Thursday, September 28, 2006

Hollywoodland (movie review) 2006

About a week ago, Benny asked me about my movie reviews in general and “Hollywoodland” in particular.  I’ve never had a cat ask me to review a movie, so how could I resist?   I hadn’t seen the movie since it’s still in the theaters, but as it happened my wife decided that we should go to our first movie in a theater in almost a year (my birthday).  

Every now and then, Hollywood makes movies for adults and that almost always results in the creative folks trying to get artsy.  This often means that a couple things happen.  If it’s a murder mystery of any kind, the director goes all film noir, an accidental art form that sprung from the B movie in the 40’s and 50’s.  The other favorite bit is to homage Kurosawa’s masterful film about the interrelationship of self-interest and relativism, “Rashomon”.   This appears to have started in 1964 with Martin Ritt’s “The Outrage” which literally westernized Kurosawa’s original by giving the characters cowboy boots and spurs.  Paul Newman played a Mexican bandit, William Shatner played a preacher, Edward G. Robinson played a con-man, and Claire Bloom played the woman who is not what she appears to be.   The result was like there’d been some terrible accident in the transporter room of the Enterprise.  

In any case, Hollywoodland gives the real life mystery of the apparent 1959 suicide of George Reeves, best known as the tv Superman, the full noir goes Rashomon treatment.   The look of LA in the movie is straight out of Polanski’s “Chinatown”, maybe the best noir take on Hollywood/LA post-1956. Perhaps they got a deal on the same brown lens filters. Director Allen Coulter’s movie consists of two crosscut narratives.  The first follows down on his luck private investigator Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) as he investigates Reeves’s death in 1959.  This half of the movie is filled with cheap motels, starkly decorated housing developments, and diners.  At one point, an image of an aging Charles Atlas weightlifter type appears in the courtyard of an apartment house then suddenly disappears from the scene. The second tells Reeve’s (Ben Affleck)story from just before he got the Superman role till his death.  This half is set in movie Hollywood with nicer houses, restaurants, and film sets.  For some reason, Coulter chose to give both halves of the movie the same look which gives the narrative a possibly intentionally confused feel.

I’m all for complex narrative in detective movies.  The “Usual Suspects” comes to mind as a good example.  “Identity” is one where they got too caught up in the gimmick to tell the story.  “Hollywoodland” falls between the two.  The story of George Reeves, ambitious but struggling actor, who gets caught both in the role of Superman and in a long affair with Toni Mannix a studio executive’s wife (Diane Lane) is genuinely touching.  Affleck, whose own career seemed to be swallowed by his run as Jennifer Lopez’s fiancé, brings a real sensitivity to the role that “having lived it” seems to have made possible.  Affleck, the real life actor, is trying to make the turn from boyish leading man, smart aleck types (Clerks, Good Will Hunting, Pearl Harbor) to weightier roles after some disastrous role choices in Gigli, Jersey Girl, Surviving Christmas.  For Hollywoodland, he manages a “trapped” look that conveys the essence of Reeves’s personal dilemma—Was he an actual talent trapped in a limiting role or was he a mediocrity who used his longing for more serious roles as a crutch to keep him from facing his own failure?

Affleck creates just enough doubt about this through two scenes.  In the first,  he is confronted by a boy who wants him to prove that he’s Superman in the most direct fashion imaginable. Affleck’s Reeves combines a kind of open-eyed terror while still staying in his Superman character for his audience.  In the second, he is out to dinner with Mannix, her husband (Bob Hoskins), and his mistress as he catches the tensions between trying to curry favor with the man whose wife he is sleeping with and his disgust with the Hoskins character’s dismissive treatment of both the women in his life.  The result is a restrained but very deft portrait of Reeves as a kind of tragic clown, a naturally charming man who became all too aware of the fact that he’d painted his life into a corner.

Diane Lane’s, Tony Mannix, may be even more deftly drawn.  Like Affleck, Lane’s own career is at a crossroads.  In Lane’s case, she’s hit the Jane Fonda line.  If you remember, Fonda’s career started with glamour and ingénue roles and then began to shift after “Klute” to more dramatic material where she actually had to act to get attention.  Somwhere after Electric Horseman, Fonda had to get box office as an “Actress” only and had a difficult time with the transition as she struggled in movies like The Morning After (a fictionalized Frances Farmer) and Old Gringo (a fictionalized Pancho Villa and Ambrose Bierce).  Fonda didn’t act for several years then appeared in the disastrously overwrought Monster in Law with who else but Jennifer Lopez.  

Segue:  Appearing in movies with Jennifer Lopez who’s not necessarily a bad actress (Selena,  Out of Sight) has to be one of the more dangerous career moves.  Some of her co-stars survive, but has anyone’s career actually been enhanced after being in a movie with her?  In fact, she was even in “Jack” (1995) with Robin Williams and Diane Lane at one point and Lane essentially disappeared until “Walk on the Moon” (1998).  

The Ralph Macchio effect is the exact opposite of the Jennifer Lopez.  The guy was in generally lightweight stuff like the Karate Kid yet anyone he got near, Pat Morita, Elizabeth Shue, (not sure I can count Hillary Swank since they weren’t in the same installment of the Karate Kid), Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinnie), and Joe Pesci all seemed to have their careers take off after they were in one of his movies.   End segue

When Lane’s Mannix offhandedly tells Reeves that she has about eight years left before her looks give out, she gives the scene a poignancy by pairing her matter of fact vocal delivery with a facial expression that seems to be staring into a far off mirror.  Lane brings  just enough ambiguity to the question of whether Mannix actually supports Reeves’s ambitions or subtly thwarting them so she can keep him in her life as her boy toy to give Hollywoodland’s plot a pulse.  

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the movie is that the screenwriters’ leave both the question of Reeves’s actual talent and Mannix’s darker side just ambiguous enough.  A home movie snippet of Reeves brings this home where you glimpse just how hard Reeves worked to be “Superman” while still pretending that he couldn’t or shouldn’t take it seriously.

One of the harder parts for me in watching “Hollywoodland” is seeing how well Lane pulled off the “older woman” role.  I was a young adult when she first appeared in a “Little Romance” so it’s a little painful to see her be a credible Tony Mannix circa 1959.  The real Mannix was 52 when Reeves dropped her for Lenore Lemmon.  

Bob Hoskins is not quite as good in the gruff, gangsterish role of Eddie Mannix.  Hoskins, you may remember played a Hollywood detective in the mock noir “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”.  Even in his limited role, he seems to be parodying his own parody from twenty years ago.  Still, even second-rate Bob Hoskins is better than whoever the current version of George Reeves’s happens to be best performances.  If you want to see Bob Hoskins act in a recent movie, I’d say see “Mrs. Henderson Presents”, but he remains one of these actors who knows how to grab the camera no matter who else is in the scene.  

