the white asshole’s burden

New post up on Overthinking It today, in what’ll hopefully be the first post in a series overthinking Treme: The White Asshole’s Burden:

Since these are problems that affect black people, even if they’re not “black problems,” the temptation must have been strong to create a Great White Hero who would swoop in and save the situation. But Simon, Overmyer and Mills ducked that temptation. The black residents of Baltimore and New Orleans rise or fall based on what they can pull together. And the White Men who show up to help are not noble. They’re comically ignoble.

Also, if you live in the Boston area and you have yet to see my incredible cast perform Discount Shakespeare: “As You Like It” in Forty-Five Minutes, tonight is your last chance ever. Tickets still available; get them at the ImprovBoston box office or go to the website.

I am a visitor here; I am not permanent

The Visitor: A well-tailored little indie film. Like a very nice suit.

Richard Jenkins (Intolerable Cruelty, Step Brothers, etc – one of those actors you recognize but don’t know) stars.* He plays Prof. Walter Vale, a Connecticut professor who’s stagnating following his wife’s death. When he’s coerced into attending a conference in Manhattan, he sets foot in the tiny apartment he’s owned for years but never uses. In doing so, he finds two immigrants who’ve been living there for months: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira). Confusion ensues.

Once it becomes clear that Tarek and Zainab are as much the victims of fraud as Walter is, Walter begins to open up to them gradually. He allows them to stay in his pied-a-terre while he’s presenting at the conference. He learns about Zainab’s day job and Tarek’s passion for the drum. And he rediscovers passion.

The Visitor isn’t perfect. It lacks the understated dignity of Tom McCarthy’s (BC ’88) last movie, The Station Agent. There are several moments that state the movie’s theme with a quiet elegance: Walter, awkwardly sitting on his sofa and drinking a glass of wine, while Tarek and Zainab hurriedly pack their things. Tarek’s mother (Hiam Abbass) talking with Zainab over coffee in a small cafe. Little moments, well-framed.

And then there’s Walter’s rant at a security guard, the climax of the film. It’s not the temper that I mind; given what’s at stake, I wouldn’t have been surprised with more. But the dialogue, and the delivery, feel so stilted. Tom McCarthy was a featured regular on the final season of The Wire, which shot right around this time: maybe he took away the wrong lessons?

But what makes the film work, even in light of this clumsiness, is Tarek’s unshakable charisma. Haaz Sleiman has an infectious smile and a warm attitude. He’s not merely believable as a lover, a musician and a guide to New York. He’s admirable. He’s the kind of lover, musician and guide – and friend – that we should all want to be. This is essential, because the latter half of the movie hinges on identifying with him.

The Visitor is about how the unforeseen consequences of our actions can hurt the ones we care about. It’s about the horrors of institutional bureaucracy. But it’s ultimately about the same existential crisis that the West has been grappling with since the 50s – that sense of alienation in one’s own home. In dealing with that, The Visitor runs into the same obstacles that every artwork tackling the existential crisis has. But discovering just how little you know about your own home can be freeing, as well as terrifying.

____________
* As an example of how hard it is to remember this man, I called him “Christopher Perkins” in the first draft.

when you’re a boy, you can wear a uniform

Valkyrie: Diverting but not moving. A Bryan Singer film about a plot to kill Hitler, starring Tom Cruise, should keep me on the edge of my seat for its entire run. But right when Col. Stauffenberg (Cruise) implemented the plan to isolate Berlin from the SS, I got a text inviting me out drinking. Five minutes later I was out the door.

Why didn’t this work? Perhaps knowing the source material – not just the fact that Hitler survived, but the details of this particular attempt, explicated by Jack Palance on an old episode of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” Perhaps Tom Cruise lacked the usual psychotic magnetism that draws viewers in, having only one eye to play out of. Ultimately, though, I came at the movie with a small amount of cynicism.

Cruise's stance on cults of personality is well documented.

Cruise's stance on cults of personality is well documented.

