Friday, January 31, 2014

Songs of the Civil War

Funny what you find in the Wall Street Journal.  Surprisingly, it was the most in-depth review I was able to find for this new collection of music, Divided and United: The Songs of the Civil War.    There's also this piece on All Things Considered.

It seems that Randall Poster, the producer of the 2-CD set, was trying to strike a balance between the two sides of the war, drawing on both Union and Confederate marching songs and ballads.  He's drawn an impressive range of musicians to the music, allowing each to pretty much arrange their own pieces.  Poster has done great work before, so I'm really looking forward to this set.

You get everyone from T-Bone Burnett, who has arranged two folk soundtracks for the Coen Brothers, to Loretta Lynn, the undisputed Queen of Nashville.  In between you get some earthy renditions from Steve Earle, best known for his work on the television series Treme these days, to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, one of my favorite contemporary folk bands.

Not so long ago Bob Dylan came under fire for borrowing lyrics from Henry Timrod, a Civil War soldier, for his album Modern Times..  Dylan had long been known for scouring archives for earthy American lyrics, noted Sean Wilentz, who has also written the liner notes for this Civil War collection.

Some critics have questioned the seeming neutrality of the box set.  Poster apparently didn't want to take sides, letting the songs speak for themselves, which in this case is the way it should be.  After all, Dan Emmett's Dixie is a far more gut-wrenching song than The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and was a favorite of Lincoln.

Hopefully, an album like this will help popularize the music, which is still be played by bands like The 2nd South Carolina String Band around the country.  I don't think you have to be a Civil War buff to appreciate this music.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

In Hemp We Trust

As you can see from this pictorial history, hemp was a vital part of American colonial life, and carried over into early US history.  Probably, the most cited example is George Washington who grew hemp for commercial use, as did many plantation owners.  Hemp was a viable cash crop, until cotton came to replace it in the 19th century, with the advent of cotton gin.  Hemp was used in everything from rope, to clothes to ship sails and even the pages of the Bible.  Jefferson also grew hemp at Monticello, primarily for use on his plantation.  Here's a partial list of his personal records noting the use of hemp.

However the cultivation of cannabis sativa as a narcotic changed the way many persons looked at the plant. At first the US tried to regulate the substance with a "Marihuana Tax Act" in 1937, but it generated very little revenue, and anxiety grew over the recreational use of the drug, ultimately leading it to be treated as a controlled substance and subject to arrests and convictions.  Today, marijuana possession amounts to nearly half of all drug possession arrests, with one occurring every 42 seconds, according to FBI records.

Hemp production has likewise suffered, as most states weren't willing to accept the commercial and medicinal uses of the plant.  Recently, Colorado harvested its first hemp crop in more than 60 years, indicating a major shift in federal policy.  Given its many uses, one would think the next step is to actively encourage its cultivation as a sustainable form of production.

Of course there are many conspiracy theories as to why hemp cultivation has been kept dormant for so long, especially when it is so popular in so many other parts of the world.  Everyone from private prison corporations to pharmaceutical companies have been held accountable for these seemingly unjust laws.  However, the AMA was against the tax act in 1937 and continues to encourage the federal government to relax restrictions on the drug so that it can be more thoroughly studied, namely for its medicinal potential.

It seems in this day and age of citing Founding Fathers on everything from the right to bear arms to the freedom to express one's religion, it is fair to note their support of hemp production and the fact that hemp made up the majority of paper products at the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence, with Jefferson writing the first draft on hemp paper.  Too bad they didn't add a watermark "In Hemp We Trust."

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Setting the stage

It's almost impossible to read the Republican responses to Obama's State of the Union address.  It is as if they weren't even in the same chamber when the speech took place.  But, it is not surprising that the GOP should pick a woman to deliver its formal rebuttal given all the flack they have been getting recently.  Unfortunately, Cathy McMorris Rodgers just repeated the same old tropes.

As Barack Obama said it is time the Republicans accept the Affordable Care Act and suggest means of improving it.  The Act is now firmly in place and is providing many of the benefits it was intended to do.  A good first step by Republican governors would be to approve Medicaid expansion in their states so that more people can have access to affordable health care.

However, the big take-away as far as conservatives are concerned appears to be Obama stating he would use the full power of his executive authority to move forward on policies that the Republicans continue to block in Congress.  This seems to have outraged the GOP, who are now calling him an "imperial president."  Where were they when George Bush proclaimed himself a "war president," using his greatly enhanced executive authority to push forward his conservative agenda?

On another note, Rand Paul seems to think the economy hasn't been growing these past four years, despite all the positive economic indicators.  Once again, he uses the opportunity to extol even more tax cuts and less government spending, being a self-proclaimed Libertarian.

It gets incredibly tiresome, which is why I have to hand it to President Obama for keeping his cool and addressing Congress in civil terms, even though it has fought him every step of this way.  This includes members of his own party who blocked his attempt to close Gitmo and now attempt to put riders on the Affordable Care Act.

Unfortunately, there is no way to really move forward until these intractable elements are removed.  Mitch McConnell would be a good place to start.  The Democrats should make every effort to get Alison Lundgren Grimes elected in Kentucky, especially since this is one state where the Affordable Care Act is working, thanks to the strong support of Governor Steve Beshear.

But, Obama's speech addressed many issues including minimum wage, gender discrimination in the work place, and rebooting American industry.  He pointed to numerous positive examples where his administration has taken the lead, and those where his wife Michelle and Jill Biden have taken the lead.  It was a strong speech, laden with compelling anecdotes, which showed he is in touch with the American mainstream.  Sadly, the Republican party is not.

We can only hope he makes this a "Year of Action."

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

So Long Pete

It is hard to feel sorrow for a man who lived such a long wonderful life and brought so much joy to so many people along the way.  Pete Seeger is an American icon, a figure that straddled no less than five generations of music, keeping the spirit of Woody Guthrie alive for a younger generation of folk singers to revel in, including Woody's son, Arlo, with whom Pete often sang.  Pete gave a young Bob Dylan entry into the folk music world beyond the village, although he too felt betrayed when Dylan went electric at Newport in '65.  And, Pete was there for Bruce Springsteen as well, who did perhaps the most marvelous tribute to the old master in the Seeger Sessions a few years back, giving folk music a sense of pure joy, as in this recording at St. Luke's.  But, perhaps the warmest moment of all was Pete Seeger being honored by Arlo and others at Kennedy Center, singing his classic If I Had a Hammer.

