I assumed my phone calls and emails were being monitored well before this latest scandal. About a year ago I found my old friend Ernesto in Cuba through the miracle of the internet. We had been best friends for years but lost touch 50 years ago—it was my doing. I was delighted that we were able to reconnect and felt great pride when I learned he was an economics professor at Havana University. Who knew what we would become when I left Cuba at nineteen.
After exchanging a few emails he asked me to look over a PowerPoint presentation he was readying for his graduate students. After getting over the surprise that PowerPoint was being used in Cuba—don’t we have an embargo?—I tried to read the slides. But they were filled with economics jargon and three letters acronyms, all in Spanish, of course. [My Spanish isn't what it used to be but then, nothing is what it used to be]
In my next email I asked him to explain some of the terms, one of which was IEDs. I couldn’t resist mentioning that around here, an IED stands for Improvised Explosive Device, or bomb. The moment I typed IED I realized the NSA would pick up the word. Why wouldn’t they? A mention of IEDs in an email to Cuba should register somewhere. But, I pressed the send button anyway. I should continue to live as a free man and they should continue to do their job. [Ernesto's IED acronym stands for some sort of international monetary exchange unit.]
As far as my phone calls, I doubt anyone is listening in. When I was a teen playing with short wave radios, back when I lived in Venezuela, almost 60 years ago, my friends and I once stumbled on a long distance conversation. We listened and giggled, briefly, and then switched the dial. It was boring. I suspect any outsider would find my conversations even more boring. Besides, with a US population of 330 million, each constantly and obsessively using the phone, I doubt any government could hire enough people to listen to all the inane messages filling the airwaves. And if they store one billion calls a day, the figure I heard quoted, they must only be storing a small fraction of all the calls and texts.
But, there is a bright side. This new ‘scandal’ gives congress something to do—hold hearings to investigate the appropriateness of the law they passed. Otherwise congress would be left with only the AP snooping and the IRS targeting organizations claiming tax exempt status [if only I could claim exempt status] before having to fall back on old reliable Benghazi or whether the Washington Redskins should change their name or repealing Obamacare yet again. Think of it, with no scandals to investigate, congress may have to start passing laws.
I was fifth in line and growing impatient. I’m blessed with some uncanny abilities, like choosing the wrong line. At an airline check-in line I have managed to be behind the guy refusing to pay extra for his two 200 lb bags. Once at passport control I found myself behind a guy who got on the wrong plane or arrived at the wrong country. In any case he didn’t have a valid visa, knowledge of the language or a clue—after all the checks? How is that possible? At this Costco line I could hear the cashier tell the incredulous woman that her credit card had expired.
“Impossible,” she argued, “I don’t owe them a penny.”
None of the people in front of me seemed aware, let alone bothered by the delay. The four people ahead of me remained aloof, their carts askew. A few years ago I might have chastised myself for being so anxious and might’ve thought their attitude right, proper and healthy. One oversized cart carrying an under counter refrigerator wasn’t quite in line. It had come to a stop at a sharp angle, as if it was trying to sneak in from another line while its owner, a round bellied man with a teenaged daughter, was absorbed by his phone, thumbing feverishly away. Like everyone else in line.
We seem to have evolved into a country of misplaced people who, regardless of where we are, need to communicate with someone who, unfortunately, is somewhere else.
When talking into a cell phone was all the rage, I used to wonder who exactly were all those people talking to, a mystery solved by my children, who call me while they are in transit.
I am not complaining. I like to hear from them and I’m pleased I fill a void in their busy lives. So I imagine that all those on their cell phones are talking to their parents, even if they are driving. Particularly if they are driving.
But since I don’t receive any texts—unless it is a wrong number text—I have no clue what is in them or who is at the other end of all those urgent messages being so assiduously texted by the four people waiting in line ahead of me.
Once the credit card snafu was fixed, the people in line remained so attached to their messaging devices and oblivious to everything else that a clerk had to pull up their carts and unload them onto the belt. Other than me, no one else noticed.
What could be so important that it demands being communicated that very instant at the exclusion of everything else?
This morning I read a news item about a woman who’d run over and killed a boy. She’d been texting while driving. Her response was to flee the scene while texting “I’m an idiot. Just got in an accident and I drove away.”
