Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the John le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has been on my IMDB Watch List for close to seven years, but for whatever reason I never clicked “buy” on Google Play Movies or recorded it off HBO. One reason this Watch List challenge is so interesting to me is because it will force me to finally watch some films that have been languishing in my “get around to it” file. And while I’m not a reader of John le Carré novels, this film appealed to me because I love a good international spy film and the cast of this adaptation is remarkable.
The film stars Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and even a young Tom Hardy. That’s a lot of star power. Alas, it wasn’t enough to restart my heart after I nearly fell asleep from boredom after about 20 minutes. I mean, usually I’ll give a film a half hour or so before giving up, but life is too short to waste 30 minutes let alone two hours plus. My wife didn’t protest at all when I hit the stop button on the remote. 20 minutes might be a record for me in terms of giving up on a film.
I know this film has an 85/100 metacritic score, a 7.1 out of 10 on IMDB, and was nominated for three Oscars including a Best Actor nod for Gary Oldman (who finally did win an Oscar recently for Darkest Hour which I still haven’t seen). But boring is boring. Hell, I’ve enjoyed the first two episodes of Killing Eve way more and it’s basically the same plot.
You know that feeling you get when you watch a film and as it comes to a close you think to yourself what the hell did I just watch? That’s how I felt about Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame. Honestly, it’s rare for me to dislike a film as much as I disliked Shame.
Shame tells the story of Brandon, played by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender, who on the surface appears to be a normal guy but who harbors a secret life of sexual addiction. He spends his nights hooking up with strange women, or hiring prostitutes to fulfill his desires. When he’s not having random sex, he watches porn and jerks off. Even at work. The guy has no life outside of his perverted hobby.
Enter his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who turns up unexpectedly needing a place to stay throwing a wrench into Brandon’s habit. Sissy has her own issues, not the least of which is that she is psychotic…and…well…the tension builds until something’s got to give.
I’m the furthest thing from a prude, so it wasn’t the NC-17 rating that caused me to dislike this film. Nor was it the underlying sexual tension between brother and sister, or the porn, or the gratuitous full frontal nudity on display from both Fassbender and Mulligan. It was the complete and utter lack of story beyond the sex. The film was simply about a guy who has a problem with sex and his nutty sister moving in to take him off his game. Not much happens and nothing is resolved. I have no idea what McQueen was trying to say.
I added this film to my Watch List for several reasons, including the fact that I adore Carey Mulligan as an actress and Fassbender is always intense. But mostly I added it because McQueen is now considered an elite filmmaker having given the world multi-Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave. I even enjoyed last year’s McQueen drama Widows. But Shame is just bad. I can think of many much better films about sexual dysfunction and taboos. David O. Russell’sSpanking The Monkey comes to mind. Or Secretary with Maggie Gyllenhaal.Sex, Lies, and Videotape. These films are art. Shame doesn’t compare.
War Horse was on my IMDB Watchlist for one reason — it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The director has given us some of the greatest films ever made, and more than a handful of my all-time favorite films. Schindler’s List. Empire of the Sun. Lincoln. ET. Amistad. Saving Private Ryan. Close Encounters of the Third Kind.Raiders of the Lost Ark. And on and on. So of course I was going to want to see War Horse. What a waste of two hours and 26 minutes.
This film was more like a 1970s Disney film or an After School Special. It was so corny and predictable from start to finish. Boy meets horse. Boy loses horse. Boy finds horse again. I felt like I’d seen this story a million times before, but with a dog, or a pig, or a pigeon in the anthropomorphized lead role. No, the horse didn’t talk (he’s no Mr. Ed) but he did have a personality that made him feel more human than he is.
There were a few things I liked about War Horse. The battle scenes were cool and really well shot. Not a surprise for a director with the skills of Spielberg. And it didn’t do too bad critically, with a 76% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But the review also included this line: “Technically superb, proudly sentimental, and unabashedly old-fashioned, War Horse is an emotional drama that tugs the heartstrings with Spielberg’s customary flair.”
