That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Archive for February, 2018

And I dance with your ghost, oh but that ain’t the way.

Posted by kozemp on February 10, 2018

I came late to the Gaslight Anthem. I don’t mean late in life – although I suppose by the strictest definition I sort of do – but late in the band’s career. I showed up late to the game. I missed the first period.

I can’t recall exactly how it happened, but one day four or five years ago I somehow fell down a wiki-hole and ended up googling “jersey shore sound.” This led me to links to a bunch of different acts, five or six if I recall, that were meant to be emblematic of that Jersey Shore sound.

I know for a fact that I listened to all of them, but the only one that stuck with me was The Gaslight Anthem. I loved these guys. The Gaslight Anthem are the foremost group who grew up listening to Springsteen, but something happened to them and instead of just another poetic roots-rocker the music got pushed into this odd place, a melange of that Jersey Shore calliope sound and something harder and rougher – punk, more or less, but it’s more than that.

If – getting broad here – the core question of Bruce Springsteen’s music is how we live with each other, the core of Brian Fallon and TGA is the question of how we live with ourselves. I used to joke that I wanted to make a jukebox musical from Gaslight Anthem songs, and it would be about the guy with the worst luck with women who ever lived, coming to realize that he was the problem all along. There’s a pretty clear line you can trace through their work, I think, and it’s not insignificant the album about Brian’s divorce was the band’s last.

It’s also not insignificant that of all the bands I listened to that week the Gaslight Anthem, whose throughline is “his problems with women were his fault all along” is the only one that stuck with me longer than a minute, but that’s another show.

So, like I do with a lot of things I fell immediately and head over heels in love with their music and spent weeks and months listening to it almost nonstop.

***

I don’t remember where we were going – I want to say I was driving him to a train someplace – but I picked my friend Danny up one day and as we were driving away I fired up the album Handwritten on my phone and “45” started playing.

“The Gaslight Anthem, John?” he looked at me. “Really?”

“What?” I said. “I just found these guys. I love this shit. You don’t like it?”

“No,” he said. “They’re fine. I mean, if you like that sort of thing.”

“I like that sort of thing.”

“This song is on the loading screen for NHL 13,” Dan said. “I like the band but I’ve heard this song like a million times.”

This was literally the worst possible thing Danny could have said to me.

I spent the next three years tormenting him with “45” every chance I could get. It started out simple, just posting the video of the song to his Facebook or texting him the Youtube link directly. Nothing even remotely subtle. Just sending him the link, trying to make him watch it. Le Chiffre-esque, I eschewed exotic tortures and just went for blunt force trauma.

When that stopped working I moved on to more esoteric measures. First came straight-up rickrolling him. I would send him a text with some tease like “hey did you see this Hazard goal?” and the accompanying video would be “45.” I would do similar things on Facebook and utilize the “hide preview” button so that he wouldn’t be able to tell it was TGA without clicking through. Eventually he told me he just wouldn’t look at any videos from me anymore without knowing exactly what they were. I started using bit.ly and got informed for my trouble that he wouldn’t look at any links period.

I would have to work harder.

At this point – I’d been at this for more than a year by now – I realized I couldn’t just try to get him to watch the music video any more. I had to make him FEEL the song. So I would randomly cut and paste lyrics onto his Facebook page. When we were at the pub or on the train to the Rock I would idly hum the melody during breaks in conversation. This drove him nuts. It was great.

Finally, one day I unleashed my pièce de résistance on him.

I spent the better part of an entire morning at the pub describing a fictional woman I had met, and the fictional tribulations we’d been through, leading up to a fictional date that was an absolute fictional disaster. It was a classic tale of my woe and ineptitude with the fairer sex (or Brian Fallon’s) that he had heard many similar versions of over the years, but I sprinkled fairy dust throughout so at the denouement, summarizing how hopeful I had been at the start and how crushed I was at the end by the terrible fictional things that had transpired with this fictional woman, I could look at my friend, offer a mighty heaving sigh and say, “really, buddy, have you seen my heart? Have you seen how it bleeds?”

Danny stared at me for a solid ten seconds, a glare that would have made a Gorgon look away in terror, before he said, “I fucking hate you, John.”

