Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders (Hybrid Production Media Films, Lifetime, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I subjected Charles to two Lifetime movies in a row, The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders and The Captive Nanny. Had The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders been a product of Ken Sanders and the Johnson Production Group it probably would have been about high-school cheerleaders raising money for their college funds by turning tricks with horny middle-aged 1-percent males, but instead this one came from Hybrid Media and writers Peter Sullivan (who also directed) and Jeffrey Schenck (Anna White got a third writing credit but was not listed as one of the producers) and was the first entry in a month-long series Lifetime did called “Cheer, Rally, Kill!” (One wonders what sort of high school would have cheerleaders whose big cheer would be “Cheer, Rally, Kill” — one in which Norman Bates was a taxidermy instructor and at the opening assembly the scratchy-sounding voice on the P.A. system would introduce “your new principal, Dr. Lecter.”) The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders takes place at the elite Roosevelt High School somewhere in California (we’re told that in the dialogue, though the place looks like any suburban high school in Anywhere, U.S.A. — or Anywhere, Canada, for that matter, since there’s no indication on the page for this film exactly where it was made) and instead of the old Lifetime chestnut about nubile young teenage girls whoring themselves for college money, it’s the old Lifetime chestnut about the Good Cheerleader and the Bad Cheerleader.

The Good Cheerleader is Ava Dobbs (Savannah May) — I’m taking an educated guess as to the character’s last name because the only reference to it is when she’s announced over the school P.A. in the climactic scene and it could have been “Dodd,” but “Dobbs” is how I heard it. She fell apart a year and a half previously when her father was killed in a car accident; Ava responded to this by skipping school a lot, giving up her dance classes, hanging out with her less savory fellow students, drinking and taking Adderall. Her mom Candice (Denise Richards, top-billed) has slapped a 9 p.m. curfew on her and, like a typical Lifetime mother (especially a typical Lifetime single mother), is treating her with all the sensitivity of a concentration-camp commandant, angrily chewing her out and even installing motion-sensitive security floodlights around their home, ostensibly to ward off burglars or other intruders but really to alert her in case her daughter tries to sneak out at night. The Bad Cheerleader is Katrina Smith (Allie DuBerry), whom we’ve already seen in action in a prologue in which she and two other cheerleaders don lion masks (the school’s mascot is a lion and the cheerleaders are called “Lionesses”) and force another girl to drink vodka straight from a bottle and otherwise harass and humiliate her. Katrina is the darling of the faculty coach assigned to the cheerleading squad, Ms. Sinclair (Josie Davis), who lets her get away with everything because she sees Katrina as the school’s ticket to winning the statewide cheerleader of the year award, which includes a free-ride scholarship to the college of your choice and which, needless to say, Ava also wants to win.

She makes it onto the cheerleading squad through a hot routine she learned in her dance classes — she says she’s only going out for cheerleading because Roosevelt doesn’t have a dance program, but she figures the skills are “transferable” — only she discovers that while Ms. Sinclair supposedly picked the members of the cheerleading squad, Katrina really calls the shots and subjects her fellow cheerleaders to “initiations,” of which the first is sneaking into a building after hours and getting themselves locked into an elevator as smoke starts to billow around them. The intent, Katrina says via a cell-phone broadcast from a safe distance, is to prove how resourceful they are under pressure — and when Our Heroine manages to pick the lock on the elevator door with a bobby pin and lead the other girls to safety in time, that supposedly proves their worthiness. Ava is in potential trouble with her mom for having sneaked out of the house after curfew and not returned until midnight, but mom forebears … for now. Ava also meets one of the stars of the school football team, Patrick (Gunner Burkhardt, medium-height, handsome and quite a bit more butch than a lot of the boyfriends who afflict Lifetime movies as teenage love interests for the teen heroines), they go on a date and they seem to have a lot in common — especially since Patrick doesn’t want to be a football player all his life: he has a idea for a computer app that could make him the next Gates or Zuckerberg and quite naturally he doesn’t want his brains to get so scrambled by football-caused concussions he can’t think well enough to develop it — only Katrina screws that up for Ava by blackmailing Shay (Bella Shepard), the school slut, to go up to Patrick at a party the kids are having (and where alcohol is being served in what’s become the obligatory red plastic cups, though Ava has the brains and will power to forebear) and plant a big, fat kiss on Patrick’s lips so Ava will think Patrick invited Shay’s attentions and she’ll have a jealous hissy-fit over it and break up with him. Ava won’t return Patrick’s calls or texts until she overhears two of the other girls on the cheerleading squad in the school restroom talk about how Katrina put Shay up to kissing Patrick.

Ava also learns about the next “initiation,” in which the girls are supposed to break into the school stadium and strip naked, while Katrina not only films this on her phone but live-streams it to the guys on the football team so they can vote in an online poll over who’s the sexiest girl on the squad. (This reminded me inevitably of “Facemash,” the nasty, vicious, sexist prank Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin pulled as Harvard undergraduates on their way to founding Facebook, in which they put up side-by-side pics of women students and asked male students to log on and vote online for which was hotter. Zuckerberg’s original idea for the prank —comparing pics of women students to farm animals — was even sicker.) Katrina’s strip party “outs”  Haley (Ysa Penarejo), who’s been showing up for cheer practice and games wearing some sort of slimming undergarment, and such is Katrina’s power that she literally orders Haley off the cheerleading squad. Then Katrina targets the squad’s one token Black girl, Tiffany (Gracie Marie Bradley), who used to be a gymnast until her latest “growth spurt” disqualified her from that sport, for a special hazing: first she gets her drunk by forcing her to drink the obligatory ultra-cheap vodka from the bottle, then she takes her to the top of the building where the first “initiation” takes place, then Katrina announces her intention to make Tiffany walk along the ledge of the building, not only drunk but also blindfolded. Ava crashes this sick party and with the help of Patrick, whom she made up with once she overheard two of Katrina’s other henchwomen in the restroom talk about how Shay couldn’t have been less interested in Patrick but Katrina got her to kiss him and make it look like they were “together,” agrees to take Tiffany’s place in the “initiation,” only she loses her balance and Patrick and Tiffany have to rescue her. F ortunately Patrick has been live-streaming the goings-on not only to everyone at Roosevelt High School but the police as well, and the cops show up in time to arrest Katrina and the school’s Black woman principal fires Ms. Sinclair.

The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders hardly lives up to the sensational promise of the title — though at least it gives straight guys a reason to watch Lifetime with the promise of getting to see hot, nubile young girls in skimpy costumes (though Charles joked that all o the actors playing high-school students looked considerably older than their real-life counterparts) — but it’s good clean dirty fun in the best Lifetime manner, and the one standout performance is by Allie DeBerry as the villainess. Yes, these perky little psychos have become a Lifetime staple, but DeBerry is one of the best ones: she throws herself into the part with real energy and a sense of demented fun, and neither she nor the writers give us any particular reason so we can identify with her and lament some sad fate that made her what she is. She’s not a spoiled-rotten one-percenter (some Lifetime movies, notably Restless Virgins, have actually done quite explicit class critiques), she’s not a former foster child working out her traumas: she’s just a bitch who can get away with being a bitch because she has the adult authority figures “snowed.” (We don’t even meet her parents — assuming she has any; one expects she just somehow climbed out of some primordial ooze.) The Secret Lives of Cheerleaders would have been a nice kickoff of the “Cheer, Rally, Kill!” series if I’d seen it when it first ran instead of having to wait for what Lifetime called its 30th anniversary weekend marathon, but even now it was a lot of fun — even though Tilky Jones, whom I’ve lusted after and drooled over in previous Lifetime movies, was ill-used and largely wasted as a chemistry teacher Ava, at Katrina’s urging, bats her eyes at and flirts with to get extra time for an assignment she’s missed.

The Captive Nanny (Almost Never Films, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that Lifetime showed a supposed “premiere” of a movie called The Captive Nanny which was not only a ripoff, but a ripoff of another film they “premiered” just two weeks ago: The Au Pair Nightmare. Both films are about a young, (relatively) innocent nanny (in The Au Pair Nightmare the heroine had never taken care of children professionally at all; in The Captive Nanny she’s an experienced nanny but has never worked as a live-in before) who gets hired by a reclusive couple who keep all their doors locked, sometimes lock their child in his/her room at night (the put-upon kid was a girl in The Au Pair Nightmare but is a boy here), and are paranoid that someone from a large organization will find them out and kidnap their child. Both films feature the nanny agreeing to take the live-in job after a relationship has just ended — though in The Au Pair Nightmare the heroine’s partner died in a car crash while in The Captive Nanny they merely broke up, mainly because while Chloe (Karyann Moore), the heroine, ends her relationship with Rob (Willie Mellina) after 10 years in which they’ve lived together as a couple but never got married. It seems that even though Chloe is biologically incapable of having a child of her own, she’s nonetheless determined to be a mother some way, so while she makes her living nanny-ing she’s also making the rounds of adoption agencies and getting the usual third degree from them about how two people who have highly time-consuming jobs will be able to raise a kid. Rob has just got a hot new dream job running a fashionable new night spot that presents live bands — he was a frustrated musician who still wants a career in music, even if it’s only a behind-the-scenes one — but Chloe’s latest frazzling experience with an adoption agency and the tough questions she was getting from the hard-nosed Black woman she was dealing with there leads Rob to decide that becoming a father, even by proxy, is way more of a commitment than he wants to make.

