The “New Normal” May Revolutionize Commercial Real Estate

 

I was at the bank the other day, or rather I was outside the bank spaced six feet away from the other customers, waiting for a bank rep to come out and deem us worthy of entrance.  The ‘bank bouncer’, as I like to refer to this new breed of employee, determines whether you really need to go into the bank or if you could achieve your financial transaction online in which case you are shooed away.  This, of course, is all in the name of social distancing and flattening the curve.  So, understandable of course.  But a part of me wonders if this COVID-19 pandemic is playing right into the hands of not only banks, but other businesses.  You will recall of course that many businesses have for years been in the habit of reminding customers that what they are trying to do in person or over the phone can actually be done much more conveniently and efficiently online in the comfort of your own home and at a time of your own choosing.  In many cases, actually securing a phone number for customer service requires an effort similar to Frodo’s getting into Mordor.  I was trying to find a phone number for help with a computer printer the other day and was continuously redirected to e-mail, other websites or even live chat.  If by some miracle, you are actually able to procure a phone number, you are warned about the high volume of calls and generally made to feel like you have endangered lives by making a phone call, after which you will be put on hold to the accompaniment of music that has even been rejected by elevator soundtracks as too sadistic.  The wait can be half an hour or more, but it’s a pandemic so what else do you have to do if you have the time to call customer service in the first place?  The point is that most businesses discourage you from even phoning them.  This retreat from customer service started with we don’t wish to actually see you and has progressed to we don’t even want to talk to you.

 

Now what, you may well ask, does this rant about customer service have to do with commercial real estate? Well, over the past seven weeks, it has been suggested that getting back ‘to normal’ is something that may not happen for a long time, if ever.  Ontario is moving very cautiously and Prime Minister Trudeau has said that normal is a “long way off”.  There have also been rumblings that we may never totally replicate our pre-pandemic way of living.  This may be especially true in the area of commercial real estate.

 

There is no doubt that fragile small businesses such as restaurants will see many closings.  Even with government assistance, many restaurants and bars will not be able to survive the lockdown.  That means there will be an increase in supply of commercial real estate.  Great news for people looking to open up a small business, but how many people are able to open a small business now?  Certainly not businesses that rely on providing service to people in close quarters.

 

But the real paradigm shift may have been something that was happening slowly before the pandemic, but has now been accelerated by COVID-19.  This is the switch away from bricks and mortar to online platforms. Certainly, this was already underway in the retail sector.  But it is not just retail stores that will be rethinking the money they spend on renting physical space.  Now that many businesses have asked some of their employees to work exclusively online, they may be noting that the gap between productivity in the lockdown and productivity in a ‘normal’ business environment is rather slender.  It may be common for CEOs and Board Members to start asking the question ‘is it really worth it to rent as much space as we do?’.  If employees can meet regularly on Zoom or other online video conferencing apps, the thinking might go, then what is the necessity of providing them with their own office?  One or two multi-purpose rooms might be enough for a large firm that needs to physically meet with clients from time to time.  You can be certain that you will start to receive assurances from companies that while face to face experiences will always be important to them, safety and economic realities have forced their hand to reduce their real estate footprint.

 

So while the ‘new normal’ may not be such great tidings if you are a commercial realtor, it may actually present our communities with some new opportunities.  Perhaps the numerous malls that dot our landscape can be repurposed as homeless shelters, affordable housing, community centers or cultural/athletic facilities.  Perhaps with some zoning flexibility, office buildings can be transformed to student residences, artist’s colonies or designated spaces for refugees or victims of domestic abuse.  Ironically, companies’ enslavement to profit may force society to change the way they utilize spaces.

 

This may be part of a larger reinvention of cities as urban centres start to re-evaluate how much space is devoted to getting in and out to work and play, and how much space is dedicated to actual living.

Liberty Ain’t What it Used to Be

 

Remember when “liberty” was an inspirational principle, as in the first of the three guiding values of the French Revolution, or the name of the revered statue that has welcomed millions of immigrants to American shores?  Those, apparently, were Liberty’s halcyon days.  Now, we are confronted with protestors mid-pandemic, waving flags and symbols of a more dubious nature, demanding city lockdowns be ended in the name of liberty.  John Stuart Mill could only blush.  It was Mill in his influential treatise On Liberty who endeavoured to establish criteria for when authority could legitimately restrict individual freedom.  Mill quite rightly averred that a person should be left as free to pursue their own interests as long as this does not harm the interests of others.

Admittedly, there are cases where it is difficult to identify how pursuing an interest could harm the interests of others.  For example, some people might say the decision to smoke cigarettes, as long as there are no captive people around experiencing second hand smoke, is an individual one.  If I want to smoke, the argument goes, then it will affect me and that’s my business.  Or is it?  For if continued smoking results in lung cancer or any of the other diseases that regular smoking has a correlation with, where do you think the individual goes?  Yes, to a hospital where they will occupy a bed and the attention of medical authorities.  Maybe that bed and medical staff are not available for others as a result.  So, there are times in a high tech, fast paced, interconnected world when it is difficult to disentangle personal and communal interest.  Opening up cities to “normal” behaviour in a pandemic is not one of these tricky cases.  It is dead simple.  Going to a hair salon or a gym or a restaurant or a theatre in a pandemic is not a liberty you can with any legitimacy claim.  It is the same reason why people are not allowed to drive drunk or serve food at a restaurant without regulation.

So, what are we to make of these protestors? These protestors, it should be remembered, are a tiny minority of the population who have received disproportional media attention.  Well, I think we can safely link them with the gun lobby and the anti-vaxxers.  And not just because in some protests, like in Michigan, there were a number of citizens carrying semi-automatic guns as evidence, I suppose, of their enhanced sense of liberty.  No, the reason we can lump these groups together is because, as Anna Merlan has stated, “they don’t think their choices affect other people”.

