Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday, Sunday

It's an old story, but it happened to me, one week ago. I was out on Sunday during the Minnesota/New Orleans game, so I taped it. When I returned, I figured the game was over. I turned on my TV and there it was--the exciting last five seconds of a classic.

It saved time, but I think I'd have preferred to watch it from the start.

Lost Chance

In a couple days, new Lost, and there'll be no point in speculation about what turn the season will take. I don't have too much to say, but at this point, I don't see how there won't be some sort of reset. If Jack's plan didn't work, what would be the point of season 5?

But it can't be a total reset. They can't start again. There's too much history. So I believe those whom Jacob touched will retain some sort of consciousness about what went on before. And they will work together. They're coming.


I've heard Mel Gibson's new film, Edge Of Darkness, features stock villains: evil corporations, crooked politicians. What's interesting is since the film is set in Boston, the bad guy is a Massachusetts senator--who's a Republican!

How could they have known there'd be a Republican senator? Or did they just figure if he's a villain they better make him a Republican, lest someone think he's based on Kennedy or Kerry.

PS Here are some other characters who have been confused with Kerry:

I'm Loving It

In a discussion of the Prop 8 trial in California--a pretty complex case about the constitutionality of a proposition that's against same sex marriage--William N. Eskridge Jr. and Darren Spedale (it's so complex it took two people to write the article) state:

Cooper's team also argues that overturning Proposition 8 would undermine democracy by nullifying the will of the people. Voters adopted the state constitutional amendment in November 2008 specifically to overturn a decision by the California Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage the previous June. But the U.S. Constitution is supposed to trump current opinion sometimes, as when the Supreme Court struck down state laws barring different-race marriage in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. Most Americans did not agree with that result. Was Loving wrong? This is a legal landmine, an argument that could blow up in the judge's face if he gets near it. Judge Walker will not go there.

Really? Loving was unpopular? The public favored miscegenation laws in the late 60s?

What about this: from Richard Posner's long book review (I recommend the whole thing) in The New Republic about mixed-marriage laws:

By 1967, anti-miscegenation laws were found only in the southern and border states plus Delaware and Oklahoma, and in that year the Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia (a suit by a black-white couple—the man being the white, thus raising fewer hackles), invalidated the laws. (Actually, the outcome in Loving had been clearly anticipated by the Supreme Court three years earlier in a case called McLaughlin v. Florida, which somehow failed to attract much attention.)

The Court had been skittish about taking on an issue that was so emotional in the South and was linked by southernerswith school desegregation, which the Supreme Court had ordered in
Brown v. Board of Education and which white Southerners believed was bound to promote miscegenation. But by 1967 southern resistance to civil rights had been weakened to the point where removing the last stick from the bundle of Jim Crow laws would not create a furor.


The most interesting legal aspect of the history of miscegenation laws is the support it provides for the proposition that the meaning of the Constitution can change—although the words do not change—because of changes in the environment. In 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, the best interpretation of it was that bans on interracial marriage were constitutionally permissible. Interracial marriage was opposed by the vast majority of people in all parts of the United States. Two-thirds of the forty-eight American states and territories had such laws. Marriage was thought to be a state prerogative, and “freedom to marry” would not have been considered one of the liberties protected against arbitrary state action by the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause. And the core of the concept of equal protection of the laws was merely that states could not withhold police protection from a group (namely the blacks in the South) on racial grounds. Only a few radical Republicans believed that blacks were the social equals, as distinct from the political equals, of whites, or that the equal protection clause was intended to make them the social equals of whites. The prevailing view was that blacks should have the rights of citizens, not that they should be protected against all forms of governmental discrimination. And finally and perhaps most importantly, the idea that anti-miscegenation laws did not deny the equal protection of the laws because they punished the white and the black violator the same, though it strikes modern judges as wooden, fitted (just as the “separate but equal” formula of
Plessy v. Ferguson did) the formalistic bent of late nineteenth-century American judicial thought and the judges’ concomitant reluctance to base their decisions on social realities. But ninety-nine years after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, it was clear to the Supreme Court Justices and indeed to most judges and lawyers outside the South that the anti-miscegenation laws violated the amendment. I think they were right. The language of the amendment was unchanged. But the language was open-ended. Closure was supplied by the social and political environment, and when that changed, the meaning changed.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Layers Of Checks And Balances

This is from Slate's coverage of J.D. Salinger:

When Nine Stories appeared in the spring of 1953, J.D. Salinger had been the nationally reknowned author of The Catcher in the Rye for two years.

I keep seeing this. The word is "renowned." It's not about someone you've known twice.

Not Gonna Watch Not Gonna Watch Not Gonna Watch

"The First Four Minutes of LOST's Sixth Season Are Online Now!!"

PS If you want to check out a lengthy Lost conversation, go here to where they started a talkback at the end of last season. They must be up to around 7000 comments by now. Might take a second to download.


My friend Jesse Walker has been naming the top ten films of the year in decades ending in "9." He just got back to 1939 and I think that's it. Even if he did want to do 1929, it would be hard to pull off. 1929 was the year that silent films essentially ended (in Hollywood, anyway) while sound was still in its infancy. Some early sound films are okay, but most are primitive and hard to sit through.

I guess you could work out a top ten list, but half of them would be Laurel & Hardy shorts.

Best Interests

A number of liberals are urging Democrats who previously voted for health care reform to vote yes again. Why? "They already voted for it. Pulling up lame will not stop the GOP from nailing them on it."

While I can understand how some wish this is so, it doesn't make too much sense. Not voting for it this time around is telling your consitutuents you're sorry and are capable of learning. Also, and for some reason these advisors seem to avoid noting this, this time around it means the bill the public is saying it doesn't want will actually pass.

Scenario one: Someone hits you in the back of the head. You turn around and say "hey, stop that!" He says "sorry, old friend, thought you were someone else--will you lend me five bucks?" Okay, not the greatest approach. But it's a heck of a lot better than...

Scenario two: Someone hits you in the back of the head. You turn around and say "hey, stop that!" He punches you in the mouth and says "will you lend me five bucks?"

Friday, January 29, 2010


It didn't seem very promising--a film about cheerleading--but Bring It On turned out to be surprisingly well-done. It deserved to be a sleeper hit.

It's since become a cult classic, but I had no idea that there's a whole direct-to-video Bring It On franchise. Here's a useful guide to the sequels. This sentence near the end, however, stopped me short:

There's no question that these sequels lack Bring It On's zippy dialogue and cynical attitude. But they aren't unwatchable.

Except the zippy dialogue and cynical attitude are what made Bring It On watchable to begin with. Not that I was ever gonna watch the sequels, but I'll definitely take a pass now. Bring It On without the attitude would be exactly the kind of thing that made me want to stay awar from the original.

Get Me Off This Island

Occasionally at Slate they get a group together to discuss a full season of a TV show. They're now doing that with Lost. But after reading the first two entries, I'm not interested.

That's because the two of the three on the panel who've posted agree that they hate time travel plots and thought it cheapened Lost's fifth season.

This is kind of dumb. I can see hating time travel plots in general. When you've got a show like Star Trek, to occasionally dip into time travel is sort of cheap and means you can get out of corners any time you like. But Lost is one big story (with occasionally ill-fitting parts) and the time travel aspect isn't an easy resort to solve problems--if anything, it's the opposite: a long planned path that's part of the overall arc and that makes things more difficult for the lead characters. It also allowed for us to go more deeply into the characters. Time travel had long been intimated on the show and its final, full-blown appearance led to an well-designed fifth season with plenty of momentum.

Which leads me to my other problem. Lost fans disagree on which is the best season, but if you don't like the fifth, where all the plot points are in place, and almost every episode leads to a major revelation, then what's the point of watching Lost at all?

I get the sense on the internet that, by and large, the fifth season was considered one of the best. Sure, every season loses some people. That's inevitable, I suppose, in such a long story. But I really have no interest in hearing Lost discussed every week by people who don't seem to get what the show is about.

Without The Cold

I guess it's official now. Conan O'Brien is the William Henry Harrison of Tonight Show hosts.

J(ust) D(ied) Salinger

America may not be a nation of big readers, but everybody's read The Catcher In The Rye. J.D. Salinger, who died on Wednesday, stopped publishing over 40 years ago, but is still one of our best known authors based on this one book.

He led a weird life, and seemed to be a sort of crank, but I'm not interested in getting into all that David Copperfield kind of crap. Regardless of his personal life, his work will either live or it won't.

