Category Archives: Review

Captain America: Civil War

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Spoilers, natch.

Finally, a Spider-Man who actually looks like he’s in high school! That, along with ever more compelling character studies of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, made this latest episode of The Marvel Cinematic Universe Show worth watching.

Captain America and Iron Man are by far my favorite Marvel characters thus far, and the Avengers I find most interesting. That they find themselves on opposite sides here is made all the more interesting when you realize how both have essentially flip-flopped. Stark, the recalcitrant “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” playing by his own rules but tormented by guilt, now wants controls on their heretofore unchecked power. Rogers, the patriotic soldier desperate to fight for good, now is disillusioned by authoritarian overreach and wary of a corruptible bureaucracy. Neither of them are wrong. The other superheroes who align with or against them have their own reasons for doing so, but fundamentally Civil War concerns itself with this core conflict.

I suppose this puts me on the #TeamIronMan side of things, but I think there absolutely should be some oversight of the burgeoning cadre of “enhanced” persons formerly under the purview of SHIELD. Even after gnashing their teeth about the devastation of Sokovia, it takes like two seconds before this motley crew of all-powerful superheroes with fragile egos and hair-trigger tempers are obliterating an airport or whatever building they happen to be in during their latest squabble. It’s like they’re all early-stage Spider-Man, wracked with teenage insecurity, lacking self-discipline, flailing around while trying to discover and control the extent of their powers. Setting aside the ethical debate over the Sokovian Accords, the cost of their property damage alone warrants reparation and regulation.

As for the film itself, the directors Anthony and Joe Russo mentioned in an interview that they tried not to follow the typical three-act superhero movie structure, which is something I noticed while watching. The film doesn’t resolve where we’re conditioned to expect it; it could have ended at several points but didn’t. Perhaps that’s a product of the ongoing (infinite?) nature of the MCU, wherein each movie doesn’t begin and end in its own self-contained universe like normal movies and needs to set up the next installments. (Which currently include not only the two Avengers: Infinity War films, but offshoot franchises for Black Panther, Spider-Man [again again], Doctor Strange, and a bajillion other products characters.)

However, for the first time in eight years’ worth of movies within Phase 1 and 2 of the MCU, I’m OK with that. I’m OK with, or at least resigned to, winding through the spider’s web of stories with cautious optimism, knowing not every installment will achieve the same balance of thoughtfulness, wit, and dazzling spectacle the best of the MCU display.

As much as it’s true that superhero films are eating Hollywood; as much as it’s true that a fraction of the billions being spent on these franchises could and should be allocated to the smaller, non-serialized films that end up on Oscar ballots and Top 10 lists far more often than the latest comic-book fare… I enjoyed watching superheroes fighting each other. It was fun (if sometimes confusing to determine who was on which side and why), and made the case for being seen on the big screen. For another entrant into an already abundant genre, that’s good enough for me.

Midnight Special

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It’s really a shame Jeff Nichols got bounced in the second round of the Filmspotting Madness directors bracket. Unlike the NCAA tournament, where success is tangible and stats-driven, there is no one way to account for which director is better than the other. Everyone voter is left to his or her own interpretation and taste. The one I’ve used is based on what the Filmspotting guys have put forth: you’re standing in a theater lobby and two films are showing, one from each director. You choose one and the other director’s disappears, his future career extinguished.

Mad love to Scorsese, who gave us Raging Bull and Taxi Driver among other greats, but I’m going with Jeff Nichols. If a sadistic, crisis-inducing challenge like Filmspotting Madness is about the present and future of a director’s work—and to me it is—then I believe myself compelled to choose Nichols, whose small but undeniably strong oeuvre gives me great hope for his future over Scorsese’s, whose will be a lot shorter and less reliably compelling.

So it seems fitting I had the choice this weekend of seeing either Everybody Wants Some!!, the latest from Richard Linklater (another Filmspotting Madness erstwhile contender) and Midnight Special, the latest from Jeff Nichols. A huge fan of Linklater, I knew I’d see Everybody eventually, but I knew I had to see Midnight Special, simply because of Nichols’ name and the little I knew about the film. That’s as good a test as any.

