Tuesday, October 06, 2015

America's Next Top Nobel Laureate

I have a longstanding bet with myself which admittedly has no stakes since it's with myself, but I do ponder each year which will ultimately prove true.  I typically debate between whether or not the United States will win the honor of hosting an upcoming Olympics first or whether an American will be named the victor of the Nobel Prize in Literature next.  Both last happened in the mid-90's (Salt Lake City won in 1995, Toni Morrison in 1993), and both seem to be always possible, but never quite plausible.  Chicago missing out in 2016 was coupled with the recent victory of Alice Munro (a Canadian, therefore dismissing the idea that a North American hasn't won in a while).  Still, while we know well in advance if the United States has a legitimate contender for an Olympics (come on 2028!), the candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature are kept a tight secret, and who has actually recently been close is always up for debate.

However, predicting awards is one of my favorite things to do, and I don't know that there's a more pleasurable game to play than predicting which American is most likely to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (even saying the below names is a delight), so I've taken it upon myself to do some research and come up with the ten most likely candidates for the award below.  All of these authors meet the criteria for winning (notable living writers born in the United States).  Without further adieu...

10. Joan Didion
Born: December 5, 1934, in Sacramento, California
Signature Work: The Year of Magical Thinking
No Stranger to Awards: She's won the National Book Award, as well as the National Medal of Arts and Humanities
Going for Her: Didion was a name my friend Gwen and I thought of as we were trying to complete this list, finding a tenth author that didn't seem like a drop-off in quality, and Didion definitely fits the bill.  She's wildly successful, particularly late in her career which is a change-of-pace from some of the other authors on this list (not to mention, quite frankly, Toni Morrison), and is someone who adds something new to the list considering the deeply personal nature of her writing.
Going Against Her: The Nobel committee is more reliant on authors of fiction (it's rare that they go for a memoirist or a journalist, rather than someone who is a novelist or poet), and Didion's peak fame is so recent (by Nobel standards) it might be seen as jumping on the bandwagon and risk being a flash-in-the-pan.

9. Jonathan Franzen
Born: August 17, 1959 in Western Springs, Illinois
Signature Work: The Corrections
No Stranger to Awards: He won the National Book Award for The Corrections, as well as was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.  He also appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with the title "Great American Novelist" and was also an Oprah Book Club selection.  Perhaps you remember?
Going for Him: Franzen is surely someone that will be on lists like this for decades, provided his health holds.  He's the exact sort of author the Nobel Committee clamors for, with a novel roughly twice a decade and every one of his books being hailed as an event.  His novels The Corrections and Freedom both were landmarks, and I have another personal bet with myself over whether it will be Franzen or Ian McEwan that wins the Nobel first (I think McEwan, but I suspect they'll both do it).
Going Against Him: Franzen's kind of a jackass, which can't help him in this regard though it doesn't preclude him, as jackasses have won this award in the past.  Perhaps more damning is his relative youth.  While authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez have won the prize at a younger age, recipients tend to be older.  Franzen will have other chances.

8. Don DeLillo
Born: November 20, 1936 in New York City
Signature Work: White Noise
No Stranger to Awards: DeLillo has won the National Book Award, as well as was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Going for Him: The Nobel Committee occasionally likes to pick troupers, novelists who have long been part of the literary community but who haven't always been headliners (lest we forget, the likes of Marcel Proust and F. Scott Fitzgerald never picked up the Nobel).  DeLillo, long considered one of the great men of letters who admittedly never took the center stage in the way that, say, John Updike did, would be an interesting choice, and while he is pretty private, my hunch is he'd still show up to win the prize.
Going Against Him: He's not a flashy choice-if you're going to choose an American and deal with the press of such a thing, why not go with someone more well-known and less press-shy?  Additionally, DeLillo's work post-Underworld has shown a marked decline, and authors rarely win old-age awards; they usually are victorious when they are still producing high-quality prose.

7. Rita Dove
Born: August 28, 1952 in Akron, Ohio
Signature Work: Thomas and Beulah
No Stranger to Awards: Dove has won the Pulitzer Prize, as well as the National Medal of the Arts and was the first African-American to serve as Poet Laureate of the United States.
Going for Her: The Nobel Committee isn't shy about giving the award to poets, and Dove is arguably the most well-known living American poet upon the death of Maya Angelou.  Dove's won almost every accolade you can think of for a poet except the Nobel, and as the first African-American poet to win the Nobel, the diversity that the committee values could help her in this regard (the Nobel Committee for Literature is famous for its value on diverse perspectives).
Going Against Her: Dove is more nationally famous in literary circles and less internationally recognized, so it would be a bit of a surprise if they went with her.  In addition, her most famous work came over two decades ago and she perhaps peaked a little earlier than she should have (timing is a rough one for the Nobel Committee in this regard).

6. Philip Roth
Born: March 19, 1933 in Newark, New Jersey
Signature Work: Portnoy's Complaint
No Stranger to Awards: Roth has won every major literary award in the United States: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award (twice), the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), and the Pen/Faukner Award (thrice).
Going for Him: Come on here-this is the Everest of people who should have this award.  Roth is considered by the plurality, if not the majority, of serious-minded readers as the greatest living author.  His novels stand amongst the most important of a living author, he's a groundbreaking artist, and definitely one of those names that will show up eternally on "can you believe they never won the Nobel?" lists if he doesn't end up with the prize.
Going Against Him: He's Philip Roth and 82-years-old.  If he was going to win, wouldn't he have done it by now?  Retired, proclaiming the death of the novel, and at this point a question mark over whether he'd even show up, Roth is someone that should have this award, but probably never will.  Still, he's too big of a luminary to cut from a countdown while he still is amongst us.

