Thursday, July 02, 2015

A Gathering of Old Grumps

Tuesday. June 23, 2015.

Had my morning ruined when a gathering of old grumps drove me out of McDonalds before I had even half-finished my coffee.

Plan was, after dropping Mrs M off at the bus depot, to set up shop at a window table and do some writing. I'd spread out my notebooks, powered up the iPad, and set to work, when I began to notice that the quiet hum of desultory but friendly morning conversations at the other tables and booths was being drowned out by another kind of sound. The harsher, more insistent, angrier, and louder barking, growling, whinging, complaining, chest-thumping, and territorial bellow of American men talking about politics.

I've been in groups of liberal men sounding like this. I've been the one making the sounds. But these days, when you hear it around here, it's usually conservatives doing the sounding off. Talk radio listeners and Fox News watchers imitating the shouting and yapping and bullying of the hosts, guests, anchors, talking heads, Rush, and O'Reilly.

I don't understand what pleasure anyone gets from sounding like this, let alone listening to it for hours at a stretch. I give myself headaches when I do it myself. And it's just as irritating and unsettling to listen to others do it even when they're shouting and yapping things I agree with. It's why I don't watch any TV news or bobblehead shows. Chris Matthews makes my temples pound. The other day in the parking lot of the grocery store I pulled in next to a car whose radio I could hear well before I'd reached the space. The driver, a man in his sixties, probably  waiting for someone to finish shopping, was listening to some blatherer shouting into his mic at full volume.  What enjoyment was he getting from that?

The shouting and bullying in McD's this morning was being done by a group of old men, six or seven of them, all white guys,taking up a row of tables along the wall of windows perpendicular to the windows against which I was sitting. They appeared to be in their sixties, all but one, at any rate. That one, grayer, paler, thinner, and frailer than the rest, was much older, well into his seventies, maybe in his early eighties. One of the others' dads, possibly. The others were of various shapes and sizes, but they were all dressed a if for outdoor work, in heavy-duty t-shirts and jeans or work pants and bill caps.  And maybe some of them were on their way to jobs but no one seemed to be in a rush to finish his Egg McMuffin. It was early, for a college professor on summer vacation, seven-thirty, but past the time when most people with construction jobs or the like have to clock in, but it was a little too soon for a coffee break. So I guessed they were all retired, although a couple of them looked shy of sixty-five, and given the economic facts of life for older workers, it's likely some of them weren't voluntarily retired.  Judging by their shared air of complaint, they weren't enjoying their retirements, not this morning, at any rate. But who knows? I need to keep in mind that all of us enjoy a good grouse session from time to time and they all might have been having good time together, the togetherness of it, the grousing and the Egg McMuffins being equal parts of the fun.

They were half the length of the dining room away so, loud as they were I couldn't hear their words, only sense their anger and resentment. It was annoying because it was distracting but I tried to shut my ears to it, concentrate on my work, and mind my own business. But there was one voice, louder, more insistent, more shouty, more bullying, more resentment-filled, and yet at the same time jollier than the others, and try as I did, I couldn't tune it out. I still couldn't make out all he was saying but some words got through.

Confederate flag.



I had to look over and see who this loudmouth was.

He was seated at the far end of the row of tables, as if at the head of a dining room or kitchen table, leaning back with a look and attitude of self-satisfaction. The way he was holding forth and the way the others looked at him as he did made it clear he was the president of this congress of grumpy old men. He was large, up and down, across and around, tall, with big shoulders, a big head, and a heavy but hard-looking gut. His cap was pushed back on his head and he grinned as he shouted and complained. His eyes were bright and alert with self- and general awareness---the eyes of someone who knew he performing and was enjoying his own performance and confident everyone listening was enjoying it as well. (My students see eyes like that at the head of the classroom regularly.) And anyone with eyes like that knows instinctively when someone new joins the audience.

He caught me looking.

He didn't acknowledge it but he knew and, ham that he was, he raised his voice so I could be sure to hear. There was something friendly in it, too, as if he was inviting me to join in the conversation.

"They got you by the balls," he said, "That's how the Democrats work it. That's how they are. That's how it was under Stalin. That's how Stalin and all those guys did it."

I didn't bite. I wanted to. I was sorely tempted to. I was close to saying. "You're old but you're not that old. What memories do you have of Stalin?" But I kept my mouth shut---for the moment. Instead, I decided to leave. I closed up my notebooks, shoved them and the iPad into my briefcase, did the juggling with my cane and my effects necessary to carry everything and not spill my coffee, and started to go. Then I noticed the sudden quiet. I looked over. They were all looking back.

The big guy had noticed I was getting ready to leave and he'd guessed why and wasn't the least bit sorry. He was looking right at me, grinning. The others had noticed him noticing and were looking to see what had caught their leader's attention. Their expressions were more quizzical but still hostile. They knew it too. My packing up and leaving was due to them and they were insulted without knowing exactly why, but just on general principle.

So I had to say something.

It should have been “Have a nice day.”

But it was, "How's that Medicare working out for you?"

They looked stunned.

Probably not because they thought I'd made a point. More likely because I had in effect called them old. They were stunned I was being that rude.

I should have stopped there.

"And the Social Security checks, they arriving on time?"

They looked even more stunned, although I thought the very old guy, the one who might have been someone's dead, smiled appreciatively. That's it, I thought. Game, set, and match. And it might have been if I'd been faster on my feet.

But the big guy had time enough to recover.

"Security?" he said with a snort and a laugh and a sneer all together.

He had me there. Nothing secure about Social Security these days, in more ways than one.

I left defeated on two fronts.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

St. Vincent: Bill Murray as a holy wreck

It’s my birthday. It’s also family movie night. Seems appropriate then that we’ll be matching a movie about a grumpy wreck of an old man or, as I like to think of it, one of the best movies of last year that wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award featuring one of the best performances of his career by an actor who wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award but should have been: St. Vincent. Here’s my review from last fall.


StV Wreck of a Murray

There but for the grace of God: Bill Murray as Bill Murray might have been in Theodore Malfi’s very Catholic but in no way exclusively Catholic comedy of forgiveness, St. Vincent.

Bill Murray looks like a wreck.

He’s playing a wreck, he should look like one. But in St. Vincent he doesn’t just look like one. He’s become one. This one. Vin McKenna. Heavy drinker. Heavy smoker. Sixty-something victim of a lifetime of bad habits. Murray looks like the wreck you’d expect a guy like that to look like. He acts like a guy who’s a wreck like that would act. Except that he doesn’t give any sign he’s acting. He’s being himself. And he’s a wreck.

What Murray does in St. Vincent is different from what Meryl Streep does in her movies. Streep uses herself as a canvass on which she paints incredibly lifelike portraits of other people. Look closely and you can always spot the artist at work. It’s different from what Philip Seymour Hoffman did. Hoffman found a way to turn every character into a version of Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a technique based on the ideas that situation and circumstances create character, that people are as alike as they are different, and much of who we are is determined by how we react to who and what are acting upon us. This is how leading men and leading women---movie stars---who are great actors tend to work and it’s what causes people who don’t know better to say “Oh he’s just playing himself again.” Because their characters look like movie stars playing them, people tend to see only the movie stars. Hoffman looked like a character so people would say he was a great character actor. Which he was. But here I think Murray is just playing himself.

But not the self his fans know. Maybe not the self anyone but Murray knows, that secret self we all have, the one we’re afraid to let anyone else see because we’re afraid they’d recoil in horror or disgust or contempt or hilarity, and Murray’s been brave enough to let that self show. It’s possible it’s a self Murray didn’t know was in him until he read the script. I don’t know, of course, but I imagine him saying to himself, I know this guy. I could have been this guy. In another life I am this guy.

The accent’s different, that’s all. Brooklyn not Chicago. Otherwise, Vin is Murray and Murray is Vin. Same born rebel as wiseguy attitude. Same subversive impulses. Same way of sounding sincere when he’s mocking you, same way of sounding like he’s mocking when he’s being sincere. Same insouciant refusal to care what others think of him and adjust his behavior accordingly. What Vin doesn’t have is the money and fame that allows Murray to get away with it. And he’s probably never traveled in circles where this behavior would make him a hero. More likely it’s always marked him as a trouble-making pain in the ass. But what he’s really missing and has never had is Murray’s luck.

