Bright Days Ahead

The most shocking development in the French infidelity drama Bright Days Ahead is the heroine Caroline’s decision to resume smoking. She announces it twice, to an indifferent husband (Patrick Chesnais) and to a slightly more surprised daughter, with the ardor of a person who gives not a fuck. Call it a unsubtle mea culpa, an admission besides which fucking around with a man twenty years her junior looks silly. Retired after decades as a dentist, Caroline resists the entertainments offered at the retirement community after which the film is named: pottery lessons, yoga, amateur productions, and, most, what the French call l’informatique. That a sixty-year-old woman in the twenty-first century needs computer lessons is absurd, but as Cate Blanchett learned in Blue Jasmine it’s how you meet available guys who aren’t gay. Instructor Julien (Laurent Lafitte) flirts with the mastery of a man who can always say he didn’t mean it if called out. Besides, he needs dental work but apparently not a barber to eliminate the hideous goatee. She takes him to her old clinic. “I wouldn’t mind doing a molar from time to time,” Caroline says. Time for a deep cleaning. At the eighteen-minute mark he and Caroline have had their first kiss; at the twenty-minute mark they are fondling in the car. By the time the clock strikes thirty minutes she’s loosened her hair and trading puffs of a joint and swigs of red wine on his bed.

Francois Ozon rendered Young & Beautiful as a narrative whose elisions and lacuna were crucial to keeping its young prostitute at a distance akin to a sculptor and his model. Although barely over ninety minutes, Bright Days Ahead mistrusts the audience. Wary of ambiguity, Marion Vernoux takes a chronological trudge through discovering-myself banalities. During ruminative moments Caroline stares at the sea. There’s a lot of staring at the sea in this picture. She checks her cell phone often. She asks about other women; Julien parries. At a chichi wine bar called — ho ho — the Garden of Delights where Caroline panics at the thought of being seen by friends, Julien suggests they run out without paying. L’amour fou and all that. Vernoux actually includes a montage of the couple that resembles this wizardly sequence but kitschy piano trills substituting.

As played by Fanny Ardant, Caroline has let the years accumulate without her marking that sixty years have been lived. Interacting with the women at Bright Days Ahead, she’s stiff and humorless, a novitiate who accepts retirement as an entombment. The expected thing would be to watch as Ardant seizes life with renewed intensity, but Vernoux includes two inhibitors. First, while a wonderful camera object, Ardant is not a resourceful actress, resorting even in her The Woman Next Door days to oh-sweet-mystery-of-woman softness encouraged by adoring male directors (still, applause for the generous kohl eyeliner that even husband Philippe wonders why she applies; a fool for love, that Caroline). Secondly, Philippe’s posture, predetermined in movies like this, undercuts Caroline’s risk-taking. If nothing is at stake, nothing is delivered. But their most eyeopening decision happens in the last two minutes. If you remember Cocoon, you know what I mean.

“How was I to know which way the story’d go?”

Discussing this eyeopening “live” performance of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” with friends on Facebook, I reminded them that Kenny Rogers had cajoled and shamed an American Music Awards audience in 1995 into joining him for a tenth-anniversary rendition of “We Are the World.” It was obvious that no other performance in Rogers’ long career had moved him so much as his contribution to Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson’s ad for stars seducing the audience into donating money for Ethiopian children. No one was on cue. They looked appalled. Prince, famously absent from the original sessions, did Rogers a favor. He stood beside him sucking on a lollipop, thinking about cymbals in Guinea.

I can’t find the clip. Hang me. But I did find the only other performance I remember that night: Madonna, months before Evita opera lessons and you can tell, debuting “Take a Bow,” aided by exquisite Babyface harmonies. She looks terrified.

Singles 5/30

Keyshia Cole’s resigned “Next Time…” and Ledisi’s buoyant “I Blame You’ top this week’s list, with Kevin Gates growling from the cleaning products aisle in the supermarket as runner-up. But Wayne’s fierce turn on a Fucking Drake song surprised me like Lambert and Underwood (hell of a law firm, that) and their award show pyrotechnic didn’t. Also: Nicki Minaj sings again.

Click on links for full reviews.

