Friday, December 14, 2012

Sandy Hook: Elementary Observations

I didn't learn about the shootings in Newtown, CT until about an hour before I had to go out and pick up my kid at school.  I'm still stunned, like most of the country, about this awful tragedy.   But I don't like hearing people on the radio referring to it as "unspeakable." 
We have to speak.  We have to talk.   And we have to face realities:

Twenty children were slaughtered today by one lunatic with a pair of handguns.

Children are being killed in countless acts of violence worldwide:  horrific wars in Africa, with children becoming soldiers; drones striking from the air, killing innocent civilians;  millions dying of willful neglect by adult leaders not motivated enough to provide clean water, access to education, food, and medical care.

And in a very odd crisis, attacks similar to what we've seen in America have happened recently in China.  Consider this rampage

Twenty-two schoolchildren were injured when a man wielding a knife attacked an elementary school in the Henan province, even though the Chinese government has increased security presence because of a spate of similar kinds of attacks dating back to 2010.

Here's an important observation:   none of the children attacked in this latest incident died.  Only nine were sent to the hospital.  

It makes me think of Molly Ivins' great gun-control line:  "I am not anti-gun.  I'm pro-knife."  Meaning:  it's a lot harder to kill with a knife than it is with firearms.  

To be fair, other incidents in China where men have attacked with knives have in fact led to deaths of children.  So to blame what happened in Newtown on weak-gun-law America is unfair.

But it isn't necessarily foolish, either. It's a pretty obvious fact that the EU has more restrictions on handguns and fewer people die from them -- about ten percent of the number of Americans who do so. 

But sure, in America, we have the Second Amendment, and a lobbying group that makes it political suicide for those seeking national office to take too strong a stance on regulating who gets firearms in this nation.  

A lot today has been made of the state of our mental healthcare system, which is just as screwed up as the overall system.  I saw someone tweet that we should tax the sales of guns and ammo and fund mental health care services. 

Of course, you also have to get people to accept the idea of going to get such help.   We're generally not good at that, especially guys, and of course with mental illness the individuals afflicted aren't always aware of what's going on in their heads. 

We can also blame a larger materialistic culture that glorifies violence, that features visually stunning videogames that allow us to kill without actually facing the consequences.  We have a society that's pretty wound up; toss in a general anxiety about life in the twenty-first century, with over-stimulated, info-saturated, multi-tasking people struggling to make ends meet, and it's not surprising that people are reacting as these shooters have. 

What I don't like is that some people want to treat these incidents like the weather, as if there's nothing that could have been done to prevent it, and nothing that can be done to prevent others in the future.   That's too nihilistic for me.

Even accepting the difficulty of stopping raging lunatics in a free society, we can make changes that can protect all of us from such horrors.

I don't accept the suggestion that having more guns at  schools would help.   It is a fair point that one of the reasons such madmen choose schools is that they know that they are gun-free zones, but I think having teachers and staff packing heat in the classroom is a recipe for more disaster.  

I think that we still need to make it harder to buy a gun; I think we need to require that people get trained in how to use them.  The people who respect the power of a firearm are those who have spent years in military or law-enforcement training: they have the discipline and consciousness of how dangerous guns are.   (That doesn't mean they are less susceptible to snapping and going on a rampage, of course.)   Can civilians achieve similar levels of discipline?  Only if they are dedicated to it.   I think that we need to bring back the assault weapons ban; few of us really need to carry military-grade weaponry to protect our persons or our property.

 I think we need to examine what our priorities are as Americans, as parents: is the idea of "greed is good" or "get rich or die trying" really what we want to teach our children?  Do we want them to have fun playing brutally violent games or watching brutally violent films without fully understanding the consequences?  (I'm not talking censorship here: I'm talking awareness, mindfulness.  I grew up on Tom and Jerry cartoons and I cherish the First Amendment as much as the NRA does the Second.) Do we want them to have more respect for athletes than for teachers by glorifying the big contracts the jocks make while most of their teachers won't make one basketball player's daily wage for an entire year?  Do we want them to fight hard to make the 1 percent or to find a way for the 99 percent to live in dignity?

