Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Well, As Long As We're Being Shameless...

...perhaps the new guy can get away with inviting The Reform Club's readers to peruse this brief disquisition on classical liberalism and constitutionalism.

(It struck me as a bit discursive for this site.)

Glenn Ford and the American Character

Glenn Ford (r) and Lee Marvin in Fritz Lang's classic crime film "The Big Heat"Actor Glenn Ford died yesterday at the age of 90 after a long career in the movies and television. Perhaps best known to modern audiences as Clark Kent's father in Richard Donner's Superman—The Movie, Ford made a solid career as a leading man despite a near-complete lack of charisma and magnetism.

Ford's stolid, mature persona contrasted greatly with those of popular contemporaries such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean who valued a high degree of explicit emotional expression. Ford could show passion when called upon, as in the suspense film Ransom (remade in 1996 as a Mel Gibson vehicle) and the drama The Blackboard Jungle, but even in those cases his stoicism is what we remember most vividly.

Ford's characters often had serious flaws—such as stubbornness, irresponsibility, jealousy, and lack of intelligence—and these flaws led to interesting moral complexities in his best films. In both his virtues and his flaws, Ford represented a strong strain of the American character—the adventurousness, the uncompromising striving for rectitude, and the relentless and often disorganized pursuit of what is right and good in life.

Ford's best films and most memorable performances admirably reflect this complex set of attributes: classic crime dramas such as Gilda, The Big Heat, and Experiment in Terror;The Man from the Alamo, westerns such as 3:10 to Yuma, The Desperados, Cimarron, and The Violent Men; dramas such as Trial, The Blackboard Jungle, and The Brotherhood of the Bell; films in which he played contemptible villains as in The Man from Colorado; crazy comedies such as The Gazebo and The Teahouse of the August Moon, and many others.

He was a man who made the most of his talents and opportunities.

Commemorating 9/11

Promo shot for The Path to 9/11The TV networks will be doing a significant amount of programming commemorating the forthcoming 5th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

ABC has produced a four-hour docudrama, The Path to 9/11, which is based on the government report on the attack and helps explain how the attack happened. After the second, concluding episode of the miniseries, ABC will air a special edition of Primetime hosted by Charlie Gibson. Good Morning, America, World News, and Nightline will also cover the story.

NBC will run a number of programs, including coverage on the Today show. The network will rerun in primetime several programs originally aired in 2001. MSNBC and CNBC will present programs as well, but nobody will watch them.

CBS will air an updated version of the documentary 9/11 on Sunday evening, and on Sept. 6 will present an hour-long, primetime special, Five Years Later: How Safe Are We? (My guess: they'll conclude that we've been demn lucky, not smart.) In the special, Katie Couric will interview President Bush. Hilarity ensues when Couric takes offense to the President calling her Elfy and giving her a whopping great noogie.

From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

CBS Does Its Part

A Proper Response

Some years ago, at the conclusion of an essay on competitive monies and monetary reform, economist Pamela Brown of Auburn University quoted Brian Loasby's statement in Choice, Complexity, and Ignorance that "competition is a proper response to ignorance." This concept can be traced back through several economic minds, including Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek. The central filament of the thing is, of course, that the results of free-market competition in the provision of some good or service cannot be predicted ab initio, the presumptions of statists and monopolists notwithstanding.

Today, John Stossel at Jewish World Review makes a vital connection to America's preeminent ignorance factory:

When a government monopoly limits competition, we can't know what ideas would bloom if competition were allowed. Surveys show that most American parents are satisfied with their kids' public schools, but that's only because they don't know what their kids might have had!

Surveys taken in various parts of the nation indicate that the average high-school graduate of our time is less knowledgeable, particularly in the politically critical fields of American and world history, than an eighth grader of a century ago. The need for such graduates to take remedial classes in English composition and mathematics as college freshmen is a well known national ignominy. The persistent inability of college graduates to express themselves clearly and coherently in the workplace speaks even more eloquently about the low standard of performance to which we hold our expensive educational institutions.

This has been going on, and getting worse, since World War II. You'd think we didn't know any better...or didn't want to.

Yet the major educrats' union, the National Education Association, maintains a stout barrier against educational competition of any sort: vouchers, tuition tax credits, open enrollment among public schools, or any other alternative. The NEA's ability to galvanize its two-million-plus members to fight initiatives toward that end has defeated school choice proposals in state after state. It's also thwarted the expansion of pilot choice programs such as those established in Cleveland and Florida. It routinely wins the support of state Departments of Education, which should surprise no one. Today, it fights most fiercely against measures intended to ease the burdens of homeschooling families, an option it has impeded but failed to far.

Sure sounds as if there's something the NEA doesn't want us to know, doesn't it? Which explains a lot about the erudition level of our kids, when you think about it. But Americans don't like to be kept in the dark. When we discover that someone in authority has been hiding something from us, we tend to take it badly. The more important the subject, the worse we take it.

So: When confronted by a gigantic, very wealthy union determined to keep you and your children ignorant, what would you deem a proper response?

Of Vikings and Christians: A TRC Emeritus Post

I came out of semi-retirement just to put you on the scent of a remarkable author, the intrepid Lutheran (ya listenin' Sam?) Lars Walker. I already posted about him at TAS and Southern Appeal, but I couldn't bear thinking any of the TRCers might miss out.

It happens every once in a while. You discover something that is really special, that should be incredibly successful, but unaccountably, isn’t. A very well read friend made me aware of the fiction of Lars Walker. He writes mostly about Vikings during the period when Christianity contended with pagan religions, but he also has a contemporary novel (which happens to deal with Viking lore!).

I cannot give a high enough recommendation to Lars Walker’s The Year of the Warrior. I had to wait for it, but it was completely worth the wait. The narrator of the story is a young Irishman taken captive to sell as a slave by Vikings. They give him a tonsure to make him look like a priest so he’ll fetch a higher price. A newly converted Viking nobleman buys him because he needs a priest for his village. The Irishman decides to play the part of the priest in order to survive and the action flows from there.

Wonderful historical saga. Interesting insights about the Christian faith and its relationship to political power. Some beautiful battle sequences, too. Fully developed characters. Worth reading in every way.

So why the lack of bestseller status? I have a guess. The Lars Walker novels are published by Baen, which really specializes in sword and sorcery/science fiction. The covers of the Walker books have that look to them, but they are actually much deeper. I think the normal Baen reader is disappointed by the lack of standard genre stuff when they buy the book. But you, dear reader, will not be disappointed. You shall be blessed.

Baby Poop Art

In our ongoing Everything Happens in the Omniculture department, E! Online reports that a bronze sculpture purporting to be the first solid poop from Tom and Katie Cruise's daughter, Suri, goes on display today at a Brooklyn, NY, art musuem.

Yes, but is it Art?

Short answer: No

Of course, the museum makes a nice excuse for it, as E! reports:

"It's partially a statement on modern media that 'celebrity poop' has more entertainment value than health, famine or other critical issues facing society and governments today," the Capla [Museum] crew said in a statement, "and also the absurdity of the media coverage on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' new baby, Suri Cruise, which has reached stellar proportions, eclipsing far more notable events with more substance."
Yes, a comment on modern media. Thanks for that. Without a sculpture of baby poop, we would never have known that the modern media are superficial—and that modern museums are so much better.

From Karnick on Culture.

Re-Colonizing China

Yes, China took over Hong Kong, but it may well be that Hong Kong's former colonizer, Great Britain, is about to take over China—through the media.

Variety reports that the BBC has established a content-provision deal with Chinese broadcasters, through which the Beeb will provide drama programs to more than 300 local and regional channels, including outlets in Beijing and Shanghai. In addition, the latest season of David Attenborough's BBC program Life in the Undergrowth, which will be shown on the national network China Central Television.