For the supposedly true story of men fighting against fascism, the plot bludgeons us with the theme that indecisive politicians can’t save us in a moment of crisis. Only the bold men of action (a/k/a, the military) can. Stauffenberg gets inducted into the conspiracy and immediately starts bossing the civilians around. Stern men in crisp uniforms lean over desks and shout about the need to ACT being pressing, and the time to ACT being now, etc. This technocratic love of action over deliberation, of Doing Something vs. Figuring Something Out, has been a hallmark of terror states for centuries. One wonders if Stauffenberg et al abhorred Hitler because he crushed Germany in the grip of fascism, or because he was so bad at it.

My historical revisionism aside, if the director of X-Men can’t make a moving film about men giving their lives to free a country that hates them, or make an exciting film about men maneuvering their way around thousands of soldiers, then the director has failed. Given the budget thrown at Valkyrie, the caliber of actors involved – Cruise, Branagh, Wilkinson, Nighy – and the sheer audacity of the visual spectacle, it’s actually not bad. But it’s still a rental, not a purchase, at best.

# # #

Generation Kill: Some movies glorify war. Some movies vilify it. And some productions – like HBO’s miniseries Generation Kill, created by the producers of the greatest thing which the medium of television has yet to produce – treat war just as it is. War is thousands of men with hundreds of different agendas running around the desert with guns. Generation Kill is the result.

Hey!  Rolling Stone!  Know what this war is really about?

Hey! Rolling Stone! Know what this war is really about?

Generation Kill follows Bravo Company in the 1st Recon Marines through the early days of the Iraq War. In true David Simon / Ed Burns fashion, we meet more people than we can possibly remember the names of in the first two episodes. We rely on snips of dialogue and brief flashes of characterization to make them stand out: that’s the gullible racist. That’s the homosexual sniper. That’s the smart-ass diet pill freak. Etc.

Eventually, after the first three episodes, our attention narrows to one Humm-Vee in particular: “Hitman 2,” driven by the wisecracking Cpl. Person (James Ransome, Ziggy of The Wire S2). The platoon’s sergeant, Brad “Iceman” Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard) rides shotgun. In the back are the naive sociopath Lance Cpl. Trombley and an embedded reporter from Rolling Stone. You could film an entire series of the conversations these four have while rattling through the Iraqi desert.

Like The Wire, Generation Kill immerses viewers so fully that it defies the term “naturalism.” No one pauses for exposition. The show doesn’t come with a glossary. You, the unschooled viewer, have to pay attention. Fortunately, the actors, the cinematography and the editing all combine to make everything clear in context. When Hitman 2 calls in a “fire mission” to “Hitman Actual,” or when an idling bunch of Humm-Vees are told to get “oscar mike” for a point forty “klicks” distant, you know what they mean. If you don’t, or if you can’t figure it out, this show is not for you.

Very important note: I’m only 3 episodes in to the 7 episode series. Please don’t spoil anything, even obliquely, in the comments.

it’s all in the game

Thank you for your patience with those last two self-indulgent entries. Now we can have fun again.

A few days ago, Leonard commented on an AVClub interview with Flight of the Conchords. Bret observed that “There aren’t many TV shows that can go on tour.

The ideas immediately began bubbling in the drug dens of our brains, Leonard’s and mine. We brainstormed. We plunked out notes on a beat-up Steinway. We yelled at each other over coffee in Greenwich Village diners at 3AM. And finally, after about 45 minutes of effort, we uncovered a gem.

Ladies, gentlemen, and eligible Tony voters, we give you: All In The Game: The Wire, Live On Stage!

I’m Gonna Shoot Up Tonight (BUBS, Chorus)
(sung to the tune of “Luck Be A Lady”)

A slow violin intro. BUBS wanders down center into a spot. The cries of “Pandemic!” and “WMD!” fade into the background.

BUBS
They call you ‘Mr. Brown.’
You always treat me nice.
I lie in my slum and I chat with you ’till my toes turn to ice.
You’re on the town with me.
I’m flying like a kite.
Who cares if my clothes or the scabs on my nose make me loo-o-k … a fright?
They tell me I’m an addict
They say I might have AIIIIIIIIIDS!
But tonight, you’re all this poor … boy … neeeeeeds …

Lights up. The dealers have changed out of street clothes in the dark into tux and tails. They form a chorus line behind Bubs.

BUBS
I’m gonna shoot up tonight!
I’m gonna shoot up tonight!
I’m gonna ride that horse until I shit my trousers.
I’m gonna shoot up tonight!

