Friday, February 21, 2014

F.U. for President

I started watching “House of Cards” Season 2 in a perfect setting: A sleepless night of hoof-and-mouth pain from big-toe surgery and a gum infection seemed to call for brainless distraction, but as with the first series, Netflix outdoes Nature in torturing rather than diverting.

Halfway through the initial new installment when Kevin Spacey, as Francis Underwood (F.U., ho ho), is being instructed by the maker of his favorite breakfast barbecue on how exquisite abuse of pigs heightens the flavor, I cast a porcine vote and switched to hours of Las Vegas poker, where the acting is just as bad but the game provides imaginative diversion and a less predictable final score.

“Cards” insults the intelligence in so many ways it’s hard to keep track. Even the formatting offends. After dozens of cardboard characters endlessly screw one another literally and figuratively in Season One, new installments start with no recap of the main players, who just take up where they left off without a clue to who the hell they are, what they’re doing and why—-except that it’s all ugly and dirty.

Perhaps that’s a plus. Comparing how low Washington politics and TV drama have sunk in the decade since “The West Wing” dazzled us with creative savvy, when you get past real actors like Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, the “House of Cards” supporting cast seems to have been recruited from high school. But then again, could any thespian outdo John Boehner and Ted Cruz in serving up ham on nothing?

In view of so much bad acting on the tube, should there be any surprise over chicanery and double-dealing behind the scenes with producers squeezing politicians for endless kickbacks?

“House of Cards” makes Las Vegas look like Disneyland.   

Sunday, February 16, 2014

CNN's Killer Intervew

Program note: Chris Cuomo’s extended sitdown with George Zimmerman will air tomorrow instead of Tuesday as planned.

Cynical observers may see a connection with the Michael Dunn verdict, but has teenage murder become just another chess piece in the media ratings game? Is crazy racism to be sold between commercials for mouthwash and erectile dysfunction?

What happened to Jordan Davis in a Florida parking lot when he went there for gum and cigarettes and was carried out dead will put Dunn away for the rest of his twisted life, as Zimmerman’s encounter with Trayvon Martin should have.

But what is the role of reporting in feeding our shock and disgust? Will an extended interview with Trayvon’s killer ease the pain of that miscarriage of justice or simply exploit it?

We are not talking about censorship here. Zimmerman is free to talk to anyone he wants and CNN has every right to interview him, but where is the line between expanding the news and exploiting it?

In coming weeks, we will hear more about Michael Dunn than any reasonable person would want to know, and there will be talking heads aplenty to preen about racism, gun control, courtroom justice and mental illness in our culture.

For now, can we just agree that it is no triumph of American journalism to be shoving George Zimmerman into our faces right now?

Update: God is “the only judge I have to answer to” is the takeaway from Zimmerman’s interview, according to CNN’s website. Now we don’t have to watch and risking throwing up.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Blizzards of Misinformation

Cable news crawls about the worst storm ever are as accurate as their political hyberbole, that is not at all, at least for New York and its environs.

The Great Blizzard of 1947, which brought the Northeast to a standstill, dumped 26.4 inches of snow on Manhattan during Christmas week. Plows stacked up piles as high as ten feet, some of which did not melt for months. It was described as the worst storm in history since the fabled Blizzard of 1888.

I know that for a fact because I had to dig out the first car I ever owned, a shovelful at a time. Unlike today’s weather, which is predicted with pinpoint accuracy, that storm came in unexpectedly from the Atlantic rather than the usual path of west to east.

As governors and mayors struggle to cope with today’s devastation, it might be useful to remember that, despite all scientific advances, life in many ways still remains unpredictable.

In Washington, politics is even more erratic than the weather, as Congress tries to disentangle itself from the worst man-made mess ever. They will be wallowing in Tea Party detritus long after the winter weather has subsided.

Keep the shovels handy.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Shirley Temple's America

The woman who died today at 85 takes with her a world that is unimaginable today. Shirley Temple became a movie star at three, won an Oscar at five and was more popular in the 1930s than FDR.

Her charms escaped me then because I was only a few years old older, but after undergoing mastectomy in 1972, she wrote a McCalls article about it for me after holding a press conference at her hospital bedside to encourage preventive mammograms and choice of treatment.

The cuddly moppet had morphed into a strong-minded woman, writing, “The doctor can make the incision, I’ll make the decision,” confiding that she was a secret surgical buff, who had used her celebrity to get doctors to break rules and allow her to observe operations.

When stardom ended in her twenties, Shirley Temple married a superrich second husband and went into politics and was named United States Ambassador to Ghana and later to Czechoslovakia. She later served as Chief of Protocol of the United States.

In those Depression days when she was the American Idol, as TV news no doubt will keep endlessly showing, she was partnered with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, an elderly African-American hoofer in an interracial breakthrough for movies that were shown in segregated Southern theaters.

In today’s sophisticated time, her passing comes on the heels of the Woody Allen child abuse furor to remind us how different life was then.

But not entirely. A celebrated British novelist, in his role as film critic, wrote in a magazine that she was “a complete totsy” as a nine-year-old:

“Her admirers—-middle-aged men and clergymen—-respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.”

