‘TIS THE SEASON….OF TRUMP (At the Multiplex: December, 2017)

I ventured out more than usual in December…mostly I just didn’t feel like staying home. But–and this is my idea of cheerful–you can learn things from watching the world die.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
D. Rian Johnson

I don’t remember this shot from the movie, so it might be a publicity still. Either way, I’d say it’s a problem when the Wookie has more charisma than the human. Doubly so if the human is supposed to be the center of the new galaxy far-far-away’s multi-culti dynamic.

Given the size of that central problem–assuming any under-forties can still radiate star power (I don’t get out nearly enough to make a final judgment but, based on what I have seen, the signs aren’t good), it isn’t the under-forties who are now expected to carry the central franchise of the modern world, the one which, imagination having gone the way of all flesh, all others must extend or debunk the way mold either feeds on or destroys what it attaches to–it’s amazing that the Star Wars franchise still entertains, even if I can’t imagine wanting to see anything but the original trilogy again before I die.

And it does entertain. At least if you’ve become as good at turning your brain off as I have.

Since this is the only movie here that isn’t specifically about Donald Trump–or at very least Trumpism–I blame him for lowering our expectations. Seems to be the going thing.

Catch it in the theaters. On the small screen the effects won’t be nearly as overwhelming and you’ll be stuck with the actors, none of whom are named Harrison Ford (for that, you’ll need to catch the Blade Runner update, which is incomprehensible and fantastic). Carrie Fisher, in her last role, is reduced to Earth Mother status, the very ethos she shook off like dead skin in her life and the original Star Wars movies. Mark Hamill is fine and, except for a brief appearance by Benecio Del Toro, the only point of strictly human contact to be found. Laura Dern, playing Earth Mother to the thousandth power, and against whom I held no previous grudge, actually performs a miracle of physics by creating film history’s first Black Hole right there on the screen where her character should be.

Make that to the minus thousandth power.

If only I could make myself believe anyone involved took the whole “long time ago” part seriously and was issuing this as a warning….

Like I say, catch it in the theater if you can. Unless you have more money than Donald Trump, your television’s not big enough to overpower the senses and achieve the benumbed state where this works just fine.

The Greatest Showman (2017)
D. Michael Gracey

Featuring P.T. Barnum as…..Donald Trump.

Whenever I see Michelle Williams’ name in the credits of a mainstream movie, I hold out hope that she’ll find a way to blitz the thing, the way she does with nearly all her indie performances.

There was never a chance of that happening here. Though Wiliams gets to display her warm and lovely side this is strictly a showcase for Hugh Jackman’s Barnum. He’s in fine form and the movie’s theme is hardly without contemporary relevance. This is a shallow but effective portrait of a man’s dream and a land where bunkum is all. Master it, and it will get you all: women, money, fame, the love of the common people. Really, you could walk out of this and contemplate the century-and-a-half between our consummate national huckster’s prime and the new occupant of the White House’s ascendance and be truly bedazzled that it took so long for someone to take the final, logical step.

Big drawback: They went with period music.

Our period.

(NOTE: For an odd but possibly compelling double-bill, I recommend pairing this with Jackman and Williams’ other outing, an interesting little thriller called Deception, where he plays a manipulative terrorizer of women (and others) whose hand is bigger than her head. You don’t notice until he has to drop the mask of mere avarice and actually take hold of her. Ewan McGregor’s around, but, even at the center of the thing as the yob we’re supposed to identify with, he’s not too terrible a distraction.)

All the Money in the World (2017)
D. Ridley Scott

Christopher Plummer’s gotten most of the attention for stepping in to play J. Paul Getty, the oiliest oily capitalist in the history of oily capitalism, a part Ridley Scott supposedly wanted him for the begin with, when Kevin Spacey–for whom the part was clearly made and which it’s hardly a stretch to imagine he was born to play–was instantly Stalinized for being an accused pederast in this moment when any gambit that might bring down Donald Trump (no pederast, but he has bragged–on tape no less–about “pussy grabbing”….or hadn’t you heard?) is deemed worth deploying and talent be damned.

It’s not  a disaster. Plummer’s fine even though you can literally hear the lines he sort of mumbles snapping out of Spacey’s absent mouth and smile your way through the whole thing.

