Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Kurosawa's Birthday 2015

Akira Kurosawa would be 105 today.

Tony Zhou has put together a superb video on Kurosawa called "Composing Movement." (Zhou has a Tumblr blog, Every Frame a Painting, and a YouTube channel of video essays.)

Kurosawa buffs will find much of this material familiar, but it's well-organized and features some excellent clips (no surprise):

Meanwhile, here's a list of Kurosawa's 100 favorite films.

(My most extensive post on Kurosawa is this one.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

St. Patrick's Day 2015

I've featured this song before, but here's Dead Can Dance (with Lisa Gerrard singing) performing a striking rendition of the 19th century Irish tune, "The Wind That Shakes the Barley":

My copy of the The Irish Songbook says:

This is an excellent example of many songs that serve both as love lyrics and rebel song. The scene described refers to the 1783 rising. The words are the work of Robert Dwyer Joyce, a professor of English Literature at Catholic University at Dublin. In danger of arrest for rebel activities, Joyce fled to the United States. He later returned to Ireland and died in Dublin in 1883.

Wikipedia gives some more information, including a nice list of the many bands who have recorded the song. (Ken Loach's 2006 film takes the song for its title.)

Feel free to mention or link any favorite Irish songs or poems in the comments. Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Night Will Fall

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and a new documentary looks at some important old footage. The Los Angeles Times provides a good summary:

Seventy years ago, British, Soviet and American forces were unprepared for the atrocities they encountered when they liberated the Nazi concentration camps. Combat and newsreel cameramen recorded these harrowing discoveries at camps that included Bergen-Belsen, Dachau and Auschwitz.

In April 1945, the footage was to be turned into a film, "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey," and was supposed to be screened in Germany after the collapse of the Third Reich.

Despite having Alfred Hitchcock as a supervising director, the 1945 film was never completed. In 1952, London's Imperial War Museum inherited the rough cut of five of the six planned reels of the film, as well as 100 compilation reels of unedited footage, a script for voice-over commentary, and a detailed shot list for the completed film.

"Night Will Fall," a new HBO documentary airing Monday [1/26/15] on the cable network and then repeating on HBO2 on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Tuesday, chronicles the making of "German Concentration Camps Factual Survey." The actual 1945 documentary, which has been restored and assembled by London's Imperial War Museum, will also screen Tuesday at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Here's a trailer for Night Will Fall:

(The New York Times also has a good write-up and Metro UK rounds up British viewers' powerful reactions.)

I haven't seen either film in entirety yet, but the footage from 1945 has featured in plenty of previous Holocaust pieces, and some completed segments from German Concentration Camps Factual Survey have been shown before, including sections demonstrating Alfred Hitchcock's approach of using wide shots, panning shots and long takes where possible. (He was sadly prescient about the possibility of Holocaust denial.) Some of the footage is indeed harrowing. An excellent Guardian piece on both documentaries recaps a segment from the 1945 film that's stuck with me for years:

In one piece of film, from Majdanek concentration camp, we see huge bags containing human hair. Collected from the murdered, it would have been carefully sorted and weighed. “Nothing was wasted,” says the narrator. “Even teeth were taken out of their mouth.” Bernstein’s film then cuts to a large pile of spectacles. “If one man in 10 wears spectacles,” we are asked, “how many does this heap represent?”

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. features something similar – 4000 shoes, which make a lasting impression on visitors:

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The focus of the day has always been on (horrific) historical events but also on the general idea of human rights. Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl observed that there are limitations to comparing suffering, because it is like a gas filling a room, and "suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little." Meanwhile, Akira Kurosawa once said that "The role of the artist is not to look away," and that's certainly true of great documentary filmmakers, good historians, and really anyone who bears witness to injustice. (The documentary The Act of Killing is also well worth a look.) Injustices may vary in scale, but here in the United States, I can't help but think of indefinite detention without charges in the present, the U.S. torture regime in the recent past (and efforts to keep it unexamined), the oppression of Jim Crow laws and internment camps in living memory, and slavery and the treatment of Native Americans in the more distant past. Of course, not everyone wants to look at those events in our own nation's history, some vehemently deny them (in part or in whole) and the effects of those events are hardly limited to the past. Personally, I plan to see both Holocaust documentaries, but I suspect they serve as reminders not only of essential historical events but our own sadly enduring capacity for inhumanity. (Where we go from there is the big question.)

(A version of this piece is posted at Hullabaloo.)

Monday, January 19, 2015

Progress (MLK Day 2015)

Near the end of the film Selma, Martin Luther King (played by David Oyelowo) notes in a speech how racism has been used to turn poor whites against blacks. (I'll post a review of the film later; I thought some segments were superb but other elements problematic.) The full speech the film references makes for an interesting (and timely) read. Here's the relevant section:

Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland. Racial segregation as a way of life did not come about as a natural result of hatred between the races immediately after the Civil War. There were no laws segregating the races then. And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward, in his book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land. You see, it was a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War. Why, if the poor white plantation or mill worker became dissatisfied with his low wages, the plantation or mill owner would merely threaten to fire him and hire former Negro slaves and pay him even less. Thus, the southern wage level was kept almost unbearably low.

