Thursday, March 31, 2005

My Day

Woke up early today. Because some jerk called me early. Most of my friends know I'm not a morning person. It turned out to be serendipitous, since I got on the internet and discovered my old friend and editor Virginia Postrel was giving a speech on design at--where else?--the Pacific Design Center.

It's only a few miles away, but driving there, I discovered morning radio is a conservative's paradise. I pressed the scan button and heard Dennis Prager (a local conservative) speaking with two other conservatives about Terri Schiavo, Bill O'Reilly (Fox News tentpole) lacing into the ACLU and Rush Limbaugh (you know who) interviewing a dominatrix. Is it any wonder Rush gets the highest ratings?

Virginia gave a short, entertaining talk on aesthetics from an economic viewpoint, based on her book, The Substance Of Style, now available in paperback. There was food, too (which was good since I was tired and needed sugar). I walked her to the door, where she had to take a car straight to LAX to fly to her next gig in Columbus.

When I got back home I took a much-needed nap. Woke up, did some errands. Then, in the evening, after setting my VCR to tape Lost, I walked to Boardner's just off Hollywood Boulevard. I was there to hang with Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason, and some other Reasonites, including Matt Welch and Brian Doherty.

Other media people showed up, including NRO writer Cathy Seipp and Slate mainstay Mickey Kaus, who'd just had a tough day after posting five items. Nick and Cathy were both scheduled to be on the Dennis Miller CNBC show on Thursday (today). Try to catch it. They'll be talking about Terri Schiavo, no doubt.

There were also two women from NPR who didn't wish to be identified, perhaps because they told some tales out of school. (Stuff about meetings regarding what gets covered, and I don't even want to give any more detail since it might be identifiable.)

Amy Alkon, the Advice Goddess, came in a bit late. She told an interesting story about how her syndicated column was dropped from a few papers when she told a man to shave his beard and a woman to lose some weight.

I hadn't seen Nick in a while. When I talked to him, he was insisting that Harvard hasn't been on the cutting edge in any important academic movement in over 50 years--they always hire academics after their important work is behind them. This is the kind of stuff I'd actually like to see him say to Dennis Miller.

The oddest thing of all--I spent several hours in a Hollywood hangout and no one talked about the movies. Not even TV.

I just got back. Time to check who got kicked off American Idol and watch Lost.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Greek Drama

I'm glad to see my friend Sara Rimensnyder has continued posting on her blog after a long layoff. Last week, she saw House Of Sand And Fog, a film with all the sadness of tragedy and none of the exaltation. Maybe the novel worked, but the movie is just too depressing for me. I also agree with Sara that Jennifer Connelly's character is a real screw-up and I have trouble sympathizing with her.

Anyway, Sara mentions Greek tragedy in passing, saying the stories are telegraphed and they're supposed to produce catharsis, though apparently they don't in her.

It's very hard to understand, much less feel, Greek tragedy today. Imagine if you were at an opera, with a superscript over the stage translating the text. Then imagine if the lights went out, so you couldn't see the costumes, or sets, or singers. Then the orchestra stopped playing and everyone stopped singing, and all you had was the translation. That, in essence, is all we have when we read Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides. Their original performances had dance, song, all sorts of stagecraft, fancy costumes and certainly acting, if of a stylized sort. (In fact, opera started when Europeans wanted to recapture the experience of classical tragedy.)

The most obvious barrier is language. Each of the three great tragedians (and they're about all we have--33 plays from them, plus fragments here and there) wrote in their own style, and used all sorts of linguistic tricks, lost to today's casual reader. One slight example is Greek playgoers were used to a long argument, then a few lines by the chorus, followed by an equally long counter-argument. Sometimes the playwright would set up this expectation and then have the counterargument be short and full of invective, suggesting this character can't defend his position.

Then there's another barrier. The stories told were (usually) well-known to the audience. What was interesting was the added information the playwrights brought to them, sometimes even changing them considerably, so it's hard to say the stories were "telegraphed." Now that we mostly study them as text, the live, uncertain excitement of performance is missing. It wasn't even known back then if there'd be a happy ending. Sometimes there'd be a deus ex machina, sometimes there'd be a feint toward one with nothing but despair instead. Sometimes characters you thought were noble turn out to be horrendous. Sometimes supposedly evil characters were oddly sympathetic. The plays might seem distant and removed to us, but, according to legend, the first appearance of the Furies in the Oresteia was so frightening that there were stillbirths in the audience.

To give you an idea of how a tragedian might work on audience expectation, let's look at Agamemnon. We know Agamemnon's fate is sealed, but how will he be portrayed? We eagerly await the king's entrance, but Aeschylus holds it off, with heralds and such. Finally, amidst tremendous pomp and circumstance, he appears--and he's full of himself. His wife, Clytemnestra, makes a grand speech of greeting and how does he respond, after being gone ten years?: "Your speech, like my absence, was far too long." What a jerk! Aeschylus has even brought along a concubine, Cassandra, in his chariot.

The action continues, and Clytemnestra tries to get Cassandra to come into the palace, but she won't respond. Now you have to understand that Aeschylus introduced the second actor into Greek drama, and the audience might figure that there won't be a third actor in this already overlong episode (the third actor was introduced by Sophocles). Clytemnestra leaves, so what they're expecting is a choral interlude. Instead, out of nowhere, Cassandra starts screaming, crying out to Apollo (who gave her the power to foretell the future, though no one will believe her). This kind of moment would startle an audience, but won't be noticed by the present-day reader. She's in pain but the chorus of old men can't understand her, which makes sense since they sing in a different meter.

Meanwhile, the audience, knowing their Homer, is waiting for Aegisthus, Clytemnestra's lover, to kill Agamemnon. But the joke's on them. Before they're ready for it, Agamemnon is dead and Clytemnestra did it! Only then does Aegisthus appear, after the play is essentially over, defying expectations yet again.

Agamemnon, and in fact the entire Oresteia, is full of such moments. But it's almost impossible to recapture the excitement the original audience felt.

By the way, as to all that catharsis stuff, and those other fancy concepts you hear about when studying tragedy, they come from Aristotle's Poetics, written a century after the golden era of Greek tragedy. Many playwrights centuries later tried to follow his rules, but he obviously had no effect on the Big Three, and I question how helpful his after-the-fact analysis is.

PS I just exchanged emails with Sara and apparently I didn't check the date very closely. In fact, she hasn't blogged anything new in a year. Oh well. Maybe this will prompt her.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Quick Takes

When I wake up I wonder what I'll write about, but after I read the news the main question is how to limit myself.

For instance, I read a piece like this where 59 former diplomats oppose John Bolton representing the US at the UN. Could there be a better reason for supporting Bolton? His opponents tend to be internationalists who support the UN so solidly they're willing (willing?--happy) to put up with ferocious racism, permanent protection of dictators, and treaties and rules that weaken America. I'm in favor of working with others, but not on our knees. State Department types have already caused enough trouble with our foreign policy, let's move forward.

Then there's tiresome Robert Novak, still making a fool of himself on Iraq. His latest screed claims we can't wait to bug out of Iraq. For over a year anti-war drones have been claiming we're gonna pull out soon for political reasons, but the mission has always been clear and the Administration has always been stalwart. Well, keep saying it, Robert, sooner or later it'll be true. Novak pretends any time we leave will mean the dashing of neocon plans, rather than their fulfillment. It'll be great if we can downsize in Iraq, not proof we've failed. The most sickening thing is he ends his article tipping his hat to the insurgents, as if they're the ones who drove us out, not their failure that allows us to leave. When enough people spread this kind of nonsense, it encourages terrorists worldwide.

