Instapun*** Archive Listing

Archive Listing
April 13, 2010 - April 6, 2010

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Escaping Obama

What its YouTube author is calling the 'Post Barackalyptic Wasteland.'

JUST A BAD DREAM. Everybody copes in his own way. IP decided to think about other stuff and so generated his list of 25 movies about America. I chose another route, opting to find what media I could that was not all about the Second Coming of Abraham Lincoln. No cable news. No newspapers. No newsweekly magazines. No women's magazines (They're just The View on slick paperstock if you want to know.). In fact, I thought, here was a golden opportunity to catch up on the specialized periodicals that couldn't possibly have anything to do with a change in the political leadership in the United States. Was I right? Judge for yourselves.

For example, everyone who reads this blog knows that I'm a motorhead. Years ago, I was a huge fan of Car and Driver Magazine, which once scandalized the automotive world by  conducting a performance test of the Ferrari GTO and the Pontiac GTO -- and preferring the Pontiac. I lost contact with C&D for a few years during a sojourn in the midwest. When I left the east coast, they were vociferous opponents of airbags. When I returned, they were among the most fervent advocates of same. Apparently, the possibility that airbags could flat-out kill small women and children by functioning normally had ceased to bother them. But let bygones be begones, I thought. Maybe they'd be a palliative in the new age of messianic politics.

Not so much, really. Even the Obama article was disappointing. Apparently, the president doesn't know how to drive a stick, and he has an anxiety attack whenever the highway speed tops 55 mph. Oh, and he positively loathes "Detroit Iron." Who knew? But the editors found him charming, brilliant, and well-versed on the topic of hydrocarbons. They're bad.

So I turned instead to Scientific-American. Surely they wouldn't give a fig about the tsunami of rhetoric that was sweeping the ignoramus commoners of the nation.

When I read the cover article, I could hardly blame them. It turns out that Barack Obama does practically everything at an expert level (except, possibly, drive with a manual transmission). He can play five games of chess simultaneously and stalemate them all, while hitting the highest number of triple-word scores in Scrabble ever registered, and extemporize on the bleak philosophical implications of quantum physics as he's writing a record third doleful autobiography and cleverly losing a game of dominoes to his two children and their fashion advisers. No wonder the magazine had to dedicate three-quarters of the current issue to his cerebral feats of derring-do.

That's when I remembered National Geographic. The magazine that taught all American boys whose fathers didn't subscribe to Playboy about breasts.

I'm not saying the cover article was uninteresting. But there were no breasts in it. And what does it mean exactly that a forensic reconstruction of Tutankhamen's face from his shattered mummy looks exactly Barack Obama? There's no particular indication that the boy king was an exceptionally able pharaoh. For all we know, the accomplishments of his administration were largely the work of the exceptionally able Speaker of the Egyptian House, Pel Osi, whose remains are on display at Harvard University's Fogg Museum.

NOTE: Silicone implants don't age well.

Besides, National Geographic isn't what you'd call serious. You'd be hard pressed to find any teenage boys who subscribe to the Journal of the Amercan Medical Association, which always puts high art on its covers with absolutely no indication of what the content inside might be.

I suppose I should have taken a cue from the fact that JAMA's post inaugural issue started all over at Issue 1, Volume I, signifying the beginning of the new era in free healthcare we could all look forward to from now on. But I didn't. I tried to read the cover article. Which was all about how Hippocrates and Galen and Salk and DeBakey were just redneck asshole plumbers compared to the astonishing medical genius of the new president of the Unites States. I stopped reading when they claimed he could drive a manual transmission.

If you can't trust anyone else, you can trust Popular Mechanics. Hardheaded realists all. Right?


So I figured there was one periodial so high toned, so snooty, so divorced from everyday reality that the very worst I might encounter would be Donald Trump's latest makeover of his largest Manhattan penthouse. Architectural Digest does not care about the stray zephyrs of political fashion.

Which is when I gave up on periodicals. I turned on the TV again, but this time with an eye to the imperturbably irrelevant channels, the ones that couldn't be topical if they tried. Like Nickelodeon. They do reruns of Star Trek, the real one, for God's sake.

Something to do with warp drive. I know it is.

There had to be some safety somewhere. After all, what could anybody do to the Honeymooners?

He's the president of the Raccoons or something. Something bad.

And so, before I even looked, I knew that the gush had reached I Love Lucy too. Which I never even liked in the first place.

She just LOVES him. Doesn't she?

By then I knew. The TOON channel:

Spongebob has ALWAYS believed in hope and change.


Bob Vila can feel the love, too. Obama
is very handy with power tools. They say.

And even the Food Channel.

He can whip up an omelet or devise a masterly fruit compote.
Paula Deen thinks he's the best thing since chicken dumplings.

Drudge says the Obama inauguration got 35 times the worldwide coverage of the Bush inaugural. I'm pretty sure he's misunderstimated the total by a bunch.

But I don't mind. There's only one icon that will send a chill to my bones. And we may be months and months away from that.

How does the line go? "Build it and they will come."

Like gangbusters.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Obamascension

Too grandiose? Just want to make sure you get your money's worth.

THE LINCOLN LOG. Just a quick update on inauguration details, in case you're one of the estimated 50 million people who will be squeezing into Washington, DC, for the festivities. You'll need to park your car in Poughkeepsie, Scranton, or Raleigh and walk the rest of the way to the ceremony, so wear comfortable shoes like these.

