Movies: ‘The Descendants’

The Descendants begins by using a device which has, during the entirety of my movie-going career,   indicated to me roughly eighty percent of the time that the movie I’m about to watch is going to be bad. The device is the voice-over, and writer/director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) uses it exclusively for the opening 15 minutes.

Voice-overs are bad eighty percent of the time because they are cop-outs eighty-percent of the time. They have no reason to exist except to explain things, and as any two-bit screenwriting instructor could tell you, in movies we like to be shown things, not told them.

But here the voice-over does not doom the film. It is actually used quite well. Perhaps this is because the man doing the talking is George Clooney. Clooney’s voice suggests a calm so remarkable it makes you want to pinpoint its source—it could be the world-weariness of someone who’s seen it all (Michael Clayton), the self-possession of someone with an unimpeachably high opinion of himself (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou), or just someone who has been cool for so long they’ve forgotten how to be vulnerable (the Ocean movies).

It is the voice of a man who should always be in control—always of himself, and eventually the situation. Michael Clayton played with this persona a little bit by putting Clooney’s character—a corporate lawyer who specializes in cleaning up messy situations, not through ingenuity or deviousness but just by assuming that the simple, dumb solutions will always work best in a simple, dumb world—in a situation where he cannot grasp the logical consequences of being simple and dumb: he thinks a colleague who is in possession of some potentially damaging information, and who thinks corporate interests are out to get him any way they can, is simply being crazy. But the other side has made its own simple calculations, and the basic urge for self-preservation is indeed causing them to come after anyone who gets in their way. Michael Clayton returns Clooney’s self-possession to him by the end of the film, though—the filmmakers probably thought it would be asking too much of the audience to fade to black with Clooney still in a state of uncertainty.

(Caution: Spoilers ahead)

Uncertainty is what The Descendants is all about. The primary reason for this is the fact that the middle-aged Matt King, the character played by Clooney, has just nearly lost his wife to a jet-ski accident. She is in a coma; unresponsive and kept alive by a ventilator. King owns up to having been a neglectful husband and father, and proclaims he will be better when his wife awakens.

The standard arc for a story which begins this way would be for us to discover, step by step, exactly what might have made King a neglectful husband and father. His wife was a risk-taker, and there is the suggestion that much of that risk may have been due to him. King seems like a pretty good guy, although he definitely has been largely absent in his daughters’ upbringing. He has been busy running his own law firm—a subject of some interest, since he is actually a member of a family which, due to its historical ties to Hawaii, possesses tremendous wealth in the form of real estate. King could have chosen not to work, and simply lived the life of a rich landowner. But he chose to stay away from the hereditary money and became decently well-off as a lawyer.

There seems to be much history to mine, and many revelations to come. But the past never really focuses any more sharply than the fuzzy picture we get at the beginning. Most of the plot of the movie deals with King and his oldest daughter trying to track down a man who was having an affair with his wife (King is unaware of this for some time into the film). They eventually do find him. But even then there is almost no additional information, no catharsis. It was an affair. It happened.

What you realize at some point—and not the end, it comes around the mid-point of the film—is that King (and by extension the audience) is never going to find the answers. There is still so much confusion even after he figures out everything he can. What was his wife looking for? Did she no longer love him? Where had it gone wrong? Could he do anything to change it? The only person who could maybe answer those questions is slowly fading away into oblivion. There is a movie-solution which could provide answers in the form of heartfelt confessions and devastating reveals, but Payne isn’t interested in those. He wants us to feel what it may be like, to have so much left to forgive, and even more to learn, and yet be robbed of even the possibility. It is one of the most grown-up ways to approach the end of life that I’ve ever witnessed in a film.

I thought Sideways, Payne’s last movie, was great. I don’t think The Descendants is quite that. There are secondary threads to the plot which never quite come together as a whole, and unlike Sideways the laughs never reach the point where you feel as if you are being asked to celebrate life as well as examine pain. But seeing King stare at his wife’s battered, never-to-awaken body as life bleeds away from it on a hospital bed, understanding he will never know and never have another chance, and ultimately forcing himself to come to grips with it—rings a note somewhere very deep, and very true. It’s as if George Clooney’s incredible calm has been preparing him to meet this moment for a long time. He has an emotionally devastating scene, then… surprise, when the end credits roll, he is calm again. And I feel as if I know a little bit better why.