Chloe takes the job as a live-in nanny for Michael (Michael Aaron Milligan) and Emily (Austin Highsmith — a woman named Austin?) Brown. Chloe has one relative, sister Stephanie (Ann Sonneville), who as the movie opens is visibly pregnant with a child by her husband Kevin (the racially ambiguous Louis Robert Thompson), a cop. (Gee, if he’s part-Black he can kill himself and be both the perpetrator and the victim of police brutality — I know that’s a sick joke right now, but … ) Stephanie is worried about Chloe taking a job with weirdos who lock their own son in at night; she and Chloe also still have T-shirts that were souvenirs of the night they went to a concert featuring a boy band called Blank Slate, whose leader, Baz Martin (Jason Skeen), has gone on to a well-regarded solo career. Like the similarly demented villainess of The Au Pair Nightmare, Emily Brown — or, as she used to be known, Chelsea Collins — says she spent several years as Baz Martin’s live-in lover and wanted to have his child, but he never wanted to be a father and eventually he broke up with her, though this makes us suspicious that Tommy Brown (Judah Abner Paul), the boy Chloe has been hired to take care of, is really Baz Martin’s son. Like her opposite number in The Au Pair Nightmare, Emily becomes convinced not only that Baz is her kid’s biological dad but Chloe is an operative sent by Baz to keep track of her and ultimately kidnap Tommy. She’s convinced of that when she finds the old Blank Slate T-shirt among Chloe’s effects, and meanwhile Chloe realizes that the Browns lied to her when they said they’d never had a nanny before. They did, her name was Sylvia, and they ultimately tortured and killed her when she refused to reveal any information about Baz Martin because she didn’t have any. But she recorded a statement on a ball-like computer drive and a separate flash drive, announcing to anyone who might recover it some day that the Browns had killed her and she was making this statement within minutes of the time she knew the Browns’ machinations would finish her off for good.

Like the parents in The Au Pair Nightmare, the Browns seem to mimic the morals (or lack of same) of the Macbeths, with Emily as the cold-blooded schemer and killer who pushes the basically decent but weak Michael to join in her schemes and kill for her. Eventually Chloe discovers the flash drive Sylvia left behind in one of Tommy’s old teddy bears, but Michael catches her (though he doesn’t recover both drives) and the Browns lock her in her room, announcing that they’ll give her food and water but only if she provides information about Baz Martin. It turns out Baz Martin is actually giving one of those secret concerts that’s advertised only on the Internet, and he’s doing that at the club managed by (you guessed it) Chloe’s former boyfriend Rob. The climax occurs at Baz’s show, which Emily has been able to crash by disguising herself as his wardrobe person, and she comes in with a gun threatening to shoot him if he doesn’t return to her (though we’re not sure if they were ever “together” in the first place — the writers of The Au Pair Nightmare made clear that the wife had just made up a fantasy of having had an affair with a superstar and a child by him, but The Captive Nanny writer Julian Broudy never makes it clear one way or the other. Only after Baz — showing a great deal more courage than common sense (one would have thought he’d play along with this maniac until his security people could come and grab her) — says even as Emily is holding a gun on him that he doesn’t love her, she shoots but Chloe is there to knock her hand over so her shot reaches not Baz but Emily’s husband Michael, so at the end Michael is dead, Emily is arrested and in a postlude I didn’t believe in The Au Pair Nightmare and didn’t believe this time around either, Chloe ends up taking custody of Tommy (ya remember Tommy?) and the final shot is of her, Rob (with whom she’s reconciled) and Tommy out for a two-family outing with Stephanie, Kevin and the child Stephanie finally had au naturel. (In the real world kids of psycho parents don’t end up in the custody of their nannies: the police and courts would look for hopefully non-psycho relatives to take them.)

The person I really felt sorry for in the making of The Captive Nanny — a title Charles said would have led him to expect a Bad Seed-like story in which the kid was the psycho and the parents were locking him up to protect the rest of the world from him — was its director, Amy S. Weber. One thing I admire about Lifetime is their willingness to give women directors a shot, and some of the women who’ve made Lifetime movies, notably Christine Conradt and Vanessa Parise, are perfectly capable of handling theatrical features if only someone will give them the chance (and, of course, assuming there ever are movie theatres again!). Amy S. Weber is a more problematic case because, though she gets a possessory credit, she’s really hamstrung by the two men on either side of her in the filmmaking hierarchy, writer Broudy and producers John Mehrer and Danny Roth. Judging from her work here, Weber is a potentially fine director especially capable of creating Gothic effects in ordinary-looking modern-day environments, but she had to deal with Broudy’s script and one wishes either Weber could have written the script herself or got another woman to do it, since as it stands The Captive Nanny is all too obviously a male fantasy about a woman in distress, and for all her command of atmosphere Weber doesn’t get the kinds of edgy, multidimensional performances Joe Russo got from the actors playing all too similar characters in The Au Pair Nightmare.

Puccini: Suor Angelica (Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Captive Au Pair Nanny’s Nightmare Charles wanted a respite from Lifetime and I found one in an oddball video from the Buenos Aires opera in 2011: Puccini’s Suor Angelica (“Sister Angelica”), the central segment in his evening of three one-act operas, Il Trittico (“The Trilogy”). The first one, Il Tabarro (“The Barge”), is a typically grim verismo tale about a barge captain who discovers his much younger wife is having an aair with one of his crew members, so he ends up, Pagliacci-style, killing both of them. The last episode, Gianni Schicchi, is a comedy based on a passage in Dante about a lovable schemer who impersonates a dead man to dictate a new will so two young lovers can get together at the end. Suor Angelica takes place in a convent — though Giovacchino Forzano wrote the libretto it was obviously inspired by Puccini’s sister, who was a nun; for that reason he’d long wanted to write an opera about nuns and use some of the background details of convent life he’d heard from his sister. The title character was a woman from a noble family who several years earlier had had an affair, got herself pregnant and was sent off to the convent after her baby, a boy, was born and her relatives — particularly her aunt, referred to as “La Zia Principessa” (“The Old Princess”) in the original cast list but as “Tia Principessa” (“Princess Aunt”) in the Spanish-language credits for this telecast — kept custody.

After a few scenes setting the color of life in the convent (including the nuns celebrating that this evening is one of only three all year in which the setting sun’s light hits the streams of their fountain just right so it looks like the water is gold), the main action takes place: La Zia Principessa arrives at the convent to demand that Angelica sign over to the rest of the family any share she might have in its fortune. Angelica insists that she will only do that if she can first see her son, and the Princess informs her that the son died of fever two years earlier. Angelica collapses as the Princess leaves and sings the one portion of the score that even resembles an aria, “Senza mamma,” in which she expresses the feeling that her kid essentially died of a broken heart because she was not there to support and raise him. At the end of the opera Angelica herself dies — adding herself to the long list of Puccini heroines (Fidelia in Edgar, Manon, Mimì, Tosca, Butterfly and, later, Liù in Turandot) who loved not wisely but too well and ended up dying tragic but beautifully sung deaths. As she expires she has a vision of the Virgin Mary descending from heaven, bringing her there and reuniting her with her dead son — though, alas, stage director Marcelo Perusso made some pretty heinous mistakes. The two biggest ones were showing a line of five silent male characters walking by the outside of the convent as the action began — one of the things Suor Angelica is famous for is having an all-woman cast, and the fact that these five men’s presence was not accidental was proven when they actually lined up on stage for the curtain calls — and his total refusal to dramatize the vivid ending Puccini and Forzano wrote.

Instead of having the Virgin Mary and Angelica’s son descending from the back stairs of the convent set to escort her to her rightful place in heaven, Angelica just died in full view of the audience, expiring on the stage floor where she’d mostly been since she sang her aria. Charles marveled at the influence of Wagner on Puccini — though they don’t sound that much alike, one thing Wagner did do that affected later generations of opera composers around the world was to smooth over the distinction between “recitative” and “aria” — Angelica’s “Senza mamma” is the one even remotely severable piece in this score — and it also occurred to me that this is an opera that reveals how Debussy influenced Puccini’s later (i.e., everything after Butterfly) operas. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande had premiered in 1902 and, though it’s never been a very popular work, it made a major impression on Debussy’s fellow composers. It particularly made a major impression on Puccini because he’d actually gone after the operatic rights to Maurice Maeterlinck’s play himself — only Debussy had beaten him by just a few weeks — and it’s interesting to imagine what a Puccini Pelléas might have been like. (Most likely it would have been less “symbolist” — to use the literary term usually applied to Maeterlinck — I suspect Puccini would have wanted his librettists to put more flesh on the bones of Maeterlinck’s characters and make them less symbolist abstractions and more flesh-and-blood human beings, which might have worked, though much of the appeal of Debussy’s Pelléas is the shadowy dream-world in which it takes place and the existence of little but the flimsiest emotional grounding in the characters and the story.)