Toward the end of the Reconstruction era, something very significant happened. That is what was known as the Populist Movement. The leaders of this movement began awakening the poor white masses and the former Negro slaves to the fact that they were being fleeced by the emerging Bourbon interests. Not only that, but they began uniting the Negro and white masses into a voting bloc that threatened to drive the Bourbon interests from the command posts of political power in the South.

To meet this threat, the southern aristocracy began immediately to engineer this development of a segregated society. I want you to follow me through here because this is very important to see the roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote. Through their control of mass media, they revised the doctrine of white supremacy. They saturated the thinking of the poor white masses with it, thus clouding their minds to the real issue involved in the Populist Movement. They then directed the placement on the books of the South of laws that made it a crime for Negroes and whites to come together as equals at any level. And that did it. That crippled and eventually destroyed the Populist Movement of the nineteenth century.

If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.

Thus, the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses resulted in the establishment of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything. That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society: a society of justice where none would pray upon the weakness of others; a society of plenty where greed and poverty would be done away; a society of brotherhood where every man would respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

King describes an old con: sell bigotry, and deliver more aristocracy (or plutocracy, or some other form of entrenched power). The moneyed, white conservatives making the pitch and their poorer marks were primarily in the Democratic Party until the 1960s, but then with Nixon's Southern strategy, the parties realigned and these constituencies became Republican (perhaps the most famous figure being Strom Thurmond). Almost every Republican presidential nominee since Nixon has employed some version of the Southern strategy and sold bigotry to acquire power (sometimes successfully). Another key lie has been that the New Deal was a horrible failure, but Reaganomics have been a stunning success for all Americans and not just a select few as intended. (Conservative economic policies arrive with different names, including supply-side economics, but can also simply be called business as usual, especially when it comes to bipartisan Wall Street corruption.) Economic conservatism and social conservatism don't always coexist, but they fit together easily, and the latter characteristically serves the former.

The film Selma depicts disturbing incidents in the past, but it's also troubling for contemporary audiences aware of new and ongoing efforts to suppress the vote, almost entirely coming from conservatives and/or Republicans, and almost entirely targeting the poor, minorities, and other likely Democratic constituencies. (The issue of voting rights remains a major difference between the parties.) The Shelby County v. Holder (2013) decision is probably the most alarming and unconscionable move yet. It's disconcerting to see how past progress is being steadily and deliberately eroded.

All this brought to mind Chris Rock's interview late last year with Frank Rich (whose questions and comments are in bold). Here's the exchange I found most striking:

When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.

Right. It’s ridiculous.

So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.

It’s about white people adjusting to a new reality?

Owning their actions. Not even their actions. The actions of your dad. Yeah, it’s unfair that you can get judged by something you didn’t do, but it’s also unfair that you can inherit money that you didn’t work for.

Meanwhile, returning to King, later in the same speech, he said:

And so I plead with you this afternoon as we go ahead: remain committed to nonviolence. Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding. We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.

It's hard to disagree with that, and it remains a worthy cause, but it's also important to note that an entire industry exists to undermine such friendship and understanding. It's not a surprise that many of the same entities that deny climate change, oppose corporate oversight, push for lower taxes on the wealthy and oppose raising the minimum wage also support voting suppression. Some prominent conservatives have, without irony, argued that the the rich should get more votes and people who doesn't pay income tax shouldn't get to vote (never mind all the other taxes they pay). Likewise, other conservatives have praised old systems that reserved voting for property owners (they're usually politic enough to drop the "white man" requirement).

Just as progress isn't won without a fight, sadly, some people will seek to undo it, and progress can be reversed without sustained effort to support it.

(A version of this piece is posted at Hullabaloo.)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2014

(The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves)

(A 2008 Jon Swift picture.)

Welcome to a tradition started by the late Jon Swift/Al Weisel, who left behind some excellent satire, but was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs. As Lance Mannion put it in 2010:

Our late and much missed comrade in blogging, journalist and writer Al Weisel, revered and admired across the bandwidth as the "reasonable conservative" blogger Modest Jon Swift, was a champion of the lesser known and little known bloggers working tirelessly in the shadows . . .

One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. His round-ups presented readers with a huge banquet table of links to work many of has had missed the first time around and brought those bloggers traffic and, more important, new readers they wouldn’t have otherwise enjoyed.

It may not have been the most heroic endeavor, but it was kind and generous and a lot of us owe our continued presence in the blogging biz to Al.

Here's Jon/Al's 2007 and 2008 editions. Meanwhile, here are the revivals from 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

If you're not familiar with Al Weisel's work as Jon Swift, his site features a "best of" list in the left column.

Meanwhile, Blogroll Amnesty Day (cofounded by Jon Swift and skippy) is a celebration of small blogs coming up again the first weekend in February.

Thanks to all the participants, plus a special thanks to DougJ at Balloon Juice for posting an open submission thread every year. (It earns some special consideration in the roll call below this year.)

Apologies to anyone I missed who wanted to participate. You still can, by linking your post in the comments. Whether your post appears in the modest list below or not, feel free to tweet your best post with the hatchtag #jonswift2014. (My goal is to find the right balance between inclusive and manageable.)

As in Jon/Al's 2008 roundup, submissions are listed roughly in the order they were received. As he wrote in that post:

I'm sure you'll be interested in seeing what your favorite bloggers think were their best posts of the year, but be sure to also visit some blogs you've never read before and leave a nice comment if you like what you see or, if you must, a polite demurral if you do not.

