Category Archives: Popular culture

OK, let’s talk about ‘House of Cards,’ Season 3

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Some of y’all brought up this topic on a previous thread, so I thought I’d start a separate one.

Like many of you, I’ve at least gotten started on the new season of “House of Cards.” I’ve watched four episodes so far. Don’t know whether I’ll continue.

I managed to slog through last season, and was actually missing it a little when someone suggested I try watching “The West Wing,” which I had never seen. As you know, I really, really loved that show, and went on and on about it here. And now that I’ve watched a show about Washington that is that enjoyable, it’s hard to sit still for something that doesn’t have a single likable character.

Perhaps I will go back and finish watching the original, British version — even though M. just gave away the ending (I won’t link to that spoiler, on the previous thread). I did like it a little better — although I only saw the first series, or season…

In these few episodes so far of the new season, I feel like the writers have run out of ideas, and are getting frustrated trying to think of new, more shocking ways for Frank Underwood to show how thoroughly rotten he is.

Slight spoiler: Take the opening scene of the first episode. You sort of knew what he was about to do standing at his father’s grave. And one’s credulity is strained. Frank is supposed to be smart. What if the request of one of the journos to get closer and observe Frank at the grave had been granted? It could have happened. And that would have been it for F.U.

Slightly worse spoiler: And what about the end of the fourth episode, which I saw last night? You can almost hear the writer thinking, What could Frank do, face-to-face with a nearly lifesize crucifix, that would still be shocking? And yes, it manages to shock (or at least offend), even though something very like it is anticipated. What’s not credible about the scene is how Frank got there. We are led to believe that Frank has a conscience and that it’s nagging at him, so he goes to the church sincerely seeking moral guidance (and if he’s not sincere, what is he doing there, since there’s no audience to perform for) — but then recoils at the central Christian message. Love is what causes him to back away and revert to type. Which is true to his character. It’s just not credible that he would have been there in the first place.

Anyway, what do y’all think so far?

My favorite Leonard Nimoy tribute item

I really enjoyed learning about the Jewish roots of Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” gesture.

Nimoy was a guy who deserved to be known for more than that one rather cheesy (no, really, I’ve been watching it on Netflix) TV show. But at least he was loved for it, and I’m glad he became reconciled to that later in life….

Oh, and my second favorite Nimoy tribute was the one below, by Astronaut Terry Virts:

Highlight from SNL special: Presidential impressions

I didn’t get to watch all of the whole 40th-Anniversary “Saturday Night Live” special last night… OK, tell the truth, I could have watched it, but gave up on it during an interminable edition of the tiresome “The Californians” sketch… but thought I’d at least share with you this clip of good bits, courtesy of The Washington Post:

My grainy picture of Bob Dylan and The Band, 1974

Dylan and The Band 1974

Yesterday, I was plowing through a box of old prints looking for something else, and ran across the image above. The little red crop marks in the margins tell me that this ran in The Helmsman, the student newspaper at Memphis State University (now University of Memphis), possibly with a review by me.

I don’t remember writing such a review, but I do remember the concert — one of the best ever. I wish I could have gotten a better picture. But with Tri-X film and my old Yashica SLR, this was about as good as I was going to get, with the detail in Bob Dylan’s face sort of blowing out because of the spotlight. I seem to recall developing and printing it myself, and not being able to get it better than this. (In those days you couldn’t just click “sharpen” in PhotoShop; you had to have skills, but eventually physical limitations were physical limitations — you had what you had on the negative, and could only do so much with the print.) I suspect we ran the image fairly small in the paper so you couldn’t see how bad it was. It would have been even better to run the whole image, instead of cropping it down to Dylan (leaving out Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm and the top of Garth Hudson’s large head). Don’t know who made that decision…

I shot this at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis on the night of January 23, 1974. The show was everything a fan could wish for — lots of Band material, plenty of Dylan. Dylan even did an acoustic set with guitar and harmonica, in a sort of bluish spotlight, and I remember having this weird disconnect looking at him: He looked so much like the cover of the greatest hits album that I couldn’t quite convince myself that this was real, and I was here. It was odd.

Anyway, I was referring to this show when I wrote this comment several months ago:

When I think of the way a band ought to look, this is the image in my mind. Almost this EXACT image, as I saw The Band and Dylan together on this same tour, in Memphis in 1974.

Ever since then, whenever I’ve contemplated the absurd extremes of costume donned by performers — from Bowie in his Ziggy phase to KISS to Devo to Lady Gaga, or for that matter going back to the way Brian Epstein dressed up the Beatles — I’ve pictured this, and thought, this is the way a band should look. Nothing should distract from the music.

It’s an ultimately cool, casual, timeless look. They could be graduate assistants, or guys sitting on a bench outside a saloon in the Old West. I had cultivated much this same look since my high school days. I bought myself a Navy blue tweed jacket with muted reddish pinstripes running through it that to me looked EXACTLY like what the guys in the Band — or for that matter, Butch Cassidy or Sundance — might wear. I wore it with a U.S. Navy dungaree work shirt that my Dad had given me, and jeans, and scruffy suede desert boots (like the ones Art Garfunkel is wearing in this picture).

