Friday, November 26, 2004

Angelina the Great

The delightful thing about a bad film is the reviews that it gets. Top-drawer movie critics are at their wittiest when slamming a film rather than praising it, so here are some excerpts from some excellent reviews of what, by all accounts, must be a truly bad film. Oh, what fun!

Anthony Lane begins his New Yorker review by writing, “For more than thirty years, the shy, self-effacing Oliver Stone has been nursing fantasies of a film about Alexander the Great, although what attracted him to such a megalomaniac I can’t begin to imagine. In the meantime, Stone has been forced to fill his days with sissy little chamber pieces such as ‘Natural Born Killers,’ ‘Born on the Fourth of July,’ and ‘Platoon.’” Lane sets it up for us:

Alexander, born in 356 B.C., was the son of King Philip II of Macedonia and Olympias, one of his many wives; or, to put the matter in its most startling form, Colin Farrell is the son of Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie. Wow. Given parentage of that calibre, the boy was never going to be your basic, middle-income Macedonian. Either he was going to conquer nation-states all the way from Athens to India, engraving his name in history, or he was going to wind up running a club called Oedipussy on the wrong end of Mykonos.

Lane sneaks in a political comment with a sartorial touch: “It seems highly improbable that a film in which very close friends wage war in matching leather miniskirts will find favor in the White House screening room. On the other hand, what a war! Stone, who was in President Bush’s class at Yale, uses ‘Alexander’ to offer a strident argument in favor of unilateral aggression against foreign powers, on the ground that—guess what—it’s good for ’em.”

But a sec, isn’t Stone a fan of that feller, wassisname, that Castro dude? Stephen Hunter, in his Washington Post review, writes:

The movie lacks any convincing ideas about Alexander. Stone advances but one, the notion that Alexander was an early multiculturalist, who wanted to "unify" the globe. He seems not to recognize this as a standard agitprop of the totalitarian mind-set, always repulsive, but more so here in a movie that glosses over the boy-king's frequent massacres. Conquerors always want "unity," Stalin a unity of Russia without kulaks, Hitler a Europe without Jews, Mao a China without deviationists and wreckers. All of these boys loved to wax lyrical about unity while they were breaking human eggs in the millions, and so it was with Alexander, who wanted world unity without Persians, Egyptians, Sumerians, Turks and Indians.

David Edelstein, in his Slate review, segues from the politics to the craft. “Is it possible,” he writes, “that his [Stone’s] loathing for what he regards as doomed US imperialism in present-day Persia has muffled his reliably fascist storytelling instincts? He seems to have forgotten how to put an audience on the rack.”

Edelstein begins by summing up the film in the first para: “Stone, for the first time in his career, simply ran out of hot air.” He then tells us why he thinks Natural Born Killers is “the worst movie ever made … in its combination of aesthetic and moral ugliness”.

Edelstein hates the film, but he likes Angelina Jolie in it, about whom he says: “She could eat Colin Farrell for breakfast and pick her teeth with Jared Leto. Forget Alexander: The film is a pedestal to Angelina the great.”

Roger Ebert, in his Chicago Sun-Times review, shares those views, writing that “Angelina Jolie seems so young and sexy as Olympias, especially in scenes involving Alexander, that we wonder if she will start raiding cradles instead of tombs.” Ebert’s review is a tad more respectful, though. He informs us that “Stone is fascinated by two aspects of Alexander: his pan-nationalism and his pan-sexualism. He shows him trying to unite many peoples under one throne while remaining equally inclusive with his choices of lovers.”

Manohla Dargis, in the New York Times, has this to say:

This is the costliest, most logistically complex feature of the filmmaker's career, and it appears that the effort to wrangle so many beasts, from elephants to movie stars and money men, along with the headaches that come with sweeping period films, got the better of him. Certainly it's brought out the worst in terms of the puerile writing, confused plotting, shockingly off-note performances and storytelling that lacks either of the two necessary ingredients for films of this type, pop or gravitas.

Nice review, all, but jarred with me was that almost all of them features the same darned publicity still, of Farrell wearing a mournful look and some apron-like thingie on his torso, eyeing a rather tight trinket on Jolie’s arm. What’s that about?

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The hole-in-the-ground question

Barry Levinson, the director of films such as Rain Man and Wag the Dog, asks: “How did Saddam Hussein end up in a hole in the ground with a rug and a fan? How is that possible? How could anything so absurd happen?”

In an excellent piece in The Baltimore Sun, Levinson answers that question as well as, in the process, another pertinent one: How could so many people have been mistaken about Saddam’s WMD when he simply didn’t have any?

