Category Archives: Popular culture

Who didn’t know these things about ‘American Pie?’

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As long as I’m going on about the days of my youth…

I was flabbergasted by this piece in the WSJ over the weekend:

Earlier this month, one of the greatest mysteries in rock ’n’ roll was finally solved. The unnamed “king” and “jester on the sidelines” in Don McLean’s iconic 1971 song “American Pie” were revealed to be Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, respectively….

Whoa, whoa, whoa! Hang on! Greatest mysteries?

Who did not know, soon after the song’s release in the fall of 1971, that “the king” was Elvis and the “jester” was Dylan?

Nobody! At least, nobody who was old enough to take a consuming interest in listening to the radio and who had time on his hands to talk endlessly about such drivel. In other words, nobody who was in college then.

I checked, and I was right — the columnist who wrote that was 3 years old when the song came out. So… maybe this was a big revelation to her, but not to Rob, Barry, Dick or me.

It’s hard to believe it even made headlines. Oh, I see why — McLean just sold the lyrics for $1.2 million. OK.

You know what? Now that I think back, I’m hard-pressed to explain how we knew all that stuff that we knew about the song. There were social media. There was no Wikipedia. And mass media were firmly in the hands of the older generation, which didn’t care and didn’t engage such topics. Did we get it from DJs on the radio? From Rolling Stone? I don’t remember how we knew; we just did. Or thought we did, anyway…

Long, long before they were stars

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I love the Internet Movie Database, in part because it allows me to make connections in much-loved films that would never, ever have occurred to me otherwise.

I discovered this one a year or two back, but was reminded of it today and thought I’d share it.

Remember the skinny kid leaning up against the bars of the jail cell in “Trading Places” when Billy Ray Valentine was bragging to his cellmates about beating up on “nine, ten cops?” You know, because he’s a “chain-belt kung fu” master?

Here’s the scene.

He was the kid who said, “But you told me last night you cut the dude…”

No? Well, he was forgettable in that role.

But Giancarlo Esposito was hard to forget as Gus Fring in “Breaking Bad.”

Talk about an actor taking on gravitas, and menace, as he aged… Wow.

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Does smoking dope make reggae less monotonous?

I got to thinking about that question yet again when I saw this:

KINGSTON, Jamaica — President Obama, who arrived here Wednesday evening for a meeting with Caribbean leaders, made an unscheduled nighttime visit to the Bob Marley Museum.

“I still have all the albums,” Obama, in rolled up shirtsleeves, told museum guide Natasha Clark, as he toured the home in central Kingston where the Jamaican reggae great lived from 1975 until his death in 1981.

Marley’s family has turned the rambling, Victorian style house and outbuildings into a museum where all things Marley are sold –T-shirts, posters, albums — and artifacts from his life and Jamaican culture are displayed.

As Obama toured, strains of “One Love,” a Marley great, with its chorus of “let’s get together and feel all right,” echoed out the windows and into the night….

And this is not an Obama-baiting post or anything. I just know that POTUS was something of a toker in his youth, and I’m wondering whether that’s why he is a Marley fan and I’m not.

I’ve just always reggae sounded:

  • Like music made by and for people who are really into ganja.
  • Monotonous.

I’ve just never been able to get into it, and I’ve wondered whether that’s because I’m not, you know, stoned. It has a kind of gently bouncing, going-nowhere, chilling-along sort of sound to it that seems like something that would appeal mainly to people who are artificially relaxed.

Oh, and as long as I’m confessing to being so uncool, I also have a problem with blues. Something about the whole basic, predictable progression, the first line that is repeated, the whole SAMENESS about blues makes it hard for me to listen to it for very long.

I can enjoy maybe one blues song at a time — I love Hendrix’s “Red House” (below), which follows the form religiously — but after a couple of them, they tend to sound repetitive. Unless they are the sort that departs from the standard pattern, such as “House of the Rising Sun” or “St. James Infirmary.” Those are special. But on the whole, listening to a whole set or album of blues wears on me.

I did sort of enjoy that album of blues covers that Eric Clapton put out in 1994, “From the Cradle.” He put a lot of energy into making every song special. But when I misplaced the CD sometime in the middle of that decade, I didn’t look for it very hard. And back to my original topic, “I Shot the Sheriff” is easily my least favorite Clapton track.

I’ve tried hard over the years to be a blues connoisseur — because all cool people are, right? — but failed. And yes, I know that a huge proportion of the pop songs I’ve enjoyed in my life are based in blues, but they appeal because of the innovative things they do on top of the basic form — near as I can tell, not being a musical scholar.

