Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Learning to love the weather: Robin Williams in The Big White

Just dawned on me. I may have seen more movies starring Robin Williams than movies starring any other contemporary actor. Since I reposted my review of Moscow on the Hudson, The Terrible Loneliness of Being Free, when director Paul Mazursky died last month, in honor of Williams, here’s my review from 2007 of a lesser known film of his but one I really like, The Big White.


Big White Paul in the dumps

The Big White, starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, and Giovanni Ribisi, is set in a post-Northern Exposure movie and tv show dreamland where quirky characters living in quaint and eccentric small towns stumble half-comically, half-sadly through small misadventures, searching for a modest bit of happiness and at least a glimmer of understanding about how to make their lives a little better.

You Can Count On Me, The Station Agent, Garden State, Doc Hollywood, Fargo, Mumford, Sunshine State, Cookie’s FortuneCookie’s Fortune is an interesting case because it was Altman’s influence on TV ensemble dramas like MASH, Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere that made Northern Exposure possible, which makes Cookie’s Fortune a case of influence as a game of telephone, the original message circling back on itself.

Some of these movies are darker than others, depending on how much to the fore they allow the facts of death and violence and the worst of life’s evils and sorrows.  But, setting aside Fargo, even in the darkest of them, and The Big White is among the darkest, the main characters, even the villains, are fairly decent and well-meaning types who don’t wish each other harm.  Conflict arises from the clashing interests of if not good then not really bad people forced to act selfishly to save themselves or those they love from troubles that have come about simply because what’s good for one person may be bad for another.  It’s not a case of good guys versus bad guys, but trying-to-be good guys struggling to do what’s right for them against other trying-but-maybe not trying-as-hard-to-be good guys struggling to do what’s right for them.

Life is hard enough, these movies seem to be saying, even when it’s apparently going well, that for an hour and a half or two hours it’s ok for us to worry about the problems of some characters who aren’t threatened by war, natural disasters, or grinding poverty.

Big White Holly Hunter Life is hard enough for Paul Barnell.  Barnell (Williams) is the owner of a failing travel agency.  He’s up to his ears in debt.  He has no prospects for digging himself out.  There’s no one he can turn to for help.  But his biggest problem, the one that may have partly caused the others by forcing him to take his focus and energy away from running his business, is that his wife, Margaret (Hunter), whom he adores, has gone crazy, and she shows signs of going even crazier.  She’s falling down deep into herself, as if into a well.  Paul has her by the tails of the pajamas she wears all the time, holding her back from the edge, but he feels his grip slipping.

Margaret can feel it slipping too.  She is still sane enough to know she’s going insane and she’s terrified.  So she’s convinced herself that she has developed Tourette Syndrome.  Tourette is a disease, she’s reasoned, it’s an organic malfunction that can be controlled with medicine.  If she has Tourette she’s not crazy, she’s just sick, and she’ll get better.

She spends a lot of her time mimicking what she thinks are the symptoms of Tourette.  She’s not fooling anyone.  But Paul does his best to make her believe he believes her.

Speaking of Northern Exposure, The Big White is also set in Alaska.  But Northern Exposure’s Cecily was a part of Alaska.  It had fitted itself into the landscape and assimilated and been assimilated by the Native American culture that was there ahead of it.  In order to live there happily and feel at home in the place, all you had to do was get along with your neighbors and adapt to the rhythms of the place.  You learned to love the weather.  That was Fleischman’s problem.  He refused to get along or adapt.

But the unnamed town that’s the setting for The Big White is a transplanted piece of Anywhere, America, an assemblage of strip malls and ranch house developments dropped on the tundra.  The residents can’t adapt to living in Alaska because to go about their daily business requires them to live as if they’re in a suburb of Sacramento, Toledo, or Wilmington, Delaware.

Even in the coldest and snowiest of winters they’re forced to spend lots of time alone in their cars driving from isolated homes to isolated businesses.  It’s a place that seems to have been designed to cause Seasonal Affective Disorder.  The ads for Waikiki Airplanes and posters for Hawaiian vacations in Paul’s office emphasize the emptiness of the place and the futility of his business.  The scenes of surfers and smiling, beautiful couples walking hand in hand on beaches don’t inspire a longing to get away.  They only remind you of the cold and the snow outside and encourage a surrender to the bleakness.  They don’t make you want to rush to the airport.  They send you home to hide or to a bar to drink.

In such a place you wonder how it is that everyone hasn’t gone as crazy as Margaret.  Then it dawns on you.  They have.

Paul is convinced, naturally, that if he can just get Margaret out of here and take her someplace warm she’ll recover and return to her old self.

In order to leave and set up somewhere else, though, he needs to settle his debts.

He has only one asset, his brother’s million dollar life insurance policy that names Paul as beneficiary.

The good news is that Raymond Barnell has been missing for years, and, a wild guy, a heavy drinker, with a bad temper and a self-destructive streak, it’s a good bet he’s dead.

The bad news is that state law requires that a person be missing for seven years before they can be declared legally dead.  Raymond has been gone only five.  Paul has to wait two more years before he can collect on Raymond’s policy, unless, of course, Raymond’s dead body turns up.

Which it does.

Well, a dead body does.

A pair of legbreakers who, against their better nature, have upscaled their business to include murder for hire have done a guy for another, meaner thug named Dave—

First legbreaker (as they’re dumping the body): What’d he do anyway?

Second legbreaker: Don’t know.  But Dave said if he did it again he’d break his neck.

It being winter and the ground being frozen and under a foot of snow, they can’t bury the body, and their being inexperienced in these matters and apparently never having watched The Sopranos, Gary and Jimbo aren’t sure how to dispose of the body.  So they decide to leave it for the professionals.  They drop it off in a dumpster.

Where Paul finds it.

Now all he’s got to do is pass the body off as his brother’s while deflecting the suspicions of the insurance investigator.   The first part turns out to be easy.  The insurance investigator is more of a problem.

Ted Watters (Ribisi) isn't just a crackerjack investigator, he's a desperate one.  In his way, he's as desperate as Paul.  Sent up to Alaska by his company's home office to whip the department into shape and train a promising rookie, Ted has begun to suspect that what was supposed to be the prelude to a promotion was actually a punishment for an unwitting mistake the company's never bothered to explain to him.  He's been up here for thirteen months and is feeling permanently banished.  When Paul shows up, attempting what Ted sees as obvious insurance fraud, he decides he can get himself back into corporate's good graces by exposing Paul and saving the company a million bucks.

He's astonished when the company execs accept Paul's story and decide to pay off.  And he's frustrated when after he presses the case they tell him to forget about it.   He determines to do the right thing and get the goods on Paul.  This turns out to be a perverse and self-destructive move on his part and bizarrely makes him a villain in everyone else's eyes.  He is shocked that doing his job, doing the honest thing, leads to his being not just disliked but physically punished by Fate.  This is so obviously unfair that it just makes him more determined to bring Paul down.

Meanwhile, the thug who hired Gary and Jimbo doesn’t believe they’ve done their job.  He demands visual proof.  He wants to see the body.  When they return to the dumpster to fetch it—apparently they’ve checked the pick-up schedule and expect it to still be where they left it—and find out it’s gone, it doesn’t take them long to figure out where it went.
They’re naive for hitmen, but they’re not stupid.  They guess that the body must have been discovered by someone who uses the dumpster regularly, someone in one of the businesses nearby, learn that Paul has recently buried his “brother” whose body turned up mysteriously, and track him down.  They break into his house, take Margaret hostage, and demand Paul return the body.

There is some black comedy in The Big White—I won’t tell you what Paul has to go through to pass the body off as his brother’s—but this is really a very sad and sweet little movie, mainly because of the loving marriage between Paul and Margaret that is at the movie’s heart and Williams’ and Hunter’s performances.

Hunter is adorable...and believably crazy.  We get only a single glimpse of Margaret as she used to be.  In a home video Paul took on one of their vacations, a waiter spills a drink on her and she reacts with good grace and great good humor.  What Hunter does is make us realize that in going crazy Margaret hasn’t changed that much.  She is the same person we see in the video, the same person Paul fell in love with 15 years ago, only more so.  It’s a terrifying and terribly sad definition of madness as an intensification of personality.  Going mad means becoming more like yourself.

To a lesser degree, but still to a degree of madness, this is what has happened to both Paul and Ted too.  Each man has become more like himself.  And the more you are lost in yourself the less room you have for other people.  Paul will always have room for Margaret, but Ted is squeezing the woman he loves out of his life, and he definitely doesn't have any room for Paul and his troubles except as means to solving his own problem.

Williams does a very nice job of using that puppy dog quality of his that can be so annoying in his Patch Adams-Love Me Love Me roles to real effect beyond playing for the camera's affections.  He turns it exclusively on Margaret, making it into a blanket of niceness that he attempts to keep wrapped around her to protect her from her own fear.  This frees him up to be less than nice with the other characters.  Williams allows Paul to be angry.  Paul isn't a martyr.  He isn't resigned to what's happening to him and Margaret.  It's unfair and it's awful and it makes him furious, and he can barely keep his anger in check.  The unfairness of it has also made him willing to be unfair, to return meanness with meanness, and to do whatever he has to do to save Margaret, up to the point of being willing to commit murder.

As Ted, Ribisi does something you don't see young American actors do very often.  He plays a thirty year old as a full-fledged adult.

Ted likes his job, he's good at it, he works hard at what he does and he defines himself by himself by his work, and he carries himself accordingly.  Overgrown college boys do not hold positions of trust and responsibility like the one Ted has earned.  Ted is a man doing a man's job.  He's sober, serious, responsible, disciplined, decent, honest, and nuts.

