Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Robin Williams

Last night, after the terrible news of Robin Williams' death, I tried to think of a peer to compare him to. Then, almost as quickly, I gave up. For a comedian who became famous in an era that produced a gobsmacking amount of top-flight comedic minds — Steve Martin and Billy Crystal and Bill Murray and Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd — it was startling how alone he stands as a sheer talent.

One of my favorite stand-ups of all time was Richard Pryor. I don't think we've produced an equal, but we can see his descendants all the time. We've never seen a descendant of Robin Williams. We probably never will.

The word unique is frequently misused, but here it's true: Williams' talent for comic invention was unique.

Oh, and he was also a terrific actor. While late in his career he was often stuck in less-than-stellar projects, there's still a staggering amount of work to recommend. Anyone who can play both the professor unhinged by grief in The Fisher King and the terrifyingly restrained killer in Insomnia can do practically anything. (If you haven't seen it, he's fun in a cameo in Kenneth Branagh's underrated Dead Again.)

While surfing the net today, I've been touched by the moving responses to Williams' death. People are reacting to his talent, and his friendship, and the sheer tragedy of his death. But I think there's something more to it. Among his peers and his comic descendants, Williams stood alone not just because of his talent but because of his openness. He wanted to entertain his audience, and he wanted to move them. In a way, this could backfire as Williams picked projects — Jakob the Liar and Patch Adams zoom into mawkishness — but it also endeared you to him. Patch Adams may be terrible, but Williams clearly believed in the message of humor-as-healer and threw himself into it. Unlike many of his peers, he never held part of himself back.

In an interview yesterday, David Edelstein noted that Williams had never found a collaborator like Will Ferrell has found in Adam McKay, one who could both tease out and contain his quicksilver talent onscreen. That's true, but the juxtaposition startled me. The thought of Williams making Anchorman or Talladega Nights — which is not necessarily what Edelstein was proposing — is mind-boggling; Williams was just too sincere for that brand of detached meta-humor.

That sincerity is just one of the many, many talents he brought to his projects, and it's just one of the many, many reasons he'll be missed. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Why, it's almost as if it's a pattern

Another person who clearly should not have a gun goes on a rampage with one.

Monday, June 9, 2014

In Praise of Charm

There’s a scene in Chef where the titular chef, played by Jon Favreau, sits by his food truck with his sous chef and his son on a soft summer night. Favreau puffs contentently on a cigar. The characters talk about food, about their half-formed plans for the next few days of business. They tip back bottles of beer. The scene ambles on for a minute or two, then ends on a tiny, laid-back joke. Then it’s over.
We’re well into summer now, so we’ve been battered for about two months by blockbusters. So far, I’ve seen a sports stadium levitated and a flying aircraft carrier crash into the Potomac. I haven’t seen Tom Cruise fight off an army of aliens, but I’ll probably see it before I watch a team of intergalactic misfits save the universe.
I find more and more, I use the word charming to describe certain movies I love. I love blockbusters, but I never call them charming.
Part of what I’m talking about is the charisma and ease of the cast. There’s a scene in Chef  where Favreau shares a joint with his restaurant’s hostess, played, coincidentally, by Scarlett Johannson. The scene doesn’t have the wittiest dialogue or deepest insights, but the Favreau and Johannson give the characters’ relationship a lived-in quality that breathes warmth into the scene.
Even better is a scene from Enough Said, a smart, subtle romantic comedy with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini. They go on a date to a restaurant. Their conversation is sometimes halting. You can tell the characters are genuinely thinking before they speak. But there’s a sly rapport there. If I were to transcribe the conversation here it wouldn’t seem funny, but the actors give it rhythm. You feel as if you’re watching them discover each other. 
When a movie’s charming, it means the filmmakers aren’t afraid to let you hang out with the characters for a little while. They allow you to peek into their world in smaller, quieter moments — BSing next to a food truck like in Chef, sitting in the back yard discussing the relative attractiveness of feet in Enough Said.
Like I said earlier: I love blockbusters. Some of them are even charming — the original Iron Man, for example, where most of the memorable moments came from Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow’s machine-pistol banter. But too often those movies are like harried tour guides rushing you from one flashy exhibit to another. 
The filmmakers who make them should try something different. They should be confident enough not to awe, but to charm. 

Your "Democracy" in Action


Sunday, June 8, 2014

More on Bowe Bergdahl

In the last week or so, we've seen a former Vice-Presidential runner-up  pour venom on Bowe Bergdahl. We've seen politicians and major political candidates retract support for him. We've seen a co-host of a major-network television show casually compare Bowe Bergdahl's father, Robert, to terrorists. We've seen another co-host of a major-network television show sharply criticize Robert Bergdahl's parenting.

In light of this, I'm less than astonished that Robert Bergdahl has reportedly received multiple death threats.