My problems with “Hollywoodland” start with the Adrien Brody half of the movie. The makers crammed in every noir private eye cliché they could find at the scriptwriter Costco.  Brody’s fine in the role, but the script runs the familiar obstacle course of down on his luck detective, with the tough exterior, who gets to recall his childhood so you can understand why he can’t quite love anyone, though he really wants to be a better person, and something about that won’t let him let go of what he knows to be a dangerous case.  Had that not been enough, they then forced a subplot about Brody’s son having emotional difficulty with Superman’s suicide as a metaphor for Brody’s emotionally kryptonited attempts at family life.  Making matters worse, the Rashomon dons a cape part of the movie also gets shoehorned into the Brody half.  As too often happens, the film school types who mixed and matched this part of the script failed to notice that Kurosawa was making a point about storytelling in his original.  In Hollywoodland, the multiple scenario trick feels more like they just didn’t have the guts to stand by any particular theory of how Reeves really died. The Private Detective half of Hollywoodland reminds you that for all the self-conscious artsiness, it’s at heart a creatively timid bit of filmmaking.  

One irony is that Hollywoodland is the sort of movie that George Reeves would have loved to have been in himself.  It’s also a movie that likely gets Ben Affleck out of having to do sequels to “Daredevil” and promises Diane Lane an acting life on the other side of the Debra Winger/Jane Fonda line.  Of course, Lane and Affleck both have to promise not to make any more movies with Jennifer Lopez.  That said, I’d say that Affleck, Lane, and Brody all have better movies ahead than Hollywoodland, but I’d still recommend it as a DVD rental.

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Bent (movie review) 1997

Okay, I’m not the quickest person to review movies. I’m also a guy who has a tendency to review chick flicks when I do my occasional movie reviews.  So, here’s a review of a nine year old movie in which the most female cast member with a speaking role is Mick Jagger.  

Martin Sherman first wrote “Bent” as a play all the way back in 1979.  The Philadelphia born Sherman emigrated to London and the play itself was not only influential as drama, it catalyzed interest in the fact that the Nazi holocaust didn’t just focus on the Jews. After Bent opened on stage, plaques about gay persecution appeared in holocaust memorial sites and the symbol of the pink triangle (the Nazi emblem for its homosexual prisoners) became a symbol of modern gay political resistance. Richard Gere and Ian McKellen (who plays Uncle Freddie in the movie) both played Max in the London stage version to critical acclaim that furthered their stature as “serious” actors.  

Sherman, who happens to be both Jewish and gay, went on to write a one woman play “Rose”, with Olympia Dukakis,  about a Jewish woman who experiences the twentieth century in Europe, America, and Israel. Looking back, one of the most interesting things about the play is that it was written at an intriguing time in gay social history.  The play premeired right after Stonewall and gay liberation but just before AIDS.  

For various reasons, Bent was not made into a movie until 1997.   Sherman wrote the screenplay himself and chose his own director, Sean Matthias (who directed the BBC version of David Leavitt’s Lost Language of Cranes ).  This time, Clive Owen (for whom Mr. Pogblog has volunteered to be a love slave) takes on the role of Max, the bon vivant turned survivor.  

The movie itself has all the trappings of serious art project.  For one, they hired Phillip Glass to to do the score, also a variety of “names” notably Mick Jagger and Jude Law (who maybe wasn’t a name in 1997) signed on for minor roles.  The movie itself is built around a hinge.  The first third is a surreal, decadent, Felliniesque, view of Berlin art culture from just prior to and immediately after the Night of the Long Knives and the purge of Ernst Roehm from the Nazi Party.  (Roehm was a “socialist” national-socialist who also happened to be gay) The Berlin of this part of the movie looks still bombed out from World War 1.  The club is located in a warehouse that is equal parts rubble and champagne cocktails.  Max’s living quarters look like a cross between a French drawing room and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.”  This first part of the movie is all atmosphere and set design with very little dialogue or overt character development beyond the fact that Max, the scion of an industrialist family, recognizes that he must flee the country now that the Nazis have identified him as someone who “tricked” with one of Roehm’s lovers.  

The second section takes place on the train to Dachau and the atmosphere of the first section gives way to a stylized set as Max decides to become a survivor.

The third and final section hinges into a Godot-like Dachau. Matthias uses an old cement factory as his set, in which Max and his new companion, Lothaire Bluteau, face their psychological/exsistential plight as Didi and Estragon confronting the Holocaust.  

Matthias’s progression works very well as it catches the way Max’s character is gradually stipped bare from being a carefree individual who simply exists for sybaritic pleasure at one point saying the thing he misses most is cocaine to being an individual forced to face an intertwined choice between survival and identity.
Unfortunately though, as the set itself becomes more stark and symbolic, I found myself becoming more aware of the “stagey” quality of the production.  There were definitely points where I told myself “this must have been incredible in the theater”.  Without getting into the aesthetics of turning a play into a film as in should it document or should it reimagine the original, the spareness of the last two thirds of Bent both made it more poignant and challenging to watch in a bad way.  The stage is a great medium for the eloquence of minimalism.  Movies somehow beg for clutter, detail, richer textures, and constant motion and activity rather than dwell on overt symbols. I suspect Sherman may have been a little torn between preserving his staged vision and conceiving the movie as a fully independent artistic creation.

In view of Mr. Pogblog’s obsessive worship of Clive Owen, it’s painful for me to say this but Owen is excellent in the role of Max.  Sherman’s dialogue often consists of single repeated words or phrases rather than long speeches.  The movie’s success depends on the actor’s ability to imbue each repetition with separate meaning and nuance, both verbally and through at many points finding ways to hold still for the camera.  Owen never fails.  Bluteau is arguably even better in his role than Owen as the more stoic member of the pair who understands that life is about making a statement of identity as much as it is about mere survival.

Perhaps the most interesting scene in “Bent” is the one in which Owen and Bluteau find a way to make love despite the fact that their Nazi captors torture/punish them psychologically by forbidding the two to look at one another or touch.  The scene itself which already was in the play takes on an extra dimension now that we have had a generation of the AIDS crisis.  It’s a fascinating counterpoint to Tony Kushner’s scene in Angels in America when one of the protagonist has involuntary heterosexual sex with a female angel in the form of a wet dream intended to notify him of his role in the age of prophecy.  Angels is written fully cognizant of and very much about the impact and meaning of the epidemic, Bent’s “sex” scene is written almost as a prayer, the ultimate dramatization of sexual civil disobedience.  

I’ve looked at some interviews with Sherman post movie and it’s never mentioned, so I’m on tenuous ground here especially as someone who never saw the play.  I’d say the most fascinating aspect of the movie is that as I watched it, the movie isn’t really about Nazi oppression or even homosexuality at all.  For one, all the actors in the movie almost pointedly have British accents.  The Dachau of “Bent” isn’t very German and although the plot does revolve around Max’s finagling a yellow star for himself instead of a pink triangle, I didn’t find myself thinking about World War 2 much at all.  The movie instead, intended or not, comments on the relationship between moral survival versus mere physical survival.  It is ultimately about taking pride in who and how we love as the ultimate act of survival in a world that’s inherently both mad and cruel.  