Anyway, consider the source in contemplating my comments on reggae — they’re coming from a guy who doesn’t even dig the blues…

The long-awaited collapse of the ‘bundle’

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This is me in the past, wondering why I couldn’t just pay for the channels, or specific shows, that I actually wanted to see.

Back when I was editorial page editor, Bud Tibshrany used to ask me out to lunch about once a year. That’s because he was doing PR for Time Warner Cable, and his job required that he check in with me periodically, and going to lunch with him was less of an interruption to operations that a full editorial board meeting. I had to eat anyway.

Each year, he’d ask me if I had any questions about Time-Warner or the industry. And I always had just one question: When will I be able to buy channels a la carte instead of having to pay for scores of channels I didn’t want just to get AMC? It was really all I wanted to know.

I knew I was being a pain, but he asked.

The answer was always the same: Not in the foreseeable future. The cable providers’ hands were tied by the contractual demands of the content providers, and so forth. Which was true.

True then, that is. Times are a-changin’:

Web streaming is upending the neat arrangement long enjoyed between TV channels and cable providers such as Verizon and Comcast. Verizon pays ESPN and other channels a certain amount to carry their programming, a cost that gets factored into customers’ monthly bills. But with consumers complaining about paying for too many channels and switching to online streaming alternatives such as Netflix, cable firms are feeling the pressure to cut costs — and even drop channels, especially those with plummeting ratings.

The swift decline in cable has been particularly harmful for Viacom, which typically presses cable distributors to run all of its channels — including MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon — or none of them. The company announced this week that it will cancel some shows and lay off staff as part of a broad restructuring plan….

Talk about creative destruction.

Just last night, in response to an invitation via my Apple TV, I signed up for a free one-month trial of HBO NOW, which markets itself with the pithy tagline, “Now, all you need is the Internet.”

Well, that and $14.99 a month, which I probably will not spring for when the free month is up.

But in the meantime, it’s pretty awesome. We watched “Jersey Boys” last night, and enjoyed it. I see that I can catch up completely on “Game of Thrones” if I care to binge, starting with the first season. Or watch “The Sopranos” again all the way through, or any other series that has ever been on HBO. And I can send back that DVD from Netflix with the first episodes of “True Detective” on it. The whole series lies before me now.

Anyway, whatever I do going forward, I appreciate this brave new world…

I don’t watch ‘an awful lot’ of TV — or maybe I do. How about you?

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“TURN: Washington’s Spies” — fictionalized, but at least the models for these people actually existed…

 

For whatever reason, our regular commenter Barry said this over the weekend:

One thing I have learned about Brad- he watches an awful lot of television.

Sounds awful.

At which I bridled.

Moi? Watch a lot of idiot box? Never!

Or maybe sometimes…

No, I really don’t — at least, not by American standards.

But you know, I think I probably watch more of it than I used to — mainly because of Netflix, and to some extent AMC. For the first time in my life, if I feel like vegging out in front of the tube (or working out in front of it, I hasten to add), I can always find something that interests me. And that was bound to increase my screen time.

Oddly, I don’t even get AMC any more. We subscribe to a below-basic level of cable that simply ensures that we get the local broadcast stations clearly, and nothing else. (And I don’t really watch those, except for an occasional “Masterpiece” series on ETV.) But I can watch all of the AMC shows a bit later, on Netflix, and that’s generally good enough for me.

Here’s what I have watched on the tube over the past year or so. It may sound like a lot, but compared to most people’s viewing habits (with the Tube always on, with sports and “news” shows and Reality TV), it’s actually fairly contained. I’m listing everything I can recall watching, including shows I’ve lost interest in:

