Who Am I?

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Title: Jim & Andy

Rating: 4 Stars

This is a documentary following Jim Carrey as he is making the Andy Kaufman biopic, Man on the Moon.

I remember when the film came out. There was substantial word of mouth that Carrey had gone all in on the part. On the set, he would only answer to Andy, or if he was in the Tony Clifton character, as Tony.

What I didn’t know is that at the time he allowed a film crew to follow him on set during its filming. I also don’t know why it took nearly twenty years for someone to decide to make a documentary out of the footage.

Perhaps the time was required to allow Carrey to gain some perspective. The film is interspersed between an interview that took place recently and footage from his time on the set. In his current interview, he is heavily bearded, looks at the camera with calmness, and speaks with great serenity and self-understanding. This is in stark contrast to his near manic stage presence that he usually exhibited at the height of his fame in the ’90s.

It appears clear that at some point over the last decade or so, he’s seemed to have achieved some peace and has resolved some of the demons that were chasing him. The levels of depth that he reached filming Man on the Moon seemed helpful to him in this pursuit. Good for him, but reconciling his known anti-vaxxer stance with this great guru wisdom and serenity that he appears to have now caused me some cognitive dissonance.

What made this film rise substantially in my estimation is how it explores identity, especially in the context of acting.

Let’s start with Andy Kaufman. His own life was essentially an act. He completely sold himself on his characters, specifically foreign man, Tony Clifton, and his wrestling persona. He never broke character. An argument can be made that he was forever the little boy playacting in his bedroom. It was there that he could imagine being happy and so it was there that he insisted living. I once read a biography of Kaufman (and this scene is also in Man on the Moon), where he announces to his closest friends that he has cancer. None of them believe him and specifically Bob Zmuda (who was his partner in crime on most of his escapades) begins to plot how they can use the cancer for effect. It takes him some time to convince everyone that he actually is seriously sick. What kind of life are you living and how many secrets are you keeping when your closest friends don’t believe you when you say that you’re dying?

Into this comes Jim Carrey, who himself has clearly has some identity issues. He’s fiercely proud and protective of his father, who was a larger than life figure that sacrificed for his family. He then fails his family by losing his job while in his 50’s. For a time, they’re homeless. Out of that environment comes Carrey, desperate for fame, fortune, and some kind of validation or acceptance.

Carrey tells the story that before he starting filming, he went down to the ocean and quietly meditated. There, he felt Andy Kaufman enter his body and basically tell him, I’ve got this.

From that point forward, Carrey no longer believes he’s acting. He’s actually channeling the spirit of Kaufman. That is why he insists that everyone on set refer to him as Andy (or Tony). This includes even the much renowned, elderly director, Milos Forman, who is perplexed and frustrated by Carrey’s (er, Kaufman’s antics).

At one point Forman calls Carrey when he is off set. Forman tells Carrey that this is not working for him. Carrey tells him that Forman can formally fire Kaufman/Clifton and then Carrey would be willing to still do the movie as an impersonation of Kaufman/Clifton. There is a short pause and Forman agrees to continue on as before.

There are other striking scenes. There is the scene where Carrey, as Tony Clifton, storms out of the daily screening room, criticizing the performance of Carrey to Forman. Years later, Carrey admits that the criticism was valid.

There is the scene in the makeup trailer between Carrey (getting ready as Kaufman) and the actor playing Kaufman’s father. The father comes into the trailer to tell Andy that he’s proud of him. Andy, who had a conflicted relationship with his father, would have been overcome by this sentiment, and Carrey, as Andy, is. The scene is so touching that makeup artists (not actors) break into tears. This is some serious hard core method acting.

In the final scenes, where Andy is clearly dying of cancer, even off camera Carrey is feeble, gentle, and accepting of death. At all times, he is pushed around in a wheelchair and has to be helped when he stands.

Although not filmed, Andy’s daughter (that he apparently never met) came to visit the set. There, Carrey and the daughter had a private conversation and apparently this gave the daughter some measure of peace.

What to make of all of this? We have an actor completely caught up in the portrayal of an actor that himself was always in role. Is getting consumed by a part an occupational hazard of actors? I think of Daniel Day Lewis in pretty much any role, but specifically as Christy Brown, the cerebral palsy artist, in My Left Foot. I think of Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in The Doors.

Even larger, what is identity? If someone is always playing a role, does that basically become his identity?

And how does that play into our lives? Do we even have a true identity? Or is our identity just the roles that we consciously play in our lives?

Is there no there there?