On the front page of the Los Angeles Times is a feature on the Reverend Jim Wallis, who's a social conservative but against the war. Great, the worst of two worlds. Needless to say, he's popular on both sides of the aisle. I often disagree with Republicans and Democrats, but it's when they get together on something that I really get scared.

I note that the judge in the Michael Jackson case will allow the jury to hear past allegations of abuse, due to a 1995 law "designed to boost convictions of sex offenders." Allowing old, unproven, highly inflammatory testimony would do that. So would allowing prosecution witnesses to commit perjury.

The Times also has a predictable editorial from Adam Shatz of The Nation, who's very worried that anyone would think anything Bush is doing can possibly be helping democracy anywhere in the world, no matter what those involved claim. He focuses on Lebanon and even notes that US involvement is counterproductive, as long as we're seen supporting Israel. There's a point here--the Arabs do have an insane hatred of Israel. The proper solution is to have them wake up and realize Israel is not the problem (and a lot of this will be helped by a movement toward democracy where the Arabs will realize they are in control of their destiny)--unfortunately, the solution of many at The Nation is to give in to bigotry and support the lie.

I suppose that's enough for today. See you tomorrow.

Monday, March 28, 2005

How We Learn

Some people a fascinated by cars. They read about them and work on them and understand how the whole thing runs. Others, like me, learn about the car piece by piece, as various parts break down.

Some people love geography. They study atlases and can name every capitol of every country, even the new ones. Others, like me, learn about the world piece by piece, as some foreign war or disaster happens.

Some people are obsessed with illness. They study symptoms and literally know the human body from head to toe. Others, like me, learn about such things piece by piece, mostly when either I or a friend get sick. And right now, I think America is getting a lesson in medicine that surprises us.

Terri Schiavo is (as I write this she is alive) in a "persistent vegetative state," medical experts inform us. I bet if you had polled the public a few weeks ago and asked what this meant, they would have said it's essentially a coma. That anyone who's a vegetable simply doesn't respond to anything. So I (and I'm guessing millions) are surprised to discover that persistent vegetative state is not a coma at all; that the person sleeps and wakes and breathes--that they even respond to external stimuli and can make noise.

Like they say, you learn something new every day.

What He Said

I was going to respond to David Shaw's piece in the Sunday LA Times, where he claims bloggers don't deserve the legal protection other journalists get. Shaw thinks First Amendment rights are so important that we don't want to waste them on just anyone.

However, my friend Matt Welch already got to it. So read what he wrote. He does a thorough job, though, if anything, he's too easy on Shaw and the Times.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

To Be Or Not To Be

I saw To Be Or Not To Be over the weekend, the 1942 Lubitsch version. (I don't think there's a single director Mel Brooks is less temperamentally suited to remake than Lubitsch.) It's a classic I've seen many times, but if you, dear reader, haven't yet, I suggest you skip this post and go rent it.

The film stars Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, but it's really Benny's film. Lombard is funny and glamorous, but Lubitsch had the movie written for Benny. Lombard knew she was a second banana but didn't care--she loved the script and loved Lubitsch. Alas, it was her last film, as she died in a plane crash before it was released.

The theme of the film is acting. It's set in the world of acting--theatre--but it's also about how we act in everyday life. The two leads are Joseph and Maria Tura, the Lunts of Poland. Even when offstage, they put on the vain, self-absorbed character that stars are supposed to have. They see their lives as a show and they are the leads. Maria even plays the part in magazine spreads where she pretends to long for the simple life.

But their commitment to acting will soon be tested. The film starts out, in part, as just another Lubitsch sex comedy, but just as Germany invades Poland, so does a serious war movie invade the Lubitsch film. After a funny opening, the film is suddenly a spy thriller with no laughs for about 20 minutes. It takes a while for the film to absorb this new seriousness--where death, and not adultery, is the threat--and return to humor. Ironically, it's the seriousness of the theme that makes the comedy cut even sharper. Only in the last few minutes of the film are were returned to the harmless sex comedy.

The Tura's may not be as good at acting as they think they are--no one can be--but they're not bad actors, and when they're lives are on the line, they give the performances of their lives. They know not to overplay. (Their troupe does have a ham--Lionel Atwill--who twice overplays his part and has to be calmed down by the others before he blows it.) Benny in particular gets better and better at his part--early on, he loses his character for an instant and it almost costs him his life, so he has to learn quickly.

But everyone acts in this film, the Nazis too. All the way up to the top. When the director says the troupe's bit actor (Tom Dugan) dressed as Hitler merely looks like a man with a little mustache, the obvious reply is so does Hitler. Lubitsch knew the Nazis were no joke, but all the fancy costumes, the big speeches, the goose stepping, the bowing and scraping--it was as if the Nazis were trying to pull off a role that even they couldn't convince themselves was true. To borrow another line from Shakespeare, All The World's A Stage. That's part of the point when the "stagiest" moment is a real murder--a shot rings out, someone shouts, the curtain rises, and there stands Siletsky, downstage left, slowly crumpling in the spotlight.

The best, most subtle actor the Nazis have in this film is Siletsky (Stanley Ridges). He's a Nazi spy who pretends he supports the Polish underground. But he makes the slightest mistake--doesn't recognize the name of Maria Tura (this actor didn't prepare enough) and ends up signing his death warrant. Even a significantly worse actor, Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), has a little playacting lesson when he invites Benny--whom he knows is an impostor--to his office; Benny, the better actor, is able to turn the tables on Ehrhardt. (Ehrhardt appears to be the only person who's ever paid to see Tura act, and he's not impressed--he makes a funny, tasteless crack (what he did to Shakespeare we are doing to Poland)--but the joke is on him again, since he's telling it to Tura, who has once again fooled him.)

Though everyone is acting, it's all dead serious, since, as noted above, failure doesn't mean bad reviews, but a bullet. That's the real meaning of the title. When Benny as Tura plays Hamlet (a ridiculous and funny idea), it's hard to believe Tura really feels the meaning of the words. He'll learn. Ultimately, that's how the story works. Usually, Lubitsch has you worrying about a romance, but here, as much as he mocks the Nazis, we know they are ruthless murderers--this is why the story works and still, to this day, has power. It's Lubitsch's darkest comedy by far, and yet, fitting the subject in another way, his crudest and most farcical.

Watching the film again, I was able to note the structure. The script is built around five big block sequences, mostly comic, and all starring Jack Benny. There are other big moments, of course, but these keep the story going and build upon one another, as the stakes keep getting higher.

1) Jack Benny is the head of the Gestapo, interrogating a boy about his father. This is the opening and seems to be real. (So real that Benny's father stormed out of the movie theatre.) It's played for comedy and there's nothing at stake here. Benny's not in trouble and it turns out to be a play anyway.

2) Benny once again plays a Gestapo head (the early scene, as silly as it was, sets up all the action as the plot unfolds). But this time it's for real. He's mostly in charge, and it's on his turf (the theatre) with his men outside the door. However, he slips for a second and almost gets killed.

3) Benny, as Siletsky, goes to see the real Gestapo head, Ehrhardt. (In the wittiest exchange, which gets two of the biggest laughs, Ehrhardt acts and speaks exactly as Benny did earlier--if anything, Benny underplayed--and Benny replies "I thought you'd react just that way.") This scene is more dangerous, since Benny is here against his will and has no allies nearby--he has to carefully improvise and pulls it off brilliantly, gaining the confidence of Ehrhardt and taking the heat off himself.

4) The most dangerous moment yet, by far. Benny has to return to the Gestapo HQ, and he doesn't know the Nazis have found him out. This time he thinks faster than ever and by the time his act is over, he's fooled and humiliated Ehrhardt and has figured out an escape plan (soon ruined by his troupe coming to rescue him). The escalation of intensity adds tremendously to the comedy.

