Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Just a little shout-out for Jeffrey Tambor

Most of us know him from The Larry Sanders Show.  More recently, he's been terrific as the pathetic pilfering patriarch of Arrested Development.   But the first thing I remember seeing him in was in Norman Jewison's ...And Justice For All, from 1979, with Al Pacino. 

Tambor is one of Pacino's law partners.  Early in the film, Tambor chews Pacino out for screaming at everyone's least favorite Judge, Henry T. Fleming (John Forsythe).   When Pacino compliments Tambor's tie, he responds, "it's Fleming's favorite color," and the two of them start howling in the men's room.  Later, Tambor is howling again, when their law firm finds out that a) Fleming has been charged with rape, and b) he wants Pacino to represent him! "I'm going crazy!" Tambor shouts, an ominous foreshadowing.

Here's a scene where Tambor, completely wasted, barges in on Pacino, who happens to be spending the night with Christine Lahti.   Tambor moves brilliantly from obnoxious drunk to crushed spirit.   The script is only fair, but Tambor rises above it. 

Later, we see him with a shaved head, and Pacino is worried.  He should be, because when we next see him...

Tambor is completely inarticulate, and yet what he's doing, and his facial expressions, say everything.  It's hilarious and sad at the same time.  

I'm glad that Tambor has achieve so much success on TV since this film.  And I can't wait for new episodes of AD coming to netflix.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

John McClane: Just Die, Already!

Let me tell you a story I'd heard about Bruce Willis.  My brother told it to me, to explain why he never sees any of his films.

Ages ago, my brother and his then-roommate were watching tv when suddenly this new show comes on called Moonlighting.   My brother's roommate is disgusted when he sees who the costar is.  Seems he went to college with Bruce Willis, and did a few plays with him.   During one production, there was a scene where Willis was supposed to affect the act of urination.  Apparently, at one performance, Willis didn't pretend.   This royally torqued off everyone working on the play, especially those who had to clean the stage afterward.  My brother's friend made my brother promise that he would never see anything with Bruce Willis in it.   Though my brother hasn't seen this friend in about twenty years, he claims to have held up his promise.

So, if this story is true, then okay: Bruce Willis didn't become an asshole because of Hollywood.  He was always a jerk.   But let's be fair, that doesn't really make him stand out among his peers, and he's not, nor has he ever been, a train wreck like a lot of celebs.  He does some funny bits when he goes on Letterman, doesn't really take himself all that seriously, and once in a while will put in a performance that impresses (he rises above the predictable material in The Sixth Sense, for example).

But when his epitaph is written, it's going to be the classic line from his ridiculously enduring character John McClane, the hero of Die Hard: yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker! In the recent Times magazine, Adam Sternbergh contemplates why the Die Hard  films have survived twenty-five years.   Ultimately, the article is more personal than social: Sternbergh became hooked by the first film when he was a teenager, and though he admits he doesn't like any of the other three sequels (the fourth sequel is coming very soon), Die Hard remains a formative entertainment for him, much the way Ghostbusters -- a film I saw when I was Sternbergh's age when he saw Die Hard -- remains that kind of film for me.

As for Sternbergh's discussion of what makes John McClane so appealing, I'm not sure I'm convinced.   That the franchise is still a gold mine is unquestionable.   The last film was the most successful of the four.   He dismisses the notion that McClane appeals because he's an Everyman, and let's be honest, that stopped after the second film.  McClane passes into icon status in the third film.   Sternbergh claims that when you take away the action film gimmicks, you have that ordinary guy, with the films apparently "designed to evoke the desperate clammy sense of frustration you feel during a visit to the DMV, times a million." 

But you really can't separate McClane from all the silly action nonsense around him.  And even in the first film, there's a sense that what we're seeing is Bruce Willis.  It's interesting to note that John Tiernan, who directed the first and third films, said that they basically created the McClane character around Willis himself.  But Bruce Willis is not just an average schlep.  He's Bruce Willis, movie star.  Certainly this is the case by the time we get to the second film.   In reading up on North by Northwest for my Hitchcock class, I came across a useful point made by the philosopher Stanley Cavell about the Cary Grant character: whatever else we can say about Roger Thornhill -- he's likes his booze, his a control freak, he's a womanizer, etc.  -- we never forget that he is Cary Grant, and all that discourse that comes with it.  McClane may give off some kind of working-class vibe, but he's still Bruce Willis, just as Rooster Cogburn is John Wayne.   You can't keep putting him in the same ridiculous situation he was in for the first film, but you can let his persona carry the day when sloppy writing and ramshackle plotting can't.   And McClane's endurance has less to do with his "relatable-ness" to us than it does to the fact that he's still good box office, like Bond. 

The first film is a classic of its kind.  I remember seeing the second one in the theater and loving it, but everything has slipped from my memory about the film.   The others just don't matter.  I"m hoping that the next one is called Abbott and Costello Die Hard. 

What's Really Wrong with Michelle Obama's Oscar Presentation

Okay, so it's certainly not surprising that the right-wing media attacked First Lady Michelle Obama's appearance at the Oscars.  It doesn't really matter that she was not the first First Lady to do so, or that other Presidents have also made some appearances. (No, not just Reagan.)  That some of the right conveniently forget the facts is not even worth discussing.  Let's face it, if Michelle Obama announced she'd found the cure for cancer, Rush et al would accuse her of grandstanding.

Here's what I think is kind of sad about the First Lady's appearance.

