Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Days of Blacklisting

Tonight we saw the movie Trumbo, which is exceptionally good, especially for the performances of everyone, but Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo stands out, even from the fine showings made by Diane Lane as his wife and many, many others, including John Goodman as a producer of junk pictures and Helen Mirren as the evil columnist, Hedda Hopper.

Some have said that when they had had the upper hand in the 30s, the Communists had behaved badly toward people in the industry who did not share their political views. But the picture makes clear how the blacklist ruined careers, families, and self-respect, in addition, of course, to the ultimate irony of the House Un-American Activities Committee chairman J. Parnell Thomas ending up in the same federal pen as Trumbo, but Thomas's crime was tax evasion.

My father worked for AFTRA when the red scare was raging and I remember how he tried to stay as far from it as he could. Mail from both sides would come to the house. He knew a good many people on both sides, both many leftists in the film, tv, and radio worlds as well as people on the right both in the unions, especially SAG, and some of his classmates from Fordham.

We forget now how few people stood up for civil liberties in terms of the right to free speech and association. Edward R. Murrow was probably the most famous and the Boston lawyer Joseph Welch who excoriated Sen. McCarthy at the famous Army-McCarthy hearings.  It was ironic to see Otto Preminger, who had played the German prison camp guard in Stalag 17, as the independent producer who decided to put Dalton Trumbo's name on the screen as the writer of Exodus, along with Kirk Douglas, who gave Trumbo the screen writing credit for Spartacus, two notable steps that were the beginning of the end of the blacklist.

It's good to see this picture, now brought back to the Avalon theater, a community-run house here in DC, getting more exposure. Another irony was to see the then-head of the IATSE, the movie crafts union, always powerful and which had once sought to organize the actors, supporting the blacklist, when the IA itself was riven by mobsters and used this as an occasion to clean up its own tarnished image.

The Other Bernie

I watched the two-night TV series, each instalment two hours in length, on Bernie Madoff this week and found Richard Dreyfuss's portrayal to be superb. In fact, the whole cast and the writing were good and the story bears re-telling. ABC for once did a good job especially in following the second instalment with an hour spent speaking to those in the case who are still around to talk.

It confirmed to me my original feelings about how Bernie Madoff was so successful in inveigling people into investing with him. He understood the secret of never asking directly for money but making his funds hard to gain entry so that people craved to be let in on what they clearly regarded as a gold mine.

I think of the Sunday morning testimonial breakfasts that my dad would now and then feel compelled to attend and recall the kind of men who populated those occasions. I can just see him sidling up to someone who had been seeking him out and saying, with some reluctance, "Look, it's all taken for this year but next year I'll somehow get you in for a small amount."

The whole thing is a testament to human nature. It was both sad in its impact on many, many people who trusted him and were wiped out and even his family. Of course, they were living high on the hog while the fraud ran wild, but his sons resented him most in the years before the scandal broke for his refusing to let them in on "that part of the business." I don't think they ever realized that he was a total crook.

Also amusing was the high regard in which he seems to be held by his fellow inmates at Butner federal prison in North Carolina, likely because he stole so much more than any of them had. That made him someone they could respect: a guy who had taken a cool fifty billion.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The District Remains A Backwater

I've lived in DC for more than 35 years and things actually have improved plenty. But the response to this storm shows how far we have to go. It's midday Monday and the plow job on the main roads is fair; Metro has opened some underground lines, but with limited service, and is also getting some above-ground stations open; bus lines are on an extreme skeleton schedule and there are none working around our area. Schools remain closed.

Contrast this to New York, not just the city but the suburbs. Subways are running totally and streets are cleared, schools are open. I called an old colleague who was in his office and described the atmosphere as business as usual. 

The attitude in government here is better than it once was. When Marion was mayor-for-life, he was likely to tell those who complained about the district's slow response to "get over it." Now the mayor holds press conferences twice a day but there's still the inclination to boast about progress than really isn't there and to blame citizens even for walking in the road when sidewalks aren't cleared.

It seems that a plow came through our street, something that did not happen during my first two decades living on this block. But not much else has happened: the next cross-street is a more major road and does have one lane cleared more or less. The cross-street in the other direction has not been plowed at all and is hardly passable to walkers. I tried it out yesterday and can tell you that is true.

To me, this torpor results from low expectations: almost like the old Boston lion of "whoever brought it will have to take it away." People here expect crummy performance from District government; Maryland and Virginia, which have far more territory to cover, are actually performing at a higher level--you can even see on TV that main roads are cleared more thoroughly. 

There has been an upgrade in equipment here but it's hard to see that it has translated into action yet. The difference, I suggest, is that in New York City--with the subway, the sanitation plows, and even the commuter trains on Metro-North--there was the expectation and goal that the storm that ended later than it did here would be cleared oin time for the resumption of work on Monday.

