Monthly Archives: March 2013

Clinton Probably Running, and I’m Confused about a Dumb Joke


Yesterday’s New York Times had a piece about former first lady, New York senator, and Secretary of State — if you ever want to feel horrible about your life’s meager accomplishments, look no further than that resumé — Hillary Clinton, detailing her as-yet-unannounced-but-still-quite-likely run for president in 2016.  Concerning Clinton’s coyness about her plans, her communication aide, Phillipe Reines, had this to say:

‘Everyone’s gotten way ahead of themselves, and most importantly, they have gotten way ahead of her.’

Venting the frustration of all veterans of Clinton politics and the intrigue that constantly surrounds them, he added, ‘What’s that acronym, WYSIWYG? What you see is what you get.’

Reines’s point is, nobody is certain what Clinton’s plans are at this point and the media should stop hemming and hawing over it for now.  However, what I got from that quote was a minute or so of confusedly trying to guess what “WYSIWYG” meant — “Would You Sign It With Your (word that begins with G)” was the closest I got — before reading the very next line.  It wasn’t even in the next graf down.

So remember, people in the media, a group to which I kinda sorta belong, can be remarkably stupid sometimes.  Don’t take everything they/we say as gospel.

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Coping Mechanisms to Utilize with Another Cubs Season Upon Us


Well, I mean, they do sometimes.

The 2013 Chicago Cubs will open their season in Pittsburgh 24 hours from now.  This is a team with some emerging talent–Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, opening day starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija–and a growing stockpile of promising young pieces in the farm system, all of which point to some fun, competitive years ahead.  But make no mistake, this year’s team will likely subject their fan base to all manner of dreadfulness before autumn, at its wits’ end about what to do with it, mercifully smothers the season in its sleep.

So, Cubs fans, how should you cope?  Here’s a list of 10 things that might help you get through this difficult time in your life.

  1. Wrigley Field might finally get its facelift.

The place is almost 100 years old and has been crumbling for decades.  Despite the ongoing wrangling between the City of Chicago, the Wrigleyville rooftop owners, and the Ricketts family ownership about how to pay for it, the family has hinted they may go ahead and start with a few tweaks to the player facilities before they get a comprehensive deal in place.  Fear not, gentlemen readers, for your everyone-watching-you-urinate-into-a-trough experience will continue unabated for the time being.

2.  Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers is still around.

And for that, we can all be delighted at his antics and ashamed we don’t try to help the man.

3.  Irrational, insensitive, no longer timely Cardinals-hating t-shirts.

Even with Albert Pujols firmly entrenched in Anaheim, I guarantee this shirt will find itself displayed prominently on most Wrigley-adjacent vendors’ carts.

4.  Hopeful closeups of Dale Sveum’s ear.

After an offseason hunting accident with friend and Hall of Famer Robin Yount, which led to perhaps the greatest misleading headline ever, television camera people will hopefully zoom in on the Cubs manager’s injured ear to distract from the gory mess on the field.

5.  Bleacher Nation‘s continued coverage.

No jokes here.  Brett Taylor’s Bleacher Nation is the best Cubs website around and one of the finest examples of what the blog medium can do.  His beast of burden work ethic should be an inspiration to writers everywhere.

6.  Starlin Castro’s errors being blamed on his new fatherhood.

Castro and his girlfriend recently welcomed their first child to the world, so anytime the defensively mercurial shortstop makes a miscue, expect broadcasters to give the ol’, “Must be tired with the new Cub of his own to take care of.”  Many yucks will be had.

7.  “Inigo Montoya Watch” every fifth day.

Again courtesy of Brett at Bleacher Nation, Cubs fans can only hope Jeff Samardzija attacks each hitter he faces as he would the six-fingered man.

8.  Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer “Dream Phone”-ing other GMs into one-sided deals.

Seriously, nobody deserves to be this good looking and this successful.  All the swooning will throw opposing general managers off their game so much, the Cubs’ front office duo might be able to get some quality prospects for damaged goods at the trade deadline.

