The Circus Cycle

This week’s press conference showdown between presidential candidate Donald Trump and Univision’s Jorge Ramos was another farce. Such melodrama drives today’s pathetic journalism, with journalists driving Trump’s campaign, and vice versa. The forged, artificial bond between superficial media and superficial political candidates self-perpetuates.

DonaldTrumpThis circus-like cycle will not have a happy ending. Clownish Trump, whose politically incorrect way of speaking and uninspired opponents, more than his ideas, aid his rising fanbase, is the GOP’s 2016 presidential front-runner. The cycle spins out of control with serious consequences.

This week’s spectacle was purely a ploy by Ramos, who is one of those grandstanding television personalities like Megyn Kelly, for instant media attention. He disrupted and hijacked a Trump press affair, was booted from the event, returned and continued his tirade. His purpose was not to report, inquire or debate, let alone inform, enrich or enlighten. His aim, like most people on today’s non-fictional television, was to get attention for the sake of getting attention.

I expect this hitching onto Trump’s populist bandwagon to spread. Fox News, which is built on an anti-intellectual premise, mainstreamed the trend years ago, cleverly marketing its brand of opportunistic sensationalism as an alternative to “the mainstream media”, an industry which now adopts a similarly salacious approach. Look no further than Fox News at Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich or any other TV pundit-politician-populist dealing in bromides, not principles, like Andy Griffith’s power-lusting Lonesome Rhodes in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd. But look, too, for variations of the same, shallow approach across today’s click-baiting media. This week, NBC’s veteran Today Show host, vacuous Matt Lauer, asked Donald Trump, who may be America’s top leader when America’s worst enemy gets nuclear weapons, if he has a crush on Megyn Kelly.

It is a full circle moment in today’s government/media circus; an icon of the empty-headed media elite both aping and ceding his scant credibility to one of the more vacant media figures, Megyn Kelly, an intelligent journalist who can be constructive but never goes deep for long and deliberately dumbs herself down to get attention.

TV_Fox_Kelly_at_Night_inev_t607 The Kelly File hostess initiated the emergence of circus ringmaster Trump, one of the 20th century’s most symbolic figures of the status quo’s cronyism and pragmatism, as a serious candidate for the White House. Kelly’s controversial debate questions for Trump, who continues to gain followers chiefly because he is wrongly perceived as not being part of the status quo, were improper for a presidential debate. Despite Roger Ailes standing by his network’s lead hostess in a statement, and Trump’s vulgar and obnoxious Tweets, retweets, and ramblings, Megyn Kelly was wrong to use Trump’s TV barbs as cannon fodder in Fox’s thinly veiled attack on Trump’s character. Kelly was wrong to ask the candidates whether they heard a supernatural voice. She was wrong to minimize serious policy during the Fox News/Facebook debate (read my review here). Mr. Ailes is wrong that Kelly is a serious journalist; she’s capable of being serious only in fits which is why her dedication to being unserious makes her among the worst of today’s journalists, as I wrote when she debuted with her own show in 2013 (read my review and postscript here). MSNBC’s Chris Matthews observed about her the other night on Hardball that Megyn Kelly has a knack for making an audience interested in her reaction to a guest as he’s speaking. I think this is what fuels her appeal; she plays hard and smart with a wink. But she plays. She’s a put-on artist.

In short, Megyn Kelly is to journalism what Donald Trump is to politics—with Jorge Ramos tagging along—and nothing more: stubbornly, consistently and cockily anti-intellectual. There’s a reason why Trump and Kelly propel each other’s cause; they’re like a nightly show. They both represent an improper mixing of state with economics and show business with journalism. They both embody the person without principles—or, more precisely, the person who has contempt for acting on principle.

This quality attracts people with mixed, bad or worst principles. In fact, the prospect of a President Trump rounding illegal immigrants up based on who the state deems good or bad, and getting mileage out of Trump messing with the left’s new media darling who’s willing to say or do anything for an audience, appeals to former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke. Racist and convicted felon Duke all but endorsed Trump this week as the best candidate for president. That the former Democrat and former Republican legislator, who reflects the worst of both parties, sees Trump’s and Kelly’s pseudo-spat as an opportunity shows that those willing to say and do anything for attention propagate those willing to do anything terrible with the government.

