Saturday, April 30, 2011

Don't Just Stand There

A lot of people have been checking out "The Possibilian," a piece in The New Yorker about David Eagelman, whose research deals with the perception of time.

He discusses feelings I think we're all familiar with.  That during extreme moments, time seems to slow down.  It reminded me of when I was a kid.  My parents would go out on Saturdays, leaving me and my brother home alone. We'd do stuff like play hockey.  Sometimes, you'd knock over a lamp--it really did seem to take longer to hit the ground than gravity would suggest.

Which reminds me, I trained myself (as much as a I could) not to stand by, dumbfounded, when these events occurred, but to try to stop it.  I think I saved a few lamps that way.

Canned Rand

Pretty silly piece by Johann Hari on Ayn Rand.  First he explains why her damaged life led to her sick books.  Then he misrepresents the books and their message.  Then he goes on a rant about American politics, saying a lot of what's wrong is due to people believing too much in Randian ideas.

I have no trouble with criticism of Rand.  She was pretty nutty.  She was impossible to be around (or so I've heard).  She was a leaden writer espousing outrageous ideas that, taken all the way, don't work.  I don't even think she fully understood capitalism.  But Hari, who claims to feel compassion for her (a great strategy when you're attacking someone--she's not even worth your contempt) doesn't really try to understand what she was saying or what her effect was.  Nor does he bother to defend his leftist view of America--he just assumes what he's saying is so obvious it's not worth arguing about.

Sorry I'm not giving specific details, but hey, it was just my birthday so I'm taking it easy.

PS  It's fun to find out about the personal lives of philosophers.  It helps you figure out how they got their ideas.  But it's doesn't really tell you much about the quality of the ideas.  (It's also very easy to make anyone's personal life look like a mess if you're so inclined.)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Don't Send Gifts, Just Money

Not much content today, I'm off to attend a wedding in Westminster Abbey.

Okay, I wasn't invited, but who needs them. It's my birthday!

Let me leave you with some music from my favorite royalty, the Duke of Ellington, also born on this date.







Late Kate or KP Duty

While thinking about my birthday, did I forget Kate Pierson's?  The oldest of The B-52s, she turned 63 two days ago.

Here's the whole band, looking very young, doing the song that made them.  Kate's the one in red.



From their second album:

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Only Constant

Ezra Klein claims Obama is a moderate Republican from the early 1990s. He's overstating the case, and ignoring some of Obama's more leftists beliefs and programs, but it's true, many concepts Democrats support today--cap-and-trade, individual mandate health care, higher taxes--were supported and even created by moderate Republicans a few decades ago.

Klein seems to be sayng modern Republicans oppose these policies today just because the Democrats support them.  This is bizarre. Parties regularly drift in their beliefs for a number of reasons, and though they may sometimes be foolish reasons, they're rarely that simple.
 
In fact, the Republican party has long had a battle between the moderate/liberal wing and the conservative wing.  Eisenhower and Nixon accepted big government and high tax rates.  It'd be very easy to paint Nixon as a wild-eyed liberal if you cherry pick his accomplishments.  At the same time, there was an insurgent movement within the GOP, not always easily held together, that opposed this sort of Republican.  They fought it out and with the rise of Reagan, and later the Republicans taking over Congress, the conservative side has been in the ascendant.

Democrats have not stayed the same, either, changing their focus on various issues. Today, for example, they rail against deregulation, blaming it for practically every economic problem, but it wasn't so long ago many Dems understood heavy regulation can hurt consumers.  Thus, Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy were strong supporters of airline deregulation.  The party also used to have more moderate/conservative Democrats.  Don't forget Reagan passed all his tax rate cuts with a Democrat Congress.

For that matter, if you want to find a president who believed in a muscular foreign policy to fight for American hegemony, and cutting taxes on the rich to improve the economy, JFK is your man. I look forward to Ezra Klein's next column explaining how George W. Bush got his policies from early 60s Democrats.

Enter At Your Own Risk

An American Family, shown on PBS in the 70s, was the first "reality series," taking us into the home of the Loud clan.  Millions watched as the oldest son came out and the parents separated.  I just caught Cinema Verite, the HBO movie about the making of An American Family.  It was okay, and Diane Lane as mom Pat Loud was especially good, but it didn't cut too deeply.  It faithfully reproduced what happened, but not much more.

Some years back PBS reran the original series.  I caught a bit, but not enough to get into it.  To this day, though, I don't understand why any family would agree to such miscroscopic examination.  I can understand why young adults want to get attention by being on the more artificial situation of The Real World, but allowing a film crew into your home, especially as your family is falling apart?  In today's YouTube world, we know there's plenty of exhibitionism out there, but there are still some things meant to be private.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

ExTreme Viewer

I thought the first season of Treme was a mess, full of annoying characters and not particularly dramatic situations.

I checked out the season two premiere to see if the show had resolved itself into anything.  Nope.  The situation (New Orleans after Katrina) continues to sag, and the characters are the same prickly, self-righteous whiners they were before.  Guess that's it.

PS  Looks like a lot of people agree.  Treme's debut was down from last year.

Written Yesterday

Charles Isherwood, in his New York Times review of the Broadway revival of Born Yesterday, feels the play is creaky.  It was a huge hit in the 40s, but it's true, comedies from that era often feel dated.  But at the end of the review (and I do mean the end of the review--it's over and Isherwood keeps going), he sees fit to lecture us on politics.

More than a half-century of Washington scandals later, Americans absorb disillusion with every morning sip of Starbucks coffee. [....] Now the idea that two spunky small fry could successfully fight against the influence of money in politics feels decidedly quaint.

[Character] Harry Brock, on the other hand, with his proud vulgarianism and insistence on his fundamental right to bend the law to his monetary will, feels unpleasantly timeless. [....]

“I don’t see what I’m doin’ so wrong,” Harry grouses when his methods are questioned. “This is America ain’t it? Where’s all this free enterprise they’re always talkin’ about?”

Add a few g’s here and there — or maybe don’t? — and that could be the windup to a speech given by any number of C.E.O.’s turned politicians, aimed at finding common ground with the common man. Today Harry wouldn’t be spending his millions to buy himself a senator. He’d be spending them on his own campaign to become one. And I wouldn’t bet against him.

1)  There were plenty of scandals back then, and, if anything, politics was dirtier. It was still the era of the smoke-filled back room, and the political machines that ran cities and states make today's corruption seem almost sweet. If the public felt differently about politics then, perhaps it was due more to how government was portrayed in the media and popular culture.  Or maybe the public just accepted the corruption more easily.  Or maybe with the growth in government, it's harder not to be cynical about it today.

2)  Two small fry have never had it easy fighting corruption, but, thanks to the internet and other technology, I'm guessing they do it a lot better now than they used to. When everyone's got a blog or a Twitter account or a Facebook page, it's a lot tougher to slip stuff past the public. I could name quite a few powerful people who have been brought down in the past decade because of something that began with a few small fry who didn't want to take it any more.

3)  Harry Brock's lines show us a crook who doesn't see what's wrong with getting what he wants from politicians he's given money to.  Yes, this is timeless, but these days (partly thanks to campaign finance laws), it's less about individual rich guys and more about groups that give money. And though Isherwood may not know it, most of the biggest donors among these are generally supported by The New York Times.

4)  Maybe I'm missing something, but I'm guessing if a rich guy is trying to appeal to the "common man," whining about free enterprise won't do it.

