Saturday, March 29, 2008

Jerome Kern

Has anyone ever wrote more lushly beautiful melodies than Jerome Kern? We saw Show Boat at the dinner theatre last night and I was reminded once again of Kern's supreme talent for crafting a tune. I was also reminded of what transitional forces both he and Show Boat were in the history of the Broadway musical. From the show's Wikipedia entry:

Show Boat is generally considered to be the first true American "musical play" — a dramatic form with popular music, separate from operettas, light musical comedies of the 1890s and early 20th century (e.g., Florodora), and the "Follies"-type musical revues that preceded it. In many ways, it took the plot-and-character-centered "Princess Musicals" that Kern had developed with Bolton and Wodehouse in the previous decade and broadened their scope.

Of Kern himself, I've heard it said that he had one foot in the old world - that of the 19th century European operetta style - and one in the new - that of a purely American style of songwriting. In that sense, Kern bridged the gap between Gilbert and Sullivan and Richard Rodgers, between The Pirates of Penzance and Oklahoma!. His familiarity with the old Victorian high-style of musical theatre and songwriting probably had a lot to do with the pure prettiness of his tunes. There is a sentimentality to his melodies that harken back to the old days, a sentimentality you would never find in a Rodgers tune, or a Gershwin. The titans who followed Kern on Broadway in the years after Show Boat - Berlin, Rodgers, Gershwin, Cole Porter, etc. - scrubbed their music clean of the old-world emotions and crafted a style based, both musically and lyrically, on wit, self-control, a relaxed charm, a serene nonchalance. There was a emotional distance to their music, and they were never mawkish. Only occasionally would they attempt to go deeper emotionally, Berlin for instance in a song such as "What'll I Do?", or Cole Porter (who, along with Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart, epitomized the newer style) in songs such as "So In Love" or "After You, Who?" But mostly they stayed away, appropriately, as they crafted those utterly new and interrelated art forms called American Musical Theatre and American Popular Song. Along with jazz, rock and roll, and the movies, they are this country's enduring contributions to 20th century entertainment.

Kern was a contributor and an innovator of this form. Today, we remain in debt to him for Show Boat, and for some of the most memorable melodies we know; "They Didn't Believe Me", "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes", "All The Things You Are", "Long Ago and Far Away", "The Song Is You", "The Last Time I Saw Paris", "Ol' Man River", "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man", "A Fine Romance", and, probably the most recognizable song in his canon, and one of the most romantic songs ever written, "The Way You Look Tonight".

Friday, March 28, 2008

iPods, Cell Phones, and Mozart

I celebrated a birthday recently, for which my lovely bride presented me with a new eighty gigabyte iPod. I have been using a four-gig iPod for the past three years during my morning workouts but it is filled to capacity and I need more space. Hence my request for the eighty-gigger, for which I am much obliged.

That's the only time I use the iPod, to help me through my workouts. You will not see me walking down the street with the plugs in my ears. For that matter you won't see my walking down the street talking on a cell phone, or with my nose buried in it, checking messages or text messaging someone. Nor will you see me talking on a cell phone while I am driving (which, by law I assume, must be done in the left-hand lane, going five miles an hour under the speed limit, while remaining utterly oblivious to everyone else being forced to pass on the right.) The main reason for this is because I don't own a cell phone; I've never felt the need. I don't feel the need to always be in touch with the world. In fact, when I am out on my own I want to be unreachable. If I'm on the golf course, for instance. That's another thing that you'll never see me do - pull out a cell phone on the golf course. My golf buddy Jim and I used to agree that anyone who does so should be flogged. If they actually keep talking while they are away, thereby keeping the rest of the group waiting, they should be put out of their misery with a single bullet to the head, and left to lie there with a sign around their neck as a lesson to others.

The other reason you'll never see me do these things is philosophical, though I'm not sure I can explain it well to someone who's not equally as ornery as I am. I just don't want to be one of those guys. You know the type? I was flipping channels a few weeks ago and came upon a Ben Stiller movie called Night at the Museum. It was fluff, but entertaining fluff, so I hung around. Paul Rudd, who's a very funny guy, has a bit part in the movie as Stiller's ex-wife's new husband. And he plays one of those guys, the guy who walks around - even at home - with a bluetooth headset permanently attached to him. The scene where Rudd's character is introduced as the prototypical one of those guys guy gave me my only belly-laugh of the movie. He's meant to be ridiculous here, and he is. So at least I'm not alone in finding this technology-geek character somewhat comical. Some people in real life combine this type with the another type; the I'm-on-the-phone-while-walking-down-the-street-and-I'm-talking-really-loud-so-I-must-be-important type. That guy is really funny.

