Odds and Ends, Movie Edition.

We are now in the winter early spring of our cinematic discontent…

On the one hand, February and March are deserts of bad movies… On the other hand, I have a couple of weeks after the Oscars to catch Birdman.

I did see a movie this weekend which had received acceptable reviews.  I knew that Entertainment Weekly had given Kingsman a quite respectable B. I did not check out Rotten Tomatoes, which I should have. I was not sure exactly what the movie was about other than it involved Colin Firth as a spy, and that it had Mark Strong and Samuel Jackson.  Colin Firth was dressed in exquisitely tailored bespoke suits, and Mark Strong (who has been one of my favorite actors since Stardust) spoke in a beguiling Irish brogue, so it seemed like a safe bet to risk 26.50 (two adult tickets plus Fandango’s fees) and two and a half hours on. I forgot to check the level of violence in the film. Mistake.

Even Colin Firth in gray worsted cannot make up for heads graphically exploding, or for most of the victims being people of color and the heroes all white, or Samuel L. Jackson’s ridiculous lisp. The movie also gave me nightmares and cold sweat. I wasn’t screaming when the Caltrain ran over me in my dream, but that’s only because I could not breathe.

I have specific rules for movies with graphic violence (defined to mean any movie with explicit blood and gore): the violence must be unavoidable to the story, must not feel choreographed, and must not be terribly cartoonish. Steven Spielberg’s  Saving Private Ryan, Martin Scorcese’s The Departed, and David Cronenberg’s exceptional A History of Violence, all meet those requirements. And, among recent releases, Selma.

Speaking of Selma, one theory of why the movie was essentially overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences speculates that it was the victim of a badly run “campaign.” Specifically, that the film’s studio failed to get the screening DVDs to voters in time. Seriously, people? I remember when “screeners’ were not sent out, and voters actually had to gasp! go to a theater to see the nominated films.

Screeners undermine the Oscars in a couple of different ways.  First, I am convinced that they lead to lazy viewing. Sitting in your living room (or home theater — this is Hollywood, after all) and watching with a cocktail in your hand is a much different experience that seeing the same film in a theater with other people. I have always felt that Crash was favored over much better movies (Capote, Good Night and Good Luck) perhaps because viewing a movie on your television requires less discipline that watching the same film in a cinema. (Yes, I saw all three of those movies.  Both Capote and Good Night and Good Luck had better writing, acting and directing than Crash; Capote was more far more nuanced and thought-provoking, and Good Night and Good Luck had better cinematography.) I have never seen Brokeback Mountain, so I have no idea whether is is a better film than Crash, though the outcry after the latter won Best Picture indicates a lot of people thought so.)

Also, DVD viewing favors some movies over others. The opening shots of Star Wars, where the Imperial ship goes on and on, is far less impressive viewed on a small screen. As far as this year’s Oscar contenders go, to take the two I actually saw, The Imitation Game loses nothing by being watched at home. On the other hand, the scene of the marchers facing off against law enforcement and vigilantes on the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma needs the large screen to really work on an emotional level the way that it should.

Even theaters have come to the conclusion that movies are better shown on a big screen: Fathom Entertainment runs groups of classic films at selected locations.  Watching All About Eve with other movie buffs is more rewarding than simply catching it on Turner Classic Movies. I’ve done both recently. And All About Eve is not an epic movie, the way that Selma or Lawrence of Arabia are.

The Oscars are not the Emmys.  They should reward movies that need to be seen larger than life.

DVDs can also turn a communal experience into a solitary one. Recently, I’ve seen movies at theaters that were empty other than myself and a couple of friends.  While this allowed us to talk during the previews, it also felt… empty.  Being part of a group of strangers laughing or cheering together provides part of movies’ magic.

To get back to the Oscars, Neil Patrick Harris fell disappointingly short of the (admittedly high) expectations that most people had of him. It just goes to show that writing award show material is an art, and that even hosts as gifted as NPH can only do so much to rescue the writers. Some of my favorite moments seemed ad-libbed, such as when NPH observed, following J.K. Simmons’ win for Best Supporting Actor,  “He won an Oscar. [followed by the ending music for the ubiquitous Farmer’s Insurance commercials which feature Simmons].” (The ending magic trick, which explained the laborious ongoing joke about someone watching the box, was cute. It almost made the gag work.)