Without further ado:

"This Is Not a Solution; This Is the Problem"
Melissa McEwan: "On the criminalization of need, the myth of bootstraps, and what it really looks like when nobody helps you."

His Vorpal Sword
"The End of the Trail"
Hart Williams: "After a successful ten year run (which included attacks ON IT by Ted Nugent, Sean Hannity and Brent Bozell on Faux Nooz), the author explains why the blog is ending and some highlights of that decade."

A Blog About School
"School budget cuts are only the beginning"
Chris Liebig: "It's about Iowa's apparent determination to exponentially increase its spending on standardized testing even though the school districts are already struggling with cuts to curriculum."

Mad Kane's Political Madness
"Inconvenient Facts"
Madeleine Begun Kane: "2-verse limerick about executive action and Republican hypocrisy."

I Wish I Had A Watermelon
Dave Dugan: "In celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the resignation of Richard Nixon, I made a comic about my experience as a 9 year old boy in the summer of 1974."

Kiko's House
"Pennsylvania State Police Botch Frein Manhunt"
Shaun D. Mullen: "The manhunt for cop killer Eric Frien could not have come at a worse time for the Poconos. Its economy crapped out long before the rest of the nation, and for a while it led all counties nationwide in home foreclosures per capita. This is because local bigs, not content to try to build the tourist industry and brand the Poconos as a special place with beautiful woodlands chockablock with trails, waterfalls, creek and rivers, as well as golf courses, ski slopes and family friendly resorts, climbed into bed with rapacious developers and usurious financial institutions after the 9/11 attacks to sell the Poconos as a safe haven from a world gone crazy."

World O' Crap
"Strong Enough For a Man, But Made For a Really Insecure Man"
Scott Clevenger: "After years of having to share the Bible with women, at last men have their own, super-secret Men's Bible. It teaches important Bronze Age lessons about male friendship and bonding with men usually found only in an episode of My Little Pony. Also, there's porn in it."

David E's FaBlog
"Zero Dark Salo"
David Ehrenstein tackles the Senate's torture report.

Strangely Blogged
"Men Who Hate Women"
Vixen Strangely: "In the wake of Elliot Rodgers' killing spree, I felt the need to write on the connection between misogyny and violence."

Poor Impulse Control
"Of the World, Looking Over the Edge"
Tata: "America’s mental health system is a failure. Being mentally ill may actually prevent you from being able to afford treatment that could save your life."

Ramona's Voices
"Derange Wars: The Cliven Bundy Story"
Ramona Grigg: "Crusty old rancher in Nevada has standoff with the Feds over range rights. Starring the Second Amendment, with walk-on parts by warring militias who don't know what any of it means but it sounds like a party so why not?"

The Way of Cats
"How to Subtitle Ourselves"
Pamela Merritt: "We can bridge the communication gap between cat language (they speak with their body) and human language (we use words, but can "subtitle" with our body). It's like a translation device!"

Pruning Shears
"New York Times visits Youngstown, discovers huge and nonexistent transformation"
Dan: "The Times reports on how fracking is remaking a region's economy, minus any relevant details."

Simply Left Behind
"The Wages of Capitalism"
Actor 212/Carl: "Because capitalism as practiced in America is in direct conflict with democracy, liberty, and morality, capitalism as practiced in America must go."

Anibundel: Pop Culturess
"Martin Struggles to Explain Game of Thrones' Race Problem"
Ani Bundel: "Martin tries to respond to his fans to explain why the race problems in Game of Thrones is baked into the text from his own novels, with limited success."

"I was the NRA"
Tom (TBogg) Boggioni: "How the gun nuts and cosplaying “great white hunters” ruined hunting for me and turned the NRA into a murder-enabling lobbying group. Fuck those guys."

You Might Notice a Trend
"At What Point Can The Stupidity of Racism End?"
Paul Wartenberg: "My thoughts on the first week of protests in Ferguson over the shooting death of Michael Brown. Also the moment I picked up the Quote of the Year (via a Business Insider article): 'We rolled lighter than that in an actual war zone.' "

Real American Liberal
"Stop this Liberal President"
John Sheirer: "Imagine our once great nation's future if we allow this liberal president to continue his attack on our founding traditions. Those who do not share our views could be insane enough to carve this liberal president's face into the side of a mountain, as outlandish as that may seem."

Kathleen Maher's Pure Fiction
Crazy Women
Kathleen Maher: "My flash fictions are stories in 500 words or fewer. This one shows a family visiting the husband's grandmother in a nursing home."

Watergate Summer
"Holding Time"
enigma4ever offers an end-of-year meditation.

We Are Respectable Negroes
"The Culture of Cruelty is International: From Lynchings to Eric Garner and the CIA Torture Report"
Chauncey DeVega: "America is a society that tortures people as a matter of public policy. The CIA's torture of supposed "terrorists" abroad is part of a continuum of torture and cruelty from the lynchings of blacks in the 19th and 20th centuries to the tortures committed against American citizens in the country's prisons and by its police in the present."

"How Unions Are Unfairly Scapegoated For Detroit's Woes"
Marc McDonald: "There are many reasons for the catastrophic decline of the once-mighty U.S. auto industry over the decades. But it's unfair and inaccurate to point the main finger of blame at unions, the usual scapegoat."

