‘Saving Brinton’ is a small gem

‘Saving Brinton’ is one of those magical gems that comes along every once in a while, a slow-burning delight that starts with an individual, the kind of guy we might have been lucky enough to encounter in our travels –  a genuine, decent guy who often goes unnoticed in the let’s-make-a-deal cities – and then opens out to show how he tweaks the orbit of the planets, just a tiny glorious bit.

Michael Zahs is working his farm when we first see him, in Ainseworth Iowa. In his friendly, leisurely way, he establishes how he came by the Brinton films. William and Indiana Brinton had traveled around Iowa running projection shows (magic lantern slides, early movies and even a prototype flying machine that neglected to fly) in the 1890’s through 1911. When they died, their films went from their executor, who stowed them in the basement, to his executor to Zahs, who put them in a shed alongside his home and showed some of them every year in local shows around the area for thirty years, vainly trying to get someone to pay attention, until finally the University of Iowa recognized what he had.

What he had (film-lovers, prepare to gasp) were at least two Georges Melies films that were thought lost, several hand-tinted early color films in better shape than any the Library of Congress had previously seen, early footage of a train crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, Teddy Roosevelt riding in a parade and a Middle East market. Amazing stuff. Here’s a link to the film page, which will be updated as more films are digitized.

There’s a scene where the Library of Congress’s french film expert watches one of the Melies and exclaims ‘You want to see me faint?’

In the meantime, Michael plants his fields, buries his mother, gives history demonstrations that aren’t boring (!) to Iowa schoolchildren and a humorous presentation on cemeteries (!) to an assemblage of Iowa Amish, who trusted him enough to agree to be filmed. By the time you see it, that he’s earned their trust is not a surprise–as wonderful as the films he’s saved are, much of the film’s joy and grace comes from the opportunity it gives us to know the man.

Here’s the website again. But just go see this movie–you’ll leave with a really stupid smile plastered across your face, which is something we all need these days.

And if you live in Manhattan and can make it, go TODAY (May 18th 2018) to Cinema Village on 12th Street – the filmmakers and Michael are there all day to answer questions in their very gracious and charming way. Support good people doing good things – how many chances do you get?

 

‘Babylon Berlin’ is fascinating

It’s on Netflix, which is where I’m spending a lot of time now. It’s in German with subtitles -if you don’t like reading on film, get over it. This is worth the effort.

‘Babylon Berlin’ is the most expensive non-English-language production ever filmed and it looks it. It’s a mystery series set in 1929 Weimar Berlin and it does a really good job of suggesting the feel of that wild era. The streets looks impossibly glamorous and filthy at once, the cars and streets and clothes and cars look spot-on, at least to my eye.

It starts out as an extortion mystery, really, with detective Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) coming to Berlin from Cologne to cover up a blackmail plot against a local politician friend of his family (Konrad Adenauer, who later becomes the first Chancellor of West Germany, though that’s never mentioned in the script). As in any good story, things don’t turn out any of the ways you’d expect.

There’s several deaths and lots of conspiracies – Communists against the police, Czarist sympathizers against the Soviets, the old-aristocracy German military hierarchy against the Government, which must at least attempt to adhere to the Treaty of Versailles. Lots of shooting, wild dancing and drug-taking (opium figures prominently), a very real sense of the way people move through a crazy world just trying to survive – and a couple of items that really separate ‘Babylon Berlin’ from anything similar I’ve ever seen (though, in honesty, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything else quite like it).