Vin has had some luck. But it’s the luck of a survivor, not the kind of luck that makes you successful except in the sense you somehow manage to get by and keep going until the next set of troubles, sorrows, catastrophes, and failures come along.

The small graces and favors that attended Murray at the right time in the right place, the good things that happened, the bad things that didn’t, the family he was blessed with, the friendships he was able to make, the teachers who were there when he needed them, the sharp-eyed mentors who saw something in this kid, all the coincidental, accidental, and serendipitous moments that taken together determine our fate, all the luck---which the vain and conceited deny is luck and boastfully claim as the result of their own unaided and unsupported effort---Murray enjoyed, Vin missed out on.

The result is that after a life of probably daily struggle, disappointment, frustration, and reversal if not outright failure, he’s alone, broke, bitter, and worn-out, without anyone to call on for help or even moral support, and almost too tired and too full of self-loathing to care.

He can’t be bothered.

He can’t be bothered to look out for himself. He can’t even be bothered to dress properly. He can’t be bothered to concern himself about other people. He can’t be bothered to to take their feelings into account. He’s rude. He’s gratuitously insulting. He seems to go out of his way to offend people he needs on his side.

He’s selfish. He’s conniving. He’s opportunistic. He takes on a babysitting job because it’s an opportunity to make some money quickly without having to do real work for it. When he sees the boy’s mother is desperate, he takes advantage and charges her more than he can guess she can comfortably afford.

And it seems that all that’s keeping him going is stubbornness and spite.

He’s a physical and spiritual wreck.

And Bill Murray plays this guy as if he is this guy.

It’s a true There But for the Grace of God Go I performance. The Catholic version. Not the Calvinist version. The Calvinist version is a smug, self-congratulatory I’m favored by God with an underlying terror that that favor will be withdrawn without warning or apparent reason. The Catholic version is I’m lucky and the luck can run out but there’s no terror because the Catholic God never withdraws his favor. His son and his son’s Mother and an entire calendar of saints won’t let him. The Calvinist version blames the unfavored and disfavored. The Catholic version teaches the lucky to have pity and compassion for the unlucky. One is judgmental. The other is charitable. St Vincent, as if you couldn’t guess from the title, is a very Catholic movie.

Maybe the best Catholic movie ever made, after John Huston’s The Dead.

I don’t mean that it’s Catholic in the way of Going My Way or Song of Bernadette. There’s no idealizing of the One True Church or sentimentalizing of its communicants. I don’t mean it’s a religious movie. God is named but he’s not worshiped.  Faith doesn’t seem to motivate any of the characters, not even the ones whose business is spreading the faith.  And I don’t mean it’s a movie about Catholics doing Catholic-ish things. Nobody goes to Confession. Nobody goes to Mass. One of the main supporting characters is a priest, but he’s no Bing Crosby or Pat O’Brien or Spencer Tracy or Karl Malden or even a Montgomery Clift, and he’s certainly no Henry Fonda. He’s just a tired man trying to keep his spirits up and his faith in himself intact while doing a thankless job as best he can. The twelve year old boy Vin babysits, Oliver Bronstein, goes to a Catholic school but he’s not Catholic. He doesn’t know what he is. What religion to raise him in is another thing his divorcing parents failed to work out between them. “I think I’m Jewish,” he tells his teacher. His religious ed class’ final project is to research the life of someone who might be a living saint and present what amounts to a hagiography. But the pedagogic goal of the project seems to be for the kids to teach themselves how to use Power Point.

The stated goal is to learn what it means to be a saint. The movie’s take on this is that the first requirement of a saint is to recognize that we are all sinners, including the few of us who might qualify as saints, and to make allowances. Among other things, a saint is someone who understands and forgives.

I’m still enough of a papist to want to claim that as a Catholic theme. But it’s not particularly. What it is is humane.

Vin takes in Oliver because he’s desperate for cash. He’s reached the limit of his credit line on his reverse mortgage. His checking account’s overdrawn. He owes money right and left. If he had any savings they’re long gone. He’s broke and going broker. And we know how he got that way. He drinks. He smokes. He gambles. He goes to strip clubs and hires hookers. As Republicans keeping telling us, money problems are caused by defects in character. You’re broke, it’s your own fault. You screwed up, screwed yourself. Actions have consequences, live with them. And watching Vin self-indulge and self-destruct, it’s hard not to blame him, and because he’s such a jerk, it’s hard not to root for his continued downward slide. And maybe, we think---hope---it’ll wake him up, hitting bottom. Force him to change his ways. Though there’s reason to doubt a jerk like Vin can change.

But, like I said, this is a Catholic movie. The point isn’t redemption, it’s forgiveness. Director and screenwriter Theodore Melfi tries our patience detailing Vin’s unapologetic bad behavior and, scene in and scene out, tempts us to give up on him as a bad bet. But if we’re good Catholics---good Christians, good Jews, good Hindus, good Muslims, good Buddhists, good people, or at least kind-hearted people---we know to withhold judgment.

Oliver knows how to do this. In his experience, there’s always another side of the story, a side nobody’s telling. He knows that his mother’s story and his father’s story about the failure of their marriage don’t match up. More important, neither’s story matches what he’s seen for himself. It’s not that he’s that intuitive. He’s observant. And when he starts observing Vin, he starts seeing there’s a side to Vin’s story Vin won’t tell, maybe can’t tell, maybe because he’s too proud or too stubborn, maybe because it’s too painful, maybe because he sees no point to telling it---Vin’s least favorite expression is “It is what it is.” He hates it because he’s convinced it’s used as an excuse to refuse to try to help others: Wish I could help, but there’s nothing I can do….because I don’t want to do anything.  But can mean something else and that something else is Vin’s guiding philosophy: Things go wrong. There’s nothing you can do to change that. You don’t complain. You deal.---maybe because it’s a side Vin himself doesn’t see. In order to tell it, he’d first have to see himself in a different light. He’d have to think of himself as a different kind of person. A good person. Or a not too awful one, at least. And he’s never thought of himself that way. There used to be someone who thought of him that way and because he thought the world of her, he could think a little better of himself for her sake. But she’s not around anymore.

Oliver is, though.

Murray’s is the performance the movie’s built upon, but Jaeden Lieberher as Oliver makes St. Vincent work.

StV Vin and Oliver self defenseAlthough Vin becomes the subject of Oliver’s living saints project, if there’s a character in St. Vincent who’s anything close to a saint it’s Oliver. But there’s nothing particularly saintly about Lieberher’s performance. Nothing over cute or cloying either. Nothing nice. He makes no overt play for our sympathy or approval. His Oliver is just a decent, well-meaning kid who’s learned how to make the best of bad situations and the best way he’s found is not to hold other people’s mistakes and bad behavior against them. He takes them for what they are and hopes they’ll do the same for him. Not that he’s a doormat. There’s only so much he’ll put up with. It’s just he’s got enough to worry about without trying to fix people. It is what it is, is his philosophy too, but Lieberher doesn’t play this as resignation, cynicism, or surrender. It’s simply a realistic acceptance of how people are. And in his case it works to get people to reveal other, better sides of themselves.

Lieberher’s Oliver isn’t particularly insightful or empathetic. But he’s intelligent and he’s interested or he makes himself interested. Stuck with Vin for hours on end, dragged along on Vin’s errands with no regard on Vin’s part for the effect on a ten year old kid, having to spend time at the race track watching Vin lose, having to wait and watch while Vin makes unexplained but obviously painful visits to a nursing home, having to sit on a stool next to him when they stop off at Vin’s favorite bar on the way home and watch Vin not watch his drinking, Oliver distracts himself from his own loneliness and boredom by paying attention. He quickly starts to pick up on things. Nothing we haven’t picked up on ourselves already but Oliver puts them together so they add up to more than an explanation or an excuse for Vin.

