Sunday, September 04, 2016

American Television Crime

I’ve been watching Netflix, specifically the first season of American Crime, and I have watched half of the episodes from the second season of Narcos, the saga of the brutal reign and eventual downfall of narco trafficker, Pablo Escobar.

I watched a horror/science fiction series, Stranger Things, a series created for Netflix, and on HBO I have just completed watching The Night Of.

That’s a lot of TV watching, made possible only by having a lot of time to myself. My wife won’t watch crime or horror, so as the old saying goes, somebody has to do it, and it might as well be me.

Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman and Lily Taylor of American Crime.

American Crime has the benefit of 12 episodes to tell its interlocking (yet not over-complicated) story, giving each of several stories enough time to unfold, and to showcase the abilities of an extremely talented cast. I began watching it because of actors Timothy Hutton and Felicity Huffman as divorced parents of a son and his wife murdered in a home invasion. As parents they have an image of the murdered couple which over the course of the show becomes unraveled when truth emerges. But it is made even more pertinent by the actions of the rest of the cast.

It is grim, but not oppressively so. Like all good stories, there are echoes of Shakespeare, especially in a modern-day equivalent of Romeo and Juliet. That is, if Romeo and Juliet were meth addicts.

John Turturro in The Night Of.

The Night Of matches the drama of American Crime, but also has the benefit of John Turturro. He plays a lead role along with an actor I am not familiar with, Riz Ahmed, a Brit playing a Pakistani-American.

Turturro’s character’s particular affliction is allergies, and specifically a bad case of eczema. If not exactly comic relief (unfortunately, I have been plagued at times by the same condition, and it is not funny), it’s at least original.

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar

Narcos is a series that may not be as appreciated by people who don’t like stories told in another language (Spanish), with English subtitles. Because of my hearing problems I routinely use closed captioning so it’s no problem to me, but it can be an impediment. Especially if you are like a family member I know, who can’t read fast enough to keep up with subtitles.

Escobar was like a feudal lord of another time, defending his realm with near absolute impunity. It was his ability to carry on his lucrative business of supplying cocaine. He also didn’t mind getting his hands dirty with killing, which adds that extra touch to his narcissistic personality. Besides Escobar, there are American DEA agents, trying to catch or kill Escobar, and are finding it extremely difficult in a land where Escobar has a king-like presence amongst loyal “subjects.” (Not to mention unlimited funds for bribery.)

Kid cast of Stranger Things.

A different kind of crime is Stranger Things, a mini-series that has gotten good reviews, including a surprise (for me) from The New Yorker. I watched Stranger Things, although I thought it was a bit of a slog getting through it.  I found it derivative, a mash-up of old Stephen King stories. Others have noticed the same thing, but apparently don’t see anything wrong with it.

Asif Ali, Rhys Darby, Brooke Dillman

I am also a hypocrite, depending on the ability of the show to carry off being derivative, Wrecked, a comedy which just completed its first season on TBS, is like Lost as seen in a funhouse mirror. It has a superb cast, including Rhys Darby (“Murray” of Flight of the Conchords), and the incredible Brooke Dillman. This is one show that my wife would actually watch with me. We are looking forward to more, promised for 2017.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The Trump philosophy: Baffle ’em with bullshit

I don’t believe anyone has ever won an election by claiming to be able to run a business; government and business are not the same thing. Sure, leadership skills apply, but the two things are 180 degrees apart.

Trump is the latest guy to claim that he can run the country because he can run a business. Even if running a business made one successful in government, it is not clear how well Trump runs his businesses. Several of them have gone into bankruptcy, but is that because they performed poorly or a strategy to cheat creditors? To run a country one can not be just a boss and order people to perform tasks. It is a whole different skill set, which involves a lot of politics and compromise with other politicians, and I believe compromise is a four-letter word to Trump.

Trump has steered around the subject by coming up with outrageous things that a president should do, build a wall, keep a whole group of people out of America, and on and on. An article on Trump by Michael Kinsley in the November 2015 issue of Vanity Fair pointed out “Trump is just the latest among a series of business types who think they should run the counry because they ran a company. Remember Ross Perot? This year there are two, the other being Carly Fiorina, who ran Hewlett-Packard — ran it into the ground. Business people are an odd category of citizen to look to as a populist deus ex machina. True, they usually have some practical business sense and experience, which is not worthless. But their lives are different from those of people who are hurting, and increasingly so. Trump’s business experience has been in real estate, professional celebrity, gambling casinos, and creative bankruptcy — not the kind of experience that is useful as president.”