Come to think of it, I’ve never really abandoned that look. Today, I’m wearing a vaguely green corduroy jacket with a charcoal-gray sweater vest over an unstarched sport shirt, with olive green chinos that are fraying at the cuffs.

It’s what I think is cool. And comfortable…

So when I ran across the picture, I thought I’d share it.

It’s Big Block of Cheese Day! (But no Leo, I’m sad to say…)

Sure, it’s a political gimmick, signifying little — and let me stress that I am no fan of Jacksonian populism — but this got a smile out of me. If you, too, are nostalgic for the Bartlet administration, you should definitely watch the above video.

Alas, the founder of Big Block of Cheese Daymy favorite Bartletista, Leo — is no longer with us, and his absence makes for a slightly sad note in the reminiscence. But I enjoyed it anyway.

From the release from the real West Wing:

Here at the White House, we’re dedicated to making President Obama’s administration the most open and accessible in history. That’s why, for the second year in a row, we thought it’d be a gouda idea to brie-unite a certain cast of characters to help us bring back a tradition that dates back to the days of President Andrew Jackson.

On February 22, 1837, President Jackson had a 1,400-pound block of cheese hauled into the main foyer of the White House for an open house with thousands of citizens and his staff, where they discussed the issues of the day while carving off slabs of cheddar.

This year, we aim to do even feta. On Wednesday, January 21, in fromage to President Jackson (and to President Bartlet, if you’re a fan of The West Wing), we’re hosting the second-annual virtual Big Block of Cheese Day, where members of the Obama administration will take to social media to answer your questions about the President’s State of the Union address and the issues that are most important to you.

Log on to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, and ask away using the hashtag#AskTheWH. We’ll do our best to answer as many questions as we can.

So be sure to visit WhiteHouse.gov/SOTU to watch the State of the Union address on January 20, 2015 at 9 p.m. ET and check out the schedule of all the ways you can engage on the following day, January 21. We camembert to think you’d miss it….

And here’s the original… I hope that someone at the White House today is meeting with the Cartographers for Social Equality….

‘The Interview,’ ‘American Sniper,’ and ‘Selma’

I’ve recently written about three movies — ‘The Interview,’ ‘American Sniper‘ and ‘Selma‘ — that I had not seen (which kind of limited what I had to say about them). This past week, I had planned to see them all and write about them further. Which would have been quite the hat trick for a guy who is accustomed to waiting until films show up on Netflix.

I managed to see two of them. I still hope to see the other soon.

My report follows:

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The Interview

This one took the least trouble to see, which was good, because I wouldn’t have crossed the street to see it. I rented it from iTunes on my Apple TV, and it didn’t cost me anything because I had a gift certificate I hadn’t used up.

It was about what you would expect, if you’ve seen enough Seth Rogen movies. On that spectrum, it was nowhere near as good as “Knocked Up” or “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and a good bit better than “Pineapple Express” or “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.” I’m not saying it was more elevated or worthwhile than those latter two, but the bathroom humor was funnier. The dirty talk wasn’t nearly as funny or relevant as the dirty talk in “SuperBad,” so you are forewarned.

One of the more interesting things about this film was that North Korea was so ticked off about it, seeing that the guy who played Kim Jong Un was handsomer, more engaging — certainly more manly looking (both in terms of masculinity and maturity) — and more engaging on a human level than any of us have ever seen the Dear Leader be. I mean, even though the flick was making gross fun of him and making a joke out of killing him (which, one has to grant North Korea, is pretty offensive), it was actually kind of flattering to him.

If you can see it for free at any point and you want to know what all the fuss is about, it’s not completely unwatchable. But otherwise, don’t bother.

 

AMERICAN SNIPER

American Sniper

I had wanted to see this anyway, even more so after The Guardian (being The Guardian) practically painted Chris Kyle as a war criminal, but I sort of reckoned without the fact that everyone else in South Carolina wanted to see it this past weekend as well.

Bryan Caskey joined my younger son and me (neither Mamanem nor Bryan’s wife wanted to see it) at the 5:10 show at Dutch Square. Bryan got his ticket and went inside ahead of us. While waiting for my son to get through the queue, I spoke across the ticket-taker to Bryan, saying, “Don’t worry; there’ll be plenty of previews.”

The ticket guy said, “Yeah, but there won’t be plenty of seats.” He said this was their 11th show of the weekend, and several of them had been sold out.

Boy, was he right. With stadium seating, I normally sit about halfway up, so that the center of the screen is at eye level. But this time, we had to sit with the groundlings on the third row, way off to the side. So Bryan, my son and I all had to slide down in our seats with our knees propped against the seats in front and our heads resting back onto the tops of our seatbacks, looking almost straight up, at a weird, distorting angle. But I got used to it by about the 75th preview (OK; honestly, I didn’t count).

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?

Good. But you knew it was going to be good. When’s the last time Clint Eastwood made a bad one? And the older he gets, he seems to get better. I’m thinking “Gran Torino” here.

And the portrayal of Chris Kyle was — matter-of-fact and respectful. It was the story of a guy who is definitely a sheepdog in the sheep/wolf/sheepdog model of killologist Dave Grossman — one of those who is neither a sheep nor a wolf, but one of those rare types who sees himself as a protector of sheep from wolves. And one of those rarer men (like, 2 percent of the male population) who doesn’t have nightmares after killing other people, if he has good reason to see the killings as morally justifiable.

