Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Dementia on the Silver Screen / The Beatles: A Bust? / That Wacko Senate

Dementia’s the Rage – We love movies. My readers may recall when Afghanistan was liberated from the Taliban in the aftermath of September 11, white sheets were immediately tacked up on walls in Kabul storefronts – the no-fun Taliban had banned movies – and the movie ‘theaters’ were packed soon after. [Guns, memorably, were checked and lined up along walls in ‘coat rooms.’] Watching movies is one of the most human of pleasures.

Mr. Gripes, like the vast majority of his readers, has seen all kinds of movies. I recall gritty Westerns, with the good guys and bad guys; film noir, in black and white grandeur, highlighted by clever, fedora-clad private eyes and vicious, malevolent criminals; or, how about the magnificent mobster films, like Scorcese’s ‘Casino’, and Coppola’s miraculous ‘Godfather I’ and ‘II’ – perfection both.

Of course, there have been clunkers and disasters: Mr. Gripes recalls in his incipient college years Swedish films were the flavor de jour. Having recently read – albeit not comprehending one sentence – philosophers Kierkegaard and Spinoza, et al, a bunch of us full-of-ourselves, know-it-all collegians one day decided to go down to Times Square [yep – Times Square] and see a ‘deep’ Ingmar Bergman film. He was in vogue at the time. Mr. Bergman must have been a deeply depressed figure, because his movies invariably took place in some unheated log cabin, situated in a dismally cold, remote corner of northern Europe, with about four feet of snow on the ground, a blizzard howling outside. The film’s black and white hues only enhanced the general bleak nature of the story.

And, talk, talk, talk was all the characters did. No action whatsoever, just interminable, indecipherable, lugubrious talk. Nothing could have been less appealing to maxed-out-on-testosterone nineteen-year-olds.

When we left the theatre after a couple of hours of agony, my friend Bob S. turned to me, and said, ‘What the f____ was that?’ My sentiments exactly: Mr. Gripes hasn’t seen one frame of a Bergman movie since.

I bring up that sad saga now, because there’s been a number of uni-themed movies coming out lately that leave Mr. Gripes thoroughly perplexed – we’ll call it the school of ‘dementia’ cinema: I have just one question: Why?

Why on earth would the great moguls, movers and creative geniuses in Hollywood make movies about Alzheimer’s? It makes no sense.

I’m not going to bore my readers with a recitation of the particulars of Alzheimer’s. Someone in your family has probably dealt with the disease already, and you may have been involved in the direct or indirect care of that family member. I certainly have: my father died of early onset of Alzheimer’s [probably due to brain damage initiated by an amateur boxing career of 165 fights, with no head gear, all before the age of 23] and my mother, still here at 103, has been in the final stages of the disease for 15 years. There’s nothing at all enlightening about observing progressive, inevitable brain deterioration. 

And, there’s nothing remotely cinematic, dramatic, and gripping – whatever adjective you choose – about Alzheimer’s. In reality, the disease meanders along slowly, and, one by one, the brain functions that make us human disappear.  For the immediate family, especially for the primary caregiver, as the disease progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to care for the afflicted person. [My father became more and more cantankerous, and he became almost impossible for my mother to handle.]

Before I go further, I confess I have not seen ‘Still Alice’, a recent movie about a middle-aged woman suddenly afflicted with Alzheimer’s; Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her portrayal.  I did see one such film a while back, though: ‘Iris,’ about the poet Iris Murdoch and her struggles with the Alzheimer’s disease. 

I will not see ‘Still Alice’ for one fundamental reason: whatever is put up there on the screen as the ‘story’ is not the truth. It can’t be. For one thing, these movies, as far as I can tell, always have a perfect supporting cast for the ‘patient’: perfect kids, perfect job [Ms. Moore, in fact, has a cushy job as tenured professor at Columbia University], and a wonderful, loving, sacrificial, and, let’s be honest, not-to-be-believed spouse. And, when does Alice come to grips with Alzheimer’s for the first time? Walking on the esplanade of the Columbia campus, one of the great repositories of Western knowledge, where – get it? -- human experience, memory and thought are treasured assets, precisely the attributes that the disease will slowly wrest from Alice. Oh, the irony -- about as subtle as a sledgehammer, eh?  The gilded Hollywood gloss of this film to heighten the cinematic experience of the viewer is inherently false and dishonest.  It’s a lie.

Movies generally are thematically built around redemption, hope, and, end, in a lot of cases, happily. Alzheimer’s disease is all about the erosion and eradication of the human spirit. Hollywood should stick with what it knows - Alzheimer’s is too sad and too tragic to be trifled with. 

The Beatles, Without Genuflection – A couple of months ago, sitting placidly in Madison Square Garden, between games of a college-basketball doubleheader, listening idly to music blasting throughout the arena, not paying particular attention to any of it, I suddenly sat straight up in my seat, transfixed. I was hearing, at a decibel level exquisitely cacophonous and raucous, ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ by the Beatles.

It was joyous…that gorgeous rock ‘n roll beat relentlessly washing over the whole arena. ‘…Standing There’ is, to Mr. Gripes, a perfect rock and roll song: no pretensions other than pure, pulsating, urgent, noisy, chaotic, juke-joint music. Hearing that song and that kind of music – this sounds ridiculous, I know – soothes the inevitably distressed soul of Mr. Gripes.

The song, written in 1963 at the beginning of the Beatles’ incredible run, was on the ‘B’ side of their biggest hit, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ another superb rock ‘n roll song. Both were inspired, according to Paul McCartney, by the real king of rock and roll, Buddy Holly. In fact, Mr. McCartney has said the first fifteen songs he and John Lennon wrote were all attempts to emulate Mr. Holly. The Beatles, when they had the mind to do it, could write peerless, undiluted rock.