9.  The Cubs Dixieland Jazz Band.

These guys transport you to the time of rag, a simpler era in which you could gamble at the ballgame then run to the local speakeasy for some illicit hooch.

10.  Chin up, kid, you still get to see them play the good teams!

Want to see the Upton brothers team up?  The Braves will visit Wrigley in September.  Strasburg, Harper, and the boys from the Capital will be in town for a three-game set in August.  With the full-season interleague play MLB will utilize this year, Mike Trout will get to roam the Wrigley outfield for the first time in his career in July.  No matter how grossly overmatched the Cubs will be in those series, it will be fun to see some of the best teams in baseball.  And remember: A window of contention will soon open for the Northsiders.

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Subway Shops as Subway Stops


Courtesy of The Atlantic Cities, this is a peek at what the city of Baltimore would look like if each Subway sandwich joint in the area were to double as a subway train stop.

The map’s creator, Chris Nelson, had this to say:

Nelson runs a well-known site in the city, burgersub.org, that’s been plotting regional homicides in the area since 2005 on Google Maps. The Subway/subway project was a bit of a departure. ‘As far as my thinking,’ Nelson tells us in an email, ‘well I like to imagine what my city would be like if I were running all the planning decisions.’

Just imagine what would happen if we let every guy with murder on the brain run our city planning departments!

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Broadening My Horizons with Politics


Just like anyone else, my interests expand as I get older.  Unlike most people, though, they don’t necessarily change; I just add to the pile of time-sucking obsessions, like movies, television, baseball, music, comic books, hockey, and for the last year or so, politics.  I’m still in the process of determining a solid perspective on where I stand, but I love the Al Gore “raging moderate” quote from way back when.

I want to figure out the most perfect (although I understand that nothing is absolute) political ideology for me, and I think it involves a more literal understanding of the word progressive.  To me, it seems like most places, be they the liberal Salon or the conservative National Journal, think of progressives as the farthest left as you can go without being overt socialists, the kind of people who constantly rage against the world’s injustices no matter what kind of social change happens in their lifetime; it may be important to realize everything is always a work in progress, but at least learn to celebrate when you win.

I think a little differently on that matter, as my version of progressivism would involve a moderate, left-of-center approach, gladly accepting the progress at the root of the word and not caring about how things get done so long as they do.  A lot of data analysis should be included, as well.  Oh, and way less screaming from both sides of the spectrum.

For example, in the current gay marriage debate, I couldn’t care less whether the Supreme Court decrees the United States as a whole must accept marriage equality or simply strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act and makes it a states’ rights issue — which The Dish’s Andrew Sullivan suggests might be the best way to go, as it would allow for a slower, less culturally shocking integration of the idea to more conservative states, which would conceivably help reduce hateful backlash.  If either happens, fine.  Good.  Go for it.

There are plenty more issues to discuss, and as I try to figure my best way forward in political thinking, I invite you to join me, debate, and converse.  You can make fun of my relative inexperience with the topic if you want, but calm, reasoned discussion is what will help.  So let’s dip our toes in these waters.

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“The ‘Net” in 1995


Wonkblog’s Brad Plumer posted this video earlier, which is a 1995 look at the internet’s capabilities, back when it was still new and wondrous.

Besides the multicolored Apple logo and a New York Times journalist’s primary internet function being “electronic mail,” something that struck me was the host’s incessant way of trying to make “the ‘net” sound hip, like some secret club he’s benevolently revealing to us.

Was “the ‘net” such a widely used term back then?  I was only six years old at that time and my family didn’t get an internet connection–via America Online–until a year or two later.

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Chinese Iron Man 3 To Be Different from U.S. Version


With Marvel deciding to release a different version of Iron Man 3 in China, what are we to wonder?

Of course, it probably has something to do with the fact that the evil terrorist trying to take over the world is named The Mandarin.  Or maybe Disney wants to replicate Marvel’s decades old variant cover plot to sell “collectible” versions of the same story multiple times.

My guess, though?  In the Chinese version, Tony Stark will have recurring dreams about unicorns and his true nature will be more explicit.  Bing bang boom, cult classic.  Call it a scoop.