Eastwood helps the viewer to understand a man like Kyle, without either condemning or overly glorifying him — although many will see him as a monster or as a red-white-and-blue excuse to wave the flag, according to their own proclivities. As I say, the depiction is respectful.

I could have used a little more examination of the psychology of a sniper. While many will feel like there was too much footage of Kyle taking careful aim on enemy combatants (and, in more than one case, “combatants” who are women and young boys, which is the thing that will make you want to walk out if anything does), I felt like not enough was done to show how most people would be torn up by that — say, with a side story about a fellow sniper who was not as unconflicted about his job. You know that the cost to Kyle is not nil, as you see the stress he undergoes after his fourth deployment. But I could have used more explication in that department.

Anyway, it’s worth seeing, whatever your attitudes on the subject matter. It’s well-done, and examines unflinchingly the moral ambiguity that accompanies any combat role, regardless of the conflict in question.

 

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Selma

Still haven’t seen this one. I passed up, with some misgivings, the Urban League’s annual breakfast, justifying it by saying that I was going to go with some friends to see ‘Selma’ at the Nickelodeon as my way of observing the day.

But even though we were there half an hour ahead, we couldn’t get into the 2:30 show. Sold out.

Has going to the actual movie theater experienced some huge resurgence when I wasn’t looking? I haven’t been to a show as crowded as “American Sniper” in decades, partly because I try not to go on the opening weekend at the most popular times. (Wouldn’t you think a 5:10 show would be an awkward time — neither matinee nor evening-out time? I did.)

And then, to not get into the show at all, when the film’s been out a couple of weeks?

OK, yeah, I realize it was MLK Day, and it looked like there were some school groups there. But still.

Have any of y’all seen it? Can you give us a review?

 

A weekend spent on the ‘Homeland’ front

This promotional image brings to mind one of the oddest things about this series -- the way this blonde woman so often walks down the streets of Islamabad without attracting a single curious glance, her only disguise being a scarf loosely draped over her head.

This promotional image brings to mind one of the oddest things about this series — the way this blonde woman so often walks down the streets of Islamabad without attracting a single curious glance, her only ‘disguise’ being a scarf loosely draped over her head.

This past weekend, AT&T Uverse (and watch for the ad coming back soon) offered HBO, Cinemax and Showtime for free, so of course I binge-watched “Homeland,” and am now completely up to date.

Any of y’all still watching it?

I have to say that it seems that the original reason for the series has sort of gone by the board, and the program is only about half as compelling as it was.

It’s like… remember the “sequel” to “The Fugitive?” It wasn’t really a sequel in that there was no Richard Kimble. Basically, Hollywood decided that the team that chased Kimble, led by Tommy Lee Jones, was sufficiently compelling that we’d want to watch them chase somebody else.

Actually, you know what? That’s a bad example, because it WAS just as much fun watching Tommy et al. chase somebody else. Good flick.

But I thought of it because there’s a similar dynamic. We started watching “Homeland” because it was riveting to see what would happen with a U.S. Marine who had been captured in Iraq and brainwashed to become a terrorist when he got back home. And, oh, yes, there was this seriously dysfunctional CIA analyst who at first was the only person to suspect him, and then later fell in love with him.

Well, now the Marine’s out of the picture, so we’re left with the story spinning completely around the woman who, in the first couple of seasons, would make me want to yell at the screen, “No, Brody, no! Stay away from her!” I wanted him and his family to have a chance at SOME semblance of a normal life, and she seemed more of a threat to his well-being than the terrorists who had held him captive had been.

OK, to be fair, the series was always about Carrie. But her pursuit, in more ways than one, of Brody was what made us want to watch her initially, because Brody was such an interesting case.

And without him as a focal point for her, there’s a void.

At least, in Season 4, she is taking her meds regularly — except for an episode in which an ISI agent swaps out her bipolar meds with a hallucinogen, which gives her an excuse to be Crazy Carrie again. Not that she’s making the best life choices when she’s fully medicated, but at least she’s calmer.

At least Saul is still around. Mandy Pantinkin anchors the series for me. He gives me somebody sane to identify with.

Meanwhile, the writers have sorta kinda tried to replace Brody with Quinn, the Hamlet of professional assassins. I like Quinn all right, but as a substitute for Brody, he’s lacking. Yes, he’s conflicted, but his conflicts are less monumental than Brody’s.

Anyone else have any thoughts? Anyone else still watching?

Saul, Carrie and Quinn, the Hamlet of professional assassins.

Saul, Carrie and Quinn, the Hamlet of professional assassins.

Guess I’ll have to go see ‘American Sniper’

american_sniper_still

Has anyone seen “The Master,” one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last films? I saw it last night on Netflix (still fighting a cold, I’ve been vegging out in front of the tube a lot in my off hours) and was impressed. Not that it seemed to have much meaning, but it was interesting and well done, and had a couple of roles in it that actors would understandably kill for. Anyway, I was curious as to whether any of y’all had any thoughts about it.