First of all, there’s a real awareness of class, something American films generally ignore. Rath is clearly not rich but well-off, in contact with the power structure in Cologne. His partner in Berlin, Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth, who’s terrific), is a corrupt cop on the make, arranging roomers in his home and affairs for himself on the side (and more). Rath’s typist and eventually partner sleuth Charlotte (Liv Lisa Fries, the standout center of the story) lives in a tiny barely-heated apartment with her mother, enfeebled father, a sister, creepy brother and creepier brother-in-law and a younger sister she’s determined to get into school and out of that place with her body and soul intact. The Berlin police chief (Matthias Brandt) is a Jew, not yet threatened by the Nazis who may have pockets of support in the countryside but not in cosmopolitan Berlin. He lives in a lovely house full of Art Deco and Bauhaus furniture, with a driver-driven car for his wife when she takes the kids away for the weekend – the place has the hushed dignity only money and privilege can buy. Charlotte’s friend (Leonie Benesch) becomes their maid. The relationships between characters are not just personal – there’s a universe of tradition and custom in the deference some are paid and the casual indifference with which others are used and sometimes disposed of. And you get a sense of both the lure and the apprehension that this jazzed-up new world inspired in the people who got to live it.

The other thing that’s wonderful is how this story begins as one animal and becomes another. Netflix has two seasons up so far and the first one ends by tying up the supposed mystery Rath arrived trying to solve but you’re so far beyond that mystery by the time it’s tied up, it would have been maddening if that first season had appeared on its own. It takes the full two seasons to really resolve the main storyline, which balloons into territory so much bigger. It’s like the horizons open as you move into the story, as though the filmmakers got into this world and discovered a much bigger world they fit right into – while naturally, saving a really wrenching surprise for the last few minutes.

The show has three showrunners who work in tandem – shooting different scenes with the cast and joining them in editing. It’s amazing the thing holds together but the result is fascinating and lurid, moving in twenty unexpected ways, kaleidoscopic in scope and way too relevant to our own world.

Series Three is being written now and I have the same anticipation, waiting for it, I used to reserve for ‘Sherlock’. That’s high praise in my book. Don’t miss it.

 

History Turns on a Punch Line

So the FBI opens a probe into Anthony Weiner and discovers a bunch of Hillary Clinton campaign emails on his laptop.

FBI Director James Comey, a Republican heading an agency stocked mostly with Republicans, is terrified that his own staff will think he’s playing politics (and therefore leak the story) if he doesn’t openly pursue these ‘new leads’.  So he announces a new Hillary probe, just a month from Election Day.

The Punch Line (AP/Patrick Semansky, File)

Meanwhile, the CIA and FBI have already been watching Trump aides Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort and Carter Page for several years, due to their long-standing Russia ties. When GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, gets tapes of conversations between them, other members of the Trump campaign and members of the Russian inner circle (let’s remember here that no one ever owns or controls anything sizeable, powerful or successful in Russia without Vladimir Putin’s active sponsorship), they bring this information to a White House briefing. That was the briefing where the Christopher Steele dossier was also discussed and where Joe Biden was quoted as saying, “If it’s true, it’s treason.”

But nobody says anything publicly about Trump being compromised except Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader at the time, who comes off like an alarmist partisan.

So, in total contrast to the whining from Trump’s White House, the FBI, CIA and Obama White House all acted in ways that benefited Trump’s campaign and harmed Hillary’s. Why on Earth would they do that?

Insert your favorite conspiracy theory here, if you wish. I think the answer is simple and damning:

They were all convinced Hillary would win.

And nobody wanted to give the blustering Trump–who was already complaining loudly that the election was rigged against him–any more reason to martyr himself. Nobody wanted to bolster the pseudo-Fox News everyone knew he was planning after the election. Nobody wanted to hobble Hillary’s administration by giving his claims credibility.

The other problem, I suspect, is that some of the most damning and reliable intelligence against Trump’s people came from intel sources in the Russian hierarchy, people we’ve worked very hard to cultivate and didn’t want to compromise or expose–particularly not to hurt a candidate who wasn’t going to win anyway.

It’s important to remember how things really happen in the world–in this case, America’s history turned on people making false assumptions and on the impossibility, until the moment it happened, to take Donald Trump seriously as President of the United States.

More proof, as though more was needed, that History has a sense of humor, but it’s a black one.

