‘My nuclear nightmare, born of long and deep experience’

Here’s a cheerful way to ring out the old year. Former secretary of defense William Perry:

A soft-spoken man not given to hyperbole, Perry is on a public crusade to persuade people that nothing less than the future of civilization is at stake. What worries him most is that few seem to notice.

“Our chief peril is that the poised nuclear doom, much of it hidden beneath the seas and in remote badlands, is too far out of the public consciousness,” he wrote in his memoir.

In his book’s preface Perry outlines a nuclear terror scenario, which he calls “my nuclear nightmare, born of long and deep experience.”

In his scenario, a small group gets its hands on enough uranium to fashion a crude nuclear bomb, flies it undetected to Washington’s Dulles International Airport and slips the bomb into a warehouse in the District of Columbia. From there it is loaded onto a delivery truck and a suicide bomber drives it onto Pennsylvania Avenue midway between the Capitol and the White House. When detonated, it kills 80,000 people instantly, including the president. The news media report a message claiming that five more bombs are hidden in five different U.S. cities, and one will be set off each week.

And of course there are no suspected terrorists we can torture, Middle Eastern countries we can bomb from the skies, Russian presidents we can threaten, no constitutional protections we can abjure, or GOP presidents we can elect to save us from this outcome.

The five worst films of 2015

I see no point in trashing a horror movie or comedy. You paid for it, sucker — what did you expect? More fun is to mention prestige favorites that embarrassed themselves. Below are the first most execrable moviewatching experiences of 2015 and possibly 2016, for I still haven’t recovered my equilibrium after exposure to the first film on the list.

1. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

As cute as a dead baby, this Sundance favorite thinks it upsets cancer movie clichés by acting self-reflexive. Jesse Andrews’ novel might be better than his own script, but what he and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon realize is yet another example of a dying woman releasing a young man’s artistic potential. She must die so that his shitty ideas can live. As a final insult, she is a fourth-rate muse too.

2. The Danish Girl, dir. Tom Hooper.

Eddie Redmayne looks like Julie Andrews covered in frosting sugar, and that’s the kindest thing I can say about his performance in The Danish Girl. Playing Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, who in the 1920s became one of the first men to undergo sex reassignment surgery, Redmayne brings his gum-jawed tremulousness to a role that exploits his weaknesses as an actor. For a movie that begins in a bohemian milieu, ends in martyrdom, and thinks bathos is earned emotion, it’s a fatal development. Like Tom Hooper’s other projects, The Danish Girl exists to win awards. It exists to win applause for its daring. It’s about as outré as a kid brother trying on Mom’s pumps, as joke free as an oncologist’s waiting room.

3. My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, dir. Liv Corfixen.

For a director specializing in pop and modish violence, Nicolas Refn sure overvalues his capacity to feel. I don’t doubt that like most people he’s a complex guy but in the documentary created by wife Liv Corfixen he comes off as a man given to bathos, pontificating with numbing banality on his loneliness, the reception of his movies, and whether he pays enough attention to his kids. A director attracted to glittering surfaces shouldn’t dare come off as a boring surface himself lest he force some in his audience to give his movies the second look they don’t deserve.

4. The Hateful Eight, dir. Quentin Tarantino.

Talk talk talk. Long takes bereft of tension. Talk talk talk. Intermission. Talk talk talk. Sodomy joke. Talk talk talk. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Oscar campaign.

5. Jurassic World, dir. Colin Trevorrow

No sequel or “reboot” should be so inept. Some of the affection for Spielberg’s Jurassic Park strikes me as excessive, but I can’t deny its pace and shape. Frictionless and slovenly, Jurassic World doesn’t even pay attention to the cliches it foists on the audience. I’m surprised Bryce Dallas Howard wasn’t given a “I just broke a nail!” line.