The Chinese will be playing cricket and stopping for afternoon tea before you know it.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Hong Kong Entertainers Protest Invasions of Privacy; Seek Government's Help

A protest movement in Hong Kong (led by one of my favorite entertainment figures, Jackie Chan), sheds light on some interesting differences between America's wide-open Omniculture and other, politically different places, and also on a conflict endemic to modern societies and which will surely become increasingly thorny.

Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan, center, and Tony Leung Ka-fai, right, arrive at Hong Kong's government headquarters during a demonstration Tuesday, Aug. 29,. 2006. Members of Hong Kong's entertainment industry attended a televised rally Monday to protest tabloid journalism they said violated their privacy rights. The demonstration was sparked by the publication of photos of pop star Gillian Chung changing her clothes after a recent concert in Malaysia. The pictures were on the cover of the weekly Easy Finder magazine. Black T-shirts read: 'Bitterness and disgust, To tolerate evil is to abet it.' (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

AP reports:

Jackie Chan and fellow stars marched silently Tuesday to Hong Kong's government headquarters, protesting against a gossip magazine that featured a cover photo of a pop singer changing backstage.

The celebrities, wearing black T-shirts, handed over a petition denouncing the photos that were secretly taken of Hong Kong pop singer Gillian Chung, part of the popular female duo Twins. The stars urged the government to tighten laws governing racy publications.

Chung was shown adjusting her bra backstage after a concert in Malaysia's Genting Highlands. It appeared on the cover of the current issue of Easy Finder weekly.

That is what's considered racy over there, in terms of open publication at least. And in great contrast to America's entertainment community, which perpetually worries that the nation is sliding down a slippery slope to imminent federal censorship of entertainment (an entirely absurd notion), the Hong Kong entertainers and members of the public are actually calling for the government to step in and stop certain types of publication:

The photos have sparked a major backlash. Government regulators have received a deluge of complaints. Hong Kong's Obscene Articles Tribunal has classified the magazine issue "indecent," which could lead to prosecution. Chan and fellow stars attended a TV special protesting the photos Monday.

Hong Kong leader Donald Tsang spoke out against the photos Tuesday.

"I identify with society's strong criticism of these tactics," he said.

I'm not familiar with Hong Kong's constitution, but I suppose that like that of its former parent Great Britain, and very much like that of its new overseer, China, it does not have press protections nearly as universal as those in our First Amendment (and even ours does not protect obscenity, although the Supreme Court has effectively defined the latter out of existence). Hong Kong journalists, in any case, disagree with the entertainers:

Journalists have opposed restrictions on their coverage as a threat to press freedom. Legal reforms propose banning secret surveillance by private parties, but the government is still considering the recommendations.

Chan acknowledges that celebrities are news and should expect to be treated as such:

Asked if he wants to see paparazzi photos banned completely, Chan said he believed celebrities should be held accountable for their actions.

Chan correctly observes, however, that invasions of privacy that would be illegal when done to noncelebrities should be illegal for everybody:

"As public figures, we should allow our pictures to be taken. If we crash our cars when we're drunk, it serves us right. People should scold us. But for a girl to be photographed when she's in a changing room, such a private place, is despicable behavior," he said.

AP reports that Hong Kong publications have indeed been closed down for such activities:

Eastweek magazine was shut down amid the backlash after publishing on its cover a photo of a visibly distressed, seminude female star, widely reported to be Carina Lau, in October 2002.

Eastweek was then owned by businessman Albert Yeung, who controls Chung's record label EEG. It was later reopened under new ownership.

Certainly nothing like that is apt to happen here, although on the state level it would be perfectly constitutional, and on the federal level it would likewise be constitutionally acceptable in response to publications that traffic in obscenity. But even so, it won't happen in the foreseeable future. (Note that I'm not advocating any particular policy in this situation but merely pointing out the constitutional issues.)

American entertainers complain about papparazzi, understandably, and they would certainly like to see local governments step in to ensure that people are prevented from intruding too greatly into their lives. (And I agree with them on that.) Even so, it is very difficult to imagine Hollywood entertainers calling for the government to attack the problem by suppressing the publications in which the photos appear. Well, impossible, really.

This is a very interesting controversy because it places in stark terms our current cultural conflict over what is public and what is private as media penetration into our lives becomes increasingly ubiquitous. It involves an endless series of tradeoffs, to which I think there will never be any easy, conclusive answer.

From Karnick on Culture.

Still More Shameless Self-Promotion

Here is my op-ed from today's Orange County Register on global warming and the report of the California Climate Action Team. the editors butchered it a bit---The Little Ice Age ended, not entered, around 1850, and Alar is not a pesticide. But I think the points get across.

Comments welcome.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Self-Debasement Among the Campus Lefties

Awhile back the Brown Journal of World Affairs asked me for a paper---sorry, no honorarium--- on important problems looming for the Chinese economy. The paper is based upon a book (Fault Lines In China's Economic Terrain) that Charles Wolf Jr. and I and a couple of others wrote a few years ago. Anyway, I agreed to do it, as I truly am a moron still laboring under the illusion that the marketplace of ideas is something worthy of sacrifice; it took about two weeks of my time.

Sent the paper in, whereupon the editors began to "fix" it so that the writing style would appeal to above-average freshman. Anyway, I put the kibosh on most of those changes, but one change that they insisted upon reveals quite an interesting dynamic. One of the problems confronting the Chinese is the spread of HIV/AIDS; unlike the incidence of more-traditional diseases spread by various forms of pestilence---which the Chinese have done a remarkable job reducing--- HIV/AIDS presents formidable problems in substantial part because it is behavioral, that is, the incidence of the disease depends crucially on various risky types of behavior by individuals.

Well. This obvious truth---denied by no one anywhere---is too "sensitive," too "controversial," and might "anger" some readers, in particular, the homosexual lobby at Brown University. And so the editors demanded that HIV/AIDS not be described as a "behavioral" disease, even though that central reality is one important dimension of the problem faced by the Chinese government, as some of the policies implemented to reduce the spread of the infection will drive part of the affected population into the shadows. Their argument---believe it or not---is that any disease is in some sense behavioral, and so describing HIV/AIDS in that way conveys no useful information. Really? Malaria? Lymphatic Cancer? Etc. I am not making this up.

And so I told them not to publish the paper; I allowed them to waste two weeks of my time, but I will not allow them to impose upon me the asinine dogmas of political correctitude. And so the efforts of lefties to impose censorship is amusing indeed, particularly in the sense that defense of their position has led them to descend into such absurdities as the argument that HIV/AIDS is not behavioral. It just doesn't get any better than that.

More Shameless Self-Promotion

Here is my op-ed column from today's San Diego Union-Tribune, on Arnold's endorsement of price controls on pharmaceuticals. What a disaster he is.

Comments welcome.

Co-Evolution, A Coda: Voting Power

The possibility I broached yesterday that Joseph Lieberman might emerge from his current struggles more powerful than ever derives from a somewhat obscure study in finite mathematics called voting power.

In a situation whose outcome is to be decided by a vote, a participant's voting power is the percent of possible vote configurations in which his is the deciding vote -- in other words, the relative frequency with which he would effectively pick the winner. Even static voting tableaus can be fascinating in this regard. Consider, for example, a committee of four persons, whose chairman is empowered to break ties. The chairman's voting power is three times that of any other committee member, a result that's not intuitively obvious from the simple statement of the rules.

Voting-power studies get really interesting when time, coalition dynamics, and horsetrading are included. If the stakes in a given contest are perceived to be high, as the hour of decision approaches the price of a "swing" vote can rise dramatically, which is why persons of, let us say, flexible convictions tend to keep their options open until the last possible moment. Other things being equal, the longer the bidding war goes on, the higher the final bid will be.