The real problem–and it’s not insurmountable either–is that the other actors, especially Michelle Williams, had to re-shoot scenes which had clearly been written with Spacey’s particular charm (the oiliest actorly smarm in the history of smarm…or acting) in mind. Worse, they likely didn’t re-shoot scenes where the Getty character isn’t present. So you have to assume that Williams (and others) spent half the movie we actually see acting against the absence of Kevin Spacey’s J. Paul Getty and half acting with Plummer’s bound to be antithetical take on the same man (or, if you prefer, character).

It shows.

But you know….it still works–as both thriller and character study.

The real tension isn’t in whether Getty’s kidnapped grandson is finally freed (and I was one of the millions who didn’t have a memory of how that all worked out, so the ending was news to me), but in whether Williams’ character (Getty’s estranged ex-daughter-in-law and the kidnap victim’s mother) will ever act out.

This is Michelle Williams, after all, the only working actor who knows what to do with that very kind of scene, or at least the only one who is willing to risk going there, time and again. And I was a coiled spring, waiting to see if she would, just once, get to turn the anger she usually directs at herself (and whether it’s the characters self-immolating, time and again, or the actress herself, time and again, is a mystery that wants solving), against an object worthy of her disgust.

And….

Well, it’s worth seeing the movie to find out, so I won’t spoil it for you. Let’s just say watching Michelle Williams work these kind of things out for two hours is never going to be a waste of time, even if it leaves you wondering if she will ever achieve the kind of stardom that would prove the world is better than me, Donald Trump or J. Paul Getty think it can be.

Darkest Hour (2017)
D. Joe Wright

In which Gary Oldman plays an aging, crotchety leader of a fractured party, out of step with his colleagues and every aspect of their shrewd statesman-like sense of decorum, but with an uncommon feel for the common man they can but envy and behold.

Winston Churchill keeps getting mentioned, along with contemporary phenomena like abdicating kings and Dunkirk and what not. But this is clearly the first high class movie (maybe the first period, I don’t do a good job of keeping up) about Donald Trump. I mean it could be a little bit about Harvey Weinstein–old Winnie did like to go about in his bathrobe and little else whilst dictating to comely young secretaries. But Harvey’s old news now, just another of Trump’s useful footwipes and hardly better off than Kevin Spacey or J. Paul Getty (who probably finds being dead and consumed by hell fire only a slight disadvantage over having to endure the presence of humans).

It’s a fine performance. If you accept that it’s this historical fellow Churchill Oldman is after, he’s got him dead to rights. He’s the spitting image. Sounds like him too. Nothing like Richard Burton on television way back, neither looking nor sounding much like the historical fellow at all.

Odd thing, though. You could watch and listen to Burton and imagine a despondent country hearing him say “Our policy will be to WAGE WAR!” and committing on the spot to doing just that, even, as actually happened, to the point of self-extinction. And you could imagine him–and them–understanding that the only choice left was already not between survival in any meaningful sense and extinction, but between extinction with honor or subservience in disgrace.

None of that here. The England this barely worthy Trump stand-in speaks to and for is hardly worth saving and it’s an even bet whether the filmmakers meant this England to stand for 1940 or 2017.

Fine job by the makeup department, though. And good work on the accent. Who needs thunder and lighting when you’ve got all that going for you?

Bravo!

CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose Ends #115)

A painting by Winston Churchill….

Gifted to Vivien Leigh, the lead in his favorite film, That Hamilton Woman, in 1951, the year A Streetcar Named Desire was released…

…featuring the performance of which she later wrote, Blanche “is a tragic figure and I understand her. But, playing her tipped me into madness.”

I’ve always wondered if she tipped Brando as well. It couldn’t have been easy for the Method actor to watch someone demonstrate a level of commitment neither he nor anyone could match by breaking down mentally in front of him (and a  movie camera)…because the part demanded it.

In any case, she was sent home from her next film set in a strait jacket.

She kept Churchill’s painting by her bed for the rest of her life, so it would be the first thing she saw when she woke up.

She only made 53, but I’m inclined to believe the painting may have added a year or two.

The painting is being auctioned off by her grandchildren in September. One more thing I wish I hadn’t lived to see….

Though I’d probably feel different if I had the money to buy it!

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM INTELLECTUALS….

Nothing.

Here’s one I ran across today:

“Every one of the great charismatic leaders of this century ended up a maniac. He destroyed everything and finally himself—in Stalin’s purges; in Hitler’s ‘final solution’; in Mao’s ‘Revolution.’”