 

Icarus – more than a sports movie

‘Icarus’, on Netflix, is a slow-burning fuse of a film.

It’s sold as a sports documentary and that’s how it starts out, but the thing morphs completely along the way. Bryan Fogel, the filmmaker and a serious amateur cyclist, disillusioned by Lance Armstrong’s admission that he’d cheated on his drug tests for years, decides to see if he can replicate Armstrong’s doping success in amateur cycling. The head of drug testing at UCLA initally agrees to help him (asked ‘Were the other contenders at the Tour de France doping’, he cheerfully says ‘All of them’) and then decides it would be bad for his reputation, so he introduces Fogel to Grigory Rodchenkov, who, in the through-the-looking-glass world of Putin’s Russia, was simultaneously the manager of the Olympic-federation accredited anti-doping lab in Moscow and the head of the Russian state-supported athletic doping program.

Rodchenkov, Fogel and urine bottles

Rodchenkov is an absurdly charming fellow who immediately starts showing Fogel how to cheat the authorities and hide his doping during a series of Skype calls, which are absolutely hilarious. Rodchenkov’s little dog keeps trying to hump him on camera and when WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, starts asking questions, Rodchenkov offers without a blink to fly to LA to smuggle the urine sample’s he’s had Fogel keep in his freezer back to Moscow for doctoring.

Up to this point, the story is light and absurd. Fogel shoots himself with testosterone for months, does a grueling bike race and ends up slower than the year before but Rodchenkov says, “You’re just in the lobby. We have second and third and fourth floor, once you come to Moscow.”

But once he gets to Moscow, the scrutiny from WADA gets tighter and eventually, Rodchenkov decides to defect, leave his wife and family in Russia and come to the United States. His intuition proves prescient when one of his counterparts in the doping program drops dead of a sudden and unexpected heart attack (?) at the age of 52.

And suddenly, it’s not such a funny film anymore.

The scandal becomes a worldwide story, Rodchenkov documenting doping protocols for several Olympics to the NY Times and then an independent investigating committee.  You see the Russians lying to the camera, from Rodchenkov’s bosses all the way (three steps up the chain) to Putin himself. You see Rodchenkov explaining to Fogel (the explanation aided for us by haunting animations) exactly how the Russians substituted the blood samples of 30 athletes at the Sochi Games. You see the disbelief and the unwillingness to hear on the part of the Olympic officials when they are forced into investigating (Fogel actually presents the evidence when Rodchenkov’s lawyers suggest it’s not safe for him to meet them). You see the findings of the independent investigators and you see Rodchenkov tell his wife via Skype that he has to go into witness protection.

You see the corruption and cravenness of both the Russians and the Olympic leaders when they give lip service–the Olympic committee just yesterday absolved the Russians and welcomed them back into the Olympics, despite the fact that Rodchenkov testified that the Russians haven’t competed without doping since 1968.

So many questions: Does that mean that nobody’s competed without doping since then? The Russians haven’t swamped the Olympics every time out. They’ve done very well but so have we. So have others. When you see the hypocrisy looking you in the face, it’s impossible not to wonder, impossible to dismiss. Because what we see on the faces of the Russians looks so familiar, so close to home.

And that’s what a great documentary does. This one sucks you in and doesn’t let go. Don’t miss it. On Netflix now.

Here today, ‘Xerox’ tomorrow

Me: Xerox is gone.

Claire: What?

Me: Bought by Fujifilm, the name is going away forever.

Claire: No, it won’t. Every time you make a ‘Xerox’ of something–

Me: But you don’t, not anymore. You scan, you send an attachment, you take a picture with your phone and send that. No need anymore.

Claire: Well, I will always think Xerox.

Me: Maybe, but the younger generation won’t Xerox.

Claire: That’s why I didn’t have children.

 

Snow Day

It’s a snow day.

