After an incredible day of jeep-touring South Africa’s Kruger National Park with my family, I went to a deckchair located on the balcony of the hotel where I was staying. My view overlooked a stunning panorama of the savanna. I pulled out the book I had started the day before, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”
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The datedness of James Bond is a puzzle “No Time to Die” tries to address. As Dame Judi Dench’s M once put it, Bond really is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.”
Actor Michael K. Williams passed away earlier this month after a long battle with drug addiction. He was 54. Williams played bootlegger Chalky White in the show “Boardwalk Empire.” His performance over five seasons remained steady, menacing and reliable — even when the show was sometimes anything but. He also posthumously received an Emmy nomination in September for his role in “Lovecraft Country.” But a certain character will always showcase Williams’ legacy: Omar Little. Omar Little from “The Wire” — the shotgun-wielding, openly gay thief with a moral code wears an air of complete nonchalance and security as he robs dope dealers, terrorizing the local gangs of Baltimore. “Citizens” uninvolved with the drug trade are safe from his wrath. Omar walks his grandmother to church on Sundays. He enjoys Honey Nut Cheerios. He commits a homicide every now and then. In a show full of rich characters on both sides of the law, Omar was the most compelling of the bunch thanks to Williams’ elegantly matter-of-fact performance. He paired the character’s understatement with flashes of exuberance and dark humor during the show’s more violent scenes. When Omar whistles “Farmer in the Dell” with a poker-face as he approaches his victims, Williams lets the music do all of the talking as the dealers run. It is as if Omar is just on an afternoon stroll through the park, and not about to commit a handful of felonies. “(Omar’s) gayness and his sexuality do not define him,” said Film and Media Culture Professor Jason Mittel, author of “Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling.” “He is the kind of character we have never seen on television before [...]. And you add on to that the striking charisma Michael K. Williams brought to the part. It’s just something about his performance that pops.” But Williams’ performance as Omar was legendary for a reason beyond his charisma. You get the feeling that Williams did not take himself seriously, even as he gave a serious, beautiful performance. Williams understood that “The Wire” was always meant to both entertain and make you think. “The Wire” started out as a more-than-usually thoughtful series about the moral ambiguity of the War on Drugs in Baltimore. But a cop show was pretty much all it was. We first see Baltimore through the eyes of alcoholic detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) and foul-mouthed Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce), who assemble a team of flawed but mostly well-meaning police officers bent on pursuing drug-related homicides instead of street-dealing. Soon enough, though, their investigation leads them to the highest levers of power in the city, with drug money flowing from crooked state senators to street-level dealers all the way to local businesses. After its first run of episodes, the show expanded to chronicle several parts of Baltimore society. Its second season switches its focus to the Polish-American dock workers who, mostly unwittingly, help import narcotics into the city. The third and fourth look at the public institutions that worsen the problems of drug abuse and violent crime in Baltimore, especially condemning the disinterested attitudes of the city’s public schools and city council towards winning the War on Drugs in a creative way. Some potential viewers are intimidated when reading about the intricate economic, political and social dynamics displayed in “The Wire.” They may turn away in a similar manner to Virginia Woolf when she reacted to Joyce’s “Ulysses” — feeling “puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.” But balanced with the show’s towering yet accessible intelligence is the other side of “The Wire”: the wittier, pulpier thread of the show which Williams’ portrayal of Omar best embodied. There are other great figures in the show who, similar to Omar, seem like something out of a Raymond Chandler dime novel instead of real life. Take Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), a ruthless crime boss who reads “The Wealth of Nations” after night classes at a community college. Or there’s Brother Mouzone, a bow-tied assassin played by Michael Potts, who shoots a character named Cheese (Method Man) in the arm and then cries to the fleeing man “Good day to you, sir.” But none of these performers could outshine Williams. In their investigation, McNulty and Bunk eventually ask Omar to go undercover for them in exchange for clemency. Omar adheres gladly, as one of the drug dealers being investigated murdered his lover, Brandon (Michael Kevin Darnall). As Omar testifies in court, he rebukes an attorney who claims the witness is a parasite festering on drug violence. “So are you, man,” Omar fires back. “I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase.” Williams plays this scene both large and small. His words spark laughs in the courthouse, and his hands fidget with the tie Omar dons on top of his otherwise informal wear. But his eyes are deadly sincere, almost feigning confusion with his interrogator’s hypocrisy. The late actor performed his signature role with the same qualities that made Omar such a compelling figure in the story. His acting style was dignified, warm, blithe, layered — and without even a trace of self-seriousness. Jason Mittell is the Faculty Advisor to The Campus.
The Center for Disease Control’s announcement that masks and social distancing aren’t required anymore in most instances for fully vaccinated Americans has led me, strangely enough, to revisit a hidden gem of literary fiction: Anthony Powell’s 12-volume tragicomedy masterpiece, “A Dance to the Music of Time.” Powell’s 20th century novel explores the marvels of coincidence and the joys of conversation. Heading into this summer, the series is a good frame of reference for readers who want to reflect on why people in our newly-active social lives are so fascinatingly complex. “A Dance to the Music of Time” chronicles a British circle of upper-middle-class bohemians and their non-artist friends from the 1920s to the early ’70s through a series of chance encounters at parties, receptions and dinners. Powell follows this group through the eyes of Nick Jenkins, a young publisher who later becomes a novelist. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway, Powell’s Nick Jenkins is a cypher, but this also makes him a perfect window through which to examine the people who surround him. His circle is an assortment of painters, poets, composers, financiers and aristocrats who all seem a little like P.G. Wodehouse’s aloof characters, albeit if they were dropped into our own deeply flawed world. Powell revels in the limits of Nick’s first-person narration: the series’ protagonist can only conjecture about the inner-lives of his friends. Although we don’t know if Nick’s guesses about his peers’ love lives and personal traits are entirely accurate (though you get the feeling that they mostly are), his conclusions tend to apply perfectly to people in general. For example, consider when Dicky Umfraville claps eyes on Buster Fox, a man who seduced one of Dicky’s several ex-wives years before. Instead of getting right to the confrontation, Powell takes his sweet time. “When people really hate one another,” Powell writes, “the tension within them can sometimes make itself felt throughout a room, like atmospheric waves, first hot, then cold, wafted backwards and forwards as if in an invisible process of air conditioning, creating a pervasive physical disturbance.” Another highlight of the series is the character Kenneth Widmerpool, an antagonist who, like Milton’s Satan, gets all the best lines. Widmerpool, Nick’s old schoolmate, has a “piscine” (fish-like) appearance that masks an unquenchable lust for power. The character’s scheming leads him to financial success, military advancement during the Second World War and a seat in the House of Commons. His inglorious decline ends, somehow perfectly, with the occult. Some critics find Powell’s style a tad extravagant. This is a misreading, but an understandable one. If the prose of the “Dance” is purple, it is a light violet, quietly controlled by the author in ways that you notice when you throw yourself into the text. In the first pages of the series, the narrator’s thoughts turn to the Baroque-era painting “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Nicolas Poussin, causing the Proustian flashback that begins the story: “The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure, stepping slowly, methodically sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.” This quote has no business working as well as it does. Powell’s style might not be your cup of tea, but it is charming in a warmly rambling, elegantly impromptu sort of way. A more reasonable objection to the series is Jenkin’s memories of World War II, which are largely based on Powell’s own experience in the war. Reading this slower section of the series, you sometimes wish that Powell did more exciting things than writing up memos in Northern Ireland during the war. But these middle books still have their merits: the war trilogy constructs a comedy of manners about the bureaucratic slog of army life which Nick mostly abhors and Widmerpool, hilariously, finds his natural environment in. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” wrote W.H. Auden. Although on the surface nothing really happens in “A Dance to the Music of Time,” there is ample poetry in this low-key saga that so deftly explores the unknowability of human relationships and the enchanting weirdness of the way life unfolds. Will the academy or critics ever take Powell as seriously as they do other British stylists of the twentieth century such as Woolf or E.M. Forster? Probably not, although Powell may be superior to both of these writers. Despite its loftiness, “A Dance to the Music of Time” has it all: sheer entertainment value, narrative tenderness, an incredible cast of characters and — most surprisingly for a 2,500-page epic — lightness of touch.
Much like everyone else in 2020, former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama added “podcaster” to their already-lengthy resumes. Take a look at what two students have to say about these new presidential projects.