I suppose it’s a measure of artistic worthiness.  Sherman’s script seems more contemporary in 2006 than it did in 1979.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Beta Point (Deaths in War > Deaths in 9/11)

Back when they were trying to design fusion reactors, the engineers used to talk about the beta point, the point at which the process actually produced more energy than it took to bring it off.  Although no one much talks about the possibility of fusion reactors anymore (partly due to Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion confusion from 1989 the public lost interest), the idea of the beta point has returned in the discussion of the world’s energy future.  First many experts point out that the end of the age of oil is not necessarily when the earth runs out of oil, it actually begins when it takes more than a barrel’s worth of energy to get a barrel of new oil out of the ground.  Many people don’t realize it, but that point is closer than most of us realize.  Second, critics of bio-diesel repeatedly point out that it currently takes something like a gallon of oil to make a gallon of bio-diesel.  Think about it, you have to power the machines that plow and harvest the fields, then you have to process the stuff somehow and get it somewhere.  Both of these “Beta points” remain very controversial in the meantime.  

Now there’s this intriguing policy beta point,  the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have now exceeded the number of people who died in 9/11, 2,973 deaths.   This does not include civilian contractors, journalists, or more significantly the number of Iraqis, foreign fighters, or Afghans who have died in the conflict. One might not want to count those who have actively participated in what they call the “resistance”, but the much larger number of dead Iraqis and Afghans includes thousands of children and civilians.  In fact, the vast majority of deaths in both places haven’t been military personnel or even terrorists.  It’s been individuals who were going to mosque, shopping at the market, applying for a job with the police, or even in at least one horrifying incident attending a wedding.  

The Yahoo article is quick to point out that it’s not unusual for the military reaction to an outrage to cost more lives than the original incident.  One thing most people don’t know is that the allies actually suffered more casualties in World War 2, largely due to Russian losses, than the Axis powers.  This is particularly frightening when one is reminded that close to 100,000 Japanese died in a single night of fire bombing at the end of the war (a much larger number than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  

The current cost of the Iraq war is officially 375 billion dollars btw.  Even in war one needs to ask the question “When does it stop being worth it?” and that assumes that it ever was.  At some point, even the most vociferous supporters of the war have acknowledged that the United States needs to draw down troops.  In the “optimistic” version, this happens when Iraqi security forces get more capable.  There are currently more US troops in Iraq than there were twelve months ago.  

So, here’s a somewhat intriguing question.  What’s the “beta point” for our Middle Eastern adventure?  While it’s hard to calculate dollars against say a “sense of security” or just the satisfaction of “getting rid of that tyrant Saddam”, will we have gotten 500 billion dollars of value out of the mission?   Btw, 375 billion is the “official” cost, we’ve paid far more than that when you ask the question what do we ordinarily get that we also haven’t been getting, e.g. security resources have gotten moved around in some fairly shifty ways.

It’s even more gruesome to compare the value of lives lost, American and non-American, against some more abstract goal, but if this was all somehow about 9/11 what’s the “beta point”?  We have quietly slipped past one of them. The administration hasn’t been anxious to mention it nor does the President keep a sign at his press conferences like the one that used to be outside McDonald’s.  

I know there aren’t necessarily straightforward answers, but this is what executives in all other fields have to do.  They make decisions and then have to find a way to measure whether or not that particular course of action was a net positive or a net loss.  If it’s the latter, you usually get fired though almost never tortured.  At some point though, the best you can do is what the classics folk call a “Pyrrhic Victory”.  

In the meantime, I invite anyone to share thoughts on what the beta point should be here.


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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Red Elephant Blue Elephant? (an experiment)

Please note, this is an experiment.  I’m trying to write a straight essay that I’d like to keep working on and improving.  I’d invite anyone who comes across this to make suggestions, etc. if you care to over the next week.  Of course, only if you care to.  I’ll then edit again and repost.  

American Reality: Red and Blue Shadows

My hometown, Sebastopol, California is so politically blue that our city council is mostly green. Our city limits sign welcomes visitors to a “Nuclear Free Zone.” The feed store in this one-time apple-farming town sells Birkenstocks. Every new vehicle here seems to be a Toyota Prius and each bears a bumper sticker: “Proud member of the Reality-based community.”

Two months ago, Virginia Senator George Allen, suddenly You-tubed his campaign into reverse by first calling his opponent’s American-born campaign worker “Macaca” then welcoming S.R. Sidarth and his video camera to America and the “real world.” In Breaks, Virginia the real world includes waffle houses filled with cigarette-smoking customers and pickup trucks come standard with gun racks and Confederate flags.

If both George Allen and my Merlot-swilling, hybrid-driving neighbors have a grasp of American reality, they must be like the fabled blind men and the elephant. Each claims first-hand knowledge of the same America, yet it sounds as if one is holding the tail and convinced that it’s a kind of rope for hanging enemies of “democracy,” and the other is feeling the front leg and insisting that it must be a tree and thus is a good place to sit with Shel Silverstein.

Red and Blue Realities

One sees the Bible and the Constitution as intertwined documents. The other believes the two should at a minimum keep separate bedrooms divided by the Bill of Rights.

One hails the groundbreaking for a new McDonald’s as civic development. The other cites the golden arches as super-sized symbol of moral decline.

One insists that operating a chainsaw is a significant rite of passage. The other protests by chaining himself to a tree.

One equates the Iraq War with the American Revolution and the Emancipation. The other sees the taking of the Phillipines and Joe McCarthy.

One labels undocumented workers an epidemic and screams for a “quarantine.” The other talks about the Statue of Liberty.

One insists that global warming is hype and that the only race issue left is “affirmative action.” The other insists that both the racial and the actual climate are the real WMD we need to address.

To quote an unnamed American intellectual , “Two pairs of matching bookends, different as night and day.”

The only place these two reality cousins converge culturally might be on Brokeback Mountain, but only if Jack and Ennis don’t apply for a marriage license.

Like S.R. Sidarth, the fable of the blind men and the elephant has East Indian origins, but John Godfrey Saxe’s poem was so American it was published in 1878 in Linton’s Poetry of America, an anthology that included Negro spirituals, our national anthem, Poe, Longfellow, Emerson, and Whitman. We don’t have much use for poetry anthologies today. A hundred and twenty five years of progress has culminated in instead.

With more than a century of perspective on the America of 1878, we see it now as a nation in the midst of enormous changes. Manifest destiny, the incorporation of millions of “emancipated” slaves into “free” society, industrialization, a massive wave of immigrants (some welcomed and some—like my Chinese ancestors—legally excluded), urbanization, the third Great Awakening, and continuing shifts in the role of women have profoundly transformed American social reality. So much of what was graspable about America in 1878 is barely recognizable in 2006.

In particular, late 19th century essayists insisted that the certainty and precision of science made an eventual social order based on consistency and logic possible. Social science, one of the driving forces behind the Progressive movement, justified itself with the promise that it could make America better simply by making it more rational. Belief in the rational suggested to many that democratic consensus on social issues was possible and even inevitable, a comforting notion a decade after the Civil War. Americans reading Saxe’s “The Blind Men and the Elephant” no doubt convinced themselves that they, unlike the Indostani men in the poem, were not blind and would, with the help of science, soon see the whole elephant.