I got up this morning thinking about that, but now, I think I may have to make one of my rare trips to the actual cinema to check out the subject of this Tweet from this morning:

Yes, that’s the kind of post that makes you give a second glance to see whose feed this is, and then you say, “The Guardian, of course.”

This particular writer was bending over backward to defend Clint Eastwood, saying that however much “we diverge politically… he is not a black-and-white ideologue.”

No, the problem that the writer decries is that “much of the US right wing” has failed to appreciate that this is a “morally ambiguous, emotionally complex film,” and regard it “with the same unconsidered, rah-rah reverence that they would the national anthem or the flag itself.”

This is supported with examples from some extreme trolls who wish that critics of the film would eat s__t, be raped and die. The usual sick puppies who, I guess we are supposed to assume, represent “much of the US right wing.” Trolls. Really nasty ones.

And of course, you have to be a pretty sick puppy, or challenged in the reading-comprehension department, if you can read the movie’s subtitle — “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History” — and not pick up on the idea that there’s a pickup truckload of moral ambiguity churning about here.

I know y’all all think I’m an incorrigible warmonger and all, but I’m someone who does not blink at the dark thicket of morally impossible choices and ethical quicksand into which war leads us. And I’ve always marveled that anyone can live with himself after having killed as a sniper. Yeah, I know; a sniper can save a lot of his comrades’ lives and perform a useful function in a just cause. But a sniper isn’t running and firing at people firing at him, with his blood pounding in his ears and adrenaline drowning his senses. He calmly, analytically, scientifically, artistically, with great care, observes his magnified victim close-up through his scope for much, much longer than any other soldier ever has an enemy in his sights. And the target is unsuspecting. He has no idea that his death is coolly studying him for long minutes, and then choosing the instant to calmly blow his head apart.

A sniper can be a hero. Everyone he knows may praise him for his skill and devotion to duty. But how do you live with yourself after that?

I wonder at such things. So I wanted to see the movie anyway. But I wanted to see it twice as much after reading this actual review of it, also in The Guardian. This writer doesn’t bother making excuses for Mr. Eastwood, basically lumping him in with the rest of those thoughtless rah-rah American nutters. “American Sniper is so conditioned by its first-person shooter aesthetic that it never widens its focus or pans left or right… while the war on Iraq is a just, noble cause.”

Did you catch that? War on Iraq? This, apparently, is what passes as cool, analytical rhetoric in The Guardian, distinguishing right-thinking people from the “black-and-white ideologues,” all of whom, evidently, are neoconservatives.

Anyway, I was grabbed by this passage from the review:

In one early scene, Kyle’s father tells him that the world is divided into three types: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Kyle sees himself as a sheepdog, a noble protector of the weak and the innocent, and it is clear that Eastwood does too. But is the world that simple? A different film (a better film) might have asked the wolves what they think, or at least wondered why the sheep behave as they do….

This grabbed me because that sheep/wolf/sheepdog model is central to Dave Grossman’s study of what he terms “killology,” a field of inquiry he has invented and generally has to himself. Lt. Col. Grossman is the author of that book I’m always going on about, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. It demonstrates, through statistical analyses of battles and other means, that through most of human history, most soldiers have not fired their weapons in combat, and most who did fired over their enemies’ heads, for the simple fact that however they may have been trained, the training failed to overcome their profound aversion to killing fellow human beings. (Actually, in the past generation, U.S. and other advanced armies have overcome that reluctance through conditioning, which has led to more PTSD, which is a reason why Grossman wrote the book.)

That vast majority that doesn’t want to kill, and which suffers tremendous psychological damage when forced to do so, makes up the “sheep” category — not meant as a pejorative, but simply denoting normal, peaceful men.

I’m sometimes unclear as to who, exactly, makes up the “sheepdog” category. Sometimes, Grossman indicates it’s anyone who willingly dons the uniform — of the cop, the soldier, the sailor — and defends his or her society. Other times, though, he seems to be referring to a much rarer breed — the 2 percent of combat soldiers (according to a study from World War II, when there was such a vast cross-section of the male population to study) who “if pushed or given a legitimate reason, will kill without regret or remorse.”

The WWII study found these men to have a tendency to be “aggressive psychopaths.” But Grossman defends them from that damning term, explaining that they are just natural-born soldiers who “apparently do not experience the normal resistance to killing and the resultant psychiatric casualties associated with extended periods of combat.”

In that set of competing definitions, you’ve got enough ambiguity to employ an army of moral philosophers for a century.

Their the sort whose comrades might see as heroes, while those who have no military experience and look askance at those who do view as, well, psychopaths, in keeping with the time-honored tradition:

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot…

This 2 percent cadre of men tends to gravitate toward the special forces — toward jobs such as that of the subject of “American Sniper,” who was a SEAL.

Anyway, I need to see the movie, and see what I can learn from it. As should anyone who wants to take some responsibility for what we send other men to do for us.

‘Selma’ controversy brings ‘inspiration vs. results’ debate back into focus. But it’s not either/or; it’s both/and

The new film “Selma” opens in theaters in Columbia Friday. So I haven’t seen it, any more than you have. But I’d like to comment on the controversy regarding the movie’s portrayal of LBJ.