The Air Jordan XXO, official shoe of the 2009 inauguration.
Just $378 a pair (unless you buy from a scalper at the event).

But the good news is, thanks to a last-minute congressional bailout that has (approximately) doubled the inauguration budget from $150 million to $4.5 trillion, the bells and whistles are going to be even splashier than promised. The oath of office will be administered by the Lord and Creator of the Universe himself since Abraham Lincoln was, for some reason, still unavailable.

But they'll still be using the Lincoln Bible.

For this reason, the Secret Service will be standing down today, and security will be handled by some of God's peeps instead.

The bodyguard during the Obamaddress will be
the archangels Gabriel, Michael, and Taekwon.

In another last minute change, Beyonce will NOT be singing the Etta James classic "At Last." Etta will. (Thank God for that. He sort of insisted.)

Out                                                          In

But Beyonce will still be on hand, wearing a sexy dress with her Air Jordan XXOs. Something she's actually good at.

The only bummer -- and we hate to mention it, but you need to know -- is that due to federal regulations and space limitations, the authentic Lincoln-Pottie everybody will be using is located behind the FBI building, next to the Nixon Memorial Tape Dumpster. Be prepared to wait in line for a few weeks if you need to go.

Maybe you could all sing Kumbaya or something while you wait.

Have a nice time. I'm sure it will be worth the few inconveniences you'll have to put up with.

Part V:

Understanding America
in 25 Movies...

Why we're the Greatest Nation. Ever.

NEXT LOT. I know I promised Baby Boomers, but that's not completely accurate, any more than the things which Baby Boomers are anxious to take credit for are really their accomplishments. For example, neither the Beatles nor the Stones were Baby Boomers, even though they became the soundtrack of that entire generation of self-obsessed jerks. The miserably sad truth is that Baby Boomers have produced almost nothing memorable, significant, or new in their whole time on earth. With that disclaimer delivered, here's the final set of my list of 25.

21. Walk the Line

Consider this one a kind of book end to Bird (No. 19). It's popular among American intellectuals to celebrate black contributions to music, which originated with uneducated folk among the rural poor, and to laugh out loud at country music, which originated with uneducated folk among the rural poor. No wonder they're so convinced we're a racist nation. This movie fills a couple of holes in our movie picture of America. It shines a light on the other distinctively American contribution to our nation's hold on the world's music (quit chortling: the Stones owe as much to country as they do to Motown), and it also acknowledges, as Hollywood almost never does, the powerful cultural impact of our agrarian population -- you know, the people who drive pickup trucks, wear cowboy boots, and grow the food we and a big chunk of the rest of the world eat. Like Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash (not a boomer) became a transcendant figure, beyond genre and beyond the reach of critcs. But unlike the other two, his persona was not a manufactured or gimmicky invention. He was exactly what he looked like on stage -- a barely contained force of nature who intertwined rage, love, lust, violence, and tenderness so tightly into his voice that the contradictions produced the permanent bass quaver which made every song sound like the five minutes of roller-coaster tension before a prison riot. This movie is the story of his life, the good and the awful both, and it's one a huge percentage of Americans can relate to. The first terrible thing happens on the farm, and it never stops resonating through all the subsequent ups and downs of Cash's life. Which is exactly how life can be. Even in the pampered place The New York Times sums up as white America. With stunning performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Reese Witherspoon, and the busiest actor in show business, Robert Patrick. This is about country. Our country. (clip) (and a bonus) [DO watch the last clip. It's IP's theme song, too.]

22. The Deer Hunter

For this choice I have to give a nod to Ed Morrissey at Hotair. He named it as one of the worst movies of the past 25 years, which finally decided the debate I'd been having with myself between The Deer Hunter and We Were Soldiers as the necessary Vietnam movie to include here. [Singling out The Deer Hunter as a 'worst' on any list that also includes Forrest Gump, Apocalypse NowComing Home, Born on the Fourth of July, and Platoon, {a.k.a. the Oliver Stone Poor Poor Pitiful Me Story} is about as outrageous as it gets... but enough about Morrissey.] I happen to know the part of Pennsylvania where the characters in The Deer Hunter lived, and I can assure you the rendition of their lives -- in the wild, on the road, and in the bars -- is pitch perfect. The performances by John Savage, Meryl Streep, and most of all the amazing Christopher Walken are astonishing. The movie shows what other Vietnam movies don't, the wrenching dislocation of lives effected by a war in which the role of soldier was changed from winning battles and territory to mere killing . It has more impact because it is long and slow, because it shows us the lives of the men before their service, and the amplifying effects of memory after the fact, when memory cannot coexist with the life that would have been lived without a soul-destroying derailment onto a hell nothing in their previous lives could have prepared them for. It's not a Hollywood movie in any traditional sense. It's a journey to the heart of darkness Coppola could never have filmed because he had read the book, and the characters in this movie never did. They just lived it. (clip) (and another) Between these two clips, there's a brief, exploding lifetime of unbearable pain. Was the movie long? Not as long as the distance between a western Pennsylvania bar and a bloodsport gambling den in Southeast Asia. We're still living that distance down today.