  • Turn: Washington’s Spies — I JUST started this, because it just arrived on Netflix. My interest increased when I realized that Abraham Woodhull, Anna Strong, Caleb Brewster and Ben Tallmadge were all real people, although this is obviously fictionalized. Don’t think the show’s been quite fair to Robert Rogers.
  • Bluebloods — Got belatedly hooked on this about a month ago. It’s now my standard show to watch while working out in the mornings. My parents have loved this show for years, and I think I probably enjoy it for the same reasons.
  • Better Call Saul — As with the last season of “Breaking Bad,” I couldn’t wait on this one, and went ahead and bought the season via iTunes. But I fell three episodes behind while abroad, and haven’t caught up. Not quite as riveting as the original series, despite having Mike Ehrmantraut.
  • “The West Wing” — Y’all already know how crazy I was about this last year, watching all seven seasons while working out in the mornings. But now it’s gone, and while I’ve watched some favorite episodes two or three times, I need to wait a while (a few years, I think) before watching it all the way through again.
  • Endeavour — Very engaging prequel to the Inspector Morse series. It’s hard to beat a well-made series set in Britain circa 1964. Guess I’ll never get over the brainwashing effects of the British Invasion. That’s when I really fell in love with that island. Also, having spent a few days in Oxford in 2011, I’m drawn toward anything set there.
  • Inspector Morse — Didn’t get very far into it. Not as engaging as either its prequel or its sequel, “Lewis” — which I haven’t watched lately only because there have been no new episodes.
  • House of Cards — The American version. I watched three or four episodes of the third season, but haven’t gotten back to it.
  • Foyle’s War — Love it. My main complains it that the war ended too quickly, owing to the British habit of two few episodes per season, and the show basically following a sort of real-time format.
  • Grantchester — Very enjoyable, while it lasted.
  • Father Brown — The original, of which “Grantchester” is a Protestant imitator. I’ve only watched two or three of these, but my wife is really into it.
  • Orange is the New Black — Only watched a couple of episodes of the most recent season, then we lost interest.
  • Outlander — Over the weekend I watched part of the first episode, because the disks were at my house. Lost interest pretty quickly. Like a slower-moving, chick-flick version of “Life on Mars,” which I loved. This Sassenach woman should have stayed in England.
  • Hawaii Five-0 — Watched a couple of episodes of both the old and the new series before and after visiting Hawaii, for the scenery. Both series are deeply flawed in different ways. The newer one, with its all-young-and-sexy cast (Kono as a hot young girl? Really?) and hyper-action, is the more ridiculous of the two, although production values are much better. But the scenery is awesome. As with the Oxford mysteries, it’s fun to get to visit faraway places that I’ve visited and enjoyed. What we need now is a good drama set in Thailand…

That’s about all I can think of.

Oh, wait! Last night, I passed on the first episode of Wolf Hall because it was on too late on a work night. But I plan to watch it tonight via PBS app on the Apple TV. I’ve really been looking forward to this one. Maybe it will spur me to go ahead and read Bring Up the Bodies, which has been awaiting me on my bookshelf…

How about y’all? What are your viewing habits, if any? How have they changed, with our liberation from the TV schedule and explosive increase in platforms and options?

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Hoping to enjoy ‘Wolf Hall’…

 

Jon Stewart’s replacement, Trevor Noah

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Any thoughts on Jon Stewart’s announced replacement, Trevor Noah?

I mean, beyond the purely superficial sort of hail-the-Obama-of-talk-show-hosts observation?

I don’t know what I think, because the clips I’ve seen today meant to explain who Trevor Noah is have been kind of light and limited. Perhaps he has the comedic range and ironic take on American politics that make him a good replacement. But I haven’t seen it.

We knew what we were getting with Jimmy Fallon (a guy I used to not like, but who had grown on me by the time he took over the Tonight Show). We know what we will be getting when Stephen Colbert takes over for Letterman, although some might wonder a little as to what he’ll be like as himself.

The president of Comedy Central said, “You don’t hope to find the next Jon Stewart — there is no next Jon Stewart. So, our goal was to find someone who brings something really exciting and new and different.”

So, I suppose we’ll see what that something different will be.

On a completely unrelated note, I ran across this quote today from Stewart, which was new to me:

I view America like this: 70 to 80 percent [are] pretty reasonable people that truthfully, if they sat down, even on contentious issues, would get along. And the other 20 percent of the country run it.

Good one. If Comedy Central had given me a vote, I’d have voted to hire somebody who will come up with more quotes like that, whoever that might be…

Now that’s MY kind of infographic

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I ran across this on Pinterest while researching this previous post.

You can keep your infographics about the national debt and such; this is the kind I like.

And I say that even though Maxim’s usual sort of “graphic” is more like this.

I really appreciate that someone took the time to work this out. I’ve gotta get me a job like that…

Is anyone watching television anymore?

The New York Post reports that televisions ratings “see double digit declines for fifth straight month“.

Commercial ratings — the viewing “currency” that determines what advertisers pay for TV time — cratered across broadcast and cable networks, marking the fifth straight month of double-digit declines for the industry.

“It’s clear the downward spiral in TV ratings continues with no end in sight,” media analyst Michael Nathanson wrote in a research note on Friday.

