Saturday, December 31, 2016

Perspective in a Nutshell


The year just ended was a difficult one -- death and dislocation for many in the Middle East, tensions in Asia and Latin America,  and a bitter election season in our own country.  

As the new year begins, let's try to keep in mind how many things have gone well for us.  Consider the following from the latest novel of Ian McEwan:

            Pessimism is too easy, even delicious, the badge and plume of intellectuals everywhere.  
            It absolves the thinking classes of solutions.  We excite ourselves with dark thoughts in 
            plays, poems, novels, movies.  And now in commentaries.  
                   Why trust this account when humanity has never been so rich, so healthy, so 
            long-lived?  When fewer die in wars and childbirth than ever before -- and more 
            knowledge, more truth by way of science was never so available to us all?  When 
            tender sympathies -- for children, animals, alien religions, unknown, distant foreigners -- 
            swell daily?  When hundreds of millions have been raised from wretched existence?  
                   When, in the West, even the middling poor recline in armchairs, charmed by music 
            as they steer themselves down smooth highways at four times the speed of  a galloping 
            horse?  When smallpox, polio, cholera, measles, high infant mortality, illiteracy, public
            executions and routine state torture have been banished from so many countries?  
                   Not so long ago, all these curses were everywhere.  
                   When solar panels and wind farms and nuclear energy and inventions not yet known 
            will deliver us from the sewage of carbon dioxide, and GM crops will save us from the 
            ravages of chemical farming and the poorest from starvation?  When the worldwide 
            migration to cities will return vast tracts of land to wilderness, will lower birth rates, and 
            rescue women from ignorant village patriarchs?  
                    What of the commonplace miracles that would make a manual laborer the envy of 
            Caesar Augustus: pain-free dentistry, electric light, instant contact with people we love, 
            with the best music the world has known, with the cuisine of a dozen cultures?  
                    We're bloated with privileges and delights, as well as complaints, and the rest who 
            are not will be soon.... 
                    We'll always be troubled by how things are -- that's how it stands with the difficult 
            gift of consciousness.


-----




The above comes from McEwan's latest novel, "Nutshell."  McEwan is known for improbable plots -- think of "Atonement," which became an award-winning movie, or "Amsterdam," which won the Mann Booker Prize.

"Nutshell" takes the improbable and goes several steps further.   It is a first-person story told by a yet-unborn baby, whose observations include the one above.

Yes, really.

Strange as that set-up sounds, McEwan makes it work.

The book opens when the baby is about one month from birth.  His mother has thrown her husband, his father, out of the father's rundown townhouse in an expensive London neighborhood.   Now the baby's disreputable uncle, brother of the baby's father, is plotting with the baby's mother to kill the baby's father and to live well on the proceeds from the sale of the house.

The baby, dependent on his mother and loving her for his nurture, also feels loyalty to his father and not a little anger at his uncle or the prospect of growing up with the two of them.  

The title comes from an early passage in Shakespeare's "Hamlet."  Claudius, usurper to the Danish throne once occupied by Prince Hamlet's father, sends emissaries to find out why Hamlet is so blue.  

At that point, Hamlet knows that Claudius has married Hamlet's mother, but he has not yet learned that Claudius killed King Hamlet.

"I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space," Hamlet says in the play.

You can see the parallels between play and novel -- Claudius the murderous usurper/ Claude the murder-minded dumber brother. The baby of "Nutshell" is the king of his own small space.

He also shares observations not associated with small children, let alone children not yet born, as the plot spools out to its conclusion.

"Nutshell" runs to an economical 208 pages, and McEwan knows how to tell a story. Check it out.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Strappy Shoes

Fashions of all types come and then go, and then come and go again.

Last year I commented on the popularity of updated Mary Jane shoes, flats that were once the style of choice for little girls, notable for the strap across top.

A grown woman's variation with a slightly higher heel and two straps, by Prada, was very successful in 2015.



Success attracts imitation, as we know.   

