Saturday, July 29, 2006

Miami Vice Blues

The way to make a great genre film is not to try to "transcend the genre," as is the temptation for so many ambitious filmmakers. On the contrary, the way to make a great genre film is to make a genre film and just bring great creativity and insight to it. That's what makes Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo one of the greatest Westerns of all. Hawks's film does what Westerns do, but it does it better than the others. Hawks doesn't try to add extra significance to the story, but it takes on great meaning because of the superb plotting, excellent characterizations, and surehanded visual presentation. The same is true of Hitchcock's best thrillers, Ernst Lubitsch's greatest comedies, and Frank Borzage's most moving dramas. They're great because each embodies its form at its best.

Miami Vice stillWould that Michael Mann had been content to do likewise with his film version of his 1980s cop show Miami Vice, now playing in theaters. In great contrast to the TV show, which was both serious and fun, the film version is extremely serious, and not fun at all. In fact, it's really rather boring. Most of the film is shot in near-darkness, as is the fashion with cop films lately, under the extremely mistaken impression that gloomy visuals will somehow impart significance to the wooden actors scowling at us.

The story is exceedingly simple, yet the film takes well over two hours to play out, as Mann drags out scenes in an evident attempt to force the viewer to ponder the significance of the situation. This is a mistake because the significance is already there, in that the cops are trying to stop drug pushers who kill lots of people and sell addictive drugs to poor slobs who would otherwise be entirely free of the need for them. That is significance enough, and we don't require any further reasons to care. In addition, while we're sitting through these long scenes, the characters confront very few truly difficult moral choices, and it is obvious what the characters will decide to do, well in advance of their actually doing so.

The greatest weakness of the film is precisely in the area where these more ambitious efforts are always claimed to be superior to more ordinary efforts in the field: characterization. The Crockett and Tubbs of the TV series had a few standard effects they would do, but there was some variety to them. There were occasional laughs in the show, for example, and the two lead characters seemed to have fun driving the fastest cars, riding the sleekest speedboats, wearing the coolest clothes, and pursuing the most beautiful women.

The program was a great example of the Swingin' Heroes style of crime program. Miami Vice was more serious in intent than Hart to Hart, for example, but the effect was the same: they made doing good look really cool. Crockett and Tubbs looked cool, acted cool, and were cool, and it seemed as if it would be fun to be them, as long as you didn't get killed or get tortured too often or lose too many loved ones.

In the Miami Vice film, by contrast, the two central characters (and all the others) are perpetually somber and seem to take no joy at all in life. Instead of making their situations more important to us, however, the flatness of the characterizations keeps us from caring very greatly about the people on the screen. Director Michael Mann takes such great pains to make the film important that it loses its interest for us and becomes little more than an overproduced by-the-numbers genre film, the very thing he was trying to avoid.

Sure, it's watchable, and it's reasonably entertaining, but Miami Vice could have been so much more—if only it's creator had been content to let it be a lot less.

From Karnick on Culture.

Hex Appeal

I'm ambivalent about the BBC-TV series Hex, which runs on Thursday nights at 10 p.m. EDT on BBC America. Yes, it can be seen as a ripoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as it is set at an elite English boarding school and deals with spiritual warfare surrounding and involving the student body of oversexed teens and their clueless and/or evil overseers. Christina Cole as Cassie in HexAnd yes, the premise of the program is based on a mixture of Christian theology and odd bits of superstition, other religions, and simple chaos. Plus, the first few episodes are rather slow going, with a good deal of unnecessary meandering and chitchat. Plus there is a heck of a lot of venery going on, all of it outside of marriage, which many religious people don't like to see on their TVs.

Nonetheless, the show is interesting and entertaining. Cassie, an attractive but shy young student, finds out that she is descended from witches and is at the center of a plot by demons to bring back the Nephilim, a race of giants mentioned in the Bible (e.g., Genesis 6:2) that was created when human women mated with demons (as one understanding has it). This is an actual Biblical concept, and Hex presents it in a fairly straighforward manner, while of course sticking to the most melodramatic and exciting way of seeing it.

