Archive | January, 2013

SFMOMA

30 Jan

There was once a show on MTV called Austin Stories. It was a great show. There was only one season which aired in 1997. The main character was a layabout schemer named Howard. One bit on the show was that Howard got a woman’s phone number and set up a date with her. Howard didn’t have a car. He concocted a reason why the woman needed to pick him up for the date. He then got a ride from a friend to the nice part of town (the town being Austin). He hung out in front of a mansion where the woman picked him up. When his ride asked him what he was doing on the way, he explained his plan thusly, “I like to make the girl think I have money. That way when I take them on a cheap date they think I’m being cool and hip instead of lame and broke.” That quote is from memory so I can’t vouch for its accuracy, although I do have a very good memory.

That’s kind of how I think about writing posts like this. It’s a review of a museum. By review, I mean I’m mostly just writing discursive thoughts that come to mind when I think of my visit to said museum. My hope is that picking subject matter like museums and using words like discursive instead of rambling makes me sound smart and insightful instead of unfocused and lazy. You might say I’m writing from the steps of an Austin mansion. Sometimes I do this with bulletish points or footnotes. I don’t always like to do it that way. The footnote thing seems especially lazy. It took off when people started imitating David Foster Wallace. Now you see it everywhere. It’s pretty much the defining feature of the house style at Grantland. From what I’ve read DFW was pretty in touch with how addicting and lazy it was when not used for a purpose. I don’t think most other writers think about the purpose of notes and how they affect the reader. It’s just a good way to look smart. That was just a long way of saying that I’m not using any asterisks today. I’m just putting everything in the main body. One big piece of text. No links or pictures either. No attention interruptions at all. We’ll see how it works.

I’m getting nervous about the pictures. I get most of my pageviews from Google image search. Since I steal all of my pictures from Google myself and don’t attribute credit anywhere, I will probably get a lot of cease and desist orders after TPY becomes hugely popular. A lot of those searches are for “East Oakland”. My picture of a guy with a wad of bills and a girl in a thong in front of a low rider is on the first page of that particular search. Which is funny to me.

Disclaimer before I start: I have no background or education in the practice, theory, or history of art. I prefer discursive to rambling. It makes me sound smart instead of unfocused.

SFMOMA is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They call themselves SFMOMA because it looks cool and makes the museum seem even more modern. The whole concept of modern art confuses me sometimes. What counts as “modern”? I think the generally accepted definition is Impressionists and anything after. To me that’s stupid. The Museum of Modern Art in New York’s most famous painting is probably Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. It was painted in 1889. That’s 124 years ago. It isn’t modern in any strict sense. Will that painting still be at MoMA in 2113? Will it still be modern then? The concept of modern art and modern art museums was born when Van Gogh actually was modern. The idea was to focus on current or very recent art that couldn’t get a foothold in traditional museums. I don’t think that’s the case now, especially at some of the more famous modern art museums like SFMOMA.

When I went to SFMOMA a couple weeks ago, there were two major exhibitions. One was a retrospective of works by Jay DeFeo. She’s from the Bay Area so I can understand the desire to feature her, but she’s been dead for almost 25 years. Her major works were completed in the 50s and 60s. The big blockbuster was a Jasper Johns survey. Jasper Johns is fine and everything. I saw a very similar show at the Art Institute of Chicago a few years ago. Some of the same pieces, even. His most famous works are 50 years old. He’s famous. He’s widely regarded as an important figure in American art. Every museum in the country would love to get its hands on a Jasper Johns. He doesn’t need the advocacy of a modern art museum.

Most mainstream museums have substantial collections of 20th century art. The modern art canon has solidified. Some time ago I saw a Rembrandt exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art with my parents. At dinner afterwards, we were discussing it. Rembrandt was obviously a technical master in addition to all of his other contributions to painting. My dad made the point that he didn’t know of any current artists with the same skill. He said, furthermore, that he didn’t know of any current artists at all. I think this is pretty common among the general population, even that part of the population that visits art museums. Even people who can name a couple current artists probably know them better for whatever controversies surround them than their work. Damien Hirst or Ai Weiwei, for example. There are good artists working today. There must be. Even if I don’t know about most of them. I wish they were the focus of SFMOMA. Right now they most certainly are not.

That was my screed for the day. I wish SFMOMA had a different goal or function or whatever, but as it is, it’s a fun museum to visit. It has an impressive collection. The main attraction is the museum’s permanent collection, which is housed all in one series of galleries on the second floor. It’s organized in a mostly chronological order, starting with a roomful of Matisses. As it goes on, there are Riveras and Kahlos, Picassos, Oldenburgs, Warhols, etc. The highlight for me might be a really spectacular Rothko. It’s red-orange and indigo. It’s huge. I don’t have the art knowledge to explain why Rothko is great, but it isn’t something that I could appreciate until I saw it in person. I’ve seen a couple similar Rothkos in other museums, but I didn’t have the same reaction to them as I had to this one. Maybe it’s the colors, maybe it was how it was presented in the context of the rest of the collection, who knows. My advice is to find a museum with a big Rothko. Go and look at it for awhile.

The third floor has a decent photography collection. Nothing too memorable, if I’m honest. I was disappointed they didn’t have any Tina Barneys on display. They have three in the collection, but they’re not out right now. There’s an expansion going on right now, more on that later. I don’t follow the art scene closely or at all, but Tina Barney is one contemporary artist I like very much. She gave a lecture in Minneapolis last year, which I attended. I asked her a question at the end and she said it was a very good question. That was like the highlight of the year for me. Another disappointment was the absence of two paintings by Robert Bechtle that were two of my favorites when I’ve visited the museum before. Lack of space maybe. Bechtle is a photorealist painter from San Francisco and the two on display at SFMOMA are–were–compelling. Compelling is one of my favorite words. I probably use it too much.

I don’t have anything to say about the Jasper Johns show that you couldn’t learn by reading his Wikipedia page. Same with Jay DeFeo. Both worthwhile exhibitions.

The museum has a little cafe and sculpture garden on the roof. The cafe is run by, or serves, I don’t know really, Blue Bottle coffee, which is a hyper-trendy local coffee company. Their roastery is near my place in Oakland. They also have a coffee bar at the roastery. This is a place where it’s hard for me to go without laughing at it all. A little building in an Oakland warehouse district with a line out the door, snobby baristas who border on self-parody, and $4 cups of coffee individually prepared pour-over style. Just a ludicrous little slice of life in what’s apparently one of America’s hipster capitals.

I was dragging towards the end of my visit so I went to the cafe and got a cappuccino. The only food options were some various baked goods. One caught my eye. It was the highlight of my visit. A little 4”x4” square of something called Mondrian cake. If you’re familiar with Piet Mondrian, you know why this is so terrific. Mr. Mondrian is famous for his paintings of irregular black grids on a white background with strategically placed blocks of color. The cake was a little replica of one of these paintings. White cake with a chocolate grid and little inserts of blue and red cake. I’d like to shake the hand of whoever came up with that idea.

