Thursday, December 25, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings Is No Bible Movie

Went to see Exodus: Gods and Kings Tuesday. This much I can tell you. Ridley Scott is no Bible thumper. He has created an aspiritual movie. The Ten Commandments is in no danger of being supplanted as the ritual annual viewing. 

Now, I’m not against taking liberties with back stories missing in the Bible. It’s what Jews call midrash. A modern example would be The Red Tent. The story of the rape of Dinah by Shechem was sparse, just a few sentences in Genesis, but Anita Diamant wove a fascinating book, recently made into a Lifetime channel movie, around it.

Scott, however, seems to have chosen to ignore Bible specifics included in the Exodus story and replace them with his own narrative. Perhaps that’s why, unlike Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments, which sought to authenticate its treatment by citing sources for its interpretation, Exodus: Gods and Kings provides no source base.

Thus Scott presents no public confrontation between Moses and pharaoh, no “let my people go” moment, no exhortation from God. Whereas the Moses of the Bible wielded a staff as an instrument of god, Scott presents a more militant Moses armed with a sword worthy of Excalibur for its ability to imply military leadership.

Moses used that sword to wage (unsuccessful) guerrilla warfare against the food supply of the Egyptian people, hoping to have them pressure pharaoh into letting the Hebrews go.

Did you know that unlike the Bible’s account of Moses instructing his brother Aaron to strike the Nile with his shepherd’s staff to turn its water into blood, Scott resorted to crazed crocodiles attacking fishermen to bloody the waters?

To Scott, God is more of a dialogist inside Moses’ head than a spiritual figure. His appearance as a young boy is an interesting rendition but there is no depth of anger or empathy for what His people, the Hebrews, have endured for 400 years. He makes no effort to convey to pharaoh and the Egyptians that it is by His power and will the plagues are wrought. Rather, God’s plagues seem to be His weapons in a competition with Moses to win the release of the Hebrews through economic calamities.

Bible movies based on stories of the Old Testament have not been religious treatises. The Old Testament can be rather racy at times, an aspect Hollywood has chosen to exploit in movies such as Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba. DeMille’s Ten Commandments fabricated sexual tension—Nephretiri sparring with Moses and Ramses, and to a lesser extent the four-way of Lilia, Joshua, Baka and Dathan—to move the story line along. There’s no such tension in Scott’s Exodus. It’s more of an Arnold Schwarzenegger epic complete with iconoclastic sword. 

The Bible has the commandments written by God. Scott has Moses chiseling them while the youthful manifestation of God brings him liquid refreshment in a cup.

As for the parting of the sea, let’s just say Scott did not employ 21st century computer graphics to improve upon DeMille’s fantastical scene.

One thing I will compliment Scott on is his dating of the events. He uses Jewish, not Christian, terminology. The action is said to occur in 1300 BCE—Before the Common Era. Not BC, Before Christ.

Ridley Scott’s movie is no bible story. Perhaps that was evident in the timing of its release. After all, why would a movie about the exodus from Egypt and the institution of the Passover holiday (oops, there’s another thing Scott chose to ignore) be released at Christmas time rather than in the spring, when Passover is celebrated?

Bottom line: For all its flaws, I’m glad I saw the movie. Gilda’s glad she didn’t.

P.S.: One more thing—I get upset when proper grammar is not used. Scott has Ramses saying to Moses, “This has nothing to do with you and I.” 

The object of the preposition “with” should be “you and me,” not “ you and I.” 

P.P.S.: Just back from a Christmas night screening of The Imitation Game, the biopic of Alan Turing’s unlocking the mystery of the Nazi Enigma code machine. Wow, what a picture!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Commuter Edition

I’ve been getting lots of compliments lately, mostly from women, about what a great and considerate husband I am. It’s all because Gilda broke her wrist last summer.

Her injury has long been healed but the practice of my driving her to and from work Monday through Wednesday during her healing and rehabilitation has continued well beyond her return to physical fitness. Our female, married, friends can’t believe I put myself out in my retirement by waking up at 6 am to drive her into Manhattan and return in the afternoon after her work day concludes. They wonder if their husbands would be so accommodating.

Truth be told, while I don’t relish the loss of sleep and the disruption of my afternoon, I have an ulterior motive for being her chauffeur—I like to eat well. Gilda is a fabulous cook who often was too tired to whip up a dinner for two after she drove herself home. But as a passenger, she pays me back by cooking up nightly feasts (as I write this blog at 5:30 pm she is in the kitchen preparing tonight’s repast). 