Controlling access to guns is a band-aid, yes.   But children are bleeding.   It's more than our love of guns that's getting kids killed.  A culture that continues to divide and to drive us into the ground except for a handful of lucky ones reaps what it sows.   We need to evolve.  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The More Things Change, The More the Attacks are the same...

In the early fifties, tv was perceived as a potential threat to Hollywood.  Though the broadcast networks had worked very well with Hollywood for a generation of radio, tv was more problematic, because it had a visual element that radio did not.  So Hollywood went on the offensive, with movies like Murder by Television, and also generally found ingenious ways to put the "little guy down."  I emphasize little here because tv is what made Hollywood fully invest in widescreen technology and color film: with movies bigger and brighter than ever, the studios thought they would remain the number one form of entertainment.  Indeed, one slogan of the era was "Movies Are Your Best Entertainment.  (Of course, that slogan didn't last; look at the acronym created by it.)

Without question, the most brilliant attack on tv was careated by Frank Tashlin for his Madison Avenue and stardom sendup, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?  Here's the scene, where Tony Randall steps out from behind a curtain to announce a "tv" break.

(Kids have grampa explain why the little tv set was doing funny stuff. they all did back in the days before cable.) 

Now, Flash-forward some sixty years.  It is the Emmys, and Neil Patrick Harris of How I Met Your Mother -- and also the internet sensation Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog -- is hosting.  And suddenly, as we are about to have the voting tabulation process explained....

Yes. What goes around comes around.  

Film Friday: Young Deconstructionist

I guess I was doomed to be a deconstructionist when I was about 13. 

I didn't know that I was doing it.  It all seemed just kind of stupid.  But then, suddenly, I'm in college, and the prof. is telling us to determine how many times the word shit appears in a David Mamet play. It took me years to recover. 

Okay, deconstructionism is not just counting words -- or even totally empyting them of their meaning. (The latter does feel like a byproduct.)  And so what if the low point of deconstructionism resulted in the L.A. riots of 92, after the attorneys for the cops who beat Rodney King deconstructed the video to make it look like King beat himself up.   It was still kind of fun.   If dangerous. 

And what was that film that I watched a ton one summer, when it was on my local premium cable movie channel?  Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke.  Yep.  This was the end of the seventies/early eighties, and their high times were about to end. (Corsican Brothers, anyone?)  And being young and stupid, we thought this was a classic.  and we counted how many times the word "man" is said.  We gave up right around the point where Chong discovers that the judge's water is "fuckin' vodka, man!"  We were overwhelmed.  

The funny thing is: while we all laughed hysterically at the dope jokes, I don't think it made us any more or less interested in doing weed.   It was the seventies; every comedian and comedy show made dope jokes.   Even some sitcoms featured it: remember the barney miller  episode where they eat hash brownies?  Remarkably, we still thought Up in Smoke was funny, even though we were straight.  Probably, we thought it was so cool to be watching Cheech and Chong. 

I'm almost four times as old now as when I first saw it.  When I think back on the film, I do find it amazing that I thought it was funny.  There are some nice parts for Strother Martin, Stacey Keach, and Mills Watson (who seemed to be in every other tv show in the seventies).  And yeh the song "Earache My Eye" is a classic in its own way.  I couldn't share with you much of the plot: basically the boys get stoned a lot, form a band,  and have fun at the expense of Sgt. Stadanko, who had been an invention of the boys on earlier comedy albums.   You had to be there. 

Thanks to youtube, deconstruction has a new life! Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

ACORN stole the election AGAIN???? Poll says...

The organization Public Policy Polling  conducted a post-election survey, asking similar questions they had put to voters after the 2008 election.  (Actually, about a year afterward, but post-election nonetheless!)  This article, giving us the highlights of the recent poll, suggests that the Republicans remain opposed to reality. 

The most glaring example: 49% of Republican voters said that they believed that ACORN, the controversial community organizing group, helped the President steal the election.   This is down from 52% in 2008.

The problem, as many many lefties have had fun with since the announcement of the poll, is that ACORN does not exist. Attacked in the media by falsified video evidence, ACORN nevertheless lost its federal funding and ceased to exist in 2010.  So, you'd think that it would be kind of impossible for a nonexistent group to help steal an election. 

And so the left had much fun with the reality-denying GOP.  And okay, such turkey-shoots are fun, I know.  But assuming that the pollsters asked the questions last month in the same way that the asked in 2009, then it's worth pausing about that figure. 