5) Isherwood's topper is nowadays, the rich guy wouldn't buy the politician, he'd be the politician. a)  Once again, this is partly due to campaign finance laws. b) There have always been a fair number of well-off people in politics--FDR comes to mind.  Guess that's okay because he wasn't a corrupt capitalist like Harry Brock, who had to fight his way to the top, but a child of privilege. c)  Most tycoons don't run for high office, but if they wish to serve the public that way, more power to them.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

One Last Time

Let us say goodbye to Poly Styrene, who left us before her time.



And also goodbye to Phoebe Snow.

One More Time

Happy birthday, Maurice Williams, lead singer with the Zodiacs.  Maurice had a long career in R&B, but only one hit on the Billboard charts.  Still, what a hit.  "Stay" went to #1 in 1960.  Maurice had written the song a few years before when he was a teenager.

It's ironic that a song about begging to stay is the shortest #1 ever, clocking in at 97 seconds. You'd think he could have made it just a little bit longer.

Too Many People Looking Back

Clip shows are a mainstay of sitcoms.  A chance to look back at high points and, even better, a chance to get full pay for less work.  They're also a chance for new viewers to learn a bit about the show while older viewers can wallow in nostalgia (or change the channel).

Just by chance, two of NBC's Thursday sitcom lineup did their take on a clip show last week, 30 Rock and Community.  Both shows are too hip to do it conventionally, but one worked while the other didn't.

30 Rock was broadcasting its 100th episode--actually, at an hour, its 100th and 101st--which is a prime time to do a clip show (and a chance for producers to celebrate because they now have enough in the can to run five days a week in syndication).  The arc lately has been Kabletown's bought NBC and TGS, the show within the show, will be canceled unless Tracy Jordan, its missing star, returns. This week was about getting him back, and while he had his adventures, every character on the show had a chance to think back about how they got to this place (hence the clips), aided by a gas leak in the building creating hallucinations.

I thought it was a weaker than usual episode, with the clips not adding much. (I did like the bit where newer cast member Cheyenne Jackson, who's never had much to do, had the flashbacks of former cast member Lonny Ross.) I especially didn't like the gas, a grating plot that wouldn't go away.  There were enough complications without it. In fact, the show is already about crazy people doing crazy things with plenty of cutaways--making these thin characters even crazier is a bad idea.

The threat of the show being canceled, and all the characters hating each other, was mostly schmuck bait (stuff that we're supposed to worry about but would never happen or the sitcom is over), so it was hard to care about the plot.  There were decent jokes here and there, so perhaps it would have worked better as a half hour, with no gas.

Community, on the other hand, had one of its better episodes, and maybe its most unusual.  It was very meta, which I usually don't like--it's too cheap and easy--but if you're gonna do it, you might as well go all the way.  (Community has always been meta--especially with Abed, the character who compares everything to pop culture--but they've managed to balance it within the ensemble.) Indeed, the episode started with the group making a diorama, which is all they ever seem to do for some classes, and it's a representation of them making a diorama.

To call it a clip show is actually a misnomer.  It had the form of a clip show, with the cast reminiscing (due to the schmuck bait of the study group breaking up), but all the flashbacks were completely new.  In fact, while clip shows are usually a chance to lower the budgets, this must have been the most expensive episode they ever shot.  We saw cutaways to former episodes that never happened, featuring classic sitcom tropes--a trip to a Wild West town, a night in a haunted mansion, getting stuck in a booby hatch and others.  There was even a flashback to their claymation episode, except it was new claymation. (The Clerks TV show once did a fake flashback episode, but that was animated, and it cost the same no matter where they went.)

These flashbacks were used to comment on the show, of course.  There was a montage, for example, of Jeff's "big speeches" cut together as one.  Many of the flashbacks were about things that fans of the show have noted--it was the producers telling the audience they were aware of what's going on.  For example, a slow montage of "meaningful moments" from Jeff and Annie's relationship, or quick cuts showing the selfishness of Jeff and Britta, or a series of women's costumes the dean wore.  Some bits had less to do with the characters and were just there as stand-alone gags, such as their wicked parody of Glee.

It's a good thing that most of these bits worked, because there was almost no story.  On the other hand, most clip shows help to introduce the sitcom to newbies, but the less you know about this show, the more confusing it would have been.

PS Paul Reiser's show, on after Community, did so badly in the ratings it was canceled after two episodes.  I watched both outings and it wasn't much, but it was no worse than a bunch of other comedies out there.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Why Wait For A Crime?

It sounds like a Monty Python sketch, but it's the wrong Terry Jones.  As you may have heard, Jones, the Koran-burning pastor, was in Dearborn, Michigan, planning a protest outside the Islamic Center of America.  (For those not from the area, Dearborn was where Henry Ford built his headquarters.  Today it has a large Arab population, many of whom are Muslims.)

Local authorities decided to prosecute Jones, and the jury decided that a rally at the Center would be a breach of the peace.  The judge agreed about the future crime and required Jones pay a symbolic $1 bond and banned him from any Dearborn mosque for three years.

Anyone familiar with the First Amendment knows this sort of prior restraint is unconstitutional.  I'm just shocked the authorities thought they could get away with it.  I have no doubt the decision will be overturned, or otherwise local governments could ban any protest they don't like.  The only question now is will Jones sue, and will the authorities behind this case be held responsible.

PS  In other First Amendment News, the Obama administration has asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the FCC indecency policy that was tossed for being too vague and leaving broadcasters uncertain what they could or couldn't do.

Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, the administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, said the justices should hear the case because the appeals court has stripped the FCC of its ability to police the airwaves.

We certainly wouldn't want that.  Then it'd be just like books and magazines.  And CDs and DVDs.  And cable.  And even with today's widespread TV ratings and lockout technology, there's apparently still no other solution.

The First Lady

April 25th, Ella Fitzgerald's birthday.  A lot of people learned about the Great American Songbook from Ella.  Hard to think of a better gateway.



Sunday, April 24, 2011

Who Would Jesus Vote For?

A coalition of progressive Christian leaders has taken out a full-page ad that asks “What would Jesus cut?” [...], the opening salvo in what the leaders say will be a broader campaign to prevent cuts for the poor and international aid programs amid the budget battle raging in Washington.

Imagine your reaction if a politician said "I'm supporting this policy because it's what Jesus would want."  Would you find that convincing, or disturbing?

Progressive Christian leaders are free, like anyone else, to exploit their religion for political purposes, but they shouldn't think that others will be impressed that their vision of Jesus votes the same way they do.

Borderline

It's been very sad to watch the dissolution of Borders.  I still remember it as that wonderful bookstore on State Street when I went to college in Ann Arbor.  And even though it became a less personal store when it grew into a nationwide franchise, it still had a wide selection and was a great place to hang out.  In fact, before the days of Borders and a bigger Barnes and Noble, a lot of bookstores were pretty crummy.

But bookstores, big and small, are on the way out in our Amazon/Kindle world, and every Borders in LA I know of is closing.  They've been selling all their merchandise and the stores looks like war zones.  Whole sections are empty and cordoned off, bookshelves themselves on sale, and what's left is haphazard.

At least I was able to pick up some deals, but it's bittersweet.  The oddest thing is even with a complete close-out, you need to comparison shop.  The Borders in Century City had a 40%-50% off sale, while the one in Glendale (on Brand but outside the newly built Americana--maybe the kiss of death anyway these days) was 60%-70% off.  Oddest of all, up the block on Sunset and Vine, the Borders advertised 20%-40% off--I can do better on Amazon.  Just who do you think you are?

Not unlike the changes in collecting, the way of the bookstore and record store are just about over.  I guess this'll mean those coffee houses are gonna get real crowded.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Who Needs Congress?

Last year Congress tried to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which I thought was against the spirit of the First Amendment.  It was mostly about burdening corporations' free speech. (I'd link to my original post if I could find it.) It failed to pass.

