Instapun*** Archive Listing

Archive Listing
August 23, 2009 - August 16, 2009

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Forgotten

ALSO-RANS. As you may have noticed, the Boss is cranky and, to be honest, he's bringing everybody down around here. It's not really his fault. The election campaign has become some kind of eternal purgatory that afflicts us all with disastrous candidates on every side. And there's no end in sight. So I'm going to do something different. Rather than weep and wail every day about the stupidity and duplicity and the boneheadedness and outright lies -- which we all know are inevitable, like some over-hyped History Channel Mega-Disaster -- I'm going to reach out a hand to the young'uns, specifically the ones our boy Brizoni referenced in an email to me:

They're heavily cynical, but cherish unflinching passion and belief... they love cool-looking mysterious stuff.... [They] fancy themselves literary, the type who will actually say things like "I like books," or "I love reading." Those who listen to NPR because they think that's all that's out there for smart people.

I'm thinking the media-savvy kids who still know what books are also believe they know everything worth knowing about pop culture in the twentieth century. They may feel a bit shaky about history over the long haul, but they're pretty sure they're up to speed on the pop celebs and media highlights of multiple generations before them. They know about Lucy and Jackie Gleason and Kurt Vonnegut, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Rod Serling, Andy of Mayberry, Frank Sinatra, The Brady Bunch, Jack Kerouac, Jack Benny, Ed Sullivan, Marilyn Monroe, Walter Cronkite, Orson Welles, Mary Tyler Moore, and Miami Vice. They've seen a ton of movies, and thanks to Nickelodeon, TVLand and dozens of Hollywood remakes, they're familiar with even minor Hollywood stars and myriad mediocre TV shows, including Gilligan's Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, the Flintstones, and the Dukes of Hazzard.

But all of these are really just samples. Those of us who are older know the incredibly important truth that in most cases, fame lasts only for a few years and then all but the very very lucky are, well, forgotten.

I could be dead wrong about this. But I'm betting that learning something about the forgotten ones might be something Brizoni's kids could get into. A way past the superficial shared blur of the pop media background they have learned to take for granted. The basic point: there was always more going on in the past than our easy generalizations suggest. Even the contemptibly familiar terrain that's become the consensus past of awards shows and retrospectives contains fascinating individual talents who were very much a part of people's lives and dreams whether we remember them anymore or not. Those are the people I'm going to focus on.

The criteria are complicated and I'll probably make mistakes. I'll pick some people that really are better remembered than I thought. And I'll pick some who maybe weren't that talented to begin with. But my list -- which is long and has been vetted by multiple representatives of three generations -- consists of people who were famous in their time and now seem to be no more than footnotes. You rarely hear their names, and when you do, most people draw a blank or can recognize them only as belonging to some specific media category, though not with any real knowledge of their work. Some of them should have been remembered but haven't been. Others were perhaps the Paris Hiltons or Grey's Anatomy cast members of their day, manufactured celebs who vanished with the turning of a calendar page. But they were all part of the sum.

You can see how difficult the selection process is. I'm happy to consider your nominations, but I will remain the final arbiter of who gets chosen and who doesn't. For example, a good friend of my approximate age nominated Noel Coward, because he thinks Coward's singular talent has been forgotten. I didn't put him on the list. Enough banging around on the Internet will eventually stumble across a man who lived his entire life as a star, whether or not his popularity stock is up or down at the moment. I'm really looking for the ones Brizoni's kids might never learn about despite their curiosity and adeptness at exploring the media. But as the series develops, I'm prepared to bow to good arguments bolstered by the evidence of observant commenters.

Let me know what you think. The first installment will be posted soon. Fittingly, the first entry will be someone almost no one remembers. But in all likelihood, you have seen him.

The Forgotten:
John Russell

The Lawman (1958-1962). He's on the left. The other one is Peter Brown.

REMEMBERING. I don't know why this had to be the first one, but it just always was. I was never that much of a fan of Matt Dillon -- and Chester, and Festus, and Miss Kitty, and Doc, ugh -- and even as a kid I grew weary of the fact that Dillon always got shot in the shoulder. Damn, the man must have had a hole the size of an apple up there after all those gunfights in Dodge. But Marshal Dan Troop, the Lawman, was believable somehow.