Ribisi makes no special pleas for his honest and decent character's honesty and decency or for any of his other virtues.  Ted may be in the right, but he's doing the right thing for suspect reasons, reasons that border on mania if not outright madness, and Ribisi fixes his eyes in an unblinking beady-eyed stare that repels sympathy.  He trusts enough in the character's basic attractiveness and in his own likability as a young leading man to play up Ted's unattractive side.

Big White Tiffany and Ted He also trusts in Alison Lohman as Ted's devoted girlfriend, Tiffany.  Tiffany is a lovable character---the most lovable in the movie---and it helps that Lohman is as lovable as Tiffany's supposed to be.  But Ribisi doesn't simply trust that we'll like Ted for Tiffany's sake.  He understands that if Ted is to be liked he must learn to be likable, and he has only one person to learn it from, Tiffany.

Getting back to Northern Exposure, Ted is the character with Joel Fleischman's problem.  Like Joel, he knows he would be happier if he would just relax and learn to get along with his new neighbors.  But also like Flieschman, he knows that getting along and learning to like living where he's stuck living is a form of surrender.  He doesn't want to like it there.  He wants out of there, now.

So he resists anything and everything that might make him like it there.  This includes Tiffany.

Tiffany loves him, but Ted refuses to love her back---or to admit that he does.

The more fool him.

Tiffany runs a psychic hotline out of the house she and Ted share.  She is a good-natured fraud, untroubled in her conscience by what Ted calls her "carny scam," because she believes her callers understand that she's a fake.  She and they pretend together that she's a psychic so they don't have to admit to themselves that they ought to be smart enough to solve the problems they bring to her on their own.

The real point is, though, that their problems are problems and she does help solve them.  What Tiffany is is a talented psychologist and practical nurse who didn't have the money or luck to go to college and earn an actual degree in the field she was born for.

Ted is blind to her talent, or pretends to be, and even more willfully blind to the fact that her most challenging client, the person who most needs her help and advice, is himself.

Lohman, who I was afraid would disappear into Hollywood movie starlet-dom after her wonderful turn as the young Jessica Lange to Ewan McGregor's young Albert Finney in Big Fish, plays Tiffany without any trace of a starlet's vanity.  Tiffany is pretty because Lohman is pretty, but the fact doesn't seem to interest either one of them.  Tiffany is smart too, but that doesn't matter all that much to her either.  And she's good-hearted, another fact about herself Tiffany doesn't overvalue.  She doesn't believe that her good-heartedness has earned her any special favors from life.  This is the big difference between her and Ted and between her and Paul.  She doesn't feel owed.

Learning not to feel owed is the first lesson Ted needs to learn from her.

I hope I'm getting at what Ribisi and Lohman manage to do so well by saying that watching Ted's slow realization and conversion is like watching Lohman teach Ribisi how to dance.  She's an excellent and enthusiastic teacher, but patient and slow, and he's trusting enough and modest enough to let her lead.

It's to director Mark Mylod's and screenwriter Collin Friesen's great credit, as well as to Ribisi's, that they leave Ted still in the process of learning when the movie ends.  Ted has only progressed so far that he's no longer stepping on her toes.  He's got a ways to go before he can take over on the dance floor.

The movie doesn't end with Ted and Tiffany exactly duplicating the loving married couple, Margaret and Paul.  Ted hasn't completely given in.  But his last line makes clear that he'll get there.

Tiffany (taking Ted's arm as the snow falls on them):  Don't you just love this weather.

Ted (looking at the sky warily but hopefully):  Learning to.

Woody Harrelson makes a vivid and terrifying appearance bringing the kind of violence and menace that is usually kept just out of range in these Northern Exposure-influenced movies and shows.  His character is another one who has gone nuts by becoming too much like himself.  Unfortunately, in his case it means becoming more of a monster of selfishness and anger.

I think Mylod let him overdo it a bit, but Harrelson gets his final scene just right nonetheless, and it's a powerful and moving moment that leads to another sad and perfect little grace note by Williams.

Tim Blake Nelson and W. Earl Brown as the erstwhile hitmen, Gary and Jimbo, are a lot of fun, especially when Gary attempts to make Margaret admit she's faking her Tourette symptoms because he likes her and is concerned about her.  Margaret calls Gary and Jimbo the Gay Mafia, but it's never clear that the characters are lovers.  They are, however, married, in their fashion.  They are a devoted couple and the small, quiet ways Brown and Nelson show the men's domestic familiarity and their affection are both funny and touching.


The Big White.  Directed by Mark Mylod.  Written by Collin Friesen.  Starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, Giovanni Ribisi, Alison Lohman, Woody Harrelson, Tim Blake Nelson, and W. Earl Brown.  Echo Bridge Entertainment in association with Capitol Films.  2005.

The Big White is available to watch instantly at Amazon.

My favorite Williams movie, The Fisher King, which is also my favorite Jeff Bridges movie, is streaming on Netflix.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Little Libertarian on the Prairie

In this morning’s post, A nation of spoiled babies looking for work, I went off on a short tangent about the inherent Libertarianism in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Reminded me. Back in May of 2011, I went off on a long tangent on the same idea. Here’s that post:

image Reading The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure.

The Wilder Life is as the subtitle suggests about McClure’s attempts to reconnect with the books that meant the most to her when she was a little girl, the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  In the course of re-reading Wilder’s books and biographies and critical studies and even a cookbook, McClure learns things she didn’t know about Laura Ingalls and her family and one of the things she learns is that the little house in the big woods wasn’t as deep in the woods as it seemed in the book named after it. The nearest town, which McClure had always imagined as a long, long way off from the Ingalls little house, was actually nearby.  Laura and her family had neighbors and more than McClure would have thought.

What astonishes her, though, is that the town was a town.

In the book Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder…John E. Miller points out that the Chippewa River valley region where Laura’s family lived was home to a bustling lumber business district; he cites a local newspaper editorial, written a few years before Laura’s birth, that describes Pepin, the town only a few miles from the Ingallses’ log cabin, as having a “busy hum”: “The air was alive with the sounds and voices of intelligent and independent industry,” the editorial claimed.  Miller thinks that was likely an exaggeration, too, but you can’t help but think that even if the industrious hum wasn’t that loud, Pa Ingalls and his family might have been close enough to hear it, so to speak, in between the sounds of the whispering trees and the howling wolves.

There was a school in the area close enough for Laura to walk to and Pa Ingalls was the treasurer for the local school district:

…so in between making bullets and tanning hides with brains, he must’ve found time every now and then to wipe the bear trap grease from his hands and attend some boring meeting like an 1870s soccer dad.

Even more astonishing was discovering that De Smet, the town in what’s now South Dakota that’s buried and battered by blizzard after blizzard during The Long Winter, had a roller rink!

“How,” McClure asks, “did the town progress so quickly from nearly starving to death to building teen hangouts?”

I’m only three chapters in, so maybe McClure answers that question later in her book, but if De Smet was like most frontier towns from the beginning of the white settlement of America, starting with Plymouth---Jamestown wasn’t founded as a town; it was a fort or, from the Indians’ point of view, a bandits’ lair.---it didn’t have to progress because the town itself was the progress.

The settling of the continent was a progressive process.  The image from the movies of the settling of the west occurring as a lonely log or sod cabin is built in the wilderness with maybe a trading post a day’s walk away and the settlers fighting off Indians, wild animals, and starvation while waiting for the cavalry to arrive and civilization to catch up---that happened, here and there, but mostly in wilderness areas we now regard as the East.

Mainly, what happened, though, was that whole towns sprang up practically overnight.  Daniel Boone did a lot of solitary exploring but then he came back to the woods to cut it down and found a town.

imageLooking at the iconic image of wagons rolling west, it’s easy to forget that wagon trains were in fact trains.  They were doing what trains still do, carrying lots of passengers with all their attendant baggage and delivering goods.   And when we picture those pioneers bumping along in their wagons, the sounds of pots and pans clanging in the beds behind them, we need to remember what else they were bringing with them besides cooking utensils and some bedding.  They brought books and musical instruments---think of Pa Ingalls and his fiddle---and clocks and pictures to hang on the walls of their log cabins and sod huts once they got them built.  They were also bringing themselves.  That is, they were bringing their attitudes, customs, and habits and generally these were not the attitudes, customs, and habits of “pioneers.”  The people we call pioneers had been born and raised and had lived most of their lives in towns and cities.  There were of course countryfolk among all these townsfolk and cityfolk, but almost from the moment the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, living in the country meant living close to town instead of in it, and countryfolk could hear that same hum, so to speak, that McClure was astonished to learn the Ingallses heard in between the sounds of the whispering trees and the howling wolves.

The pioneers were bringing civilization with them.

They didn’t settle themselves in the wilderness and then build civilization from scratch.  It came with them, pre-fab.

It often happened like this, because along with everything else they brought with them they brought their religion and they brought children:  As soon as they could, the settlers built a church and the church usually served as a schoolhouse until they could build a separate one.  And around the church they built stores and offices.  Not everyone who went west went west to farm.  A lot of people went west to sell things, goods and services, to farmers.  They were storekeepers and blacksmiths and lawyers and doctors and newspaper editors, all of whom brought the tools and rules of their trades with them.  Things got social very quickly, and complicated.   That meant hiring or appointing a minister and a teacher and a town police force, which may have included only one man, but he still had to be hired and paid.  In order for the farmers to get to and from town and for people in town to get around, there had to be roads and those roads had to be kept relatively clear.  There were all these wooden structures right up against each other, all lit and heated by flames.  They were fire hazards and that meant they had to watched carefully.  Do you remember the episode of Deadwood that revolved around appointing a fire marshal?  A fire brigade had to be organized, just in case.  Now who did all that?  How did they do all that?  Usually by committee.  Essentially, then, one of the first things they did was put together a town board.  That is, they formed a government.

