Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Jon Swift Roundup 2021

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

( An appropriate Jon Swift picture for the year.)

Welcome to the 2021 edition! This year was a little saner than 2020, at least.

This tradition was 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.

Lance Mannion, who sadly passed away earlier this year, provided the definitive description of our endeavor:

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 massive 2007 and 2008 editions (via the Wayback Machine). Meanwhile, our more modest revivals from 2010–2020 can be found here.

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

Meanwhile, if you're not familiar with Lance Mannion, the (the nom du blog for David Reilly), it's well worth checking out his work. He was a thoughtful writer who covered politics, but also wrote often about books, movies, culture in general, history and his own life. His observations were insightful and grounded in humanity. A good starting point might be his lovely post, "Robin's Last Arrow," which was read at his memorial service.

I should also mention the passing of Mike Finnigan, who was a champion of small blogs at Crooks and Liars and promoted this roundup in both its incarnations. He was a friend to many of us.

In that spirit, thanks to all the participants, and apologies to anyone I missed. (As always, my goal is to find the right balance between inclusive and manageable.) You still can join in, 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 #jonswift2021.

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:

Bark Bark Woof Woof
"Not Just Sitting, But Marching"
Mustang Bobby: "Remembering my father and his legacy. He died from Covid-19 on May 25, 2020. His ashes were interred in Northport, Michigan on what would have been his 95th birthday."

Show Me Progress
"Johnson County Community Health Services – Board of Trustees – August 2, 2021 – This is why we can’t have nice things"
Michael Bersin: "Images and audio from a county health board meeting in an anti-mask, anti-vaccine hotspot in Missouri. I don’t know what upset me more – that I was, in all probability, at risk for exposure to COVID-19 or that my IQ probably dropped forty points after listening to their tiresome luddite anti-science drivel."

Constant Commoner
"Love, Light, and Atheism"
Ramona Grigg: "We're not the doomed or the damned, we just don't believe in your gods. A case for reaching an understanding."

Mock Paper Scissors
"HR-1 Passed, Now It Goes To The Senate!"
Tengrain: "We had a lot of optimism and momentum in March; what a difference a Manchin makes. Also, I think this is the start of the new MPS nickname for the Republicans: The Coup Klux Klan!"

Self-Styled Siren
"Box Office Blues: Marty Was Right"
Farran Smith Nehme: "Looking at box-office trends from the 1920s to the present, in an attempt to figure out what the hell happened."

Brilliant at Breakfast Rebooted
"What should be the limits on our compassion?"
Jill: "Jill ponders the deaths of those who refused the COVID-19 vaccines out of ignorance, willfully believing misinformation, or just plain political partisanship, and wonders just how much compassion we should have for these people."

Just an Earth-Bound Misfit, I
"A Sincere Greeting to Everyone Who Has Chosen to Not Be Vaccinated Against the Coronavirus"
Comrade Misfit: "The post addresses the spread of the Delta variant (or, if you prefer, the Darwin variant) among the unvaccinated."

"If it Weren't for Double Standards, They'd have None at All"
Bluzdude: "Illustrating the double standards of modern Republicans, debunking memes on gas prices and alleged Socialism, and a Dad Story."

Hysterical Raisins
"Cheney Leaves the House of Twitler"
nonnie9999: "With apologies to Peter Paul Rubens, I have reworked his painting of Hagar Leaves the House of Abraham to illustrate the unceremonious ousting of Liz Cheney from the GOP House leadership by Kevin "Shecky" McCarthy and his embrace and promotion of Elise "The Little Slurmaid" Stefanik."

The Professional Left Podcast
"Ep 585: The Second Impeachment Trial"
The Professional Left Podcast with Driftglass and Blue Gal: We talk about the second impeachment of Donald Trump and I make an impassioned case for moving very quickly on the Democratic agenda. Plus I do a "Bible Bitch" segment."

his vorpal sword
"Beware the False Kumbaya"
Hart Williams: " Successfully (alas) predicted the increasing polarization of the past year, and explains why it will continue. It was a dire warning then; it is an urgent warning now."

David E's Fablog
"The Crying Game"
David E: "Not since Margaret O’Brien turned on the tears in Meet Me in St. Louis has the American public ever seen anything like the blubberfest provided by freelance murderer Kyle Rittenhouse at his trial in Kenosha Wisconsin."

You Might Notice a Trend
Paul Wartenberg: "Trump's electoral loss in 2020 did not end the madness driving the Republican Party into abandoning all civility and love for the United States."

First Draft
"Owning The Commies With John Neely Kennedy"
Peter Adrastos Athas: "Louisiana Senator John Neely Kennedy is not an idiot, he just plays one on television."

Strangely Blogged
"Does it Work on Brain Worms?"
Vixen Strangely: "One Weird Trick is no substitute for good science."

The Rectification of Names
"The Art of the Impossible"
Yastreblyansky: "I've spent a lot of blog time this difficult year trying to come up with ways of expressing a little hope for the political future, with respect to what the Biden administration is and isn't going to be able to accomplish, without sounding too stupid. This one from November may come close."

"The politicizing of everyday things"
Infidel753: "The left is self-destructing by embracing bizarre fringe positions which are repugnant to mainstream voters. These issues superficially seem trivial, but in fact are not, because they represent a threatening intrusion of ideology into everyday life, eclipsing the "big" issues that political activists imagine are more important. The US left's refusal to confront and address this problem makes it likely that Republicans will win the next few election cycles, creating an enormous danger to the country. This is definitely the most important political post I've written, and will probably be the last."

"I Wasn't Being Condescending. I Was Being Patronizing."
driftglass: "Honestly, being scolded about the harm my tone is doing and the need for us Lefties to temper our language by the same goofs who made a living for decades calling us everything but a child of God never stops being funny."

"It's Not True and You Know It's Not True"
Jon Perr: "History will record that on January 6, 2021, the President of the United States, 140 Republican House members and a dozen GOP Senators sought to overturn the results of the free and fair vote of the American people. But how these Republicans would seek to deny the will of the voters and trigger a failed insurrection in the Capitol—through the propagation and perpetuation of a disgusting lie—should have been clear years ago."

"Winning Over White Supremacists One Hater at a Time"
Annie: "I write about politics a great deal, and doing so is often depressing. But when I learned about the individuals and organizations featured in this post, I felt a sense of hope for our battered nation that I felt was worth sharing."

The Rude Pundit
"Why We're So Fucking Angry at the Unvaccinated"
Lee Papa (the Rude Pundit): "We're trying to save your dumb asses by getting vaccinated. And we're sick of you not helping."

The Debate Link
"Reflections on Being Victim of a Scam"
David Schraub: "I was the victim of a scam earlier this year. As scams go, mine was comparatively minor – it only involved Lego sets. But my reaction to it – in particular my powerful instinct to stay in denial even once the scam became obvious – gave me new insight into other people who've bought into far more serious scams; specifically, political scams. In politics just as much as in online shopping, it is a terrible and difficult thing to accept that the goods you bought will never be shipped."

