Saturday, August 27, 2016

Book Review - American Heiress

The 1970s were not America’s finest hour. From Watergate to the Iran, stagflation to gas rationing, we suffered a decade-long humiliation where interest rates topped out at 20 percent, New York City nearly went bankrupt, and Sixties idealism curdled into nihilism and random acts of domestic terrorism. The cultural touchstones are familiar - the mood ring. Polyester leisure suits. Disco. The people, however, are a bit cloudy in our collective remembrance. Comes now Jeffrey Toobin, fresh off the success of FX’s adaptation of his book about the O.J. Simpson trial, with American Heiress, a gripping and wonderfully written account of the kidnapping of Patricia Heart, the then twenty-year-old heir to a fortune accumulated in newspapers and real estate. 

For those of a certain age, the broad strokes will quickly be remembered. Hearst was taken by a group called the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) and famously captured in an iconic photo with a machine gun at the ready and the SLA’s seven-headed hydra symbol behind her. After most of her comrades were killed in a standoff with police a few months later, Hearst and the remaining members of the group went underground for more than a year, zig zagging the country before being captured in September 1975. At trial for a bank robbery committed shortly after her kidnapping, the then-famous trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey unsuccessfully attempted to argue that Hearst had been brainwashed by the SLA and thus not culpable for her acts. 

Toobin chose his subject well. He has a jeweler’s eye for the fine details as well as the big picture, zooming in to explore the wide range of characters who are part of the tale while also pulling the lens back to put the kidnapping in the broader context of unrest at the time. While many consider the 1960s as a time when the country nearly unraveled in protest over Vietnam, the following decade is largely forgotten in its extensive incidents of domestic terrorism. This may be because many bombings (which were the preferred method of fear mongering) resulted in injury to property as opposed to person, but as Toobin points out, attacks became so commonplace in California, they ceased making news. 

In Toobin’s telling, the SLA is more myth than reality. The entire group was small enough to be transported in a modern-day SUV and while they did commit an egregious murder (of the Superintendent of the Oakland School District), the bank robbery that made Hearst infamous netted less than $10,000 and five of the eight members, including its leader, died shortly thereafter. The SLA’s outsized impact was largely due to Hearst’s presence, but it was only one of a number of groups that fancied themselves as guerrilla warriors fighting against the government. 

As the story picks up speed with Hearst’s conversion to the SLA cause, the standoff that results in most of the group perishing in an inferno, and Hearst and the two remaining members’ months on the run, it is impossible to read Heiress and not sit in surprise that it took the FBI so long to catch them. Toobin digs into all of it with zeal, introducing bit players and off-hand connections (a cameo by Bill Walton is particularly interesting) to illustrate how Hearst and her two comrades eluded capture. A second crime spree that included a bank robbery where a bystander was murdered highlighted the group’s return to the West Coast, but by then, the three SLA castoffs and a couple of their confederates were less revolutionary and more petty criminal. Whatever political message they were asserting had long since lost its thread. 

It is possible Hearst could have remained at-large for far longer were it not for a tip given to law enforcement by the brother of one of those who helped her while she was on the run. Once a few dots were connected, the walls quickly closed in. Ironically, when she was captured, Hearst had settled into a sort of bizarro version of her previous life - living with a boyfriend in suburban quiet, except instead of home making and going to college classes, she was reading feminist tracts and stashing guns and money in her home.

The final section of the book, which examines Hearst’s trial, conviction, and post-incarceration life is its most frustrating. Not because of any fault of Toobin’s, but rather, the shameful way Hearst and her family manipulated their wealth and good name to game the system. Hearst renounced her comrades, perjured herself (an affidavit she admitted was false along with testimony Toobin makes clear was also fabricated), then flipped against them to garner even greater leniency. She was found guilty of the first bank robbery but had her sentence commuted by President Jimmy Carter, getting her out of prison five months before she was eligible for parole. Toobin makes clear that the Hearsts had successfully whitewashed Patty’s eighteen month journey with the SLA as one that was coercive and not complicit, even though all facts were to the contrary. As if this was not extraordinary enough, Hearst received executive clemency from President Bill Clinton on his last day in office. The grant, largely symbolic at that point, made Hearst the first person in American history to receive leniency from two different Presidents. 

