spoke very briefly and if he was bitter about having to wait so long for induction it didn't show. Power hitters from that era, before the home run numbers ballooned (because of performance-enhancing drugs, no doubt) will have to be reassessed, and maybe players like Andre Dawson, Dave Parker and Dale Murphy will get more consideration.

Henderson then spoke, and he was the big hit of the day. He has a distinctive way of speaking (he doesn't add an "s" to the plural of words, for instance) but had the crowd laughing often, especially when he told about growing up in Oakland and trying to get Reggie Jackson's autograph. Reggie, it seems, would hand out pens with his name on them. "I never got his autograph," Rickey said, to the delight of the Hall-of-Famers, no more than Jackson himself, who was doubling over with laughter.

In an odd bit of scheduling, the broadcaster and writer awards were given last, which meant the crowd (featuring a huge amount of Red Sox fans and a vocal contingent of Rickey fans, mostly from his Oakland days) packed up and left. I stuck it out, though, to hear Tony Kubek, who was the analyst of NBC's Game of the Week when I was a kid. Tony was always known as a blunt straight shooter, and he was no different in his speech, which was extemporaneous and managed to include both Rosa Parks and President Obama. The day ended with San Francisco beat writer Nick Peters, with his proud grandchildren present, accept his award.

The experience is a great way to bathe in baseball. The fans who gather are serious fans, such as the fellow who toted around a banjo, wearing a cape and a pinwheel hat. He was there for Rickey, singing his praises to the tune of Oh Mickey: "Oh Rickey, you're so fine you blow my mind, hey Rickey!" To acknowledge the surrounding throng of Red Sox fans, he serenaded them with the Fenway staple "Sweet Caroline," but then risked perdition by adding, "Beat the Red Sox!"

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Edge of Love


Keira Knightley and John Maybury reteamed after The Jacket with The Edge of Love, and despite Maybury's stylized direction, this romantic drama about Dylan Thomas is a dud.

Set during World War II, the Welsh poet is in London, writing scripts for propaganda films, when he runs into Knightley, who was a childhood sweetheart. That he's married to the free-spirited Sienna Miller doesn't seem to cool his ardor, and the three become a small circle of friends. In fact, the film is really concerned with the bond between the two women.

Though Thomas (Michael Rhys) is a swaggering philanderer, he keeps his hands off Knightley, who is wooed by a British officer, Cillian Murphy, whom she marries. While he's off fighting in Greece, Rhys, Miller and Knightley move to the Welsh coast, and Knightley and Rhys finally submit to temptation. This damages the relationship between the two women, and when Murphy returns he senses something amiss as well.

I think the greatest sin of this film is it makes Dylan Thomas seem uninteresting. I think part of that is the colorless performance by Rhys, but he's not helped by the script, which has him reading a lot of Thomas' poetry but gives us no sense of what drives him to write. Instead Maybury lavishes attention on the two lead women, and I can't remember a film that in which two faces are shown more gorgeously. Knightley is in the opening shot, over-saturated in color, as she sings "Blue Tahitian Moon" (and shows off a fine singing voice). Her cheekbones are a major part of the story. Then there's Miller, who is first seen on a train, and Maybury pulls tight on her crimson-painted lips as she blows smoke. Ooh la la! Lindsay Lohan was originally to play this part, so we can be thankful for small favors.

So while these two beauties are exquisite to look at, the story is a soggy mess. The script was written by Sharman Macdonald, who happens to be Knightley's mother, so there's something of a whiff of a vanity production here. I think there's a good film to be made about Dylan Thomas and his romantic entanglements, but this isn't it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Veckatimest


I've written about rock music for a long time, way back to my college newspaper days reviewing record albums and concerts. In all that time I've never quite got the hang of it, I suppose because language is insufficient to describe sound, and because, especially with rock music, there is a tendency to tell the reader what other musicians the band in question sounds like. This is, of course, terribly reductive, but irresistible.

Grizzly Bear, a band out of Brooklyn, New York, sounds like quite a few different bands, ranging from The Moody Blues to Radiohead, but in the end they have carved out a niche all to themselves, and it's a luscious one. There sound has elements of both electronic and acoustic, mellow and hard rock, as well as traces of jazz and contemporary classical, such as Phillip Glass.

Their latest album is called Veckatimest, the name of an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Listening to this album is consistently pleasurable, both for the whirling arpeggios and the enigmatic but unpretentious lyrics. Things kick off with the song "Southern Point," which stars as if in the middle, and then comes "Two Weeks," which employs the band's unearthly choral arrangements. The band is so fond of harmonies that on three tracks they use the Brooklyn Youth Choir.

Some of my favorite songs also include "All We Ask," which includes the apt line "And the crowds that light the carnival are calling us home" and "About Face," in which the vocals bear a strong similarity to Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues. I also like "Dory," which seems to be about fish: "Wildly coherent in a watery deep we'll drop her down to the bottom we'll drop her down like she's nothing and the water is all/Oh the water is still in a wilder deep/We'll swim around like dories let loose in the bay." Perhaps the strongest track is "I Live With You," which starts small and builds to an incredible power, with terrific drumming by Chris Bear.

Listening to this album I also thought of the British art-rock movement, such as The Smiths and The Cure, but without the moping sense of dread. Grizzly Bear's music is lighter and sunnier, and a complete joy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

American Lion


The Pulitzer Prize for Biography this year went to Jon Meacham, for his study of Andrew Jackson titled, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House. It is a concise biography of a complicated figure in American history that is an excellent starting point in trying to understand the man who transformed the American presidency.

As the subtitle states, this is about Jackson in the White House. His early years are dealt with summarily--there is only about a page on the Battle of New Orleans, which made him famous, and one short chapter covers both the 1824 and 1828 presidential elections, which were, respectively, a controversial one (Jackson won the popular vote in 1824, but without an electoral majority he lost the election to John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives) and a nasty one (in 1828, mud was slung viciously on both sides, including charges that Jackson's wife was a bigamist).

Though Jackson's early life is dealt with swiftly, Meacham etches a vivid portrait. Jackson was orphaned at 14, and lost two brothers during the Revolutionary War, as well as being slashed by a Redcoat's sword when he refused to shine the man's boots. A life-long hatred of the British ensued, as did a steel fortitude and a reluctance to back down against any foe. He was from the backwoods of Carolina and then Tennessee, but was also a gentleman, self-educated. He was a lawyer, a judge and a congressman before the War of 1812. I especially liked this quote about his days as a lawyer in Salisbury, North Carolina: "He was the most roaring, rollicking, game-cocking, card-playing, mischievous fellow that ever lived in Salisbury." Or this quote from a woman who knew of him when she heard he was running for president: "What! Jackson up for President? Jackson? Andrew Jackson? The Jackson that used to live in Salisbury? Why, when he was here, he was such a rake that my husband would not bring him into the house."

Indeed, Jackson was considered by many to be a country bumpkin, especially compared to the six presidents who proceeded him, who were all of gentry, either from Virginia or Massachusetts. In many ways he was the first "common man" to be elected President, and he had many enemies, including Henry Clay, and then John Calhoun, who interestingly enough was Jackson's first vice-president.