In addition, people take new ideas to extremes.  With Mary Janes, the look was distorted in two ways  First was the heel -- if a short heel was good, wouldn't a stiletto be even better?  And if two straps were nice, well, how about five or six?

That is what we have seen this year.  Examples are below.


Altuzarra






Stuart Weitzman

Vince Camuto





Topshop 





Jimmy Choo  



Gucci 

Gianvito Rossi


Ivanka Trump

Michael Kors




Francesco Russo



Why Now

Shoes of this type could have been made anytime in history, but I believe there is a particular reason they didn't appear much earlier.  

It is this: No woman in her right mind would sign up for buckling and unbuckling that many straps.  

Imagine you were at lively party, and your favorite song came blasting over the sound system.  Your impulse, given the heel elevations on these shoes, would be to kick them off and dance.  But it would be impossible; the song would end before you could get them unfastened.  

This would be frustrating, and who needs frustration?

I don't know when the back zipper first appeared on shoes, but I saw them for the first time about eight years ago on a BCBG pair worn by a stylish young woman.  

Since then, they have become common even on less complicated shoes with shorter heels. See the Fabrizio Viti model below, which is being offered for the coming spring season. 


It would be difficult to design this shoe any other way.  A regular buckle would interrupt the curvy straps in front, and without the raised yellow area behind the heel, a thin ankle strap would cut into the back of a woman's foot if she walked any distance at all.

This back-zip thing was a genuine innovation, a bit of new technology applied where you might not expect it.  It may not be as exciting as a new iPhone without a headphone jack, but it's not nothing.




Sunday, December 25, 2016

MovieMonday: Office Christmas Party




"No film studio ever went broke overestimating the American
 public's appetite for gross-out movies."


A famous guy said the above, or something like it, a long time ago.

The original wacky-inebriates-v.-the-man movie, "Animal House," was released almost 40 years ago, and several new imitations, often raunchier but just as spirited, hit the theaters every year.  They generally earn out. 

I don't go often to movies like this one, which I always figured was because I'm not a young man and my interests were different.   

But I was wrong.  When I saw "Office Christmas Party," it was in a theater full of middle-aged couples.  The gross-out movie has gone mainstream.  As the original audience has aged, filmmakers have been supplying new movies with mature actors in immature roles.  


The Movie

This story involves an underperforming branch of a tech company whose mean CEO (all CEOs are mean in gross-out land) plans to close the branch for not meeting its 12 percent year-on-year growth target.

The only solution for this, of course, is to throw a great big, wild Christmas party.  If you've never seen this at any of the companies where you've worked, well, neither have I.

The jokes, stale but evergreen, wrote themselves.  The office copier thing.  The cocaine powder whoosh.  The shy guy's hired date who turns out to be a prostitute.  An ice sculpture with a penile appendage that dispenses egg nog.  Also, car crashes.

Every recognizable actor in the film is cast in a role he or she already has made famous.  This typecasting is efficient because it spares valuable screen time that might have been wasted on character development.

So we have Jennifer Aniston again playing a mean boss, Olivia Munn as a beautiful, brilliant techie (a feminist requirement in film these days), T.J. Miller as yet another lovable goofball and Kate McKinnon playing an uptight human resources enforcer.  

For novelty, the courtly Courtney Vance, usually cast as a serious attorney in a suit, is convinced to let his hair down and party, which isn't as funny as it sounds. 

I don't think I will be giving away much if I say that the conclusion of the film ratifies the required theme that flaunting social norms and resisting authority are mileposts on the road to wisdom.  


Saturday, December 24, 2016

All I Want For Christmas Is You



This song, recorded in 1994, may be the catchiest pop/rock Christmas song of all time.  

It was released before and included in Mariah Carey's first Christmas album, "Merry Christmas," the best-selling Christmas album, worldwide, in history.  Even now, people buy several hundred thousand downloads of the song each year.


