Revisiting Ulysses

These days, there is a Ulysses S. Grant renaissance.  I’ve talked to a lot of friends who are reading — and raving about — Grant, the new Ron Chernow biography of the former Union Army General and President.  And now the word is out that Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio are in discussions to team up on a new film about Grant that is in development.

ulysses_s_grant_by_brady_c1870-restoredIt’s a good example of how perceptions of historical figures can change, and quickly.  During his lifetime, Grant was credited with being essential to the Union victory in the Civil War and was a popular President, and as he was dealing with the cancer that would kill him he wrote an autobiography that was immensely popular and helped to provide funds for his family after his death.  But the narrative soon flipped, and Grant’s reputation changed in the years after his death.  His generalship was called into question, and he was viewed by some as a drunkard who knowingly butchered his men, coldly calculating that the Union was better situated than the Confederacy absorb the losses.  He was presented as a kind of know-nothing President whose two terms were marked by corruption and endless scandal. Only Grant’s autobiography, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, maintained its reputation, and has been consistently regarded as one of the finest examples of autobiography in the English language.

The reevaluation of Grant began with the publication of Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses:  A Life of Ulysses S. Grant in 2016 and became broader and deeper in 2017, with the publication of Grant.  When two talented biographers turn to the same subject in a two-year period, things are bound to be shaken up, and that is exactly what has happened.  I read American Ulysses, an excellent book, and I think anyone who does so will inevitably come away with a greater appreciation for Grant.   I understand from friends who’ve read the Chernow biography that readers of that book reach the same point.  (Richard got me the Chernow book for Christmas, and I’ve been saving it for some summer reading, and then I’m turning to Grant’s autobiography.)

American Ulysses tells the story of a decent, good, unassuming man who came from humble beginnings and never lost his sense of personal humility.  He struggled with alcohol, moved from the Army to a series of civilian jobs that were marked by business failures, but rejoined the Army at the outset of the Civil War and seized the opportunity that conflict presented.  Through determination, careful planning, and a willingness to make calculated gambles, he won a series of crucial battles in the western theater, lifted the spirits of the North during the early days of the Civil War, rose rapidly in the ranks of Union generals, and eventually became general-in-chief and was transferred to Virginia, where he met, and defeated, Robert E. Lee.  To be sure, there were some battles he deeply regretted — something he confessed in his autobiography, which tells you something about his character — but his Civil War record is remarkable.  President Lincoln viewed Grant as essential to the Union victory, and Grant’s comrades in arms, like fellow Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman, shared that view.

With a fresh look from a modern perspective, Grant’s presidency also has been reassessed.  He was incredibly modern and enlightened in his policies about native Americans and Reconstruction, and principled and resolute in his willingness to defend the rights of “freedmen” who had just recently escaped the chains of slavery.  Unfortunately, Congress didn’t always share his views.  And while there were scandals in his administration — as there seem to be in most presidencies — Grant’s personal integrity was not touched and his primary failing was in faithfully trusting friends and colleagues who ultimately lacked the same integrity that Grant possessed.

His life is an amazing journey, and one in which he traveled widely — to Mexico during the Mexican War, to the west coast of the United States during the gold rush, and then around the world after his presidency — at a time when the primary means of transport were horses, trains, and steamships.  Through it all, he never seemed to hate his enemies, and generally viewed the world with keen interest and a gentle, forgiving eye.  When I put down American Ulysses, I thought that Grant was a person I’d like to know and call my friend.

It’s interesting now, more than 100 years after a public figure’s death, their legacy can be revisited and their reputation greatly revised.  In Ulysses S. Grant’s case, it’s well deserved.

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Revisiting 2001, 50 Years Later

2001:  A Space Odyssey has been one of my favorite movies ever since I first saw it.  The only word that adequately describe the film, in my view, is “awesome.”

2001-space-odyssey-watching-recommendation-videosixteenbyninejumbo1600Awesome in terms of its enormous storytelling sweep, taking us from the discovery of weapons by a bullied group of protohumans to a voyage to Jupiter; awesome in its special effects, which kicked off the rapid development of special effects in films, made “space movies” a new genre, and gave all viewers a new perspective on The Blue Danube; awesome in its anticipation of new technology and artificial intelligence; and especially awesome in its absolute embrace of an inexplicable, entirely weird, jaw-dropping storyline.  Oh, and there’s some funny moments in the film, too, such as when one of the characters has to figure out how to use a zero-gravity toilet, which involves carefully studying a long set of instructions.

It’s one of those favorite movies that I’ll always sit and watch if I stumble across it being shown on TV.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published an interesting article on 2001, its initial critical reception, and its anticipation of technology that is well worth a read, whether you are a fan of the film or not.  It’s fascinating.  And who would have thought that a movie that one highly regarded critic dismissed as “trash masquerading as art” would, 50 years later, be universally regarded as one of the most influential movies ever made?  It just reinforces a valuable lesson:  sometimes — perhaps often times — movie critics can be dead wrong, and paying too much attention to them might cause you to miss seeing a classic on the big screen.