It's that "other things being equal" part that bedevils analysts of Congressional hijinx. For the bidding never really ends, nor is any person's vote irretrievably locked down until it's actually been cast. As the price of a swing vote rises, persons whom one had deemed committed might reassess their positions, and decide to "put themselves on the market." The political rationale is always expressed in terms of relative gains, losses, and priorities: "Well, yes, I'd have to trade away my opposition to X, but look at all the concessions I could get on Y, Z, and Q!" The increase in the supply of votes for sale would depress their price, as an increase in supply always does.

You might not think like that. Politicians do. Never doubt it. Whatever his party alignment, religious affiliation, or avowed political ideology, one must always assume that Legislator Smith can be bought, if the price is right.

We're likely to get some examples of this in the coming fracas over Ambassador John Bolton. Objectively, Bolton is everything one could wish for in an ambassador: candid about his views, fearless before any and all opposition, and devoted to representing American interests. But Bolton is a Bush Administration nominee, and will therefore be fought bitterly by Senate Democrats despite his evident merits. It's odds-on that the excessively spending-friendly Republican caucus will attempt to buy a few Democratic votes with offers to logroll on other subjects. If the game becomes obvious, quite a few Democrats, who have no real objection to Ambassador Bolton, will offer to break ranks for the right subvention.

Any bets on where the mass media will locate the odium for such unprincipled dealing?

Which brings us back to Joseph Lieberman, the only Democrat to speak strongly against the conduct of Bill Clinton during Clinton's trial before the Senate. Senator Lieberman was scathing about Clinton's moral deficits...yet he voted to acquit the president, who had admitted lying to a grand jury, to Congress, and to the American people.

Media profiles of the senator have unanimously praised his moral seriousness and integrity. Perhaps different standards must be applied to politicians. But one cannot help wondering whether the GOP caucus failed to approach Lieberman, failed to meet his asking price, or whether the Clintons outbid them, with the payment to come at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. After all, there are no higher stakes than those in a removal trial before the Senate.

You Heard It Here First . . .

Tom Cruise in MI 3
Regular readers of Karnick on Culture and TRC will recall that your faithful correspondent stated last week that Paramount's willingness to let Tom Cruise's production company leave the company lot had nothing to do with Cruise's strange behavior in recent years and everything to do with simple economics:

Cruise's deal at Paramount was on very good terms for him, which means it was expensive for the studio—more than $10 million a year. Cruise's representatives say that Paramount made an offer to Cruise to keep his production company on Paramount's lot, but the offer was significantly less money than the Cruise's company had been receiving, so they decided to shop around for private financing. This is not unusual: the Hollywood studios have been slashing costs recently, especially payments to big stars such as Cruise. A slowing of growth in DVD sales has certainly contributed to this trend.

[T]his parting of the ways was really just a bottom-line, cost-cutting business decision on Paramount's part. . . .

It made sense for Paramount to try to get Cruise to sign a less expensive deal and, failing that, to let him leave.

An article in today's New York Times agrees with my thesis:

Is Sumner M. Redstone crazy like a fox?

Movie industry executives may be forgiven for thinking that the Viacom chairman was mad to let Tom Cruise go after a 14-year relationship simply because Mr. Cruise seemed a little off balance. After all, the movies made by Viacom’s Paramount Pictures studio and the actor’s production company earned more than $2.5 billion at the box office.

Yet, if you ask economists and other academics that study the movie industry, Mr. Redstone’s decision was, in financial terms, spot on. The best reason to get rid of Mr. Cruise or, for that matter, Mel Gibson, or Lindsay Lohan, is not their occasional aberrant behavior. They, like most marquee names in Hollywood, are simply not worth the expense.

“Who knows what went through Mr. Redstone’s mind?” said Jehoshua Eliashberg, a professor of marketing, operations and information management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “But one can’t discard that the reason is that it doesn’t make economic sense to pay him all this money.”

It's good to see the Times echoing our analysis. It's an interesting article with some very good insights into "superstar economics" and Hollywood finance.

From Karnick on Culture.

Emmy Thoughts

Actress Katharine Heigl arrives at the 2006 Emmy Awards ceremonyI watched a few minutes of the Emmy Awards ceremony last night on NBC. Some thoughts:

  • It was good to see Tony Shaloub win an award for his acting in Monk. Shaloub gave a mildly humorous speech and seems an immensely likeable person.
  • Conan O'Brien is a truly scary-looking individual but is rather amusing. The opening song and dance sequence was as tedious and embarrassing as these usually are. When will awards show producers realize that bad production numbers presented with irony are still bad?
  • Bob Newhart is still one of the funniest men alive. His subtle, intelligent brand of humor is hugely appealing in this time of general raucousness in American comedy.
  • TV producers must be incredible skinflints, as they obviously do not pay their actresses enough money so that the ladies can afford complete dresses. Many of the gowns on display last night seemed to consist of little more than a few square feet of very sheer fabric. Of course, for those of us who happen to be red-blooded American males, this is a good thing.
  • It was pleasing to see 24 win for Best Drama Series and Kiefer Sutehrland win for Best Actor (or Outstanding Performance or whatever they're calling it these days). 24 was an innovative show during its first couple of years, and its use of an overarching story line over the course of a season has been much imitated since. In addition, for all the implausibility and melodrama that presses its outlandish storylines forward, the show works very well as a romance fiction, and it is always full of interesting ideas and themes.

From Karnick on Culture.

The Decline of the University Press

After finishing an article, I once decided to treat myself to a visit to the local Borders to buy a book. But I was so dismayed at what Borders had up in their entryway, that I turned around and left. Most appalling to me were the "hack books," the partisan political books that deserve little more than a good pulping. (Think Al Franken, Bill O'Reilly, and, yes, Ann Coulter). So it's pretty dismaying to me that Princeton University Press has decided to publish Sidney Blumenthal's book How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime, which is little more (according to the book description) than a collection of his columns for Britain's Guardian newspaper. It's dismaying because UPs are supposed to be a bit different, they're supposed to be publishing scholarship. Now, I know that there's plenty of hackery disguised as scholarship - and most of it of a rather unthinking lefty bent - but this seems like a real step down for a University Press. Princeton can - and should - do better.

Georgetown Rejects Evangelical Groups

Inside Higher Ed reports that Georgetown has told six evangelical groups, including InterVarsity Fellowship, that they have lost their recognized status on campus, meaning that they can't organize Bible studies, hold worship services, participiate in student organization fairs, etc. Georgetown says that it's just an "administrative" move designed to streamline ministries on campus, but I don't believe it for a minute. Most university chaplaincies don't much like evangelical groups, staffed as they are (on the Protestant side, at least) by liberals. As an alum, I've sent a note to the chaplain involved and I'll let you know what she says.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen, Fran Porretto

Your new favorite blog proudly welcomes Francis W. Porretto today as a contributor. Dr. ("Don't Call Me "Dr.") Porretto's Ph.D. is in astrophysics, which should come in handy with some of the spacy ideas that fly in and out of here.

Fran lives on Long Island, is a husband and a father of two, and has dedicated his massive brainpower to defending Western Civilization not just as an engineer in the defense industry, but as the intellectual idol of millions at his own blog, Eternity Road, to which Fran will continue to post and to which we've added a link.

Porretto also maintains an 11,000-volume library at his country manor, so it's tough to slip anything by him. He's also been known to author up fiction in a panoply of genres, although he assures us that anything he writes here you can take to the bank. I've had no reason to doubt him, except when he describes himself as "bizarre but harmless."

Bizarre perhaps, but this is a very dangerous man, and we're very glad to have him. Welcome aboard, Fran, and cheers also to your faithful readers who've come over to see what other mischief you've got yourself into.