Simmons, one of my favorite character actors, gave one of my favorite speeches, by ignoring the usual litany of people who get thanked (other than his family) and instead admonishing people to “Call your mother. All of you.” Patricia Arquette’s call for equal pay and opportunities struck a chord (certainly with Meryl Streep, who was shown cheering Arquette on), as did Graham Moore,the screenwriter of The Imitation Game basically providing a live “It Gets Better” video. (Streep has a sense of humor, and was the good natured butt of one of the better jokes of the evening: “The Best Supporting Actress category has four outstanding actresses, and in accordance with California law, Meryl Streep.”) John Legend’s and Common’s performance of and acceptance speech for the song “Glory” were both staggering. And Lady Gaga once again showed that yes, her usual pop material notwithstanding, the girl can sing. In one of the “aw, how cute”moments, she seemed genuinely overwhelmed by Julie Andrews’ reception of her performance.

Turner Classic movies has been running its “31 Days of Oscar.” As a result, I have been able to patch a few holes in my cinematic experience: I’ve been meaning to see Gaslight, The Philadelphia Story, and North by Northwest for years, and now I have. I also saw Gigi again yesterday. Later this week they are going to show Shakespeare in Love and Chicago, and next Monday are going to run the Lord of The Rings trilogy in sequence. TCM is a great channel. Give me TCM, DVR so I can see movies that air when I’m at work, and a rum and coke, and I am a happy camper.

My next quest is to find out which theaters are showing the live-action and animated short films. The only one of either category that I’ve seen is the (winning) animated short Feast, and that only because it was shown before Big Hero 6. (And, boy howdy, was I glad that Big Hero 6 got Best Animated Feature, although I would have been okay with How to Train Your Dragon 2 winning. Also, it was about time that Alexandre Desplats won Best Score for something.)

Is anyone of you up for hunting down a good foreign film? I was thinking of maybe Ida, which in addition to wining Best Foreign-Language Film was nominated for Best Cinematography.

See you at the movies.

Wear. Your. Helmet.

The Rocket Scientist was in a motorcycle accident on Monday.  He’s going to be all right; he suffered only a concussion.

When the cop called me, she told me how much worse it could have been: “He hit the rock, but he could have hit the tree or the fence.” I have had emergency personnel do that before when family members have been in accidents; quite frankly, I do not want to know how much worse it could have been. I get nightmares.

His helmet was cracked. Worse, his helmet was dented.  Had he not been wearing the helmet, he might be dead, or severely brain damaged.*

He was driving in a residential neighborhood, and going relatively slowly. You could easily match his speed on a bicycle, especially going down hills. You could easily be thrown from your bike, slamming into someone’s ornamental boulders. You could be dead, too.

Wear. Your. Helmet.

*In the past, my kids have told me the joke, “What do you call a motorcyclist who won’t wear a helmet? An organ donor.” I don’t find it funny anymore.

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Unfortunately.

The sky is blue. The air has a lovely crispness, hanging around what feels to be the low sixties. The hills have turned that beautiful emerald green that first seduced me when I visited Stanford, and the buds on the trees are swelling, getting ready to burst into flower.

This is a not a good thing.

Weather happens in patterns. The Northern California weather has given us day after day of clear sunshine.  Some days the thermometer has risen into the high seventies in San Jose and elsewhere in the South Bay. Even days that are gray and overcast, as Tuesday was, produce no rain.

In addition to sunny days, the lack of rain has resulted in “Spare-the-Air Days” which cause problems for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma (which would include me). Some members of my family get migraines on days with heavy pollution.

I realize that to my friends in Boston and Washington this may seem like whining. We’re not having to dig out from snowstorm after snowstorm, or, as is the case in parts of the South, finding ourselves stranded in our house by ice sheets. We certainly do not risk hypothermia when we head out of the house.

I’m looking down the line. Already the highway signs flash reminders that we are in a severe drought. We face even worse. (I do not understand why in the world we have not already been hit with mandatory water rationing.) This summer is going to be brutal; I don’t even want to think about fire season. I would dearly love to have even a quarter of the precipitation of Boston this winter, especially if it fell in the form of snow adding to the Sierra snowpack.

I wish it would rain.

We failed him.

The first execution of 2015 happened on January 12. Georgia put to death a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. He had no prior criminal record, and danced around the street yelling “Shoot me!” before pulling out a rifle and killing a twenty-two-year old deputy sheriff, who had stopped him for going 98 m.p.h.

Andrew Brennan was not simply any Vietnam vet. He had been awarded two commendations and a Bronze Star for his service. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 1984, and later, bipolar disorder.

