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A Profile in Courage, Whether You Like It or Not

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ESPN, whose ‘S’ stands for “Sports” and which incessantly touts itself as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” while making us all pay through the nose for sports in our cable bills, whether we watch televised sports or not — that ESPN announced last week that this year’s ESPY Awards would honor Caitlyn Jenner with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

Instantaneously, voices rang out throughout social media to dismiss the notion of Ms. Jenner as courageous and to assert instead that the measure of true courage is that which is displayed by soldiers in battle, and how dare ESPN attempt to redefine courage in such a brazen and presumptuous fashion. One such individual — who, to his credit, was quite good-natured when confronted by the ironic true story behind his Google Images selection — went viral with a Facebook post whose grainy, dramatic “wartime photo” actually depicted action figures posed in an elaborate diorama. A bogus report circulated that Iraq war veteran and double amputee Noah Galloway was a runner-up for the Ashe award, though no actual vote was conducted.

Look, I get it. And I respect and honor the men and women who are out there every day fighting wars on our behalf and running into burning buildings that others are running out of and walking the beat in neighborhoods that many of us wouldn’t stray into in broad daylight. And certainly the timing of this particular news cycle didn’t help, falling as it did so close to Memorial Day and the anniversary of D-Day. But post-9/11 America has become entirely too reactionary and fetishistic about courage and patriotism and honor — I’ve perhaps been guilty of it in the past myself — to the point at which the oxygen has already been sucked out of any possible dialogue before it can be engaged.

So yes, when cast in such stark opposition to the service and sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, it’s entirely too easy to pull up our mental image of 60-something Bruce Jenner, the laughingstock, the late-night monologue punch line, the nationally televised butt of jokes, the put-upon patriarch of the most narcissistic gaggle of women our fame-obsessed culture has yet produced. And it is unfortunate that this moment will be reduced by so many to the Vanity Fair cover spread and whatever tabloid and reality-TV fodder it generates for the unstoppable Kardashian machine.

I, however, am of a generation that still remembers the 20-something Bruce Jenner who, for one shining moment in time, was the greatest all-around male athlete in the world. When America pinned its hopes on him in the summer of 1976, he represented us in every way you would associate with the Olympic ideal, and he brought home the gold. Yet even Bob Costas, who owes his entire livelihood to sports and knows damn well who Bruce Jenner was then, has fretted that ESPN is making “a crass exploitation play … a tabloid play” when “they could have found someone who was much closer to actively involved in sports, who would have been deserving of what that award represents.”

Whether or not people of my generation and the ones before it — including Bob Costas — can recognize it or will deign to acknowledge it, this is a Jackie Robinson moment in terms of our acceptance of transgender people.

Note: I don’t for a minute presume to characterize what Caitlyn Jenner’s transition might or should mean to anyone within the transgender community. I am, however, pointing out to Costas and every other “ordinary” of a certain age — particularly the menfolk — that this is the first time a transgender person has been, if you’ll pardon the expression, someone we know and particularly someone whom we’ve regarded by a certain standard of masculinity.1 So by confronting and contemplating the transition of someone who holds a certain position in our collective consciousness, we might be better prepared to accept that change in our neighbor and comprehend in some small way the enormity of that decision instead of writing it off as “a lifestyle choice.”

So again: How dare a sports broadcaster recognize this former athlete for her courage?

Well, if you’ve never held on to a secret that you were afraid to share even with your own family, if you don’t think hiding your true self from a cruel and judgmental public for 60 years is brave, if you don’t understand the agony of living a lie while the entire world is watching, if you don’t think finally breaking free from that prison to become the person you’ve always believed you were constitutes an act of courage, then neither I nor ESPN can help you.
1 And I hesitate to posit another analogy that might likewise be misinterpreted, but remember when Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he was HIV-positive? Same thing. Someone we know. And just like that, mainstream America was challenged to examine the AIDS crisis with a great deal more empathy and sensitivity than we had exhibited before in our inglorious recent past.

Written by Shepcat

June 10, 2015 at 6:55 pm

Posted in Sports, Television

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The Likeliest Demise

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Late one summer night in 1997 I was robbed at gunpoint, in front of my own house on a tree-lined residential street in midtown Kansas City. Sometime after 4 a.m., having survived the ordeal, observed the processing of the crime scene and, eventually, ID’d one of the perps from a photo array, my racing heart and adrenalized mind slowed down just enough for me to arrive at an oddly logical conclusion and the most spontaneous but fully realized decision of my life:

“If they can get to me here, they can get to me anywhere. … Might as well move to L.A.”

A month and a half later, I was there.

Eight years after that, I was circling another such decision, more pensively this time.

Personally, professionally, actuarially, I could feel my luck running out. Not that I had experienced anything in Los Angeles, of all places, quite as fearful as staring down the barrel of a gun, but there had been a few close calls — many traffic-related. Because L.A.1

In any event, it felt like time to go. So I went.

Now I’m back where I started, more or less: in the suburbs, on another tree-lined residential street. And though at a glance there does not appear to be as much to fear here, my mind still goes there from time to time. Because, as the old saw goes, most accidents and tragedies happen close to home.

How good are the locks on our doors, really? And would they make any difference at all to someone who was determined to get in? How often does a squad car turn down our street on a routine patrol? How much security, actual or imagined, are our tax dollars buying us?