Lotus – Surviving a Dark Time
"On January 6"
LarryE, aka Whoviating: "Reactions to January 6 written a day or two after the event."

Bluestem Prairie
"State rep Tim Miller: MN state public officials beholden to radical anti-livestock enviro groups"
Sally Jo Sorensen: "Minnesota House Republican member Tim Miller sent out an email claiming those public officials who want to restrict captive deer farms are "beholden to radical environmental groups who do not want livestock farming to exist." We examined what those public officials think about livestock farming, concluding with deer farm critic House Environment & Natural Resources Committee chair Rick Hansen, who is in business with Amish livestock farming neighbor near his place by Harmony and whose niece won the Minnesota State Fair 4H grand champion barrow ribbon. Uffda."

God's Spies, by Thomas Neuburger
"An Independence Day Reflection: How the Rich Plan to Rule a Burning World"
Thomas Neuburger: "This is a glimpse of the world being built as we watch, the view from a window that opens onto the day when the only freedom celebrated on the Fourth is the freedom of the super-rich from the rest of mankind."

Mad Kane's Political Madness
"Ousted Liz Cheney, Still Speaking Out"
Madeleine Begun Kane: "My two-verse limerick, in which I shock myself by saying something nice about a Cheney."

The Way of Cats
"Dear Pammy, Are Cats Family?"
Pamela Merritt: "Our pets teach us the limits of prejudice, and the extraordinary benefits of drawing our circle of humanity on a bigger scale."

"There's Ross Perot. Dr. Laura. Megan Mcardle. Wait a Minute – They're Not So Great."
Roy Edroso: "A consideration of Megan McArdle doing what she does best – humiliating herself on behalf of the richest people on earth."
Plus a bonus post:
Roy Edroso Breaks It Down
"Operation Overlord"
Roy Edroso: "On why Elon Musk will one day run for President (briefly, because he appeals to an up and coming and even more repulsive new generation of Republican scumbags).

This Is So Gay
"I May Not Know Cancel Culture, But I Know What I Like"
Duncan Mitchel: "The fuss about cancel culture seems to have died down a bit, but it will surely return, maybe in another guise, and people will be just as misinformed about its next stage as they were this time."

Balloon Juice
COVID-19 series
Balloon Juice readers nominated Anne Laurie for "the great service she’s done" with her "tour-de-force" series of COVID posts. You can see them through the category link above.

Vagabond Scholar
"The Graveyard of Democracy"
Batocchio: "Afghanistan has been called 'the graveyard of empires' because of all the supposedly mighty powers that have failed to conquer it. Unchecked military spending, endless wars, unnecessary wars and unnecessarily prolonged wars could aptly be called the graveyard of democracy for how they rob time, energy, money and lives that could be spent in far more worthwhile pursuits."

Thanks again, folks. Happy blogging and everything else in 2022, which we can hope is a good year.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Armstice Day 11/11/21

(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 post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly. My new post this year for Armistice Day is "The Graveyard of Democracy."

Back in 2009, 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).

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

"The Dogs of War" (2013)

"The Courage to Make Others Suffer" (2015)

"The Battle of the Somme" (2017)

I generally update these posts later with links to appropriate pieces for 11/11 by other folks as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to link it in a comment. Thanks.

The Graveyard of Democracy

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
– Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Chance for Peace" speech, 1953
Endless money for wars? No problem. Endless money for tax breaks for the rich? No problem. Endless money for corporate welfare? No problem. But when it comes to providing a $1,200 direct payment to the working class during a pandemic, somehow we can't afford it. Not acceptable.
Bernie Sanders, 12/10/20.

The U.S. war in Afghanistan finally, officially ended in August 2021 after nearly 20 years. The Pentagon lowballs the cost at a nonetheless stunning $825 billion. The "Costs of War" project from Brown University puts the costs at $2.313 trillion and estimates the costs of all U.S. post-9/11 war spending at $8 trillion, which includes future obligations in veterans' care and financial debt for roughly 30 years. The project also estimates the human costs of the 'global war on terror' at 900,000 deaths. Meanwhile, Afghanistan reconstruction was allocated $145 billion, however:
an October 2020 report presented a startling total for the war. Congress at the time had appropriated $134 billion since 2002 for reconstruction in Afghanistan. but SIGAR [the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction] was able to review $63 billion of it – nearly half. They concluded $19 billion of that – almost a third – was "lost to waste, fraud, and abuse."

That's pretty appalling, but looking at the U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and all the "post-9/11 war spending," it's hard not to conclude that a large portion if not most of that $8 trillion (and much more in related costs) won't have been a waste. Afghanistan has been called "the graveyard of empires" because of all the supposedly mighty powers that have failed to conquer it. Unchecked military spending, endless wars, unnecessary wars and unnecessarily prolonged wars could aptly be called the graveyard of democracy for how they rob time, energy, money and lives that could be spent in far more worthwhile pursuits.

Going to war should require a high threshold. That is the position of basic sanity and wisdom. Some war advocates do make their cases sincerely and soberly. But bad faith and bullying are endemic to the pro-war, prolong-the-war crowd. As a 2013 post on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War covered, the Bush administration absurdly claimed that the war would cost as little as 1.7 billion. More damningly:
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).

For the Iraq War especially, it was fairly common for war advocates to go into full Joe McCarthy mode, accusing war skeptics of being traitors and un-American or even threatening them with violence. For the most part, these weren't momentary lapses of reason, but the banality of jackassery, with obnoxious hacks feeling gleefully entitled by what they felt was a pro-war climate to act like assholes toward people they had always hated. Most of their later efforts at apology were weak, self-serving or even downright insulting. (The 2013 post has a more comprehensive account, but examples one, two, three, four and five are pretty representative.)

Such ugliness should give us pause, but the lying by government officials is arguably more troubling and almost certainly more damaging. The Bush administration lied to the American public to sell the Iraq War. The Pentagon Papers revealed that, on the Vietnam War, the Johnson administration "systemically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance." (Nor was Johnson's the only administration to do so.) Vietnam veteran and then-Senator John Kerry made the point more starkly when he said, "Half of the soldiers whose names are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall died after the politicians knew our strategy would not work." More recently in 2019, The Washington Post (which also published the Pentagon Papers) published The Afghanistan Papers, stating, "A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable."