I mentioned that there’s an addition being built. I’ve written about my feelings on museum additions before. We’ll see how this turns out. I will say that the gallery space at SFMOMA does feel pretty limited. I think that’s more a function of the size and scope of the museum collection than anything. This brings me back to the beginning. If the museum’s goal was to showcase and educate the public about contemporary art and artists, they wouldn’t need an addition. But when you have to have big showy Jasper Johns exhibitions and still find a place to keep all your Matisses, you end up needing a lot more space than you might imagine.

That was fun. I like museum reviews. Get ready for more. There are a lot of museums in the Bay Area. Hell, the Museum of Cartoon Art and the Contemporary Jewish Museum are both within a couple blocks of SFMOMA. I’m sure I’ll get to them eventually.

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2013: The year in film

17 Jan

I’m not a person who spends his time reading movie news and I rarely know anything about upcoming movies. Most of my info comes from seeing trailers at the theater. I’d almost say that I try to avoid such news. I won’t be reading anything about Sundance, I never read the festival recaps from various critics, etc. I guess I would just prefer to wait until movies are soon-to-be-released before I spend my time getting excited for them. That being said, here are three movies that I know about and am looking forward to this year.

Spring Breakers
What if I told you that the star of this movie was Selena Gomez and the co-stars are other Disneyish hot young actress types. What kind of movie do you think this would be? The plot is that a group of girls rob a restaurant to pay for their spring break trip, does that change your impression? Probably not much. What if I told you that the movie was written and directed by Harmony Korine? Change your mind? Do you not know who Mr. Korine is? He’s the creative mind behind such movies as Kids and Gummo. I can’t wait to see what this movie is all about. It also features James Franco playing a character based on Riff Raff. I really can’t wait. One other thing I can’t wait for: the reaction of Selena Gomez fans to this movie.

I don’t think the host of this vapid Hollywood news YouTube channel is ready for this movie

If you’ve never seen a Riff Raff video before you’re in for a treat

Here’s Harmony Korine being a weirdo on Letterman many years ago

The Great Gatsby

I saw the trailer for this recently. Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby looks like it’ll be pretty similar to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.* It even stars Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s even wearing the famous pink Gatsby suit. And it’s in 3D. I honestly don’t think this movie will be all that good, but it’ll definitely be interesting. This is a hard book to film. There was a version in the 70s with Robert Redford as Gatsby. I don’t think very many people have seen it. I’ve certainly never heard mention of it anywhere. I can’t think of an argument why this one will be better than that one from a storytelling standpoint, although I think Mr. Luhrmann’s visual interpretation of things will hold my interest if nothing else.

*Using a + instead of the word and in your title is obnoxious

The Canyons

canyons
I remember hearing rumblings about this one last year. Then I saw this tweet from Lena Dunham and my interest was reignited. Read the whole New York Times Magazine article. Fascinating stuff.

Screenwriter and increasingly unhinged Twitter personality Bret Easton Ellis apparently hates how the movie turned out

2012: The year in film

16 Jan

Every year when critics post top ten lists and such my natural thought is to compile my own list of favorites from the year. That’s sometimes frustrating because I don’t see all the movies and I can’t always remember all of the movies I saw. This year I was prepared. Throughout the year I kept a list of all the movies I went to. I didn’t have a blog at the start of the year, but the idea was sort of in my head. Here are some of my thoughts about all of these movies. I think in 2013 I’ll maybe write something about each movie as I see them or once a month or something because this is like a jillion words long. But for 2012 it’s all in one shot. Enjoy. And this is like two weeks late. One trend I hate is movies opening in New York and Los Angeles right before the new year and then a week or two later everywhere else. It’s lame when Oscar nominations come out before all the nominated movies are even in theaters. Spoilers abound, by the way. If you haven’t seen these movies by now I’ll assume you’re not going to.

Haywire
This was a good action thriller. Steven Soderbergh is a good director. This movie makes me wonder why there can’t be more movies like it. It was leaps and bounds better than most $100 million action thrillers. It’s not the explosions that make these movies entertaining. The fight scenes were never boring in this. That’s a great credit to Mr. Soderbergh. I’m usually not interested in more than the first two punches thrown in a fight. Most action thriller fight scenes are overblown and ridiculous. Maybe this is a consequence of casting an MMA fighter in the lead role. Are good directors like Mr. Soderbergh really so rare, or is it that they don’t want to make action thrillers? Anyway, more movies like this please.

The Grey
Liam Neeson is a caricature of an actor at this point. He’s always so busy acting that it’s hard to pull your attention away from the fact that he’s acting. This was a pretty cool premise for a movie. A small crew of guys in the subarctic being hunted by wolves. I like bleak winterscapes in my movies.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home
I don’t love the Duplass brothers as much as some. There were some good moments here, but overall it didn’t really grab me. There were some odd tonal shifts. There was all this depressing stuff about Jason Segal and then he gets involved with this subplot about his brother’s wife cheating on him. That could have worked on its own as a screwball comedy but I didn’t think all the pieces really fit together as is. I like Judy Greer, she should get better roles.

The Hunger Games
I enjoyed this movie. I’d consider it the best-case scenario for this kind of thing. I do think it was a mistake to cast known actors as the adults. I can’t take Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson seriously with all the crazy clothes and affectations. The whole Hunger Games concept is really good. The story isn’t perfect, but when your one sentence summary is “a bunch of teenagers are let loose in the woods and have to fight to the death” it’s hard to go wrong. A better ending for the movie would have been for Katniss and Peeta* to eat the berries and die. But that doesn’t work when you have sequels to make. Jennifer Lawrence is very attractive.
*I just had to look this guy’s name up again. I spent the whole movie thinking it was Peter until I got home and looked it up for the first time. Maybe I should have read the book first.

Damsels in Distress
I love Whit Stillman. I think most people have never heard of him. That’s too bad. Metropolitan is one of my favorites. I’m a sucker for movies skewering old money East Coast WASPs. There’s a scene where this blowhard pseudointellectual college student starts earnestly praising Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie even though he obviously has no idea what it’s about. “It’s about time someone started defending the bourgeoisie! We’ve been unfairly criticized for so long!” or something. Hilarious. This movie wasn’t as good but I still really liked it. Mr. Stillman has a sort of Wes Anderson quality. If you can embrace and celebrate his quirks and pretensions instead of being annoyed by them his movies are highly enjoyable. Although I can certainly understand how people would be unable to do that.

Bernie
This was a really pleasant surprise. Jack Black was great. He’s great in the right situations. (his performance in Margot at the Wedding was another one I enjoyed.) The way Richard Linklater put this together was really creative. It’s a true story, and half of the movie consists of interviews with real people who were involved. The other half is a dramatization of the events. It’s like the best-ever History Channel documentary. It’s a pretty morbid tale, and the movie is a comedy, really. It takes balls to keep a lighthearted tone when you’re dealing with a protagonist who murders someone and stores the body in a freezer. Mr. Linklater pulled it off. Kudos to him.

Moonrise Kingdom
I love Wes Anderson. This movie was pretty Wes Andersony, more so than The Darjeeling Limited, his last live-action movie. All the little production design details, the offbeat jokes, the opening shot of the Bishop house, etc. I realize that not everyone’s into that kind of thing. I recall in an interview Mr. Anderson said something to the effect of the plot being something he wished had happened to him when he was twelve. I thought he did a god job of conveying that feeling. I know that’s how I felt watching it. The two kids at the center of it were both better than I’d expect kids that age to be acting in a movie. I did think Bill Murray and Frances McDormand were a bit underutilized. They’re both so good you can’t help wanting more of them.

