June 13, 2007 - June 6, 2007
Monday, June 11, 2007
Jeez, boys, you can't even handle
that? Dumb-ass jocks need pitchers, right?
I gather Nikki Finke of Hollywood Deadline Daily speaks for many
with her outraged
to the final Sopranos episode:
The line to cancel HBO starts here.
What a ridiculously disappointing end lacking in creativity to The
Sopranos saga. But if you're one of those who found it perversely
interesting, then don't bother to read on. Even if David Chase, who
wrote and directed the final episode, was demonstrating the existential
and endless loop of Tony's life or the moments before the hit that
causes his death, it still robbed the audience of visual closure....
Apparently, my extreme reaction was typical of many series' fans: they
crashed HBO's website for a time tonight trying to register their
outrage. HBO could suffer a wave of cancellations as a result.... Chase
clearly didn't give a damn about his fans. Instead, he crapped in their
faces. This is why America hates Hollywood.
There's more abuse in her column for anyone who wants to read it. My
own qualifications for reviewing the Sopranos are mixed. I am from New
Jersey and therefore have some familiarity with the culture depicted in
the series. But I've also never been what you'd call a Sopranos fan. I
learned about it in the first place from other people who had fallen
under its spell, and I always suspected that its popularity derived
from the appeal it made to the basest level of male identity -- the
instinct we've all felt, and work at suppressing, that the surest way
to deal with problems is not to solve them but to obliterate them with
an act of hideous violence. For much the same reason, I've never been
comfortable that The Godfather
is the men's equivalent of Gone with
, THE movie, the repository of scenes and situations
that somehow recapitulate all the essential life choices of an entire
sex. I've always thought GWTW was sentimental garbage, and similarly,
I've always thought The Godfather
was romanticized thuggery. It's as sickening to hear investment bankers
and corporate marketing managers invoking the strategies of Don
Corleone as it is to watch grown women thrilling to the narcissism of
Worse, perhaps, I've long been convinced that Martin Scorsese
squandered a great part of his undoubted talent on movies about
the mob. I never thought Joe Pesci was cute in Goodfellas
. I never thought de Niro was
fascinating in his depictions of other lowlifes in the raft of movies
he made with Scorsese, including, I admit, the wildly overpraised Raging Bull
. Yes, there are men who
never rise above the brutish rush of their first schoolyard fistfight
or their first erection. But most men are already intimately familiar
with such experiences and what can be learned from watching stillborn
adolescents other than not to be like them. That's a lesson which
doesn't require hours and hours and hours of ugly closeups and mile
after mile of obscene rhetoric. If you've ever been physically close to
the real thing, it requires only a single instance of witnessing what
one vicious savage for whom other people exist only as objects can do
with a fist, a knife, a gun or a baseball bat. It ceases at once to be
a cool metaphor. It becomes the place in yourself you must never ever
Before, or apart from, our national obsession with the mafia and other
forms of organized crime, our violent movies tend to be morality plays,
an acting out of the conflict within a good (or mostly good) man when
he must find the violence in himself to oppose, defeat, or destroy a
dangerously violent and evil foe. That's generally a story that's worth
an investment in time, principally because it involves the
all-important change and development in character that is the reason
for being of drama. Only the first Godfather movie involved any
character development, and that was in the opposite direction, as a man
who might have been good sculpted himself into an icon of evil. Exactly
why should this particular cinematic masterpiece appeal so deeply to
graduates of the Harvard Business School and Yale Law School? You tell
That said, I was eventually inveigled into watching the Sopranos, and
with certain caveats I will say that the series was better than the
Godfather trilogy and Martin Scorsese's mob masturbations. Much better.
Why? Because the Sopranos has always been a male implementation of the lowest
possible form of drama, soap opera. That's its whole claim to
innovation, creativity, uniqueness. That's why, to the extent they did,
women responded to it. The nature of the soap opera form is that it's
merely a heightening of drab everyday life. Nothing is ever finally
settled. There is no "happily ever after." The long-awaited ultimate
climactic moment comes, it exacts its emotional price, and then
everyday life returns with its low-grade, boring vengeance. Passing
sleights build to obsessions. Flirtations morph into simmering,
impending but long strung out catastrophes. Marriages break, children
rebel, great romances degenerate into resentments and blackmail
opportunities. Families never ever cease to be the dynamo of pointless
conflicts and frictions. And in sum it is all so crushingly mundane and
banal that the players actually seek out opportunities to explode the
status quo with some definitive action that lights up the present like
an atom bomb but always fails and lapses again into hopeless, thudding
banality. Since the Sopranos was mostly for men, the climactic moments
that punctuated the dreary hum of normal life involved guns and
beatings and bloodshed, which provided men with the catharsis women get
from tears and saccharine emotional outbursts, but otherwise it was
pretty much The Guiding Light
, and General Hospital
That's why, I think, women (apart from Nikki Finke, that is) mostly accepted the final Sopranos episode
better than the men. What David Chase did, in effect, was simply take a
machete to the film, amputating the next frame of a soap opera that
can't possibly have an ending. The apocalyptic snuffing of the entire
Soprano clan would have been the
grossest artifice. No one has succeeded in erasing the Jersey mob. They
may grow richer or poorer as events unfold, but they will go on,
because there's still illegal profit to be gained from trash contracts,
strip joints, asbestos removal, truck hijackings, etc, etc. Killing
Tony Soprano and Carmela won't eradicate the dozens of people like them
who do exist, and they will continue to set the worst possble example
for their children, who will grow up to be just like them, for yet
another generation of semi-psychopathic but ordinary-looking people who
might hold a door open for you at the restaurant and then profess their
profound grief when their son drugs and rapes your daughter at a trendy
club and kills her by "accident" on the ride home.