The Co-Evolution Quadrennial

The "buzz" over Joseph Lieberman and his decision to run as an independent against Ned Lamont, who defeated him in the Democratic primary for United States Senator from Connecticut, has been an amusing and misleading thing. The "netroots" -- Deaniac, DailyKos, and HuffingtonPost types -- who backed anti-war Lamont are furious that Lieberman, a well known and popular incumbent, should be outpolling their preferred candidate. Conservatives have been chortling over the debacle, which, if it plays out as it now appears destined to do, will preserve a reliably pro-Iraqi Freedom / Bush Doctrine senatorial vote while sticking a thumb in the eye of the most irritating sorts on the liberal Left. Other Democratic figures of note have been cautious in their statements on the matter, with few exceptions. Lieberman has considerable support from both sides of the aisle; if he succeeds in retaining his seat, it is not inconceivable that he could exact a price from those who backed Lamont against him during the primary campaign.

What's missing from this painting in primary colors is a candid assessment of the senator himself, of his motives, and of the three-sided war within the Democratic Party for whose outcome this contest is a straw in the wind.

Lieberman is no conservative. His voting record has received a 90% approval rating from the socialist Americans for Democratic Action; only two sitting senators stand higher in their esteem. He's on record as having stated that a legislated cap on corporate profits would be a desirable thing. Needless to say for a Democrat of national profile, he's publicly pro-abortion and a defender of the government-school educracy.

But it wasn't always that way.

Before his selection as Al Gore's running mate in 2000, Lieberman was vocally anti-abortion; he also advocated school choice, including some form of vouchers. He flipped on these things for the 2000 presidential contest, and strove to downplay his earlier stances. When observers questioned how he could square these new positions with his Orthodox Judaism, of which so much had been made at the time of his nomination, he demurred, saying that he wasn't Orthodox, just "observant."

Joseph Lieberman, whatever else he might be or claim to be, is a politician. That is, he's animated primarily by the desire for the power, prestige, and perquisites of high office.

A politician will always feel an urge to trim his sails to the prevailing winds. The democratic mechanism gives trimmers a powerful advantage over those who refuse to "evolve" in the quest for public acclaim. Also, the Democratic Party's embrace of special-interest coalition politics has made the allegiance of certain groups, particularly the National Education Association and the NARAL / NOW pro-abortion coalition, something they cannot afford to risk. The dynamics of the situation would torment any man who aspires to high office, no matter how strong his convictions.

The best plausible outcome of the Connecticut Senatorial race for the country would be for Lieberman to retain his seat, but not because the incumbent's convictions or character are orders of magnitude more wholesome than Lamont's or those of GOP challenger Alan Schlesinger. If Lieberman should win and Democrats should have to decide how or whether to make peace with him, the fault lines that divide the Kennedy/Kerry faction, the Dean/"netroots" faction, and the Clinton/McAuliffe "pragmatic" faction will become vivid. For Lieberman, despite his vice-presidential run, belongs to none of them. Each will bid for his cooperation in its bid to control the party for the 2008 presidential run. As a former candidate for national office whose profile is now higher, both in recognition and in popular esteem, than his former running mate, his endorsement will be of great value during the 2008 primary season.

Everyone in this morality play is "evolving" as we speak: individual candidates, regional political alliances, and national factions vying for party hegemony. Each is a survival influence and constraint on all the others, which must decide in their various ways when to groom one another and when to bare their teeth. What rough beast, deeming 2008 its hour, will slouch toward Washington to be born remains to be seen.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Never Mess With a Guy With Two Last Names, Because He's Probably Even Richer Than You

Our occasionally excitable visitor Pastorius raised a few eyebrows (including my own) by suggesting Viacom's bouncing of Tom Cruise was related not just to his general wackness of late, but something to do with Scientology as well.

I was of the "I'm Sumner Redstone, I'm sick of this [stuff], I'm 83 years old, and I don't give a flip" school. But it seems Brother Pastorius was on the right track, too:

The unknown trophy wife of a Hollywood film executive has been revealed as the unlikely driving force behind Tom Cruise's dramatic firing this week.

Paula Fortunato, 43, the wife of 83-year-old Sumner Redstone, the Viacom chairman who sacked Cruise, took a dislike to the actor after he publicly criticised the actress Brooke Shields for using post-natal anti-depressants.

Cruise's obsessive devotion to Scientology has seen him demand that his young fiancee Katie Holmes should go through the agonising process of childbirth in silence.

His allegiance to the cult has itself stirred controversy, it being based on the belief that humans are an exiled race from outer space called Thetans.

"Here is a woman - and I care about Brooke Shields because she is an incredibly talented woman - where has her career gone?" Cruise ranted on national television. "These drugs are dangerous. I have actually helped people come off them. When you talk about postnatal depression, you can take people today, women, and what you do is, you use vitamins."

Redstone estimated that Cruise's off-screen behaviour cost his latest movie, Mission: Impossible III, between £50 and £75 million in lost box office revenues even though the film was, he said, 'the best of the three movies' in the action series.

Sources say Fortunato told her powerful husband, "I never want to see another Tom Cruise movie again".

Manners, Morals, and Macy

Actor William H. MacyManners are vitally important to society and to each of us as individuals, in that they codify and simplify many of the hundreds of little decisions we have to make every day. Contrary to modern thinking, manners don't oppress us, they free us.

The talented and acclaimed actor William Macy made this point yesterday in a thoroughly admirable criticism of the unprofessional behavior of a younger colleague, the actress Lindsay Lohan, in her work on a film in which the two appeared together. As E! Online reports,

When it comes to tardiness, William H. Macy follows the golden rule. Do unto under-the-gun film crews as you'd have them do unto you.

"You can't show up late," the Emmy winner said Thursday at a Los Angeles press junket for his new film, Everyone's Hero. "It's very, very disrespectful."

So let that be a lesson to you, Lindsay Lohan.

Actress Lindsay Lohan "I think what an actor has to realize [is that] when you show up an hour late, 150 people have been scrambling to cover for you," Macy said when asked about Bobby costar Lohan's usual check-in time. The two share a scene together in the Emilio Estevez-directed drama about the 16 hours leading up to Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in 1968.

"There is not an apology big enough in the world to have to make 150 people scramble. It's nothing but disrespect. And Lindsay Lohan is not the only one. A lot of actors show up late as if they're God's gift to the film. It's inexcusable. They should have their asses kicked."

Habitual lateness may not just be a problem for Lohan but, according to Macy, despite his opinion that she's a huge talent, "she was pretty late" all the same.

A studio spokesperson declined comment.

Lohan has some very good traits, I am sure, especially her expressed wish to travel to Iraq to entertain U.S. troops stationed there, but grand (and highly publicized) gestures do not wipe away other offenses, especially habitual ones.

Macy's comment is just right, on all levels.

Cor bless yer, Mr. Macy! Cor bless yer!

From Karnick on Culture.

Another Great Thing About America!

Harpers Bazaar cover artSure, our subways are soaked with urine, but at least we're spared THIS:

[AP reports:] Tokyo's subway authority will allow a station advertisement featuring a nude and pregnant Britney Spears, officials said Thursday, dropping an earlier plan to censor the photo.

HB Japan Inc., publisher of the Japanese edition of Harper's Bazaar, plans to rent ad space at the posh Omotesando station next week to promote its October issue with Spears posing naked on the cover.

The ad, in which Spears bares her belly but covers her breasts with her hands, is the same one used in the August issue of the magazine's U.S. edition. The 24-year-old pop star is pregnant with her second child.

OK, the magazine cover did appear on newsstands here in the United States, but at least it was smaller and might be covered up by a copy of Guns and Ammo or Beekeeper's Fortnightly. This ad will be unavoidable. People of taste will have to hire large people in overcoats to stand in front of the ads and block them from view. It's an extra expense to clean up the subways, but a necessary one.