23. Apollo 13

One of my all-time favorite movies about men. No, not the Clint Eastwood/John Wayne sort of men. The real kind. Smart, creative, focused, perseverant to the last second of the last gasp of the last chance. And they wear plastic pocket protectors the whole time. This is the movie where you can see the real pioneering spirit that probably won the west during the age of Manifest Destiny. The careful planners who packed exactly the right combination of food and water and ammunition and spare parts for the conestoga wagon, plus a few handy tools to fix things if the worst happened. "Houston, we have a problem." And such a problem. Unprecedented and wholly unanticipated. Bringing our men home from a certainly fatal disaster in space that they then passed off as a routine "doing what we're paid to do" example of ordinary competence. (See Slasha and CP's response in the Comments section of this post.) It's a perfect mix of both kinds of American hero -- the ostentatiously risk-taking hero-type heroes that have always been part of out national story, who live up to their own highest expectations even as the awkward, shy, too-smart-to-fit-in antihero-type heroes put their minds and their faith on the line to do the impossible. THIS is what Americans can do, and it's all BIG. The budget, the technology, the objective, the calamity, the eventual triumph against prohibitive odds. And the wives. God, women are wonderful. If Obama has seen any movie on this list, I hope the most that he has seen this one. (clip)

24. All the President's Men

You'll note that the press has played a part throughout this list, usually in their historical role as buzzard opportunists feeding on the travails of real people doing real things while the parasites prosper. I have looked, but it's almost impossible to find a movie that treats the press without scorn, satire, or wry cynicism (including especially this, 7:40 in) until All the President's Men. Which is the story of the Washington Post doing everything it can to bring down a president of the United States (who, quite coincidentally, they had hated since his first appearance in public life.) More than any other movie on the list, this one served as a recruiting tool that brought armies of young people into a trade for reasons precisely opposite the stated principles of the (so-called) profession. They watched this piece of fiction and signed up as journalists to "make a difference," "save the world," and "speak truth to power." None of which has anything whatever to do with reporting the facts, without fear or favor or emotion or bias or slanted diction, to the people who buy newspapers. If 'On the Waterfront' is the best American movie, this is the most important American movie, and its message to its audience was, and is, absolutely corrupting. Why are The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune, and The LA Times dying with withered claws outstretched for a federal bailout from what used to be their sacred target? This movie. That's why. Anyone who saw this movie and joined the press afterwards is the journalistic equivalent of a crack whore. Fact. These are the people who are the source of Bush Derangement Syndrome. But you can't understand America without seeing this monstrosity of a movie. And, God, how they LOVE this image of themselves. If they only knew what a sickness they've infected us with... (clip)

25. The Guys

So far, the best 9/11 movie. A small production, a small budget, a small focus. A freelance writer (Sigourney Weaver) helping a New York Fire Department captain (Anthony LaPaglia) write last words about his men who died in the terror attack on the Twin Towers. It's our new reality. Still. No politics. No hysterics and no bathos. No speculation (why United 93 isn't on the list). No special effects. Just people. Americans. Which is who we are. And hopefully will remain, no matter how high-flown the oratory from the bully pulpit of The One. See it. (clip)

There you have it. And now I have to admit I've failed. There are still holes. This is too big a country to be understood in just 25 movies, no matter how carefully chosen. I have another ten Honorable Mentions that are actually cheating. Because they're as important as the first 25. What an amazng country we live in. Stay tuned for the Tacked-On Ten, as well as some observations about interesting patterns I've observed in my selections.

Still. Go ahead and sharpshoot. The ones that didn't make the 25 didn't make the 25 and I'm accountable for what I've chosen. It's just that there's more, and we're more than what I've picked out.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Part IV:

Understanding America
in 25 Movies...

Black and white and a million shades of gray. In one movie.

NEXT LOT. Well, we've reached the fifties, that decade in America where nothing interesting whatever happened because the Baby Boomers were in cribs and all the people who know everything now share the same smeared memory of conformist idiots doing exactly what they were told, unless they were energized by Elvis and other Top Forty acts to kick authority in the balls. You know, reacting against the moron clowns who raised them and getting ready for the inspired and enlightened sixties. It's possible something interesting might have happened if it weren't for the same old Republican problem -- an old white man as president, who didn't know anything about anything, which doomed the fifties to a kind of cartoonish timeout in which people didn't live their lives (didn't even know they had genitals) and America almost imploded from boredom.

16. The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio

Exhibit A. Unless it's really Exhibit Z. I love this movie. Just as many men who deplore the anger and hostility of feminism love women individually for all the marvelous capabilities that redeem the worst of their chosen mates. In fact, this is the movie I would prescribe for all those men who act baffled at how long their wives and girlfriends spend shopping for the right card for every occasion, including their own sorry-ass birthdays and anniversaries. READ THE CARDS. This is a movie about the lives so many women lead, even today, and what's distinctively American about it is the entrepreneurial possibility our great nation offers to those who are determined to keep fighting as individuals for what matters most in their lives. What is schlock in critical terms can be high art in life terms, and this is the story of a life of artistic genius in a purely fifties American context. If you can watch this movie and NOT fall in love all over again with the whole idea of the women in our lives, you are probably a serial killer. Watch it and you will never again feel a moment's impatience with her meticulous wrapping of gifts that will be torn open in a moment by children or shunted aside by embittered oldsters. You will just love her -- and all the seemingly silly rituals and courtesies she so faithfully executes while caring for everyone more than she does for herself. If she wears your team's football jersey and assembles the tailgate feast while raising your kids on the side, she's not your subordinate. She's the blessing that redeems all the disgusting low points of your life. Back in the fifties, she held the whole country together. Thanks to her, there were two-parent families and homes to go back to. She had the Christian gift of forgiveness. Now that we've worked so hard to turn her into us, and she's just another struggling, narcissistic single-mother household, what are we? Better? Freer? Maybe you and she should talk about it. (clip)