Some people lit out for the territories like Huck, to escape being civilized.  But most people went west in search of opportunity, the kind of opportunity that is made possible by being civilized.  Even the most self-reliant, anti-social, temperamentally anarchistic, libertarian-minded farmer had to come into town from time to time to buy supplies.

What I’m saying is that it’s not really surprising that whole towns, some with roller rinks, sprang up very shortly after the first settlers felled their first tree or plowed their first furrow, because they needed towns in order to settle.  And a town is almost by definition a government.

Which brings me to libertarianism and libertarians.  Which is not a change of subject away from The Wilder Life, as you’ll see.

Generally, I don’t give much thought to libertarianism because I don’t think libertarians themselves give much thought to it.  As far as I’ve ever been able to see, libertarian describes a temperamental aversion to certain ideas, one in particular, which I’ll get to, more than a philosophic attraction to any.  The libertarians I know are either conservatives who think they’re too cool to be Republicans, hate anyone telling them how to behave, and don’t like be told they owe anything to anybody else or they are liberals who think they’re too cool to be Democrats, hate anybody telling them how to behave, and don’t like to be told they owe anything to anybody else.

That last point of agreement doesn’t mean that either type acts as if they don’t owe anything to anybody else.  Most of them have strong senses of civic responsibility, duty, and obligation. It’s why they believe that a libertarian society would work.  They would do all the pitching in that would be required if the government didn’t plow the roads and put out the fires.  It’s just that they feel scolded when they’re told that they have to pitch in and that makes them cranky.

The libertarian ideal is predicated on the notion that if you leave people alone, their self-interest if not their innate decency will compel them to live together as if they had a government.  You don’t need to enact lots of laws and impose lots of rules and regulations if people are going to act lawfully and follow the “rules” and regulate themselves on their own.  In other words, societies are self-regulating.  But as the most libertarian of the Founders was in the habit of saying, People were made for society and therefore they were made for government.  Society and government are practically synonymous, because the first isn’t possible without the second. As I said, everywhere they settled, one of the first things the pioneers did was form a government.  They didn’t wait around to find out if their neighbors were going to act as if they had a government.  They just set to work setting one up, using as their models the governments they had seemingly left behind.  Another way of putting this, is they brought government with them. 

The thing about libertarians that I find alternately annoying and amusing is that virtually none of them live as self-reliant farmers far from towns they only come into when they absolutely have to.  Most of them live in some of the most well-governed, well-ordered, well-regulated, civilized places on the planet.  Suburbs.

Those who don’t, live in cities.

Rand Paul didn’t wander in from the hills.  He was born in Pittsburgh.  He grew up in Texas but in a city, a little city, but still a city of over 20,000 people.  He went to college at Baylor University, a little city on its own of about 14,000 people, in Waco, Texas, population of about 125,000, then went on to medical school at Duke University, another little city of around 14,000, in Durham, North Carolina, a city of close to a quarter million people.  He hung out his shingle in Bowling Green, Kentucky, a city of only 58,000 or so.

You can’t have that many people bumping up against each other without lots of rules and regulations just to control the traffic.

It’s not simply the case that Paul’s lived his whole life sheltered and protected by governments large and small.  His life as it is wouldn’t have been possible except for those governments.  He is a pure product of government.  And this is the case for most self-proclaimed libertarians.  Their lives wouldn’t be possible without not just government but without liberal government.

What libertarians hope for is that the democratic-republicans who found and run towns and cities create a solid, functioning, and unobtrusive government that the libertarians can then pretend isn’t there.

It gets down to this.  It’s surprising that De Smet had a roller rink but not that much more surprising than the fact that it had a school Laura could play hooky from one day to go to the roller rink.  Life on the frontier was only possible because there were towns like De Smet that could provide schooling for the children of the pioneers and support businesses that sold things the pioneers needed and among those things, the pioneers being civilized folk and civilized folk need to sustain their minds and spirits as well as their bodies, were recreation and entertainment.

Now.  The connection between the Little House books and libertarianism doesn’t end there.  It ends with an irony.

Here’s another surprising fact McClure turned up in the course of her research.

Laura Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, was a founder of the Libertarian Party.


Here’s Wendy McClure talking about The Wilder Life at NPR.

Lance Mannion on Wednesday, May 25, 2011 in First as tragedy, then as farce, Ruining my eyes | Permalink


Friday, June 13, 2014

Bobby Lee

Gettsyburg Longstreet Lee
Tom Berenger as the increasingly disenchanted and doubtful Confederate general James Longstreet and Martin Sheen as a noble but slightly and tragically vain Robert E. Lee in Gettysburg.

Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Scott is doing a virtual spit-take at the ad copy for a new biography of Robert E. Lee, a man Scott calls, in keeping with LGM’s stylebook rule of calling the American Civil War the War of Treason in Defense of Slavery (also in keeping with history), “traitor in defense of slavery”:

In Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, Michael Korda, the New York Times bestselling biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, and T. E. Lawrence, has written the first major biography of Lee in nearly twenty years, bringing to life America’s greatest and most iconic hero.

Scott’s bold-facing. Now his response:

Really? The very greatest American hero? We can’t think of a single of the many Americans who have not rebelled against the American government in order to protect the right of wealthy whites to own black slaves who might be worthy of this honor?

And he offers a few suggestions:

Martin Luther King? Abraham Lincoln? Willie Mays? The tailor who successfully hemmed the sleeves of my sports jacket last week?

Here you can feel him pause for a silent but definite Jesus H. Christ on Toast! before he continues:

I figure we should get around to honoring confederate generals sometime well after we lionize the nation’s telemarketers. Although I might be willing to rank Lee above the people who created those DirectTV marionette ads.

The object is to sell books, of course, as Scott knows, and he suggests the target audience for that blurb. (Commenter Jim is more direct if less colorful: “this is a sales pitch aimed at the re-enactors and lost cause-rs”.) Knowing that is only mollifying to the most jaded cynic.

Coming up on a hundred and fifty years since Lee was allowed to ride off from Appomattox Courthouse instead of being clapped in irons and hauled off to Washington to be tried for treason, we’re still selling an alternative history of the Civil War to Southerners and Confederate sympathizers in which slavery played no role and the South’s was somehow a noble cause or at least the soldiers who fought for it were noble men.

Another reader, Michael Confoy, links to a review by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner in which Foner gets quick to the point that Clouds of Glory isn’t an alternative history or a hagiography or an apology for Lee or the South.

As its subtitle suggests, one of Michael Korda’s aims in “Clouds of Glory” is “disentangling Lee from his myth.” In this he mostly succeeds. Although Korda greatly admires Lee, he challenges the image of a man who could do no wrong. He also challenges the Lost Cause portrait of the Old South as a bucolic paradise of small farmers and courtly aristocrats, a vision in which, he notes, “the reality of slavery played no part.”

This is good, but Foner goes on to make the case that Korda is still more than a tad too respectful of his subject and even somewhat neglectful of the actual record, and that’s too bad. Lee’s image in the popular imagination needs a thorough debunking.

Since the War ended, Lee has been used to help sell Southerners a flattering view of a war the South started as a defensive war taken on reluctantly to protect hearth, home, family, and, incidentally, “our peculiar way of lahf,” from Northern aggressors.  Why, look at Bobby Lee, gentleman soldier, reluctant warrior (as reluctant a warrior as a career military man can be, at any rate), good and decent man, practically the reincarnation of George Washington, neither at heart or in principle a secessionist or a die-hard proponent of the South’s peculiar institution, forced by fate and the blunders of politicians to choose between his nation and his country, Virginia.

We’re not supposed to consider that Lee might have done Virginia more good by sticking with the Union.

This only works, of course, because Lee so looked the part. So handsome. So dignified. So fatherly. That stoically impassive expression not quite hiding the sadness in his eyes.  How could a cause that had such an honorable man as its military commander be anything but honorable?

Not only could and did the focus on the image of Lee as a tragic hero take the focus off what he was actually fighting for, it can take the focus off the fact that the South lost, even be used to allow the South to award itself a moral victory.

Yes, we were outmanned and outgunned in the field but still our boys, Bobby Lee’s boys, were the better men.

As William Faulkner wrote in Intruder in the Dust about Lee’s biggest blunder, known gallantly as Pickett’s Charge:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago....

“This is my fault. This is all my fault,” Lee said to the remains of Pickett’s division staggering back from Cemetery Ridge.

Yes, it was, General, but the mistake began when you decided to cast your lot with the slavers. Your fellow slavers.

Ironically, Grant’s image has been used to help burnish Lee’s, the contrast between the two portrayed as complementary, two sides of the same wholly American coin.  On the one side, the stately, formal, courteous aristocrat of the Old South, defender of a passing glory, on the other, the bumptious, brusque, impatient, practical citizen solider, harbinger of a new Western-looking America in which Billy Yank and Johnny Reb would be united again at last.  And there’s that whole brother against brother thing again, sentimentalizing the war and taking the focus off its cause, the South’s real cause.

Lee and Grant weren’t complements. They were opposites. Comparisons should highlight that, not obscure it.

This, by the way, is one of the (many) things I like about the movie Gettysburg, how it subtly takes on the mythic image of Lee.