Overall prime-time broadcast network ratings were off 12 percent last month compared to a year ago, while cable networks dropped 11 percent, according to his report.

Other than live sports, I really don’t watch television anymore. I have a few shows that the wife and I watch together after the children are all settled, but we don’t watch them live. 99% of the time the program is usually something streaming from either Netflix or Amazon. For movies, it’s the same thing. In fact, if it wasn’t for sports, I’d probably wouldn’t have a subscription to regular television.

Also, ever since the new year, I’ve been trying to cut down on the television watching. For me, watching television is like eating junk food – it’s fun while you’re doing it, but you feel guilty afterwards. Most of the time, I feel like I’ve wasted my time just watching tv. I mean, honestly, almost anything you do is more worthy that sitting in front of the Idiot Tube and being hypnotized by the beams of light coming out of it. I kind of think the television has something to do with the shape of this country. Watching (most) television makes you dumb, disconnected, and lazy.

It also makes it easy to just waste your entire night, and by extension all your nights. Television makes it so easy to simply do nothing. And we shouldn’t do nothing. We only have a little time on this earth, and watching television isn’t the way to spend it.

Some of the best nights I have are reading books, playing with my children and actually talking to people. Unless we’re talking about having the television on in the background when you’re doing mindless work with no one around, watching television is always an inferior choice to doing anything.

Accordingly, I’m glad that cable television is going down the tubes. Unfortunately, it’s probably due to all the other ways that we now have to distract ourselves.

All y’all already know this, but I’m encouraging everyone to try and make better choices with how we spend our time. Television is never usually the right choice.

Disney is going to make a sequel to “Frozen”

This is Olaf. He’s kind of a big deal around my house.

This is big news for anyone with children under 12.

“Frozen” made nearly $1.3 billion at the box office and inspired masses of toys, clothing and other merchandise as well as a devoted following of young girls.

Even boys are kind of into Frozen. My son is three, and he really likes singing the songs. Mostly he likes the snowman, Olaf.

To paraphrase some litigators enjoy who ending their letters with a certain line: If you have young children, govern yourselves accordingly.

OK, let’s talk about ‘House of Cards,’ Season 3

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Some of y’all brought up this topic on a previous thread, so I thought I’d start a separate one.

Like many of you, I’ve at least gotten started on the new season of “House of Cards.” I’ve watched four episodes so far. Don’t know whether I’ll continue.

I managed to slog through last season, and was actually missing it a little when someone suggested I try watching “The West Wing,” which I had never seen. As you know, I really, really loved that show, and went on and on about it here. And now that I’ve watched a show about Washington that is that enjoyable, it’s hard to sit still for something that doesn’t have a single likable character.

Perhaps I will go back and finish watching the original, British version — even though M. just gave away the ending (I won’t link to that spoiler, on the previous thread). I did like it a little better — although I only saw the first series, or season…

In these few episodes so far of the new season, I feel like the writers have run out of ideas, and are getting frustrated trying to think of new, more shocking ways for Frank Underwood to show how thoroughly rotten he is.

Slight spoiler: Take the opening scene of the first episode. You sort of knew what he was about to do standing at his father’s grave. And one’s credulity is strained. Frank is supposed to be smart. What if the request of one of the journos to get closer and observe Frank at the grave had been granted? It could have happened. And that would have been it for F.U.

Slightly worse spoiler: And what about the end of the fourth episode, which I saw last night? You can almost hear the writer thinking, What could Frank do, face-to-face with a nearly lifesize crucifix, that would still be shocking? And yes, it manages to shock (or at least offend), even though something very like it is anticipated. What’s not credible about the scene is how Frank got there. We are led to believe that Frank has a conscience and that it’s nagging at him, so he goes to the church sincerely seeking moral guidance (and if he’s not sincere, what is he doing there, since there’s no audience to perform for) — but then recoils at the central Christian message. Love is what causes him to back away and revert to type. Which is true to his character. It’s just not credible that he would have been there in the first place.

Anyway, what do y’all think so far?

My favorite Leonard Nimoy tribute item

I really enjoyed learning about the Jewish roots of Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” gesture.

Nimoy was a guy who deserved to be known for more than that one rather cheesy (no, really, I’ve been watching it on Netflix) TV show. But at least he was loved for it, and I’m glad he became reconciled to that later in life….

