Friday, January 12, 2018

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, by Michael Wolff

Michael Wolff’s book on the first year of the Trump presidency, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, reals like a gossip-laden tell-all book.  There are no notes, no documentation of sources or of people interviewed.  Wolff recounts conversations verbatim, but it’s often not clear how he came to possess verbatim records of conversations.  Was he present for some of them? Sometimes he was, but he never makes that clear.  Was he relying on second-hand accounts? It’s not clear.
In a book such as this one, which argues that the first year of Trump’s administration was a time of extreme disorganization and chaos in the White House, of alternating periods of disinterest and anger on the part of the President, which calls into question the president’s competency and even his sanity, there is a need for a firm base of credibility: of sources, interviews, and so on.  It’s likely, of course, Wolff would never have gotten many of his sources to talk to him on the record.  My sense is that although many of the individuals details in this book may be wrong, wholly or partially, its general outline of the first year is basically correct. 
Steve Bannon is clearly the source for much of the book.  He is quoted throughout, and his growing dissatisfaction with the direction of the Trump presidency, especially with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump Kushner (who together convinced the president to fire Bannon) motivated him to provide negative information to Wolff about the Trump Presidency.  Of course, deep shadows were already in evidence.
In Wolff’s telling, internecine rivalries, inexperience, jealousy, self-interest, and other factors led to chaos in the Trump White House.  Jared and Ivanka (whom Wolff labels as refers to jointly as Jarvanka) contend against Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon for the president’s ear and confidence.  Because, according to Wolff, no one in the Trump campaign expected him to win the election, no one prepared for the transition.  There had been little if any vetting of people who might be appointed to the cabinet or other offices.  Trump mainly thought in terms of appointing friends or people he liked or who liked him.  He never understood, or maybe cared about, the lies told by Michael Flynn that led to his dismissal.  Details, statistics, policy discussions bored him.  He was inconsistent and often uncontrolled in his public statements, whether they came in speeches or Twitter posts.  Wolff quotes at length a speech Trump gave to the CIA early in his presidency in which he departed from his prepared remarks: it is the most incredibly incoherent, wild, and irrational statement by any president I have ever read.
A book which calls into question the legitimacy of an American president ought to be better documented and should not contribute to the epidemic of fake news that has flooded the American consciousness.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

I’m a fan of Werner Herzog’s documentaries.  His skeptical voice and his fondness for striking and eccentric characters and interesting subjects has made such films as Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams memorable experiences.  Although documentaries are supposed to provide at least the illusion of objectivity, Herzog inserts himself forcefully into the films, mainly as the voiceover narrator who not only asks questions but who occasionally renders judgment (there’s a cruel and shocking moment in Grizzly Man that becomes, really, the center of the film).
I didn’t find Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016) to be one of his best efforts.  It is a series of ten commentaries on the Internet, its history, its applications, and future possibilities.  Not surprisingly, much of the interest comes from the people he interviews—scientists and engineers and others involved in various aspects of the Internet.  One interesting and chilling commentary comes from the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, who suggests that when a solar flare or some other cataclysmic event brings down the Internet, civilization will fall with it—too much of the world’s infrastructure inherently depends on it. Overall, the ten “reveries” are interesting but they don’t fit together into a more coherent picture.  Perhaps they’re not supposed to. They’re just reveries, small commentaries, and they leave the viewer somewhat puzzled and wanting more than they provide.
One segment focuses on a small town in West Virginia where the Internet and other electronic devices are banned within a ten-square mile area so that electronic signals won’t interfere with radio telescopes in the area.  Herzog shows scientists and others bonding together as they play Appalachian music.  He returns to this scene at the end of the film, his way of commenting on the changes the Internet has wrought, and also what we might return to when all is said and done.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone, by Richard Lloyd Parry

Richard Lloyd Parry’s account of the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan is difficult to read: not because the words and sentences are poorly written, but because the suffering they describe seems incredible.  He focuses on an elementary school in a small town named Okawa some 2 ½ miles from the coast.  Of the 108 students at the school, only 34 survived the March 11, 2011, tsunami that killed some 23,000 people.  Of 13 teachers and other personnel at the school, only three survived. Parry’s main interest is the personalities of the children who were lost, and of their families, especially of their mothers.  He focuses on a small number of parents who lost children and structures his narrative around their memories and experiences.  He also examines how they fared after the disaster.  Japanese cultural traditions and beliefs, especially the convention of ancestor worship, had a major impact on what parents did.  It was crucial to them that they find the bodies of their children and of other relatives so that they could be properly honored and buried.  One woman becomes so frustrated with the slow progress of efforts to find her missing daughter that she learns how to use excavation equipment to search for her daughter’s body, and the bodies of other children.  Other parents are unhappy at how the school failed to protect their children as the tsunami approached.  There was an escape route, to the top of a hill near the school, but teachers and others resisted taking the children there.  Instead, after much confusion, they marched the children towards a point of supposed safety that was, in fact, directly in the tsunami’s path.  These parents eventually join together in legal action against the school and the local school board.   Parry examines these horrible events from a number of angles—political, cultural religious, historical, and human.  But the book is at its strongest in its descriptions of the people involved, of the parents who lost their children.

It’s difficult to read about people deep in the throes of grief over the loss of children.  It’s difficult to read about the deaths of so many children, of so many people.  One feels like an intruder, a gruesome sort of voyeur to tragedy.  But with delicacy, respect, and sympathy in Ghosts of the Tsunami: Death and Life in Japan’s Disaster Zone (2017), Parry opens up and reveals the agony of the days and weeks that followed the March 11 tsunami.

