Bad Ideas: September Edition


Why is lunacy so rampant? Here's another installment of head-scratching stuff.

And a sleeping driver accomplishes both.
1. Topping the list is the Trump administration's decision to cancel an Obama executive order that would require periodic sleep apnea testing for people involved in mass transit and long-distance trucking. The same rule would apply to pilots and railways engineers. Call me crazy, but somehow or other it seems like a good idea to make sure that the person behind the wheel of a loaded 70,000 pound truck isn't likely to fall asleep at the wheel. This shouldn't be a political issue—it's just commonsense. That's the position taken by the National Transportation Safety Board, the folks whose recommendation Obama took. But not Trump.

Such reflexive aversion to all regulations is bereft of logic, morally bankrupt, and dangerous. I expect no less from the Snollygoster in Chief, but are there any other adults in the room? Apparently not in the American Trucking Association, which lobbied hard to have Obama's order reversed despite the fact that one in eight fatal accidents involves a long-distance truck. The ATA is the last group that ought to oppose this—unless it simply sees drivers as single servings of meat. Somehow I don't foresee a lot of sympathy coming their way in the very immediate future when self-driving vehicles and investment in light rail decimates trucking as we know it.

Not on this planet!
2. A close runner-up was the decision of K A Design to market the New Swastika shirt. The 5-watt light bulb went off somewhere in the firm that made it think it could reclaim the swastika's ancient Sanskrit meaning of good luck and prosperity. While it's true that the symbol has appeared in many cultures, including ancient Babylonia, India, and early Christianity, can we just say that the ship has sailed on how just about everybody in the world who doesn't work for K A Design perceives it now? I wonder if the firm will even survive this harebrained scheme. Whether or not it's true, it really looks like a backdoor effort to legitimize fascist genocide.

Can you find sexism with Google glasss?
3. There have been mishandled rumblings inside Google and Facebook . Google stumbled in firing the author of a long internal sexist memo that justified the testosterone-fueled culture of Google. I'm not defending the little oinker who wrote it, but there are two PR problems here. First, it was not supposed to be a public document, so there's a bigger security problem inside HQ. The bigger issue, though, is that it's one of the worst kept secrets in the world that Google has a severe gender problem. Unless a comprehensive program to redress sexism inside Google swiftly accompanies this firing, it will smack of tokenism and add fuel to smoldering resentments about to flame.

That's the official story!
It comes as little shock to hear charges that Mark Zuckerberg stands accused of manipulating algorithms that push conservative content to the top of Facebook postings. Some think he's positioning himself for a run for something, though he's just 33, and would just meet the constitutional age threshold in 2020. Besides, most indications suggest he's prone to libertarianism of  its more paranoid permutation. If the allegations are in any way true, his decision is a weird one. If any company's business plan is dependent upon not pissing off people, it's Facebook's. It allegedly has two billion subscribers and I'm pretty sure not all of them are conservative or libertarian. Put another way, angering FB users might actually create a real challenge to its dominance. At present Google+ and upstarts like Diaspora and Ello are mere pretenders, but that reckless disregard for users could change that. These days people are quite testy when it comes to politics.

And therein lies a tale.
4. This is not a defense of the Teamsters per se, but if you've followed the Top Chef trial in which union leaders are accused of trying to extort jobs from the show's producers by harassing some of its personalities, you've got to wonder why the TV crew thought it could go into a union town like Boston without negotiating with the pro-labor mayor, the Teamsters, or other organized bodies. It concerns me that rough language is now lawsuit material. Again, this isn't a defense of violence or for-real threats, but I worry we've lost our ability to distinguish between anger and actual threats It's basic: If you hone in on people's livelihood, they are going to take offense. I've been on a few picket lines, and I know that tempers rise. Lots of "we oughta" scenarios arise—almost none of which are more than blowing off steam.

A jury decided the case in favor of the Teamsters, though a civil suit remains. However it comes out in the end, I think it's time that we realize that bullying and unpleasantness are what happens in a society in which organized labor doesn't have many other resources at its command. We have stripped away the very idea of countervailing forces and have given moneyed interests the upper hand. That's a bad idea.