I have similar misgivings about blogging. I’ve been told many times that I need to write a blog, that otherwise I won’t succeed as a writer. One would think that reading something I’ve had published would better serve an agent or editor to gauge my ability and style [http://bit.ly/L4SmND] and how I deal with subjects that interest me [http://bit.ly/RrQjaO]. Alas, apparently my Google ranking trumps all that. A bad break for me since I have to contend with the Jim Kempner art gallery and its numerous and repetitive references.
I could change my name. Perhaps something like Alexxxander with three xs. That might work. There can’t be many people named that, with or without art galleries. The alternative, writing a blog so compelling that it would trump the art gallery seems improbable. Besides, that’s what I try to do in my writing. And there are so many blogs one has to wonder who is reading them? I can’t. If I read blogs I don’t have time to write or read books. Tweets? Shorter but even less compelling. Who can keep up?
I know all this doesn’t bode well for me and neither complaining or imagining how Salinger would’ve dealt with these issues will help me at all. (I’m not suggesting I should be compared to Salinger. For one thing, he is dead). What makes us think our every opinion, our every thought is so important that it must urgently be shared? Wise men (and women, I’m sure) instruct us to learn by listening, not by talking. I’m sure that I’m far from the first to comment or complain about texting and blogging and tweeting but I must. I’m compelled to do it. That’s why I decided to write about it in my blog.
Today’s letter, published in Courier Times
“I have good news and bad.”
“Give me the good news.”
“I got you a part opposite Matt Damon / George Clooney. You play his wife.”
“That is fantastic. What are the bad news?”
“The wife is dead.”
I imagine that’s how two separate conversations might’ve gone, between agents and two actresses, Stephanie Szostak and Patricia Hastie, before being cast as the dead wives in “I bought a Zoo” and “The Descendants.”
What are the odds we would watch both films on consecutive nights?
The similarities end there. The Zoo apparently is based on a real story. I expected it would be a sappy, predictable, feel good movie with animal high jinks and Matt Damon falling in love with Scarlett Johansson. (It shouldn’t take much acting to fall for her) I was in the mood for something like that. I was disappointed. Not a terrible film but one I don’t think resolves anything. Not convincingly. Maybe its theme is: “You know sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage. Just literally 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery. And I promise you something great will come of it.”
I’m not too sure about that. Lots of stuff can happen in 20 seconds, much of it bad.
The Descendants, on the other hand, presents credible conflict and its main protagonist is a common man blessed with great luck, as far as inheritances go. But The Descendants does resolve the conflicts within its dysfunctional family in very convincing fashion. There are no ‘aha’ moments, only the closeness that comes from shared experience, the sort of bond that keeps families together. One interesting, albeit peculiar character, is a boy friend of the eldest daughter, who at her insistence accompanies them everywhere. He is a very awkward presence at awkward situations. But this seemingly hapless and clueless boy who is himself grieving for the loss of a parent, serves many and varied purposes, even though one wonders throughout what he is doing in this film.
I highly recommend The Descendants. A rare film.
Zoo, on the other hand, I’d pass on, unless one is interested in seeing yet another Fanning girl actor. There must be a Fanning child actor factory somewhere, and they are doing a very credible job. Patricia Hastie, by the way, did a good job as the comatose wife.
Sometimes I understand how critics feel. It is more fun to write a bad review than a good one. I’m more likely to write a review because a bad experience, whether a film, TV show, concert, play or whatever may annoy me enough to make me do something about it.
In this case there is also an interesting parallel. This piece is about two ‘shows’ I watched within a few days, one really good, one really bad, both based on short stories by famous writers.
“Jindabyne” is a movie based on a Raymond Carver short story while “Justified” is a TV series on its third season airing on FX and based on an Elmore Leonard story.
Ruth and I just finished watching the end of Justified’s first season. The first show, a one hour pilot, was quite good. I imagine it owed the most to Leonard’s short story (Fire in The Hole). In it straight talking, matter of fact, fast shooting deputy Marshal Rayland Givens has just been transferred from Miami to his hometown in Kentucky after killing a drug dealer in a very public manner. “He drew first” is the Marshal’s oft repeated explanation and presumably the source of the shows title.