From Karnick on Culture.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Orwellian Word Games In The Middle East

In the Orwellian media world we now live in, words are whatever you want them to mean. Since the war between Israel and Hezbollah started Sheikh Nasrallah has used the word “resistance” repeatedly in all his public comments. As might be expected, the press has followed suit.

Yet it is interesting to explore what Hezbollah is resisting. Israel voluntarily and unilaterally left southern Lebanon in conjunction with a U.N. accord. Israel did not respond in force to literally hundreds of rocket attacks against its northern territory until its soldiers were wantonly killed and three were kidnapped. And Israel did not challenge the U.N. when it didn’t enforce Resolution 1559 which specifically called for the diarmament of Hezbollah.

What Hezbollah appears to be resisting is the very existence of Israel. There are two theoretical observations that make this case. If tomorrow Hezbollah gave up its weapons, peace in Lebanon would follow. Even detractors of Israel would admit this result. If tomorrow Israel gave up its weapons, Israel would cease to exist. That too is indisputable. Therefore who is resisting whom?
When Sakarov and Scharansky were dissidents opposed to the tyranny of the Soviet leadership, it was clear who they were resisting. When Jews fought Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto, it was clear who they were resisting. Who precisely is Hezbollah resisting?

If I were to ask, who is Lebanon resisting, the answer is apparent – Hezbollah, Iran and Syria. Lebanon is an occupied country that no longer represents the will of its five million residents. It is and has been a client state of Syria for years and the Cedar revolution notwithstanding, either Syrian secret police, Hezbollah forces or Iranian Revolutionary Guard pull the political strings. To argue, as our State Department does, that the Lebanese government must be propped up is an exercise in self delusion.

In the media universe where ignorance prevails, the word “resistance” has meaning as a cause. It reverberates with the echo of freedom fighters and nation builders. Now, of course, the word has been preempted, a casualty of double-speak.

“Resistance” is not alone in this preemption category; it is merely the latest example. In the last few years the word “occupation” was the Orwellian word of choice; it too was used by the PLO and Hamas to argue for their resistance against Israel. In this case the world seemed to buy the line since an entity called Palestine and a people called Palestinians were invented and given legitimacy.

What the West doesn’t understand is that the Koran and the Islamic faith countenances “teqiya,” or lying, that promotes the religion and is consistent with Allah’s will. Since Allah’s will cannot be determined and designs on caliphates can be contemplated, teqiya is a useful method for promoting Islamic expansion.

The part that is infuriating about this state of affairs is that American journalists are often persuaded lies are true and truth is lies. How does one know? If you start with the Chomskyan supposition that the American government always lies, you may be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the Islamists.

However, there is a simple test for truth detection. Whenever Hezbollah spokesmen use the word “resistance,” and whenever Hamas uses the word “occupation,” you can be sure lies are forthcoming. Now, if only the American press corps would adopt this simple litmus test.

Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001). London maintains a website,

And Here I Am, Using My Own Nose, Like a Sucker!

Yes, in the Omniculture, everything happens.

The New York Times has brought on a perfume critic, AP reports. The column will appear frequently in the Times's style magazine. In a statement, new Times perfume critic Chandler Burr said, “Every other true art has a serious criticism. I believe perfume should as well.” He said he intends to take his new position very seriously.

Well, I suppose somebody has to—and it makes sense that it would be the person who's being paid for it. . . .

From Karnick on Culture.

Money Talks and Cruise Walks

This undated file photo, originally supplied by Paramount Pictures, shows Tom Cruise in a scene from 'Mission: Impossible III.' Sumner Redstone, whose company owns Paramount Pictures, said the studio would sever its 14-year relationship with Cruise's film production company because 'his recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.' Redstone estimated that Cruise's off-screen behavior cost his latest movie, 'Mission: Impossible III,' $100 million to $150 million in ticket sales, even as he praised the film as 'the best of the three movies' in the action series. (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Stephen Vaughan)Tom Cruise's loss of his production agreement at Paramount Pictures has raised a good deal of comment in film-industry circles. The action itself is rather mundane. Cruise's deal at Paramount was on very good terms for him, which means it was expensive for the studio—more than $10 million a year. Cruise's representatives say that Paramount made an offer to Cruise to keep his production company on Paramount's lot, but the offer was significantly less money than the Cruise's company had been receiving, so they decided to shop around for private financing. This is not unusual: the Hollywood studios have been slashing costs recently, especially payments to big stars such as Cruise. A slowing of growth in DVD sales has certainly contributed to this trend.

Moreover, Cruise's company was primarily producing films not starring Cruise himself, which would suggest that any slip in popularity on his part would not affect their box-office prospects. These production deals, however, are realy just ways for studios to keep their most popular stars happy, giving them additional compensation by allowing them to function as producers—making them "creators" rather than just before-the-camera types.

Cruise's popularity has definitely fallen in the past year, making him a less valuable commodity as an actor at Paramount. As AP reports,

[N]egative public perception of Cruise has soared in the past six months in the closely watched Q Scores, which rate celebrity popularity. They indicate that negative perception of Cruise jumped nearly 100 percent since mid-2005, while positive perception fell about 40 percent.

"He's definitely at his low point in terms of consumer appeal, among both males and females," said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of Marketing Evaluations Inc., the Q Scores company.

Actually, contra Shafer, there is room for Cruise's rating to drop further, but that's up to him, of course. Cruise can overcome this if he behaves somewhat normally and has another hit movie, but certainly a Cruise with these Q ratings is worth a good deal less to a movie studio than the Tom Cruise of two years ago. Welcome to Microeconomics 101, Tommy Boy.

All of this confirms that this parting of the ways was really just a bottom-line, cost-cutting business decision on Paramount's part. What made the situation rather surreal and newsy was two things: public awareness of Cruise's bizarre recent history of TV rants and goofiness, and Viacom chief Sumner Redstone's statement regarding the decision to break with Cruise's company. The chief of Paramount's parent company said Cruise's recent antics—leaping about on Oprah's sofa proclaiming his undying love for wife number 3, tearing Matt Lauer a new one for not understanding the magnitude of the conspiracies surrounding us about which Cruise and other Scientologists wish to warn us, etc.—were "creative suicide" and cost the studio up to $150 million in lost ticket sales for Mission Impossible 3.

Cast photo, Mission Impossible TV seriesPossibly, but these big crash and explosion movies may well have run their course, and the fact that the John Woo-directed Mission Impossible 2 was so irrational and uninspired probably did more to tank installment three than anything Cruise could have done. (I like Woo's Hong Kong films and Broken Arrow, Face/Off, and even Paycheck, but I have to say that he was a poor fit for MI2, not that I can fully understand where it all went wrong; it really should have worked. Well, OK, one thing that was disastrously wrong was the fact that MI2 dumped the central concept of the TV series and first film, the creation of a vast illusion to thwart the villains through ingenious trickery. MI2 was at heart an ordinary action film with extraordinary absurdity in its action sequences, which is saying a lot. And it appears that this was a consequence of Cruise's ego and his desire to avert rumors of homosexuality by emphasizing physical action, such as him climbing cliff faces, etc. This overbalanced the film, further removed the film series from the essentially cheerful and optimistic nature of the TV series, and made MI2 perfectly ludicrous.)

It made sense for Paramount to try to get Cruise to sign a less expensive deal and , failing that, to let him leave. There is nothing to be ashamed of in this, and no need to pile on the hapless Scientologist goofball with harsh words. A simple "We love Tom and wish him well" would have been much better than Redstone's high and mighty rant. As in all things, Redstone and Viacom have shown themselves as entirely devoid of class, manners, and principle. A pox on them, I say.