No one can say what Brennan was thinking when he shot the deputy. Clearly, the demons which so often control people with mental illness had hold of him.  PTSD and bipolar disorder take prisoners, and Brennan was one.  Brennan’s attorneys argued that the jury at his trial had not been given adequate information about his military service and his mental illness. (Given that the trial happened in Georgia, perhaps the jury would not have cared in any case.*) The attorneys also argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that veterans with PTSD constitute a special category of prisoners, and should be spared for that reason, an argument that the Court found unpersuasive.

What happened that day in 1998 in Laurens County was horrible, and I do not want to minimize the death of the young officer.  Deputy Sheriff Kyle Dinkheller should not have been shot.  Andrew Brennan should have received the mental health care he so clearly needed.  Dinkheller’s death was, as Brennan’s attorney said, a terrible tragedy.

Deaths involving law enforcement pose more problems than other murders. Society (or at least white, able society, to be honest) often views the shooting of an unarmed or mentally ill person as a sad but necessary event: we want our police, rightly, to be able to defend themselves. Had Dinkheller shot Brennan when he pulled out the firearm, it would have been, as the cop shows say, “a good shoot.” Hopefully, the shooting would have ignited a discussion about the treatment of veterans, and our national failure to adequately provide mental health care for those who need it.

Leaving aside the moral and ethical concerns about the death penalty in general, killing the mentally ill is repugnant.  Killing a decorated veteran whose mental illness was at least in part caused by the very service for which he was decorated verges on the grotesque.

We teach soldiers to kill.  We send them to foreign lands where killing is a necessary skill to survive. We place them in harm’s way, and subject them to the horrors of war.  We fail to give them adequate care, mental and otherwise, when they return.

And then when they turn that training on someone stateside, especially a law enforcement official, we execute them.

God forgive us.

*Yes, I know that that shows a prejudice against Georgia. I feel the same way about Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi. Many people in those states think differently about the death penalty than elsewhere.

One of those days.

What’s worse, I had already gone to the Starbucks which is our pre-shift meeting place, to get some writing done.  I will be stuck here for hours, unable to work. I will also have to explain to my boss why I can’t work, which I hate doing. (Hopefully, it won’t look like I am crying by the time he gets here.)

I should have known this was going to happen. Last night, a perfect stranger asked with some concern why I was shaking so badly.  I had to explain that  it was more or less normal, simply a benign tremor exacerbated by medication. (I suppose I could have snarled “mind your own business,” but the man looked on the verge of calling for medical help. He was honestly trying to be caring towards a fellow human being, which I applaud.)

Vaccine idiocy: it’s a first world problem, unfortunately.

I can tell the measles epidemic has hit the big time: politicians are weighing in on the issue of vaccination.

Rand Paul says that parents should be able to choose, and that he knows many cases of children who have suffered irreversible damage after they were vaccinated. (Even if you accept him at face value, which I don’t given his libertarian base, correlation does not automatically equal causation.  For many children the onset of symptoms of autism happen at about the same time as vaccination.) Chris Christie said that parents should have a choice, and then backtracked when hit with backlash from rational parents.

Jack Wolfson, a doctor who opposes vaccination, says getting measles is not that big a deal.  He also points out that only a few people have come down with the disease, and nobody has died. He has also said he would have no problem if someone else got measles from his kids and died. Wolfson claims it is the responsibliity of those who cannot be vaccinated to stay out of society, not those who choose not to be vaccinated. He went so far as to call a mother who vaccinated her kids “a bad mother” for “injecting her kids with chemicals.” He asks “Where are all the 80-year-old polio cases? I don’t see many.” Of course not, since polio has been eradicated in all but three countries because of vaccines. (It is worth noting that he is a cardiologist, not an epidemiologist.)

Wolfson is a narcissistic, selfish son of a bitch.

He is also clearly young: too young to remember when polio was a threat every child and parent feared, when measles was a serious disease that could maim, blind and kill, when rubella resulted in severe birth defects, stillbirth, and newborn deaths. He should talk to people older than himself about so-called childhood diseases.  I was lucky: my mother got rubella late in pregnancy, not in the first trimester.  I was born six weeks early, but without birth defects.  She has told me about being too sick to hold me. (I could not get the MMR when it was developed because I was allergic to eggs, with which the vaccine was made. I only recently got the shot to cover me against measles. I got rubella (and chickenpox) when I was a toddler, and I was very, very sick indeed. I have had dental problems all my life, in part caused by the very high fevers I ran when I my teeth were forming.)

Nobody should have come down with measles. The “Disneyland epidemic” should never have happened: in 2000, measles was considered eradicated in the United States.* Then the anti-vaccination craze took hold. And now measles is back.

