Frank

I didn’t love Frank. If you’re after something particularly slow and dreamy this may do, but otherwise I’d steer clear.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Frank is a movie about a middle class, suburban office drone (Domhnall Gleeson as Jon) who dreams of being a brilliant musician. Luck strikes when he’s offered the chance to join an indie band fronted by a tortured musician (Frank, played by Michael Fassbender in an enormous paper-mache head).

He goes with them to their retreat in the Irish countryside. What we learn alongside him though, is that rather than wanting to create wonderful music, he wants adulation, adoration, clicks and likes and retweets.

Like every good protagonist he’s driven by two conflicting desires, and in getting on to the main stage at SXSW he tears apart the band, and leaves Frank distraught and getting hit in traffic.

Eventually, Jon finds his way to Frank, and brings the band back together; but they can only make beautiful music if he’s not there. Having learnt his lesson, he graciously leaves.

Advertisements

Luke Cage

Luke Cage a slightly cheesy TV show, with a satisfying amount of action, and feels less intense than Jessica Jones. Mike Colter is excellent as Luke Cage, a prison inmate who’s given superpowers in a freak accident. He sets out to find himself, and in doing so he fights crime, and finds community and love.

Worth it if you want some mindless, cheesy action that’s good fun.

Virtual Murdoch by Neil Chenoweth

Neil Chenoweth is one of the better Murdoch biographers out there. In part, that’s because he’s an excellent business journalist. Rather than trying to create a picture of a character, he hones in on the deals that have made Murdoch: mergers, acquisitions, and the like.

His book on a particular News Corp subsidiary, Murdoch’s Pirates, was at times overly complex and slightly baffling (to be fair, it’s a difficult topic). Virtual Murdoch is a similarly complex piece, in that it tracks Murdoch’s career from its very start until publication at the turn of the millennium. Perhaps because Murdoch as central character gives it something to hang from, the book feels a little more tightly knitted than Murdoch’s Pirates; it follows each stage of the deals and gambles (and Chenoweth very much presents them as gambles) that Murdoch has undertaken throughout his career.

In on instance, he outlines the leveraging the Murdoch was able to use to acquire an asset without losing equity control:

In 1985, under the US accounting standards News Corp had net assets of $166 million, which suggested Murdoch could only borrow about $175 million. He was raising new debt of $2.7 billion, fifteen times more than the banks’ lending limit allowed him. It was enough to induce cardiac failure in even his most hardened bankers. The only way that Murdoch could borrow more money was to increase his net assets, or shareholders’ equity. The easiest way to do this was to raise capital by issuing stock, as Turner eventually did with the cable companies. But it cost Turner control of his company. Murdoch was never going to allow that to happen.

Murdoch had two ways of getting around this bothersome lending restriction. First, his finance director Richard Sarazen argued that News Corps’ newspapers were worth far more than the modest values assigned to them in the group’s balance sheet. And to prove this point, he kept revaluing them … Between 1984 and 1987, Sarazen wrote up the mastheads of the group’s newspapers by $1.5 billion …

The revaluations solved half the debt-raising problem. Arthur Siskind and the legal team at Squadron Ellenoff solved the other half of the problem. Murdoch needed to raise $1.15 billion in junk money from Michael Milken to buy Metromedia. It was, as Siskind later told American Lawyer, ‘an extraordinarily complicated and very unusual financing’. Siskind’s twist was that instead of treating the loans as junk bonds, News would call it preferred stock. While in essence this would be a $1.15 billion loan, it would appear on the News Corp balance sheet as a stock issue. Because it was called a stock issue, it would be treated like an asset.

Later, Chenoweth summarises quite neatly a set of causally linked crises that he’s described:

Murdoch had never been able to afford his great move in 1985-86 to buy Twentieth Century Fox, the Metromedia television stations and to launch the Fox network. To pay for it, he moved his British newspapers to Wapping and triggered a year of violent industrial confrontation. The Wapping success produced a new debt problem that he tried to solve by taking over the Australian newspaper industry. When that plan went wrong he had been forced into a deal that left a crippling debt in a family company. Then, in the deals after Black Monday 1987, Murdoch flipped the problem back to News Corp. Cruden’s loan problem was now once again News Corporation’s lurking debt crisis.

Then documents some fascinating patterns in corporate accounts:

David DeVoe celebrated News Corp’s escape from the debt crisis with the accounting equivalent of a barrel roll. Sarazen had produced his party trick once in the News Corp accounts each year. DeVoe did it three times in the same set of accounts. Profit before abnormal items came in at $A391.391 million. Minority interests of $A70.070 million were subtracted to give a profit of $A321.321. The odds against three numbers repeating themselves like this were more than 100 million to one.