Ledisi – I Blame You (7)
Kevin Gates – Arm & Hammer (7)
Keyshia Cole – Next Time (Won’t Give My Heart Away) (7)
Lil Wayne ft. Drake – Believe Me (6)
John Walt – Kemo Walk (6)
Robin Thicke – Get Her Back (6)
Jazmine Sullivan ft. Meek Mill – Dumb (5)
Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood – Somethin’ Bad (5)
Nicki Minaj – Pills N Potions (4)
The Common Linnets – Calm After the Storm (4)
Nico & Vinz – Am I Wrong (5)
Linkin Park ft. Rakim – Guilty All the Same (2)
Mariah Carey – Thirsty (1)

The politics of HIV

Catching HIV is one of the last worries on the mind of the young gay men I meet. The virus that can turn into full-fledged AIDS killed millions of men and made a generation of survivors wary of sexual contact. Now we learn that in Florida patients who need drugs pay higher co-pays:

The Affordable Care Act ended denial of coverage for preexisting conditions and, with the opening of the healthcare marketplace in October 2013, people with HIV/AIDS could enroll in health insurance for the first time under the ACA.

But an analysis by the AIDS Institute of Florida’s silver-level health plans found that the four companies placed HIV and hepatitis drugs in their highest formulary tiers, meaning that people who need those drugs must pay the highest out-of-pocket costs for them. According to the study:

• CoventryOne places all HIV drugs in Tier 5 of its formulary, requiring a 40 percent co-insurance after a $1,000 prescription deductible.

• Cigna also places all HIV and hepatitis drugs in Tier 5 with 40 percent co-insurance after a deductible ranging from $0 to $2,750.

• Humana places all HIV and hepatitis drugs in Tier 5 with a 50 percent co-insurance after a $1,500 deductible.

• Preferred Medical places all HIV drugs and all but two hepatitis drug in a Specialty Tier requiring 40 percent co-insurance.

In each case, most or all of the drugs require prior authorization.

Because these victims are often the poorest, they have no advocates; like the rural victims of the mindless dicta which bans states like mine from receiving the ACA’s Medicaid expansion or who make too much over the poverty line to qualify for federal aid anyway, they’re in limbo.

Reviewed: Kevin Gates, Röyksopp-Robyn

Kevin Gates – By Any Means

The keeper is “Movie,” a quiet account about the birth of his child in which his iPhone reminds him of a new set of responsibilities he can’t avoid, keyed to a mournful synth and his lulling honey-thick rap-sing. Like Biggy and ODB and Young Jeezy, Kevin Gates has a voice so singular that on first listen it’s hard to know whether he can rhyme (“4:30 AM” and “IHOP” settled that). His third mix tape in a year and tenth overall has Plies and Rico Love’s okay contributions and the pizzicatos and block string samples familiar to Maybach Music records. But Gates finds a novel metaphor for the coke trade in “Arm and Hammer,” not to mention a novel way of interpolating “Frère Jacques” (with an organ). On the Dave Cappa-helmed “Can’t Make This Up,” he blesses his good fortune and looks forward to higher highs, the more natural the better: “Never popped a molly/But when I’m on coffee I feel as if I done just tried it.”

Royksopp & Robyn – Do It Again

On the title track they realize they’d downloaded Britney’s Femme Fatale three years ago but never listened. “Monument” is a nine-minute zombie plod through a land of strategically deployed sax blurts, 1979 synths, and a statue at the center that’s Robyn, intoning statuesque lyrics as if regretting she wasn’t made of plaster. Bleeping and twinkling at half speed, “Every Little Thing” at first hints at a similar dead end until the keyboards stack higher and higher to match Robyn’s masochism. Neither artist is at his and their best, Robyn in particular unable to figure out what romantic pose to enact over the beats. She’s Christine McVie, not Scott Walker.