At one point, late in the movie, Carrey as Andy is talking to Bob Zmuda (the real Zmuda) and Bob is talking to Carrey as if he’s actually talking to Andy. For a moment, you can actually see that Bob thinks that he’s truly talking to Andy. Bob then takes a hard look at Jim and realizes that Jim is just actually fucking with him.

In that moment, you have Bob Zmuda, who was the key person that enabled Andy Kaufman to channel his roles, realize that he’s being played by Jim Carrey, who Zmuda is helping to channel Kaufman as his fictional Kaufman in turn channels the characters that Zmuda originally helped Kaufman channel.

You got all of that?

 

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Coma Rom Com

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Title: The Big Sick

Rating: 4 Stars

Yes, this is that rarely executed romantic comedy where one of the two in love spends the large majority of the movie in a coma.

Based on a real story, the struggling Pakistani comedian, Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), has a typical meets-cute Emily (Zoe Kazan) when she heckles him during his act. They’re both reluctant to fall in love, but as is typical with romantic comedies, they inevitably do. As such things go in romantic comedies, hurdles crop up in their pursuit of true love. In Kumail’s case, he comes from a traditional Pakistani family that not only refuses to accept a non Pakistani girlfriend but is trying to force an arranged marriage.

Therefore, Kumail never introduces Emily to his family. Ultimately, she finds out the truth and angrily breaks up with him. Shortly thereafter, she gets very sick, and since all of her friends are deep into finals, Kumail is drafted to check up on her when she goes to the emergency room. At once, she becomes so sick that she lapses into a coma.

Kumail notifies her parents, and the three of them, after an awkward start, sit in vigil for Emily waiting for her to wake up. When she wakes up, will she take Kumail back? Will Kumail ever come clean to his parents about his true love?

If this is your first rom-com, then the answer might not be obvious. Otherwise, I’m guessing that you know where this movie is going to end up.

So yes, it is a very traditional romantic comedy. Even so, it is a well executed one.

What lifts it even higher is the subject matter behind it. Here you have the struggles of an Americanized Pakistani man.

His family is very traditional and clearly has sacrificed much for him, for which he feels much obligation. However, clearly being immersed in American culture, it is difficult for him to reconcile himself to the traditional ways. He only pretends to pray. He dates white women. Given the overwhelming influence of American culture, I’d imagine that this is a common experience to children of immigrants that were raised immersed in this culture.

In these times where the followers of Islam are actively demonized, it’s refreshing to see a normalized portrait of what I’d imagine is a much more typical example of a Muslim family. Struggling to adjust to such a radically different culture must be a struggle, and I enjoyed seeing this struggle displayed on the screen.

Watching Kumail’s relationship slowly bloom with Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), was also well done. Initially suspicious of him, as they get to know him and understand the true depth of his feelings for Emily, their feelings begin to thaw. They also themselves have conflicts that they need to work out between them.

All, in all, it was a refreshing, funny, and ultimately heart warming movie showing a slice of America not often shown.

Not only that, it had the best 9/11 joke that I’ve ever heard (even though it’s over 15 years later, not a tremendously popular category, I must admit).

Wake Up Sheeple!

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Title: Brave New World

Rating: 4 Stars

Re-reading this book in the age of Trump is kind of a revelation.

At its core, it’s a screed against the engineered society. In Huxley’s future, after a particularly heinous war, the world governments turn away from the anarchic freedom and messiness of allowing each person to individually find his/her own way in the world.

Instead, the world leaders seek to remove passion, individualism, and unhappiness.

Babies are no longer born. They are incubated artificially. There are five specific castes (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon). As the various embryos move through their gestation, steps are taken to ensure that they have the right physical characteristics at birth for their caste. After they are born, the children are raised communally in a nursery. At night, they are given sleep hypnotherapy to reinforce conventional social beliefs.

Each caste is thus not only resigned to their roles, but would be actively unhappy if removed from it. The illiterate Epsilons are content doing their simple menial labor. The highest class Alphas are content with their responsibilities of running the world. The castes have no desire to interact or to rise above their caste. Everyone is placidly content with their situation.

To remove passion, sexuality is encouraged from the youngest age. There is no longer any concept of monogamy, thus no opportunities for jealousy. Most women are purposely born sterile.

For enjoyment, they have various forms of entertainment and easy access to soma, basically a mood leveling narcotic.

Into this world comes John Savage, a member of their society that was actually born (gasp!) and raised among a primitive tribe of people trapped inside their reservation. John is ‘rescued’ from the reservation and begins to live in the modern world. At first John is bewitched by it, but over time becomes disenchanted with the sterile, predictable, amoral nature of it.

