Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Così Fan Tutte

For the New Year, two selections from Mozart's opera. We'll start with wit and wisdom about human folly and the wounds it causes:

And we'll close (or rather, open a new year) with the hope and the potential for something beautiful nonetheless:

Eclectic Jukebox

The Best Films of the Decade

I've seen many "best films of the decade" lists along with the usual "best films of the year" compilations. If nothing else, it's a nice way to make a viewing list. Ann Hornaday at The Washington Post had a great reader chat on 12/18/09 about the best movie scenes of the decade. This helped add in many comedies, which often get overlooked otherwise (I'd add the chest-waxing scene from The 40 Year Old Virgin). It also reminded me of some well-regarded films (especially foreign) I still need to see.

I feel that, as a general rule, a film's "greatness" is better judged over time and after repeated viewings. Some of the films listed below are pretty recent, and others I haven't seen a second or third time yet. I've reviewed most of these elsewhere (or for 2009 films, will do so in my annual post-Oscar roundup), so I'm not going into great depth here, but am happy to discuss them in the comments. I'm sure I'm missing many, and feel free to move any film into a different tier – I certainly may change my mind.

The Short List

City of God
The Lord of the Rings
(the trilogy)
WALL-E (Feel free to substitute – or add - Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Up)
Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days
The Lives of Others


There Will Be Blood
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Children of Men
Pan's Labyrinth

The Jason Reitman catalog (Up in the Air, Thank You for Smoking, Juno)
The Christopher Nolan catalog (Memento, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Prestige)
Spirited Away
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Pianist
Match Point
You Can Count on Me
In the Loop
Hot Fuzz
Slumdog Millionaire
United 93
War Photographer
Grizzly Man
Fog of War

Honorable Mention

About Schmidt
Little Miss Sunshine
Path to War
The Descent
Dirty Pretty Things
The Road to Perdition
Michael Clayton
Casino Royale
The Proposition
Y Tu Mamá También
The 40 Year Old Virgin
The Aristocrats
The Class
Brokeback Mountain
The Station Agent
The Royal Tennebaums
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Gosford Park
No Country for Old Men
O Brother Where Art Thou
A Mighty Wind
Ocean's Eleven
Amores Perros
The Hurt Locker

What are your picks?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah

This is a repeat, but it's hard to beat it for Christmas Eve. First, Cantillation with the Orchestra of the Antipodes, conducted by Antony Walker:

The Robert Shaw version is also quite nice, and then there's this one from the Roches:

Merry Christmas.

Eclectic Jukebox

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson - "Winter Song"

Eclectic Jukebox

Arts Roundup 12/17/09

It's all film today. Congratulations to Liv Ullman, who just turned 71. She's quite a good director, and an exceptional actress. Her performance in Scenes from a Marriage is one of the best I've ever seen.

Elvis Mitchell's radio show The Treatment has been especially interesting recently. Two weeks ago, he sat down with director and mad genius Werner Herzog, who offers some great (and unconventional) advice for becoming a good filmmaker. Herzog's mainly talking about his new film, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. (The title is not his fault.) I just saw it this past weekend. It's not for people who like their main characters virtuous, because Nicholas Cage as Police Detective Terence McDonagh is more than a little "bad." But it's also hard to take your eyes off him. He's shockingly sleazy, crazy, surprisingly effective at his job at times, but always engrossing. It's Cage's best performance in a few years, Herzog shoots the film through with dark, wild humor, and the two of them make a great pairing.

The latest Treatment was with Viggo Mortensen, who's excellent in the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It's an extremely bleak movie (as is the book on which it is based), but if you're up for it, certain scenes are haunting. memorable and moving. Like Ullman and Herzog, Mortensen just seems like a really cool, well-rounded human being. At one point he quoted Eleanor Roosevelt, in a line that seems especially relevant given the political battles of our time: "When will our consciences grow so tender that we act to prevent misery rather than avenge it?"

(Ullman with Bergman.)