Martin Sheen’s Lee looks the part, acts the part, has qualities that make him right for the part, but still has a touch of vanity and a suggestion of emotional fragility that makes him suspect in the part. Add Tom Berenger’s Longstreet’s growing doubts and horror and it’s really something of a subversive portrait. Pickett’s Charge becomes emblematic of the Southern Cause—thousands of men sacrificed for the vanity and ambitions of elderly aristocrats.

On the other hand, one of the most stirring moments in Lincoln for me was Jared Harris’ entrance as Grant. The second he appeared I wanted to jump up and point at the screen, yelling, “That’s HIM!”

Lincoln Grant enters 

And the scene between him and Daniel Day Lewis on the porch broke my heart for both men.


Make sure you read all of Scott’s post and stick around for the comments.

In his review of Clouds of Glory, which you should also read the whole of, Eric Foner writes:

Korda has a knack for describing the complex unfolding of Civil War battles in lucid prose. Most of the book consists of gripping, if perhaps excessively lengthy, accounts of Lee’s military campaigns…

If you’re looking for a book by a professional historian featuring lengthy (but I don’t think excessively so), lucidly written, and gripping battle sequences that gives Lee his due as a military leader but that’s it? I recommend Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam. Besides not glorifying Lee, it has the additional virtue of showing up Union General George McClellan as the magnificent asshole he was.

And Foner’s own The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery is a must read, must own.

Lance Mannion on Wednesday, June 04, 2014 in First as tragedy, then as farce, Now Playing at Cine 1001-2000 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

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Saving Sergeant Bergdahl

I wonder how many people think that the soldiers who died looking for Bowe Bergdahl were on a Saving Private Ryan style mission together.  That’s apparently not what happened.

They weren’t out looking for Bergdahl. They were on the lookout for him while they were out on other missions. This isn’t a trivial distinction. It means that it is in fact almost impossible to say that they died on account of Bergdahl or for his sake because they were in harm’s way for reasons that would have placed them there even if Bergdahl hadn’t gone missing. They died in combat in a combat zone and, although it sounds callous, their deaths may have been routine. So it’s debatable how much they should figure in deciding whether Bergdahl was worth saving.

But while they’re thinking of Saving Private Ryan they should be thinking about this.

Saving Matt Damon was not worth losing Tom Hanks.

1083_CTS1248.jpg Now, Private Ryan seems to be a good enough kid. Definitely not someone who deserves to die. But he’s ordinary. Captain Miller, though, is extraordinary or at least exemplary. In the grand scheme of things, the world can do without a few Private Ryans here and there, but it needs more Captain Millers. Sending Miller to die for Ryan is a great unfairness, and Miller himself feels that unfairness, on behalf of his family and his men more than on his own. But he does still feel it. It infuriates him. He resents it. He would resist it except that he accepts the principle.

We don’t judge each other’s worth that way.

We don’t say,  “Before I bother to care what happens to you, prove to me you deserve to be cared about and cared for.”

We operate from the belief that we are all worth it.  In and of ourselves and not relative to other human beings.

We are all worth it because we are all human beings.

We care about and care for everybody, including the least deserving, because it’s our responsibility to care for the whole human race. You are worth it because you are one of us, no matter how much you’ve done to make us think otherwise. In caring for you, we are caring for everybody. On the individual level that means that in saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller is saving himself.

Say Sergeant Bergdahl was a deserter, and we have to say it because we don’t really know that he was, that’s an accusation made by members of his outfit who may not have been worth saving themselves had they been taken prisoner.  Given all we know that’s gone on over there, they might have committed atrocities, they might have been cowards and shirkers, they might have been rapists. The same goes for the men who died looking for Bergdahl. We don’t know. We’re not asking. It’s beside the point, at the moment. Bergdahl may have been a deserter, he looks more like a bit of a flake with a history of going walkabout, but he may have deserted, and, again, say he did.

Does that make him less than one of us?

And by us, I mean us human beings, not us Americans.

Did he deserve to be left to die?

More than you? More than me? More than whom?

The war---wars---have been going on for thirteen years.  Every grown man and woman in the country under fifty could have volunteered to go fight.  Every one under forty still could. Bowe Bergdahl did. He fought that war for several months before he was taken prisoner. How many people now saying he deserved to be left to die did not fight a single minute because they were too frightened, too complaisant, too selfish, too indifferent, too willing to let the Bowe Bergdahls do it for them?  How then do they dare give themselves the right to judge Bergdahl’s deserving?

Bowe Bergdahl went. It didn’t work out very well for him. But he went.

In my judgment that makes him more deserving than any of the chickenhawks and Sunshine Patriots.

But who am I to judge?

What makes me think I’m deserving?

Ryan Private Ryan And this is another, more selfish, reason we don’t judge each other’s worth that way: In the grand scheme of things, which of us is worth it?  Which of us is all that deserving?

It’s as I’ve said, “Looked at close, none of us is worth it” or as Hamlet said, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?”

So we don’t just treat each other as if we’re all Private Ryans. We assume we are. And we don’t assume we, ourselves, are Captain Millers. We assume we aren’t.

We don’t demand proof someone deserves saving because we believe everyone does.

And because someday we may need saving ourselves and we don’t want to have to prove we’re worth it.

In saving Private Ryan, and Sergeant Bergdahl, grandly and meanly, we’re saving ourselves.

Lance Mannion on Saturday, June 07, 2014 in Now Playing at Cine 1001-2000, Sunday Sermon | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)

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That’s the trouble with Millennials, they don’t know how to blame the wrong people

Dear Mr Bruni,

After reading your op-ed in the New York Times the other day, about how our generation has screwed things up for the Millennials (known in some circles as our children) and we owe them an apology, I tracked down the two Millennials I know best, my college-aged sons, and told them they’re free to resent their not-rich grandparents for selfishly gobbling up Social Security and Medicare money to help afford themselves a comfortable and healthy retirement even though the old folks know that there might not be enough money left in the till for the young folks when they’re old folks themselves.

My sons wouldn’t hear of it.

So I told them they’re free to resent their mother and me for having had to buy a house we couldn’t really afford at a price it wasn’t really worth during the housing bubble and for their mother’s having lost her job because some venture capitalists bought up her company and set out to make it “profitable” by gutting the workforce and she’s having trouble finding a new one probably because of her age and gender and I work in academia which when I started out was a comfortably middle-class profession but has since discovered the benefits of temp workers and wage slavery so we don’t have the money on hand at the moment to pay their way through college and they’ll have to take out loans.

I also told them they can resent us because the crash that followed the bubble devastated the 401k’s the middle class of our generation’s forced to fund in place of real pensions because the banksters and Wall Street wolves figured out that was a good first step towards getting their hands on all the money and so we probably won’t have a lot of dough to help them buy their own houses and put their kids through college when the time comes.

They wouldn’t hear of that either.

I told them what you wrote, about how for “decades they’ll be saddled with our effluvium: a monstrous debt, an epidemic of obesity, Adam Sandler movies” and how thanks to global warming “In their lifetimes the Atlantic will possibly swallow Miami Beach” and they should resent not just their grandparents and parents, but their aunts and uncles, their friends’ parents, most of their teachers and professors, a lot of their neighbors, the nice lady who cuts their hair, their favorite clerk at the convenience store who works there as his third job because he needs the money to help put his Millennials through school and on and on.

Well, I left out the Adam Sandler bit because they kind of liked him in Bedtime Stories.

But, know what? They still wouldn’t bite.

Instead they insist on resenting oil companies that have bought and paid for politicians to do nothing about global warming…

And Republicans in Congress who’ve voted to protect and extend the usurious student loan industry...

And extremely profitable corporations that resist hiring, deny raises, scrimp on benefits, and think laying off thousands of workers is the greatest good they can do for the economy…

And elitist politicians and members of the media who make too much to collect Social Security when the time comes insisting that the only way to save Social Security is to cut it drastically as opposed to, oh, say, raising taxes even a little bit on themselves and thus making sure their parents will have even less money in their old age to help them out in their middle age, which they will be spending worrying about how they’ll get through their old age because, you know, Social Security was cut at the insistence of the above mentioned elitist politicians and members of the media.

They also suggested that any apologies due them might come first from fawning journalists whose sycophantic coverage in 2000 helped elect the budget-busting, two-unpaid-for-wars-starting, let’s-make-privatizing-Social Security-a-thing George W. Bush whose idea of an environmentally responsible energy company was ENRON.

That’s the trouble with Millennials. They don’t know how to blame the wrong people.

Yours in abject apology,

Lance Mannion

PS. I know how it pains you to use the words Democrat and Republican in your columns. But the parties exist and they do stand for things or in the case of the Republicans stand against doing anything about the problems “we’re” leaving to the Millennials.

Also, you might get a kick out of reading Dean Baker’s evisceration of the what passes for economics behind the points you’re trying to make in your column about Medicare and Social Security, Frank Bruni Is Angry That the Government Pays 1000 Times as Much to Peter Peterson as It Does to the Average Kid.

(Psst. Baker’s post title is sarcastic.)


This post is adapted from a Twitter rant I went on the other day. Longtime blogging colleague and regular visitor to Mannionville, Jonathan Korman, who blogs at his own place Miniver Cheevy, did a great and remarkable and very kind thing: He Storify-ed that rant.

Lance Mannion on Tuesday, June 10, 2014 in Newshounds, Where the money is | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)


(I wrote most of this post Wednesday morning intending to publish it by the afternoon. But you know how it goes.)

