Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Killer's Kiss: Casual Friday Kubrick

God bless Criterion. They only handle movies that impress them (mostly), they really heap on the special features. Plus they had a half-price sale on Valentine's Day. I thought that I picked up four movies that I always wanted to have on Blu-Ray, but it turns out they sent me five! To whit: if you're interested in owning Stanley Kubrick's heist-caper film The Killers let me sweeten the deal by telling you that among the extras is a beautiful transfer of Kubrick's 2nd feature Killer's Kiss.

Killer's Kiss is best described as a kind of minimalist thriller; a story about three characters, shot in black and white, coming in at an economical 67 minutes. Kubrick notwithstanding, it's not a particularly good movie. If anything, it plays like the work of a guy who wanted to make a movie and was willing to use any old story to do it. Boy (washed up prizefighter) meets girl (dance hall "hostess") and falls for her after scaring away her boyfriend and boss (creepy older minor-league mobster). But the mobster won't give the girl up.

Most of the action takes place within a flashback of the prizefighter's previous 48 hours, and during that flashback there is another flashback filling in the girls backstory. Being Kubrick, the whole things is very, very well photographed. More so when you consider that he was director, writer, cinematographer and editor as well. The compositions are sharp, the use of light, shadow and contrast is eye-popping. And the story moves at a quick clip, hampered only by the problem of characters who think like movie characters rather than people. And talk like, well, like nobody who ever lived. It's probably this movie that convinced Kubrick to start paying other people to write his dialog. Weirdly, he mostly chose novelists but I guess it worked out for him.

I think the most fascinating thing about this movie is that it's almost completely Kubrickian except for one major thing: he didn't have the budget or time to do retakes. The thing you look for in Kubrick movies is the eerie gloss he brings to scenes by using the 50th take. This is an off-the-cuff Kubrick. It's casual Friday Kubrick. It's like The Shining directed by William "One Shot" Beaudine. And those actors, frankly, they could have benefited from another 48 takes or so.

Worth seeing, especially either in the context of The Killing or of this, if you can find it. Check it out.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Year Oscar Begged For Help

The Kodak Theatre, before.
I mentioned earlier that if The Artist won best picture it would be an indication that Hollywood has fallen into terminal narcissism and given up on caring about the outside world. I was wrong: it was an indication of something far more alarming.

Indeed, it's too pat to suggest that the Oscar telecast was more narcissistic than usual. Narcissism is the lifeblood of the awards telecast: it's what kept the lights on in the "'Your Name Here' Theater" (Billy Crystal's reference to Chapter 11 Kodak), suspended the Cirque du Soliel acrobats up in the air, paid for the overstuffed goodie bags in the pre-awards luxury lounge. I misspoke here: goodie bags are over-- not very image-friendly in these class-divided, tough times. Now there are discreet "gift suites" set up in key hotels in Hollywood, full of amazing stuff nominees and celebrities can get their hands on-- no charge, free, gratis, thank you for being you. So if you're gonna be in Zanzibar the next few months, say hi to Adrien Brody, who was given a $35,000 resort vacation there at a gift suite. He was neither a presenter nor nominee. So when they say "it's an honor just to be nominated," this is what they're talking about.

It may have seemed to some like a boring, remarkably short Oscars (shortest in 30 years!) but you didn't have to look very hard to see a complete and articulate subliminal message, repeated over and over the entire evening. No courting kids, no young hosts (were James Franco and Anne Hathaway even there?), no Facebook or Twitter or mention of YouTube or anything like that: just a basic, existential subtext:
Gee, what's been covered up?

"Get off your butt and go see a movie!"

The big winners: The Artist and Hugo celebrated the nascent days of the film industry, the invention of film language and the advent of sound in the glamorous days of the silents. "See how amazing and historical movies are? Impressed? So get off your butt and go see a movie!"

Cirque du Soliel did an entire acrobatic dance dedicated to the experience of getting off one's butt and going to see a movie.

That weird montage of older movies near the beginning-- all of which are much, much better than anything nominated this year: "remember these? Now, get off your butt and go see a movie!"

Tom Sherak, head of the AMPAS, made a short and dull statement. Guess what it was?