That about sums it up. Yes, beautifully shot but over-the-top sentimental. Oh, and there was one little surprise for me. Scottish actor Peter Mullan played the dad in the film, and once again my mind was blown. I had no idea he was Scottish while he was playing Jacob Snell in the amazing Netflix series Ozark or James Delos in Westworld. This guy is a tremendous actor who I love and now I like him even more. How many times am I going to be blown away be a foreign actor playing an American? I mean, he plays a Brit in War Horse and I thought he was putting on the accent! Are there any good American actors left?
“What’s fascinated me from the time I was a little kid was the way we construct our lives through stories.”
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Who are you? I suspect we all have a basic sense of who we are. I’m a 52-year-old husband and father, born in New York but raised in California, a sports fan, a writer, a liberal, an atheist. I’m Ashkenazi Jew on both sides of my family tree going back as far as the historical record. This is the “story” I tell myself and others about me. But what if one day you found out that a huge piece of your story was based on a lie?
Author Dani Shapiro thought she knew her story as well, until one day the results of an Ancestry.com DNA test she took “on a whim” came back with a shocking result. She was not genetically related to her father (the only father she ever knew). Shapiro’s world was turned upside down and her story changed in an instant. As a writer who specializes in memoirs, she handled this life event in the only way she knew how — she wrote a book about the experience. The result isInheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love (Knopf ( 2019).
I’m not going to ruin the book for you with spoilers, but suffice it to say the memoir reads like a mystery novel and it’s beautifully written. I didn’t know Shapiro’s work prior to reading Inheritance, but I was really blown away by how she weaves this story and by how she lays herself bare in the process. It’s clear she was devastated by the results of the DNA test, but that doesn’t stop her from taking the reader along for the whole intimate ride. At each turn of the narrative she delves deeply into her psyche as she starts to put the pieces of the story — her new story — together like a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Truthfully, it’s a brave retelling given how much of herself she lost along the way.
It’s interesting to think about the simple, almost matter-of-fact decision that led to the unraveling of Shapiro’s sense of herself. Her husband purchased a DNA test for each of them (even though she was not overly keen on the idea) and then decided to compare her results to those of her half-sister. Maybe she subconsciously knew her results would provide a surprise, especially given that as we learn in the book she had always felt a nagging feeling that she didn’t quite fit. There were little moments in her life that, on reflection, gave her pause about her deep Jewish roots. Plenty of people told her she didn’t “look” Jewish.
In 2003 when the Human Genome Project was completed, I suppose even the scientists involved couldn’t have imagined less than than two decades later people all over the world could spit in a test tube and for a hundred bucks or so get their entire genome mapped and categorized. Genetic sequencing has become an integral part of medical science and disease diagnosis and treatment, and it has applications in law enforcement, paternity testing, and of course ancestry research. With these advances have come a host of ethical issues, not the least of which involves privacy, and perhaps mankind has been slow to put sufficient guidelines around those ethical issues. Of course, when you agree to take a DNA test for ancestry research you agree to see the results no matter what news the results may bring. The internet is full of stories like Shapiro’s.
Ever since I almost died from a heart attack in 2011 I’ve been obsessed with ancestry and genetic detective work. My interest in genealogy has not been driven by my medical condition, but rather by a desire to know who I am and where I come from in order to pass my story on to future generations (especially my son). I was able to get my DNA sequenced as part of a heart study at the University of Michigan and in return for allowing them to use my DNA for their study I received a summary of my results. No surprises for me: I’m 65 percent Eastern European and 34 percent West Asian and North African. My people come from the area around the Black Sea and likely migrated up from the Middle East and Northern Africa. A classic story of Jewish diaspora.
But while reading Inheritance I found myself wondering what it’d be like if my DNA test had come back with a surprising result. I watch a lot of ancestry shows like Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates and Who Do You Think You Are? and people get surprised all the time. Hell, last season on Finding Your Roots, white actor Ty Burrell discovered he is part African American and African American radio host Joe Madison found out he was part white! Talk about changing your perception of self?