17. The Godfather

Yeah, we've dissed this one, too. But it's still part of who we are as a nation. Not the mob, but the mafia, whose sick code of silence has infected every organization that cultivates a sense of its own specialness. Including the government. All organizations are prey to the accumulated conviction that they are too important to obey anyone else's rules. Show me any large, old organization, and I will show you a mafia. In fact, that why I have always hated this movie so much. The sense of belonging to a privileged, elite group which can thumb its nose at more universal affiliations is what I have always despised about investment bankers and corporate executives quoting lines from The Godfather as life lessons or Rules of Engagement. To an obsolete WASP like me, it teaches all the wrong lessons -- weakness where you should be strong and reactive wrong where you should seek out the hard right thing to do. But here's the irony. All of you who turn your noses up at the fifties, who think that realistic, pragmatic life began in the post-superstitious age of the enlightened, "progressive" sixties -- why do you still hearken back to the "offer that can't be refused"? Because for all your supposed education and rationality, you are trapped in the anti-romanticism of Michael Corleone, the raw display of Machiavellian power that enables you to perpetrate the hoax of global warming, the myth of salvation by a new elitely chosen Godfather, and the lie that a chosen iconic boss can somehow make everything right, no matter how ruthless and hypocritical his methods. Why American intellectuals who have always been free still idolize Castro. They worship the fucking drama of a life-and-death overlord, given how dull life is if you're just an Irish consigliere played by Robert Duvall. Why do the freest people on earth still want (anti)royalty to rule them? Maybe Obama will explain. Whatever the answer is, there is a uniquely American answer. Which, in this case, is headquartered in the boring fifties. I hate it. But it's still part of who we are and have become. (clip)

18. Malcolm X

Never cared for Spike Lee either. But this is a great  movie. Quite free of some of his other, more self-indulgent peaeans to the moral imperviousness of blackness. The subject made him honest. Malcolm X began as a thug. One can understand the extremity of his escape route. In fact, one -- meaning I -- can understand why he became so radicalized. Does this mean that he was right for all black men for all time? No. But it's the American Way that you get to choose. Malcolm X chose. Decidedly. Intellectually. Morally. And he chose wrong. Not Spike Lee's point, I suppose. I think he was after an alternative Christ for African-Americans who sort-of-thought MLK had failed kind of thing. The last-refuge-ofanger kind of thing.

But here's the irony. I admire this movie as a testament of real honesty. I thought Spike Lee created a masterpiece. I thought he was telling black people that the way out of the abyss was education. Which it is. Malcolm X learned how to read and write and speak. Eloquently. That was the lesson. Not the particular politics he advocated. Which are completely at odds with everything I have experienced in the African-American community. His attraction to Islam was an attraction to discipline. Control everything. He realized what made black people a stereotype in the white world and he stood all that on its ear. Except that he was wrong. About everything. He had a bigger dream than MLK. He dared to believe that black people could transcend their heritage and history and be better than the white folk at having families, being faithful to their wives, and being fathers to their children. He was wrong. They killed him for it. In a hail of bullets.

Black people in America remain for the most part slaves, governed by an outlaw, slave mentality. Malcolm X is proof that this is an unnecessary mentality. But the extremity of his philosophy and his sacrifice are a huge part of the burden we all bear. We prefer the much much dumber vision of MLK. Who fantasized that his own people might one day give up the resentments of their past and rely on their own gifts instead. Malcolm X knew better. That blacks had to exceed whites in morality, accomplishment and discipline to win their separate peace, because self-respect was more important than the flattery of debtors.

Idiotic. A fifties delusion. Right? (clip)

19. Bird

Remember how nobody in this country ever even noticed black people before the sixties and the dawn of the Civil Rights era? I mean, like Malcolm X was wrong, and oh go to hell. Except for Jazz. Americans have loved black musicians for several centuries, but they've also cited them as the bad moral examples they've always been. Because Americans prefer delivering sermons over the doomed dead to being energized and enlightened by the brilliant live performances of their social inferiors. (Like none of your friends ever dance, do they? Racist sticks...) Another instance. (clip -- dubbed in Italian, but it doesn't matter)

20. On the Waterfront

Probably the greatest American move ever. The greatest acting performance. The greatest screenplay. The greatest director. The greatest irony between the story told and the story implied. The greatest cultural vindication demonstrated by the greatest industry insult. The movie is great art by itself, and it's also history, and its after-effects are the QED of its point. No artist can ever hope for more than Elia Kazan achieved with On the Waterfront. And no artist can ever recover from the insults deliverately heaped on Eia Kazan for having made this movie. I could explain all this. But I also have the sense that our readers who lionize Reservoir Dogs and Saw IV need to step up and ask what the big deal is. It's a VERY BIG DEAL. Here is the movie that analogizes history, encapsulates history, is history, critiques history, and stands as a personal tragedy that is also one of the sorriest instances of American history you can expect to find in a supposedly free country. Elia Kazan did the right thing. Just like Terry Malloy. He got beaten mostly to death for it the same fashion. That's also part of the American Way.

So, without apologies, here's the final scene of the greatest American movie ever made:

Next up, the Baby Boomers.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Part III:

Understanding America
in 25 Movies...

An American original sounding off... and still echoing.