Murray and Lieberher are terrific, separate and together. But Melissa McCarthy as Oliver’s harried and distracted mother, Maggie, an MRI technician who’s apparently much better at her job than she is at being a parent, surprised me. I still haven’t seen Bridesmaids and I don’t watch Mike & Molly. Up til now I only knew her from endlessly repeated trailers and television ads for Identity Thief andTammy. Judging by her work in St. Vincent, I expect she’s on her way to being what Bill Murray is, a great actor who happened to get started and establish a reputation playing clowns.

Maggie is a loving mother and a devoted mother and probably, under better circumstances, a very good mother, but under the current circumstances she’s failing Oliver and herself by indulging herself in the role of wronged ex-wife. And she was wronged. The movie doesn’t blame her for the breakup of her marriage. Her on his way to be ex-husband did her dirt. But he was a good father if a lousy husband and in fleeing the marriage she didn’t take Oliver’s feelings and needs into account. She didn’t have a plan. Now it’s causing everyone, including herself, extra hardship and pain. But she’s like her son in being able to make the best of bad situations and in being willing to treat everybody else---except Oliver’s father---the way she’d like them to treat her. McCarthy conveys Maggie’s basic decency while doing no special pleading in defense of her failings and she lets us see Maggie’s sadness, frustration, and fear while making clear her outward cheerfulness and hopefulness aren’t just defenses but real strengths, except when they’re weaknesses.

In St. Vincent, something similar is going on with Maggie as with Vin. Under other circumstances, some of Vin’s vices would be only mildly bad habits. And when we begin to understand his current circumstances, “vices” stops seeming like the right word. Under her current circumstances, some of Maggie’s better qualities, qualities that used to look like virtues have begun to look like, not vices, but worrisomely self-destructive character flaws. And this is the point. Since none of us can know when our own circumstances might change for the worse and what that change might bring out in us or damp down, we need to hold off on judging others whose luck has failed them until we know their circumstances, and keeping in mind that there but for the grace of God, maybe withhold judgment and do what we can in the way of offering the help and comfort we hope we’ll be offered when our own luck fails.

Depending on how you look at it, St. Vincent is a comedy with a deep undercurrent of sadness or a sad movie with a comic surface. Either way, its message is how life can be so funny you want to cry or so sad you can only laugh. This is a theme I think of as Jewish, based on what I observed in my friends and neighbors growing up. But really it’s like what I said about the Catholic themes.

They’re not particularly Jewish or Catholic.

What they are is human.

As Vin’s less than friendly neighborhood bookie, Terrence Howard expands upon a theme he began composing in The Butler: Sleazeballs I Have Known. Chris O’Dowd plays the Christian Brother who teaches religious ed at Oliver’s school and assigns the saints project, a kindly and faithful priest but somewhat discouraged teacher who deals with his students’ indifference and recalcitrance with an overt but ironically expressed hostility that makes them laugh at themselves before they can laugh at him. And Naomi Watts, overdoing it a bit with a Bad news for Moose and Squirrel accent, plays Daka, Vin’s stripper and prostitute Russian immigrant girlfriend who is better expressing her affections through anger and guilt-tripping than through sex. Daka is a devout mercenary but there’s nothing that says self-interest is incompatible with charity and Watts mixes Daka’s greed and generosity to create a plausibly decent person doing what she has to to get by while shielding herself behind a caricature.


Penitential update: Instead of saying an Our Father and three Hail Marys, read Matt Fagerholm’s interview with St. Vincent’s director and writer Ted Melfi at, Life is in the Middle.

“People live in the middle. I think everyone does. Good is on one side, bad is on the other side, and we live in the middle. What’s bad about Oliver’s father? He fell out of love with his wife and he cheated on her. Is that bad? Yeah, cheating on her is bad, but falling out of love isn’t bad. It happens. Maggie is not a good mom and not a bad mom. She’s a mom. There’s heaven and hell in everyone…

“It’s what Pope Francis is saying. He’s saying that the church is a hospital for those who are sick. People of every faith can come there and find help, support, food, love.”


St. Vincent, written and directed by Theodore Melfi. Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Terrence Howard, Scott Adsit, and Jaeden Lieberher. Rated PG-13. Now on DVD and and Blu-ray and available to watch instantly at Amazon.


Big Hero 6: “I am satisfied with my care.”


Haven’t we seen Robert Downey Jr doing this in the Iron Man movies, not to mention The Avengers? Why, yes we have, and that’s the joke: Tony Stark and the Avengers have nothing on Hiro Hamada and his team of scientists turned superheroes in the Academy Award nominated, Big Hero 6.

As cartoons featuring  innocent-as-a-child, self-sacrificing, highly-weaponized flying robots go, Big Hero 6 is no Iron Giant.

As cartoons featuring a team of superheroes learning to work together go, Big Hero 6 is no The Incredibles.

But as cartoons featuring innocent-as-a-child, self-sacrificing, highly-weaponized flying robots and a team of superheroes learning to work together that pay respectful but subtle tribute to The Iron Giant and The Incredibles go, Disney’s latest animated feature, Big Hero 6, is all its own good thing, very well-done, and lots of fun.

Big Hero 6 is based on a Marvel comic book but the animators weren’t religious about staying true to their movie’s graphic origins. (FYI, though: despite the stylistic differences between comic and film, Big Hero 6 is still a Marvel superhero movie, which means there’s a cameo by Stan Lee. You’’ll need to keep your eyes open for it. It goes by in a Quicksliver hurry. ‘Nuff said.) Visually, it’s ambitious. There’s a terrific amount to look at in every shot, if you look for it, which you’re not forced to. Probably, when it comes out on DVD if you freeze any scene for study, you’ll find frames that are as crowded with entertaining imagery as a painting by Brueghel, but as the movie flies by the foreground is as sharp, clean, vivid, and focused as the best hand-drawn Disneys and the characters and main action don’t get lost in any confusion.

For the most part.

The climactic battle gets a little messy. The destruction isn’t as wanton as in Man of Steel but it goes on too long to little effect except effect.

The artwork is such that the movie looks like itself and not like any or every other animated feature, although there’s just enough of a touch of Disney that references to Frozen and other Disney classics slip in without calling the wrong sort of attention to themselves and there’s not a little Pixar influence at work---just as a for instance, our hero Hiro Hamada’s Aunt Cass bears more than a passing resemblance to Mrs Incredible when she’s not extending herself.  Despite the cast’s including James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph, and Damon Wayans Jr., the voice work is undistinguished, It’s the animation and the writing that bring the characters to life as individuals. My favorite of the supporting players would have been Fred, the rich kid science buff, comic book fanboy, and all-around bro who gives the team their most important superpower, the one Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne give to Iron Man and Batman: money. But the writers take the joke a little too far with him. So my favorite’s Wasabi (voiced by Wayans) who at first seems too fussy and cautious to be a superhero but who when pressed into action turns out to have the most superheroic temperament and to be a natural chief executive officer, a field commander who can be counted on to take charge of that part of the fight where the team’s leader can’t be because he’s out of commission or busy elsewhere taking care of a bigger threat: sort of an even straighter-arrow Scott Sommers to Hiro’s teenage whiz kid Professor X.

And the villain is awesome!

BH6 Yokai 2Yokai is visually imposing and truly frightening.  In a film laced with humor, laugh outloud funny in many places, Yokai is in no way a joke. The moviemakers treat him with complete seriousness. In fact, part of his terrifying effect is the way he defeats humor, driving it from his scenes, like Sauron brushing aside an attack by the elves, as if comedy is a force for good, the heroes’ incorporeal ally rendered hopeless and ineffective.  And even though both sets of Spider-Man movies aren’t Disney properties---or even Marvel movie properties, exactly---Yokai owes a lot to Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, carried along on striding tentacle-like machine legs, ankle-length overcoat billowing. Yokai is also a sly reference toThe Incredibles in that this is one villain who’ll never lose focus by being tricked into monologuing.

But the movie’s main hero,the innocent-as-a-child, selfless robot Baymax, who is a big hero but not, as I thought going in, because I wasn’t familiar with the comic book, the Big Hero 6 of the title---Big Hero 6 is the name of the team---gives Big Hero 6 its heart and soul.