Barry Blitt from Vanity Fair

Note that I said Trump has steered around the subject. He also steers around whether he is a true conservative. He just makes outrageous statements, and conspiracy theories he avers are aimed against him. I would call that chaff, the stuff they dump out of jet fighters to fool enemy radar. If Trump keeps claiming the system is rigged, that does not explain what he will do with the budget deficit. If he deflects comments on his shady business dealings with paranoid stories about reporters and news organizations, then how does that answer any questions of dealings with hostile nations? It doesn’t, but for some reason his followers love this sort of stuff, about which W.C. Fields presciently said: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with bullshit.”

Trump would not have been able to pull off his campaign so far had it not been for the absolute disarray of the Republican Party. They fielded the worst group of candidates I have seen since I started paying attention to such things in 1964, when the Republicans ran another group that failed to keep Barry Goldwater from the Republican disaster that year

Trump claims to be a conservative, or does he? I don’t remember if he has actually claimed that political philosophy. Frankly, since he can change opinions in the same speech, even within the same sentence, it is hard to know what his political philosophy is. In the article, “Trump Wrongs the Right” by Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru from the October 19, 2015 issue of the conservative National Review, they state: “Trump . . . makes a terrible champion for Republicans, and expecially for conservatives. By the standards we typically use to evaluate candidates — their records, their views, their popularity with the general public, their character — Trump should be dismissed out of hand. No . . . candidate [is] so obviously deficient in all of these respects.”

After more excoriating of Trump, his character and lack of conservative values, the authors unfortunately fail to read Trump’s future as a Republican candidate:

“Trump is unlikely to be the Republican nominee and will probably not be a serious threat to Republicans as a third-party candidate next year.” [Emphasis mine.]

In the same issue of National Review Rich Lowry showed up on Trump’s own radar and this was the result:

Monday, July 25, 2016

Trumpets of doom

What is a good name to call people who support — nay — worship Donald Trump? I like the term Trumpets…people who blow the horn for Trump, and for whom they are willing to become slavishly worshipful Trump pets.

Ho, ho! Clever, but the term will never find wide favor. Trumpets, despite their adoration for Trump, do not think of themselves as pets. They don’t think of themselves as being subservient to any politician, although they act ready to flop on the floor so Trump can rub their bellies.

Another thing Trumpets will never do is listen to anything negative about their master. I am guessing they would never open a copy of the July 25, 2016 issue of The New Yorker (a “failing magazine that no one reads” according to Trump) for “Trump’s Boswell Speaks,” an article by Jane Mayer. She tells the story of author Tony Schwartz and his experiences writing The Art of the Deal for Trump. Trump claims to have written that book, but Schwartz’s story contradicts that lie. Trump would never have had the patience, the time, or the skill to write his own book. Trump barely sat down for interviews with Schwartz. Trump has no attention span, said Schwartz. Schwartz came up with the idea of listening in on Trump’s business calls. Trump loved that idea, because he believes he is a genius, and he wants anyone within earshot to hear him.

If asked to write the book now, Schwartz says he would title it The Sociopath. Sociopath is a harsh word, but it fits in well with Trump’s various other personality disorders.

Trump is also a liar of huge (yuge in Trumpspeak) proportions. Schwartz confronted him about his lies. Trump just smirked and said, “You like that, don’t you?” In order to soften the image of a liar, Schwartz came up with the phrase “truthful hyperbole,” which is a contradiction in terms and which Schwartz now deplores. Trump loved it.

There is an awful lot to digest in the New Yorker article, because there are so many disagreeable things about Trump, personal and professional. There is even this shiver-inducing statement by Schwartz quoted in the article: “I put lipstick on a pig. I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is. I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”


When Gabriel blows his horn, it will be the final trumpeting call to doom.

