Wednesday, March 05, 2014
This song has been in rotation at KCRW, and you can hear/see the official video here. I went with the live version, though, because the band made their television debut on Letterman on Monday, and their frontman (Samuel T. Herring, apparently) is a theatrical goofball who goes for broke. Rock on, brother!
Sunday, March 02, 2014
Harold Ramis has died at the age of 69. He directed two films dear to me, Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters, and had a hand in many others I enjoyed. By all accounts, he was a selfless collaborator, and this is amply on display in Ghostbusters, which Ramis acted in and cowrote with Dan Aykroyd. Ramis plays Egon Spengler, the no-nonsense brains of the outfit, meaning he delivers some great lines deadpan, but mostly plays straight man to Bill Murray and Aykroyd – and let them have most of the funniest lines. (He also often showed sound judgment as a writer and director, as when he rejected a studio idea that the cause of Phil's Groundhog Day predicament should be a jilted ex soliciting a gypsy curse on him.) Some great tributes have been written to Ramis, but I wanted to take a look at Ramis' craft and artistry, especially since comedy often don't get no respect. The difference between a decent comedy and great one is often just a few elements, and Ramis' successes demonstrate that well. Three aspects stand out for me – the ending, exploring the premises, and the human core of the story. (Obviously, in a good story, all of these will overlap.) Let's begin with endings. They can be tricky, and it's not uncommon for a story to go for the big climatic scene and flop. The typical forced-versus-earned climax chooses spectacle over character, and loses sight of what made us invest in the story earlier. A forced climax in action and horror films tends to be a big-but-hollow CG spectacular. Comedies often build toward madcap mayhem, the ultimate chaos of the film – but in the forced versions, it all feels strained and artificial. In The Party, the forced climax is the all-too-predictable, everyone-in-the-pool-with-the-baby-elephant bit. (Some people love the film; I think Peter Sellers is brilliant and delivers some great moments, including a hilarious Gunga Din parody, but don't like the overall flick much.) In American Pie 2, it's the turn into the third act – the overamped-for-the-circumstances scene where the bros hear their other bro is distraught and has gone walking on the beach alone (oh noes!) so they must find him urgently, pull him out of the film's lowest moment (bro despair of little more than a minute or two) and then stride back to the beach house together, gorgeously lit as the music swells, bro-triumphant. (I only saw the first two films in the series, and they have their moments, but that sequence felt forced, unearned and reeked of filmmaker desperation.) I'm sure readers can come up with their own examples. But compare the misses with the finale of Ghostbusters. The extended showdown with the demon Gozer, who transforms into the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, is absolutely hilarious. The editing build-up of teases and reveal is perfect, Dan Aykroyd's lead-in is masterful, and the ensemble play off each other beautifully, with some classic lines. (Ramis: "I'm sorry Venkman, I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.") The climatic parade mayhem scene Animal House is likewise actually funny. In a different tone, Groundhog Day's big celebratory party scene feels completely earned, as does the final morning wake-up scene. Ramis knew how to set up his partners for a topper, and at his best, he really stuck the landing. Many films don't fully explore their own premises. It's a key frustration for viewers of a near miss, usually voiced something like, "They had a good idea, but they just didn't know what to do with it!" The better the core idea, the more maddening the whiff is. In the best films, that exploration has happened during the writing process, dozens of bad (or merely not as strong) ideas have been tried out and discarded, and the final script reflects all that thought and experimentation. The best scripts work through all the weak spots until the character(s) and the plot click together and are inseparable. Groundhog Day is one of those films for me, and I've praised it more times than I can remember on those grounds. I found it immensely satisfying when I first saw it, because every time I thought, "What about...? What if he tried..?" the filmmakers actually explored it. (Groundhog Day was originally written by Danny Rubin, but it was significantly reworked in collaboration with Harold Ramis, and both authors deserve some credit for the script's success.) Dumb characters are maddening to watch. Phil (Bill Murray) is certainly selfish, self-destructive or despairing at points in the movie, but he's not dumb. He tries everything – personal advantage, charity, suicide, conning Rita (Andie MacDowell), and many other approaches. The basic idea of being stuck in a particular place has been explored countless times in storytelling, and the idea of being stuck in a specific day or returning to the same spot has been done several times in sci-fi. (I've actually argued that Groundhog Day can be viewed as sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction – using an unusual situation to explore some facet of the human experience.) Groundhog Day covers similar ground to other "trapped" stories, and it's actually funny to boot (even moving). That's quite the feat. On that point – Groundhog Day works so well because Phil not only amuses us, we begin to really care about him and his predicament. There's a human core to the story. (In Ghostbusters, that element isn't as strong or crucial, but we do grow to like the team.) Groundhog Day is one of Bill Murray's best performances, and the importance of that can't be underestimated. But the screenplay, cowritten by Ramis, creates the path, and Ramis' direction guides that performance and sets the story's pace and build. There's a great line in The Fisher King where Jack (Jeff Bridges), who's in genuine despair and feeling deserved guilt, says, "I wish there was some way I could just pay the fine and go home." He wants an easy out rather than actually changing. One of the triumphs of the The Fisher King is that it fully explores that dynamic and what it takes for Jack to truly transform, and Groundhog Day pulls off something identical. After a lovely night with Rita, Phil tries to recreate the magic another night, but it's forced and artificial, and doesn't work. In a different vein, he tries to save the life of a homeless man, but nothing he tries succeeds. Both of those elements are pretty damn profound for something sold as a comedy. (The sequence of deaths is also masterfully assembled.) Death can't be cheated forever, and sometimes not even for day; true love is not a matter of tricks or following the um, perfect script, but of honestly, intimately connecting with a human being. Call it soul or heart, but we need to care about Phil for the film to resonate ultimately; Ramis and the