As is often the case Matt Zoller Seitz was spot-on about Midnight Special. He expresses a sort of baffled delight that a movie like this could exist amidst so many other deafening superhero smash fests. Its “marvelous energy” propels its quickly sketched but deeply felt characters through a story that’s as lovingly familiar as it is unique. A boy with otherworldly powers, his loyal father (Michael Shannon) who supposedly kidnapped him from his former apocalyptic cult, and the government agents trying to find him all are in pursuit toward a mysterious yet significant destination.

The first act is something else. Tense, bold, determined. We’re dropped in media res and trusted to keep up. Kudos to Nichols for this choice in structure, but also (I’m assuming) for fighting studio execs to have to preserve it against some origin story filler. The power is in the mystery, in the putting together of the pieces as they’re given.

The film slackens as it goes, however, especially in the scenes that take us away from the boy and his escorts, who have a kind of enraptured determination you could imagine the apostle Paul feeling after seeing the light on the road to Damascus. Nichols seems very aware of that story, given the righteousness he’s imbued in these characters and the mission they’re on. I stayed with the movie throughout, though, because how could I not? From idea to execution, Midnight Special is inspired in every sense: as homage to Spielbergian themes of family and destiny, as a sci-fi fable with the courage of restraint, and as an auteurist vision that doesn’t always shine scene to scene but adds up to something effulgent when it matters.

Nichols couldn’t have found a better muse/avatar than Michael Shannon, whose quiet, self-assured, and focused presence has for me become inseparable from the Nichols films he’s been in, which is all of them. (Shotgun Stories remains his best—find it if you can.) And he’ll be in Loving, Nichols’ next film, coming out this November. Not sure if I’ll have to pick between two great directors again to see it, but he’s got good odds if I do.

The Man In The High Castle

Not long after we subscribed to Amazon Prime did I check out the pilot of The Man in the High Castle. I’d heard some good regard for the show, but didn’t think to seek it out until it was suddenly available to me. Boy am I glad I did.

Set in 1962, the show exists in a world where fifteen years previous the Allies lost World War II, the U.S. was atom-bombed, occupied, and divided between Germany and Japan into the Greater German Reich (east of the Rockies) and Japanese Pacific States (west of the Rockies). Times Square is blanketed with swastikas (but no ads), Judaism has been outlawed, and with Hitler close to death the Japanese and German empires are bracing for war. Amidst the political and societal intrigue, the stories of the characters we follow orbit around the pursuit of mysterious film newsreels that show alternate histories of the war and its aftermath. The source of the reels, the unseen Man in the High Castle, seems to be head of a guerrilla resistance force trying to undermine the authoritarian states — for all we know.

In addition to having one of the more haunting title sequences I’ve ever seen (above), the show blends three of my interests—historical counterfactuals, dystopia, and World War II—seamlessly into the background of a narrative arc that lets us see the inner workings of a tenuous alliance between the two Axis powers. The show is ingenious at working in small world-building details, either through dialogue or in the background—like when a Nazi police officer mentions offhand how the elderly are regularly euthanized and exterminated so as not to be a “burden on the State.”

To me, the most interesting character of season one—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—is the Nazi. Rufus Sewell plays Obergruppenführer John Smith, a high-ranking SS officer charged with tracking down the remaining film reels and quelling the Resistance. Sewell’s icy, devilish demeanor, mixed with his character’s white-picket-fence, all-American (or rather all-German) lifestyle, provides ample ground for a fascinating character study. Frank (Rupert Evans) is another intriguing character: a downtrodden laborer concealing his Jewish identity who gets tangled up with the newsreels and has to make some brutal decisions after being imprisoned by the Japanese military police.

