THE MAN OF THE YEAR IS. . . MARK RUFALO

Or more properly, the man of the year is Paul, the character Mark Rufalo plays in the The Kids Are All Right, the perceptive, wise, winning new film co-written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko. The reason is simple: there hasn’t been a male character like Paul in the movies in, like, forever.

The Kids Are All Right is about a long-married lesbian couple, Nic and Jules, played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, and their two teenage children, Joni, played by Mia Wasikowska, who is about to head off to college, and Laser, played by Josh Hutcherson, who is basically a fine young man who has some questions. Joni and Laser are half-sibs: one was born of Nic, the other of Jules, but both were the result of an anonymous contribution made at a sperm bank. Laser persuades his sister to find out the identity of the donor, who turns out to be the laid-back hipster Paul.

For a couple of decades now, Hollywood has not known what to do with male sexual energy. Time and again, it is sublimated, repressed, channeled, tamed, punished, mocked, ignored, or agonized over. In this movie, it is celebrated. Paul is the life-giver, even apart from his relationship to Laser and Joni. He has a farm on which he brings life from the ground; he is an entrepreneur who owns a restaurant where he feeds people. Right from the moment we meet him we are shown that women find him attractive and enjoy him as a lover. As the movie progresses, we see him in other roles: he is the one who coaxes a song from the lips of the taut, controlling Nic (and in Joni Mitchell’s Blue, a perfect match of song and the character’s better, largely forgotten self); who revives passion and confidence in the neglected and underappreciated Jules; who encourages the simmering Joni to assert herself, even as he casts a fatherly cloak (or, literally, a hat) of protection over her; and who provides a model of cool masculinity for the searching Laser, who amid his female-surrounded surroundings, has latched onto a highly inappropriate role model for guidance. It is true that Paul is, as Nic correctly observes, “a bit full of himself” ( a fairly forgivable fault in the cock of the walk) and is no intellectual. But he is vibrant, interesting, considerate and ultimately decent. And never in the film is he required to punch anyone or pull a gun.

He is, unfortunately, disruptive. That is, of course, the ironic underside of creativity. The life-giver is the destroyer, and Paul instigates a disorderly rebelliousness in Joni and almost breaks up Nic and Jules’ stable marriage. This near-demolition is not entirely of Paul’s making; if there weren’t already tinder, Paul probably wouldn’t have been able to start a blaze.  Cholodenko and her co-writer Stuart Blumberg do a fair and unsentimental job of showing the problems that gradually emerge within a marriage and a family–Julianne Moore’s splendid speech near the end of the film is a description both unsparing and generous–and there is little wonder that the freedom offered by the Unattached Male is such a threat to a way of life that demands such discipline and sacrifice. What’s fascinating is that the film doesn’t give us a Paul who is selfish and self-absorbed; as the movie progresses, he begins to conclude that despite the creativity he offers and the joy he both gives and takes, his greater fulfillment awaits his entrance into the deeper commitment of marriage and family. That would leave him with a big question–can he remain the man he is in an institution that requires him to give so much of himself away? But that’s a topic for a different movie. Right now, at a moment when an eminent magazine like The Atlantic can publish with a straight face a bit of silly provocation called “The End of Men’‘, The Kids Are All Right gives us the great gift of Paul, the very model of modern masculinity.

WHAT WOULD PRESIDENT HILARY DO?

I voted for Barack Obama for president. Today, I still like the guy, still admire him, have high hopes for him, and believe he could do a great job. But the truth is, when I had to choose between him and Hilary Clinton in the New York primary, I voted for Hilary. Why? Experience. I understand that neither of them had all that much time in the Senate, but I don’t think a person spends eight years living in the White House with the president of the United States, plus all those years in the Governor’s mansion in Little Rock, without learning a lot about governing

