Friday, July 31, 2020

Sirius I Ain’t

So, in April I got a used car. I’ll skip the details except to say this: It’s a 2017 model and like a lot of more modern cars it came with a free trial of Sirius XM, the satellite radio service. I’ve never been interested in Sirius and when I saw the handouts in the folder with the manual, I threw them away. I was driving for a couple of weeks when I saw an email that said somehow, without my knowing, the free trial had been activated. So I have been checking in every couple days.


It’s a great alternative to terrestrial radio. I live in L.A., which is a major market for radio and the choices still suck. On-air radio somehow reached the point where they market-researched themselves to death. They’re giving it away and I’m still not taking. So Sirius, with its lack of commercials and it’s weird narrowcasting (there is a channel devoted entirely to Canadian Stand-Up Comedy, for example) is a refreshing change from that. The only problem is, so is internet radio.  Since I can play my phone through Bluetooth, Sirius can’t compete with the sheer wild-west programming of the internet. PLUS everything I like is already free.


Sirius knows this. They want to charge $22 a month for their service but they can’t compete on generic product alone. However, they have a few arrows in their quiver and the battering ram is, of course, Howard Stern. Somehow he was the biggest thing on the air and when it came time to renew his contract, he could see that radio was plunging into the abyss and he sold franchise to Sirus. He’s exclusive there. You want Howard, you gotta pay for satellite. It’s a good deal for everyone – Stern is making bigger money than radio could afford and he’s a koi fish swimming with sea monkeys.


In the whole free trial period I haven’t once even ventured near any of the several Howard Stern channels. Didn’t like him in the nineties, don’t now. Not my cup o' tea.


So the trial is ending tomorrow. There ARE things I like and will miss. The Beatles station is fun sometimes, and the Big Band music. And since I also won’t pay for cable, the 24 hour news networks have audio feeds. Believe me, most of the time you don’t miss the visuals. But I don’t feel like any of this stuff is worth paying MONEY for. I just thought it was cool to enjoy while it was free.


They’ve been sending me daily emails reminding me the trial is almost up. Also, I’ve had three sales calls but each time there was a technical problem and they lost the signal and cut off. It sounds like I’m toying with them but I swear it was real phone trouble. I guess maybe the sales rep was driving under a bridge at the time.


I noticed from the emails that I could renew at full price. But on the same page they are also offering a $5 a month plan for a year (and then it goes up to full price) which tempted me a little bit. Then I thought, nah, I could use that money for something else. And THEN, last night I saw a deal… extend the trial for another three months for two dollars. I went for it.


Part of me says just give it up, but I’m only out two dollars and I have this sneaking feeling if I hold out long enough, they’ll let me renew in November for another two dollars. And if not I will just walk away and listen to Old Time Radio Detective show channel on the internet.


The moral, I guess, is if you have an antipathy to Howard Stern you are more powerful than you think.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Weekend Box Office 7 27

A brief review of Relic included at no extra charge

Monday, July 20, 2020

Weekend Box Office News

9 movies - it's almost a top 10!

Monday, July 13, 2020

Weekend Box Office News

Like a phoenix, only still on fire

Monday, July 6, 2020

Weekend Box Office News

It's the opposite of a blockbuster holiday weekend

Friday, July 3, 2020

Falling Down: D-Fens Quixote

An image from the incredible opening shot. The camera starts on
Michael Douglas' lips, flies out of his car, allaround it, and settles on
him again. This was before computer graphics made this easy.

A recent re-watching of the 1993 Joel Schumacher film Falling Down (it was a homework assignment) turned up a number of fascinating elements— some of them unadulterated 1990s values, some modern re-evaluations, and at least one new definition. Falling Down, it turns out,  is a lot of different things.

Synopsis. William Foster, recently fired from his aerospace job, walks away from his car in a Los Angeles traffic jam. He embarks on a city-spanning adventure: he is trying to get to Venice for his daughter’s birthday party, despite the fact his ex-wife has a restraining order against him. What follows is a series of obstacles to his goal, all challenges to his worldview, one that is fading away. While he is being pursued by Detective Prendergast (Robert Duvall) the protagonist’s quest becomes a path of increasing violence and destruction across the city.