The alternative to this 2016 presidential campaign madness is not the same status quo leadership. The worst outcome for America is more of the failed Clinton-Bush leadership, which spawned Obama and the current band of charlatans. Jeb Bush, for example, rushed to defend Jorge Ramos versus Trump, offering that he thinks Ramos deserves respect. Ramos, like Kelly, Trump and other players, deserves scorn, not respect, for grandstanding and Bush represents the failed past. The new century’s new media, as I wrote here, demands constant and serious judgment. Today’s rational American should beware, because the government crony-media axis spin, to flip a Fox News catchphrase, starts here and now. The circus has just begun.

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The Great American Hero

Courtesy Reuters

Courtesy Reuters

Fourteen years ago on September 11, before the United States entered its longest war, before George W. Bush squandered an opportunity to rally Americans around a moral defense of the nation based on individual rights and Americans instead elected and re-elected Barack Obama and chose to sacrifice liberty for faith in government control predicated on a false sense of national security, one of the passengers on a plane hijacked by Islamic terrorists on 9/11 called an end to plans for self-defense and said: “Let’s roll.”

What the phrase means, then and now, is an Americanism: it’s a combination of the moral commitment to a united act of self-defense imbued with “can-do” optimism. That the men on United Flight 93 who acted on this call to action were the only Americans to succeed in self-defense on that black Tuesday, and that they were civilians as against the government and military personnel whose proper role is to defend the nation, should have made an enormous impact on the American public in terms of discerning military defense as the highest and most proper role of government.

It didn’t. Instead, most Americans chose to have faith in the state and support the omnipotent state, though some, such as Edward Snowden, choose to question the role of government. There are others, including activists, intellectuals and freethinkers across the political spectrum, who fight to varying degrees for individual rights. Last week, the world witnessed in one brave act of self-defense against another Islamic terrorist attack, the return of the American hero.

His name is Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos (pictured here from left to right). There are others, including an American whose struggle against the Moslem terrorist alerted the three young American heroes, and a British businessman. But it was these three who took the religious barbarian, who came charging down an aisle on a train bound for Paris intent on mass murder, down. They hogtied the Islamic radical, who had watched a YouTube video calling for jihad before boarding the train, according to officials in France. What prompted the men—three friends from suburban California—to act was when one of them, upon hearing gunfire, said: “Let’s go.” They charged toward the jihadist and took him down.

The story of this great American act of heroism reminds me of the heroic passengers on United 93. Their call to roll, as historian John David Lewis said while evoking phrases such as “Remember the Alamo!” in my 2011 interview, should have but never caught on. Even more obscure is the fact that, according to reporter Jere Longman, after United 93’s passengers broke into the cockpit and stood facing the enemy, in what may be the last recorded words of the final flight used in the worst attack against America, one lone passenger called out: “Let’s get them!” Then, there was a union of self-defense against the siege and the plane went down.

Last Friday, thanks to an act of self-interest, it was the siege that went down. In the American history of men fighting for life against a barbaric siege, the Alamo’s Davy Crockett once advised: “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” These three Americans, Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos, heading for Paris, acted on the call to go by reason. Come this year’s 9/11, instead of the meaningless, usual displays of grief, weakness and submission to faith, despair and statism, Americans ought to think of the American hero—Davy Crockett, United 93’s passengers, and the Paris-bound train’s defenders—and pledge to go by reason, get the enemy before it’s too late and roll over any and every threat to our lives and freedom.

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Movie Review: Grandma

GrandmaPosterComedienne Lily Tomlin gets a vehicle she deserves in Grandma, a layered character study about what makes an angry, old lesbian. The dry, day-in-the-life comedy peels away politics and political correctness to depict an original and untold story. It’s small in scope but not small-minded and, with an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion at stake, the movie for Sony Pictures Classics by writer and director Paul Weitz (Little Fockers, About a Boy, Admission), is remarkably radical in under 90 minutes.

Ms. Tomlin plays Elle, an aging feminist poet and writer living in what could be Silver Lake or some other grungy Los Angeles neighborhood. She’s an embittered academic who lashes out at her partner Olivia (Judy Greer) in an abrupt eruption of anger that’s obviously defensive. Deep down, she’s human, and, while Weitz describes the movie as his tribute to feminism (in an opening night Hollywood interview), Grandma‘s more of the same secular humanism for which he’s become known. Granddaughter (Julia Garner) shows up at the doorstep with an unwanted pregnancy after the meltdown, granting Grandma a reason to revisit the past to forge a new beginning.