I'll tell you more about the repugnance of Viacom and Redstone in future postings on this site.

Boy, things are getting weird when I find myself defending Tom Cruise. That's how repulsive Viacom is.

From Karnick on Culture.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Chicago Nannies Ban Foie Gras—Steaks, Potatoes Next?

The Chicago City Council, in its infinite wisdom and benevolence, has banned the sale of foie gras, arguing that some producers of the delicacy force-feed the geese from which the liver pate is produced, which the Chi solons say is painful and inhumane.

Defying a Chicago city ban on the sale of the delicacy, BJ's Market & Bakery's owner John Meyer prepares sauteed foie gras with with a foie gras cornbread dressing special Tuesday at his South Side restaurant. Chicago Tribune photo by Scott Strazzante, Aug. 22, 2006

Chicago mayor Richard Daley opposed the ordinance but it went into effect anyway. The New York Times reports that many people in the city are embarrassed and angered by the law:

On Tuesday, this city’s lawbreakers were serving foie gras.

The illicit substance could be spotted in places it was rarely seen when it was legal: buried in Chicago’s famed deep-dish pizza, in soul food on the South Side, beside beef downtown.

In one of the more unlikely (and opulent) demonstrations of civil disobedience, a handful of restaurants here that never carry foie gras, the fattened livers of ducks and geese, featured it on the very day that Chicago became the first city in the nation to outlaw sale of the delicacy.

“This ban is embarrassing Chicago,” said Grant DePorter of Harry Caray’s Restaurant, which dreamed up an appetizer of pan-seared foie gras and scallops ($14.95) and a Vesuvio-style entree pairing foie gras and tenderloin ($33.95) just to buck the new ordinance. “We really don’t think the City Council should decide what Chicagoans eat. What’s next? Some other city outlaws brussels sprouts? Another outlaws chicken? Another, green beans?”

The "offense" is subject to fines of $250 to $500, though there remains some question about how aggressively the city will enforce it. The alderman who sponsored the ban, Joe Moore, has been the subject of praise from animal rights activists and derision from restaurateurs, gourmands, and people generally concerned about erosions of individual liberty in the City of Big [Government Looking Over Your] Shoulders.

The law has already induced mockery from outside the city, according to a Chicago Tribune story:

Allen Sternweiller, executive chef and co-owner of Allen's New American Cafe, whose company is a plaintiff in the restaurant association's lawsuit, said Chicago is getting an unwanted reputation based on its proposals regarding trans fat and foie gras.

"Some of my colleagues (around the country) call Chicago 'The Nanny City,'" Sternweiller said.

The prospect of foie gras speakeasies and gang wars over rights to distribute the delicacy is amusingly farfetched, but the increasing number of things being banned by the Nanny City and other places makes a greater flouting of the laws a certainty at some point.

From Karnick on Culture.

Sony Grabs "Amateur Video" Site

Grouper feature listAs I noted just this past week on this site and Karnick on Culture, the democratization of the media through technological change will probably be only a temporary phenomenon, as the 'Net will ultimately be harnessed by governments and corporations for their own benefit. Today Sony will announce its latest contribution to this process: its acquisition of Grouper, an amateur-video website along the lines of YouTube. The New York Times reports:

Sony Pictures Entertainment plans to announce on Wednesday that it has acquired Grouper, a Web site featuring videos contributed by users, for $65 million.

The deal marries one of the biggest and most powerful movie studios, which regularly spends more than $100 million on a film, with a Web site that provides free access to short and often inexpensively made videos on topics like pets, sports and music.

Michael Lynton, the chairman and chief executive of Sony Pictures, said the investment was a bet that material posted by users would continue to be a big draw online.

“My sense is that user-based content is a form of content that’s going to last,” Mr. Lynton said. “It’s a bet, no question, but it’s a bet worth making.”

Despite its emphasis on letting users share homemade videos, many of the most popular clips on Grouper are slick short productions, including music videos and commercials. . . .

Grouper will promote Sony’s content and seek to build communities of users around Sony movies and television shows, Mr. Felser said.

Of course it will. That's the whole point of the transaction.

From Karnick on Culture.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

People on a Plane—with Snakes

The box office performance of a "high concept" film such as Snakes on a Plane is typically based not on the cleverness of the concept but on whether there is actually a good movie in it. Die Hard and Speed, for example, had characters we could care about, and the films put them in situations where they had interesting choices to make. Those that don't have these things usually fall off at the box office even if they get a good opening weekend.

Samuel L. Jackson in "Snakes on a Plane"

Interestingly, the least entertaining and involving parts of Snakes on a Plane are the two big action scenes in which the serpents attack the passengers on the plane. The snakes operate in a riidiculously implausible manner, even if we accept the filmmakers' premise that pheromones released on the plane would make the creatures more aggressive. These snakes are much more than "more aggressive"; they're positively malevolent and volitional. That's not at all believable—and it's not the slightest bit necessary, for the film is interesting enough without sci-fi snakes.

The first 40 minutes of the picture are devoted to scenes setting the stage for the big action sequences. The central conceit is that a young man who witnessed a murder by a powerful gangster in Hawaii consents to testify against the killer and is duly to be flown to Los Angeles to appear in court. That leads to the scheme to release hundreds of snakes on the plane and cause it to crash. OK, better plans have been devised in this world, but we'll let it go, shall we?

Poster for Snakes on a Plane

After all, what really makes a high-concept thriller successful is how the characters react to the situation, and especially the need for them to show courage, honor, and other good character traits. Snakes on a Plane has plenty of that, with some characters acting honorably, others meanly, and others developing better character through the course of the story. What is most pleasing is that the characters actually manage to surprise us just a little bit once in a while. The film has a solid performance by Samuel L. Jackson at its center, and it has the right amount of humor, meaning not too much. Snakes on a Plane also has enough action-film cliches to choke an anaconda, but the filmmakers' willingness to let us see human character in action makes it worth seeing.

From Karnick on Culture.

Turner to Remove Smoking Scenes from Cartoons—in UK

I hope I can get away with run.ning this photo that "glamorizes" smoking

In response to a complaint by a single viewer, British media regulator Ofcom said Turner Broadcasting has offered to delete scenes that "glamorize smoking" in cartoons from earlier decades, when such scenes were commonplace. According to Reuters, the change was instigated when a single viewer complained to Ofcom about two scenes in two Tom and Jerry cartoons (one scene in each) shown on Turner's Boomerang channel in England, 56 percent of whose viewers are aged four to fourteen.

As a result, a Europe-based representative of Turner Broadcasting said the firm will "voluntarily" go through the entire inventory of cartoons owned by the firm, as reported by Ofcom in its news bulletin, according to Reuters:

"We are going through the entire catalog," Yinka Akindele, spokeswoman for Turner in Europe, said on Monday.

"This is a voluntary step we've taken in light of the changing times," she said, adding the painstaking review had been prompted by the Ofcom complaint.

This applies only to Great Britain at this time, as far as I can ascertain.

Interesting how times change, isn't it? In the 1950s, top-rated I Love Lucy was sponsored by a cigarette company, and the firm and network insisted that Lucy be seen holding a cigarette as often as possible. (Of course, it is debatable whether Lucille Ball can be said to have been capable of glamorizing anything at that time. . . .) Requirements that sympathetic characters smoke cigarettes and villans not smoke at all or smoke pipes or cigars were common practice throughout television at that time.

Screen still of Lucille Ball abominably glamorizing cigarette smoking

Such strictures applied even on the Camel News Caravan, a network news program, where Winston Churchill could not be shown holding a cigar.

Today, the situation is reversed: sympathetic characters do not smoke cigarettes, and villains do. It's a better lesson, I suppose, but one sometimes wonders why we all have to be treated like children because the federal and state governments will not allow the media to trust parents to teach their kids that smoking cigarettes is a very bad and unnecessary risk.