I think it will. The Catcher In The Rye is set in a specific time and place that may seem hard for modern audiences to relate to, but it sures captures what being a confused, alienated teenager is like, and in a fairly witty yet accessible way. Everyone (not just troubled assassins) can appreciate the book.

One of the ironies is the book means so much to young readers, yet has been regularly banned from libraries and high schools. One objection is the profanity, but that misses the point. Holden wants to be a catcher in the rye, protecting children from losing their innocence. When he sees dirty graffiti, he wants to protect kids from it, not realizing they're the ones who are writing it.

Then there are Salinger's short stories, especially his best stuff with the Glass family. It makes for a nice counterpoint to Holden Caulfield. However, his last few works that appeared in The New Yorker were much weaker. He stopped publishing due to criticism. I'd rather he redoubled his efforts and improved his writing.

But what he did was enough. Maybe it's time for me to pull out Catcher one more time.

PS Many years ago when I went to summer camp, after lights out one of the counselors would chill us with tales of "The Laughing Man." Only years later did I realize he got the concept from Salinger, though the stories were his own.

PPS With Salinger's death, Thomas Pynchon leaps to the front rank of recluse authors.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Man Of The People

Howard Zinn, author of the bestseller A People's History Of The United States, has died.

I don't really have much to say about him. He was never that much on my radar.

Here are a couple posts where I mention him and his book.

Who's Next?

Tiger Woods' wife Elin Nordegren has apparently been staying at Minnesota Viking's quarterback Brett Favre's ranch.

This sends a pretty clear message. If you're a sports superstar, stay away from this woman. She's bad luck.

PS I'm still looking at the photo. Just what was it that Tiger wasn't getting at home?

Beat Me To It

Here's a poll showing Scott Brown neck and neck with Barack Obama in a Presidential run-off. I was going to make a certain comment, but Instapundit got there first:

That’s ridiculous. A guy who’s barely even been elected to the Senate, going to the White House in just a couple of years without accumulating any real experience at the national level? Spare me the absurd speculation. Couldn’t happen.

It did start me thinking about the differences between Presidents over the past 40 years. The Republicans who got to the White House tended to have significant experience, either at high levels in our federal government, or as the chief executive in one of our largest states. Meanwhile, the Democrats seem to come out of nowhere, and what experience they had not seemingly worth that much at a national level.

Coincidence? I think so.

I Want Answers!

From a talkback on Lost at AICN:

Need an answer:

1. Who is Jacob.

2. Who is the MIB
[I assume this means the Man In Black]

3. What is the smoke monster

4. What is the Temple ?

5. What are the Whispers ?

6. Who is Richard Alpert and why doesn’t he get older ?

7. What was the deal with Jacob’s cabin, was it Jacob or MIB using it?

8. What is the deal with the numbers ? Are they cursed, do they have more meaning ?

9. Why did Jacob touch and choose certain people ?

10. High level answer of what is the Island ? Don’t need to know how it works to the nth degree.

Would like an answer:

1. Was that really Christian, or Jacob/MIB taking the form of Christian and if so why Christian ?

2. Who built the ancient items on the island, like the statue, or the donkey wheel, or the temple?

3. What is the significance of the Black Rock ?

4. Who are Adam and Eve ? (Obvious guess is still Rose and Bernard )

5. What is the deal with Walt?

6. What is the deal with Desmond ?

7. Why do Hurley and Miles see dead people ?

8. What is the deal with the rules in regards to the feud between Ben and Widmore ?

9. Are Ben and Widmore just a couple of feuding former leaders of the Others, who both want the Island for themselves or is there something more to it ?

10. Did the Others just want the kids to build their ranks or was their more meaning to it ?

I really do think that most of my top 10 will be answered. I also think that once we learn a bit more about Jacob, MIB and what they are doing on the Island a whole stack of questions will be answered in a short period of time.

The first ten questions are certainly among the biggest in the show. Most of them have to be answered or there won't be closure. Arguably #8 has been answered, though they could go further.

Interestingly, not a single one of the big questions mentions any of the lead characters from the first season. Presumably, though, we want to know the ultimate fates of Jack, Locke, Kate, etc.

The second set of questions may be answered, but they're hardly as essential. As for #1, we know that Jacob and/or MIB seems to have the power to inhabit bodies. Christian was around, so why not him? #5 they might leave alone. #6 we might just have to accept. (Perhaps being at ground zero when the Hatch exploded explains how he's become unstuck in time.) #7 is two separate questions. Miles' talent seems to be the ability to go into someone's brain at the time of their death and read what they were thinking around the end. Hurley's visions are different. (I suspect he may be seeing people from a separate reality--one that will come to the fore in season 6.) #8 I've never had a big problem with--Others don't kill other Others, or their kids. Is it that hard to understand? For that matter, if the island doesn't want you dead, you won't die. Ben admitted he wasn't thinking straight the first time he tried to kill Locke, expecting it to hold. #9 isn't much of a question. It's just wondering if there's more to a story we seem to understand already.

I'm still unhappy the producers think they've told all of Libby's story.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

iDouchebag wasn't available?

Steve Jobs and Dick Armey apparently have a similar disdain for naming consultants. Admittedly it is thinking differently to name your new signature need-to-have device after a personal hygeine product. Can we expect a similar programmed huffiness and expressions of disgust on those who make light of the goof?

That Saggy Feeling

The SAG awards are a helpful predictor of the Oscars, and there were few surprises this year--Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock, Mo'Nique and Christoph Waltz. Except for Bullock, I'd say they're locks for Oscars.

But it's the TV awards that depressed me. Mad Men won for best dramatic ensemble, while Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin of 30 Rock won for best comedy performance. I like both shows, but must they win all the awards? Let's mix it up a bit.

The Wonders The Vacuum Tube Will Bring

Yesterday I chastised Arthur C. Clarke for lack of clairvoyance. But it turns out some people can see the future. In particular, the men who created the ads for Seagram's in the 1940. Most impressive is the sports bar.

The Original Sin

At the risk of beating a dead horse, let me talk about how NBC screwed up their late night business. Maybe Leno back on 11:35 will work out, but there's been a lot of damage along the way. Why?

Simple. It's not any recent mistakes by Jeff Zucker, it's an old one. Six years ago, Zucker, who'd had a meteoric rise through the ranks at NBC, saw a problem coming and wanted to head it off. Jay Leno was a huge success, beating the pants off his competitors. Conan O'Brien was doing reasonably well in his slot afterward. But Leno was getting old, as was his audience, and Conan seemed the wave of the future. O'Brien's contract was coming up. He'd worked hard and expected a payoff--The Tonight Show itself. Without that, he'd bolt.

So Zucker split the difference. He made a deal (that I called asburd at the time, sorry I can't find the post) which caused all today's problems. He promised Conan The Tonight Show in five years and convinced Jay to step aside at that time. Jay probably still smarted from a similar situation with his old friend David Letterman and didn't want to be the bad guy again.

But think about this. Jay is huge--maybe the biggest moneymaker the network has. There's no reason his show will falter in the foreseeable future. Sure, it's smart to get ready to make your move when something is still popular but on the downward trend, but Jay hadn't hit that yet. Furthermore, he was tireless, faithful to the network, and a guy who did nothing but work. Why would he want to retire before he's 60? He's the kind of guy who'd ride the show out as long as NBC, and nature, allowed. Zucker is messing with success without a good reason.

So what should he do about Conan? Well, promise him a lot, just not Tonight at a date certain. Explain to him that Jay won't last forever, and when he leaves, Conan--as long as he stays at NBC--will get Tonight. Until then, he's got a great showcase. Furthermore, Zucker could have given him more money, another show to produce, more prime time specials, whatever. Just not Tonight right away. And if you want to get nasty, note to Conan there's no chance he'll do as well elsewhere--let's face it, he'll be throwing away a great thing for a very chancy thing, which might well end his career.

If Conan leaves, fine. You're confident Jay will slay him in direct competition, and since Jay will be around for a while, you've now get maybe a decade to cultivate a new replacement. Maybe that Jon Stewart, he looks pretty good. Or maybe some unknown, like Conan was.