Of course, I knew I was genetically related to my parents. All you have to do is look at us to see that. Still, what if I found out a few branches back we were not Ashkenazi but rather something altogether different? You can imagine that kind of genealogy discovery would change who you are, let alone finding out you weren’t related to your father like Shapiro uncovered. And to find this out in your 50s, after both your parents had died, would make it even more hard to handle.
For Shapiro, a big part of her identity was tied to her upbringing as an orthodox Jew. So many of her childhood memories were tied to that Jewish culture, especially the times she spent with her devout father. And then to find out she’s not even related to her father? That’s she’s Jewish, but only on her mother’s side? She moved on from her religious upbringing, but it was still part of her identity — her story.
The book really made me think about story and how we identify. You know where you’ll find your story in its most basic form? Your Twitter profile! Mine says: “Husband, Dad, Desert Dweller, Sports Fanatic, Survivor.” Shapiro’s declares: “Novelist, memoirist, essayist, teacher, wife, mom.”
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has been behind the camera for 50 years and is considered one of the great European directors. I’ve been a huge fan since seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) back in college, a film that I credit for helping opening my eyes to the wonders of foreign films. Almodovar’s filmography includes several favorites of mine, most especially Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1989), Kika (1993), and Matador (1986). All About My Mother (1999) is a bloody revelation. He has compiled a spectacular list of awards over the years and has introduced the world to a host of Spanish actors who have stayed loyal to him even as they found American success (see Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz).
Almodovar is one of those directors who, when he releases a new film, I immediately, without question, add it to my list to see. Which is why The Skin I Live In has been on my Watchlist since its release in 2011. I wish it hadn’t been.
One of the reasons I love Almodovar’s work is because his stories are at the far edge of mainstream. I mean, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down is about a guy who is so obsessed with a porn star that he kidnaps her in an attempt to make her fall in love with him. Talk to Her (2002) is about the friendship between two men who are both caring for women who happen to be in comas. Matador is about a man who is wounded by a bull and has lost his appetite for killing and it opens with a graphic close up of him whacking off. This is not the stuff of typical Hollywood boy meets girl tropes.
Almodovar can always be counted on for shedding light on the dark side of human nature, but methinks he went too far in The Skin I Live In. It was deeply disturbing. And frankly, it’s hard to discuss without giving away the big reveal, so I’ll dance around it.
The film centers around a successful plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (played by Banderas), who has lost his wife to a tragic accident. The loss haunts him so he holes up in his rural mansion to work on a breakthrough synthetic skin that in its development casts aside medical ethics. As part of the project, he is keeping a beautiful woman hostage in his home/laboratory to use as a guinea pig for his breakthrough skin treatment.
The plot thickens as his daughter is sexually assaulted at a party, which leads to her suicide, and Dr. Ledgard decides to take the law into his own hands. The result is a psycho-sexual, disconcerting chain of events that takes even Almodovar down a strange and unsettling rabbit hole. I mean, the film is categorized as Drama/Horror/Thriller and let’s just say Dr. Ledgard received a bit of inspiration from Dr. Frankenstein.
The Skin I Live In is hard to watch and while the acting is wonderful (Banderas is great as Dr. Ledgard and Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes is brilliant as the doctor’s assistant/mother) I was left uncomfortable with the taboos that highlight the film. And I am not easily disturbed by uncomfortable subject matter.
You really can’t have too many hangups if you’re going to enjoy Almodovar films. I found a list of his themes/motifs on the web, and they include: homosexuality; sexual perversion; female heroines; sacrilegious Catholicism; excessive kitsch and camp, stalking, prostitution, rape, incest, transexuality, and women urinating on film. These topics have not kept him from scores of awards, including two Academy Awards, five British Academy Film Awards, six European Film Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, nine Goya Awards and four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.
Say what you will about Almodovar, but you can’t say he’s not a bold and brave filmmaker. His stories tend to be centered around woman, which in an of itself is interesting for a gay director, but some find his female representations to be misogynistic. I think his female characters tend to be powerful, either by their strength and beauty or by their deep matriarchal traits.