The thing about Pete is that he welcomed everyone into his midst.  Larger than life seems an understatement in his case, as the songs he sang kept the promise alive through difficult times stretching back to the labor movement of the 40s.  He helped create an awareness far outside the United States, drawing on folk ballads from all around the world to highlight injustices far and wide.

While he was outspoken in his political views, earning him many enemies, his music reached deep into the American repertoire, defying Congressional movement who felt his protest ballads were somehow "Un-American."  Work songs had long been part of American folk and Pete simply transformed them into labor songs.  This ability to invert traditional ballads and give them a political charge is probably what made him seem "dangerous" to conservatives in the 50s.

By the 60s, Seeger was enjoyed record contracts with Columbia and other major record companies, but he didn't allow himself to be commercialized.  He used his success to champion his causes, touring the world and bringing American folk music to whole new audiences.  There is even a version of Goodnight Irene in Lithuanian.

It's hard not to love Pete today, even if you are an old Bircher.  The guy never really softened with age, but his durability is something anyone can respect.  At nearly 90, he sang with Bruce Springteen at Obama's inauguration in 2009.  Appropriately enough, This Land is Your Land.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Political Biography of Wendy Davis

As this Christian Science Monitor article notes, Wendy is learning the hard lesson of fudging her biography.  It's not like she reinvented herself, as so many politicians do, but she "blurred" the lines enough that Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News felt compelled to spell out the distinctions in a story he wrote on the gubernatorial candidate for 2014.

You see Davis got the jump on her prospective Republican opponent, Greg Abbot, raising more money for her prospective run than he did in December.  This seems to have come as a bit of a jolt to Texas GOP fundraisers, and so they seek a way to curb all this appeal Wendy Davis has been garnering since her epic filibuster in the Texas state legislature last summer.

Slater categorically denies he was requested to write his story at the behest of the Abbott campaign.  He felt he was compelled to tell it how he sees it, digging into Wendy's personal narrative and pulling out a few inconsistencies that are enough to doubt her story.  Even he admits that what she has said is mostly true, but in thinly disguised sexist terms notes that there was a man there to support her and her children while she pursued her law degree at Harvard, essentially stripping her of the claim that she was a single mother working her way through college.

Not surprisingly, the conservative blogs have run with this, and there is even a "Real Wendy" web site and facebook page to enlighten Texas voters as to the impertinent Texas state legislator who dared to hold back a draconian anti-abortion bill that the Republicans claim most Texans wanted.  This is the price of overnight fame.  Just like the "liberal press" goes after Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Paul Rand and the other Tea Party darlings, we have the conservative blogosphere to set the record straight on up and coming liberals who might break the stranglehold the Tea Party apparently has on Texas politics.

It's bad enough the Tea Party backed GOP has gerrymandered the Texas voting districts (thanks largely to Greg Abbott) so that it is difficult for Democrats to win beyond their etch-a-sketch districts, now one has to run the gauntlet of politically paid newspapers to keep your good name.

The Dallas Morning News is owned by the Media News Group, a conservative news media group that owns newspapers throughout the country, including the Denver Post and Detroit News, and has been under fire for antitrust violations since 2006.  So, it is not surprising that the DMN would run with a story like this when for the first time since Ann Richards, a Democrat has a real shot at being the governor of Texas.

Remember Ann?
Wendy Davis appears to be a real threat, hence she has to be taken down a peg, and nothing like a little bit of Rovian smear tactics to do the trick.  After all, this is what brought the mighty Ann Richards down, who many considered a sure bet over her upstart challenger, George W. Bush, in 1994.  But, now the GOP is dealing with an upstart challenger, so the shoe is on the other foot so to speak.

It seems Wendy is ready for the challenge, especially since Greg Abbott isn't exactly a household name.  He fits the Tea Party profile to a tee, but his only claim to fame is having appointed Ted Cruz as state solicitor general.  Wendy has already shot back at Slater's piece, and in an age where the Republicans have thoroughly disgraced themselves among women, going after her with too much vigor will only make them look even more like bullies.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Trouble with Llewyn Davis

I finally got a chance to see this film after great anticipation.  It had won the Grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival back in May,  runner-up to the Gold Palm winner Blue is the Warmest Color.  For whatever reason, the Coen Brothers decided not to release the film until December and then only in limited theaters.  In the meantime, the film received great praise, topping many critics' polls.  This of course led many to ponder why the film was essentially shut out of the Oscar nominations.  It's only two nominations are for cinematography and sound mixing.  So what gives?

This film seemed to take the point of view of Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone moreso than anything Dave Van Ronk ever wrote or sang, although Llewyn sings several signature Van Ronk songs.  What we get is not the charismatic Mayor of MacDougal Street but rather a washed up folk singer, bumming sofas and cigarettes off people, as he drifts toward nowhere.  Llewyn Davis, of Welsh rather than Irish and Dutch origin, is little more than a hobo with a few plastic wrapped vinyls in his basket to remind himself of his earlier days when he was wanted.

Apparently the premise comes from the idle speculation, what if Dave had been beaten up in the alleyway behind Gerdes Folk City in 1961?  The result is a character cobbled together from Van Ronk's life, as described in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, but then inverted into some woefully sad projection of Bob Dylan's plaintive ballad.

The allusions don't stop there.  Near the end of the film, the Coens have Llewyn singing to his father in a Merchant Marine home that is very reminiscent of Arlo Guthrie Jr. visiting his father Woody in Alice's Restaurant.  It is the one touching scene in the movie, and helps and briefly lets us inside Llewyn's weary blues, but it is just as quickly tossed away when he glibly tells his sister where he had been, severing his one last family tie.

