Bob Schwartz

Tag: movies

A Face in the Crowd: A Media Star Demagogue Takes Himself Down

“Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak.”

“This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep! They’re mine! I own ’em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ’em.”

“Good night you stupid idiots. Good night, you miserable slobs. They’re a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they’ll flap their flippers.”

A Face in the Crowd (1957) is a movie about an unlikely backwoods media star, a drifter named Lonesome Rhodes, who becomes a national populist icon. He believes he can sell his followers on anything, including who the next president should be.

The demagogic scheme falls apart when his real beliefs are broadcast on an open microphone.

***

ACTOR ON RHODES’ SHOW: You really sell that stiff [Senator Fuller] as a man among men?

LONESOME RHODES: Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got ’em like this… You know what the public’s like? A cage of guinea pigs. Good night you stupid idiots. Good night, you miserable slobs. They’re a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they’ll flap their flippers.

***

LONESOME RHODES: This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep!

MARCIA JEFFRIES: Sheep?

LONESOME RHODES: Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers – everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don’t know it yet, but they’re all gonna be ‘Fighters for Fuller’. They’re mine! I own ’em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ’em.

***

Clearing the Chessboard

Searching for Bobby Fischer is a movie about a real life chess prodigy. In a memorable scene, his teacher sweeps the pieces off the chessboard, so the child can better concentrate on the actual state of play, undistracted by the apparent state of play.

Meditation and related attention practices are all about clearing the chessboard. What comes next depends on the context, whether it’s a way to relax or a search for enlightenment. The point is that the apparent state of play, the pieces on the chessboard, are distractions and may become obsessions. Only by focusing on the empty chessboard can you see the game for what it is.

Movies and Fairy Tales: Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”
Joan Didion, The White Album

Joan Didion is one of the great essayists, and The White Album may be her finest essay. It gave title to a superb collection published in 1979. The White Album is about the entwinement of her life and life in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, both of which she reflects on as being strange and even surreal.

Los Angeles in the late 1960s is also the subject of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Up a Time…In Hollywood. The center of the film is the event mentioned in Didion’s quote above: the murders of Sharon Tate Polanski, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Steven Parent, and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in the Hollywood Hills by members of the Manson Family. But is about much more than that.

The title of Once Upon a Time gives away just what kind of story this is. It is a fairy tale. Fairy tales are not either absolutely light or dark. As modern scholars now regularly say, fairy tales are meant to reflect something about ourselves—who we are, what we need—and in that sense could not be just light or dark. They are merely true.

The opening paragraph of The White Album is one of the best explanations of story ever written:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

If you are a fan of some or all of Tarantino’s movies, you are already planning to see Once Upon a Time. If you are not a fan, or affirmatively dislike Tarantino, you should consider seeing it anyway. As with other movies that play with Hollywood as story (Robert Altman’s The Player is an excellent example), the inescapable point is that Hollywood makes things up, even as the movies may attempt to reflect actuality, because that is what they do. They tell and sell fairy tales. Light and dark. As long as we appreciate the subtle differences and similarities between actuality and story, we can be entertained and the better for it. We do, as Didion writes, tell ourselves stories in order to live.

“Trump blames White House air conditioning on Obama.”

Associated Press, July 26, 2019:

WASHINGTON (AP) — In President Donald Trump’s view, even the inadequate air conditioning at the White House is Barack Obama’s fault.

Trump offered the new gripe about his predecessor as he explained in the Oval Office Friday why he’ll be spending some time at his New Jersey resort in August.

The president says “it’s never a vacation” when he goes to Bedminster, New Jersey, and that he would rather be at the White House.

He says that some of his time away from the White House gives crews time to do maintenance work.

He says, for example, “The Obama administration worked out a brand new air conditioning system for the West Wing. It was so good before they did the system. Now that they did this system, it’s freezing or hot.”

In the movie The Caine Mutiny, officers of the USS Caine determined that the conduct of their captain is so erratic that they must attempt to take over command of the ship. In one incident, Captain Queeg becomes obsessed with a missing container of strawberries. At the court martial of an officer charged with mutiny, Queeg testifies—and famously reveals just how psychologically disturbed he is:

Movies: The Negotiator. The real Art of the Deal.