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Justin Bieber Raps

Justin Bieber is talented. And not a baby daddy.

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My Yale 250

So…I usually try to resist writing about my own life on this blog, mostly because I am afraid of revealing how truly boring and unremarkable my life actually is (for instance–why are you blogging at 8:30 on a Saturday night?) But whatever–sometimes it’s just easier to be yourself, ya know?

As you may know, I am currently in the process of applying to law school. For some reason I decided to apply to 25 of them. This is what is commonly referred to as ‘overkill,’ I believe. But there’s a certain seduction in reading those glossy pamphlets…yes, Baylor School of Law, I do believe I could be a leader and an innovator after having spent three years traveling your beautiful leaf-swept campus. I have no doubt I would receive an unparalleled opportunity in interdisciplinary study at Pennsylvania. And who am I to doubt anyone who tells me their faculty is truly world-class?

Anyhoo…of the 25 wonderful law schools I’ve applied to, no dings so far, knock on wood. I’ve gotten into Michigan, Cornell, Virginia, Fordham, and Duke.

I am also applying to Yale Law School, which has been ranked the #1 law school in the country (nay, the world?) by U.S. News and World Report in every year they’ve published a ranking. Supposedly Yale is a magical place full of unicorns and rainbows. I wouldn’t know anything about it. But I do know Bill Clinton went there. That’s good enough for me.

The application fee to Yale Law is $75. For someone with my LSAT score, applying to Yale is probably the equivalent of throwing that $75 into a blazing furnace. But…Bill Clinton, man!!! ….oh, I can’t resist. I applied today. Last one. You can thank me later for lowering your acceptance rate, Yale.

Yale requires a 250-word essay on any topic. Here’s what I wrote:

                In speaking with recent college graduates, I have noticed a peculiarity in how they tend to perceive the job market. Many seem to view it as a contest with a highly limited number of prizes, rather than an opportunity to find a calling in life. I cannot blame them for this attitude, considering both the state of the economy and the fact that I myself am applying to law school—a process which has often felt like a rather feverish contest itself, as thousands of applicants attempt to avoid the specter of personal failure and economic uncertainty by staying ahead of the LSAT and GPA curve (which I imagine will turn into the 1L finals curve, then the associate attrition curve, more quickly than most of us expect).

                Perhaps thinking this way is harmless. The prize is desirable and the consequences of failure dire; the student will study hard and network tirelessly and presumably earn their reward. But I shudder to think what our collective future may be, if our best and brightest choose to cling to their employment as if it were a lifeboat slowly distancing itself from the Titanic.

                Certainly our American ideals of merit and opportunity are partly defined by competition. But they are at least equally defined by the belief that opportunity is essentially limitless—Americans create our own opportunities. It is a difficult thing to believe when mired in a terrible recession. But those who do believe will be the ones to pull us out.

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Movies: ‘The Muppets’

I really really wanted to like The Muppets. Jim Henson’s crew of wise-cracking anthropomorphic puppets brings back a lot of nostalgia for me. I think I was a fan of the Muppets even before I understood English. There’s something about those massive widely-spaced eyes: the Muppets seem to be in a perpetual state of wonderment.

The Muppets falls flat. It’s not terrible; it’s just not all that good. The big problem is the script, co-written by Nicholas Stoller (Yes Man, Fun With Dick and Jane, Get Him to the Greek—all recent comedies operating at a roughly similar level of mediocrity) and Jason Segel, who co-stars as one of the human leads. Segel is a huge Muppets fan himself, and his affection for the institution betrays him as a writer: we move through all of the same story beats from the earlier Muppets movies—a road trip, a need to raise large amounts of cash, a variety show–delivered earnestly but without a speck of inspiration.

For a fairly innocent endeavor like The Muppets to work for adults, some adult tension must be released beforehand. Everyone brings along a certain amount of cynicism into a cineplex, which you will hear expressed as sarcastic jibes from the audience, immediately following a particularly dumb or uninspired preview. PG-rated comedies kill that cynicism with affection. Imagine you are a wild dog and the movie is cautiously petting you—if it works, you will be panting and licking its hand by the time the credits roll.

The original Muppets Movie opens with a long shot of a swamp, slowly panning into Kermit the Frog sitting on a lily pad with a banjo, singing Rainbow Connection. Frog, banjo, lily pad, rainbows—affection is earned.