Last week, Spotify released the final episode of “Renegades: Born in the USA,” a podcast hosted by former president Barack Obama and rock-and-roll legend Bruce Springsteen. Over eight episodes, the two men — who became friends during Obama’s first presidential election cycle in 2008 — discuss topics including music, politics, gender and racism in America. The podcast was produced by Higher Ground Productions, which was founded by Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama. The general angle of the podcast’s first episode is how Obama and Springsteen perceive America through the eyes of an outsider — a “renegade.” Then, in “Our Unlikely Friendship,” Obama talks about his unique childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia as a mixed-race kid in the 1960s and 70s. Springsteen relates to Obama in a discussion of his own origins in Freehold, N.J., a small, predominantly working class beachside town. Obama famously posts a list of his favorite movies, shows, books and songs on social media at the end of each year, so it is no surprise that while discussing the arts with Springsteen, the former president is able to hold his own. On the topic of how many white Americans admire Black artists while simultaneously holding racist beliefs, Obama has a nuanced view: he stops short of disparaging cultural appropriation in favor of praising the melting pot which is American art, while also acknowledging its flaws. “There is this notion that Black folks are the other,” Obama notes. “Yet the culture is constantly appropriating and regurgitating and processing the style that arises out of being an outsider. And knowing the blues. And having suffered these scars.” In a particularly thoughtful episode, Springsteen discusses how the E Street Band’s saxophonist Clarence Clemons kept up a stoic facade when called racist slurs at concerts and bars. Springsteen acknowledged that he could only glean the surface of Clemons’ struggles. The segment on race in America has a blither coda with Obama and Springsteen discussing their favorite protest songs, such as “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” “[A Change Is Gonna Come] can make me cry,” says the former president. Springsteen agrees. Although Donald Trump is rarely mentioned in the podcast, his shadow looms over the production. “For three years I’d had to watch a presidential successor who was diametrically opposed to everything I believed in,” Obama notes early on in the first of several allusions to Trump. When and why do we listen to podcasts? I found myself tuning into “Renegades: Born in the USA'' while folding laundry and looking over apartment leases, hazily gripped by several segments of the podcast. However, I propose that a fair litmus test for whether a podcast is truly exceptional is whether you would sit down in a room around 9 o’clock at night, with everything tidied up and your day over, and listen: your eyes closed and your mind empty, sans laundry and sans apartment leases. Perhaps at the end of a great episode you go back to relisten. “Renegades” doesn’t exactly inspire that attention. Obama’s contributions in “Renegades” are nothing that we haven’t heard before, and Springsteen’s are probably only of interest to the singer’s fans. Skip randomly to any point in “Renegades,” and it feels as if there is a 90% chance that Springsteen will be speaking; too often, Obama’s control of tempo and genuinely entertaining stories are sidelined. Easily one of our most relaxed presidents, Obama won’t interrupt or steer Springsteen to more narratively rich waters, which is a problem for an eight-hour podcast. The podcast’s problem is less of an issue than it is a wasted opportunity. The former president, especially, steers clear of politics, focusing more on his uniquely optimistic vision of America as a country that is slowly aligning with its ideals. Of course, Obama’s gift for language soars in “Renegades,” but he plays things safe here. He is more restrained here than in his recently published memoir “A Promised Land” — famous for its brutal honesty about the failures and triumphs of his administration. “Renegades” is fine enough. But you deserve a more dynamic rock-and-roller for a podcasting partner, Mr. President. Perhaps Bob Dylan next time?
With one exception, almost all of my favorite films released last year were hauntingly prophetic in the ways they tackled our country’s contemporary struggles. It is hard to believe, for instance, that “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “One Night in Miami’ were shot long before the coronavirus pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, the end of the 2020 election and the storming of the United States Capitol. This was a turbulent, brutal year whose films deftly reflected the anxieties of our everyday lives. At the same time, however, none of the movies on my list sacrificed the pleasure principle — the axiom that stories are meant to delight and instruct. Bluntly, I learned a lot about RVs in “Nomadland,” and some parts of Christopher Nolan’s time-travel thriller “Tenet” could even be described as fun, albeit after a beer or two. But, to paraphrase Matthew 16:26: For what is a movie profited if it is well-made, but has lost its own soul? Without further ado, the ten best movies of 2020. “Emma” dir. Autumn de Wilde Autumn de Wilde’s take on Jane Austen’s “Emma” is my favorite film of the year. Bathed in dappled duds and emerald hillocks, the film’s direction channels Wes Anderson as much as it does the elegantly dense early 19th century novel on which it is based. Following the matchmaking schemes of protagonist Emma Wodehouse (Anya Taylor Joy), the film recounts the ways love misdirects itself. All of the novel’s main players are perfectly adapted to the screen, but it is Anya Taylor Joy’s understated, blankly camp portrayal of Emma Wodehouse that puts this film in the top spot. How Joy details her character’s vanity through small moments astounds — a quick poke which opens up a carriage window, a sob after a nosebleed, the gnawing of a strawberry to express mild amusement. These are all perfect embodiments of Jane Austen’s most irritating and all-too-human protagonist. I could go on about why I love this movie. Let’s give the last word to our leading man Mr. Knightley, instead: “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” “Martin Eden” dir. Pietro Marcello “Martin Eden” is adapted from one of the seemingly few Jack London novels that doesn’t feature dogs, but there is a hunger in the titular protagonist’s sneer that certainly suggests something wolfish beneath his good looks. Luca Marinelli plays Martin Eden, a down-and-out sailor with a talent for social climbing in 20th century Italy. He falls for Elena, a débutante from a prominent Naples family. After Elena convinces Eden that he must become educated, Eden soon finds himself addicted to literature, eventually getting some of his own poems and short stories published. Every 10 minutes or so in “Martin Eden,” a black-and-white vignette flashes across the screen: two children fox-trotting, bathers jumping off cliffs, the rolling of a train into a crowded station. But when we leave these fragments to return to the main story, director Pietro Marcello sometimes shifts the time period we’re in. Some moments suggest Italy in the 1950s or 60s — Eden watches cartoons with his nephew and later picks up a woman at a discotech. Equally disturbing is Eden’s growing disillusionment with socialism in favor of something more sinister. He uses his talents as a writer to propose a political path forward for Italy that rejects “slave mentality” and — more explicitly — “usury.” Something is rotten in the state of Italy, and the sweet visuals and compelling love story at the center of “Martin Eden” never undermine the loss of its protagonist’s moral compass. “One Night in Miami” dir. Regina King “One Night in Miami,” directed by Regina King, recounts a party hosted by the civil rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). The three other guests: Cleveland Browns fullback Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), soul singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and a certain boxing champion named Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), whose ruminations on a possible conversion to Islam (and a new name that floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee, etc.) take center stage in the film’s first act. The four men meet in a motel. They enjoy vanilla ice cream. They drink. The party ends. Credits roll. But, of course, “One Night in Miami” is really about its characters’ words, words, words. Equally deft when discussing politics and pop culture, King’s movie is the rare film based on a play that, like Malcolm’s party of four, doesn’t overstay its welcome. “News of the World” dir. Paul Greengrass Tom Hanks is, in many ways, the 21st century’s Cary Grant. In a career now spanning four decades, Hanks’ performances have been consistently likable, thoughtful and outright conscientious, even though they don’t necessarily flaunt their genius. He’s great, as usual, in “News of the World,” Paul Greengrass’s Western about itinerant former Civil War veteran Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who makes a living reading newspapers aloud to crowded town halls in Reconstruction-era Texas. By chance, one day, Kidd is asked to safely deliver an orphan named Joanna to her relatives. A story about the trauma of war, “News of the World” also functions as a meditation on the nature of storytelling in an era of fake news. My other six favorite movies released in the U.S. during 2020, listed in no particular order, are “The Personal Memoirs of David Copperfield,” “Mank,” “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “I Care a Lot,” “Les Misérables” (not the musical), and “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”
The most entertaining thriller I’ve read in months is by the author Walter Tevis, an Ohio University professor who died in 1984. The novel’s title: “The Queen’s Gambit” (1983). Perhaps you are familiar with “The Queen’s Gambit,” which was adapted into a smash-hit Netflix series of the same name last October. The show tells the story of Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy), a chess prodigy in the 1960s who dominates her mostly male opponents as she struggles with drug addiction. But while the Netflix show is largely framed as a sports drama/coming-of-age story, Tevis’ novel is an altogether darker — and even more exciting — affair than its TV adaptation. The book is a neurotic parable of obsession and commitment, a 244-page roller-coaster through the trials and joys of perfectionism. Sometime in the late 1950s, eight-year-old Beth Harmon is sent to an orphanage school following her mother’s death in a car accident. The only extracurricular activities there are screenings of Chuck Heston biblical epics and the forced consumption of tranquilizers. Jolene, one of the few Black residents at the orphanage, becomes Beth’s first friend. The second is Mr. Shailbel, a custodian whom Beth encounters when sent down to the school’s basement to clean blackboard erasers. Beth notices that Shailbel plays chess by himself and asks him if he can teach her the game. After some grumbling, Shaibel begins to coach Beth over the course of several months. We soon learn she’s not just a gifted player but a child prodigy who can play — and beat — multiple high schoolers simultaneously. When Beth becomes a teenager, she’s adopted by Mrs. Wheatley, an alcoholic homemaker who eventually allows her daughter to compete in chess tournaments in exchange for a 15% “commission” on Beth’s winnings. Eventually, Beth becomes an unstoppable player, rivaled only by another prodigy, Benny Watts, and an assortment of grandmasters from the USSR. In some ways just as interesting as Beth herself, Mrs. Wheatley injects a fair amount of humor into Tevis’ otherwise solemn narrative. “Mrs. Wheatley wiped her chin with her napkin when she finished the wine and lit a final cigarette,” Tevis writes. “‘Beth dear,’ she said, ‘there’s a tournament in Houston over the holidays… I understand it’s very easy to travel on Christmas Day, since most people are eating plum pudding or whatever.’” When Mrs. Wheatley later on asks Beth to hand her a drink, she explains that her “tranquility needs to be refurbished.” One gets the sense that Tevis merely goes through the motions when describing Beth’s adolescence (excluding chess), but then again, Beth isn’t really trying in that department either. Largely friendless, she’s underwhelmed by a few romantic flings, has little interest in joining an exclusive high school club and doesn’t even think about going to college. In contrast to the Netflix adaptation, in which Beth progresses in her relationship with others beyond chess, Tevis’ Harmon essentially begins and ends the story as a cypher. Tevis’ reluctance to fully scrutinize Beth as she grows older results in a narrative blunder. Jolene from the orphanage reunites with Beth when they are both adults, deciding to help Beth get into physical shape for the novel’s final tournament in Moscow. Jolene has enrolled in a master’s program now and also landed a job at a law firm. But the events of an earlier episode where Jolene molests Beth at the orphanage cannot escape a conscientious reader’s memory. As unsettling as the actual assault is, the scene’s lack of reassessment by Beth or Jolene — or even the novel’s narrator, for that matter — renders the recommencing of their friendship disconcerting. Faults aside, “The Queen’s Gambit” is truly a prince among thrillers. Especially pulse-raising are the novel’s chess scenes, which are written with a combination of elegance, control and jargon that echoes the labyrinthian style of the recently deceased John le Carré. Take Beth’s final game in Moscow against Borgov, the seemingly unstoppable world champion. “If [Beth] let him rook out, it would tear her apart. If he allowed her queen to move to the bishop file, his king’s protection would topple. She must not permit his bishop to check. He could not allow her to raise the rook pawn… In the whole of her mind, in the whole of her attention she saw only those embodiments of anger — knight, bishop, rook, pawn, king and queen.” Tevis chooses short, concrete words that attack you as this heated passage rises to a fever pitch; you see here the stormy waters through which Beth’s mind navigates, yet also gain the sense of everything being in its right place. I have no idea what moving the “queen to the bishop file” actually entails, but I’m grateful that Tevis’ prose so adamantly ensures — almost grabbing me by the lapels and outright demanding — that I know how it feels.
