Master of Distraction

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In a rare moment of candor in an otherwise typically long and rambling interview then presidential candidate Donald Trump did with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa for The Washington Post in April 2016 he made the following admission:

Donald Trump: I bring rage out…I always have…I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do. I also bring great unity out, ultimately. I’ve had many occasions like this, where people have hated me more than any human being they’ve ever met. And after it’s all over, they end up being my friends.

Woodward has been reminding people of this line recently to sound the alarm that we are “being had” – that Trump is creating fresh provocations for the media to be outraged by almost every day so that we are all just caught up in a rage and can’t separate the truly important transgressions from ones that are a distraction.  Woodward goes on to say “he’s doing things to distract us from all the big policy decisions he’s gambling on.” It seems like two years into the Trump presidency people are finally starting to figure out his strategy but it was all laid bare in the interview quoted above from the campaign trail.  Trump seems to thrive on bringing rage out in people and furthermore thinks that eventually those very same people will come around and become his friends. The great comedian and media critic Jon Stewart recently echoed what Woodward said in an interview with Christiane Amanpour saying that Trump baits journalists and  “appeals to their own narcissism and ego” and is able to distract attention away from his policies and “just focus on the fight”.  Stewart thinks we should focus less “on his insults and more on the people being hurt”. On a recent episode of his podcast the journalist Ezra Klein recently addressed Trump’s “ability to jam outrage into the system constantly…so that people don’t have time to digest whatevers just happened or whatever just came out”.  He goes on to say that Trump is a “genius at changing the subject by recognising that he can just change the subject to other things people are upset about” and that previous presidents would manage a scandal by changing the topic to something “boring” but “the thing that Donald Trump understands is that the only way to distract from scandal is with scandal and he’s okay with there being negative attention on him, he just wants to control what the negative attention is about.”  Klein breaks it down to a scientific level saying “I think that he’s understood that it’s like if something is a -5 charge you can only replace it with something that’s between -4 and -6, you can’t replace it with a +1 and that’s a good insight into how the media works.” Klein recently talked to Whitney Phillips who studied online trolling and talked about how online trolls crave attention, but that journalists can’t help but report on it because it’s so outrageous. She compared trolling strategy to Trump’s war with the media as a “feedback loop predicated on sensationalism.”

This strategy of distraction means that the media rightfully gets whipped into a flurry of outrage over Trump’s latest scandal and therefore bigger policy issues or fundamental problems with his presidency are not making waves in the same way. A case in point is that The New York Times published a blockbuster 13,000 word story of Trump’s history of dodging taxes on Wednesday, October 3rd and went so far as to say that Trump had engaged in “outright fraud”.  The story was overshadowed by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings at the moment so the Times even re-published the story in its entirety on Sunday, October 7th.  Though the story is damning and hopefully more will come of it, the actual impact has been rather muted. Trump himself dismissed the piece as “very old, boring and often told hit piece”.  After the initial publication of the story Trump tweeted that the two women that cornered Jeff Flake in an elevator in the midst of the Kavanaugh hearings were actors paid for by George Soros – possibly as a means to distract from the tax story.  ProPublica and WNYC have been doing some fine reporting on Trump as well and published a story implicating Trump and his family in deceptive practices involving their real estate business.  The impact of that story was similarly muted. Now that Democrats control the House there is a possibility that these issues will be properly investigated and Robert Mueller’s team could be investigating these items already.  Donald Trump is certainly no typical president and he is doing incredible damage to the country and the institution but it would be wise to not fall prey to the Trump-created distractions.

Fresh Take on “Disobedience”

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           Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience moves with the force and determination of a slow-moving train gradually picking up speed.  The film starts out in a London synagogue with an Orthodox Jewish rabbi named Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser) talking about the beauty of what makes us different from all other beings on the planet is our ability to choose.  We can follow the norms of our society or we can choose to be disobedient. We are introduced to his daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) who is living a world away in New York when she gets a call that her father has died of pneumonia. The contrast between the two scenes couldn’t be starker.  In the first the room is dominated by old, bearded men with almost their entire body covered in cloth and then we’re in an open studio where a woman is photographing a shirtless old man covered in tattoos. Both opening scenes are simple and beautiful. Though the film is about a repressed society, the characters are presented honestly and fairly, despite some of them being quite rigid in their views, and throughout the film Lelio is careful not to pass judgement on his characters.  

           Ronit travels back to London and the relationships between the characters are slowly revealed to the audience.  She reconnects with Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) who was Rav’s disciple and heir. When Ronit and Dovid see each other after so many years, at first they appear to be siblings because of their familial bond, but over time we discover they were best friends as kids, with another girl named Esti (Rachel McAdams).  Esti and Dovid are now married and she appears hostile at Ronit’s return but this initial reaction is not exactly as it seems. Lelio unravels the intimate bonds that exist between the characters and their complicated history.  To give a more detailed plot summary of the film would be an injustice to the nuanced way that Lelio, his screenwriting collaborator Rebecca Lenkiewicz and editor Nathan Nugent lay out the story and its intricacies.

