Sunday, September 24, 2017

Book Review - Mrs. Fletcher

The “struggle” of upper middle class America is well plowed ground. From Revolutionary Road to American Dream white people love examining their own ennui. So too the author Tom Perrotta. The two books I have read by Perrotta, Little Children and his recent effort, Mrs. Fletcher have an element of the TV show Chopped about them - a basket of ingredients that must be mixed together with one rogue element complicating the effort. In the former, it was two unhappily married couples and a tag along friend with a random subplot involving a recently-released child molester moving back into the neighborhood. In the latter, it is a divorceé, her son, a hodge podge of supporting players and a random teenager with whom the eponymous Mrs. Fletcher has sex. 

If this sounds like so much navel gazing, you would be correct. At their core, each book is a meditation on the struggle we now call adulting™. Eve Fletcher is worn out from being a single mom with a kid who largely tunes her out and grapples with insecurities about aging, being sexually desirable, and dating. The adults™ she interacts with are similarly worn down from caring for their own ill parents and spouses or nursing regret over careers that have dead-ended - the suburban anomie pervades. 

So perhaps it is no wonder that Eve develops a same-sex crush on Amanda, who runs the events calendar at the senior center she leads or falls down a rabbit hole of MILF-porn once Brendan is ensconced at college, but so what? Eve feels shame at her porn consumption and is racked with guilt when she and Amanda have a clumsy non-date date that ends with Eve clumsily making a pass that is rebuffed. Here, it is Amanda, twenty years her junior, who acts like the adult, understanding what a bad idea it would be to get involved with her boss. Ultimately, Eve presses her luck, when she, Amanda, and Justin, a nineteen year-old who was her son’s classmate in high school and ends up in a community college class Eve enrolls in to help pass the time, have a drunken threesome. 

Meanwhile, her son Brendan is a paint-by-numbers “bro,” from his CrossFit obsession to his casual misogyny. That Brendan drifts on a cloud of white male privilege is a given, he bores easily, objectifies women like most of us breathe, and has no intellectual curiosity about the world. Perrotta’s dialogue here is almost a parody of what you expect from actual kids of Brendan’s ilk, but its insipidness, oddly, rings true. This is a deformed, underdeveloped young man whose inability to mature is no doubt due to poor parenting. 

Of course, Eve is not particularly interested in a forensic accounting of her shortcomings in that department. She is too busy in whatever drama swirl consumes someone at middle age who has a lot of time on their hands but not a lot of actual challenge in her life. Eve does what most people who live a comfortable lifestyle do - she fills her free time with a combination of social and intellectual stimulation that is not too rigorous - just enough wine to take the edge off, just enough engagement with the world to seem like you give a shit. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the book more if Eve was a sympathetic character, but most of the time I just shook my head at her, her poor decisions, obliviousness about her own parental shortcomings, and imperviousness to how easy she actually had it. 

Perrotta is also looking to check off as many boxes as possible about the social, cultural, and sexual politics of the day. Brendan leverages the fact that he has an autistic half-brother to make time with Amber, a student a year ahead of him who is active in an on-campus autism awareness group. Eve’s community college professor is transgendered, but when she and Amanda invite the woman to give a lecture at the senior center, the results are predictably bad, with the elderly attendees roundly recoiling at her presentation. When Brendan is publicly shamed by Amber’s friend, he seeks solace with Sanjay, a stereotypically hard-working, no-fun Indian-American who Brendan had previously dismissed as a buzz kill and loser. 

As a commentary on white privilege, Perrotta is spot on. Eve suffers no consequences from her ill-advised threesome. Amanda doesn’t sue, she quickly finds work elsewhere (with an assist from Eve’s glowing recommendation) and Justin also keeps quiet, apparently, he is the one male teenager in the world who doesn’t share bawdy MILF photos or brag about sleeping with a woman more than twice his age. Within months of hitting a bottom that included ALMOST having a second fling with Justin, Eve has remarried, to an age appropriate “decent guy” who recently lost his wife to cancer. Similarly, Brendan, who starts out demeaning his high school girlfriend before pulling the same stunt on Amber, is not reported for date rape. Instead, he just moves back home, where, within months, he is under the wing of Eve’s betrothed, who is training him to be a plumber. At the wedding, Brendan is introduced to the man’s daughter, his eye refocused on predation that will inevitably start the circle all over again.

In one of my favorite scenes from Breaking Bad Jesse is unburdening himself at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He is in pain and does not understand why he has suffered no consequences for his many bad decisions - he asks “if you do a bunch of stuff and nothing happens, what does it mean?” In Perrotta’s world it means you are a privileged white person. 

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Saturday, September 23, 2017

Movie Review - La La Land

From the movie’s title, it will come as no surprise that La La Land is a paean to Hollywood. But in director Damien Chazelle’s hands, the genres of musical, romance, and drama and mixed together and reimagined in bold technicolor. A movie meta (and self-aware) enough to tell a story of struggling artists starring huge celebrities and actual struggling artists hoping that this movie will be their big break provides Inception level brain knots. Mia, an actress, and Sebastian, a jazz musician, meet (sort of) cute (he blares his car horn at her in traffic, she reciprocates with a one-finger salute) and through subsequent chance encounters realize they are made for each other. 

But once the two become a couple, the trade offs each makes became a bit more acute, the stakes grow higher. Her talent also lies in playwriting, but it does not pay the bills and her acting career has hit a dead end. He wants to maintain his artistic purity but knows the sands are slipping through the hourglass to achieve his dream of opening his own club. He sacrifices that integrity to get a steady gig as a sideman with a jazz fusion group so she can write without the pressure of work but he sees in that a snuffing of his own hopes and becomes resentful toward her because of it. She gives up after one-too-many casting directors barely look up while she auditions and her one-woman show, which he no-shows, is sparsely attended. 