When I was a  kid, snow days meant you could go outside, run around in snow up to your knees (at least) and throw snowballs at any target you thought you could hit.  You could build a snowfort with your friends from which to pelt passing innocent pedestrians and cars (but, more likely, other kids who lived nearby and were offended by your building a competing snowfort in their territory–think Russia and Ukraine).

And coming home to leave a pile of snow by the back door, a pile of clothes in the bathroom and finding something hot to eat in front of the TV. No school, no goals, just a blissful absence of need and responsibility, a fulfilling nothingness. The best kind of day.

Today, I’m taking a few pictures out the window and looking up old musicals to watch while we eat soup in front of the TV.  A state of emergency has been declared in New York City which suppresses any desire I might have to go outside. We’re watching Altman’s ‘Nashville’, which is a twisted version of a musical, though we may get to Gene Kelly and Fred and Ginger later. But the weather outside is frightful and somehow,  that fulfilling nothingness persists.

It still feels like a snow day.

Renewal – Is That Another River in Egypt?

I’ve been silent for a while and, as anyone who knows me will tell you, silence isn’t my natural state.

I think, after the election, I just didn’t know what to say–and so much of what followed was so angry and unthinking, when it wasn’t just preaching to the (various) choirs, that I’ve had a hard time imagining what I have to offer.

But I think I’m getting there now.

Fake News (about Nero)

I have a new book that’s close to finished (fingers crossed). It arises from the following point of view:

This is the most ridiculous fucking crazy-ass circus that’s existed since Nero tuned his fiddle and we’ve got a ringside seat. It isn’t pretty, to say the least, but while everything is coming apart at the seams, we should at least try to notice just how funny and sad and just plain nuts it is.

And suddenly, looking at things that way, it feels like there’s quite a lot left to say.

Stay tuned…

 

 

This is what Democracy looks like, dammit…

A post on Facebook likened the experience of last night’s election to “New Year’s Eve, crossed with potentially life-threatening surgery.”

hillary-fansThat’s as close as anyone’s come to the nauseating, careening roller-coaster-without-brakes quality of the evening.

And we ended up with Trump – how the hell did that happen? Everyone was so sure that this was Hillary’s final narrow escape, evidence of her weakness as a candidate but still just the last hiccup before the inevitable coronation. This was history, right?

What the professional observers missed – all of them – was a huge group of voters who decided this night was about their history, not Hillary’s, and made it so with their ballots.

It’s fitting in a way. When NAFTA and subsequent trade agreements were originally assembled, anyone with a brain could foresee that the jobs would go wherever they were cheap. Unless, of course, we consumers made a stink about products being locally-made, not just cheap. Our parents had taken that stance. We didn’t. We didn’t worry about the long term consequences, even when they were pretty obvious.

In similar fashion, the businesses who benefited from the trade deals and the governments who signed off on them made no effort to retrain displaced workers or help them find jobs that would really replace the ones they lost. They made promises at every election, quickly forgotten after. When politicians referred to these people at all, they did so condescendingly. Like all workers since Reagan, whatever kept them from being rich entrepreneurs was obviously their own fault.

There’s a nasty class issue at work here, frankly. If Bernie Sanders had succeeded in his movement, I think the pundits would have recognized the power and sweep of it. That would be college kids and young tech heads, the kind of people reporters can relate to. Trump’s people are poorer, more rural, laced with pockets of racism and misogyny – but not enough to account for the scope of last night’s victory. I’ve known Americans from all different parts of the country and most of them are decent, tolerant and open-hearted to change and growth – as long as they’re included in that change and growth.

votingThe problem here was the way hardworking people who played by what they thought were the rules found themselves shoved in a corner and left to rot. Maybe someday we’ll get back to you, but don’t count on it.

Trump realized how many of them there were and how angry they were. Bernie appealed to that same frustration in a more positive way. I think he could have really been the anti-Trump if given the chance. The Democratic party establishment wasn’t going to interrupt Hillary’s victory lap. Their own positions in the hierarchy were at stake and that was more important than the country.