After Madama Butterfly Puccini clearly wanted to move away from writing operas with Big Hit Tunes and also wanted to get away from Italy and what Italian audiences still expected opera to be. (Butterfly was the last Puccini opera to premiere in Italy until Turandot, which Puccini left unfinished and wasn’t staged until two years after Puccini died.) Seen in context with the other two operas of the Trittico, Suor Angelica might work better than it does on its own — it would be a (mostly) lyrical interlude between the high-tension melodramatics of Il Tabarro and the hi-jinks of Gianni Schicchi — but even on its own it’s an estimable piece of work even though it didn’t get much help from these performers. Florencia Fabris is an O.K. Angelica rather than a great one (once again, in order to probe the psychological depths of this role, one would have to go to Maria Callas, who recorded only the big aria “Senza mamma” but managed even out of context to make it heartrending) and Elizabeth Canis brought a sort of quiet authority to the Princess, though I would have wanted more fire and venom in the role. The direction was pretty pedestrian — just a bunch of women wandering around in nuns’ habits —and the conducting by Carlos Vieu was good and lyrical but also at times seemed too slow and poky for a score that has only one real dramatic confrontation and also only one big emotional moment.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Midsomer Murders: “A Vintage Murder” (Bentley Productions, Independent Television Service, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 10 p.m. last night I watched a two-part episode of the British TV show Midsomer Murders — which has actually been running for 24 seasons, longer than Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and is a series of murder mysteries set in the fictitious “Midsomer County” in central England. This was a two-part story called “A Vintage Murder” and dealt with a struggling vineyard owned by William Carnarvon (Mark Bonnar) and his wife Diana (Ruth Gemmell). The show opens with a large outdoor party at which the Carnarvons are supposed to introduce their latest product, a white sparkling wine they have great hopes for; they’re hoping it will be a spectacular success and save the vineyard from going broke and out of business. My husband Charles pointed out to me that, while the United Kingdom doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being one of the world’s great wine producers, parts of Britain have similar climate to northern California and British wines have acquired more of a reputation for quality in the last two decades or so. The Carnarvons have flown in respected wine critic Nadia Simons (Naoko Mori) — the character is visibly Asian but presumably acquired an Anglo name by marriage, though she’s single at the time of the story — to review their new product. Only, in the middle of their event, Nadia pronounces the new wine as so awful it’s virtually undrinkable, and later we find that Nadia was a corrupt critic; the wine magazine she was associated with had fired her for accepting bribes from vintners for quality reviews. The Carnarvons were clearly giving her an all-expenses-paid trip and various perks to buy a positive review, so the only reason she would give a negative one is if someone else bribed her even more. Also among the dramatis personae are local hotel owner Louis Payton (Lloyd Owen) and his son Kevin (Max Bennett —who looks so much like Owen they’re believable as father and son), who doesn’t want to inherit the hotel but has instead gone to work for the Carnarvons as an apprentice vintner and wants to make winemaking his career. 

Meanwhile, the Carnarvons also have a son who doesn’t want to follow in their footsteps: Ryan (played by Tom Rhys Harries, a young man of almost unearthly beauty), who’s introduced playing the piano at his parents’ big event and has been studying for a career as a classical virtuoso — though he’s being distracted from his practice schedule by his infatuation with Tina Tyler (Sandra Bartlett). Her parents are still grieving over the death of Tina’s younger sister 10 years earlier — she was run down by a hit-and-run driver and her parents Roger (Wayne Foskett) and Judy (Rosie Cavallaro) are convinced Nadia Simons was the culprit. Their vengeful fantasies are activated by Nadia’s sudden reappearance in town, and soon enough Nadia is herself run down in a car after she got plastered, DCI John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon, the series’ star) takes her car keys away and offers her a ride to the hotel where she’s staying (Payton’s place — no pun intended —which is the only one in town) but she instead calls a friend and waits at a bench, swilling down one of two bottles of wine she’s boosted from somewhere, presumably the Carnarvons’ cellar. We get the message that she’s gone from someone who samples wine for a living to a hopeless alcoholic, and when she’s killed the medical examiner reports that she had such an advanced case of alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver she was going to die in a year anyway. As if that wasn’t enough, a number of people at the Carnarvons’ party got severely ill from drinking their wine — not from the wine itself, but from someone at the Paytons’ bar lacing the inside of the glasses with anti-slug pesticide, not enough to kill anybody but enough to make them sick and add to the bad reputation of the Carnarvons’ product. Like most British mysteries Midsomer Murders throws a lot of red herrings our way, but unlike many of them it racks up so much of a body count that for a while you get the impression that everyone is either going to end up a victim or a perp. 

Elspeth Rice (Selina Griffiths) is a formidable woman who’s both Judy Tyler’s private nurse and the head of a local group of farmers’ wives determined to close down the Carnarvon winery because, among other things, its water consumption is draining the local pond. She comes on so much like Miss Gulch in the Kansas framing scenes of The Wizard of Oz that when she rode off on her bicycle I started humming Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain,” and it ultimately turns out it was she, not Nadia, who ran down the little Tyler girl a decade earlier. Meanwhile, it turns out that Judy Tyler killed Nadia because she still believed Nadia had killed her daughter, and she also kills Louis Payton by shoving him out of a window and causing him to be impaled on some sort of stake being used in a construction project to remodel the hotel. In a last-ditch attempt to break up Ryan Carnarvon and Tina Tyler someone kidnaps her and locks her under the floor of the wine cellar just as someone else opens the taps of the barrels in which William Carnarvon was keeping his wine. The kidnapper turns out to be Kevin Payton —it has to be either him or one of the Carnarvons because they’re the only people who knew that space under the wine buildings’ floor existed — though the wine saboteur was Matilda Stowe (Claire Bloom, whose presence in this cast puts everyone else one degree of separation from Charlie Chaplin and Laurence Olivier!), William Carnarvon’s formidable mother-in-law, who had saved her late husband’s fortune and put it in trust for Ryan rather than let her son-in-law get his hands on it and use it to prop up the failing vineyard. Oh, and did I mention someone nearly gets asphyxiated by an assailant who sabotages the wine building by filling it with carbon dioxide? “A Vintage Murder” was quite a nice tale even though the complexities of its plot would probably have made even Raymond Chandler blush, and it’s certainly not the sort of nice, little story, with just a little murder to spike the milk of human kindness with acid, Agatha Christie and her imitators were famous for and are what most people think of when they hear the term “British murder mystery.”

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Game of Thrones,season four, episodes nine and ten: "The Watchers on the Wall,” “The Children” (Television 360, Startling Television, Bighead Littlehead, HBO, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I screened the last two episodes in season four of Game of Thrones, “The Watchers on the Wall” and “The Children.” Once again I’ll reproduce the synopses on in hopes that they can sort out the confusion some of the episodes plunge us into — “The Watchers on the Wall” is synopsized, “Jon and Samwell are on duty on top of the Wall. Ygritte wants to be the one who kills Jon Snow. A petrified Gilly returns with her baby to Castle Rock, reporting about the wildling attack at Mole’s Town. The Nights Watch prepare for battle. The wildling army attack the wall in the night, with giants riding mammoths. Jon sets out on a dangerous journey to help set things right,” and “The Children” is listed thusly: “Jon Snow meets Mance and they discuss a peaceful alternative to the battle. Out of the blue, Stannis and his army put the Wildlings under siege and Mance surrenders. Jon asks for mercy for Mance to Stannis since he was well treated by him when he was his prisoner. Tywin wants to force Cersei to marry Loras and they have an argument. Cersei discloses her affair to her father and tells that she will make it public if he insists in marrying her. Jaime and Lord Varys help Tyrion to escape, but he kills Shae that is in Tywin’s bed with his hands and his father with a crossbow. Then he leaves King’s Landing with Varys in a ship. Daenerys learns that her black dragon killed a three-year-old girl and she locks them up in the dungeons. Brienne and Pod meet Arya and The Hound and Brienne has a deadly sword fight with The Hound to keep Arya. Bran, Jojen, his sister and Hodor reach their target but they are attacked by Wights.” 

Actually “The Watchers on the Wall” was the most entertaining Game of Thrones episode I’ve seen yet because it focused on only one plot line — the Knight’s Watch defending the wall against a siege by the Wildings, cannibals whom the Wall was built to keep out of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros (much like the real-life Hadrian’s Wall which the Roman emperor Hadrian had built to wall off England, which he had conquered, from Scotland, which he hadn’t). The Wildings’ siege is led by a bear-like creature who gets captured in the battle, which the Knight’s Watch win … for now, since the Wildings (who are made to look “bad” by scarifying their faces — it’s a look I’ve seen on real-life photos of Black hunter tribes in Africa but it’s a bit disorienting, to say the least, to see it on white people) vastly outnumber them. I was particularly struck by the sequences in which members of the Wilding army attempt to scale the Wall itself — which is actually composed of a thick layer of ice, though there may be a wooden framework under the ice — and the Knight’s Watch defense, a giant metal scythe that slices off the outer layer of ice (I didn’t know the Wall came with a self-destruct mechanism!) and anyone unfortunate enough to be attempting to scale it at the time. 

