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Archive for February, 2007

Aaron Sorkin Is A Hack Update

[ 1 ] February 3, 2007 |

I have been, ah, less than optimistic about the quaility of Reading Outtakes From Persuasive Speech Competitions While Walking In Offices On The Sunset Strip and did not even have my low expectations met when I saw the thing. But while I can’t stomach it anymore, some people are still watching. And:

Wait, I’m confused: was it Sorkin’s dream to write for “SNL” or to write for “Three’s Company”? Because between the Two Dates On One Night and Locked On The Roof, all the episode was lacking was the Misunderstood Overheard Phone Conversation where Matt started to believe that Harriet was pregnant. Doesn’t matter if you have Danny comment on the hackiness of the roof situation; it’s still hacky, and no amount of highbrow name-dropping can disguise that. Commedia Del’Arte, this ain’t.

I’ll go with the cell phone issue, as the latest TCA press tour was held at a top LA hotel where you could only get reception in the strangest of places, and being outdoors wasn’t always a help. But Tom lying to Lucy about the dinner was the most idiotic of Idiot Plots, a decision made for no reason except that the plot wouldn’t work without it.

Seriously…Two Dates On One Night? Gawd. Lance is also on the case.

Via Lance, I also see another good post by Ken Levine. (Speaking of which, we need to persuade Dave to tell the story of Levine doing color with the Fredo of the Carey family.) Levine is right that it’s hard to take pleasure in the show’s failure; to have someone given a high level of creative control fail is not really good for the medium, because for too many execs the lesson won’t be “Aaron Sorkin is horribly overrated” but “Let’s send that script to the CSI factory for some focus-grouping.” But I think this can cut the other way: look at the bizarrely positive reviews this pretentious train wreck has received. (It could be that these critics all just have bad taste, but I think there was a lot of wishful thinking going on; many of the critics proclaiming it a classic in September couldn’t even find room for it on their Top-10 lists by December.) Creative autonomy, while better for TV on balance, is not a guarantee of success in any individual case (ask Steven Bach); I don’t think it does anyone any good pretend this show is anything but terrible.

Scienticians!

[ 0 ] February 2, 2007 |

Shorter Practically verbatim TIDOS Yankee:

“I took a few geology classes 17 years ago, and I’m pretty sure that experience — in addition to some information gleaned from a website compiled by an amateur plant fossil hunter who used to work for West Virginia’s Office of Miners Health, Safety, and Training — qualifies me to describe actual climate scientists as a ‘group of idiots.’”

Regional Media Rob

[ 0 ] February 2, 2007 |

Interview in the Frankfort State Journal. They seem to have printed the complete transcript of the tape recording; apparently I need to add more punctuation when I speak. I’m also pretty sure that I said “non-aggression” rather than “non-proliferation”, but I suppose that the tape never lies… The photo, incidentally, was taken about ten minutes before my office exploded.

Friday Cat Blogging

[ 0 ] February 2, 2007 |


“The Question Settled” is a print by the E.B. and E.C Kellogg Company, which ranked among the more popular producers of mass-market illustrations. The image, which dates from either late 1864 or early 1865, depicts “Old Abe” — the white cat — displacing “Jeff [Davis]” from the milk dish, which rests atop a map of the rebellious South. Cowering behind Lincoln is a cat labeled “Contraband,” which refers (I am assuming) to slaves captured from Southern plantations or black refugees spirited beyond union lines.

What thrills me here is the depiction of Abraham lincoln as a fluffy white cat. I can’t recall ever seeing an American president depicted in feline form.

Patterson Film Series: Red Dawn

[ 0 ] February 2, 2007 |

Last night we screened Red Dawn at the Patterson School, first of the Spring Film Series. Red Dawn is not… a good movie. Most of us found it entertaining, although probably not all for the same reasons. I screened it for two reasons. First, Red Dawn perfectly evokes the political climate of the early 1980s, a period which saw our leaders patiently explain to us that a tiny, impoverished Central American country posed a clear and present danger to our security, and which relentlessly subjected us to inflated accounts of the Soviet threat and ominous warnings about Soviet intentions. People who don’t remember the Cold War forget that the Soviet Union was not believed to be in its dottering dottage in the early 1980s; we were told, over and over again, that the Reds might come through the Fulda Gap at any minute, and that we needed to be prepared. Second, the contemporary import of Red Dawn stems from its portrayal of Americans as insurgents, a move that, in spite of the fumbling manner of its execution, still has some resonance.