NEXT LOT. I appreciate the comments and I find some of your nominations interesting, but I won't be responding to any of them until I have finished filling in my complete set. It's the whole that's really the point here, and I reiterate my suggestion that those who are intrigued try to come up their own wholes. It forces you out of your usual boundaries and preferences, which can only expand your perspective. It's also a fun challenge. So let's get back to it.

11. Sea Biscuit

There's more than one decent movie about the Great Depression obviously. It's one of our favorite subjects as a nation and one Hollywood is better equipped to exploit than many others. Of the recent set, I'm fond of Cinderella Man, which immerses the audience more deeply into the common experience of the depression than Sea Biscuit does, but the story of the little horse who captured a nation's heart is much more than another clicheed sports movie. And the characters make it more than just a depression movie, too. With Jeff Bridges as the self-made man who dares to tweak the noses of Old Money, Tobey Maguire as the damaged jockey orphaned by the depression, Chris Cooper as the pragmatic horse-whispering westerner, and William H. Macey as the racetrack tout stand-in for the sporting press, Sea Biscuit manages to interweave the lives of a fair swath of 1930s America. Various minor characters also contribute to this breadth, including Michael O'Neill as the jockey's learned but depression-devastated father and Eddy Jones as the haughty owner of Triple Crown winner War Admiral. The David McCullough narration is over the top at times, and there are too many commercials for FDR for my taste, but the economic context in which Sea Biscuit became a national phenomenon is as important as the story's prime players. Most appealing of all about the movie is its refusal to engage in pity for the real tragedies experienced by its two main characters. They're knocked down hard, but they keep getting back up again, which is about as fundamental a part of the traditional American character as there is. And they help one another, also without pity, but with quiet understanding and humor. That's how we got through the depression as a people, and it's why Sea Biscuit works so well on so many levels. (clip) (and a bonus)

[Before the nitpickers point them out, I'll note the movie got a couple things wrong. It's not true that Sea Biscuit drew more mentions in the press in 1938 than FDR did; nobody and nothing could do that. And War Admiral was not nearly as big (18 hands!?) as he was described in the script. Both horses, in fact, were smaller than average for racehorses. They were also blood relations, both descended from thoroughbred royalty, but who says bluebloods can't also be heroes sometimes?]

12. The Aviator

A great production by Martin Scorsese and a truly outstanding performance by Leonardo di Caprio as the legendary Howard Hughes  The scope of the man's interests and accomplishments was prodigious, and so is the scope of this movie, covering his public and private life from the late 1920s to the late 1940s. As you watch his innovations as a movie producer (Hell's Angels, 1930), his relentless career as a daredevil pilot, and his near-psychotic perfectionism as an aircraft designer and manufacturer and commercial airline executive -- with time out for romancing the great beauties of his day, and the occasional nervous breakdown -- the refrain that keeps popping into your head is "only in America." That a man so driven by crippling personal demons could also be an astute and visionary businessman is an unusual and much needed affirmation of the importance of individuality in our nation's extraordinary history. We tend to think of tycoons and CEOs as gray, dry calculating machines. Many are that way, of course, but there are no epic film biographies of the bold men who built our biggest industries from scratch: not of Andrew Carnegie, E. I. du Pont, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, or William Durant. Like Hughes, they were all giants, flawed but ferociously determined creators of wealth which has fed and enabled more people than it has abused or oppressed. And Hughes, in this movie, is the only one we're given a chance to observe and assess for ourselves. (clip)

[TIME OUT:  There was a war Hollywood has covered voluminously, of course. Get out the long knives; everyone is going to have his favorites here. I'm allowing myself three because World War II has been so central to the lives and subsequent history of Americans as a nation and a people. I'll explain my criteria briefly so at least you'll know why some of your picks aren't mine. I left out the Grand Hotel treatments that try to depict an entire epochal battle because in character terms they tend to be superficial -- to my mind -- and distractingly studded with famous actors playing real people who must always be presented in purely heroic terms. Thus, I've cut Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Longest Day, Midway, A Bridge Too Far, and The Great Escape. Sorry. I've also passed up the great biopics, like John Ford's The Wings of Eagles and the much admired Patton, because the greater story of World War II is that it was fought by an overwhelmingly civilian military. How they did that is the point of understanding a movie should seek to provide.

And before I get to my picks, I also want to acknowledge that, once again, television has made some significant contributions. Most people are probably familiar with Band of Brothers; if you haven't seen it, do so. It's magnificent. Fewer will be aware of a modest movie starring Tom Selleck as Eisenhower (I know, I know, but it's good) during the planning phase of the Normandy invasion. It's called Ike: Countdown to D-Day. Even fewer of you will remember the 26-hour long documentary TV series Victory at Sea, which featured scoring by Richard Rodgers and narration by the inimitable Leonard Graves. It's mesmerizing and poignant and heroic all at once. I promise you won't regret buying it.

All right. Let's get on with the show.]

