All posts by Syd Fablo

Ender’s Game

Ender's Game

Ender’s Game (2013)

Summit Entertainment

Director: Gavin Hood

Main Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld

What a piece of garbage.  This film (based on the book by Orson Scott Card) tries far too hard to incorporate teen and pre-teen appeal, aping Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and The Troll Twins of Underbridge Academy.   The plot is stupid and the characters implausible.  There are many pseudo-intelligent plot devices that are not even a fraction as intelligent as the filmmakers apparently think them to be.  The main character Ender (Asa Butterfield) is closely scrutinized by military superiors who see potential in him.  Yet they go so far as to extrapolate the future of humanity from a five-minute schoolhouse incident in which Ender gets into a fight.  The pop psychology is laid on very thick.  It might have been tolerable if it had any sort of connection to legitimate psychology.  It doesn’t.  Again and again, nothing really adds up.  Why are there a total of four adults in the international military that is trying to save the Earth from aliens?  And why are children, and only children, necessary to their plans?  None of that is explained.  The main character is portrayed like some kind of savant of sorts–recalling Herman Hesse‘s Magister Ludi [AKA The Glass Bead Game].  But there is little attempt at Hesse’s sense of irony.  The film gets a little better at the end, when it tries to find a moral center.  But the ending winds up being much the same as Starship Troopers (1997).  Skip this.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014)


Director: Ken Burns

Main Cast: Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti, Edward Herrmann, Peter Coyote

Ken Burn’s documentary of the Roosevelt family, focusing on Teddy, Franklin Delano, and Eleanor, is for the most part the same sort of pablum found in almost all of his films.  It posits the Roosevelts as the greatest political family America has ever seen, and probably ever will see, and the protectors and masters of liberal politics.  If you want a film that questions political dynasties at a fundamental level, or any such critiques, you are watching the wrong sort of film.  As Mason Williams has written, the documentary focuses on the personal somewhat to the detriment on the public aspects of the Roosevelts.  In that sense, it is a film built on a very reductionist, essentialist worldview, not far off from biological determinism.

The film is organized chronologically, beginning with the family’s move to America and their success in business, and then leads into Teddy Roosevelt’s political ascent.  This is followed by Franklin’s political ascent, and then Eleanor’s widow years.

Commentary on Burns’ Jazz still applies:

“By now his technique is as predictable as the plot of an episode of ‘Friends’: the zoom shot on a still photo, followed by a slow pan, a pull back, then a portentous pause — all the while a monotonous narration explains the obvious at length.” Serpents in the Garden

One quirk in this film is the casting for voice actors.  Paul Giamatti portrays Teddy, and he’s a hilariously poor choice.  Nick Offerman seems more apropos.  It may seem like a minor issue, but it sheds light on a problem with the entire project.  The film seems like it fits the facts to the people working on it, rather than the other way around.

We are to believe that the Roosevelts were great due to the individual greatness of people like Teddy, a favored son of a wealthy family with opportunities most would never dream of.  As a portrait of his personality, largely irrelevant to his public legacy, it probably is fair.  There is some treatment of his activism against business — this was the only president to give a speech railing against the “malefactors of great wealth” and back it up with some action.  Though Burns’ stops well short of adopting historian Gabriel Kolko‘s position that Teddy’s administration actual helped big business (to achieve stability) rather than constrain it.  His hubris following his presidency is his undoing, and the film does thankfully look askance at Teddy’s racism and imperialism.

The story of FDR’s life is most interesting in describing the time before he contracted polio.  He was a dandy and a mamma’s boy.  And he was insufferable.  After contracting polio, the narrative shifts to his overcoming the effects of the disease to forge his political career.  It certainly was an achievement.  There is discussion of how his medical condition was concealed from the public with the assistance of the media.  There is, however, a clear bias in favor of FDR, in that the filmmakers clearly see FDR as knowing what is best for the public more than the public does for itself, thereby justifying this media complicity.  One historian after another lines up to emphasize how the media of today wouldn’t do that, and someone like FDR, or Teddy even, would never win a major office as a result.  But they don’t talk about a media “propaganda” model, or campaign financing.  Instead, it is a matter as simple as tabloid journalism focusing on personal ailments and the like rather than the “real issues”.