We’re avid readers of our local paper’s police blotter, mostly for entertainment, and yes, most of the quote-unquote criminal activity in our burg is pretty half-assed — petty theft and domestic disturbances. But yeah, one pays attention to the addresses of the reported misdemeanors, lest that element make a foray past the imaginary boundary that separates us from them and offers us no real security to speak of.

It’s also worth noting that I’m middle-aged now — some days more than others — and that I’ve endured a couple of health-related episodes in the last few years that, while not edging me any closer to mortality, have at least made me consider the vulnerabilities of this vessel that moves me around from place to place.

Despite all those considerations, however, my imagination has zeroed in on what I believe, for the time being anyway, is the shortest distance between me and my maker.

Turns out, it’s only 25 yards.

That is, the 25 yards, give or take, between the corner of our street and our mailbox just up the block.

I think about it on rainy evenings, or evenings just after the rain, when the street is wet, and night has fallen before I remember that neither of us has retrieved the mail (or the recycling, as it most often tends to be). If it’s cold or wet enough, I’ll throw on my rain jacket, which, naturally, is black and does nothing to alert passersby to my presence.

There’s a streetlamp, but it stands so close to our neighbors’ tree as to be completely camouflaged by it. It illuminates the corner directly beneath it but does little to cast any light on, say, a pedestrian on the sidewalk just a few steps away.

Just below our corner the street winds out of a curve that, combined with the heedless velocity of many a motorist, shortens the reaction time of pretty much anyone at or near the corner or entering the flow of traffic, such as it is.

Put them all together, and all that’s missing from the equation is some jackass teenager with a noisy carload of friends or some soccer mom trying to fish a smartphone out of her cavernous purse before the seventh or eighth incantation of her regrettable ringtone before I’m jellying up the sidewalk and stepping toward the light. With my back to oncoming traffic, I’m at a visual disadvantage, but on my return, I’m always thinking, Tree. Tree. Streetlamp. Signpost. These four things and my once Jedi-like reflexes are all that stand between me and the likeliest demise I can conjure.

Think of it as you would Achilles’ heel. Absent motive — and don’t think that the possibility of someone tear-assing around that curve some night with malice and intent hasn’t at least once crossed my mind — cosmic or karmic opportunity must conspire with the available means and a singular method to thread a very small needle in order to punch my ticket. On the face of it, those are pretty great odds. And yet …

Achilles had his fated archer, so are my jackass teenager or distracted soccer mom really such remote possibilities?

Anyway, that’s the grim little scenario I think about for roughly three minutes a day. Perhaps I’ll dwell on it more if that old luckless feeling ever rears its head again.

In the meantime, I’ll be right here, behind our locked doors, in the relative security of our house, on this quiet tree-lined street in this idyllic residential neighborhood, waiting for those patient conspirators bacon and cheese to carry out the hit for which they’ve been contracted.
1 On one occasion, as I enumerated the various ways my number might come up in that city that has so many ways to kill you — from malice aforethought and criminal intent to the carelessness or inattentiveness of some random motorist — my friend Chris joked that his money was on lethal injection.

Written by Shepcat

May 16, 2015 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Life


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For a fight devotee such as I, it’s the new “Boycott Disney” — on a much smaller scale, to be sure, but no less ridiculous or daunting a notion in light of Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s reach and influence throughout the sport of boxing.

When the Southern Baptist Convention voted the first time for a boycott of The Walt Disney Co. because of — let’s be honest here — the basic human decency and appreciation it demonstrated toward its gay employees and gay patrons, I didn’t work for the company yet (my tenure was 1998-2005). But simply as a casual observer and a pragmatist, I found it hilarious that my fellow Southern Baptists thought they could have even a minimal economic impact on a company that is, for all intents and purposes, the Holy Roman Empire of our time. The sun never sets on Disney, because Disney, even more so now than in 1997, has extended its reach far beyond mere movies and theme parks.

And so I am not blind to irony when I say that I have been waging my own economic boycott of Floyd Mayweather Jr. since September 2013, when I last paid to watch him fight. After witnessing what was essentially an infomercial for Floyd’s glorification of his own wealth and his naked greed for more, even the most minuscule cut of the $15 or $20 I paid to attend a Fathom Events simulcast of the Mayweather–Canelo Álvarez pay-per-view card seemed too much for me to willingly donate to a raging narcissist like Floyd ever again.

And if tonight’s fight against Manny Pacquiao ends up being both the pinnacle and swan song of Floyd’s career? It doesn’t matter. Because there’s always The Money Team and Mayweather Promotions, and I’ll have to be even more conscientious to avoid a Mayweather-promoted fight than I have been in avoiding Mayweather-contested fights. To think that the gravy train gets dismantled and stripped for parts just because Mayweather hangs up his gloves for the last time — whether that happens this Sunday morning or several months and one or two more fights from now — is folly. Floyd will continue to be an economic force both in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas and in the sport of boxing as long as he draws breath outside the confines of the correctional facility behind whose walls he so richly deserves to be incarcerated.

Because if it were just assholes with money I was boycotting, I’d never be able to leave the house. But the mere fact of Floyd’s history of domestic violence against women makes any support, however minor or meager, of Floyd’s life, lifestyle and livelihood an unconscionable, positively Faustian proposition. To pay even a cent toward propping up his kingdom of denial and contributing to the wealth and celebrity that insulates him from censure within his profession and prosecution outside it — I can’t be complicit in that anymore. And neither should any of you want to be.