rest of the team provide a recognizable human experience in the fantastical by grounding the proceedings in an emotional reality. ("Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.") All of this is to say that Harold Ramis' best work shows a craftsmanship and artistry that's genuinely impressive. Here are a few scenes to demonstrate this. First, here's one of my all-time favorite comedy scenes: Ramis deadpans his bit expertly, as does Ernie Hudson in his reaction. Notice all the exposition and setup in this scene hiding under the comedy? It starts with Ramis, Aykroyd builds on it, Murray mentions the EPA and asks about the grid, gets an update, and then the scene closes with a callback – "What about the twinkie?" We get several funny lines – all rooted in character – plus plot development, all in about 45 seconds! That's mighty efficient. Here's the bridge scene, the most serious one from the same movie. Ramis isn't in it, but he and Aykroyd wrote it, and notice that only this combination of team members could have this discussion. The scene is actually pretty spooky for a comedy, and builds the stakes and tension: Over to Groundhog Day. Murray's very good here, but this sequence also shows off how tightly written and edited the film is: In this later clip, Phil tries to recreate the connection he felt with Rita building a snowman on a previous Groundhog Day. But Phil's trying to force things, and discovers that the magic doesn't work like that: Well done. Links: Harold Ramis on the metaphor of Groundhog Day (video). The Los Angeles Times obituary. The New York Times obituary. The Chicago Tribune obituary . The NPR obituary The Variety obituary. Rob Vaux's fine remembrance. The io9 remembrance. Ubiquitous character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, probably best known as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, has a great remembrance of Ramis. The Wrap: "Harold Ramis, ‘Buddha of Comedy,’ Remembered By Rainn Wilson, Judd Apatow," "Harold Ramis and Bill Murray: Inside The ‘Groundhog Day’ Duo’s Decade-Long Feud" and "President Obama Makes ‘Caddyshack’ Joke in Tribute to Harold Ramis." Esquire:"An Oral History of Ghostbusters." Indiewire, 2013: "5 Things You Might Not Know About Groundhog Day." The New Yorker, 2004: "Comedy First: How Harold Ramis’s movies have stayed funny for twenty-five years." DVD Review, 1999: "Anatomy of a Comedian."
Saturday, March 01, 2014
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Philip Seymour Hoffman had died. He was an extremely talented, versatile and intelligent actor who made every project he was in better (seeing his name on the credits was a reassurance). His early work is notable for how he turned what could have remained small, forgettable or clichéd roles into memorable, intriguing characters. Likewise, one of many things I admired about it was that, even after he was getting leading parts, he continued to play extremely interesting supporting roles. He was a regular fixture of P.T. Anderson's films, and it's no surprise that good writer-directors sought out Hoffman and vice versa. Although he had a hulking frame, he managed to sell himself (all the way to an Oscar) as the diminutive, soft-spoken Truman Capote. He could play a snitch or a villain with panache, and showed a deft feel for comedy as well. His death at the relatively young age or 46 is a tremendous loss. A rash of fine performers have died recently, but at least Peter O'Toole, Pete Seeger, Maximillian Schell, Shirley Temple Black and Sid Caesar had long runs. Hoffman's list of credits is extraordinary. I still need to see his directorial efforts, but the list of performances I loved is long. He plays a memorable weasel in Scent of a Woman and a suck-up par excellence in The Big Lebowski. As Scotty in Boogie Nights, his self-loathing (he's gay and smitten with Eddie/Dirk) makes him sympathetic. I've only seen clips of Flawless, but a friend of mine who adored Hoffman cited that performance all the time – what impressed her was that Hoffman didn't play Rusty as stereotypically gay or transgendered, but simply and matter-of-factly as a woman, and with dignity (more unusual in 1999 perhaps, but still). He plays a small but crucial role as the nurse in Magnolia. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, he's the one character to see through Tom Ripley's façade from the start, and he infuses his lingering stares and offhand remarks with subtle but palpable menace. In Almost Famous, he delivers a lovely, kind sermon to our hero on being "not-cool" and how embracing that difficult path can lead to becoming a good writer. He's the comic relief buddy to Ben Stiller in Along Came Polly, and he brings a goofy, fun energy to every scene he's in. His Oscar-winning performance is Capote is restrained, detailed, and engrossing. His passionate bluster as Gus in Charlie Wilson's War is enormous fun and one of the best things about the movie. In Doubt, the movie depends on him keeping us guessing, and he walks that line expertly. He and Paul Giamatti are excellent and the best things about The Ides of March. He's grounded and completely believable as worldly-wise Oakland A's baseball manager Art Howe in Moneyball. His charismatic, enigmatic role in The Master is assured and accomplished, and he plays wonderfully off his costars Joaquin Phoenix (playing Freddie) and Amy Adams (as Peggy), utterly still in the face of Freddie's manic chaos, yet occasionally exploding his own façade when challenged. The scenes between him and Donald Sutherland in Catching Fire were a joy. Hoffman was always so good regardless of the role it was easy to take it for granted that he'd deliver a fine performance and that he'd gift us with many more in the future. He will be greatly missed. The New York Times obituary. The Los Angeles Times obituary. The Washington Post obituary, plus fan and peer reactions. Rob Vaux's remembrance for Mania. Rolling Stone: "Philip Seymour Hoffman Mourned Online by Fans and Colleagues," "Philip Baker Hall Remembers 'Genius' Philip Seymour Hoffman" and "9 Overlooked Philip Seymour Hoffman Performances." Aaron Sorkin: "Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death Saved 10 Lives." Marc Maron on Hoffman and addiction. Lance Mannion revisits his reviews of Hoffman's films, starting here (you can scroll through the other posts up above). The remembrance threads from LG&M and Balloon Juice, featuring some great clips.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Pete Seeger has died at the age of 94 after a long and very full life. (His wife Toshi died last year; they had been married 70 years.) Pete was a great and highly influential musician, and an even better human being. His contributions to folk music were colossal, and it's striking to see how many protest songs he wrote or popularized, most famously, "We Shall Overcome," which became central to the Civil Rights Movement. He also introduced music to several generations of kids. Bruce Springsteen put it well a few years back when said Pete Seeger was:
"Sing Out: A Concert Celebration Of Pete Seeger" (2005)
The New York Times obituary.