Why do I remember this guy as something special among all the TV western stars of the early sixties? I don't recall a single episode or plot of the half-hour series. I think it's that he was somehow more modern, in both his acting and his on-screen character. No bravado. But he was obviously a man. And he was the law. Excuse me. The Law. The way we'd all like to think the FBI is, only it isn't. Here's what his fansite (yes!) has to say about the show:

Asked at the 1998 Charlotte Film Festival about his best recollections of Lawman, Peter Brown answered, "John Russell, John Russell, John Russell. He was about as good as it got." At the 1998 Knoxville Film Festival, Peter described how John Russell took him under his wing and taught him how to act in front of a camera. Thus life imitated art. The format of the show called for Marshal Troop to be mentor to his young, inexperienced deputy. [In one aspect life didn't imitate art-- Peter was actually the better gun handler of the two although John was no slouch.]

Apparently John not only took his young costar under his wing, but enlisted him in a "conspiracy" to make Lawman a quality show despite the fact that at the time Warners was pumping out Western and detective shows like sausages from a meatpacking plant. They had to contend with hectic schedules, skinflint budgets and a myriad of writers and directors who were never given the time or money they got at other studios. The two stars, along with the producer Jules Schermer were the constants who maintained the high quality of the show and the consistency of the characters. Schermer complained that break-neck production schedules meant that directors had no time to take into account any of the subtleties of the script, including characterization. Apparently Russell and Brown both understood Schermer's perspective: "The success of the TV drama depended on establishing a particular tone. A television episode, he explained, 'is basically only an incident built up with characterization. If a director plays the characterization wrong . . . the total effect of the teleplay is destroyed.'"... Russell and Brown with Schermer, managed to keep that strong characterization, including an interesting and growing relationship between the two main characters in Lawman.

You can read more about him at the fansite, but I'm going to quote one more paragraph here because it demonstrates, I think, that even in the old hokey days of television we've come to laugh at the medium still possessed the power to burn through artifice and reveal the genuineness, or lack of it, of the people inside those tiny screens.

John Russell was born January 3, 1921 in Los Angeles, California. He was raised in a family with four other children, two sisters and two brothers, all of whom survived him. He attended the University of California where he was both a drama student and a student athlete. In 1942, he joined the Marine Corps where he received a battlefield commission and was decorated for valor at Guadalcanal. In 1943, he married his first wife Renata. [The marriage would last over twenty years.] He was honorably discharged from the Corps in 1944. In 1945, he was "discovered" by an agent in a Beverly Hills restaurant which led to roles in a number of B-movies [see credits list], generally as a villain or secondary lead.

"Villain or secondary lead." You see, that's how you get to be forgotten even if you've been "decorated for valor at Guadalcanal." That's why I remembered him above all the other western TV stars. When the Lawman left his office to go get the bad guy, his specific gravity was ten times greater than anyone else's. Even to a kid.

What I didn't know when I started looking for him was that he had also played a key role in the last great western Hollywood ever made. No. Not Unforgiven.(Someday I'll hack that piece of overpraised nonsense up the way it deserves, but not today.) The last real western made was Pale Rider, Clint Eastwood's flawed but still excellent reworking of Shane. I was shocked to discover at John Russell's fansite that he had played the part of Marshal Stockburn, the movie's equivalent to the Jack Palance character in Shane and, under Eastwood's direction, almost as mythic in his villainy as "The Preacher" who comes from wherever (?) to kill him.

If you read the user comments on Pale Rider at, no one remembers who Russell is. They think he's a Lee Van Cleef lookalike. But Lee Van Cleef couldn't have played this part any more than Jack Palance could The Stockburn character works because he's every bit as skilled, experienced, and determined as a 60-year-old gunman could be, but he can also show the sudden fear of a brave man who knows that his number is unaccountably up. It's a key contribution to the movie. He doesn't run. He stands his ground. But he knows -- and through him we know -- that the Preacher isn't just a man. Stockburn would kill any man.