Keeping the Blog Fires Burning

("I'm coming for you, Nixon!" )

Two of my favorite blogs, Digby's Hullabaloo and Crooks and Liars, are holding their annual fundraisers. I'm sure many people are tapped out financially, especially with the holidays coming up. (I've seen - and posted on - more blogger tales of woe this year than in previous ones.) But I'm sure even small donations and kind comments go a long way. I've guest-posted both places, and for me they're welcome voices of information, sanity and insight. Happy holidays, and happy blogging.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Roland Hedley

If you're not following Gary Trudeau's Roland Hedley on Twitter yet, you should. He's got Stephen Colbert maniacal self-absorption, but without the amiable charm. (He's very serious.) Roland can deliver all the same insipid observations as his corporate media buddies, but at least you're laugh.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Not One Person Called Giuliani a Douchebag

A favorite bullshitting technique for advanced bullshitters is to use weasel words / a lawyer's lie / deceptive truth-telling. The idea is to say something that's technically true – sometimes barely so - but to mislead the average listener, often to suggest the opposite of reality. (An older post examines Karl Rove attempting this.) The trick to pulling this off is to pick an effective weasel line, and then to sell it well. Getting challenged is a danger, and most accomplished bullshitters typically try to avoid this. When challenged, most will dial up the bluster and outrage in response, or simply flatly deny the facts. If a bullshitter can reduce the issue to "he said-she said" and at least keep the audience in doubt, that's generally a tactical victory. Most bullshitters are intent on "winning the half hour" (as Dan Froomkin puts it), and scurry off before being fact-checked. News programs generally won't follow up on falsehoods later to correct them for the audience.

Rudy Giuliani often uses weasel words (and dips into McCarthyist attacks), but he's particularly fond of a specific weasel move, which follows this general pattern: "My opponent did not once say [a specific phrase of my own devising]." Giluliani follows this up by claiming his opponents have ducked some serious matter that they've actually discussed in some depth. Giuliani's varied it a bit over the years, but I find this tactic particularly glaring and annoying. I also question how effective it is to anyone who's not already in Giuliani's camp (apparently, authoritarian crusaders).

As Steve Benen and Greg Sargent note, Giuliani and other Republicans have opposed putting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial, even thought they praised earlier terrorist trials under Bush. Their current broadsides smack of partisan hypocrisy, but while that's bad enough, I was more taken with Giuliani's specific attack patterns. Here's Giuliani on ABC's This Week on 11/15/09 (emphasis added):

"Our federal system has an enormously protracted process that's going to go on forever. It grants more benefits than a military tribunal will grant. There's always the possibility of acquittal, change of venue... It creates an extra risk that isn't necessary for New York. Now, New York can handle it, there is no question about it, but why add an additional risk when you don't have to do that?

"I'm troubled by the symbolism of it. It seems to me that the Obama administration is getting away from the fact that we're at war with these terrorists. They no longer use the term 'war on terror.' They have been very slow to react to the whole situation with Major Hasan, which was clearly a terrorist act in the name of Islamic terrorism. It would seem to me that this is the worst symbol to send, that this is a civilian matter."

This comes via Steve Benen, who points out that Giuliani's fear-mongering is neither realistic nor accurate. But Giuliani continued with this "war on terror" stuff on 11/18/09. Over to Greg Sargent:

On an RNC conference call with reporters just now, Rudy Giuliani called on the Obama administration to start using the words “war” and “terror” in the same sentence again.

First, he repeatedly praised Attorney General Eric Holder for his repeated use of the word “war” in his opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, where he’s being grilled over his decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a New York court.

But then he charged that Holder’s description of our standoff with global terrorism as a “war” wasn’t good enough, and claimed that the administration’s abandonment of the specific phrase “war on terror” was directly linked to the decision on where to try KSM and his co-conspirators.

“It was great to see that the Attorney General said, `I know that we are at war,’” Rudy said. But he went on to lament that under current policy, we aren’t supposed to use the phrase “war on terror” anymore.

“I do think that terminology is important,” Rudy continued. “It leads to conclusions different than trying people in civilian courts.”

In his opening statement today, Holder said that “we are at war with a vicious enemy” who targets “our civilians on the streets here at home.” He referred to “our fight against terrorism.” He said 9/11 was “an act of war.” He used the word “war” and variants on the word “terror” half a dozen times each. Not good enough for Rudy.

There’s obviously a legit debate to be had over how to view terrorism. But Rudy’s actually claiming that Holder’s unwillingness to place the two words within three words of each other, in precisely the formulation Rudy prefers — rather than merely call it a “war” or a “fight against terrorism” — is directly responsible for the mindset that produced the decision to try KSM in New York.