Always impressed by how journalists and pundits covering an election night can know what the results mean before the sun comes up and their last cup of coffee’s gone cold on their desk.

But lots of them know already what happened in Virginia’s 7th Congressional district Republican primary and why House Majority Leader lost to Tea Party challenger and “liberal college professor” Dave Brat.

They all know. They don’t all agree.

Which makes me suspect they’re all just giving it their best guess and trying to pass it off as “analysis”. Ain’t I the cynic?

My favorite guess, though, is that Cantor lost to a coalition of personal complacency and smart-aleck Democrats sneaking in to vote in the open primary.

Have to wait for the polls to see how much of an effect those sneaky Democrats had---it already appears not much---but complacency definitely cost him.

Cantor lost because he didn’t get enough votes. I mean, he and his campaign workers didn’t go out, round up their supporters, and bring them to the polls, and that includes Cantor himself. According to Ezra Klein, on primary day, Cantor wasn’t back home rallying the faithful. He was in Washington, fundraising for the general election in the fall. Brat got his voters out to vote. There weren’t a lot of them. Just enough of them.

Hmmm, says the Press Corps. Can’t be that simple. An election like this has to mean something or else why do we do we need political journalists?

Let’s find another narrative.

How about immigration reform?

The most commonly shared best guess that I’ve seen is that Cantor lost because he wasn’t sufficiently hardline on keeping out the you know whos.  That sounds like Cantor, doesn’t it?  “Give us your tired, your poor…”  If that’s the case, that voters in VA07 thought Eric Cantor was too welcoming, it goes to show that you can’t be angry enough, hateful enough, frightened enough to keep the love of the Republican Right Wing base, which is another way of saying the Tea Party faithful, who were supposed to have been chased back under their rocks by the sensible, reasonable, responsible, moderate, establishmentarian Republicans. I’ll get to that.


One thing there does seem to be universal agreement on, the secondary story here: Cantor’s defeat has shocked the folks back in Washington.

Nobody saw it coming.

His was supposed to be among the safest of safe seats.

Lindsey Graham, it was acknowledged, had some work cut out for him. Mitch McConnell too. But I’m not sure people in DC even noticed Cantor was being challenged in a primary. Like I said, Cantor acted like he didn’t notice either.

But I suspect another reason for the surprise, especially among pundits and journalists, is that the Tea Party uprising was, like I mentioned, supposed to have been put down by the sensible, responsible Republicans.

The pundits and the journalists know about polls showing the Tea Party’s unpopularity---they’ve heard of them, at any rate. I’m still not sure they bother to read polls even after Nate Silver showed them how it’s done with all his math and stuff back in 2012. But the fact appears to be that the Tea Party is unpopular everywhere except where it is popular.  You don’t have to read a lot of polls to figure that out.

You want to see the Tea Party in action? Get out of D.C.  Visit the states where Republicans control the state houses. All the craziness coming out of those places is not due to moderate establishmentarians fearlessly fighting to find common ground with Democrats.

Now look at who’s the current front-runner for the Republican nomination.

No, Mr Pundit, it’s not Jeb Bush.

It’s Ted Cruz.

But the Tea Party is on the run!

People know this because they’ve been told so…by sensible, responsible Republicans.

Like Mitch McConnell.

As if there is such a thing anymore as a sensible, responsible Republican.

I don’t know why, but the Washington Press Corps persists in believing there is and, like believers in ghosts for whom all houses turn out to be haunted, they keep finding them.

One thing that makes this easier is their definition of a sensible, responsible Republican apparently doesn’t include being responsible.

Responsible Republicans aren’t Republicans who vote responsibly on issues like combating global warming, balancing the budget, creating jobs, protecting women’s health and well-being, controlling gun violence, immigration reform, and so on. Responsible Republicans are Republicans who would, they swear, vote responsibly if only the Democrats would compromise by inventing positions for Republicans to take that were both responsible and still conservative, that is, that did not cost money, raise taxes, benefit the Democratic base, or, well, actually solve anything.

Basically, a responsible Republican is a Republican who can sound sincerely disappointed about how Republicans are given no choice by those Democratic bullies in Congress and the really arrogant one in the White House but to vote irresponsibly.

Then there’s that word moderate. It’s used as if it means “not guided entirely by ideology; willing to consider others’ points of view and compromise; not stubbornly partisan”. What it really is is a description of people who moderate. They moderate their voices. Moderate their rhetoric. Moderate their demeanors. It’s a way of saying without saying, “Here’s someone who won’t embarrass me by acting as if his politics and his views on a given issues matter.”

The political press loves this about these moderates because it helps them play the She said/He said game without having to think about what He actually said, and that, it turn, lets them continue in their fondest dream about what goes on in Washington, that it is a game.

They can go on with their sports reporting without having to take sides.

They can keep up their Both Sides Do It dodge. Both sides turn the ball over. Ball sides talk trash. Both sides steal signs. Both sides do everything they can to win. Both sides have star players who can be cast as heroes or villains. Both sides are just playing for a trophy.

So the sensible, responsible, moderate Republicans told them the Tea Party was no longer a worry, and they swallowed it.

Never mind how those sensible, responsible, moderate Republicans actually vote.

Never mind that they rarely and barely say boo when one of their Tea Party colleagues or nominally fellow Republicans in Congress or back home says something like non-Christians are damned or homosexuals should be stoned to death.

Never mind that how sensible, responsible, moderate Republicans have beat back Tea Party challengers by un-moderating their rhetoric and championing views that are decidedly not sensible or responsible.

Never mind that the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives and the presumed next Speaker of the House was a Tea Party darling until he was deemed to be not Right Wing enough.

You’d think by now worshippers in the Church of the Savvy would have savvied that the Tea Party was not a spontaneous grassroots uprising of regular folks riled up by Rick Santelli’s CNBC rant against the irresponsible borrowers he blamed for crashing the economy and infuriated by the passage of the ACA.  It was a well-financed, well-thought out, well-organized mobilization of forces already at work within the Republican Party making it the party of Right Wing Reaction. Tea Party types and sympathizers didn’t give up and go home. They were home. Are home. And they didn’t give up. They won.

Dave Brat isn’t just a Tea Party hero. He’s an up and coming Republican star.


This is interesting but probably academic. (Academic! Get it? I’m talking about Dave Brat who’s a college professor!) Brat ran a vociferously anti-banker, anti-Wall Street, anti-corporate money in politics populist campaign.  He tied it in with the usual Tea Party rage against immigrants, but in sound, feeling, and, possibly, principle, it was old-fashioned populism of the kind that gives the elites of both parties nightmares.

And in this post at the New Yorker, David Brat, the Elizabeth Warren of the Right, Ryan Lizza writes that Brat’s message is being “embraced by Tea Party candidates around the country.”

I’ll believe it when I see it, but wouldn’t it be something?

The Tea Party Types have been steadily adding to their list of the people relegated to the status of THEM, the THEM who are not US and are responsible for whatever’s wrong with America at the moment, and it would be funny if they’ve finally hit on a THEM who are in fact responsible, the banksters and fraudsters of Wall Street and their pet journalists and bought and paid for politicians of both parties.

There are progressives looking for reasons to Stand With Rand. Maybe we’ll start seeing Tea Party types who want to Start Roarin’ With Warren!

That’s not me making my best guess, of course, or even a wild guess.

That’s me dreaming.


Pierce will believe it when he sees it too:


From Vox: 12 things to know about Dave Brat.

At the New York Times, Trip Gabriel and Richard Perez-Pena does a compare and contrast between Brat and his Democratic opponent in the fall, Jack Trammell, who is also his fellow professor at Randolph-Macon College and teammate on a faculty basketball team.

Kevin Drum agrees that the Tea Party has won, but he as he sees it that means FoxNews has won too.

More on Right Wing populism from digby, The American right wing populist strain was perfectly realized in David Brat's campaign.

Lance Mannion on Friday, June 13, 2014 in Newshounds, Smoke-filled rooms | Permalink


Friday, February 28, 2014

Raylan’s hat and the secret of our success

You don’t need me to tell you Justified is a Western with cars and cell phones and quicker reloads after eruptions of gunfire. It’s one of the best TV Westerns ever. Better than Deadwood. Almost as good as Lonesome Dove. It’s so good a Western that it’s easy for me to see it in my head as an actual Western with horses and six-shooters and the characters getting around their reliance on cell phones with visits to conveniently located telegraph offices and the introduction of a Cheyenne teenager named Rides Like the Wind.

Since Justified was based on Elmore Leonard’s crime novels not his Westerns---although the latter always informed the former which is how Raylan Givens came to be. He moseyed out of Leonard’s imagination into the wrong sort of novels. That was the joke. Raylan wasn’t just a man out of his time. He was out of his genre.--- Justified was always going to be set in the present.  But imagine if somewhere along the line in its development someone with the power to make it happen said, Hell with this pretending we’re doing something we’re not. Let’s make this a real Western.

Show probably would have failed before it finished its first season.

I say that not because Westerns are doomed to fail but because almost all new TV shows are doomed to fail and quickly. The ones that don’t are flukes and it’s usually hard to say what they have the failures didn’t. Good writing, good acting, lots of shows that came and went had those. The right star in the right role? That must have a lot to do with it. Bad shows succeed because of that. Justified sure has that going for it in Timothy Olyphant.

But I’d argue it’s not just Olyphant.

It’s the hat.

Justified Raylan's hat The way he wears it.

Same difference, though.