But no matter.  Obama is considering an executive order that'll do the job.  It'll require companies (but not unions, I believe) to disclose their political activities before they're awarded contracts.  The administration claims this is in the name of transparency, but what's really transparent is their attempt to intimidate political enemies.

PS  For those of you who love government acronyms, such as the USA PATRIOT act (for "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism"), let me disclose what DISCLOSE stands for: "Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections".  They must stay up nights working on these.

Hank

Once again, I'm a week late on this, but happy birthday, Henry Mancini, another composer with a sound like no one else.







Friday, April 22, 2011

Howl Stretching Time

John Cleese has moved from London to Bath because he feels more comfortable in an old-fashioned, British place.  Or, to put it negatively, he feels uncomfortable with the new, multi-cultural London.  Cleese has always been known to speak his mind, and he's such an institution I don't suppose too many of his liberal friends will be troubled by his feelings, which seem more generational than political.

But his statement has caught the attention of Ed Driscoll in a short piece entitled "Man’s Crisis of Identity at the Dawn of the 21st Century" (a nod to an episode of Monty Python): 

...what did he expect? [....] Besides being, at times, one of the greatest comedy shows ever, Monty Python was a weekly assault on the values of post-war England. And England’s societal bedrock of wisdom and knowledge proved in retrospect, to be surprisingly fragile. If you’re throwing traditional values onto a bonfire every seven days, isn’t the inference you’d like to see them changed?

Of course, you shouldn’t be all that surprised if change for its own sake doesn’t go quite as planned. Or that [...] the new era turns out to be, in many ways, less tolerant than the old one.

First, while there was an explosion of British satire in the 60s, I wouldn't give it too much blame, or credit, for changing the direction of England.  It had its place, but post-War Europe was going to change no matter what.  I'd guess that the satirists were better at picking up on trends than creating them.

Second, though some call Monty Python satirical, I never thought it was their strong suit. Compare them to Beyond The Fringe, a show that used satire in an almost unprecedented and comedically powerful manner (and even then, a lot of their best stuff is not topical, but timeless).  Python was more traditional sketch comedy taken several steps beyond into the world of the surreal.  I think this is one reason why their humor isn't especially dated.  While there are occasional references to people and issues of the day, it's mostly operating at another level.  (I still remember a snotty piece on Monty Python by National Lampoon, where they mocked the troupe for being cowardly, and taking on figures like Queen Victoria.)

I suppose Python mocked Britain, but it mocked almost everything it came in contact with, old and new.  It's hard to give it a particular political slant.  The main thing they rebelled against were the rules telling comedians how to put on a show.

Collect Call

Critic Bill Wyman has a piece at Slate about how pop culture collecting has changed.  Years ago, music and film fanatics were like cultists, seeking out rare material, as well as each other.  Thanks to new technology, almost everything, and everybody, is immediately available.  As Joni Mitchell put it, something's lost and something's gained.

The gain is greater, but there is something romantic about searching for hard-to-find material.  I've never been a collector type (i.e., someone who fetishizes something for its rarity rather than its quality), but I remember wanting to see or hear things that weren't easy to get.  When you finally managed to, it was sweet.

I remember paging through Goldmine, a magazine for record collectors, looking at hundreds of pages listing what various people had available. I remember indie record stores that sold bootlegs.  I remember searching through garage sales, hoping to find out-of-print albums that, if available at retail stores would go at premium prices.

I also remember people passing around unmarked videotapes with rarities--old films, foreign films, shorts, etc. (I learned about Hong Kong cinema that way).  Before that, I even remember people squirreling away reels--actual celluloid--in their closets, pulled out occasionally for special film nights.

Now people can call up any song any time anywhere--on their computer, their phone--and pretty soon, they'll probably be able to do the same for movies.  Whenever I think of that, I'm reminded of my first year in college when a guy down the hall spent the better part of the year searching for a copy of Frijid Pink's "House Of The Rising Sun." Is he out there now watching it on YouTube, or does he hang out in his basement, playing his old 45s, cursing all thise new-fangled technology?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is That True, Man?

I've recently questioned how the Justice Department spends its money, so let me praise them for backing off on obscenity prosecutions.  In this area, when there's a voluntary exchange between adults, it's not the government's business.  The idea of locking people up for such activity is repulsive.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, so 42 Senators (including seven Democrats) recently sent a letter to Eric Holder insisting we get that prosecution rate back up.  I guess they need to throw someone in jail, since sexual assaults rates have been going down over the past twenty years (even though it's likely with greater awareness reporting rates have risen), even as pornography is more readily available.

The most interesting argument for tossing more pornographers in jail comes from former obscenity prosecutor Patrick Trueman.  No, he's not worried about obscenity prosecutor unemployment.  In fact, he's got a new job as head of the group Morality In Media.  Here's his claim:

"Significant numbers [of] adult porn consumers move eventually to child porn because nothing else excites them."

As loath as I am to invoke common sense, this does not pass the smell test.

The Godfather

Happy birthday, James Newell Osterberg, Jr., aka Iggy Pop.





Though an exciting live performer, Iggy has never been a major commercial force.  His 1977 album Lust For Life, produced by friend and fan David Bowie, didn't even crack the top 100.  Yet the title number became his best known song when it was picked up in 1996 for the Trainspotting soundtrack.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

High School

Big local story: an assistant coach at John Burroughs High School gave the varsity baseball team some beer during a recent trip to Arizona.  The rest of the season has been canceled, all players who drank or knew about it and didn't come forward have been suspended, and the head coach and three assistants have been fired.

I have only one question--who narced?

Bucking The System

Atlas Shrugged the movie is out, and the reviews (as I expected) are horrendous.  But what about the take?  Well, my old pal Nick Gillespie at Reason has this to say:

So Atlas Shrugged Part I debuted on April 15 and had a damn good opening weekend for a truly indie flick. With a reported $10 million budget and about 300 screens, it pulled in about $1.7 million over the weekend, according to Box Office Mojo. On a per-screen basis, it hauled $5,640, putting it third behind Rio and Scream 4 (each of which appeared on over 3,000 screens) for movies that appeared on more than two or three screens.

With all due respect, Nick's specialty is not interpreting movie grosses.  True, an indie film with no names making $1.7 million on its opening weekend, with a $5000+ per screen average, isn't bad, but considering all the factors at play here, it doesn't bode well.

First, this isn't just any movie, but a long-awaited adaptation of an all-time bestseller.  Second, there was a lot of publicity for the film, publicity outside normal channels--certainly more than usual for your average, relatively low-budget indie.  Third, the opening was only semi-wide--that ups per screen of course.  (Compare this to an art house blockbuster like Black Swan, that opened in 18 theatre and had a per screen average of over $80,000.) Finally, grosses dropped from Friday to Saturday, $674,000 to $631,000.  Grosses almost always rise between those days, except for frontloaded films (in this case, due to curious Randians) with weak word of mouth.

Ayn Rand's novels weren't well-reviewed. With her first big seller, The Fountainhead, it took time for the readers to discover it (just as it took time for architect Howard Roark to find clients). The opposite should be true for this movie.  The discovery comes right away, followed by a quick dropping off.

PS  But see what the Hollywood Reporter has to say about the "awful marketing plan." I guess we'll find out how the film does as it rolls out to more theatres.  That's the best bet they have--virgin territory with a built-in audience.  I'm pretty sure the film is awful, but I'd still like to see them finish the trilogy.

The Reverend

It's a week late, but let's celebrate the 65th birthday of the top soul singer of our time, Al Green.





Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Decadence

Since I have tributes to all sorts of music from the 20th century on this blog, someone asked me if I have a favorite era.  Let me try to break it down by decades.

Music changed throughout the century, but the big break came in the 50s, when rock and roll started taking over.  It's hard to compare it to jazz or Tin Pan Alley, but I guess if I had to choose, I'd pick rock, which is what I grew up listening to, and haven't grown tired of yet.  So, based on popular tunes of the day, here's how I'd order them:

1.  60s  (actually, the 60s alone are three differents eras--60-63 isn't like 64-67 which isn't like 67-69)
2.  50s
3.  70s
4.  30s
5.  20s
6.  80s
7.  90s
8.  40s
9.  10s
10. 00s

Not In The Cards

The Justice Department raided the top three online poker sites last Friday.  Congress had outlawed internet gambling in 2006, so these companies relocated overseas (or so I've heard--maybe they were already there) and believed they had gotten around the law.  That's a question for the courts.

My question is why is the U.S. wasting its resources on voluntary activity?  It's not as if Americans can't legally gamble to their heart's content in spots all around the nation.  I wonder what the representatives of these places have to say:

Frank Fahrenkopf, chief executive of the American Gaming Association, the commercial casino industry’s main trade group, said the prosecution shows a “clear need to strengthen laws to address illegal online gambling in the U.S.”

He added: “Tough law enforcement is the key to making such a system work, and the AGA supports strong enforcement against illegal online gambling activity in this country. But illegal activity — and the risk of consumer fraud, money laundering and underage gambling — will continue until the U.S. passes laws ensuring that only licensed, taxed and highly regulated companies can operate in the U.S. market.”

So we need to take out the competition, and have high taxes and heavy regulation otherwise.  Thank goodness the casinos, teamed with the government, are looking out for us.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tax Text

Quite a remarkable story from the AP.  The headline: "Super rich see federal taxes drop dramatically." As far as I can tell, it's supposed to be a news story.

I wouldn't say it gets any facts wrong, but it's interesting how it presents them.  For instance, the first paragraph:

As millions of procrastinators scramble to meet Monday's tax filing deadline, ponder this: The super rich pay a lot less taxes than they did a couple of decades ago, and nearly half of U.S. households pay no income taxes at all.

While I suppose most readers understand that almost all those households not paying taxes are not the super rich, or the well off, or even the comfortably middle class, it would be easy to think otherwise based on the sentence structure and the headline.  It's not till almost the end that it's article explains who's not paying, and it's quickly followed by further explanation in case you thought this group has it too easy:

The vast majority of those who escape federal income taxes have low and medium incomes, and most of them pay other taxes, including Social Security and Medicare taxes, property taxes and retail sales taxes.

As far as the burden the biggest earners have, we don't get that until the midpoint, and once again, it's followed by further explanation--this time in case you thought they had it too rough.

More than half of the nation's tax revenue came from the top 10 percent of earners in 2007. More than 44 percent came from the top 5 percent. Still, the wealthy have access to much more lucrative tax breaks than people with lower incomes.

By "tax revenue" they're not referring to just the federal income tax, because in 2007, the top 5% percent paid over 60%, and the top 10% over 70%.  Still, I suppose a reader could be excused for mistakenly thinking it is a reference to federal income tax, since up to this point that's what the entire article has been about.

Second, they don't mention the percentage of income tax revenues (and revenues of all federal taxes combined) that the top 1%, 5% and 10% pay has been steadily increasing for 30 years.  (No reason not to mention that--they could then claim it's because the rich are getting richer.)

Then there's that weird bit about the wealthy having access to more lucrative tax breaks.  Considering that most of those in the bottom half aren't paying any income tax, it's hard to believe the well-off could get a much better deal.

Yo, It's Captain America, Y'all

The trailers for summer movies are out.  I just caught one for Captain America:  The First Avenger.  As you can see, it's an origin story, set during WWII:



This is a $140 million film.  No expense has been spared to get the look right.  Yet, when our hero is fighting in an alley, he says "I could do this all day." It takes me right out of the movie.  Why does the screenwriter (and everyone else down the line) assume because a phrase (usually rendered "I can do this all day") has been around for a while, it's been around forever?

I suppose someone several generations ago could have put those words together, but it's a specific phrase, not something generic, and I've never heard, seen or read of anyone uttering it back in the 1940s.  He might as well have called his assailant a be-otch.



PS  An even more egregious example of anachronistic dialogue is in the recent HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.  It's the opening night of Mildred's chicken and waffles restaurant, and it's going well.  Almost too well.  Back in the kitchen, a harried Mildred hardly has time to perform all her tasks.  She notes "I'm waiting on some waffles." Well that would explain the slow service, wouldn't it?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sonny

Arthur Marx has died.  He was a tournament tennis player, a novelist, a biographer, a screenwriter, a hit Broadway playwright (The Impossible Years) and a successful TV producer (Alice and many other shows), but he's best remembered for being the son of Groucho Marx.

In fact, he wrote four books about it, the best being Son Of Groucho (1972), which had a sometimes sharp portrait of his father, back when his dad was still around. Groucho may have been a great entertainer, but according to Arthur, he'd insult you before he'd compliment you, and did not part easily with a dollar.  Arthur always feared no matter what he accomplished, his obit would read Groucho's son dies, and that's pretty much how it worked out.

I've met his son, Andy.  I don't assume anyone's asking him to write Son Of Arthur, though if he did I better he'd come across as warmer than Groucho. Let me also recommend his book on Martin and Lewis, Everybody Loves Somebody Sometimes (Especially Himself), published in 1974, a very entertaining (if not especially in-depth) version of the team's story.

45 From LP

Happy birthday, Liz Phair.



I was once in a music book store and glanced through this song.  The books said she sings "you fought like a volcano."  Sorry, she is not singing "fought."

Saturday, April 16, 2011

It Just Makes Sense

More than once I've heard people distrust academic or government studies because they go against common sense.  Now it's normal to disagree with studies that oppose your beliefs--pretty much everyone does, even people who otherwise put out studies. And there's certainly a long history of questionable conclusions from people in government and academia.  So fine, attack away.  But is common sense enough?

One reason research is useful is that it can objectively investigate what we've too easily assumed.  It can separate true "common sense" from false "common sense." After all, does common sense have such a great track record?  Hasn't it generally been the summing up of the basic wisdom of the times, including the prejudices?  Common sense told us that heavier items fall faster than lighter ones.  That the sun revolves around the Earth.  That men are superior to women.  (Well, that's what men's common sense came up with, anyway.) That a change in velocity won't create a change in mass.  That races are essentially different. That a computer could never match the insight of a top chess player.  And so on.

So if you plan to argue against someone's research, let me suggest you do better than claim it goes against common sense.

Dusty Day

It's Dusty Springfield's birthday.  Last year, we celebrated by playing two of my favorite songs of hers, "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" and, above all, "I Only Want To Be With You."  But there's plenty more where that came from:





And here's a great new mix (in stereo) of her best:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Lazy Friday or 100,000,000 Viewers Can't Be Wrong

To start out your weekend right, here's a slowed down version of Rebecca Black's viral hit "Friday."  It lasts 30 minutes.  See how far you can make it.

Newage

Amy Alkon (along with others) has mocked this video that puts forth the "Manifesto For Conscious Men." She calls the guys involved man-pussies.



Even if it is a heartfelt plea, this is the sort of new-age nonsense that's too generic to be of any use in solving actual problems.  And the reasoning in general is very questionable.  To pick a random example:

I honor your deep connection to the earth. As men, our relationship to our planet and its resources has often been motivated by competition, acquisition and domination. We mistakenly believed that expansion would protect us from encroachment, and in the process we violated the sanctity of the Earth and disturbed its natural rhythms. I commit to listening to the intuitive sense you have of how to heal our planet...

