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I recently re-watched Do the Right Thing and found the ending a little shocking. No, not the violent part – which has, sadly, only become more familiar in the quarter century since 1989 – but the actual last scene.

The morning after the movie’s climax, the camera shifts up and away from the street while in voiceover we hear the storefront DJ, Mister Señor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson). He has served throughout the film as a kind of Greek chorus and now he’s the last voice we hear, after the assault and the murder and the burning of Sal’s, and he says … “Register to vote. The election is coming up.”

Which struck me, in 2015, as awfully anemic. Is that really the conclusion we’re meant to draw, after all that heat, after repeated invocations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X? Register and vote?

I wondered if maybe Jackson’s performance had thrown me off and made me expect more of Love Daddy than I should have. After all, Jackson’s real talent is for the veneer of geniality over the threat of violence (see Jules or, in a different register, Nick Fury) – for conveying hidden weight, in the manner of a lead-filled sap with a polished leather finish.

But those roles came later. Maybe Mister Señor Love Daddy is supposed to be a bit of a buffoon. After all, during the climax of the movie, the camera catches him in his window, and his response to the police turning firehoses on his neighbors is to yell and … change his hat. Maybe we’re supposed to see him as impotent, inept – the kind of guy who would, on reflection, respond to brutality by delivering the Polonian advice, “Register to vote.”

Or maybe Spike Lee meant it seriously. There’s evidence he does, or did. On the twentieth anniversary Blu-ray, you’ll find an interview in which Spike Lee mentions he wrote and filmed Do the Right Thing in the midst of Ed Koch’s administration – but now, he says, everything’s different.

Those were heady days, 2009, to be sure, when maybe elections could fill you with hope and change. But: enough to, in retrospect, justify that flat-footed ending? “Vote”? After a movie that began with Public Enemy urging, “Fight the Power!”, and whose first line of dialogue had Love Daddy himself shouting, “Wake up!”?

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We took the kids to see Selma, and I think you should see it too. (I mean, my God: it’s got both Stephen Root and Wendell Pierce.) Its historical liberties notwithstanding, it’s a great piece of historical fiction. As a sometime practitioner of both history and historical fiction, let me explain why.

First, here’s John Steinbeck on the scholar and the truth; the fisherman and the fish:

the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from a formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D.XVII-15-IX.” There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed—probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.

It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way…. [W]e were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizon and crowd the sky down on us.

(Yes, it’s a favorite passage.)

So clearly, it’s the business of the historian to count those spines (and get the count right). Historians go further, too: we traffic in permissible artifice. Call it cautious narrative, which indicates more often than it depicts: maybe, to press the analogy, we’re allowed to stuff and mount that fish in a lifelike posture that nevertheless permits the observer to see those spines and plainly ascertain their number.

Beyond that we daren’t go.

But purveyors of historical fiction aren’t trying to do that, at all: instead, they want to give us that other, otherwise unreachable, truth: the fisherman and the fish, the leap, the flash, the struggle. That too is true.

Historians can tell us it happened: fictionalizers can make us see it happening and feel the fight between angler and prey.

So, Selma gives us that fight, and how. The night march and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson are terrifying and heartbreaking. Bloody Sunday is grippingly staged and shot. David Oyelowo is a great King, Tom Wilkinson is a great Johnson, Oprah Winfrey can actually act, in case you didn’t remember. (Only why, in a movie that has Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, and George Wallace, do they all have to be played by Brits?)

And I’m not greatly bothered by the depicted conflicts between King and the younger activists – Zeitz says the movie overplays them, but they were real.

I even think making Johnson a foot-dragger who has to have his mind changed is actually fine-ish, though. It didn’t happen this way, not in 1965. But it did pretty well happen. Johnson did help make the Civil Rights Act of 1957 weaker. And he did at last push the Voting Rights Act through. King’s activism helped propel him forward.

(And even in 1965, Johnson was still incredulous at the thought that he hadn’t done enough. “Could anybody do better? What do they want?” he asked.)

But. I do think it’s stepping over the line to make Johnson responsible for the infamous “suicide letter” to King. This is like telling us the fisherman leaped into the water and wrestled the fish into submission with his bare hands. I mean, someone did catch and kill that fish, but not like that.