Those who chronicled 19th Century America, from de Tocqueville to Twain to Henry Adams, knew otherwise. Before Einstein, Godel, and Heisenberg, they intuited that America was not the kind of culture to sit still for a portrait. They saw through the mismatch of American rhetoric and reality and identified a culture that often thrived on fertile self-contradiction. De Tocqueville’s Jacksonian America—celebrating the common man except for Indians and slaves, Huck Finn, and Adams’s Virgin and the Dynamo—caught the emergent world power better than any scientists.

The contradictions persist. Our national sport, baseball, makes its participants spend most of the game standing or sitting. Descendants of slaves created our celebrated art form, “jazz” by bringing “freedom” to the slavemasters’ musical instruments. We simultaneously celebrate equality and competition. As a result we too often confuse wealth with wisdom. We link individualism with patriotism as if unaware of possible paradox. We eschew royalty, but recognize the poor white Elvis as “the king” and our most famous Duke and Count were black musicians. Our most influential painter, Jackson Pollock, stopped using a paint brush. TV talk show host, Oprah, tells us what to read. Saddest of all, we still pair optimistic talk of personal freedom and open-ended wealth with often shocking acceptance of economic and social injustice.

With the benefit of 20th century science, we should by now understand that the real America remains impenetrable and ungraspable—a moving target. When it comes to seeing ourselves, we are a nation of the blind, which may explain why Ray Charles recorded the definitive version of “America the Beautiful.” In that spirit, we are a nation held together by its own paradoxes, its multiple realities.

The reality is this. The people of Breaks, Virginia, and Sebastopol, California, are unquestionably real Americans.

Looking at the Saxe version of the fable with modern eyes, I tell myself that when it comes to seeing the entire elephant, we are all hobgoblinned by consistency. The poem reminds me that so many disparate and seemingly incompatible elephant parts—trunk, tusk, tail, and torso— conspire to combine into a single organism. Depending on your perspective, the elephant is either a marvel of evolution or the product of God’s peculiar genius. It violates all notions of efficient design yet it has survived and flourished for thousands of years.

In fact, the animal now controls all three branches of our Federal Government. I couldn’t ignore that obvious a symbol could I? Yet, is there any better proof of America’s constantly shifting self-contradictory nature than the fact that Earl Warren was the Republican governor of California just a generation before Ronald Reagan? Let’s pretend though that our elephant happens to be non-partisan, perhaps because of California Representative Pombo and the Endangered Species Act.

The last lines of Saxe’s poem:

“…. each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!”

America has long taken pride in its willingness to accommodate diverse cultures and viewpoints. The seeming cultural contradiction of the waffle house and the organic market should simply remind us that we are a creature of wildly different parts who thus far has found ways to move forward regardless.

In 1987, I bicycled from Los Angeles to New York to experience the elephant myself. During the six-week trip, I stayed with Lakers-jacket-clad Navajos in New Mexico, went to a Jewish wedding in West Los Angeles, attended service at the Church of Christ in Nashville, slept in a homeless shelter in D.C., was offered pulled pork by the overalled proprietor of a tin-walled shack in Tennessee, ate Eggs Benedict in Montclair with a Salomon Brothers vice president, and talked with a Baptist mom in Oklahoma who explained why she didn’t believe in dancing while her musically-talented ten-year-old listened to rap music on the doorstep. All these people had separate notions of the “real America.” At the same time, each welcomed me and thrilled to the fact that we were somehow different yet joined. I came home convinced that America was as improbably beautiful as any elephant.

That said, it might surprise some that there’s an Islamic version of the fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. This one ends,

“If there had been a candle in each one's hand, the difference would have gone out of their words. “

As my country threatens to pull apart in arguments about whether the rest of us need to choose tusk or tail, I’m lighting a candle and praying that we open our eyes in time to grasp this reality—there can be unity in diversity and paradox can at core be coherent. It might be the difference between learning to ride the elephant or being trampled by it.

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Monday, September 18, 2006

The Papacy and Willie Horton (Pope Benedict at Regensburg)

I’m all for nostalgia but generally draw the line at Buddy Holly records or watching silent movies on TMC (btw the silent version of Wizard of Oz and the Scarlet Letter are fascinating).  Despite Ridley Scott, I’m not all that big on the Crusades.  Last week, Pope Benedict XVI (it seems like Super Bowls and the Pope are the only events that get Roman numerals these days)  managed to draw the ire of the entire Moslem world with a theological speech in  Regensburg .   In his speech on the relationship between faith and reason, the Pope slipped off into a discussion of a book by Theodore Khoury and quoted from 14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus  (I think the emperor was billed under a different name for World Wrestling Federation, WWF, matches but I’m not sure) dialogues with an “educated” Persian ( they weren’t developing nuclear weapons back then).  

"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached".

Pope Benedict actually took care to point out that Khoury believed that Paleologus was well aware that an earlier Surrah in the Qu’ran quotes Mohammed as saying, “There is no compulsion in religion.”

There are apparently a couple translations of the Pope’s speech, one in which he used the term “Jihad” and the one referenced here in which he talks about spreading faith by force.  
Still, some things are clear.  The speech itself was not about Islam or a condemnation of Islam per se.  In fact, it was about one of Benedict’s favorite themes the interdependence of reason, faith, and ethics. For most of the speech, Benedict tied the Hellenic tradition of analysis to the evolution of the western church.  Along the way, he included references to Kant, Descartes, and Plato.  Most significant of all, Pope Benedict’s speech at Regensburg argued that the Greek notion of “logos” is inherent in “God” and that religious conversion by faith or force is simply wrong.  

This, however, doesn’t get the Pope entirely off the hook.  In his very long speech, he offers several examples of Christian “rationality”.  He offers only one example of the belief that God’s needs and demands may be beyond reason and that’s the quote from Paleologus about Islam.  If you remember Lee Atwater’s ingenious Willie Horton ads in the 1988 presidential campaign, they were simply about Michael Dukakis’s furlough policy for convicted criminals and had nothing to do with race.  It was just that Willie Horton, the literal poster child for the Republican criticism of the program, happened to be black.  

Unlike Atwater, who did seek forgiveness from God shortly before he died but not before he trained Karl Rove, I don’t think Pope Benedict did this on purpose and I imagine he did not choose his example to stir up “holy war” between Catholicism and Islam.  I do, however, think it’s worth bringing up some of the historical background behind Paleologus’s quote.

Constantinople (now Istanbul) was the seat of the Orthodox Christian Church and the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire.  One of the ironies of the Crusades, which involved a fair amount of forced conversion, is that the Byzantines had originally asked European Christendom for help in securing access to the Holy Land.  Over the long haul, western intervention ultimately weakened the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople itself.  By the Fourth Crusade, instead of going to the Holy Land, the European Crusaders were laying siege to and sacking the still Christian city of Constantinople.  In fact, the Fourth Crusade never got near Jerusalem (think about going to Iraq to get Bin Laden).  

