Sunday, August 31, 2008

Projections


1) David Broder-- who, as Bob Somerby extensively documents, wrote a piece in 2000 mocking Al Gore's acceptance speech for having too many policy specifics-- is back at it in today's Plain Dealer. Broder stakes the claim that Barack Obama's Thursday night speech-- you know, the one seen by 38 million people, the one praised by the pundits, the one that gave him a ten-point bump in the polls-- was a tragic misfire:

The delegates left here happy and enthused, believing that the divisive nomination fight was finally behind them. But their star, Barack Obama, on the climactic night of the conclave, gave an acceptance speech that was no match for the keynote address he delivered at the 2004 convention in Boston....

No one is likely to argue that the speech here "changed politics in America." His jibes at John McCain and George Bush were standard-issue Democratic fare and his recital of a long list of domestic promises could have been delivered by any Democratic nominee....

f this were just an off night by a speaker we know can soar, it would be no more than a blip on the screen. Obama picked a bad night to be ordinary, given the huge crowd that filled the Denver Broncos stadium and the elaborate Grecian setting constructed for his performance.


Some Politics 101 for Mr. Broder: giving a speech as a surrogate is different than giving a speech as a nominee. Yes, Obama's high-flying rhetoric is a transcedent gift, but it's also what people like, um, David Broder were questioning as a deficit in the weeks leading up to the convention, throwing around code words like "lightweight," "celebrity," and "arrogant" to describe what they saw as a policy-lite candidate (as opposed to John McCain's substance). Had Obama come out and not offered a list of proposals or attacks, Broder undoubtedly would've called that a mistake.

2) Geraldine Ferraro likes Sarah Palin, and won't say who she's voting for this fall. So Team Obama's got that going for them. Actually, given Ferraro's own history of corruption and cronyism, her Palin support makes a lot of sense.

3) One candidate mobilizes supporters, while the other sees a photo op: you make the call. Part of me understands McCain's dilemma: he has to wash the memories of the GOP's epic fail on Katrina from voters' heads, and given that Minnesota looked like a PR disaster in the making (and the increasingly bad information about Sarah Palin), I'm sure scaling down the convention (and avoiding the green screen) had a certain appeal. Still, I can't help but remember Bush going to New Orleans to give that speech in the wake of Katrina in 2005. Stories reported that the power in that section of the city was back on, elating its residents-- who didn't realize it was only returning in order to power all the lights and cameras necessary for Bush's speech. Once that ended, the residents were thrown back into the darkness, an apt metaphor for the Administration's overall response, and perhaps a foreshadowing of what we'll see this week, too.

4) MoDo...there are no words. Truly. Except to suggest that in this passage, the deranged Times columinst practically screams her projections to her readers:

Americans, suspicious that the Obamas have benefited from affirmative action without being properly grateful, and skeptical that Michelle really likes “The Brady Bunch” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” reject the 47-year-old black contender as too uppity and untested.

"Americans." Yep, especially a certain red-headed one who occupies precious space on the Times op-ed page, right?

Summer Reading List


Pow! Zap! Bang! He's back! Dennis Cozzalio (superhero name: The Fabulous Blogger) returns with another of his crime-fighting seasonal Movie Quizzes, this one entitled DR. ZACHARY SMITH'S LOST IN THE SPACE AT THE END OF SUMMER MOVIE QUIZ, after the imperious snot on Lost In Space (Dennis doesn't know this, of course, but memories of that televisual monstrosity can literally make my head spin, as I remember watching it one long-ago childhood summer while suffering from the flu. Irwin Allen and I just don't get along).

Labor Day's right around the corner, so let's not put the summer reading off any longer! Please feel free to copy over the questions and provide your own answers in the comments section, or to copy it over to your own blog (but, as always, please link back to Dennis's original post!).

1) Your favorite musical moment in a movie
David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, noted that if he were trapped on a desert island, and could only choose one scene from film history to watch, he'd choose the "Begin The Beguine" number from Broadway Melody of 1940. That's a great number, and so is the "This Heart of Mine" dance between Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer in The Ziegfeld Follies; "Make 'Em Laugh" from Singin' In The Rain (which makes a neat juxtaposition with "Wilkomenn" from Cabaret: it's the dark and light manipulation of the Clown); "Can't Buy Me Love" from A Hard Day's Night and "Falling Slowly" from Once (exuberance jostling against quietly blossoming love); and the eternal pathos of Judy Garland asking-- urging, pleading-- for us to "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."

But, as Mr. Thomson says in another entry in his fine book, a cinephile has to be honest with himself. And if I'm honest- if I was trapped on a desert island, or death row, or a Republican planning meeting-- and I could only have one more musical number before I died, it would have to be "The Girl Hunt" ballet from The Band Wagon, the most sublime sequence in all of American cinema.

2) Ray Milland or Dana Andrews
Ray Milland is so overpoweringly good in The Lost Weekend, and so silkily evil in Dial M For Murder, that I must give him the nod, even though Dana Andrews was more quietly consistent for a longer time (but really only transcendent when he worked with Otto Preminger).

3) Favorite Sidney Lumet movie
If it wasn't such a baggy beast with a bad score, I'd say Serpico, which pops with dozens of startling moments but never quite coheres for me. If it didn't eventually collapse of its own cartoonishness, and thus ironically become what it's criticizing, I might have said Network, because it gives William Holden-- one of my favorite actors-- a dazzlingly good role. If it didn't seem so smugly stuffy and "look at us being old-fashioned and proper," I'd give the nod to Murder On The Orient Express (and I still think Albert Finney is the screen's most enjoyable Poirot). So, I'll go back to the beginning and name 12 Angry Men, a film whose narrative is dated but whose technique is still, 51 years later, amazingly assured.

4) Biggest surprise of the just-past summer movie season
Three: That people made Mamma Mia! a hit; that Robert Downey, Jr. finally became the beloved star he always deserved to be; and that there was such a backlash against The Dark Knight: I knew, once it hit big, that hipster revisionism would inevitably occur (it was like the Nevermind of summer movies that way), but I didn't expect the arguments to get as fierce as they did.

5) Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth
Was this question on the winter version of the quiz? I'll stick with Rita, my answer back in December.

6) What’s the last movie you saw on DVD? In theaters?
DVD: The Golden Compass; In theaters: Mamma Mia!.

Why on earth wasn't The Golden Compass a hit? I know Philip Pullman's books aren't the monster franchise of the Harry Potter novels, and that the movie faced predictable criticisms from fans (who complained about changes) and the religious right (who made it 2007's cinematic equivalent of the Fox News "War On Christmas" meme)-- but damn! Does this movie ever look spectacular: it's like seeing Jules Verne come to life, and that high-flying imagery is grounded in a smart, witty screenplay, and wry performances from Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman and the remarkable Eva Green that were both richly detailed and larger-than-life all at once. Unlike so many family fantasy films, which can feel overly scrubbed and CGI'ed, this was a trip through a textured, cinephiliac imagination, and I can only hope its mixed box office doesn't prevent sequels.

I teased Mamma Mia! above, but it's not without its pleasures: Meryl Streep chews the scenery as if she's been told by Jeffrey Cordova to give him the "whole eight-eighths!," but she sings well enough; Pierce Brosnan is fine in the dramatic scenes, but sounds like Nashville Skyline-era Dylan when he hums a tune, to the point where you want to yell at him to not sing through his nose. The rest of the cast is also fine (although, as some critic noted, when Christine Baranski is the one underplaying onscreen, you know something's gone horribly wrong), and the narrative does a surprisingly good job of crafting a workable book out of disparate ABBA songs.

