Archive for February, 2010

The Last Station

February 28, 2010

The other day I went to see The Last Station. It concerns the last year of Tolstoy’s life. It tells the story of Valentin (James McAvoy) who is hired by Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) to act as a personal secretary for Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Chertkov is the head of an organization dedicated to spreading Tolstoy’s religious and ethical ideas. He wants Tolstoy to add a clause to his will that would make his works public domain after his death, so they can be more readily available to people. Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya (Helen Mirren) is bitterly opposed to this; she is afraid that she and her children will be left without an income. Valentin gradually develops sympathy for Sofya, and he comes to regard Chertkin as a fanatic. Valentin also has an affair with one of Tolstoy’s followers, Masha (Kerry Condon).

Tolstoy is portrayed as a complex character. He disapproves of sex, but he fondly remembers the sexual adventures of his youth. He enjoys the attention of his followers, yet at moments he seems uneasy with their tendency to idolize him. He loves his wife (who bore him thirteen children!), but her rejection of his ideas deeply upsets him. (I thought Plummer was very good as Tolstoy.)

I found this film interesting to watch, but not terribly moving. It failed to make me feel that the issues involved were important. The subplot of Valentin’s romance with Masha is not entirely convincing and detracts from the main story. The film also struck me as a bit sentimental – something Tolstoy would not have approved of.

I’ve always had deeply mixed feelings about Tolstoy. He was undeniably a brilliant writer. I remember reading an early short novel of his, Family Happiness, which is told from the point-of-view of a young wife. The narrative voice was so convincing that at one point I had to stop and remind myself that the book was written by a man and not by a woman. Yet there is this moralizing tendency in his writings that I find annoying and even somewhat offensive. (A Russian aristocrat is the last sort of person who should tell other people how to behave.) This tendency became greater as he grew older, until he began to preach a sort of religion that included, among other things, vegetarianism and celibacy. What kind of fun is that?

One interesting thing about this film is that we’re shown photographers standing outside Tolstoy’s home snapping pictures at every glimpse of Tolstoy or his wife. Their marital troubles are reported on in newspapers. Our celebrity culture apparently began with Tolstoy.

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One-Term Obama?

February 20, 2010

A recent poll showed that a majority of Americans think that Obama will only serve one term. This shouldn’t be surprising. Obama’s two biggest accomplishments during his first term were 1) giving billions of dollars to the banks, and 2) escalating the war in Afghanistan, two moves that were both unpopular. He made no real effort to win over voters. His stimulus plan was too timid to have much real effect, and he completely mishandled the issue of health care reform, dropping it in the lap of Congress, who, of course, made a complete hash of it. Obama is starting to look like Jimmy Carter, who wreaked his own presidency to advance the neoliberal project.

The second year of his presidency doesn’t look any more promising. He has announced government loans for building more nuclear reactors. (How about loans for rebuilding New Orleans? At least the Big Easy isn’t radioactive.) He also wants to “reform” Social Security and Medicare. These are two moves that are sure to be unpopular. That second term is looking more elusive every day.

Obama has created a bipartisan commission to review government entitlements. This is a coy move. No doubt Obama is hoping to deflect public criticism by being able to say that he is only carrying out the recommendations of a bipartisan commission (note that magic word, “bipartisan”). Unfortunately, the Republicans are not fully co-operating, much to Obama’s annoyance. Obama’s proposal for a deficit-reduction commission created by Congress was shot down by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans.

Why wouldn’t the Republicans want to do this? Bear in mind, a large chunk of the Republicans’ voter base is composed of elderly voters. You may recall that George W. Bush wanted to trash Social Security, but he had to drop the idea after his fellow Republicans got cold feet. The G.O.P. wants to get rid of entitlements, but they want the Democrats to be the ones who take the heat for it. (An exception here is the certifiably insane Michelle Bachmann, who is waging a campaign against Social Security. No doubt, she believes that Obama’s goal is to herd us all into re-education camps, where we will be forced to collect Social Security checks and receive medical treatment paid for by Medicare. Truly, an Orwellian nightmare.) I have a sinking feeling that Obama may end up doing just what the Republicans want him to do.

Good-bye, second term.

Pernell Roberts 1928-2010

February 15, 2010

I know it’s a little late to bring it up, but Pernell Roberts died last month. He was a respected stage actor, but he was best known for playing the eldest son, Adam Cartwright, on Bonanza, a Western TV show that was hugely popular during the 1960’s. The show told the story of Ben Cartwright, who owns a huge ranch, the Ponderosa, next to Lake Tahoe. Cartwright has three sons by three different wives. The latter all met with untimely deaths. (This sounds suspicious to me. In the days of the Wild West, there weren’t any police around to ask questions.) I watched this show when I was a kid. I don’t remember much about it, except that every character seemed to wear the same clothes every day. I found this vaguely disturbing.

What I find interesting about Roberts is that he quit the show after six seasons. He complained about the bad writing and called the show “junk TV”. This was a gutsy thing to do, considering what an uncertain profession acting is. He also criticized NBC for not hiring minority actors. He took part in Civil Rights marches in 1965.

In the 1980’s, he did a TV medical drama series called Trapper John, M.D.. (The title character is supposedly the same Trapper John character in MASH.) I never saw this show, but I can’t imagine it could have been very good, considering that the writers were apparently unaware that the name, “Trapper John” is actually an off-color joke.

I guess there’s a limit to how principled and uncompromising an actor can be. He’s still got to pay his bills after all.

A Single Man and Crazy Heart

February 13, 2010

I saw two films recently, A Single Man and Crazy Heart. I found both interesting, although for very different reasons.