Once the deal became due, there were no good options. You were destroying a huge hit, which is already a disaster. Then what do you do about Leno? The guy is not the type to retire. You can offer him a show, but it can't be Tonight, so it's got to be better. Except his sort of entertainment isn't ready for prime time. The ten p.m. deal takes a bad situation and makes it worse. (I might add that while Zucker is working out the Leno deal, he's also dropping his overall prime time schedule, that had been #1 for years, to last place.) But if you don't offer Jay something, he'll take his show to ABC or someone else and beat you, which may be even worse.

Meanwhile, you're taking a huge chance allowing Conan, who's still unproven, to take over the great real estate of which Jay was a super caretaker.

Zucker didn't make a deal six years ago, he set off a time bomb.

We Are The Robots

As the public awaits President Obama's State Of The Union, he's getting some criticism from his side for his seeming detachment. He's too cool, too even-tempered, to connect with the public. He needs to show his emotional side more and his rational side less.

I disagree with this about every way possible.

First, he shows feeling. He even shouts occasionally. When he was running for President, and riding on the crest of a wave, saying Yes We Can!, people were excited. This was a young, charistmatic leader. He could speak to them about stuff like race and connect with the public as no other leader. I don't recall too many complaints that he wasn't emotional enough.

As far as the arguments he makes to support his programs, they're emotion-laden just like any other politician's. When he rips in Wall Street "fat cats" and says they make obscene profits, that's not dispassionate analysis. He's trying to stir up people. He's sometimes compared to Mr. Spock, but Spock truly tried to come up with the most logical solution, and took himself out of the equation. Meanwhile, Obama's a partisan just like the rest of them.

I think his supporters can't understand why his polls are sinking and don't want to note the most likely reason--the voters have trouble with his policies. (And that even an "emotional" President will drop steadily in the polls with a bad economy or an unsuccessful war.)

True, he sometimes doesn't act as outraged about certain things as we're used to seeing--his calm demeanor and casual clothes when he addressed the issue of the Christmas bomber made him seemed more bothered that the guy disturbed his vacation. But, in fact, I wish he were as rational and calm as his critics claim. I don't need a politician to reach out to me, I just want him to run the government well. So when I hear Obama criticized for being emotionless, I think "if only."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Maybe One Day I'll Want A Vette

Saab has been pulled back from the brink, being sold to a tiny specialty-car manufacturer presumably named after a male porn icon. I had vowed never to buy another GM car in my life if they managed to kill my favorite car brand. But I'm not sure if driving Saab deep into the red then selling them to a company that halfway looks like a money laundering operation for the Russian mob is so much better than killing the poor company.

In any event, while they live, I urge you to buy a Saab! My 9-3 convertible gets admiring looks from every kid in the neighborhood, fits four big guys -- or three and their golf bags -- is a joy on sunny days and plows through blizzards that stop everyone else except SUVs and drunks. Admittedly, taking it to the corner gas station for repairs is highly inadvisable; I upgraded my AAA membership just so I could tow it from anywhere in the region to a Saab dealer or (preferably) my favorite independent Saab-only mechanic. I've owned American, German, and Japanese cars before I started buying Saabs. But having a cool car that you don't see a ton of on the road, is a joy to drive, fuel-efficient, reasonably priced and (mostly) practical, is why I remain part of their "famously devoted customer-base."

Asking For It

Health care reform isn't dead, though it's on life support. The message to Dems from the public couldn't be much clearer. Yet, I keep hearing supporters say they should still pass it. Indeed, many claim the reason the public is unhappy with Congress is that they've failed to shove this unpopular bill down the people's throats.

I believe I heard Jon Stewart (to pick a notable example) say something like this. He didn't put it as I do, but that's what his advice amounts to. He can't seem to understand why the Dems are so timid. Let me put it this way. Jon, are you willing to quit your show to get this bill passed? Because you seem pretty cavalier about asking politicians, whose lives have been built around gaining power, to give it all up.

Three More Gone

A few recent deaths I missed.

Jean Simmons, a fine actress who appeared in a number of major films--Hamlet, Guys And Dolls, Spartacus--but never quite made the A-list. It must have been tough in the last 30 years of her life to be regularly confused with Gene Simmons of KISS.

Local Gerald McCabe, founder of McCabe's Guiatar Shop, one of the best music shops in the nation, and a meeting place for musicians. Above all, there was the backroom where a lot of big names played small shows.

Guy Day, of Chiat/Day, one of the great ad men. He was behind many famous campaigns, but his biggest game changer was this:

Gained In Translation

Reader Lawrence King writes:

Why in the world do Americans remake English television shows like The Office or Life on Mars anyway? Why not just show the originals on television here? Imagine if we re-made Beatles songs or David Bowie songs with all-American musicians, changing "the fireman never wears a Mac" to "the fire fighter doesn't wear a raincoat"...

There's a lot of time to fill on the airwaves, which may explain why there's a long tradition of adapting TV shows, especially from Britain. Sometimes it's practically the same thing with a different accent, like American Idol, and sometimes it's so Americanized it moves far away from the original, such as All In The Family or Sanford And Son.

The point is, no matter where it comes from, every TV show has to stand on its own. No one really cares about the source.

I do wonder, however, why no one's ever thought to air actual British shows directly on our maor networks.

Speaking of changing lyrics, I'm reminded of this thought on The Hollies' "Bus Stop." From the original:

That's the way the whole thing started
Silly, but it's true
Thinking of a sweet romance
Beginning in a queue

They could have recorded an "American" version:

That's the way the whole thing started
Silly, but it's fine
Thinking of a sweet romance
Beginning in a line

Of course, they'd have to update the song regularly, since the line "Some day my name and hers are going to be the same" doesn't play as well as it used to.

Not Enough Space

I recently noted how Arthur C. Clarke wrote the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'd previously thought it was a novelization, and avoided it. Actually, Clarke and Stanley Kubrick were working on their film, and Kubrick suggested Clarke write the novel so they could base what they were doing on it.

Kubrick had a lot of input, causing Clarke to tear out his hair, since Kubrick kept turning down the latest version. It was finally published just before the movie came out. Money-wise, it was the smartest thing Clarke ever did, since the book has been selling ever since, and his association with the movie has ensured his reputation.

So I've just read the book. It was written in the mid-60s, and Clarke was not only telling a story (one where things are clear, as opposed to the movie), but trying his best to extrapolate what the actual 2001 would be like. Sometimes he's surprisingly accurate, but in the biggest thing--space travel--he's way off. Sf writers just didn't understand how bulky and expensive it would be. And since there's nothing out there worth getting (within reach), we've had only limited space flight since the moon landing.

But you go in knowing that. More interesting is the occasional bit that's wrong in ways Clarke probably never would have guessed. In particular, this paragraph, fairly early on, caught my eye. It's a passage about a problem the world had been having since the 1970s:

Though birth control was cheap, reliable, and endorsed by all the main religions, it had come too late; the population of the world was now six billion--a third of them in the Chinese Empire. Laws had even been passed in some authoritarian societies limiting families to two children, but their enforcement had proved impracticable. As a result, food was short in every country; even the United States had meatless days, and widespread famine was predicted within fifteen years, despite heroic efforts to farm the sea and to develop synthetic foods.

Back in the real word, I'm not sure if all main religions endorse birth control, and we don't have two billion in China (or any empire of theirs, unless you want to throw in India). Furthermore, it looks like China had some success limiting their number of children--it may be hard to stop something like drug use, but kids are easy to keep track of.

But the heart of the paragraph is the threat of overpopulation. Clarke probably didn't think his speculation was particularly brave. In the 60s, the world's population hit 3 billion, and there was plenty of starvation. To be fair, Clarke gets the numbers right--the population did rise to 6 billion by 2000 (and is not that far from 7 billion today). What he didn't figure was humans would come up with better ways to grow food, so that people would be better fed than ever. The world's human population has always been hitting up against the starvation ceiling--we would have had 6 billion people thousands of years ago otherwise. But plenty of the smart set in the 60s were predicting widespread starvation, even in the West. The trend seemed obvious, but, for the last 40 years anyway, hasn't happened.

Monday, January 25, 2010

NBC Has New Options For 10 PM

When I figure out how to embed videos I'l put them in but for now you'll have to click the link to see exciting new programming choices .