How is it that you can live in a globalized world and not understand this?  What you do or choose not to do impacts others in every sphere I can think of:  in the political sphere, who you vote for or whether you vote at all and your level of civic engagement affects others; as a consumer, what you buy or avoid buying affects others; as a citizen, your behaviour affects the natural environment in innumerable ways; as a family member or as part of a relationship, can there be any doubt that what you do affects others?

That liberty has been reduced to the role of ubiquitous mask for selfishness is appalling.  That it is now conflated with carrying guns around cities, getting your hair done in the middle of a plague and being able to golf whenever and wherever is sickening.  Did Delacroix paint and Bartholdi sculpt so the tanning salons could stay open?  And it’s sad too that the natural reaction of the majority of rational beings is now to flinch ever so slightly at the contemporary mention of “liberty”.  This is what happens when a noble principle gets hijacked by a small group of cretins that shelter behind the aura of a word that historically has a revered place in our society.  Well if usage really dictates meaning, then liberty now means ‘a misguided rationale for harmful and irresponsible behaviour’.

That sound you hear is John Stuart Mill weeping.

Waiting for Godot–Updated

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By Paul Rose (with apologies to Samuel Beckett)

 

A road.  A tree.  Evening.

ESTRAGON:  What do we do now?

VLADIMIR:  While waiting.

ESTRAGON:  While waiting.

Silence

VLADIMIR:  We could do our exercises

ESTRAGON:  Our Netflix

VLADIMIR:  Our Amazon Prime

ESTRAGON:  Our Crave

VLADIMIR:  Our Apple TV

ESTRAGON:  Our YouTube

VLADIMIR:  Our Hulu

ESTRAGON:  Our Disney

VLADIMIR:  Our News

ESTRAGON:  That’s enough.  I’m tired.

VLADIMIR:  Slacker!

ESTRAGON:  That’s the idea, let’s abuse each other.

They turn, social distance and face each other

VLADIMIR:  Hand cougher!

ESTRAGON:  Hand sneezer!

VLADIMIR: Non-essential!

ESTRAGON:  Hoarder!

VLADIMIR:  Price Gouger!

ESTRAGON: (with finality)  Trrrump!

VLADIMIR:  Oh!

He wilts, vanquished, and turns away. 

Pause 

ESTRAGON:  Let’s go.

VLADIMIR:  We can’t.

ESTRAGON:  Why not?

VLADIMIR:  We’re waiting for vaccine.

ESTRAGON:  Ah! (he sits and is soon dozing)

Pause

VLADIMIR:  Was I sleeping, while the others suffered?  Am I sleeping now?  To-morrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of to-day? That with Estragon, my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for vaccine?  That we watched Netflix, Amazon and Trump?  But in all that what truth will there be?

Enter Boy right

BOY:  Mister…

VLADIMIR:  Do you have vaccine?

BOY:  No sir.

VLADIMIR:  But WHO sent you?

BOY:  Yes sir.

VLADIMIR:  And you’ll come back tomorrow?

BOY:  Yes sir.

VLADIMIR:  Without fail?

BOY:  Yes sir.

Boy exits right.  Estragon wakes.

 VLADIMIR:  Well?  Shall we go?

ESTRAGON:  Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

Curtain

The Coronavirus is No Laughing Matter (but we need something to laugh about)

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We are living in strange times.  Businesses and schools shut, sports leagues and entertainment suspended, places of worship shuttered, and grocery stores ransacked.  The price of gas has dropped but there’s nowhere to go; the kids are out of school for weeks, but the museums, zoos and movie theatres are closed; there’s time to play sports, but no place to do it.  It’s easy in these times to draw profound conclusions about how fragile the thread of normalcy is, about how globalism is a double edged sword, about how these crises bring out the best and the worst in people, about how important leadership is in dangerous times, and about how casually we take for granted the choice, freedom and safety we normally possess.

But we also need to keep laughing.  We need to take our eye off the stock market which is behaving like an EKG and have a good, hearty laugh.  I read an entertaining article this morning by Michael Schulman in The New Yorker entitled “Convincing Boomer Parents to Take the Coronavirus Seriously” (just another reason I’m glad I follow Jane Mayer on Twitter).  No matter how grim things get, there is always a place for comedy; laughter is as genuine and necessary a human activity as worrying or crying.  And we need a balance.  We need to remember that previous generations survived much worse threats (different, but objectively worse) than we are currently facing.  And as bad as it may be for you and your family right now, there are probably people in your community who are in a worse situation. So take a moment to laugh, to find the humour in an aspect of a grim situation.  Don’t misunderstand—I’m not advocating laughing this whole thing off which would be idiotic.  But take a moment now and then to embrace something funny, to share it and to lighten temporarily what could be a long and very different road ahead.

Parasite (spoiler) is (spoiler) worth (spoiler) the (spoiler) hype (go see it before reading this)

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This year, the Oscars got it right.  Parasite is fully deserving of the abundant praise it has received.  The film demands your attention from the opening shot and keeps you thinking long after you’ve left the theatre.  If you haven’t seen it, you are missing out.

Much has been made of what the film has to say about class inequality, and with good reason.  Parasite largely centers around two families, the down and out Kims and the wealthy Parks.