This is a woman who has made young people's health her bailiwick as First Lady.  Sh'es fighting to promote programs to solve childhood obesity, programs that include more exercise and healthier food choices.  Much has been made, as we know, of her own strong figure, especially her arms.  (I don't remember any First Lady's arms being the subject of discussion. Legs, perhaps, but not arms.)   And here she is participating at a ceremony that for the most part paraded impossibly thin young women in evening gowns.  There were constant comments and crass jokes on the show (and of course on Twitter) about how thin all the best actress nominees were.   Only Adele, who won for Best Song, has anything remotely like a solid, "realistic" figure.  I wonder what 9-year-old  Quvenzhane Wallis, Best Actress nominee for Beasts of the Southern Wild, thought when she saw women twice her size and probably the same weigh as she walking along the red carpet.

Should the First Lady have continued with the wisecracks about the 80-pound stars?  No.  It would have been kind of cool, though, had she used that moment to make a pointed observation about what kind of image young girls are receiving when they watch a show like Sunday's Oscars.  I'm kind of glad I didn't let my daughters watch them.  And I kind of wish the First Lady didn't take part.  Except that I am amused that the right hated her appearance so much.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Catching Fire?

I was leafing through George Carlin's Napalm and Silly Putty and found a brief discussion about flamethrowers.    His main point is the remarkable fact that "there are even such things as flamethrowers in the first place. ... at some point, some person, Phil perhaps, said to himself, 'Look at all those people across the road. What I wouldn't give to set them on fire. But I'm much too far away. If only I had some device that would shoot flames on them.' ... Phil happened to mention it to his friend, Dwayne, one of those people who's good with tools..."

But here's the food for thought, for those thinking about gun rights and protecting ourselves from our own government if/when it becomes too tyrannical: "the army has all the flamethrowers. I'd say we're jolly well fucked if we have to go up against the army, wouldn't you?"

And there ya have it, kids.   You can think you're going to take a stand against the U.S. military, but the truth is, they will outgun you.  You can scream Second Amendment all you want.   When the framers wrote the Constitution, they didn't envision that the army would use flamethrowers.  Not sure if they would have specifically said "the right of the people to carry things that throw fire shall not be infringed," but technically, it's a weapon.  Why can't we get one at Wal-Mart?   Because they are illegal for private citizens to own.   Just like you can't have a nuclear bomb.  and the men and women in uniform have access to all the really cool stuff.   Now, you can make your own design of one if you have the right stuff handy, and pull a Rorschach in Watchmen when the police are about to bust him.  But barring that, you might as well be prepared to face the cold facts of catching fire. 

Oscars 2013 in tweets

Here are a few amusing ones:

Anne Hathaway's nipples made a bid for stardom last night:

Watching the Oscars meant that I dreamt 'Gangster Squad' walked away with Best Picture. Not sure it's on the same level...

You know some idiot is going to open a bakery called Life of Pie.

Michael Ian Black  @michaelianblack
A thousand bucks to anybody who thanks "Our glorious leader Kim Jong-un" during their Oscar speech tonight.

Charlize Theron + Dustin Hoffman is a much more successful version of Mark Wahlberg + Ted. 

Why is Christopher Walken dressed liked that and lip syncing Streisand? 

In a tribute to "Flight" I'm getting wasted in a hotel room.

Singing about revolution always good in formal wear!

Should initiate a tradition in which losers bitterly denounce associates, friends, family & God who'd botched their chances for winning.

Man Gets Oscar playing leader who saved Union from woman who won Oscar playing leader who screwed unions.  .

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ancient TV Prophecies

In what may end up being the first of a series of ancient tv prophecies, I submit for your interest, a two-part episode of The Rockford Files circa 1978. (Go to Netflix if you wanna stream it).  "The House on Willis Avenue" concerns the establishment of a private computer network in Los Angeles, controlled by one corporate bigwig, in conjunction with two European counterparts.   Long in the security business, including actions like debugging of politicians' offices,  Jackie Cooper's character uses his hi-tech machinery, digs up some dirt on a local pol and blackmails him into helping set up the network.  Along the way, an old PI mentor of Rockford's has to be rubbed out, and eventually Rockford brings down the plans. 

But one interesting conversation between Cooper and the Europeans is worth a short thought. Both men question all the attention Cooper is bringing: the environmentalists --including one who had hired Rockford's friend -- are making lots of noise and trouble for the local pol in Cooper's pocket, but Cooper insists that the ruckus is part of the smokescreen.  The Europeans tell him they'd prefer things to be quiet, because they want to establish themselves and use their databases as part of the next generation of security.   They believe that once they've been in business for a few years, the public won't object so much to a privatized form of data access. 

The episode ends with a title card that tells us that millions of names are on private databases and we don't have access to see if we are in them, and that at the present time (1978), none of what "real" versions of these corporate types is illegal.  (The murder of a PI is fiction; the blackmail of a politician probably true.)  

35 years later, our names are stored everywhere, and not simply for sale by security firms, but by bookstores and search engines.  We willingly give up our privacy so that we can instantly stream videos of our favorite seventies shows.   

Interestingly, this morning I read the obituary of Allen Westin, who wrote the book on how most experts assess privacy laws in the age of computers.  He sought a middle ground to balance the rights of privacy of consumers with the access to their information by government and by private corporations.   The central control should be with the individual, he wrote, but of course let's face it: if you're connected to the internet you don't have much control.  Instagram wants to sell your pictures.  Facebook keeps changing its policies every seven months.   Men like the ones played by Jackie Cooper have succeeded. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Film Friday: Searching for Sugar Man and the Mythology of the Noble Working Class

I  was kindly asked to lead a discussion of Malik Bendjelloul's debut film, Searching for Sugar Man, after a screening in Long Island.  Since I'd not seen the film yet, I screened it two or three times in the past 48 hours.   As interesting as the story of Sixto Rodriguez is, the film itself strikes me as both very labored and yet very haphazard, too.  While I have no reason to debate that Rodriguez, a laborer who recorded two impressive albums in the seventies that sold nothing in the States but were very popular with a particular segment of the audience in South Africa, deserves all the praise he gets for his talent, his humility, and his values, I'm still left with the overall feeling that I'm being spoon-fed a tale that probably tells us more about a number of liberal white South Africans as it does about the musician whose records inspired them. 