Goals here seem to be far vaguer. Everything moves at a far slower speed. And this is indeed cultural. People are used to lousy service. So that's what they get.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Universal DH? No Way

I've been a baseball fan since I was nine and began rooting for the New York Giants because they sailed to the National League Pennant that year (1954), led by their superstar, Willie Mays. At that age, I was not totally capable of appreciating the style of their manager, Leo Durocher, who was definitely someone geared to be appreciated by an adult fan group. But they went into the Series that year as clear underdogs.

So everyone was surprised when they upset the highly favored Cleveland Indians, whose superb pitching staff had finally managed to break up the Yankees' seemingly endless dominance of the American League. Feller was just about through, but heck, he was the finest pitcher of his time. Then there was Bob Lemon, joined by Early Wynn and two now-less-recalled relievers, Don Mossi and Ray Narleski. Hitting hard were Vic Wertz and Al Rosen.

But the Giants, apart from Mays, who was not yet known as he is today in his old age as the greatest living ballplayer, were a lacklustre crew. They could play ball and sometimes Don Mueller, another outfielder, and Whitey Lockman, first baseman; Al Dark, shortstop and captain; Hank Thompson, third base; and the great Monte Irvin, a hard-hitting vet of the Negro Leagues who was injured all too often during his still-great career with the Giants, could get some hits. The pitchers didn't compare to the Tribe's: Hoyt Wilhelm became one of the first great knuckleballers and some of the others did well that year: Johnny Antonelli, Jim Hearn, Marv Grissom, Larry Jansen.

Wes Westrum was a reliable catcher but not a great hitter, compared to his New York City peers: Berra of the Yanks, and Campy of the Dodgers. And then there was Dusty Rhodes--the player who gets hot in the World Series, classically, as here, as a pinch hitter. He had an incredible Series...and never did anything again.

So I grew up loving baseball strategy. And that's what gets killed when you have the Designated Hitter or DH, in the American League for the past three decades or so. The National League held out. You see managers having to struggle with keeping their starting pitcher in when they have something going on the bases and there are two outs. In the post-season, these are magnificent moments.

I received a piece by an ESPN scribe this morning in the e-mail that argues for making the DH universal. As he notes correctly, it is being used in almost every baseball venue except the National League. And since the National League is the "senior circuit" dating back to the 1870s, he scorns their resistance as 19th-century thinking. Prospects do grow up with the DH. Pitchers get less training in hitting than ever and it is true that utility players complain that their hitting suffers when they don't play every day: pitchers of course only play every fourth or fifth day.

Sometimes I feel like the old English actor, C. Aubrey Smith, who led the Hollywood cricket players and often played old cricket types, colonial sergeant-majors, and the like, as Brit stereotypes in the movies of the 1930s. Those old denizens of the Marylebone Cricket Club resisted every innovation in cricket--and eventually most of the changes ran right over them. The game survived but it benefited from the resistance to too much change. I was living in England when the late E.W. (Jim) Swanton was the senior cricket commentator in The Daily Telegraph and The Cricketer, and was often on the BBC Test Match Special broadcasts. It would be fun to read his predicting the imminent demise of the game if players were permitted to wear colored clothing.

But the DH is an innovation that, to me, has not proven its worthiness. National League ball is still more fun because we have a pretty good balance in the majors today between pitchers and hitters. The DH came in because pitchers in the 50s were dominating the game, even with hitters like Musial, Williams, Mantle, Mays, and many more active.  Even the great Bob Gibson, the pitcher most resembling one of the great West Indian bowlers of the 60s and 70s, didn't always win.

It's bad enough that strategy isn't what it once was in the AL before the DH. Let's keep it as it is in the NL, even if we go mad with the practice of using it in AL parks but not NL venues in this age of interleague play. Baseball has survived...despite the worst instincts of those who run it.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Spotlight and The Big Short

Continuing the year-end movie jag, we took in Spotlight and The Big Short last week and weekend. It was so appropriate that we saw them at the end of the year because they may have been the best two pics of 2015.

Spotlight featured fine performances by Michael Keaton as the Boston-Irish-bred chief of the Globe's investigative team and Mark Ruffalo as his star reporter, along with Liev Schreiber as the paper's new editor-in-chief. Aside from Keaton, is magnificent, I found the less-renowned players perfect--all the guys Keaton's character grew up with and who are now pressuring him to go easy on his target: the Catholic Church in Boston with its history of protecting pedophile priests and scorning the interest of survivors of child abuse.

The major triumph of this film is how it captures the atmosphere in Boston where everyone knows something about what's going on but no one really is doing much. Stanley Tucci does a great job playing an Armenian lawyer who is taking on the Church and is skeptical that the Globe will really come through on a story it has previously buried.

The moment I loved in that it showed that the filmakers understood the environment was where Robby, Keaton's character, ends his meeting in a bar with one of the powerful Catholic laymen and they toast, saying "For Boston!" As they both went to Boston College High School. this toast is of course the first line of the Boston College fight song.