Oh, and my second favorite Nimoy tribute was the one below, by Astronaut Terry Virts:

Highlight from SNL special: Presidential impressions

I didn’t get to watch all of the whole 40th-Anniversary “Saturday Night Live” special last night… OK, tell the truth, I could have watched it, but gave up on it during an interminable edition of the tiresome “The Californians” sketch… but thought I’d at least share with you this clip of good bits, courtesy of The Washington Post:

My grainy picture of Bob Dylan and The Band, 1974

Dylan and The Band 1974

Yesterday, I was plowing through a box of old prints looking for something else, and ran across the image above. The little red crop marks in the margins tell me that this ran in The Helmsman, the student newspaper at Memphis State University (now University of Memphis), possibly with a review by me.

I don’t remember writing such a review, but I do remember the concert — one of the best ever. I wish I could have gotten a better picture. But with Tri-X film and my old Yashica SLR, this was about as good as I was going to get, with the detail in Bob Dylan’s face sort of blowing out because of the spotlight. I seem to recall developing and printing it myself, and not being able to get it better than this. (In those days you couldn’t just click “sharpen” in PhotoShop; you had to have skills, but eventually physical limitations were physical limitations — you had what you had on the negative, and could only do so much with the print.) I suspect we ran the image fairly small in the paper so you couldn’t see how bad it was. It would have been even better to run the whole image, instead of cropping it down to Dylan (leaving out Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and the top of Garth Hudson’s large head). Don’t know who made that decision…

I shot this at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis on the night of January 23, 1974. The show was everything a fan could wish for — lots of Band material, plenty of Dylan. Dylan even did an acoustic set with guitar and harmonica, in a sort of bluish spotlight, and I remember having this weird disconnect looking at him: He looked so much like the cover of the greatest hits album that I couldn’t quite convince myself that this was real, and I was here. It was odd.

Anyway, I was referring to this show when I wrote this comment several months ago:

When I think of the way a band ought to look, this is the image in my mind. Almost this EXACT image, as I saw The Band and Dylan together on this same tour, in Memphis in 1974.

Ever since then, whenever I’ve contemplated the absurd extremes of costume donned by performers — from Bowie in his Ziggy phase to KISS to Devo to Lady Gaga, or for that matter going back to the way Brian Epstein dressed up the Beatles — I’ve pictured this, and thought, this is the way a band should look. Nothing should distract from the music.

It’s an ultimately cool, casual, timeless look. They could be graduate assistants, or guys sitting on a bench outside a saloon in the Old West. I had cultivated much this same look since my high school days. I bought myself a Navy blue tweed jacket with muted reddish pinstripes running through it that to me looked EXACTLY like what the guys in the Band — or for that matter, Butch Cassidy or Sundance — might wear. I wore it with a U.S. Navy dungaree work shirt that my Dad had given me, and jeans, and scruffy suede desert boots (like the ones Art Garfunkel is wearing in this picture).

Come to think of it, I’ve never really abandoned that look. Today, I’m wearing a vaguely green corduroy jacket with a charcoal-gray sweater vest over an unstarched sport shirt, with olive green chinos that are fraying at the cuffs.

It’s what I think is cool. And comfortable…

So when I ran across the picture, I thought I’d share it.

It’s Big Block of Cheese Day! (But no Leo, I’m sad to say…)

Sure, it’s a political gimmick, signifying little — and let me stress that I am no fan of Jacksonian populism — but this got a smile out of me. If you, too, are nostalgic for the Bartlet administration, you should definitely watch the above video.

Alas, the founder of Big Block of Cheese Daymy favorite Bartletista, Leo — is no longer with us, and his absence makes for a slightly sad note in the reminiscence. But I enjoyed it anyway.

From the release from the real West Wing:

Here at the White House, we’re dedicated to making President Obama’s administration the most open and accessible in history. That’s why, for the second year in a row, we thought it’d be a gouda idea to brie-unite a certain cast of characters to help us bring back a tradition that dates back to the days of President Andrew Jackson.

On February 22, 1837, President Jackson had a 1,400-pound block of cheese hauled into the main foyer of the White House for an open house with thousands of citizens and his staff, where they discussed the issues of the day while carving off slabs of cheddar.

This year, we aim to do even feta. On Wednesday, January 21, in fromage to President Jackson (and to President Bartlet, if you’re a fan of The West Wing), we’re hosting the second-annual virtual Big Block of Cheese Day, where members of the Obama administration will take to social media to answer your questions about the President’s State of the Union address and the issues that are most important to you.

Log on to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, and ask away using the hashtag#AskTheWH. We’ll do our best to answer as many questions as we can.