So, I didn’t like The Skin I Live In, but I’m still going to watch the other Almodovar films I haven’t seen yet, including the soon-to-be released Pain & Glory which is a drama featuring both Banderas and Cruz.
I give The Skin I Live In four stars out of 10.
Next on my IMDB Watchlist: Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011)
I am a history buff, or so I like to think. But honestly I either never learned or simply forgot that the U.S. went to war with the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, from 1899 to 1902 U.S. troops invaded the small island nation to maintain control over it following it being handed over to the U.S. following the Spanish-American War. And while the Philippines are strategically located in the Pacific, the war was criticized in America by anti-imperialists including the likes of William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie and notably, Mark Twain.
It’s not a war that gets much attention in mainstream cinema, especially given the plethora of World War II and Vietnam War films that have come out of Hollywood. Recently, we’ve even seen a slew of films about the Gulf War and our conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan.
Director John Sayles has a history of highlighting the underdog, whether its organized labor fighting for rights in West Virginia coal country in 1987’s intense film Matewan, or local residents fighting the government in 1991’s City of Hope. Sayles also has a fondness for history, most notably with his 1988 retelling of the Black Sox scandal in Eight Men Out.
One thing you can also count on with a John Sayles film is that he’ll always give you interesting characters and complex stories. I’ve been a dedicated Sayles fan for decades and have seen most of the films he’s directed, including favorites such as the aforementioned Matewan, City of Hope and Eight Men Out, along with Passion Fish, Lone Star, The Brother from Another Planet, and The Secret of Roan Inish. My personal favorite is the 1983 coming of age story Baby, It’s You starring a 24-year-old movie newcomer named Rosanna Arquette. His filmography is tremendous and for an independent filmmaker he’s managed to cast so many great actors who have gone on to stardom — he pretty much discovered actors like Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and Mary McDonnell to name a few who have each starred in multiple John Sayles films and gone on to award-winning Hollywood careers. It’s enough to make you forget he also wrote the screenplays for Piranha, Alligator and The Howling.
Amigo certainly fits the John Sayles bill. It tells the fictional story of a small village in the Philippine jungle that has been taken over by American troops and used as a base to take on nationalist guerrillas. Things quickly get turned upside down for the villagers, who while are not harboring nationalists are in multiple cases related to guerrillas hiding nearby who are determined to fight to take back their country from the Americans.
The film stars Filipino actor Joel Torre as Rafael, the village mayor who’s brother leads the nearby guerrillas and who’s son has run off to join them. Rafael is stuck between trying to appease the American soldiers while at the same time not turning in his brother and son. We never truly know where Rafael’s allegiance lays, but he’s certainly in a tough spot. It doesn’t help that at the same time his fellow villagers seem unsure of his ability to lead the village. It’s worth noting that Sayles chose to present the film in Filipino with English subtitles except for when the Americans speak. This serves to both create a realistic experience for the viewer and at the same time ensure a level of confusion among the American troops and native villagers that adds to the tension. In recent years Sayles has made several films using subtitles versus Americanizing the characters and this adds to the realism of his films and provides unique opportunities for native-speaking actors.
The American troops are led by Colonel Hardacre, a hard-ass soldier with no soft spot for the Filipino villagers. Played by the underappreciated Chris Cooper, Hardacre clearly doesn’t want to be in the jungles of the Philippines and is perfectly comfortable treating the natives like subhumans. Cooper is a regular in Sayles’ films, perhaps most memorably as the sheriff in 1996’s Lone Star. He’s one of those actors that seems to show up everywhere and is amazing in each role (see Conklin in the Bourne films and as the sexually-confused Marine living next door to Kevin Spacey’s iconic Lester Burnham in American Beauty). Cooper does have an Oscar, which he won for Best Supporting Actor in Spike Jones’ 2002 film Adaptation.
The tension in the film comes as the American troops try to hold the village while at the same times the guerrillas try to disrupt their activities and ensure village leader Rafael doesn’t spill the beans on his brother’s activities in the jungle. The American troops are a bunch of rag-tag kids with little wartime experience and their anxieties play out as the situation gets complicated.