It’s a growing pain being endured right now by many of us who support the gross national product that is the National Football League, a billion-dollar sports and entertainment monopoly that employs a handful of athletes who are also domestic abusers among a vast majority who are not. And while the league and Commissioner Roger Goodell’s response to these latest high-profile cases has been dismal and inconsistent at best, it’s a lot easier for the Ray Rices, Adrian Petersons, Greg Hardys and Ray McDonalds of the league to blend in among their teammates — and easier for us, the fans, to support our respective teams even while denouncing the behavior of a bad actor or two — than it is for the most celebrated, high-profile athlete in any weight division of an individual sport to escape the spotlight that illuminates his own transgressions.

Floyd, however, loves the spotlight. And even when cornered by hard-hitting journalists who attempt to hold him to account for those transgressions, he finds a way to rope-a-dope the situation to his advantage, whether by ignoring the question altogether and turning it into a promotional opportunity, deflecting it with his ludicrous “pictures or it didn’t happen” defense, or removing the journalist from the equation altogether, as he did this weekend when his camp denied press credentials to CNN’s Rachel Nichols and ESPN’s Michelle Beadle, both of whom have recently put the fire to Floyd’s feet in regard to his history of violence against women. Because how dare they cast a shadow in Floyd’s spotlight on his biggest weekend ever? How dare they be strong, intelligent women who don’t serve Floyd’s carefully crafted narrative? How dare they demand anything of Floyd, even straight answers to straightforward questions?

We condone, ignore and whitewash a lot of criminal behavior in this country. It’s to our national shame that we elect representatives who are so easily bought and support institutions that are so easily corrupted. We’re being looted a dollar at a time by the people who already have all the dollars. Our prisons are packed with low-level dope dealers but are woefully underpopulated by derivatives traders. We’re attracted to people who couldn’t carry our water on the field of personal integrity but who win our adoration through the clever deployment of Photoshop and teams of publicists. Sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. Sometimes our capacity for self-worth and self-reflection is diminished by the shiny objects we’re drawn to. I’m not pointing fingers here. I’m as guilty as anyone, and everyone.

But I’m not as guilty as Floyd Mayweather. And it’ll be a great day in this country when he finally faces the retribution that’s coming his way, whether inside or outside the ring.

And when he finally does, it won’t have cost me a penny.

Written by Shepcat

May 2, 2015 at 7:41 pm

Posted in Boxing, Sports

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My Survey of Scorsese: After Hours

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Generally and subjectively speaking, eight films into the burgeoning young career of Martin Scorsese, a pattern has emerged: Every other picture is pretty good, if not great, and the ones in between are sort of average, if not awful. To recap:

  • Who’s That Knocking at My Door: an auspicious feature debut
  • Boxcar Bertha: some promising technical development, but not a good movie
  • Mean Streets: his first certifiably great film
  • Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: a departure in style and form that breaks even — good performances, but not a showcase for Scorsese
  • Taxi Driver: his first legendary film
  • New York, New York: an ambitious misfire
  • Raging Bull: acclaimed as the best film of the 1980s
  • The King of Comedy: an almost deliberately unlikable film

Among these titles, Bertha and Alice are easily written off as good early learning experiences, but New York, New York and The King of Comedy are the miscalculated failures of an assured, now-formidable filmmaker who should have known better, albeit one whose personal life was somewhat fraught during this period. The former feels as if it’s trying to be too many things at once, the latter as if it’s not trying to be enough.

One would expect that Scorsese’s ninth feature should be something great, not only according to the pattern but, well, because it sort of has to be to keep him from spiraling into a slump. And at the time, he was trying to launch what would be one of his most ambitious and controversial films, The Last Temptation of Christ, but financing fell through, the production unraveled, and Scorsese found himself without a film.

Enter actor Griffin Dunne and his producing partner, Amy Robinson (previously Harvey Keitel’s love interest in Mean Streets), who bring Scorsese a script that would become not a great film, exactly, but something that Scorsese perhaps needed even more at this point in his career: a kick in the pants, a complete break from form.

After Hours marks Scorsese’s first film without either Keitel or De Niro; in fact, he doesn’t cast a single actor he’d ever directed in the past (to wit: Cheech and Chong). If his signature movies are “New York movies,” this one is a SoHo movie, distilled down to the particular weirdness of the neighborhood where the story is principally set. If his films to date have all been novels with powerful themes and overarching dramatic arcs, this is a short story that takes place entirely in one night. Call it wacky, call it surreal, call it Kafkaesque — After Hours is the best of the outliers in the Scorsese canon, the right film at the right time to shake Scorsese out of his routine in the best possible way.

Because it’s a “short story,” cubicle drone Paul Hackett (Dunne) wants less than any other Scorsese protagonist: In the first scene, he can barely sit still to listen to his co-worker Lloyd (Bronson Pinchot) talk about his own outsize ambitions in the publishing industry. By contrast, Paul wants only to get out of his apartment for the night. Once he’s out, all he wants is to get back to it and go to sleep.

Paul wears a tan suit with a white dress shirt, works in a white office in a beige office building, and returns home to the beige furniture and white walls of his apartment. (Even the brand name on his watch, we see later, is “Khaki.”) He’s a drab man with a drab life who, were it not for his red necktie, might disappear into his surroundings altogether, never to be seen again.