The question begged is whether Hearst’s tale of brainwashing is true. We cannot be inside her head; however, Toobin makes a compelling case that she was a willing participant in much of what the SLA and their successors engaged in. Hearst had ample opportunity to escape or turn herself in, yet over and over, she did not do so. At the time of her capture, there was no one monitoring her comings and goings and she could have surrendered at any time. She did not. She was, if nothing else, a chameleon, adapting herself to her surroundings. She fell for an SLA guerrilla just as easily as she did a San Francisco police officer hired to protect her while out on bail. When she was arrested, she reported her occupation as “urban guerrilla” but was back to being a proper heiress, complete with hair, make up and wardrobe by the time of her trial. Ultimately, like many rich people who commit crimes, Hearst successfully leveraged her fame and money to obtain breaks unavailable to her co-conspirators, many of whom ended up doing far more time for the same crimes.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Trump Pulls The Trigger

Donald Trump once famously said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose his supporters. While he has not gunned anyone down on the streets of Manhattan, his campaign-wide pivot of the last week is the metaphorical equivalent of that.

Trump rose to prominence through stream of consciousness rants, attacks on immigrants, and insults hurled willy nilly at everyone from the Pope to crying babies. He mocked the use of Teleprompters, dismissed competitors who relied on corporate campaign donors, and did not spend a dime on polling. He was going to build a wall on the U.S./Mexico border and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. He retweeted images posted by anti-semites and feigned ignorance of David Duke.

And all of that was leading him to what was going to be the worst electoral loss in a generation. Trump said he was going to put non-traditional states in play, and it turns out he has – except instead of Democratic strongholds like Wisconsin or Michigan, his singularly awful campaign has given Hillary Clinton openings in Georgia, Arizona, and Missouri.

So Trump has metaphorically taken out that gun and pulled the trigger. His campaign is now run by a pollster who feeds him lines he reads off a Teleprompter. He raises millions of dollars from big ticket contributors at the same closed-door fundraisers who once derided. He has uttered words of conciliation (without specific targets of apology) while claiming sudden interest in the plight of poor African-Americans and Hispanics. Most amazingly, that big wall he was going to build and that deportation force he was going to amass to round up all those awful “illegals” have been replaced with nods to "softening" language and letting people stay in the country if they have been law abiding and tax paying – ideas he once ridiculed.

In short, he is daring his most ardent supporters to rescind their support by disclaiming everything they liked about him and hold dear. He is relying on them to maintain their belief that he is uttering these poll-tested lines because that is what he needs to do to win. That it is ok if he reads off the dreaded Teleprompter. That it does not matter if he is no longer self-funding his campaign and is accepting money from monied interests, because deep down, he still believes Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers, that all Muslims should be banned from visiting America, that Second Amendment people may need to get involved if Hillary appoints Supreme Court justices, and that he alone can make America great again (for white people).  

Donald Trump has become what he once mocked. He has become a politician, and a bad one at that.

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Review - How To Be A Person In The World

Heather Havrilesky’s How To Be A Person In The World is a wonderful collection of advice columns she has written under the sobriquet Ask Polly that are equal parts tough love and compassion borne from her own experiences - the child of a parent who passed away when she was in her early 20s, years of hard living and friendships lost along the way. Polly is the cool aunt, the sister who hung with the John Benders of the world in high school but grew up up and figured shit out. Polly may now schedule play dates for her kids, but she still curses like a sailor (Havrilesky is particularly fond of a certain twelve-letter curse word that rhymes with “other ducker”) and is clear-eyed enough to remind you that many people will disappoint you along the way, but for those you care about, a reservoir of good will and kindness is the way to go. 

While many of the letters included in How To Be trend younger and female, Havrilesky’s advice is just as applicable to men and women alike. Much of it has to do with being honest with yourself, being hard but fair in your self-assessment (and others), and finding the silver lining even when you have really stepped in it. She is charitable towards those who admit fault (a married woman in her early 40s largely gets a free pass for her infidelity because she is remorseful while a married man in his late 30s who itemizes the reasons justifying his contemplation of infidelity is put on full blast) and quick to apply the lessons she learned along the way to the situation at hand (dead end jobs in your 20s, staying with the wrong person too long, and, looming in the background like an ominous soundtrack, are low-grade depression, anxiety, and fear). 