The Associated Press obituary.
Arlo Guthrie remembers Pete, one and two.
Sister Peggy Seeger's home page.
The Pete Seeger appreciation page.
Time: "Songs of Peace and Protest: 6 Essential Cuts From Pete Seeger" and "Why Pete Seeger Mattered: The Pied Piper of the People’s Music."
NPR: " Folk Musician Pete Seeger, As Remembered By His Goddaughter."
John Nichols, The Nation: "Pete Seeger: This Man Surrounded Hate and Forced it to Surrender."
The Atlantic: 'This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.'
New York magazine: "Jody Rosen: There Was No ‘I’ in Pete Seeger."
Jesse Wegman, New York Times: "Pete Seeger, Neil Young and the Importance of Letting Go."
Corey Robin, Crooked Timber: "The Beauty of the Blacklist: In Memory of Pete Seeger."
The Atlantic: "Pete Seeger's All-American Communism."
Bhaskar Sunkara, Al Jazeera: "In defense of Pete Seeger, American communist."
Billboard: "Pete Seeger, Legendary Folk Singer, Dies at 94."
MTV: Folk Legend Pete Seeger Dead At 94: Here's 12 Reasons Why He Ruled."
National Catholic Reporter "Pete Seeger: a man of faith."
The Balloon Juice thread.
The Crooks and Liars thread.
The LGM thread.
The Crooked Timber thread.
Fretboard Journal: "Pete Seeger's Last Letter."
…a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. He would have the audacity and the courage to sing in the voice of the people, and despite Pete’s somewhat benign, grandfatherly appearance, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant, and nasty optimism.If you haven't seen it, the PBS American Masters documentary on Pete Seeger, The Power of Song, is excellent (for now, at least, it can be viewed online). Meanwhile, the 90th Birthday Concert has quite the lineup, and the 1982 documentary, The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time has some great footage. Pete had a generous soul. It was impossible not to feel that, and the joy he felt in playing music and in communal singing. He just beamed on stage. As I wrote in an post several years back:
I saw Pete and Arlo Guthrie perform about six times in the 80s and 90s, mostly together, in one case a solo performance by Arlo at the Smithsonian. Going to see them was a family outing. During that period, Arlo played "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" again for the 20th anniversary, adding some funny stuff about Nixon. By the 90s, Pete was bringing his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger out more often to help him sing, and Pete would just lie down on the stage between songs, propping himself up with his elbows. He and Arlo would trade off songs, bantering about what to sing next. They'd include some familiar favorites and add some new pieces, and always insisted on plenty of audience participation. They were very friendly, cheerful events.Many people in this country probably have an informal list in the back of their minds of Americans they admire, of people past and present they think exemplify the best of the country and its potential, despite any flaws. Martin Luther King, Jr. is probably the most obvious choice for many. I'd add a number of activists, including Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Dorothea Dix. I'd probably add a couple of dozen artists at least. And on my list, I'd definitely include Pete Seeger. He was authentic. He was caring. He was often selfless. His faults, such as they were, grew from a good place. It might sound hokey, but I find it encouraging that America could produce a person like him… and that so many other Americans (and other people around the world) also valued Pete Seeger and what he did. John Holbo of Crooked Timber has a good, playful post titled, "Conservative Taken Aback At President’s Reaction To Death Of Seeger." As Holbo points out (and others in the comments thread do), it's no surprise that the conservatives at National Review would excoriate Pete Seeger for once belonging to the communist party. As The New York Times obituary reports, he had left the party/organized movement by 1950, even though he never considered "communist" a dirty word. Additionally, t's well worth remembering how different the world looked leading up to, during, and after WWII. (John Fund at National Review claims Pete was "an unrepentant Stalinist until 1995." I'm guessing Fund's justifying adding at least 45 years to the timeline through some weaseling about what constitutes "repentance" to his satisfaction, as if he would ever be truly satisfied.) If Pete was a communist, he was a great American communist. He was always pro-labor, pro-diversity, pro-music, pro-arts, and pro-human. For me, there's never been any question that Pete's heart was in the right place, even if his judgment of Stalin in particular was faulty. National Review was arguing for segregation in the South and the inherent racial inferiority of blacks in the 1950s. It was denouncing the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. for "rabble-rousing demagoguery" in the 1960s. Pete Seeger was on the wrong side of National Review on all of that, and on the right side of history. Answering the question "Which Side Are You On?" ain't too hard. I've featured Pete Seeger's House on Un-American Activities (HUAC) testimony in 1955 before, and it's worth reading in full. But some highlights:
I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this. I would be very glad to tell you my life if you want to hear of it.Differing views on "contributions" to society:
MR. SEEGER: I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir. CHAIRMAN WALTER: Why don't you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions? MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.On inclusiveness:
MR. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line. . . . "These features": what do you mean? Except for the answer I have already given you, I have no answer. The answer I gave you you have, don't you? That is, that I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir. I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.This bit's more subtle, but it's probably my favorite (emphasis mine):
