It’s easy to think of financial industry honchos as a bunch of arrogant, entitled creeps, but maybe they aren’t all bad. Hedge fund manager Andrew Lahde recently quit running his fund, and his letter to investors is a must-read. Apparently he’s a champion of building a meritocracy, having a new Constitutional Congress, and letting everyone get high.
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Some legends are impossible to capture on film. When an icon inexplicably becomes something to everyone, no matter the era, that personal pliability and universal appeal is as elusive to illustrate as any other kind of large scale cine-magic. For decades, the mythos of Charlie Chaplin, one the greatest silent comedians of all time, was an incomprehensible motion picture mystique. Because of the public adoration of the man combined with his undeniable skill as an actor, director, innovator, and visionary, the subject promised to be too big, the scope too massive, for a standard mainstream audience to appreciate. But Oscar winning director Richard Attenborough wanted to try. Hiring the then hot Robert Downey Jr. for his biopic on the little tramp, Chaplin offered up history as half-baked studio schmaltz. Some 15 years later, we can utilize many of its numerous charms to overcome some of the obvious creative flaws.
It is clear from the earliest days of young Chaplin’s life that he would grow up to be a complex, incomplete man. While exceptionally talented, his mother had difficulty raising both he and his brother Sidney. The boys eventually wind up in the poorhouse, creating a lifelong desire for success in the small Charlie. Eventually, their parent goes insane, and the Chaplins are left to fend for themselves. Using his extraordinary abilities as an acrobat and physical comedian, Charlie becomes a UK musical hall sensation. While on tour in America, he learns about films, and is instantly fascinated. Starting with the famed Mack Sennett before striking out on his own, Charlie takes the country by storm. Soon, he has brought his family over to help with his career, while scandal bubbled beneath the surface. As with modern superstars, his status brings scrutiny from the press, the FBI, and his fellow Hollywood heavyweights.
Using the bookend narrative device of an elderly Charlie recounting his life to a biographer (Anthony Hopkins), Attenborough’s attempted encapsulation of his celebrated subject (offered up on a brand new 15th Anniversary Edition DVD by Lionsgate) has flashes of familiar genius. We love the moment when a stage struck Charlie learns the magic of live laughter. We relish the introduction to Sennett, the minor bit of pantomime confirming the actor’s ID to the egotistical producer. When he hobnobs with fellow motion picture personalities, including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, we enjoy the celebrity camaraderie. But then Chaplin stumbles once the man’s unusual personal life comes calling. Charlie was someone who liked his women attractive, available, and often underage. It would be one of several dark clouds that would hang over, but not destroy, his megaton reputation.
Indeed, the balance Attenborough tries to create throughout Chaplin, an uneasy equilibrium between what happens on set and what occurs in the bedroom (and later, the courtroom), seems counterproductive to the story he is attempting. This is cinematic hero worship, make no bones about it, a clear endeavor to redefine the man outside of his obvious character flaws. By employing Downey, who was beginning his own downward spiral toward tabloid infamy at the time, Attenborough found a kindred spirit. Only 27, he captured all the elements of Charlie, from his free wheeling love of life and the art of creation to the more miserable moments when the world seemed to strategically target his fame. A great mimic, the actor brings many classic moments from the idol’s canon to life. Yet as with most biopic presentations, he seems as aloof and incomplete as the film surrounding him.
And as if to remind audiences of how great Downey was (he was nominated for an Oscar, losing out to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman), the new DVD set offers up a selection of featurettes which focus almost exclusively on the link between the subject and the performer posited to take him on. “All at Sea” provides a rare glimpse of the real Chaplin at home. Here, he takes a boat trip with then gal pal Paulette Goddard. “Strolling in the Sunset” is a very frank discussion about the flaws found in the film. Oddly enough, most of the criticism comes from the mouth of Attenborough himself. As if to emphasize the already obvious impact of his monumental renown, “The Most Famous Man in the World” and “Chaplin the Hero” are exercises in deconstruction, explaining the actor’s ability to maintain his mythos even in light of the controversy he caused.