Doing a near perfect imitation of pre-psychotic break HAL from 2001,Scott Adsit gives Baymax his voice, soothing, ingratiating, unexcitable, maddeningly reasonable, infuriatingly literal, and essentially clueless about how the humans he’s programmed to take care of think and feel. BIG HERO 6  Baymax was built to be a home health care device, a combination nurse and walking first aid cabinet---Baymax is activated by the sound of humans expressing physical distress and won’t deactivate until he hears his patient assure him “I am satisfied with my care.”---and much of the comedy involves Baymax’s insistence on being true to his programming even when the situation seems to require more of him than a calm bedside manner.  But Baymax’s best moments come when he doesn’t talk or when what he says doesn’t really matter.  He’s at his funniest and most himself when he moves. Delicate even dainty of touch, light on his feet despite his size and apparent bulk because he’s made of vinyl and deflatable for easy storage, always patient and careful and therefore not always quick to react, Baymax is a great silent movie comic.

That’s about it. I don’t have much more to say about the film. Regular readers will know how rare that is for me, how I can almost always find more to say about a movie. Wait till I post my review of Listen Up Philip. But, really, that’s it: it’s fun, go see it.

Oliver Mannion, who gives Big Hero 6 the thumbs up, thinks I could have gotten away with saying a lot less. He recommended a one-sentence review:

“I am satisfied with my care.”


Big Hero 6, directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, screenplay by Jordan Roberts and Daniel Gerson & Robert L. Baird. With the voices of Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter, Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Damon Wayans Jr., T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Genesis Rodriguez, and Daniel Henney. 102 minutes. Rated PG. On DVD and Blu-ray February 24, 2015; available now to watch instantly at Amazon.

The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and 2001: A Space Odyssey are available to watch instantly at Amazon.


At, Craig Lindsay’s appreciation of the best cartoon featuring an innocent-as-a-child, highly-weaponized, self-sacrificing flying robot, which also happens to be one of the best animated movies of the last thirty years and maybe of all time: “The Iron Giant” to the rescue.


“Open the pod bay door, HAL.”: HAL was not self-sacrificing.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Learning to love the weather: Robin Williams in The Big White

Just dawned on me. I may have seen more movies starring Robin Williams than movies starring any other contemporary actor. Since I reposted my review of Moscow on the Hudson, The Terrible Loneliness of Being Free, when director Paul Mazursky died last month, in honor of Williams, here’s my review from 2007 of a lesser known film of his but one I really like, The Big White.


Big White Paul in the dumps

The Big White, starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, and Giovanni Ribisi, is set in a post-Northern Exposure movie and tv show dreamland where quirky characters living in quaint and eccentric small towns stumble half-comically, half-sadly through small misadventures, searching for a modest bit of happiness and at least a glimmer of understanding about how to make their lives a little better.

You Can Count On Me, The Station Agent, Garden State, Doc Hollywood, Fargo, Mumford, Sunshine State, Cookie’s FortuneCookie’s Fortune is an interesting case because it was Altman’s influence on TV ensemble dramas like MASH, Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere that made Northern Exposure possible, which makes Cookie’s Fortune a case of influence as a game of telephone, the original message circling back on itself.

Some of these movies are darker than others, depending on how much to the fore they allow the facts of death and violence and the worst of life’s evils and sorrows.  But, setting aside Fargo, even in the darkest of them, and The Big White is among the darkest, the main characters, even the villains, are fairly decent and well-meaning types who don’t wish each other harm.  Conflict arises from the clashing interests of if not good then not really bad people forced to act selfishly to save themselves or those they love from troubles that have come about simply because what’s good for one person may be bad for another.  It’s not a case of good guys versus bad guys, but trying-to-be good guys struggling to do what’s right for them against other trying-but-maybe not trying-as-hard-to-be good guys struggling to do what’s right for them.

Life is hard enough, these movies seem to be saying, even when it’s apparently going well, that for an hour and a half or two hours it’s ok for us to worry about the problems of some characters who aren’t threatened by war, natural disasters, or grinding poverty.

Big White Holly Hunter Life is hard enough for Paul Barnell.  Barnell (Williams) is the owner of a failing travel agency.  He’s up to his ears in debt.  He has no prospects for digging himself out.  There’s no one he can turn to for help.  But his biggest problem, the one that may have partly caused the others by forcing him to take his focus and energy away from running his business, is that his wife, Margaret (Hunter), whom he adores, has gone crazy, and she shows signs of going even crazier.  She’s falling down deep into herself, as if into a well.  Paul has her by the tails of the pajamas she wears all the time, holding her back from the edge, but he feels his grip slipping.

Margaret can feel it slipping too.  She is still sane enough to know she’s going insane and she’s terrified.  So she’s convinced herself that she has developed Tourette Syndrome.  Tourette is a disease, she’s reasoned, it’s an organic malfunction that can be controlled with medicine.  If she has Tourette she’s not crazy, she’s just sick, and she’ll get better.

She spends a lot of her time mimicking what she thinks are the symptoms of Tourette.  She’s not fooling anyone.  But Paul does his best to make her believe he believes her.

Speaking of Northern Exposure, The Big White is also set in Alaska.  But Northern Exposure’s Cecily was a part of Alaska.  It had fitted itself into the landscape and assimilated and been assimilated by the Native American culture that was there ahead of it.  In order to live there happily and feel at home in the place, all you had to do was get along with your neighbors and adapt to the rhythms of the place.  You learned to love the weather.  That was Fleischman’s problem.  He refused to get along or adapt.

But the unnamed town that’s the setting for The Big White is a transplanted piece of Anywhere, America, an assemblage of strip malls and ranch house developments dropped on the tundra.  The residents can’t adapt to living in Alaska because to go about their daily business requires them to live as if they’re in a suburb of Sacramento, Toledo, or Wilmington, Delaware.

Even in the coldest and snowiest of winters they’re forced to spend lots of time alone in their cars driving from isolated homes to isolated businesses.  It’s a place that seems to have been designed to cause Seasonal Affective Disorder.  The ads for Waikiki Airplanes and posters for Hawaiian vacations in Paul’s office emphasize the emptiness of the place and the futility of his business.  The scenes of surfers and smiling, beautiful couples walking hand in hand on beaches don’t inspire a longing to get away.  They only remind you of the cold and the snow outside and encourage a surrender to the bleakness.  They don’t make you want to rush to the airport.  They send you home to hide or to a bar to drink.

In such a place you wonder how it is that everyone hasn’t gone as crazy as Margaret.  Then it dawns on you.  They have.

Paul is convinced, naturally, that if he can just get Margaret out of here and take her someplace warm she’ll recover and return to her old self.

In order to leave and set up somewhere else, though, he needs to settle his debts.

He has only one asset, his brother’s million dollar life insurance policy that names Paul as beneficiary.

The good news is that Raymond Barnell has been missing for years, and, a wild guy, a heavy drinker, with a bad temper and a self-destructive streak, it’s a good bet he’s dead.

The bad news is that state law requires that a person be missing for seven years before they can be declared legally dead.  Raymond has been gone only five.  Paul has to wait two more years before he can collect on Raymond’s policy, unless, of course, Raymond’s dead body turns up.

Which it does.

Well, a dead body does.

A pair of legbreakers who, against their better nature, have upscaled their business to include murder for hire have done a guy for another, meaner thug named Dave—

First legbreaker (as they’re dumping the body): What’d he do anyway?

Second legbreaker: Don’t know.  But Dave said if he did it again he’d break his neck.

It being winter and the ground being frozen and under a foot of snow, they can’t bury the body, and their being inexperienced in these matters and apparently never having watched The Sopranos, Gary and Jimbo aren’t sure how to dispose of the body.  So they decide to leave it for the professionals.  They drop it off in a dumpster.

Where Paul finds it.

Now all he’s got to do is pass the body off as his brother’s while deflecting the suspicions of the insurance investigator.   The first part turns out to be easy.  The insurance investigator is more of a problem.