Anyhow, I think cell phones are a plague. But that's not where I was going with this post. I digress, as usual. My original intent was to mention that with the eighty-gig iPod, I can now add music to my heart's delight. My four-gigger had 722 "songs". I put "songs" in quotes because that's how the iPod itemizes any musical entry. This is fine for modern music but I would hardly call the first movement of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto a "song". Now that I think of it, Benny Goodman or Count Basie probably wouldn't have referred to their music as "songs". They called them "numbers." My dad used this terminology - "that's a great number, huh, bud?" But that's a different way of speaking and for an age and by a type that has now completely disappeared. That would be a good subject for a future blog post - the way the old-timers talked, their language peppered with slang and idioms, a certain street patois, that now exists only in memory. My dad was the last of the breed that talked this way. Anyhow, where was I? Oh yes, now we have songs. For lack of a better term, I had 722 musical entries on my four-gig iPod. Some simple math now tells me that, all else being equal, I can now have approximately 14,000 entries on the new device. I don't think even I can fill that.

I've already added a bunch of music this week, mostly Mozart, who had been sadly neglected on the previous device. Most of what I added were his chamber works so yesterday I listened to third movement of the "Kegelstatt" trio, K.498, for piano, clarinet, and viola, and the whole of the Clarinet Quintet, K.581, both of which I adore. I am looking forward to getting reacquainted with Wolfgang, and with others. Since most of my music listening time now occurs during my morning workouts, the new iPod device will allow me to add a lot of old stuff I haven't listened to in awhile, and probably spur me to search out some new stuff. I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Great minds....?

I posted this this morning:
Do we want a president who, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declares the Holocaust a myth and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, is still eager to sit down and negotiate with Iran? Does Obama think Ahmadinejad just went a little too far in his rhetoric, like Wright?
And Mark Steyn has this to say in his column today:
You can understand why Obama is so anxious to meet with President Ahmadinejad, a man who denies the last Holocaust even as he plans the next one. Such a summit would be easy listening after the more robust sermons of Jeremiah Wright.

It's always good to be on the same wavelength as Mark Steyn. Of course, Mark states the case so much better than I ever could. Read his whole column here.

Notes on the Obama speech

I watched Barack Obama's Reverend Wright speech on Tuesday and was immediately convinced it was a failure. Of course, I'm not a very good focus group for the Senator, especially on this issue. As I said last week, how do you explain such bigotry and America-hatred? You can't. So I went into the speech convinced that there was no explaining a close, twenty-year relationship with a man such as Jeremiah Wright.

But Obama's speech made things worse, from my perspective. The thrust of the speech turned out not to be about his relationship with Wright, but on race relations in general. He switched the focus from himself onto the rest of us; he had no explaining to do, we did. The subtle, unspoken message was that he was not guilty, we were. If we couldn't understand what went on each Sunday in Wright's church, or similar churches, it was due to a lack of imagination and understanding on our part. Wright, given the era he had come of age, was justified in his rage - oh, perhaps he went too far sometimes, but who was he to judge? In Obama's eyes, Wright's racist rants were no different than his white grandmother's reservations about passing young black men in the street. Or Geraldine Ferraro's unremarkable comment that Obama is in the position he's in because of his race. That comment may not be perfectly true - Obama has obvious talents that are certainly in part responsible for his success. However, without his racial makeup those other talents would not be enough to propel him to the brink of the Democratic party nomination as a post-racial candidate. So while Ferraro's comment probably needs some slight amendment, it is still innocuous. Does Obama truly believe it comparable to Wright's "God Damn America!" comment? Or his accusation that the United States government created the AIDS virus in order to destroy blacks? I don't think he does but the fact that his explanation fell back on moral relativism - it is a virus among the left and has been for fifty years - is more evidence that his mind-set is saturated with the orthodoxies of leftism.

One more comment. The speech is already famously known as the "throw your grandma under the bus" speech. It has been duly noted that denigrating the woman who helped raise you (and who is still alive) during a speech is unchivalrous at best, and more likely a sign of low character. I agree. It is appalling in retrospect - casting someone close to you in a bad light in order to score political points. When he said it during the speech, I reflected back to Al Gore using his sister's death from cancer for political benefit. During that same campaign he also used his son's car accident to gin up sympathy and to prove to voters he had a heart. It was truly grubby behavior but at least Gore wasn't actually criticizing those relatives he spoke of. Obama, with forethought, actually found it acceptable to commit his grandmother to history and public opinion as a mild bigot. The more I think of it, the more astonishing I find it.