Central to the plot is the teenager’s goal to get an abortion, which is perfectly dramatized without the rancor of politics and religion. Reducing controversial issues to a human scale in personal terms related to each character, Weitz leaves just enough unsaid and undone to add depth to Grandma and those she encounters, rouses, jostles, hustles and locks lips and horns with along the way, from the butch cafe lesbian (the late Elizabeth Pena) and an ex-husband (Sam Elliott) to her own daughter, the teen’s mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden (Path to ParadiseThe Hoax, If I Were You) who gets better in every role and delivers another outstanding performance. Almost everyone is excellent in this movie, from Greer (Dawn off the Planet of the Apes, The Descendants) as the hurt lesbian lover and Elliott (Ghost Rider, Mask, The Incredible Hulk) as the hurt heterosexual lover to Garner as the conflicted granddaughter, glimmering turns by every minor role actor and Judy Geeson (Brannigan, To Sir, With Love) in a cameo.

But Grandma belongs to Lily Tomlin. The character actress and comedienne, who broke out on NBC’s Laugh-In as Ernestine the telephone operator and has had an enduring stage and screen career in hits such as Big Business with Bette Midler, has never had the fullest career to match her talent. She’s hilarious here and there in All of Me and The Incredible Shrinking Woman with her blend of physical and intellectual comedy, and even with her leftist, anti-business bent, Ms. Tomlin usually entertains as an everywoman. In Grandma, Weitz keeps her to a steadily rhythmic clip, coasting through references to Betty Friedan and whatever comes from her character’s Tourette’s-like propensity to say whatever comes to mind to poignant moments of repose when her bitter poet Elle must face the consequences of her life choices. Lily Tomlin is a woman in whole here, fully intelligent, prickly, principled, abrasive, maternal and sexual. The neatly segmented Grandma, in which an old motor vehicle serves as transportation for and symbolic of an old motormouth, may be the role that suits her best.

grandma_4-620x325Grandma is a family affair, like Little Miss Sunshine (2006), though it’s less contrived and more subdued than that hilarious movie. Each of the three women (granddaughter, mother and grandma) have pivotal moments of self-awareness, consciously chosen realizations and admissions that add up to a strong, female-driven family in which the term bossy is far from banned. As this subtly, deftly made story against the Dark Ages arcs toward a single figure walking away alone, the theme of a woman as properly bossy is aptly understood, even by the child-woman who mistakes Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique for a comic book character.

In his appearance last night in Hollywood, Paul Weitz said that the impetus for this lowercase-titled picture comes from his time with Ms. Tomlin on his Tina Fey movie Admission. The perfect showcase for the talented Lily Tomlin, with its radical departure from and challenge to Hollywood’s appeasement of anti-life, anti-choice religionists, is the gentle, searching and intelligent result.

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Movie & Blu-Ray Review: The World According to Garp (1982)

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George Roy Hill’s 1982 adaptation of John Irving’s breakthrough 1978 novel, The World According to Garp, is better than its reputation. The Warner Bros. picture was a critical and commercial failure. Above all, this serious-themed movie—out this month on Blu-Ray—is seeded with ideas.

That the ideas involve sex, collectivism and death make The World According to Garp a culturally significant motion picture. With Hill (Hawaii, The Sting, The Little Drummer Girl) directing and a taut script by Steve Tesich (Breaking Away), the novel’s puritanical feminist mother to Garp (Robin Williams in his first major movie), portrayed by Glenn Close with perfection, sets the tone. The plain, Yankee frankness of seriously horrifying ideals mixed with perfectly reasonable ideals plays across Garp’s lifetime.

Garp’s mother is a rapist who compares sex with disease and, when her own son expresses the desire to gain new knowledge by asking questions, she cuts him down with a snap: “I’m tired of your questions.” She is both mother and monster. Garp’s mother violates his privacy, rescues him from danger and buys him sex from a prostitute and thus enmeshes Garp in the crazy making of her life. This is Irving’s absurdism but it is also the stuff of life. From a former top athlete who becomes a transsexual (John Lithgow) to Garp’s starch grandparents (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy) and a reckless driver (Matthew Cowles), colorful characters depict various contradictions of our time.