But we don’t need Paul himself to be a dynamic figure, because on the heels of the dull, static King of Comedy, first-time Scorsese lenser Michael Ballhaus’ camera is alive from the very first frame. Literally the opening shot of the movie is a fast dolly zoom across an entire office space, through employees, over desks and past equipment, ending on Paul seated at a desk alongside Lloyd. We are signaled from the very beginning that we — Paul and the audience — are about to be taken on a ride.

As two custodians close a pair of giant gilded gates behind him, Paul doesn’t appear to be exiting his office building so much as being banished from some nondescript paradise, as though he is about to descend into the underworld. Which isn’t so far from the truth.

Paul escapes his drab apartment to eat in a diner, where he re-reads a dog-eared copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. We pull back from him to include Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in the shot: the meet-cute.

Ballhaus’ camera is rarely still. It dances around the characters the way they dance around each other, as though looking for an angle, a way in. Paul is oblivious to Marcy at first, but once she makes conversation about Paul’s book, the camera moves to bring them together in the frame as she makes the first move to be near him. When she tells him about the bagel-and–cream cheese plaster paperweights her loftmate Kiki makes, it’s her ploy to give him her phone number.

Paul is in a constant state of being acted upon. He is an entirely passive and resigned protagonist, a shlemazel. His boldest move is to call Kiki later that evening about buying one of her ridiculous paperweights, perhaps hoping without even knowing for sure that it will reunite him with Marcy, which of course was Marcy’s plan all along:

“Maybe you should come on over, Paul.” PUSH ZOOM to Paul’s alarm clock: 11:32 p.m.

Inanimate objects are freighted with meaning here and photographed with forceful intent. There seem to be more zooms and smash cuts to telephones here than in any other movie ever made. We see Tom’s top-hatted-skull key fob in close-up on more than one occasion. (It matches the tattoo Paul sees later on Marcy’s inner thigh.) Objects carry as much visual weight as Paul himself precisely because they’re practically characters in their own right, moving Paul through his nighttime hellscape, away from and toward salvation, as much as the five women Paul encounters do:

  • Marcy, the mysterious flibbertigibbet who lures Paul to SoHo in the first place;
  • Kiki (Linda Fiorentino), the sculptress and bondage aficionado whose loft Marcy is staying in;
  • Julie (Teri Garr), the disgruntled cocktail waitress with the beehive hairdo and two dozen cans of Aqua-Net on a shelf in her apartment;
  • Gail (Catherine O’Hara), who injures Paul as she’s exiting a cab, then ends up chasing him in a Mister Softee ice cream truck; and
  • June (Verna Bloom), the aging beauty who lives beneath Club Berlin and who ultimately effects Paul’s deliverance from his nightmare.

If one were educated in the classics and could make a more studious dissection of the movie, these women possibly represent the Furies of ancient myth, sent to punish and destroy Paul for his sins.1

The plot is also driven largely by coincidences, many of which would seem too convenient or contrived if the story didn’t take place in an area of about 40 square blocks. For example, the $20 bill Paul loses, idiotically, during the most hellbent cab ride of his life cannot possibly be the same one he later finds papered into Kiki’s sculpture. Or can it?

Certainly Paul couldn’t know, as he tells Kiki his story about being moved to a burn unit to recover from tonsil surgery as a child, that he would soon stumble upon evidence that Marcy may have recently suffered second-degree burns. Right?

Or what about the bartender Tom being Marcy’s boyfriend and his name being on a bottle of pills in her apartment? Or the unwittingly on-the-nose thing Tom says to Paul just before he answers the phone in the bar and receives bad news?

Or the fact that Kiki and June — who get Paul into his predicament and help him escape it, respectively — are both papier-mâché artists?

Or maybe I’m overthinking it. It’s late, and I just want to go home and get some sleep.
Random Observations:

  • The only things about the movie that make it seem dated are:
    • the desktop word-processing computer we see in the very first scene, with its bright green dot-matrix monitor that is only sexy now because of the Wachowskis’ Matrix films;
    • the fact that Paul has only a $20 bill at the beginning and is stranded after he loses it, either because ATMs are not yet widely used in 1985 or the movie willfully ignores them in order to advance the story; and
    • Paul identifying himself as a “word processor,” which in 1985 was an actual job title.
  • When the yellow taxi Paul hails pulls to the curb, one’s first thought is “Travis Bickle,” but then it takes off careening through the night the way the ambulance would several years later in Bringing Out the Dead.
  • Julie’s guest-check note to Paul and the face she makes when he glances over at her are perfect.
  • It’s fun to watch how Paul manages not to have to pay for anything when he’s down to his last 97 cents.
  • Because both movies hinge upon their protagonists being swept up in a case of mistaken identity, one can’t help comparing Paul’s beleaguered tan suit — which over the course of a single night is rumpled, plastered, rained on, bloodied and plastered again — to Roger Thornhill’s iconic blue business suit in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, which goes from New York to Chicago to Prairie Stop, Route 41 to Rapid City, South Dakota, and is retired in more or less immaculate condition, having only once been tended to by a Hotel Ambassador valet to sponge the dust and pesticides out of it.
  • Other characters are constantly asking Paul why he doesn’t just go home. Had the story not come full circle to arrive at its conclusion, a great sequel would comprise all the things that could happen to Paul after he decides to just walk home, from SoHo to his apartment uptown on East 91st Street.
  • A great double feature from 1985: Scorsese’s New York–set After Hours and John Landis’ Into the Night, set in Los Angeles and starring Jeff Goldblum as an insomniac drawn into international intrigue after a chance encounter in an LAX parking garage with damsel-in-distress Michelle Pfeiffer. Landis’ film is much busier, more frantic and features a dozen or so cameos by himself and other directors. Both films are sort of perfect in their own ways.
  • After the bitter slog that was The King of Comedy — I mean, seriously, I bogarted that Netflix disc for six months — these feel like the easiest 1,800 words I’ve ever written. Thanks, After Hours!