The film begins with the Kims eating together.  Now it’s not like there’s many other spaces for them to inhabit in their tiny basement dwelling, but still this is one more family meal than we ever see the Parks eating together.  At the spacious Park house, bedroom doors are frequently closed.  The father, Dong-ik, is usually at work, and daughter Da-hye is in her own teenage world, most commonly wearing headphones.  She has to be coerced to go on the family camping trip that fizzles out.  Interestingly, despite the squalor they live in, the Kim family displays incredible unity. This is evident early on when the family works together to transform massive quantities of flat cardboard into folded pizza boxes.  And rather than unravelling when the pizza joint employee is intent on penalizing them for poor quality control, the family works together to try and persuade the worker to give the son, Ki-woo, a job inside the store.  And once Ki-woo lucks into a job tutoring the Park’s daughter, the Kims work as one unit to extract the most benefit from this new association with this wealthy family.  Needless to say, it is the upper echelon Parks and not the hand to mouth Kims who require tutors, therapists, drivers and housekeepers.  And while the young Park son, Da-song, has a good reason to be traumatized by his past, the way his parents indulge him is both sad, and, ultimately, tragic.  It is only when the Kims taste a bit of the high life that their family comes apart. Sure, the film seems to say, the Park’s house and grounds are beautiful, but there is a cost that comes with this lifestyle and it is not merely measured in won.

In fact, the rich and poor are depicted here almost like different species.  It nearly approaches the level of HG Wells’ Eloi and Moorlocks. The rich Parks, tucked away behind formidable walls and sealed doors are contrasted with the long suffering Kims who must put up with the sight of neighbourhood drunks regularly urinating outside their window. While the Parks are entirely oblivious of the existence of an underground dwelling and an underground dweller beneath their house, it is the poor Kims that uncover the subterranean truth and must try to grapple with it.  The life below is literally “sub-human”, but this, the film tells us, is what extreme debt can drive a person to.  This is intimately connected to the title parasite.  While the Kim family or the housekeeper’s husband might at first blush be considered the parasite, there is a case to be made for the Parks and their wealthy compatriots to be recognized as the true parasites of society.  What do they actually contribute to society compared to what they extract?  Some of the most poetic aspects of the film speak to this chasm between the high and the low.  Early in the film, Ki-taek, father of the Kim household, is seen battling the stick bugs that have infiltrated the Kim’s basement apartment.  He is so bothered by them, that he insists his family leave the windows open when the street outside is being fumigated in hopes that it will kill the bugs.  Later in the film, in one of the rare displays of Kim disunity, Ki-taek reacts violently when his wife compares him to a cockroach.  Still later, we see that to the Parks, Mr. Kim is the stick bug. The Parks are nauseated by the smell of Mr. Kim.

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The Parks have a hard time dealing with the smell of the lower class

In the climactic birthday party scene, with carnage all around, it is the smell of Mr. Kim that most sickens Mr. Park, and Mr. Kim’s recognition of this is what precipitates murder.  Another grimly poetic scene contrasting the poor with the wealthy involves the deluge of rain which floods the Kim’s neighbourhood.

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Raw sewage floods the streets and basements of the Kim’s neighbourhood

As the Kims scramble to retrieve valued possessions, it becomes clear that the sewer system has flooded and that the basement apartment is literally awash in shit.  Perhaps this is what happens to your perspective of poverty once you have had a taste of the high life.  Also poetic is the use of the scholar’s rock, which is given as a gift to the Kim family by Ki-woo’s friend Min.

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Ki-taek holds the Scholar’s Rock which is brimming with symbolism

It is supposed to bring material wealth, and in a way it does, but it brings much more with it too.  As a poetic talisman, it takes its place alongside the swords, rings, chalices and cloaks that have made such a mark in stories throughout the ages.

 

 

 

Like many current films, Parasite is immersed in pretence. To get the tutor job, Ki-woo must pass himself off as a university graduate, and thanks to his sister’s wonderful forgery work, he succeeds at convincing Da-hye’s mom, Yeon-kyo, that he is a certified scholar.  One deception begets another, and soon Ki-woo’s sister, Ki-jung, is posing as an arrogant art therapist to deal with the Park’s troubled young son.  In rapid succession, the Kim parents take on the roles of driver and housekeeper at the Park residence.  All of this proceeds almost too easily before an unexpected twist throws the Kims a challenge that stymies them.  There is other role playing going on too.  The young Park boy is continually donning an Indian headdress and shooting arrows all over the house.  In fact, at his birthday party, he insists that others take on subsidiary roles in this drama. 

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At the birthday party, the layers of pretence collide violently

And the Park parents engage in some make believe too when Dong-ik fantasizes about his wife wearing the underpants found in his car.  It’s little wonder then that after pretense heaped on pretense, Ki-woo looks out at the yard full of wealthy, beautiful people and anxiously asks Da-hye if he fits in.  Pretending, the film seems to suggest, alienates one from the authentic self and no good can come of it.

The actual ending might be even darker than the savagery of the birthday party.  For at the end, Ki-woo wishes for nothing more than to be rich and have the ability to buy the Park house.  He wishes to rightfully own it, which would in turn free his father.  Sadly, he seems to have learned nothing about the plight of the wealthy.  He should be in a privileged position to understand that with wealth comes fragmentation and a variety of curses.  Yet, despite all that he has experienced, he thinks that being rich can bring him peace. And, in that, he would be as misled as most of the rest of us.  More’s the pity.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood–Or, another in a series of reviews of films that have been out for a while (so, yes spoiler alert for those more behind than me)

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I finally got around to seeing Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood recently.  It’s an interesting film that can be experienced on a few levels.  On the surface, it’s pure Tarantino, and by that, I mean great musical soundtrack, attention to costuming, a blend of fact and fiction, looming violence and self-conscious parodying of television, film, advertising, and to a certain extent, the late 1960’s as a whole.  It’s easy to chuckle at the film’s sardonic coda which rolls along with the credits that has DiCaprio pitching Red Apple Cigarettes in a black and white testimonial.  The pitch of course is so out of touch with our contemporary health concerns and with our mistrust of celebrity endorsements, that it is hilarious even before the commercial ends and we see DiCaprio drop the cigarette in disgust and drop kick a life size cut out of himself for having a double chin.  Similarly, it’s easy to enjoy a scene midway through the film in which a self-pitying DiCaprio fearing he is as washed up as the paperback bronco buster he is reading about is comforted by a startlingly precocious child star.  And though some have pointed out the racial overtones of the scene in which Brad Pitt’s character takes on Bruce Lee on the set of The Green Lantern, it is hard to deny the visual interest of the sequence.