If you read further, you'll find that Russell was very ill when he made Pale Rider. He's no longer with us. But I, personally, can't wait to see Pale Rider again. Hats off to Clint Eastwood for giving the Lawman his final bow. And if you're an obsessive about trivia, here's what is still known about each and every episode of a series that honestly couldn't be more forgotten.

John Russell. Wish I could have met him. How about you?

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Life in These
57 United States

A GOOD DAY TO BE DAFFY. Sometimes there just isn't that much to say about it all. Daily events play out exactly like an old-time cartoon, as a series of sight gags that defy explanation. Yesterday, for example, we had the great Democrat brains of the Senate demanding that oil executives tell them why gas prices are so high, as if the execs could do anything about OPEC -- or as if they should go politely out of business rather than pass their costs on to their customers. I suppose the bottom-line implication is that they should forego all future profits because the Congress isn't ever going to let them drill for non-OPEC oil or build any new refinery capacity. Their real responsibility is to take the blame when Congress and the whole DC establishment drives the U.S. out of business. Sure. That makes sense.

We thought Dick Durbin was especially effective in his interrogations.

Meanwhile, the selfsame Congress that wants to punish oil companies for high prices they can't control also decided to reward farmers for the runaway food prices which have been directly created by collusion between the farm lobby and -- ta da! -- Congress. I guess there's no political mileage in pounding the table for surtaxes on windfall government subsidies.

If we begged enough, don't you think we could
have one of those solid gold tractors too? Vern?

Events were unfolding just as sanely on the campaign trail, where Tom Harkin suggested that being from a military family makes one automatically a danger to the republic in high office, while Father Barack added his wife's campaign speeches to the lengthening list of things Obama about which it is "unacceptable" to speak. The dark warning to "lay off my wife" seemed to imply an unspoken "or else" that inspires a certain amount of wondering speculation. Is personal vengeance a task he'd delegate to old pals like Bill and Bernardine? Or would he himself become the righteous, smiting hand of God his adoring flock already believes him to be?

We know he's got the necessary Bible training. But does he have a string-tie?

Not that the Democrats have any kind of monopoly on slapstick nonsense. The Republicans, who know they're facing open revolt from their conservative base because of eight years of profligate spending, were tripping all over each other to be first in voting for the $380 billion farm bill. Yep. That's gotta be the perfect way to serve the constituents and save the party.

Republicans have a strategy: "Go to hell. Go directly to hell.
Do not pass Go. Do not collect on your $380 billion sellout."

But at least McCain is having a good time, a big old barbecue (way to distance yourself from GWB, smart guy) with 20 old white guys angling for the VP slot and one young brown guy who's the very last person any clear-thinking Republican would want to yank away from his golden opportunity to show the country what entrepreneurial principles can do to save New Orleans and Louisiana from themselves. If he weren't a rock-headed, egomaniacal old coot, McCain would know that the best decision he can make in the 2008 campaign is to leave Bobby Jindal right where he is. And if he weren't a pandering tool of the Luddite, mankind-hating environmental lobby, he'd know that the best possible VP candidate he could find isn't a man at all, but the only governor in the country who has the guts to stand up and fight against last week's catastrophically corrupt designation of the polar bear as a threatened species.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Something about Alaska. Maybe something
about women, too. Knowing that humans and animals are in this together,
not pawns to be manipulated
against one another in a lose-lose shell game.

I'm not even going to make the case for why Palin is the best choice. There's no point. It doesn't matter what anyone says this year about integrity and responsibility and principle. Absolutely everybody in the middle of the national political game right now -- including McCain, Obama, Hillary, and all their supporters, staff, and hangers-on -- is really just one laughably transparent character. But don't worry. I'll never tell who it is.

That's all for now, folks.

Things No One Wants to Admit

Jazz is dead, people. It died with these two addicts.