AIWFC begins with a slow, almost sad recitation of the singer's disinterest in the holiday and bursts open only at the end of the line, "All I want to for Christmas is you."  Then the musical notes tick up a few tones, the syncopation comes to life and the rest of the song is glorious energy, a particularly effective matching of lyric and score.  
  
If you wander through stores or tune your car radio to a pop station, you will hear the song many times a day all through December.  It gets more play than Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas" and certainly Wham's "Last Christmas." 


The song has been covered by other pop musicians and groups, rendered as a ballad and even re-recorded with more lush orchestral backup by Carey herself on her second Christmas album.  But the first rendition is the one with the staying power. 

I do enjoy this song.  Every time I hear it, I want to sing along and dance across the room.  Obviously I'm not the only one.


Origin

Mariah Carey wrote AIWFC during an especially productive time in her early career when she was working with Walter Affanasieff, who co-wrote the song and two others on the Christmas album, which he also produced.

Affanasieff is a Brazilian immigrant with Russian parents and a sixth sense for shaping music that appeals to people.  His many film credits include producing "My Heart Will Go On," the Titanic song that was 1998's best-selling single.   He has composed and orchestrated music for dozens of contemporary musical artists and groups. 

Affanasieff is not famous, but his fireplace mantel is crowded with Grammy statuettes and he has left his marks all over the last 40 years of the American songbook. 

On the 20th anniversary of the AIWFC release, he was interviewed about the song and the Christmas album generally.  He said that neither he nor Carey anticipated the success of the their breakout song.  Some of his comments:


         There are always three different areas that Christmas music goes into: Traditional
         Christmas songs, fun kiddie songs like "Rudolph" or "Frosty," and then you have 
         your love songs, which are like “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” “I’ll be 
         Home for Christmas,” all those kinds of songs.  (For the album) we decided to
         write one of each.

         It was always the same sort of system with us. We would write the nucleus of 
         the song, the melody primary music, and then some of the words were there as 
         we finished writing it. That went very quickly .... 

         (All I Want for Christmas) was very formulaic; not a lot of chord changes. I tried 
         to ... put in some special chords that you really don’t hear a lot of, to make it 
         unique and special .... That part of it took maybe an hour, and then I went home. 


         Then for the next week or two Mariah would call me and say, 'What do you think 
         about this bit?' We would talk a little bit until she got the lyrics all nicely 
         coordinated and done. And then we just waited until the sessions began ... in 
         the summer of ’94 ... and started recording.  

         And that’s when we first heard her at the microphone singing, and the rest is history.


Friday, December 23, 2016

The Devil in the White City



I found this in a used bookstore last week.  It jogged a memory I had of reading positive reviews at the time of its publication in 2003.  So I finally bought and read the thing. 

It's very good.

The book tells two stories, one about the planning and staging of America's first world's fair, and the other about the contemporaneous activities of a serial killer.  Both stories are set in late 19th-century Chicago, whose population had recently grown past the million-mark, and which was attracting ambitious young people from rural backgrounds with dreams of big-city lives and careers. 

Author Erik Larson researched the heck out of this work, and it is impressive that he was able to find so many documents, meeting reports, news articles and letters more than a century later to piece together such a compelling narrative.  





The Fair 

The United States had an historical chip on its shoulder vis a vis Europe, particularly after Paris' very successful world's fair of 1889, marked by the opening of the Eiffel Tower. American leaders decided they to mount a similarly big show.  New York City's leaders wanted to host the fair, but Chicago promised a richer package and won the award.  

Getting the fair organized, planned and built was huge task with an unrealistically short  deadline.   The Chicago architectural firm of Burnham and Root was designated to oversee the task, but Root died young in 1991 and Daniel Burnham assumed the master planner job.



Burnham chose fine architectural advisors.  Frederick Law Olmstead, who designed New York's Central Park, ran himself ragged laying out landscape, water themes, trees, paths and plantings for the 800-acre site within a period of two years.  The famed architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White set the parameters for exhibition buildings' size, color (white) and style (Beaux Arts and neoclassical).  