The story line, as mentioned earlier, is basically about spiritual warfare seen from an essentially Judeo-Christian point of view with the addition of ghosts, embodied demons, juju mumbo jumbo, and other spicy bits. As such, it's sometimes a bit of a muddle spiritually and will cause fits for some of the more literal-minded fundamentalists, but ultimately the producers' hearts and minds seem to be in the right place, and it's worth watching and sticking with.

At this point BBC America is about halfway through the 18 episodes that have been shown in Britain so far. (First-run showings in Britain concluded last December.) BBC America will be showing a marathon of Hex tonight beginning at 9 p.m. EDT. The channel's website does not specify which episodes will be running, so you'll have to tune in to find out. It's definitely worth a try, as the series can be interesting, provocative, and entertaining.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome

Today marks the TRC debut of Matt Huisman, whom we proudly add to our crew of contributors. Matt's a mid-Westerner, and lives in the real world: a professional man, a corporate exec, husband, father, deep thinker, and all-around good guy.

I've personally been a fan of his writing for awhile now (he has graced our comments section from time to time), and we're all honored he's agreed to stretch out a bit with the longer form of our mainpage.

Cheers, Matt, and go get 'em, tiger. (Oh, I see you already have...)

UN-Happy Extension

Everything began to spin and I found myself sitting on the ground: I laughed so hard I cried.

- Jean Paul Sartre

One can only laugh at the sight of the name…the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). But the laughter turns to tears as you read, point by point, the UN’s own pathetic Fact Sheet about their efforts in Lebanon since 1978.

Here’s to the forthcoming six month extension.

Update: In case you’re looking for a few more laughs…or was it tears…I forget which sometimes…here’s more.

Bystanders? Only In a Sense

They were innocent bystanders. Now, you just think about that term. Innocent. Bystanders. Because that's exactly what they were. We know they were bystanders, nobody's disputing that. So how can a bystander be guilty? No such thing. Have you ever heard of a guilty bystander? No, because you cannot be a bystander and be guilty. Bystanders are by definition, innocent. That is the nature of bystanding. But no, they want to change nature here. They want to create a whole new animal - the guilty bystander. Don't you let them do it. Only you can stop them.

- Jackie Chiles

The bystander, of course, has little to fear by way of public opinion. In fact, they have never had it so good. No one blames them for events that are unforeseen and beyond their ability to control. The bystander is incontrovertibly innocent.

Now these days, such blamelessness is a hot commodity, and the lack of available moral certainties has turned bystanding into a growth industry. The demand for innocence is so strong that it has evolved from something beyond one’s control to something that can be willed into existence. One need only withdraw from the events around them - call it the pursuit of active indifference - to qualify.

Some may object, thinking that only the Relativists are involved here. But the innocent civilian is a universal truth. Think for a moment of the civilians currently caught up in the Israeli attacks in Lebanon. All of us instinctively question the morality of any invasion that will involve collateral damage deaths. (At least, we do when it’s the Israelis who are attacking.) And we don’t just question, we seriously constrain our military options in large part because of this concern.

But for all of our questioning, the one thing we never do is question the legitimacy of the innocence of those civilians. (Interestingly, this is not true of our opposition.) I bring all of this up because I’m just not satisfied with the reaction to Tom Van Dyke’s wonderfully challenging post “The Moral Mathematics of Murder”. In the comments section, he throws out the following:

I'm peeking in the door that Ward Churchill opened, that in this day and age, the possibility exists that there are no civilians.

I suppose we could debate the infinite levels of complicity to be found among the populations of the Lebanese, Japanese, Germans, etc. But I can’t fight off the notion that any moral right to protection that might be claimed by these people is done so on the cheap. When the stakes are low, you are welcome to your indifference. If you’re Alec Baldwin, you’re not required to move to France just because the wrong guy wins the election.

