Van in a can

I’ve been traveling for weeks, feels like months, which means insomnia, hotels and other rentals and invariably, movies on demand. Especially free ones, like romantic comedies I wouldn’t pay to see. The latest was The Five-Year Engagement, a harmless romcom from the Judd Apatow factory, starring Emily Blunt and Jason Segel. It had some laughs and a lot of baggage. (To Apatow et al: Preston Sturges remains the undisputed master of the screwball comedy; almost all of his films were under 90  minutes. Really. Anything longer starts to seem like painful self-indulgence, with countless scenes that in a better time would have been bloopers.)

And though Five-Year Engagement has the snarky anti-romantic edge that is the hallmark of the modern romcom (she won’t name the date, he has to endure exile in Michigan) it shares one of the genre’s tropes: music by Van Morrison. As my son, a student of movie cliches, once pointed out, “When they don’t know how to end the movie, they play Van Morrison.”

Nothing against Van; I grew up on his music, literally, going from garage band covers of Them’s “Gloria” to “Brown Eyed Girl” to “Street Choir”and beyond, and have mostly respect for his artistic output (though if I never heard him sing “Moondance” again I would die happy). But how he became the go-to guy for romantic slop is anyone’s guess. And Five Year Engagement upped the ante; instead of the usual VM uplift at the end (all the funnier since in real life Van is such a dour old Irishman) the movie is filled with his songs, mostly covered by other people.

My complaint with most musical cues in movies is that they are lazy, doing the work for the writer or director (“Oh, they’re playing Jimi, it must be the sixties”). How quickly that denudes music, turning even great songs (and “Into the Mystic” is arguably a great song) into aural wallpaper. I remember trying to teach a book about the making of Aretha Franklin’s great Atlantic album, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You; it was one of those creation stories fraught with misunderstandings and near misses (Aretha left Muscle Shoals in a huff after recording just one song and the record almost didn’t happen). Playing “Respect” for these kids they confessed they couldn’t hear what a game-changer the song was in the sixties, turning an obscure Otis Redding number into a feminist anthem.

“It’s what they always play in movies when they want to signal, ‘Here come the women!’” as one student said. Making musical cliches a kind of cultural ear wax, and I don’t mean vinyl.


Ask questions later

Now that 2012 is safely out the door, with many crying “And don’t let it hit you on the way out!” in its wake, I think we can agree that the shootings at Sandy Hook were the worst thing that happened in the US… probably in about ten years. It was one of those events that people could refer to obliquely (“What happened last week/month/year…”) without having to explain. Like 9.11 it shook a lot of Americans to the core, and even got people to ask questions they are not accustomed to asking.

CNN contributor Roland Martin got in trouble by suggesting that one of the parents of the kids shot at the Sandy Hook Elementary School should have an open casket funeral and show the world the child’s broken body. He evoked Emmet Till’s mother, who famously insisted on an open casket at her son’s funeral in 1955, to show the world what the brutality of southern racism looked like. But those images, hardly recognizable as a human being, galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.

With gun control, there is no South to travel to, of course. Newtown, Aurora, Stockton — as corny as it sounds, it might be your town next. And if the image of a seven-year-old shot ten times is not enough to stir national outrage, what could be worse? A shooting in a a nursery? An incubator? A hospital? A hospice? Not to write tomorrow’s headlines…

The Civil Rights Movement did not begin in Washington and to those wondering if Congress will take the lead on restricting weapons like the one used in Newtown I have to ask: Why would they? Unless their constituents are lighting up the switchboards and filling their inboxes with cries for assault rifle bans, what on earth would compel them to stick their hands in the flaming hornet’s nest of gun control legislation? Some of them actually want to keep their jobs. And after the fiscal cliff fiasco how much faith do you have in our legislature’s ability to do anything?

Perhaps seeing a million people in the Washington mall would be a start. Everyone bearing  a photo of a child — those at Newtown and all the kids, mostly of color who are shot everyday — each one punched full of holes. Sometimes having an open mind means looking into an open casket and having the strength not to look away.


Blue Becomes You

it’s all over ‘cept the shouting in Republican circles and I would love to be a fly on the wall for some of those internal debates in coming weeks. Amazingly, Tea Party faithful are already saying that Romney just wasn’t conservative enough for the country (“strictly conservative” having vanished with the Hula Hoop, if not the Etch-a-Sketch, over the months between the primaries and the general election) and standard bearers like Ryan and Rand Paul are being touted as the future of the GOP.