It was one of the best moments of my life.

We went on watching the game. I drove him home afterward and played a different Gaslight Anthem album in the car. Danny sat there in silence the whole ride, trying to look angry and to not laugh. When I was really on he made that face a lot. God, I miss it.

***

Danny and I used to go to one or two Devils games a year together. Those were great times, always. Sometimes big groups of folks would join us, other times just him and I. At one stretch we went to Devils-Sabres at the Rock three years in a row and I got to heckle Ryan Miller with the classic “HEY RYAN YOUR SKATES ARE UNTIED!” (Dan’s response: “you’re better than that, John.”) We were there for Game 7 when the Hurricanes scored 2 goals in 87 seconds to end the season. Goddamn Eric Staal. Okay, actually, that time was not great, but still.

It was that Game 7 when I start when I started buying these collectible coffee cups every time we went to a game. At first I was on one of my occasional no-soda binges and needing something to drink at the arena I saw “ooh! A black plastic cup with a big red Devils logo on it!” and got one. I must have still been soda-free the next game we went to because I got another. And then another and another until it snowballed into one of those things I “had” to do. I have about half a dozen lying around here different places. At least two of them are currently holding paintbrushes. (Those don’t get used for coffee again.)

After his daughter was born we never managed to make it work so we could all get up there. Those were rough seasons anyway, and I didn’t feel too bad about missing out on games when they weren’t very good. It’s not like popping on the El to head down to a Phillies game, which I’ll still do usually at least once a season, even through the nigh-constant rebuilding years. It’s 80 solid miles from here to the Prudential Center; not exactly something you can decide to take in on the last minute, and it’s not an appetizing prospect to spend two-plus hours each way driving back and forth to Hamilton and riding NJT to watch the Devils lose 5-2 to the Capitals. Again.

So there was a gap there of about two years or so where I didn’t make it to a game in person. But I had found NHLTV by then and gotten their subscription package and I could very easily watch the Devils lose 5-2 to the Caps (again) in the comfort of my own home. Danny and I would text back and forth when he knew I was watching the game. Dan knew hockey, I mean really KNEW it. He wrote about the game for a bunch of different newspapers and websites, appeared on podcasts, the whole works. He knew hockey in a way I don’t really know any sport, but we would still maintain almost constant text conversations throughout games. Usually his texts were about some high-level hockey strategy that went completely over my head and my texts were either a) baiting him into messages like that with purposefully boneheaded analysis, or b) taunting him about poor goalie play.

We argued about goalies all the time. He’d always say “not every goal is on the goalie.” I would counter with something like “so all five goals were the defensemen’s fault?” We would usually have this argument on nights when the Devils were egregiously bad. We would usually have this argument on those nights because I would instigate it. At one point, in the pub a few mornings after one of these arguments, I asked “can you hear me cackling when I text that?” He assured me he could.

The last text Danny ever sent me wasn’t during a hockey game. It was a question about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on a random Thursday night last winter. I didn’t answer. I read it, thought about it, realized the answer was fairly complex, and resolved to talk about it with him at length later. The call from his wife Steph came that Sunday morning and now I still go back and look at that text on my phone and kick myself for not saying SOMETHING that night. The one time in my life I declined the invitation to pontificate about Indiana Jones. I can’t make up stuff that sad. I’ve tried.

***

In the aftermath of Danny’s death I wrote that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to a Devils game ever again. I didn’t watch a single minute of a game for the rest of last season after that weekend, putting hockey out of my head for a few months. Even on television it hurt too much to think about. I kept something of an eye out, mainly through the Devils subreddit – I knew they were still pretty bad, that Taylor Hall was having trouble fitting in, that, as Danny would always tell me, Cory Schneider was playing great but the defense in front of him was terrible. I read the headlines and occasionally dove into the comments but never participated. I didn’t want to be part of it.