But I’m more interested in what the film implies about divisions in American society, whether Tarantino intended this or not. Quite clearly, the film illustrates the huge divide between rich and poor.  This is seen most evidently in the contrasting home and lifestyles of Rick Dalton (DiCaprio’s television star) and Cliff Booth (Dalton’s stuntman and best friend played by Brad Pitt).

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Pitt’s Cliff Booth and DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton

 

Dalton lives in the Hollywood Hills in a gorgeous home with a swimming pool (natch); posters/paintings of himself and his roles abound both inside and outside the house.  Booth, by contrast, lives in a trailer home at the back of a drive-in movie theatre. In a scene detailing his grim existence, there is not much to choose from between the canned slop Booth serves his dog and the boxed Mac and Cheese Booth eats right out of the pot.  While there is no glamour in Booth’s world, he still has access to television, which seems to unite all social classes in the film:  movie directors watch it, the hippies in Charles Manson’s family watch it, and Dalton and Booth watch it too.  Also interesting about Booth’s habitat is that for the first third of the film, we would never guess that he lives this way.  He drives Dalton’s huge yellow Cadillac Coupe de Ville (a nod to Gatsby’s car perhaps?), spends time eating and heavily drinking with Dalton, dresses comfortably but respectably and has a sweet convertible himself, a VW Karmann Ghia. One of the themes of the movie is clearly appearance and reality, and Booth hides the reality of his dilapidated home life so well, we are shocked when we see where and how he lives, and later learn other dark facts about his past.  But that is his job after all.  He is a stunt man and gets paid a meagre fraction of what Dalton does to trick the audience into thinking Dalton is engaging in dangerous and death-defying stunts.  The layering of artifice makes sense here as Booth represents pretense for the pretenders. In an early aside, the audience is informed that contrary to Dalton’s statement that Booth is his driver, Booth drives his car because Dalton has lost his license after repeated drunken driving infractions.  Not only does Booth drop Dalton off at the movie studio and pick him up once the shooting day is done, but he also fixes things at Dalton’s luxurious home. Fittingly, we see Booth up on the roof, fixing Dalton’s television antenna, a nod to both how far technology has come since the sixties, but also to the central role of television to this film and to the enduring North American fact of rich guys hiring laborers to fix their toys so they can maintain access to escapism.  So, Booth does the dirty work and Dalton gets the benefit.  But Booth doesn’t seem to mind the exploitation at all; on the contrary, he seems to revel in it.  If you can’t own your own Hollywood Hills home, the message seems to go, at least you can hang out at one doing whatever the owner asks.  And the seduction of affiliation with the rich and famous seems to hoodwink the audience too.  As I watched, my sympathy and interest was clearly with Booth rather than Dalton.  What does it reveal about those watching that the hero of the film might be a hanger on whose ambition consists of getting drunk and avoiding jail?  The exploitative nature of the relationship between the two main characters is furthered near the end when Dalton informs Booth that now that he is married, he will not be able to afford Booth’s services.  It takes the film’s drastic and violent conclusion before Dalton seems to understand the value of Booth’s friendship.

But the division between the wealthy lead actor and the physical stunt man is not the only one that the film points out.  There is a massive separation between the actors and “the Hippies”, and, in fact, the depiction of the latter is quite disturbing.

fullsizeoutput_fcPerhaps Tarantino is simply viewing things from the perspective of the homeowners in the Hollywood Hills, but the Hippies in the film are seen as lazy, dangerous and criminal.  And, yes, those in the Manson family who were involved in the Tate LaBianca murders were just that.  And, yes, in Tarantino’s fictional world, Dalton lives next door to Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski.  But there seems to be something troubling to let the zombie group think of the Manson family be equated with all Hippies.  You would never know by this account that most Hippies were peaceful and rejected conventional values like materialism, competition and exploitation. In a very lengthy scene in the film, stunt man Booth picks up a pretty young girl who is looking for a long ride to the ranch where Manson’s family has ensconced themselves.  Booth seems curious as he used to film on the ranch and knows the owner.  He goes to extraordinary lengths to check on the owner and puts himself at great risk in the process.  The film admits of no middle ground between the brutal capitalism of Hollywood and the criminal manipulation of Manson.  Of course, it is no wonder we end up siding with Dalton, Booth, Tate and the world of rambling pool parties and blenders of frozen margaritas over the weapon wielding and stoned out Manson family.  Still, in the final scene when Dalton goes over to have a drink at his neighbours’ place, I felt a bit conflicted.  Is this Tarantino’s message then:  that the audience of Baby Boomers who used to fight for ‘peace, love and understanding’ have now withdrawn behind their gates where, whilst sipping Scotch, they commiserate with neighbours about the perils of the underclasses breaching their security?  Talk about implicating your audience.  With Tarantino, however, you wonder how much is intentionally intellectual and how much is just a random product of a dedication to lush visuals and sounds?

There’s another division too and it surfaces in the egotism of certain individuals.  For Dalton and Tate are so immersed in their careers that they seem to have lost a genuine understanding of others outside their circle of fame. In a particularly affecting scene, Tarantino has Tate drive to a movie theatre where her latest film has just opened.