What I love about counterfactuals is pondering the questions they conjure. Is there anything better about this show’s reality than ours? What does ours share in common with it, and how it is vastly different? It also made me better sympathize with societies that have been occupied, subjugated, and made to accept a new culture. Americans have never experienced that; in fact, throughout history we’ve always been the occupiers and the subjugators, imposing our values and military might in other lands under the banner of liberty. Optimists will say our actions were justified for the sake of spreading democracy, but realists know otherwise. Of course, I’m not equating U.S. foreign policy to the Nazi and Japanese empires in The Man in the High Castle. But I am inspired to decide how and why America is different.

It’s a dark show, no doubt about it. But after some key points in the first few episodes, the gears propel toward a climax and the next season’s continuation that I’m really looking forward to.

(Also, I had no idea how much of the show was CGI-generated, which this video illustrates; I really couldn’t tell while watching it, and even wondered how they got away with displaying so much Nazi paraphernalia.)

Better Living Through Criticism

better-livingI’ve been a fan of A.O. Scott since his too-short time co-hosting At the Movies with Michael Phillips, which was my favorite post-Ebert iteration of the show. Their tenure was a salve after the brief and forgettable stint of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. Phillips and Scott brought a benevolent wonkiness to the show I greatly enjoyed and mourned when it was axed.

So I was quite pleased to read A.O. Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, which is not as self-helpy as it sounds, mercifully. In fact, it’s nearly the opposite of self-help, a genre hell-bent on offering surefire prescriptions for every psychological impediment blocking our true greatness within. Scott is far less strident. He avoids making grand declarations about The Purpose of Criticism, much to the chagrin of grand declarers. All the better. To me, criticism is not about conquering artistic foes or achieving certainty, but about making sense of what goes on inside our heads and hearts when we encounter something beautiful, pleasurable, or truthful — or all (or none) of the above.

The book ambles towards answers to the pointed questions I’m sure Scott receives often: What are critics for? Are critics relevant anymore? One purpose for critics he lands on is to be people “whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” This is absolutely true, as is its inverse of steering others away. Many movies that I expected to be worthwhile ended up being duds, and the critical consensus that bubbled up before their opening weekends helped convince me to wait for the Redbox or to avoid them altogether.

Conversely, without Bilge Ebiri’s incessant cheerleading for The Lego Movie before it came out in early 2014, I would have assumed it was another cheap kids movie and not a hilarious and surprisingly profound meditation on creativity and identity. Ditto Brooklyn, which I expected to be another overwrought, Oscar-baity period drama but in fact nearly brought this non-crier-at-movies to tearsCritics matter, even when I disagree with them (cough Carol cough).

Scott also feels duty-bound as a critic “to redirect enthusiasm, to call attention to what might otherwise be ignored or undervalued. In either instance, though, whether we’re cheerleading or calling bullshit, our assessment has to proceed from a sincere and serious commitment.” The calling attention to is big: a recent example is last year’s Tangerine, a tiny indie I wouldn’t have given a chance without wide and persistent acclaim from the bevy of critics I admire and follow just so I can get scoops like that.

“Redirecting enthusiasm” might also be considered a challenge to “swim upstream”: to seek out the earlier, influential works that laid the groundwork for whatever we’re watching, listening to, reading now. American culture’s on-demand, presentist bias deprives us of decades of good art, whose only crime is not being made right this live-tweetable second. The critic who compares a new film to an older one, favorably or otherwise, provides context for readers but also a tacit clue that checking out that older film might be worthwhile. The upside of our appified age is that finding those forgotten gems has never been easier: getting upstream is as easy as visiting your local library, Amazon, or streaming service.

But what I consider the most compelling reason for the critic’s job might be their most self-interested one. Scott quotes the ever-quotable critic H.L. Mencken, who wrote the motive of the critic who is really worth reading is “no more and no less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world.”

The process of making an articulate noise about something is the point, I think. It’s where a writer lives most of the time, engaging in a back-and-forth with the work and with himself until he lands on something approximating the truth of his experience. To that end, Scott writes, the history of criticism is the history of struggle. This book embodies that struggle literally: Scott engages in four interstitial dialogues, wherein he banters with an unnamed interlocutor (or inner critic?) who could also stand in as the aggrieved audience, demanding that Scott justify his existence.