Two months ago I wrote about our listening to the BBC World or the Pulse music station, both on Sirius Radio. Often on my way home after dropping Gilda off in the morning or when driving to pick her up in the evening I listen to Pandora, mostly folk and folk rock, music I sing along with that brings back memories of the decades when I was a teenager through my thirties. 

I was never into heavy metal, punk rock or anything that I considered “noise.” When I went off to Syracuse University for my master’s degree, my sister gave me the following LP albums:
Stonehenge by Richie Havens;
Tapestry by Carole King;
Days of Future Passed by The Moody Blues;
Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens;
Ladies of the Canyon by Joni Mitchell;
Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits by Bob Dylan.

That last album contained a Milton Glaser psychedelic poster portrait of Dylan. Gilda had the album, as well. We hung one of the posters in Dan’s room when he was young, its whereabouts now unknown to us. Also unknown to us, Ellie loved that portrait. Last year Donny wanted to give her a framed copy of the poster. He was ready to spend several hundred dollars when I told him we had another copy in the attic. The framed poster has become a cherished addition to their bedroom. (And no, I didn’t charge him for the poster.)

Back to the commute: Each way the trip generally takes 45 to 60 minutes. We avoid most of the morning traffic by leaving White Plains around 6:45. The first bottleneck usually presents itself at the Bronx border, around Van Cortlandt Park, near an area under construction. It’s always amusing, and somewhat dispiriting, to read an electronic sign alongside the roadway telling motorists “Your speed is 4 mph.”  

Crossing the Fordham Road Bridge can be a pain, but the most exasperating part of the journey centers on the double-parked trucks along Fifth Avenue above 125th Street that shunt two lanes of traffic into one.

Below Marcus Garvey Park, it’s an open road until we get to Mount Sinai Hospital. I’m amazed the hospital doesn’t flex its muscle and demand better traffic control at its doorstep. From 102nd Street to 98th, even ambulances with blaring sirens have a hard time penetrating trucks and taxis that are double-parked. It’s the same obstacle course later in the day when I return. 

Here are a couple of things I wonder about:

Having spent the last two days driving in fog and rain, barely seeing the white lane markers, I wonder if there is an inexpensive way to paint fluorescent lane markers on our streets and highways;

I wonder if there is some secret international diplomacy afoot behind the drop in gasoline prices. I wonder if the United States has not struck a deal with Saudi Arabia to let the barrel price of oil float to its market level. Many analysts opined the Saudis did not back an OPEC cutoff of supply as a means of hurting Iran and Venezuela that don’t have the financial resources to withstand lower oil prices the way the Saudis do. 

My guess is the real target is Russia, part of the Obama administration’s overall plan to fiscally squeeze Moscow because of its actions in Ukraine and Crimea. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Hooray for ISIS! It's Not What You Think

Lets go ISIS! Before you get all worked up and think I’ve gone over to the dark side, let me assure you I am not advocating for Islamic terrorists. Rather, I am rooting for my latest stock acquisition, Isis Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ISIS).

I was dumbstruck when my broker called four weeks ago suggesting Isis for my portfolio. Who knew there was a drugmaker unfortunate enough to share a name with a most vile organization whose idea of pain relief is to lop off one’s head? Anyway, I trust Annette to do the right thing so I approved the purchase at $49.74 a share. When she called Friday to secure approval for an additional purchase, Isis shares had already jumped to $65.09. 

You can talk to your own financial advisor about Isis, but make sure you note you’re inquiring about the pharmaceutical company, not the Islamic State. 

Gilda and I saw the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything last week. Extraordinary performance as Hawking by Eddie Redmayne, but more to the point, how can one not feel inconsequential after seeing Hawking overcome adversity that easily would defeat even the most resilient and strong? Hard to say, “I can’t” after observing his travails and his success.

Speaking of movies, and overcoming troubles, Exodus; Gods and Kings is on my must see list, not because it received great reviews (it didn’t) but rather to see how Hollywood messed with a good (not great) picture, 1956’s The Ten Commandments. As filmdom again has discovered with the less than fanciful new Annie, remakes most often are not worth the updated time and effort (though, to be truthful, the Cecil B. DeMille-Charlton Heston-Yul Brynner Ten Commandments was a talkie version of the director’s 1923 silent screen epic). 

I’ve previously acknowledged my devotion to Davy Crockett so I was thrilled to see Turner Classic Movies, in a deal with Disney, will be airing tonight the Fess Parker Disneyfication of his life. But it will be important to remember some Davy Crockett truths, as reported here some three and a half years ago:

According to a biography by Chris Wallis, Crockett was an illegal immigrant to Texas who wound up at the Alamo not by choice but through assignment by those fomenting rebellion against Mexico, the rightful owner of Texas. 

