Category Archives: Popular culture

‘Sherlock’ jumped the shark some time back

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The series started out promisingly enough.

In the first season, I found “Sherlock” fun, clever and refreshing.

Normally, I look askance at efforts to “update” perfectly good stories, unless they are exceedingly well done. For instance, give me Franco Zeffirelli’s temporally faithful 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet” with the perfect casting of Olivia Hussey as Juliet (a girl actually almost young enough for the part — and what young Romeo would not have fallen for her?), not the execrable (right down to the title) “Romeo + Juliet” of 1996.

On the other hand, give me Ethan Hawke’s brooding young updated “Hamlet,” with his usurping uncle being the head of “Denmark Corporation,” over the versions with the absurdly ancient Kenneth Branagh (36) or Mel Gibson (34) in the title role. OK, Hawke was 30, but didn’t look it. And his characters’ obsession with shooting avant-garde video of himself and the other characters worked perfectly with Hamlet’s introspection.

Despite what I say about Branagh and Gibson, I can even overlook demographically creative casting, such as the Nigerian-Jewish Sophie Okonedo in the recent “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses”… when they pull it off. I thought she was scary good as Margaret of Anjou.

But enough Shakespeare; back to my topic… At the outset, I thought the “Sherlock” update worked. The folks who made it did fun things with Sherlock’s use of his smartphone and Watson’s blog, and the Guy-Ritchie-style cinematographic gimmicks were more fun than distracting.

The early episodes, from “A Study in Pink” through “A Scandal in Belgravia,” are true to the essence of the Holmes canon (and sometimes even to the letter — I was startled, when I went back and read “A Study in Scarlet,” that the original Watson actually was an Army doctor trying to get over his experiences in Afghanistan), while introducing 21st-century elements that work, and freshen up the formula. And as the story wore on, I was delighted with the wonderfully idiosyncratic Moriarty created by Andrew Scott.

But then… the writers of the show started running out of legitimate ideas. This was fully evident in the first episode of the third season, with the explanation of how Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock wasn’t really dead. Something was just… off about it.

This offness really went over the Reichenbach Falls when we learned Mary Morstan’s big secret. That, as much as anything, was the moment when the shark looked up and saw the Fonz’s motorcycle flying over the tank.

This was insulting to the plot, to the characters and to viewers’ intelligence for a number of reasons, such as:

  • The basis of Watson’s relationship with her — and therefore the explanation of her role in the protagonists’ lives — was that he had fallen for the person she had seemed to be. And now she was an entirely other person — an unrealistically sinister person. And yet the relationships continue on their merry way.
  • This was a fantasy character, and not in the Sherlock Holmes mode of fantasy (a cerebral sort of fantasy, in which we pretend we believe that an eccentric genius actually could deduce those facts from such thin, subtle clues without erring), a sort of fantasy that works in a Victorian/Edwardian drawing room. This character sought to out-Bond James Bond, and folks, there is no such person out there as James Bond to begin with — or Jason Bourne, either. What real spies do is George Smiley boring. (At least, boring to adolescents. I find Smiley fascinating.)
  • She’s not some super-athlete, but a middle-aged woman, who is just barely young enough to have a baby. Nothing about the actress or the character speaks to “superhero.”

Yeah, I realize I’m running up against the feminist imperative here. The original Mary Morstan, in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, was a realistic young woman of her era, a former governess, a damsel in distress very much in need of our heroes’ aid. And feminists hate that kind of character, which means the entertainment industry hates that kind of character. So she becomes a superwoman. And ta-da!, the men are no longer driving the action.

Fine. But make it semi-believable. Make the next Luke Skywalker a girl rather than a boy, but make it work (all things are possible with the Force). Sell it to me. I fully believed in the deadliness of the original “La Femme Nikita.” That worked. But stop and think a bit before you do it. I wouldn’t believe Watson as some sort of super double-naught spy/assassin. So why do you think it works with his wife?

But this wildly unbelievable Mary Morstan isn’t the problem — she’s just a dramatic illustration of the problem.

The problem is perfectly seen in the moment, in the new episode aired Sunday after months of hype, when a group of super-assassins dressed like ninjas (one of them being Mary, by the way, although that’s not important to my point), come rappelling down from the rafters into a hostage situation, spraying automatic-rifle fire in all directions.

Yes, there was violence in the original Holmes stories. This sort of violence: As they hastily left the flat on Baker Street in response to the game being afoot, Holmes would suggest Watson slip his ancient revolver into the pocket of his mac, just in case — a revolver Watson would produce and train on the villain in the denouement, causing the baddie to become completely passive while Holmes explains how he figured it all out.

The “action” was civilized and human-scale. It was about what went on in Holmes’ head, not “Fast and Furious”-style whizbang.

In other words, more Smiley than Bond.

The makers of “Sherlock” seemed to understand that at first. Then they lost their way…

Please, Sherlock -- lose the ninjas.

Please, Sherlock — lose the ninjas.

Apparently, I did NOT use Hans Delbrück’s brain in building the new president

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I began my day, my year, crying out in protest against a headline on The Fix:

I am as dismayed as Froderick Frahnkensteen at learning that apparently, at some point during this awful past year, I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half foot long, fifty-four inch wide — but small-handed — gorilla.

But don’t blame me! Eyegor let me down. I had intended our new POTUS to have Hans Delbrück’s brain, you see…

Who was the bigger star? Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds?

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I had this rough impression over the past day that, while the death of Debbie Reynolds got pretty good play in the news, it was mostly because she died one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher. And while this may be an erroneous impression, it seemed that the play on Debbie was front-pagish, but the passing of Carrie got centerpiece treatment on the news sites I saw.

Perhaps this is a generational thing, but back in her day, it seems to me that Debbie Reynolds was by far the bigger star. Look at the starring roles she’s known for: “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Tammy and the Bachelor,” “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” “How the West was Won,” “The Singing Nun,” to mention the most obvious. All pretty much boffo at the box office. And her performance of “Tammy” topped the pop charts in September of 1957.

Some of those things were a bit early for me. “Singin’ in the Rain” was released the year before I was born, and I thought of it as an oldie that occasionally appeared on TV. But I remember the later ones, and I grew up thinking of Debbie Reynolds as a big, established movie star, like, I don’t know… say, the woman who stole her husband away, Elizabeth Taylor. (And what did she have going for her, that a kid would have seen, besides “National Velvet?” She was better known for her tabloid lifestyle with Richard Burton, who stole her away from Debbie’s husband.)

Whereas Carrie is, let’s face it, Princess Leia. But to my kids, and people younger, that’s as big as it gets — maybe bigger than being Scarlett in “Gone With the Wind,” back in my parents’ day. It made her an icon. My elder son invited a girl from school over to play when he was about 6 purely in the hope that he might persuade her to do her long hair up in those braided side buns. She didn’t go for it, so that was a bust. The fascination never left him, or any of us, I suppose.

To me, “Star Wars” was wonderful — I actually reviewed the movie in The Jackson Sun when it came out, and the review was enthusiastic. I remember it grabbed me so that when I was driving home afterward in my orange Chevy Vega, I had to keep shaking off the feeling that I was flying an X-Wing, trying to get into position to blow up the Death Star.

And I was, more or less, a grownup. So I can see how irresistible the pull was for kids. And we all enjoyed seeing her back in “The Force Awakens.”

The accolades for her went on about how in later years she had become an accomplished author, etc. And feminists said things like how much more they liked her as the mature “General Morgana” rather than the enticingly nubile princess. But let’s face it, folks. We cared because she was Princess Leia, period. And I doubt that that’s just true of us boys.