So be sure to visit WhiteHouse.gov/SOTU to watch the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015 at 9 p.m. ET and check out the schedule of all the ways you can engage on the following day, January 21. We camembert to think you’d miss it….

And here’s the original… I hope that someone at the White House today is meeting with the Cartographers for Social Equality….

‘The Interview,’ ‘American Sniper,’ and ‘Selma’

I’ve recently written about three movies — ‘The Interview,’ ‘American Sniper‘ and ‘Selma‘ — that I had not seen (which kind of limited what I had to say about them). This past week, I had planned to see them all and write about them further. Which would have been quite the hat trick for a guy who is accustomed to waiting until films show up on Netflix.

I managed to see two of them. I still hope to see the other soon.

My report follows:

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The Interview

This one took the least trouble to see, which was good, because I wouldn’t have crossed the street to see it. I rented it from iTunes on my Apple TV, and it didn’t cost me anything because I had a gift certificate I hadn’t used up.

It was about what you would expect, if you’ve seen enough Seth Rogen movies. On that spectrum, it was nowhere near as good as “Knocked Up” or “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and a good bit better than “Pineapple Express” or “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.” I’m not saying it was more elevated or worthwhile than those latter two, but the bathroom humor was funnier. The dirty talk wasn’t nearly as funny or relevant as the dirty talk in “SuperBad,” so you are forewarned.

One of the more interesting things about this film was that North Korea was so ticked off about it, seeing that the guy who played Kim Jong Un was handsomer, more engaging — certainly more manly looking (both in terms of masculinity and maturity) — and more engaging on a human level than any of us have ever seen the Dear Leader be. I mean, even though the flick was making gross fun of him and making a joke out of killing him (which, one has to grant North Korea, is pretty offensive), it was actually kind of flattering to him.

If you can see it for free at any point and you want to know what all the fuss is about, it’s not completely unwatchable. But otherwise, don’t bother.

 

AMERICAN SNIPER

American Sniper

I had wanted to see this anyway, even more so after The Guardian (being The Guardian) practically painted Chris Kyle as a war criminal, but I sort of reckoned without the fact that everyone else in South Carolina wanted to see it this past weekend as well.

Bryan Caskey joined my younger son and me (neither Mamanem nor Bryan’s wife wanted to see it) at the 5:10 show at Dutch Square. Bryan got his ticket and went inside ahead of us. While waiting for my son to get through the queue, I spoke across the ticket-taker to Bryan, saying, “Don’t worry; there’ll be plenty of previews.”

The ticket guy said, “Yeah, but there won’t be plenty of seats.” He said this was their 11th show of the weekend, and several of them had been sold out.

Boy, was he right. With stadium seating, I normally sit about halfway up, so that the center of the screen is at eye level. But this time, we had to sit with the groundlings on the third row, way off to the side. So Bryan, my son and I all had to slide down in our seats with our knees propped against the seats in front and our heads resting back onto the tops of our seatbacks, looking almost straight up, at a weird, distorting angle. But I got used to it by about the 75th preview (OK; honestly, I didn’t count).

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?

Good. But you knew it was going to be good. When’s the last time Clint Eastwood made a bad one? And the older he gets, he seems to get better. I’m thinking “Gran Torino” here.

And the portrayal of Chris Kyle was — matter-of-fact and respectful. It was the story of a guy who is definitely a sheepdog in the sheep/wolf/sheepdog model of killologist Dave Grossman — one of those who is neither a sheep nor a wolf, but one of those rare types who sees himself as a protector of sheep from wolves. And one of those rarer men (like, 2 percent of the male population) who doesn’t have nightmares after killing other people, if he has good reason to see the killings as morally justifiable.

Eastwood helps the viewer to understand a man like Kyle, without either condemning or overly glorifying him — although many will see him as a monster or as a red-white-and-blue excuse to wave the flag, according to their own proclivities. As I say, the depiction is respectful.

I could have used a little more examination of the psychology of a sniper. While many will feel like there was too much footage of Kyle taking careful aim on enemy combatants (and, in more than one case, “combatants” who are women and young boys, which is the thing that will make you want to walk out if anything does), I felt like not enough was done to show how most people would be torn up by that — say, with a side story about a fellow sniper who was not as unconflicted about his job. You know that the cost to Kyle is not nil, as you see the stress he undergoes after his fourth deployment. But I could have used more explication in that department.

Anyway, it’s worth seeing, whatever your attitudes on the subject matter. It’s well-done, and examines unflinchingly the moral ambiguity that accompanies any combat role, regardless of the conflict in question.