Safety Not Guaranteed
This movie wasn’t great, but it had its moments. Firmly in “pretty good” territory. I didn’t think the ending was ideal, but I don’t know if I can think of a better one. It’s a pretty hard story to end in a satisfying way. Mark Duplass is becoming ubiquitous in our culture. He was in like eight movies this year. He’s also on TV and he writes/directs movies with his brother. Enough already, Mark Duplass! I think I’m a little too old to have a celebrity crush but if I did it would be Aubrey Plaza.

Take This Waltz
Michelle Williams gave the best performance of the year in this movie. She gave the best performance of last year if you add up Meek’s Cutoff and My Week With Marilyn. She gave the best performance of 2010 in Blue Valentine. Michelle Williams is the best. I can’t say it often or loudly enough. This was sort of an inconsistent movie. There was like a 20-minute coda that felt unnecessary. Seth Rogen was choppy and Sarah Silverman seemed miscast. Even if it wasn’t a great movie, it was definitely memorable. There were a few really well-executed shots/scenes/moments that were just perfect.

To Rome With Love
In the “forgettable” category of Woody Allen’s oeuvre. I still enjoyed it. The fact that Mr. Allen still writes and directs a new movie every year is amazing. I wonder if he does it in part so he has a built-in excuse if a movie isn’t very good. “What do you expect, I have to come up with something new every year!” I think he could make two movies a year and they’d all still be enjoyable.

Elena
This was a Russian movie about a second wife who plans to poison her rich husband because he’s going to write her out of his will and give his estate to his feckless daughter. It was bleak and quiet and suspenseful and I loved it. It was set in Moscow. The parts of Moscow they shot in looked practically postapocalyptic. It really adds to the movie. (The wife’s family is poor, she and her husband live in a nice home in the suburbs, etc.) I know there are parts of America like this, but not many movies are made there. I wonder why not. You could transplant this story into Detroit or Buffalo or West Virginia and have a really good American remake.

Beasts of the Southern Wild
I always try to celebrate weird, unconventional, ambitious, and above all interesting movies. I’ve never seen anything quite like this one. I didn’t think everything in it worked, but I’m willing to forgive that. All or most of the actors were nonprofessionals and they were mostly great. My instinct is to give the credit for that to the director but maybe that’s a simplistic view. It could be that professional actors just aren’t able to give the kind of naturalistic performance that this movie demands. I don’t know enough to say.

Farewell, My Queen
Period drama! In French! Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution seems like tired territory, but I actually thought this was really good. The main character is a servant whose sole job is to read to the Queen. It’s hard to imagine why the Queen was so unpopular. I don’t know how accurate the portrayals of the real people were, but the relationship between Marie Antoinette and the reader was developed in an interesting and satisfying way. The ending was terrific and dramatic and unexpected and subtle and maybe a little ambiguous. I wish there were more of that in American movies.

Dark Horse
Todd Solondz makes weird and dark movies. This was less so than some of his others, but I thought it was just as compelling as, say, Happiness. Making a movie with an intensely unlikable protagonist is not something many filmmakers would bother to try, but Mr. Solondz pulls it off. He even makes you want to root for him sometimes. Mia Farrow was in this, and she was good. Where has she been lately? I feel like she hasn’t been in a movie in like twenty years.

Queen of Versailles
This is a documentary about a woman who left a career as an engineer to become a trophy wife. Her husband embarks on building the largest private residence in America and then goes bankrupt before it’s finished. The couple seem to actively dislike both each other and their kids. They’re both oblivious to the people around them. Highlight: the newly poor trophy wife takes a trip and has to rent a car. She asks the guy at the Hertz counter what her driver’s name is while he gives her a blank stare. High comedy. The lazy perspective is that this is a good look at a bunch of terrible people who embody everything that’s wrong with America. Just because it’s lazy doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Ruby Sparks
I don’t know if this really qualifies as a romantic comedy necessarily, but it was an interesting idea and I liked how they executed it. Zoe Kazan is the star and also wrote the screenplay. She’s Elia Kazan’s granddaughter. That was probably an interesting family to grow up in. Paul Dano is the co-star. I like him. I get the feeling that a lot of people find him unappealing. I can see that. He has an intensity that can be almost unsettling and his voice is kind of grating. I’ve seen him in four movies and he’s been good in all of them. He’s also dating Ms. Kazan in real life. She’s quite the looker and she’s smart enough to write at least one pretty solid screenplay. Cheers to you, Paul Dano!

Compliance
A lot of people hated this movie. Like, really hated. Critics and filmgoers alike. Lots of walkouts, apparently. I didn’t really get that. The reasoning seemed to be something like, “All the characters were so stupid! It just wasn’t believable and made me angry!” I don’t know how you can react that way knowing it’s a true story. Whatever storytelling liberties the movie took, it didn’t seem to diverge very far from the truth, at least from what I read online. I thought it was a pretty compelling demonstration of how human nature works. Ann Dowd had some Oscar buzz and I thought she was pretty good. I also thought Dreama Walker was convincing as the lead. That was a tough role and I thought she played it as well as it could be played. Also: Dreama is a totally ridiculous name for a person.

Sleepwalk With Me
I like Mike Birbiglia. He is funny. It’s a cliché, but he’s redefining what stand-up comedy can be. His act is closer to David Sedaris than Louis CK. Maybe it’s more about how we define stand-up comedy. Is David Sedaris reading a story he wrote really that much different than what Louis CK does? He’s onstage by himself trying to make people laugh. Sleepwalk With Me is based on a one-man show of Mr. Birbiglia’s. The one-man show is essentially him onstage for an hour telling this crazy story about himself. It’s not really a traditional stand-up hour, but if you watch his stand-up act you can tell this is the inevitable evolution. The movie version was nothing special, really, but if you haven’t heard the audio version, you might as well see the movie. Definitely worthwhile in one format or another. Mr. Birbiglia’s also done some pieces for This American Life, which I have enjoyed and I’m sure you can find via Google.

The Campaign
This movie was terrible.

End of Watch
I think it was Roger Ebert who noted that this movie was an excellent portrayal of how cops saw themselves. That makes sense. The two main characters are heroic and noble while policing South Central LA. I think a more accurate description is from an episode of The Wire, where Bunny Colvin (I think) says that cops view the city as occupied territory and citizens as enemy combatants. I’m probably butchering both of those descriptions. The big gimmick of the movie is that it’s shot as if by one of the cops filming some kind of video project. I thought that was a really cool idea, although it’s hard to stick with it in every shot and have it make sense.