I Apologize, Nate

I usually quote others and then comment. But some pundits are so amazing, I feel it's enough to just post a few paragraphs so we can sit back and marvel. Such as Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker:

Obama came into office with a slightly better-than-average electoral mandate, but he was immediately faced with difficulties of a size and type that his post-mid-century Democratic predecessors were not: a gigantic economic emergency whose full effects weren’t felt until halfway into his first year; two botched wars in chaotic Muslim countries; an essentially nihilistic opposition party dominated by a pro-torture, anti-intellectual, anti-public-spirited, xenophobic “conservative” movement; and a rightist propaganda apparatus owned by nominally respectable media corporations and financed by nominally respectable advertisers. Excuses? Maybe. Good ones, though. Sometimes excuses actually excuse.

Meanwhile, President Obama forestalled a second Great Depression, turned the attention of the executive branch toward real problems, restored lawfulness and decency to foreign and domestic policy, damped down the flames of global anti-Americanism, and staffed the agencies and departments with competent, public-spirited officials who believe in the duty of government to advance the general welfare. In this generation, Obama is as good as it is likely to get. I’m not sure whether that’s good news or bad, and I’m not saying that liberals shouldn’t keep the pressure on him to do better. I am saying that their—our—anger and exasperation should be directed elsewhere, at systemic grotesqueries like the filibuster and at the nihilists those grotesqueries enable.

Can't Forget The Motor City

I grew up in Detroit (the tri-county area, anyway). It's hard to believe I've been in LA longer. Sometimes I miss Detroit. But sometimes I feel like this:

Only A Matter Of Time

Jesse Walker was gonna have to deal with 1939--Hollywood "greatest" year--eventually, and the time has come. His top ten is up.

Sure, it was the year of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz, but 1939 isn't that much better (or any better) than a lot of years from that era. The way I see it, most of my favorite actors or directors then seemed to have done better work just a few years before or after. Jesse seems to agree.

I also agree with him that GWTW has its moments but is too long and not the classic so many claim it is. (What it was was by far the biggest hit of the era--maybe ever). Jesse also doesn't think that much of other 1939 "classics" such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Dark Victory, and also claims Gunga Din, Love Affair and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are overpraised. I can't say I disagree. Chips and DV aren't great, though they have their moments. Gunga Din is pretty good, but has its clunky patches and some serious flaws (not to mention, like GWTW, racial problems). Love Affair has a solid first half but bogs down. Mr. Smith might make my top ten list, but I wouldn't say it's Capra's best. Or second best. Or third. But it's up there.

So what did make the lst?

1. The Wizard of Oz

I can't complain. Maybe not number 1, but it should be on the list. It certainly has an amazing score, cool sets, Judy Garland, a scary witch and some highly entertaining supporting vaudeville turns. Though the ending, where it's all a dream, is silly (if unavoidable); and really, do you buy for a second Glinda's claim that Dorothy could have gone home right from the start but Dorothy wouldn't have believed her?

(By the way, the movie cost so much I don't think it earned its money back for years. Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films, like the Andy Hardy series or musicals like Babes In Arms cost a quarter as much as grossed the same, maybe more. The Harvard Lampoon named The Wizard Of Oz the most colossal flop of the year.)

2. The Rules of the Game

Certainly this should be up there, too. Overpraised a bit, but only because I don't think it's one of the ten greatest film of all (or even Renoir's greatest).

3. Destry Rides Again

This film is as unlikely as Wizard Of Oz--a lot of odd people came together to make a Western that's a fine comedy and a comedy that's a fine Western.

4. Ninotchka

It's films like this that convince me that 1939 doesn't stand out. Here's Lubitsch making a classic (if a bit long) but it's not nearly as good as The Shop Around The Corner or To Be Or Not To Be.

5. Stagecoach

Stagecoach might be exhibit A of overpraised films from 1939. I find it overwritten and overdone. A few decent performances. (Including Thomas Mitchell. Mitchell had arguably the greatest year ever, doing good work here (winning an Oscar), plus in GWTW, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Only Angels Have Wings and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame.)

6. Midnight

One of the best comedies of the year. If it's not one of the greatest of the era, it's because the first and third act don't quite match the delightful middle. (I have no idea if it has anything to do with Mitchell Leisen's meddling, though it was Leisen more than anyone who made both Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges insist on directing their own scripts.)

7. Only Angels Have Wings

This might be my number 1 pick. It's only very slight flaw is that Jean Arthur, perhaps out of sorts when not working in Capraland, isn't the best example of a "Hawksian" woman.

8. It's a Wonderful World

A minor but enjoyable comedy, though I'd expect more from Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert in 1939. (By 1939 many felt the run of screwball was ending. Look at In Name Only, where we finally get Cary Grant and Carole Lombard together at the height of their powers and they make a melodrama!)

As Jesse notes, many aren't aware of the title. I suppose half the time it's scheduled on TV people expect they're about to see It's A Wonderful Life.

9. Daybreak

No Renoir, but still good.

10. Young Mr. Lincoln

Another overpraised film from John Ford, though I like it better than Stagecoach. Guess I should be grateful Jesse didn't include Drums Along The Mohawk as well.

Some honorable mentions: You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (hardly Fields' best, but not bad) and Son of Frankenstein (Frankenstein was getting a bit tired at this point).

Jesse would like to see Wuthering Heights. That's another title I'd put on the overpraised list.

I'm a little surprised he hasn't included any Warner Brothers or Disney cartoons, since he often picks shorts.

As an avid watcher of TCM, I must have seen a hundred Hollywood films from this era, and most are forgettable, but there are still a high number that are enjoyable (as it true of any year around then).

Here are some films from 1939 that run the gamut from highly entertaining to at least having some facet that makes them worth checking out:

Another Thin Man. Babes in Arms, Bachelor Mother, Beau Geste, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever, At the Circus, Each Dawn I Die, The Four Feathers, Hollywood Cavalcade, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Juarez, Idiot's Delight, Intermezzo, Jamaica Inn, The Flying Deuces, Jesse James , The Oklahoma Kid, Of Mice and Men, The Old Maid, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Roaring Twenties, Stanley and Livingstone, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, The Three Musketeers, The Women and Union Pacific.

Stopping The Trains From Running On Time

I recently saw a claim that Wesley Mouch is the chief villain of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Well, maybe. There are an awful lot of characters in the novel, and no single one stands out as the top bad guy to me. Rand spreads her disgust pretty widely. I'd say James Taggart gets more space than any of the other antagonists.

What's notable about the novel today, indeed, is when these looters and moochers get together. Rand tries to make them sound awful, and yet they sometimes sound surprisingly close to today's political dialogue.

Still, I think it's a weakness that the novel lacks an obvious top villain. (Compare to The Fountainhead.) I guess Rand is trying to say the whole suffocating system is the villain. Perhaps with so many heroes--Dagny, Galt, Ragnar, Francisco and Rearden all get a lot of play--Rand figured she could have a bunch of bad guys, too.

PS I'm reminded of the Python sketch where a guy being arrested blames society. "We're bringing them in, too."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Not So Quick, Silver

FiveThirtyEight calls itself "politics done right." When it sticks to analyzing polls, it does a good job. But when host Nate Silver starts editorializing, we get the same braindead stuff available at any other partisan site.

For instance, his take on David Brooks analogizing the Iraq War and health care--that if we'd had a year-long debate on Iraq, and the public was strongly against the invasion and the Republicans lost some big elections because of it, you'd at least advise Bush to think a second time.

It's easy enough to take apart these analogies, as different political issues rarely line up the same way. But Nate's beef? That the analogy doesn't work because in Iraq, Republicans told outrageous lies while Democrats told the truth. But for health care, Republicans told outrageous lies while Democrats told the truth.

Nate, we know you're a proud liberal. But that doesn't meant everyone who disagrees with you is lying.

To Tell The Truth

San Francisco's loudmouth mayor Gavin Newsom is criticizing President Obama's stance on gay rights.

...I am very upset by what he’s not done in terms of rights of gays and lesbians. I understand it tactically in a campaign, but at this point I don’t know. There is some belief that he actually doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage.

Where would you get that idea? Maybe because Obama has stated it over and over?

I realize he's a politician, but perhaps he actually believes what he says.

Interestingly, you prefer to think he's been lying his head off. And maybe he has. Let's face it, he can take SSM supporters for granted.

PS Some claim McCain would have been better. Seems questionable.

Suggested Reading

I've already linked to it, but let me do it again. Here's Citizens United v. Federal Election Comissions, the Supreme Court case that struck down much of our campaign finance laws. As you already know, I agree with the result.

The main opinion by Kennedy does a fine job explaining the reasoning, but the other opinions are well worth reading.