Accordingly, the result is, and this fits the movie’s theme, an adventurous life. Garp’s lonely, sorrowful struggle to find happiness is strangely larger than and true to life. Garp, named after a crippled tailgunner his nurse mother raped in the hospital, wrestles the vicious dog that bit him as a boy during fellatio in order to recover his first manuscript. He becomes, of course, a writer and a wrestler. The act of fellatio reprises in his life with devastating impact, too. The World According to Garp is relentless in such audacious details and rich in symbolism. Williams is adept in every scene, playing the suppressed energy of an emasculated New England male caught in the 20th century’s rapid descent into feminist dogma and ripped apart by sexual liberation.

The story is brilliantly anti-sexual in a fundamental sense, though it is captured in a way which, thanks to Robin Williams and his co-star Mary Beth Hurt as his college professor wife Helen, is compelling. Their troubled marriage thoughtfully comes undone amid conflicting career goals and frustrations, as each wrestles with anxiety over kids, fear of death and balancing love, work and life. Living with the insecure writer, or the academic constantly tempted by youth, and making “the kids” a rationalization for denial, are all dramatized with skill and humor. From the hilarious definition of “gradual school” to an uncomfortable scene between the babysitter and Garp, in which he salivates at her being 18 while she salivates at his being 30, Garp is honest, clear and insightful.

It makes the audience think.

But Garp is best in its anti-sex theme showing the mass contradiction of feminism, a collectivist offshoot defining one’s identity as based on one’s sex, an idea which was widely accepted and only spread after the bestselling novel was adapted. The women’s-only coastal compound where Garp’s evangelistic mother nurses her adherents back to health, from the tough-but-kind, and notably unsatisfied, transsexual to the man-hating women who mutilate themselves as martyrs for the feminist faith, is both prison and sanctuary. The place is peaceful, decent and it’s where Garp goes to heal, thanks to his mother in a final act of enlightenment.

Garp’s Kennedy-like compound is a transient place of irrationalism, where the wicked and the wounded alike are housed, granting refuge to the absurd and tolerance to society’s most vulnerable victims. The World According to Garp co-habits the 20th century’s worst ideas, including pragmatism, fatalism and self-sacrifice, and thus reflects the United States of America. That the practitioners are women seeking to rule men is especially astute.

This is not to say that Garp is explicitly anti-feminist, as Irving and Tesich merely send feminists up for the sake of humor. In one transition, Roberta Muldoon is maiden to Garp’s boys during child’s play. In the next scene, Helen capitulates to playing maiden in need of rescue for real to one of her students. Sexual stereotypes self-perpetuate; Garp’s women, even his stubborn mother, have a point.

Faith breeds force, as Ayn Rand once wrote, and brute force takes its toll, though Irving probably does not intend this as the meaning of Garp. The subtext is there, however, instilled in dark, strange and almost surrealistic plot points, which are possibly too serious and tragic for most, except the most damaged. It calls out life’s absurdities, such as the iconic plane striking the house, and beckons the weird to face the strange, as David Bowie sings in “Changes”, and embrace the byproduct of mixed ideas: the unusual, even the painful, hard and terrible.

In the character Pooh Percy, the archetypical arch-feminist, who is also a sociopath, one sees the full arc of Garp‘s clearly dramatized sub-theme that, while life should be lived as an adventure, which in this context means embracing uniqueness including any contradictions, ultimately man is doomed by the irrational. Whether this is true (I think it’s false), one can take it, even on Garp‘s terms, to mean that man’s only doomed to self-terminate to the extent he sanctions the irrational. Pooh Percy is a feminist in glasses and pigtails taken to the logical application of her ideals. A line early in the movie indicates that Pooh’s mother implants the child with hatred of her own sex and life and one wonders what els might have happened to this child, especially since her father is a malignant if minor character. Pooh is like an Islamic fundamentalist trained from scratch to be like a laser-guided missile to destroy sex, love and life. To Pooh, values are poison; she is like an automatonic assassin programmed for death. Watch Pooh for a lesson in what happens when decent people refuse to think, judge and speak up about the judged.