I have to admit, in the first few pages of the book, I was not sure if I would like the format - a curated collection of letters to Polly as opposed to a more narrative form of autobiography, but Havrilesky weaves so much of her own personal life and experience into her answers and the letters collected cover so much of the waterfront of what people experience, particularly in their twenties, that the book turned out to be a total page turner - each letter and response being its own short story of a snapshot in that person’s life. The quality of the curation is also found in how many times I found myself saying “been there” or “are there” as anonymous someones spilled their guts out over lost love, wobbly familial relationships, fears of the future, not having enough friends, and what they should do with their lives. 

Polly is not a Pollyanna, but she is pro-you - insisting that her fans avoid gross generalizations about themselves (particularly their shortcomings), goading them into picking apart their own statements to detect both the truth and the bullshit underneath them, and see things from other perspectives. I first read Heather’s work when she was recapping Mad Men episodes many years ago. As I reached the end of How To Be on an essay about growing old and the fear of losing all that you hold dear, I was reminded of something Don Draper said about change, that it can be greeted with “terror or joy.” In the messy and often difficult “thing we call life,” Polly has answered that question simply - with motherfucking joy. 

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Things I Love - Paris 1919

Almost 100 years ago, world leaders met in France at the end of World War I to negotiate the terms of Germany’s surrender and create a new world order. What occurred over the next few months would not just define the order of the day, but redound decades into the future. Indeed, nearly a century after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, we are still living with those fateful decisions. To understand today’s geopolitical challenges, a book I love, Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919, is indispensable.

The primary fallout from the treaty negotiations is well known. Germany was saddled with the burden of paying massive reparations that crushed its economy and led to the rise of Hitler, sowing the seeds for the next world war the peace conference was set up to avoid. But what MacMillan does so effectively is suss out the rest of the story. While not wreaking the destruction of World War II, the countries carved out of the destruction of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires have been a source of unending trouble from Serbia to Saudi Arabia. 

Huddled in the background were future leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Ho Chi Minh, who would be the heirs to the decisions made by the Western powers. Countries were created out of whole cloth and spheres of influence adopted with little concern or understanding of their long-term ramifications. It would take decades for the British to reap the whirlwind of their Palestine Mandate, the French to fight a war in Algeria, and America to do whatever the fuck we did in Iraq, but all of these events flowed from the choices made during this fateful event.

Bestriding the Paris negotiations was a giant among men - President Woodrow Wilson. Heralded as a great peacemaker and greeted by adoring throngs when he arrived by ship to lead the U.S. delegation he ended up being the final casualty of the war, shriveled and mute less than a year later. Wilson’s decision to send American troops into the mix had given the Allies a decisive advantage but his cunning and cajoling could only take him so far. Wilson was squeezed in a classic pincers movement; his European partners had their own demands that ran counter to his beliefs and the U.S. Congress knee capped his attempt to form the League of Nations. As a final insult to injury, Wilson suffered the stroke that left him limp and lifeless while on an aggressive whistle-stop train tour of America trying to shame the U.S. Senate into approving the League of Nations.

It is a rare book that so aptly captures historical scope - McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, Lukas’s Big Trouble, Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem - but MacMillan’s work is in that league. It is an important book if you want to understand our world even if the events she writes about occurred just shy of a century ago.

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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Things I Love - Diane Arbus

Portrait photography is an intimate art form. At its best, it is a conversation between photographer and subject where the latter reveals themselves in an honest way that the former is able to capture. It requires an incredible amount of trust and is very difficult to fake. Over the course of a career cut short by her suicide, a well-to-do Manhattan bred woman opened a window into the lives of people who lived on the fringes of society and showed us their humanity. Diane Arbus’s photography is a thing I love.