Charles Pierce doesn't address Bergdahl but is excellent addressing the mechanism by which radical language electrifies people who were probably already on the edge.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

On Bowe Bergdahl

1) An organized smear campaign against a recently freed United States soldier before he's even had the opportunity to step on U.S. soil or reunite with his parents is ugly and cowardly. The fact that a former candidate for Vice-President is participating in this morbid exercise makes it even worse.

2) Regarding Palin's criticism: It's interesting how, to her, 'free speech' — that is, freedom from being criticized — applies to a duck-call millionaire who made controversial comments in the pages of a widely read magazine, but not to a United States solider who made controversial comments in a private e-mail.

3) This should go without saying, but charges of desertion against Sgt. Bergdahl have not been proven, and it's wildly irresponsible to speculate on those charges.

4) It seems rather obvious that all this criticism of Bergdahl is being done for one reason, and one reason only: to diminish a potential accomplishment by President Obama.

5) Well, maybe two reasons.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Seattle Times (again)

Another day, another intellectually dubious editorial by the Seattle Times. This one's on the proposal to raise the city's wage to $15 per hour.

Let's take a look at a few of the most hilarious howlers, shall we?
The rhetoric was untethered from reality.

The Times uses the word 'rhetoric' three times in this editorial, which is an odd linguistic flourish. It couldn't be a way for the Times to imply supporters of a minimum wage increase are being dishonest, could it? Nah. 

A re-engineering this large will raise costs for Seattle’s large middle class, which is already struggling with Seattle’s rising cost of living. A $15 wage would not help a teacher in Greenwood, but would raise his or her restaurant tab

The Greenwood teacher's restaurant tab would probably be raised by, oh, a few pennies per meal. Also, the Greenwood teacher may well see positive benefits from the overall economic impact of a minimum-wage increase. This seems like a small price to pay to lift low-wage workers out of near-poverty — a point the Times does not raise, despite it being the main engine of the minimum-wage increase in the first place. 

During negotiations, representatives of the food-service industry sought to make tips count toward a $15 wage. But labor activists, who dislike tipping for philosophical reasons, largely won the debate. As a result, the take-home pay for Seattle servers will likely be reduced, because they might get less in tips. Don’t underestimate the price shock on restaurant-goers.

The Times editorial board is masterful at using opaque language to dishonestly neuter its opponents' arguments. Saying "labor activists1" argument on behalf of tipped workers is "philosophical" is a clever way to make those arguments seem impractical without actually having to address them. 
Setting aside the fact that many "tipped workers," such as cooks, don't actually receive tips; setting aside the fact that tipped workers are frequently the victims of wage theft; and setting aside the fact that tipped workers are twice as likely to live in poverty, the Times' argument is still wrong.
The data are largely in opposition to what the Times claims. There is no evidence that an increase in the minimum wage will lead to less tips. 

1 In the Seattle Times editorial pages, calling someone a "labor activist" is the exact same thing as calling them an "asshole."

Sunday, April 27, 2014

And a still-unchallenged Andrew Johnson breathes a sigh of relief

This person was almost Vice-President of the United States.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Seattle Times strikes again

Proposition 1, a measure to ward off severe cuts to Seattle's bus system, seems on its way to losing. If it does, real harm will be done to people who are dependent on the Metro bus system — jobs will be lost, traffic will get worse and lives will be made harder.

There's plenty of blame to go around — putting two items on the same proposition strikes me as a poor choice in this case — but I wanted to specifically mention the Seattle Times' disingenuous editorial.

The Times ran an editorial opposing Prop 1. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but will summarize by saying the Times encourages voters to oppose the proposition because Metro is ineffective and opaque.

The Seattle Times continues to recommend voters reject Proposition 1 because the transit agency still has much more to do to right an unsustainable cost structure and management practices. Transit is vital to the region’s economy and quality of life — King County can and should do better. 

So, the Times is basically saying people dependent on Metro should suffer, but hey — only until Metro fixes its cost structure and management practices in unspecified ways that satisfy the Times' editorial board!

This has been a trope with the editorial board for a while. It expresses sympathy to the goals of progressive or semi-progressive legislation. Then, after a gaudy display of tongue-clucking and finger-wagging, it opposes the legislation until vague and unreachable benchmarks are met first.

Gosh, the Seattle Times wants bus service that isn't something out of a Mad Max movie, but Metro has to fix all its problems first. The Seattle Times wants adequately funded libraries, but the levy set to fund those libraries is not to the board's liking.  The Times agrees workers should generally make more, but housing and transportation costs should be addressed instead.

Note that last one: The Times opposed a minimum-wage increase because transportation problems for low-income workers should be addressed, then effectively supported a cut in affordable transportation for low-income workers.

