Tuesday, October 27, 2009


And it begins tonight.

Friday, October 23, 2009

My Kind of Daughter

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Dog On Back With Paws In Air

From the heroic to the frightened.

A couple weeks back ("Mortal"), I posted what I think is the greatest and most profound speech made by a 20th-Century American President: JFK at American University. Here we have Richard Nixon, in what is probably the most loathsome (and certainly most groveling) speech ever made by a 20th-Century American national candidate. (Actually, forget the "probably.")

It is 1952 and 39-year-old first-term California Senator Richard Milhous Nixon -- known to the country mainly for his post-New Deal union-busting and championing of anti-Communist hysteria -- has strangely been nominated for Vice President by popular Republican presidential candidate General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Not long after the nomination, newspapers report that Republican campaign donors were buying influence with Nixon by providing him with a secret slush fund for his personal use. Republicans, including many within the Eisenhower campaign, pressure Ike to drop Nixon from the ticket. Using his own money, Nixon buys national TV time for a response.

He ran out of time. When Nixon realized he was cut off and could not finish, the little jerk burst into tears.

But it worked. Eisenhower backed off, Richard Nixon was elected Vice President in 1952, and again in '56. The rest is criminal and genocidal history.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Mr. Fish


Friday, October 16, 2009

"There's No Bringing Her Back"

At the end of Vertigo (1958), immediately before its jaw-dropping finale, madman James Stewart stands before Kim Novak, who has given him her soul. (Along with her hair color, wardrobe, and manner of speaking.) She stands stripped and naked, wilfully transformed back into his dream image.

The madman doesn't even see her.

If anyone proves that movie actresses are born and not made, it is Kim Novak. Often mistaken for just another dumb blonde-with-big-breasts, a product of Harry Cohn's enormous casting couch, she is in fact the loving spirit of 1950s cinema, the tender germ in the living plasma of the Studio System as it was passing away.

Her training was nil. And it seems as if she did not know what she was getting into, moving to Hollywood from Chicago in 1952. But the camera knew, and was very glad to give us her first wonderment.

There it is, pure Novak: earnest, open, longing, without a trace of narcissism or ego. How many of our greatest movie stars happened by miracle? Mitchum, Lancaster, Wayne, Grant, Stanwyck, Astaire, Cagney, Cooper, Vivien Leigh. And Novak. The heart wants what it wants, she says to us. And so does the camera. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of our movie transformation from the Studio to the market-obsessed vampires now in charge of our culture is that happy accidents and miracles are no longer possible.

Her natural ardor became more fully formed as Frank Sinatra's girlfriend in 1955's Man with the Golden Arm, where she recaptures her Chicago accent.

Vertigo, the first conversation.

She is at the heart of perhaps the most radical story moment in theatrical movie history. (Ultimate spoiler ahead.)

Stewart's madman has lost his love object (he thinks to death), yet he sees someone on the street who sort of looks like her. He follows the woman to a small hotel room where she lives. Up to this point in Vertigo, Hitchcock has kept us deep within the Stewart character. Then, it all changes.

Now, we are inside her. Until then, almost 100 minutes into the film, we have cared deeply and obsessively for the Stewart character, dreaming with him as a romantic. Inside Novak until her end and the movie's end, we experience Stewart for what in fact he is: a sick exploiter of this woman purely for his own ego needs. Look again at the ending. ("I heard voices.") She has made herself over for him, head to toe, and what does he care about? Nothing, except how she tricked him. And in her final descent into movie eternity, he returns -- in full crucifixion, martyr pose -- to his land of self-pity and loss. Not caring a damn for the dead woman below.

Hitchcock is often looked at as a cold and calculating manipulator of movie characters and movie audiences. Yet he is also the greatest director of female suffering not named Mizoguchi or Ophuls or Dreyer: Bergman in Notorious; Janet Leigh in Psycho; Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds; Tippi Hedren in Marnie and The Birds. And perhaps most spiritually with Vera Miles as the wife in The Wrong Man, a film not about Catholic guilt or confused identity or the horrors of jail, but a movie about the sufferings of an average 1950s housewife. (Just watch the first scene between husband and wife, when he arrives home near dawn and she is still up with a "toothache." Hitchcock shoots it to make it seem like they are on different moons. And ends it with Henry Fonda swooping down on Miles's neck like a vampire. Before his arrest.) Miles, of course, was Hitchcock's first choice for Vertigo. Lucky for us, she became pregnant and backed out of the role. Without Novak's woundedness, sorrow and operatic desire, Vertigo would have been much less.