Even Angelina Jolie's mile-long leg had a freighted meaning. She wasn't just showing off her gam: Jolie is Hollywood glamor personified, and that winking leg flashed a semaphore to a vast movie-going audience: "Want to see more? Then get off your butt and go see a movie!" (J-Lo's semi-exposed areola may have also had something to say to this area, but not quite as convincingly.)

The motion picture industry is in trouble. box office is down, attention-getting films are more expensive to produce, profit margins and therefore production slates are slimming. It may not be apparent when watching the Oscars, but Hollywood has a lot of experience in image management. There was a shocking column by a screenwriter in the New York Times last week which outlined how dire things are getting for those in the middle and lower rungs of Hollywood-- foreclosures, bankruptcies, careers evaporating as production gets cut back or exported.

Which leads back that unified, existential cry for help, which ran under the proceedings like the recurring audio feedback that plagued the whole show. And it's hard to ignore the fact that everyone was gathered in the Kodak Theatre-- the bankrupt former pillar of The Industry, victim to the digital technology which is gnawing at every level of Hollywood, from mighty L.A. basin studio to tiny Valley adult-film shingle.

Okay, that 's a bit apocalyptic-- It was still a very amusing, glamorous night. I got to watch it at an Oscar pool party thrown in a loft apartment in downtown San Francisco, with big wraparound views of the city and the bay. Amazing. There were about two dozen folks there, all charming and nice. I got to show off a little screenwriter wisdom, such as the difference in "&" and "and" in screenwriting credits. Somebody else won with something like 17 correct picks. I have never, ever won an Oscar pool.

Dan's Oscar Ruminations

Hah! Beat Skot to it!

7242 Owensmouth Avenue Canoga Park, CA 91303
(818) 884-1907
I went to an Oscar Pool party at Clyde Porter's West Valley Playhouse, where I'm appearing in Agatha Christie's Black Coffee for one more weekend - tickets are on sale now, Google the theatre for more info. If that seems like an inartful plug inserted into an otherwise pleasant read, well, remember that the first Academy Awards ceremony was around 20 minutes long.

Last night's ceremony, which was a little stripped down compared to previous years, seemed zippier than usual. Perhaps they didn't have time to weigh things down the way they always do - Brett Ratner was going to produce the ceremony and Eddie Murphy was going to host, but the Gay community just didn't like that and Ratner was forced out, while Murphy quit in solidarity. It's interesting that Billy Crystal didn't address that little controversy in his monolog! Normally, it's exactly where he'd go for the big laughs. Probably would have played great to the room, lousy to the flyover cities.

As a result the Academy had to stick to the basics, even eschewing the nominated song presentations that normally thrill/mortify us all. The only big production number was an elaborate Cirque Du Soleil stunner from their show Iris, and it happens that the Kodak theatre has that as a permanent installation the rest of the year. It was probably less trouble to include it than to have no number.

The two big winners of the night were a movie about the early days of moviemaking and a 3D movie about the early days of moviemaking.

Hey! Check me out!
 Angelina Jolie. Oh Angelina Jolie. Within seconds of her appearance, someone opened a twitter account named @AngelinaJoliesLeg. Messages like "hey, look at me!" "check me out!" and "I'm some leg, huh?" were spewing out. The women surrounding me (surprisingly no gay men in the room!) all agreed that Angelina needs a sandwich or something. I think she looks great but she ain't no action hero any more. While I'm at it, I should report that the ladies were not happy with Melissa Leo's dress.

Couldn't put my finger on what didn't work with the Christopher Guest Ensemble's bit about market testing the Wizard of Oz; but I know what I didn't like about Robert Downey and Gwynneth Paltrow's documentary gag. That was just bad chemistry. I bet you anything that Ben Stiller's gag about the Planet of the Apes makeup not being ready in time was true.

Uggie, keeping you off his Golden Globe
 Can we assume that the makers of The Artist were sure enough of themselves that they flew Uggie the dog all the way to Los Angeles and found a way to pen him backstage for the entire show, not bringing him out for any of the other wins? I think we can. I hope Uggie gets more work.

Plastic surgery creeps me out.