At the same time, there are numerous real references, notably Jim Glover and Jean Ray, who were very active in the Village scene in the early 60s.  In Llewyn's relation with these two in the film, he has more than a parting resemblance to Phil Ochs, who briefly played with Jim and Jean.  But, that all occurred after 1961, which is the year this film was set.

The Gaslight similarly was real, but as you can see it was a few steps down into the basement cafe.  Also, the Gate of Horn in Chicago, which Llewyn strikes out for in hopes of getting a better producer for his music.  Along the way he finds himself sharing a ride with an acerbic old jazz musician played by John Goodman, who doesn't think much of folk music.  This is echoed by F. Murray Abraham's character, Bud Grossman.  You start to wonder if the Coen Bros. think much of folk music themselves, as all the memorable lines are the most disparaging ones.

We all know the Coens like to pull our leg, but this is nothing more than a shaggy cat story.  Unlike Groundhog Day, which this film oddly evokes with all its repeated incidents, Llewyn never gets it right.  He is subjected to the same fate at the end of the film as he was at the beginning, leaving him more abject than before.

The shadow of Bob Dylan casts an ominous presence over this film, as if these are the last days of Village life before Dylan took over.  I suppose it is meant to be metaphoric to some degree, but there are so many real references that fact and fiction become tangled and disjointed in this film.  This is especially frustrating for those who knew Van Ronk.  There was no love in this movie for music or anything else.

The Coens say they weren't trying to recreate Van Ronk in the film, but then why go to the trouble to take so much from his life and leave Lllewyn hanging there like a complete unknown, when we all know what became of Van Ronk and Dylan?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Lipstick on a Pig

Recently, GOProud founder Jimmy LaSalvia announced he was leaving the GOP because he considered it "brain dead."  He now joins the approximately 40 per cent of "independent" voters in America who no longer choose to affiliate themselves with either party, reflecting the growing unrest in this country with the two-party system, and the Republican Party in particular.

Certainly, we have seen many cases over the last five years to bolster LaSalvia's claim, which makes one wonder why he has waited this long to leave a party that obviously has shown no accommodation toward gays, or women or just about anyone else who doesn't fit its very narrowly defined vision of America.  I suppose like many Americans he wanted to oust Obama, as it was easier to project all his insecurities on Barry rather than admit the basic structural problems with the GOP that he was previously so proud of.

Like many conservatives, LaSalvia seems to live in a delusional world.  In his case, it is particularly amazing since at no time has the Republcan Party ever stood up for gay rights, despite its professed Libertarian views.  It was Reagan who ushered in this "moral majority" led by Jerry Falwell, which has now taken over the GOP and made it into a tent revival of highly bigoted religious conservative views.

The Republican bigotry extends far beyond gays, as we heard former GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee lash out at women (Democratic ones anyway) and their promiscuous way in his harangue against including birth control in Obamacare.  Of course, Huck has been trying to backpedal on these outrageous comments since.  But, clearly this is a political party that no longer weighs its choice of words before spouting them.  True of Jimmy LaSalvia as well.

It seems the GOP has given up on its experiment with accommodation after its awful 2012 results.  Not only did the GOP fail to win the White House, but it lost seats in both chambers of Congress, even with many Senate Democrats particularly vulnerable.  The GOP didn't fair well in 2013 special elections either, as well as the highly contentious gubernatorial race in Virginia, which has swung back to the Blue column in its legislature as well.

The Republicans seem too worried about losing their religious conservative base to deal with the likes of LaSalvia and other fringe groups within the party, much less reach out to broader minority groups, which turn national and broad state elections.  What you hear are calls to improve the "tone," like this one from Reince Priebus, rather than address the basic structural problems that underlies the GOP.  It is simply an exclusionary party, and no amount of lipstick is going to disguise the matter.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Walter White meet LBJ

I guess it really isn't new news, but Bryan Cranston has taken on the role of LBJ in the play, All the Way, which focuses on Johnson getting the Civil Rights Bill through Congress.  The play has been circulating for some time, but is due to make its Broadway premiere soon.  He looks pretty convincing in the short clip, but then Cranston is a great actor.

All the Way was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, as part of a US History Cycle.  The play was written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Bill Rauch.  It has garnered quite a bit of praise during its run, but scoring Cranston is obviously a big coup.

He seemed to think that his character Walter White wasn't very far away from LBJ, noting that they had a similar determination to succeed at all costs, and both could be self defeating, but it is hard to imagine LBJ resorting to cooking meth to make ends meet.  Cranston first appeared in the role in September and has been honing his performance since.  I imagine we will see it on the big screen in due time.

One Nation Under Pot

The marijuana debate heats up as now Oregon and other Western states plan to put forward ballots on the recreational use of the drug this year.  President Obama weighed in on the subject in an interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, although you have to go pretty deep into the article (page 9) to find the quote that set Chris Matthews bouncing off the walls.  Obama felt pot was less dangerous than alcohol, although he added that he wouldn't encourage his girls to smoke weed.  I imagine he doesn't encourage them to drink or smoke either.

Now one can understand right wing pundits like Bill O'Reilly playing up the dangers of cannabis, but you figure Chris has smoked a little of that wacky weed in his youth and would be a little more open to the subject of legalization.  But, just like O'Reilly, he calls persons to prop him up in his arguments.  In this case Christoper Lawford.

Despite numerous studies on cannabis, which show that it is not addictive and has no known carcinogens, political pundits and concerned activists continue to demonize the drug, claiming as Lawford does that pot today is far stronger than it was in Barry's day when he ran with the Choom gang.  What we do know today is that marijuana has a great number of medical uses, which is why it has been legalized in many states for this purpose.

Unfortunately, there are those who believe strongly that marijuana is a gateway drug and that sanctioned recreational use will only send more kids down that infamous slippery slope.  But, even Time has weighed in against this popular myth, quoting studies rather than passing along anecdotes.

What the criminalization of marijuana has done is put an inordinate number of persons behind bars, which Obama touches upon in his interview with Remnick, noting,

"We should not be locking up kids and individual users for long stretch of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing."

Hear that Chris!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Parting the Waters

Nice to see Martin Luther King still being commemorated.  I let his birthday slip right by me.  It was on the 15th, although it is celebrated the third Monday of January so that Americans can have a three-day weekend.