In case you haven’t read this nearly ninety year old novel, spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for him.

So how did Huxley do? The jury’s still out since the novel is actually taking place in the year 2540, but…

We’re not worshiping Henry Ford yet, so I guess that’s good (who wants an anti-Semitic God?), but we could be on way to creating a Bezos deity.

We are slowly but surely losing our religion. This is especially true in Europe, but even in America, despite the attempts of such upright Christians such as Judge Roy Moore, as a country we are becoming less Christian and more generally, less religious.

We might not have soma, but we certainly have Prozac, which seems to fill much the same function. Instead of suffering from the human pangs of the full range of emotion, if you find the right doctor, you can live that monotone life that we all love.

Sports is certainly the 21st century replacement for religion. If you don’t think so, just go to any big time Division I college football game.

So, why am I not more worried about this particular potential sterile dystopian future?

Well…for this scenario to play out, there has to be some governmental level of respect for … science.

Even if, in this Brave New World, leaders have taken the science of social engineering to extreme ends, the basic point is that science is actually being done.

In the current time of Trump, there’s not much concern about science taking over our lives. The head of the EPA is a climate change denier. Another key scientific position was almost filled by someone whose primary qualification for the position was being an early Trump supporter. Scientific results are being actively censored. Scientists are quitting and resigning in droves. A tax bill is on the verge of passing despite the near unanimous consent of economists that it will precisely not do what the administration says that it will.

As long as Donald Trump is in power, we probably do not have to worry about being ruled over by an elite group of highly trained scientists.

So…yay?

The Problem Of Tarantino

In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

For those of you not familiar, that is Mark Twain’s explanatory note for Huckleberry Finn.

I was put in mind of this as I was reading IQ, a novel by Joe Ide. As a novel, I didn’t actually hate it. The basic conceit is that Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are re-imagined living in South Central Los Angeles. Both are African American. Isaiah Quintabe (known as IQ) has genius level intelligence and has developed a near photographic memory. However, his idolized older brother dies and it leaves him antisocial and remote from his neighborhood. IQ takes in a roommate named Dodson (suspiciously close to Watson), who is a low level drug dealer and all around hustler. Dodson, as you can imagine, is much more worldly and practical than IQ.

IQ and Dodson are hired to find the person who is trying to kill a famous rapper named Black the Knife, real name Calvin Wright.

As happens in such novels, IQ has brilliant insights that allow him to jump to conclusions. Dodson is his comic foil that is always bedazzled by his insights but occasionally contributes in his own way as well.

All of this is fairly benign and harmless. It’s not brilliant literature, but in its way, it’s suitably clever, the relationship between IQ and Dodson is humorous,  and the plot smoothly moves to its completely predictable finale.

So, what inspired the Mark Twain quote? Well, as I read it, I couldn’t but help to think about cultural appropriation.

Nearly all of the characters are African American. The characters are all stereotypical. Picture in your mind what a low level drug dealer would look and sound like, and you pretty much get Dodson. Picture a rich and spoiled up from the streets rapper, and you pretty much get Black the Knife. One of Cal’s bodyguards is the stereotypical large but not very bright man. The relatively few female characters are highly, overtly sexualized. They all (with the exception of the determinedly otherworldly IQ) speak in slang, sprinkling the “N-word” liberally throughout.

Joe Ide is Japanese American. Now he is from South Central Los Angeles, so maybe he knows exactly what he is speaking of as he writes it. I don’t know. I’m not from that area myself.

However, it’s disquieting. Black culture has been appropriated for hundreds of years. Non black people have been speaking for black people for nearly that long. Seriously, the phrase Jim Crow comes from an 1830’s minstrel show. The Amos ‘n’ Andy radio show was performed by white actors. Pat Boone got rich singing Little Richard songs. Quentin Tarantino has apparently decided that since his movies so often have black characters that he’s become some kind of honorary black person (leading to some really painful interviews where he’s trying to act black; check out the Cracked YouTube video for a fine example).

This got me to thinking about Mark Twain. He clearly thought that he’d nailed the character of the escaped slave Jim. In his explanatory note, he calls out that the dialect was carefully researched and constructed. He is clearly proud of his work. However, in the novel, Jim’s lack of education and ignorance is regularly made a target for humor.

I know that authors want total creative freedom and I’d like to respect that. Given the history of subjugation and appropriation of black culture, if you’re not a black writer and you’re writing a novel in which nearly all characters are black, and not only that, but are stereotypically black and are regularly using racial epithets that would be considered obscenely vile if uttered by a non black person, perhaps you should really think about treading carefully?

