Saturday, December 02, 2006

Inspector Mom—Mysteriously Good

Danica McKellar, who plays the title character of Lifetime TV program Inspector Mom

Confession time: I make a habit of not watching the Lifetime TV network, which appears to be aimed at left-of-center suburban soccer moms. However, the title of new Lifetime series, Inspector Mom, grabbed my attention, so I took a look at the pilot.

And what do you know? It was kind of fun.

Danica McKellar (The Wonder Years) plays Maddie Monroe, a—guess what?—soccer mom who's trying to juggle childraising and a part-time career as a newspaper columnist, known as Inspector Mom. She is in fact a former topnotch investigative journalist who quit her job and went down to part time work in order to raise her children.

And guess what? She's perfectly happy with her choice. That's definitely a point in the show's favor. Of course, she happens to be a born supersleuth who can't help getting involved in murder investigations in suburban America—such as the killing of a nasty, womanizing soccer coach (in the pilot episode), a judge in a baking competition, and a little old lady down the road. The show covers some of the same ground as the BBC TV series Murder in Suburbia, but with a good deal less archness and sense of superiority. That's to the good also.

McKellar is appealingly practical, hardnosed, curious, and cheerful in the pilot episode, and although the mystery isn't particularly challenging, the atmosphere is both interesting and realistic—parents will well recognize, for example, the politics surrounding the soccer team—and her goofy friends are highly recognizable contemporary suburban types. The pilot shows a nice, light touch and provides a diverting and sometimes quirky entertainment while giving the gray cells a little exercise. No, it's not deep or transgressive, and that actually helps make Inspector Mom a fun show to watch.

In addition, the values suggested by the program are highly salutary. Maddie's family, at the center of the narrative, is a basically healthy one with normal American problems—another real breath of fresh air on American TV. And after the mystery is solved and the family sits down together at the dining table to enjoy ice cream sundaes, they pray their thanks to God for the treat and for the good things they get to share.

It's a show that nicely combines charm, normality, and adventure. The pilot is not scheduled for any additional showings in the near future, but the series is being presented on Lifetime's website and can be watched at any time. There are eight "webisodes" available currently with a couple more to come. You can watch them here. You might well enjoy them.

From Karnick on Culture.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Mr. Capra Goes to Hollywood

Film director Frank Capra (r) and screenwriter Robert RiskinTurner Classic Movies is showing a five-movie tribute to director Frank Capra tomorrow (Saturday) beginning at 8 pm EST. Capra, whose career spanned the end of the silent era to the early 1960s, was one of the great American film directors. He's best known for his classic film It's a Wonderful Life, and he made numerous other fine movies such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (another real classic), Meet John Doe, the Oscar-winning It Happened One Night, Dirigible, Lost Horizon, the poignant Lady for a Day, and the delightfully screwy comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.

The five films to be shown tomorrow night are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (interesting and good but not nearly as fine as Mr. Deeds), You Can't Take It with You (yuk, even though it won an Oscar—see below), American Madness (very underrated film starring Walter Huston), Lady for a Day, and Arsenic and Old Lace.

Capra was a very patriotic immigrant from Sicily who supported the Republican Party, which was just as unpopular in Hollywood then as it is now. His political and cultural instincts were a populist conservatism, and his usual cowriter was more of a leftist populist. (Capra generally did not get writing credits on his films although he oversaw every aspect of the screenplays.) As a result, the ideas evident in his films are sometimes complex and sometimes rather confused, but he always gets to the emotional heart of things, as is perfectly clear in It's a Wonderful Life.

The politics of You Can't Take It with You, based on a play cowritten by leftist Broadway satirist George S. Kaufman, by contrast, are very openly left-wing, infantile, and dislikeable, and the same sort of googoo-eyed populism crops up in Mr. Smith and Meet John Doe, though less intensely and therefore less annoyingly. The politics of Capra's films seem to resemble most closely those of Pat Buchanan and his magazine, The American Conservative, a stance with which I am not the slightest bit sympathetic. Most of Capra's films, however, are a good deal less simpleminded than You Can't Take It with You.

Even in the more overtly political films, however, Capra was trying in a rather artistic way to consider the question of how to live as a Christian in a corrupt society. Capra was at his best when the story dealt with these issues on a more personal level, as in It Happened One Night, Lady for a Day, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, American Madness, The Miracle Worker, Broadway Bill, and It's a Wonderful Life. Most of those films also explore the political implications of the characters' predicaments and choices, but without providing easy, stupid answers.

