2021 – My Year In Media

It always drives me nuts that when the start of December rolls around (sometimes even earlier!) we begin to see “best of . . .” lists for that year. As if nothing interesting ever happens in December. So, to buck the trend, I wait until January to talk about stuff I found interesting in the year prior. With that said, here’s what most interested me about media – books, music, TV, and movies – last year. Not all of these are 2021 releases, keep in mind. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.

Books

In term of fiction, the only new-for-2021 book that really stuck with me was The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne (no relation, so far as I’m aware).

The story sprawls out across three separate timelines, each 1000 years apart (basically the far past, the present, and the distant future) and leans more heavily in to fantasy than sci-fi for me, but ultimately the label doesn’t matter. The stories playing out in the three eras tie together really well and there’s a lot of interesting ideas tossed around to chew on. Highly recommended.

In terms of endings, I have to give a shout out to Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, the comic/graphic novel that wrapped up its run in late 2020 (I didn’t get the sixth and final volume until January of last year).

The series never really reached the heights of the first volume again – the pages (three-and-a-half of them!) where Suzie sings “Fat Bottomed Girls” in a bar, with all the words covered over with exposition explaining how expensive it is to quote song lyrics in a comic – still leaves me rolling. It touched on a lot of interesting things along the way and was never less than interesting. The ending worked, too.

As for things I got caught up on in 2021, a lot of it was historical, not fiction. I’ve recently written about The Invention of Murder and how interesting it was. Another bit of history I really enjoyed digging into was  The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom by James R. Green.

It covers the tumultuous history of labor organization in the WV coal fields, generally referred to as the Mine Wars. Very in depth, with lots of necessary background context, but also very readable.

I’d also  recommend  The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson.

It’s probably the most tragic thing I read last year, given that it tracks how the initial enthusiasm for fighting Communism curdled into dictator-propping-up realpolitk cynicism. Oh well.

Oh, and I read an awful lot about the history of the beautiful game.

Music

2021 was a weird year, musically. Several of my favorite artists – Mogwai, Steven Wilson, St. Vincent, Resistor – released albums last year. All of them are good – I even like Wilson’s electro-pop driven The Future Bites better than most proggers – but none of them really grabbed me. Maybe they’ll grow on me in the future, but for now there wasn’t anything in 2021 really worth taking note of.

As a result, last year was more about getting caught up in some things I’d overlooked – in some cases for a long long time.

Speaking of Steven Wilson, my history with his old (and new again!) band Porcupine Tree is that I preferred the “newer” stuff, from Stupid Dream on, to the older material. The Sky Moves Sideways just feel tedious to me, for instance. But poking around Bandcamp (my happy hunting ground) I found a recent rerelease of the band’s 1996 album, Signify.

That album really hits a sweet spot between the spacier stuff and the tighter, song-driven rock stuff. I also love the recurring samples that mostly touch on religious themes (the guy on “Idiot Prayer” switching from his LSD trip being nearly rapturous to just repeating “please help” does it for me every time).

I’ve given some time over the years to reevaluating music that was popular while I was growing up in the 1980s. Part of that is due to getting into electronic music, including the synthpop of my youth. Part of it is just maturing as a listener to realize that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s crap (95% of it is, of course). So when I came across this article written by a professor who used pop culture to open discussions of how people felt during the Cold War I was inspired to go dive into some of the music, including the second Men At Work album, Cargo.

The singles are good and some of the deeper cuts are just as good. “No Sign of Yesterday,” which closes out side one is great. It’s fairly recognizable pop/new wave, but with just enough weirdness to distinguish it.

Finally, another pleasant discovery from Bandcamp was the album Prophecy by Solstice:

Solstice were part of the neo-prog scene of the early 1980s, but with definite folk and Celtic shadings. They only released one album back then, but have released a few more over the years, with Prophecy coming in 2013. It’s great melodic stuff. Wonderful find.

Television/Streaming

You don’t need me to tell you we’re living in the era of peak TV. There’s just so much good stuff out there that I couldn’t touch them all. So let’s focus on pleasant surprises  – things that I thought might be decent, but turned out to be really good.

The poster child for this approach is Landscapers.

On the one hand, it’s a true crime story of a married couple who murder the wife’s parents and bury them in the garden then go on the run for fifteen years. On the other, it’s a close study of a couple shut off in their own little world where reality only sometimes intrudes. It’s shot with a grab bag of styles related to classic cinema and includes a bravura scene where the police interrogation room is pulled apart to reveal a set while the scene resets. Brilliant? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t like anything else I saw last year.

I feel somewhat the same about Only Murders In the Building, in that I thought it might have potential, but didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did.

The Martin Short/Steve Martin pairing is as good as ever and Selena Gomez slipped into the mix very well. I’m not sure the actual mystery made much sense, or that I really cared about it, but given the light-hearted nature of things, who cares?

Staged, on the other hand, I was relieved was as good as it was.

I missed the first season in 2020, even though David Tennant and Michael Sheen doing comedy should have drawn me in. That season chronicled their involvement with rehearsals of a play that never actually happened (delayed by COVID and then collapsing). Shot via Zoom (or some similar platform), with their significant others playing themselves it managed to be funny and thoughtful at the same time. The second season, from last year, expands a bit as an American remake is in the works – one which isn’t going to use either one of them as stars (since, apparently, we don’t like them over here). It’s more meta and sillier, but equally good.

Finally, I’m giving a provisional shout out to Yellowjackets.

The first season hasn’t even finished as a write this and it may go way off the rails in coming years (it’s allegedly going to run for five seasons) but so far it’s been engrossing.

Movies

I can’t say much about movies in 2021 since I didn’t set foot in a movie theater all year (the pandemic and all). I watched a few 2021 releases on streaming services, but nothing that really wowed me. As a result, I think the “movie” that stuck with me most from the year was Get Back, Peter Jackson’s epic excavation of The Beatles. I already wrote about that here.

That’s it – on to the new year!

