We’ve Seen This Movie Before: Trying to Make Sense of Philip Seymour Hoffman (Revisited)

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This isn’t quite in the day John Lennon died territory, but I’ll never forget where I was and what I was doing.

Sitting at home, Super Bowl shopping complete, biding my time for the big game. Someone posted something about Philip Seymour Hoffman dying on Facebook. No chance, I thought. No way, I hoped. Then another update, and another. This being 2014, I did what any sensible person would do: I Googled it. Sure enough, the first item that popped up had the wonderful words “hoax”. Since this was not the first time a celebrity had prematurely been declared dead, I took solace. But then another update, with a link to an actual news organizations appeared. Then another. And within a few minutes, my entire feed was buzzing with the news. It was true. It happened.

The man I consider the best actor of his generation (and I’m certainly not alone), dead aged 46. Of a heroin overdose. Needle found sticking in his arm.

No chance. No way.

Method acting taken to its illogical extreme? Nope, he was a once-recovered addict, and as the stories began pouring out, it was revealed that he’d relapsed and had been struggling these last months with this monster that had moved into his life. That’s how it happens with addiction: it knocks on the door, or maybe it’s a case of breaking and entering. Once it gets inside it’s a hell of a lot harder to extricate it than it ever was to seek it. It is an equal opportunity assailant, going after the vital organs (the brain, the heart) and if or when its appetite for death becomes more powerful than the body’s ability to tolerate, people are found face-down on beds, curled up in alleys, or sitting in a bathroom with a needle in their arms. They become clichés in the sense that famous people dying of ostensibly self-inflicted wounds are clichés: we’ve seen this movie before.

And before I talk about his work, and what we’ve lost, I’d like to personalize this a bit. I don’t know about you, but for me Americans have been perfecting a perverse sort of cognitive dissonance that has reached a boiling point. On one hand, we are utterly obsessed with celebrity and, increasingly, the fantasy that we might become famous, if only for a moment. As such, no shame, family secret or personal foible is off limits as we pursue this ridiculous and empty charade. On the other hand, we are able to shrug off another person’s misfortune like the most priggish priest, the most sadistic shrink: Americans are experts at judging and lambasting the weakness of others. My Facebook feed has been polluted with asinine comments about “selfishness”, “junkies” and “losers”. Perhaps you’ve seen similar, and worse, sentiment.

Here’s the logic these folks appear to be following: anyone who is rich and famous, who is well-regarded, and who has a family (!) is acting at the height (or is that the depth?) of self-absorbed evil to piss it all away. Just to get high. As usual, the best retort for such cocksure and half-assed sanctimony is to turn it on its head: how badly must a person be struggling to know they stand to piss away their fame, security and family (!) in order to inject bad medicine for a sickness that can never cure itself? Similar rationale tends to apply to suicides: no moral person could ever do something that would hurt their loved ones so much. Oh yeah? How about this: no person who was not already drowning in the dark waters of doubt, fear and helplessness could, in their right mind, do something, to themselves, that can never be undone? Hope is not something you can purchase with a paycheck or have breathed into your body like a reverse exorcism: if there is one thing folks who consistently hurt themselves have in common, a lack of perspective, the absence of hope.

(Incidentally, lest you think I’m content to wax unconvincingly on a topic of which I admittedly –and luckily– have no intimate experience, I’m happy to pass the mic to the incomparable Russell Brand (more thoughts on him here) who, last year, wrote eloquently, as usual, about his own struggles.

It is difficult to feel sympathy for these people. It is difficult to regard some bawdy drunk and see them as sick and powerless. It is difficult to suffer the selfishness of a drug addict who will lie to you and steal from you and forgive them and offer them help. Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing?)

All of which is to say, if there is one thing plaguing our society right now, it’s a decided and very soulless lack of empathy. We watch reality TV shows about slick business types (often born on third base) browbeating their inferiors about what it takes to get to the top. And we make these imbeciles even richer; we envy and admire them. And we shrug our shoulders as families on food stamps get their benefits cut, as people out of work are called lazy (or worse) because, obviously if they wanted to work, they could find a job. We say ill-informed, offensive things like “minimum wage jobs are not designed for people with families”. (Oh really? And: even if that were true, doesn’t that make it all the more appalling so many people with families are obliged to work them? Or that the minimum wage has not even come close to keeping pace with the cost of living during decades where we’ve seen the wealthiest one percent assume an ever-obscene portion of the nation’s wealth?)