But there are times when life forces you to make a call. While it may be unfair to equate the Lebanese civilians who have allowed themselves to become de facto human shields with Hizbollah operatives, it is not a stretch to say that they are aiding and abetting criminals. And it is here, in the knowledge of who and what one is allowing to happen on their turf, that the pretense of the innocence falls by the wayside.

So here’s the question again. If it is agreed that the removal of Hizbollah is good, on what grounds are the Lebanese civilians owed special protection vis a vis the Israeli military forces that will make this removal happen?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Microsoft Tries a Different Plan for TV on the Web

Computer software giant Microsoft is about to bring free, commercial television to the Web, AP reports. Several online sites have experimented with offering commercial programs commercial-free on a pay--per-view or pay-to-download basis. Most notable among these, of course, is ITunes. What Microsoft is about to do, by contrast, emulates commercial television while improving convenience, by providing content for free but on an on-demand basis to consumers. The programming will be paid for by advertisement revenues rather than direct fees.

The cast of Arrested Development

The effort will begin with three episodes of the Fox comedy Arrested Development, the AP report notes. This marks the first time the program has been made available online. Microsoft has acquired exclusive "portal syndication" rights to all 53 episodes of the program for three years.

Arrested Development was canceled at the end of the just-passed television season after three years. The G4 network will air the program on basic cable beginning this fall.

From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Mass-Marketing Taste

Actress Scarlett Johansson appears at a news conference to announce her partnership with an athletic apparel company in New York July 25, 2006. REUTERS/Jeff Zelevansky (UNITED STATES)Britney Spears

The Reebok shoe company has announced that it has signed young actress Scarlett Johansson to sponsor a new line of "retro-chic" footwear and clothing, Scarlett "Hearts" Rbk, E! Online reports. The shoes will reportedly take advantage of the starlet's "Old Hollywood-style glamour," as E! breathlessly puts it. A respect for stylishness seems to me a very nice thing, although mass-marketing such a thing would seem a sure means of defeating the purpose, given that originality and expression of a strong, interesting personality were the hallmarks of that old-style Hollywood glamour. That is the sort of thing money cannot buy.
That said, a move from the Britney/Christina Desperate Slut look to a more stylish, presentable look based on Ms. Johansson's more tasteful approach would be a welcome change indeed.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Shyamalan Out of His Depth?

The critics have largely savaged M. Night Shyamalan's new film, The Lady in the Water. Many seem to be so annoyed by the film's depiction of a snotty newspaper movie and book critic as to be constitutionally unable to appreciate it at all. If so, they are being astoundingly petty. The film has much to recommend it.

Still from Lady in the WaterYes, it's a bit slow at times, and the plot often seems something of a shaggy dog story. However, Lady in the Water also contains some very moving scenes depicting characters' great longing for love and meaning. That is something Shyamalan has always been very good at providing, and it characterizes his films at least as strongly as the plot twists, imaginative ideas, and suspense scenes for which he is better known. That is a very good thing and not at all common among current-day filmmakers. In this way Shyamalan reminds one more of Hollywood Golden Era directors Sam Wood and Frank Borzage than of anyone today.

As you probably know, the film tells the story of a water nymph who appears in a Philadelphia-area apartment complex and sets in motion a series of events from an ancient Korean bedtime story which Shyamalan has invented for the film. The future of the world hangs in the balance, and multitudes of people's lives will be changed greatly for the better if the characters succeed, and much for the worse if they fail.Lady in the Water poster There are malevolent creatures out to stop the nymph from her appointed good works, and some lawkeeper critters who are apparently asleep at the switch through most of the story.