Oh we enjoyed seeing her play a supporting role in “When Harry Met Sally,” and we emitted delighted cries of recognition at her cameos in “The Blues Brothers” and “Austin Powers.” But even then, John Belushi and Mike Myers totally stole those scenes.

As a movie star, as one who got leading roles, she was Princess Leia, period. And don’t get me wrong — I honor her for it.

And maybe that’s enough to overshadow her mother, even though to musical fans, “Singin’ in the Rain” is pretty iconic. Interesting that both of them made the films for which they’d most be remembered when they were 19…

Anyway, I found the comparison interesting, and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from either of them. Rest in Peace, ladies…

"Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"

“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”

Anton Lesser would (almost) be perfect as Stephen Maturin

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OK, so he’s showing a little too much age. But the face, and its expressions, are perfect.

WARNING: Only about two of my regular readers will find this interesting, but it really interests me and it’s my blog, so…

Awhile back, Bryan brought my attention to something in The Atlantic saying what I’ve said many times myself: One could not find better fodder for a high-quality television series than Patrick O’Brian’s series of historical novels set in the Napoleonic Wars:

The Next Great TV Show (If Someone Will Make It)

The case for Aubrey & Maturin

Fifteen years ago, when I finished reading Patrick O’Brian’s magisterial 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series for the first time, I remember thinking, damn you, Horatio Hornblower. C.S. Forester’s renowned nautical protagonist was at the time enjoying the starring role in the British TV series Hornblower, and given the close similarities to O’Brian’s oeuvre—both concern the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic era—it seemed unlikely bordering on inconceivable that anyone would try to adapt the latter for television.

That was, of course, at a time when it almost went without saying that a project of such scope and pedigree would have to be British. But the televisual times have since changed immeasurably for the better on this side of the Atlantic, and now it’s easy to envision O’Brian’s books—which The Times Book Review has hailed as “the best historical novels ever written”—being adapted by any number of networks: HBO, obviously, but also AMC, FX, Netflix, USA … the list grows longer by the month.

Which is a very good thing, because if someone would merely get around to undertaking them, the Aubrey-Maturin novels could easily provide material for exquisite television, offering the action and world-building scale of Game of Thrones, the social anthropology (and Anglo-historical appeal) of Downton Abbey, and two central characters reminiscent of (though far more deeply etched than) Rust Cohle and Marty Hart in the first season of True Detective. Someone really needs to make this happen….

Absolutely. Each of the novels could fill a full season with riveting television, and we wouldn’t face running out of material for two decades, since there are 20 novels. This would be bliss.

These books qualify, collectively, as the greatest work of historical fiction ever. Not just the action, or the amazingly detailed description of everyday life at sea and on land in the early 19th century. O’Brian truly makes you feel like you are there. You know how, when you’re wondering whether you’re dreaming, you might reach out and touch something to persuade yourself of the reality of the experience? O’Brian’s novels pass the test, as you touch aspects of a life alien to the 21st century, but completely familiar to you after the first few pages.

But the greatest thing is the way the books hold up as literature, period — never mind the history or the adventure. The relationship between Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and his particular friend, physician/naturalist Stephen Maturin, has been compared to Holmes and Watson, but it goes far deeper than that, and is much more perceptively nuanced. The relationships among all the characters offer insights into the richness of human experience seldom rivaled in anything I’ve ever read.

The trick, of course, is casting.

The film, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” was well done and enjoyable. It got a few things wrong. For instance, it showed officers and midshipmen dressed in full uniform, as though for an admiral’s inspection, on ordinary days at sea. Which anyone who’s read the books knows is unrealistic.

Here and there, the casting and performances were inspired. David Threlfall was wonderful — he was Preserved Killick (although the bit where he was whining about saving grog for Saluting Day was off — wine would have been more believable). James D’Arcy made a creditable Tom Pullings, with just the right mix of diffidence and command competence. And as small as the part was, I could believe the hulking John DeSantis as Padeen, the loblolly boy.

Others were wildly off. Billy Boyd (you know, Pippin from “Lord of the Rings”) didn’t work at all as Barrett Bonden. Bonden was a big, strapping man, a fleet boxing champion and the very model of the perfect fighting sailor — not a hobbit. He tried, but he just didn’t have the right presence.

But what really mattered, of course, was the two leads — Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. Everything depends on them.

I thought Russell Crowe did a good, workmanlike job as Lucky Jack. But Jack Aubrey is a complex character, with two very different poles to his personality. There’s the kind, openly friendly, jovial, seemingly none too bright, corpulent English gentleman who so thoroughly enjoys bad puns that his face turns red and his blue eyes turn to slits as he laughs, and who is completely helpless on land, an easy mark for con men looking to relieve him of his prize money.

Then there is Captain Aubrey at sea, an imposing, confident, godlike creature who causes subordinates and adversaries to quail when they behold his countenance. As Maturin observes of his friend as he prepares to go into action:

‘Dear me,’ thought Stephen as Captain Aubrey came on deck, buckling this same sword, ‘he has added a cubit to his stature.’ It was quite true: The prospect of decisive action seemed to make Jack grow in height and breadth; and it certainly gave him a different expression, more detached, remote, and self-contained. He was a big man in any case… and with this increase in moral size he became a more imposing figure by far, even to those who knew him intimately well as a mild, amiable, not always very wise companion….

You’d think the latter persona would be harder to play, but it’s easy for Crowe — that’s his type. He has more trouble with the friendly, seemingly harmless, side of Jack. There are a couple of scenes when he bravely attempts it — when he springs a pun on Stephen, and when he plays the fool after a good bit of wine at dinner with his officers. But he never seems quite as harmless, as endearing, as my good friend, the character in the books. Crowe’s just way better at being intimidating.

But Crowe is perfect casting compared to Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin. The doctor is Jack’s opposite — a perfect lubber at sea, but a genius at every other aspect of life. And Mr. Bettany, of whom I am normally a fan, does well at portraying him as a bookish man of science who is indignant that he is part of a purely martial expedition that won’t stop to let him study the zoological wonders of the Galapagos.

SPOILER ALERT, in case you haven’t read the books: But Maturin is something other than a brilliant physician, naturalist, gifted linguist (the foremast hands, and Jack himself for that matter, marvel at his ability to rattle away, “talking foreign twenty to the dozen”) and lover of music. He’s also an intelligence agent for the Admiralty, unpaid in that capacity because he does it entirely out of indignant hatred of Napoleon. He is often described as having a cold, “reptilian” look in his eye that puts people who see it on their guard, which he generally hides by wearing colored spectacles. And when violence is called for, he acts with a calm efficiency that is as different as night from day from the joie de combat that seizes Jack when he’s on an enemy’s deck with sword in hand.

But except for a brief moment at the end of the film, when Bettany picks up a sword and joins in the fighting against the French enemy — something for which the filmmakers have in no way prepared you — you’d think he was a pacifist, one who conscientiously objects to doing battle with the French or anyone else.

So, ever since I’ve first thought of how wonderful the Aubrey/Maturin books would be as a TV series, I’ve wondered who could play Stephen. And I think I’ve settled on someone, if the makeup people can make him look a decade or two younger.

He’s Anton Lesser, a British actor whom you see everywhere, but may not know by name, since he so effectively buries himself in his characters. He’s Qyburn on “Game of Thrones,” Chief Superintendent Bright on “Endeavour,” Thomas More in “Wolf Hall,” and most recently, Exeter in “The Hollow Crown,” that collection of Shakespeare’s history plays that I enjoyed so much on PBS.

