Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Read the Bill

Want a quick peek at how things are being run in Washington these days? Make sure you’re sitting down and in a calm, relaxed state. Ready?

Check this :30 second clip from the Drudge Report, here.

Amazing, isn't it? Did you have to watch it twice just to make sure you heard what you thought you heard?

US Representative John Conyers, D. Michigan, basically came out and said he hasn’t read the Health Care Bill. Further, he left the clear impression -- and he was a trifle prickly about it -- that he has no intention of ever reading the bill. This guy is a party leader and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, too.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

But, what’s even more interesting is the fact that Rep. Conyers was speaking to a roomful of reporters at a National Press Club luncheon when he made this comment and, outside of talk radio and Fox News, no one reported it. Seems like this would be be kind of a big deal. The headline would write itself.

A follow-up question is hanging out there, waiting to be asked: “If you don’t read the Bill, how do you know which way to vote?” I’d like hear his answer to that one.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Lost Horizon

I had a customer at the bookstore where I work ask me, “Aren’t you the guy that told me to get the DVD of Lost Horizon?”

I remembered him. “How’d you like it?”

“It was awesome. I’ve watched it twice, the second time with my girlfriend and she liked it, too.” Ahh, another satisfied customer.

The word “awesome” is a strong recommendation but not particularly descriptive as a review, so let me start at the top and recommend for your next movie-night the 1937 production of Lost Horizon.

The picture was produced and directed by Frank Capra, who specialized in romantic comedies and contemporary Americana. For the record, he also directed Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night, Arsenic and Old Lace, and Meet John Doe. He made a slew of others that are, if not “great”, certainly interesting.

I like Frank Capra’s work a lot. He’s one of the greats and for years movie fans have enjoyed watching some of his films over and over again. Although he won Best Director Oscars three times, today he is known chiefly for the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, for which he did not win and, which in fact was not a box office success when originally released. But the way things have turned out over time it’s been a better-than-even trade off. When we consider the many Oscar winners of the past, many very well deserved, that are completely forgotten today it is reasonable to state that It’s a Wonderful Life, which is watched by millions every year, is monument enough for any filmmaker.

Capra’s best films hold up remarkably well today. Maybe this is due to the way that he reflected the Depression-era spirit. He was optimistic and positive and he loved America. Today we might even consider him an ambassador to us from that era. You can look at his movies and hear him telling us “This is how you do it: When you face tough times you need to work harder, stay true to your ideals, and stick together”.

Capra also loved innocent boy-meets-girl love stories. Part of Capra’s secret may be this: before he’d let his stories drift too far into sentimentality he’d knock the sweetness flat by throwing in a little raw brutality just to remind audiences that there was a real world outside the theater and they’d better stay awake for it. Think of young George Bailey getting slapped around in back of the drugstore. “You lazy loafer, you should have delivered those pills an hour ago.” Most people know there is a dark side lurking behind the warmth and love. Frank Capra could put it on the screen beautifully.

If you are an admirer of Its a Wonderful Life you will be especially intrigued by Lost Horizon. Though entirely different films, they share a similar theme: both are about a man who have something beautiful and yet decide to throw it away.

In Lost Horizon, we are given a hint of what is thrown away from the first frame of the movie. The moment the Columbia Pictures logo fades from the screen the credits begin to roll over a night aerial view flying up into icy moonlit mountains. As each successive peak is crossed, another higher, more distant peak is revealed in the altitude. With no limit we fly into a vast infinity.

Lost Horizon is based on James Hilton’s short novel of the same title. On the surface it is an imaginative adventure tale that concerns a small group of westerners thrown together escaping a bloody revolution in China. We meet a stuffy paleontologist; an ailing prostitute; a loud American businessman. All are flawed in some way. On the last plane out of Baskul they find that instead of traveling to safety in Shanghai, they have been hi-jacked and taken hostage and are being flown deeper into the interior of the country, then high into the Himalayan Mountains.

Principle among the group, and perhaps the real prize among the hostages, is a British diplomat, Robert Conway, portrayed by the great screen actor Ronald Colman. Conway is a disappointed idealist, a melancholy seeker who fears the world of the 1930s is sliding into another war.

An early bit of dialog as Conway despairs of the slaughter going on down below may have led to the film’s miss-interpretation as a pacifist message-picture. For a few moments he talks dreamily of dismantling the world’s armies and sinking the navies. It is a sophomore year speech, brought on by liquor and high altitude, after which Conway drifts into sleep. The real theme of the picture is left to be discovered somewhere high in the mountains.