TIRED, AIN'T YOU? The Dark Ages are already here. Western civilization is exhausted and moribund. To some degree it doesn't matter how it happened, although possible causes are as numerous as the rational social-engineering constructs that have swept through the intelligentsia like deadly silent viruses for more than a century. What matters is that the thrust of creavity which animated civilization for 500 years is spent. Every form of learning and art in our society is stone cold dead. That's the real meaning of the term "post-modern." Europeans mostly know it, and that's why they have stopped having children. Americans mostly don't, but that's only because there's a certain illusion of momentum that goes with the loud, active lives we conflate with the term 'vitality.' We are still in motion, so caught up in our own hysterical overdose of sensory input that we haven't yet perceived the emptiness of everything we consume.

But it's over. Absolutely. Caput. Ironically, the American preoccupation wth all things racial -- and the real and false divisions created thereby -- has actually served to conceal from us the dire nature of our situation. For example, we -- all Americans, that is -- take pride in the transformative power of the musical traditions African-Americans invented, puffing out our chests at the way they have captured the world audience, without noticing that all the taproots, variations, derivations, and inspired responses have died.

Of all these, jazz is the crown jewel -- of both African-American and greater American twentieth century culture. It has been characterized as a great breakthrough, a step beyond the practiced mathematical brilliance of Bach and Mozart to the spontaneous and improvisational supra-mathematical genius of Armstrong, Ellington, and Davis. Maybe it was. Dead now. Cold, cold in its grave. Today's jazz afficionados are either old men or anarchical contrarians. They are no longer "the people."

The same is true of every other vein of supposedly life-giving African-American music. Motown is ancient history, a moment in time that incites nostalgia but no new artists. Rhythm and blues still sells records, but everyone knows who the icons are, and nothing new is being done. Black vocalization -- the determination not to sing written notes but everything around them -- has become a rank parody of itself, a sorry cliche observed slavishly (and for the most part, ridiculously) by the legions of the untalented who bid for nano-second stardom in the annual American Idol contest. As for the blues which started all these traditions, there's no one who will ever have the credibility of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Done.

Rock and roll is dead. Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones still outdraw every band who came afterwards. And you can chart the gate receipts in reverse order of age. U2 still attracts bigger audiences than Radiohead. Rock and roll is dead. As a damn doornail.

Hip Hop has been the great surrender, the abandonment of actual music for pre-conscious apostrophizing. Which entirely suits our post-Christian culture. We are tired of the individual self-consciousness initiated by Socrates and so exquisitely refined by Jesus Christ. It's too demanding, too painful, too rapacious in its constant insistence on the awareness of others. Hip hop is the testament of the empty "I," the salami thin soul of those who envy the fame of Miles Davis without realizing for a second the death he was experiencing to set them free from all purpose and pain.

But Miles was hardly the only saint of the new religion of unconsciousness. Each form of art and learning has had its own savior/slayer. Art as painting is dead. Poetry is dead. The novel is dead. Formal classical music is dead. Philosophy is dead. Science as a particularized branch of philosophy is dead. Even the one genuinely new art form of the twentieth century -- film -- is dead.

Yes, I toss the term "dead" around quite a lot. What do I mean by it? That there is nothing left to aspire to, only a constant insistence that everything is drab, arbitrary, randomly hurtful, and rarely worth fighting against. That art in its most illuminated form is only a decorative collage of all the phony beliefs that obtained in the past. The prevailing message is always that harmony is an illusion, love is temporary and probably a joke, God is a hypothetical fantasy feeding brute sentimentality and violence, and life itself is just one damn thing after another, to be observed, sometimes measured, but taken seriously only by fools. Which is not to say that genuine humor ever enters the equation. Humor lives in juxtapositions. There is absurdity, which is funny if there is also meaning. When there is no meaning, there is only absurdity and therefore nothing to contrast it with. The joke that is life has no punchline.

That's the "post-modern" logic which turns everything on its head, defies analysis, and turns virtue into crime and vice versa.

But that's where we are. It's why the barbarians are massing at the gates. They have never needed to be conscious because their religion regards them all as drones in an obedient hive. With the sense of the hive, they have detected that we actually aspire to be like them -- even if it means our own punishment, suffering, subjugation, and death.