Incidentally the Wildings themselves use what looks an awful lot like modern-day mountain climbing equipment, and watching this whole sequence now was eerily ironic since on Monday night Charles and I had watched D-Day at Pointe-du-Hoc, a side battle to the main invasion in which a detail of 225 U.S. Rangers were assigned to scale the cliffs on that part of the Normandy coastline in order to get to the top and destroy or wreck six giant German cannon (actually captured French ordnance) which otherwise would have ahelled the amphibious invaders at Omaha and Utah beaches. I had remembered seeing this extraordinary feat dramatized in the 1962 D-Day film The Longest Day, and when I wrote about it I compared it to medieval warfare and said, “[T]he men charged with taking a German gun battery at the top of the cliff use ropes fired up from air guns with anchors that hook on to the German barbed wire, and the Germans respond by getting wire cutters and trying to cut the parts of the wire where the anchors have hooked, so the invaders will fall from the cliffs to the rock below.” Though in the D-Day film we were supposed to root for the men doing the climb and in Game of Thrones we were rooting against them, the sequences seemed quite similar. I was also impressed by the depiction of woolly mammoths being used by the Wildings’ army — including one giant beast that was supposed to pull open the doors of Castle Black, the Knight’s Watch’s last redoubt — though I find myself wondering whether they were done entirely with CGI or they took footage of elephants and “tweaked” it with CGI to give them the longer, curved tusks and woolly coats of mammoths. (I was leaning towards the latter until I saw the next episode, which featured two fully convincing dragons that were almost certainly done entirely with CGI.) 

Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and his comic-relief associate Samwell Tardy (John Bradley, playing the kind of role Alan Hale did in Warner Bros.’ 1930’s medieval extravaganzae with Errol Flynn) were the main characters in “The Watchers on the Wall,” and Jon remained the focus of the start of “The Children” as he sneaked out of Castle Black to meet with Mance Raydar (Ciarán Hinds), the leader of the Wildings (so far the Wildings had been pretty much an undifferentiated mass of zombie killers and it’s only now that we get some indication of their individual personalities), with the suggestion being either that he’s sending out a peace feeler to see if he can ward off the inevitable or he’s been a secret agent of Mance’s all along. Alas, after the relatively tight-knit drama of “The Watchers on the Wall,” “The Children” is a reversion to the choppy plotting and confusing editing that’s been the norm for this series. At least we got to see Daenerys Targeryan (Emilia Clarke) again, having one of her petition sessions in which a man who was oddly made up to look like the common image of Jesus Christ brings in the charred corpse of his three-year-old daughter, burned up by one of Daenerys’s dragons — so she chains up the other two (albeit anyone who’s seen the original King Kong is naturally going to be afraid of how long those chains will last) but the third one is still at large. I was hoping that the writers of Game of Thrones would create the human-dragon bonding that’s so much a part of the late Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, but no such luck. 

We also get to re-meet Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage, who’s consistently been the most authoritative actor in the series, at least partly because he’s playing the most genuinely conflicted character), who at the end of episode eight had been sentenced to death after both his champion and the prosecution’s warrior had killed each other in the trial by combat, but he’s helped to escape and responds by strangling his former mistress Shae — whom he discovers in his father’s bed (was dad taking his son’s sloppy seconds?) — and then shooting his dad with a crossbow just after Tyrion’s brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Walden) and sister Cersei (Lena Headey) decided to confess that they’ve had an incestuous love affair going on for 20 years or so and both the late King Joffrey (the sorely missed Jack Gleeson) and his kid brother, the current (ostensibly) reigning monarch, are products of this incestuous union and not blood Baratheons (the family who held the Iron Throne at the start of the series until the reigning Baratheon was murdered and the killing faked to look like a hunting accident) at all. As I’ve noted before, Game of Thrones is a near-perfect expression of the Zeitgeist of the Trump era (even though most of it was filmed well before Donald Trump was elected President) in its deep-rooted cynicism towards the very concepts of idealism, leadership as a public service, or even what we like to think of as basic human decency. No sooner do writers George R. R. Martin, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss give us a character we think we’re supposed to identify with and actually like and respect than they take that away from us, either by killing him or her off in a hurry (these last few episodes are full of people we’re given elaborate introductions to and led to believe will be important characters in future episodes, then are quickly killed off) or by showing them behaving as the same sort of slimeball as everyone else in the dramatis personae. I’ve enjoyed Game of Thrones in a way, but sometimes it’s seemed like watching a slow-motion car wreck and a real trial to spend so much time with these awful people!

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations (So Much Film, PBS, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a sometimes compelling, sometimes frustrating documentary on PBS called Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations, written and directed by Andrew Goldberg. The “Four Mutations” actually represented four different modern-day countries, which Goldberg cited as particular examples of anti-Semitism either pursued as official government policy or invoked by major political movements in them. After the show ended I wrote a quick synopsis of its four sections:

The United States: North Carolina state legislative candidate Andrew Walker, the rise of anti-Semitism as part of white supremacism and “America First” nationalism; footage of Richard Spencer and the rise of credibility of white nationalism with the election of Donald Trump.

Hungary: The coming to power of Viktor Orbán as ruler in 2010 and his re-election campaign in 2016, which used Hungarian émigré George Soros as a personification of evil Jewish capitalism and capitalists out to rule the world.

Great Britain: Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to Israel and its encouragement of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, leading to a lot of Jews and Jewish sympathizers leaving the Labour Party and likely contributing to its overwhelming election defeat in December 2019, cited as an example of anti-Semitism on the Left that also afflicts the U.S. and other countries.

France: A wave of terrorism against Jews largely by Muslim immigrants from France’s former colonies in North Africa who are recruited by extremist Muslims into aligning with ISIS and other jihad groups and attack Jewish synagogues, schools, Kosher markets and Jews in their own homes, including an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor who was knifed to death in her apartment.

The show seems to have been inspired largely by mass shootings at U.S. synagogues, including the ones in Pittsburgh and Poway, though the first segment dealing with the U.S. focused more on anti-Semitism in politics. When it covered mass shootings, it was mostly in terms of the mass-shooter drills synagogue congregations and their officials have had to conduct. It featured interview segments with Brad Orsini, a heavy-set, totally bald, middle-aged white guy who’s a retired FBI agent the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh had hired to conduct mass-shooter drills and do security work before there was an actual mass shooting —and while 11 people were killed in the real shooting, Goldberg and Orsini stressed that the death toll would probably have been even worse if they hadn’t practiced beforehand, and in particular if the rabbi hadn’t followed his advice to have a cell phone and keep it on during the service so he could call 911 immediately once the mass shooter appeared. The most fascinating person profiled in this segment — indeed, in the entire program — was Andrew Walker, who among other things bore a striking resemblance to Brad Orsini (the politician preaching anti-Semitism and the ex-FBI guy trying to protect Jews from anti-Semitic assassins were both totally bald, heavy-set middle-aged white guys!) and also had a folksy down-home charm that belied the foulness of his message. The show traced his particular brand of anti-Semitism back to the battles over racial integration in the South in the 1950’s, when the racist defenders of segregation couldn’t believe that African-Americans were intellectually capable of organizing a movement for civil rights. No, there had to be puppet masters behind them pulling the strings, and because a lot of the early white supporters of the Black civil rights movement were Jews, they concluded that the civil rights movement was part of the vast Jewish conspiracy to destroy the white race and take over the world. (Actually this sort of bigotry vastly pre-dated the 1950’s; the original Ku Klux Klan, and even more the variant of it that became popular after the huge success of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation inspired the Klan revival that eventually captured the state government of Indiana and became hugely influential throughout the U.S. in the 1920’s — attracting adherents like New York City real-estate developer Fred Trump, father of the current President — was not only anti-Black but anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic as well, so they would have hated me for both sides of my heritage.) 

The show drew a direct connection between the disarming Walker, alt-Right activist Richard Spencer, and Donald Trump — it quoted Spencer making his familiar argument that Trump isn’t an alt-Rightist himself but his “America First” nationalism (remember that “America First” was one of the dog-whistle slogans used by America’s fascist and Nazi sympathizers in the late 1930’s, when Hitler and the original Nazis were still a going concern) fits neatly within the alt-Right world view and leads them to regard Trump’s presidency as a golden political opportunity. The second segment was focused on Hungarian president Viktor Orbán and in particular his surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly, once you remember that Hungary was itself a fascist country in the old days of the original fascism — indeed Hungary’s fascist leader, Admiral Horthy, took power in 1919, three years before Benito Mussolini took over Italy, after he led the counter-revolution that overthrew the short-lived Communist government of Béla Kún, and he aligned Hungary with the Axis during World War II and stayed in power until the Red Army of Russia invaded Hungary in 1944) Hitler-esque rallies. In particular the show focused on George Soros, who has become the figure in Orbán’s demonology that Fulgencio Batista was in Fidel Castro’s — the show displayed pro-Orbán posters depicting Soros painted to look like the traditional image of the behind-the-scenes Jewish power broker (much the way U.S. anti-Semites personify the Rothschilds as the Jews responsible for all evil in the world, with their alleged control not only of the world financial system but the media as well), and Orbán’s propaganda portrays Soros as the fount of all the world’s evil, funding globalization and other causes designed to destroy the (non-Jewish) white race and lead the world into degeneracy and destruction. 