Go read Richard Cohen‘s latest column, headlined “‘Selma’ distorts the truth about LBJ.” A couple of excerpts:

In its need for some dramatic tension, “Selma” asserts that King had to persuade and pressure a recalcitrant Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The movie also depicts Johnson authorizing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to smear King and — as King himself suspected — try to drive him to suicide. It is a profoundly ugly moment.

But a bevy of historians say it never happened. It was Robert F. Kennedy, the former attorney general, whoauthorized the FBI’s bugging of King’s hotel rooms. Yet, for understandable reasons, Kennedy appears nowhere in the film. By 1965, he was no longer the AG and, anyway, he remains a liberal icon. But LBJ — Southern, obscene and, especially when compared to the lithe Kennedy, gross of speech and physique — was made the heavy. He should get a posthumous SAG card….

[Those defending LBJ] include the historian Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library; Diane McWhorter, author of “Carry Me Home”; David J. Garrow, author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”; and, when it comes to the atmospherics of the Johnson-King relationship, Andrew Young, once King’s deputy. He told The Post that the contentious meeting between King and LBJ depicted in the film was, in fact, cordial. “He and Martin never had that kind of confrontation.” Young was there.

As for Garrow, he told the New York Times that “if the movie suggests LBJ had anything to do with” Hoover’s attempt to destroy King, “that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against LBJ.” The movie depicts exactly that….

As I say, I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve seen the above trailer, which hamhandedly drives home the same falsehood that LBJ, and every other authority figure in the country, stood as a barrier that only MLK’s witness, courage, and eloquence could knock down. (If the filmmakers were not trying to make that point in the trailer, they should go back and try again).

We’ve been here before. Back during the 2008 presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton enraged some when she said that the eloquence of an MLK or a JFK — or, by implication, a Barack Obama — only gets you so far. You need an LBJ to effect real change. She, of course, was casting herself as the savvy insider, the latter-day LBJ. Here’s my column at the time on that subject, to refresh you.

But there’s more here than whether you prefer fine words or practical action. There’s also the constant tension between people who believe sincere passion, emotional purity expressed through public demonstrations by ordinary folk is better, more legitimate, and ultimately more effective than working through a system of laws, through elected representatives, to bring about needed reform.

I don’t have to tell you that I believe in the rule of law, in effecting change through the mechanisms of a republic, as opposed to marching in the streets. I had little patience with Occupy Wall Street, as you’ll recall. And as for the protests following the Ferguson fiasco, I think Dave Barry hit the nail on the head with this passage from his satirical look at the year just past:

Domestically, the big story is in Ferguson, Mo., which is rocked by a wave of sometimes-violent protests following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. The shooting ignites a passionate national debate whose participants have basically as much solid information about what actually happened as they do about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370….

So am I discounting the importance of all those civil rights marches, at Selma and elsewhere? Absolutely not. In fact, I believe they represent the one time in my life that such demonstrations were needed, were essential, and made a positive difference in the country. The moral, peaceful witness that Dr. King and the other marchers placed before the eyes of the country led to the development of a political consensus that made LBJ’s efforts possible. They prepared the ground.

But those protests did NOT force concessions from a hostile country, or hostile leadership in Washington. What they did was force the country to face the reality of Jim Crow. They made it impossible to look away. And the country, the great mass of public opinion, white as well as black, decided that we needed the change that the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act represented. And master legislator-turned-president Johnson was the one who led us through that essential process.

It’s not either/or. It’s not black vs. white, or The People vs. The Man. It’s not passion vs. reason.

It’s both/and. We needed MLK and LBJ.

Cohen calls attention to an earlier piece by Joe Califano, vehemently defending his old boss LBJ from the film’s slander. I like this passage from a recording of the conversation:

On Jan. 15, 1965, LBJ talked to King by telephone about his intention to send a voting rights act to Congress: “There is not going to be anything as effective, though, Doctor, as all [blacks] voting.”

Johnson then articulated a strategy for drawing attention to the injustice of using literacy tests and other barriers to stop black Southerners from voting. “We take the position,” he said, “that every person born in this country, when he reaches a certain age, that he have a right to vote . . .whether it’s a Negro, whether it’s a Mexican, or who it is. . . . I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you, yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination; where a [black] man’s got . . . to quote the first 10 Amendments, . . . and some people don’t have to do that, but when a Negro comes in he’s got to do it, and if we can, just repeat and repeat and repeat.

“And if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina . . . and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it everyplace you can. Pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, ‘Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair,’ and then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through [Congress] in the end.”…

You have a couple of key points there:

  • First, the president is stating clearly that he not only appreciates what Dr. King is doing, but sees it as essential to educating the public so that it will embrace change. Change will come when that average guy says “that’s not right; that’s not fair.” After that, and not before, you can “shove” reform through Congress.
  • Then, you have his assertion that in the end, however, true change will be effected through the system — by black Americans voting, as well as by raised consciousness among whites. Marching in the streets only gets you so far.

Which is why he pushed so hard for his signature achievement, the Voting Rights Act.

The trailer flits past this image so quickly that I had trouble freezing it on this frame to grab this image. But the reason what happened in Selma was effective was because it caused THIS reaction in mainstream America.

The trailer flits past this image so quickly that I had trouble freezing it on this frame to grab it. But the reason what happened in Selma was effective was because it caused THIS reaction in mainstream America.

