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i read the news today, oh boy

Glenn Greenwald:

In sum, there is clearly a bipartisan and institutional craving for a revival (more accurately: ongoing preservation) of the core premise of Bush/Cheney radicalism: that because we're "at war" with Terrorists, our standard precepts of justice and due process do not apply and, indeed, must be violated. … it's now crystal clear that the country, especially its ruling elite, is either too petrified of Terrorism and/or too enamored of the powers which that fear enables to accept any real changes from the policies that were supposedly such a profound violation "of our values."  One can only marvel at the consensus outrage generated by the mere notion that we charge people with crimes and give them trials if we want to lock them in a cage for life.  Indeed, what was once the most basic and defining American principle -- the State must charge someone with a crime and give them a fair trial in order to imprison them -- has been magically transformed into Leftist extremism.

dollhouse: series finale

I’m trying to put together an essay on Dollhouse, and waited for tonight’s finale before I really pushed myself. After the episode ended, I checked out the critics … not all of them, because not all of them stuck with Dollhouse to the end (I’m talking to you, Tim Goodman), for good reason, since it was so erratic and even mediocre at first. And I found Alan Sepinwall, who managed to articulate exactly what I was thinking, in about 3900 fewer words than I was hoping to write:

Ultimately, the degree to which I was invested in Topher's fate - Topher! - may be the most incredible thing about "Dollhouse" from "Epitaph One" on. This was a character I viewed as symbolic of most of what wasn't working about the show in the early days, but once Topher began developing a conscience, Fran Kranz and the writers consistently knocked it out of the park. I have no idea if this was a course correction or the plan all along - show us an amoral man, then show him discovering morality with the highest stakes possible - but damn, did it work.

I really don’t have anything to add to this, which is bad news for my desire to write something lengthy. The ending was as satisfying as possible, considered the entire second season was rushed far beyond any usefulness. What I’ve said before may end up being the show’s epitaph (pun semi-intended): the growth of the series, from “why bother watching” to “show I most look forward to,” was remarkable and, if not unprecedented, at least highly unusual.

I write a lot about TV. A year ago, I wrote about shows I didn’t even like (hello, L Word), and shows that barely got out of the gate before they were cancelled (Kings, we hardly knew ye). But I didn’t write about Dollhouse until quite a few episodes had run. I simply wasn’t interested enough. Now? I already miss it, and it’s only been gone for two hours.

Grade for finale: A

Grade for series: Incomplete

Grade for the oddly-presented “Epitaph” episodes (oddly presented, as in Part One was never aired, but showed up on the Season One DVD, while Part Two didn’t show up until tonight, as the series finale): A+.

where the hell has this guy been?

It was only a couple of years ago that I first saw the Prime Minister’s Questions, wherein Members of Parliament get to query the Prime Minister. I found it astonishing that such a thing existed, that the PM had to think on his or her feet in response to the questions of the day from opposition party members.

Today, President Obama appeared at a retreat for House Republicans, and after a short speech, he took questions for more than an hour. You can find this on CSPAN, and there are a lot of commentaries being written, all of which I’m sure are good … pick the one you normally read, I got my first taste from Salon, via Mike Madden, who offered the anecdote that gives this post its title: “Democratic operatives around Washington watching it had pretty much the same reaction: ‘Where the hell has this guy been?’”

I was very depressed after the State of the Union address, as I realized just how far my own opinions were from our President’s. Today was a much different affair. Obama did a few things. He presented himself as a reasoned centrist, and managed to make that position seem tolerable to someone like me by acknowledging differences of opinion but not of facts (as Al Franken, among others, said, you’re entitled to your own opinions, you’re not entitled to your own facts). In pressing that point, he made what I generally find to be his loony passion for bipartisanship seem quite worthy. But he also called the Republicans out for forcing rancor into American politics by working, not in a bipartisan way, but in a way designed solely to provide talking points for future elections:

Obama gave the lie to Republican claims of bipartisanship, called them on those lies, but left the door open for future discussion, all while identifying himself as a centrist, not a Bolshevik. It was a brilliant performance that clearly established the differences between him and the Republicans, which I believe is essential if the Democrats are to have continued electoral success … without making that difference clear, he risks losing his liberal wing to apathy.

Now, it was easy in one sense to enjoy the session, because of what was left out. Nothing about foreign affairs, and nothing about human rights issues related to the “war on terrorism.” But for what it was, this was something.

And I couldn’t help thinking of another session that would be illuminating. If Obama, rightly, insists on his status as a centrist, and if I am correct that centrist Democrats are gradually making the word “liberal” seem like something marginal in comparison to the Democratic Party, why not have Obama do something like he did today, with liberals in place of Republicans. He’s got the skills to pull it off. While he was great today, it doesn’t take much to demonstrate that Republicans don’t always have a clear grasp of reality. It would be harder, I think, to do the same to liberals. But I’d like to see him try. He’s beaten Joe Palooka … it’s time to take on the #1 contender.