Weekly Read: The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled In Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Plus ca change
Plus c’est la meme chose
The more that things change
The more they stay the same
– Neal Peart, “Circumstances” from Hemispheres

Much has been written about how we’re living in an era obsessed with stories about crime. True crime podcasts and documentaries are everywhere. There’s something compelling about digging into an extended investigation of crimes and the people who commit them (the people against whom they’re committed usually get less attention). That’s true even for somebody who is knee deep in criminal law every workday. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of more than a few of these cases.

Along with the rise in true crime media has been concerns about what it says about society or how it may shape perceptions of crime. While those are legitimate things to worry about, if you get nothing else out of The Invention of Murder  it should be that our societal obsession with crime, and qualms about it, are nothing new.

Victorians didn’t actually invent murder, of course, but Judith Flanders presents some evidence that it wasn’t very prevalent before the 19th Century (or at least widely reported). What occurs in that period is a convergence of emerging mass media, organized police forces, and growing cities that created a kind of perfect storm of crime and reflection upon it.

For the most part, Flanders works through the century by covering the details of a specific case, then showing how it was discussed in the press and, eventually, popular entertainments (Charles Dickens shows up in these an awful lot). Along the way we see the shift from public to private executions – public ones could attract thousands of people. We also see that the public interest in the stories of murders – which are often different from the facts – became insatiable.

This format gets a little redundant at times, but it allows Flanders to show that whatever the details of any particular petty atrocity, the press and popular entertainment could always make it worse, more salacious, more interesting. These includes not just novels, but stage plays (lots of stage plays – copyright wasn’t much of a thing in that era) and even marionette shows. Famous murders became quick reference points for certain kinds of maliciousness. Cases crept into popular culture so much that famous killers lent their names to ships and racehorses.

That the facts of particular cases didn’t always match the public’s perception mirrors our world today. I was struck when Flanders described the mid-century panic over murder by poisoning, even though they were so uncommon as to be nearly non-existent. A better example of a moral panic it would be hard to find.

Other threads running through these cases would feel familiar to a 21st Century reader. The modern police force was formed in the early part of the century and, almost as quickly, the police were criticized not as protectors of the general public but as enforcers of social order. Almost immediately after the Metropolitan Police Force was organized in London one newspaper listed among the “Necessary Qualifications” to be a cop the ability “to perjure himself with a clear conscience,” which could lead to “speedy promotion.” Then there are the repeated instances where a murder defendant is othered in some way (as a Catholic or Jew or Eastern European – I think there was one where all three were used!), set apart from the wider society that was reading about them.

One of the ongoing dialogs in the press that Flanders recounts is the requisite navel gazing as to whether the press coverage and popular media fascination with murder actually leads to the commission of crime. Throw in “video games” or “social media” and you have the same dialog going on today. What’s interesting is where this leads – Jack the Ripper. Flanders doesn’t argue that Jack’s crimes were caused by the Victorian obsession with murder, but does suggest that it’s kind of the final step in that evolution. What Jack the Ripper became in the public imagination couldn’t have happened a century earlier. If you’ve read Alan Moore’s From Hell this is a kind of reverse of the theory that animates (so to speak) that book, that Jack’s crimes were actually the birth of the 20th Century and all the mayhem that would occur during it.The Invention of Murder isn’t a quick read. It’s fairly dense and comes with pages of notes and source citations in the back, so it’s a serious historical work. But it’s also really entertaining, if you have any interest in how societies process crime. Flanders brings just enough snark to proceedings the lighten things up here and there. Definitely recommended.

Weekly Watch: The Beatles: Get Back

I am not the biggest fan of The Beatles in the world. Sure, I have every album from Rubber Soul on, but if push came to shove and was forced to save my favorite albums from a fire or something I doubt they’d make the cut. Still, when it was announced that Peter Jackson had cobbled together a multi-part documentary from the infamous Let It Be sessions, I was excited. With a long Thanksgiving weekend, it only made sense to dive in whole hog (or turkey, as it were). I’m glad I did, but I can see where other folks might not be able to push through it all.

It’s a Lot

“Multi-part” doesn’t quite do justice to just how much there is to digest in TB:GB. Each of the three parts is feature-length in its own right and they clock in at almost eight hours altogether. There are reasons for that – there was nearly 50 hours of footage to work with (and three times the amount of audio). In addition, I’ve read that Jackson added some footage once Disney decided the Blu-Ray release wouldn’t have any bonus features and he didn’t want the footage to disappear back into a vault for another few decades. All fine and good, but is it worth it?

It depends on whether you one of two kinds of people – or a third kind with a foot in both camps. The first is diehard fans of The Beatles who will absolutely want to spend all the time picking up on the minutiae of proceedings. The second are people who are interested in the creative process and seeing how the musical sausage gets made. I’m in the third group – I’m most interested in the sausage making and like The Beatles enough to wade through all the music they make in the process (I’d watch a similar, but much more brief, doc on, say Taylor Swift, even though I don’t really like her stuff).

If you’re not in one of those groups, you’ve probably got a better way to spend eight hours. That’s partly because given the fly-on-the-wall approach of this you really have to pay attention to what’s going on. Occasionally there’s text on screen to transition between scenes, but there’s no narration, no talking heads to guide you through what’s going on. You either jump in with both feet or don’t, in other words.

George On an Island

The dynamics of the band as they work are the most fascinating part of TB:GB. For all their troubles at this point, Paul and John and still a unit and tend to drive things (Paul, in particular). They’re not really the songwriting team they once were, but they help shape each other’s material in any case. The other two, well, they’re kind of odd men out. Ringo copes with all this by being Ringo, the most laid back man on the planet. It’s not for nothing that initially at the movie studio in Twickenham he’s on a riser, up and apart from the other three, and then at Apple studios he’s behind a sound barrier with his drums. His ability to let the bullshit pass him by while doing his job really well definitely says something.