There's the dissent by Stevens, of course. Long-winded, and angry, but certainly a detailed argument for the opposition. It seems to have been the impetus for two of the concurrences. First there's Roberts' somewhat piqued response to the dissent's claim that the majority doesn't respect judicial restraint and stare decisis. Then there's Scalia's questioning of Stevens' historical understanding of corporations, the First Amendment and the Founding Fathers.

Finally, we have Thomas's concurrence, in which he claims the majority didn't go far enough. He doesn't believe in disclosure requirements, since it can make targets for retaliation, and there's a long history of anonymous speech in our nation.

We Will Have These Moments

Only a couple weeks till Lost. To hold us over, here's some favorite moments from the cast (as reported in Entertainment Weekly--don't hit the link unless you want to see some other spoilers). They're thinking more as actors, not viewers:

Emilie de Ravin (Claire): “My favorite moments are when we’re all together, the original cast, hanging out like the old days. It’s nice getting back to that now [with the scenes the actors are shooting].”

Daniel Dae Kim (Jin): “The finale of the first season, the launching of the raft.”

Josh Holloway (Sawyer): “I like group scenes. They take two, three days to film. But if you position yourself just right while they’re shooting, you can cut up and have fun. I’ve become quite good at positioning myself to have that kind of fun.”

Evangeline Lilly (Kate): “Sangria Thursdays. It’s become a Season 6 tradition.” Her fave episode: “Do No Harm,” in which Claire gave birth and Boone died. “That episode that sort of culminated everything the show represented. I remember thinking ‘This is something I am proud to be part of.’”

Terry O’Quinn (Locke): “Sitting under the banyan trees, listening to Naveen [Andrews, aka Sayid] as he plays guitar and everyone sings.”

Michael Emerson (Ben): “I have many fond memories of breathless confrontations in small rooms. Jacob’s hatch, Widmore’s bedroom.” He said his defining moment was Season 3, when Ben took Sawyer up to the ridge and revealed they were on Hydra Island “Standing on the cliff, trading quotes from Steinbeck, and I had a rabbit in backpack. It was so absurd and majestic.”

Jorge Garcia (Hurley): The moment that came to mind was “the comet hitting Mr. Cluck’s and I’m laying there and they’re throwing raw chicken parts at me.”

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Right Era, Wrong Villain

I was watching a documentary on the making of the original Planet Of The Apes. It went into the background of screenwriter Michael Wilson, who'd been blacklisted in the 50s.

Maybe I wasn't listening closely enough, but I thought I heard them say Senator McCarthy was behind the HUAC hearings where Wilson got into trouble. This can't be right, can it? I mean, McCarthy was a Senator, and HUAC, obviously, was in the House.

Doesn't Need Subtitles

A friend sent me this video from Taiwan. Now it's all over. It's by far the best explanation I've seen of the Late Night wars:

By the way, there's a version with English narration, but it adds nothing.

OBLiterate The Opposition

Since Tuesday the Dems have been fretting about how they'll do in the 2010 elections. It's too early, really, but I've got a fool-proof solution if they can't stop worrying: have the President capture Osama Bin Laden some time around October (or earlier, and don't tell anyone till October).

Of course, Obama might prefer to save that hole card for 2012.

This Is The End

Here's a short essay by Seth Stevenson on why the American version of Life On Mars sucks. Never saw the British version, so can't compare it. Actually, I only saw the final episode of the flop American series, the one with the big twist. Here's what Stevenson has to say. (No spoilers, unless you check the link):

This is, without doubt, the stupidest thing I have ever seen happen on a scripted TV show. It insults the intelligence of everyone, living and dead, who has ever followed the logical narrative arc of a television series.[...] Just recalling this has compelled me to raise my hands from my laptop keyboard so I can use them to firmly slap my own forehead.

Really? I didn't think it was that bad. Even kind of liked it. Of course, I had nothing invested in the show or its characters. But certainly it can't touch the ending of St. Elsewhere.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Here's a great promotional shot making the rounds, "The Lost Supper."

Of course, merely looking at the actors in it will give you information about the final season you may prefer not to know.


We always welcome sister blogs at Pajama Guy, blogs that share our template. Here's one with a title that you'd think would have them avoid looking like us: A Traditional Life Lived.

O Frabjous Day! Callooh! Callay!

It's time to celebrate. The First Amendment has been let loose. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, has wiped away many of the limits on freedom of speech that existed under the rubric of "campaign finance reform." I'm only troubled by the closeness of the decision. If Obama gets to replace just one of those Justices in the majority, we'll probably once again have to kiss this freedom goodbye.

I've always been bothered by the opposition of so many "liberal" judges on this issue. I sort of understand why so many on the left support these limits to freedom of speech (and even try to deny this is about freedom of speech). Many believe it'll hurt them politically because they think the money is more likely to support the right, and some just believe it's good to have more government control in general. There may be other reasons for their opposition, but these are the factors that explain why it's become a partisan issue. Look at Obama pledging to accept public financing, then tossing that aside when he realized he could get more money other ways. Of course it works in the other direction--if Republicans believed all that money would be flowing to speech on behalf of Democrats, they'd support limits.

But judges should be better than that, and more objective. Left or right, this is a pretty clear limiting of the power to express political opinions during elections--what could be more central to the mission of the First Amendment?

Already there are hundreds of denunciations. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but even the author of the allegedly neutral New York Times article I linked seems to barely hold in his bitterness.

All I can say to those who are angry or fearful is trust me, it's not so bad. Letting everyone speak is a good thing. It's sure better than letting the government decide who can speak, and how much. You think corporations will overwhelm the debate? Let 'em try. Even if they (and their shareholders) want to, it's not so easy. It might even create an issue to run on--my opponent is the favorite candidate of the fat cats and so on.

The New York Times is a corporation and it can speak as much as it wants. Why not let others?

Hi, Bob

I watched the pilot of The Bob Newhart Show. Don't think I'd ever seen it before. It's always fun to look back at first episodes and see how things changed, and what fell away.

The show was created by David Davis and Lorenzo Music. (The latter would provide the voice of Carlton the Doorman on Rhoda.) The situation and characters are mostly in place. Bob Hartley is a Chicago psychologist, married to Emily. At the office, the common secretary is Carol Kester and Bob's best friend is Jerry, an orthodontist. We even see one patient, Mr. Carlin, who'd we'd be seeing a lot more.

But someone's missing--next-door neighbor Howard Borden, who'd arguably become the most popular character on the show. Instead, Bob is the chairman of the condo, and goes to a party where he meets plenty of neighbors not named Howard. They'd disappear.

The show starts with Bob and Emily waking up in the same bed. That was unusual in 1972 television. (And in Hollywood movies up to the 60s, for that matter.)

The oddest thing is the plot. Bob and Emily have been married for three years. They hope to have a kid, and they consider adopting. An adoption agent (played by Louise Lasser) visit their home. The upshot is they're suitable parents, but no kids are available at present. The show ends with the implication they might still adopt, or perhaps have one of their own.

What's amazing is for the rest of the series there's not a hint that they're interested in children. In fact, behind the scenes, Newhart famously refused to bring kids into the show. The producers wrote an episode where Emily has a baby and Newhart told them "great script, now who are you gonna get to pay Bob?"

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Speak Directly Into The Microphone

In my 2009 film round-up, I noted some movies had similar, easy-to-confuse titles, like A Serious Man and A Single Man.

It just hit me that there are two directors with similar names who did notable films last year--James Cameron (Avatar) and Jane Campion (Bright Star). If they're both nominated, the Academy better make sure the person who hands out the award doesn't mumble.

PS More likely it'll be a James Cameron versus former spouse Kathryn Bigelow.

That's What's Up

I was in Michigan a while ago, watching SNL with a friend, when we saw the first "What Up With That?" sketch. It's since gone on to be a recurring bit.

Kenan Thompson plays the host of a BET talk show. My friend commented his intro song was surprisingly long. I told him this is SNL, so that's the joke. And it's the only joke. Once an SNL sketch starts and you notice something odd, they will do variations on it until the applause lights come on signifying the end.

Here's how it works: Kenan comes out, sings the lively theme song and then interrupts his show's interviews to do a reprise or two, each time with fancier production. The show is over before he can engage his guests.

This is the kind of sketch you either go with or don't. The idea is not original, and is based more on rhythm than content. This is the kind of sketch you either go with or don't. I guess I go for it, because I like the gusto, and the tunefulness.