Far into the journey the passengers are awakened by the sound of engine trouble just before the plane banks and crashes onto a snowy crag. The captives survive, but soon the severity of their situation sinks in. Hundreds of miles from any village, with inadequate clothing and no food they realize that they face death by exposure and starvation. They are discovered, however, by a group traveling from a remote lamasery. Instead of dying, the westerners are led on an arduous mountain journey that ends when they climb through a narrow pass and cross a gateway.

On the other side, separated from the cold and storms of the outside world, they find warm sunlight and lush greenery. They have arrived at the Valley of the Blue Moon and the welcoming monastery of Shangri-La. A paradise of peace, harmony and contentment stretches before them.

Out of curiosity, I recently read the book just to see how closely the movie follows it. It is a faithful adaptation. Capra and screen writer Robert Riskin tweaked the story here and there, supplying detail that the novel skimmed over, adding a character or two, but it is the same story improved for the screen.

The heart of Hilton's story is central in Capra's film; that of a man, Robert Conway, who finds his state of perfection and, yet, standing in it and experiencing it he cannot believe it is real. "Is it you fail to recognize one of your own dreams when you see it?" a monk asks Conway.

Among the others accompanying Conway is his brother, George, a shallow materialist. George is key to the impact of the story. Every bit of wonderment that Conway finds, his brother recasts as phony spiritual hokum. At every turn George sows dissension, or rails against the teachings of the monks or whispers in Conway’s ear. Even as the others in the group slowly adapt and then embrace Shangri-La, the brother plots a return to civilization.

There is a particularly striking piece of movie making near the end of the film, in the scene where the arguments of the brother finally break Conway down. “I wouldn’t believe this in an English monastery," the brother says. "Why should I believe it in Tibet?”

This scene is a minor masterpiece in itself. It builds to a lingering shot, nearly 45 seconds in length, of Conway as doubt creeps over him. The scene was made in one take with no dialogue. Ronald Colman plays it so clearly, in his eyes and through his body language, that you can read each of his thoughts as they drift across his face: What could I have been thinking? They seem so sincere. I could be content here forever. Those crazy stories of living for hundreds of years. They lied to me.
I was a complete fool to believe any of this….

Slowly, Conway ceases to accept what he has seen with his own eyes and agrees to accompany his brother out of Shangri-La. Consumed by doubt, Conway becomes George Bailey on the bridge.

And this is what makes Lost Horizon a great motion picture and one that is relevant to us today. If we were to step out onto the sidewalk in front of our homes and look up and down the street, or if we were to reflect on all that we possess and take for granted, all that we have experienced and regularly benefited from, how much of this could we be convinced was an illusion? A fraud? A lie? More importantly, how likely is it that we could be convinced that our existence is seriously flawed enough to warrant us throwing it away?

The magnificent Capra-ending I’ll not reveal but will leave to you and your DVD player.

The movie has a terrific cast. Opposite Ronald Colman, the quote-unquote love-interest in the story is played by Jane Wyatt. Never a major star in Hollywood, not glamorous in the usual sense, she is perfect in this part; intelligent, mature, appealing. Also included in the cast are the great Hollywood character actors Edward Everett Horton, Sam Jaffe, and Isabel Jewell, as well as Capra movie-regulars Thomas Mitchell and H.B. Warner who are seen in the featured rolls of Uncle Billy and Mr. Gower, respectively, in Its a Wonderful Life. And, it is important to note that John Howard, who played brother George, became a highly decorated soldier in WWII.

The knock-out photography is by Joseph Walker,ASC. There are lots of candlelight and torch-lit scenes and Walker made the most of them. The scenes surrounding the plane crash and the climb through the Himalayas seem bone-chilling cold. In addition the musical score, by Dimitri Tiomkin, is so good you’ll want to run the movie through your stereo sound system with the volume turned up loud.

Suffice it to say, Lost Horizon is a must-see for every movie fan.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Little Perspective on Sarah Palin

Depending on where you get your news you may not have heard this.

On Tuesday, July 7th, Barack Obama had to do some serious diplomatic patchwork as a result of statements made by his Vice President, Joe Biden, which set off alarm bells; statements which appeared to give the Administration’s go-ahead for an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuke facilities.

“Absolutely not,” Obama said.

Biden had been speaking on ABC-TV with George Stephanopoulos. Obama was speaking in Moscow with Vladimir Putin.

That Joe Biden could make such a misstatement at that level should come as no surprise. We’ve had plenty of warning. Biden had been in the US Senate since the early 1970s and he’s left a trail of BS going all the way back to his college days when he had to repeat a law class after he was caught cheating. Over the years the press has watched the man cheerfully brag, boast, bloviate, lecture, shoot off his mouth, and get busted for plagiarism without exerting much editorial pressure on him to clean up his act. To them, it’s just Joe. Guys like him come with the furniture in Washington. Everybody’s supposed to know that.