I learned from the In Memorium segment that George Kuchar has passed away! A unique underground filmmaker for the better part of 50 years, he was heavily influenced by glossy soap opera films like Imitation of Life and Stella Dallas, the exact kind of movie that the Academy honored to the skies in their day. Of course, in the Kucharverse these movies were insane parodies, characterized by fevered overacting and impossible eyebrows. I think maybe George took some of the dark side of glamor with him. I hope it's not gone for good!

Friday, February 24, 2012

See Logan Run. Run, Logan, Run.

Just re-seen: Logan's Run (1976), a lovely HD transfer. I may not have seen this film since it was in theaters-- Star Wars came out the next year, ya see, and well, it just seemed so irrelevant...

It was a big-budget sci-fi film from MGM, at the time on it's last legs as an independent studio. It posits a post-apocalyptic society where the survivors live in a vast domed city. For reasons that really, really aren't made 100 percent clear, everybody is given nifty little crystals in their hands which mark the days until they turn 30. When they do, their crystals start blinking and they must to submit to “carousel,” where they fly in circles in an amphitheater until they “renew” (i.e explode). Those who choose to opt out of this program are called “runners,” and are chased down the the black-clad Sandmen.

The main plot concerns Sandman Logan 5 (the very pleasant Michael York) who is bamboozled by the computer that runs everything to go and find "Sanctuary," a sort of underground railroad for runners. With friend Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter) in tow, they manage to escape the dome and discover the world outside the dome is pretty, but full of lizards and ruins and an Old Man (Peter Ustinov) who has a thing for T. S. Eliot cat quotes.

There are no profound insights to be gleaned from a mature evaluation of this film-- like, for instance, seeing The Incredible Mr. Limpet again and discovering it's a sub rosa tribute to singlehood. But it's still a curious little sci-fi franchise (and it IS a franchise: it spawned a short-lived TV series with Gregory Harrison and Donald Moffat):

Daniel's remake formula gets a workout in this film. To drive this point home I'm gonna •••spoil••• the ending (I don't feel too bad spoiling a 36-year-old film). Logan's Run was a sci-fi film made in the pre-franchise era, when sci-fi films had amazing endings. Soylent Green is made of people. You blew it up, you maniacs. Star Wars had an ending so iconic and exciting people are still trying to imitate it. But Logan's Run had a lousy ending: Logan is recaptured, jammed in a mind-reading chair, and apparently the illogic of him not finding Sanctuary, the existence of which the master computer only suspected in the first place, causes said computer to “renew” (i.e. explode) so hard it cracks open all the domes, letting everyone out. Huh?

This Deus Ex Machina was one of many divergences from the 1968 novel the film was based on. But really, honestly: the ending of the novel (which I read before I saw the movie, a first for young me) is even hokier. “Sanctuary” in the novel is a space station “near Mars;” so in the last pages Logan and Jessica just rocket away from the whole magilla. Again: huh?

• Every film reflects the time it was made in, and Logan's Run reflects it like a gigantic mirror ball. The premise at the core of the novel is based in the late-60s youth movement-- "Never trust anyone over 30" taken to it's logical extreme. The 1976 version tops this premise with a layer with Me Generation hedonism: It's a society of casual sex literally enveloped in a fog of drugs, and there's no such thing as marriage and parenting. As far as I could see, living under the dome swings like a singles-only condo. Caftans, disco-fabric dresses and hideous chrome furniture abound: Add Boone's Farm and diagonal wood paneling and it wouldn't be sci-fi anymore.

• I was amazed by all the nudity. The principals get naked at least three times-- and not sensual, darkly-lit love scenes, but right under the key lights, more like “we'd better take off these wet clothes before we freeze.” Several of the places Logan and Jessica “run” through feature wall-to-wall tits. This film had an MPAA rating of PG. Man, have ratings changed since '76.

• For Farrah Fawcett (Farrah Fawcett-Majors at the time), Logan's Run was her breakout movie, even though her part as Holly 13, a receptionist, was quite small. Still, the attention she got from it landed her a starring role in “Charlie's Angels” a few months after this film came out, and the rest is history. And strangely, it's not for any sort of amazing performance: she was simply so arrestingly beautiful at the time, such a personification of 1970s “it,” that the plot would grind to a complete halt when she was on-screen. Much was said at her passing in 2009 of her unreal looks: Her mother described how, when Farrah was a teen in Corpus Christi, total strangers would peer into their house to catch a glimpse of her. Then again, I may still be under the spell of her poster: to quote Ms. Fawcett herself, “God gave women intuition and femininity. Used properly, the combination easily jumbles the brain of any man I've ever met.” Me too, Farrah.