5. Thomas Pynchon
Born: May 8, 1937 in Glen Cove, New York
Signature Work: Gravity's Rainbow
No Stranger to Awards: He's won the National Book Award, and was due the Pulitzer Prize (he won the jury's vote unanimously for Gravity's Rainbow), but the Pulitzer board dismissed their decision so Pynchon went home empty-handed.
Going for Him: Well, no one's going to argue that Thomas Pynchon doesn't stand-alone in the literary community.  Novels like Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 have entered the lexicon in ways few living authors have been able to do, and Pynchon's is a genius that is quite singular-there's never been anyone quite like him in the literary world (maybe if Salinger had actually decided to publish something at some point he might have come close), and like Roth he'll likely show up on lists of missed opportunities for the Nobel Committee.
Going Against Him: Honestly, if they could actually get him to show up I think he'd win by unanimous consent.  The infamously reclusive author makes Cormac McCarthy look like Kim Kardashian-it's hard to imagine the Nobel Committee giving the award to a man who will never show up, and possibly not even acknowledge the award (or more damning, mock it through a New York Times editorial).

4. Louise Erdrich
Born: June 7, 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota
Signature Work: Love Medicine
No Stranger to Awards: Erdrich has won the National Book Award, and also was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.
Going for Her: Erdrich would make history if she were to win (she'd be the first Native-American author to win the award), a huge accomplishment and something the committee might be looking into; Erdrich's career has never been hotter, quite frankly (her National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize nomination both came in the past ten years, despite decades of being a signature figure in the literary world), and a long career with a lot of momentum could be a solid recipe for success with the Nobel Committee.  She's my wild card on the list.
Going Against Her: Is she famous enough?  Admittedly the Nobel Committee occasionally exhaustively combs through a nation trying to find a notable author and picks someone no one in the international literary community has heard of, but Erdrich triumphing over Roth?  Over McCarthy?  It seems pretty David and Goliath, and generally the American winners have been more famous than she is.

3. Cormac McCarthy
Born: July 20, 1933 in Providence, Rhode Island
Signature Work: Blood Meridian
No Stranger to Awards: McCarthy, like Philip Roth, has basically won it all: the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award are all on his shelf.
Going for Him: Name me a more celebrated American novelist of the past fifteen years.  Seriously, between No Country for Old Men (which went on to be a masterpiece cinematically) and The Road, McCarthy's novels have become landmarks in the literary canon, and he proves that authors continue to make compelling, interesting work decades after they initially come onto the scene.
Going Against Him: Doesn't it feel like this should have happened about 4-5 years ago?  I know the Nobel Committee is occasionally slow to react to trends, but McCarthy was such a big deal for so long, frequently showing up on "greatest American novelists of all-time" lists every chance authors could get, and for a brief moment there his reclusive nature was completely out-the-window, doing interviews for Time Magazine and Oprah Winfrey.  He could still win, but at 82 the window is getting shorter and shorter.

2. Marilynne Robinson

Born: November 26, 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho
Signature Work: Housekeeping
No Stranger to Awards: Robinson has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), and was shortlisted for the National Book Award.  She also won the National Humanities Medal in 2012.
Going for Her: Robinson is one of those authors who somehow manages to keep pumping out critically-acclaimed and celebrated novels even without the added benefit of movies being made of her films or the celebrity of a Philip Roth.  Her work is religiously-inspired, which I think might be something the Nobel Committee thinks stands out (she's by far the most drawn to her faith in her writing of any author on this list), and she's also had a major impact in her 60's and 70's in the literary community with Gilead and Lila.  No one can argue that she isn't producing some of the most important work of her career right now.
Going Against Her: While being prolific has its downside (see Number 1 on this list), Robinson only has four novels.  That's hardly the sort of thing that wins a Nobel, even if one of those novels is Housekeeping.  Could someone with such a short bibliography win the Nobel?

1. Joyce Carol Oates

Born: June 16, 1938 in Lockport, New York
Signature Work: them
No Stranger to Awards: She's won the National Book Award, as well as the National Humanities Medal, and though she's never won, she's been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize five times.
Going for Her: Everything?  She's an icon in the world of letters (who doesn't like Joyce Carol Oates?) who continues to write vociferously and continues to have ardent reviews (one of those Pulitzer Prize nominations happened this past year).
Going Against Her: Productivity?  Honestly that's all I can think of since she's overdue for the Nobel.  There's a stigma against writers who produce a gargantuan body of work, and with nearly fifty novels to her name, Oates has definitely surpassed the body of work of almost every other novelist on this list combined.  Oates has cleverly made fun of this in the past ("more titles and I might as well give up all hopes of a 'reputation'"), but it could be what's holding her back.

And there you have it folks-my guesses for the most likely American candidates to win the Nobel Prize this week.  We'll find out Thursday who is the victor, but in the meantime make some guesses, and share your favorite authors/books on this list (and those of you who are fans of the likes of Anne Tyler or Michael Cunningham or another missing name, you should chastise me in the comments if you'd like)!