All of that said, I believe it’s possible, and acceptable, to wish we devoted more time, energy and media coverage to the anonymous, often impoverished people who succumb to addiction, while also lamenting the untimely loss of a “famous” person. And in this instance, it hurts more than the typical “gone too soon” eulogy because we are collectively being robbed of an artist performing at the height of his considerable powers. We will have no more opportunities to watch him share his gift, effective immediately.

The reason this one hurts so acutely, on a purely artistic level, is because few people could convincingly argue that Hoffman is not among the most gifted, if not the most gifted and accomplished actor of his generation. Typically, simple consensus makes me suspicious; a result of groupthink or a media-driven narrative (with big pockets and PR firms doing what they do best: selling product to make money, manufacturing consent by any means necessary). With Hoffman, the verdict came in over a decade –if not longer– ago: he is perhaps the best at what he does, and the range of work coupled with an admirable productivity make a compelling case that is likely to accrue momentum in subsequent years.

Pretty simple, but still unassailable evidence of mastery: an actor who can consistently make you loathe him, pity him or love him –sometimes in the same movie– is a rare breed. Quick: think of how many excellent, A-list actors are actually capable of making you cheer for them in one role and feel repulsed by them in another? While playing creepy, despicable dudes was, in some ways, Hoffman’s calling card, even in the roles where he was unctuous or obsequious (think his early work in Scent of a Woman for the former and his unimprovable turn in The Big Lebowski for the latter), and being the heavy, in many senses of the word, called for skills he was ideally suited to deploy (think Punch-Drunk Love or the blustery Lester Bangs from Almost Famous), he was perhaps most convincing as the vulnerable outsider (Magnolia) or the disconnected non-content (The Savages).

It’s one thing to play an outsider; it’s easy for a luminous actor to channel alienation or estrangement. But it is considerably more challenging to depict the type of turmoil and inner-anguish that are often best conveyed only in novels. As such, two of his big roles (Capote and Doubt) were near-perfect vehicles for a man who could realistically portray a person trying to convince others –and himself– that he is someone else.

For me, the ultimate test of what sets the very-good or even the great apart from the greatest, is the how many question. If an actor inhabits a role to the extent that not only can’t you imagine anyone else playing the part, but can imagine the ways the movie would suffer without their involvement, this would seem a fair and accurate criteria for genius. And while his work in Boogie Nights and The Master might, and perhaps should, be among the first mentioned (and I’ll resist saying more since virtually every other tribute has, understandably, discussed those two roles in some detail), for me it’s two lesser-known films that epitomize movies that simply would not have worked without Hoffman’s involvement.

Here’s a clip from the significantly overlooked, near masterpiece, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead:

Merits of the actual film aside, is choosing this role (and this scene!) too easy by half? Not really. And not because of the facile (although, perhaps not so much) connection with his death; it’s not merely (!) that his character is seeking a state of listless oblivion via chemicals, it’s the desolation and lack of connection, the slow boiling debasement. His stock in trade was playing men on the run, from themselves. In repeated viewings, I never cease to be struck by the physical intensity and commitment this role required (and/or Hoffman invested in it). It borders on painful at times, and there are moments throughout where it appears Hoffman is about to have a heart attack right on the screen. Yes, that is acting, but it’s also…being. The character is deeply flawed, mostly despicable; he’s a bully, a liar and a coward. And yet, throughout the film (in part because of the excellent script and the direction–Lumet’s final film) you not only find yourself feeling pity for him, you aren’t conned into it (by the writing, by the acting), you see the sum total of history (his story), the decisions and frailties that make him the beast he has become. Simply put, I can’t think of a recent role that was able to show and tell, without words, exactly what is driving a character’s actions. It seems facile, maybe even trite, but it was during the first time I saw this film when I actually worried a bit about Hoffman’s health: how could any actor keep up this type of self-abuse in the service of art?

The other role, which I’d be willing to wager is going to assume added import in the years to come, is his tour-de-force performance in Synecdoche, New York. I think the role was so expansive, and he was so comparatively young when he played it, plus the fact that it’s more than slightly outside the box, (it tends to make Being John Malkovich, another Charlie Kaufman work, appear almost straightforward and commonplace by comparison), damned it to less-than-stellar box office results, as if that ever matters in the long view.