This behavior is disqualifying. On the Afghanistan War specifically, we could talk about how pundits crawled out of the woodwork in 2021 to condemn finally ending the war and the way withdrawal was handled. Coverage on Afghanistan exploded in August 2021 after being relatively low for six to eleven years, and far too much of the new coverage omitted crucial context. For example, the Bush administration could have ended the war all the way back in November 2001, not long after the initial invasion. Why did it drag on for almost 20 years? Meanwhile, the Trump administration took several actions that forced an abrupt departure. Surely that merited mentioning when discussing withdrawal? Afghanistan has a complicated history most Americans don't know, and the U.S. strategy failed to deal with competing factions and corruption in the country. Although some people continue to be sincerely concerned about the well-being of the Afghan citizenry and refugees, most of the pro-war, pro-occupation crowd has never seriously considered such issues and planned for them; they only seem to care about the Afghans as props in bad faith arguments. Withdrawal was very popular with the American public, but not with military contractors and many in the Beltway crowd. Guess which viewpoint dominated the coverage? (For more, see Digby one and two, Tom Sullivan, driftglass one and two, the Poynter Institute, The New Republic, Emptywheel, Strangely Blogged, First Draft, Jon Perr and Jim Wright.)

Criticizing the withdrawal and the Biden administration is fine, but denying essential context is not – and providing context would have flipped much of the criticism. Advocates for withdrawal were definitely challenged in a way advocates for staying largely were not. How many journalists and moderators pushed the pro-war, pro-occupation crowd with something like, "You've had 20 years, three presidents, 2.2 trillion dollars, and you still haven't been able to get the job done in Afghanistan. Why should we believe you'll get it done now? Why should we give you any more time and money?" Or perhaps, "the Afghanistan papers show that U.S. officials have been lying to the American public and have known for years that war cannot be won. Given that, how can you justify staying?" Or even, "Considering all the blood and treasure your views have already cost, why should we give your criticisms of the withdrawal any weight?"

To be fair, some critics focused on the nature of the withdrawal and did not criticize withdrawal itself. Yet while U.S. intelligence agencies did predict a collapse, they were surprised by how quickly the Taliban took over Kabul. And too much coverage focused on the nature of the withdrawal and sidestepped whether withdrawal was good or necessary, and also sidestepped that any withdrawal was going to be pretty messy. This lead to strikingly imbalanced, context-free coverage, where somehow Biden could be pilloried (perhaps justifiably), but Bush, Obama, and Trump mostly got a pass. Responsible journalism requires explaining who created and exacerbated the mess and not pretending the previous 20 years didn't happen. If that weren't bad enough, in many media discussions, there were still pundits arguing that the war was "sustainable" and the U.S. was wrong to leave. "Yeah, U.S. officials completely lied to the American public – and knew the war was unwinnable – and this has cost us trillions of dollars already – but it's still wrong to withdraw" would be an honest argument, but obviously not a convincing one. Those factors are awful on their own, but together they are utterly damning. Once you lie to the public this profoundly and pervasively about an issue as important as war – which, ya know, causes people to die, which is a fault that cannot be undone – you have lost all credibility and just need to shut the hell up. And even if we eliminate all the many liars and hacks, the act of pressing for war, or to continue war – especially with no end in sight – should be a weighty affair. War advocates should be pressed hard and held to account. As it is, advocating for war is typically granted an undeserved veneer of respectability and seriousness, even when its very real human costs are never discussed. The shallow and dishonest war advocates far outnumber the serious ones. And in some Beltway circles, being excited for a war others will fight and die in is socially acceptable or even encouraged.

It's also worth considering U.S. military spending in general. There's a saying that the United States is "an insurance company with an army." United States military spending in 2020 was a staggering $778 billion. The next closest nation was China, at $252 billion. In third place was India at $72.9 billion. The U.S. routinely outspends the next 10 or 11 nations combined every year, and some of those are U.S. allies. To use another metric, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing in 2019 lead to many great stories about the space race, and some pieces mentioned the cost, roughly $25.8 billion. But at least one commentator pointed out that during the same era, the Vietnam War cost about as much in a single year as the entire space race. It's estimated that the Vietnam War cost the U.S. $141 billion over 14 years. So the space race was much, much cheaper and produced research and innovation that had countless civilian applications and spurred many other developments. The Pentagon has never passed an audit and waste is endemic; it simply fabricates numbers but receives little pushback from Congress. This is not a new problem; Chuck Spinney started called out wasteful military spending in the 1980s and continued until his retirement in 2003. Decades earlier, Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose military credentials were impeccable, memorably warned in his 1961 presidential farewell address:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

To pick one noteworthy example, the F-35 jet is a much criticized and expensive aircraft, and the costs of the F-35 program (some of which may be hidden) keep escalating. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in April 2021 that the Department of Defense "plans to acquire nearly 2,500 F-35 aircraft for about $400 billion. It projects spending another $1.27 trillion to operate and sustain them—an estimate that has steadily increased since 2012." Despite criticism for years, the program's astronomical spending just continues.

Just imagine if military spending were reduced, still leaving the U.S. as number one, but say, to beat China and not most of the world. Just imagine if the Pentagon could pass an audit and eliminate waste. Just imagine if military spending prioritized technology more likely to have civilian applications. Imagine spending less on widgets and armaments and more on military personnel themselves, investing in salaries, education, and training, all of which could benefit both them and the country when they transitioned out of the armed forces. Imagine more investment in better health care for active duty military personnel and for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Conservatives believe in military spending for creating jobs and economic growth, but other domestic spending, more in the spirit of the New Deal, would deliver many more jobs and far more growth. Imagine investing in teachers, doctors, nurses, general education, libraries, parks, the arts, or any sort of human or physical infrastructure. Imagine if military budgets had to be justified and weren't rubber-stamped, despite the staggering amounts of money involved. Even the most ambitious proposed domestic programs typically cost a small fraction of annual U.S. military spending. Imagine if public discussions of domestic programs (such as the recent "build back better" framework, or universal health care, or many other measures) discussed the benefits to the American public and the country and didn't focus almost exclusively on the cost. Imagine if the dynamics were flipped, and we could have rational and wise discussions of the U.S. budget and what the public really wanted and needed. For years, the Pentagon has been saying that climate change is a risk to national security. Imagine if some (or much more) of the current military spending was reallocated to fighting climate change and developing green energy. That would actually accomplish the Defense Department's supposed mission of protecting the country while providing a host of other benefits as well. The U.S. is not lacking for better policies and better choices. It's lacking in political will.

Bill Moyers once observed that "plutocracy and democracy don't mix." Unrestrained military spending and imperialism dovetail with plutocracy quite easily and dangerously, especially in the United States. Imperialism and democracy don't mix, either. Strengthening American democracy requires confronting right-wing extremism domestically. But it also requires confronting unchecked military spending and endless wars if we're going to avoid the graveyard of democracy.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Banned Books Week 2021

Happy Banned Books Week, celebrating banned and challenged books! Here's the category in my archives, with posts covering issues of censorship but also specific books. The site linked above tends not to keep old content, so I prefer to link the American Library Association's main site instead for specific lists. On the frequently challenged books page, the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020 deal with issues of sexuality as usual, but this time, issues of race show up more often.