Prior to the Fourth Crusade, tensions between the Eastern and Western Christian Church literally reached a breaking point.  The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church mutually excommunicated one another.  Three centuries later by 1395 and Paleologus’s time, Constantinople was vulnerable to Moslem takeover.  The long term effect of the Crusades was not the reconquest of the holy land by Christians, it was the Moslem breakout that included the retaking of Constantinople, the conversion/conquest of North Africa, Spain, and the Balkans.  

Pope Benedict should be well aware of this history because he has continued Pope John Paul’s work in trying to reconcile the 800 year old schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches.  In fact, some of history’s most extreme examples of conversion by force aren’t of Moslem invasion of Christian territory as they are of Christian on Christian conversion by force.  One of the more interesting anecdotes of the 4th Crusade’s sacking of Constantinople for instance was the burning by the Cruasders of a Mosque in Constantinople while Greek/Orthodox and Moslems tried to defend the building.  

I do not believe that any sane reaction to Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech would include burning churches or killing nuns, but I do actually understand why so much of the Moslem world took offense to his choice of example.  In fact, it’s almost more painful because it probably was inadvertent and thus even more revealing of how the Pope may see the world.  In some ways, it is far more surprising than a Danish cartoon, because this was an extremely thoughtful and thought through speech about the place of reason alongside faith in the modern world. While it was not an invitation to renewed Crusades or holy war against an unreasoning infidel, I do think it called for more than "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings."

fwiw, I do wonder what the Pope has to say about spreading "democracy" and "liberty" by force, war, invasion, and torture?


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Friday, September 15, 2006

The President's "Program" (the American Way of Torture)

I listened to the President’s press conference this morning as I drove to work and kept hearing about the word “program” and the need for “greater specificity” in Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. At one point, the President got into a strangely jovial exchange with a reporter who had labeled the administration’s proposed legislation “the eavesdropping program and the detainee issues” to which the president responded “We call it the terrorist surveillance program”. He almost seemed to be openly acknowledging his administration’s knack for euphemism and weirder yet he was laughing about it.

After several mentions of the need for greater specificity to protect our hardworking intelligence operatives, I started to notice that as much as he said that Article 3 was too vague for our interrogators to know when they were breaking the law, our President somehow never managed to quote from Article 3 of the Geneva convention.

(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria. To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; (b) taking of hostages; (c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment; (d) the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.
Wow, that is really vague. I can see how those MPs and private contractors at Abu Ghraib would now post Hamdan have to ask “Gee, is stacking a bunch of men naked into a human pyramid and violating their intimate body parts either “humiliating or degrading” treatment?

How about Guantamo where they were threatening to step on copies of the Qu’ran in front of the detainees? I’m sure the guards we’re wondering “Wow, that darned article 3 is sure vague. I can’t figure out whether or not this would be adverse distinction based on race or religion.”
Of course, the President’s “program” include items like waterboarding, heat and cold exposure, threatening families, etc. He’s really telling us that American Intelligence need to be able to “torture” their prisoners. Only, it wouldn’t be illegal torture. The only thing that’s vague about the very plain language of the Geneva convention is how the White House might be able to “twist” acts of torture into “tools”, “techniques”, and “program”.
While the President evidently found all of this funny, I was very sad. I was listening to the leader of the “free” world try to convince America that torture, ignoring the rights of detainees, and eavesdropping not on all terrorists but all Americans were somehow the only way to protect “liberty and democracy”.
At one point, a reporter asked “What if other countries decide that they too can reinterpret the Geneva convention as they see fit?”
The President answered, “Well I hope they adopt the same standards we adopt.”
Those standards appear to be well unless you literally do use a rack and thumbscrews, it’s technically not torture. Clearly, shouldn't American Intelligence have the same protections Adolph Eichmann wanted?

I guess this means the President is fine with American combatants being humiliated, degraded, and tortured. This may explain why no member of the Bush family is currently serving in Iraq. He might have added “Boy that Colin Powell sure seemed confused about this stuff.”
In the meantime, the President eloquently spoke about the passing of Ann Richards whom he defeated for governor thanks to Karl Rove’s whisper campaign about lesbians working for the populist governor and what that insinuated about her, “Well….a lot of people loved Ann Richards.”

He did graciously say that he’ll send a representative to the funeral, but explained that he hadn’t decided how far down the totem pole he’d look.
It occurs to me that if the President wants his program and believes in it so strongly, there’s only one way for him to convince me that he’s serious about it. I’d like him to personally use the “tools” he’s specifically trying to authorize through congress with a detainee. I’d like the moment turned into a photo op and I’d like it to run in every newspaper, on every tv news show, and on every blog with the caption, “The self-proclaimed defender of “civilization” demonstrates his respect for freedom and human rights.”
As he says, once other people in the world see democracy in action, it’s irresistible.

I also remember it says in some book somewhere, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

9/12 2006 (Five Years and a Day After)

I had made a point of not blogging on or around September 11. I figured much too much was already being said on the net. Besides that great miniseries “The Road to 9/11” was airing on ABC in place of Monday Night Football, now moved to ESPN. If you ask me, it was JFK’s fault. Think about this, Osama was born in 1957. The CIA under JFK had numerous opportunities to kill Osama as a four or five year old Saudi boy even before he became an Islamic fundamentalist. If the show happened to skip over the small matter of Osama being armed and financed by the CIA under Ronald Reagan, it’s obviously because 9/11 was all JFK’s fault since the 35th president was too busy having an affair with Marilyn Monroe to be concerned about the really bad things Osama would no doubt do in the future. If I were a serious blogger, I would have watched “The Road to 9/11” just so I could take notes and complain about it. I confess, I watched the Raiders get shutout by the Chargers on ESPN instead and then last night opted to make volleyball videotapes for my daughter to send out to colleges.

On 9/11 itself, I was on a business trip in Chicago and had literally flown in a few hours before the attacks. I called my office in Washington D.C. to check in and got an answering machine saying that no one would be in the rest of the day. Up to that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could have easily been flying into DC that day myself or that my office which overlooked the spot where John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan was really only a couple miles from the Pentagon.

Skip ahead five years later, I’m at work and have to drop something off to a business that had worked with our office before. I find the address next door, but I don’t find the actual address. I call information on my cell phone and they tell me the business isn’t listed at all. I call my office and our receptionist gets me the direct phone number. I dial and get the following answering machine message,

“If you are calling for “business X”, XXXX died suddenly last week and we are no longer in business. I can not help you either because I am still recovering from the accident. If you need xxxx, please contact another business that does what we do.”

It was sad and darkly funny at the same time. The person we did business with was simply no longer, the business no longer existed, and the only thing that remained was this answering phone message. I’m sure the place of business still stands, but the fact that I couldn’t find it between the two addresses that should have bracketed it just added to the effect.