The Fifties were over. But in 1960, producer/director Richard Quine cast Novak in Strangers When We Meet -- a suburban soap opera about infidelity. It stars Ernie Kovacs and the incredibly wooden Kirk Douglas, but the movie is all Novak, as a housewife who has an affair with Douglas. Joshua Logan, director of Picnic, once said that Kim Novak wore her beauty "like a crown of thorns" -- a crown on full display here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Thank God for Harper's magazine. Under the leadership of editor-in-chief (now retired) Lewis Lapham and publisher John MacArthur, it became and remains that rarest of modern objects: a publication with no connection between what is written and what is advertised, unlike the chain-gang of publications at such flunky institutions as Hearst, Hachette, CondeNast, TimeWarner and Meredith -- where the editorial is the advertising.

Occasionally (and too rarely), publisher MacArthur contributes an essay and this month's is just great. He speaks about the media worship of Barack Obama's supposedly overwhelming intelligence.

Are you tired of hearing how “smart” Barack Obama is? I reached my limit over the summer, when The New York Times Magazine quoted Valerie Jarrett, the president’s liaison to Chicago City Hall, declaring, “I mean, he’s really by far smarter than anybody I know.”

Well, as any Chicago schoolboy knows, there are many different kinds of smart. And right now our commander-in-chief is not looking particularly brilliant— at least on the level of substantive politics.

Take, for example, Obama’s intervention in Chicago’s failed bid for the Olympic Games in 2016. The Daley machine has escorted Obama most of the way during his short political career, and the Daley brothers, Richard and William, like their father, have never been known for their scholastic achievement. Indeed, book learning isn’t much respected in The City That Works— it’s why the public schools are generally so bad.

What really counts with the Chicago political establishment is whether you can deliver the goods, and Obama has notably failed— that is, the tens of thousands of patronage jobs and potential real-estate killings that would have fallen into Richard M. Daley’s hands had the International Olympic Committee voted the way the Chicago City Council usually does: 49-to-1 for whatever the mayor wants. It didn’t matter to City Hall that there wasn’t enough money in the public coffers to pay for staging the games. What mattered was all that boodle for friends and political allies who could have been cut in on the action. As far as I know, the Daleys aren’t personally corrupt about money. But they love power and they deeply value the currency of political leverage. The Olympics would have meant enormous amounts of leverage.

When Obama initially tried to get out of going to Copenhagen, he violated two cardinal rules of Chicago politics: demonstrate loyalty to the boss (be it mayor or ward committeeman) and be persistent. You don’t send your wife to bring home the bacon, and I’m certain that Valerie Jarrett and Rahm Emanuel (the other Daley henchman in the White House) got calls from the home office prompting them to remind the young president of his true responsibilities.

However, when the president suddenly announced that health-care reform did not require his undivided attention and that there was, indeed, time to spare for a transatlantic round trip, he just looked dumb and disorganized. Worse still, the Chicago delegation hadn’t really polled the IOC members (there’s always a way to do that, no matter how “secret” the proceeding) before sending the president on his Mission Impossible. In a legislature, the whips count the likely yes and no votes before a bill is brought to the floor; if they don’t have enough votes for passage, they shift to Plan B, often a tactical retreat designed to avoid public humiliation. Evidently, nobody counted the IOC votes before Obama got on the plane. Eighteen votes out of 94 does not justify sending the president of the United States on a lobbying trip. Not only was Obama humiliated, but his patron, Richard Daley, was also made to look politically incompetent.

Of course, failure to bag the Olympics is just one crack in the “smart” Obama image. I well understand that clever politicians make cynical choices to gain power, even when they know those choices will probably hurt the broader public. So far, Obama’s most cynical choice was to align himself with Robert Rubin and Wall Street in order to raise money for his presidential campaign. Second is his campaign pledge to escalate the occupation of Afghanistan to counter Republican claims that he and the Democrats were appeasers on “terrorism.” In third place is his decision to hand Max Baucus (the senator from Montana who moonlights as an insurance-company lobbyist) the task of “reforming” health care, thus guaranteeing that there would be no genuine reform.