From Karnick on Culture.

Gratitude Sans God?

An interesting essay by Ronald Aronson on gratitude and its difficulties for those who don't believe in God or the certainty of historical progress (ala the Marxist). Gratitude seems like a natural and good thing, but it's hard to figure out how to be grateful if what we see around us has no purpose or no purpose-giver. There's a sense that we can either be grateful in theistic terms or simply believe all of life is a lottery and being grateful is nonsensical. He suggests, alternatively, that there are two ways to be grateful still in that absence. First, we can be grateful to the people who came before us and built the culture into which we were born, its language, patterns, etc. all give us a context within which we can live good human lives. Second, we can be grateful that nature itself has provided such rich resources for us to live:

there is an alternative to thanking God on the one hand and seeing the universe as a “cosmic lottery” or as absurd on the other. An alternative to being grateful to a deity or to ignoring such feelings altogether. Think of the sun's warmth. After all, the sun is one of those forces that make possible the natural world, plant life, indeed our very existence. It may not mean anything to us personally, but the warmth on our face means, tells us, and gives us a great deal. All of life on Earth has evolved in relation to this source of heat and light, we human beings included. We are because of, and in our own millennial adaptation to, the sun and other fundamental forces. My moment of gratitude was far more than a moment's pleasure. It is a way of acknowledging one of our most intimate if impersonal relationships, with the cosmic and natural forces that make us possible.

I wouldn't deny that it's possible for non-theists to have genuine feelings of gratitude even beyond the sorts of transactional gratitude everyone experiences every day ("thanks for the coke, here's a dollar..."), but I'm not sure Aronson really shows that non-theistic (or maybe non-purposive) views of the world really get you to defensible claims for gratitude, rather than just a "feeling." After all, when Aronson talks about "impersonal relationships" it's not really a relationship, it's a much more generic connection. The sun would - on his terms - burn just as brightly if we weren't here. We don't have a relationship with the sun, any more than the millions of people who buy tabloids have a relationship with the celebrities they think they know.

Indeed, on Aronson's take, it's hard to figure out how we might have gratitude for the most distinctive thing about us, that we are able to think about whether to actually be grateful or not. Our rationality, our consciousness, our ability to philosophize, so to speak, really sets us off from the rest of nature (so far as we know). In what sense can we be grateful for that thing that goes a long way toward making us "us" if the "us" there is just the product of blind, impersonal, non-purposive processes? Not much, it seems to me.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Obliterating Cultural Distinctions: Shakespeare at the Fringe

Shakespeare in a bouncy castle, or moon walk, is the Reuters writer's pick for zaniest Shakespeare adapatation at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival (see full article here).

Every year brings several new adaptations of Shakespeare plays at the Fringe, another of those "outsider" phenomena, like the Lollapalooza festival, that become part of the mainstream culture and redifine it, as is the way of things in the Omniculture. Even midsize, stalwartly middle-American towns such as Indianapolis have fringe festivals now.

This year's Edinburgh Fringe includes a "roller-disco" version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, along with other equally bizarre ideas from a crop which the Reuters story describes as "an endless variety that could be collectively labeled '101 Ways to Murder The Bard' ":

"Macbeth -- That Old Black Magic" boasts a Frank Sinatra soundtrack and you can see "The Tempest" with acrobats, puppets and circus tricks.

In "Corleone: The Godfather," the American High School Theater Festival troupe asks "What if Shakespeare had written the Godfather?"

Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, performed by a Utah school group at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 2001

We can surely hope that such tomfoolery will create an interest in Shakespeare among some individuals who would never otherwise get anywhere near the Bard's works. For the more sophisticated, it could be argued that the contrast between Shakespeare's elevated artistry and the coarse, anarchical surroundings of the Fringe Festival can make for an enlightening contrast that affords one an even greater appreciation of the Bard's work. One could conclude that the humor of such things resides in our appreciation of the contrast between what is vulgar and what is elevated.

But I doubt it in this case. To appreciate the works of Shakespeare, one need only experience them. They still speak to deep truths in human nature and of enduring realities of the human condition. The main effect of such burlesques as are common at the Fringe, it appears to me, is to obliterate lines of distinction between cultural artifacts. Burlesques of Shakespeare do not demistify the Bard's works—as if that were at all necessary; they are, after all, quite understandable to any reasonably attentive person—but instead simply make them part of a cultural stew in which all ingredients are equally important and none may be allowed pride of place.

That is something of which the Omniculture provides quite enough already, thank you very much.

From Karnick on Culture.

"Snakes on a Plane" Falters; Genre Confusion to Blame?

Screen still from "Snakes on a Plane"

The greatly anticipated comedy-thriller Snakes on a Plane drew in the most money in movie ticket sales nationally over the weekend, though actually not. Snakes would have come in second (to the Will Farrell comedy Talladega Nightsi) if not for the distributor's decision to include Thursday night figures in the total. New Line's head of distribution said it is common policy for studios to do that, and the head of distribution at Sony, which released Talladega Nights, declined to comment to AP. (See AP story here.)

Analysis: The $15.25 million that Snakes on a Plane brought in over its first weekend is a decent amount of money but must be considered a failure given the amount of advance interest that had allegedly been sparked in the film. The film's strong concept, which so greatly piqued many people's interest, may have worked against it as far as actually luring people into theaters: One could very well feel that one already had experienced all that was of value in the film just by hearing about the concept and seeing the trailers, commercials, and TV promo teasers.

I think that another problem with the film was even more serious: a conflict of genre expectations. Snakes has the concept of a Bruce Willis-style suspense thriller, which is a sure formula for success: Die Hard on a plane full of dangerous snakes. The promotion that grew up on the internet, however, saw the film's central idea as throughly comical (which it most certainly is)—and too much comedy undermines the ability to create suspense. Comedy is important to have in a thriler, but too much will make it impossible for audiences to take the concept with even the minimal seriousness required to enjoy modern-day thrillers with their outlandish premises.

I believe that this genre confusion is the main reason for Snakes' lackluster victory at the box office.

The film will certainly do all right overall and will turn a profit, but it most likely will not turn out to be the kind of phenomenon people expected.

I'll write about the film itself in a day or two.

From Karnick on Culture.

Strip Poker Championships, Of Course

In the Omniculture, everything happens. Hence, given the popularity of poker on television, it was inevitable that there should soon enough be a World Strip Poker Championship.

Photo of strip poker championships

The contest took place in the prestigious Cafe Royal in central London last Saturday. Players competed in games of "No Limit Texas Hold 'em." The winner defeated 200 other players.

His parents must be so proud.

From Karnick on Culture.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Simpsons Cruise to Emmy for Best Animated Series

The Fox Network TV show The Simpsons beat Comedy Central's South Park in the race for the Emmy award for Best Animated Series.

This was the ninth such win for The Simpsons.

Tom Cruise "Trapped in the Closet" in "South Park"

A South Park episode, "Trapped in the Closet," was nominated for the award and received a good deal of attention because of protests by the Church of Scientology, which had objected to the showing last November of the episode mocking actor Tom Cruise. Instead of airing a rerun of the episode in March, as scheduled, Comedy Central refused to run the show, apparently buckling under the pressure from the Scientologists and Mr. Cruise, whose film Mission Impossible 3 was produced by Paramount Pictures, which, like Comedy Central, is owned by Viacom. South Park writer-producers Matt Stone and Trey Parker say they believe Cruise threatened to pull out of promotion for the film. Both Cruise's representatives and Paramount say they had nothing to do with the spiking of the program.

The episode is hilarious, as those who missed it will find out when it appears on DVD.

The animated series award was given, as is the academy's custom, in the ceremony honoring technical achievements. The primetime Emmy Awards will be given out on August 27.