Saturday's tribute on TCM is well worth watching as an introduction to Capra or as an enjoyable return to a time when Hollywood films had a nice balance of ideas and entertainment. Set your DVR pronto.

From Karnick on Culture.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Goodness and Greatness in Art

S. T. Karnick's essay on greatness in art, specifically in literature, is worthy of extended reflection. (At the least, it was enough to pull your Curmudgeon out of retirement, though whether this is a good or a bad thing is for each Reform Club reader to decide for himself.) The problem is particularly intriguing for your Curmudgeon, as he holds to an unusual thesis: that there exists a universal aesthetic -- perhaps "meta-aesthetic" would be a better term -- that circumscribes our judgments about beauty. (This departure from the received wisdom that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" has caused your Curmudgeon to be disinvited from all the best parties and discussion salons. Despite the pall this has cast over his Yuletide, he's resolved to soldier on.)

A truly universal principle of any sort is a thing both exalting and terrifying. Exalting, because it hints at absolute knowledge, never to be contradicted nor doubted; terrifying, because it imposes an absolute boundary to some aspect of human action. For the claim to universality is a claim that the principle's domain of application is unbounded. One cannot escape its fetters no matter how far one wanders. Being impatient with constraint, we tend to dismiss such claims with prejudice, even when the evidence for them is ample and strong. So your Curmudgeon's notions about a universal aesthetic would remove individuals' option of judging an item beautiful if it failed the criterion. Needless to say, one can expect such an assertion to be resisted, especially in the nihilistic wasteland of contemporary "art." But if the principle is accepted, then beauty, which is one form of the property of goodness, becomes an objective matter. "Different strokes for different folks" might still apply to non-artistic activities and pleasures, but would no longer carry weight in judgments of artistic merit.

Broadly, there are three great questions before us:

  1. What is beauty?
  2. What is greatness in art?
  3. Are beauty and artistic greatness related in an objective way?

"What is" is the most dangerous question in aesthetics. It presages an attempt to define, and every attempt to define is simultaneously an attempt to exclude. So merely to ask "What is beauty?" puts one at odds with those whose conceptions differ, and of course with those who refuse all aesthetic restrictions. But let's imagine that we could assemble some non-trivial group of assessors who agree, without reservation, on what beauty is, whether intensively or by tabulation. Would they necessarily agree upon what items in their sphere of agreement are great art?

Art begins with artifice; a work of art must be a thing made by human ingenuity and effort. (Note how cleverly your Curmudgeon slipped the genus past you. Watch for the differentia; there'll be a lot of spin on it.) The judgment of whether an artifact is a work of art depends largely upon whether it has significant qualities beyond the utilitarian. For example, one would incur great hazard by deeming a commode, even American Standard's finest, to be a work of art. Such an object is all but consumed by its function. It might be beautiful, but its beauty will emerge from how well it melds its form with its function. Few art galleries would put a commode on display for their visitors to ponder; if you find one such, you've likely wandered into a Blackman's showroom by accident.

Art, therefore, must depart from the strictly utilitarian, even when the object under consideration is universally judged beautiful. Interestingly, this implies that the less useful an artifact is -- for anything -- the more likely it is to be allowed art-candidate status.

We have come to a critical juncture: Must art have a purpose of any sort, other than the depiction of beauty?

Your Curmudgeon believes that it must. Human beings do everything for a reason, which the great Ludwig von Mises captured in what he called the axiom of action: Men act only to create conditions better than those that currently exist, or to prevent worse ones.

The creator creates art for a reason. He chooses his genre for a reason. He selects his subject matter for a reason. He molds his production in a particular way for a bevy of reasons. Those reasons, in aggregate, constitute the purpose of the work. By the differentia stated above -- hah! You missed it, didn't you? Got him with a curve ball -- the work of art is not merely a useful item, and not merely a component in some such item. So the artist's purpose must stand outside the utilitarian domain.

The category of potentially non-utilitarian purposes is fairly narrow:

  • The communication of an idea;
  • The evocation of an emotion.

Your Curmudgeon would argue that the first of these is utilitarian at a remove; ultimately, there's nothing more useful than truth. That leaves us with emotional evocation: great art is art that's greatly affecting. For a quick test by contradiction, contrast this conception of greatness with one founded upon beauty alone. Many items of mere beauty, such as the paintings of Thomas Kinkade, touch the emotions not at all. They neither exalt nor disturb. Few would sincerely call them great.