MR. TAVENNER: The same occasion, yes, sir. I have before me a photostatic copy of a page from the June 1, 1949, issue of the Daily Worker, and in a column entitled "Town Talk" there is found this statement: The first performance of a new song, "If I Had a Hammer," on the theme of the Foley Square trial of the Communist leaders, will he given at a testimonial dinner for the 12 on Friday night at St. Nicholas Arena. . . .Among those on hand for the singing will be . . . Pete Seeger, and Lee Hays—and others whose names are mentioned. Did you take part in that performance? MR. SEEGER: I shall he glad to answer about the song, sir, and I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs. MR. TAVENNER: I ask a direction. CHAIRMAN WALTER: You may not he interested, but we are, however. I direct you to answer. You can answer that question. MR. SEEGER: I feel these questions are improper, sir, and I feel they are immoral to ask any American this kind of question. MR. TAVENNER: Have you finished your answer? MR. SEEGER: Yes, sir. MR. TAVENNER: I desire to offer the document in evidence and ask that it be marked "Seeger exhibit No.4," for identification only, and to be made a part of the Committee files. MR. SEEGER: I am sorry you are not interested in the song. It is a good song.I imagine Pete saying that with his characteristic warm smile, and it makes me smile in turn. Talk about cross-purposes – his inquisitors wanted to lock up Americans for thoughtcrime; Pete wanted to talk about music. You either hear the music and appreciate it, or you don't. You either get what Pete's saying here, or you don't. (Not coincidentally, one of my favorite Zen stories hits the same basic point about what has value in this life.) As a wise colleague used to say to me, for those moments when you've given it a solid effort and just can't get through to someone, "There are some people who just don't get it, and if they don't get it, you can't tell 'em." That's certainly true of HUAC and their contemporary descendants, and it's their loss. It's also a loss they're determined to inflict on other people. It's an impulse consistently points out about conservatives, how they try to appropriate the arts and pop culture for propaganda purposes instead of just enjoying them, thus obstinately denying themselves one of the beautiful experiences possible in life.) There's much to admire about Pete Seeger, but it's Pete the musician and the human being that stick with me the most. As for him as a political activist, you could put it this way: Pete never completely gave up on anyone... but he also didn't stand still waiting for them to figure it out. I'll only post a few songs here, since the possibilities are vast, and several of the posts linked further below feature good selections.
Monday, January 27, 2014
How to remember and teach the Holocaust have always been issues of debate, further complicated by the passage of time and the dwindling number of survivors. The Shoah Foundation started by Steven Spielberg has done an admirable job of capturing survivors' stories. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum remains an extraordinary resource. For high school students and younger, the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum has proven useful. And in past posts in this category, we've discussed some of the many books, films and other works that grapple effectively with the Holocaust. If it's offered again, I'd also recommend the Coursera MOOC The Holocaust. (If it's not, I hope the video lectures are put online for public access.) I went through it last year, and it was one of the best Coursera classes I've taken. For those already familiar with the subject matter, there are still new details and stories to discover. (For instance, a fascinating guest lecture focused on various Holocaust memorials around the world and the thinking behind them.) For those new to the subject, the course introduces basic key history, major themes and some notable stories. A brief aside on MOOCs (massive open online courses). They're great for lifelong learners interested in studying something new or revisiting a beloved subject. They're also good for students with limited educational opportunities otherwise. They're not, however, a substitute for a solid overall education or good classroom instruction. (They're definitely not a good reason to fire teachers or pay them less.) MOOCs with written assignments use peer review. It's a necessity given the number of students normally involved, but it's the weakest element and (in my experience) ranges from adequate to maddening. (Critical thinking and advanced writing can't really be taught with a blunderbuss approach.) Anyway, here's the course's blurb:
This online course grows out of the "on-campus" version that has been co-taught by Murray Baumgarten, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature (Literature Department), and Peter Kenez, Professor Emeritus (History Department) for over 20 years, and has been aptly dubbed a “Legacy Course.” The cross-listed and interdisciplinary nature of this course is its very force. Murray and Peter locate the theoretical stakes of the Holocaust at the nexus between history and literature. To this end, students will be asked to explore memoirs, historical documents, poetry, documentary footage, filmic representations, novels, and many other forms that attempt to convey the multiplicity and variety of human experience. By the end of the course, students will have expanded their knowledge of Eastern and Western Jewish communities, the origins and development of antisemitism, the formation and operation of concentration camps, resistance movements, and the Holocaust as a problem for world-history. Additionally, students will have engaged with the problematics of representation, memory, "the memorial", and witnessing.The assignments consisted of three short essays based on the lectures and readings. The essays were then peer reviewed. Peter Kenez is a Holocaust survivor and Murray Baumgarten's family fled Europe before he was born. Kenez would lose his train of thought occasionally when lecturing, but he's a thoughtful man and knows the subject extremely well. Baumgarten's the more sardonic of the two and the more entertaining lecturer, but the two play off each other well, filling in important points for each other and pointing out areas of dispute between them (mostly semantic). They also have great warmth for one other. This is a class taught by two old friends who know their stuff. No doubt the real class is much better, and I doubt most of the online students went through all the materials (I still need to finish some