13. Twelve O'Clock High

I've written about this one before. It's not just a great war movie. It's a great movie period. Its subject is the Eighth Army Air Force stationed in England in the early days of America's entry into the war.  They pioneered daylight bombing raids over Germany and suffered casualties so horrendous they rivaled those of the entire Pacific theater. How can they climb into those planes every day knowing that as many as a third of them won't be coming back? Who can order them to do it, day after day and month after month? That's the movie in a nutshell. With a fine performance by Gregory Peck. (clip)

14. Sands of Iwo Jima

Same question. How did they do it? All the U.S. Marines who landed at Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Saipan, and Okinawa. This is the best movie about the WWII marines because it's the closest in time and it doesn't sugarcoat the mean hardness of preparing men for hand-to-hand combat against an implacable enemy. One of John Wayne's few great performances. That's all I'll tell you. If you haven't seen it, git 'er done. (clip)

15. Saving Private Ryan

As you can see, my preference is for the older movies about WWII because despite the limitations on violence and language, they reflect a more intimate understanding of the people of the time. Newer movies have a distressing habit of inserting more modern sensibilities into the past, with frequently troubling discords. (The best example I can think of is the character played by Donald Sutherland in Kelly's Heroes. Funny at one level and just ludicrous at another.) But I'm giving my third spot to Saving Private Ryan because its opening sequence makes you feel as if you really are there on the beach at D-Day. It is incredibly loud, jarring, shocking, brutal, and intense. World War II did not take place on a Hollywood back lot, and the killing and dying did not happen in sanitized soft focus along artfully chosen lines of sight. This movie is the antidote for all that.

I'm posting this clip here because YouTube wants you to prove how old you are,
which could be administratively unacceptable to some of you. So, if you're not 18
don't watch it. And if you recoil from explicit violence, well, you've been warned.

I'll be back with more later.

On Miracles

A miracle? Maybe.

SMIRKS AHOY. It always makes me nervous when people start tossing around the term "miracle." Not because I don't believe they ever happen, but because I can feel the insipid grin of the disbelievers, waiting for any opportunity to restate for the umpty-umpth time the threadbare objection, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Every purported miracle is, to them, a reminder of all the miracles that somehow didn't occur somewhere else at some other time.

I hate that grin and all the arrogant banality which congratulates itself on knowing the physics of a universe honest physicists know they don't, and maybe can't, fully comprehend. So I'm going to risk the scorn and ridicule of the sophists by proposing an analogy that may help others consider a new way of thinking about the "bad things happen to good people" objection.

In the grand scheme of things, miracles are pretty rare. That is, the kinds of events which even people who believe in them might call miracles are rare. When you think about it, rarity is built into the definition. If every bad thing that threatened to occur were somehow prevented or reversed after the fact (like sudden total remissions from terminal cancer), the outcomes wouldn't be considered miracles. They'd just be the way things work. Miracles are an exception. OR they are subject to particular conditions which are hard to bring about, especially since we don't have much of an idea about what those conditions might be. For example, winning the Powerball lottery is an incredible long shot that nevertheless does occur; however, it does have an unavoidable pre-condition. You must first purchase a Powerball ticket.

On to my analogy. From time immemorial divinity has been closely associated with lightning. Zeus, Jove, Jupiter, and even the Bible's Yahweh have been associated with lightning bolts, and there's no mystery about why. It's an ipso facto perfect symbol of a power from above visibly impacting the earth (and its inhabitants) below. Lightning strikes are pretty common events. Fatal lightning strikes on individual people are less so. That power from above is more or less always there. Its direct connection with human beings is limited by certain pre-conditions. People who know better than to wander around out in the open during a thunderstorm are not likely to be struck. And, generally speaking, lightning is more likely to strike big tall things like trees and church steeples rather than little things like people. But why does lightning strike tall things? Repeatedly. Which it does. Does it know that the tall things are there? And if it doesn't, why wouldn't it just strike randomly all over the place until it happened to connect with something it can light up? Why does it strike the tree more often than the outstandingly conductive bronze lawn ornament 24 inches off the ground?

Why? Because a lightning strike is a two-way process. The lightning bolt reaches down from the sky, and prospective targets on the ground reach up. They send out what are called streamers, which meet up with the lightning bolt and establish a connection. Here are two photos of streamers.

Connection made.

Connection sought.

The streamer is, in our analogy, a pre-condition. It's the act of buying the Powerball ticket. And it helps to be a tall tree or a church steeple or a steel water tower at the center of town when a thunderstorm is in the air.

All of which is a fancy way of saying that miracles may, in fact, be precipitated by their recipients. Not through goodness or virtue alone but because they are also associated with preparedness, mass of some sort, and the kind of sharp focus we see in the streamer photographs.

That's what's so cool about the so-called Miracle of the Hudson. We can actually see a confluence of circumstances that apparently, luckily, resulted in -- but just possibly catalyzed -- an incredibly unlikely outcome. A variety of fortunate circumstances cannot explain away the improbability of the outcome, however much we want to play games with odds and statistics. The fact is, commercial airliners without engines "fly" with as much lift as a falling boulder, and they, well, effectively never land with wings straight and level on the water.

But in this case there were streamers. A pilot who was not only skilled but learned in the split-second differentials of commercial air disasters, who had made a long academic and practical study of air safety under emergency conditions, and who (to be frivolous for a moment) bears a striking resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

The Captain of Flight 1549 and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (Commander
Fairbanks's uniform is real btw. He won the Silver Star in WWII.)

He was sending up a streamer. As were the ferry crews and FDNY personnel who responded so swiftly, as well as the passengers who quelled their impulse to panic and responded to the ancient call, "women and children first." Preparation, determination, and cool heads with a fervent desire to do the right thing are all streamers, and there was mass behind the entire effort. The lightning bolt that could have remained in the clouds reached down to make a connection, and the incredibly (impossibly?) unlikely outcome occurred.