You Are Now Entering…

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Title: The Twilight Zone

Rating: 4 Stars

Theater Schmeater annually does a live reenactment of several Twilight Zone episodes. This was the first year that I checked it out.

I was interested to see if they would try to do a modern take of the episodes. For those of you old enough to remember, back in 1998 Gus Van Sant did a scene by scene faithful remake of the Hitchcock classic Psycho. What was interesting is that it was, in many ways, a different movie than the Hitchcock classic. For one thing, the acting was different. Thirty-five years of method acting has created a generation of actors that avoid the stylized acting more common in the earlier films.  Also, even though the scenes were nearly identical, both the actors and Van Sant made different enough choices that I found the film interesting to watch.

In this case, I watched some scenes from the original Twilight series and they seemed to be pretty faithful recreations. The only really big difference that I saw was the Rod Serling character himself. In a live setting, having the writer come in and comment upon his work like some kind of one man Greek chorus is at best a jarring experience. Knowing that, the actor playing Serling came in with a nonchalance and a gleam in his eye that signaled that he understood the ridiculousness of it.

Four episodes were shown. They were:

The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine

This was a pretty straightforward retelling of  Sunset Boulevard. An actress, once famous, now long forgotten, spends her time in a room in her mansion watching her old films. Her friends try to draw her out and even potentially get her a part in a new movie, but since the part is not the romantic lead, she refuses to even entertain the notion.

In another bid to draw her back into reality, her friends bring to her one of her former romantic leads. Initially she’s excited but then becomes horrified at how poorly he has aged.

Finally, through sheer determination and some Twilight Zone magic, she manages to somehow will herself back into the actual movies that she is screening. Her friends look on in horror as she calls out to them from the movie screen.

This clearly is about the fleeting nature of fame and how difficult it must be to live your life once your time has passed you by.

The After Hours

A woman comes to a department store to procure a gift. Mysteriously, she is sent up to the 9th floor, which only contains the one item that she’s looking to procure. Even more mysteriously, it turns out that there is no 9th floor at the store.

She ends up trapped in the store after hours. It’s there that the mannequins come to life and it’s there that she discovers that she’s also a mannequin. Apparently, mannequins are given one month off a year where they are allowed to live human lives.

She is late coming back and the other mannequins are upset with her. Eventually, she apologizes and obediently changes form back to a mannequin.

Originally aired in 1960, this is an interesting statement upon the unsettling effect that the rise of modern corporations have had. People were feeling (and still are) trapped in 9 to 5 jobs that were not physically challenging or dangerous but left them feeling unsatisfied and vaguely without purpose. Here, the mannequin only experiences life during the month that she’s not at work. At work, she is literally a piece of furniture.

Five Characters In Search Of An Exit

In a cylindrical prison awakes an army major. Trapped with him (although they’ve been there apparently much longer) is a clown, a ballerina, a hobo, and a bagpiper.

The major is desperate to escape, but it seems impossible. The other characters have all attempted the same things that the major is attempting but have become long since resigned to their fates and are actually annoyed with the major’s persistence.

They know that they are not alone because periodically a gong sounds which nearly deafens them.

Finally, the major does concoct a plan which does allow him to successfully escape.

In the next scene, a person picks up an army doll who hands it to the person who is collecting toy donations. The person throws it back into the donation barrel and comments upon the fact that so far, only five toys have been collected. He then continues to ring his donation bell.

This obviously prefigures Toy Story by about fifty years. It touches upon the ideas that toys only experience joy if they are loved, and once discarded, are left desolate and without meaning.

From the theme as well as from the title, it’s clear that Serling was inspired by Satre. Existentialism posits that our lives are void without meaning, just like the toys portrayed here.

The Midnight Sun

Here it’s been reported that the Earth has changed its orbit and is now heading closer to the sun. As a result, the planet is getting unbearably hot. People are fleeing North, even though there really is no hope even there. Finally, there are two women left in sweltering New York. They have to fight off an intruder who just wants water. One woman collapses and the other then explodes in grief at the thought of being left alone.

Cut to the next scene. The woman in hysterics is actually suffering from a fever. In fact, Earth has changed its orbit, but it actually is moving further from the sun, dooming its inhabitants to a freezing death.

As the woman, still recovering from her fevered dream, remarks how refreshing it feels to be cool, the other woman, shivering uncontrollably, can barely respond.

Aired even before the climate debate change really started, this is a precursor to the changes that the planet will be going through over the next looming period of years. It’s also a statement on how the human mind, when faced with the most horrific circumstances, still tries to find an escape to peace.