Remember during the election last fall, Joe Biden at that rally telling the wheelchair guy to stand up and take a bow? Remember his cure for the economy was “a three letter word: J-O-B-S, jobs.”? Remember him talking about his favorite eating spot back in Delaware, Katie’s Diner, which and when somebody tried to locate the place turned out to have gone out of business years ago? Biden himself recently referenced last fall’s campaign when he admitted that they had “guessed wrong” about the economy. Guessed? By now even the casually informed have gotten the picture: One heartbeat away from President Barack Obama, a smoker, sits Joe Biden, a nincompoop.

Since Biden’s elevation to the Vice Presidency he’s been painting his gaffes across a larger and more consequential canvas, making intemperate remarks about the economy, joshing in public about the President’s dependence on a Teleprompter, telling people to stay away from public transportation during the flu scare, giving away secure locations, approving the aforementioned Israeli attack….

I mention this as preface for a couple of remarks about Sarah Palin, who was painted as the dangerous dim-bulb during last year’s election.

A lot of editorialists and commentators are wondering what led her to resign the Alaskan Governorship. Sure, there could be some grand reason behind it; a run for the Presidency, or a scandal about to hatch. Maybe, but I doubt it. Rather, I think her reason at least in part could be small and personal. It could be something that might look insignificant to an outsider but to her family, up close, looms big.

Nobody in the press has yet made an attempt to get acquainted with Sarah Palin. Every major interview with her was conducted with an eye to banging her around. No… I take that back. Greta Van Susteren from Fox News covered her pretty closely during the election, spent time with her and her family, and presented a rounded picture, or at least as rounded as you can get on a Sunday night TV show. But nobody else has fairly examined her that I can recall.

From the moment Sarah Palin was introduced as John McCain’s running mate on a podium in Dayton, Ohio the mainstream press jumped on her with both feet. TV talking heads openly derided everything about her, from her Alaskan accent to her hair style. A whisper campaign was revved up on the internet spreading stories of sexual infidelity, abuse of power, book-banning, even witchcraft. Plane loads of reporters went to Alaska to dig up dirt. Her trash was sifted through, not with an idea of fairly evaluating Sarah Palin as a human being or discovering who she is, but in an effort to destroy her, obliterate her, to wipe her and her entire family off the planet. Nobody seemed the least bit curious about her. Outside the Red States and what remains of the Wild West she was openly reviled. It was a public stoning.

Strangely, even a lot of Republican insiders held her in low regard. Why? What did Palin ever do to the GOP besides kick a bunch of Republican grafters away from the public trough in Alaska?

The election is over and we’re well into the Obama Administration. From a perspective of mid-summer of ’09 we can now look around and get an idea of how all that “Hope and Change” is likely to work out. As for the Vice President, I don’t think Joe Biden would be an improvement over Clem Kadiddlehopper. Clem Kadiddlehopper would at least know when to keep his mouth shut.

So what was it about Sarah Palin that generated all that ire and raw hatred?

Some time ago I read an article in a business publication talking about the sorry state of so many advertising agencies. The key point that I recall lay in the fact that most agencies, flat out, don’t know what they are doing. Think about that. They don’t know what creative advertising is, but they have a pre-conceived notion of what creative advertising is supposed to look like, and they always go with the looks.

We’re kind of like that, “we” the voting public. We have preconceived notions of what a politician is supposed to look like. We know that many politicians are BS artists or worse, but we go along with them. We are accustomed to pretense. Image is everything: John Kerry in a duck blind with a 12 guage resting in the crook of his arm. Bill Clinton coming out of a church carrying a Bible, with his finger tucked between pages marking a favorite passage. George Ryan escorting a bus load of orphans around the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield. Come on. Who are they kidding? Well, they’re kidding us. And, for the most part, we know it.

And then, out of the blue, there’s a chance that the genuine article may have come along. Then what do we do?

I am not willing to do more than speculate that Sarah Palin is the “genuine article”, but I allow that she could be. None of us know. We didn’t take time to look.

Human beings like the familiar. We like traditional imagery. Most of us in post-agrarian America are unfamiliar with anyone like Sarah Palin. She is from another century, the kind of woman who helped win the West, hunting, fishing, cooking, raising kids and looking good doing it. She is a reflection of the old hymn “It’s a gift to be simple, It’s a gift to be free, It’s a gift to come down where you ought to be.”

Sarah Palin is so old she is completely new. And while she instantly connected on a basic level with a lot of voters, others were stopped dead in their tracks. To them, she was the “other”; an un-cool graduate of some third-tier, no-name university. While some looked at her as an American original, others saw her as a hayseed who killed and cooked innocent animals and couldn’t name a decent pinot noir if her life depended on it. And her pro-life beliefs are so déclassé.