Around an hour and a half into “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” clean-cut antiwar activist Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, who, thankfully, doesn’t sing in this movie) stares down rabble-rouser Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen). “My problem with you,” Hayden says, “is that for the next 50 years when people think of progressive politics they’re gonna think of you. They’re gonna think of you and your idiot followers passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon. They’re not gonna think of equality or justice.” Hoffman smarts off, asking if Hayden would have protested at the DNC if the recently assassinated Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been the nominee instead of Humbert Humphrey. Enraged, the two young men — who represent two very different sides of 1960s progressivism — engage in fisticuffs until their lawyer, William Kunstler (Mark Rylance of “Wolf Hall” and “Bridge of Spies”), bursts into the room. This dramatic tête-à-tête raises questions. What exactly does it mean to be an American progressive? Is it necessary to play inside our democratic system and to engage with our government instead of tearing it down, or should we express political grievance in a more radical way, rejecting the status quo of liberalism and the very notion that our country is a democracy? And, is it that these two lifestyles are mutually exclusive, or is there a way that activists can unite them to build a better United States? Aaron Sorkin’s new Netflix film, set during the aftermath of the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and based on a true story, begins after the violent clashes between protesters of the Vietnam War and the Chicago Police Department. Richard Nixon has just been elected president, and newly-appointed Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) wants revenge on his predecessor, Ramsay Clark (Michael Keaton). Clark breaks protocol by refusing to resign his position until one hour before Mitchell was sworn in. In retaliation, Mitchell orders federal prosecutor Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to try seven anti-war protest leaders for crossing state lines to incite violence, belittling a report that the previous administration’s Justice Department authored — which had concluded that Chicago’s violence was mainly the fault of the police. And to make the mostly-white jury less sympathetic to the activists, the Justice Department adds Black Panther Party National Chairman Bobby Seale (Yaha Abdul Mateen) to the list of defendants, although Seale was not even in Chicago during the riots. The trial, overseen by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) was a real-life travesty of justice and an outright circus. The film deftly captures some of the event’s most wild episodes, both comedic and terrible. In one scene, Hoffman (the activist, not the judge) arrives at the witness stand in black robes, which Hoffman (this time, the judge) asks to be removed. The activist reveals a policeman’s outfit underneath the robes with a badge that reads “pig.” In a more gruesome scene, U.S. marshals beat, gag and enchain Seale, the trial’s sole Black defendant. Frank Langella’s character constantly refers to Seale as “The Black Panther” with just a hint of a pause before the word “Panther,” not even bothering to conceal his racism. And all of this is set to the music of Sorkin’s dialogue, a manner of speech which fans of “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom” know well: it's zippy, smart and brimming with sincerity. Some critics dismiss Sorkin’s writing style as unrealistic. Earthlings, they argue, don’t actually respond to prosecutorial questions with replies like “I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before.” These skeptics, however, don’t appreciate that Sorkin has always been more hyper-realist than realist. Eloquent as they are, his characters give off plain and true emotions, and they reserve their wittiest tirades for when they’re in strong, almost transcendent states of anger or joy. This film rollicks from beginning to end, and it's largely because of the beauty of its language. I’m from Minneapolis, and while watching this movie I remembered the protesters who were tear gassed this summer, just blocks away from my home. I saw the National Guard trucks that were seemingly everywhere, and I watched the Third Precinct burn in my city. Any viewer of this film who has a soul will be outraged by the modern parallels that this film draws, with its unblinking portrayal of the Chicago Police Department’s brutality and the sheer loathing that motivated the Nixon administration's persecution of the main characters. Go to Netflix, see this outstanding film — and vote.
‘Landslide Lyndon’: Robert Caro’s accounts of a president with a penchant for showmanship and voter fraud
During a commercial break for a 1982 interview with Pat Buchanan, Richard Nixon once gave a succinct review of “The Path to Power,” the first installment in Robert Caro’s “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” series. “You know, there’s this terrible book out on [Lyndon Johnson], the Caro book.... Sh*t, it makes him appear like a goddamn animal,” Nixon said. The ex-president — no stranger to the fouler side of human nature himself — pauses. “’Cause he was,” Nixon softly adds, grinning. “Means of Ascent” (1990) — the second volume in Robert Caro’s masterfully researched, still unfinished “Years of Lyndon Johnson” — is not only one of the most stylishly written accounts of a modern U.S. election but is also an electrifying thriller. The book, which takes place from 1941 to 1948, first tells the story of how future president of the United States Lyndon Baines Johnson spent his “wilderness years” after losing the Democratic primary for one of Texas’ U.S. Senate seats in 1941. (In the 1940s, Texas was a Southern Democratic state — whoever won the Democratic primary was almost assured a win in the general election). The book’s last half recounts Johnson’s inglorious — and likely fraudulent — 87-vote victory in the 1948 primary against the state’s popular former governor, Coke Stevenson. “Means of Ascent” is also an unexpectedly hilarious biography because Caro — who has, somehow, spent half of his life writing about Lyndon Johnson — loathes Johnson. The series’ two later volumes, “Master of the Senate” (2002) and “The Passage of Power” (2012), show us Johnson’s slow shift to becoming a champion of the civil rights movement. However, the earlier “Path to Power” (1984) and “Means of Ascent” paint a bleaker picture of the politician, a side of Johnson’s personality that Caro suggests resurfaced in the 1960s when Johnson escalated U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War. As we watch Johnson lie copiously, abuse his staff and bribe South Texas political machine employees (“pistoleros”) to stuff ballots for him, it becomes almost impossible to believe that the protagonist of “Means of Ascent” is the same man whose 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech on the Voting Rights Act marked the sole occasion when Martin Luther King, Jr. wept in front of his friends, visibly moved by Johnson’s compassion. Caro constructs the 1948 Senate race as a contest between two larger-than-life characters: Stevenson, 60, a libertarian cowboy, and Johnson, 40, a strikingly tall, crude political genius with a flair for showmanship. It's a great dramatic device because Johnson and Stevenson had few substantive issues when it came to actual policy. Stevenson was an avowed segregationist and bigot, for instance, while Johnson openly condemned Harry Truman's 1948 civil rights plan, dismissing it as a “a farce and a sham — an effort to set up a police state.” But whereas the candidates’ politics converged, their campaigns strongly differed. Caro suggests that Stevenson’s campaign was the last of its kind: the former governor and a limited staff drove to an assortment of towns each day and delivered stump speeches at local courthouses. Stevenson never offered his stance on any major issues, instead relying on his stellar reputation as a laissez-faire governor. One campaign issue was Stevenson’s silence on the new anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act — which the uber-conservative Stevenson supported, of course, although Johnson tried to suggest that his self-proclaimed “Jeffersonian Democrat” opponent was in fact a pro-union socialist. In contrast, Lyndon Johnson’s campaign was a wild grab for power that embodied the hectic style of political campaigning that became the norm in post-war America. Falling behind Stevenson, Johnson decided to invest in (then) modern campaign tools: his use of scientific polling, radio advertisements and millions of dollars in Big Oil fundraising were all unprecedented in statewide American politics. The book’s most incredible passages recount how Lyndon Johnson’s campaign introduced another innovation to modern campaigning: helicopters. If Caro portrays Johnson as a villain in “Means of Ascent,” the book’s helicopter scenes turn Johnson into a full-on supervillain. “And then people would hear the hum in the sky,” writes Caro. “They would generally hear it some minutes before they could actually see the helicopter, but finally someone would shout, ‘There it is! Over yonder!’ and someone else would say ‘Look, it’s coming!’ — and people would begin pointing to the dot in the sky that was growing rapidly larger. As it drew closer, the hum became the distinctive, rhythmic, beating, chopping sounds…The helicopter would settle the ground with a last roar…a swirl of dust and pebbles swept into the air by its blades…And out into the silence stepped Lyndon Johnson.” Johnson beat Stevenson in the Texas Senate Democratic primary by 87 votes, but in a merciless coda to “Means of Ascent,” Caro proves that Johnson probably lost the popular vote to Stevenson by thousands of uncounted votes. In what reads like an “Onion” article, Caro recounts the most egregious case of the many instances of voter fraud that the Johnson campaign likely committed. He writes, “The figure for Johnson which had been reported [in the ballot box for Texas’s 13th precinct] as 765 on Election Night, was now 965 — because, according to testimony that would later be given, someone had, since Election Night, added a loop to the ‘7’ to change it into a ‘9.’ Johnson had 200 more votes". To add insult to injury, we later learn that the 200 extra voters apparently “cast” their ballots in alphabetical order, because that is what was recorded on the 13th precinct’s registration sheet. Later in his career, Johnson would brag with colleagues about how he stole the election, wanting his peers to not only know that he cheated, but that he cheated well. After his induction into the Senate thanks to an “87-vote” victory, the politician would even introduce himself to other Senators as “Landslide Lyndon.” Unlike our 45th president, Johnson certainly had a sense of irony.