I suppose that's okay, since after all the film's title is "Searching for...": it's about the South Africans' efforts to find out what happened to Rodriguez.  That doesn't make it any less overly done. 

Since I'd read all the main news and reviews about the film last summer, I knew at least enough to know that when the South Africans were telling me they'd heard that Rodriguez had committed suicide on stage, that this was pure mythology.  While it's set up as some kind of mystery, there is really none.   (Contrast this setup with that of Chris Hunt's 1992 PBS documentary The Search for Robert Johnson, where John Hammond Jr goes into the Delta not to find the long-dead blues singer, but to try and find out where and how he lived and died. )  The filmmakers work very hard to convey that sense of mystery, as the two producers of Rodriguez's first LP describe a smoky bar on a misty evening and a man singing with his back to the audience (Johnson legend has it that when he made his famous recordings he faced away from those who recorded him).  But it's mostly atmospheric. 

The dark, slow-paced scenes of Detroit, a city well-ravaged by post-industrial society, make an interesting contrast with the brightness and the speed of the landscape shots of the various major South African locales.  I myself felt the latter were extraneous, but one audience member made a very worthwhile point: that when Rodriguez finally comes to South Africa he brings his even temperament to that other geographic space.   But the scenes do drag on a bit; we don't see Rodriguez until we are two-thirds in, and let's face it, whatever his talents, Sixto Rodriguez doesn't have the magenticism of Harry Lime, the villain of The Third Man, another film (this time fictional) about a mystery man who finally shows up late in the story.

The final part of the film is highly sentimental, and self-aware that this kind of story would be rejected by Hollywood because it's too fantastic to be believed.  There's no doubt, however, that the South African audiences loved Rodriguez; there's also no doubt of the pride and love his three daughters have for him.  (But we all wondered: what happened to their mother? Is she dead? Did they divorce? She is only mentioned once in the film, and that in terms of her ancestry.) It's very sweet that one of them would fall in love with a member of the crew hired to chaperone them on their first visit to South Africa and that now Rodriguez has a South African-born grandson.  But there are still lots of questions.

First, one journalist seems to pay a lot of attention to finding the money: that is, in order to find out what happened to Rodriguez, whom he believed was dead, you had to find out where all the money from the South African record sales went.  When he ulitmately tracks down Clarence Avant, former exec at Motown who founded Sussex Records, Rodriguez's label, Avant is emotional, both sad and angry: he claims that who got the money is irrelevant, but the filmmakers just drop the story,  so we never really find out what happened.  We just celebrate that Rodriguez is given a certified gold record when he does make it across the world. 

Second, we have to take at their word the role of Rodriguez's music in helping to end apartheid, and I'm not so sure.  Mark Aitken's review of the film suggests that those whites who were really involved in the struggle would never have heard of him, and no black South Africans had any of Rodriguez's albums.  (When we see the concert near the end of the film, we see all the fans are white... the chairs, as he notes himself, are also all white!)

Throughout the film, we are presented with this mythic image of Rodriguez as this hard-working laborer, doing demolition and remodeling, carrying fridges on his back, but supposedly even doing some of this labor in fine clothing -- which I find almost as absurd as the stories of his suicide.  One of his coworkers gives us the theme: work hard and you will find great joy in life.  It's the ole Protestant Work Ethic.  When the film makers ask one his daughters how the story of his successful trip to SA was received, her first answer is that in Detroit, people need a lot of uplifting stories.   The city has been in decay for decades.  (For more on that, you can see Curtis Hanson's excellent drama 8Mile, starring Eminem, or Michael Moore's first film about GM and its elusive CEO, Roger and Me.)  But these conditions of poverty are there to be risen above, not to be resolved by wholesale changes.  Okay, Rodriguez apparently ran for local office, including Mayor, during the 1980s, but his causes are vague and his plans not even mentioned. The challenging work of politics is set aside for the "simple" values of the working class hero.

Ultimately we know very little about Rodriguez by the end of the film.  As one journalist says, perhaps that's as it should be.   Well sure: it allows one the chance to read whatever he/she wants onto the man.  And that's ultimately what this film is: it's about how a number of nice, well-meaning liberal white South Africans embraced a particular artist and projected onto him a sense that their lives had value and purpose.   For Aitken, the film is an exercise in nostalgia. I can understand that view, though obviously I know nothing of what life was like in that country in that time.  Whatever the truth of the claims of the journalists in the film or of reviewers like Aitken, it's clear that Rodriguez, for all his likely nobility, remains an image onto which his fans will see themselves.

In a sense, that's what's true of a lot of artists, especially pop artists.  And what saves this film is the music: it's intense, sweet, gritty, and beautiful, although it would be nice if we could clearly delineate between some of Rodriguez's instrumental work and the score that Bendjoullal composed himself for the film.   Ultimately, the records speak for themselves, which is a good thing, since the main himself seems very unwilling to say much about himself.   For a similar film, you might want to check out Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club, about Cuban musicians who are "discovered" by Ry Cooder and who get to perform a similarly triumphant concert, in New York, for an adoring, well-meaning, liberal white audience.  At least with Wenders' film, the personalities of these great musicians really come through. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Meteors, UFOs, Shooting Stars

I learned about the meteor hitting Russia when ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd led his talk show program with it on Friday.  His own recalling of how he found out was interesting: up early, watching CNN, he noticed the news crawl that read: Meteor Hits Russia.  He was shocked, stunned, not simply that it happened, but that it was not getting more coverage in the first few hours of the event's happening. 

Had this been near a major city, this would be the only story you'd see on CNN, especially a major American one.   But there it is out in Siberia, and so it becomes one of many different news stories for the American media (though it would make the front page of pretty much every paper in the States).