Certainly many fine actors have used skills, make-up and exceptional directing to play characters that age over the course of a film. But I can think of few, if any examples of a role wherein you see the character age physically as well as emotionally, wearing the passage of time like a weight; a weight that is not the addition of flesh so much as the subtraction of vitality, eating itself from the inside-out. By the latter stages of the film Caden Cotard is indeed a bloated, aged wreck, but Hoffman somehow makes it appear that even as he slows down, the agony (physical, metaphysical) within him has accelerated, ravaging him mentally as well as physically. It eventually becomes apparent it has assumed an ever-larger portion of his being, and he carries this burden like Sysyphus with his stone, forever looking up at a hill he can never crest.

This condition is a metaphor for Cotard’s life, sure. It manages to be emblematic of what every human struggles with: how to define ourselves, how to understand each other, how to make sense of existence. It also suggests a struggle that Hoffman was unable to win in his own life. It seems safe to assume it was this discontent, this inordinate sensitivity and subsequent commitment to articulating the story he couldn’t quite tell that led to the roles we will never forget. It is also, perhaps, the secret to what stalked Philip Seymour Hoffman, the guy with all the money, all the accolades, every reason to live. The silver lining, aesthetically speaking, reaffirms the essence of so much art: his pain is our gain.

We’ve seen this movie before. But we won’t see more movies from this actor and that, above all, is why it hurts so much.

http://www.popmatters.com/feature/178919-weve-seen-this-movie-before-trying-to-make-sense-of-philip-seymour-h/

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Russell Brand, Revolution and The Audacity of Apathy (Revisited)

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FIRST OFF, LET’S dispense with decorum and declare the obvious: Russell Brand is brilliant, and quite possibly a genius. In addition to his comedic and acting abilities, he is a first-rate thinker and a (surprisingly) superlative writer. Wipe that smirk off your face and read his tribute to Amy Winehouse. (My own tribute is HERE.)

Or, check out this paragraph from a remarkable piece on Margaret Thatcher, deconstructing both the hypocrisy and opportunistic destruction of the Thatcher/Reagan ethos and what it wrought:

Perhaps, though, Thatcher “the monster” didn’t die this week from a stroke; perhaps that Thatcher died as she sobbed self-pitying tears as she was driven defeated from Downing Street, ousted by her own party. By then, 1990, I was 15, adolescent and instinctively antiestablishment enough to regard her disdainfully. I’d unthinkingly imbibed enough doctrine to know that, troubled as I was, there was little point looking elsewhere for support; I was on my own. We are all on our own. Norman Tebbit, one of Thatcher’s acolytes and fellow “Munsters evacuee,” said when the National Union of Miners eventually succumbed to the military onslaught and starvation over which she presided, “[We] broke not just a strike, but a spell.” The spell he’s referring to is the unseen bond that connects us all and prevents us from being subjugated by tyranny. The spell of community.

Brand’s most recent foray into sociopolitical observation is, justifiably and encouragingly, going viral and prompting all sorts of (justifiable, encouraging) commentary. Check it out:

 

So while Russell Brand’s eloquent and witty rant does some heavy lifting in the service of exposing the Royal Scam of manufactured democracy (etc. etc.), and I endorse much of what he says, I do take serious exception with the statement he thinks he’s making by declining to vote. Apathy, or better yet, the type of cultivated disgust that leads to “both sides do it” equivocation is almost certainly what the people pulling the proverbial strings want our default settings to be.

I always get nervous, and ultimately frustrated when I hear intelligent people asking the rhetorical question: Why bother?

Why bother getting invested in politics?

Why bother reading all those papers and blogs and magazines?

Why bother since politicians are all the same?

Why bother voting at all?

Well, there are lots of good reasons, some of which are immediately evident to anyone who is even moderately informed. Not to mention aware of not-so-complicated concepts like cause and effect. That the policies of our former administration combined with the ideology informing those policies bankrupted our nation and—this is the toughest one to grasp— made us less safe is not a matter of opinion. There is no room for any possible nuance. There is only one type of Socialism being practiced in America today and it has been in effect for longer than five years. It’s Corporate Socialism. For evidence to support this claim, I submit every action taken by every Republican politician since 1980.