The mandate and the cabinet

Is it possible to win a mandate in an election? Some liberal commentators, still in denial about the US elections, have been arguing recently that George W Bush did not get the mandate of his people because 49% of the votes cast went against him. This is a curious argument – for an election victory to count as a mandate, then, precisely what is the threshold of votes that a candidate must win? Some commentators are tempering their criticism by saying that Bush did get a mandate, but only for some of his policies, not all of them. This is even more curious – surely by winning the elections he got a mandate to govern as he sees fit, within the checks and balances enshrined in the constitution. Nothing more and nothing less.

At the very least, Bush won a mandate to choose his own cabinet. Going by some of the outrage that the replacement of Colin Powell by Condoleeza Rice has raised, you’d think that Roe v Wade was being overturned. As a Washington Times editorial puts it, “The new liberal line is that the president is surrounding himself with ‘yes men’ and ‘flunkies’ whose sole responsibility is to toe the administration line on everything.” John Podhoretz writes in a a piece in the New York Post:

They claim, in all seriousness, that Bush is exceeding his political, executive and electoral authority by nominating experienced administration officials to serve in his Cabinet. These choices are bad, they say, because — get this — the president is daring to appoint people who are a) loyal to him (horrors!) and b) don't disagree with him enough (meanie).

Podhoretz cites some of the criticism from eminent publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN, before pointing out:

We Americans elected him because we want him to exercise his judgment. We elected him to serve as the steward of our interests and the representative of our views. What we Americans know, based on his campaign for re-election, is what he stands for, what he believes, what he's done and what he says he'll do.

He was not elected to provide a forum for the healthy debate of Colin Powell's views. If he chooses to listen to Powell, that's his right and privilege. But it is equally his right and privilege — under the provisions of our system, which allows him to fire anybody he chooses from a political appointment to the executive branch of the U.S. government — not to listen to Colin Powell. [Itals from original piece.]

Monday, November 22, 2004

Immigrants out, Arnie in

If Fareed Zakaria was born 30 years later than he was, his life might have followed a radically different course from the one it has. For one, he might have had his visa application to the US rejected, and ended up studying in St Xavier’s instead of Yale and Harvard, and joining the IAS instead of being the brilliant journalist he is. In his latest column for Newsweek, Zakaria writes about how less and less foreign students make it to the US every year because of how cumbersome US visa procedures have become. He writes:

Some Americans might say, "Good riddance, it's their loss." Actually the greater loss is ours. American universities benefit from having the best students from across the globe. But the single most deadly effect of this trend is the erosion of American capacity in science and technology. The U.S. economy has powered ahead in large part because of the amazing productivity of America's science and technology. Yet that research is now done largely by foreign students. The National Science Board (NSB) documented this reality last year, finding that 38 percent of doctorate holders in America's science and engineering work force are foreign-born. Foreigners make up more than half the students enrolled in science and engineering programs. The dirty little secret about America's scientific edge is that it's largely produced by foreigners and immigrants.

He ends his piece with the words, “Every visa officer today lives in fear that he will let in the next Muhammad Atta. As a result, he is probably keeping out the next Bill Gates.”

And maybe even a future president of the USA. In the New York Times, William Safire writes about the growing support for the move to amend the contitution so that foreign-born Americans can stand for the presidency, which they are currently barred from doing. It has been a topic much discussed in recent times, always in the context of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California who was born in Austria. Safire tells us that much of the opposition to any such amendment will come from those who don’t quite want to see Schwarzenegger become the next president. He writes:

My guess is that most liberals will be conflicted as this issue develops; antidiscrimination is an article of faith, but they don't want a yodeling Republican cowboy in the White House. Contrariwise, some right-wingers who look askance at a pro-choice candidate who is comfortable with gays are also closet nativists.

Yet both camps know that Hispanics make up the swingiest ethnic vote, growing each year, and could be influenced mightily by an issue like equal rights for immigrants.

I am not either pro- or anti-Schwazenegger – how good a president he would make can only be guessed at by his gubernatorial record, and it’s too soon to pronounce judgement on that – but I find it disconcerting that the issue of such an amendment should be viewed through the prism of Schwarzenegger-as-president. Either the amendment is right on principle, or it is wrong. It should be supported, or opposed, on just those grounds, not the politically expedient grounds of his being a Republican, or on political considerations such as how different votebanks will react to it.

And maybe Arnie should do something about those visa problems. Chase George W down a corridor with a bazooka, perhaps?

A consequential president

The US elections were notable not just for the man they returned as president, but also for the position he now finds himself in. Not only do the Republicans have control of both the senate and the congress, but, as Charles Krauthammer points out in an article in Time, “[f]or the first time in a half-century, a two-term presidency will end without sending out its Vice President to seek a mandate for succession at the next election.” Krauthammer continues:

With Cheney's renouncing presidential ambitions, it is known in advance that the Bush Administration will die in January 2009 without an heir. What does that mean? … [E]arly in Bush's second term, the fact that Bush-Cheneyism will never have to seek popular ratification again gives Bush unique freedom of action. Which, in the hands of a President with unusually ambitious goals, will yield perhaps the most energetic — to some, the most dangerous — presidency of our lifetime.