Bluestem Prairie
"In Facebook status, Big Stone Co GOP chair calls Muslims "parasites," writes "frag em" at Mecca"
Sally Jo Sorensen: "Bluestem Prairie broke the story about a Republican county party leader advocated murdering Muslims during the Hajj in Mecca. Like many other Bluestem original reports, this story made national news online."

Just an Earth-Bound Misfit
"Quite Possibly the Last Post That You'll See Here on Climate Change"
Comrade Misfit: "Why it may be too late to do anything about climate change, other than 'embrace the suck.' "

"Rough Night"
Brendan Keefe: "Haven't been doing much blogging this year but I thought this picture from this past spring, and its follow-up, might be of some encouragement in these short dark days."

"10 Lessons from Bush's Fiasco in Iraq"
Jon Perr: "Foaming-at-the-mouth Republicans and their furious right-wing allies aren't just wrong that "Obama lost Iraq." They are desperately trying to evade paternity for a world-historical calamity they birthed and still support because Iraq was lost the moment the first U.S. troops crossed the border from Kuwait."

Bark Bark Woof Woof
"Give Us A Reason"
Mustang Bobby: "It takes more than a little gall for Marco Rubio to shed crocodile tears over discrimination against gays and lesbians and then turn around and explain in detail why he does it."

The Hunting of the Snark
"Those Whiny, Lazy, Greedy Millennials"
Susan of Texas: "After the financial industry gutted the economy they needed a way to deflect the anger of the losers in their economic battle. As always we can depend on Megan McArdle to support the rich, so let's watch her blame our young people for being their victims, claiming that their bleak prospects are a result of their laziness and fecklessness."

Blue Gal
"And the boys cat-call, just up for each other..."
Fran Langum/Blue Gal: "A different take on the NYC Hollaback catcalling video."

"Bob Benson's Loveless Erector Set"
driftglass: "How Madison Avenue invented, sold and then destroyed the Idealized Nuclear Family."

The Professional Left Podcast
"Ep. 262: Ferguson, Torture, and The Wish of Angels"
Blue Gal and driftglass: "We discuss the last time the system worked, and what went wrong."

Mock, Paper, Scissors
"The Further Adventures of Peggy Noonan"
Tengrain: "As in other years, I think my Anatomy of a Column series on The Further Adventures of Peggy Noonan continues to be my favorite work. I especially liked this episode, which features Peggy losing an argument with a cardboard cut out of St. Ronnie."

The Debate Link
"Innocent Until Proven Nazi"
David Schraub: "We lack confidence in our ability to accurately identify something as racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise hateful. Too often, we shy away from these issues unless we have an obvious crutch (like a Nazi connection)."

Last Left Turn Before Hooterville
"Dear White People: a Perspective on White Privilege"
Alicia Morgan: "An attempt to explain to my white friends who claim to be color-blind and not ‘see’ race that the very act of ‘not seeing race’ means that you have white privilege – the privilege to not see racism, and to choose not be around it. White privilege does not mean you are a racist, but it does mean that white folks need to look a little deeper to see that racism is alive and well in 2014, and by acknowledging it you can begin to be part of the solution."

Lance Mannion
"A very short, true story about a good dog"
Lance Mannion: " 'Golden retriever,' he said. But now he didn’t seem satisfied with his own answer. Her breed was beside the point. It didn’t describe the most important thing about her."

Scrutiny Hooligans
"Fighting A Command Economy With Monopoly"
Tom Sullivan: "I have long been wary of the fetish among the business and political classes for "efficiency." Like "shareholder value," when you hear it, prepare for your "betters" to screw you ... again."

Self-Styled Siren
"Gigi (1958): A Defense"
Farran Smith Nehme: "In which I argue that the contemporary view of the exquisite, joyous Gigi as somehow endorsing pedophilia is ahistorical, priggish, literal-minded nonsense."

The Reaction
"President Obama's cautious, restrained, responsible leadership on the Ukraine situation"
Michael J.W. Stickings: "Obama's apparent weakness, according to his idiotic critics like John McCain and Bill Kristol, is actually strength, an expression of caution, restraint, and responsibility that is really the only viable option at the present time and that could, over time, lead to a long-term resolution to this crisis. Obama's critics are salivating for war, or something. Thankfully – for America, for the Ukraine, for Europe, for the world – they're not the ones calling the shots."

The Rude Pundit
"Random Observations on a Reaming: That'll Teach That Negro to Be President"
Lee Papa: "The day after the midterm election, the Rude Pundit licks wounds and kicks some asses."

Spocko's Brain
"How Foster Farms Used the USDA, Big Chicken Lobbyists and Lawyers to Avoid a Recall"
Spocko: "In this piece I examine how Foster Farms avoided a recall of Salmonella contaminated chicken."

Mister Tristan
" 'Journalist' and War Criminal"
Gary, a relative of Mister Tristan: "A former 'Today Show' host obliterates the line between journalists and the people they cover."

"To the Pole!"
Darrel Plant: "The truish story of Roald Amundsen's 1907 plan to achieve the North Pole by polar bear."