From Karnick on Culture.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Chinese to Produce Film on Rape of Nanking

Rape of Nanking book cover artReuters reported on Monday that a Chinese film producer has announced plans for a $25 million film about the 1937 Rape of Nanking, a truly horrific atrocity in which Japanese troops brutally murdered tens of thousands of Chinese civilians.

The soldiers went on an appallingly vicious rampage through the captive Chinese city, and the things they did show the very worst of what human beings are capable of doing, including countless rapes, tossing live infants into the air and catching them on the ends of bayonets, and other such astonishingly barbaric behavior. The incident has been documented thoroughly by historians, but the subject has never received much attention. This movie should remedy that. As Reuters reports,

The movie of the massacres of tens of thousands of Chinese civilians by Japanese troops will be based on Iris Chang's bestseller, "The Rape of Nanking," Xinhua news agency said, adding it would involve a U.S. production company and British investors.

"We hope we can make the film a classic on a massacre in the Second World War, just like 'Schindler's List' about the miserable experience of Jewish people during the war," Xinhua quoted Gerald Green, the American producer of the movie, as saying.

China says 300,000 Chinese men, women and children were slaughtered by invading Japanese troops in war-time capital Nanjing, formerly known as Nanking.

Japan claims that the death toll was about half what the Chinese say, but either way it consitutes an extreme outrage. Chang's book, The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, is a very impressive document of the events and the mindset that was put into the soldiers who commited the atrocities.

Reuters reports that the producers are going after some big-name performers to tell this story:

China actress Zhang Ziyi and Malaysia's Michelle Yeoh, stars of Oscar-winning martial arts film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," were on the investors' wish list, Xinhua said.

The movie is scheduled to start shooting in "weeks to come" and would debut in China next year, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the Nanjing Massacre, Xinhua said.

This is a piece of history that more people should know more about, in America as much as anywhere else. It is a measure of what human beings in groups are capable of doing to one another, and as such it is something we really need to know.

From Karnick on Culture.

Audiences, Critics Disagree on Summer's Superhero Movies

X-Men 3 poster

The Hollywood Reporter observes that audiences and critics differed greatly on the merits of the two big superhero movies of this summer:

As summer nears its end, "X-Men: The Last Stand," which nabbed middling reviews, seems to have exceeded expectations with a $441 million worldwide gross, while "Superman Returns" -- though it earned a strong, positive ranking of 76 percent on -- has yet to break the $200 million mark domestically.

I agree with the audiences on this one. X-Men: The Last Stand was not exactly profound, but at least it kept things moving and had some interesting characters. The makers of Superman Returns clearly tried very hard, but the film had no charisma whatever, disastrously poor chemistry between the lead performers, and no charm at all. The Christian imagery was an interesting touch and made the film deeper thematically, but the entertainment and artistic value did not match up with it. And the idea of Superdude having had a child with Lois Lane while she married another man is just the sort of clever concept that filmmakers ought to know better than to do. No wonder, then, that audiences thought it OK but not a must-see or a must-see-twice.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The (Temporary) Democratization of the Media, Through Technological Change

A viewer looks at the YouTube Web site on computer screens in New York, Aug. 17, 2006. YouTube is a video sharing service that already claims more than 100 million video views per day and more than 65,000 video uploads daily. (AP Photo/Cameron Bloch)It's all too common for writers and analysts to characterize the internet as reponsible for pretty much everything that happens today, but it is true that new information technology is making significant changes in how we gain access to culture. Video-sharing services such as YouTube, for example, definitely constitute an important new channel for information and entertainment programming, and one that younger persons find particularly appealing.

Lots of people are visiting YouTube, as AP notes:

Officially launched last December, this video-sharing service already plays more than 100 million clips per day with more than 65,000 video uploads added to its mammoth inventory. And those rates are skyrocketing.

The significance, of course, is that as the cost of making motion pictures is now a minuscule fraction of what it was during the previous century (and is approaching zero), and the cost of distributing them is now essentially zero, everybody can get into the act. As the AP story puts it:

Where does it end? "As more people capture special moments on video," its Web site declares, "YouTube is empowering them to become the broadcasters of tomorrow."

YouTube (slogan: "Broadcast Yourself") isn't the Internet's only video-sharing service. But it's the reigning brand, the talked-about phenomenon, and a mighty good example of the multiple roles now greeting yesterday's couch potato. These are get-up-and-do-something roles as artist, journalist, pundit, self-promoter, exhibitionist, prankster, weirdo and wag.

Now you, too, can be a TV producer and a TV programmer. Scheduling? That's in your hands on the receiving end, since clips are on demand, arranged in categories or searchable by various "tags." And you can be a distributor: E-mail any clip to your friends.

Ratings? Instant. Every clip appears with a running count of viewings, as well as how many viewers deemed it "a favorite." Not that anything is canceled for not being a hit. Unlike a network constricted by its two or three hours of prime time per night, the capacity of YouTube would appear to be boundless. No need here for one thing to be dropped to make room for another.

YouTube and other such sites constitute a quintessentially Omniculture phenomenon. In the Omniculture, everything happens, and now everything appears on video. AP notes:

So what can you see? Make no mistake, a 10-second video aptly titled "Bunny the Dog Rubs Her Butt Against the Ground" isn't the stupidest, skeeziest or even briefest clip available. Nor is "Cockroach-Controlled Mobile Robot" the most whimsical. Or two pairs of fingers dancing to the tune of "Get Down Tonight" the most charming.

You find video testimony, as well. Katrina-themed clips from hurricane victims. Lebanese and Israelis supplying their images of war.

Meanwhile, broadcast images are being plucked off the air and granted an on-demand afterlife. The impromptu back rub that President Bush gave German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G-8 Summit last month? It's right here, for screening anytime. So is co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck having a hissy fit on ABC's "The View." A search of "David Letterman" turns up more than 1,000 clips.

YouTube and other such sites are even influencing TV programmers' decisions. As I noted earlier on this site,

Forthcoming TV programs are increasingly appearing on peer-to-peer networks, evidently without the owners' permission. Pretty much everything ends up on these file-sharing networks, so it's no great surprise that yet-to-be-aired TV programs are turning up, but the downloads, and the underground publicity surrounding the programs, are actually affecting TV networks' programming decisions, the Wall Street Journal reports:

. . . In June, a TV pilot called "Nobody's Watching," which the WB network had passed on, was leaked to the video-sharing site YouTube. It generated enough of an audience online that NBC decided to pick up the show for development.

Half a million people watched the program on YouTube, which naturally caught the NBC programmers' attention. This will surely become more common as the media recognize the value of free sites as testing grounds. As the AP story notes:

At about the same time, NBC and YouTube forged a strategic partnership that, among other things, lets NBC hype its fall shows on YouTube. What more proof do you need of new media's appeal than when the mainstream media jumps on board?

NBC is learning one of the new rules YouTube has showcased with its free-for-all policy: Exposure, not payment, is what counts. Spreading it around is key.

And NBC, along with the rest of mainstream media, will have to abide by a new cultural reality as set forth by Chris Anderson in his current best-seller, "The Long Tail": "A once-monolithic industry structure where professionals produced and amateurs consumed is now a two-way marketplace, where anyone can be in any camp at any time."

This truly is a time of greater democratization of the communications media, comparable to the period in Europe immediately after the invention of the printing press. Nonetheless, the reality is that such new technologies are harnessed for political and social control as soon as possible. As with the invention of the printing press, the outcome will include both enjoyment and turbulence, and the world will change greatly.

If history is any guide, the democratization and liberty of the 'Net will ultimately be harnessed by governments and corporations for their own benefit, but as with the printing press, there will be effects that they can neither control nor predict. And that is all to the good.

From Karnick on Culture.