Coming soon: The Color of Money (1986)
1 I, on the other hand, was lucky to escape the University of Kansas, Paul Hackett–like, with the education I have, so this is not that film review.

Written by Shepcat

March 2, 2015 at 2:10 am

Posted in Continuing Series, Movies

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My Survey of Scorsese: The King of Comedy

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Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to one of his best films — to date or since — is arguably the least approachable film in his canon. I had seen The King of Comedy many years ago, and all I could remember from that first experience was a vague sense of unease or distaste that I brought with me into — and had confirmed by — this latest encounter.

I have never been a fan of the comedy of awkward protagonists in awkward situations, often improvisation-driven, that has become such a cultural touchstone in recent years. The Office (both the U.K. and U.S. versions), Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret are just a few mainstays of this subgenre for which I have little or no patience. I don’t like things that make me cringe, and I can’t see the humor in a situation I find discomfiting being exacerbated by a character I don’t like. The King of Comedy isn’t necessarily meant to be funny, but it is based on the same formula.

The protagonist here, aspiring stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), has the wardrobe, grooming and smarmy personality of a bad salesman, trying to project a charismatic attitude that seems copied from bad TV. Rupert lives both in his mother’s basement and in a delusional, juvenile fantasy of his own design, one that’s not based on anything he’s seen in the real world. He’s a 13-year-old practicing an Oscar acceptance speech in front of a mirror. His laugh is fake and forced. His gestures are exaggerated as though he’s always playing to the back of the house. His confrontation tactic is to just keep talking in the hope that he can run out the clock or wear down those who would deny him.

The object of Rupert’s delusion, his ticket to stardom, is Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who in this film’s universe is, essentially, Johnny Carson. He’s the biggest talk-show host in the world, and yet one wonders how he could possibly inspire the adulation and crazed devotion his fans exhibit.

However flawed and aloof Johnny may have been in his personal life, when he stepped in front of the camera he was one of the most charming, engaging, purely and instantly likable public figures of the last century. Jerry, on the other hand, greets his audience with a cold, unsmiling smirk of self-satisfaction (the same one we see later painted on the walls of his reception area). He’s dressed in a dark suit, and the studio lights reflect off his oversize eyeglasses so we can’t really get a good look at his eyes (or into his soul). He expects the applause, making a small gesture to command more from the audience. He never really smiles, though everyone around him — his bandleader, his announcer — grins broadly, as though it’s the best night of their lives. Everything about Jerry says, “I’m doing you a favor by being here tonight.”

Rupert and Jerry’s meet-cute, as it were, is effected after the show by Rupert’s accomplice, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a nasty little sociopath — and, apparently, socialite, living in the kind of inexplicable opulence one imagines she obtained by killing her wealthy parents — who is the ne plus ultra of obsessed fans. In the frantic crush of Jerry’s post-show stage-door admirers, Masha insinuates herself into the back of Jerry’s limo, her inevitable removal from which creates Rupert’s own opportunity to join Jerry there after heroically fending off the crowd. The scene is reminiscent of Jimmy hustling Francine in the back of the taxi in New York, New York: Rupert’s a fast-talking huckster using what little time he has to make a play for the thing he wants — in this case, his shot at the big time.

The relationship between Rupert and Masha is that of a couple of petulant children vying against each other for the attention, if not the actual affection, of a derelict father. Apart from their respective obsessions with Jerry, Rupert and Masha’s only common trait is that they are both stalkers. The difference being that Masha is predatory, while Rupert is merely persistent. Masha stalks Rupert the same way she stalks Jerry; reconnaissance and surveillance are the only ways she knows how to behave, to pursue (though not to get) what she wants. Rupert on the other hand simply won’t take no for an answer, and though he puts on a show of cheerful understanding in the face of rejection, his tone and his methods gradually turn darker the more he hears no.

A scene in which Masha pursues Jerry on the streets of New York begins comically but quickly turns malevolent. There’s an element of danger here that seems to be Scorsese’s most pointed reason for making this particular movie: as a not-so-subtle comment on the dark side of our obsession with celebrity, like that which incited John Hinckley to shoot President Reagan to get Jodie Foster’s attention after Hinckley became obsessed with Taxi Driver. Masha exudes sexual voraciousness, but she seems just as likely to kill Jerry as to have her way with him.

So this is what the audience is up against: three leads who are neither likable nor sympathetic. It’s as though we’re being dared to root for any one of them as the lesser among evils, but the only remotely admirable person here is the barmaid Rita (Diahnne Abbott), who is even more of a hostage or victim than Jerry is. We feel for her despite our incredulity that a woman this attractive could ever be enthralled by Rupert, whom she apparently hasn’t thought about in the 15 years since they attended high school together. And yet, Rupert apparently knew all along where he could find her. One wonders how long he had been stalking her before he made his approach in the bar, emboldened by his encounter with Jerry earlier that evening.