Follow the link to read Holder's statement for yourself, but Giuliani's objection is pretty inane. In "Semantic Silliness," Steve Benen examines why the Obama administration abandoned the phrase "war on terror," and points out that Bush administration officials rejected it back in 2006 and 2007 – without objection by Giuliani. Benen concludes that "It should be obvious, but the key here is the efficacy of the policy, not the semantics," and that apparently the Obama team has been quite effective so far. Alas, Giuliani has long preferred the simplistic to the obvious (and sensible).

I suppose these attacks are a bit less loathsome than Giuliani's normal style. Back during the first Republican primary debate, on 5/3/07 at the Reagan Library, all the candidates presented themselves as the true heir apparent to Saint Ronnie and competed to say "Reagan" the most times. Fox News moderated, and in response to the penetrating question, "Would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?" Giuliani's answer was (emphasis added):

It would mean that we were back on defense against terrorism, given Senator Clinton's recent positions. And the reality is, in the 1990s, we were on defense in dealing with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. When you had this debate last week and all the Democrats were up here, I never remember the words "Islamic fundamentalist terrorism" being spoken by any of them. And I heard it a lot tonight.

That one should set off your bullshit meter. Unsurprisingly, if one reads the transcript from the Democratic debate on 4/26/07, one discovers that the Democrats talked about terrorism and national security issues throughout the night – they just didn't use Giuliani's specific, concocted phrase.

Giuliani tried the same tactic at the Republican National Convention during his speech on 9/3/08 (emphasis added):

And [McCain] will keep us on offense against terrorism at home and abroad. For four days in Denver and for the past 18 months, Democrats have been afraid to use the words "Islamic terrorism." During their convention, the Democrats rarely mentioned the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

They are in a state of denial about the threat that faces us now and in the future.

Mitt Romney borrowed Giuliani's shtick in his own convention speech that night (emphasis added):

Last week, last week, did you hear any Democrats talk about the threat from radical, violent jihad? No. You see, Republicans believe that there is good and evil in the world. Ronald Reagan called out the evil empire. George Bush labeled the terror-sponsor states exactly what they are: the axis of evil.

As I wrote at the time in a post about the disappearing of Bush at the RNC:

Giuliani pulled a similar trick during the Republican primaries (and did again last night), suggesting that the Democrats hadn't discussed terrorism and national security when of course they had, merely because they didn't use his specific concocted phrase. In this case, to sell the same bullshit, Romney uses "radical, violent jihad." Cooler heads might point out that insinuating that Righteous America is involved in a holy war against those evil Muslims actually threatens America's national security, but Romney knows his audience – they want black and white, and they want to feel they're the good guys fighting Bush's "evildoers." Romney's sharp enough to build deniability into his language so he can claim he's not demonizing all Muslims, only the "radical, violent" set, but the RNC crowd definitely got his subtext. (Romney also avoided the word "crusade," that Bush used years ago.)

No one in the American government is trying to make friends with bin Laden. And this cartoonish world view pushed by Giuliani, Romney and others is inaccurate and dangerous, as is the saber-rattling and pandering that goes with it. Overwhelmingly, people in the Middle East (and the rest of the world) who hate the United States do so because of our foreign policy, not because they 'hate us for our freedoms.' As we've examined at some length before, invading Iraq gave bin Laden and al Qaeda a great recruitment tool, and bin Laden's stated goal has been, as Matthew Yglesias points out, to "cripple the U.S. economy by dragging us into quagmires abroad." A true fanatic will never be dissuaded, but the invasion of Iraq, and civilian deaths and prisoner abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, have radicalized many in the Middle East and made the United States less safe. These actions, and this sort of rhetoric, have endangered American troops abroad. If politician and pundits want to argue that war and occupation are necessary, fine, but they should make the case honestly, and avoid shilling fantasies.

Giuliani was in full demagogue mode in an exchange with Ron Paul during the second GOP debate in South Carolina. Crooks and Liars has the video and some commentary (and here's the full debate transcript). Ron Paul was asked about his views on Iraq, and then Giuliani jumped in (emphasis added):

MR. GOLER: Congressman Paul, I believe you are the only man on the stage who opposes the war in Iraq, who would bring the troops home as quickly as -- almost immediately, sir. Are you out of step with your party? Is your party out of step with the rest of the world? If either of those is the case, why are you seeking its nomination?