A little ABBA goes a long way, though, and so does direction that should really be called (if one is feeling generous) 'direction': possessed of a need to zoom not seen since the glory days of Robert Altman, Phyllida Lloyd almost never lets us get our bearings or catch our breath, until Mamma Mia begins to feel like the bastard child of Baz Luhrmann and Can't Stop The Music. There's a hypnotic awfulness to the musical numbers, whose campiness might be enjoyable if it was done with any degree of flair (I did like the chorus line of cabana boys in flippers, though). The choreography is atrocious, and the increasingly frantic piling on of number after number gives the movie the unsettling feeling of forced 'fun' (as proto-blogger Cordelia Chase once put it, "Note my airquotes around the word 'fun.').

I knew, from the previews, that the numbers would be an assault, and that the film would offer a number of dreaded audience sing-along moments, so I steeled myself for all that. But I wish it had taken its cue, not from "Dancing Queen" or "S.O.S.," but from "Slipping Through My Fingers," the quiet, lovely solo number Streep gets 2/3 of the way into the film. Shot as a series of long takes, the ballad is set to images of Streep helping her daughter get dressed for the wedding, and it's one of the few places where the actress clamps down on her manic behavior and lets us see the warmth, pain and reflection beneath it all. It contextualizes and humanizes the rest of the movie, and in its own way, it's deeply touching.

7) Irwin Allen’s finest hour?
This might be the most oxymoronic question in the history of the Internet.

8) What were the films where you would rather see the movie promised by the poster than the one that was actually made?
1) Underworld: The poster's mixture of Les Vampires-style expressionism, John Woo-ish action and comic book camp was so much more interesting than the ugly mismash of the movie itself.

2) Sin City: The poster promised noir thrills, while the movie provided no thrills (although it compensated with an excess of misogynistic nihilism and unintentional hilarity).

3) The Boris Karloff Mummy: I love the art of Classic Hollywood movie posters, but there's probably no way the film could deliver on the eerie, exotic mysteriousness of this poster, with its painted, pulp cover art. I was just surprised at how dull the actual film was, less the creepy slow build of Dracula or Frankenstein than the talky staginess of an early thirties prestige dud like Cavalcade.

9) Chow Yun-Fat or Tony Leung
Falling out of a building with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and both guns ablazing in Hard-Boiled? Steadily anchoring the corporate dualisms and pained betrayals of The Killer? Offering more wit and grace to Anna and the King than it really deserved? Bringing the weight of nostalgia to Crouching TIger? Gotta be Chow Yun-Fat.

10) Most pretentious movie ever
Wow. Where to begin? And how do we define it? Prestige pictures like those of Merchant-Ivory are an easy (and often apt) target, but I think i'd rather watch Howard's End than a million There Will Be Bloods. Kevin Smith's work-- with its insistence on an insular, jus' folks hipster dialect--is as pretentious as anything from Antonioni (and far more grating). Coen brothers comedies step in dungpiles of pretentious nihilism that their dramas nimbly avoid. And does anyone really need to watch Cavalcade or any Cecil B. DeMille film for any reason except historical completism and curiosity?

Also, pretension isn't necessarily a bad thing: one might argue that Michael Snow's Wavelength is the most pretentious movie ever made, but it's also one of the most beautiful and subtle. Truffaut's The Green Room and Two English Girls were once criticized as pretentious, but now they're rightly noted as some of his most deeply felt work. And even if he's probably an asshole, I love the films of David O. Russell precisely because they messily overreach and want to say 600 things at once, in a generous, operatic voice (and don't even get me started on defending Wes Anderson).

Instead of "most pretentious movie ever," I think I'd rather offer my all-time favorite Most Pretentious Critic's Line Ever. Our winner is, unsurprisingly, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, a man who never saw an Oliver Stone movie he couldn't praise. It comes from his review of 1996's The Saint, and although I have not laid eyes on the review since I read it on an el train twelve years ago, this line is forever seared into my brain:

"The film is the apotheosis of the New Incoherence."

That, my friends, is pretension.

11) Favorite Russ Meyer movie
I've only seen Beyond The Valley of The Dolls, but Lord, do I love that film.

12) Name the movie that you feel best reflects yourself, a movie you would recommend to an acquaintance that most accurately says, “This is me.”

The me I am, or the me I want to be? I'd love to say I'm as cool as Bogart or Belmondo, as smooth as Cary Grant or as warm as James Stewart. My favorite films offer worlds and philosophical/aesthetic spaces to escape into: Rules of the Game, Casablanca, Breathless, The Big Sleep, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Some Came Running, The Band Wagon, Trouble In Paradise, Duck Soup, Only Angels Have Wings, The Red Shoes, Goldfinger.

In a sense, then, all of those movies are "me," in different ways. But if I had to choose one film that really spoke to me, and spoke in different ways at different times, I guess I'd choose Annie Hall. I've seen it too many times to count (really-- I know I've seen it at least twelve or fifteen times, probably more), and it's the film whose infinitely quotable screenplay I probably know the best. And it works for me the way that La Dolce Vita works for Roger Ebert:

Movies do not change, but their viewers do. When I saw "La Dolce Vita'' in 1960, I was an adolescent for whom "the sweet life'' represented everything I dreamed of: sin, exotic European glamour, the weary romance of the cynical newspaperman. When I saw it again, around 1970, I was living in a version of Marcello's world; Chicago's North Avenue was not the Via Veneto, but at 3 a.m. the denizens were just as colorful, and I was about Marcello's age.

When I saw the movie around 1980, Marcello was the same age, but I was 10 years older, had stopped drinking, and saw him not as a role model but as a victim, condemned to an endless search for happiness that could never be found, not that way. By 1991, when I analyzed the film a frame at a time at the University of Colorado, Marcello seemed younger still, and while I had once admired and then criticized him, now I pitied and loved him. And when I saw the movie right after Mastroianni died, I thought that Fellini and Marcello had taken a moment of discovery and made it immortal. There may be no such thing as the sweet life. But it is necessary to find that out for yourself.


I don't remember how old I was when I first saw Annie Hall, probably fourteen or fifteen. Alvy's nervy, nerdy wit and moral self-righteousness seemed appealing. I loved the film's formal plays (especially the internal monologues of Alvy and Annie as they flirt on the balcony), and immediately fell in love with Diane Keaton (that love is the only constant in my appreciation of the film). As sad as the ending is, it had an open-endedness that felt hopeful, and the movie's vision of adult love was alluring, particularly in a geeky adolescence.

When I saw the film again, countless times, in college, Alvy was still a role model, but I also felt myself distancing from him, more and more put off by his neuroses, and beginning to feel sorry for Annie. The formal play still dazzled, but it was more the atmosphere of the film that appealed: that world of smart, beautiful people talking about art and literature and cinema while disparaging television: very appealing to a college freshman.

When I started to teach film classes in graduate school, I would teach the movie, and found myself as fascinated by what the students responded to as by my own reactions: everyone seemed to like Annie's "la di da, la di da" monologue at the tennis courts, with some students actually clapping in intense identification with her insecurities. I also noticed, more than ever, its structural brilliance-- how its fragmented narrative drew on Surrealism, 60s art cinema and vaudeville in equal measure, and created a series of rich ironies that my more singular, fifteen-year old self never would've noticed.

Now, I still love all of that, but I've come to have a renewal of sympathy for both Alvy and Annie in equal measure. I wouldn't want to be either of them, with their wracked, devouring emotional problems, but I have tremendous affection for the film's generosity: however grating they may get, it lets both of them have an equal measure of screen time to make their arguments, and its finds a level of open-ended grace that I desperately wish Allen (and all romantic comedy makers) would return to.

13) Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo
Ooh, damn-- that's tough. Dietrich is the more skilled actress, but Garbo is the greater icon, and she inspired one of my favorite film essays, Roland Barthes' "The Face of Garbo." So, I'll say Greta by a porcelain cheek.

14) Best movie snack? Most vile movie snack?
Best: Dots and popcorn together (not literally mixed, but you have to bring both the sweet and the salty into the theater with you). Worst? Movie nachos-- dripping with gross fake cheese, which is usually spread over stale chips and then smothered in lukewarm jalapenos. As appealing as Pearl Harbor.

15) Current movie star who would be most comfortable in the classic Hollywood studio system
My immediate impulse was to say George Clooney, undoubtedly-- as many people have pointed out, he already seems like a product of that era, and his screen persona is certainly the closest we have to actors of that period (at least for men). But then I realized his hyphenate status and indie desires would mean he'd feel confined within that seven-year contract (although he'd do spectacularly varied work-- can't you just imagine Clooney in something like an Anthony Mann western?).

I wondered if Clooney's Ocean's 11 mate Matt Damon might not be a good answer, because he has a great range, and seems very comfortable just being a working actor who can go from action to comedy to drama in a snap. But Damon wouldn't be a star necessarily in the studio era, but a wonderful character actor like John Garfield or his fellow Patricia Highsmith actor, Robert Walker. Cate Blanchett certainly would've thrived in the studio era, and so would Joan Allen and Mary-Louise Parker.

But I wonder if I couldn't tweak the question a bit-- not who would feel more comfortable in the studio era, but who would benefit from it? And oddly, for all her indie rep, I would nominate Parker Posey. Posey is a dazzingly gifted actress whose talents are only intermittently well-used in contemporary films; in the studio era, working in several films a year, she'd be Eve Arden and Katharine Hepburn both, easily moving from melodrama to wisecracking screwball dame to gangly dancer in a Bob Fosse routine. And she'd be fabulous.

16) Fitzcarraldo—yes or no?
Yes, because then you can see Burden of Dreams, perhaps the best movie about moviemaking ever made.

17) Your assignment is to book the ultimate triple bill to inaugurate your own revival theater. What three movies will we see on opening night?
The Red Shoes, The Crime of M. Lange, and Something Wild-- three deeply personal tales of creativity, community, madness, and hope, and how the overlaps between all four open up new spaces of possibility.

18) What’s the name of your theater? (The all-time greatest answer to this question was once provided by Larry Aydlette, whose repertory cinema, the Demarest, is, I hope, still packing them in…)
The Duck Soup

19) Favorite Leo McCarey movie
Duck Soup, a film that feels more like a documentary with each passing year. My Son John is also insanely great (or greatly insane, whichever).

20) Most impressive debut performance by an actor/actress.
This question is frustrating because I'm more impressed with the way careers develop than how they start: Cary Grant is certainly the greatest actor in the history of cinema, but does anyone really love (or get the chance to see) This Is The Night?

My two choices embody this: they are not debuts, but they feel like debuts, and they are certainly the moment when the actors are noticed: Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows: so good, this very gifted actor could never escape it; and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (oddly, also a tale about adolescence of a sort, and also setting a mold the actor never quite escaped, although she seemed happier in it than Leaud).

21) Biggest disappointment of the just-past summer movie season
Could Judd Apatow please go back to the spirit of Freaks & Geeks? Please? Pretty please?

22) Michelle Yeoh or Maggie Cheung
No one rocks a leather costume like Cheung, or finds so many shades of feeling and ambiguity within the meta layers of Irma Vep

23) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Overrated
John McCain

24) 2008 inductee into the Academy of the Underrated
Well, Disaster Movie, clearly.

25) Fritz the Cat—yes or no?
Yes, definitely-- I've taught it twice and it always inspires great conversation, perhaps because it both embodies and punctures all those moldy hippie dreams and nightmares of the sixties with such a savage, conflicted edge.

26) Trevor Howard or Richard Todd
Trevor Howard-- Brief Encounter is my favorite David Lean film.

27) Antonioni once said, “I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.” What filmmaker working today most fruitfully ignores the rules? What does ignoring the rules of cinema mean in 2008?
*Ahem* (He warms up his best professorial voice...) It seems like today's filmmaking is both un-hierarchical (with cable and Netflix and Torrent and other service providers offering all kinds of choices) and also deeply stratified (we can see practically anything, but we only choose to see certain things-- out of economics, aesthetic taste, ideological insistence, etc.). There are certainly a lot of rules, but it often feels like they are more of an imposition on audiences (who are fearful to leave their cliques and risk looking unpopular, too popular, unhip, un- or too snarky, etc.). I mean, look at the flame wars that can erupt even on film blogs, especially if a film is insufficiently praised or castigated (poor Dave Kehr suggested on his blog last fall that No Country For Old Men was not actually the second coming of Citizen Kane, and commentors acted like he'd outed Valerie Plame).

So, I think the biggest breakers of the rules are those who try to bridge or ignore those viewer gaps, and those who challenge on the level of tone. In an era when even our superhero movies must go dark to get street cred, I'll nominate Wes Anderson: he's not afraid to live inside his own head (a place where a lot of great filmmakers have lived), but also longs to generously share the contents of that head with his viewers. His films are accused of being twee, because they're as finely composed as music boxes or gingerbread houses, but that gorgeous artificiality is just the entry point for a deep, rich exploration of life's joys, pains and paradoxes. No one is a hero or a villain in Anderson's films (that avoidance of binaries might be what sets off filmgoers, even--especially-- the hipster ones, whose WTF cool often masks a deep conservatism), and everyone is allowed a moment to dance.

28) Favorite William Castle movie
Matinee

29) Favorite ethnographically oriented movie
How are we defining the term? I don't know if it fits, exactly, but I really love Michael Apted's Up films, which are simultaneously social document and cinephiliac drama. I also love, in a completely different way, Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, the perfect mixture of character study and essay film.

30) What’s the movie coming up in 2008 you’re most looking forward to? Why?
I'm curious to see if the Coens can keep up their consistency with Burn After Reading or if they'll revert to their one-off/one-on rhythm; I always look forward to new Richard Linklater films (and one with Zac Effron just sounds so counter-intuitive that it intrigues); and of course, I'm deeply curious about Quantum of Solace.

31) What deceased director would you want to resurrect in order that she/he might make one more film?
Either Hitchcock (can you imagine what he'd do with CGI?) or his cinematic son, Truffaut. Then I'd like them to do another book together.

32) What director would you like to see, if not literally entombed, then at least go silent creatively?
Can we take away Darren Aronofsky's DGA card, please?

33) Your first movie star crush
Not a movie star, but a TV star-- my young, six-year old self seriously crushed on Erin Gray when she starred on my favorite TV show, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Yes, she was incredibly beautiful, but it was also that her character, Col. WIlma Deering, was smart and funny and tough-- she didn't get to do as much as she should've (oh, for someone like Joss Whedon to remake the show, and finally give Wilma her due!), but that strength and confidence on display was the real attraction. I laughed when I read an interview with Ms. Gray where she said she'd met so many fans who told her variations on my story that she was thinking of getting a t-shirt made that said, "I know-- I was your first."

Sunday Music Flashback: She Sits Very Quiet And Still

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hard Right Eight


She's an advocate of creationism.

She doesn't believe in abortion, even in the case of rape and incest, choosing to trumpet her own admirable decision to have her own baby while overlooking that she desperately wants to take such decision-making away from other women.

She's used her power to manipulate law enforcement, engage in cronyism, and wipe clean her record online (no wonder she was endorsed by both Bush and McCain).

She's in the pocket of Big Oil.

She doesn't believe in global warming, and went on Glenn Beck to say so.

She ran a $20 million-dollar debt as Mayor of Wassilla.

She supported Pat Buchanan for President in 1996 and 1999.

She seems confused about whether or not she supported the "Bridge To Nowhere."

She's a favorite of James Dobson.

She was for Hillary Clinton, except when she was against her.

She seems confused about the job for which she's running.

She sat and chuckled as radio hosts mocked a cancer survivor (and as they called the woman a "bitch").

America, I give you your new 'maverick,' 'hockey mom' vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin!

Building on my good friend Bob's joke, I think I might have preferred Michael Palin, particularly if he was playing the kind animal lover in A Fish Called Wanda...

Yesterday, I honestly didn't know what to think of this VP pick. The Babe and I discussed it a lot via email and phone calls, and I think we both agreed that it's born of rank and desperate political calculation. Which doesn't mean it won't work.

Clearly designed as a strategic move to peel away the shrinking group of supposed PUMA voters, McCain's pick of Palin also seems designed to keep presumptive Obama supporters (and Obama himself) off-guard. Jane Hamsher, one of my favorite bloggers, seemed a bit gun-shy yesterday about criticizing Palin's inexperience, and the "XXX Factor" bloggers at Slate, who've had some excellent commentary this political season, seemed so dazzled by the prospect of a female veep that they praised the pick to the sky, while overlooking how bad Palin was on actual issues (to say nothing of how insulting the idea of Palin=Clinton really is: in experience and ideology, they are almost polar opposites ); Dahlia Lithwick even said that the McCain campaign knew how to "game" the system better than Obama did, a Freudian slip that might say more about the vapid, Republican-friendly media than Lithwick intended (Frank Rich also reminds us of how bizarre such a remark is, given that Obama might be the most techno-savvy Presidential candidate since JFK).

That was yesterday, though, and as time has passed and more information about Palin has come out, I actually wonder how long she'll remain on the ticket. I don't doubt that Palin carries appeal for many middle-class voters, particularly evangelicals. And I'd like a female vice-president, too (although I wonder why Palin would be an acceptable substitute for some Clinton supporters, but the far more accomplished and interesting Kathleen Sebelius-- who I was hoping Obama might choose-- was vociferously shot down by Clinton supporters this summer as an insulting stand-in for Hillary). But I don't want this far-right woman, a theocrat through and through, anywhere near the White House. The Babe suggested last night that the best thing Team Obama could do would be to congratulate Palin, and say, "We look forward to debating her on the issues." That most essential of commentators, the fabulous Digby, said something similar today, and I think they are both correct: yes, Palin's inexperience is an issue, because John McCain made that question central to his attacks on Obama this year. But let's take the GOP at face value and look at Palin's record and expreriences: there's more than enough odiousness underneath Palin's personable life-story that the campaign can and should go after. After a slightly shaky start, that seems to be the Obama campaign's move, and they've rightly adjusted back to the main question: Palin or not, do you really want Colonel Tigh as your President?:



Sarah Palin, radical break with the Republican past? Only if we ignore what Rich notes in the closing lines of his Op-Ed: "As Obama said, this is a big election. We will only begin to confront the magnitude of our choice when and if we stop being distracted by small, let alone utterly fictitious, things."

Funny Face



Happy (belated?*) birthday, Donald O'Connor!

(*IMDb lists August 28, while this normally reliable site says it's today. But either way, I only need the flimsiest of excuses to post that fabulous musical number above)

Saturday Music Flashback: Margaret Thatcher In Beijing

Friday, August 29, 2008

Be Seeing You


Blogger extraordinaire Jim Emerson is on a tear: after last week's wonderful defense of film criticism, he's back this week with a fantastic multi-media example of it. It's a 12 minute and nineteen second analysis of the opening credits of The Prisoner, the brilliant 1967 British cult series that starred (and was produced by) Patrick McGoohan. The 17 episode series (it ran only one season, giving it the dense, novelesque feel of an amazing miniseries) tells the tale of a spy who resigns from the Secret Service, and is then gassed and taken away to a mysterious "Village," from which he tries to escape over the course of the show. He doesn't know where he is, or why he's there (only that the Village masters demand "information!"), and he even lacks a name, referred to only as "Number Six" (his lead captors-- they generally change with each episode-- call themselves "Number Twos"). Imagine James Bond as filtered through Lewis Carroll and Andre Breton: it's less a thriller (although it's plenty exciting) than a surreal discourse on the nature of the self, the elasticity of genre, and what we mean when we discuss the stakes of knowledge (in many ways, it predicts the questions that will dominate poststructuralist criticism for decades). And it looks incredibly cool, a Swingin' London day-glo aesthetic wrapped around a Rousseau-like vision of natural utopia whose ideologies get turned inside out, and made insidious.

All of this demands close analysis, and in Emerson, The Prisoner has found an apt narrator: choosing to structure his critique as a film, he runs the opening credits twice, stopping and starting, freeze-framing on images that catch his eye, layering other music over the imagery in order to call attention to items or ideas in the frame, and to make theoretical links out from the text. All of this might seem unbearably pretentious if Emerson himself weren't so witty (it's a trip in itself to finally hear Emerson's voice after all these years of reading his prose), weren't so intent on sharing his geeky enthusiasm in such a fun, generous way. It would make a fantastic teaching tool, or example for class presentations. Describing one moment in the credits (as McGoohan walks down a shadowy hallway), Emerson says, "It's kind of like the flicker of the movies themselves," something we could also say of his poetic, cinephiliac analysis.

Keeping The Faith



Like the America he is set to lead, Barack Obama's acceptance speech last night was a crazy quilt of rhetorical modes and verbal flourishes, seemingly paradoxical mixtures of policy and emotion held together and uplifted by force of charisma and imagination. In 40 very strong, often brilliant, and very moving minutes, Obama reminded how false the binaries around which we too often structure our social contract (peace vs. patriotism, individual vs. community, government vs. private) really are. In doing so, he solidified his claim on the Democratic party, and may have sealed his election in the fall (at the very least, he established that John McCain would be playing by his rules, not those of Rove and Co.), but he also achieved something greater-- he turned the night back on its audience, and allowed this moment of transcendence to be, not just about him or the election, but about everyone in the stadium, and everyone watching at home:

I realize I'm not the typical candidate for this office, I don't have the typical pedigree. But what the naysayers don't understand is that this election has never been about me -- it's about you. For eighteen long months, you have stood up and said enough to the politics of the past. You have shown what history teaches us -- at defining moments like this one, changes doesn't come from Washington, changes comes to Washington.

Change comes because the American people demand it. Because they rise up and insist on new leadership, on new politcs for better times. Change is going to come, because I've seen it and I've lived it. In Illinois.... In Washington....

And I've seen it in this campaign, in the young people who voted for the first time, and int he young at heart who got involved again. And in Repulicans who never thought they'd pick up a Democratic ballot -- but they did.

With neighbors who would take a stranger in when a hurricane strikes and the flood water rises.

We have the strongest military in the world, but that's not what makes us strong. Our universities are the envy of the world, but that's not what makes us smarter. What is better is around the bend -- that promise has led immigrants to cross oceans, and pioneers to move west, and to make women reach for the ballot box. And 45 years ago today, that promise brought Americans to the mall in Washington to hear a young preacher from georgia speak of his dream. People in America could have heard anger or submission -- but what they heard instead is that, in America, our destiny is inextricibly linked. That our dreams are not alone.

We cannot turn back. America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done, with so many children to educate, with so many veterans to care for, and so many lives to mend. We cannot turn back, we cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must walk into the future and keep hold to the future.


There were many things to like about this speech, especially the way it confidently responded to numerous criticisms the campaign had received from both the left and the right about Obama's supposedly vague "high-mindedness" (is that like being "arrogant"?). Tonight he clearly laid out policies on education, the war, taxes and the economy, among other areas. He also wittily defused-- almost casually mocked-- McCain's obsession with the "Obama celebrity" meme, by speaking in a heartfelt manner about his childhood and linking it to the hopes and dreams of other middle- and working-class Americans: "I don't know how John McCain thinks celebrities live, but this has been my life." The casual defusion, linked with the weight of Obama's policy specifics, simultaneously diminished McCain and added impressive gravitas to Obama's appearance this evening: I've wanted him to be President for months, but I don't know that I've ever seen him look so Presidential, so confident and cool. Bill Clinton said Wednesday night that he believed Obama was ready to be Commander-In-Chief: this was Obama's coming out party, and it was thrilling.

But not as thrilling as watching Obama open a can of whup-ass on John McCain. I will go to bed tonight dreaming of the night sweats Karl Rove must be having, as Obama coolly demolished McCain's maverick image, reminded us of the catastrophes of the last eight years, and forcefully-- rightly-- linked them to John McCain and his 90% voting approval of George W. Bush. Speaking of the Sidekick's sychophantic Senate record, Obama noted that "America can't afford a 10% chance of change." He smoothly made the case for McCain's cluelessness on, well, everything: "It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it." Talking with The Babe on the phone tonight after the speech, she was very impressed with how skillfully Obama attacked McCain again and again on policy without making it personal. I think that's right, and I'm also impressed with Obama's use of humor: his cuts were devastating not only because of their accuracy, but because their wit diminished McCain. The more the campaign can make McCain look ridiculous without losing a substantive and positive approach, the better chance they have of winning in November.

It was an exciting speech, even if it wasn't the full flight of rhetorical gorgeousness that we've come to expect from Barack Obama this year: in jazz terms, it was less ostentatious Dizzy Gillespie than Kind of Blue-era Miles: a bad-ass who knows precisely where to drop his solos and flourishes, and whose music gains from the focused minimalism and subtlety. But he still inspired the crowd, leading a couple of audience chants (one of which was built around, of all things, an Eight Is Enough joke), and linking this moment to past moments and leaders who moved and achieved: Roosevelt, JFK, MLK. But it was Bobby Kennedy, not Jack, that I thought of as Obama closed his remarks.

"There are those who look at things the way they are," Kennedy famously noted, "and ask why... I dream of things that never were and ask why not." Like the community organizer he once was (and still, in many ways still is), Obama linked tonight to us, to everyone, to every one who might be listening, worrying, struggling and hoping, reminding us that we are, at once, irreducible individuals and indivisible and overlapping communities. The lengthy passage near the top is a brilliant political move-- creating a sense of community in your audience and centering them to your purpose always is-- but also a crucial reminder that we are that crazy quilt nation: we are large, we contain multitudes. And those seeming contradictions and paradoxes can become the engines of our imagination, the seeds of our change. The "audacity of hope" still freaks some bloggers out, I think, even on the left-- it's so much easier to wallow in our hipster cynicism, or occasional, passive-aggressive calculation. But after a week of slow builds and brilliantly crafted new narratives about American possibility, tonight's Mile High love-fest was a reminder that there's a better future out their for us, if we dare to envision it.

Yes, we can.

Friday Music Flashback: So What



From The Steve Allen Show, 1964.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Smash-Mouth and The Rising


They played Springsteen's "The Rising" after Joe Biden's speech tonight, the latest in this evening's menu of sonic nostalgia: Clinton's Fleetwood Mac song, U2's "Beautiful Day" (which played following Kerry's speech in '04), and now Bruce (perhaps a memory back to his 2004 election tour). Recorded and released after 9/11, The Rising was Springsteen's response to that trauma, his affirmation of hope and community in the face of terror and destruction. I'm fairly certain the metaphorical return to that moment is no accident: Team Obama must know that, in addition to reminding Dems of one of their favorite liberal rockers, the song also acts as a subtle indictment of the squandered possibility of that moment, and what it might mean to try to rebuild the community of hope Springsteen constantly envisions.

I never thought I'd hear a presidential candidate say, as Barack Obama did tonight of Hillary Clinton's speech, that someone "rocked the house." That makes me feel good: it signifies a generational shift in the same way that the '92 Dems showing up on Arsenio Hall did, but it's also a reminder that this is a candidate supremely comfortable in his own skin.

There seemed to be an outbreak of tsuris-- exacerbated by the piss-poor cable and network coverage-- among some of the progressive blogs that there weren't enough attacks on McCain at the convention, that there was too much concentration on fluff and personality. Well, I would imagine any such fears were laid to rest tonight: from John Kerry's strafe bombing of McCain's foreign policy record; to the heartfelt testimonies and critiques of various service personnel; to Bill Clinton's catalogue of Bush-era malfeasance, tonight's speeches built on Hillary Clinton's critique last night, until Joe Biden came out and led a chant of "more of the same!" while angrily nailing failure after failure. Biden's speech was interesting-- he faced the same issue Al Gore did in '92, of being a well-known public official who nevertheless had to (re)introduce himself to the American people, while also playing the attack dog role expected of the VP. Biden seemed a bit nervous at first, perhaps concerned that his infamous reputation for logorhea might get him in trouble. There were moments when he stumbled and stuttered; but he also found ways to improvise and use those moments, telling stories of a childhood stammer that forced him to defend himself against bullying attacks (which became a metaphor for battling the McCain campaign), and echoing John Kerry's slip of the tongue (both Kerry and Biden mentioned McCain meant Bush) by calling it a "Freudian slip." At first, I thought he was spending too much time on the personal stuff, as well-written and touching as it was, but by the end he'd built to a rapturous indictment of the policy failures and destruction of hope of the last eight years, finding a way to fold his personal story back in and reminding us that we all have personal stakes in public policy.

That kind of slow build-- what dday, over at the Digby site, has been calling Obama's "long game"-- was a hallmark of this convention, and really of many of the recent decisions of the Obama campaign. Monday was the easing in, the reintroduction of the candidate after a couple of weeks away. Tuesday was the Clinton catharsis and reunification of the party. Having come back together, tonight everyone trained their sights on McCain, and smash-mouthed the hell out of him (I'm still buzzed). And tomorrow, having smacked around the opponent, the convention turns back to the candidate, and his vision for change.

It's not an immediately apparent structure, and its slow build clearly drove some people crazy (as does Obama sanguine response to shifting poll numbers). But I find myself pretty impressed; the thought I have now is, "These people know exactly who they are, and exactly what they're doing." Slowly building a ground-up community, internet and voter registration network is a risk because the potentially huge electoral payoff isn't immediately visible. Choosing Biden was a risk because there was no immediate political payoff (as there might have been with Clinton). Delaying the McCain bashing was a risk because it might make your supporters antsy. Speaking outside tomorrow is a hugely scary risk because of all of the logistical things that could go wrong. But it all suggests to me that Obama has kind of cool confidence in himself and those around him, derived not from the wealthy frat-boy arrogance of Bush (the calm assurance that Daddy will always bail him out), but because he and his staff have worked their asses off, and have seen it all pay off so far. It's rather thrilling, it's kind of bad-ass, and I'm fairly certain that we used to call it "leadership."

Game on, GOP.

Woof Woof


The former president that firedoglake refers to as "Big Dawg" just finished his speech, and now the wife of a Marine is speaking on stage (she's actually really good-- smart and passionate, and there's something nice about the unpolished style in the face of all the professional politicians onstage. This seems like foreign policy night-- Clinton talked about it in his speech, and following his talk, two former high-ranking military officers gave speeches talking about service, Iraq and torture, nicely summarizing touchy issues and lending the critiques the imprimatur of military knowledge).

There's something surreal about the idea of Bill Clinton as party elder statesman-- the picture on the FDL blog looked like it dated from '92, but that Bill Clinton is long gone, replaced by the wry, white-haired man who would almost be a ghost if he didn't retain that core of intelligence, wit, rage and charisma that powered him through two terms. He remains the most brilliant politician of his generation-- the smartest, the wonkiest, the most gifted in both policy and emotion-- but the irony of his '92 theme song, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," playing behind him as he entered the stage couldn't be missed: especially after his antics in the primaries, this speech would have to act as catharsis, mea culpa, affirmation of support and graceful exit/benediction.

That's a tall order, and I think he mostly came through, even if it wasn't as much of a barn-burner as I would've liked. Clinton's speech lacked the emotional electricity and connection of Michelle Obama's on Monday night, or the sweeping tie of policy and emotion that Hillary Clinton's did last night. That's to be expected-- he doesn't have the direct emotional connection that Michelle does, nor the emotional stake in this year's election that Hillary did. And I can't help but think he had the good sense to tamp down some of his own rhetorical magic, so as not to outshine the nominee this year (as he arguably did to Gore in 2000). The speech wasn't as warmly funny or cutting as his speech in support of John Kerry in 2004-- there seemed to be, in his speaking, a slight sense of wariness after the bruising primary season, and perhaps some lingering paternalism: the constant affirmation of what Obama will do was nice, and accurate, but sometimes came across as calming reassurance rather than sheer bloody endorsement (I don't know what to think about the explicit endorsement of Obama's "Commander-in-Chief" credentials-- it's nice, and I know it's necessary given the attacks on Obama, but I wish it wasn't necessary, as it frankly feels condescending).

Clinton seemed most comfortable when talking about himself and his administration's successes, and when talking about Hillary's race for the nomination: there, his humor and gift for making each person in the audience feel connected to him really shone through.

He was also very good at noting the dozens of policy failtures-- both foreign and domestic, from the economy to AIDS to Katrina to torture to taxes to corporate cronyism. Talking about complex ideas in comprehensible ways, without reducing their complexity, is something Clinton has always been good at-- it's one of the things that made 1992 such a fun election year. Here, his lingering need to keep talking about his own accomplishments really paid off-- he could draw a clear contrast between his eight years and the last eight years, while tying the best aspects of his administration to Obama's future. It was a deft use of nostalgia, and precisely what Clinton should do on the campaign trail. His warm endorsement of Joe Biden also acted as subtle way of diffusing whatever lingering PUMA nonsense about the VP slot might still be making the rounds.

What shouldn't Bill Clinton do on the trail? Talk about John McCain's honor. Talk about how John McCain is his friend. Talk about how he's a good man who loves his country. Look-- I get wanting to be positive, and I understand this is a tricky meme for the Party, who don't want to alienate independent voters. But I'm with Josh Marshall: these paeans to McCain have to stop. He's not a good man, and whatever "honor" he might have once had, it's long since been squandered on pandering to the worst aspects of American political culture these last eight years. Just let it go, and don't do the GOP convention's work for them.

As I typed this, John Kerry spoke onstage. Rhetorically, he's Bill Clinton's opposite-- slightly monotone, physically awkward, occasionally slipping on his punchlines (although he got off some good one-liners, self-deprecatingly referencing 2004 attacks on his supposed "flip-flopping" and turning them on McCain-- "Talk about being for it before you were against it. Before John McCain debates Barack Obama, he should finish the debate with himself"-- yes). But his intelligence and passion are clear, and his sharp, debate-style slash attacks on McCain's policy blunders and character attacks suggest that his 2004 loss liberated him to once again become the speaker he was in 1971. I can't really explain why I find his speech so touching, despite the occasionally wincing verbal trips on words. Maybe it's just because John Kerry just comes across as a tough, decent man, and as such, an apt surrogate for this year's candidate.

UPDATE #1: Steven Spielberg's film about the vets is very touching-- smart, full of good anecdotes and hitting all the right notes about the meaning of military service. But man-- I groaned when Tom Hanks appeared at the end. Good guy, good actor-- but can we get over this notion of Hanks as our national spokesman, please?

UPDATE #2: Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth (who also acts as the Illinois Veterans Affairs Department Director) is giving one of the best speeches I've heard at the convention so far-- smart, moving, both personal and policy-driven, and utterly demolishing the false jingoism of Bush-McCain (love the line about "a borrowed flight suit"). Her presence on the stage mocks all of the false machismo of the last eight years, and her forthright manner of speaking is a simple reminder of the real meaning of patriotism.

Lift-Off

I missed the convention in real time last night, choosing to catch Mamma Mia! at the local bargain theater (and trust me, that's where you want to catch it). So I had to catch up with the speeches via the Internet. I particularly regret missing Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, who was apparently a hoot, and Bob Casey, whose one liner about McCain's record of support for the Bush agenda--"That's not a maverick-- that's a sidekick!"-- is fantastic: it not only aptly describes McCain, but makes him look like the small, whiny kid that he truly is.

Senator Clinton spoke tonight. I didn't vote for her in the Ohio primary, and I found myself immensely frustrated and annoyed by her campaign this past spring. This, however, is a great speech:



Structurally, it's incredibly effective, starting by acknowledging her star power within the party; moving those in the convention hall (particularly her supporters) through her campaign history as a reminder of its electoral victories and historic resonance; shifting from a focus on her to a focus on her supporters, and then the larger issues the country faces; then, after all of that memory and emotion and policy need has been built to a fever pitch, turning the question back on the audience-- do you support me, or do you support my agenda?

It allowed any of her die-hards in the crowd to have the "catharsis" we'd been hearing about for two months, while also gently nudging them towards an important self-analysis. And in doing so, it became a variation on what Carter and Kennedy did last night-- deploying the emotional power of the Democratic past at the service of its future. Like the brilliant lawyer that she is, Clinton wove an argument rich with both anecdotal and statistical evidence, marshaled both logical and emotional argument, tied her audience to her speech in a deep way, and then turned and released all of that in supoort of Obama. "If you believe in me," she seemed to be saying, "You should believe in him." That slow build of the first half suddenly became a fast-moving wave of rhetoric in the second. This included a litany of what Obama would do as President; sly nods-- "when the ads are finally off the air"-- to McCain's ridiculous PUMA ads (no links to idiots, sorry); crucial reminders of the policy successes of the Clinton years that linked that success to Obama without feeling nostalgic; nods to Michelle Obama and Joe Biden; and a number of good one-liners (my favorite was the "Twin Cities" joke about McCain-Bush).

Would I have liked her to talk about Obama a bit more specifically? Sure, but the other speakers are and will continue to do that (and Michelle did it as well last night as any surrogate could), and Obama will do that for himself on Thursday night. This speech was about reunifying the party, providing catharsis and excitement, and-- crucially-- linking that catharsis and excitement to everyone's future. This is the Hillary Clinton that her supporters always claimed to see, and I'm glad we got to see her tonight.

UPDATE (2:39 A.M.): Not to kill the buzz, but it might be worth looking at this truly piss-poor analysis from The New York Times (short version: Wow, good speech, Sen. Clinton! But-- even though you mentioned economics, and Michelle Obama mentioned economics, and so many of the other speeches mentioned economics-- it's not clear that viewers will get the message about the bad state of the economy, and what Obama will do to fix it. And (unlike John McCain, apparently) are the Dems focusing too much on personality in this convention, something other conventions have never ever done? I mean, why would there be so much focus on Obama's personality? Hmm...).

If you feel the need to wash your brain with soap after reading that, go to Batocchio's hilarious takedown of media coverage over at Digby. These paragraphs might be my favorite bit of analysis about punditry ever:

We've seen, many a time, how the press will vouch for Saint McCain. But while there are certainly plenty of godawful sportscasters, they tend to, y'know, report what actually happened. Even if we view the press as sportscasters, or even home-team sportscasters, our press corps lacks good play-by-play announcers, but is positively overflowing with really bad color commentators.

To strain this metaphor even further (and apologies to all non-sports fans), say the Green Bay Packers were playing the Chicago Bears and scored the first two touchdowns. If our political reporters were sportscasters, David Broder would insist that the Packers should let the Bears score, Sean Hannity would loudly proclaim that the Bears did score, and Cokie Roberts would misreport the score and then proceed to ignore the game.

Wednesday Music Flashback: Neon Lights/Nobel Prize

Monday, August 25, 2008

Grace Notes

America, your next First Lady:



Her speech rocked the house-- even on a night where Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter inspired the faithful, it was Michelle Obama's speech that hit all the right notes of hope, humor and possibility, and the feeling was electric. At first, I wondered why it wasn't on earlier in the night, but by the time it ended, and Barack showed up on the TV screen to interact with his family, I realized it was the perfect way to close out the evening: Kennedy and Carter offered reminders of and links to the party's crucial past, but ending with the Obamas takes the country full-blast into the future.

firedoglake's excellent Christy Hardin Smith has more.

UPDATE (8/26/08, 12:39 A.M.): YouTube has now put the speech up:

In A Year of 13 FOOBs

I don't know...


...there are days when For Better Or For Worse just reminds me of Fassbinder.

Except on those days...

...when it reminds me of Hitchcock:

Monday Music Flashback: Leonard Cohen Afterworlds

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Get Off His Lawn!


Dick Feagler solidifies his place as the Plain Dealer's very own Crankshaft with today's column on the 1968 Democratic convention. For those of you so fortunate as to not get Feagler's columns in your local paper, his shtick is that of the cranky old nostalgist: his Sunday columns tend to be retrospective, casting a fond eye back at the supposedly halcyon days of Cleveland in the 1950s and 60s in order to note how much worse things are today.

Fine-- I suppose there's a place for that, and underneath the mass of sentimental, reactionary goo there are often wonderfully remembered details of the city's past in Feagler's columns. Today, though, is a reminder of the cognitive dissonance that such nostalgia can engender.

Who wouldn't want to read about the 1968 Chicago convention? It was a violent, traumatic, but historically fascinating moment in American politics, and the parallels with today's war-ridden landscape are not exact, but might be worth discussing. Feagler begins by remembering his own experiences as a 30-year-old reporter being sent by the paper to the city. But after a funny anecdote about being given a military surplus helmet for his trip, and some finely wrought details about the dangers even the press faced in the old Mayor Daly's city-- "The first day we got there, Chicago handed us press passes. By the second day, most of us had thrown them away. Wearing a press pass in the throng was a sure way to get slugged by a cop. So you threw your pass away and just ran"-- Feagler wastes his remembrances on this:

Looking back on them, elections matter a lot.

[Brian says, Indeed!]

And the one we're about to have, according to me, is the most important in 40 years.

[Quite possibly! Or at least since 1980!]

The disrupters are more insidious. [Yes, I worry about poor media coverage and Republican concern trolls, too.]They don't take to the streets as they did 40 years ago. [Good point, Dick-- the role of those cable chat shows can be really counterproductive]. They don't put their money out front. [Absolutely not-- they "swift-boat" it. Good catch.] They hide behind blogs. And blogs are a coward's way to fight.

[...]

[SIGH]


Our country, which has changed so much in 40 years, still grapples with some of the same problems: A war we can't win and shouldn't have begun. A United Nations we ignore. Health care problems. Social Security's future.

Same old stuff. And, if we care, the whole world is still watching.

But now we fire blogs at each other and exchange opinions filled with hate.

At least the kids in Grant Park in '68 put their asses on the line.


God. Do we really-- at this late date, and in the age of Judith Miller, Mark Halperin, and Ron Fournier-- need to keep having this discussion? Are blogs really the problem with our national discourse? Is Feagler going to bust out the "wearing pajamas in our mom's basement" meme, too?

We could debate what it means to "put their asses on the line"-- bloggers are going to the conventions this year, they'll have a physical presence-- whether or not the '68 protesters did good or harm in their actions in Chicago, how different or similar firedoglake or Digby or Crooks & Liars or Field Negro or any of the other fine, politically-oriented blogs you can find on the roll to your right really are from, say, The Port Huron Statement that became one of the rallying points of the student movements in 1968 (does a manifesto count less if it's online or something)? Hell, we could even talk about how Obama and Howard Dean both used the 'net as a communications tool and a fundraising apparatus, how they've used it to help register new voters, and how other organizations like Blue America are doing the same for liberal/progressive candidates in races across the country this year. Surely that's an example of literally putting your money where your mouth is, of putting your ass on the line.

But let's play along with Crankshaft, and follow his statement to its bitter end. Let's assume for a moment that blogs are the "coward's way out," that there is something to be said for mocking the notion that they matter. Yeah! Right on, Dick Feagler! Those stupid kids, sitting in front of a computer screen, typing out their thoughts and hopes and fears as if they matter, presuming that writing will somehow make a difference! Fools! Thank god for people like you, who show them what real commitment and courage is, by sitting in front of a computer screen, typing out your thoughts and hopes and fears as if...

Oh. Wait...

Stranger Than (Fan) Fiction



This is a short promo reel designed to pitch the never-aired Buffy: The Animated Series. For all of its positives-- the carry-over most of the show's cast (Sarah Michelle Gellar excepted), the involvement of the many of the live-action show's writers, and the shiny anime-like look of it all-- I can't say I'm sorry this never aired. Despite the writers' involvement, the scenes here feel like high-level fanfic, a regurgitation of the tropes and jokes that the original Buffy explored with such grace and richness. Plus, Buffy's high school years were perfect-- elegant, closed-off and complete, like a 34-episode miniseries. Is there really any reason to go backwards, especially when the one constant across all of Joss Whedon's programs is the necessity of change (with both its terrifying loss and its endless possibility)?

Sunday Music Flashback: The Rhythm Designed To Bounce

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Methodologies


I don't always agree with blogger Jim Emerson, but this excellent piece on the essential nature of film criticism is a witty, concise, and moving defense of the form that reminds us of why Emerson himself is such an essential part of the film blogosphere.

Saturday Music Flashback: Getting Wet On Purpose

Friday, August 22, 2008

Funny Books

Here's a great tale of comic book writer Fred Van Lente spending a day manning the counter at Rocketship, his local comic shop in Brooklyn (h/t to Comics Should Be Good). It's a fun post (I especially like the details of the father and daughter arguing over Betty & Veronica comics), and it looks and sounds like a fun shop. It makes me glad I picked up the most recent issue of Van Lente's Comic Book Comics a week or two ago, and makes me wonder if I shouldn't add his Incredible Hercules to my pull list.

Recyclables


WALL-E is preceded by a five-minute cartoon short called "Presto," and a glimpse at this disappointing piece is revealing. There's nothing objectionable about "Presto," except that we've seen it all before-- its tale of an imperious magician and his impish, trouble-causing rabbit recycles tropes and imagery from any number of other cartoons, notably the Bugs-and-Elmer face-offs in 40s Warner Brothers cartoons. But "Presto" lacks the breakneck, intertextual verbal pyrotechnics that make those old Looney Tunes pop (in fact, "Presto" has no dialogue whatsoever); the rigorous visual order and balance that CGI seems to encourage means that there's no real sense of the world about to collapse-- what, in a more serious vein, Jean Renoir called "dancing on the edge of a volcano"-- from which so much of the lasting delirium of those older cartoons arises. If you'll pardon the pun, this cartoon tale of magic gone awry just feels old hat.

I thought of that watching WALL-E, a much better film than "Presto," but one which suffers from the same sense of visual, narrative and thematic recycling. In the case of WALL-E, this structural flaw is both more manageable (the film is often touching, and generally stunning to look at) and ultimately more annoying, since the whole narrative hinges on a sentimental diatribe about man, machines and apocalypse that would've felt twice-told in the 1930s. I love Pixar movies (the excrable Cars excepted), but I'm not always sure what to do with their chronic nostalgia. The best Pixar films-- Toy Story, The Incredibles, Ratatouille-- use nostalgia as what John Seavey might call a "narrative engine," centering a remembrance of a lost past as a starting point for creativity, growth and affirmation (the past as booster engine to the future-- "To Infinity and Beyond!"--, rather than anchor tying one down). Cars failed precisely because of the filmmakers' disingenuousness: its incessant, reactionary longing for a small-town 50s jarred against its computerized mise-en-scene, a look that could only be achieved through the very progress the film protested. It was the animated equivalent of Frank Capra: a paean to a kind of rural existence that its makers had no intention of ever embracing in real life.

WALL-E at least moves its reference points up a decade-- 60s touchstones like Hello, Dolly!, 2001 and the Apollo 11 probe are woven into its futuristic visions (and the whole story seems derived from late 60s/early 70s science fiction fables like Silent Running and Soylent Green). But it, too, can't overcome a sense of neo-Luddism about humanity and the future.

Have you ever seen those "TRUTH" commercials on television? When I lived in Florida around the turn-of-the-century, I was innudated with those ads-- and honestly, their combination of smug moralizing and obvious jokes really made me want to smoke. Call it the Cultural Studies Problem: an immense apparatus that utilizes a great deal of complex material and specialized language to tell us something we already know, and to do so in the most heavy-handed ways possible.

WALL-E encounters this problem in its middle section, both the narrative and thematic heart of its entire operation. Briefly: 750 years in the future, Earth has finally been laid to waste by political and corporate profiteering. It's now a vast, trash-ridden wasteland, and what remains of mankind has taken off into space to live on gigantic intergalactic cruisers that pamper to their every need. The only beings left on earth are a loveable trash-collecting robot named WALL-E, and his cockroach companion (the film's best jokes are the ones, like that roach, that don't speak out loud). WALL-E has spent centuries compacting the vast amounts of trash into cubes which create skyscraper-like towers (a brilliant trompe l'oeil is that we often can't tell the difference between WALL-E's edifices and the man-made kind). He also scavenges and saves various items, like Rubick's Cubes, light bulbs, and an old VHS tape of Hello, Dolly!. He's rather lonely, until one day EVE, a probe robot with a wicked laser arm, lands on Earth to explore. WALL-E is smitten, and she slowly returns his affections, but when she discovers WALL-E's tiny plant-- the first sign of life on the planet in years--she sucks it into her bosom, shuts down, and is called back into space. Not willing to leave his love, WALL-E grabs onto her spaceship and follows her back to the star cruiser.

It's when we reach the cruiser that everything starts to fall apart, primarily because the jokes are much like the obese passengers on the ship-- they're heavy, but have no depth, and no sense of how hypocritical and insular they actually are. Holographic billboards and computer screens scream jokes about conglomerates; we see the lazy humans (oh, the humanity! Or as the most laughable line in the film put it mournfully, "Oh, WALL-E!") travel around in high-tech wheelchairs that save them the trouble of walking, and allow them to be constantly plugged into the 27th century version of the internet. It's a Love Boat parody, but it carries no sting because it has no empathy-- director Andrew Stanton might as well have followed through on the silent movie ethos he deploys elsewhere, and tossed up title cards that said "Sloth" and "Irony." The middle section isn't a complete loss-- Jeff Garlin is actually quite touching as the ship's captain, and I liked the extended parody of Dr. No when WALL-E and EVE arrive in the ship's "decontamination" wing-- but it is a lost opportunity. Why the excessive hectoring? The single entendre vision of a dystopic vision? Is there nothing in this high-tech universe that the filmmakers find attractive?

More to the point-- do they realize how attractive it looks on the screen? Yeah, yeah-- I understand the thesis (or the AXIOM, as the ship is called-- a joke which carries a double-edge the filmmakers end up being cut by). But look at this place! It's like a combination of Star Wars, Miami and Tokyo, and I'd be lying if I said its bright plastic surfaces weren't alluring. Stanton and his crew have used their high-tech tools to create a high-tech playground-- and then turned around and criticized us for looking at it. Those passengers are marked as dullards, but their interconnective multitasking is precisely the skill you need to absorb WALL-E's catch-the-reference weave of silent comedy, Broadway musical, Star Wars and Kubrick (to say nothing of E.T., which the whole narrative can be read as an inversion of). That kind of rhetorical jujitsu can be effective (see Brecht or the Surrealists, among others), but when it lacks true irony or dimension, it's as thick as the fingers of the passengers the filmmakers make fun of (even as those passengers are mocked for doing what the film wants us to do-- stare passively at a screen).

For all of that-- all of its rhetorical failures, its dissonant longing for a hippie paradise even in the midst of the 21st century, the ways in which it panders to an exhausted nostalgia that it shrewdly knows a large swath of its audience will lap up like buttermilk-- there's a lot to like about WALL-E. Its opening scenes deftly combine high-tech camerawork and lo-fi recording to create a space of longing and lyricism that's immensely affecting, and they manage to sustain that tone for the first 35 minutes or so. As many others have noted, those early scenes on Earth owe a lot to Chaplin, not only in their silent comedy slapstick and romantic goo, but in their striking combination of state-of-the-art cinematic imagination (I don't know that I'll see more sweepng tracking shots all year than those that open the movie) and addiction to an almost Victorian sentimentality and distrust of the future (it's the great paradox that those Chaplin and Griffith films present, and it's fascinating to see it replicated with new technologies). I loved the first half-hour of this movie because it hadn't yet tied itself down to its thesis, and offered a rare unpredictability-- I sensed where the narrative might go, but still managed to be surprised by bits of business along the way. It's in those moments that the film best represents WALL-E's curiosity and open-heartedness, and shares it with the audience.

Chaplin famously noted that “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” For all of its underheated satire, WALL-E understands this in its bones (pixels?), and it's this understanding that makes the film's final scenes so powerful: they don't shy away from the remarkably expressive eyes of the title character, or the fascinating combination of melancholy, hope and unsettled desire they convey.

Friday Music Flashback: Gills Like Johnny

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Paranoid Androids


I'd like to think it's the OxyContin talking, but no-- Rush Limbaugh has just confirmed again that he's kind of racist.

Too obvious? Too "Dog Bites Man"? Maybe, but I think it bears repeating in this political silly season, when the spectre of Republican defeat at the polls has really revealed a lot of pent-up anxiety among the chattering classes. Cokie Roberts' geography problems, Lou Dobbs' brush-off of government surveillance, Maureen Dowd's ongoing idiocy, even Russ Feingold's bizarre quasi-endorsement of McCain: to paraphrase Chris Rock, I haven't seen this many white people upset since they cancelled M*A*S*H.

Invisible Captions

Riffing on Jeff's riffing on Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric...

Two snapshots of Oberlin from Google Image Searches:


(In a serendipitous intersection with Jeff's interest in archives, the above image comes, via Google, from Heritage Ohio, whose banner declares "Preservation...Revitalization...Resource").


(From City-Data.com)

What does it mean to remember/discover our surroundings through such random image searches? How does the archive open and constrain us? Jeff writes of a desire to move away from literary models, away from the caption, which we might say nails things in place. He admits the difficulty of this move, but also expresses a desire for a "Barthes-ian punctum" that might break such a stranglehold. In telling you all this (and even citing where the images came from), I've already provided more than one caption, more than one interpretation to overcome (even as my own eye wanders to the kid in the first photo clapping, or to the license plates covered with snow in the second). So, now I'll shut up-- what do you notice in the images? What are your invisible captions?

Thursday Music Flashback: Tributaries