Bush-haters will tremble at this, both with fear (of a hardline conservative judiciary?) and with anger (privatizing social security? How could he?). Conservatives, though, will be delighted, at what could be a seminal period in American history. Libertarians will have cause to cheer, especially if Bush’s reform of the tax codes involves abolishing the IRS in favout of a national sales tax. Krauthammer sums it up by saying, “This is no accidental presidency. Bush intends his to be a consequential presidency.”

An interesting four years lie ahead.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

"Dog Bites Man"

After years of being told that it does not make for a compelling headline, I’ve finally come across an article entitled “Dog Bites Man”. Jon Katz’s wonderful piece is about a dog called Spice. Spice was “a sweetheart, gentle with kids, the best pal of my border collies, generous with her toys and snacks, happy to play tug of war and chase endlessly across suburban lawns.” Spice was also “a 3-year-old mix of pit bull, Labrador retreiver, and probably a few other breeds” that was rescued out of an animal shelter, which in turn had found it “on the street, half-starved and beaten”. Spice belonged to Jon’s friend Jan.

Then, one day, when Spice and Jan were walking in a park, this happened:

… [A] Pekingese slipped out of its collar and dashed toward Spice and Jan, growling and barking. Spice, startled, almost reflexively grabbed the dog's head in her mouth, bit down, and hung on. Neither Jan nor a horrified dog owner passing by could get Spice to loosen her grip. The smaller dog yelped, then went still. The Peke's owner, a woman in her 60s strolling with her 5-year-old grandson, screamed and rushed up to intervene. Spice had always been friendly and reliable around children, but now she was aroused, almost frantic. People were shouting. The boy cried and screamed in fear.

It all happened in a few seconds. Spice bit both the woman, who required 30 stitches in her arm, and the child, who after surgery still had small but permanent facial scars and most likely some psychological ones. The animal-control authorities seized the dog. Local ordinances meant near-certain euthanasia.

Jan went to court to save Spice, and asked Jon for a testimonial saying that Spice was a gentle dog, and should be spared. Jon agonised over this, and came to the conclusion that even though Spice’s reactions were natural and understandable, the rights of the victims counted for more. Spice was euthanized.

The choice Jon faced was between justice and mercy: justice for the victim and mercy towards the perpetrator. It is a choice all of us face everyday, in different ways, in both the private and the public spheres. Indeed, our attitude towards it in the public sphere is one of the enduring faultlines between liberals and conservatives – as on the issue of the death penalty. Both sides have reasonable arguments, and an honourable motive.

Which side are you on?

A capitalist bow

It is a remarkable photograph: Chuck Prince, the CEO of Citigroup, and one of the most powerful corporate executives in the world, bowing in apology at a news conference in Tokyo. To those who think this was a mere show of contrition, read this excellent interview in Fortune by Carol Loomis, where Prince is refreshingly forthright about the failings of his company over the last years, and what he’s doing to put things right.

But is it poetry?

The Economist, reviewing Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, says:

There is a striking absence in the book of Mr Dylan’s lyrics. He focuses instead on the music itself. This is wise, since his lyrics, like [Woody] Guthrie’s, do not have the art to stand alone as poems. Both men wrote wonderful songs, but they are just that.

This is an issue almost as polarising as the Iraq war. Was Dylan a great poet? I used to think so as a callow teenager, but now I agree with The Economist. Taken out of the context of the songs they are part of, Dylan’s lyrics read mostly like adoloscent ramblings. But his best music is undeniably powerful art, and his lyrics are, in the sense of how they fit into that package, often brilliant. How strange this is: lines that would make for mediocre poetry being transformed into high art by a bit of music and some raspy singing. Don’t we underestimate that music and that voice, then?

For the counterview, read Christopher Ricks’s Dylan's Visions of Sin, which, in the words of Publishers Weekly, “confirms Dylan's poetic genius and elevates the poet of the north country to canonical status alongside Tennyson, Shakespeare and Milton.” Also read Tim Riley’s review of Ricks’s book in Slate, and Riley’s review of Chronicles on WBUR.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

The morons and the fascists

Michael Moore, or “the great sagging blimp” as Christopher Hitchens described him in a brilliant review of Fahrenheit 9/11, threatened recently to make a follow-up to his Golden Palmed documentary. According to a Reuters report, he told Daily Variety: “We want to get the cameras rolling now and have it ready in two [to] three years. Fifty-one percent of the American people lacked information [in this election], and we want to educate and enlighten them. They weren't told the truth.”