Near the beginning of “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” Lucy (Jessie Buckley) repeats the old joke about how Mussolini kept the trains running on time. Her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemmons) swiftly corrects her. The speediness of Italian railways during the 1930s, actually, owed more to the country’s pre-fascist regime. Jake expounds without humility in a flat murmur; his eyes and voice lack self-deprecation as he bloviates. Lucy blinks. Writer-director Charlie Kauffman’s “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is about many things, some of which are best left a mystery. Jake and Lucy have been dating for a couple months. They drive through a blizzard to Jake’s parents’ house, where the couple are having a dinner party. After a boozy supper, the pair head back and make an ice cream stop, even though it’s still snowing hard. Three giggling matrons tend the shop, sirens looking onto our roadtrippers. The last act takes place at Jake’s old high school. And even without details, we just know there’s something eerie about this last development: Jake rivals even the kids from “Glee” in how he attains such strange catharsis from revisiting the locker-strewn halls of his adolescence. But if the film’s fireworks wait until the end, the meat and potatoes of “Ending Things” lies in the long, almost Chekhovian conversations characters have, especially those between Lucy and Jake. As the couple drives through snowy highways, they discuss topics including film criticism, politics, religion and even David Foster Wallace. Meanwhile, interior monologues in Lucy’s head suggest darker undercurrents, and an uncertainty about who Jake is and why she’s been dating him (Buckley is outstanding in these quieter moments). David Thewlis takes over the film’s middle as Jake’s perpetually band-aided father, a melancholy Englishman somehow stuck in the frosty Midwest. Most famous for playing Remus Lupin in the “Harry Potter” movies, the actor deftly bumbles his way through a similarly tortured role, clad in smudges and unkempt hair as he makes malapropism upon malapropism. Buckley and Thewlis have a deeply uncomfortable rapport during the dinner scene, wherein Thewlis’s character shares some seemingly impromptu criticism of painting, a hobby Buckley’s character enjoys, while simultaneously hitting on his son’s girlfriend. And so when the characters in the farmhouse begin to shift through time, we aren’t so much surprised as we are relieved: temporal jumps at least lack the ugliness of bad manners. We see hairs pale and then regain color, wheel-chairs roll in and out, baby talk and dribble.“We don’t go into the basement,” whispers one character after telling us about his lonely childhood. All this weirdness can be admired on an aesthetic level, but one grows weary of cutesiness. Jesse Plemmon brings to the role the same affectless, natural performance that made him such a convincing villain in “Breaking Bad.” And I fully admit, too, that Jake’s character is an interesting creation: a burly, soft-spoken twenty-something whose sweet mannerisms and perpetual slouch are meant to give his critiques of society, art and even his own girlfriend a sense of innate, unappreciated genius. If only the film’s script weren’t as condescending as Jake’s character. Throughout the story, Kauffman cuts to the travailles of a high-school janitor (Guy Boyd), taking occasional work breaks to watch a teenage-cast rehearse “Oklahoma.” This, too, distracts us from what could have been a disarmingly simple movie. The last scenes make direct fun of a certain ham-fisted Best Picture winner starring Russel Crowe, but these scenes play out in an equally ham-fisted tone which undermines any wit left in this alphabet soup of a film. These bouts of intellectual hogwash would have perhaps been more endurable in a theater (God, I miss theaters), where I’d have better appreciated Łukasz Żal’s beautifully sparse cinematography and enjoyed easier access to snacks. But while viewing “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” on Netflix, I found myself checking my watch, surfing the web and, frankly, Thinking of Ending Things with Mr. Kauffman’s film. The writer-director showcases some sharp dialogue and fine acting here, but “Ending Things” ultimately regresses into a gleeful disorganization that, upon reflection, can probably be found in all the film’s scenes. You have heard it said by Mel Brooks that his show business satire “The Producers” “rose below” mere vulgarity. I say unto you that “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” never quite rises below pretension.
As a young “Daily Express” correspondent, Evelyn Waugh (1903–66) once explained to a colleague the secret to success in the newspaper business. “The correct procedure [when assigned a story], is to jump to your feet, seize your hat and umbrella and dart out of the office with every appearance of haste to the nearest cinema,” Waugh said. During what is hopefully the last few months of the Trump era, recommending Evelyn Waugh can seem like a daunting task. Both Waugh's brand of Catholicism and his political views bend towards the uber-conservative, and the novels of his later years increasingly include storylines and jokes that give way to theological tirades and overwrought language. But when he stays away from untenable beliefs, Waugh’s novels reign supreme in their painstaking style and dark humor. The word “satire” almost doesn’t apply to his books; Waugh’s jokes don’t just strike the reader with their barbed venom but simply induce sheer (if at times uncomfortable) laughter. Captain Grimes in Waugh’s novel “Decline and Fall,” for instance, has taught at a number of public boys’ schools in the UK for years but is always getting fired for getting “in the soup.” Grimes remains an optimist, though, because he always gets job transfers thanks to his social class. “Besides, you see, I’m a public school man,” Grimes says. “That means everything.” Waugh deftly savages “old boy” networks here, even as he blends the tricky line between satirizing classism and trivializing the horrors of sex abuse. That same cold hilarity is found in his novels “Vile Bodies” and “Scoop,” where characters often shrug at human folly and their own emotions. For readers interested in more thoughtful literature, I still recommend Waugh for the overwhelming humanity of his two masterpieces “A Handful of Dust” and “Brideshead Revisited.” “Dust,” which recounts the fall of country aristocrat Tony Last after his wife Brenda leaves him for a younger man, has perhaps the meanest scene from any twentieth-century novel. When Brenda’s son John dies in a riding accident, for a moment, she thinks that her lover — also named John — has perished instead. Upon hearing that her boyfriend is alive, the now childless Brenda sighs, “Thank God.” It’s definitely an over-the-top scene, but we’ve all at one time or another met those wantonly self-centered beasts like Brenda Last, and few novelists capture the special banality of their narcissism more acutely than Waugh. The structure of “Dust” also allows us to — barely — digest such heinousness by balancing genuine darkness with slapstick doom. Shortly after the cuckolded Tony Last flees to the Amazon, he gets abducted by a certain Mr. Todd, a Colonel Kurtz-esque hermit who captures Tony and forces him to eternally read aloud Charles Dickens at gunpoint. I can see an icier satirist like J.M. Coetzee constructing the “Thank God” scene, and perhaps Flannery O’Connor at her weirdest might employ “Nicholas Nickleby” à la Mr. Todd. But in my mind, only one writer adeptly combines these two types of gallows humor, laughing at evil in all its pain and all its absurdity. And as for the sunnier anomaly of “Brideshead Revisited?” Well, a good deal of the novel’s last 200 pages play out a tad ham-fisted, particularly when Lord Marchmain — an avowed atheist and philanderer — suddenly takes Holy Communion in his last minutes, dying only after making the sign of the cross. But the book’s first 100 pages have an unvarnished sentimentality which has aged well. When the novel’s narrator Charles Ryder reflects on his college years, his comments on the features of Oxford wistfully transition into an ode to being young with one's friends. Charles especially misses “[Oxford’s] autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days — such as that day — when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear ... It was this cloistral hush which gave our laughter its resonance, and carried it still, joyously, over the intervening clamour.” Rereading this passage, I find myself forgetting the shock humor of “Decline and Fall” and Waugh’s later persona, that cigar-chomping right-winger outraged over the dawn of a British welfare state and the Great Scandal of the Catholic Church (its 1964 cessation of the Latin Mass). Instead, this is Waugh at his most ornate and sincere. And Charles Ryder’s ruminations about Oxford definitely echo my own joys about returning to campus for this weird, masked, and somehow beautiful semester.