• And, in what must seem a quite repetitive theme by now, Logan's Run is being remade, slated for a 2014 release. It is supposed to feature Ryan Gosling and Rose Byrne, and it hasn't actually entered production yet. Don't bet the farm on a green light, though: Ryan Gosling is riding high from the acclaim from his role in Drive, and a sci-fi film with a remarkably similar premise just came out a few months ago (In Time). But if it does, that gives Hollywood a second chance to fix that lousy ending.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Saturday, February 18, 2012

That's A Lot Of Popcorn Poppers!

Every movie theatre I ever worked in, 1983 to 1992-- And what has happened to them since.

The Rio, in 1982, a year before I started there.
• UA (United Artists) Rio. My first and favorite. Built in 1949, Curvy, elegant Futurist interior. When I was there I worked with a lot of amazing cool people, folks I still call my friends. Showed two blockbuster films famously shot in Santa Cruz: Sudden Impact and The Lost Boys. Used to run great midnights and Sunday morning programs of family fare and musicals which were quite popular. The Rio is still around, and actually better than ever: Somebody did what all of us who worked there dreamed of doing and turned it into a legit stage venue.

UA's Santa Cruz region was managed at the time by Joe Louis, a wonderful guy. At his suggestion, I filled in all over the district:

Never the Rocky Horror Picture show, though--
that played at the Sash Mill.
• UA Del Mar 4. The regional HQ. Joe Louis was famous for his midnight movie programming which, in a college town like SC, was always profitable. He programmed the four screens with four genres of midnight movies: Horror, Cult, Classic, and Soft-Core Adult. Still open, now an art cinema.
• The UA Cinemas. Now Regal Riverfront Stadium 2. "Arrangements," the short film I wrote, premiered there in 2008.
• 41st Avenue Playhouse. Filled in weeknights one winter-- and hated every minute of it. Still open.
• Aptos Twin. The office held the most amazing collection of movie one-sheets I ever saw, some dating back to the early 1960s. Still open, though I'm sure the posters are gone.

Taken during my tenure!
When I moved to San Francisco I just transferred to a different UA division, under a different district manager-- and a miserable son of a bitch at that. I managed a bewildering number of theaters in The City:

• UA Metro Center 6. Time has not softened my opinion of the manager of this big Colma crackerbox, who was yet another miserable son of a bitch. (Movie theatre managers come in two broad varieties: happy ones who know it's a joke of a job and treat it as such, and miserable bastards who take their s**t way too seriously.) Pleased to say this place is gone, bulldozed flat, and a Best Buy stands on it's grave.
• Alexandria 3.  It was a bit of a worn-out flea-trap when I first got there as an assistant manager: The place was under the management of Claire, the former UATC switchboard operator. (UA San Francisco used a central switchboard until 1985!) I would come back to the Alex near the end of my employment with UA as full manager. Went dark in 2001, but it's magnificent Egyptian facade still presides over 18th and Geary.
•UA Coliseum, or The Col: Opened in 1918 (Lillian Gish was there!), A neat old Richmond District theatre with a wraparound balcony. It was shut down after the 1989 quake-- The rumor was there was no structural damage to it, but the Naify family (who owed UATC) didn't own the land the theatre was built on, so it was not profitable to keep open.  It's still standing.
The ONLY way to see the Rings Trilogy--
on a 85-foot-wide screen.
• UA Vogue. A former Biograph theatre, opened in 1909. Tiny little single-screen, tucked into the wealthiest part of SF (Pacific Heights). Showed a lot of art films (The Rapture, Belly of an Architect). Quiet, quiet place: When I took over the theater I had a $100 petty cash fund-- and when I transferred to the Metro, there was still $65 left. Still in operation!
• UA Metro. Lovely Art Deco single-screen with 800 seats and Lalíque-style murals on the walls.  My favorite SF theatre managing experience. We showed Paris is Burning (documentary about transvestite shows) and sold out seven shows a day for three weeks. Showed the Chevy Chase bomb Nothing But Trouble-- which sold 68 tickets in a fortnight (got a lot of maintenance done over that two-week run). Went dark in 2003.
• UA Coronet. The Big Kahuna, George Lucas' favored SF theatre. 1100 seats. Gone: there's a senior center where it stood.
• UA Galaxy 4. the flagship of it's time on Van Ness Avenue. An interesting experiment was conducted when I was there: we ran Terminator 2 on two screens, one side in 35mm and digital audio, the other side in 70mm. It was the only venue in SF where I ran midnight movies, and we cleaned up on 'em. Went dark in 2003, and right now (February 2012) they're tearing the 'ol "stack of phone booths" down.
• UA Stonestown Cinemas. Nice, quiet place to spend time. Had a clean, 60s architectural style to it, and was located near a big indoor mall. It was once a single screen but it was divided down the middle-- which meant that a third of the seats faced the center wall rather than the screen. The outside walls of the manager's office were floor-to-ceiling glass. Weird. Still open!