Cowherd made another great point about the story.  Here's an unscheduled event, a serious near-disaster, catching scientists and locals off guard, and yet even though it's in the middle of Siberia (actually, the sonic boom created by the meteor's explosion was in Western Siberia, near Kazakhstan, but you know what I mean) people managed to shoot video and upload it to YouTube.  (Various security cameras also caught the explosion "on tape.") But when a guy claims to have seen a UFO, it's always some crappy, grainy footage. And it's only one guy, "in Cancun, nine vodka tonics in at Senor Froggy's on the back deck." 

Pretty much any major event -- and certainly far too many minor ones -- are out there on video.  In this increasingly interconnected world, it's impossible for something as big as an alien spaceship near our planet to be observed by only one guy.  The coverup is too massive.  The Chinese government couldn't stop the public from finding out how series and widespread the SARS virus was; you think that if the aliens were arriving on spaceships today the US government could really keep it hushed up?  (Besides, if aliens were interested in intelligent life on earth, why would they seek out representatives of our government?)

Of course, after this short segment, Cowherd went back to talking about Lebron James and how awesome he is, and brought up Michael Jordan again, etc.   Can't ignore the vacuum-created topic of the week especially since MJ turned fifty today.   But Cowherd nailed it on the meaning of the Russian meteor story.

(oh, yeah, if you listen to the broadcast, Cowherd's cracks exploit stereotypes about Russia, and some might find it in poor taste.   But most of us from my generation -- which is also Cowherd's -- remember those stereotypes as relics of the Cold War.  I'd like to think we're smart enough, though again...)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Talk About a Slow Sports News Cycle!

February is the deadest time for many a sports fan -- and especially for sports media.  The Super Bowl has come and gone.  March Madness is, well, next month, and while baseball fanatics cite the date that pitchers and catchers report for spring training as the rebirth of the year, those of us still digging out of three feet of snow don't necessarily see it that way. 

And that's why sports talk radio spent pretty much the entire week talking about an historical argument about Lebron James, who'd just become the first player in NBA history to score 30+ points in 6 consecutive games while having a shooting percentage of at least 60 percent, and Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of his generation and, for many fans, of all time.  

In one sense, though, James's run is a mere happenstance -- in connection with two different "events": it happened in the "dead zone" of bigtime sports events and it also happened as ESPN was publishing stories about Jordan's turning 50.   With James going on his tear the very same week the network was marking Jordan's half-century mark, it just made perfect sense for pretty much every single ESPN radio and tv program to have something to say on the "Lebron v. MJ" debate,  a debate that was media-generated before James played a minute of NBA ball. 

There have been other interesting stories emerging this week, like the NBA players union firing its executive director, and tragically, the story of the South African paralympic star arrested for murdering his supermodel girlfriend, though this latter story broke at the end of the week, after all the hot air was already floating the balloon into another world.   But all that mattered was the blather.  

Remembering Shadow Morton

"Is she really going out with him?"

Thus begins one of the classic teen operas of all time, the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack." Okay, so it ain't Romeo and Juliet, but it was part of a wave of remarkable pop songs that suggested that the age of the professional songwriter could still compete with those self-contained acts coming from Liverpool and London. Complete with motorcycle sound effects, dialogue, and a hook line backed by a drum beat stolen from "Be My Baby," "Leader of the Pack" is a quintessential "girl group" recording. Its producer and co-author, George "Shadow" Morton, died on Thursday of cancer at age 72.

Morton's career was a testament to New Yawk bravado. He was not a musician nor did he read music. He bluffed his way into the biz by claiming that he was a songwriter, then went out and wrote songs for the gals from Queens, who scored a trio of hits in 1964. He was hired by the new label created by the legendary team of Lieber and Stoller, Red Bird. He was associated with the cream of the Brill Building crop, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Carol King and Gerry Goffin, and many more. His nickname was bestowed on him because he seemed to come and go to the studios and offices without any set pattern.

Unfortunately, Shadow came about near the end of the girl-group era, and he was less inclined to keep plugging away. Booze was also a factor in his disappearance; it wasn't until the 1980s that he got sober. But he did have a role in creating Iron Butterfly's bizarre epic "In a Gadda Da Vida," having deceived the group into just rehearsing the take while the recording equipment was supposedly being worked on. He also produced the New York Dolls' brilliant second album.

But he'll always be remembered for the iconic teen dramas of those 1964 singles. RIP Shadow.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Film Friday: The Birth of a Nation and the Southern Strategy

In preparing to discuss in my class the contrasting ideological positions of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, I was struck by the differing attitudes towards the past both men presented, and I decided to show a little bit of D.W. Griffith's notorious Civil War/Reconstruction epic The Birth of a Nation, to  offer some insight into the "southern mindset," a mindset that Washington understood more intimately than Du Bois, who was born in the north after the war's end.

In his famous Atlanta Exposition speech, Washington called for greater emphasis on opportunities for blacks in trade and industry -- at the expense of legal political enfranchisement and higher education.  His belief was that in a real meritocracy, opportunities would about for the recently freed black people through the encouragement of business  and labor relations that would remove prejudice.   Through direct experience rather than legal mandates can racism be overcome.   His characterization of the "Negro race" living in the South strikes one from our era as incredibly servile and historically naive:  to the whites who must still live with newly freed people, he reminds them: 

As we have proved our loyalty to you in the past, in nursing your children, watching by the sick-bed of your mothers and fathers, and often following them with tear-dimmed eyes to their graves, so in the future, in our humble way, we shall stand by you with a devotion that no foreigner can approach, ready to lay down our lives, if need be, in defence of yours, interlacing our industrial, commercial, civil, and religious life with yours in a way that shall make the interests of both races one.