I began multiplying this one suddenly no longer living person by the thousands in my head and suddenly on September 12, 2006 as much as I had intended to downplay 9/11, I found myself unexpectedly feeling rather than thinking about 9/11.

The disappearance of person X with whom I meant to do business yesterday logically has nothing to do with planes crashing into buildings five years ago. My gut tells me though that 9/11 and the wars that have ensued allegedly in response to 9/11 have ripped a hole in our world. As I listened to that answering machine message, I was running my fingers across the tiny part of the hole that begins with people deciding that mass killing is somehow sane and retaliation with more mass killing is even more sane.
The worst thing of all was that I felt that tiny hole for what amounted to thirty seconds and all I knew was that it’s only getting bigger not smaller. To me, that’s the real terror.


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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Reply from the NCVA Chair Sept 8 (NCVA volleyball)

(photo courtesy of Arctic Ferret who has nothing to do with Northern California Volleyball)

Three months and 2 days after the parent group met with the NCVA , I received a letter from Diane Mazzei.  The letter is officially a response to the letter sent by the group  to the NCVA on August 1. This appears to constitute the direct response of the NCVA to the parent group. I'll refrain from comment. The original parts of Ms. Mazzei's letter are in bold italic. I would mention that the parent group obtained her e-mail from someone who didn't know her from work and who had been using it. We do understand that some people may have issues with things they receive or send in the mail through their work.   

Dear _______, I hope all is well with you.  This letter contains two parts 1) A response to each of your questions-in bold italics (letter dated August 16, 2006) and 2) General Comments
  1. As you are aware, one of our recommendations was that parents should constitute at least 25% of the board. We were looking at the bylaws and noted that the only identified way to add a board member would be for a member of the current board to nominate someone thirty days (30) in advance of a board meeting.
We do not know when the next board meeting is scheduled to take place (Ms. Donaghy didn’t mention one in her most recent e-mail), so the group would like to nominate three potential board members, and we are specifically requesting your assistance in moving this along (assuming that you are willing to help us, if not please pass this request on to the other current board members). At least one member of the parent group may have been nominated already, but there doesn’t appear to be any way to confirm when such a nomination occurs.In any case, the group feels that it has three individuals who have a mix of experience and skills that should serve the region and more importantly our children well. We do understand that the current board has the minimum 5 members and no current member of the board appears to be a parent. We recognize that the board has not yet determined that it will designate seats for parents, but given the 30-day issue and the fact that we don’t know the board’s meeting schedule we hope you can work with us.

The NCVA Board of Directors values parent representation on the Board.  We have every intention of maintaining that standard.  All of the members of the NCVA Board of Directors are at-large members and do not represent one specific stakeholder group and/or division.  Our next Board meeting is in November.  Per your request, I will pass this on to other members of the Board to see if they are interested in nominating ____, ____, ______.  I can assure you that one of the next members to be added to the NCVA Board will be a parent of an active NCVA Jr. Player.  

  1. There does not appear to be a policy at this point about the publication of minutes, at least not in the bylaws. We’d like to request a copy of the minutes for any meetings from the last two years (2005 and 2006). If it is a matter of NCVA policy not to share its minutes with its constituents, could you please let us know that specifically?

You have received this information in previous correspondences, the current policy of the NCVA Board of Directors is not to post or share its minutes with its constituents.
Would it be possible for NCVA constituents to know when and where board meetings are held and what the public agenda items are in those meetings? If it’s the Region’s policy not to reveal the time and place of its meetings, please let us know that that’s the case.
Correct, the current policy of the NCVA Board of Directors is not to post its agendas.  This is on the agenda to discuss at the Board level in future meetings.

  1. We did get an e-mail from Ms. Donaghy mentioning that we should keep working with region staff around “operational” matters, while the board would respond to us when it came to matters requiring board authority. The group does have some concerns and seeks clarification around both the issues of background checks and the Region’s due process procedures described in the handbook. We’re not sure if these are “Board” matters or “Operational” matters.
Due process is at the Board level and is done by the NCVA corporate lawyer.

Background checks are governed by our National Governing Body (NGB) USA Volleyball, information and policy is set by them and forwardd to the NCVA and its Board for implementation.

In our first meeting with Region staff, Ms. Donaghy let us know, much to our relief, that there have been no problems with sex offenders or molestation issues in the region. We have received some information since our meetings that such issues may have come up in the fairly recent past within the region. As parents interested in protecting our children, we would like to get some clarification on this.

Certainly understandable
I recognize that this is delicate and involves multiple confidentiality issues, but are parents entitled to know how many incidents or even accusations there have been within the region over the last ten years? Is it the policy of the region not to release any information about these concerns? If so, how can parents take care in cases of individuals who might not be say, on Megan’s list, but who have been accused in some way that does not meet the criminal standard or even the NCVA’s standard, but possibly meets a parent’s standard for concern?
Again standards are set by USA Volleyball.  I believe Jon Lee has also answered this question for you.
If the NCVA office staff receives any written/signed complaints dealing with the above issues, against any NCVA coach, the office staff immediately researches the complaint and contacts the Club director of the coach.  We take these matters very seriously and follow protocol set by our NGB.  A question parents need to ask their Club directors:”have you received any complaints against any of your coaches regarding the topics listed above?”

I noticed from the handbook that the background check provisions were implemented in 2003-2004, some 8 years after the due process issues came up in the Midwestern case. Did the region have a background check policy in place prior to 2003?
The Regions have known for sometime that USA was working on a background policy; the Regions worked with them so we could all have a standard policy which became in affect (sic.) during the 2003-2004 season.
In any case, have there been any accusations made in the last 5 years against people associated with NCVA clubs? We do not need specifics, but given that we have no way to communicate directly with the board, we are asking the question in this way. If there have been, how often has the NCVA’s due process system been used since its inception?
If you are asking the question if the due process system was used for the topic of background checks the answer would be none.  If the adult person was reported that he was declined for membership with any region this “person” receives his due process directly with the screening company., “not the Regions or USA Volleyball.  Only if the screening company has made a mistake, will the adult be reinstated with the Region.  This would be reported both to the Region Commissioner and USA Volleyball.  
What we can and what we cannot disclose about individuals is governed by the screening company, approved by USA Volleyball, NCVA is following these guidelines.  

  • As a second matter, this was not in the Powerpoint presentation, but was discussed in our meeting with staff at USF prior to the board meetings. While there does seem to be a due process system in place, there is no defined system of how one makes a complaint that guarantees some level of protection for the accuser. It’s not even clear at this point to whom one may make a complaint to with some assurance of an investigation.
All concerns and complaints to go directly to the NCVA Commissioner (sic).  Is this your concern?  You can schedule a meeting, e-mail the information or mail a letter.  You can be assured this is all confidential.  The NCVA office staff has revised the NCVA Girls’ handbook to ensure that the procedure to file a complain is made clear.