Professor of English Literature Jay Parini’s new memoir, “Borges and Me,” is a smart, soulful coming-of-age story that recounts a 1970 road trip through the Scottish Highlands that Parini took with aging Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. I recently chatted with Parini over Zoom about “Borges and Me.” During our conversation, we discussed how Parini went through reconstructing his 50-year-old memories, the long-term effects of mentors on their students, an upcoming film adaptation of “Borges and Me” — and even Donald Trump. John Vaaler: “Borges and Me” is about a road trip you took with the Argentinian surrealist writer Jorge Luis Borges in 1970. Writing this memoir after that trip, in what ways did you go about revisiting these episodes, and was there a process that helped you weave memories with approximations? Jay Parini: Well, I go to Scotland pretty much every other year, so I was in the Highlands only about two years ago. And I actually revisited — I redrove — much of that route. And I’ve done that many times over the last 50 years. Think about that: it’s been 50 years since I took that original trip, so a lot of it is faded from memory, which is why I, after 50 years, really think of it as a novelized memoir, as I say at the end. [“Borges and Me”] is a kind of autofiction. So, I’m inventing scenes, I’m making up the dialogue. JV: You were talking about autofictions and how a fair amount of your memoir is recreation, but an even bigger amount is a novelization of past events. JP: Memoir is a very tricky genre. I think I’m being pretty experimental with the genre here. So I’m foreshadowing things and really creating characters, although all the characters are real people. JV: In what ways did Borges’s work influence your memoir about you and Borges? JP: I feel like in many ways I’m reinventing Borges and rewriting him, although the style is not Borgesian, but I’m using so many of the Borges tropes and themes. In many ways, I tried to make this tour of three or four days a tour through the major stories of Borges. So, when they stop at the [Carnegie] library, I’m kind of referencing the “Library of Babel,” one of Borges’ main stories. When Borges falls, hits his head and goes into the hospital, he himself alludes to an accident that had happened to him in 1938, which led to the writing of his famous story “Funes The Memorious.” I keep referencing the great essay “Pierre Manard, Author of the Quixote,” because I believe I got from Borges the idea that we’re all just rewriting literature. So I’m rewriting Borges’ story by writing my story. JV: I was frequently moved when reading your memoir, but it’s also really quite funny. Are there any comic writers that you especially revere? JP: I was modeling myself on Evelyn Waugh. I mean, Evelyn Waugh is a very funny writer - sharp. The dialogue is understated but sharp. JV: Your memoir begins when you’re a graduate student fleeing possible deployment to the Vietnam War. “Borges and Me” has arrived in bookstores in 2020 during a Trump presidency, a watershed moment in how Americans address systemic racism and a global pandemic that’s ended thousands of lives. Does the anxiety of 2020 remind you of the anxiety you sometimes express in your memoir? JP: I was stunned by the fact that the time we’re living in now is very like the late sixties. Very like the late sixties. There’s riots in the streets, there’s looting, there’s a president who’s out of control, people are feeling very uncertain and afraid. The economic fissures are really being horribly widened by the president. I don’t think I could have ever predicted we would be living under a truly mad president, but we are. “Truly certifiable,” as the British would say. JV: At the end of “Borges and Me,” you talk about one inspiration for this book: an English film director told you that your experience with Borges would make a fantastic movie. What are some details you can tell The Campus about a film adaptation of your book? Are you currently involved with the project? JP: I can say this whole book came about when I was sitting in a café in a little village — a seaside village in southern Italy — working on a film with Kevin Spacey about the life of Gore Vidal, which I wrote with the director Michael Hoffman. During [the] filming project, there are a lot of visitors to the set. Ross Clarke, who’s done two or three films, was visiting the set because he’s the friend of the producer, Andy Patterson, and the director, Michael Hoffman. I was sitting at a table with Ross and Andy, and Ross happened to pull out a copy of the stories of Jorge Luis Borges. I said, “Do you like Borges?” And he said, “I love Borges, he’s my favorite author!” And I told him that I once chauffeured Borges around the Highlands of Scotland 50 years ago or so. I told him a few of the stories, and Ross said to Andy, “That’s our next movie!” So I wrote this, and Ross and I started adapting this as a script, and we’re just finishing it up now. We expect to go to actors very, very soon. Andy Patterson, who did “Girl With Pearl Earring” (2003) and “The Railway Man” (2013) and many other films — “Beyond the Sea” (2004) and so forth, [is] producing. JV: Are you writing any fiction or biography right now? JP: You know, I’m the third of the way through a novel right now, but I’m putting it on hold. I’m never going to do [another] “biography” biography. JV: Are those too exhausting? JP: Yeah, they’re exhausting and I don’t want to spend thousands of hours in libraries interviewing people. They’re very hard to write. [“Borges and Me”] is a very light-hearted book, but with serious themes.
For the Campus’s “Love Issue,” I am listing below some really compelling nonfiction books that involve matters of the heart. As always, I hope you are all staying safe, and that reading this piece might offer you a few minutes away from the grim reality of April 2020. Let’s get to it. 1) “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” (2019) by Patrick Radden Keefe “Say Nothing” tells us about several intertwining stories set during the Troubles, the violent sectarian conflict between the largely Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the two mostly Protestant loyalist gangs, Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British Army. The main plot line is about the 1972 disappearance of Jean McConville, a Belfast mother of nine children. Unfortunately for her, IRA intelligence suggested that McConville was an informer for the British. The last pages of “Say Nothing” deal with finding out who abducted and murdered McConville. But the wildest section of “Say Nothing” focuses on the romance between convicted IRA bombmaker Dolores Price and her Protestant husband Stephen Rea, a Belfast actor who starred in the psychological thriller “The Crying Game” (1992). (Also: See “The Crying Game!” It’s definitely in my top ten movies, probably just below “Paddington 2” (2017)). Particularly interesting is how Rea balanced his acting career — where he often, ironically, ended up playing IRA militants — with his marriage, which slowly dissolved after Dolores, then bombmaker emitra, became an alcoholic. All in all, “Say Nothing” is a profoundly melancholic thriller, and a weary meditation on the horrors of sectarian violence. The story’s first half in the early 1970s reads like a Bond novel: Keefe writes about car chases, Guinness binges, double-crosses, gunfights and getaways. But the book gets bleaker once the IRA’s leadership realized that winning the Troubles probably would not happen. The author suggests that it was every man for himself on the Republican side once the more pragmatic Sinn Féin party broke away from the IRA, abandoning fighters who for years had robbed and murdered for a united Ireland. To make matters even more shady, Keefe reveals that at least a third of those fighters might have been “assets” for the British at one point or another. Barack Obama said “Say Nothing” was one of the best books of 2019. I couldn’t agree more. 2) “The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo” (2012) by Tom Reiss I remember as a tween reading the “Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas and wanting to be the novel’s protagonist so badly. Monte Cristo’s a master sword fighter, stock-market manipulator and wine connoisseur; he owns an island and becomes the toast of Parisian and Roman café society; the Count dispatches evildoers with ruthless aplomb and has a photographic memory. Monte Cristo is even more fascinating when you learn that the novelist essentially based the character off of his own father “Alex” Dumas, who was a French general in several Napoleonic wars. But what makes Reiss’ book, a biography of Alex Dumas, father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas, really incredible is that Dumas was the son of an impoverished French nobleman and a black Hatian female slave, and was himself in bondage up into his teenage years until his father bought his freedom. Once Alex Dumas arrived in Paris, he excelled in the military and was especially noted for his bravery and decisive leadership of his troops during the Napoleonic Wars, despite the myriad racist officials in the French military and government. Reiss confidently unravels Dumas’s surreal transition from Hatian slave to battle-winning aristocrat, and deftly captures its central figure’s ambition. The most touching moments of “The Black Count” show us Alexandre Dumas’s occasionally inaccurate but heartfelt biography of his larger-than-life father, who passed away when Dumas was only four years old. The book tells a compelling chronicle of warfare and racism, but nothing competes with the novelist’s vignettes, which Reiss includes. My favorite of these is when a four-year old Dumas, brandishing a sword, vows to kill God after his mother tells him that the Almighty has taken away the titular “Black Count.” 3) “Talking to Strangers” (2019) by Malcom Gladwell Malcom Gladwell’s books generally provide me with ample facts and stats to use during Ross Dining Room debates. “Talking to Strangers” is no exception: I nowadays probably quote this book with the same frequency that Paul Ryan brings up “The Fountainhead” (1943). Gladwell’s latest covers a lot ground: he gives us a chapter on why some people make bail when others don’t, anecdotes about how CIA spies failed to spot Castroist moles that were hiding in plain sight and even an analysis of characters’ facial expressions in the show “Friends.” (I’m not entirely sure why Gladwell added this last part, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.) The author centers his research on the thesis that the ways humans communicate with strangers are highly flawed — which, if that sounds a little vague, that’s because it is. But who really cares? Not this critic. In the individual chapters of this book, Gladwell provides so many fascinating true stories about lie detection and miscommunication that a thoughtful reader, I think, can draw their own conclusions about this book’s gist. To conclude, “Talking to Strangers” is a fascinating read that highlights Gladwell’s love of historical and present-day case studies. And if my use of the word “love” sounds like a tacked-on way to recommend this book in The Campus’s Love Issue, then you, my friend, have judged this stranger quite accurately.