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Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate on the cusp of stardom

Tate admires her name on the marquee and her picture on the posters for the film, before asking for free entrance based on the fact that she is “in the movie”.  I suppose one effect of this scene is that it humanizes Tate and we see her portrayed as awestruck by her burgeoning success as an actor; it’s as if she has to see the film in the theatre to believe that it’s really her up there on the screen.  No one can accuse her of being jaded.  This parallels a later scene in which Dalton and Booth watch Dalton’s guest turn on the tv show FBI as if they were kids watching themselves on television for the first time.  In fact, Hollywood seems to inevitably promote insecurity as is evident in an intense seen where Dalton berates himself for forgetting his lines and screwing up a scene.  It is no coincidence that Dalton warns his eight year-old co-star that she will face this identity crisis herself soon enough.  Yet, this self-preoccupation and vanity has really forged a demarcation between Dalton and everyone else.  Nowhere can this be seen with more force than in the film’s climax when a violent confrontation envelops his house while Dalton floats obliviously, headphones on, in his backyard swimming pool.  It’s hard to take this scene totally seriously upon seeing Dalton’s reaction when he finally clues in to what is afoot, but the fact that his swimming pool is his retreat (perhaps another Gatsby allusion?) might hint that the endgame of retreating into a community of wealth is ultimately withdrawing into a community of one, where interests other than your own do not merit a moment’s attention.

There are other implied divisions too.  For example, I cannot seem to recall a single line in the film spoken by a Black character.  Perhaps I am forgetting the odd line or two, but surely one of the make-believe elements of this ‘Once Upon a Time’ tale is that Black people don’t exist. I don’t know if this speaks to the limits of Tarantino’s imagination or the complications that adding the dimension of race would produce for his film.  But it is rather unnerving to say the least.  Still another division exists between the glamour of feature films and the somewhat low brow world of television, with the Spaghetti Westerns of Italy finding themselves somewhere in the middle of the two.  There’s also an interesting division between young and old that is unveiled in the car of the Manson family members who have come to Hollywood with murderous intent.  When two of the older family members in the front seat are amazed that the guy who just chewed them out on the road was none other than Rick Dalton from Bounty Law, the two in the backseat who are too young to remember the show, treat their nostalgia with disdain.  In fact, one of them, Sadie, moves from annoyance to a chilling thesis which states it is acceptable to kill the actors who are associated with the media because it was TV that brought killing into living rooms all over the world. Again, Tarantino seems to unfairly associate this extreme and irrational argument with young hippies who reject American conventions.

And one final thought on division in the film.  It concerns the division between on screen violence and violence in the real world.

Dalton’s TV show, Bounty Law, sees his character get paid for killing wanted fugitives.  Killing is his job and audiences viewed this as entertainment.  Of course, what hangs over most of the film is the specter of the horrifying Manson family murders which gripped and terrified much of the world. Playing on the audience’s uneasy knowledge of the murders, which included the repeated and fatal stabbing of the eight and a half months pregnant Sharon Tate, Tarantino saturates the end of his film with a violence that is almost cartoonish in nature.  It is undoubtedly a relief.  Yet it shouldn’t obliterate the questions we must have about how we can be drawn so completely to the seduction of screen violence and be repulsed so thoroughly by the prospect of actual violence.  How can we account for this dichotomy?  How much Tarantino really wants us to wrestle with this issue and how much he is just using violence for cinematic suspense and engagement is an open question.

In the end, I suppose Tarantino’s genuine intentions are largely irrelevant.  The film is worth seeing because it raises many questions.  For me, those questions largely center on forces that divide us. And while some may suggest that the divisions belong to a period half a century ago, my fear is that they have compounded since then.  The reckoning waiting for us might just make Manson seem an insubstantial nuisance by comparison.  The film that looks back fifty years to our time might just be too dark to view.

The Irishman–More of the Same from Martin Scorsese (SPOILER ALERT)

There’s a bit of irony in all of the news that director Martin Scorsese made when he lashed out at Marvel sequels and big budget comic book films recently. Scorsese criticized Marvel films suggesting that cinema should allow you to “confront the unexpected on the screen”.  Well, there’s not a whole lot of unexpected in The Irishman.  If you’re a fan of Scorsese, which I am, that is mostly a good thing.  The film is not without its significant flaws, and I fear Scorsese may have unknowingly fallen into the same trap as the franchise filmmakers with whom he so publicly disagrees.

 

I do believe the film is worth your time, and at three and a half hours, that in itself is saying something.  Scorsese knows how to open films effectively.  The opening shot of the film that pans through a nursing home until we come to Frankie Sheeran (Robert De Niro) seated alone in a wheelchair manages to speak volumes without a word of dialogue being uttered.  The setting, which is immediately recognizable to most adults with parents of a certain age, undeniably suggests the contemporary endgame of life—where most people spend their last days, no matter how daring or successful their earlier days were.  The fact that Sheeran is alone and speaks directly to the camera is no small matter.  He has outlived most of his peers, but, in so doing, has alienated those close to him; the only one he has to talk to is the camera.

 

Scorsese has always been able to cast fine actors and squeeze wonderful performances out of them. This film is no exception.  De Niro is in a huge number of scenes in the film and manages to make us care about him, despite using his hangdog look to express everything from contrition to confusion.  But it’s actually the performances of Joe Pesci and Al Pacino that stayed with me the most.  Pesci as mobster Russell Bufalino, is playing a much more mellow and controlled gangster than the one he played in Goodfellas, and the effect is to make him more, not less dangerous.  Pacino plays notorious Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa in the film, and breathes new life into the character.  Hoffa’s insistence on punctuality and proper dress “for a meetin’” leads to one of the funniest scenes in the film.  Hoffa is meeting another powerful union man Tony Provenzano in Miami, but cannot get past Tony’s lateness and casual attire; as a result, it is up to Tony’s driver and De Niro’s Sheeran to try and mediate, which is hilarious as both are semi-articulate at best.  This scene also reveals one of the weaknesses of Scorsese’s casting.  He has two of the most famous Italian American actors (De Niro and Pacino) playing non-Italians Sheeran and Hoffa.  When Pacino scornfully refers to Tony Pro as “you people”, it’s just utterly confusing, because Pacino still looks as Italian as he did when portraying Michael Corleone in The Godfather.  I had to look up Hoffa’s ethnicity to discover he was part German and part Irish.  Still, the acting, on the whole, is a major strength of the film.