Like all soap operas, the sorry story goes on. Maybe Tony will get
killed one day, but that's not an end, either. Another will rise to
take his place, and children just like his children will have children
of their own and the saga will stagger on.
That's the saving grace of the Sopranos, for those who have the wit to
see it. This not a glamorous life. It is simply an oxymoronic life,
simultaneously boring and bloody, too clever by half and absolutely
stupid. Those who were expecting something like real "closure" prove
themselves every bit as stupid as the Sopranos themselves, as if the
consequences of moral retardation can somehow be transformed into a
graceful or satisfying denouement. They can't.
Further, if you have ever obtained satisfaction from the measures Tony
Soprano has employed to escape the pressure of life's inevitable
demands, you're a midget in man's clothing. He's not an example, not a
symbol of beleaguered fathers or husbands, not an allegory of business
management, and not a touchstone of America male experience. He's a
thug. His kind will never go away. We will all meet his moral cousins
at every phase and in every aspect of our careers. Our challenge is to
see him as he is and never to plot a course based on our notion of what
he might do. He's a nightmare. And nightmares don't end in closure.
They end with brutal suddenness and blankness. When we wake up.
The people who are
experiencing such outrage about the final episode are also idiots.
There was no whacking imminent in the scene. Nobody in the restaurant
was a threat, particularly the dude who went into the restroom. He's
already sat at the bar long enough to be recognized. Going to the
restroom was a Godfather
reference, to be sure, but that's all it was. There's absolutely no
need to hide a piece in the men's room unless
you're trying to infiltrate a secure meeting. Which this wasn't. The
hip-hop crew would have stationed themselves outside, in the anonymity
of the night. The white guy in the corner booth had also made himself a
recognizable figure. The mob hits in the Sopranos all involve a sudden
storming of the victim, surprise, shoot, leave. Tony's biggest threat
in the final scene was heartburn -- or a fatal heart attack occasioned
by the tons of pasta Gandolfini consumed in the filming of eight years
of the Sopranos. "Closure" of the scene would most likely have involved
paying the check.
Just a footnote
demonstrating our point that women have better
understood the Sopranos than men.
Would that it weren't so.
Friday, June 08, 2007
The Blind Spot Mirror -- German
technology that hasn't yet reached the U.S.
STILL ALWAYS RIGHT
. The other
day, I posed the question of why uniformly pusillanimous Republican
senators are suddenly locked in testosterone hyper-drive to ensure
another decade of uncontrolled Mexican immigration. My suspicion is
that some powerful lobby -- consisting at least in part of huge,
privately owned agricultural conglomerates like Cargill -- is offering
incentives that far outweigh the risks of political suicide such
senators are unquestionably running. The alternative explanations are
even more depressing: 1) that the stupidity of Republican bigwigs is so
borderline retarded that they imagine themselves earning "Party of
Lincoln" loyalty from hispanics by leading millions of illiterate
freeloaders to the bottomless trough of federal government largesse; or
2) that they have lived so high on the hog for so long that the only
experience they have of
Mexican immigration is access to a servant class they can't stand the
thought of living without: a cheap and limitless supply of
nannies, gardeners, chauffeurs, mechanics, and saucy upstairs maids.
Truthfully, it's not hard to imagine that John McCain, Lindsey Graham,
Michael Chertoff, and the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal
witnessed the transformation of their own particular Main Street into
Tijuana North (except that the thugs and idlers all have more money).