 

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Selma

Still haven’t seen this one. I passed up, with some misgivings, the Urban League’s annual breakfast, justifying it by saying that I was going to go with some friends to see ‘Selma’ at the Nickelodeon as my way of observing the day.

But even though we were there half an hour ahead, we couldn’t get into the 2:30 show. Sold out.

Has going to the actual movie theater experienced some huge resurgence when I wasn’t looking? I haven’t been to a show as crowded as “American Sniper” in decades, partly because I try not to go on the opening weekend at the most popular times. (Wouldn’t you think a 5:10 show would be an awkward time — neither matinee nor evening-out time? I did.)

And then, to not get into the show at all, when the film’s been out a couple of weeks?

OK, yeah, I realize it was MLK Day, and it looked like there were some school groups there. But still.

Have any of y’all seen it? Can you give us a review?

 

A weekend spent on the ‘Homeland’ front

This promotional image brings to mind one of the oddest things about this series -- the way this blonde woman so often walks down the streets of Islamabad without attracting a single curious glance, her only disguise being a scarf loosely draped over her head.

This promotional image brings to mind one of the oddest things about this series — the way this blonde woman so often walks down the streets of Islamabad without attracting a single curious glance, her only ‘disguise’ being a scarf loosely draped over her head.

This past weekend, AT&T Uverse (and watch for the ad coming back soon) offered HBO, Cinemax and Showtime for free, so of course I binge-watched “Homeland,” and am now completely up to date.

Any of y’all still watching it?

I have to say that it seems that the original reason for the series has sort of gone by the board, and the program is only about half as compelling as it was.

It’s like… remember the “sequel” to “The Fugitive?” It wasn’t really a sequel in that there was no Richard Kimble. Basically, Hollywood decided that the team that chased Kimble, led by Tommy Lee Jones, was sufficiently compelling that we’d want to watch them chase somebody else.

Actually, you know what? That’s a bad example, because it WAS just as much fun watching Tommy et al. chase somebody else. Good flick.

But I thought of it because there’s a similar dynamic. We started watching “Homeland” because it was riveting to see what would happen with a U.S. Marine who had been captured in Iraq and brainwashed to become a terrorist when he got back home. And, oh, yes, there was this seriously dysfunctional CIA analyst who at first was the only person to suspect him, and then later fell in love with him.

Well, now the Marine’s out of the picture, so we’re left with the story spinning completely around the woman who, in the first couple of seasons, would make me want to yell at the screen, “No, Brody, no! Stay away from her!” I wanted him and his family to have a chance at SOME semblance of a normal life, and she seemed more of a threat to his well-being than the terrorists who had held him captive had been.

OK, to be fair, the series was always about Carrie. But her pursuit, in more ways than one, of Brody was what made us want to watch her initially, because Brody was such an interesting case.

And without him as a focal point for her, there’s a void.

At least, in Season 4, she is taking her meds regularly — except for an episode in which an ISI agent swaps out her bipolar meds with a hallucinogen, which gives her an excuse to be Crazy Carrie again. Not that she’s making the best life choices when she’s fully medicated, but at least she’s calmer.

At least Saul is still around. Mandy Pantinkin anchors the series for me. He gives me somebody sane to identify with.

Meanwhile, the writers have sorta kinda tried to replace Brody with Quinn, the Hamlet of professional assassins. I like Quinn all right, but as a substitute for Brody, he’s lacking. Yes, he’s conflicted, but his conflicts are less monumental than Brody’s.

Anyone else have any thoughts? Anyone else still watching?

Saul, Carrie and Quinn, the Hamlet of professional assassins.

Saul, Carrie and Quinn, the Hamlet of professional assassins.

Guess I’ll have to go see ‘American Sniper’

american_sniper_still

Has anyone seen “The Master,” one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last films? I saw it last night on Netflix (still fighting a cold, I’ve been vegging out in front of the tube a lot in my off hours) and was impressed. Not that it seemed to have much meaning, but it was interesting and well done, and had a couple of roles in it that actors would understandably kill for. Anyway, I was curious as to whether any of y’all had any thoughts about it.

I got up this morning thinking about that, but now, I think I may have to make one of my rare trips to the actual cinema to check out the subject of this Tweet from this morning:

Yes, that’s the kind of post that makes you give a second glance to see whose feed this is, and then you say, “The Guardian, of course.”

This particular writer was bending over backward to defend Clint Eastwood, saying that however much “we diverge politically… he is not a black-and-white ideologue.”