Of course, the most important added content is not found on this new release. Attenborough claims that his original cut of Chaplin was over four hours long. At the studio’s behest, he went back to the editing bay and trimmed the picture down to 150 minutes. Still not satisfied, he was mandated to remove an additional quarter of an hour of what he now considers to be “crucial” material. As a result, the filmmaker is still not entirely happy with the end results. Why Lionsgate didn’t appease the 85 year old stalwart and provide the missing footage remains a mystery. Perhaps they understood the limited appeal of the film itself - it was not a box office hit upon release, and remains a movie of mixed reactions - and figured a few new extras and a polished up transfer would be good enough.
Except when it comes to Charlie Chaplin, merely average is not acceptable. Like the other silent greats who he often battles for cinematic supremacy (Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, FYI), his importance to the artform and the overall growth of the burgeoning medium cannot be underestimated. These were men who made history by actually opening up a blank page in cinema’s struggling primer and writing down the very first rules. They didn’t redefine a genre or reinvent a type. Instead, they laid the foundation for almost everything that film would become in later decades. While one would never suggest that their story is incapable of being told properly, it’s clear that Chaplin’s outsized importance can’t be reduced to a single storyline - four hours or forty hours long. Robert Downey Jr. is a significant reason why this 1993 effort is worth revisiting. Everything else feels piecemeal and perfunctory.
How did it happen? How did a man with limited governing skills, a track record of career calamities, a laundry list of personality (and parental) issues, and a jerryrigged jailhouse conversion to Jesus end up as President of the United States? Was Al Gore that dull, John Kerry that tenuous? What, exactly, about the son of a former failed Commander in Chief indicated he was ready for the job, or should have his Constitutional contract renewed for another four years? Were we in need of some post-Clinton jingoism, or a bugf*ck shoulder to shiver on when the bad guys showed up to terrorize us?
Perhaps the bigger question is why? Why a war in Iraq? Why a pro-corporate stance that seems destined to lead to one of the longest and deepest recessions in US history? Why the lack of an exit strategy, a balanced domestic and foreign policy approach, or a smidgen of basic humanity in all the pro-fear, anti-dissent smirks? George W. Bush may not be the worst President in the history of the US, though he seems to be willing to fight for said slot. And outside of his cavalcade of crazed advisors, one senses he may be a decent enough man. This is the angle taken by Oliver Stone in his sensational example of present political theater, W. Turns out, the answers to any and all these questions have their roots in family, not party affiliation.
From the beginning, the young George W. Bush had big shoes to fill. His grandfather was Senator Prescott Bush, and his father was a war hero, a millionaire oil baron, and an eventual Washington mainstay. It was therefore never a question of “if” the boy would follow in his dad’s demanding footsteps, but “how”. This is the dilemma Stone wants to explore, the rise of an expected prodigy that has little ability or capability of complementing his establishing legacy. As the current incarnation of W. discusses the possibility of war with his A-list brain trust, we see the portrait of a disappointment as a young man. Stone avoids certain situations - there’s no cocaine use, National Guard controversy, or in-depth analysis of his bad business acumen. Instead, like a grand opera or studio era Hollywood epic, we watch a boy grow up to be a very incomplete man.
When W. does pop psychology - or perhaps a better term would be “Popi” psychology, considering how much screen time Bush Sr. gets in his son’s story - it’s superficial but fun. Clearly, the standard eldest boy issues apply, as confrontation after confrontation confirms the father/son disconnect. Even better, whenever W. does something and succeeds (as when he wins the Governorship of Texas), all Bush Sr. can think of is how disappointed he is for Jeb (who ran in Florida at the same time, and lost). We get it early and often here - nothing W. did was ever good enough. But then Stone stops feeling sorry for the man and starts explaining the mania behind the mess we are in, and suddenly, the gloves come off.
This is one of the few movies that accurately explains post-modern politics, that is, the notion that a President is only as powerful (or persuasive, or important) as the people he has in his pool of advisors. From Toby Jones’ dead-on Karl Rove to Richard Dreyfus’ bald-headed devil Dick Cheney, we see how a simple ideologue became a crackpot demagogue. With Thandie Newton’s perfectly pinched Condolezza Rice and Scott Glen’s clueless Donald Rumsfeld rounding out the reactionaries, it’s crystal why the US is now a country unnaturally divided. Stone must absolutely adore Colin Powell, however. As flawlessly executed by Jeffrey Wright, the ex-Bush confidant is offered up as the only rationale voice in a din filled with self-satisfied fools.