5) The most dangerous scene of all, and this requires to whole troupe (minus Lombard, who still has another boudoir scene to play) to pull off. Under the nose of Hitler himself, they must make their escape. They even pull in Greenberg (Felix Bressart) to do Shylock to pull it off.

They all escape to England, having saved the Polish underground, and Lubitsch allows a return us to his sex comedy, with a topper gag. Lubitsch has been wittier (Trouble In Paradise) and even deeper (The Shop Around The Corner), but he's never been so ferociously funny.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Age-Old Mystery Solved

For many years, I couldn't understand something. How could a man who created the cornpone (and highly successful) comedy of The Beverly Hillibillies, not the mention the dopey Petticoat Junction, also create something as brilliant as Green Acres?

Now that Paul Henning, the producer of all these shows, has died at 93, the answer is finally out. According to his obit, "while Henning is sometimes credited with creating the TV show Green Acres, his daughter said Henning helped the show's creator Jay Sommers cast the show and served as its executive producer." So it wasn't really his show, it just had his name.

By the way, if you want to order music by Vic Mizzy (who wrote the Green Acres theme), check out his home page.


In response to my bit about changing banks, a reader noted how badly companies treat you when there's no competition. (They can also hang on pretty bad when you try to leave. There was once a Seinfeld where George's girlfriend refused to accept their breakup. That's how AOL acted for about six months after I thought I ended it.)

Anyway, I had plenty of time to think about competition and its effects a few weeks ago. I had to go to the downtown government building--already a hassle--to deal with an issue (don't worry, I'm not being deported). It was 3 pm. I got into a line with about 20 people ahead of me. There were 17 windows to serve us. Guess how many were open? Two. Then, amazingly, two more opened. Except that the people behind the windows already open just then went on their breaks.

I was in that line an hour. I bought a paper, read it, and still had enough time to think wouldn't it be nice if we had two governments, so if one gets too inefficient, we could walk across the street to the other one. Government is cocky, because they know they're the only game in town. (The only thing worse is what they charge for snacks at movies.) Let's knock that grin off their face.

Friday, March 25, 2005


Over the past month, there's been a lot of chatter on the internet over whether the FEC will use its campaign finance reform powers to regulate blogs. It's still unclear, even though those in government swear they're not about to shut anyone down.

The reason this doesn't reassure me is not due to the predictable mission creep you get in government. No, the trouble is, whatever the decision under the McCain-Feingold law, apparently whether or not we enjoy our freedom is THEIR CALL. Thank you Supreme Court for allowing this mess.

(Some wonder if blogs can't be covered by the media exemption in the law. The better question is why there's a media exemption to begin with. I guess it's necessary because without this contradictory loophole, the destruction of political speech that McCain-Feingold represents would be all too clear; besides, old media wouldn't let them get away with it, while everyone else who'd like to speak out is too powerless to make a difference.)

Traumatic Scene

I closed the checking account at my bank today. (I won't say what bank, but it is a Bank in, and some might even say of, America.) I just got tired of certain costs and what seemed to me an inordinately high level required for "free" checking. It turned out to be a surprisingly traumatic scene.

The teller wanted to know why I was leaving. I suppose I didn't have to, but I explained why (nothing personal, just business). She called the manager over who said we've had a great relationship for over a decade and maybe there's something that could still be done to patch it up. I said sorry, it's over. You've got to make a clean cut, I've found.

And I walked across the street and opened a new account with free checking. They better not be lying to me.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Can They Do That?

I don't mean to make this blog a running commentary on American Idol, but something remarkable happened last night. They screwed up the voting the previous night and so had everyone vote all over again. (I smell a lawsuit from the loser, but I bet the contestants' contracts are ironclad.)

Imagine that, tossing out tens of millions of votes and starting out fresh. I'm sure many many people are asking "why couldn't we do that in 2000?"

There he goes again

It must be tough being a theatre critic in New York. Unless you write for The New York Times, you have no clout. I suppose the urge to spice up the copy must be irresistible.

Still, Michael Feingold of the Village Voice has abused the privilege. His infamous remarks about Republicans last year--tossed into a review, mind you--got a fair amount of play. You forgot what he said?:
"Republicans don't believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don't give a hoot about human beings, either can't or won't. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm....[Then there's] George W. Bush, idiot scion of a genetically criminal family that should have been sterilized three generations ago."
Okay, so he blew his stack. You figure he'd calm down and heed the warnings not to drag his politics into another review, even in the Voice. So I'm reading his review of Spamalot:
"Personally, I'd rather see a musical in which all Republican congressmen had their brains removed onstage—preferably by people forced into bankruptcy through a family medical disaster—with the removal of the feeding tubes that kept them alive for a finale. I feel this would evoke much more laughter than Spamalot, though locating brains in Republican congressmen might prove a difficulty."
You hear the chuckles, Michael? I think it's people laughing at you.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Sondheim: The Sequel

I was going to respond to Eugene Volokh's surprising views on punishment and vengeance, but I'll save it for another time. Instead, I'll respond to a point brought up by a reader regarding Stephen Sondheim.

He asks if I read Mark Steyn's recent piece on Sondheim, where he accuses him of being too blue-state. There have been a lot of essays on Sondheim recently, but I missed this one. (It reminds me, though, a bit of the recent conservative pile-on against Arthur Miller.) I get the impression Steyn thinks Sondheim might be more popular if he didn't let his politics get in the way, though this is just a guess.

I do recall at last year's Broadway production of Assassins, a Sondheim musical about people who've tried to kill the President, he was attacked by a number of conservatives. The show's production had been postponed after 9/11, but many conservatives weren't aware it had been written about a decade ago and this was a revival. I'll come back to this show.

The portrayal of politics in American musical theatre has changed over the years. While "serious" drama could deal with American life, often from a leftist perspective (though not inevitably), musicals up to 1943 were rarely about anything. They were mostly excuses to give the singer a song, the comedian a routine, and the lovers a chance to get together before the final curtain. Then came Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma, and suddenly the musical could be an integrated work of art. It could be about something.

Sometimes, musicals had lessons to teach the audience, often "liberal" lessons, like "bigotry is bad" (see South Pacific or Finian's Rainbow). But it was all pretty mild by today's standards. In the 60's, though, following a general opening up of art, you started getting more politically radical musicals, such as Hair.

But I think this reflected more than just a change in theatre. It reflected a change in America's Left. Straightforward opposition to America, and the questioning of any tradition, became more common. Artists picked up on the cue, and the mere questioning of American traditions became a good in and of itself for some. (I'm not absolving the Right, either. There are things about America they reflexively rail against, usually dealing with our ever-coarsening society--it's just they don't write too many musicals about it.)

So many artists, even very talented ones, now thought to add depth to a work, just make sure there's a wider social argument in it. Politics doesn't have to ruin art--it can even make it better--but it can easily turn into sloganeering, especially when it overloads the delicate mechanisms of a musical.

Stephen Sondheim often sought out challenging work, even in his earliest shows, such as West Side Story, Gypsy and Anyone Can Whistle. But I don't think it was due to his politics (though he's undoubtedly a man of the left)--I just think he picked up what was in the air. What truly interested him, in fact, was making the musical grow up--making the songs more sophisticated and the theme about something more than leggy chorus girls for the tired businessman.

Furthermore, Sondheim has long been a puzzle-master, and I think he sees a musical as the biggest puzzle of all: what word to put in this line, how to repeat this motif, how to make this song fit in, until the entire contraption runs smoothly. What he has not had, in my opinion, is great luck in book-writers.