I recognize now that was the exact wrong reaction, in no small way because when it comes to the Devils being part of it is the whole point. I’ve talked before about how in my experience Devils fans as a group are slightly nicer than other hockey fans because everyone is coming to the team from a distance. It’s not like the Flyers or the Rangers or whoever where you go to work and then pop right down to the arena for the game afterward, where the team is always right there next to you. Even local Devils fans are coming from someplace far away. (I mean, I assume there are SOME fans in Newark, but not many, and nobody lived in the Meadowlands.) Everyone is coming that distance, everyone is going out of their way, and instead of being cranky and mean about it there’s a sort of shared camaraderie of “well, we came all this way, let’s not spoil it.” I’m not saying there aren’t jerks and louts – there are anyplace large numbers of people gather – but my experiences with other Devils fans have always been positive.

My experiences have always been positive and when being part of something positive would have helped the most I was purposefully shutting it out. I was shutting it out because I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was shutting it out because, like Jim Kirk in Wrath of Khan, I’d never even considered dealing with it.

Make no mistake – when Kirk says he’s never faced death, this is what he (and David) meant. Not that he’s never faced his own death. No one ever really can. That’s the genius of Kirk’s solution to the Kobayashi Maru; not that he cheated, but that he recognized the whole test is bullshit to begin with. Your own death is incomprehensible. What Kirk had never considered – and nether had I – was the possibility of someone he cared about dying, someone really close to him, and when it finally came it blindsided him the way it blindsided me.

The difference is that Kirk knew enough to lean on the folks around him to get through it. Me, I didn’t know even that, so I shut out a lot of what probably would have been a very useful support system and decided, like I’d done with so many things before, to go it on my own. If I’d had my estranged son around to tell me not to be so hard on myself I might have tried something different, but if my estranged son is out there he hasn’t shown himself yet. I dated my own Carol Marcus enough times that it’s certainly possible.

***

When the start of the season rolled around I saw something on r/Devils that intrigued me – the Devils finally had a podcast.

I had railed for years that the team needed one, that (for a while there) the only fan podcast we had was a dour, unfunny slog – such nabobs of negativity that Danny had actually stopped appearing on it – and that other teams were starting up their own in-house shows and goddammit, we should do that.

I had been reluctantly toying with the idea of watching a hockey game since the end of the preseason a few weeks before, in no small part because I had forgotten to turn off my recurring billing for NHLTV and they had already charged me for the first month of the season. I was about as far from hockey as I had ever been in my adult life. I vaguely knew the Devils had gotten the #1 pick in the draft, but on that day in October I couldn’t have told you Nico Hischier’s name if my life depended on it. I didn’t know if I wanted to watch a game or not. I certainly didn’t want to go to one.

But a podcast! I love podcasts. I’m a veteran of three of them – my first, in fact, was a Chelsea podcast I did with Danny and our friend Tim. And the Devils podcast I’d been demanding for years to boot. I couldn’t very well not give it a cursory listen, at the very least.

I was sitting at my dining room table working, with my phone connected to the Bluetooth speaker on the kitchen counter. I tapped through the menus on Downcast until I found it – the New Jersey Devils All-Access Podcast – and started streaming the most recent episode.

The podcast started and the opening bars of “45” came out of my little gray speaker and I burst out crying.

I gripped the edge of the table – a familiar move, the last two years – tried to calm down, and thought, “of COURSE that’s the fucking theme music.”

The Devils had changed their goal music to Howl, another Gaslight Anthem track, a few years before – a change I liked – and it made sense that they’d stick with TGA for the podcast. There are worse things, certainly, than associating your team with a beloved local band. At that moment, though, it was just about the most awful thing in the world.

Once I let go of the table I pawed for my phone and stopped the player, then sat there trying to take deep breaths for a while.

It occurred to me that in addition to not watching a hockey game since Danny had died I hadn’t once listened to Handwritten either.

I got my breathing and my heartrate under control and looked down at my phone. The details of the show were still up on the screen: “Episode 3: The Return of Chico Resch.”

One of the things I occasionally quip – and always mean seriously – is that when the universe is telling you something, you have to listen.

Like pretty much every Devils fan, I would jump in front of a train for Chico Resch. He’s the wacky uncle to all of us and is maybe the most beloved figure in the entire organization. (Martin Brodeur is a lot of things, but I don’t know that “lovable” is one of them.) It was a legitimately sad day when he left the broadcast booth, like when that wacky uncle moves away and doesn’t have Facebook to keep in touch because, well, he’s your wacky uncle and folks of that generation are not great Facebook users.