The third portion, dealing with anti-Semitism on the Left, was obviously going to be the hardest one for me to take; the focal point was former British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, though the biggest sins Andrew Goldberg was able to attribute to him were his public questioning of whether the state of Israel should continue to exist and his appearance on Iranian TV with representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas. Goldberg’s argument here is that any questioning of Israel’s right to exist as a “Jewish state” is anti-Semitic. Frankly, I think it’s wrong for any state to define itself in terms of a religion — it’s wrong for Iran to call itself an “Islamic Republic” and, for the same reason, it’s wrong for Israel to declare itself a “Jewish state,” and for the same reasons: it sends a message to believers in any other religion (or no religion at all) that they cannot be truly equal in the eyes of that government. Goldberg, to his credit, at least paid lip service to the idea that one can criticize the policies of this or that Israeli government without marking one as a Jew-hater. But he’d probably regard me as an anti-Semite because I think the best solution for Palestine would be a secular, democratic republic ruled by its Arab majority but with ironclad political and social protections for its Jewish minority — essentially what Nelson Mandela and F. W. DeKlerk were attempting to achieve in South Africa when they negotiated the end of apartheid — and failing that I regard Israel much the way Abraham Lincoln regarded slavery before the Civil War: it was wrong but we had to let it alone where it existed because the cost of getting rid of it would be even higher than allowing it to exist but confining it to where it stood. (Lincoln got shoved off that position when the South responded to his 1860 election as President by seceding, and though Lincoln at first disclaimed the idea that the Civil War was a struggle against slavery, once he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that’s what it became.) 

Goldberg’s argument was that attacks on the current Israeli government for advancing settlements in the West Bank and suppressing the rights of the Palestinians (whom he seems to regard merely as terrorists — he’s scornful of the idea that the Jews are doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews, but there are similarities between the historic tactics of anti-Semitic governments in western Europe — the locking of Jews into ghettos, the denial of many jobs to them, the control of their movements via internal passports and the overall impoverishment of their communities by locking them out of much of the economy — and the way the government of Israel is treating the Palestinians today) lead inexorably to attacks on the right of Israel to exist, which in turn leads to people adopting the same old bigoted tropes of Right-wing anti-Semitism (Jews as the world’s puppet masters, Jews as a “vulture culture” who have no real home and are therefore trying to take over the world, etc.), and he interviews American college students who otherwise consider themselves Leftists who have been shouted down at Leftist political meetings on campus for defending Israel’s right to exist.

Goldberg is nowhere nearly as specific detailing the anti-Semitism of the Left than he is the anti-Semitism of the Right, mainly because there simply aren’t as many specific incidents to draw on — and he also ignores the complexities surrounding President Trump, who on the one hand gives aid and comfort to America’s white supremacists by calling them “very fine people” while also giving in to the demands of the Israeli Right and its U.S. supporters (including Republican Party mega-donor Sheldon Adelson) by regarding Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a sort of nationalist brother-in-arms and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (a long-standing demand of the Israeli Right despite it throwing a monkey wrench into what little is left of a peace process — the current Israeli government is openly annexing huge sections of the West Bank and putting the so-called “two-state solution” utterly beyond reach … and, ironically, making the one-state solution more likely once the rest of the world gets disgusted with Israeli aggression and makes Israel a pariah state the way South Africa became during the last two decades of apartheid). The fourth segment dealt with anti-Semitism in France, and particularly acts of free-lance terrorism conducted against Jews by immigrants from France’s former colonies in North Africa, and Goldberg rather snippily dismisses the French Arabs’ concern for the rights of the Palestinians by outright saying, essentially, “They’re North Africans — why the hell should they care about the Palestinians?” 

There are certainly some tragic stories here — including the predictably ironic one of an 87-year-old French woman who survived the Holocaust but was hacked to pieces (literally!) by an Arab terrorist who broke into her apartment (the real grimness of this irony is that she survived an organized attempt by a modern, technologically advanced state to exterminate all Jews but she fell victim to one guy who’d been radicalized by an acquaintance in prison and told he’d go to Heaven for killing a Jew), and throughout the show there’s a sort of Leitmotif (and yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of using that term in this context!) of the rise of the Internet. One radical-Right activist interviewed in the U.S. segment recalled that he and his group used to have to publish a newspaper with their anti-Semitic garbage, roll up thousands of copies and hand them out on the street; today’s anti-Semites have access to the Internet in general and social media in particular to distribute their propaganda. Among other things, the Internet has eliminated the current government of Germany’s ability to ban Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf; today any German can download the complete German text of Mein Kampf and read it — and a lot of them are doing so and regularly logging on to German-language Web sites openly calling for the return of Nazism. (Maybe Andrew Goldberg should have included a fifth “mutation” dealing with the rise of a neo-Nazi movement in the country that gave birth to the original Nazis.) Viral — a metaphoric term that should probably be laid to rest now that the biggest immediate threat facing humanity is a real virus, SARS-CoV-2 — is actually quite a good movie, despite my resentments at the way it equates concern for the rights of Palestinians with hatred of Israel and, therefore, hatred of Jews; the talking-heads are well chosen (and Goldberg was able to interview at least two former heads of state, former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair) and they generally have sensible things to say, though there’s a certain despairing tone in the film about the depth, breadth and longevity of this particular human prejudice.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

I Was Lorena Bobbitt (Cinemark Productions, Lifetime Features, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night at 8 p.m. Lifetime wrapped up its series of “Ripped from the Headlines!” movies (probably an especially unfortunate slogan for this particular one), which otherwise consisted of reruns (though some of them quite good), with the marathon’s one “premiere,” I Was Lorena Bobbitt. That brought memories of tabloid scandals past — particularly 1993, when Lorena Gallo Bobbitt of Manassas, Virginia (known until then almost exclusively as the site of two of the bloodiest battles of the U.S. Civil War, both of which the South won) reached her limit with her physically and psychologically abusive husband John Wayne Bobbitt, an alcoholic, gambler and womanizer, and sliced off his penis with a kitchen knife after he’d either fallen asleep or passed out in their bed following his latest rape of her. There have been TV movies, both documentaries and dramas, about this case before, but what made this one unique is that Lorena Bobbitt herself was one of the producers and she appears in the film the way she looks today (heavy-set with long blonde hair), narrating the story and making it clear that this is going to be the Bobbitt story told entirely from her point of view. (The fact that the film is called I Was Lorena Bobbitt rather than I Am Lorena Bobbitt reflects her quite understandable decision to revert to her original last name after she and John Wayne Bobbitt divorced in 1995.)

Though Lorena throughout the movie stresses that she had no frame of reference for the abuse she suffered at John’s hands during their five-year marriage, what we see on screen is an all too typical portrait of an abusive husband terrorizing his wife into virtual submission. When they met John Wayne Bobbitt (Luke Humphrey) was a hard-drinking Marine stationed near Manassas and Lorena (Dani Montalvo) was an immigrant from Ecuador (though for some reason the script for I Was Lorena Bobbitt, by Barbara Nance, moved her country of origin to Venezuela) who had won a temporary green card to live and work in the U.S. (she was sponsored by her mother, who appears as an important character in the story) before she married John. Given the circumstances under which they met — in a bar where he was not only getting plastered but cruising everyone in the place that was alive, human and female — Lorena should have been warned about what committing to this man would be like, but she was a naïve little girl from Latin America and the only model for a relationship she had was her parents, who had been together for over 30 years (until her dad’s death before the events of this movie begin) and had never argued or fought, at least not in her presence. So she married John but also pursued her own career as a beautician and got a job at a salon owned and run by Teri (Niamh — pronounced “Neve” — Wilson). Lorena has two people in whom she can confide, Teri and her mom Elvia Gallo (Beatriz Yuste), which is two more than most battered spouses have (usually their abusers have them cut themselves off from their jobs and all their previous friends so they will literally have no one to go to for support in breaking out of the abusive relationship).

When Lorena gets their first paycheck she wants to treat herself and John to a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant. Instead John wants to take his Marine buddy Richie Howard (Canadian actor Richard Clarkin) and her to the sleazy bar where they met, blow all their money on shots, and insist on driving home even though he’s way too plastered to do so. For the next five years John’s abuse gets worse and worse — as does his temper and the triviality of the incidents that provoke him to beat her, rape her vaginally and ultimately rape her anally (which really terrifies her!), including one Christmas when she buys an artificial tree and he gets incensed that it’s not a real one, and another when he gets upset when she switches the TV from a football game on Thanksgiving (a game he’s bet $50 on, which he loses) to the Thanksgiving Day parade because she and her mom want to watch the balloons. He goes outside and rips out the cable so no one can watch the TV. Though at one point she complains that when she and John have sex he  pulls out immediately after his orgasm and doesn’t allow her one, later on she catches him watching porn on their TV (which he’s bought with her money, since he’s been unemployed since he left the Marine Corps — Nance’s script doesn’t specify but we get the impression that her complaint to his Marine commander about his abuse got him dishonorably discharged, which if true would be about the only time in the entire story a male authority figure took her seriously). He says, “If I can’t get sex from my wife, I’ll have to find it somewhere else.” She protests that they do have sex, and he fires back, “You laying there like a dead fish is not sex,” as the moaning from the woman in the porn movie illustrates the kind of excitement, even faked, he would want to see from her. 