Ruth Marcus offers more Clinton Chronicles

Joan Didion:

No one who ever passed through an American public high school could have watched the current president of the United States running for office in 1992 and failed to recognize the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent. The man was, Jesse Jackson said that year to another point, “nothing but an appetite.” No one who followed his appearances on The Road to The White House on C-SPAN could have missed the reservoir of self-pity, the quickness to blame, the narrowing of the eyes, as in a wildlife documentary, when things did not go his way: a response so reliable that aides on Jerry Brown’s 1992 campaign looked for situations in which it could be provoked.

Ellen Willis:

I could imagine John F. Kennedy, who appears to have had a blanket contempt for wife and girlfriends alike, having the droit-du-seigneur mentality to behave as [Paula] Jones alleged. But Clinton has never conveyed the impression of misogyny or unquestioned confidence in his right to dominate. On the contrary, he is insecure. He wants to please, to charm; and the drop-trou scenario is anything but charming

Willis again:

In any case, the Bill Clinton of the Starr Report does not come across as an arrogant exploiter, a Sadeian libertine, the creepy exhibitionist depicted by Paula Jones. Rather, he seems needy, affectionate, attracted yet painfully cautions and conflicted, and terrified of being caught — in short, a neurotic middle-aged married guy, ordinary to the point of banality, except he happens to be the president of the United States.

I cite so generously because I can see the ’90s are about to begin, with shots fired by labored hack Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post. “Trump has smeared women because of their looks. Clinton has preyed on them, and in a workplace setting where he was by far the superior,” she writes, demonstrating her third grade command of what we used to call reading comprehension. To bang the table about Bill Clinton’s purported predatory behavior, Marcus denies Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers independence and the ability to make their own decisions, and the Starr Report makes plain Lewinsky’s role in the imbroglio. And Marcus ignores worse shit. Digby:

And that’s what makes that statement so astonishing. Trump has said that he plans to torture and kill wives, girlfriends and children of people he thinks might be terrorists or “know something”. When asked if would bring back waterboarding he said “you bet your ass I will”, and “I’d do more than that because it works.” “”And even if it doesn’t they deserve it for what they’ve done to us.”

He has also said he plans to round up and deport 12 million or so people, including American children, and has spoken approvingly of what the government did in the 1950s which is drop them in the middle of the Mexican desert so they cannot come back — at least until he builds a wall to keep everyone out.

Perhaps Marcus doesn’t find these ideas worrying. It appears millions of Americans think they’re great so she’s not alone. But I’d guess the rest of us find that just a little bit “worse” than Bill Clinton’s tawdry past.

I suppose the most lamentable part of the Clinton impeachment proceedings was to delegitimate any worthwhile claims to his predatory behavior. But most of the American public accepted the personal/private divide. Meanwhile Trump’s stated ambition to annihilate the family of suspected terrorists gets giggles on “Morning Joe.” Sit down, folks.

Screenings #14

My private plane grounded for fueling problems, I couldn’t make the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Douglas Sirk retrospective last year. But I did watch The First Legion, the director’s last project before Universal gloss. Set in a Jesuit seminary reeling from the possibility of a miracle occurring within its own walls, The First Legion avoids most of the Going My Way pieties about Catholicism; the only comparable studio film from the same era is The Nun’s Story, released a few years later. The lighting and long takes establish an, pardon the word, ecumenical attention to motive and justification; in Movie Love in the Fifties, James Harvey praised the “continuous sense of space opening up before the camera, a kind of spatial flowering and strainging upward, like the paralyzed girl’s attempts to lift herself in her chair.” The acting is uneven. William Demarest, in a rare non-Sturges role, listens as an Irish accent wriggles away. As the atheist doctor who may endorse the miracle, Lyle Bettger seems to be imitating his publicity photo. But Charles Boyer as the lawyer-priest looking for the truth is impeccable.

The rest of the list comprises what I saw in the last month, and I’ll post more as the embargoes disappear. A few notes first:

— In Michael Fassbender Aaron Sorkin’s snapping turtle bitchery finds the best medium — for about twenty minutes, anyway, before Steve Jobs asks us to like the son of a bitch.

— The credits say “Ridley Scott” directed The Martian.