Peter F. Drucker, The New Realities (1989)

I confess Peter Drucker’s name only rang a tiny bell. I had to look him up. Turned out he wasn’t a village idiot but one of those free market thinkers from the Austrian school who spent the better part of the post-WWII era getting us into this mess and wouldn’t have known freedom if it left it’s foot up his crack.

Sharp boys they were.

For the record, Roosevelt and Churchill were pretty charismatic. Also for the record, Stalin and Mao died in bed and in power, old men worshiped by at least as many millions as they slaughtered. Unless Satan was waiting for them on the other side, neither man need have harbored a single regret or gone to his reward any way but smiling.

Only a professional intellectual–petted and paid for–could blind himself to all that in the space of two sentences.

Me, if I wanted to tie present circumstances to past disasters (as the blogger who posted the quote surely did), I’d avoid cults of personality and be more direct. As in, “Won’t be water, be fire next time…”

Suckers.

 

AND BY THEN, I KNEW THE COLLAPSE WAS UPON US (Memory Lane, September 11, 2002)

My memories of September 11, 2001 are the common ones. Shock. Disgust. Horror. Sadness. Anger.

My memories of September 11, 2002 might be a bit more singular.

By then I had long since emailed a friend, after George W. Bush’s pathetic speech to Congress (universally lauded at the time by the entire political class and their coterie of media bootlickers, with a few professors thrown in for good measure). The email said:

“I hope we don’t need a leader in this fight we’re about to have, because that sure wasn’t Churchill up there.”

I have a knack, it seems, for being right only about the things I really wish I was wrong about.

By then, I had also seen all the memorial services/concerts etc. and been moved by an occasional performance, the most memorable being Limp Bizkit’s version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” which never made me want to listen to Limp Bizkit but did light a warm place in my heart for the original which had not previously existed but has not diminished in the long dreary years since.

By then, I had heard “W” tell us we should go shopping. Things would be alright.

By then, I had been reminded, way more than once and by chillingly, dishearteningly, real world events, of Franklin Roosevelt, breaking into “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” on the Firesign Theater’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once, When You’re Not Anywhere at All, to announce our complete and unconditional surrender.

By then, I knew, in my heart, which is the only truly knowing place, that the United States was beyond satire, that we might last another thousand years as a political economy or a name in a World Atlas, but we’re done as an idea and an idea is all we ever were that was worth anything.

By then, not to get all gloomy or anything, I had already decided it was time to start devoting such energies as I had left for this sort of navel gazing to figuring out where we went wrong–how Rock and Roll America had turned into Lay Down and Die America.

By then, I knew the response of a handful of passengers on Flight 93 was the only meaningful response there would ever be.

So when I was riding around in my car on September 11, 2002, doing errands while listening to the Oldies Station (Oldies Stations being just one more thing that has disappeared in the years since, at least around here), I was prepared to feel nothing in the way of all the emotions I mentioned above.

Figured if no ranking member of the ruling elite was prepared to commit to anything more than somber statements and crocodile tears, there was no percentage in me remembering.

Then a particular song came on the radio, and it was exactly the last song in the universe that could have been connected to any abstract idea of forcing me out of myself, not allowing me to avoid feeling something, even if I could never quite know what it was.

Not even now.

Sometimes, things are just a mystery…So I won’t even try to explain why this made me feel something, on September 11, 2002, when nothing else, not even my Christian concern for the lost, could make me feel anything at all…

 

WHAT IMPRESSED ME THIS WEEK (End of Empire and, As It Happens, Everything Else…Dame Helen Presiding)

PRIMESUSPECT1

[NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Prime Suspect, Season 7)

A few years back, I saw Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie having some sort of sit-down chat on C-Span and, among various other topics, they fell to discussing British vs. American politics. One thing that struck them in particular was the phony lip-service American politicians are forced to pay to religious belief.

In England, they both agreed, such cow-towing never even crosses any politician’s mind.

I don’t recall either man mentioning why he nonetheless so much preferred living in America, but I do remember thinking they needn’t worry.

Being no fan of phony lip-service (to religion or anything else), I’ll still bet that when America is sufficiently like their England, there won’t be an America.

And there won’t be an England.

If a British television series like Prime Suspect was all anyone knew of England (and bear in mind that, for many of us, it is precisely that), then it would be logical to conclude that England, as either a meaningful historical identity or a sustainable political-economy, has already vanished.