Rarely gets lauded to the degree it should, but good acting isn’t just saying the lines well or, sorry Spencer Tracy, all done with the eyes. It includes how you move. How you handle a prop. How you pull off a piece of business. How you wear your costume. How you wear your hat. Olyphant makes the hat work. The hat makes Raylan.

The producers and writers are well aware of this and make use of it. Maybe too aware. There was a stretch there when they were in danger of over-using it. Then they almost went wrong the other way and made serious moves towards getting rid of the hat. Fortunately, they snapped out of it. The hat is too important or, I should say, Olyphant does too good a job with it, carrying off an affectation that ought to mark him as a doofus and would mark almost any other lawman or man (or actor) who tried it as a doofus. It’s key to Raylan’s character and his appeal that he---Raylan, but of course Olyphant too---makes the hat work.


But here’s the thing.

If Justified had been a conventional Western, the hat would have been a lot harder to use as it’s used because all the men and some of the women would have been wearing cowboy hats too. Olyphant would have had to wear his hat better than all his co-stars who would have had to wear their hats well because you can’t have an entire supporting cast of characters who look like doofuses in their sombreros and ten-gallon Stetsons. Boyd Crowder would have had to look cool in his. Tim Gutterson would have had to too. If the producers decided to go the Calamity Jane route with the part of Deputy Brooks, Erica Tazel would have had to look as good in hers as Paula Wiegert looked in hers on Deadwood, otherwise, the male actor who replaced her would have had to look good in his.

Marshal Art Mullen---Marshal not Chief Deputy Marshal. In a traditional Western, you don't bother with bureaucratic nicities and Chief Deputy would be dropped from Art's job title---Marshall Art Mullen would have had to look good in a cowboy hat too and so Nick Searcy who plays Art is lucky Justified isn’t a real Western because I can’t see him looking good in a cowboy hat. He doesn’t seem to have the head for it. His face is too small and narrow. His ears stick out. His eyes are little and would get lost in the shadow of the brim. His jawline is blurred by his jowls. Hats make men look older and Searcy already looks old for his age. I think a cowboy hat would make him look like an old coot of the Walter Brennan type, either that or like Slim Pickens in Blazing Saddles, sinister but kind of dumb, and Art may be a bit cranky verging on the curmudgeonly but he’s not an old coot and he’s not dumb. How he’d have looked in a cowboy hat might have cost Searcy the part.

As it is, something along those lines really might have cost him the part. Might have cost someone else the part. Seemingly trivial things like how they look in a hat or look when they take one off cost actors jobs all the time. Look left when the casting director thinks it would have been more effective to look right or up or down or straight ahead or left but quicker or slower, take the hat off or put it back on a beat too soon or too late, put all your weight on it as you lean on a desk, be somehow unconvincing lighting up a cigarette, appear somehow out of place standing next to a potential co-star or a horse or a car or a mailbox and the next words you hear will be “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

Searcy’s lucky he got the part at all. He’s lucky he still has it, that the producers haven’t decided to kill Art off. They’re a pretty ruthless bunch, and I imagine Raymond J. Barry who plays---played---Raylan’s father Arlo agrees and is wishing he’d been as lucky as Searcy. I think Searcy’s terrific as Art and he’s part of what makes Justified fun for me. But I don’t think I’d miss him much if Art disappeared, and I mean Searcy and his character. And I doubt if he hadn’t lucked out and gotten the part very many fans of the show would be saying to themselves, This guy playing Art is ok, but you know who they really should have gotten for the part? Nick Searcy!

Lucky guy, then, Searcy.

Lucky as you have to be to succeed as an actor, luck carries you only so far. You have to be talented, hard-working, and smart, at least smart about the way you approach a part, and Searcy is talented and smart in that way and maybe other ways as well, and I assume he’s hard-working or no one would want to work with him.

He’s also a Right Wing loon.

Not that that matters.

An actor or an artist’s politics doesn’t affect my judgment of his work or my enjoyment. Clint Eastwood is easy. Robert Downey Jr’s post-prison conversion to Republicanism doesn’t change my opinion that he is one of the best movie actors among the current crop of leading men and I look forward to his appearance in a movie as much or more than I do some very liberal favorites like George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Tom Hanks.

Robert Duvall, James Woods, Jon Voight---I admire them all.

Kelsey Grammar I have a harder time with these days, not because he’s a Republican blowhard, but because he’s a despicable human being.

So I don’t care how Nick Searcy votes or what his politics are. It makes no difference to me that he’s a Right Wing loon.

What’s depressing is how I know he’s a right wing loon.

Through Twitter.

Searcy has an active and lively Twitter presence as the online equivalent of the loudmouth at the end of the bar trying to pick a fight with the guy he’s decided is the weakest in the room.

Searcy’s routine is to bait foolish and humorless liberals into engaging with him by tweeting outrageous and offensive nonsense, insult, belittle, and bully them when they do, then step back to accept the applause of other Right Wing loons among followers who think I know you are but what am I is an argument-demolisher no one ever sees coming.

If you want a sample of Searcy all a-twitter, Tony Ortega is happy to oblige with this post at Raw Story, ‘Justified’ actor Nick Searcy asked us not to call him a ‘Teabagger,’ ‘Ultra-Con,’ or ‘Bigot’ in this headline.

You’ll notice Searcy is offended when liberals sneer at him using terms along the lines of Right Wing loon, which is amusing considering one of his favorite terms of endearment for people who disagree with him politically is pussies.

Now, for all I know, this is one big goof on Searcy’s part. He might be just trying to build his brand. He has a series of comic videos on YouTube called Acting School With Nick Searcy whose central joke is that Nick Searcy, "international film and television star"  is a clueless egomaniac too full of himself to notice he’s not as smart, talented, ingratiating, or worth emulating as he brags of being. His Twitter self could just be a version of his YouTube self. His Twitter profile includes what could be a wink and an elbow to the ribs: "All new followers must proceed directly to Acting School with Nick Searcy before addressing me."

I’d like to think he's being funny. Trying to be funny. I’d like to think a successful and admired fifty-four year international film and television star has an at least financial reason for adopting the persona of a twenty year old frat boy still smarting from the B he got from a professor he’s convinced had it in for him because of his brave and bold political incorrectness.

But Searcy seems a little too convincing at it, a little too pleased with himself, a little too happy about it. So I just feel I have no choice but to take him for what he makes himself out to be, a Right Wing loon and a loudmouthed jerk with no idea of how better to spend his time than play around at being an asshole on Twitter.

Judging by the sampling from Ortega’s post, Searcy’s new tactic is to beat up his opponents with the fact he’s rich and famous and they’re just a bunch of nobodies.

The proof that he’s right and you’re not, you’re a pussy, is that he’s Nick Searcy and you’re not or, rather, he’s Art Mullen and you’re not.

It’s his version of If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?

He’s rich, richer than your average college professor, anyway; highly successful compared to most people and almost all other actors who spend the bulk of their careers waiting for callbacks for TV commercials instead of having regular gigs on popular TV series; and he’s famous, among fans of Justified, if nobody else. And his point is that since he’s all those things and you’re none of those things, you’re just a nobody and a pussy, he must be smarter than you and if he is---and he is. See above.---then he’s automatically right in all things and you, well, you don’t even matter enough to be thought wrong.

But he’s not that rich or successful or famous compared to his own co-stars, let alone to the likes of George Clooney. And if being rich, successful, and famous decides all political arguments in favor of the richest and most successful and most famous party to the debate, then Searcy’s lost every fight with Clooney before he’s even entered the ring. Before he’s left the locker room. Before he even thought of going to the gym. It would be fun, though, to dare him to walk up to Clooney at a party and call him a pussy. The fun being in watching him not doing it. I’m assuming he has enough common sense and instinct for self-preservation not to do that, not necessarily that he’s a coward.

But if Searcy believes what he appears to believe, then he’d probably be glad to concede the argument to Clooney because the point is not Liberalism versus Conservatism. It’s power, them that’s got it and them that ain’t.

Allowing that Clooney’s wealth, success, and fame make him right in all things including his decisions on whether, how, and when to throw his weight around and bully the less rich, less successful, and less famous gives the likes of Nick Searcy permission to think themselves right in all encounters with people less etc than they are and bully them.

It hardly matters. Searcy himself hardly matters, as a spokesman for Right Wing lunacy, at any rate. He’s just a celebrity, a relatively minor one at that, and his days as even a minor celebrity are fleeting---Justified’s producers have announced next season will be the show’s last. What are the odds he'll land another role as good as Art Mullen on another series as good as Justified?  Given his age, he'll likely begin winding down his career with a succession of guest starring roles of diminishing importance on shows and in movies of diminshing quality and what's he going to be saying on Twitter when he's seventy and feeling lucky to have one line on this week's episode of a sitcom that's already been cancelled?  But what do I know? He could strike lucky again. Again, doesn't matter.  The height of his political influence will be when his name shows up in the inevitable lists of Hollywood types who support Rand Paul or Ted Cruz (These days, Searcy is for Cruz.) versus those who support Hillary Clinton, adding to the general and mostly correct impression that all the really cool kids vote Democratic.

Like I said, I half-suspect Searcy's kidding around. The offline politics are real but the Twitter character is a joke.  The troubling fact is that Searcy is echoing rich and successful types who aren't joking and who do influence policy and the economy and who do believe that their wealth and success makes them right in all things and therefore they should be put in charge of running the country without question or check. The rest of us can just like it or lump it but whichever keep our mouths shut and our heads down, do what we’re told, and put up with and be grateful for whatever our betters decide we deserve.

Which is not much.

If we were deserving of wealth, success, status, and power, we’d have already earned it. Like them.