A Pepper Spray Present

Every year, the nominees for the Oscars get a lavish gift bag with all kinds of special items donated by companies that are looking for a little big of PR.  The bags are not officially sanctioned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but they’ve become a kind of tradition and are loaded with goodies like plane tickets, high-end cosmetics, and new, uber cool gizmos.

So, what’s in this year’s swag bag?

promo343614230Well, among other things there’s a 12-day trip to Tanzania, something called a “24 carat gold facial” — that sounds like it will fit right in with the Hollywood tradition of wretched excess — and a “conflict-free” diamond necklace.  Oh, and multiple kinds of pepper spray, now that the Harvey Weinstein horror story and the exposure of many other producers, directors, agents, and actors have revealed Hollywood to be a place of rampant sexual harassment, gross sexual imposition, and outright rape.

It’s therefore not surprising that this year’s Oscar swag bag has a decided personal safety and security element to it.  It includes at least three different pepper spray options — including a key ring-sized device — two personal body alarms, and a kit that allows you to determine whether your drink has been drugged that no doubt will immediately come in handy at one of those Oscars after-parties.

It tells you something about what it must be like to be a part of the oversexed, overprotected, underinvestigated, and underbrained world of the Hollywood glitterati.  Normally I would object to the idea of Oscar nominees getting thousands of dollars in freebies on “rich get richer” grounds, but this year maybe the swag bags offer some hope and some perspective on what a wretched place Hollywood really is.  Maybe at least one of the nominees will grab their pepper spray and spiked drink kit, don the personal body alarms, sell the “24-karat gold facial” and the “conflict-free” diamond necklace for a little ready cash, jet off to Tanzania for that 12-day holiday — and wisely decide to never come back to the lewd and lecherous land of Oscar.

In Praise Of Bingeing Technology

You can argue about the value of some technological advancements that we have seen in our lifetimes.  Is the invention of Roomba vacuuming robots, for example, really a good thing?  However, the significance of one development is indisputable:

The ability to engage in TV and movie binge-watching during the cold Midwestern winter months is one of the greatest leaps forward for the human species since the ancient Egyptians developed papyrus.

tmp_uirc5w_4f3814e036213fed_harry_potter_photoConsider this week in Columbus, Ohio.  It has been so absurdly cold, with ambient temperatures hovering, with leaden immobility, in the single digits and wind chill factors below zero, that there is absolutely no incentive to go outside voluntarily.  Unless you’ve got to go to work or to an appointment, there is no rational reason whatsoever to venture into the frigidity.  So, you’re stuck inside.  What to do?  Well, you could read a book, of course . . . or, you could be intellectually lazy and binge-watch TV, thanks to options like Netflix and Amazon TV and cable channels that offer premium options.  The last few days Kish and I have curled up on the couch at nights and begun watching the entire Harry Potter movie series — thanks, HBO and AT&T Uverse! — and it’s been a lot of fun.

You don’t have to watch the Harry Potter movies, of course — you could watch The Wire, or Deadwood, or Lost from start to finish, or a whole season of 24, or the John Wayne westerns in sequence, or the Thin Man films from beginning to end, or every movie in the Shirley Temple collection.  With the amount of new content being produced these days, and the amount of old TV shows and movies that remain available for casual viewing, your binge-watching options are virtually infinite.  And whatever you choose, you’re going to be entertained . . . and out of the cold.

I’m not suggesting that binge-watching TV is something that people should do constantly, week-in and week-out — but when the cold fronts plant themselves in your neighborhood and going outside becomes a bleak, frigid experience, binge-watching is a wonderful option to have.  As I said, it’s right up there with papyrus.

Downsizing

Hollywood films frequently employ what’s called the “high concept” approach. That’s when you can describe the gist of the movie in a sentence. For the original Ghostbusters, for example, the high-concept sentence might have been: “A comedy in which geeky paranormal scientists use high-tech gadgets to catch ghosts and save the world from an ancient evil being.” Pretty compelling!

For Downsizing, the high concept pitch probably was something like this: “The world is changed when scientists discover a way to shrink human beings to five-inch size in order to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint and allow the tiny people to live like kings.” That sounds pretty interesting, too, and like Ghostbusters would allow for lots on great special effects, too.

But where Ghostbusters built great ideas and characters, like Mr. Stay-Puft and the controlling EPA twerp, into the plot and made the movie a classic, in Downsizing the premise just sits there, thrashing around in search of an identity. Is it a comedy, or a serious approach to global warming, or a treatment about how humanity is ultimately frivolous, caste-bound, and uncaring? Potentially interesting notions of how the big-people world and the little-world world would interact get raised and then vanish without a trace. Characters come and go, seemingly at random, stereotypes bizarrely intrude into the plot, and by the end of the movie, when a five-inch Matt Damon is beating on a drum on the shores of a Norwegian fjord with a band of hippies who are preparing to go underground to save the human species, you’re scratching your head and wondering what the hell the movie is really supposed to be about.