For a Good Time Call…
Not really a noteworthy movie. Bland and innocuous. Enjoyable enough if you’re not thinking too hard. It’s saying something that I found a movie about phone sex operators bland. I have a fun story about when I saw this movie. Sometimes on a weekday afternoon I’ll go to the movies by myself. When you go to the theater when it isn’t busy, it’s easy to see a movie and then duck into another theater and see a second movie. That’s what I did for this one. Meaning, I didn’t buy a ticket for it. When I sat down in the theater, I was the only person there. Literally the only person. I was hoping someone else would show up, but no one did. I was kind of nervous that they would not actually play the movie since no one bought a ticket. But the movie started and I watched it alone. About halfway through the movie a theater employee came in with one of those air traffic controller glowing wands. That made me a little nervous. I thought that maybe they had checked the box office receipts and realized no one had bought a ticket. Then when they saw me in the theater they would bust me. Nope. He walked across the aisle in front of the stadium portion of the seats and walked out. He came in again towards the end of the movie. That made me nervous that he’d be waiting to confront me in the lobby when I left the theater. So I went out the side door. Thanks for the free movie!

The Master
This was one of my two favorite movies of the year. Visually stunning. So many shots stick in my head months after the fact. Joaquin Phoenix passed out at the top of a Navy destroyer while the crew throws bananas at him, running away across a barren field, riding a motorcycle, leering at a roomful of naked dancers, tearing apart his jail cell while Philip Seymour Hoffman stands still in the adjoining cell. I could go on. There are more. Yes, P.T. Anderson is a brilliant director. No, not everything in the film connects. Maybe it’s not meant to. Sometimes a film just generates an emotional reaction. This one did and I loved it. Maybe I won’t love it as much on a second viewing, but I know I’ll remember it more than anything else I saw this year.

Note that I called this a film. I usually stick with movie. This is because not all movies are actually shot, or especially projected, on film anymore. This one was. 70mm even. I wonder if we’ll go on calling movies “films” like we call titanium golf clubs woods or if the term will die out, like calling movies “pictures”. Check back in twenty years.

Looper
This was some good lighthearted fun. It’s a cool idea for a movie, and I enjoyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Bruce Willis impression. Those two only had one or two scenes together. I wish they had had more. The whole second half of the movie spun off into a plot that wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. It wasn’t really bad, but it felt like playing to a weakness rather than a strength.

Argo
I don’t understand people who want to use this movie to say that Ben Affleck is a great director. Really? There aren’t a dozen or several dozen other directors who could have done just as well? And I bet most of them would have cast a better actor than Ben Affleck as the lead. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a bad movie, and Mr. Affleck isn’t a bad director. I just didn’t think it was exceptional. Capably executed, I would say. It hit all of its marks, but not more than that. Nothing unconventional or unexpected. I could have told you how the ending was going to play out before the movie started. Alan Arkin and John Goodman gave good performances. That’s what happens when you cast good actors.

Cloud Atlas
What a crazy movie this was. I think it was generally a failure, but what a spectacular one. I’m glad I saw it. I feel like it’s tough to evaluate without having read the book first. My understanding is that the narrative of the book is difficult to impossible to film, so the Wachowskis took some creative liberties. One of the central devices they used was having the same actors play different characters in each of the movie’s different stories. The makeup etc. was so good that I didn’t always realize who was playing who. I think the whole point was that the audience was supposed to recognize the actors and connect the different characters together. They gave each actor a montage of his/her characters during the end credits. When you need to explain things like that over the end credits, maybe that’s a hint you needed to do things a little differently. Also the different stories had wildly varying tones and styles, which is usually jarring and distracting, but I thought it worked here. I think the idea there was similar to the multiple role thing.

Flight
Denzel Washington is great. It’s a total expected cliché when this happens right at the start of the movie, but he still looks like a badass walking in slow motion in his pilot uniform and aviator shades. (Do you think if a pilot tried to wear a different kind of sunglasses he’d be ostracized?) After the opening plane crash, this movie was on a collision course with predictability.* Denzel has his breakdown and redeems himself in the most hackneyed and implausible way possible. In this kind of movie I always root against that ending and I’m always disappointed. I wish big Hollywood productions would at least try to do something unexpected or interesting.
*Do you like this plane crash metaphor?

A Late Quartet
This was my other favorite movie of the year. Four subtle and affecting acting performances. Sometime it’s easy to forget what a good actor Christopher Walken is since he spends so much time playing up the caricature version of himself. The personal relationships of groups of musicians who play together is an interesting topic. I think most people would approach that in terms of a rock band, but using a string quartet is probably a better illustration of that dynamic. Since they don’t play any original music, it’s hard for one person (the songwriter) to naturally dominate the group. Of course, there are several power dynamics at play, and they were drawn out skillfully. The subplot of the daughter having an affair with the first violinist was a tad unrealistic if you ask me, but the interesting part of that from a story point of view wasn’t the affair itself, but how it affected everyone after the fact. So I can forgive it I suppose. I love small and deliberate movies like this. I wish there were more of them.

Lincoln
Tony Kushner should write more movies. This is the kind of project that can pretty easily turn into an overwrought boring drag. I think with a lesser screenwriter that’s exactly what would have happened. Even with Mr. Kushner involved it got dangerously close to that territory at times. This was probably the best-case scenario of an Abraham Lincoln biopic. It was entertaining even though: it didn’t contain much insight that we didn’t already have; it was very safe, sticking to the standard Lincoln hagiography; that shot of a candle in which Mr. Lincoln appears at the end was so silly it made me laugh out loud. Daniel Day-Lewis was great. No surprise there. I thought neither Sally Field nor Tommy Lee Jones were especially noteworthy, which seems to be a minority opinion. James Spader was better than both of them if you ask me.

Django Unchained
Reading about this movie made me very aware of the differences in critical theory between movies and books. If Django Unchained were a book every review would talk about metafiction and postmodernism and that kind of thing. No one in film criticism talks like that. I think this movie is every bit as conscious of itself as film as Lost in the Funhouse is of itself as text. I’ve never heard the term “metafilm” even though there are innumerable examples going back many decades. I think that’s precisely what this is. I’m talking about movies that self-consciously use technical or narrative devices to jar the viewer and remind her that she’s watching a movie. Jean-Luc Godard and his jump-cuts, as an example off the top of my head.

Lots of critics have talked about the violence of the movie, and their discomfort at all the violence directed at slaves. Some have even pointed out the difference between that violence and the violence Django unleashes on white people. Namely, violence perpetrated by whites on slaves is presented in a very stark and realistic manner, whereas the reverse is presented as obviously exaggerated. Scoring these scenes with rap music heightens the unreality–it’s impossible to look at what’s happening as a portrayal of any kind of reality. Everyone I’ve read has totally missed what I think Quentin Tarantino is trying to do there. Scenes like the mandingo fight and the runaway slave being torn up by dogs are historically accurate and are presented in a way that I think seems realistic. Mr. Tarantino’s trying to make it realistic because these are things that actually happened. Django shooting up a house full of plantation denizens looks more like The Matrix than a historical drama. The audience is obviously not supposed to take this as any kind of realistic portrayal. Presenting it this way is a constant reminder that we’re watching a movie, which is the opposite of what most movies try to do (cf. Lincoln, for example). Drawing this contrast is meant to direct our attention to the historical fact of slavery, which I think a lot of white people are very happy to forget or trivialize. We’re shown two types of horrible violence. One needs to be almost cartoonishly amplified to match the reality of the other. It’s hard to watch what’s happening and not spend some time thinking about that reality.

p.s. I know very little about academic literary/film criticism and I might have just embarrassed myself.