Construction was bedeviled by harsh weather and sundry unanticipated setbacks, but the world's fair site was largely in place by the deadline.  

The problems continued when opening crowds were smaller than expected and a worldwide financial panic threatened to cut traffic even more.  The worries faded as good word-of-mouth, targeted promotions and a fine new attraction drew growing crowds.

Through it all, Burnham managed the schedule, the details, and the political matters.  Larsen's description paints him as calm, focused and extremely disciplined. The fair's success owed much to his effort and made his reputation.  At the time of his death in 1912, his architecture firm was the world's largest.


The Killer

As Burnham organized the world fair, a similarly focused man, a charming doctor and pharmacist, designed and ordered the construction of a building nearby.  

H.H. Holmes (one of many names he used) planned to offer hotel rooms to fair tourists above a ground-floor pharmacy.

The building was unusual -- weird, even sinister -- with elements that Holmes had devised and whose purposes were understood only years later.


During the course of the fair, Holmes lived in his building, apart from his wife and child.  He romanced several women who disappeared and whose relatives, living in other states, tried in vain to discover what had happened to them.  There were other deaths after the fair.  That Holmes was a serial killer is certain; the number of his victims is unknown even today. 

Chicago was attracting many new people who moved frequently, changing jobs or neighborhoods.  There were not the connections of family, church and neighborhood that had been common in the small towns and rural areas that the newcomers had left.  Police had few tools to find the missing, and Holmes was able to avoid suspicion -- let alone detection -- for years.


The Book

"The Devil in White City" tells the the crime and world's fair narratives in back-and-forth chapters.  Although the two stories do not intersect, the construction makes sense.  If the book told only the story of the fair, it would be too dry for public taste. The contemporaneous criminal story adds human drama and, with it, a broader description of life in fast-growing Chicago at the end of the 19th century.  


The Movie?

This book was very popular, and not surprisingly, its story was sold for development as a feature film.

In 2007, it was reported that director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio had joined for the project.  Plans were announced for construction of a set resembling at least part of the world's fair site.  DiCaprio was variously reported to have been cast as Burnham, the fair organizer, or Holmes, the serial killer.

Within the last two years, it was announced that the movie would be released in 2017. We'll see.


Another Good Book

In 1888, Austin, Texas, was beset by an unidentified axe murderer who killed at least five women in particularly grisly fashion.  This year the mystery got a full workup in a book,  "The Midnight Assassin," by talented Texas writer Skip Hollandsworth, who had been consumed by the story and devoted considerable effort over many years researching the crimes and their effects on the city, its police force and even the state government.  

Hollandsworth clearly wanted to name the killer -- the author's personal Moby Dick -- and the book leaves the reader with the strong conviction that the writer hasn't given up the search. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Russian Spies


Idiosyncratist fans


The Idiosyncratist is an American blog written by someone who is not politically active and intends to stay that way.

Lately, to my surprise, the website has picked up a following in Russia.  

I learned this by happenstance.   On a free moment one day, I studied where my readership originated, by country.  And there, after the majority U.S. contingent and well ahead of the numbers from any other country, were the Russians. 

I realized that one post, Trump's Ties, had piqued curiosity in Putin-land.  My guess is that  the Russian government's web crawlers were looking for information about Donald Trump's "ties," perhaps to narcotrafficantes or international banking cartels.

In fact, the story was about neckties. I honestly doubt that Russian haberdashers flocked en masse to the internet on one particular day to research American politicians' fashion taste, which would be a mistake in any event. 

The next day, I posted a critique of  DJT's business attire, Trump's Suits, which provoked a another flurry of interest in Russia.  

To this day, the Idiosyncratist retains a small group of loyal Russian readers.  Like all others, they are welcome, but my guess is that my blog will not provide the type of information they seek.  



Notes  

At the moment, my French followers outnumber the Russian ones on some days, and the Russians outnumber the French on others.  I suspect my French readers appreciate my savoir vivre, and I am grateful for their support.