When I was working in SF, single-screen theaters were still very much a going concern. Eventually all got out-competed by 12- and 16-screen multiplexes, and as a result between 1995 and 2005 most of them all went dark. Then even larger 20- and 24-screen 'plexes were built, which drove the smaller 'plexes out of business. Now these behemoths are under strain by On Demand, Bit Torrent and general apathy towards movie-going. The difference is: once these humongous 'plexes go dark, folks like me won't be waxing nostalgic about them.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Talking Back to The Screen: the Movie

People can sometimes foster an intense bond with their favorite films, which is what fandom is all about. The question is: What can be done about this intense bond, aside from seeing the film over and over and buying all the action figures and video releases?

The traditional answer was to join a fan club and seek out people who share your interests. Studios love fan clubs-- it's the right kind of adoration, and best of all it supports the ancillary marketing industry.

Still, if you wanted to go further, and you were handy with a camera, you could make a little tribute film (God knows I've made my share). Some of my favorite stories in this area are those of fandom gone seriously overboard: in particular, that kid who built the Enterprise bridge set in his mother's basement-- becoming the perfect 10.0 on the “Trek-O-Meter.”

Perhaps the ultimate fan tribute of all time was pulled off by three kids from Mississippi who took seven years to create their own shot-for-shot adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Apparently, Steven Spielberg was impressed. Why not? These teeners did it the old-fashioned way: using the movie as a script and painstakingly recreating all the scenes by hand. Gotta admire their gumption-- and since what they made will never cut into the Indiana Jones revenue stream, why not embrace it?

The trend in fandom (or at least film geekdom) we're seeing now is repurposed Hollywood films. It's much, much easier to rip a DVD, re-edit scenes from it, and post the results on YouTube than it is to make Captain Kirk's chair out of plywood or fashion a huge rolling booby-trap boulder out of papier-mache.

 In the early days of this tendency, the results were clever and justifiably famous: The recut of The Shining as “Shine,” a trailer for a romantic comedy, showing not only the deftness of the creator's editing skills but the hollowness of RomCom cliches.
Later that same year (2006) somebody re-edited Mary Poppins as a horror film-- not as clever as the “Shine” trailer, but still effective.
Woefully, it has become too far easy to cut up feature films. It's the “mumble core” effect: more and cheaper ways to make films has not resulted in a flowering of new auteurs, but rather a wave of mediocrity and unreleasable movies. If you want an idea of the current state of things, go to YouTube and type “Hitler on” in the search box. (Of course, in a perfect reversal of this trend, some wiseacre took this overused scene from Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004) and, in Raiders Adaptation fashion, reshot it word-for-word.

What are these innumerable Hitler rants with funny subtitles? Not much more than Talking Over the Movie. It's more or less the same as what those “movie talkers” do, keeping up an imaginary two-way dialog with the big screen. Or what you do, in the privacy of your own home, adding witty commentary to “American Idol.” it is the quickest, least clever, and most immediate reaction one can have to a film or TV show.

But just when I was completely exasperated with the entire deal, my sister turned me onto a new example of a repurposed movie, and a clever and hilarious one at that: “Guy On a Buffalo.” Like “Shine," this is an example of how someone with a good sense of humor and talent-- in this case, Austin-based musical talent-- can take a nearly forgotten drive-in B picture from 1978 and make it into something amazing-- Talking Over the Movie done well.
And how does Hollywood feel about all this? They hate it, of course. It's not as bad as bit-torrenting whole movies or TV series, but it is a basic intellectual property violation. Still, nobody has ever been prosecuted for re-purposing films on YouTube-- so long as there is no profit in it.