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McConaughey, Through the Wormhole


Per Deadline, Matthew McConaughey, whose surging career has led him to such recent critically acclaimed films as Magic MikeThe Lincoln Lawyer, and Killer Joe (although he mostly played second fiddle to Clarence Carter in that) is in negotiations to lead Christopher Nolan’s upcoming science fiction movie, Interstellar.

If he were to accept the role, that might be one of the only pieces of information we get about the film until a trailer hits, given Nolan’s borderline compulsive propensity for secrecy.

But the premise of the suddenly-not-half-assing-his-way-through-romantic-comedies McConaughey toplining a wormhole adventure story is an exciting one.  With Nolan’s pedigree and the space trappings, the 2001: A Space Odyssey comparisons will likely abound, but hopefully the Inception director will subvert our expectations and reveal his real plans: Melba Toast in Space.

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Schoolwork Repurposed: German Film Essays


The lags in productivity on this blog are almost always caused by school work.  This semester, though, I am enrolled in my final two film studies classes to complete my minor (and graduate in May, thankfully).  So when I have to write things for these classes, Contemporary German Cinema and Latin American History at the Movies, I’ll simply post them here for your perusal/approval.  This is my midterm take-home essay exam for German Cinema.  The prompt was as follows:

Owen Evans points to the popularity, among international audiences, of German films that “represent the totalitarian past” and argues that such films might “comprise a specific genre that proves very attractive to cinema goers: the German totalitarian thriller, we could perhaps calls it” (New Directions 58-59). Using Downfall and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days as sources of evidence and examples, create your own description of “the German totalitarian thriller.”  What are its characteristics?  Is that label too reductive, or does it get at important psychological components of these films?  Feel free to draw upon the class texts as well as the movies.

Is there such a thing as a “German totalitarian thriller,” as suggested by Owen Evans in New Directions in German Cinema?  The answer to that is not definite.  Rather, the most confident reply one could have to that question is, “Partially.”  Films like Downfall and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days feature elements inherent in thrillers of all stripes—seemingly constant peril awaiting the characters at every turn, central characters who represent a semblance of “the common (wo)man,” a strong focus on the psychological impacts of the characters’ predicaments, among others—but these two movies lack the fictional plot thrust, the action-adventure qualities common in more traditional thrillers in the Alfred Hitchcock mold.  These examples are character studies not quite masquerading as thrillers, given the features listed above, but still they fail to reach thriller status all the same.

To enter that Hitchcock mold, one must first understand the fundamentally artificial idea that is suspense.  This is not to say being artificial or contrived is necessarily bad, but simply put, it must be created.  To paraphrase Hitchcock himself, suspense is the audience knowing a bomb is hidden, ticking away underneath a table while the characters onscreen remain oblivious.  The suspense lies in the waiting, the moments of not knowing how the characters in whom the audience has conceivably placed their empathy will get out of the situation.

Both Downfall and Sophie Scholl run into a severe problem here: History.  Even (especially?) foreign audiences know that Hitler spent his last days hiding in a bunker before ultimately committing suicide.  Perhaps a little more obscure, but still widely available knowledge is the fact that Sophie Scholl and other members of the White Rose resistance movement were captured and put to death as traitors to the German state.  Without the element of surprise—“What will happen to them?”—provided by fictional plots, suspense in the traditional sense is nearly impossible to achieve in these films.

What make these movies “thrilling” are their introspective looks at the ways these characters deal with the situations in which they find themselves.