I know this combat comes with the job, but the hostility critics in general receive baffles me. There’s way too much out there to see, read, and hear for one person to sort through. “This state of wondering paralysis cries out for criticism,” he writes, “which promises to sort through the glut, to assist in the formation of choices, to act as gatekeeper to our beiseged sensoria.” Having professional curators with unique, informed, and enthusiastic taste is a good thing, not something to scoff at or claim is irrelevant in the age of Rotten Tomatoes.

But if you think a critic is wrong and want to tell him why, congratulations! You’re now a critic and are obligated to say more.

Anyway, good on Scott for driving this conversation, and for holding his ground against Samuel L. Jackson.

Been Reviewing

Happy to report that two of my most recent reviews for Library Journal are now online. I wrote about Edward Lengel’s First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His—and the Nation’s—Prosperity and Charles Rappleye’s Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the PresidencyFirst Entrepreneur is already out, and the Herbert Hoover biography, which I gave a “starred” review, comes out in May.

My first two reviews are also up, but paywalled: Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA by Amy Shira Teitel here and Industries of the Future by Alec Ross here, which is for Booklist.

Reviewing for two publications at once has been fun but strange. Sometimes I’ll have several books at once and have to power through them, and other times I’ll have just one looming in the distance, giving me some time for personal reading. The reviews are only 175-200 words, though, so they are easier to get through than the essay-like reviews in the New York Times et al. Then again, summarizing hundreds of pages in what is basically a solid paragraph can be challenging, especially when I have strong opinions (good or bad) or the book covers so much ground. Then, once I’ve submitted the review, I can’t really discuss it with anyone because it’s not released yet, and I can’t post my review because it’s for the publication.

Anyway, it’s been a fun gig thus far. Thanks to LJ and Booklist for the opportunity.

The Shepherd’s Life

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Really enjoyed James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life: Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, a memoir of a sheep farmer told season by season. I followed his Twitter account for a while and enjoyed the seeming simplicity the stream of sheep pics depicted. Reading this memoir, however, disabused me of any assumptions I’d made about the life of a shepherd.

Rebanks tells of growing up in a farming family, hating school and the anti-farming condescension that came with it. He covers a lot of interesting aspects of the profession that has run in Rebanks’ family for centuries: training sheepdogs, the long-range strategy required for successful breeding, the arduous sheep birthing process (“Imagine a couple of adults looking after several hundred newborn babies and toddlers in a large park”), the disturbing yet oddly endearing way orphaned lambs are paired with ewes whose own lambs had died, and the unexpected legacy of Beatrix Potter in his region.

But this isn’t a kindly pastoral. The region of the Lake District in northern England, made famous by the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, is tough terrain at any time, let alone during the long, cold, glum slog of winter, which the hardy sheep can endure but only with help from the equally tough expert farmers. Though lauding its natural beauty, Rebanks openly resents the tourist-attracting romanticization of the region and the at-large decline of his profession and way of life.

Neither does he spare the gory details of life with livestock. It’s hard, sweaty, demanding, low-paying, seemingly never-ending work. Yet even when, almost in spite of himself, Rebanks attends Oxford (his account of which drips with wry bemusement), he tends to his farm work on weekends and holidays and sticks with it even when the possibilities of the “outside world” beckon.

I’d like to think Rebanks has read or at least heard of Wendell Berry, whose writing on farming, community, and modern life echoed in my head as I read The Shepherd’s Life. Odds are Rebanks would feel at home in Berry’s pseudo-fictional community of Port William, and Berry in the Lake District. Both men deploy a simple yet vigorous writing style, the occasional flourish surrounded by spacious prose — not unlike the rural landscapes they inhabit.

Formally educated or not, Rebanks makes good use of the local dialect. Words like heaf, croft, heather, tup, fells, beck, ghyll, and shearling look and sound positively British, and help to ground us in the turf right alongside the sheep. (Check out the names of the fells — my favorite: Barf.) I also liked the book’s four-seasons structure, which, like two other nature books I love (A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and The Singing Wilderness by Sigurd Olson), gives readers the energizing feeling of spending a year on the ground with a wise, seasoned guide.