Parable of White Victimization. Time has not been kind to many of this film’s themes. The most obvious one, the one pursued in the press at the time: D-Fens was a “latter-day prophet, denouncing the hypocrisy of our times.” White men were losing ground in an ever-more-diverse America. At the time, when Hollywood and popular culture was basically white men as well, this crisis was internalized.

The staff of Whammyburger, being told they make a lousy product
by a man waving a TEC-9 around. Dede Pfeiffer (center) is the
completely unflappable counter girl. She's a hoot.
D-Fens establishes his “everyman” credentials by constantly questioning things many people at the time questioned as well. Those questions start out picayune: Why does a can of Coke cost 85 cents? Why doesn’t Whammyburger serve breakfast past 11:30? Why can’t I just sit here and catch my breath?

Vignettes are sprinkled throughout the film that reinforce his “angry white man” perspective. Urban decay. Police harassment. A homeless white guy holding a begging sign, next to industrious Latino men selling goods on the street.

Beth (Barbara Hershey) realizing she may have had a hand
in the victimization of a 1990s American white male--
the least victimized sort of person there is.
Later, his questioning veers into more sweeping social criticism. While cutting across a golf course, D-Fens wonders why the vast green space isn’t open to the public. He later hides in the pool house of an immense mansion, and finds out (via a family of poor tenants) that it is owned by a plastic surgeon. At the time, these observations struck close to home: Was D-Fens a victim?

The film went a bit further than that to indemnify William Foster as a victim of his times. When the police interview his ex-wife Beth (Barbara Hershey) she admits her reasons for placing restraining order on him were spurious. He had a temper, but he didn’t drink and never struck her or her daughter, and the judge who set the order “wanted to make an example of him.” As the interview progresses she looks increasingly distressed and embarrassed.

Joel Shumacher and screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith crafted Falling Down to channel “White Male Paranoia.” The reason the image of Michael Douglas — buzz cut, broken horn rims— made the cover of Newsweek is this film successfully captured a moment in history. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, George Bush scaled back defense spending on a massive scale. Military installations were closed. Aerospace companies like Grumman and Lockheed closed down facilities all over the United States: Southern California was hit hard. William Foster’s job is obviously part of this loss, part of the USA’s military-industrial contraction as the cold-war era was coming to an end. To the people who ran the show back then— middle-class white men— they saw it as something that was happening to them, and they were the victims.

(As an aside, my mom worked for Lockheed for 30+ years, and I was an eyewitness to the post-cold-war wave of defense industry layoffs. It was as bad as it came off in the film, and it didn't just affect white men.)

D-Fens as Anti-Antihero. This is not just wordplay for a villain: it’s the best way to describe him. A character can be categorized by two criteria: deeds and thoughts.

A HERO is a character who does heroic deeds and embodies heroic qualities. Captain America, Indiana Jones, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Joan of Arc, Robin Hood: all embodiments of positive values and behaviors.

An ANTIHERO is a character who does heroic deeds but does not embody heroic qualities. Tom Jones, Tristam Shandy, Deadpool, “Mad” Max Rocketanski, Rick Blaine and the nameless protagonists of Sergio Leone’s and Akira Kurosawa’s films fit this description. They do not obey any rules of lawful conduct, are often transgressive or violent, but in the end their acts resolve into a greater good.

A VILLAIN is a character without redeeming qualities, who actively oppose the efforts of heroes and the greater good. Darth Vader, Sauron, Noah Cross, Norman Bates, The Wicked Witch: all are engaged in selfish ends that will cause great harm if they succeed.

But William “D-Fens” Foster is something else. He is a regular man, down on his luck and emotionally unstable, but not extraordinary in any way. Throughout the film he voices reasonable opinions, social commentary about the crumbling world around him. His goals are not intrinsically villainous: he merely wants to go home, and is forced by all manner of extraordinary obstacles to adapt ever more violent methods to achieve his goal.