I no longer expect President Obama to make a case for liberalism. But I don’t need a President who agrees with me on everything. What I do expect is a President who is more than a lesser evil, someone who makes a legitimate case for his positions. I saw that President today. Where the hell has this guy been?

random friday, 1963 edition: lesley gore, “it’s my party”

I remember going to summer camp once … it was a week-long affair via the Episcopal church. I’m guessing it was 1965. The last night, there was a dance, and the only two albums, as I recall, were Beatles VI and The Golden Hits of Lesley Gore. The adults played those two records over and over again as the pre-teens danced away. I fell in love with a girl, as usual, and she and I danced all night … I remember doing the Jerk, which didn’t take any skill, a good thing since I didn’t have any. When I think of Lesley Gore, I think of that night. But that’s not the whole story, of course.

Gore was a 16-year-old high school junior when she recorded her first song, “It’s My Party.” It hit #1 on the pop charts; it hit #1 on the R&B charts. The producer on the record had just turned 30 … he was an A&R man for Mercury Records with a reputation as a solid arranger, who was asked to work with Gore after demos of her made it to the label. Together, he and Gore sorted through a couple of hundred songs before deciding on “It’s My Party.” It ended up being his first hit as a producer. His name? Quincy Jones.

While she never again made it to #1, Gore was no one-hit wonder. She had three more records in the Top Ten and several more in the Top Twenty. There was the sequel to her first hit, “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” and arguably her best record, “You Don’t Own Me,” which was kept out of the top spot by “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” A classic Quincy Jones arrangement accompanied a strong vocal by Gore, and lyrics which were startlingly feminist for the pop music of the time.

No discussion of Gore is complete without mention of her goofiest hit, “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” which did the job with Ramonesian efficiency, barely a minute-and-a-half, second verse, same as the first. (The music in this one is by Marvin Hamlisch.)

I would be remiss if I didn’t say a few words about the movie from which the above clip originated. Ski Party was one of those beach-party movies so prevalent in the 60s, moved to the slopes to provide a little variety. Many of these films featured pop acts performing their latest hits; Ski Party managed to get someone very special to visit the lodge in one of the more incongruous scenes in movie history:

There was another Lesley Gore tie-in in the above clip. The woman who recognizes JB was played by Yvonne Craig, the voluptuous actress who went on to play Batgirl in the Batman TV series. Someone else showed up for a couple of Batman episodes, although in her case, it was on the wrong side of the law, working for Catwoman:

Gore’s career began to fade when, despite plenty of offers to continue singing and acting, she started college at Sarah Lawrence, which didn’t leave her much time for that other stuff. She’s never really gone away … she picked up an Oscar nomination for her songwriting work on the movie Fame. The song, “Out Here on My Own,” perhaps took on special significance some years later, when Gore came out of the closet.

you know i’m a sucker for this stuff

Nate Silver did a “word frequency analysis” of the President’s speech, comparing it to speeches from other presidents at similar points in their tenure. Not sure it means anything, and, as Nate says, “were I evaluating the speech on policy grounds, I would evaluate it more skeptically.” But it’s the kind of thing I love reading. Silver concludes that compared to his predecessors, Obama sounded most like Clinton.

Silver clearly had fun with this, but he is also quite clear that “most State of the Unions have had a fleeting impact, at best.” Still, since I wanted to barf when Obama said “I have embraced the vision of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan,” it’s nice to see that, at least in “word frequency analysis,” the President’s speech had a low correlation to the speeches of JFK and Reagan, and this correlation was also mostly lower than was his speech of last year. IOW, he evoked Kennedy and Reagan explicitly, but otherwise didn’t really echo them.

One last note. As I looked over Silver’s charts, I realized that when I wanted to compare Obama to someone I “liked,” I kept going back to the same person. You can take this with a grain of salt … I am not much of a fan of any president from my lifetime … but I am surprised to find that the guy I seemed to check with most often was … LBJ.

the ratchet effect

If there’s one thing I hope the students in my critical thinking class take with them after the fact, it’s that we need to apply our analysis not just to the opposition, but also, perhaps even particularly, to ourselves. I am always wary of being sucked in … this naturally makes me an easy mark … I’m pretty sure if you went back through last year’s blog posts, you’ll find someone who was in love with Obama’s charisma but felt compelled to resist the attraction every time it appeared, until the day I entered the voting booth and proudly voted for the man who would become our first African-American president.