myself). Still, given the limitations of MOOCs and the weightiness of the subject matter, I thought it was well done (helped immensely by a great teaching assistant who was very active on the discussion forums). This is material I think I know to some extent, care deeply about, and have a little experience teaching. This course and others like it could be another valuable option for teaching the Holocaust to new audiences. Besides the lectures and some essays, these were the core materials: Suggested Texts Appelfeld, Aaron. Badenheim 1939 Arieti, Silvano. The Parnas Bauer, Yehuda. A History of the Holocaust Borowski, Tadeusz. This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men Fink, Ida. A Scrap of Time Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz Kertész, Imre. Fateless Schwarz-Bart, André. The Last of the Just Tec, Nehama. Dry Tears Wiesel, Elie. Night Related Films Image Before My Eyes Everything Is Illuminated Shoah (excerpts) Night & Fog Europa, Europa Partisans of Vilna Divided We Fall The Wannsee Conference The Pianist Shop On Main Street Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, also known as If this is a man, is probably my favorite piece listed above (I wrote about in a previous year), along with Alain Resnais' short but powerful documentary, Night and Fog. Anyway, it's a good list of recommendations. (Feel free to pass on any other favorites in the comments.)
Sunday, January 26, 2014
Peter O'Toole was one of the all-time greats, a true master of the craft and art of acting. There were better fits for specific roles or projects, but you couldn't ask for anyone of higher caliber. He didn't start out as an actor, and his career was the result of risk-taking, fortuitous chance and immense talent. He didn't like to give interviews, but he was a wonderful raconteur and charming guest. He said acting had always been very hard for him, yet in his performances, he made it all seem completely natural. He garnered headlines for his off-screen carousing, but his work remained impeccable, and this was no contradiction; he was a bon vivant who didn't do anything by half-measures. He must have done meticulous preparation and thinking before a role, but when actually performing, he was fully present, electric, a high-wire act, a presence. One of the many stories he told about Lawrence of Arabia centered on the scene where Lawrence tries out his new Arab garb for the first time. It’s a character moment without dialogue, and director David Lean asked O'Toole to improvise. It was O'Toole's first big movie role and he felt a bit stranded, then started thinking, what would a young man do in this situation? He would want to see how he looked. And how would he do that? O'Toole seized on the idea of Lawrence using his dagger as a mirror. O'Toole heard Lean say quietly off-camera, "Clever boy." O'Toole smiled as he told the tale, and he had many great ones. My favorite O'Toole performances are Lawrence of Arabia (no surprise) and My Favorite Year (which needs a good, new, affordable disc version). I'm also fond of his work in Ratatouille and as King Henry II in both The Lion in Winter and Beckett (I don't like some directorial or studio-driven choices in Beckett, but O'Toole himself in superb). Troy is a so-so film, but O'Toole is marvelous in it, as he was in many not-so-great films. (Venus is the second film I reviewed here.) O'Toole didn't win a Best Actor Oscar despite his eight nominations mainly due to extraordinary bad luck, but honorary Oscar were devised for precisely his situation, and his is one of the best deserved. Here's the dagger moment from Lawrence and the scene that follows: Here's one of O'Toole's best talk show segments, telling tales of Lawrence: Here's O'Toole presented with his honorary Oscar: Relevant links: New York Times obituary. Los Angeles Times obituary. The Guardian obituary. The Washington Post obituary. Irish Examiner: Peter O' Toole: ‘I will stir the smooth sands of monotony’ The New Yorker appreciation. Peter O'Toole's 1993 interview on Fresh Air, covering his films, Shakespeare and much more.
Monday, January 20, 2014
I didn't get a chance to put up a proper post when Nelson Mandela died, so MLK Day seemed a good date to at least post a roundup. If nothing else, watch the video below. The New York Times: " Mandela’s Death Leaves South Africa Without Its Moral Center" The Guardian's obituary. Bill Moyers: "Nelson Mandela on Overcoming Hatred" Common Dreams: "12 Mandela Quotes That Won't Be In the Corporate Media Obituaries" New York magazine: "17 Awesome and Inspiring Facts About Nelson Mandela" Mother Jones: "Nelson Mandela's Epitaph, in His Own Words" KCRW: "Nelson Mandela, South African Music and the Struggle Against Apartheid." (South African theater was also powerful.) Placido Domingo on meeting Mandela. Pieces with a more American (and British) focus: Crooked Timber: "Mandela Sanitized" Think Progress: "The Right Wing’s Campaign To Discredit And Undermine Mandela, In One Timeline" Roy Edroso on the American rightblogger reaction, one, two and three. Ta-Nehisi Coates: "Apartheid's Useful Idiots" Jonathan Chait: Why Conservatives Got Segregation Wrong a Second Time in South Africa" Joan Walsh: "Fight the right-washing of Nelson Mandela’s legacy" Crooks and Liars: "Gingrich: Mandela Death 'Just Another Excuse to Smear Reagan'" By any measure, Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary man, but he was not universally lauded during the various stages of his life and career. Similarly, as several pieces today outline (and as we've explored before), Martin Luther King was denounced by conservatives during his lifetime and long after. It was only when King was widely considered a national hero that conservatives changed their tune and tried to appropriate him for themselves. (I'm speaking mostly of professional conservative outlets, not average Americans.) He can also be overly sentimentalized and defanged as a social critic. The same has happened somewhat with Mandela, although a notable number of conservatives still express their outright hatred (see Roy's posts) with a small but admirable minority admitting they were wrong about Mandela. Like King, Mandela is too towering a figure to be dragged down by such attempts, but it's wise to remember that neither man was a saint, and their greatness emerges in large part because of that, not despite it.