The first musical he wrote the words and music for, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, has a wonderful book, based on Plautus, and perhaps improving on the original. Since then, his books have ranged from passable to rotten. I think with better books, he'd have had bigger hits. For instance, many of his shows are plotless, or close to plotless. This is Sondheim experimenting, but a theme searching for a plot can make for a frustrating evening. (Others blame his highbrow music, but too much of his stuff has become popular for that to explain it all. A few have blamed his lack of interest in dance, but that can't be it, can it?)

If you look at his work since the 70s, it's not highly political, with a few exceptions. I mean, sure, you can read politics into Sweeney Todd, and no doubt Sondheim, and especially his director Harold Prince, are pleased to think this updated melodrama of a barber who kills people and his girlfriend who bakes them into pies has something to say about society in general, but that's just the silly overlay that helps them pretend (Prince in particular) they're doing something "important."

The two most overtly political pieces are Pacific Overtures in 1976 and the more recent Assassins. Pacific Overtures is about the West's intrusion in Japan. Overall, the politics are pretty facile. But I think the main reason the show flopped is that the music was more experimental than usual and the book was more plotless than usual. Assassins was an even dumber idea. A collection of killers, all getting their own song. The irony is, if Sondheim actually cared more about politics, and less about puzzle-solving, he would have recognized either this idea is incredibly dumb, or it needs something better than just the tired idea that, somehow, someway, showing all these people who took their shot at fame will comment on the American Dream. The score is decent, though not top-notch Sondheim. But I don't think anything could have made this concept work.

Don't forget, however, that most of the greatest musical composers wrote plenty of flops. And some of the biggest hits, like Oklahoma or My Fair Lady, were considered guaranteed flops when first tackled.

So I guess my point is Sondheim is supremely talented, but that doesn't guarantee he'll write only hits. He has bad judgment in material and, because he actively likes to challenge his audience, is asking for trouble. While he's not particularly political, he does share the simple belief that questioning America or authority is the right thing to do--however, I hardly think this is a central reason he hasn't had the success of Andrew Lloyd Weber. And let's not forget, for all my talking him down, the guy has had a tremendously successful career in the musical theatre, matched by only a few others.

Time will tell, of course, whether his work lives. (Early signs are quite positive.) But I think the politics, such as they are, will fade away, and the talent will be left.

PS Along the way I lost the ability to link, so I apologize for the lack of consistency in this essay.

Idol Chatter

I was in a restaurant yesterday when I heard a bunch of people arguing heatedly. They were saying one guy had no talent and one gal was a bitch. It turns out they were talking about American Idol (and, in particular, Constantine and Mikalah). When people are arguing about your show during lunch, you know you've got a hit.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Master

I would be remiss if I didn't note Stephen Sondheim's 75th birthday.

Sondheim grew up next door to his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein. He said he learned more in a day with Hammerstein than he could learn in a year on his own. I remember years ago reading an essay (which I can't find on the internet) Sondheim wrote about lyric-writing that taught me more in a sitting than I could have learned in a year on my own.

I'd like him to write two books. First, an instruction book telling us everything he knows about creating musicals. He put so much into a short essay that a full-length work would be astonishing. Second, an autobiography--it'd be great to hear his take on a career that starts in the heyday of the integrated musical and comes up to, well, the age of Sondheim (or Andrew Lloyd Weber--you call it).

Sondheim started out (first as a lyricist, then full composer) with three classics, West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959) and A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To The Forum (1962). (I think it was Larry Gelbart who said "he's not one of us yet--he hasn't had a flop.") Then, after a number of failures and false starts, he came into his own in the 70s, with Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976) and Sweeney Todd (1979). By the end of the decade, he was the unquestioned master.

He continued strong into the 80s with Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday In The Park With George (1984) and Into The Woods (1987). However, it was becoming clear that a Sondheim show on Broadway often didn't return the investment, and never paid off big. While he had a solid cult, and always turned in interesting work, his musicals were thought to be challenging (a bad thing on Broadway) and his tunes not hummable. Broadway's always been hit or miss, but shows are so costly today that we've reached a place where its greatest living composer is too rarefied to open a show.

My advice. Finish those two books. Then get a good Broadway "book" writer (honestly, Stephen, have you ever had a book as good as you got with Gypsy or Forum?) and shock everyone with your biggest blockbuster yet.

You're Wrong = Hidden Agenda

I often criticize politicians, but really it's the people's fault. They want all sorts of stuff but don't want to pay for it. Politicians have to be all things to all people (or at least, in our two-party system, a lot of things to 51% of the people). And I question how much a better-educated public would help, since there are smart people on both sides.

Perhaps this makes politicians cynical. Which makes the people cynical. Or is it the other way around? Anyway, that's what I was thinking about when I read the ABC poll about the Terry Schiavo case. I expected the public to be in favor of removing her feeding tube, though not by the overwhelming 63-28 margin. (Some have questioned the poll's wording and they may have a point, but I bet, even with fairer questions, though the margin would be smaller, the result would be the same.) But what surprised me is 67%--a higher number than those who want the tube removed--felt the politicians acting to keep Schiavo alive were doing it for political advantage, and not principle.

This issue seems a heartfelt one to me, and you'd have to be pretty cynical to think a politician would take either side for political gain. But a politician doing something highly unpopular for political gain is really silly. (I realize you sometimes need to throw a sop to your base, but the Congress could have easily kept out of this.)

Incidentally, I'm not even saying cynical politicians are bad things. If all a pol wants is to get reelected, then she'll likely be very responsive. It's those idealists who can really go overboard. Regardless, I wish we'd have debates where we don't waste time arguing about motives (Democrats want to take all your money, environmentalist want to run the world, Republicans want to destroy public education and social security) and try to stick to what the proposed programs actually are and what they'll do.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Justice Scalia's Evolving Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence

Since the Roper decision was handed down earlier this month (declaring unconstitutional the death penalty for juvenile offenders), there's been a fair amount of discussion as to how courts should interpret the "cruel and unusual" clause of the Eighth Amendment. Reading about Justice Kennedy's opinion and Justice Scalia's dissent brought me back.

In my law school days (and boy am I dating myself here), I had the pleasure of meeting Antonin Scalia when he came to speak. Already a federal judge, it was known at the time he was on the short list for a top spot. Our Dean jokingly introduced him as "the next member of the Supreme Court," and, in fact, he was soon after nominated.

He spoke on Constitutional interpretation. He essentially believed that judges should interpret the words to mean what they meant when they were written. Some students had problems with this approach. One noted that it is by no means simple to figure out, historically, what words once meant (it's hard enough to know what they mean now). Another said that the Constitution was written and/or adopted by quite a few people over a period of time, and so the words could mean various things to them. Scalia responded by saying he didn't claim his method was easy, just more honest.

I asked him about how should we deal with ambiguity. He wanted an example. I brought up the Eighth Amendment--it seemed to me that "cruel and unusual" was a term fairly open to interpretation, and meant to be--"unusual" itself suggests a standard that changes with the times. Wouldn't the Founding Fathers expect its meaning to change and reinterpretation to ensue; the 1700s might accept the cat-o'-nine-tails but did that mean they'd be angry if the 20th century banned it? To be honest, I can't recall how Scalia responded.

That summer, I followed Scalia's confirmation hearings with great interest. Then, on August 6, 1986, I read in The New York Times:
"When asked by Senator Biden whether he agreed with the view...that judges interpreting the Constitution should stick to the original intent of those who framed the provisions, Judge Scalia seemed to suggest only partial agreement.
"He said he thought the original intent was a very important guide, but he said that, for example, he did not believe that lashing and other antiquated forms of punishment would be constitutional now just because they were widely used in 1789, when the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of 'cruel and unusual punishment' was adopted."
I smiled when I read that. Was I the one who put that particular example in his mind? Probably not.