There’s a lot more in the book that’s worth reading, if you’re interested in media economics and finance. It is of course hard to know how seriously to take Chenoweth’s Kremlinology, given that he relies very much on secondary sources; but it’s an interesting read, and has experience at the AFR that gives him some credibility.

Oh, and if you’re interested in reading about the infamous ‘poison pill’, this is one of the better explainers I’ve found.

God Bless You, Mr Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is an interesting writer, and one of my favourites. God Bless You, Mr Rosewater is perhaps the most determinedly socialistic of his pieces I’ve read. It was published only a few years after Harrison Bergeron, a short story by Vonnegut which takes a very different approach to questions of distributive justice.

The story follows a wealthy princeling, who is perceived by his father as insane when he tries to give away everything he owns, loving each and every person in Rosewater county. There are some lovely passages that contrast the Senator’s desire for love that is unique to him, from his son, with his son’s love for each and every human, no matter how hopeless they are.

There are also some lovely passages where Vonnegut reflects on distributive justice; again, in a very different way than in Harrison Bergeron.

Overall, this is well worth a read.

Quotes

The Money River, where the wealth of the nation flows. We were born on the banks of it- and so were most of the mediocre people we grew up with, went to private schools with, sailed and played tennis with. We can slurp from that mighty river to our hearts’ content. And we even take slurping lessons, so we can slurp more efficiently …

We’re born close enough to the river drown ourselves and the next ten generations in wealth, simply using dippers and buckets. But still we hire the experts to teach use the use of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, siphons, bucket brigades, and the Archimedes’ screw …

“It’s still possible for an American to make a fortune on his own.”

“Sure-provided somebody tells him when he’s young enough that there is a Money River, that there’s nothing fair about it, that he had damn well better forget about hard work and the merit system and honesty and all that crap, and get to where the river is. ‘Go where the rich and the powerful are’, I’d tell him, ‘and learn their ways. They can be flattered and they can be scared. Please them enormously or scare them enormously, and one moonless night they will put their fingers to their lips, warning you not to make a sound. And they will lead you through the dark to the widest, deepest river of wealth ever known to man. You’ll be shown your place on the riverbank, and handed a bucket all your own. Slurp as much as you want, but try to keep the racket of your slurping down. A poor man might hear.”

“You’re the man who stands on a street corner with a roll of toilet paper, and written on each square are the words, ‘I love you’. And each passer-by, no matter who, gets a square all his or her own. I don’t want my square of toilet paper.” “I didn’t realize it was toilet paper.”

Money is dehydrated Utopia.

The Dark Tower series by Stephen King

I enjoyed the Dark Tower series quite a bit. Although it took me a few weeks to read it, it has a much longer history in the crafting. Stephen King wrote the series over decades, starting with the first book published in the 80s, through to a seventh volume published in 2004. 

Overall, it’s a good read. The series tells the story of Roland Deschain, a gunslinger, as he journeys after a mysterious man in black. Along the way he acquires companions: Jake, Eddie, and Susannah. They have adventures, battling a range of enemies, learning from Roland to be gunslingers, as they make their way to the Dark Tower. 

The story feels like a mixture of fantasy stories, Western, and apocalyptic dystopia. They travel between universes, into far-off futures where technology runs amok, and through agricultural communities eking out a living. Throughout, King tells a story that lets us connect with the characters, to fear for them and feel their excitement as they overcome challenges. 

In turn, that carries the series through the gaps in the internal consistency. Part of this has to do with the drafting. Roland starts as a figure wandering across the desert, slaughtering an entire village gone mad when they try to attack him. Later, he becomes a father figure to the band he gathers with him; although to be fair, throughout he is a cold, distant figure; part of the joy of the series is seeing him slowly warm to those around him. 

The other thing that I found difficult was the … bizarre nature of the multiverse the book inhabits. It felt hard, at times, to spot the internal logic or system that overhung everything. At the end of the first book, Roland is given cards that indicate who he’ll find from a series of portals he’ll encounter. He’s given them by his antagonist, the man in black. Why is he given them? How do they connect to anything else? I certainly don’t know. In one of the books, they encounter an enormous castle, a reference to the Wizard of Oz. There is no real event here; they simply wake up, far away from the castle. What happened? I don’t have a clue. 

You’ll see a lot of references to how The Dark Tower series ties in to King’s broader fictional universe. As someone new to King’s writing, this wasn’t something I knew a lot about. It perhaps added to the sense of incoherence that hangs over the broader story. 

For all that, this is a really fun series. It’s well written, and it carries a story delightfully over several thousand pages, with crisp action and warm characters, in a universe that’s fascinating because it is so warped, so beyond simple understanding. Well worth a read. 

Quotes from the fictional parts of the Dark Tower series: 

Eddie looked at him with love and hate and all the aching dearness of one man’s dying hopeless helpless reach for another man’s mind and will and need. 