I do not research individual readers.  All are welcome, and all are accorded privacy. (That includes you, Vlad.)



Monday, December 19, 2016

MovieMonday: La La Land




Here's a movie, a real musical, that shows its heart in its first moments. 

They depict a Los Angeles trope, traffic coming to a standstill on the Ventura freeway.  But gradually and then infectiously, people get out of their cars to sing and dance to "Another Day of Sun."  As traffic resumes, the two lead characters glare briefly at each other from their cars.

The message of the scene is this:  Yes, this is a fantasy, but why not go with it?

And go with it you should. "La La Land"  is the first non-children's movie musical in many years.  (Yes, there was "Straight Outta Compton" in 2014, and there were reprises of "Mama Mia" and "Jersey Boys" from Broadway.) This is more than a story with songs.  It is an almost magical story underpinned by musical themes. 

It is a love story about Sebastian, a jazz pianist ,and Mia, an aspiring actress/playwright, each struggling to find a break.  They support each other's dreams even as tensions emerge between ambition and the relationship. There are other actors, good ones, in the story, but the focus is always on the two of them.  

If there is a third character, it is Los Angeles, shown to great effect, especially at the pastel hours around dusk.  LA is a difficult and challenging place, but anyone who has been gripped by the early pangs of love knows that the glow of those moments suffuses everything else in sight.  

Ryan Gosling learned to play the piano for the show, and a choreographer taught Emma Stone and him how to dance.  They'll never replace Fred and Ginger and their singing voices weren't dubbed, but they are better actors. The result is credible and charming.

Damien Chazelle, who wrote and directed, and Justin Hurwitz, the composer, are in their early 30s.  In college, they introduced each other to jazz and movie musicals.  According to interviews, they had wanted to make this movie for a long, long time.  Said Chazelle:
  
         It was like, years of trying to get La La Land made in Hollywood, everyone saying 
         not just "No," but, like, "Please go away. We don't want to hear about original 
         musicals." I did Whiplash out of necessity a little bit. Whiplash was a much 
         smaller movie that I was able to actually put the money together for. But the 
         whole time I was making Whiplash, I was hoping if this doesn't entirely suck, it 
         will give me some kind of calling card to make La La Land.

"Whiplash," you may recall, was a very good 2014 film about a driven young jazz drummer and his abusive teacher.  It won three Oscars -- best supporting actor, best editing and sound editing -- and seems to have given Chazelle the juice he needed to move on this project. 

In fact, the budget for "La La Land" was small, $30 million, a trifle for something made in Los Angeles.  I would have believed it if I heard that just the opening freeway scene, with music added later by a 95-piece orchestra, had cost that much.

Naturally, because it was not a Disney or superhero movie, it opened only in Los Angeles and New York.   (In a country with 50+ college film programs, you'd think film distributors would give the rest of us a little more credit, or at least relief.)  The reaction was excellent, and now the national rollout is under way.  

When "La La Land" comes to your town, go see it.  You'll enjoy the experience.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Puffers

Now that a second polar vortex is hovering over much of the country, it's time to talk about warm coats.  

Below is a Balenciaga quilted coat that was well-received in the autumn/winter shows last spring. 


The people at Balenciaga don't seem to have been thinking much about actual cold weather when they put this look out on runways.  You can see the problems:  The coat is sliding off the model's shoulder, there is no scarf or hat, and the shoes are worn without socks.   

And another point:  The red design was not called a coat; it was described as a "puffer."  

In fact all this year's quilted coats (and possibly some of last year's; I can't keep up) are called puffers.  We have to get used to it.

At the same time the women's number pictured above was grabbing attention, Raf Simon's menswear collection was showing puffers like these.


These coats look thick enough for a Himalayan trek, but a guy also would need snow boots, heavy gloves, a big hat and goggles if he intended to use one for that purpose.  If a city fellow wearing such a coat sat next to me on the train, I'm pretty sure I'd end up scrunched into half a seat. 

There are various other puffer looks for women this year.  Here are a few designer models that range from short to long, colors bright to neutral and sportswear- to evening-appropriate.