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 156 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2020. Of the 273 books that were targeted, here are the most challenged, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:

1. George by Alex Gino
Reasons: Challenged, banned, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting “the values of our community”

2. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds
Reasons: Banned and challenged because of author’s public statements, and because of claims that the book contains “selective storytelling incidents” and does not encompass racism against all people

3. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use, and alcoholism, and because it was thought to promote anti-police views, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now”

4. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint and it was claimed to be biased against male students, and for the novel’s inclusion of rape and profanity

5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author

6. Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin
Reasons: Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views

7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience

8. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students

9. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse

10. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Reasons: Challenged for profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message

Here's the same list presented in a short video format:

The ALA also has some neat infographics, including this one (click for a larger image):

Finally, PBS promoted a 2017 interview with Robert Doyle of the ALA about the history of the organization opposing book-banning.

Happy Banned Books Week!

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

RIP Mike Finnigan

I was very sad to hear about the death of my friend and blogging colleague, Mike Finnigan, due to kidney cancer at the age of 76. Mike was a superb musician and a fantastic, generous guy. Celebrity Access has a brief obituary that lists some of his impressive musical credits. He was sought after for his notable chops as a keyboardist (especially on the Hammond B-3 organ) and as a singer. John Amato wrote a nice piece remembering Mike and how his influence spurred John to create his popular liberal political website Crooks and Liars, where Mike was a regular contributor for many years. Mike's memorial service was 8/27/21, and the Facebook page In Memory of Mike Finnigan has videos of the eulogies, many of them funny as well as moving, as well as photos and music clips. (Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast Rebooted also wrote a brief remembrance.)

I got to know Mike from his eponymous feature at Crooks and Liars, Mike's Blog Round Up. Every day, Mike would link a handful of good blogs he found, almost always smaller than Crooks and Liars. Mike introduced me and many other readers to fine writers and blogs, and he actively solicited submissions. I often commented in the threads, and started submitting some of my own pieces (or other good posts I found). Mike was kind enough to link them, occasionally without me submitting them. A C&L link could sometimes give a small blog more traffic in a day than it'd get all year otherwise. In that era, some other popular bloggers like Digby and Shakespeare's Sister were also quite kind about linking other, smaller blogs. But Mike and Crooks and Liars was unusual in that the round up was a regular, daily feature.

Mike and I got to chatting more often in threads and email, and I learned he was a working musician, which is by itself impressive, but he was extremely humble and it took a while to learn how many people he had played with, including a fair amount of the Woodstock lineup: Jimi Hendrix; Big Brother and the Holding Company; Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Because Mike was often touring, he sometimes needed someone to cover Mike's Blog Round Up, and I was honored that he asked me to be one of those people. (He was touring with Joe Cocker at the time.) When Mike starting touring more often with Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt to make daily blogging just not viable anymore, he passed the baton to the indefatigable Frances Langum (Blue Gal), who assembled a team of people to take turns handling Mike's Blog Round Up one week at a time. I'm likewise honored to be part of that crew, and when it's been a long day or busy week and getting a post done can be challenging, it's remarkable to think that Mike did it all by himself, every day, for years, sometimes despite grueling hours on the road. The round up has often been informative, but it's also spread the luv and built community. I indirectly owe at least a few friendships to it.

We mostly talked online, but Mike reached out when he realized I was local and a "neighbor." I met him a few times in person, and he was extremely warm and kind. He urged me to come see him play at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles when he was playing with Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt, and arranged for backstage passes. (I just stopped briefly to say hello. Like many an L.A. venue, the Greek is a pain for parking, but the acoustics are fantastic and it was a great show.) My favorite gig, though, was at a small venue in the (San Fernando) Valley. Mike was playing with the Phantom Blues Band, which originally formed to back up Taj Mahal. It was an astounding treat to listen to veteran bluesmen having a blast in an extended set in such an intimate setting.

Mike has an acerbic, biting side, although even that tended to be funny and good-natured, and his political targets were invariably deserving. A key part of being a good musician – or any type of performer working with others – is an openness and generosity, building on what you've been handed and giving energy back. Mike's memorial service made clear that he was cherished by many people for exactly those qualities in many fields: as a musician, as a blogger and political activist, as a friend, as a sobriety sponsor, as a family man. As his wife of 52 years, Candy Finnigan, said in her eulogy, "The success of a man is the way he's loved." I'll miss him and will never forget his generosity.

Much of Mike's music is on YouTube and other sites, which is nice, because the four Phantom Blues Band albums can be bought but some of the older stuff just isn't easily available. I could post clips endlessly, but here's a tour.

Here's Mike with the Phantom Blues Band in 2008 and one of his signature songs, "Part-Time Love," which shows off his B-3 Hammond organ playing, but also his chops as a blues vocalist:

Here's Mike performing "I Got News for You" with Bonnie Raitt in Long Beach CA in 2013:

Going waaay back, Mike's first band (or one of them) was The Serfs. Here's a fine version of "I'm A Man" from 1969:

Here's a sequence on Finnigan playing with Jimi Hendrix. (You can hear a bit more in this series of short clips, parts one, two and three.)

Here's Finnegan and (Jerry) Wood's 1972 album, Crazed Hipsters:

Here's the rousing "Everything Will Work Out Right" from 1976:

Mike often performed with Etta James. "You Gonna Make Me Cry" is a 2000 cover of a 1965 song and has a classic sound:

John Amato posted this clip of Mike performing "Let Me See the Light" from 1991. His high register is really impressive here, especially after you've heard his blues growl. That's some range.

Lastly, here's the Phantom Blues Band playing Knuckleheads Garage in Kansas City in 2017, which gives some sense of the personality and fun of listening to Mike and his buddies live.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Independence Day 2021

Happy Independence Day! (This post is mostly reruns of good stuff.)

First up, here's NPR's annual reading of the Declaration of Independence:

Next up, in 2020, NPR asked descendants of Frederick Douglass to deliver excerpts from his speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

You can read the full speech here. The descendants' names and ages are listed on the YouTube page here. NPR notes that "this video was inspired by Jennifer Crandall's documentary project" Whitman, Alabama.

Moving to music, Marvin Gaye provides the sublime, with one of my all-time favorite renditions of the national anthem:

The Muppets provide some silliness and enthusiasm:

Finally, Pete Seeger provides an undeniable spark, singing his pal Woody Guthrie's most famous song:

I hope everyone has a good and safe Independence Day.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

John Warner (1927–2021)

John Warner, who served as a U.S. Senator from Virginia from 1979 to 2009 and the Secretary of the Navy from 1972 to 1974, died on May 25th at the age of 94. His funeral was held at Washington National Cathedral on June 23rd, with Joe Biden giving one of the eulogies. Warner was a Republican and I didn't agree with all of his votes, but I lived in the D.C. area for a time and respected some of his actions.

The Washington Post obituary gives a good summing up:

Because of his willingness to buck his increasingly conservative party, Mr. Warner became the Republican whom many Virginia independents and Democrats respected and voted for. By the time he retired in 2009, he held the second-longest tenure of any senator from Virginia.