Meacham covers all of the key elements of Jackson's presidency: Indian removal, the battle to take away the charter of the Bank of the United States, and the nullification crisis. The first of these is indefensible, and was very controversial even at the time, with many against the forced evacuation of the native peoples of the southeast to lands west of the Mississippi (the Trail of Tears, in which many died on the journey, occurred after Jackson left office, but was certainly a result of his policy). The Supreme Court even ruled against Jackson, but he supposedly said of John Marshall's ruling, "He has made his decision, now let him enforce it."

But on nullification Jackson sounds the hero. He was stalwartly for the Union. The issue, on the face of it, was South Carolina's objections to paying Federal tariffs. They decided that a state could choose to ignore federal laws, but Jackson would have none of it. Both sides girded for armed conflict, but a compromise was made. Of course the deeper meaning was slavery, and a civil war was put off by thirty years. This issue prompted South Carolinian Calhoun to resign the vice-presidency (the only man to do so until Agnew).

Aside from these issues, which are known to any history buff, Meacham also incorporates some other factors that weighed heavily on Jackson's presidency, none so more than the Eaton Affair, which in Meacham's telling may have been the most influential set of circumstances he faced. Jackson's Secretary of War, John Eaton, had a wife named Margaret who had questionable morals (supposedly she had a miscarriage while her first husband was at sea--for over a year). The other Cabinet wives refused to have anything to do with her, as did Jackson's niece Emily Donelson, who was de facto First Lady (Rachel Jackson died just before Jackson took office). The ugliness lasted for years, as Jackson was adamant that Eaton and his wife be accepted. Taking his side was his Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren (who was a widower and thus didn't have to withstand any complaints from a wife). Against him was Calhoun, who was very much married. In many ways this affair decided who would be the president after Jackson. As one man said in retrospect, "The political history of the United States, for the last thirty years, dates from the moment when the soft hand of Mr. Van Buren touched Mrs. Eaton's knocker." Or, as Adams put it in a letter to his daughter-in-law, "It is the prevailing opinion that Mr. Van Buren is about to scale the Presidency of the United States by mounting upon the shoulders of Mrs. Eaton."

Jackson would have no children of his own, but doted on the children of others, and adopted several, including an Indian boy he found while fighting the Creek Nation. He was extremely close to Emily and Andrew Donelson. But he was a tough son of a bitch, and wasn't called Old Hickory for nothing. He participated in many duels, and carried a bullet in his body from one of them the rest of his life. Jackson was the first president who was the attempt of an assassination. In the days before the Secret Service, he walked out of the House chambers and was faced by a man with two pistols. Both pistols misfired (at odds of 125,000 to 1) and Jackson went after the man with his walking stick. Though sickly throughout his presidency (many often thought he was near death) he managed to hang on through two full terms and another eight years besides, dying at age 78 in 1845.

Jackson was a huge figure in American history. Before him, it was assumed that the greatest power rested with Congress (in fact, they are the subject of Article I of the Constitution, the president is dealt with in Article II). But Jackson changed all that. He was the first to vigorously employ the power of veto--the first six presidents vetoed a total of nine bills; Jackson alone vetoed a dozen. His detractors called him a bloody tyrant, and indeed an entire political party, the Whigs, formed as a means of opposing him. But he was victorious on almost all fronts.

Though this book may leave some a little wanting--Meacham points out that there are more thorough multi-volume biographies out there--where this book succeeds most is presenting Jackson as a man. Love him or hate him or a little of both, he's an important person, and I think Meacham sums it up best in this line: "A figure who could be at once so brilliant and yet so bloody-minded, so tender yet so cold, merits our attention, for the virtues and vices of this single man tell us much about the virtues and vices of our country."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Jacket/Domino

These two films have a number of things in common. Both are from 2005, both star Keira Knightley, and both are examples of works that epileptics might well steer clear of, as they have extremely quick cuts and visual daring-do. Although the directors in each example approach their subjects from different vantage points, they can be loved or hated based on whether or not a viewer can process all the information.

The Jacket was directed by John Maybury, best known for directing rock videos and avant-garde films in England. He was tapped by producers Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney to make this time-bending story of a Gulf War vet (Adrien Brody) who finds himself in a mental institution. A doctor (Kris Kristofferson) conducts experiments on our poor hero, drugging him, strapping him in a straitjacket, and stuffing him in a morgue drawer. Brody discovers that while he's in there he travels forward in time, where he finds out that he has been dead for years.

On the face, the story that The Jacket tells is compelling. I'm always up for a film that tackles time travel and its inherent paradoxes, and the script, by Massy Tadjedin, is thoughtful (it probably helps that after watching the TV show Lost I'm steeled for time-travel conundrums). Brody, in his flash-forwards, hooks up with Knightley, whom he had met as a young girl, and she helps him piece together the clues of just what happened to him.

Maybury, in the supplemental material, cites influences as varied as experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage and silent-film director Erich Von Stroheim--Maybury utilizes tight close-ups often, sometimes just of eyes or mouths. You'll feel like Brody or Kristofferson's dentist by the end. To be sure, there are times when the film is just too busy, a whirligig of images and quick cuts that can be overwhelming to the senses, but fortunately the story and the performances keep the viewer involved emotionally.

Domino, directed by Tony Scott, is also what could be called busy. But I don't think it was influenced by anything but attitude--the film, much like its heroine, has a chip on its shoulder. That being said, I liked Domino.

Domino Harvey was a real person, a beautiful young girl who was also a tough bounty hunter. A combination like that begged for a film, and the result probably bears little relation to the truth (the climax, an explosion on top of the Stratosphere in Las Vegas, probably would have made the news if it really happened). So if truth is what you're interested in, don't come knockin'. Instead enjoy the ride.

The attitude starts with Knightley's performance. She's a perfect choice for the part. Just as you can't imagine this wisp of an English rose actually toting around guns or throwing knives, so too was Domino Harvey a contradiction in terms. Knightley sinks her teeth into the role and absolutely nails it. And how can you lose when she's supported by Mickey Rourke, Christopher Walken and Tom Waits?

Scott has directed the film within an inch of it's life. I don't know if there's one scene that hasn't been amped up on something, whether it's over-cranking, over-saturation, or over-something-else-or-another. I know some have found this to make for incoherence (the script was written by the famously confounding Richard Kelly) but I wasn't bothered too much by it. Bounty hunters are a kind of people who live on the margin, as are the people they associate with, so that Scott has made his film look like a "ferret on crystal meth" (as one of the characters is described) doesn't bother me.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Moon Day


As almost everyone knows, today is the 40th anniversary of the day that man first landed on the moon. In the years that have passed, the event seems to have receded in memory, and I wonder if anyone thinks it's such a big deal anymore. But it certainly was at the time, especially to people who were of a certain age.

At the time I was eight years old, and I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit I have no clear memory of the actual event. I certainly was aware of what was going on--I remember that in school the teachers would set up TVs in the classrooms so we could watch lift-offs and other important events. But Apollo 11's activities took place in July, so I would have been at home. I'm sure I was watching when the Eagle landed (with 25 seconds of fuel to spare) and then when Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the lunar surface, but I don't have a specific memory. I'm reminded of the Simpson's episode when Grandpa Simpson watches, a tear in his eye, while Homer is oblivious, rocking out to "Yummy Yummy Yummy I've Got Love in My Tummy."

Unlike some of my contemporaries, I wasn't captivated by space exploration. I didn't have much interest in science fiction or stargazing. My passions were in history and animals--I could name all the presidents in order and tell you what made a marsupial a marsupial, but all the space stuff left me indifferent. However, even then, I had a sense of the magnitude of the achievement. My great-grandparents, who were born in the 1890s, were around before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, yet lived long enough to see man on the moon. I also remember they had an atlas that I used to pore over when I visited. It had a section on the solar system, and of course had only diagrams, no photos, of the dark side of the moon.