Most comedy is based on surprise. But sketches like "What's Up With That?" are as much about familiarity.

The End Of The First Half Of The Last Century

The post-war 40s was a time of transition in film. Of course, in Europe, it was a new blossoming, most notably with neo-realism. In Hollywood, newer, tougher stars (often in film noir) were replacing the big names of the 30s, but the threat of TV was starting to knock on the door. I can usually spot the era a film is made within a few seconds, but Hollywood late-40s aren't quite yet the 50s, but haven't fully dropped what came before either. It's an odd, in-between time. (Not a great time, in my book, BTW.)

Anyway, my friend Jesse Walker is now naming his top ten films from 1949, and it's an interesting list.

He likes the big Oscar winner All The King's Men, though it doesn't make his list. I'm not so thrilled. This was an era where Hollywood would take on "serious" subjects, but was prevented (by the Production Code, among other things) from going deep enough.

Anyway, here's his top ten, and my comments:

1. Orpheus

Like the film a lot. Best of the year, I don't know, but it should be on the list.

2. The Third Man

One of the most overrated films of all. Clunkily written and directed. The stuff with Orson Welles is great. Too bad it's only a small fraction of the film.

3. Stray Dog

This is one of the few Kurosawa films I haven't seen. I like most of his stuff, and I expect I'd like this one.

4. White Heat

Almost all Cagney's best stuff is in the 1930s, so it's interesting to see what amounts to a comeback, and may be his best performance.

5. They Live By Night

Ray is interesting, but his films usually fall short for me. I don't recall loving this film, but I haven't seen it in years. Maybe I should give it another shot.

6. Little Rural Riding Hood

If you're gonna pick shorts, might as well be one of Tex Avery's best.

7. Kind Hearts and Coronets

This may be the most overrated of Ealing comedies, but it's still pretty good.

8. Les Enfants Terribles

I didn't realize this was the same year as Orpheus. Another fine film.

9. Passport to Pimlico

More Ealing. Also fine.

10. Thieves' Highway

Not one of Dassin's better known titles. I generally like his stuff and I want to catch this some day.

Jesse's honorable mentions:

11. The Set-Up (Robert Wise)
12. Bad Luck Blackie (Tex Avery)
13. Long-Haired Hare (Chuck Jones)
14. I Was a Male War Bride (Howard Hawks)
15. Blood of the Beasts (Georges Franju)
16. Señor Droopy (Tex Avery)
17. Twelve O'Clock High (Henry King)
18. Flamingo Road (Michael Curtiz)
19. The Heiress (William Wyler)
20. Begone Dull Care (Norman McLaren, Evelyn Lambart)

The Set-Up is one of the best boxing movies ever made.

The Avery and Chuck Jones stuff I love, but once you start listing their shorts I don't know where you stop.

Howard Hawks is one of my favorite directors, Cary Grant one of my favorite stars, and War Bride was a huge hit in its day, but it's mostly a dud. (Hawks three films with Grant before America entered the war are all classics--his two comedies after the war suggest Hawks had lost a step.)

Numbers 17, 18 and 19 and basic classy Hollywood productions, which have their various moments, but none of which do much for me.

Sorry, haven't seen 15 or 20.

Here are some movies from 1949 that might have made my top ten:

The Big Steal, Jour de fête (the first of Tati's great four), Whisky Galore! (if you got the other Ealings, why not this one?)

Here are some I liked, at least in part. (I'm sure I'm forgetting a bunch of films noir and foreign stuff):

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff, The Barkleys of Broadway (a far cry from A&R's RKO stuff, but still fun), I Shot Jesse James, Gun Crazy (maybe even top ten), Champion, In the Good Old Summertime (mostly pretty weak, actually, and based on one of the best films ever made), The Inspector General, It's a Great Feeling, A Letter to Three Wives (Mankiewicz was highly over-honored in his day, but there's still some fun here), Intruder in the Dust, Jigsaw, Mighty Joe Young, My Friend Irma (for introducing Martin and Lewis), On the Town (highly overrated, but worthwhile), Neptune's Daughter, The Stratton Story, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Sorrowful Jones, Jolson Sings Again, It Happens Every Spring, The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (actually, by far the the worst thing Preston Sturges ever did), The Fighting Kentuckian (just to see Oliver Hardy alone), The Fountainhead (terrible, but fascinating)

Here are films that at least some people found notable at the time:

Adam's Rib, Criss Cross, Edward, My Son, Home of the Brave, Pinky, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Secret Garden, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

PS It's a few days later and I just watched Thieves' Highway. Not bad. But I think I like The Big Steal better.

Packer Fudges

Predictably bad analysis from George Packer on Obama's first year. Maybe "analysis" is the wrong word--more like self-deception.

Reading Packer, you'd get the impression Obama and his people are above ideology, when they're pretty clearly ideological--more so, I'd say, than our last three presidents

Worse, Packer claims Obama's real problem is he's too fair, too intelligent, too nice. He treated the Republicans too well, and they were never going to play ball with him. I don't think he reached out that much, but whether he did or not, who cares? (Reaching out, by the way, is not asking others to agree with you, or even seriously considering their side--it's making actual compromises that aren't forced upon you.) Obama had a lead in Congress the size of which no President has enjoyed for a couple generations. He didn't need any help from Republicans. If he couldn't get what he wanted, don't blame them.

Packer sums up:

But the fundamental reason why the soaring emotions of the inauguration have soured just a year later goes beyond anything that Obama can do. The country is in deep trouble, not just with ten percent unemployment (though that accounts for a lot of unhappiness), but with chronic, long-term social and economic problems. Whatever responsibility George W. Bush and his Republican Party might bear is almost forgotten; in the age of the iPhone and cable news, that was half a century ago.

So we shouldn't blame Obama for "chronic, long-terms" problems. But I guess it's okay to blame Bush. In the age of George Packer pieces in The New Yorker, Bush assumed office half a century ago.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Behaviorism and Elections

I've been reading a lot about animal training since we got a new puppy. He's incredibly smart, energetic, and food-motivated. Thus, when untrained he was destroying the house. Indeed, I tried to get a discount on the lost- book fee at the public library for "irony" when he ate a dog training book. (They didn't go for it.)

Anyway, one of the key messages from animal behavior research is that the first couple of times a dog tries something are key, because if he's strongly rewarded for the behavior it will be a process of months or years to get rid of the behavior. All the literature says that the same rules apply to humans, albeit more subtly.

I would submit that what just happened was millions of conservatives being strongly reinforced against any sort of bipartisan cooperation on health care, if not more broadly. Not one House Republican voted for the current bill, not because they opposed the final product, but because they made a strategic decision not to even start a dialogue in the beginning. It was a strategy designed to break this administration out of the gate, and it has proven quite effective. The flat "no" to negotiating was just strongly reinforced, and thus will remain in place as a strategy, is my prediction. Whether that's good or bad remains to be seen. Getting back to my analogy, the British Army's canine corps has an expression: "you get the dog you deserve." Methinks the same applies to governments.

Mr. Brown, You've Got A Lovely Daughter.

It'd be easy to write quite a bit on Scott Brown's shocking victory last night, taking the Henry Cabot Lodge seat in Massachusetts. (As I write this, many precincts in Boston have yet to come in. Why is it in so many elections, the big cities come in last--you'd think they'd come in first.) No doubt the internet will be filled with a library's worth of analysis, so maybe I should sit back and let things play out. Just a few observations, then:

First, enjoy it while you can, Senator Brown. It's all downhill from here.

I admit I was caught as flatfooted as Martha Coakley. A week ago I still didn't think Brown had a chance. It just seemed in the DNA of Massachusetts to vote Democrat. I mean this is the one state that went for McGovern.

Many are blaming Coakley for blowing it. Perhaps with a better campaign she could have won. But the point is it shouldn't have been close, and that's not her fault. She's been a popular, successful candidate in the past, and if her party weren't in trouble, she'd have won by 20 points.

Coakley tried to tie Brown to Bush and Cheney. If that won't play in Mass., maybe it's time for the Dems to retire the strategy.

It's one year exactly since President Obama took office. I wonder if he thought things would be like this. I also wonder if candidates will be so thrilled to have him campaign for them now.

There's still a long way to November, but until the polls change, it would seem that any Dem who's not ahead by more than 10 points should start sweating.