The film includes numerous allusions to spiritual concepts, and the story as a whole— with its premise that humanity is in the midst of a great battle among beings we cannot ordinarily see—suggests an interesting consideration of the Judeo-Christian idea of spiritual warfare. Yet it's not at all heavy-handed; Shyamalan includes enough quirky humor to keep the proceedings on an even keel, and his ability to elicit convincing performances from his cast remains strong.

Lady in the Water depicts a world in which human beings are buffeted about by forces we cannot usually see, but in which our choices are meaningful and intensely important and every person's life has a purpose and great meaning. The inclusion of a snotty film and book critic is therefore not a snide, angry slap at the writer-director's critics—or at least not only that. It is a critique of people who claim life has no deeper meaning and that everything is determined by events outside human control.

Although far from perfect, Lady in the Water does successfully convey that meaning, and that is an accomplishment indeed.

From Karnick on Culture.

The Politics of Charlie Chan

My current piece on National Review Online is about "The Business End of Ethnic Politics," telling how the Fox companies' treatment of the charming Charlie Chan films of the 1930s and '40s shows the increasing tendency of corporate America to find it necessary to give in to political protesters:

Political correctness has largely fallen out of the news, but it is just as prevalent as ever. In fact, it has spread from the capitol buildings and campuses to corporate conference rooms, as businesses increasingly bow to pressure from ethnic, sexual, and political groups. Even old B movies and American heroes aren’t safe from the strictures of today’s culture czars.

This is all too evident in the fate of Charlie Chan in recent years. . . .

[W]hy haven’t you seen Charlie Chan on TV lately? As I reported in National Review Online in 2003, the company that owns the TV rights to the best of the Chan films, Fox Movie Channel, refuses to show them and won’t license the rights to anybody else. The reason the network gave at the time was that ethnic groups had complained:

Fox Movie Channel has been made aware that the Charlie Chan films may contain situations or depictions that are sensitive to some viewers. Fox Movie Channel realizes that these historic films were produced at a time where racial sensitivities were not as they are today. As a result of the public response to the airing of these films, Fox Movie Channel will remove them from the schedule.

Fox has decided to release four Charlie Chan films on DVD, finally, but the bad news is that the quality of the presentation is not that great and Fox refuses to mention them at all on their website. Clearly, they have dumped these on the market in virtual secrecy, hoping to make a little money from the series fans without enraging the ethnic political interest groups. That's sad and ugly. My conclusion:

I suppose we might be grateful that these films are being released on DVD at all, however secretive and slovenly the presentation, but the travails of Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto tell us a lot about the way the culture and corporate America work today, and it is not a happy message. Increasingly in the business world as well as in the political and educational realms, the current American elites are willing to take conservatives’ money, but not their advice.

For that, they go to the very people who would most like to destroy them.

For more details and a complete explanation of the situation, read the full story here.

From Karnick on Culture.

George Dubya 43 Bushitler: Too Liberal and Idealistic

You heard it from the horse's mouth:

I think Mr. Bush faces a singular problem best defined, I think, as the absence of effective conservative ideology — with the result that he ended up being very extravagant in domestic spending, extremely tolerant of excesses by Congress.

Well, if Wm. F. Buckley says it, it must be true.

However, except for former Speaker of the House Newton Gingrich, who did it during the relentlessly rising dotcom economic tide/tsunami of the later 1990s, no Republican politician in WFB's lifetime ever significantly slowed increases in domestic spending.

Not even Ronald Reagan. Because even after all this time, Americans like The New Deal.

Lyndon Johnson's Great Society? Americans learned to not be so crazy about it, mostly because it introduced a dependency on the government and replaced the individual's self-sufficiency. But I've poked through the charts, and it did immediately lower the national poverty rate by a lasting 10%. (Attempts to expand its reach fell flat from 1970 on.) But a permanent 10% dent in the US poverty rate was a pretty dang good accomplishment.

And so on to Iraq, the elephant in everybody's living room.