Nance’s script, directed mostly effectively by Danishka Esterhazy, is non-linear but between the titles, which identify every scene as so many months before or after “The Incident” (as it’s diplomatically called), and the real Lorena Bobbitt’s narration and interstital appearances we’re never left in doubt of precisely when we are. After “the incident” Lorena Bobbitt drives off in her car, taking her husband’s severed organ with her and throwing it away in some bushes outside a convenience store. Then she called 911 and turned herself in, though the police who interrogate her couldn’t be less interested in her tale of extended domestic abuse. All they’re interested in is where she disposed of John’s dick, since his doctors want to recover it in time to be able to reattach it — which they did; eventually, after John and Lorena finally divorced, he even made two porn movies, John Bobbitt Uncut and Frankenpenis, to make money to cover his medical and legal bills and also, one suspects, to show the world that it still worked. He was charged with sexual assault but was acquitted — apparently in the 1990’s Virginia law still put strict limits on a wife’s ability to accose a husband of rape, and I still vividly remember my shock in 1975 when I looked up the rape statutes in California and found that rape was defined as a man forcing a woman other than his wife to have sex with him against her will. Until that law was changed in 1977, a marriage license in California was an open-ended grant of legal permission for a husband to have sex with his wife any time he wanted to, whether she wanted to or not. 

As horrifying as this movie’s depiction of Lorena’s abuse at John’s hands is, its depiction of the sorry attitudes of law enforcement and the legal community is almost as scary: the cops in particular and male authority figures in general are shown as not taking seriously women’s claims of being abused by their husbands and, if anything, even taking the husbands’ side, not necessarily openly but in terms of discounting what women have to say against their husbands as a sort of “buyer’s remorse.” The authorities charge Lorena with “malicious wounding” — which sounded to me in 1993 like they really ransacked the statute books looking for something, anything. to charge her with — but she, too, is acquitted mainly because the jury buys her attorneys’ contention that when she did what she did she was temporarily legally insane because she was under an “irresistible impulse” to fight back against her husband by attacking the instrument with which he’d waged many of his attacks on her. I Was Lorena Bobbitt is a quite good Lifetime movie, well staged and appropriately discreet in showing the central event (though I could have done without the blood-red tinting of the confrontation between the two just before Lorena severs John’s member. It doesn’t really tell us much we didn’t already know (or couldn’t have guessed) about the Bobbitts or abusive marriages in general, but it’s a finely honed portrait of the sheer terror suffered day by day by someone who’s the victim of spousal abuse!

Monday, May 25, 2020

31st Annual Memorial Day Concert (National Park Service, WETA-TV, PBS, aired May 24, 2020)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched the 31st annual Memorial Day concert from PBS and their Washington, D.C.-area affiliate, WETA — and it proved unexpectedly moving, a truly wrenching experience on the eve of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic’s death toll in the U.S. heading for 100,000 (more Americans dead than perished in the Viet Nam war and all America’s wars since). I was wondering how they were going to do the concert since the attempts to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 have led to the cancellation of all public concerts and other mass gatherings (though at least some sports, including golf and stock-car racing, are proceeding but without spectators in the audience — and golf takes place over such a wide landscape it can be played with people still maintaining the six-feet-apart “social distancing” that has become the norm). What they did was have the invariable hosts, Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinise, broadcast their parts from a small set in southern California instead of an outdoor stage at the U.S. Capitol, while the singers (Trace Adkins, Cynthia Erivo, CeCe Winans, Renée Fleming and Kelli O’Hara) performed either in private spaces or outside the Capitol, but without an audience. Winans, from a family of gospel singers, performed Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” from inside a church, but there was no organ player and the only two other people we saw were her two backup singers, a man and a woman, standing six feet behind both her and each other.

Adkins sang “He’s Still a Soldier” and “Let It Shine,” nice, straightforward songs celebrating the military values and the indomitability of the American (or the human) spirit. Erivo did “Hero” (bringing spiritual truth to a usually hopelessly banal song) and a powerful version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that tapped not only the Simon and Garfunkel original but Aretha Franklin’s gospel-rooted cover (though, like Aretha, she did only two of the song’s three verses). Renée Fleming was trotted out to sing “Wind Beneath My Wings” and, as the show’s closer, “America, the Beautiful,” and though she did both well enough, only at the end, in the unwritten codas, did her voice soar into the upper reaches of the soprano range at which she is truly at her best (and though she’s been singing for quite a long time her voice is still in excellent shape). Kelli O’Hara did a version of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” (which I remember liking “in the day” far better in Blood, Sweat and Tears’ cover — with David Clayton-Thomas’s intense singing — than in Taylor’s original, just as Melanie’s wrenching cover of Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind” did far more for me than his rather bland original) that was the best vocal performance of the night. It helped that O’Hara was backed only by acoustic guitar and piano, and the musicians were actually in the same room with her — so she didn’t have to deal with a backing tape piped in from elsewhere. The use of pre-recorded backings not only gave a weird karaoke-like air to the show, they also frequently drowned out the vocals because WETA’s sound engineers aren’t used to doing this sort of live mixing — though Erivo’s voice cut powerfully through the over-loud backing.

They also had a wide variety of movie and TV stars broadcast single-sentence tribute to the heroism and valor of America’s servicemembers and their willingness to sacrifice themselves to keep the rest of us free, and they gave General Colin Powell the chance to give two short speeches during the concert, one paying tribute to the veterans of Viet Nam and one celebrating President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — which was, after all, a memorial to fallen soldiers in America’s bloodiest war, and in which Lincoln questioned the whole idea of war memorials: “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” And the producers of this Memorial Day concert included film clips from previous ones, as well as a supposedly recently filmed performance of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” by the National Symphony Orchestra (the official symphony of Washington, D.C.) with Jack Everly conducting. (Everly has conducted the Memorial Day concerts since their founder, Erich Kunzel, died. The National Symphony generally carries two conductors, one for the hard-core classical concerts and one for the “Pops” stuff.) The provenance of the “Fanfare” was unclear — though the piece itself was written in 1942, during World War II, and once when it was played at the Republican National Convention my husband Charles couldn’t help but comment, “Don’t they know it was written by a Gay Communist?” — but there were also some elaborate tribute sequences from previous concerts included as part of this one.

Actor Sam Elliott was heard paying tribute to D-Day veteran Ray Lambert from the 2019 concert — the one that commemorated the 75th anniversary of that event — and Laurence Fishburne was shown paying tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, the separate squadron of African-American fighter pilots who saw action as fighter escorts on bombing raids during World War II. By far the most powerful of the tribute segments clipped from previous War Memorial concerts was the one delivered by actor Esai Morales in 2015, who paid tribute to Romulo “Romy” Camargo, son of an immigrant to the U.S. from Colombia who settled in Crystal Springs, Florida. Romulo, Sr. was the town pediatrician and Romulo, Jr. decided to make the military his adult career after his older brother Jorge graduated from Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Romulo, Jr. married his childhood sweetheart Gabriela just before he went into the service in 1995 — they were together long enough to have at least one child — and he trained to be a Special Forces Ranger in 1999. In 2004 he deployed to Afghanistan as a non-commissioned officer and in 2005 was leading a company there when they were ambushed and Romy was shot in the neck, permanently paralyzing him. The rest of the story is an inspiring if tragic tale of love, devotion and excellent care as he worked his way through to live his life despite his injuries, and among the real heroes of his story are his wife — whose dedication and commitment to him are really extraordinary — and the doctors, nurses, therapists and caregivers from the Veterans’ Administration who worked with him for years.

One item about his story that made it even more powerful in 2020 than it had been in 2015 was the use of the term “ventilators” — in the SARS-CoV-2 crisis “ventilator” has become a loaded term, symbolizing not only the desperation with which doctors dealing with COVID-19 patients (remember, SARS-CoV-2 is the official name of the virus in the current pandemic and COVID-19 the name of the disease it causes) have had to use heroic measures in last-ditch attempts to save their lives, and the horrible self-destruction of America’s industrial infrastructure to the point where this nation, which won World War II largely on the basis of our sheer industrial might, has literally given away its manufacturing base, mostly to China, so in a crisis like this one — especially one that has interrupted the global supply chains our economy had come to rely on — we literally don’t have the capacity to produce the equipment we need. The reference to ventilators in Camargo’s story came in Morales’s account of how Camargo had to re-learn to breathe without one and regain the normal use of his lungs. The segment also mentioned that Camargo has to go through a four-hour ritual just to get out of bed and clean up enough, including changing his urine bags and giving him a shower — a process Camargo, who wrote the narration Morales read, compares to washing a car. Listening to that was a busman’s holiday for me — though I’ve never taken care of anyone as disabled as he, I have given people baths, helped them in and out of wheelchairs and gone through long rituals so they could get out of bed, something most of us take for granted that we can do in a few minutes. I suspect the reason this particular Memorial Day concert moved me more than some of the previous ones have is the immediacy of the current SARS-CoV-2 crisis and the frustration that so many of the usual options open for grieving aren’t available.