Like Stephen, Lesser's characters often can't be bothered to shave.

Like Stephen, Lesser’s characters often can’t be bothered to shave.

Every time I see his face, I think, “There’s Stephen!” His face, his expressions, his physicality, just embody the character. He could don Maturin like a well-worn suit.

If only he’d been born about 20 years later. Maturin, fortunately, is sort of an ageless, crotchety, wizened character, who from the beginning, I gather from the books, looked older than he was, and acted older still. In fact, in some ways Lesser’s maturity adds to his resemblance to the character. But I admit, that loose skin in Lesser’s neck would look out of place on the young, penniless physician who meets Jack Aubrey in Port Mahon in the first book. (Yet, if he filled out to tighten his skin, he wouldn’t look like the nine-stone Maturin.)

Maybe he has a son who looks just like him and is also a gifted actor. Or maybe, as I said before, the makeup people can do wonders. But I have seldom ever found such a perfect match of type between an actor and a beloved character in fiction.

See, I told you you wouldn’t be interested. But I was sufficiently pleased at my discovery that I thought I’d share it with the one or two who might appreciate it…

As Thomas More in "Wolf Hall." There's the kind of joke Jack would love: Lesser as More.

As Thomas More in “Wolf Hall.” There’s the kind of joke Jack would love: Lesser as More.

Perhaps it’s just as well the electors stayed ‘faithful’

Benedict Cumbatch as Richard III in "The Hollow Crown: The Wars of The Roses."

Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III in “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of The Roses.”

When I was editorial page editor at The State, I would from time to time go in to work of a morning all fired up to do something really out there, something that, to a less caffeinated person, might seem terribly imprudent, something that would not be good for the newspaper and its credibility in the long run.

And my colleagues — a smart, sober, sensible crew if ever there was one — would talk me down in the morning meeting. They’d grab ‘hold of my coattails and pull, steadily and relentlessly, until they’d dragged me back from the precipice. They were all like, Put the idea down and step back, slowly…

I sort of counted on them to do that. Because ultimately I’m a conservative sort of guy, even though I’d get these wild impulses from time to time.

I don’t have them to do that for me any more. But I have y’all.

If you’ll recall, I came in all charged up on the morning of Dec. 7 (an infamous date for following ill-considered impulses — just ask Admiral Yamamoto), and wrote “Electors, your nation needs you to be ‘unfaithful’.”

Filling the roles of editorial board members, y’all immediately started calmly talking me down. As Phillip wrote in soothing tones, “As much as I fear the coming Trump Presidency, though, this would be a terrible idea,” and went on to explain why. Dave Crockett, saying, “I have to side with Phillip on this one,” poured additional oil on the troubled waters.

And I immediately realized they were right, admitting, “Everything you say makes perfect practical sense.” And I thanked them, in my way.

In any case, off the blog (you’re either on the blog or you’re off the blog), out there in Meat World, the electors met yesterday and were meek and mild, and everything Alexander Hamilton did not intend them to be. In any case, no revolution. And it’s probably just as well, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment.

But to be clear, I wasn’t being a revolutionary. I was being, if anything, reactionary. I wanted to go back to the original spirit (since the original letter is no longer operative) of the Electoral College, in which the electors served as a guarantee that no gross incompetent under the sway of a foreign potentate — ahem — would become our president. I was invoking Hamilton’s sort of conservatism, extolling his mechanism for preventing something imprudent from happening. (I’m so much that way that, as I’ve confessed here in the past, while I fervently embrace the corniest, most cliched sort of patriotism, I often worry that had I been alive in 1775, I might, just might, have been, well… a Tory. I would have had a strong aversion against taking up arms against the duly constituted authority, especially over something as absurd as taxes. Shooting at my lord the King’s soldiers would have seemed to me to be tearing at the fundamental fabric of civilization. I’m talking about before the Declaration. After that, I might have been OK with it — Take that, jolly lobster!)

Anyway, though, y’all were right and I was wrong, and it’s just as well that most of the electors yesterday were too timid to do the right thing — I mean, to cause trouble.

And I’m more certain of that now than when y’all talked me down a couple of weeks ago. That’s because of two things I’ve spent a lot of time on recently — watching TV and working on my family tree.

First, there’s the TV watching… I’ve been enjoying “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses” on PBS. It’s a three-part production of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” parts I and II, and “Richard III.” And it’s pretty great so far (still awaiting that third part).

But boy, does it make you glad you didn’t live in those parlous times. Just to give you an idea of the political instability and its murderous consequences, so far:

  • King Henry VI of the House of Lancaster, an unstable weakling (but a gentle soul), is trying in his own feckless way to hang onto the crown that his father — the “Band of Brothers” speech guy (see how all my posts connect up?) — left him when he was only 9 months old. He marries the French noblewoman Margaret, which looks like a good match but isn’t.
  • The Duke of York — father of, among others, Richard III — asserts that he should be king, and a lot of nobles decide he’s right and line up behind him. After all, he is a Plantagenet, and they held the crown much longer than these upstart Lancastrians.
  • There’s a terrible battle in which Somerset’s head is cut off by the York faction, which is just as well because he was fooling around with Margaret behind the King’s back. (He’s played by the guy who played the guy who was fooling around with Princess Margaret in “The Crown,” so I guess he’s typecast.) York and his posse have a great time tossing the head around and cracking jokes.
  • The followers of York rush to Westminster, where the King later arrives to find York literally sitting on his throne. The King is like, “Get off my chair!” and York is like “Make me!”
  • At this moment, Exeter, who’s always been one of the King’s main guys, says You know what? Maybe York does have a greater claim to the throne. And the King’s like, “What?”
  • The King offers a deal: If they’ll let him remain king while he lives, he’ll give up the crown on behalf of his descendants, letting York and his sons succeed him.
  • Some of the nobles tell the King he’s a loser and march off to tell Queen Margaret.
  • Margaret, who has a young son she was counting on being king, essentially reacts like, WTF!
  • She goes out and leads her own army against York, and cuts his head off, and puts it on a pike.
  • Then things swing back the other way, and… well, suffice to say York’s is not the last head to be used as a decoration.

Anyway, that’s Henry VI. The first two parts anyway, and part of the third. (I didn’t finish part 3 until after writing this.)

Then there’s the genealogy thing…

Over the weekend, I learned that I’m possibly descended from Richard “Strongbow” de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke — the guy who pretty much started the Norman conquest of Ireland in the 12th century. (And even if I’m not related to him at all, the moral of this story still stands.)

This caused some Henry-and-Margaret-style tension at my house, for this reason: My wife’s maiden name is Phelan. The original Gaelic name is Ó Fialáin. The Ó Fialáins were the head honchos in County Waterford until a certain Norman lord came along and conquered and trashed their city.

The particular Norman lord who did that was, you guessed it, my great-granddaddy “Strongbow.” If he is my great-granddaddy — and even it he’s not, he’s the guy.

Yeah… awkward.

Strongbow was driven to this by circumstances. He had inherited the Pembroke earldom and lands from his father Gilbert, also called “Strongbow.” But Henry II — one of those Plantagenets — took them away from him because my ancestor had sided with King Stephen of England in a bloody dispute — a war, not to put too fine a point on it — against Henry’s mother, the Empress Matilda, over who would be monarch of England.

Thus dispossessed, Strongbow went over and did a deal with the Irish King of Leinster, who was having problems of his own, to go together and take Waterford. Which they did. Henry II, eager that these new Irish properties become the crown’s, did a deal with Strongbow in which he got his old title and property back. Which was good for him, but not so great for my wife’s folks in Waterford.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

For so much of human history, no one had much of a sense of loyalty to a country, much less to a system of laws. They couldn’t even be relied on to be loyal to a certain lord for long. Everybody was always looking for the main chance, ready to kill to gain advantage even temporarily.