Gun Control, or How Hillary Got Her Groove Back

Only the most flagrant of partisans could look at the past 72 hours and not acknowledge that Hillary Clinton has had a bit of an upswing.  The former Secretary of State aced her appearance on Saturday Night Live, something that she admittedly should be able to do (she's been in the public sphere for decades and has given speeches for almost all of that time), but politicians frequently realize they have absolutely no ability to tell jokes at the worst possible moments, and she was genuinely funny (albeit the comedy might have been a bit toothless, as we clearly saw who Lorne Michaels is rooting for in this election with no mention of emails or Bernie Sanders).  She had an ace moment in an interview with Savannah Guthrie, pulling out perhaps the most critical mistake Rep. Kevin McCarthy will make in his quest to become Speaker (when he pointed out that the Benghazi committee has helped take Clinton down in the polls).  This is something that's going to come back to haunt the GOP, as Hillary Clinton is someone who works well when she's fighting against someone, and Democrats are sensitive to their chosen candidates getting unjustly railroaded after seven years of the Obama administration.  Even if there might have been validity in the attacks on Benghazi (I don't feel there were, others disagree), that ship has sailed now, and one wonders if it might take some of the email scandal down with it if Clinton plays her cards right.

But perhaps no moment has better prepared Mrs. Clinton for a theoretical comeback (or as much of a comeback as a woman who still leads in every major national poll can make) than the subject of gun control entering the national purview.  With the shootings in Oregon, coupled with shootings in Sandy Hook, Aurora, Lafeyette, Charleston, Tucson and dozens of others, gun control has become a topic that nearly every Democrat in the primaries wants to talk about, and one that has become deeply partisan.  Democrats are lashing out at Republicans who bring up mental health, both because it doesn't solve the problem of why other western countries with mentally ill people don't experience this level of violence, and because it disproportionately is used only to describe young, white male killers and not men of color.  The racial imbalance, along with the fact that seemingly nothing is being done about this issue because of Congress, has made it a potentially critical issue for the Democratic Primary, and it's one of the rare issues where Sec. Clinton can run to the left of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sanders, as a result of his living in a state with a low crime rate and a number of avid sportsman, has a considerably more conservative record on gun control than you'd expect from a Socialist who has repeatedly been cited as a "true liberal" to Clinton's moderate.  Sanders got into a heated discussion with Bill Maher about gun control, touting the line of "mental health" being more important than "gun control," which Maher pointed out is a standard NRA line.  Sanders famously voted against the Brady Bill in 1993 when he was in the House (which instituted mandatory background checks), and voted to allow firearms on Amtrak in the Senate.  Perhaps most damning of all, however, is the clear juxtaposition between Clinton and Sanders on a 2005 bill that gave gun manufacturers immunity in terms of lawsuits from victims of violence; Sanders voted for the bill, Clinton against it.  Sanders record on the issue is pretty erratic, quite frankly (he voted for the Manchin-Toomey bill a few years back, the last real legislation on the issue of gun control), but few would argue that he isn't to the right of Clinton on this issue.

This is a huge coup for Clinton, as a lot of Sanders' supporters and in particular Elizabeth Warren enthusiasts have chastised the former First Lady for her seemingly convenient shift to the left on issues such as Wall Street reform, but this is a game that Clinton can play against Sanders, and like Kevin McCarthy's Benghazi comment, will come with the added benefit of muting Sanders argument that "she changed her mind."  If Sanders is changing his positions or "tweaking" them, then so can Clinton; to say otherwise would brand Sanders hypocritical and, far more damning considering his appeal in the primary a "typical politician."  And this also gives Clinton some fire in her campaign in a way that she hasn't had for months-watching how she goes after Sanders and Republicans on the issue of gun control will be major headlines, and with her Benghazi hearing coming up there's a decent chance that Hillary getting mad (like she did with Savannah Guthrie this morning) could happen again; the Benghazi hearings have now gone from "hit them while they're down" to "don't say anything clearly meant to score political points."

It's worth noting, of course, that ultimately the general election for Clinton will not be decided by gun control.  It will be decided by the economy or potentially national security, but more than likely the economy.  However, primaries are not decided by the same political wisdoms of the general, and Hillary Clinton has a primary problem right now.  It's not that people don't think she can win (most people still predict that), but it's that they're concerned that she can't beat a Marco Rubio or a Jeb Bush in the general election.  Scoring points on Sanders and also riling up the base with a red meat issue like gun control is a ticket to assuage such worries.  The past 72 hours have proven that Hillary Clinton is willing to step outside her comfort zone and still score the political point in a way we haven't seen, quite honestly, since the waning days of her 2008 primary.  The next few weeks will be critical, but with a debate just a week away Hillary Clinton has something right now that she hasn't been able to seize all year: an opportunity.