The dancers surround Bubs, stripping him of his ratty jacket and pants and dressing him in a dinner jacket with silver sequins.

BUBS
I’m gonna shoot up my veins!
I’ll get so high, I might just go insane!
I’m gonna shoot that rock and sleep for thirty hours.
I’m gonna shoot up my veins!

More dancers appear on either side of the stage – one twirling a ribbon, one twirling a baton. Bubs snatches the ribbon from one and pantomimes tying off his arm with it. He takes the baton from the other and simulates making an injection.

BUBS
You never call me “bum” or “junkie”
Or “ghetto trash”! Or “worthless punk”!
I call you up whenever my girl Kima gives me ten,
Or when I catch a break from Mac or Bunk!

Dancers swarm the stage behind Bubs, now resplendent in sequined jacket and tap shoes. The dancers do a “bubble dance” (a la Gypsy Rose Lee), but using large rocks instead of bubbles.

BUBS
Let’s keep this party all night! I’ve
Got a scam that’s gonna do us right!
My sister hates me and my son thinks I been murdered
But I’m gonna shoot up …
Gonna get screwed up …
I’m gonna shoot up! TOOOO-NIIIIIIIIIIGHT!

It’s All In The Game (STRINGER, AVON, WEE-BAY, SLIM CHARLES, DONUT, KENNARD, WALLACE, NAMOND)
(sung to the tune of “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof)

ALL
The game, the game! It’s all in…
The game, the game! It’s all in…the game!

STRINGER & AVON
Who, every day, must handle every re-up,
Worry ‘bout the po-po, keep our records clean?
And who rolls around in Lincoln Navigators,
Running a well-oiled machine?

ALL
The kingpin, the kingpin! The kingpin!
The kingpin, the kingpin! It’s all in…the game!

WEE-BAY & SLIM CHARLES
Who must know the way to beat a lyin’ bitch,
A punk-ass hood, a chickenhead?
Who must ferret out and murder every snitch
And fill some niggas up with lead?

ALL
The muscle, the muscle! The muscle!
The muscle, the muscle! It’s all in…the game!

DONUT & KENNARD
At six I got my corner named; at ten I learned to shoot
I hope I get a bump real soon; this job is shitty.

ALL
The runner, the runner! The runner!
The runner, the runner! It’s all in…the game!

WALLACE & NAMOND
And who makes sure that no one can lighten up the take?
And who will get a beatdown for each mistake they make?

ALL
The counter, the counter! The counter!
The counter, the counter! It’s all in…the game!

McNulty! (RAWLS, MCNULTY)
(sung to the tune of “Tomorrow” from Annie)

RAWLS
You’re such a cheap prick, McNulty!
Can not stand the sight of you, McNulty!
Why don’t you die?

You fuck up my life, McNulty!
Talking to Burrell just makes me sulky.
Wanna know why?

MCNULTY (speaking)
I don’t know what …

RAWLS (singing over him)
‘Cause you talked to that judge!
‘Bout A-
-von Barksdale!
And re-opened these fi-i-les!
Don’t smi-i-le!
These fi-i-les!

MCNULTY (speaking)
Look, I can explain …

RAWLS
I’m shipping you out, McNulty!
You’ll be on this new task force, McNulty,
With a thumb up your ass!

And let me be clear, McNulty!
The next time Burrell should say, ‘McNulty’
I’ll fuck you with glass!

MCNULTY (speaking)
Oh, c’mon …

RAWLS
Don’t you open your ly-
-ing I-
-rish piehole!
Or I’ll fill it with shit!
With shit!
With shi-i-i-t!

(crescendo)

McNulty! McNulty!
I hate you! McNulty!
I’ll fuck you, if it takes ten years!
McNulty! McNulty!
You ratfuck, McNulty!
I’ll fuck you, right in the ears!

West Baltimore (CARVER, HERC)
(sung to the tune of “America” from West Side Story)

CARVER
I like my time in West Baltimore
Cleaning up crime in West Baltimore
Wiping off grime in West Baltimore

HERC
Trying to rhyme in West Baltimore.

CARVER
Lots of drug dealers to take out!

HERC
We piss in bottles on stake outs.

CARVER
Daniels and Greggs do the job right!

HERC
I’m still in debt from that hot mic.