But I may have my own explanation for it. Did Obama not even realize he was criticizing grandma? Just as he didn't realize that Wright's lunatic sermons were not particularly controversial? He said he wasn't criticizing grandma - that she is simply a "typical white person." His speech let it be known that he thinks Wright is a typical black person of his era. So the question is, is no behavior unacceptable? Can justifications be found for everything? And do we want a president who thinks like this? Do we want a president who, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declares the Holocaust a myth and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, is still eager to sit down and negotiate with Iran? Does Obama think Ahmadinejad just went a little too far in his rhetoric, like Wright? This whole Wright episode, the speech, and its aftermath, have convinced me even further that Barack Obama is unfit for the presidency.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Wire and John Adams on HBO

My wife and I watched The Wire's fifth and final season on HBO this year, our first experience with the show. How had a show of such excellence passed me by? I had heard it referenced occasionally over the past few years, and what I heard was good, but I really had no idea. The Wire should have been lauded in the same terms as The Sopranos. Check that. It should have received even higher plaudits because it's better than The Sopranos. We have begun watching season one on DVD and it started as superbly as it ended. Previously I was of the opinion that the finest television I had ever watched was the first season of The Sopranos, the first season of Rome, and the entirety of Band of Brothers. Now I have to add The Wire to the list - maybe at the top. It is simply brilliant.

Notice a common denominator among those shows? Yes, they were all produced by HBO. Why can't anyone else do television this good, or even close to it? HBO continues to prove its superiority to the other networks with the current mini-series John Adams, based on David McCullough's book. We've watched the first two episodes and it's terrific. When I first heard that Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney were playing John and Abigail I was unimpressed - neither seemed to fit, especially Giamatti. But they are both excellent. If I went looking for faults I might say that Giamatti's Adams, while brilliant in other ways, is perhaps too smoothed-over - the Adams I know from history is all jagged edges - but this is probably due to McCullough's source portrayal of Adams. David McCullough is a fine historian (I loved his book about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge) but if he has a failing it's that he falls in love with his subjects - he did it with Harry Truman also (it was still a terrific book.) So while we get small doses of Adams' vanity and insecurities, which were profound, they are portrayed here as endearing quirks rather than driving forces of his personality. I'll need to read the book before I lay the entire blame for this at the feet of the series' writers or Giamatti but even so it's a minor quibble. The program concentrates on the events of the early founding and the role Adams played in them and here I have nothing but praise. It doesn't contain everything but what it does contain it gets right - the major events, the turning points in popular opinion, both sides of the debate at the Second Continental Congress, the political machinations before the vote for separation. The program gives you a full sense of the risks these men were taking. We forget how dangerous the moment was for those voting for war. They knew they would hang if their cause did not succeed. The period in question, from about 1770 until the early nineteenth century, was full of drama. So far, John Adams takes full advantage of the era's raw material. If you are interested at all in the founding moment - to me there is no more interesting period in American history - then John Adams will dazzle you.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Don't Be Late To The Party

Courtesy of Derb over on The Corner, get your presidential bumper stickers now while you still can.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Damage Done

Are the revelations about Barack Obama's racist, America-hating pastor a death blow to his campaign? I think they are. The talking heads are saying Obama can limit the damage if he makes a speech explaining his relationship with the Reverend Wright, but how do you explain away such evil bile? Obama makes no secret that Wright has played an important role in his life. He attended Wright's church for many years; was married by Wright; was baptized by him; had his children baptized by him; chose a phrase from one of Wright's sermons as the title for one of his books (The Audacity of Hope); donated $22,500 to Wright's church as recently as 2006; and has spoken often of their special relationship. It is inconceivable that Obama was unaware of Wright's views, which leads to two questions: 1. Why did Obama continue to attend the church of someone with such odious opinions? 2. Does Obama share these views?

As to the first question, if Obama maintains as he did yesterday that he's never heard Wright express certain outrageous opinions such as those which are being discussed, then he's dodging. As I said, it is simply beyond credulity to insist he was unaware of Wright's views. If he claims he was then he is simply lying, and everyone will know it. If he claims he continued attending Wright's church because of any other reason - political and social connections, the occasional effective and inspiring sermon, a sense of loyalty to a man who had meant much to him when he was younger - then we have reason to question his judgement. And judgement has been one of his talking points in this campaign. The central issue (the only issue?) among Democrats during this campaign season is the vote on the Iraq war. Hillary voted for. Obama was not yet a Senator so he didn't have to vote. Obama has yielded this single vote like a hammer against Hillary throughout the campaign, maintaining that he would have voted against the war, which shows he has better judgement on the issues than she. Obama's continued attendance at Wright's church, especially with his children in tow, would lead one to question that judgement. That he did not distance himself loudly and clearly from Wright many moons ago also reflects badly on him. I'm not sure there is a good answer to this question that will limit the political damage to Obama's campaign.