Respondents were asked their opinions of ACORN and then were asked, do you think that Obama legitimately won the election or that ACORN stole it for him?  that's a pretty damn provocative question, and leads you into an interesting problem.  You can say he legitimately won it, or you can say ACORN stole it, but what if your answer is different?  Okay, then say, "not sure."  But who really likes to admit one's own ignorance or insecurity?  And maybe you believe the victory was caused by other forms of fraud instead of anything about ACORN.  Polling is often reductive that way.

What makes the 2012 poll more problematic is this:  If I ask you if you think ACORN stole the election for the President, wouldn't you, at first "glance," assume that ACORN exists?  After all, why would a pollster ask you a question about a nonexistent group?   And again, if the poll question was worded the same way, and you're a Republican who might believe that Obama didn't win the election fairly, you have a choice: either you say you're not sure, OR admit that a group that doesn't exist helped him win. There's no button you can push that says "excuse me ACORN does not exist but I think the President cheated anyway."  

Do I think that many Republicans still believe ACORN exists, as many believe the President was not born in Hawaii, that global warming is a myth, etc.?   Okay I probably do, though of course it's easier to make fun of ignorance.  I'm mean-spirited that way.  But I can't help thinking that if you ask a loaded question, it's going to "rig" the answers.  And after all, 8 out of 10 people say you can't trust  polls. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Scalping for Sandy

As you probably know by now, the 12-12-12 benefit concert at Madison Square Garden is a pretty big deal...especially if you're old.  (I think Alicia Keys is the youngest performer scheduled.  Or maybe Kanye.) Paul McCartney, The Who, Springsteen, the's like one big Super Bowl halftime extravaganza!

Tickets cost a fortune, of course, but at least the money is going to a good cause: the Robin Hood foundation, which is sending all the proceeds to provide relief for victims of Sandy in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.  (Rumors that the foundation is going to provide the money for the massive upgrade of Long Island's electrical grid are probably exaggerated.)  But there's an interesting twist to money angle.

The secondary ticket market -- the legal places where people buy and sell unwanted event tickets -- often provides big business to ticket brokers and other shrewd individuals who seek to profit from their abilities to phone in or log on to buy tickets with the intent-to-sell.   But the organizers of the concert -- and a few other outsiders, including New York Senator Charles Schumer -- have called for people not to sell their tickets at outrageous profits, because it's inappropriate under these circumstances.  The related problem of brokers getting to buy tickets even though electronic ticket-sellers like ticketmaster have elaborate programs designed to stop them is exacerbated here, since some fans are complaining that they are unable to get a fair shot at the tickets because of such vultures.

StubHub, the largest secondary ticket marketplace in cyberspace, decided that they would allow people who wished to sell their concert tickets to do so, and would not place restrictions on pricing. (Representatives from the company did not believe they have legal grounds to do so.)   It was a difficult decition, but the company decided that it was better that StubHub be the main locus for such selling -- because StubHub is donating all fees from the sales of 12 12 12 concert tickets to the charity.   If a person is going to sell his/her tickets, it's going to happen, so the argument goes.  At least some more money gets to go to help the people who need it. 

I applaud StubHub's pragmatic generosity under complicated circumstances.  No question the vultures will seek to gouge the public.   The real question of leveling the playing field for the fans, however, is a much tougher one to address.   let's face it: there's going to be a demand for big name acts no matter what the situation, and when the demand is that high, promoters, venues, cable networks, and scalpers are going to get what they want.   It's not the fairest system.   But I also think it's worth calling attention to what the scalpers are doing in this case, because even though it's perfectly legal, it just feels like an uncool thing to do.   It's not the sleaziest thing I've heard of in recent years -- frankly, sports teams that jack up the prices even after lousy seasons are more despicable -- but it's one of those things that makes you frown.

What would be a really cool thing is if anybody from the worst hit areas could get a chance to go to the concert, or even backstage, or be invited to a post-concert party (which in this case would probably have the prune juice flowing instead of cocaine).  