A Single Man is directed by Tom Ford and based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood. It tells the story of George Falconer (Colin Firth), who teaches English at a college in Los Angeles in the early 1960’s. His partner, Jim (Matthew Goode) was earlier killed in a car crash. His only close friend is the frowzy Charly (Julianne Moore, who looks like a middle-aged Ann-Margaret in this film). The film follows George through a day in his life, interspersed by flashbacks. It gradually becomes clear that George is planning to commit suicide. He plans his own death in the same dispassionate manner that he conducts his English classes. At the same time, he suddenly finds himself being pursued by one of his students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult)

At times this film seemed cold and over-stylized to me, yet I ultimately found it oddly moving. The film’s emotional coolness becomes a counterpoint to George’s inner turmoil. This film is also interesting in that it shows what life was like for gay men in the ’60’s, before Stonewall. In one scene, George is prohibited by Jim’s family from attending his funeral, an indignity that clearly eats at George.

I had heard good things about Crazy Heart, but I must admit I found it a little disappointing. Written and directed by Scott Cooper, it tells the story of a down-and-out country singer, Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), who falls in love with a single mother, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The film has funny moments and the acting is pretty good, but somehow I felt as though I had been here before. The story unfolds in a way that is a little too pat and predictable for my taste. However, an early scene in which Blake performs in a dive bar is poignant. It shows the petty humiliations that a person working in show business can experience. The outdoor shots are breathtaking. God, I miss the Southwest.

There’s Something Rotten in the State of Denmark

February 9, 2010

I went to the local Rite-Aid to buy some aspirin the other day. When I went to the check-out counter, there was the usual assortment of gossip and women’s magazines. However, there was an addition that I’d never seen before. It was a special edition magazine titled “Sarah Palin: The Untold Story”. It promised “100 pages of must-see photos”. Below that were the words “Faith, Family, Tradition” (Kinder, Kueche, Kirche). Below that was the question: “Can She Save America?” (Do pigs have wings?)

Experience has taught me to be wary of conspiracy theories. Still, I can’t help thinking that there is something fishy about this whole Sarah Palin phenomenon. Here is a woman who has failed to distinguish herself in any way, who was treated as a national joke when she ran for vice-president. Yet the media are constantly promoting her. And not just the right-wing media. Last year, Barbara Walters did a TV special called “The Ten Most Fascinating People of 2009”. Sure enough, Sarah Palin was one of them. Her speech at the Tea Party convention was broadcast by CNN, as if it were a major event. One really has to wonder if there is something behind all this.

Anyone, even a conservative, who thinks Palin is presidential material, must live in a cave. First of all, she’s clearly not very bright. It apparently never occurred to her that her comment about Obama reading a TelePrompTer might open her up to ridicule, since it is well known that she uses hand notes. Her lack of education is embarrassingly obvious. As a public speaker, she is just awful; she sounds like the most annoying teacher you had in grade school. What’s more, she’s prone to scandal. The real reason she resigned as Governor of Alaska is because the Republican-controlled state legislature found evidence that she abused her office. She tried to pressure the Public Safety Commissioner to fire a state trooper who was her former brother-in-law. This should have ended her career. (Blagojevich became a political pariah, even though what he did really wasn’t any worse than this.) It’s recently been revealed that she hasn’t paid property taxes for some cabins she owns.

Palin doesn’t alway seem to get along with her fellow Republicans. One of the more interesting moments during the 2008 election was when McCain criticized Obama for using the expression, “putting lipstick on a pig”. What does it tell us that he automatically assumed that Obama must be referring to Palin?

So, who, or what, is behind this big Sarah Palin push? And what are they trying to accomplish by this? We should start demanding answers.

Non-Controversy of the Month

February 6, 2010

In a society in which we are discouraged from discussing the truly outrageous things that are going on in the world, it’s perhaps inevitable that people would contrive to be offended by trivialities.

I found this on the Internet the other day.

According to the article, NBC has issued an apology (to whom?) because, during Black History Month, their cafeteria served a meal that consisted of fried chicken, collared greens with smoked turkey, white rice, black-eyed peas and jalapeno cornbread. (Sounds like damn good eating to me.) The article doesn’t make clear who was supposedly offended by this. It is common in our society to associate certain foods with certain ethnic groups, and no one is bothered by this. Italian-Americans don’t get offended when a movie shows Italians eating pasta. I am of German descent, yet if the UO dorm cafeterias were to celebrate Oktoberfest by serving bratwurst and sauerkraut, I would not find this offensive.

The article quotes the chef, Leslie Calhoun, who is Black, as saying:

    I don’t understand at all. It’s not trying to offend anybody and it’s not trying to suggest that that’s all that African-Americans eat. It’s just a good meal. I thought it would go over well.

I would have thought so, too.

I spent nearly ten years of my life in the awful city of Los Angeles. Yet I will always fondly remember the soul food restaurants that I went to there. There is this place in Hollywood that I would go to called Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. (What two things could possibly go together better than chicken and waffles?) They have this dish called Stymie’s Choice. It consists of a heaping pile of fried chicken gizzards and grits, covered with gravy. Damn, it’s good.

There’s one soul food restaurant here in Eugene. It’s called Papa’s Soul Food Kitchen. (I recommend the gumbo.) It was, until his recent death, owned by a guy who called himself “Papa Soul”. He was a fixture in the local music scene. He would play the washboard with local bands. Lately, the place has started having live blues shows.

So, I don’t feel much sympathy with people who take offense at finding fried chicken and collared greens in the NBC cafeteria. All I can say to them is: “Get a life”.