To the extent that you sympathize with them and make apologies for them, this is why. To the extent that you are not willing to fight them and die opposing them, this is why. If you have ever wondered why they stand for things you think you cannot abide -- violent abuse of women, totalitarian restrictions on speech and thought, wanton disregard of the value of human life, virulent anti-semitism -- and yet you find yourselves making allowances for them, this is why. You are so sick of being conscious that you can't wait to go "gently into that good night." And "good night" is the river that carries their faith through the ages.

Antidote? None. Unless you can find some way back to a love of life, past Picasso and T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett and David Mamet and Eminem and Phillip Glass and the New York Times Magazine to something like a new Renaissance.

Good luck with that.

Dog Bites Man:

'Sadly Nein' Finds
Anti-Semitism Funny

We don't know if this is Ace or not. But it might be.

GERMAN HUMOR. Free-association commenter Penny will be all over us on this one. She doesn't like it when we don't keep up with the rest of the blogosphere on a timely basis. She may have a point this time. The blog entry we're referencing goes all the way back to April 9. And it concerns Ace of Spades, who isn't exactly at the top of our list of estimable bloggers. (We'd like him a lot more if he used some of his ad income to hire a damn copy editor to correct his spelling and apostrophe errors -- its, it's, its, it's, its, it's not all the same, pirate boy.) What can we say? We don't pay all that much attention to the blogosphere. So sue us. Today, we're writing about old news. In defense of Ace. The "Me Too" king of the Internet.

Even so. Ace is frequently smarter than he is redundant and careless. And he made a perfectly good point about Obama's "Let's Talk About Race" speech:

So long as Obama's having that "open, candid" discussion about race we've all so long wanted to have, perhaps we can finally begin to address the virulent anti-Semitism infecting large segments of the black population while we're at it, huh? Or wait -- are we not having that "open, candid" a discussion?

Okay, true, that's the whole thing. End of post. (How else do you get to be Conservative Blog of the Year?) But what's interesting sometimes is what happens after the right harpoon has been cleverly sunk in the blubber of the whale. Here's what Europe's "Best Humorous Blog in 2004," from Germany, had to say in response:

That is, of course, an important matter for candid discussion because there are whole legions of Jews who work in menial jobs and get refused service at Cracker Barrel1 because of oppression by their African-American overlords. Not to mention that Ace gets his familiarity with the opinions of "large segments of the black population" not by actually spending any time with any non-imaginary black people but instead by sitting home during the day watching Fox News while large segments of the black population are working at actual jobs.

I especially like the phrase "whole legions of Jews." Has a certain Teutonic ring to it, doesn't it? But not as much as the part about how they "get refused service at Cracker Barrel1..." [sic] Yeah, that's what really steams all the Jews I know (and don't start with me, you Sadly Neiners; I do know some Jews). If it weren't for the Cracker Barrel thing, they'd be completely okay with the fact that the minority they've done more to help than any other ethnic group on earth, going all the way back to the earliest days of the civil rights movement, is delighted to parrot all the anti-semitic bile uttered by the likes of Louis Farrakhan and Reverend Wright. Particularly at a time when most of the 'civilized' Old World is blithely willing to give Adumjihad a pass on his stated intention to nuke Israel out of existence.

It's absolutely fine that another ethnic minority is voluble about the desire of many of its members to see you and your homeland wiped off the face of the earth as long as there are no embarrassing incidents at third-rate chain restaurants.

It takes a really discerning intellect to reduce a question like Ace's to irrelevant, contemptuous farce. One might almost say it requires a German intellect. Which is odd. Given that when I made fun of Sadly Nein's boast about its European awards and German origin, its bloggers were quick to point out that they weren't really German, just smarter-than-average Americans.

Guess what? I'm thinking you're Germans. I'm thinking you're goddam Krauts. Only a Kraut would be too arrogant to realize that this is one subject people with ties to Germany should know better than to be superior and dismissive about.

Fick dich.

P.S. If you're wondering about relevance, don't. Here's what's happening now.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Jimmy Stewart's
Hundredth Birthday

Yeah. I know that look.