           Lelio’s films showcase women who are defiantly pushing against the arbitrary and fluid societal boundaries that exist in their community.  Lelio’s last film, A Fantastic Woman (Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film) was about a trans woman who suffers the abuse and humiliations of her deceased partner’s family after his sudden death.  There is a scene where she is literally walking against the powerful wind that almost knocks her over and her body is nearly at a 45 degree angle struggling to stay up. The imagery in Disobedience isn’t as overdone and the elders in their community are more passively-aggressive but the push against that culture’s norms are just as powerful.    

           The film takes the event of the death of a patriarch to examine the relationships of the three individuals at its core.  Though the film is set in a very narrow environment, the themes it explores are universal – that of the burdens of those who stay and those who leave.  To that end, the three leads are terrific with Rachel McAdams standing out. Her performance is measured and powerful, continuing the fine work she’s done in other recent films like Spotlight.  Weisz manages to show the pain of someone who had the courage to leave her home and the strictures of her society but now lives permanently on the outside from her friends and family.  Nivola resists the urge to make his character oppressive despite trying to maintain the patriarchal restrictions of his community. The film slowly builds tension throughout and the ending is one that is surprising, touching and resonant.  

 

Love, Death and Maladies – “The Malady of Death” Review

La Maladie de la Mort - Bouffes du Nord Theatre, Paris 2018

The theatre director Katie Mitchell and her frequent collaborator, playwright Alice Birch have been called “radically experimental” and “unapologetically controversial”.  Their latest collaboration The Death of Malady, a re-imagining of Marguerite Duras’ novella, which recently had a limited run at the Barbican is a bold production, but unfortunately the risks don’t pay off as well as some of their other works.  A narrator (Irène Jacob) sits onstage in a sound booth while a sex worker (Laetitia Dosch) waits for a man who has hired her to spend multiple nights with him in a hotel room and consent to whatever he wants.  The man (Nick Fletcher) provokes her to this challenge so that he could find out what it means to love. On stage there is a small crew filming the action which is projected on an overhead screen. The passage of time is presented in a clever way and because your attention is shifted between the action taking place on stage and what is on the screen you don’t notice the subtle ways they shift to the following day or to another location.  As the play progresses these shifts are more intentionally clear.

The play is listed as a work of “live cinema” and the results of this are mixed.  The cinema staging serves to move the action along from one place to another and to jump back and forth in time.  As the events taking place are erotic and sexually manipulative, it also serves as a commentary on pornography (a subject Birch explored in her play We Want You To Watch).  The man has hired this woman to watch her and perform whatever sexual acts he desires and the audience is also serving as a voyeur watching these actors perform for them.  

In the original novella Marguerite Duras includes a note at the end of ideas on how best to stage it for the theatre and it has inspired many productions including this one.  The biggest difference between the novella and the play is that the action shifts from the perspective of the man to the woman. In the novella you know almost nothing of the woman’s background while in the play there are flashbacks of her as a little girl coming home to find her father has committed suicide and how that relates to what she’s currently going through.  In the novella the mysterious nature of both characters feels surreal. Though the woman is paid money in the novella, we find out she’s not a prostitute but only accepted his proposal because she knows he’s suffering from “the malady of death”.  This serves to give the story a more romantic quality than the play, which is much more violent and aggressive. In the play it’s clear that the woman is a prostitute and she even sets boundaries for what can and can’t be done, when at one point he goes too far and starts choking her.  There is a romance in the novella that is purposefully stripped from the theatrical version because Birch and Mitchell force you to consider the reality of a woman being placed in this scenario. The only thing that would compel someone to participate in this is if they were in dire need of the money.  In the novella the woman is such an elusive figure that you never know if she (or he for that matter) really exists. In the play the woman is much more grounded and we see glimpses of her life outside of the hotel room. There is a poetry in the novella that when translated to the stage comes off as pretentious, which is not helped by the black and white images that look like a bad French New Wave film.  

Mitchell and Birch’s last collaboration Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court Theatre was an audacious work with perfect staging and direction.  It was centered around the stories of three generations of women and intersected them with all of the actors on stage with the dialogue and action jumping from one time period to another. The play is about the trauma that is passed down in a family and through its clever staging was able to express how one generation affects the other in a seamless way.  Unfortunately the bold risks taken in that play didn’t translate as successfully in their adaptation of The Malady of Death.  