For those in more temperate climes or with limited closet space, there's another sort of puffer now -- short and closely fitted -- for both men and women.

The Guess company offers the coat below for men.  A similar silhouette is found in men's sweaters and sweatshirts this season.





The women's jacket below is from Patagonia, which is calling its women's versions "nano-puffs" or "down shirts."



These new puffers may give a boost to the beleaguered fashion industry.  Last year's mild winter weather left apparel retailers with large inventories of unsold winter coats when spring arrived.  
  
Given the unusually cold weather we've already seen this December, I'm betting puffers will be in high demand.  



The First Puffer 

According to a 2013 piece in GQ, the founder of the eponymous Eddie Bauer catalog and chain of outdoor stores was inspired to make the first quilted down jacket after his soaked wool jacket threatened him with hypothermia during a chilly night in the wilderness in the 1930s.  

His solution was a down-filled jacket with ribbed collars and cuffs. The quilting assured that the down was distributed evenly in the garment and did not puddle at the lower hemline, and the ribbing held in body heat.  



The product, patented and named the Skyliner, was released in 1939.  Skiers and outdoor enthusiasts of all types have worn quilted down clothing and spent outdoor nights in quilted down sleeping bags ever since.  


Context

My guess is that down jackets, like athletic shoes, began to become daily wardrobe staples in the 1960s, when the baby boomers came of age and adopted blue jeans as everyday fashion.  Fifty years later, jeans, outdoor gear and athletic clothing are seen more often than the dresses and suits that were the staples of previous generations' daily wardrobes. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Rogue One: To See or Not to See





Here we go again.

The next Star Wars movie debuts in theaters tomorrow.  Unlike most of the Oscar-bait films released each December in hopes of bigger rollouts in the winter and spring, this show is going big.  Really big.

In Nashville, three large cineplexes have scheduled 96 showings of "Rogue One" on Friday alone, starting at 9:15 a.m.   The estimable "Manchester by the Sea," by contrast, is on one screen at an art house triplex near Vanderbilt University.

Estimates are that weekend sales will be $150 million domestic and another $150 million in other countries, which is more than respectable.



What's in It?

The trailer has overtones of gun battles on city streets and the landing at Iwo Jima.  There is a battle at the end that is supposed to be good.  And, of course, the film's makers have included many references to previous Star Wars films, even going so far as to bring back Darth Vader for a brief appearance.

As with any Star Wars movie, there is new technology, notably in the video game-derived Empire AT-AT assault vehicles pictured below.



I am not a West Point graduate and so may be out of my depth here, but the skinny legs on those walkers look vulnerable to me.  If one leg were cut in two, say by a light saber, wouldn't the whole contraption collapse?  And how sturdy will the inevitable Hasbro toy versions be?

The movie's plot is designed to precede the first Star Wars movie -- "A New Hope" or IV -- and to answer the essential question of how Princess Leia got the schematics for the Empire's death star.   

This will be gratifying to Star Wars regulars who, if they were children when IV came out, now are well into their 40s.  It may also cause Star Wars newbies, if there are any out there, to want to see IV for themselves.


Generally, critics like the characters (who have much more detailed backstories), and the battles and the scenery, but overall reactions range from puzzled to hostile.

             This is the rebellion as it is experienced in the trenches. Younger audiences will be
             bored, confused, or both. But for the original generation of “Star Wars” fans who
             weren’t sure what to make of episodes one, two, and three, “Rogue One” is the
             prequel they’ve always wanted.
Peter Debruge
Variety

             But “Rogue One” has ... no will to persuade the audience of anything other than the
             continued strength of the brand. It doesn’t so much preach to the choir as
             propagandize to the captives, telling us that we’re free spirits and partners on the
             journey. The only force at work here is the force of habit.
A.O. Scott
New York Times


I am an not much of a science fiction fan, but have a certain interest in the Star Wars oeuvre, and so I was on the fence about seeing this movie.  Then, when I read that it has given rise to more political discussions, I decided I'd rather stay home.  