Shirley’s studio sued and won enough to remain in trust for her until she was 21, when she donated it to build a youth center in England.

That building no doubt still stands as a tribute to her memory, as well as in the hearts of women whose lives may have been saved by her frankness about breast cancer in those days when the subject was not openly discussed.

“The Good Ship Lollipop” has sailed off but won’t be forgotten.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman

The actor who died yesterday gave me an experience I have had only twice on screen—-coming face to face with the reincarnation of a close friend. In the 2005 “Capote,” for which he won an Oscar, he was the title character not only in looks and manner but essence. Four years later, in “Julie and Julia,” Meryl Streep created the same effect as Julia Child.

The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman at 46 is a wrench, and pairing him with Streep only makes it more painful. Unlike the diva who has played the hell out of almost every famous woman in the civilized world, Hoffman was a blue-collar actor who erased himself in performances that drew audiences in rather than holding them at arm’s length to admire.

In life as in art, there is often a steep price for authenticity that comes with talent unprotected by powerful ego, and Hoffman apparently has been paying it in a career of fifty films over a quarter of a century with prescription pills, drugs and alcohol.

Whether as a dim baseball manager in “Moneyball,” a compulsive gambling banker in “Owning Mahowney” or a manic rock writer in “Almost Famous,” he was always doing so much more than earning a paycheck.

As he passes from the scene, I recall one of his last in a 2011 movie, “The Ides of March,” written, directed and starred in by George Clooney, playing a gross political manager who is eventually done in by his passion for personal loyalty.

Playing mano a mano with Paul Giametti, another actor who submerses himself in every role, he brings life to what might have been just another cliché.

That’s what Philip Seymour Hoffman was doing in every role he played in a brilliant and regrettably shortened life. 

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Woody Allen, Child Abuser

Monsters can create great art, but how should we feel about them? In Woody Allen’s case, make that facile popular art, but the question remains.

In the wake of a Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement Award, his adopted daughter Dylan, now 28, comes forward to accuse him of sexually abusing her at age seven. We are not in the murky area of childhood memory here: A Connecticut prosecutor concluded back then there was enough evidence to charge him but dropped criminal proceedings to spare her.

(Full disclosure: A decade older, I met Woody Allen in 1965 when he was doing standup at a dinner I emceed. The audience was baffled [“My wife had a tough divorce lawyer—-If I get remarried and have children, she gets them”] and, as he came offstage in a daze, I tried to comfort him [“You were great, it’s not you, it’s them”].

(I enjoyed and admired his early movies but was increasingly so put off by his whiny self-love and moral disingenuousness I found it hard to watch him on screen. Only when someone else finally inhabited his persona, as in “Celebrity” and “Match Point,” could I relent and watch his protagonists’ atrocious behavor.)

Dispassionate as we try to be, can we decline to judge? This is the man who was living back then with Mia Farrow, who discovered pornographic pictures of another child Soon-Yi, whom he later married. Allen shrugged: “I fell in love with my girlfriend’s adopted daughter.”        

By all means, let him keep his Lifetime Achievement Award and other honors as a film maker, but the rest of us can retain our opinions of him as a human being.

Reading Nicholas Kristof’s account of it all, along with the accompanying links, may not turn your stomach but it will certainly keep you from watching “Annie Hall” or “Hannah and Her Sisters” with the same eyes again.

When it comes to aging movie icons, I’ll take Clint Eastwood, chair and all.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Friction-Free Matron of the Year

GOP white coats are thisclose to getting it right. Previous prototypes like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann blew up after leaving the launching pad, but Cathy McMorris Rodgers is in orbit as their new Matron of the Year, full of empty catch phrases with no content whatsoever but friction-free.

Only SNL or the Daily Show would be mean enough to parody a nice farm girl, first in her family to attend college, who worked at a fruit stand and McDonald’s in her teens but has been, like fellow Congressman Paul Ryan, only on the government payroll since graduating.

Her constituents, as Timothy Egan points out in the New York Times, had an “unemployment rate 30 percent above the national average last year. One in six people live below the poverty level. One in five is on food stamps. And the leading employer is government, providing 3,023 of the 9,580 nonfarm payroll jobs last year.”

Yet in Rep. Rodgers’ cozy view, government is the enemy, as she opposes Obamacare, raising the minimum wage and extending jobless benefits in a Republican “year of real action--by empowering people--not making their lives harder.”

How? The Matron of the Year sayeth not, but statistics show her constituents signing up for that dreaded health coverage at a brisk rate in a state that, before her emergence, had raised the minimum wage to the highest in the country at $9.32 an hour (close to the $10.10 Democrats are seeking nationally) and has since shown job growth above the national average.

But with her wholesome good looks and soporific manner, this year’s GOP Matron of the Year has no rough edges like Sarah Palin, who is still taking cheap shots at Bush I’s token woman Peggy Noonan for being too slow to join Tea Party loudmouths in calling this week’s SOTU "a spectacle of delusion and self-congratulation."

If Republicans want to perfect their robotic Matron of the Year and keep raising tons of money before the next election cycle, they will have to persuade Palin to stand behind a poster of Rodgers and confine herself to her successor’s smiling platitudes.

Or go back to the GOP lab for attitude retooling.