“It’s bloody marvelous,” H Is For Hawk author Helen Macdonald blurbed on the book’s cover. From one nature writer to another, she was right. Check this one out.

Some Quotes

On what he learned from a terrible experience in school:

This crappy, mean, broken-down school took five years of my life. I’d be mad, but for the fact that it taught me more about who I was than anything else I have ever done. It also made me think that modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.

On physical work:

Later I would understand that modern people the world over are obsessed with the importance of ‘going somewhere’ and ‘doing something’ with your life. The implication is an idea I have come to hate, that staying local and doing physical work doesn’t count for much.

On the pull of the landscape:

The landscape is our home and we rarely stray long from it, or endure anywhere else for long before returning. This may seem like a lack of imagination or adventure, but I don’t care. I love this place; for me it is the beginning and the end of everything, and everywhere else feels like nowhere.

On how city life can shortchange us:

I sometimes think we are so independently minded because we had seen just enough of the wider world to know we liked our own old ways and independence best. My grandfather went as far afield as Paris for a trip to an agricultural fair once. He knew what cities had to offer, but also had a sense that they would leave you uprooted, anonymous, and pushed about by the world you lived in, rather than having some freedom and control. The potential wealth on offer counted for little or nothing set against the sense of belonging and purpose that existed at home.

On functional beauty:

My grandfather had an eye for things that were beautiful, like a sunset, but he would explain it in mostly functional terms, not abstract aesthetic ones. He seemed to love the landscape around him with a passion, but his relationship with it was more like a long tough marriage than a fleeting holiday love affair. His work bound him to the land, regardless of weather or the seasons. When he observed something like a spring sunset, it carried the full meaning of someone who had earned the right to comment, having suffered six months of wind, snow, and rain to get to that point. He clearly thought such things beautiful, but that beauty was full of real functional implications—namely the end of winter or better weather to come.

 

Photo above from James Rebanks’ Twitter account @herdyshepherd1.

Favorite Films, Books, and Albums of 2015

Resurrecting my 2013 choice to include all my best-ofs into one omnilist, here are 15 films, books, and albums I loved from 2015.

Film

1. Brooklyn
There’s a scene about five minutes into Brooklyn that setup the whole film for me. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), soon bound for a new life in 1950s America, watches as her friend disappears into the dance crowd with a partner, leaving her alone, on the outside looking in at what will soon be her old life. The camera holds on her face, which betrays a tender bittersweetness that characterizes the whole of John Crowley’s exquisite and humane film. Even while still at home she is homesick, a struggle she will have to endure long after she sails away from Ireland and attempts to forge a new meaning of home. Saoirse Ronan carried this film, and me with it.

2. Spotlight

3. Mad Max: Fury Road (if only for this shot)

4. Creed

5. Slow West (review)

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Books

1. The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson (review)
I’m a sucker for concisely written popular histories that uncover forgotten pockets of history and render them understandable and entertaining to the general public. This book does just that. Having read Isaacson’s biography of Einstein last year I was a little better equipped than I otherwise would be when reading about Einstein’s role in this narrative, yet I found Levenson’s distillation of the theories revolving around the Vulcan episode even more accessible than others. I’ve been pimping this one at the library with hopes more people will enjoy it as much as I did.

2. Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker

3. H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald (review)

4. Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton (review)

5. The Typewriter Revolution by Richard Polt (review)

Albums

1. Psalms by Sandra McCracken
“All Ye Refugees” was quite timely this year, given the animus surrounding immigration. It’s heartening to remember public policy need not and should not be influenced solely by politico and demagogues. Though this album is explicitly based on the Psalms, like her previous albums The Builder and the Architect and In Feast or Fallow its blend of modern and ancient style lends it a timeless sound even the irreligious can appreciate.

2. Didn’t He Ramble by Glen Hansard

3. Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens

4. Such Jubilee by Mandolin Orange

5. Strange Trails by Lord Huron

Fates and Furies

“Like that, all at once, Mathilde grew up over Aurelie’s skin.”