A Devils podcast, led off by the Gaslight Anthem, with “the return of Chico Resch” (whatever that meant) was definitely the universe trying to tell me something. Specifically, it was telling me to take some more deep breaths, calm down dammit, and spend half an hour listening to this podcast.

I turned it back on and two voices came on, a man and a woman doing podcast intro banter, talking about their new show and how things were starting out. I believe there was an early mention of the now-ongoing regular fries vs. sweet potato fries debate.

I distinctly remember thinking that Amanda Stein had the most Canadian voice I’d ever heard.

I had gotten up from the dining room table and was busying myself in the kitchen while listening, emptying the dishwasher and shit whatnot, repeatedly thinking, “this is really good. It’s rough and new, but it’s really good.” Then the interview with Chico came on and as soon as I heard his voice I actually stopped what I was doing and smiled. Chico. God it was good to hear him again.

Hearing Chico Resch made me think of Danny and not be sad for the first time since I’d gotten the phone call from Steph.

And I would be able to hear him more! The “return” the title talked about was that he was going to be doing color on the Devils’ radio broadcasts. That alone made my heart leap a little bit, the chance to hear Chico on the regular. But that wasn’t even all. He was going to join Twitter! CHICO RESCH WAS GOING TO BE ON TWITTER! I was going to have regular access to his thoughts! CHICO ON TWITTER!

Sometimes the universe tries to tell you things. And then sometimes the universe looks at you, and raises its eyebrows in that “seriously, man, come ON” look and demands you get with the goddamn program.

The show ended and I subscribed to it in Downcast.

I looked at the schedule and saw that the Devils would be playing the Capitals the next night.

I said out loud to my empty kitchen, “okay, fine, I’ll watch.”

The next night after work I sat in front of the TV, fired up my NHL app, and watched the Devils lose to the Caps 5-2. Again.

***

After I watched the game I set up a “Devils” column in Tweetdeck. I added Chico to it first. I also added Amanda and Arda, the nice folks from the podcast. I added a couple players, the team accounts, some reporters.

It was slow – I was listening to a podcast, reading some stuff on Twitter, and had watched a single game – but hockey was something I could bear to think about again. I started paying a little more attention to r/Devils. Eventually I started joining in on game threads and other discussions.

I watched another game the next week, and another and another.

Watching those Devils games, those early ones back in October, was hard. After every memorable play, good and bad, for the first few weeks I would pick up my phone every time. The muscle memory was still there – something would happen on the ice, and I’d pick up my phone to text Danny something stupid about it.

Four months later I don’t pick up the phone anymore, but I do still think about it. Every time. I compose the text in my head and think about his reaction before I can remember there won’t be one, but at least I don’t pick up the phone anymore. Most of the time, at least. Every now and then the thought and the joke plow through everything and I find myself holding the phone and I end up texting our friend Tom, also a Devils fan, who I hope is watching the game. Sometimes he is and we have a nice back-and-forth.

Tom is another one who knows the game way better than I ever will. I was always a Devils fan more than I was necessarily a hockey fan, but I’m trying to learn a little now. I even read Wyshynski’s loathsome book about hockey strategy and managed to learn a few things from it (the ratio of time spent learning to time spent muttering “oh Jesus Christ” was highly unfavorable). I wish I had learned before – I wish just once I could have had a conversation with Danny about hockey that was close to his level – and the irony of finally doing that now is, believe me, really, really not lost on me. But I’m learning anyway.

***

For that first month or two, the thought of going to an actual game never crossed my mind. I could watch on TV, and I was participating more and more in the discussions on the Devils subreddit, but actually going up to the Rock was still a bridge too far. Being there, I was convinced, would be somehow “different” in some way I very carefully refused to define.

I stuck by that until I want to say sometime in early December, when out of nowhere I texted Tom, “we should find a Devils game to go to.”

I’m not entirely sure why I did that, and I don’t recall any specific moment of breakthrough or catharsis where I thought, “you know what, I think I’d be okay now to go to a Devils game, let’s round up the boys.”