First, do women have a closer connection to earth?  Maybe there is a separate "feminine" and "masculine" energy, as they claim, but this also sounds like a sexist stereotype--certainly one that can be used to limit women (and men).

Second, it was men, not women, who were motivated to acquire and dominate our resources?  So it's men, not women, whom we have to thank for the superior food, clothing, shelter and almost everything else that makes up the modern world?  Don't women get some credit?

Third, our belief in expansion was bad?  This isn't even a masculine/feminine thing.  Expansion isn't offensive to nature (as if anything could be), but a natural process itself. That humans (pardon me, men) were able to figure out how to do it better than most other plants and animals is a sign of our success, not failure.

Fourth, women's intuition is going to help us heal the planet?  I'm willing to listen to anyone, but if we've got serious problems, I'd rather use the "masculine" approach and do some actual research.

But really, the most offensive part of the whole thing isn't that it's new age mush.  It's that this is put out as an apology but it's actually moral grandstanding.  It's one thing to apologize for your own actions, mistakenly or not, but quite another to attack men, past and present, for not being as awesome as you, apparently, are.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Forget Love, How About Like?

There's a good movie buried inside I Love You Alice B. Toklas (1968), but it's not allowed to escape.  I just watched the Peter Sellers comedy for the first time in years, and it doesn't really work.  It's one of those 60s artifacts that tries to deal with the counterculture, but it's too thin and satirical to be very telling.  In fact, the situations are ridiculous throughout, and when you don't buy the plot, the comedy doesn't play.

Sellers gives an odd performance as Harold Fine, a rigid Jewish attorney in Los Angeles.  He's set to marry his long-time girlfriend but gets a whiff of the freedom that flower children offer and turns his back on his old lifestyle.  He soons realizes hippie life isn't much better, and by the end is stuck searching for something better.  It's not a bad concept, but the silly plotting and stereotyped characters, not to mention horrendous direction from Hy Averback (allegedly--see below), prevent much of interest from happening.

And when you get down to it, most of the hippie stuff is a ruse. The drug angle atttracted a lot of attention at the time, but what really turns Sellers on is the lovely Leigh Taylor-Young. (Did in real life, too.) Of course, that's a story as old as the hills.  I guess the hippie wrapping gave it a fresh angle.

The film is interesting as a time capsule.  It may not present hippies as they were, but it at least gives us Hollywood's idea of hippies, and shows a lot of Los Angeles as well.  The screenwriters, Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, were fairly hip guys, but hardly part of the scene.  They were major TV writers and this was their big break.  Mazursky was actually set to direct, but Sellers, who was apparently insane, claimed Mazursky slept with his wife.  During the shoot, however, mercurial Sellers would listen to Mazursky's advice on how to play scenes, and Averback (also a TV guy) was smart enough not to get in the way.

The film, if nothing else, was an important stepping stone in Mazursky's career.  Next year, he got his first job as a film director--Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.  It has a similar theme--the invasion of a new lifestyle--and handles it much better than Toklas.

Taking Care Of Your Freedom

Stephen Breyer was out in public discussing his judical views.  He explained how Justices have to take into account changing times. No doubt.  There's nothing in the Constitution about airplanes, radio or Wii.  However, Breyer seems to see this as an opportunity to limit free speech on the internet.  Well, the internet is just a series of tubes, with people sending personal letters through it, but somehow Breyer believes because it's a new medium he gets to decide who can speak and how.

He also tried to differentiate the right to say extremely offensive things to people whose children have died fighting for their country (which he supports), and the right to basic political speech from people who organize in ways Breyer doesn't like, such as through incorporation (which he opposes).  Breyer belongs to the list of people who believe if we could just have a whole lot more regulation of speech, freedom will result.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Remind Me

I was paging through John Lahr's 1973 collection of essays, Astonish Me:  Adventures In Contemporary Theatre.  Lahr, son of Bert, was in his early 30s, and the book has the confidence, and fiery style, of youth.  But what's most noticeable is the "contemporary" part, though not how Lahr may have intended.  His apercus may not be much, yet I couldn't help but smile at his reflexive need to remind us a number of times that Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew are psychotic killers.  Makes you wonder how quaint most of today's firebrands will one day sound.

(Reminds me, vaguely, of the episode of Newhart where he married his wife a second time.  He pulled out the old vows he wrote, but decided to skip the references to Cambodia.)

Talking Head Apologizes To Talking Head

As if losing his party's nomination for Senate wasn't humiliating enough, Charlie Crist is now apologizing via YouTube for his improper use of Talking Heads' "Road To Nowhere." By definition both sides find this settlement acceptable. I assume Byrne is happy to get such a public apology, and I guess Crist would rather do this than pay money.



The part I like best is where he calls it a "famous song."  Well known, maybe, but famous?  Did Byrne insist on the wording?

It sounds like Byrne had him dead to rights, but it does raise fascinating intellectual property questions.  Ideally, how much say should composers have when it comes to public performance of their songs?  (Those who record the composition also have some legal control, but it doesn't go as far--thanks to Eugene Volokh for clearing up a few copyright points for me.) Once they've allowed their song to go out in public, why shouldn't other decide what to do with it, as long if they pay for it?  It does turn out that radio stations and the like can pretty much play what they want as long as they pay licensing fees, since it's not workable for ASCAP or BMI to set up agreements any other way, and, besides, most composers don't really object to making money. But I suppose a composer could go his own way and pick and choose who gets to perform his songs.  So a playwright can decide who performs his piece?  An author can choose who buys his book?

When I pay my money and buy a recording, I'll play it how I want when I want (as long as I don't get paid for it). At that point, I don't think the composer can come into my house, return the money, and take my cd (or tape, or iPod or whatever).  Why can't a politician play a song for his campaign if he likes it?

PS  I'm tempted to put up the "Road To Nowhere" video but now I'm scared.  Not a bad video, but one of the band's weaker songs.

PPS I'm reminded of a National Lampoon issue that featured an apology to Liza Minelli. It sounded like a joke, but you looked inside and it was a real, legally-compelled apology.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Leftover Vanity Plates Of The Month

From the car that seems most likely to have a vanity plate:  GD NUTR.

On a Mercedes:  GO BOI.  I expected more class from a Mercedes.

BLKIYCE. I assume this is an African-American skater.

SXYBRAT. You paid to advertise this?

[heart symbol]4 DRUM.  A heartbeat for the drumbeat.

AMBLESD.  And this despite the fact it was a cheap car.

RAD Z.  Is he the ultimate radical, or was Rad A through Y taken?

The World Is Not Enough

I watched Colin Quinn's Long Story Short, a comic "history of the world in 75 minutes." He did it on Broadway and now it's showing on HBO.  I remember Quinn doing Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live and discussing issues in Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn on Comedy Central, but this was the first time I saw him attempt anything long-form.

I like comedians being given a chance to pull off something bigger than just a series of jokes.  Lily Tomlin's one-woman Broadway show (written by Jane Wagner) The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe may have been the best thing she ever did.  Jackie Mason's Broadway performance, The World According To Me (only a bit above a glorified stand-up routine), deservedly returned him to the top.  Unfortunately, Quinn does not score so high.

There are entertaining moments, and a pace that never lingers, but for all its breadth, the show doesn't say much.  Quinn gallops through history, zeroing in on various places around the globe, but none of these segments is particularly clever.  They mostly utilize the same type of joke--take an old period (Ancient Greece, China, whatever) and relate it to--or really reduce it to--some modern-style everyday street talk.  If his insights were more penetrating, it might have worked, but he has (or uses) only the most cursory knowledge of history, generally relying on stereotypes for comic fodder. What could have been a tour de force becomes a farrago of ethnic jokes and misinformation.

