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Archive for May, 2005

The Film Criticism Gravitas Wouldn’t Publish

[ 0 ] May 3, 2005 |

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Orson Scott Card.

…also check out his best movies of all time list. Call me an elitist snob, but I don’t think My Best Friend’s Wedding will quite make the top 20 of the next Sight And Sound poll. And you won’t believe me, but it gets worse. Christ, I don’t think even Michael Medved would claim that Ghost is one of the 50 best pictures he’s ever seen…

What About That Lawyer?

[ 0 ] May 3, 2005 |

This excellent post on Rosemary’s Baby reminded me of some thoughts I’ve had about another peripheral character in an outstanding film. In this case, the character does not actually make an appearance, but nonetheless plays an important role. I’m thinking about the defense attorney in Twelve Angry Men.

A spoiler alert on a fifty year old movie is pointless, but proceed at your own risk. Recall that Twelve Angry Men concerns a jury deciding the fate of a young defendant accused of murdering his father. The first vote in the jury room goes 11-1, with only Henry Fonda dissenting. Fonda’s only reason for dissenting is that insufficient time has been given for deliberation. Slowly but surely, the jury reconsiders apparently damning evidence and finds that it doesn’t hold together. The film ends, of course, with an acquittal.

Among the most damning pieces of evidence considered by the jury is the attitude of the defense attorney, who was apparently unable to demonstrate even the faintest enthusiasm on behalf of his client. One juror remarked that the defendant must be guilty, as even his own attorney didn’t believe him. The defense attorney failed to impeach even the weakest of the prosecution witnesses. Fonda opined that the lawyer had little reason to be enthusiastic; the case carried no money or prestige, thus the attorney had no incentive to work hard for his client.

So. . .

Whenever I watch the movie, I like to think about what the defense attorney is doing. I imagine that he expects a quick conviction, after which he’ll make a brief reassuring comment to his client before going home, getting drunk, and forgetting about the whole experience. I wonder if he thinks the defendant is guilty, or just doesn’t care; I suspect it is the former. The jury deliberates for longer than he expects, and, as the second hour begins, he may begin to wonder what’s taking them so long. At about two hours, they announce the return of the verdict, and his fears are allayed; no jury, given this evidence, given the race of his client, would return a not guilty verdict so quickly. He feels safe, because his own inept half-assed performance won’t matter, and a guilty man will receive the punishment he deserves.

Then, the jury returns a not guilty. The prosecutor is surprised, no doubt, but also probably understands that several elements of his case are weak. The defense attorney, unable and, really, unwilling to find the holes in the prosecutor’s case, is shocked. He looks to his client, to the prosecutor, and to the jury in an effort to confirm the unbelievable verdict. The defendant is concerned; he feels he should be happy, but his lawyer looks almost sick.

Eventually hands are shaken, and the defense attorney leaves the courthouse. Where does he go? I think he heads to the closest bar, and starts hitting the scotch. How does he explain what just happened? Does he appreciate that his own ineptitude almost sent a young man to prison for thirty years? Does he believe that the jury made a mistake, and that a guilty man has gone free? Or does he manage to convince himself that his defense was actually brilliant, and that the defendant owes him his life?

My guess is a little #1, followed up by a lot of #3 as the empty glasses accumulate. But what happens then? Does he use the experience to become a better attorney? In bitterness, does he quit the law altogether? Or does he simply become a bitter, angry, pathetic alcoholic?

I think he becomes Frank Galvin.

The Tempting of the Fake Libertarian

[ 0 ] May 3, 2005 |

Detailing all of the illogic in this piece of Instapunditry would be a greater time investment than I would prefer; let me just say that if you think his argument about filibusters is plausible remember what happened the last time there was a “real” filibuster related to the federal courts; you have to go all the way back to last term. If you don’t remember, it’s because the political impact was “none.” Anyway, the argument gets really bad as he brings the Pundit’s Fallacy to the field of judicial selection. Now, you might think a “libertarian” would have no particular willingness to defend a judge who, for example, distorts statutes in order to compel young women to obtain religious counseling before exercising their constitutional rights. But when you’re 1 part libertarian to 99 parts Republican hack, you don’t worry about making substantive arguments:

Of course, what Bush really ought to do is nominate a quirky libertarian judge like Alex Kozinski, thus confusing the Democrats and completely undermining their “the Theocrats are coming!”TM campaign. Unfortunately, Kozinski — though to my mind perhaps the best Court of Appeals judge of an age to be eligible for the Supreme Court — is almost certainly too politically incorrect (read: libertarian) to fly with the Republican powers-that-be, a fact that gives the Democrats’ sloganeering some shreds of credibility.