At the risk of being redundant, maybe Obama won because the coalition he put together four years ago was real after all. Sure, the belief some had in him then as a transitional, transcendent figure was tarnished over time — he seemed to spend a lot of the first term just fighting to stay in place. But looking at the faces at the rallies in the last weeks, and those at the victory celebration in Chicago last night, was a good reminder that the Dems are still the party of the young and the non-white — the party of the future, that is.

Our daughter, who was adopted in South America, voted for the first time yesterday, and while she sympathized with my efforts to elect Obama four years ago, the whole thing was a little abstract to her 14-year-old self. Now, with issues like women’s reproductive rights and climate change a little more pressing for this college sophomore, she was all over the returns. She texted us screen grabs or Romney’s Titanic party and Obama’s victory bash and the contrast was clear; one looked like her and her friends, the other looked like… the Lawrence Welk Show.

Oh, sorry. Lawrence Welk is dead. They just keep showing his old shows on television. Kind of like the GOP.

Run Nola Run

Today Mayor Bloomberg is taking a lot of flack for canceling the New York City Marathon, yesterday he was getting a lot of grief for not canceling. Sometimes it is all about timing, I guess; just as runners were arriving from as far away as Europe and Africa they discovered their reason for being here was gone. “If only he had made the call Wednesday,” was the common complaint.

The fact that Mike waited so long says more about his decision-making style — don’t say yes until I’ve finished talking — than the actual politics of the call. According to the Times, people inside City Hall had been urging him to call it off since the hurricane blew through but he was not to be persuaded. He knows what is right for the city, and sometimes — as in the matters of bike lanes and soda size — it is an admirable stance.

But here he called on none other than Rudy Giuliani for back-up and Rudy (who famously ran the marathon two months after 9.11) said stay the course. True, Rudy was filling a leadership void left by GWB in those days after the terrorist attacks and his stay-strong attitude was just the tonic a lot of New Yorkers wanted. And it was part of that “if we don’t the terrorists win” mentality of the day.

But in retrospect, Rudy was also the guy who insisted that it was safe to live and work downtown right away, when there was still pieces of buildings in the air, and the health problems of so many first responders and reconstructors since have called that decision into question. This was the guy who chose to run for president by just running in Florida. Maybe Mike needs to get a few more people on his speed dial at times like this.

Mayor Nagin did not have a party right after Katrina hit New Orleans, for instance; he waited at least six months. I recall the Big Brother like images of his face, hovering on billboards over the abandoned cars and shuttered buildings at the time of JazzFest. He still managed to get re-elected but NOLA was always a special kind of crazy. And even Bloomberg won’t try for a fourth time. He’ll retire to Bermuda perhaps.

Talk dirty to me

There must be some silver lining to this nasty storm which has befouled so much of the TriState area, and I mean more than the Stan-and-Ollie sight of President Obama and NJ Governor Christ Christie strolling the shores of the Atlantic together like old mates, the Walrus and the Carpenter.

The initial we-can-do-this vibe of downtown Manhattan has given way to a more fatigued sense of “Does no one see this is happening to us?” anger among many who find themselves, perhaps for the first time, truly powerless. Yesterday I sent a story (beating my deadline by a day) to the editor of well-regarded national magazine published downtown, assuming their offices were closed. To my surprise the editor wrote me back immediately — to say he had no power in the office of his apartment and I just happened to catch him charging his laptop at a friend’s house uptown…

This is New York’s Katrina moment, with Anderson Cooper trawling the streets of Hoboken as if it was the Ninth Ward, albeit with more hipsters. (Though really, is there anyone hipper than Fats Domino, whose house was destroyed when the levee broke in NOLA?) What can such a disaster, guaranteed to recur in the next year or two, get the well-educated young professionals of water-level NYC to do that they haven’t done before?

Talk about infrastructure and climate change, maybe. Three cheers for NY Governor Andrew Cuomo for leading the charge in the wake of the hurricane. “Part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality,” he said between visiting disaster sites Wednesday. “Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable… “There’s only so long you can say, ‘This is once in a lifetime, and it’s not going to happen again.’ ”

That the topic has gotten no mention in the presidential debates, and less and less in the media in general, is shameful. But political attention is paid when people demand it. For all those who decided that the topic was passe after Al Gore won an Oscar, think again. The dirt words are less filthy than what’s floating in the water of the playground where you toddler used to swing. Tweet about it. Start a flash mob after the next flash flood.