Lady Gaga at Fenway Park

Yup, I was there. Here’s what things looked like as we awaited the start of the show:

Note the Prudential Center lit up in orange.

Here Lady Gaga is singing a song that involved setting the stage on fire:

Here are all the cell phones lit up in a communal ritual of adoration as she sings “Million Reasons”:

And here she is at the end wearing her oversize cowboy getup:

It turns out that we are the best fans in the world, and she couldn’t do it without us.

Some more observations:

  • I’m getting a bit old to stand up for two solid hours, even for Lady Gaga. On the other hand, 48 years ago I was pretty annoyed at having to sleep in the mud at Woodstock. So maybe it’s just me and not my age.
  • The crowd was, by my estimation, 104% white.
  • I have never seen fishnet stockings on men before. Maybe I need to get out more.
  • Having said that, I also saw lots of folks who looked like me, including the gray hair. The crowd was basically PG and the show was PG-13.
  • Lady Gaga is a good musician — she’s got a big voice, she dances well, she plays the piano and guitar. Her songs are high-grade pop. She also seems like a warm, pleasant person, in a show-biz sort of way. She had nice things to say about everyone in her family, including an aunt who died before she was born. She dedicated a song to a friend who died of cancer. I’d be disappointed if I found out she was a jerk backstage.
  • I had no emotional connection to anything that happened onstage. Everyone around me knew all the lyrics to all the songs — and, what was more important, the songs seemed to matter to them. They hugged each other; they sang along as they swayed in time to the music… Me, I found myself checking the score of the Red Sox game in the Bronx (Final: Boston 4, New York 1).
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What I didn’t like about “Manchester by the Sea”

While I’m being a film critic I’d like to say something belatedly about Manchester by the Sea.  I can’t quarrel with the acting or the direction.  I have my usual nits to pick about Boston accents and local goofs–what’s a convenience store doing selling beer at two in the morning?  But I left the movie feeling annoyed and frustrated, and it took me a while to figure out why.

The point of the movie, it seems to me, is that the Casey Affleck character doesn’t change, because he cannot change; he’s too deeply damaged.  So he ends the movie back where he started, more or less–living by himself, working at a menial job.  He doesn’t get back together with his wife; he basically gives away his nephew.  Fair enough, I suppose.  But that means that nothing happens in the movie.  Well, stuff happens, but it’s like real life–one damn thing after another, without form or meaning.  No one really changes; we all just end up in a different spot because time has passed.

I have pondered this a bit, because I do appreciate that the movie didn’t go in for a soft-edged Hollywood ending.  In that sort of ending, the responsibility of parenting his nephew would change Affleck, help him come to terms with his grief.  Meh.  But there could be perhaps a glimmer of hope for redemption.  Or, if not, it could be a tragedy.  Just not utter stasis.

Also, that scene in the convenience store really annoyed me.

“Arrival”, time paradoxes, and me

I was eager to see the movie Arrival because my novel Forbidden Sanctuary is also a first-contact story involving a linguist and a bunch of aliens.  There isn’t much overlap between the stories, though.  My aliens are pretty human-like — that’s the point of the novel, really.  Arrival‘s aliens are spectacularly, um, alien.  The plot involves Amy Adams desperately trying to understand what they’re saying before various bad things happen. And it’s really well done, up to the point where the movie springs its science-fictiony twist on us to tie things up, with the result that we’re desperately try to rethink everything we’ve seen as the movie rockets to its conclusion.

Spoiler coming.

I don’t think the twist works.  The idea is that, when Amy Adams finally has her breakthrough and understands the aliens’ language, her perception of time is altered at the same time, such that all time is a continuous now to her, instead of a linear progression from past to present to future.  (Or something like that.)  So that some events that we perceived as flashbacks were actually flash-forwards — except that they weren’t, not really, because they are all part of the eternal now.  (Or something like that.)  So she is able to use information from the sort-of future to solve the crisis happening in the sort-of now.  And over this is layered the personal story of the sort-of-future Amy Adams deciding to have a child, despite knowing that the even-more-future Amy Adams will see that child die, and her husband will leave her when she tells him what he’s done.

This is not the kind of complexity that a viewer can deal with while linearly watching a movie. I am OK with time paradoxes — I have read Jeffrey Carver novels, and I generally understand what is happening (that may be a bit of an exaggeration).   But even I couldn’t completely follow what was happening in real time while watching Arrival, and I wasn’t interested enough to re-watch the thing.

As a writer of science-fictiony novels, I am always worried about how much time I should spend in a novel explaining stuff — inventing some bogus theory about how the portal works in my Portal series, for example.  Or, perhaps more important, making sure that whatever bogus theory I have in my head about the portal is internally consistent, so that readers don’t get annoyed at plot developments that don’t quite make sense.  My sense is that readers will forgive a lot of minor inconsistencies if the story is interesting enough.  But I don’t want to piss them off.

I’m afraid that Arrival, for all its virtues, ended up pissing me off.

The best way to watch “Love Actually”

You guys don’t care about John Donne.  The first Facebook comment about my previous post was: “But what about Love Actually?”  Philistines.