The new movie tries to pet you as well, but you come off feeling a little roughed-up. It’s as if the film expects you to be in a state of wonderment already, and doesn’t feel the need to try to take you there. I mean, it’s been 27 years since The Muppets Take Manhattan. You can’t expect me to just pick up like I’m ten years old again, can you?

Jason Segel is usually okay as a secondary character, but a sloppy mess of a leading man. He’s tall but withdrawn, and his mannerisms are so soft and unimposing that he can’t command the camera’s attention. He is fine as the best friend the lead has a heart-to-heart with; as the lead himself, he is a disaster. True leading men radiate a constant stream of energy—it’s an intensity that has a focus, which the audience can’t help but share. Segel is way too relaxed. You almost don’t know whether you’re supposed to take him seriously. (I wonder sometimes if height is a detriment for leading men in the modern era. The most camera-hungry actors of the past thirty years have been short—Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Edward Norton, etc.)

This is a comedy, of course, and Segel’s shortcomings in the intensity department are not fatal. The movie picks up some steam in the final chapter. Some of the cameos are funny, especially Jack Black at the end. I don’t know if a Muppets movie can actually work in 2011. I wish the makers of this film had considered how to make it work, instead of assuming it would and rehashing old material.

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Football and Our Way of Life

Yesterday I was in attendance as the football team of my alma mater, the University of Michigan, beat our arch-rivals Ohio State 40-34 in the final regular-season game of the season.

Moments before the opening kickoff I looked at the crowd (announced at 114,032 people) and wondered what an alien from another planet would think if this was the first image they had of humanity. Assuming that competitive sports are not part of the alien’s culture, what would they believe they were witnessing? A religious ritual, with Michigan’s quarterback Denard Robinson as the high priest? Some kind of political rally? Would they assume, considering the level of enthusiasm shown by the crowd, that the contest had some kind of ramifications beyond the final score? Would they be expecting the crowd, as they rushed the field after the victory, to surround the Ohio State football players and tear them to pieces with their bare hands? Or perhaps they’d think everyone in Ohio had to be our slaves until next year’s contest. Perhaps it would be a little tough to explain why we were acting the way we were—no, no one dies. No one kills themselves. No one gets thrown into a bonfire. We just win the game, and wait ‘til next year.

Everything about sports is a little bit irrational, and it’s just a little bit more irrational in America. All due respect to insane European soccer hooligans, but the grip competitive athletics has on American culture is uniquely insane. I have never played organized football in my life. I weighed 115 pounds in high school. I tried to play tackle football with friends once on Thanksgiving, and I was so scared of contact that I made tackling attempts by going into the fetal position and trying to roll under players’ legs (it sorta worked, actually). The violence of the game is off-putting, and as a strictly rational person I would say the rules of football should be dramatically changed, or the game should just be outlawed. But I live and die by Michigan football.

Michigan undergraduates trend nerdy. It’s a good school and hard to get into. There are undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of other diehard Michigan fans who have spent many more hours playing Magic the Gathering than tossing the pigskin around, and are rabid U-M football fans nonetheless.

I felt euphoric when we won yesterday. But the feeling only lasted for maybe twenty or thirty minutes. As I made my way out the gate and started the long walk to my parked car, two miles away, the everyday concerns of normal life returned. During a football game every play seems like the most important thing that’s ever happened. Agony and misery supplant each other again and again and again. That kind of irrationality can only last for so long.

Perhaps the aliens, after watching all of us drift away from the stadium, get into our cars and drive home, to feed crying babies and cook and pay the bills; to sit on our couches with a six-pack of beer and watch even more football on Sunday; to trudge off to work in the morning, answer the two hundred emails waiting in the inbox, load the truck with equipment, attend staff meetings, deal with bullshit, gossip in the break room, argue with our parents and our spouses and discipline our children—to deal with the never-ending struggle to stay alive and have a roof over our heads and a meal on the table, while retaining a measure of self-respect—maybe they’d begin to get it. Time waits on no man. It waits three and a half hours every fall Saturday, however, for Michigan football.

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Why We Should be Thankful for the Economy

“We are thankful for the U.S. Economy” is probably not something you heard at Thanksgiving dinner yesterday. But someone wise once said it’s never as good or as bad as you think it is. DailyBeast has a video on why we should be thankful, even in tough times.