George, sadly, doesn’t have the same personality make up, or whatever, that allows Ringo to go along and get along. He seems to be having a serious crisis of confidence through most of the sessions. Early on he brings up Eric Clapton and admiringly talks of his work with Cream, clearly feeling insufficient as a player by comparison (almost anybody would, right?). Later on he has trouble generating enthusiasm from the others for some of his songs, including “All Things Must Pass,” which would wind up as the title track on his first solo album.

It may have ever been thus, but by the time these sessions start the various stresses of the band clearly leave George out on his own most of the time. Which leads to . . .

George Quits

As I said, I’m not the biggest fan, but I did know that Ringo quit for a bit during the making of The White Album. I had no idea George did the same during these sessions. I can’t say I blame him, but two things really stood out about that.

First, it happened without any of the kind of drama or hysterics you might expect. He did not fling his guitar down. He didn’t kick over an amp. He didn’t curse anybody out, yell, scream, or otherwise make an ass of himself. George simply announced that he was leaving and then did. If you were writing drama I don’t know that you’d have a character do it that way, but it almost hits harder for being so low key.

Second, what happens next is, dare I say it, very Spinal Tappish? In that classic mockumentary, lead guitarist and founding member Nigel Tufnel storms off stage and quits the band. Asked the next day about his leaving, co-founder David St. Hubbins downplays it, noting just how many people have been in the band over the years (all those hapless drummers!). When confronted that surely Nigel leaving is different, David eventually admits that he might feel different if he wasn’t sedated.

Part two of TB:GB begins with the band dealing with George’s absence and, at least initially, it’s no big deal. There’s no talk of the band being over. There’s no real talk, even, of stopping the sessions. Things are paused, somewhat, while George is talked back into the fold, but that’s about it. There’s talk of potential replacements, even! No wonder George walked out.

Sparks of Genius

One thing that really comes out of TB:GB is that, even for some of the most lauded songwriters of their generation, writing songs is hard work. There’s slog, there’s false starts, there’s struggle (as a recently departed genius wrote, “art isn’t easy”). As a creative person who often struggles with writing (and music making) it’s encouraging to see that even these guys have a hard time with it.

That said, there are some amazing moments where sparks of genius emerge from almost nothing. Most notably is the genesis of “Get Back” itself. A recurring theme of the Twickenham sessions is that John (with Yoko in tow) is almost always late, leaving the others to fart around waiting. On one of those mornings Paul is absent-mindedly strumming his bass when all of a sudden the opening riff of “Get Back” emerges. It takes hours of work (in documentary time) to actually get the final song out (at one point it takes a diversion into being a protest song about racism and xenophobia in the UK), but the nugget of it comes out of nowhere. It’s very cool to see those things happen.

The Life, Death, and Rebirth of the Live Show

The original plan for what became Let It Be was for the band to get together to write and rehearse new material (while being filmed for a documentary) which would be the basis for a new album and a live concert. The band hadn’t played live in a few years, so anticipation was high for that, at least outside the band. The band never seemed on board and one of the more amusing themes of TB:GB is how the live concert element continues to morph until it winds up with the famous concert on top of the Apple Corps building.

The plan that made the most sense was to build a set at the film studio and bring a live audience in, but nobody is really that interested in that (they’d done it before). One of the band’s handlers suggests doing the concert in an ancient amphitheater in Libya, but it would take a few more years for Pink Floyd to get there (basically). A sub idea of that was to bring the audience with them on cruise ships to that venue, which nobody in the band is up for. Apparently the only thing worse than being cooped up with their fellow Beatles would be being stuck on a boat with loads of fans. Given that various music cruises are a thing these days (or were, before COVID) I wonder what the artists involve really think of those.

What a Live Show!

Of course they did wind up putting on a show, on the roof of the Apple Corps building in downtown London. If I remember correctly, Paul actual floats this idea early on, but it’s waved away while they consider more traditional alternatives (Paul, in general, is the driving force to have all this wind up being something other than just an another album). We get all of it, which is both great and a little bit of a grind – they only do a few tracks and take multiple takes of most. That said, several of those takes are what make it onto Let It Be in the end, so it’s cool to get them in all their glory.

The dynamic of the band through the sessions really comes into sharp relief up on the roof. John and Paul come alive on stage and are having a blast. George is more subdued, like rocking out on a cold, windy rooftop isn’t the best idea. Ringo just does what he does, unflappable behind the drums.

A word here about the fifth Beatle for this show, keyboardist Billy Preston. He’d met the band way back in their Hamburg days and dropped in the sessions in London just to say “hi.” He wound up drafted in to playing electric piano and organ (and goofing around with a Stylophone!), fleshing out the band’s sound, dedicated as they were to doing it all live. It’s after he arrives that things really get more focused and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to suggest that he’s the real hero here.

Another word about the baddies of the piece – the cops who come to shut everything down. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered if Monty Python sketches were too hard on British cops and authority figures, exaggerating for comedic effect, this footage convinced me they weren’t. The cops couldn’t have been more wet blankets if they had been played by John Cleese and Graham Chapman. There’s even a pepper pot who complains on the street! Life imitating art (or vice versa) and all that.

It Just Ends

This is an odd thing to say about an eight-hour long documentary, but it really just ends, without wrapping up stuff very well. After the concert on the roof there’s some brief footage of folks listening back to the recordings the film rolls credits, over which some more footage of the last of the studio recording takes place. It’s an odd choice that, among other things, leaves us without a full take of “Let It Be.”

Beyond that, given that the film is about the creation of these songs, it’s odd not to have a post-script about the actual release of the album. Or about how they went back into the studio almost immediately to work on what became Abbey Road (several songs from that album pop up during these sessions). Or about how Phil Spector got a hold of Let It Be and glooped his production onto it. Or . . ..

I get it – you got to stop sometime and that’s when the footage ran out. Still, given that there’s a little “how we got here” prologue for the band’s history a similar epilogue would have made sense.