In fact, they may be getting into the act themselves, throwing in the towel and joining in. One of the pre-release trailers for Man On a Ledge (2012) features one of it's stars, Elizabeth Banks, talking over a trailer for the film. It seems a bit like DVD commentary, but it's so funny-- and so totally at odds with the action-drama genre of the film she's talking over-- that it's quite clear the studio has given up trying to be serious. If someone is gonna talk over our film, the producers must have reasoned, let it at least be someone with talent, and on our payroll.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Weekend Box Office

Downton Abbey: What We're All Missing

Here's the picture in early 2012: The presidential race is heating up, and it has been largely informed by the inequalities in the American social fabric-- and inequality that has been brought to light by the efforts of the Occupy movement. It is such an effective area of discourse that the incumbent President is incorporating it into his platform, promising that the very wealthy will start paying their fair share of taxes. This focus on inequality is so prevalent that even Republican candidates-- long the eager sidekicks of the moneyed class-- cannot avoid bringing it up, slinging mud at Mitt Romney's fifteen-percent tax bracket.

So it is quite incredible that in this charged atmosphere of near-class warfare (call it the undeclared hostilities preceding actual class warfare) that the American viewing public would fall so hard for “Downton Abbey,” an ITV melodramatic series about the trials and tribulations of the House of Grantham in early 20th century Britain. The overarching theme of the series is how absolutely rigid the social classes were in Edwardian England-- There are Earls, Lords, Ladies and gentlemen of bestowed titles enjoying elegant meals prepared by an army of servants toiling in the lower floors of their stately home. Relationships between Upstairs and Downstairs are excessively, ritualistically formal. The middle class is almost invisible in this show: Social mobility has yet to be invented.

In short, the socio-political world of “Downton Abbey” should turn even the most rock-ribbed Republican into a raving anarchist. But it doesn't. It's a hugely popular show on both sides of the Atlantic: It's coming back this fall in a third season, and will be guest-starring Shirley MacLaine as the American mother of the Countess of Grantham. So why has this show captured the public's attention and imagination? A few ideas:

Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary.
Compelling historical detail. We're moving through a moment in entertainment where the past is examined with clinical fascination. Shows like “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire” are more than just dramas set in the past: they delve into the fashions, attitudes and social mores of their settings. We're fascinated by Don Draper's cavalier womanizing, chain smoking and narrow lapels. 1921 Atlantic City is reproduced right down to the wallpaper patterns and brass-trimmed stick phones. Same with “Downton Abbey,” which was definitely the UK answer to these shows. We get to see the elegant trappings of Manor living, the grinding amount of work it took to make Manor living so elegant, and to hear odd archaic sayings like “she was a guinea a minute” and “ship-shape and Bristol fashion.”

It's an insane Douglas Sirk-style melodrama. Servant or Swell, Drudge or Toff, everyone falls violently in love, has wrenching personal disclosures, and carry all sorts of secrets. Dalliances and liaisons coalesce, evolve and dissolve like blobs of wax in a lava lamp. Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of the Crawley family, has had so many suitors die on her she is thought by some “Downton” observers to have Black Widow Powers. Some characters--- such as valet Mr. Bates and head housemaid Anna-- are so soulful and appealing I defy anyone watching to deny they had tears in their eyes when they finally wed. Granny-- The Countess Dowager, played by Maggie Smith-- is a grand Victorian Lady who is constantly horrified by both the excessive snogging and Edwardian modernity in general. She gets the best, funniest lines in the show.

The Earl of Grantham.
• Everyone has a place. Sure, England in 1912-1920 was rigidly stratified, but it was also a smoothly functioning society, where both the high and the low had roles to play-- and, most importantly, each protected the other. The servants conduct themselves with a constant awareness of how their actions will affect the prestige and standing of Downton: In particular Carson, the head butler, understands his duty as a retainer to the dynastic estate, rather than as just a manager of servants.