Greatness is inseparable from achievement of one's purpose. Great statesmen bring peace and prosperity to their nations; great commanders triumph brilliantly even when the odds are against them; great scientists unearth important truths, to the advancement of knowledge and of Mankind; great athletes exceed the feats of their contemporaries, for our amazement and delight. In art, greatness must be measured by the artist's success in achieving his purpose: the communication or evocation of profound emotion. That success can have three dimensions:

  • Breadth of audience;
  • Intensity of reaction;
  • Longevity of impact.

A work of art that reaches few but affects all of them powerfully has a slender, unidimensional greatness. A work of art that reaches many and affects them all powerfully has attained a more robust, two-dimensional greatness -- and it need not be beautiful to do so. The nightmare fiction of Franz Kafka, the best known examples of which are "Metamorphosis" and "In The Penal Colony," is horrifying, yet it has profoundly shaken millions upon millions of readers. Francis Ford Coppola's movies The Godfather and Apocalypse Now are beautiful and ugly at intervals, but both are profoundly affecting; few walk away from them undisturbed.

The third dimension of greatness, persistence over a long period, is the hardest to attain; many artworks are too tightly bound to their spatio-temporal context to "travel well" down the centuries, and many forms of art are designed, deliberately or otherwise, to erode. Those that endure are Man's most precious patrimony. Ludwig van Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and Ninth Symphony will exalt audiences until music is played no more. Auguste Rodin's sculpture "Caryatid Who Has Fallen Under Her Stone" is painful to see, but it evokes overwhelming pity and admiration for the subject's struggles with her burden, and will do so for centuries to come.

Great art stirs great emotions in its audiences. A great artist is one who can do so repeatedly and consistently.

Ordinary individuals, in assessing works of art, seldom think of these things. If Smith finds that some artwork moves him to joy or tears, he won't much care that Jones is left cold by it. His judgments for his own consumption need not satisfy a more abstract standard. But he who makes art a study of importance must regard technical masteries, conformance to trends, even the opinions of critics to be adjuncts at best, distracting sideshows at worst. He must apply the criteria of emotional effectiveness, breadth of audience, and longevity. There are no others.

Here Come the Big-Mouth Idiots

There is something rather interesting and revealing in all the recent controversies about celebrities running their mouths and acting like peabrains. You've heard about these controversies on the news, of course, such as Mel Gibson's drunken diatribe against Jews, comedian Michael Richards's racial slurs in response to being interrupted by a heckler during a disastrous nightclub comedy routine, Danny DeVito's drunken rant against President Bush on The View yesterday, etc.

That's the Omniculture for you. Everything happens, and everything gets on TV or the Web, which is the new TV.

In short, expect a lot more of this.

People often act badly under stress—which is when a person's integrity and strength of character shine through or the lack of these bursts forth. And there will always be stressful situations to endure, even for the wealthy, famous, and powerful. Hence, there will be many incidents of crummy behavior by such persons. In a society with strong democratic and egalitarian impulses and consequently little to no sense of noblesse oblige among its most privileged members, such trashy behavior is inevitable.

Given that eveything happens in the Omniculture and is immediately distributed to everybody by way of TV and the Web, this will simply be the way of things for the foreseeable future: Big mouths saying and doing stupid things, and other big mouths complaining about what they said and did. There will be no escape, short of moving to a deserted island without TV or internet access.

From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Can We Judge Literature?

I stirred up some concerns among PKD fans with my Philip K. Dick article. Francis Poretto commented thoughtfully, suggesting that there is no way to discern true greatness in a writer. After stating, "For my money, a great writer is one who inspires me to great emotion," Francis asks, "How shall I judge Dick, or any writer, great, even if permitted to use my criterion?"

It's a fair question, and one that I implicitly answered in my original comment on PKD. Francis correctly observes that a numerical analysis of how a particular author measures up to an individual's chosen standards is impossible. Hence, he suggests, it's silly to engage in such discussions. "I think you can see where this is going," he concludes.

I can indeed see where that is going, and I am rather surprised to see someone who is most decidedly not a philosophical relativist taking the position Francis is staking out in regard to literature. Certainly it's true that we cannot hope to judge the quality of literary works and the overall achievements of their authors by some sort of quantitative analysis, but that is absolutely not the same thing as saying that there are no qualitative differences between such works and authors. And if there are such differences, then it is most certainly useful and salutary to discuss the matter.

Francis points out the following as possible standards, but then dismisses them:
-- Widespread critical acclaim?
-- Volume of sales?
-- The length of time his works have been read?
-- His avoidance of modifiers?
-- The effulgence of his imagery?
-- Some other criterion?
The answer, as you will have already guessed, is (f), some other criterion. Or, more accurately, some other criteria.