The very first thing the guy says is true, on so many levels.

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‘Capturing the Friedmans,’ and Unspeakable Crimes

Why does society consider child molestation the most heinous crime imaginable?

  1. We can all agree this is true, right?
  2. In my opinion, murder is still more heinous. I’ve never had anyone close to me commit murder or molest a child (something I am very thankful for). I would guess that if someone close to me did commit one of those two things, I would find it easier to forgive the murderer, or at least to continue my relationship with him or her. But in an abstract way, murder is absolutely worse than sexual abuse of a minor. You have deliberately ended someone’s life. It’s a frickin’ Commandment.

Child molesters are inflicting grievous physical, psychological, and perhaps spiritual harm on the most vulnerable members of society. Murderers are taking life. We still consider the former a worse crime. I think this is because it’s very difficult to account for the humanity of a child molestor. The human element seems to disappear once sex and children enter the equation. They instantly become monsters.

I watched the documentary Capturing the Friedmans a couple of days ago. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2003. The film is about how an upper-class Jewish family in Long Island was torn apart by charges that the father and one of his sons molested dozens of neighborhood boys in the ‘1980s.

Immediately after the film screened at Sundance, a reporter asked the film’s director, Andrew Jarecki, whether he thought the Friedmans were innocent. He said he didn’t know. The film maintains a relatively impartial tone as to their guilt or innocence—relatively, only because the subject matter incites such strong feeling that an audience is likely to be pulled in one direction or the other, and the filmmakers basically allow the pull to happen. The fascinating thing is that most people who watched the movie–myself included–were pulled in multiple directions at once.

Something about the investigations is seriously off. All of the incidents of molestation occurred while Mr. Friedman was teaching computer classes in his basement. Some of the accusers claim they were molested three times a week, in groups of five or six people, for months at a time. At least one person claims he was never molested, never suspected anything of the sort, and does not believe it would have been possible for such activities to have occurred. The police evidently pressured almost all of the accusers into their testimony—one later admits he didn’t even remember any abuse until he received hypnosis therapy; another says he outright lied to the police to make them happy.

There is at least an equal amount of evidence that the father was guilty. But that’s not the point of the movie. The most compelling element of Capturing the Friedmans is the home-video footage taped by the elder son, which captures moments in the family’s life as they attempt to deal with an event which is impossible to deal with. We get to see the Friedmans gathered in their living room the night before their father is set to go to jail for the rest of his life—he plays a song on the piano to entertain them, they fight, quip jokes, eat—at one point the father gently admonishes his son “not to talk to your mother that way,” as if brief lessons in civility still matter. And strangely, it does seem to matter.

These scenes are remarkable because on one hand they’re so understandable and even banal, but at the same time they’re completely shocking because people are still behaving like human beings after something has happened which we assume strips them of human-being status. We get lots of information about Mr. Friedman’s past, his family history, his relationship with his wife—none of it should matter if he is a child molestor. But it does, somehow.

The Penn State scandal inevitably comes to mind. Jerry Sandusky is a monster right now. I feel at this point it would be impossible to feel any sympathy towards him, no matter what other information came out.

What of those who knew (they knew something, to some degree) and didn’t stop him? Why did they choose to stay silent? To protect the institution from scandal? Quite likely. To protect a long-time colleague? Perhaps. But maybe also because the idea of a two-time national championship defensive coordinator of Penn State football raping boys in the shower was so cosmically unacceptable that the only acceptable way for the universe to right itself was to ignore the issue. At some point our concept of monstrousness becomes counterproductive—it encourages silence and shame.

What if the very first boy Jerry Sandusky attempted to fondle ran away and told his parents everything? And what if those parents immediately brought charges against him, and the police believed them? And Joe Paterno told his friend, hey, you have a problem, and Jerry Sandusky was put on probation and monitored while he went to therapy? There are no perfect solutions, but it would have given everyone involved a fighting chance, wouldn’t it?

All child molesters (and to a lesser extent, every sex offender of any stripe) use society’s judgment of what constitutes a “monstrous” act to their advantage. They know their victims have a powerful incentive to stay silent, and they know even adults have the same incentive. We consider the act so “monstrous” that anyone affected by it–even the victims– get a stigma attached to them.

People do awful, awful things. Some of them are impossible to understand. But there should be no unspeakable crimes.

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