Monday, October 05, 2015

OVP: The Kite Runner (2007)

Film: The Kite Runner (2007)
Stars: Khalid Abdalla, Zekeria Ebrahimi, Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada, Homayou Ershadi, Atossa Leoni
Director: Marc Forster
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Original Score)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 1/5 stars

I remember reading The Kite Runner in college when it first came out.  It was actually required reading for all RA's who had freshmen in their dorms (it was the freshmen book), and while I was always a pretty enthusiastic student, I remember sitting at a table with my fellow students and some faculty and finding myself in an unexpected minority, realizing that I was one of the few people who found the book dry, unlikable, and occasionally offensive.  As a result of this, I had long avoided seeing the movie, but the Academy in their infinite wisdom decided to poke me a little bit and nominated the film for an Oscar, so my OVP completism required me to pop the disc into my DVD player.  Years later, I found myself once again having the same arguments with the source material, though here I was aided by a movie that at the very least wasn't critically-acclaimed (and also the conversation I was having was with the television and my bowl of popcorn, rather than all of my friends and my boss).  The Kite Runner is a failed attempt at creating something profound and meaningful, and instead a dry, misguided adaptation of a book that wasn't that good anyway.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows Amir (Abdalla as an adult, Ebrahimi as a child) throughout his life, and we are introduced to his hardships ranging from a rough relationship with his father as a child to the horrifying actions bespoken on his servant/friend Hassan to his efforts to save Hassan's son after Hassan is killed by the Taliban.  Amir's journey is the center of the story, even if let's be honest, we don't really care for him as a leading protagonist.

This is perhaps the greatest flaw in both Khalid Hosseini's novel and Forster's film-no one should like Amir.  He's sniveling, whiny, a spoiled, ungrateful brat who is basically a jerk.  He treats his friend Hassan like dirt and a servant even though he's clearly his only friend and is unwavering in his kindness.  When his friend is raped by a different, older boy, instead of coming to his rescue or at least trying to end his suffering, he just lets it happen so that his father will be proud of him for bringing back a kite.  It's a scene that is so disturbing not only for the obvious subject matter but because the director/main actor never really acknowledges that we're always going to hate Amir for what he did (they even return to the kite-retrieving in the final scene in a moment meant to be uplifting but really just reminding us that Amir is horrible).  The next 90 minutes of the film they try to show he's a "good person," someone who is willing to risk his life to save his nephew (to add an extra underline on the fact that Amir is scum, we find out that Hassan is his brother, which feels cloying and redundant since best friend or brother, Amir did something wrong and never apologized for it) from the Taliban, but let's be honest here-Hassan's rape isn't avenged by Amir trying to do the humane thing in this situation.  The villain in this film's eye is Assef, the man who rapes Hassan and kidnaps his son, but the reality is that there are two villains here, and the film doesn't get that, which feels insulting to the viewer.

As a result, we're left with a dull and tedious movie.  There's nothing wrong with a deeply flawed protagonist, but you need to at least acknowledge those flaws, and with the ending (where Amir's flaws are seen not that he's a liar, complicit in the crimes around him, and a disgrace, but simply for having a lack of spine) we get none of that.  In the end Amir gets basically everything he wanted as a child with only a bloody nose as the price-he gets a devoted wife, a son, and is a successful writer.  Hassan, the boy whose pain he perpetuated, ends up dead.  That's hardly a happy ending, particularly if you view Amir as one of the story's villains.  It's problematic, and kind of ruined Alberto Iglesias' score for me.  It's one of those Disney-style compositions that seems to become its own character, trying to fit the mood of the piece to the reality happening onscreen, but since my opinion of the main character was so off from the director's, I ended up feeling like Iglesias' score was off tempo to the mood of the film and occasionally felt inappropriate.

All-in-all, ten years or so after I read the book, I find that Khalid Hosseini's bestselling story doesn't improve with age.  The film, like the book, never apologizes or acknowledges its one-dimensional, spoiled brat of a main character, and lives in a world where only the most literal of villains get to be called that.  AMPAS may have had time for such a film, but I surely don't.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Grandma (2015)

Film: Grandma (2015)
Stars: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Judy Greer, Laverne Cox, Sam Elliott
Director: Paul Weitz
Oscar History: Forty years after her first nomination Tomlin is definitely getting buzz; it seems certain she'll at least score at the Globes
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

Slice-of-life films are probably my favorite movie genre of the moment, particularly modern slice-of-life movies.  The reason for this I can't quite explain, but I think it largely has to do with the fact that so much of your life is not spent on gigantic decisions or what you'd consider the "headlines," but instead on the run-of-the-mill, day-to-day things.  We love movies about falling in love and fulfilling a dream and gigantic moments like war or discovery, but the reality is that most days are spent doing on constant auto pilot and routine.  Slice-of-life movies have a weird purpose then, because a film like Grandma shows how even the most ordinary of days can occasionally have a great deal of meaning if you let them, and while I don't want to sound like a "chase your dream" sort of person, living a more purposeful existence is something that we should all learn to do, particularly if it's from a film as easily watchable as Grandma.

(Spoilers Ahead) We find this out in Grandma because Elle (Tomlin) is at a bit of a crossroads in her life.  We don't find her the day after her longtime partner has died or when she has decided to start loving again, but well after that when she has dumped Olivia (Greer), her girlfriend of a few months and her granddaughter Sage (Garner) has stopped by because she needs an abortion and doesn't have the $600 she requires to get the procedure done before her appointment later that day.  Elle takes Olivia on a road trip to find the money, and in the process revisits some old friends and old wounds.

The best part about Grandma is the way that Elle realizes about halfway through the film not only how much of her life has been left in pockets of productivity, but how few people come to mind as ones who truly matter.  She starts out with friends she know will actually care about her like Deathy (Cox), a tattoo artist who has a high opinion of Elle, and then slowly back-pedals to less and less likely candidates to give her the money, including eventually her ex-husband Karl (Elliott) and her estranged daughter Judy (Harden).  It's a weird conundrum for a woman who spent so much of her life identified in her happiness by the same person and who has coasted in some effects on her early career success, something an artist can do quite easily, but let's be fair here-we all kind of do.  The Peter Principle should be renamed a bit to also realize that those people who stay contented in the same position eventually come to the realization that perhaps they should have done more, something you can see Elle grappling with in the film when she is frequently questioned about both her success and failure as a writer.