Friday, December 7, 2012

Film Friday: My Favorite Christmas Movie

The tube is loaded with Christmas movies and tv programs, as you know.  They start around Halloween and just build to Christmas Eve, finishing off with the Yule Log.  It's always fun to see those old Rankin-Bass specials like Rudolph, the ancestors of the Aardman animated shorts with Wallace and Gromit.   And with every passing year, It's a Wonderful Life keeps returning to its status as a film noir. (Occupy Wall St's efforts notwithstanding, we all know that Mr. Potter has won.)  

There are a handful of movies that are set at Christmas time but whose plots are not ostensibly about the holiday season.   The first Die Hard -- yes, kids, there is a reason why Bruce Willis keeps making these movies -- feature a terrorist attack on an office building where many of the employees are getting wasted at the Christmas party.   It was great fun.   Terry Gilliam's Brazil -- an overwhelmingly designed dystopian vision of bureaucratic totalitarianism -- also takes place around the holidays.  Joe Dante's Gremlins gives us the most horrible Christmas story ever told, as Phoebe Cates explains what happened to her dad when he literally tried to be Santa.   It also is directly responsible for the resurrection of Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," as beautiful and heartbreaking a pop song about the holidays as has ever been written and recorded.  (And every year, the season really begins when she makes her appearance singing it on Letterman, which she's done since 1986.)

But my favorite of these movies is the first one I ever saw, on the tube, before any of the above films had even been made: Billy Wilder's Stalag 17

Adapted from a stage play (one of the playwrights appears in the film), Stalag 17 tells the story of American POWs in a German camp at Christmastime 1944.   This is a rough crowd of a American airmen, all sergeants, used to yelling.   But they also do their best to survive under the conditions which are muddy and cold, though no doubt sanitized to some degree by Paramount Pictures relative to the real thing.   The men sneak a radio around the compound to try and get news about the war. They play cards and gamble on mice races.  They also dig tunnels and try to escape.  

When two men are caught outside the compound, the men begin to suspect that there's a stool pigeon in their barracks.   Pretty quickly, the prime suspect is a man called Sefton, played by William Holden (who would win the Oscar for this role).  In the underground economy of the POW camp, he's a sharp trader: he wheels and deals for the parts to make a distillery; he's the "commissioner" of the mice races; and he runs the "observatory": a makeshift telescope where the men can see as far as the Danube river -- or peep into the showers of the Russian women's prison compound.  How does he pull this off? It's not just that he's trading sharper: he's willing to trade with the German guards to keep his operations afloat.   He pays them essentially protection money to look the other way, and also will trade cigarettes for better food and bedding.   (In one great scene, the entire barracks watches him fry a fresh egg on the stove.)  Most outrageously, he bribes the guards into letting him go to the Russian women's compound for an evening of partying.  

The rest of the men are digusted by Sefton; when the Germans force the men to fill in the escape tunnel, confiscate the radio, and even find out about a new arrival's act of sabotage, they believe that Sefton isn't just giving the guards cigarettes, but information.  

Despite the seriousness of the situation, the film is also very funny, in Wilder's famously sardonic way.   Two clown figures who also try to fool the guards are played by actors who did the original play: Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss, as Harry Shaprio and Stanislaus "The Animal" Gusava.  They are brilliantly funny but also pull off moments of pathos, as when Harry gets letters from the finance company, telling him they are collecting his car back home, or when Animal, in his drunken state, thinks that Harry is Betty Grable, dances with her, and discovers that it's just Harry. 

Needless to say, Sefton is not the stoolie, but I won't tell you who it is.  Wilder paces the slow revelations of the real rat -- actually a German spy posing as an American -- perfectly.  (Pay attention to the light bulb cord over the chessboard!)  Sefton's exposure of the real informer is a great denouement, leading to one more desperate escape attempt.