Looking back there is no end to the amazement of the achievement. First of all, it took incredible balls to sit on top of those rockets and get shot into the sky, unsure whether you would ever come back again. By 1969 we knew that the astronauts would not be greeted by monsters or moon maidens upon landing, but there was all sorts of questions on what they would experience. And, compared to today, the sophistication of the computers involved were downright primitive.

What I do remember from that time period was President Nixon proclaiming that from then on July 20 would be known as Moon Day. It didn't really catch on, but in honor of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, Happy Moon Day, everyone!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

12

It's taken a good while for some of the Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees from 2007 to finally be released on DVD. I got a look at 12, from Russia, this weekend, and once Katyn is released next month, I will have seen all five nominees.

12 is an adaptation of Twelve Angry Men, the great Sidney Lumet film about how the common man can administer justice. This one, as you would expect, is set in Moscow. Director and writer Nikita Mikhalkov uses the basics of the Lumet film (and the play written by Reginald Rose) but infuses it with cultural touchstones that resonate more in Russia than they do here.

In this case the defendant is a Chechen youth who has been tried for murdering his foster father, a Russian officer. In the first vote, eleven jurors (they are all men) vote guilty, but one man insists that it's not such an open and shut case and urges further discussion. This drives many of the jurors crazy, particularly a bigoted cab driver, who refers to Chechens as savages (this character is sort of the Ed Begley and Lee J. Cobb characters from Lumet's film rolled into one). Slowly but surely the other jurors start to come around, but Mikhalkov inserts a twist toward the end that shakes things up.

A lot of things will be familiar to those who know the Lumet film. Key pieces of evidence are whether the knife used in the murder can be commonly purchased, or whether an elderly witness could have possibly gotten to a point to see the accused. But there are significant departures. The twelve men are not direct copies of the originals. Unlike Henry Fonda, the man who originally thinks the boy is innocent doesn't consistently take the lead in the argument, and it is the jury foreman, not the cabbie, who is the last holdout.

But where this film most deviates from the American version is how it reflects the dynamics of Russian society, and of course I'm not an expert on that so there may be lot that went right over my head. I certainly picked up on the sensitivity regarding Chechnya, and we do see much more of the defendant's backstory than the original film. Also, the jurors not only come to believe that he is innocent, but they also figure out who probably did the killing.

The film is very long--two hours and forty minutes--and really didn't need to be that long. Several of the characters have melodramatic monologues, while some of them are hardly heard from at all. There's also some heavy-handed symbolism in the shape of a bird that gets into the jury room (which is the gymnasium of a middle school). I wish I could comment on the actors, one of whom is Mikhalkov himself, but since the characters are only identified by number, I have no way of knowing who is who. Suffice it to say they are all excellent.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite


Those under 35 years old may not be able to truly appreciate just how huge a part of American culture Walter Cronkite was. Of course they wouldn't remember his tenure as the anchorman of the CBS Evening News (he was the guy that the word "anchorman" was coined for), or his coverage of the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the Moon landing, or Watergate. But they also have to realize how mass media, specifically network news, was disseminated in those days.

There were only three networks (you might have a UHF station or two in big cities, but they didn't run news), and only two of them had news divisions of any clout. For millions of Americans, "watching Cronkite" was a synonym for watching the news. Families usually had only one TV, and therefore watched the same show at the same time. In this way TV personalities like Milton Berle and Lucille Ball became popular and familiar to huge proportions of the audience. Cronkite was the same.

In our family we watched NBC. I have dim memories of The Huntley-Brinkley Report, and have much more solid recollections of John Chancellor. But Cronkite was an ever-present figure. I distinctly remember his Saturday morning children's show, You Are There, which presented historical events from long before the advent of television. I also remember him popping up now on then on programs on PBS, or hosting the Kennedy Center Honors, where his gentle grandfatherly nature compelled one to instantly believe anything he said. After all, he was known as "the most trusted man in America."

He will be an indelible figure in the history of America as viewed through the lens of news. Even those who did not see his announcement of JFK's death, said as he removed his glasses, the slightest catch in his voice, have seen the clip of it, and have used it as a bookmark to that event. As will his undisguised glee as men landed on the Moon, when he rubbed his hands together and boyishly said, "Oh boy!" Or how he may have influenced the tide of American politics when he visited Vietnam in 1968 and concluded that the war could not be won. Lyndon Johnson, who would shortly announce he would not run for re-election said, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."

In an age of lurking cynicism, it's somewhat striking that no one seems to have anything bad to say about him (although I seem to recall some lines from All in the Family where Archie Bunker said some nasty things). During an era that saw riots in the streets and the toppling of a presidency, he was an almost universally revered figure. His name was even bandied about as a political candidate (Garry Trudeau made sport of this in the 1980 campaign, when independent candidate John Anderson was looking for a running mate). Cronkite, to his credit, found such talk ludicrous.

Truly Cronkite's passing signals the end of an era. Other than Mike Wallace, there aren't any broadcast journalists left from the golden age of the dawn of TV news, and solid responsible journalism has been pretty much shouted down by the partisan squawking of cable news. Though he hasn't been a regular presence on television for close to thirty years, he will be missed.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Powder Blue

Here's another straight-to-DVD film, but this one deserved it's fate. Powder Blue's biggest claim to fame is that Jessica Biel shows her tits in it, and that's pretty much the highlight of the movie.

The film, written and directed by Timothy Linh Bui, is a moody, lugubrious meditation on lonely people living in L.A. In many ways it resembled Crash, but is even more earnest, if that's possible. Several different characters drift through the story, occasionally intersecting, and all the while viewers face cliches and heavy-handed writing.

The main characters are Biel as a single-mother stripper who is low on money and has just lost her dog; Forest Whitaker as a former priest who is now trying to find someone who will help him commit suicide; Eddie Redmayne as a nerdy mortician who faints in the presence of a pretty girl (and guess what--he uses an asthma inhaler--how original!); and Ray Liotta as a man just out of prison who has an unusual interest in Biel. Also popping are actors like Lisa Kudrow, Kris Kristofferson, and Patrick Swayze under an absurd mane of hair.

There are all sorts of things to annoy here. First of all, when will someone make a movie about a well-adjusted stripper? There are some, you know. And most strippers have a lot of money, because it's quite lucrative. If that weren't enough, there's also the other cliche of urban life: the transvestite hooker who is treated with patronizing sympathy.

The parallels to Crash are many, including the use of a Los Angeles snowfall as a metaphor for some kind of miracle. I wonder if it ever does snow in L.A., is the city full of people who watch it fall and come to sort of conclusion about their life? And does this mean that people who live in Vermont are less susceptible to the miraculous?

The writing and direction are ham-fisted and betray a kind of film-school earnestness that practically collapses under its own weight. Whenever Bui has a chance to lay it on a trowel, he does.For example, Whitaker's character is despondent because his wife died. But not only did she die--she died on their wedding day. He could use some lessons in subtlety.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Killshot


I have wanted to see Killshot ever since I heard it was in development, because it's one of my favorite Elmore Leonard novels. I read it about twenty years and it was so cinematic in style that I could imagine the movie in my head. I heard that Quentin Tarantino was interested in doing it, but it was finally made with John Madden, director of Shakespeare in Love, instead.