Several states resisted the holiday but eventually came to accept it with caveats.  Arizona calls it Civil Rights Day, while Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia co-celebrate the birthday of Robert E. Lee on this day. Separate but equal I guess.

To be honest I think it would be better to commemorate Civil Rights as a whole rather than MLK in specific, since the movement was bigger than the man himself, as Taylor Branch lays out in his magisterial biography of the era, Parting the Waters.  All though, he keeps MLK front and center throughout.

I recall the summer I spent in Birmingham, where I documented The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for the Historic American Buildings Survey.  The Civil Rights museum is on the other side of the street from the famous church, which found itself at the epicenter of the movement when four girls were killed by a bomb explosion.  Birmingham was also notorious for Bull Connor's gestapo-like tactics in keeping Blacks in line.

That summer I also visited the Civil Rights memorial in Montgomery, which is right in front of the Southern Poverty Law Center.  It was designed by Maya Lin, who also designed the Vietnam War memorial.  Montgomery was where it all began with the city bus boycott led by the charismatic King.  Taylor does a great job of describing that time in his book.  Here's a copy of the proclamation from the Montgomery Improvement Association, posted in 1956.

Many think that Kennedy's call to Coretta Scott King in the summer of 1960 to offer sympathy following the arrest of MLK in Atlanta played a pivotal role in the election, swinging many Black voters toward the Democratic Party, despite the segregation policies in the South.  Kennedy would intercede on King's behalf during his administration as well.  All this led up to the March on Washington in the summer of 1963, culminating in King's I Have a Dream speech which galvanized the movement.

In many ways Martin Luther King, Jr.. was as big as the Civil Rights Movement, but there were so many others who played major roles than often get forgotten.  I don't think MLK would have wanted it this way.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Tagging along with Mitt

It will probably be awhile before I see the documentary, but this Guardian review makes Mitt sound intriguing.  Apparently, Greg Whitely was brought on board by Mitt's son Tagg to film the campaign from the ground, and in so doing found a warmer, more amiable Mitt than any of us saw during the campaign.  You had to wonder how Mitt ever got elected Governor of Massachusetts after that horrid campaign, in which he got twisted "every which way but loose" (to borrow from a Clint Eastwood movie).

It seems the intent of the documentary is less about politics as it is about the man, giving us an intimate portrait of the Man Who Would be President.  Unfortunately, it came too late as far as Mitt's aspirations were concerned.  He should have had Whitely back in 2008, then maybe a movie like this might have actually helped him in 2012.  Instead, his political career is over, and all he can do is sit back like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and ponder what might have been.

Maybe there is an acting career for Mitt?  If nothing else, he can become a pitch man for a more moderate Republican agenda now that he has been relegated to the sidelines.  His "nemesis" Chris Christie seems to be struggling in this regard after revealing himself to be little more than a thug in "Bridgegate" and Hurricane Sandy, an event Mitt felt brought him down.

For the Romney campaign, Hurricane Sandy couldn't have come at a worse time, changing the dynamics of the election as Obama and Christie got front billing.  Whatever Mitt-mentum Romney had was lost, as he was probably the worst casualty of the storm as far as Republicans were concerned.

However, you never felt Republicans were ever behind Romney.  Mitt pretty much had to go it alone, having survived a scathing set of primaries that made him an all too easy target for the Democrats in the Fall.  One could understand him wanting to put as much distance between himself and his political foes as possible, but he needed them to shore up the base of the party, and that never happened.  Instead, we saw the GOP looking like it was about to implode.

Anyway, it is nice to look at Mitt in hindsight like this and not in the Oval Office.  The documentary will be released by Netflix.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Here's looking at you, kid

I imagine they were complaining about the list of nominees for the first Academy Awards back in 1929, the first industry awards to honor films and performances from 1927-28.  It was held in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and hosted by Douglas Fairbanks, who was the president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences at the time.  It wasn't broadcast on radio or television, so people only found out about the winners the next day in the newspapers.

Wings was the best picture and Emil Jennings and Janet Gaynor.  The Director award was split between drama and comedy, with Frank Borzage (7th Heaven) and Lewis Milestone (Two Arabian Knights) bringing home the top prize.

It was at the end of the Silent era.  By 1930 Hollywood filmmaking had changed considerably and there were actually two awards shows held that year with All Quiet On the Western Front earning Milestone a second Oscar.  Seems WWI was still on everyone's mind.  The venue had changed to the Fiesta Room of the Ambassador Hotel.  This was the first time all Academy members could vote for nominations and winners.

Over the years, the number of members have swelled as has the body of work being judged on each year.  The Academy still sticks pretty close to home in its picks, preferring to stay pretty much within the industry, but in 1956 a special category was created for Best Foreign Language Film, with the Oscar going to La Strada.  That's Fellini with Giulietta Masina that year.  Honorary awards had been given to foreign films as early as 1947, so technically Vittorio De Sica was the first foreign winner with Shoe Shine, and later his iconic The Bicycle Thief.

The Academy Awards has grown into the single most important event in filmmaking each year, with producers relying heavily on nominations to boost box office numbers at the start of the year.  No doubt, the producers of American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave and Gravity are very happy with all their nominations, but a film surprisingly shut out this year is Inside Llewyn Davis, which had won the Jury Grand Prize at Cannes last summer and was at the top of most critics' polls for best films of 2013.

I suppose it is easy to forget who is who with so many films being promoted in Hollywood, and it seems the Coen Brothers or their distributors are too worried about the Oscars anymore, preferring instead to screen their films and festivals around the world, which have similarly gained in luster over the years.  But, you have to wonder if members of the Academy even bother to watch films anymore and are simply going on current buzz.

The Awards program is now insufferable to watch, stretching well over 3 hours with its many categories and special honors, when originally there were only 8 categories given at the end of a sumptuous dinner, but they try to make the most of it with tributes and various performances to keep you entertained through the evening.  There have been some memorable moments like the time Marlon Brando had a native American woman accept an Oscar on his behalf.