Love and Other Consolation Prizes: Sweet and Likable


By Jamie Ford
Ballantine, 330 pages.

A novel about forced emigration, a harrowing escape from death, youngsters being sold in raffles, growing up in a whorehouse, the effects neurosyphilis, and spending one's adult years trying to mask the past doesn't generally lend itself to adjectives such as "sweet" and "charming," but this one does. Those familiar with Jamie Ford's debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, know that he can tackle bleak subjects with a light hand—too light for those who see his work as analogous to an overly sunny Ken Burns film—but with enough aplomb to make his books engaging reads for my tastes.

Ford opens his novel in China in 1902, a decidedly non-propitious year. It is just twelve months after the collapse of the Boxer rebellion, millions are addicted to drugs, foreigners are picking the corpse of the decaying Qing Dynasty, and rural Chinese face hunger and starvation. Such horrors would have been the fate of Yung Kun-ai, had not his mother sold him to a shipping company bound for North America. Yung, who is about five-years-old and has been told the ship is owned by his "uncle," is crowded into the fetid hold of a rusty ship with dozens of others—the girls earmarked for brothels and the boys for picking cane in Hawaii, mainland servitude, or being dumped in the ocean if approached by maritime inspectors. As if Yung doesn't have enough problems, he is a "half-breed" pariah because his father was Caucasian. He too would have drowned, had he not used his mother's hairpin—his only link to his birthplace—to cut his way from the bundle to which he was hastily tied and tossed overboard.

Yung is plucked from the waters of Seattle harbor and, after a few more misadventures, is taken in by Mrs. Irvine, a moral crusader and patron of both a children's home and a Christian academy. As Ernest Young*, he spends seven years with Irvine, before parting company with her. As her final "gift" to Ernest, she takes him the world's fair, the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific (AYP) Exposition, where he is raffled off to the highest bidder. Yes—you read that right; children were raffled at the AYP. Ernest's new patron is Florence Nettleton, known professionally as Madame Flora, and her profession is the world's oldest. Hijinks, heartbreak, an eye-opening education, love, and other consolations are about to come Ernest's way in Seattle's Tenderloin district, where Flora runs her high-class house of ill repute.

The novel jumps back and forth in time bound by the AYP at one end, and the 1962 Century 21 Exposition that gave Seattle its iconic Space Needle and monorail system at the other. We meet Ernest as a boy and teen in the early 20th century, surrounded by the painted ladies of the Tenderloin, the colorful household staff, and his special friends Maisie (Flora's daughter) and Fahn—on both of whom he holds serious crushes. These parts of the book are essentially a coming of age story, albeit a very unorthodox one. In 1962 we encounter an aging Ernest, a married man whose wife has dementia-like symptoms. He passes his days caring for his wife, hanging out with Pascual, his Filipino best friend, and visiting with his daughters: Juju, a journalist, and Hanny, a flirty showgirl. Juju is slugging it out in the old boy's press room and the 1962 world's fair provides her with a good excuse to write the story of turn-of-the-century Chinese immigration to Seattle. Her parents would make excellent subjects, except her mother's memory is unreliable and Ernest's tongue isn't flapping.

Ford plots his story well and this novel moves at such a crisp pace that it seems much shorter than it is. It is fair comment to say that overall Love and Other Consolation Prizes is closer to pulp fiction than to that elusive (and often over exalted) category called "literature." The action, details, and relationships of Ernest's AYP years are far more interesting than the parts of the book set in 1962—and not just because coming of age tales tend to be more satisfying than leaving the stage narratives. Although we are left to piece together what happened in the intervening fifty years of Ernest's life, Ford's book could benefit from a sprinkling of red herrings as it's too easy to predict the book's overall arc. This makes certain resolutions feel more convenient than convincing. In addition, Ford captures the "feel" of the early 1900s better than he does mid-century. Juju, in particular, seems too modern for 1962. All of this aside, young Ernest, his circle, and his world are so winning that one can take, if I might, consolation in them when future thrills wear thin.