And then it sat on the shelf. The film was first slated for release in 2006, but gathered dust until it was finally issued straight to DVD in May of this year. After watching it, I have to wonder what goes in the corridors of the Weinstein Company. With all of the garbage that is released in theaters, why was this minor gem kept in the can and then bypass theaters? It certainly wouldn't have been a blockbuster, but might have made enough to make back costs.

The script, by Hossein Ameni, is very faithful to the novel as far as the plot, but takes a very different tone. While Leonard's novels typically have an undercurrent of mordant humor, Killshot the film is grim business. It is about a hitman, nicknamed the Blackbird, (Mickey Rourke) who is part Ojibwa Indian. At the beginning of the story he is hired to take out a mob chief but when he kills a whore that could be a witness he ires the man who hired him. He takes to the underground, and ends up partnering with the extremely incompetent small-time criminal (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who reminds Rourke of his dead kid brother. They attempt to shake down a real estate office, and a married couple, Thomas Jane and Diane Lane, see Rourke's face, that means they must be eliminated.

The film then is an unrelenting tale of suspense as Jane and Lane go into the witness protection program but Rourke has ways of finding them. The couple are also going through a separation, which complicates things for them when they must pretend to be a happy couple in their new location.

I really liked this film. Rourke, who made this film before his career resuscitating The Wrestler is spot-on in his role as a cold-blooded killer who is also conflicted about his feelings about his heritage and his family. Gordon-Levitt is also a delight, playing one of those gloriously stupid criminals that people Leonard's novels.

Madden's direction is lean and spare, without frills. The film clocks in at a perfect ninety or so minutes, and unfolds with its own momentum. Excellent use of the rural Michigan locations is another plus. I hope this film finds an audience in home video.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Wise Latina

I've been getting my geek on the last three days, watching the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor for Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. I've watched pretty much from gavel to gavel (thank God I get C-SPAN 3) and while some of the discourse is way over my head, I find much of it fascinating.

These hearings are an intersection of two of my obsessions: the Supreme Court and the U.S. Senate. As a civil libertarian I take a strong interest in constitutional law, and though I am no lawyer I try to keep up with the attempts by Republican judges to strip Americans of our basic rights (all of them except the right to keep guns, though). As for the Senate, it's one of the most exclusive clubs in the country, a group of 100 that operate almost like a secret society, with courtly protocols and collegial talk, but yet they are lawmakers that would sell their own grandmothers to keep their seats. One of the bizarre things I know is the names of all the current Senators, although after elections (and so many Senators appointed to replace those who were named Cabinet officers) I'm a little rusty.

It's hard to believe it was 22 years ago that the Bork hearings took place. I videotaped those hearings while I was at work and then watched them at night, transfixed. And then four years later came the theatrics of the Thomas hearings, in which Long Dong Silver and pubic hair on cans of Coke entered the lexicon. Many of the senators from those days are gone, starting with the committee chairman, Joe Biden, now V.P. How I miss his circumlocution and losing battle with hair loss. But there are still a few of them left from those days, including one of my favorite Senators, the current chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the avuncular Grateful Dead enthusiast Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Also still around are Orrin Hatch of Utah, who I can't hate because he seems so inherently decent, despite his antediluvian views, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who was a Republican during the Bork hearings (his colloquy with Bork was the most riveting of the entire hearing) but is now a Democrat and has been enfeebled enough to remind me of C. Montgomery Burns.

But there are new Senators to admire or loathe. On the plus side are Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who I think could be presidential timber, who asked Sotomayor about the overreach of the executive branch in reaction to 9/11, ex-comedian Al Franken, who had his first action as a Senator and sounded like an old pro, took a slam at Clarence Thomas' vote to overturn the Voting Rights Act, and wasn't reluctant about cracking a joke or two, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who I think I have a crush on. She's charismatic, in line with me politically, and pretty darn cute.

On the Republican side, white men all, have been respectful and some have raised actual legal questions, but most of them have looked foolish. Their obsession with Sotomayor's "wise Latina" quote in speeches she made borders on the fetishistic. She has backtracked on it, several times, and I admire her for not erupting and telling these guys that they are too obtuse to understand the point she was making. There have also been some delicious moments, such as her explaining to Hatch what a nunchaku is, and hypothesizing shooting Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, who spent his whole time quizzing her on abortion and guns. I think the low point was the squirrely South Carolinian Lindsey Graham, coming to her with roses in one hand and a shiv in the other. He told her, with his syrupy Southern charm, that he might even vote for her, but then gave her an insulting lecture on how she should watch her temperament on the bench. No one did this to Antonin Scalia, who regularly abuses lawyers in the courtroom. Sexism, anyone?

As for the nominee, I think she'll be a great justice. She's doing the smart thing, post-Bork, and not expressing any of her personal opinions, but she has clearly stated what is settled law, such as Roe v. Wade. She also comes across as extremely well-informed, charming and humorous. There is absolutely no rational reason to oppose her nomination. Of course, there are many insane reasons, mainly the unspoken conservative white male xenophobia. After two centuries of keeping other races and women down, they now have a paranoia that they are being marginalized. As Bill Maher said the other night, tongue firmly in cheek, "Puerto Rican women have had their boot on the necks of white men for far too long." In a column today, Nazi war crime defender Pat Buchanan encourages the Republicans to play the race card, apparently uninterested in having a minority vote Republican ever again.

And since I don't have to worry about being confirmed by the Senate, I'll say it: a wise Latina women is more likely to make a better decision that a white male, especially a white male who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, got into school on a legacy, and feels entitled to the power that they have held (and still hold) since 1776. If I were in court, I'd rather walk and see Sotomayor behind the bench, who got where she is by the sweat of her own brow.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Baseball '09

I haven't made a post about baseball all year, and the evening of the All-Star Game is as good a time as any to chime in. I'm far less focused on baseball as I used to be. There was a time, especially when I was playing fantasy baseball, that I knew all the players on all the teams, but no longer. I watched the Home Run Derby last night and had to admit I had never heard of Nelson Cruz of the Texas Rangers, who almost won the thing. I know that I will watch the player introductions for the game tonight and see more such players who are unknown to me.

Part of this stems from the fact that I'm interested in other things, and also that I follow an out-of-town team (the Detroit Tigers) so I don't watch much baseball on a regular basis, instead following it from a distance. I'm not one who can just plunk myself down in front of a regular season game between teams that I don't have a rooting interest for or against.

The other problem with baseball these days is the stain of steroids. I'm not one of those types, like many sportswriters, who is in a high dudgeon about this sort of thing. I would vote Mark McGwire into the Hall of Fame--nothing has been proven about him, and anyway they weren't banned at that time. If steroids are as prevalent as it said they are, then the playing field was fairly level--pitchers taking steroids were throwing to batters taking steroids who were hitting to fielders taking steroids. And fans don't seem to be concerned too much about his, either, judging by the reception that Manny Ramirez received from the home-town fans in L.A., who are once again buying dreadlock wigs.

But it's undeniable that the abuse of steroids has resulted in something lost in the game. In twenty years time half of the top ten home run hitters may be kept out of the Hall of Fame, judging by the reception McGwire has received. He and Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, and Rafael Palmeiro, as well as Roger Clemens, may be kept out by a rigorous standard established by the baseball writers. I can't disagree with the sentiment of that stance, but it's damaging to the sport. It already seems wrong that the all-time hit gatherer, Pete Rose, is kept out of the Hall.