— The eloquence with which the interview clips assembled for Listen to Me Marlon adduced the actor’s smarts led me to The Chase, a 1966 misbegotten and bizarre amalgam of race drama, Southern comedy, and Marlon Brando performing in his own private movie.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams 2015) 7/10
Carol (Haynes, 2015) 7/10
The Big Short (McKay, 2015) 3/10
Amour Fou (Hausner, 2015) 7/10
Creed (Coogler, 2015) 8/10
Heart of a Dog (Anderson, 2015) 8/10
Creed (Coogler, 2015) 7/10
The Martian (Scott, 2015) 5/10
Listen To Me Marlon (Riley, 2015) 8/10
Steve Jobs (Boyle, 2015) 6/10
The Danish Girl (Hooper, 2015) 2/10
Youth (Sorrentino, 2015) 4/10
* Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983) 6/10
* Thieves Like Us (Altman, 1974) 9/10
The Chase (Penn, 1966) 6/10
The Unfaithful Wife (Chabrol, 1968) 6/10
The First Legion (Sirk, 1951) 7/10

* indicates multiple viewing

REAGAN REAGAN REAGAN

Frequent guests to HTV know my fascination with Ronald Gatsby, sovereign of the United States for eight years. Forget the sycophants and mountebanks. Unless declassified FBI files revealed that he and Mikhail Gorbachev had joyous, unprotected sex in the Rose Room, nothing I’d learn in 2016 would surprise me about Reagan. But as the presidential primary season enters its thermonuclear stage William Leuchtenburg compiles a handy list of Teflon Man’s flaws. There were no depths of ignorance to which Ronnie would not sink. I wish he’d stop printing the man’s admittedly decent self-deprecatory remarks; I rather like “I am concerned about what is happening in government—and it’s caused me many a sleepless afternoon,” and from George W. Bush and Fred Dalton Thompson to Scott Walker, professions of indolence bestirs a formidable part of the GOP electorate.

Subordinates also found Reagan to be an exasperatingly disengaged administrator. “Trying to forge policy,” said George Shultz, his longest- serving secretary of state, was “like walking through a swamp.” Donald Regan recalled: “In the four years that I served as secretary of the treasury, I never saw President Reagan alone and never discussed economic philosophy….I had to figure these things out like any other American, by studying his speeches and reading the newspapers. . . . After I accepted the job, he simply hung up and vanished.” One of his national security advisers, General Colin Powell, recalled that “the President’s passive management style placed a tremendous burden on us,” and another national security adviser, Frank Carlucci, observed: “The Great Communicator wasn’t always the greatest communicator in the private sessions; you didn’t always get clean and crisp decisions. You assumed a lot. . . . You had to.” Numbers of observers contended that Reagan conducted himself not as a ruler but as a ceremonial monarch. In the midst of heated exchanges, a diplomat noted, Reagan behaved like a “remote sort of king . . . just not there.” After taking in the president’s performance during a discussion of the budget in 1981, one of his top aides remarked that Reagan looked like “a king . . . who had assembled his subalterns to listen to what they had to say and to preside, sort of,” and another said, “He made decisions like an ancient king or a Turkish pasha, passively letting his subjects serve him, selecting only those morsels of public policy that were especially tasty. Rarely did he ask searching questions and demand to know why someone had or had not done something.” As a consequence, a Republican senator went so far as to say: “With Ronald Reagan, no one is there. The sad fact is that we don’t have a president.”

Leuchtenburg, a Depression scholar who wrote the first Hoover bio in decades, skims the consequences of such chipper ignorance: stationing Marines in Beirut so that they can serve as sitting ducks for Islamic Jihad (then pulling them out months later because 1984 was an election year, but not before implying House Democrats were cowards); and allowing sentimental and lachrymose NSC creeps to run a junta out of the White House are just two. Staging the second GOP primary debate in the empty husk of Reagan’s Air Force One plane was symbolism worthy of Michael Deaver.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: it worked