Rob Weir 

* Ford, whose father and grandfather were of Chinese descent, interjects a biographical parallel in the Anglicization of Yung Kun-ai. By all rights, the author should bear a Chinese surname, but his paternal grandfather changed his family's last name to Ford for mysterious reasons.


Julieta is Almodovar's Best in Many a Moon

JULIETA (2016)
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Warner Brothers (Spain), 96 minutes, R (nudity and sex)
In Spanish with subtitles

After a long string of regrettable cinema experiences, I gave up on Pedro Almodóvar. For me, he had become the Spanish Woody Allen—a self-indulgent pseudo-intellectual constantly recycling shopworn ideas and trying to hide his lack of creativity behind a screen of pretentious dialogue the likes of which no earthly person actually utters. When a trustworthy soul told me that Julieta was different, I relented and I'm glad I did. This is the best thing Almodóvar has done since Talk to Her (2002). Julieta is everything Almodóvar has been lacking. It is focused, tightly structured, and humane. In fact, it's that rarest of films: one about tragedy that is simultaneously sweet, hopeful, and biting.

Almodóvar skillfully weaves three Alice Munro short stories to cover approximately thirty years in the life of Julieta Arcos. We first meet her older self as she is on the verge (pun intended!) of the downward slide away from middle age, but toward a new adventure. She is about to leave Madrid and relocate to Portugal with her attentive and sensitive long-time partner Lorenzo Gentile (Darío Grandinetti). A chance encounter with Beatriz, a young woman who was her daughter Antia's childhood friend, opens a sealed off chapter of Julieta's past.  Beatriz bears the news that she briefly saw Antia in Switzerland, which sends Julieta down a rabbit hole of depression, regret, and deep hurt as her daughter left home at 18 and severed all contact with her mother. Julieta impulsively rejects Lorenzo and moves back to an apartment building where she and Antia once lived. There she composes a confessional journal, but to whom? She has no way of contacting her daughter.

Almodóvar has never been a fan of linear filmmaking, but this time he connects flashbacks with the present so expertly that we easily connect the tragic dots that led to mother/daughter estrangement. A train journey and two chance encounters touch off the butterfly effect. Or perhaps I should say the ruminant effect, as a magnificent stag charging across a snowy trackside field symbolizes determination and desire, but also reckless passion. The human encounters tie Julieta's future to Xoan (Daniel Grao), a fisherman with a comatose wife and animal magnetism; his Bride of Frankenstein-like housekeeper, Marian (Rossy de Palma); and a free-spirited sculptress, Ana (Imma Castro). Each will play a role in the mother-daughter drama.

Passions of all sorts are unleashed in this film: libidinal, intellectual, artistic, maternal, spiritual…. They play out against various tragic backdrops, including drowning, disease, infidelity, guilt, and unspoken resentments. As you might surmise, the latter two are, in their own way, more deadly than mortality itself.

Almodóvar cast exceptionally well in choosing Adriane Ugarte as Julieta in her young adult years and Emma Suárez as her older self. Ugarte is breathtakingly beautiful, but Suárez is so much like her facially and physically that we can easily imagine Ugarte thirty years hence as a still-attractive woman whose innocence has been tempered by sophistication and experience. Grandinetti also strikes all the right chords as an urbane gentleman torn between lingering and moving on. All of the secondary characters contribute convincing performances.

It is worth paying attention to many things that could easily be overlooked amidst the emotional pulls of the film. There is a lot of foreshadowing and repetition that marshal Munro's three stories into a circular structure, but also visual details that reel us in, such as the use of bold patterns, the stark jolt of contrasting colors, and the use of art as both texture and prefiguration. Plus, few rival Almodóvar when it comes to etching the film's arc upon the human face. Days later you could be shown a dozen random stills from the film and extrapolate the script from the characters' expressions. Though the movie is just an hour and a half long, its emotional scale feels epic.

Those who like Almodóvar's more loosely structured films have been lukewarm about Julieta, but I feel the opposite. With Julieta, Almodóvar wins a reprieve from my no-view ban. It would, however, take a miracle for Woody Allen to win a pardon.

Rob Weir