Lotus: Surviving a Dark Time
"Racism and that Boston Herald cartoon"
LarryE: "Some thoughts on racism and (my) white privilege arising from that notorious Boston Herald cartoon about Obama and 'watermelon-flavored toothpaste.' Like most of my posts, this one is drawn from my local cable access TV (and YouTube) show called 'Left Side of the Aisle.' "

"Love is the jewel that wins the world": Inspiration for a birthday, for every day
Ellen O'Neill: "My dear friend Barbara Geach died in August, after 22 years in a locked-in syndrome condition. She kept up a vibrant correspondence with friends around the world, which I share because it is so, very, inspiring."

Confession Zero
"The Day That…"
Mark Prime offers a poem.

This Is So Gay
"Laying Layers and the Lays They Tell"
Duncan Mitchel: "Critical thinking for thee, but not for me!"

Stonekettle Station
" Self Evident Truths"
Jim Wright: "Turns out there is nothing 'self-evident' about any of our rights."

Gaius Publius
"Are Democratic Leaders Already 'Tea Partying' The Progressives?"
Gaius Publius: "If you noticed that Steve Israel, the rest of his ilk, and the DSCC, are willing to surrender the House and the Senate to keep you out of power, would it really be … a bridge too far, a hanging offense, bad manners … to consider returning the favor?"

Hillary Rettig
"Why Tough-Guy Metaphors About Creativity Don’t Work"
Hillary Rettig takes on the trope of the tortured artist.

this space intentionally left blank
"A Suggestion for Heterosexual Men"
Dallas Taylor "wrote this at the height of the #notallmen silliness."

The Cosmogonic Grunt
"To Shoot a Boy"
C. V. Danes considers events in Ferguson, Missouri.

Schroedinger's Cat
"Time to Move On, Time to Get Going"
Schroedinger's Cat: "A takedown of David Brooks and his half-baked but scholarly sounding ideas on the economy."

Zombieland—Now Brain Free!
"Too Hard:
Hawes remembers a student.

House of the Dread
"Trading Places"
Comrade Dread: "Since I slid away from fundamentalism, I’ve been going back and re-examining some of the stories I was taught growing up and I’ve been finding that if they really are read as the ‘literal word of God’ then God is rather monstrous."

"Parkinson's since 2006, Brain Surgery & Stroke 8/13, Heart Attack 2/14, Triathlete Yesterday"
yopd1 celebrates a milestone.

My Ready Room
"Whatchu Talking ‘Bout, Tillis?"
Ben Cisco: "A look at a flaming jackass (and now, sadly, Senator-elect)."

"Bringing a Putty Knife to a Culture War"
Roy Edroso: "It has two of my favorite subjects — libertarians, and culture-war schlemiels; but I repeat myself — and gave me a chance to be playful."

Balloon Juice (best post)
"On Darren Wilson"
Soonergrunt reflects on his four combat tours, police officer Darren Wilson and the notion of a clear conscience.

Balloon Juice (best series)
"Not being stupid is smart"
One post in Richard Mayhew's series on the Affordable Care Act. You can scroll back through all of his posts here.

"The Statue of Liberty Wears Shackles"
Eric L. Wattree: "Little known fact: The original prototype for the Statue of Liberty resembles a black woman with a broken shackle in her hand. The French abolitionist who conceived the idea in 1865 intended to celebrate the emancipation of American slaves, not the American Revolution."

Doctor Cleveland
"An Armed Society Is a Bloody Society"
Doctor Cleveland: "When gun-rights advocates say, "An armed society is a polite society," they mean, "I am entitled to kill people for being rude." Doctor Cleveland exposes the twisted logic and bloody consequences of Stand-Your-Ground laws."

Vagabond Scholar
"Lucky Duckies and Fortunate Sons"
Batocchio: "Those who benefit from a rigged game are reluctant to acknowledge that the game is rigged."

Thanks again, folks. Happy blogging (and everything else) in 2015.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mike Nichols (1931–2014)

Mike Nichols was a great actors' director. He made some excellent camera choices, but what set him apart from his peers was his consistent facility for coaxing superb performances from his cast. Nichols started in theater as a performer and continued to direct for the stage throughout his life. He was extremely intelligent about analyzing the essence of a story and scene, breaking down the beats (especially the subtext), and helping the performers make them into living moments. If you listen to his commentaries or interviews, it's a real pleasure to hear him discuss small moments in a performance and little tricks he used on set or in rehearsal to get an actor into the right mental space. He possessed great empathy as a director, and had a fine understanding of human behavior, particularly what was going on below the surface and how it drove people to act – the indirect, circuitous, and even self-defeating ways we funny human beings behave. Watch The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or any of his other films, and you'll encounter wonderfully human moments – comic, tragic, or both—of poorly managed anxiety, fearful hope, constrained despair, displaced anger, petty spiteful revenge, small understated kindness, and relaxed grace. Actors and directors who take the art and craft seriously could do far worse than to study the work of Nichols (along with that of Ingmar Bergman and a handful of other directors). Even Nichols' more uneven films (such as Wolf and Primary Colors) contain some accomplished scenes that can serve as master classes on acting and directing.