I’ll confess to taking the film too seriously from a military point of view. It’s hardly sensible to approach a movie like this with an attitude of realism. I shouldn’t be bothered by the suggestion of a 500000 man Nicaraguan army capable of marching up Central America into Texas, or by the idea that the Soviet Union could support a 60 division force through Siberia, Alaska, and Canada. There are plenty of other things to dislike about the film, including the terrible dialogue, poor acting, and Milius’ need to turn every scene into a recitation of right wing talking points. This last is actually kind of interesting; I would suggest that Red Dawn is one of the most explicitly political feature films that Hollywood has ever produced. The inclusion of the right wing points isn’t accidental, and Milius hits everything, from the repeated emphasis on gun control, to attacks on feminism and immigration, to support for a 1950s vision of the family structure. Red Dawn also, of course, demonstrates the aesthetic consequence of straightforward propaganda in the hands of a writer and director and middling talent. Even at the time much of Red Dawn was laughter inducing, and the film has not aged well. Rocky IV has a roughly similar theme (gigantic Russian supermen are coming to kill our heavyweight champions), but does a somewhat better job of obscuring its political intent (and given the success of the Klitschko brothers, has the advantage of being almost true).

Milius isn’t a hack. He’s insane, and his insanity gets in the way of making movies, but he has some talent. The first twenty minutes of Conan, and in particular the descent of the Riders of Doom upon the Conan’s village are brilliantly executed. I suspect that his genuine talent might lie in emotional set pieces like that, and that he could have done well as a director of music videos. As such, it’s not surprising that isolated parts of Red Dawn are extremely well done, even though the film as a whole can’t bear much weight. I love Powers Boothe’s description of the war to date (“I thought there were a billion Chinese” “There were”.), but Milius really does himself credit with the helicopter sequence. Towards the end of the film, our heroes are beset by a trio of Mi-24 “Hind” helicopter gunships. Although Milius substantially downplays the actual capabilities of these craft (even one could have laid waste to the landscape), they nonetheless present an appropriately terrifying vision of Soviet military power. By this point in the film, one could be excused for not taking the threat of Soviet power all that seriously. After all, a group of high school football players has thus far been able to wipe out the greater portion of a Soviet Airborne battalion with only minor casualties, and we know that the United States has vast reserves of high school football players. Milius needs to remind us that the Russians are scary, which is why the helicopters are there. The high point of the scene comes when a Wolverine fires an RPG at one of the Hinds, an manages to score an internal hit. The music soars, and the helicopter begins what appears to be a crash dive. However, before hitting the side of a mountain, the Hind rights itself and pulls back into formation, soon killing our friendly insurgent. Milius point is that heroism isn’t enough; it’s all well and good to be an Eagle Scout and to be willing to shoot at a few Russians and Cubans and Nicaraguans, but the reality of Soviet power is too overwhelming to be handled by a few high school students. He’s telling us that while heroism is part of the equation, we also need military preparedness, tanks, fighter jets, etc. It’s a brilliant scene, and a well crafted piece of political propaganda that looks almost subtle in comparison to the rest of the film.

As for the “Americans as insurgents” theme, I can say first that I’m glad that Iraqis don’t have high school football. If they did, we’d be in real trouble. More seriously, Red Dawn doesn’t paint an implausible picture of the motivations of insurgents. The Wolverines fight partly out of patriotism, but largely in revenge for attacks on their families, or through solidarity with their friends. As trivial an observation as this seems, it should still help remind people that insurgency isn’t always or even primarily about grand political goals or clashes between civilizations. The politics of insurgency, like the politics of much else, are local. It’s unfortunate that this point seems to remain controversial. Were Milius to make Red Dawn today, I suspect he would come under attack from the aesthetic Stalinists of the Right, even if he kept all of the right wing propaganda. Recall, for example, Jonah Goldberg flying into conniptions over the portrayal of the insurgency in Battlestar Galactica. Goldberg and his kindred spirits were irritable even though they believed (indefensibly) that BSG was essentially conservative in orientation.