How much longer must we shoulder the White Man’s Burden?

Being under the weather yesterday (NOT the flu, and I’m on an antibiotic, so should be myself again soon), I finally got around to watching a couple of DVDs from Netflix that had been collecting dust in front of the tube for months now.

The first was “12 Years a Slave,” which told us of a fortunately long-ago time when we white men — or at least our great-great granddaddies — ran everything. (The other was “Dom Hemingway,” but I have no editorial point to make about that.)

Based on what I saw, it’s a really good thing those days are way, way behind us, gone with the wind, etc. Right? Right?

So today, I read this on The Fix:

The new Congress is 80 percent white, 80 percent male and 92 percent Christian

The 114th Congress, which gets to “work” on Tuesday, is one of the most diverse in American history, comprised of nearly 20 percent women and just over 17 percent of which is non-white. Which means, of course, that four out of five members of Congress are white and four out of five are men. Ergo, given the name of a member of Congress (at random: Oregon GOP Rep. Greg Walden), you can probably guess his or her gender and race. (In case you want to see if you were right about Walden: here.)…

The trend is slow, but it’s clear: Congress is getting a bit less white and a bit less male….

Yeah, uh-huh. Given that this is where things stand a couple of centuries after the time depicted in “12 Years a Slave,” check back with us in another 175 years or so hence and… well, actually, at this rate we white guys are still gonna be running things. Or rather, our great-great grandsons will.

Come on, people! Step it up! How much longer must we bear this, the White Man’s Burden (domestic version)? Help us out!

It’s not like the job is hard. To serve in Congress, all you have to do is pick up on the talking points of the day each morning, recite them loudly, demonizing the other side (which is also made up mostly of white guys), and raising money. (OK, admittedly it’s historically been easier for white guys to raise money, although you couldn’t tell by me.)

Or, you could do it differently if you like. You could actually study issues and think about them, if you want to be such a radical.

But come on, my multicultural friends. Somebody different — and I mean, really different — needs to step in and take over. Soon…

The only really decent white man in the movie was Brad Pitt, which stands to reason, because everyone knows that all really decent white men are named "Brad."

The only really decent white man in the movie was Brad Pitt, which stands to reason, because everyone knows that all really decent white men are named “Brad.”

‘Better Call Saul’ teaser, theme song

From Slate today:

We haven’t exactly been flooded with details on Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul in the lead up to its February premiere. Over the last few months, there’s been a music video, some snippets, and a brief clip of one scene. But now, AMC has dropped a new teaser featuring a lot more action — most notably, Saul, a.k.a. Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), yelling a lot.

It’s only a brief glimpse, but it does seem to indicate at least one thing for certain: Saul’s life was pretty stressful even before Walter White entered into the picture.

But I feel like I got more out of the leaked theme song, below. It’s performed by Junior Brown, and boasts lyrics by show creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould. Enjoy. (And here are some more, very short, Saul clips.)

The New Yorker: ‘Ayn Rand reviews children’s movies’

I really got a kick out of this feature in The New Yorker headlined, “Ayn Rand Reviews Children’s Movies.” Excerpt:

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”

An industrious young woman neglects to charge for her housekeeping services and is rightly exploited for her naïveté. She dies without ever having sought her own happiness as the highest moral aim. I did not finish watching this movie, finding it impossible to sympathize with the main character. — No stars.

“Bambi”

The biggest and the strongest are the fittest to rule. This is the way things have always been. — Four stars.

“Old Yeller”

A farm animal ceases to be useful and is disposed of humanely. A valuable lesson for children. — Four stars.

Obama: Sony ‘made a mistake,’ and N. Korea better watch out

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Two things are being reported out of the president’s last scheduled presser of the year this afternoon:

  1. Sony “made a mistake” in canceling “The Interview.”
  2. We’re gonna get even with North Korea.

The first point raises interesting questions, but I find myself focusing on the second one.

So… exactly how do we retaliate against North Korea for throwing a snit fit over a silly movie, and then creating cyber havoc with a large corporation’s virtual existence?

POTUS promises our response will be “proportional.” What’s proportional in this instance? Do we somehow sabotage Dear Leader’s favorite TV show? His country has no large, successful corporations that we can mess with, so what else is there?

It’s like the opposite of “What do you give the man who has everything?” In this case, it’s what do you do to a country where the people all starve, they lack electric lighting and the absolute ruler is so paranoid he wipes out his own relatives to hold on to power?

The president is headed for vacation in Hawaii, leaving the West Wing to ponder how to get back at the North Koreans. Why do I picture the guys in Animal House planning their big revenge at the homecoming parade?

Previous White Houses had to decide how to respond to Pearl Harbor, or the Berlin Wall. We have this….

 

Why must our international free speech crises be over such stupid things?

REALLY? These are our free speech heroes?

REALLY? These are our free speech heroes?

When I saw this news this morning

“The Interview’s” premiere, which was to take place at Sunshine Cinema in New York on Thursday, has been canceled, a Landmark Theatres spokesman told the Hollywood Reporter. The news came after a group calling itself Guardians of Peace, or GOP, issued a threat to movie theaters warning of Sept. 11-style attacks against those that show “The Interview,” scheduled to premiere Christmas Day. Now there’s a serious question of whether anyone will screen the movie at all. Guardians of Peace is the same group that claimed responsibility for the Sony Pictures Entertainment hacks. Some investigators believe North Korea is behind the attack.