Much has been said about how The Big Short manages to make clear the complex machinations of Wall Streeters who securitized subprime mortgages and eventually caused a housing bubble that led right into the Great Recession of 2008, from which we are only now beginning to emerge.

Some have pointed to the statements at the end observing how nothing serious has been done to reform  this world so that the same thing couldn't happen again and some others have claimed that the principals in the movie--the few who sensed that this was a collapse waiting to happen and invested accordingly--profited from the misery of the thousands who lost their homes and whose lives were ruined.

I felt that the picture showed how these skeptics had to battle their own organizations to bet against the powers-that-be--the big banks--who were making money hand over fist from the fraud they were inspiring.  Steve Carell gave the performance of his career thus far as one of the principal investors questioning the status quo.

The picture's most sterling achievement was capturing the giddy atmosphere of the financial world, especially in the characters of two real estate guys in Florida who glory in the fakery in which they are ensnarled, and then too in the two young men just breaking into the business who have figured out what most more experienced types have not.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Brooklyn & Joy

I went to see Brooklyn with definitely low expectations. It sounded like some mushy romance. So, what a surprise it was to become enthralled by a marvelous performance by Saorirse Ronan as a seemingly plain girl who flourishes when she emigrates from County Wexford to Brooklyn in the early 1950s.

The film captures the period perfectly, so perfectly that I had forgotten how much things have changed since then. Brooklyn then had boarding houses and fancy downtown department stores. My aunt would send me shirts as birthday presents from Martin's, an old-line store, and I recall my first major Italian feast visiting a colleague of my dad's there.

Her return to Ireland makes it clear that while the locals may conspire to provide her with reasons to stay--a highly eligible man and a decent job--she will always have to deal with the gossip, often ill-intentioned, of a small town in rural Ireland. 

All of this is depicted with total clarity and understanding of the relationships involved. Sure, as in all movies, things proceed somewhat differently from real-life patterns, but here, the performances, including two by old-time pros like Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters, are superb.

Joy is more of a conundrum. Jennifer Lawrence fans will be well satisfied as she is on screen almost all the time and is highly accomplished. Robert DeNiro does what he does best: play a blustery man who has severe limitations may even start to recognize them. Other players contribute well: Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, and Isabella Rosselini, to name three. Bradley Cooper apparently was desired and thus paid quite well for a somewhat minor role.

The whole thing, however, fell short for me. It was a plot packed with occasions for many of the characters to display their eccentricities. It all started to come apart even as the title character demonstrated her moxie in soldiering on despite every kind of obstacle and problem, most of them created by her incredibly dysfunctional extended family. 

To me, the producers reassembled the Silver Linings Playbook team, but with a less well-made plot and too much distraction. The result of all this is a picture that drags--I kept looking at my watch.


Friday, December 18, 2015

If You Don't, I Will

We don't get enough foreign pictures here in Washington. Actually, we don't get a lot of good American pics until weeks pass after their opening in New York and Los Angeles. Of course, today, we and every hamlet larger than a population of 50 has the new Star Wars picture, which I will go see soon, especially because it's playing at our local house, the Uptown, which has what you don't run into very often now: one large curved screen and a large palatial auditorium.

But the Avalon, which was saved by community action and is run by a community board, is out on Connecticut Avenue just before the Maryland line, and on Wednesday nights, it shows foreign films, usually French, Czech, or Israeli. I often give French pics a chance because if nothing else, their style is appealing. This week, they had, for only the one Wednesday night showing, a French film released earlier this year, If You Don't, I Will

I'd never seen the stars, Emanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, before; nor had I viewed any of the previous work of Sophie Fillieres. The picture isn't great but it has its attractions. It was reviewed, by the way, in New York in December 2014 and Variety caught it earlier at the Berlin Film Festival. It's about a married couple who are at odds with each other for not entirely clear reasons except that they seem to push all the wrong buttons after getting to their 40s, being empty-nesters since her son has recently moved out and lives with his pleasant girl friend.

Their flare-ups at typical parties or when running for a bus don't seem that outlandish. The best gag comes when they put some Champagne in the "super frost" part of the freezer and it cracks up in no time. The wife, Pomme (I recall how Diane Kurys used that name for the heroine in her charming picture, One Sings, the Other Doesn't.), suspects that husband Pierre is having an affair with a younger weather broadcaster. But this obvious provocation falls apart when the younger woman appears to become as fed up with him as his wife.

The climax of the picture comes when the two go for a hike in a large forest park near Lyons, where the picture is set (it looked just like Paris to me). Pomme decides she doesn't want to go home and goes off on her own into the woods. She camps out and hikes for several days, with a few adventures but nothing very major. She stops in a small town where there's a chamber music festival and it is delightful when she joins all the participants in the fest are at a huge dining table as they identify themselves by the instrument each plays. 

She returns to the forest and Pierre is finally urged by her son to pursue her, which he seems to do in a half-hearted way. When she eventually returns and they are back together, the ending leaves it unclear as to what will happen next. Just like life.