I’ve been reading about Trump for years, ever since he started making his mark publicly well over 30 years ago. There is nothing about him I ever liked, from his smirking face, prissy-pouty lips to his staccato speaking style, his constant braggadocio, repellent personality, his comments about women or his all-around sense of royal privilege. But boy howdy, do some other folks love him! And as I have found out and said earlier, it does no good at all to publish negative information about him and try to get his fans’ attention.

When the Trumpets hear bad things they just link it to Trump’s assertion that the system is rigged. He speaks for those individuals who believe it’s the world against them, and them personally! For them Donald Trump, hallelujah…he understands them!

It there are Trumpets who may be listening, though, Tony Schwartz has a parting shot. The article ends with Schwartz’s personal experience with Trump. Trump called him when he found out he was talking to The New Yorker and chewed him out for disloyalty. “I don’t take it personally,” said Schwartz, “because the truth is he didn’t mean it personally. People are dispensable and disposable in Trump’s world.” If Trump is elected President, he warned, “the millions of people who voted for him and believe that he represents their interests will learn what anyone who deals closely with him already knows — that he couldn’t care less about them.”

Trumpets, take heed.

Friday, July 22, 2016

More examples of telling a personal story successfully

Writers are always told, “Write what you know,” and that is excellent advice. It is natural for us. Some writers do it better than others, and for those who are looking for examples of how to tell a personal story, I am presenting two that I think do it very well.

Eddie Hunter is a Georgia native, and has a gift for taking everyday incidents and turning them into something interesting. Funny, too.  Eddie is great at building this type of story, featuring his everyday life walking his dog, Willow, and the story of the neighbor with a Great Pyrenees dog is a fine example. It appeared in Eddie’s blog, Chicken Fat. (I just read in Eddie’s blog that he has reached 7,000 posts! Congratulations, Eddie!) I have made a couple of grammar edits to Eddie’s original.

A Great Pyrenees, but not the one in Eddie’s story.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Great Pyrenees Dog by Eddie Hunter
Months ago a new young man took up residence across the street. He drove a big Chevy truck and brought another old antique-looking truck that he put in the driveway. He took the bed off the old truck and painted everything a stark shiny white. Then he apparently lost his enthusiasm and just left a truck bed and other parts here and there on the driveway and in the yard. He also brought a big white Great Pyrenees dog.
As we passed each other in our trucks I would give him a nod or a wave (manly wave of course) and he always looked right through me.

I don't think he had a job and was not in the market for one. He would come and go every day in no certain time frame.

POOF! One day about two weeks ago he was no longer there. He and his newer truck vamoosed. The old antique truck and all its scattered parts are still there and so is the big Great Pyrenees dog.

When Willow and I go for a morning walk before daylight many mornings the big white beautiful dog, behind a chain-link fence, growls and barks like it would like to eat us alive. Before the young man left, the dog sometimes sat out front with the man and the women that normally live in the house. Every time they saw us they would hold the dog so he would not go galloping at us, chomping.

Last night at bedtime I carried Willow out the front door for a last nature call for the night and I saw the women sitting around talking and to her left was the big white Great Pyrenees dog looking straight at us. I studied the space between them and the dog and decided if he quickly decided to leap and go after us the women would not be able to grab him before he grabbed us.
Quietly, we crept back into our front door and through the house out the back door for Willow's last call.

Today, while backing out of the driveway and looking in my rear-view mirror I saw the big white dog sitting in the same place as last night, studying me.

Then I backed into the street and got a closer look: It was not the dog at all. it was a big white garbage bag full, that they were just too lazy to put in their garbage can. The same white garbage bag, I bet, scared us into retreating last night.


Bhob Stewart was a writer and reporter, and also worked on many projects including “Wacky Packs” for Topps Chewing Gum. He was working on ideas for those right up until he died at age 76. His story, “Trigger Finger,” of a trick shooting exhibition at his Texas high school in the early fifties is carefully detailed, and then at the very end, self-revelatory. It appeared in his now dormant, but still accessible blog, Potrzebie.

Bhob Stewart, 1937-2014
 Saturday, August 11, 2007

 Trigger Finger by Bhob Stewart

Three years ago I had a magazine assignment to do an interview with Rodney Dangerfield. It was one of his last interviews, only a few months before his death.