Anyway, it was a worthwhile viewing, or at least as worthwhile as a viewing of Red Dawn can be. Next up: Zhang Yimou’s Hero.

Scalia: Bush’s Victory Unconstitutional

[ 0 ] February 2, 2007 |

Antonin Scalia has done us the favor of explaining the equal protection theory behind the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore. (Which is handy, since the per curiam opinion for all intents and purposes failed to articulate anything that could be called a theory at all.) Says Justice Scalia:

And this week Scalia told an audience at Iona College in New York that Florida’s handling of the Florida recount in Bush v. Gore was a violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. “Counting somebody else’s dimpled chad and not counting my dimpled chad is not giving equal protection of the law,” he said. Scalia let the crowd know that the case is one only for the history books: “It’s water over the deck—get over it,” he said. Given that Bush v. Gore explicitly claims to hold no precedential value in future cases, perhaps he’s right; still, such voting cases will doubtless come before the court again in the future.

Ah, so that’s the argument. It has some interesting implications:

  • The vote count that elected Bush, Scalia now concedes, was egregiously unconstitutional if the court’s decision is taken seriously. After all, under the count the Supreme Court upheld, there were no uniform statewide standards (indeed, the Court specifically told the Florida courts not to use one), and a dimpled chad might be counted in one county but not another. Even worse, one voter’s vote might arbitrarily not count because of different voting technology. Bush, according to Scalia, is an illegitimate president.
  • Because of this, Scalia is admitting that the remedy provided by the court was wholly inconsistent with the rule of law. According to Scalia’s theory, the remedy upheld a vote count that was just as unconstitutional as the count the Court rejected; evidently, this cannot be a proper remedy.
  • He is also conceding that the attempt to limit the decision to “present circumstances”–in addition to contradicting everything Scalia has ever written about good jurisprudence–is ridiculous. If having arbitrary differences in vote-counting procedures within states violates the equal protection of the laws, then such violations are banal. All elections conducted without rigorous, uniform statewide standards are unconstitutional; there’s nothing remotely unique about Florida 2000 if this is the Court’s theory.

It’s nice that Scalia has admitted all this. Whether we should “get over this” is left to the reader.

Perhaps Too Long?

[ 0 ] February 2, 2007 |

I’m afraid that an otherwise good blogger who shall not be named approvingly cited this “classic” passage from Camille Paglia, the Mickey Kaus of “public intellectuals,” explaining why she “was probably the only leading [sic] feminist [sic] to have believed Paula Jones right from the start”:

One reason I believed the Paula Jones story right from the start was because of the allegation that he demanded oral sex from her. Based on my long study of pornographic pictures and videos, I can easily see why Paula Jones would instantly produce a fantasy of oral sex. People kept saying, very ignorantly, “Oh, she’s not very attractive — what would he have seen in her?” Well, I can see very clearly she has this big wide mouth, and a lot of teeth, and there’s a sort of slackness about her jaw — which is what women porn stars develop when they learn how to relax their jaw muscles to perform great oral sex. I think that Paula Jones was at every stage a walking, talking advertisement for oral sex! So I was stunned when I first saw the pictures of Monica Lewinsky on every TV program — the big wide smile, the nicely relaxed lips with all those teeth — and I thought, Oh my God, here we go again!

Isn’t this all cribbed from a colloquy between Paulie Walnuts and Big Pussy with the (verbal, not intellectual) obscenities removed? (Except that, while they’re misogynist enough to imagine a mythical “slack jaw,” they probably wouldn’t think that more “teeth” are optimal for a blowjob.) And since when did women with wider mouths get more teeth anyway? It’s like Tom Friedman–the sheer density of the stupidity is remarkable. She can’t get anything right, on any level, even by accident. And then there’s this:

I’ve gotten in a lot of trouble in my career talking about Hillary Clinton’s frigidity as a personality and how our generation of career women (she and I are the exact same age) have had trouble reconciling our ambitious side with our sexual side. I think that she’s a kind of refrigerator at home…

Oh shut up.

Wow, Salon has come a long way. (Well, except for the much more intermittent interviews with this clown.)

…Approriately enough, a commenter points us to this Molly Ivins takedown. Now that’s classic.