We would like to know if this is a board matter or an item to be worked out with region staff. Finally, we’d like to work with the Region on this critical level of protection for our children. There was a recent case in Palo Alto that reminds us how difficult it can be and how much more prevalent the problem is than most imagine. As we said, we were glad to hear that the region has never had problems of this sort. Personally, it makes me feel a bit over-cautious to worry about this sort of thing, but as someone charged with the welfare of the thousands of children who play in NCVA, you most certainly understand our interest in having the most effective system possible in this area. In particular, I have regular dealings with the Department of Human Services in my county and would be happy to help the region develop reporting procedures based on the way other agencies handle them.
The NCVA Board and office staff shares your interest in ensuring a safe and protective environment for our youth.  We believe our system that we have in place is solid and has proven to be very effective throughout the years..
The NCVA office staff follows the policy sset by USA Volleyball our NGB regarding this matter.

  1. Finally, we would like to request a copy of the NCVA’s articles of incorporation. There remain some details of how the organization works that still remain unclear to us. For instance, now that we have the bylaws it appears to be a membership organization with the board members being the only members, but do the articles that create the organization make it a membership or non-membership organization? It’s hard for us to tell without the articles themselves.?

Our corporate lawyer based our bylaws on our articles of incorporation.  Our bylaws and articles of incorporation are all congruent.  Your statement is correct; the only members of the NCVA region are the members of the Board.
Obviously, the question of what the rights of NCVA constituents happen to be has been on the group’s collective mind. In particular, USAV appears to have policies calling for “democratically” run regions. The parent group is trying to get a clearer idea of what that means to the current board and staff. Since we don’t at this point have minutes or any say in nominating board members, we are left to request a written response on the precise “meaning” of the term within our region.

I can appreciate your question.  The NCVA strives to be a responsive and proactive entity.  Many of our existing policies are a direct result of input and comment from NCVA club coaches, directors, parents, and players.  This process does however take time to develop-but in the end the results are positive.  The Board evaluates NCVA policies on a continual basis-constantly striving for solid and sound practices.
Part II: General Comments

I understand that you believe that the Board is being dismissive of your PP presentation (Mr. ----‘s email dated August 23, 2006).  The board has been and will continue to discuss many of the items included in your Presentation, as promised.  Many of the topiocs are things we have made changes to and/or plan to address-the 2006-2007 Girls’ Handbook will reflect some of these changes.  Many of your questions have been answered several times either by the NCVA Commissioner, NGB, NCVA Girls’ Handbook, or by the NCVA Board.  We sincerely appreciate and share your desire to see the NCVA serve as many people as well as possible.  After much deliberation, the Board decided many of your concerns (Power Point) are vital issues for the entire region.  So rather than simply replyto you, ---., ---- we are preparing an open letter to the NCVA community-this letter should be considered another step towards improving what we consider to be your most important point: communication.

I have no problem with people disagreeing with NCVA established policies and practices; however, I ask that you respect them.  You have stated several times in your letters that you want to work with the Region in an non-adversarial fashion yet you ignored our established practice of contacing Board members via the NCVA office and contacted me at my place of work.  It is my hope that this will not happen again.  

In any case, we hope you are doing well. We look forward to working cooperatively with both the staff and the board (maybe some day very soon some members of the parent group can join you on the board). I’m sorry to make these requests in such formal sounding fashion, but we thought it might help clarify some questions that didn’t get touched on in the 30 minutes we had before the board back in June, before we did hear from NCVA.
I also look forward to working cooperatively with all of our constituents.Regards,Cc: Jon Lee, Donna Donaghy

Link to my other volleyball articles


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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Tortured Logic (President Reveals Secret Prisons program)

The President put American Security at risk today by revealing the existence of a secret network of prisons where high value detainees were taken to be tortured.  He tells us that this was worth it, because the program got a lot of useful information that helped us capture more secret detainees and thwart more possible attacks.  Of course, when the New York Times revealed the existence of the same program, it was called an act of treason that weakened America’s ability to defend itself.  Now that the White House has declassified  the information, it’s yet another example of how effective the Adminsitration has been.   Okay, I’m confused.

  1. Keeping it secret is okay until it’s to your benefit for it not to be a secret anymore?  Darned Hamdan decision.

  1. He doesn’t want to explain exactly how these people were tortured because then the terrorists would better figure out how to resist.

  1. The United States however doesn’t “torture” according to the President, it’s just that we’re proposing a bill that might allow us to try some of these people with “coerced” testimony and we don’t want to let anyone know how we got it.

  1. By the way, one of our concerns was that U.S. intelligence officers involved in this might be tried for “war crimes”.  We don’t however torture anyone because we are after all the United States.  We’re only worried because the darn U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to looking at what we’ve been doing this way.

  1. Besides, we’re done with our questioning now, which explains why Al Qaeda has all but disappeared and why we’ve caught Bin Laden.  

  1. We do have a new interrogation field manual that applies to armed service personnel.  This does not include CIA nor does it appear to include civilian contractors.  

To quote Olivier from “Marathon Man” “Is it safe yet?”

This  made me feel better .  The Pentagon issued this small correction story to explain why they decided to hold up the announcement of  his capture until after the mid-term election campaigns started in earnest.  

This is the same week I learned that Valerie Plame was in charge of a CIA unit looking for the proof of WMD in Iraq.  

I guess they really do expect me to look on waterboarding, threatening to kill detainee’s families, and not allowing them to be confronted with the evidence against them as  good news.  

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Friends with Money (movie review, Nicole Holofcener, Jennifer Aniston)

   Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” is the latest in a string of attempts to capture modern Los Angeles as filmed sociological monograph.  The Academy recently legitimated this sub-genre by awarding “Crash” the best picture Oscar, even though I personally felt that “Brokeback Mountain” was the stronger movie (they just don’t listen to me anymore!  Of course, they never did).  Other examples of the genre include Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon”, Steve Martin’s “L.A. Story”, Gurinder Chadha’s “What’s Cooking”, and Willard Carroll’s “Playing by Heart”.  Unlike “Crash”, Holofcener’s relatively brief (84 minutes) serio-comic examination of L.A. culture spends little time on race other than a funny moment when a downwardly mobile Olivia, played by Jennifer Aniston, tells her friend’s Hispanic housekeeper, “Hey guess what, I’m doing what you do now.  I’m a housekeeper too.”  

True to its title, Holofcener instead examines Los Angeles, a city whose aristocracy is determined by some mixture of money and celebrity without reference to its history or source, as it plays through a circle of female friends who all ask the question, “What the heck does any of this have to do with happiness?”

Holofcener who directed several episodes of “Sex and the City” and the excellent “Lovely and Amazing” has a way of getting the best out of her actresses and I suspect that played a role in getting an A-list female cast for this her third feature (the first was “Walking and Talking”).  Catherine Keener, who has been in all Holofcener’s movies plays the female half of a pair of married screenwriters who spend their work lives writing dialogue for a bickering soap-opera type couple while their own relationship slips into disinterest and then disdain.  In the meantime, Keener and her husband’s decision to remodel their house high rise style so they can view the ocean from their bedroom has upset the neighbors.