Ultimately the film is heartbreaking, and while it is a fictional story the viewer gets the feeling in real life it very well could have played out exactly as it does in the film. I found the story compelling and intense, and as the story progressed I could feel the anxiety mounting and I was on the edge of my seat. I highly recommend it for the story and the acting, as well as for the history lesson.
It’s also worth noting that Sayles makes no profound statement about the war or America’s imperialistic nature, rather he leaves that for the viewer. Sayles makes films about tough subjects and doesn’t preach (unlike, say, Oliver Stone) but instead provides a realistic view of the situation and leaves the viewer to make his or her own decisions about the politics. Yes, I think Sayles chooses subjects like this war specifically because they are not among the best moments of our history, and for me that’s what makes it good art.
Lastly, I should mention that once again Sayles cast a few young actors that since the time of this film have gone on to bigger things. One of the young American soldiers is played by a 24-year-old Dane DeHaan who is a tremendous actor who most recently is well known for his portrayal of the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man films (with Chris Cooper as his father). The other young up-and-comer is D.J. Qualls, who I love as the loyal Ed McCarthy in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Both DeHaan and Qualls have even more bright roles ahead.
A few years back I decided, for no apparent reason, to watch all of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Films in order and blog about each. It took me about 18 months to get through the list, and at the end I felt a sense of accomplishment and at the same time I felt a little sad that it was over. In the years since that challenge ended I have given some thought to doing another list, but I couldn’t quite decide which list to watch.
Over the weekend I was flipping around the Interwebs and found myself going down a rabbit hole on the Internet Movie Database and that led me to notice that my IMDB Watchlist had grown to 136 films going back to around 2011. I’m the kind of guy who keeps track of the films I watch and the books I read, and so over the years I’ve used IMDB to flag films I haven’t seen but wanted to see.
That’s when it dawned on me — I should watch all 136 films and blog about them. It’s a totally random list, but each film made my Watchlist because at some point I wanted to see it. Having a project like this will encourage me to watch more than 100 films I want to see and give me a reason to blog about them.
The list is really diverse. It has mainstream films I just never got around to seeing, as well as indie films and foreign films I’ve read about but have not gotten around to. Streaming services mean it should be simple to get access to these films. The only question is in what order will I watch them? I thought about this and ruled out alphabetical and IMDB ratings. I decided I’ll start with the film that has been on my Watchlist the longest and count up from there. So, watch this space soon for a review of the first film on the list — 2010s Amigo from one of my favorite directors, John Sayles.
Why am I doing this? That’s a good question. Mostly because I love movies and I also love to blog and this project enables me to do both. Also, frankly, I have a lot of spare time at night on on weekends and it’ll give me something more productive to do than watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory.
And they say it’s a tragic story He just wasn’t there one day But he went out in a blaze of glory And you and I, you and I just fade away
Blaze of Glory by Joe Jackson (1989 Sony Records)
It’s hard to witness your heroes fading away. Heroes seem larger than life. Unbreakable. Immortal. But the truth is, they are not immortal — like everyone else they are human and age takes its toll on all of us.
Joe Jackson understood this, as his 1989 song Blaze of Glory articulated. There is a certain mythology that comes with dying young (just ask James Dean or Jimi Hendrix) and old Western films served to ingrain this archetype in the zeitgeist.
I set out on the evening of March 9, 2019 to see my musical hero, who when I think of I still envision as that angry early 80s punk in the pointy shoes. But the truth is, Joe Jackson is 64 years old and from what I could see he isn’t a young 64. Yes, he’s touring the world and making new music at that ripe old age and that’s a hell of a lot more than I could do at 53 let alone 64. But the biggest takeaway I had from the gig was that Joe Jackson is getting old and it’s too late to die young in a blaze of glory. He has already begun to fade away.