The Los Angeles Times reported Sony executives attended a meeting of the National Association of Theatre Owners on Thursday, where they told the trade group Sony would be supportive if owners elected not to screen the movie.

The Georgia-headquartered Carmike Cinemas, which operates 276 theaters and 2,904 screens in 41 states, has already taken Sony up on the offer and announced it would not be showing the movie….

… My first reaction was, If you cancel the premiere and hold off from showing the movie, the cyberterrorists win!

So my next thought is that instead of cancelling, Sony and the theaters should…

… should what? Stand up for noble principle by showing a stupid movie about a couple of doofuses trying to kill a real-life foreign leader, played for laughs?

Dang. You know, I wish that when people in the West want to go toe-to-toe with repressive regimes around the world and stand up for freedom of speech, they wouldn’t always do it with such stupid things as this, or that idiotic, offensive cartoon contest deliberately intended to mock the Prophet.

Can’t we step up our game a little bit, fellow Westerners? Let’s try going to the mat for the Magna Carta, or the Declaration of Independence, or something that doesn’t make us feel queasy to defend. This is no way to get people in benighted countries to embrace pluralism or liberal democracy.

Come on, folks. I want to advocate for our way of life. Give me something to work with…

Start your week off right: The Office in Middle Earth

I missed this Saturday night, but had it brought to my attention this morning via Facebook.

I’m not a huge fan of the three-feature-film version of “The Hobbit,” but I love the original “Office,” right down to the “Handbags and Gladrags” theme music.

I love the concept, and it’s well executed in parts. I’m particularly impressed that Martin Freeman seems to still be in touch with his “Tim” character after all these years.

Enjoy.

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The last really great song by The Band

Just a little musical interlude to calm you down on this third day in Advent.

This was the last really great song recorded by The Band, from their largely unregarded 1975 album, “Northern Lights-Southern Cross.” For whatever reason, I didn’t even buy this one, so I had to discover the song in later compilations. I’ve been listening to it a lot in recent days, from a CD of The Band’s best that I bought at Walmart for $5.

I like this assessment of the song:

“I thought about the song in terms of saying that time heals all wounds,” Robertson told interviewer Robert Palmer at the time of the song’s release. “Except in some cases, and this was one of those cases.” Yet writing the song was only half the battle with The Band. With three brilliant singers available, choosing between Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, and Rick Danko was never an easy task, although you really couldn’t go wrong.

Danko got the call, and his emotional performance, all wavering notes and reckless abandon, is the uncanny embodiment of a man driven to the end of his tether by his love’s absence. He gets interpretive assistance from his Band-mates, who give a typically intuitive performance. Garth Hudson’s stately but sad saxophone sounds like it has accepted defeat, while Robertson’s delirious guitar isn’t ready to give up just yet.

Robertson’s metaphors and similes are simple yet effective in showing the narrator’s inner torment. In the bridge, the imagery gets direr, all empty halls and stampeding cattle. As the song closes out, Danko uncorks his final lines with desperation dripping off every word: “Well I love you so much and it’s all I can do/Just to keep myself from telling you.” At that point, he is ironically joined by his good buddies Helm and Manuel on sympathetic harmony for the coup de grace: “That I never felt so alone before.”

Nobody did melancholic grandeur better than The Band, and there’s no topic more suited to that treatment than lost love, so it would have been an upset if “It Makes No Difference” hadn’t turned out so fine. Either you’ve been there before, in which case Robertson’s eloquent anguish will seem achingly familiar, or you haven’t, in which case Danko’s fearless vocal will act as a public service announcement on the merits of holding on to a good thing for dear life.

The REAL Star Wars teaser trailer, and the fake one

In these days of digital magic, fans don’t necessarily have to wait for the real thing:

Earlier this week, director J.J. Abrams announced via Twitter that there would be a teeny tiny sneak peek of the next “Star Wars” installment this weekend. A teaser trailer was set to screen at about 30 theaters nationwide….

But then the trailer was leaked on Thursday. Or rather a trailer was leaked. And then another popped up. And then another. None of them were the official trailer, mind you. They were made by people with fairly decent video editing software, but a lot of people didn’t realize that. And whoever is in charge of the Star Wars Twitter page ultimately had to spend Thanksgiving setting people straight.

Some of the fan-made teasers looked pretty legit. This one, for example, has gotten more than 4.3 million page views:

Pretty impressive fake trailer, huh? Personally, I enjoyed them both.

You know what would have made the real one 10 times more exciting, and enable it to crush the fakes with its authenticity? A glimpse of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher. Maybe that was impossible (as in, they haven’t shot any scenes yet), or maybe they’re being saved for the really exciting trailers later.

In any case, I look forward to seeing them…

star-wars-luke-leia-and-han

The Way They Were

What Mike Nichols achieved with ‘The Graduate’ was unique

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Upon the passing of director Mike Nichols, I find myself marveling yet again at “The Graduate,” and how there’s just nothing else like it in the history of film.