All in all, it was a fun night out. I can only imagine fifty years from now, there will be another theater company somewhere re-staging Black Mirror episodes. It’ll be interesting how the British Prime Minister fucking a pig scene will be staged.

 

Policemen Committing Crimes Against Humanity


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Title: Ordinary Men

Rating: 4 Stars

When you read about WWII, it’s easy to become inured to the numbers. Six millions Jews killed during the holocaust. Nearly three million ethnic Poles were killed during the occupation. 3.5 million Soviet POWs were killed by the Nazis.

The numbers become so large that they lose meaning. The Nazi regime becomes some abstract notion of evil.

What is sometimes forgotten (or maybe laid aside?) is that all of these millions didn’t kill themselves. There wasn’t some large machine grinding out murder. There were men that executed these murders. Especially in the early days, before the gas chambers, these murders were extremely personal.

This book moves away from the notion of abstract evil and concentrates upon one group of men. By and large, they were not Nazi careerists. They were mostly older men, so they had not grown up under Nazi ideology. They were businessmen and tradesmen. They were, in fact, ordinary men, mostly from Hamburg.

They joined a police battalion. Some of them did it to serve the war effort (they were too old, at the time, to serve in the army). Some were interested in becoming policemen as a career.

They were sent to Poland. There, ultimately, the vast majority of them ended up committing atrocities, including shooting Jewish women and children, shooting Poles,  forcing Jews onto trains whose destination were extermination camps, and hunting out escapees in forests, calling these exercises ‘Jew Hunts’.

Make no mistake. This was personal murder. Especially at the first site, each policeman was paired up with a Jew. They then would walk in tandem to a specific site. The policeman would then take his gun, point his bayonet at a certain point of the Jew’s neck (helpfully previously pointed out by the unit’s physician, if you can believe that), and pull the trigger. If you pointed too high (which happened), the victim’s skull and brains would splatter all of the policeman. The policeman would then go back to the truck and wait to be paired up with the next victim. This went on until nightfall.

Why? That really is the unanswerable question. Why did they do it? Was it something specifically German or to that time? Or is there some larger, more universal reason common to humanity?

There are the usual reasons.

One is that they were just following orders. However, the commander of the police, when announcing the initial order to kill, wept while doing so and explicitly excused any man that wasn’t willing. Several men did step up and opted out with no apparent punishment. Later, as the horror of what the men were doing started seeping in, more and more men began to stop. They would just hang out by the trucks or wander off to the woods. Other policemen would intentionally fire and miss or would intentionally jam their guns.  Again, there were no ramifications to the policeman that stopped participating. In fact, from a scholarly point of view, there’s no evidence in Nazi Germany of anyone actually being punished for refusing to commit atrocities.

Another possible reason is that the Germans just had a long term base hatred of Jews. However, there were times when Germans showed compassion towards Jews. Some of the Jews were actually recognized by the policemen (some of whom were from Hamburg). They were treated in a much more humane manner.

There is the camaraderie of the police. The Jews were going to get murdered, so if one policeman didn’t do his job, that meant that some other policeman was going to have to do it instead. The policemen were a unit, so there was loyalty to the unit. However, again think about what they were being asked to do. They were pointing a gun at a helpless woman or child and pulling the trigger. You would do that so you wouldn’t look weak in front of your unit?

Browning ties it back to the Zimbardo prison experiment and to the Milgram experiments. These are both famous experiments about how casually callous people can become to other people. With Zimbardo, men were randomly separated into guards and prisoners. Within days, the guards were effectively torturing and subjugating the prisoners until Zimbardo called the experiment off early. With Milgram, subjects would knowingly give what they thought were fatal shocks to test subjects, despite the test subjects (actors all) screaming in pain, continuing even when the actors lapsed into silence.

I honestly don’t buy into the argument that this was something unique to the German people or to the Nazi time. Think about the Khmer Rouge killing off one to three million people (out of a population of eight million). Think of the 800,000 people killed in Rwanda. On a much lesser scale but much closer to home, think about My Lai or even Abu Ghraib.

This is something that can happen anytime and anywhere. If the times comes for me, how will I respond? Everyone likes to think of themselves as principled and moral, but history would seem to say otherwise.

I can only hope that I will never be placed in such a position, but if I do, I can only hope that I will see the moral truth of the situation, make the right decision, and be willing to bear the consequences regardless.

However, reading a book like this and seeing all of these ordinary men commit overt crimes against humanity, it does leave me with a unsettling, gnawing doubt.