Today something was forwarded to me via email that, on first reading, seemed so close to what I’ve tried to articulate over the years that it was spooky. So of course, I decided I needed to examine it, find stuff to rip apart, and post about it here. I haven’t really found anything yet, beyond ad hominem stuff. It isn’t new, so it’s entirely possible someone else has already done the ripping. But …

Michael J. Smith wrote a book called Stop Me Before I Vote Again. The chapter that was forwarded to me is called “The rightward ratchet (and how the Democrats help keep it going).” The ratchet effect is well-known enough to warrant a page on Wikipedia: “some processes cannot go backwards once certain things have happened, by analogy with the mechanical ratchet that holds the spring tight as a clock is wound up.” Smith applies this effect to an analysis of major-party politics in the USA. I’m not sure what I think of the entirety of his case, but one part certainly rang true to my way of thinking:

The American political system, since at least 1968, has been operating like a ratchet, and both parties -- Republicans and Democrats -- play crucial, mutually reinforcing roles in its operation.

The electoral ratchet permits movement only in the rightward direction. The Republican role is fairly clear; the Republicans apply the torque that rotates the thing rightward.

The Democrats' role is a little less obvious. The Democrats are the pawl. They don't resist the rightward movement -- they let it happen -- but whenever the rightward force slackens momentarily, for whatever reason, the Democrats click into place and keep the machine from rotating back to the left.

Here's how it works. In every election year, the Democrats come and tell us that the country has moved to the right, and so the Democratic Party has to move right too in the name of realism and electability. Gotta keep these right-wing madmen out of the White House, no matter what it takes.

(Actually, they don't say they're going to move to the right; they say they're going to move to the center. But of course it amounts to the same thing, if you're supposed to be left of center. It's the same direction of movement.)

So now the Democrats have moved to the "center." But of course this has the effect of shifting the "center" farther to the right.

Now, as a consequence, the Republicans suddenly don't seem so crazy anymore -- they're closer to the center, through no effort of their own, because the center has shifted closer to them. So they can move even further right, and still end up no farther from the "center" than they were four years ago.

There’s a lot more to Smith’s argument, and like I say, I don’t know what to make of much of it. But I’ve long argued, not that the thinking of the “average American” has moved to the right, but that our definition of “the center” has changed, so that the center of today is further right than it was in the past, which means the liberals of today are more like the centrists of the past. And the liberals of the past today look like extremists. Smith’s construct fits with that, I think, and relates to something I wrote awhile back, that “liberals” are often spoken of as a separate entity from “Democrats.” Here, it would seem that liberals can either join the Democrats in a move towards the right (“center”), or risk being labeled extremists who no longer matter.

damages, season premiere

People who know a bit about my family history could probably appreciate what I was thinking when Glenn Close as Patty Hewes was taking a deposition from Lily Tomlin as the wife of the fictionalized Bernie Madoff character. I’m paraphrasing … Patty asks the wife something like, “You lived with this man for 40 years. He stole $70 billion. And you’re telling me you didn’t know anything about it?”

My mom would have been 82 years old today.

why i’m looking forward to the return of damages

Heather Havrilesky:

[T]his show transcends the base level of twisty procedurals with one thing: Patty Hewes. Like Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey or Al Swearengen, Patty Hewes is that formidable villainess that makes the whole crazy mess sing. …

But Patty Hewes is different. She's a self-serving manipulator, sure, but she's guided by some odd mix of vanity, pride, vengeance, a commitment to appearances, a genuine desire to seek justice for the underdog, and the vaguest outlines of a conscience. Even after two seasons, during which Hewes has proven that she's willing to screw over almost anyone to win her cases and have her way, we're still not completely sure what the woman is and isn't capable of. She is haunted by her crimes, there's no doubt about that. It's hard not to be a little bit daunted when your husband ditches you and your own son tells you, "People either leave you, or they die. Those are the only two endings possible."

what i watched last week

Funny People. Critics who liked this movie tended to describe it by what it wasn’t: it wasn’t just another stoopid comedy, it wasn’t just a comedy at all, it was funny but it wasn’t just funny, it had real people instead of the stereotypes we usually see in comedies. All of this is true. It also features some excellent performances, led by Adam Sandler, who, it is safe to say, is not my favorite comic actor. The film is admirable in all the right ways, and it’s disreputable when necessary as well. But it’s also 146 minutes long for no good reason, it’s funny but not funny enough, dramatic but not dramatic enough, a step forward for Judd Apatow but not quite progress. Which is to say, despite a good movie career that has made Apatow the exemplar of 21st-century comedy, he still hasn’t done anything as good as Freaks and Geeks. Docked a point for being way too fucking long. 6/10.