DAVE.39.1-43. I never knew when Jimmy Stewart's birthday was. It was a surprise to discover in Mark Steyn's outstanding essay on the man today that it's only one day after my Dad's. Another dutiful Taurus. That's not all they had in common. But the coincidence moved me to look up an old post I wrote when I was blogging without a computer more than 10 years ago. Here it is:

Wednesday, July 2 (1997)

I took Chinese food to my apartment and ate sweet-and-sour chicken -- gloriously deep-fried -- while I listened to the news that Jimmy Stewart had died. He was eighty-nine. Just a few days before, I'd had a jovial argument about Stewart with the PP vet. I maintained that he was the greatest movie star actor of his generation. This was a fairly recent discovery of mine, since I'd always been in the camp of those who believed Jimmy Stewart was perpetually playing himself. The vet was of that opinion, too. But I'd been noticing -- in my cable TV watching -- that very few of the Hollywood movies from the big studio days seemed to be holding up in the late 1990s. Clark Gable's movies were practically unwatchable and were rarely shown anymore. The same could be said of Tyrone Power, Robert Taylor, Alan Ladd, and any number of other leading men. Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy could be good, but often I had a distinct sense of them engaged in the ponderous business of acting. As pure stars, Gary Cooper and John Wayne were getting the yellowed look of an elderly bestseller.

Yet there remained something engaging about Jimmy Stewart movies. He was still interesting to look at on screen, as were Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, and Robert Mitchum. But what distinguished Stewart, to me anyway, was the surprising diversity of the roles he played, a fact quite at odds with the easy assumption that it was always the same Jimmy we were seeing. Who would that Jimmy be? The sincere young idealist of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Or the desperate and damaged obsessive of Vertigo? No, comes the thoughtless response: it's the All-American nice guy of It's a Wonderful Life. But how close is that guy to the frightened, cynical pilot in Flight of the Phoenix, or the hard-bitten outlaw in Bandolero? All are covered, to be sure, by the intrinsic charm of Stewart himself, which endures somehow intact from Destry Rides Again through four decades of westerns, light comedies, suspense thrillers, and dramas. But what is the nature of that charm?

It's not as simple as 'goodness' or even 'niceness.' I believe it has more to do with the natural attractiveness of those who can be observed to be observant, to be capable of appraising situations and making decisions for themselves. (Not coincidentally, this used to be a prized American trait and may explain what seems so deeply American about Stewart.) The sense so many people have of Jimmy Stewart always being himself is half right. What they're responding to is the fact that Jimmy Stewart always brings to his roles a universal quality of self -- not necessarily his own -- that allows us to see the character thinking, working things out in a conscious and individual way. It is this depth of self that produces his emotions on camera, which can be intense, without triggering the suspicion that he's 'going for the Oscar here.' Well, at any rate, I'm a fan and I'm glad he had such a long good life.

Yes, it's an acknowledgment and not much more than that. For a beautiful treatment of Stewart as an actor, read the Steyn piece. It's well worth it.

Now. If you don't like family bragging, stop reading now. We don't do a lot of it here, because we don't like it either. But I'm going to do it today because I'm feeling nostalgic about my Dad, who died eight years ago. He was 14 years younger than Stewart, but also a WWII pilot, and they went to the same boarding school in Pennsylvania, Mercersburg Academy, as did I. (Along with Benicio del Toro, Robin Thomas, Franchot Tone, and Tom Drake.) In fact, James Stewart roomed with a cousin of my Dad's at Mercersburg and Princeton. Perhaps because of all this, I actually saw Jimmy Stewart in person, when he received an award from the Hasty Pudding Society in 1970. I was a freshman and not yet a member, so I sneaked in with the help of a kind steward and an understanding upperclassman. He was ten feet away, standing alone, waitiing to be called for the ceremony. Tall. Distinguished. Looked exactly like his pictures. All I had to do was walk around one couch and speak to him.

I chickened out. I left without invading his space. Sometimes I'm sorry about that. Mostly I'm not. He looked like a genuinely nice man, a private man. I didn't have anything to say to him other than that I was a fan and went to a school he had gone to. I think I caught his eye for one brief look and a smile. That's enough.