Ted Watters (Ribisi) isn't just a crackerjack investigator, he's a desperate one.  In his way, he's as desperate as Paul.  Sent up to Alaska by his company's home office to whip the department into shape and train a promising rookie, Ted has begun to suspect that what was supposed to be the prelude to a promotion was actually a punishment for an unwitting mistake the company's never bothered to explain to him.  He's been up here for thirteen months and is feeling permanently banished.  When Paul shows up, attempting what Ted sees as obvious insurance fraud, he decides he can get himself back into corporate's good graces by exposing Paul and saving the company a million bucks.

He's astonished when the company execs accept Paul's story and decide to pay off.  And he's frustrated when after he presses the case they tell him to forget about it.   He determines to do the right thing and get the goods on Paul.  This turns out to be a perverse and self-destructive move on his part and bizarrely makes him a villain in everyone else's eyes.  He is shocked that doing his job, doing the honest thing, leads to his being not just disliked but physically punished by Fate.  This is so obviously unfair that it just makes him more determined to bring Paul down.

Meanwhile, the thug who hired Gary and Jimbo doesn’t believe they’ve done their job.  He demands visual proof.  He wants to see the body.  When they return to the dumpster to fetch it—apparently they’ve checked the pick-up schedule and expect it to still be where they left it—and find out it’s gone, it doesn’t take them long to figure out where it went.
They’re naive for hitmen, but they’re not stupid.  They guess that the body must have been discovered by someone who uses the dumpster regularly, someone in one of the businesses nearby, learn that Paul has recently buried his “brother” whose body turned up mysteriously, and track him down.  They break into his house, take Margaret hostage, and demand Paul return the body.

There is some black comedy in The Big White—I won’t tell you what Paul has to go through to pass the body off as his brother’s—but this is really a very sad and sweet little movie, mainly because of the loving marriage between Paul and Margaret that is at the movie’s heart and Williams’ and Hunter’s performances.

Hunter is adorable...and believably crazy.  We get only a single glimpse of Margaret as she used to be.  In a home video Paul took on one of their vacations, a waiter spills a drink on her and she reacts with good grace and great good humor.  What Hunter does is make us realize that in going crazy Margaret hasn’t changed that much.  She is the same person we see in the video, the same person Paul fell in love with 15 years ago, only more so.  It’s a terrifying and terribly sad definition of madness as an intensification of personality.  Going mad means becoming more like yourself.

To a lesser degree, but still to a degree of madness, this is what has happened to both Paul and Ted too.  Each man has become more like himself.  And the more you are lost in yourself the less room you have for other people.  Paul will always have room for Margaret, but Ted is squeezing the woman he loves out of his life, and he definitely doesn't have any room for Paul and his troubles except as means to solving his own problem.

Williams does a very nice job of using that puppy dog quality of his that can be so annoying in his Patch Adams-Love Me Love Me roles to real effect beyond playing for the camera's affections.  He turns it exclusively on Margaret, making it into a blanket of niceness that he attempts to keep wrapped around her to protect her from her own fear.  This frees him up to be less than nice with the other characters.  Williams allows Paul to be angry.  Paul isn't a martyr.  He isn't resigned to what's happening to him and Margaret.  It's unfair and it's awful and it makes him furious, and he can barely keep his anger in check.  The unfairness of it has also made him willing to be unfair, to return meanness with meanness, and to do whatever he has to do to save Margaret, up to the point of being willing to commit murder.

As Ted, Ribisi does something you don't see young American actors do very often.  He plays a thirty year old as a full-fledged adult.

Ted likes his job, he's good at it, he works hard at what he does and he defines himself by himself by his work, and he carries himself accordingly.  Overgrown college boys do not hold positions of trust and responsibility like the one Ted has earned.  Ted is a man doing a man's job.  He's sober, serious, responsible, disciplined, decent, honest, and nuts.

Ribisi makes no special pleas for his honest and decent character's honesty and decency or for any of his other virtues.  Ted may be in the right, but he's doing the right thing for suspect reasons, reasons that border on mania if not outright madness, and Ribisi fixes his eyes in an unblinking beady-eyed stare that repels sympathy.  He trusts enough in the character's basic attractiveness and in his own likability as a young leading man to play up Ted's unattractive side.

Big White Tiffany and Ted He also trusts in Alison Lohman as Ted's devoted girlfriend, Tiffany.  Tiffany is a lovable character---the most lovable in the movie---and it helps that Lohman is as lovable as Tiffany's supposed to be.  But Ribisi doesn't simply trust that we'll like Ted for Tiffany's sake.  He understands that if Ted is to be liked he must learn to be likable, and he has only one person to learn it from, Tiffany.

Getting back to Northern Exposure, Ted is the character with Joel Fleischman's problem.  Like Joel, he knows he would be happier if he would just relax and learn to get along with his new neighbors.  But also like Flieschman, he knows that getting along and learning to like living where he's stuck living is a form of surrender.  He doesn't want to like it there.  He wants out of there, now.

So he resists anything and everything that might make him like it there.  This includes Tiffany.

Tiffany loves him, but Ted refuses to love her back---or to admit that he does.

The more fool him.

Tiffany runs a psychic hotline out of the house she and Ted share.  She is a good-natured fraud, untroubled in her conscience by what Ted calls her "carny scam," because she believes her callers understand that she's a fake.  She and they pretend together that she's a psychic so they don't have to admit to themselves that they ought to be smart enough to solve the problems they bring to her on their own.

The real point is, though, that their problems are problems and she does help solve them.  What Tiffany is is a talented psychologist and practical nurse who didn't have the money or luck to go to college and earn an actual degree in the field she was born for.

Ted is blind to her talent, or pretends to be, and even more willfully blind to the fact that her most challenging client, the person who most needs her help and advice, is himself.

Lohman, who I was afraid would disappear into Hollywood movie starlet-dom after her wonderful turn as the young Jessica Lange to Ewan McGregor's young Albert Finney in Big Fish, plays Tiffany without any trace of a starlet's vanity.  Tiffany is pretty because Lohman is pretty, but the fact doesn't seem to interest either one of them.  Tiffany is smart too, but that doesn't matter all that much to her either.  And she's good-hearted, another fact about herself Tiffany doesn't overvalue.  She doesn't believe that her good-heartedness has earned her any special favors from life.  This is the big difference between her and Ted and between her and Paul.  She doesn't feel owed.

Learning not to feel owed is the first lesson Ted needs to learn from her.

I hope I'm getting at what Ribisi and Lohman manage to do so well by saying that watching Ted's slow realization and conversion is like watching Lohman teach Ribisi how to dance.  She's an excellent and enthusiastic teacher, but patient and slow, and he's trusting enough and modest enough to let her lead.

It's to director Mark Mylod's and screenwriter Collin Friesen's great credit, as well as to Ribisi's, that they leave Ted still in the process of learning when the movie ends.  Ted has only progressed so far that he's no longer stepping on her toes.  He's got a ways to go before he can take over on the dance floor.

The movie doesn't end with Ted and Tiffany exactly duplicating the loving married couple, Margaret and Paul.  Ted hasn't completely given in.  But his last line makes clear that he'll get there.

Tiffany (taking Ted's arm as the snow falls on them):  Don't you just love this weather.

Ted (looking at the sky warily but hopefully):  Learning to.

Woody Harrelson makes a vivid and terrifying appearance bringing the kind of violence and menace that is usually kept just out of range in these Northern Exposure-influenced movies and shows.  His character is another one who has gone nuts by becoming too much like himself.  Unfortunately, in his case it means becoming more of a monster of selfishness and anger.

I think Mylod let him overdo it a bit, but Harrelson gets his final scene just right nonetheless, and it's a powerful and moving moment that leads to another sad and perfect little grace note by Williams.

Tim Blake Nelson and W. Earl Brown as the erstwhile hitmen, Gary and Jimbo, are a lot of fun, especially when Gary attempts to make Margaret admit she's faking her Tourette symptoms because he likes her and is concerned about her.  Margaret calls Gary and Jimbo the Gay Mafia, but it's never clear that the characters are lovers.  They are, however, married, in their fashion.  They are a devoted couple and the small, quiet ways Brown and Nelson show the men's domestic familiarity and their affection are both funny and touching.