I asked him about the unusual and offbeat nightclub acts he appeared with during the 1940s and 1950s, before television drove hundreds of those clubs out of business. Dangerfield described a family vaudeville act known as The Shooting Mansfields: “The act consisted of the mother, the father and their two kids shooting things from the stage. Before the show, they'd be in the basement rehearsing--shooting their guns.”

Instantly, I recalled the sharpshooter and his wife who drove into the small East Texas town where I lived from 1952 to 1955. The day this couple arrived to give a performance at the school auditorium in 1954, the high school classrooms emptied as everyone packed into the auditorium to see what promised to be an exciting event. Actually, so little happened around there that any show would have been exciting.

The rifleman's wife arranged various objects and targets on the stage, and then he shot at them while standing in the aisle in the middle of the audience. For one segment of the show, he used a metal disc containing a circle of white ping-pong balls. The disc was mounted vertically on a stand about four-feet high. The wife held her hand flat against the disc with two of her fingers spread apart and a ping-pong ball in the space between. As he aimed his rifle and successfully smashed a ping-pong ball to smithereens, she rotated the disc to the next position, and he fired again. When only one ping-pong ball was left in the disc, he grinned and said, “So... is there anyone here who would like to take her place?” This brought a few chuckles, followed by gasps and guffaws when other students saw that I had volunteered.

I could see he was fascinated by the audience's reaction to my raised hand. He walked over and talked to me in a low voice, asking me a few questions. People in front began twisting around and looking back, trying to hear this conversation. Then he said, “Okay. Go on up there.” I stood up amid much laughing and hooting at the very notion anyone would be foolish enough to do this.

When I stepped onto the stage, the wife immediately began talking to me in a quiet voice, giving me instructions about what to do, where to stand, how to hold my hand flat, and so forth. While she was doing this, the rifleman was entertaining the audience with jokes at my expense.

I stood with my fingers stretched as far apart as possible. He got ready, took aim –- but then lowered his rifle and told another joke, getting bigger laughs each time he did this. My finger muscles tightened as the seconds ticked away. “Wider, wider,” whispered the wife.

The tension in my hand increased. I wondered if a sudden muscle spasm might cause my fingers to snap shut at the very moment he pulled the trigger. Finally, he aimed, and the room fell silent. He fired. The ping-pong ball shattered. I held up my hand, showing all fingers intact. The audience burst into wild applause with screaming and cheering. The wife smiled. The sharpshooter grinned. He shook my hand as I went back to my chair.

Later that week, I wrote about the experience for my weekly column in the mimeographed high school newspaper. To illustrate the column installment I drew a cartoon showing a large drill press-type hole through my hand -- just like the big cookie-cutter bullet holes in Al Capp's Fearless Fosdick.

Years passed. The incident faded into the back alleys of my brain as the decades flashed by. But about ten years ago I started thinking about that day in terms of the present. Between 1995 and 1999, there were a startling number of incidents where students brought guns into schools and began killing their classmates. Every few months, another news story. This prompted some schools to adopt what they called a “zero tolerance policy” – which meant they began to closely examine items they interpreted as weapons or drugs. One six-year-old was suspended because he gave a friend some lemon candy, and another kid was kicked out of school because his mother had placed a bread knife in his lunchbox. A little girl's Looney Tunes keychain was confiscated.

Recalling the sharpshooter, I wondered what schools in the 1990s would allow a stranger to ride into town and aim his rifle at students. But wait! Why would a school allow such even in the 1950s? Why didn't a teacher speak out and say, “Sir! Don't shoot at our students, please! Just shoot your wife, okay?” But no teacher stepped forward. Why?

As I thought about this, the answer suddenly became clear. Certain people must have been told in advance that no real bullets were in the rifle. With that realization, I immediately understood how the trick was accomplished.

The wife used her left hand to hold the disc steady. With her right hand hidden from view behind the disc, she was able to shatter a ping-pong ball at the precise moment the rifle fired a blank. I remembered she had positioned me so that I never got a glimpse at the rear of the disc. With the sound of the rifle echoing through the years, the final pieces of the memory puzzle fell into place.


More examples of telling a story:

"Two examples of the humorous essay"

"Three examples of telling a personal story successfully"