The friend thing was more interesting to me, though, because it shows a weird side of loneliness, my favorite subject for the cinema.  Elle's only real friend in the world, we find out as the film progresses, was her partner Vi.  Her daughter doesn't really have time for her, her granddaughter is only stopping by because she's out of options, and all of the people she encounters as the movie progresses are from the past, not vibrant parts of her present.  As you get older you have to make more and more time sacrifices in order to balance work, family, and increasingly your own need for self-reflection.  As a result, you sacrifice friendships and relationships to strengthen others, and while that's usually a safe bet, eventually death or divorce cause you to realize you made the wrong choice, or a choice with consequences.  The great thing about this movie is we see it not just in Elle, but in those around her as well.  Look at the powerful scene with her ex-husband Karl, a man of many children and wives who has never gotten over the fact that his first wife left him for a woman and that she had an abortion, but later on still got pregnant in order to have a child.  While Tomlin is perpetually funny in the film, this is the scene that really shows what a strong performer she has been all of these years, and why both she and Elliott are such pros.  The way that she tiptoes around a man she knows she wronged, but also the hurt that comes from him, a man consumed by bitterness that happens when you love someone and they still break your heart-it's a gargantuan scene that could have been its own movie, but Grandma remains slice-of-life, and so we only get it for an instant which is that much more powerful.  Will Elle and Karl, who clearly have had unresolved business for decades, ever resolve those wounds?  Almost certainly not, and that's the greatness of this movie as it mirrors reality so well.  Life is rarely made of beginnings and ends-almost always it's just a series of middles, which is why we find ourselves so desperate for the movies where everything concludes the way we wished life would.  Grandma understands that, and that's where its power lies.

Those were my thoughts on Grandma, Lily Tomlin's first starring role in 27 years.  What were yours?  Have you seen the film yet (and if not, what are you waiting for)?  Are you enjoying this great year that Sam Elliott (also awesome in the wonderful I'll See You in My Dreams) is having?  And do you think Tomlin can get a second Oscar nomination forty years after her first?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Everybody's Linking for the Weekend

We actually haven't had a chance to do this in a few weeks, but don't think that I forgot about the link updates, and we'll see right now some of the articles that we haven't had a chance to look through in-depth this week and can share from around the web:

In Entertainment...

-Nathaniel over at the Film Experience summed up my opinions so perfectly about Matt Damon and his ridiculous comments about gay actors and gay celebrities that I didn't feel the need to write an article earlier this week, but you should feel the need to read his post as it's excellent.  I hate this sort of celebrity who wants to not just apologize, go on and try to explain that what they said was wrong and that they should have been more clear, but instead we get a further hole-digging from the straight and extraordinarily privileged actor and him trying to use Ellen Degeneres to vouch for him (I hate when straight celebrities do this-Jay Leno did the same thing with Wanda Sykes a few years back, and it makes me extraordinarily uncomfortable-it's the equivalent of saying "I have a black friend" to get out of the "I'm acting racist" argument).  Damon's gained huge star points throughout his career both for his marriage to wife Luciana and his relationships with famed actresses like Winona Ryder and Minnie Driver.  He can lecture all he wants about "hiding your sexuality," but he's never done that, and to expect gay people to do it when he hasn't is pretty much the definition of privileged hypocrisy.

-Speaking of actors I love who are having a bad week with feet-in-their-mouth, Meryl Streep said while promoting her new film Suffragette (where she plays legendary women's rights activist Emmeline Pankhurst) that she is not a feminist, and prefers to be called a humanist.  This is on the heels of actresses like Sarah Jessica Parker, Shailene Woodley, Susan Sarandon, and Marion Cotillard all stating that they don't consider themselves feminists.  On the opposite end of the spectrum this past week presidential candidate Hillary Clinton defended the term (and endorsed herself as a feminist) during an interview with Lena Dunham.  My problem with Streep's defense of humanism but not feminism is that, like Sec. Clinton said, feminism isn't about hating men or about not giving men rights, but it is about representing that women are the underrepresented gender and are disproportionately affected by discrimination, so why not empower them through the term.  Dismissing feminism in favor of humanism in many ways feels similar to people saying "All Lives Matter" when confronted with the "Black Lives Matter" movement.

In Politics...

-The New Yorker has a fascinating insight into Carly Fiorina, who has found herself battling Marco Rubio for third place in the polls.  The article is interesting not just for the comments about her tenure at HP (which I have written about quite at length here if you're interested), but also about how poorly she ran a campaign against Barbara Boxer and pulled out a lot of the comments about appearance and gender that Donald Trump has leveled at her (which she has taken offense to, but of course still utilized against her Democratic opponent).  I do want to point out that, since I do write about Ms. Fiorina frequently, it's not because I think she's a serious contender for the presidency (she's not-that's increasingly Marco Rubio, followed by Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, in that order), but it's because she's getting special treatment in the race due to her gender and I feel like that's setting back the cause for women in politics.  It's not something you're supposed to say, but it's true.  Fiorina's standings in the polls are there now because of her campaign, but she got to where she was because the GOP and the national media didn't like having a field with all men, and you can see that in the way they virtually ignore Democrats like Jim Webb in the Democratic field.  If Fiorina was either a major national celebrity like Trump (say if Ann Coulter had run for the presidency) or if she was an established member of the political community (Susana Martinez, Mary Fallin, Kelly Ayotte, or Nikki Haley all come to mind), I would consider this a legitimate reaction to her campaign, but she's a failed CEO and failed Senate candidate; the only thing that initially distinguished her was her gender.

-Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), on the other hand, demanded the media pay attention and it was partially the fault of the frontrunner Hillary Clinton (we forget in the wake of the email controversy, but let's recall that part of her problems stem from freezing out the media in the months following her announcement creating a vacuum that Sanders was happy to fill) that he came to the strong position he is in today.  The media has been all over themselves talking about how Sanders almost out-raised Clinton, but not all money is considered equal, and Politico has an in-depth look at how most party insiders in the early four primary states think that Sanders needs to nail down more high-profile donors in order to compete.  While I know this is anathema to the kinds of people whom Sanders has on his side, it's true.  My biggest problem with Sanders has long been not that I disagree with him on issues (I don't-I have never liked Bernie's odd "independent" status as he was clearly a Democrat trying to pretend to have "independence" and I think he's way too conservative on gun control but he's always been a solid senator and congressman for the left), but that his campaign is predicated on winning in a way unfamiliar to modern politics.  I have watched politics long enough to know that upsets are rare and that people who want to campaign and get "new voters" either don't succeed, end up having the same coalition as usual, or are Barack Obama.  And Bernie Sanders is not Barack Obama.  Sanders needs to show that he can win in traditional areas in order for me to take him seriously as a general election contender, even if his poll positions and fundraising have made me stand up straight on his primary chances.

-Every four years pundits will trot out this old adage, that the most important political issue that you're voting upon isn't climate change or the economy or national security, but instead the composition of the Supreme Court.  It never actually works, though, because it's impossible to tell when it will be true.  Most people would argue that had John McCain won in 2008 the Supreme Court would have been lost to a generation of Democrats, and they could be right but likely not, as both John Paul Stephens and David Souter retired of their own volition and are still living.  Though they may have resigned for health reasons it's safer to assume they did so because they wanted their seats to stay liberal; the same could be said for Sandra Day O'Connor.  Therefore elections like 2008 and 2012 didn't really mean much in court composition, and instead it was years like 1988 and 2004 that were the last elections where the court composition really mattered (where wins by Michael Dukakis or John Kerry would have meant that the likes of Clarence Thomas or John Roberts would have been replaced with much more liberal justices).  It's hard to know if 2016 will be similar to 2008 or 2004 in that regard, but with four justices in their eighties or set to be in their eighties in the next four years, statistics state pretty clearly that it could be a game-changer election for the Court.  If Scalia/Kennedy leave the bench under a President Clinton, it will have mattered.  If Ginsburg/Breyer leave the bench under a President Rubio, it will have mattered.  If anything else happens, it won't have mattered, but these are not odds you necessarily want to risk, particularly if you're a Democrat who is already down by one.

Shameless Self-Promotion of the Week...

-I didn't write an article about President Obama's conversation about gun control and the shocking need for gun control because I did it a few months ago and every word seems to hold true and will continue to hold true until we do something about it, so if you haven't read that piece I recommend that you do.  I will say, however, that I am sick and tired of liberals on Twitter lumping both sides together on this issue, because literally every time that there is a push for gun control legislation, it's always the Democrats carrying the torch, so get off your high-horse and stop saying both sides are equal on this issue, because they're not.  That sort of dismissive attitude is why we don't get anywhere on this issue, because if you're not going to help out Democrats (or, to be fair, the occasional Republican) who actually do something about gun control, what's the incentive (I can always tell someone's political IQ is low when they say that both sides are the same on an issue)?  When the Toomey-Manchin bill was in the Senate (the last real push for a gun control legislation) Democrats got 90% of their caucus to vote for the bill, the Republicans got 9%.  If that sounds like they're the same, then you're a moron.

YouTube Video of the Week...

-This is a few weeks old, and admittedly I kind of wish Colleen had just skipped Miranda in this one (but she knows where the views are).  Either way, Colleen Ballinger's performance of "Wildest Dreams" is better than Taylor Swift's:

Just One More...

-John Sutter, one of my favorite columnists on the internet, has a fascinating (if frequently terrifying) look at the world of climate change and the ways that we are impacting our planet.  After a recent survey where readers got to pick where Sutter would go with his next column, the audience skipped out on things like coal and instead went with beef production.  While it's long been talked about how we need to shift off of coal/oil production and into renewable forms of energy, the impact that the livestock industry, but particularly cows have on the earth is staggering, to the point where I have slowly but steadily worked beef out of my diet to the point where it's maybe only a once a month sort of treat.  How about you-have you taken the vegetarian (or at least no beef/lamb) plunge?  Share in the comments!

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Pope Francis, Kim Davis, and the Five Stages of Grief

So like a lot of people, I was a bit caught off-guard when it was declared Pope Francis, during his wildly hailed visit to the United States, where he addressed everyone from Congress to the President to Mark Wahlberg (insert side-eye emoji) also made time for Kim Davis.  Davis, who defied the Supreme Court and became the poster child for the Right in the wake of her denying four gay couples their marriage licenses, has become a lightning rod, hailed by Mike Huckabee and loathed by every liberal on Twitter.  As a result, this set off a firestorm of emotions in me, a gay Catholic who had been until that moment enamored with the Pope's visit.  I figured the best way to illustrate this was to dust off my Psych degree and mine Kubler-Ross for answers.