Justice Unrequited

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Title: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Rating: 5 Stars

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is consumed with grief, rage, and guilt over the violent rape and murder of her daughter some seven months ago. Infuriated that the police are apparently making no progress, she rents three billboards near the town goading the local chief of police (Woody Harrelson) to spur him into action. The police chief, Willoughby, is embarrassed by the signs and is frustrated over his lack of progress. On top of that, he’s dying of cancer, a fact of which Mildred is well aware but posts the signs anyway. His deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is racist, homophobic, and not very bright. He is infuriated that Mildred is defying the chief’s authority by posting the signs.

The plot unfolds from that starting point. Since it is a new release, it wouldn’t be fair to spoil the plot further.

This was just a well crafted film. The acting was excellent. McDormand, stripped of all glamour, is an open wound of pain. Harrelson portrays an well meaning, earnest man trying to do the right thing but is running out of time. Rockwell is a dim, raging brute that is cowed by his mother. All of the other actors also did fine work in their smaller roles.

In all of their portrayals there is an undercurrent of dark humor. Mildred, despite being lost in grief, has a ruthless rapier wit. She effortlessly destroys a priest that tries to pass judgment on her. Willoughby is grimly resigned to his fate and looks for moments of light in his remaining days. Dixon’s dim naivete is a nice counterpoint to his extreme violence (eg his acts of “persons of color torture”).

Throughout the entire film, the script walks a fine line between bathos and pathos, and it does so with perfect balance.

The movie ends with no resolution. Perhaps Mildred and Dixon will grow, learn, and possibly even heal from this experience, but that is certainly no foregone conclusion.

Perhaps they’ll choose violence that will not resolve anything. Perhaps they’ll come to better terms with their grief and pain. Ultimately, the film leaves that decision to the viewer.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Many years ago, when I was married to pretty high ranking Boeing executive, we received an invitation from her boss to go to dinner.  This is a story from that night…

Her boss invites his entire team. However, the dinner is not at his house.  The dinner is at Norcliffe, at the Highlands.  That’s it.  There is no address.

There are directions.  It’s next to a golf course, so I assume that it’s the country club restaurant at the golf course.  I try to google it and I see no mention of it.  Hmmm…what kind of restaurant doesn’t have a web site or even a review?

All in all, it’s all very mysterious. We get there.  It’s located in pretty far North Seattle.  There’s a guard that has to let us in.  I’m assuming that this is the guard for the country club.  He takes down my license plate and then lets us go through.

We end up descending on a very narrow barely two lane road.  It immediately becomes obvious that this has nothing to do with any golf course.  The Highlands is a private, very private, gated community catering to only the top 1/2 of the top 1/2 of the top 1 percent.

Although it’s dark, as we go down the road, we pass houses that are mansions unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Between the two of us, we make several hundred thousand dollars.  We live in a nice house.  We’ve been to houses of friends and co-workers that are even nicer than ours.  We’ve been to homes of millionaires.

However, these houses are on a completely different scale.  This is like some top secret society that I’d vaguely heard about but have never really understood before.  The homes of people who make more in a week than we make in a year.

Norcliffe (and yes, that is literally its address, there is no other, no house number, no street, just Norcliffe) is at the very end of the drive.  We drive for close to 10 minutes to get there.

The house has a separate building, just for parking.  It doubles as a full-sized basketball court. We park the car and then take a little nature path to the front door, complete with waterfalls.  It resembles nothing more than a large Italian-style villa more at home on Lake Como than Lake Washington.

We walk in.  The first thing we notice are the hats.  In one room, there are literally thousands of hats, arranged by color and style.  There are red hats, blue hats, hats from the 20’s, hats from the 40’s, men hats, and women hats.  There are sailor hats, duck hats, flapper hats, and peacock hats.

The owner of the house explains that she’s going to run a charity auction in support of a foundation supporting foster children.  Apparently, there’s a tea party where people choose the hat that they want to wear and then participate in some kind of silent auction in support of the charity.  It’s not at all totally clear to me.

What does become clear is that the couple that lives there are collectors.  Pathological collectors of random stuff.  Next to the front door is a collection of walking sticks.  Probably a couple of hundred of them of various shapes and sizes.  Some of them have the head of a dog on the handle.  One opens up to expose a compass (you never know when you get so lost with your walking stick that you might need a compass to find your way).