Academy Award winner Frances McDormand, (Fargo), appears as a successful fashion designer married to a man who everyone else thinks is in the closet.  In the meantime, she wanders Los Angeles in a constant state of simmering rage at offenses real and imagined and somehow has developed a fear of washing her own hair as she recognizes that her own success is built both on appearances and a kind of “game”.  

Joan Cusack, one of the best comic actresses in Hollywood, plays the wealthiest of the “Friends with Money” who is pulled into being someone she never intended to be by her husband’s and her own money.  Being the richest becomes both entrée to society and a barrier to true intimacy for her.

Finally, Jennifer Aniston, who is quite good at non-Rachel from Friends roles (The Good Girl, Rock Star, Office Space), gets the emotional center in this power ensemble of actresses (I almost said “heavyweight” but I saw Lovely and Amazing), as the friend who isn’t married, doesn’t have money, and who between and amidst joints and inappropriate boyfriends takes work as a housekeeper.  She also gets an odd subplot about a seventy five dollar jar of wrinkle cream.

I never did quite catch how Aniston fits into the circle of friends in that shes’s six to seven years younger than the others, but the script does an excellent job of illuminating the tensions and intricacies of group friendship.  As the friends meet, usually around food, a rough plot emerges around the question of whether or not Aniston has become too “different” from the group because her life circumstances do not include money and family.  As with other Holofcener movies though, the plot is not really the point.  

In “Lovely and Amazing”, Holofcener used the story of the mother getting liposuction as an opportunity to explore female self-image in a family that included an African-american adopted daughter, a very attractive actress (Emily Mortimer) who lacks the standard Hollywood romantic lead body, and an older sister whose husband is having an affair and is cast adrift emotionally.  In that movie Holofcener managed to comment effectively on the relationship between image, self-worth, and sense of self. One result was a very touching understanding that develops in the movie between Keener’s character and her adopted 10 year old African-American sister, Raven Goodwin (a great performance).  

While the performances and the set pieces in “Friends with Money” work well individually, I found myself frustrated by the seeming lack of development in any of the characters.  Instead, things simply happen.  Aniston’s salvation is pure happenstance.  McDormand and Keener’s characters move on but we never know exactly why other than they rather suddenly articulate their own frustrations.  Cusack’s character stays sort of blissfully untouched throughout. Fwiw, she’s great at playing characters who are unaware but emotionally centered at the same time.  If anything holds the movie together, it seems to be a commentary on the numbness that results from L.A.’s tendency to allow its wealthier citizens to remove themselves from the basics of life, cleaning, preparing food, spending time with children, and genuinely conversing.

“Friends with Money” is worth watching for the performances and some of its sharp observations about West Los Angeles as a place not built for emotional happiness.  Greg Germain, who more or less reprises his Ally Mcbeal role, is especially good at reasoning through the moral dictates of having money and staying friends with the less wealthy.  Simon Mcburney is also quite funny as McDormand’s metrosexual to the extreme husband (something of a splinter plot in the story).   Perhaps the size of the ensemble combined with runtime kept her from doing it, but Holofcener falls short of making a statement about friendship, money, or even Los Angeles. I also wondered if the studio pushed to market this as a comedy, which it really isn’t and if that shortchanged the film’s artistic integrity.

It’s frustrating to think of where the movie might have gone with the resources it was given, but there’s still more than enough there for me to recommend it.

other Chancelucky reviews

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Majic Man- Max Allan Collins (book review)

Now and then I go to my local library and grab a copy of a book on CD or tape. The selection’s not all that good and that’s part of the fun. I get to “read” a lot of writers I never would have tried in print and most of the time I don’t expect much. Much like open mike night at a comedy club, when you’re surprised it’s a great experience. I shouldn’t have been surprised by Max Allan Collins, Majic Man. Collins, Nathan Heller detective stories have been nominated for a Shamus Award nine times and he’s won twice. I guess I don’t follow my mystery writers closely enough. Collins writes in a variety of forms that range from graphic novels and movie novelizations to straight crime fiction. One of his books was “Road to Perdition”. The Heller books are what I call Mystorical fiction, a traditional detective story set in the midst of historical events. It’s similar to alternate history (a favorite genre of mine) but instead of disturbing the conventional timeline, mystorical fiction interpolates some unsolved historical mystery and leaves events intact but fills in "explanations" for those moments from the past that the historical record has left tantalizingly blank.

While most of Collins’s earlier Nathan Heller books are set in Chicago with Elliot Ness and Al Capone (there’s also one about Amelia Earhart), Majic Man ventures into X-Files territory by looking at the 1947 Roswell Incident, when the Air Force cryptically reported the crash of a flying saucer near Roswell, New Mexico then mysteriously retracted the story. While complex mysteries are hard enough to plot, Collins throws in a variety of real historical figures as Heller’s client, notably James Forrestal, America’s first Secretary of Defense and Drew Pearson, the muckraking columnist.

There are also short appearances by Harry Truman, Teddy Kollek (Zionist activist and later mayor of Jerusalem after the establishment of Israel), Jack Anderson, and every known witness to whatever happened at Roswell. Collins rather deftly blends in Project Paperclip, the U.S. post-World War 2 use of Nazi spies and scientists, the beginnings of the Red Scare, the beginnings of U.S. Intelligence, and the details of post-World War 2 D.C. into the intertwining of a pair of mysteries from the end of Truman’s first term- Forrestal’s mental breakdown while in office and Roswell. In the process, he manages to work in all the usuals of the hard-boiled detective story-mysterious love interest, moral dilemmas, and a full ration of escape/chase scenes as Heller tries to penetrate multiple coverups.

Collins writes really well. His descriptions of James Forrestal and his troubled wife Jo and segregation era D.C. are vivid and make for fascinating social commentary. While Collins command of the tremendous amount of historical detail that went into Majic Man is genuinely impressive, he doesn’t let that get in the way of pacing or plot construction. Heller, the lapsed Jew-former Chicago cop-tough guy-soft heart, who narrates the story also serves as an effective enough moral center for the book that manages to give its narrator more sense of dimension than the genre's more usual informational conduit and plot mover. In short, Collins’s reputation as a crime novelist is well deserved.

If I have a criticism of Majic Man, it’s with Collins’s relatively timid ending. He does such a good job assembling the elements in the chapters that get him to Roswell, I wanted him to sustain the same level of brio in unwinding the historical mystery . Instead, he settles for simply solving the story at the detective level, never quite getting to the point of transcending his chosen genre into more serious statements about post-World War 2 America, etc. He does however slip some very interesting wrinkles into the fundamentally epistemological nature of detective fiction (okay I always wanted to use that phrase). Majic Man rather shrewdly explores "how we know" through the lens of paranoia, coverup, implanted memory, and identity without making the reader think Philosophy with a big "P".

While my favorite detective series (also discovered through books on tape) remains Troy Soos’s Mickey Rawlings’ series, a mixture of Ty Cobb era baseball, American social history, and murder mystery, I have a feeling I’m going to be checking out the rest of the Nathan Heller series soon and it's right up there with Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books for me.

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