To wit:

Most assuredly there is a certain something at the heart of all great literary works that cannot quite be identified, much less quantified. Rather like the human soul, we perceive it but cannot isolate it. However, just as the human soul is held in a body that makes identifiable and even quantifiable actions, this heart of a novel is contained in (and indeed suffuses) a book that has identifiable characteristics. These characteristics can even be usefully quantified in some cases, though I believe it unnecessary for a valid literary analysis.

Specifically, it is possible to put individual tastes aside and discuss literature and the other arts in a rational and salubrious way.

We can observe, for example, that some books have deeper, more true, and more convincing characterizations than others. We can see that some have plots that are more interesting and diverting than others. Some have stories that are more plausible, convincing, and usefully reminiscent of reality than others. Some have descriptive passages that make the fictional world come alive more convincingly than others. Some have prose that is so beautiful and artful that it gives us distinct pleasure to contemplate. Some have moral implications that bring our human condition into greater focus and give us real insights into our position in the cosmos. And so on.

Yes, we cannot always quantify such things, but we certainly can make comparisons and discuss what is most worthy of our time and energy. And the point of my post was that a good many of the writings of Philip K. Dick are much more worthy of our time and attention than those of most mainstream American literary artisans of the twentieth century.

So let us indeed feel free to discuss the quality of authors' works, singly and in toto. We should always recognize that there is much room for disagreement, awareness of ambiguity, and differing assessments of how various works measure up to the ideal characteristics of literature, and that individuals can hold different rankings of importance among the various aspects of literary excellence, but that it is nonetheless both possible and necessary to discuss these works objectively and with a sincere search for truth at the heart of the matter.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What makes the 46% tick?

Is tribalism the issue in the matter of mainstream Dems supporting Todd Stroger, son of stricken Cook County board president John Stroger, in the recent election that gave him 46% of the Oak Park vote? This was a vote cast in the face of uncontested overwhelming evidence of budget-busting favoritism in hiring of friends and supporters with minimal regard to competence and other standard criteria, not to mention honesty in handling other people’s money.

Our ranking Oak Park Dem, state Sen. Don Harmon, was named in an 11/22 Chi Trib editorial with many other ranking Dems who endorsed Stroger. We may assume family matters for him, though Oak Park has traditonally shown a civic sense that counts for more than one’s tribe. It often does, anyhow, but not for the 46%.

That many do not care about hiring people with minimal regard for competence, etc. Tribalism may count among us also, but more likely livelihood or career — or those ol’ social values. Chief among these is the right to abort a fetus, with gay-rights issues not far behind followed from a longer distance by gun-banning and other such matters.

This is an interesting conflict, between social liberalism and political reform. It leads to asking if it is progressive — a cherished liberal description — to support the hiring of the incompetent or less competent because they will plant signs on street corners and knock on every door.

They Love Dick

It's official: Philip K. Dick is a great writer, according to the Library of America. As the Galley Cat at Media Bistro reports:
Buried at the tail end of Mark Sarvas's interview with Jonathan Lethem comes news of one project on the novelist's plate: "I'm helping preside over the utter and irreversible canonization of one of my (formerly outsider) heroes, Philip K. Dick: I'm writing endnotes for The Library of America, which is doing a volume of four of his novels from the sixties, which I also helped select."
I suppose that if Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and H. P. Lovecraft are great writers, then Dick is too. But in my view, this event is most important as further evidence of how poor the mainstream American novel was during the previous century. Solid but unspectactular and fairly uninsightful genre authors (though this last limitation does not apply to Dick) are touted as among the best the nation had to offer, and this is true because the mainstream novelists were so often confused, self-important, and wrongheaded.

A good many of Philip K. Dick's books and stories are well worth reading, but he really worked largely on frankly pulp material. His great contribution was to convey interesting, provocative, and important ideas in a pulp context, but that is like making a really fast production automobile. It's fast, but it can't run with the custom jobbies.

Dick stands out as an author because the "custom cars" of his time were so shabby.

PKD's prose was usually serviceable at best, although better than, say, Theodore Drieser's glop. But whereas Dreiser's characterizations could be immensely powerful and the conflicts highly real and dramatic, Dick's characters are usually unable to sustain much interest, and the stories depend almost entirely on their ideas and interesting plot angles. Some of those concepts and ideas are so good that his writings have gained a strong foothold in the culture through film adaptations. For that reason, he's certainly one of the more important American writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

Philip K. Dick was indeed a great pulp writer, if there can be such a thing, and a very good writer within his limits. I'll call him a very good writer overall when at his best. And his elevation to Library of America status points out once again that genre literature, despite its limitations, was where it was at in American literature during the past century.