He left us all those movies, which are still a pleasure to watch. Only an ingrate would lament not having more than that.

A Break in the Action

Si, hombre.

NO JOKING ALLOWED. Just got a nasty email from Mrs. CP. "Where's the funny?" she asks. "You guys have gotten as depressing as everyplace else on the Internet. STOP IT!"

Sorry. It's a gray gloomy day in the neighborhood. We're only human. So here's what we were able to find in a desperate search across the web for "funny."

An Onion article about the terrible trauma to children caused by Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction.

A TMZ photo gallery that might be funny unless it's just plain loathsome.

A site about Engrish. Yes, it is. You know it is. Funny.

Many hours of funny in the form of the top 50 comedy skits of all time. Forget your angst. Enjoy.

And just in case you've forgotten why it's suddenly gotten so hard to find and be funny, here's an explanation of what funny is and why it's so damned inappropriate with the Messiah about to mantle us with salvation.

You see. There isn't going to be any more humor when the Obamillennium arrives. Laugh at Michelle and watch your own head go rolling down the street. So enjoy it while you can.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Liberal Parables I

DAVE.32.1-26. I don't want to overdo this, but once I got started thinking about it, I couldn't stop. So take all that follows with a grain of salt, but also remember that salt is a miraculous spice which somehow heightens the keenness of the taste buds so that it doesn't change flavors so much as increase our ability to perceive them.

What got me started was this morning's Drudge Report:

As he sometimes is, the tabloid king of the Internet was right. The scene of Obama's latest campaign exploit was part religion and part Hollywood. There's something of the sacred ceremonial rite and something of the pure cinematic scene in it. But what if those two perspectives are really the same thing? What if the salvational liberal vision that is always so reluctant to consider the long-term consequences of its policy prescriptions is actually no more substantive than the happy ending of a classic Hollywood movie? Is what's being sought, in fact, merely a dramatic plot resolution that highlights the heroes-villains duality of our emotional cosmology and then immediately fades to black before the messiness of ongoing reality can disrupt the happy sensation of closure?

It's an idea that can't be tested or even fully explained without an example. So I went looking for famously perfect Hollywood endings, most importantly ones that preclude lame sequels, which are notoriously the mark of mercenary Republican capitalists who start planning Spiderman 8 after the initial blockbuster windfall because it's so easy for them to believe that every epic conflict will have to be repeated again and again, and again and again and again, based on the logic that truly final endings are an invitation to bankruptcy.

Which made me think of Casablanca. Yeah, I know some TV whore once contemplated or produced a sequel (who cares which, unless there was actually some godawful TV series), and some idiot is presently planning a remake, but this is a movie everyone knows ended with the scene shown above. It's an archetype, so embedded in our popular culture that the most lucrative exploitation of it was a Woody Allen comedy that fleshed out the process by which Hollywood fantasy becomes personal, even semi-scriptural, allegory.

Call it a post-modern deconstruction. Liberals love that kind of intellectual exercise, don't they? What can we learn about libs by analyzing an ultimate filmic happy ending?

1. The villain is a Nazi. Yes. Of course. That makes perfect sense. That's why the enlightened ones have termed their political opponents Nazis ever since. Major Strasser has been asking for it all along. No one likes him. Everyone knows he needs killing. But there's really no moral urgency to do it preemptively. His evil doesn't matter until he's actually giving the order to kill your specific girlfriend.

2. The moral context is (otherwise) relativistic, hence exemplified by a sophisticated Frenchman. How perfect is it that the entree to the seemingly impossible happy ending is opened up by the confessedly traitorous Vichy official played by Claude Rains? The bonhomie of the fadeout washes away all the arrests. murders, and victimizations he has already tolerated or been an accomplice to, including some we have seen in the movie. His intentions (at the end) are good, he responds to the hero when he understands the people involved, and so all is forgiven.