The Corporatist Right and its political flunkeys and media apologists have been growing more and more outspoken and active in their efforts to not just refuse to share any more of the wealth but to deny even more of it to the rest of us. And fundamental to their argument is that their money and success gives them the right to rule. Just the fact they have the money proves they deserve it. It shows they were favored by God or Nature, marks them as superior. Our superiors.

Equally fundamental is their belief that they earned it, every penny of it, all on their own, with no help from anyone, certainly none from the government, least of all from the people who did the real, hard, and often dangerous labor required to run the machines, dig the mines, grow the food, build the roads, maintain the offices, ship the goods, keep the peace, and mind the stores necessary to their money-making enterprises actually making money.

They tell themselves and each other I did build this! when mostly what they did was take advantage of what thousands, millions of others sweated, died, and went broke and broke their hearts building. But according to themselves, it was all their own individual doing, no one else contributed anything but cost, and luck had nothing to do with it.

This is a lie, of course, and it would be easy to show it up as lie if only there was the equivalent of imdb.com for bankers, hedge fund managers, corporate CEOs, and other suit-wearers fancying themselves real-life John Galts. Then the course of their luck would be trackable and the names of the people who helped them and those folks’ exact contributions could be listed, as is the case with actors like Nick Searcy.

I said I can’t picture Searcy looking good in a cowboy hat, but thinking it over I can see him in a bowler pushed back raffishly from his forehead. If Justified had been a traditional Western, it would have been someone’s job to picture him in the right headgear, find it for him, and show him how to wear it to his advantage.

Justified Art in his office Tombstone As it is, his looking the part on camera is still someone else’s job---several someone elses’ jobs. Actors on TV shows don’t design their own costumes. They’re usually not responsible for their make-up. They don’t light themselves, don’t position the cameras. They don’t fill in the backgrounds around them. Maybe it was Searcy’s idea to hang the poster for Tombstone on Art’s office wall but probably not.

And all these people responsible for Searcy’s success every week are knowable. Their names are in the credits.

Searcy is enjoying his current success because he’s talented, because he’s hard-working, and because a whole bunch of other talented and hard-working people are good at their jobs. He is where he is because an even more talented guy, Elmore Leonard, wrote a novel called Pronto twenty years ago. He is where he is because Justified’s showrunner Graham Yost has been brilliant at translating Leonard’s style and vision to television. He is where he is because someone noticed in time that Walton Goggins had made the slated to be killed off in the pilot Boyd Crowder not just a character worth keeping around but a character that could be the show’s second lead. He is where he is because Margo Martindale’s performance as Mags Bennett in the show’s second season lifted Justified to a near Sopranos-Breaking Bad-Lonesome Dove level of tragedy.

He is where he is because a partnership of other talented, hard-working, and very likely richer people have the money to pay him handsomely to come into work a few days a week a few months out of the year to pretend to be somebody too busy, too smart, too responsible, and too grown-up to waste his time getting into silly fights and throwing tantrums on Twitter, a character who is also, by the way, not rich and not famous and not notably impressed by anyone who is.

He is where he is because a whole lot of nobodies and pussies tune into Justified each week for a number of pleasures one of which is Art Mullen as played by Nick Searcy.

Mainly, though, he is where he is and what he is because Timothy Olyphant knows how to wear a hat.

And something similar can be said about all of us, including the rich Right Wing corporatists who want to return us to feudalism and make an aristocracy of themselves and a peasantry of the rest of us because the money they’ve piled up proves their superiority.

We’re all where we are because somewhere along the way we were lucky enough to get help from someone who knew how to wear a hat.

Hat tip to TBogg for the heads up on Ortega's post.

Updated with Justified contempt and disgust: If Searcy's Twitter persona is a joke, it's a joke that's gone way too far.  But I don't think he's kidding. I think he's worse than I thought. Adam Baldwin is no prize either.

Lance Mannion on Saturday, February 22, 2014 in Rants 2010-2013, Too Much TV |

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Big man in a suit of armor

Iron Man 3 is out on DVD. Here’s my review from when it was in the theaters this past spring.


Iron Man beside himself:  Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark feeling less than invincible as he contemplates what else he is without his suit of armor besides a genius, billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist, and wonders if he’s up to that job in Iron Man 3.

Maybe it’s the painkillers talking, but I’m about to write a review of Iron Man 3 arguing it’s a two hour commentary on Pixar’s The Incredibles.

This isn’t a joke. After all, The Incredibles is one of the best superhero movies ever made, right up there with Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, and the original Iron Man. Every superhero movie ought to be able to stand up to comparisons of one type or another with it.

No matter where I go with this, I will not be arguing that Pepper Potts is sexier than Mrs Incredible.

But think about it. Syndrome is a version of Iron Man. Both owe their powers to available technology which means both are walking, flying, fighting advertisements for the notion that anybody can be a superhero. Syndrome not only embraces the idea, he intends to peddle it. Tony Stark rejects it, but what is it Cap says to him in The Avengers?

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

And that’s the big question. What makes Iron Man a “super” and not merely a spoiled man-child playing with a lot of cool toys he’s invented?

What makes a “super” a superhero is one of the themes of The Incredibles. It’s the theme of the Tony Stark/Iron Man arc in the Avengers series.

Iron Man 3 is the story of Tony Stark trying to answer for himself the challenge Captain America put to him in The Avengers:

“Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

Stark’s comeback, “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” is funny but empty, because it’s missing a word.


Or even just hero.

Stark tries to get back at Cap by calling him a lab rat and belittling his powers. “Everything special about you came out of a bottle.” Which shows that he must never have read his father’s notes on the Super-Soldier project.

We know, from Captain America: The First Avenger, that everything special about Steve Rogers was already in him. That’s why Dr Erskine picked him. The serum just brought it to the surface. At heart and in his soul and to the physical degree he was capable of, Steve Rogers was already Captain America.

Iron Man 3 is one of the better-made of all the movies in the Avengers series. But I left the theater feeling strangely let down and anxious and…lonely.

Alienated might be the better word.

This ennui surprised me because I thought I had been enjoying the movie while I was watching it. Mulling it over afterwards, I got half way to concluding I’d just been put off by the obligatory ad for the video game that’s become the standard climactic battle of every Marvel superhero movie. At least this one varies from the endings of Spider-Man 3, both Fantastic Four movies, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and The Avengers. It doesn’t take place in the city streets full of crowds of screaming civilians running pointlessly to and fro while cars and trucks blow up around them and pieces of buildings rain down on their heads. But it’s confused, directionless, repetitive, purposeless in that it doesn’t build toward a satisfying confrontation between our hero and the villain, it just keeps throwing up more obstacles between them until the director and his stunt coordinator run out of gags and the whole thing just sort of times out, nihilistic, perfunctorily violent for violence’s sake, visually ugly, boring, and ultimately just another big noisy mess, and it’d have been no wonder if it was what had soured me on the film.

But then I realized that all the battle had done was dampen the sense of fun to the point that I was left feeling more strongly something I’d been feeling all along.


And it dawned on me that Iron Man 3 is in fact a sad story about the losses that come when you reach a certain age and you turn around and realize you are now the grown-up in the room and everybody around you is relying on you and you have no one to rely on yourself in the same way, because all the grown-ups you used to count on are gone from your life.

In Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Tony Stark behaved as if he didn’t need anybody and nobody really needed him. Being a superhero was just something he did to amuse himself. In The Avengers he got a lesson in teamwork. He found out he couldn’t go it alone. The question was going to be whether the lesson would take.

Maybe we’ll get the answer to that in The Avengers 2. In Iron Man 3, Tony learns something else, that he was never as alone as he’d always thought and prided himself on being. But he learns it by finding himself suddenly very much alone. And he learns it while also learning that being a superhero isn’t something he can do for kicks. It’s something he’s obligated to do because other people need him to be one. And he learns that when as it happens he doesn’t have his superpowers.

Big man in a suit of armor. Take that away and what is he?

Jeez. No wonder Tony’s so sad. And since he’s still played by Robert Downey, his sadness is profound and convincing and, at least for me, infectious.

This is the first Iron Man---the first Avengers---movie without a certifiable grown-up, good or evil, to guide, advise, support, or challenge the hero, or, as Stark has always taken advantage of, mother, father, big brother or sister him. Agent Coulson is dead. Nick Fury is off doing whatever it is he’s doing with Cap in The Winter Soldier, along with Black Widow. Jim Rhodes is busy trying to chase down the super-terrorist known as the Mandarin. Happy Hogan’s in the hospital. Jarvis, Stark’s cyber-assistant and alter-ego, has been knocked out of commission. And, while Pepper Potts lives to take care of Tony, the trouble coming his way is way beyond her skill set and it isn’t long before she’s in no position to take care of him in any way.

Even Iron Man is out of the picture for much of the picture.

That is, if you accept that it’s the armor that makes Tony Stark Iron Man and not Stark who makes the armor something more than a machine.

Stark’s tried and true suits of armor have disappeared in the rubble of his house after the Mandarin’s minions leveled it in a helicopter attack and the one suit he has left is a prototype designed to assemble itself telekinetically but it has a few bugs in its program so that at the moment it’s much better at disassembling itself. It has a habit of short-circuiting and falling apart on him and eventually, instead of carrying Tony through the air, Stark is hauling it through the snow on a makeshift litter.

Tony is left to save himself, save his friends, save the President, save the country, and save the day all on his own, and it’s not a job he feels at all up to.

Iron Man 3 isn’t about learning that with great power comes responsibility. It’s about learning that with responsibility you don’t have enough power to take care of everybody you’re responsible for and yet you still have to try to take care of them.