I'm not saying doing such a show is easy, but Quinn either didn't have the chops, the depth or the discipline to pull it off.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Masterful

I don't play that much attention to golf, but the final round of the Masters was amazing.  The day didn't look like it'd be much--Rory McIlroy started with a 4-stroke lead.  He had a so-so front nine, but then collapsed spectacularly, starting the back nine with a triple bogey, a bogey and a double bogey, and ultimately finishing ten strokes behind.

With McIlroy not in the running, it was anybody's game.  Eight different players held or shared the lead, and at one point five were tied for it, with several other just a stroke or two off.  Tiger Woods had a great front nine--five below par--and spent some time tied for the lead, but mised some close putts late in the round and finished short.

Meanwhile, other lesser known names had amazing runs on the back nine, including Geoff Ogilvy, with five birdies in a row, and Luke Donald, with four birdies in the last six holes.  Topping them all was Charl Schwartzel, who finished with four straight birdies.  Didn't even need the last one to win.

Speed Thrills

In 1974, responding to high oil and gas prices, Congress passed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which set 55 mph as the maximum speed allowed around the nation.  The emergency lasted until 1995 when Congress repealed federal limits.  Since then, different states have adopted different rules, with the Northeast going for 65 on their interstates, the Southeast 70, and much of the wide open west 75.  (Though you gotta watch out, since certain cities in the west have the limit drop to 65, then 55, and sometimes even lower as you  approach--indeed, this seems to be a main source of revenue at these places.) Then there's Texas, where certain areas have a maximum of 80 mph.

When the limits were removed, a lot of people said it would lead to thousands of extra deaths. I don't know if that happened, but I don't hear these people so much any more, so maybe things didn't turn out like they expected.  Of course, 55 mph was an oppressive joke, since almost no one followed it, but it allowed police to give out a lot of tickets.  I know I was glad I could drive 70--I've driven across the country more than once and a 55 mph limit would add an extra day to get from Los Angeles to New York. (It's also probably dangerous for me, since it would likely keep me on the road longer, and I'd get more tired.)

Anyway, Texas is now considering a rise to 85.  Seems to be getting pretty high, but I know if it were there I'd take advantage of it.  Texas is a damn long state to get through no matter how fast you go.  I remember for a few years Montana had no official limit--the law was you had to drive at a "reasonable and prudent" speed. I drove through Montana once while this law was in effect (in fact, I drove through Montana because this law was in effect) and I couldn't resist--for a short period, when I was all alone on the interstate, I opened it up to 100. I had to see how it felt.  Somehow, if I'd passed a cop, I don't think he would have found it reasonable or prudent.

After that, 85 doesn't seem so bad.  The main trouble is I'm sure a lot of Texans are already driving 85.  If the limit is raised, I suppose they'll have to go faster.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Stray Thought

You should never protest "I'm not stupid," because that's when a lot of people start thinking you're stupid.

Some Love for SL

Sidney Lumet has died, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood.
 
Like many of his contemporaries, he first gained notice in TV, in the days when there was live drama coming  out of New York.  It was a natural step to movies, and Lumet's TV experience helped make him a director who knew how to shoot quickly.  (Pauline Kael in her fascinating if nasty piece on the making of Lumet's The Group said he worked too quickly--he'd hardly get done with a shot before he was ready to move on. She also asked him about the transition from child actor to director.  He gave a long explanation and she wrote down "too short.")

Right off the bat he made something special-12 Angry Men (1957), starring Henry Fonda and a bunch of great character actors. Originally a television drama, it's the story of how the conscience, and conscientousness, of one man sways the rest of a jury.  Citics liked the film, but though it was low budget, it was also low on thrills and locations, and was not a hit.  In fact, Lumet would be associated with (Hollywood's idea of) smart films and rarely created major hits. But he kept working.  The film was nominated for Best Picture and Lumet was nominated for Best Director.  His career as a film director was set.

It's easy to claim the film is dated--the jurors are all white males, for instance--except I'd say the kind of programmatic drama, so common at the time, with each person a type, and a pre-ordained end that teaches us a valuable lesson, was never that good.  I will say, though, if nothing else, the basic plot has become a staple ever since on sitcoms.

Lumet got to shoot a more conventional drama in 1958 with Stage Struck--a misguided remake of the film that won Katharine Hepburn her first Oscar, Morning Glory. Truth is, the original wasn't much and there wasn't any point in trying again.  (I really do like a lot of old films, honest.) In 1959, he made Tennessee William's The Fugitive Kind, not one of Marlon Brando's better films. (In fact, it was the beginning over more than a decade of flops for Brando.)

In the 60s, he hit his stride.  He made Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), a respectable adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's great play, The Pawnbroker (1964), starring Rod Steiger as a concentration camp survivor with repressed emotions living in modern-day New York and Fail-Safe (1964), a tale of the Cold War becoming hot.

We're starting to see a pattern here--serious subjects and powerful emotions.  The stark, black and white cinematography (often by Boris Kaufman) helps create the mood.  They're certainly prestige projects--they get Oscar nominations, even if they don't make big money.  And for my taste, they tend to be a little too in love with their seriousness.

For the rest of the 60s, I think Lumet opened up a bit, and for the better.  The Hill (1965) is a decent film about a British prison camp in WWII, starring Sean Connery, who'd gotten time off for good behavior from the James Bond films.  Then there's Pauline Kael's favorite, The Group (1966) a delirious adaptation (in color!) of a bestselling novel, a film that moves so quickly from one plot to the next (after all, it's about a group) to develop anything deeply, but is still kind of fun anyway.  And in Bye Bye Braverman (1968), we have an oddly-toned, highly Jewish comedy about four friends attending a funeral of a fifth that's still one of Lumet's most fascinating pieces.

It's the 70s where Lumet made the films he's probably best remembered for.  In 1971, there's The Anderson Tapes, a crime film that verges on comedy--it's one of the first of that decade's paranoid movies about how we're all under surveillance.  Then, in 1973, we've got Al Pacino's cop with a conscience in Serpico. In 1974, we've got the all-star Agatha Christie romp Murder On The Orient Express.

Lumet got his second Best Director nomination for Dog Day Afternoon (1975), about a standoff at a bank heist, featuring a tour de force performance from Al Pacino.  Next year, another Oscar nomination for helming Network, perhaps his most respected film.  (Sorry, I don't buy it.  I recognize the Paddy Chayefsky screenplay is satrical comedy, but it's always struck me as overdone and essentially ridiculous.)

Lumet even tried a musical in 1978--The Wiz.  Alas, his sensibility worked best with gritty New York settings, not an eased-on-down road to Oz.

From the 80s onward, his films were hit and miss, and usually less notable.  He got some respect (and another Oscar nomination) for Prince Of The City (1981) though it felt to me with a cop exposing corruption that we'd been here before.  He made a respectable if little seen adaptation of Broadway thriller Deathtrap in 1982, which featured a kiss between two men--a rarity at the time.  In The Verdict (1982), Paul Newman played a lawyer who's seen better days yet puts it all together for a great and noble case.

The Verdict was a hit, and got nominated for a bunch of Oscars, including Lumet's fifth and final competitive nod. (He never won, but was given an honorary statuette in 2005.) While it features some good performances, I've always found the story overheated and manipulative.  In any case, Lumet's career had nowhere to go but down.  He continued to make the kinds of films he'd been associated with, but for the last quarter century of his career, never really had another hit, and rarely received the same sort of critical reception.