There was probably not a more irascible yet articulate comedian who spoke the Truth to Power in the last quarter-century than George Carlin. He made you laugh, but the topics were often ugly and dead-serious. He dissected the greed, opportunism and collective culpability of a super-sized America as well as anyone has but, like Twain, his indignation eventually (inevitably) took a turn for the bitter toward the end. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. If any famous public figure—an artist, no less!— went as ungently into that not-so-good night, I can’t think of one; eternal kudos to Carlin for keeping it real until he flat-lined.

The one beef I had with Carlin was similar: he famously refused to vote as well. And while it’s difficult to quibble with any of the points he makes in the video below (wherein he proves that he still had both his fastball and spitball up until the last pitch he threw), it is in the 21st Century—and after what we’ve just witnessed with one party fighting for the right to default—disingenuous to deny that the other party even bothers to pay lip service to working Americans.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what one studies in college, or the type of person one already is (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if one is a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right, reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: agency vs. incapacity, history vs. ideology and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

Put another way, even if one is open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science, you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little!), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious non-identification.” This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or abscomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes facts, even if couched in fictional narratives, which are largely outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago and Mexican immigrants—especially the illegal ones—who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those who work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces, or engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Authority. Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the Weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion-dollar bonuses (thanks taxpayers!) while unionized public school teachers and middle-to-lower class workers’ pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

One must concede that when it comes to bumper-sticker braggadocio, no one sloganeers for the soldiers, country, and Christ like Republicans. Of course, we won’t count the ultimate cost of “Mission Accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars our adventure in Iraq has put on the ledger. And isn’t it amusing how seldom the war that would pay for itself comes up during discussions of the big deficits racked up during the last decade? Remember this, when those hoping to drown government in a bathtub crawl out of their taxpayer-fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers.

The Democrats are not immune from the corrupting influence of their donors and corporate masters, but they can continue to ensure the people owed the most won’t get the least. It’s up to enlightened citizens to ensure the Dems don’t dance with the devil and sell out Social Security. It’s the obligation of those who know better to remind their disgruntled or oblivious buddies that Obamacare is almost entirely a plan designed by Republicans! Listen to right-wing radio or the rhetoric of men like the Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan, who will happily sign off on savage cuts to food stamps, and persuade their supporters to inquire, What Would Jesus Do?

There will be haters, and it’s easy enough to feel their pain, to a point. Yes, watching the Democrats try to govern is an often painful and occasionally pitiful spectacle. Of course, in their defense, a reasonable person understands that actually attempting to govern is messy, difficult and frustrating. More than ever, as our nation has become increasingly ignorant, self-absorbed and childish, we don’t want any government interference. We don’t want to pay taxes and then wonder why the Free Market isn’t sorting out these pesky problems that won’t take care of themselves. Put still another way, if you don’t share the view that giving the wealthiest one percent even larger tax cuts is not an antidote for what ails us, you should vote and there is one party you should never vote for.

This is why we have to choose sides. This is why we can’t to let the super-affluent and well-insured with the least to lose lull us into a state of impotent rage or, worse, apathy. Because aside from the ceaseless class warfare they will instigate, their ultimate ambition is to render the literate and sentient amongst us fed up and indifferent. Without awareness, and with no resistance, they can more easily continue their unchecked assault on our collective well-being.

Your vote matters, and is vital, so whether it’s the disarming charm of Russell Brand or the transparent mendacity of the puppet-masters, resist the temptation to walk away: the only hope to win what feels like a rigged game is to remain on the playing field.

http://www.theweeklings.com/smurphy/2013/11/17/russell-brand-revolution-and-the-audacity-of-apathy/

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We’ve Seen This Movie Before: Trying to Make Sense of Philip Seymour Hoffman

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This isn’t quite in the day John Lennon died territory, but I’ll never forget where I was and what I was doing.

Sitting at home, Super Bowl shopping complete, biding my time for the big game. Someone posted something about Philip Seymour Hoffman dying on Facebook. No chance, I thought. No way, I hoped. Then another update, and another. This being 2014, I did what any sensible person would do: I Googled it. Sure enough, the first item that popped up had the wonderful words “hoax”. Since this was not the first time a celebrity had prematurely been declared dead, I took solace. But then another update, with a link to an actual news organizations appeared. Then another. And within a few minutes, my entire feed was buzzing with the news. It was true. It happened.