As a former secretary of the Navy and, in later years, one of only a handful of World War II veterans in the Senate, Mr. Warner held considerable authority in military matters. His consensus-building on many critical issues led him to be known as one of the Senate’s more influential members. He also brought a touch of glamour to the political world through his six-year marriage to film star Elizabeth Taylor.

As chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Mr. Warner provided critical support for President George W. Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq, beginning in 2003. During debate on a Democratic call for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2007, Mr. Warner led the Republican opposition, saying, “What we have on the line is the credibility of the United States of America.”

The next year, however, he broke with the Bush administration’s proposed “surge” of additional troops for Iraq and disagreed with his own Senate ¬subcommittee’s recommendation authorizing a higher level of military force. His stance strengthened Democratic efforts to curtail spending on the war.

“The reason I’m into this situation so deeply,” he said, “is that I feel that the American citizens have given so generously with their sons and daughters. Have we not fulfilled our commitment to the Iraqi people?”

He also urged the administration to give more attention to rebuilding the economy of Iraq.

Along with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), Mr. Warner co-sponsored legislation that banned the torture of terrorism suspects. He also opposed some Bush administration efforts to use military commissions to place terrorism suspects on trial at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Mr. Warner frequently went against his party in domestic affairs. He supported legal abortion, although he voted in favor of numerous limitations on the procedure; supported gun control; voted against confirmation of President Ronald Reagan’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork; and urged lifting Bush’s restrictions on stem-cell research. In 2005, he was part of the bipartisan “Gang of 14” that prevented either party from using parliamentary maneuvers on judicial appointments.

He was no maverick, though. Mr. Warner supported the three Republican presidents under whom he served — Reagan and the two Bushes — more than 90 percent of the time.

A Washington Post editorial board piece adds:

He was, to be sure, a rock-ribbed Republican. Yet the Warner brand of Republicanism — suspicious of populism, repelled by extremists, prizing principle over partisanship — is all but unrecognizable today. After a five-term career in the Senate marked by frequent breaks with GOP orthodoxy, it was hardly a shock when, shunning Donald Trump in both his presidential campaigns, he endorsed Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden last year. . . .

It wasn’t just that he looked the part of a senator; he fully inhabited the role. No one doubted his rectitude or his willingness to break with his party. He did so repeatedly, embracing abortion rights and gun control (including a federal ban on assault weapons) and rejecting the legal basis for impeaching President Bill Clinton, the then-prevalent GOP view of homosexuality as immoral and President Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nomination of Robert H. Bork. In 1994, when Mr. Warner spurned the GOP’s nominee for Virginia’s other Senate seat, Oliver North, and endorsed an independent, it helped split the Republican vote and sealed the race for the Democratic candidate, former governor Charles Robb. Many Republicans were furious; Mr. Warner had the stature to ignore them.

Party-before-country Republicans may have been furious, but what the Post doesn't include is that John Warner opposed the slimy Oliver North for his key involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, and that opposition garnered respect from many Virginia voters, including a significant number of those inclined to vote for Democrats and independents. It's one of the reasons John Warner defeated Democratic challenger Mark Warner in their pretty close 1996 U.S. Senate race. (Mark Warner went on to be Virginia's governor and is one of its current U.S. Senators, of course.)

I appreciated John Warner opposing Oliver North, torture and the growing extremism in his party. I also appreciated that his office was responsive to constituents. I had a family member who encountered problems when the Commonwealth of Virginia sent a much-higher-than-usual tax bill due to a mistake. My family member couldn't resolve the issue with the state office, and then contacted Warner's office by mail. Warner's office added a cover letter asking the Virginia state office to look into the matter, which was then eventually resolved. (Apparently, Warner's office had a good track record on constituent services.) That may seem like a small thing to some people, but it earns big points in my book when politicians actually help their constituents and not just their donors.

Although not all of John Warner's votes and positions may have been great, he was certainly much better than most of the current crop of Republicans in Congress. The Washington Post op-ed linked above makes that point, as does Paul Kane in "The death of independent-minded John Warner is a reminder of how much today’s senators have ceded power to party leaders." Finally, the Post's letters to the editor several nice remembrances from local readers.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

RIP Lance Mannion

(One of the Lance Mannion portraits on his blog.)

I was sad to see that one of my favorite bloggers, Lance Mannion (the nom du blog for David Reilly), died in late April. If you've read his work, you know that his hallmark was thoughtfulness. He covered politics, but also wrote often about books, movies, culture in general, history, and his own life. He observations were insightful and grounded in humanity.

I didn't know him terribly well and we never met in person, although if you read his blog regularly I think you got some sense of the person he was. We corresponded a bit in e-mail and chatted some on his blog. I linked his work fairly often. I made a small donation to his site every year and have a magnet from him on my fridge.

Tom Watson, who knew Lance/David in real life, wrote a nice remembrance that covers Lance/David as a writer, early blogger, and friend. It also touches on the health issues Lance/David and his beloved wife Adrianne faced in the past decade or so, which he sometimes wrote about on his blog.

Blogger Susie Madrak organized a fundraiser for Lance/David's family, which has met its goal but is still open for donations.

His memorial service was live-streamed on Facebook and can be viewed here. The lovely post his son shares is "Robin's last arrow," which Lance posted in 2006.

Here are his Twitter account, and most importantly, his website. It's well worth reading.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

National Poetry Month 2021

Happy National Poetry Month! This year, I thought I'd go with an unconventional pick. Michael Collins, one of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, died this week at the age of 90. In a short interview for the Smithsonian in 2016, he was asked about STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math), and put in a plug instead for STEAM, which adds the arts, and praised poetry in particular. Collins was a self-effacing guy with a good sense of humor, and the whole thing is worth watching, but the part I've transcribed starts around 3:16:

Interviewer Marty Kelsey: Tell me about the importance of STEM.

Michael Collins: Well, I am very much in favor of science, technology, engineering, and math, but I think that's a rather incomplete description of what should be STEAM. S-T-E-A-M, with the emphasis on English. Perhaps I've known too many inarticulate engineers in my time, but I think a firm background in English is important no matter what particular career field you're in. And I'd even push it one step beyond just English and just say poetry, for example. I mean, I like so much poetry – John Milton comes to mind. Paradise Lost, you know it? You know the plot?

Kelsey: Barely.

Collins: Okay, well, what the plot was in STEM language, it's: some guy fell off a cliff, and maybe God pushed him. In STEAM, it is – you know what it is in STEAM?

Kelsey: No.

Collins: Him the Almighty Power
Hurld headlong flaming from th' Ethereal [Skie]
With hideous ruine and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire,
Who durst defie th' Omnipotent to Arms.

So. See I like the second version better than the first version. But that's my story; that's my anecdote.