The Big White.  Directed by Mark Mylod.  Written by Collin Friesen.  Starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, Giovanni Ribisi, Alison Lohman, Woody Harrelson, Tim Blake Nelson, and W. Earl Brown.  Echo Bridge Entertainment in association with Capitol Films.  2005.

The Big White is available to watch instantly at Amazon.

My favorite Williams movie, The Fisher King, which is also my favorite Jeff Bridges movie, is streaming on Netflix.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Little Libertarian on the Prairie

In this morning’s post, A nation of spoiled babies looking for work, I went off on a short tangent about the inherent Libertarianism in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Reminded me. Back in May of 2011, I went off on a long tangent on the same idea. Here’s that post:

image Reading The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure.

The Wilder Life is as the subtitle suggests about McClure’s attempts to reconnect with the books that meant the most to her when she was a little girl, the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  In the course of re-reading Wilder’s books and biographies and critical studies and even a cookbook, McClure learns things she didn’t know about Laura Ingalls and her family and one of the things she learns is that the little house in the big woods wasn’t as deep in the woods as it seemed in the book named after it. The nearest town, which McClure had always imagined as a long, long way off from the Ingalls little house, was actually nearby.  Laura and her family had neighbors and more than McClure would have thought.

What astonishes her, though, is that the town was a town.

In the book Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder…John E. Miller points out that the Chippewa River valley region where Laura’s family lived was home to a bustling lumber business district; he cites a local newspaper editorial, written a few years before Laura’s birth, that describes Pepin, the town only a few miles from the Ingallses’ log cabin, as having a “busy hum”: “The air was alive with the sounds and voices of intelligent and independent industry,” the editorial claimed.  Miller thinks that was likely an exaggeration, too, but you can’t help but think that even if the industrious hum wasn’t that loud, Pa Ingalls and his family might have been close enough to hear it, so to speak, in between the sounds of the whispering trees and the howling wolves.

There was a school in the area close enough for Laura to walk to and Pa Ingalls was the treasurer for the local school district:

…so in between making bullets and tanning hides with brains, he must’ve found time every now and then to wipe the bear trap grease from his hands and attend some boring meeting like an 1870s soccer dad.

Even more astonishing was discovering that De Smet, the town in what’s now South Dakota that’s buried and battered by blizzard after blizzard during The Long Winter, had a roller rink!

“How,” McClure asks, “did the town progress so quickly from nearly starving to death to building teen hangouts?”

I’m only three chapters in, so maybe McClure answers that question later in her book, but if De Smet was like most frontier towns from the beginning of the white settlement of America, starting with Plymouth---Jamestown wasn’t founded as a town; it was a fort or, from the Indians’ point of view, a bandits’ lair.---it didn’t have to progress because the town itself was the progress.

The settling of the continent was a progressive process.  The image from the movies of the settling of the west occurring as a lonely log or sod cabin is built in the wilderness with maybe a trading post a day’s walk away and the settlers fighting off Indians, wild animals, and starvation while waiting for the cavalry to arrive and civilization to catch up---that happened, here and there, but mostly in wilderness areas we now regard as the East.

Mainly, what happened, though, was that whole towns sprang up practically overnight.  Daniel Boone did a lot of solitary exploring but then he came back to the woods to cut it down and found a town.

imageLooking at the iconic image of wagons rolling west, it’s easy to forget that wagon trains were in fact trains.  They were doing what trains still do, carrying lots of passengers with all their attendant baggage and delivering goods.   And when we picture those pioneers bumping along in their wagons, the sounds of pots and pans clanging in the beds behind them, we need to remember what else they were bringing with them besides cooking utensils and some bedding.  They brought books and musical instruments---think of Pa Ingalls and his fiddle---and clocks and pictures to hang on the walls of their log cabins and sod huts once they got them built.  They were also bringing themselves.  That is, they were bringing their attitudes, customs, and habits and generally these were not the attitudes, customs, and habits of “pioneers.”  The people we call pioneers had been born and raised and had lived most of their lives in towns and cities.  There were of course countryfolk among all these townsfolk and cityfolk, but almost from the moment the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, living in the country meant living close to town instead of in it, and countryfolk could hear that same hum, so to speak, that McClure was astonished to learn the Ingallses heard in between the sounds of the whispering trees and the howling wolves.

The pioneers were bringing civilization with them.

They didn’t settle themselves in the wilderness and then build civilization from scratch.  It came with them, pre-fab.

It often happened like this, because along with everything else they brought with them they brought their religion and they brought children:  As soon as they could, the settlers built a church and the church usually served as a schoolhouse until they could build a separate one.  And around the church they built stores and offices.  Not everyone who went west went west to farm.  A lot of people went west to sell things, goods and services, to farmers.  They were storekeepers and blacksmiths and lawyers and doctors and newspaper editors, all of whom brought the tools and rules of their trades with them.  Things got social very quickly, and complicated.   That meant hiring or appointing a minister and a teacher and a town police force, which may have included only one man, but he still had to be hired and paid.  In order for the farmers to get to and from town and for people in town to get around, there had to be roads and those roads had to be kept relatively clear.  There were all these wooden structures right up against each other, all lit and heated by flames.  They were fire hazards and that meant they had to watched carefully.  Do you remember the episode of Deadwood that revolved around appointing a fire marshal?  A fire brigade had to be organized, just in case.  Now who did all that?  How did they do all that?  Usually by committee.  Essentially, then, one of the first things they did was put together a town board.  That is, they formed a government.

Some people lit out for the territories like Huck, to escape being civilized.  But most people went west in search of opportunity, the kind of opportunity that is made possible by being civilized.  Even the most self-reliant, anti-social, temperamentally anarchistic, libertarian-minded farmer had to come into town from time to time to buy supplies.

What I’m saying is that it’s not really surprising that whole towns, some with roller rinks, sprang up very shortly after the first settlers felled their first tree or plowed their first furrow, because they needed towns in order to settle.  And a town is almost by definition a government.

Which brings me to libertarianism and libertarians.  Which is not a change of subject away from The Wilder Life, as you’ll see.

Generally, I don’t give much thought to libertarianism because I don’t think libertarians themselves give much thought to it.  As far as I’ve ever been able to see, libertarian describes a temperamental aversion to certain ideas, one in particular, which I’ll get to, more than a philosophic attraction to any.  The libertarians I know are either conservatives who think they’re too cool to be Republicans, hate anyone telling them how to behave, and don’t like be told they owe anything to anybody else or they are liberals who think they’re too cool to be Democrats, hate anybody telling them how to behave, and don’t like to be told they owe anything to anybody else.

That last point of agreement doesn’t mean that either type acts as if they don’t owe anything to anybody else.  Most of them have strong senses of civic responsibility, duty, and obligation. It’s why they believe that a libertarian society would work.  They would do all the pitching in that would be required if the government didn’t plow the roads and put out the fires.  It’s just that they feel scolded when they’re told that they have to pitch in and that makes them cranky.

The libertarian ideal is predicated on the notion that if you leave people alone, their self-interest if not their innate decency will compel them to live together as if they had a government.  You don’t need to enact lots of laws and impose lots of rules and regulations if people are going to act lawfully and follow the “rules” and regulate themselves on their own.  In other words, societies are self-regulating.  But as the most libertarian of the Founders was in the habit of saying, People were made for society and therefore they were made for government.  Society and government are practically synonymous, because the first isn’t possible without the second. As I said, everywhere they settled, one of the first things the pioneers did was form a government.  They didn’t wait around to find out if their neighbors were going to act as if they had a government.  They just set to work setting one up, using as their models the governments they had seemingly left behind.  Another way of putting this, is they brought government with them. 

The thing about libertarians that I find alternately annoying and amusing is that virtually none of them live as self-reliant farmers far from towns they only come into when they absolutely have to.  Most of them live in some of the most well-governed, well-ordered, well-regulated, civilized places on the planet.  Suburbs.

Those who don’t, live in cities.