The coverage of FDR’s presidency is mostly fawning, uncritical gushing.  Ken Burns has always forged a sort of suburban liberalism in his films.  This one is no different.  FDR is presented as the president of the people, the most leftist.  Anyone to the left of FDR is simply ignored.  This is problematic.  There is little to no mention of FDR’s “brain trust” and the assortment of advisors who urged more leftist policies than FDR was willing to accept, often to the detriment of lasting outcomes.  FDR’s programs are praised, criticized for tactical errors but not for being inadequate at a theoretical level.  FDR’s VP Henry Wallace is marginalized, to Eleanor’s chagrin, and Harry Truman is unleashed on the world.  Negotiations during WWII are the most curious part of the film.  Burns’ view of the war is unreliable, and clings to Cold War paranoia.  For instance, there is constant suspicion of Josef Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union.  Stalin’s concern about Western encroachment is dismissed as paranoia.  And yet, history has shown Stalin’s concerns to be entirely justified.  As Burns’ film aired on TV, the U.S. was actively involved in fomenting a coup in Ukraine, to move NATO closer to Moscow and implement a financial takeover.

FDR and Winston Churchill are portrayed as the saviors of the world who defeated the Nazis.  This, again, isn’t particularly accurate.  The Nazis were defeated primarily by the Soviets, in what they called the Great Patriotic War, as the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa.  Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, violating a non-aggression pact with the Soviets, with the largest invasion force ever assembled in the history of warfare.  Over four million Axis troops participated in the invasion.  Over five million Soviet citizens died repelling the invasion.  You won’t hear any of this from the Ken Burns film (details are available, for instance, in Harrison Salisbury‘s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad).  Instead, Stalin is a skeptic holding back Churchill and FDR.  D-Day turns the tide of the war (really, it barely worked, and then, only because of failures of the Axis powers during Barbarossa).

FDR gets very much a pass on his support for the Manhattan project.  Robert Oppenheimer ran the program, and later famously commented that it should have bee shut down “the day after Trinity,” in reference to the test explosion code-named Trinity.  Sure, Truman ordered the bombs dropped not FDR, but he was just carrying to conclusion an FDR program created for that purpose.

Burns is yet another of those “liberals” who asserts that politics should go a certain amount to the center-left and not one step further, with no justification whatsoever for where that line in the sand is drawn.  There are no leftist critics of FDR featured.  The late historian Howard Zinn noted how much of FDR’s presidency can be explained through simple imperialist ambitions.  He also wrote “The Limits of the New Deal” in New Deal Thought (1965):

“When the reform energies of the New Deal began to wane around 1939 and the depression was over, the nation was back to its normal state: a permanent army of unemployed; twenty or thirty million poverty-ridden people effectively blocked from public view by a huge, prosperous, and fervently consuming middle class; a tremendously efficient yet wastefully productive apparatus that was efficient because it could produce limitless supplies of what it decided to produce, and wasteful because what it decided to produce was not based on what was most needed by society but on what was most profitable to business.”

Economist Alan Nasser has written about how FDR worked to undermine Social Security and preserve business profit interests.  FDR was a committed fiscal conservative.  He was not a supporter of social programs.  He was forced to adopt them by popular pressure and unrest.  Burns’ film makes a particularly egregious mischaracterization of the Bonus Army.  These were WWI veterans who protested outside the White house to receive a promised bonus early, in view of the dire circumstances of the Great Depression.  The film mentions them being a problem of the Hoover administration.  This is true, as far as it goes, but the Bonus Army marched again during FDR’s presidency.  The film does not mention this fact.  FDR opposed their demands, and congress overrode FDR’s veto to pay the veterans their bonuses early.

Eleanor emerges as the best of the Roosevelts.  Not only as the lead author of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also as a voice of conscience against FDR’s crass political machinations.  It is too bad she wasn’t president, or at least that FDR had listened to her and made Henry Wallace his final running mate instead of Truman.  Like the others, her public accomplishments take a back seat to personal details of her life.

So, at the end of the many, many hours of this film, one is left knowing rather little about what the Roosevelts accomplished politically, and is instead given more of a portrait of the lifestyles of the rich and famous who like to dabble in politics.