Get Back, Jo

As I said, if you’re a Beatles fan or interested in seeing music get made, from the ground up, this is well worth your time. Otherwise, probably not. I’m glad it’s here and I’m glad I had the time to work through it. I don’t think I’ll add the Blu-Ray to my collection, though.

Weekly Read & Watch: Eight Men Out

I’m not a baseball fan. I don’t hate it – life’s too short to get worked up about other peoples’ pastimes – but it doesn’t engage me. It might be odd, then, that one of my favorite movies is Eight Men Out, John Sayles’ exploration of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal, when a group of Chicago White Sox players threw the 1919 World Series.

Of course, what makes the movie work so well is that it isn’t really a baseball movie. It’s a movie about labor relations, in which the ballplayers are exploited at first by the club’s owner, Charles Comiskey, and then by unscrupulous gamblers who don’t even pay the players what they’re supposed to. I won’t say the baseball stuff is secondary (there’s a good deal of on-field action), but it’s definitely used in service to something other than your traditional sports movie narrative.

The film is based on a book of the same name by Eliot Asinof that was first published in 1963.

I only just got around to reading the book itself, which is an interesting contrast to the movie. They tell the same story, but there are some interesting differences that arise from Sayles really driving home the political point of view he’s coming from.

What the book does better than the film, since it has more time to cover the story, is provide more context to what happened in 1919. For one thing, while the movie presents the Black Sox scandal as almost sui generis – a huge breach of sporting life – it turns out the gambling-related scandals were pretty common in baseball at the time. Granted, they hadn’t gotten up to the level of the World Series, but in truth this was the straw that broke the camel’s back rather than a singular incident. Indeed, one of the earlier scandals involved the Sox’s opponents in the World Series – the Cincinnati Reds.

The book also provides more context for what is alleged to be the prime driver of the players’ interest in the fix – that Comiskey was a particularly miserly owner. The movie moves a couple of incidents (involving avoiding paying bonuses) from 1917 to 1919 to help drive this home. While the book argues that Comiskey was a tight wad, it also shows that the rest of the owners weren’t much better. In the days of the reserve clause, where free agency didn’t exist and players were forced to play for basically whatever wages the owners offered, it was easy to be a tightwad. There’s also attention given to contract terms that allowed players to be fired with 10-days notice for just about anything (including getting injured), but they had no similar right to walk away. It’s not as if your best player could fuck off to another team when their contract was up. More than that, given that the country was just coming out of World War I there was a rational (if not completely honest) basis for owners to worry more about money. Being a professional baseball player then wasn’t much better than being a professional women’s soccer player is these days, complete with the side hustles. The movie focusing on salaries makes that easier to convey in a dramatic narrative of just about two hours.

For all that context there’s one area where I wish the book would have provided a little bit more. Having read the book I’m still not sure where gambling fit into society at the time of the 1919 World Series. The gamblers involved in this story are all pretty sleazy characters with connections to organized crime, but gambling itself seemed to be much more open and notorious than it would be in later years. There’s a recurring motif of entertainer George M. Cohan being close to the fix (although not involved) due to gambling that makes it seem not quite illegal – but maybe not quite legal, either? I’d be interested to know what society thought of gambling back then as a way to help explain the reaction to the fix.

The book also dives deeper into the aftermath of the series and the eventual exposure of the fix. The movie keeps a tight point of view on the players, while the book follows the journalists and lawyers who probed the series and the gambling that surrounded it (Sayles compresses most of this into a jazz-fueled montage). In particular, I appreciated the details on how journalist Hugh Fullerton (played by Studs Terkel who, along with Sayles himself as Ring Lardner, act as kind of a Greek chorus throughout) was roundly vilified for daring to suggest that something wasn’t on the level. History proved him right, of course, but that might have been cold consolation.

As for the lawyers – well, if baseball came out of the entire scandal with a damaged reputation, my profession didn’t exactly cover itself in glory. Some of the more melodramatic parts of the movie – grand jury testimony being stolen, outbursts in the courtroom – weren’t added for dramatic effect, it seems. At the eventual criminal trial (where everyone, players and gamblers both, were acquitted) the players were represented by lawyers paid by Comiskey who were more interested in letting baseball (with its new, all powerful, commissioner) deal with the matter than the courts. But my favorite bit of lawyerdom in the movie is when Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge named the first baseball commissioner, takes the job for significantly more pay than being a judge – but keeps his seat on the bench, anyway.

Where the book and movie differ most importantly is when it comes to the genesis of the fix itself. In the book it’s clear that the fix began with the players, who reached out to gamblers about the possibility of fixing the series. The film is a bit more vague. The conversation where it’s first broached by Chick Gandil and gambler Sport Sullivan starts kind of in medias res, with no real indication of who made the first pitch (so to speak). I think it lets Sayles maintain his exploitation narrative without sullying the players too much.

Ultimately, though, it’s important to consider that the Sayles movie is a narrative work of fiction, not history, and the Asinof book is now nearly six decades old. As compiled by the Society for Baseball Research, more recent evidence has emerged that cast some doubts over the story told in Eight Men Out. In particular, maybe Comiskey wasn’t the miser he’s been portrayed as being, although that doesn’t much matter in the end. The book, to a lesser extent than the film, is telling this story from the players’ perspectives and whether their complaints with Comiskey were valid in a wider context doesn’t mean they still weren’t motivated by them.

None of this makes the any less engrossing or means it can’t get at broader truths about America and its economic life. There’s truthiness to it, if not absolute truth. Just means it’s history, which is ever changing upon further evaluation.

Weekly Watch: The Suicide Squad

Fair warning – I’ve never been much of a superhero comic book reader. I read other kinds of stories in that graphic novel format, but something about the endless nature of most superhero titles – they go on forever, double back upon themselves, have alternate versions – makes them impenetrable. Aside from a few Batman titles I read in college, thanks to my roommate, I’ve not really dug into them. Comic book movies, on the other hand, I’ve consumed quite a bit and enjoy. That’s largely due to my wife, who, shortly after we started dating, informed me I had to be up to date on the X-Men movies so we could see the new one the weekend it came out.