The man I consider the best actor of his generation (and I’m certainly not alone), dead aged 46. Of a heroin overdose. Needle found sticking in his arm.

No chance. No way.

Method acting taken to its illogical extreme? Nope, he was a once-recovered addict, and as the stories began pouring out, it was revealed that he’d relapsed and had been struggling these last months with this monster that had moved into his life. That’s how it happens with addiction: it knocks on the door, or maybe it’s a case of breaking and entering. Once it gets inside it’s a hell of a lot harder to extricate it than it ever was to seek it. It is an equal opportunity assailant, going after the vital organs (the brain, the heart) and if or when its appetite for death becomes more powerful than the body’s ability to tolerate, people are found face-down on beds, curled up in alleys, or sitting in a bathroom with a needle in their arms. They become clichés in the sense that famous people dying of ostensibly self-inflicted wounds are clichés: we’ve seen this movie before.

And before I talk about his work, and what we’ve lost, I’d like to personalize this a bit. I don’t know about you, but for me Americans have been perfecting a perverse sort of cognitive dissonance that has reached a boiling point. On one hand, we are utterly obsessed with celebrity and, increasingly, the fantasy that we might become famous, if only for a moment. As such, no shame, family secret or personal foible is off limits as we pursue this ridiculous and empty charade. On the other hand, we are able to shrug off another person’s misfortune like the most priggish priest, the most sadistic shrink: Americans are experts at judging and lambasting the weakness of others. My Facebook feed has been polluted with asinine comments about “selfishness”, “junkies” and “losers”. Perhaps you’ve seen similar, and worse, sentiment.

Here’s the logic these folks appear to be following: anyone who is rich and famous, who is well-regarded, and who has a family (!) is acting at the height (or is that the depth?) of self-absorbed evil to piss it all away. Just to get high. As usual, the best retort for such cocksure and half-assed sanctimony is to turn it on its head: how badly must a person be struggling to know they stand to piss away their fame, security and family (!) in order to inject bad medicine for a sickness that can never cure itself? Similar rationale tends to apply to suicides: no moral person could ever do something that would hurt their loved ones so much. Oh yeah? How about this: no person who was not already drowning in the dark waters of doubt, fear and helplessness could, in their right mind, do something, to themselves, that can never be undone? Hope is not something you can purchase with a paycheck or have breathed into your body like a reverse exorcism: if there is one thing folks who consistently hurt themselves have in common, a lack of perspective, the absence of hope.

(Incidentally, lest you think I’m content to wax unconvincingly on a topic of which I admittedly –and luckily– have no intimate experience, I’m happy to pass the mic to the incomparable Russell Brand (more thoughts on him here) who, last year, wrote eloquently, as usual, about his own struggles.

It is difficult to feel sympathy for these people. It is difficult to regard some bawdy drunk and see them as sick and powerless. It is difficult to suffer the selfishness of a drug addict who will lie to you and steal from you and forgive them and offer them help. Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing?)

All of which is to say, if there is one thing plaguing our society right now, it’s a decided and very soulless lack of empathy. We watch reality TV shows about slick business types (often born on third base) browbeating their inferiors about what it takes to get to the top. And we make these imbeciles even richer; we envy and admire them. And we shrug our shoulders as families on food stamps get their benefits cut, as people out of work are called lazy (or worse) because, obviously if they wanted to work, they could find a job. We say ill-informed, offensive things like “minimum wage jobs are not designed for people with families”. (Oh really? And: even if that were true, doesn’t that make it all the more appalling so many people with families are obliged to work them? Or that the minimum wage has not even come close to keeping pace with the cost of living during decades where we’ve seen the wealthiest one percent assume an ever-obscene portion of the nation’s wealth?)

All of that said, I believe it’s possible, and acceptable, to wish we devoted more time, energy and media coverage to the anonymous, often impoverished people who succumb to addiction, while also lamenting the untimely loss of a “famous” person. And in this instance, it hurts more than the typical “gone too soon” eulogy because we are collectively being robbed of an artist performing at the height of his considerable powers. We will have no more opportunities to watch him share his gift, effective immediately.