The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds

Pet Sounds

The Beach BoysPet Sounds Capitol T 2458 (1966)

This is the album against which every other pop album is judged. A work of studio genius put together by Brian Wilson, Tony Asher and The Beach Boys, the reputation of Pet Sounds needs no repetition. It raised the bar as to what an album of songs could be as a unified work. Pet Sounds is the essential coming-of-age masterpiece.

Innocent and charm is what makes The Beach Boys so widely appealing. Tony Asher’s lyrics are full of hope in the way they present the doubt of confidence and the confidence of doubt. Often songs describe the highs and lows of a adolescent love. What sets Pet Sounds apart is the complete, though imperceptible, avoidance of escapism (inevitably encountered in the institutionalized American education system). At some point everyone can appreciate the loving, natural world this music represents. Ditching school (or work) to surf, drag race, or fill-in-the-blank is universally appealing as kids stuff goes, but eventually you reach a place like “Caroline No.”

While The Beach Boys went through many turbulent comebacks and personal conflicts, Pet Sounds survives as a perfect fragment of their potential. The first albums I ever bought were two discount Beach Boys compilation tapes I got at a bookstore. Along with a hip-hop album I copied from a friend, this was the extent of the music I listened to for months, well years really. I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV and for some reason I didn’t listen to the radio ever—probably because no one else at home did. Right around junior-high-time I decided I was too cool for The Beach Boys. I shoved the tapes into the back of a closet and out of mind. Only years later as a college DJ did I give them another chance. They were considered one of the all-time great groups after all; I had to listen. It was a slow process but I came to appreciate all that The Beach Boys represent. They functioned as a metaphor for an innocent childhood I could look back on. Rediscovering The Beach Boys had a deep meaning for me. They don’t paint the picture of a perfect world, but one with a full range of emotions and experiences. “That’s Not Me” is just one of my favorite songs. Brain Wilson begins with long, smooth organ chords then places the vocals in the same groove, broken only by the incessant taps of a tambourine.

Brian Wilson was the 1960s’ rebel without a cause. The Beach Boys may not arrive anywhere particular, but all that matters is that they flail around for a while. The point is Pet Sounds is a coming-of-age story told while it was happening. Completely authentic.

The Rolling Stones – Between the Buttons

Between the Buttons

The Rolling StonesBetween the Buttons London PS 499 (1967) [US release]

Starry-eyed idealism worked wonders for The Beatles. The Kinks had nostalgia. For The Rolling Stones, the raw energy of rock and roll was their near constant source of inspiration. Early on, The Stones worked exclusively with the blues and R&B at the root of all rock music. That soon changed. It was a pair of albums they put out in 1967 that confounded any notion of the group being easily placed in one category of rock and pop music. Between The Buttons was the first of those. The album, and especially the U.S. version with the singles “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday,” has all the catchy pop hooks of a Beatles record plus all the ragged stylistic shredding of any other Stones record.

“Let’s Spend the Night Together” is joy. The simple pleading of a boy in love, Jagger encouraged to a desperate pace confirmed in the wordless ba-duh-bap-bap of his associates and the prodding of a relentless piano. Desire is so strong that doubt hasn’t room to breathe. This could be the most uninhibited song the group recorded. For purity of emotion, there is no equal. Pleading, pleading, pleading, with the moment ready to pass sweetly by, every attempt is made to realize the possibilities that could, at any time, collapse under the effort convince some exquisite being of something that words hardly convey, with another plea, and another, the beautiful possibility–excuses, apologies fail–for a wonderful night together. Trembling with confidence, there can only be success. The bass rambles by, undeterred by anything around it. The guitars drift in and out. They mirror the strongest melodies, making them practically invincible.

“Ruby Tuesday,” an exposition of simply the finest baroque chamber pop, matches its aristocratic etiquette only in its bittersweet delicacy. Its coarser sibling is “Yesterdays Paper’s,” whose treatment of a casual dismissal overflows with neglect.

In every odd turn the album takes, a surprise is waiting. “Connection” is a driving piece, full of energy. Less obvious are the textures loaded in every pulse. “She Smiled Sweetly” sways on the tones of an organ, with a romantic attachment to lingering memories and the instinctive desire to live them again. What makes the song unshakable is the plain and honest fact that the sweet smiles of those very occasional girls who put the world within reach can keep you alive for months. If she tells you not to worry, then days become a blur. The blur is the image of her blending bleeding into everything else. Having her in mind is happiness. All that comes in a song.