Arbus was an unlikely guide into this world. She grew up with money, married young to a man who was himself a photographer, and started a family. But lurking beneath what appeared to be the American dream was an artist’s heart that revealed itself as Arbus began seeking out subjects for her own burgeoning career behind the lens. In a city of stunning architecture and great wealth, Arbus went the other way - her haunts were the seamy freak show exhibits in Times Square, the transvestite performers, and societal oddities - the haunting image of two young New Jersey twins, the fragile Jewish giant whose parents gape up in wonder at him. Her photos are intimate and uncomfortable, but instead of mocking her subjects, Arbus’s eye captures their vulnerability and humanity. 

Arbus’s work is so singular because it is so easy to understand how hard it must have been for her subjects to expose themselves in the ways she captured. Anyone who has felt the sting of social rejection, the judgmental eye of a stranger, the feeling of insecurity because you look different, act different, or just are different can see that struggle in Arbus’s photos. Of course, Arbus had her own demons. Her marriage was messy and ended in divorce, she left a trail of lovers in her wake and killed herself at the age of 48. I like to think it was because Arbus understood what a mighty struggle life can be even when it appears you have everything going for you that she was able to create artwork that has influenced everyone from Kubrick to Mapplethorpe. 

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Check out 2015's Things I Love:

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Things I Love - When Harry Met Sally

If it is true that cynics are disappointed romantics, the story of two New Yorkers who meet cute not once, not twice, but three times, become friends, watch the sex ruin the friendship (anticipating a storyline Seinfeld would use several years later), only to have a GRAND GESTURE by the scorned man result in the couple’s marriage, it is no wonder When Harry Met Sally is a thing I love. 

WHMS works for many reasons, but for me, the two primary ones are the outstanding cast and screenplay. Billy Crystal’s Harry and Meg Ryan’s Sally establish their chemistry right out of the gate and the zingers they hurl during the course of the movie cement their bond. He is cynical but vulnerable, she is sensible but independent. The movie’s cultural resonance can be summed up by pondering the innumerable conversations raised by its central conceit: can men and women be friends?

As in life, the answer to that question is not a simple yes or no, and Nora Ephron’s screenplay marinates in the gray area between the two. People may not change, but they mature around the edges. Harry is an obnoxious boor when we meet him fresh out of college, but by his mid-thirties and fresh off a messy divorce, he is both curdled and chastened. He may try to revenge fuck his way through New York (Billy Crystal as a lothario *is* a bit dubious) but it cannot mask the pain he feels when he inevitably runs into his ex-wife. Sally is prim and serious as a college graduate, but that transforms into independence and confidence 10 years later without losing her no-bullshit attitude. 

Instead of growing apart as many couples do who meet young, Harry and Sally grow closer as they age and come to appreciate how they complement one another. They do much of the spade work of a relationship outside the context of dating, providing the emotional support we come to appreciate in a partner without the romantic commitment. While their best friends Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher) rejoice when Harry and Sally do consummate their bond, it splits them apart over “what it means.” It is not until they see what life looks like without the other that they realize they should be together. 

Sure, it is neat and pat and Hollywood does love the grand gesture (see, e.g., John Cusack in Say Anything) but don’t we all want that moment too? A revelation that we have found that person who we want to spend the rest of our lives with and we want that to start RIGHT NOW? Ephron’s unashamed answer, to quote Sally is “Yes! YES! YES!” Not only do Harry and Sally end up together, but Jess and Marie get their own meet cute when they are set up on dates with Harry and Sally but gravitate to each other instead. And if the point is not driven home hard enough, Ephron splices in interviews with aged couples who recount their own courtship and coupling. 

WHMS also avoids one of the more pernicious rom-com tropes of recent vintage - the woman as “hot mess” (See, e.g., any Katherine Heigl or Kate Hudson movie. See also, Trainwreck). Sally is no damsel in distress. She is ballsy enough to spill the beans on faked orgasms but also prideful enough to know that getting under someone to get over someone is a fool’s errand. She sleeps with Harry in a moment of weakness, but kicks his ass to the curb when he makes the encounter sound like a mercy fuck. 