Here's some great photo moments from the Daily Mail.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

When I heard Matthew McConaughey won a Golden Globe I became very curious in the Dallas Buyers Club.  I wasn't familiar at all with the story and was surprised to see it was about the AIDS break out in Dallas.  Ron Woodroof found himself one of the HIV+ victims after an electrical accident on a job site lands him in the hospital  The electrician, part-time rodeo rider and good old Texas boy wasn't happy about being lumped in with a "bunch of faggots" in an AZT control test and sought his own cure, which led him into a seedy relationship with a former doctor down Mexico way.

McConaughey went through an amazing transformation to capture the gaunt frame of Woodroof, shedding close to 40 lbs. and I assume donning some make-up to look like someone who has gone through hell and back and lived to tell about.  The writers take a few liberties with Woodroof's story but for the most part stick close to the source.

Craig Borten had been trying to bring the story to the screen for 20 years and finally succeeded in an independent film made by Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee that creates a sense of earthiness to the events that transpired in the mid 80s.  All the scenes are shot close with a handheld cameras, often in tight spaces like the adjacent motel rooms that serve as the office and home for Woodroof and his transvestite "associate" Rayon, played by Jared Leto.   He also went through a major transformation and captures his role beautifully.  They traffic a variety of contraband AIDS "medicines," largely in the form of vitamins, minerals and protein supplements, which had not been granted FDA approval.

The film is as much an indictment of the early use of AZT as it as a poignant tale of how two persons struggle to come to terms with the rapidly debilitating disease.   I was really impressed by their performances and how the story unfolded.  The film never loses its gripping power, yet at the same time doesn't try to sentimentalize the issue as other AIDS movies have done.

Woodroof was an unrepentant homophobe, but in time came to accept Rayon (a fictionalized character) and the gay community, as these were his principal clients.  By setting up a buyers club, and charging $400/month for membership, they were able to skirt FDA regulations.  This was being done throughout the country at the time as AZT was prohibitively expensive and had horrible side effects.

Woodroof became a major advocate for the use of alternative medicines, which the FDA refused to endorse despite their proven effectiveness in other countries.  He established an elaborate network to supply his operations.  There is a brief mention of the Japanese-produced Interferon, but it is mostly vitamin and simpler protein supplements that helped AIDS victims stretch their lives beyond the months most doctors gave them.  Woodroof himself lived 7 years after being initially diagnosed as HIV positive at a very late stage of development.  He had been given 30 days.

I feel a bit like Roger Ebert with my recent movie reviews, but it's very refreshing to see movies from last year that deal with controversial subjects in an honest way.  This film certainly deserves a thumb's up.

Call to Duty

If nothing else, you have to give credit to Robert Gates’ sense of commitment, but I would think even he had to doubt the operations in Afghanistan, especially with NATO involved and competing national interests.  He appears to have been a “true believer” in this mission, giving it his full attention, every waking and it seems even every sleeping moment.

Gates has been making the rounds promoting his new book, Duty, and judging from the excerpts, it is hard to gauge his responses.  According to him, he had a pretty good “poker face,” so it is anyone’s guess what’s going on in his mind as he both defends and criticizes the Obama White House.  He saves his harshest judgment for Joe Biden, who he said has been wrong on every foreign policy decision over the last 40 years.

It seems Gates didn’t like the way Joe and others in the White House administration could bend Barry’s ear.  Gates apparently wanted Obama’s undivided attention, and felt that all this second guessing and hand wringing weakened Obama’s resolve.  Bush may have made some poor decisions, in Gates’ mind, but he never wavered in his commitment, which Gates seems to feel it was all about.

Gates comes across as a resolute military commander, demanding firm discipline and unwavering commitment to a goal.  His famous “surges” were all about getting the upper hand in Iraq and Afghanistan after wavering commanders had allowed both missions to have almost completely been undone.  He is scornful of a vacillating Congress undermining efforts and eroding confidence in the missions, and of course didn’t think too much of the press either.  He let’s others question the missions, notably Joe Biden, while he sticks resolutely to the matter at hand.

He praises Obama for making unpopular decisions in Afghanistan that went against the Democratic establishment and the press, but Gates ultimately feels that all the President wanted to do was get out of there.  Barry had enough of the whole thing, and in 2011 was pressing for an earlier withdrawal timetable.  For Gates it was important to keep to the timetable.   Never let your guard down, and certainly don’t let the enemy think it forced you to retreat from previously stated positions.

Of course, there is a lot of truth in this.  Any sign of retreat would have been seen as victory by al Qaeda and the Afghan resistance ostensibly led by One-Eyed Omar, the former Taliban leader of Afghanistan.  You have to maintain signs of strength and unity even if your resolve has weakened. 

This is where Gates shined.  Unlike Rumsfeld and other predecessors, Gates wasn’t about false bravado, but rather exuded a quiet confidence that often silenced critics and earned Obama’s and  Bush’s utmost respect.  Both Presidents hailed him as a great Secretary of Defense, and Gates will probably be remembered as the best war secretary in living memory, having presided over two carefully staged withdrawals without any sense of defeat.  That is a tall order!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Sting Man

The story behind the story sounds much more entertaining than the movie, and strikes me as ripe material for an HBO or AMC mini-series.

Ted Sherman lays out the story of The Sting Man in his article, the Jersey Hustle.  It makes much more sense than the movie, American Hustle, which spins wildly out of control at the midway point and never really recovers.  At the center of both stories is Melvin Weinberg, renamed Irving Rosenfield in the movie.  Christian Bale does his best to mimic the real-life con man, having spent three days with him in Florida.  Weinberg was close to 90 at the time, and seemingly still unrepentant.  However, David O. Russell, who wrote the script and directed the film, decided to give Rosenfield a more human touch.

Weinberg had been nabbed by the FBI for running a phony loan scam, which Russell depicts in the movie.  However, the relationship between Weinberg and the corrupt Camden mayor wasn't quite so chummy, nor heartfelt.  Weinberg liked Errichetti but felt he was rotten to the core, not the charming family man we see played by Jeremy Renner in the movie.  Errichetti was nailed early on in the FBI sting and came to play a pivotal role in Abscam helping to nail Congressmen and Jersey councilmen in return for a lesser sentence.  In the movie Errichetti (renamed Carmine Polito) only finds out about the scam in the end and helps Rosenfield (Weinberg) pull a fast one over on the FBI, who were trying to nail Florida mafia leaders as well.