Conversely, we can see that the Crawley family, Lord Grantham in particular, do not just employ their servants, they defend and protect them as well. The writers of "Downton Abbey" to great lengths to show that he Lord Grantham not just another snobby old aristo. He is the one who brought in his former Boer War aide-de-camp as his personal valet, resolves disputes with the help-- and even allows Sybil, his youngest daughter, to marry the family chauffeur. He even steals a few kisses with a comely (and widowed) new maid, but soon comes to his senses and discharges her--but only after setting her son up for life. Regardless of how you may feel about the legitimacy of peerage, he's the ideal boss.

This, ultimately, is the core of what makes “Downton Abbey” connect with viewers: Noblesse Oblige. The concept that the wealthy have an obligation to respect and care for those below them in class and status. Tune in and you get to see this concept elaborately enacted in every episode. Read the news, watch the presidential race or follow Wall Street and you will see how noticeably absent it is in 21st century life-- and the social decoherence that it's absence is inflicting. Of all the period details on lavish display in the halls of Downton, this abstract concept is likely the only one we wish we could pull forward into our troubled times.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Moon Nazis


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Monday, February 6, 2012

Eximius Scaphium XLVI

A fierce contest between the neighboring and rival civitates: The unfavored Gigantes of Nova Eboraci delivered a decisive blow to the Bonorum of Nova Britannia. Much skill and fortitude was displayed, but the ultimate victory seemed to be mostly in the hands of the Parcae: Nona, Decima and Morta, who spun their webs of luck and fate. I mean, the first points on the board came from a safety, for Jupiter's sake!

It's been my schtick here to parse the Super Bowl as some kind of modern Roman spectacle-- So it is with either delight or horror I can report that for the first time the NFL beat me to it. Madonna, the main lip-syncher for the halftime show, was carted out to the main stage by a maniple of the Roman Legion: shiny gold plumed galea, armor and everything. Madge herself initially appeared as a vaguely approximate version of Egyptian royalty, which means she was likely portraying Cleopatra VII Philopator.

A few observations:

• Good close game. I guess. Saw a lot of flubs on the field. And really, since the Giants knocked the 49ers out of contention two weeks ago, I had absolutely no stake in it: It may have well been a Harlem Globetrotters game. I'm sure it made NBC happy: TV market #1 versus TV market #7.

• The coarsening of American public discourse got a huge advance in Super Bowl XLVI. At halftime, we got a 4-fer: M.I.A. gave 80 million 111.3 million viewers the finger. Nearby was a band of annoying fratboys in joke-shop afros called LMFAO. Next to them was a singer whose stage-name was coined from a group sex act. Following up was a guy who had a monster hit titled with the same word that centers the annoying fratboy's band. The Valentine-themed ad featuring Adriana Lima in black lingerie was either for flowers or a really expensive escort service. The female embodiment of the Fiat 500 Abarth wants you to lick latté foam out of her cleavage. This all made the inevitable Go Daddy ad look like a Disney Channel promo.

• As for the ads: My favorite was Chrysler Group's "Detroit" ad. Clint Eastwood has a silhouette that's as recognizable as a Founding Father and a voice like an overheated, under-lubricated 5-speed transmission. The rest were sort of a blur: Lots of uninventive, laddish stuff this year. I started a count on the number of ads which drew an annoyed sigh from me: I counted ten.

• I've already read some columnist calling the Acura ad featuring the bullet-headed Jerry Seinfeld their favorite. I think you had to have been a "Seinfeld" person to agree (I was a "Friends" person). To me this ad-- where Jer tries to entice some schlub into giving him his reservation for a concept car-- was a tone-deaf, icky example of an obscenely rich guy trying very hard to get his way.

• There was a promo from the NFL (which I guess they can show for free, as opposed to $4 million per half-minute) which cleverly demonstrated the evolution of the rules and safety equipment in football, from it's mudslinging rugby-like origins to the super-padded, tech-helmeted present. It was actually an indirect message from league management to the player's union and countless tort lawyers: "Please don't sue us for your inevitable and debilitating concussion-caused dementia! We're trying really hard, honest!"

• There was an actual MARCHING BAND on the field of the Super Bowl during halftime! Not since 1990 has there been one. I think even those shako-wearing musicians were lip-synching-- or drum-synching, or whatever you may call it.