Monthly Archives: October 2008

Diner is a great movie, worthy of the popular comparisons to Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni, another coming-of-age film in which the male director turns a bemused, pitiless gaze on the behavior of young men who don’t get enough tail or for whom tail is no longer enough. James Wolcott remembers his favorite moment: the roast beef sandwich exchange between Paul Reiser and Steve Guttenberg, watched by Daniel Stern and Kevin Bacon as grinning Furies. Sure, Quentin Tarantino no doubt rewound this scene at the video store at which he worked many times; the rhythms predict what he’d do with a half dozen hit men in a coffee shop discussing the decline of Madonna’s songwriting.

According to Wolcott, Pauline Kael (whose review of this unreleased film in 1982 was instrumental in getting it played somewhere, anywhere) admitted her own bafflement at the screening — the young Wolcott served as “interpreter to [Diner‘s] strange tribal ways.” Even acknowledging how familiarity dulls us to an older generation’s shock, I can’t say what struck her as so weird about the roast beef scene. My favorites moments in Diner rely on the “disjointed” rhythms that Wolcott mentions. The post-introductory credits school dance, for example, at which we meet most of the main characters, features Mickey Rourke descending to a basement to rescue a shockingly young, callow, harmless Kevin Bacon. Rourke interrupts Bacon smashing windows. When asked why, Bacon shrugs and says, “For a smile.” As we later discover, it’s a perfect encapsulation of this spontaneous, doomed character, but in that minute it has the smell of something offhand that analysis can’t contain — it evokes life as lived. I felt protective of Bacon, and Rourke’s slight pause as he tries to figure out how to respond is an echo; he wants to protect his buddy too.

Another gem: the close-up of Tim Daly as he stares stolidly into space, while Guttenberg and his mother reenact their habitual coming-home argument: he wants a bologna sandwich, she won’t make it, he insists, she surrenders. Daly, also home for the holidays, knows how this scene will play, and he’s bored stiff; but we know he’ll be back next year, and he’ll protect his integrity by signaling his boredom again.

It’s true: with the exception of Bacon, and maybe Barkin, not one of the actors has struck these grace notes, or pulled something notable out of themselves this notable again (I say this as a fan of Reiser’s King Smarm turn in Aliens). Nor Levinson, for that matter.

McCain the Socialist

At an October 2000 appearance on “Hardball,” before a college audience:

Sarah Palin’s an even bigger egregious apostle of Marx, Hendrik Hertzberg reminds us:

For her part, Sarah Palin, who has lately taken to calling Obama “Barack the Wealth Spreader,” seems to be something of a suspect character herself. She is, at the very least, a fellow-traveller of what might be called socialism with an Alaskan face. The state that she governs has no income or sales tax. Instead, it imposes huge levies on the oil companies that lease its oil fields. The proceeds finance the government’s activities and enable it to issue a four-figure annual check to every man, woman, and child in the state. One of the reasons Palin has been a popular governor is that she added an extra twelve hundred dollars to this year’s check, bringing the per-person total to $3,269. A few weeks before she was nominated for Vice-President, she told a visiting journalist—Philip Gourevitch, of this magazine—that “we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” Perhaps there is some meaningful distinction between spreading the wealth and sharing it (“collectively,” no less), but finding it would require the analytic skills of Karl the Marxist.

Silly, but I’m a sucker for pastiche like this — in this case, Edmund Morris’ fictional recreation of how Theodore Roosevelt, John McCain’s political hero, might have said about the presidential campaign had he been a paid consultant on FOX News or MSNBC (fat chance). As author of one of the great multi-part biographies of the last thirty years, Morris understands how his subject’s conflict between staying loyal to an instinctual embrace of muscle-flexing and respect for “logothetes” might have provoked an unprecedented throwing up of hands by the great Bull Moose himself.

On Obama:

A. He may and probably will turn out to be a perfectly respectable president, whose achievements will be disheartening compared with what we had expected, but who nevertheless will have done well enough to justify us in renominating him — for you must remember that to renominate him would be a very serious thing, only to be justified by really strong reasons.

Q. He doesn’t have Mr. McCain’s foreign policy experience. As president, how would he personify us around the world?

A. It always pays for a nation to be a gentleman.

Q. There’ll be Joe Biden to counsel him, of course. Assuming Mr. Obama can keep track of what he’s saying.

A. (laughing) You can’t nail marmalade against a wall.

If I’m to believe Mom’s complaints, ACORN is this election’s bugaboo. Two of the best rebuttals to claims of voter registration and voter fraud — or, rather, the conflation of voter registration with voter fraud: Christopher Hayes himself votes twice (sort of); and Dahlia Litwick, who ignores now irrefutable evidence that the presidential election of 1960 was rigged but nevertheless points the finger at the public figures responsible for perpetuating the paranoia as recently as last year (hint: the acronym rhymes with “bloatus“) .

Should John McCain win in 11 days, he can’t credit his team, which has run the shallowest, most image-centered campaign since the 1988 presidential race. Robert Draper‘s excellent NYT Magazine story (published this Sunday) may have the same effect as Ron Suskind’s infamous Bush White House piece published shortly before Election Day. What emerges from Draper’s story is the pathetic fumbling of a man whose eminently marketable virtues – virtues he has never stopped trumpeting – failed to mesh with the designs of his advisers. 

Oh dear:

Despite their leeriness of being quoted, McCain’s senior advisers remained palpably confident of victory — at least until very recently. By October, the succession of backfiring narratives would compel some to reappraise not only McCain’s chances but also the decisions made by Schmidt, who only a short time ago was hailed as the savior who brought discipline and unrepentant toughness to a listing campaign. “For better or for worse, our campaign has been fought from tactic to tactic,” one senior adviser glumly acknowledged to me in early October, just after Schmidt received authorization from McCain to unleash a new wave of ads attacking Obama’s character. “So this is the new tactic.”

“Tactics.” When you rely on “tactics,” you doom yourself to play defense. The real tragedy is how a person who depended as much on literal and metaphorical war wounds to bolster his integrity as John McCain found, too late, that these wounds and the “tactics” of modern campaigning are irreconcilable. He can talk to Bob Dole about it.

Pokey in spots, and Juliette Binoche’s dye job makes her look like she’s auditioning to play Courtney Love, but I rather loved The Flight of the Red Balloon, especially since the original film is oh-so-precious. Rewatching a scene in which Binoche and Song Fang gently argue over the acceptance of a gift in the former’s apartment, I was struck by how wittily Hou pans between the child and the adults; it’s like James’ What Maisie Knew — this child barely cognizant of what these confused adults are up to; yet there’s enough distance between his perceptions and ours that the two women’s interactions are regarded quizzically, affectionately (the apartment in which most of the drama unspools becomes a fourth main character). As a Hou dilettante (I’ve only loved The Flowers of Shanghai and the silent bit in Three Times), I accepted the substitution of Paris for Taiwan, and the injection of Binoche’s starpower into a scenario which under different circumstances might try my patience as much as it did Godfrey Cheshire’s; if we can accept this beautiful woman as harried to the point of desperation, we can absolve the visual didacticism enforced whenever that damn red balloon bumps against a window. Star power as jus‘ folks.