3. Love conquersblurs all. It's fully understandable that Rick completely turns his back on his country and the plight of all who pass desperately through his cafe seeking escape or return to battle because he has been personally disappointed in a close sexual relationship. Without the eruption of his erotic obsession for Ilsa, Rick would never have confronted his personal demons and would never have become the noble patriot he appears at the end. His cynical, cold-blooded willingness to live side by side with evil before Ilsa's arrival at his cafe doesn't matter. What matters is that he can overcome a lifetime of error by a single gesture talked about to a sufficient degree here at the end. Even though that virtuous gesture involves spectatular...

4. Lying. So Rick's redemption is based on acknowledging that he has lied to Ilsa at the precise moment when she needed to rely on him most and -- proceeding from there -- that he subequently lies to her doomed fool husband, while everybody involved knows he is lying and accepts his lies as an acceptable basis for going forward with a fine strong new life.

5. Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel whose personal life has gone tits up. The beginning of a beautiful friendship? Hardly. The continuation of a convenient acquaintanceship. Neither Rains nor Rick believes in anything but personal gratification. Rick Blaine has simply discovered that he's so much in love he can't live with half a loaf -- a woman as morally weak as he is who will hate herself for abandoning a better man. Rains's choice is even simpler. After Rick's gun goes off, the Frenchman realizes that talking and talking and talking won't work anymore. His 'live and let live' philosophy has always been a pose. He's known all along that Germans need only the barest excuse to kill him. The Resistance is his best chance at surviving.

6. Happy Ending? Really? Yes. It's a typical, liberal, empty, temporary happy ending. (Like bringing the troops home from Iraq.) Ilsa and her Resistance husband will die. Doing something noble and utterly pointless, no doubt. Rains and Rick? Not so much. At the formal surrender ceremony of VE Day, Rains will be selling the best ass still available for generals of both sides, and Blaine will be selling the best cellar of pre-war brandy and champagne, as well as James Bond's first encounter with Baccarat. They may exchange mistresses, knowingly or not. When they return home after the war, they won't write each other. Rains will become foreign minister under Chirac. He will be implicated in the "Oil for Food" scandal but escape prosecution. Rick Blaine will become a shadowy New York financier. Both will have lengthy obituaries, Rick's featuring his generous contribitions to the Democratic party, civil rights organizations, and some unexpectedly controversial charities for Palestinians.

Sorry. Truly. I love the movie, too. I think it's one of the best Hollywood ever made. But there is no happily ever after. Real life is not a static model. There is no single point at which all that has been done wrong can be automatically corrected by a moment of deep-down good intentions. Hostility does not fade away under the relentless pressure to talk people's passions into acquiescence, and most of the people you talk to don't look like Ingrid Bergman anyway. Evil is not disposed of by a single revolver shot fired by a man so much in love that he crosses the ultimate boundary to stop a long overlooked nemesis. Eternal friendships are not created on the fly by morally ambivalent rivals whose interests momentarily intersect. The consequences of years of cynical inaction, fence-sitting, and generalized contempt for everyone cannot be swept away with a last minute, wholly self-interested decision to act. And deciding that the object of your personal decision to commit murder is a Nazi does not bring automatic absolution to those who believe they are living in a godless universe where the only possible crime is murdering someone who's not smart enough to believe in nothing.

If you really truly think you believe in nuance, try walking a mile in the shoes of the producers who make the sequels. Try imagining that after the credits you think portend salvation for all the supporters of Obama there will be another soul-challenging plot, and another, and another, another. Until he has to confront the evil in himself to know what it takes to protect those in his charge.

You see, that's the biggest thing liberals can't bring themselves to believe in -- that time and life and history will still keep going after the end of history they imagine will proceed from their nomination of a deus ex machina to fix everything wrong in the world with the right goddam platitude.

I'm inclined to agree with them. Of course, everything in life can be fixed with a platitude. My tragedy is that I'm old enough to be literate. Obama is incapable of generating the right platitudes. He's just Jimmy Carter with better diction. A pessimist with bad vibes, a sour wife, and enunciation that doesn't remind anyone of backwater country music. But just as grim. And, as commenter Guy T. points out, the mien of an undertaker.

The only movies starring undertakers are horror movies. And they never have happy endings. What would Dooley Wilson think?

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