D-Fens does not aspire to heroic status. He merely wants simple, basic needs filled: change for the phone, breakfast, a moment to rest in a vacant lot. These simple goals are always thwarted— so as the film progresses he cares less and less about behaving in a lawful manner. In his eyes, all he sees are forms of injustice, large and small: overpriced soda, gang territoriality, pointless road closures, obnoxious golfers. In his eyes it’s all injustice against him and the world he comes from.

But in the end, when Prendergast pulls a gun on him on Venice Pier, D-Fens looks at all he has wrought— family running, police clearing the area— and finally comes to the realization that according to the rules of the world he now lives in, he is the bad guy.

"I'm the bad guy?"
He is an ANTI-ANTIHERO: A character who understands morality and justice, but is incapable of any form of heroic action, and in the end acts against the greater good. The anti-antihero is distinct from the antihero by their mindset: they believe their goals are for good and believe are working toward the good, but are blind to the destructive nature of their actions and in the end do no good at all.

Michael Corleone was a decent example of an anti-antihero: he wanted to do good, become legitimate, but in the end (of Godfather 2, at least) was incapable of saving his family or himself.  Perhaps the all-time greatest anti-antihero ever created was Walter White. Every move he made was designed to get himself out of a bad situation (poverty, disease, anonymity, humiliation). By the end he ends up destroying everything he loves. Viewers of “Breaking Bad” rooted for him every week, because he was a likable, normal guy with relatable problems. Every week he slipped further and further away, to a place where there was nothing left but violence and revenge.

The Episodic Journey. Jim Bisso pegged Falling Down precisely: it’s Don Quixote, Western literature first modern novel, and it pulls two elements from Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century work. In form, both center on a wandering protagonist in a series of disconnected encounters. Don Quixote also shares an important trait with D-Fens: both are delusional. Quixote overdosed on tales of chivalry from the past and has come to believe they are quite real. D-Fens is also obsessed with a past where he was the hero of the American narrative.

The difference is in the final details: Don Quixote’s quest takes years and in the end he recovers from his delusions. D-Fens's wanderings take place over the span of one day, his violence and delusions only get worse, and in the end is killed via “suicide-by-cop.*”

1993 vs. 2020. D-Fens is not some sort of MAGA prototype: He was a product of mid-century values who is finally being forced to deal head-on with the reality of the post-Cold War world. He looks like the sort of gun-toting bigot we see on the news in 2020, but he isn't.

In one episode D-Fens stops to buy his daughter a gift— and watches black man picketing a bank across the street. His sign says “Not Economically Viable.” The man is shouting that he was denied a loan due to the color of his skin. He is then arrested and taken away. D-Fens sympathizes with him, even going as far as repeating the sign’s slogan.

Later D-Fens is sheltered from the police by Nick (Frederick Forrest), the deeply bigoted, racial-slur-slinging military surplus store owner. Nick admires D-Fens's violent spree and exclaims “I’m with you! we’re the same!” Nick shows D-Fens some Nazi artifacts and gives him a LAW rocket launcher (talk about Chekov’s gun!). But D-Fens is repelled by Nick’s white supremacy. D-Fens ends up stabbing Nick to death to prevent his likely rape— which informs the trope that virulent homophobes are latent homosexuals.

It may be a 1993 cultural assumption at play here, but William Foster is not a white supremacist, He is not comfortable in multicultural America, and is clearly nostalgic for the days of unquestioned white hegemony before the 1990s, but racism is never his core motive.

We can look at Falling Down in 2020 and see D-Fens as the unsprouted seed of the MAGA mindset. It would take 20 years of union-busting, opioid addiction, corporate offshoring, a drastic loss of economic status and constant watering by conservative news for this seed to bear the fruit we see sprouting everywhere today.

* Japanese literature and cinema feature a “Ronin Character.” This is an antihero protagonist who, when freed of the considerable restraints of society, openly criticizes and challenges the status quo. But the cost for such freedom is always the same: they die by the end. Falling Down fits into this concept well.

(h/t to John for the title.)

Monday, June 29, 2020