How do you describe it? A farce, a drama, social commentary? If so, it was like no other farce or drama or social commentary I’ve seen. I like this description from the AP:

Mixing farce and Oedipal drama, Nichols managed to capture a generation’s discontent without ever mentioning Vietnam, civil rights or any other issues of the time. But young people laughed hard when a family friend advised Benjamin that the road to success was paved with “plastics” or at Benjamin’s lament that he felt like life was “some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

At the time, Nichols was “just trying to make a nice little movie,” he recalled in 2005 at a retrospective screening of “The Graduate.” ”It wasn’t until when I saw it all put together that I realized this was something remarkable.”…

Yeah, well… they thought they were just cranking out something routine with “Casablanca” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” too… Maybe you can only achieve greatness when you have humble intentions.

How does something work as comedy — as heartwarming comedy… when it’s about a guy who falls in love with the daughter of the woman he’s having sex with? More than that… How do you come to love a movie like that, to want to see it again and again, because it strikes a chord in you, even though God forbid you should ever be in a similar situation?

And that is what makes it unique: That it is such a universal cultural touchstone for members of my generation. It’s not that it was topical — as the quote from AP mentions above, it doesn’t mention any burning issues of the day. That’s one of the many things that separate it from self-consciously “topical” films that end up being eminently forgettable — such as, say, “Getting Straight.” Oh, you don’t remember that one? Then you’re making my point.

What makes that connection? What makes the film essential to our sense of that time? Is it Simon and Garfunkel? Aside from it being my favorite soundtrack ever, is the music essential to the film’s appeal? Would it be “The Graduate” without “The Sounds of Silence” or “Mrs. Robinson?”

No, it wouldn’t. But it wouldn’t be “The Graduate” without Anne Bancroft, or Dustin Hoffman, or even Buck Henry’s hotel clerk (of course, Henry’s main contribution is as screenwriter). Or the “plastics” guy. Or that wonderful long camera shot of the Berkeley campus.

SPOILER ALERT (In case there’s someone left who hasn’t seen it): The closest thing to social commentary on the ’60s that I can think of is the film’s enigmatic, excruciatingly ambivalent ending. The young lovers have triumphed! They’ve dramatically left behind the corrupt older generation and its agents and all it stands for (even to the extent of using a cross as sword, then as a lock to keep them in their church)! They’re together! They’re free! So they laugh uproariously; Ben claps his hands in glee. Then, you can see the thought enter their minds — what’s next? When you’ve rejected all that went before, and must now make your own life, your own way of living, your own morality — what then? And they stare straight ahead, with a smile still occasionally flitting across their faces, alternating with the stare of people who are overwhelmed at the enormity of what lies ahead. What now, indeed?

It comments on the sexual revolution and on the delegitimization of institutions, and the consequences those developments entail, without words. Just with looks.

The only film I can think of that does anything like it, or does it as well, is “Carnal Knowledge” — also directed by Nichols. Of course, that’s much darker, and hence not as beloved — although nearly as admired. And that one beats you over the head with the point, not least in the title — although it does so magnificently.

Carnal Knowledge” is a great film. I’m also really fond of the way Nichols brought Catch-22 to the screen. (And it just hit me — Art Garfunkel plays a key role in each of the three.)

But if he had never done anything but “The Graduate,” Mike Nichols would still be one of the great filmmakers…

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Pope Francis, the protopunk pontiff

I very much liked this piece in The Washington Post today about Pope Francis:

The pope himself seems unconcerned, continuing his unpredictable riff. He embraces the big bang. He appears in selfies. He criticizes euthanasia. He invites Patti Smith, the godmother of punk, to perform at the Vatican. He cashiers opponents. He calls the kingdom of God “a party” (which is precisely how the founder of the Christian faith referred to it). He is a man, by his own account, with no patience for “sourpusses.”

As a Protestant, I have no particular insight into the internal theological debates of Catholicism. But the participants seem to inhabit different universes. One side (understandably) wants to shore up the certainties of an institution under siege. Francis begins from a different point: a pastoral passion to meet people where they are — to recognize some good, even in their brokenness, and to call them to something better. That something better is not membership in a stable institution, or even the comforts of ethical religion; it is a relationship with Jesus, from which all else follows.

Instead of being a participant in a cultural battle, Francis says, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle.” First you sew up the suffering (which, incidentally, includes all of us). “Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds.” The temptation, in his view, is to turn faith into ideology. “The faith passes,” he recently said, “through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus; in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. . . . The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.”…

As I’ve said before, this pope hasn’t said anything new, in terms of doctrine. I am bemused when nonCatholics, or extremely inattentive Catholics, express wonder that the pope embraces, say, evolution. I had never before run into any basic conflict between the Catholic faith and evolution.

But the very simple, and yet amazing, thing that he does is make sure that you hear what’s important about the faith. He makes sure you hear the love. You patch up the suffering first — heal the wounds. The rest is secondary.

Who cares that Patti Smith’s “Gloria” doesn’t start “Glory to God in the highest,” but rather, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine?” Well, OK, I guess we should care to some extent. But what this pope does is reach out to Patti where she is. He tries to get her to feel the love. And she seems to dig it.

And so it is that we now have our first protopunk pontiff…