De Niro's face

Though it appears De Niro’s age can be changed, technology has not progressed far enough to alter the expression made by his mouth!

Social commentary is another feature of many of Scorsese’s films, and there is no shortage of it here.  As in Goodfellas, there is an emphasis on the ethics of organized crime.  In fact, it is so common in a Scorsese film to hear a murderer saying “that’s just not right”, that we might lose sight of the irony here.  These mobsters subscribe to an extremely complex series of social mores and crossing them often leads to mayhem.  Thus, when Crazy Joe Gallo delivers a very public hit and then disrespects a mafia brother with profanity, he has to pay.  Later, when Sally Bugs goes to speak to the Feds without telling anyone in the mob about it, Sheeran rubs him out.  When it is revealed that Bugs had informed someone and they forgot to relay the message, Sheeran admits it was “a bad hit”.  In other words, a targeted killing can be “bad” or “good” depending on the circumstances and how they fit into the code.  This is old hat for Scorsese and most filmgoers who have seen a film about the mob.

 

Another asset of the film is the insight it provides into historical events.  Whereas what Frank Sheeran may or may not have done is subject to much debate, the background issues seem well documented. For example, I had no idea that Hoffa alienated the mob because of his ego and desire for control which conflicted with the mob’s desire to utilize the union’s pension fund for easy loans. While I knew that organized crime was unhappy with John F. Kennedy, the film does a fine job of explaining that the mob believed Kennedy would reciprocate the support he had been given and reestablish Cuba as a place where capitalists and mobsters could thrive.  When the Bay of Pigs resulted in disaster and when Kennedy’s brother Bobby attacked organized crime in his role as Attorney General, the mob was outraged (again, violation of code).  In one of the best lines of the film, when asked by a reporter how he felt about JFK’s assassination, Hoffa replies “I guess his brother is just a lawyer now”.  Scorsese makes a nice dig at our ignorance of history late in the film when a nurse attending Sheeran has never heard of Jimmy Hoffa.  The scene suggests the powerful are utterly forgotten or languish in nursing homes (sometimes the same thing) before a generation even turns.

females in the Irishman

Scorsese’s vision of women:  an obstacle on the journey!

As fine a film as The Irishmanis, it cannot be excused for its portrayal of women.  This is where I was hoping for some development from Scorsese as a filmmaker.  But he treats women much like the mob when planning a hit,  as something to be avoided.  Women exist in the film primarily to document the reaction to male criminality—they grieve, they fear and they smoke in their fashionable pant suits.  The only female character of any depth in the film, Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, is conspicuous for her silence.  Apologists might make the case that Scorsese is depicting a world where women were on the periphery, and that might have held up a couple of decades ago, but it does not wash today.  We need only look at the TV series Mad Men to find strong and complex female characters in a male dominated world.  Even though the film is based on a source, a director always has choices, and Scorsese has elected to continue a depressing tradition of women as peripheral figures who are only present to reveal something about the psychology of the male leads.  In one of the most glaring instances of chauvinism in the film, Scorsese takes all of about thirty seconds to introduce the woman who will become Sheeran’s second wife and to mention the marriage—he spares less than a minute for this in a film that is three and a half hours long.  Towards the end of the film, in what looks like a tacked on measure to appease, Sheeran talks to another daughter (whose name viewers probably can only guess at) about his failure as a father.  She reveals that his children were frightened to death to come to him with their problems for fear of the reprisals he would inflict.  This is an interesting consequence, but the four daughters are not allowed much screen time or focus, and the camera quickly moves elsewhere.  Too bad Scorsese has not allowed viewers to “confront the unexpected” in terms of the depth of and focus on female characters.

 

The film also does not need to be as long as it is.  I don’t think I’m being unfair in characterizing Scorsese as self-indulgent.  How many scenes do we need of De Niro shaking his head worryingly about the growing conflict between the mob and his buddy Hoffa?  We get it Marty, Sheeran is conflicted. Judicious editing surely could have trimmed half an hour or more off the film. To his credit though, Scorsese gives us an ending that avoids sentimentality and only hints at Sheeran’s remorse.  The biggest epiphany in the film is mumbled and missed by a priest trying to goad Sheeran into a comprehensive confession.  De Niro’s “What kind of a man makes a phone call like that?” tells us all we need to know about late twentieth century America.  The film, for better and for worse, tells us much about story telling in the twenty first.

I’ll miss you MAD magazine

992fbf03a7c42fd3e7ee080301537087 When my nephew told me earlier this month at a family get together that MAD magazine was about to cease publishing new material, I felt a sadness reserved for the end of an era.  In truth, I had stopped reading MAD regularly decades ago, though I still have half the collection that my cousin and I once thought would be a profitable investment.  There is little doubt that MAD did not fare well after it moved its offices from New York to Los Angeles in 2017.  Even before that, the magazine lost a good part of its rebellious ethos once it decided to allow advertising in 2001.  Yet, despite this slow decline, it was still somehow comforting to know MAD existed in a world that kept getting madder.