The Rolling Stones’ greatest ability was in absorbing the possibilities of every kind of pop music. In that way, Between the Buttons is exactly in stride with the path of a group who had already mastered their own heartfelt transformation of American blues. The focus simply moved to encompass the sweeter strains of pop. Even still, their music is open to anything. “Miss Amanda Jones” is a manic workout that looks forward to sound The Stones took up a few years later. The vaudevillian humor in “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” and elsewhere takes the eccentricities of the album the furthest. So carefree. Between the Buttons is wonderful nonsense, and one of the group’s best efforts.

Jonathan Richman – Action Packed: The Best of Jonathan Richman

Action Packed: The Best of Jonathan Richman

Jonathan RichmanAction Packed: The Best of Jonathan Richman Rounder 1166-11596-2 (2002)

If Buddy Holly had arrived in the punk era, he might have sounded something like Jonathan Richman.  The material collected here leans on bubblegum pop but with an ironic, half-serious delivery.  These are like children’s songs played in a way that has no appeal to children.  When it’s just Jonathan with a guitar, which is most of the time, the music could pass for that of some guy at an open mic night playing solo versions of old rock/pop songs and making up a few new ones as he goes too.  That might not sound all that interesting, but it all ends up being quite endearing because Richman is so convincing and earnest.  He doesn’t put across shy, introverted attitudes as better than anything else, just as something that belongs in the conversation with all sorts of other great music.  His songwriting PWNS that of Rivers Cuomo of Weezer (a band that is quite similar, if much less talented, with just the rock sound of The Feelies tacked on top of something that does kind of suggest a sort of superiority of the geeks).  A lot of people will just scratch their heads at this–even if they were intrigued by Jonathan’s appearance as a strolling troubadour in the film There’s Something About Mary.  But those with a soft spot for lovable losers and insecure geeks, or simply clever, quirky and goofy songwriting, welcome home…gabba gabba.

The Bad Plus – These Are the Vistas

These Are the Vistas

The Bad PlusThese Are the Vistas Columbia CK 87040 (2003)

A frequent comment about Bad Plus albums is that if you’ve heard one you’ve heard them all.  That’s mostly true.  But it’s also true that These Are the Vistas is head-and-shoulders above any of their other recordings.  The sound is often called “acoustic fusion”, which really means they play acoustic instruments with a traditional jazz style and sonic texture but focus on rock-oriented rhythms.  Think “Eighty-One” from E.S.P. by Miles Davis‘ second great quintet, when they were just starting to feel out how rock and jazz could meet.  The Bad Plus update what Davis’s group was doing considerably, by bringing to the table the sound of modern rock, as with covers of the likes of Nirvana and Blondie.  There is a more contemporary ironic touch to it all.  While it can sound a bit glib and formulaic elsewhere, the group probably never has and never will match what they documented here.

Atmosphere – God Loves Ugly

God Loves Ugly

AtmosphereGod Loes Loves Ugly Fat Beats 6591235001-2 (2002)

Basically these guys scale back the misogyny, homophobia, and other lame elements usually endemic to hip-hop.  They lessen those liabilities, but the problem is that they still employ all the usual styles.  Here, ANT and SLUG don’t recognize the tension between method and content the way they do elsewhere (When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold).

Louis Armstrong – Greatest Hits

Greatest Hits

Louis ArmstrongGreatest Hits RCA Victor (1996)

There is some good music on this disc, and some bad stuff.  It’s hard not to focus on the faults of this disc though.  When “Everybody’s Talkin’ (Echos)” started playing, I literally said out loud, “What the fuck? Why did he ever record this?”  But it kind of makes me wonder what he would have recorded if he lived into the 1980s…“Papa Don’t Preach”?  “Blame It On the Rain”?

Don’t get this album if you expect any kind of representative overview of Satchmo’s career.  This is really just a grab bag of RCA Victor-owned tracks thrown together in a maddening and inexplicable sequence.  Even the version of “What a Wonderful World” is not the one everyone knows and loves from the late 1960s single (and later popularized by the Good Morning, Vietnam soundtrack), but a cheeseball 1970s extended version.  There has to be a better entire career overview out there…