Anyway, imagine my surprise to read this exchange (scroll down a bit) from a recent appearance by Scalia:
"Flip Strum: ....if we can go back to the Court's concept of evolving standards that it used in Roper....Would you just kind of explain your Eighth Amendment jurisprudence a little bit?
"Justice Scalia: ....I'm saying the Eighth Amendment means what was cruel and unusual and unconstitutional in 1791 remains that today....It may be a very bad idea, just as notching ears, which was punishment in 1791, is a very bad idea...."
Fascinating. It appears the Constitution doesn't evolve, but Justice Scalia does.

Arianna, master logician

Those of you out East may not be aware of the local controversy swirling around the LA Times. Feminist gadfly Susan Estrich (and her team of bean counters) have weighed the Times' editorial page and found it wanting--needed: more women. Editor and well-meaning liberal Michael Kinsley felt he was being blackmailed and has, so far, refused to give in.

A few days ago, Arianna Huffington had a piece in the Times and I think I see Kinsley's strategy--sure, he's gonna publish stuff from women, but it'll be so silly that Estrich'll beg him to stop.

Huffington's piece purports to be a lesson in elementary logic, and it is, just not the way she thinks. While she complains about the Undistributed Middle, her argument is built upon straw men, sweeping generalizations, false dilemmas, card stacking, non sequitur, wishful thinking, special pleading, vagueness, Argumentum ad Odium, condescension and what seems to be lying.

See, she's upset that instead of the constant drumbeat of failure, some people who opposed the war in Iraq are now hopeful. (Actually, she claims everyone in DC now supports Bush, but I won't waste time with her mischaracterization of others, and will stick to her arguments.)

Here's a good example of her logic, as she criticizes a Bush "syllogism": "The Bush White House has been masterful at this infantile reasoning: Terrorists attacked America. Therefore, terrorists hate freedom and democracy." Oh, I think we have more evidence than that. When the terrorists ran things, the fact they banned freedom of speech, freedom of religion, open inquiry and killed women who were too bold, to name just a few items, suggests they oppose freedom as any rational person understands it. As for Democracy, maybe it's that they keep denouncing it by name.

Many have noted that the idea of freedom seems to be sprouting in the Middle East. Arianna first notes it's a coincidence that it's happening alongside the elections in Iraq. (Perhaps, but that's quite a coincidence.) Then she warns us that, as opposed to what Bush is saying, things are far from perfect as they stand. I obviously missed that speech where Bush said everything was perfect. She also claims we're not being told about the downside: "a bloody narrative about which we hear shockingly little." I guess she was too busy listening to imaginary speeches to note the day-in day-out front page coverage of the war and its effects over the past two years.

She reminds us "Holding an election is not the same as establishing a democracy." How true. It requires a lot of work and concerted effort to have a chance at success. The funny thing is I always thought this was the strongest reason to support Bush, not oppose him.

Here's another typical paragraph, with lengthy interruptions I apologize for beforehand.
"The truth is the vast majority of Arabs remain skeptical of U.S motives. And can we really blame them? [Personally, I want democracy to spread to Arab lands, and I have little doubt the Bush administration wants it as well. Alas, Arianna doesn't even want to admit this much.] After all, it wasn't that long ago that Dick Cheney was opposing the release of Nelson Mandela in South Africa [even if it were this simple, I think the answer to this thrust is "so what?"], Donald Rumsfeld was cutting deals with Saddam Hussein [yep, politics means you sometimes make deals with those you don't like; I think we've proved pretty definitively since then we're opposed to Hussein, while those against the war, like France, were still pretty open for business; furthermore the Arabs and Muslims we're helping have sometimes made deals with people we don't like, but if you expect purity in politics you don't get very far], and the CIA was overthrowing Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected leader of Iran, and installing the Shah. [She started with "it wasn't that long ago," but this is more than half a century in the past. Heck, the Shah's been "uninstalled" for 26 years and the Iranians are so unhappy with their present leaders that they support us more than most countries.]
In any case, these stray facts aren't as important in creating Arab mistrust, seems to me, as that they've lived in unfree countries and been fed a steady stream of anti-US propaganda all their lives. How to break this cycle, hmm, how? While we ponder that, let me try to make a few positive arguments for why they should trust us that Arianna can't be bothered to consider: we've fought in a number of wars recently and lost many soldiers to help free Muslims around the world; we've generally supported democracy around the world (I'm aware some don't believe this--if Arianna is one, I wish she'd identify herself); if it were mainly about oil we'd still be dealing with Saddam; it's in our self-interest.

Another irony is Huffington doesn't realize the main fear of those who want liberty is not that the US is too quick to fight, but that we won't keep fighting; I don't think Arianna ever wanted to fight, so it's her side that the Democracy-lovers can't trust.

Greece, homeland of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and now, Arianna.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Blackstone explains it all for you

After years of reading about him, let's finally read him. Blackstone, that is, and his famous Commentaries On The Laws Of England, available for free on the internet. There's a lot here, but it goes down easy. Let me give just one example.

Book I, Chapter 15 deals with the relationship of the husband and wife. Blackstone makes it clear marriage is simply a civil contract--that the deeper side is left to the Church. Most of Blackstone's discussion is about what makes a marriage contract legitimate. Then he discusses divorce.

Finally, he gets to one of his more famous statements: "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law." He goes on to explain: "the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing." This explains, for instance, why one can't testify against a spouse: "nemo tenetur seipsum accusare" [no one is bound to accuse himself].

He goes over what it all means, including the exceptions to the rule, then finishes with (to me, anyway) a surprise: "These are the chief legal effects of marriage during the coverture; upon which we may observe, that even the disabilities, which the wife lies under, are for the most part intended for her protection and benefit. So great a favorite is the female sex of the laws of England." Who would have guessed?

Friday, March 18, 2005


Looking at a number of reviews of Spamalot, the Monty Python Broadway musical, you don't have to read between the lines to figure out what they're saying: it's not much of a show, but it's a hit, so just sit back and enjoy it.

There's worse advice, I suppose. After all, the musical comedy has been dead for decades--you're not gonna get another Guys And Dolls. You might as well find your fun where you can. If only it weren't so expensive.

Wiki Wacky Woo

Have you seen the Wikipedia? It's a great project: a free internet encyclopedia written and edited by its readers.

That's right, anyone who reads it can rewrite it. I've read a few of the more than half million articles and so far they're pretty accurate.

Because it's on the internet, and read by millions, the idea is it'll keep on improving; readers can correct mistakes and add new facts. (The more popular the article, the faster it should improve.)

A warning, though. The more you know about a subject, the less useful the Wikipedia will be. In fact, I just read the entry on George Bernard Shaw and it's a mess. Hmm. Maybe I should fix it.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Told ya

A week ago I suggested the six men on American Idol easily outclassed the six women. One reader thought I was nuts but the early results suggest I'm on to something. The bottom three vote-getters last night were all women. I'm not saying this trend will continue, but I would suggest the women sharpen up.

Who's envious now?

I don't follow celebrity trials closely. I still believe in the separation of show biz and news. Nevertheless, it's hard to miss that Robert Blake was acquitted of murder.

I wonder if Blake, basking in tons of publicity after years in the wilderness, hadn't been jealous of Michael Jackson these past few weeks. Usually, celebrity trials are done separately (so the public can enjoy them more easily), but Blake had strictly been an opening act for Michael.