And it's correspondingly easy to see how they could look down on it all
from a great height -- say, from the seaside bluff of the local yacht
club -- and see the whole issue in terms of units of labor and
But President Bush is another matter. He doesn't seem to care much for
yacht clubs. He long ago spurned Connecticut and Kennebunkport for
East-Jesusville, Texas, where he clears his own brush for heaven's
sake. He has absolutely no need to pile up chips for future political
gambits. He doesn't need money. And yet. And yet this man, whose
greatest single fault has been a gross excess of loyalty to
subordinates who have consistently failed him, is so committed to
perpetuating the endless flood of illegal immigration from Mexico that
he trashed his own most loyal supporters in ways he has never trashed
the most vicious of his political enemies on the left. Outraged
adherents are screaming
and he doesn't even acknowledge them.
What's up with that? It certainly isn't rational. It is, in fact, a
kind of monomania, a blind
of prodigious proportions. Odd?
Not as odd as all the conservative outrage about his stance on this
immigration bill. Because that represents another blind spot: Ours. As
with many other decisions and actions that have provoked furious
surprise in his opponents, Bush has been honest if not terribly
communicative about this aspect of his persona. Consider the
He was friendly with Vicente Fox long before he became President of the
United States. One of his first innovations as president was to deliver
the Saturday radio address in Spanish as well as English. His brother
served as governor of the other great hispanic stronghold in
America, Florida. That brother has an hispanic wife, which means that
our President's nieces and nephews are half-hispanic. And George
himself is an adopted son of Texas, which was born of Mexico and has
always regarded itself as a semi-independent state, with good reason;
the Texas Constitution is the only state constitution that explicitly
allows for the possibility of a return to independence.
And there, if you care, is the center of the blind spot. Regardless of
his geographical lineage, George W. Bush is a Texan first, even before
he is an American. The Spanish language and the Mexican people are part
of the lifeblood that nourished the place he calls home -- and they
have become part of the lifeblood of his family.
If we overlooked this, or forgot it, or misunderstood it, we have only
ourselves to blame. He was always forthright about his desire to
include hispanic culture in his own vision of the future of America.
But we are also entitled to see that this is his blind spot. We do not
have to accept his policies in
this matter for reasons of national loyalty, presidential loyalty,
party loyalty, or any other kind of loyalty. We are free to say, if we
so choose, that on this particular topic the President of the United
States is as nutty as a fruitcake. We are free to say that when it
comes to Mexicans, because of his blind spot, George Bush is more Texas
patriot than American patriot.
say that. I think every
other conservative, including those who are presently serving his
administration (Tony Snow?!) should also say that.
We all have blind spots. They're especially dangerous in presidents.
That's why they have to be called out. And that's why we have to be
particularly on guard against those who serve as accomplices in
concealing those blind spots from us, whatever their motives may be.
NOW: All you conservative brainiacs!
Quit bashing Bush, which won't do a damned thing to help, and start
investigating the reasons for the far more disgraceful behavior of
McCain, Graham, and company in the travesty we have just been
All your fulminations against Bush on this point are bullshit
distractions from the real story you aren't covering.
Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it.
Wednesday, June 06, 2007
France she make a fine target, no?
. It comes
in two flavors -- pro and con. There are good examples of both (h/t ColdFury.com
) on the
web today, and they're both worth talking about. First, there's Bill
Maher's provocative essay in Newsweek
. Maher thinks we could learn a lot from the French:
I don't want to be French, I just want
to take what's best from the French. Stealing, for your own
Republicans should love this idea. Taking what's best from the French:
You know who else did that? The Founding Fathers. Hate to sink your toy
boat, Fox News, but the Founding Fathers, the ones you say you revere,
were children of the French Enlightenment, and fans of it, and they
turned it into a musical called the Constitution of the United States.
And they did a helluva job, so good it has been said that it was
written by geniuses so it could be run by idiots.
But the current administration is putting that to the test. The
Founding Fathers were erudite, well-read, European-thinking
aristocrats—they would have had nothing in common with, and no use for,
an ill-read xenophobic bumpkin like George W. Bush. The American ideas
of individuality, religious tolerance and freedom of speech came
directly out of the French Enlightenment—but, shhh, don't tell Alabama.
He's got quite a lot more in this vein, much of it focused on the WHO
survey that ranks France Number One in the world in healthcare while
burying the United States in 37th place.
The other example is Jeff Goldstein's reponse
to Maher, which is just as biting:
Is this truly what passes for insight
I mean, how many cliched tropes does one have to stick into a paragraph
before it implodes and leaves behind the kind of black hole that not
even Maher would want to dip in to?
Is having a southern accent, or believing in God, proof that one is an
ill-read xenophobic bumpkin? George Bush is currently pushing for
amnesty for illegals—hardly the mark of a xenophobe. And if
anyone is adhering to the Enlightenment ideas concerning individuality,
religious freedom, and free speech, it sure as hell ain’t the
“progressives,” who push for quotas and speech codes, hate crimes
legislation and the move to forcibly remove any vestiges of religion
from the public sphere.