The reason this one hurts so acutely, on a purely artistic level, is because few people could convincingly argue that Hoffman is not among the most gifted, if not the most gifted and accomplished actor of his generation. Typically, simple consensus makes me suspicious; a result of groupthink or a media-driven narrative (with big pockets and PR firms doing what they do best: selling product to make money, manufacturing consent by any means necessary). With Hoffman, the verdict came in over a decade –if not longer– ago: he is perhaps the best at what he does, and the range of work coupled with an admirable productivity make a compelling case that is likely to accrue momentum in subsequent years.

Pretty simple, but still unassailable evidence of mastery: an actor who can consistently make you loathe him, pity him or love him –sometimes in the same movie– is a rare breed. Quick: think of how many excellent, A-list actors are actually capable of making you cheer for them in one role and feel repulsed by them in another? While playing creepy, despicable dudes was, in some ways, Hoffman’s calling card, even in the roles where he was unctuous or obsequious (think his early work in Scent of a Woman for the former and his unimprovable turn in The Big Lebowski for the latter), and being the heavy, in many senses of the word, called for skills he was ideally suited to deploy (think Punch-Drunk Love or the blustery Lester Bangs from Almost Famous), he was perhaps most convincing as the vulnerable outsider (Magnolia) or the disconnected non-content (The Savages).

It’s one thing to play an outsider; it’s easy for a luminous actor to channel alienation or estrangement. But it is considerably more challenging to depict the type of turmoil and inner-anguish that are often best conveyed only in novels. As such, two of his big roles (Capote and Doubt) were near-perfect vehicles for a man who could realistically portray a person trying to convince others –and himself– that he is someone else.

For me, the ultimate test of what sets the very-good or even the great apart from the greatest, is the how many question. If an actor inhabits a role to the extent that not only can’t you imagine anyone else playing the part, but can imagine the ways the movie would suffer without their involvement, this would seem a fair and accurate criteria for genius. And while his work in Boogie Nights and The Master might, and perhaps should, be among the first mentioned (and I’ll resist saying more since virtually every other tribute has, understandably, discussed those two roles in some detail), for me it’s two lesser-known films that epitomize movies that simply would not have worked without Hoffman’s involvement.

Here’s a clip from the significantly overlooked, near masterpiece, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead:

Merits of the actual film aside, is choosing this role (and this scene!) too easy by half? Not really. And not because of the facile (although, perhaps not so much) connection with his death; it’s not merely (!) that his character is seeking a state of listless oblivion via chemicals, it’s the desolation and lack of connection, the slow boiling debasement. His stock in trade was playing men on the run, from themselves. In repeated viewings, I never cease to be struck by the physical intensity and commitment this role required (and/or Hoffman invested in it). It borders on painful at times, and there are moments throughout where it appears Hoffman is about to have a heart attack right on the screen. Yes, that is acting, but it’s also…being. The character is deeply flawed, mostly despicable; he’s a bully, a liar and a coward. And yet, throughout the film (in part because of the excellent script and the direction–Lumet’s final film) you not only find yourself feeling pity for him, you aren’t conned into it (by the writing, by the acting), you see the sum total of history (his story), the decisions and frailties that make him the beast he has become. Simply put, I can’t think of a recent role that was able to show and tell, without words, exactly what is driving a character’s actions. It seems facile, maybe even trite, but it was during the first time I saw this film when I actually worried a bit about Hoffman’s health: how could any actor keep up this type of self-abuse in the service of art?

The other role, which I’d be willing to wager is going to assume added import in the years to come, is his tour-de-force performance in Synecdoche, New York. I think the role was so expansive, and he was so comparatively young when he played it, plus the fact that it’s more than slightly outside the box, (it tends to make Being John Malkovich, another Charlie Kaufman work, appear almost straightforward and commonplace by comparison), damned it to less-than-stellar box office results, as if that ever matters in the long view.

Certainly many fine actors have used skills, make-up and exceptional directing to play characters that age over the course of a film. But I can think of few, if any examples of a role wherein you see the character age physically as well as emotionally, wearing the passage of time like a weight; a weight that is not the addition of flesh so much as the subtraction of vitality, eating itself from the inside-out. By the latter stages of the film Caden Cotard is indeed a bloated, aged wreck, but Hoffman somehow makes it appear that even as he slows down, the agony (physical, metaphysical) within him has accelerated, ravaging him mentally as well as physically. It eventually becomes apparent it has assumed an ever-larger portion of his being, and he carries this burden like Sysyphus with his stone, forever looking up at a hill he can never crest.