Which is to say that all I know of the Suicide Squad (as opposed to The Suicide Squad – the article is important, just like that university in Columbus) is what I’ve seen on screen. What I’ve seen so far isn’t that great.

The first movie (from all the way back in 2016), simply called Suicide Squad, was a mess, going down in flames financially and getting destroyed by critics. I didn’t think it was horrible, but it wasn’t that good. It did get the basic point across, though – the Suicide Squad are a collection of super villains who do special, super dangerous missions for the US government on the promise of getting their sentences cut. Makes sense as the basis for a story about a group of bad guys, right?

The Suicide Squad kind of picks up where Suicide Squad left off, but only enough to get by. There are a handful of carryover characters, but lots of new ones and a new creative team to bring it all to life. Or death, really, since there is an awful lot of blood and gore in this movie. It’s of the “so awful it’s funny” type – kind of like Sam Peckinpah as filtered through Monty Python – but it wears thin pretty fast.

Aside from the gore, there’s lots of crass humor. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – some of it works really well. There’s a discussion between Idris Elba’s Bloodsport and John Cena’s Peacemaker about a particular juvenile insult that spirals into the absurdity of it so far it’s funny. Likewise, when another character says he can only kill if he pictures the target as his mother, that becomes a callback that goes from funny, to not funny, to funny again through sheer repetition.

But there’s not enough of that to go around, particularly for a movie that’s over two hours long. There are other quibbles, too. There’s a kind of bait and switch that happens at the beginning that is apparently hilarious if you’re familiar with the Suicide Squad comics, but if you’re not doesn’t make a lot of sense. Harley Quinn, who’s the most interesting character here (the only one with her own movie to build on), seems like an afterthought, off on her own for most of the time. And while there are some stabs at character development here and there, they’re pretty weak (the motivation for Bloodsport to do all this is laughably badly done).

But where things really go wrong is when the Big Bad shows up. The Squad’s mission is to take out a Nazi-spawned research facility in a fictional South American country. Run by Peter Capaldi’s The Thinker (picture his The Thick of It character sprouting vacuum tubes from his head – at least he gets to keep the cursing!) it actually holds a deep dark secret that the US doesn’t want the world to know about. Fine – it’s not like there isn’t some basis for that in the real world.

But the Big Bad secret is . . . a giant alien starfish? That kills people and controls their bodies by slapping tiny versions of itself over its face? Maybe that works in the pages of a comic, but on the big(ish) screen, it looks ludicrous. It would be a low-level Dr. Who baddie, at best. As the existential threat in a movie it just doesn’t work.

I’d be willing to look past that (I think) if the way the movie ended made any sense for the characters involved. Remember, these are super villains – largely killers – who are so dangerous they’re expendable. Yet, when the oversized aquarium dweller toddles off to destroy this imaginary country and the boss (Viola Davis, who is probably the scariest of them all) calls them home – they all turn into big damned heroes! That’s right, a movie about super VILLAINS ends just the same way as one about super HEROES! What’s so frustrating is they could have reached the same end (a big CGI-fueled battle with lots of collateral damage) and dealt with the “aren’t we the baddies?” issue quite easily, but instead it’s just lazy writing to get to the big finale. The great promise of something like the Suicide Squad in general or The Suicide Squad specifically is that it’s a great chance to take the superhero story conventions and turn them on their heads. These characters aren’t self-sacrificing do-gooders, after all. They’re not out to uphold truth, justice, and the American way (well, the first two, at least). They’re killers, they’re criminals, they’re immoral (or at least amoral) psychopaths. So why fit them into the heroic straight jacket? Have the confidence of you convictions and make them the sleazeballs they’re supposed to be. That’d be more interesting, at least.

Weekly Read: One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America

I was born in 1973, so I kind of came into political puberty in the mid 1980s. As a result, the Religious Right has been a part of my political scene essentially my entire life. My impression of them then, and still today, is that they’re mostly culture warriors, fixated generally on the sexual behavior of others (to steal Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”). It seemed like a natural reaction to the “free love” of the 1960s and, so, I figured that’s where it’s all come from. I’ve also read some theories that the operatives of the Religious Right largely came out of losing side in the battle over segregation, as they searched for new wedge issues in the culture.

In One Nation Under God, historian Kevin Kruse argues differently. His thesis is right there in the subtitle: How Corporate America Invented Christian America. The Religious Right isn’t an organic outgrowth of grassroots fervor. Rather, it’s the result of some careful calculation of big business interests searching for foot soldiers in their fight against the regulative state. What’s funny is that while they got the movement, it just never delivered on the goal they really wanted it for.

In Kruse’s telling, the Religious Right got its start in the 1930s as business leaders sought to combat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. This was all prompted by the Great Depression. More directly, it was that Roosevelt dared to use the Federal government to try and lift the nation out of poverty, ushering in an expansion of power at a national level. It really was the birth of the modern regulatory state, which is something big business couldn’t deal with. But simply making their case – to the impoverished masses to whom some government regulation of the industry that drove the country into the ditch in the first place was a good thing – wasn’t really working.

Nor was it enough to fall back on paeans to the Founding Fathers and the American way which, to be fair up to that point, had involved a lot of lightly regulated capitalism. Again, it couldn’t really cut through the economic reality. That’s when religion appeared and alliance formed between politically minded preachers and leaders of industry to turn capitalism not just into the American way, but God’s way, too.

One of those preachers was Billy Graham. While not involved at the very start in the 1930s, he quickly became part of the new religion/business alliance. He was particularly important to bringing Eisenhower around on the whole idea, going to far as to write bits for some of Ike’s speeches (he’d do the same for Nixon later). The idea, floated somewhat when Graham died a few years ago, that he wasn’t part of the Religious Right as a political entity is, thus, complete bullshit. He wasn’t the only one, of course, but he was part of the cadre of religious leaders who turned the White House into a kind of religious bully pulpit.