There are signs of hope, though, mainly in the person of Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals. He came out with a strong statement this week declaring he's not a steroid-user, and one has to believe him. He is clearly the best hitter in the game, putting up awesome numbers: he is the only player in the history of the game to collect as many as thirty homers in his first nine seasons, and has never hit lower than .314 or had fewer that 103 RBI. This season he is a legitimate triple-crown threat, a sure bet to get his second consecutive MVP and third over-all. I'm not a Cardinals fan, but it's hard to root against this guy, as he's the best hope for the game.

As for the Tigers, they sit in first place at the break, winning with a combination of good starting pitching and timely hitting, plus some precarious but effective bullpen work. All this even after it seems like Dontrelle Willis will be a bust and Magglio Ordonez is done. But I don't want to say too much about it because I'm sure to jinx things.

Monday, July 13, 2009

2666


Whew! I finally finished the seventh book of the New York Times Top Ten of 2008, 2666, a posthumous novel by Roberto Bolano. It's a doorstop, coming in at 893 pages, and is about, well, it's about almost everything.

The novel consists of five parts, which were envisioned by Bolano as five separate novels, but were published as a whole after his death. They are interconnected, all glancing against a series of murders committed in a fictional Mexican town in the Sonora desert (these are modeled after the true unsolved murders of hundreds of young women in Ciudad Juarez).

Part 1 is about four academics who share a passion for an obscure German writer, strangely named Benno von Archimboldi. The tone of this part is a kind of sexy campus romp, as two of the academics become romantically involved with a third. Three of them end up hearing a rumor that Archimboldi, who is a recluse, was seen in Sonora, so they go there to look for him. (A search for a forgotten writer is also the plot of his book The Savage Detectives, reviewed earlier on this blog).

Part 2 is a short look at a philosophy professor in Santa Teresa, Bolano's stand-in for Juarez. He is slowly losing his grip on things, worried that his daughter will be consumed by the violence of the city, and obsessing about a geometry booking hanging on a clothesline. It is the strangest part of the book.

Part 3 concerns an African-American magazine writer who is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a boxing match. He becomes enmeshed with some marginal people, and after learning about the murders becomes interested in writing about them.

Part 4 is an exhaustive listing of the murdered women, plus the police investigations that follow them. It is a long, numbing section, perhaps the longest police blotter in literary history.

Part 5 returns to Archimboldi, and a bildungsroman that follows him from a boyhood obsessed with the sea floor to a soldier in the German army on the Eastern Front during World War II to his peripatetic life as a novelist.

These bare-boned summaries don't cover the half of it, though. Reading 2666, though it is sterlingly written (with a brilliant translation by Natasha Wimmer) it is a challenge. It is like a tour through a man's imagination, with side-trips by the score. Paging through the book I was reminded of some of these diversions, such as the story of a painter who finishes a painting by adding his severed hand to it; an interview with a former black radical not unlike Bobby Seale; the plot of a 1920s science fiction novel by a Russian writer who is later murdered by Stalinists; the case of a deranged man who vandalizes Mexican churches; and the gruesome castration of gang members in a Mexican prison.

What comes through most of this is an ever present atmosphere of menace. Santa Teresa is a kind of Hell, a place where women are raped, murdered and dumped almost casually, and this horror fans out to other places like tentacles. In some sense 2666 is a horror novel about a presence of evil that moves about but keeps a home base in a forlorn city in the desert.

As I finished the book, I wasn't sure whether I could say I liked it. I appreciated it, to be sure. There are some magnificent turns of phrase. Here's a couple of them: "The voice said: be careful, but it said it as if it were very far away, at the bottom of a ravine revealing glimpses of volcanic rock, rhyolites, andesites, streaks of silver and gold, petrified puddles covered with tiny little eggs, while red-tailed hawks soared above in the sky, which was purple like the skin of an Indian woman beaten to death." Or this delicious simile: "That night Reiter wasn't tired and the full moon filtered through the fabric of the tent like boiling coffee through a sock."

In the closing pages of the book, we finally learn how Archimboldi connects to the murders in Sonora, but it's not a tremendous "a-ha" moment, in fact because the book is so long I had forgotten some of the characters mentioned in the beginning who are resurrected at the end. And no, I have no idea what the number 2666 means, although some posit it is significant because it is the number of years between the creation of man and the exodus of the Jews under Moses. It's an intriguing puzzle, and an intriguing book, but it's a book that requires careful consideration and thought.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ten Little Indians, G.O.P. Style

I haven't talked politics for a while, so I'll catch up by taking a look at what's going on with the putative field of Republican presidential candidates. Two candidacies have gone up in flames due to sexual indiscretions, while another is possibly done or maybe not, depending on just how stupid Republican voters can be. In some ways this winnowing resembles the Agatha Christie novel Ten Little Indians (later retitled a more politically correct And Then There Were None), in which ten people guilty of some kind of crime are stranded on an island and murdered off, one by one.

The first to go was John Ensign, veterinarian and senator from Nevada. Mr. Ensign admitted to having an affair with a staffer, and since he got it out there and apologized, it seemed like he wouldn't lose his career. Ensign had made trips to Iowa, so perhaps he thought about a presidential run, but he could kiss that goodbye. Nevada can be very forgiving (the mayor of Las Vegas is a mob lawyer who represented Tony "the Ant" Spilotro, the basis for the Joe Pesci character in Casin0), so Ensign seemed likely to hang on to his senate seat, even if dreams of the White House went up in smoke.

But, not surprisingly, there was more to the story. Ensign's wealthy parents gave $96,000 to the mistress and her family. They say it was a gift, but anyone with sense would call it a bribe. And then came the bizarre story of how Ensign's colleagues, who are also members of a shadowy Washington religious cult called "the Family", tried to get Ensign to end his affair by forcing him to write a break-up letter and then physically taking him to a Fedex station to send it. One of those colleagues is Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who won't say anything more about it because he cites physician confidentiality, which is interesting because Coburn is an obstetrician. Signs point to Ensign resigning soon.

Not to be outdone, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, who is also connected to "the Family" (don't they realize that Charles Manson has already used that name for a wacky cult?) made news, starting with his disappearance. The first explanation was that he was walking "hiking the Appalachian trail," but that turned out to be a bald-faced lie. He was, of course, in Argentina nailing his mistress. Sanford admitted his indiscretion, and then went the extra mile for late-night comedians everywhere for declaring his Argentine wildcat his "soul-mate," even while he said he was going to try to "fall back in love" with his wife. Why she hasn't kicked him to the curb is a mystery. It seems Sanford will ride out the rest of his term, which expires in 2010, and then presumably will disappear from public life for good. His legacy will be adding "hiking the Appalachian Trail" to the language as a euphemism for adultery.

What do Ensign and Sanford both have in common, other than a casual regard for their wedding vows? They both vociferously argued for the impeachment of Bill Clinton. They also both oppose same-sex marriage because it is a threat to the sanctity of traditional marriage. Maybe it was all this gay marriage that destroyed the Ensign and Sanford marriages.

The third candidate to possibly commit political suicide was Sarah Palin, who stunned the political world the day before Independence Day by announcing that not only would she not run for re-election, but that she was resigning the office after spending only two and a half years of her four-year term. The first reaction, and pretty much the one-hundredth reaction is "What is she thinking?" She has since provided late-night comedians, who are fat and happy these days, with some bizarre statements while wearing fishing waders. She's not a quitter, she's a fighter, she says, even though what she is doing is the definition of quitting.