This is not to say he didn’t put on a tremendous show at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix that night. On the contrary, at times he was downright manic, firing off fast pace lyrics and slamming the piano keys on early-career songs like One More Time, Sunday Papers, and especially I’m the Man. But during those same songs he forgot lyrics and repeated the same line more than once instead of singing the correct line. And of course, he stayed seated behind the piano for the entire show, never venturing out to engage the crowd of mostly Baby Boomers and older Gen X fans. Sitting behind the piano is fine for ballads, but you kind of want to see some movement during the fast songs.
You’re probably thinking…Len…give the guy a break…he’s 64. And you’d be right. And I loved the show. But the overwhelming feeling I came away with on this, the fifth time I’ve seen Joe Jackson in concert, was that this may be the last time I see him perform live. And that makes me sad. And nostalgic. And feeling a bit old myself. I didn’t have that feeling when I saw him last just a few years ago in Scottsdale. There was something different about the Joe Jackson I saw on the stage on this night and it was bittersweet.
Joe looked all of his 64 years. A lifetime of smoking his beloved cigarettes have taken a toll on his skin and truthfully he looks like he’s maybe had a little work done. That said, his piano skills are still world class and he can still belt out a song, including some with fast-paced lyrics that require at times a scream and at times a falsetto. You can certainly see his inner punk is fighting hard to stay relevant.
So about the music. Joe delivered on his “Four Decades Tour” a magnificent journey across more than 40 years worth of great music. He deftly sprinkled in songs from his new record, Fool, in between classics from the 80s, 90s, and 00s. The set had something for everyone, and while it’s impossible to fit in everyone’s favorites, he knew which hits the fans would respond to most. The aforementioned early songs were met with cheers and standing ovations. During the encore he brought out his original old drum machine from the early 80s and recreated Steppin’ Out just as it sounded back in 1982.
He picked a handful of favorites from the 90s and 00s like Stranger Than Fiction from the underrated Laughter & Lust record, and Citizen Sane and Wasted Time from the Rain album.
Then there were the tracks from his new record Fool. I have been listening to Fool over and over since its release a few weeks back and it is a real throwback to his earlier days. I mean, 40 years on and he can still write amazing songs that would have been well received had they been on Laughter & Lust (1991), Blaze of Glory (1989), or Big World (1986). It’s a beautifully crafted album with ballads and sarcastic anthems and an edge that has been missing on the past few albums.
He opened the show with the luxurious ballad Alchemy, about turning junk into gold.
Thrill, to secrets never told Taste, the bitter turned to sweet See, the dross turned into gold Hear, a B sharp turned to C
Alchemy by Joe Jackson (earMusic 2019)
It set a soft mood but in classic Joe fashion he launched directly into One More Time and Is She Really Going Out With Him? as if to remind us he has not gotten soft. He did Big Black Cloud and Fabulously Absolute from the new record, two songs I really love (the latter he performed on the Tonight Show a few weeks back). Again, he gave us just enough new and old to keep us wanting more.
I will give him credit for delivering a pretty long set. He played for about 90 minutes with no opening act and I came away fulfilled with his song selection. It’s never easy to please a longtime fan like me with deep cut favorites, but he did play a few of mine (including my all-time favorite Joe song Real Men) so it’s hard to argue with that.
I hope I’m wrong and Joe was just experiencing some “senior moments” on stage. But given how long he’s been smoking (he’s a fierce advocate for smoker’s rights) I have to admit when he forget a huge chunk of one song I thought maybe he was having a stroke (that’s a byproduct of working for the American Heart Association).
I should also mention that Joe put together a bang-up band for this album and tour, with the remarkable Graham Maby on bass (he’s been at his side for 40 years), Teddy Kumpel (Rickie Lee Jones, Feist, Janet Jackson, Tower of Power) on lead guitar and the powerhouse Doug Yowell (Suzanne Vega, Duncan Sheik, Judy Collins) on drums.
Overall, it was a great night for nostalgia and Joe Jackson is, and always will be, my favorite musical artist. Not too many musicians have put together a more eclectic and musically gifted discography over a 40-plus year career. And while for the vast majority of music fans he’ll likely be associated as an 80s one-hit wonder for Steppin’ Out, for those of us who knew him before then and followed him after Night & Day we have been treated to a lifetime of a musical genius.