“Midnight in Paris” (2011) has a film buff in-joke near the end. After a bar room chat with Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), time-traveler Gil Pender (Owen Wilson) gets up to leave. At the door, Gil notices a young man: Luis Buñuel, the Spanish surrealist filmmaker. Gil suggests to Buñuel an idea for a movie: “A group of people attend a very formal dinner party, and at the end when they try to leave the room, they can’t.” Thus unravels the plot of “The Exterminating Angel” (“El ángel exterminador”), Buñuel’s 1962 existential thriller. And boy, oh boy does it all seem a little too familiar: A bunch of friends get trapped in a lounge by an invisible force that induces lethargy, and can even bring on severe illness. In quarantine, the characters begin to get on each other’s nerves, turning emotional thumbscrews with glee. It’s “social distancing” à la Chekhov if Chekhov had ever written a story where an undead severed hand crawls around sofas, looking for throats to strangle (yep, that happens). The story takes place in post-war Spain. The first scene, we watch a large group of friends arrive from a play, “The Virgin Bride of Lammermoor.” We get a good idea of their social class: The men wear top hats and tails, the women luxurious gowns. They’re entering a mansion, filled with chandeliers and candelabras. The household’s background is equally idyllic: palm trees sway over a black security gate, the street is clean. But, for some reason, the household’s domestic servants have a dark premonition. They hurry away after preparing dinner for homeowners Edmundo (Enrique Rambel) and Lucía Nóbile (Lucy Gallardo). After coffee, the partygoers dance to Chopin’s Waltz in E Minor, smoke a billion cigarettes, gossip. So far, so good. Pianist Blanca (Patricia de Morelos) plays a final piece, then descends the keyboard cover. That’s when the guests matter-of-factly throw down their dinner jackets and relax. Some fall asleep onto the parlor room’s sofas, others the floor. No one even discusses leaving the mansion. The lights go off. The proceeding hour of “The Exterminating Angel” is some of the most bonkers stuff I’ve seen on any screen, a spectacle that even rivals Joe Exotic’s Oklahoma gubernatorial bid in episode five of “Tiger King.” Buñuel gradually shows us that there’s no escaping this Coffee Room of Death. Almost interchangable characters confess their love for each other, plot murder and commit suicide. The black-and-white cinematography and monotone costume designs make it incredibly hard to distinguish almost any of the film’s twentyish characters from one another. The men, all slightly pudgy, suddenly break out into fights with each other; their wives, clad in high heels, sacrifice sheep in rituals that are meant to extricate the guests. Buñuel even has entire lines of dialogue repeated verbatim, so that our sense of time lags, and even has entire lines of dialogue repeated verbatim, so that our sense of time lags. It eventually seems as if we, too, have always been locked-up in the parlor room. It’s a relief when “The Exterminating Angel” starts exterminating: at least there are fewer characters to keep track of. Two characters meet their ends when they walk into a closet that somehow squeezes its visitors into a bloody pulp. One supposes that Mr. Tumnus and Aslan the Lion don’t live in that particular wardrobe. But it’s the history behind “The Exterminating Angel” that’s most fascinating. Francisco Franco, the right-wing authoritarian dictator who took power in Spain after a brutal civil war, still headed the government in 1962. You can spot elements of Francoist Spain in “The Exterminating Angel.” During the dinner party, a servant carrying a silver platter trips, falling face-first onto the floor. The white-tied guests roar with laughter, and no one helps him get up. Later on, a woman in the kitchen throws an ashtray through a window. A crash resounds. “What was that?” another woman asks in the parlour room. “Just some Jew passing by,” says her husband. After the surviving partygoers escape, they try to absolve their sins by going to a mass. Buñuel never mentions Franco by name, but there are still plenty of hints about the Nationalist leanings of the film’s characters. With this context in mind, there's more than a little comeuppance when our “heros” descend into a topsy-turvy hell. Watching “The Exterminating Angel,” I was reminded of an early scene in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). The players: Sergeant Donny Donowtiz (Eli Roth), a captured Wehrmarcht officer named Wilhelm (Gedeon Berkhart), and, most importantly, a baseball bat. Tough luck, Wilhelm.
Before I get into the usual business of my review, I’d first like to say that I hope you are all staying well in these chaotic times. I’m doing OK in frosty Minnesota, if not exactly thriving. Below is a summary of how I’ve spent my last fortnight: George Orwell might have dubbed my routine “Down and Quarantined in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.” I begin each day at 11 a.m., breakfast at noon and try to walk around a lake near my house before dusk sets. At night I watch “Twin Peaks” while consuming buckets of Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Coffee BuzzBuzzBuzz ice cream. Sometimes I’m a renegade. On a whim, I might circle two lakes instead of one; “Mad Men” replaces “Twin Peaks;” I purchase a pint of Chocolate Fudge Brownie instead of my usual Coffee Coffee BuzzBuzzBuzz. Variety is the BuzzBuzzBuzz of life, I suppose. That’s what I’ve been up to. But enough about me; Let’s talk books. I’ve recently finished “The Raj Quartet” (1965-1975) by Paul Scott, a novel sequence about the final days of British Crown rule in India during and directly after World War II. The series is about 2,000 pages, and it requires a fair amount of time to read. But Scott’s thoughtful prose and exciting narrative make the quartet an epic worthy of attention. Another reason to try out “The Raj Quartet” is that it’s super hipster stuff: I only heard about the series a few months ago when I read that Stephen King recommended it. Kudos to Mr. King, because “The Raj Quartet” is usually absent from the “Giant-Books-To-Read-Before-You-Die” articles that one sometimes finds when surfing the web. (Those lists usually go: “Middlemarch” (1872), “Anna Karenina” (1878), “Moby Dick” (1851) and — additionally — “Middlemarch” (1872).) The quartet’s first volume, “The Jewel In The Crown” (1966), focuses on the August 1942 riots following the arrest of Indian National Congress leaders. In a Southern province, the fictional Mayapore, India, Police Superintendent Ronald Merrrick takes advantage of the violence and chaos of the riots to arrest six innocent men in a sexual assault case that had occurred during the riots. The novel deals with the psychology behind Merrick’s blatantly racist arrests, and the consequences for one of the detainees — Hari Kumar, who’s been having a love affair with a “memsahib,” an Indian term for an upper-class, white Englishwoman. “The Jewel In The Crown” is the series’ most morose installment, but the author injects more action as “The Raj Quartet” progresses to include scores of new characters in myriad, more varied situations. The proceeding books — “The Day of the Scorpion” (1968), “The Towers of Silence” (1971) and “A Division of the Spoils” (1975) — tell a hectic story of romance and warfare. One minute we’re at a tea party in Delhi, then suddenly we’re at a firefight in Burma. One character begins as a hard-drinking wastrel; at the quartet’s end, the same character commits a heroic sacrifice. Scott’s series has Iliadic ambitions, and one reads the last 500 pages as if they’re 50. One is first struck with the beauty of Scott’ prose. “The Raj Quartet” tackles the same general themes of colonialism in India as E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India” (1923) — particularly in the “Jewel In the Crown” — but where Forster’s writing emphasizes clarity and logic, Scott likes to hint at things, to suggest or even brood, and then to suddenly pull the rug from under our feet. [pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]Scott’s series has Iliadic ambitions, and one reads the last 500 pages as if they’re 50.[/pullquote] “They found her thus, eternally alert, in sudden sunshine, her shadow burnt into the wall behind her as if by some distant but terrible fire,” goes the penultimate line in “The Towers of Silence.” A character has died, that’s fairly obvious. But what does “shadow burnt into a wall” actually mean? Why “sudden sunshine?” The next thing we learn is that this character died on the same day as the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. The Hiroshima explosion was so bright that it left inverted shadows across the city, some by window frames and bridge railings, and some outlining the bodies of people caught in the blast. Through this historical allusion, an individual death becomes a deeply unsettling metaphor. These books are jam-packed with history, too. In the quartet’s 2,000 pages, Scott gives the reader a fascinating account of mid-twentieth century India: the quartet discuss topics including the Muslim League/Congress rivalry that ramped up during WWII, Subhas Chandra Bose’s Japanese-backed Indian National Army, the creation of Pakistan, the sectarian massacres following the subcontinent’s partition and, most interestingly, the final days of India’s princely states. One learns so much reading these novels, and “The Raj Quartet” — unlike some Midd classes this semester — doesn’t even require Zoom. But the most admirable aspect of Scott’s series is its lack of illusions about what the Raj represented (Kipling et al.). There’s certainly no love lost for imperialism in the quartet’s finale, “A Division of the Spoils.” “You honestly wonder where [imperial India’s administrators] come from,” says the character Captain Purvis. “Not England, surely?... The fact is places like [India] have always been a magnet for our throwbacks. Reactionary, unco-operative bloody well expendable buggers from the upper and middle classes who can’t and won’t pull their weight at home but prefer to throw it about in countries this….” This sort of dark humor surfaces again and again in the “Raj Quartet.” Scott’s saying here that India was indeed ruled by some of England’s cruelest people. But, more importantly, he also suggests that the overseers of the Raj’s final days were of a largely pedestrian ilk: second-rate dullards of a crumbling empire.
