Instapun*** Archive Listing

Archive Listing
June 13, 2007 - June 6, 2007

Monday, June 11, 2007

Unforgivable TV Crime

Jeez, boys, you can't even handle that? Dumb-ass jocks need pitchers, right?

QUESTION. I gather Nikki Finke of Hollywood Deadline Daily speaks for many with her outraged reaction 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 Wind, 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 Scarlett O'Hara.

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 or Casino. 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 go.

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 me.

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, Another World, 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.

SPOILER: 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.

P.S. 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 President's Blind Spot

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 haven't ever 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 dollars-per-erg.

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 spot 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 facts.

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.

I do 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 subjected  to.

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

French Derangement Syndrome

The France she make a fine target, no?

FROG FUN. It comes in two flavors -- pro and con. There are good examples of both (h/t on the web today, and they're both worth talking about. First, there's Bill Maher's provocative essay in Newsweek International. 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 self-interest.

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 in Maherland?

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 these days. 

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 cultural perspectives.

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 effete liberal 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 United States.

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 -- too seriously.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

NOTE TO CARL:  The answer you wanted, the thing you missed, was the cinematic reference to the painting at the beginning of this entry.

Immigration Politics:

Where's the Dark Matter?

Dark Matter. The stuff we can't see that has to be there anyway.

REPUBLICANS REDUX. Maybe I'm just dense or uninformed, but this whole immigration debate on the Republican side of the aisle doesn't make any sense to me. At all. If there's any one attribute that characterizes Republican members of Congress, it's gutlessness. Their ability to hide from controversy by saying as little as possible and doing even less is legendary. That's why the Republican side of Congress has been meek and almost silent during the prolonged stretches of time when George Bush needed their support on the war, Social Security reform, over-the-top partisan charges of lying and corruption, and other controversies. While the Democrat opposition went after their president and party leader like rabid dogs, they were willing to overlook the most scurrilous libels for fear of inciting the Dems further. During the past six years they haven't even been able to stand up articulately for their own party principles regarding responsible federal spending and limited government. A single headline could be applied to most of the congressional activity during the past year: "Schumer and Pelosi Attack; Republicans Cower."

Yet now, suddenly, numerous Republicans in both the Senate and the House look almost fearless in their defense of a legislative compromise with Teddy Kennedy of all people for the purpose of ramming a carelessly written time bomb of an immigration bill through the United States Congress. They seem cheerfully unconcerned about serious danger signals -- contributions to the RNC are plunging, and the right-wing blogosphere is steaming with angry repudiations of a president and a party no one has done more to defend for six long years. They don't even seem to care about the unanimous damnation they have received from the Republican Furies: Noonan, Ingraham, Malkin, and Coulter.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. They're ALL mad as hell.

The one safe response to this kind of ire is to forget all the polls and hide: do everything possible to prevent the bill from coming to a vote AND JUST LET IT DIE.

Yet Lindsey Graham blithely tosses around terms like 'bigotry,' John McCain gets in the face of rank-and-file Republicans in New Hampshire with a challenge to propose a better idea or shut up, and the 'bi-partisan coalition' behind the bill issues bland statements to the press making absurd claims like this one:

"You just have to recognize you will get 300 calls, you'll get conflicts at town hall meetings -- all of them negative," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who consulted with Kyl and hopes to carry a similar deal through the House in July. "The last few days have really turned things around."

All this in the context of the fact that the polls do NOT show a universal mandate for passage of some kind of a comprehensive immigration bill, no matter how half-assed and fraudulent its enforcement provisions are. The poll data are ambiguous at best, depending on whether the pollsters rig the questions in favor of enforcement or a path to citizenship.

I grant that this makes the Republican horde in Congress look as if they were taking a courageous stand on the basis of principle. But that's obviously ridiculous. The only Republican in the U.S. Senate who could be accused of courage as a character trait is John McCain, and unfortunately, it's equally likely that he's just a passive-aggressive maniac who's never quite escaped imprisonment in Vietnam.

So where exactly is the huge, irresistible force behind passage of this legislative abomination? It's not George W. Bush. He's already a lame duck congressional Republicans have been trying to disassociate themselves from for over a year. (At least GWB's been aboveboard about his position; he's a Tex-Mex true believer on this issue, and he honestly doesn't care if his great grandchildren grow up learning Spanish as a first language. We knew that about him in 2000.) It's most definitely and absolutely not the Republican base on which all congressional Republicans depend for renomination, not to mention reelection. And it's demonstrably not the prospect of building a future Republican majority out of grateful hispanic votes. The only Republican hispanics are the anti-Castro Cubans in Florida. The rest will head straight for the biggest gravy train big government spenders promise them.

That's the pertinence of the dark matter analogy. Physicists dreamed up the idea of dark matter because there wasn't enough observable matter in the universe to account for the way the universe appears to be working. Dark matter became necessary to make the calculations work out right. The dark matter in the immigration issue is the unseen, unwritten-about power that must be driving this suicidal rush toward a bill that will not reduce illegal immigration or solve any of its kaleidoscope of problems.

What lobby or combination of lobbies is so omnipotent as to transform lifelong political cowards into reckless gamblers who sneer right in the faces of the voters who put them in office? Where's the benefit that outweighs the enormity of the risk? What's worth the potential cost of giving the opposition a generation-long veto-proof majority in Congress?

I don't know the answer to the dark matter question. I don't have a clue. But I'm amazed that no one else seems to be asking it. And I'm pretty sure it's the most important question there is about the whole controversy. The facts that are unfolding in each day's headlines, blogs, and punditry make no sense.

Who will step forward to explain? I'm waiting.

Am I the only one who's curious?


'V' is for Victory.
THE WAY OF THE YANKS. I admit there's a temptation to do cheap jokes like this one. But the point I prefer to make on this day goes beyond death, mutilation, and graveyard monuments. What differentiated the generation that fought and won World War II at appalling cost was not the number of their dead but their commitment to a vision of victory. The men who died on D-Day were fighting for the hope that the people they cared most about -- their comrades in arms, their families back home, the nameless millions who suffered vicariously with them via the radio, newsreels, and letters from the front -- would win through to a new confidence in freedom and an exalted sense of joy and faith in their heritage.

The victory made possible by D-Day. What we should remember.

Sadly, the thing that makes us lesser than the World War II generation is not the bravery or resolve of the young soldiers who fight for us. That seems to be a constant. The difference lies in our incapacity to imagine and work for a victory that improves the lives of the living more than it pains the families of the dead.

That incapacity is the definition of our growing failure as a nation. If you secretly cheer for bad news from the places our troops are fighting, you do not support the troops, you are not a patriot, and you do not deserve the citizenship you inherited for free at birth. If there are enough of us like you, we are a doomed people who deserve the firestorm our enemies plan for us all.

I hope there are fewer of you than there seem to be.

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