CARVER
We could get paid in West Baltimore.
We could make grade in West Baltimore.
We’ve got it made in West Baltimore.

HERC
I can’t get laid in West Baltimore.

CARVER
We get the dope from our C.I.s.

HERC
Sure, if we pay them for cheap highs.

CARVER
I could make Sarge if I learn fast.

HERC
Just keep your nose up Burrell’s ass!

CARVER
We could make friends in West Baltimore.

HERC
I get the bends from West Baltimore.

CARVER
We’ll make amends in West Baltimore.

HERC
War never ends in West Baltimore!

HERC AND CARVER
La-la-la, la-la, West Baltimore!
La-la-la, la-la, West Baltimore!
La-la-la, la-la, West Baltimore!
La-la-la, la-la, West Baltimore!

Marlo Stansfield (FREAMON, MCNULTY, DANIELS, RAWLS, AVON, STRINGER)
(sung to the tune of “Oklahoma (Reprise)”)

FREAMON
There’s someone droppin’ bodies, but we can’t say how

MCNULTY
We can’t find corpses and we can’t find clues

DANIELS
We’ll never get a wire on ’em anyhow

RAWLS
It’s all about numbers, Cap’n …

DANIELS
Like that’s news!

ALL
Like that’s news!
Like that’s news! Homicide blues!

AVON
Lockin’ down the corners, crackin’ suckas’ heads
Shootin’ up the projects ’till the streets turn red

STRINGER
Tellin’ you: this nigga ain’t about to peel
Let me cut him in and we can make a deal

AVON
You ain’t a soldier! This shit’s hot!
Go get Marlo or we gonna get got!

MCNULTY
Maaaaaaar-lo Stansfield!
He’s been dropping bodies in the West!
Tell you what he’ll do, if you cross his crew
He will put two bullets in your chest!

AVON
Maaaaaaar-lo Stansfield!
He’s a hot young player in the game!

STRINGER
He’s got Chris and Snoop waiting on the stoop
So don’t let them hear you say his name!

FREAMON
Check those boarded-up houses for sure!
You’ll find bodies and blood by the score!

MCNULTY, FREAMON, AVON and STRINGER
So when we saaaaaaay
“Don’t cross that nigga down the waaaaaay”
You know we’re really talking about Marlo Stansfield!
Marlo Stansfield! Marlo!

ALL
Maaaaaaar-lo Stansfield!
He’s been dropping bodies in the West!
Tell you what he’ll do, if you cross his crew
He will put two bullets in your chest!
Maaaaaaar-lo Stansfield!
He’s a hot young player in the game!
He’s got Chris and Snoop waiting on the stoop
So don’t let them hear you say his name!

Check those boarded-up houses for sure!
You’ll find bodies and blood by the score!

So when we saaaaaaay
“Don’t cross that nigga down the waaaaaay”
You know we’re really talking about Marlo Stansfield!
Marlo Stansfield! Marlo!
M, A, R, L, O, Yo!
Marlo Stansfield!

there ain’t no back in the day. ain’t no nostalgia.

By Season 5, we’ve assembled quite a cast. We’ve got the cops – street level, detectives and command – all angling for position. We’ve got the dealers, all the way from the twelve-year-olds counting the stash to the masterminds dealing with supply. We’ve got politicians. We’ve got folks we picked up along the way, from the ports and the schools. It’s no longer just a TV show – it’s a real live city we’ve assembled.

Let’s start tearing it down, one brick at a time.
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you want it to be one way. but it’s the other way.

Season Four was the hardest for me. I think it’s fantastic television – the writers, actors and directors are all at the top of their game – but S4’s like a wound I don’t want to touch. You can tolerate folks on the street rising and falling; it’s all in the Game, after all. But the kids didn’t make this world. They got born into it. And the absolute failure of public schools to save kids from the Game kills me.

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well, get on with it, motherf–

Season Three’s my favorite of the entire run. We meet a broad cast of new and interesting characters. We return to the same setting of Season One. We have just enough history on all of these characters that we can start fucking with expectations. And, interestingly enough, the show begins to engage in a sort of meta-dialogue with the audience, which I’ll elaborate on beneath the cut.

If S1 was about losing the War on Drugs, S3 is about counting the casualties.

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