Rand Paul didn’t wander in from the hills.  He was born in Pittsburgh.  He grew up in Texas but in a city, a little city, but still a city of over 20,000 people.  He went to college at Baylor University, a little city on its own of about 14,000 people, in Waco, Texas, population of about 125,000, then went on to medical school at Duke University, another little city of around 14,000, in Durham, North Carolina, a city of close to a quarter million people.  He hung out his shingle in Bowling Green, Kentucky, a city of only 58,000 or so.

You can’t have that many people bumping up against each other without lots of rules and regulations just to control the traffic.

It’s not simply the case that Paul’s lived his whole life sheltered and protected by governments large and small.  His life as it is wouldn’t have been possible except for those governments.  He is a pure product of government.  And this is the case for most self-proclaimed libertarians.  Their lives wouldn’t be possible without not just government but without liberal government.

What libertarians hope for is that the democratic-republicans who found and run towns and cities create a solid, functioning, and unobtrusive government that the libertarians can then pretend isn’t there.

It gets down to this.  It’s surprising that De Smet had a roller rink but not that much more surprising than the fact that it had a school Laura could play hooky from one day to go to the roller rink.  Life on the frontier was only possible because there were towns like De Smet that could provide schooling for the children of the pioneers and support businesses that sold things the pioneers needed and among those things, the pioneers being civilized folk and civilized folk need to sustain their minds and spirits as well as their bodies, were recreation and entertainment.

Now.  The connection between the Little House books and libertarianism doesn’t end there.  It ends with an irony.

Here’s another surprising fact McClure turned up in the course of her research.

Laura Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was a founder of the Libertarian Party.


Here’s Wendy McClure talking about The Wilder Life at NPR.

Lance Mannion on Wednesday, May 25, 2011 in First as tragedy, then as farce, Ruining my eyes | Permalink


Friday, June 13, 2014

Bobby Lee

Gettsyburg Longstreet Lee
Tom Berenger as the increasingly disenchanted and doubtful Confederate general James Longstreet and Martin Sheen as a noble but slightly and tragically vain Robert E. Lee in Gettysburg.

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Scott is doing a virtual spit-take at the ad copy for a new biography of Robert E. Lee, a man Scott calls, in keeping with LGM’s stylebook rule of calling the American Civil War the War of Treason in Defense of Slavery (also in keeping with history), “traitor in defense of slavery”:

In Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, Michael Korda, the New York Times bestselling biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, and T. E. Lawrence, has written the first major biography of Lee in nearly twenty years, bringing to life America’s greatest and most iconic hero.

Scott’s bold-facing. Now his response:

Really? The very greatest American hero? We can’t think of a single of the many Americans who have not rebelled against the American government in order to protect the right of wealthy whites to own black slaves who might be worthy of this honor?

And he offers a few suggestions:

Martin Luther King? Abraham Lincoln? Willie Mays? The tailor who successfully hemmed the sleeves of my sports jacket last week?

Here you can feel him pause for a silent but definite Jesus H. Christ on Toast! before he continues:

I figure we should get around to honoring confederate generals sometime well after we lionize the nation’s telemarketers. Although I might be willing to rank Lee above the people who created those DirectTV marionette ads.

The object is to sell books, of course, as Scott knows, and he suggests the target audience for that blurb. (Commenter Jim is more direct if less colorful: “this is a sales pitch aimed at the re-enactors and lost cause-rs”.) Knowing that is only mollifying to the most jaded cynic.

Coming up on a hundred and fifty years since Lee was allowed to ride off from Appomattox Courthouse instead of being clapped in irons and hauled off to Washington to be tried for treason, we’re still selling an alternative history of the Civil War to Southerners and Confederate sympathizers in which slavery played no role and the South’s was somehow a noble cause or at least the soldiers who fought for it were noble men.

Another reader, Michael Confoy, links to a review by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner in which Foner gets quick to the point that Clouds of Glory isn’t an alternative history or a hagiography or an apology for Lee or the South.

As its subtitle suggests, one of Michael Korda’s aims in “Clouds of Glory” is “disentangling Lee from his myth.” In this he mostly succeeds. Although Korda greatly admires Lee, he challenges the image of a man who could do no wrong. He also challenges the Lost Cause portrait of the Old South as a bucolic paradise of small farmers and courtly aristocrats, a vision in which, he notes, “the reality of slavery played no part.”

This is good, but Foner goes on to make the case that Korda is still more than a tad too respectful of his subject and even somewhat neglectful of the actual record, and that’s too bad. Lee’s image in the popular imagination needs a thorough debunking.

Since the War ended, Lee has been used to help sell Southerners a flattering view of a war the South started as a defensive war taken on reluctantly to protect hearth, home, family, and, incidentally, “our peculiar way of lahf,” from Northern aggressors.  Why, look at Bobby Lee, gentleman soldier, reluctant warrior (as reluctant a warrior as a career military man can be, at any rate), good and decent man, practically the reincarnation of George Washington, neither at heart or in principle a secessionist or a die-hard proponent of the South’s peculiar institution, forced by fate and the blunders of politicians to choose between his nation and his country, Virginia.

We’re not supposed to consider that Lee might have done Virginia more good by sticking with the Union.

This only works, of course, because Lee so looked the part. So handsome. So dignified. So fatherly. That stoically impassive expression not quite hiding the sadness in his eyes.  How could a cause that had such an honorable man as its military commander be anything but honorable?

Not only could and did the focus on the image of Lee as a tragic hero take the focus off what he was actually fighting for, it can take the focus off the fact that the South lost, even be used to allow the South to award itself a moral victory.

Yes, we were outmanned and outgunned in the field but still our boys, Bobby Lee’s boys, were the better men.

As William Faulkner wrote in Intruder in the Dust about Lee’s biggest blunder, known gallantly as Pickett’s Charge:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago....

“This is my fault. This is all my fault,” Lee said to the remains of Pickett’s division staggering back from Cemetery Ridge.

Yes, it was, General, but the mistake began when you decided to cast your lot with the slavers. Your fellow slavers.

Ironically, Grant’s image has been used to help burnish Lee’s, the contrast between the two portrayed as complementary, two sides of the same wholly American coin.  On the one side, the stately, formal, courteous aristocrat of the Old South, defender of a passing glory, on the other, the bumptious, brusque, impatient, practical citizen solider, harbinger of a new Western-looking America in which Billy Yank and Johnny Reb would be united again at last.  And there’s that whole brother against brother thing again, sentimentalizing the war and taking the focus off its cause, the South’s real cause.

Lee and Grant weren’t complements. They were opposites. Comparisons should highlight that, not obscure it.

This, by the way, is one of the (many) things I like about the movie Gettysburg, how it subtly takes on the mythic image of Lee.

Martin Sheen’s Lee looks the part, acts the part, has qualities that make him right for the part, but still has a touch of vanity and a suggestion of emotional fragility that makes him suspect in the part. Add Tom Berenger’s Longstreet’s growing doubts and horror and it’s really something of a subversive portrait. Pickett’s Charge becomes emblematic of the Southern Cause—thousands of men sacrificed for the vanity and ambitions of elderly aristocrats.

On the other hand, one of the most stirring moments in Lincoln for me was Jared Harris’ entrance as Grant. The second he appeared I wanted to jump up and point at the screen, yelling, “That’s HIM!”

Lincoln Grant enters 

And the scene between him and Daniel Day Lewis on the porch broke my heart for both men.


Make sure you read all of Scott’s post and stick around for the comments.

In his review of Clouds of Glory, which you should also read the whole of, Eric Foner writes:

Korda has a knack for describing the complex unfolding of Civil War battles in lucid prose. Most of the book consists of gripping, if perhaps excessively lengthy, accounts of Lee’s military campaigns…

If you’re looking for a book by a professional historian featuring lengthy (but I don’t think excessively so), lucidly written, and gripping battle sequences that gives Lee his due as a military leader but that’s it? I recommend Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam. Besides not glorifying Lee, it has the additional virtue of showing up Union General George McClellan as the magnificent asshole he was.