Collins substitutes "heights" for "skie," but I really enjoy his spirited rendition and that he memorized this. Interviews are sometimes rehearsed and somewhat planned, but if this was off the cuff, Collins' clever STEM plot summary of Paradise Lost, contrasting the power of Milton, is all the more impressive. I do like science and math, but favor a broad and deep liberal arts education (let's not forget history and the social sciences), and my strongest love is for the arts. I'm often frustrated that the arts are not only underappreciated in the United States, but often under attack. Americans tend to treat artists very well if they become famous and successful, but are less supportive of general arts funding, and conservatives since at least Ronald Reagan have threatened to defund the arts and sometime have. The miniscule budgets of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities are a disgrace. Certainly during this pandemic many people have devoured films, TV shows, music, books, and other creative works at a greater rate than usual, and those did not magically spring up out of the aether without considerable labor. I appreciate that Collins, who carries gravitas in the STEM world, puts in such a great plug for the arts in this interview. I hope he got through to some people who might not have absorbed this wisdom otherwise.

You can read more of Milton's Paradise Lost here.

My past posts on poetry feature some more extensive pieces.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

2020 Film Roundup: The Oscars

This is the first year since I started watching the Oscars that I hadn't seen any of the nominees. (I probably started watching at five years old, not that I was allowed to stay up for the whole event.) Normally this post is also "The Year in Review," linking my reviews of all the films I've seen for the year in question. Because of the pandemic, I didn't see many films in theaters before everything closed in March 2020, and I didn't spring for specific streaming services or pay-per-view screenings. I did watch a ton of movies and TV shows on disc.

I thought some of the speeches were nice, although this year none of the winners were played off and some tended to go on too long. The most charming speech for me was from 73-year-old, South Korean Yuh-Jung Youn, who won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Minari. (This article gives some good background on her, but does give away a key plot point of the movie.)

Harrison Ford had a funny bit presenting the Oscar for Best Editing, reading negative feedback from screenings of Blade Runner. (He almost certainly skipped rehearsal, though, because he read from a crinkly paper and all that text could have been fed into the teleprompter instead.)

The montage of death (in memoriam segment) is normally very well done, and a moving highlight of the ceremony. This year, it was the most rushed I can remember – each person was shown for only one single second (I counted) until the montage finally slowed down a bit at the end. Perhaps, due to the pandemic, more people died and have to be included in this installment. Or because the audience was smaller than usual, the usual applause wasn't going to be audible, so the show producers opted for this approach. But I thought it was a shame.

I was particularly appalled that Best Actress and Best Actor were the last categories presented, after Best Picture. (I would also keep Best Directing as the penultimate award presented.) The leading theory is that the show producers thought that popular actor Chadwick Boseman, who died tragically last year, was going to win Best Actor and that would end the night on a high note. If so, that choice was full of hubris and stupidity; there's no sure thing, as Oscars nights of recent years have repeatedly shown. (Winner Anthony Hopkins didn't attend, making the night even more anticlimactic, but recorded a gracious thank you from Wales, including a nice mention of Boseman.)

Regardless of whether Boseman played a role in the producers changing the order of the categories, it remained a really dumb decision. Why highlight individual performances over the best films of the year? It reminded me of the 2012 Screen Actors Guild Awards, which ran some self-congratulatory ads that boasted it was "The only award show where every award goes to an actor." Because who cares about the other, little people who make movies? Some actors are lovely people in real life, but as a group… they do deserve their reputation as the vainest, most self-absorbed people in the film business (even if some directors and producers come close). For the love of cinema, it's a horrible idea to encourage the mentality that actors are more important than the movie itself. Filmmaking is about more than who's on camera, and although a great performance can make a film and should be celebrated, that's rarely been a problem; actors already get more recognition than everyone else involved. The best films are team efforts. In this specific case, switching the order also stole attention from a pretty remarkable story: Nomadland won Best Picture, and its director, Chloé Zhao, became only the second woman to win an Oscar for Best Directing and the first woman of color. She was born in Beijing but was mostly educated in the U.S. and lives here now, and coverage of her and Nomadland has been partially censored by the Chinese government. That's quite interesting stuff. So it's possible that Steven Soderbergh and the other Oscar producers were trying to manufacture a big moment and undercut some good, organic ones instead. I had mixed feelings about the two sound awards being combined into one. On the one hand, sound editing and sound mixing are different jobs. On the other hand, Oscar voters repeatedly did not understand the difference between the categories and even entertainment reporters would explain them incorrectly. (Most simply, the editing is the sound effects, including ambience and Foley work, and the mixing creates the overall soundscape of elements, balancing dialogue, effects, and music.) I would also say the voters botched their choices repeatedly – the nominees, which are determined by a smaller group of sound people, have been consistently good, but the majority of Oscar voters are actors and would often give best mixing to the best editing job and vice versa, or give both awards to the same film, normally the one with the most conspicuous music or loudest noises, not necessarily the best job.

The problem is that most good sound jobs are unobtrusive and not meant to be noticed; nonprofessionals will notice the grandeur of the score and spectacular sound effects for a film like Star Wars, but typically not pick up on more subtle work. It's pretty rare that a film ever won a sound Oscar for a bad sound job – as my sound mentor explained, Jaws (1975) won despite not having great dialogue work, but the award at the time was "Best Sound" and was understood to be for best use of sound, and Jaws was highly memorable on that count. Likewise, for films in 2018, I wrote that "Bohemian Rhapsody [which won both awards] featured some great sound work (I've included links with my review), but I would have given Best Sound Editing to First Man for the tension-ratcheting sounds of its space program and Best Sound Mixing to Roma for its lovely (and occasionally disturbing) soundscapes." I think First Man and Roma did their jobs so well nonprofessionals didn't notice the quality of the work, but Bohemian Rhapsody was a worthy winner in both categories nonetheless.

In any case, the new category seems to have expanded the nominee limit; it seems to be five now, versus three before, so the key members of the sound team can share the win, as they did this year for Sound of Metal. This Hollywood Reporter article summarizes the sound community's reaction well, and I agree the category might be better named as Best Sound Design.

I thought all five Best Original Song nominees were pretty good, which is often not the case. The winner, "Fight for You" by H.E.R., Dernst Emile II and Tiara Thomas, was a solid pick. Leslie Odom Jr. did a lovely job singing on "Speak Now," which he cowrote; "Hear My Voice" has a neat vibe; "Io sì (Seen)" is a fairly typical Diane Warren ballad, albeit in Italian (and with too much reverb for my tastes), but it's nice enough; and Molly Sandén shows off some amazing pipes on "Husavik (My Home Town)."

Anyway, if nothing else the Oscars nominations and winners make a nice list of viewing recommendations. I'm planning to see Nomadland, Judas and the Black Messiah, Sound of Metal, Minari, Promising Young Woman, One Night in Miami, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The Father, Onward, Soul, Wolfwalkers, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, the Borat sequel, and Mank.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Kurosawa's Birthday 2021

(On the set of Red Beard. From right to left, Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, Reiko Dan, and Yoshio Tsuchiya.)