Friday, December 27, 2013
(The Best Posts of the Year, Chosen by the Bloggers Themselves)
(A 2007 Jon Swift picture.)
Welcome to a tradition started by the late Jon Swift/Al Weisel. He left behind some excellent satire, but was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs. Lance Mannion put it well 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 and 2012. If you're not familiar with Al Weisel's work as Jon Swift, his site features a "best of" list in the left column. Blogroll Amnesty Day (co-founded with skippy) is a celebration of small blogs that's still going strong, and coming up again the first weekend in February. Thanks to all the participants, plus a special shoutout to DougJ at Balloon Juice for posting a submission thread every year. (I continue to try to find the right balance between inclusive and manageable.) 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 #jonswift2013. 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: You Might Notice A Trend "Long October: the Ambitious Damage of the Hollow Men" Paul Wartenberg: "A rant during the end days of the October shutdown about the modern GOP's obsession to destroy a working government." Mad Kane's Political Madness "Weapon Wonderland (Song Parody)" Madeleine Begun Kane: "Pro-gun control song parody, which can be sung to Winter Wonderland." Pruning Shears "Shoddy gun paper excites right wing" Dan: "A poorly written pro-gun tract is dragged back from the memory hole and (briefly) gets conservatives worked up." Herlander Walking "Be Lysistrate, Be a Maenad…Hell, Just BE Mad!" Labrys/Syrbal: "An old-school feminist looks back across progress or lack thereof, and the religious ideation of ages and how it hampers women. And what hampers women hampers the entire human race." Rawrahs "Preserve The Core -OR- Fuck The Extremities" Rehctaw: "Preserve The Core looks at the more or less eternal power structure that determines how the rest of us must cope." Goblinbooks "Intelligence Chief James Clapper Answers A Craigslist Missed Connection" Paul Bibeau: "America's top spy saw your ad, and he wants to help. He's quite persistent about it." Shakesville "I Feel the Breeze" Melissa McEwan: "A post recounting some of the key moments in which my marginalized body reconnected with the breeze I had been urged to deny it." A Blog About School "Don't Sign the Homework (Part 2)" Chris Liebig: "Everyone talks about "helicopter parents," but what about helicopter schools? Here's why I won't sign my kids' homework every day, and why you shouldn't either." David E's FaBlog "The Agony and the Exabytes" David Ehrenstein: "The New York Times (aka. The World's Worst Newspaper) decides that its important to make an ACTUAL COUNT of PRECISELY how many gay men there are out there. At heart this is no different from the days of Abe Rosenthal who decreed that the NYT should never discuss THE GHEH at all." Show Me Progress "Of state fair rodeo announcers and clowns: res ipsa loquitur" Michael Bersin: "The day after the Missouri State Fair rodeo clown in an Obama mask story broke." The Way of Cats "The Heart of Cat Civilization" Pamela Merritt: "One of the things I encourage and promote on my blog are the joys of multiple cats. Here I celebrate the big-hearted anchor of my current cat group, Reverend Jim." The Brad Blog "Yet Another Reason Internet Voting is a Terrible Idea: Targeted Attacks Hijacked 'Vast Amounts of Data' to Foreign Countries Earlier This Year" Brad Friedman: "Unknown to users, 'massive security vulnerability' built into the architecture of the Internet allowed massive 'man-in-the-middle' rerouting earlier this year. The same technique could easily be used to modify votes cast across the Internet -- and nobody would ever know it -- if we are dumb enough to move to Internet voting as many proponents (many of the Democrats!) are now calling for." Poor Impulse Control "Lightning Pushes the Edge of a Thunderstorm" Tata: "Those bloody bastards who were wrong but never in doubt and still won't listen to dirty hippies who got it right? Fuck them." Litbrit "The Human Face on Which They Stomped" Deborah Newell Tornello: "Back in February, I wrote about the tragedy of ex-policeman Chris Dorner (you may remember the horrible story, which ended up in his being burned alive in a remote cabin)." Bark Bark Woof Woof "Goodbye, Perrysburg" Mustang Bobby: "In August I said goodbye to Perrysburg, Ohio, the town I grew up in as my parents prepared to move away. Our family had lived there since 1957, and I looked back on the years I spent there and the memories they held." Perrspectives "60 Minutes Report Confirms All Obama Conspiracies" Jon Perr: "From the moment he announced his candidacy for president, Barack Obama has been surrounded by allegations and conspiracy theories calling his citizenship and his patriotism into question. But as 60 Minutes' year-long investigation has revealed, all those stories you've heard—about the Kenyan-born, pot-smoking Muslim Marxist sympathizer who abandoned Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya—are true." his vorpal sword "As I Enter My Fifth Decade as a Writer" Hart Williams: "I hate writing about my life; my readers love it. The story of how writing found me, mid-Watergate, in a university that was soon to be systematically physically destroyed (WITH demolition videos!) Naturally, I hated this. – except for the videos." World O' Crap "Plato's Retreat" Scott Clevenger: "A wandering philosophy professor uses airtight logic, ironclad sexism, and shapeshifting metaphors to prove that the Affordable Care Act will make your wife screw the gardener behind your back." The Rude Pundit "A More Realistic Bush Museum" Lee Papa: "Come