At this point, it’s hard to give Obama a grade. He did the impossible and passed the impassable bill–health care reform–but it did not include a public option. He passed a stimulus package that stopped the recession from getting worse but that wasn’t enough to turn the thing around; economically speaking, he violated the sacred Colin Powell rule, and did not enter with overwhelming force. He’s waging a war in Afghanistan for ill-defined objectives and without a defined constituency. He got a financial reform bill passed, but it doesn’t include the Volcker Rule, and perhaps even more damaging, has not become an instrument that has enabled to claim the narrative of the financial crisis. Instead, he has allowed the administration to be portrayed as incompetent, and even worse, hostage to the party’s exhausted response, big government deficit spending. And then he keeps getting slapped with problems unexpected and odd–the oil spill, the Shirley Sherrod mess.  “There is something loose and jittery about the atmosphere round Obama at the moment of which [Agriculture Secretary] Vilsack‘s clumsy over-reaction gives us a whiff,” writes Tina Brown in The Daily Beast. “ It’s as if inside the White House the belief in Obama’s inspirational charisma is still such that every time the ugliness of brute politics intrudes, it’s a startling revelation. The president’s cerebral goals aren’t supposed to be jostled by the coarse irrelevance of media bandits and ideological saboteurs. Except they are. Maybe recognition of this fact is what made Bill Clinton, at almost the same moment in his first mid-term elections in 1994, shove aside purists on his team like George Stephanopoulos and return to his devilish former consigliere, Dick Morris. Clinton knew he had to fight fire with fire, or sleaze with sleaze, that was more deft, more cunning.”

Or, in the stinging schoolyard  words of Sarah Palin, “How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for ya?”

I don’t think the second President Clinton–we could call her 44–would have been so cerebral. I’m pretty sure the Clinton playbook is pretty Chicago school (“If he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue”) and it’s applied to friends as well as foes. Somehow I don’t think a Clinton operation would have allowed Martha Coakley to run such a passive, brain-dead campaign that cost the Democrats an important Senate vote. I don’t think the White House would have been so above the fray and allowed Republicans such a wide-open free-fire zone.  I certainly don’t think the old “It’s the economy, stupid” gang would have failed to take ownership of the economy. This isn’t to say everything would have been better. I’m inclined to think 44 might not even have attempted health care reform, and I don’t really think she’d have pulled us out of Afghanistan because if Bambi has something to prove about his ability to wage war, a woman would have as much if not more.

But most of all, 44 would have shaken things up, just as Brown advises. If somebody wants to demonstrate to  me that Rahm Emmanuel, David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett are doing a good job, I’d like to see the proof; in the meantime, I’d start looking for the Republican James Baker, the smoothest White House chief of staff of my life. (On the other hand, Hillary’s campaign staff kind of sucked, particularly the brainy but not brilliant strategist Mark Penn.) I’m afraid Robert Gibbs’s soft-spoken whine needs to go; he’s not forceful, and he counterpunches poorly. Where have you gone, Mike McCurry?

Time to retool and refuel: at this time in his presidency, Clinton began shedding (in one way or another) not only Stephanopoulos, but also  Dee Dee Myers, Bernie Nussbaum, Lloyd Benstsen, Les Aspin, Mack McLarty, and adding people like David Gergen, Lloyd Cutler, McCurry, and the indispensable Leon Panetta. If I were Obama, I’d move heaven and earth to convince ardent Hillary supporter  Ed Rendell to leave his cushy job governing the Keystone State and come serve as White House Chief of Staff.

WHY WE NEED ELIZABETH WARREN

Coming to the end of the second year of the Obama presidency, what is sadly apparent is that one of the most gifted politicians of my lifetime–gifted intellectually, gifted rhetorically–has completely failed to articulate the narrative of our times. It’s perplexing, but he has never explained chapter and verse how and why we have found ourselves mired in this economic situation full of debt, unemployment and uncertainty. He lost the narrative on his stimulus bill, he lost the narrative on health care reform, and he he lost the narrative on Wall Street reform. As such, he has been chewed up by his opponents, who have presented a garbled mass of half-truths and insinuations to undermine him. And although he is surrounded by excelelnt economic thinkers, none of them–not Timothy Geithner, not Paul Volcker, not Larry Summers–has been able to help the president recapture the narrative.

That’s why the president needs Elizabeth Warren, the chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel of the Troubled Assets Relief Program. A forceful advocate of greater accountability and transparency, Warren has spent the two years of the crisis clearly, cogently and concisely explaining to the American what’s gone wrong, and what needs to be done. Sometime soon, the president will appoint a director to run the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, an agency Warren has done much to envision and midwife into existence. But there is a storm brewing behind the scenes. As ABC’s Jake Tapper reports, sources say Treasury Secretary Geithner “has concerns about her appointment”–I think that means “opposes”– given some of the pointed criticisms Warren has made about the Obama administration’s policies.