I think now, however, that Michael is jealous. He must figure "I've got tons more reasonable doubt than Blake (not to mention I'm a bigger star, and was a bigger child star), so if he got off I better get off, too." It's certainly plausible Michael will be freed. If he is, he and Robert should have a party, catered by Martha, of course.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Hey New York, Bite This!

Just got back from lunch at Langer's. Langer's has the finest pastrami sandwich there is. I usually don't like pastrami--too chewy, not the tastiest cut--but they do something to it that makes it irresistible. And unlike the Plaza Hotel, Langer's isn't changing. The neighborhood around it has completely changed, but good old Langer's remains.

Next time you're in town, try to get out to 7th and Alvarado some afternoon. The prices are comparable to New York delis, but this is the one sandwich that beats them.

Another one bites the dust

New York's Plaza Hotel is going condo. You may wonder why LAGuy cares, but the Plaza is America's hotel, not New York's. Located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Central Park South, it's been in so many movies, TV shows and stories that it's sad to see it go the way of other New York landmarks.

This is where Eloise lived. This is where Cary Grant was kidnapped. This is where Arthur brought a hooker. Neil Simon thought so much of it he set one of his best-known plays there.

Its real-life story was just as exciting. The Plaza hosted royalty, heads of state, celebrities and a whole lot of rich people. Their greatest coup--probably unwanted--was when they housed The Beatles in 1964 while they were in town to play Ed Sullivan. Thousands of teenage girls gathered outside, screaming every time they imagined they saw a moptop.

I once stayed there. The first time I visited New York on my own, a friend and I rented a room. We weren't rich or famous--my friend had worked at a Plaza-affiliated hotel and we got a huge discount. Still, the room service nearly broke us.

So I'm glad I played at least a small part in its tradition. (Now when I visit the city, I stay where it's cheap--Jersey.) I wonder if we stayed in the same room as John, Paul, George or Ringo. Even Brain Epstein would do. I doubt it. We had the view of an alley.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


I'd rather politicians do nothing than attack non-problems (e.g., Hillary Clinton assailing violent media, John McCain trying to run baseball).

Now there's a non-problem that's actually a good thing that has some worried. A study from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, affiliated with Columbia University, suggests people are relying too much on blogs and cable TV--the "journalism of assertion."

There's nothing wrong here. Those interested in the news seek out other available sources. With the explosion of cable and the internet, it's a golden age for news junkies. I guarantee those who read blogs and watch "opinion" news know a lot more about what's going on than the average person. It's the people who pay no attention to the news that we should worry about. (Actually, let's leave them alone, too.)

Monday, March 14, 2005

Too Tired

You hear certain bad arguments so often that you get tired of refuting them. They wear you down. So please pardon me, dear reader, if I just give you some conclusions without much content. I'm sure you can fill that part in. Here are two recent examples. (My apologies, yet again, that I'm arguing against the Left--the Right can be just as stubborn and foolish.)

First, something that strikes me as unbelievably blinkered, if not dishonest. James Goodale's review of the Rathergate report in The New York Review Of Books is breathtaking. He essentially misstates all the evidence favoring the documents in question to make it sound as though their authenticity is plausible, even likely. (He also seems to accept the standard of "false but accurate" as a fallback.) And he doesn't even mention the mountain of evidence proving to any rational person the documents are fraudulent. I'm speechless. Read it for yourself, maybe I missed something. (And maybe you'd like to email Goodale with a sentence-by-sentence refutation that I don't have the patience for.)

Another example is from a women who seems to want to understand, but then doesn't understand enough to ask the right questions. In Dissent, Lillian B. Rubin plaintively wonders "Why Don't They Listen to Us? Speaking to the Working Class." First, she should stop using the phrase "working class"--the poor in America already vote Democrat, it's the middle class everyone's fighting over.

She quotes from Thomas Frank's What's The Matter With Kansas? At least she realizes that Frank (one of those rare public intellectuals who always gets it wrong) has a certain contempt for the non-rich who vote Republican, but she actually does buy all his arguments that they're voting against their own interests. Sorry, Ms. Rubin, but you've missed where the argument should be.

Thus, she has little doubt the Left has the correct answers, she only wonders why the people don't respond. Maybe, just maybe, there are people who don't agree with you, and have good reasons. I suggest you argue with actual conservatives who understand what they want and why they want it, and not just assume people who vote against you are victims of mere miscommunication.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Kristof pissed off

...well, maybe just saddened, but that doesn't rhyme.

In his latest, NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof bemoans the state of the environmental movement. He notes it's "unable to win on even its very top priorities, even though it has the advantage of mostly being right." This doesn't fill me with confidence in Kristof's analysis since "environmentalists" (everyone is an environmentalist--I use quotation marks to identify the special interests groups self-designated as environmentalists) win often enough and don't seem to be right that much more than their opponents.

But why does Kristof think they're in trouble? Simple, they're "too often alarmist" and "have an awful track record" which has hurt their credibility. If this is true, then why does he insist on them "mostly being right?" (He says environmentalists are like neocons--"brimming with moral clarity and ideological zeal, but empty of nuance." This is the kind of mindless, shrill contempt neocons have to put up with, but that's a different post.)

After recounting foolish statements made in the past few decades, he says we need "reasonable environmentalists - without alarmism or exaggerations." I certainly agree. He then goes on to say it's imperative we don't drill in Arctic wildlife refuge. But if this sort of trade-off isn't "reasonable"--drilling in a very small area of land no one ever visits for lots of oil--then what is? Kristof demands "a credible, nuanced, highly respected environmental movement," but if it ever came along I don't think he'd support it.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Growing Pains

I wish I could link the article--I wish I could find it in fact--about some group that's unhappy with how speed limits are set. The way it's been done for years is so that 85% of drivers go the speed limit or less. Apparently, that makes highway driving manageable. But some group is opposed, saying that allowing so many to speed (whatever that means) causes trouble.

In fact, they called it a serious and "growing" problem. That's the part that gets me. Here's this program that's been in places for years, and they've been opposed for years. Yet, whenever they complain, the problem has to be growing. My guess is if it's a problem at all, it's pretty much stabilized by now.

Friday, March 11, 2005

A joke I can't use

Announcer: "Billy Smith, you were just chosen the top Cub Scout in America. What will you do next?"

Billy: "I'm going to Neverland!"

Behind the background

I watched Men In Black last night for the first time in years. It was a blockbuster--it made $250 million back in 1997 when that meant something.

It still holds up, but there was a well-known scene that gave me pause. It's the first adventure Jay (Will Smith) and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) have as men in black. They drive out to New Jersey, and while Kay talks to an alien in the foreground, Jay is being thrashed about by a pregnant alien in the background. However, in the skyline behind it all, proudly stands the World Trade Center. It makes it hard to pay attention to the comedy.

Thursday, March 10, 2005


They tried something new on American Idol this year. Instead of going from tryouts to the top 12, they had an extra round. (No surprise--this show is pure gold in the ratings and the longer they can stretch it out, the better.)

In this new round, there were 24 contestants, 12 boys and 12 girls. They gave the males and females separate shows, each week cutting exactly two guys and two gals. Part of the idea was, I've heard, to avoid the show getting lopsided along sexual lines; last year, the women were much better than the men and survived longer--I guess they didn't want that repeated.

If that was the plan, I think they'll be disappointed. The men, so far, have easily outclassed the women. They are better singers technically, and have more personality. If they continue to perform as they have, it would not be implausible to see all the women go before a single man gets cut. (Some have accused the AI producers of vote-fixing in the past, but this would be the first time I can imagine they'd truly be tempted.)