No, the problem that the writer decries is that “much of the US right wing” has failed to appreciate that this is a “morally ambiguous, emotionally complex film,” and regard it “with the same unconsidered, rah-rah reverence that they would the national anthem or the flag itself.”

This is supported with examples from some extreme trolls who wish that critics of the film would eat s__t, be raped and die. The usual sick puppies who, I guess we are supposed to assume, represent “much of the US right wing.” Trolls. Really nasty ones.

And of course, you have to be a pretty sick puppy, or challenged in the reading-comprehension department, if you can read the movie’s subtitle — “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History” — and not pick up on the idea that there’s a pickup truckload of moral ambiguity churning about here.

I know y’all all think I’m an incorrigible warmonger and all, but I’m someone who does not blink at the dark thicket of morally impossible choices and ethical quicksand into which war leads us. And I’ve always marveled that anyone can live with himself after having killed as a sniper. Yeah, I know; a sniper can save a lot of his comrades’ lives and perform a useful function in a just cause. But a sniper isn’t running and firing at people firing at him, with his blood pounding in his ears and adrenaline drowning his senses. He calmly, analytically, scientifically, artistically, with great care, observes his magnified victim close-up through his scope for much, much longer than any other soldier ever has an enemy in his sights. And the target is unsuspecting. He has no idea that his death is coolly studying him for long minutes, and then choosing the instant to calmly blow his head apart.

A sniper can be a hero. Everyone he knows may praise him for his skill and devotion to duty. But how do you live with yourself after that?

I wonder at such things. So I wanted to see the movie anyway. But I wanted to see it twice as much after reading this actual review of it, also in The Guardian. This writer doesn’t bother making excuses for Mr. Eastwood, basically lumping him in with the rest of those thoughtless rah-rah American nutters. “American Sniper is so conditioned by its first-person shooter aesthetic that it never widens its focus or pans left or right… while the war on Iraq is a just, noble cause.”

Did you catch that? War on Iraq? This, apparently, is what passes as cool, analytical rhetoric in The Guardian, distinguishing right-thinking people from the “black-and-white ideologues,” all of whom, evidently, are neoconservatives.

Anyway, I was grabbed by this passage from the review:

In one early scene, Kyle’s father tells him that the world is divided into three types: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Kyle sees himself as a sheepdog, a noble protector of the weak and the innocent, and it is clear that Eastwood does too. But is the world that simple? A different film (a better film) might have asked the wolves what they think, or at least wondered why the sheep behave as they do….

This grabbed me because that sheep/wolf/sheepdog model is central to Dave Grossman’s study of what he terms “killology,” a field of inquiry he has invented and generally has to himself. Lt. Col. Grossman is the author of that book I’m always going on about, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. It demonstrates, through statistical analyses of battles and other means, that through most of human history, most soldiers have not fired their weapons in combat, and most who did fired over their enemies’ heads, for the simple fact that however they may have been trained, the training failed to overcome their profound aversion to killing fellow human beings. (Actually, in the past generation, U.S. and other advanced armies have overcome that reluctance through conditioning, which has led to more PTSD, which is a reason why Grossman wrote the book.)

That vast majority that doesn’t want to kill, and which suffers tremendous psychological damage when forced to do so, makes up the “sheep” category — not meant as a pejorative, but simply denoting normal, peaceful men.

I’m sometimes unclear as to who, exactly, makes up the “sheepdog” category. Sometimes, Grossman indicates it’s anyone who willingly dons the uniform — of the cop, the soldier, the sailor — and defends his or her society. Other times, though, he seems to be referring to a much rarer breed — the 2 percent of combat soldiers (according to a study from World War II, when there was such a vast cross-section of the male population to study) who “if pushed or given a legitimate reason, will kill without regret or remorse.”

The WWII study found these men to have a tendency to be “aggressive psychopaths.” But Grossman defends them from that damning term, explaining that they are just natural-born soldiers who “apparently do not experience the normal resistance to killing and the resultant psychiatric casualties associated with extended periods of combat.”

In that set of competing definitions, you’ve got enough ambiguity to employ an army of moral philosophers for a century.

Their the sort whose comrades might see as heroes, while those who have no military experience and look askance at those who do view as, well, psychopaths, in keeping with the time-honored tradition:

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot…

This 2 percent cadre of men tends to gravitate toward the special forces — toward jobs such as that of the subject of “American Sniper,” who was a SEAL.

Anyway, I need to see the movie, and see what I can learn from it. As should anyone who wants to take some responsibility for what we send other men to do for us.