Downfall does not have much plot, per se, as most of the typical rise-and-fall story structure happens before the start of the film.  From the film’s beginning, the audience—and most Nazi members—knows Hitler is finished; the Allies are practically knocking on the bunker door.  What follows is a character study in self delusion.  Seeing Hitler not only appear almost fatherly to Traudl, his secretary, but have moments of weakness is engrossing.  It’s an intimate look at someone who has reached mythical status in the eyes of so many.  In its own way, its sense of discovery, of tearing away the artificial, terrorizing cloud that surrounds the man is thrilling.  But it is not suspenseful.  It has no way to be.  There is no way for Hitler to get out of the situation—furthermore, nobody would want him to avoid his fate—and the first moments of the film show an elderly version of the empathetic Traudl reflecting on her time serving the Fuhrer, so the audience knows she survived the downfall of the film’s title.  Because of the historical restraints, there can be no gripping, “What will happen next?” moments like the attempted-assassination-by-airplane in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest or the classic sewer showdown in Andrew Davis’s The Fugitive.  The only scenes to approximate a similar “pulse pounding” nature in Downfall all exist in the quieter moments, when Hitler allows himself time to think critically, to contemplate his inevitable defeat.  The wait for him to snap back into howling denial is frightening, to be sure, but it exists as an internal character trait, not a plot-driven moment; for the context of the film, this is better than an external event, but it still avoids what makes a thriller, well, a thriller.

Sophie Scholl succeeds to a larger degree than Downfall in fulfilling the requirements of a thriller, but those are quickly spent in the film’s inciting incident: The anti-Nazi flyer distribution at a college that leads to the arrest of Sophie and her brother.  Once the siblings have placed what would be a sufficient amount of flyers at strategic spots in the university’s main hall, they are left with a couple stacks of leftovers.  The decision to go back and push the remaining papers from a balcony is the film’s only true “thriller” moment, an instance of cinematic contrivance: A plot device included to heighten the drama.  From there, the film falls into a similar character study style as Downfall, in which director Marc Rothemund shows Sophie’s youthful courage—some might say stupidity—in standing up for her beliefs against the totalitarian regime in which Evans situates his argument.  It peels away layers of the Nazi ideology through Sophie’s arguments with her captors, and that is more important than artificially stimulating the audience with thriller trappings anyway.  But again, it lacks what is classically understood as filmic suspense.

For there to be a true “German totalitarian thriller,” filmmakers would need to worry less about historical figures, biopics, and the like, and focus on the themes and lessons present during the reign of the Third Reich.  These rhetorical screenwriters and directors should conjure their own characters, fill them with their own personal obsessions—much like in any imaginary story—and plug those people into the Nazi era, free to do whatever they want with those characters.  That way, the storytellers can concentrate on crafting a yarn, inviting the audience to participate in the more “fun” aspects of filmmaking by scaring them, making them laugh, and awing them with the exploits of someone they do not know.  This would provide the taste and texture of the more staid productions mentioned in this essay, but without the restrictions of adhering to the truth of history.  Historically accurate films like Downfall and Sophie Scholl cannot accomplish that because they are not free to play with true-life figures the way a filmmaker would with a created character.

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Kubrick and Jazz-loving Nazis? It Almost Happened.


This James Hughes article in The Atlantic looks into one of Stanley Kubrick’s lesser-known projects — it’s nuts to think he has multiple well-known yet unrealized projects — about certain German military members obsessed with jazz.

However, it’s Kubrick’s interest in jazz-loving Nazis that represents his most fascinating unrealized war film. The book that Kubrick was handed, and one he considered adapting soon after wrapping Full Metal Jacket, was Swing Under the Nazis, published in 1985 and written by Mike Zwerin, a trombonist from Queens who had performed with Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy before turning to journalism. The officer in that Strangelovian snapshot was Dietrich Schulz-Koehn, a fanatic for “hot swing” and other variations of jazz outlawed as “jungle music” by his superiors. Schulz-Koehn published an illegal underground newsletter, euphemistically referred to as “travel letters,” which flaunted his unique ability to jaunt across Western Europe and report back on the jazz scenes in cities conquered by the Fatherland. Kubrick’s title for the project was derived from the pen name Schulz-Koehn published under: Dr. Jazz.

It’s fascinating to think of a Kubrick movie with a relatively positive message — “Stanley was also drawn to what this said about music and its ability to unify people and transcend even rigid political differences.” — rather than the critical, detached view of humanity present in films like The KillingThe Shining, and Paths of Glory.