along on a tour of the George W. Bush Library and Abattoir of History." ranchandsyrup "Shuffle Up and Deal" ranchandsyrup: An entry "in the Shuffle series whereby I hit shuffle and write about the song that comes up." The Debate Link "Criticizing Israel without it Seeming Anti-Semitic is Hard (and That's a Good Thing)" David Schraub: "The claim that it is impossible to criticize Israel without it being (or being labeled) anti-Semitic is preposterous. But to the extent the idea is to ensure that questions of Jewish equality and anti-Semitic oppression are given due weight and consideration by persons who might otherwise be inclined to ignore or downplay them, it is a good thing that we promulgate a norm whereby people who want to speak about Israel also are obliged to think carefully and deeply about the issue of anti-Semitism." infinitefreetime "On Fathering" infinitefreetime: "Me, late at night on my second Father's Day, talking about my own apprehension about being a dad and how my feelings toward my son/fatherhood in general have changed since he was born." The Insufferable Movie Snob "What the Heck is 'Pre-Code'?" Mnemosyne Donkey Mountain "America's Poet" O’Hollern Kiko's House "'We're Number 17! We're Number 17!' America's Hellbent Race To The Bottom" Shaun Mullen: "In recent decades America's standing has steadily eroded, and today it is indisputably no longer a great country, ranking at or near the bottom among the 17 industrialized nations in quality-of-life and other social measures. This, of course, will come as news to many of us, not the least of whom are the inside-the-Beltway politicians who fiddle while America crumbles." BeggarsCanBeChoosers.com "Guns Only Give Americans The Illusion Of Freedom" Marc McDonald: "Gun advocates often claim that guns play a crucial role in giving Americans freedom. But the fact is, real democracy died long ago in America--and guns did nothing to prevent it from happening." Printculture "How Someone Ends Up in Disability Studies" Eric Hayot: "Given that German laws on the treatment of disabled people are just as good, if not better, than US ones, I felt pretty confident enrolling my three-year-old, mildly disabled son in a German school. I was wrong." Mikeb302000 "The Famous 50% (Lawful Gun Owners Who Should Be Disarmed)" MikeB: "Further to an earlier post in which I argued that 10% of gun owners are in need of being disarmed, I present links to sites that quantify problems like drug and alcohol abuse, rage, mental illness and stupidity, things that obviously make people unfit to own and use guns safely." darrelplant.com "I Surrender" Darrel Plant: "Paul Krugman's words made flesh. Living the dream of the 'permanent class of jobless Americans.'" Connecting the Dots "A Sinkhole of Spying and Secrets" Robert Stein: "A media veteran weighs NSA revelations that wash over every area of American political life: civil liberties, government lying, foreign policy, traditional journalism—raising questions about who we were, are and are becoming." Kathleen Maher's Pure Fiction "Space Mountain" Kathleen Maher: "Al as Jon Swift was uniquely supportive of my fiction blog 'Diary of a Heretic,' which became the title of a novel on Kindle. My new site is supposed to help sell the novel but features a good deal of my 'work-in-progress.'" I Should Have Been A Blogger "Fans Threaten to Boycott Game of Thrones, Take Two" Anibundel: "The Red Wedding is over and fans react like they didn't learn anything the first time GoT killed a major character. Here's why they're wrong." (SPOILERS for season 3, obviously.) Naked Capitalism "Out of Control – New Report Exposes JPMorgan Chase as Mostly a Criminal Enterprise" David Dayen: "This post was mostly the summary of a report on the many criminal activities of JPMorgan Chase, but in a year when the bank supplanted Goldman Sachs as the poster child for Wall Street misbehavior, it resonated. Though published in March, it still gets linked to this day." Strangely Blogged "How Has Uncle Sam Probed You Today?" Vixen Strangely: "Being quite weirded-out by an anti-ACA advertisement featuring a somewhat creepy Uncle Sam, I endeavored to understand the thinking behind it." J-TWO-O "The Year without a Chrismukkah" J. of J-TWO-O: "In which we ask, Is it kosher for Jews to celebrate Christmas when Hanukkah is in November? And why did Rankin/Bass never make any cool stop-motion animation shows about the Festival of Lights?" Simply Left Behind "Nobody Asked Me, But..." Actor 212/Carl: "How Nelson Mandela was an exception to history's staunchest rule: Power is forgetting." Real American Liberal "Debunking Extremist Gun Arguments" John Sheirer: "Ignoring gun extremists should be our first choice, but, unfortunately, responsible people have to meet radical distractions and distortions with clear, reality-based rebuttals. This detailed and extensively sourced post takes on the worst of the radical gun fetishists' false claims." p3 – Persuasion, Perseverance, and Patience "A quantum of umbrage: What's the Second Amendment done for you lately?" Bill Nothstine: "Five months after the Newtown school shootings, and following a series of incidents where conspicuously-armed citizens paraded in public in a so-called attempt to "open public dialogue" with fellow-citizens who were diving for cover, I decided it was time to tally up what we'd really gained from the first two amendments." Mister Tristan "Bush to Baghdad?" Gary, a relative of Mister Tristan: "Gary suggests that President Obama should tap former president George W. Bush to head up a special diplomatic mission...to Iraq. Think of it as a listening tour or a series of town hall meetings, across the length and breadth of