Garp is not, contrary to some assertions, flat, terrible and deadly. Certainly, Garp is mixed. The theme is not positive. Yet intelligent ideas about writing permeates the movie. From the gloves in a story Garp writes and the role of the piano in his self-recovery to the sound of a typewriter’s keys at Christmastime, this is an involving depiction of the writer’s life in stark, dramatic detail. It is possible to live a meaningful life in The World According to Garp, with the richest rewards coming in the most surprising places, times and gestures. Garp’s greatest literary achievement finally comes as a result of Garp’s greatest risk. His payoff comes in a most unwelcome context with a character played by Amanda Plummer. It’s a poignant moment which captures Irving’s brand of misfit individualism. Taking the tragic as a metaphysical primary, Garp proposes that one’s life soars only before the downfall.

This makes The World According to Garp a timely, thoughtful movie not without merit which is thoroughly modern, and prophetic, in its malevolence.

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Movie Review: She’s Funny That Way

ShesFunnyThatWayPosterSee Lionsgate’s new comedy for what it is not, knowing in advance that it’s too aware of what it is. Peter Bogdanovich’s return to cinema, She’s Funny That Way, is a diversionary pleasure. It is flawed and light, smart and snappy. But it helps to know that it is embedded with so much more.

As a movie in the genre of what writer and director Bogdanovich (What’s Up, Doc?, The Last Picture Show, Mask) calls screwball comedy, it’s a daring choice for a comeback film. Master filmmaker Bogdanovich, a writer and film journalist who became a top, moneymaking director in the 1970s and is known for seminal pictures such as Paper Moon (1973), is discriminating. He’s outspoken as an artist who rejects today’s cultural vulgarity. That his personal life has at times become as larger than life as some of his movies—his Playboy centerfold model girlfriend was murdered in a plot depicted in Star 80—powers his unique perspective.

She’s Funny That Way focuses one’s attention, in a universal sense, on what matters: the truth about what’s funny.

Framed by two female characters in an interview exchange, the story mixes prostitution and show business. So, it’s easy to see the potential for humor, lines with jokes and sight gags. She’s Funny That Way, centering on one New York City actress (Imogen Poots, A Long Way Down), grounds the humor in the good. As the Poots character spins her bawdy tale of getting a part in a play to a skeptical journalist (Illeana Douglas), she begins with gratitude and she means it. True to shifting, ensemble comedy, whether the intended recipient of her gratitude deserves it may not be obvious—neither is it obvious who the intended may be—but describing the plot as the tale of a call girl who gets a callback isn’t quite right.

Of course, this is what makes the madcap affair a bit too contrived and self-conscious, which undercuts the laughter. What Mr. Bogdanovich attempts is an integration of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940s’ lightness (complete with a Lubitsch movie line capping its theme) in a present-day setting. With Owen Wilson (How Do You Know, Little Fockers, Midnight in Paris) as the play’s director, Rhys Ifans (The Amazing Spider-Man) as an unlikely playboy, Jennifer Aniston (Love Happens) as an angry female psychiatrist, Will Forte (Saturday Night Live) as the playwright, and Kathryn Hahn (Tomorrowland) as the director’s wife and actress, multiple characters interact, intervene and collide. It’s a comedy—with an outstanding cast led by Poots’ heartfelt performance—of errors, omissions and facades.

There’s humor in the unmasking. As subplots converge with exaggerated exactness and the fur flies in theater, restaurant and hotel scenes, She’s Funny That Way plays out its theme that aligning one’s sexuality with one’s self-interest is sure to make one a little mad these days. For all the classic Hollywood references, which are a treat unto themselves, She’s Funny That Way is refreshingly modern in the best sense. Peter Bogdanovich has made a sober, realistic movie about becoming self-made with a rare lightness that’s sorely missing from most comedies. It’s not entirely successful, so don’t expect nonstop laughing out loud but there is nothing tainted or jaded here.

Today, this is an incredible achievement, especially if you’re Peter Bogdanovich, who ought to keep making movies. She’s Funny That Way, which reunites the director with his Last Picture Show star Cybill Shepherd and is co-written by his ex-wife, Louise Stratten, and co-produced by his daughter Antonia, gives sleeping one’s way to the top and making the most of the madcap, a fresh, benevolent twist.

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