Russell never gains control of the material in the film.  It's just too much to pack into two hours, especially when you add in two charming ladies in Sydney and Rosalyn, played to the hilt by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence.  These two gals in their low cut dresses and blouses confuse the matter all the more, especially when Rosalyn (Rosenfield's wife) decides to take matters into her own hands.  Never the less, the film is very entertaining, underscored by a 70s soundtrack that takes in just about every major pop hit at the end of the decade.

In real life, Weinberg was the one who came up with the idea of using a phony Arab sheik as a front man for Abscam.  It started out as small time stings but grew into a big sting when the FBI finally nailed Errichetti.  It was the Camden mayor who was willing to sell out the Congressmen in return for a lesser sentence, with many of them entrapped by the FBI.  There wasn't much control over the operation, and the tapes show that Weinberg was coaching the Congressmen to use incriminating language and often forcing them to take the money, as favors were usually the order of the day, not cash.

When the Abscam story broke in the early 80s it became a black eye on the FBI, leading to a number of tighter regulations on sting operations.  It was also heavily criticized for the blatant Arab stereotypes used in Abscam,wich is an abbreviated version of Abdul Scam.  Nevertheless, all the Congressmen and Jersey officials were eventually indicted, but no major mafia convictions.  Weinberg pretty much walked away from the whole thing, retiring in Florida.

Sen. "Pete" Williams with the "Sheik"
It seems Sherman gleaned a lot of his material from The Sting Man, written in 1981 by Robert Greene, who was a reporter and editor for Newsday at the time the story broke.  The book, which has since been reprinted, also served as the inspiration for the movie.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Roll, Jordan Roll

12 Years a Slave should dismiss any more Southern antebellum fantasies.  I really appreciated the way Steve McQueen looked at slavery as a form of Totalitarianism, rather than extolling the nobility in his oppressed characters.  Michael Fassbender was utterly ruthless as Edwin Epps, controlling his work force as a commander would a prison camp in World War II.

I assume persons have seen the movie or know of Solomon Northup's account, so I will indulge in a few details from the movie.  Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) soon learned after being duped and sold into slavery that if he wanted to survive he had to keep his head down, and that meant assuming his new identity as Platt, as there would be no one to help him.

The strong English accents may throw some persons off, but it gives the film an air of authenticity, as do the plaintive folk songs of the era.  The characters speak as of their time, which I felt was very important to the film.  There is no good or bad.  Each has his rationalization defending his position.

The first plantation owner Platt is sold to is a very pious and seemingly fair man, but is unwilling to accept that Platt is anything other than a nigger, even when Platt suggests clearing the swamp to provide easier transportation for the logs Ford uses in his mill.  It is Platt's confrontation with the overseer Tibeats that dooms him on the plantation and Ford is left with no other "choice" but to sell him down the river to Epps, also a very pious man but utterly twisted in his self righteous rhetoric.

The relationship that develops between Platt and Epps is spellbinding and forms the heart of the movie. It is especially strong when Patsey comes between them.  The young slave is extremely well played by Lupita Nyong'o, and the scene where she steals away from the plantation to get a bar of soap is absolutely riveting.

Brad Pitt, who helped finance the movie, has a small role as a journeyman carpenter, presumably Quaker judging by the conversations he has with Epps and Platt, who eventually helps Platt gain his freedom.  But, even here McQueen downplays the heroism of Pitt's character, not allowing this film to delve into the bathos of Schindler's List.

Unlike Spielberg, who has delved into the issue of slavery more than once, McQueen  isn't seeking nobility in his characters or turning this into a morality tale.  McQueen wants us to feel his characters' plights, and in particular Solomon's plight.  He keeps the camera close, very close to the action.  You feel like you are right there on the plantation, not viewing it from the theater seat.  McQueen makes you wince with each crack of the whip on poor Patsey's back.

This is the movie we have long needed to dispel the mythmaking we so often see regarding the antebellum South.  McQueen has Caribbean roots.  I believe his parents came from Grenada.  The subject was particularly close to him and he is able to give it the same visceral feeling he has shown in his other movies, notably Hunger, which told the story of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike in Maze Prison through the eyes of Bobby Sands (also played by Fassbender).

Monday, January 13, 2014

Of Torts and Obamacare

As usual I find myself locked into battles with some of my buddies on facebook over the ACA.  Despite reports that health insurance premiums only rose 4 per cent in each of the past two years, my friends have posted audacious claims of 30 to 40 per cent spikes in premiums.  These are the usual "personal" stories the Republicans like to indulge in so much these days, as if they have the "true" feel for the man in the street.  

When I looked into the matter more closely I saw that the biggest spike in health insurance premiums occurred between 1999 and 2009.  Health insurance rates rose a whopping 131 per cent over this ten year period, well in excess of any increases we have seen recently.  

The cry then, as it has been for many years, is tort reform, despite no indication that it has worked in the states it has been implemented in, such as Texas.  The Republicans believe the only problem with health care and health insurance is runaway lawsuits, even when the AMA and American Hospital Association have long singled out the inability to collect on uninsured and underinsured patients.   

Several states addressed this issue by introducing individual insurance mandates.  Notably, Massachusetts enacted individual mandates under Governor Romney in 2007.  Funny enough, he got the idea from the Heritage Foundation, which had long championed individual mandates, but to hear his fellow GOP candidates rail against him in the 2012 Primaries, this was nothing less than "socialism," and the former governor soon found himself backpedaling on "Romneycare."

Of course, no one likes to have their ideas stolen by the other political party, but rather than claiming these ideas as their own, Republicans have disowned them all together, and tried to claim during the general election that what was good for 90 per cent of Americans was good enough for everyone and that somehow the hospitals could absorb these 10 per cent who insisted on using the emergency room for their health care.