We go into a library and find another collection.  This is a collection of baseball paraphernalia.  Among many other things:

  • There is Babe Ruth’s 1917 contract with the Boston Red Sox
  • There is the 1973 Oakland A’s World Series championship trophy (not a replica, the actual fucking World Series trophy)
  • There is Pete Rose’s jersey the night that he broke Ty Cobb’s all time hit record
  • Speaking of the Georgia Peach, there is Ty Cobb’s bat
  • There is Lou Gehrig’s jersey
  • Cap Anson’s baseball card (he was a turn of the century first baseman).

And so much more.

It’s things that you’d expect to only see at Cooperstown.  A whole room of it.  Hundreds of items.

We go into another room.  There is a collection of paintings.  There is a painting by Thomas Moran.  There is a painting by Albert Bierstadt.  These are both famous American landscape artists.  There is a Claude Monet.  There is a real Tiffany lamp.

The owner of the house strolls in.  He introduces himself as Chris Larsen.  It all becomes much clearer.  He was something like employee number four at Microsoft.  He is one of the minority owners of the Mariners.  He might not be a billionaire but definitely in the centi-millionaire department.

He asked if we had any questions.  Someone asked how he amassed such a large collection of baseball paraphernalia.  Being an owner of the Mariners as well as with the extensive collection, we’d assumed that he’d wax poetic on how important baseball was to him growing up and that he’d wanted to collect ever since he was a kid and that this was a product of many years of work.

However, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said that he’d heard that some auction was putting a number of things up for sale and that he bought the whole lot.

End of story. All in all, he seemed bored with it.  You just got the idea that he has this whole shitload of money, and not sure what to do with it, basically just goes out looking for semi-random things to spend it on.

That’s how the house looks.  The house is jam-pack full of paintings, statues and other things collectible, but you get no sense of any warmth or passion or anything like that from the house.  It’s just a large, beautiful house packed with beautiful things.  No sense of life at all.

I stood there wondering to myself, why would anyone want to live like this?  Is he trapped by his own financial success?

We ended up eating dinner there, using Tiffany silverware.  The food is nice but is all banquet style (aka no choice at all in the manner). There was some kind of pumpkin squash soup.  There was some kind of frou-frou salad.  The main course was some kind of pork entree, followed by a selection of cheeses and then chocolate mousse.  It was a good meal but I really like to be able to choose my own food.

During dinner, the truth of how this came about comes out.  My ex’s boss is head of Human Resources for all of Boeing Commercial.  He serves on the board of the Woodland Park Zoo.  He attended some auction to bring in money to support the zoo.  One of the prizes was dinner for 20 at this house.  He bid and he won it.  He didn’t say how much it cost him, but his wife did comment that his entire family (he has five kids) could have flown to China and back on what he bid.  So, you can only imagine how much this night cost him.

All in all, an interesting night.  As we left, I once again thought to myself how I would never want to live like that.  At what point do you acquire so much money that you essentially become a prisoner to it?  Can you avoid that fate?

I still flash back to when I first graduated out of college.  I joined up at Boeing after having lived a lower-middle-class life in Rat City and then later in Tacoma while going to school.  I literally had no idea how I was going to spend my first paychecks.  I was making something like $24K a year and I have never felt as rich as I did during those first couple of years.

At what point will people / society realize that, once you have enough money for food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, and retirement, that money really doesn’t make you happier and in fact, can make you miserable?

As we left the house that night, I flashed back to an issue of Time magazine that focused on happiness.  There was a series of articles in it.  One was about what can only be described as a slightly mad sociologist who’d figured out how to quantify happiness.  Seriously.

He would ask people a set of questions and then would generate a number that represented their happiness.  Bizarre.

He then went literally around the world to all kinds of different countries, peoples, and occupations and asked them the same set of questions.  He then was able to produce what was essentially a world-wide gauge of happiness.

I don’t remember too much from it but the one statistic that I do remember was that American centi-millionaires and Bangladeshi goat herders ended up with the exact same happiness score. That statistic struck me as hilarious.

As I left, the truth of that statistic struck home to me.  Perhaps, maybe the Bangladeshi goat herder was actually under-scored?

The Hitman, Not The Morphine Addict

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Title: The Winter of Frankie Machine

Rating: 4 Stars

What are the odds that I’d read two completely different books starring a protagonist named Frankie Machine almost exactly a year apart?

Well, this is a completely different Frankie Machine than the morphine addict in The Man With The Golden Arm.

This Frankie Machine is a gentlemen of fairly advanced age that is constantly working. He has about three different jobs that he juggles as he balances the needs of his ex-wife, his girlfriend, and his daughter that was just accepted into medical school.