Washington's image of the slave-master relationship in the antebellum south is not unlike the picture that Griffith paints in his 1915 film.  The son of a Confederate Army officer, Griffith sought to re-tell the drama of the war from the Southern point of view.  Drawing from the Reverend Thomas Dixon's "historical" romance The Clansman (He was probably more familiar with Dixon's own stage adaptation than the original novel), Griffith told the tale of war and reconstruction as it affected both the nation at large and the lives of two families, close friends but on opposite sides of the war.   The image of the Cameron family plantation in South Carolina is one of great repose and harmony.  The slaves after all get TWO hours for dinner after working twelve! And they bow and scrape and are respectful, and the master and his son treat them all so kindly.

Washington insists that although the legal relationship has been altered -- the whites down own the blacks anymore -- the close bonds will remain, the freed blacks will not harbor resentment.  But Du Bois, in his sociological classic The Souls of Black Folk, outlines the history of slave revolts dating back to colonial times.   The harmony presented in Washington's speech glosses over the real tensions that had existed since the first Africans were forcibly brought to the other side of the Atlantic. 

Washington's "Atlanta Compromise" also takes on an attitude that is eerily similar to those that have long been held especially in the South since before the war and long after the Civil Rights movement succeeded in the sixties to receive the legal protections that Washington said they would earn -- the key, however, is that it must be achieved through merit, not through "outside forcing."  And that's been at the heart of the difference between Federalists and States' Rights activists (and all its variations) since 1787. 

If the organizers of the Exposition had been "forced" to include a Negro exhibit, Washington says, they would have chafed at having to do so.  But it means more that they did so out of a genuine interest rather than having to follow the rules or the law.  This same logic holds in terms of civil rights and protections.   It's is "better" if the South gives the rights of enfranchisement on its own terms rather than having the federal government -- and remember Reconstruction was very much an occupation of the South by the US Army -- force it upon them.

Why does Washington hold this view?  He considers the actual experience of Reconstruction, claiming that many of the newly freed blacks were simply not "prepared" for full civic participation.   Of course it was natural to seek full political power, but Reconstruction has not resolved all of the issues of black-white relations.   Obviously the economic shock to the South -- which no longer had a supply of free labor, and also had much damage to its landscape and infrastructure during the war -- created a sense of anxiety, one that Griffith's film places squarely among the southern whites, who saw the Radical Republicans "forcing" equality upon them.

The leader of the Radical Republicans is the patriarch of the other central family in the film, Austin Stoneman, who is marked as deformed: he has a clubfoot, is often ill, and as it turns out engages in a sexual relationship  with his mulatto housekeeper.  (Keep in mind, this is 1915: the film is nowhere near as explicit about this affair.)   In helping the Blacks gain political control of the legislation, Stoneman precipitates the chaos of "wild" black men who vote for the right to marry white women and sets the final wheels in motion for the birth of the Klan, whose purpose was to protect white femininity as much as to regain political control.  The images of the corrupt and crooked black and mulatto leaders -- and their white northern associates -- were very much a part of the Southern imaginary long after the war's end, and were part of that imaginary at the time of Washington's speech. 

As I said, Washington's perceptions were rooted in a history that preceded him and has still been part of our discourse today.  The creation of the Constitution sought to balance the rights of individual states with the need for a strong national government to protect the new nation's borders in case England tried to re-take the former colonies (a legitimate fear in 1787).   The southern states in particular wanted much more sovereignty and gained political power within the national government.  How to count the slaves as part of the population to determine how many seats each state got in the House and how to calculate property taxes all had to take into account the situation in powerful slave states like Virginia (which also agreed to give up part of its land to create the District of Columbia).

As the country expanded, debate raged as to whether or not to allow the new territories and states self-determination on the slavery issue; this was a central focus of one of the most famous debates between Lincoln and Douglas.  As American Apartheid was finally declared unconstitutional, the governors of southern states blocked doorways to public schools and universities to prevent black students from attending, believing that each state was sovereign on the subject of education.  Much of the resistance to the Civil Rights movement came from the notion that the south was being forced into giving Blacks their full rights.  "Wait," apologists for segregation kept telling Dr King, and as he rightly pointed out, "wait" often really meant "never."  (That Du Bois better understood the realities of what would happen following the Atlanta Compromise than Washington has been borne out by much of American history in the first half of the 20th century.)

And the issue of States' Rights remains a major discourse in race relations and other matters.   Attacks on Affirmative Action often echo the same sentiments that Washington lays out about artificial forcing.  The images of chaos Griffith shows of blacks getting "free stuff" from the government and the cynical political manipulation as part of that echoes the attacks on Welfare since Reagan and echoed again in Mitt Romney's "47 percent" speech and Bill O'Reilly's observation after the election that those who voted for Barack Obama "want free stuff."    In other issues, states create all kinds of rules restricting the fundamental right of choice for women as given in Roe v. Wade.   We continue to debate how much government is really needed. 

As a Black man stands before both houses of Congress to deliver a State of the Union address, we can see that Washington's America has changed, but Washington's ideas have not simply vanished. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Paterno Family Media Blitz

Sorry, but I just can't shake this icky feeling I had, listening to Joe Paterno's son Jay on ESPN.  He was pretty much there all day, "promoting" the report his family paid for to investigate... what exactly?  Oh, the Freeh Report that held Joe responsible for not doing enough to stop Jerry Sandusky. 

I'm not going to comment on something I've not read.  (If I were in Congress, of course, I would, but that's another story.)  My point is that it just felt kind of creepy for ESPN to give so much time to Jay Paterno, whose central claim is that the Freeh Report was a rush to judgment and a slander on his dad.  He was given plenty of opportunities to talk to ESPN's tv and radio hosts about what Freeh did and didn't do.   (Paterno was fair in this sense: he was aware that some of the key players in the fiasco that was the Sandusky case were still awaiting trial and so could not be interviewed by the former FBI director.   But that didn't stop Paterno from insisting that there was no evidence that his father neglected his obligations, or that he knew about Sandusky a lot sooner than the notorious shower incident in 2002.)