As I’ve noted before, the natural human instinct to cope with danger is to band together — to assemble, bond, hug — and those are among the things we are being told most sternly that in this crisis we must not do. There’ve been attempts to assert that we’re bonding psychologically even though we’re verboten from actually bonding physically — variations on the phrase “apart but together” have become some of the most annoying clichés of the SARS-CoV-2 era — but this crisis has isolated us in ways that make it considerably more difficult to cope with psychologically than a war. I can remember in previous eras, if a home-care client was hospitalized, I could go see them, talk to the people taking care of them and get at least some idea of how they were doing. Now the entrances to hospitals are blocked off with giant Plexiglas windows and huge “NO VISITORS!” signs, and the hospitals themselves have become black boxes in which whatever is going on inside them is kept from our eyes. Family members of COVID-19 patients aren’t even allowed to be in the same rooms with them as they die — and people who’ve had relatives with long-term chronic illnesses who were at least counting on being there in the room and able to hold their hands as they expired are now being denied that one last comfort and have to face losing their loved ones from the other side of a Plexiglas shield. The fact that the deaths from COVID-19 happen in secret makes this more like the Holocaust than a war — last night PBS ran a promo for a documentary on the last Holocaust survivors and one clip they showed was of a man who would see a puff of smoke from one of the mass crematoria and wonder if that was anyone he knew — except even the Holocaust was being perpetrated by one group of human beings against another, and therefore there were identifiable human villains you could hate.

Here there is no villain except a sub-microscopic package of nucleic acid, proteins and a lipid envelope whose sole purpose in life is to make more copies of itself, no matter who or what it harms in the process of doing so (which is probably why there’s been even more vituperation against President Trump than usual — we desperately want someone to blame, and his enemies can say it’s all his fault because he didn’t act quickly enough, while Trump’s supporters can blame it all on their usual scapegoats: the media, the “deep state” and “experts” of all kinds). The fact is that pandemics, like earthquakes, just happen — either a shift in the tectonic plates can cause a catastrophe or a fluke in viral evolution can create a killer strain of something — and while the world as a whole could have been better prepared for this one, you don’t get the early-warning signals of an impending pandemic you usually get from a deteriorating international political situation that’s about to degenerate into a war. So in some respects the examples of heroism the Memorial Day concerts celebrate are grimly appropriate models for SARS-CoV-2 — especially the extraordinary sacrifices doctors, nurses and others on the front line are making to take care of the victims and protect the rest of us — in other ways a pandemic isn’t like a war at all and treating it as one may lead us to mistakes (like the “Warp Speed” program President Trump has called for to develop a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine — which shows a fundamental misunderstanding of science: science is slow, and some of the biggest scientific blunders of all time have come about from attempting to rush it) that may do more harm than good.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Game of Thrones, season 4, episodes 7 and 8: “Mockingbird," “The Mountain and the Viper” (Television 360, Startling, Bighead Littlehead, HBO, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched episodes seven and eight of season four of Game of Thrones, “Mockingbird” (which sounds more like the “Mockingjay” episode of The Hunger Games — a cycle set in a dystopian future instead of a dystopian past!) and “The Mountain and the Viper.” The synopses of these episodes that appear on — for “Mockingbird,” “Tyrion tries to find a champion. Daenerys sleeps with Daario. The Hound becomes wounded. Jon’s advice is ignored at Castle Black. Brienne and Podrick receive a tip on Arya’s whereabouts”; and for “The Mountain and the Viper,” “Theon helps Ramsay seize Moat Cailin. The wildlings attack Mole’s Town. Sansa comes up with a story to protect Lord Baelish. Daenerys finds out a secret about Jorah Mormont. Oberyn Martell faces Gregor Clegane, the Mountain” — are a bit of a help in terms of sorting out this confusing story and keeping track of just who is who. The gibberish names common to fantasy characters, especially ones in extended series like this (the creator of Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin, originally intended a cycle of three books under the overall title A Song of Ice and Fire, with A Game of Thrones the first book in the series, but it stretched out to five books he’s already written and two he’s got on the drawing board, and series producers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss went with Game of Thrones as the generic title for the whole series; they also had to write their own ending for the cycle since Martin hasn’t finished the last two books yet and seems to have succumbed to the Mother of All Writing Blocks).

At least these two episodes put the series’ most interesting character, Tyrion Lannister — played by the series’ most consistently interesting actor, Peter Dinklage, who for once in his career got to play a character of real complexity and moral ambiguity instead of the dreck little-person actors usually get stuck with — front and center as he’s literally on trial for his life, accused of poisoning King Joffrey (a thoroughly unpleasant piece of work comparable to Roman emperors Caligula, Nero or Commodus) at his wedding to Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). At the end of episode six, realizing that whatever legal process existed in this story’s fictional setting, “Westeros,” was being rigged against him — especially when both his wife and his mistress appeared as witnesses against him — he demanded trial by combat. That meant both he and the prosecution had to pick champions to fight on their behalf, and the prosecutors picked a grotesquely unpleasant character we’d never seen before named “Gregor Clegane, the Mountain.” Gregor Clegaine, the Mountain, is introduced at the beginning of “Mockingbird” at the vanguard of an invading army against which, as they say on the later versions of Star Trek, resistance is futile: he’s essentially Goliath, transposed into the Game of Thrones world, and he gets his kicks by rampaging through any group of people standing in his way and slicing them open with his sword so their entrails literally come spilling out, leaving the road behind him littered with things that look like sausages (this is one movie in which you really don’t want to see how sausages are made!). This was the most grotesque piece of bloodshed I can recall thus far in a series that is full of them — though even as he was knocking off people right and left for little purpose beyond the sheer joy of it, I was also admiring the topless torso of Ryan McCann, who played Gregor, and getting special joy from seeing those big pecs.

Of the other two most interesting characters in this story, Joffrey is already dead (so we miss Jack Gleeson, whose portrayal of him was a masterpiece in depicting a combination of sadism and emotional immaturity) and Daenerys Targeryan (Emilia Clarke) is still making only small appearances here and there, in one of which she peremptorily orders Daario Naharis (Michiel Huisman) to have sex with him with all the demented determination of an Ayn Rand heroine (though at least she doesn’t want him to rape her; the fact that all Rand’s sex scenes depict a strong-willed, dominating woman ending up subjugated and essentially raped by an even stronger-willed, more dominating man indicates that her sexual ideas were as screwed up and sick as her ideas about politics and economics), though her courtiers note that she’s in a considerably nicer mood the next morning than she was the night before. The plot line dealing with Arya is about the aunt of Sensa Stark and her relationship, if you can call it that, of her sister Lysa with her husband Petyr (pronounced “Peter”) Baylish (Aiden Gillen), who engineered Sensa’s escape from King’s Landing a few episodes ago and then promptly killed the man who got her out of there — “Gold buys a man’s silence for a short while; a sword buys his silence forever,” he explained — and Arya has a jealous hissy-fit when she sees Sensa kiss Baylish and wants to throw her down the “moon window,” which isn’t a window at all but a hole in the living-room floor of Winterfell castle which features a 120-foot drop to the ground below, which is usually enough not only to kill but to dismember anyone who falls (or gets pushed) through it. (One wonders just why these writers were so obsessed with dismemberment.)

Game of Thrones is annoying in the speed with which Benioff, Weiss and their writers and directors cut from one plot line to another, and it’s even more infuriating in the rigor with which Martin, Benioff and Weiss have eliminated even any hint of the tenderer emotions from their story. This is the main reason, as I’ve suggested earlier, why Game of Thrones is such a perfect story for the Donald Trump era even though most of the series was filmed while Barack Obama was still President. All the characters are motivated by the simplest and most naked (pardon the pun) self-interest imaginable; when Joffrey’s brother (still a child) takes the throne and says he wants to be “a good king,” all we can think is, “How naïve you are. In this world there is no such thing as ‘goodness,’ no compassion, no caring, no empathy. If you survive — which is doubtful — you’ll learn to be as much a self-interested scumbag as everyone else in this story.” This whole destruction of the illusion that anyone who holds power ever seeks to wield it in the interest of anyone but him/herself is the most “modern”-seeming aspect of this quasi-medieval tale, and though I suspect most of the enormous audience Game of Thrones attracted was interested in the bloodletting and the sex (I joked about the movie Frozen II that “this film seems like a PG-rated version of Game of Thrones without the bloodshed or the sex,” and of course the main reasons anyone sits through such an otherwise draining and interminable tale as Game of Thrones is for the bloodshed and the sex!), but they also got a confirmation of the Trump-era world view that everyone who enters politics is in it only for themselves, and you’re a damned fool to believe any leader who says, “I’m doing this for you.” And one can’t even retreat from the struggle and literally cultivate one’s garden in Game of Thrones the way the protagonists of The Hunger Games did at the end of their cycle; like the grass that gets trampled when the elephants fight, the common people in this story exist only to get themselves robbed and killed by the soldiers of the various factions.