"Maybe we should not have humored them"

[ 0 ] February 2, 2007 |

Next time I lecture on the various Indian wars from the second half of the 19th century, I must remember to read this little bit of history from the Great Communicator. Answering questions from students at Moscow University in late May 1988, Reagan offered these observations:

Let me tell you just a little something about the American Indian in our land. We have provided millions of acres of land for what are called preservations—or reservations, I should say. They, from the beginning, announced that they wanted to maintain their way of life, as they had always lived there in the desert and the plains and so forth. And we set up these reservations so they could, and have a Bureau of Indian Affairs to help take care of them. At the same time, we provide education for them—schools on the reservations. And they’re free also to leave the reservations and be American citizens among the rest of us, and many do. Some still prefer, however, that way—that early way of life. And we’ve done everything we can to meet their demands as to how they want to live. Maybe we made a mistake. Maybe we should not have humored them in . . . wanting to stay in that kind of primitive lifestyle. Maybe we should have said, no, come join us; be citizens along with the rest of us. As I say, many have; many have been very successful.

The Goldberg Variations

[ 0 ] February 1, 2007 |

It’s the 39th anniversary of this scene, made famous in a photo by Eddie Adams. The image depicts the summary execution of Nguyen Van Lan — an NLF fighter — by Lt. Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the South Vietnamese director of police, after a street battle during the Tet Offensive, which had begun two days before. Adams, quite famously, expressed sincere regret that he had ever taken the photo; according to him, it brought undeserved agony to Loan’s life, which did not actually end for another 30 years.

It’s worth reflecting on this photo, I think, now that the dead-ender feeding frenzy has resumed, encircling the likes of William Arkin and Lara Logan, each of whom are accused — as Adams’ famous shot was — of contributing to the enemy’s work. In 1999, the renowned intellectual Jonah Goldberg argued that Adams’ picture

didn’t expand on ‘our right to know.’ It didn’t answer questions, or give us the story. It deceived. It gave no context. It confirmed the biases of the anti-war journalists, and they used it to further their agenda.

When the right wing history of this war is eventually written, some future scribe like Goldberg will write nearly identical words — and if that scribe happens to be Ben Domenech, exactly the same words — about any of the photos from Abu Ghraib, or any of the dispatches by Lara Logan, or any of the stories strung across the wire by the Associated Press. As too many of us have argued, the failure of national “resolve” or “will” has been invoked far too often as an explanation for why ordinary democratic processes brought an end — albeit a decade too late — to the horrific American War in Vietnam. I have no doubt that those same processes will have similarly belated consequences for the US in Iraq. It goes without saying that Goldberg, Malkin, and the rest of them will have absolutely nothing original to add to the discussion, and their conventional wisdom will continue to circulate for decades in the alternate universe of historical explanation that actual historians usually ignore.

Much as I love the work of Eddie Adams, and much as I may sympathize with his anguished personal relationship to that horrific photo, he was wrong to regret its existence. Obviously, photos are incomplete representations; they are incapable of providing “context” (or the rationalizations that Jonah Golberg would prefer); they require other forms of discourse to make them meaningful. But Americans’ “right to know” was, contra Goldberg, quite well-informed by Adams’ photographs and the film footage captured by Vo Su, the NBC cameraman who was working with Adams that day. Americans had a right to see what was being done in their name. Goldberg and others would likely prefer instead that America’s wars only be covered by military photographers — as was the case in Grenada in 1983 — or by a rigid pool system that almost necessarily sanitizes the realities of war. In the years to come, we’ll hear a lot of chest-beating about the photos from Abu Ghraib and how they lacked “context” and “furthered the agenda” of the anti-war press; we’ll hear about the grotesque video of a dictator’s lynching and be scolded for viewing this as evidence of the sectarian nightmare we’ve thoughtlessly subsidized; and we’ll hear names like “William Arkin,” “Lara Logan,” “Kathleen Carroll” uttered with the contempt formerly reserved for Jane Fonda. We won’t hear much from them about why Americans have decided this war has been for nothing, but we’ll know whom we’re supposed to blame for the decomposition of our “resolve.”

The Hidden Randism of Alfonso Cuarón?