Our 240-year history, our country of laws and not of men, is a blessed hiatus from all that. We may descend into barbarism yet — and yes, the election of a man who shows little respect for the rule of law is not a good omen — but so far the Constitution has held.

So maybe it’s safest not to tear at the fabric, even a little — even if, like Exeter, we can say maybe the law is on our side. Seeing York’s point of view and encouraging him in his claim did no one, including York, any good. Getting all legalistic in invoking Hamilton’s original intent could have wreaked a great deal of havoc as well…

The earldom of Pembroke came with this cool castle, so you can see why Strongbow wanted it back.

The earldom of Pembroke came with this cool castle, so you can see why Strongbow wanted it back.

Some of the TV shows that keep me from reading books

"Vikings:" Meet Ragnar Lodbrok, my 38th-great grandfather -- maybe.

“Vikings:” Meet Ragnar Lodbrok, my 38th-great grandfather — maybe.

This started as a comment, but I’ve turned it into a separate post.

Over the weekend, I confessed that I just haven’t been reading books the way I once did. One of the reasons, I’m humiliated to admit, is that there is so much compelling television these days. Some of the TV shows that have distracted me over the last year or so:

  • Boardwalk Empire – I’ve finished the first season and am taking a break before plunging into the second. I really like the way this is actually based on historical figures. And I never realized before what a slimeball Warren Harding was.
  • Vikings — I’m in the second season. This is tied to my genealogy obsession. Ragnar Lodbrok, the star character, is a direct ancestor of mine — if he existed. His sons are considered historical, and I’m apparently descended from one, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. But whether they were all brothers and Ragnar was their father seems less certain — he’s a figure in Norse folklore. Sigurd’s mom, Aslaug, may also be a fable.
  • The Last Kingdom — This is related, although fictional. It’s sort of a real-life alternative to Game of Thrones. It’s about the Viking conquest of all of England except Alfred the Great’s Wessex — the titular Last Kingdom. The hero is fictional, but historical figures a prominent characters, such as the aforementioned Alfred and Ubbe, the brother of Sigurd.
  • The Crown — We’ve watched all of that; look forward to another series. My hero is the stuffy Tommy, the senior aide who tries to keep everybody straight and make sure these silly royals do their ruddy duty — except Her Majesty, of course, who always tries to do what’s right.
  • Orphan Black — Taking a break from it after watching the first season. It was getting a little intense.
  • Mr. Robot — I’ve seen all of what’s available on Amazon for free, waiting for more. Rather silly in a political sense — full of anarchist ravings — but engaging. A plus is that the star is Rami Malek, who was so weirdly good as “Snafu” in “The Pacific.”
  • Fortitude — This offbeat murder mystery started off pretty good, but got downright weird. Oh, and don’t make the mistake of thinking you know who the hero is.
  • Okkupert, or Occupied — Speaking of series set in Norway, this one is actually in Norwegian. It was an engaging what-if about what happens after a relatively bloodless invasion of Norway by Russia.
  • River — This is a really good weird one. It’s about a British detective (actually, he’s a cop in Britain, but for some reason is originally Scandinavian) who talks to dead people — in the most calm, matter-of-fact way. But they’re not always terribly informative; he still has to figure out who killed them.
  • Longmire — Why’d they have to get an Australian actor to play a modern Western sheriff? I don’t know, but it works.
  • The Walking Dead — I haven’t watched the latest season to appear on Netflix, which means I’m two years behind the people who watch it the old-fashioned way, as it appears on broadcast TV.
  • The Night Manager — I’m a HUGE fan of the novel and ran out and BOUGHT the series as soon as it appeared — only to have it show up on Amazon Prime for free, so I feel stupid. It was good, although there were changes. One GOOD change was changing the hero’s case officer to a pregnant woman, which really worked. The BAD change was the ending, in which… well, I won’t give it away.
  • House of Cards — I have NOT been able to get into the most recent season. I watched one episode and turned away.
  • Grantchester, Endeavour, Lewis, Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War — Just to toss some of my fave British murder mysteries into one item. I’m sure I’m forgetting some.
  • Poldark — Watched the first season, but just haven’t gotten into the second. This guy just keeps having the same tiresome problems.
  • The Man in the High Castle — I haven’t even made it through three episodes of the FIRST season. I was expecting something awesome like Len Deighton’s SS-GB (another book I’ve read obsessively over the years), but no dice.
  • The Wire — Loved it, but it kind of slowed down for me after about three seasons. The first two were awesome, though.
  • Wolf Hall — This may not count; it may have been more than a year ago. I should watch it again, though, because since then I’ve discovered that a bunch of the characters are apparently related to me. And let me say in my defense that I read both of Hilary Mantel’s books before watching this.
  • The Tudors — I try and try to get into this and fail. I like that the first character addressed by name in the very first episode is an ancestor of mine (diplomat Richard Pace), and I love Maria Doyle Kennedy (a Commitmentette!), but the soft-core porn approach is rather silly. And am I really supposed to believe that everyone in the court was in their 20s and looked like models?

OK, I’m tired of making this list, so I’m not going to get into “The Americans,” “Justified” and others. Additional shows keep popping into my head. Suffice it to say that I find TV very distracting these days…

"The Wire"

“The Wire”

‘Idiocracy’ arrived 500 years early

President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, in a scene reminiscent of Ted Cruz's "Machine-Gun Bacon" video.

President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, in a scene reminiscent of Ted Cruz’s “Machine-Gun Bacon” video.

In reaction to a previous post, Bryan Caskey wrote:

What a stupid time to be alive.

Yep. None stupider, in U.S. history.

I’m just so embarrassed for my country. And every day for the next few years, I’ll wake up and have to be embarrassed again. And who knows how long it will last? Our political system is now in such disarray — neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have any idea how to get back to electing rational people, and there are no other entities on the horizon prepared to do so — that I can’t see the end of this epidemic of stupidity.

I’ve always despised H.L. Mencken for his contempt toward most of America, but now it seems we’re every bit as stupid as he thought we were.

The people who made “Idiocracy” lacked imagination. It’s arrived 500 years earlier than they supposed. In that fictional world, President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho is a former professional wrestler. (As you see above, he shared a certain penchant with Ted “Machine-Gun Bacon” Cruz.) In our real world — and every day, I struggle to persuade myself that this actually is the real world — our president-elect is an inductee of the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame.

This, of course, is not an original thought. Quite a few people have said it in recent weeks. (My only defense is that I did THINK it Election Night, but didn’t feel like getting into it.)  Joel Stein explored it in TIME magazine as early as May in this piece. Excerpts:

Eight years ago, with the publication of Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, our country had a debate about whether its citizens were becoming less intelligent. This year, we had a debate about how big Donald Trump’s penis is. While we have not resolved the latter, we have answered the former. Former means first, and latter means second….

In the Idiocracy-est moment of the whole 2016 campaign, a Trump supporter who shoved a black protester in the face explained his candidate-selection process to a reporter on MSNBC, Ali Vitali, thusly: “He’s no-bullsh-t. All balls. F-ck you, all balls. That’s what I’m about.” Though George Washington never said those exact words, he would have certainly killed a man for saying them.