Nichols confessed that he didn't love performing, that he found it draining, in contrast with his stage (and occasional writing) partner Elaine May, who thrived on it. As a result, he was extremely sympathetic to his actors and tried to support them as much as possible, especially in emotionally vulnerable scenes. My favorite interview moment with Nichols came when he was asked about his directing style (by Charlie Rose) and he spoke about these dynamics. Nichols talked about how lonely and naked it can on stage or in front of the camera, and what he tried to give his actors to alleviate that. Rose then played a clip of Kathy Bates (who justifiably received a Oscar nomination for Primary Colors) gushing about Mike Nichols – with other directors, it was often different, but with Mike, you weren't alone out there. (Brenda Blethyn said something similar in a Q&A session – if she felt her director's support, that level of trust, she could "go anywhere" in a scene.) Nichols was slightly embarrassed but moved by the Bates clip. What she said is about the greatest compliment a director can receive, and for Nichols, it was well-deserved.

From The New York Times, an obituary, an appraisal by Ben Brantley and reactions from colleagues. The obituary has some choice passages:

“A director’s chief virtue should be to persuade you through a role; Mike’s the only one I know who can do it,” Burton said after the film was finished, a remarkable compliment from a renowned actor for a fledgling director. “He conspires with you to get your best. He’d make me throw away a line where I’d have hit it hard. I’ve seen the film with an audience and he’s right every time. I didn’t think I could learn anything about comedy — I’d done all of Shakespeare’s. But from him I learned.” . . .

“I’ve always been impressed by the fact that upon entering a room full of people, you find them saying one thing, doing another and wishing they were doing a third,” [Nichols] said in a 1965 interview with the weekly newspaper The National Observer, now defunct. “The words are secondary and the secrets are primary. That’s what interests me most.” . . .

“But what I really thought [improvisation] was useful for was directing,” he said, “because it also teaches you what a scene is made of — you know, what needs to happen. See, I think the audience asks the question, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ And improvisation teaches you that you must answer it. There must be a specific answer. It also teaches you when the beginning is over and it’s time for the middle, and when you’ve had enough middle and it’s time already for the end. And those are all very useful things in directing.”

Los Angeles Times coverage includes an obituary and a full archive of new and old pieces on him, covering his versatility, how he worked with stars, and what he learned from success and failure.

The Washington Post provides an obituary and reactions from colleagues.

NPR offers multiple pieces on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, The Two Way, a text obituary with video clips, and older interviews on Talk of the Nation and Fresh Air.

Charlie Rose interviewed Nichols several times, and spoke about him for CBS News.

Elaine May's salute to Nichols for his AFI Life Achievement Award is predictably funny. For his Kennedy Center honors, she observed, "Mike has chosen to do things that are really meaningful and that have real impact and real relevance, but he makes them so entertaining and exciting that they're as much fun as if they were trash."

Roy Edroso has a good remembrance.

Mark Evanier posts a great Nichols and May sketch, recommends a commentary track (and Todd McCarthy's 2012 appreciation of Nichols for The Hollywood Reporter) and passes on Nichols' five rules for filmmaking:

1. The careful application of terror is an important form of communication.

2. Anything worth fighting for is worth fighting dirty for.

3. There's absolutely no substitute for genuine lack of preparation.

4. If you think there's good in everybody, you haven't met everybody.

5. Friends may come and go, but enemies will certainly become studio heads.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving (and Food Banks) 2014

This is a good time of year for those with the means to donate to their local food banks and for those in need to get assistance. In my area, the Los Angeles food banks make a little go a long way. The Feeding America site has a useful national food bank locator.

Best wishes to all those in need.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Armistice Day 11/11/14

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

You said it, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day. (This year is the centennial of the start of the Great War.)

This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly.

Five years ago now, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

"Élan in The Guns of August"

"Demonizing of the Enemy"

"The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

"The Little Mother"

***"War and the Denial of Loss"

The most significant other entries in the series are:

"How to Hear a True War Story" (2007)

"Day of Shame" (2008)

"The Poetry of War" (2008)

"Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon). (2008)

"They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011)

"The Dogs of War" (2013)

I'll update this post below the photo with links to other folks' pieces for 11/11 as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me. Thanks.

Hello Again and Again to All That

1914 marks the centennial of the start of World War I, and Armistice Day (or Remembrance Day, or Veterans Day) originally commemorated the Great War's end. Back in January, William Kristol, a zealous and unrepentant warmonger's warmonger, wrote a piece commenting on one of the great war poems, Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est." The results were illuminating – not of the poem, or Owen himself, or World War I, or war in general – but of Kristol and those of like mind.

It's worth rereading the poem itself first:

Dulce et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

As the British website War Poetry explains:

DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean "It is sweet and right." The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.

(Christopher Eccleston, Kenneth Branagh and Ben Whishaw perform good renditions of the poem.)

Owen's view of war isn't rare among those who served in WWI; similar views can be found in the poems of his friend Siegfried Sassoon, or in Robert Graves' bitingly satirical memoir, Good-Bye to All That. WWII vet Eugene Sledge, among many others, admired Owen's ability to capture the experience of war. It's a disturbing but honest perspective, and should not be surprising.

In a January post, William Kristol quotes a 1997 David Frum piece that touches on Owen's poem and the loss of respect for authority. Kristol comments that:

As Frum pointed out, Horace’s line is one “that any educated Englishman of the last century would have learned in school.” Those pre-War Englishmen would, on the whole, have understood the line earnestly and quoted it respectfully. Not after the War. Living in the shadow of Wilfred Owen rather than Horace, the earnestness yielded to bitterness, the respect to disgust. As Frum puts it, “Scoffing at those words represented more than a rejection of war. It meant a rejection of the schools, the whole society, that had sent Owen to war.”