Though Parker’s portrayed Crockett as humble, Wallis noted he was not above self-promotion, even attending a play about his exploits. 

Crockett was sympathetic to Native Americans, but apparently not to the plight of Afro-Americans. He served two terms in the U.S. Congress, only to be swept out of office after he broke with President Andrew Jackson for the latter’s treatment of the Cherokee Nation and their forced removal from Tennessee land granted them by treaty. 

Crockett went to Mexico-owned Texas to help American settlers who wanted to build plantations worked by slaves. Only trouble is, Mexico did not permit slavery. At age 49, Crockett died at the Alamo in San Antonio. He did not choose to go to the Alamo. He had joined the local militia and had been assigned to defend the mission. 

Sticking to the entertainment theme, the literary world and by extension the film and TV industries are lucky the Internet wasn’t around 150 or 100 or even 50 years ago. Otherwise, we might not have the spy novels of John LeCarre who demonized the Russian KGB. Or we wouldn’t have Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 spoof of Hitler, The Great Dictator. Or the 1939 Warner Bros. flick, Confessions of a Nazi Spy

Those books and movies, and many, many more would not have been produced and distributed if executives followed Sony’s example of acquiescence to North Korea’s demand to shelve The Interview, a farce about an assassination plot against the country’s leader. 

Yes, Sony has been damaged by North Korea’s violation of Sony’s Internet integrity. But giving in to North Korea damages our collective freedom. What is to stop Pakistan, upset by its Homeland portrayal as being complicit with Taliban attacks, from issuing a similar demand to Showtime and its cable partners? 

And where do the threats end? Can North Korea effectively blacklist The Interview stars Seth Rogen and James Franco from any other movie project, for any other studio? With so many action films and video games depicting Muslims as the enemy, could Arab states threaten retaliation, economic if not physical?

North Korea threatened a violent response to any airing of The Interview. But if we have learned anything from 9-11 and its aftermath, it is that our best response to such threats is to go about our normal business and way of life. Be cautious, but do not cower. Stay away from the movie theater, if you so choose, but that choice should be made by everyone individually, not collectively on our behalf by a corporation. 

American policy has been not to negotiate with terrorists, with hostage takers. North Korea took all of our minds and freedom hostage, and for now, has won.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Tales Worth Retelling

In an interview with People magazine, the nation’s First Couple related their personal experiences with racism. 

“There’s no black male my age, who’s a professional, who hasn’t come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn’t hand them their car keys,” President Barack Obama told People. The magazine reported he said “it had happened to him.”

A car key handoff of a different kind happened to one of my magazine’s salesmen, Mike B., in Detroit more than 30 years ago. Arriving late for an appointment in downtown Detroit, Mike hastily handed his rental car keys to a garage attendant. Only the person wasn’t a garage attendant, a fact Mike discovered when he returned to the garage. 

It took the police less than an hour to locate the now stripped-to-the-bones stolen rental car. Aside from his dignity, that’s not all Mike lost that day. Seems Mike had a quirky habit of stashing his wallet under his car seat, no doubt a bonanza the car thief and his cohorts had not anticipated finding. 

The People article also included Michelle Obama’s story of shopping in Target while first lady. “The only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf. Because she didn’t see me as the first lady, she saw me as someone who could help her.”

Mrs. Obama sees that as an example of racism, an illustration of a (presumably white) woman assuming a black woman is an employee and asking her for help. Perhaps. But I’m more inclined to believe the customer looked to her as a taller,  bigger woman who could more easily reach the product she wanted to buy. While shopping in a supermarket or discount store I am often asked by women to reach merchandise on higher shelves. And since I’m generally dressed neatly, they many times presume I’m a store manager. I’m also wondering if Michelle was wearing a red polo short that day, the standard apparel worn by Target associates. 

On the other hand, I agree with Mrs. Obama’s other examples of racism encountered by her husband. “He was wearing a tuxedo at a black-tie dinner, and somebody asked him to get coffee,” she recounted, while noting that before becoming president “Barack Obama was a black man that lived on the South Side of Chicago, who had his share of troubles catching cabs.” 

The status of race relations in America is at its lowest level in 17 years, according to a study released last week by CBS News and The New York Times. In 2009, 66% of those polled thought race relations were “good.” This year that percentage has dropped to 45%, a 31.8% decline. As could be expected in light of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown killings, as well as other incidents around the country where whites—police officers and civilians—shot unarmed Afro-Americans, the black community is more inclined to believe its members have been targeted for less than equal treatment.