I called the people who made Idiocracy to see how they so accurately predicted the future. “I’m no prophet,” Judge told me. “I was off by 490 years.” He too is shocked at how eerily similar the world has become to the one his movie depicted. He and Idiocracy co-writer Etan Cohen have been working on fake campaign ads for Camacho to be used as anti-Trump web videos, but they’re having a hard time. “Our jokes would be like, ‘I’m going to build a wall around the earth.’ They were only incrementally stupider,” says Cohen. “Writing Idiocracy was just following your id. Now unfortunately our id has become our candidate for President.” The danger here is clear: we will no longer be able to have comedies with hilarious dumb characters….

And why is that? Because all of a sudden, it’s not funny.

Come to think of it, “Idiocracy” wasn’t all that funny to start with. The opening credits, explaining how intelligent people in the present day failed to reproduce, while idiots did so like rabbits — basically, the explanation of the premise — was the best part. The rest quickly grew old. Because it’s just not much fun to contemplate living in a world governed by stupidity.

And now, here we are…

The death of Fidel Castro (and Ron Glass, too!)

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By now, you’ve heard that Fidel Castro outlasted 10 U.S. presidents. I’ve read that several times. But I make it 11. Check my math:

  1. Eisenhower
  2. Kennedy
  3. Johnson
  4. Nixon
  5. Ford
  6. Carter
  7. Reagan
  8. Bush 41
  9. Clinton
  10. Bush 43
  11. Obama

Oh, I get it. They’re not counting Obama, since Fidel didn’t quite outlast him. Duh.

Whatever. Guy was in office a long time, longer than a lot of you have been alive.

And what’s he got to show for it? Almost six decades of oppression, and some beautifully preserved antique cars. I read over the weekend that since the thaw began, a huge part of the Cuban economy is American tourism and the officially tolerated sex trade, which takes us back to where he came in.

He’s been there so long, that it’s nice to do a recap to refresh your memory. Here’s one. Here’s another.

The big question now is, will things get better between the U.S. and Cuba now, or worse? I’m not overly optimistic, with you-know-who about to take over in Washington.

ron-glassAnd now, let’s pause a moment to remember Ron Glass, whom we all remember (if we’re old enough) from “Barney Miller,” but I recall more fondly as Shepherd Book from “Firefly.” As you may recall if you’re a Browncoat, one of the great unsolved mysteries from the short-lived series was just what sort of shady past the Shepherd had.

Now we’ll never know, even if there’s a revival of the series, which there should be.

Requiescat in pace, Ron… (Do they have Latin in the future ‘verse, or is it just English and Chinese?)

shepherd-book

‘Aaron Burr’ just couldn’t follow his own advice with Pence

“Hamilton” actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, did not take to heart the advice his character gives the young Hamilton:

While we’re talking, let me offer you some free advice:

Talk less…

Smile more…

Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for…

If he had been the real Burr, he would not have singled out his successor-elect, Mike Pence, for embarrassment after the show the other night.

A lot of people who are as distressed over the election results as I am think it was great for Dixon to deliver this message from the stage to Pence, who was in the audience:

“You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening,” he said to audience hoots and laughter. “And Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. There’s nothing to boo here. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out.”

As he pulled a small piece of paper from his pocket, Dixon encouraged people to record and share what he was about to say, “because this message needs to be spread far and wide.” The cast, in their 18th-century costumes, and the crew, in jeans and T-shirts, linked arms and hands behind Dixon….

“Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you, and we truly thank you for joining us here at ‘Hamilton: An American Musical.’ We really do,” Dixon said to further applause. “We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us . . .”

The audience erupted in cheers again. “Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.”

As I say, some thought it was great. I did not. It seemed tacky, gauche, not the proper place. The man in the audience was a guest, and did not come to harangue anyone — or to be harangued.

It’s not that the actor was hostile or cruel or anything like that. He wasn’t inciting anything; he was just saying, We’re all pretty upset your ticket got elected, so please reassure us by your actions. Which is the sort of thing I myself might say to Pence were I to run into him and be introduced. But of course, that’s a different dynamic from singling someone out of a crowd.

Nor did Pence mind, or so he says. (as to what Trump thought, which we learned all about when he launched him on another of his childish rants, I address that in a comment below.) And I get that the cast and crew didn’t want to throw away their shot. But it just didn’t seem the place. I’d have felt terribly awkward had I been there. I feel awkward just hearing about it, especially since, as I am so dismayed at the election result — because of Trump, remember, not Pence — this gaucherie was committed by someone who agrees with me on that point. That makes me feel responsible.

So I thought I’d say something…

One more thought: One would think that everything the cast and crew wanted to say — about “diversity,” about the value of immigrants, about fundamental rights — had already been said, beautifully and creatively, by the play they had just performed. And since Pence had come to hear it, it seems to me that the message had been delivered, by the masterpiece it took Lin-Manuel Miranda seven years to write, far better than a hastily-penned speech could do.

The only thing the little speech said that the play did not was, Yo, Mike Pence — we see you out there — yeah, you. And we’ve got a problem with you.

And that’s the bit that seemed to me unnecessary.

If they wanted to acknowledge Pence, the stage manager could have stepped onto the stage before the show to say, We have a special guest in the audience tonight, vice president-elect Mike Pence. Mr. Pence, we hope you enjoy the show, take it to heart, and go forth inspired. We hope you all do.

That would have been appropriate…

TV had better do Stranger in a Strange Land RIGHT!

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Y’all may recall that several years back, this item topped my list of Top Five Books that Should Have Been Made Into Movies by Now:

  1. Stranger In A Strange Land — … Definitely number one. An entire generation would buy tickets to see this, if it were any good at all. The sex stuff toward the end might have been a barrier in the 60s, but not now. I remember once in the early 70s hearing that it was being made into a movie starring David Bowie, but that turned out to be something else. Since nobody else seems interested, I’ve thought about trying to write the screenplay myself, but only if Hollywood would let me be in it. I would have been a natural for Ben Caxton when I was younger, but now I’d probably have to audition to be Jubal Harshaw. Of course, the soundtrack would have to include the Leon Russell song of the same name.

And today, just days after the death of Leon, I get this news:

Robert Heinlein’s Scifi Classic Stranger in a Strange Land Is Coming to TV

True to its name, the Syfy channel has made a habit of adapting science fiction and fantasy literature both established (Childhood’s End, Hyperion) and contemporary (The Expanse, The Magicians). Now it seems there’s another much-beloved property on the network’s list: Robert Heinlein’s 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land.

According to a press release, this is the first TV adaptation of Stranger in a Strange Land—very broadly, the tale of a Mars-born man who travels to Earth and experiences human culture for the first time; it influenced the counterculture and won a Hugo en route to becoming a classic. No further details on the proposed TV series were announced, but we’ll be keeping an eye on this one….

OK, first, this had better be good. I’ve been waiting for it for 46 years. Not a long time at all from an Old One’s perspective (they’d be content to wait another century or two), but quite a stretch for those of us who have no immediate plans to discorporate.

And in that time — especially most recently — we have become accustomed to a level of quality in TV series that we couldn’t have dreamed of back when I first read the book.

So when I say this needs to be be good, I mean like “Sopranos” good, or “Band of Brothers” good. I want it to be better than “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.” Merely making it better than “Dune,” The Worst Movie Of All Time, won’t even get you into the right universe of how good this needs to be.

So yeah, we’re ALL gonna keep an eye on this one. If they don’t grok the fullness, if we sense a wrongness in the result, the Old Ones will know, because they’re monitoring.

You grok what we’re saying, TV people?

Oh, also, I’d still like a part in the series. Ben Caxton would be best, but as I say, I’m too old. And I’m much, MUCH too young to play Jubal — he’s supposed to be so old, people are amazed to find him still walking around, much less as spry as he is. He’s like at least in his 90s.