Everything seems fine until someone tries to kill him. It turns out that he is actually a kind of retired mafia hit man. As he delves into his past trying to figure out who wants him dead, he is also on the run trying to stay alive. That is the twin plots at work here.

There’s nothing tremendously complex here. This is the same author that wrote The Power Of The Dog. This was basically another crime novel, this time centered around the Mexican drug cartel. The Power Of The Dog tells an expansive story encompassing multiple decades and over a dozen main characters. It was heavily researched and at times, almost read like a documentary of the Mexican drug trade and their battles with the DEA.

The Winter of Frankie Machine is a much more straightforward mafia crime genre novel.

You have the requisite characters. You have the mafia underbosses chaffing under the orders of their superiors. You have the youngblood up and comers who feel that their time has come. You have dissolute world weary bookies and strippers.

Since this is the twenty-first century, they are all self-aware caricatures that reference lines from Goodfellas, The Godfather, and The Sopranos. They are all under constant surveillance and their power is a mere figment of what it once was. They’re trying to live a lie that was never the truth.

Into this mix of seedy mafia characters enters Frankie Machine. He’s over sixty, still in good shape, and appreciates the finer things in life. He also is apparently John McClane, because absolutely nothing can kill him. He might as well be a Marvel superhero. From a purely dramatic perspective, really nothing unpredictable happens here.

So, why the four stars? Well, for what it is, it’s very well executed. I found it engaging and amusing. The two plots of his past and his present weave together in a well crafted manner. It was executed well and was entertaining to read.

Destroying the World for Why Exactly?

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Title: Oryx and Crake

Rating: 3 Stars

This is set in some not too distant future. A man named Snowman might be the last person alive on Earth. The world is slowly turning back to wildness. There are dangerous genetically engineered animals running about. There is a primitive human-like tribe that looks upon Snowman as a teacher.

Snowman is running low on supplies and decides to make a potentially perilous trip back to the compound that he was previously living at (before the apocalypse) to retrieve supplies. Simultaneously, the story is told of how the world has gotten to this point.

The situation was that the world was dominated by competing corporations specializing in genetics. These corporations were trying to invent new ways, through genetics, to improve the human condition. This includes finding cures for diseases and genetically breeding animals for special purposes (eg pigoons, which were pigs growing organs that could be transplanted to humans).

The competition was so cutthroat that the corporations started building vaccines for diseases that they themselves invented.  They would then introduce the viruses into the human population and then make a huge profit selling the vaccines.

The employees at these corporations lived in luxurious, gated, guarded compounds. Those not lucky enough to work for one of them were fated to live in dangerous, wild, squalid areas known as the pleeblands.

Into this world is introduced two young boys, Jimmy and Glenn. They grow up together  in one of the gated communities. Glenn is a scientific genius while Jimmy has less socially valuable word skills.

They grow up and ultimately Glenn (now known as Crake) is heading up a large genetics program with dual purposes. One is to develop a pleasure inducing pill while the other is to create a new generation of humans that are optimally designed to avoid the major problems that Crake sees when he looks at the human race.

From there we learn how a virus was globally disseminated, resulting in the death of all humanity (except for Jimmy, who is the aforementioned Snowman, who had been vaccinated). Snowman takes charge of the remaining new humans (now called Crakens) and leads them to a peaceful park, from which the story started from.

To avoid spoilers, I won’t share too much more. The novel was well executed but it just didn’t really move me or inspire me.

Even in 2003 (when it was written), I don’t think that it was saying anything particularly new. Clearly humans playing God is a well trod trope. The pleeblands scenes were probably the most interesting to me, and we barely even saw a glimpse of that (seemed very Bladerunner-y). The corporate compounds seemed uninteresting and sterile (and again derivative). There’s also global warming kind of things going on in the background. There is also a social unrest theme running through it (as Jimmy’s mom and Glenn’s dad both appear to be rebelling against the corporations). It just kind of seemed to be a mish mash of possible end-of-the-world themes.

I’m not sure if this is Atwood’s point or not, but for all of the possible ways that the world could have ended, it all revolves around the love life of basically three people. Is she making the point that within all of these larger social ills that the spark that will light the conflagration will actually be the willful act of one person?

The Crakens are really not interesting at all. I’m guessing that that is the point. They are bred to be compliant and passionless. It is interesting that, by the end of the novel, they are showing early signs of developing a possible proto-religion. Since this was supposedly specifically bred out of them, is Atwood making the point that such beliefs are simply a fundamental aspect of living a human life?

Hence three stars. It was well written and interesting. It just was too scattershot to really engage me and, by the end, I wasn’t sure what the overarching message of the novel was.