If there were no Barack Obama, Barack Obama would dream of him

Published two months ago but coming to my attention this evening, this David Bromwich dissection of Barack Hussein Obama’s conception of the presidency indulges in the speculative psychology that partisans can treat like a loaded weapon in the same room as a wounded animal, but I can’t argue with its tracing of the arc of his career. If Ronald Reagan incarnated conservatism in 1979 and 1980, Barack Obama incarnates Barack Obamaism akin to Laurence Olivier’s Crassus’ vision of Rome as shared in Spartacus: Rome is an eternal thought in the mind of God. If there were no Barack Obama, Barack Obama would dream of him:

Obama entered the presidency at 47 — an age at which people as a rule are pretty much what they are going to be. It is a piece of mystification to suppose that we have been denied a rescue that this man, under happier circumstances, would have been well equipped to perform. There have been a few genuine shocks: on domestic issues he has proven a more complacent technocrat than anyone could have imagined — a facet of his character that has emerged in his support for the foundation-driven testing regimen “Race to the Top,” with its reliance on outsourcing education to private firms and charter schools. But the truth is that Obama’s convictions were never strong. He did not find this out until his convictions were tested, and they were not tested until he became president.

Perhaps the thin connection between Obama’s words and his actions does not support the use of the word “conviction” at all. Let us say instead that he mistook his preferences for convictions — and he can still be trusted to tell us what he would prefer to do. Review the record and it will show that his first statement on a given issue generally lays out what he would prefer. Later on, he resigns himself to supporting a lesser evil, which he tells us is temporary and necessary. The creation of a category of permanent prisoners in “this war we’re in” (which he declines to call “the war on terror”) was an early and characteristic instance. Such is Obama’s belief in the power and significance of his own words that, as he judges his own case, saying the right thing is a decent second-best to doing the right thing.

Aware of the vituperation hurled by a Republican party closer to a pathology than a coalition of reconcilable interests, Bromwich nevertheless doesn’t account for what presidential model would work in 2014. As for Obama, surely the tragedy is to dream of a cult of aspirationists lobbying for legislation in a branch of government which the opposition neither acknowledges or respects.

“We tolerate, in other words, that which we would rather avoid”

Suzanna Danuta Walters in The Chronicle Review warns against “rose-colored” triumph narratives about the acceptance of homosexuality. “Tolerance,” she reminds readers, used to mean “the ability to bear pain and hardship.”

It doesn’t make sense to say that we tolerate something unless we think that it’s wrong in some way. To say you “tolerate” homosexuality is to imply that homosexuality is bad or immoral or even just benignly icky, like that exotic food you just can’t bring yourself to try. You are willing to put up with, to tolerate, this nastiness, but the toleration proves the thing (the person, the sexuality, the food) to be irredeemably nasty to begin with.

But here’s the rub: If there is nothing problematic about something—say, homosexuality—then there is really nothing to tolerate. We don’t speak of tolerating great sex or a good book or a sunshine-filled day. We do, however, take pains to let others know how brave we are when we tolerate the discomfort of a bad back or a nasty cold. We tolerate the agony of a frustratingly banal movie that our partner insisted on watching and are thought the better for it. We tolerate, in other words, that which we would rather avoid. Tolerance is not an embrace but a resigned shrug or, worse, that air kiss of faux familiarity that barely covers up the shiver of disgust.

We should also, she cautions, be honest about what gay marriage portends for children. Dismiss anodyne assurances that these marriages are the same as straight ones:

Shouldn’t we argue, instead, that our progeny would/could grow up with more expansive and creative ways of living gender and sexuality? Shouldn’t we argue that same-sex marriage might make us all think differently about the relationship between domestic life and gender norms and push heterosexuals to examine their stubborn commitment to a gendered division of labor?

“Expansive and creative” is a rather bland phrase too. I’mm reminded of a sentence from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time: “like” and “equal” are not the same.

Wayne LaPierre: his look is “the smooth and shiny black of the vulture’s feathers”

I like Charles Pierce’s conception of NRA scion Wayne LaPierre as a character in a Warren Zevon song or Conrad novel:

Wayne LaPierre gets paid when his masters sell guns to the bad guys. Wayne LaPierre gets paid when his masters sell guns to the good guys because of the guns he’s already arranged to sell to the bad guys. Wayne LaPierre is the strange white man in the Congo who knows where he can get you some AK’s. He’s the shadowy fellow in the coffee shop in Kabul who knows where RPG’s can be had, cheap. He’s the well-dressed, silken-voiced operator, sipping his tea on a cool and breezy veranda outside of Bogota, who smiles at you and shows you on the map where you can pick up your order, because it is time once again for you to make war and him to make money. His look is the smooth and shiny black of the vulture’s feathers. He feasts on the carrion of nations.