Wilder's script is first-rate, alternately sharp and poignant. (One man reads a letter from his wife, who tells him that "you won't believe it but" a baby was dropped on her doorstep who looks just like he; as he keeps repeating, I believe it, I believe it, the painful truth sinks in about the baby and his wife.)  The acting is top stuff; Otto Preminger is great as the Commandant of the camp. (He's got Wilder's favorite scene: the Colonel, with his boots off, is talking with the new prisoner, but as he does so he's preparing to take a phone call from his superiors... and so must put his boots on so that when he's on the phone he may click his heels in salutation!)   There's a moving scene on Christmas Eve of the men signing "Silent Night," decorating their tiny Christmas tree with their dog tags.   Despite the heroism of the end, Wilder undercuts this with a number of sardonic lines that I won't share with you so as not to spoil things.    It's the first Wilder film I ever saw, and in many ways still my favorite. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What makes "The Invaders" Episode of The Twilight Zone Great TV and Bad TV

In a remarkable second-season episode of The Twilight Zone, Agnes Moorehead stars -- indeed she is the only actor in the film -- as a woman who lives alone in some dark-woods home when suddenly a spaceship lands right on her roof. Unlike the stereotypical flying saucer from fifties sci-fi films, this ship is small; it must be to land on this woman's cabin! Two spacemen come out from the ship; she is terrified, and so begins a life and death struggle between the invaders and the woman.  

The primary weakness in the show is that the spacemen look like toys next to Moorehead, and the design looks silly, like a mini-Michelin man.  Now, of course, the point is that they are supposed to be much smaller than the woman, but author Richard Matheson had originally conceived the story as one where the audience would never see the little men: they'd be moving too fast, and all you'd have is Moorehead's reaction to them. 

That said, despite the non-threatening look, these dudes cause some damage: they have a powerful raygun that marks the woman with what are either welts or burn blisters; they cut and blast some holes in her home; and on two separate occasions they cut her deep, once in the foot, and once in her hand. Moorehead's reactions are brilliant.  You believe that this assault is terrifying her.  She grunts, she screams, she walks about fearful and suspicious. It is a brilliant piece of acting, and she never says a single word. 

The only dialogue heard in the episode comes at the very end. The woman has managed to catch one of the spacemen and destroy him. She then takes an ax or a club and smashes the ship to pieces.  The other spaceman is aboard ship, sending out a warning message back to his home planet, warning them not to continue with plans to explore because this planet is populated by a race of giants.  (The voice of the spaceman is that of the episode's director, Douglas Heyes.)  The classic twist-ending is revealed in the final shot of the story, which I'll let you discover for yourself.  This link will give you options for where you can stream the video at whatever your preferred commercial medium is: iTunes, amazon prime, netflix, etc. 

"The Invaders" is a tour-de-force for Moorehead.  A generation before, she'd starred in a classic radio drama, "Sorry, Wrong Number" for the program Suspense: a story of a neurotic woman who overhears a telephone conversation about someone plotting murder -- she thinks the wires got crossed, and as she desperately tries to get help, she suddenly realizes that she herself is the intended murder victim.   It is a masterpiece of voice acting.  Here in "The Invaders," Moorehead is able to express terror and desperation through her body language and in her cries and screams, but with no words to speak.  

Heyes wanted Moorehead for the part because he thought it would be a great contrast between the two media and the gifts that one actor could bring.   Heyes believed that because television is, after all a visual medium, a deaf person should be able to watch a program and have a pretty good idea of what is going on, even without hearing music or dialogue.   If a blind person, on the other hand, sits through a program and can tell others what an episode is about, then the tv show is a failure, in Heyes' view.   From an artistic perspective, there is much truth in what Heyes says; after all, it is called tele-vision.   But from the institutional perspective, an episode like "The Invaders" is not successful. 

By "institutional," I don't just mean the corporate culture that makes tv shows, or the "mass audience" arguments about television.  I really mean the entire cultural experience of television.  Because tv is a domestic medium -- or at any rate, one that does not utilize the facilities of movie theaters -- and because American tv is fueled by advertising revenue,  we watch television with much less attentiveness than we do films in theaters.  We are more likely to be distracted while watching television.   Sound becomes a crucial component of the television experience: the dramatic music cues, or the suddenly excited sports announcer's voice, cue us in that something exciting is happening, and if we're not in front of the tube, we're going to miss it.   "The Invaders" does offer very dramatic music (a score by veteran composer Jerry Goldsmith) but because there is no dialogue, the distracted home viewer may miss a lo while preparing dinner or texting to friends.

In this sense, "The Invaders" is "bad" television, since it does not use the aural aspect of the medium to its practical effect.   Of course, try telling that to the youtube fans who have it in their top episodes lists and mashups.   

Haiku: After the rain

Mud-green goose poop stains
the faculty parking lot
behind baseball field

                                --December 4, 2012