One More Time
Is She Really Going Out With Him
Big Black Cloud
Stranger Than Fiction
King of the World (Steely Dan cover)
You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)
The story of Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes is nothing short of infuriating, in part because she led a corporate deception that will go down as one of the worst cases of fraud and mismanagement in history, but also because for me, as a former Theranos client, the story was personal and I feel used and duped.
Holmes represents so much of what’s wrong with the world today. As a child, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, her answer was “a billionaire.” She reached that goal at a very young age, in large part because of her own hubris but also because her story was as much a product of what we wanted to hear as it was based on reality. Holmes was held up as a visionary, a genius, even the next Steve Jobs, long before she accomplished anything other than creating fake value for an idea that wasn’t real. What’s more American than that?
John Carreyrou’s book about the rise and fall of Theranos reads like a thriller, one that shows how at nearly every turn Holmes and her close advisors chose to do the wrong thing in order to keep the company propped up on a bed of deceit. What’s worse, she did this with literal lives at stake, as the results of her not ready for prime time blood test claims led directly to misinformed patients with real health issues. It’s criminal, and I hope she goes to jail for it (her trial on wire fraud and other fraud begins soon).
The rise of Theranos coincided with my own health issues, issues that required me to get regular blood work to test my cholesterol, blood sugars, and other heart-related measurements. It was and continues to be, inconvenient to go to standard labs like Labcorp and Sonora Quest. Back in the early 2010s, you had to arrive early at these labs and wait with others, sometimes for an hour or more, before having coffee, to get your blood drawn. So it seemed too good to be true that one could simply show up at a nearby Walgreens and get your blood drawn quickly, with just a finger prick, and have results delivered to a mobile phone app in less than 24 hours. With no appointment and no doctor’s order needed.
I started using Theranos as soon as the tests became available in Phoenix, one of the test markets for the Theranos/Walgreens partnership. I was impressed by the initial appointments, and the app, and was thrilled that I could select my own tests without waiting for a doctor’s order. I also bought into the growing myth of Holmes, reading stories about her and seeing her delight the media on news show after news show. I believed she was a visionary, and while I wasn’t one to compare her to Jobs, I did fall for the story that she was changing an industry that needed to be changed and that she was certainly intelligent, and charming (if not a bit odd). I loved that she was the “first female self-made Silicon Valley billionaire.” I mean, she hung out with the Obamas and Chelsea Clinton!
Carreyrou’s book is a devastating investigation of how Holmes built Theranos with no regard for the truth and with no empathy for the people whose lives she was manipulating. She turned out to be a con artist. Perhaps not at first, but certainly soon after she dropped out of Stanford to build Theranos and realized how far her image and charm could take her. She duped a lot of people much smarter than me. From former Secretary of State George Schultz to Henry Kissinger to Mad Dog Mattis, to Rupert Murdoch. You gotta get up pretty early in the morning to con a con artist like Murdoch.
I don’t feel the need to go into every subterfuge she committed, for that, I suggest you read the book or watch the upcoming HBO documentary by Alex Gibney that debuts this month or watch next year’s Hollywood blockbuster starring Jennifer Lawrence as Holmes. It’s a great story that will have you riveted, whichever vehicle you choose to consume. But I do feel the need to comment on how the Theranos story was aided at every turn by a mass media intent on delivering stories with no fact checking. America loves a Horatio Alger rags to riches story and even better if it’s delivered in the package of a not unattractive young blonde woman.
It’s upsetting that Fortune and Forbes and CNN and all the other outlets (even the Wall Street Journal while at the same time its intrepid reporter Carreyrou was uncovering a giant hoax) neglected to do their due diligence on Holmes before propping her up as the next Gates or Jobs.
I’m not suggesting they should have known the full scope of her crimes, but at least get some unbiased background before putting her on such a pedestal. Asking George Schultz about her was not enough — yes he’s reputable but he was on her board. Of course he’s going to sing her praises. Hell, he threw his own grandson under the bus for her as we learn in the book.