Even still, before I knew it I was scrolling through the Devils’ schedule and I sent to Tom, “how about Devils-Bruins on 2/11?”

What the hell was I doing? I was still terrified of the thought of going to the Rock. It was like my fingers had a mind of my own, or I’d been infected by Snow Crash, or I’d finally had the psychotic break a lot of those Carol Marcus types had assumed was coming sooner or later. Why was I picking out dates for me and Tom to go to a game? It was madness.

Then I started texting OTHER people to see if THEY wanted to go to the game with us. Other friends of mine who were Devils fans. A friend who is a Bruins fan. I told Tom to see if any of HIS friends wanted to join us.

This one, at least, I knew what was happening: if I was going to plunge headlong into danger (a la a certain captain) I would surround myself with friends in an attempt to…lessen the blow? Provide moral support? Pick me up if I walked into the Rock and fainted? All of the above? Possibly.

The thing had gotten away from me now, though. Invites were flying all over the eastern seaboard. And if we’re being honest – and I hope I am, at least, it’s always a little dicey but that IS the idea – ever since we agreed to it I have been dreading going to this game tomorrow.

Not just dreading, though. I mean, definitely dreading, yes. I have no idea how I’m going to react when I walk into that arena tomorrow, when I first see the ice and the folks in their jerseys. There is a nonzero chance I’m going to have a total fucking meltdown when I get there.

You know what I’m really dreading, though? I’m dreading buying coffee. The thought of going to get one, for some reason, is almost as scary as actual things like being there for the first time without my friend. This is the thing I’m fixating on. The goddamn coffee cup. I recognize this is my brain doing gymnastics to try and get me to avoid thinking about actual things that are painful but COME ON: the coffee cup? I really feel like a brain that can do the things mine can should come up with a more interesting effort than that.

But I’m not only dreading it. For all the parts of my brain that are Kirk in his quarters trying to shut out everything that’s happened, still refusing to deal with death, there is another part that is Kirk on the bridge with Bones and Carol, searching for new life in the sunrise, finally dealing with death the only way we can that actually works: with other people propping him up.

I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I know what I hope will happen. I’m going to walk into that arena with all the other people who came a long way to sit and be together, and hope I hear that Gaslight Anthem song, think of my friend, and feel young again.

JLK

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What are you then, Bill?

Posted by kozemp on February 6, 2018

I started thinking about it right before the playoffs started.

It was just an idea at first, something almost too silly to consider. “If the Eagles make the Super Bowl, I should go down and watch the game with my dad.“ It was ridiculous. The Eagles were not going to make the Super Bowl, so it didn’t really matter. A fancy, a little trifle.

Then the Eagles beat the Falcons, and I seriously started to consider it. Should I go down and watch the game with Dad? There are worse things in Florida in February, certainly.

Then the NFC championship happened, and somewhere around the third quarter together I decided “I guess I need to decide where I’m going to watch this game. Florida could be nice.”

I decided to go to Florida to watch the Super Bowl at around 1130 on the night of the NFC Championship, right before I needed to take a sleeping pill because of the neighborhood-encompassing party that was still going on.

So it was decided, I was going to head down to Florida to watch the game with my dad, and more importantly it was decided to not be in Philadelphia during the game. Not being at Philadelphia during the game turned out, I think, to be the smart play. The city didn’t end up destroyed, but this point I’m almost convinced that was an accident, as though there were some sort of cosmic force that was meant to destroy Philadelphia regardless of the game’s outcome, but, I don’t know, when no one was looking Reed Richards showed up with the Ultimate Nullifier and somehow everything worked out fine. If the worst thing that happens in Philadelphia is that a hotel canopy falls down, you’ve got to think that’s a win in and of itself.

Florida, though.

I don’t love flying. I never have. Technology has certainly made flying… not BEARABLE, over the years, but less awful. Once I went all-digital I stopped having to worry about something to do on a plane. (Admittedly I started having to worry about battery life on a plane, but that’s another show.) Once everything became cloud-based and I could more or less access everything I owned anywhere I wanted flying became the closest to “easy” it’s going to get, in this case meaning “I no longer need to take powerful narcotics to get through a flight.” Movies are my drug of choice on planes now.