[ 0 ] February 1, 2007 |

Atrios joins the somewhat puzzling backlash against one of the year’s best films. I would disagree on two counts:

  • Apart from the very superficial analogy with the hidden utopia, I just don’t see the comparison with Atlas Shrugged at all. That framework isn’t terribly original; what makes Rand’s novel unique is that it uses the older-than-dirt Shangri-La framework as a premise to allow its half-dimensional characters to read lengthy position papers for and against the position that the world can be divided into great men and parasites. I don’t think that Children of Men has anything in common with this, not only ideologically but artistically. Moreover, in COM there’s complete ambiguity about whether the outside force is a force for good at all–something that certainly doesn’t exist in AS.
  • More importantly, I think there’s the perennial problem of the difference between good politics and good art. Certainly, I yield to nobody in my contempt for complacent pox-on-all-their-houses politics. But leaving aside that I don’t think this is quite what Cuaron is up to, would the movie be better if the lefty terrorists were an unequivocal force for good? I think the overwhelming likelihood is that it would be much worse. (I mean, I suppose the fact that Rushide seemed to consider “Gush and Bore” the height of wit and wisdom might be a clue as to why Fury is so unreadable, but his Naderism would be irrelevant if he was still writing with the skill and imagination of Midnight’s Children.) I have no idea if Cuaron can make any useful contributions to political discourse, but he’s a great filmmaker.

Glad He’s Admitted It

[ 0 ] February 1, 2007 |

This Jonah Goldberg joint is so incoherent it’s hard to know where to begin with it. Well, I think here:

Clark’s comments, predictably, earned him denunciations from Jewish groups. After all, the notion that rich, secretive Jews living in places such as New York are pulling strings to visit war and misery on the masses is a time-honored anti-Semitic cliche heard from Charles Lindbergh, Ignatius Donnelly and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

So comparing someone with Lindbergh is plainly accusing them of anti-semitism. Glad he’s finally conceded this obvious point. And then there’s this:

The first is a rich and fascinating claim. Truth is a defense against slander, but is it a defense against bigotry? Liberals rarely agree when it comes to defending honored members of the coalition of the oppressed. Just ask former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who questioned whether innate ability explained why fewer women succeed in math and science and who was defenestrated from Harvard as a sexist for his troubles.

Um, well, if truth is a defense then Goldberg is estopped from questioning me for calling Summers a “sexist” because he believes women are genetically inferior–if that’s not sexism, what is? In addition, people who objected to Summers’ remarks most certainly did not do so because they thought they were true. Amazing as it may be for someone who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps like Jonah, but some of us still don’t think that the exclusion of women from science faculties reflects their inability to do the job, any more than the exclusion of women from law firms 50 years ago did (or the must lesser representation of women on the nation’s prominent op-ed pages suggests that women are genetically incapable of matching your remarkable logical skills and command of the evidence.)

The Burgeoning Problem of Eating Disorders

[ 0 ] February 1, 2007 |

Eating disorders are becoming more prevalent among men as well as women:

Contrary to the long-held belief that anorexia and bulimia are female afflictions, the first national survey on eating disorders has found that one-quarter of adults with the conditions are men.

The study estimated that about 850,000 men had suffered from the disorders and, despite two decades of intense attention to the conditions, had gone largely undetected.

“This is a very important finding,” said Ruth Streigel-Moore, an eating disorders expert at Wesleyan University who was not connected with the study. “It suggests a need to move away from gender-based explanations.”

The researchers said the findings, which appear today in the journal Biological Psychiatry, indicated men are vulnerable to the same social pressures that lead some women to uncontrollably binge and purge on food and others to starve themselves.

“Body image has become more important among men,” said co-author Dr. Harrison G. Pope Jr., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “There’s a large, silent population of men who might be quite ill.”

Overall, the survey found that 4.5% of adults, or 9.3 million people, have struggled with an eating disorder sometime in their lives. Anorexia accounted for 1.3 million of the cases, and bulimia 2.1 million. Binge eating, a disorder of frequent, uncontrollable periods of gorging, accounted for the largest number of cases, 5.9 million.

The study, conducted by researchers at Harvard University Medical School, was based on information obtained from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication, a mental health survey of nearly 9,000 adults across the U.S.

I’m sure putting BMI on report cards will solve that!

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