From Karnick on Culture.

Race in Michigan, Iraqi democracy, Bush secretive, etc.

* Steve Chapman in Chi Trib: Mary Sue Coleman, U of Mich pres., protesting 58% vote against racial preferences in admissions, "has been a staunch champion of . . . correcting racial discrimination by practicing racial discrimination." She defiant, standing in schoolhouse door.

* Slouching toward realpolitik: Trib's Clarence Page: "Americans appreciate the neo-conservative dream of spreading democracy through the Middle East [once described by GW as a way to prevent terrorism], but the Iraq disaster offers us a painful lesson on the limits of our grasp." Comment: How we deal with corrupt Iraqis is one thing, but leaving the field to the bad guys is another. There is such a thing as their morale too, is there not, to be strengthened by our departure?

* Devastating Novak column about firing of Rumsfeld and what it says about GW, who he says is "no malevolent tyrant" but like all Republicans in White House since Eisenhower, subject to "congenital phobia" about leaks. He is "secretive and impersonal" in his firing of people contrary to assurances. It's "not a good sign for for his concluding years as president," says N.

* "Autumn leaves, packs its bags," begins a poem by Andrew McNeillie, "Les Feuilles d'Automne" in Times Lit Supplement of 11/17/06, leaving me to wonder for a fraction what that comma was doing there. Between subject and verb? Let's not have it, OK? Then I saw that this was not the tried and true "autumn leaves," adjective and noun, but the same, subject and verb, as in "Autumn leaves [and] packs its bags." The poet had my attention.

* Up to 17 Chi aldermen are to be targeted for political extinction by Service Employees union. Question to be, per Mark Brown in Sun-Times 11/28, are they with the working man or not? No, it's are they with the unionized working man or not. The workers paradise of total unionization not yet arrived, we must keep in mind union exclusivity. Some have no chance to belong to a union. Some choose not to when given the chance. Either way, workers of the world have not yet united, notwithstanding many a heartfelt appeal to do so, at least since Marx and Engels.

The chief beef against the aldermen and women is their vote against the "living wage," a.k.a. big-box (store) ordinance which would have dictated what Wal-Mart and Target pay employees. This ordinance would have benefited the proletariat, say Service Employees, even as it kept out of Chicago a lot of low-price merchandise which the proletariat buys right and left: see shoulder to shoulder shoppers at the suburban Forest Park Wal-Mart, where the proles are finding what they want and the village is reaping sales tax to beat all.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Soap Opera to Feature "Transgendering" Character

This undated photo supplied by ABC shows Jeffrey Carlson who plays a transgender character on ABC's soap opera 'All My Children.' The storyline with Carlson's character, a flamboyant rock star known as Zarf, begins on the Thursday, Nov. 30, 2006 episode of the daytime drama. (AP Photo/ABC,Lou Rocco)This Thursday, the ABC TV daytime serial drama All My Children will introduce a character who was born male and is being "transformed into a woman" through hormone treatments, surgery, and psychological retraining.

This is believed to be the first time an American television show has had such a "transgendering" character. Some programs in the past have had fully "transgendered" characters in the past, but you probably wouldn't remember them given that nobody watched. The L Word, on the Showtime cable network, has a character who is going the other way, from a woman to a "man."

According to the Associated Press,

"All My Children" was looking for something new, and knows its audience is always interested in anything to do with sexuality, said Julie Hanan Carruthers, the show's executive producer.

Like most daytime dramas, the program's ratings have been dropping, falling by almost 2/3 since the early 1990s.

Pardon me for thinking that this isn't going to improve the show's performance.

From Karnick on Culture.

Cancel the Order for Erin's New Lamborghini

The film hagiography notwithstanding, Erin Brockovich and her firm of glorified ambulance chasers aren't just greedy, they're patently morons.

From the LA Times
A judge on Wednesday dismissed 12 lawsuits in a headline-making case brought by Erin Brockovich-Ellis' law firm against Beverly Hills and its school district, alleging that an oil well at Beverly Hills High School caused cancers in former students.

Without explaining his decision, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Wendell Mortimer Jr. granted the request of Beverly Hills and other defendants to dismiss the lawsuits, saying he would issue a more detailed ruling within 25 days.

The case, which had been set to go to trial next month, broke in 2003 and quickly generated intense controversy. Beverly Hills takes great pride in its high school; alumni include actors Nicolas Cage, Alicia Silverstone and Richard Dreyfuss.

Exhibits A, B, and C. Cancer pays better, but if they'd have gone with brain damage, it would've been a slam dunk.