My first memories of MAD are rooted in the early 1970’s and the parodies of movies such as The Exorcist, The Godfather, The Planet of the Apes and The Sting.  Mort Drucker was the artist for most of these and his ability to recognizably render such a wide array of movie stars and supporting characters was stunning.  The writers of these parodies alternated between Larry Siegel, Stan Hart, Arnie Kogen and others, but in truth, I could not differentiate between them the way I could if someone other than Drucker was drawing. MAD-Magazine-Godfather-Parody-Splash

Of course, I wasn’t old enough to see many of these movies in the theatre, but my first cultural exposure to them was through the MAD parody.  The true genius of the parody would sometimes not be revealed to me for several years until I had a chance to actually see the movie.  This, of course, was in an era when there was no internet, and no VCRs for that matter, so it meant waiting two to three years after the movie was released for it to be shown (often in a censored form) on prime time television.  What was especially endearing about the parodies is that the writers frequently had the characters break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience (a technique familiar to television audiences of Saved by the Bell, The Office and Modern Family).  What made this technique so unique in the MAD parodies was that the characters were not speaking to the audience in role, but rather as the actor, possessing a self-consciousness of which pioneering dramatist Bertolt Brecht would be proud.  I particularly remember the parody of The Great Gatsby in which the frequent moments where Gatsby excuses himself to speak on the phone are actually instances of Robert Redford frantically calling his agent to get him out of this bomb of a movie.  No matter the critical acclaim the movie might have received, the MAD parody would focus on a weak spot, whether it be the movie’s slow pace, convoluted plot, derivative nature or plot loopholes.  For some reason, I didn’t feel the television parodies, usually drawn by Angelo Torres, were as captivating as the film parodies.

Of course, there were other regular features of MAD that I eagerly looked forward to reading.  One of these was the back inside cover known as the “fold-in” and conceived by Al Jaffee.  I loved to pore over the image and the text below it to try and figure out the solution.  This was partly a practical measure, as when I began collecting MADs, I felt that actually folding the back cover would alter the condition of the magazine as a collectible and render it less valuable. m

But there was another semi-regular feature of Al Jaffee’s that I loved even more than the fold in and that was his “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” segment.jaffee_snappy-580x456

‘Snappy Answers’ was MAD to a tee.  It featured great visuals, witty comebacks to everyday obliviousness, but most of all, it invited the reader to be part of a community that rejected the banal conformity of a society used to politely tolerating verbal drivel.  Another fun part of the equation is that there would often be an empty dialogue box at the bottom of the sequence encouraging the reader to create their own snappy answer.

Yet another fantastic regular was Don Martin, whose characters featured elongated faces and emitted sensational sound effects.  The violence of the cartoons never seemed at all menacing; rather the characters who were crushed by a falling safe or flattened by a steamroller seemed to be part of a common tragedy we recognized as the all too familiar plight of ordinary folk.don-martin-running-press-mad-magazine-2014

And there were more features that made the magazine something I would relish eight times a year (even its publication schedule was unconventional):  they included ‘scenes we’d like to see’ which upended the cliche and the establishment, various ‘primers’ which presumed to introduce readers to a facet of modern life using phrasing borrowed from children’s books, the ‘do it yourself’ letter of some kind which anticipated “Ad-Libs”,  the iconic ‘Spy vs. Spy’ (why did I always cheer for the Black spy?), the header which pivoted on a pun and preceded an item by labelling it as such and such department, and any manner of items that emphasized the crumminess of consumer products and the emptiness of the advertising that promoted them.

Some parents presumably complained about the low brow nature of the magazine (mine never objected–in fact, they patiently took me to the Madison Avenue office of MAD on my first visit to New York City in 1977–the editorial staff gave me a personal tour, an Alfred E. Neuman poster and treated me like a celebrity), but the truth is that MAD in the 60s, 70s and 80s was the antithesis of dumb humour.  A quick look through the typical edition from these decades will find poetry parodies (with apologies to Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, etc.), political awareness and historical overviews which reveal both a detailed knowledge of historical eras and an obvious delight in teaching their readers a thing or two about history while making them laugh.  The “usual gang of idiots” as the contributing artists and writers referred to themselves could be prophetic too.  A look at the July 1979 issue reveals an item entitled “Re-Writing Classical Poetry to Give Women Equal Time”.  While no-one should expect a serious approach to the issue in MAD, it is revealing that they were picking up on cultural trends years before high schools and universities would address the sexism in their curricular choices.

And, yes, not everything in the magazine was gold.  Dave Berg’s “The Lighter Side Of” was a bit predictable and visually conventional.  And yes, the post-advertising years featured cruder and less intellectual pieces (“Planet Tad” aside) that seemed to be trying to pander to a typical adolescent sensibility (you could never accuse the MAD of William Gaines or Harvey Kurtzman of pandering–they never underestimated their readership, but rather challenged them).  And, yes, MAD’s influence can be felt everywhere from Saturday Night Live to Weird Al Yankovic to the Simpsons to the Daily Show and beyond, so it’s not like we are bereft of satire.  But I’m still going to miss new MAD content.  I’ll miss flipping through the issue at Shopper’s Drug Mart or Indigo deciding whether there were enough quality features to merit purchasing it (no longer “50 cents cheap”).  I’ll miss sharing issues with my two sons who don’t agree on much, but both enjoyed MAD.  I’ll miss borrowing  an issue from or loaning an issue to my cousin Josh who shared my passion for MAD and who housed our shared collection for decades.  But most of all, I think I’ll miss a connection to a past where reading a magazine and sharing it with others provided you with an entry into an informal community of anti-establishment skeptics; a past where people read physical magazines rather than giggling over fershlugginer memes and watching endless you tube videos.

What, me worry?

I’m afraid I do in a world without MAD.