As for the second question of whether Obama shares Wright's views, this is more difficult to answer. Certainly is not unreasonable to ask the question in light of the facts. Would a true post-racial presidential candidate sit silently through Wright's rage-filled sermons against America and the privileged white people who run it at the expense of blacks? Obama has run a post-racial campaign to this point. His campaign transcended race, and this was one of his appeals - the candidate who could heal the racial wounds of the past and unite us all behind a single vision. But the Wright issue blows that conceit up.

Then there is Michelle Obama and her comments last month that 'for the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country.' She had made similar comments previously. When asked to explain herself, she didn't, really. That this privileged woman could not find a single thing about her country to be proud of in the past twenty-five years is telling. It is not unreasonable to come away with the opinion that Mrs. Obama is part of that segment of the left which considers America to be fatally flawed, and which instinctively seeks to blame America for all the world's ills.

Add to this that Obama's mother was a member of the far-left during her lifetime, "a fellow traveler," according to her friends. Add to it also that Obama was introduced to Chicago elite society at a party hosted by Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, former members of the radical Weather Underground terrorist group. Here is a segment from Ayers' Wikipedia entry:
Ayers went underground with several comrades including Brandy Diekman, after their co-conspirators' bomb accidentally exploded on March 6, 1970, destroying a Greenwich Village townhouse and killing three members of the Weather Underground (Ted Gold, Terry Robbins, and Diana Oughton, who was Ayers' girlfriend at the time). He and his colleagues invented identities and traveled continuously. They avoided the police and FBI, while bombing high-profile government buildings including the United States Capitol, The Pentagon, and the Harry S Truman Building housing the State Department. Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn raised two children, Zayd and Malik, underground before turning themselves in in 1981, when most charges were dropped because of prosecutorial misconduct during the long search for the fugitives.

In an interview that appeared in the New York Times on the morning of September 11, 2001, Ayers said this about his past involvement with the Weather Underground: "I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough." He is also quoted in this interview as saying he found "a certain eloquence in bombs."

Now, for Obama, this only adds up to guilt by association. We cannot say that because many of those close to him have either explicit or suspected anti-American views that he shares those views. He certainly has said nothing on the campaign trail to make one think he does. But the questions arise and are not easily answered. Even if Obama comes out with an explicit I-Don't Love-Wright-I-Do-Love-America speech, the questions will still hang over him. Why? Because people instinctively understand that they themselves would not surround themselves with others who views were odious. I know I would not continue to attend a church - and bring my children - were the views expressed from the pulpit offensive to me. I would not have married who I married if she had opinions on large issues which differed substantially from mine and which caused me to question her judgement (I know, I know, the very fact that she would marry me should cause others to question her judgement.) It all has to do with the company you keep; if you surround yourself with suspicious people, people will consider you suspicious too.

So how does it play out in the Democratic presidential horse race? As I said, I think this is probably a fatal blow for Obama. I'm not even sure he can get the nomination at this point, and if he does, he probably can't beat John McCain in the general. Hillary's whole strategy since South Carolina has been to make Obama 'the black candidate.' That's been done now. First the Clinton's stripped off the halo and got him down in the gutter with them, now they have made race a major issue in the campaign. He wanted to be the post-racial candidate - it was the only way he could win - but he's turning into Jesse Jackson.

So what happens if Obama gets the nomination? Who will vote for him? Of course, he has the black vote locked up along with the far-left and the anti-war voters. That's not enough to win the presidency. Previously it was assumed that the Hillary-leaning Democrats would vote for Obama in the general. But who are those people? Older, white, blue-collar folks. These are the very people who might reject a candidate who is perceived as the 'black candidate.' These are also the same people who would find a non-ideologue war-hero like John McCain palatable. I think they switch sides in large numbers and vote for McCain.

So does this benefit Hillary? Without a doubt it benefits her in terms of getting the nomination. But it hurts her in the general. Due to her position of being behind in the elected delegate count entering the convention (not to mention behind in the total popular vote) she was always going to have trouble holding on to the black vote. Her goal was to convince enough of the super-delegates to come over to her side to secure the nomination. No matter how she did it, there was going to be damage. But if it is perceived among African-American voters that a 'black issue' is what brought Obama down and gave the nomination to Hillary, the damage will be even greater. Blacks will stay home in November, and a Democrat can't win without the black vote. McCain wins again.

The prospects for the Democrats electing one of their own as president in November grew even slimmer this week.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Love For Sale

No, this isn't another Cole Porter post. But it's worthwhile quoting from his magnificent look at the world's oldest profession:

Love for sale,
Appetising young love for sale.
Love that's fresh and still unspoiled,
Love that's only slightly soiled,
Love for sale.

Who will buy?
Who would like to sample my supply?
Who's prepared to pay the price,
For a trip to paradise?
Love for sale.