For the first time, I have serious doubts that a health care bill will pass. Over the last few days, Obama and Pelosi have been talking tough, but what else could they do? The State Of The Union is scheduled for next week, and I'm sure their plan was to ram it through in time so the President could announce this great accomplishment, then start talking about something/anything else. Brown, of course, takes away the Dems' filibuster-proof majority, but there are plenty of strategies at this point that don't require 60 votes in the Senate. But that doesn't matter if the Dems, as a party, are freaked out. As they should be.

I saw progressives on TV saying the clear lesson here is the Dems need to be more liberal. They never learn.

But here's the real question. Will this election revive Ayla's recording career?

PS It's times like this that I think of my old, very conservative friend John. He would have loved this. I remember he came to visit me after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 and it was all he could talk about for days.

The Academy Says "I'm Easy"

"The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart will win the Best Song Oscar. Why? Because the movie plays it up big. It's written by the main character, whom everyone keeps saying (in the movie) is a great songwriter. It symbolizes all his travails (in the movie). There's a whole scene in the movie about what a great song it is, and it's performed in the final sequence to remind us how great it is.

The song itself? It's okay. Sort of a generic country lament. But the entire experience of the movie backs up the song. So voters will figure it means more than it is.

Tis The Season

When I attended the University of Michigan, there were a lot of pizzerias. One place, headquarted in town, sold better than the others. Not because it was the best, but because it had good deals and promised delivery in 30 minutes or less.

Domino's became a pizza behemoth. But as it spread, it seemed more and more people felt the need to insult it. I never thought it was that bad, but okay, there's better pizza out there.

I guess they've done market research, and discovered the public associates their crust with cardboard and their sauce with ketchup. So they've put out some pretty amazing commercials where they admit they stink. But, they explain, they've overhauled the recipe. It'll have "bolder, richer sauce, a more robust cheese combination and herb- and garlic-flavored crust."

Haven't tried it yet. Don't really eat Domino's much. But it doesn't sound better. Quality cheese I like--doesn't have to be that robust. Worse, just simple, well-done crust really makes a pizza, but overseasoned crust will make it worse.

I suppose I'll give it a shot, but if you season up a storm to make the taste better, it's almost always a mistake.

Spider-Man (4)

As had been rumored, Mark Webb, who directed (500) Days Of Summer, has been chosen to helm the Spider-Man reboot.

I don't have much to add except this is a YouTube parody waiting to happen.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

No Comment

This line has been making the rounds. It's from Chris Van Hollen, chairmen of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, on why Scott Brown shouldn't take over Ted Kennedy's Senate seat.

Why would you hand the keys to the car back to the same guys whose policies drove the economy into the ditch and then walked away from the scene of the accident?


I've had a bad cough for the past week. It's just about gone, but by chance I found an old Luden's Cough Drop commercial that--to my surprise--was scored by Frank Zappa.

Anyone familiar with his work at the time might recognize his style.

Fallows Falls Low

James Fallows has a piece in The Atlantic with a general thesis that's quite reasonable, but is, alas, full of foolish detail.

His theory is that people are talking about America falling apart, but then, they're always talking about that, so it's hard to be too concerned. So far, so good. I thought perhaps he'd be able to rise above his own politics, but it turns out we don't have to worry so long as we follow the same sort of prescriptions James Fallows is always pushing.

Spoiler: His solution is mostly massive investment in larger government.

Looking at the failure of California, where we have a bigger state government than most, pay our public employees more than average, and have one of the highest tax burdens, he explains we're falling apart because the citizens aren't taxed enough. (He also doesn't like that we can vote directly for our own laws--apparently government officials, who generally support most referenda that call for more spending, would be able to run things much better if we'd just shut up.)

But at least that's a consistent argument. Sometimes he doesn't even bother to check basic facts. Look at this paragraph:

Garry Wills listed his concerns about the militarization of American public life (the subject of his recent book, Bomb Power ) and the vitriol of today’s political/cultural divisions. But he added: “When people say how bad things are, I always emphasize that we have never in our history been so good on human rights. The rights of women, gays, the disabled, Native Americans, Hispanics—all of those have soared in the last 40 years.” Even the “birther” and “tea bag” movements are indirect evidence of progress, Wills said. “They are reactions to a really great achievement. We did elect a black president. Not many people thought that was possible, even two or three years ago.” Of course Wills’s list of achievements is, for some, evidence of what has been “taken” from them in recent history. The point for now is that their concern is part of a strong national tradition, as is the fluidity that gave rise to it. If we weren’t worried about our future, then we should really start to worry.

This is the article writ small. Fallows start out quoting Wills approvingly, noting that things aren't that bad, and are, in fact, considerably better than they used to be on some levels. Absolutely right. But then he (through Wills) sees clouds on the horizon, such as the "tea bag" movement. Just calling them tea baggers is repulsive enough, but, apparently, both Wills and Fallows are so blinkered that they believe a widespread popular movement that openly describes its purpose as opposition to wasteful spending and larger government must be a reaction to the election of a black President. This isn't just wrong, it's despicable. (I guess we shouldn't expect any better from people who think so little of America that just a few years back they didn't believe we could vote in a black President.)

Presto, Preston

I was in the library looking at some books on Preston Sturges and it occurred to me he's a biographer's nightmare.

He lived quite a life, first as a son of a free-spirited mother who flitted about Europe with Isadora Duncan; then as a socialite himself, as well as an inventor; then as a Broadway playwright; then as a touted screenwriter; then as a major director; then as a Hollywood has-been licking his wounds in Europe. And all along he did many other things, such as manage his restaurant.

But to most people, he's Preston Sturges, classic writer-director of the 40s. About 99% of his fame rests on a handful of movies he made then, most of which, in fact, he created during an intensely busy five-year period at Paramount.

So how much space should a biographer give to this half-decade? If you concentrate on it, you cheat the man out of most of his life. But if you only devote, say, 20% of your pages to these years, you run the risk of readers ignoring 80% of your book.

In Diane Jacob's 525-page book, Sturges doesn't start directing his first film, The Great McGinty, until page 200, and he leaves Paramount by 320. In Donald Spoto's 301 pages, Sturges starts directing McGinty at page 151, and is gone from Paramount at 195. James Curtis's bio is 339 pages, and McGinty shows up on 126 and Paramount is in the rear-view mirror by 194. I guess a biographer is obligated to tell the whole story, but how many readers ignored all those other pages?

Sturges died suddenly in 1959, and never finished his memoir, The Events Leading Up To My Death. Maybe, as a great storyteller, he couldn't crack the structural problem.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Buy Or Bye

Not too long ago, Daily Variety blocked its internet access. I used to visit it, well, daily. Now I go to the Hollywood Reporter.

It looks like The New York Times, which has been free for years, will start charging for access. I can't exactly blame them. They're going through tough times and maybe they figure they can't give it away any more.

But what it means for me personally is I'll learn to get along without it. I presume they figure it's worth dropping the numbers of eyes tremendously if those left pay directly. I'll guess we'll find out it if their math is any good.

Book 'Em

There are plenty of fine sf movies, but few of them are adaptations of good sf. Here's a list from the SciFi Squad of their top ten adaptations, with my comments.

1. Slaughterhouse-Five

A pretty good adaptation (is this list about how good the movie is, or how faithful the adaptation?), but the movie still doesn't do much for me, even though I love the novel. I recall a TV adaptation of various Vonnegut stuff, called Between Time And Timbuktu, which I thought was better at capturing his spirit, though I haven't seen it in a long time and don't know how it would hold up.

2. The Thing (1982)

I prefer the 1950s movie, though I guess this version is more faithful.

3. Blade Runner

Don't like the book or the movie.

4. A Scanner Darkly

Don't like the book or the movie.

5. A Boy And His Dog

Never read it. Like the movie, though haven't seen it in a long time.

6. Starship Troopers

This is interesting. I'm a fan of the book. The film adaptation practically turns it on its head, but I like it, too.

7. The Andromeda Strain

Decent film which captures the book quite well.

8. Fahrenheit 451

Recently reread the book and wasn't that impressed. The movie, though, is a disaster. Truffaut was completely unsuited for the project.

9. Soylent Green

Haven't read the book. I consider the movie to be camp.

10. Dune

One of those sf classics I've never liked. There's also a lot not to like about David Lynch's version, but there's still quite a bit that's fascinating, especially the design.

Attaboy, Avatar

I underestimated Avatar. While I had problems with it, I recognized it was a crowdpleaser But no way was I (or, to be fair to myself, almost anyone else) predicting it would be the biggest hit of all. With the latest weekend in, that looks more than possible.