I'm just bothered by ESPN.  I understand that this is a news story, and you want to cover it.  But I don't believe ESPN had the men who actually conducted the investigations for the family on air.   That would seem to be more important than having the Paterno family on.  But then, having the family on air -- as Katie Couric did -- creates a personal environment, one that people can connect to.  You're supposed to come away thinking, well Joe was a nice man and didn't really know the whole deal about a man he worked with for 20 years. He was just plain fooled like the rest of us.  

I didn't hear all the interviews, and I'm sure that some of the gang at the network took Paterno to task on some of the points he was trying to make.   It just seems, I dunno, a little like getting your hands dirty.  What happened at Penn State was awful beyond description.   I understand that Paterno family wanting to "clear" the patriarch of any neglect.   But that seems to me to be very hard to swallow, especially for a man like Paterno, a well-educated man, someone who seriously considered running for Governor of the commonwealth, a man who built a kingdom in the middle of nowhere.  Is it really possible he didn't know anything about Sandusky? 

Jay Paterno noted that when Sandusky was under investigation in 1998, state law prohibited disclosure about such investigations concerning child sexual abuse, so anyone who told Joe about the investigation would have been breaking the law.   This may be true, but let's be real here.  When the president and athletic director of the college went to Joe's home to fire him, Paterno said, you can't fire me, and they said, um, ok.   This man had enormous power.  To think that he'd not know that his defensive coordinator was under investigation is stretching the truth.  Furthermore, given that he'd worked with Sandusky for 20 years (like him or not, and of course the family insists that Paterno didn't really like Sandusky), wouldn't it have made sense for those investigating Sandusky to ask Paterno questions?  

I'm gathering that this report is not really gathering much steam.  It's being dismissed as PR on Joe Paterno's behalf.   Nothing wrong with defending your dad's honor.  I'd probably do the same, even regardless of the facts.  Maybe it's no big deal, all the attention it got.  But still, i wanted to wash my ears after listening to Jay Paterno try to tell me his old man was out of a loop.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Film Friday: Winter Storms and Movie Characters?

I don't think most of us realized it until about two weeks ago, but apparently the Weather Channel has been naming winter storms much the way that the National Weather Service names hurricanes.    The NWS in fact does NOT name winter storms, which is why most of the media outlets have not referred to some of these recent big storms by their "Weather Channel names."  

The basic premise of naming the storms is that "we" will be more focused on storms that have actual names than just generic terms like "blizzard."  And by "we," the Weather Channel means "people who watch the Weather Channel or use our web site and see lots of ads from our sponsors."  If the audience uses the names, they'll want more information, and the best place to get it will be from the Weather Channel. 

The first storm anyone realized had a name hit about two weeks ago. It caused some havoc in the south but not much in the northeast.   But of course it did get a lot of chatter in social media because of its name: 

While the Weather Channel might have tried to suggest that the Khan was really a tribute to Genghis, they obviously knew that the public would associate the name with  the great character played by Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II.  Of course, when the storm fizzled, all the "wrath of Khan" references seemed out of place.  I in fact suggested  that "slighty annoying inconvenience of Khan" was more appropriate.

This weekend's big blizzard is named "Nemo," and so there've been lots of clownfish images floating around social media, in tribute to the title character of the Pixar film Finding Nemo.   Once again, the Weather Channel is cashing in on the media-friendly recognition of a winter storm with a name, recognition that will bring more eyeballs to more ads.  

Interestingly, The Weather Channel insists that its names for the storms are rooted in antiquity, not mass media iconography.   The reason, as Slate reports, is at least partly legal:   Gandalf refers to a character from a 19th century fantasy novel set in medieval times (not a noted wizard from a copyright-protected series of "Middle Earth" novels); "Q" refers to a subway line, not the gadget wizard from the James Bond films; and "Nemo" is an ancient term referring to a Greek boy's name that means "from the valley." It has absolutely NOTHING to do with a certain clownfish whose names is controlled by Disney,  a corporation that is ruthless in suing anyone who steals an image they still own.  

Of course not.  And the Weather Channel ran all its names by their lawyers to make sure there are no lawsuits.  The presence of "Khaaaan!" jokes last month and the images of the little clownfish today are just by-products of the list, and has nothing to do with the Weather Channel.   

Of course. But all the same, the Weather Channel still seeks to cash in on such connections, even if they are not exactly making them!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Plagiarism and Cheating: Do We Really Care?

sThe news has been full of stories of atheletes who cheat. Lance Armstrong goes on Oprah and admits that he's been lying when he was denying.  Another PED scandal seems about to consume Alex Rodriguez.  What's interesting is that one thread of the discourse says: in a competitive world, you do whatever you can to get ahead, or even survive.  Supposedly, that's what's going to be happening even more today, given the shaky status of the middle class economy.  

CQ Researcher just published a really comprehensive article on the state of cheating and plagiarism in secondary and higher education today. In the wake of so many academic scandals, questions arise as to how much cheating is done, how seriously is it taken, and what are the root causes of the "epidemic" of the past few decades. A lot of interesting opinions are offered in the piece, and while they might suggest more about those giving the opinions than anything else, the article should provoke some interesting discussions among those who care about things like integrity and honesty.

Where is the blame placed?

1.  Technology.  It's easier to cheat using one's smartphone, and it's easy to copy and paste other people's work found on the internet.   A few issues come up with this, though.  First of all, as I tell my students, if it's easy for you to find it on the internet, it's even easier for me.  Not because I'm smarter than you, or more net-savvy (though at least one of these is probably true), but because I don't have to search for ideas to steal: all I have to do is type in a phrase I'm pretty sure you didn't really write, and there's the stuff you're trying to pass off as yours.   Second, an interesting cultural dynamic is at work: the idea of "remixing" is such a key part of our popular culture that students in some cases think that this is what is meant by research. It's our job as educators to make them understand the difference between what a DJ does -- which includes in most cases paying royalties for song samples -- and what they do when they don't acknowledge where their "samples" come from.