The suicide letter (which appeared in Athan Theoharis’s From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover and was recently analyzed in full by Beverly Gage) was a genuinely vicious thing. The FBI sent it to King, with tape-recordings of his sexual infidelities, saying “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

As Zeitz points out, this letter had nothing to do either with Selma or with Johnson. But the movie has Johnson saying he needs to put King off, picking up the phone, and barking “Get me J. Edgar Hoover,” then cutting to Coretta Scott King listening to the tape with her husband. In the language of film, that’s as much as saying, Johnson ordered the sending of that letter and that tape.

Which is a shame, really; DuVernay doesn’t need Johnson to sink that low for the narrative to work. I suspect she did want to get in some evidence of King’s infidelities, and the complexity of his relationship with his wife, and this was the way to do it. To establish Hoover as acting independently from Johnson would have taken up too much screen time in a movie already packed with incident (Malcolm X is in it!); as it is, I’m not confident all viewers will remember Hoover from his single, brief, establishing scene.

But it is a shame.

Still, Lyndon Johnson was a big man with a secure place in history, and I bet wherever he is, he can take it. And you and yours should still see the movie. Which is fiction, if historical fiction.

(Also recommended: NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, with friend of this blog Gene Demby, discussing this question, too.)

RIP Levon Helm, who was not only of course the voice of The Band, but also of The Right Stuff, the voice warning softly,

There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.

Helm also played Ridley, the trusted friend of Chuck Yeager, as depicted by Sam Shepard. I thought it was a kind of subversive genius, casting those two countercultural Dylan-associated types as these otherwise strait-laced American heroes.

As Pierce says, and as seems appropriate in this particular sidelight on Helm’s career, Godspeed.

The incomparable Michelle Vaughan, who did the typography for this marvelous piece of work as well as 100 tweets has done a much more affordable limited run of Rupert Murdoch’s tweets. I recommend them to all discerning readers with a spare $30 (plus S&H) looking for some frameable wit. (Murdoch would surely like you to think of him as framed.)

(Well it had to be something like that.)

I have three thoughts on This American Life‘s retraction of its episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” If you do not involve yourself with public radio, Apple, or the Internet, briefly: Read the rest of this entry »

Speaking of Charles Forsman as I was yesterday (he of the brilliant Raiders of the Lost Ark/Popeye mashup) I realized that the timing of the hiatus prevented my sharing with you my own Forsman original sketch.

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The Apple Store, King of Prussia Mall, Friday at 1 pm:

Photo

Taken with an iPhone, of course.

I’ve been listening to The Now Show on BBC Radio 4 since it began, which happened to be the first autumn I lived in England. Devoted readers of this blog will remember the time Mitch Benn showed up here, much to my delight.

So it was with mixed feelings I discovered that this week was the first time UC Davis cleared the Now Show threshold (in Josie Long’s bit, starting at 21:21).

To be honest, not so mixed: mostly deep unhappiness; this is also the first week I’ve seen UC Davis show up in a BBC headline. After all this time, with so many people working so hard to get UC Davis identified with serious research, this is what puts the campus on the international radar.

Stephen King’s rules for time travel, developed with the help of “heavyweight historians.”

So tonight President Obama appeared on Mythbusters, asking Adam and Jamie to revist the Archimedes death ray, which they had tested and busted twice before.

Which is to say, Barack Obama got some of the country’s coolest and most creative people to implement a policy that had already, for known and well established reasons, failed. Twice.

I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a metaphor.

I’m sure most of you have seen this.  What’s curious is that Chambers wasn’t convicted of making terroristic threats; he wasn’t even charged with that.  Instead he’s a “menace”, convicted for roughly the equivalent of making prank telephone calls.   I’m not quite sure how that works, largely because he didn’t send the tweet to the airline. It looks like that first they overreacted to a tweet and then they punished him for causing their overreaction.  Stephen Fry has offered to pay the man’s legal bills, but the mark on his record is standing for now.

Anyone know anything about British law and why this conviction  isn’t obviously insane?

Scott Lemieux says don’t pin the misogyny of The Social Network on Sorkin, because the film takes a critical stance towards Zuckerberg’s contempt for women.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it strikes me as relevant that in real life, Zuckerberg had a long-term girlfriend,worked with women when he created Facebook, etc.  I think even if we take it as given that Sorkin rewrites Zuckerberg to make him a misogynist and added all the details about Asian girls so mad for geeks they give blowjobs in bathroom stalls and Harvard parties where girls lose their tops all the time, and then critiqued it successfully, there’s something… off about erasing the creative role of women in the creation of Facebook completely in order to make that critique.