All of this — these unlikable people, these awkward situations — could have been more interesting if the film had a distinctive visual style, but Scorsese shoots King in a flat documentary style that neither challenges nor entertains the eye and which doesn’t come to fruition until the film’s ending, which plays like the narrated portions of Sidney Lumet’s Network.

Only three shots in the movie stand out as having been designed with any thought or care whatsoever:

  • At 14:30, Masha calls Jerry at home, and as Jerry asks, “How did you get this number?” the TV in the background displays a zoom to another character talking on a telephone who appears to be posing the same question. Even though we haven’t seen Scorsese’s signature shot up to this point, he employs another filmmaker’s use of it in the background to achieve similar dramatic effect.
  • At 34:05, as Rupert introduces himself on the demo tape he’s making for Jerry, we cut to the most consciously stylistic shot of the movie so far: Rupert standing in front of a wall-size photo of the studio audience and the slow pullback as he basks in their static adulation. The shot lasts nearly a minute as it slowly dollies back into a long empty hallway that represents Rupert’s echo chamber, the laughter that only he can hear.
  • At 74:22 comes the film’s best effort at visual comedy: an overhead shot of Rupert taping Jerry to a chair in Masha’s apartment that pays off a couple of minutes later when we pull back from Rupert grooming himself at the mirror to see Jerry completely mummified in tape. Now that was funny.

For a film called The King of Comedy, it lacks the sort of setup-punchline rhythm that one would hope for. Rupert’s various confrontations — whether with Rita or Jerry or Jerry’s support staff — are agonizing to sit through. Rupert drags these encounters past the point when a reasonable person would walk away and devise a new approach. But because he is clearly accustomed to rejection, he digs in, doubles down and tries to win every battle through attrition with his misguided charm offensives.

That said, perhaps the canniest thing about The King of Comedy is that it withholds Rupert’s act from us until the very end of the film. Whether he’s actually funny isn’t relevant to the character or the story, until it is. And when we finally see him perform … he doesn’t suck. Or, at least, his act plays credibly before the kind of audience who would find Jerry Langford funny, with their heartiest laughter coming in response to Rupert’s confession that he could get on the show only by kidnapping Jerry.

Which, ultimately, is how The King of Comedy feels to me: It’s something to be endured, like a kidnapping, as though I’ve been held hostage for two hours waiting for the payoff to arrive. And while I am a great admirer of Scorsese, not even Stockholm Syndrome can make me like this film.

Ba-dum-bump! Thank you. You’ve been a lovely audience. Be sure to tip your waitresses on the way out.
Random observations:

  • The opening credits play over one of my favorite songs of all time: Ray Charles singing “Come Rain or Come Shine.” It’s all downhill from there.
  • We never see Rupert’s mom, voiced by the director’s own mother, the marvelous Catherine Scorsese. One is tempted to imagine that she’s a figment of Rupert’s imagination, a la Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho, and that Rupert is living in the basement of, and being harangued by, a dead woman.
  • At 14:00, Jerry comes home to his stark, cavernous apartment, turns on the TV and briefly watches a scene of Richard Widmark picking pockets on the subway in Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street. It’s a reach to assume that this is Scorsese’s commentary about an interloper taking something that doesn’t belong to him — to wit: Rupert literally trying to take Jerry’s life — so probably it’s just a superfluous shout-out to a pretty good crime movie (featuring a terrific performance by Thelma Ritter).
  • At 37:45, the film’s first genuinely funny moment: In an imaginary meeting, after Jerry listens to Rupert’s tape for the first time, Jerry expresses his jealousy for Rupert’s talent by strangling him. The exaggerated slapstick of the moment is the first and perhaps only time the film allows you to feel any warmth or affection for its characters.
  • Even when Jerry is trying to talk his way out of a life-and-death situation, his apology and explanation sound disingenuous and not fully thought-out, as though it’s Rupert’s own half-formed fantasy about how Jerry would try to talk his way out of the kidnapping. Or perhaps Jerry Lewis is just bad at improv.

Coming soon: After Hours (1985)

Written by Shepcat

February 8, 2015 at 3:50 pm

Posted in Continuing Series, Movies

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The Insignificant Detail #9

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After my second pass through the sequence I describe herein, I was initially prepared to hail it as containing the single greatest match cut in film history. Then I watched it a third time, and a fourth, and a fifth, cycling through it in half-second increments, and was reminded that we live in a digital age of wonders, and what our eyes see and our brains process ain’t always necessarily so.

Still, the prestidigitation — or prestidigitization, if you will — performed by director Alfonso Cuarón, the camera crew helmed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and the digital-effects team on the 2006 film Children of Men makes for an interesting study in How did they do that? followed closely by Why did they do that? and, more to the point, Why did they choose to do it that way?

Children of Men notably contains a half-dozen or more long, uninterrupted takes of varying duration — tracking shots or one-shots or “oners,” whichever term you prefer. Throughout the Internet, one can find plenty of debate about tracking shots in general and Cuarón’s tracking shots here in particular. To wit: Are they necessary? Do they aid in the storytelling? Are they just so much showing-off by the filmmaker?