"Crazy like a fox," some of the conservative pundits/cheerleaders are saying. She can put together a run for the presidency without being tied down to the drudgery of the state house in Juneau, and perhaps more tantalizingly, she's free to earn money making speeches or getting a gig on Fox News (although I liked comedian Julia Sweeney's idea--that she replace Elizabeth Hasselbeck on The View during her pregnancy leave).

It's certainly a risky move, though. Palin is popular among Republicans, but if she thinks she took a beating during her stint as John McCain's henchwoman, she's in for a whole new world of scrutiny during a run for president. How many times will wags ask if she will actually serve all four years of a presidential term? Many bring up the return from the political dead by Richard Nixon, who was also perceived as a lightweight. But Nixon, despite his negatives, was a serious politician, while Palin, every time she opens her mouth, shows that she is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

If I were a Republican, I would be looking among the many young, attractive politicians out there who can actually conduct an interview without making blunders. Palin may be a celebrity now, but she's got so many negatives that a potential Obama-Palin contest would look like a bloodbath.

Of course, this schadenfreude can backfire. If the economy keeps going south, Obama could lose to anyone. But this summer has been a lot of fun for watching the Republicans being picked off, one by one. Bobby Jindal, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney--watch out!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Friends of Eddie Coyle


I'm one of those old farts that will tell you that the best decade for film was the 1970s. It was when studios gave free rein to innovative directors, before focus groups were the standard way of doing things, CGI was just a glimmer in some computer genius's eye, and when box office receipts weren't printed in the newspapers like baseball standings. "It was all about the music," so to speak.

And then there's nothing quite like a 70s crime drama: gritty, unsentimental, casually violent, and resting in a huge gray area where no one can tell who the good guy is. One of the more respected of those films is The Friends of Eddie Coyle, from 1973, which had languished in limbo until a recent DVD release from the Criterion Collection.

Robert Mitchum is the title character. Mitchum's acting in his middle years was something to behold (along with Farewell, My Lovely). His craggy hang-dog face, bass rumble of a voice, and slight stoop made you conjure up a life of hard times just looking at him. And in this film the character had done some hard time. A fringe player in the Boston crime scene, Mitchum's Coyle is a procurer of guns for some bank robbers. He's facing a rap in New Hampshire for transporting stolen whiskey, so he is having a conversation with a U.S. Treasury agent (Richard Jordan) hoping for some kind words to the judge before sentencing. He offers to give up the gun dealer he's working with.

Meanwhile we see the bank robbers in action. Years before Billy Bob Thornton and Bruce Willis in Bandits, these guys start the robbery in the bank manager's home, taking his family hostage. The robberies (we see two of them) are filmed in breathtaking precision by director Peter Yates.

In between these two plot threads is the shadowy figure of Peter Boyle as a saloon owner who is also of the criminal element and is also talking to Jordan. Even though this film is thirty-six years old I won't say anymore, since it was out of circulation a long time and it was such a pleasure to see a film that was completely unpredictable from minute to minute.

Yates' work is impressive, as there isn't a wrong shot in the film. The screenplay, by Paul Monash, is also a gem, with some great dialogue, particularly coming out of the mouth of Mitchum and the gun dealer, played by Stephen Keats. The script is based on a novel by George V. Higgins, so I'm not sure who gets the ultimate credit, but there are some absolute pearls.

You'll know it's a seventies film by the ending, which offers no satisfaction to those who are fed on the conventions of multiplex films today. Two character walk away from each other, one of them holding a secret from the other, who has a sense of what that secret is but won't act on it. It kind of summarizes an era.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is probably the best narrative film that uses the conflict in Iraq as its subject matter. At first blush I thought it might be because it sticks to the conventions of the platoon war picture, and is less political than films like Stop-Loss and In the Valley of Elah. But after a few hours have passed I realize that it is a political film, but in a much more subtle way.

The set-up is simple: we are embedded with the U.S. Army, specifically an E.O.D. (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit. It's a small group, consisting of three soldiers, who are called upon to disarm unexploded devices. After one of their number is killed, a new guy arrives to assume the role of team leader, and things get a little unsettled.

That's because the new guy is Will James, played by Jeremy Renner, and he marches to the beat of distinctively different drummer. He marches right into danger with a casual attitude that drives his colleague, Anthony Mackie, crazy. The third man, Brian Geraghty, fancies himself a walking dead man, and deals with his overwhelming sense of dread with visits by a psychiatrist. It soon becomes apparent that Renner thrives on danger (the opening epigram is from war correspondent Chris Hedges: "War is a drug)." For Renner it certainly is a drug, helping him forget about the troubles he's having with his wife.

Written by Mark Boal, a journalist who spent time embedded with an E.O.D., the film unfolds episodically, as the trio deal with increasingly dangerous situations. Renner disarms a bomb in a car, taking far longer than Mackie would like. They encounter a group of British soldiers, and get pinned down by some enemy snipers. Renner sneaks out of the base to investigate the death of a local boy he befriended, and then Renner tries to help an unfortunate man who has been pressed into service as a suicide bomber. All of these scenes drip with authenticity, and are pumped with maximum suspense by Bigelow and editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski. The cinematography by Barry Ackroyd is an example of how jittery hand-held photography serves the story, rather than distracts from it (as in Public Enemies). If it recalls a video game, I think that's intentional, and we see that Geraghty unwinds by playing a first-person shooter game during his off-time.

The acting is first-rate. Renner has a young Russell Crowe quality, and though he's a far more flamboyant character than Mackie, both should be in the conversation come Oscar time. There are a number of more notable actors who pop up in brief roles: Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Evangeline Lilly.

In some respects this story could about soldiers in any war, but in other respects it could only have taken place in Iraq. We are told at the outset that we are in 2004 Baghdad, so that may summon the images of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld in some. But I think the longer view has less to do with the particulars of how the U.S. ended up in Iraq than in what the war does to those who fight it. One of the strongest sequences in the film is a cut from Renner driving a HUMVEE down a dusty Baghdad street, with children running alongside (some of them throwing rocks) to him pushing a cart down the aisle of a grocery store back home. He has gone from a life of almost constant danger to a life where his greatest challenge is deciding which cereal to buy (he's faced with a seemingly endless choice). The greatest legacy of this war for Americans just may be the scars it leaves on the young men and women who leave a part of themselves in the desert.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Olive Kitteridge


The Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year went to Olive Kitteridge, a collection of connected short stories by Elizabeth Strout. All of them deal with the residents of a fictional coastal Maine town, and all of them contain, in some way or another, a mention of the title character. She's quite a creation: a former math teacher, a wife, a mother, and a force of nature. She's a woman who doesn't suffer fools gladly and kind of barges her way through life. She's not entirely likable, but she's always interesting.

About half of the stories are about Olive directly, while in the rest she makes cameo appearances or is just mentioned second-hand (in two stories she's remembered by ex-students of hers). The stories about her are best, describing her marriage to the eternally cheery Henry, and her dour son Christopher, whom she loves desperately and despairs when he marries and moves to California. In "Little Bursts," Olive deals with her son's wedding day, and overhears her new daughter-in-law make an insulting comment. Her revenge, while petty, is absolutely delicious. "Tulips" has Olive visiting a couple who have become recluses after their son committed a horrible crime, and she realizes that she's only visiting because she wants to experience someone who has a worse relationship with their son. The strongest story is "Security," which covers her visit to Christopher in New York City, where he has married for a second time. Strout expertly dissects the passive-aggressiveness of a New Englander as she struggles to maintain a relationship with the son who has slipped away from her.