And Foner’s own The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery is a must read, must own.

Lance Mannion on Wednesday, June 04, 2014 in First as tragedy, then as farce, Now Playing at Cine 1001-2000 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

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Saving Sergeant Bergdahl

I wonder how many people think that the soldiers who died looking for Bowe Bergdahl were on a Saving Private Ryan style mission together.  That’s apparently not what happened.

They weren’t out looking for Bergdahl. They were on the lookout for him while they were out on other missions. This isn’t a trivial distinction. It means that it is in fact almost impossible to say that they died on account of Bergdahl or for his sake because they were in harm’s way for reasons that would have placed them there even if Bergdahl hadn’t gone missing. They died in combat in a combat zone and, although it sounds callous, their deaths may have been routine. So it’s debatable how much they should figure in deciding whether Bergdahl was worth saving.

But while they’re thinking of Saving Private Ryan they should be thinking about this.

Saving Matt Damon was not worth losing Tom Hanks.

1083_CTS1248.jpg Now, Private Ryan seems to be a good enough kid. Definitely not someone who deserves to die. But he’s ordinary. Captain Miller, though, is extraordinary or at least exemplary. In the grand scheme of things, the world can do without a few Private Ryans here and there, but it needs more Captain Millers. Sending Miller to die for Ryan is a great unfairness, and Miller himself feels that unfairness, on behalf of his family and his men more than on his own. But he does still feel it. It infuriates him. He resents it. He would resist it except that he accepts the principle.

We don’t judge each other’s worth that way.

We don’t say,  “Before I bother to care what happens to you, prove to me you deserve to be cared about and cared for.”

We operate from the belief that we are all worth it.  In and of ourselves and not relative to other human beings.

We are all worth it because we are all human beings.

We care about and care for everybody, including the least deserving, because it’s our responsibility to care for the whole human race. You are worth it because you are one of us, no matter how much you’ve done to make us think otherwise. In caring for you, we are caring for everybody. On the individual level that means that in saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller is saving himself.

Say Sergeant Bergdahl was a deserter, and we have to say it because we don’t really know that he was, that’s an accusation made by members of his outfit who may not have been worth saving themselves had they been taken prisoner.  Given all we know that’s gone on over there, they might have committed atrocities, they might have been cowards and shirkers, they might have been rapists. The same goes for the men who died looking for Bergdahl. We don’t know. We’re not asking. It’s beside the point, at the moment. Bergdahl may have been a deserter, he looks more like a bit of a flake with a history of going walkabout, but he may have deserted, and, again, say he did.

Does that make him less than one of us?

And by us, I mean us human beings, not us Americans.

Did he deserve to be left to die?

More than you? More than me? More than whom?

The war---wars---have been going on for thirteen years.  Every grown man and woman in the country under fifty could have volunteered to go fight.  Every one under forty still could. Bowe Bergdahl did. He fought that war for several months before he was taken prisoner. How many people now saying he deserved to be left to die did not fight a single minute because they were too frightened, too complaisant, too selfish, too indifferent, too willing to let the Bowe Bergdahls do it for them?  How then do they dare give themselves the right to judge Bergdahl’s deserving?

Bowe Bergdahl went. It didn’t work out very well for him. But he went.

In my judgment that makes him more deserving than any of the chickenhawks and Sunshine Patriots.

But who am I to judge?

What makes me think I’m deserving?

Ryan Private Ryan And this is another, more selfish, reason we don’t judge each other’s worth that way: In the grand scheme of things, which of us is worth it?  Which of us is all that deserving?

It’s as I’ve said, “Looked at close, none of us is worth it” or as Hamlet said, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?”

So we don’t just treat each other as if we’re all Private Ryans. We assume we are. And we don’t assume we, ourselves, are Captain Millers. We assume we aren’t.

We don’t demand proof someone deserves saving because we believe everyone does.

And because someday we may need saving ourselves and we don’t want to have to prove we’re worth it.

In saving Private Ryan, and Sergeant Bergdahl, grandly and meanly, we’re saving ourselves.

Lance Mannion on Saturday, June 07, 2014 in Now Playing at Cine 1001-2000, Sunday Sermon | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

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That’s the trouble with Millennials, they don’t know how to blame the wrong people

Dear Mr Bruni,

After reading your op-ed in the New York Times the other day, about how our generation has screwed things up for the Millennials (known in some circles as our children) and we owe them an apology, I tracked down the two Millennials I know best, my college-aged sons, and told them they’re free to resent their not-rich grandparents for selfishly gobbling up Social Security and Medicare money to help afford themselves a comfortable and healthy retirement even though the old folks know that there might not be enough money left in the till for the young folks when they’re old folks themselves.

My sons wouldn’t hear of it.

So I told them they’re free to resent their mother and me for having had to buy a house we couldn’t really afford at a price it wasn’t really worth during the housing bubble and for their mother’s having lost her job because some venture capitalists bought up her company and set out to make it “profitable” by gutting the workforce and she’s having trouble finding a new one probably because of her age and gender and I work in academia which when I started out was a comfortably middle-class profession but has since discovered the benefits of temp workers and wage slavery so we don’t have the money on hand at the moment to pay their way through college and they’ll have to take out loans.

I also told them they can resent us because the crash that followed the bubble devastated the 401k’s the middle class of our generation’s forced to fund in place of real pensions because the banksters and Wall Street wolves figured out that was a good first step towards getting their hands on all the money and so we probably won’t have a lot of dough to help them buy their own houses and put their kids through college when the time comes.

They wouldn’t hear of that either.

I told them what you wrote, about how for “decades they’ll be saddled with our effluvium: a monstrous debt, an epidemic of obesity, Adam Sandler movies” and how thanks to global warming “In their lifetimes the Atlantic will possibly swallow Miami Beach” and they should resent not just their grandparents and parents, but their aunts and uncles, their friends’ parents, most of their teachers and professors, a lot of their neighbors, the nice lady who cuts their hair, their favorite clerk at the convenience store who works there as his third job because he needs the money to help put his Millennials through school and on and on.

Well, I left out the Adam Sandler bit because they kind of liked him in Bedtime Stories.

But, know what? They still wouldn’t bite.

Instead they insist on resenting oil companies that have bought and paid for politicians to do nothing about global warming…

And Republicans in Congress who’ve voted to protect and extend the usurious student loan industry...

And extremely profitable corporations that resist hiring, deny raises, scrimp on benefits, and think laying off thousands of workers is the greatest good they can do for the economy…

And elitist politicians and members of the media who make too much to collect Social Security when the time comes insisting that the only way to save Social Security is to cut it drastically as opposed to, oh, say, raising taxes even a little bit on themselves and thus making sure their parents will have even less money in their old age to help them out in their middle age, which they will be spending worrying about how they’ll get through their old age because, you know, Social Security was cut at the insistence of the above mentioned elitist politicians and members of the media.

They also suggested that any apologies due them might come first from fawning journalists whose sycophantic coverage in 2000 helped elect the budget-busting, two-unpaid-for-wars-starting, let’s-make-privatizing-Social Security-a-thing George W. Bush whose idea of an environmentally responsible energy company was ENRON.

That’s the trouble with Millennials. They don’t know how to blame the wrong people.

Yours in abject apology,

Lance Mannion

PS. I know how it pains you to use the words Democrat and Republican in your columns. But the parties exist and they do stand for things or in the case of the Republicans stand against doing anything about the problems “we’re” leaving to the Millennials.

Also, you might get a kick out of reading Dean Baker’s evisceration of the what passes for economics behind the points you’re trying to make in your column about Medicare and Social Security, Frank Bruni Is Angry That the Government Pays 1000 Times as Much to Peter Peterson as It Does to the Average Kid.

(Psst. Baker’s post title is sarcastic.)


This post is adapted from a Twitter rant I went on the other day. Longtime blogging colleague and regular visitor to Mannionville, Jonathan Korman, who blogs at his own place Miniver Cheevy, did a great and remarkable and very kind thing: He Storify-ed that rant.

Lance Mannion on Tuesday, June 10, 2014 in Newshounds, Where the money is | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)