Archive for August, 2015

The Rise of Donald Trump

August 24, 2015


I had hoped that Trump’s support consisted entirely of old white people. However, looking at photos of his recent rally in Mobile, Alabama; I was dismayed to see a lot of young people, although they were all white. (I did see one black guy in one of the photos, although he may have been doing security. Either way, he didn’t look terribly enthusiastic.) Trump’s message seems to resonate with people from all walks of (white) life.

I recently watched the documentary, Trump: What’s the Dearl?, which was made in the early 1990’s. It was never realease at the time, because Trump sued the filmmakers. (Trump has a thing for suing people. He once sued an architecture critic who panned one of his buildings.) It has recently been made available online. The film only follows Trump’s career up until the early 1990’s, after he filed for bankruptcy due to the failure of one of his Atlantic City casinos. It is nevertheless a revealing account of Trump’s early career.

Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was a wealthy Brooklyn real estate developer. When Trump set out to break into the real estate business in the 1970’s, the then mayor of New York, Abraham Beame, happened to be a childhood friend of Fred Trump. Beame used his influence to arrange Trump’s first big real estate purchase. Later, when Trump bought the Commodore Hotel, Beame arranged to give him a huge tax break. Trump’s whole career was made possible by the fact that he happened to have a wealthy father who was politically well-connected.

His business model apparently consists of borrowing a lot of money while doing things on the cheap. When he tore down the old Bonwit Teller building, to make way for his Trump Tower, he hired an inexperienced firm that used undocumented Polish immigrants as workers.(I guess Trump only objects to immigrants when they happen to be Mexican.) They were not given protective equipment, even though they had to remove asbestos. This approach usually works well for Trump, but it sometimes gets him into trouble. During the 1980’s, he borrowed so much money to buy up real estate in Atlantic City that the revenues from his casinos were not enough to keep with his debt payments. With his characteristic crassness, Trump tried to blame three managers of his casino, who had recently died in a helicopter crash, for its failure.

I have to admit that the appeal of Trump escapes me. He lacks charm, and he actually strikes me as being a dull person. Yet so many people in the media seem to want to regard him as an interesting person. Trump is an invention of the media, and they must take responsibility for the harm he is currently doing.

The Gift

August 20, 2015


The heat wave this past weekend here in LA made the idea of sitting in an air-conditioned movie theater more than usually appealing to me, so I ended up watching three thrillers. Thrillers are basically my favorite genre. I would sooner watch a mediocre thriller than sit through a critically acclaimed “feel good” movie like St. Vincent. That’s just the way I roll.

The first one I saw was a French-Canadian film titled Tom at the Farm. It’s basically about a sado-masochistic relationship that often seems to be on the verge of becoming lethal. It’s OK. A big problem I had with this film is that I found the main character unsympathetic, since he seemed to like being bullied. I enjoyed Cop Car a lot more. It’s fun watching Kevin Bacon playing a thoroughly corrupt and cynical small-town sheriff. The director, Jon Watts, shows a real knack for building suspense. However, I found the up-in-the-air ending disappointing. I have to admit that I’m not big on up-in-the-air endings. A film, like a symphony, should have an ending that brings things to completion.

The best film I saw, though, was The Gift, written and directed by Joel Edgerton. It tells the story of a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who have just bought a house in the Hollywood Hills. While shopping one day, they bump into Gordon (Joel Edgerton), an old schoolmate of Simon’s. They have him over for dinner one day, and afterwards Gordon begins to drop by their house, leaving gifts and offering to help out with things. His behavior begins to seem intrusive and a bit unnerving. Robyn starts to suspect that Simon is not telling her the whole truth about his past relationship with Gordon.

First-time director Edgerton does a good job of creating a sense of foreboding. The film benefits from strong performances, particularly from Hall, who does a good job of conveying Robyn’s conflicting emotions: she is simultaneously sympathetic towards Gordon and a bit creeped out by him.


Although I mostly liked this film, I found the ending unsatisfying. We see Gordon gloating over a defeated Simon. Although Simon is truly a terrible person, Gordon’s own actions were sordid. He stalked Robyn and invaded her privacy; he basically used her to get even with Simon. I would have preferred an ending that did a better job of acknowledging the moral ambiguities of the situation.

Listen to Me Marlon

August 13, 2015


Marlon Brando was, arguably, the greatest American actor of the twentieth century. Stevan Riley’s new film, Listen to Me Marlon is a deeply moving examination of Brando’s tragic life and work. Based on taped musings that Brando left behind after his death, it is actually more of a film essay than a documentary. Brando’s tapings are combined with clips from his films, excerpts from TV news broadcasts and interviews, and even messages from Brando’s telephone answering machine, to create a tapestry of ideas, opinions, reflections, and emotions that is deeply haunting and even somewhat disturbing.

We learn about Brando’s childhood in Omaha, Nebraska. He talks about his abusive father and alcoholic mother. His father sent him to a military academy, an experience that left him with a deep dislike for the military, whose purpose he saw was to make men into machines. After he dropped out of the academy, he went to New York, where he studied acting under Stella Adler. He immediately showed a strong talent for it, and Adler encouraged him to pursue a career in theater. He achieved success early on when he was cast as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. However, he found the role emotionally demanding. (He says the character reminded him of his father.) Performing this play night after night left him feeling drained. He decided then he would only do film acting. He achieved enormous success doing this during the 1950’s. However, he found the experience of filming the 1962 film, Mutiny on the Bounty unpleasant, and he was hurt by the fact that the studio blamed him for the film’s delays and cost overruns. Embittered by this experience, Brando began to view acting as nothing more than a way to make a living. Making The Godfather reawakened his enthusiasm for acting. However, after Last Tango in Paris, he came to feel that the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, had invaded his privacy. Apocalypse Now was something of a repeat of Bounty for Brando. The director, Francis Ford Coppola, blamed him for the film’s cost overruns. After that, Brando says little on the topic of acting or the films he appeared in.

Brando talks a great deal about his love for Tahiti, both for its landscape and for its people. Brando tells us he only ever felt at peace among Tahitians. He also talks about his involvement in the civil rights movement, as well as for his support for the struggles of Native Americans. The final section of the film largely deals with the tragic events that culminated in the suicide of his daughter, Cheyenne.

Listen to Me Marlon is a stunning depiction of the life of an extraordinary man.

A Thought on Black Lives Matter

August 10, 2015


As we all know by now, two members of Black Lives Matter recently prevented Bernie Sanders from speaking at a rally in Seattle in support of Social Security and Medicare. A number of Facebook friends of mine have tried to defend what they with the following argument: they forced Sanders to take more substantive positions on race issues. I can’t agree with this argument for two reasons. First, this tactic has clearly alienated many people who would otherwise be sympathetic towards Black Lives Matter. Was it really worth doing that just to get Sanders to take slightly better positions? Second, if you say that Sanders takes good positions just because two people forced him off the stage, that makes him look weak, doesn’t it? What good does that do?