It's been no state secret that WFB has been sour on Iraq for quite some time now. I meself at the podiatrist's office today (dang, my feet sure hurt) pulled out the good doctor's most recent waiting room magazine, a March 2006 issue of Time, a kinda MSM souvenir issue, sentimentally commemorating 3 American years in Iraq.

WFB was quoted first in answer to "Was it worth it?"

No. Emphatically no. Were we wrong to undertake what we did? The objectives were sound, but our reach proved insufficient to realize them.

OK, I hear that. Looks even worse since March. WFB is hereby anointed as an unimpeachable member of the reality-based community. Down by three in the 7th and you tell us we're losing. Thanks for the update, mate.

The situation in Iraq sucks. We may have overestimated the power of human decency after tyranny is eradicated.

From WFB's most recent interview with the mousy yet beguilingly foxy Thalia Assuras, on whom I developed a severe crush some years back on her Ellerbee/Olbermanish snarkfest at 4AM on ABCWorldNewsWhatever when they thought nobody was watching:

>>>>>>>>>>¡Alto! Point of order here---

Thalia. Mouse. Fox. Journalistic √úberprofessional. Goddess.

And she wore glasses back in her ABC days. Be still my lustful heart. Down, boy.<<<<<<<<<<<

OK, back to our regular program.

WFB also quoth:

There will be no legacy for Mr. Bush. I don't believe his successor would re-enunciate the words he used in his second inaugural address because they were too ambitious. So therefore I think his legacy is indecipherable...

Indecipherable. I had a little sneaky fun with our commenters with this quote awhile back:

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge---and more."

Pretty laughable in the face of the reality of the 21st century. I playfully attributed it to Dubya, but it's actually from John Kennedy's first (and only) inaugural address. You could look it up. But let's face it, Dubya could have said it, and nobody (not just here) blinked twice when I attributed it to him.

But not even JFK believed that idealistic crap. The last one who did was Woodrow Wilson. Maybe Abraham Lincoln before him. That's about it.

Oh, yeah, and Harry Truman, who started but didn't finish the Korean War. History seldom reveals its alternatives, but the difference between North and South Korea is one of the few object lessons that history has ever yielded us.

There's a disconnect here between me and WFB. Reagan voted for Truman, and FDR, too. But WFB & me both voted for Reagan. I think I might be too liberal and idealistic. Perhaps Ronald Reagan was too.

So be it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Beach Boys Credit War

In a comment on my SMiLE post immediately below, our fearless leader Tom Van Dyke points out that Beach Boy Mike Love has sued for greater credit for the band's songs. I, too, had heard about this, and here are my thoughts on the issue.

Mike Love was given co-songwriting credit on numerous songs by the Beach Boys, almost always in collaboration with Brian, who contributed all the musical composition in those efforts. Take a look at the credits on the CDs, and you'll see that this is true. It is certainly possible that Mike Love may have contributed to some songs without receiving credit, though even if that did happen, it would have been the fault of the group's manager, Murry Wilson, who was the (abusive) father of Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson and uncle of Mike Love. No one in the band was able to stand up to Murry until around 1967 or so.

That said, I am extremely skeptical of Love's claim that he deserves even more credit for the group's songs. (I have read several books about the band's history, FYI, and seen the many documentaries about the band as well.) Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the lyrics for SMiLE, received credit for his contributions, as did Gary Usher and Roger Christian, who wrote lyrics for many of the band's songs through 1966, and Tony Asher, who wrote nearly all the lyrics for the Beach Boy's gorgeous Pet Sounds album. If Mike Love contributed to more songs than he received credit for, why were these outside writers properly credited and Love, a full-fledged member of the band, not? That doesn't make sense.

My assessment is that Mike Love is trying to take greater credit than he deserves. Brian has refused to fight him on this, consenting to let Love receive the credit—and money—he is seeking. Brian is an entirely nonconfrontational person, and it is clear to me that he would rather give his cousin the money and undeserved credit rather than fight him for it.