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As the sixty millionth person to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I have little to add to the commentary. I liked the thing. For a franchise that smelled like Bantha poodoo in 2005, to return to such crisp, confident form, especially in a decade marked by ever more frantic action pictures, is relief enough. Oscar Issac, compensating for not taking his clothes off at any point in the movie, made a fine debut as an X-wing pilot who may or may not look with undisguised affection at recovering storm trooper Finn (John Boyega). Adam Driver, still the owner of horsey hair, was surprisingly effective as a baddie who keeps denying that he’s Han and Leia’s son; it was a shrewd decision to have Driver destroying monitors and shit in his office (the Star Wars equivalent of Earth teens jumping on beds, slamming doors, and blasting Green Day) when he didn’t get his way instead of Hayden Christensen pouting his purple mouth and mewling. I still maintain that the Star Wars universe has some of the least effective names in sci fi/manga history, therefore Driver’s character could’ve been called Rilo Kiley and have done with it.

Now that Disney has shown it can restart the franchise, I can’t wait for it to prove it can make a more original movie.

Other notes:

(a) The awkwardest scene: Leia and Han’s last. It’s played, written, and timed as if no one had rehearsed it. A friend said yesterday, “Well, Leia and Hans also haven’t seen each other in years, so it works for the scene.” Fisher had gravitas but her voice has turned to cold volcanic ash.

(b) Boyega was the worst actor, a graduate of the Mark Hamill School of Puppyish Enthusiasm.

(c) It took me a while to puzzle out the differences between the Resistance and the Republic; it made sense after I read a couple articles suggesting the Resistance as the Republic’s Department of Defense. It also made sense when I remembered it’s a Star Wars movie and who gives a shit.

(d) The best lightsaber duel since The Empire Strikes Back. Loved how they sputtered, as if they’re a couple years from shorting; the hissing as they make contact with moisture; the crossbeam on Rilo Kiley’s saber’s hilt burning Finn. Abrams realized his characters don’t need to jump 5325 feet in the air to be convincing as warriors (there’s also the suggestion that Rilo Kiley has functioned as a Force practitioner without ever fighting a light saber duel).

(e) The unfussy bits of film poetry: Daisy Ridley’s Rey sliding down the sand dune on Jakku in the shadow of a destroyed Star Destroyer;

(f) Ridley as Rey was everything I wanted from a Star Wars heroine, including what I wanted from Leia in the original trilogy.

(g) I like the idea of the First Order officers as college kids too young to know the Empire but getting to wear cool caps and do fascist salutes. Rilo Kiley and — awful Star Wars name alert — General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) imitating bitchy version of Vader and Tarkin worked.

(h) Harrison Ford, whose voice creaked like a shutter in the wind, looked frailer than Alec Guinness, more than a decade younger when he filmed Star Wars: A New Hope.

(i) Best Han line: “The Force doesn’t work like that!”

(j) oh god Oscar Isaac

The Force Awakens: it’s a film!

I’ll have more to say tomorrow, I hope, but Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ remarks strike me as apposite:

However one feels about The Force Awakens, it is—in fact—a film. The aims of the heroes are coherent and accessible. The acting is good. (I really liked Ridley and Boyega.) And the pacing is well-managed. I’m an old man, so I thought the film was too loud. And I thought the film overplayed certain things, that it should have underplayed—the critical scene where Kylo Ren solidifies his place with the Dark Side (for now, at least) is interminable.

But The Force Awakens is a film—something that the last three offerings from Lucas were not. Indeed, I walked out of the movie theater amazed that I now actually thought less of the prequels, then when I walked in. Everything—save special effects—is wrong the last three iterations of Star Wars. The plotting is indecipherable. The dialogue is painful. Otherwise good actors struggle under Lucas’s direction. Also, Jar-Jar Binks. (What? Ain’t no more.) That this horribleness was strapped to an incredible hype machine only made matters worse.

Now it’s true that Abrams didn’t invent much and that he borrowed quite a bit. But he understood what was good about the Star Wars universe, and what was not. He took that expertise and made something that critics, and fans, have been waiting on for over thirty years—a decent Star Wars film, and arguably the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back.

I liked it too.