This year, a century later, the commemorations of 1914 will tend to take that rejection of piety and patriotism for granted. Or could this year mark a moment of questioning, even of reversal?

Today, after all, we see the full consequences of that rejection in a way Owen and his contemporaries could not. Can’t we acknowledge the meaning, recognize the power, and learn the lessons of 1914 without succumbing to an apparently inexorable gravitational pull toward a posture of ironic passivity or fatalistic regret in the face of civilizational decline? No sensitive person can fail to be moved by Owen’s powerful lament, and no intelligent person can ignore his chastening rebuke. But perhaps a century of increasingly unthinking bitter disgust with our heritage is enough.

(Kristol goes on to recommend the "The Star-Spangled Banner" instead of Owen's poem, remarking that "[T]he greater work of art is not always the better guide to life.")

In a post at Crooked Timber titled "Some Desperate Glory," John Holbo marvels:

Amazing. Bill Kristol is hoping that, after a full century of unwillingness to go to war, because Wilfred Owen, this might be the year we consider – maybe! – going to some war. For the glory of it! Wouldn’t a war be glorious? If we could only have one? "Play up, play up, and play the game!" For the game is glorious!

Why have we been so unthinkingly unwilling to consider going to war for an entire century? Doesn’t that seem like a long time to go without a war?

Couldn’t we have just one?

Indeed, Kristol's column is awfully odd in that it ignores that the world has seen plenty of war since 1914, but more pointedly because it ignores that William Kristol himself has not only fervently pushed for numerous wars – he's gotten many of them. There's also the matter of the assumptions he glosses over in his argument. Kristol likely defines "piety" and "patriotism" far differently than I would, but he nonetheless doesn't bother to provide evidence of their "rejection." Likewise, he doesn't provide any proof of "a posture of ironic passivity or fatalistic regret," let alone "civilizational decline." As CT commentator bt puts it, "I love the part where Bill Kristol links Civilizational Decline with our regrettable lack of enthusiasm for a glorious War." It's really an Orwellian marvel by Kristol. (The rest of the CT comments are well worth reading, too.) Besides that central gem, it's darkly hilarious how Kristol claims that opposition to war is "unthinking." Requiring a high threshold for war is the mark of basic sanity and maturity, and questioning those eager for war is both a moral necessity and a simple act of bullshit detection.

Without recounting all of Bill Kristol's sweetest, most glorious hits, it's worth noting that he advocated invading Iraq in the 90s (and has rarely met a war he hasn't liked). He was one of the biggest cheerleaders for the Iraq War. In 2003, he dismissively claimed that Iraq had "always been very secular" and that concerns about religious or sectarian conflicts were overblown. He was, of course, disastrously wrong, yet despite his remarkable knack for being wrong about almost everything, he has a long history of "falling upward" and being a permanent fixture on the pundit circuit. Nor has Kristol shown any noticeable sign of contrition; this year, he's urged the U.S. to send the military back into Iraq, and recycled many of his arguments from 2002. (For Iraq War advocates, the operating rule seems to be that any positive situation in Iraq, no matter how many years later, somehow serves as retroactive vindication; moreover, the goal is not merely to be right, but to have been right.)

Perhaps Kristol is sincere and simply consistently, horribly wrong about matters of grave importance. However, it's notable that he also played a key role derailing health care reform in 1994, and for political reasons. Similarly, he was one of the most enthusiastic boosters for Sarah Palin becoming John McCain's vice presidential running mate – and it wasn't for her command of policy. (He was still singing her praises earlier this year.) Not that being a true believer is an excuse for consistently terrible judgment, but the evidence suggests he's at least as much a hack as he is an ideologue.

It's worthwhile to recall the bullying atmosphere leading up to and extending past the start of the Iraq War – it did not invite the 'thinking' and 'questioning' Kristol supposedly values. For instance, there was Ari Fleischer's "watch what they do and what they say," Richard Cohen's "fool – or possibly a Frenchman," combat-hardened Megan McArdle's two-by-four to pacifists, Ann Coulter's call to "invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity," Andrew Sullivan's "decadent Left" as a "fifth column" and Tom Friedman's eminently mature macho posturing, "Suck. On. This." (The era yielded many other lovely moments in thoughtful discourse, overwhelmingly from Kristol's side of the aisle.)

One of the striking aspects about the Iraq War turning 10 last year was the lack of introspection. (James Fallows covered this very well.) This dynamic stretches beyond a rejection of reflection – there's still a rejection of basic facts. To quote a 2013 post:

It also isn't rare, even today, to hear conservative pundits insist (often angrily) that the Bush administration didn't lie in making the case for war, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary (and plenty of misleading, dishonorable rhetoric besides). Sure, one can quibble in some cases whether those many misleading false statements were technically lies versus bullshitting versus the product of egregious self-delusion, but in no universe were they responsible. Meanwhile, it's disappointing but not surprising that the corporate media, who were largely unskeptical cheerleaders for the war and prone to squelching critical voices, would be reluctant to revisit one of their greatest failures in living memory (let alone doing so unflinchingly).