The idea was intoxicating, all the same: an enclave of civilization in this dangerous, mostly empty world; wise old elf-men who would tell them just what the fuck it was they were supposed to be doing. 

His heart leaped up and although he didn’t know it then, it was how he would remember her most clearly for ever after – lovely Susan, the girl at the window. So do we pass the ghosts that haunts us later in our lives; they sit undramatically by the roadside like poor beggars, and we see them only from the corners of our eyes, if we see them at all. The idea that they have been waiting there for us rarely if ever crosses our minds. Yet they do wait, and when we have passed, they gather up their bundles of memory and fall in behind, treading in our footsteps and catching up, little by little. 

… folk tales are, at best, generally no more than lies set in rhyme. 

These weren’t lies, exactly, but little propaganda capsules that sounded like answers. 

‘Anger is the most useless emotion,’ Henchick intoned, ‘destructive to the mind and hurtful of the heart.’ 

Do any of us, except in our dreams, truly expect to be reunited with our hearts’ deepest loves, even when they leave us only for minutes, and on the most mundane of errands? No, not at all. Each time they go from our sight we in our secret hearts count them as dead. Having been given so much, we reason, how could we expect not be to brought as low as Lucifer for the staggering presumption of our love?

No community is easier to govern than one that rejects the very concept of community … 

They tell tales because they’re afraid of life … 

… the body had a way of forgetting the worst things, she supposed, and without the body’s cooperation, all the brain had were memories like faded snapshots. 

And will I tell you that these three lived happily ever after? I will not, for no one ever does. But there was happiness. And they did live. 

You say you want to follow Roland into the into the Tower; you say that is what you paid your money for, the show you came to see. 

Quotes from forewards and afterwards: 

More than anything else I wanted to get inside my readers’ defences, wanted to rip them and ravish them and change them forever with nothing but story. 

Then I realized that I had one more thing to say, a thing that actually needed to be said. It has to do with my presence in my own book. There’s a smarmy academic term for this – ‘metafiction’. I hate it. I hate the pretentiousness of it. 

The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani is a comic born in Pakistan, and experiencing significant success in the US. The Big Sick is a movie that he coauthored and starred in, released recently to positive critical feedback and commercial success.

Specifically, The Big Sick was co-authored by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. Nanjiani stars in it as himself, playing alongside an actress, telling the story of how he met Emily.

It’s a touching story. Nanjiani is failing to live up to his family’s expectations (get a law degree, marry a Pakistani background woman), when he meets and falls in love with a young psychologist from North Carolina. They date, and enjoy each other, for a few months, until there’s a fight – she asks him if there’s a scenario where can imagine being with her, and he tells her that he can’t.

Shortly afterwards, she’s hospitalised and subsequently enters a coma. Nanjiani connects with her parents, and gradually fights his way through a frosty encounter to befriend them. That rang, at points, a little hollow to me; it didn’t feel realistic that the night before major surgery, a mother would booze it up with the ex-boyfriend she was angry at for rejecting her daughter. But, that was just my take.

Whether Emily wakes up or not, and what happens afterwards, are questions I’ll leave in case you want to watch it. I’ll just say here that I think it’s a fun movie, and worth watching because it’s better than most rom-coms, but it’s not spectacular. [SPOILER ALERT: Don’t read on if you haven’t watched it]. 

What interested me was that … for anyone writing a story about themselves, there must be a set of challenges. Paint yourself in too positive a light – too courageous, too noble, too self-sacrificing – and you risk being criticised for sanctifying your own perspective. But there’s another risk, too – that you might undersell yourself, play down your actions. And if you did, who would know?

That is perhaps the most charitable interpretation I can find for the thing that bothered me about The Big Sick, which is essentially that Nanjiani felt, at times, largely unlikeable. He lies to his family for years (about whether he’s praying), and then refuses to confront them about the charade they’re forcing on him (of meeting young Pakistani women). When his girlfriend wants him to fight for her, he doesn’t – they break up. He’s actually in another woman’s bed when the call comes that she’s sick in hospital. From there, he reconnects with her family largely by being there.

If every love story is about two people struggling to be together despite the obstacles fate throws at them, it’s easy to see where the obstacles are; illness, culture. But at times it felt that Nanjiani’s actions are quite late in the piece; he stands up to his family only after his would-be girlfriend is in a coma, and he tells her that he still loves her only after she’s recovered from a coma.

Perhaps better late than never. Nanjiani does eventually overcome the obstacles he faces, and they do find love together.

Importantly, too, this is a funny move. Najiani is a standup, and you can feel it in the one-liners that fly back and forth. It makes for fun viewing, it’s more grounded than your average rom-com, and it’s touching.

Oh, and Emily’s parents’ plotline feels lovely and … real to the challenges of an ongoing relationship.