Silver Linings Playbook
I went into this movie thinking it would be about mentally unstable Eagles fans. I love mentally unstable Eagles fans. Then the whole plot revolved around a dance contest. Talk about false advertising. OK that’s my jokey review.

I thought both the football and dance aspects of the movie were pretty unrealistic. A retired blue-collar Philly guy starts a second career as a bookie? Come on. All of the gambling stuff was obviously meant for an audience that knew nothing about gambling. I thought all the actors did a good job, although I don’t think Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver had a whole lot to do. I was pleasantly surprised by Bradley Cooper. This was the first movie I saw him in where he didn’t play a smarmy asshole. He looks to have a lot more range than I would have thought. Hopefully he’ll not go back to the smarmy asshole roles. Jennifer Lawrence is a terrific actress. She’s also 22. I don’t know how we’re supposed to take her seriously playing a widow. Especially since she’s now best known as Katniss Everdeen, 18-year-old archery enthusiast. I don’t get all the award hype for this movie. It’s just not that good. Hidden bright spot: Ms. Weaver wears a Kevin Kolb jersey in one scene. I hope she makes Straight Cash Homey. Here’s the obligatory clip of David O. Russell losing his shit on the set of I Heart Huckabees:

The Central Park Five
Most of my thoughts about this are encapsulated in my David Denby thing from a couple weeks ago. This is the kind of documentary that is exactly what you expect. It’s designed to make you angry and despairing at our justice system and succeeds.

Promised Land
This movie stars Matt Damon and Frances McDormand, was directed by Gus Van Sant, with a “story by”* Dave Eggers. That seems like the base of a great movie. Instead it was a pretty straightforward denunciation of fracking and the oil industry. I don’t get movies like this. Everyone who sees it will already be against fracking. Is it just self-congratulatory feel-goodism? Do they think they’ll actually get people to change their mind on the issue? Totally forgettable. This group of people could have come up with such a great movie and instead they came up with this.
*The screenplay was by Mr. Damon and John Krasinski. On this kind of thing I always wonder what the contribution of the “story by” guy is. Did he just come up with a one-page treatment or did he have the whole thing laid out, just not in screenplay form? I wish the credits would have a paragraph detailing the process.

Zero Dark Thirty
I’m not interested in talking about the politics of the movie, but I thought it did a good job of showing the difference between the actual badasses in the Navy SEALs and the pretend badasses in the CIA. I enjoyed the movie, but it dragged a lot in the first half. They could have cut at least a half hour without losing anything. It’s an interesting story, but it felt to me like a 150-minute TV procedural with high production values. I didn’t think it was especially notable, frankly. I thought the actors were uniformly good. Jessica Chastain carried it, although she’ll need to be in a couple more things before I stop seeing her in gauzy light whispering, “You’ll be grown before that tree is tall.” This was a fun cast of recognizable faces in bit parts. Mark Duplass, James Gandolfini, Michael from Lost, The Federal Marshal from Lost, Chris Pratt, the coach from Friday Night Lights, Henry Francis from Mad Men. Bonus points for that.

Amour
This was very sad and emotional movie, but it never drifted into sentimentality. That’s hard to do. The whole thing takes place in a four room apartment. That’s also hard to do. One of the two main characters is in just about every frame of the movie, and both of them are present for most of it. I thought it was a very realistic portrayal of the process of watching an elderly person slowly dying. From my experience anyway. Like I said, it never became schmaltzy or overbearing, which is the easy thing to do whenever someone is dying in a movie (Terms of Endearment is the archetype). Restrained is a good word. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva were both excellent. They’re both European screen legends apparently. I’m not exactly a connoisseur of European film, but I will throw out a plug for The Conformist with M. Trintignant. One of the greats.

Here are two movies that I saw in the theater this year even though they weren’t released this year:
Raiders of the Lost Ark
I had never seen this movie before, if you can believe that. I’m glad I did. It was an interesting experience, since this movie has become so ingrained in popular culture. I hadn’t seen it, but I knew all of the important scenes and lines and characters and the ending. It was cool to fill in the gaps. It might have been more fun to see it knowing everything rather than going in cold. One other note: this was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 1980s, and is much better than almost every recent blockbuster. The correlation between quality and commercial success shrinks every year.

Lawrence of Arabia
This is a great movie. It was fun to see on the big screen. It really is better that way. Omar Sharif riding his camel in from the horizon is probably the most famous scene in the movie. It’s just not the same on TV. I saw a digital HD restoration. It was fine, but I would have preferred to see a 70mm print, film dust and all. The current obsession with doing everything digitally is too bad. Vinyl has made a resurgence in music after so many years of CD dominance, I wonder if we’re at the start of the CD phase of a similar cycle with movies.

Here are a few movies that I didn’t see but I still have comments about:
The Dark Knight Rises
I haven’t seen any of the new Batman trilogy. I would kind of like to, but that’s like an eight hour investment now. I should have seen them all when they were released. Now it seems like an insurmountable task.

The Sessions
I like John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, but I didn’t have much interest in seeing this. I read the essay the movie’s based on a couple years ago, and it’s hard to imagine the movie living up to it. Highly recommended reading.

The Life of Pi
Les Misérables
Am I the only person who gets tired of the breathless hype for this kind of emotional powerhouse movie before they’re even released? I know this is unfair, but if my mom sees a movie and then gushes about it afterwards I know I should avoid it. Translation: movies designed to elicit emotional responses from white upper middle class baby boomers don’t appeal to me. Last year’s best example: The Help.

Hyde Park on Hudson
This is a perfect example of a new and growing genre: the movie that exists solely to win awards. I don’t have too much sympathy for them when they fail to do so as spectacularly as this one did.

The time I was on a jury

13 Jan

One thing I like to do here on TPY is tell stories about myself. I was on a jury once. I thought that would make an interesting story, but I didn’t want to write it as a narrative like I’ve done in the past. I think that could be interesting reading, but  don’t really want to write (or think, for that matter) about the case or the details of the trial. The case material was not exactly fun times. That being said, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about jury duty. I think I’ll do it bullet point style. This might be digressive or disjointed. I don’t know. We’ll see where it takes us.

My jury summons covered a two week period. When you report to the jury holding pen on the first day there’s a little introduction/briefing and then they tell you to hang out wait until they call your name for a case. When you get called on a case, you don’t have to go to the jury holding pen until the case is over. I got called on the first case of the week. I think in hindsight that was ideal. Sitting in a room waiting for your name to be called seems terrible and kind of stressful. I’d always be nervous about going to the bathroom and missing my name. Plus I’d always be on alert for new cases. I don’t think it would be easy to concentrate on reading or whatever in that situation.

Being on a case is less time-consuming than being in the jury holding pen. A lot of being on a jury involves not being in the courtroom. On the first day we had to fill out a questionnaire and then they sent us home. There were 40 of us in the jury pool and they gave us times to come back in groups of twelve for jury questioning (you lawyers in the audience know this as voir dire). Then we all came back on Friday and the jury members were announced. The next week the trial and deliberations went until after lunch on Wednesday. So all told maybe eight hours the first week and two and a half days the second. Not too bad.

There were not one but two women in the jury pool who knew my mom from work. The odds on that must be in the stratosphere.