‘Youth’ a doddering film about old age

Youth

Deliver us from evil. Beholden to the shibboleth that people hear wisdom in the groaning sentimentality of aging men, Youth gets encrusted in its own snot. Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to his 2013 Oscar winner The Great Beauty represents no advance besides its makers’ new talent for spending dough. Exiled in a millionaires’ spa in the Swiss Alps, buddies Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel deliver Sorrentino’s English dialogue like oracles in Delphi. If ugly old dudes ogling naked women while imprisoned in terrible “poetic” images is your idea of kicks, Youth is your movie.

A comfortable denizen of what William Holden in Network would’ve called his autumnal years, Fred Ballinger (Caine) has lost interest in composing music. Even a emissary of the queen can’t persuade him to play his popular Simple Songs for Prince Philip. Yet every time he kneads a candy wrapper he finds a new rhythm, teases out a new melody. Wearing the awful plastic lenses he forced the world to regard as cool in the sixties, Caine is made up and directed to act like Marcello Mastroianni, Federico Fellini’s alter ego. He and best friend Mick Boyle (Keitel), a director of flagging powers trying to wring a viable project from writers, wander the spa taking in the sight of nude girls in pools. Paul Dano in Bowie blond hair appears on occasion, an actor worried his own career is washed up because he’s best known for playing a robot. Rachel Weisz as Ballinger’s daughter also has a role, apparently, and it’s a disgraceful one: left by her husband, Mick’s son, for a pop star, she aims vituperative monologues at Ballinger, blasting his self-absorption, what he put his wife through with his infidelities, and so on. “Extramarital experiences aren’t enough — you had to experiment with homosexuality too!” she cries.

But the wife forgave him. When men act like shitheels, it’s a woman’s job to forgive them. Once that’s out of the way, she can return to her proper role as muse. Jane Fonda, in a blonde fright wig and made up to look like Cruella de Vil playing Lana Turner, gets a cameo as the actress whom Boyle hopes to cast in his comeback. If the idea of Fonda saying “shit” a lot hits a weak spot, you might like the scene more than I did, but at least it’s the one time when another character kicks back at the nonsense. Youth is one of those movies whose blowzy ideas we’re supposed to accept because it looks beautiful. Which it doesn’t. The images of bovine old men slowly rotting amid the mountain flowers and air are among the least spontaneous examples of surrealism I’ve seen in a recent movie. It’s a hermetic experience, Youth, and a clammy one. Even the jeremiads are well-mannered. Unable to overcome the miscasting, Keitel has to deliver frequent dismissals of popular culture. “TV is shit,” he grows, as if were Elia Kazan in 1952. Again and again Sorrentino returns to this theme. The real men like Ballinger and Boyle once made art, the film says, until reality shows and Top 40 music made the likes of them obsolete. This rebarbative notion might at least get dismissed as the hissing of a crank had Sorrentino not shown or played Boyle’s crap script ideas and Ballinger’s noisome melodies, respectively. With art like this it’s no wonder the young prefer The Voice.

From its Magic Mountain setting to its fortune cookie aperçus, Youth also has pretensions to art. Maybe lines like “When you’re young, everything seems very close” and “I wonder what happens to memory as we get older” sound better in Italian. Keitel pries these lines out of his mouth as if with a crowbar. Caine’s familiar flatness of affect results in a querulous performance; it’s not clear whether he’s too old himself or he’s playing on Ballinger’s suspicions that he’s too old. I suspect “art” as Sorrentino defines it means still being able to get it up around girls. What’s left is a dopey and rather embarrassing film that — here’s the irony — advances an AARP or commercial advertising conception of old age. The market forces decried by Boyle and Ballinger infect the project. To watch a fine, brutal film about infidelity and advancing years, catch 45 Years when it opens near you. Leave the men of Youth on their damn mountain.

‘2015 didn’t just break the global temperature record — it crushed it.’

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Well, this isn’t reassuring:

Across the country, the weather has more closely resembled spring than typical December temperatures. “According to preliminary data from NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), at least 2,693 record daily highs were tied or broken across the U.S. during the first 23 days of December. An additional 3,912 record-warm daily low temperatures have been set during the same time period,” the Weather Channel reported. “By comparison, just 147 daily record lows and 140 additional record cool highs were set in the same time frame.”