I like the Seattle Times. A lot of hard-working people are employed there, and a lot of fine journalism is done there. But its editorials turned into three-card monte a long time ago. Readers should stop looking for the winning card.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Jerome Murdough and our everyday cruelty

Earlier this year, a mentally ill man named Jerome Murdough baked to death in a cell in a New York prison. Murdough was a 56-year-old former Marine and suffered from mental illness.

Surprisingly, the grim news has actually drawn national attention from a media that often ignores the plight of prisoners in general and mentally ill prisoners specifically. As usual, Andrew Cohen has been excellent on it.

Most of the commentary on Murdough's fate has questioned the specific circumstances of his death — why the cell was so hot, why Murdough was not properly monitored, etc. These questions are more than appropriate; they're crucial.

However, I'd like to ask a different question: Why was Jerome Murdough in prison in the first place?

Reports say Murdough was in prison for trespassing. His family claims he climbed onto an enclosed stairwell of a housing project for a place to sleep. I wonder why New York looked at the case of a former United States Marine who was curled up in a stairwell and felt that it warranted the funds, time and energy needed to prosecute it. More to the point, I'm wondering why the prosecutor and judge felt the need to imprison the accused — who could not afford his $2,500 bail — while these questions were sorted out.

Murdough death is a sad tragedy. It's rendered even more tragic by the fact that the tragedy's scaffolding has been so normalized in our culture it isn't even questioned. This is what happens when you look to incarcerate as a first resort, a last resort, and every resort in between. That, too, is one of the tragedies of Jerome Murdough.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Veronica Mars, and why it matters

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."
-E.M. Forster

There was something different about Neptune.

This weekend, I went with friends to see the Veronica Mars movie. The movie — like the three-season series featuring a quippy teenage detective and her private-eye father — was delightful. It was funny when it wanted to be funny, suspenseful when it wanted to be suspenseful, and even moving when it wanted to be moving. It was everything I wanted it to be and more.

Still, there was something different about Neptune.

Neptune, the fictional, economically splintered California beach town where the whole thing takes place. The town, sunny and candy-colored in the series, was more muted. There were more blues and grays. When Veronica visits an acquaintance's apartment late in the film, it looks more like a worn-thin warehouse than a glorious penthouse.

A couple of weeks before I saw the movie, I read Chris Hayes' fine book Twilight of the Elites. At the risk of oversimplifying, the book is about the collapse of America's most trusted institutions over the last decade. The church, Congress, professional sports — Hayes argues that they've all stumbled, and has some intriguing arguments about why.

Hayes' arguments are intriguing. But they're not surprising, at least not to me. I've been watching Veronica Mars for years.

Veronica Mars took a long layoff between its low-rated, three-year run on television and its fan-funded movie. But in a fundamental and almost eerily accurate sense, it's a piece of work for our times.

As the series begins, Veronica and her father live in a ramshackle crapbox at the edge of a swimming pool you wouldn't want to take a dip in. They're there because her father, formerly the town's sheriff, had had the guts to accuse one of the town's wealthiest men of murder. Both Mars — father and daughter — find themselves cast out by the town's inner circle. Now they're living next to the crummy swimming pool.

During their crime-solving adventures, Veronica and her father Keith learn one lesson over and over again: That their town's fundamental structures are shot through with corruption. The police department is at best incompetent and at worst corrupt. The legal system offers nothing remotely resembling justice. Even the town's beloved heroes, such a former baseball star, have sinister secrets.

If the last decade or so, like Hayes argues, has seen the growth of a profound mistrust in our institutions, Veronica Mars was one of the first works to accurately uncover it.

While the show hosts a healthy skepticism about institutions, it's never more steel-eyed than it is when it's examining the growing gap between rich and poor. In Neptune, there's not a gap between the two — there's a canyon. The wealthy offspring of the town's elite lie, cheat, steal and occasionally get away with murder. When one wealthy character's house is burned down, he buys properties being rented by the poor and kicks them out. When Veronica's prom is cancelled, the wealthy students host a private  one. To adapt the old joke, the middle-class and poor are on the bottom floor of a two-story outhouse. There have rarely been shows that draw that portrait as Veronica Mars.

If there's a counterbalance to the skepticism in Veronica Mars, its Veronica friends and family. One of the most joyous scenes in the film is also one of the most quiet. When Veronica returns to Neptune after a long absence, she reunites with her father and a few friends who had been through battles with her. Their scene, where they trade quips while sitting on a porch, is one of the most moving in the film.

The message of Veronica Mars is clear. You can't trust the institutions around you — the criminal justice system, the political world. You can only trust the individuals who will fight for you — and with you. 

In the end, Ver sets off to battle the corruption in those institutions, but she's not alone. She has her friends by her side.

Neptune may have a little less color and a little less cheer than it even had before. But as Veronica marches into battle there, she has her friends at her side. Sometimes that's enough.