Los Angeles is a foreign place

Interesting panel discussion last night, hosted by the LA Press Club, about foreign correspondents. It was hosted by my friend, Matt Welch (who has a fine blog). Much of the discussion was about how important "gets" are--if you want to sell something in America about a foreign country, you better be interviewing the leader of the country, or the leader of the resistance. Otherwise, your editor will say "who cares?"

Afterwards, we went out for drinks and I heard some great inside stories, some of which I don't think I'm allowed to repeat. By the way, are foreign correspondents still "hard-drinking"? Confirmed.

That's more like it

On Tuesday I voted for LA Mayor. The previous time I voted, in a Presidential election, the polling place was overrun. People were lined up from various districts, waiting half an hour to vote. This time, there was one voter when I came in, and no one entering as I exited. It's nice to see things back to normal.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Whose dignity?

The UN General Assembly has okayed a resolution urging its members to adopt legislation "to prohibit all forms of human cloning in as much as they are incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life." Due to opposition, the final resolution is nonbinding and without legal force. Nevertheless, I think it's a mistake. (If they had tried to ban only reproductive cloning, and not also therapeutic cloning, the resolution could have been binding.)

Cloning offers great hope in fighting illness (and helping the barren). While I understand certain moral qualms, and can see rules and protocols being set up, it seems to me that those in the opposition are the ones whose beliefs are "incompatible with human dignity and the protection of human life."

If the US actually banned cloning, what could follow is reasonably predictable. Europe and Asia would soon outstrip us in research. We'd also lose many of our best scientists. And what if we disallowed the fruits of the research (not to do so would be hypocritical)? Imagine America trying to prevent cures to diseases from entering our country, in essence telling our citizens to stay sick and die. And if you got a back-alley cure, they'd toss the one who helped you in jail. So much for dignity.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Sleight of hand

A rather silly piece by Hendrick Hertzberg in The New Yorker this week. The silliest thing is he wrote it at all. You see, it's about filibusters, which he's against, and Republicans, which he's also against. Trouble is, Republicans are against filibusters, so the whole piece is at odds with itself.

In any case, he has to use a lot of sleight of hand to try to make his case, and insult Republicans at the same time. Let's look at some of the highlights.

He claims the hold-up on judicial confirmations for Bush and Clinton are a tie, since the numbers are about the same. He doesn't mention that in Bush's case, the Dems are able to use the filibuster to stop judges who would easily win a vote in the Senate. (This is small potatoes, because there are lots of ways to look at the confirmation crunch, but Hertzberg starts with it.)

He tries to say it's not really a tie since Clinton nominated moderates while Bush nominates conservatives, rarely moderate, often extreme. Even if it were this simple, it would be a meaningless argument. In the federal courts, "moderate" generally translates to those who agree with the Left, especially on controversial social issues. "Moderate" judges declare any hindrance to abortion unconstitutional, no matter how small, no matter how popular, such as parental notification and late-term bans. Those who would merely allow such laws (forget about letting people vote on abortion itself, much less banning it by judicial fiat) are condemned as right-wing extremists. "Moderate" judges allow the government and others to take one's race into account as much as needed in the name of "diversity" or historical discrimination. Meanwhile, those who, like the civil rights crusaders of the 40s and 50s, believe in a color-blind constitution ("Equal Justice Under Law" is carved into the Supreme Court building), are considered far right.

Hertzberg states the "filibuster has been around in one form or another since 1806." Imagine an argument about women's suffrage where someone notes "we've had a franchise, in one form or another, since 1789." The "form" of filibustering has changed so much, you're not talking about the same thing anymore. With 41 Senators you can close down the process without having to actually talk. We've rarely had old-fashioned filibusters since the days of Robert Byrd trying to stop civil rights legislation.

Hertzberg notes the filibuster has been a favorite tactic of hard-shelled conservatives, particularly for issues like preserving slavery and perpetuating white supremacy, but "lately, the roles have reversed" Reversed? What Hertzberg doesn't mention is these "conservatives" of the past were Democrats, so how are things different? When Senator Byrd fights for the "right" of Senators to filibuster, he's yet another conservative who wishes nothing would change.

Hertzberg then tries to differentiate between laws and judicial nominees--laws can be repealed or amended while a federal judge serves for life. So we're supposed to think filibusters are better used to stop judges. But, let's face it, a major law (the kind that gets filibustered) effects many millions deeply, while one federal judge out of hundreds (note we're not talking about Supreme Court justices) may have little effect overall. Furthermore, laws tend to live on, while judges eventually quit or die.

Monday, March 07, 2005


The Sunday Los Angeles Times had a feature in its Calendar section on Jonathan Klein. For those unfamiliar with Klein, please scroll to the upper left-hand corner of this blog.

The article ignores his famous quote and discusses Klein's new job as head of CNN. In the second paragraph, he says, regarding bloggers:
"Y'know, it's something we ought to embrace and investigate and shine a light on and wrap our arms around and welcome....Cuz it ain't going away. It's all part of this wave of democratization...that began really with CNN."

Cheap Shots

In the Sunday New York Times, there was an article on a new production of Mister Roberts at the Kennedy Center. Predictably, they're reviving it because they see parallels to the Iraq War.

This is tiresome enough, but political reporter Todd S. Purdum has to add his own cheap shots.

For example, one of the reasons Purdum thinks the play (about a World War II supply ship) could still be relevant, nay, "provocative," is because "[Donald] Rumsfeld squabbles with the troops over a shortage of body armor. " Actually, Rumsfeld gave a long, detailed answer to the question on this issue, and certainly didn't "squabble" with the troops about it. (This is one of those false stories, like, say, Bush 41's alleged amazement at a price scanner, that's too good to die.)

When Purdum mentions a joke about the clap that was censored in the original production, he adds "Warning to Alberto R. Gonzales: it has been restored." No one will care about the line, of course--certainly not a liberal Republican like Gonzales. The crack is so forced you can almost feel Purdum's disappointment that 1) John Ashcroft is no longer AG and 2) there's no gag in the show about torture.

What impresses me most is Purdum's confidence that he can insult certain targets based on faulty premises and his audience will go for it.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

How do they know?

Hollywood producers, by and large, make films to make money. (Those who don't care about profits don't last too long.) I'm not saying they don't try to make them good--the better they are, the better they do. What's so enjoyable about the whole carnival is no one knows what will work, except the public as a whole. While there's some regional variation, in general a hit is a hit throughout the country. The public doesn't get together to discuss which films to make or break, but they act as if they do.

Premiere used to predict the top hits of the summer, which was always fun after the fact to see how wrong they got it. Now there are lots of places, including the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, Defamer, Box Office Mojo, and Box Office Guru, that provide weekly guesses.

This weekend, almost everyone expected Be Cool to outgross The Pacifier. They were wrong. Last week, no one thought any film, much less the unheralded Diary Of A Mad Black Woman, could unseat Hitch from its #1 perch, and they were wrong again. I'm not laughing at them. Could you do any better?

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Bienvenido a The Angels

At a Mexican restaurant today, I saw something interesting. The man behind the cash register was reading "The Gift Of The Magi" and looking up words he didn't know in an English dictionary. (I tried to come up with a new version of the story where some guy ends up with the OED after he's deported, but couldn't work it out.)

Learning English to better yourself has a long tradition in this country. My grandparents came here (okay, to Canada, but same deal) from Europe not speaking a word of English. For that matter, my parents didn't speak it at home and had to learn it in school. They learned through immersion--still the best way to teach kids. Some years ago I volunteered for a program to teach English to Latinos where the students were mostly middle-aged, and I saw close-up how hard it can be to make the transition when you start late.