So once you boil off the strawman reduction of Democratic opposition to a small minority of Bush’s appointments as being about “theocracy”–a word Democratic politicians rarely use–the argument here seems to be that Democratic “sloganeering” is unfair, even though it’s right. (One might also be tempted to say that the rare overstated invocations of “theocracy” might be more easily dismissed if, for example, Bush’s favorite Supreme Court Justice hadn’t recently opined from the bench that “government derives its authority from God.”) Anyway, things get really funny when Reynolds attempts to claim that immense political benefits would accrue from suggesting judges who advocate extremely unpopular positions that are similar to those of Glenn Reynolds:

Which means that if the Democrats were smart, instead of just grimly obstructionist, they’d be out there floating names of judges like Kozinski as examples of candidates that they wouldn’t filibuster (Eugene Volokh would be a good one, too!). This would put Bush in a tough spot, as he’d have to explain why his candidates were better than Kozinski or Volokh, which would be hard, as there aren’t many candidates better than Kozinski or Volokh, or give more credit to the whole “Theocrats” thing.

Luckily for Bush, the Democrats aren’t that smart.

Yes, those stupid, stupid Democrats, not understanding the powerful political resonance of advocating the appointment of Alex Kozinski! Of course, the foundation of this risible argument is the dishonest claim that the Democrats are “just grimly obstructionist.” This is, of course, nonsense. Bush has had 204 nominees to the federal courts confirmed. Democrats have blocked only a fraction of Bush’s appointments, and of course given this fact the arguments made by Reynolds utterly collapse. The Democrats have made clear what kind of conservative appointments they will aceept and which ones they will not. The Democrats wouldn’t be “confused” by the appointment of a libertarian; either they would consider him or her unacceptable, or they would let them go (as they have confirmed any number of justices less odious than Priscilla Owen.) But even more remarkable is Reynolds’ conception of politics, which seems to be an unholy combination of the Pundit’s Fallacy, law school solipsism, and a bad junior high civics textbook. To state the obvious, if the Democrats took Reynolds’ advice, this wouldn’t put Bush in a “tough spot”; he would simply ignore the names being floated. And he would pay no political price whatsoever for this, because not one person in 100 could tell you who Alex Kozinski is. The idea that the public is clamoring for more libertarians on federal circuit courts and the Democrats could use this to put pressure on Bush is just remarkably clueless. And, of course, it doesn’t do anything to resolve the conflict, because it still doesn’t make Owen, Rogers and their ilk any more acceptable.

Fortunately, the Democrats have learned the right lesson from the many Clinton appointees that the GOP blocked under Clinton using the counter-majoritarian devices if the Senate: the political impact of doing so is nil. This is simply not a politically salient issue; virtually nobody votes on the basis of the number of appointments the Senate allows Republicans to make to the federal courts. It’s good that the Democrats are ignoring the self-interested “advice” of right-wing pundits for once.

Fog of War Wrap-Up

[ 0 ] May 2, 2005 |

Last Tuesday, I sat on a panel following a screening of Errol Morris’ Fog of War. The panel went very well; the speakers all had interesting things to say, the questions were good, and a fair percentage of the audience stayed after the film ended. My co-panelists were Lance Bennett, UW political science and communication professor, and Roger Morris, who worked in both the Johnson and Nixon administrations on Vietnam policy.

The latest viewing of Fog of War crystallized some of my disquiet about the project. Sure, McNamara should be commended for not taking the Henry Kissinger route and explaining how Vietnam was critical to the larger strategy of containing the Soviet Union, etc. But, that only goes so far, and Morris really doesn’t try to push McNamara any farther than he wants to go. Morris gets what he wants from McNamara, which is an admission that Vietnam was a costly, unnecessary mistake. That’s fine, but it’s not the whole story. What McNamara’s account lacks is a genuinely reflective account of how the mistake was made, who was responsible, and why so many people went along with it. Morris could have pressed McNamara, but he doesn’t.

Most irritating, Morris doesn’t try to challenge McNamara even when Stay-Comb Bob is clearly lying. “In a sense,” McNamara didn’t know about the attempts to assassinate Castro, and “in a sense” he and Kennedy weren’t aware of the plot to kill Diem. What the hell does that mean, exactly? How can you know something like that in one sense, but not in another? Perhaps Morris’ challenges didn’t make the cut, but there would be a certain value in uncovering McNamara’s project. It’s wrong to think McNamara is coming clean, because he’s not. He’s painting a picture, and he wants us to see some things and not others. Challenging him on camera would at least give some indication that he’s giving a performance as much as a confession.