Akira Kurosawa's birthday was March 23rd. It would have been his eleventy-first, as Bilbo Baggins would put it. For the occasion, I decided to watch two Kurosawa films I hadn't seen yet over two nights, Drunken Angel (1948) and Red Beard (1965). They make an interesting pair because both have doctors as main characters, and they're Toshiro Mifune's first and last films with Kurosawa; they made 16 together.

The title character in Drunken Angel is played by Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular, as a crotchety but civic-minded, unshaven, alcoholic doctor named Sanada working in a slum near swampy water. He yells at the neighborhood kids not to play near the water or they'll get typhus; they yell back at him but momentarily comply. He still follows up with one of them about a medical condition he treated and is gruff but dedicated to his other patients. His assistant, Miyo (Chieko Nakakita), tries to keep him out of trouble and he's likewise protective of her – she used to be the girlfriend of a possessive gangster, Okada (Reizaburô Yamamoto), and wants to stay clear of him. One night, the gangster Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune) seeks medical treatment from Sanada. He claims he injured his hand in an accident, but Sanada fishes out a bullet. He also discovers Matsunaga has tuberculosis and urges him to get an X-ray of his lungs to confirm its severity. Matsunaga is dismissive and violent, but does eventually comply and return to Sanada for treatment. The two often fight, and although Matsunaga tries to follow Sanada's medical advice to help his lungs heal (no booze or sex, among other things), he's pulled astray by his sometime girlfriend and performer at the dance hall, Nanae (Michiyo Kogure). He also feels pressure to live it up in front of Okada, his old mentor, who's been released from prison and is eager to get his old turf back, as well as Miyo (not that he's sticking to one woman). Matsunaga likes to boast about how he's Yakuza and they have a code of honor, but as his health worsens, he discovers limits to the loyalty of his fellow gangsters.

(Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune.)

Shimura is good as always. In his book Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explains how he and cowriter Keinosuke Uekusa originally tried to write the story as a contrast between the doctor, a model citizen, and the gangster, who was anything but. But essentially the doctor character was too boring and they couldn't get the story to work. When they rewrote him as flawed, based on a real, grizzled, imperious and boozing doctor they met, everything flowed. That approach certainly gives Shimura more to play with – Sanada is a bit of a mess, and often intemperate, but devoted to the well-being of his patients nonetheless. It's particularly interesting to see Mifune, who was 28 when the film came out. As Matsunaga, he's mostly clean-shaven, sometimes dapper, sometimes bedraggled and ill, and looks significantly different from his appearances in other roles for Kurosawa, even though Rashomon came out just two years later. Regardless, Mifune's energy and charisma shine through. This was only his third film; in his first, Snow Trail (1947), he and Shimura play bank robbers on the run in snowy mountains. (Kurosawa did not direct it, but wrote the screenplay.) Shimura and Mifune became friends on that film, with Shimura, who was 15 years older, supposedly becoming something of a mentor to Mifune. The two definitely have good screen chemistry.

I wouldn't rank Drunken Angel with Kurosawa's best, but it's a solid film and well worth a look if you're a fan of Kurosawa, Mifune or Shimura. Miyo oddly disappears near the end of the film, although two other minor but significant female characters feature in the ending. As usual, Kurosawa's social commentary flows from his humanism and interest in the characters themselves and their situation. It's less visually flashy than some of his films, with a notable exception – the climatic confrontation centering on Matsunaga (Mifune) is a gripping, vertiginous, bravura piece of camerawork and filmmaking. In his book Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa explains that Drunken Angel came about because Toho Studios had built a large street set for a film by Kurosawa's mentor, Yamamoto Kajiro, and wanted to get more use of it. (Kurosawa worked on over a dozen films for Yamamoto, mostly as an assistant director.) Given that genesis, it's a fairly interesting project.

A few pages later in Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa describes seeing Toshiro Mifune for the first time:

On the day of the interviews and screen tests I was in the middle of the shooting of No Regrets for Our Youth, so I couldn't participate in the judging. But during lunch break I stepped off the set and was immediately accosted by actress Takamine Hideko, who had been the star of Yamamoto Kajiro's Horses when I was chief assistant director. "There's one who's really fantastic. But he's something of a redneck, so he just barely passed. Won't you come have a look?" I bolted my lunch and went to the studio where the tests were being given. I opened the door and stopped dead in amazement.

A young man was reeling around the room in a violent frenzy. It was as frightening as watching a wounded or trapped savage beast trying to break loose. I stood transfixed. But it turned out that this young man was not really in a rage, but had drawn "anger" as the emotion he had to express for his screen test. He was acting. When he finished his performance, he regained his chair with an exhausted demeanor, flopped down and began to glare menacingly at the judges. Now, I knew very well that this kind of behavior was a cover for shyness, but the jury seemed to be interpreting it as disrespect.

I found this young man strangely attractive, and concern over the judges' decision began to distract me from my work. I returned to my set and wrapped up the shooting early. Then I proceeded to look in on the room where the jury was deliberating. Despite Yama-san's strong recommendation of the young man, the voting was against him. Suddenly I heard myself shouting, "Please wait a minute."

p. 160

Kurosawa and Yamamoto carry the day and Mifune joins the film company. Kurosawa continues:

After joining the company, Mifune appeared in Sen-chan's To the End of the Silver Mountains [also known as Snow Trail] as the roughest and most violent of the three bank robbers who were the villains of the story. He playing with amazing energy. Right after that he had the role of a gangster boss in Yama-san's New Age of Fools [also known as These Foolish Times and These Foolish Times II], and here he played with an opposite kind of cruel refinement. I became deeply fascinated by the acting abilities Mifune showed in these two films, and decided I wanted him to play the lead in Drunken Angel. I realize that many people think I discovered Mifune and taught him how to act. That is not the case. As can be seen from the sequence of events I just described, it was Yama-san who discovered the raw material that was Mifune Toshiro. From that raw material it was Sen-chan and Yama-san who fashioned the actor Mifune Toshiro. All I did was see what they had done, take Mifune's acting talent and show it off to its fullest in Drunken Angel.

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the spped with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression. Mifune needed only three feet. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet for all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.

I know it sounds as if I am overpraising Mifune, but everything I am saying is true. If pressed to find a defect in him as an actor, I could say his voice is a little rough, and when it's recorded through a microphone it has a tendency to become difficult to understand. Anyway, I'm a person who is rarely impressed by actors, but in the case of Mifune, I was completely overwhelmed.

p. 161

(In 35 mm film, 10 feet is a little under 7 seconds and 3 feet is 2 seconds.)

The one other problem with Mifune, according to Kurosawa, is that he was so strong a presence he could overpower his partners and unbalance a film. Kurosawa explains, "The drunken-doctor performance Shimura gave was a superb 90 percent, but because his adversary, Mifune, turned in 120 percent, I had to feel a little sorry for him." Shimura is just fine, but Mifune has the flashier role and supposedly Drunken Angel made him a star. IMDb lists 185 acting credits for him.