The movie owes much of its charm to the chemistry between its two lead actors. Stone and Gosling light up the screen and Chazelle wisely leans into the natural affinity they seem to have toward one another. Stone’s snarky devil-may-care attitude is on display them Mia tweaks Sebastian by requesting that his Eighties tribute band play “I Ran,” requiring him to dig deep into his keytar as she lip syncs the words with a maniacal grin on her face. Pure genius. And Gosling gives as good as he gets - there is a rakish charm in his flirtation with her, but beneath the reservations he has about his own ability to commit, you see goodness. After their inevitable break-up, it is he who tracks her down back home in Nevada to let her know that the one-woman, one-night only play — which she adjudged a failure — had been seen by a casting director who ends up launching her career. 

While Stone and Gosling carry the film, Chazelle sprinkles in supporting roles that round out the whole. John Legend plays Keith, Sebastian’s frenemy, a fellow musician not at all uncomfortable with exchanging the purity of jazz for commercial success. Rosemary DeWitt, who some may recognize as Don Draper’s first paramour Midge in Mad Men, is Laura, Sebastian’s sister, offering exposition on his background while goading him into climbing out of his hermetic shell to live in the world. While these roles are small, they provide needed context. You see Sebastian’s resignation when he agrees to join Keith’s band, the glum look of trading fidelity to his craft for a steady paycheck and the excitement of celebrating his sister’s engagement and marriage. 

And jazz is an appropriate musical genre for Chazelle to choose. His film, is, in its own way, a reflection of that improvisational form - hints of everything from Requiem For A Dream to Dick Tracy, Boogie Nights, Swingers, Fame, and Singin’ in the Rain are feathered throughout the movie and of course, the dance numbers, musical sequences,  and Art Deco fonts are all nods to the Golden Age of movie making. 

La La Land is a love letter to Hollywood, but Chazelle avoids the “Hollywood ending.” The movie’s coda flashes forward five years. Mia and Sebastian have both attained what they desired - she is now a successful actress who struts into the coffee shop where she once worked and he owns a capital J jazz club, filled with young people embracing the music in its unadulterated form. But their success has come at a cost - they are no longer together. As a spotlight frames the two, Chazelle offers an alternate take, a “what if” history where their fates are different, where the pettiness and struggle that pulled them apart is instead replaced with support and fidelity. That couple achieves a different kind of success - marriage, a child, grainy home videos of baby’s first steps and birthday parties. It is a haunting panorama, so pregnant with the basic human emotions of regret and love lost.

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Sunday, September 10, 2017

How A False Media Narrative Is Created

False political narratives are nothing new. In 2000, Al Gore, a passionate environmentalist and good government centrist was transformed into an earth-tone wearing beta male with a penchant for lying. His opponent was not an inexperienced figurehead governor trafficking on his family name, he was a home spun cowboy you wanted to sit down and have a bull session with. What the media did to Hillary Clinton during her career could fill a book, but in short, a woman who dedicated her adult life to advancing policies that improved the lives of women, children, and the less fortunate became a shrewish ladder climber and unscrupulous liar constantly trying to hide from the truth. 

These narrative typically take time to congeal - Reagan’s efforts to portray himself as an affable, jellybean-eating optimist who simultaneously stared down the Russians and lifted the country out of financial ruin took years and much spinning by his devotees to set in the public’s mind, but in 2017, the existence of social media allows us to see the creation of these falsities in real time. NYU Professor Jay Rosen captured the creation of the myth of Donald Trump as an independent deal maker bucking his party thusly:

Consider what triggered this setting of conventional wisdom. Trump agreed to a deal with the Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill that does three things: (1) raises the debt ceiling for three months so we can continue paying our bills and maintain the full faith and credit of our government; (2) funds the government for three months; and (3) puts a modest down payment of about $15 billion on hurricane recovery efforts that will reach well over $100 billion or even $200 billion (depending on the rest of the hurricane season). 

For doing what is essentially the bare minimum of operating the federal government - extending the credit line to keep paying the bills and keeping the lights on - and a small amount of hurricane relief funding, Peter Baker has characterized Trump as more independent than Teddy Roosevelt.

And this is the thing. If some random blogger like me wants to spout this type of pablum that’s one thing, but Peter Baker and Robert Costa are two of the premier reporters in the country who write for two of the most prominent (and cited) newspapers in the country. The Associated Press is an international wire service relied upon by local media around the globe for content and information. 

What they say matters. What they say “drives the conversation” as Politico is fond of saying. Stories like Costa’s and Baker’s get injected into the media mainstream where they are discussed and debated on the endless loop of cable TV political shows and pretty soon, become accepted fact even though the thesis is demonstrably false. All of it. Trump cut a deal to keep the lights on. So what. 

This supposed independent held a victory party with every member of the House Republican Caucus in the Rose Garden when they passed an Obamacare repeal bill. A narrower repeal failed to get through the Senate by one lousy vote. The Senate confirmed (largely on party line votes) Cabinet secretaries who were either unqualified for their job (Ben Carson) or affirmatively opposed to the core mission of the agency they were picked to lead (Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt). 

When Trump nominated a lawyer named John Bush to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and whose main qualification was linking to Obama birther conspiracies on his blog, every Republican, including supposed Trump bête noire Jeff Flake, voted to confirm him (McCain did not, but only because he was not present for the vote). And Trump is now turning his attention to massive corporate and personal income tax cuts which will garner widespread support by his fellow Republicans.

Far from triangulating, Trump and his allies in Congress are largely in lockstep. That Trump got bored figuring out how to raise the debt ceiling and fund the government for 90 days so he impulsively agreed to a deal with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer does not change any of that unless the media does Trump’s work for him, which it appears they are eager to do.

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