Hard to blame them, but I wonder if the Barack Obama factor isn’t at play here. Instead of signaling a new era of racial acceptance, his election and re-election as president have fostered latent bias and overt racism. There just are too many people—white people—who cannot accept that the leader of the Free World is black. 

They see members of Congress publicly dis the president. They watch Fox News commentators throughout the day disrespect him. Both groups are not attacking his policies, for in truth he has done what his Republican predecessors have (including a surprise opening of a new era of relations with a devoutly Communist country). They are attacking his person. It’s thus a small leap of conscience for the individual bigot to gratify and carry out his or her own prejudices, even if it results in bodily harm to an Afro-American. 

Mind you, I am not exonerating blacks from contributing to the lower level of good race relations. I’d like to see more bootstrapping in their community. I want them to project more family values, better maintain neighborhoods, embrace education not as a stepping stone to a professional athletic career but for its ability to contribute to a more meaningful and rewarding life. They have allowed a culture of drugs and violence to dominate too many of their surroundings. 

Yes, Afro-Americans have historical, and let’s not forget physical, hurdles not experienced by other minorities. But the success of Obama and corporate leaders such as Richard Parsons and Kenneth Chenault should provide inspiration beyond recording studios, ball fields and arenas. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Babysitter Memories and a Walk Down Memory Lane

Funny how two seemingly disparate events come together to evoke a memory.  Last Saturday afternoon Turner Classic Movies aired The Long Long Trailer,  the madcap adventure of newlyweds, played by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, riding around in an oversized house trailer pulled by their convertible. The 1954 comedy was among the first films I saw in a movie theater. 

My brother, sister and I were probably taken there by our babysitter Maddie who lived next door to our family on Avenue W in Brooklyn. Maddie would often take us to the movies. I seem to recall her also taking us to see The Trouble with Harry, a 1955 Alfred Hitchcock humorous mystery starring Shirley MacLaine and John Forsythe. 

A few weeks ago one of Gilda’s patients said he knew her in-laws, my parents. With a family name like Forseter he easily figured out who her in-laws were. He wasn’t from Brooklyn but he was Maddie’s cousin and used to visit her all the time, and, by extension, our family as well. I don’t recall him at all. 

His reminiscences about those 1950s years ended with some sad news. Maddie passed away a few years ago. I remember how sad I was, how sad my sister and brother were, when Maddie went away to college and was no longer available to babysit. I can’t remember having any other sitter. 

When our kids were little, a babysitter of theirs was Leah. The daughter of one of our friends, Leah highlighted her long brown hair with blue dye. Ellie couldn’t resist asking her why. Because, she explained, she wanted to be different. Good babysitters leave indelible impressions on their charges. Leah didn’t need blue dye to be a good babysitter, but, like Maddie, she will always be remembered.

Memory Lane: I walked up Park Avenue two Fridays ago, starting at East 45th Street, through Helmsley Walk East to my old office at 425 Park between 55th and 56th Streets. I retraced the path I took nearly 7,000 times during my 32-year career at Lebhar-Friedman, almost all on Chain Store Age. 

This walk was different. It probably would be the last of its kind as L-F must vacate its home of 38 years. All tenants must be out by May 1, 2015. The building is coming down, to be replaced by a 60-story or so office tower, nearly double the size of the current structure, but still dwarfed by the 90-story, pencil thin, residential skyscraper going up diagonally across East 56th Street.

Park Avenue has not changed much since I began my daily treks to and from Grand Central Terminal in March 1977. For sure, there are more banks along the divided esplanade. But it’s still an oasis of refined elegance compared to the hurly-burly of most major avenues in Manhattan. 

I stopped off at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. For old time’s sake I used the bathroom. The attendant who proffers a towel to dry your hands has changed. Younger. Hispanic, not Armenian (at least I think he was Armenian). I tipped him a dollar. 

I made another stop at the main Citibank branch at 53rd Street. The lobby has been mostly transformed into self-service ATMs. I had a teller cash a check, the same way I did 37 years ago when I opened a checking account at that branch the day I started working at Lebhar-Friedman.

I couldn’t believe the Walter Steiger shoe store at East 55th Street had installed two outdoor red neon signs proclaiming its name. I always thought it was one of the classier shoe stores. No more.