Star Wars as Metaphor for the Recent Election

Naturally, since everything in this country is about politics, Star Wars has been drawn into post-election discussions. 

One chucklehead suggested that the Empire, the evil force in the movie, had been constructed to resemble Donald Trump, who probably did not receive many votes from Hollywood insiders.

This is ridiculous, of course.  The movie's final edit was completed well before the election.

On the other hand, the "Rogue One" scriptwriters changed their Twitter avatars after the election to Rebel Alliance logos with safety pins, which indicate solidarity with rights of members of minority groups.  
         One of the writers bravely tweeted this:  "The Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization."

Then came a "Rogue One" discussion between two culture mavens at "GQ" magazine. 

Maven 1: .... "The Force Awakens" ... in 2015 ... was the same silly-yet-stirring franchise I fell in love with, but now it had finally turned its attention to women and to people of color in meaty, starring roles. Our president was black, so why wouldn’t our Stormtroopers be black? Our next president was going to be a woman, so why wouldn’t our next Jedi hero be one too?
       Obviously, 2015 was a vastly different year.... And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say "Rogue One" is everything I want,... it feels like a more fitting story for the moment .... A grimmer, graver Star Wars movie feels appropriate, .... it feels like the right time for a movie about a committed, organized band of insurrectionists standing up to an evil empire. Although a livelier band of insurrectionists would have been appreciated.

Maven 2: It is almost uncanny that Disney is telling this particular Star Wars movie at this particular time. "Rogue One"’s biggest strengths lie in the story we know it’s actually telling: the story of a very small group of unsung heroes whose last-ditch efforts set the stage for the much grander victory to come. Fuck "Suicide Squad" -- this is the suicide squad 2016 needed all along.

See what I mean?  Too much is too much.

Monday, December 12, 2016

MovieMonday: Manchester by the Sea



Here's what I assumed after I watched this trailer:  The film is about a son traumatized by his father's death and the long, awkward process it takes for him and his uncle to come to accept each other as substitute father and adopted son. 

The general theme is correct in some ways, but much more is going on here. You really have to see the movie to absorb it.  

In the opening scenes, Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor, learns that his older brother, Joe, has died.  Lee drives through the snow to the blue-collar fishing town where he grew up, and he learns that his brother wanted Lee to finish the job of raising Joe's 16-year-old son, Patrick.  When Lee and Patrick learn that Joe's body cannot be buried until the ground thaws in the spring, both are upset at the news.  

The film ends in the spring burial.  In a typical movie, the spring thaw would symbolize the resolution of the two men's relationship.  It does so here, but not as you might expect.  

Lee is a decent but tightly wound man, a steady beer drinker who's not much of a talker and who has a quick temper.  Patrick wants to continue with his current life, to finish school in Manchester and then to take command of his father's fishing boat. 

Between the brackets of chill and thaw, Lee and Patrick get to know each other and the film quietly unspools Lee's harrowing backstory, piece by piece.  By the time the credits roll, we understand Lee and Patrick for who they are, and we understand the likely shapes of the rest of their lives.  

With a less thoughtful screenplay or in the hands of a formulaic director, "Manchester by the Sea" would either resolve its characters' conflicts in a neatly tied bow or descend into maudlin pathos.  Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed the movie, avoids emotional manipulation and instead delivers a story that feels like Truth.  It's an excellent piece of work.

The actors -- Casey Affleck as Lee, Lucas Hedge as Patrick and Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee's ex-wife -- deliver wonderful performances that make me want to see more of them. 

(Interestingly, Matt Damon produced the movie and was set to play the Lee character until time conflicts made that impossible.  This may have been fortunate; I can imagine filmgoers watching "Manchester" and seeing "Matt Damon in the role of Lee" rather than the real Lee as played by a less familiar actor.)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Trump's Suits

Toward the end of the presidential campaign, a newspaper in Australia ran a fashion analysis of Donald Trump's wardrobe of suits.  It was not flattering.