Let us celebrate the bloodletting:

So that is Memorial Day this year, in a country in which its citizens are encouraged to make war on each other because not enough people care enough to stop it. There are more flowers in more places and there is no peace in sight, because we have chosen as a country to slake our appetite for it with blood. The dead are not honored in this war. Only the instrumentality of their murder is, god help us all

The Immigrant

The Statue of Liberty swims into view through grey mist. If James Gray were the sort of writer-director who relished symbolism, or I the sort of critic who applauded it, I’d say this moment incarnates what makes The Immigrant such a fascinating picture. Two Polish sisters, smothered in shawls, stand in a serpentine queue at Ellis Island in 1921, in the hopes of gaining entry and meeting their aunt and uncle. But the audience and Ewa (Marion Cotillard) know from the sound of Magda’s (Angela Sarafyan) cough that this is impossible. When authorities quarantine Magda, things get bad; when another bureaucrat denies Ewa for allegedly lying about her relatives’ address and for “loose morals” on the ship, her prospects shrink to zero. Watching her is an intense puglike man in a homburg. Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) introduces himself as a member of the Travelers Aid Society. But the money for bribes has to come from somewhere. After a meal and a bath, Ewa learns he’s a former vaudevillian who runs a burlesque show at a dive called the Bandit’s Roost. He will help her earn the money to spring her sister.

Hands buried in her sleeves for warmth or perhaps to hide their delicateness, Ewa watches Bruno and her co-stars with hooded wariness; Gray didn’t have to show her sleeping with a blade under her pillow to telegraph how violence and timing have scarred her young life (at home soldiers beheaded her parents). He and co-writer Richard Menello haven’t neglected to deepen her character, which is a relief because while Cotillard doesn’t simper she endures so much torment that Bruno’s attraction to the poor wronged creature looks masochistic when it isn’t inexplicable; the success of her performance depends on tolerance for the kind of passivity within which, well, a knife lies in wait. At the show she plays a glum and reluctant Lady Liberty; the other girls, dolled up as geishas and Cleopatras, are not amused. When a garment factory scion whom Bruno tries to impress offers a lot of dough for a woman to deflower his “soft” son, Bruno offers Ewa (he cheerfully wonders if he wouldn’t prefer a male whore). Ewa feels cheapened. A reunion with the aunt and uncle in Brooklyn looks like disaster from the start, as even a brief glance at the uncle’s reticence would have told her. The next morning cops pick her up — he called them. She’s a whore and a disgrace, he yells. He has a reputation to uphold. Back on Ellis Island, where she at least has a chance at bumping into Magda, she watches Orlando the Magician’s show. Played by Jeremy Renner with a pencil mustache and that thumb-sized face open to unexpected and becoming shows of happiness, he’s a schemer alive only when reacting at that moment.

It turns out Bruno and Orlando nurse an ancient rivalry, with a new battlefield and casus belli. If The Immigrant goes wrong, it’s here. What Gray had shaped into a taut précis on New York slum life, without a scintilla of didactics, devolves into a love triangle (a brawl at the Bandit’s Roost that results in the group’s getting tossed out does inspire an amusing routine in a Central Park tunnel in which Bruno sells his girls as heiresses to the Frick, Vanderbilt, et al. fortunes). And there’s one awful moment when I looked for the exit: “My mother used to say, God’s eye is in every sparrow,” Orlando tells Ewa while the strings soar. But Gray doesn’t forget to limn her despair; at confession and a scene with the aunt (who herself looks like she endures untold brutalities at the hands of her spouse) the caesuras that Gray created in the first third pay off. Ewa’s closed-off qualities begin to look like the graces of a survivor.

If in Little Odessa and We Own The Night Gray demonstrated he understood how subcultures cised of ethnic politics complicate family relationships such that affection looks like wine on Sunday, The Immigrant‘s alertness to smells and looks and the degree to which actions muddy preconceptions about people represents a new peak. The late Gordon Willis could not have asked for a more nuanced appreciation than Darius Khondji’s grainy and blue- and gold-hued compositions (a fade to darkness as the sissy boy stretches a tentative hand towards a recoiling Ewa is a blemish). There are scenes so well-staged and resonant that they could serve as drafts for a next set of films about New York in the twenties, scenes with the middle-class men at the speakeasy; the Russian woman, Rosie, who runs the Bandit’s Roost; the tough but surprisingly fair police who work at Ellis Island, even the ones on the take; the casual racism of the others. Twice while watching The Immigrant I wondered what the hell it was about, what the hell I was watching; devoting space here to synopsis is an attempt to clarify what I saw. The currents of loathing, pity, and gratitude flowing between Phoenix and Cotillard were like nothing I’d seen in ages, the kind of ineluctable pulses that mirror the batshit patterns of our own lives. Even noting the melodramatics of the Renner subplot doesn’t account for his warmth and Cotillard’s response to it; he’s like Robert Walker in The Clock, carried aloft on his own sensuousness. He even dances well. Using classical construction like Wallace Stevens did tercets renders these patterns even more mystifying.