Harlan County in Kentucky is not like Louisville or Knoxville, cities I have visited on numerous occasions. It is rural and apparently inhabited mostly by criminals. Including deputy Marshal Givens’s father and most of his childhood friends. The shows following the pilot were stand alone half hour extension/adventures which from time to time introduced or expanded on or eliminated characters and though watchable, I consider them standard cable fare. But the last few episodes, comprising the end of season 1, DVD 3—about three hours of non stop viewing for us—were riveting. And even after that marathon of watching we wanted more and watched the producer/writer narration of the last episode, which was quite interesting.
I imagine that after the pilot, which probably owed much to the Leonard short story, the writers needed to figure out what the show was about. Eventually they elevated one of the early baddies—Boyd Crowder, who was shot nearly to death in episode 1—to a recurring role that kept us guessing because he was much worse and much better than we ever imagined. And quite a bit more complicated.
The charm and draw of Justified is the relationship between the Marshall and his past, his ex-wife, his former crush, his father, and Boyd, a childhood friend who is his friend and adversary. There are bonds formed in childhood that remain a strong influence throughout one’s life. And there is a parallel where both have complicated relationships with their respective fathers. How they handle these adds a great deal of complexity.
I suppose one should comment on the acting though I’m usually reluctant. Tim Oliphant plays the Marshall and Walton Goggins the key baddie. They both do their job well. The whole cast is good.
There are two kind of actors: bad—which you immediately notice—and normal, or good, or competent or whatever term you might want to use. In other words, I either notice the acting is bad or I believe the actor and willingly suspend disbelief.
This issue of good and bad acting reminds me of a (now obsolete) maxim I coined long ago. Given a chance to watch a movie with Henry Fonda or one with Tony Curtis, always chose the latter. If you wonder who those guys were you are too young to be reading this. Otherwise you’ll know that Fonda was universally recognized as one of the best actors while Curtis was a competent pretty boy. Nevertheless, Curtis almost invariably appeared in good, sometimes great movies like “Some Like it Hot”—the best comedy film of all time—or The Great Race, The Defiant Ones, Spartacus, The Vikings and so forth. Henry Fonda made great movies but too often he was featured in bombs. Maybe the credit should go to their respective agents or to their ability to pick the right scripts. My point is that I’m happy with competent acting and seldom notice ‘great’ acting. In fact if I notice it, if I say, “wow that was some great acting,” it draws attention away from the story and defeats the whole concept of acting.
Nonetheless, this whole issue of ‘good’ actors has another corollary: a tendency to watch films with great casts. “Oh, wow, look at this, it has Lawrence Olivier and Meryl Streep and…” Which is how I came to watch the film that compelled me to write this piece.
I just had the unfortunate experience of watching “Jindabyne,” the film based on Raymond Carver’s short story. Jindabyne is 123 minutes of characters acting stupid and having the director play games with you, with your emotions and perceptions, making it appear this or that is going to happen, that someone is hiding in the weeds while never intending any of it to materialize. If anything you wonder whether there is anyone portrayed in the film or running the show who is an adult or capable of acting like one. After a while I was merely curious, not about how it will all end—I didn’t care—but how much longer will this film go on. Why did I watch it to the end? We were with friends and they wanted to know how it ended. A cast headed by Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne should have promised something better.
I wonder what effect Raymond Carver would have had on the film if he’d been around. Elmore Leonard plays a role—at least as producer—in the TV series.
There is no moral to this piece. Film is a director’s medium and the director gets to make ‘artsy’ films—which Jindabyne is not—at his or her own risk. TV has to deliver on a consistent basis and writing, in my opinion, is more important. So I suppose all I can suggest is to check Rotten Tomatoes—which had a surprising 50% audience approval for the film—and Netflix which at 2.6/5 was closer to my opinion albeit still too high (I think people are reluctant to give films the single star rating it deserves) As far as TV, do as we do: wait for a while and then watch it “on demand,” streaming or, as we did with Justified, on DVD. We are anxiously awaiting the delivery of the season 2 DVDs.
“Take Shelter” is a film that, as of this writing, is rated 92% in the tomatometer—average critic rating of 8/10 based on 145 reviews—and 82% on audience response, based on 10,970 responses averaging 3.9/5 (Rotten tomatoes is a great place to find film ratings http://bit.ly/qAxy0U )
All in all pretty good.
I don’t like reviews that give away parts of the plot but this is a discussion of what the film might mean, so consider this a Spoiler Alert.