Today seems like a good day to watch The Negotiator (1998), available on Netflix.

(Yes, one of the heroes and stars is Kevin Spacey. But the bigger hero and star is Samuel L. Jackson, and there’s no reason to be protesting him.)

It’s about corrupt officials, sworn to uphold the law, lying and trying to lay off blame on others. It’s about a handful of smart and talented people trying to negotiate a way out of dangerous situations. And its about a lot of innocent people caught in the middle, unaware of how bad it is and how bad it can get.

Like I said, a good day to watch.

 

William Goldman Dies at 87

“As a writer I believe that all the basic human truths are known. And what we try to do as best we can is come at those truths from our own unique angle, to reilluminate those truths in a hopefully different way.”
William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade

New York Times:

William Goldman, who won Academy Awards for his screenplays for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “All the President’s Men” and who, despite being one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters, was an outspoken critic of the movie industry, died on Friday in Manhattan. He was 87.

In his long career, which began in the 1960s and lasted into the 21st century, Mr. Goldman also wrote the screenplays for popular films like “Misery,” “A Bridge Too Far,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Chaplin.” He was a prolific novelist as well, and several of his screenplays were adapted from his own novels, notably “The Princess Bride” and “Marathon Man.”

There are plenty of reasons to admire William Goldman—as a writer and as a writer who cast a realistic light on writing—but nothing is higher than The Princess Bride.

The movie, written by Goldman and directed by Rob Reiner, is a gem, worth watching at least once a year. But in its own way, his novel from which he adapted the screenplay, is even better.

If you know the movie, it is a comic romance and adventure set in a fantasy kingdom, framed by a grandfather reading this story to his grandson. But the novel is much more meta. Goldman places himself in the novel, as a writer with a fictionalized family, condensing and adapting a book by S. Morgenstern that his father had read to him, which adaptation is…The Princess Bride. The trick that Goldman pulls off is that you come away believing that everything he has told you—about his career, his family, the non-existent book by the non-existent S. Morgenstern—are all true.

The bigger trick—the bigger truth—is that everything he wrote in The Princess Bride is absolutely true. Even though he made it all up. If you are a writer or a reader, and don’t fully understand that, read William Goldman, starting with The Princess Bride.

The Incomparable Incredible Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin

 

A Sufi story:

Guess What?

A wag met Nasrudin. In his pocket he had an egg. “Tell me, Mulla; are you any good at guessing games?”

“Not bad,” said Nasrudin.

“Very well, then: Tell me what I have in my pocket.”

“Give me a clue, then.”

“It is shaped like an egg, it is yellow and white inside, and it looks like an egg.”

“Some sort of a cake,” said Nasrudin.

Idries Shah, The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin

About Mulla Nasrudin:

The Mulla is variously referred to as very stupid, improbably clever, the possessor of mystical secrets. The dervishes use him as a figure to illustrate, in their teachings, the antics characteristic of the human mind….

The Sufis, who believe that deep intuition is the only real guide to knowledge, use these stories almost like exercises. They ask people to choose a few which especially appeal to them, and to turn them over in the mind, making them their own. Teaching masters of the dervishes say that in this way a breakthrough into a higher wisdom can be effected.

But the Sufis concur with those who are not following a mystic way, that everyone can do with the Nasrudin tales what people have done through the centuries – enjoy them.

Idries Shah, The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin

It is impossible to hear these stories without thinking about Marx Brothers movies, and particularly about Duck Soup (1933). That movie is about the nation of Freedonia, which hires the world’s biggest idiot, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), to be its leader. He brings along a crew of other idiots, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx), to help him ruin the country.

Chicolini: Now I aska you one. What has a trunk, but no key, weighs 2,000 pounds and lives in a circus?
Prosecutor: That’s irrelevant.
Chicolini: Irrelephant? Hey, that’sa that answer. There’s a whole lot of irrelephants in the circus.

* * *

Rufus T. Firefly: Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot. But don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.