Alas, Mr. Gripes – and he understands his opinion may be his alone – thinks the Beatles soon lost their way, and were ultimately a huge disappointment. They could have created a library of some of the best rock and roll ever; their instincts and talents were that superlative. It didn’t happen.

Sure, just glancing at the Beatles 1963-65 ‘book’ of music, I’m struck at the richness and power of most of the songs: ‘All My Loving’; ‘Any Time At All;’ ‘Ask Me Why’; ‘Back in the USSR’; ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’; ‘Eight Days A Week’; ‘I Call Your Name’, or ‘I’m Happy Just to Dance With You’. And there’s a lot more than these.

But, after the early years, the Beatles either got ‘cute’ or simply lost interest in rock and roll. One theory of mine is that John Lennon, certainly a complicated man to start with, got increasingly uncomfortable with the group process, and became estranged; his surely caustic displeasure led to the eventual evisceration of the group’s cohesion.

Drugs, especially psychedelics, certainly could have played a part in the dissolution of the Beatles’ collective genius, too. As well, fame and renown ‘killed’ the Beatles: everywhere they went people were telling them how cosmically ‘significant’ the group’s music had become; consequently, the Beatles may have begun to try too strenuously to create ‘important’ music. And, that’s a killer as far as creativity is concerned.

Just take a look at the Beatles songs composed after 1966-67: most of it, to this rock and roll purist, is rubbish, and, in fact, will not even be heard 25 years from now. Songs like: ‘Rocky Raccoon’; ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Streets’; ‘Strawberry Fields’; ‘Revolution’ [awful: compare it to the Rolling Stones’ rebel yell, ‘Street Fighting Man’]; ‘Octopus’s Garden’; ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’; ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, and, yep, even ‘Norwegian Wood’. Plenty of others, too: all throwaway tunes.

From the creators of ‘I Feel Fine’, we get, five years later, ‘I Am the Walrus.’ Dear readers, Mr. Gripes rests his case.

Iran: Are You Nuts, Senators? – At the conclusion of last month’s ‘Mr. Gripes’ column, I vowed, ‘No, no more Iran. I’ve beaten that tired horse half to death.’  A promise I can’t keep, I’m afraid.

You see, readers, Iran, Israel, nuclear negotiations, Obama, centrifuges, Netanyahu, the American Congress, 2016 Presidential politics, they’re all intertwined, with developments shifting all the time. Mr. Gripes has following foreign affairs closely since he was 15 years old, and the Iran-America-[Israel] nuclear talks going on currently are particularly convoluted and fascinating.

Take this for instance:  I open up the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago, and read that Israel has utilized agents to spy on the Iran-US negotiations in Zurich, amassing intelligence data successfully, and subsequently sharing that information with Republicans in the United States Senate. The Republicans then used the purloined information to formulate their opposition to the Obama Administration’s negotiations with the Iranians over a suspension of their nuclear program.

No longer am I generally astonished at anything I see in the morning papers, but when I read this, I almost fell off the living room sofa, freaking out a dozing cat. What?!? Are they nuts!?! Are Republicans so dead-set against Obama – ‘hate’ is not too strong a word -- and anything he tries to accomplish that they’d accept classified – and, yes, it’s classified, alright – intelligence from a foreign power, without permission from the executive branch, and use that information to sabotage negotiations concurrently going on between this country and a foreign enemy? From here, it sure as hell looks that way.

Accountability for one’s actions in this country no longer is a guiding tenet –that ceased to exist a long time ago.  But, if in fact our elected senators and representatives were held to the intent and letter of our sedition statutes, those Republican Senators who saw those intelligence reports would be branded ‘traitors.’ With information they have no right to possess, they’re interfering with the President of the United States from carrying out his international duties. As I sit here writing this piece, I’m still cannot get over the temerity of those senators.

Someone else about this issue has piqued my curiosity: why does a Senator from, say, Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma care so fervently about the State of Israel? [Or about any other country, for that matter.] Don’t get me wrong: of course Israel has a right to exist, but you can’t tell me that an elected representative from the middle of America can be so exorcised over another country. Politicians can talk, talk, talk publicly about ‘standing firm,’ but in the real world, [see: ‘House of Cards’, of which Bill Clinton said, ‘99% of that show is true.’] they could care less. They’re all about political edge, risk/award, advantage, and brass-knuckled combat; they’re too calculating, too ‘realpolitik,’ too cynical to quibble over ‘principles.’ 

So , let’s forget the hallowed ‘principles’ angle: there’s a more important element in all of this: Cold Cash. …Money…. Political Donors… Re-election. That’s the nub of it. My guess is that a ton of money from somewhere is pouring into the coffers of Republican Senators who support Netanyahu and are dead-set against this treaty. And, please, I’m not talking about a ‘Jewish conspiracy.’ All I’m saying is a lot of money must be gushing in the form of political contributions from some advocacy lobbying groups. I’d start looking into the contributions of that casino owner, Sheldon Adelson, in Las Vegas, and go from there. Big money will turn the heads of all politicians. We all know that.

Republicans, however, may have miscalculated, again, and shot themselves in their collective rear ends, again: a recent poll indicates that 59% of Americans favor negotiations with Iran.  It’s evident that most Americans, despite all the grandstanding and the bizarre, imbecilic behavior emanating from the United States Congress, comprehend that the consequences of failed negotiations will be, down the line, another American war in the Middle East. And, Americans most assuredly don’t want their sons and daughters dying in that godforsaken part of the world ever again. 

Jim Israel
Mr. Gripes                                                                           
April 6, 2015