Downsizing shows that the initial high concept only takes you so far. The special effects are good, and the weird twists and plot holes will give rise to lots of after-movie analysis, but this film is a quickly forgettable dud.

The Last Jedi

Yesterday Russell and I watched The Last Jedi, the latest episode in the Star Wars line of movies.  Spoiler alert:  at 2 hours, 35 minutes in length, coupled with a full 25 minutes of uninspired previews for movies I’ll never be interested in seeing, The Last Jedi will test the bladder of any 60-year-old.  As my mother would say before any family road trip, be sure you use the bathroom before you get in the car.

Other than pathetic gratitude when the movie was finally over and I could use the facilities, my overall reaction to The Last Jedi was . . . shrug.  The Star Wars films have now become so rote and trite, from the scrolling story over the starscape backdrop at the beginning, to the small fighter versus gigantic spacecraft battle scenes, to the powerful, physically disfigured, but ultimately easily fooled bad guy, you can’t help but feel that you’ve seen the movie before.  Add in a few cute creatures that have no apparent purpose other than to be cute creatures, thinly disguised rip-offs of scenes from prior movies in the triple trilogy — this time, a thrilling ride through casino town on goat-horse creatures, rather than a thrilling speedscooter trip through a forest — and a few laughs with Chewie, and you’ve got the movie in the can.

last-jedi-leiaAfterwards, Russell and I tried to talk seriously about the movie, but it wasn’t easy.  True spoiler alert:  So, raspy-voiced General Leia Organa — who I still think of as Princess Leia — can communicate over intergalactic distances with Luke, and use the Force to fly through space besides?  Why hasn’t she used her powers to find Luke beforehand, or used the Force to keep her kid from the Dark Side, or to protect Han Solo from being murdered?  Wouldn’t you think that the spunky, tough Leia of the original trilogy would have spent the intervening period at least trying to develop some mastery of her powers?  It would give her something to do besides just looking with deep concern at hologram projections of battles going bad and sighing heavily as another Rebellion ship gets pulverized.  I think Leia’s character has been wasted.

Luke’s character has been wasted, too.  He apparently has spent years on some rugged, faraway planet, poring over ancient Jedi texts, a la Obi-Wan Kenobi cooling his heels on Tatooine after Darth Vader’s emergence.  But then Luke learns from a ghostly Yoda that the sacred texts really aren’t that important, so phantom Yoda sets them and the sacred tree on fire, freeing Luke to confront and defeat Kylo Ren long distance, before vanishing and — also like Obi-Wan — leaving only crumpled clothing behind.  Luke seems a bit dense, doesn’t he?  But if I were Luke, I’d be irritated with Master Yoda.  Why don’t these ghost Jedi show up in more timely fashion and provide some prompt guidance so people like Luke can get back into the fight?  I guess Luke had to suffer, reading the useless old books in some dank tree trunk, until Rae showed up and he could yell at her and treat her three easily taught lessons.

And, now that the old characters have been addressed, let’s talk about the new ones.  Yawn.  Nah, let’s not.  Rae is good at having tears run down her cheeks and being amazingly gifted at just about anything, and Finn is pretty much one-dimensional, and Po Damron would be cashiered from any military force he was part of, and Kylo Ren is thoroughly confused and conflicted and doesn’t seem to know what he really wants.  Why did Kylo Ren kill Han Solo?  Beats me!  Maybe I would have cared more about all of this if I wasn’t feeling the urgent call of nature at the end of this very, very, very, very long epic.

Annual Singing

When it comes to singing, I subscribe to the Buddy the Elf approach:  “The best way to spread Christmas Cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

maxresdefaultSo, yesterday I donned a Santa cap and, with about two dozen other lawyers at the firm, engaged in our annual holiday singalong.  We remember and honor two of our departed partners who loved the singalong, perform for a roomful of absurdly supportive colleagues and friends, and belt out favorites like The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) and I’m Getting Nuttin’ For Christmas, as well as new parody songs with lyrics deftly penned by one of our talented partners.

When you only sing out loud once a year, it takes a while to really hit your stride . . . if you even have a stride.  There’s a musical concept called a key — I think that’s the right word — that you have to figure out, and it takes some searching and a few songs to find the right range.  I usually realize I’m singing in the wrong key when the high notes come out like more of a high-pitched screech; then I overcompensate and end up in a key where the low notes come out with an earthquake-like rumble.  This is why no one who has any kind of singing talent wants to stand next to me at these annual performances.

Our little singing group will never be mistaken for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but we make up for our overall lack of talent with enthusiasm and sheer volume.  And Buddy is right:  It’s fun and it always puts me in a good holiday mood.