Fun fact: The Force Awakens, from fanfare to credits, is EXACTLY the length of a flight between Philadelphia and Tampa. If I start the movie on takeoff it ends almost the second the plane touches down. Orlando is a little shorter, usually I have to start it on the tarmac before the actual takeoff sequence, but it’s pretty close.

You may also recall that my father was sick last year and I spent a good chunk of time shuttling back and forth between here and Florida, over and over again. I haven’t counted but I believe I have flown between here and either Orlando or Tampa eight times in the last two years. This, more than anything, is the primary reason I have seen The Force Awakens something like 17 times. I would watch it on the plane over and over again. Last spring, after I realized how wrong I was about Rogue One, I added that to my inflight playlist.

Star Wars while flying: better than drugs.

For some reason – possibly because I wasn’t flying direct for the first time in ages – I decided not to watch either on this trip. Could it be because for however much I love it (which is a lot) 18+ viewings of The Force Awakens may be a few too many? It’s certainly possible.

On the PHL-CLT leg, as part of the ongoing preparations for John Finally Goes To England, I decided to watch The World’s End.

My dad likes to say that the only “real” filmmakers any more are David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. I think in practice that statement is a little reductive but I get where he’s coming from with it. I don’t believe the “movies are all terrible now” whine from the cineaste-stroke-troll corner of the interwoobz – movies are fucking amazing now. I don’t even believe there’s more bad movies, or a greater percentage of bad movies, then there were at any pick-your-moment in film history. The only difference now, as with almost anything, is that you just know more about everything that’s out there.

Before I start getting angry about the opinion economy, back to my dad.

While I don’t necessarily think his math checks out I agree with his basic premise that there is a cadre of filmmakers who are way, way, WAY better than everyone else. The Tier 1 people. And yes, I agree that Fincher and Nolan are at the top of that list despite the Greek-tragedy-style fatal flaws they each possess. (Specifically, Nolan’s quixotic, Data-like quest to finally understand human emotions, and what we will diplomatically call Fincher’s problems with women.) I don’t know how much farther the list goes – there are lots of great filmmakers out there but there’s a huge gulf that separates that top tier from the “just great.” Call it a dozen for the sake of argument and round numbers.

I feel like I’ve been saying this for years, but Edgar Wright is in that dozen. Man can this dude fucking make movies.

This is not news to anyone who has more than a passing interest in movies but I’m not sure it’s getting over just HOW good he is.

Speaking of Nolan, a criticism I’ve heard of his movies is that they are too often “puzzle boxes,” less movies than riddles to be solved. This criticism is incorrect, but in a strange way it sort of DOES apply to Edgar Wright, whose movies are… is the word “constructed” right here? The “puzzle box” quip applies much more to Wright as his movies, at a micro level, are assembled with the precision of a Swiss watch. They’re vast assemblages of moving, interlocking parts and they SHOULD fall apart or seize up or explode altogether. I watched The World’s End last weekend and everything in it – EVERYTHING – does something. Every. Single. Thing. In the movie contributes in some way to the story he’s telling and works at drawing out the feelings – both conscious and unconscious – he’s trying to evoke.

In addition to being a great movie, with great performances, with a clear point of view and really strongly-developed themes, I realized this past weekend that The World’s End is also a brilliant object lesson in semiotics.

Every now and then I will watch or read something and come to a point where I just go, “this guy is smarter than me.” It doesn’t happen often. It happens with Edgar Wright all the time.

From CLT-TPA I pulled out the 2011 Gary Oldman version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, an adaptation of a book I love that I realized on second viewing is actually both a much closer and much looser adaptation than I had thought.

Let’s make something clear – this is Not A Movie For Everyone. It’s long. It’s a period piece. There are huge stretches without dialogue and ALSO a shitload of subtitles. There are plot machinations that you have to pay pretty strong attention to in order to really grasp what’s happening.

Note that I didn’t say it’s “a spy movie,” which might presumably turn off a segment of the viewing public. It’s not. It’s based on what is ostensibly a spy novel, that was adapted into a beloved spy miniseries. (A miniseries beloved by others, at least, I find it terribly indulgent.) But what Alfredson actually does is use the spy story as a framework on which to hang a series of stories about doomed love. It’s genius.