Meanwhile, Red Beard (1965) is a superb film, even a masterpiece. As with Drunken Angel, the title character is a doctor who serves the poor, but this time, it's Mifune who plays the doctor. He was 45 at the time the film came out but is made to look older, helped by some makeup but also a full, bushy beard. It's the 19th century, and a young doctor, Noboru Yasumoto (Yûzô Kayama), has studied with Dutch doctors in Japan. Through family connections, he believes he can become the personal doctor to the Shogun, really the flashiest medical position possible. Instead, he's assigned to a public clinic in the countryside serving poor patients. The head of the clinic is Kyojō Niide (Mifune), also known as "Red Beard." Yasumoto chafes at his position, refuses to wear the clinic robes and generally acts immaturely, but his experiences gradually and profoundly change him. He witnesses death up close. He assists with a bloody operation and faints. He confronts the limitations of his schooling and his many erroneous assumptions. He comes to care for the patients in a human and not just medical sense, most of all an abused young girl, Otoyo (Terumi Niki), an almost feral orphan adopted and mistreated by a brothel madam; Niide rescues Otoyo and puts her in Yasumoto's care (and vice versa, as you'll see). Red Beard is just over three hours, and in that time it convincingly shows us Yasumoto's growth, but also provides a number of engrossing side stories and vignettes. Some characters appear for only a scene or two, yet still are affecting and memorable. At the center of it all Niide/Red Beard, and Mifune radiates gravitas and wisdom throughout, another strong mentor character in a Kurosawa film.

(Dr. Noboru Yasumoto brooding, played by Yûzô Kayama.)

Visually, Red Beard isn't as kinetic with its camerawork as, say, Seven Samurai or Yojimbo. Kurosawa opts more for masterful compositions – you'll frequently see someone reclining on the floor, sometimes with another character standing, the vertical contrasting the horizontal. (If you want to see cool diagonal compositions, check out Kurosawa's version of The Lower Depths.) Kurosawa does employ some artful dolly work, not as intricate as in his film High and Low, but some really nice staging for the camera as we tour the clinic or Niide and Yasumoto walk and talk, crossing paths, turning, continuing, and forming new compositions. Most of this is subtly done, not drawing attention to itself. Surprisingly, Red Beard does have two fights, both with a funny side. Both had me howling with amazed enjoyment – the first has some intricate, lightning-fast stunt work and is beautifully staged, and the second is more about solidarity. (I don't want to spoil anything.) There's also a haunting, stunning scene where the calls of women echo as the camera plunges into a well. And of course Kurosawa includes shots of rain. He mostly opts for a restrained, stately style in Red Beard, but picks good moments for bravura flashes. It's an approach that serves him well for most of his later films, including Dersu Uzala, Kagemusha, Ran and Dreams.

Kurosawa films tend to center on male characters, and although Red Beard has two male leads, it notably presents a number of female characters, some of whom only appear briefly but nonetheless leave a powerful impression. Okuni (Akemi Negishi) is the daughter of a patient who only really appears in one scene, but delivers a heart-wrenching story to Niide. Niide's compassionate response opens Yasumoto's eyes, and it's a fine, moving performance by Negishi. Kyôko Kagawa plays a character known as "The Mantis"; she's confined to a small house because she's supposedly dangerous, and tells an arresting tale of being abused by a series of men that pulls on our sympathies, although she proves to be a complex figure. We see Onaka (Miyuki Kuwano) in the flashback tale of a dying patient, who explains their complicated love story. Osugi (Reiko Dan) is a kind-hearted servant at the clinic who nurses a secret love for Doctor Handayû Mori (Yoshio Tsuchiya) – but not secret enough, because her female colleagues are fond of teasing her about it. The key female character, though, is the orphan Otoyo, and young actress Terumi Niki is captivating as she portrays Otoyo's transformation from a traumatized child who won't speak and lashes out into a conscientious, kind soul. Her scenes with Choji (Yoshitaka Zushi), a street urchin boy, are particularly memorable, and Kurosawa coaxes fine performances from his child actors as well as the rest of the cast. Although Kurosawa adapted Red Beard from a collection of short stories by Shūgorō Yamamoto, Kurosawa claimed his film was significantly different. The Otoyo storyline, for example, was inspired by a novel by one of Kurosawa's favorite authors, Dostoevsky, Humiliated and Insulted. Regardless, the final mix is highly effective.

(Terumi Niki at Otoyo and Yoshitaka Zushi as Chôji.)

Unfortunately, Red Beard caused Mifune and Kurosawa to have a serious falling out; reportedly, they eventually reconciled decades later. As film historian Donald Richie explains in a piece on Red Beard, it took nearly two years to film, in part because Kurosawa got sick twice and Mifune and Kayama both got sick once. I've read that Mifune became frustrated because the full, natural beard he grew meant he couldn't act in other films during the period. It's a shame, though, because the Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration is one of the great ones in the history of cinema and yielded much of the best work either would do. And whatever pains it took to make, Red Beard is an excellent film, a fine accomplishment for Kurosawa, Mifune and everyone else involved. (It's also nice to see Takashi Shimura in a small role, essentially a cameo.)

While watching Red Beard, I enjoyed it so much I occasionally felt regret I hadn't seen it yet and wondered why, although I had heard of it of course, I hadn't seen it get the acclaim of other Kurosawa films. But not seeing it before wasn't entirely accidental. I had held off on watching Red Beard because I was waiting for Criterion to put out a Blu-ray and also because I sometimes put aside well-regarded movies I haven't seen yet for special occasions. There's also a special thrill in having artists you like and seeing something else from them for the first time, and a slight pang of loss at the prospect of such experiences ending. I received DVDs of High and Low and The Bad Sleep Well as birthday presents in separate years, and held off on watching them for a while because I wanted to savor the experience and my list of "Kurosawa films I haven't seen yet" was dwindling. Delaying is somewhat silly in that I enjoy rewatching movies, and good movies yield more with repeated viewings. But not knowing the outcome of scenes or the whole movie does change the viewing dynamics, and I do think there's much to be said for planning to give certain movies special and more focused attention.

Although I love many directors and actors, Kurosawa and Mifune are among my all-time favorites and hold a special place for me. I think I was nine years old when my dad took me and my siblings to see Yojimbo and Sanjuro in a double feature at the much-missed Biograph Theater in Washington, D.C. Over the next few years, I saw Yojimbo again, as well as Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai for the first times. I saw Ran when it was released in theaters in 1985; it definitely benefits from repeated viewings. One of the virtues of our current age is it's easier to find older movies on disc or streaming services, including foreign films.

In any case, I can recommend both Drunken Angel and Red Beard. At 185 minutes, Red Beard is more of a time commitment and yields more subtle rewards than some of Kurosawa's other films (think Ikiru more than Seven Samurai or Yojimbo), but it's a fine piece of work.

(My most extensive post on Kurosawa is this one from 2008.)

(other than the linked ones)

Kurosawa, Akira. Something Like an Autobiography. Vintage Books, New York, 1982.

(A still from Red Beard's haunting well shot.)