Perhaps Maher can talk to some French Muslims and ask them how well the
French are doing with the individuality and religious freedoms thing
Goldstein also does a good job of deconstructing the WHO survey on
which Maher's argument depends. His post is followed by a huge set-to
in the Comments section between the defenders of France and some fairly
harsh critics, much of it worth reading.
My own observation is that the amount of emotion expended in such
arguments about France has very little to do with France itself and a
great deal to do with what one thinks the other guy
believes about France.
Maher is using the topic of things French to poke a stick in the eye of
his own straw-man stereotype of American conservatives. Most hardcore
French bashers, on the other hand, aren't as hostile to France as they
are to self-styled liberal sophisticates like Maher who see themselves
as world-class intellectuals in the tradition of Sartre, Foucault, and
Rousseau. It's all cultural war by proxy. And France is, of course, an
incredibly picturesque and symbolic backdrop for a war between opposing
I believe Bill Maher when he says, "I don't want to be French." His
most subtle punchline is his correct assumption that his fiercest
critics won't ever believe it.
I also happen to think that both sides of the culture conflict are ill
served by choosing France as a theater of war over competing American
visions of our national future. There are simply too many disqualifying
'but's' in every instance that make the French experience irrelevant.
Hopelessly, completely, permanently irrelevant.
The France they're all talking about doesn't really exist, certainly
not as any kind of template for American life, good or bad. France is a
small country. We are a huge one. France is an old country with a young
constitutional government (all its predecessors having failed for
centuries). We are a young country with an old constitutional
government. France is ethnically homogeneous with a fairly homogeneous
religious minority of immigrants it can't or won't assimilate. We are
ethnically heterogeneous with a heterogeneous minority of immigrants,
most of whom do or will assimilate successfully. France is located at
the heart of the most violent continent in history, while we
overwhelmingly dominate the most peaceful continent in history (barring
the uninhabited Antarctic). France has a legacy of conquering its
neighbors, executing hundreds of thousands of its citizens, and
engaging in oppressive colonial actions in the Third World that
continue to this day. We have our own legacy of slavery and warfare
against the Indians, but if you're into comparing bloodstains, this is
an apples-to-oranges comparison without meaning or relevance. France is
an exhausted nation with a seriously declining birthrate, and its
crimes and misdemeanors on the world stage are those of an aged cynic
who has learned to seek every possible personal advantage with the
least possible personal risk -- and to hell with all your naive ideals.
We are an energetic, growing nation still willing to risk making big
mistakes for big rewards.
In this context, the liberal habit of cherry-picking the "good things"
about France to
fling in the face of conservatives is delusional and counterproductive.
They forget that almost no one of any political stripe wants America to
be France. The conservative habit of comparing American liberals to the
effete French is equally counterproductive. For the most part, the
Americans who really would like to be French have already moved there.
Johnny Depp. Gwyneth Paltrow. Who else?
The one thing France and America have in common is that both are
unique. Neither can really be compared to any other nation on earth. In
fact, the French-bashing that gets Bill Maher's blood up is a cultural
tradition so old that it predates the United States. It's a humorous
bequest from the Anglo-Saxon heritage that, like it or not, provided
far more input to our Constitution and way of life than the French
Enlightenment ever did. Brits have always made fun of the French.
Hence, Americans have always made fun of the French. Likewise, the
tradition of English-speaking sophisticates who affect superiority over
the commoners by embracing all things French is also older than the
It may well be the case that France will confront cultural and
administrative problems that superficially resemble our own. But the
devil is in the details. Any French approach to problem-solving will be
purely French; that is, it will unavoidably involve considerations of
French history, government, law, economics, religion, ethnicity, and popular
prejudice that will render them useless as an example for America.
Liberals, progressives -- whatever they're calling themselves today --
would do well to remember that. This goes as much for health care as it does for foreign policy.
On the other hand, conservative bashers of all things French would do
well to remember that this nation they so despise has produced some of
the greatest writers, philosophers, artists, architects, generals and
armies in recorded human history. If your French-bashing goes beyond
humor for the sake of entertainment or clever satire, you're doing
yourselves no honor in the process. For example, it's fine to make
dozens of jokes
about how cowardly the French are, but before you get too carried away,
read up on the battle of Verdun
in World War I. Less than a century
ago, the French army was filled with heroes so stupefyingly brave that
they allowed themselves to be wasted by the hundreds of thousands to no
real purpose. Read, study the battlefield photographs, and the
contemporary accounts of the action -- then, by all means, give us some
more cowardly French jokes. That's our birthright as Americans, and
will remain so as long as we don't take our jests -- and ourselves --
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme
NOTE TO CARL: The answer you wanted, the thing you missed, was
the cinematic reference to the painting at the beginning of this entry.