It is hard to gauge yet whether "Obamacare" is working or not, but the slowing in health insurance premium increases would appear to indicate it is having a positive impact.  This of course is the greatest fear of the Republicans, having spent so much time and money the past three years in their attempts to defeat the Affordable Care Act.  

The GOP continues to flood television and the blogosphere with ads and memes decrying "Obamacare," hoping to unhinge Democratic incumbents in 40 states.  The ads offer up the same old tropes, as the Republicans have yet to offer any alternative solutions (at least none that they admit to) other than their dear old tort reform.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Fighting the same battle 50 Years later

What bemuses me about this recovery is all the hedging going on in the media.  We see unemployment numbers consistently drop from one month to the next, but each time critics say more persons are dropping off the record books, and that not enough jobs are being created to cover those lost during the recession.

This is probably true to some degree, but if there is any sector that is lagging in the recovery it is the public sector, especially at the state and local level where conservative governors and mayors made draconian cuts in payroll.  Paul Krugman has long said that if government simply hired back all the employees it cut, this would boost employment considerably.  These austerity measures are a big reason the economy has taken so long to recover.

Unfortunately, it seems the GOP simply won't budge.  It has been a major battle in the Senate to extend unemployment benefits.  The Democrats seemed on the verge of a compromise solution, but the Republicans have stonewalled it once gain.  You really have to wonder what is gained by this.  Do you want more persons falling through the cracks, permanently unemployed and essentially left destitute?  

Yet, the Republicans claim to be revisiting the "war on poverty," with their Young Turks thrust front and center in the new debate.  Mike Lee proclaimed "economic freedom zones" offering lower taxes, supposedly designed to encourage industry in depressed areas.  Yep, the same old ideas wrapped in a brand new rhetoric, kind of like "freedom fries" for the masses.

All this empty rhetoric would have given LBJ heartburn.  The War on Poverty was his signature issue.  To read Robert Caro's books, Johnson truly wanted to eradicate poverty in America, having grown up dirt poor himself.  But, unlike his conservative Southern brethren, Johnson recognized that people needed a hand up and the only institution that could effectively do this was government.

It seems what the Republicans would like to create is a world not much unlike Panem in The Hunger Games, where worker districts are subordinated to a central Corporate authority.  The scary part is that they might eventually succeed given the way the Democrats have caved in time and again on jobs and spending bills in an effort to meet Republicans "half way."  By contrast, the Republicans haven't budged an inch.

The Democrats have to commit themselves anew to the War on Poverty and make this the signature issue in the midterm elections.  Call it "class warfare" if you like, but that's exactly what he Republicans have been engaged in ever since they launched their "Contract with America" in 1994.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Becoming Uncle Walt

I remember when I was a little boy, I was looking for a stamp to put on a letter I had written to my grandmother, and broke this block of Walt Disney stamps in my mother's collection to put one on the envelope.  My mother was very upset, but held her composure, giving me a lesson on the value of stamps and in particular blocks and sheets, and after that I never broke a block or stamps again.  Many years later, I found a block of Disney stamps to give back to my mother.

It must be upsetting to go through the trouble of making an honest tribute about an excellent artist, only to have the short pieces related to Disney excised and made front page news.  Meryl Streep was heaping praise on Emma Thompson and her portrayal of P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, but you wouldn't know it to hear all the news the next day, as Meryl took time to dis dear old Walt in the process.

Walt's life has been carefully guarded, and one of the rare films to portray him keeps close to the Disney image, with studio stalwart Tom Hanks playing Uncle Walt. Funny enough, the new film is ratied PG-13 because Disney is glimpsed putting out a cigarette.  Apparently, Disney was a chain smoker, and a cigarette often rested between his fingers, like it did my mother's, but the studio demanded no lit cigarettes in the film.  This was the one reference to his notorious habit.

It's Travers who comes across as the irascible cuss, which apparently she was, determined not to have Disney turn her Mary Poppins into a cartoon image.  This makes for a charming movie, but as Streep noted in her tribute to Thompson, it must have killed Walt Disney to meet a woman who wouldn't stand down to him.  Apparently, he considered women little more than copy artists in his studio, saving all the creative work for smart young men.

According to Neal Gabler, Disney drew his last cartoon in 1931, and became dependent on an "empire of smart artists and functionaries."  While Gabler downplays Disney's anti-Semitism, he presents him as a tyrant in the studio and a union buster, not ashamed of turning union troublemakers over to the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  Not exactly Mr. Nice Guy.

But, Disney is recognized for having created one of the most successful brand names in history.  His personal life has been largely glossed over like the theme parks that draw millions of tourists per year.  It was also convenient for the Disney family to maintain the good Disney image in their battles with Michael Eisner over control of the vast entertainment network that had grown up in their father's name.  Eisner was clearly the bad guy, while Walt was unquestionably the good guy.

Streep quoted Ezra Pound (also a notorious anti-Semite) who said he had never meant anyone who was worth a damn who wasn't irascible.  Artists have long been excused of their petty biases, conceits and bigotry as long as it doesn't affect anyone too deeply.  It seems Disney's bigotry and misogyny have been hidden so well as not to harm too many persons along the way, except for the few he turned over to HUAC.

One can see a meticulous book coming out of this recent controversy, like the one Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin wrote on Oppenheimer, as none have been written Disney yet.  He may not have invented the A-bomb, but Disney made a huge impact on American society.   Gabler's book apparently comes the closest in this regard, packed with 166 pages of footnotes, but he dwells largely on film production details.

Disney Studios today are a far cry from that back in Walt's time, when he struggled to make his first full length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  I'm sure the Brothers Grimm would have quarreled with Walt if they had been alive to negotiate film rights, like P.L. Travers was.  But, Disney was aiming at a decidedly different youth market than were the Grimm Bros. in their fairy tale, and his bet paid off huge dividends.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Taking the Beats for a Walk

I've only recently come to enjoy the prose of Iain Sinclair, and so find myself very tempted by this latest set of adventures, American Smoke.    Sinclair had to content himself with the Beats from afar, occasionally brushing shoulders, as he did with Allen Ginsberg in 1967.  He recalls the moment,

When I drove Ginsberg across town in my battered red Mini, the youthful tribes, having no clear sense of who he was – a bearded face from TV screens in other people’s houses, from tabloid Hyde Park dope-rally headlines – rapped on the roof, leant in at the side window, with daffodils and peace signs. Celebrity as a shattered crystal. William Blake our contemporary. London relents, in cycles of mesmerised communality: free concert, royal wedding or royal funeral, riot. Break the glass. Loot, trash. Ding dong! The witch is dead. Burn down shops and warehouses. Episodes of euphoria alternate with long-suppressed rage. Before the Swiss banks resume normal service.