I would argue that the tracking shots Cuarón employs here are more than mere indulgences and are highly effective in drawing the audience in to its hero’s point of view from one harrowing ordeal to the next.

The shot most often singled out for debate concludes Act 1 and involves an ambush on a vehicle containing five principal characters and a rotating camera that is shooting 360 degrees of action from inside the vehicle. But the shot that captured my attention is the sequence late in the movie that follows Theo (Clive Owen) through bombed-out city streets as he and Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) attempt their escape, aided by the old woman Marichka (Oana Pellea) and the Georgian rebel Sirdjan (Faruk Pruti).

If you’re geek enough to follow along on your own DVD copy of the film, join me in Chapter 17. The long tracking shot in question begins at 1:23:46, framing an archway through which our characters are about to run out into the street. During the first three minutes of the take, circumstances separate Theo from the group, but he keeps moving ahead until, at 1:26:48 he is fired upon in the street and must take cover in a bombed-out city bus that’s been taken over by squatters.

  • 1:26:52 A shot is fired into the bus and hits one of the occupants, splattering at least seven prominently visible blood spots on the lens in the main field of vision. But the action keeps moving and so does the camera.
  • 1:27:12 As Theo exits from the rear of the bus, the seven spots are clearly visible in the frame.
  • 1:27:21 Theo runs across the street and dives for cover in front of the bombed-out building he’s trying to get inside. Six spots are still visible here; the seventh, at lower right, becomes visible when the camera pans away from Theo’s coat.
  • 1:27:43 An explosion rocks the front the building on the second or third floor, and Theo makes his move for the entrance.
  • 1:27:52 As he enters the building, the screen goes mostly black for about a second. Somewhere in those 24 frames, it’s entirely possible that a cut could be made, but the flow of the action, camera movement and sound design seem uninterrupted.
  • 1:27:58 There is more dark than light in the frame for the next several seconds, but upon close inspection, only three spots are now distinctly visible in the middle of the lens as a wounded man on the floor reaches out to Theo.
  • 1:28:00 Two of the spots pass over a brightly backlit doorway in the background of the shot and seem to dissipate there, while the remaining spot is still visible against the black of Theo’s coat. The camera moves in on Theo crouched at the base of the stairwell.
  • 1:28:03 From Theo, the camera pans up, and midway through the pan, we can still see that remaining spot until it too passes against a white background, at which point it is gone.
  • 1:28:07 The camera pans back down to pick up Theo and continues to follow him up two flights of stairs and down corridors until he is reunited with Kee and a cut completely reverses the camera angle at 1:30:04.

One uninterrupted take lasting 6 minutes, 18 seconds.

Blood — whether of the real or squib-packet variety — doesn’t simply evaporate, and at no point could the camera operator have wiped the blood off his lens while in motion without blurring the image and ruining the take, so there are at least three possibilities for what we see here:

  1. The vertical pan from Theo’s shoulder up the stairwell at 1:28:03 is The Greatest Match Cut in Film History.
  2. The squib explodes, blood spatters the lens, and in post-production the digital-effects team composites the blood spots out of the picture one at a time until the image is normalized, to lessen the visual impact of Now you see the blood; now you don’t.
  3. There was never a squib at all, and the initial blood spatter itself was digitally inserted for both dramatic and documentary-style effect, then gradually removed from the frame as the scene progressed.

As camera operator George Richmond describes in this video, the answer is No. 2. An exploding squib indeed spattered the lens, and although a camera assistant pointed it out in the heat of the moment, Richmond soldiered on so not to break up a take in the middle, just as it was nearing the height of its painstakingly choreographed action.1

I had quickly ruled out my initial reaction — option No. 1 — for two reasons: the improbability of matching the mark with a handheld camera and the presence of the last remaining blood spot during the pan up the stairwell.

Furthermore, if you think of the sequence as divided into two halves — the first driven principally by action, the latter driven by drama — the digital fix of option No. 2 allows the shot to seamlessly continue into its dramatic half without the distraction of the blood-spattered lens that seemed perfectly organic during the chaos only moments before.

And ruling out option No. 3 is, frankly, a relief, because it would be a totally unnecessary thing for a filmmaker to do when there’s so much more important stuff happening, both in the frame and on the set. I mean, that would require, like, Michael Bay–grade levels of douchebaggery, all for the sake of one Insignificant Detail.
1 In the moment, I recalled an interview I watched recently. Actor-director Jon Favreau asked Martin Scorsese about a scene in Casino in which Ginger (Sharon Stone) has a meltdown in the bedroom she shares with Ace (Robert De Niro). At some point in their confrontation, the stationary camera gets bumped ever so slightly but noticeably. Favreau thought it was brave of the filmmaker to leave that “imperfect” shot in the finished film in service of the actors’ best take, and Scorsese conceded that a director can’t ask his actors to duplicate such an emotionally raw performance like so much lightning in a bottle just because his camera got bumped. (Well, Kubrick would have. But that man was a sick, perfectionist monster.) And that was just a bedroom scene between two people. Now imagine calling “Cut!” going back to square one, and running take 2 of a battle sequence enacted by a cast of hundreds over several city blocks.