I’d settle for something minor. How about James Oliver Cavendish, the famous Fair Witness whose services Ben engages to go interview the fake Man from Mars? I think that’s in my range.

Now, let’s discuss who will play the other parts….

It better be THIS good. We'll be watching. Capisce?

It had better be THIS good. We’ll be watching. Capisce? (That’s Italian-American for “grok”…)

Leon Russell!?! Why are all the coolest people dying off?

I’m not saying there’s a connection to Trump getting elected last week. I don’t think this is actually happening because the coolest people refuse to stay on such a planet. But it would be nice to have a little break from horrible news.

First, there was Leonard Cohen — whom I recognize as one of “the coolest people” even though I was never much of a fan. I loved “Hallelujah” (as practically everyone on the planet does), and I recognized one or two other songs, such as “Chelsea Hotel #2,” but that was about it. (I knew he was someone people who were way cooler than I listened to way back in the ’70s, but never got around to him until a few years back.)leon-top-hat

But yesterday the real blow came — the death of Leon Russell, The Master of Space and Time himself! The man who defined cool! The calm, imperturbable center of his very own “hippie commune, bonafide,” the Shelter People. The mysterious master who drew so many other famous musicians (George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Rita Coolidge, Elton John) to him, but was always apart — presiding imperiously at the keyboard with his bone-straight graying hair (who that we knew had gray hair in 1971?) falling around his shoulders, the regal beard, the top hat, the mirror shades.

Even though he had been a fixture on “Shindig!” years before (a previous incarnation, with a dark Elvis pompadour, no facial hair — but still the same Tulsa voice, the same piano magic), I never knew who he was before the “Shelter People” album in the summer of 1971. But then it seemed he was everywhere — doing the rockingest set of all at the Concert for Bangladesh!… having his own very trippy TV special with the Shelter People just hanging out in a studio — and had always been everywhere, though I hadn’t known it. (Listen to Elton John reel off a litany of people Leon had played with over the years — Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Dean Martin, Herb Alpert, Frank Sinatra, before he even got to Delaney and Bonnie and all the others of my generation — on this clip.)

A year or two later, I saw him in what may be the best rock concert I ever saw in my life, or ever will see. I may have described it before, but let me just tell you how he made his entrance: It was in the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis. The whole entourage was out there on the stage before him — maybe 20 people, from the usual long-haired guys with guitars to the women who sang backup standing on elevated platforms. At the center of the stage were two grand pianos, and sitting at one was this black dude (probably someone famous, but I don’t know who) banging away in this raucous gospel-rock style, and everybody else jamming along with him. But no Leon. They went on like this for maybe 10 minutes, and as it climbed toward a climactic crescendo, Leon made his appearance. He was in a snow-white suit with white top hat (or was it a cowboy hat? — either worked for him), and he was playing a matching white Stratocaster, and I’m like I didn’t even know he played guitar, but I realized that of course, Leon could play anything he wanted.leon-shades

He strolled out, so casually, so in command of the stage. Then he stepped up onto the second piano’s bench, still playing, then on up to the top of the piano, and stood there and kept playing for a moment, with everybody else rocking away like mad. Then he stepped down, ditched the guitar, sat at the piano, starting dueling with the other pianist, and that’s when the music really hit its peak.

I’ve never seen anyone else with that kind of presence on stage. I was as impressed as Huck Finn at the circus. Worth every penny of the probably $5 the ticket cost me, and then some. Later, I saw Elvis on the same stage, and I don’t think even The King topped Leon, although perhaps I should shy away from committing lèse-majesté — after all this was in E’s own hometown.

And now he’s gone…

I thought I’d share my very favorite Leon song, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” above. I chose that clip because it’s a live performance (a less polished one than I saw in Memphis, but you can feel the energy), so you can get a sense of his style, but I actually prefer the studio version, which you can hear here. I first heard this song when, at the suggestion of my uncle, I got the “Shelter People” album in mid-1971. It was within a year after I first read Heinlein’s novel — which has nothing to do with the lyrics of the song, but is all part of the sensibility of the time.

And to reinforce that Leon had always been with us, even when we didn’t realize it, I also include this clip from his “Shindig!” days…

How does ‘One-Note Samba’ work?

OK, one more pop-music-oriented post. It’s obliquely related to the one on Leonard Cohen.

Remember long ago when I asked whether Phillip or other musical experts here could explain how “Hallelujah” worked, what it was about it that was so appealing? Phillip and many others rose to the occasion.getz-gilberto-from-tv-show

Well, I’ve got a tougher one today. This morning, I was listening to “One-Note Samba,” and wondered how in the world that could reach out and grab me or anyone else.

Maybe it doesn’t speak to you, but I’ve always had a thing for samba music ever since my Dad brought back some records from a trip to Rio when I was a kid (sort of the way Liverpool kids learned about rock ‘n’ roll from the discs brought into port by sailors). And obviously some people besides me like this one, since it’s been covered so often.

So tell me:

Why does it work? Why isn’t it too monotonous? Does it keep us listening purely because of the rhythm? Is that it? Or is it the fact that we know, as we endure the one-note parts, that it’s going to change, and that change is what rewards us? Or is it because of what the instruments are playing while the singer is stuck on the one note?

Just wondering. Because to me, music is just magic, and far beyond my ken…

Even my earworms are commenting on the election

In recent days, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” has been sort of playing in the background of my mind when I was thinking about other things. I kept finding myself silently mouthing, “pocketful of mumbles,” without bothering to think about it.

Well, in the shower (that font of inspiration) this morning, I suddenly realized why, when I thought of the context:

I am just a poor boy
Though my story’s seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises
All lies and jests
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.

Of course, the last two lines are the most pertinent. For a generation now, people have been rejecting Moynihan’s dictum that we’re not entitled to our own facts, and insisting that they have a right to them. This was the election in which that dynamic, men hearing only what they want to hear, has manifested itself most dramatically (and destructively).

But the rest of it fits, too — the meaninglessness of political promises (which I dislike in the best of times), the predominance of lies, and so forth. And who was Fareed Zakaria’s column reaching out to but “poor boys” who feel that their stories have gone ignored?

I seldom hear that song without thinking of a church youth group that I attended some when I was in high school in Hawaii. It was in an architecturally unassuming (a low, frame building probably left over from WWII) Navy chapel up the hill from Pearl Harbor, somewhere between my house in Foster Village and the Sub Base gate. (I just tried to find an image of it using Google Maps Street View, but first, I think it’s gone, and second, Street View stops working with you get to the edge of a military installation. This was actually off base back then, but now all all Navy property seems to be sealed off.)

It was led by a chaplain of that sort we’ve all met, who is really, really trying to reach out to the kids where they are. I can vaguely picture him, and the only thing else I can remember about him was that he once told us about ministering to Marines during a siege in Vietnam when for awhile it looked like they were all going to die. (Khe Sanh, perhaps? Or maybe some smaller action that’s less well known.)

Anyway, one week he urged us to bring our favorite songs to the next week’s meeting, where we would play them and then discuss why they were important to us.

I couldn’t really think of a favorite song. A year or so earlier it would have been easy — “Let it Be.” But I wanted something more contemporary, so I took my copy of the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album and asked him to play “The Boxer.” I didn’t even know why I picked it then. I think maybe I thought, as a boy starting out in life, to be sort of profound in a self-absorbed young man kind of way, and even literary — the protagonist struck me as a more humble Nick Adams, or something. Maybe I thought it would impress somebody.

