Tuesday, July 25, 2017


If it hadn’t been a movie, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk could have been a painting in the style of Picasso’s "Guernica" or Goya’s series  of prints, "The Disasters of War." It’s also a triptych like Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, seeing Dunkirk form the land, the sea and the air. Like a painting it works sychronistically, giving more a simultaneous feel for the desperation of a defeated army than introducing some kind of Hollywood style narrative where dramatic snapshots lead to a romantic conclusion in which everything is tied together is a neat catharsis. There’s no central character in Dunkirk, no Private Ryan if you will. There’s also something Shakespearean about the whole set up. Seeing the soldiers on the beach at Dunkirk, a recurring motif in the movie, is a little like Henry wandering in disguise amongst the knots of soldiers on the field at Agincourt. Nolan moves effortlessly between high and lo, civilian (Mark Rylance) and military (Kenneth Branagh). Actually the very first scene sets the tone. A young British soldier is inundated by broadsides dropped by the Germans. He’s then fired upon.  His fellow soldiers die around him. The scene doesn’t skip a beat. It’s the way tragedies happen, without explanation or hesitation. It’s similar to what happens out at sea where in one of the films most unforgettable scenes the water literally goes on fire. From the beginning and despite all the action, the movie’s impressionistic style makes you wonder when the plot is going to begin and that’s just the point. Churchill famously asked to get back 30,000 men and got 300,000, a huge retreat that turned into a victory.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Rear Window Redux

The l0th commandment prohibits covetousness, but coveting whether a wife, a fortune or for that matter another person’s talents lies at the heart of all aspiration. It’s certainly a key element of the romantic impulse and on a more down and dirty level, it’s what drives the porn industry. You want to be able to see what you can’t have. And one wonders what would occur if you put a person in the kind of isolation chamber occupied by those who have compromised immune systems. With lust no longer imminent, would there be a diminution in desire? Sure there are hormones and pheromones and one can assume that the condition of estrus or ululation in dogs and cats is duplicated in humans regardless of what's transpiring in the world around them. But so many behaviors are social and one wonders if both criminality and arrivism (not to mention Bovarysm) are not in someway motivated by the feelings of inequity that derive from the condition of the have-not (or the sufferer from metaphysical have-notism)—the perpetual voyeur who looks longingly with his face up against the window of other lives. That's in fact the plight of Hitchock's brilliantly conceived voyeur (who just happens to be a convalescing photographer) in Rear Window.Whether L.B. (James Stewart) is missing out isn't the point. Even those who possess a great deal of talents, material goods and sexual experience can find themselves perfectly capable of looking at their respective glasses half-filled to the extent that there's always someone who has more money, more talent and who experiences more or better dalliances.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Final Solution: No Fair!

Joe DiMaggio (Play Ball cards, published by Bowman Gum)
Once again Donald Trump has used the word “unfair”—this time in reference to Jeff Sessions allowing himself to be appointed Attorney General if he knew he was going to recuse himself with regard to the Russia investigation ("Citing Recusal, Trump Says He Wouldn't Have Hired Sessions," NYT, 7/19/17) Was little Donnie one of the "little rascals" in the playground with the dirty, ice cream covered face who was constantly declaiming  “no fair!” You know the kind of kid, who pronounces the word “fayer” and is always claiming a victim status whether in a game of baseball where a strike is being  called against him rather than a ball (if Trump was a big kid his strikes might well have been his peers balls) or amongst siblings who seem to have been given favored nation status. One wonders if baseball, in fact, has a significant meaning in Trump’s psychohistory since a fair ball is one that is in play and basically what Trump is saying from the fielder’s perspective is that the batters have been hitting fouls—which if called fair, would be a case of “foul play.” “Fair” in this case is really like “rosebud” in Citizen Kane. Even though Trump has ascended to the height that every little boy dreams of when they're growing up i.e. becoming President of the United States, he is still crying out the magic words. But the haves are never satisfied. They always want more. That’s why some of them succeed in getting elected to high offices, even when they lack the qualifications. If you cry “no fair!" you may be lucky enough to get the referee to stop the action and even decide to declare a “fair” ball “foul.”

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Dream Hoarders

In a recent Times Op Ed, ("How We are Ruining America,"7/11/17), David Brooks cites a book entitled Dream Hoarders, by Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution. Brooks’ point is that the privileged classes of America not only want to insure that their children maintain educational hegemony, but that they make sure that those of more modest means are prevented from gaining entrée. The fact that affluence breeds an intrinsic parsimoniousness and miserliness and that rather than being sated those who have been able to achieve their goals perpetually want more is practically an axiom of human behavior. Countermanding this tendency is the so-called altruistic impulse that some epigenetics people feel is naturally selective, but to put forth another term employed by Daniel Kahneman in books like books like Thinking, Fast and Slow, many people suffer from irrational, emotion-based behaviors. Part of the lack of generosity  evidenced by a materialistic culture, in which hedonism has attained almost ethical status, derives from the feeling that there isn’t enough to go around and that one person’s pleasure is another’s pain. With these kinds of priorities, it’s no wonder that society is polarized in a way that mirrors the accumulation of wealth itself--in which money invested and reinvested creates ever great amounts of capital accumulation and inequity. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn famously coined the term "paradigm shift." The reformation of our educational system requires a sea change in thinking. It’s one thing to be single-minded and another to narrowcast to such an extent that you don’t see the woods from the trees. It’s like a fighter who throws punches but doesn’t know anything about defense. Eventually he or she will be knocked out.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Big Sick

Can you create a comedy out of a chronic, potentially life-threatening medical condition? What about 9/11 sick jokes? Michael Showalter's The Big Sick doesn’t pull any punches. It’s a mixture of Love Story and My Beautiful Laundrette, a social satire and melodrama rolled into one. The lingua franca of the movie about Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) an aspiring Pakistani standup comic who falls for Emily (Zoe Kazan), a psychology graduate student felled by a serious illness, is almost entirely the one-liner. “Emily is fine,” Kumail informs Emily’s parents, “She’s in a medically induced coma.” When Emily’s father asks the man who may be his future son-in-law, “what’s your stance on 9/11?” Kumail replies.”9/11 was a tragedy. We lost l9 of our best guys.” Even the characters who are not in the comedy business spew out one-liners that catch you off guard. Just after Emily emerges from her coma, she stares at her father and cries out “that shit tastes like semen” when a nurse tries to feed her. Despite his elation over his daughter's recovery, it's not exactly the first words a father expects to hear as her daughter emerges from her sick bed. And Showalter turns his own palette on its head during dramatic moments when some of Kumail’s routines become confessionals. It’s all very pat and predictable stuff yet curiously infectious. You don’t want to enjoy jokes being made at the expense of real conflicts and problems and you don’t want to find yourself being wafted away by a Pakastani soap opera that recycles a plot about intermarriage that could easily have made its way onto the stage of the Yiddish theater. Yet the sum of the parts turns out to be greater than the whole and the hysteria of all the converging plot lines and crises (as Emily’s condition worsens and Kumail is in danger of being disowned by his parents) makes it hard to walk out of The Big Sick without a smile on  your face.