After a warm visit with my friends still at L-F, I walked back down Park Avenue to a luncheon of some 25 L-F alumni. We get together every December, to update our status and reminisce about our days (make that years, often decades) at not the biggest family-owned publisher but surely one of the most impressionable companies any of us ever worked for. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Torture as a Tool of the Trade

Spoiler alert—for those who might not have watched the latest episode of Homeland, there’s a scene wherein CIA black-ops agent Peter Quinn takes a Pakistani operative into a safe location to unofficially “interrogate” him as to the whereabouts of a top terrorist who has just masterminded an invasion of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad that killed nearly 40 Americans. We’re given a quick view of a table laid out with tools of the counterintelligence trade, sharp reminders that gathering secret information is not always a clean, antiseptic affair. Next Sunday we will find out if and how Quinn extracted the info he is seeking, and how he will leave the operative, dead or alive.

It’s a TV show, but I seriously doubt more than a handful of viewers want Quinn to show restraint. A bullet to the head at the end of the “enhanced interrogation” is what they, really we, want. Revenge, plus the elimination of threats to our people, our way of life. 

The real-life debate on how to deal with terrorism suspects is on with the Tuesday release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA methods and effectiveness in post-September 11 America. By nature, I’m against torture. Wouldn’t want it done to me, or for me. But there’s always that nagging suspicion inside me that if time were a factor, if the “ticking bomb” scenario surfaced, I’d be okay with being less than above board (can you say, “waterboard”) with anyone who might have information to help us thwart an attack that would take lives.  

Let’s put legality aside. CIA apologists say the Justice Department green-lighted their activities. Of course, that’s like Nazi thugs hiding behind the Nuremberg Laws to justify their slaughter of innocents. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to parse the validity of the legal standing CIA agents and their contract players had in handling prisoners suspected of having information vital to our national safety.

It’s the moral compass of our country (and other democracies) that is at stake, a heading that cannot help but be directed by popular culture that shows Jack Bauer saving the U.S. in 24 hours, or 007 having an open license to kill on our behalf. 

Torture or not to torture. Common decency and humanity says not to. But our enemies are not decent. They are inhumane. So I’m stuck in a limbo of practicality vs. idealism. Obama campaigned on a platform of government transparency, an end to torture, the closing of Guantanamo. Geopolitical realities intercepted his follow-through. He’s become the drone president. 

I can’t condone torture, but I know it has been done and most probably will continue to be done on behalf of my safety and that of my fellow citizens. I reject the notion that we are more vulnerable because the Senate committee released its report. Fanatics will target us regardless. 

We are safer for the use of torture, but less the shining beacon of freedom we project as our image. Hypocritical, I know. But to many it’s a comfort to know our vigilance knows no bounds in a world where increasingly there are no boundaries on misbehavior. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Buckle Up! Peter Pan Is Taking Off, Again

Will you be watching Peter Pan tonight? I probably won’t, though Gilda has influenced me into taping the three hour live production (taping allows me to zoom through the plethora of commercials that would make this new version of the classic show almost intolerable to view live). Which raises the question, which moron at NBC thought it brilliant to air a children’s show that would end at 11 pm on a school night?

I’m not inclined to see this version of Peter Pan because I adored the mid-1950s production starring Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard. Each year I eagerly absorbed the black and white telecast, excitedly clapping to keep Tinker Bell alive, crowing along with Peter, singing “I’m an Indian, too” with Tiger Lily, and crossing swords with Captain Hook and Smee. I had a green felt hat with feather, just like Peter wore, at least in the Walt Disney cartoons of Peter’s adventures that aired in the same decade, and plastic swords to duel pirates. I had a Peter Pan board game. 

In short, if I wasn’t imagining myself as Davy Crockett in my coonskin hat, I was visualizing myself flying through the air as Peter Pan. Perhaps that’s why I liked the Robin Williams film Hook and the Johnny Depp flick Finding Neverland that extended my youthful fascination with the J.M. Barrie boy who never wanted to grow up. I never wanted to, either (Gilda would say there are many a day when I display child-like behavior, but that’s a subject of another blog that probably will never see the light of a computer screen). And for the record, I also really enjoyed watching the Disneyfication of Davy Crockett starring Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen.

Gilda does not share my enthusiasm for Peter Pan. I don’t believe Ellie does, either, but her musical theater career includes two portrayals of Wendy, once in the traditional role as part of a Play Group Theatre production while in high school and then at Skidmore College in a dark, avant-garde reorientation of the classic story. All I recall from that play is Ellie singing, a major coup for a freshman to be chosen ahead of theater majors.