This condition is a metaphor for Cotard’s life, sure. It manages to be emblematic of what every human struggles with: how to define ourselves, how to understand each other, how to make sense of existence. It also suggests a struggle that Hoffman was unable to win in his own life. It seems safe to assume it was this discontent, this inordinate sensitivity and subsequent commitment to articulating the story he couldn’t quite tell that led to the roles we will never forget. It is also, perhaps, the secret to what stalked Philip Seymour Hoffman, the guy with all the money, all the accolades, every reason to live. The silver lining, aesthetically speaking, reaffirms the essence of so much art: his pain is our gain.

We’ve seen this movie before. But we won’t see more movies from this actor and that, above all, is why it hurts so much.

http://www.popmatters.com/feature/178919-weve-seen-this-movie-before-trying-to-make-sense-of-philip-seymour-h/

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Russell Brand, Revolution and The Audacity of Apathy

FIRST OFF, LET’S dispense with decorum and declare the obvious: Russell Brand is brilliant, and quite possibly a genius. In addition to his comedic and acting abilities, he is a first-rate thinker and a (surprisingly) superlative writer. Wipe that smirk off your face and read his tribute to Amy Winehouse. (My own tribute is HERE.)

Or, check out this paragraph from a remarkable piece on Margaret Thatcher, deconstructing both the hypocrisy and opportunistic destruction of the Thatcher/Reagan ethos and what it wrought:

Perhaps, though, Thatcher “the monster” didn’t die this week from a stroke; perhaps that Thatcher died as she sobbed self-pitying tears as she was driven defeated from Downing Street, ousted by her own party. By then, 1990, I was 15, adolescent and instinctively antiestablishment enough to regard her disdainfully. I’d unthinkingly imbibed enough doctrine to know that, troubled as I was, there was little point looking elsewhere for support; I was on my own. We are all on our own. Norman Tebbit, one of Thatcher’s acolytes and fellow “Munsters evacuee,” said when the National Union of Miners eventually succumbed to the military onslaught and starvation over which she presided, “[We] broke not just a strike, but a spell.” The spell he’s referring to is the unseen bond that connects us all and prevents us from being subjugated by tyranny. The spell of community.

Brand’s most recent foray into sociopolitical observation is, justifiably and encouragingly, going viral and prompting all sorts of (justifiable, encouraging) commentary. Check it out:

 

So while Russell Brand’s eloquent and witty rant does some heavy lifting in the service of exposing the Royal Scam of manufactured democracy (etc. etc.), and I endorse much of what he says, I do take serious exception with the statement he thinks he’s making by declining to vote. Apathy, or better yet, the type of cultivated disgust that leads to “both sides do it” equivocation is almost certainly what the people pulling the proverbial strings want our default settings to be.

I always get nervous, and ultimately frustrated when I hear intelligent people asking the rhetorical question: Why bother?

Why bother getting invested in politics?

Why bother reading all those papers and blogs and magazines?

Why bother since politicians are all the same?

Why bother voting at all?

Well, there are lots of good reasons, some of which are immediately evident to anyone who is even moderately informed. Not to mention aware of not-so-complicated concepts like cause and effect. That the policies of our former administration combined with the ideology informing those policies bankrupted our nation and—this is the toughest one to grasp— made us less safe is not a matter of opinion. There is no room for any possible nuance. There is only one type of Socialism being practiced in America today and it has been in effect for longer than five years. It’s Corporate Socialism. For evidence to support this claim, I submit every action taken by every Republican politician since 1980.

There was probably not a more irascible yet articulate comedian who spoke the Truth to Power in the last quarter-century than George Carlin. He made you laugh, but the topics were often ugly and dead-serious. He dissected the greed, opportunism and collective culpability of a super-sized America as well as anyone has but, like Twain, his indignation eventually (inevitably) took a turn for the bitter toward the end. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. If any famous public figure—an artist, no less!— went as ungently into that not-so-good night, I can’t think of one; eternal kudos to Carlin for keeping it real until he flat-lined.

The one beef I had with Carlin was similar: he famously refused to vote as well. And while it’s difficult to quibble with any of the points he makes in the video below (wherein he proves that he still had both his fastball and spitball up until the last pitch he threw), it is in the 21st Century—and after what we’ve just witnessed with one party fighting for the right to default—disingenuous to deny that the other party even bothers to pay lip service to working Americans.