Written by Shepcat

October 11, 2014 at 7:53 pm

How to “Police” Professional Athletes: A Modest Proposal

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I’m offering the following idea, free of charge, to the commissioners of all major sports leagues (though as of this writing it should be of particular interest to Roger Goodell). It took me less than five minutes to conceive the other day once I set my mind to the problem currently facing the National Football League, and with some tinkering (by the league, the NFL Players Association, and their lawyers — so many lawyers1), it could prove to be the most effective response for a league that finds its brand momentarily tarnished by the off-the-field legal troubles of one or more of its athletes.

My plan for the NFL is essentially the same plan enforced by police departments whenever one of their officers discharges his or her firearm in the line of duty: The officer surrenders the firearm for ballistics testing and rides a desk while the incident in which he or she discharged it is investigated. Once the incident is cleared as a clean shoot, the firearm is returned to the officer, and the officer returns to his or her beat.

It’s called administrative leave, and it wouldn’t be the worst idea the NFL, the NBA, the NHL or MLB could implement to send a message to their fans that they don’t turn a blind eye to the questionable behavior of millionaires who play games for a living.

In short: Under a league’s code of conduct, the moment any player is arrested or booked for a felony, misdemeanor, or suspicion of either, the league would immediately suspend that player from all league and team activities (practices, team meetings, film sessions, games, media obligations) and bar him from all league and team facilities (stadiums, practice facilities, etc.) until such time as authorities clear him of any charges or his case is dismissed or resolved in court.2

To clarify: The league would suspend the player from activities and facilities only, its execution of policy having no bearing on the player’s income, which is a matter between the player and his employer, the team.

Recently, citing their players’ right to due process, San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York and Minnesota Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf opted to allow high-profile players — defensive lineman Ray McDonald (arrested for domestic violence) and running back Adrian Peterson (indicted for reckless or negligent injury to a child), respectively — to continue playing while their cases remain pending. One suspects, however, that the owners are hamstrung by the dual Catch-22 of a contractual obligation to their athletes and a desire to get their money’s worth out of their investment for as long as that player’s services might be available.

According to my proposal, the league’s provisional suspension policy would effectively take the decision out of the owners’ hands. At which point the owners’ only concern is whether they’ll put their money where their mouth is as regards their faith in due process and their faith in a particular employee who is doing nothing for them during a prescribed period of time, except possibly putting the team in a bad light.

In the meantime, the suspended player is easily replaced on the field, though admittedly not by a star performer of equal value. But that’s why teams have depth charts. There are only 22 starters, but there are 53 players on an NFL roster, plus another 10 on the practice squad, any one of whom is itching for his opportunity to play on Sunday. (Admittedly, this system is even better suited to Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL, all of which have affiliated minor leagues from which to enlist replacement talent.)

Assuming the league would institute such a policy, corresponding language could then become boilerplate in the morals clause of any contract between a player and a team, enabling the team to decrease or suspend in full the salary of any player presently under league suspension, or to release or waive that player altogether if they are deemed too radioactive under the circumstances (making them available to any other interested team).3 On the other hand, any exonerated player could be reinstated to his team, reimbursed any pay withheld during his suspension, and automatically awarded an arbitration hearing for any other outstanding contractual matters called into question during his suspension.

As for players ultimately found guilty in a court of law, well, at that point the sky’s the limit, but any league should ensure that they have a policy in place wherein its punishment of its players a) actually fits the offense and b) doesn’t look ridiculous when compared to punishments for lesser offenses. (Goodell and the NFL looked especially foolish on this last point.)

If it appears that the stand I’m taking seems particularly harsh toward the athletes, it’s only because we have no shortage of talented, dedicated athletes in this country who wouldn’t take for granted the opportunity that a great many squander.4 There are roughly 1,900 players on NFL rosters, none of whom are bigger than the game itself, and at least that many outside the league but still in their athletic prime who could take their place on any given Sunday. (That said, I’m remarkably forgiving of any athlete who serves his punishment and demonstrates genuine remorse for his offenses — case in point: Michael Vick.)

Ultimately, a plan like the one I’m proposing suggests an updated business model for professional sports, one in which a league’s commissioner is not merely a figurehead beholden to the owners who elect him, but rather an independent trustee of the game first and foremost, nominated and ratified jointly by the owners and players associations. It would suppose a system of checks and balances not unlike our own federal government — if the owners are the executive branch and the players are the legislative branch, the commissioner and the league office would be the judicial branch, possessing the unfettered authority to adjudicate the game in its entirety and the freedom to call out the owners on their shit as liberally as they do the players.

Not that I expect to see any significant change in the business model anytime soon, but if millions of rabid fans can participate in fantasy leagues every season, what’s preventing me from envisioning my own fantasy league office?
1 If you’re a lawyer who happens to be reading this, your input and feedback is welcome.

2 I might also suggest that the league provisionally discontinue the sale of all player-specific merchandise from the league and team stores for a duration no shorter than that of the mandated suspension.

3 Admittedly, though, a part of me believes that a team should not be allowed to release any player during the league-mandated suspension, simply to prohibit them from using the Captain Renault defense (“I am shocked — shocked!”) when they should have concerned themselves with that player’s character all along. If they failed in some way to nip an obvious problem in the bud, perhaps they should be forced to ride the whirlwind along with everyone else.

4 Plaxico, what made you think the waistband of your sweatpants was a suitable holster for a firearm?

Written by Shepcat

September 15, 2014 at 6:35 pm

Posted in Sports

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