Of course, Mike Love should get whatever credit he has earned for any songs to which he may have contributed, but it is not at all true that he was vital to the band's success. It was drummer Dennis Wilson who was the surfer and contributed the surfing terms for the early songs, and Brian could easily have done without Love's lyrics entirely, using other talented lyric writers instead of his cousin, as he did when his musical concepts finally progressed too far beyond what Love was capable of writing about, specifically with Pet Sounds.

This is important because the Beach Boys are an important part of our cultural history, and credit (and blame) for the band's works should be allocated correctly. Mike Love's lyric writing ability has always been decidedly pedestrian and grossly inferior to that of the other lyric writers Brian worked with. Love was a barely competent singer with an unattractive, nasal voice, little range, and an astonishingly limited ability to convey emotion. In sum, he was extremely fortunate to be able to ride the coattails of his musical genius cousin, Brian.

None of this, of course, is meant to criticize Mike Love as a person. From what I have read about him, he has been a fairly decent person in most ways, although he has had his pecadilloes as have we all. In addition, I would never disparage the Beach Boys' early lyrics or Mike Love's part in the band, but without Brian, the Beach Boys would have been less important than the Hondells and Jan and Dean. Without Mike Love, they would still have been the Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys and SMiLE

During the dog days of summer, all real Americans enjoy a bit of a pep-up by listening to the Beach Boys, the nation's great rock and roll band. The Beach Boys have definitely been through their ups and downs, but many of their songs have entered the pop culture pantheon, and have well earned the accolades. Led by primary songwriter, producer, and arranger Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys synthesized rock and roll, early American music, folk, and other influences into a sound all their own, as Wilson's great genius for melody, harmony, and counterpoint made lyrically simple songs such as "California Girls," "God Only Knows," and "Good Vibrations" into works of stunning beauty that were easy to understand and enjoy.

In the mid-1960s, however, Brian had a nervous breakdown, while he was hard atSmiley Smile cover art work on what he intended as his true masterwork, SMiLE. With lyrics by the undeniably talented hippie wordsmith/songwriter Van Dyke Parks, the album was to be, in Brian's words, "a teenage symphony to God." After Brian's breakdown, however, work on the album stopped, even though it had been nearly finished, and the group released the rather disorganized and puzzling replacement Smiley Smile and moved on.

Tantalizing pieces from the original SMiLE lineup, however, appeared occasionally on the band's subsequent albums, making the unreleased album a great legend of lost popular art: an album of songs such as "Heroes and Villains," "Good Vibrations," "Cabin-Essence," "Vegetables," "Our Prayer," and "Cool, Cool Water" would have to be an astonishing thing, the group's fans supposed.

Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE album cover imageBut it was almost forty years before we got to hear it—in 2004 in a version credited to Brian Wilson and performed by him and his current-day touring band. And it really was great, as I stated in my review of the recording for Tech Central Station.

Still, I couldn't help but wonder what the album would have sounded like as performed by the Beach Boys in their prime, with Brian's youthful voice—his voice has coarsened over the years because of tobacco use, drug abuse, etc.—and with the vocal performances by the orignal band. The group, after all, had sung together since childhood, and was composed of three brothers, one cousin, and a longtime friend, and as a result their voices blended together beautifully. Given the tremendous vocal harmonies and counterpoints Brian had created for SMiLE, and the fact that some of the songs were originally written to be sung by Brian's now-deceased brothers Carl and Dennis, it was interesting to conjecture how the album would have sounded with their contributions.

We can't hear an entire performance of SMiLE by the Beach Boys, but ITunes has created the next best thing: a playlist of the Beach Boys' performances of SMiLE that have been released on the band's albums over the years. Several songs were released as tracks on the original vinyl albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and quite a few more were released on the various remasters and reissues during the past few years, and also on the superb Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys boxed set. (The latter, by the way, is a must-have recording.)

For more on this interesting musical artifact, see the full article on Karnick on Culture.