As skeevy as the entire operation was, it does have a huge sense of irony about it, thanks to Eisenhower. He was the first President (and presidential candidate) to really embrace the idea of “ceremonial deism” and the canard that Christianity is the foundation of the Constitution. So, when he was in office and running things (and becoming the first President baptized while in office), the money men who put him there expected to finally be able to cash in on all their work and get the New Deal dismantled. Ike, however, balked, recognizing that dismantling popular New Deal programs would be political suicide, noting that the party that got rid of Social Security and unemployment insurance would shortly cease to exist. All that work and no reward!

Nevertheless, the movement these guys had birthed shuffled on into the culture war crusaders we know them as today (the first big fights were over school prayer). There is definitely a certain feel from the story Kruse is telling that the Frankenstein’s monster got loose and beyond its masters’ control, but one thing he doesn’t address is whether these guys were true believers in the first place. My natural cynical inclination makes me think they were doing whatever they thought was necessary to bolster the bottom line (co-opting eager religious leaders in the process), but I’m not beyond thinking they were getting high on their own holy supply, too.

“Ceremonial deism” – the idea that there’s no First Amendment issue with public officials invoking the name of God so long as it’s in a squishy non-sectarian (within limits) way – certainly has taken on a life of its own. As Kruse lays out, a lot of what we consider foundational parts of this – “In God We Trust” on money, “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance – are fairly recent inventions based on spurious readings of history pushed by these early crusaders. It didn’t take even a generation, though, for them to be evidence to prove the very “ceremonial deism” they were created to birth in the first place.

While Kruse makes a compelling case, I do have two beefs with how he does it. First, he refers to most of these captains of industry as “Christian Libertarians,” which doesn’t seem to fit to me. For all the things “libertarian” can mean it has to at least mean freedom from the state trying to dictate religious belief, which is essentially what these guys were (and are) pushing. I think “Theocratic Capitalists” would be a better fit. Secondly, with a couple of exceptions, Kruse doesn’t bother diving into how untethered from reality most of the arguments were that these folks made. He does discus it it somewhat in the epilogue and highlights an early example of how they selectively edited part of the Declaration of Independence (which has nothing to do with the law of this nation, by the way) to make it fit their agenda better. These folks are prototypical liars for Jesus but aren’t called on it enough.

Those small quibbles aside, Kruse has done important work here. In the modern world, where a little sleuthing can easily unmask the actual source of astroturfed “grassroots” political movements, we sometimes get lulled into thinking such campaigns are a fairly recent development. They’re not and it’s worth knowing the kind of long-term impacts they can have, even if they don’t meet their initial goal.

Weekly Watch: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

It’s unfair to judge a film by what you want it to be, particularly documentaries. Filmmakers are trying to do something specific and to say “I would have done it that way” doesn’t mean much as criticism. Taking the project at face value, however, and concluding that it doesn’t really work is more fair game. Those who made The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, to their credit, tried to do something other than the usual whodunit true-crime story. Unfortunately, that winds up pulling the series in so many different directions that it doesn’t really work as a whole.

The titular vanishing is that of Elisa Lam, a young Canadian woman who was on a solo vacation of the California coast. She checked into the infamous Hotel Cecil in Los Angeles – reputed to be haunted and the inspiration for the hotel in American Horror Story: Hotel and probably the Hotel Hyperion in Angel – and never left. A few days after she disappeared, her naked body was found in a water tank on the hotel’s roof (her clothes were in the tank, too). There was no sign of foul play.

That mystery would make a neat single episode, but to stretch it out to four, the filmmakers try to weave in a couple of other threads. The first is a survey of the Hotel Cecil itself and its place in the ecosystem of its Los Angeles neighborhood, the defining feature of which is Skid Row. Thousands of homeless people live on Skid Row, semi-permanently (one guy interviewed lived there for six years, IIRC), and the challenges of those who live there and how they might be helped could make an interesting documentary. It’s mostly used here for atmosphere, the home of the outcast existing next to the haunted hotel, so it doesn’t really amount to much. To their credit, there’s never any hint (from the filmmakers or police) that any of these homeless folks were the cause of Lam’s disappearance – there doesn’t appear to be a “round up the usual suspects” moment – so that’s something.

The other thread aside from the whodunit/what happened is the one that I thought would be the most interesting. Lam’s disappearance attracted a host of amateur sleuths, most working on YouTube and other social medial sites, who tried to figure out what happened to her. Perhaps not surprisingly, they lapse into baseless conspiracy theories and even publicly accuse a death metal singer of murdering Lam because, well, he writes songs about death and water (better round up the Marillion guys, too!) and stayed at the hotel. However, easy research shows that his stay at the hotel was a year before Lam’s disappearance and at the time she went missing he was in a Mexican recording studio working on an album.

All of that could have been teased out more, with an eye toward why these people all over the world felt compelled to investigate the case and then, as answers started to emerge, disregard them in favor of their already considered pet theory. It’s almost a paradigmatic case of apophenia, but the filmmakers aren’t really interested in going down that road. Whether that’s because the internet sleuths are the ones who take up most of the talking head time in the doc – and thus they’re not going to be probed to harshly – I can’t say. They still come off as, at best, people with too much time on their hands and, at worst, unhinged, so it’s hardly a flattering portrait.

So, ultimately, Vanishing isn’t a disappointment because of what it doesn’t do, but because of what it fails to do on its own terms. It’s a worth attempt at something a bit different – which should always be encouraged, even if the end result doesn’t live up to its promise.

Weekly Watch:Star Trek: Discovery (Season One)

I am not a religious man. Nevertheless, I am beginning to develop an abiding faith about something that might happen in the near future. I call it the “streaming singularity,” which is one of two things I hope will happen in the future. The first is that some of the new, myriad streaming services will go belly up and their content, or their brands, will get absorbed by a few, larger services. The second is that, after a while, content will migrate from service to service, so that things that are initially exclusive to, say Disney +, eventually wind up on Netflix, the way TV shows used to migrate to syndication.