The most interesting parts of the film come not in the semi-confessional Vietnam segments, but rather in McNamara’s discussion of World War II. The firestorming of most of urban Japan remains less politically controversial than most anything associated with Vietnam, despite the fact that the criminality is, if anything, greater. Because of this, McNamara’s discussion of WWII is more genuine than his discussion of Vietnam. We get the sense that he both admires and is horrified by Lemay. Unfortunately, the admiration strikes me as genuine, while it seems that he is horrified because he ought to be horrified, which is a different thing. McNamara describes himself as being critical to the March 10 firestorming of Tokyo, which incinerated 100000 Japanese civilians. He relates his role in a matter-of-fact style, without all the confessional nonsense that we see in the Vietnam scenes. It is here, I think, that we see the real Bob McNamara; the arrogant son-of-a-bitch capable of making awful decisions (and I mean awful in every sense of the word), without consideration for their moral and ethical consequences.

Professor Morris pointed out one of the film’s biggest shortcomings, which is its depiction of the relationship between McNamara and LBJ. Johnson is depicted as a bully in the film, driving the hapless McNamara into an ever deeper commitment to Vietnam. This is a half-truth. Yes, LBJ was a bully, but he respected those who would stand against him. The problem was that McNamara never made an effort to do so. McNamara never tried to steer Vietnam policy in the direction he now tells us he wanted it to go. Rather than standing up to power, he went with the flow. Some indication of this in the film would have been nice, because it transforms our understanding of the critical conversation between LBJ and McNamara. In McNamara’s version of events, LBJ indeed seems the bully, willing to walk all over Kennedy’s memory and his preferred policy in a mad drive to deepen the commitment to Vietnam. McNamara is unable to stand against his President so, loyal to the end, he does his best to make that policy a reality. This is, of course, exactly how McNamara wants us to think about his relationship with Johnson. A more nuanced account, one that took into consideration Johnson’s dependence on his advisors, his intelligence, and his personal style, makes this encounter come across much differently. Rather than the troubled but loyal servant that McNamara likes to think of himself as, we would see a flexible reed, bending in whichever direction the wind blew.

Morris could have shown that, but he didn’t. Fog of War is a good film, but also an important missed opportunity.

Stalinist Critics of the World Rejoice!

[ 0 ] May 2, 2005 |

Do you not get Michael Medved’s radio show in your market? Were you saying to yourself the other day how frustrated you are that not every aspect of art and life have been boiled down to crude political reductionisms? Then Roy has found the site for you: “Libertas: Conservative Thought [sic] About Film.” The hand-wringing about Lucas is indeed entertaining, but I also enjoyed this analysis of that immensely important work, xXx: State of the Union. Seems that Ice Cube (I was unaware that he had directed or written the script for this particular film, but I may be mistaken) is trying to indoctrinate your children with liberal propaganda for hooking an action movie around a silly conspiracy theory. Even worse, they’re marketing the movie as if it were about blowing a whole bunch of shit up rather than the serious political allegory it obviously is! Those bastards! To add to the entertainment, they also repeat Medved’s claim that the idiots who attacked Million Dollar Baby for the wrong reasons caused it to suffer mightily at the box office. Yeah, I’m sure Warner execs are devastated that their arty $30 million dollar boxing picture has grossed a piddling $190 million worldwide. That’ll teach them to make movies where characters do things that particularly dim-witted reactionaries don’t like and hence attribute to the director! When will these execs learn that it’s movies like America’s Heart and Soul that people are clamoring to see?

…I note that AHAS, on its 4th week of release, made $34 a screen. Pretty amazing accomplishment when you think about it.

Ray of Light

[ 0 ] May 2, 2005 |

I mentioned recently that 2008 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Kathleen Sebelius vetoed some awful abortion legislation vomited by the Kansas legislature. In better news, the veto was sustained. Less reassuringly, the bill was only two votes short of the necessary 2/3 and probably would have passed the Senate, so it’s a razor-thin margin. But, boy, does Sebelius have guts.

A Treadmill To 1965?

[ 0 ] May 1, 2005 |

Although they were able to avoid a sweep (and prove the ongoing persistence of patriarchy) by winning the epochal Wang/Bush matchup on Saturday, in light of their 10-15 start we Yankee haters have visions of 1965–when the Yankees finally collapsed after 40 years of dominating the American League–dancing in our heads. (Chris Russo playing LBJ’s post-Selma speech and various #1 singles form 1965 on Saturday was a nice touch.) Unfortunately, I think these hopes are perhaps exaggerated; I still think the Yankees have, at worst, a 70% chance to make the playoffs and about a 1 in 3 chance of winning the division, although that’s better than I would have hoped last month. In the medium term, though, they’re in trouble, and that could start this year. At the beginning of the season I mentioned Steinbrenner’s “treadmill,” and their gratifyingly awful start caused me to look up the Bill James essay from which I stole the concept. I think it’s relevant to the current situation:

The New York Yankees are trapped on a treadmill. Although they have not won anything since 1981 the Yankees have the best winning percentage of any team during the 80s…They are acutely aware of this, and so the winter of 1987-8 was spent in frantic preparation to make the 1988 season the season in which the great nucleus of this team is surrounded by a cast good enough to life the Yankees off that 85-to-92 win treadmill, and onto the championship rung. There is an irony in this, for it is exactly this philosophy that creates the treadmill from which the Yankees are so anxious to escape…

The problem with the Yankees is that they never want to pay the real price of success. The real price of success in baseball is not the dollars that you come up with for a Jack Clark or a Dave Winfield or an Ed Whitson or a Goose Gossage. It is the patience to work with young players and help them develop. So long as the Yankees are unwilling to pay that price, don’t bet on them to win anything. (1988 Baseball Abstract, 92, 95)

The similarities should be obvious. Although there’s a tendency of the media to assume that the Yankees’ success is all about free agency, that’s not correct. The 1998 team–which is easily the best team of my lifetime–was not a team built by free agency at all. With the exception of Cone, the core of the team consisted of homegrown players or players acquired by trading homegrown players. The free agents were role players. Moreover, Steinbrenner had learned to back off, to delegate to his baseball people and not go crazy every time the team lost a couple games.

The current Yankees have nothing in common with this team, except that some of the homegrown nucleus that is still there, and Rodriguez, who was acquired for the last quality player the Yankees produced. But the nucleus is declining. Jeter is a poor defender, and it’s now clear the 1999 season was a fluke; he’s a very good but not great hitter. Williams is in major decline as a hitter and is a near-joke in CF. Posada is still good but is 33 and has been worked very hard for the last few years. Even Rivera seems to be in some decline. What the media has been saying about the Yankees for many years is now true; they’re a team dependent on free agency. And when you do that, you need to get the best ones. But it was the Mets, not the Yankees, that got the real blue chips. Pavano was a poor singing; an up-and-down pitcher who’s not going to win consistently with the bad defense the Yankees are putting behind him. The Wright signing was spectacularly bad. In addition to that, they’re poorly constructed. Unlike the Red Sox, they’ve pissed away the roster positions around their outstanding-but-old core, signing the Ineffable Veteran Leadership of Tino Martinez and a second baseman who doesn’t get on base, doesn’t hit for power and can’t turn the pivot. The bullpen is dubious, and between the pressure cooker and the swiss cheese defense it’s very difficult for all but the best pitchers to succeed. And they have no bench and no depth, which give them a very narrow margin of error; if Johnson or Rodriguez goes down for a significant period, they’re in serious trouble.

Having said all that, I still see the Yankees winning 90-5 games. There are some key differences with 1988: the team they began with was better, they added one of the 3 best pitchers in baseball, and they have stable management. The Red Sox haven’t opened up much distance and their #1 and #2 starters are still hurt, although the back of their rotation is far better than the Yankees’. Which brings us to the real key for Yankee-haters: the Orioles. I look at that rotation and can’t see them in the playoffs. But they may well score more runs than the Yankees (granting that I remain skeptical that Brian Roberts has turned into Joe Morgan), their bullpen is strong, and the rotation certainly has good arms in it. I wouldn’t want to bet on Lopez and Chen and Bedard all pitching as well as they’re capable of. But I hope they do. Go O’s! But when it comes to the Yankees, the question is not so much if they’ll collapse as when. The treadmill is running at peak capacity, and the 38-year olds are about to start falling off.

Life: It’s the Period Before You’re Born and After You’re Vegetative

[ 0 ] May 1, 2005 |

s.z. notes that uber-wingnut Randall Terry is now putting pressure on Jeb Bush in the case of the 13 year-old girl in Florida who is being coerced by the state to maintain her pregnancy. I’m sure Sean Hannity is getting is ticket to Florida as we speak. Randall does do us the favor of summarizing pro-life logic nicely:

If she is permitted or pressured into having this abortion, it will be one more mountain of guilt that she will have to carry on her young back. This will be a horrifying, defining moment for her, which will bring no long term relief or solutions to her turbulent life, and will only compound her grief and the emotional crises she will face in the future.

Yes, when making difficult decisions such as this the most important thing is that 1)the young woman’s needs and thoughts as she sees them be given no weight, and 2)these choices should be made by people with no ability whatsoever to assess them, preferably a marginally sane terrorist sympathizer.

The thing is, though, that this case is a logical application of the underlying basis of parental consent laws; it just happens in this case that the guardian is the state. But once you’ve decided that a young woman forfeits her rights over this most important and intimate decision, the logic applies just as easily to situations where the state is acting as a legal guardian. It also starkly demonstrates that these laws perversely only matter in contexts where young women most need legal protection. Despite the number of people who fetishize them as an acceptable compromise, no pro-choicer should do anything but staunchly oppose parental consent and notice laws, without exception.

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