2. No Child Left Behind.  The laws that connected federal funding of public schools to student performance on standardized testing take a lot of flak for creating a system where teachers end up teaching to the test rather than teaching material to make sure students really understand it.  The increased use of standardized testing also encourages schools to cheat, which they do.  It's not just about the kids.  When millions of dollars are at stake, some principals and adminstrators will do whatever it takes.  And if they operate in the same kind of culture of fear that "everyone else" is doing it too, they pay the price for being honest just as minor league baseball players who never cheat but never make it to the pros are screwed out of opportunities by those who were willing to cheat in order to get into the Show.  I certainly don't believe in teaching to the test, and I'm inclined to accept the current research that indicates that there are too many problems with using standardized testing to make their use as a measurement of student progress mandated by law.  (To say nothing of the fact that there is one key group that benefits greatly from such laws: the publishers of the standardized tests and to a lesser degree private test-prep service companies.)  

3. The overall "culture of greed" that many people tend to blame Reagan on.   Now, I'm not a supporter of Reagan's policies, but I think there's a lot of truth in the classic Bob Goldthwait line that blaming Ronald Reagan for the problems of this country is like blaming Ronald McDonald when you get a bad cheeseburger.  It's not simply the President, but the overall set of neocon values, the "greed is good" values that led to the savings and loan scandals of the late eighties and to the collapse of the US economy in 2008.   With a utilitarian approach to education,  students began to consider courses in terms of how they would help them secure a very well-paying job.  The MBA became the most sought-after degree.   Knowledge for the sake of learning has become frowned upon. (I can still recall my uncle, a nurse practitioner, rhetorically asking, what the hell do you do with a degree in Sociology? Learn a trade!)  We must keep in mind that a Bachelor's degree is for this era what a high school diploma was before the boomers started going to college.   Thus the value of that degree is decreased, even as costs have skyrocketed. 

4. More specifically, the relatively lax response to cheating allows it to continue.  While Harvard has sued students over plagiarism and dishonesty, not all schools or professors take the time to "bust" their students.   As the article notes, professors don't necessarily have the incentive to do it.  One professor states that he was turned down for a raise because his student evaluations were low.  Why were they low? Because he was tough on cheaters and plagiarists.   Students also have a pretty different undertstanding of what actually constitues plagiarism, but it's our job to teach them that defintion.   It's one of the reasons I'm adamant about explaining this to my students.  

There's a lot to chew on in the article; it discusses earlier cases of plagiarism, and of course, such a term is very historically specific.   Are all my ideas mine and mine alone? Of course not, and the notion of an original author is also a fairly new development, with copyright laws following suit.  But there's no question that we must continue to engage the students and faculty AND administrators AND public officials AND parents (where applicable -- college students are supposedly adults) in order to reduce the cheating culture.

The 33 1/3 Series: Bloomsbury Press Taking Submissions Soon

A number of years ago, I picked up a number of titles from Continuum Press's 33 1/3 series.  Similar to BFI's Film Classics series, 33 1/3 consists of monographs focusing on one album of the author's selection.  While most of the early publications were from the so-called Classic Rock era -- Hendrix's Electric Ladyland, James Brown's Live at the Apollo, the Stones' Exile on Main Street -- more than a few come from the postpunk era, too -- OK Computer, Illmatic.  Bloomsbury acquired the series about two years ago, and the entire catalog will be re-branded beginning this year.  And just a few days ago, Bloomsbury announced its call for submissions to produce a new title for the series.

So now it's time to get serious.  Later on, I'll post an essay proposing one album that I'm pretty sure Bloomsbury won't take, but I think it's worth flexing the muscles, writing my passions and then tempering them with some critical edging.   Frankly, I'm not going to post here about the album I really do plan to propose; wouldn't want to jinx things, even for a long shot like this anyway.  Much to do, much to do.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Netflix, "House of Cards" and the End of Broadcasting....again...

Well, for years, critics and academics have been speaking about the end of tv as we know it.  I'm not talking talking aesthetics here.  Let's face it, when Carol Burnett called it quits in the seventies, was there really any reason to watch tv anymore?  (Okay, I'm kidding, mostly.)  I'm talking about the structure and format of broadcast television in America being over.   As someone who teaches broadcasting history, I'm sensitive to the idea that what I'm teaching is very much itself history now.   TV historian David Marc alluded to this in a section of his 1984 book Democractic Vistas, a section titled "What Was Broadcasting?" 

That was, in fact was a signpost: with the expansion of cable television and narrowcasting to specific markets,  the massive wide scope of American television was dropping.  The three-network structure that had dominated since the days of radio was being rebuilt...or torn down, depending on your point of view.  Through the early seventies, All in the Family was the number one show on television for five consecutive years, with ratings numbers that no weekly prime time shows today could possibly hope to achieve or maintain.   Despite its apparent controversial nature, AITF was America's last major consensus in the realm of television.  

By 1975 -- the last year Norman Lear's sitcom was number one --  HBO began broadcasting feature films that were unavailable after they'd had their theatrical runs; these films were run without commercial interruptions, because HBO was a pay-tv service.  That same year, Sony introduced the Betamax, allowing us to record our favorite programs while we were out at work and watch them later, allowing us to bypass commercials.   As satellite communications allowed for greater transmissions of broadcasts, superstations like Ted Turner's WTBS in Atlanta became available on many local cable systems or to anyone willing to spring for a dish (back then, about the size of a small roof).   As more and more channels began to be added to the cable spectrum, these channels produced singular formats.  Home Shopping Club and QVC sold stuff.  MTV stood for "Music Television," and all it showed were music videos and some concert specials that had been originally run on the premium cable networks.  The Weather Channel gave us... well, you know.  