That sentence pretty much summed up Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies for me. It’s a book highly concerned with facade, which is often portrayed by the characters’ skin — the metaphorical skin Mathilde grows over her childhood self, and even the actual skin on Lotto’s face, which evolves from an acne-ridden liability in adolescence to an asset as a college playboy actor.

Another force at play is expectations: creating them, subverting them, negotiating with them as reality strikes. There’s the playwright Lotto seeks out for an artistic collaboration who doesn’t match with who he was expecting, nor does the result of their collaboration. There’s the private investigator of many literal disguises. There’s the childhood friend conning his way through college. Even “Furies” as a whole, the entire second half dedicated to Mathilde’s perspective, acts as an upending foil to what “Fates” establishes with Lotto’s narrative.

There’s a short, tangential paragraph that illustrates this well. It concludes a scene in Lotto and Mathilde’s dingy apartment with them and Lotto’s aunt Sallie and little sister singing “Jingle Bells” on Christmas around the tree. A stranger walks by and sees this scene and “his heart did a somersault, and the image stayed with him.” Groff gives this paragraph to an anonymous man completely unrelated to the story, for whom this small image within our narrative was a flashbulb moment that stayed with him throughout his life: “All those years, the singers in the soft light in the basement apartment crystallized in his mind, became the very idea of what happiness should look like.”

Except that scene was not what it seemed from outside. The group was discussing Lotto’s turbulent family situation with a sour tension that usually accompanies such discussions, and Lotto started up “Jingle Bells” to shoo away the dark thoughts it had conjured — to “sing in the face of dismay.” Mathilde boiling with resentment, Sallie rehashing regretful memories, they joined in the song too in spite of themselves, forming a portrait a man outside their window would drastically reinterpret for the rest of his life. Indeed, appearances can be deceiving.

Probably my favorite aspect of the book is Groff’s writing style. It’s a muscular but fragmentary syntax, as if it were a choppy sea — not unlike the book’s cover illustration — rolling Mathilde and Lotto along, barely keeping them afloat. It’ll put off some readers, but I’m a fan. It reminded me of Annie Proulx’s style in The Shipping News, which nixed sentence subjects altogether. (Certainly not every unorthodox style works for me: Rob Bell’s “give every sentence its own paragraph” arrangement, for example, grates me to no end.)

I’d heard from the general buzz around the book that the two parts were different perspectives on the same story, and that a major twist drops in the second part, a la Gone Girl. But it didn’t feel that way at all. “Furies” is more like a slow twist, unrolling gradually to reveal the darker side of their marital orbit. For that reason I think I like “Furies” more than “Fates”, which is the opposite of the consensus I’ve heard from others. Lauren Miller at Slate is right, though, that “Fates” published alone would have felt slight, just as “Furies” published alone would have seemed farcical.

The book is greater than the sum of its parts, so all the plaudits thus far make sense. I don’t read enough fiction to fairly compare it to anything else, so I’ll just say I dug it and you might too.

The Typewriter: A Graphic History

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Janine Vongool’s The Typewriter: A Graphic History of the Beloved Machine is a gorgeous compendium of ads, photographs, and other artwork depicting typewriters and related ephemera from their invention in the late 1860s to the 1980s, when personal computers began to supersede their analog ancestors.

In other words: straight-up typewriter porn.

Some interesting tidbits:

The Name

Charles Weller, a clerk who witnessed the early development of the machine, talked years later about how the typewriter got its name: “Typewriter was an unusual name and had a unique sound, and so it was finally adopted, and then for the first time was heard a name, sounding oddly enough at that time, but which has now become so common throughout the civilized world that we wonder that any other name was thought of.” Other names like “writing machine” and “printing machine” didn’t quite fit, and in retrospect were clearly inferior choices to typewriter, which indeed is an unusual but perfectly apt name.