George and Ann. George and Karla. Prideaux and Haydon. Ann and Haydon. The plot of the movie – such as it is, with as much of it as Alfredson and O’Connor and Straughan bother to keep – completely hinges on the intense, life-defining relationships between these people and we literally NEVER SEE ANY OF THEM TOGETHER. Hell, in the movie’s single most genius stroke, Karla and Ann aren’t even in it at all. They’re just specters haunting the proceedings from a distance, unseen forces that push and pull at poor George Smiley, the literary ideal, the quintessential Good Man Who Has To Do Bad Things.

The George of the movie – and the book – has spent his whole life wishing he could lash out at Karla and Ann both. He never can. The closest he can get is Bill Haydon, who gets the only line in the movie that Gary Oldman delivers above a murmur. But even to his friend who betrayed him in every way possible George can only bring himself to raise his voice just a tiny bit for one second – and watching it I love that you can see Smiley decide “I am going to shout now,” and then he doesn’t, and you can see him decide, “it’s good that I didn’t shout.” All in a fraction of a moment, which gods like Gary Oldman can accomplish.

George can’t even bring himself to shout at Bill, not really, because deep down George knew what he was getting into. Just like Ricky and Irina, just like Peter Guillam, and just like Jim Prideaux.

I don’t know if there’s another movie that equates the spy business with the vicissitudes of broken love but if there is I guarantee it isn’t this good. And it’s probably still just a spy movie, which Tinker Tailor isn’t.

Speaking of Gary Oldman, before I headed back from Florida my parents and I went to see Darkest Hour, which was a fascinating movie experience.

My parents had actually seen it already, and when I talked to my father about it I said, “I assume, like all Joe Wright movies, that it is subtle and nuanced?” My father did not pick up on my sarcasm.

This movie is not subtle. It is not nuanced. Joe Wright is a smart guy and a great filmmaker but I’m fairly certain if you said either the word “subtle” or “nuance” in front of him he would blink a few times, tilt his head a little, and say, “excuse me, what?”

There are some artists who wield their art like a scalpel or a jeweler’s drill, who create work of intricate, almost delicate beauty. William Gibson. PT Anderson. Paul Simon. Joe Wright is not one of those artists. Joe Wright does not do subtle. Joe Wright does not do nuanced. Joe Wright wields his art like a 20-pound sledgehammer.

To be honest, speaking as someone who uses the English language as a blunt instrument, I sort of admire his dedication to the belief that a movie can be a battering ram.

Some movies would give you a little chyron in the corner telling you that the date is May 8, 1940. Not Darkest Hour! Not Joe Wright! Here, we dissolve into a hilariously-floodlit scene in Parliament – I’m a longtime viewer of Prime Minister’s questions, it does not look like that – and screen-filling, twenty-foot-high white Impact letters tell is it is “8 MAY 1940.” Oh, and we use the British day-then-month dating convention, because FUCK YOU! IT’S JOE WRIGHT!

The next two hours of what is essentially nothing but scenes of parliamentary procedure and meetings – seriously, people, MEETINGS – are delivered with more minute-long steadicam jobs, omniscient shots and combinations of the two than Stanley Kubrick could conceive in his wildest dreams, extreme closeups that could rouse Jonathan Demme from his grave, and, I swear to god I am not making this up, a combination battlefield miniature slash omniscient shot slash tracking shot that – I SWEAR TO GOD I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP – morphs into an extreme closeup of the face of a dead soldier on the battlefield. That is an actual thing in the movie. I laughed out loud at that, and the absurd titles, and any number of other things, not out of derision but out of a sort of disbelieving joy. I could not believe the things I was seeing were real in a movie about old British people talking.

And yes yes yes, Gary Oldman is great. Everyone in it is great. Everything in it is great. It would have to be, wouldn’t it? You can’t beat people about the head and neck with a cricket bat if the bat isn’t great. That’s what Joe Wright movies are – emotional and intellectual beatings.

My only complaint is that the scenes in the Underground didn’t have a quick cameo shot of Keira Knightley so we could establish the Joe Wright Cinematic Universe. What a terrifying prospect THAT would be.
JLK

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