Just an analogy. Not even a theory. But if we follow the analogy, we can also glimpse the possibility that just as lightning bolts are chaotic things, so might be miracles. In my own mind, the collapse of the Twin Towers was a miracle for its relatively low loss of life. It could have been upwards of 20,000, as many surmised it was in the darkest hours of 9/11. But how many brilliantly bright streamers went up that day, from firefighters and policemen and gravely unselfish civilians, to connect with the lightning that brought so many thousands of people to safety? I know the grinners would cite that day as a miracle that didn't happen. But you have to remember that they live in an irretrievably drab world of actuarial tables and lottery tickets that win nothing but heartache and ruin.

But when their turn in the storm comes, they too will pray for a miracle. And they might even receive it -- if they're prepared, focused, and united in unselfish resolve.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Right Again

If he can play God in a leather jumpsuit, he can play the Messiah too.

MAKING NICE FUN. Back in October 2008, we looked into our crystal ball and saw the usual idiocy coming out of Hollywood:

With the world eagerly awaiting "W," Oliver Stone's movie treatment of George and Laura Bush et al, it's probably not too early to start anticipating a docudrama about our next First Couple. These things take time to plan, fund, and produce, you know. So we thought we'd help out with a few development suggestions for the movie we're pretty sure should be called "O."

There's no question that it should be another Oliver Stone production. He has a real talent for a creative approach to historical subjects. But it will have to differ in scope from "W," which is timed to coincide with the end of the Bush administration and the election of a replacement president. "O" needs to be released in October 2012 when Obama is seeking his second term, which means that it will have to be devoted less than half to the first term and more than half to the incredible story of how Barack and Michelle -- against all odds -- stormed the gates of power to achieve domain over their racist nation...

You can see that the casting will be critical. We know the picture up top [in the original post] suggests that the lead roles might be played by Whoopi Goldberg and Jaleel "Urkel" White, but this is the movies and it has to be much much better than that. We have some suggestions. There's only one good choice for the part of Michelle... Vanessa Williams of "Ugly Betty" fame would rock as a kick-ass First Lady... And forget Urkel. There's only one man with the cool and the ears to play Barack the Stud...

Guess who we picked. Well, actually you don't have to guess. It's not a prediction any more; it's news:

Will Smith 'to play' Barack Obama as US President in Hollywood movie

Hollywood film star Will Smith has staked his claim to play Barack Obama in a movie about his rise to become US President and America’s first black leader.

Smith has staked his claim to play the role, even before Barack Obama has been inaugurated as president.

Speaking at the premiere of his new film Seven Pounds at the Empire, Leicester Square, in London, Smith laughed about reports that the US President-elect had indicated that he would like the actor to play him if his life story were ever to be made into a movie.

“If I am ordered by my commander in chief to star in a film about him, I will do my duty as an American," he said, beaming.

Now, if they'll just follow the rest of our casting recommendations, they'll have a pretty good movie to romance us with in 2012. We also have a new title suggestion, just in case they don't like "O." How about "The Wild Wild West Wing"? Yeah, we like it too.

I'm sure Larry Kudlow and the other supine conservatives on the massive Obama bandwagon (or is it a bus?) can hardly wait.

Part II:

Understanding America
in 25 Movies...

From zero to the Jazz Age in 10 movies. Cool.

NEXT LOT. For the record, my little experiment predates what's going on right now at The Corner:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Movie Blegging   [John J. Miller]

What are the best conservative movies of the last 25 years?

This cinema epoch begins roughly with the release of Red Dawn in 1984. I'd like the opinions of Cornerites. Email your suggestions to me at nrorocks — at — Send as many as you like, but please make sure to include at least a line or two of explanation.

The fruits of your labors will become apparent within the next few weeks.

I'd also like to draw a distinction between what John J. Miller is doing and what I'm trying to do. The term "conservative movies" argues a message of some kind. That's not what I'm after. I'm after a fair, as I've said, understanding of the American experience, warts and all. It's a tougher job than picking out a handful of movies that seem to emphasize only those values to which I, or we, or any select set of people, subscribe. In short, I'm trying to be inclusive and fair, not exclusive and partisan. I may fail because I am a partisan, but I'm trying to honor the incredible variety of experience of my countrymen. If you want to see what Miller's call to arms evokes, you can find it at, but I'm not linking to it because I don't want to taint my own selections.

Now. On with what I started yesterday.

6. Gangs of New York. I've had many quarrels with Martin Scorsese's choice of movies to make over the years, but there's no doubt he's a gifted and brilliant director. This is the one "mob" movie I'm glad he made. It illuminates a heretofore invisible part of America's history, the life of urban immigrants at the very beginning of the American industrial revolution. It's ugly, violent, and repellent, but so was life for the millions of Irish Catholics who came here fleeing the potato famine. New York was not always the glittering Manhattan of our self-mythologizing media. What the immigrants of that time eventually acquired they earned with multiple lifetimes of toil and sacrifice. They weren't all good, either. But enough of them were. Now "Irish" is a happy badge worn on St. Patrick's Day. It wasn't always so. And when you've watched the draft riots, how happy are you that Obama chooses to regard Lincoln as the saint who complements his own divinity? (clip)