It's worth revisiting one of Kristol's most sneering statements, right before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (emphasis mine):

We are tempted to comment, in these last days before the war, on the U.N., and the French, and the Democrats. But the war itself will clarify who was right and who was wrong about weapons of mass destruction. It will reveal the aspirations of the people of Iraq, and expose the truth about Saddam's regime. It will produce whatever effects it will produce on neighboring countries and on the broader war on terror. We would note now that even the threat of war against Saddam seems to be encouraging stirrings toward political reform in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and a measure of cooperation in the war against al Qaeda from other governments in the region. It turns out it really is better to be respected and feared than to be thought to share, with exquisite sensitivity, other people's pain. History and reality are about to weigh in, and we are inclined simply to let them render their verdicts.

These are the words of someone who wasn't merely disastrously wrong, but also was an immature asshole (and who knew full well he wouldn't be the one to suffer the consequences of his positions). Advocacy for war should necessitate more seriousness. And Kristol has been too cowardly to acknowledge who was clearly wrong about weapons of mass destruction and political reform, and too dishonest to face history and reality's verdicts. Estimates of deaths caused by the Iraq War vary significantly, but it's a true – if terribly impolite – point that thousands of people are unnecessarily dead because of a position Bill Kristol zealously pushed, and continues to support. It's not that war can never be advocated for, but it is not something that should advocated lightly or cavalierly. Perhaps the weight of such a significant decision – and such a monumental error – should be felt; perhaps some acknowledgement is in order; perhaps those who have been unrepentantly, disastrously wrong should be shunned from public commentary rather than allowed to continually peddle the same old deadly crap "with such high zest." This smug belligerence is why, in more polite company, Kristol has been denounced as an armchair warrior, and called far worse in other venues.

To be fair, Kristol is far from the only warmongering pundit, and the blithe imperialist faction in the political establishment spans both major political parties. Seemingly, no Beltway pundit has ever gone hungry or lost credibility for agitating for war, no matter how farcically unnecessarily it may be. In one sense, Kristol's continued prominence, even on supposedly legitimate media platforms, is an indictment of the mores of Beltway culture. In (the somewhat tongue-in-cheek) stupid-evil-crazy terms, Kristol is mostly evil, in that he knows (or damn well should know) the all-too-likely consequences of his positions. But his a perfectly respectable evil in certain high circles, as is advocating for torture or opining that the poor should suffer. Alas, although the precise stench may vary, Kristol's rot is far from uncommon. (That said, it would be wrong to minimize Kristol's signature, despicable awfulness.)

It would nice to think that no one could ignore or deflect what "Dulce et Decorum Est" or the many phenomenal art works, memoirs and histories say about the costs of war, but trusty ol' Bill Kristol has shown himself up to the challenge. He can't plausibly deny outright the power of Wilfred Owen's work, so he has to make a planned concession and then pivot to his undying cause – glorious, glorious wars. Great art and good history have a knack of surviving misappropriation, but as with our nominal democracy – which in theory, is a bulwark against unnecessary wars – they still need their champions. Kristol's signature, despicable awfulness.)

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The End of Roy's Weekly Wingnut Roundups

Alas, after six years, the Village Voice has canceled Roy Edroso's brilliant weekly column looking at conservative bloggers. The columns were anthropologically fascinating, historically valuable, politically insightful, and damn entertaining to read. Roy would cover the sincere, rabid and crazy conservative base as well as the professional conservative hacks (and the former auditioning to join the latter). Dissecting insanity and bullshit is always valuable (and a good work in too short supply), but to also make the whole endeavor not only funny but genuinely witty is quite the feat. It's also a difficult act to sustain, but Roy did it, and made it look easy. Although he's continuing to post great stuff at his site, alicublog, the Village Voice columns were a concentrated and thorough examination of "rightbloggers" and their manufactured scandals of the moment. It's the kind of feature that some other outlet should pick up and fund.

"In "#EmployRoy: The ‘Employ Roy Edroso Because He Is A National Treasure And Not The Girl In This Picture’ Project," TBogg makes the case for just this (and supplies a hatchtag). Quoth the Bogg:

Needless to say this is a national disgrace because Roy is a Fucking National Treasure, who should have a regular paying gig writing commentary somewhere, slipping his rhetorical shiv in between the 7th and 8th rib of a conservative and giving it a delicate twist and wiggle.

While the secret leftwing email listserv, DestroyAmerika!!!AbortBabiesList, will no doubt get the word out, please see your way to maybe possibly sorta kinda dropping a hint here and there at one of those websites you visit when you’re at work and you’re supposed to be working on next years budget or awaiting for the launch codes in order to destroy mankind as we know it.

Some good political bloggers have managed to acquire decent-paying gigs, but that number remains relatively small. There's not a robust liberal counterpart to conservative wingnut welfare or the conservative Wurlizter. It's also far more common for conservative hacks to be given lucrative gigs over genuinely insightful analysts, even at supposedly legitimate media outlets. The commentators at alicublog ("the alicurati") are trying to pressure Roy to install a donation button at least, but it'd be great if some other outlet picked up his canceled feature. (I can think of several other writers on my blogroll who deserve steady gigs as well, but any progress would be welcome.)