Anyway, it’s been there in the background a bit this week…

sg-greatest-hits-other-side

Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah

Just thought I’d put this up to mark the passing of Leonard Cohen.

As y’all know, I love this song, so much that awhile back, I asked Phillip and other musical sages here on the blog to help me understand why it was so awesome…

Interestingly, the song almost never reached a wide audience, thanks to the myopia of a record executive.

It’s almost certainly his most covered song, which prompted him to say, “I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it.” See one of the less conventional video versions below.

Anyway, thanks, Leonard, for spending five years writing it. And for all the rest….

Joss Whedon’s election videos

One of the best directors in the ‘verse has stepped forward to try to get out the vote for next week.

I especially enjoy the one above, making appropriate fun of the notion that what all situations call for is a businessman.

But Doug and my other Libertarian (or should I say, “Browncoat“) friends should enjoy the one below, entitled, “If Congress was your co-worker…”

My favorite, though, might be this one, in which a Brit, thoroughly embarrassed by Brexit, begs us all to vote for Trump so we Yanks will go back to being the idiots the rest of the world looks down on. It starts, appropriately enough, with “Bit of a favor to ask…”

Finally taking the time to get into Hamilton

07hamilton-slide-dr5r-superjumbo

Roughly ten years ago, I was sitting at my desk in my office at The State, talking on the phone with Fritz Hollings. This was shortly after he had left office, and we frequently had occasion to talk. I don’t know what we were talking about, or who had called whom. It might have been about one of several op-ed pieces he wrote for us in that period — he was still having trouble letting go of policymaking. Maybe it was the conversation in which I called him to ask a favor — his good friend Joe Biden was going to be in town, and I wanted him to drop by the office if he had time so we could get acquainted, before he ran again for national office (Fritz came through on that).

Anyway, we got off the subject, whatever it was. Fritz had just read Ron Chernow’s book, Alexander Hamilton, and he started singing its praises, saying I must read it. I took his advice — almost. I put the book on my list for family members looking for gift ideas for my birthday or Christmas, and someone promptly gave it to me. And… it has sat on my shelf ever since, until this weekend.alexander-hamilton

I really, truly, meant to read it. I’d always been interested in the Founders. On my way to sort of inadvertently getting a second major in history, I concentrated to a certain extent on that period. And I came away convinced that had I been alive and in politics at the time, I’d have been a Federalist. That was the party Hamilton had founded, and I knew he was brilliant, and that he provided most of the arguments that sold the Constitution to the country among other startling achievements, but… I was less attracted to him than to the others, and I knew that as a result I had neglected him. Which is why I had dutifully put the book on my list. But still, I kept my distance. Maybe I had absorbed some of the propaganda put out about him by Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, but it seemed to me that there was a reason why Hamilton wasn’t ever president, and I thought that if I was a Federalist, I was more of an Adams Federalist than a Hamiltonian. I mean, the guy was so into money and all…

So there the book sat. And during the years that I failed to read it, a young man named Lin-Manuel Miranda picked it up, and it set his mind on fire. He was inspired to write a musical based on the book, and it became the biggest hit on Broadway in a generation.

So, I missed a big opportunity there.

I kept hearing about the play, and seeing video clips from it, and I thought it was really exciting that someone had made a hit out of one of the Founders (and, to my mind, the Founder least likely to inspire a hit musical), but I had some Clueless White Guy questions: What did hip-hop have to do with the guy who had founded banks and our whole financial system? And why were most of the actors on the stage black — or at least, seemingly nonAnglo-Saxon? I didn’t object to them being black — I just wondered why. It seemed that there was a point being made, but I didn’t understand what the point was. I wondered whether it had to do with Hamilton’s obscure origins. All I knew (thanks to Jefferson’s folks) was that Hamilton was a bastard out of the West Indies. Was Miranda saying that, coming out of the ethnic richness of the Caribbean, he was of mixed race, so it was fitting to have actors of color fill the stage?

Well, on Friday night, I saw “Hamilton’s America,” the fascinating documentary about the creation of this play, and suddenly I got it. I saw what people were so enchanted with. I understood why, when Manuel was reading Chernow’s book on vacation, he thought, “This is a rap!” And I was deeply impressed by how everyone involved in the production was thoroughly immersed in Hamilton and the other Founders and what they were all about, and why they are important today — and not just to pasty-faced people of English extraction.

I was really impressed by that part. Decades ago, when I did some community theater back in Tennessee, I met a lot of talented people. And I was shocked to find that people who were brilliant musicians — something I could never be — and really gifted amateur actors were nevertheless… how shall I put this… not well read. They might do a play based on history — say, “The Lion In Winter,” which I acted in — and they’d get their lines and the intonations perfectly, but they wouldn’t really know the history or the cultural context of what they were pretending to be.

In this documentary, not only Miranda was able to speak fluently and inspiringly about Hamilton and his world, but the other actors as well. They went on and on about it, and you could learn a lot by listening to them.

And as I listened, I — who was last attracted to musical theater when Andrew Lloyd Webber came out with “Evita” (another sort of history I sorta kinda concentrated on in college was Latin American) — started really, really getting into the music. And that’s really, really saying something, since the only rap numbers I’m familiar with and like are the ones from “Office Space.”

So here’s the irony: Hip-hop helped get those young actors into history. And now history is getting me into hip-hop. As I type this, I’m nodding my head to “I am not throwing away my… shot!

OK, OK, Lin-Manuel! You got me! I finally picked up the book yesterday, and started reading. Slow reader that I am (the book’s 800-plus pages of small type pushed me away as much as anything), I’m on the third chapter now, and wow! He was right: This is a rap. I’m still in young Alexander’s shockingly difficult childhood in the Indies, and there’s nobody who ever came from meaner streets than he did. What a story.

So I’m really into it now. Fritz was right. So was Lin, who gave me the swift kick I needed…

Shakespeare, he’s in the alley, but Dylan’s got a Nobel Prize

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Dylan at the Civil Rights March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

Finally, the Nobel Prize for Literature goes to a writer whose work I both know and appreciate:

Bob Dylan was named the surprise winner of the Nobel prize for literature in Stockholm today “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Speaking to reporters after the announcement, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said she hoped the Academy would not be criticised for its choice.

“The times they are a’changing, perhaps,” she said, comparing the songs of the American songwriter, who had yet to be informed of his win, to the works of Homer and Sappho.

“Of course he [deserves] it – he’s just got it,” she said. “He’s a great poet in the English-speaking tradition. And he is a wonderful sampler, a very original sampler. He embodies the tradition and for 54 years now he has been at it, reinventing himself constantly, creating a new identity.”

Danius said the choice of Dylan may appear surprising, “but if you look far back, … you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, performed, often together with instruments, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it. Same thing with Bob Dylan – he can be read and should be read. And he is a great poet in the grand English tradition.”…

Trying to remember the last time this happened for me, I looked back at the list of past winners.

Let’s see: There was V.S. Naipaul in 2001 — I’ve been meaning to read something by him, but haven’t gotten to it….

Ah, William Golding in 1983! Pass me the conch, and I’ll tell you what I know about him.

I’ve read one book by Gabriel García Márquez (1982). Didn’t like it. Even though I thought it would be awesome, being about Simón Bolívar, whom I had been taught to revere in history classes in Ecuador. Instead, it was just… unpleasant… wearying.

1976 — Surely I’ve read something by Saul Bellow… nope. But I have read Bernard Malamud and Chaim Potok, in my defense.

1969-1971 — A three-year streak! I mean, I’ve read “Waiting for Godot,” The Gulag Archipelago and at least one poem by Neruda.