In many local businesses, transactions are done in Espanol. Until I walk up to the counter and suddenly they're speaking English. Am I that obviously Anglo? Anyway, I salute the man behind the cash register, since there's enough of a Latino population around here that you can actually get by knowing only Spanish.

I'm reminded of the Paul Rodriguez joke. He's in an elevator with several Asian men and they start speaking Japanese. He says "You're in America now, speak Spanish!"

Friday, March 04, 2005

Arresting Anecdote

I was recently rereading one of my favorite books, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"--if you haven't read it, go out and buy it now. One story in particular struck me. (I don't have the book in front of me so I'll relate it from memory.)

When Feynman was a young physics professor at Cornell, he was discussing with another professor whether a student was good enough to matriculate there. The other prof wanted to show Feynman a photo of the student. Feynman was shocked--what difference could that possibly make? The other professor was pleased. That was what he wanted to hear.

How times have changed.

How Time Flies

So Martha Stewart's five-month sentence is up. It feels like only yesterday they tossed her in. I wonder how she feels?

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Freedom and Force

Ronald Aronson has a good piece in The Nation on the failure of the Russian Revolution. Unfortunately, after a lengthy, intelligent discussion, he can't help himself. He ends with: "we have learned that force cannot create a humane society. It is a lesson that the neoconservative architects of the Iraq War and their liberal hawk fellow travelers have yet to absorb."

Hmm. Has Aronson learned the right lesson?

Not that long ago, all Europe--all the world--was threatened by fascism. Both democratic and communist countries fought it. The force used by the democratic countries led to freedom for those whom they liberated; the force used by the communists led to unfree countries under communist control. The message is not that force can't work--in fact, force is sometimes necessary--but that communism doesn't work.

Is Aronson so blind (and his deadline so early?) that he can't see what's happening in Iraq, and threatening to happen elsewhere. Iraq was run by a cruel tyrant who would not voluntarily give up rule. Force was necessary to knock him out to allow any chance for a free and humane society to take root. Is Aronson on the side of the insurgents, who target and blow up innocent Iraqis, or on the side of those millions who voted? Those Iraqis weren't being "forced" by us to vote--no, our "force" was what allowed them to vote in the first place. In fact, the only "force" being used that day was against the brave voters, by those who wished to deny them freedom. It's not clear, in Aronson's mindless hatred of neocons, that he understands this.

Perhaps I shouldn't blame Aronson. After all, this was just another Nation ceremonial swipe at neocons, regularly dropped in no matter how foolish or off-topic, and there's no reason to think there was any actual thought behind it.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Grounds for Supreme Court Impeachment?

Lots of purportedly serious people on the left thought impeachment was in order for the Justices who sided with Bush in Bush v. Gore. But wouldn't the citation to the law of Saudi Arabia, Congo and China -- as in effect trumping the text of the U.S. Constitution -- be a better example of an impeachable offense?

LAGuy answers Pajama Guy's non-rhetorical question: Federal judges "shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour." Leaving aside your caricature of Justice Kennedy's argument (that international law trumps the Constitution--the controlling factor in this case is how to interpret the Eighth Amendment), what it's claimed the Justices did in Bush v. Gore is incomparably worse. It's the difference between intentionally coming to the wrong result for purely political purposes, and mere flawed reasoning. If the latter were impeachable, no Justice would last a term.

Senator Censor

So Senator Ted Stevens wants to apply "decency" standards to cable TV and satellite TV and radio. Salivating at the chance to spread censorship, he predictably claims "no one wants censorship." He believes "there must be some standard of decency." Sure, Ted--and that's for the people (including parents) individually to decide, as they already do with books, magazines, etc.

In the regrettable 5-4 decision, FCC v. Pacifica, which allowed government to regulate "indecency" on the airwaves (as a standard separate from obscenity), part of the argument was it's okay to ban a George Carlin routine from radio since you could always buy his album. But apparently Senator Stevens wants to chase down bad stuff wherever it appears to make it harder and harder to find alternatives.

Cable TV and satellite TV and radio, much like renting a movie or buying an album, means paying money to bring something into your home. Following the Senator's logic, I guess we should also..actually, I better stop. It's just going to give him ideas to censor even more.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Oscar Reactions

It was interesting reading the various accounts of the Academy Awards. You'd think people saw different shows.

The "Oscarcast Review" by Frazier Moore thought Chris Rock was charming and full of finesse. He liked the anti-Bush material and loved the remote from the Magic Johnson Theatre, where Rock interviewed "ordinary" Americans (who didn't know about Finding Neverland or Sideways but all saw White Chicks.)

Tom Shales at the Washington Post though Rock was a disaster.

The New York Times approved of how Rock "shocked" the audience. They recounted, in the NYT overexplanatory style, his remote bit and his cuts at Bush.

Brian Lowry at Variety thought the show classy, with Rock funny and essentially inoffensive. He thought his Bush barbs "clever" even though they didn't "draw blood." He also liked the Magic Johnson remote.

The Hollywood Reporter felt Rock was offensive (though clean) and not that funny. They didn't like how he belittled Jude Law and Tobey Maquire, though they felt his stuff on Bush was "well-aimed." They thought the Magic Johnson remote was a waste of time.

Paul Brownfield at the Los Angeles Times was disappointed at how safe the show was. He felt Rock's monologue was innocuous. However, he loved the remote, which he felt, for a moment, "bl[ew] the show open."

David Edelstein at Slate thought Rock was "screamingly funny." (Lynda Obst, replying to Edelstein, agreed.) He particularly loved Rock's slam at Bush, predicting it was so powerful that right-wing talk radio wouldn't be playing it much. (To check this out, I listened in to four separate right-wing shows--apparently they weren't as frightened as Edelstein thought they'd be as ALL opened their shows with Rock's jokes about Bush.) He also thought the Magic Johnson remote was "spectacularly funny and brilliantly edited."

Personally, I felt Rock did a decent job, though he's obviously been funnier. He wasn't straitjacketed by the event, but did ease up a bit (which was probably good--this is the Oscars, not Bring The Pain II). His Bush jokes weren't his best stuff, and were a little off-topic, but he probably felt he had to say something or he'd look like a eunuch. The remote at the Magic Johnson Theatre not only dealt with the People v. Hollywood (pseudo-)controversy, but was also a very funny bit. (The surprise appearance of Albert Brooks made a good bit great.)

Overall, the show moved swiftly (mostly due to changes wrought by producer Gil Cates) and had surprisingly few dull spots. I'd give Rock a thumbs up, but Billy Crystal can still sleep at night.

Pajama Guy responds: I tuned in at 9:30 p.m. and stayed for a half-hour. I found it dull to stupid (e.g. the Rock/Sandler/Zeta-Jones bit). The sense that I was watching a dud was visually reinforced by all those empty seats in the audience. I assume they probably belonged to stars waiting backstage to present or perform, but it still was like watching a telecast of an old World Football League game. The show was a bigger hit in the cities than in rural areas. Is this a Red State/Blue State political phenomenon, or were folks in the heartland just more likely (like me) to decide the show was not worth staying up late for on a school night?

LAGuy explains: City folks tend to be more up on the latest cinema than country folks, so better ratings in those areas was expected. (Compare this to, say, a NASCAR event.) This trend was only intensified by the choice of Rock as host, who appeals to a younger, more urban crowd. It's too bad you didn't tune in an hour earlier when Rock performed his monologue, which is what everyone's talking about. The rest of the show was mostly interesting to those who cared about who won. My educated guess is Pajama Guy hadn't seen hardly any of the nominated films, which can make for a boring night indeed.

Pajama Guy responds: As a father of three kids 5 and under, I'm pretty sure I saw all the animated nominees. But that would be it.

web page hit counter