The War

Typewriters were recruited to the World War II effort just as other industries and product were. The Royal ad below: “Uncle Sam wants every typewriter you can spare because the fighting forces need typewriters desperately today. They’re needed to speed up production, the movement of supplies, orders to ships and planes and troops. The typewriter industry can’t supply ’em – we’re busy making ordnance.” Manufacturers implored customers to either sell theirs to the government or maintain them better, as supplies and repairmen would be at a deficit due to war production.

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A Secretary Is Not A Toy

Sex and sexism are common themes throughout the decades of typewriter advertising shown in this book. Early 20th century graphics often depicted the office secretary as the “temptress at work” or an idle daydreamer, with the word typewriter “often used to describe both the machine and its operator.” The ads above make winking reference to these assumptions with the bait-and-switch headline that’s actually just selling carbon copy paper. The ads below promoted using bright red fingernail polish to contrast with the style of the machine; in a brilliant move of synergy, Underwood even made its own “chip-resistant” polish secretaries could sample by writing in on their office stationery.

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Typewriters and Self-Worth

Showing us that some things never change, some mid-century ads promoted typewriters to young people as statements of social standing, self-improvement, and self-worth. One Corona ad from 1921 just comes right out with it: “You probably suspect that we are trying to sell you a Corona. Nothing of the sort. We are just trying to convince you that you need a Corona. That’s different.” Royal really hit the self-improvement theme hard, promising a 38% rise in grades due to all the “exclusives” the 1958 Royal Portable provided.

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While I would have appreciated more contextual information accompanying the artwork, Vangool mostly lets the many images speak for themselves. Overall, it’s a superbly made coffee-table book that fans of typewriters and the graphic arts especially will enjoy.

The Big Short

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The scene in The Big Short that encapsulates the entire sad, tragic, enraging economic failure it covers is a short one. After Lehman Brothers collapses, the dejected horde of laid-off employees are shown streaming out of the building, bewildered and holding their bankers boxes of personal items, as an executive (which in the script is described as “diminutive”) shouts robotically:

“Go straight to your transportation! Do not talk to the press! Go straight to your transportation! Do not talk to the press!”

I don’t know if this actually happened or not, but it sure sounds like it could have. The Move along, nothing to see here attitude pretty much sums up the events in the film, and the Great Recession in general. Malfeasant banks, obeisant credit agencies and watchdogs, reckless homebuyers, deceitful executives all agreed there was nothing wrong, that bad things are only done by bad people and not Good Americans just doing their jobs.

I was a junior in college when the crash hit in September 2008, so I was largely (and luckily) isolated from its worst effects. By the time I was looking for a “real” job, after a gap year and two years in grad school, it was 2013 and economic conditions were much more favorable. Still, I remember that time very well: GOP presidential nominee John “The fundamentals of our economy are strong” McCain, the bailout, the bonuses, Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer.

People my age have witnessed many events over the last decade and a half that I think will remain deeply instructive for our foundational understanding of the world: 9/11, the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib, the Catholic Church sex abuse, Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession, Trayvon Martin, and the NSA a few among them. Controversies like these often reveal the partisan fault lines that determine what you ought to believe about them, depending on whether your county is red or blue. But to me they all proved, just as The Big Short proves, that the game is rigged, that the truth is not as it is reported to be.

Move along, nothing to see here.

This is a lamentable conclusion. The film dresses it up with good actors delivering savvy exposition at a caper’s pace, but it is there nevertheless. At the heart of this film are farsighted money-men trying to profit off the greed of shortsighted money-men. This makes them no better than Captain Renault in Casablanca, and yet we root for them because they’re not Major Strasser.

I wasn’t planning on getting so down while writing about this film, but the underlying melancholy that pervades it stuck with me, and ought to. Perhaps that’s why I responded to this much more than The Wolf of Wall Street, which treads similar territory yet repulsed me. (I get that Scorsese was trying to do that: congrats, I feel disgusted by Belfort and his life; now I will never watch it again.) The Big Short made me understand and made me give a damn; The Wolf of Wall Street spat in my face. Who would have thought Adam McKay would create a more well-rounded take on American avarice than Martin Scorsese?