Fresh Take on “A Star Is Born”

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There is a particular formula which takes place when a popular actor tries his or her hand at directing or when a popular singer switches gears to act.  Critics either judge them harshly and are eager to tear them down, or over-praise them if they show a modicum of competence in their new roles.

The new film A Star Is Born marks the directorial debut of actor Bradley Cooper and also presents a big jump into acting for the singer Lady Gaga but unfortunately their movie falls into the over-praised category.  The new version is the fourth, with the original dating back to 1937 so the story is clearly one that seems to connect with audiences enough to revisit it every few decades. Bradley Cooper, who also co-wrote the film, plays Jack, a famous singer who is miserably drinking himself to death.  Once he meets Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress and aspiring singer at a drag show he becomes smitten after seeing her sultry rendition of an Edith Piaf classic, drawn to the purity in her singing and wide-eyed aspirations.  Jack has a complicated relationship with his manager and brother Bobby, played by Sam Elliott who gives a standout performance. Cooper proves himself to be a more than competent director and he does some of the best acting of his career in the process.  He puts the camera right up close to himself and his fellow actors and this works well in the concert scenes, particularly the one that opens the film.  The camera follows Jack as he enters an arena filled with thousands of adoring fans and shows how he can disconnect enough to perform as if he’s alone.   

The movie has some fine moments throughout, particularly a sequence that features Dave Chappelle, playing one of Jack’s childhood friends, George “Noodles”.  There’s a sweet scene where Jack creates a ring out of the string of a guitar to propose to Ally but it’s surprisingly upstaged by one of George’s daughters who is having a full blown conversation with herself in the background that has nothing to do with the proposal.  It’s an honest moment of spontaneity that Cooper wisely leaves in the film adding nice texture.

The biggest problem with the movie which seriously holds back its potential is the casting of Lady Gaga, who is being hailed as a “revelation”.  Gaga doesn’t offer up much emotion in her face and this is particularly noticeable with Cooper’s use of close-ups throughout the film.  Gaga is obviously a gifted singer and in the musical scenes she lights up in a way that is unfortunately not present throughout the rest of the movie where her performance feels flat.  Gaga’s performance calls to mind the film 8 Mile starring Eminem.  Both movies have a star performer channeling their personal life in ways that resemble their own stories but while Eminem’s performance was hailed as being raw and powerful at the time it doesn’t hold up today. Whether this will be true for Gaga’s performance here and if the film as a whole will live up to its hype remains to be seen.

 

Fresh Take on “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”

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In the new film The Miseducation of Cameron Post a group of teenagers are placed in a gay conversion therapy camp called “God’s Promise” and aren’t allowed to leave until their supervisors and guardians feel they’ve been properly “healed”.  The title character, Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is brought there after her boyfriend discovers her making out with another woman in the backseat of a car during their prom.  The film has echoes of the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the leader of the programme, Dr. Lydia Marsh (played by a terrific Jennifer Ehle) is a terrifying modern day Nurse Ratched.  Marsh runs the programme with her brother, Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) who was “successfully converted” from a prior life of homosexuality after her intervention.  God’s Promise is made up of a diverse group of kids who have varying degrees of commitment and belief in the benefits of the programme. Cameron is drawn to two of the more rebellious students, Adam (Forrest Goodluck) and Jane (Sasha Lane) and the three of them sneak into the woods to smoke up whenever they can.  

The tone of the film is a bit uneven from time to time and you get the sense that the filmmaker’s aren’t entirely sure of themselves, but in a way this helps to connect the audience with the confusion that the kids are faced with being placed in this strange environment.  Besides for Dr. Marsh, the organisers of God’s Promise are presented in a surprisingly sympathetic light. There is a touching scene when Reverend Rick is counseling Cameron about a tragedy that took place there and she ends up comforting him instead. She asks him if they have any idea what they’re doing and instead of pretending that he does, he breaks down and says he doesn’t know how to answer her question.  Gallagher Jr. has a sense of vulnerability that he displayed well in the mini-series Olive Kitteridge that is put to good use here.  Another standout performance is from Emily Skegg who plays Cameron’s roommate, Erin.  When we first encounter Erin she is presented as the typical, obedient student, but Skegg unveils the complex layers of her character throughout the film, particularly in a scene when she wakes Cameron in the middle of the night to scold her for having a dirty dream and then ends up seducing her instead.  The scene is shocking at first but then becomes bittersweet. Chloë Grace Moretz unfortunately gives a weak performance as the lead character and that along with the tonal problems hold the film back of its potential. The film ends with a nice homage to The Graduate with the fate of the characters decidedly up in the air.  