  • In Warren’s April 13 report on Treasury’s $75 billion foreclosure prevention program, she wrote that “Treasury’s programs are not keeping pace with the foreclosure crisis. Treasury is still struggling to get its foreclosure programs off the ground as the crisis continues unabated.”
  • In her May 13 report on Treasury’s attempts to help small businesses, she wrote that “Because small businesses play such a critical role in the American economy, there is little doubt that they must be a part of any sustainable recovery. It remains unclear, however, whether Treasury’s programs can or will play a major role in putting small businesses on the path to growth.”
  • In her June 10 report on Treasury’s AIG bailout, she wrote, “The government argues that AIG’s failure would have resulted in chaos, so that a wholesale rescue was the only viable choice. The Panel rejects this all-or-nothing reasoning. There is no doubt that orchestrating a private rescue in whole or in part would have been a difficult – perhaps impossible – task, and the effort might have met great resistance from other financial institutions that would have been called on to participate. But if the effort had succeeded, the impact on market confidence would have been extraordinary and the savings to taxpayers would have been immense.”

“Warren,” Tapper writes, “has been an aggressive watchdog over the Treasury Department and, more personally, a tough questioner of him in oversight hearings, for instance asking why shareholders and officials with US automakers had to make severe sacrifices to continue while recipients of TARP funds have made millions; or pushing Geithner to explain why AIG counterparties such as Goldman Sachs were paid 100 cents on the dollar.”

I can’t say that Geithner’s policies have been wrong; indeed, they mostly seem quite prudent. But He seems very much to be a Bank Man, meaning that he sees the interests of the big, powerful banks as one and the same as the interests of America. And goodness, we’re all adults here, maybe that’s right. But Geithner is not helping the president win the popular argument. The presence of Warren should help the administration win the policy fight, and even if she doesn’t change a single one of Geithner’s policies, it should force him to explain himself better. She is a talent and an asset and a force, and the president needs her on his team.

LOIS MISSES ON MAD MEN

Before George Lois went to work at Esquire and became a giant of the magazine industry, he was a giant of the advertising industry. Thus it makes sense that for its August issue, Playboy would turn to Lois for some comments on Mad Men, which begins its fourth season on Sunday. Now, this does not mark Lois’s first opinions on the series; he’s spoken about it before, and he doesn’t like it. He thinks it shortchanges ethnics, the Jews and Italians (and Greeks, like Lois) who were transforming the industry with audacious and creative campaigns. He is also sore that the show shortchanges art directors (of which he is among the most brilliant) in favor of copywriters. “Mad Men has given the world the perception that the scatology of the Sterling Cooper workplace was industry wide. In theor advertising, the show’s creators have the balls to proclaim that “Mad Men explores the Golden Age of advertising,” but surely they know that they are shoveling shit. Their show is nothing more than soap opera set in a glamorous office where stylish fools hump their appreciative, coiffured secretaries, suck up their martinis, and smoke themselves to death as they produce dumb, lifeless advertising. . . .The more I think and wrote about Mad Men, the more I take the show as a personal insult. So fuck you, Mad Men, you phony gray-flannel-suit, amle chauvinist, no-talent, WASP, white-shirted, racist, anti-Semitic Republican SOBs.”

Well, far be it from me to take issue with one of my heroes. And with a genius. And with a guy man who on the scene while I was literally in short pants. Still, I think Lois is taking the show entirely too personally. For one thing, all those years that he was involved in making ads that ran on Bonanza, did he think, “Yes, this is it, this is exactly what cowboy life was really like.” When his ads ran on that earlier show that involved an advertising agency, Bewitched, did he say, “Boy, you have to admire the documentary qualities of this show about a suburban witch.”  The truth is, Mad Men is brilliant not because it is about advertising, or even about the sixties. It’s about us–about people who are so sure of everything who are in the process of discovering that everything they’re sure of is falling apart. That in a nutshell was the experience of the sixties, and it has been the hugely uncomfortable experience of the last two years. I’m sorry, Mr. Lois, you’re looking at the show through the wrong side of the lens. How Mad Men handles the facts is irrelevant; its vision is brilliant.