Whether that’s an aesthetic failure is a different question, and one that would have to wait until I get around to seeing the film (check back in 2011), but my initial impression from the reviews is that this is a middle-aged man’s idea of what it must have been like to create Facebook, and he finds it hard to believe both that a guy could be geeked out enough to invent Facebook and socially well-adjusted enough to have a girlfriend, and that a woman around a geek could be anything but inspiration.

As long as I’m having fun with YouTube’s “start here” feature, note this standard-issue awesome impassioned Shatner speech by Captain Kirk in “Return to Tomorrow”:

Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn’t reached the moon, or that we hadn’t gone on to Mars, and then to the nearest star?

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From the BBC’s Adam Curtis:

In Mad Men we watch a group of people who live in a prosperous society that offers happiness and order like never before in history and yet are full of anxiety and unease. They feel there is something more, something beyond. And they feel stuck.

I think we are fascinated because we have a lurking feeling that we are living in a very similar time. A time that, despite all the great forces of history whirling around in the world outside, somehow feels stuck. And above all has no real vision of the future.

And as we watch the group of characters from 50 years ago, we get reassurance because we know that they are on the edge of a vast change that will transform their world and lead them out of their stifling technocratic order and back into the giant onrush of history.

The question is whether we might be at a similar point, waiting for something to happen. But we have no idea what it is going to be.

Curtis talks here about Rosser Reeves, at least one of the real-life people who goes into Don Draper, and the model of advertising he represented, as against the more social-scientific, psychological version that was sweeping over Madison Avenue in the 1960s. He’s also got a discussion of Shirley Polykoff, some of whom is in Peggy Olsen. And there’s some terrific video of these people talking about the business of advertising, if you have the time.

I agree and disagree with Scott; were Inception properly a movie interested in answering “is it a dream within a dream?”,  or even a film that tried to get us to guess, I would agree that it fails.  But I thought the movie succeeded, though it was good, but not great.   There will be spoilers after the jump, though nothing I think that would rob one’s enjoyment of the film.   Nor will there be a defense of Nolan himself after the jump; it would not surprise me that the man’s intentions could be defended, but the only other work of his I’ve seen is the Batman reboot, which was notable mostly for Heath Ledger’s performance, the disappearing pencil trick, and Batman flipping the truck.

What can I say?  I enjoyed it, and as a curmudgeon-in-training, I have a low tolerance for entertainment that purports to be about something big and philosophical but is really about the authors putting in random crap/polar bears and hoping that the fans will work it into their mythology and think that it’s deep, so I trust my instinct when I think there is something clever in a film.

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OK Go’s drummer has a staring contest with Animal, overseen by Ira Glass of This American Life.

Some cutesy references are too heavy-handed even for Oliver Stone. In the early reports on Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the villain was a character named—no, just read it for yourself:

The film will center on young Jacob Moore (Shia Labeouf) who acquires the assistance of former Wall Street mogul Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) — who happens to be the estranged father of his girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan) — in trying to bring down hedge fund manager Bretton Woods (Josh Brolin) who he blames for the suspicious death of of his mentor (Frank Langella).

In the currently reported version of the cast, this character’s name has changed to Bretton James.

Thanks to a colleague for the tip.

Today, as a number of blog posts remind us, is the thirtieth anniversary of the release of The Empire Strikes Back (better known as “the good one”). But me, I prefer the original 1950 version.

(With frame-by-frame of the real thing here.)

UPDATED to add, apparently Pac-Man is also 30; who knows how long Google will leave this up.

Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Shirley Bassey, Debbie Harry, and Sting sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Together.

That is all there is to say.

People keep pushing the 70-minute Phantom Menace video review at me. After all, Damon Lindelof thinks it’s great. And if you have seventy minutes and really don’t mind a creepy persona explaining to you why George Lucas messed up so badly, be my guest. For the record, though, my concern with the Star Wars prequels is not that they’re bad movies, they’re immoral stories. And it will take you less than seventy minutes to read why. And it will probably be less creepy.
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