The jury questionnaire was full of all kinds of not-obviously-related-to-the-case stuff. Of course we didn’t know what the case was at that point. What was the last book you read, are you morally opposed to pornography, etc. The whole jury selection process is kind of demeaning. Lawyers asking you personal questions and then passing judgment on you. I did not like it. I was also trying hard to answer questions in ways that would get me bounced from the jury without lying. I had the feeling that I did not want to be involved in this case. I was almost successful but there was some legal maneuvering from the prosecution and I wasn’t struck. Weak.

One guy’s most recently read book was by Glenn Beck. The defendant’s lawyers asked him about it during voir dire. He was very pro-Glenn Beck. That guy seemed like a douche.

During the trial we had an hour and a half for lunch. What other profession takes 90 minutes for lunch every day? Judges sure are lazy. I like having free time as much as anyone, but it was a bit excessive. 90 minutes is too long to enjoyably kill time aimlessly but not long enough to do anything worthwhile. I spent a lot of time walking around the Minneapolis skyway system. I went to the library once or twice. I met my dad for lunch once or twice. I went to an event where the Twins unveiled the next season’s schedule.

As jurors we were paid $10 a day. We did not get any fringe benefits. No free meals in the government center dining room, no free parking, not even free bus fare. That was weak. Round-trip bus fare was $4.50 a day. And it’s not possible to buy lunch in downtown Minneapolis for less than $5.50. The people who drove were even more screwed. Parking at the courthouse was like $17 a day. I don’t think you can park all day anywhere downtown for less than $12 or so. At least Minneapolis parking isn’t as expensive as downtown parking in, say, Chicago or San Francisco. I should note that I don’t feel sorry for people who had to drive. If you want to live on an acre and a half in Minnetonka or wherever that’s just part of the price you pay. There was much complaining from those people. Fuck them. I, on the other hand, had a legitimate complaint. Those of us riding the bus were doing our civic duty to lower pollution and decrease traffic congestion and prevent downtown from being taken over by parking ramps. The bus and the district court are both paid for by local government agencies. Can’t they work together to get free bus fare for jurors? That seems like common sense.

The trial itself took the better part of two days. It was surprising how much of the trial takes place without the jury in the courtroom. Whenever the lawyers brought up some point that might bias us or give us too much information or something we were shuffled out into the hall to wait. That’s right, the hall. Not a room with chairs or anything. The hall, where there were a few benches. We spent hours sitting out there waiting. The information gap that occurs from missing half of the trial while sitting in the hall made us turn into detectives of a sort. I was always trying to figure out what they were talking about while we were gone. There was a lot of speculating in the jury room while we were deliberating.

The way information is presented to jurors was pretty frustrating. I know there are good reasons for doing things the way they do, but I just wanted to see all the information and go through it myself. One key piece of information was that the defendant was already in federal prison after pleading guilty to a related federal charge. If the defense had its way, we would never have found this out. The prosecutor couldn’t just tell us. The way we got that info was roundabout and weird. The prosecutor had a police officer who had testified at the federal trial read portions of the transcript of that trial to us while he was on the witness stand. (Not portions of his own testimony, portions of the defendant’s confession.) This was over the defense’s strenuous objection. It was obvious that this had been argued over at length while we were in the hall, and it was not explained to us why it was presented like that.

During the trial there were twelve jurors and three alternate jurors. At the end, the three alternates were unceremoniously dismissed. On one hand, I think I would have been relieved to be relieved* of the responsibility of reaching a verdict, but to sit through the whole thing and then not be involved in deliberations or even find out how it ended would be a bit disappointing. I would feel left out.
*Ha. Wordplay!

During the trial jurors aren’t allowed to discuss any aspect of the case with anyone, even the other jurors. This gave hallway time a weird dynamic. There was some small talk, but not much more than that. Everyone was pretty subdued and afraid of accidentally discussing the case.
-How long do you think we’ll be out here?
-I don’t know, the defense seemed pretty insistent about that last thing.
-Oh no, we just discussed the case!

A brief case summary is probably unavoidable, so here it is: Defendant was charged with the rape of his friend’s underage daughter. Verdict: guilty.

As you might imagine, most of the details of the case were unpleasant. I wonder how much this affected the experience. I’ve forgotten a lot of the details. I certainly haven’t tried to remember any of it. At this point the only name I can recall from the whole process is the defendant’s. How much of this is normal and how much is due to me not wanting to remember things? That’s fine with me, but would my recollection be better if the case had been some innocuous civil matter?

Deliberating on a case like this is an intense experience. You form a pretty tight bond with the other eleven jurors. They all seemed like nice people. I think we got along well, and even when there were disagreements things were cordial. At the same time, when it was over we went our separate ways. We were all in the lobby of the government center and no one really knew how to end it. Pretty quickly there were handshakes etc. and we all walked off. From the verdict to the goodbye was sort of emotional. Tears from some of the ladies and such. I don’t think I’d want to stay in contact with any of the other jurors. I think it would be difficult to overcome the circumstances that started things. “Hey, remember that time we talked about child rape for several hours?” Yuck.

I was both surprised and pleased with how seriously all the jurors took things. When we went into the jury room, all of us thought the defendant was guilty. It took us maybe eight hours to return a verdict. There’s a surprisingly wide gap between “yeah I think he probably did it” and “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

I was also surprised at how little information and instruction we were given in deliberation. We had the jury instructions and the evidence entered in the trial. These were both essentially inconsequential. What I wanted to have were transcripts/recordings of testimony. Nope. We had to rely on our memories. That was less than ideal sometimes. Also no one paid any heed to the various lawyering that went on in the trial. Opening/closing statements and such. I think most people are too smart for that.

I think everyone has an image of courtrooms formed from movies and TV. High ceilings, oak wainscoting, a large gallery full of people. The Verdict, more or less. This is not true in Hennepin County. The trial took place on the 11th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center in a small room with modest and modern accoutrements and only three or four rows of seating. Other than the people being called as witnesses, there was usually no one in the gallery. Occasionally one or two people were there. They never stayed long. I got the impression that they were law students doing some kind of homework.

The bailiff was an interesting character. He’s the one court figure we got to actually interact with. We asked him a lot of questions about jury sequestering. We were not sequestered. But sometimes juries are. He told us about one jury that was told they’d be sequestered but the members of the jury thought they’d reach a verdict before the end of the day. They didn’t. No one brought anything with them because they thought they were going home. So the bailiff had to take them to Target to buy toothbrushes and underwear and stuff. This was difficult for the bailiff because the jurors have to be supervised at all times. So he had another guy come with him and split the jury into boys and girls and they had to go around Target buying essentials in groups. Also, sometimes jurors aren’t allowed any outside contact during deliberations. This includes calls to family members. So the bailiff said that in those cases, jurors could write notes to their loved ones. The bailiff would then call said loved ones and read the notes. “I love you honey” and so on. He seemed to think that was pretty funny.

Once we started deliberating the bailiff was pretty serious about keeping us together. We all had to eat lunch together in the cafeteria. We all had to go down to the cafeteria in one elevator. We all had to go stand by the door if someone wanted to go outside to smoke. It was one of those situations where reasonable rules in concept create a ridiculous situation in practice.