Sinclair has ambled the streets of London for many years, picking up on its movements and rhythms and now tries his hand at the American scene, as he contrasts the world of the Beats among the ruins they left behind.  It seems like an archeological journey in many ways, but in the clipped voice he has become famous for, poking fun at himself and his conceits along the way.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Don't Make A Monkey Out of Me!

Here's looking at you, kid
Darwin would be rolling in his grave if he could see us debating evolution over 150 years after his seminal On The Origins of Species, but it seems a lot of folks have yet to be convinced.  This sounds more like a promotional stunt for the Creation Museum in Kentucky than an honest debate, as Ken Ham has invited Bill Nye to challenge him on the theory of Creationism, in a debate entitled "Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins?"

Seems things have gotten kind of slow at Petersburg, Kentucky, seemingly only a stone's throw from Dayton, Tennessee, where John Scopes had the audacity to introduce evolution into the classroom in 1926, only to be charged by the state for violating the Butler Act, which expressly forbade the teaching of evolution in state public schools.  Here we are nearly 90 years later and it seems the shoe is on the other foot, with a concerted effort by the religious right to reintroduce creationism into public schools.

Funny enough, Ken Ham is not even from Kentucky, but hails from Australia, and has been trumpeting a literal interpretation of Genesis ever since he co-founded the Creation Science Foundation in Queensland.  It seems he couldn't find the backers for his audacious museum down under and pitched his idea to Americans.  Seems he also left Australia under a cloud of controversy.  Not surprising.

Ham is not one of these advocates of Intelligent Design that is willing to fudge the Biblical time line a few million years.  No sir!  Ken takes Genesis straight up, claiming the earth is no more than 6000 years old, and that dinosaurs co-existed with human beings, just like in One Million Years BC (minus 996,000 years).  One of the popular religious notions for extinct species is the theory of "divine upheavals," in which God periodically wiped the slate clean and started over.  I guess dinosaurs weren't allowed on Noah's Ark given the lack of head room.

Ride 'em cowboy!
It is hard to take an asshole like this seriously, and I'm sure Bill will try to use humor to deflate Ken's bloated ego, maybe even refer to Raquel Welch's tour de force.  However, Bill is going to be debating on hostile turf with an audience most likely hand-picked by Ham, who has been known to turn away persons at the door who might make light of his $27 million monument to God's Creation.

If Ken is as ardent a believer as he makes himself out to be, he must also discount Copernicus and Galileo, and for that matter Newton and Einstein.  For him, evolution (and it seems all of science) is just one Big Lie.  Everything you need to know about the Heavens and the Earth is right there in Genesis.  You can throw away all those other books.  But, I imagine he is just another one of those charlatans preying off the gullibility of fundamental Christians.  Why else set up shop in the backwoods of Kentucky?

Friday, January 3, 2014

Stand Tall Wendy!

The person I most admired in 2013 was Wendy Davis for standing up to the good ol' boys in the Texas state house and forcing them to have to reintroduce their Draconian anti-abortion bill, which was later struck down by federal courts.  Wendy is now running for governor, and making the race even more intriguing is that Leticia Van de Putte is running for lieutenant governor.  The two will have a long uphill climb, but Wendy currently enjoys much more facial recognition than the presumptive Republican nominee, Greg Abbott, who is the current attorney general, and responsible for appointing Ted Cruz as solicitor general in 2003.

Wendy is not the only one challenging entrenched Republican orthodoxy.  Alison Lundergan Grimes will be challenging Mitch McConnell this Fall, assuming he doesn't get teabagged by conservatives in his state.  Grimes gained a lot of attention in 2013 after Ashley Judd chose not to run.  Ashley was not ready for the kind of abuse she would face in an election campaign, having already gotten a bitter taste of it.  As it is, Grimes finds herself being maliciously targeted by McConnell's political director.

One hopes that both candidates will get much more support from the Democratic National Committee than Maria Buono, who essentially found herself given up for dead, politically speaking, by her own party both at the state and national level.  This was truly a low point for the DNC, which seemed to tacitly support the re-election of Chris Christie, who called a Senate special election that greatly favored the Democrats, showing that the good ol' boy network can extend across political lines.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Brand New Look

I hope everyone likes the new look.  I was trying to widen the margins but could no longer use the old format, so went with this spiffy new template.  I also added popular posts over the last 30 days for easy reference.

Hope everyone has gotten off on the right step in the New Year.  Look forward to a new reading group.  Please feel free to make suggestions.

Who do you admire most?

Apparently Gallup has been asking this open-ended question for at least 57 years, judging by the number of times the Rev. Billy Graham has made the Top Ten, but what surprises me is that Richard Nixon has made the Top Ten 21 times.  Obama won the poll for the sixth straight time with a considerable lead over his nearest competitors, George W. Bush and Pope Francis.

The question is only given to Americans, which helps explain why so few foreign persons make the list, but Malala Yousafzai broke the Top Ten, thanks to her numerous appearances on American television.  Not sure whether this poll is gender based or if Gallup simply divides men from women, but Hillary has been the top woman for a record 12 years in a row.

It indicates to me an incredible lack of imagination on the part of Americans, who consistently go for the President, and even ex-Presidents five years out of office.  You hardly hear George W. Bush's name mentioned these days, but still enough persons think highly of him to keep him at the top of the list.

Being an open-ended question, you are going to get a wide variety of answers, so I suppose if you were able to look further down the list you would find more interesting selections than Clint Eastwood and Mitt Romney.

Who do you admire most?