Not that he didn't make some interesting films.  Garbo Talks in 1984, isn't very good, but I'm amazed it got made at all.  It's a story starring Anne Bancroft as an old leftist who learns she's got a terminal disease and decides she wants to meet Greta Garbo.  This should win a contest for least commercial concept ever.  Let's see.  Annoying protagonist?  Check.  Lead dies?  Check.  Plot and title about a a figure from the past no one cares about, or knows, any more.  Check.

Also weak was the murder mystery The Morning After (1986), starring Jane Fonda as an alcoholic actress and Jeff Bridges as an ex-cop. The problem was the paucity of characters.  Not good when there are two suspects in a whodunnit.  Eliminate the most likely one and you've found the killer.  Speaking of casting, Family Business (1989) was generally regarded as ridiculous because no one bought Sean Connery as the grandfather, Dustin Hoffman as the father and Matthew Broderick as the son.

Not that Lumet was always misfiring.  I thought Running On Empty (1988), about 60s radicals still on the run in 80s, with kids in tow, was one of his best.  But as his career continued into the 90s, the films were even less notable. Some critics liked Q & A (1990), but it seemed like yet another police drama.  A Stranger Among Us (1992) has the Witness plot with a tough female cop going undercover in the Hasidic community, but Melanie Griffith's weak performance combined with Lumet's idealized view of Jewish life make the film absurd.

Night Falls In Manhattan (1997) was yet another film about corruption in the NYPD (they must have hated Lumet). Critical Care (1997) was a satire on American medicine that seemed like a retread of The HospitalFind Me Guilty (2006) was based on the longest Mafia trial, and is notable in that it had trouble getting a release.

Lumet did go out well.  His last film, Before The Devil Knows Your Dead (2007), may not have been a hit, but it made a lot of critics' top ten lists.  It's a family drama about a crime that goes wrong, and the tragic consequences that follow.  As so often with Lumet, I think it's a bit overdone, but the film does have undeniable power.

Lumet also put out a book in the 90s, Making Movies, which is full of useful technical advice, and does communicate his passion for film.

Looking back on his career, I don't know if he had a style so much as certain themes he liked.  Though there are notable exceptions, his films are often gritty, realistic dramas set in New York, generally with a social conscience.  I wouldn't say he has a light touch, but sometimes that works--he let's his actors have big moments, which can lead to scenery chewing, but also to memorable moments.

His work was, overall, a bit too earnest for me, but there's no question he was a committed filmmaker involved in many interesting projects.  And he's certainly a guy who aimed high.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Flexible Jimmy

I'd say Jimmy Carter is the most religious President we've had at least since WWII.  He claims everything he's done in his political career wouldn't be possible without his religious beliefs, and I'll take him at his word.

He just spoke at a conference of human rights activists and religious leaders, where he said much discrimination against women is due to the religious beliefs that teach women are inferior.  He claimed "leaders in Christianity, Islam and other religions" help create this basic denial of rights.

Certainly he's got a good argument.  The causation is pretty direct--many practices around the world that oppress women (not that they believe they're oppressing women) are done by people proudly proclaiming the religious basis for their actions.  Yet, Carter claims he's not blaming religion:

Carter said he doesn't fault religions for oppressing women, but blames men who selectively interpret the Bible and other scriptures. He suggested there are other, more flexible interpretations.

Interesting distinction.  So it's not religion causing the problem, it's the misinterpretation of religion.  (This isn't a new argument for Carter--a couple years ago: "Carter singled out the Southern Baptist Convention and Roman Catholic Church, claiming that they 'view that the Almighty considers women to be inferior to men.' ) Perhaps, but it seems to me the oppressors, who have been at it for a long time, have at the very least some pretty compelling arguments based on the text of the scriptures themselves.

So does Carter simply start with the belief that religion is a positive force and when it isn't it's because it's misunderstood?  I know there are arguments that interpret major religions to be against sexual discrimination (regardless of what the particular discrimination is or isn't thought to be)--does this suggest the scriptures were right all along and all those oppressors are simply mistaken, or that people are ingenious enough to come up with arguments that can make the words fit modern sensibilites?

After all, Carter objects to "selective" interpretation.  In other words, look at the whole document.  At this level of abstraction, I suppose you can claim you're told to be good, and that's flexible enough to fit any concept of morality.

There's a long history of oppression of women, and it happened and happens for many reasons--you certainly don't need to be religious to do it.  But those who don't base their morality on ancient scriptures can admit they were wrong in the past.  Is someone like Carter, who does believe, forced to say the scriptures (he believes in) aren't wrong, just the interpretation?  What would it take to make him say the documents were wrong in the first place?

PS  I saw some comments on Carter's speech from religious people who seemed more concerned that Carter was making a false equation between Christianity and Islam.

Here Goes Anything

Ben Brantley in The New York Times likes the latest Broadway revival of Anything Goes.  It seems to be the revised verion that did so well in the 80s, and interpolates other great Cole Porter numbers such as "Friendship," "It's De-lovely" and "Easy To Love."

Brantley especially goes for Sutton Foster in the Ethel Merman/Reno Sweeney role,.but the show was never just a vehicle; I'd say it features three equal leads--Billy Crocker and Moonface Martin along with Reno.  And this production, in addition to the many young faces, also has veterans Joel Grey, John McMartin and Jessica Walter.

Brantley goes into a little history:

The vicissitudes the original production underwent included having to jettison a large part of the original script (which involved a shipwreck) after a fire on a cruise ship killed 134 people. The first team of writers, P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, had moved on to other projects, so Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse were brought on, beginning a collaboration that would peak with the long-running “Life With Father.”

So Brantley buys this old story.  Apparently he hasn't heard it was a cover.  Actually, the Bolton/Wodehouse script was no good.  The producers threw it out and hired Lindsay and Crouse, but since B and W were bigger names, their names were not removed from the show.

Friday, April 08, 2011

A Very Old Friend

We're closing in on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but something else happened in 2001 that shook me just as much.  It was personal, and it happened exactly ten years ago today. One of my best friends, John Baker, died when he was hit by train.  There are still days I can't believe it.

I don't think I've ever met anyone like him, and I'm pretty sure I never will.  If you didn't know him, he's not easy to describe.  He had sort of a deadpan manner.  Not that he had no emotions, it's just that he didn't wear them on his sleeve. (It's why we sometimes played pranks on him in college--to see if we could get a rise out of him.  Of course, we played pranks on almost everyone.)

I met him in college at the University of Michigan.  In fact, he'd grown up in Ann Arbor.  Back then he was a huge football fan.  Bo Schembechler made his top three most-admired-people-ever list. His father was a Regent, and one of the fringe benefits of being his friend was it got me some nice football seats in later years.

After graduation, I left the state, but he stayed, working for Chrysler.  Once he showed me a complicated equation to prove he was worth his salary--I reminded him not to leave out the overhead.  When Daimler bought the company he said they were going to mix the two names together--they'd take the "Daim" from Daimler and the "ler" from Chrysler.

Anyway, even though we lived far apart, we stayed close friends. In fact, when I moved to Los Angeles, we started a voluminous correspondence.  Up until the time I got email, we wrote each other on a regular basis--for almost a decade, we'd receive a letter and have one out the next day or so.  And these weren't small letters.  They tended to be five or six or seven typed, single-spaced pages. Add up everything he wrote and it'd amount to at least a couple novels.  In addition, he often enclosed articles, pamphlets and other related material that he thought might be of interest--so much so that he starting using jumbo envelopes.  I told him he could send me the other stuff if he liked, but it was his personal letter I cared about.

Right now, in fact, I'm looking at two garbage bags full of those letters. I rarely pull them out, but when I do, his voice comes alive again--it's like he's still out there.

John was a conservative, proudly so.  It made him stand out (especially in Ann Arbor).  Much of our conversation in later years was about politics.  I can't tell you how many letters he wrote where he complained about Bill Clinton's latest outrage--"he just won't stop," as John was fond of saying.  But John wasn't a caricature of a conservative.  He may have been against a lot of liberal policies, but in person he was always open-minded enough to seriously discuss new ideas, and even, on occasion, change his mind.  He also had a libertarian side.  He'd been hassled by the police a couple times (not seriously, but any encounter where you don't think you're doing anything wrong can be unsettling) and questioned giving them too much authority.  In fact, he generally favored a government with a light touch (which, these days, seems to be neither a conservative nor a liberal trait).

There were times he even made fun of his politics.  In one letter he expressed a fairly liberal idea about something and then wrote he'd have to check if he was still conservative--yes, he still thought Norman Rockwell was the greatest artist ever. (He didn't have too much patience with artiness, by the way, but sometimes he'd surprise you.  One of his favorite movies was the very artsy The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.  But just as often, he hated critics' list films--he said the most boring thing he ever saw was My Left Foot.  In this I wouldn't say his taste was conservative so much as middle-class American.) He also said if he was called for jury duty, he'd tell them "I'm a conservative--if it's a criminal case, the defendant is guilty, if it's a civil case, the defendant gets off."

He also must have had quite a metabolism.  Like many bachelors, he ate more than his share of fast food, yet stayed thin.  The subject of fast food, in fact, was of great interest to him, and he often included the latest in his letters on where he was eating.  When he was younger he'd worked at Burger King and that seemed to have been a formative experience.  He told me BK was better than McDonald's, but no matter what fast food place we ate at, he was a harsh taskmaster.  If the fries weren't hot, he'd send them back.  In fact, he was the only person I ever saw demand more fries when he felt the bag had not been sufficiently filled.  Then there was bacon.  He loved bacon.  We ate at buffets in Vegas, and I've seen him devour whole plates.  Quite amazing, actually.

Ah yes, Vegas.  Of all his family and friends, only I knew the Vegas John.  Not long after I moved to Los Angeles, he started visiting.  He'd spend some time with his sister in Pasadena, and then we'd drive out to Sin City.  We'd do this twice a year--must have done it twenty times.  At first we'd be out there a couple nights, but that wasn't enough, so we upped it to three.

We mostly went for blackjack. I'd taught him how to count cards, and I think the student surpassed the teacher.  He started with a $2500 bankroll and played at $5 tables (which are tougher to find these days),  After several  trips, he'd doubled it to $5000. I suggested he double his unit bet to $10, but he didn't have the nerve.  Or maybe figured he was doing it for fun, why change things? He was also scrupulous about not commingling his regular money with his "gambling money." Even when he left a tip at the blackjack table he made sure to pull it out of his wallet, and not from his bankroll, so he always knew where he stood.

I believe he only played blackjack in Vegas.  It was available in Windsor and later Detroit but I don't think he ever went. He once wrote to me about going to a Casino Night at some local school or church--when he found out dealers won ties he was so disgusted he refused to play.

Our schedules were sometimes a bit off.  I was a late sleeper in LA, he was an early riser in Detroit.  There were times when I'd be coming in from a night of gambling and he'd just be waking up.  But we usually managed to meet in the middle.  We must have stayed at about half the places on the Strip--whichever offered us the best deal.  We went to Vegas so often there were times we acted like a married couple: during meals, I'd read The New York Times and John would read the Wall Street Journal--no need to communicate.

Not that we never talked.  We talked quite a bit.  About gambling, sports, friends, women, whatever.  (Which reminds me, one woman John thought very sexy--Soledad O'Brien.) Maybe the vacation John enjoyed the most was in late 1994.  It was just a few days after the Republicans had taken Congress, and he was walking on air.  He bought every newspaper he could, hoping to read more about how shocked the Democrats were.  (Which reminds me of how he regularly watched political shows--The McLaughlin Group, Capital Gang, Crossfire--this was in the days before Fox News dominated cable.  He once told me he'd watch these shows and hit the mute button when the liberals spoke. I think he was joking, but who knows?)

In one of our earliest trips, we took an excursion to Hoover Dam. I still have the pictures. In later trips, we mostly tried to get in as many hours playing as possible. We considered team play, but figured that would probably take a few others and we didn't know who we could get. We'd also occasionally take a break and see movies out there, such as Apollo 13 and Titanic. He liked both. We also saw some classic Vegas shows--Rodney Dangerfield, Redd Foxx, Allen & Rossi.  He repeated jokes from their acts.  For instance, "my wife and I have sex almost every day of the week--almost Monday, almost Tuesday, almost Wednesday...."

In general, John memorized and repeated certain jokes and it was funny to hear them in his deadpan style.  The irony is he was often much funnier when he wasn't trying to be funny (which is maybe the best kind of funny).  Indeed, he recognized this quality.  His letters were full of stories about big laughs he got at work when he was merely commenting on something in a straightforward manner.

John was a fairly consistent character, but it's not like he never changed. In later years, for instance, football wasn't so all-consuming--perhaps it was replaced by a greater interest in politics. And I'm reminded of the letter where he said prepare to be shocked. What could it be? Did he get married? Was he convicted of insider trading? Turns out he'd become a Catholic. Not being a Christian myself, his conversion from Protestant to Catholic perhaps didn't seem as big a deal to me. I wrote him "you mean you weren't already a Catholic?"

Words fascinated him.  One practice he had was trying to put as many negatives in a sentence as possible.  ("Nevertheless, it's no longer not the case that you aren't..." and so on.) He also enjoyed mixed metaphors, and would send me examples he created.  He particularly liked the phrase "can of worms," and tried to mix that with as many other metaphors as he could.  He also liked this contest for the most boring headline where the winner was, I think, "Cement Supply Seen As Adequate." Runner -up was something like "No Change Seen In Belgian Midterm Election."

Another love was flying.  He became a pilot.  He once flew out with some friends to meet me in Dayton, where there was a rare theatre that showed actual Cinerama.  When he visited out here, he usually spent some time at the airfield before the Vegas trip. In fact, he always planned to fly us out to Vegas.  (It never worked out which is just as well--I consider flying an unpleasant necessity.) His email name was AirReggae.  Oh yes, he also liked Bob Marley.  He said he chose AirReggae because he didn't figure too many people would combine those loves.

He liked many kinds of music--was a big fan of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, for instance--but he favored rock.  He was especially expert on 70s music.  Any top forty hit from that decade he could recognize in just a few notes.  Though his favorite song, he once told me, was Elvis Presley's "(Marie's The Name Of) His Latest Flame."



After I got email, we started communicating on a regular basis, and a few other friends joined in.  In what was a precursor to a blog, there'd be five or six of us discussing philosophical and political issues.  I still have most of those emails.  I often disagreed with John, and if you just read the duels between us, you'd think we're sworn enemies.

It was fun to look over the emails we shot back and forth during the wild 2000 election.  In fact, I never miss John more than when some big political event happens.  He's missed the last ten years, and I can just imagine how he'd have reacted to Barack Obama, or Sarah Palin, or the Tea Party.  Or can I?  I don't know what he'd have said, but I bet he'd have loved it, the good and the bad.

True friends fill niches you weren't aware of.  After you get to know them, it's hard to imagine how things were without them.  John was a true friend, and I still miss him.

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