VOTING IN VENICE

Anthony Gottlieb has a fascinating article about voting in this week’s issue of The New Yorker, in which he talks about the real limitation of Britain’s–and America’s–first past the post system. The really best part of the piece, however, comes at the beginning, where he explains how the Doge of Venice was selected for five centuries:

Whenever the time came to elect a new doge of Venice, an official went to pray in St. Mark’s Basilica, grabbed the first boy he could find in the piazza, and took him back to the ducal palace. The boy’s job was to draw lots to choose an electoral college from the members of Venice’s grand families, which was the first step in a performance that has been called tortuous, ridiculous, and profound. Here is how it went, more or less unchanged, for five hundred years, from 1268 until the end of the Venetian Republic.

Thirty electors were chosen by lot, and then a second lottery reduced them to nine, who nominated forty candidates in all, each of whom had to be approved by at least seven electors in order to pass to the next stage. The forty were pruned by lot to twelve, who nominated a total of twenty-five, who needed at least nine nominations each. The twenty-five were culled to nine, who picked an electoral college of forty-five, each with at least seven nominations. The forty-five became eleven, who chose a final college of forty-one. Each member proposed one candidate, all of whom were discussed and, if necessary, examined in person, whereupon each elector cast a vote for every candidate of whom he approved. The candidate with the most approvals was the winner, provided he had been endorsed by at least twenty-five of the forty-one.

“?

SORKIN’S ODD CHOICE

The oddest entertainment story of the week reports that Aaron Sorkin has agreed to write the screenplay and direct the film of The Politician, Andrew Young‘s account of his disappointing time as an aide to the vain, dishonest and dishonorable Senator John Edwards, and Young’s complicity is hiding the extra-marital affair  and pregnancy that Edwards and his ditsy gal pal Rielle Hunter that the conducted while running for the presidency. This seems like an unlikely pairing of artist and subject matter. I admire Sorkin quite a bit; I’m a loyal fan of The West Wing. But Sorkin, though hipper and occasionally cynical, is really very romantic about politics.  Nobody likes a hero more than Sorkin; nearly every character he created for The West Wing had a clean mind and a full heart and a staunch belief in America, and suffered a crisis of conscience if he or she so much as deposited a gum wrapper in the wrong recycling repository. (The same was true with A Few GoodMen! And for The American President, in which even Michael Douglas played a square-jawed hero! It was even true of Sports Night, which practically oozed integrity!) Even Charlie Wilson’s War, for which Sorkin wrote the screenplay, sanitized the coke-snorting, skirt-chasing congressman of the title, rendered him an innocent bystander in all those hut tubs he frequented, and had him tear up over poor Afghan orphans. How much of that transmogrification can be blamed on Mike Nichols and Tom Hanks is an open question, but I didn’t see Sorkin take his name off the whitewash of the wascally Wilson. But there are no heroes in The Politician. Edwards comes across as an odious charlatan, Elizabeth Edwards as a harridan and a user, Hunter as a homewrecker, and Young as pathetic, self-deluding, enabling, complicit doormat. If ever a subject called for the talents of black-hearted satirist like Armando Ianucci, this was it. Instead, it goes to a man who is only slightly edgier than Steven Spielberg.

JONATHAN TROPPER LIVE!

Went over to Borders in Scarsdale last week to hear the novelist Jonathan Tropper read from his novel of suburban disintegration This Is Where I Leave You. I just finishing reading the book myself, and enjoyed it very much. Tropper has a very nice touch. The book is a gallery of male archetypes, and pretty funny. During the Q&A session he said that he’s frequently compared to Nick Hornby, and I can easily see why. Both have a way of being funny and at the same time very generous about their characters’ shortcomings.

GEORGE STEINBRENNER, GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

It’s hard to convince any Yankee fan who has grown up in the love fest era of Joe Torre and Derek Jeter that George Steinbrenner, who died today, is or was anything but a kindly old man who benignly sprinkled money on gifted young men fortunate enough to wear the pinstripes. You have to be older to appreciate Steinbrenner for the blustering comic villain that he was, not the feckless loudmouth who lives on in episodes of Seinfeld, but a despot in a blue blazer and white turtleneck who thought he could win championships for the greatest city in the world by dominating the back pages of the tabloids with bluster and invective.