Which is why Phoenix becomes the only actor conceivable as Bruno Weiss. Many times since the early nineties he’s scrunched his face and moaned as if passing a kidney stone, thrice for other Gray pictures (Two Lovers boasts his best performance), but in a key moment explaining himself to Eva he hits a new peak of accessibility; he’s the only actor of his generation to use the Method for expressionistic ends which don’t deform him. No wonder they enjoy such a febrile partnership, for Gray, one of the most erudite of American directors (his DVD commentary tracks are marvels), has himself outgrown the miserabilism of his early work. What qualms I had about some of his choices dissolved somewhat with the film’s final composition. He films an ending whose relief can’t dispel anxiety.

There’s something wrong with paradise?

I haven’t admitted this yet, but here goes: I’m a Walt Disney World Resort junkie. Ever since a fluke stay at the once-and-future Polynesian Village Resort Hotel in summer ’87 I’ve kept up with the changing times. I know people obsessed like I’m not. If you’re one of them, and, if you’re like me, hovering on the edge of obsession, then the changes Disney’s thinking of making to the Polynesian strike at the heart of what makes this resort essential and not a South Seas ski lodge whose new lobby deserves an update that will transform it into the Wilderness Lodge or Animal Kingdom Lodge. Well, the removal of the Great Ceremonial House’s waterfall and the addition of Trader Sam’s, familiar to Disneyland guests.

I’m no nostalgist but the waterfall has proven an essential component for distinguishing the Polynesian from the assembly-line quality of Disney’s let’s-profit-off-a-theme ethos. Transforming the lobby into a “spacious” mercantile area for credulous guests is too brazen even for Disney. However! Kudos to building on the premises a Florida version of Disneyland’s beloved Trader Sam’s.

Where there’s a Will…

In which George Will wishes he lived in 1874, or rather, in Grover Cleveland’s America:

Congress, defined by the Constitution’s Article I, is properly the first, the initiating branch of government. So, I will veto no bill merely because I disagree with the policy it implements. I will wield the veto power only on constitutional grounds — when Congress legislates beyond its constitutionally enumerated powers, correctly construed, as they have not been since the New Deal. So I expect to cast more vetoes than the 2,564 cast by all previous presidents.

“My judicial nominees will seek to narrow Congress’s use of its power to regulate commerce as an excuse for minutely regulating Americans’ lives. My nominees will broaden the judicial recognition of Americans’ ‘privileges or immunities,’ the rights of national citizenship mentioned in the 14th Amendment and the unenumerated rights referred to by the Ninth.

He doesn’t mention how the federal government has grown since passage of the Fourteenth Amendment precisely because courts have “broadened” judicial recognition of our privileges and immunities and the rights of citizens who were heretofore ignored or put in chains. To agree with these developments is to renounce the kind of presidency that allowed beloved Calvin Coolidge to put his feet up on his desk and sleep all day.

But then George “F.” Will is not a writer. He assembles words into sentences that often allude to historical and political works he has not read. As I noted a few years ago, his trick is to coat received Beltwayisms in prolix displays of learning. Safe in the bosom of FOX News, he is unlikely to be challenged again by a poodle as dangerous as Donna Brazile.

In fairness I agree with this bit:

In a radio address to the nation, President Franklin Roosevelt urged Americans to tell him their troubles. Please do not tell me yours. Tell them to your spouse, friends, clergy — not to a politician who is far away, who doesn’t know you and whose job description does not include Empathizer in Chief. ‘I feel your pain,’ Bill Clinton vowed. I won’t insult your intelligence by similarly pretending to feel yours.