There are plenty of good reasons to be against George Bush: his mishandling of the Iraq war, the soaring deficits, his opposition to stem-cell research, his opposition to gay marriage, and so many others. But the Democrats are doing themselves no service by painting the people who voted for him as either stupid or uninformed or venal. As Mark Steyn wrote in The Daily Telegraph:

In Britain and Europe, there seem to be two principal strains of Bush-loathing. First, the guys who say, if you disagree with me, you must be an idiot - as in the Mirror headline "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?" Second, the guys who say, if you disagree with me, you must be a Nazi - as in Oliver James, who told The Guardian: "I was too depressed to even speak this morning. I thought of my late mother, who read Mein Kampf when it came out in the 1930s [sic] and thought, 'Why doesn't anyone see where this is leading?'"

Steyn goes on to write, “If smug Europeans are going to coast on moron-Fascist sneers indefinitely, they'll be dooming themselves to ever more depressing mornings-after in the 2006 midterms, the 2008 presidential election, 2010, and beyond.” Even if it were true, and it isn’t, the moron-fascist line of thought is hardly likely, if the Democrats keep on at it, to win them back the swing voters they lost.

The Economist, in the Lexington column of their latest issue, says, “[I]f they are going to extract any useful lessons from their humiliation, the Democrats need to realise that the Republicans didn't just beat them on fear. They clobbered them on hope.” It continues:

For the moment, the American right is better at talking about the future than the left. It is better at exuding optimism. And it is better at addressing the aspirations of an aspirational people.

Arguably the only optimistic thing about the Kerry campaign was its slogan: “Help is on the way”. In general, the Democrats focused on America's intractable problems. By contrast, Mr Bush not only sounded upbeat, but also came up with solutions, of sorts. At home, John Kerry was happy to cast himself as the blind defender of a 70-year-old Social Security system that is headed for bankruptcy; Mr Bush talked about using privatisation to shore up the “ownership society”. Abroad, the president even managed to sound optimistic about terrorism, promising to drain the swamp of terrorism by spreading democracy.

Needless to say, it doesn’t mean that Bush was a better choice for the presidency than Kerry. But it does mean that Bush made all the right noises while campaigning. His opponents are making all the wrong ones.

"There are seasons in life ... "

Bidding farewell to the Justice Department, Attorney General John Ashcroft told his staff: "There are seasons in life. There is a season for detaining suspects without charging them with a crime; a season for holding secret military tribunals in Cuba; and a season for thumbing one's nose at the Geneva Conventions. But there is also a season for sanding and painting a birdhouse kit I bought a few years ago, and that season is upon me now."

From “Duty, Honour, Caulking” by Andy Borowitz at the New York Times. This is a fine man. Read his other writing here.

The unilateral kisses of George W Bush

George Bush’s first term was notable for acts of war, and his second term is already being noted for acts of affection. In an intriguing piece in The Washington Post, Robin Givhan notes: “The nominations of Condoleezza Rice for secretary of state and of Margaret Spellings as secretary of education were visually intriguing events, most notably because President Bush puckered up and gave both of them a congratulatory kiss. The president did not kiss Alberto Gonzales, his nominee for attorney general. He was congratulated with a strong handshake and the sort of torso tackle that men give each other in lieu of an actual hug.”

The fact that Bush puckers up only for women is clearly a source of amusement for Givhan, who later notes, “As much as could be determined from the photo record, the president has never publicly kissed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.” As if to drive the point home, she writes later, of Colin Powell and Rodney Paige, “There was no lip locking when Bush nominated them.” Givhan does not elaborate on why this is unusual or worth reporting, so we must read between the lines.

Givhan also indicates how Bush’s kissing habits are indicative of his politics. She writes: “The president kissed only Rice's right cheek, and in the case of Spellings, planted a single kiss just off-center of the lips. He did not execute the double buss that is used as a greeting throughout much of Europe, organized crime and the fashion industry … As one might expect, there was nothing international about Bush's kisses.”

Friday, November 12, 2004

The first draft

From Bill Emmott’s 20:21 Vision:

There are many wonderful things about being a journalist. The excitement of responding to, and trying to make sense of, the flow of news. The challenge of trying to sort out the wood from the trees, the important from the unimportant, the honest from the dishonest, the reasonable from the hyperbolic. The independence of mind and of spirit, the accompanying sense of the ridiculous, that are available to the outsider, an observer of rather than participant in events, processes and organisations. The fact that so many people read or hear what you have to say, and that some of them even pay heed to it. The privilege of being able to, and actually being paid to, write or broadcast what can fairly be described as a sort of first draft of history, albeit with all the foibles and frailties that performing that task typically implies.