The stories about other Maine residents are more hit and miss. I liked "Starving," about an elderly man who has turned to adultery when his wife has given up sex, and ends up getting involved with an anorexic girl, and "Ship in a Bottle," about a young girl who is left at the altar and then tries to break away from her eccentric mother. I wasn't as crazy about "Incoming Tide," which bears an uncomfortable similarity to a plot point of It's a Wonderful Life, or "Criminal" and "The Piano Player," both about lonely women that seem cliched.

The stories in this book also have a tendency to rely on shocking violence. There's the son who murdered his wife in "Tulips," and a young man shot in a hunting accident in "Pharmacy," but there's also the crime that Olive and Henry fall victim to in "A Different Road," which seems like an episode of prime-time TV more than literature. Of course death is a constant presence in the lives of these people, but it seems unlikely that there'd be so much carnage in a sleepy Maine village.

Aside from that, the stories are expertly written. Strout shows a magnificent sense of detail, and I really felt I knew Olive by the last story, when, almost against her will, she finds love again after the death of her husband. Stories about older people aren't common these days, and it's nice to see them treated with care here. Strout creates real people in a real place.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Baby Doll


When Karl Malden died last week at age 97, most obituaries mentioned his tenure on the 1970s cop drama The Streets of San Francisco, or his many commercials for American Express. His most famous film work was done in the 1950s, in films directed by Elia Kazan. He won an Oscar for A Streetcar Named Desire, and he was memorable as the crusading Father Berry in On the Waterfront. But the third film he made for Kazan in the 50s is less well known, perhaps because the film was actually pulled from theaters after being condemned by several quarters.

That film is Baby Doll, which is a strange and feverish picture no matter what the era. It was written by Tennessee Williams (based on his play 27 Wagon Loads of Cotton) and was an overcooked Southern gothic that is also frankly sexual.

Malden plays the middle-aged owner of a cotton gin in Mississippi who is at wit's end. Not only has he seen most of his business go to a rival, a Sicilian immigrant (Eli Wallach), but he's also dealing with his much younger wife, who is the title character (Carroll Baker). It seems that she married him to please her father, but was only eighteen years old, so she and Malden made a deal that she would be "ready for marriage" on her twentieth birthday. That day is only a few days away at the start of the picture, and Malden no doubt is sporting a magnificent set of blueballs and has taken to spying on his wife through a hole in the wall as she sleeps.

As he spies on her, we get our first image of Baby Doll--sleeping in a crib with the slats down, sucking on her thumb, and wearing a nightie (that would later be called a babydoll nightie). It's a stunningly erotic image for 1956. Though Baker's Baby Doll is a sexualized image, she's determined not to bed down with Malden, especially after all of their furniture is repossessed for non-payment.

Malden sets out to fix his problem with Wallach by burning down the Sicilian's gin. Wallach suspects Malden is the man who did it, and comes to call. He sees the tension between Malden and Baker, and while Malden is away Wallach exacts his revenge by seducing Baker. Much of the film is taken up with Wallach and Baker playing a kind of game through the old dilapidated house she lives in. There's one scene in particular that earned the ire of the Catholic Church--Baker and Wallach share a glider swing, and the scene is shot in tight closeup, which means we can't see what Wallach is doing with his hands.

The film, which was released right before Christmas in 1956, was denounced from the pulpit of St. Patrick's Cathedral by Cardinal Spellman, as well as by Time Magazine, which called it pornographic. I imagine it was quite an eye-opener for its time, and still packs a certain wallop, but it's also so odd that it doesn't quite hold together. It did earn quite a few Oscar nominations, including one for Baker, Williams, and Mildred Dunnock, who plays Baker's dotty old aunt.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Whatever Works

After experiencing something of a renaissance while shooting films in Europe (well, if we forget about Scoop), Woody Allen has returned to New York for his latest comedy. Unfortunately, returning home hasn't done him any good, and Whatever Works is perhaps the worst comedy he's ever made (the worst film he ever made remains the pretentious drama September).

As someone who thinks Allen is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, his spotty (to put it kindly) record for the last ten to fifteen years pains me. And I was uncomfortable from the opening moments of this film. We are introduced to Boris, played by Larry David, who is an irascible physicist who is a repository of all the tics that Allen has manifested over the years, but without any of the charm. David tells the audience, breaking the third wall, that we won't like him. And how! He's a kvetch, but what's worse, he's not very interesting. He insults everyone he sees for their lack of intelligence, but these slurs aren't very clever (moron and inchworm are the most common). The character is instantly tedious. It's as if a devoted student of Allen had attempted write his own Allen film.

Anyway, David is an anhedonic curmudgeon who finds life without purpose and has no social skills. But he does have a circle of friends and an ex-wife. One day he is approached by a young woman living on the street, who somehow convinces him to take her in. She's Evan Rachel Wood, and though she's an appealing performer she's asked to do the impossible here, playing a naif from Mississippi who we are somehow supposed to believe actually falls in love with David. He resists, admirably enough, citing the difference in their ages, but they eventually marry.

Now, psychologists can have a field day dissecting Allen's persistent use of May-December relationships in his films, and given what we know about his own life it is even more sordid. My take is that Allen is an individual who lives in his own bubble and has very little idea of what life for others is like. He knows that he found a much younger woman, so doesn't find the idea as disturbing as the rest of us. It would also account for his tin ear when it comes to characters like Wood's, who is a cliche of Southern stereotypes (she actually talks about catching catfish).

The film picks up a bit when Wood's mother, delightfully played by Patricia Clarkson, shows up. She's a Bible-thumper who quickly turns into a Bohemian, taking photographs of nude models and living in a menage a trois. A film about her may have been more interesting.

Of course, the greatest sin of this film is that it's not funny. David has considerable strengths as a performer, but he's not up to carrying the weight of a feature film on his back, especially when he's a conduit for Allen's warmed over word-weary dialogue.

The story goes that Allen first conceived of this script in the 70s (it was going to star Zero Mostel). He resurrected it because he had a window to make a film but no script, so he went into his drawer to dust this one off. Mistake. In fact, Allen's prolificness is doing his legacy no favors. Take a long vacation, Woody, you've earned it.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Buffalo Bill's America


Buffalo Bill Cody is fascinating figure from American history, and he's doubly interesting to me because he touches on two different areas: the Old West and show business. In Louis S. Warren's book, Buffalo Bill's America, William Cody and the Wild West Show, it becomes clear that Cody really did straddle the line between the realities of the frontier and the nostalgic reenactment of history that he would create years later.

Warren, a history professor, has written a very academic book, and some of it is tough going, but his subject never fails to be intriguing. But the first few chapters are a rather brutal debunking of the Cody legend. He grew up in Bleeding Kansas, his father a free-stater who was murdered for his beliefs. Cody would end up being a scout and a skilled buffalo hunter, but many of his claims were absolute hooey, Warren points out. The most notable of these was Cody's claim that he rode for the Pony Express, which Warren clearly states couldn't have been true. Some of these chapters are pretty harsh, but they do serve the interest of history, which is about the truth, not myths.