In Iron Man 3, we get to see Tony doing things he hasn’t had to do before---think seriously about what he’s up to, doubt himself, ask for help---and not doing things and being things he’s used to doing and being. He has to not be so full of himself, not deflect criticisms, not shrug off or joke away feelings. In short, he has to act like an adult. Since he regards all this adult behavior as a drag (and an assault on who he thinks he is), he is add odds with himself in a way he hasn’t been before, consciously.

And he’s not sure whose side he’s on.

He jumps back and forth, but either way he jumps he treats himself as he’s been in the habit of treating everybody, dismissively, with impatience, with a general lack of sympathy, with offhand contempt, and as the deserving object of his meanest jokes.

And this means we get to see Robert Downey doing something he hasn’t had do to often in the series, play it straight. He gives us a Tony Stark who’s sober, somber, sorrowful, afraid, and…lonely.

It’s disconcerting. And of course Downey does it all very well. Maybe too well. Which it’s why it’s like I said earlier. Infectious.

Nothing that happens in Iron Man 3 undid that for me.

Since Tony is on his own throughout much of the movie, Downey is on his own too. He has some fun moments in the early going with Jon Favreau as an unhappy Happy Hogan and a funny scene with a couple of the villains’ henchmen who let themselves get a little cocky after making the mistake of thinking that Tony Stark without his armor is just a billionaire, playboy, and philanthropist. But his scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Don Cheadle as Jim Rhodes are mostly a matter of their focusing together on the same spots on the green screens. All his best work with the Rebecca Hall as a sexy scientist with a secret and Guy Pearce as an unsexy scientist with a bigger secret is over and done with in the first fifteen minutes of the film.

And when Stark at last confronts the Mandarin, Downey’s main job is to hang back and feed Ben Kingsley pieces of scenery to devour.

The closest then Downey has to a co-star to really share a scene with is eleven year old Ty Simpkins, who plays Harley Keener, a fatherless middle-schooler with access to a workshop Tony commandeers to try to repair his recalcitrant suit of armor after it crashlands in the woods outside Harley’s small town in Tennessee.

Harley is a budding engineering genius in his own right and desperately in need of a father-figure, so naturally he takes to hero-worshipping Tony right away, something the old Tony would have enjoyed as his due but at the moment, beaten up from within by self-doubt and self-recrimination and not in the mood to hear what a swell guy he is, something he doesn’t feel he deserves. This has Tony brushing off Harley’s attempts at friendship which allows Downey to deliver some of the most acerbic anti-child acting since W.C. Fields last said, “Go away, son, you bother me.”

If you’re thinking that Tony and Harley sound a little like they're paralleling Mr Incredible and Buddy Pine at the beginning of The Incredibles, then you’re thinking along the same lines I’m thinking, but you’re ahead of me. I’ll catch up.

Downey and Keener make a good team, but given that Tony is divided against himself, Downey is really his own main co-star and mostly left alone to play against himself. Which means we finally get to see Tony Stark/Iron Man in the full Hamlet mode that’s the signature emotional state of Marvel’s superheroes.

This doesn’t mean he’s all gloom and doom. Like Hamlet, Downey’s Stark is still quick with a joke and, since the suit of armor’s been taken away, we get to see him (Downey and Stark) do something else we haven’t really seen him do yet, play the action hero. And Downey has a ball with it. As is the case with any great movie star, the man can move.

Stark is in good shape and he’s had training that’s made him a martial arts expert, but he’s no Captain America without his armor. What he is, though, is a genius. That’s his superpower: his ability to think and invent and build on the fly or, since the suit’s out of commission and he’s grounded, on the run.

He has to MacGyver his way through various challenges and around obstacles and past dangers and out of all kinds of trouble, and, as he showed in his last three outings as Tony, Downey is a genius at playing a genius. He doesn’t just look and sound smart, he moves smart. As a scientist, he’s poetry in motion. As an engineer, he’s a dancer and a painter, a musician and a performance artist. He makes the act of creating look creative.

Of course, what we’re really seeing is if without the suit of armor, Tony Stark is still Iron Man.

There’s always been a distant allusion to the Tin Man of Oz in the Iron Man myth, the working and survival and metaphorical existence of Tony’s heart being always and often literally an open question. Tony’s brain is what powers and empowers the armor, but what the suit needs is a heart. The Stark chapters of the Avengers series have been about the search for Iron Man’s heart.

But in Iron Man 3, there’s one more missing element Tony has to find.


Tony has never been a fraidy cat. But that’s not the same as saying he’s been courageous. What’s to be afraid of when you’re the Invincible Iron Man?

But it’s not physical courage he needs. He has plenty of that, although with him it’s a fine line between bravery and a recklessness born of pure vanity. Tony needs to find the moral courage to accept grown-up responsibility for other people even though he doubts he has the strength or the wisdom necessary for the job.

Ok. This has gone too far down the Yellow Brick Road. Let’s back up so I can get back to The Incredibles.

In most superhero movies and most action-adventure movies in which the supposedly normal hero is in effect a superhero, the villain drives the plot in one of two ways.

Either he’s just going about his business as a supervillain and his scheme to control or destroy whatever he feels he needs to control or destroy is really just an excuse to show our hero acting heroically.

Or it’s personal. For one reason or another he has it in for our hero. His schemes to control or destroy are just ruses to draw our hero into a trap and, of course, force him to act heroically.

Sometimes the two get combined. Things get personal because our hero gets in the villain’s way and the villain’s feelings are hurt by that.

In The Incredibles it’s the second situation. It’s very personal for Syndrome. But with this variation. It’s the hero’s fault.

This is where things can start to border on the tragic or, at least, on the grown-up. Sometimes it’s personal because the hero has, to one degree or another, helped bring about the evil he has to confront and defeat.

And in effect, this puts our hero in conflict with himself.

Kind of goes without saying that The Incredibles isn’t a tragedy. Neither is Iron Man 3. And neither one is really intended for grown-ups. But it’s definitely an important theme of both movies. And The Incredibles does a better job of developing it and resolving it.

Both movies begin with our heroes making the same potentially tragic mistake. They reject offers of help from characters they make clear they regard as not worth their time or attention.

Stark does it with less reason and more cruelty and with a gratuitous demonstration of open contempt. But the effect is the same. The characters whose help they reject return to threaten everyone they love and they return having reinvented themselves as evil shadows of our heroes.

And their intention isn’t simply to destroy our heroes.

It’s to replace them.

Syndrome wants to be the superhero. Iron Man 3’s villain wants to be…Tony Stark.

They’re also in it for the money, of course. But that’s gravy. Mainly what they’re after is the sense of self-aggrandizement and self-satisfaction Mr Incredible expressed in rejecting Buddy’s application to be his sidekick. “I work alone” means I don’t need anybody else. But it also means “I get to take all the credit and reap all the rewards.”

Mr Incredible can only triumph by recognizing the mistake he made that brought Syndrome into existence and rectifying it. He has to face up to the fact that he can’t work alone and, not only is this well played-out in the dialog, it’s resolved in the climactic battle.

That’s what makes The Incredibles far more satisfying in the end.

That and that Syndrome is just a much better written villain with a far more interesting and sexy sexy henchwoman.

Also, Iron Man 3 has no Edna Mode.

The Incredibles gives Mr Incredible time---and better dialog---in which to realize what’s he done and face up to the consequences.

Tony does realize his mistake but he and we have very little time to process it before the video game boots.

And the big noisy mess that’s the climactic battle sequence in Iron Man 3 doesn’t play out as a confrontation between Tony Stark and his own evil shadow.

That might have contributed to let down at the end. I think there was something else, though.

So, Iron Man 3 isn’t as good as The Incredibles. But how does it stack up against the other Avengers movies?

Pretty well. I’d rank them this way. Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man 3, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2.

But it’s getting to where asking which movie you think is best is like asking which chapter of a novel you liked best. All the chapters share in a fan’s affection for being part of the same book, and that’s the point. Iron Man is now thoroughly part of the Avengers series and I missed the other Avengers, Cap most of all. Not just because I’ve always liked him the best, but because his story is still ongoing.

Tony’s almost certainly going to be back for The Avengers 2 and probably for an Iron Man 4, and there’s already talk of recasting when Robert Downey decides to take off the armor for good. But really Stark’s and Iron Man’s story was completed in The Avengers and in a very real way Iron Man 3 is about driving that home---the story is done and it’s time to say farewell.

So maybe that’s what I was feeling at the end. A sense of loss.

It’s over and I’m going to miss this Iron Man.


Yes, Stan Lee’s back for another cameo, and, yes, you should sit all the way through the end credits.


The Incredibles, The Wizard of Oz, Hamlet?  Really, Lance?  Of course. What else would you expect from the English professor who reviewed The Avengers as a commentary on the Knights of the Round Table?


Like I said up top, as much as I like Gwyneth, Mrs Incredible is far sexier than Pepper Potts. But know what else? Much as I like Don Cheadle? No way the Iron Patriot is as cool as Frozone.


Saturday Matinee update: I'm not the only one who saw references to The Incredibles.  Via Oliver Mannion: How Iron Man 3 Should Have Ended. Probably you shouldn't watch if you haven't seen the movie. Spoilers, of course, but also the jokes won't work if you don't know the film.

Iron Man 3, directed by Shane Black, screenplay by Drew Pearce and Shane Black. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyenth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Rebecca Hall, Guy Pearce, Paul Bettany, Ty Simpkins, Jon Favreau, and Ben Kingsley. Now in available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.