The show ran in seven different, not-always-consecutive, seasons between 1991 and 2006. It was groundbreaking in all kinds of ways with its hyper-emphasis on forensics, emphasis on teamwork as opposed to the brilliance of a single detective, realistically gruesome corpses, the persistent elongation of the good old-fashioned mono-syllabic word “shit” into anywhere from and two to five syllables (though in one instance, I heard a s-s-s-s-s-s-hit, which I take to be seven), and, of course, an admirable but genuinely prickly female detective at the center.

Except for a handful of episodes, I didn’t see the show when it aired. By the time I became aware of it in the mid-nineties, the I’ll-wait-for-it-on-video mode was already prevailing at my house. When I first gathered up the whole series and watched it several years ago I thought it was a genuinely great series (“great” being an honorific I rarely find applicable to any TV series as a whole, though I frequently find individual aspects I like), but I didn’t think much about its possible socio-political import beyond the obvious (but, alas, necessary) feminist point that “women could do the job as good as men.”

Based on the DVD commentary and what I’ve been able to find on-line, I’m not sure the makers thought much beyond that either. And, of course, I have no idea what England was/is really like, circa 1991, 2006, or today. But I do know what the collapse of culture and politics in America feels like and, what with so many of their intellectuals preferring it here (a reverse of the old days when, if we produced a Henry James, he was likely to head straight over there and stay for a lifetime), I assume England really might be in worse shape than we are.

Certainly Helen Mirren’s DCI Jane Tennison begins the series in the familiar position (amidst all the then unfamiliar “realities” I mentioned above) of defending civilization from the monsters. And certainly there are monsters throughout the fifteen-year-run.

But, perhaps because, for entirely whimsical reasons, I watched seasons six through one in reverse order this time around, saving seven for the last, I was struck by England’s absence.

The upper classes with whom we Americans, at least, associate royalty and posh affluence (anything from Buckingham Palace to Downton Abbey), is barely glimpsed. But the middle class (presumably filled with all those Austen and Dickens and LeCarre readers) is even less in evidence. If not for occasional forays into Tennison’s private life it would be completely missing.

Essentially, then, and more so as the series progresses, Jane Tennison is defending an England no longer worth defending. The world of the series looks, sounds and most significantly, feels, like a police state which is kept from complete savagery only by the still barely perceptible presence of a liberal, common law, tradition.

It’s an England overrun by slums at the low end, and deep-set corruption at the high end. Nothing feels permanent, or even multi-generational. And by nothing, I mean nothing–not just buildings or roads or hairstyles or belief systems are decaying or putting up false fronts, but order itself.

What we have is a fifteen-year run through a nation that will produce no more glory. No more Shakespeares or MIltons. No Austens or Brontes. No Gladstones or Churchills. No Beatles or Stones.

Hell, no Clash or Sex Pistols.

Even they had to have something more than a black hole to rail against.

But, perhaps more to the point, this is an England that will produce no more Jane Tennisons.

In case anyone had kept such faith as the show permits (that is, in case anyone might assume my reading is, as the Brits say, daft), the final season gives us a younger version of Tennison herself. We don’t need to guess at this. She says as much herself and more than once.

It’s so much a younger version of herself (presented by the fresh-faced presence of Laura Greenwood), that, for once, and on the verge of her own retirement, she’s blinded to the sort of reality that she’s made a career of shoving in other people’s faces.

They’re bound together by intelligence, slash-n-bob haircuts, black coats worn as protection against the ever falling rain, a love of art, a deep-seated rebellious streak.

Somebody’s record collection.

Whether that last is Tennison’s, her dying father’s or some mixture of both is unclear, but it yields, for a start, Mirren’s lonely Jane dancing to Dusty Springfield’s “Stay Awhile” and, for a finish, a matched, bracketing sequence of Greenwood’s lonely Penny dancing to something else but clearly lost in the same past.

Of course, it’s really just Tennison’s past, a remnant of the middle class/middlebrow world her middle class/middlebrow father provided for her to rebel against, and perhaps flee from, by becoming the top-flight detective she wanted for herself instead of the artist her father, who we know from an earlier season was a liberator of Nazi death camps, wanted for her.

Penny’s a product of the new middle class. Her dad’s a statutory rapist who slept with one of her friends. By the time she’s dancing to the old records in Tennison’s dad’s house, she’s already a murderess and working up to a second try. She’s completely lost and, in the environment the series has built, not just in the final season (when Tennison is ravaged by alcoholism and so separated from any semblance of a normal life that she can’t even be in the same room with her surviving relatives without making an ass of herself, the last vestiges of middle class civility having been erased by her own choices), but in the entire corrosive atmosphere built up over a decade and a half, that primitivism is getting back its own and fresh-faced murder feels at least as natural as anything else.