Cody, very early on, had the brilliant eye to cash in on the fame that dime novelists had made for him (whether this was based on truths or not) and took to the stage, starring in badly written plays (some of them were improvised tall tales of his exploits). He did kill one Indian, a Cheyenne named Yellow Hair, not long after Custer's troops were slaughtered at Little Bighorn. He took Yellow Hair's scalp, and proclaimed that it was done for Custer. What's really fascinating about this is that Cody, who had already been a star on the stage, did it in a stage costume--"black velvet slashed with scarlet and trimmed with silver buttons." Talk about blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Quickly thereafter Cody reenacted the killing on stage in a play called "The Red Right Hand, or First Scalp for Custer."

Of course the greatest part of the book concerns the Wild West show, which Cody toured successfully for several years, entertaining millions of people in the United States and even more overseas, including the crowned heads of Europe. It was a show business phenomenon that is beyond compare. Warren discusses the many layers of meaning the show had, most especially in the use of real Indians in the show. Cody was very good to the Indians, and by and large they appreciated it, and many of them and their descendants praised Cody well into old age. It was clear that Cody respected the Indian way of life, and they were never played by non-Indians (which was very common in the early days of Hollywood, when men like Jeff Chandler played Indians).

But it was also true that the theme of Cody's show was a fear of the Indian, or more precisely, the mixing of races. The Indian was always an other, and the climax of his show was most often a segment called Attack on the Settler's Cabin. The raid on hearth and home by the savage heathen was an instilled fear on the frontier, and it correlated to the urban easterner or even the completely removed European as a fear of the exotic race come unwanted. Warren takes the point to extremes when he spends thirty pages discussing how Bram Stoker was influenced by Cody in the writing of Dracula.

This book is not strictly a biography in that we find out what Cody was up to day to day. Instead it uses Cody and the show as a prism to view what was going on in the world at that time, whether it be Dracula or women's suffrage or politicians like William Jennings Bryan or Theodore Roosevelt. But Warren does give us a very sharp image of Cody the man. He married early, and while on tour he seldom saw his wife. He had many affairs and apparently was quite the drinker (but not while on tour). He hurt his reputation badly in 1904 when he unsuccessfully sued his wife for divorce (he claimed that she was trying to poison him, and he may have been right!).

After an unsuccessful foray into films, Cody packed it up for good and died in 1917, but he gave the country quite a bit of history, whether it was hiring Sitting Bull for a season, and then being involved in his arrest, or bringing Annie Oakley to the attention of millions. Though this book can be dry in spots, it is full of interesting information and figures to be the authority on the subject.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Public Enemies


It's hard, when you follow the film business closely, to not have certain expectations when you walk into a movie. Public Enemies, Michael Mann's lavish take on the era of the celebrity bank robbers during the Great Depression, certainly seemed like it would be the definitive take on this subject, casting a popular movie star, Johnny Depp, as John Dillinger. The film doesn't quite achieve that epic status, and at the same time falls slightly short as a popcorn entertainment. It is sporadically brilliant, though, and on the whole I recommend it, but it's no Godfather. It's not even Heat.

I mention Heat, Mann's great crime film from the 90s, because Public Enemies has certain parallels. The story follows a criminal and his pursuer, who only have one meeting before one kills the other one. The comparison pretty much stops there, though, because unlike Heat, Public Enemies doesn't explore the inner psyches of the characters. We really don't know what makes them tick.

The film is ostensibly the story of Dillinger, who was not only a public enemy during 1933 and 1934, robbing several banks and killing several police officers, but he was also a huge celebrity. In a time when banks were held in contempt, Dillinger was cheered on by much of the populace, applauded when his face appeared in newsreels. In Mann's film the dack is stacked for him with the casting of Depp, a megastar, who plays him with a sleek sensuality. Contrast this to Warren Oates' portrayal in John Milius' 1973 film, Dillinger. Oates, a fine actor, would never have been said to exhibit sleek sensuality.

For the most part the film is accurate as it depicts Dillinger's crime wave from his escape from prison in 1933 to his death in 1934. There are a few changes to the truth: Dillinger's men did escape from the pen at Michigan City, Indiana through the use of smuggled rifles, but Dillinger was in jail at the time (they later busted him out); Pretty Boy Floyd died after Dillinger did, not before; Baby Face Nelson didn't die at Little Bohemia; but the shell of the truth is there and it shouldn't bother experts on the subject. In fact, there are some details that are myth-bustingly true, such as The Lady in Red was actually a lady in orange. What may bother historians is that Depp's Dillinger is a romantic anti-hero, much like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway made Bonnie and Clyde. But Dillinger was really just a thug, more Warren Oates than Johnny Depp.

The spine of this film is Dillinger's relationship with Billie Frechette, a hat-check girl played by Marion Cotillard, and frankly these portions of the film are dull. I didn't find any chemistry between the two (I'm not sure Depp has ever been convincing in a consummated romance--he's always excelled more at being the oddball who can't have requited love). Cotillard is fine and easy on the eyes but the whole relationship, to me, dragged down the story.

Instead the best parts of Public Enemies are the set-pieces. I thought the film really picked up steam during Dillinger's escape from the Crown Point, Indiana jail, in which he used a wooden gun (that, hard to believe, was true). The editing by Jeffrey Ford and Paul Rubell is spot-on. Then, the shootout at Little Bohemia, a lodge in Wisconsin where the gang was hiding out, is the highlight of the film. The choreography and sound combine to form an almost balletic orgy of violence, and the image of one of gangster going down in a hail of bullets, his machine gun blazing, is an arresting one. And finally Dillinger's death, outside the Biograph theater, is a fitting climax, shot with precision and powerful emotion.

The problem with Mann's film is what comes in between. The romance is ineffective, perhaps because we really have no idea who Dillinger is. He mentions spending a long time in prison for a minor offense, but aside from a Bull Durham-like list of things he likes ("baseball, movies, fast cars, and you") he's an enigma. Even more of a cypher is Melvin Purvis, the dedicated G-man who hunts him down. He's played by Christian Bale, who's a fairly big star in his own right, but there's nothing there to tell us what his motivation is, other than doing his job (Purvis killed himself in 1960, which is mentioned in the closing moments of the film, but there's nothing in the script or the performance to tip us off as to why). A more interesting performance is by Billy Crudup, a weird choice to play the gnomic J. Edgar Hoover, but a canny one, giving us a glimpse of the man who would one day be among the post powerful men in America.

Public Enemies, despite these faults, resonates. The imagery of a man in a long top-coat and fedora, a machine gun crooked in his arm, has undeniable power. The costumes of Colleen Atwood are terrific, and all the period cars and locations are exquisitely done. I do have complaints about Dante Spinotti's photography, as there is way too much hand-held stuff. Or more precisely, hand-held stuff that is not smoothy photographed, and makes the viewer motion sick. I see no reason for it other than hubris.

Given that this film was made in a time when banks are once again thought of with disdain, it makes some interesting statements. Mann has added an element with the addition of characters from the "Syndicate," such as Frank Nitti, who end up considering rogue bank robbers as irritants. There is a pointed scene when Dillinger is shown a bookmaking operation that makes as much money in a day as Dillinger can in one job, and without anybody shooting at each other. Mann clearly sees Dillinger as the last of a species, which is perhaps why he is tinged in romantic hues. That makes for a handsome thing to look at, but not a particularly substantive one.