Let the poets pipe of love
in their childish way,
I know every type of love
Better far than they.
If you want the thrill of love,
I've been through the mill of love;
Old love, new love
Every love but true love.

Love for sale.
Appetising young love for sale.
If you want to buy my wares.
Follow me and climb the stairs
Love for sale.

Porter didn't write "Love For Sale" for Billie Holiday, but he might as well have - no one was better suited to the material than she. When she recorded it in 1952 her voice as a musical instrument was gone; the heroin had taken its toll. Even in her 1930s prime, Billie's voice had a touch of the tragic; by the early 1950s all that was left was the tragedy - she was all naked emotions, raw nerves. And on "Love For Sale" that's all that was necessary. If the earlier Billie had sung it, the one from the 1930s with the lilt in her voice, it probably wouldn't be as effective. Here, she transposes her own tragic descent into drugs onto that of a woman caught in the seamy underworld of prostitution.

Tragic yes, but should it be illegal? Not to sound callous, but if a man and woman enter into a mutual agreement for sex, she getting an agreed upon renumeration, he getting sexual satisfaction, what business is it of the state? Upon what principle can the government step in an outlaw such arrangements?

Of course, the whole conversation is prompted by the news earlier this week of Eliot Spitzer resigning his New York governorship amid revelations that he had a relationship with a high-priced call-girl. Don't get me wrong, I have no sympathy for Spitzer, who deserves everything that's come his way this past week. He was the most dangerous public official this country has seen in a long time, at least at the non-national level, and the damage he has done - both to human beings and money markets - is incalculable. I'm glad he's gone. And, for those of you who may think it hypocritical to make a case for legal prostitution while cheering Spitzer's demise, I defend myself thusly: while some of us may believe prostitution should be legal, it is in fact currently against the law; Spitzer, as governor, was the chief executive in charge of enforcing those laws; the laws that brought him down he enforced against others on at least two prior occasions, accompanied by self-righteous public condemnations; as a governor and former attorney general, he's well aware of the link between prostitution and the mob; his dalliances with these women put him in the position of possibly be subjected to blackmail, either by one of the women alone, or worse, by the mobsters who might have learned of his activities. Even if prostitution were legal in New York, due to his position and the chance that he could be compromised, Spitzer should not have been engaging in it. That he is gone is appropriate and just.

Back to the issue at hand. Before I digressed my question had been, by what principle can the government step in and outlaw sexual arrangements between consenting adults? I find it hard to think of a such a principle. I understand that the state these days doesn't even pause to take principles into consideration; a government which appropriates to itself the right to investigate Roger Clemens' steroid use or Bill Belichick's use of video equipment to record opposing teams signals obviously has no sense of proportion or limits. But some of us still believe in limited government so it it those that I address here.

Is there a moral argument against prostitution? Certainly. I am not here to defend prostitution, far from it. I am here to ask whether or not it should be outlawed, which is something else entirely. But if one makes a stand that the practice should be illegal because it is immoral, it begs the question of what other immoral practices should be outlawed. Some people find homosexuality immoral. Are we to outlaw it? Adultery is still widely considered to be immoral. There are those on the left who maintain that smoking a cigarette or driving an SUV or eating too many Twinkies is a graver moral offense than visiting a prostitute. But all those things, among others, are legal. What distinguishes prostitution from other purported immoral behaviors that elevates it to an illegal act?

Some say self-abuse; prostitution is degrading to the women engaged in it; we must protect people from degrading themselves. I agree that it is in the public interest to protect people against certain self-abuse, with a large caveat: the public interest is only triggered when that self-abuse has public consequences. While it remains private, it is none of the government's business. And I don't think prostitution rises to this level, as opposed to, for example, illegal drug use such as cocaine or heroin. Many people, probably most, can use these drugs in a recreational manner and continue to lead full and productive lives. But for too many others, it takes control of their lives and leads to other pathological behaviours, most specifically crime. At this point the state has reason to step in. Add to that the case fact that a narcotized society is almost certainly a doomed one, and I come down on the side of the drug laws.

Does prostitution reach this level of public consequence? I say no. If crime is associated with prostitution, it is only because it is illegal; the mob sees it as a vehicle to make money. If it were legal the businesses surrounding it would become legitimate. And there is almost no chance that it's legalization would lead to other pathological behaviors that affected society at large. The spread of social diseases, you say? Yes, there is that threat but it seems clear to me that the spread of social diseases would decrease were prostitution be made legal. The legitimate businesses engaged in that particular pursuit would almost certainly regulate the medical health and hygiene of their courtesans. To do otherwise would be bad for business.