“That’s Pride F***in’ Wit Ya”: Rod Rosenstein Could Never Figure Out Whether to Follow Self-Interest, Duty or Conscience

All public servants in the Trump era—from Senators and cabinet members on down—have three possible paths to follow:

Follow your self-interest
Follow your duty, to job and to country
Follow your conscience

Many of the highest level people in the government have taken the easy path of least resistance and most gain, and have chosen self-interest, even as they try to disguise it as duty or conscience. But a number of people, many of whom finally left the government—voluntarily or not—have had to wrestle with these choices.

Whatever is happening to Rod Rosenstein, a good public servant, he never seemed to be able to figure out exactly how to be a good public servant in such strange times. He knew he owed a duty to his office and to his country, which meant a duty to his president, but that came in conflict with his conscience.

I have previously cited the movie Pulp Fiction on the question of expedience, and I repeat it here.

At this point in the movie bad boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is convincing aging boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) to take a dive:

I think you’re gonna find ­ when all this shit is over and done ­ I think you’re gonna find yourself one smilin’ motherfucker. Thing is Butch, right now you got ability. But painful as it may be, ability don’t last. Now that’s a hard motherfuckin’ fact of life, but it’s a fact of life your ass is gonna hafta git realistic about. This business is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers who thought their ass aged like wine. Besides, even if you went all the way, what would you be? Feather-weight champion of the world. Who gives a shit? I doubt you can even get a credit card based on that.

Now the night of the fight, you may fell a slight sting, that’s pride fuckin’ wit ya. Fuck pride! Pride only hurts, it never helps. Fight through that shit. ‘Cause a year from now, when you’re kickin’ it in the Caribbean you’re gonna say, “Marsellus Wallace was right.”

Note: For those who haven’t seen Pulp Fiction (why not?), in the end Marsellus Wallace gets his, in the spirit of Quentin Tarantino’s sense of rough and uncertain justice.

Why Trump Is a Horror Movie and Not a Reality Show

Reality shows dramatize and exaggerate “real” human behavior and situations. People do and say bad, even horrible, things. We may be repulsed, we may find it endearing and entertaining, but when we watch reality shows, we are never scared.

The most frightening horror movies are based on a powerful premise: Within our seemingly ordinary life in our seemingly ordinary world, there is an inconceivable terror lurking. It may emerge at any time without warning. We must be always on our guard because everything that used to seem benign is now menacing. What is worst, on top of the constant uncertainty, is that we have no defense.

That is why when we watch a horror movie, no matter how prepared we think we are, we jump out of our seats anyway. That is why in America, while we long for the benign ordinary, we prepare each day for what is lurking, and still jump when it arrives. That is why Trump is a horror movie and not a reality show.

“This is the business we’ve chosen.”

I watched a news panel discussing reports that Michael Cohen is distraught for his family and realizes that his business and professional life is over—not to mention the possibility of years in prison.

Some panelists expressed compassion for someone in his position. But another was less sympathetic, saying that this was the life he had chosen.

I can’t be sure, but this may have been meant to echo one of the many famous lines from the Godfather movies. In Godfather II, the dying Hyman Roth explains his attitude towards the killing of Moe Green, the man who invented modern Las Vegas. Roth knows that the Corleone family executed Green, but Roth explains to Michael Corleone why he set that fact aside:

HYMAN ROTH: There was this kid I grew up with; he was younger than me. Sorta looked up to me, you know. We did our first work together, worked our way out of the street. Things were good, we made the most of it. During Prohibition, we ran molasses into Canada… made a fortune, your father, too. As much as anyone, I loved him and trusted him. Later on he had an idea to build a city out of a desert stop-over for GI’s on the way to the West Coast. That kid’s name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas. This was a great man, a man of vision and guts. And there isn’t even a plaque, or a signpost or a statue of him in that town! Someone put a bullet through his eye. No one knows who gave the order. When I heard it, I wasn’t angry; I knew Moe, I knew he was head-strong, talking loud, saying stupid things. So when he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, this is the business we’ve chosen; I didn’t ask who gave the order, because it had nothing to do with business!