Take Shelter is the sort of film that is difficult to recommend, to know whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It keeps you involved and guessing throughout and afterwards makes you think. So I’d vote for it being good. I’d heard a lot about the superb acting, but acting is a subject for a different blog.
Take Shelter made me think, among other things, about Noah. Consider what Noah’s actions made his family, his friends, his neighbors think. Surely someone ordered by God to build an ark had to be mad, and yet, Noah ‘knew’ he had to build it. So, is this a lesson? Does the Bible tell us we should pay attention to seemingly crazy people doing crazy things?
Curtis LaForche (Michael Shannon) has dreams of impending disaster, all involving storms. Apocalyptic storms, including raining oil. Not a good thing in spite of the energy crisis. The name LaForche itself is peculiar enough to suggest some meaning. Unfortunately I don’t know what. (Maybe LaForche stands for ‘The Force.’ Or more likely ‘The Fork.’ If it means something in French, I didn’t figure it out.)
Curtis’ dreams are so vivid that after a nightmare where his own dog bites him, his arm hurts the rest of the day. That makes it different from a regular nightmare. And the warnings are explicit: don’t trust even those who you hold closest, your dog and your best friend. Even Curtis’ wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain, who seems to appear in every other movie) appears ready to attack him with a knife in one of his dreams. But in this dream Curtis shakes his head, maybe because he can’t believe his wife capable of such a betrayal. Or maybe because, even in his dream, without her there is no point to life. And indeed she sticks by him, in spite of his obvious descent into madness.
Not that Curtis hasn’t considered that he is indeed going mad. After all, he not only is suffering from these awful nightmares, he also experiences hallucinations, mostly involving birds. Curtis visits his mother—not a frequent occurrence—who was diagnosed a schizophrenic in her 30s; Curtis is 35.
He also secretly reads about mental diseases, takes back of the book quizzes, asks his physician for medication and goes for counseling but, at the same time, he believes the dreams. He builds his ark (or shelter) in spite of the consequences, going deep into debt, loss of his best friend, loss of job. He remains undeterred.
Why? In one of his dreams, he loses that which he loves most, his deaf daughter Hanna (Tova Stewart). He sees that as his duty, not to save mankind or the worlds fauna, but to save his family. He says as much to his wife when he can no longer avoid sharing his fears.
But when the dreaded storm finally materializes, it is only a tease, a garden variety something, maybe a tornado that passed near bye. After emerging from the shelter, we see a neighbor picking up small branches and a repairman working on a transformer. But this storm is only a test of faith.
This leads us to the only character that is rock sure absolute: the psychiatrist (Science?). The doctor is firm. He doesn’t sugar coat it. He prescribes medicine Curtis must take immediately, suggests a vacation to break away from his everyday surroundings and insists that after the vacation Curtis will have to receive intensive treatment. He will need to be committed into a facility.
What does it all mean? What is the writer/director (Jeff Nichols did both) trying to tell us?
The world’s asylums are replete with people who hear the voice of God. (Which is where I believe they belong.) A few, of course, escape that fate to become prophets or, more likely, charlatans. So is Take Shelter trying to tell us we should not dismiss people with such strong premonitions? People of such strong and unequivocal faith?
It is a relevant question. Years ago most every government or government wannabe blamed communism or imperialism or colonialism or fascism or capitalism for their troubles. Nowadays religion—lets not confuse God and religion—has retaken a more central position. The Iranian power structure—since Khomeini in the 1979—calls the US the great Satan. And the Iranian theocracy has acted accordingly, and with impunity. Others, such as former senator and current GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, openly state that Satan has infiltrated US society and that we need to follow God’s rules, not those of man. That is his stated plan if he is elected president
I don’t see much difference between these two views, both based on an unbending and unflinching belief in ‘sacred’ texts. That these texts espouse opposite views or that they are ascribed to the very same God doesn’t trouble either side; nor that these texts were written by men.
And so we get to the end to the film. The coming apocalypse. Did they die? Did we all die as well because we didn’t listen? Did the LaForche family succumb to the storm that had been foretold because Curtis didn’t remain adamant about his visions? Because he failed the one simple test? Curtis gave away his dog, he dismissed his best friend but he stuck to his wife. He confided in her, he trusted her and in the end, she betrayed him: she used the mild storm/test of faith to convince him he needed help, she led him to the psychiatrist, to the beach and to his failure.
How lonely, how solitary the visionaries lot.