One of the best things about W. is the casting. Watching dozens of high profile performers sinking their teeth into these roles satisfies on a cinematic level almost unimaginable. Whether its Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush, dressing down her cowardly son, or an almost unrecognizable Stacey Keach as smooth talking evangelist Earle Hudd, we are in wonder of the talent on display. Everyone brings their best to the project, but no one is better than Josh Brolin as the flawed Defender of the Free World. You can see the gears clicking off in W.‘s mind the minute he hears something he likes, and the No Country for Old Men star has no problem allowing that inspiration to drive him to distraction. W. is seen as someone who means well, but often finds the wrong path for achieving said aims - or lets others lead him down said boneheaded boulevard.
Brolin does something that’s more sly than a mere impersonation. He takes the elements of the Bush that we know best and finds a way to make them a truly organic part of who the man is. The out of touch reactions to simply suggestions? Something he’s been doing since his time at Yale. The angry confrontations over small, insignificant issues? A reminder of the living room clashes he had with his dad? The smooth talking slickness that resembles a car salesman shilling white slaves? His form of man of the people seduction, from the moment he met his wife to be Laura (a wonderful Elizabeth Banks) to the preparations for his Presidential campaign. Everything we’ve grown to love, hate, admire, and despise about the man is on display and defined.
Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone will enjoy this experience. Revisiting a leader who lost his way early and often, who seemingly betrayed the tenets of his party to protect the powerbase of a bunch of cronies who couldn’t care less about the smaller issues of the nation, may seem like two hours too much for some. No matter the amazing performances, the pain of reality is just too strong. Similarly, Stone doesn’t go for the knockout punch. He’s not out to debate the Bush mythos, but fill in some of the personality gaps. Clearly, the men and women behind the crown get the kind of dressing down reversed for war criminals and sleazy sycophants, but not the king himself. Stone may stray into territories of sympathy, but W. never excuses the man, just explains him…sort of.
All of which winds up as devastating cinematic strutting. W. is evocative and aggravating, as open with its ideas as it is insular about the issues that matter most. It’s the kind of ambiguous account that reflects an audience’s reaction as much as a filmmaker’s feelings. When it was announced, many familiar with Stone’s motives imagined a fiery satire, a Dr. Strangelove for the Patriot Act era. Instead, this is genealogy gone gangrenous, a look at royals in ruins similar to the predictable period pieces that come out of England every now and again. W. may not deliver the answers to the many questions the current administration stirs, but it’s so much fun following along Bush’s bell curve that we can’t help but enjoy the downward spiral. Oliver Stone has fashioned a fair and balanced distillation of how George W. Bush became President. The ‘why’ one imagines, will have to wait for another day.
Growing up, I was often guilty of using the word gay as a synonym for lame, a bad habit for which there is no excuse. So I’m glad to learn, via AdFreak, that the Ad Council is making public-service spots that point out the unacceptability of the pejorative gay. I don’t think that the word can really function as a compliment either; ideally it works as a neutral, descriptive word, typically applied to people. But can it be used also to suggest certain qualities in certain species of pop culture? I’ve said that Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs is gay, and in a non-pejorative sense (though I could understand why my interlocutors would be confused, in that I also think it’s annoying), but I can’t quite articulate what I even mean by that—not that it is made for and by gay people; not that it’s conforming to certain gay stereotypes, as in being campy or flamboyant; not that it addresses gay themes in the way that say, the unequivocably gay Bronski Beat did. Coldplay seems “gay” to me in the same way, and John Mayer too. The TV show Three and a Half Men. I’m probably not making any sense. Do these things share some ineffable quality that can be called “gay” or am I merely transferring the negative valence of homophobia to pop culture that is lousy? (Also, the uncertain status of the word suck needs to be reconsidered in this context as well.)