 

Fresh Take on “Faces Places”

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In the film Faces Places, which is now playing in cinemas and on demand in the UK, the legendary French film director Agnes Varda teams up with photographer JR on a road trip through France presenting large scale photographs of people in unique and odd locations.  They drive around in a truck that has a giant photograph of a camera lens that operates as a mobile photo booth and printer. People step inside the truck, take their picture and the print comes out of the side of the truck. The pairing of JR and Varda is a perfect cinematic juxtaposition.  The 33 year old JR is young, hip and always wears his trademark hat and black sunglasses, refusing to take them off as much as Varda pleads with him. Varda, with her two-toned bowl haircut is incredibly petite, as if gravity is trying to pull her 88 year old body into the ground. She is wonderfully eccentric, calm and confident in the knowledge that her time on this planet is certainly nearing its end and embarking on a project that satisfies her.   “JR is fulfilling my greatest desire. To meet new faces and photograph them, so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory” she says.

Though the film is a documentary, it has some nice moments of fancy.  The film begins by showing how the two of them didn’t meet with comical scenes of missed opportunities like Varda dancing in a night club with JR just a few feet away or at a bus stop where an annoyed Varda can’t be bothered to wait the three minutes and decides to walk instead.  The two set off trying to meet people in remote villages of France and try to connect them to each other and the audience through their work. The final result of the first set up is over a dozen portraits connected by a giant baguette.  

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One of the things they address is how as technology has improved we are becoming more and more isolated. They photograph one farmer who was able to cut his entire staff because he can do the work of a few people alone with his modern equipment but laments that it has made him anti-social.  They paste a massive portrait of him that takes up his entire barn and saying that they’ll make him the star of the village of 140, to which the man replies he already is.

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One of the film’s most poignant stories features a woman who refuses to leave her childhood home, the last of a row of houses in an old mining village.  They memorialise her by placing her photograph on her entire home which moves the woman to tears.

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The nature of JR’s work is ephemeral and they paste one of Varda’s cherished photographs of an old friend on a German bunker which fell into the beach and within a day the photo is washed away.  “The sea always has the last word” Varda says. The simple and profound film is also a meditation on death with Varda talking about friends and loved ones who have passed, including her husband the director Jacques Demy.  There is a scene at the end of the film which is so painfully beautiful that I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s something that will certainly stay with me for a very long time. Varda’s eyes tell a story in themselves of a lifetime of hurt, betrayal, tolerance but also joy.  JR is keen to this and ends the film by pasting her eyes on a train saying they will travel to places Varda has never been.

 

Fresh Take on Bob Woodward’s “Fear: Trump in the White House”

Much has been written about Bob Woodward’s new book “Fear: Trump in the White House” and here are a few things I found striking that haven’t been as widely discussed as the more explosive revelations within it.

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Even though it is squarely about Trump, the book could have been called All The President’s Men (if that title hadn’t already been made famous by Woodward himself). It’s really about the men (with a few exceptions) that surrounded President Trump in his first year in office, and what they did to contain and prevent him from his worst impulses.  Woodward didn’t interview Trump himself, and I doubt much insight would actually be gained from the inclusion of Trump’s words here.  Interviews with Trump are long and rambling and don’t actually provide much insight into the man, besides that he is a compulsive liar and that he can’t focus on anything besides himself.  In a 2016 pre-election interview with Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal, who painfully had to try to pin down Trump to interview him for the book, said that Trump’s key characteristic was that “he has no attention span.”  This is something that the characters in Fear not only understand but use to their (and perhaps our) advantage.  Woodward writes about “an administrative coup d’etat” where staffers would either ignore the President’s orders or would go so far as to remove letters from his desk in the Oval Office to prevent the President from signing them.

One much discussed passage in the book is about a furious Trump not understanding why the US spends money to protect foreign countries like South Korea and Taiwan and having to be told that it’s done to prevent World War III.  Another passage which hasn’t been as discussed but is nearly as terrifying recounts Trump’s aides explaining to him that China could retaliate against a trade war by refusing to sell antibiotics to the US (nearly 97% of the US supply comes from China).  

These accounts show the clear danger that Trump presents and how the strategy of containing him could be quite beneficial.  On the other hand, there is an argument to be made that this is actually just delaying the inevitable and that if there were mass resignations similar to what happened in the Nixon administration during Watergate, the stronger the case for Congress or the voters to do something about it and prevent someone like him from getting elected again.     

Some characters like Senator Lindsey Graham and Steve Bannon come across as political opportunists while others fare better, notably economic adviser Gary Cohn, White House staff secretary Rob Porter and the President’s lawyer John Dowd.  One of the criticisms of the book has been that Woodward’s sources could likely be presenting themselves in a flattering light to him so that history will be kind to them. Woodward has pushed back against this saying that he tries to get as many sources as possible and isn’t relying on just one person’s account.  In interviews he has repeatedly quoted his old editor Ben Bradlee saying that over time “the truth emerges”.  The more that is reported on this the more truth will certainly emerge.