In Praise of Thomas Frank

I would hazard a guess that the average person on the street would register a blank gaze if asked who Thomas Frank is.  The odd baseball fan might think about a legendary designated hitter nicknamed “The Big Hurt”, but that was Frank Thomas.  No, Thomas Frank is not a baseball player; he is a writer.  And a fine one at that.  Frank is a columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the author of several books on culture, business and politics.  I first encountered Frank when I was teaching media and came across his book The Conquest of Cool:  Business, Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.  The book convincingly explains how quickly businesses hijacked rebellion in order to sell more of everything from soda pop to cars.  I remember how saddened I was at Frank’s thorough documenting of the manner by which advertisers were so easily able to redefine ‘cool’ as something you purchase rather than a set of values or a way of relating to others.  And yes, in our post Mad Men society, that might be considered an obvious observation, but in 1997 when the book came out, the methods of advertising did not hold quite as central a place in pop culture as they do today.  I’ve been coming across Frank’s name again just recently.  I’m in the midst of reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money:  The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.  It is another meticulously researched book that makes me sad.  (I know, you’re thinking: ‘Stop reading books that make you sad’, but sometimes that’s the price of being informed).  Mayers refers to Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?:  How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.  Though I haven’t read the book yet, the subject matter couldn’t possibly be more timely.  It apparently focuses on how populist conservatives have managed to win voters in the heartland of America by emphasizing divisive social issues and distracting voters from the devastation wrought by decades of deregulation.  Mayers has a special interest in Kansas because Wichita is home to Charles and David Koch, the billionaire libertarians who have evaded taxes by making charitable contributions to establish and maintain think tanks which are thinly disguised attempts to sway the academic and political conversation on the role of government (aka lobby for deregulation and increase Koch profits).  Frank’s latest book takes aim at the Democrats rather than the Republicans.  It is entitled Listen, Liberal:  Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? and was released last year.  I haven’t read this one either, but hope to soon.  Frank’s thesis here is that the Democrats have turned their backs on the working class and on unions, and have tied their wagon to the professional class, a move which makes them susceptible to claims that they are elitist.  Frank’s latest concern is that the resistance which has arisen in response to Trump’s appalling executive orders will be co-opted by opportunists with much less noble goals in mind. Throughout his writing, Frank seems to possess a deep understanding of misdirection and how authentic and well-meaning social impulses can be subverted by fortune hunters.  If you’re interested not just in where we are and how we got here, but where we might be headed, you might want to give Frank a look.

Are Castro’s Critics Telling the Whole Story?

fidel-castro

Fidel Castro’s death has produced a political controversy in Canada.  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke warmly of Castro after his death and refrained from specifically mentioning human rights’ abuses under the Cuban dictator.  The only qualifier Trudeau used in summing up Castro’s legacy was the word “controversial”.  A backlash ensued in which Trudeau was called everything from naïve to idiotic, and some critics went as far as to dream up theoretical Trudeau tributes to other historical baddies such as Genghis Khan.  It seemed to force Trudeau’s hand, and instead of personally attending Castro’s funeral ceremony, he sent Governor General David Johnston.  Seems like a clear case of admission of defeat by Trudeau and vindication for Castro’s critics.  Or is there something more to the story?

That Castro was guilty of serious human rights’ violations is well documented.  His enemies were routinely imprisoned, executed or forced to migrate.  Labour unions lost the right to strike and independent newspapers and religious institutions were shut down under his rule.  Elections were terminated.  Cubans also had to endure horrible food shortages and a lack of basic goods in the bleak economic period following the Soviet Union’s collapse.  I witnessed first hand, on two separate trips to Cuba, the contrast between the all-inclusive resorts and neighbouring villages that had to regularly undergo power outages to keep the tourists dancing (a contrast by the way that is not unique to Cuba).   But violence, corruption, censorship and exploitation are also the hallmarks of many dictators put in place by the United States or tolerated by them because of shared economic interests.  Why was Castro the particular demon as opposed to Shah of Iran, Marcos in the Phillipines, Deby of Chad, Pinochet of Chile or a succession of dictators in Guatemala?  .  The answer it would seem is that those other dictators did not nationalize industries in an attempt to put an end to the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. For all his faults, let’s not forget that Castro certainly expanded education and health care on the island.  How many dictators can count among their achievements a literacy rate of 98% and an infant mortality rate reduced to 1%?  But those Cuban exiles, many in Miami, kept up the constant drumbeat of Castro’s horrible deeds.  They became an influential lobby group in their own right, producing a number of American politicians of national caliber.  Some of them, no doubt, have legitimate reasons to loathe Castro, whether they were a victim of his policies or the relative of someone victimized by Castro’s rule.  My feeling though is that a good number of them are motivated primarily as economic refugees.  In other words, Castro did not allow them to continue to profit from the exploitation of the Cuban people.  Of course, protesting that your plantation or factory was nationalized does not play as well as complaining about human rights’ violations.  When people ordinarily concerned about economics, complain loudly about human rights’ violations, take a closer look to see if there is an economic underpinning they are trying to cloak.  It’s been almost sixty years since Castro overthrew Batista, but losing your family’s great wealth can embitter people for generations.

And here’s another factor to consider.  While trying to revolutionize Cuba, Castro endured decades of official and semi-official attempts to assassinate him, to sabotage the Cuba experiment and to bring the island down economically through embargo.  All this was emanating from the most powerful country in the world, which was a mere ninety miles away.  Faced with an almost ongoing attack against the revolutionary government, Castro suspended or did away with human rights in many specific cases.  But what do we do in emergency situations?  Umm, oh yeah, the Patriot Act and the War Measure Act.  That’s what we do.

I do think Cuba’s survival as a Communist state just off the U.S. coast was taken by pre-Obama American politicos as an ongoing snub (of course, the snub was preferable to nuclear Armageddon that seemed to be a real possibility during the Cold War’s Cuban Missile Crisis).  Castro and Cuba confounded power politics, the Monroe Doctrine and logical prognostication.  Castro’s legacy is complicated—he did some very helpful things and he did some truly awful things too.

I would have liked to see Justin Trudeau attend Castro’s funeral in person in light of the long friendship that Canada and Cuba have shared.  I would have liked to see him speak honestly about Castro’s triumphs and equally honestly about the suffering that he caused a lot of Cubans.  But that’s a tough high wire act when you’re a politician in a country that votes and that also listens to the loudest voices, bereft of context or not.