My Family. I am such a sucker for this movie, I am incapable of evaluating it fairly. I have watched it many times; I will watch it many more times. Its strengths are not really the things I like about movies in general … it’s hyper-emotional, wears its heart on its sleeve, has scene after scene meant to elicit tears from the audience. But I’m sucked in, for whatever reason. There is some terrific acting … Esai Morales is charismatic, iconic, and Jimmy Smits, well, he is never bad, and this is one of his finest roles. Is it true to the spirit of Mexican-Americans? I have no idea, but it feels true to the spirit of immigrant families in general, it makes me want to be a part of their family without idealizing their lives. And while the ending is perhaps too willing to accept a second-rate existence (“it is wrong to wish for too much in this life”), the lives we see are anything but second rate. 9/10.

Jailhouse Rock. Justly considered one of the King’s best movies, which doesn’t mean much … it doesn’t suck, the acting is OK, the story is interesting. Elvis is impossibly young and beautiful. The “Jailhouse Rock” production number is considered the pinnacle of Elvis’s movie career, and as a presentation of his moves, it more than serves its purpose (you can be sure Bruce Springsteen watched this one more than once). But a fundamental problem with the film is found in the very scene which gets such great praise. The record version of the song is a stripped down rocker with a brutal vocal by Elvis … despite being silly, it’s one of his best records because of his vocal performance and D.J. Fontana’s killer drumming. All of that survives in the movie’s big production number, but we also get crappy, unnecessary backup vocals. The message is clear: the people making the movie didn’t trust Elvis’s music enough to leave it alone. (Perhaps more forgivable is the continuity error during “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” where Scotty Moore's sunglasses appear during long shots and disappear during medium shots.) 7/10.

Caprica. I don’t know, is this a movie? The series finally kicked off this week with the feature-length pilot. We had watched it on DVD last summer, but watched it again to get ourselves up to speed. The DVD has a few things not in the SyFy version … nudity, don’t know what else. Anyway, it’s an intriguing setup for a series, it has a couple of my favorite actors (the aforementioned Esai Morales and the delicious Polly Walker), and I’m willing to give Ron Moore a lot of room … I look forward to the series. 7/10.

(500) Days of Summer. Many critics got it right: Annie Hall for a new generation. And I’ve got a crush on Zooey Deschanel, so I’m inclined to cut this romantic comedy some slack. Not that it needs my help … it’s as charming as it thinks it is. 8/10.

a few notes on the top 1000 films of all time

They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They have released the latest version of the 1000 Greatest Films of All Time. The main change seems to come from the various best-of-2000s decade lists, which raised the profile of some more recent films. They also have some interesting lists that breakdown the ratings based on various categories.

For instance, they list the top 100 films from male and female voters, and this tells us something perhaps not so surprising: the male voters’ list looks a lot like the overall list, suggesting that most of the voters are men. (“Voters” is a misnomer, I suppose … the lists are just collated rankings based on lists from other sources, using some ranking system I don’t care enough about to examine.) What films have the highest jump when only female critics are considered? I won’t do the exact calculations, but the following, from the Top 100 according to female critics, rank much higher according to women:

  • Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (152nd overall, 9th amongst women)
  • Mean Streets (127/23)
  • Shoah (159/24)
  • Pandora’s Box (199/39)
  • Thelma & Louise (399/52)
  • The Piano (265/59)
  • The Terminator (259/76)
  • Shadows (309/78)
  • Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (200/85)
  • An Angel at my Table (unranked/89)
  • Rumble Fish (unranked/90)
  • Accattone (341/92)
  • Sans soleil (201/93)
  • Grey Gardens (641/97)

Doing the same thing for “top critics,” who come closer to the overall list, gives us:

  • The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (254/38)
  • Two or Three Things I Know About Her (252/4
  • L’Eclisse (193/60)
  • The Music Room (189/65)
  • The Crime of Monsieur Lange (277/71)
  • Celine and Julie Go Boating (190/72)
  • Tabu (211/84)
  • The Shop Around the Corner (209/89)
  • A Canterbury Tale (366/97)

Filmmakers only:

  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (120/18)
  • The Wages of Fear (206/75)
  • Nights of Cabiria (184/77)
  • Cinema Paradiso (238/86)
  • La Notte (224/89)
  • Throne of Blood (196/90)
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (220/93)
  • Crimes and Misdemeanors (244/96)
  • The Tree of Wooden Clogs (262/97)

And finally, “low profile” and/or younger critics:

  • Days of Heaven (154/42)
  • Brazil (163/46)
  • Sans soleil (201/80)
  • Wings of Desire (257/87)
  • Sátántangó (245/95)
  • The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (208/96)

I haven’t updated my info on “Lists of Bests” lately, but without those updates, it appears I’ve seen 42% of the Top 1000 Films. The highest-ranked film I haven’t seen is #11, Tokyo Story.