I can only imagine what people in the rest of the world think about us.  Measles kills about one person an hour throughout the world, according to the World Health Organization. It is the leading cause of blindness in children in the developing world. The very fact that there are people in our country who choose not to vaccinate against this potentially life-threatening disease, all the while knowing that (until recently) their child would probably not get the disease is mind-boggling.

It is a first-world problem, and it is an obscenity, a slap in the face to every child (or adult) who died in an  area where vaccinations are not carried out.

God help us all: may the particularly American idiocy which places the preferences of the individual over the good of the society be overcome in this case, and “personal choice” or religious exemptions be banned throughout the country.** Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before we see deaths — preventable deaths — among the unvaccinated or immunocompromised.

*I never thought I would feel sorry for Disney, about as monolithic (and litigious) a corporation as you can get, but they didn’t deserve all this bad publicity.

**Mississippi is last in a lot of things, and people make jokes about the state, but it does not allow any exceptions to vaccination requirements other than medical ones, and as a result has the highest MMR vaccination rate in the country.

Restructuring, not reform.

“Pension reform.”

The words have been floating around the national zeitgeist for several years now.  Politicians such as Scott Walker (or, more closer to my home, former San Jose mayor Chuck Reed) have fanned the flames of public angst  over city, county, and state finances and mistrust of collective bargaining into distrust and anger towards civil servants and government employee unions.Teachers, cops, and firefighters are targeted the most. (In some ways, people feel about teachers and other government employees the way they feel about Congress: they hate them collectively (i.e., their unions), but like their Congressman or the teachers at their schools.)

San Jose voters passed Measure B in 2012, making major cuts to pensions and disability benefits for police and firefighters.  Most of the measure was tossed out by a court (the city is appealing the decision).  The public rhetoric has gotten so nasty, you could not pay me enough to be a cop or firefighter in San JoseAnd, in fact, since the passage of Measure B, and the war on cops’ benefits and pensions began, San Jose has been hemorrhaging police officers at an alarming rate.

Chuck Reed then tried to place an initiative on the 2014 California ballot which would have allowed municipalities to change already vested public pension plans, but withdrew it when the Secretary of State’s analysis of the initiative stated that the proposed constitutional amendment would eliminate certain protections for public employees, including firefighters, police, nurses, and teachers.  Among other things, Reed felt that including those professions would have prejudiced voters against the measure, even though those were the half of the public employees the measure targeted.

To listen to some news sources, the entire reason American cities are in financial trouble is because cops and firefighters are greedy bastards, or, at the very least, stooges for rapacious unions. People seem to forget or ignore that a lot of the financial problems that hit cities coincided with the economic meltdown — local governments’ investments were badly hurt like everyone else’s, not to mention tax revenues.  The meltdown provided anti-union politicians with the perfect cover to undercut police, fire, and teacher pensions and benefits. Libraries and services to the poor were being cut and it was colored as being all the fault of those greedy cops.

And so the fight for “pension reform” was joined. Ignoring the fact that pensions are in fact deferred compensation, and destroying them is effectively refusing to pay workers what they were promised after they have already started doing the work, many politicians and voters still viewed them as fair game. Candidates for public office were asked if they were for or against “pension reform.” Liberal candidates often countered that they wanted to do pension reform by working with police and fire unions to find solutions, only to be labeled as “anti-reform.”

I will state right now that we progressives made a major mistake. Every time we engaged on the topic of “pension reform” without reframing it, we ceded important moral and rhetorical ground we should have held on to. Before even addressing the “how,” we needed to have changed the “what.”

Reform is a loaded word. It implies bad faith at best, or graft at worst: one reforms corrupt governments, or religious organizations. On the other hand, one does not “reform” bankrupt businesses, one “restructures” them.

Are there cases where cities are in trouble and changes in compensation need to be made? Absolutely.  But that does not mean that the original agreements were graft-driven gifts to greedy public servants.  It means that, like any other entity in financial straits, a city must negotiate with its creditors — in this case cops and firefighters — to reach an equitable solution.

Any time any progressive engages in talking about “pension reform” without immediately cutting off discussion to say “what we need to be talking about is pension restructuring,” they’ve already surrendered half the field. Our hardworking public servants deserve better than that. They may end up losing compensation, but the very least we can do is not buy into the implication that they’re avaricious.

As far as I go, though, I think that  if you are willing to risk a bullet, or run into a burning building, or have to deal with the aftermath of terrible car accidents and gruesome suicides, you should have whatever pension you want.