Long story short – I’m really hesitant to sign up for new streaming services at this point, unless there’s something so compelling that I can’t pass it up. Which is why, last spring, I signed up for CBS All Access (soon to be Paramount +) for a free month so I could watch the end of the Champions League campaign. While I was at it, I dabbled in a few of their original series, blitzing through The Twilight Zone (not bad – uneven, as  you’d expect from an anthology series). As for the Star Trek universe, I watched the first episode of Lower Decks (not my thing) and the first two of Discovery, which, honestly, didn’t do much for me. I shut down the account before I had to pay for anything, then went on with my life.

Then, desperate for programming in a COVID world, CBS decided to show the first season of Discovery on real TV! Armed with my TiVo, I decided to give it a go again, to see how it all played out. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t actually pay for it, but it was entertaining enough to keep watching.

My big beef with Discovery – as with many modern properties that take place within established universes – is that I don’t really see why this story had to be told as a Trek story. I’ll admit that I’m not a fan of the JJ Abrams Trek reboot. To me they feel like more generic sci-fi action movies rather than “Trek” (in the same way that, to me, the Daniel Craig version of James Bond seems like a generic action hero, not 007 – your mileage may vary, of course). Discovery feels the same way. Aside from some of the labels used – Klingon, Federation, Vulcans, etc. – the story itself could be told just as well in a new universe built for its own purposes.

That story is solid, but not particularly Trekky. For one thing, for a show called Discovery, set largely on a ship of the same name, it’s disappointing that the overall plot is about a war. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of “boldly going where no one has gone before” in Discovery. Maybe that’s why my favorite episode was “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” in which a small away team goes to a strange planet, gets in trouble, and has to get themselves out of it. It services the overall war plot, but works perfectly well as a standalone episode and actually seems like Star Trek!

Most of the rest of the time, the show is so beholden to trying to fit into the Trek universe that it’s hamstrung (I understand that in season three the show catapults so far into the future it doesn’t have to worry about such things). Original series scoundrel Harvey Mudd shows up – twice! – for no other reason than to allow fans to point and say “that’s Harvey Mudd!” Really, what’s gained by making it that particular character instead a of a new, fresh, different one that could get fleshed out in different and interesting ways? Likewise, the Klingons are old school Trek, and while I didn’t mind the new look like some folks do, there’s an awful lot of assuming people know what Klingons are and what they do from other Trek products that they’re not really developed. An extended jaunt in the “mirror universe” (in which Spock has a beard!) is kind of fun but, again, feels like fan service.

Where the series strikes out differently is where it works best. The spore drive that allows instantaneous travel across the universe is pretty neat, but it’s doomed to failure (somehow) since it’s not in use in any other Trek product. The Kelpians, in particular Saru, are pretty interesting, too, and a nice addition to the Trek universe. But they could have been part of any universe, right?

I wanted to say one thing about the serial nature of modern streaming TV, too, because I think there, too, Discovery is kind of neither here nor there. The show is definitely of a piece with the modern streaming/cable predilection for serial storytelling. Nothing wrong with that, but at 15 episodes, it has more time and space to do some other things (most shows get 10 episodes per season, at most). I wish they had taken that time to throw in a couple of standalone episodes. Even in a tightly serialized show, a standalone ep or two can help change the pace a bit and provide a place for real character development to take place. Given how heavy most of the first season is, a couple of breaks would have been good.

I guess what I’m saying is that Discovery, at least in its first season, works best when it’s not trying to be what it is – a prequel to the original Star Trek that is trying to worm its way into that universe’s history and continuity. Unfortunately, that’s is reason for being, so there’s only so much of it the show can do, which is a shame. If Discovery had been a brand new show, in a brand new universe, telling its own story, I think I would have liked it better. As is, it’s not quite Trek enough for its own good, no matter how hard it tries.

Weekly Read: The Ball Is Round and The Age of Football

Does anyone really need to read more than 1500 pages about soccer? Or, in my case, listen to more than 63 hours of it? Probably not, but if you’re at all interested in the beautiful game beyond watching games, you could do worse. These two volumes – both written by journalist David Goldblatt – explore why the game developed as it has as well as the challenges facing it in the 21st century.

I should say, right at the top, that I’m going to call the game “soccer” throughout. As the history in these books points out, soccer is a derivation of “Association Football,” the actual name of the sport, and is a British phenomenon (in several quoted period sources the game is called “soccer”). It’s not just a heathen American thing – it’s a it’s-called-different-things-around-the-world thing.

The Ball Is Round is the more essential (and longer) of the two because it covers the history of the game, rather than the state of its current form (it was written about the time of the 2006 World Cup in Germany). And it starts with the beginning – surveying the games of ancient cultures to try, without real success, to find the ancestor to soccer.

As an aside, let me say that one thing both of these books have going for them is their scope. They deal with the game on a global level and while Europe (and South America, to a lesser extent) command the most attention, Africa, Asia, and the unholy alliance known as CONCACAF (North and Central American and the Caribbean) are examined pretty closely.

Getting back to the history of the game, more interesting than the nitty gritty origins of the sport and the codification of its rules (sorry, “laws” – soccer is serious business) is how the game spread around the globe. Given its origins in the UK and its spread while the British Empire was at its height, you’d think it was a simple question of imperial imposition, but it really wasn’t. Indeed, large countries with close ties to the British Empire have largely rejected soccer in favor of other pastimes, including the United States, Canada, India, and Australia. What really did it was the soft power of British industry and financing, the tendrils of which reached well beyond the formal boundaries of the Empire.

Thus, in lots of places, the game arrived with expat British workers and grew from there. It’s why so many big named clubs around the world actually have British origins, including Barcelona, AC Milan, and a host of South American clubs. Ever wonder why AC Milan’s big rivals are Inter? It’s because Internazionale was formed in response to the closed up Britishness of AC Milan!