This is an England where the air is permanently poisoned. And, long before the “reveal,” you can see and feel the inevitability of it all.

You don’t need plot-points or exegesis or the best role the actress of the age–definer of the wild child, the gangster’s moll, Morgana Le Fay, the first Elizabeth, the second Elizabeth–is ever likely to have, to know there’s no more England.

You just need to look, long before the aforementioned reveal, at the body language of the girl who will never have anything to defend.

PRIMESUSPECT2

Yes, by all means. Let’s be more like England.

THE NATURAL (Bob Hoskins, R.I.P.)

He should have been easy to pigeon-hole. Short, round, close-cropped bullet head, general air of perpetual unease which more than occasionally oozed the menace a thousand other movie tough guys would spend every penny they had to acquire if, by chance, it was something you could buy.

That sums up the look–the presence if you will.

Then, without anything like formal training, and carrying a casually dismissive attitude towards the whole idea of “studying” to be an actor, he took that presence to an awful lot of places: Mob boss, down-at-heels private eye playing footsie with Jessica Rabbit, Iago, Nikita Khrushchev, Mussolini, Churchill, J. Edgar Hoover, Conradian anti-hero.

Whatever.

I mean, I haven’t even seen all of it myself–a failing I will certainly try to redress in the very near future–but, at some level, I almost don’t have to see it with my four eyes to see him with my mind’s eye. Just stick his name next to pretty much anything and I’m ready to take the journey with him. Now as ever. Now, maybe more than ever. Because whenever I do get around to catching up, I know he’ll have been up to the task.

Any task he set himself.

From what I have caught up with, some time or other, I can say that he was–just for starters–truly great in Mona Lisa and The Dunera Boys and Othello and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And when Brian DePalma used his name (and a $20,000 retainer) as bait to hook Robert DeNiro (the director’s preference all along) for Al Capone in The Untouchables, he cashed the check, had a good laugh about it and never once let on that DePalma came a long way second by settling for an actor’s actor to play Big Al when he could have had a force of nature who was born for that sort of thing.

It’s possible, of course, that Hoskins didn’t even know himself what DePalma was throwing away–though it’s a whole lot more possible that he did.

Either way, it’s hard to imagine him ever letting on.

In that respect, he was a bit out of his element in the modern world, where taking such real and perceived slights personally is the fashionable sign of your high seriousness. Needing none of that, he instead projected purely old-fashioned charisma, not to mention genuine bon homie. As a result (and no matter how convincing a regular good guy he was away from his roles) he often seemed a little too big for even his best roles–as if Jimmy Cagney had been transported to modern Hollywood and found that, yes, it was indeed the movies that had gotten smaller.

Once, though, an entire movie got all the way up to the best of him.

What he and Helen Mirren achieved in The Long Good Friday took them on the rarest journey–to the partly exhilarating, partly frightening place where John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards and Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Dubois and Anne Bancroft’s Annie Sullivan reside. Long past the point of worrying about awards in other words. So it was fun and gratifying, while surfing for tributes, to discover a documentary on YouTube where various parties spoke at length about the work both actors put into improving their already strong roles. My guess is that they were just old enough to know such parts in such a movie might very well come along only once in a lifetime–even a lifetime as full of great and good work as each of theirs would turn out to be.

And Mirren eventually got her Oscar (for a very fine performance in The Queen), in much the same way (and for many of the same reasons) that John Wayne eventually got the one he deserved for The Searchers (for a very fine performance in True Grit).

Hoskins never got his.

And, wherever that unquenchable spirit currently resides, I’ll bet he’s having a good laugh about it.

Heck, the top gangster in London called him over to his table in a restaurant not long after the TLGF’s release and congratulated him.

“Good to see one of us make it,” the guy said, confidentially.

Hoskins always loved telling that story–the story about the London mobster who actually thought the guy who played Harold Shand so eerily close to the bone must surely have been a reformed gangster himself.

Hey, what’s an Oscar next to that?

Anyway, here’s the story of an entire relationship in three scenes and seven minutes (with bodies stacking up like cord wood around them the while)….capped off by history’s greatest smoking-in-bed scene (greatest because it’s all about the smoking…the bed is incidental)!