7. Bite the Bullet

A leap forward in time, even though we're still in the Wild West. Funny how that works. There are still sixguns, but there are also automobiles, and this story of a horse race that resembles the Tour de France includes an astonishing scene describing Teddy Roosevelt at the battle of San Juan Hill. It's not a great movie because it includes, among other things, an "emancipated" Candace Bergen in a paid acting role, but it also highlights a typically American love of animals and the kind of individualism that flies in the face of easy stereotypes. And a dental scene that will chill your bones and remind you of how much we moderns have to be thankful for -- if we can let go of our nostalgia for the, um, wild west. The press is here too, in all its inveterate scummy rapaciousness. Regardless of its nods to old movie western traditions, this movie is a turn-of-the-century slice of life that balances the American competitive spirit with our many better qualities. (clip)

8. The Greatest Game Ever Played

About golf. Frivolous? Hardly. The year was 1913, one of the great turning points in American history. It was the year before the beginning of World War I, the year in which the federal income tax was ratified as a constitutional amendment, and the year of the Triangle Factory Fire which exposed the horrid working conditions of so many sweat shops that exploited immigrant workers. It was also the year in which Francis Ouimet, a blue collar American amateur, upset the best golfers in Britain in the U.S. Open, permanently changing the history of the sport and igniting a huge popular following for what had once been a game chiefly for aristocrats. The movie highlights the class issues as well as the qualities it takes to win against great odds, which is perhaps the most uniquely American trait of all. Guaranteed: You will tear up when Dad, in his hellish job in the tunnels, sees his son on the front page of the newspaper and when Mom impulsively breaches the class barrier to crash the U.S. Open golf course across the street from her home. Sentimental? Yes. True? Probably not far off. (clip -- star interview only)

[YET ANOTHER HUGE HOLE: Hollywood has never done a searching movie about the American participation in World War I, which was unquestionably the most traumatic experience the world has undergone in the last 150 years. So there's no entry here. This pains me particularly because my own grandfather fought with the Rainbow Division in France and never recovered from the ailments he incurred in the trenches during months of vicious fighting. I mean, yeah, I know there was Sergeant York, who was indeed a great hero, but the movie made it look as if you could beat the Kaiser's troops bloodlessly by surprising them at the right angle. The only treatment by an American film director that did some justice to the subject was Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, which was about, uh, the French. In 1930, Howard Hughes also released Hell's Angels, which is probably a masterpiece on a par with Citizen Kane about World War I aerial combat, but the air war was always a sidebar to the horrific experience of the infantry, where 99 percent of the casualties occurred. As with the American Revolution, the only movie that deals with the reality was made for TV. If you're interested, see The Lost  Battalion.]

9.  Reds

I never liked this movie, but it's still an important part of the American experience. Most people don't know just how early Communism became a serious fixation of the American intellectual class.  Once again we're back to the year 1913 when a radical journalist named John Reed becomes enamored of Marx and the budding revolutionary movement in Russia. The movie is long (very), talky, and annoying, but it fills in a gap in our consensus history that tends to obscure the causes of American reaction to FDR's New Deal and the red scares of the late forties and fifties. To the extent that Warren Beatty is charming in this  cri de coeur of his filmmaking career,  you can see the attraction of the naive and hyper-intellectualized philosophy that annihilated Russia and came close to paralyzing the United States of America. (clip)

10. The Great Gatsby

No, it's not actually a good movie and it doesn't do anything like justice to the book, but the book is so good and important that even a sincere attempt to render it on film is nevertheless worth looking at. What were the rich people doing in the wake of World War I and international communism and the travails of labor, race, marxists, and global nihilism? They were simply being their vast, careless selves. Which is probably the source of today's liberal guilt. It would be easy to recast the whole movie today -- we'd never go for Mia Farrow as Daisy and probably not Robert Redford as Gatsby, but all the lesser roles were spot on, including Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan, Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway, Karen Black as Mabel, Edward Hermann as FDR before the polio or some such thing, and Scott Wilson as George Wilson, the man who shot Gatsby because his wife was sleeping with Tom Buchanan. As I said, not a good movie, but it reminds us of the book:

One afternoon late in October I saw Tom Buchanan.

He was walking ahead of me along Fifth Avenue in his alert, aggressive way, his hands out a little from his body as if to fight off interference, his head moving sharply here and there, adapting itself to his restless eyes. Just as I slowed up to avoid overtaking him he stopped and began frowning into the windows of a jewelry store. Suddenly he saw me and walked back, holding out his hand.

"What's the matter, Nick? Do you object to shaking hands with me?." "Yes. You know what I think of you.." "You're crazy, Nick,." he said quickly.

"Crazy as hell. I don't know what's the matter with you.." "Tom,." I inquired, "what did you say to Wilson that afternoon?." He stared at me without a word, and I knew I had guessed right about those missing hours. I started to turn away, but he took a step after me and grabbed my arm.

"I told him the truth,." he said.

"He came to the door while we were getting ready to leave, and when I sent down word that we weren't in he tried to force his way up-stairs. He was crazy enough to kill me if I hadn't told him who owned the car.

His hand was on a revolver in his pocket every minute he was in the house - -." He broke off defiantly.

"What if I did tell him? That fellow had it coming to him. He threw dust into your eyes just like he did in Daisy's, but he was a tough one.

He ran over Myrtle like you'd run over a dog and never even stopped his car.." There was nothing I could say, except the one unutterable fact that it wasn't true.

"And if you think I didn't have my share of suffering - look here, when I went to give up that flat and saw that damn box of dog biscuits sitting there on the sideboard, I sat down and cried like a baby.

By God it was awful - -." I couldn't forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made....

I shook hands with him; it seemed silly not to, for I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.

Which brings us, in American movie history, to the time of the Great Crash.

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