REP. PAUL: Well, I think the party has lost its way, because the conservative wing of the Republican Party always advocated a noninterventionist foreign policy. Senator Robert Taft didn't even want to be in NATO. George Bush won the election in the year 2000 campaigning on a humble foreign policy -- no nation-building, no policing of the world. Republicans were elected to end the Korean War. The Republicans were elected to end the Vietnam War. There's a strong tradition of being anti-war in the Republican party. It is the constitutional position. It is the advice of the Founders to follow a non-interventionist foreign policy, stay out of entangling alliances, be friends with countries, negotiate and talk with them and trade with them. Just think of the tremendous improvement -- relationships with Vietnam. We lost 60,000 men. We came home in defeat. Now we go over there and invest in Vietnam. So there's a lot of merit to the advice of the Founders and following the Constitution. And my argument is that we shouldn't go to war so carelessly. (Bell rings.) When we do, the wars don't end.

MR. GOLER: Congressman, you don't think that changed with the 9/11 attacks, sir?

REP. PAUL: What changed?

MR. GOLER: The non-interventionist policies.

REP. PAUL: No. Non-intervention was a major contributing factor. Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we've been over there; we've been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We've been in the Middle East -- I think Reagan was right. We don't understand the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics. So right now we're building an embassy in Iraq that's bigger than the Vatican. We're building 14 permanent bases. What would we say here if China was doing this in our country or in the Gulf of Mexico? We would be objecting. We need to look at what we do from the perspective of what would happen if somebody else did it to us. (Applause.)

MR. GOLER: Are you suggesting we invited the 9/11 attack, sir?

REP. PAUL: I'm suggesting that we listen to the people who attacked us and the reason they did it, and they are delighted that we're over there because Osama bin Laden has said, "I am glad you're over on our sand because we can target you so much easier." They have already now since that time -- (bell rings) -- have killed 3,400 of our men, and I don't think it was necessary.

MR. GIULIANI: Wendell, may I comment on that? That's really an extraordinary statement. That's an extraordinary statement, as someone who lived through the attack of September 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don't think I've heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th. (Applause, cheers.) And I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn't really mean that. (Applause.)

MR. GOLER: Congressman?

REP. PAUL: I believe very sincerely that the CIA is correct when they teach and talk about blowback. When we went into Iran in 1953 and installed the shah, yes, there was blowback. A reaction to that was the taking of our hostages and that persists. And if we ignore that, we ignore that at our own risk. If we think that we can do what we want around the world and not incite hatred, then we have a problem.They don't come here to attack us because we're rich and we're free. They come and they attack us because we're over there. I mean, what would we think if we were -- if other foreign countries were doing that to us?

MR. GIULIANI: Can I have 30 seconds, please?

MR. : No, no, no, wait a second. Let's -- we'll all get 30 seconds.

(Cross talk.)

MR. GIULIANI: They are coming –

(Cross talk.)

MR. : We all want 30 seconds of time --

Everyone wanted to jump on Ron Paul to prove their bona fides with the base. While I'm not a huge fan of Ron Paul, and he could have expressed himself a bit better in places, he was basically telling the truth here. There's a huge difference between explaining the cause of the 9/11 attacks and claiming they were deserved, of course. But Giuliani saw his opportunity and jumped, wrapping himself in 9/11, linking it implicitly with Iraq (which Ron Paul unfortunately suggested somewhat as well), and basically dragging the debate away from adult discussion back to the safe environs of cartoon villains and fantasy. It was a shameless, bad faith effort, and did a disservice to the national audience (although the pander seemed to work with the local crowd).

Joe Biden delivered the best line of the primary debates when he said that there were only three things Giuliani mentioned in a sentence: a noun, a verb and 9/11 – that there was nothing else - and that Giluliani was genuinely unqualified to be president. It was a great zinger, with the added virtue of being true.

In the early going, Giuliani and the press fancied him the frontrunner for the GOP in 2008, but he didn't even make the final three. Nor was this an accident, despite Giuliani's attempted spin. As Joel Achenbach wryly put it:

Rudy may have run the most incompetent presidential campaign in history. But he had a handicap, a fundamental problem, and we should cut him some slack because of it. Basically, people liked him less the more they got to know him. That makes campaigning hard.