I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what one studies in college, or the type of person one already is (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if one is a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right, reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: agency vs. incapacity, history vs. ideology and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

Put another way, even if one is open-minded and receptive to various sources of information, if your studies focus on economics, business or political science, you are already being inculcated into an established way of thinking. Liberal arts education, if it has anything going for it (and it has plenty, thank you very little!), reinforces and insists upon what Milan Kundera called a “furious non-identification.” This does not mean to imply that all, or most, or even some of the students who embrace (or abscomb from) the ivory tower remain inquisitive and objective. It does mean that reading works from different cultures and different times inevitably denotes facts, even if couched in fictional narratives, which are largely outside of time and agenda.

It is, therefore, easier to make connections between Irish immigrants who worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania and Lithuanian immigrants who worked in the meatpacking plants in Chicago and Mexican immigrants—especially the illegal ones—who labor in sweltering kitchens and frigid fields all across our country. It is impossible not to put human faces and real feelings alongside this suffering and start connecting the dots that define how exploitation works. All of a sudden, it’s less easy to espouse the impartial axioms of the Free Market and the immutable forces of commerce or especially the notion that (in America anyway) everyone starts out at the same place and those who work hard enough and say their prayers and drink their milk will attain vast fortunes without breaking laws, stepping on innocent faces, or engaging in the oppressive pas de deux with Authority. Then, presumably, it goes from being merely disconcerting to outrageous that the Weasels of Wall Street are back in business with billion-dollar bonuses (thanks taxpayers!) while unionized public school teachers and middle-to-lower class workers’ pensions are being blamed for America’s current deficits.

One must concede that when it comes to bumper-sticker braggadocio, no one sloganeers for the soldiers, country, and Christ like Republicans. Of course, we won’t count the ultimate cost of “Mission Accomplished” until we consider the lives lost and the walking wounded, tallied up alongside the untold billions of dollars our adventure in Iraq has put on the ledger. And isn’t it amusing how seldom the war that would pay for itself comes up during discussions of the big deficits racked up during the last decade? Remember this, when those hoping to drown government in a bathtub crawl out of their taxpayer-fortified foxholes to decry liberal “big spending” programs. Remember it’s these programs that, in addition to paving roads, building schools and providing health care, attempt to secure some support and solace for our broken soldiers.

The Democrats are not immune from the corrupting influence of their donors and corporate masters, but they can continue to ensure the people owed the most won’t get the least. It’s up to enlightened citizens to ensure the Dems don’t dance with the devil and sell out Social Security. It’s the obligation of those who know better to remind their disgruntled or oblivious buddies that Obamacare is almost entirely a plan designed by Republicans! Listen to right-wing radio or the rhetoric of men like the Ayn Rand acolyte Paul Ryan, who will happily sign off on savage cuts to food stamps, and persuade their supporters to inquire, What Would Jesus Do?

There will be haters, and it’s easy enough to feel their pain, to a point. Yes, watching the Democrats try to govern is an often painful and occasionally pitiful spectacle. Of course, in their defense, a reasonable person understands that actually attempting to govern is messy, difficult and frustrating. More than ever, as our nation has become increasingly ignorant, self-absorbed and childish, we don’t want any government interference. We don’t want to pay taxes and then wonder why the Free Market isn’t sorting out these pesky problems that won’t take care of themselves. Put still another way, if you don’t share the view that giving the wealthiest one percent even larger tax cuts is not an antidote for what ails us, you should vote and there is one party you should never vote for.

This is why we have to choose sides. This is why we can’t to let the super-affluent and well-insured with the least to lose lull us into a state of impotent rage or, worse, apathy. Because aside from the ceaseless class warfare they will instigate, their ultimate ambition is to render the literate and sentient amongst us fed up and indifferent. Without awareness, and with no resistance, they can more easily continue their unchecked assault on our collective well-being.

Your vote matters, and is vital, so whether it’s the disarming charm of Russell Brand or the transparent mendacity of the puppet-masters, resist the temptation to walk away: the only hope to win what feels like a rigged game is to remain on the playing field.

http://www.theweeklings.com/smurphy/2013/11/17/russell-brand-revolution-and-the-audacity-of-apathy/

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