While it is fair to criticize the New York of WHMS as let’s just say, lacking the diversity for which the city is known, it also heralded an era of romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and Pretty Woman among many others along with anticipating the comic stylings of a little show we like to call Seinfeld. It also offers a glimmer of hope for cynics who question whether they will get their own happy ending. Not too shabby for a movie that takes the standard rom-com premise - an opposites attract love story - and does it better than anything that has come out since then. 

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Check out 2015's Things I Love:

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Things I Love - L.A. Woman

When The Doors entered the studio in December 1970 to record L.A. Woman, the band appeared to be a spent force. Jim Morrison had, in four years, gone from an edgy teen heartthrob to a doughy drunk, his once handsome face hidden behind a thick beard, his lean frame turned pot-bellied and bloated. To make matters worse, Morrison’s onstage antics got him arrested in Florida and he had a criminal trial hanging over his head that would likely result in jail time. The band had difficulty booking gigs because of the unwieldiness of its shows and internal tension included drummer John Densmore’s on-again-off-again threats to quit.

Under these circumstances, when the expectations on the band could not have been lower while the pressure to create good music could not have been higher, The Doors produced a masterpiece that perfectly encapsulated their career, married disparate forms of music and left an indelible mark on the industry. L.A. Woman is a thing I love.

Although The Doors existed for a scant five years, their music did what all great art does - it both reflected and defined its time. Their eponymous debut album was a unique mix of psychedelia, bar-band blues, and musical theater. Morrison’s bad boy cred was cemented during a live appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when he refused to edit the words “girl we couldn’t get much higher” during the band’s performance of Light My Fire and his leather-clad look became instantly iconic.

But success did not wear well on Morrison or the band. Their live concerts began teetering on a knife’s edge of bedlam, often goaded by their all-too-often inebriated lead singer. Morrison brawled with cops in New Haven and was accused of inciting riots around the country. The temptations of fame resulted in some wobbly musical efforts like The Soft Parade and Waiting For The Sun which, while including hits like Touch Me and Five To One, also had a shabby, lounge-act quality.

Things came to a head on March 1, 1969 at a concert in Miami. Morrison was arrested and charged with indecency for (allegedly) exposing himself on stage and engaging in an act of simulated oral sodomy with guitarist Robby Krieger (technically, his guitar, but who’s counting?)  In the Deep South of that time, Morrison was looking at real prison time and the band become persona non grata in many concert venues. 

With all of the drama swirling around them, L.A. Woman represents the best of what the band could be. With a sign in the studio giving them “a clean slate,” The Doors produced a complete musical statement that synthesized all they had created. From blues-inflected tracks like Been Down So Long and Crawling King Snake to Krieger’s pop ballad Love Her Madly and the atmospheric closing track, Riders on the Storm, the band was self-assured and strong, bolstered by Jerry Scheff on bass guitar and Marc Benno on rhythm guitar.

The centerpiece of the album is the title track, a near eight-minute love letter to the city that gave the band its fortune but also threatened to tear it apart. Morrison’s evocative lyrics are rich enough to fill a Netflix series about Los Angeles in all its glory and contradiction - lucky little ladies and lost angels in a city of light and darkness. The song’s structure offers a little of everything: Manzarek’s signature organ runs, Scheff’s rolling bass line, Krieger’s flamenco-tinged licks, Densmore’s sturdy backbone of percussion and Morrison, front and center, expressing, as all great writers do, a greater societal truth through his words. 

The music hugs the lyrics as listeners are transported through Los Angeles’s concrete jungle and rolling hills. The song begins up tempo, painting its picture of promise and hope before segueing into a bluesy middle section of decay, framed by Morrison’s repeated reference to himself by the pseudonym “Mr. Mojo Risin” before a final coda of catharsis. The song, like the album, is a masterpiece. 

The band completed recording L.A. Woman in early 1971 but, to paraphrase a lyric, the future was uncertain and the end was near. The album anticipated the musical shift from San Francisco to Los Angeles that occurred as the last embers of 60s idealism were snuffed out but Morrison would not live to see it. Shortly after recording ended, he alit for Paris with his girlfriend and passed away a few months later. L.A. Woman became a last will and testament to a man and a time and place in musical history.

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Check out 2015’s “Things I Love” series: