Category Archives: Popular culture

The Cartographers for Social Equality

The other night, continuing to make my way through “The West Wing” (which I never saw when it was on) while working out each evening, I saw the one in which the Cartographers for Social Equality were allowed to make a presentation on Big Block of Cheese Day.

I enjoyed it. It reminded me of the time, maybe a quarter-century ago, when I visited my friend Moss Blachman in his office, and saw his map of the Western Hemisphere with south at the top and north at the bottom. As someone who lived in South America as a kid and who has long thought my fellow gringos give Latin America short shrift, I got a kick out of it. Because, of course, the practice of putting north at the top and south at the bottom is totally arbitrary (an obvious fact that sort of blew C.J. Cregg’s mind).

I enjoy things like that which cause us to look at things in fresh ways.

Of course, the political conclusion that the cartographers draw from the way the Mercator distorts the world is rather silly. I’ve always known Africa is way bigger than Greenland, and that Africa is thousands of times more significant in world affairs. But I also know that Africa doesn’t derive its importance from being bigger; it derives it from the fact that there are multitudes of nations and cultures and geographic and biological diversity in Africa, and it is not mostly a frozen waste. Population of Greenland: 56,840. Population of Africa: 1.033 billion. Duh.

If I were stupid enough to think the significance of nations and continents were a function of size, I’d conclude that England has been of no account whatsoever in world history. Which I don’t. And I can’t think of anyone who does.

But I enjoyed the scene anyway, because it is good for the brain (and pleasurable as well) to flip things around and look at them from unaccustomed angles. And if there are people who did make foolish assumptions about the world based on the usual depiction, and their eyes are opened, then great. But I wouldn’t attach a lot of importance to that.

20120227-peters-world-map

Han Solo takes the Fifth on Greedo killing

The Washington Post should be ashamed of itself. Not because it won a Pulitzer for helping Edward Snowden achieve his goals, but because it led readers of its The Switch blog to believe that it was going to finally clear up the raging controversy over whether Han Solo or Greedo shot first.Greedo

That didn’t happen.

But in the course of not answering, Harrison Ford demonstrates a callousness regarding the question that seems consistent with the classic Han-Solo-as-rogueish-antihero-who-would-shoot-first interpretation, as opposed to the revisionist he-was-just-standing-his-ground-in-self-defense view.

That’s how I see it, anyway.

‘Hosanna hey sanna, sanna, sanna, ho…’

Awaiting the distribution of the palms before Mass Sunday.

Awaiting the distribution of the palms before Mass Sunday.

Well, yesterday was Palm Sunday, so that means it’s time to listen to “Jesus Christ Superstar” over and over, at least for a week.

I don’t think that is an actual, formal, official thing in the liturgical calendar, but it’s long been a habit of mine, as you can tell from such posts as this one and this one.

Last year — or was it the year before — I finally broke down and bought the album (the original cast album of course) from iTunes. This was good because, since I no longer have a working turntable for my vinyl (I have one that connects to my computer so I can make MP3s, but no way to play straight to a speaker), and listening to my “Jesus Christ Superstar” station on Pandora meant listening to extraneous stuff as well.

So Saturday, I was working in the yard, listening to it on my iPhone, and trying to remember not to starting dancing about to the livelier parts of “This Jesus Must Die” — an appalling notion that I hesitate even to write, but the song is infectious.

“Superstar” has loomed large in my legend since the original album was out, and it has always dwelt in this confusing area where the sacred and the profane intersect. I first listened to it in a beach house at Barber’s Point in Hawaii in the spring of 1971. Or rather, I sat watching Mary Riley as she lay on her back on the floor with her head between the stereo speakers and her eyes closed, listening to it. She was transported; I was transported. All sorts of things were mixed together in the moment.

“Superstar” portrayed Jesus and his followers as a sort of itinerant hippie commune that really knew how to rock. And that made a certain sense to me. We were about long hair and faded jeans and other expressions of naturalness. (Later, I would have trouble with my kids wanting to dye their hair unnatural colors and cut it in strange ways, in part because it just seemed uncool to me.)

There was this small poster I saw one time in the early ’70s up on the top floor of the Gay Dolphin in Myrtle Beach that seemed to capture well this intersection between Jesus and the counterculture. It showed a smiling Jesus, depicted in the traditional Sunday school kind of way, with a caption that went something like, “You guys can wear your hair as long as you like. Tell them I said so.”

My hair wasn’t all that long when I acted and sang in a community production of “Superstar” in the early 80s, although it was still a good bit longer than now. And I grew out a nice, full beard for the occasion. I was an apostle. It was my first play, and the director didn’t have the confidence to put me in a larger role. But I enjoyed singing “What’s the Buzz?” and “Look at all my trials and tribulations” and so forth. If I were ever to audition for such a production again, I’d go out for Pilate. The songs are within my range, and it’s a meaty role.

Now, as a lector and Eucharistic minister in my church, the liturgy reminds me of the rock opera, and the rock opera of the liturgy. And I manage to reconcile Holy Week and Jesus Christ Superstar Week occurring at the same time every year, like Passover.

Below is a snippet from the procession with palms at Mass yesterday at my church. It’s not “Hosanna, Hey sanna,” but I like it. One of the many singable tunes our Spanish choir does at the noon Masses.

Congratulations to Stephen Colbert!

Well, it’s official — South Carolina’s own Stephen Colbert will replace David Letterman. From the CBS release:

     The CBS Television Network today announced that Stephen Colbert, the host, writer and executive producer of the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning “The Colbert Report,” will succeed David Letterman as the host of THE LATE SHOW, effective when Mr. Letterman retires from the broadcast. The five-year agreement between CBS and Colbert was announced by Leslie Moonves, President and CEO, CBS Corporation, and Nina Tassler, Chairman of CBS Entertainment.

Letterman, the legendary, critically acclaimed host of the CBS late night series for 21 years, announced his retirement on his April 3 broadcast. Colbert’s premiere date as host of THE LATE SHOW will be announced after Mr. Letterman determines a timetable for his final broadcasts in 2015.

Specific creative elements, as well as the producers and the location for the Colbert-hosted LATE SHOW, will be determined and announced at a later date….

Colbert has released a statement:

“Simply being a guest on David Letterman’s show has been a highlight of my career. I never dreamed that I would follow in his footsteps, though everyone in late night follows Dave’s lead. … I’m thrilled and grateful that CBS chose me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go grind a gap in my front teeth.”

Does it seem to anyone else like this decision was made awfully quickly? Seems to me that when generational changes have occurred at The Tonight Show, for instance, the selection process has taken months.

Will this more-or-less snap decision pay off? I hope Colbert succeeds in this job. I wouldn’t have pictured him in it before the rumors started last week, so I’m a little concerned on that point. But he’s a smart and talented guy who thinks well on his feet, and I’m optimistic.

Someone tell Tyler Durden: Marketers have appropriated ‘Fight Club’

Brad-Pitt-fight-club-body2

Back when I was in college, I read James Michener’s book Kent State: What Happened and Why, which came out the year after four students were shot and killed there by the Ohio National Guard. This was a time when memories of the event were still pretty raw. That one semester I attended USC before transferring to Memphis State, I used to wear a T-shirt (I forget where I got it) with a big target on the back under the word “Student.” It was less a political statement than me just being edgy, ironic and immature.

Michener’s book went into a lot more than what happened that day in May 1970. It painted a portrait of student life at that time and in that place. At one point, he interviewed a campus radical who was complaining about how the dominant white culture kept appropriating and mainstreaming, and thereby disarming, countercultural memes, particularly those that arose from African-American culture. (I would say he was making some point vaguely related to Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance,” but I’ve always tended to understand Marcuse as meaning something other than what he meant. By the way, my version makes sense; Marcuse’s didn’t.)

Anyway, to make the point that there was no limit to the dominant culture’s ability to absorb culture from the edge, he said, ”I’ll bet that within two years Buick will come out with full-page ads claiming that the 1972 Buick is a real motherf____r.”

Well, that still hasn’t quite happened. But I saw something today that comes close. I got an email from the travel site Orbitz with the headline:

The first rule of Flight Club is – Columbia deals from $200 RT

Wow. Think about it. “Fight Club” was all about characters who were utterly, savagely rejecting mainstream consumer culture and everything that went with it. But now the best-known line from the film is being appropriated to sell airline flights. Are you digging the irony here?

It doesn’t even make sense, since the first rule of Fight Club is that you do NOT talk about Fight Club. Presumably, Orbitz would like us to talk about this deal.

But the line got me to look — and that was the point.

I can’t wait to see how next year’s Buicks are marketed.

Irish priest’s take on Cohen brings the house down

As you may know, the name “Cohen” in Hebrew means “priest,” or “a member of the priestly class, having certain rights and duties in the synagogue.”

Father Ray Kelly, a priest of another tradition, took full advantage of his rights in performing his duties at a recent wedding at his parish in Meath, Ireland. He quickly went viral on YouTube. The bride and groom had no idea it was coming, but they and the rest of the congregation loved it.

Since he used my favorite Leonard Cohen tune, I thought I’d share.

By the way, according to the Irish Times, Fr. Kelly is “planning on releasing a charity album to coincide with his 25th year since being ordained.”

Hey, iTunes! Where are all of MY tunes?!?!?

iTunes panic

OK, I’m trying to suppress the panic here…

I was already pretty ticked off because the only tunes that showed up on my Apple TV were ones that I had “purchased” (either for money or by redeeming a free song from Starbucks or something) from iTunes.

Whereas, most of the music that was in iTunes on my PC laptop and my iPhone and my iPad were songs I owned before iTunes was invented — things I bought long, long ago, either on CD or vinyl (I have a turntable at home that hooks up to a computer and converts vinyl to MP3s). Stuff I had every right to. I liked that this music was in iTunes because it meant it wasn’t subject to the ravages of time and rough use as they affect vinyl and CDs — and they were available to me on multiple platforms, wherever I went.

The number of songs I had “purchased” from iTunes were insignificant. I mean, unless someone has given me an iTunes gift card, why would I spend money on something I could hear on Pandora or Spotify for free? (Especially, especially, especially if I had already paid for it once, twice or three times in my lifetime?)

Anyway, this state of affairs got worse when I got a new iPhone a month or so ago. Everything transferred over from my old iPhone just fine. But recently I noticed that all of MY music (the music I owned before iTunes, from vinyl and CD) was missing.

So today, when I connected the iPhone to my PC in order to transfer some photos, and iTunes automatically launched, I thought, “I’ll try to fix this.”

I did this by clicking on “Brad’s iPhone” in iTunes, scrolling down to options, and clicking off the button that said “Sync only checked songs and videos.” And then I clicked “Apply.”

I got a dialogue box that I can’t seem to get back again now, but I think it said something like “Do you want to erase the iTunes profile on your phone and replace it with the one on your computer?” I said “yes,” because that’s what I wanted to do. And I ran it.

And now, I still don’t have any of MY tunes on iTunes, and a bunch of them (but strangely, not all) have disappeared from my laptop as well! For instance, all of the Beatles albums — just gone!

They’re all still on my iPad. So now I’m scared to connect the iPad to the PC, lest I lose them. (And yeah, I suppose I still have copies of these things somewhere, in some form, but getting them onto iTunes represented a lot of time and effort.)

Any minute now, I’ll start freaking out.

Anyone have any advice?

Could a South Carolinian replace Letterman?

One of these South Carolinians could replace Letterman. It's not the one with the Van Gogh tie...

One of these South Carolinians could replace Letterman. It’s not the one with the Van Gogh tie…

I guess I could have put Colbert’s name in the headline, but I just wanted to relish for a moment the counterintuitive notion of one of us replacing the man who was described in one of my favorite books, Gene Sculatti’s Catalog of Cool, as “Jack Paar on mescaline.” (Or was it “Johnny Carson on mescaline?” I’ll have to look it up when I get home, as Google Books has no preview.)

How did I miss this news the end of last week?

According the Mashable, Stephen Colbert is indeed at the front of the line:

Stephen Colbert is CBS’ top choice to replace the retiring David Letterman, and has indicated that he’s willing to take over the Late Show when the time comes, people familiar with both sides of the discussions tell Mashable.

Colbert has not had any formal contract discussions with CBS, and no agreement is in place, but sources tell Mashable that he first engaged with network executives while Letterman was still mulling the timing of his retirement. Though CBS has had conversations with other candidates, including Colbert’s Comedy Central counterpart Jon Stewart, individuals with knowledge of the situation say Colbert is currently the front-and-center candidate….

Colbert is the one at left in the photo above…

My life, seen as a paranoid conspiracy theory

Actual untouched photograph taken in the Des Moines airport in January 1980. Why am I meeting with then-Senator, later White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker? And why am I in disguise?

Actual unretouched photograph taken in the Des Moines airport in January 1980. Why am I meeting with then-Senator, later White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker? And why am I in disguise? Who is the man in the background, watching us?

On a previous post, Doug mentioned Oliver Stone’s paranoid masterpiece “JFK.”

Which reminded me of when I lived in New Orleans — during Jim Garrison’s investigation.

Which got me to thinking further…

You know, Oliver Stone could probably weave a good paranoid conspiracy around my life. All of the following is true:

  1. I was in Washington during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  2. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Latin America, not to be seen in this country for two-and-a-half years.
  3. That means I was conveniently out of the country when Kennedy was killed.
  4. There was a military coup while I was in Ecuador. It was planned (in part at least) in the very same house in which I lived, while I was there.
  5. My guitar teacher in Ecuador was an agent of U.S. Naval Intelligence.
  6. The pastor of the nondenominational church we attended was an agent of the CIA.
  7. Within months of returning to this country, I moved to New Orleans, where Jim Garrison was about to get rolling with his allegations.
  8. In 1970, I had a run-in with Admiral John McCain, then Commander-In-Chief, Pacific Command — and the father of the John McCain who was at the time a prisoner of the North Vietnamese.
  9. In 1978, I met George H.W. Bush, former head of the CIA who at the time was a director of the Council on Foreign Relations.
  10. I was in Iowa two years later, just before Bush beat Ronald Reagan in the caucuses there.
  11. Several weeks later, I was present during the Arkansas caucuses when delegates of Reagan and Howard Baker conspired to squeeze Bush out, thereby bumping him out of contention. I had been traveling with Baker in Iowa. I had a brief face-to-face contact with Bush that day.
  12. During the 80s, I had numerous face-to-face meetings with Al Gore.
  13. In subsequent years, I would have closed-door meetings at my office with John McCain (on multiple occasions), George W. Bush, Barack ObamaJoe Biden, Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, John Edwards, Howard Dean, and, completing the circle to the Kennedy administration, Ted Sorensen.

Forget Oliver Stone. I’m starting to have suspicions about myself

Think about it — how would your life look in the eyes of a conspiracy theorist who believes there’s no such thing as coincidence?

Andy Hardy’s dead, and I don’t feel so good myself

03Love_Finds_Andy_Hardy_-_Mickey_Rooney___Judy_Garland_1

Sad to see this news:

Mickey Rooney was a 5-foot-3 dynamo. Whether he was acting, singing or dancing, he poured an uncanny energy into his performances. It’s an energy that sustained a lifelong career alongside some of the biggest names in show business, including Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor.

He died Sunday at his North Hollywood home, at age 93. He was still working — on a new film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

From 1938 to 1941, he ranked as Hollywood’s top-grossing star. His inimitable onscreen persona earned him major parts in a variety of films, from the lighthearted Babes in Arms to more dramatic fare like Boys Town….

In the Andy Hardy series, Rooney played the title role: a teen growing up in an all-American family. The series showcased his youthful, wholesome appeal and catapulted him into stardom. He starred in 16 Andy Hardy pictures altogether.

During that same period, MGM dreamed up another teen franchise starring Rooney and the young Judy Garland as a plucky song-and-dance act….

Yep, Andy Hardy was silly, and corny, and trite. And repetitive. It seems contradictory that someone making such fluff was the top box-office draw at a time when the world was ripping itself apart in the most horrific, all-encompassing war in history. And yet it makes sense, too. Andy Hardy was an expression of the light-hearted things and the shared values that Americans had in common — back when they saw themselves as having things in common (even if it was nothing more than a common love of a well-executed song-and-dance routine).

I read a book review this morning (the book was The Twilight of the American Enlightenment, about the roots of our Culture Wars today) that noted how our sense of commonality largely lasted through the 1950s. We find it hard now to agree on the simplest things.

And now Mickey Rooney’s dead.

I feel like we ought to do something to address this state of affairs. If only it could all be solved by putting on a show…

I think Ainsley may become my favorite ‘West Wing’ character

I never saw “The West Wing” when it was on the air, for a number of reasons, not the least of which the fact that I wasn’t watching all that much television in those days. I basically had a TV for watching movies, and didn’t get into watching actual TV programming regularly until AMC started its string of must-watch shows (“Mad Men,” the first few episodes of “Rubicon,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead”…).

There was one reason, though, that I particularly avoided “The West Wing.” I had heard, I suppose from a Republican, that it was a fantasy show for liberal Democrats, a picture of the way they would want the world to be. I was finding Democrats particularly tiresome — that is to say, more tiresome than usual — when the show went on the air in 1999. Most of the angry readers I was dealing with in that period were Democrats, between admirers of Bill Clinton (we were tied, I think, for being the first newspaper in the country to urge him to resign) and of Jim Hodges (the show premiered at a moment right in between his election, which we opposed, and our all-out fight against his signature issue, the lottery).

I just didn’t need to hear any more about how members of that party thought the world ought to be.

But I started watching it on Netlflix during my nightly workouts on the elliptical trainer (they’re almost the perfect length for a 40-minute workout), and the first thing I have to tell you is that what I had heard was a most unfair description of the show. Sure, there will occasionally be an instance in which the liberal position is treated briefly as the only one that’s right and true. For instance, as I mentioned the other day, I was pretty irritated when all the main characters acted like a potential judicial nominee who said there is no blanket right to privacy in the Constitution (there is none, whatever the Supremes may say) had said the Earth was flat.

But you’re just as likely to hear characters ably represent other points of view — such as the early episode in which several staffers point out why “hate-crime” laws are inconsistent with liberal democracy. For every red-meat moment such as the one in which President Bartlet humiliates a thinly disguised Dr. Laura using a rather trite liberal device (asking whether she was for literally applying everything in Leviticus), there’s one in which a conservative view wins out, or is at least fairly considered.

The best example of that so far was the episode I watched last night, the fourth in the second season, titled “In This White House.”

It started with an obnoxiously overconfident Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) going on a political talk show to push an education bill. He is demolished on the air by a little blonde girl with a deferential Southern manner who looks to be about 16.

This causes a sensation in the White House. A delighted Josh runs to tell Toby, “Sam’s getting his ass kicked by a girl!” Toby — the Eeyore of the executive branch, a guy who is thrilled by nothing — comes running, saying breathlessly, “Ginger, get the popcorn!” (The good part of the above clip starts at about 2:20.)

But things really get interesting when the president — and Jed Bartlet really is everyone’s idea of a perfect president: wise, fatherly, kind, thoughtful, fair, idealistic, practical and always human — decides to hire Ainsley Hayes.

Enjoying Sam discomfiture at being humiliated by Ms. Hayes is one thing. Bringing the conservative Republican on board is another, and the idea causes much consternation on the staff.

But I think she’s going to be a great addition. As she goes through the throes of deciding whether to take the job, she becomes, if not exactly the voice of the UnParty, a lens for focusing on everything that is wrong in modern partisanship. She reprimands both sides for their destructive habit of demonizing their opponents. When Sam (his ego still bruised from his first encounter with her — he keeps thinking women on the staff are mocking him when they’re not) says defenders of the Second Amendment aren’t about freedom and protection; they’re just people who like guns… she settles his hash yet again by saying:

Yes, they do. But you know what’s more insidious than that? Your gun control position doesn’t have anything to do with public safety, and it’s certainly not about personal freedom. It’s about you don’t like people who do like guns. You don’t like the people. Think about that, the next time you make a joke about the South.

(I remembered what she said when I saw this predictable Tweet from Slate today saying “This is what gun ownership looks like in America.” Be sure to check the picture.)

Then, in the episode’s penultimate scene, Ainsley meets two of her GOP friends in a restaurant. They think she has turned the job down, and they can’t wait to hear about the look on Chief of Staff Leo McGarry’s face. As she sits there looking thoughtful, her friends engage in the sort of rant that we hear too often from both sides.

“I hate these people,” says her friend Harriet.

“Did you meet anyone there who isn’t worthless?” adds Bruce.

“Don’t say that,” Ainsley says softly.

Bruce continues, “Did you meet anyone there who has any-?”

Ainsley lights into him:

I said don’t say that. Say they’re smug and superior, say their approach to public policy makes you want to tear your hair out. Say they like high taxes and spending your money. Say they want to take your guns and open your borders, but don’t call them worthless. At least don’t do it in front of me.

Her friends look stunned. She chokes up as she continues:

The people that I have met have been extraordinarily qualified, their intent is good.
Their commitment is true, they are righteous, and they are patriots.

And I’m their lawyer.

And she walks out.

Wow. If she didn’t look so extremely young, I’d be in love at this point. I think I’m really going to enjoy this character….

Guess you better slow your Mustang down

Yesterday, I saw the hawk on my way in to work. Today, I encountered a character from R&B legend, previously believed to be fictional.

There was this late-model white Mustang coming up behind me on Sunset Boulevard, coming on too fast. I got into the right lane, preparing to get onto the ramp for Jarvis Klapman, and it started to zip past me — but then we were both stopped by a traffic light.

My eye was drawn to the furious activity going on in the driver’s seat of that car. It was a young woman who was very busy applying makeup. She had a powder brush in her right hand, and rather than brushing it on, she seemed to be aggressively stabbing her cheek with the brush, and looking in her rearview to check the effect. Maybe she was trying to redden her cheek under the powder.

Then, I noticed the cigarette smoke curling up from her left side, partly blocked by her head. So I’m pretty sure that hand was fully occupied, too.

The light changed, and she stomped on the accelerator, and rushed away.

It was then that I realized that I had just seen Mustang Sally herself.

She needs to slow that Mustang down…

Art imitating life imitating art imitating life imitating…

USS Nimitz

USS Nimitz

Hollywood makes a movie, a year or so ago, about the Iran hostage crisis. It tells the true story of how the CIA pretended to be making a movie in Iran in order to sneak a handful of the American hostages out of the country.

The real movie about the fake movie that hoaxed the Iranians wins the Best Picture Oscar, which Iran could not have failed to notice.

So… now we see that Iran is building a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier — or rather, a vessel that looks like a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. They do it in plain sight, so we can’t fail to notice. Our intel guys watch it being built ever since last summer, and we finally get to the point that we can’t stand it anymore, and have to say something.

Then, when the United States raises questions as to what in the world Iran is up to, they respond, Uhhh… it’s for a movie! Yeah, that’s the ticket… we’re making a movie… ya know, like ‘Argo.’

Which makes us wonder what they’re really up to. What could be the actual purpose for which making a movie is the transparent cover?

Whatever it is, when they spring it on us, I half expect the Iranians to say, “Argo ___ yourself!”

"I'm, uhhh... making a movie! Yeah, that's the ticket..."

“I’m, uhhh… making a movie! Yeah, that’s the ticket…”

Burl’s take on ‘Monuments Men’

monuments2

John Goodman, Matt Damon, George Clooney, Bob Balaban and Bill Murray.

We had a conversation about movies a couple of days back, and “Monuments Men” came up. Since interest has been expressed, I thought I’d share a link to our own Burl Burlingame’s review of the film.

Excerpts:

Hitler and the Nazis were bad dudes. They set the bar on being bad dudes. They not only were intent on dominating the world (to them, Europe WAS the world), the Nazi mission statement involved wiping out entire cultures and races. Not just killing them, but erasing them from history. The focus of “Monuments Men” is the rescue of priceless art seized by the Nazis, either as booty or to be destroyed.

Actually, “priceless” is too weak a word. Maybe irreplaceable….

The “Monuments Men” were a group of older artists, architects, historians and other scholars drafted by the army to save artwork and architecture from Nazi nihilism. They came under fire, just like other soldiers, but their mission was to save the best works yet produced by humanity….

In order to sell the film to disinterested modern audiences, Clooney adopts a wisecracking, ironic tone that is surface-level entertaining. But this creates a distance between characters and situation, and “Monuments Men” never quite catches fire. This stand-offishness also undercuts the true horror of the Nazi menace and makes them cartoons and buffoons. It’s very “Hogan’s Heroes.”…

That doesn’t mean it’s not an entertaining couple of hours, and if folks learn a thing or two about this historical niche, that’s swell. I liked “Monuments Men,” but nobody is going to love it.

Oh, just go read the whole thing. As usual with Burl, it’s well-written…

Claire Underwood’s proposal fails in real-life Senate

Sen. Gillibrand

Sen. Gillibrand

OK, technically, it wasn’t the fictional Mrs. Underwood’s plan. It was pushed instead by the real-life Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — who, as tacky as it may be in the context of talking about sexual crimes (but it’s true), is also a rather striking blonde.

A more relevant coincidence is that her proposal was the very same one that caused the majority whip to stop the Underwood bill on “House of Cards.” To wit, according to The Washington Post:

The Senate rejected a controversial proposal Thursday to remove military commanders from decisions on whether to prosecute major crimes in the ranks as the concerns of Pentagon leaders trumped calls from veterans groups to dramatically overhaul how the Defense Department handles assault and rape cases.

Congress has already voted to revamp the military’s legal system by ending the statute of limitations on assault and rape cases, making it a crime to retaliate against victims who report assaults and requiring the dishonorable discharge or dismissal of anyone convicted of sexual assault or rape.

But on Thursday senators rejected a plan by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would go further by taking away from military commanders the power to refer serious crimes to courts-martial. The decision would shift instead to professional military trial lawyers operating outside the chain of command.

The proposal fell five votes short of the 60 votes necessary to clear a procedural hurdle and proceed to a final vote. In a reflection of the complexity of the issue, 10 Democrats voted against Gillibrand’s plan, while 11 Republicans — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — joined her in voting to proceed….

I think the Senate acted wisely. It moved to toughen the law without undermining the military system of justice. I realize the Underwood/Gillibrand approach has attracted growing support — witness how close it came today. But while I’d like to throw military rapists under the treads of an Abrams tank, I don’t think it’s right to take commanders out of the equation. In other words, I agree with the position taken by the fictional Jackie Sharp, and I really identified with her discomfort when she broke the news to Claire. Although it might have been easier for her, as a woman, to take that position than it would for a man.

I know I, for one, hesitate to voice it. But I thought it would be a copout to mention the issue without doing so….

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The fictional Claire Underwood.

George Clooney as an old-fashioned hero

george-clooney-gravity-image

Several members of my family were watching the Oscars last night, and occasionally I’d step into the room, taking a break from re-reading The Far Side of the World for about the sixth time, which is something I’d rather do than watch the Oscars. (I’m still mad about the “Shakespeare In Love”-as-Best-Picture fiasco of 1998.)

So I heard a couple of references to the movie “Gravity” — which stands out among the films of this past year in that I actually went to see it in a theater. I had heard that a) it was good, and b) the 3D was actually worth seeing. So several weeks ago, I went to see it while I could still catch it in that format.

It was good, and the 3D, while not being mind-blowing, was at least watchable. It didn’t get in the way. But I wouldn’t call it indispensable. I think the film would have been visually impressive without it.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. This morning, skimming through my email, I saw a link to a Slate piece about the Oscars, and I followed it because I was curious what they could possibly mean by the headline, “Ellen Was the Stephen Colbert of Oscars Hosts.” Turns out, not much. But on the way to finding that out, I ran across this sentence fragment (believe me, you don’t want to read the whole sentence; it’s unintelligible to anyone who doesn’t live and breathe celebrity news): “… another montage about heroes, featuring almost no women.”

No, I don’t know what that referred to, and don’t care. But it got me thinking about George Clooney in “Gravity,” who I thought was impressive as an old-fashioned, early ’60s-or-earlier kind of hero, the kind you don’t see all that often in movies anymore.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. Seriously, I’m about to give away the whole movie, so if you care about that, stop reading now.

Yes, the movie centers around Sandra Bullock’s character, who spends most of the screen time alone. The film is mainly about her grit and determination to survive. You would in fact call her character heroic if she were saving anyone other than herself, but whether you call it that or not, her struggle is pretty gripping.

But the reason she spends all that screen time alone is that at the beginning, George Clooney’s character gives his life so that she’ll have a chance.

And in his few minutes on screen, he exhibits enough Traditional Manly Virtues to fill up the whole film and more. He seems to personify all the courage we ascribed to the original seven Mercury astronauts, as described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. And as befits a hero, he wears it lightly, hid in a constant stream of wisecracks, maintaining an even strain.

There’s a dynamic between him and the Bullock character that I’ve seen in real workplaces. She is the no-nonsense woman who has a task to perform and is doing it not because she enjoys it, but because it needs doing and she knows how to do it, and she just wants to get it done and go home and maybe put her feet up, but while she’s working she has to put up with this lollygaggin’, wisecracking guy who doesn’t seem to have enough to do and who is maybe flirting with her or something, which is something she doesn’t need.

Although it turns out that the good-time Charlie thing is just part of his leadership style. He’s just trying to get a smile out of someone having a bad day (because if you can do that, the unit functions more smoothly). But that’s not all there is to him. When things go bad and somebody needs to give orders, he does so with a crisp, commanding confidence. No question at that point that he is the mission commander, and there’s a reason for that. Because as much as you might need scientists and techies to make the gadgets work, there’s a time when you need a pilot, a guy who routinely hangs his hide out over the edge in a hurtling piece of machinery and hauls it back in again without breaking a sweat — someone schooled in emergency, someone at home with danger. You need someone in charge who knows exactly what he’s doing, even when everything’s gone all to hell.

His persona makes such an impression on Sandra Bullock’s character that even well after he is certainly dead, at a point when she has decided to just give up and let herself pass out from lack of oxygen, he returns to her in a hallucination — still the same lollygaggin’, keeping-it-light guy, but gently goading her into waking up and doing what it takes to survive, in spite of the odds.

And the thing is, he does all of this without seeming like a caricature, or a stereotype, or a throwback to movies gone by. In fact, he does all this more artfully and smoothly than most Traditional Heroes in old movies.

Anyway, I was impressed by that. And I wonder whether any actor other than Clooney could have pulled it off….

We lose Maurice Bessinger and Harold Ramis on the same day

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Which means nothing, of course — I mean, the fact that they died on the same day means nothing; obviously their respective deaths mean a great deal to their families — but it struck me as an odd juxtaposition.

Maurice Bessinger, purveyor of yellow barbecue and “South Will Rise Again” tracts was 83. The man who gave us Egon “Print is Dead” Spengler and Army recruit Russell Ziskey (and as a writer and director, such gems as “Groundhog Day” and “Analyze This”) was only 69. And yes, my very first thought on the latter’s passing was that maybe collecting spores, molds and fungus was not the healthiest hobby. I mean that fondly, and intend no disrespect.

In Maurice’s behalf, I’ll note that his barbecue was my youngest daughter’s favorite. As the baby of the family, she had trouble understanding why the rest of us preferred not to give him our custom while that flag was flying at his restaurants. But now my daughter is off in Thailand with the Peace Corps, so I don’t think her BBQ preference limited her horizons or worldview any.

As for why the juxtaposition is notable, well… Maurice was a man who went out of his way to stand up for outmoded ideas, a man who insisted on pushing a discredited worldview even when it drove customers away. Ramis, on the other hand, was a harbinger of a new ironic meme in our popular culture, the smirking wise guy who poked gentle, mocking fun at our social foibles. One insisted on respect for ideas that had never deserved it; the other urged us not to take ourselves so seriously.

For what that’s worth…

Four days without working out. On the upside, I’ve made a lot of progress on ‘House of Cards’

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Well, I was doing really well. Since Jan. 10, I had worked out every night on my elliptical trainer. That is, every night but two, and in each of those cases, I made up for it by playing a couple of sets of tennis AND working out on the elliptical on the subsequent day.

I had worked my way up to 40 minutes each night (I even got my workout in at the hotel when I spent that night in Hilton Head), plus a few crunches (50) and stretches as I was cooling down. If the machine was to be believed, I was burning as much as 450 calories in each session.

I was also sticking, more or less, to my new paleolithic diet (I say “more or less” because when you have as many food allergies as I do, and try to ban a bunch of additional foods on top of that, sometimes you stretch the rules to get through the day). Almost none of my pants were too tight anymore. I was weighing in at 175 on scales that had had me as high as 183.8.

But then, I got some kind of stupid bug late last week. No fever or anything (I don’t think — I have had some chills, and shiver when I come into contact with cold sheets), just some sniffles and a cough and a bit of an upset stomach. Not the flu, according to the test they did at my doctor’s office. Just generalized, don’t-feel-like-doing-anything crud. I still have it.

Four days now without working out. That generalized feeling of good health and sense of accomplishment that had been building for six weeks has now been seeping out of me for four days. And I know it’s going to be hard to build that momentum back.

On the upside, since I did not feel like doing anything, it seemed like a good time for a Netflix-watching binge. And since we had just been discussing it, I decided to try to catch up on “House of Cards,” of which I had been so dismissive heretofore.

I finished the first season, and stopped watching late last night in the middle of the fifth episode of Season 2.

Some assorted observations, in no particular order (MULTIPLE SPOILER ALERT!):

  1. We shouldn’t call them “seasons” any more, since we tend to watch them in a weekend. We could call them “series,” the way the Brits do, or maybe just “binges” — as in “Binge 2, Episode 5.” In any case, the old word doesn’t work now.
  2. The fall of Peter Russo, the only semi-sympathetic character on the show (with the possible exception of Freddy, who cooks the best ribs in D.C.), was expected — because I had seen the British version. It was unpleasant to watch, but not as unpleasant as watching Denzell Washington fall in the same way in “Flight” — because you cared more about Denzell’s character. One is torn between disgust at how easily he falls off the wagon (not to say that Rachel Brosnahan doesn’t make a very convincing temptress, assuming you’re a congressman with a weakness for jailbait), and sympathy. After all, weakened by this bug and feeling that I might as well since I couldn’t work out and was falling apart anyway, I had a beer (something cavemen didn’t do — but probably would have if they could have) at an early Mardi Gras party Saturday night. But I stopped at one, and they didn’t find me dead in my car. So, points for me.
  3. Finally, the most irritating character on the show got the heave-ho. Since it didn’t happen at the end of the first season (the way it did in the Brit series), I thought she’d be inflicted on us through a second, but she was gone in the first episode of the new binge. The way she went illustrated part of the problem with the character. She was stupid enough to stand on an invisible part of a subway platform with a homicidal maniac, and to grant his wish that she delete all records of their relationship, then and there. Which was like saying, “Push me.” Basically, the girl never had the sense to be scared. Like teenagers with new driver’s licences, she thought she was invulnerable. She never got a moment to reflect on how wrong she was.
  4. I quickly lost patience with her boyfriend Lucas Goodwin‘s crusade to nail her killer after that. I was rooting for the feds to scoop him up on the trumped-up cyberterrorism charge, and hoping they could ditch him through rendition, or maybe “disappear” him the way they did Dunbar in Catch-22. I just couldn’t feel his outraged grief, and that made him tiresome. (This alleged newspaper editor is played by an actor named Sebastian Arcelus. Really. Actors who portray credible editors have names like Ed Asner. Or Jason Robards, or, at the extreme end of the spectrum, Cary Grant.)
  5. How unrealistic is this show? This unrealistic: A Democratic officeholder puts together a complex, precarious deal to raise the age for Social Security benefits to start, and it passes. The very idea that Washington could get its act together to do something that substantial is more far-fetched than having a white Democrat represent South Carolina in the House (after all, we did have John Spratt in that seat until recently).
  6. Has there ever been a congressional aide as quietly, self-effacingly competent as Doug Stamper? No. There has not.
  7. The only major character who is feckless and ineffectual enough to be credible is the fictional president. What a stilted dweeb.
  8. In fact, I’m starting to reach a conclusion that the makers of “House of Cards” probably never intended: I’m starting to root for Francis Underwood. OK, so he’s ruthless. So he can be unpleasant. So he steps over a body now and again. This guy gets things done — pragmatic things, things that need to get done for the good of the country.
  9. Oh, wait — maybe that was what the makers intended: I just saw the tagline over at Netflix, “Bad, for a greater good.” Huh.

Superman leaped tall buildings in a single bound. Frank passes reform legislation. Either would seem impossible in the real world.

So I guess you could say the series is growing on me a bit. What will that S.O.B. get done next? i plan to keep watching…