I think I depart from most conservatives in my views here. But, as I've said in previous posts, the more the nanny-state takes control of our lives, the more I object, the more libertarian I become. I would ask conservatives who disagree with me one question though: if we ask the government to draw lines in law because we don't like certain acts, what is one to do once the government decides that an act you favor is illegal? Homeschooling, for instance? My point is that the government has no business in either consensual sexual behaviour nor whether people educate their children at home. We can't support the one intrusion and then in good faith protest the other. In order to protect the one from government intrusion, we must protect the other.

I understand there is a significant risk of being misunderstood here so let me state once again: I am not advocating we all go visit our local brothel tonight and have a romp. I am not looking to change public opinion regarding prostitution as an act nor to degrade the public morals. I am simply wondering how we can continue to keep this private consensual behaviour illegal, no matter how cheap, tawdry, or degrading it is. Free people should be free to behave as they please when that behavior has little or no public consequence.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Saturday at the Movies

I blogged yesterday morning and then sat down to continue the book I'm currently reading, Adam Zamoyski's Rite of Peace. The book is truly entertaining but I just didn't feel like reading. Even I, an abibliophobiac if there ever was one (see here and here), sometimes need a break.

So I watched movies, one old, one new. The old one, All About Eve, is marvelously entertaining, featuring Bette Davis in perhaps her finest role as the aging, vain, tempestuous, stage-actress Margot Channing. It's a delicious part and Ms. Davis sunk her teeth into it with great relish - the perfect role for a woman once commonly referred to in Hollywood as "Mother Goddam." George Sanders is nearly as fun in the role of the unscrupulous newspaper columnist Addison Dewitt. If the movie has a fault, it's the performance of Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington, the woman who aims to replace Ms. Davis on the stage and in the bedroom. As played by Ms. Baxter, the character is a bit of a cipher, too soft and dreamy-eyed to be believable as a scheming back-stabber. But this is a quibble. The performances of Ms. Davis and Mr. Sanders are what to watch for here, along with probably the best dialogue Joe Mankiewicz ever wrote in his long and distinguished career.

My sweetheart then joined me to watch Once, a 2006 film out of Ireland. I had never heard of it until last week when a friend of my wife's mentioned it to her. It concerns a street musician with hopes for a record contract and the relationship he develops with a young woman who has recently emigrated from the Czech Republic. Billed as a modern-day musical, the movie had great reviews over at Rotten Tomatoes so I thought we'd give it a shot.

Once certainly has its charms. The movie opens with the musician on the street playing Van Morrison's "And The Healing Has Begun," so it immediately had me rooting for it (at another time I will blog about my love of Van Morrison's music. Suffice for now to simply state that he is my favorite musician, period, and "And The Healing Has Begun" one of his finest songs.) There are some good laughs early on, and the relationship between the musician and the young woman (who also turns out to have musical talent) is touching and effective. But the story is slight, too slight to hang a complete movie on. Even with at least half the film taken up with music, it still clocks in at a mere eighty-five minutes. Yes, I understand the the scenes of the two playing together are meant to convey the deepening of the pair's relationship, but it's overdone. They play together here, they play together there, they play with some others here, there and everywhere; by the end, that's really all there is to it. Basically it's a will-they-or-won't-they story. Will they, once they stop playing, end up in bed, will they end up together, or will they go their separate ways?

Finally, there's the music, which must be commented on given its importance to the story. The musician plays a fine guitar, and the young woman a lovely piano, especially the Mendelssohn tune, which was beautiful. He can also sing. The songs themselves however, while effective within the scope of the movie, suffer from the same ailments most modern music suffers from; they are tuneless, which makes them all sound the same; they are hung upon the flimsiest of musical structures; and they are lyrically undisciplined. To one who regards all these things as intrinsic to good music, the music fails. The pieces played in the movie seem to me more like chants than songs. Others obviously disagree, judging by the reviews of the movie's soundtrack over at Amazon. But then, I'm an odd duck, a bit of an anachronism, when it comes to judging modern music. Young people seem to like this personality-free style of music and I won't begrudge them that. But as for myself, when the credits rolled and I heard the music playing outside the scope of the movie for the first time, I was reaching for the mute button.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Breaker Morant

"And a man's foes shall be they of his own household." - Matthew 10:36

That is the epitaph requested by Harry 'Breaker' Morant as he is led away to be executed by the British Army he had served, near the conclusion of Breaker Morant, one of the finest movies of the past three decades; i.e., one of my all-time favorites. The film concerns the court-martial of Lieutenant Morant, and his fellow soldiers Peter Handcock and George Whitten, accused of the summary execution of several Boer prisoners of war during the Second Boer War in 1901. The three men were members of the Bushveldt Carbineers, an irregular unit set up to combat Boer commandos using guerrilla tactics in the Northern Transvaal of South Africa. The fact of the prisoner executions is never in doubt; the trial primarily concerns whether Morant and his fellows were acting under orders. I will spare you too many more spoilers in case you haven't seen the movie. Just know that the story is riveting; the actors are perfectly cast in a number of excellently developed roles; the writing is astoundingly good. The screenplay, in its structure, is a model of economy, the type they teach you in film school; each line integral to each scene, each scene to each sequence; each sequence building upon what came before it. There's nothing superfluous here; from beginning to end, not a false note is struck. The movies culminates, in my view, in the stirring closing defense given by the men's lawyer, Major Thomas; a calm, reasoned, yet moving, summation of the nature of men at war:

There is no evidence to suggest that Lieutenant Morant has an intrinsically barbarous nature; on the contrary. The fact of the matter is that war changes men's natures. The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations; situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed, and been replaced by a constant round of fear and anger, blood and death.

This is the first time I've watched Breaker Morant in a number of years so the parallels between the Boer Wars and our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were not there to be drawn in previous watchings. And it occurred to me that the above quote is something the modern left has no truck with; they reject the idea that soldiers may sometimes understandably go beyond the bounds of normal warfare; they are ready to pounce on any such perceived transgression, and they will charge and convict in the court of public opinion on the scantiest of evidence. Previous generations were mature and realistic enough, not to condone such behavior, but to understand that it does happen, and to conclude that these incidents do not indict the overall war effort.

In another pivotal moment in the movie, we get this dialogue in a private moment between the three men on trial:

Whitten: [after Handcock has admitted to murdering the missionary] Major Thomas has been pleading justifying circumstances and now we're just lying.

Handcock: We're lying? What about them? It's no bloody secret our graves were dug the day they arrested us at Fort Edwards.

Whitten: Yeah, but killing a missionary, Peter?

Morant: It's a new kind of war, George. A new war for a new century. I suppose this is the first time the enemy hasn't been in uniform. They're farmers. They come from small villages, and they shoot at us from behind walls and from farmhouses. Some of them are women, some of them are children, and some of them...are missionaries.

This passage is meant to convey to the audience the historical fact of the changing nature of warfare as the twentieth century dawned. Previously, warfare had been a vocation, a profession with well-defined rules of behavior, which, if violated, conveyed dishonor and shame upon the perpetrators. While it is certain that this method of honorable warfare had begun to break down during the 19th century, the guerrilla tactics practiced by the Boer commandos in 1901 were still considered to be beyond the pale; an abomination that justified going beyond the conventional rules of engagement. This is in fact a central point of the movie; the Carbineers had been created precisely to fight this sort of evil, and until the arrest of Morant and his men, had been given the widest possible leeway in their treatment of the enemy. Political realities had now intervened and the men were considered expendable by the British if it meant the quick end to the war.

In another riveting scene, when Morant explodes during his questioning by the prosecution:

PROSECUTOR: Lt. Morant. Captain Hunt was a particular friend of yours?

MORANT: Yes- I mean, I was engaged to his sister in England.

PROSECUTOR: So his death was very disturbing to you?

MORANT: Well, it was more the way he died. He was mutilated.

PROSECUTOR: You were present at the actual incident where Hunt was killed?


PROSECUTOR: Well then, how do you know he wasn't killed in a fair fight?

MORANT: Because I saw the body.

PROSECUTOR: Sometime later! You can't possibly know how Captain Hunt met his death. So you cannot produce any evidence to connect Wisser with it. So then, why did you order him to be shot?

MORANT: It is customary during a war to kill as many of the enemy as possible.

JUDGE: And was your court at the trial of Wisser constituted in any way like this? What rule did you shoot him under?

MORANT: Like this? Oh no, Sir, No! It wasn't quite like this. No, No, Sir! It wasn't quite so handsome. And as for rules, we didn't carry military manuals around with us. We were out on the velt fighting the Boer the way he fought us. I'll tell you what rule we applied, Sir. We applied rule 303. We caught them and we shot them under rule 3-0-3!

The "Rule 303" that Morant refers to here is the British Lee-Enfield Caliber 303 rifle the Carbineers carried. It has become a catchphrase over the years to refer to any summary execution of prisoners. The movie, while presenting both sides of the moral dilemma of how far men may go when fighting an enemy that abides by no rules, clearly falls in with Morant. And just as obviously, so do I; I fall in equally with all the men fighting in the current wars. Breaker Morant remains highly entertaining almost thirty years after its release, but it also brings up uncomfortable issues that are relevant to current events. And it brings up the as yet unresolved question of whether a liberal democracy such as our own has the will to prevail in a drawn-out conflict against an enemy whose savagery has no limits.