Assuming that one has to watch “Love Actually” every year at this time, and most of us do, whether we want to or not, how does one survive the ordeal?  The answer, we have decided, is to fast-forward through the awful parts.  For example, none of this Liam Neeson and his stepson crap:

Skip the boring unfunny porn-star-stand-in scenes with Martin Freeman:

And most especially ax the dreary Laura Linney and her crazy brother subplot:

What you’re left with are the Hugh Grant scenes, which are pretty funny; the Colin Firth scenes, which are moderately funny; the Keira Knightley scenes (which aren’t funny but, you know, Keira Knightley); the Brit-goes-to-America scenes, which are stupid but kind of funny; and the Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson scenes — because, you know, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson.  Also the Rowan Atkinson scene, which is priceless.

This results in a tolerable movie that is less than 90 minutes long.

I still don’t know how to cope with my wife pointing out all the many unbelievable things that happen in the course of those 90 minutes: “Alan Rickman would never bring the necklace for his girlfriend home where Emma Thompson can find it.”  “The Prime Minister would never come through Heathrow arrivals with everyone else.”  “No school would have a Christmas play on Christmas Eve.”

I know all this.  It’s your idea to watch the thing.  Every year.  It doesn’t become more plausible with the passage of time.

Now I’ll shut up until next year.

Update: No, I won’t shut up.  Turns out that in my general befuddlement I forgot the best part of the movie: the Bill Nighy aging pop-star subplot.  You can actually skip everything else (except maybe Keira Knightley) and just watch that.  Here’s my favorite quote from Billy Mack:

Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!

And his final line to his manager on Christmas Eve: “Now let’s get pissed and watch porn.”

Always good advice!

Writers in the movies: “Trumbo”

One more in an apparently very occasional series.

Trumbo, of course, is the movie about Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter who wrote Roman HolidaySpartacus, and other major movies.  The film mostly focuses on his time on the blacklist, when he had to cobble together a living by writing scripts anonymously, with the screen credit going to fronts.

Bryan Cranston is fine as Trumbo, and I guess he deserved his Oscar nomination, but Trumbo struck me as being a very bland movie.  Trumbo is presented as a secular saint, with his opponents–Hedda Hopper, John Wayne–presented as purely evil.  The only flaw we see in Trumbo is when he gets cranky with his kids for not wanting to deliver some of his rewrites to a movie set–but he quickly repents and goes off to apologize to his daughter, who, like him, is devoted to the cause of justice for the downtrodden.  Couldn’t we at least have had a scene where he explains why he’s still a communist despite what was then known about Stalin?  Life and politics in the 1950s were more complex than this movie lets on.

If Trumbo soft-pedals its hero’s politics, it pretty much ignores his writing.  We see a scene from Roman Holiday and another from Spartacus, and we learn that Trumbo likes to write in the bathtub, but there’s virtually nothing about the craft itself.  Well, there is a scene where he and a blacklisted co-writer (played by Louis CK) discuss the plotting for a quickie called “The Alien and the Farmgirl”.  Why does the alien fall for the farmgirl?  Because he reminds him of his girl back home.  OK, then.

Too bad.  Trumbo seems like an interesting guy, and the blacklist is certainly an interesting subject.  They deserve a better movie.

Amy

I saw the Oscar-winning documentary Amy the other day.  It’s the harrowing story of the decline and fall of Amy Winehouse, who managed to put out one great album on her way to an early grave.  I liked the film, but there was about a half hour too much harrow for my taste. And, as a friend of mine said, “We’ve seen this story already, haven’t we?”

Of course we have.  And the story has been even more poignant.  Here is Amy Winehouse singing “Back to Black” live.

The song is pretty good, and her voice is great, but she isn’t much of a performer.  It’s kind of hard to tell that this is supposed to be a sad song.

Now let’s take a look at Janis Joplin singing “Summertime” in Sweden in July 1969.

This performance is not just great; it takes you to a whole other plane of existence.  Could anyone pour more of herself into a song than Janis Joplin?  She was dead 15 months later.

Who doesn’t like MORE busts of Roman emperors?

For some reason, one of my most popular post here was this one showing some busts of Roman emperors from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  I was at the Harvard Art Museums the other day, and guess what?  More busts!

Here’s the Emperor Tiberius:

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He’s not looking all that great, if you ask me.  The accompanying description says the bust was probably sculpted when he was in his early sixties.  Read Tom Holland’s book Dynasty for an interesting discussion of this tortured soul.

Here is Lucius Verus, who ruled for a while in the second century AD with his adoptive brother Marcus Aurelius.

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Note the beard, which became fashionable for emperors starting with Hadrian earlier in the century.

Finally, here’s a full statue (well, almost full) of the Emperor Trajan:

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The description in the Harvard catalog suggests that he was probably holding a spear in his left hand.

Trajan was one of the best of the Roman emperors.  Wikipedia says:

As an emperor, Trajan’s reputation has endured – he is one of the few rulers whose reputation has survived nineteen centuries. Every new emperor after him was honored by the Senate with the wish felicior Augusto, melior Traiano (that he be “luckier than Augustus and better than Trajan”). Among medieval Christian theologians, Trajan was considered a virtuous pagan. In the Renaissance, Machiavelli, speaking on the advantages of adoptive succession over heredity, mentioned the five successive good emperors “from Nerva to Marcus”[2] – a trope out of which the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon popularized the notion of the Five Good Emperors, of whom Trajan was the second.[3]

Once you’ve finished reading Dynasty, you should read the wonderful SPQR  by Mary Beard, for a fuller view of a thousand years of ancient Rome.