Another interesting part of the development of the game is how tied it was to the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of more affluent working and middle classes (there’s an interesting intersection with the nascent labor movement, which was providing folks with more free time). This helps partially explain why Brazil, for example, has robust state championships based around big cities, in addition to a national league, as the big clubs grew up in cities, without a lot of development in the hinterlands.

Things get less compelling after the Second World War and the book focuses on what Goldblatt calls “industrial football.” That is, the rise of big money in the game, particularly with the increased profile of international competitions like the European Cup (now Champions League), the Copa Libertadores in South America, and, of course, the World Cup. The history is interesting, but Goldblatt slips into a style that is more a string of anecdotes than a compelling central thesis with supporting evidence. The result, as he checks in all over the globe, is a little numbing and overwhelming.

It also highlights some flaws in the book, such as some of the chapters that end with “you are there!” style descriptions of particular matches. Listening to the audiobook it was unclear whether these were taken from actual reports of the game, but it appears that they were Goldblatt’s creation. They’re fine, so far as they go, but it seems to me that writing about a soccer game is a little bit like Frank Zappa’s turn of phrase that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” – it just doesn’t capture the essence of what you’re writing about.

Speaking of the audiobook – the narrator of The Ball Is Round has some odd blind spots when it comes to pronunciation. My heart died a little bit every time he referred to Juventus as “Jewv” (as opposed to “Juve” – aka “you vey”). He gets some other Latin names wrong, too, just often enough for it to be an issue. Thankfully, Goldblatt himself narrates the sequel and it doesn’t have the same problem.

As for The Age of Football, it basically picks up where The Ball Is Round leaves off in terms of chronology – starting with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and ending with the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Rather than just updating the history, however, this book focuses more on how soccer is intertwined with other aspects of politics and economics around the world. As such, it suffers from the same checking of boxes as we go all around the world seeing the same pathologies play out over and over.

In that sense, The Age of Football is pretty depressing. It shows how the game is used by regimes, authoritarian and otherwise, for legitimacy and national unity. It shows how money had become the primary driver of the global game, with little regard for what that means in places that are left behind.

Goldblatt notes how, for example, interest in local African leagues has plummeted since the advent of satellite TV and smart phones, which allow people all over the continent to watch top leagues in Europe instead. What’s funny is that the same is true, somewhat, in the United States, where diehard fans of English or German teams don’t give Major League Soccer the time of day.

Amidst the gloomy underbelly of the modern game, there is the damned near universal nature of its allure. All those places I mentioned above where soccer didn’t take root initially are starting to come along. China, where the game’s never had much of an impact, is ramping things up. The World Cup is one of the few moments of unity the world gets, which is worth celebrating. And the game is, as they say, the beautiful one, whether it’s played in a gleaming stadium in front of a worldwide audience of billions or in a bare field in the middle of nowhere.

Weekly Read: Blue In Green

I have a weird relationship with jazz, in that I can appreciate it a lot more than I can love it. I can easily wrap my head around the awesome amount of talent it takes to improvise with any kind of skill, yet I mostly find myself left cold by a lot of that improvisation, too. It’s not just a jazz thing – a lot more of King Crimson’s improvs leave me wanting than strike me in any particular way, too.

I say all that because Blue In Green is very much “jazz” on the page, as much as any graphic novel can be. As it turns out, that’s not a happy coincidence. As this interview with writer Ram V and artist Anand RK explains, this book gave new meaning to the term “pantsing,” as Ram says:

It was literally us getting together each morning, going, “Okay, this is the previous page. I have looked at it. And now I think this is what the next page needs to be.” So every ensuing page is in reaction to whatever he drew on the previous page.

Later, Ram V makes clear that this was a one pass thing:

No, no, there was no going back to pages, because I mean, you can’t go back when you’re improvising in music either. So if you’re playing and you hit a sequence of notes, that’s it, it’s there and you can’t go back.

One the one hand, this is profoundly cool and a brave way to create a graphic novel. On the other hand, I think within that lies the reason I didn’t like it very much.

The story is of Erik, a sax player who has been relegated to teaching kids who want to know if they’ll be able to figure out when they’re great (it’s a fantastic opening scene). When he finds out his mother has died, Erik goes home for the funeral (although where home is happens to be . . . an issue). There he winds up getting sucked into a mystery about a strange, long dead player and how he relates to Erik’s late mother. Along the way, we get a fairly standard riff on the idea that to be great an artist has to sacrifice himself to some higher power, deal with the devil, etc. It ends fairly bluntly, but it’s earned, to be fair.

The best part of the book is the artwork. It’s very impressionistic and flows through different styles lyrically. That said, sometimes the art is a little too abstract and it becomes hard to figure out just who is doing what to whom at critical moments. Still, you could get a lot of enjoyment out of the book just by flipping through it and soaking in the images.

The writing is a different story. My previous experience with Ram was These Savage Shores, which used a lot of letters and journal entries to push things along. Here, almost everything is conveyed through Erik’s monologues and there is precious little dialog. It’s like a film where nobody talks to each other and  it’s all voice over. Eventually, it just got to be too much for me. It didn’t help that the monologue was overwritten in places.

I mentioned where Erik’s mother lived and this is where I think the whole improvisation thing caught up with Ram and his collaborators. I’m pretty sure Erik lives in New York City. When he goes to his mother’s funeral he gets on a plane (where he ponders the meaning of death), so she must live somewhere else, right? But the rest of the story takes place in NYC and Erik goes back to the house multiple times. On the one hand it’s not very important, but on the other it really niggled the back of my mind.

I’ve read a lot of praise for Blue In Green and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on “best of” lists as the year draws to a close. It makes me think of Kind of Blue, the Mile Davis album (“Blue In Green” is one of the tracks on that album) that’s generally regarded as the best jazz album ever. You know what? It does nothing for me. It’s all laid back and cool and whatever, but it leaves me cold. It’s just not my thing. Seems like Blue In Green is in the same boat.