I was making my way through “Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited” (Philip Eade, 2016), when suddenly, an acute case of literary déja-vu struck me. On a 1929 honeymoon cruise around the Mediterranean, Waugh and his new wife Evelyn — who was helpfully nicknamed “Shevelyn’’ by the couple’s friends — stopped at Port Said, Egypt. Upon arriving, Shevelyn immediately fell ill and was rushed to a nearby British hospital. And, in what would become one of the few tender moments of the Waughs’ short, infidelity-ridden marriage, Evelyn routinely visited his bedridden wife for the next ten days, reading aloud books by a certain novelist. Here’s the déja-vu. Near the end of Donna Tartt’s novel “The Secret History” (1992), the character Charles runs amok on booze, falls ill and gets sent to a hospital. To cheer his friend up, the character Richard sends Charles a few paperbacks — novels by the same author that Waugh read aloud to his wife. And when life is hard on me, I, too, reread books by the same author that Tartt and Waugh admired: Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (1881-1975). Dubbed “The Master” by his fans, the legendary humorist passed away on Valentine’s Day, 1975. Two generations after his death, P.G. Wodehouse’s genius deserves a revisitation for devotees, and an introduction for newcomers. That being said, if you’re in the latter camp — stop reading this, make haste to the nearest public library and check out “The Code of the Woosters” (1938). Thank me later. (As far as compensation goes: I am especially fond of truffles.) Wodehouse’s novels take place in the upper echelons of a fictional England which is perpetually stuck in the dawn of the 1920s, filled to the brim with Edwardian slang, walking sticks and telegrams. It’s a world where Oxbridge bachelors party up and down the streets of Belgravia, crashing their Rolls-Royces into fire hydrants and stealing policemen’s helmets. One wakes up at eleven, retires at four. The early Wodehouse canon focuses on the adventures of cricket-loving Mike Jackson and his brilliant, quasi-socialist school chum Ronald Eustice Psmith. These books are comedic, but have (admittedly minor) underpinnings in reality. In “Psmith, Journalist” (1915), for instance, the protagonist starts editing the fluff-magazine “Cosy Moments.” Psmith eventually transforms the publication into a muckraking journal that goes after a Manhattan slumlord who loves cats. But the Master’s most important series focuses on the spacy aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his superhuman valet Jeeves — whose genius, we learn, derives from a salmon-rich diet. Bertie works less as a character and more as an accumulation of Edwardian archetypes. He’s kind to his friends, rich as a prince and has never worked a day in his life. Hobbies include golfing, cigarette smoking, lunching at “The Drone’s Club” and, most important of all: staying a bachelor. The last of these seems odd until one examines Bertie’s eccentric suitors. Bertie’s former flame Madeline Bassett feels, for example, that “every time a fairy sheds a tear, a wee bit star is born in the Milky Way.” [pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]One laughs at first, but then smiles.[/pullquote] What’s most striking to me is that Wodehouse’s comic mode lacks genre. Political satire this is not; and despite Bertie’s innumerable wedding engagements, there isn’t any romantic comedy to be found in Wodehouse, either. A rom-com, after all, implies actual three-dimensional characters who have struggles in their lives. When Jeeves isn’t reading Nietzsche or Spinoza, he “floats,” “oozes” and “shimmers” into rooms to assist Bertie. These aren’t Earthlings we’re dealing with. Instead, Wodehouse’s universe paints a picture of Man before the Fall. The characters are so kind, so innocent, so zany and — with the exception of Jeeves — so dim that a healthy, normal reader has no choice but to guffaw at their silly misadventures. “We are all acting on limited knowledge and insufficient evidence,” wrote Robert Frost. One of the biggest differences between Bertie and the rest of us is that the former has a remarkable understanding of his own buffoonery, a level of self-knowledge about his ignorance that neither I nor Frost could have ever dreamed of. Consider “Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest” (1916): “I’m not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it’s Shakespeare who says that it’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.” Ingredients to the above Wodehouse cocktail: a strong base of wit, some measures of allusion and a lemony twist of sincere benevolence. One laughs at first, but then smiles. For the briefest, most delicate of moments, the Master’s prose shocks you with the unvarnished goodness that W.H. Auden attributed to the power of art; “Ironic points of light flash out wherever the Just exchange their messages.”
Most of the time, it is inadvisable to throw around adjectives of the “Kafkaesque-Orwellian” ilk; these words are overused. But hear me out on this one: “Atlantics” is the most Dickinsonian — as in Emily Dickinson — movie so far in the Hirschfield International Film Series. Consider the film’s opening scenes, which strongly echo the verse of that reclusive New England poet. A young woman spends a solitary night in her bedroom, staring at a flickering candle; the ocean wind brushes the curtains on a creaking windowsill; ghosts — yes, ghosts — haunt the neighborhood. This is, almost stanza-for-stanza, the stuff of “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” Had Dickinson gone to the matinée screening I attended at Dana Auditorium, I’m reasonably certain she would have given “Atlantics” a glowing review. (“Wild film — wild film — nice cinematography — too many people in this movie theater — I have to run back to my house!”) “Atlantics” takes place in a futuristic Dakar, Senegal, where economic disparities are ever-present. In the first scene, we learn that a skyscraper is being built by a team of construction workers who haven’t been paid their wages for the last four months, and that they can now barely support their families. One of these workers is Suleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), who has recently fallen for another man’s fiancée, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane). Ada, during her affair with Suleiman, starts questioning if she really wants to marry Omar (Babacar Sylla). Who can really blame her? Omar’s a materialistic bore who swims laps at his private pool all day. Suleiman, on the other hand, has sandy trysts with Ada on a beach that looks out on the Atlantic Ocean. We know which of these guys is the real deal. At this point, “Atlantics” writer and director Mati Diop suddenly throws in two plot twists. Out of the blue, Suleiman and his coterie sail away from Senegal, looking for a better life in Spain. Shortly after the workers leave, though, their wives and girlfriends start to hear a sad rumor: that the boat to Spain might have sunk. Suddenly, the community’s women have lost their men, and the skyscraper’s construction tycoon, who apparently doesn’t feel the Bern, still won’t pay his workers’ families. That’s the state of things when Plot Twist Number Two comes in: the body-snatching ghosts. The spirits of the dead sailors, we find out, have decided to mentally possess their lovers at night. Ada alone is the spectral exception — she’s much too busy adjusting to married life with Omar. But all the other women — seen mostly through the perspective of Ada’s friend Fanta — spend their wee hours with their eyes rolled back into pale visages, breaking into houses and committing arson. Both man and woman, visionless yet all-seeing, Fanta’s character seems to pay homage to Tiresias, the blind prophet of Greek myth who does not easily forget the sins of others. Beyond the film’s most obvious lesson — “don’t hustle your employees or they will come back from the dead and destroy you” — there are subtler issues that “Atlantics” tackles. Ada, a religiously progressive Muslim, gets called “slut” several times in the film, and before Ada marries Omar, her in-laws require her to take a virginity test. It’s all the more ironic when the ladies of “Atlantics” become zombies: although the women act seemingly crazy, it’s only because they’re being possessed by the men. We never know if we should admire the drowned sailors’ empowering of Ada’s posse, or if they’re acting too clingy by transforming their wives into nocturnally indentured servants. Like the waves that crash onto the sand in the film’s beginning, the moral ambiguity of “Atlantics” both pummels and refreshens. “Atlantics” rocks, and I want to see another Mati Diop film soon. Especially clever is how Diop organizes the story. We’re never confused in “Atlantics” because the film centers around a police investigation of an arson. As the cops learn the facts of the story, we learn with them. Particularly notable is Amado Mbow’s performance as the bumbling lead investigator of the case. (The role is a cliché, but it’s a cliché that works.) His interrogation scenes with Ada crackle with chemistry, and one wishes that those two characters shared more screen time. Mbow’s best scene in “Atlantics” is towards the end. When the detective figures out that he himself might have been possessed by a spirit, he wears that look of sudden terror you get when, gazing out of the window at your lawn, you spot Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein rummaging through the contents of your garbage. It’s game over, man.