To return to Benen on Giuliani's harping about the "war on terror":

Keep in mind, Giuliani, who has a child-like understanding of national security, isn't making a policy argument, per se. For the former mayor, the key here is rhetoric -- unless administration officials use the precise three-word phrase that Giuliani prefers, then the White House must necessarily be wrong.

This may be. But I'm inclined to give Giuliani the benefit of the doubt, in a sense, that he's more a scoundrel than an idiot. He's an egomaniacal, authoritarian bully, but I suspect he does know better, and he's just eager to shill a simplistic and dangerously inaccurate perspective because he think fear-mongering and crusading language will play well with a certain crowd. This has never served the American people well, and there's far more at stake that scoring a few points on TV.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Great Last and First Lines

The American Book Review has a list of the "100 Best Last Lines from Novels" (PDF). Obviously, this means some spoilers, but cautious browsing can avoid that. Their list of the "100 Best First Lines from Novels" holds no such perils.

This comes via TBogg (in turn from Matthew Yglesias, whose commenters make other suggestions). TBogg has a post soliciting suggestions for the best last lines from short stories. Check the comment thread for many reader submissions.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Building Stonehenge

Via Mike Finnigan, this is pretty cool:

Moyers: LBJ's Escalation in Vietnam

One of the best pieces I've seen touching on Afghanistan is Bill Moyers' Journal from 11/20/09 on Lyndon Johnson's escalation in Vietnam. Johnson agonized about the war, and consulted many people, but they and Johnson all seemed to feel that Vietnam was a lousy situation, but withdrawal wouldn't work (for political and strategic reasons). Follow the link, and you can watch the hour-long program in two parts, or read the transcript. Moyers' final words:

Now in a different world, at a different time, and with a different president, we face the prospect of enlarging a different war. But once again we're fighting in remote provinces against an enemy who can bleed us slowly and wait us out, because he will still be there when we are gone.

Once again, we are caught between warring factions in a country where other foreign powers fail before us. Once again, every setback brings a call for more troops, although no one can say how long they will be there or what it means to win. Once again, the government we are trying to help is hopelessly corrupt and incompetent.

And once again, a President pushing for critical change at home is being pressured to stop dithering, be tough, show he's got the guts, by sending young people seven thousand miles from home to fight and die, while their own country is coming apart.

And once again, the loudest case for enlarging the war is being made by those who will not have to fight it, who will be safely in their beds while the war grinds on. And once again, a small circle of advisers debates the course of action, but one man will make the decision.

We will never know what would have happened if Lyndon Johnson had said no to more war. We know what happened because he said yes.

The similarities are striking - and dismaying.

Moyers' conversation with Oliver Stone this week also touches on Vietnam, and war in general.

Meanwhile, there's the HBO film Path to War, directed by John Frankenheimer, and starring the great Michael Gambon as LBJ, with Alec Baldwin as Robert McNamara and Donald Sutherland as Clark Clifford (plus Felicity Huffman, Bruce McGill and a fine cast all around). I've watched it a few times, but I think it's time for another viewing.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Scratch That Victory Itch

Fafblog is always worth checking out, but "Victory Science" is especially timely:

Let us never forget just what's at stake in the war in Afghanistan: nothing less than the success of the war in Afghanistan. This war may be a mistake, a blood-soaked blunder, an unholy charnel house mindlessly consuming the bodies and souls of untold thousands, an open sore on the pockmarked face of history and an abomination before the sight of God and men, but it is first and foremost a war, and wars must be won. If the United States doesn't win this war, then will it not lose it? And if the United States loses this war, then won't the Unites States have lost it? And if the United States has lost this war, will that not then make the United States a kind of thing that loses wars? And then where would we be?

And just as America can't afford to abandon this war, surely it can't afford to abandon the Afghan people, who without the American military would be left to the savage whims of their hated enemy, the Afghan people...

Go over and read the rest. I'll try to cover Afghanistan more in the weeks and months to come, although several other blogs do that very well. Still, an older post, "Iraq and Vietnam: Selling the Stab-in-the-Back Myth," comes to mind...