There are no “innocent bystanders” in Game of Thrones because there are no bystanders at all — and though the obligation at the heart of feudalism (that the lord would protect his serfs in exchange for their allegiance and labor power) may in real life have been honored more in the breach than the observance, in the quasi-feudal world of Game of Thrones it barely exists at all. Neither does the elaborate real-life code of chivalry that at least in theory governed conflicts between the medieval 1-percenters; the people of Game of Thrones have no moral scruples whatsoever, and if they ever swear an oath to whatever sorts of god or gods they believe in, they’ll break it without a moment’s hesitation. And as more and more countries elect leaders like Donald Trump, real life looks more like Game of Thrones every day; certainly Trump, with his overweening self-pride, his arrogance, his conviction that he can will truth into existence and can say things totally contradictory to what he said the day before and no one will dare contradict him about it, and his combination of bellicose talk and thinly veiled cowardice, would fit right into the world of Game of Thrones! “The Mountain and the Viper” ends with the big fight between Gregor the Mountain and Tyrion Lannister’s champion, Oberyn Marteli (Pedro Pascal), which turns into a disaster when the smaller but more agile Oberyn — who goes into the fight saying that he’ll outrun and wear-out his larger and stronger opponent, sort of like Muhammad Ali in his “rope-a-dope” fights, but when it starts is more concerned about getting Gregor to confess that he raped Oberyn’s sister, with the result that they both literally gouge out each other’s eyes (filmed by director Alex Graves with the sort of loving, lubricious closeness with which porn directors film people having sex) and they both end up dead, which according to the judge of this preposterous “trial” (a far cry from the other main depiction of trial by combat I’m familiar with, the one that ends Act I of Wagner’s Lohengrin!) means that Tyrion Lannister must be executed. I hope not; it would be a real pity to lose him!

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Game of Thrones, season four, episodes 5 and 6: "First of His Name," "The Laws of Gods and Men" (Television 360, Startling, Bighead Littlehead, HBO, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

While Charles and I watched the Lifetime movie Twisted Twin on Saturday night the skullduggery got so thick that midway through it I joked, “After this I’d like to watch something that will reaffirm my faith in the basic goodness and decency of humanity —like the next two episodes of Game of Thrones.” Charles and I did indeed watch the next two episodes in sequence in our traversal of Game of Thrones on Saturday and Sundah, respectively, after the Lifetime movies, episodes five and six of season four, “First of His Name” and “The Laws of Gods and Men.” (One thing about Game of Thrones is that we’re not sure just what religious beliefs the people practice, aside from the woman who leads the fire-god cult, though the mainstream religion seems to be a pastiche of various pagan practices in northern Europe before they adopted Christianity.) Actually “First of His Name” was one of the dullest Game of Thrones episodes in which surprisingly little happened, and it was so far as I can recall the first one that had a woman director (Michelle MacLaren). I hope this is just coincidence and the producers, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, didn’t decide, “Hey, this script has almost no action — let’s palm this one off on a woman director!” We’re halfway through the fourth season — and almost halfway through the total eight-season run of the show — and we’re still on the first of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones source novels, A Song of Ice and Fire — though according to Martin’s Wikipedia page A Song of Ice and Fire was his generic title for the overall series and A Game of Thrones was the first novel in it — the TV producers merely swapped the titles. The other books in the series are A Clash of Kingdoms, A Storm of Swords, A Feast of Crows, A Dance with Dragons, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring — though he hasn’t finished the last two and this forced Benioff and Weiss to write their own conclusion of the cycle since Martin hadn’t given them one. (I’m also surprised to find from Wikipedia that Martin is American; I’d always assumed he was British.)

Part of the problem is that the three most interesting characters from the first three seasons were either not in this episode at all or were in it only briefly. King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson, who plays the mad monarch very much like the bad Roman emperors Caligula and Nero and would be a great choice if anyone wants to make yet another film about either of those two) was permanently dispatched at the end of season four, episode two when he was fed poisoned wine at the party that was supposed to celebrate his wedding — and Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage, turning in a superb performance in a fascinatingly multidimensional role a far cry from the cute sidekicks or black-hearted villains little-person actors usually get cast as) isn’t in episode five because he’s accused of poisoning Jofrey and is in a prison cell awaiting trial. Now Joffrey’s younger brother Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) is being crowned king even though, like Joffrey, he’s not the son of the late king Baratheon but is the product of both adultery and incest between Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and her (and Tyrion’s) brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Walden, who in the absence of Dinklage gets top billing for this episode). (The adulterous, incestuous lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde in Wagner’s Ring produced the great — if hopelessly naïve — hero Siegfried; the ones in Game of Thrones produced a psycho and a wimp.) At least Dean-Charles Chapman looks enough like Jack Gleeson I can believe in them as brothers (one of my bêtes noires in movies is when I’m asked to believe that two characters who look nothing like each other are biologically related). There are also subplots, some of them involving two women (a grown woman with a butch blonde haircut and a young girl who has tousled brown hair and looks scruffy) who carry swords and aspire to knighthood (and the older one wears armor and has a hapless guy following her around trying to be her squire). There’s a nice scene in which the girl who wants to be a fighter does some dancing around with her little sword and the guy with her tells her that’s no way to fight — she looks like Gene Kelly would have in The Dancing Cavalier, the swashbuckler musical he was supposedly making as the film-within-the-film in Singin’ in the Rain.

Things pick up considerably in episode six, “Tbe Laws of Gods and Men,” in which Daenerys Targeryan (Emilia Clarke) re-enters after just a brief appearance in episode five (she’s told by one of her courtiers that the slaves she supposedly “liberated” in her march through “Essos,” the island supposedly to the east of “Westeros” where the main action takes place, were re-enslaved by their former masters as soon as she marched her armies out of there. Realizing that she needs to fight a holding action to maintain control of Essos before she can launch the amphibious invasion it will take to conquer Westeros and sit on the Iron Throne (a bizarre assemblage of a seat with swords stuck in it forming its back — it looks like a porcupine’s pincushion), she releases one of her dragons in episode six (did you remember that Daenerys has hatched three dragon eggs and the dragons are now, if not fully grown, at least big), though it doesn’t do much but use its fiery breath to fry some poor goatherder’s goats beyond recognition, causing the goatherder to appeal to Daenerys for compensation (which he gets). More importantly, Peter Dinklage returns to the cast in episode six as Tyrion Lannister is accused of poisoning Joffrey and is subjected to a weird sort of trial that in one respect proceeds like the trials we know — there’s a courtroom and witnesses who are asked questions to elicit information and evidence — but there are no attorneys and Tyrion is not allowed to cross-examine the witnesses against him. Tyrion’s father, who’s also chairing the three-judge panel that’s supposed to be hearing the case, and whom Tyrion explained in a previous episode was not biased in his favor — quite the contrary: “He’s long wanted to get rid of me” — offers him a secret deal: Tyrion can spare his life if he accepts a sentence of being assigned to join the Knights’ Watch in the North — probably not a good deal for Tyrion not only because it’s presumably difficult to fight cannibalistic monsters when you’re only about 3 ½ feet tall but because Tyrion would have to give up sex to honor the vows of the Knights’ Watch and Tyrion is perhaps the horniest character in a veritable dramatis personae of horndogs of both genders and all conceivable orientations. Then Tyrion’s mistress Shae (Sibel Kekith — that’s supposed to be the name of the actress instead of the character but it sounds like something George R. R. Martin would have made up!) turns up as a devastatingly effective and credible witness against him, Tyrion realizes he’s been double-crossed and, in a quite effective cliffhanger ending, he demands the right of trial by combat instead of this quasi-legal process that is obviously going to be rigged against him.

Meanwhile there’s another character named Tara Greyjoy (though spells her first name “Yara,” “Tara” is what I thought I heard on the soundtrack) who’s trying to get her brother Theon (Alfie Allen) released from the prison where one of the other factions is holding him, but Theon has been held under such unspeakable conditions his mind has broken completely and he’s become convinced his name is “Reek.” (This reminded me of real-life prisoners who have had mental breakdowns after being held in long periods of confinement, including the Irish Republican Army detainees who responded to long-term detention by smearing the walls of their cells with their own shit.) Later the nasty guy holding Theon captive persuades him to infiltrate Tara’s/Yara’s court by pretending to be Theon — the sort of twist Martin, Benioff and Weiss love to throw at us as writers. I’ve made several comments about Game of Thrones as a Zeitgeist issue; though most of it was shot while Barack Obama was still U.S. President it seems a great reflection of the ethos of the Trump era; all the characters in it are greedy, selfish and out only for themselves, and in some ways Tyrion Lannister, with his airy indifference to the truth of whatever comes out of his mouth and his equally airy indifference to where he puts his dick, into whom and for what, is the most Trumpian of all the Game of Thrones characters even though he’s more a lovable rogue than the total moron Trump is — and Tyrion has the saving grace, which Trump doesn’t, of knowing what he doesn’t know. I can tell why Game of Thrones attracted the mass audience it did but I’m not sure why I’m drawn to it personally; much of it is compelling drama, but it’s also driven by such a deep-seated cynicism towards human nature. About the only person in the story who’s talking about wanting to be a “good king” and use the power of the throne to help people is young Tommen Baratheon, and we look at him and think, “He’s still young. He’ll grow out of such nonsense.”