The cafeteria was terrible. It was one of those a la carte places with buffet items and sandwiches and stuff. Gross. And it was like $8. You can’t eat downtown for less than $5.50 but there are a lot of good options for less than $8. I only ate there when we had to because we were deliberating. When I walked past it at lunchtime there were always a lot of people eating there. I think it was mostly suburban jurors who were intimidated by Minneapolis’s skyway system and never left the building for fear of getting lost.

After everything was over the judge told us that the prosecutor or defendant might contact us after the trial to ask us about things. Apparently this is standard practice for lawyers. Like football players studying game film. I’m glad no one contacted me. Also of note: all of our full names were readily available to everyone involved, including the defendant. I didn’t feel great about that.

I thought jury duty was pretty serious business. I thought court in general was serious business. I dressed accordingly. On the first day. I wore khaki pants, oxford shirt, necktie, sweater, and loafers. The last thing I thought was that I was overdressed. There were probably 200 people called for jury duty that week, so let’s say 100 men. I was the only one wearing a tie. That stunned me. Wearing a tie to court seemed like common sense to me. I wonder if that reflects our society’s larger trend toward casual dress or an erosion of respect for our judicial institutions. I would guess the former. I think people probably just wore their everyday clothes to jury duty. I remember when I was young my dad wore a suit and tie to work every day. Now, when he does to work at the same place, in a more senior position, sometimes he wears jeans and a polo shirt. He’s not the only one. None of his co-workers wears a suit or a tie. Twenty years ago they all did. That’s an amazing cultural shift. Someone smart should explain why that happened.

There was one Vietnamese guy on the jury. His English wasn’t great. I think he followed everything OK, but he didn’t say much in the jury room. I didn’t talk to him so I don’t know his story, but obviously if he’s on a jury he’s a citizen and a registered voter. Of course he should be both entitled and expected to participate in the judicial process, but I don’t know if having a jury member who may not grasp every nuance is the best-case scenario. I’m sure there’s a lot of dumb writing about this kind of thing on the internet. I’m not going to try and find it. Would this kind of juror generally favor the defense or prosecution? Interesting question.

We weren’t involved with the sentencing at all. We were told it would take place a month hence. As I mentioned, the defendant was already serving a related federal sentence. I didn’t check on the details after the fact. I’m glad sentencing wasn’t involved in our job as jurors. There’s a lot more involved in deciding a “fair” sentence than in deciding innocence or guilt. Probably best left to professionals. Although I know there are sometimes problems with judges and sentences. The judicial system is hard.

Court reporter seems like a cushy gig. We all picture a harried secretary type banging out shorthand on a typewriter. Nope. It was an old guy monitoring a tape recorder. Occasionally he’d ask someone to repeat or spell a name but a lot of the time he looked asleep.

The clerk was sneaky hot. My understanding is that, at least at elite levels, clerks are all law students/recent graduates. I wonder if that’s true of district court clerks and if their duties are similar. I also wonder if a juror has ever picked up a clerk during or after a trial. Seems like a high degree of difficulty.

So that’s jury duty. Maybe I’ll be on a jury again some day. Right before I moved I received a notice in the mail informing me that I had been put on the Federal Grand Jury watch list or something for the next two years. I was disappointed when I had to tell them that I moved and couldn’t serve. Being on a grand jury sounds cool. I would like to do that.

Successes in film criticism

7 Jan

I recently wrote a post about one of The New Yorker’s film critics, David Denby. I think he’s terrible. I mentioned in that post that his colleague Anthony Lane is terrific. I usually agree with his opinions, and even if I don’t, I can at least appreciate his perspective, which he’s very good at articulating. His reviews of good movies are worthwhile, but what makes him a true star of criticism are his pans. I think they might be legendary in some circles. I don’t know enough about the world of film criticism to state that definitively. Sorry.

The first exposure I had to Mr. Lane was a link from a blogger somewhere many years ago. She mentioned that his negative reviews were very enjoyable, and linked to one of a film adaptation of Phantom of the Opera. It’s a tour de force. Here’s the opening paragraph:

What does it take to shake a movie fan? Whether we are critics or bug-eyed buffs, so many of our evenings are spent in the company of crimes and misdemeanors that we can hardly be blamed for developing the hide of a pachyderm. Just occasionally, something slips through—a thin shudder of monstrosity, enough to remind us of what it means to be afraid. And so it came about, this week, that I gazed at a black screen and saw words so calamitous that they might have been written in my own blood: “Screenplay by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Joel Schumacher.”

Go read the whole thing. It will brighten your day. This week Mr. Lane reviewed Les Misérables. I haven’t seen the movie. I don’t think I would like it, but I am kind of curious about it. Mr. Lane did see the movie. He did not like it. Considering it alongside his Phantom review, it’s pretty clear that Mr. Lane doesn’t have a whole lot of respect for self-important pop musicals. Here’s his description of the interplay between Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe in Les Mis:

Would it be too fanciful to suggest that they have a thing for each other, to which they never confess? That would explain why Crowe and Jackman, both tough Australians, are made to sing at so agonized a pitch. Crowe launches into his lusty anthems as if a platoon of infantry, stationed in his immediate rear, had just fixed bayonets without giving sufficient warning.

I think I enjoyed this review more than I will enjoy the movie. One more example. Mr. Lane doesn’t just aim his pen at bloated emotionally manipulative musical spectacle. He’s also an astute student of film technology! Here’s his verdict on the technical innovations of The Hobbit:

Mind you, what a shine. “An Unexpected Journey” was shot in 3-D and filmed at forty-eight frames per second, as opposed to the standard twenty-four. This sounds miraculous, and you will indeed notice and marvel at the difference, but only if you happen to be a snowy owl who likes watching voles from a hundred and fifty yards.

Godspeed, Anthony Lane. You are truly doing the Lord’s work.

New Year’s Day

6 Jan

Here’s a story about what I did on New Year’s Day.

I celebrate this decade because there are no longer those glasses with the year and the 0's for eyes.

I celebrate this decade because there are no longer those glasses that spell out the new year with the 0’s for eyes

My neighbor is in a band. It’s a bluegrassy band.* His band will soon be playing on something called the Jam Cruise. This is a cruise on which a bunch of bands play a bunch of shows all the time and jam band fans buy tickets for the cruise and it’s a big party or something. I guess it’s like a music festival but on a boat instead of a fairgrounds or wherever. A hyper-specific theme cruise is interesting to me. I’ve always been dismissive of cruises in general. Then I read David Foster Wallace’s essay about luxury cruises, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, and I became extremely dismissive of cruises in general. A theme cruise could be interesting, however. If you’re really into the theme. If I were to go on a cruise it would be some kind of theme cruise. Maybe there could be a David Foster Wallace cruise where everyone would be encouraged to criticize cruise ships all the time. I might do that. That’s a very arch concept. I’m glad I thought of it.

*I say bluegrassy because I’m not confident about calling them an actual bluegrass band. They have a drummer and stuff. I get the impression that some bluegrass enthusiasts are very concerned about definitions in this area. So I’m calling them bluegrassy, like highly processed food products that label themselves as “chocolatey” or “peanut buttery” because they don’t contain any actual chocolate or peanut butter, respectively. Maybe that’s not very flattering to the band. I didn’t mean it that way.