But, I’m just going to go out on a limb and suppose that at least part of Sarah Palin’s reason for giving up the Governorship is her husband, Todd Palin.

Think about national politics from his point of view. Todd Palin is 45 years old and in perfect condition. He is a licensed pilot and runs his own commercial fishing business, which is dangerous, hard work. In the off-season he works in the oil fields, also not for the faint of heart. Along with this, his sport of choice is Iron Dog racing of which he is a recent champion. He spends much of his life in a wild, unforgiving environment where a simple mistake at the wrong time can finish you; drowned, frozen, augured. As importantly, he comes from a world where your word and your handshake mean something.

His wife, already Governor of the State, is put on the National Ticket. Todd is a supportive husband and a good Dad. The family that campaigns together stays together, so he and the kids got on the plane and whistle-stop their way across America. Before long he discovered that he was looking at The Dark Side of American politics; the handlers, the dealmakers, the press people. Lots of smiles, lots of back patting, lots of hurry up. John McCain may have been aces in his book, but few of the rest of them were Todd Palin’s kind of people. Then, it comes to his attention that stories are being floated that Trig, their youngest, the one with Down’s syndrome was the result of incest. He sees internet sites gain attention by speculating whether Sarah had ever had affairs with co-workers. There were stories of wild spending sprees, attacks on the family’s religion, even on the number of kids they had. Late night hosts told jokes about her. Tina Fey becomes a television star for portraying his wife as a ditz, week after week on Saturday Night Live. He notes there were no jokes about Joe Biden, though, much less about Barack Obama. Television commentators like Keith Olbermann and Jack Cafferty looked like they had to go wash their mouths out after even mentioning the Palin name. And then the press hits pay-dirt; one of their daughters is pregnant. And there it was, the family laundry all over the news.

And as for Feminists “women looking out for women”, and supporting the sisterhood, how about that bumper sticker: “She’s not a woman. She’s a Republican.”

Through all of this Todd Palin stayed with the program, a dutiful husband, on stage, in the motor home, in the background, watching. I thought about Todd Palin a few times last fall, wondering what he thought of the Eastern educated, soft-handed people holding microphones and writing copy. Did he respect them in even a grudging way? I thought about him again a few weeks ago when David Letterman yucked it up about one of the Palin daughters getting boffed by a baseball player during seventh inning stretch. It was probably a good thing David Letterman was in New York and Todd Palin was in Wasilla or David Letterman would be wearing his face backwards.

So, what do you suppose the likelihood is that at some point Todd Palin turned to his wife and said, “Honey, do we really need this?”

Most politicians I’m not saying are heartless bastards who care nothing for their families, but they have at their disposal a support system built to suit the peculiarities of their lives. They have nannies, and tutors, and private schools. They live in family “compounds”. And, after Teddy Kennedy drove Mary Jo off the bridge 40 years ago, they don’t drive their own cars. Right now, for example, here in the State of Illinois a mess is brewing over the ease at which children of the political class are admitted to universities, bumping the more deserving children of others. A phone call or a note is all it takes.

Most politicians live inside a protective “bubble”. What goes on inside the bubble is for the most part invisible to us on the outside. Once in a while there is a gap in the defensive layer and we get a glimpse of someone with their hand in the cookie jar, or going into rehab, or caught with their pants down having affairs with staffers or lobbyists, and once in a while, as in the cases of John Edwards or Elliot Spitzer they peg the Scandal-Meter right off the scale. But for the most part unpleasant occurrences are softened. The press may report, but in a sympathetic, passive-sort of way. Those inside the bubble live and move in a world apart from the rest of us.

Sarah and Todd Palin and their kids live outside the bubble, out here with the rest of us, which is part of her appeal. The bumps and bruises that come with life in the real world are not softened for them. No one is watching their backs, no one with any clout that is. To make things worse the attacks upon Palin were hatched by political and media people from inside the bubble’s protective barrier. It is difficult to shoot back.

Sarah and Todd Palin are family people and all of this must have taken a toll on all of them. So, on 4th of July weekend, 2009, Sarah Palin announced her resignation as Governor. It’s too bad. I’d hate to think that the hacks and the pundits and the late night comedians got to her, but I’d understand it if they did.

It is worth bearing in mind that just a month earlier the Governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, disappeared for a week. It turned out he was not hiking along the Appalachian Trail, as he’d told his staff. He was in Argentina for the fifth or sixth time in a year visiting his girlfriend. Mark Sanford is still Governor. Sarah Palin is the one headed for the door.