The Dems Dilemma

There is much talk lately about the corner the Democratic party has painted itself into. Neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton can gather enough delegates to arrive at their convention in July with the presidential nomination secured. Any possibility of Hillary dropping out beforehand - a slight-to-non-existent possibility to begin with - went by the boards on Tuesday when she won the Texas and Ohio primaries. So there will be a fight to garner as many of the super-delegates as possible, enough to put one of them over the top. Early on, Hillary had the lead here; after Obama's surge it appeared the supers were all switching his way; now they are up in the air, and the battle is on. Since there is little to separate these dull, orthodox liberals policy-wise, that battle is sure to, in fact already has, descend into gutter politics and personal attacks. Both of them will arrive at the convention bloodied, possibly beyond repair.

Here is the nightmare for the Dems: Obama will almost certainly head into the convention with a slight lead in delegates. Furthermore, when the vote from all the primaries and caucuses is combined, he also will have a slight lead there. If Hillary somehow outmaneuvers Obama at the convention and gets the nomination, the party will be severely split. African-American voters, who overwhelmingly support Obama, will feel the nomination was stolen, ala Bush v. Gore. So too the young, latte liberals who've been so much a part of the Obama campaign. If these two constituencies revolt and stay home in November, Hillary cannot win and John McCain will be our next president. The damage will be somewhat less if Obama can survive the Clinton
attack machine and get the nomination, but there will be damage nonetheless.

The problem with Obama getting the nomination now is that the bloom is off the rose, and the party leaders know it. As recently as two weeks ago, he appeared inevitable. His supporters swooned at his every word, and claimed he had the power to heal all our wounds. The messiah had arrived and his name was Barack. Now, after the questions regarding his relationship with Rezko, his demagoguery in Ohio on NAFTA, his damaging press conference, and the losses in Tuesday's primaries, the halo has come off. Late in the week he responded to Clinton's personal attacks with some of his own; he's descended down into the gutter with them, right where they want him. Now he's just another politician, an inexperienced, hard-left socialist politician to boot. Saint Obama could win the presidency, but that guy is gone. Can this new guy win the presidency?

So the Democrats face the possibility of a drawn-out battle and no good solution. Either way, the candidate they choose comes out non-electable. This in a year where it was thought they could hardly lose.

Some are suggesting the way out of this is to combine the two on the same ticket, one as the presidential nominee, the other as the vice-president; all that needs to be decided is who's on top. This is a pipe dream. If Hillary wins she'll certainly feel compelled to make the offer and she may even hope he accepts. But Obama will almost certainly refuse; the Clintons, having won the presidency, would bury him so deep within the administration he'd never be heard from again, and Obama knows this. He'd find out quickly what John Nance Garner meant when he famously declared the vice-presidency wasn't worth a bucket of warm piss. He'd be better off staying in the Senate and building his reputation there.

As for Hillary agreeing to the bottom of the ticket, well, anyone who thinks she'd lower herself to that level has not been paying attention for the past sixteen years. According to the Clinton mind-set, the presidency is hers by divine right. She deserves it. In fact, it is demeaning and degrading to even have to campaign against this wet-behind-the-ears upstart. To actually serve beneath him is simply unimaginable.

What Hillary has to do to win the nomination with as little damage as possible is to start questioning the role of the super-delegates. So far the talk about the supers is that they should validate what has occurred previously; some saying they should vote for the person who has the most conventional delegates; others saying they should go the way of the person with the most popular votes; still others say they should go the way of the congressional district which they represent. By all these measures, Obama wins. The Clintons need to start saying this is historically incorrect. The super-delegates were not created in order to validate what the public has already decided. On the contrary, the super-delegates were created for the exact opposite reason, to save the party from nominating someone who was unelectable; to ensure that a McGovern-like debacle never happens again. Hillary needs to make this claim - which is a truly accurate claim - and to make the case that Obama is too inexperienced for the presidency and cannot win in November. She should state that based on the recent voting results that the public itself is coming to this realization. She should say that Obama's early wins were due to the public not really knowing anything about him. They need to get this argument out into the public domain and absorbed into the public mind before the Pennsylvania primary. People might scoff at first but after a convincing win in Pennsylvania, the idea that Obama is not ready for prime-time might make some headway within the party. Then Hillary can appeal to the super-delegates to save the party and nominate her. There would be damage still, but it might be ameliorated somewhat by this strategy.

There is another way out of this grand dilemma and already a soft rumbling can be heard if you keep your ear close enough to the ground. With the prospect of leaving the convention with an unelectable candidate staring them in the face, might the Democrats turn elsewhere? Possibly. But who could they turn to? Who among them could make a claim to be presidential; who among them could start from scratch and unite the party; who among them exudes that saintly aura that makes liberals swoon; who among them can ride in on a white horse, save them from disaster, and lead them to victory?

Why, this guy, of course.