Like cheesy reality television and genital-flashing starlets and so many of the the other circuses which we alternately deplore and enjoy, Steinbrenner’s ignorant bullying of his managers and players was thought to be great entertainment. His torturing of managers, including the classy Dick Howser, the iconic Yogi Berra, and most especially the insecure, alcoholic Billy Martin, was appalling. His nasty badgering of stars like Reggie Jackson and Dave Winfield showed his ignorance. His petulant harangues over the failures of his young players was simply disgraceful. A commissioner with guts would have fined him until he shut up. It wasn’t until Steinbrenner himself went beyond the beyond and paid the gambler Howard Spira to find damaging information on Winfield that Steinbrenner finally received some punishment for his crimes against baseball.

Ironically, it was during that absence that the seeds of Steinbrenner’s rehabilitation were sown. General Manager Gene Michael drafted Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera who formed the nucleus of the modern dynasty. When Torre was hired in 1996, a genuinely new Yankees took the stage, one that was accessible, professional, smart and triumphant, a team that New Yorkers have been proud to root for and have supported far more enthusiastically that Bronx Bombastics of King George’s prime. During these last fifteen years, as an increasingly enriched Steinbrenner took a back seat to the real stars of his franchise, his image evolved into that of a somewhat demanding but kindly old man. As his mind faded, others forgot as well. As for me, I’ll cherish the memory of Steinbrenner, angry about losing a game to the Dodgers in the 1981 World Series, breaking his hand by punching a wall in an elevator, and then claiming he hurt it fighting with classless Dodger fans who had impugned the honor of the Yankees.

It’s a moment that should go on his plaque in Cooperstown.

TWAIN IS BACK, AND BETTER THAN EVER

Yesterday the New York Times reported that in November, the University of California will publish the first three volumes of the 500,000 (!) word Autobiography of Mark Twain. The opinion is that this will restore acid to a writer who has come to be seen as “’Colonel Sanders without the chicken, the avuncular man who told stories,” as his biographer Ron Powers put it. “He’s been scrubbed and sanitized, and his passion has been kind of forgotten in all these long decades. But here he is talking to us, without any filtering at all, and what comes through that we have lost is precisely this fierce, unceasing passion.” Earlier versions, the paper says, were bowdlerized by editor Albert Bigelow Paine, a Victorian who was a stickler for propriety and who cut entire sections he thought offensive.

Reports the paper, “In a passage removed by Paine, Twain excoriates “the iniquitous Cuban-Spanish War” and Gen. Leonard Wood’s “mephitic record” as governor general in Havana. In writing about an attack on a tribal group in the Philippines, Twain refers to American troops as “our uniformed assassins” and describes their killing of “six hundred helpless and weaponless savages” as “a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory.”

He is similarly unsparing about the plutocrats and Wall Street luminaries of his day, who he argued had destroyed the innate generosity of Americans and replaced it with greed and selfishness. “The world believes that the elder Rockefeller is worth a billion dollars,” Twain observes. “He pays taxes on two million and a half.”

Other reappearing gems:

Theodore Roosevelt is one of the most impulsive men in existence … He flies from one thing to another with incredible dispatch — throws a somersault and is straightaway back again where he was last week. He will then throw some more somersaults and nobody can foretell where he is finally going to land after the series. Each act of his, and each opinion expressed, is likely to abolish or controvert some previous act or expressed opinion. That is what is happening to him all the time as president.”

“Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it.”

“The multimillionaire disciples of Jay Gould — that man who in his brief life rotted the commercial morals of this nation and left them stinking when he died — have quite completely transformed our people from a nation with pretty high and respectable ideals to just the opposite of that; that our people have no ideals now that are worthy of consideration; that our Christianity which we have always been so proud of — not to say vain of — is now nothing but a shell, a sham, a hypocrisy; that we have lost our ancient sympathy with oppressed peoples struggling for life and liberty; that when we are not coldly indifferent to such things we sneer at them, and that the sneer is about the only expression the newspapers and the nation deal in with regard to such things.”

NEW LOOK

Wonder Woman has a new look. Tim Gunn approves. “I love Wonder Woman’s new look,” Gunn told Newsarama writer Alan Kistler. “This new look says, ‘I’m confident, I’m powerful, I’m sexy, and don’t mess with me.’ Furthermore, she looks like a citizen of the real world rather than a creature from another land. I would imagine that this new look will allow Wonder Woman to morph into situations in a less noticeable manner and, thereby be even more effective at combating evil doers. It’s no longer a costume, it’s real clothes.” It seems to me that the new clothes look terrific, but does she really look like Wonder Woman?