Iraq, to explain our justifications for going to war in 2003 and to listen firsthand to the Iraqi feedback." and that's the way it was "Islamic History part 2: The Pre-Islamic World" DWD: "Part of my ongoing Islamic history series; I picked this one because it's gotten the most positive feedback; it's hard for me to judge my own writing but I do like this one. It discusses the world on the eve of Muhammad's first revelations and the rise of Islam out of Arabia, focusing primarily on the two superpowers of the period (Rome and Persia) and how their ongoing conflict weakened them both and paved the way for the Arabs to build their massive empire." Mock, Paper, Scissors "The Further Adventures of Peggy Noonan" Tengrain: "The story behind the story of Peggy Noonan going to the Bush Library Dedication. I try to imagine what happened that leads to one of Noonan's strange columns. As Noonan is the official hagiographer of the GOP, she makes herself a grand target for parody." M.A.Peel "For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Anger . . ." Ellen O'Neill: "A review of Man of Steel and its unsettling doxology. What struck me was the unchecked anger of the beloved Superman, and the unchecked cosmic anger that Zack Synder and, dare I say, Hollywood seems to be suffering from. Brilliant at Breakfast "Dispatch from Casa la Brilliant" Jill: "A chronicle of disease, humor, hope, and despair." I Spy With My Little Eye "Republicans Are The Dissatisfied and Angry Diners At The Table Of Life" Aimai: "This post, which was originally posted at No More Mr. Nice Blog, connects the attitude of Republican voters and politicians during the Shut Down to the attitude of the angry diners who use tips and the threat of not tipping to express their disgust with workers and their anger at their own social position and treatment during the meal. Republican dislike of the federal work force is shown to be similar to angry tippers attitudes towards non tipped waitstaff—both are workers from whom the correct amount of deference can not be extracted by the judicious use of rewards and punishments." Blue Gal "The Professional Left Podcast (Ep 210)" Blue Gal and driftglass: "The episode 'Downton Abbey Jesus' discusses Megyn Kelly's White Santa/Jesus comment and the Blue Gal post features a photoshop by BG." driftglass "Nick and Me" driftglass: "The totally true story of how I made a big-time Hollywood actor and Conservative nut job cry like a toddler and run away." Big Bald Bastard "Invisible Privilege" Big Bald Bastard: "The beneficiaries of straight white privilege are typically unaware of its existence, and those of us who recognize it and are uncomfortable with the fact that it exists still benefit from it. The ultimate expression of this privilege was the assertion that President Obama's "You didn't build that" line was a personal attack. The privileged class actually believes that they made it on their own, and that women and minorities are somehow stealing from them when they compete in industry." Tom Watson: My Dirty Life & Times "Bridge and Tunnel Kid" Tom Watson: "This is the start of a blogging project about the past, about New York, and about my life. I think Al would approve." Lotus – Surviving a Dark Time "Boston bombing reaction: why are we such a frightened people?" LarryE (aka Whoviating): "The most frightening thing about the Boston Marathon bombing was not the attack itself, it was the public reaction to the police reaction to the attack. With links to my two earlier posts about the attack." This Is So Gay "Deliver Us from People" Duncan Mitchel: "My traumatic encounter with NPR's TED Radio Hour, and our new BFFs, the robots. Host-entity Guy Raz asked 'Do we need humans?' and his answer seemed to be 'No."' Southern Beale "Journanimalism: The Passive Voice Gun Dodge" Southern Beale: "A new spin on the old canard "guns don't kill people, people do." When it comes to covering accidental shootings, the media persistently ditches placing blame where it belongs by switching to the passive voice. The most hilarious example is a headline from the Dayton Daily News: "Man Saves Self From Shooting." In this case, the man accidentally shot himself when he reached for his gun." Alicublog "Culture Clubbed" Roy Edroso: "write a lot about culture warriors and their sad, sick idea of what moves people. In this one I took the chance offered by an especially idiotic post by William Jacobson to lay out what I think is the big issue." The Reaction "HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM: Popetastic conclavular 2013 ends with a surprise win for Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio" Michael J.W. Stickings: "My blog is mostly American and mostly political (with a great deal of attention on Republican craziness), but there's no denying that one of the key stories of 2013, and one of my blogging obsessions despite not being Catholic, was the papal election that produced the increasingly admirable Pope Francis, with global repercussions for us all." LanceMannion.com "Shakespeare and the Scientists" Lance Mannion: "Note to ego: Never have dinner with scientists." Balloon Juice "T-Bones and Cadillacs" mistermix's conversation about welfare with his conservative neighbor. They Gave Us a Republic "This Ought to be Universal" Blue Girl describes her health care odyssey. Schroedinger’s Cat "Austerity Explained" schroedinger’s cat: "I explain austerity using a photograph of two cats." Lastly: Vagabond Scholar "Our National Political Discourse" Batocchio: "An attempt to explore how our national political discourse should work, and how it does work instead." Thanks again, folks. Happy blogging (and everything else) in 2014.