The current champ, as you probably know, is Cameron's last film, Titanic. (The following numbers are not adjusted for inflation.) It made $600 million domestic and over $1.8 billion worldwide. That was in 1997, and since then no one's come close. Only one other film has even passed the $500 million domestic mark, and that's The Dark Knight with $533 million. Worldwide, it's less of a contest. Outside Cameron films, only three have hit the magic billion mark--Dark Knight, the second Pirates Of The Caribbean and the third Lord Of The Rings, and all of them are more than $700 million short of Titanic.

At present Avatar has made over $490 million domestic and looks like it's got another $100 million or so of play in it. Worldwide, it's already hit $1.6 billion, so will likely pass the tape there before it sets the domestic record.

Avatar, in some ways, is playing like Titanic. It opened very well, but didn't break any records. The point is it kept playing well. This is how the biggest hits are made. Sequels open huge and quickly drop. Big new action films tend to do the same. But game changers and record breakers are in it for the long haul.

PS I generally don't discuss the Golden Globes because they're a joke, but what I caught of them last night was repulsive. Before each commercial break, the announcer would ask if Avatar was going to win any of the big awards coming up. Such naked promotion during the telecast of one film just because it's a big hit is an insult. Guess that's what I get for watching the show.

Being Frank

Even before the results are in, Barney Frank is furiously spinning the Coakley-Brown race. Coakley was supposed to win in a walk, so close polls need to be explained. Frank's argument is that the election became "a personality contest bereft of the issues.”

A few days ago, I noted this election shouldn't be seen as a referendum on national health care reform since 1) that's not the only issue involved and 2) this is the wrong state for a referendum on anything. But to pretend that Brown is doing well despite the issues is to hide your head in the sand.

Sure, he's run a good campaign and is a personally attractive candidate, while Coakley has stumbled, but if there wasn't a wisespread opposition to many of the Dems big plans, this would normally mean Coakley wins by 15 rather than 25 points. Obama's eleventh hour celebrity appearance in Massachusetts only highlights that they wish this wasn't so much about the issues.

But Frank's not done. There's a silver lining. Coakley, he says, has seen the error of her ways and is now concentrating on issues again. So, just remember, if she wins--issues. If she loses--personality.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Happy Days

Jesse Walker now ventures into 50s territory, naming the top ten films of 1959, when spectacle was big and small films were doing amazing things in Europe. Which will win out?

Let me spoil it for you. Small wins. Jesse doesn't have much use for one of the biggest hits and most honored films ever created in Hollywood, William Wyler's Ben-Hur. He calls it mostly tedious. I concur, though I suppose seeing it in an air-conditioned theatre on a huge screen when your TV only got black and white might have made it seem different.

Instead, his #1 film is the beginning of the French New Wave, The 400 Blows. Once again, I concur.

Next is North By Northwest, which I think may be Hitchcock's best. Then there's Some Like It Hot, which may be Billy Wilder's best, and my film of the year. (Note: Cary Grant and Tony Curtis starred together in Operation Petticoat, which was the biggest hit of 1959 after Ben-Hur.) Then there's Rio Bravo, which many--too many--are calling Howard Hawks' best (such as the recently deceased Robin Wood). It's good, but it's not his best. Still, it deserves its spot on the list.

I've never seen Warlock all the way through, so I can't comment.

Next is Bunuel's Nazarin, a fine film. Bunuel had an odd career. He made a few surrealist classics in the late 20s/early 30s, then (against his will) pretty much sat things out for about fifteen year. Then he did some work in the late 40s which got him attention. He worked regularly through the 50s, doing good work, but for the most part was stuck turning out melodramas in Mexico. Nazarin is an important film in that it represented a new flowering that saw his rise to prominence as a top international director in his last two decades.

Haven't seen Ride Lonesome. Jesse seems to be into Westerns.

The World of Apu is a world classic and, I agree, may just be the best of the Apu trilogy.

We finally disagree on Anatomy Of A Murder. Talking about panties may have been exciting in 1959, and there's the title sequence, location shooting and Duke Ellington, but overall it amounts to a pretty minor courtroom drama.

I've heard of Science Friction, which is one of them modern experimental films. Sounds like fun, but haven't seen it.

Here are his honorable mentions.

11. A Bucket of Blood (Roger Corman)
12. Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa)
13. Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise)
14. Cat's Cradle (Stan Brakhage)
15. A Midsummer Night's Dream (Jiří Trnka)
16. Shadows (John Cassavetes)
17. Wedlock House (Stan Brakhage)
18. Floating Weeds (Yasujiro Ozu)
19. Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Manckiewicz)
20. Plan 9 from Outer Space (Ed Wood)

Bucket Of Blood is a Corman classic, and Plan 9 transcends even Corman.

Odds Against Tomorrow is surprisingly well done, and also has some nice location shooting.

Shadows. Well, let's just say I like the idea of Cassavetes more than I like Cassavetes.

Suddenly, Last Summer (which by chance I watched again a few days ago) is of interest for sociological reasons, but is pretty dull.

I've seen collections of Stan Brakhage, but I don't recall seeing the two Jesse lists. I've long wanted to see Floating Weeds. Haven't seen #12 or #15 either.

I should add, considering Jesse picks shorts, I'm surprised not to see Donald In Mathmagic Land.

A couple 1959 films Jesse doesn't mention that might have made my top ten are I'm All Right Jack (which may not be top-notch but features an astounding performance from Peter Sellers) and Pickpocket.

I also liked, or at least found something worth praising, in:

The Crimson Kimono, The Gene Krupa Story, It Happened to Jane, Jazz on a Summer's Day, Li'l Abner (not a great film, but essentially the Broadway musical filmed), Gidget, The Mating Game, Pillow Talk (okay, it's no longer the 1930s, and this is what romantic comedy has become), Sampo (not the film, but the MST3K take), Sleeping Beauty, -30- (I love to see anything where Jack Webb isn't a cop) and Peter Sellers being great once again in The Mouse That Roared.

This was also an era where there were a lot of fun exploitation films (such as Corman's above). And also a year where we got to see hip people in movies like The Beat Generation and Expresso Bongo.

There are also many movies Jesse doesn't mention that were highly regarded, at least by some, at the time: Black Orpheus, Compulsion, Les Cousins, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Fugitive Kind, Hiroshima Mon Amour (this one still makes greatest films of all time lists), Imitation of Life (an auteurist's delight), Libel, The Nun's Story, On the Beach, Our Man in Havana, Pork Chop Hill and Room at the Top.

Jon And John

Here's a pretty good interview Jon Stewart had with John Yoo about his "torture" memos. It's actually one of the best things TV's done on the issue. It shouldn't be that way, but there it is.

Stewart was fair and charming. Woo, on the other hand, did a fairly weak job. Maybe he came in too defensive. He doesn't get into the legality of his arguments as much as he might--was he afraid it would be too technical, or he just didn't think it would work?

It's easy to theorize about the issue, but it would be tough (even without pressure from your bosses) to write a memo about how we're allowed to treat top terrorists who are at war with us. Such people would likely have valuable information that could potentially save quite a few lives. We're going to interrogate him one way or another, so imagine what specific guidance you could give. You can't use general phrases like "no torture" or "treat them humanely" and leave it at that. You've got to say what can and can't be done. Unless you say "let him go," I guarantee you'll find some claiming you're being too hard.

PS I should add most on the right are clucking about how Yoo cleaned Stewart's clock. And the left is bemoaning Stewart's lackluster performance. Apparently, by today's standard, "winning" in a face-to-face interview means gotcha moments. But it seems to me when a Stewart or a Bill Maher take cheap shots and win applause, it proves nothing (except maybe what a jerk Stewart or Maher are).

Some partisans seem to have a simplistic concept of how things go down. According to their view of the Yoo story, torture was banned, so the White House, through the Department Of Justice, told Yoo to write some legal opinions justifying it anyway. It was never that simple, and it never is. (I'm not denying the DOJ lawyers regularly write memos supporting the White House stance--that's their bread and butter.) You can oppose Yoo, and think he was wrong, without believing this caricature. But if this is how you do think, I suppose you will be disappointed in the interview.

Stewart was open, if critical, and honestly let Yoo express himself. That Yoo didn't answer as well as I thought he might was a lot more damning than Stewart scoring a lot of cheap, easy points.

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