Steinbeck in 1962! Now we’re talking…

1957 — I’ve read The Stranger by Camus. Didn’t like it.

We’ll stop with Hemingway — the one person on this list I have really read avidly — in 1954. That covers my lifetime.

As far as my being able to relate, Dylan blows all but Hemingway away. (And yes, I’m embarrassed to admit this way that no one will say to me, “you’re very well-read, it’s well known.” But this is a blog where we tell truths, is it not?)

This is amazing. Something is happening, and I don’t know what it is. No, wait: I do. Boomers are finally truly in charge. Yay, us! It’s gear, it’s fab, it’s boss, it’s tuff, it’s righteous. Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand, etc….

The interesting debate we could have had, under other circumstances

immense-power

Let’s set aside for a moment this contest of character and pretend we have the luxury of talking about ideas in this presidential election.

Were that the case, the most interesting moment in last night’s debate would have come at this point:

RADDATZ: … This question involves WikiLeaks release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu (ph), from Virginia asks, is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes…

Let’s set aside the loaded wording of the question (“two-faced”), and look at the underlying issue, which speaks to the nature of leadership and the ways we communicate in a representative democracy.

Can an honest person have a public position that differs from what he thinks in his heart of hearts? Yes, he (or she) can. In fact, there are times when he or she must.

As a longtime editorial page editor, I’m quite familiar with this. Most of the time, our editorial position was consistent with my own personal position. But we operated by consensus — I was not the only member of the board — and what we ended up with was not always exactly what I thought. I deferred to my colleagues, at least to the extent of modifying the position so that we could get everybody on board. And once the decision was made, I did not publicly say things to contradict it, because that would have militated against our consensus. I had a duty as leader of the board not to undermine its positions — even on the extremely rare occasions when our official position was very different from my own, such as when we endorsed George W. Bush over John McCain in 2000.

But my care with my utterances in order to keep the board together was nothing compared to what a president faces.

The president of the United States daily, if not hourly, faces situations in which it would be grossly impolitic, unwise, and even harmful to the country to say precisely what he or she personally thinks or feels about a situation. A president must be diplomatic, not only with representatives of other nations, but with multiple contending and overlapping constituencies right here at home. This is why a president is surrounded by people who are talented at helping choose precisely the right words needed to help move things in a desired direction. It would be grossly irresponsible, indeed a dereliction of duty and perhaps a deadly danger to the country, for a president simply to spout off from the gut without pausing to temper the message (see “Trump, Donald”).

People who don’t work professionally with words are sometimes pleased to call carefully moderating one’s speech “lying.” Those of us who work with words know better. You can say the same true thing many different ways, and how you choose to say it can make all the difference between communicating effectively and having the desired effect, or failing miserably.

Back to the debate

Secretary Clinton responded this way to that loaded question:

As I recall, that was something I said about Abraham Lincoln after having seen the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie called “Lincoln.” It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. It was principled, and it was strategic…

Did you see the film? If so, you know there was a lot more to Lincoln than the fine words in the Gettysburg Address. He may have been the most skilled, determined, clear-eyed, illusionless man ever to hold the office — and the most effective. (The only two men I can imagine coming close to him in these regards were FDR and LBJ.)

The film shows Lincoln involved in the noble task of permanently saving our country from the stain of slavery, going beyond what fine words or even four years of unbelievable bloodshed could accomplish. The Emancipation Proclamation had been a stratagem in winning the war (and one he had held back from issuing, with flawless timing, until the political climate was ripe for it), an ephemeral, self-contradictory thing that did not truly free the slaves. He needed something that went far beyond that; he needed to amend the Constitution.

And he pulled out all the stops — all the stops — in getting that done. Set aside the unseemly spectacle of promising government jobs to lame-duck congressmen — that was routine horse-trading in that day. Let’s look at the central deception — and the word is apt — that was essential to getting the 13th Amendment passed.

Lincoln knew that once the war ended, Congress would see little need to ban slavery — and the war was in danger of ending before he could get it done. In fact, a delegation led by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was on its way to Washington to sue for peace. It would in fact have arrived if Lincoln hadn’t ordered Union troops to detain it some distance from the capital. While the delegation cooled its heels, Lincoln worked feverishly to get his amendment passed.

At a critical moment in the debate in Congress in the film, a rumor spreads that there is a Confederate peace delegation in the city. This threatens to defeat the amendment. Lincoln tells Congress that not only is there no such group in Washington, but that he does not expect there to be. He conveniently leaves out the fact that the reason he doesn’t expect there to be is because he has issued orders to that effect.

Another instance in which Lincoln has a public position differing from his private position is with regard to Republican power broker Francis Preston Blair. The reason the Confederate delegation started on its journey to begin with was that Lincoln had reluctantly allowed Blair to reach out to Richmond. Why had he done that? Because Blair urgently wanted peace, and Lincoln needed his support to keep conservative Republicans in line on the amendment.

So… Lincoln did these things — playing every angle, and saying what needed to be said to the people who needed to hear them –, and rather drawing our disapprobation for having done so, he is rightly revered.

As I said above, the only two presidents I can see even coming close to Lincoln in terms of political skill and effectiveness were Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Which reminds me of a contretemps from 2008. An excerpt from my column of January 20 of that year:

It started when the senator from New York said the following, with reference to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”
The white woman running against a black man for the Democratic Party nomination could only get herself into trouble mentioning Dr. King in anything other than laudatory terms, particularly as she headed for a state where half of the voters likely to decide her fate are black.
You have to suppose she knew that. And yet, she dug her hole even deeper by saying:
“Senator Obama used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize me. Basically compared himself to two of our greatest heroes. He basically said that President Kennedy and Dr. King had made great speeches and that speeches were important. Well, no one denies that. But if all there is (is) a speech, then it doesn’t change anything.”…

Hillary Clinton was not my choice for president that year. Several weeks later, we endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination (right after endorsing John McCain — whom we would later endorse in the general — for the Republican).

Her point was that fine words (such as those with which her opponent excelled) are well and good, but if you want to see a good thing get done, you need someone who will roll up sleeves, dig in and do what it takes. Which LBJ never shied away from.

When she was a fresh grad at Wellesley, Hillary Clinton was dismissive of politics being the art of the possible. As she grew up, ran into brick walls of opposition and in other ways found how resistant the world could be to fine words and finer sentiments, she learned. Her concept of what it took to get things done — and of what things were doable — matured.

Hence what she said in that leaked speech.

I don’t say this to defend Hillary Clinton personally. As I said, I wanted to raise a point that we might discuss were we in a different situation. But we’re not in a different situation. Right now, our representative democracy faces supreme degradation, and possibly worse, if Donald Trump is elected. So we have that appalling threat to deal with, and fine points and ethical ambiguities are not the order of the day.

So pretend that speech — the one to the paying audience, not to Wellesley grads — was delivered by someone else. Think for a moment about the ideas being expressed, not the person expressing them.

It’s a question that all of us should wrestle with as we grow and mature. When I was a young and cocky editor, very free with my thoughts on everything, and to hell with whether others agreed, my then-boss posed me a question: Would you rather be right, or effective?

Of course, I wanted to be both. But what about when you can’t be?

NOW Trump’s in trouble: DeNiro’s on his case

At the end of the week, I did a blog post for ADCO about this video that a bunch of celebrities did to urge people to vote.

Not until today did I see the outtake from what Robert DeNiro said about Donald Trump. It’s just a tad more restrained than in his performance below.

So, ya think Bobby’s kinda ticked at this guy? A li’l bit, li’l bit…