1. Denial

"No way-the woman that got out of prison after five days and looked like she'd been freed from a Chilean mine met the Holy Father?  Not possible-this is clearly a hoax.  I mean, she did release that fake photo of 100,000 people in Peru praying for her-no way this actually happened."

2. Anger

"Wait, it's real?!?  Are you kidding me?  The Pope skipped out on meeting governors, orphans, nuns, millions of Catholics from all across the country and instead met with this woman, whose idea of sanctity of marriage is divorcing enough guys to form a Nascar pit crew?!?  Seriously-this woman has been married enough times to make Kim Kardashian look chasteand isn't even a Catholic and she gets to sit down with the pontiff?  WTF (forgive me father, for I have sinned...)?

3. Bargaining

"Is that warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark in Rowan County and the Pope was trying to get the Ark of the Covenant, because that's the only thing that makes sense here.  Or maybe he got confused, is a closet hockey fan, and thought she was actually the former Pittsburgh Penguins hockey centre Kim C. Davis?"

4. Depression

"Seriously-I get that the Catholic Church will always be a little bit behind the times, but after years of Benedict it felt like we were turning a corner on the whole gay rights issue.  Gay priests are "who am I to judge?" and the Pope met with a transgender man-I'm not expecting to be skipping down the aisle at St. Patrick's any time soon, but at least a tacit ignorance toward the most heinous of gay-bashers seemed in order.  I guess that's not the case yet though, and we'll just have to keep waiting."

5. Acceptance

"At least he's still making the Republicans uncomfortable about climate change."

Bechdel Test: 30 Rock, Season 4

I cannot believe we haven't done one of these in so long, but I decided to trudge one of the most popular series we've ever done at the blog, which is the TV Bechdel Test, and what better way to do so than with Tina Fey's critically-acclaimed 30 Rock.  Though the series is off-the-air now, Fey has become sort of the poster-child for women-in-comedy, a producer/writer/actor who saw, say, the potential of Ellie Kemper and decided to build a show around her or continually has supported women like Hillary Clinton for president.  Her years on Saturday Night Live ushered in an era where the show has become dominated (pop culturally) by young female comedians ranging from Kristin Wiig to Kate McKinnon.  As a result, I was curious if her iconic Liz Lemon was able to pass the Bechdel Test.

I went with Season 4 principally because in the early days of the show, there was less focus on some of the characters' personal lives and the show was more confined to the workspace.  As a result, Liz (who does work in a male-dominated environment) rarely got out and was less likely to interact with other women aside from Jenna.  By Season 4, though, Cerie, Sue, and Jack's many female love interests had started to take up more of the timeline, and so I figured 30 Rock would have a fighting chance.  Take bets now on what our final score is, and let's dive in to see if Tina Fey's 30 Rock manages to get our second passing grade of this project.  Before we begin I will state that every episode of the show ended up passing the reverse Bechdel Test.

As a reminder, these are the criteria for passing the Bechdel Test:
1. The show needs to have two named, female characters.
2. The two characters need to talk to each other.
3. The conversation needs to last thirty seconds and be about something other than a man.  This thirty second rule is something that has been added specifically at the Many Rantings of John to ensure that a simple “hello”/”hello back” conversation doesn’t get a show an accidental pass.

Season 4 (#4.1)

While the opener of the season starts with a meta wink at the viewers (the name of the restaurant is Season 4), the episode is a FAIL for the test.  There are some female conversations, but none weren't about a man or were long enough.  Paula and Liz discuss having a threesome with Pete, and Jenna chastises Liz, but the conversation quickly turns to Jack.

Into the Crevasse (#4.2)

This is an interestingly gender-focused episode, as Liz's recent bestseller Dealbreakers has made all of the men in her life save Jack extremely angry at her for using their personal foibles as fodder for her book (particularly Tracy).  However, the episode does get a PASS as Jenna, still mad about a new cast member being hired, discusses her ridiculous sounding Icelandic vampire movie with Liz.

Stone Mountain (#4.3)

I always thought this one was a little bit cloying (anything involving Kenneth and his ridiculously murky past always seemed a bit stupid as it made the show more cartoonish than it was even attempting to be at this point during the run).  The episode is also a FAIL, as Liz heads to Stone Mountain with Jack and Jenna hangs out with her gay male pals in the meantime.

Audition Day (#4.4)

A considerably stronger episode, one where almost every character gets two seconds to shine (and we get the best of Brian Williams' multiple cameos on the series), we still don't get a hit on the Bechdel Test, as the only discussions between women are Jenna and Liz discussing Jenna's feud with Jayden. FAIL

The Problem Solvers (#4.5)

Another FAIL for the show.  The episode is good (gotta love Jenna/Tracy-themed episodes), but the only conversations between women are either Cerie and Liz chatting (but for too short of a time) or Jenna/Liz discussing how Jack is taking advantage of he and Liz's friendship.

Sun Tea (#4.6)

Am I the only person who watches this episode and secretly wants to pull Nate Corddry's gay hipster cop out of the screen and make him my husband?  No?  Crickets?  Anyway, this is another FAIL, as the only discussions between Liz and Jenna are surrounding the crushable Brian.

Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001 (#4.7)

I have a complicated relationship with this episode for two reasons.  One, I hate that Liz finally gets a chance at happiness and success in her career and totally blows it even though she's been fine before (remember when she went on that talk show and gave out relationship advice, and how she never gets stage fright in any other situation?), and the entire panicky performer line seemed like a convenient plot point to keep 30 Rock in Studio 6H rather than a new setting.  I also don't like the way that they treated Tracy's EGOT story as he just randomly gets them without at least a couple of episodes where Tracy has to compete with A-listers (considering the guest stars on the show you know they could have gotten a Machiavellian Tom Hanks or George Clooney to guest star as someone trying to beat Tracy at the Oscars).  Either way, Jenna and Liz discuss performance anxiety, so PASS.

Secret Santa (#4.8)

A slightly better episode, even if most predictable when Danny has to stunt his gorgeous singing voice to make sure Jenna feels better (this is the classic "rage stroke" episode).  The Bechdel Test is a FAIL though since the only conversation between women is Cerie, Nancy, and Liz, but they're all talking about Jack.

Klaus and Greta (#4.9)

Again, James Franco is also an A-lister who could have made a play for Tracy's Oscar.  Instead we got him in love with a random Japanese body pillow.  Still, though, this episode (the Liz parts, anyway, not the lovelorn Jack portion) is superbly funny, even if we FAIL once again (the only conversations between women are Jenna and Liz discussing James Franco).

Black Light Attack! (#4.10)

Jack is exposed once again as a hypocrite (a recurring theme as the series would continue), as Liz starts an affair with Danny, but this is a definite PASS since Liz and Jenna discuss Jenna's role on Gossip Girl as well as Liz's "Tom Selleck"

Winter Madness (#4.11)

For the first time in this writeup, we have not only a PASS, but a pass that doesn't involve Liz.  Jenna, Cerie, and Sue all discuss rooming together and talking behind each other's backs as the team heads to Boston.

Verna (#4.12)

I miss Jan Hooks.  The SNL veteran showed up as Jenna's mother Verna, a woman who somehow finds a way to work the phrase "jacuzzi water" into a business pitch.  This is actually the first case this season where the show PASSed the Bechdel Test during the cold open, with Liz and Jenna discussing Verna.  The rest of the episode is a series of Verna and Jenna talking about their relationship.

Anna Howard Shaw Day (#4.13)

It would have been nice if during the episode where Liz claims she didn't need a man and then suddenly she has to have one (hit one for feminism) that we at least would get a star on the Bechdel Test, but no dice: Liz's conversations with Jack and Avery centered around Jack and Jenna's stalker. FAIL

Future Husband (#4.14)

For an episode that is about Liz's alleged "future husband," this episode seems to be the Jack-and-Tracy show, with Don Geiss having died (amidst Rip Torn's scandal involving breaking into a bank) and Tracy trying to get a Tony. FAIL

Don Geiss, America and Hope (#4.15)

Avery is nowhere to be seen, and Liz and Jenna are on opposite plotlines here, so while Jack has a funny scene where he tries to pitch the idea of porn for women, there's no pass for the cast here. FAIL

Floyd (#4.16)

Jenna and Liz discuss a sex dream about Kenneth and Katelyn/Liz briefly discuss Katelyn's wedding, but not for long enough so another FAIL as we once again go four-in-a-row.

Lee Marvin vs. Derek Jeter (#4.17)

One of my all-time favorite episodes, we get the weird face-off between Nancy and Avery and the ways that they bring out a different side of Jack.  I particularly adore the Avery story, and Elizabeth Banks' wonderful comic timing during her phone call to Jack.  The episode also has Nancy and Liz discussing singles dating and Liz's poor attitude, so PASS.

Khonani (#4.18)

We get another PASS, with Cerie, Jenna, and Liz discussing Cerie's wedding shower, but easily the best part of the show was an NBC program having the chutzpah to make their parent company look like a fool during the whole Jay/Conan debacle.

Argus (#4.19)

I was never wild about Will Forte's character-I felt like he pulled Jenna, who was already off-kilter, into a cartoonish area that even she couldn't sell.  This episode introduces him, but since all of the discussions between Liz and Jenna are about Paul, this is a FAIL.

The Moms (#4.20)

Considering we bring on a half-dozen female guest stars, it's impossible that this would fail, and indeed Verna and Jenna discuss their relationship late in the half hour for a PASS.  Still, the best part of this episode is Liz and her mom and the flashback where Liz, eternally pining for Astronaut Mike Dexter, finds out that her mom could have married Buzz Aldrin.

Emanuelle Goes to Dinosaur Land (#4.21)

Once again we get a FAIL, as Liz and Cerie discuss Wesley, but that's the only female conversation in the episode.

I Do Do (#4.22)

We finish off, though, with a PASS as Nancy and Avery discuss Avery's career and pregnancy in their only scene together in the series.

Final Scorecard
Bechdel Test: 8/22 (36%)
Bechdel Grade: F

I have to say, I'm pretty disappointed in this.  Frequently I write about how rare passing the Bechdel Test is, but a show written by a woman, created by a woman, and starring a woman, one who has become famous for her stances in favor of more women in entertainment should be able to pass the Bechdel Test at least enough to get a passing grade, but it didn't.  As always, every episode passes from a male perspective, but somehow 30 Rock couldn't even get to half for the ladies.