Of course, such a movie would not likely be lighthearted, given Kubrick’s pedigree and the Nazi trappings, but this gives a juicy “what if?” alternate history thought to the day.

 

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One Moment: ‘The Tin Drum’


Most films try to tell a cohesive story.  However, there are moments within them that tell small, nearly self-contained tales.  My new column, One Moment, looks at these miniature instances and how they work independently and within the context of the film’s larger story.

People do not seek to be controlled.  They fall victim to those who want power, those who wish to take from others so they themselves can feel important.  How dictators accomplish this is sadly so simple that it has a pattern.

Imagine you are struggling to make rent.  You have been unemployed for an extended time, you have a family to support, and the brightness you would expect to be waiting on the horizon simply is not there, and may not exist at all.  Enter a charismatic “reformer,” someone who promises you—and the nation—full employment, a sense of purpose, and the promise of working together to solve a common goal.  It is a rosy view of things, one few people could avoid.  So you peek at a flyer, follow its directions to a rally, and wait.  While you wait, there are rows and rows of young men dressed in pristinely pressed uniforms, marching with machine gun precision; it leaves an impression, to say the least.  Yet still you wait.  These people who clearly have it together would not make this massive crowd among you stand around for nothing, would they?  Your curiosity heightens, your stomach might be starting to rumble, maybe you feel your eyelids start to droop.  All the while a patriotic classic from your home country’s past blares on the public address system.  It may be a bit irritating, but there’s a buzz.  You can see it in the people standing next to you; everyone might be antsy, but at least they’re antsy together.  Just before discord can set in, out walks the leader.  He’s a rock star, one ready to take you where you think you want to go.  You figure you’ve waited this long for him, so you may as well hear him out.  From the point you make this decision, you are under his control.

The German people, and specifically The Tin Drum director Volker Schlöndorff, know this phenomenon well.  They saw the way Adolph Hitler rose to power, utilizing tactics like the ones described above to coerce the German populace to do what he wanted by getting to them when they perhaps were not in the proper mindset to think critically about what he was saying.  The pompous rallies, the uniformity, the national unity were all false, a way of hoodwinking a nation; not to be a benevolent, collectivist group working for the common good but to be a set of worker bees to bend to the will of the Queen with the mustache.

Perhaps as a bit of wish fulfillment, Schlöndorff sends his diminutive protagonist, Oskar (David Bennent), beneath the bleachers at a Nazi rally.  Armed with the eponymous drum, Oskar throws a wrench in the Nazi party’s plans.  With a key party leader approaching the platform, a band of young boys plays a victorious marching band tribute to him.  But Oskar, in his perpetual three-year-old state of mind, cannot allow this to happen.  He is a boy who demands to be the center of attention, and he will be damned if he does not get what he feels he deserves.  So he begins to tap away at his drum, obstinate in making sure that he remains off the beat of the song the boys are playing above him.  This upsets the intricately rehearsed music they had planned.  Instead of the brisk, muscular military song they had wanted to play, Oskar’s subversive interjection throws off their rhythm.  Everyone takes notice; the Nazis marching to the platform, the commoners in the crowd, the adult band beside the youths.  The party’s control melts away for just a moment, and the bands begin to play Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube Waltz”.

Hearing this, everyone in the crowd—except, it should be noted, the Nazi establishment—grabs hold of one another and follows the rhythms in a waltz of their own.  Soon, a thunderstorm descends on the festivities, but for that brief moment, Oskar’s fierce individualism had beaten the hive-like mentality that had choked all life from the rally before his interruption.

This is Schlöndorff’s way of saying that human interaction is a must.  Once the crowd’s eyes avert their gaze from a central point—the proto-hype man in Nazi gear speaking from the stage—and instead look at each other, their world changes.  Despite the enticing glamour and uniformity afforded humanity by dictation, it strips away that which makes us human.  The messiness of dealing with one another on that human level, no matter how frustrating it can be, will always be a better alternative to putting up our blinders to follow those whose end goal is to simply have us follow.

(Image source: http://professormortis.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/tindrum.jpg)

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