On Valentine's Day, the Middlebury College Department of Music hosted a faculty recital in Robison Hall. The concert included flute ensemble pieces from Sergie Prokofiev (1891-1953), Robert Schumann (1810-1856) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Flutist Anne Janson shared the stage with three other Middlebury Affiliate Artists: pianist Annemieke McLane, violist Stefanie Taylor and harpist Rebecca Kauffman. The evening began with Prokofiev’s “Flute Sonata in D, op. 94” (1943). Prokofiev, a Ukrainian composer, wrote the piece during one of the bleakest periods of the USSR’s involvement in the Second World War, several months after the Battle of Stalingrad. I sometimes have misgivings about Prokofiev’s style. To me, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) are the best of the Soviet composers. Those two artists used their compositions not just to enchant audiences, but to simultaneously decry the horrors of Stalinism. Although the USSR once denounced Prokofiev’s early music as “anti-democratic formalism,” his music generally lacks the overwhelming political and artistic boldness of Shostakovich or Khachaturian. With the exception of the Montague theme from “Romeo and Juliet,” Prokofiev wrote only a few truly hummable tunes. But Janson’s playing won me over. She deftly tapped into the piece’s darkness, playing minor, occasionally discordant melodies. The piano sections told a jazzy narrative, while the flute playing harkened a military march. The lines between key signatures often blurred. Janson’s favorite piece of the night was the Prokofiev. “The Prokofiev Sonata goes back the farthest with me and I have performed it many more times than any of the other pieces,” said the flutist. “What I love about it is the dignified and respectful writing for the flute. Most sonatas of this size were written for instruments like the piano or violin.” “[‘Sonata in D’] is a hard piece to pull off,” Janson said. “It’s tiring and easy to play it out of tune, jumping up and down throughout the registers. It’s technically challenging, and after all of that, the main goal is to hopefully give a good musical performance in honor of the composer.” Janson’s performance honored Prokofiev, and then some. Her interpretation of the third “Andante” movement was particularly nice; hurtling through arpeggios, Janson reached some tricky sounding high notes that stood out from the low frequencies of McLane’s piano playing. “Playing soft is very hard to do, the tone can get thin and flat,” said Janson. “Fortunately I love the soft effect and so I stay in shape to do so — I play long tones every day very softly with a tuner.” The last movement of the Prokofiev was the most energetic part of “Sonata in D.” McLane was able to pull off some Rachmaninov-esque piano chords that resounded far into the balcony, while Janson kept the tempo alive with quick glissandos. [pullquote speaker="Anne Janson" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]The main goal is to hopefully give a good musical performance in honor of the composer.[/pullquote] For audience members who found the Prokofiev piece to be a little too wild, though, there was much to enjoy in the evening’s next segment: “Three Romances, op. 94” (1849) by Robert Schumann. Schumann’s compositions are, in some ways, the most emotionally touching of the mid-1800s musical canon. His music has all the tenderness of Chopin or Schubert, but is laced with Mendelssohn’s subtlety. Considering Schumann’s personal life adds layers to his music, too. An 1854 suicide attempt and subsequent confinement in a mental asylum cast large shadows over the composer’s work. My favorite selection of the “Three Romances” was “Einfach, innig” (“simple, heartfelt”). Janson played the section softly, creating a contrast with the brasher Prokofiev piece she had played minutes before. Of particular interest was how the nostalgic motifs of “Einfach, innig” invoked Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood” piano vignettes. Coming into the recital, I certainly knew that I would enjoy the Schumann piece, but I didn’t expect to be as moved as I was. After a brief intermission, Janson — now joined by violist Stefanie Taylor and harpist Rebecca Kauffman — interpreted three brief pieces by University of Vermont music teacher David Fuerzeig, “Short Songs for flute, viola and harp” (2019). These compositions were lovely, paying homage to Debussy while sounding reasonably original. The Debussy “Sonata for flute, viola and harp” (1915) stole the show. The finest part of the sonata was the opening “Pastorale” segment, where Kauffman’s harp-playing hinted at the impressionist fad of Japonisme. Throughout the sonata, the musicians illustrated the pentatonic scales and warbling trills that Debussy used to break away from the Romantics. In the “Interlude” section, for instance, Taylor’s viola went up and down zig-zaggy scales in a typically impressionist motif. A rookie mistake when playing impressionist music is to emote, to “feel” the music and let dynamics and phrasing go on a weekend vacation to Liberaceland. You can sometimes get away with this when playing the Romantics. I, for instance, occasionally add a little too much spice to Chopin’s waltzes. But that sort of behavior does not fly with the likes of Ravel and Debussy. Like a Monet landscape, a Debussy piece strings together an accumulation of elements, adding up in a final image that dwarfs the sum of its parts. The performers kept Debussy’s music crisp. Janson’s team — especially Taylor — let no individual motif stretch out too long, and the dynamic transitions emphasized neatness. When the final notes of the sonata died away, the audience was uproarious. The Middlebury Affiliate Artists who performed last Friday didn’t just command three difficult compositions: their heartfelt musicianship was also a good antidote to a cold Vermont evening. On my way out of the Mahaney Center, I stopped at a practice room and plunked my way through Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” — a song which I find myself playing when I’m happiest.
At the Oscars last Sunday night, “Parasite” became the first non-English foreign movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. In addition, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho won the Oscars for Best International Feature Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for his work on the film. The film’s quadruple victory was unexpected. Awards prediction website Gold Derby projected that “1917” would take the ceremony’s top prize. I estimated that the Academy’s narcissistic wing would sway towards the new Quentin Tarantino movie, “Once Upon A Time... in Hollywood.” Aging mafiosos probably placed their bets on “The Irishman.” In the end, though,“Parasite” won big, making history for international films. There is even more for “Parasite” to celebrate: Joon-ho’s thriller is the most entertaining film to win Best Picture in quite some time. Consider the award’s recent winners, including “Spotlight,” “Moonlight” and “The Shape of Water.” These movies have incredible acting, display beautiful shots and deal with serious themes. However, if the above qualities are the only components of great cinema, then “The Notebook” (2004) is a masterpiece. “Parasite,” unlike the recent Best Picture winners, has spunk to boot. The most violent scenes in “Parasite” owe as much to the Marx Brothers as the Coen Brothers, while the film’s slap-stick sequences still play out in a strangely elegiac key. “Parasite” exudes the same moodiness that makes David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” (1986) so fun: You feel as if the filmmakers are taking actual risks. [pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]Joon-ho’s thriller is the most entertaining film to win Best Picture in quite some time.[/pullquote] Below are some of my other notes on the Academy Awards. Before I proceed, though, I must point out that I haven’t seen the following Oscar-nominated films: “Pain and Glory,” “Harriet,” “A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Little Women” and “Ford v Ferrari.” I will not pass judgement on these movies, with the exception of “Ford v. Ferrari”: does the world really need a grittier, somber, longer version of “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006)? The nominees for Best Actress had my two favorite performances of the year. Charlize Theron impeccably mimics Meghan Kelly’s voice and mannerisms in “Bombshell,” but, more importantly, she conveys her character’s complexity with aplomb. Theron’s finest performance to date is still her Academy Award-winning role as Ailleen Wuornos in the serial-killer drama “Monster” (2003), but her take on Kelly is a close second. I walked out of “Bombshell” with a feeling most of us experience just once or twice in our lives: genuine sympathy for a Fox News anchor. All things considered, Renée Zellwegger truly did deserve an Oscar for her performance in “Judy,” which tells the story of Judy Garland’s late-career London performances in 1969. Half the scenes in “Judy” involve the protagonist popping pills and sipping spirits, and Zellwegger never pulls punches. Near the film’s end, a doctor asks Garland: “do you take anything for depression?” She replies, “four husbands…. it didn’t work.” Uff da, Judy. On top of it all, Zellwegger sings beautifully. I only saw two nominated performances for Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Margot Robbie in “Bombshell” and Laura Dern in “Marriage Story.” In “Bombshell,” Robbie portrays a news analyst who is sexually harassed by Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. Especially impressive is how the 29-year old Australian actress quietly conveys her character’s grief without much verbal expression. Laura Dern plays a divorce attorney in “Marriage Story.” It’s a showier performance than Robbie’s, and one sees why the Academy gave her the award. [pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]I walked out of 'Bombshell' with a feeling most of us experience just once or twice in our lives: genuine sympathy for a Fox News anchor.[/pullquote] What gives Robbie’s performance my endorsement is that “Bombshell” tells a more enjoyable narrative than “Marriage Story.” My general issue with the latter film is that it’s so uncompromisingly sad. The action of “Marriage Story” centers around a playwright (Adam Driver) divorcing an actress (Scarlett Johannson). The culminating scene involves one spouse telling another, “every morning I wake up and I wish you were dead.” Eeyore The Blue Donkey did not receive a co-writing credit for “Marriage Story,” but one can certainly see his gloomy hoofprints all over the film’s script. Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker” was a shoe-in for the Best Actor Oscar. Phoenix’s performance reminded me of Forest Whittaker’s take on Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland’’ (2006), which is about as scary as things get. Brad Pitt’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood” surprised me. For most of my life, I’ve considered Pitt a so-so leading man. Consider “Troy” (2004), wherein Pitt’s ambiguously accented Achilles looks as if he’d rather go surfing than lay waste the hills of Illium (“Let no mahn foeget hah menahcing we ah; we are lions!”) But that same laid-back attitude is perhaps why the 56-year-old actor works so well in “Once Upon a Time.. in Hollywood”: Pitt’s portrayal of a chilled-out stuntman trucks along effortlessly. Take the scene where a bare-chested Pitt fixes a TV antenna while enjoying a cigarette. Pitt stops and takes a swig of beer. He smiles at the clouds. Life, one imagines, is quite nice when your six-pack abs are soaking up the California sun. Meanwhile in the theater, I was seriously regretting my purchase of an extra large popcorn and Junior Mints. Any performance that gets me to hit the gym deserves an Oscar in my book.