All these maneuvers might seem tactically “smart”: Goldman Sachs, Citicorp and the hedge funds contributed mightily to Obama’s election; John McCain wasn’t able to call Obama a peacenik or “soft on Al Qaeda”; and Baucus’s insurance and nursing-home friends weren’t put to any trouble, which would have caused Obama problems with Baucus about other tax matters before the Senate Finance Committee.

But maybe such cynicism isn’t altogether so smart in 2009. Wall Street, unpunished and unrepentant after three decades of recklessness, is poised to embark on new, unregulated financial adventures, such as the issuance of securitized life-insurance policies known as “life settlement” bonds. Rewarded for their failures with huge sums of public money, the newly emboldened casino managers are liable to sink the ship next time, instead of just flooding it.

In Afghanistan, American soldiers are consistently dying in small batches (under orders from their Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader) while Afghan civilians continue to perish in far greater numbers under American and British bombs supposedly aimed at the Taliban. You don’t even have to remember Vietnam or the Russian occupation of Afghanistan to recognize the profound absurdity of the administration’s counterinsurgency strategy. Respectable experts, from Edward Luttwak on the right to George McGovern and William Polk on the left to Andrew J. Bacevich somewhere in the middle, have demolished the notion that such a military campaign can succeed in subduing a nationalist or tribal rebellion.

As for Baucus and health care, it’s clear that whatever bill comes out of the Finance Committee, large numbers of Americans will remain uninsured or underinsured. This means that the emergency room at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York will continue to overflow with poor children who come for primary care because their parents can’t afford a pediatrician. And it means that America’s industrial corporations will continue to suffer from a competitive disadvantage with manufacturers based in civilized countries where health care is considered a public trust and a right and the government pays the bill.

Does this sound smart? Or does it sound really, really stupid?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Where's My Nobel Prize?

I realize the Nobel Peace Prize Committee has historically committed occasional acts of insanity. Arafat? Elie Weisel?? Henry Kissinger???

But what in holy heck has Barack Hussein Obama done in these past nine months to deserve this? There are almost as many US troops in Iraq (and certainly no lessening of the throat-grip the US has on the country), he's expanded the war in Afghanistan and brought it to Pakistan, he's let Israel punk him on settlements, Iran has blown up in his face (because he wants it that way), the Pentagon budget is again the largest in world history, and not one damned nuke has been destroyed. Besides sending thousands of storm troopers to Pittsburgh for the G-20. . .


But heck -- I want peace so much, and not just in the Middle East, but everywhere!!

Plus: people must stop chopping trees, fishing out the seas, driving SUVs, eating meat, slapping kids and they have to start walking their dogs more, being nice to their wives, husbands, parents and neighbors and pick up some litter, while singing and smiling and wearing way less polyester. And just so many other noble, Nobel things. More yoga for example, and fruit and veggies and up with local farming and let's have more respect for non-white people -- and white people and even Muslims and, what the hell, Jews too! And poor Africans. And cats and chickens and some bacteria, the good ones. But not viruses. Better schools, end bullying, free healthcare. All that and tons more of only good things. And everyone floss more and ride a bike.

Ok, my eyes are closed, hands are out: Prize, please.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


"That little Kennedy -- he thought he was a God." -- Allen Dulles
It was 104 degrees that June 1963 day, and the President of the United States is dressed for graduation. John F. Kennedy -- the most powerful man in the world -- makes a speech calling for the rejection of power, the rejection of domination and demonizing: he calls for quiet, thoughtfulness, empathy and compassion. He basically rejects many tenets of the American "character": brutishness, ignorance, aggression, self-justification, the love for war.

And it got him killed.

My gosh, the openness -- almost like a Sermon on the Mount. Where's the security? And how 'bout that guy getting into the dark sedan, obviously late for an important lunch. . . If John F. Kennedy had been alive under Reagan (but then of course there would have been no Reagan), he would've been a Liberation Theologist.