Here’s a woman with no scientific background, a Stanford dropout, spinning a yarn so unbelievable that it would embarrass Mark Twain. Looking back, the signs were everywhere that she was a fraud. Many people with lab experience said what she was claiming to have done (test for hundreds of markers with a tiny pinprick of blood) was scientifically impossible. There were also plenty of fired former Theranos employees who knew she was a fraud, and while she threatened them to keep quiet, it wasn’t impossible to find whistleblowers as Carreyrou found out.
It’s infuriating that the media helped build her up or that the culture of Silicon Valley created her myth without much more than insider word of mouth. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” we learned from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). This aphorism is truer today than ever. We don’t want the facts — we want the myth. That’s how Trump got elected. How climate change became a two-sided issue. How dot coms became more valuable than GE and Ford. How Elizabeth Holmes became worth $4.5 billion.
Carreyrou’s book made me mad. But more than that, it made me even more jaded than I already am, which is really saying something.
This year I set a goal to read 20 books and while I started 30 I abandoned three leaving me with a total of 27 books read in 2018. The list includes some new books and some older books, but for the first time, the list also includes books selected by others as this year I joined my first book club. You can cut to the chase right here if you like and head over to Goodreads to see my complete list.
The books I completed included eight nonfiction titles and 19 works of fiction. There were a couple of memoirs, a few health-related books, and a few short story collections. Looking at the titles, I suppose my overall impression is that there were only a couple of truly outstanding books, a handful of average books and a few I struggled to complete. By the way, my rule is that I’ll give every book a minimum of 100 pages at which time if I’m not enjoying it I’ll abandon it. Life is too short to read bad books.
Here are the best books I read in 2018:
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki — The biggest surprise of the year for me is just how much I loved this 2013 novel by Japanese American novelist Ozeki. I picked it up on a whim after looking through a list of Man Booker nominees and it sat on my shelf for a while before I picked it up early this year. From the moment I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. It’s the story of a writer named Ruth who lives in the Pacific Northwest and one day while walking along the beach she finds a diary written by a teenage Japanese girl. The novel takes the reader back and forth to the life of the girl as well as the writer who makes it her mission (or obsession) to find out what happened to the young girl in the wake of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami. This story has everything I love — it spans multiple time frames, it has multiple narrators, it teaches the reader about history and about a different culture, it is contemporary, it provides life lessons, it is heartbreaking and uplifting, it is philosophical, it has rich and interesting characters, and it even includes a little physics and just the right touch of magical realism. A Tale for the Time Being is the only novel I read in 2018 that garnered five out of five stars on my rating system and it most definitely has been added to my unofficial list of favorite novels.
World in my Eyes: The Autobiography by Richard Blade. If you grew up in the 80s and listened to alternative rock music, you probably have Richard Blade to thank for introducing you to many of your favorite bands. Blade’s voice has become a global force now that he’s a regular on Sirius XM’s modern rock station First Wave, but he was one of the deejays who launched the modern rock phenomena in the early 80s as the top jock on Los Angeles’s KROQ. I couldn’t get KROQ in San Diego, but we had our own version of Blade in 91X’s Steve West who was certainly a product of Blade’s work. That said, whenever we drove north past Camp Pendleton we’d quickly tune into 106.7 FM to spend some time with Blade. Over the past few years as a Sirius XM subscriber, I’ve gotten to know Blade even more but nothing prepared me for how influential and amazing his life truly was. From his humble beginnings playing parties in England and then across Europe, he made his way to America in 1980 and soon after became a fixture on Southern California radio where he “introduced” us young Americans to the likes of Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and The Cure. Blade’s autobiography was so much more than a trip down nostalgia lane, it turns out he overcame great odds and never gave up in his quest to become successful. His story provides a lesson for anyone hoping for success in any endeavor.
Here are the rest of my favorites from the year. If you click on the title it’ll take you to my review of each.
The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore. I didn’t review this but it was a really fun novel set during the historical fight between AC and DC power as electricity started to find its way across America.