So anyway my neighbor and his wife need to get from Oakland to the cruise ship. They’re making a stop in Western New York first. This trip involves airplanes, and requires someone to drive them to the airport. This is where my part of the story starts.

Flying into Oakland is cool. The runways are right on the bay.

Flying into Oakland is cool. The runways are right on the bay.

Especially sharp readers may recall an earlier story of mine in which my precious Volvo overheated. The car was low on coolant, so I added some more. Problem solved. Since then my car had been (very) slowly losing coolant. This is bad news. I had this problem once before, when there was a leak in the expansion tank. This leak resulted in a neon green puddle under my car whenever I parked it. That made me feel bad about local waterways. But the puddle made the problem obvious. This time there were no puddles. Also I never got around to buying more special Volvo coolant, so I didn’t have any more to add to the tank. Even so, the coolant has stayed above the “min” line on the expansion tank. I wasn’t worrying too much about it.

The Cadillac of automobiles

The Cadillac of automobiles

When we got off the highway and approached the airport, I checked my dashboard temperature gauge. Normally the needle sits about halfway. The red line is maybe 9/10 of the way to the right. The needle when I checked it was approaching the red line and wobbling. Yikes. Telling your passengers that you need to pull over for an indeterminate length of time to deal with an impending car problem is not what your passengers want to hear when they’re on their way to the airport. So I didn’t say anything. We were almost there, after all. I became very nervous and let off the gas a bit but we got there without crisis. After I bid them adieu, my brain went into problem-solving mode. I thought the drop-off area of an airport–even a relatively sleepy airport like Oakland’s–would be a bad place to park my car and start poking around under the hood. I decided to leave the airport and pull over at the first convenient spot and come up with a plan.

I left the airport and crossed over I-880 on 98th Ave. I turned off the main drag into a residential neighborhood and pulled over. I should note that some people would simply take their chances rather than get out of their car on 98th Ave. in Oakland. I should also note that by this time my car’s radiator was occasionally making a crazy noise. It was sort of a moaning. Hard to describe. Maybe a little like a plaintive Chewbacca. I hoped this was just the radiator working extra hard to keep my engine from bursting into flames. I didn’t have any coolant, but I did have a jug of distilled water in the trunk, so I thought I could add that if nothing else. I checked the coolant expansion tank and it wasn’t empty, as I had feared. Nonetheless, I added a bit of water. The radiator was also whirring loudly. I worked pretty slowly. I wanted to give the engine a little time off. The radiator stopped whirring presently and after another few minutes I started the car back up.

I think I see a single tear running down his cheek

I think I see a single tear running down his cheek

My goal was to make it home. I was on 98th Ave. I live on 14th Ave. That’s 84 blocks. I was pretty nervous.

I turned around and had to wait forever at a stoplight to turn left onto 98th. The temp gauge was holding pretty steady at about halfway. I thought driving fast on the highway gave me a better chance than 84 blocks of stop-and-go through East Oakland. Things were OK. I passed the Coliseum. That’s 66th. My exit is 23rd. My hopes were up. Then the needle started moving. The next exit was High Street, which is at the level of 43rd. I did NOT want my car to stall on the highway. Split-second decision time. I got off. Now the car was making the Chewbacca noise more frequently. The needle was wavering just short of the red line. I was hoping to get into a parking lot before the car died. There was a Burger King on one side of the street and a taco truck on the other. When I saw the food options I decided I would stop and get some lunch. I would let my car cool down for awhile and then set off for home through the city. I wasn’t going to risk the highway again. I went for Burger King. I would have rather eaten at the taco truck. East Oakland has many terrific taco trucks. However, they don’t have much seating where you can hang out and take your time while your car’s engine cools down.

I enjoyed Google image searching "East Oakland"

I enjoyed Google image searching “East Oakland”

I don’t like to indulge in lazy stereotypes about East Oakland. I live there and I like it. It’s a much more diverse and vibrant place than a lot of people give it credit for. However, the simple truth is that a Burger King in East Oakland is not the same as a Burger King in Suburbia, USA. It was around 1pm. The Burger King was pretty busy. I was the only white person there. There was a homeless guy panhandling at the door. The line moved very slowly when it moved at all. The floor was so sticky that I can only assume someone had mopped the floor with Coke instead of water. The crew was calling out the order numbers in Spanish. Et cetera.

This video of a fight in the parking lot of the Burger King in question does not dispel negative stereotypes about East Oakland

This video of a fight in the parking lot of the Burger King in question reinforces negative stereotypes about East Oakland

After I ordered, I was standing and waiting for my food. Fast-food restaurants really need to designate a place where people who have already ordered can stand and wait. This is a universal problem. I was standing in a place where I thought it would be clear I wasn’t in line to order when a guy came in. He was maybe 20 years old. He was very obviously drunk. He bypassed the line and went up to the counter. He was talking about how he had McDonald’s and it was better than Burger King and other such nonsense. I didn’t get a very good look at him because the number one rule in this kind of situation is not to make eye contact. If you do that it’s all over. Then the drunk guy at Burger King will not be talking to the whole Burger King, he’ll be talking to you. My order came up and I took it to a table very far away from the counter.

This is the point where Drunk Guy asked for a job application. There were signs advertising that Burger King was hiring on the counter. I don’t doubt that Drunk Guy genuinely wanted to apply. I just don’t think he realized what a bad idea it is to be drunk when you apply for a job, even at Burger King. The Burger King employees (who were all working hard and seemed pretty competent, I should point out) managed to dissuade him somehow. I wasn’t close enough to make out the details. I turned back to my Whopper and my thoughts returned to my car.

After a minute or two I realize that Drunk Guy had occupied a table near me. He was trying to chat up a couple who was eating at the next table. They were doing a pretty good job of deflecting him and he was mostly just sitting there. He had a big McDonald’s bag. This really explicated his McDonald’s screed from earlier. Maybe ol’ Drunk Guy wasn’t so bad after all. That’s when I saw him take a pull from his vodka bottle. Not an inconspicuous pull from one of those little flat bottles that you associate with alcoholics, but a regular 750ml bottle that he was brandishing around like some kind of weapon. Yes, this dude was just sitting in Burger King, eating McDonald’s, and taking swigs from a bottle of vodka. No one said a word to him.

I wonder if they serve vodka at McDonald's in Russia

I wonder if they serve vodka at McDonald’s in Russia

I was in Burger King for at least half an hour. I calculated that I was something like 40 blocks from home. I turned out of the parking lot and hoped for the best. The temp gauge held steady at halfway for maybe 20 blocks. Then it started rising, but not steadily. Up and down, still for a bit, up a little more. It never got to the red line, but it got pretty fucking close. The car didn’t stall. There was no smoke from under the hood. The Chewbacca noises didn’t get any worse. I had successfully driven home from the airport. I was quite relieved.

This detailed map will make you feel like you were there

This detailed map will make you feel like you were there

Epilogue

I took the car to a mechanic yesterday. Apparently the problem was a leaky radiator hose or hoses. At least that’s what the mechanic told me he thought it was. They’re not done with it yet. We’ll see. I’m hoping to get it back tomorrow. I’m hoping it will be as good as new.