Here is the main illustration.




I don't believe people consider sartorial style when voting for political candidates.  (If they did, then what was that whole Bernie Sanders thing about?)  

But I am cautious.  Now that the election is over, I can discuss these matters without fearing to confuse voters with irrelevant metrics. 

As in my previous post, Trump's Ties, I rely on the sophistication of my fashionable friend, Kate. Turns out she largely agrees with the Aussie paper on the matter of Trump's suits. 

I asked Kate how she would proceed if she were asked to advise Trump on his wardrobe.

"I would be brutally honest with the man," she said. "His sleeve cuffs are too short.  The shoulders on his suits droop an inch too far on either side.  Ironic as it is, he wears $6,000 Brioni suits with puddle breaks in the pants hems."

        (I had to look up this puddle-break business.  Here are two illustrations: The first 
        is a no-go, a "puddle break" with fabric bunched up all over the shoe; in the second
        picture, the slacks have a smaller break over the shoe vamp, which is subtler and 
        more appropriate.)  



 As for the rest of it, Kate's critique makes sense to me.  Observe this photo.



Kate says this:  "I'd estimate he's a 44-46 L, but he might be wearing a size too large across his chest.  I'm sure he wears the suits this way for comfort. But what it shows is that he doesn't care about his silhouette." 

Her suggestion:  "He should have custom suits made by Martin Greenfield in Brooklyn.  He (Greenfield) is New York's premier men's tailor, and he would build a nice-fitting suit."

If you think about it, Trump is very particular about the way women look, not least the contestants in those beauty pageants he sponsored. So it is a bit odd that he appears to have a blind spot when it comes to his own attire.

On the other hand, Trump is 70 years old.  Guys his age mostly grew up buying sack suits that made all men look pretty much the same and that would be acceptable, fashion-wise, for many years. 

In his younger years, Kate says, Trump dressed more stylishly.  Since then, however, his shape and the shape of fashionable menswear both have changed a great deal.  



History and Context

As recently as 1990, Giorgio Armani, the go-to designer for understated elegance, was showing suits like the one below.


Talk about long jackets and puddle breaks!

In the intervening years, suits thinned down a bit and the NFL-sized shoulder pads were replaced with more normal ones.  

(Interestingly, NFL players also wear smaller shoulder pads now.  But I digress.)  

Then, around 2006, KAPOW!  New York designer Thom Browne began releasing very, very slim suits.  The picture below shows Browne modeling one of his creations. 



Notice the differences:  A short, close-fitting jacket with downright narrow shoulders, and skinny pants legs with above-the-ankle hems that expose heavy brogue shoes worn without socks. 

Even today, this looks rather like a seven-year-old boy wearing the Easter suit his mother bought for him when he was five.  

When the Browne look was debuted, my guess is that Trump's reaction was similar to that of most men not employed in the fashion industry:  No frigging way.  

But if it was shocking, it also was new.  It signaled a change whose elements were picked up and normalized over time.

Younger guys stopped wearing socks, or at least visible socks, with leather shoes.  There was a blossoming of brogues in formal and casual styles that continues to this day. Then men were coaxed out of their pleated pants, and into flat-front models.  

And men's suits really slimmed down.  By now, the thin suit is the one to wear.  Here is a 2016 Armani model.


Most men are not going to adopt this look.  These are the fellows who shop at Brooks Brothers and Nordstrom.  They want to look like the other guys in their business uniforms, not like fashion-forward fops.  Trump, whatever his suit label, most likely counts himself in this group.

But even the Thom Browne look has been adapted.

Several years ago the no-socks look was replaced, at least by young professional men, with striped and polka-dotted socks in bright colors.  It was a little subversive acting-out for those unlikely to adopt loud tattoos or piercings. 

Trump may or may not be a true political conservative (hard to tell), but he definitely is conservative when it comes to clothes.  I don't think we'll see loud socks under his puddle breaks anytime soon.