Films I Recommend

Students in a class I taught recently asked me to recommend films I thought they should see.  The resulting list is below. Because of my background, it is weighted towards American films, a deficiency that I will remedy in coming years.  I am sure some films are missing that I would have included had I thought of them--please feel free to point them out.  My film preferences are no better than anyone else's. These are for the most part simply films that I've liked, admired, and enjoyed.


Name Director Date
12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen 2013
2001: A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick 1968
An American in Paris Vincente Minelli 1951
Annie Hall Woody Allen 1977
Apocalypse Now Francis Ford Coppola 1979
Arrival Denis Villeneuve 2016
Baby Doll Elia Kazan 1956
Badlands  Terrence Malick 1973
Bambi David Hand 1942
Barton Fink Coen Brothers 1991
The Big Lebowski Coen Brothers 1998
The Big Sleep Howard Hawks 1946
Blade Runner  Ridley Scott 1982
Blade Runner 2049 Denis Villeneuve 2017
Blow-Up Michelangelo Antonioni 1966
Blue Velvet David Lynch 1986
Breathless Jean-Luc Godard 1960
Cape Fear Martin Scorsese 1991
Casablanca Michael Curtiz 1942
Cast Away Robert Zemeckis 2000
Cheyenne Autumn John Ford 1964
China Town Roman Polanski 1974
Citizen Kane Orson Wells 1941
A Clockwork Orange  Stanley Kubrick 1971
Close Encounters of the Third Kind Steven Spielberg 1977
Contact Robert Zemeckis 1997
The Day the Earth Stood Still  Robert Wise 1951
Days of Heaven Terrence Malick 1978
Deliverance John Boorman 1972
The Departed Martin Scorsese 2006
Do the Right Thing Spike Lee 1989
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Stanley Kubrick 1964
Dr. Zhivago David Lean 1965
Easy Rider Dennis Hopper 1969
Edward Scissorhands Tim Burton 1990
E. T. the Extraterrestrial Steven Spielberg 1982
Eve's Bayou Kasi Lemmons 1997
A Face in the Crowd Elia Kazan 1957
Fargo Coen Brothers 1996
Fat City John Huston 1972
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off John Hughes 1986
Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis 1994
George Washington David Gordon Green 2000
The Godfather I and II  Francis Ford Coppola 1972, 1974
Gone with the Wind Victor Fleming, George Cukor 1939
Goodfellas Martin Scorsese 1990
The Graduate Mike Nichols 1967
The Grapes of Wrath  John Ford 1940
Hamlet Laurence Oliver 1948
Hannah and her Sisters Woody Allen 1986
High Noon Fred Zinneman 1952
Howard’s End James Ivory 1992
Howl’s Moving Castle Hayao Miyazaki 2004
Hugo Martin Scorsese 2011
The Hurt Locker Kathryn Bigelow 2008
In Cold Blood Richard Brooks 1967
Inside Llewelyn Davis Coen Brothers 2013
It’s a Wonderful Life Frank Capra 1946
Jezebel William Wyler 1938
JFK Oliver Stone 1991
Kiss Me Deadly Robert Aldrich 1955
Kubo and the Three Strings Travis Knight 2016
LA Confidential  Curtis Hanson 1997
Lawrence of Arabia  David Lean 1962
The Lion King Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff 1994
Lonely Are the Brave David Miller 1962
Lost in Translation Sofia Coppola 2003
Love and Death Woody Allen 1975
Manhattan Woody Allen 1979
Match Point Woody Allen 2005
Maltese Falcon  John Huston 1941
Melancholia Lars von Trier 2011
Moonlight Barry Jenkins 2016
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Frank Capra 1939
Munich Steven Spielberg 2005
Mud Jeff Nichols 2012
Nashville Robert Altman 1977
Night of the Hunter Charles Laughton 1955
No Country for Old Men Coen Brothers 2007
O Brother, Where Art Thou? Coen Brothers 2000
Oklahoma Fred Zinneman 1955
On the Waterfront Elia Kazan 1954
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Milos Forman 1975
Pan's Labyrinth Guillermo del Toro 2006
The Passenger Michelangelo Antonioni 1975
Pinky Elia Kazan 1949
Psycho Alfred Hitchcock 1960
Raising Arizona Coen Brothers 1987
Rear Window Alfred Hitchcock 1954
Room with a View James Ivory 1985
Schindler's List Steven Spielberg 1993
The Searchers John Ford 1956
Selma Ava DuVernay 2014
The Seventh Seal Ingmar Bergman 1957
Shane George Stevens 1953
The Shape of Water Guillermo del Toro 2017
Singing in the Rain Stanley Donan, Gene Kelly 1952
The Sixth Sense M. Night Shyamalan 1999
Spirited Away Hayao Miyazaki 2001
A Streetcar Named Desire Elia Kazan 1951
Sullivan's Travels Preston Sturges 1941
Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby Adam McKay 2006
Taxi Driver Martin Scorsese 1976
The Thin Man W. S. Van Dyke 1934
The Thin Red Line  Terrence Malick 1998
Throne of Blood Akira Kurosawa 1957
To Kill a Mockingbird Robert Mulligan 1962
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre John Huston 1948
Tree of Life Terrence Malick 2011
True Grit Coen Brothers 2010
Wayne's World Penelope Spheeris 1992
West Side Story Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise 1961
Winter's Bone Debra Granik 2010
Unbreakable M. Night Shyamalan 2000
Vertigo Alfred Hitchcock 1958
Wild River Elia Kazan 1960
Wild Strawberries Ingmar Bergman 1955
The Yearling Clarence Brown 1946
Zabriskie Point Michelangelo Antonioni 1970
Zelig Woody Allen 1983