So now we have Trump. I hope he’ll be a good President. I would truly be surprised and delighted. Shocked, really.

But, for better or worse, his election is a triumph of democracy. Citizens expressing their need and want regardless of the conventional wisdom or maybe even common sense (does anyone really believe in Trump the friend of the working man?)

Hopefully, our political and media elite start paying attention to the injustices they’ve created. Hopefully, those of us with bigger hearts and better agendas use this opportunity to grab power out of their hands and take it in a better direction.

Because there’s an awful lot of damage that can be done in four years in the White House.

 

A Lovely Non-Birthday

We had just a lovely day about a week ago.

eight-days-a-week-480x307In the morning, we went to see Eight Days a Week, the Ron Howard Beatles touring history at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. I know it’s available online but if you see it in theaters, they show the entirety of the Beatles’ Shea Stadium Concert right after (the set was less than an hour).

Maybe more importantly, the speakers in the theater are better than the (very good) little tiny ones I have hooked up to my computer. Quick, go out and tell a bunch of your friends to buy copies of my books so I can buy better speakers! (Why didn’t I think of that before?)

Anyway, how could there possibly be anything we don’t already know about the Beatles? The hell with that–how could it be possible that they were BETTER than we thought they were? That’s pretty scary but seems really possible after seeing this.

It’s astonishing to listen to live shows by really popular and influential bands from several years after these recordings after hearing this. Jefferson Airplane, CSNY, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead yeesh–they’re all out of tune, off-key, meandering and sloppy. Rock bands really didn’t get good until the stage monitors got good, until silent tuners became ubiquitous…

Oh, no, actually not true. The Beatles were incredible live. Military precision and loose all at once.  The remastered footage here (amazingly sharp) and sound (amazingly clear) make that obvious.

The other thing about seeing them perform together is it blasts apart all the petty score-settling their hangers-on and even they themselves indulged in later. They were all essential to the band’s performance and they knew it. They were a unit and a brilliant one. One of the best scenes is Paul misting up talking about the first time they heard Ringo behind them. It could be sentimental but it feels very real.

mets-2016And that night, after the movie, we went with friends to a Mets game. I’ve been a fan through some amazing ups and downs but nothing like this year. This team is held together by Terry Collins, gaffer’s tape and chicken wire. Maybe it’s all a mirage because they’re playing uniformly bad opposition right now but they’re on a hell of a roll anyway. Every favorite of mine from last year is either injured for the year or playing ineffectively off the bench. I’ve never been prouder as a fan.

Go Mets!

Anyway, I said to Claire as we headed home, it was like the best birthday I ever had, not on my birthday.

 

The Kabuki Silence

This is the strangest election I can ever remember (and I’ve seen some doozies).

There is a silence that’s unnatural, like everyone I know is holding their breath – or in hiding.

hopper chairsElections tend to bring out the best and the worst in us citizen-spectators. The issues are, after all, about our lives – aren’t they? So while the candidates debate on TV, my opinionated friends usually carry on a debate of their own, offering sometimes-crackpot solutions and spending a lot of energy translating the national conversation into a ground-level discussion of how it really affects our lives.

I’m hearing very little of that this time around. There’s certainly plenty of ‘The other candidate is a threat to civilization’ or ‘the biggest crook in history’ but very little about the issues. Remember issues? That’s the part of the election that’s supposed to translate down to our lives. You’d expect us to be full of opinions there. But no…

In my head, I keep hearing the old line from Penny Lane: ‘and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway.’

It feels – to me, anyway – like the only people who are genuinely excited about these candidates are people I don’t necessarily want to know too well. Like the rest of us have decided we’ll do our duty and vote but that we really don’t have any real belief anything meaningful in our lives will change.

The whole thing feels like a kabuki show, a ritual that drones on according to it’s own rules long after they’ve lost their meaning, actors costumed according to traditions that have long since died, singing songs of whose meaning we retain only the vaguest of memories.