And the string of broken temperature records isn’t limited to the U.S. either. NOAA recently announced that this November was the hottest in the 136-year period of record, “at 0.97 degrees C (1.75 degrees F) above the 20th century average of 12.9 degrees C (55.2 degrees F), breaking the previous record of 2013 by 0.15 degrees C (0.27 degrees F).” Thus November became the seventh consecutive month that a monthly global temperature record has been broken.

The best detail: thirteen of the 14 hottest years on record took place in the 21st century.

‘We get off on the fear’

“Though our economy may not be what it was, we’re actually safer and less susceptible to crime or war than at any time in our history,” Matt Taibbi writes. “But in the same way retailers want us buying on Christmas, others want us scared to death and addicted to news of threats at home and from abroad.” More:

It’s not that there aren’t real threats. The problem is that no one in popular culture is incentivized to mitigate our fears of those threats, or place them in context. Fox News is not going to sell many ads running stories called “Mexicans Are Basically Nice People Just Like Us.” CNN isn’t going to grab eyeballs showing videos of Muslim immigrants in New Jersey just hanging out watching soccer.

Moreover, any savvy Beltway operative will tell politicians that nuanced solutions and appeals for calm don’t fly with voters geeked up on fear. Barack Obama was panned a few weeks ago after the San Bernardino massacre, when he offered an oddly un-alarmist four-point plan to combat ISIS-inspired terrorism in a speech that might as well have been entitled “It’s Complicated.”

That doesn’t work with our generation. If you’re going to sell us on the contagion, you’ve got to give us the simple antidote in the same breath. Tell us we’ve got terrorists in our hairline, fine, but where do we buy the Head & Shoulders to get rid of them? We get off on the fear, but the easy solution is also part of the addiction ritual. Now, when it’s denied, we go crazy.

So scared is Taibbi that he used “incentivized” in a sentence. Merry Christmas.

Earnestness endangering true love: The Shop Around the Corner

Jimmy-Stewart-in-Shop-Around-the-Corner-movie

Every year Ernest Lubitsch’s great, gentle comedy threatens to eclipse It’s a Wonderful Time‘s place as the best Christmas movie; maybe it has. Released in 1940, The Shop Around the Corner is one of the few perfect films in existence, its performances, Samuel Raphaelson script, and, most importantly, pace combining into a numinous whole. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan’s duets must be what people hear in opera. Matt Connolly:

So much of The Shop Around the Corner rests upon a knowing—and knowingly empathetic—conception of how work fosters relationships at once tender and uneasy. It’s one of the film’s great unspoken jokes that, though we hear snippets of their poetry-laden letters to one another, it is Alfred and Klara’s snappish workplace repartee that let us know how truly aligned they are in intellect and emotional temperament.

A few years ago, David Thomson wrote, “This is a comedy in which earnestness or gravity endangers true love.” He could have been referring to Trouble in Paradise, in which Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall bon mot their way into each other’s beds.

In a Film Comment that I can’t find online, Kent Jones hailed The Shop Around the Corner as one the most honest picture about the workplace:

Lubitsch knows that in the workplace, embarrassments and self-negations are not signs of faulty character but necessary survival skills. They’re not to be applauded, but they’re not to be judged either. Nor, in the end, is[Frank] Morgan’s pomp, or his embarrassed reluctance to apologize for his abuses of power. The workplace is inherently imbalanced, but when it’s not subject to top-down corporate fascism or exploitation, it’s also a site of never-ending negotiation that occasionally settles, for a brief interlude, in a suspended state that resembles democracy. It’s just as exquisite, and ephemeral, as the spell cast by the Red Shoes ballet troupe. There is sentiment in The Shop Around the Corner, but there is no sentimentality. It is good-natured but it is also unerringly wise. The film’s unparalleled grace is inseparable from the pettiness of its characters, which shifts unnoticed into magnanimity over the course of time. And then, perhaps we can imagine it shifting back again at a later date.

Now get to watching.