At the time of Marc's book, the fragmentation of the broadcast market was well underway.  By the end of the eighties, a fourth broadcast network was launched -- Fox -- and in the nineties the internet exploded, creating new channels by which Americans could consume television.  In the past decade, the explosion of mobile devices has allowed us to travel with an entire library of television entertainment in our pockets.  And now, with smart tv's, it's even easier to watch tv without having to fork over money to cable or satellite providers -- and to bypass advertisements. 

All along this path, the End of Broadcasting has been declared.  Certainly the dominance of ABC, CBS, and NBC began to erode even before Fox entered the broadcasting fray.   A number of writers strikes also hurt the industry's efforts to continue to produce quality fiction programming, and contributed significantly to the rise of reality-tv shows.  With the relaxing of the FCC rules, and the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, politically charged talk shows proliferated, with no worries about having to be fair or balanced.  One of the more interesting supposed signposts of the end of the network era was NBC's decision to stop providing prime-time fiction programming at the ten o'clock hour in favor of a new talk show by longtime Tonight Show host Jay Leno.   By no longer producing dramas like E.R. for that ten pm slot -- and not even offering its newsmagazine Dateline at that hour -- NBC seemed to be admitting that it was becoming too costly to produce prime-time fiction, that ratings and advertising revenue streams were insufficient to justify the additional expense.  (Not that Leno was a bargain, mind you, but one big show like his was still cheaper than producing five separate dramas.) 

As we know, that sign turned out to be a dead end: the network affiliates went crazy that their local 11 pm news shows were doing terrible because Leno's show was not doing well, and NBC had to buy out Conan O'Brien's contract so that Leno could return to The Tonight Show.  (Conan, the odd man out, did not go back to his 1230 am slot, where Jimmy Fallon had taken over Late Night. He signed a deal with TBS.) NBC has maintained a measure of success, and with Hulu, gets its current content available on the internet for audiences on-demand...if they are willing to pay for a premium subscription. 

While I've been critical of NBC's ruthlessness in pulling content off youtube, the fact of the matter is that the technology is such that streaming video off the internet has improved enough to the point where we will not be interrupted by the annoying "buffering" frames anymore.   And when video services like netflix began to stream video to its members -- initially thanks to a sweetheart deal with content providers, who had not considered the value of their product when they signed the deal -- the way that television could be watched was significantly altered. 

This possibility had existed in the age of the home video box sets: getting an entire season of The Sopranos at the local Blockbuster Video was easy enough, and you could catch up with all your wealthier friends who'd sprung for HBO.  At least until the next season began.  (I was in that position when I decided to write an essay on Sex and the City -- I had to give up and pay for HBO to stay current.)   But what Netflix has done with its series House of Cards means something quite different. 

First, the decision to greenlight the project was based on evaluating data; normally, writers pitch series to tv executives and they think about it for a while.  If they like it, it's a go.   But there's no assurance that a show will get beyond its pilot episode, or even complete a full season.  When David Fincher approached Netflix to produce an American adaptation of a British miniseries about a Machiavellian MP, the executives didn't wait for their guts to tell them what to do; they looked at their data and saw that Fincher's films and those of the star attached to the project Kevin Spacey were very highly rated and regularly streamed or ordered via DVD.  Netfix agreed to 13 and later 26 episodes of House of Cards, and also applied a new strategy to its release.  Where networks -- even premium ones like HBO -- release one episode weekly, House of Cards's entire first season was available to stream on Netflix on the first of this month.  Thus, audiences don't have to wait to see what happens next; they can find all they can if they have 13 hours to spare on a weekend.  

This represents a major shift in how we watch television and how it will be made in the future.  Netflix has not released any figures on how many people streamed the series upon its release, and this leaves House of Cards beyond the measuring stick for the industry, the Nielsen ratings.  The success of the series will be indicated by how many more seasons Netflix orders.   Advertising dollars become less relevant, since Netflix is essentially a premium delivery system like HBO.  And since Netflix exists only on the internet, it is not beholden to producing time schedules, since everything is on-demand for its members.  Now that television sets themselves are internet-ready, streaming to a high quality television is even easier than ever. 

And the change in the media delivery system has an effect on the dramatic content of the streaming series.   The main writer for House of Cards was not beholden to having to create a cliffhanger for each weekly episode, since he could count on some viewers to watch more than one episode at a time. There may come a time when episodes themselves disappear! 

I've yet to see House of Cards, which I'm sure will be good.  As drama, it's probably not going to change the world.  But as the first of its kind, it's a major step toward a longform content that to some extent David Chase pioneered with The Sopranos.   (How many times did you hear that show compared to a novel?)

I'm also thrilled with this stuff because it liberates me from my cable company.  I pay them for my internet, but I sent back the box that gave me a million channels.   Now, I have my smart tv, my streaming video memberships (which don't cost me 60 bucks a month) and I can watch what I want.  This is the future. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Film Friday: A Short Note on BFI's Restoration of Hitchcock's Silent Films

Sorry for this being a short one, but I just wanted to mention that starting last summer, the British Film Institute began its process of restoring Alfred Hitchcock's surviving silent films. They have committed a substantial amount of resources into the project, and when its all over, the collection should be marvelous.

What was also neat is that the BFI has demonstrated their interest in these films being seen by as wide an audience as possible by streaming the restored films on special occasions. As a public institution, the BFI serves the nation at large, and with these films long in the public domain and released on video to varying degrees of quality, it's great that a government institution is preserving as crucial part of its nation's heritage as so many of the more expected treasures like a first folio of shakespeare.